Our Purpose and Mission Statement

Working to build God's dream. Help wanted!

We the people of Glen Rhodes United Church, are determined that our life together will be fully inclusive for people of all ages, races, genders, sexual orientations, differing abilities, ethnic origins and economic circumstances. Therefore, we hope that God will work in us so that we will be a sensitive congregation, willing to share our faith and gifts in language and worship, in the life and work of our church and wherever God calls us to do justice in the wider community, with compassion, fun and laughter

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

"Gifts to remember" - December 24, 2012 by Robin Wardlaw

Christmas Eve, Year C Readings: Isaiah 9:2–7; Psalm 96; (Titus 2:11–14); Luke 2:1–14, (15–20)

There’s a quirky Christmas story about a woman who goes to the bank to talk to the manager and get a little more money on the family loan so she can afford gifts for her children. She finds the bank and manager more than a little intimidating. She has taken to bringing the children in the hopes of softening the stern manager somewhat. It doesn’t seem to work well, however.

This time, she brings both girls. In their snow suits. No, she can’t see the manager just now. Instead, the girls spot Santa coming into the teller area. He beckons to the girls, all jolly, and they race to him, and sit, one on either knee. He asks if they have been good, always brushing their teeth and doing with their mother asked and so on. They proceed to tell Santa what they want. Santa agrees to each item, as their lists go on and on to their wildest dreams, even bicycles. This is despite mother waving and mouthing no, no, from where she stands, horrified.

The girls come back to their mother. They and their brother will get everything, everything, on their lists! Now their mother will be allowed in to see the manager. He is sitting behind his desk, in his Santa suit, and yes, he would be happy to extend the loan. Those would have been memorable gifts for all involved, but for very different gifts.

What was your gift to remember? The mind races back to childhood, a certain year, a certain item, perhaps. Or perhaps a certain someone came home for Christmas after all. The kind of gift money can’t buy. And your mind may have gone to the present that would have been most memorable, if you had received it.

Christmas hasn’t always been about gifts under a tree. And we are not the only culture to have a tradition of mid-winter feasting and gift-giving. This was going on in ancient Rome. But now our ways are spreading to other places, other cultures. A rabbi has just come with a book for Jews on what to do at their houses around this time of year called A Kosher Christmas. Friends of ours who came from South Asian families to Britain to Canada, one of them Hindu, one of them Sikh, kept a much more lavish Christmas than we ever did. And it turns out tandoori turkey is delicious, as you may know.

Anyway, I have another friend here tonight, by special request, to make Christmas more memorable. He has taken time out from a very busy evening to be with us. Welcome, Santa! Thank you for coming.

Santa, I bet you were shocked by that mean bank manager pretending to be Santa in the story. Nothing like that is going to happen tonight, is it? No, it isn’t. Santa wouldn’t do that. What Santa is going to do is help out here. I’ve arranged it all, and Santa will be giving some very special gifts, right Santa?

Some of the gifts are certain people, but some are for everybody, right, Santa? OK, the first one if for me. Normally I wouldn’t go first, but you’ll know why I made an exception this year. I have asked Santa for a sense of humour. And I’ll take that now, Santa. Santa?

Moving on: Santa, you remember, I asked you to give a certain music director something to get over his shyness. No? This is not going just the way I thought it would. I thought we agreed, Santa. Should I bother going through the other people on my list? This is turning out to be a memorable Christmas, but not the way I thought.

Let’s review, Santa. You got famous back when you were alive, before you became a saint, because you helped out in the city where you lived in Turkey, right? Legend has it there were those three girls whose parents couldn’t afford doweries for them, so it looked as if they could never get married. Somehow people figured out that it was you who threw a bag of gold over the wall into the family’s compound, enough for a dowery. Then, after the wedding, another bag, and then another. You remember? Sure you do.

So is there anyone you know here who is planning to get married you want to help? Never mind my list. We know that girls are still having a tough time all over the world, and not so much with doweries, but with their own security, their right to get an education, among other things. Can you help them, Santa? No, why should it fall to you? We’re supposed to do something. Of course. Sounds like a tall order, Santa, but we take your point that there’s no magic solution, no laying a finger aside of a nose to make it suddenly all better.

And it wasn’t your idea to turn the season into an orgy of spending. You were a bishop, I believe–I know stories vary, and there are something like seven St. Nicholas on record altogether. As I was saying, you were a bishop, not a promotional agent for retailers. You were interested in the gospel, not good sales. But you have a long association with Christmas, especially in places such as Holland and Germany.

Well, listen. Let’s wrap this up, Santa, so to speak. OK, that wasn’t that funny. That’s why I was really hoping for a sense of humour. Maybe later tonight? Maybe next year? Alright, I won’t push it.

What people are here for is something memorable. And it’s right here on this table. This meal joins us together in beautiful, peaceful, radical ways with people all over the world and all through time. This is the feast we really want: the feast of justice, freedom, joy and hope. Some of us are privileged. We have those things already. Many others are still waiting. And when we come to this table, we unite our hearts and minds with all the others. We acknowledge how hungry we are for good things to come to all people and all creatures. We remember how satisfying it is to be able to dine like this, as if goodness and fair sharing had already happened.

