Sunday, March 28, 2010

Holy Week and Us, Mar 28, 2010

In this week's post, I have include most of the liturgical material since the service hangs together as a unity.

Choral Introit, Hymn and procession of palm branches

"Ride On, Ride On" #126 VU (choir sings first three verses, congregation stands and joins for  verses four and five as the children process in with branches)

May God's Love be with you!


Welcome to Sunday morning worship at Knox United Church. My name is Ian Kellogg and I am a student minister here at Knox this year. We have just experienced a different start to our service this morning -- the choir, a hymn, and the procession of palms branches by the kids. These differences reflect the fact that today, Palm Sunday, is the first day of the most important week in the Christian year. Today is the first day of Holy Week.

The hymn, "Ride On", which we just sang, seems to fit because, although it is a hymn written for the happiness and hope of Palm Sunday, it also echoes the sadness of Good Friday. It mentions both screams of delight and jeers; both palm branches of peace and tears, and both angel voices and evil voices. Today is Palm Sunday and it is also Passion Sunday. It is the first day of a mixed up week; and we will discuss this mix-up a bit more with the children in a few minutes.

Palm Sunday is also the sixth and final Sunday in Lent. It marks the entry of Jesus and his followers into Jerusalem. We also remember this morning the fateful events later that week that lead to Jesus' crucifixion on Good Friday.

This morning, we will also end our service differently. We move right from the Prayers of the People to the Offering; and from there to a Blessing. After the Blessing, we will not sing the usual Benediction Song. Instead, the choir will gather at the front of the sanctuary to sing a Benediction Anthem, the Good Friday hymn "O Sacred Head." As the choir sings, Maurice Buffel and Vic Hawtin will process a cross to the front of the sanctuary. We will return to this cross on Good Friday during the 10 am service and again on Easter Sunday worship one week from today. After the anthem, Vic and Maurice will then lead the choir down the centre aisle and out of the sanctuary. Doreen will not play music, and I will not stand at the back to greet people as they leave. Instead, you are encouraged to stay and sit for a minute of reflection, and then to come and join in our usual time of coffee and fellowship in the Church Hall.

We hope the service this morning -- which begins and ends with two contrasting but connected processions -- will help us feel both sides of the Holy City of Jerusalem: both its golden promise as shown on Palm Sunday and its reality as a place of death and desolation as shown on Good Friday. We also hope that this morning will point us to the joy of new life on Easter morning, one week from today.

As always, we enter into worship today by lighting a candle. The light of this candle could represent the light of God that leads us into Jerusalem with Jesus. This morning we gather in hope to reflect and remember . . .

We now turn our attention to the Life and Work of the Congregation. There are a number of announcements printed in the Bulletin, which I hope we will all take time to read. Are there other announcements for the community to hear. . .

Hearing no (more), we now ask if there are any birthdays being celebrated this week and offerings for the birthday jar?

Finally, we think about prayers and celebrations that are on our hearts and minds this week. . . Are there any prayer requests for the community to hear?

Hearing no (more,) let us now sing together all six verses of our seasonal Hymn.

* HYMN "Throughout These Lenten Days and Nights" #108 VU

And now the call to worship and opening prayer . . .

CALL TO WORSHIP (said together)

There is no turning back.
Jesus enters Jerusalem to confront the powerful
hoping the path will be made gentler
by the carpet of our humble prayers.
We prepare the way in trembling faith.


God of the Cross,
Help us be aware of your presence
as we remember the triumphs and tragedies of Holy Week.
Help us to accept the Grace shown on this difficult path. Amen.

And dear friends, as we prepare to hear again the good news that we are reconciled to  God through Christ, please feel free to now turn to your immediate neighbours and offer a gesture of reconciliation.

One: May the Peace of Christ be with you!
All: And also with you!

THEME CONVERSATION: A different kind of week

I now invite those kids who would like, to come and join me on the front steps for a minute before church school.

Good morning. I am glad to see you all this morning. You know what that cartoon is supposed to show, don't you? Yeah, it is supposed to show a roller coaster. Who here likes roller coasters?

Well, when I was about 10, I rode on a roller coaster and afterwards felt kinda sick. So for a long time after that, I didn't go on many rides. But a few years ago, I spent a week at Disney World, and I came to really love roller coasters again.

Well, I thought of roller coasters today because this is Palm Sunday, and the beginning of Holy Week. And Holy Week sometimes feels to me like a roller coaster ride. We start up really high with the Palm Branches and being happy because Jesus has finally come to Jerusalem as the King. And then we go way down; and it is dark and sad and scary because Jesus is betrayed and arrested and he is killed. But the goods news is that we then go way back up next Sunday on Easter when we learn that God has raised Jesus to new life again. This promise of new life is also for all of us too.

So in this one week, we experience two high points and one low point. Perhaps this might confuse some of us. But the good news is that we start and end at a very happy place. Jesus is a King, but he is not a usual type of King. He is a King who comes into the city on a simple donkey, who confronts powerful people, and who gets rejected. But in the end, he shows us how to achieve new life despite the powerful people.

So, I hope the image of a scary roller coaster ride that ends really well might help you think about Holy Week.

And I hope you enjoy talking more about Palm Sunday in church school. But first I have a brief prayer and then we will say the Lord's Prayer together OK? So let us pray . . .

Dear God,

We give thanks for Palm Sunday where Jesus is King and we are happy.
Help us when we don't feel happy and when bad things happen.
Help us to know that Jesus is with us even when life is tough
He is a King inside our hearts whom we can always count on.
Help us to wait for Easter next week and to feel all of its happiness. AMEN.
And now let us pray again together the prayer that Jesus taught us, saying . . .

Our Father . . .

The hymn before church school tells a story of Palm Sunday and children. It is . . .

* HYMN: "Hosanna, Loud Hosanna" #123 VU


Luke 19: 28-40            Jesus enters Jerusalem
Luke 22: 66-23: 25            Jesus before Pilate and Herod
Philippians 2: 5-11            Jesus' humiliation and glory
Luke 23: 26-56             Jesus' death and burial

Since there is so much reading from Scripture this morning, Ric Arthurs and I are going to share the reading.

