Sunday, 30 June 2013

The best snack ever

Today is a mix of many days. It is a day to remember those who died at Beaumont Hammel and other places in Europe. It is also a day to celebrate this country that we call home and it is communion Sunday. Communion is one of the two sacraments of the church baptism being the other. Every month we gather around the table and celebrate this feast of God’s abundance but we seldom pause to reflect on its meaning in our lives and its place in our community. 
Over the years I’ve experienced communion in many ways. In the pews, in circles serving one another, by intinction, with small cubes of bread, full loaves of bread, with honey and bread, with grape juice, with wine and much to my surprise on time with the fizzing bubbles of grape pop. But no matter how it is served or what elements are used at the heart of the feast is the notion that we are taking part in something holy. I’ve often wondered how people who’ve never come to church see what we do. Think about it, “I went to this church and they had bread that they called the body of Jesus and grape juice that they called blood.” It is indeed a strange thing we Christians do and yet it is central to our lives of faith. 
Communion helps to remember God’s grace. It is a sacrament which means it is a visible sign of an invisible grace. We do something like share in the meal of bread and wine and it is a reminder of God’s grace. Grace is sometimes harder to understand. The Dictionary defines grace as, “Seemingly effortless beauty or charm of movement, form, or proportion; a characteristic or quality pleasing for its charm or refinement; a disposition to be generous or helpful; goodwill; mercy; clemency.” In more theological language we would say that grace is the free gift of God – we do nothing to earn it. Grace comes at the most unexpected times. Jan Arden tweeted this, 
“Mercy came to me today-
She whispered softly in my ear-
She swept the hair out from my eyes,
And left forgiveness at my feet.”  (@Jannarden 2013-06-18)
As we gather at the table we are reminded of God’s infinite grace to us in Jesus Christ. It is the promise of sins forgiven but more than that it is the reminder that we are enough just as we are. The Chalice we are using for communion today is called “the Bent Chalice.” It is bent because it is a reminder that all of us come to the Lord’s Table bent and broken in need of grace. The Potter describes it this way, “The bent chalice is a visual reminder that all people of faith can come the Welcoming Table just as they are bringing whatever broken pieces of life, whatever isn’t perfect, and whatever doesn’t measure up ... and know that we are created in the image of The Holy.” (Dancing Fiddler Potter)
Each of us comes the Lord’s Table in our own way recognizing that through some mystery we can’t quite name we meet God. Somehow over time we’ve lost sight of that fact that all are welcome as we come to commune with God, we humans put up fences around God’s table to protect this sacred meal from abuses. Those fences are both tangible ones and intangible ones. Like you have to be good enough, faithful enough, understand enough, attend church enough in order to be worthy of coming to the table. One of the ways this was communicated was through the distribution of communion tokens. I’m not sure it if was in use here, but one responsibilities years ago of session members to distribute tokens to the people who were allowed to have communion. In order to receive communion you needed to present the token to the person serving communion. A remnant of this existed in my childhood church where communion cards were distributed monthly to all eligible for communion.
You can be assured that when Jesus gathered around the table with his disciples at the first communion no one needed a communion card or to be holy enough, or good enough or perfect enough to come. It was not a question of being worthy. The first communion was more like Sunday Dinner or a family celebration. It was the Passover meal. So men, women and children were all have gathered at the table. It was not at all like the pictures of angelic disciples at the table we’ve seen this morning. Passover was a family meal and one of the most important groups at the table was the children because they asked all the questions that helped people remember God’s goodness. 
Jesus sat in amongst the children, men and women and started a new way to remember God’s goodness. Jesus took bread and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:24) Then he took a cup and said, “This is the cup of the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:25) Matthew says after the meal was over they sang a hymn and went to the Mount of Olives. 
After his resurrection, Jesus’ disciples recognized him in the breaking of the bread. Once after a journey to Emmaus and once on a beach in a simple meal of broiled fish and bread. Communion is a feast, a celebration of the good news, a reminder of God’s love and most importantly a time to remember God’s deep and abiding grace. Perhaps one of the most beautiful responses to communion came from one of our children who after tasting the bread and wine said, “This is the best snack ever, can I have some more?”
He was so right. Communion is the best snack ever because it nourishes both body and soul, and with God there is always more … more grace, more mercy, more love. So come to the table just as you are to be filled with God’s goodness. Enjoy the best snack ever so that when you leave this holy place you can share the good news of God’s grace with others. Amen.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Gratitude or Repentance??

