Sunday, July 31, 2011

Wrestling with God, July 31, 2011

Texts: Genesis 32:22-31 (Jacob wrestles with God); Matthew 14:22-33 (Jesus walks on water)

Has maintaining your faith in God ever been a struggle for you? And has the struggle ever gotten so bad that it felt like a wrestling match that lasted through the night?

Sometimes it has felt that way to me. And so this morning I focus on the story we have just heard where Jacob wrestles all night long with a strange man whom Jacob later decides must have been God . . .

In my first three Sundays here in Borderlands, I concentrated on the assigned readings about Jesus from Matthew and those from the letter of St. Paul to the church in Rome. But this summer, the assigned Scripture readings also include passages from Genesis about Abraham and his wife Sarah, their children Ishmael and Isaac, and their grandsons, Esau and Jacob. These stories go back more than 3,000 years and tell of the founding of the nation of Israel.

Jacob is a key figure in the first book of our Bible, Genesis. But he is hardly an ideal role model for all of that. As the second-born of twin brothers, Jacob should have been subordinate to his older twin brother, Esau. And yet Genesis shows Jacob tricking Esau out of his birthright and later tricking his dying father, Isaac, into blessing him rather than the older brother. Jacob's mother then warns her beloved Jacob that Esau is out to kill him because of these tricks. So Jacob flees to an uncle's land where he marries two of his uncle's daughters and becomes rich during 20 years there.

But just before we enter the story today, Jacob is once again fleeing his home, this time from the land of his brothers-in-law. God has directed him to return to his father's land to reunite with his older brother Esau. Jacob heeds this command even though he is afraid. He worries that Esau might still bear a grudge against his trickery of 20 years before.

This is the background to Jacob's all-night wrestling match. Given this background, should we consider the struggle a dream or reality? For instance, why does the text identify the wrestler only as a man? And why does Jacob say afterward that in this struggle he has seen God face to face and survived? Finally, why does the wrestler give Jacob a new name, Israel, which means he who struggles with God?

It might seem easy to psychoanalyze this story. Jacob is terrified of his brother Esau. When Jacob does reunite with his older twin the next day he speaks of this fear and tells Esau that "seeing your face is like seeing the face of God." So I am left wondering if Jacob's night of wrestling was a dream born of his fear of his twin brother Esau in which he mistakes Esau's face for the fearsome face of God.

Genesis doesn't comment on any of this. And the Hebrew people -- who eventually call their nation by the name, Israel, given to Jacob by the wrestler -- accept the story just as it is written. So do Christians. As a faith-community that grew within Judaism, we include the Hebrew Bible as the largest part of our own Holy Scripture.

[By the way, the reunion of Jacob and Esau the next day turns out fine, perhaps because Jacob had sent extravagant gifts ahead to his older brother.]

Let us now briefly connect Jacob's story with our Gospel reading from Matthew.

In this latter story, Jesus sends his students out in a boat to cross to other side of the lake while he retreats to a mountain to pray. In the night, a storm impedes the progress of the boat. The disciples are terrified when Jesus appears to them walking on the water. Realizing that his ghostly appearance has frightened them, Jesus calms the disciples by saying "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."

At this point Peter decides to test both the identity of Jesus and his own faith. He says "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water," to which Jesus simply replies, "Come." Peter then boldly walks out onto the lake, and at first he is alright. But when his focus moves from Jesus to the wind and waves, he starts to sink. He pleads with Jesus to save him, which Jesus does even as he chastises Peter by saying,"you of little faith."

So today we have two stories about fear and faith. God commands Jacob to return to the land of his father Isaac; and Jesus commands Peter to leave the boat. Jacob obeys God's command even though he is afraid of his brother; and Peter obeys Jesus' command even though he is afraid of the water. Both of them take a leap of faith and both of them soon succumb to their fears. Peter almost drowns while Jacob wrestles all night with a strange man. Finally, both of them receive God's help in their struggles between fear and faith. Jacob emerges from his dark night with a new name and a blessing, along with an enduring limp to remind him of the struggle. Peter is saved from drowning even as he is chastised by Jesus.

