Sunday, July 29, 2012

Hometown heroes

Texts: 2 Cor 12 2-10 (power in weakness); Mark 61-13 (Jesus rejected at Nazareth)

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth where his reputation as a healer and preacher in other towns in Galilee has preceded him. Mark doesn't tell us what Jesus preaches in the synagogue in Nazareth, but he writes that Jesus' neighbours are amazed by what he says.

But instead of being happy with his powerful words and healings, the people from his hometown take offence and reject Jesus. They wonder how a simple carpenter like Jesus could have become a powerful preacher and a miraculous healer, let alone the Son of God.

Today, I use this brief mention of Jesus' hometown to spark a discussion among us about our hometowns. This is the first Sunday morning service since I arrived here last July where all three congregations are worshipping together. I hope that we can use this time to reflect on our hometowns and how they shape our ministry.

Near the end of this reflection, I am going to open the floor so that others can share stories of our hometowns. Such sharing, I believe, could help me know our three towns better. I also hope that it will help all of us reflect on how each town shapes us and shapes our work in ministry.

The rejection that Jesus suffers in Nazareth weakens his ministry. Mark says Jesus cannot perform miracles there. He connects this weakness with the lack of faith shown to Jesus in his hometown. Then Jesus repeats an old proverb: "A prophet is not without honour except in his own town and among his relatives."

Prophecy is one of several roles we adopt in the church. I use a list of five words that begin with the letter "p," to remind myself of five different roles of ministry  Those words are pastor, priest, pedagogue, preacher and prophet. Memorizing these "Five P's" helps me remember the wide-range of the church's mission. I hope that briefly running through them will help us all think about our work in the church.

First is pastor. A pastor is a companion to people who are sick, troubled, or mourning the loss of a loved one. The root of the word in Latin means shepherd, which reminds us of the image of Jesus as the shepherd of his flock. Those of us who spend time visiting people in the hospital or helping neighbours during a bad patch are the pastors among us.

Priest refers to the role of conducting rituals such as baptisms, communion, weddings, and funerals. Such rituals connect us to our sacred values of faith, hope and love. While the role of priest can be undertaken by any of us, it is the one of the five in which ordained ministers are most likely to preferred.

Pedagogues are teachers (pedagogue just being a fancy Greek word for teacher.) All of us who have taught Church School classes or organized study groups are part of the ministry of teaching. 

Preachers proclaim the good news of God in Christ and relate our ancient Scriptures to events in our communities today. In a charge like Borderlands, there are several strong voices who are willing to take on this role when we are between ministers or when the minister is away on study leave.

Finally, prophets. Prophets speak against injustice and sin and call a community to return to God's path of love. Prophecy is the role that Jesus said hometowns cannot easily accept from one of their own.

Protestants support the idea of the ministry of all believers, something that I mentioned at Joyce' Nelson's funeral last week. It suggests that all of us in the church are called to be ministers in the five roles -- pastor, priest, pedagogue, preacher and prophet. None of these roles are necessarily easy. But with God's grace, any of us can and do carry them out in different times and places.

Except, Jesus warns us that ministry can be more difficult in one's hometown. He suggests that people who know us best might be the ones least able to accept our authority to preach, heal, or prophecy . . . 

I wonder if Jesus' statement about hometowns is still true today. Hometown does not have the same meaning today that it did in the First Century. Nowadays, most of us move many times in their lives. Because of these moves, "hometown" more likely now refers to where one lives at present rather than the place where one grew up.

Take my own life. I was born in Kingston, Ontario at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. When I was three years old, my parents moved us to Cornwall 150 km to the east and where I lived for the next 12 years. When I entered Grade 11, we moved again to Belleville, 250 km back to the west. And when I went to university, I moved still further west to Toronto, which is where I have lived for most of my adult life. So which one of these is my hometown? Kingston where I was born? Cornwall where I spent my most formative years? Toronto where I have lived longer than anywhere else? Or Coronach where I now live?

The idea of hometown stability came to my mind when I chatted with Helen Curran on Thursday evening. She told me that she had lived in her little house on Churchill Avenue for almost 60 years, since she married and moved to Coronach from her family's farm near Shaunovan. Not only has Helen not moved in almost 60 years; her children and grandchildren also live in Coronach, which makes her family quite unusual in my experience. 

In my family, a reunion with my four siblings and my mother -- like the one we enjoyed at the end of June -- is a rare achievement since we now live in three different provinces. Of course, other families are even more far-flung, sometimes with family members living on different continents. 

A famous example of the latter is provided by President Barack Obama. When he first ran for President four years ago, I was struck by a family portrait printed in the newspaper from his half-sister's wedding in Hawaii in 2003. At the centre of the picture was Obama's grandmother, originally from Kansas but then living in Honolulu. Beside her was Obama, the child of a Kenyan and an American, his wife Michelle, the descendant of Black slaves who had grown up in Chicago, Obama's half-sister whose father was from Indonesia, and her husband, who grew up in Burlington Ontario with parents who were from China by way of Malaysia. Whew! Now, what hometown would Obama's family say they were from?