SERMON: Holy Week and us . . . a short but scary ride from Hosanna to Hallelujah

So we have strapped ourselves into the roller coaster ride of Holy Week for another year. Palm Branches have been waved and laid down as a carpet to welcome Jesus. He has finally entered the golden city of Jerusalem, the site of God's Temple. He has been hailed by children and common people as King.

But in the Scripture passages just read by Ric, we have also quickly rushed ahead to the sixth day of the week, to Good Friday, where Jesus, having been arrested the night before, is tried by Pilate and Herod, condemned to death, crucified, and buried.

Later this week at Knox, we will backtrack one day to Maundy Thursday. On Thursday evening, we will remember and re-enact the Last Supper between Jesus and his friends at a Passover/Seder Meal. And we hope that many of us will be able to come for this Seder Meal at 6 pm on Thursday; and also to Good Friday worship the next morning.

But do we have to get on the roller coaster of Holy Week one more time? As I found out as a kid, roller coaster rides can make you feel sick. And there is so much pain in the Good Friday story. Could we not just skip right over Holy Week, and go directly from Palm Sunday's Hosannas to Easter Sunday's Hallelujahs?

And of course, the answer is "yes." We are under no obligation to walk with Jesus through the events of Holy Week. Our gospel is one of Grace, and Grace is freely given whether we spend Good Friday focusing on suffering and death, or whether we decide to sit out Holy Week  and wait until next Sunday when we can enjoy Easter eggs and the story of Jesus' resurrection.

Nevertheless a few words on why Holy Week is important for us.

In all four gospels, Jesus says that following him means taking up our cross and losing our lives. Now this saying of Jesus is not an obligation either. Instead, it is more of a wake up call. His call to lose our lives wakes us up to the truth that we are going to lose our lives no matter how carefully and anxiously we try to preserve them. Better, then, to face facts and find a trusting faith that acknowledges our mortality as well as the transitory nature of all human institutions. When with Grace we find this trusting faith, we also continually find God's new life. This new life flows from spending our lives instead of trying to preserve them.

As we live through Holy Week each Lent, our hope is that we will feel this message of dying to an old way of life deep in our bones and guts. We are going to die, just as Jesus died in solidarity with us on Good Friday. Knowing this bitter truth -- not just in our minds, but also in our hearts -- can help us be present to each gracious moment. By taking up our cross and following Jesus to our own suffering and death, we confront our anxiety, stare it down, leave it behind, and wake up to this moment. We wake up to the new life that arises upon the death of the old anxious one. We wake up to another resurrected moment in God's Kingdom . . .

Now during Holy Week, God's realm might sometimes seem like a Kingdom of Death. But Easter morning shows us that it is also a Kingdom of New Life, now and always.

There is a children's anthem called "Every morning is Easter morning." The title implies that Easter isn't just the unique event of Christ being raised from the dead 1980 years ago. Easter is also the possibility of new life in any situation. For Jews and early Christians, this might mean continuing to worship and praise God after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in 70 AD. For individuals, it might mean continued hope and energy after the death of loved ones. For people living with addictions, it might new life after hitting bottom and starting recovery.

It could mean new life after a divorce, after leaving home as a young adult, or after starting a second career. For a congregation, it could mean new life after merging with a neighbouring church. For a nation, it could mean new life after economic disaster or defeat in a war. And for all of us, it means the promise of continued life within the Spirit of God through the Grace of Christ beyond our earthly existence.

New life is all around us, all the time. In lives filled with loss, God always gives us opportunities for new beginnings, even at the very end.

Our hope is that spending the Season of Lent in prayer and reflection and hearing the story of the Passion of the Christ during Holy Week will help us wake up to God's path of faith, hope, and love.

On the other hand, I believe that it is OK not to observe Lent and not to throw ourselves 100% into Holy Week. The arc of human life, both for individuals and for society, is such that we are confident that all will be received by God's Grace at the end. The purpose of seasons like Lent is simply to remind ourselves of this Grace and to hear again the still, small voice of Jesus saying, "wake up, wake up . . . the time is now" . . .

But if we miss the wake-up call this time, there is always the next moment. Life is an endless string of moments; and each one is a gracious opportunity to soberly see our beautiful reality and thus be moved to thanksgiving, praise and service. And one of the key things we remember in worship is that God's support is always here for us whether we are aware of it or not.

Life is precious. Holy Week reminds us of how fragile it is and how much pain and suffering it can also hold. But by staying awake to the tough realities in Holy Week, we also stay awake to the promise that is shown on Easter morning.

Life is beautiful and sometimes filled with pain. Life is a call to love and is also filled with violence. Life is fragile, and it is also always supported by the love of God. Life leads to death; but death leads to new life.

Holy Week, with all its triumph and tragedy, reminds us of the pain, joy and promise of life. So . . .  this week, may we all live it fully and feel it deeply.

We have come with Jesus all the long way to Jerusalem. By following him this Lent to the end, even to the foot of the cross, may we confront our deepest fears, and then move past them with Christ to Easter morning.

Lent is almost over. Easter is almost here.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come.


Our hymn of response is

* HYMN "Were You There" #144 VU


And now let us pray . . .

Let us pray,
    for the whole people of God in Christ Jesus
    for all people everywhere according to their need
    and for the entire web of life . . .

God of Life and Death, help us to be aware that you are with us every moment ; help us to give thanks for this and all our blessings.

For the path of faith hope and love shown by Jesus, we give thanks
For time to remember, reflect, repent and renew, we give thanks.
For new life which flows from the death of our anxious old life, we give thanks
For the eternal now, in which your support is always present, we give thanks.

God of Lent,

We have finally come to the end of of our annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem with Jesus. Help us to hear Jesus' call of repentance, love and justice in the Temple and at the Last Supper. Help us to stay awake with him on the night of his betrayal. Help us to bear the stories of his suffering for us.
And help us to give and receive love regardless of what happens in our journey.

God of Hope,

As we live through another Good Friday, may we keep the vision of Easter's New Life in front of us as our guiding light.

God of Healing,

May we feel your healing touch during times of physical and emotional pain, in times of loss, and when we feel afraid and alone.

God, we need your loving presence.

