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, 27 March 2012

A Mountain Ash and a Kentucky Coffeetree

John 12: 20-33

Jong Bok Kim at Glen Rhodes UC on March 25, 2012

 God of old ways dying and new ways being born, we know that only if a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies will it bear much fruit.  But we do not know for sure what will come after we die.  The uncertainty may make us anxious.  If so, we may want to deny death and refuse to break away from our old ways of living and hang on to what we are used to.  In this last week of our Lenten journey, we look to your guidance to continue our struggle with difficult life questions.  Amen.

Last week, taking advantage of the unseasonably warm weather, I was busy working in my garden.  Cleaning up dead branches on the ground, I was delighted to see all the crocuses in full bloom.  I planted them deep under the grass both along the walk to the front door and along a flowerbed under the birch trees in my front yard.  Some of you may remember the picture of the crocuses I sent you last year.  They have spread further again this year and came out almost three weeks earlier than last year.

I spent the whole afternoon last Monday, reinstalling a water fountain on the back patio.  I love this fountain a friend gave me last year.  It is a simple green vase fountain about two feet high and one foot across. Birds and squirrels love it too.  Nocturnal animals like racoons must like it at nights.  It looks like a tiny, natural spring.  Its ever-flowing water mesmerizes me.  Its babbling sound allows me to imagine I am sitting by a brook.  

My garden has changed quickly.  Just a few weeks ago it was dull, grim and silent.  Now it has come alive: it is colourful, noisy and fragrant.  I know the plants and trees were not dead, but only waiting. But to my eyes, the dead seem to have come to new life all of a sudden.  I feel like my garden has been transformed from death to life.  This morning, we have a story about death and life from our religious scriptures. 

In the Gospel reading from John, Jesus uses the visit of the Greeks as an opportunity to tell his disciples again what lies ahead for him.  He is trying to give them a word of hope by comparing his death to the planting of a seed of wheat.

This seed imagery recalls the parables of sowing found in other Gospels, but here Jesus uses the imagery to interpret his own death.  What is significant in this parable is the contrast between remaining solitary and “bearing much fruit.”  In John, “fruit” is Jesus’ metaphor for the life of the community of faith. 

What follows is, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life (v.25).”  This must be read against the backdrop of Jesus’ death.  To love one’s life means to love the values of the world as opposed to Jesus’ teachings; it places one outside the community shaped by Jesus’ gift of his life and leads to the loss of that life (v. 25a).

Jesus continues, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour (v.26).”  Similar sayings of the condition for following Jesus, like “taking up the cross,” can be found in other Gospels.  Here, however, we find both condition and promise.  Since Jesus’ ultimate service is the gift of his life in love, the disciples are called to love as he loves and hence to serve as he serves. In addition, the promise of sharing in his glorification is offered. Jesus and the believer will always remain together as God honours them.  Mutual relationship among God, Jesus, and believers is promised.

In today’s passage, John’s understanding of Jesus’ death is unique in saying that Jesus is not a victim at his death, but is in complete control. It is clearly not meant to be understood as the sacrifice necessary to be offered for human guilt and sin as in other Gospels.  Jesus’ death is both necessary and life-giving because, as a result of it, community is formed, that is, “much fruit.”  Let us remember that, whereas the first Gospel, Mark, was written in the early seventies when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, John’s Gospel was written at the end of the first century when the Christian communities had spread significantly. Thus, it is not surprising that the connection between Jesus’ death and the life of the believing community is repeatedly stressed. 

I have an old mountain ash in my back yard.  One of the big branches came down in a winter storm a few months ago.  The main trunks are so rotten that it is in danger of falling over a cable line in another storm; it is time to let it go.  I have already cut all the branches, except for a couple of the main trunks.  I am going to miss it because it provided me with wonderful shade over the back patio during the summertime.  The birds are going to miss it more for its berries. I am planning to plant a native tree, like a Kentucky Coffeetree.  The mountain ash will be gone, yet, in a sense, give its life to a Kentucky Coffeetree and its surroundings just like a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies in order to bear much fruit.

Looking back, I wonder if what we have done so far since I came here two years ago is like cutting down my mountain ash and planting a Kentucky Coffeetree.  One of the major goals of our interim ministry is to be ready to call a new minister to begin a faith journey anew here at Glen Rhodes.  We are excited to hear that our Joint Search Committee is almost ready to recommend to us a candidate for our approval in a congregational meeting soon.

As a congregation, we had experienced a great deal of turmoil since the previous minister left suddenly several years back.  As the church’s policy of confidentiality came into play, it was difficult for us to discuss the implications for our ministry.  Due to this lack of communication and unresolved hurt feelings, tensions were real and emotions ran high.

