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Posts Tagged ‘hope’

A prayer based on Acts 16: 16 -36, said after “Morning Has Broken” has been sung

Morning has broken,
like the first morning
and we bring to You our praise
for You are among us
making all things new.

We do not always see your work, God.
We see problems that we cannot fix.
We see people caught up in struggles that threaten to overwhelm them.
We see paths ahead of us blocked by obstacles that loom large.

We come here,
hoping for a word
that will open our eyes
our hearts
our minds
our spirits
to your Spirit’s re-creating work.

Speak that Word, God.
Speak it in ways that break the chains that bind us.
Summon us from our weariness
and hopelessness
and resignation.
Pull us into your transforming power.
Set us free to live
creatively and joyfully.

Speak, Lord,
for your servants listen.

Assurance of God’s Grace
Sunday by Sunday,
God gathers us together
to speak again the word of grace into our lives:
you are God’s beloved child.
Nothing can ever take you beyond
the reach of God’s love and grace.
Let that truth permeate deeply into your lives.
Let that truth shape every situation.
Live into the freedom Christ gives.

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In our tradition, when we baptize someone, the congregation promises to nurture that person in the Christian faith. However, when the person being baptized is an infant or small child, and the parents seldom bring that child to worship after the baptism Sunday, congregations can struggle with how to fulfill that promise.

I read the other day (I hadn’t marked down the source) about an African-American congregation that held a family-night event with the focus on “Stories In and Through Hard Times”. Participants were invited to recall proverbs, sayings, or songs that hey had heard while they were growing up. They were then to share a story of how that wisdom had helped them through hard times.

Some of the proverbs shared were, “God didn’t bring us this far to leave us,” and “Hold on to God’s unchanging hand”, and “Sorrow may endure for a night, but joy comes in the

The children and youth were then invited to ask questions of the adults and to add their own stories.

I am thinking that this might be a way for congregations to live into the promise they made at baptism. In the “Children’s Time” spot in worship (or before or after a psalm that prays to God about trouble), the people in the congregation could be invited to share a proverb or phrase from a favourite hymn that has helped them hold on in difficult times. If they were comfortable doing so, they could tell the story of the experience in which that proverb or hymn was helpful. If the musician(s) were comfortable with playing hymns without much notice, the congregation could also sing the hymn. The children could be invited to ask questions.

And then, what about creating a “wall of hope” on which was written the proverbs or phrase from the hymns that people shared. The wall of hope would grow over time as the proverbs/phrases were shared.

 

 

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God of hope,
you promise peace and joy and unfailing love.

We wait for you, Lord,
our souls wait
with deep yearning
for you to act
to bring hope to lives
that are caught in despair,
to make peace in cities
wounded by so much violence,
to move us toward joy and love.

You are more patient with us
than we are with you, Lord.
You work in our hearts
and our minds
and our spirits,
changing us in deep places
so we become the place
where your hope and peace and joy and love
can come to birth.

Give us grace
to slow down enough
to pay attention
to the work you are doing in us
and among us.

Give us grace
to face the hard truths
that make a way
for your transforming power
and healing presence.

Give us grace
to yield to you.

We pray in the name of Jesus
who has set us on this Way of Life.

Amen.

 

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A prayer for the Baptism of our Lord Sunday based on Psalm 9 and Luke 3: 15-22

Lord, we lift your name on high.
We sing your praises.
We tell of your wonderful deeds.

We are your creatures
met by your holiness
in ways that surprise us
yet give us life and hope.

You take our fatigue
and give us strength;
you take our despair
and turn us toward hope;
you take our dead ends
and bring your new beginnings.

By the cross of Jesus,
through the brooding of your Holy Spirit,
you ache and hurt and care over us
and with us
and beyond us
till we are made new;
till we are drawn deeper into your love.

So, we lift your name on high,
yielding our lives to your good care,
in the name of your Beloved,
your Delight, Jesus,
who draws us into the waters of baptism
where your love floods over us
and give us Life.

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In the posts that follow, I outline some of the core convictions from which I am working and about which I believe  “soul-stretching conversations” (Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass) need to happen. I recognize that these convictions will not be shared by many people in the United Church of Canada. I hope that they provide a starting point for the conversations since it is in the conversations that the way forward will be found. I also outline some of the implications of those convictions for the ways in which we train leadership in the church.

Conviction #2:        The Church is the result of what God did on Easter morning. When God raised Jesus from the dead, God made a new creation (2 Corinthians 5: 17). The Church is a servant, witness, and sign (Lesslie Newbigin of the new creation.

God is doing in and through the Church what God did in Jesus’ resurrection: confronting and  overcoming the powers of suffering, death and evil; bringing new life, healing and reconciliation in the midst of brokenness; creating new futures where none seem possible.

