19 February 2018

"Proclaiming the Good News of God" - Annual Meeting Sermon

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
February 18, 2018
Scripture:  Mark 1:9-15

(Note:  We had our Annual Meeting today, and it was integrated in to the worship service.  This means that the sermon is shorter than usual, and is directed towards the Annual Meeting.)

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, and on the first Sunday of Lent, the readings usually focus on the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness; but somehow that part of the gospel reading didn’t seem quite appropriate for the Annual Meeting.

So instead, I want to look at the beginning and the end of today’s reading from Mark – the part that comes before and after Jesus is tempted in the wilderness.

But first, let’s begin with the premise that we, as the church, are the body of Christ in our world.  We are called to be the hands and feet and eyes and ears and heart of Christ wherever we go.  We can’t do it alone – none of us is Jesus after all – but together, led by the Holy Spirit, we are constantly being transformed by the Holy Spirit into the image of Christ.

And what does this mean?  In the reading from Mark, when Jesus came out of the wilderness, he went about proclaiming the good news of God.

Now when we proclaim the good news of God, we may do that with words, but it doesn’t necessarily involve words.  Proclaiming the good news of God might look like the Care Team putting together and delivering Christmas baskets to the residents of Little Prairie Haven, Surerus Place, and the extended care wing at the hospital.  Proclaiming the good news of God might look like inviting a friend or neighbour who is struggling with the holidays to attend a Longest Night Service in the week leading up to Christmas.  Proclaiming the good news of God might look like a silent auction to support the local women’s shelter.  Proclaiming the good news of God might look like inviting a neighbour to attend bible study.  Proclaiming the good news of God might look like regularly attending Council meetings in order to make sure that the church continues to work as the body of Christ.  Proclaiming the good news of God might look like gathering faithfully to worship every Sunday morning even when it would be easier to sleep in; letting the world know that we trust an alternative narrative to the one that the world tells us – a narrative of hope.

And this is who and what we are called to be as the church.  We are called to be Christ’s presence in our world, proclaiming the good news of God in all of the different ways that we do.  This is the work or the mission that God has called us to – the little piece of God’s overall mission that Chetwynd Shared Ministry is called to live in to.

And part of the good news is that we don’t have to do it alone.  God is with us, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, in all that we do.  We are carrying out God’s mission, and it is the Holy Spirit who empowers and enables us to carry out this mission.  Just as the Holy Spirit was with Jesus in his baptism, with Jesus in the wilderness, and with Jesus when he was proclaiming the good news of God, the Holy Spirit is always with us.

As we reflect back on the year of 2017 as Chetwynd Shared Ministry, I invite you to consider how we have been led by the Holy Spirit over the past year.  Where can we see the work of our congregation fitting in to the overall mission of God?  What new adventures is the Holy Spirit going to lead us on in the year ahead?

And always remember God’s voice, reminding us that we are God’s beloved children; and that God is pleased with us simply because we are God’s children.  Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:
Holy God, who is love,
            we thank you for the past year.
We thank you for the opportunity
to be your people here in Chetwynd;
we thank you for your guidance in the past;
and we ask you for your presence in the year ahead.
Help us to discern who you are calling us to be,
            where you are calling us to go,
            and what you are calling us to do.
Strengthen our faith,
            so that we know that you are always with us,
                        even to the end of time.
We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,
            the one true head of your church.

(Though this is a picture of our building - before it was buried in snow! - I truly believe that the Church is the people, not the building.  At our annual meeting, we remember, celebrate, and plan for the work of the Church as we carry out our piece of God's mission.)

4 February 2018

"A Holy Paradox" (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
February 4, 2018
Scripture:  Isaiah 40:21-31 (with brief reference to Mark 1:29-39)

Today’s reading from Isaiah reminds me of one of my favourite Calvin and Hobbes comic strips.  The first panel is all black except for Calvin and a bunch of pinprick stars; and Calvin is looking up at the night sky.  In the second panel, Calvin shouts up at the sky, “I’m significant!”  The third panel is back to Calvin looking up at the sky and the stars.  And then in the final panel, he says quietly to himself, “Screamed the dust speck.”

When we contemplate the “otherness” of God, or when we contemplate the immensity of God’s creation – the size, the variety, the ever-increasing universe – it is very easy to feel insignificant.

Isaiah captures this feeling well and he uses some very vivid images and language to describe it.  He describes God sitting above the earth and all of creation, and we are crawling across the surface of the earth like grasshoppers.  He describes God stretching out the heavens – that whole night sky that Calvin was looking up at – like it is nothing more than a curtain, or a tent that covers the earth.  And he describes a God who is so all-knowing that each one of the billions and billions of stars that Calvin was looking up at is known by name.

Next to all of this, we are pretty insignificant.

This middle part of the book of Isaiah was written for a people who felt as though they had been abandoned or forgotten by God.  We can hear their lament in verse 27 of today’s reading – right there in the middle.  They were complaining, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.”