Before we delve into our Gospel reading, let’s clear something up. The title given to this reading in most bibles “A sinful woman is forgiven” leads to all kinds of assumptions. The “sinful woman” in this reading is not necessarily Mary Magdalene and is not necessarily a prostitute. Mary has been tarred with that brush for far too long. Jeanine K. Brown writes, “Luke does not specify the sin of Peter or the other sinners with whom Jesus eats. Yet in this passage of the woman who anoints Jesus, it is commonplace for commentators to assume that she is a prostitute, as if the only sin a Jewish woman of the first century could commit would be sexual sin. Given that Luke can specify that particular sin (see 15:30), his less explicit reference here to this woman “who was a sinner” should not be pressed further but should be heard in concert with the other references to sinners in Luke as recipients of Jesus’ kingdom ministry.”  A better title would be Jesus’ abundant mercy.

            With that cleared up – the story. Simon, a Pharisee is hosting a dinner for the famous teacher/preacher/prophet at his home. The guests at the table are Simon’s friends and prominent members of the community who are there to discuss important topics of faith. The smell of food is wafting through the air, the table is set and everyone is just about to eat when a women barges into the house. She heads strait for Jesus. As she weeps she bathes his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. Then she continues to kiss is feet as she anoints them with oil. Most of the people avert their eyes, it is too embarrassing to watch such a display of affection.

Simon looks for a minute then looks away. He can hardly believe what is happening in his own home. No matter how you slice it, this is a huge interruption in Simon’s dinner plans and he’s probably more than a bit annoyed. He mutters under his breath, “humph, what is Jesus doing letting that woman touch him. She’s no good.” Simon puffs up his chest believing that he is better than “that woman.”

            Jesus tells Simon a simple parable about a creditor with two debtors. One owned 500 hundred denarii which is a yearly salary and the other owned 50 denarii. When they could not pay the debt, the creditor cancelled both of their debts. (Luke 7:42 – 43) Jesus then asks Simon which one will love him more, and Simon says, “I suppose the one for whom the he cancelled the great debtor.” (Luke 7:43) The answer is obvious but he supposes the one with the great debt will love more. Really?  

            But what comes next is what is really amazing. Jesus turns toward the woman and says to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my fee with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”  (Luke 7:44 – 47)

            Amazing. Simon stood in judgement of the “that woman,” he rolled his eyes at her display and judged her as somehow less than. Simon probably wasn’t alone. From the moment the woman walked into the room she is labelled, “sinner” and “that woman.” But Jesus turns the situation on its head and points out that the real sin lies with Simon. Simon believes that because he follows the law, does what is right that he is somehow better than the woman – he is righteous and she is not. Jeannine K. Brown reminds us that “[i]n a Jewish context, the descriptor “sinner” would indicate someone who was not faithful to God’s law -- a transgressor of the Torah. ( Which means that that she probably broke one of the then ten commandments. Which one? We don’t know. Does it matter? Not really because who among us hasn’t fallen short and broken one these commandments at some point in our lives.

            That’s the bad news for all of really. No matter how good we are we will never get all completely right. We are human and not one of is perfect. We all at some point in our lives will fall short, will do things that harm others, and be tempted to believe that we are better than another. Then we will be like Simon – judging others to be less than ourselves. I’ve done it and I’ll probably do it again. It is easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment to be ruled by emotions and make judgements about another’s worth. Can’t we hear ourselves, “I deserve that promotion more than he does because I worked harder or because I’m better than he is.”  “What is she doing here, doesn’t she know that she is not welcome?” “Look at him, doesn’t he know he’s not good enough to be here with us?”