Jacob and Peter are both central figures in our tradition. Jacob is a key founder of the nation of Israel while Peter is a key founder of our Church. Both are caught between fear and a trusting faith. Both move forwards despite their fear. Both stumble because of their remaining fear. Both encounter God. And both move forward with God's help and blessing after these encounters.

These stories show us the shape of our own lives too, I think. We cannot live life without a large measure of trusting faith. We are forced to trust our bodies and minds, our families, and the world despite well-founded fears.

But we humans can never wholly sustain this trusting faith on our own. We all have fragile bodies. We all feel pain of many kinds. Our families and societies are often wracked with violence. And in the end, we are all sure to die.

With all that there is to fear, we could end up paralyzed like the disciples in the boat. Instead, we usually lurch forward. We make one fear-filled leap of faith after another. These leaps include our first steps as infants, our entry into schools, our first friendships, trips, jobs, marriages, children, and so on. But given all that there is to fear, where do we get the courage to take these leaps of faith?

Our two stories assert that God is there in the middle of our struggles between fear and faith. In their encounters with God, Jacob accepts a blessing and a new name and Peter accepts the support of Jesus. Now this God-given grace does not mean that everything turns out perfectly for either of them. Jacob's family troubles only get worse after his long night of struggle with God. Unfortunately, his sons prove to be even more vicious with each other than Jacob was with Esau. Peter, despite being the rock upon which Jesus founds our church, remains as prone to humiliating mistakes after Jesus saves him as he was before.

The same is true for us as well. With our hearts in our hands, we launch into the many ventures of our lives. But this does not mean that we avoid all pain. It does not mean that we are always free of sin. And it does not mean that in the end we won't die. None of us can avoid pain, sin or death. So our struggles between fear and faith continue; and in the midst of those struggles we again and again encounter the Grace of God.

Life is filled with struggles. And we all have our own limps and our own losses to prove this. But by reminding ourselves of our faith in prayer and worship, by practicing our faith in everyday acts, and by confronting our fears when we are able, we often receive the courage to soldier on. And in many a dark and stormy night, we experience again the assurance that, despite our pains and disappointments, we are in the arms of God as Father, Christ, and Spirit, the God who blesses us and names as His own.

Like Jacob/Israel, we are people who struggle with God. And because God is always there to help us in those struggles, we are sure that ultimately we will always be brought back home.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

"Something old, something new . . . ", July 24, 2011

Texts: Romans 8:26-39 (sighs too deep for words), Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 (five more parables)

The old Victorian saying, "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue," directs a bride on what to wear on her wedding day. The saying came to my mind to this week not only because I have been speaking with the two couples at whose weddings I will preside here in Borderlands in August -- Amanda Vancuren and Jerrod Bartlett of Weyburn in Coronach on August 13 and Patrick Disney and Sarah Corcoran in Wesley United in Rockglen on August 27 -- but moreso because of the passage I just read from Matthew.

Jesus ends the passage by telling his students that "every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old." So what might this new and old treasure refer to, and who are the scribes who have been trained for the kingdom of heaven?

A commentary that I read this week on this passage said that the old treasure could refer to Holy Scripture and other traditions of our church. The new treasure could refer to our conversations about how to function as a church today. And "every scribe"could refer to you and me -- ordinary people trying to follow Jesus.

This morning, I reflect on how we might encourage life-giving conversations -- new treasure -- amongst ourselves and with our neighbours.

The five short parables that Jesus presents to his students in our reading form part of our old treasure -- scripture written almost 2,000 years ago, which we have been hearing and discussing ever since. But when Jesus first said those words, they were new and startling. They form a part of the conversation Jesus had with his followers. And they were probably controversial and difficult words back then.

