Saturday, May 29, 2010

How can we keep from singing? May 30, 2010

This week, I have again included much of the liturgy, which provides context for the sermon  . . . Ian


Welcome to Sunday morning worship at Knox United Church. My name is Ian Kellogg and I am a student supply minister here at Knox this spring. Today is Trinity Sunday, which is probably not the best known date on the Christian Calendar. So I have a few words to say about it.

Last Sunday we celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost; and with Pentecost, the Season of Easter came to a close. We have now entered the long and awkwardly-named Season After Pentecost, which lasts until Advent in December. The Season After Pentecost takes about half the year; and some might consider it to be the "boring" half of the Christian Year. The other seasons -- Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter --  relate to events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Observing those seasons allows us to reflect on our own life's journey. But this other half of the year, which we begin today, doesn't serve the same function. It might then seem a bit formless and a time in which our focus as a church jumps around a bit.

Indeed, using the first Sunday of this Season to celebrate the Trinity is very different from celebrating an event in the life of Jesus. The Trinity is not an event but a Christian teaching. The church suggests that we begin this six-month season today by reflecting on the nature of God -- in particular on the central Christian belief that God, while One, is also a community of Love between God in three "persons:" Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the doctrine of the Trinity.

While this service follows that suggestion, we hope that it won't feel like a classroom! Instead, like any other service, we hope that the prayers, readings, sermon, and hymns might provide us with an experience of God or the Sacred more than teach us about God. And as always, we hope that all will feel welcome and met during worship and also during coffee hour after the service.

This morning we begin worship by lighting a candle. The light of this candle represents the light of God, who is both the Holy One and the Holy Three. In lighting this candle, we might remember that God grounds us, heals us, and inspires us. This morning we gather to remember, reflect, and recharge . . .

* CALL TO WORSHIP (said together)

When Creation inspires,
when Wisdom calls,
and when Spirit dances,
we gather in praise.

* OPENING PRAYER (said together)

Holy One, Holy Three,
Help us to celebrate creation,
be renewed in Christ,
and live by the Spirit's rhythm.

THEME CONVERSATION: Finding God in song

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 here today.

So this morning in church we are talking about what God is like, which might seem difficult. But here is something that might help. Some our ideas of God come from important and special times in life. These might be times with family, or feeling loved, or being in a favourite place. And you know that I like to sing, eh? So for me a lot of those great times happen when I sing.

Here is how it might work. When we sing a hymn in church, sometimes it feels so good that it helps us to feel God's love. Here are three things that could happen. As we sing, we might feel that it is a Sacred moment. This might remind us that God is within us. And when we sing, we also notice other people around us, how we are singing in harmony and how people are helping one another. And this might remind us of God moving between us. And as we sing, we might also give thanks for the many things that allows us to sing: the earth, our bodies, the people who wrote the music, the people who published and taught the songs, and the tradition of our church and its hymns. And this could remind us of God as a support, who is always underneath us.

So I think that times like singing might give us some of our ideas about God -- perhaps even that while God is one, we can seen God from three different angles: there is God within us, God between us, and God beneath us.

Soon I hope we can test this idea. After our prayers, I want us all -- kids and adults together -- to sing the next simple hymn and perhaps see if we can also get a glimpse of how we can experience God in an everyday activity like singing. OK?

So . . . I hope you enjoy  church school this morning. But before you go, I have a brief prayer, then we will pray again the prayer that Jesus taught us, and then we will sing that hymn and see what we feel while we sing it. OK? Let us pray . . .

Dear God,

We give thanks for another day to be together as family and friends.
We give thanks for music, songs and singers.
We give thanks for your presence, O God,
whether we feel you as a spark within us, a spirit between us,
or the ground beneath our feet.
Help us to know your love, your friendship and your Spirit. Amen.

And now let us pray again together the prayer that Jesus taught us, saying . . Our Father  . . .

So when we sing the hymn before church school, "Be Still and Know," I hope that you  notice what you feel and what you experience as you sing. The choir sang this hymn as an anthem in March and it has been sung by the congregation at Knox before. And today we are going to sing it as a simple two-part round. First we will review the hymn. Doreen will play through the melody once, then we will all sing it once through together. And then we will sing it as a round without the piano. Doreen will lead the south side of the church to begin, and then I will lead the north side including all the kids in the other part. And when we sing it as a round, we will sing it twice.

* HYMN: "Be Still and Know That I am God" #77 MV. .


Proverbs 8: 1–4, 22–31        Wisdom calls
Romans 5: 1–5            Peace through Christ
John 16: 12–15            Spirit of Love

SERMON: Experiencing the Sacred

Where do our ideas about God come from? And why do these ideas sometimes sound so strange?

Christian practice can be wordy and intellectual, and as such it might not always feel relevant. And yet wars have been fought over different ways of talking about of God.

In doing research on Trinity Sunday, I came across a website of a Lutheran congregation in the U.S. that on this Sunday recites a Creed called the Athanasian Creed. Usually this congregation, like thousands of others, recites the Nicean Creed, which was developed in the year 325  by a Council called by Emperor Constantine. But today, this Lutheran congregation switches to this other Creed because it focuses on the Trinity.

Here is a bit of the Athanasian Creed: "We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Spirit unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God."

Whew! I am reminded of a song from the musical "My Fair Lady" which says, "words, words words! I'm so sick of words. Don't talk of love, show me!"

On the other hand, I can also appreciate the Athanasian Creed. It feels grand and resonant. But I am also glad that most United Churches use our 1968 Creed instead. It is the one that begins "We are not alone. We live in God's world." At Knox, we recite this Creed at baptisms and sometimes during Communion. The United Church Creed outlines the doctrine of the Trinity in a single sentence:

"We believe in God: who has created and is creating, who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new, and who works in us and others by the Spirit." It might not be as impressive as the Athanasian Creed, but it is simpler.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not found in the Bible, though some passages in the Bible contain hints that might lead to it. Our readings this morning include some of those hints. Paul's letter to Rome says "We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ;" and later "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit."  God-Christ-Spirit.