These words were written for a people living in exile.  We are now several centuries after Moses had led them out of slavery and in to the land that God had promised to their ancestors.  The people had lived in the land for many generations, but they were a tiny nation surrounded by great empires.  First, the northern part of the land was taken over by the Assyrian empire, and later the whole land was taken over by the Babylonian empire.  The capital city, Jerusalem, had been destroyed; along with the temple, which was not only the place where they worshipped God, but it was also the place where God lived.  And when the city and the country were destroyed, all of the leaders and many of the people were carried away from the land that God had given to them, to exile in Babylon.

They truly felt abandoned by God.  They had lost their homes, they had lost their land.  God was so far gone from them that God no longer had a home among them.

But this is where Isaiah offers them a word of comfort, a word of hope.  Isaiah reminds the people that God is so much bigger, so much more powerful, so much more God-like, than they could ever imagine.  God is bigger than the home they had built for God in the temple.  God is bigger than Jerusalem or the land that they had been given.  God is bigger even than the night sky and all of the stars that fill it.  God is even bigger and more powerful than the Babylonian empire and army that had carried them away into exile.  God is bigger than all of their problems.

Which is all very well to say, but this can become a bit of an intellectual exercise when times are tough.  When we feel abandoned by God, it’s all very well to say, or to have someone else say to us, “God is bigger than all of our problems,” but that doesn’t really help with the feeling of being cut off or abandoned.

It is so easy to feel abandoned by God when we run into difficulties in our lives.  For me, the time when I felt this abandonment most acutely was in a time of grief – I felt abandoned by the person who had died, but at the same time I felt as though God had abandoned me too.

We talked last week about those voices that we carry around with us – the voices that tell us that we aren’t good enough, that we aren’t smart enough, that we aren’t pretty enough.  Where is God when these voices seem to be controlling our lives?

Then there are fears and anxieties that we carry around with us every day.  I heard a story this week about a couple of 12-year-old boys whose biggest fear is that a nuclear war between the US and North Korea is going to destroy the rest of the planet.  Combine these nuclear fears with climate change and economic instability, and there is an atmosphere of fear that seems to be pervading our daily lives.  Where is God in all of this mess that we’ve made of the world?  I really wouldn’t blame God for abandoning us for the mess that we’ve made of things.

But the good news is that the reading doesn’t begin and end with the enormousness and otherness and power of God.  The tone shifts towards the end, and Isaiah reminds his listeners that not only is God the holy creator of the universe, of everything that we can see and everything that we can’t see; but God is also very present with us.  As Isaiah says, God gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless, so that those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

We are to wait for God, but this waiting is not passively sitting back, doing nothing, and waiting for God to zap the circumstances that are troubling us with a lightning bolt.  Instead, this is to be active waiting.  The prophet Jeremiah told the people, as they were heading into exile in Babylon that they weren’t to sit back and wallow in their despair.  Instead they were to build lives for themselves in exile, they were to figure out how to worship God in a foreign land, and they were to prepare for the time when they would return home.

The thing about God’s timing is that it isn’t our timing.  When we are waiting for God’s timing, maybe the waiting will be so fast that we will have to hold on to our hats, on the scale of God creating the whole universe in seven days; but maybe the waiting will be long, like the people waiting for more than a full generation in exile before they could return home.  And as we wait for God, we are to prepare ourselves for what God is going to do next.  But whatever happens, we know that God is with us, and whatever God has planned is worth waiting for!

A paradox is where two things that seem to be opposite of each other can both be true at the same time, and with God we have a holy paradox.  God is totally holy, totally other, totally powerful, the creator of the universe.  And at the same time, God is fully present with us, and cares for each one of us.  Not only are the billions of stars numbered and known by name, but each one of the billions of people on earth are known to God and known by name.  It’s not an either-or question – God is either all-powerful or ever-present; instead it’s a both-and situation – God is both all-powerful and ever-present.

We see this in the gospel reading from Mark too.  God cares so much for us, even in our insignificance compared to God, even though we are like grasshoppers crawling along the earth compared to God – God cares so much for us, that God became human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  God became a grasshopper too!

And in the person of Jesus, God demonstrates love and concern and caring for each person that he met.  In our reading from Mark, Jesus heals the crowds of people who were brought to him – Mark doesn’t tell us how many people were healed that evening, only that he cured many who were sick with various diseases.  And Jesus also healed Simon’s mother-in-law.  One person who had been in bed with a fever.  We don’t know how long she had been sick.  Maybe she too felt as though God had abandoned her.  But Jesus shows care for her.  He doesn’t heal her from the next room or from outside of the house – instead he comes to her bedside, he touches her, he helps her up, and all of a sudden the fever is gone.  I can only assume that Jesus showed the same level of care and concern for each and every person who was brought to him.

And so here is that wonderful, joyful, amazing, ridiculous paradox.  That the God who is so far away and remote, powerful beyond anything that we can imagine, cares for each one of us, knows us, and calls us by name.  And so even though we might feel that God is far away, God will not, can not ever abandon us, but is closer to us than our very breath.

In a few minutes, we are going to be moving towards the communion table to celebrate the Eucharist.  Each time when we gather at the table, we give thanks to God, remembering that God has been faithful in every generation; and therefore we can trust God to be faithful in every generation to come.

So even when we feel no bigger than a speck of dust, like Calvin felt staring up at the night sky; even when we feel as though God is so far away, so remote, so “other”; remember this holy paradox, this both-and.  The God who created the heavens and the earth knows you by name, is always with you, and will never leave you.