What is the Kingdom of God like, Jesus says? It is like tiny mustard seeds, or yeast put into bread, or treasure hidden in a field and then stolen by a passerby, or a pearl of great value that a merchant sacrifices everything to possess.

[The final parable about a net filled with good and bad fish is a variation on the parable of good and bad seed from last week's reading. And like last week's reading, this final parable only occurs in Matthew, and it is one of the places when Jesus makes predictions of wailing and gnashing of teeth in the furnace of fire, so I will leave it aside this week.]

Jesus' parables probably sounded strange and provocative to those who first heard them. Mustard was not a cash crop in the First Century. Instead, it was an unwanted and pesky weed. And yet Jesus said it was like the Kingdom of God. Yeast, although required in raising bread and fermenting beer, was a symbol of corruption and decay among First Century Jews. And yet Jesus said it was like the Kingdom of God. Jesus says that treasure hidden in a field by its owner and then stolen by a passerby is like the Kingdom of God. Really? Is Jesus suggesting that we steal? Hmm. Finally, a merchant finds a pearl of great value and sells all he owns to posses it. Merchants were often disliked and distrusted by ordinary poor people in Jesus' time. And yet, Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like a pearl of great value for which a merchant sacrifices all his wealth.

In his context almost 2000 years ago, Jesus' metaphors about God's kingdom probably struck his hearers as odd and new. Back then, these metaphors were new treasure that Jesus offered them against the backdrop of the old treasure of Hebrew Scripture, Jewish religion, and commonsense wisdom. In the light of those old traditions, Jesus' parables ran against the stream.

What would equivalent metaphors be for us today? That God's realm is like a rich bank executive who falls in love with a group of disadvantaged children and who sells all his wealth to live with them and help them overcome their poverty? Or that God's realm is like a person who illegally copies a software application and gives it to his family and friends free of charge? Or that God's realm is like a flooding river in a spring and summer of weird weather that disrupts the lives of those who are unfortunate to live along its banks? Or that God's realm is like the idea of equality between men and women that grows like a gracious and subversive weed among young people and leads them to overthrow an authoritarian government?

Well, I doubt if any of these metaphors are adequate echoes for the parables that Jesus presented in today's reading. But I do hope that they give a sense of how Jesus' words, which are now part of our ancient and sacred tradition, were new and disturbing elements in the conversation he had with his friends 2,000 years ago.

One area where new and old treasure rub against each other in our church life is music.  I love singing hymns and anthems in worship services. So when I surprised myself by returning to church 10 years ago, singing in the choir at Kingston Road United Church in east Toronto helped to cement my return.

My return to church was a homecoming. My late father, the Rev. James Clare Kellogg, had been a United Church minister, so I grew up in church and sang in the junior choir. When I joined Kingston Road United, I loved singing many of the hymns that I had learned as a child. I was also glad that new hymns had become part of worship in the intervening decades and some of them have now become my favourites.

My return to church was helped by the presence of old hymns and other traditional aspects of worship, and also by the new elements that had been incorporated into church life, such as new hymns.

For today's service, I chose three hymns. The first one we sang, "God Is Here," is a 20th Century hymn. The music was composed in 1905 by a Welsh composer and the words were written by a British Methodist minister in 1978. So while it is not an ancient hymn, neither is it very contemporary either.

The hymn of response that I chose for after the sermon, "God of Still Waiting,"is one of the new hymns from the "More Voices" hymnbook. I discovered this hymn as I prepared Advent services as a student intern in Alberta in 2009. The words and music of this hymn were both composed in the year 2000. And although it is not a particularly "modern-sounding" hymn, it is not well known yet in most congregations. I hope you will enjoy learning and singing it today.

And our closing hymn, "Be Thou My Vision,"is an old favourite in every way. The words were originally written in Irish, perhaps as long as 1500 years ago. The tune is also ancient: a traditional Irish melody. So not only has this hymn been a favourite one in many churches over the last 200 years, its roots are very ancient indeed.

