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The suggestions for this Sunday, July 1, 2018, are up. Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Adoption for all!


trinity-sunday-clipart-1This is my sermon for Trinity Sunday2018.

Today marks the beginning of the second half of the Christian year when the focus changes over from Christ’s Career to our response to it. It is one of those Sundays which is more difficult for ministers if they use it as the one opportunity in the year to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. Since the doctrine took the early church a mere 400 years to settle on a doctrine which they could agree, I have decided to avoid trying to explain it in twenty minutes. As the year turns over to a focus on our response to Christ’s career, that will be our lens.

Romans 8: 12-17 is actually one of the main passages that was used in the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. While our Isaiah passage today spoke of the transformation of Isaiah from an observer to a prophet who, after he was cleansed of his sin, responded by voluntarily beginning an often dangerous life as God’s prophet; and the story of Nicodemus night-time visit to Christ was used by John to make clear the separation between flesh and spirit; Romans focuses on our transformations through the Spirit to members of God’s family, and from slave to child.(Achtemeier) So let’s begin looking at the transformation available to us. In Romans the writer talks about us being adopted as God’s children, and thus as brothers and sisters of Christ.

Family is the first and most central relationship of our lives. We start with the family into which we are born or adopted and then raised. As children in the family we begin as completely dependent on our parents for everything and move gradually to become independent. This gradual change in the balance of power is a constant push and pull between parents and children. For most of us, we then move out on our own and then create a new family with our own spouses and children.

When we try to explain our closest relationships with friends we often refer to them as being, “as close as family,” or “just like brothers or sisters,” or “our other parents.” That is not what is being spoken about in Romans. We read there that after our transformation from being led by the flesh to being led by the Spirit, we “are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.

How do we respond to that adoption? Take a look back at Psalm 29 to see how God is described.

The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord thunders over the mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is majestic.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon leap like a calf,
Sirion[b] like a young wild ox.
The voice of the Lord strikes
with flashes of lightning.
The voice of the Lord shakes the desert;
the Lord shakes the Desert of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord twists the oaks[c]
and strips the forests bare.
And in his temple all cry, “Glory!”

10 The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord is enthroned as King forever.
11 The Lord gives strength to his people;
the Lord blesses his people with peace.

That definitely describes someone to whom we will run, maybe climb into his lap, and say, “Daddy, daddy!” Well maybe not. Do you remember the first time a former teacher asked you to call them by their first name? It feels so strange to go from saying Mrs. Scott, or Professor Mark, to Cathy and Jamie. If that is difficult to call regular humans by a more familiar name, how much more difficult is it to imagine that it is ok to call God “father”, “dad.” But it is that very privilege which we gain through the Spirit. We aren’t “as close to God as family.” We, “are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ”

Along with the privileges of family come responsibilities. We make commitments to our families, we make sacrifices for our families, we share our resources with our families. As members of God’s family we also have commitments to make and meet. This is our response, the topic of the rest of the Christian year. The rest of verse 17 says, “if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” Like Isaiah, in saying, “‘Here am I; send me!’” would live a life of being both honoured by the people, and running for his life and hiding in a cave to avoid the soldiers of the King; we have to accept the risks associated with being God’s family members.

Paul Achtemeier said, “The transformation wrought by God’s Spirit is such that one becomes a foreigner to the culture to which one once belonged.” This is a tough thing to see for many of us as we were raised in a time when Western society seemed to assume that people were Christian. To be a Christian at this time was to be on the inside, on the side of power. It seems like that was not actually the role intended for Christian life. With the secularization of Western societies, it is much easier to see the risk of being part of this family.

In his notes on Romans 8, Scott Hoezee writes about a story he read in a book by Richard Lischer called The End of Words. which illustrates why it is one of those stories we can never hear too often. It isn’t annoying like The Song That Never Ends.

“When the adopted child repeatedly asks her parents to recount the events surrounding her adoption, the story must remain the same.  And woe to the one who introduces omissions or changes in the sacred formula.  “And then out of all the babies in the orphanage you chose me, right?”  Could parents ever tire of telling that story?  Would they ever dare substitute another for it?  If telling God’s story strikes us as repetitious, that is because it is.  It is repetitious the way the Eucharist is repetitious, the way a favorite melody or gestures of love are repetitious, the way the mercies of God that come unbidden every day are repetitious . . . Such stories do not entertain, they do something far better.  They sustain.  They do not inform, they form those who share and hear them for a life of faithfulness.”

