Sunday, September 29, 2013

The trouble with Timothy

Texts: 1 Timothy 2:1-7 (pray for kings); Luke 16:1-13 (parable of the shrewd manager)

How should Christians relate to sources of authority in a sinful world? Today, I use our Scripture readings to discuss two sources of authority in the life of the church: money and the Bible.

In 1964 when the Beatles first came to North America, they released "Can't Buy Me Love." I identify with the song's lyrics -- "I don't care too much for money; money can't buy me love." I have been often been oblivious or careless about money. For this reason, I might also be foolish enough to feel smug when hearing today's Gospel reading in which Jesus says "you cannot serve both God and money."

But other than this final sentence from this reading, I am confused by it. Who are the characters in the parable supposed to represent? Why does the rich man commend his manager for cheating him? Why does Jesus urge us to "make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth?" Commentaries on the parable that I read this week discussed the difficulties people have in understanding what it means.

I suspect that the rich man represents forces opposed to the kingdom of God. Jesus may be urging his listeners to subvert the economic system in which we find ourselves trapped. Don't worry, he says, about acting with honesty inside a dishonest and unequal economic system. Focus on relationships and helping one another rather than on obeying the rules of the rich people who own our companies and control our governments.

While this is not the sort of thing I was taught in Sunday School, it is one way to read this parable.

Then there is today's reading from First Timothy. First Timothy is one of 13 letters in the New Testament that claim to be written by the Apostle Paul. Today, however, Bible scholars believe that First and Second Timothy were not written by Paul, despite what the letters themselves say.

Given the fact that early Church fathers included these letters in the New Testament precisely because they were written by Paul, one could now argue that First and Second Timothy are in the Bible by mistake! Such a conclusion is also far from what I was taught in Sunday School.

There are other reasons to disregard these letters besides the false claim that they were written by Paul. Many of the ideas in them are opposite to the heart and mind of the real Paul.

The most notorious passage in First Timothy follows immediately upon the one read here today. At the risk of offense, I will now read it. It says, "Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing." (1 Tim 2: 11-15)

Not only is this viewpoint not shared today by people in our church, it also runs counter to the life and work of Jesus. Women were among Jesus' closest friends and co-workers. After his arrest, all of Jesus' male friends deserted him while many of the women stood by him till the end. It was to women such as Mary Magdalene that Jesus first appeared on Easter Sunday. It was these women who first proclaimed the Good News that Jesus has been raised.

Paul is similar. Paul's authentic letters show that, like Jesus, many of his friends and co-workers were women. And the real Paul stands for equality between men and women. For instance, in Galatians Paul writes, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

Paul preaches against the Roman Empire and for equality. The fake Paul, on the other hand, often has a different message.

Today's reading includes one of those differences. In it, the author urges the Church to pray and give thanks for kings and all who are in high positions. But in the First Century, the kings were Roman emperors whose empire executed Jesus. Jesus stands in opposition to worldly kings and their unjust rule. Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God in which the first will be last and the last first. That message is probably a key reason why Jesus was executed by Rome.

Later in the letter, the author writes that "all who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect." Really? Support kings and slavery and oppose equality for women? Not only are these messages opposite to those of the real Paul, they are opposite to what any follower of Jesus should proclaim, I believe.

The easy reason to disregard First Timothy is the conclusion by scholars that it is not actually written by Paul. The more difficult reason to do so is that it contains ideas which many Christians find incompatible with Jesus' mission.

The Bible is like a hearth around which the church gathers for warmth, inspiration and illumination. However, some passages in the Bible confuse us and others say things with which we cannot agree.

When I was in Sunday School, life seemed simpler. We were taught to be good citizens at home and at work. We were taught to obey authority figures in church and government. We were taught to believe the passage which says "all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness."

But truth be told, this passage is from Second Timothy (2 Tim 3:16), another of the letters that was included in the Bible based upon the false claim that it was written by Paul. In our reading from First Timothy this morning, the author says " I am telling the truth, I am not lying." Today, we are not so sure of this claim or of others.

To help with confusions and contradictions in the Bible, we follow the  light of Jesus' love as revealed to us in his life, ministry, death and resurrection. We treat the Bible with respect, but we do not worship it.

Money is similar. A column in the September issue of the United Church's magazine "The Observer" argued that ministry involves being aware of the financial situation of the church and taking it seriously.

I agree with this argument, and feel rebuked by it. In the future, I pledge to pay more attention to money both at home and at the church. The challenge, I believe, is to not worship money, but instead to let it serve the God who is Love.

Life might have seemed easier when I was in Sunday School, and we could mindlessly bow down to authority, whether of emperors, rich men, or church leaders. I prefer today, though. By questioning the authority of both rich men and the Bible, we can better hear Jesus, who stands with the poor against the rich, with slaves against their owners, and with ordinary people against their kings.

