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A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Corunna United Church on February 14, 2016.

 Scripture: Luke 4: 1-13

There is an ancient legend about John, Jesus’ disciple and the author of the gospel of John: When John was a very, very old man, he was carried into a gathering of the church for his final sermon. He said, “Little children, love one another.” Then, he said it again, “Little children, love one another.” He said it again . . . and again . . . and again. In fact, it was all he said. “Little children, love one another.”

Some people thought it was a shame that the silliness of a senile old man should be put on display in such a manner. But others understood: John’s sermon summed up a long life’s reflection on the core meaning of the gospel.

Jewish rabbis would sometimes test their students by asking them to summarize the Torah, the Law, in the time that they could stand on one foot. When religious scholars asked Jesus, “Which command in the Law is the most important of all?”, Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and love your neighbour as you love yourself.”

Churches can spend a lot of time developing mission statements but we already have a mission. Jesus gives it to us. “Love God with everything you’ve got and everything you are. Love God with the fullness of your life and, with the fullness of your life, love your neighbour as yourself.”

What is your mission? Why are you here? You’re here learning how to let God’s great love for you fill your whole life. You are here to get better and better at letting God’s great love for you fill your life to overflowing until it flows out into the world and into your neighbourhoods. That’s the mission.

If you push people on that — if you say to them, “Tell me what that love looks like”, many people will say, “It looks like the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That’s good advice for living in Jesus’s Way. It is the gold standard for our relationships with each other. Jesus gave it to us early in Matthew’s gospel, in the Sermon on the Mount. He gave it along with the Beatitudes and other words of wisdom for his Way.

Later in his journey to Jerusalem, though, as he was on his way to the cross, Jesus bumped it up a notch. In fact, he bumped it up several notches. He pushed beyond the gold standard, the Golden Rule, and he gave us his platinum rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” became “A new commandment I give to you: that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13: 34) It is not enough just to love others as you yourself want to be loved, as challenging as that is. Jesus commands you to love one another as he has loved you. Jesus himself becomes the standard for our love.

Do you know how Jesus loves you? Jesus loves you with a glorious staggering love. Jesus loves you so deeply, so fully, that nothing in all creation could ever separate you from that great love. Nothing. Not the terrible suffering that life can throw at you. Not the wounds that scar you soul. Not the humiliating failures that haunt your sense of worth. Not the broken relationships that cripple your spirit. Nothing. Nothing in all creation could every come between you and the great love Jesus has for you. (Romans 8: 31-38)

Jesus’ love is a love that searches for you when you are lost and does not give up until he finds you. Jesus loves you with a love so fierce and strong that he would rather die than be without you. He will go to hell and back for you. Jesus loves you as you are and not as you should be because none of us is ever going to be as we should be. The essence of the Christian life is a love affair, allowing yourself to be the recipient of God’s great love.

Brennan Manning was a Catholic priest who said, “After thousands of hours spent in prayer and meditation, in silence and in solitude, I am now utterly convinced that on judgement day, the Lord Jesus will ask each of us one question and only one question: Did you believe that I loved you? that I desired you? that I longed to hear the sound of your voice?”

Do you believe that? do you trust it? Are you learning to trust it more and more deeply? more and more fully? with all that you are and all that you have?

None of us gets very far in this journey with Jesus before our trust in that love gets tested. The story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness comes right after the story of Jesus’ baptism. Jesus begins his public ministry by showing up at the River Jordan asking to be baptized by his cousin John. When Jesus is baptized, the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descends upon him live a dove. A voice comes from heaven that says, “You are my Son, the Beloved — you are chosen and marked by my love, the pride of my life.”

That same Spirit, having conveyed God’s blessing and love to Jesus, then led him into the wilderness. For forty days and forty nights, that love was tested:

“You think you are loved by God? Let God prove it to you. You’re hungry — turn these stones into bread.”

“You think you’re loved by God? Use God’s love for you to get what you want, to make your dreams come true.”

“You think you’re loved by God? Make God prove it. Make God rescue you. Make God keep you safe from getting hurt.”

What is it that makes you doubt that God loves you?

Is it when you hear those old voices in your heart that tell you that you’re not good enough? that you have to earn God’s good opinion of you?