We raise up for support and love those that we have named aloud and those whom we now remember in silence . . .

Gracious God, these are our concerns, these are our joys, these are our prayers. We lift them up to you.

All of this we pray in the name of the Risen Christ, our Redeemer and our Hope. Amen


We now return a small portion of what we have been given. The offering will now be received.

    We give you but your own,
    What e'er the gift may be,
    All that we have is yours alone,
    We give it gratefully.


God of all peoples and God of all places,
we present these offerings,
that they may be used to extend your liberating reign.
With them, we offer our varied ministries,
that each of us may be part of your answer
to the cries of the world. Amen


Dear friends, as we leave this sacred place,
we go into the world knowing that we do so
    with the Love of God
    the Grace of Christ
    and the Communion of the Holy Spirit both now and always. Amen.

Please feel free to sit during the benediction anthem and the processing of the cross.

Benediction Anthem "O Sacred Head Sore Wounded
Processing of the Cross
Time for quiet reflection

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Lent's journey . . . life's journey, Mar 21, 2010

Text: John 12:1-8 (Jesus anointed at Bethany)

Our journey to Jerusalem this Lent is almost over. At Knox, we began Lent with a ritual of ashes on Feb 16. On Feb 21st, the first Sunday in Lent, we reflected on Jesus' 40 days of prayer and temptation in the desert. On the second Sunday, we thought about the two sides of Jerusalem: both its golden promise as the City of God, and its tough reality as a place of death and desolation.

On the third Sunday, we puzzled over Jesus' parable of the fig tree and his command to repent or perish. Last Sunday, we heard again the Parable of the Prodigal Son and reflected on how it draws connections between repentance and resurrection.

Today as our Lenten journey nears its conclusion, Jesus and his disciples have come to to the very outskirts of Jerusalem -- to Bethany -- and we are there along with them.

In the reading from the Gospel of John this morning, Jesus is at the home of his friends, Lazarus, Martha and Mary. These three siblings live in Bethany, which is less than 2 km from the Wall of Jerusalem. John places this scene right after the seventh and final sign of Jesus' ministry as told by John: the raising of his friend Lazarus from the grave; and it is also six days before Passover, or one week before Jesus' crucifixion. 

Lazarus' two sisters, Mary and Martha, hold a dinner in Jesus honour. But instead of helping her sister prepare the food, Mary anoints Jesus with expensive perfume. This anointing signifies at least two things: first, that Jesus is the Christ, Messiah or King who is about enter Jerusalem in triumph on Palm Sunday. And as Jesus points out, it also anoints his body for burial on Good Friday. By anointing her friend, Mary signifies that Jesus' journey will end in both triumph and tragedy.

There are many reasons why travelling as a follower of Jesus for the 40 days of Lent and the six Sundays in Lent may speak to us. The Lenten journey models the faith journeys of our lives both as individuals and as a community. Like Lent, our lives involve friendships, hardships, conflicts, sin, repentance, healing and finally death. And as with Lent, we trust that our journeys end with new life in the Risen Christ of Easter.

This morning I reflect on what our Lenten journey this year might mean for us as individuals and also for Knox United as a congregation. I start by telling about some faith-building experiences I was privileged to have several years ago that literally took the form of journeys: they were four wilderness canoe trips.

I spoke about the first trip -- a week-long canoe trip in Ontario's Algonquin Park -- in a sermon in late January. That was in 2002, and that year and for the next three, I spent one week each summer canoeing and camping with a group of 15 or more church members in the beauty of Algonquin. The park is a three-hour drive north of Toronto.

These trips were faith journeys for me not just because they were church-organized and included mid-week communion services. For me, the key element on those trips was the structure of the week -- going into the wilderness with all our belongings on our backs, relying on the work and good will of an instant community of strangers, being humbled by our smallness as we tented on a thin layer of pine needles over granite rock, and the fact that the route each year was circular. Traveling in a circle meant that after a week of exhausting paddling and portaging, we always ended up right where we had started. Program or no program, these weeks all took the shape of the circle of life, and I loved all four of them.

But though the structure was key, I was not opposed to programming as well. For the fourth and last of those trips in 2005, I proposed to the leaders that we use an idea of the American healer and writer, Caroline Myss to enact one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church each day. My suggestion was not adopted, but one day I hope to part of such a week.

Caroline Myss was raised a Roman Catholic and has a Masters of Theology degree, but her writing falls more under the heading of the New Age than of Christianity. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading about the seven Catholic sacraments in her 1996 bestseller "Anatomy of the Spirit."

The United Church, with its roots in the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, only acknowledges two sacraments: baptism and communion. Protestant Reformers like John Calvin, Martin Luther, and John Knox made worship simpler; and they considered that only baptism and communion had roots in the life of Jesus.

The Roman Catholic church also considers baptism and communion to be sacraments, but it celebrates five others as well. The other five are: confirmation, marriage, confession, ordination, and last rites. Myss wrote about week-long retreats she led where each day focused on one of these seven sacraments; and that is where I got the idea for a canoe trip program.

In a week-long wilderness canoe trip, the idea might look like the following. Day 1 would focus on baptism, acknowledging that the first day of canoeing and portaging had initiated us into the community. Day 2 would be confirmation -- a more conscious entry into community after having accepted the difficulties of the trip. Day 3 would be communion -- sharing God's Grace through Christ in the midst of life's journey. Day 4 would be marriage -- acknowledging the love growing within the group. Day 5 would be confession where we could speak of any cleansing processes underway. Day 6 would be ordination, which would acknowledge that all had proved ourselves capable of ministry within the group. And the seventh and final day would focus on last rites -- a blessing of grace as we finished our journey and said goodbye to our friends.

Well, perhaps some might find such a week too intense, but I think I'd like it!

Lent also contains elements of the seven sacraments. It begins with Jesus in the wilderness immediately following his baptism. The mutual support, healing, and teaching between Jesus and his friends on their journey have elements of confession, confirmation of faith and the love of marriage. The anointing of Jesus by Mary, as recounted in our Gospel reading this morning, is like both ordination  and the last rites. And Lent ends with communion: the Last Supper of Jesus with the disciples on Maundy Thursday. In Lent, we can trace the whole of a life's journey over six weeks.