So thanks, again, Santa. We thank you for all the generosity and caring you represent, all the daring love that wants dignity for everybody. We thank you, Nicholas, for all the times you celebrated communion with congregations so long ago and far away. We don’t need to be as famous as you. We just want to be remembered as people who knew how to keep Christmas–in our hearts, in our homes, and in this world that so longs for hope and peace.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

“Love’s Labour” - December 23, 2012  by Robin Wardlaw

Advent 4
Readings: (Micah 5:2–5Luke 1:47–55); Psalm 80:1–7Hebrews 10:5–10; Luke 1:39–55

Christmas draws near now. The feast of Christ. Advent draws to a close. Over the weeks, we have thought about what apocalypse really means–the revealing of that which was hidden. We have stopped to listen to John the Baptist calling for humility and a new beginning for the whole nation. We have explored the joyous nature of the waiting for love to rule, and the joyful qualities of that rule of love, when it breaks in to our world.
Now the focus is on Love itself. By now, most people have heard how fluky it is that is there is substance to the universe, matter, stars, planets, never mind life itself. A very slight irregularity in the rapid expansion of everything in the first few moments of what we call the universe meant that, eventually, things clumped together instead of dispersing in a vast fog of infinitely tiny particles of energy and matter. Amazing. We now suspect there have been, or are, other universes. Perhaps some of them went different ways. No clumping, no stars.
Then the chances of there being plants that could assemble chemicals, water and sunshine, and rise above the surface of the dirt, or creeping things that could evolve into flying things, to perch on plants and trees seem very, very slight. And here we are, creatures who can discover distant origins, investigate the workings of the brain itself, and rise to heights of self-expression and self-awareness.
We have that never ending tension within us as a species, between competing with each other, and cooperating. Its in our nature to share, apparently. Babies of ape families keep food to themselves. Human babies have an intrinsic tendency to share, even food. After many thousands of years of might is right in the larger human civilizations, it looks like we are capable of figuring out different ways of being together, better ways. We are testing different kinds of society to find those that allow for individual creativity while still ensuring that vulnerable people are not left out, left behind. This testing takes a long time, and it is not painless. The new challenge is to do this discovery, experimentation while going easy on the planet, still the only one we’ve got.
This is the long view of Love’s labour. A process of moving from the elemental to the complicated, from the unreflective to worshipful, from dog eat dog to gracious. It is possible to be very optimistic about the next hundred years, or thousand, based on all the innovations, all the breakthroughs happening day by day. It is possible to be very pessimistic, based on all the setbacks, all the roadblocks, all the breathtaking misuses of recently-acquired knowledge or techniques. The path forward is not a smooth one.
Here in church we think hard about where it’s all going. How Love is doing in the grand scheme of things. We remember those who have worked and struggled for a kin-dom to come on earth as it has in Love’s dream. We join with them in that holy labour. In this season, we reflect on another kind of labour, too, one that all mothers go through, all babies. The labour that brought forth one person who somehow embodied Love. It may not have happened that way the Gospels say. It probably didn’t. The Gospels are interested in building up a foundation that can explain how Love was so strongly present in this Jesus person from Nowheresville. Shepherds, angels, magi? Maybe.
A woman in labour? Definitely. Some woman, somewhere. Was this child conceived in love, or some other way? We’ll never know for sure. From our vantage point, looking back at how Love has flourished because of this one person, the story doesn’t depend on miracles at birth. We’ll go on singing all the carols, and repeating the story in Christmas pageants for a long time, I suspect. But our faith is not born in a guest room in Bethlehem. It is born in a guest room in Jerusalem, an upper room, about thirty years later, where a wise and determined teacher reinterprets the freedom meal, the liberation dinner, the Passover. Luke uses the same word in Greek for those two rooms, kataluma.
Is love’s labour lost suddenly after that transformed and transforming meal? The feast is barely over before the teacher is up on trumped up charges before the authorities. A day later, a body is broken like a loaf of bread and blood is dripping like wine from an overturned cup into the dry soil of the killing place. Nice try, Love. A for effort. A mother’s heart is broken, a movement shattered. And then Love shows its resilience. In Jerusalem, for instance, in the weeks that followed. In the American South and other places, where former slaves did not take the law into their own hands, but tried to move peacefully from slavery into citizenship. In Connecticut, where people whose children have been murdered extend sympathy to the family of the dead killer. All over Canada, where those whose treaties have been breached and dishonoured insist they will get change and justice through non-violent means. In your own life, where you have resisted the temptation to exact an eye for an eye.
Love labours in you and me. You know the struggle to do the loving thing. Sometimes it is a struggle even to know what is the loving thing to do, never mind do it. Love labours in places such as this, where people commit themselves to community, even when that can be so trying, so complicated, so heartbreaking.
This congregation is like a plant, starting with very basic ingredients to put up something that reaches for the sky. We are like a couple blessed with a child, nervous and excited about what that means to the world. In Advent, we celebrate potential. That’s Latin for the power to be. All the elements for changing the world are right here. The same way they were when all the other Christs entered the world. The Spirit doesn’t have to succeed every time. Love’s labour is not lost just because one attempt goes awry, or two, or most of them. Think of how powerful it is when the circumstances are just right.
There were other Marys and Elizabeths with amazing children plugged in to the story of liberation for their peers. Lots of them. Little girls and boys who were filled with what we call divinity. This time it worked. We’re still trying to figure out the full meaning of the first advent, the coming of the Christ in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. Then there’s the bigger job of aligning ourselves with the second advent, the one that is constantly erupting around us, giving us the challenge of recognizing redeeming love when we see it. Or hear it. Or feel it. 