When church tradition or Bible passages confuse us, we use Christ as God's Word Incarnate to help us become clearer. We use the Bible, but we try not worship it, just as we use money but try not worship it.

The God revealed to us by Christ is the God who is Love. With God's grace, Jesus calls us to worship neither kings, rich men, or the Bible. He calls us to worship the source of Love, which is also our salvation.

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Ninety-nine to one: the economics of repentance

Text: Luke 15 1-10 (the parables of the lost sheep and coin)

"We are the 99%." This was the central slogan of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which began two years ago on Sept 17, 2011 and which quickly spread throughout the United States, Canada and beyond. The movement protested policies that benefit the richest 1% of the population and ignore the rest of us.

This slogan came to my mind when thinking about today's parables of the one lost sheep out of 100 and one lost coin out of 10. Could these parables help us tackle the sinfulness of societies in which 99% of the people stay poor and powerless while tiny elites of 1% or 0.1% get obscenely rich?

Luke's Gospel contains many attacks on rich people. In his first chapter, Mary sings that "[God] has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away." (Luke 1: 52-23). 

In a passage just before today's parables, Jesus urges us to invite poor people to our feasts instead of rich neighbours. In the chapter that follows today's reading, Jesus tells a puzzling parable about a dishonest manager in which he says that one cannot serve both God and money. This is followed by parable about a rich man and beggar in which the rich one is damned. Finally, in chapter 18, Jesus says "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God."

These passages, along with the slogan "we are the 99%," inspired me to imagine that the lost sheep who most needs repentance in today's parable is a member of the super-rich elite. This analogy is far from perfect, but I use it to help put Jesus' words into the context of the last five years of economic crisis and the protest movements it has spawned.

Now that five years have passed since the financial crash that led to the Great Recession, commentators have painted a picture of what caused tens of millions people to lose their jobs and savings around the world.

For the last 30 years, banks in the United States successfully lobbied the government to de-regulate their industry. In an unregulated environment, the banks created complex financial instruments based on mortgages given to people who were at high risk of default. Lending sprees led to a housing bubble in the U.S. In the years during which the bubble grew, large numbers of bankers became incredibly rich. But when artificially high housing prices started to decline in 2007, the banks found themselves sitting on unrecoverable debt.

Lehman Brothers of New York was the first to collapse. When it did so five years ago on Sept 15, 2008, the entire world financial system was in immediate danger. Lending came to a halt. Industrial activity sharply contracted. Millions of people were thrown out of work. And all the major governments in the world came to the aid of failing banks with massive amounts of corporate welfare. Not just billions, or 10s of billions, or hundreds of billions of dollars were funneled into banks, but several trillion dollars of government money.

This unprecedented bailout stopped the Great Recession from becoming a Great Depression. But the bailouts did not prevent four million American houses from being repossessed by the same banks that had caused the mess in the first place. About 15 million Americans were thrown onto the street even as the government propped up the banks who foreclosed on their homes.

The government could have given its bailout money directly to struggling homeowners. With no one defaulting on their mortgages, the banks would have stayed afloat and people could have kept their houses. But it was easier to write a few huge cheques to the banks who had caused the problem than millions of smaller cheques to the poor families who suffered all the consequences.

No wonder people became angry and organized first the Tea Party movement and later the Occupy movement.

The financial crisis and the ensuing bailout expose how things work. Banks are rich. They support politicians who do what the banks ask of them. When the banks then cause a terrible crisis, governments bail them out with public money. The rich stay rich while millions of ordinary people lose jobs, homes and savings.

In the economic crisis of the last five years, 99.9% of us did nothing wrong while a tiny elite of bankers and politicians made many mistakes. Despite their mistakes, those involved continue to get richer. Further, many commentators believe that the conditions that allowed the housing bubble and the casino-like financing based upon it remain in place.

The church says that we all stand in need of repentance and God's forgiveness: we are all broken sinners. But our sins occur in a particular context. In a country like Canada, just as in the Roman Empire of Jesus' day, there are a tiny handful of people who have influence, control and wealth. This tiny handful have the power to sin on a bigger scale than most of us.

Take a recent Saskatchewan example. This week, news media reported that Cameco Uranium of Saskatoon has been accused by the Canada Revenue Agency of defrauding the government of $850 million of taxes from 2008 to 2012.

Perhaps some of us have stolen in our lives . . . coins out of a parent's wallet; office supplies from an employer; maybe something bigger. But to steal almost $1 billion from the state requires power and resources that few have. To be a major sinner, it helps to belong to 0.1% of people who have vast wealth and power.