You know the song They’ll Know We Are Christians? According to this people would know that we are Christians by our love. I do not disagree with this, but as I hear over and over again from atheists and secularists, any good person can show love. So how do we show the difference? We are the ones who call God “Father.”

For some people the word “father” brings on unpleasant memories and connotations. We can choose any form to use. We can call God “Mother,” “Father,” or, as the man in the novel The Shack we can say, “Papa.” The point is that we accept that adoption and live our transformed lives as children of God.

 

Be of one Mind and Other Challenges for the Church


2759742066_57d26d0948It was recently Trinity Sunday. When I first looked at the readings for the week, though, I was thinking about it being the first Sunday after Pentecost and the beginning of a long period of regular time, neither a time of preparation, like Advent or Lent, nor of celebration, like Christmas or Easter.  My first thought was that, after preaching a service last summer on the longest Psalm, it was funny how short the Gospel (Matthew 28: 16-20) and Epistle (2 Corinthians 13:11-14) readings were. They may be short in terms of the number of words and verses, but they are far from short on import and challenge!

If you set aside the importance of the texts to the formation of the doctrine of the Trinity, these readings, in their few verses, speak to some of the most challenging things in the life of the church.  From the Epistle, “Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace.”, or in NRSV terms which I read first, “Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace.” These words seemed particularly pertinent in the wake of this year’s General Assembly, three full days of worship and deliberation on issues facing our denomination. And from the Gospel, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Today I’ll focus on Paul’s final words to the Corinthians.

Paul wrote a series of imperatives to the community in Corinth. The first imperative to them was, “put things in order”, or mend your ways. The focus of this directive is for each individual looking first to their own relationship with God before trying to sort things out with others in the church. He “invites them into a time of self-examination and self-improvement. To “examine” and “test” themselves.”

 

Paul then, after reminding them to listen to him,  says, “Agree with one another,” or, “Be of one mind.” No problem, right!

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes have trouble being of one mind on an issue, and I have just one mind! As we all know from our personal relationships, agreement between even two people can be hugely challenging. That is the whole premise of the various Love It or List It shows in which one couple is unhappy with their home, one convinced that they must move and the other convinced that renovations can solve the problems.  Things can get pretty nasty during the process, but in the end, a decision is made based on what is best for the family.

 

What happens when we disagree on things? It is so easy for a  calm discussion to devolve into argument. There may be harsh words, name calling, accusations may be made, feelings hurt, and the more we battle the less we are able to consider other’s ideas. We focus on defending our own view. This is true of almost any argument, imagine how much more so when the disagreements are on such fundamental things as our faith!

 

If it was easy to agree with one another Abel may have lived a long happy life, and yet Paul here encourages the church of Corinth, a divided, even fragmented, and contentious community, to agree with each other. “Be of one mind.” Was he kidding?

 

As we are agreeing already, the rest is to live in peace. I like this story…

“Painting Peace

There once was a King who offered a prize to the artist who would paint the best picture of peace. Many artists tried. The King looked at all the pictures, but there were only two he really liked and he had to choose between them.

One picture was of a calm lake. The lake was a perfect mirror, for peaceful towering mountains were all around it. Overhead was a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. All who saw this picture thought that it was a perfect picture of peace.

The other picture had mountains too. But these were rugged and bare. Above was an angry sky from which rain fell and in which lightening played. Down the side of the mountain tumbled a foaming waterfall. This did not look peaceful at all. But when the King looked, he saw behind the waterfall a tiny bush growing in a crack in the rock. In the bush, a mother bird had built her nest. There, in the midst of the rush of angry water, sat the mother bird on her nest… perfect peace.

Which picture do you think won the prize?

The King chose the second picture. “Because,” explained the King, “peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. Peace means to be in the midst of all those things and still be calm in your heart. That is the real meaning of peace.” (“Painting Peace”)

This is still a significant challenge, but sounds much more realistic!