Sunday, 16 December 2012

“Wells of joy” - December 16, 2012 - Robin Wardlaw

Advent , Year C
Readings: (Zephaniah 3:14–20); Isaiah 12:2–6; Philippians 4:4–7; Luke 3:7–18

Joy. The theme of the third Sunday of Advent. Joy when the events of this week have changed the channel. Another young man with some kind of agenda using a weapon to express himself at the expense of a crowd of innocent people, in this case, children and their teachers. And his mother. It’s not as if mass death is rare these days. Between violence and weather and accidents, every week brings news of tens or hundreds dying suddenly. But a Grade One classroom? With his mother’s guns? In a quiet community far from war and wild weather. Six months ago the shooting took place in a theatre in Colorado, at the premier of a blockbuster movie featuring a troubled hero who uses violence to make things better.
We don’t lift up joy during Advent because we’re feeling particularly peppy, though, because everything is right with the world. We lift it up as a solemn act of defiance, a daring display of confidence in a deeper reality. Social conditions change over the generations and centuries. Churches and people of faith respond to very different circumstances. We go to our story and our tradition for answers, and questions, that last.
Joy is not as simple as lighting a pink candle. If only. Or maybe not. What if were that simple to feel joy? Would it still be as joyful? If it’s more elusive, perhaps we treasure it more when it appears. Even as our hearts break for families devastated by this recent loss, we turn to a Word with staying power for support and meaning.
Joy comes when a community that has been flooded out of their reserve gets to return. Joy is when a child or grandchild lights up a stage, or plays well, in the band, on the ice or with other children at the playground. Joy is when society makes life more fair for those who are marginalized, when nations decide to lay down deadly weapons and cooperate for mutual security. Joy is when we set ourselves a big challenge, and somehow, working together, with each other and with the Spirit, achieve it. And you have your own examples.
Joy is deeper than happiness. Joy is bone deep. From the bible we get the sense that the goal is more than coping, getting by. The goal is joy. We can’t buy it. We can’t earn it. The goal might not be all-the-time joy, but access to it from time to time. Joy as a destination.
Last week we explored John’s message, John’s warning. He sounds angry, angry with people who take too much for granted, angry with a society veering away from its own ideals, its own standards of fairness. Did he speak loudly, the way we often do when we’re angry, or did he murmur his sermon, whisper it? Did he smile when he called people vipers, and demand they repent, was he sarcastic, or was he stern, intimidating? A prophet does not come, does not preach, so that people learn to fear, or re-learn it. The path that is to be cleared, the way that is to be made straight is not for a puritanical, terrifying theocracy. It is for a new way of being together that is so much better than what we have gotten use to. 
To hear the Gospels tell it, the path is for a saviour. And the saviour gets an opening act. John is but the prelude to Jesus. In actual fact, many people followed John the Baptist, and considered him the Messiah. He was not the lead-up to anyone. He had disciples, and some of them became followers of Jesus. According to one of my professors, this faith in John as the Anointed One lasted into the 20th century, still with loyal followers in a region of Israel. In John’s gospel, Jesus calls John "a burning and shining lamp,” and says, “you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light" (John 5:35). We look at John the Baptist through the lens of Christianity. He’s just the announcer for the real hero. But to many people of his day, he had a true message of hope. People rejoiced in him. Got joy from his strong message.
The thing about a saviour is that a person needs saving. Repent? Of what? Give up lesser goals, lesser answers to get a greater one. Let go of that which only seems to give life to receive that which really gives life. What is getting in the way of your deep joy? What needs letting go? What is the saviour offering, to you?
Some times we feel like the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears. We know exactly what are the barriers we have carefully built to keep from becoming a beautiful, gracious person. Our saviour is the person who will hear our dreadful secret, our shame, our brokenness, and love us back into wholeness and self-acceptance. Other times we are like the man who knelt at Jesus’ feet and explained how he kept all the commandments and still felt as something were missing. We’re puzzled, since we seem to be following directions, but still not in touch with the joy. Our saviour is the person who can name the barrier that has become invisible to us, and challenge us to let go even of our last crutch. We rejoice, then, in such a one.
For many people, the barrier is class or race privilege. Their personal lives are fine. They respect others, give, help, forgive. But they have not faced the profound biases at the core of their being. Or if they have, they have decided to protect what they have. Continue a system of inequality in the world because it benefits them. Us. Remember that terrible fire in a clothing factory in Bangladesh last month, where a hundred and twelve people died, trapped in their workplace. Turns out that Walmart and the other major retailers in the West didn’t know their products were coming from that plant. There are rules for suppliers. The garment industry has worked to clean up its act, trying to avoid exactly this kind of tragedy. But if the lowest price is the law, love is not. If we try to get others to subsidize our lifestyle with their health or safety or their poverty, disaster will follow–economic, environmental, every kind.
I suspect joy has always been elusive. Today we know a great deal about the damage we have done and are doing to the planet. We know about the life-draining gap between rich and poor, and how it is widening. We know how others, millions of them, are suffering in different parts of the world. And we have our own woes, the same as every generation: disappointments, pain, losses, frustrations. Perhaps it was simple to be filled with joy in the days of Jesus’ life, or the years immediately after his death, when the community gathered back together to await his imminent return. Perhaps.
The message today is one of vast reassurance. Joy is not only possible, it is right here, for you, for us, for everyone. “Rejoice in Christ always,” says Paul to the very young church at Philippi, “again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. Christ is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
The reading for today we did not hear is from Zephaniah, a very short book of prophecy. Listen to this love letter to a hurting people:
“Do not fear, O Zion;
   do not let your hands grow weak.
Your God is in your midst,
   a warrior who gives victory;
God will rejoice over you with gladness,
   will renew you in his love;
she will exult over you with loud singing
   as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
   so that you will not bear reproach for it.
I will deal with all your oppressors
   at that time.
And I will save the lame
   and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
   and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home...”
Isaiah offers a similar theme:
Surely God is my salvation;
   I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for God is my strength and my might;
   she has become my salvation.
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
Just good poetry, or are they on to something? We are capable of such great evil, and such great good. We love to compete with one another, but we are really best when we work together. Fear can disable us, and so over and over we hear, “Do not be afraid.” This pink candle is easy to extinguish. It represents a light, a power, a movement of the Spirit that is persistent, never extinguished. We may not feel like skipping every day. We may not have a cheery song on our lips at all times. But the joy that inspires us, restores us, keeps us, lasts for more than a day, more than a season. It allows us to respond to the grief and despair of others, to be with them in their bleakest times. Get to know those wells of salvation. Read your bible, pray, gather together to appreciate what is always coming toward us. We will need to dip into the waters of joy again and again in the years and decades to come.