Church seasons like Advent and Lent can help us to stay awake to the spiritual side of life. They remind us that any part of life can be be a path of faith, hope and love: marriage, raising children, a work project . . . or the life of a congregation.

I have been thinking a lot about Knox United as a congregation this week, probably more so than other weeks. It began on Wednesday at the Lenten Reading Circle. Doug Waite talked about a conversation at the Men's Breakfast. The topic was how church projects sometimes bring new life to the congregation. Doug mentioned how 30 years ago Knox had sponsored a Vietnamese refugee family to come to Canada and how that effort had helped Knox at least as it much as it helped the family.

Then on Wednesday evening, I attended a workshop with eight other members of the Knox Governing Board. It was titled "Board Leadership" and people from Knox along with others from Gaetz United Church in Red Deer and St. John's Anglican Church in Olds met to discuss roles for church boards, how to build community, how to create a common vision, and how to draw a map for the future for a church. I greatly enjoyed the evening and thank Maurice Buffel for arranging this opportunity for us.

Both the idea of projects and the workshop got me thinking about aspects of ministry that I haven't focused on here. My internship has certainly been a faith journey for me. By preparing and leading services and getting involved in the work of the youth groups and pastoral care, I have learned more than I would have dreamed possible. But because I am only here for eight months (now extended to 10), I have usually focused on the short term and not the mid- to long-term.

When I start full-time ministry in the summer of 2011, I will gratefully remember discussions such as those this week that focus on the congregation as a whole. This too will be a key part of my learning as an intern.

One theme from Wednesday's workshop was that though congregations have many things in common with other organizations, we also have a special focus on matters of spirit and soul. In particular, we have the model of Jesus' life, ministry, death and resurrection as our guide.

Both as individuals and as churches, the model of Jesus' life gives us hope. Jesus shows that the circle of life -- growing, travelling, confronting, and losing  -- also contains the promise of resurrection. So congregations might grow and prosper or they might struggle and shrink; but regardless of our situation, new life always beckons.

Now this is not to suggest that failure guarantees resurrection for a church, a nation, or other groups! But the model of Christ reminds us that God's grace is always here for us whether we are (quote/unquote) "successful" or (quote/unquote) "unsuccessful." This faith gives us the joy and courage to face reality and continue the journey.

So as Knox United moves deeper into Lent and into another Easter, I am confident that we will continue to find the projects, vision, soaring spirit, and grounded faith we need to continue Christ's mission of love to each other and to the world.

Life is a circular journey that seems to end where it began. This can be true for communities of faith as well as for individuals. But though the prospect of ending up where you began might seem pointless, Jesus' life teaches us that new life is also found at the end of each journey and each life.

Each ending is a new beginning, and these new beginnings incorporate the love, growth and healing given and received during the previous journey. Each individual life is a part of the life of God, and we trust in Easter hope both for today and at the end.

This year we follow Jesus again on the road to Jerusalem and to the cross. Holy Week, with its story of betrayal, pain, and death might seem too intense. But next Sunday, we will enter Jerusalem and Holy Week again in the sure hope that repentance leads to resurrection and that every ending is also a new beginning.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Lost and found: an Easter parable, Mar 14, 2010

Text: Luke 15 (Parable of the Prodigal Son)

What do we mean by the phrase "resurrection from the dead?" In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which Phyllis just read, the Father twice says of his younger son that he "was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!'" In telling this parable, is Jesus trying to teach us what resurrection means?

The parable uses the words "dead" and "alive" metaphorically; they are synonyms for the words "lost" and "found." The younger son, by hitting rock bottom, repenting, and returning to the Father metaphorically comes back to life.

The Parable may help us with the phrase "repent or perish," which we discussed last week. When the Prodigal Son lives a life of sin, he is "dead" though yet alive. But when he repents, he finds new life. Seen in this light, "repent or perish" is more of a wake up call than a warning that God is going to get us. It says, "Wake up sleepy heads. God's grace is waiting here for us" . . .

The season of Lent starts on Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter Sunday. It is a period of 40 days . . . except that there are 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. The solution to this riddle comes from the fact that the six Sundays in Lent are not considered as part of Lent. The church considers every Sunday to be a "mini-Easter" where we celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And so on this fourth Sunday in Lent, we hear again the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The Parable is, among many things, an Easter story -- a story of repentance, which also makes it a story of resurrection.

But what about other resurrections and resuscitations in our Scriptures? In the Old Testament, the prophets Elijah and Elisha each raise a dead boy back to life. Jesus in his ministry revives several dead people. The Gospel of John tells the story of Jesus reviving his friend Lazarus. Mark, Matthew and Luke tell a story where Jesus revives the daughter of Jairus, a leader in a synagogue. Luke tells a story where Jesus revives a widow's son during his funeral.

Matthew says that at the moment of Jesus' death on the cross, tombs in Jerusalem break open and the bodies of holy people are raised to new life. Also in Matthew but in no other Gospel, Jesus commands his disciples to not only preach the reign of God and heal the sick, but also to raise the dead. And indeed, the book of Acts says that the apostles Peter and Paul each revive a dead person.

But of course the main resurrection story in our Scriptures is the raising of Jesus by God following his crucifixion. Mark as the oldest Gospel contains no resurrection appearances, but only a statement by a young man in Jesus' empty tomb that God has raised Jesus. Matthew adds to Mark's account an appearance to his closest women followers on Easter morning and to the disciples in Galilee.

Luke adds several other appearances by Jesus to the disciples-- on the road to Emmaus, and in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. John has different post-resurrection appearances -- to Mary Magdalene in the garden, to the doubting Thomas, and a breakfast scene on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Resurrection is the central message of Christianity. But what, again, do we mean by resurrection? As in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is it a born-again life following repentance from sin? Or is it continued life as an individual in a new heaven and earth following bodily death? Or is it both?

When we read stories about Jesus reviving dead people, we perhaps take take them more seriously than revivals by lesser biblical figures such as Elijah, Elisha, Peter or Paul. After all, Jesus is God in human form with all of God's power, whereas the prophets and the apostles are fully human. Did Peter actually raise the dead woman Tabitha back to life as told in Acts? Some of us might not ever think about it.