Today's reading from Proverbs is about the mysterious figure Wisdom, which many Christians see as a description of Christ, co-eternal and co-equal with God the Father in the creation of the world. And finally in the reading from John, Jesus talks again about the coming the Spirit and then says, "All that the Father has is mine." Father-Son-Spirit.

Still, the Christian teaching of Trinity does not come from the Bible. Rather it comes from the worship life of the first Christians. They had experienced Jesus Christ risen from the dead. As devout Jews, these first followers of Christ believed in One God. Yet they also found themselves worshipping Christ as God. So if Christ was God, and his Father was God, were there two Gods or still only one? And what about the the Holy Spirit, whom God sent on Pentecost, and who gave them power to worship and serve?

It was their experience of worshipping Jesus as God through the power of the Spirit that led early Christians to think of God as both One and Three at the same time. The experiences of new life and worship came first. The fancy words came later.

The same is true for us. We don't believe in God because of the creeds that Imperial Councils concocted 1600 years ago. Nor do we believe in God just because of the stories in the Bible. We believe in God because of our life experience: experiences of brokenness followed by new life; experiences of love; even experiences of loss and grief. When, with grace, we remember our deepest values, we are aware of how much in life is sacred to us. And from the heart of experiences of the sacred -- within, between and around us -- we develop our image of God.

Our sacred moments might include the pure joy of being physically alive. They might be experiences of working with others to try and make the world a better place. They might be experiences of falling in love, getting married and raising children. And as for the first Christians, for us these sacred moments come in various ways.

Some of these moments are internal: quiet prayer; walking alone on a wooded trail; or reading an inspiring book. Some of them are communal such as joining our voices in song in church. Still others might feel cosmic: being aware of how vast and intricate the universe and the web of life are within which we live and move and have our being.

And so as Christians, we both gratefully accept the stunning vision of our Jewish brothers and sisters that God is One and Almighty; and we also experience new life in Christ through the power of the Spirit. Together, these insights lead us to understand the Sacred, the Divine, or God as a unity within diversity; a unity that might best be described as a One in Three, or a Trinity.

Here is yet another way to speak about the Trinity from a 2006 statement of faith of the United Church. It is called "A Song of Faith," and it begins:

"God is Holy Mystery, beyond complete knowledge, above perfect description. Yet, in love, the one eternal God seeks relationship . . . With the Church through the ages, we speak of God as one and triune: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We also speak of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer; God, Christ, and Spirit; Mother, Friend, and Comforter; Source of Life, Living Word, and Bond of Love; and in other ways that speak faithfully of the One on whom our hearts rely, the fully shared life at the heart of the universe. We witness to Holy Mystery that is Wholly Love."

I recommend the entire "Song of Faith." For one, I like the fact that it uses the metaphor of song as both the source and the expression of our beliefs.

In preparing for my final service here at Knox in two weeks, which will celebrate the 85th anniversary of the United Church, I found the following statement about hymn singing written in 1912 by the Methodist leader Nathaneal Burwash. Burwash was a central figure in the Canadian church union movement and he observed that "our hymn books fashion our religious thinking and feeling more powerfully than either articles of religion or confessions of faith."

Burwash noted that singing the same hymns had made it possible for Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists to reach agreement on a basis for union. By singing these hymns, he said, "we had been learning and absorbing all that was truest and best in our neighbour’s ways and thoughts until we found that in every essential we were one."

This statement echoes what I said to the children earlier: we often experience the sacred when we sing together. Sacred songs lead us to feel what we believe rather than what we think; and such feelings are perhaps more important to us than our attempts to articulate the Holy Mystery, which we name as God.

The 2006 "Song of Faith" several times repeats the line: "And so we cannot keep from singing." This refrain echoes the great 19th Century American Hymn, "How Can I  Keep from Singing?" Here are the words to that hymn's first verse: "My life flows on in endless song; above earth’s lamentation I hear the sweet though far-off hymn that hails a new creation: through all the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing; it finds an echo in my soul -- how can I keep from singing?"

Now of course, not every hymn sung in church will connect us to the sacred, any more than will every moment with our children, every moment volunteering at the Thrift Shop, or every walk in the woods. But we know that with God's grace, sacred moments occur again and again. In those moments, we are able to remember that our lives are supported by God, the Holy One and the Holy Three: and this support comes from the God who is within, between, and beneath us.

And so we cannot keep from singing.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Our hymn of response is  . . .

* HYMN "Praise With Joy the World's Creator" #312 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, help us to be aware that you are with us every moment;
help us to give thanks for this and all our blessings.

For sacred songs that lift our hearts up to you, we give thanks.
For people who uphold the traditions of the church, we give thanks.
And for experiences of the Sacred, which reconnect us to you, we give thanks.

God our Father,

Help us to remember that your creation sustains us every moment.
Help us to enjoy and praise your creation and to remember that we are created in your image.
God our Saviour,

As Christ you came to blaze a trail of faith, hope and love, which we follow.
You come to us again and again as new life born out of brokenness.

God who is Spirit,

As wind and fire, you blow where you will.
Help us to humbly follow the promptings of your Spirit and so become the Body of Christ on earth that always seeks to do your will.

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.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Flames of spirit; embers of soul, May 23, 2010

Texts: Genesis 11: 1-9    Tower of Babel * John 14: 8-17 * Romans 8: 14-17 * Acts 2: 1-21

Violent wind and flames of fire: this is how the Bible portrays God's Spirit. When the Holy Spirit comes to the disciples on the first Pentecost after the resurrection of Jesus, it comes as a rush of wind and as tongues of fire that alight on each one.

