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

Monday, 25 March 2013

“Irresistible force meets...”    March 24, 2013    by Robin Wardlaw

Palm/Passion Sunday, Year C
Readings: Liturgy of Palms: Luke 19:28–40; (Psalm 118:1–2, 19–29); Liturgy of the Passion: Isaiah 50:4–9a; (Psalm 31:9–16); Philippians 2:5–11; Luke 23:1–49

The old philosophical puzzle: irresistible force meets immovable object. What happens? Listen to Azza Hilal Suleiman, a forty-nine year old woman from Egypt who became involved in the Tahrir Square uprising there. Hardly a revolutionary beginning, though–her father, two uncles and two brothers are all army generals. Clare Fermont from Amnesty International interviewed her recently at her home in Cairo.[i]
“I was so innocent,” says Ms. Suleiman. “I went to the Day of Anger demonstration on 28 January 2011 by bus. I saw the demonstration, so asked the driver to stop. As we walked, our numbers kept growing. I was very happy.”
She didn’t stay happy. She saw security forces gunning people down and beating them. She was overwhelmed by the fog of tear gas.
“But we all had great courage,” she said. “I kept pushing past the riot police, who seemed smaller than me. I tried to save a young boy carrying his shopping who had been grabbed by the riot police.” She came away from that experience feeling fearless and angry, things that have stayed with her.
She joined another protest eleven months later in December 2011, near Cairo’s Cabinet Offices. That’s when she saw troops assaulting the young woman, exposing her underwear. She threw herself over the woman to protect her. Then, she was attacked by soldiers, and her ruthless beating was captured on video.
The next thing Azza remembers is waking up in hospital. She had a fractured skull and her swollen face left her barely recognizable. She had been in a coma for a week and doctors told her family to prepare for the worst.
“At the beginning, the pain was so bad that I would wake up screaming, and I fainted a lot. But lots of friends and relatives helped me.”
One of those friends was a man who soon became her fiancĂ©. “He really supported me, and we held the same views on the revolution and justice,” she smiled, “so I melted with love for him.”
On 2 May 2012 he was shot dead at a sit‑in at the Ministry of Defence in Abbaseya, Cairo, by “thugs” she says the army used “to do its dirty work”. “It was this that made me take up the battle for justice for the many crimes committed by the military,” she said, “much more than my own case”.
She submitted a complaint about her assault to the public prosecution, but nothing happened. Like other women activists Fermont interviewed in Cairo, Azza was far more interested in talking about getting justice for others, rather than for herself. She wants justice for the Coptic Christians, for instance, killed in Cairo, on 9 October 2011. And for all those killed and injured during the uprising – and since then. She is determined to get justice, and vows to take her case before international bodies if necessary.
What about her mood? Does she remain optimistic, Clare Fermont asked her. “Of course,” she said. “It was depressing before the revolution. There was so much injustice and so many things imposed on you. I used to despair and think there was no escape. Now I am full of hope.”
Her words still resonate: “Don’t give up on your rights. You only have rights if you fight for them. And the more we support each other, the stronger we are and the more we will achieve.”
“I used to despair and think there was no hope.” So many of the people’s revolutions of the last fifty years have been started by young people. One person does one thing that somehow catches the attention and interest of other people, exposing injustice for what it is, inspiring resistance. Believing that the immovable object can somehow, some time, be moved.
“Don’t give up on your rights. You only have rights if you fight for them. And the more we support each other, the stronger we are and the more we will achieve.” Azza Suleiman was connected. She didn’t have to throw her body in the way of batons and boots. Today we stop to honour that irresistible force that makes people hope, work and sacrifice for justice. And we celebrate that force particularly in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The story of the end of his life is sometimes called the passion narrative. From the Latin word for a strong feeling, patior.
He spent several years hearing and seeing what people were experiencing in Galilee and the rest of Palestine. This drove him deeper and deeper into what we sometimes call the heart of God. We don’t worship this man, Jesus. We don’t worship this woman, Azza. Our hearts are stirred by something deeper. We give it different names–Christ, God, Spirit, Love. Our hearts are stirred, or are they? This is the question of Lent and Easter.
In Jesus’ story, the irresistible force of resistance to oppressive, abusive power meets opposition, brutal opposition. It’s not much of a contest. Jesus doesn’t try to run away, hide, lawyer up. He chooses a different approach. In Azza’s story, the irresistible force of resistance meets a similarly brutal opposition. It costs some people their life, people such as her fiancĂ©. For Azza, it seems to be a stand off at the moment. The rule of law has come a ways since the first century, but not far enough. And people pledged to uphold the law sometimes exceed their authority even in our own city.
Sometimes the irresistible force of radical love meets...apathy, yawns, a changing of the channel. Sometimes the irresistible force can be resisted! Occupy came and went. Now Idle No More has sprung up to confront an insidious use of state power. What will it take to challenge the perversion of human society that occurs when power is concentrated in too few hands? The call to do power and love and justice differently, to treat them all as sacred, never ends. People are hearing it all over the world. The church is at its best when it is walking with those who can’t even stand, if that makes any sense.
For some, the call to do power, love and justice differently is personal: the abuse, the suffering, the terrible frustration of not getting some kind of reconciliation are things they feel in their bodies, their minds, their spirits. They may feel squashed by the immovable object, helpless, with little or no force with which to resist anything.
For others, the call is to be in solidarity with those who suffer. Jesus falls into this category, until the end of his life, when suddenly he encounters the willingness of others to whip and mock and beat and stab and kill. He has seen the effects of cruel policies in the countryside where the poor were becoming poorer, but now he feels the cruelty in his person.
The passion of Jesus, the passion of Azza, of all the others whose hope of budging that immovable object, speak to us in this holy week. We tend to play up the details of the suffering too much at the cost of the bigger picture. Jesus wasn’t doing the suffering God needs so we don’t have to. God doesn’t need us to suffer, or make us suffer. We can do that to one another just fine, thank you very much. Our bodies come with flaws, physical or mental that lead to pain and distress.
Jesus was just not willing to cave before fellow humans who thought they could get whatever they wanted through violence or the threat of violence. He was a one person Occupier movement, a solitary Idle No More marcher. Except that he wasn’t alone. He started a movement. It seems to have faltered badly, but then it recovered somehow. But that’s for another sermon. Let’s meet again next week to take up that part of the story. For now, get busy being irresistible.