Friday, 14 December 2012

"John’s shocking immigration policy" - December 9, 2012 - Robin Wardlaw 

Advent 2, Year C
Readings: Malachi 3:1–4; Luke 1:68–79; Luke 3:1–6

Have you heard, some guy called John is in the boonies yelling, “Everybody into the pool,” something like that. John has seen the light. He has got religion. He has drunk the kool aid. John claims to know his history. John says words mean what they mean. He thinks a covenant is a...a binding contract. He’s crazy. Obviously. All wet. Oh, good one. All wet, get it?
Our ancestors had to go through the Jordan River to get into this country. Everybody knows that. We hear about at synagogue enough. It was a big deal, then.  Now John has this wacky idea. He thinks we should go out there and go through it again. All of us. I mean, get real. The Jordan is important, in the past. Sure, sure, that where the people stopped and Moses gave them the law. And I know, he laid it all out: “Be holy,” in the land you are going to inherit, “keep the covenant,” “remember the way God led you in the wilderness,” “don’t say it was because of your righteousness or their wickedness that God is driving them out of Canaan,” “don’t be stubborn,” “store these words of mine in your heart,” and so on and so on. Heard it all. (Deuteronomy 7 - 11, various verses, paraphrased.)
But that was a thousand years ago. Ancient history. This is the modern day. And John wants us to go back to hides and honey? Get with the program, wild man. We’ve got businesses to run, Romans to keep happy, interest to collect, land to assemble, and pesky poor people to get out of the way of our plans. They are just as loopy as he is, crying, “Justice, justice.” This is progress. You can’t stop it. It may not be perfect, but the big injustice would be to get in the way of industry, profits, trade deals. It’s about rationalization. All these little farmers and fishers, these micro-businesses–they aren’t efficient.
Repent. The nerve. He’s telling me to repent? He should repent of his crazy accusations. A brood of vipers. How dare he? Is that all he’s got? Names? Stupid sermons? Forget about him. Go out to the Jordan and get dipped? What an idea.
I mean that would be like saying I was an immigrant. Like I had to go through the water to get in. Where does he get the nerve? You know what that is? That’s a mean, small-minded, wanna be immigration policy, that’s what that is. Shocking. It’s shocking. That I, I should have to go there and wade in the water as if I were entering the country. For the first time? My people have been here since Moses came here. No, wait. Moses didn’t cross the river. It was, uh, Joshua, right, Joshua and Miriam. Anyway, never mind about that. My great, great, great...something or other did that. God gave the land. We are in. We belong here. No. It belongs, to me. To us. Get used to it, holy man.
Look around. Our family’s name is on half the businesses and properties in this neighbourhood. If anybody belongs here, it’s us. John BarZechariah? Who is he? Who is his old man? My dad told me all about them. Zechariah stood around the temple. Big deal. A minor functionary. What did he do for the economy? My old man was busting a gut to build something, and Zechariah is waiting around for the messiah or something. Give me a break.
I could talk to you about immigrants. Oh, yes. I’ve got lots of thoughts about those people. Wandering in here, thinking they can just help themselves. Not respecting the people who are already here, all we’ve done, to build up all...this. I’ve got some of them working on my latest project. Local labour’s ’way too expensive. Oh, ya, I could go on about immigrants. No loyalty, for one thing. Take off after some other job at the drop of a hat.
But this John guy has the gall to tell me, us, that we should come to him and “bear fruits that bear repentance.” (Luke 3:8) In your dreams, buddy. He is talking as if race didn’t matter. I do, we do have Abraham as our father. Suddenly that’s not worth anything. God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Oh, really? He’s a traitor, is what he is. You know what, he’s dangerous. Oh, sorry. I get this pain sometimes when I’m thinking about this idiot. Down my arm. It’s OK now. I’m fine. Nothing wrong with me.
You know what? He’s not dangerous, he’s simple. That’s it. He just doesn’t get what it takes to run something, whether it’s a business or a country. Compromises have to be made. A few eggs get broken to make an omelet. It’s for the greater good. That’s what he doesn’t get. Those rules Moses dragged down the hill are good. They make sense, most of them. There has to be order. There has to be law. People can’t just do whatever they want.
What irks me, though, is that he’s stirring people up. I hear there’s a regular procession out there to the river. Riff raff. Nothing better to do. He’s getting them all excited with his talk. He could start another uprising against the Romans if he’s not careful. If we’re not careful. You can’t go back. Facts are facts. I’ve got deeds to everything. It’s all legal. Ridiculous. You can’t start a country over again. But that’s what he’s got people thinking. He’s a radical, that’s what he is. I’m just a messenger, he says. Another is coming. Great. Just what we need is talk about messiah. Two of them running around putting thoughts in people’s heads. What we need is for people to get their heads out of the clouds with this justice stuff. Pay your debts. That would be justice. Do an honest day’s work for what I can afford to pay you.
Stirring things up. My brother-in-law tells me things. Scary things. But there are some plans, too. We can’t let this go on. And we won’t. Wheels are in motion, he tells me. We’ll get the word to the right person at the palace. Treason, for one. Agitating the populace, for another. The holidays are coming up, when we celebrate our freedom, and how God was able to grow something great from something so small. Not the right time to deal with this guy. Go to the river and act all humble. Not me. Not now. I’ve got things to do. A business like mine doesn’t run itself. Just be careful who you listen to is all I’ve got to say.
This John guy is history. People will be celebrating what I’ve been able to accomplish long after this kook is forgotten. All wet. I’ve got to remember to tell my brother-in-law that one.