Is it when life throws you a curve ball and all your carefully made plans and hopes and dreams lie scattered at your feed and your prayers seems to rise no further than the ceiling?

Is it when you have been deeply wounded by someone you trusted and you’re not certain about anything anymore, much less God’s great love for you?

To be a follower of Jesus is to know that God loves you with fierce, unconditional, steadfast and faithful love. To be a follower of Jesus is to have your trust in that love tested over and over again. Journeying with Jesus into the heart of God’s love means that there will be times of wilderness testing. You will leave behind the safe and comfortable places. You will end up in a place where you are not in control. When that happens, the task before you is learning to trust more deeply in God’s great love for you. It is learning to trust more deeply that God is taking even your doubts and fears and feeble attempts to love others as Jesus has loved you and is gathering all of that into God’s own all-encompassing, redeeming, life-giving, creative love.

I don’t need to tell you that you folk are every blessed to have Blair as your minister. Last week I asked him, “What has been the theme of your ministry?” He replied, “God loves us passionately.” He tells you that over and over and over again. He tells you that over and over again because it is easy to forget; it is easy to doubt when so many voices in our culture tell you that you are on your own; that you have to hustle to be considered a success; that you have to earn God’s approval.

God loves you passionately. Nothing you could do could make God love you less. There is nothing you have to do to make God love you more.

God loves you passionately. Blair tells you that over and over again so that that deep truth lives deep within you. Trust God will all you have, with all your are, for that love is holding you fast and will never let you go.

This is a great mystery.

This is great grace.

Thanks be to God.

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God of time and eternity
through your Holy Spirit
you lead us to places
where the light of your presence is shining;
through your risen Christ
you off us the blessings of your Reign of Love in our midst.

Yet, we are a double-minded people:
we want the future you have promised
but there are times when we are afraid that you will lead us
where we do not want to go;
we delight in the new creation you offer
but there are times when we cannot see it clearly enough
to dispel our fears of the unknown.
We want to be held by your life-giving power,
but there are times when we are afraid to let you
get that close to us.

Ground us deep in your love–
so deep that our fears and doubts give way to
joy and excitement at what you are doing;
so deep that our freedom and courage grows
strong enough to join you in your new creation.

Move us to act in your world
with a hope that cannot be deflected or destroyed.

Form us and transform us
so that we become signs of your truth
wherever we live and work and play.

We ask in the name of Jesus
who did your will
even when the Way ahead
was dark
and difficult
and dangerous;
who offers us your Holy Spirit
so that we love you
by keeping your word;
so that we can know your peace.

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Great is your love

A prayer based on Psalm 57: 9-11.

I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations:
I will sing of you among the peoples.
For great is your love, reaching to the heavens;

your faithfulness reaches to the skies.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens;
let your glory cover all the earth.”

All creation praises your name, Lord, God almighty,
for your faithful holiness permeates every moment of our lives.
Out of your great generosity
you brought the world into being and gave it life.
Then you gave it yourself
on the cross of human suffering.
You gave your Church your Holy Spirit.
And, even now, you draw us into your new future,
beyond our securities and comforts and protections,
beckoning us into the risks of love
and the demands of service.
Then, wonder upon wonders,
your Spirit grows in us the love which has been commanded,
the courage which is required,
the freedom which is our true inheritance in Christ.
Holy God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
we pour out our praise to you.

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You summon us

Lord Jesus,
by the power of your Holy Spirit,
you have gone into our villages and cities
summoning us to follow you;
gathering us into your new community of love.

We are following
even though we do not fully understand your Way.
We still look for glory in all the wrong places.
We still compete for positions of power.
We still ignore the people you want to include.

Have mercy on us.
Summon us over and over again
into your presence.

There, open our eyes to your strange, life-giving truth
You have welcomed us and
made us your own.
This is grace
that draws us beyond our fears
and failures
and doubts.

Give us freedom and courage
to follow you on your Way,
wherever you may lead,
knowing that we travel
only deeper into your love and grace.

 

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Draw me in

Life-giving God,
God of blessing and of joy,
you have come among us in Jesus of Nazareth
to draw us into the wide, expansive world
of your grace and love.

Long before we are aware of it,
your Holy Spirit is moving in us and through us,
Pulling us out of ourselves,
setting us in relationships
where we can learn the lessons of love.