All of us -- rich and poor, native-born and immigrant, male and female -- are broken in one way or another. We share the human condition of frailty and mortality. We are born into a society with more violence than anyone wants. We bear the wounds of our lives and of the world in which we live.

God in Christ comes to us in our brokenness and helps us to be whole. Despite this grace, we still often fall short of our sacred values. We do things we regret or fail to do things we should have done. In this sense, we are all lost sheep waiting for God to come and find us. Today's parable of the sheep might make us believe that 99% of us do not need to repent, but that stretches the metaphor of the parable too far, I think.

On the other hand, comparing the one lost sheep to the 1% targeted by the Occupy Movement does help me remember that Jesus directs his anger towards people at the top. He clashes with religious leaders, with the Roman Empire, and with people of great wealth.

I don't think there is anything inherently wrong in being wealthy. What is important is how one gains wealth and what one does with it. Movements like Occupy expose connections between wealth and the unjust use of political power.

Our ability to sin reflects our circumstance. People who are born in chains and die in chains need Christ's solidarity, but can do little for which they might repent. People who are born into a prosperous society with human rights, equality, and adequate social services will have some power to sin, but I think will mostly live lives of generosity and caring.

Most of us have a modest scope to sin. To the same degree we have scope to live up to our sacred values of faith, hope and love. We use our modest abilities to contribute to family and community. In this way, we spend much of our lives with the 99% of God's sheep safely in the fold of God's kingdom.

When we do stray from the fold, we are confident that the Good Shepherd finds us and brings us back. And each time we repent, there is rejoicing in heaven and here on earth.

We are the 99%. We trust that one day we will be part of the 100%. With God's grace, one day we will live in a world of equality, peace, and prosperity for all.

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Clothes, culture, and counting the costs

Text: Luke 14 25-33 (the cost of discipleship)

Today's hot topic and the subject of the sermon is . . .  clothes.

Clothes have sometimes caused me grief. When I was very young, things were fine. But by grade three, I no longer felt at ease in my own skin. Perhaps because of stresses in my family, I had become nervous and unsure of myself. I gained weight and sometimes I dreaded getting ready for school.

In the decades that followed, I often disliked shopping for clothes. I couldn't tell what looked good on me. I didn't know how I wanted my hair to be cut or whether to follow changing fashions. In short, I felt unsure of my identity and how to present myself to the world.

Clothes can tell a lot about us. They let others know whether we are masculine or feminine, outgoing or introverted, casual or uptight, fashionable or conservative. Clothes show whether we are manual labourers or office staff; rich or poor; from the city or the country, and so on.

Clothes also give us a way to express our cultural heritage, including our religion. When I was a student intern in Alberta, I asked the minister at Knox United in Didsbury for her advice on what to wear in the pulpit. She said that before she became a minister, she had thought she wouldn't wear an alb. But in the event, she came to appreciate it. When she presided at worship in street clothes, she received no end of comments about the frequency with which she wore the same dress or blouse, her accessories, and so on. Wearing an alb lessened this scrutiny.

Since I was not yet ordained that year, I decided to wear a suit in worship services. As a child of the 60s and 70s, I had never been too keen on wearing a suit and tie even in the years when I was a civil servant. For me, pretty much every day was "casual Friday," and I only owned one suit. In Didsbury, I wore that suit 42 Sundays in a row without one comment . . . part of the advantage, I guess, of being a man instead of a woman in a culture that still puts so much focus on gender.

Here in Borderlands, I appreciate how casual we are. Because of this, I usually only wear a suit and tie at weddings and funerals -- even though I now own two suits! (I must be moving up in the world.)

Expressing religion and culture through clothes is a big issue in Canada right now.  A charter of values introduced in Quebec this week would prohibit workers hired by the state from wearing clothes or accessories that betray one's religion -- skull caps for Jewish men, head scarves or face coverings for Muslim women, large crosses for Christians, turbans for Sikh men, and so on.

This proposed charter has generated a lot of discussion. The PQ government has surged upwards in the polls, minority religious leaders have expressed anger at the discrimination they see in the charter, and people who oppose non-white immigration to Canada have expressed support for the charter.

The furore around the law reminds me a bit of my youthful struggles to establish an identity and figure out what clothes might best express myself. In the case the Quebec Charter, the debate is about national identity.

This issue remains prominent in Quebec because of the conquest of New France by Britain 250 years ago. In the first 200 years after the conquest, the chief force that helped French-speakers resist assimilation was the Roman Catholic Church. Just over 50 years ago, Quebec schools and hospitals were filled with black-robed nuns.

Since then, the winds of secularization have turned things around. From being the most religious region of Canada, Quebec has become the least religious. Catholic churches are closing. The image of a nun in full habit is a reminder of the conservative times that Quebeckers have left behind.