This means that the Church is able to face suffering and tragedy with authentic hope. It is this hope that it offers to the world.

The book A New and Right Spirit tells the story of Abiding Hope Lutheran Church in Littleton, Colorado. In April 1999, the congregation found itself dealing with the aftermath of the Columbine High School massacres. Its pastor, Rick Barger, wrote, “On this night we did not have answers that could provide any meaning or explanation for the carnage and evil that had engulfed the high school the day before. We offered no quick fix for the pain and the huge aching holes in all our hearts. All we had to offer was a story — the story of Jesus Christ, the one who himself was victimized and suffered an awful death, and yet is now raised from the dead. . . . the gathered church on this night left the deals, causes and spiritual helps to others and instead looked death in the face, named the reality for what it was, and offered God” (p. 72)

The congregation of Abiding Hope understands itself as stewards of God’s story. “God’s story tells us what God is up to, and God is up to the work of transformation . . . Transformation happens because God is good and is still at work reconciling the world through Christ.” The congregation understands “its calling to be an authentic witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ . . . the congregation [decided it] would stand with the poor, the powerless, and the disenfranchised with the compassion of Christ that has no limits or boundaries” (p. 22)

In the introduction to the book, Mark Powell says that “what happens at Abiding Hope every Sunday of the year seems to be the result of the resurrection. . .[the people]  do not gather to hear inspiring sermons or to experience lively worship or to learn more about the faith or to enjoy fellowship with other believers or to get their spiritual needs met in any number of other ways (though of course any or all of those things might happen). They gather because God raised Jesus from the dead” (p. 41)

The mission of the Church is to “practice resurrection” (Eugene Peterson) . The Church gets to join in the transformation that God is effecting in our midst through the risen Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. This means that, even as some forms of the church are disappearing, the Church is not disappearing. God is still at work, bringing resurrection in unexpected ways and unexpected places. Resurrection is radical transformation. The Church lives expectantly, alert for signs that God is on the premises. Churches will need to expend less energy on trying to fix the current model of church and more energy on becoming communities that are capable of discerning the life-giving work of the Spirit when it looks very different from what they are used to. They will need to expend more energy on becoming the kinds of communities that are willing to risk death (relinquishment, letting go) so as to be free to embrace the new work of the Spirit with boldness.

Some Implications for Leadership Training

A) In a church that is the result of the world-changing action of God at Easter, the practice of baptism will need to stop being merely a sentimental cultural ritual marking a life passage. Leaders and congregations will need a robust theology of baptism as the gateway to a way of life in which one is dying and being raised with Christ. They will need resources for cultivating a “baptized and baptizing community”. “The movement to this life is adaptive, losing life — losing our schemes, deals, causes, and whatever else the world tells us we must have in order for our lives to be significant and meaningful — and finding it by walking in a new and true story. This movement is not easy. The Jesus who calls us into this movement did not first do so without great peril. It cost him his life” (Barger, pp. 33-34)

B) In a culture where despair is rampant, leaders will need deep grounding in the biblical narratives that tell how the community of faith faces tragedy with hope. They will need to draw richly and deeply from the scriptures and from the Christian tradition to provide resources for dealing with grief, lament, confession, and suffering in a culture that seeks to avoid any suffering — what theologian Douglas John Hall has called an “officially optimistic society”. They will need to engage meaningfully with a theology of the cross and the healing and hope it offers.

C) The transitions caused by the Spirit’s work of resurrection are disruptive. Leaders will need to be trained in navigating those transitions. They will need to be mentored by courageous saints who have led God’s people in similarly conflicted times.

D) The church, like any organization, has tended to favour those who will “work diligently in and for the organization, under the direction of those responsible for the organization” (Roland Allen, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes that Hinder It )

Churches are often filled with people addicted to ‘non-life-change.’ Nevertheless, the resurrection power of God is often breaking out of the rules imposed by churches and breaking through the resistance of anxious people. The training systems of the church will need to encourage creativity in its leaders, instead of trying to rein in the people who do not fit the system or pushing them to the margins. Accountability will be best exercised at the local level, among the people who must live with the decisions and actions of their leaders. Congregations will need training in faithful ways of holding its leadership to accountability while making room for failure.

E) Since what is being asked of congregations is to make a massive shift of the paradigm out of which they operate, leaders will need to be trained in adaptive leadership. For some leaders in our churches, this will require a shift in focus from doing the tasks of congregational leadership to cultivating the eco-system of the congregation. For others, it will mean not only learning new tasks but also cultivating a firmly grounded spirituality that is free to be creative with the tradition.

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The worship service in which this sermon was originally preached can be found at Reformed Worship, week 8.