Three hymns: one from a few generations ago, one quite recent, and one very ancient. My hope is that reflecting on our hymns today will help us think about elements in worship that represent both old and new treasure.

Church is one of the most traditional parts of our culture. This fact helps give church great depth, soul and trustworthiness. But tradition can sometimes get in the way of talking to each other about what is relevant in our lives today. Our souls yearn for tradition. But out spirits reach out for what is new, exciting and important today. So how can our spirits learn to sing a new song in the light of our ancient traditions?

I am not sure that I know how to best encourage congregational conversation. I do like to talk, as you have probably already guessed. But I am unsure of the path that leads from church as a one-way monologue by me to church as a conversation among equals. Nevertheless, I can see a few signposts on this path. I look forward to my first meetings with committees like Ministry and Personnel and Worship, and to my first Central Board meeting in September. These meetings will be occasions where I can learn more about the history, traditions, plans, and visions of the three congregations in Borderlands. And they will also be places where I will listen more than speak.

And then there are all the one-one-one conversations I look forward to having with each of you. One of the true privileges of ministry is the chance to share with members of the church community, both in ordinary times, and in times of mourning or celebration.

Another thing that I believe will help keep the conversation going are small-groups such as the ones that Kevin and previous ministers organized for book study and other types of sharing. I hope to start such small groups in September . . .

The Christian Church has an unbelievably rich tradition of sacred traditions and writings. And to bring this tradition to life, we search for what is relevant today through life-giving conversations.

I don't come this morning with easy answers. But I do have confidence in our treasured heritage as found, for instance, in the beloved passage heard today from Romans. While there is enough material in this passage for 10,000 sermons at least, to close I will read some brief excerpts from today's passage from by St. Paul:

"We know that all things work together for good for those who love God . . . If God is for us, who is against us? . . . Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all the world, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

So with confidence found in, and given to us by old treasure such as Scripture, our new treasure of ongoing conversations will continue into the future.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Wheat, weeds and judgement

Texts: Romans 8:12-25 (children of God), Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 (wheat and weeds)

So it is my second week here, and for the second week in a row the assigned Gospel reading from Matthew uses a farming metaphor. In last week's reading, Jesus compared different types of soil to different types of people whereas this week, he compares different types of seed to different types of people.

You may recall that last week I also imagined that the seeds in the parable of the sower represented human beings instead of the different types of soil. I now realize that this shows how much I have yet to learn about the Bible . . .  I merely had to keep reading to the very next passage in Matthew to see that Jesus makes that same move. But then that is life in the church, is it not? There is a lot to learn and and only a limited amount of time in which to learn . . .

Be that as it may, this week the reading asks us to reflect upon wheat and weeds, which seems like an appropriate topic for a hot, midsummer Sunday. For instance, Carla told me that she has spent a lot of time this week pulling portulaca from her garden, and yesterday Bruce Elder came to the manse and sprayed the empty vegetable plot in the backyard to rid it of weeds. BTW, perhaps next spring I will get inspired and try to put in a garden in that plot . . .

In the parable, Jesus suggests that we not try to separate the good plants from the weeds and instead wait until harvest time. At that point, the weeds can be separated and burned up -- or as Carla discovered about portulaca when she and Charlie still had pigs, you can feed it to the pigs. She told me that they seemed to love it  . . .

Jesus interprets the parable for his students. He says that the harvest refers to the close of the age, or the dreaded Day of Judgement. At that time, all causes of sin and all evildoers will be thrown into a furnace of fire and there men will weep and gnash their teeth. He also says that in his parable, the good seed refers the children of God's kingdom while the bad seed refers to the children of the evil one.