Starting in 1960, Quebec nationalists moved away from right-wing and pro-Catholic policies towards progressive ones. What the Quebec Charter illustrates, I believe, is a  return by some Quebec nationalists to reactionary politics as a cynical ploy to gain influence, but this time in an anti-religious mode.

My personal struggles with clothing were helped by several things. One was simply getting older and achieving a more stable personal identity. Another was the end of the generation gap of the 60s and 70s, which often found expression in clothing. Part of it was an expansion of the range of clothing that people accept. 

We all intuitively know what clothing is acceptable. None of us show up for work in pyjamas, underwear, or a Star Trek uniform. But I am glad that the rules around clothes are more relaxed than they were several generations ago.

At my last job in Toronto, I worked in the organization that ran Toronto's 211 phone service, which helps people access social services. Because of the diversity of Toronto's population, we hired people who spoke many languages: Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, Polish, Russian, and so on. Our workforce tried to match Toronto's glorious diversity. And in such a diverse workplace, I felt comfortable to just be myself.

A key way to overcome our fear of difference is to know people who seem different. Today in Quebec, intercultural Montreal is largely against the Charter while rural Quebec, where very few recent immigrants live, is largely in support of it.

I do relate to some of the impulses behind Quebec's Charter. Despite being a minister, I value the secularization that is transforming North American culture. I foresee a future in which we are united across denominations and faith traditions. The Holy Spirit, I believe, is pointing us to a faith that will be deeper but perhaps less church-oriented than what we have known in the past.

Because of my own faith journey, I sometimes feel uncomfortable when I encounter people whose dress betrays a traditionalism that I have tried to leave behind -- Hassidic Jewish men with black top hats and long sideburns, Muslim women who wear burqas that only reveal the eyes, Amish people who might have looked at home in Germany of the 1700s, and so on. At the same time, I try to realize that my discomfort is my reaction and therefore my problem.

Further, I am confident that the forces sweeping away old traditions in the church are at work in all communities in Canada. I suspect that succeeding generations of today's immigrants will help build a culture that is as far removed from their pasts as today's Canada is removed from the strict Presbyterianism of my ancestors from Scotland.

Regardless of the accuracy of this vision, I am opposed to the state telling civil servants what they can wear to work. As long as our clothes do not prevent us from doing a job, we should be allowed to dress as we feel comfortable. This way is the inclusive and tolerant one, I believe.

Our Gospel reading today might shed light on this matter. This passage presents another version of Jesus' call to his disciples to take up their cross and follow him, but it is the only one in which Jesus says we are not only to deny our own lives, but to also hate our mothers and fathers, spouses and children, and to give up all our possessions.

Taken literally, this passage might upset us. The commentaries I read about it argued that it underlines the harsh requirements of being a disciple of Jesus.

I do not agree. When I hear this text, I experience grace and not a burden. Yes, Jesus reminds us that our faith journey involves death. We need to die in order to rise. We need to give up everything -- all possessions, all family ties, even life itself.

But Jesus is merely pointing to the human condition. All of us are going to die. All of us are going to lose everything. By calling us to join him on the road to the cross, Jesus calls us to accept the inevitable. He shows us again the gracious truth that we can die to old ways and rise to new life at any moment in the journey and not only at its end. In any moment, we can rise above family ties, national affiliations, and possessions to find new life in Christ.

This passage could speak to both sides of the debate around the Quebec Charter. To religious people, it could remind us that requirements about clothing are law and not grace. Even if I don't wear a suit or a clerical collar, I can still be a minister in the church. Even if I don't wear a cross, I can still love God and neighbour.

To Quebec and English Canadian nationalists, it could remind us that national dreams are illusory. Nations come and go, while humanity and love remain. All our earthly ambitions are fleeting and of no importance in the light of our journey within and toward God.

I hope that Quebec drops the plan for a Charter, and I am encouraged that many Quebec nationalists have denounced it along with federal leaders in both Quebec and Canada.

I hope that all of us will continue to welcome immigrants from different religious backgrounds. Not only is immigration the bedrock of our prosperity;  immigrants are fellow human beings who bear God's image and who help us create the intercultural Canada of today and tomorrow.

As I have grown older, I have given up some of my old struggles around identity and how to express myself. In accepting the grace of Jesus' call to the cross, I have become less anxious about who I am and how I should dress. I belong to God and God belongs to me. Nothing else really matters.

We live in an ever-more interconnected world and an ever-more intercultural Canada. May we all relax into the grace offered to us on the road to the cross. On this road, there is neither "Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female" -- there is only one struggling humanity united by the human condition.

Regardless of what we believe or how we dress, God offers us new life.