Regardless of whether we have a strong sense of hometown, the place where we live shapes our lives and hence also our ministry. Which brings me back to the three towns of Borderlands.

Any observations I have about our towns after one year still seem superficial. Each town appears to be shrinking in size, despite the mine and the power plant. We are isolated from the rest of Saskatchewan with poor roads and services, especially health care. The culture is largely rural, even though many people no longer farm, or at least no longer gain their livelihood exclusively from farming. The strong connections that bind people together are reflected in the large size of most funerals. The beauty of the countryside, the sunshine, and the sharp swings in our weather affect us all, largely in positive ways, I believe. But beyond that, I don't yet have a lot to say about this beautiful place in which we live.

So partly for that reason, I now want to open the floor up for sharing. I hope some of us will be willing to speak to questions like the following: what do you consider to be your hometown? Have you always lived in Rockglen, Fife Lake, or Coronach? If not, when and why did you move here? And what do you believe are some of the elements of our towns that influence your work in our churches? 

The floor is now open . . . 

Thank you all for contributing. I appreciated hearing of your experiences. 

To close, I refer back to our Scripture readings today. Both of our readings -- the one about Jesus in his hometown, and the one from St. Paul -- talk about weakness. The lack of faith of Jesus' neighbours in Nazareth weakens his ability to minister among them. St. Paul talks about his mysterious "thorn in his flesh." But St. Paul also reminds us that in weakness lies God's strength. Paul's insight is one of the cornerstones of Christianity, in my opinion.

Ministry strikes me as both endlessly complex and difficult -- and then in the next instant, as easy and effortless. It moves from difficult to effortless when touched by the grace of God.

We don't need to be wise, strong, or experienced to accept grace. Like Paul, we can be foolish and still accept grace. Like Paul, we can suffer from a "thorn in the flesh" and still accept Grace. Like Paul, we can consider ourselves to be weak in many ways, and still accept grace. 

Paul also reminds us that Jesus' path of faith, hope and love is one that leads to the cross. The power of God's love is revealed in a willingness to die in the face of injustice and sin. In this willingness to die, our illusions, anxieties, and false idols also die. In this willingness to die, grace appears.

Our union with God's Spirit flows from the defeats of life. When, with Grace, this union happens, our ministry flows effortlessly.

Effortless ministry does not mean that it will be "successful." It does not mean that we won't sometimes be rejected by people in our hometown. Nor does it mean that we don't have to pay close attention to our surroundings and the people in our families, churches, neighbourhoods and communities. 

What it does mean is that we can do our work as pastors, priests, preachers, pedagogues and prophets without anxiety. We can undertake our ministry in the realization that God calls us, supports us, and saves us regardless of any resentment  we might receive from the people in our hometown.

Love calls each of us to ministry -- to support one another, to remind ourselves of our sacred values, to proclaim the good news, to teach our tradition, and to speak out against sin and injustice. God supports us in this work in all our hometowns. And it is to God that the glory and honour of our ministry lies

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Campfire stories of fear and faith

Text: Mark 6: 30-34, 45-46, 53-56 (Jesus retreats to quiet places)
Sermon delivered at Camp Woodboia for Chinook Presbytery's Camping Sunday service

When Wendy Allingham asked me lead the service today at the Camp, I thought that  I would find a passage from Mark's Gospel in which Jesus retires to the wilderness to pray. My hope was that such a reading could inspire a reflection on camping. But when I turned to the Lectionary, I saw that today's Gospel selection was already one of those. In the passage we just heard, Jesus twice retreats from the crowds: once with his disciples to find a quiet place, and then later by himself to pray on a mountainside.

This coincidence is perhaps not too surprising given the number of times in Mark's Gospel that Jesus retreats from towns and crowds to pray in lonely places. Today, we find ourselves in one of those remote places, a United Church camp on the edge of the the tiny village of Wood Mountain and near one of least-tamed and most beautiful of Canada's National Parks, Grasslands National Park

This morning, I have a few words about my own experiences in United Church camps, which I hope will spark others' memories of such times and perhaps also inspire plans for future camping experiences at places like Woodboia. Near the end of this reflection, I will open up the floor for sharing around the circle . . .

I imagine that many of us here today are like me and have been strongly affected by church camping experiences. I have two stories to tell from my own experiences: one about a camp I attended when I was 10 years old, and another from a camping trip in 2002 when I was already in mid-life.

As a child, I only went to church camp once. I grew up in Cornwall Ontario, which is on the St. Lawrence River near the border with Quebec. When I was 10, my older brother and I spent a week in Rideau Hill Camp, which is on on the Rideau River about halfway between Ottawa and the St. Lawrence River.

Our experience was not entirely positive. It was an extremely hot week, and during a long hike on roads near the camp, my older brother was one of several campers to succumb to heat stroke. We also were bothered by bug bites, and we didn't love all the religious instruction we got that week.

My brother and I were preachers' kids.  My late father, Rev. James Clare Kellogg, was then the minister at Knox United Church in Cornwall. And such, we were surprised when we seemed to be among the more liberal of the kids in the camp in terms of questions like Sabbath-observance and other moral questions.