From the beginning, I recognized this conflict and we worked on it.  I read through the various official documents related to the conflict, including the Pastoral Oversight Committee’s reports on this issue.  And I have made an effort to listen to both sides without judgment.  I have taken advantage of every opportunity to listen to the people directly involved in the conflict.  I have met with those individuals with a single purpose, to listen to their understanding of the conflict.  I have met with those who left the congregation, visiting them in their work places or inviting them to my office.  Most of them have appreciated the opportunity to tell their stories about what happened and ideas of what should have been done differently.  From our experience, we have learned how important it is to be able to speak honestly and respectfully with each other.

Now, we are ready to move on.  Things have changed.  We are now in quite a different place on our journey.  There is no point in repeating the same stories of the past.  The past is past.  It is time for the old mountain ash to go.  It is time to plant a new tree.  The only question we may ask ourselves is, “What have we learned from that experience?”  Such learning from the past will provide us with rich resources for us to begin the journey anew with an incoming minister and grow together in ministry into the future.  Today, we are assured that “bearing much fruit” is possible if a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies. 

As we approach the final days of our experience of Lent this year, let us consider what in our lives needs to die in order that fresh growth and a renewed spirit might be born in us. This is no easy, idle question.  It involves deep wrestling with our priorities and hard choices, not unlike the passion of Jesus’ last days. Strength comes from knowing that ‘resurrection’ or ‘new life’ is the assured outcome of this painful process.  Through our struggles with hard choices, we will be strengthened to continue our Lenten journey toward Jerusalem.  Amen. 

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

St. Patrick’s Shamrock

Numbers 21: 4-9; John 3:14-21

Jong Bok Kim at Glen Rhodes UC, on March 18, 2012

 You are Holy Mystery, O God.  You are beyond complete knowledge, above perfect description.  We thank you for enabling us to lift up questions about who you are and giving us opportunities to express our own faith anew in our generation.  Throughout our Lenten journey, may we continue to struggle to discern your will in our midst. Amen.

 “Luck of the Irish: A record hot day for parade in Toronto.”  This was the headline of a news article last Monday.  The record breaking hot day last Sunday was said to boost spirits at the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade downtown.  The Irish luck continued this weekend and we enjoy another balmy day today.  Yesterday was the actual St. Patrick’s Day, probably the most widely celebrated saint's day in the world.

St. Patrick has endured as the principal champion of Irish Christianity.  It is intriguing that, according to Irish folklore, he used the shamrock to explain the doctrine of the Holy Trinity to the Irish people.  Believe it or not, he used the three-leaved plant to convert the pagan Irish, who had believed in polytheism before he began his ministry with them. 

For me, it is still difficult to make sense of the doctrine of the Trinity.  However, the pagan Irish had no problem making sense of it and came to believe in one God as three persons when St. Patrick explained it with the shamrock.  If only I had been Irish at that time!  After reading today’s passages from both Numbers and the Gospel of John, I wonder, if St. Patrick could come again, could he help me understand another difficult doctrine, the doctrine of the atonement?

There is a pattern in the wilderness stories of the Israelites. The people complain and God sends some kind of “wake-up call” or “punishment.” Then the people repent and Moses intervenes on behalf of the people and God delivers them.

In the passage from Numbers we read today, we see this pattern again. This time the Israelites complain about everything, including the manna they are given to eat: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water and we detest this miserable manna! (v. 5)” They are not happy with God and Moses.  They are “impatient.” As they face the trials of the wilderness, the Israelites’ faith wavers.

In some ancient cultures, serpents were associated with gods. The serpents that attack the Israelites are described as “poisonous” or “fiery”(v. 6). The serpents have a dual capacity. These serpents have the power to destroy, yet faith in the bronze serpent crafted by Moses has the power to save. The bronze serpent becomes a visible symbol of God’s power to save and to heal.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  Most Christians have heard and many have memorized this famous John 3:16 passage. Yet, how many realize that these words are placed in the text immediately following the description of Jesus as one who is lifted up by God in the same way that “Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness” (v.14)?

Here comes the doctrine of the atonement.  Just as Moses held up a staff with a bronze snake on it, so God lifts up Jesus on the cross out of her love for the world.  We are told that God killed Jesus on the cross on purpose.  Well, that troubles me a great deal.  It does not make sense to me at all.  How can our loving God possibly kill her innocent child intentionally?  Killing is killing.  It is not an accident, but an intentional, purposeful and brutal act.  Isn’t it first degree murder?  And isn’t it against the sixth commandment: “Thou shall not kill?” Is it right to punish a person for what other people do? 