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Years within years: a service for "Children's Church"

There is no sermon this week. Instead, below is the complete liturgy of a service designed to mark the beginning of the school and to help integrate children from our Monday and Thursday afternoon church schools into Sunday worship -- Ian


Welcome and Announcements

The peace of Christ be with you . . .  Welcome to Sunday worship on this damp September day. Today for worship we are trying something different -- "Children's Church." As I mentioned over the spring and summer, I got this idea from Rev. Linda Tomlinson of Lafleche and Limerick.

All of us -- children and adults alike -- are welcome. I hope we will feel blessed by our time together. At the least, this will be a chance for us to experience a different way of worshipping.

Today, I focus on the word "year." The School Year has just begun, and for many of us -- even those who have not been in school for a long time -- the first week of September still feels like the start of a new year. Most of us are back at our normal routines after a beautiful summer.

As school begins again, we will think about all the different years we mark at the same time -- the calendar year, the year of farming, and above all, the church year. We will remember how marking the different seasons of the church year helps us to follow Jesus on his sacred path of faith, hope and love.

Just as in church school, we always begin by lighting the Christ Candle. The light of this candle could represent the love of Jesus, which guides us through all the years of our lives.


Call to Worship (sung together -- two times -- MV#21)

We are going to sing our call to worship today. We used this short hymn at church school this past spring . . . I will sing it through once, and show you the gestures we use with it. Then I will ask us all to stand and sing through this call to worship twice through. So . . . listen first

Open our hearts,
Open our minds,
Open our lives to you,
O loving God.

Thank you for trying that. Please be seated. And now an opening prayer. Let us pray . . .

Opening Prayer

Loving God, we begin with a moment in prayer not only because you are a loving God, but because you ARE Love. You are the one true God who is Love

In our worship today may we feel your loving presence
within us, between us, and all around.

Dear God, we are sorry that there are times when we don't act in love.
Forgive us, we pray, and help us to find our way back to your loving ways in our lives with family, friends and neighbours.

Help us as we work with others for a better world --
a world that will have greater peace, comfort, and love in it.

We offer this prayer in the name of Jesus the Christ. Amen.


So today, we focus on the idea of a year. Before we do the activity that is found on page two of the bulletin, I have some questions for us. Feel free to speak up with an answer if you think you know it.

First, how long is a year? Anyone want to say? Right . . . 12 months. And how many days in one year? Right . . . 365.

Second, who was it that decided a year should be that long? That is, why is a year 365 days long and not maybe 300 days long or 400 or some other number?

Right -- one year measures the length of actual time it takes for the earth to orbit the sun once, which is 365 days. But it is not QUITE 365 days, is it? The actual number is 365 and one quarter days -- minus 11 minutes. The extra 1/4 day explains the need for us to have a leap year every four years. The minus 11 minutes means that our calendar does not observe a leap year in years divisible by 100, except in years that are also divisible by 400. Whew -- it is all very complicated.

Knowing the exact length of the year is important --  for farmers, to know when to plant seeds and when to harvest; and for the church to know when to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus almost 2,000 years ago now.

There is a lot of intricacy and beauty here . . . the steady rotation of the earth (24 hours to one day); the orbit of the earth around the sun (365.25 days); and the coming of the seasons.

So -- my final question -- why do we have seasons? Right! The axial tilt. My nephew Sean, who entered university this week, and who wants to study astronomy, knows how to explain all of this much better and more clearly than I can.

Thank you for thinking about these questions.

We observe a lot of different years all at the same time. There is the calendar year that runs from Jan to Dec; the school year, which runs from Sept to June; there is even a football year. For the CFL it starts with spring training camps; then a two-week exhibition season: a 19-week regular season: and a three-week playoff season that ends with the Grey Cup. That is followed by almost six months off.

The church has a year, and it is different yet again. We begin the church year with a four week season called Advent. It leads into the two-week-long season of Christmas, and so on. Today, we are going to compare the calendar year to the church year. I hope this will help us remember why it is that we come to church. But before I say more about this, I want us all to participate in an activity, which is printed in our bulletins.

Activity -- calendar year versus church year

In the two columns on page two, list five or so major events of 1) the "regular" or calendar year, and 2) the "church" year. Two obvious ones are already filled in as examples. The Calendar Year could include public events or events that are just for your own family . . .

Take a few minutes to write in these columns. Feel free to work in groups if you want. And remember, there are no wrong answers! Once everyone is finished, we will share some of the results . . .

So let's share some of our answers. What about the first column the Calendar year . . .

And what about the second column, the church year . . . . Lots of other things could be put in there, but those sound like the most important things to me.

Scripture readings and Hymn -- VU #352, "I danced in the morning"

The church year helps us remember the story of the life of Jesus. We remember his birth at Christmas, his baptism in the River Jordan, and what he said and did. We remember his long walk to Jerusalem with his friends, which is a season in the late winter and spring called Lent. We remember his final week in Jerusalem, where he was arrested, tried, and executed. We call this Holy Week. Finally, we remember how God raised Jesus to new life on the happiest of all days, Easter Sunday.