Hmm. So here we are, just beginning my ministry with you, and already we confront the big and difficult questions of evil, judgement, and the furnace of fire. This does not surprise me, not just because evil is such a prominent feature of our lives in this broken and fallen world, but also because this church year, as happens every third year, our Gospel readings come mostly from Matthew. And Matthew, much more than the other three Gospel writers, shows Jesus talking about judgement, morality, and the fires of hell. As an example, our parable this morning is found only in Matthew. Matthew's Gospel is the only one that mentions weeping and gnashing of teeth in lakes of fire. It is only in Matthew's Gospel that Jesus says he has come not to abolish the strict laws of ancient Israel but to fulfill those laws. And it is only in Matthew that Jesus commands his followers to be holier and purer than the Pharisees. So between now and the end of this church year in late November, we will confront the tough and judgemental side of Jesus as shown by Matthew several more times.

And I am pleased about that because questions of evil, morality, judgement and the end of the age are relevant to our lives. For instance, let us imagine that the field in today's parable represents a community, that the plants of the wheat seeds represent the children of God and that the weeds of the bad seed represent the children of the evil one. Given this, I am sure that we can all bring to mind moments when we judged some people in our group to be useful and kind and others to be destructive and mean. People who form community groups almost always come together with good intentions. But we also know how many of us can get carried away and sometimes do things that upset others or seem to hurt the cause.

I really appreciate, then, that the parable tells us to withhold our judgements. It directs us to leave the separation of the wheat from the weeds to God at the end of the age. We are only human and our vision is never complete or perfect. So when we judge the person next to us to be a "bad seed," we are often wrong.

Indeed, the attempt to judge oneself or other people as children of the evil one as opposed to children of God will usually lead us astray, in my opinion. St Paul in our reading this morning reminds us that we are all adopted children of God. Nevertheless, we are still human beings living in difficult circumstances. As such, none of us is completely "good" seed that will produce wheat or completely "bad" seed  that will produce weeds. We are all mixtures of qualities, some of which we like and admire and some of which we dislike and want to reject. That is life this side of the grave. None of us is 100% pure, nor is any community completely weed-free.

So where will that leave us on the Day of Judgement? Jesus' message this morning that all causes of sin will then be cast into the fire can cheer us. But will we ourselves also be cast into the fire with much weeping and gnashing of teeth?

My own approach, which I hope to elaborate over the next few months as the subject reappears in Matthew's gospel, is that painful moments of judgement in our lives occur simultaneously with our healing or salvation. None of us and no community is wholly blameless. But thanks be to God, it is not for us to judge ourselves, our neighbours, or our communities. Such judgement is God's work. And although the prospect of that judgement is awesome to contemplate, God's purifying work is certain to also claim us as his adopted children.

Now, leaving judgements to God does not totally get us off the hook. When we believe the our neighbours are acting more like weeds than wheat, it is often useful to speak up or take action. But our aim is to do so with common humility. None of us is in the position of God to truly distinguish the wheat from the weeds. We can be guided by our feelings, our likes and dislikes, and our desires. But we do so only as adopted children of God and not as God Himself.

I always try to remember that my feelings tell me more about myself than about other people and situations; that my likes and dislikes are not accurate judgements of either myself or others but just my likes and dislikes, and that I am a child of God and not God Himself.

Life is full of moments of pain and crisis in which we can discern the purifying fire of God's judgement; and all of us await the crisis of the end of our lives. But revealed in those judgements is also God's redemption. Though we may all be a mixture of fruitful wheat and noxious weeds, it is not for us to judge and separate them. That is God's work, and it is work in which we are certain that, though the causes of sin will eventually be burned away, none of us will be lost in the process.