People in Jerusalem who hear the Spirit-led disciples are amazed. Some dismiss the good news of Jesus, which the disciples proclaim in every known language. The sceptics say they must be drunk. But no, Peter says: it is too early for the disciples to have been drinking. Instead, Peter says that their power comes from God's Spirit as prophesied in the apocalyptic Hebrew book of Joel:

"In the last days, God declares, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."

Hmm . . . though we are promised salvation in this outpouring of Spirit, it sometimes also scares me! Christ's Church begins with violent wind, tongues of flame, and news of the day of God's judgement when the sun shall go dark and the moon turn to blood.

Good news! And upon hearing this good news in Peter's sermon, 3,000 people from many nations repent and are baptized as followers of the Way of Christ. And so the church grows from 120 people to 3,000 in one morning.

The Church gets its power from the Spirit, which blows where it will and which inspires us. And indeed this is good news. But I think the Spirit can also lead to trouble. When individuals or communities are inspired, the results are not always holy.

A good example of unholy inspiration comes from this morning's reading about the Tower of Babel from Genesis. It is the time after Noah's Ark, and humans are repopulating the earth. They are united and speak one language. This unity gives them great power and so people begin building a huge tower that is to ascend to the heavens. When God sees how powerful they are becoming, he intervenes to put a stop to them. He scatters humans all across the earth and confuses their languages so that one people cannot communicate or work with another. And they abandon their city, which they call Babel.

The story of the Tower of Babel is one of inspiration that is out of control. A united humanity feels its power and over-reaches itself. And is this not what often happens? Unfortunately, examples of inspired insanity are not hard to find in human history.

Take the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this spring. For the past 150 years, there has been an ever-growing demand for oil. At present, about 85 million barrels of oil are mined and burned every day. Since about 4 million barrels of daily production is lost each year as old wells run dry, new sources of oil are constantly needed. Since WWII, more and more oil rigs have been drilling offshore; and the depths at which oil platforms float above the ocean floor have been growing. But when an oil well drills into the ocean floor a mile or more below the ocean's surface, we now know how difficult it can be when an accident occurs.

For more than one month now, a massive oil leak has gushed into the Gulf of Mexico, after an explosion destroyed the oil platform Deepwater Horizon. One can be inspired that engineers are able to locate oil reservoirs below the ocean floor and float a platform one mile above that floor to drill and produce oil. But unfortunately, they have not yet developed the capacity to stop an oil leak at such a depth. And so we weep as oil ruins parts of the natural habitat of the Gulf of Mexico.

The story in the Gulf reminds me of the Tower of Babel. In the story from Genesis, an inspired humanity builds a tower to ascend into the heavens. In our current events story, an inspired humanity drills into the murky and dangerous depths of the ocean.

In both instances, there is inspiration, but it is not holy. Humanity's collective ability to transform nature increases at an ever-growing rate. But our power often seems to lack common sense. Just because we can mine and burn 85 million barrels of oil every day does not mean that this is necessarily a good idea. And yet the competitive pressures under which companies and nations live means that we do not have the power to supervise and control our activities.

The story of Pentecost is the reversal of the story of the Tower of Babel. At Babel, humanity is scattered and languages are confused. At Pentecost, people from all around the Mediterranean are gathered in Jerusalem, and the Holy Spirit gives the disciples the power to speak to everyone in their own language. Thus the church is founded with the power of the Spirit to bring different people together.

Now, the history of the church since that Pentecost almost 2,000 years ago has included many instances of inspiration gone awry as well as of inspiration that follows the will of God. The negative examples might include the Crusades of the Middle Ages, the religious wars between Protestants and Catholics in the 17th century in Europe and church approval of the destruction of first nations in the Americas after 1500.

But even when we in the church get it wrong, God in the form of Spirit, Father, and Christ, offers us what we need to regain our balance. In the church and in our lives we need the power of the Spirit. But the good news is that there are also other elements in our life with God to help keep us balanced.

One way to understand this is with the concept of soul. I used to think that soul and spirit referred to the same thing. But then I read the 1992 best-selling book "Care of the Soul" by Thomas Moore. Moore makes a distinction between soul and spirit. Spirit, he writes, is connected to consciousness, thinking, idealism, and activism and it is oriented to the future. Soul on the other hand is connected to the body, the unconscious mind, feelings and tradition and it is oriented to the past.

But despite these differences, soul and spirit complement each other. Both can be seen as a kind of fire. Spirit is like an out-of-control flame that signals action, danger and change. Soul is like the glowing embers in a hearth fire; a fire that has burned down, become tame, and which we can rely upon for warmth and comfort.

Spirit without soul can be ungrounded and dangerous. And soul without spirit can be lifeless. But when they work together -- when with Grace, our spirit is grounded in soul and our soul is enlivened by spirit -- then life flourishes.

The life of Jesus illustrates both spirit and soul. Jesus begins his ministry when he is anointed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism. And he ends his ministry by promising the disciples that God will send his Holy Spirit to teach them everything. But Jesus also models for the disciples a humble and soulful path that grounds God's Spirit in human reality. Jesus is God-with-us, God in the flesh. He experiences of all the joys and pains of human existence. His path is one of humility and suffering -- the way of the Cross; and it this gracious and difficult way that we are called to follow, and which we do follow through the power of Spirit.

And so in Christ's church we have idealism and spirit, which is represented by soaring buildings, tall steeples, and ambitious missions to work for the reign of God. And in Christ's church, we also have the comfort and grounding of soul, which is represented by the communion table and the baptismal font. At the Lord's Table we remember the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in a simple meal of bread and wine. And at the font, we are initiated into the Way of the Cross using that most common and essential element, water.