            Now the good news – God’s forgiveness is waiting for us. It is ours we just need to claim. There are no conditions attached. Jesus does not says, “You are forgiven but you need to do xy and z.” Jesus says you are forgiven – nothing further required. It is a gift of grace and mercy. The only thing we can do when such a beautiful gift is given is to give thanks. The woman in our story today wasn’t cleaning Jesus feet with her hair because she’d come to repent, but because she needed to show her gratitude. Forgiveness was hers already and it was glorious. She found new life. So she knelt at Jesus feet in a lavish, almost embarrassing display of gratitude.

            We have a choice between two paths. We can follow Simon and believe that we are righteous and better than others or we can follow the path of the woman who knows that she has made mistakes and needs to hear the words of forgiveness. Dr. David Loose writes, “This story, then, tells both halves of the truth: the joyful truth that those who recognize their need receive their heart’s desire and live out of gratitude and love, and the tragic truth that those who believe themselves righteous or sufficient on their own never know the joy of receiving and so pursue truncated lives absent genuine gratitude or love.”

            There is nothing worse than living holding onto our sins, those moments that we regret, those offences that weigh on our souls. Forgiveness sets us free to live more fully as the people God intends us to be. Forgiveness is a burden lifted and new life. God’s grace, God’s forgiving love is waiting for you and for me with no strings attached. So be kind to yourself and to others. Let go of judgement and live each day giving thanks for the grace Jesus gives us and most importantly live in gratitude for the One who gives us new life. Amen.  

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Hallelujah -- the sermon from October 28th visit of The Tenors

“I’ve heard that there was a secret chord, that David played and it pleased the Lord. … It goes like this fourth, the fifth, the minor fall the major lift.” (Leonard Cohen) Don’t you wish you knew that secret chord? To that know that special combination of thoughts acts and deeds that allows us to live close to God? I hope I’m not alone when I tell you that sometimes the special connection with God gets lost in the busyness of life. Between work, the endless to do lists, the never ending laundry, bill paying, meal prep, kids to and from all the places they need to get – somehow God gets lost in all. Somehow in it all I get lost in it all.

That’s when I notice that no matter how you really feel when people ask, “How are you?” The answer is fine or good or okay. Even when you know deep in your soul that things are not fine. Even when you know that things are not good. Even when you know that things are not okay. Don’t you wish on days like that, that you knew the secret chord that David played that pleased the Lord? I know I do. That way, when those hard days come and they will come– we know how to draw strength and comfort from God.

David knew just how to do it. He was the one of greatest king of Israel. He was so great that when they wrote down the story of Jesus’ life Jesus was of the descent and lineage of David. It was David who defeated the giant Goliath with a tiny stone; it was David who soothed Saul’s troubled mind with his beautiful music; it was David who wept at Saul’s death even after Saul tried to kill him; it was David who wept for his son who betrayed him crying “Oh Absolom, my son, my son.”  But for all his greatness on the battlefield and in politics, his personal life was a mess. At every turn with David there are broken relationships and sorrow.  But here’s the thing about David, he’s human. He did great things, he made mistakes and he did some terrible things. Oh yes, Hallelujah was always on David’s lips. But more than once he turned from God, he forgot about God’s ways and did things that the bible describes as, “Evil in God’s sight.” Yet somehow David always found his way back to God.  

David knew the secret chord. It wasn’t perfection because he was far from it. It wasn’t doing always doing the right thing because he often did the wrong thing. This morning’s bible reading tells that story well. It follows on the heals of David falling in love or in lust with Bathsheba. He saw her bathing on the roof. Even though she was married to Uriah, David wanted her for himself. He was the King and the King gets what he wants. And when he couldn’t get his way, he had Uriah killed on the battlefield.

            Not a smart move – a terrible thing really. It displeased the Lord. But David was the king so who was would have the nerve to say, “Wait a minute you can’t do that?” God called Nathan, his faithful prophet to remind David of God’s ways. Nathan tells David a story, a simple story of a rich man and a poor man. Now the rich had many herds of sheep and the poor man had one lamb that he loved. The rich man stole the poor man’s lamb and used it to prepare a feast for a passing stranger. When David hears the story he is outraged. He cries out to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.’” (2 Samuel 12:5 – 6)

            Nathan turns to David and says, “You’re the man! …Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife” (2 Samuel 12:9) In that moment David knows the truth of what he’s done and there is nothing for him to do but turn to God seeking forgiveness.