And while we are followers of Jesus, only a few fringe churches think that this involves trying to literally follow Jesus' command found in Matthew to raise the dead. Nor do we seem to put much focus on the story of bodies walking out of tombs in Jerusalem when Jesus dies, especially since only Matthew records this story.

But the raising of Jesus on Easter is different. It is the cornerstone of our hope for eternal life. Paul spends all of First Corinthians chapter 15 focusing on this resurrection hope. He writes, "if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith . . . But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive."

Paul in this chapter sometimes seems to use the word death metaphorically. In verse 31 he says of himself, "I die every day." And when Paul writes in Galatians that "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me" he is not saying that his body has died. Instead, Paul clearly means he has undergone a spiritual death to an old way of life and he is now living a new life in God through Christ.

Hope is a central Christian virtue. Our hope in resurrection is what gives many of us the courage to metaphorically pick up our cross and follow Jesus to Jerusalem during Lent. This hope involves a kind of death: losing our lives in order to save them. It is the death of egotism; dying to our addictions like the Prodigal Son. When with the help of Grace our egos die, we are reborn to a selfless life. In this born-again life we participate in the Divine Spirit through Christ. As Paul puts it, "I no longer live, but Christ lives in me."

If a repentant born-again life is beyond ego, it seems to me that I can hardly then hope that my ego will survive the death of the body. My resurrection hope is for today: a free and joyous life in touch with eternity. With bodily death, I trust that an inner divine spark will merge into God's Spirit. The latter probably means that my ego will not continue to exist -- though who can really say?

In any case, the story of the Prodigal models resurrection through repentance. Sin is a form of death in life. Repentance leads to a second birth in life.

The parable then goes on to show the resentment felt by the older brother at the return of the younger one. What the story doesn't show is the reaction of the younger son to the extravagant welcome offered to him by the father.

Can we imagine that the younger son might be horrified by his father's gracious welcome? The younger son's repentance is based upon humiliation: losing his wealth in dissolute living and being forced to feed pigs even as he himself starves. With humiliation comes the possibility of humility. If the Prodigal has fully repented, then he might, with humility, be able to accept the party thrown for him by his father. But if he hasn't fully repented, he might not be able to stomach the acceptance shown to him. Instead of accepting the party as a moment of Grace, he might suffer through it as yet more mortification.

The Grace shown in the Parable is God's acceptance of the repentant son. But full repentance only occurs when God's acceptance then leads to self-acceptance; and that can be quite painful. Self-acceptance means owning up to our individual and collective reality; that we are mortal, broken, often in pain, trapped by various forces, and sometimes violators of our own values.

The good news is that God accepts us no matter what. The pain involved in the good news -- and it is a pain like unto death -- is that we can't fully live into the joy and wonder of this acceptance if we don't face our own reality. Paradoxically, the acceptance of our own broken reality leads to selflessness. When we receive the grace to soberly accept reality, more and more we see God in us and less and less our own proud ego.

The Parable implies that the Prodigal has fully accepted himself and his reality. It also implies that the older brother has not yet accepted himself.

Perhaps the older brother, too, must lose his life in order to save it? This process of "losing our lives" can take different forms. Martyrdom and self-sacrifice come to mind. But perhaps another way to lose our lives is to rebel against convention and family, travel to a far country, and engage in dissolute living!

As individuals and communities, we come by our sins honestly. We are born into a violent world made up of dysfunctional families. We care for our children as best we can. We take up citizenship in a nation that is competing with all other nations. We earn a living in an economy that exploits and destroys. As individuals and as nations, we seem to have little choice but to conform ourselves to violent and destructive systems.

This is the difficult existence given to us in a Fallen world. So those among us who travel to a far country and flout conventional morality may be no more sinful than those of us who conform to the violent and unequal world into which we are born.

The younger son, after losing his wealth and self-confidence in a far country, comes to his senses, confesses his sin, and asks for forgiveness. When this forgiveness is given and accepted, he enters the born-again, selfless life that is promised to us all.

The older brother may be in deeper trouble than the younger one. By hitching his ego to duty and conventional wisdom, he may have found a trap that is more effective than his brother's. The path beyond ego sometimes comes from humiliation and disaster, as addicts who follow the 12 Steps attest. The older brother tries to avoid humiliation by being "good." In doing so, he may have cut himself off from a path to humility and a resurrected life in God.

The good news for the older brother is that even when his self-righteous anger cuts him off from his family, the father still accepts him. Perhaps this conflict with the loving father ends in the older brother's repentance too . . .

This morning as we let the many colours of this famous Parable sink into our hearts again, we also hear again the assurance that even in this Fallen world and in broken lives, God's Grace is here for us. In the words of our closing hymn, we are met again and again by Amazing Grace.

But though it amazes us, Grace does not come without pain. Our journey to new life with Christ during Lent is a painful one towards the death of our egos. In some ways, our journey to the cross can be like a journey to a far country where we lose everything. And yet, it is only by losing our lives that we are saved.

With God's help, we are assured that we will find the courage to let our egos die and so also taste the joy of life within the Spirit of Christ. This is the eternal life beyond self promised to us by Easter. It is a new life given to us free of charge, though not without cost.

God assures us that this born-again, eternal life is available to everyone -- to dutiful older brothers and sisters and to sinful younger brothers and sisters alike.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Repent or perish? March 7, 2010

Texts: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 (God's judgement); Luke 13:1-9 (Repent or perish)

Repent or perish says the Lord our God! Repent or perish says Jesus our Saviour! Repent or perish thunders the preacher! [ . . . pause ]

Really? Is that what we believe? Is that what the Bible, Jesus and our tradition teaches?

Hmmm. I thought that the Bible assures us that we are forgiven; that God is Love and that our sins are washed away by Grace. Don't Christians teach that Jesus died for our sins and that we are all saved?

Or perhaps only some of us are saved -- perhaps just those who repent or those who achieve faith? And if some are not saved, do they endure an eternity of torment in hell? And if it the latter is true, how can we understand such suffering?