Let us pray:
Holy God,
            we thank you because you are you.
We thank you for your goodness and your power,
            for all of your creation;
and we thank you for being always with us,
            closer to us than our very breath.
Help us to have the confidence to know
            that you will never leave us
            and that you are always with us.
Surround us with your love,
            and strengthen our faith,
                        so that we can wait for you.
We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ,
            the embodiment of your love.

28 January 2018

"The One Who Loves Us Best of All" (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
January 28, 2018
Scripture:  Mark 1:21-28

If I am being completely honest, I have to confess that stories about unclean spirits and demons are pretty close to the top of my list of bible stories that I’m not comfortable talking about.  In our post-Enlightenment, scientific worldview, it’s difficult to read stories like the one we read today from Mark’s gospel and not start wondering what might have been going on in the man’s life, wonder what might have been possessing him.  Did he have some sort of mental illness or addiction?

But if we start equating mental illness with demon possession that needs to be exorcised, rather than seeing mental illness as a biological condition that requires medical care just like physical illnesses do, then we risk doing great harm to many people.

And I don’t know about you, but when I think about possession by unclean spirits, my brain jumps to images from the movies, with heads spinning and bodies floating in the air, and computer-altered voices speaking.

And all of these thought spinning around my brain this week didn’t help me at all to prepare a sermon on the reading from today.  I was stuck for most of the week figuring out what I could possibly have to say about a man with an unclean spirit crying out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” and Jesus responding by telling the unclean spirit to be silent and to leave the man.

It was only when I came across a quote from well-known preacher Fred Craddock that I finally had a way to see in to this story with my 21st Century worldview.  Craddock wrote that “not believing in demons has hardly eradicated evil in our world.”[1]  It is probably safe to say that many of us don’t believe in the existence of demons of the type that we come across in books and movies; but there is still a problem of evil in the world.

This is something that we talked about last week in both bible study groups.  On Monday morning, we found in the first 5 verses of the book of Ruth, a family that became refugees because of a famine, the death of the husband and sons of the family, and a widow who was left all alone.  So much tragedy compressed into a short space.  And then on Wednesday evening, we looked at the opening chapters of the book of Genesis and saw how quickly the perfection of God’s creation was spoiled by humans making bad choices.  And it really didn’t take very much temptation for the humans to choose to disobey God.  The snake said to them, “eat the fruit and you will be like God,” and the humans said, “OK.”

Even though we may not believe in demons, there is still so much evil in our world.  There is evil that results from the choices that we humans make – wars and climate change and people who have been given power and authorized to have control over a button that could deploy nuclear weapons that would destroy the world that God created.  The thing that I struggle with the most with this sort of evil is that the people who making the choices for evil are often not the people who are most affected by the decisions.

And then there is evil in the world that just happens – that isn’t a result of human choice.  A young woman who never smoked develops lung cancer.  A young man is killed in an avalanche leaving behind a young widow and a 2-year-old without a father.  An earthquake triggers a tsunami and thousands of people drown.  Even if we don’t believe in demons, evil is still a reality in our world.

Have you ever had someone say to you, “Everything happens for a reason,” or “Everything happens according to God’s will”?  The thing is, I don’t believe that God’s will includes illness and suffering; I don’t believe that God’s will is for us to destroy one another and all of creation with wars; I don’t believe that it is God’s will for people to die of drug overdoses.  So I’m not able believe that everything in this world happens according to the will of God who is love.  Evil is real.

I wonder how the story from Mark’s gospel might read if it were told from the perspective of the man with an unclean spirit.  We aren’t told what kind of spirit he has – only that it is unclean.  It isn’t of God.  It is a spirit that controls him that isn’t the Holy Spirit.  There is some force or spirit that has power over this man, that is controlling this man, that doesn’t come from God.

I wonder how long this spirit had been controlling the man?  I wonder what sorts of things this spirit had been making the man think or do?  We know that the spirit was able to make him say things that he wouldn’t have said without the spirit.  I wonder how much pain the man felt because of the impure spirit, how much loneliness and isolation?

I also can’t help but think of what some of the unclean spirits in our world are – the things that have power over us that are not of God.  It is easy to name things like addiction as things that can control us that aren’t from God.  But what about emotions like anger and fear.  Have you ever done something out of anger that you regretted later on?  Could that anger then be seen as an unclean spirit?  And fear is a big one too – if we are afraid, we let the fear drive our decisions, and we are then in the power of that fear.  Fear of change, fear of insecurity, fear of that which is different than us – all of these can be unclean spirits, things that control us that don’t come from God.

And then there are urges that we are subject to – the desire for power or for revenge.  These can take over our lives to and control our words and our actions.

We are also living in a media-saturated culture.  What do we absorb from TV or Netflix or Facebook or Twitter?  How does the media have power over us and control us?  Is the media acting like a spirit that doesn’t come from God?

And then, I think that maybe the least recognized unclean spirits are the voices that we carry around in our heads.  The voices that tell us that we aren’t good enough, aren’t smart enough, aren’t pretty enough.  This is one that I have struggled with personally.  When I went back to school a couple of years ago after being away from school for 15 years, for my first semester and a half, every time I handed in a paper, there was a voice in the back of my head that said to me, “This is the paper that is going to prove that you are an academic fraud, that you don’t really belong here.”  If you listen to these voices long enough, you come to believe them, and you begin to forget that you are a beloved child of God just because you are you.