In the notes for today on the Church of Scotland website it says, “Second Corinthians is a painful letter for Paul to write, as it deals with the church community in Corinth that has been fractious, irreverent and divisive. The exhortation to, “mend your ways…agree with one another, live in peace…” is forceful. It is a word not only for C1st but also C21st Christians. If essential qualities of the Trinity are unity, togetherness, mutuality, interdependence, then Christians following in the way of the Trinity must also demonstrate those same qualities.

Paul’s letter, after the storms, tears, rebukes, recriminations, and self-justification, according to one commentator, ends with three sweet verses, “…that appear as something of a rainbow.” Paul calls for things to be put in order, for the Corinthians to ‘kiss and make up’, and to be reconciled with each other and with him. It might be that these verses do not give so much instruction about the Trinity, the Trinity is not the focus; rather it is the gifts, given by the Trinity, that are at the forefront: grace, love, and fellowship. The Trinity is intrinsically social in nature; therefore those made in the image of the Trinity are likewise intrinsically social beings. We are called to live in peace and harmony. We are challenged to resolve our disputes graciously and to live peaceably together. Or, to use Paul’s familiar ‘body’ metaphor from First Corinthians, in our diversity we find our unity. In the multiplicity of our purposes, we find that we work together for the good of all. God’s creative imagination and Christ’s redeeming love, culminating in the sustained fellowship and communion that is the binding and joining work of the Holy Spirit.” (“Trinity Sunday”)

And how can we do all this? This is where, in closing, Paul pulls in the ultimate example of a relationship, which we know as the Trinity. Though we can barely hope to do it on our own, we remain hopeful because we are not alone in this. Paul reminds us that we can do it through the grace of Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. We have been given all we need…

The Facebook post with the link to the summary notes on the Assembly said, “The best summary of all, though, may just be the Moderator’s words and call to action in the final sederunt. “And now the hard part…in church terms, this is called ‘passing the peace – seriously.’ I invite us all to do that, right now.”” (https://tinyurl.com/y7y4qz7w)

 

“Painting Peace”. Stories for Preaching. N.p., 2017. Web. 10 June 2017.

“Trinity Sunday”. Churchofscotland.org.uk. N.p., 2017. Web. 14 June 2017.

Updated hymn page


I have updated for January 24, 31, and Feb 7.

Updates to Year C


I have updated Year C Hymn choices for Jan 17, 2016. Check them out!

Baptism of Christ: First ask why


3631902258_3fab33242d_mThoughts for Baptism of Christ Sunday

Read Luke 3:15-22

Think back to your own baptism if they were old enough at the time to remember it, or the last baptism you witnessed to. If you have not been baptized, fear not and read on.

The other day I attended the Presbytery workshop based on the book Your Church Can Thrive by Harold Percy. I was glad to be attending but it didn’t occur to me that I would be finding anything in that time which would find its way into my message for the next day, but there it was. One of the first major points Percy made was that it is important, before getting to how to make change, to ask why we do what we do. So that is what came to church with me this morning.

First, we ask, why?

Why was Jesus baptized? Really, think about it? Had he sinned? We baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He is the Son so it doesn’t really seem like he should need to be baptized. On one hand, the answer to this one is simple, he didn’t need to be baptized but he chose to be baptized! Christian writers over the years have been uncomfortable with the idea of the divine being baptized. In the 2nd century Ignatius stated that he was already pure and so the purpose was to purify the water. Justin Martyr explained that he was baptized “for the sake of humanity.” One might also say that it was a symbol or affirmation of his true humanity.

Why do we baptize? According to Living Faith we baptize as a sign and seal of our union with Christ and with his church. Through it we share in the death and resurrection of Christ and are commissioned to his service.

Secondly, we ask, what?

What was baptism in Jesus’ time? In the Old Testament immersion had been a form of returning to ritual cleanliness. In the New Testament, John announced “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” or purification of the body after the soul was cleansed by righteousness. Before immersion in a river John required prior repentance and performance of good deeds.  In Jesus’ day baptism was a radical, counter-cultural act. Luke highlights this with his mention of the fact that Herod was made so nervous by John baptizing people in the Jordan, and people questioning whether John may be the Messiah, that after John called him out on his marriage to Herodius he had him arrested, imprisoned and eventually killed.