Search my heart and mind.
Show me the ways
I resist your work.
Open me to the work of your Spirit,
tearing down that which diminishes Life;
building up that which makes me more fully
the person you have created me to be.

Set your holy truth within me
that I may live in the world
aware of your love,
open to your transforming grace,
dancing in your light.

I pray in the name of Jesus,
who is the the Way, the Truth, the Life.

Amen.

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This is the eighth in a series of posts from research I have done about lay leadership training in the United Church of Canada. In the previous two posts and this one, I have been considering the context in which that training needs to happen — a context in which many churches are struggling to serve faithfully while their numbers (attendance, finances) are declining.

Some of the reasons for declining participation are rooted in broader cultural trends. Some, however, are self-inflicted.  Some people have left because they were bored or frustrated. The worship and programming that were offered did not engage them at a level to inspire their commitment to the church or its gospel. The governance structures were cumbersome. People wanting to take bold new initiatives were discouraged from doing so. They were told that they might upset those who held the reins of power or supported the budget. The superficiality of the issues and projects with which the congregation was pre-occupied gave them no compelling reason to stay. They left because they were looking for something profoundly more challenging than maintaining a social club.

Particularly devastating to a congregation’s ability to keep or attract people are church fights. If you were to ask a group of mainline Christians, “What is the heart of the gospel?”, they will tell you “Love one another.” Ask them, “What do you value most about your church?”, a majority of them will say, “The friendships I have there.” Nevertheless, most congregations have not developed constructive ways of dealing with the conflicts that inevitably arise in human communities. As congregations get more anxious, they tend also to get more reactive. The results are often conflicts that turn very ugly. People stay away.

Recently, a group of people from different congregations were discussing ways in which they could get young people to participate in their churches. Some of them were singing new styles of music in their worship services. Others spoke about the different kinds of programmes they had tried in their efforts to attract the interest of younger generations. Finally, one woman said, “We can try all sorts of things, but the real issue we have to face is that our young people see how we treat one another and they don’t want any part of it.” The young people did not expect congregations to be perfect. However, they were not going to get involved in a community where they have seen conflict descend into viciousness.

From the beginning of the church, communities of faith have experienced conflict. Much of the New Testament was written to congregations in trouble because of profound disagreements. Those conflicts provide a congregation to move more deeply into God’s grace and the gifts of forgiveness and reconciliation. Those are gifts that the world desperately needs as well. A church that understands itself to be participating in God’s mission of redemption and reconciliation can be a ‘demonstration project’ for others of the new life and the new kind of community that the Holy Spirit makes possible. As the church seeks to be an instrument of God’s peace, it will need to begin with learning what that means in its own relationships. Whatever training is provided for lay leaders will need to include ways of dealing constructively and responding creatively to the anxiety and the resulting conflict.

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A sermon based on: Jeremiah 17: 5-10 and John 15: 1-17

Christian faith is earthy, concrete. It is not about universal, timeless truth or generalized moral principles. It is about God invading time and place: being born in Bethlehem, growing up as a carpenter’s son in the village of Nazareth, walking the dusty roads of Galilee. It is about Jesus healing sick people, feeding hungry people, confronting greedy people, and dying on a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem.

Christian faith is trusting that God deals with us in the same way: God invades our  time and our place. It is trusting that the Holy Spirit is involved in the actual circumstances of our ordinary lives. The Spirit’s work changes the way we spend our time and our money, the way we treat our families and friends, the way we conduct ourselves at work. The Spirit pushes us to offer radical hospitality to strangers and enemies. God is at work, training us to live cross-shaped lives in the midst of this world.

It is unhealthy for communities of faith when activities like stewardship and mission get reduced merely to give money away. A healthy congregation needs some hands-on work for people to do. It needs to provide tangible ways for people to experience the blessings of serving others. The Iona Community in Scotland was founded by people who believed that part of what was wrong with the modern way of life was that our brains and our hands got separated too often. People who live there and those who visit spend time not only in creative thought and worship. Part of their day is also given to physical labour. Christian faith is earthy.