Are we really so bad that God had to kill Jesus to make up for what we have done?  What good did it do in the end?  Okay, Jesus was killed to save us from what, maybe killing each other, but aren’t we all the same people, still doing the same bad things, like waging wars against each other even after his death?  I wish St. Patrick would come again and explain it to me in a plain and simple way, like the shamrock.

At the last General Council meeting held in Kelowna in 2009, which I attended as a Commissioner, one of the most significant debates was about the nature of doctrine in our church.  In the end, Council passed a motion to add three other statements of faith to the doctrine section of the Basis of Union, which is referred to as our church’s constitution.  In order to change this constitution, the majority of the presbyteries and congregations across the country are required to vote in favour of the proposed change.  As a congregation, we have received this referral, what we call a remit, and our Council will make a decision on our behalf next month.

Why do we need this change?  It comes from our belief that our faith can and should be expressed anew in each generation in ways that are both faithful to scripture and reflect the language and meaning of the time.  Since Union, our church has written three more faith statements: the 1940 Statement of Faith, the 1968 A New Creed, and the 2006 A Song of Faith.  Now, we are asked whether we agree to include each of these three statements of faith in the Doctrine section of the Basis of Union. 

When I had my final interview as a candidate for ordination many years back, I was asked whether I was “in essential agreement with” the doctrine section of the Basis of Union. I had great difficulty in saying “Yes,” because I could not make sense of all of it.  In order to avoid any barrier to my ordination, I said, yes, reluctantly, hoping I would be able to make sense of the articles in time.

More than anything else, apart from the doctrine of the virgin birth, the article that troubled me most was the doctrine of the atonement I mentioned earlier.  It reads: “For our redemption, He fulfilled all righteousness, offered Himself a perfect sacrifice on the Cross, satisfied Divine justice, and made propitiation for the sins of the whole world.”  This statement still troubles me.

Obviously, I was not alone.  By 1940, only 11 years after the Basis of Union was adopted, our Church wanted a new statement of faith.  The 7th General Council stated that “the time is opportune to write a new statement of faith in concise and intelligible form.”  In this new statement of faith, the doctrine of the virgin birth has gone.  However, the doctrine of the atonement is still there with different wording.

Calling for an alternative to the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds for use in worship, our church wrote “a modern creed in modern language,” A New Creed, or the United Church Creed, in 1968.  Thank God, there is no more mention there about “sacrifice on the cross.”

The third faith statement, “A Song of Faith,” is intended to provide a verbal picture of our faith at the beginning of the 21st century. It is an invitation for the church to live out its convictions in the current theological, social, political and historical context.  I love this song: there is no concept of atonement.  Instead, it sings like this:

He preached and practised unconditional love— love of God, love of neighbour, love of friend, love of enemy—and he commanded his followers to love one another as he had loved them. Because his witness to love was threatening, those exercising power sought to silence Jesus. He suffered abandonment and betrayal, state-sanctioned torture and execution. He was crucified.

Lent is a time to ask questions and re-examine our faith.  As in today’s story from Numbers, God is willing to listen even to our complaints.  The key is that we are not afraid to lift up our questions, fears and anxieties to God.  During this Lenten journey, may God lead us through the desolate and deserted places of our lives to a place of new life, hope and blessing through our struggles to discern God’s will in our midst.  Amen.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

To Be or Not To Be?

Mark 8: 31–35

Jong Bok Kim at Glen Rhodes UC, Mar. 04, 2012

During this Lenten season, you offer us, God, the opportunity to test our choices and our focus. We struggle with the difficult and yet important choices and paradoxes that lie at the heart of life.  May we recommit ourselves to take up the cross for the sake of the gospel along the path towards the joy of Easter.  Amen. 
I have permission to tell this story.  A couple of months ago, I visited Dick, (not his real name,) at home as his health had recently deteriorated.  He was a member of my previous pastoral charge, Beverley Hills United.  When I left that congregation two years ago to come here, he was a man of great strength, boasting a big stature and being very active in many outdoor activities including sailing.  I was shocked to hear that he had become so ill so suddenly last fall.  I think he is one of those who would never have imagined themselves lingering in a hospital bed before they die.

When I arrived at his home, I found Dick sitting on the chesterfield; he greeted me with a smile.  He certainly was not the same person he used to be.  His face was swollen, his body thin, and he was attached to an oxygen tank to relieve his laborious breathing.  It was obvious that he was quite ill.  He must have been thinking seriously about the end of his life. That was why he had asked me to come and see him that day. 