Jesus was already an adult when he went to the river where John was baptizing. Since it was just a couple weeks ago that we celebrated the birth of a baby in Bethlehem, it is sometimes hard to remember that there was no cute little white dress, or white suit, candles and Godparents.

Jesus’ baptism was public but with no big hoopla or special notice. In Luke’s account it is just slipped in. John explains to the people there that he is neither worthy to unlace the Messiah’s sandals, nor able to baptize with anything but water; while the one who was coming would baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. The actual “story” of the baptism is no more than one line stating that the people and Jesus had been baptized and then it jumps to an undetermined time later when Jesus was praying. It is at this point that heaven opened up and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” We are given no indication that anyone other than Jesus himself is witness to these signs and statements.

What is baptism in the Presbyterian Church in Canada? Baptism is one of the two sacraments of the Presbyterian Church. Living Faith 7.6.3 “By the power of the Holy Spirit God acts through Baptism. It is the sacrament not of what we do but of what God has done for us in Christ. God’s grace and our response to it are not tied to the moment of Baptism, but continue and deepen throughout life. It is a sacrament meant for those who profess their faith and for their children. Together we are the family of God. 7.6.5 Baptism assures us that we belong to God. In life and in death our greatest comfort is that we belong to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.”

Lastly, we ask, how?

How do we decide to be baptized? As Christian parents people make the decision to raise their children in the church and the first step in that is to have them baptized. One PCC document says that, “When people seek baptism later in life, it means that the Holy Spirit, as a guide and friend, has moved them to claim the grace and love of God in Christ, and faith in a new way. It is a courageous action.”

How are we baptized? Living Faith 7.6.2 “In Baptism, water is administered in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The water signifies the washing away of sin, the start of new life in Christ, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

How are we meant to live out our baptisms? 7.6.4 “Baptism is also an act of discipleship that requires commitment and looks towards growth in Christ. Those baptized in infancy are called in later years to make personal profession of Christ. What is born may die. What is grafted may wither. Congregations and those baptized must strive to nurture life in Christ.”

We begin when the Holy Spirit ignites a passion in us. We seek to discern our vocations, we seek to grow in our knowledge and understanding of the ways of Jesus, and we attempt to live in such a way that people see Christ in our lives.

The thing with seeking to answer the big questions is that more often than not we are left with a whole list of new questions. This can be very frustrating, especially if we want to leap right into the action phase of a project. Remember that we are not alone. We have our church family and most importantly we have God. Jesus said he would always be with us through the Holy Spirit. We can continue to have conversations with others and it is vital that we continue the conversation with God in prayer. When we face the next question in living out our baptisms go back to the beginning, start with why and listen for God’s answer.

 

Your Church Can Thrive: Making the Connections that build healthy congregations by Harold Percy, Abingdon Press 2003

Living Faith -https://www.google.com/url?q=http://presbyterian.ca/resources-od/&sa=U&ved=0ahUKEwjuiavu-Z_KAhUkUKYKHX1TCjQQFggEMAA&client=internal-uds-cse&usg=AFQjCNFxxynHAbwDAa92okqQqlWM4Kj4SQ

 

The Lady in The Back Row


3605629805_00de328b9aI will begin today with two pieces of background information.  First, as a part of the process of discerning my call to ministry I have been asked to write a paper on my faith journey. This has led to a lot of thinking about my past. The second thing is that I am currently living away from home and thus attending a different church. This past Sunday found me in the choir at my sister’s church. The sermon was based on the early verses of Philippians  and the focus turned to Paul giving thanks to God for the people in the church at Phillipi. The minister made a point of the fact that Paul was talking about actual people,  individuals whom he remembered from his time there. He then asked us to look around the church and find three people for whim we were thankful. Here’s where my first two points come in. I was in the choir so I could easily look out on the congregation  and see everyone. As I looked around at a room of strangers and a few acquaintances I had to stretch. I spotted this elderly woman in the very back row and did a double take as my first thought was that it was my grandmother. Next connection, I have recently written a section on the influence my now deceased grandmother had on my Christian development and there she was looking up from the back row. I knew that it was not Grammie, but for the rest of the service my eyes were drawn to her over and over. For me it seemed that Grammie was letting me know that she supports the path on which I am travelling.  After the service I made a point of finding her. I introduced myself to her and I told her that she was one of my three people. I explained what I had felt and she thanked me and said that she was glad that she had come to church. We can find people for whom to be thankful anywhere. They won’t all remind us of relatives, they won’t even all be people we like, but we should keep our eyes open for them!