However, in the midst of our doing, we can forget that God is trying to do something in us. It is easy to forget that the things we do in serving God are the overflow and outward expression of the work God is doing in us. We love because God first loves us We serve because Jesus serves and saves us. We forgive because the Holy Spirit works God’s forgiveness and mercy and grace into our lives. We welcome the stranger because God has welcomed us. What we do flows out of God’s work in us.

What we do is also the means by which God continues God’s work in us. You show up to serve at the Inn of the Good Shepherd and God is forming you as much as you are feeding the hungry. You take a trip to Haiti and the service you render the poor pales in comparison to the way God is shaping your character, your priorities, and your heart.

That work of God is going on all the time. It is the easiest thing in the world to ignore it. There is always plenty to do. There are always lots of distractions. There is always enough resistance within ourselves that we shove the signs of God’s work to the edge of our consciousness. We do not attend to what God is doing. Worse, we do not respond to it. Eventually, we drift away from the source of our energy and our life.

Sometimes, when that happens, we say that we are suffering from ‘burn out’. It is a term that is borrowed from rocketry. A rocket, soaring upwards, runs out of fuel and falls back to earth. The problem with the metaphor is that it is too mechanical. It implies that there is something external to us that is missing: the problem is that there is not enough fuel; the solution is to add more fuel. Problem fixed. The rocket remains essentially unchanged. It nurtures in us the illusion that, if we could just find the right thing to change about our lives, we would manage well. We look for something external to fix what is wrong: we cut back on our commitments; we find a new time-management tool; we start a new physical fitness routine; we take more vitamins; we learn a new spiritual exercise that will restore our energy.

All those strategies may be helpful in appropriate circumstances. However, when God is at work, God does not merely change what is happening outside of us or what is happening to us. In fact, the external circumstances may not change at all. God’s Spirit works within us, changing our spirits. God’s Spirit forms us, shapes us, and creates within us the capacity to receive God’s life.

That is why the Bible uses organic images when it talks about the spiritual life. Jeremiah says that there are two kinds of people. There are the kind of people who depend on human resources to see them through. They might use God as a background or adjunct to their project, but the dominant context in which they operate is human knowledge, human skills, human resources. Such people, he says, are like those little shrubs you see in the desert: small, easily blown around, brown and dry. They are surviving but just barely, meagrely.

The world is teeming with the energies of God. We live in the midst of God’s extravagant, lavish creativity and redemption. Human resources makes up such a minuscule  portion of that richly alive world. If you only count on human resources, if human capacities shape the limits of what you attend to, you end up with a life that is shallow and thin. When the lean times come, you lack the support you need to survive.

Other people, says Jeremiah, live strenuously. They are like a tree by a river: large, green, abundantly watered, deep-rooted and fruitful. They are the ones who attend to what God is up to. They are developing minds and hearts and spirits that are capable of receiving God’s extravagant grace and life. Even when the lean times come, they keep growing and bearing fruit.

God is always at work in your life. The Holy Spirit is always trying to shape your spirit so that you love with an eternal love and live with the energies of eternity. There is no circumstance that God cannot use to accomplish that work in you. God is at work, whether you are soaring like an eagle or trudging through each day, barely getting the hours in.

God is at hand. Sometimes God is affirming you, strengthening and supporting you. Sometimes God is making you face up to a truth you have been trying to ignore — a truth you need to face if you are going to be set free. Sometimes God is pulling you away from some habit that is becoming destructive. Sometimes God is refining your character to make it stronger, cutting away idolatry, or selfishness, or laziness. There is much in us that distorts God’s image in our lives. Always, God’s aim is to fill us with true and abundant life and to fit us to spend eternity in God’s presence. God wants to bless us and fill us with joy and make our lives fruitful.

It is not always pleasant to be God’s work. You can help God or you can hinder God. If you do not spend some time intentionally attending to what God is doing in your life, you will probably miss it. Says Jeremiah, “The human heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt.” Given free reign, we will probably going to misunderstand what is going on.  Our hearts and our spirits need training and development so that we become capable of receiving God’s work in us and then capable of responding to it well.

“Abide in me,” said Jesus, “and you will bear much fruit. Apart from me, you can do nothing. You will become like a withered up old branch that gets thrown into the fire and burned.”