Further, what does Jesus mean by the words "repent" and "perish?" Does "repent" mean changing behaviour; just saying you are sorry; or perhaps just feeling bad? Does Jesus command repentance for humanity as a whole, for particular nations, or for individuals? And just what is it that we supposed to repent from? As for "perish" does it simply mean to die? But what, then, would be the point in warning about that? All individuals die, whether through evil acts of rulers like Pontius Pilate, natural acts like earthquakes that topple a tower, or by disease and old age.

Whew! Those are lot of questions to come from a few short Bible readings. But those are the questions I had after hearing the readings from Luke and Paul this morning. And so in this sermon I talk about the sometimes confusing range of messages found in the Bible and within our churches.

The United Church is quite diverse. We are, after all, the largest Protestant church in Canada. About one in 10 Canadians have at least a glancing connection to the United Church, though probably less than one in 100 are at a United Church service this morning.

The diversity of the United Church is reflected here in Knox: we have people who come to every Sunday service and who volunteer for many church activities; and we have some people who only come at Christmas and Easter. We have people who are liberal or skeptical in their thinking and others who have a conservative or evangelical faith. And I really love and appreciate this diversity.

But beyond the United Church of Canada, there is even more diversity across the various Christian denominations; and I am getting to know more about that during my internship this year. One of the many things I am enjoying in Didsbury are the meetings of the Didsbury and Carstairs Ministerial Association. This group brings together all the pastors from the various Christian churches in and around our two towns. We meet once a month over lunch to share experiences, coordinate worship at the lodges and nursing homes, and plan a few joint activities.

I like the pastors -- from Anglican, Evangelical, Lutheran, Mennonite, Roman Catholic and United churches -- who gather each month. And I am confident that God's work is done in all of our churches.

But in some ways, I feel distant from the other pastors. John Reimer from Zion Church, who is this year's chair of the Ministerial, suggested that the host pastor open each meeting with a testimony of his journey to ministry. And I really love hearing those stories, though they often seem foreign to me. Perhaps I wrote this sermon because next month it is my turn to host the group here at Knox, and I am feeling a little nervous about how my story might be received!

Even the other United Church minister, Rev. Bryan Derksen from Carstairs, has a different background than me. It is true that like me, Bryan is a preacher's kid. But as he told us in his story this week -- he was the host of our March meeting -- Bryan's father was a minister in the Church of the Nazarene; and I am told that this is a very conservative and evangelical denomination. Bryan told us how he found his way to the United Church while studying at the Vancouver School of Theology. And despite his father's misgivings, he has been a minister in our church since his 20s.

At the meeting this past week, Bryan talked about how his own faith journey paralleled that of the United Church of Canada. In the 1970s, a big issue was feminism and the drive for equality for men and women and inclusive language in worship. In the 1980s, the big issue was sexuality and the place of gays and lesbians in the church. And since the 1990, there have been dialogues with other faith traditions, including Judaism, Islam, and First Nations. Bryan talked about how his image of God has changed over the decades; and how grateful he is for the Christian tradition, the struggles of the United Church of Canada, and his congregation in Carstairs.

I am glad that Bryan blazed this trail for me at Ministerial. In questions raised after he spoke, I could sense the distance some others felt from Bryan's journey, especially those who belong to churches that don't treat men and women equally; where homosexuality is still condemned as an abomination; and where inter-faith dialogue takes second place to the goal that Christianity become not just the largest religion in the world, with 30% of people today calling themselves Christians, but the only religion in the world.

Still, I worry that my story will seem even more foreign to some of the pastors than Bryan's did. My father was on the liberal and skeptical side of the United Church. But even that wasn't enough for me. As a teenager, I decided that Christian beliefs, as well as those of all other religions, were either silly or harmful; and I wandered away from the church for more than 20 years. In place of church, I poured my spiritual enthusiasm into left-wing politics: the student movement, the peace movement, solidarity with Nicaragua, and union activism when I worked as a librarian.

10 years ago when I returned to the church, I was very glad that the United Church was still alive and kicking. I needed the embrace of a loving community. I needed to sing in the choir and let worship wash over me and transform me. And I love the journey towards service and a renewed faith in God that I have found in the church.

But the faith I am groping towards seems different from that of many evangelical Christians. A key difference is our attitude toward the Bible.

The Bible is a collection of 60+ books written in ancient Hebrew and Greek over a span of 1,000 years by about 80 or so mostly anonymous Jewish teachers. Translating these ancient books into a modern language like English is a difficult and error-prone project. So what the books of the Bible might mean for us is a difficult question.

I was flipping around the TV dial this week, and I stopped when I came to the weekly program of televangelist Jack Van Impe. Amongst his usual criticisms of President Barack Obama, he talked about the authority of the Bible. When he was a Candidate for President in 2008, Obama said that Jesus' Sermon on the Mount was more important as a guide for him on equality than negative comments about homosexuality in Paul's Letter to the Romans. Van Impe objected to this. Paul did not write Romans, he said: God wrote Romans; and so every word in it is true and above criticism. And how does Van Impe know that God wrote Paul's letter to the Romans? Because the Bible says so, that's why. In particular, 2 Timothy 3:16 says, "all Scripture is God-breathed."

I have several problems with this. 2nd Timothy was included in the Christian Bible because it also says that it was written by Paul. But every single serious Bible scholar in the world for the last 100 years -- in which company I do not include Van Impe -- agree that 2nd Timothy falsely claims to be written by Paul. It was written by followers of Paul long after Paul had died. This means that 2nd Timothy is in our Bible by mistake.

But even if Paul had written 2nd Timothy, do we simply accept that it and Romans and the rest of the books of the Bible are infallible and true in every respect because 2nd Timothy claims that they are true? This would be like accepting that Van Impe is telling God's truth simply because Van Impe himself says so!

The books of the Bible have a central and irreplaceable role in our church. But to deny that they are written by humans and contain mistakes is, I believe, to worship the Bible as an idol. The various books of the Bible contain some stories that are contradictory, confusing, nonsensical, or that go against our best values. These are all good reasons to not treat the Bible as an idol. Further, our tradition directs us to put our trust in God and not in the Bible. We trust in God who is Love, God who is Spirit, and God who is Grace, all as revealed by the life, death, and resurrection of the Christ.