Word of Mouth


Word of mouth

3631902258_3fab33242d_m

My family and I have a bathroom renovation project underway and when I was looking for someone to do the work I did as I usually do and asked Dad.  After that I asked my friends on Face Book for their opinions of and experiences with different contractors.  Similarly, when our washer died I put out a request for comments on top load washers versus front load models.  In fact on any given day you can find requests for advice on road conditions, where to go to get things, and whether or not a movie is worth seeing.  None of these things are likely to change our lives but are examples which show that we place greater value on the experience and opinion of our friends than on the advertisements which would have us believe that every product is better than all the other products which in-turn are also better… So what about spiritual questions, things that will change our lives?  What would you seek and whom would you follow?

 

In our Gospel reading today John must have been ‘wired for sound’! He had just experienced what he knew was the highest point of his ministry, he had fulfilled his destiny. It was not his own accomplishment, it wasn’t that he would be thinking what a great job he had done, but it was still a great day.  If it had happened today he might immediately get out his cell phone and tweet something like, “Best day of my life, baptized Son of God, heard God’s voice and saw the spirit, time to retire, can die happy!”

In the other Gospels this is where the baptism story ended and they moved away from the Baptist and the area around the Jordan, one immediately, to the temptation of Christ and the beginning of his ministry.  John chose instead to continue the narrative of Baptist’s activities.  In a sense the author gave him time to tweet and for people to respond to his news.  While the other Gospels gradually reveal Jesus’ identity, John front loads the story with details of Jesus’ true identity.  In very short order he identifies Christ by several of the titles which had been ascribed to him by the church over the years; Lamb of God, Son of God, Rabbi, and Messiah.

 

Last week we read of the baptism itself and today, the actual baptism itself is not narrated in John, we take up the story on the next day. John the Baptist saw Jesus and told all who are in the area just what had happened and how important this man was!  In a tradition in which sacrifices were made for thanksgiving, for atonement of sin, etc. it would have caught people’s attention when the Baptist referred to Christ as, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  It may have brought out memories of the Passover lamb whose death and the painting of its blood protected the people in Egypt.  For us, and indeed for the early readers of John’s gospel, this speaks to his crucifixion and resurrection, his atonement for the sins of the whole world.  At the time of the Baptist, however, it may have brought to mind Abraham who said God would provide the lamb for the sacrifice.  At the least it would have indicated his purity but oddly would also carry a picture of weakness; important because of the role of the unblemished lamb in sacrifice, but weak because a lamb is helpless to defend itself from death on the altar.

 

The Baptist had been out in the wilderness preaching and calling people to repentance, but never taking credit or making himself out to be important.  In John’s gospel this event followed a scene in which the Baptist was questioned by religious authorities.  He had denied being Elijah, being The Prophet (Moses), and being the Messiah. He had in fact always been saying, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”  He had never made much of himself but pointed ahead to that man. He explained that he had been baptizing with water in order to reveal the man to Israel.  He related the sight of the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remaining on Jesus, and that God had told them this would be the sign of the man who was coming. He made a statement worthy of a court trial, “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

 

It is likely that most people who heard him talking about Jesus considered it to be at least a bit far-fetched and perhaps attributed it to John’s strange ways.  “After all, he lives way out here away from people and doesn’t eat properly, he was probably delirious with hunger, or maybe he is going mad.  A spirit came and settled on a man and this is the big news? Hardly!”