1. Story by Clare Fermont, re‑posted from The Wire, Amnesty International's newsletter for global activists.

Monday, 18 March 2013

   March 17, 2013   by Robin Wardlaw

Lent 5, Year CReadings: (Isaiah 43:16–21); Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b–14; John 12:1–8
This is the part where I switch on a tape of various soccer announcers shouting the word Goal, and holding it as long as they can at the top of their lungs. You may have heard this phenomenon. It’s fun. And if you’ve never heard it, try to imagine sports as opera or something, the part where the tenor holds the high note to show off. To me, these little sports broadcasting episodes reveal impressive lung capacity, and also a complete lack of balance on the part of the announcer. They switch from describers of the action to fans in those moments. Although, to be fair, maybe they do the same thing for goals scored by both teams.
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was an announcer present when we did something that took great self-restraint, great love and great sacrifice? Something that represented us at our best, our most faithful? Suddenly a quiet scene is interrupted by Leather Lungs roaring at the top of his voice, Gooooooaaaaaaaaaalllllll!!!! Bullies get attention. Braggarts get attention. Show offs get attention. Finally, attention for the stuff that usually goes unnoticed, important stuff.
OK, sorry I put that image into your head. In my experience, almost the last thing people of faith want is a big production about their faithful actions. You’ve become good at not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing, holding your tongue, going the second mile.
Paul is going to the heart of things talking about his goal. In J. B. Phillips’ translation, Phillips calls it Paul’s ambitions. “For his sake I did in actual fact suffer the loss of everything, but I considered it useless rubbish compared with being able to win Christ. For now my place is in him, and I am not dependent upon any of the self-achieved righteousness of the Law. God has given me that genuine righteousness which comes from faith in Christ. How changed are my ambitions! Now I long to know Christ and the power shown by his resurrection: now I long to share his sufferings, even to die as he died, so that I may perhaps attain as he did, the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:8b-11)
Paul goes on to say that, unlike those strikers on the soccer pitch, he has not actually achieved his goal, his ambitions, but that he presses on toward it. From the teachers in our family I learned the saying, “Direction, not perfection.” Paul is determined to be heading in the right direction, even if he never achieves the death of self that Jesus did.
The goal. What is the goal of our faith? To share Christ’s sufferings so as to share in resurrection from the dead? Could be. Let’s shift our focus for a moment. Leave Paul, and go to the gospel. There’s a tiff going on at supper, in large part about the goal of it all, the goal of the mission, that is. The gang’s all here: disciples, Jesus, Mary, Martha and brother Lazarus, looking and smelling ’way better now that he’s not in the tomb. Martha’s serving, as usual. Mary’s not, as usual. Lazarus is hanging on Jesus’ every word. Mary gets out some skin cream. Where’d she get that? What a great smell! Isn’t that pricey stuff, the really pricey stuff?
Judas can’t stop himself. He’s doing the math in his head. What if that money had gone to the food bank instead? Would have fed a lot of people! Jesus knows this. He’s enjoying Mary’s attention. Or that’s the picture John paints for us. John is actually doing a couple of things in this passage. One is softening the message of Jesus. He’s not the only one who does this. In fact, the farther away in time we get from Jesus himself, the more that writers seem to want to knock the sharp corners off what Jesus said and did. Radical is OK back at the beginning, but once a movement begins to gain more followers, more connected followers, the more that revolutionary stuff begins to be an embarrassment. An embarrassment? An out and out obstacle to growth. John is the last of the four gospels to be composed.
How do we know this, that later writers soften the gospel message? It’s clear something got Jesus killed. It wasn’t his love of top of the line skin products. It was his prophetic activity, his awkward questions. So Judas is actually doing the Jesus thing in this scene. John throws in the slur about Judas stealing funds from the movement to discredit him. Maybe he was, but none of the earlier gospels report this.
The other thing John is doing is setting up the crucifixion. Foreshadowing. Mary’s anointing then, is preparation Jesus’ body for his burial several chapters in advance. The scene is good, though, because it suggests tension within the Jesus movement, either in Jesus’ lifetime, or several decades later. Feeding people or doing extravagant things to honour Jesus? That thorny question keeps coming up, especially when a church goes to set a budget for the coming year. The dinner party story suggests it has to be one or the other. Is that true?