            This same pattern happens over and over in David’s life. Living, making bad choices, seeking forgiveness, return to God. Through it all God loved David. The secret chord that David played for the Lord was not perfection and nor was it always doing the right thing. It was always to turning to God in joy and in sorrow for support and for comfort. Through it all David sings “Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy. I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.” (Psalm 42 and 43 Voices United)

            Is it any wonder David is attributed with writing the bible’s hymn book, the book of Psalms? He knew the ups and downs of life. But in his private moments of prayer he finds solace as he sings to God, “Day and night I taste only tears, while they steadily belittle me, saying, 'Where is your God?' But I remember - though my soul is distressed - how I went with the crowds to the house of God, our voices joyful and filled with praise, a multitude keeping festival.” (Psalm 42 and 43 Voices United) Leonard Cohen says it well:

I did my best, it wasn't much
…And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

            That secret chord that pleases the Lord is trusting in God’s loving kindness. That secret chord is relying on God’s grace. Isn’t that we always strive for in our lives? To return to God again and again in our need and in our joy. Not easy but worth the time in study, in prayer and praise. David’s story reminds us that God’s goodness is there for us. Holding us. Calling us back to God’s ways. Not because we are perfect or doing everything right but because God loves us exactly as we are. That is God’s grace. That is the good news. So let us stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on our tongues but Hallelujah. Hallelujah.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Changing Times

This week I was invited to attend a breakfast gathering of the members of the board of directors for The United Church of Canada Foundation who were meeting here in St. John’s. Their Mission Statement is, “Endowed by the Generous, Enduring for Generations, Enabling God’s Mission.” One of their main priorities is funding new and innovative ministries in our church.

The guest speaker at the breakfast was The Honourable Ed Roberts who spoke about our province and as he spoke it reminded me of the struggles facing the church. Here is an overview of the challenges. 1. We are an aging province. We have the highest median age in the country. 2. Oil revenues are unpredictable and finite. 3 We experiencing the highest level of wealth. With the wealth comes increased poverty and an increased number of people falling through the cracks. He concluded with an invitation to the church to engage in the public debate to ensure that our seniors are cared for, that people have food to eat and place to live. He encouraged us as a church to be engaged.

Both church and governments are faced with an aging population, increased expenses, decreased revenue and a call to ensure that people don’t fall through the cracks. We are not the same church that we were 50 years ago – even 10 years ago. Change is all around us in society and in our churches. We’ve talked about it here at Cochrane Street especially knowing that we have big decisions to make about the future. But also at East District and General Council because declining revenues means as now 17.5 % cuts to all programs. At some point as a church both locally and nationally we will have to decide how we are going to live in the future. But no matter how many changes surround us in our churches, there is one thing that has not changed – we are called to be engaged in the world. We are called to live out God’s message of love.

That message of love rings out loud and clear in our gospel reading. Jesus came to a town called Nain. As he is approaching the gate, he comes upon a funeral procession. The man who died was “his mother’s only son and she was a widow.” (Luke 7:11) You may be wondering why this detail is important.  A woman without a husband or a son was basically destitute. She would soon have nothing. Luke says Jesus had compassion on her, he touched the bier and the bearer stood still and Jesus says, “Young man, I say rise!” The man sits up, begins to speak and then Jesus gives him to his mother.

It is a strange story in many ways. Usually Jesus’ healing stories are followed by call to live faithfully or an indication that their faith has made them well. But that doesn’t happen in this story. Jesus saw a bad situation. A woman who was about to fall through the cracks and he was moved by compassion to do something about it. He couldn’t help himself because the need was great and he could do something about it.

My friends the church and the world around us may be changing but the message of the gospel has not. We are called, like Jesus to be moved by compassion. We are called to live our faith by reaching out to help people in our community and in our world. Noelle Russell a young woman from Whitbourne Pastoral Charge who goes to Trinity United Church in Blaketown did just that. She’d heard much about the lack of clean drinking water in some African communities. She and members of her congregation embarked on a project to do something about it. They started the “Wells for Africa” campaign. In just over a year Noelle and members of Trinity United Church have raised over $7000.00 dollars for a well that will serve many communities.