Some argue that the simplest thing to do is believe the Bible completely and literally. But given that the Bible is filled with passages that contradict each other, along with many puzzling parables, accepting the Bible in this way does not seem easy to me. To be sure, the other approaches aren't easy either. The approach I subscribe to involves reading and interpreting the various books of the Bible through the lenses of love, the stories of Jesus, and our own discernment of our journey as individuals and faith communities towards the cross. It can be a challenge -- like looking through a glass darkly as Paul once wrote -- but I don't see any other way.

To illustrate, let us briefly look at our readings from the Bible this morning. Paul uses the harsh judgements of God against the former Hebrew slaves from Egypt as a warning to the church in Corinth. According to the book of Exodus, God was often angry with his freed Hebrew subjects. So God made them wander in the Sinai desert for 40 years. And during these years in Sinai, God regularly killed thousands of the freed slaves when they worshiped the wrong gods or engaged in behaviour that God considered to be immoral.

Now if I believed that Exodus gave factually true information about God's judgments, I would never darken a church door again. But unlike Paul, and despite what it says in Exodus, I have no doubt that the Hebrew God Yahweh did not regular kill freed slaves whenever he was angry with them. Reading Exodus and meditating on it can yield great spiritual treasures. But while St. Paul and the writers of Exodus might believe that God regularly kills people when he gets angry, many of us no longer do. Now, this position means that we cannot be counted in the ranks of "Bible-believing Christians" along with my evangelical colleagues and friends. But I hope and pray that rejecting a blind faith in every single word in the Bible does not close us off to a trusting faith in the God who is Love and in the Grace revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. The latter is a faith that starts with the Bible, but one that goes well beyond it.

As for the story of Jesus from Luke that we read this morning, it remains a puzzle for me. Jesus warns us to repent or perish. He then illustrates his warning with the parable of the fig tree. But what on earth does the parable mean? Is the gardener supposed to represent God? Or is that the owner of the garden? Or does the parable contain no character that represents God? . . . Does the parable mean that God graciously gives sinful communities a second chance to produce fruit? If so, what happens when a second chance yields no more fruit than the first? Will God then kills us just as he is said to have killed so many Hebrew slaves in the desert?

Jesus uttered this warning and told this parable in the year 30. He was speaking to a group of illiterate disciples in the obscure language Aramaic. 60 years later, Luke wrote down the warning and the parable in a different obscure language, ancient Greek. Today in English translation, the warning and the parable both intrigue and puzzle me. But I don't worship this passage or think that it must have infallible instructions from God. It is just one piece of the enormous puzzle of religion and life in which the overall biblical message is that God accepts and heals us all.

If you want to know more of my thinking on these matters, please return next week where our text is perhaps the most famous parable of all: the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Like the parable of the fig tree, it is also about sin, death, repentance, and new life; and like the fig tree parable, it is only found in Luke. And it is also my favourite passage from the entire Gospel according to Luke . . .

In a few moments we will celebrate the sacrament of holy communion. It is a ritual in which we remember the ministry, death, and resurrection of the Christ. It is a ritual that makes plain that God lives in us and that we live in God. And it is a ritual that assures us that we are enfolded in God's mercy and saved by God's love.

All are welcome at the Lord's table; sinners and saints alike. To partake of the bread of life and the cup of blessing, we don't have to believe anything; do anything; or achieve anything. We just have to be ourselves -- beloved children of God created in the image of God. And even if we haven't yet properly repented, God will not strike us down. God will not turn us away.

The message of God's Grace as enacted at the Lord's Table is the one we receive from the Bible as a whole, from the stories of Jesus as a whole, and from the best of our troubled, diverse and wonderful Christian tradition.

Repent or perish? God's love shines so brightly and with such beauty that, despite the violence of this world and the difficulties we have in it, we are assured that all will turn towards His love.

All will turn. None will perish.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Jerusalem the golden . . . and the desolate, Feb 28, 2010

Text: Luke 13: 31-35, Jesus sorrows over Jerusalem

"Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest . . . I know not, no I know not what joys await us there." These words are from a 12th Century hymn which was a favourite for many of us from both the 1932 and 1971 United Church hymnbooks. But like many such hymns, it didn't make it into Voices United in 1997 --  and perhaps for good reasons. "Jerusalem the Golden" uses the symbol of that city's name to refer to heaven in literal terms using imagery from the book Revelation. I thought about this hymn in preparing today's service since the  theme is the symbol of Jerusalem.

What is it about Jerusalem, the holy City where God's Temple was built by the early Hebrews? When the city was first destroyed by the Babylonians in 580 B.C., the Jews in exile pined for their lost City and Temple. When they rebuilt the city and Temple 100 years later,  worship at the Temple started again, but this time without the Ark of the Covenant. Jesus at the end of his ministry, walked towards Jerusalem even as he wept for it and warned that it would again become desolate. When early Christians imagined what a restored earth would look like, they used the metaphor of a New Jerusalem. Jerusalem as a city is central to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is also a symbol of God and holiness, even as it is known as a place of betrayal, death, and desolation.

The most famous hymn about the city is called just that, "Jerusalem."  The text is an 1804 poem by William Blake called "And Did Those Feet." Despite not being in Voices United either, we will sing "Jerusalem" this morning after the sermon.

Blake's poem uses the symbol of Jerusalem in a different way than "Jerusalem the Golden." In Blake's case, Jerusalem refers to "heaven on earth" -- the new age that begun with the coming of Christ. Blake's poem also refers to a strange legend that suggests that Jesus lived in England as a teenager.

I first learned and loved the hymn "Jerusalem" as a six-year old. So on Thursday night at choir practice, I was surprised that many people did not know the hymn. Some people did know it, of course. Nancy Blain, for one, remembers it being sung at Women's Institute meetings. But I wonder if my surprise reflects the differences between Eastern and Western Canada that I also mentioned last Sunday.

I grew up in the small industrial city of Cornwall, which is located on the St Lawrence River about an hour's drive west of Montreal. Cornwall is a microcosm of Canada. 70% of the population is English-speaking, and 30% French-speaking. There is a First Nations Mohawk reserve just south of the city on an island that is half in Canada and half in the United States. Perhaps the presence of French-speakers and First Nations people and the closeness of Quebec and the U.S. made the Anglophones in Cornwall more conscious than some of our English roots -- and there is no more English hymn than "Jerusalem."