Scriptures: John 11: 1-7, 17-25

For a few years, Rowan Williams was the Archbishop of Canterbury in England. On the morning of September 11, 2001, he was leading a spiritual retreat at Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York, a couple of blocks away from the World Trade Centre. After the attacks on the towers, the staff of the church provided a place of refuge, safety and comfort for the terrified people who came into the building that day and for the rescue workers in the days afterwards. Archbishop Williams wrote a small book reflecting on the events of that day and the days that followed: Writing in the Dust.

In the introduction to the book, he asks, “After the 11th, what are we prepared to learn?” Ten years later, that questions remains. “Can anything grow through that terrible, terrifying event?” Williams states that he hopes that the answer is “Yes.”

The morning after 9/11, Williams was stopped in the street by a young man who was a pilot and an active Catholic. That young man asked the question that many people ask when confronted with unspeakable evil: “What was God doing when the planes hit the towers?” Williams mumbled something about human freedom. God creates us with free will and does not intervene. God does not just override the choices we make. Living in faith does not mean we escape evil. It means we are given resources to confront it. Through faith, we find a way to suffer, take it forward and then, in God’s own time, to have healed by the grace and mercy of the living God.

Williams knew that whatever he said would be inadequate. Ultimately, he said, this man did not want a theological discussion about free will. This man was a lifelong Christian, committed to a loving and saving God. However, now, for the first time, it had come home to him that he might be committed to a God who could seem useless in a crisis.

Have you been there? If you have not yet, be assured that, the further you go in faith, the more honest you are about life, you will come to a place where God does not do what you want or expect God to do.

That was the hard truth both Martha and Mary faced in this morning’s gospel story. Their brother Lazarus was ill. They sent for their good friend, Jesus, to come to help. But, Jesus did not come. “Lazarus” means “God helps”, except God did not help this family when they need God the most. The writer of the story makes a point of saying that they “dwelt in Bethany”, the “house of affliction”. Their affliction was not just that Lazarus was ill. Their affliction was that the one to whom they looked for help was absent. By the time Jesus showed up, Lazarus had died. In fact, he had been dead four days.

First Martha, and then Mary, confronted Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” The same accusation was in the question that the young Catholic man asked: “Where was God when the planes flew into the towers?” We ask it ourselves: Where is God when children die of starvation in Africa? Where is God when someone we love suffers? Surely, if God is good, God should be there to help. God should fix things.

Much of living in faith is a matter of coming to terms with a God who does not meet our expectations. This God does not show up when we really need God to show up. All of us have some burden of suffering which we bear. There is some deep sorrow that hovers in the background of our days. There is some wound that we carry in our hearts that is in varying stages of being healing or refusing to be healed. Hopes and dreams have been shattered. We worry over our children. You can add to the list.

As Christians we know the promises of our Lord. Just before Jesus died, he promised, “I will not leave you orphaned; I will come to you. I will ask the Father and he will give you a Comforter to be with forever.” The psalms are full of such promises: God is our refuge and our strength; a very present help in trouble.” “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place . . . he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.” “I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble.”

Martha knew the promises. She knew the promises that the power of God is stronger than death itself. When Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again, she can recite them back to him. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

We know the promises but there are times when the promises seem all to lie in the future. They are some future hope we cling to in spite of all the evidence in the present that defies them.

Or, maybe they all lie in the past. They exist as memories of experiences where we did feel the presence of God, bearing us up as on eagles’ wings, holding us in the palm of God’s hands.

We find ourselves living between those memories and that hope and all we really know of God is the emptiness of God’s absence.

This is a difficult place to be. We want to move through it quickly. We want to have confident faith renewed. We want to move beyond the questions and the doubts and the uncertainties; to move into the promised joy and peace; to get on with being productive again. Instead, we are stuck in that in-between place and we cannot move past it.

The Bible knows a lot about such a space. It calls it by many names: wilderness, exile, the Pit. It is “Holy Saturday”, that time between the agony of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday. Nothing is happening. Life seems suspended.

Rowan Williams calls this empty place, this void, a “breathing space”. He says that what you need to do in such a breathing space is breathe. You are not to get on with some action as you try to persuade yourself that you really are in control of the situation. You are to breathe. You acknowledge your hurt and disappointment and rage and sense of powerlessness. You let go of the expectations that you had of God. You come to terms with this God who has given you this emptiness, this breathing space. As painful as it is, it is a gift that is filled with God’s grace.

“Your brother will rise again,” said Jesus to Martha. Martha replies, “I know the promises. On the last day, in God’s promised future, my brother will be raised up in the resurrection.” Jesus tells her, “I am the Resurrection. I am the Life. Now. Here. Already.”

Jesus brings resurrection and life into the midst of the emptiness. In the midst of suffering; in the midst of brokenness; in all the little deaths you die throughout your life, God meets you with resurrection power. In Jesus, God enters into the emptiness and makes it part of God’s holy purpose for your life.

Even the emptiness.