God our Judge is also God our loving Saviour. And our reality as members of God's family means that our hope is never in vain.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Big Muddy and Noddy Land

This past Tuesday, I drove to Moose Jaw to see my friend Anne Hines who was settled as the United Church Minister in Lucky Lake and Beechy last July, and I really liked our afternoon together. I ended driving in a circle, returning to Coronach via Regina. The roads were sometimes laughably bad, but later I realized that I have better options than those presented to me by my GPS. Going via better roads, I am about 2 hours and 15 minutes from both Moose Jaw and Regina, which is not bad. The good news about the not-so-good roads is the beauty of the countryside that they went through. The most amazing place is very close to here: the  Big Muddy Valley, just to the east and north. Driving through the valley is like being in a John Wayne Western. Last night I saw a bit of "Dancing With the Wolves" on TV, and it also reminded me of the Valley, and also of Coronach and Rockglen.

It takes about 40 min to drive east to Regina from Moose Jaw. Regina is pancake flat. You can see the Legislative Building on the horizon from 20 km away. Hwy 6 south of Regina is also desperately flat. At present, driving it reminds me of video of the causeway from Florida to Key West -- an elevated highway with ocean on either side, except in SK this year, it is just flooded fields. But about 100 km south, you start to see what look like mountains on the western horizon, and that is what you drive into.

Unfortunately, this beauty is not appreciated by many. I am amazed by how sparse the population is in southern Saskatchewan. But without towns and cities, there are no roads, no services, and hence no ability to get a tourism economy rolling.

On Wednesday, I worked in Rockglen. As I was driving back to Coronach, I realized that the landscape now reminded me of Noddy Land from the children's books by Enid Blyton. Some fields were bright yellow with canola. Some were bright green (early wheat?). In the distance were the two grain elevators of Coronach, and the smokestack of the coal-fired power generating plant, all nestled in the rolling hills. I was the only car, as usual.

It is a beautiful and little known place and I am feeling both jazzed and strange to be living in it.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Seeds and soil, July 10, 2011

My first sermon preached at Coronach United Church and Wesley United in Rockglen * Text: Matthew 13 (the parable of the sower)

I was glad to see that the assigned Gospel reading this morning was the parable that I just read of the sower and the seed. It seems like an appropriate place to start ministry in this beautiful corner of south central Saskatchewan where farming is such a big part of life.

In a farming community, the work of sowing seeds, tending crops, improving the soil, and reaping the harvest are often in our thoughts. And the amount and timing of rain are crucial. I understand that the green hills and lush fields I saw as I drove up from Montana and into Coronach on Tuesday are not usual for this time of year. Many places have had records amounts of moisture this year, which has often delayed planting or even made it impossible. At the same time, other places in the northern prairie are suffering from drought conditions. And so I am sure that many of us here are aware of seeds and soil, rain and sunshine, and all the other ingredients that come together to create a bountiful harvest. And sometimes, of course, weather and other factors frustrate the plans of farmers and lead to poor crops or even no crop at all.

Now, I am not a farmer. I grew up in small cities in eastern Ontario and I have lived in Toronto ever since I left home for university at 18. But like many Canadians my age, I am only one generation removed from the farm. Both of my parents grew up on small farms on the shores of Lake Ontario. And my oldest cousin on my father's side still runs what is now a dairy operation on the land where my father and his brother and sister grew up.

But regardless of our knowledge or lack of knowledge about farming, does Jesus' parable speak to us today? For instance, who are the seeds, who is the sower, and what message, if any, might it have for us today?

Well, this is an unusual parable because Jesus interprets it for the disciples. Jesus tells them that the seed refers to the word of God. The different types of soil refer to the types of people who hear the good news of God's kingdom. Some of us, Jesus says, are like the soil on a path where the birds, or the devil, snatch up the seed before it can sprout. Some of us are like rocky soil in which the Word cannot put down enough roots to withstand the heat and sun. Some of us are like soil infested with weeds where our addictions and distractions choke out the good plants of God's Word. And some of us -- we hope -- are like the good soil in which God's seed becomes a flourishing plant with a huge harvest.