Water, bread and wine: the soulful elements of a humble and embodied life in Christ. Steeple, cross, and Bible: the spiritual elements of an idealistic and ambitious life in Christ. We have both sides in the church. And because we have both sides, worship and mission can be moved by the power of God's Spirit while remaining grounded and balanced.

In the power of the Spirit, we strain for the future, work for social justice, and spread the good news of God as known through Christ. At the same time, we do this spiritual work as the humble fools we are: broken and mortal individuals who walk with Christ on the way of the Cross. On this journey, we share simple meals of bread and wine and try to comfort ourselves as brothers and sisters.

God has given us his Holy Spirit, which comes to us as wind and flame. And he has also given us a soulful companion in Jesus who gently warms us by the embers of the hearth. In God through Christ, our lives both include ambitious projects and the comfort of friends at the dinner table.

So as we give thanks again at Pentecost for the coming of the power of the Spirit amongst us, we also give thanks for the humble example of Jesus who keeps us grounded on God's path of faith, hope and love.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Our hymn of response tells again the story of Pentecost. It is . . .

* HYMN "Spirit of God, Unleashed on Earth" #207 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, help us to be aware that you are with us every moment;
help us to give thanks for this and all our blessings.

For paths blazed by the flame of Spirit, we give thanks.
For the power to dream dreams, and work for the vision of world made whole, we give thanks.
For fellow pilgrims on the humble path of life, we give thanks.
And for your love which comes as both soaring Spirit and comforting soul, we give thanks.

God of Spirit,

As wind and fire, you blow where you will.
Help us to humbly follow the promptings of your Spirit and so become the Body of Christ on earth that always seeks to do your will.

God of Faith,

    Help us to trust the Way of the Cross.
    Help us to be both idealistic and realistic as we seek to love God and neighbour
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

Sunday, May 16, 2010

"That all may be one," May 16, 2010

I have included the whole liturgy again this week since this service sets up my final four services in Didsbury -- Ian


Welcome to Sunday morning worship at Knox United Church. My name is Ian Kellogg and I am a student supply minister here at Knox this spring. Today the season of Easter is coming to a close. Next week, Easter ends as we celebrate Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit to the first Christians.

This morning our focus is on unity. Knox is part of the United Church, a denomination where unity is central. But the United Church has also always been about diversity within unity. The three founding denominations and the thousands of congregations that joined to form our church in 1925 kept much of their uniqueness. And today, in the United Church people of very different backgrounds, approaches, and ideas come together every week to worship God and serve their community.

So in our diverse gathering this morning, we hope that all will feel met and included in worship and in coffee time after the service.

This morning, as always, we begin worship by lighting a candle. The light of this candle represents the light of the Risen Christ. It calls to us, leads us, and unites us. This morning we gather to remember, recharge and give thanks.

Light candle . . .

We now turn to our opening hymn, which takes us into today's theme of unity. It is #402 from Voices United . . .

* GATHERING HYMN "We are One" #402 VU

And now we say together the call to worship and opening prayer . . .

* CALL TO WORSHIP (said together)

From many different backgrounds
we come in answer to your call
to worship together, united
as the Body of Christ.

* OPENING PRAYER (said together)

God who is One
Help us to love our neighbours and
see our common humanity
despite all our differences.

THEME CONVERSATION: Why a "United" church?

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 here today.

Do you see that crest up on the wall? That is the official crest of the United Church of Canada, and there is a lot of interesting stuff on it. We could do a whole series of Sundays just going through the different words and symbols on that crest. But today I am only going to point out the strange words along the bottom: they read "Ut Omnes Unum Sint." Those words are not even in English or French . . . they are from the ancient language Latin. They are Jesus' words from today's Gospel reading, and in English they mean "That all may be one." And that is the motto of the United Church of Canada.

So I want to ask you a question. Why do you think Knox is called a "United Church." Do you have any idea what the word "United" means for our church?

Yeah, it means we bring different churches together. 85 years ago, people from different traditions joined to make a bigger church -- the United Church of Canada. They wanted to live out Jesus' wish that "all may be one."

But that doesn't mean that other churches are not united. In fact, the big church down the hill, Zion, resulted from joining together two churches here in Didsbury 15 years ago. But it is still not called a United Church. The United Church came about when thousands of churches all across Canada and from three different brands or denominations came together to make one.

That was 85 years ago, and it created some strange situations. For instance, when I was a kid, I went to a church that was also called Knox United, in a small city in Ontario called Cornwall. And in Cornwall, there was another United Church called St. John's, but it was only one block away from Knox! This happened because before 1925, both of these churches were from different brands: one was Presbyterian and one was Methodist. But after 1925, they belonged to the same brand, which meant that two churches pretty much alike existed side by side.

After I grew up and left Cornwall, those two churches joined to become one, sort of like when Westcott and Westerdale closed and people started coming to Knox here; or 15 years ago when two churches in Didsbury joined to become Zion.

And you know what else? The church building where I went as a kid, Knox in Cornwall, just got torn down! Back in 1940, there was a small earthquake in Cornwall, which knocked down the steeple; and 70 years later, an engineer told them the rest of the building was not safe. So they had to tear it down.

I was sad when I heard this story. Imagine coming back to Didsbury one day when you are grown up and finding out that this building had been torn down. But churches are more than buildings, eh? And Jesus urges us to work together, and worship together, and perhaps one day there will just be one kind of church . . . who knows? But for now, I am happy that churches like Knox and Zion and many others exist where people can learn about God and about love.

So . . . I hope you enjoy church school this morning. But before you go, I have a brief prayer, then we will pray again the prayer that Jesus taught us, and then we will learn and sing a new hymn. OK?   LET US PRAY . . .

