Saturday, 27 May 2017

Unknown Gods

The first time I read the words from the book of Acts, I was struck by the line that Paul found inscribed on an altar. “to the god nobody knows.” Mostly because the preacher in me admired what Paul does with his next breath. Paul is in Athens. The centre of intellect and rhetoric. The homes of Zeus and the whole pantheon of Greek Gods and Paul says, “. I’m here to introduce you to this God so you can worship intelligently, know who you’re dealing with.” (Acts 17:23) It is just as powerful thousands of years later. Is it any wonder that Paul is responsible for introducing so many communities to the good news of Jesus? Paul travelled extensively and wherever goes, he finds a group of people interested in hearing about Jesus. He goes to people’s homes and public squares and finds a way to connect their everyday lives to the good news of Jesus. 
I’m going to press rewind on our reading because Paul wasn’t supposed to preaching in Athens. At the beginning of chapter 17 it describes how Paul had to be taken by stealth out of Thessalonica. The leaders in the community did not like the Word that Paul was teaching in their community. With the help of his friends and supporters Paul makes his way to Athens where he is waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him.
As Paul explores Athens he sees idols everywhere. One translation of this text says he was deeply distressed by all the idols and another says, “The longer Paul waited in Athens for Silas and Timothy, the angrier he got—all those idols! The city was a junkyard of idols.” (Acts 17: 16) It it is almost like Paul can’t help himself. He sees the idols everywhere and needs to share a message of hope. So Paul begins talking about the good news of Jesus with the Jewish community and other like-minded people in the city. Some philosophers hear what Paul is saying about Jesus’ resurrection and they want to know more. They take Paul to a quieter place at the Areopagus to hear more. 
Up to this point, Paul’s message has been directed to the Jewish community. This a new audience filled with the Athenian elite which requires a different kind of message. It says in Acts, “So Paul took his stand in the open space at the Areopagus and laid it out for them. “It is plain to see that you Athenians take your religion seriously. When I arrived here the other day, I was fascinated with all the shrines I came across. And then I found one inscribed, to the god nobody knows. I’m here to introduce you to this God so you can worship intelligently, know who you’re dealing with.” (Acts 17: 22 – 23) 
The God that Paul introduces the Athenians to that day is one we know. It is the God who created the world, a God who doesn’t need human shrines, a God who is always near. Then Paul quotes a poem by the Greek poet Aratus, “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’” (Acts 17:28) Then comes Paul’s big conclusion, “Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:29 – 31) 
Paul’s preaching that day did not spark faith in everyone. It says in our reading, “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.” (Acts 17: 32 – 34) 
You may be wondering what a sermon preached over 2000 years ago in Athens has to do with us today? We are in a time when fewer people know the good news of Jesus. People haven’t heard about the ways that Jesus touches our lives with hope. People haven’t the message of God’s deep and abiding grace. It is up to us who’ve heard the story to share it. And just like Paul did in Athens, to use the things that people are familiar with to inspire curiosity and faith. Music, poetry, art, justice, community, compassion can all be reminders of God’s deep and abiding love for us in Jesus. 
Dr. Matt Skinner writes, “The gospel sounds different everyplace it is told. That's because the gospel does not exist in some unadulterated form in isolation from human language, culture, or presuppositions. It's always enfleshed in some way--linguistically, culturally, personally. How would we understand it, or recognize it as good news for us, if it weren't? 
In every age they found ways to proclaim the gospel. In April of 1894 right here at Cochrane Street there was a successful missionary service with preaching by a variety of preachers. That was one tool. What tool to share the gospel can we use for today? We live in a time of increased curiosity about faith and spirituality. The spiritually section in our books stores keeps growing. People have question and want to know more. As the culture shifts and changes, we need to find our own way to respond to that culture and to make the good news come to life for today.
Perhaps you can take some time this week to think about the ways that good news has touched your life or ways you’ve felt God come close and share that moment with a friend. Maybe as you listen to the radio or read a book you will find something that reminds of the ways that God is at work in your life. Maybe that will help others connect to God. 
Whenever those moments happen, it seems to me that God is reaching out to me in the most unexpected ways. A few years ago, I was struggling with what to do for one of our Holy Week services. I was sitting in my car, the radio on, and I heard a song by Great Big World called “Say Something.” It was like I heard Peter’s story of denying Jesus three times in song. Here are the words, 
Say something, I'm giving up on you
I'll be the one, if you want me to
Anywhere, I would've followed you
Say something, I'm giving up on you” (Great Big World, Say Something)
God is always finding new ways to reach us – to make those great introductions. We too can be like Paul who saw that shrine to the god that nobody knows and took it upon himself to introduce people to God. The story of God’s love and mercy is all around us. It is our calling to make that unknown God known and as we do God’s guiding grace will be with us. Amen. 