Whatever is taking up your energy, keep your eyes and heart and spirit open to the ways God is at work, teaching you to love more deeply. Let Christ’s great love permeate deeper and deeper into your life. Abide, make yourself at home in the love of the One who says, “I have called you by name. You are mine. I have cared for you from the time you were born. I am your God and will take care of you until you are old and your hair is gray.” (Isaiah 43: 1;  Isaiah 46:4)

Abide, makes yourself at home in the love of the One who knows all about you — your good moments and your bad ones; the times of glory and the times of which you are ashamed; the ways you try to live faithfully and the ways you have failed. God knows all that and loves you still.

Abide in the love of Jesus who left the glories of heaven and went to hell and back to prove that nothing in all creation could ever separate you from God’s love. Abide in Jesus’ love. “You will be like a tree, replanted in Eden, bearing fresh fruit every month. Never dropping a leaf, always in blossom.” (Psalm 1, The Message)

 Love divine, all loves excelling,

love that creates us in your image,

love that meets us in our brokenness,

love that pulls us out of deadly traps

and sets us in the wide expanses of your salvation:

You we worship;

You we praise;

You we love.

You know the ways we wander from your love:

the fears that drive us to make our world small and manageable;

the selfishness that shuts down our hearts;

the arrogance that limits our reach toward the ones you love.

Immerse us again and again in your lavish grace.

Bathe us one more in the cleansing stream of your truth.

Send you Spirit flowing through the dried-up, worn-out places.

Bring life — your life

your wondrous, abundant life,

for we pray in the name of Jesus, 

the Way, the Truth, the Life, 

your Word made flesh,

your Love.  Amen.

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A sermon based on John 1: 43 -51

A young journalist was sitting at a bar, feeling quite sorry for himself. “Nobody understands me, “ he lamented to the man on the stool next to him. His new friend asked, “Do you mean that there is nobody at all, not one human being, not a single, solitary person who understand you?” That’s right,” said the reporter. “Not a one.”
“You are a lucky man,” his bar companion told him. “Have you noticed how miserable I am?”

No, the journalist had not noticed because he had been too busy feeling sorry for himself.
“Yes,” said his friend,” I am just about the miserable-ext person on two legs.”
“Wy’s that? asked the journalist.

“Because there are two people in this world who understand me. They don’t understand me completely, but they understand me well enough. It’s awful being understood by one person but being understood by two is almost unbearable. If they understood me completely, the embarrassment would probably kill me.”

The journalist went on to write a newspaper column reflecting on the ways we defend ourselves against people understanding us too well. We don’t want them to see the confusion or the chaos that threaten to unsettle us. We don’t want them to know the fears and doubts that trouble the clam exterior we show to others. Much of the time we cover up who we really are. It works, of course, to help us function most of the time. It also leaves us feeling lonely, alone in the world. More than that, it is hard on our souls, which thrive only in the atmosphere of truth.  (Russell Baker, “We can all use a little misunderstanding”, source unknown)

Do you have someone who understands you? Do you have someone in your life who knows the real you? Is there someone who understands the joys and fears, and the deep longings that drive you to act the way you do? Not completely perhaps, but well enough? does that make you miserable because you cannot get away with anything? Or, do you experience it as a great and precious gift?

The gospels tell us stories of Jesus encountering people, seeing them for who they really were, and telling them the truth about their lives. For some of them, Jesus’ words are a great gift. They bring out what is best in them. They grow strong and courageous; they become generous and compassionate. For some people, Jesus tells them more truth than they want to hear. Jesus truth-telling exposes their hypocrisy or deceit, their manipulations and their abuses of power. Some of them eventually kill him for it.

Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story about a group of people who were on a religious retreat. The leader asked them to think of someone who represented Christ in their lives. Then, they were to spend some time sharing with the group who those people were. Near the end of the sharing time, one woman stood up and said, “I had to think about that one. I kept thinking, ‘Who is it who told me the truth about myself so clearly that I wanted to kill him for it?’” (Truth to Tell)

In today’s gospel story, Jesus is gathering a community of people who hear the truth he speaks to them as good news. It is received as a great treasure. He invites Andrew and Simon to “come and see”; then, he finds Philip who finds Nathanael. Philip says, “We have been looking for someone who will save us. We have found him: Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth.”