Dear God,

We give thanks for our differences, which make us interesting,
and for your love which unites us.
We give thanks for different ways to know about Love and for different churches in which we can follow your Will.
Help us to respect our differences and also to work together when the needs of the whole are greater than the wishes of the few.
Help us to know, O God, that you created all of us in your Image,
and that we are all each other's neighbours.


And now let us pray again together the prayer that Jesus taught us, saying . . .

Our Father . . .

The hymn before church school is a new one. I chose it because it is about unity and also because it mentions prairie, foothills and mountains, and so I thought it would be a good one for Knox to know. So before church school I will go up to the pulpit while we learn this hymn, then we will sing it together, and then church school will begin.

First Doreen will play the music through once, then I will sing the first verse as a solo, and then we will all join together to sing all four verses. It is #53 from More Voices . . .

* HYMN: "God Who Spread the Boundless Prairie" #53 MV


Psalm 97                God reigns; let the earth be glad.
Revelation 22: 12-21        Come Lord Jesus!
John 17: 20-26             That all may be one.

SERMON: Unity: from above and below

"That all may be one" -- with these words from the Gospel of John on its crest, the United Church of Canada came into being 85 years ago on June 10th, 1925. And we will celebrate that anniversary more fully on the Sunday closest to the anniversary, which is June 13th, and which is also my last service here at Knox.

But I decided to discuss unity today since the Gospel text for this morning is the one from John 17, which Pat just read. As the season of Easter ends, this reading from John as well as the reading from Revelation are ones that sum things up.

The reading from Revelation contains the famous phrase about Jesus: "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end." Incidentally, the Greek letters Alpha and Omega are also on the United Church crest. These last few verses from Revelation also include the promise, "I am coming soon." And although we still await the Second Coming of Jesus, the phrase can also point to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost next week.

The Gospel passage from John contains the last words said by Jesus to his disciples before his arrest and execution. In this parting message, Jesus urges believers towards unity. But what kind of unity is meant by the phrase "that all may be one?"

Perhaps Jesus means a kind of mystical union. Listen to Jesus' words again: "as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us." And his ending: "so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them." These convoluted phrases remind me of Paul when he writes that Christ lives in him.

So perhaps Jesus was talking about a mystical unity. But Jesus' phrase "that all may be one" have usually been interpreted the way that the United Church interprets it: as a call for church unity. Jesus' prayer, it is argued, is that all the followers of the Way of  the Cross form One Body.

In the first 300 years after Jesus death such unity was not easy. The church was small and far flung. It existed in house churches throughout the Mediterranean. Travel and communication were difficult and slow. Of course there were no printing presses or mass media, so Christian sacred writings such as the  letters of Paul and the gospel narratives were shared as expensive, hand-made copies. In this situation, there was not only one brand of Christianity. There were scores or hundreds of different kinds of Christianities.

All of this changed in the 300's when the Roman Empire dropped its old pagan cults and adopted Christianity as its official religion. By the year 400, all the many strange and diverse types of churches had been unified into one official brand --  Roman Catholicism -- with a common creed, a common collection of books in the Bible, and a common way of worshipping and running each congregation. Uniformity was enforced by the army. Those gospels, creeds and church practices that didn't fit with what the Emperor and his councils decided upon were ruthlessly suppressed.

This top-down approach created Christian unity. But was this the unity that Jesus prayed for with his disciples on the night of his arrest? This seems doubtful to me. For one it was a unity enforced by violence. For another it was this same Roman Empire that arrested Jesus on the night of his prayer and which executed him as a political prisoner the next day. And lastly, the book of Revelation, from which we also read today, is often seen as rousing condemnation of the Roman Empire and its attempts to unite the world on the basis of military might.

Nevertheless, with the adoption of a type of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire, church unity was first achieved. And when the Roman Empire disintegrated under barbarian attacks in the 400's, the Catholic Church was a key institution that kept Europe somewhat united during the Dark Ages. There was a  church split around the year 1000 between the Greek Orthodox wing of the church, centred in what is now Turkey, and the Catholic church centred in Rome. But even after that split, uniformity was maintained for another 500 years in two different flavours: a Latin flavour in the Catholic West of Europe and a Greek flavour in the Orthodox East of Europe.

All of this changed as European powers began their conquest of the world in the 1500s. The Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther in Germany, John Calvin in France and Switzerland, Henry VIII in England, and John Knox in Scotland, which occurred in that century, shattered Christian unity. The rage to create new denominations, which continues to this day, began.

Its not that we as Protestants oppose the Reformation. By the year 1500, the Church in Europe had grown tired and corrupt, and the reforms introduced in the new denominations of Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, Anabaptism, and Anglicanism, and also within the Roman Catholic church in a movement known as the Counter-Reformation, had many positive results.

But although Christianity became the world's dominant religion after European colonization of the Americas, Africa and Asia, it also split into scores of different denominations.

The diversity of Christianity in the first decades after Jesus came naturally. It flowed from  smallness,  poverty, and the difficulties in travel and communication. Although both Jewish and Christian teachings contained calls towards unity, the social situation did not make such unity possible.

At the time of Jesus, most of the world had finally been inhabited by humans. There were only a few islands in the Pacific Ocean like Hawaii that had not yet been reached by humans. But at that time, people in the Roman Empire did not know of the existence of the Americas; people in the Americas did not know of the existence of Africa; and people in Africa did not know of the existence of East Asia. Jews and Christians might wish for human unity under God, but the human race was still developing in isolated pockets on different continents.

European conquest after 1500 changed all this. European powers united all of humanity through war and conquest. Since then, we have lived in a globalized world with one economy. This is the context in which we pray for church unity today.

By the end of the 19th Century, the pendulum among Protestants was swinging back towards unity. And the strongest expression of this movement was right here in Canada. When the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational churches joined to form the United Church of Canada in 1925 it was the first, most hopeful and most influential church union of its day.