We follow Jesus' life every year in our Sunday services. It helps us to grow in love; to work together; and to remember how we are healed by the gifts of God.

There is a lot in the life of Jesus to remember. But did you know that the life of Jesus can be summarized in just one hymn? Next, we will sing such a hymn. It was popular when I was a child and it is called "I Danced in the Morning" or "Lord of the Dance."

We will hear two short Scripture readings about the origins and the birth of Jesus after which we will sing verse one. Then we hear another short reading in which Jesus calls his first followers, after which we will sing verse two. We will then hear a short reading about the death of Jesus, after which we will sing verse three. And finally, we will hear a reading about the resurrection of Jesus at Easter, after which we will sing the final two verses.

Reading: John 1 1-3 (in the beginning) and Luke 2 4-7 (the birth of Jesus)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made . . .

Joseph went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David. He went there with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and Mary gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the Inn.


I danced in the morning when the world was begun,
and I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun,
and I came from heaven and I danced on the earth;
at Bethlehem I had my birth.


Dance, then, wherever you may be; I am the Lord of the dance, said he,
and I'll lead you all, wherever you may be,
and I'll lead you all in the dance, said he.

Did you notice how that verse went from the very start of the universe with the stars and the sun and then leapt to Jesus' birth in Bethlehem? Before we sing verse two, we hear about Jesus calling his first followers.

Reading: Mark 1 16-20 (Jesus calls Peter, James and John)

[After Jesus was baptized by John and after his temptation in the desert, he] was walking by the Sea of Galilee.  There he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.

When Jesus  had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets.  Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

Now we sing verse two . . .

I danced for the scribe and the Pharisee,
but they would not dance and they would not follow me;
I danced for the fishermen, for James and John;
they came with me and the dance went on.  REFRAIN

Now we leap ahead to near the end of the story, the terrible day called Good Friday when Jesus was killed.

Reading: Mark 15 25, 33-34, 37 (death of Jesus)

It was nine in the morning when they crucified Jesus . . . At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon [when] Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And with a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

Now we will sing verse three

I danced on the Sabbath and I cured the lame;
the holy people said it was a shame;
they whipped and they stripped and they hung me high,
and left me there on a cross to die.  REFRAIN

We now hear a final reading before singing the final two verses. This reading tells the story of how God raises Jesus to new life.

Reading: John 20 1, 11-20 (resurrection of Jesus)

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb where Jesus had been laid and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance . . .  Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”

At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out “Teacher”.

Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the religious leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”

After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

And now we sing the final two verses . . .

I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black;
it's hard to dance with the devil on your back;
they buried my body and they thought I'd gone,
but I am the dance and I still go on.  REFRAIN

They cut me down and I leap up high;
I am the life that will never, never die;
I'll live in you if you'll live in me;
I am the Lord of the dance, said he.  REFRAIN

So there you have it. One hymn that tells the whole life of Jesus in five verses. Of course, it doesn't cover nearly everything. But it does remind us of key moments in Jesus' life. This is what we do in church each Sunday as we go through the church year. We hear stories of Jesus. And reflect on how those stories show us the grace and love that helps us live our lives today.

Today, we mark the beginning of a new school year. We have also remembered how the church year helps us to live our lives as followers of Jesus.

Each year may bring us problems or times of pain, but it also brings us moments of joy and love. Any year, is one in which we can remember God's love as shown to us in Jesus. It is this love which heals us and saves us. It is this love which raises us in any moment to new life in Christ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Friends, let us now commit ourselves in service,
as we worship God with our offering.

We Gather our Offerings

* sung offertory response:   (VU #542)
     We give you but your own, what e'er the gift may be;
     all that we have is yours alone; we give it gratefully.

* Offertory Prayer

Prayers of the People

And now let us pray . . . .

O God, there is so much in life for which we are grateful.
We give thanks for family and friends.
We give thanks for church in which to meet other people who seek to know your love and to learn how to live together in love.
We give thanks for stories and hymns that remind us of the life of Jesus.
In Jesus and in his life, we are reminded of how in all of life's troubles,
You offer us new life that. It is a life within your Love, O God.

Despite your presence, O God, our lives are sometimes troubled.
Today, some of us may be feeling sad.
We may be frightened because someone we know if sick.
We may be confused about how to handle situations at home or school.
We turn to you, O God, for guidance.
Show us the way of Jesus, and help us, we pray,
to know what how to act in tough situations.

Forgive us, we pray, when we stumble or do something we regret.