You are baptized with suffering. You go down into the waters of suffering. God raises you to new life. What emerges from the waters of such a baptism is not the old self you had before. You can never go back. You will carry the scars for the rest of your life. But a new self is given by God. You are made new.

It takes courage to enter into such a time. it takes courage to give voice to all that is in your heart. That’s why I keep urging you to learn to pray the Psalms. They are written by people, by a community, that has practiced breathing its faith in the void and the emptiness.

The Psalms teach a language that helps you give voice to your anger and your fears, your hurt and your hopes. They lead you through the evil that you suffer with persistence and honesty. They teach you to yield your life to God. They open you to the healing work of God. Ultimately, they teach to you to praise God again.

They teach you to praise God again in a new song. That new song will carry the sorrow you have known but that sorrow will now be gathered into God’s good and holy purposes for you and for the world.

I want you to learn to pray the psalms because they are such a great gift for your spiritual journey. I want you to learn to pray the psalms because we live our faith in a world full of suffering: not just the global suffering we hear on the news but also the suffering in the lives of people you meet day by day. You may not be able to do much to turn the tide, but your vocation as a follower of Jesus Christ is to be with people in the places of their brokenness. Hear their laments. Help them give voice to them. Prayer with them to God because, in the end, it is God with whom we all must deal.

Stand with them as a member of a community of people who, from the days of our baptisms, have practised dying and being raised to new life in Christ. We are learning to let Christ take us, bless us, break our lives open, and give us life anew. Having trusted Christ to do that in our lives, we give our lives into God’s good hands over and over again.

You can help others hear God say to them in their suffering, “Do not be afraid. Nothing in life or in death — not even this terrible thing you are going through — nothing can stop my loving purpose for you.”

That will be a great gift. That will be a good and holy work. For such holy work, God has claimed you as Christ’s own.

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A sermon based on 1 Kings 19: 1-18

Dr. Andrew Stirling is the Senior Minister of Timothy Eaton Memorial Church in Toronto. He lived and studied in South Africa during a time when apartheid was still in force. During the 1970s, he was a student minister to a small congregation in one of the black townships. While he was there, he took a stand against apartheid. He engaged in some activities in which he ended up protecting some black youths from the white police. In 1980, he was exiled from South Africa and came to Canada.

At one point, he was the minister at Parkdale United Church in Ottawa. He was serving there at the time when apartheid was abolished and Nelson Mandela was being installed as the Prime Minister of the new South Africa. In honour of that occasion, the Canadian government held a reception from some ambassadors and members of the diplomatic corps. Somebody in the government knew of Dr. Stirling’s involvement in the struggle for freedom and justice in South Africa and arranged from him to receive an invitation to the reception as well.

He arrived wearing his clerical collar and a suit jacket. Very quickly, he felt out of place as the only clergy person in the midst of government officials, diplomats and ambassadors. He spent some time standing around awkwardly until, at one point in the evening, three ambassadors — from Kenya, Uganda, and Ghana — came up to him and introduced themselves. They asked him, “Do you represent anyone in particular?”

“Not really,” he replied.

“Then, what are you doing here?”

“I am beginning to wonder that myself.”

He told them about living and working in South Africa, about his role in the anti-apartheid movement and about the incident with the young boys, and how all of that had led to his being expelled and exiled from the country.

When he had finished, the three ambassadors put their arms around him and said to him, “Never underestimate the importance of the one whom you represent.”

“Never underestimate the importance of the one whom you represent.”  Like Dr. Stirling, we are prone to doing just that. Many voices these days tell us that what the church is and what the church does is unimportant to the real business of the world. These voices are pervasive and they are persistent.

An eighty-five year old woman does nothing more important than buy two winning lottery tickets and she makes headline news. A small group of women, mostly 60 to 90 years old, meet every month for years, quietly raising money in a variety of ways so that some young girl in a distant country will get an education and some shoes to wear. They donate some of their funds to the local food bank so that the working poor, persons with disabilities, and single moms trying to feed and clothe their children can get some pasta and soup to see them through to the end of the month. They do it because they believe that, by doing so, they are serving Jesus their Lord. They will never once make headline news but what they do has a far greater impact than any of us will ever know.

Jennifer Aniston breaks up with her latest boyfriend and her picture gets plastered on the front page of magazines as if this were world-shaking news. Yet, I know people who go about their everyday lives, trying to live with decency and integrity and faithfulness and courage wherever they work and play and serve their communities. They keep at it even though they will never receive the acclaim, money or notoriety that celebrities do in our culture. They do it because they understand that this is what it means to live out of the truth that Jesus is Lord. The witness of their lives will impact their communities in a depth far exceeding what any Hollywood star could accomplish.