Not that there aren't difficulties in church unity. Different churches have different traditions, different ideas on key issues, and different missions. As we will discuss more on June 13th, our own United Church history of the past 85 years shows many of the problems that exist.

Despite the difficulties, modern attempts at church unity have great promise because they are attempts to unite from below and not from above. The impulse towards church unity is found not only in united churches like our own, but also in the formation at the broadest level of the World Council of Churches after WWII and in ministerial associations like the one here in Didsbury and Carstairs at the local level.

Unity from below has a lot to be said for it. For instance, one of the key spurs to the formation of the United Church of Canada was the experience of settlers of European descent on the prairies. In many small farming communities, people might come from different denominations, but they didn't always have the resources or the desire to create more than one church. So a "union church" movement grew up here.

Union churches in the West proved in practice that Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican or Baptist Christians could successfully worship and work together for love of God and neighbour. This concrete experience of small churches in the West in the late 19th and early 20th Century encouraged the more established Presbyterian and Methodist churches in Eastern Canada to move from talking about unity to actually achieving it.

Today our world needs greater unity to tackle many problems: economic, environmental, and military. But there are legitimate fears about unity from above based upon attempts by empires like Rome to control the whole known world in ancient times, or 20th Century attempts to achieve worldwide unity through military force as with Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

Perhaps it is those of us who modestly try to follow Jesus' path of faith, hope and love in churches big and small that offer a better model of unity. As members of the Body of Christ we worship and work together despite our many differences. God's Spirit grants us the Grace to know God's love for us. On this basis we are able to love our neighbours as ourselves. So perhaps it is in Spirit-led churches that a human unity that is truly diverse, democratic, and effective can best be imagined. And we will explore these ideas further on Pentecost next Sunday, on Trinity Sunday two weeks from today, and on June 13th as we celebrate the United Church's anniversary . . .

On the night before his death, Jesus prayed that the love with which God the Father loved him may be in us and that he as Christ be in us as well.  Indeed, the love of God within, between and surrounding us has already made us one.

With God's grace, may we continue to know and experience this deep and loving reality  and so be inspired to seek unity within diversity and peace with justice.

Thanks be to God.


Our hymn of response is . . . 

* HYMN "Your Hand, O God, Has Guided" #274 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, help us to be aware that you are with us every moment;
help us to give thanks for this and all our blessings.

For churches in which diverse people work and worship together as One Body, we give thanks,
For the impulse to work together in a world of religious, economic and political divisions, we give thanks,
And for your love for us which is the real power behind the work to build a world of justice and peace, we give thanks.

God of Spirit,

As Easter gives way to Pentecost, we look forward in hope to the work of your Spirit within and around us. May we always follow the Spirits promptings and be grounded in the path laid out for us in the life and ministry of Jesus.
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

Saturday, May 8, 2010

"Disciples Behaving Badly" May 9, 2010

Text: John 14: 23-29

Today is Mother's Day, Family Sunday, and the day of the baptism of Tiauna, Marisa, Nathan and Alexander -- and so our focus this morning is on families.

I mentioned to the children a few minutes ago that we often consider church to be a kind of family. Indeed, part of Knox United's mission statement, which we print every Sunday in the bulletin, says "We are a church family that welcomes you to a living faith through God and the teachings of Jesus Christ."

Church as a kind of family -- that might sound appealing, unless the phrase also brings to our minds some of the tougher realities of families. Families, of course, are central to our lives -- we are raised in them as children, we form them by marriage in adulthood, and we enjoy the wonders and grace of extended families throughout the years in times of mourning and celebration.

But our experiences in families are not always positive. Families are where we experience love, and sometimes also aggression; where we get our most basic needs met, and where we sometimes suffer neglect; and where we find acceptance and healing, and sometimes also find rejection and hurt.

So what kind of church family do we form here at Knox, or in the United Church of Canada, or in the broader Christian Church all around the world?

For three years, Jesus and his followers formed a kind of family. They travelled together, ate together, healed and taught together, and loved and supported one another.

Our Gospel reading from John this morning is taken from the long speech Jesus gives to his disciples on the night before his death. He explains that soon he will no longer be with them in person. But he assures the disciples that God will send the Holy Spirit to teach them everything and remind them of all Jesus has said to them. This assurance is also meant for us: though we do not have Jesus with us in person, we have the Holy Spirit to teach and help us.

But is this really reassuring news? Even when Jesus is with his disciples in the flesh, not everything goes smoothly. In Bible stories, the disciples are often in trouble. They quarrel with one another. They argue about who is the greatest among them. They often don't understand what Jesus is doing or saying. One of them, Judas, betrays Jesus to the Romans. Another one, Peter, denies Jesus three times on the night of his arrest.

One can imagine a TV special about the disciples' life with Jesus. It might be called "Disciples behaving badly!" And if this is how his friends behave when Jesus is there in person to teach, lead, and love them, will it be any better when Jesus' presence is only something as seemingly nebulous as the Holy Spirit?

We do know a little about the life of the disciples after Jesus' ascension to heaven -- from the book of Acts and from the Letters in the New Testament. And these show that  Jesus' followers continue to have troubles. Of course, part of their trouble comes from outside forces that oppress them: the Roman Empire, religious elites who opposed the teachings of Jesus, and the harsh life of the 1st Century. Just as in parts of the Global South today, the early followers of Jesus lived in a time of poverty, disease and inequality.

But even within the church of the first Christians, we are told of fights and arguments -- about whom to welcome into the church and whom to exclude; what to believe; and how the church should conduct its business. Two Sundays from now on Pentecost, we will celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to the early church, just as Jesus predicts in our reading this morning. But despite the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit, the early Christians still had fights enough and unhappiness.

And so it continues today. A congregation like Knox might be our chosen family -- and we are very glad to welcome the Torchia children into this family today -- but like all families, there are things we dearly love about this church family, and sometimes things we are not so thrilled about.