In fact, "Jerusalem" is the unofficial English national anthem. When King George V, the grandfather of Queen Elizabeth, first heard "Jerusalem," he said he actually preferred it to "God Save the King."

Blake's poem was put to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916 as a way to bolster English spirits during the horrors of World War I. There is irony in this because Blake supported the French Revolution and was once unsuccessfully tried for treason. Also, the hymn "Jerusalem" is not only popular with staunch monarchists and conservatives but also with socialists and trade unionists.

"Jerusalem" is the last song at "Last Night at the Proms" concerts. It is a staple in English schools. And a line from the hymn inspired the title of the 1981 Award Winning movie "Chariots of Fire." That movie ends with the singing of the hymn at a funeral service.

Since "Chariots of Fire" is a film about the Olympic Games, it also seems appropriate to mention it today as the Vancouver Olympics come to a close. In the movie, a devout British runner refuses to compete in the 100 meter dash at the 1924 Paris Olympics because one of the heats falls on a Sunday, the Lord's Day.

Yesterday I heard a reporter quote Don Cherry to the effect that hockey is Canada's true religion. He then suggested that today's gold medal men's game should make quite a sermon. So perhaps we can consider this one to be pre-game warm-up to the big religious moment of today, which is supposed to happen Vancouver this afternoon!

In any case, here are the words of Blake's poem: "And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England's mountains green? And was the holy Lamb of God on England's pleasant pastures seen? And did the Countenance Divine shine forth upon our clouded hills? And was Jerusalem builded here among those dark Satanic mills?

"Bring me my bow of burning gold: bring me my arrows of desire: bring me my spear: O clouds, unfold! Bring me my chariot of fire! I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand till we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land." Blake's poem contains a lot of symbols and metaphors, wouldn't you agree?

The Holy Lamb of God is a metaphor for Christ. Jerusalem is a metaphor for the love and healing that would have been found in England if Jesus had walked there as a young man. But what does Blake mean by bows of burning gold, arrows of desire, and chariots of fire? The "dark Satanic mills" probably refer to cotton and flour mills, which Blake hated when he wrote the poem in 1804. And the goal of building Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land symbolizes the fight to create heaven on earth.

Our Gospel passage this morning from Luke is also about Jerusalem; and like Blake's poem, it also contains many puzzling symbols and metaphors. At last Wednesday's reading circle where we read this this passage, we talked about reading the Bible literally. This passage is one that cannot easily be read literally. Jesus calls King Herod a fox, which is clearly an insulting metaphor. Jesus then makes an analogy between himself and a mothering hen that protects its chicks under its wings. He also mentions "the third day," which is probably a symbol of his resurrection. He says that no prophet can die outside of Jerusalem. But since this is not literally the case, it can only be true as a metaphor for something. And when Jesus talks about the desolation of Jerusalem, this foreshadows the second destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 by the Romans, 40 years after Jesus' death.

40 years after Jesus death, the Roman-Jewish war occurred. After a three-year siege of Jerusalem, the Romans burned the city, killed 10s of thousands of Jews and destroyed  God's Temple. But by the time Luke wrote the story down, Jerusalem had already been laid waste. Luke's community would connect Jesus' phrase "your house is left to you desolate" with the desolation in Jerusalem at that time.

Like us, the people who first heard Luke's Gospel, would not have known Jesus and the disciples. But they could connect the death of the Son of God to the destruction of God's Temple and his Holy City. They also needed the hope found in the story of the resurrection. It assured them that God's love lives on even though His Temple had been destroyed and Jerusalem is once again a ghost town.

I thought of the desolation of Jerusalem this week when I saw the play "Beyond Eden" in Calgary. And I would like to thank Ric and Linda Arthurs for taking me to see this production, which I greatly enjoyed. "Beyond Eden" tells a story about the Haida First Nation on the Queen Charlotte Islands. Set in 1957, it tells of a trip by archaeologists from Victoria to an abandoned Haida village where they salvage sacred totem poles.

The beautiful but decaying totem poles in the empty village made me think of Jerusalem after its destruction. Both the Haida village and Jerusalem were holy places where God was found and worshiped. Both were laid waste by outside empires. And in both cases, new life emerged.

In the case of the play, new life was symbolized by a character based on the real-life Haida sculptor Bill Reid. Reid was so inspired by his encounter with the sadness and beauty of this village and its sacred art that he devoted the remainder of his life to reviving Haida sculpture. You can see reproductions of two of his wonderful sculptures on the back of the Canadian $20 bill.

In the case of Jerusalem, although God's Temple was destroyed in the year 70, Christians revived the life of their community by telling and retelling the stories of Jesus. He was the Christ who was arrested and executed in Jerusalem and then rose again to a new life on the third day.

It is a sad fact that the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 is not unusual. Jerusalem had been destroyed 600 years earlier by the Babylonians. Jews repopulated their sacred City by the year 100, but it was destroyed a third time by the Romans in 135. Muslim rulers allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem after the year 800, but Christian armies slaughtered both Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem during the Crusades.

Beyond Jerusalem, the sacred temples and cities of far too many peoples have been destroyed in conflict and war over the centuries. European conquest of the Haida in B.C. is just one example among many.

The Christ story shapes our response to such tragedies.  The story of the death and resurrection of Jesus and the truths it reveals about our individual and social lives are not just relevant following the destruction of Jerusalem and God's Temple. They also resonate with hundreds of different peoples who have seen their sacred places laid waste and the dwellings of their gods destroyed. Each such event is a painful tragedy. But the Christ story reminds us how new life can arise.

In our tradition, Jerusalem is a symbol both of desolation and of resurrection. The path taken by Jesus is to both sides of its reality. And the insights of Gospel writers, poets and playwrights keep us present to the gracious reality of life's strange journey.

This Lent, as we continue our walk with Jesus to the cross, know that God grants us the strength to be present to Jerusalem: both its desolation and its new life. The path of Jesus is one journey with two sides -- a journey through death to new life with God in Christ.

Thanks be to God, Amen.