Apple announces a new technological toy and stock holders rush to adjust their portfolios. Yet, week in and week out, small groups of Christians gather to worship God and to create communities where children are taught to pray and to live with compassion. Together, they learn the difficult art of loving one another and forgiving one another and loving again after the hurt and the pain. They are carried into an unknown future by hope in the living Christ. They do it because they have been baptized into a life of dying to self and being raised by God into a new creation. They seek to make and keep life human — caring, compassionate, and truthful. They just keep doing living this way even though most of their neighbours do not think that it matters whether or not their little churches survive. Those neighbours will only realize what the community has lost long after the building is closed and gone; yet, those congregations do more to effect the quality of life in that community than all the stock portfolios in the world.

“Never underestimate the importance of the one you represent.”

Many Christian churches are now in the position of being missionary outposts of the kingdom of heaven. We do not receive the support, encouragement or recognition from the culture around us that we once enjoyed. Because of that, we are constantly in danger of underestimating the importance of whom it is we represent. It is easy to get discouraged and disoriented. We can lose our way. When the people of Israel were in danger of forgetting those things, somebody told them again the story of Elijah.

Elijah was a prophet of the Lord God Almighty but, as can happen to God’s people, he was broken down, discouraged, worn out and used up. He wanted to do nothing more than crawl away and hide somewhere. He headed out to the desert. However, Yahweh would not let him settle for that. Yahweh sought him out in the wilderness and sent an angel to feed and nourish him. The angel told him that there was still a journey ahead of him that he needed to take. The journey would take him even deeper into the wilderness.

Elijah got up and, for forty days and forty nights, made his way to Mount Horeb — to the place where God had invited Moses and the people of Israel to live in covenant partnership. Elijah was being sent back to the roots of the people of God.

When Elijah got there, God asked him the kind of question that made him focus on the basics of his life again:  “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah could not get past his disappointment, discouragement and sense of isolation. “I’ve been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts. I, only I, am left.”

It’s not a very good answer. It is filled with self-pity. It’s all about him, but it’s all he has left.

God does not really respond to what Elijah says. God does not try to comfort him or encourage him. God does not promise that things will work out for the best. Yahweh just tells Elijah to stand on the mountain because the Lord is about to pass by.

Elijah cannot manage to do even that.

Nevertheless, there is a great wind, an earthquake and a fire. The Lord is not in any of those. Then, there is the sound of sheer silence.  Somehow, it was that silence, that sense of utmost awe and majesty that accompanies the presence of God, that drew Elijah out of the cave and onto the mountain before God.

God asks Elijah the same question God has asked before: “What are you doing here?”

Elijah gives the same answer: “I’ve worked so hard for you, God. It doesn’t seem to have made any difference. I’m the only one left who really cares.”

Again, God does not spend any time on Elijah’s fears and laments. He re-commissions Elijah. There’s still work to be done. He is not alone as he thinks: there are seven thousand who are still faithful and upon whom Elijah can count, even as Yahweh counts on them.

He is to anoint Elisha as his successor. God’s work is so big that it will continue long after Elijah is gone. It will continue: God is already preparing the next generation and it is up to Elijah to disciple them.

He is to anoint Hazael as ruler of Israel and Jehu as ruler of Judah. God is still at work in the world, even directing the future those who hold power. Elijah gets to get in on that world-shaping work.

Elijah gets up and starts again.

The question God is asking us in such a time as this is the same one God asked Elijah, “What are you doing here?” If Elijah’s story is any indication, the chances are that the first answer we give to that question will not be adequate. Probably, the second answer won’t be either. When we are feeling threatened or discouraged, we are prone to focus on ourselves and on what we have done and how we are feeling about all of that.

Nevertheless, God persists. “Why are you here?” Why is there a church in this place?

Even after we get past our initial self-focussed answers, we may make the mistake of looking for the presence of God in something big, spectacular, glamourous. We want an answer that hits us like a great wind or an earthquake or a fire. Yet, that is not the way of Jesus. When Jesus spoke about the church, he used modest metaphors. We are yeast, salt, a light in the darkness. We are a ‘little flock’.

The story tells us to listen for God’s answer to the question in the sound of sheer silence — in moments of awe and majesty when we know ourselves to be in the presence of a holy God. We cannot manufacture those moments. God reveals Godself when God wills. However, we can be ready to respond to them when they come.

That’s why we show up, Sunday by Sunday. We worship God who has claimed our lives and our hearts. We praise the one who rules the cosmos. We sit under the authority of these stories. We wrestle with them. Then we wait and we pray and we offer ourselves to live in obedience to God.

It does not seem like much. Most of the time, it is not glamourous or spectacular in the way the world measures such things. Then again, it is not all about us and what we manage to do. It is all about God — a holy God who takes our fears and transforms them into courage. It’s about our God who meets our brokenness with resurrecting power and impels us into a new sense of mission in the world that God loves. Our work is never to forget the importance of the one whom we represent.