So even though I can’t believe in Hollywood-style demons, I do have to admit that there are lots of unclean spirits in the world – things that have power over us that don’t come from God.  Not everything in the world happens according to God’s will.

But the good news of the story is still the good news of today.  God doesn’t want us to be controlled by these unclean spirits.  When Jesus saw that the man was being controlled by an unclean spirit, he didn’t tell him, “I gave you that spirit so that you will learn to respect me.”  No, Jesus saw that this man wasn’t able to be who God had called him to be, that he wasn’t living in to the fullness of life that God desires for each of us.  Jesus tells the spirit to stop talking and to leave the man.  And that is what happens.  God’s power is greater than the power of the other spirits in the world.

The core of Jesus’ teaching all through Mark’s gospel, right from the very first words that he says, is that the kingdom of God has come near – it’s right at hand.  It is so close that any of the powers or spirits other than God’s Holy Spirit no longer need to have the final word in our lives.  The Holy Spirit is stronger than any of these.

The God who is love is not a god who sends out punishment or a god who likes to see us suffer for doing wrong or making bad choices.  The God who is love is a God who is always reaching out to us in love, who is always calling us home, who is always calling us to fullness of life.

And so whatever unclean spirits might have control over our lives, I invite us to remind these spirits that God’s Spirit is stronger.  That God’s love is the force that has ultimate control over our lives.  I invite you to rest in God’s love until you can’t imagine any other way of being.

I want to finish by reading a story.  It is the story of Max, a young boy who allows the forces of a wild rumpus control his actions, until love and a hot meal call him home again.  Some of you might be familiar with it – it is called Where the Wild Things Are, and it is written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.[2]

(read Where the Wild Things Are)

God is love, and God is always calling us home from wherever we have wandered – home to the one who loves us best of all and a hot supper.  Thanks be to God!

 (This is a picture that says "home" to me - warmth and trust and love) 

[1] Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, and Gene M. Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year B: A Comprehensive Commentary on the Lectionary (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1993), 92.
[2] Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (New York: Harper Collins, 1963).

7 January 2018

"Matter Matters" (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
January 7, 2017 - The Baptism of Our Lord
Scripture:  Mark 1:4-11 (with a brief reference to Genesis 1:1-5)

I invite you to think of some of the more memorable meals that you’ve had.  Maybe you’re thinking of a holiday meal like Christmas or Thanksgiving with your family gathered around a large table, celebrating together.  Or maybe you’re thinking of a dinner party where the atmosphere and the guests just clicked and the meal became more than it would have been otherwise.  Or maybe you’re thinking about a restaurant meal where the food and the service and the atmosphere were something extra special.

I’m thinking of a dinner at my apartment in Nova Scotia in January, 3 years ago.  I’d just finished my first semester at school and I invited 5 classmates over to share a roast chicken.  We didn’t know each other very well yet, but as the meal progressed, the stories that we shared became deeper and the laughter became louder.  When we finally left the table at midnight, our friendship was cemented, and when I think back to that meal, there is a warm glow that hovers in my dining room.

Now I want you to take a moment and imagine what your special meal would have been like without the food.  No smell of roasting turkey wafting through the house.  Empty glasses raised in a toast.  Empty dishes being passed around the table.  Cutlery clattering on empty plates.  No food changes this memorable meal into something memorable but for very different reasons.  Food is important.  Food changes things.

We are not purely spiritual beings – we have physical bodies as well, and our physical selves need food and water to survive and thrive.  And that’s OK.  This morning we read the start of the first chapter of Genesis where God created the physical world, and God saw that the physical world was good.  God made matter, so matter matters.

Most churches around the world, including all four of our denominations, recognize two sacraments that were instituted by Jesus – baptism and communion.  I am drawn to St. Augustine’s definition of a sacrament.  What he wrote 1600 years ago still resonates with me today.  Augustine wrote that a sacrament is a visible sign of God’s invisible grace.  A visible sign of God’s invisible grace.

God’s grace, God’s love is invisible.  We can’t see it, we can’t reach out and touch it, but it is always there.  But since we are physical beings, made of matter, of cells and molecules and atoms, God has given us physical, material ways to experience God’s love.  Ways that we can see and touch and taste and smell and hear God’s love.

The water of baptism, and the bread and wine of communion – they don’t replace God’s love, but instead they are signs – they point us towards God’s love.  Just as a stop sign doesn’t directly stop our car, but directs us to stop, the sacraments direct us towards experiencing the always-present, never-ending love of God.

When a person is baptized, either as a baby or as an adult, we don’t baptize just with words, it isn’t just a spiritual baptism where we know that the Holy Spirit has descended on this person.  Instead, there is water as well as words – water that we can hear being poured, water that we can see, water that we can touch.

When we gather around the table, we gather with words, but we also gather to share the bread and the wine – bread and wine that we can smell, taste, and see.