Like Noelle, following Jesus’s example we can be moved by compassion to care for people in our community and around the world. The world, our province, the church are all changing but the message of the gospel has not. It says in Hebrews, “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8) While we as a church figure out how we will live into the future we cannot let people slip through the cracks. This may seem challenging, even scary we are blessed in this journey because we share it with our brothers and sisters in faith. As we discern our path for the future, as we listen to the Spirit’s call to compassion, we do so knowing that God is with us, caring for us and guiding us as we care for God’s people in our community and around the world. Amen.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Feed My Lambs

Since I was away at East District Meetings here is the sermon from April 18th.
Have you ever wondered why Jesus asked Peter if he loved him three times? In part it could be because as Jesus was heading to the cross Peter denied him three times. But I wonder sometimes if wasn’t because Peter wasn’t really listening not only to what Jesus was saying but what he meant.  Have you ever noticed with kids that there are a lot of things you have to say more than once for the point to sink in. I know I’ve noticed it with my kids and sometimes it happens with adults too. We hear the words but not their meaning.

Imagine the story this way. After the first Easter Sunday morning, the disciples are at a loss. They have no idea what to do. Jesus said that he was coming back but the when and how they did not know. He’d appeared to them in that closed upper room but since then nothing. Not a word. So Peter says the others, “Come on boys lets go fishing.” Which is just another way of saying lets go back to what we know, back to something familiar.  They were in that boat fishing all night and they’d caught nothing. Which only serves to make and already hard time worse than it was before. As the dawn breaks they are heading back to the shore, when a voices calls, “You’re fishing on the wrong side, drop you nets on the other one.” And for whatever reason they do just that and now their nets are so full they are breaking. 

Peter only knows one person who can do and say something like that. Jesus. He jumps into the water and rushes to the shore. Without much fuss, Jesus invites the rest of the disciples to join them for a meal of broiled fish on the beach. Then Jesus pulls Peter aside and says, “Peter, do you love me?” And Peter says, “Oh, Jesus, this is great. What are we going to do now?  What did ask? Do I love you, of course I do. So tomorrow we’ll put all the fishing gear away and get back on the road. Love you? You know I love you.

Then Jesus grabs Peter by the shoulders and says, “Peter, Simon son of John, do you love me?” And finally it sinks in. “Yes, Lord I love you.” And Jesus says for the third time, “Then feed my sheep.” And then Peter knows that it is his turn to do what Jesus was doing in the world. All those great “I am” statements that are scattered throughout John’s gospel – I am the bread of life; I am true vine, I am the good shepherd.” Discipleship means being Jesus’ hands and feet in the world. In the poem Peter’s Testimony from the Iona Community Peter reflects on Jesus words, “Then feed my lambs, and feed my lambs and feed my sheep. And then I realized that he had fed us so that we could feed others and that he loved us so that we could love others the same way.” (Stages on the Way page 211).

We catch of someone doing just that in our reading from Acts. It is a healing story but it is also a discipleship story. Two important things about this story Dorcas or Tabitha is called a disciple. Yes a woman who is a disciple just like Peter. It says in Acts she was devoted to good works and charity.  She had two names one Greek Dorcas and one Hebrew Tabitha so she is a who travelled widely in both Jewish and gentile circles. Dorcas the disciple who did so much in the community of widows and orphans died. Peter was called and when he arrived, the widows she cared for wept as they showed him all the clothing and Dorcas had made for them. Clothing was precious because people did not have a lot of it.

Dorcas was a woman who lived the words, “Feed my sheep” with her good deeds and charity just a Peter did. Jesus says to all of us, “Do you love me?” Then feed my lambs. It can seem like a daunting task and maybe one we will never get quite right. But what matters most is trying daily striving to help other with acts of kinds, volunteering with outreach agencies and supporting groups who advocate for a better life for every member of the community.

On the beach that day so long ago Jesus pulled Peter aside and asked, “Do you love?” Today Jesus pulls each one of us aside and says, “Do you love me? Then feed my lambs.” Pause, “Do you love me? Then feed my lambs.”  Pause. “People of Cochrane Street United Church do you love me? Then feed my sheep. Amen.