 

The next day, then two days after Christ’s baptism, two of the Baptist’s followers were there when again he saw Jesus.  Again he identified Jesus and he testified that he was the Lamb of God.  These two men then left John, up until now their spiritual leader, and followed Jesus. Jesus asked them what they were seeking and told them to come and see.  Before he had taught them anything they called him Rabbi which means teacher. They went to where he was staying and spent the day with him.  Only one of the two is named in this account, Andrew the brother of the man known to us as Simon Peter.  Andrew ran off to find his brother and passed on the exciting news, “We have found the Messiah.”  When they got back Jesus identified him by name and says he will be called Cephas’ or Peter.

 

So following the line of information

  1. God tells John of his mission

  2. God tells John how to recognize the one to come after

  3. John witnesses the sign Lamb of God

  4. John tells all who are around Lamb of God

  5. John repeats this to two of his followers Son of God

  6. One of the followers, Andrew, goes to tell his brother Messiah

If we were to continue this line it would lead us all the way to this place and thousands like it where the Word is being proclaimed today.

 

The three readings I chose to use this morning are very different in form, the Psalm being a poem or song, 1 Corinthians being a letter, and John being a story.  They are all about saving help, God’s faithfulness, Christ’s salvation, steadfast love, mercy, and evangelism.

 

 

In the Psalm we read a song of thanksgiving for deliverance from dire personal circumstances as well as the pattern of God’s works of salvation for the people of Israel over the ages.  The author does what most of us would do after being rescued; he gives thanks and praises his deliverer.  He doesn’t do this in private, but in the congregation, he tells everyone! In the 11 verses we read we go back and forth between the personal story and praise to God for his faithfulness, and the communal stories of the past and expectations of the future.  The other feature of the Psalm is that it expresses God’s desire for a relationship with us rather than sacrifices. God doesn’t want the rites of religion, he wants our seeking and having his laws written on our heart.

 

Much of the writing of Paul that is included in the Christian cannon is in the form of letters.  There was a very ordered format for letters in his time and he certainly followed it.  First you introduce yourself, then identify the recipient, give thanks, and then you move on to the content.  Our reading this morning was the introduction to a much longer letter which would address some pretty major issues with the church in Corinth.  Without reading further, however, one would be unlikely to realize there was any problem or concern. The focus here was on their unity in that they were all called by Christ, that they were all empowered by the Spirit, that they all shared the same testimony to the grace of Christ and the faithfulness and steadfastness of God. Paul gives thanks for the congregation which was equipped with the tools they needed to continue this testimony, to pass on the word.

 

So, we have established that word-of-mouth is the most effective way of getting information out to people. Given this it is hard to imagine why do we rely so heavily on the Bible itself to get the Christian message out?  How can we offer Christ and invite people to come and see what a life of following Jesus might be like. (Daniel Ogel…GBod)?

 

People are only willing to inquire about faith and follow if they are themselves open to it. It is spiritual hunger which compels people to search for new possibilities. It is their dissatisfaction with where they are in their lives and in their spiritual life which forces them to go in search of something new.(Daniel Ogel, GBod.com0 John the Baptist pointed the way to Jesus, “don’t focus on me or the trappings of the church or liturgy, look to Jesus himself and be open to a relationship with him.  Jesus invited the first two disciples to, “come and see” where he was staying, to actually walk in his ways.  Both of these approaches to seekers are models of evangelism.  “Instead of beating people over the head or intimidating them to confess their faith, John and Jesus point to what God is doing and invite people to check it out. It’s a pretty compelling strategy for faith-sharing and evangelism.”(Daniel Ogel, GBod.com) and far less awkward than starting a conversation with a person by asking them if they know Jesus, or if they are a Christian and then launching into a “sales campaign.”

 

So, what did you post on Face Book this morning before leaving for church?  Did you post that you were going to church? Great! When we share our lives as Christians with people, just as that, our lives, we open a door. If we get out the bat, quote scripture and tell people how they should live and what they should believe, we are more likely to scare them away. What will you post later in the day?  Whether we have good days or bad what people will notice is our patience and hopefulness in God and maybe that will be enough to make them ask where we get that patience and hopefulness and then we can invite them to come and see.