Nathanael is more than a little skeptical. Jesus was not what he thought God’s salvation would look like: a carpenter’s son from a no-account town like Nazareth? Philip does not argue with Nathanael. He does not try to prove to him that Jesus is the Messiah. He just says, “Come and see.”

While Nathanael is still making his way toward Jesus, Jesus says, “Look, here is a true Israelite. Here is someone who is a wrestler-with-God. Here is someone in whom there is no deceit.” Nathanael is surprised by what Jesus saw in him, “How do you know me?” Jesus replies, “I saw you sitting under the fig tree.”

“Sitting under the fig tree” was an old saying used to describe someone who was genuinely searching for God’s truth and God’s salvation. You are “sitting under the fig tree” when you see a world being corrupted by evil and greed and violence and hatred and you say, “Surely another world is possible”. You are “sitting under the fig tree” when you are no longer content merely to skim along the surface of your life and you decide, instead, to find your place in God’s plan for the world. You are “sitting under the fig tree” when you search for wisdom and courage to navigate a faithful path through difficult and ambiguous choices; when you dare to speak your truth even when people want you to remain quiet and complacent.

Jesus sees you sitting there long before you are even aware of him. Long before you start searching for him, he has already been looking for you. He knows your questions, your doubts, your uncertainties, and the things you try to hid. “I can work with that,” he says. “Come, follow me. Follow me and you will find that your life is lived on holy ground. You are living at the intersection between who you really are and what God is doing in and through you.”

There is a great deal of interest these days in ‘the self’. You are told in countless ways that you need to get to know your self more clearly and ore deeply. Only as you do so will you will maximize your potential, develop your gifts, meet your needs and follow your dreams.

There is a healthy self-awareness: an awareness of your inner life helps you function better in the world. But, ultimately, the self is too small an environment in which any human being can flourish. It is not the kind of environment where your soul can deepen and grow and mature. You and I are made to love. We are made for community with other selves. The self cannot be itself, fully itself, unless it is in relationship: relationship with others and, most decisively, relationship with God.

The self is your soul with God left out. Focus only on your ‘self’, without reference to who God is and what God is doing in your life, and you are leaving out the most important part of who you are. The most decisive thing about your life is not who you are or what you are doing. The most decisive action in your life is what God is doing in you and through you. What most defines who you is who God says you are.

Jesus invites you out of the cramped world of the self and sets you into the large world of God’s grace. There is always more going on that any of us realizes. God acts in ways that are often invisible and unexpected. Yet, at every moment, you are immersed in the presence and the action of God. The God who is creating and saving and blessing and transforming you and the world, is permeating all of your life with God’s beauty and grace and love. You are standing on holy ground.

Early Christian theologians sometimes described the relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as a great and wonderful dance of perfect love. Each of us is untied to join the dance, and to add our moves to it. As you join the dance, you become more fully yourself than you could ever be apart from God.

Faith is not a journey of self-discovery as much as it is a journey of God-discovery. Faith is learning to pay attention to God; opening yourself to God; getting in on what God is king. It is a journey of learning to live beyond yourself because you are being drawn into God’s great and holy work in the world. Faith makes you more than you could ever be on your own. “Follow me,” says Jesus”, Let him teach you the steps you need to know to join in the dance: patience and love, truth and forgiveness, goodness and beauty, hope and courage, joy and celebration.

There will be times when the dance feels odd. You will be moving in ways that feel strange. How do you being? You continue what God has already begun in you. You risk: risk trusting as much of your self as you can to as much of God as you know. Then, let the Spirit draw you into the divine dance of love.

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A number of years ago, Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment in his laboratory in Yale. He brought in a randomly selected group of people and told them that they were participating in research on human behaviour. Each participant was put into a room that had a one-way mirror. S/he could see another person in another room sitting on a chair; that person could not see him or her. The participant (teacher) was given a list of word pairs which s/he was to teach to the person in the other room (learner). After reading through the list of word pairs, the teacher would read the first word of each pair to the learner, along with four possible answers. The learner was to push a button indicating which answer was the ‘pair’ to the word. The teacher was told to work a dial which would supposedly administer an electric shock to the learner whenever that person gave an incorrect answer. In actuality, the person in the other room was an actor and the dial was phony. When the dial was turned, the actor would grimace as if being shocked. To Milgram’s surprise, 100% of the people administered what they thought to be an intense shock when told to do so by the white-coated researcher.