As in any family, members of Knox might feel resentment as well as appreciation, envy as well as joy, fear as well as trust, boredom as well as excitement, and hurt as well as healing. If there are stresses in the church -- things like budget shortfalls, decisions to be made about the building, or competing ideas about our mission -- then those stresses sometimes lead to bad feelings and perhaps arguments.

The disciples had Jesus with them and then the Holy Spirit, and sometimes it wasn't enough to make life in their chosen family run smoothly. And we have the Holy Spirit and God's Love here among us, and it isn't always enough to make life in this church family always run smoothly either.

And that is OK, I think. As I said during the Welcome this morning, we come to church for many reasons,. But we all come with problems: each one of us is limited, mortal, and broken in various ways. Sometimes we are scared and unhappy. We come to church not because we are perfect, but just for the opposite reason, because we are sinners. And if you put a group of broken, unhappy sinners together to form a family of believers with a mission to love God and neighbour, then of course things won't always run exactly the way we would want.

But Jesus and the Holy Spirit didn't give up on the confused, quarrelsome and unhappy disciples; and neither do they give up on us.

The creation of any family is always a matter of faith, hope and love. Despite all our shortcomings, we fall in love, marry, have babies, and try as best we can to raise them. We trust that God's Love will support us even when we make mistakes. We live in hope for our children and grandchildren, even as many forces exist to frighten us. And always we try to remember to be guided by the light of Love, which for us as Christians is best represented by God through Christ in the power of the Spirit.

How do we remember to follow the path of faith, hope and love? Church can be a big part of it. This morning, we embraced four children as children of God. We used water as the symbol of God's Spirit to mark them with the sign of Christ's cross. And in welcoming these four little ones into our church family, we remembered and renewed our own baptismal vows. We are broken, and yet we belong to God. We bear the marks of pain and unhappiness of our lives, and yet we are also marked and claimed by the sign of Christ. We stumble and sometimes argue amongst ourselves, but we also rely on God's grace again and again to respect ourselves and love one another.

Life wasn't always easy for the disciples -- both when they had Jesus with them and after he left them with His Spirit. But they prayed, celebrated and sang because God had given them the path of faith, hope and love on which mere mortals can support one another in families of all kinds. Life isn't always easy for us, but we have God's Spirit buried deep within us and always dancing between us. So we pray, celebrate and sing because God has given us his path of faith, hope and love in which we as mere mortals can support one another in families of all kinds.

And so on Mother's Day 2010, as we welcome four children into this beloved community, Knox United, we celebrate again the grace of God's Love, shown to us in the example of Jesus Christ, and through the ongoing power of God's Spirit. We do so amidst the troubles and joys of our lives and amidst the troubles and joys of this church family. And so we cannot keep from singing.

Thanks be to God.


Prayers of the People

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

For children, who are the promise of new life fulfilled, and an endless source of the joy and challenge of living, we give thanks.
For families and communities of faith that pledge to love, support and teach our children, we give thanks
And for the path of new life that is your gift of grace to people everywhere, we give thanks.

God who is Spirit,

By the Spirit buried deep inside us, we know that we are your child.
By the Spirit dancing between us, we know each other to be your children.
By the Spirit that animates the entire world, we know that you support us.
We give thanks for families, churches, and rituals that make visible your Spirit which calls, claims and commissions us to a life of faith, hope and love.

God who is Love,

In families of all kinds, we find struggle and grace.
Help us to feel your love for us and so find the self respect we need
to love one another no matter what we are feeling.
Help us to forgive ourselves and each other when we stumble and to always remember that we are also part of the family of church, humanity and God where all are welcomed and all are forgiven by your Love.

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.

Finally, let us draw all our prayers -- spoken and unspoken -- into One as we pray again together the Prayer that Jesus taught us, saying . . .

Our Father, who art in Heaven . . .

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Commanded to love, May 2, 2010

Text: John 13: 31-35

"All you need is love" said the Beatles in the 1960s; and so says Jesus in his own wonderful and distinct way. "Love one another as I has loved you," Jesus commands his friends in our Gospel reading this morning. "Love God and neighbour," he tell us, for these are the two Greatest Commandments. "Love one's neighbour as oneself" he continues. Jesus even commands us to love our enemies. Commandments about love are central to Jesus' life, mission, and teaching. But do we really need to be commanded to love? Doesn't love just come naturally to us?

Last Sunday at both the Junior Youth and Senior Youth group meetings, the theme was love. And I liked how Brad, Rolf, and Naomi used the ideas from our planning sessions. In particular, Brad highlighted different kinds of love as framed by the four words for love used in Greek and in the New Testament. The four kinds of love are romantic love, family love, love for friends, and love for all of life. It is the last love -- which is referred to by the word agape in Greek and is often translated into English as charity -- that is most central to love in the Bible and in the teachings of Jesus.

Over the next little while, we in Knox will hear more about activities of our youth groups based upon this last love: agape or charity love. The teenagers who Darlene took to the Lantern Community Church in Calgary in March were inspired by the outreach of that church to its neighbourhood. Using this inspiration, our youth groups are planning a campaign that will involve "random acts of kindness" as a way of showing love. I am really pleased by this inspiration and look forward to the next steps the youth will take.

But thinking about love last week also brought to mind some of the difficulties in following the path of love. It is these difficulties that lead Jesus to command us to love, I believe. And the way out of these difficulties is also provided by the second half of Jesus' statement: we are to love one another just as Jesus has loved us. Our ability to love both God and neighbour is sustained by God's gracious love for us.

Loving others requires self-respect, and that is the problem. For many of us in this crazy world, achieving self-respect does not come easily. For me, self-respect seemed especially elusive when I was a teenager. And I thought of that teenage self when meeting with the youth groups last week. When I was a teen, I'm not sure if I would have been willing to practice random acts of kindness given how miserable I sometimes felt back then.