God made matter, so matter matters; but God also became matter in the person of Jesus Christ.  We’ve just finished the season of Christmas when we celebrated the time when God didn’t just put on humanity like a coat, but God actually became human.  God loves us so much that God became one of us.  God not only made matter, but God became matter, so matter really matters.

And we are given these sacraments so that our material selves – our flesh and blood – has something material to touch and taste so that the love of God can be made real to us.

Today’s gospel reading is from the beginning of Mark’s gospel.  Now Mark doesn’t give us any birth stories like Matthew and Luke do.  Mark’s gospel begins with John the baptizer appearing in the wilderness, and the first appearance of Jesus is when he comes to John and is baptized by John in the Jordan River.

Again, this isn’t a purely spiritual baptism – there is physical water present.  Jesus waded into the river, went under the surface of the water, and came back up out of the water again.  And then Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and he saw the Spirit descending like a dove, and a voice from heaven said to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

If we were to flip to the very end of Mark’s gospel, we would see a parallel event happening.  Here, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the heavens are torn apart, God is no longer contained or separated from God’s creation, and God’s voice says to Jesus, “You are my Son.”

At the end of Mark’s gospel, at the moment when Jesus dies, the curtain of the temple is torn apart.  Now the curtain of the temple separated the Holy of Holies, the place where God lived, from the rest of the temple.  Again, when this separating curtain is torn, God is no longer confined to one space, no longer separated from the rest of creation.  And at that moment, a Roman Centurion who witnessed and likely participated in the crucifixion of Jesus announced to the world, “Truly this man was God’s son.”

We’ve gone from the tearing of the heavens and a voice telling Jesus that he was God’s son, to the tearing of the curtain of the temple and a voice telling the world that Jesus was God’s son.  The beginning of Jesus’ ministry; and the beginning of the ministry of the church, the whole body of Christ.

In that moment of Jesus’ baptism, the whole Trinity is present.  The heavens are torn apart, and God descends like a dove and rests upon God, and the voice of God says, “You are my Son, the Beloved.”  And when we baptize in our church today, we baptize in the name of this same Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Our sacraments then, are this fabulous place where the physical and spiritual meet.  In the physical elements of the water, bread, and wine, we encounter God.  Because the heavens were torn apart, because the curtain of the temple was torn apart, because Jesus Christ was fully human and fully God, God is fully present in our world.  One of my favourite theologians, Richard Rohr, writes, “God is always present in the bread.  We just need to bring our hunger.”

In baptism, we make a covenant with God.  God is always present, and God’s love is always with us, but it is formalized in baptism.  We, or our parents, make promises, and we hear that we are a beloved child of God.  The Holy Spirit hovers over the waters of our baptism, just as the Holy Spirit hovered over Jesus at his baptism.  And as a sign of God’s love, and as a sign of the promises that are made, water is sprinkled or poured or we are fully immersed in it.

And in the meal of Holy Communion, we are reminded of God’s love for us.  We are reminded of God’s faithfulness in all generations, and we are strengthened in our faith.  The Holy Spirit hovers over the bread and the wine, and hovers over all of us when we gather at the table, closer to us than our very breath.  And we eat and we drink together, uniting us in that overwhelming love of God.  This isn’t a meal without food – empty glasses and bare plates.  This is a meal where God is present through the Holy Spirit in real bread and real wine.

God is fully present in the world – nothing can separate us from God and from God’s love.  Our sacraments are physical, tangible signs that point us to that love.  God made physical matter; God became physical matter, and so matter matters.  We are not just spiritual beings, but we are physical beings as well, and through the sacraments, God cares for us, and nourishes us, both physically and spiritually.

Let us pray:
Holy God,
            you are closer to us than our very breath.
When we forget you,
            remind us of your love,
            remind us that we are your beloved children,
            and remind us that you will never leave us.
Strengthen us through the water and bread and wine,
            so that we might know you more clearly,
            love you more dearly,
            and follow you more nearly,
                        day, by day, by day.

(Remembering our Baptism)

1 January 2018

Favourite Books of 2017

New Year's Day - time to compile a list of my favourite reads of 2017.  Same rules as in previous years:  it doesn't matter what year the book was published, I have to have read it for the first time in 2017, and all genres count.  I've linked to the books that I've reviewed.

So in no particular order, here is the list:

The Break (Katherena Vermette) - This is a beautiful, heartbreaking book that has stayed with me in the months since I read it.  It took me a long time to finish, because I cared so much about the characters and didn't want any more terrible things to happen to them, but the book ended with a note of hope.  I had a strong sense of place reading this book - when I was in Winnipeg recently, I kept looking around for places and characters from The Break.

Small Mechanics (Lorna Crozier) - In the words of my review, "this was a quiet, gentle, and occasionally delightful collection."  It is a collection of short poems that I read over the course of a couple of months last winter.  The one that I quote in the review, A New Religion, I've shared with many people in the past months.

Bone and Bread (Saleema Nawaz) - I read (or inhaled) this book last winter after it had been a contender in the previous year's Canada Reads competition.  This was another book where I really cared for the characters.

Still Life (Louise Penny) - I've finally jumped on to the Louise Penny bandwagon (I'm currently on book 4 in the series).  I really enjoyed the first two books in the series (Still Life and Dead Cold), but didn't like the third one (The Cruelest Month) as much (because of the plot, not the writing).  They really are delightful books - very Canadian, three-dimensional characters, and unique plots.