 

 The readings for this sermon were; 1 Cor 1:1-9, Psalm 40:1-11, John 1:19-42

Opening The Eye of The Needle/ The Gift of The Gospel


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     Believe it or not…! Would you believe that … ? Most of the time that we are faced with that sort of statement or question it is either preceded or followed by some extraordinary tale. Can you believe that a deer climbed through a window and was running around in the legislature chambers?  Can you believe that she lost 80 pounds in just a month on this new diet? I can’t believe they are charging so much for a loaf of bread!

        Belief is a very fundamental thing and yet in the same way as we have taken to talking about “loving cheese” we have to some extent reduced the power of the word believe.  It isn’t that we are misusing the word believe, but it is rarely used for the foundational issues.  However, if I were to ask you what your beliefs were, I don’t think you would respond with your take on the latest happenings at work, the latest gossip, or the latest scientific discovery.  Ultimately our beliefs are the foundation of our identity, the guiding principles behind all our life decisions and actions.

 

        C.S. Lewis, well known author of the Narnia series as well as many excellent books on theological issues, grew up attending the Church of England with his parents.  From his earliest days he believed in God.  At some point in his teens this belief went away and he became an atheist.  Not just a quiet atheist, he was what I ironically term a devout atheist.  Not sufficient to just not believe himself, he argued all the really good reasons why there was no God with anyone who would listen. 

        Despite this belief, or lack there-of, he continued to feel that there was something else, occasionally glimpsed out of the corner of his eye or sensed behind his back.  After years of atheism, a stage of dabbling with the occult, he was surprised to find that what he had been glimpsing and sensing was indeed God.  During the period of time when he did not believe, he made no pretense of belief.  He was wholly and enthusiastically an atheist.  When he believed he was wholly and enthusiastically Christian and shared that belief in his writing.  C.S. Lewis, for whatever else one may say about him, was not a fence sitter!

 

        Elijah was the only prophet of God who had survived king Ahab’s killing of prophets of God and all those who refused to worship Baal.  In the community of Israel at that time some people were either wholeheartedly worshiping Baal, the storm god of Syria, or somewhat secretly worshiping God.  There were many, however, who sat on the fence. They worshiped God but had Baal figures and Asherah poles, symbols of the Canaanite mother goddess, as well.  There was even a belief among some of the descendants of mixed marriages with the Canaanites that God was the replacement for the father god El, the husband of Ashera and so it followed that Asherah must be God’s wife.

        We read in I Kings 18:20-39 of a standoff at Mount Carmel.  On one side there were, according to other writings about the event, 400 prophets of Asher and 450 prophets of Baal.  On the other side there was Elijah, the sole prophet of God.  It was time for people to get off the fences and stand firmly on one side or the other.  Either they would believe in “their god”, or they would believe in “the Lord.” Elijah proposed a sort of duel.  Both sides would prepare a sacrifice but not set fire to it.  The Baal prophets would then pray to him to light the fire and Elijah would pray the same to God.  The one who lit the fire, he said, “is God.”

Let’s look at the odds shall we?  They had, altogether, 850 prophets, an altar already standing, first choice of bull, and a head start.  Elijah gave them all day. They began in the morning and by noon Baal had not started a fire under the offering.  Elijah mocked them but did not set about to make his offering right away.  By the time they were nearing the evening sacrifice and meal they had pulled out all the stops, to the extent of cutting themselves with swords and lances.

Elijah was alone, he went second in choosing his materials, had to build an altar since the original lay in ruins, had a definite time limit pressing, and then on top of that he dug a trench around the altar and had water poured over the wood and bull until it filled up the trench.

Have you tried starting a fire with wet wood?  A betting person surely would put the odds seriously in favour of Baal.  When it came time for oblation Elijah called people to come closer to his altar.  He prayed to God in the names of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel not for justifying himself or saving his life but so that all would know that God is Lord!  After this fairly simple prayer, “the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt-offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench.”  The people saw, believed, and worshiped, repeating the words, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”

       

        Recently on the Newnham Campus of Seneca College in Toronto the General Assembly; ministers, elders, and guests from Presbyterian churches across Canada, gathered to worship.  There had great music, they gathered, confessed their sins, were nurtured by the Word, listen to a reflection on the Word, and respond with communion and prayers. After the service they  settled down to the order of the day which was to address issues of doctrine, logistics and mission which will set the course of the national church for the next year.  This is the court of the church that must meet and agree upon any statements of the church, like The Living Faith.