It’s only tense if we see life and faith through the lens of scarcity. There’s only so much money to go around, so every nickel not spent on bread is robbing the poor of food. But if we see the story, and our own faith lives from the point of view of abundance, there are always enough resources for both feeding and fragrance. It’s not either/or.
So that hypothetical announcer following us around might be yelling Goal more often than just when we do something good for someone else. Someone’s leaving crocheted hearts on utility poles in the city? Goal! There’s a flash mob in a food court bringing joy and beauty to a somewhat drab scene? Score! Someone starts paying it forward at the coffee shop drive through window in Winnipeg, and a hundred and fifty customers who come afterward do the same thing? Fireworks, please!
One way to hear our scriptures today is as an invitation to look within ourselves, examine our life choices. One of the choices we all made today is to come to church. We come to church for many reasons. We hear and experience things in worship that effect all of us differently. We just went through this congregation’s annual meeting, an opportunity for us to be reflective as a group. We trusted that the Council had been thorough in its examination of the budget, because it reflects our priorities as a church. We’re always trying to figure out how many eggs to put in which baskets. If we had been in that dining room John conjures up for us, would we have sided with Martha or Judas or Mary? Or found ourselves torn?
Pressing on toward the goal of the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus, whatever that means, is not exactly like running a race. There is no racetrack, no walls of cheering fans making it obvious how we press on toward the goal. Thank goodness. What if we only had to do certain things and avoid doing other things to live faithful lives. Remember the old days? Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t dance, don’t swear, don’t cheat, go to church on Sunday and you’re good.
Things are different now. We have more freedom to be the church. We don’t have to fit into preconceived notions of what a congregation is. We don’t have to live up to the expectations of society anymore. Society doesn’t have expectations of churches. We can explore that dinner party tension, wrestle with the meaning of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus to our heart’s content.
It’s true that we can get into ruts, habits, conventions, isn’t it? We’re getting ready to go deeper as a faith community. Council has launched the next phase of our mission redevelopment. You have done so much reflective work as a congregation already over the past few years. Now Council is going to put together a group to lead us deeper into conversation, holy conversation, about our passion, our purpose. What are the faithful ways to follow that annoying, unpredictable Christ who is living like a monk one minute, and lounging around getting the deluxe pedicure the next. Not the faithful way to follow Christ: ways, plural. There are lots of good ways to be the body of Christ at this corner of the world. Can we get past habitual behaviours, patterns, to see how we are needed around here right now and in the days to come?
Is it our role as a group to be Martha and serve, deal with all the casualties of our economic system, or Judas and ask the incisive questions, like why there are so many casualties? Or are we to be Mary, and make this place a centre for beauty, fragrant offerings of music, drama, art to make use of a space that is too big for our present needs? Or some combination of all three?
It’s like you sometimes hear about our transportation system. No one needs to own an internal combustion automobile running on fossil fuel. What people need is a way to get from A to B. It’s transportation we need, not gas-powered cars. In the same way, no one needs a church. They need something to help them get from A to B, so to speak, toward their life goals. They want to be part of a justice-seeking community. Or they want a place to help them survive or get whole again. Or a community that accepts them, authentic friendships. Or a place to express those yearnings to do something beautiful and sacred that lurk just under the surface for many people. If a church can be one or more of those things, people will find it and do their thing. If it were just a church they wanted, they’d be here already. It’s holiness they seek, a mission that gets their blood flowing, acceptance, or a fresh start.
And you? What are your Lenten questions for yourself? How are you doing on that goal stuff? Pressing on, or needing some kind of energy drink right now if you’re going to put one more foot in front of the other? Confident of the path, or searching around, not so certain? No one is going to be announcing your faithful actions, I can assure you. There is no play by play for what brings us here. There are only our friends in faith here, around us, and our mentor, our model to give us the encouraging word along the way.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