The Rosie Project (Graeme Simsion) - My cousin loaned me this book last Christmas break, and I read it on the train in January when I was heading from Ontario back to Halifax.  It was perfect train reading - engaging, not too heavy, and with delightful characters.  I haven't picked up the sequel - the reviews that I've seen say that it doesn't live up to the promise of this book, and I'm happy to leave the characters where they were at the end of The Rosie Project.

Dietland (Sarai Walker) - I hesitated to put this book on the list as I just finished it a couple of days ago.  A friend and I decided to adopt the Icelandic custom of Jolabokaflod even though neither of us is Icelandic, and exchange books to be opened after the last of our Christmas services was over.  This is the book that she sent me, and it was one that I wouldn't have picked up on my own.  I can't begin to describe it - I've never read anything like it before.  It was dark, it was compelling reading, and the main character grew and developed throughout.  I haven't finished processing it yet, but I think that it will live up to list-status.

This list was more difficult that usual to put together, since most of my books are in storage right now - normally I put together the list by browsing my bookcases.  I have probably missed some great books, but this is what I could come up with from memory!

(My reading corner)

31 December 2017

A Christmas Service of Lessons and Carols

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
December 31, 2017

First Lesson:  Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3

The history of the ancient people of Israel seems to follow a cycle of disaster and heartbreak, followed by redemption by God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy.  There was a famine in their land and people were starving; but Joseph had reached a position of power under the Pharaoh and he was able to bring his family to Egypt where there was food to eat.  The people ended up in slavery in Egypt; but then God acted through Moses to bring the people out of slavery in to freedom.  The people wandered in the desert for 40 years; but God was always present with them, guiding them, and eventually they arrived in the land that had been promised to them and to their ancestors.  Many generations later, this land was taken over by the Babylonian empire, the temple which was the home of God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy was destroyed, and the people were taken into exile in Babylon; but then the Babylonian empire fell, and the people were allowed to return to the Promised Land.

Throughout all generations, their hope was sustained by remembering that God had always been faithful to them in the past, and could therefore be depended on to be faithful to them in the future.  Even when they lamented what had happened to them, and even when they were angry at God for allowing terrible things to happen to them – and believe me, you just have to read the Psalms to get a sense of the depth of their pain and grief and anger – even through all of that, they knew that God was with them and could still hear them when they were crying out.

The last part of the book of Isaiah was written just after the people had returned from exile in Babylon.  Isaiah uses the language of shoots coming up in the garden in the springtime.  Even when the ground looks bare and desolate, new life always appears; and even when our lives look bare and desolate, new life is coming.  God has been faithful in the past, and will be faithful until time has ended.  Thanks be to God!

Hymn:  Joy to the World!

Second Lesson:  Luke 2:1-7

If we were to just read this passage and not know any of the history of what came before and what comes after, it is a very ordinary story.  A young couple are compelled by circumstances beyond their control to travel far from their home – they had to travel approximately 80 miles, or 130 kilometers.  The young woman is pregnant, and while they are there in that strange city, her first child is born.  She wraps him in bands of cloth – a receiving blanket – and lies him in a warm and quiet place.

If we just read this, it could be a story that happens every day.  It makes me think of some of the pictures that came out this fall of the Rohingya refugees who were forced to leave their homes in Myanmar and travel on foot to Bangladesh.  Some of the women were pregnant when they were forced to flee, and their babies were born on the side of the road and in refugee camps.  Forced migration seems to be part of our human story.

If we want to see what is special about this particular baby who was born far from home more than 2000 years ago, we have to look in the scriptures to what came before in the story, and what was to come after.

Nine months previously, an angel had appeared to his mother telling her that she would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and that the child she would bear would be holy, the Son of God.  And when this baby grew up, he would become a teacher and a healer; he would preach against the empire and about the coming kingdom of God, he would eventually be executed on a cross, but on the third day he would rise again.

But for now, he is a newborn baby, wrapped in a blanket, lying in a manger far from home.

Hymn:  What Child is This?

Third Lesson:  Luke 2:8-20

“Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”

Popular culture has co-opted the idea of angels, so that today, when you see pictures of angels, they are usually chubby child-like things with feathery white wings and halos.  We have cherubs for Valentine’s Day, and guardian angels that watch over us when we sleep.  My mother collected angels – she had stained glass angels, straw angels, porcelain angels, fabric angels, all on the shelves in the kitchen.

But this is not the biblical image of angels.  Angels in the bible are God’s messengers.  Some of them are named, like Gabriel and Michael, but most are unnamed.  There is no description of what they look like, or even if they have bodies; but when they appear, the first thing that they usually say is “Do not be afraid.”  Maybe this is the first part of God’s message to all of us; or maybe angels are just plain terrifying.

They shepherds in the field were terrified, but the Angel of the Lord says to them, “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

Whenever God is doing something new in the world or in our lives, it is our normal reaction to be afraid.  But instead of listening to our fears and being led by our fears, I encourage you to listen to the message from God, sent to us through God’s messengers, God’s angels.  Do not be afraid.