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This is the tenth in a series of posts about the differences between a pastoral and a missional church.  The phrase ‘from pastoral to missional’ came from Harold Percy, who was one of the first people to articulate for me the shift I was experiencing in congregations.

I have come across a few different ways of describing the differences between the two models of church. Somewhere in the past, I picked up a chart in which Harold Percy compares the attitudes and expectations in the two models. These posts will work through that chart of comparisons and give some explanation of what I think the differences imply for the way a mainline congregation operates.

The ninth difference is described this way:

When thinking about change, members of a pastoral church ask: “How will this affect me?”
When thinking about change, members of a missional church ask: “Will this increase our ability to reach those outside?”

Church people often say that they want their churches to grow. That’s a good thing (things that are alive are growing). Those people often think that the next question they need to ask is, “What do we need to do in order to grow?” That question is not as critical as “Who?” Who are the people with whom they will be growing? Do they know those people? Are they willing to get to know those people?
The days of finding a programme that will fix your church are pretty much over. It’s not about a new programme; it’s about relationships. You’ve got to develop relationships.

And you have to be intentional about developing those relationships. The church in North America used to count on the culture to help us make Christians. The culture is not doing that anymore. Now it is up to us to present people with opportunities to hear what Christian faith is about and we seem to have lost the knowledge of how to do that.

I have been asking congregations to find some youth or young adults or unchurched people and listen to their answers to the questions:

“What is important to you? 

What are you excited about? 

Where do you experience God’s presence? 

Where do you experience God’s absence?”

The most common answer to “Where do you feel God’s presence?” is usually “in nature”. I presume that they mean in experiences of nature that are beautiful: sunsets, mountains, lakes and trees. I wonder, “Would they also find God’s presence when ‘nature’ is a tsunami that destroys whole villages? or when nature turns cells in your body cancerous? or when part of nature is humanity in its most violent and destructive forms?”

I also wonder is “experience of God in nature” enough to sustain you or help you when you experience the soul-shattering pain of your parents’ divorce; or when a loved one gets Alzheimer’s, or when you realize that your addiction to alcohol is destroying your life, or when the online bullies attack you for being gay? Is “God in nature” enough in those situations?

The church used to be able to articulate a gospel that gave hope and redemption and salvation in such circumstances. Somehow many Christians have forgotten that gospel and have reduced its message to “God is in flowers that bloom in the springtime”.

Many of us would say that ‘the gospel is love’ — that God loves each and every one of us to the very depths of our being with an unwavering, life-giving, life-transforming love; that God loves us even in our brokenness and weakness and woundedness; that God does not abandon us when we get lost but searches for us until God finds us. There are children who do not know that God loves them that much. There are people who have never heard about that kind of God and have never met anyone who was trying to incarnate that kind of love for them. As Harold Percy once said, “Imagine being loved that much and not knowing it.” Those children are missing from our congregations. What are we willing to do to make sure that they know that deep love of God?

For many people, love isn’t the critical issue. It is hope. They have no hope for the future. They have no hope that things will change. They do not have a hope that drives them to reach out to help others. The October 30, 3014 edition of The Sarnia Journal reported that “Suicide is identified nationally as the highest cause of death among 15 -34 year olds”, and “many teens feel disconnected but are afraid to ask for help. . . Many teens said they would feel stigmatized if they spoke about depression and suicidal feelings . . . they want more open dialogue with a trusted adult.”

We have a gospel of hope. We worship a God who takes utter chaos and makes a new creation. We follow Jesus who knows his way out of the grave. We are pushed and driven and enticed by the Holy Spirit who breaks down barriers and reconciles the most unlikely people.

There are generations of people that are missing from our congregations. They are people whom God loves and is searching for. They are people who desperately need the Story that gives them hope and courage for making their way in a dangerous world.

After congregations have listened to the answers from youth, young adults and unchurch people, I ask them to consider this critical question:
“What about your church life are you willing to sacrifice so that these people have the opportunity to be introduced to the triune God and the gospel of Jesus Christ?

What are you willing to do so that the next generation knows that there is hope?

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A Good Friday sermon based on John 18: 28 -38

About 80 years after Jesus had been crucified on a Roman cross, a man named Pliny was the governor of the Roman province of Bithinia. Bithinia was on the Black Sea, in what is now northern Turkey. There was in the province of Bithinia a small Christian community. Pliny was not quite sure what he should do about them so he wrote to Rome to get some directions. “There is a little group of religious fanatics,” he wrote, “who sing a hymn on the first day of the week to Christ as to a god.”

The emperor replied, “If these Christians leave it at that, what’s the harm? As long as they don’t cause a commotion, don’t trouble yourself; they are no threat to the empire.”