Today, we pray for people who especially need to be aware of your presence.
We pray for the people of Syria who are suffering from a terrible civil war.
We pray that our leaders will find a way to respond to the violence in Syria a without adding to the violence and making things worse.

The world needs your peace, O God.
Help us to build peace in our families, in Canada, and all around the world.

As we seek peace with justice, we know that we can rely on your Spirit. Let us now take a moment in silence as we listen to the small but mighty voice of your Spirit . . .

May we be inspired but what we have heard to be the people you want us to be, O God.

And all of this we pray in the name of the Risen Christ, our Redeemer and our Hope who taught us to pray together . . .

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever – Amen.


To finish our worship service, we are going to sing a song that we first learned in August. People seemed to like it, so we are going to sing it again this morning. In that way, we should know it even better.

* Hymn: MV #142, "Oh a Song Must Rise"

REFRAIN  Oh a song must rise for the Spirit to descend;
  a song must rise once again
  Singing out God’s praises and glory the faithful voices blend
  Oh a song must rise for the Spirit to descend

From the mountains to the valleys from the desert to the sea
 a song must rise once again.
From the voices of our leaders the voice of you and me
 a song must rise for the Spirit to descend -- REFRAIN

From poverty and riches from the voice of young and old
 a song must rise once again.
 From the free and the imprisoned the timid and the bold
 a song must rise for the Spirit to descend -- REFRAIN

From every house of worship in every faith and tongue
 a song must rise once again
 From the villages and cities a new song must be sung
 a song must rise for the Spirit to descend -- REFRAIN

* Benediction
And dear friends, as we leave this sacred time and place, we go into the world knowing that we do so with the love of God, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit both now and always. Amen.

* Sung Amen  (VU #958)

Halle, Halle, Halle . . .

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Harvest in changing times

Text: Luke 10 1-11, 16-20 (Jesus sends the 70)

It is the final long weekend of summer . . . a time for family and friends, for classic football rivalries, and for a holiday to honour the labour movement.

On this Labour Day weekend, our Gospel reading is about harvest and labourers. Jesus sends out pairs of followers -- 70 people in all -- to heal, preach and teach. He tells them that the harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few.

Jesus is not referring to actual crops and farm labourers, of course. He uses harvest as a metaphor for all the people who are ready to hear the good news of God's kingdom. But given that harvest is now in high gear in Saskatchewan and that this is Labour Day weekend, I begin by talking about actual farms and labourers.

This year in Saskatchewan, the harvest is plentiful and the labourers are few -- at least, they are few compared to times past. In our lifetime, agricultural yields have soared because of new inputs, techniques, and machinery while the number of people working on farms and ranches has plummeted.

Similar changes in technology and the market are evident in all spheres of the economy.

When I was an undergraduate, I wondered if the Canadian working class was disappearing. Some commentators argued that the working class only included manual labourers in mines, mills, and factories.

I grew up in Cornwall Ontario, a city dominated by a pulp and paper mill, textile and chemical factories, and a hydro-electric power plant. Today the hydro plant remains, but all the factories have closed in the face of competition from low-wage countries. Perhaps this is why I was open to the idea that Canada would soon no longer be a working class country.

In Canada today, schools, hospitals, hotels, banks, retail stores, and government offices now employ many more workers than mines, mills or factories do. When I was a student, I wasn't sure whether such service industries created wealth. But that just meant, I think, that I didn't understand what wealth was.

Wealth is anything needed or desired by human beings, whether something you can touch like a manufactured good or something intangible like medical treatment. Many goods and services -- such as the air we breathe or wild berries that we find on a path -- come to us free of charge. Economics focuses on those goods and services that have to be produced by human effort and which therefore carry a price tag.

There are far fewer farmers and factory workers in Canada today than two or three generations ago. But the number of people involved in the service economy continues to grow, and so the size of the working class and the amazing power of its social labour continues to grow. My hometown of Cornwall can again serve as illustration. Cornwall's biggest employer today is Walmart, which runs a regional warehouse there.

When we turn our attention from Canada to the rest of the world, the growth of the working class and the wealth it creates becomes even more dramatic. Not only has the population of the world more than doubled since I was born, the number of people involved in waged work has grown even faster.

China provides the most dramatic example. Since the Communist government embraced private property and the market 35 years ago, more than 200 million  subsistence farmers have moved from China's countryside to its cities. In factories, offices and enterprises of all kinds, these workers have vastly increased the wealth of the Chinese people.

This week, I watched a documentary on Vision TV about one of China's growth industries -- religion. While East Asian religions like Buddhism have grown the most in recent years, Christian churches are growing rapidly there as well.

The documentary said that between five and 10% of the 1.4 billion people in China  -- or approximately 100 million people -- are now Christian. Unlike many Christians in Canada, Chinese Christians tend to be devout. On any given Sunday, more people attend a Christian worship service in China than in all of Europe. This fact astonishes me given that 500 years ago almost all the Christians in the world lived in Europe.