Hymn:  Angels We Have Heard On High

Fourth Lesson:  Luke 2:21-40

Jesus was born to a Jewish family, and he lived and died as a Jewish man in first century Palestine.  We read about how he and his family followed the traditions and customs of their religion.  When he was 8 days old, Jesus was circumcised and named, as were all 8-day-old boys; a custom that continues in Jewish communities right through to today.  And then when he was 40 days old, they went to the temple so that Mary could be purified, as were all women after giving birth; and so that her firstborn son could be redeemed.  This is a tradition that goes right back to the Passover story before the Exodus from Egypt.  God “passed over” the houses of the Israelite people, sparing their firstborn sons while the firstborn sons of the Egyptian people all died.  Because of this, all firstborn sons belonged to God, and had to be redeemed, or purchased back.  And so Jesus’ parents made the appropriate sacrifice to God – a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.

And there in the temple, our young family encounters the next two witnesses to Jesus Christ.  The first witnesses were the shepherds – when they had received their angelic visitors and had visited the newborn lying in a manger, they made known what they had heard and what they had seen.  And here at the temple, the family meets Simeon and Anna – an elderly man and an 84-year-old widow.  And these two faithful people praise God and prophesy and witness, telling people about this child that they have seen.

In a culture that worships youth and strength and beauty; we would do well to remember that there is an important place for everyone, no matter your age or ability, in God’s mission in the world.

Hymn:  Go, Tell it on the Mountains

Fifth Lesson:  Matthew 2:1-12

I am fascinated by the magi.  We aren’t told where they come from; we aren’t told how many of them there are; we aren’t told how they traveled from “the East” to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem.  The word “magi” is related to our English words mage and magician.  They might have been magicians, they might have been astronomers or astrologers, they might have been learned or wise scholars.

But wherever their profession, or wherever they came from, they traveled a long distance because they had seen a star.

Christmas cards tend to depict this star as hundreds of times bigger and brighter than a regular star.  But if this was the case, then surely someone other than this group of magi would have noticed it.  If there was a huge and bright star in the sky, why wasn’t the whole world flocking to Bethlehem?  Current-day astronomers have looked for some celestial event 2000 years ago that might explain the star that the magi were following, but they haven’t found any record of a comet or supernova appearing in that period of time.

So the only thing that I can think is that this group of magi was particularly observant.  They studied the stars so carefully that when something new appeared, they noticed it, even when the rest of the world didn’t.

I see the magi as offering a challenge to all of us.  How can we look for God working in our every-day lives?  If we are looking for exploding stars and supernovas and extraordinary miracles, then we will need to wait a long time; but if we are observant, if we pay attention, we will see God working in every minute of every day.

Hymn:  Angels from the Realms of Glory

Sixth Lesson:  Matthew 2:13-23

This is a part of the story that we don’t often hear read in churches.  We like to celebrate the newborn baby and angels and shepherds and magi.  We don’t like to think about Mary and Joseph and Jesus as refugees.

In Luke’s version of the nativity story, Mary and Joseph travel 80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem where the baby is born.  In Matthew’s version of the story, they are forced to flee more than 400 miles after the baby is born, for fear for his life.

Our modern day world is filled with stories of refugees – people who are forced to leave their homes and flee, out of fear for their lives.  I mentioned earlier, the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, there are refugees from Syria settling in every part of the world, and we see pictures of people fleeing various conflicts in Africa, traveling by boat across the dangerous Mediterranean Sea.

This scripture tells us that God has experienced what it is like to be a refugee.  God has experienced what it is like to be so afraid of staying, that leaving home for the unknown becomes the only option.  God-in-Jesus has been a refugee, and is with all refugees and with all who are forced to flee or who have lost their homes.

Hymn:  Away in a Manger

Seventh Lesson:  John 1:1-14

And here is the core of the Christmas message – that God thought that we humans were worth coming to earth for; that we were worth becoming one of.  God’s Word became flesh and lived among us; lived as one of us; and in the person of Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, our humanity – our flesh and our experiences – can never more be separated from God.

A literal translation of that phrase that is translated here as, “lived among us,” would be “tented among us” or “made his dwelling with us.”  I read a translation this week, that the Word became flesh and blood and moved in to the ’hood.

Emmanuel.  God-With-Us.  Jesus is born, and God is human.  God is here, God is now, and we will never more be alone.  The light shines in the darkness of the world, and the darkness of the world can never extinguish the light of Christ.  Thanks be to God!

Hymn:  Silent Night, Holy Night

Waiting for the sunrise before worship started.
We can trust that the light of Christ has come in to the world -
even when it is -36 degrees outside!

27 December 2017

"The Extraordinary in the Midst of the Ordinary" (Christmas Eve Sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
December 24, 2017
Scripture:  Luke 2:1-20 and John 1:1-5, 10-14

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us.”

A baby is born.  An ordinary, every-day occurrence.  Earlier this week, my sister gave birth to her second child, a healthy baby boy.  He was one of many babies born that day.  On average, every day in Canada, 1068 babies are born.  If you expand that to a global scale, an estimated 360,000 babies are born every single day.  That’s more than 4 babies being born every single second.