        Paul wrote a letter to the Christians living in Galatia, some of them would have been Jews and many gentiles.  He and his companions had presented the Gospel to them.  They had believed, been baptized, and were living according to the Gospel message.  There were no general assemblies; there was no formal church structure or any written documents to guide their growth as the church.  By the time Paul was writing this letter people had started to try to formalize things and a group of Christians began to add their own interpretations and provisos to the Gospel proclamation. 

        Paul was horrified by the notion that some of the Jewish Christians were teaching that in order to be Christian people needed to submit to “the law” and a part of that included a requirement that men be circumcised.  This may not seem like such a big deal, but to Paul it was the same as throwing out the Gospel and creating a gospel of human creation.  Does this sound familiar?  It is much like the situation with Elijah and the Baal prophets.  Elijah knew there were no other gods, that, as it says in Psalms, “all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.”  Paul says the Gospel is in the same way that the Lord is God! The Gospel wasn’t created by man but given to man by God.  He refers to the other teachings as gospel only to have a way of addressing the issue. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel.”

        To Paul the Gospel was not something taught by Jesus during his lifetime, but given to us by Jesus.  It was nothing less than the full power of God, there was no need for any human action or intervention for God to give this gift.  It represents freedom, an opening up of salvation to all, it opens the eye of the needle so that we may all pass through. The law based gospel these people in Galatia were presenting denied the total power of God and effectively closed the eye of the needle right back up.

        What is the message to us today?  Those of us here this morning are all at some stage of believing the Gospel.  Some may just be hearing it for the first time, some hearing it anew, some struggling to hold on to their belief, and others feeling full of and freed by it.  The Gospel is the good news of God’s saving act in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  For it to make sense to all different people it needs to be translated and interpreted to them in various ways.  While, unlike the Galatians, we have the written New Testament full of the stories of Jesus and of the birth and growth of the early church, we truly receive the Gospel only from God. 

        The claims of the Gospel are wild and defy logic and human nature.  In some ways we trap it, and tame it with our written word changing it into ideology.  Let us, rather, choose to believe the Gospel.  Let us truly accept it and stand in awe of its wildness!

Brought to you by the numbers 7 and 4


Kingsclear-20130411-00562One week before choir practice I took the opportunity to set the hymn board for Sunday’s service.  I started by taking all the numbers I would need out of the pile and I started to worry that I might run out of sevens and fours.  At the practice later I commented, “This weeks service will be brought to you by the numbers four and seven.”  After we finished joking around about Sesame Street and the shows brought to us by a number and a letter each episode, we went on to practice.

As a member of the team who select the weekly hymns I can assure you that we did not set out to see how few different digits we could use.  We had no bias that week against twos, threes, fives, or nines.  There are times in the church year, like Advent, Lent, Christmas, and Easter when the majority of the hymns will come from that seasonal section of the book.  At these times all the numbers will be within around thirty of each other.  If the theme for the week is mission the numbers are likely to be in the 700 s as that is the area of the book for that type of hymn.

Our Presbyterian Church in Canada Book of Praise, like most I expect, is organized with the sung Psalms at the beginning, sections of hymns for the seasons of the church year in order, then a section for God, Jesus, the Spirit, and the Trinity. The rest of the book is organized thematically.

A quick look at the hymn board when you first enter the church should give you a pretty good idea of the theme for the service.

Hymn selection for services may seem random to the people in the pews, and indeed it may be some of the time, but usually a lot of thought and reflection goes into the choices.  An integral part of worship, the hymns should be carrying the theme through the service and helping you to perceive and internalize the message.

Check it out the next time you are in a church, whether using a bulletin or the hymn board.  Look up a couple of the hymns to see what sections they are in.  Are they grouped closely together or spread out?

I realize that many churches probably don’t use hymn boards any more, instead projecting the hymns and service information at the front.  Our church uses bulletins we give to each person with the order of service, unison prayers, hymn numbers and announcements.  I guess we don’t really need a hymn board, but it is tradition.  Back when the Psalms were in our Book of Praise the number of the responsive Psalm would also have been on the board which is why there are five rows and only four hymn numbers.