Chinese peasants who are newly arrived in cities seem eager to embrace the creeds and traditions of religion, whether Buddhist, Confucian, or Christian. In China, the potential harvest for the church is large while the number of ministers to handle this influx is few.

Unfortunately, I was not impressed by the work of China's growing religions as they were portrayed in the documentary. Buddhist leaders seem more focused on building hotel resorts near sacred sites than on the practices of compassion and meditation that form the core of Buddhism.

Most of the Christian churches preach respect for state authority and love of country, which reminds me of the bad-old-days when church was a key support for the various empires in Europe.

All the religions in China preach what I call superstition and moralism: that prayer guarantees good fortune and that so-called immoral behaviour -- including resistance to state authority -- leads to God's punishment.

I wonder about the staying power of the Chinese religious revival. Will the grandchildren of the new Chinese working class continue to follow religious teachings after they have lived in cities for several generations and have attained higher levels of education and wealth?

I am not saying that Christianity is only for poor and uneducated people. The problem, I think, lies in the history of the church. The church grew in the West -- and is growing now in places like China -- when repressive states required ideological support, this despite the fact that Jesus stood against the ruling elite of his day.

In a similar way, the church grew in the West -- and is growing now in places like China -- in an era when it preached a  strict moralism, this despite the fact that Jesus stood against the narrow religious rules of his time.

As China rapidly emerges from poverty, the state uses religion to help bolster its stability. But this no longer describes the relation between church and state in Canada, where a host of civic institutions and ideologies now support the state.

As millions of Chinese people deal with the turmoil that comes from moving from the country to the city, they turn to religion for a moral anchor. But this no longer describes the situation in Canada where people are more likely to turn to the mass media and online networks than to the church for moral discussion and guidance.

A church that preaches a gospel of civic and moral piety and superstition might work for now in an emerging powerhouse like China, but it no longer works in Canada.

What Gospel might reach people today in Canada? Well, I suppose that we can only preach the Gospel as it has grasped us so far.

In a few minutes, we will celebrate the sacrament of communion. At the centre of the Communion Prayers, we affirm our faith by saying "Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again." I now look at each statement in turn.

"Christ has died" means many things to me: that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine; that each of us shares his doom -- and hence his salvation; that all is change, flux, and decay; that old conditions, old idols, and yes, even old gospels eventually die. "Christ has died" reminds me that life constantly hollows me out and exposes my illusions.

"Christ has risen" reminds us that Jesus was fully divine as well as fully human; that after the death of old illusions and the decay of former conditions, Love remains; and that after the many small deaths of life, Christ now lives in our hearts.

"Christ will come again" reminds us that the incarnation of God's Love in Jesus was not a one-time only event; that, although we may be fearful and distracted even after finding new life in Christ, God's Grace can raise us again to new life in any moment. Finally, it reminds us that at the end of life, we are confident that we return to the Love from which we came.

Perhaps this Gospel cannot be easily heard in today's fast changing culture. The small farms of Borderlands of100 years ago have been swallowed by the giant ones of today. The factories of Cornwall have closed and been replaced by new service industries. The old certainties of civic and moral duty have been swept away by the intermingling of all human cultures in the wired world of the 21st Century.

Today, I see our church in a hollowing out phase. Much of what the church said in the past no longer resonates with today's culture or with young people. In these changed circumstances, we may no longer be sure how to express the love that we experience in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Still, we try. Two weeks ago, we had a Family Camping Weekend at Camp Woodboia. Next week, we experiment with "Children's Church." I hope some children will come. We will see.

Because of the hollowing out of the church, I often resonate more with the statement "Christ has died" than with the two other central statements of our faith. And yet, the other statements of our faith still stand.

We don't know what comes after the hollowing out of the church. But we know that after all the disasters of life, God's Love rises to new life and brings us along with it.

Today, the church in China grows as it deals with floods of peasants arriving in the cities. Perhaps as China's youth gain in education and affluence, the Chinese church will undergo a hollowing out similar to the one Canada's churches have undergone these past 50 years. Who knows?

We don't know what their ministry or our ministry will look like in the future. But we do know that it will be one born of Love, sustained by Love, and embraced at the end by Love.

Harvest time is here again, and only a small number of people will bring it in. But a great spiritual hunger remains in our lives.

At the Lord's Table, we receive food for life's journey. This food also fuels our ministry, which is our witness to the good news of God's Love. We undertake this ministry without either pretensions of success or fear of failure because we have already been blessed by God.

Culture changes and churches rise and fall with those changes. But the core of the good news remains: Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.

This is our creed. This is our ministry. This is our Gospel.

Thanks be to God.