But what the parable doesn't tell us is how to avoid becoming "unproductive soil." Presumably that knowledge is provided by the rest of Scripture, and by church, family and community tradition. But I wonder how the disciples feel when they hear Jesus' explanation. In a part of Matthew 13 not included in today's assigned reading, Jesus is very complementary to the disciples. He says, "the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to crowd . . . blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear."

So the disciples might feel all puffed up and proud. They know secrets others don't, and they can see and hear what others for some reason cannot.

But then what must these same disciples feel later in the story. On the night of Jesus' arrest and at his trial and execution, every single one of them runs away in fear. At that time, do they remember Jesus' word about the different kinds of soil and decide that perhaps they are soil that is exposed, rocky, or weed-infested; soil in which the good news of God's kingdom cannot grow?

I will admit that I don't like my initial feelings upon reading the parable . It makes me wonder if I am bad soil. Does the Word of God not take root in me? Am I easy pickings for the Devil? Or in contrast to that, am I a goody two-shoes who does everything "right" and in whom the Word of God flourishes and yields a large harvest?

People in a pastoral charge like Borderlands might also feel bad after hearing this parable. Are we a productive church? Doe the Word of God take deep root in us and yield great results for the building of the kingdom of heaven? Or are we barren soil that is infested with weeds and good for nothing?

Given the decline of all the mainline churches, including the United Church of Canada, over the past 50 years and the rise of secular concerns, it might be easy for us to feel bad. Why is that we no longer have a Sunday School? Why is it so long since we last had a confirmation class of teenagers? Why do fewer of us come to Sunday services or to other church events compared to 20 or more years ago? Are we still relevant as a church? Is the good news of God in Jesus Christ still important, and if so, why are we not more successful as a church? [pause]

Despite the nice  things Jesus said about the disciples in this parable, they are hardly role models of success. Over and over, the gospel stories show the disciples unable to understand what Jesus says. They often quarrel and fight among themselves. And at the climax of the story -- the arrest, trial, torture and crucifixion of their leader Jesus -- they fail him completely.

And yet, these same disciples are praised by Jesus; they are the founders of his church; and it is to them that he gives his Great Commission to spread the good news of God's Kingdom before he ascends to heaven.

So if the disciples, despite their many failures and lack of character, are considered good soil in which the Gospel can take root, then why not us too?

But now I want to turn the metaphor of the parable of the sower and the seed on its head and look at it from another angle. Instead of seeing the hearers of the Word as different types of soil, why not think of us as the seeds planted by the sower instead? The Bible describes Jesus as the Word of God become human, God's Son. And the Bible in many different places also describes ordinary men and women as children of God. The first chapter of Genesis, which is the first book in the Hebrew Bible, says that all humans are created in the image of God. And in baptism, we are said to take on Christ, who is the Word made flesh. So if the seed in the parable is a metaphor for the Word of God, perhaps this includes all of us. In a way similar to Jesus, each of us is an incarnation of the Word of God, a seed of the Holy One, planted in various types of soil. Sometimes that soil makes it easy for us to be productive. But more often than not, the soil we are given to take root in is less than ideal, and through no fault of our own.

For instance, the disciples didn't ask to be born as poor fishers in an obscure part of the world, under the domination of a foreign empire, the Romans. But that was their lot in life. And as children of God, they answered Jesus' call to follow him despite their individual and collective shortcomings. They were humble, broken, sinful and ignorant men and women. But they made up a community of love and service that surrounded Jesus. And despite their shortcomings, they helped to change the world.

Like the disciples, we too are children of God, and like them we are also broken, fragile and mortal humans. Each one of us also contains a spark of the divine Word, an inner Christ. But we didn't choose to be born into the families we were born into -- with all that we like and love about those families and all that we find difficult about them. We didn't ask to live in the 20th and 21st centuries with all their wonders and terrors. We didn't ask to bear the human condition with all of its pains and pleasures; all its difficulties and possibilities. But here we are. And the divine spark in us can be seen as God's Word planted in sometimes difficult soil.