Even though I usually got good marks in school, I didn't feel great about myself. Of course, growing up always has issues and stages. But I found school to be unhelpful. It was hard for me to feel self-respect when school was so regimented and when it didn't focus on my interests.

Like many young people, I wasn't very keen on geometry or geography; physics or French. Instead, I was obsessed with having friends, going on dates, and keeping up with popular culture. And when I had trouble finding friends, convincing anyone to go on a date with me, or figuring out my identity amid all the popular trends, then I felt bad about myself.

One solution to unhappiness like this among children and youth is the Self Esteem movement of the last few decades. The movement aims to help children succeed by fostering positive judgements. The philosophy is to focus on the positive in most interactions with a child, even when they have shown lack of knowledge on a test, performed below expectations on a task, or have behaved in a way that violates a community norm.

Personally I am not keen about the self-esteem movement. To me, it just flips negative judgements on their head. Because self-esteem takes the form of judgements  -- phrases such as "good job"; or "you are doing really well" -- it has the same problems as negative judgements. Its gives power and authority to the teacher or to an inner voice to name and judge, which I don't find helpful.

In contrast to self-esteem, I prefer the quest for self-respect and self-acceptance. The latter are the opposite of judgements. Instead of having inner voices that say "good girl" or "bad boy," self-acceptance comes with an inner voice that might simply say "you are" or "I am." Such a shift from self-esteem to self acceptance does not mean that values are stripped away. The values remain, but they are expressed modestly. They are connected to feelings and not to judgements.

For example, instead of a judging statements such as "good girl," a self-respecting statement might say "I really liked how you handled the hockey game, which your team just lost. Even though you were sad to lose and felt some guilt for how you played, you didn't insult either the other team or yourself. You expressed disappointment, but didn't attack yourself or the other team. I like that because being respectful is a key value for me."

Self acceptance is hard to achieve because we are often not happy with our lives. We might experience pain and loss. We might say or do things that hurt ourselves or others. We try to fit into a world with too much violence and sometimes feel ambivalent about our careers or the role we play in the community. Above all, we are aware we are limited and mortal individuals. To accept ourselves is to also accept these tough realities.

The normal alternative to accepting ourselves -- both those things we like and those we don't -- is denying our reality. But it is inevitable from time to time that our denied realities break into awareness, and then we feel bad about ourselves. When we judge ourselves, we don't have a solid basis upon which to love our family and friends let alone unknown people who live on the other side of town or the other side of the world. And yet Jesus commands us to love. So how are we to do this?

In the Gospel passage this morning, Jesus and his disciples are at the Last Supper. Jesus has just washed the disciples feet. And then Jesus gives his friends the new commandment. Jesus says they are to love one another just as Jesus has loved them.

The disciples are like us: judgemental and unhappy, and so they are not in a great place to love one another. But Jesus gives them the answer in his next phrase: "just as I have loved you." Jesus' love has just taken the form of a ritual of foot washing, which anticipates the ultimate sacrifice of the next day, his death on the cross. It is these expressions of radical love for his friends that give them the space in which to love one another. Jesus has loved them even to the point of death.

Since Jesus is willing to die in solidarity with us -- yes even us -- he opens up a path of self-acceptance. We may be heart broken, but we are still children of God, and loved by Jesus. We may be sinners, but we are children of God, and loved by Jesus. We may be sick or in pain, but we are children of God and loved by Jesus. God through Jesus accepts us just as we are. By remembering this amazing fact, we might then accept ourselves. And if we can accept ourselves, we are freed to love one another as well.

God's love for us is made visible in a thousand ways. In any moment, whether it is one of pain or joy, we are supported: supported by the earth, by the web of life, by our family and friends, by all of human history and culture -- and supported by the God of  Love who animates all of this.

God's support comes to us as a free gift. And when we remember this support, we realize that our humble self is connected to all other people and all of life. Then our hearts might be opened in love. It might begin as love of self, but we might also realize that our little self is part of the whole web of humanity, of life, and of God's Spirit. This is the gracious place where self-love touches selfless love. To love one's self with eyes wide open is to humbly know our deep connection to all other life and to God.

In Matthew and Luke, Jesus also commands us to love our enemies. Much could be said on that topic, but I will restrict myself here to say that this commandment makes a lot of paradoxical sense. Often it is those people or communities that we most dislike who shine a light on our own troubled hearts. If Person A drives me crazy with annoyance, probably they are exhibiting a quality of myself that I am denying and have not yet accepted. So when we embrace our so-called enemies, we often embrace a denied and shadow part of ourselves; and we find ourselves taking a big step towards the self-acceptance that God has already extended to us.

The practice and grace of accepting Jesus' love despite all we don't like about ourselves; of loving our enemies and so embracing denied and disliked parts of ourselves; and of finding the ground upon which to love God and neighbour is a lifelong one. So perhaps it is a lot to expect our teenagers to show the ability to fully love another and love their neighbours as themselves?

But why not? As a teen, I personally might have not fully accepted myself. But there is no age requirement for maturity or for being open to the story and reality of Jesus' love. Somehow, I didn't fully get this message in younger years. But I'm glad that with the help of church, friends and neighbours, God's message has been slowly sinking in.

One is never to too old or too young to learn the truth that to heal your life you have to lose it. So in the coming weeks and months I wish our young people well in their mission to express charitable love for God and neighbour.

Jesus loves us -- yes, even us -- and so we are free to give up the inner struggle and accept ourselves just as we are. We are freed to spend our lives in love because God through Jesus has first loved us.

"All you need is love" said the Beatles. And the good news is that in God, we already have all the love that we need both now and always.

Thanks be to God. Amen