"Root and branch" - Robin Wardlaw - December 2, 2012     

Advent 1, Year C
Readings: Jeremiah 33:14–16; Psalm 25:1–10; (1 Thessalonians 3:9–13); Luke 21:25–36

What are you doing on December 11th? I’m sure you’ve thought about this carefully because the next day the world ends, according to someone’s interpretation of an old, stone calendar of the Mayans. Always someone to prophecy a final ending, apocalypse. Last year it was a radio preacher whose forecasts had people selling their homes, giving everything away, ready for the Second Coming. And before that, and before that.
Cataclysmic endings are not something we spend much time on in the United Church. We have come to understand the Spirit at work in the world, seeking to make it more like the divine dream of a just and caring place. But if we lived near a coast and the ground shook hard, then the sea receded, then it came roaring back in a fifteen metre wave that went on and on, clearing everything in its path, we might have more appreciation for sudden endings. If we lived in Africa, suffered from HIV or AIDS and were waiting for anti-retroviral drugs we could afford, say, generic drugs from a rich country such as Canada. Or if we were huddled in Aleppo, or some other Syrian hot spot, or Gaza City, or Goma, as munitions rained down, and familiar streets and faces simply disappeared.
Or maybe if we lived in peaceful Canada and stepped back to look at the shifting fortunes of empires. We seem to be in a time of transition, the shifting of global dominance from West to East. We have become used to the wealth of the world flowing to our shores, along with the best minds. Art, science, medicine, technology–the best of it belongs here, in a handful of Western countries. That’s just the way it is. Until it isn’t. When things begin to shift, there may be a tendency to circle the wagons, put up walls, shows our claws and fangs more as we strive to hold on to what is slipping away. Wealthy, powerful countries are moving backward on carbon emission targets at the Doha talks right now, for example, as the great ice fields turn to water. We’re going to keep our fossil fuel addiction and lose our planet. The West is jockeying to resist Chinese power spreading out to harvest resources around the world. And so on. Apocalypse in slo-mo to some.
We would certainly have a feeling for apocalypse if we lived in Jeremiah’s day. Babylon was on the move. No one could stand up to it, certainly not tiny Israel or its neighbours. When smoke clouded the horizon, when you could feel the rumble of their cavalry before it even came in view, and everyone’s bowels turned to water. Shock and awe have a long history. Jeremiah is interesting. He forecasts doom for the leaders of Israel, for the whole nation because of their arrogant trashing of the covenant. And he tenderly consoles people, too: This will not last forever. The nation will survive this purging, and re-emerge as a beacon for the world. A branch will emerge, a righteous branch, to execute justice and righteousness in the land. God has not forgotten the covenant with David, even if you people...
Some of us have lived through times of war, earthquake, flood, hurricane and can imagine what the people of Jeremiah’s time, or Jesus’ time were experiencing. Many of us have not. These scriptures don’t speak as loudly to us. Violent death is a rare thing around here, thankfully. Mass death is even more rare. A man takes a gun into a school and picks off the women engineers. We have a day set aside to remember that horror, December 6. What would it be like to go through violent conflict, destruction on all sides when all the systems of our intricate society have broken down? No wonder people write about terrible endings.
What does all this mean for us, here? Advent means baking, extra flyers trying to lure us into buying this or that, parties, lights. Just the prelude to the big day. Here at church, though, it means more than this. A chance to think about how transformation happens. Big picture time. A time to recommit ourselves to a better world. A time to assess where we are–in our own lives, as families, as a church family. A time to pay attention to signs of the change for which we long. HIV infections are going down at last? Wonderful news. Businesses, even oil businesses are asking for some kind of taxation regime on fossil fuels so they can do their strategic planning. Good sign. People from a hundred nations are living peacefully in one neighbourhood? Another sign of what is possible.
In their kitchens, cooks are taking stock of their pantry and food cupboards, making note of things that are needed. If you were to take stock of your faith and the ministry and mission of our church, what would you need to fix or add? What is there to give thanks for, and what can be discarded or set aside? What signs of health or concern are there for the future? What disappointments or fears do we have that hold us back from following God? What do we anticipate or hope for the future that will sustain us as we go forward?
This is the stock-taking Church Council has decided we need to explore as a congregation. What season of faith is approaching? Are there leaves on the fig tree, so to speak? What might we be doing as a community of faith to respond to the signs around us? Our mission, if we decide to accept it, is to be Christ in the world, whatever that means. No, really. Whatever that means. It’s an easy phrase to say, but to get inside it, to live it out, means discerning where Christ is leading around here, and where Christ is bleeding. Careful discerning, full of imagination, and the asking of questions.
This congregation has done so much in recent years to discern this mission–interim ministry, needs assessment report, the list goes on. You have committed yourselves to social justice, and you pour your hearts and souls into sharing food with others. These are our roots. What else might social justice mean in these parts? What sign are our neighbours, the ones who share your deep values and don’t attend here yet, awaiting to make them say, “I want to help with that mission? Let me in.”
I was at 40 Oaks last month, the beautiful new hub in Regent Park that emerged from the old Christian Resource Centre. Presbytery met there to tour it, and to dedicate the ministry. Just inside the door there is a stylized tree made from pieces of wood on the wall to celebrate donors, each with their own square leaf. They have had some big support, so there is much to celebrate. This shade of little wood leaf indicates this level of support, and that shade a different level. It’s a lovely tribute. And it hangs from the ceiling. Why is it upside down, I asked myself. I came up with a couple of theories to explain it. Then I asked. It’s not upside down, the manager explained, those are roots.
Perfect. The part that’s normally hidden, underground, covered up. Apocalypse is Greek for ‘uncovered.’ The wall art is apocalyptic. It reveals the hidden. Donors are like roots. They sustain the tree up above. The branches, the visible parts, can bear fruit then. We would love for this place to be a crazy, active centre of social justice. Children, youth, adults, seniors getting in touch with their inner Jeremiahs, committing themselves to the struggle for a different world. That will be the fruit of our stock-taking, perhaps, of uncovering our roots, the network of feelings, thoughts, histories, dreams, resources, skills, faith and love that make up the roots of this tree called Glen Rhodes United Church.
A process to do this has begun. More steps will likely come along in the spring. Church Council is taking one step at a time, wanting to be sure we’re on the right path. Many of you will be getting a letter this week explaining the steps involved. If you are not on the church’s mailing list yet, there will be copies available at the back next Sunday to pick up. If we decide to go ahead, we could be knee deep in handouts, chart papers, time lines and lists next spring. It can all begin to feel like some kind of file folder/flip chart hell. The trick is to remember in the midst of the blizzard of pages and processes words like these ones from Jeremiah and Mark today about branches and trees and being ready. To remember that as we are down in the dirt with trowels and toothbrushes doing the picky work of examining life-giving roots. That the point is not to become experts at toothbrush work down there, but to get ready for the tree to bear life-changing fruit.
That’s this church. What about your new Christian year? Is there some stock-taking to do in your own life? Jim Wallis, the modern day prophet at Sojourners notes that more Americans plan to spend more on gifts this Christmas, but fewer are going to give to charity and ministries that help the poor, 45% instead of 51% last year. So Wallis is calling on his fellow Americans to tithe their Christmas spending. Donate 10% of your gift spending to the people Jesus calls, “the least of these, my brothers and sisters.” A thought about your giving, which is a cornerstone of your spiritual life. What about the rest of it? How do you want to grow spiritually in the coming year? Become a stronger advocate of peace and justice, say, or work on some relationship or issue in your life that has been niggling–or staring you in the face–for years, perhaps. Advent is for that kind of reflection. What will be born for you this year?
Reformers of the church used to talk about reform “root and branch.” We might say top to bottom, or system-wide. How are the roots of your faith, the parts that give life to the tree up above? And what fruit are you bearing, will you bear, in this exciting, turbulent, puzzling world that so needs champions of non-violence, sharing and hope?
Oh, by the way. Think twice about cashing in all your savings in the next ten days. That Mayan calendar? It just stops on the 12th. It was as far as the designers imagined to go, the end of an age, not the end of the world. Wait for the astero