So what are we to do as carriers of the Divine Word, followers of Jesus, and as members of the church in Coronach, Rockglen or Fife Lake? Well, to be frank with you, I don't really know.

That admission is not one that I would have made two years ago as I began my student internship as the minister of Knox United Church in Didsbury. I was quite excited to move from Toronto to Didsbury Alberta two summers ago, but frankly I was more scared than excited. I had preached less than 10 times to that point. I had only completed two of the three years of full time study required to achieve a Masters of Divinity degree. Having been away from the church for much of my adult life, I didn't have a lot of church experience to bring to the role of sole paid minister in a busy United Church congregation in a town of 5,000 people north of Calgary. I didn't know if I could write a sermon every week, be present with sick people and others needing pastoral care, or lead a  youth group. And above all, I didn't know if I could be what a grieving family needed as we prepared to bury a loved one.

In the end, I loved the experience. I worked in Didsbury for 10 months. I preached more than 40 sermons. I found that I really enjoyed creating worship services. I helped baptize seven children and co-presided at communion 10 times. And most importantly, I presided at seven different funerals.

All of these experiences as a student intern and supply minister helped to confirm my call to ministry and gave me more confidence that I could lead a congregation in worship, in service to the community, and as ambassadors of God in Christ to the community. But having had a year to reflect on that experience while I finished my course work at the University of Toronto, I think that now I have more space in which to admit how little I know; how much of the magic we experience in church together remains a mystery to me; and how much I have to learn from people like you.

But the good news as I see it in the Bible is that we don't have to know what to do. The disciples were often confused or in trouble, and yet they were loved by Jesus and given his authority to continue God's work on earth as the church. So too none of us need to be "perfect." Indeed, from the vantage point of the spiritual life and of God, there is no such thing as "success" or "failure." Instead, there is just this moment, this group of gathered friends, this opportunity to remember what is sacred in our lives . . .

The soil in which we have been planted might sometimes seem rocky and at other times seem fertile; sometimes it might seem parched and at other times it might be drowned by floods. But regardless, we have been baptized into Christ and are the seeds of God's divine Word. We don't have to do anything to claim our status as children of God created in the image of God. We simply have to be who we are in all our brokenness and glory.

I don't yet know much about this community and I can't foresee all that we will do together over the next years. But I am sure that we have all we need regardless of what the soil in which we are planted seems likes. Rocky or weedy, parched or well-watered, this is our holy ground. God has planted us here and we have been given all we need to be present in love to one another and to our neighbours.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Driving West

Written on Tuesday, July 5th . . . 

So, I am here. I enjoyed the trip out, despite the long wait at the border at Sarnia/Port Huron on Friday, the somewhat hair-raising traffic in Chicago, and all the high water along the way.

I crossed the Mississippi, the Red River, the Missouri (twice) and the Yellowstone rivers, and they were all quite high. Twice on I-94, traffic was slowed into one lane where sloughs had risen above the highway level. We gingerly proceeded through a little water as temporary dikes kept the sloughs from swamping vehicles. The Yellowstone was the last big river I crossed, just three hours drive south of Coronach in Glendive MT. It was fast and furious . . . and extra famous because of the Exxon oil spill into it last weekend. Why, I wonder, is an oil pipeline built beneath such a wonderful and iconic river? Convenience? Gross stupidity? Both?

The drive north through Montana and just into Saskatchewan was particularly wet. I skirted a huge thunderstorm 30 minutes into the final drive, and I was duly impressed by its size, beauty, and danger. The manse committee has dried out the manse, but water continues to sit in a corner of virtually every field here.
North Dakota from the Missouri in  Bismark onward was rugged and scenic. The badlands seem to stretch forever.

I loved spending two nights and one-day in Chicago: if only Toronto would take more direction from the Second City. Otherwise, the drive was uneventful, which pleased me . . .