We know now that the emperor was mistaken. Within a couple hundred years, small communities of Christians had grown so strong and so powerful that they had taken over the Empire. They had done it without firing a single shot or deploying a single battalion, but they were the dominant force in the culture. The Emperor himself was a Christian.

You and I have gathered on this Friday morning to sing our hymns to Christ, whom we call “Lord and Saviour”, “fully human/fully divine”, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sing of the world”. We are relatively small gathering, really, considering that we have brought three congregations together for this service. We are few in number partly because Good Friday is a hard sell in our churches. Good Fridays services are not known for being the most upbeat experiences. The gathering is also small, I suspect, because much of the culture believes that our sining a few hymns and our telling some ancient stories is not accomplishing anything significant or important. “Let them be,” says the culture. “What’s the harm? The certainly pose no real threat to the world.”

Well, we shall see. The end of the story has not been written yet. We do not yet know what our God will make of our attempts to remain faithful in the dying days of Christendom. We do not know what God will do with the worship we offer as we seek to serve God in this time before God’s new thing bursts forth across the land.

We do not know, but we gather as a community of people who have staked our lives on the truth of God that the world thinks is foolishness. We hear Pilate ask, “What is truth?” and the answer we have to give is, simply, “Jesus”. Jesus is truth.

And, truthfully, the truth that Jesus is does often look like foolishness.

Jesus is truth that forgives not just once or twice but seventy times seven times. And we are invited to forgive with such extravagant abundance because that is how our Father in heaven deals with our sinfulness and brokenness.

Jesus is truth that welcomes strangers and shares meals with all the wrong people and turns the other cheek and travels the extra mile and loves even enemies because such wild, crazy love takes us to the mystery at the heart of our God.

Jesus is truth that refuses to abandon us even when we deny him and abandon him and betray him. Jesus comes looking for us when we wander away, even if he has to travel all the way to hell and back to find us, because that is how determined God is to get all God’s children home.

Jesus is truth that is cross-shaped and hurt-shaped and driven by vulnerability because such suffering love is the crucible of God’s life-giving newness.

Jesus is truth that invites us to live as communities of faith that are learning to forgive one another as Christ forgives us and welcome strangers as Christ has welcomed us and to offer all that we suffer up to God, believing that God will take even our suffering and redeem it for God’s good and holy purposes. We believe that God has that power even through those stretches when we cannot see it.

Today we remember that Pilate will always try to crucify such Truth. Such remembering is important because we do not know how long this time of being pushed to the margins of the culture is going to last. We do not how long we shall be mostly ‘small groups singing our subversive hymns to Christ” while the culture thinks we are harmless. We may be just at the beginning of a long stretch. Good Friday may be just beginning. Or, maybe we are near the end — that resurrection, God’s ‘new thing’ is just around the corner. Perhaps we are stuck in Holy Saturday and will be here for a while yet, waiting for God to raise the dead and break open the graves.

Wherever we are, we know that the Church — Christ’s Church — has been before. We hold on, in trust and in hope. We hold on because we are part of a community that believes that even in suffering and in vulnerability; even in those times when the glory of God is hidden from our sight; even when all we have to hold onto is the ache and the longing that God’s absence brings; even when the powers of this world have done their worst — even then, our God, the God of our crucified Saviour, this God can be trusted.

In Jesus, we come face-to-face with God’s truth. And so we stay close to the one who was crucified. He still works in surprising ways with people whom the world has dismissed as harmless and irrelevant and useless. His creative Holy Spirit still hovers over the chaos. In God’s own time, God does a new thing against all expectations. In God’s own time, God gives life to the dead.

Not until Sunday, but surely on Sunday. And so, on Good Friday, we sing our hymns and  say our prayers and trust. We stake our lives on this One who is the Truth. Thanks be to God.

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A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Central United Church, Sarnia on April 22, 2012.

Scriptures:          Isaiah 42: 6-9; Revelation 16: 6-9

 “By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down and there we wept
When we remembered Zion.

On the willows there,
We hung up our harps,
For there, our captors asked us for songs
And our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a strange land?”

Do you recognize that poem? Do you know where it is from? It entered popular imagination in the movie Godspell, as the song “On the Willows”. Perhaps you have heard it as the reggae song, “Rivers of Babylon”.

It is Psalm 137. It comes from five centuries before Christ was born. Israel had been invaded by Babylon. The leadership of the community had been carried off into exile in Babylon. They found themselves far from home, far from everything familiar and settled. In a new and strange context, they had to figure out what it meant to be people of faith. How would they worship God now that the temple was gone? How would they live out their faith now that they were no longer in charge of the culture? How would they pass the faith on to the next generation now that the culture around them was not helping them to do that? How could they sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

That question has haunted me for the past thirty years. Thirty years ago in May, I was ordained as a minister in the United Church of Canada. The church into which I was ordained was very different from the church as it is these days. The culture was very different as well.