Thursday, 29 November 2012

What’s Next?   - Jim McKibbin, Mission Developer, Toronto Southeast  Presbytery, United Church of Canada  -  November 25, 2012

In the lectionary which defines the church year this is Reign of Christ Sunday, the last Sunday in the church calendar.  And it begs the question, “What’s next?” Next week we begin a new church year as we celebrate the first Sunday of advent. 

For me Advent brings its own theological challenges.  It is a season of anticipation, of waiting expectation and preparation for the coming of Jesus.  That time before the coming looms it seems as a time of confusion as we well might wonder what the waiting is for?  What does it mean?  And it’s during Advent that we address those questions and begin to understand how to live out the message of and celebrate the humanity of Jesus, this individual who came into our midst and spoke and lived the word of God. 

But we’re not there yet.  That’s next week. 

And last week we heard that same Jesus preaching apocalypse.  You may remember the phrase “All will be thrown down.” 

And that leaves us here, in between the apocalypse and the beginning at Reign of Christ Sunday with these scriptural reflections on Jesus, who is described in the passage from Revelation as “first born of the dead”.  We are told “Look! He is coming in the clouds” and “every eye will see him.”   

And we also have this second passage where we hear Jesus utter the phrase ‘my kingdom is not from this world’.  Now it is in the interpretation of these texts that we encounter a central fundamental theological challenge of literalism versus metaphor.       

And on Reign of Christ Sunday that challenge becomes a question as to whether we should look back or ahead.  Do we look back and anticipate the second coming of Jesus to save us or look forward to the nativity?   

We have some looking backwards last words from David in our text from Second Samuel.  He describes his ‘inspired utterance … anointed by the God of Jacob.”  And later says, “If my house was not right with God surely he would not have made with me an everlasting covenant… (later) and grant me my every desire.”

There may be other interpretations of this scripture but I can’t help but see some David grandiosity in all those words.  A little too much all about me! I am not sure reading this whether it is praise for God or David? 

And behind all of that I am troubled by shades of Empire. 

Now when we combine the Second Samuel with the Psalm for this week we get a clearer picture of what is for me a significant theological question on how God works. 

We didn’t read all of Psalm 132.  It is quite long. But I am going to read a couple of phrases from it to demonstrate what I am describing.   It begins with a caution to Good “Lord remember, David and all his self-denial....  and later, “Do not reject your anointed one.  And then we read that the Lord, who has chosen Zion says, “I will bless her with abundant provisions; her poor I will satisfy with food and I will clothe his enemies with shame.”

So here we have a God who chooses sides: a God who chooses who to provide abundance to and who not too.

And that’s where it gets troubling.  We are to understand that those without abundance have therefore not been chosen by God.   God has chosen others not them.  Their poverty is from God. 

Now often accompanying this theology is an equally mystifying concept.  First you have the belief that God chooses people to help and not others then you have the mantra that “God helps those who help themselves.” 