Overall, I was pleased with the experience. I was proud that I had thrived physically in the heat, the games, and the swimming. In contrast, my older brother, who was my hero, had often withered. So I think that I allowed myself to feel a little pride at his expense.

Also, the experience of late-night conversations in the cabin with some of the older boys helped me feel more like a "guy among guys" than I had before.

Still, the family consensus was that this United Church camp was not for us, and I never returned.

More important to me was a week-long wilderness canoe trip with 18 adults 10 years ago this summer in Ontario's Algonquin Provincial Park. That canoe trip was organized by the United Church's Five Oaks Retreat Centre, which is the Ontario equivalent to Saskatchewan's Calling Lakes Centre near Fort Qu'Appelle.

10 years ago, I had recently returned to church after decades away, and my minister, Rev. Rivkah Unland of Toronto's Kingston Road United Church, had invited me to go on the canoe trip, one that she had found life-changing the summer before

I was quite nervous about going. I had been told that the canoeing and portaging were physically demanding, which made me worry about my bad back. I worried about my digestion, about heat, about bugs, about storms, and about being in community with 18 strangers for seven days and nights. But I also sensed that this camping experience was exactly what I needed, so off I went.

The Program Director of our week was Mardi Tindal.  At the time, Mardi was a staff member at Five Oaks, while today she is the Moderator of the United Church. Mardi ends her three-year term as Moderator at the General Council meeting next month in Ottawa. I feel lucky that Mardi was one of the leaders on that experience. Her program for the week was based upon a book she had just published called "Soul-Maps: A Guide to the Mid-Life Spirit."

Mardi and I bonded on our very first portage. We had set out from our base camp on a windy lake on a Sunday morning and had paddled for about two hours to get to the other side. To make it from there to the next lake, where we were to camp that night, we had a one-kilometre portage through the woods.

When Mardi and I stopped to rest on our way back for the second load of canoes and packs to take
over the rocky and slippery trail, we agreed that we had never worked harder in our lives. Mardi, like me, was worried about her back and about the other physical rigours of camping. She also pointed out that having made the difficult paddle across the first lake and having lugged all our belongings and canoes to the next one, we were stuck. Even if we wanted to bail out on the rest of the week, we could not. The only way back to our starting point was to complete the rest of the circular course with our 16 other companions. A self-help expression came to mind: the only way out of this trip was through.

In the end, I loved almost every minute of the week, including rain, exhaustion, mosquitoes, swimming in the cold lakes, and snoring companions. The week helped solidify a new understanding of the word "faith," which I had encountered in some of the reading I was doing as a newly returned church member. This understanding sees faith not as belief in incredible things, but as trust: trust in our bodies despite their weaknesses; trust in the earth despite its indifference to us puny humans; trust in community despite the brokenness and pain that we all bring to our relationships; and trust in the God who is the ground of being, life, and love.

The week gave me a crash course in how the culture of the United Church had radically changed since I was a teenager. It seemed less moralistic, more welcoming, and more diverse than I had known as a child.

I was pleased that my back and digestion worked fine; that I felt physically stronger at the end of the week; and that I was able to relax in this instant community of strangers. I returned from the trip confident that I had made the right choice in rejoining the United Church and confident that my journey in the church with fellow broken pilgrims was the one I needed for the rest of my life.

I loved the sharing circles that Mardi led through our week. As we said goodbye, she warmly encouraged me to continue my engagement with the church. I believe that I owe her and the others on that trip a lot.
So there you have it, two stories of my United Church camp experiences.

Being at a camp or on a wilderness trip, I believe, can help remind us of some of more sacred truths: our interconnection with all of life; the importance of beauty; our physical and emotional dependence on others; and our smallness in the face of breadth of the earth, the depth and power of lakes and rivers, and the infinite shining heaven of starry nights. Camping can also help remind us of our greatest need, which is to give and receive love to fellow pilgrims on the journey.

Of course, time at camp does not always lead to such epiphanies; but I imagine that it often does. Deep friendships are forged, life-partnerships sometimes have their start, and new ways of searching for faith are often stumbled upon.

Well, those are some of my reflections for Camp Sunday. And now, I would like to open the floor to anyone else who wants to say a few words about their own camping experiences. Do you remember difficult nights of heat and bug bites that made you pine for home when you were at camp? Did you love camp as a kid? Did you find you future spouse at camp? Have you ever gone on a church camping trip as an adult, and if so, how did you like it? What would like to share?

The floor is now open . . .

Thank you all for contributing. I appreciated hearing of your experiences.

To close, I refer back to our Gospel reading today. At many points in his ministry, Jesus went to a mountainside or to a lonely, deserted place to pray. He used his time away from the crowds to regenerate, to reflect, and to reconnect with his source in the God of Love.

May we also find times of regeneration, reflection and reconnection in the wild beauty of God's earth; and times of faith formation with our brothers and sisters on the road as we camp, paddle, portage, and journey together as on Christ's path of faith, hope and love.