Dick is well educated and intelligent.  So, after some social conversation, I felt free to ask him what he believed about death and life beyond death. As I expected, he welcomed my questions and openly talked about his own expected death.  He said he was not afraid of death, not because he believed in the afterlife in a traditional way, but because he felt blessed with many wonderful things in his life.  Belief in a heaven or hell did not offer him any comfort at all, but he felt comfortable with the thought that he would return to the earth in one form or another. Then, our conversation moved to his plans and wishes about his funeral.  This was one of those moments when I feel deeply privileged as a minister. 

According to the writer of the Gospel of Mark, in the passage we read this morning we hear about Jesus’ death.  Is he seriously ill?  What is going on?  Well, today, Jesus and his disciples are near Caesarea Philippi. For the first time, Jesus teaches that he will suffer and die.  Jesus is not sick.  He is still strong and there is much work ahead of him to be done.  But today, he is talking about his death.  This is the last thing his followers want to hear from him at this time on their journey together.  They are shocked. 

Peter particularly is upset; he cannot accept this; this is not what is expected of God’s messiah, and Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him.  Peter takes Jesus aside, perhaps thinking that Jesus is not well but just tired or overwhelmed.  However, Jesus’ response is extremely harsh, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things (v.33).”  The time has come for Jesus and his disciples to make serious choices.  Jesus rebukes Peter in return and challenges the entire crowd to consider what it means to follow him and trust in God’s saving love.

What follows is Mark’s gathering of phrases about the meaning of true life handed down orally over the last four decades, such as those about “forgetting oneself.”  Mark has clearly recorded these sayings with an eye toward the concrete sufferings endured by Christians in his time. The sayings, which begin “If any want to become my followers,” refer to the ongoing reality of Christian life at the time: a disciple must take up the cross (v. 34b); he or she must be willing to lose his or her life (v. 35); and he or she must not deny Jesus when challenged by others (v. 38).  “To Be or Not To Be?” is the question those first followers of Jesus had to answer in those days.

How do these sayings of Jesus sound to us here and now?  If we were asked to risk our own lives in order to join the church, how many of us would say yes?  If we were asked to be willing to lose our own lives by taking up the cross, how many of us would be happy to come to church these days?  Well, I fear I would be among those who flee as far away from church as I could. 

Strangely enough, these harsh teachings of Jesus did not chase his followers away from the growing faith community in the first century.  Rather, historically the church owed much of its growth to the countless martyrs who chose to lose their lives for the sake of the Gospel.  Christianity grew and grew, converting even the Roman Emperors, and eventually dominated much of the Western world for two millennia.  This is the paradoxical truth of Christian history.

Until last year, Dick had never thought seriously about the end of his life.  Instead, he believed that he would be the last one among his church members to be buried.  Now, he realized that he would probably become the first person to be buried since his church closed last year.   I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for him to accept the reality of his dying. 

When diagnosed with a deadly cancer, Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computer, accepted the reality of his dying in a transformative way.  In his famous Stanford University commencement address, he shared his insight about death like this:

Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Mr. Jobs was not talking about death, but actually about life, how to live truthfully.  Mr. Jobs could not have addressed the paradox of life any more eloquently.  

I came here two years ago as your Intentional Interim Minister.  As my term will end this June, we have a few more months to work together.  We are very pleased with the progress of our interim work and looking forward to the final recommendations of our Joint Search Committee with great excitement and anticipation now.  We hope that we will be able to make a decision to call a new minister before the end of this month and begin anew our journey with the new minister this July. 

Our interim work is time-constrained. From the beginning, we set up a time line for our ministry and worked together diligently to keep up to our schedule. We had to be keenly aware of the limited time we had to complete our work. Our journey is intense.  There is no time to waste. There is no time to make excuses. There is no time to play games. There is no time to blame others. There is no time to worry about failure. We must focus on what needs to be done.

Two years have gone by so quickly.  However, we have achieved a great deal so far, working on the conflicts of the past, identifying who we are and envisioning our future together, changing the structure for our leadership to meet new realities so that we will be well prepared to begin our journey anew.  I wonder if our keen awareness of the end of our time together has helped us achieve this much.  I wonder if we have lived out the reality of the paradox of life together.

As we enter more deeply into the experience of Lent, we are called to reflect upon what it means to live faithfully. Often we are called to make difficult and costly choices. Lent calls us to contemplate life’s agonies and paradoxes.  It is a time to think about the choices we make for our faith journey together.  May God bless us on our Lenten journey towards Easter.  Amen.