As good as that sounds, it does serve to create the notion that if you try hard God will help you. And if God chooses to help you then you will receive abundance. But doesn’t it also implicitly mean that if you don’t have abundance that you have a) not been chosen by God and b) haven’t tried hard enough because if you had tried hard enough to help yourself God would have helped you and you would have received abundance.          

Now for me that’s a double whammy about God that I don’t like.  It seems to say: ‘Your poverty is your fault.  Those in abundance are favoured by God – unlike you who are unworthy.’   

So for me this is dangerous theology. It ascribes to God human character traits like favouritism and pragmatism.     

And it simply doesn’t come down on the side of truth as Jesus so eloquently said to Pilate.   

Poverty does not come from God.  It is systemic and it comes from the God of Caesar – the God of the Market – the God of Empire. 

And so does abundance!  Now that may sound sacrilegious or even anti-Christian but I think these questions are worth thinking about.   

Many of us through daily prayer thank God for the abundance in our lives and it worth considering as we do this exactly what it is we are praying about.  

In a real world sense we know poverty does not come from God.  In spite of the declarations and determination of the chief priests of empire, who speak of making things right with poverty, the gap between rich and poor continues to grow, as it has over the decades.  This is not just some mistake.   

Only those who are wilfully blind would disagree that the system is designed to produce the results it is getting.  In our society the acquisition of abundance and relegation to poverty has everything to do with empire and nothing to do with God. 

In an article in this month’s United Church Observer accommodation requirements for Out of the Cold programs nationally are up.  Way up considering we have had a number of mild winters in recent years.  

And you, in this congregation, who began a temporary food bank some 30 years ago during a severe recession, and a time of extremely high mortgage interest rates, you, have seen your outreach program become institutionalized along with many others. Food bank use is at high levels.  

So we see that change is on our doorstep.  We can resist it but it is not stopping. 

Like many neighbouring churches the threshold of change presents itself.  But there is no looking backward for this United Church of ours.        

We are a church which adapts ourselves over time.  We change.  Our response to the call of God is prayerfully discerned in community with one another. 

Last Tuesday, I attended a Presbytery meeting where a discussion took place about the General Council’s decision to boycott goods and services produced in the illegal Israel Settlements.  Much of the discussion was about who we are as a church and it was clear that there was deep sentiment for what the United Church stood for.  

This is a strength of the church: that we consider questions prayerfully but also act on those decisions.  The church responds to the call of God in the circumstances in which it finds itself.  It is perhaps a distinguishing feature of our church.

Certainly our critics recognize it as a distinguishing feature.  There are those who wish we would just remain silent, both inside and outside the church. 

But the church’s prophetic voice is welcomed by the people of God.        

And we have seen that time and time again particularly in the last 40 years.  Our activism as a people of God has meant that we don’t just talk the talk we walk it as well. 

In my work with east end churches there is sentiment for more collaborative work amongst lay people in support of the ongoing presence of the church regionally: its programs and most of all its clarion voice.      

So where does that leave us?  We’re at the threshold of the threshold it would seem a still point pregnant with the question of what the Rein of Christ means now, here.  And the answer to looking backward for Jesus to come and save us or forward to living out the reality of the nativity, is perhaps best addressed by John Dominic Crossan in his book God and Empire where he writes:  “The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen soon, violently, or literally. The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start to cooperate with its divine presence.”

In church we have a choice to lament the past and what was or be midwives of change.  

Perhaps in other words, on Reign of Christ Sunday, we are invited to remember that the “Kingdom of God” or “Reign of God” — to which Jesus constantly pointed — is as fully available to us here and now and always as it was 2,000 years ago. The question that remains today is whether we will choose to live as if the one who reigns is not Caesar, but God. 

Thanks be to God.