Monday, 15 May 2017

And When They Lifted Their Eyes

At the 3pm service on May 14th 1882, the day the first building on this site was dedicated, the Rev. David Beaton of the Congregationalist Church rose to give the message. He preached on one line from the Gospel of Matthew, “And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only.” It comes from the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. Jesus, Peter and the brothers James and John head up a mountain to pray. While they are there, Jesus is changed, transformed and he becomes dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appear. Peter wants to build a dwelling place. Then that voice from heaven comes saying, “This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight. Listen to him.” (Matthew 17:5) Then the disciples, filled with fear, fall to the ground. Jesus touches them and tells then not to be afraid. Then comes the line that was used as inspiration 135 years ago, the translation from The Messages puts it this way, “When they opened their eyes and looked around all they saw was Jesus, only Jesus.” (Matthew 17:8)
My friends as we sit here today, 135 years after the first building on this site was dedicated, we are still gathering for worship and trying to figure out what it means to lift up our eyes and see Jesus. 135 years later we are still following in the ways of Jesus. 135 years later and that same passage of scripture which we normally hear at the beginning of lent can be a reminder of what we need to be about as a people of faith. 
In that 135 years some things have changed. The hymns, the music, the choir gowns and in January of 1914 that first building burned down. But one important thing has not changed. With their eyes firmly fixed on Jesus, 101 years ago they decided to rebuild even though the war was coming, even though it was expensive, even though they knew it would be hard. 
I’m in awe of our forbearers who took the chance to build a church here in this place not once but twice. They were a people of faith and vision. They lived in a time when the church was expanding and growing. Sundays schools were filled to capacity. They had a message to share and a vision of people to gathering in faith. 
Over that 135 one of things that changed is the churches place in society. One time churches were the centre of community. Today that is not necessarily the case. We hear regularly that the church is dying.  Just week I read an article from the Washington Post, “If it doesn’t stem its decline, mainline Protestantism has just 23 Easters left.” The author writes, “The news of mainline Protestantism’s decline is hardly new. Yet the trend lines are showing a trajectory toward zero in both those who attend a mainline church regularly and those who identify with a mainline denomination 23 years from now. While the sky isn’t falling, the floor is dropping out. The trajectory, which has been a discussion among researchers for years, is partly related to demographics. Mainline Protestants, which has been the tradition of several U.S. presidents, aren’t “multiplying” with children as rapidly as evangelicals or others of differing faiths. And geography matters. Places where Protestants live are now in socio-economic decline, and parts of the country like the Sun Belt are become more evangelical with every passing winter.
It sounds pretty daunting doesn’t it. 23 Easters left. We don’t only hear this story of decline and hopeless in the papers. We talk about it in our churches and in our meetings. We lament over all the things we’ve lost – lower attendance. No children. No youth. No volunteers. Where have those good old days gone? Here is what I know. The message of Jesus Christ is timeless and there is no amount of change that can diminish the good news of Jesus. He isn’t going anywhere and neither are those who follow in his way. The church may be changing but it isn’t dying. As Paul writes in Hebrews “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8) We can choose to look at the statistics of decline and nod our heads in agreement. We can remember the good old days when pews and Sunday schools were full. We can look back with longing for days long gone. There is no future in looking backward with longing. 
Jesus’ invitation is here and it is now. It our turn to do what our forbearers did when they first built a church on the site. We can lift up our eyes and see Jesus, only Jesus. We can find new ways to tell the stories of his love, of his welcome, of healing, of the new life. We can reach out and meet people where they are. We can follow in Jesus’ footsteps and offer care and support to those on the margins of our community.  
Perhaps the most powerful thing we can do is tell our story to others. I know, we are out of practice. We accepted that idea that we don’t talk religion with other people. We need to start. If we don’t share our story with others, if we don’t tell people why we come to this place each week, how will they know? The time has come for us to be brave and share with others why we believe in God and how sometime it’s not easy because doubt creeps in. Talk about the times when God comes powerfully into our lives offering healing, hope and help. Find new ways of telling that age-old story. Like those who went before us, we lift our eyes to Jesus who guides us as we dream new dreams. 
This congregation over the generations has worked with tenacity and hope to share message of God’s love and to help the people of this city. That legacy continues in all of you today. Just three short years ago, this congregation faced a challenging choice: close our doors or take a chance on something new and different. Once again, this community of faith lifted their eyes to Jesus and made another big change. Your courage held create Cochrane Centre, a not for profit that has built 10 homes for people in need in this community. The legacy of people who first had the foresight to build a church on this site continues in a new way. 

We do not know what the future will hold for us as a congregation. Here is what we know. Whatever tomorrow brings, we face it with our brothers and sisters in faith. God continues to guide this congregation as we dream new dreams. And we know, that when we keep our eyes lifted to Jesus, we will have all that we need to continue to share the good news of Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today and forever. Amen. 