In another experiment, the person in charge was not wearing an official-looking white coat. The experiment was conducted in an old basement. Milgram offered the participants every opportunity to refuse to administer the shock. Even so, many did as they were told. They submitted to the person whom they perceived to have authority and power.

When you decide to follow Jesus, God sets you on a path of confronting who and what exercises authority and power in your life. Following Jesus means developing the capacity to resist pressure from people with power and authority when what they want you to do will betray your humanity or trespass the dignity of others. Your primary allegiance is to God: to shape your relationships according to the way of Jesus. You will find your loyalties and your actions being shaped in peculiar ways.

Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the influential atheists of the nineteenth century. He once accused the Christian Church of having taken the side of everything weak, base and ill-constituted. He believed that the world ran by the law of evolution and that its rules favoured power and competition. He was frustrated the Christians were, again and again, choosing the must un-Darwinian objects for their love.

Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity lavish their care on people whom others consider to be homeless wretches who have days, if not hours, to live. Mother Teresa considered acts of compassion for the poorest of the poor a great privilege: Only in heaven will we see how much we owe to the poor for helping us to love God better because of them. (http://www.verybestquotes.com/150-mother-teresa-quotes/)

Jean Vanier has spent his life cultivating communities where able-bodied assistants live with men and women with mental and physical handicaps, many of whom are unable to speak or co-ordinate their movements. While he could have done many things with his considerable gifts and talents, he says that it is this work among people whom others dismiss as unimportant that has given his life meaning.

Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement freely admits the folly of her soup kitchens: “What a delightful thing it is to be boldly profligate — to ignore the price of coffee and to go on serving the long line of destitute men who come to us good coffee and the finest bread.”

There are those who would call these people insane or crazy because of their peculiar sense of what is important. The world needs more of that kind of madness. It is the same kind of madness that led Jesus to touch people whom others had labelled ‘untouchable’. It is the same madness that led Jesus to dine with people whom others would cross the street to avoid, and to challenge the people who wanted him to keep quiet because they didn’t want trouble.

It is the same kind of madness that led God to leave the glory of heaven and to dwell among us. In Jesus, God suffered and died and was raised from the dead so that we, too, might experience Christ’s victory over the powers of evil and death.

When we offer ourselves to Jesus, we offer to live lives which mirror, at least to some degree, his love and mercy and grace — even if those lives look peculiar to people who judge us by this world’s standards of success and conformity.

In a sense, people like Mother Teresa, Jean Vanier, and Dorothy Day reached a point where it was easier for them than for people like you and me to live into such peculiarity. They achieved a level of renown. People no longer think them mad. They have become saints, heroes, models to be admired. It is a different story to labour quietly in your ordinary life, trying to live with integrity and compassion and courage amidst pressures to abandon Jesus’ peculiar standards. It is a different story for you and I to speak the truth, to say ‘no’ when everyone else is saying ‘yes’, to give extravagantly or forgive graciously, to choose to stand with people whom others are attacking.

Where do you find the courage to follow Jesus when he leads you against the flow? Mother Teresa wrote that you find it in humility: Humility is the mother of all virtues; purity, charity and obedience. It is in being humble that our love becomes real, devoted and ardent. If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. If you are blamed you will not be discouraged. If they call you a saint you will not put yourself on a pedestal ( In the Heart of the World: Thoughts, Stories and Prayers).

Brennan Manning once pointed out that Jesus’ closest friend on earth, a disciple named John, is identified in the gospels as, “the one Jesus loved.” Wrote Manning, “If John were to be asked, “What is your primary identity in life, he would not reply, ‘I am a disciple, an apostle, an evangelist, an author of one of the four gospels’, but rather, ‘I am the one Jesus loves.’”

That is who you are: You are the one Jesus loves. That is your primary identity. No matter what anyone else tries to have you be or do, you are the one Jesus loves. Live deeply into that identity; act courageously out of that identity. You may seem peculiar to people who know only this world’s pressure to conform. Never mind that. It is Jesus’ blessed and holy peculiarity that is healing this broken world. It is Jesus’ blessed and holy peculiarity that will give you peace. You are the one Jesus loves. Let that give you courage to act in truth and love.

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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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