“Mixed messages”   March 3, 2013   by Robin Wardlaw

Lent , Year C
Readings: Isaiah 55:1–9; Psalm 63:1–8; (1 Corinthians 10:1–13); Luke 13:1–9       

We’ve all heard mixed messages. “Your call is important to us. Please wait on the line, and you will be connected to a service associate by midnight, tomorrow at the latest.” “Unlimited calling. Some conditions apply.” We may have given a few mixed messages in our time. “You know I love you and trust you completely. Be home by eleven-thirty sharp, and if I smell one whiff on you, you’re grounded for a month.” “I love you and I think we should see other people.” Evidence of conflicting thoughts we’re having. A caring and attentive listener may be able to help us sort out our thinking. But generally people just get confused when they hear contradictory thoughts.

What message do you want to hear if your parents or grandparents were dragged away from home fifty years ago, and you have been living more or less as a prisoner all your life, like the Jews in Babylon twenty-five hundred years ago? What about this: I give you a feast, for free. Not candy floss. Food that really satisfies. Reassurance. Huge reassurance. And what for? Not to make you feel all sleepy and content, but to be a witness to a daring way of thinking about being human and being in society. “I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.” Really? Hostages will be a witness to the peoples? If you say so. Reassurance, then, and also challenge. Was the prophet nuts? Was God? Sure, Nebechudnezzar was dead, and there was no one as tough and mean as him to take his place. So maybe there was hope. Maybe people could go back to Jerusalem, resume covenant living.

But wait. There’s another part to the message, adding to the mix. It’s not all soothing words. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?” This was all a long time ago. Who needs to hear words like this these days, the critique and the reassurance? What other faith group has seen many decades of decline? Who else locates their best feelings about their faith community in the past?

Cut to the Jesus story. Luke sets up the theme of sin and punishment. Does God getcha if you’re bad? Are people who die in falling towers badder than the rest of us? No, says Jesus, God doesn’t work that way. But unless you repent, you’re going to go the same way. Talk about a mixed message. Then comes the parable about the tree, the fig tree, to shed light on how God deals with sin. I think. Turns out the fig tree is a traditional symbol for blessing or curse: fruitful tree? Good for you! Barren tree? Oh, oh. You must be cursed. Jesus tells this story about a fig tree that hasn’t borne any fruit for three years.

You can see his listeners asking themselves, Who’s he talking about? Them? Us? Who? Cut it down, says the owner. Makes sense from the owner’s point of view. But what about the tree? If the tree is those rich people, those leaders in bed with the Romans, feel free. But what if it’s us?

Then the gardener pipes up. No, don’t cut it down! What? Where’s he going with this. If he’s talking about collaborators, no mercy! Get out the axe. If he’s talking about us, bring on the fertilizer. Shovel away. We can bear fruit, just watch!

OK, that may have been a grabber two thousand years ago, but that was long ago and far away. Except we do this all the time. If the axe is going to fall on those people, what are you waiting for? If it looks like we might be the target tree, that’s a different matter.

Last Sunday at the book study, attention turned to the plight of women throughout the world. A report just came out outlining how one in three women on the planet will be the victim of assault during her life. Much of this will be at the hands of an intimate partner. And of course, many men will be victims of some kind of violence in their lives, some of it from intimate partners. But the world seems to be tilted against females: education, health, rape as a weapon of war, sexual predation, property ownership, the list goes on and on. Why has the church not been more outspoken about all this? What have we been doing?

Perhaps we have been too patient, too ready to suggest the fertilizer approach, too slow to get out the axe. The church is not exactly innocent in all this. The policies of the Catholic church, the biggest Christian church, seem to contradict Jesus’ actions toward women. In episode after episode, Jesus treats women as equals. I happened to notice a story in this morning’s paper about Catholics who have left the church because if its attitudes on questions such as the ordination of women, or marriage for priests. In one case, a woman’s lifetime of working inside the church for change left her burnt out. If Christ were telling the story about the fig tree today, and she is, how much mercy would be on offer for the church? How are we doing as witnesses to the amazing story of the gospel? Are we bearing fruit?

We’re looking forward to Easter, which is both the answer to a question we have, and a question to what we think of as answers. Our scriptures challenge us all very directly, if we let them. They challenge our personal lives–why do we go for food that doesn’t satisfy?; our church–what is our purpose, and how are we being witnesses to the fierce love of God; and our societies–how are they bearing fruit for all of God’s creatures?

As we go to make decisions for our church for the coming year, we remember other times, other places, when people faced challenges and needed the word of hope, the word of reassurance, and the insistent demand to gather for the food that really satisfies, and bear fruit that will satisfy others.