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Get Loud

This week is mental health awareness week. The hashtag for social media is “Get Loud” about mental health. Perhaps you saw the video of the Stella’s Circle Inclusion choir singing the new song they wrote with Amelia Curran called “Be the Change” at Rawlins Cross. Maybe you’ve heard the story about the new yellow bench at Gonzaga High School that encourages the students to pause, talk about and take care of their mental health. Individuals have shared their personal stories about their struggles with mental health. 
It’s not something we talk much about at church. And yet it affects a lot of people. It affects members of my family and maybe its touched yours. As I listened this week to the stories, I started to wonder what Jesus would have to say about mental health. The bible is full of healing stories. It seems to me that Jesus ministry is about love and in particular those who find themselves on the margins. Jesus welcomes the ones who struggles the most and offers hope and healing. 
When it comes to mental illness, whether it is for ourselves or for someone we love, we long for help, hope, the right medication, welcome, community, healing and most of all an end to their suffering. There are no simple answers or miracle cures but there is help and hope.
Our Gospel reading this morning gives us some clues about Jesus’ response. The disciples are still shaking from the near drowning. Jesus has just rebuked the winds and calmed the raging seas. They are finally on dry land in the land of the Gerasenes. As they step out of the boat, a man who had a demon meets them. Nothing was working in life for him. He couldn’t wear clothes and he had no home. In fact, he made his home among the tombs. The demons take one look at Jesus, fall to the ground and cry, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, son of the most high God? I beg you, do not torment me.” (Luke 8:29) Then Jesus asks the demon its name – Legion for there were many. They begged to go into the pigs instead of the abyss.  When the towns people come to see what’s happened they find the man clothed, in his right mind and sitting at Jesus feet. The people from the community are so filled with fear that they asked Jesus to leave. The man healed begs to go with Jesus. Jesus says to him, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” (Luke 8:39)
This is not an easy story. In part because we don’t talk about demons in the same way as they did in Jesus time. It’s a struggle to understand. Maybe you are wondering the same thing. A few things helped me on the way. The preacher Nadia Bolz Webber writes, “I’ve confessed this before but I don’t always know what to do when it comes to talk about demons in the Bible.  Especially when the demons talk and have names and stuff like that. I’m never sure if back then they had the exact same things going on that we do, but they didn’t know about things like epilepsy or mental illness so they just called it all demon possession. But I do know that many of you, like myself, have suffered from addictions and compulsions and depression – things that have gotten ahold of us, making us do things we don’t want to. Or making you think you love things, or substances or people that are really destructive. So maybe if that, in part, is what having a demon is, maybe if it’s being taken over by something destructive, then possession is less of an anachronism, and more of an epidemic.”
Michael Rogness, a professor at Luther Seminary, writes “all the “demons” Jesus confronts have three things in common: they cause self-destructive behavior in the victim, the victim feels trapped in that condition, and they separate the victim from normal living in the family circle. Sound familiar? Don’t many of us suffer from the same kind of snares and burdens?” 
So maybe we do know demons – they have names like anger, depression, addiction, fear, compulsion, and they claim our lives and make it impossible to remain part of the community, to remember that we are loved. We can’t remember those words God whispers in our ears. “You are loved. You are mine.”  When Jesus steps off the boat and finds this man whose been suffering for so long, and says those words of hope and love, is it any wondered that those demons know their days are numbered? Love, community and hope help banish isolation and loneliness. The last thing that Jesus does before he returns to the boat is to return this man to his community, to his family circle. He asks to go with Jesus. He does not want to lose this new feeling. Instead of an invitation to follow, Jesus invites him to return. “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” (Luke 8:39)
With all healing stories, we need to proceed with caution. I’m not saying if you pray hard enough faith will cure you. I’m saying that God stands with us. I’m saying that Jesus shows us a path to healing and then walks with us. There is a hymn in our hymn book called “Silence, Frenzied, Unclean Spirit.” It is hard to hear because it sounds out of key and jarring. The words of the last verse are: “Silence, Lord, the unclean spirt in our mind and in our heart; speak your word that when we hear it, all our demons shall depart. Clear our thoughts and calm our feeling; still the fractured, warring soul, By the power of your healing, make us faithful, true and whole.” The music does not get easy to hear until the last words of the last verse as we sing “true and whole.” 

In the season of Easter, we are reminded that Jesus offers us new life. It is a free gift and with it comes peace for our fractured souls and an invitation to wholeness. What Jesus does for the man possessed by demon spirits, he does for all of us. Jesus sends the demons away and invites us to wholeness and to community.  As the body of Christ, we are called to work for the health and wholeness of all our brothers and sisters. No matter the challenges we face, we are God’s beloved children and we never walk alone. Amen.