And yet if you’ve ever held a newborn baby, you know that each and every single one of those babies is a miracle.  There is a new life where there wasn’t before.  This infant is a 3lb or 5lb or 9lb bundle of potential.  All of the things that this baby is going to do and be are yet to be discovered.  The extraordinary miracle of life is found in the middle of the ordinary every-day.

Every Christmas, we read the same story about how Mary and Joseph travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and when they are there, Mary delivers a child.  “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”  The story doesn’t change from year-to-year.  After we’ve heard it a couple of times, the story can become so familiar to us that we don’t give it a second thought.

This is a birth like any other birth, filled with pain and messiness, followed by joy and relief.  But even though all births share some things in common, each and every birth is unique.  We tell birth-stories after babies are born.  When my sister tells her birth story from last week, she will probably tell of how she went to the hospital and was told that there was no room at the inn – in other words, the nursery was full – and how she was sent home and told to come back later.  I wonder what Jesus’ birth story looked like.  Imagine all of the details that are left out of the story that we read – all of the details that the narrator isn’t telling us.

I wonder if Mary was attended by a midwife; and if she was, what was the midwife’s experience of the birth?  The baby is placed in a manger – a feeding trough for animals – so I assume that there were some animals nearby.  I wonder what animals witnessed the birth of this baby?  I wonder if they were surrounded by Joseph’s extended family, or was the young couple alone in a strange city?  Even though the songs we sing at this time of year tell us, “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” I’ve never met a baby who didn’t cry.  I wonder if he was a fussy baby or if he was easy to settle.

A baby is born.  An every-day experience.  But like all births, there would have been a unique birth story – after all, this was the only time that this baby was born.

And not only would there be a unique birth story, but in the middle of an ordinary, messy, and painful birth, was born a special child.  Nine months previously, Mary had been visited by the Angel Gabriel who told her that she would be giving birth to a holy child, the Son of God.  God’s Word had become flesh and had come to the world to dwell among us, to be one of us.  God had become human and the world would never be the same again.

In the middle of the every-day miracle of birth, God is born in human form.  In the middle of the ordinary, the extraordinary breaks through.  “She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.”

The first people in the story to hear about the birth of this baby, other than his parents, were some shepherds living in the fields.  Now shepherds weren’t people who held positions of power, or people who were respected.  Shepherds were people who lived on the margins of society; people who were not trusted; people who lived transient lifestyles.  Shepherds worked hard, were often cut off from society living in the fields, and their hard work was not well rewarded.

But that night, to a group of shepherds in the field, at first one angel and then a multitude of angels appeared to them.  In the middle of an ordinary night, the extraordinary breaks through.

Can you imagine what those shepherds must have been thinking or feeling?  The first thing that the angel says to them is “Do not be afraid” so their first reaction was probably one of fear or terror.  An army of angels is not what you normally expect when you are working on the side of the hill at night.  But after the angels leave them, the shepherds leave the hillside, visit the baby lying in the manger, and when they return to the hills outside of town, they are praising God for everything that they heard and saw that night.

And here we are, more than 2000 years later, gathered once again around the manger.  The story is the same one that we read last year and the year before.  The baby is the same, the manger is the same.

The manger, another ordinary, every-day object.  A trough, maybe made of wood, but more likely carved out of stone, filled with animal feed.  Yet did you notice that this is one detail that the narrator does include in the story?  We aren’t told about the midwife, we aren’t told about the animals, we aren’t told about relatives, but three times the narrator tells us that the baby was lying in a manger.

In an everyday, ordinary animal feed trough lies a baby who will grow up to say, “I am the bread of life.”  The one who lies where animals are fed will grow up to feed the world with the bread of life.  The extraordinary is breaking in again, and is lying in the ordinary.

One of my favourite Christmas Hymns, “See Amid the Winter’s Snow,” captures this perfectly, when the second verse begins:
            “Lo, within a manger lies,
            He who built the starry skies…”

And so here we are, gathered this night around the manger.  We are reminded once more that God is with us – that God has become human so that we, in our humanity, can no longer be separated from God.  The extraordinary has once more broken into the ordinariness of a birth; the extraordinary has once more broken into the ordinariness of marginalized workers just doing their job on the fringes of society; the extraordinary has once more broken into the world and lies in a manger from whence he will feed the world.

How are we going to respond to the extraordinary this year?  How are we going to be changed by the birth of this baby?  How are we going to live as though we can never more be separated from God?  How are we going to let the Christmas story change us?

Will we be like the shepherds, rejoicing and singing praises to God?  Will we be like Joseph, trusting that God has a plan for us and for the world?  Will we be like those who heard what the shepherds told them, amazed at what we are hearing?  Will we be like Mary, and treasure the message we have been given and ponder it in our hearts?

My prayer is that each one of us might be changed by this Christmas story.  That we might know not only that God is always with us, but that we might know that the extraordinary is always breaking into the ordinariness of this world.

Let us pray:
Holy God,
            we give you thanks for this holiest of nights.
We thank you that you are always present with us –
            always breaking in to our ordinary lives.
Fill us with the awe, the wonder, the joy
            that comes with the birth of a baby –
                        with the birth of your Word-Made-Flesh;
And let this awe transform us,
            and keep us close to you.
We pray this in the name of the Christ-Child.

(Preparing the worship service)