Thirty years ago, to be an ordained minister meant that you were accorded a certain status in the culture. You were also accorded a certain level of respect in the congregation.

Thirty years ago, Christians still thought that they were in charge of the culture. They could pass motions at Presbytery meetings and at Conference Annual meetings and people would actually pay attention. The public would make note of what the church thought people should do. It doesn’t happen that way anymore.

Now, the major task for many people in ordered ministry is learning how to negotiate the politics of declining and dying congregations. Nothing in my training taught me how to do that. Nothing in my training even suggested that that would be on the radar.

I have been learning how to lead worship EPICally (worship that is Experiential, Participatory, Image-rich, and Communal, Leonard Sweet). I have been learning how to preach differently than I have preached for most of my ministry. Every church that I have served has had its pulpit elevated above the gathered people. Having the pulpit elevated was not just about sight lines. It was a physical symbol of the authority that the Word pronounced from that pulpit was to have in people’s lives. It was a symbol of the authority accorded to the person who pronounced that word.

Now, I lead worship and preach from the same level as the congregation. Some of you do not like it much. Beyond questions about whether or not you can see the front clearly, you sense that a profound shift has happened in worship. The change in location signifies the shift in our hearts and minds – a shift that has already happened in our culture. These days, authority does not come from ‘on high’. It is not automatically accorded to people because of the positions they hold. Authority emerges out of our midst, from among us and from our life together.

These days, I find myself having to lead a congregation without any roadmaps for the road ahead. What we did in the past does not work in the present. There are no clear guides to tell us what road to take. There is only the Holy Spirit. There is only the question, “How do we sing the Lord’s song in this strange land?”

Each of you faces the same question in your own life. None of us is living the life we had planned on living. One of the great privileges of ordered ministry has been hearing some of you looking back on your life and saying, “I have been so blessed. I have had a very privileged life.” The life you have had is not the life you had planned. Who could have planned all the opportunities that have opened for you in the past fifty years? You are aware that you have received a great gift, and you are grateful.

I have watched as some of you have lived through tragic losses or as your lives took unexpected detours. In all of it, God has been asking you, “What does faith look like now?” What does faith look like in your life of privilege? What does faith look like beyond the loss? What does faith look like in new and unexpected circumstances? “How do you sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

There is no doubt that it is often difficult to live into the answer to that question. It is difficult, but it is the pattern that is given to us in our baptism: the pattern of dying to some things so that God might raise us to new life. We live into that pattern over and over again. It is full of the promises of God for a new future and new hope, but it is not easy.

That same question is being addressed throughout the whole Bible. This morning we heard two scriptures:

Isaiah summoning us to praise –

“Sing to the Lord a new song,

His praise from the end of the earth!”

and the book of Revelation, summoning up the whole witness of scripture—

“Let us rejoice and exult and give glory for the Lord our God reigns! Hallelujah!”

 What you did not hear was the loss, anguish and despair that form the soil out of which those songs of praise and joy grew. The praise carries with it the scars of people who have found themselves in circumstances for which they had not planned, in which they felt unprepared and inadequate. They were circumstances in which they had to wrestle for faith beyond the wounds and doubts and grief and sense of abandonment.

When these passages were written and composed, the hard times were not yet over and gone. “Our God reigns!” they proclaim. “God is enthroned in glory!” they shout. However, there was very little evidence in their lives that that was so. For Isaiah, Babylon still ruled in power. For John, the Roman Empire still seemed strong.

Those songs are visions of the ‘end times’ – of that time when God finally gets the world that God wants. This is a world where armies no longer wage war; where people are no longer homeless; where mothers do not have to stand in the grocery store wondering if they have enough money in their pockets to buy supper for their children that day. It is a world where environmental toxins do not threaten our health. It is a world where there is enough for everyone and everyone lives in peace and unafraid.

Against the evidence, people of faith sing these songs, boldly proclaiming that the way things are now will not be the way they are forever. The world with all its suffering and injustice is not the final word. Our God reigns and God intends are very different world.

Sing those songs and you begin to see the world differently. Sing those songs and you begin to live in the world differently. You begin acting against the evidence.  You begin acting toward God’s promised future. You begin, now, to enter into God’s new creation.

How do you sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? You sing against the evidence, and then you act against the evidence and then you watch ‘the evidence’ change.

That is what the church is doing every time is gathers around the communion table. From the earliest days of the church, communion was not just about something Jesus did in the past. It is about what Christ will do in the future. Here, we catch a glimpse of the Great Banquet as the end of time when God gets what God wants. Here we act out our hope for the world – a place where all are welcome; where there is enough for all and to spare; where sorrow is turned to joy. Here, all creation is made new.

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