Monday, 19 November 2012

“Provoked into love” - November 18, 2012
Pentecost 25, Year B
Readings: (1 Samuel 1:4–20); 1 Samuel 2:1–10; Hebrews 10:19–25; Mark 13:1–8
Samuel is born to Hannah and Eli.
Time to pause for a while to contemplate where we are in year one hundred and six. Time to draw back and look at the big picture on the one hand, and look within on the other. The anniversary of this church. Our family tree has to be looked at under the ground, as well as above. Our roots are complicated, like the roots of any tree. If you take a picture of the place, they don’t show. You can’t see all the churches nestled within this one, all the generations sharing the pews with us.
Nor can an observer see all the ripples that have been fanning out into the neighbourhood and beyond for all these years, most of them good. Ripples of laughter, of caring, of prophetic anger. People passing the building project things onto it, and us. People who know or knew someone who comes here, either to worship, or for theatre, or a children’s program, or for food, and get a sense of what this place means to the world.
A church is not static, not simply a lump of brick and mortar. It like a magnifying glass, concentrating spiritual power into a focus. It is classroom, inviting people into deeper awareness of where we’ve come from and where we’re going. It is a laboratory, allowing people to explore new-old ways to be in the world. It is a dance studio, encouraging us all to learn how to move in relation to each other, and to the Spirit of the dance. It is factory for hard work and piercing visions. It is a sandbox, a climbing structure, a salon.
Or if you came from the Palestine of Jesus’ day, it is a nod to the Temple in Jerusalem, where God lived in the terrifying and exhilarating Holy of Holies, deep within. Where people came from all over the world to breathe in the sanctity, remind themselves of the wholly Other, the deity who could not be portrayed, and who was aligned with no king or empire. Where a steady plume of smoke rose up from the giant basin where parts of birds and animals were burned to send a fragrant offering to the heavens.
The temple was an interface between the sacred and the secular, what the Celts might call “a thin place.” This church is to resemble the Temple in that regard, if not the herds, the flocks,  the cages, the smells, the flames, and the fear factor. The author of Hebrews is working hard to make links between temple worship and Christian faith, seeing in Jesus a replacement for the Temple, the high priest, the sacrifices in every way, only better than all of them. All the gore comes as a bit of shock to us. It’s so remote from our everyday experience.
Meanwhile, we hear Jesus talking about the destruction of the Temple. Herod the Great rebuilt and expanded the 500 year old structure wanting a legacy in vast architectural projects. It was brand new in his day, still being worked on, the gold and bronze ornamentation still shiny. Some of the giant foundation blocks weighed 600 tons. Then the centre of the faith was removed not long after it was finally completed, in the year 70, at the end of the Great Jewish Revolt, a sign of imperial Roman might, and a lesson to any would-be Judean nationalist. All that ritual gone, unnecessary, it turns out. The tribe of Levi unemployed now that no priests were needed to handle all the sacrifices and other business of the place. The business of the place: there were people who made their living by selling the special coins needed for one’s offering, the money changers. This interface between earth and heaven disappeared, to be replaced by...what? This is what we’ve been trying to figure out ever since.
Do we need a building to draw near to the sacred? Back at the beginning, Christians met in synagogues, sometimes at the riverside, then catacombs, and other hidey holes. Does all the business of church get in the way of the holy just the same as the business of the Temple did? How can we make a place like this transparent, less of a door, more of a window? How can we make our worship, our life together less of a hindrance and more of an avenue for a person hungry for transcendence? Is our mission consistent with Jesus’ mission, our fellowship an embodiment of the Christ?
What we’re after is the wildness, the satisfaction in Hannah’s song. We sang it this morning. Did you catch its radical nature? Everything is reversed. “The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger.” And on it goes: the childless, the rich and poor, the honoured and the needy, the faithful and the wicked. A pure, thrilling cry of incandescent anger, and the certainty that wickedness, inequality and privilege are doomed.
Has there been a church built, a system for religion set up, ever, that could contain such a Spirit? That’s the whole thing with the Spirit, isn’t it? That it blows where it wills. In warm countries, windows, doors and insulated walls are not important for a church. The walls are just to hold up the roof, so the place can be built to be open, breezy. We’re here, though, inside, in our one hundred and seventh year, with the boiler running and things shut up in the hopes of keeping a chill breeze out. All we can hope is that opening the metaphorical windows, the doors, the skylights, the shutters as wide as they’ll go will let that untamed Spirit blow through here.
Today we celebrate all the times it has. All the daring ventures, all the caring words and shoulders, and the sharing the Spirit has stirred up here. We give thanks for heroes in the faith from all the congregations woven into the tapestry that is Glen Rhodes. We bless their spirits, and the Spirit. We set up our kites, unfurl our wings, hoist our sails and wait for that fresh breeze that will lift us up, carry us off toward...who knows where? We wait for the Spirit.
In the meantime, we are not exactly passive. Did you catch the end of the Hebrew reading? This is the Gordie Howe verse in the bible. Gordie Howe was famous for his sharp jabs along the boards. Hebrews says to hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering. Check. And while we’re waiting for Hannah’s day of surprises we have a Gordie-type job to do with our elbows, apparently. The author of Hebrews tells his readers to “provoke one another to love and good works.” (Heb. 10:24) The Greek verb for provoke also means to incite, stimulate, irritate. Like a jab in the ribs. This is great. No sitting around hoping or praying someone, someone else, will get busy, be loving. No, we’re busy nudging each other. Or something. What does it take to get the best out of you? Flattery, cajoling, tears? Now to that list of places a church resembles, add hockey rink. Watch yourself in the corners.
No. Scratch that. Go into the corners, and take those elbows and butt ends. Your sisters and brothers are just doing their job, provoking you. And if you are the polite, retiring sort of person who would rather die than jostle someone else, consider empowering your inner Gordie for a change, doing a little provoking of your own.
The needs in the world for Christ-like ministry are not going down. Far from it. Team Glen Rhodes is needed in the bigger game. On Sundays we have our team meeting, go over our plays, rehearse the importance of team work. On Monday we get in the game, as individuals, as groups, as a whole church. At home, on the street, at work or school, in the media, with our various groups.
The game analogy breaks down quickly when we think about the consequences for so many others in the world who don’t have homes, or safety, or freedom, or food, or a chance for an education, or a dependable climate anymore. It’s not a game for them. They can only sing Hannah’s song, and wait some fantastic reversal of fortune that will bring down their oppressors.
Love and good deeds. If we tried to list all your love and good deeds of the last week, we’d be here until next Sunday, and still not finish. None of us are perfect. I’m not trying to say that. We have our moments. But we meet together, and we encourage one another, as Hebrews instructs. It’s possible we can be an even better team, and we’re working on that, always.      
Let me illustrate with a story. Bob goes with his friend, a comedian, to a comedian's meeting. When they get there, one of the men stands up and shouts out "34!” and all the other comedians laugh hysterically. Bob turns to his friend and says "I don't get what was so funny!” and his friend explains to him that the Comedians' Guild has assigned each joke a number to make them easier to tell.
All through dinner, the members of the Guild stand up and say numbers, and every time, everyone laughs, so Bob decides to give it a try. He stands up, and shouts out his favorite number: "54!" Dead silence.
Bob sits down, turns to his friend and asks "What did I do wrong? When ever you do it, they laugh!" And his friend answered, "You didn't tell it well." We have to tell our story well. It’s not just laughs we’re after, although we enjoy that too. We have such a great story to tell. We might as well tell it well. And at this early part of century number two, we have so much to celebrate. Enjoy the anniversary. Enjoy the thin places. Get those elbows up.