December 10, 2017

There is a thirty year old story that has been shared with me by multiple sources about an Anglican Church in downtown Toronto that was about to receive their new Rector. This former church of the establishment had fallen on hard times, you might even suggest these were the wilderness years in the parish. But their search committee had selected a new Rector and the church had high hopes that at long last the Spirit would return to the congregation.

The search committee had been bold. They had selected the parish’s first woman Rector and thirty years ago that was considered a revolutionary move. This new rector was due to begin her ministry on Christmas Eve, she would meet her flock on the most well attended service of the year. The anticipation and excitement at the church was electric, everybody showed up, and many came early. On this cool evening as parishioners climbed the steps to the front doors of the church they passed by a small woman dressed in rough clothes who called out, “It’s Christmas, I’m lonely, please sit and talk with me for a while?” Some smiled and told her they were busy but wished her a Merry Christmas but most hustled by without a glance. The woman on the steps did not ask for money, she was not demanding, her tone was measured and warm, “It’s Christmas, I’m lonely, please sit and talk with me for a while.”

As the service began a Parish Warden stood before the congregation and led them through the Prayer Book liturgy. You could hear the murmurs, “Where is the Rector?” “Why isn’t she here?” This continued until the Eucharist was about to be celebrated. As the hymn was being sung and the elements were being prepared the small woman in rough clothing walked up the centre aisle to the Altar. In the last verse of the hymn she dressed herself with vestments over her rough clothing and stood behind the Altar and began the Eucharistic Prayer.

Karoline Lewis, Professor of Preaching and the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota writes of our Gospel text this morning:

Mark asks us to view God's good news in a different way. We find God's good news not in Jerusalem but in the in the wilderness where the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to meet John the Baptist. God goes beyond the boundaries of where we thought God was supposed to be. We find ourselves not in the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem but outside of her city walls, in the margins, on the sidelines. The good news of God brings hope to those who find themselves in the peripheries of our world, but it also belongs there. God's good news of grace announces God's presence on the fringe, God's love that goes beyond the boundaries of where we thought God was supposed to be, and God's promise that there is no place on earth God will not go or be for us.

Jesus carried out his earthly ministry by going to rich and poor and telling each Good News. To the woman who was bleeding he touched and healed her. To the man who had been begging he said, “Take up your mat and walk.” To the woman at the well who was a Samaritan and had been married many times Jesus explained that he knew her past and the differences between them but wanted to give her “living water”. As soon as she drank it she knew he was her Saviour. Jesus also saw a rich tax collector up in the tree and went to his home, this connection changed the tax collector’s life as he immediately became more generous.

Jesus did not come in a palace or appear exclusively to the powerful, nor did he carry out his ministry in the Holy City of Jerusalem. Jesus made a way where there was no way. And John the Baptist came to announce this ministry was coming.

I remember a conversation I had with an Elder in a previous church about the men’s service organization this man served as a leader. I asked him why he enjoyed the service in this group. He responded, “Because we take good men and make them better.” That has always struck me as real mission of the church over the last several hundred years, “To take good people and make them better.” That was certainly the theme of services I remember from the church in my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. The church attracted people who were living by the rules of our time, doing reasonably well and encouraged them, us, to do even better.

There were many positive outcomes of this approach. It created a warm and supportive community for Christians to rely on and be inspired by. Many of us have great memories of that model of church, it is likely why we are here today. The downside of this approach was this; the folks whom Jesus spent much of his time with, the places Jesus spent much of his time visiting, were largely absent from this model of church.

When my mentor, the now 90 year old retired United Church minister Nathan Mair was studying at Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown he went to the large church in the downtown where the establishment came to worship. As a poor student from a small town the only place he felt he belonged in that church was the balcony. There with him in the balcony were others who did not feel like they belonged down below.

And here’s the interesting thing I have observed in my 28 years as an ordained minister, the good middle-class people like me who want to be better have stopped coming to church. But those who used to sit in the balconies, who were rarely noticed in our churches, they are still coming and they are now assuming more leadership roles in the church. Of all the years I have served as a minister the single largest increase in attendance occurred the year a low-income apartment building opened next the church. Many were persons 55 years and older who were on a disability pensions and could only afford to live in that building. They were lonely and started, one by one, to come to the church, join the choir, attend Bible Study.

I tried in vain to convince the Nominating Committee to appoint some of these new persons to leadership positions in the church. At coffee hour the people who had been attending the church for years had difficulty making conversation with these new members. The model of church then was still to attract people who looked and sounded like the people who were already in the church. It was nice to have more bodies in the pews but when it came to leadership and making new friends that was a harder sell.

I am convinced that issue would be easier to resolve today. Necessity makes virtue less challenging. With fewer people and more persons who previously sat on the margins of the church community assuming more leadership roles what we think of as “good Christian woman and men” has evolved. But there is still much work to be done.

Advent is a season of preparation and getting ready for the celebration of a birth that would remind us “God is with us” Emmanuel. I know you come here every Sunday looking for a connection with our God, hoping God will touch you, know you, and perhaps heal you, even save you. I pray that will be so. But know that God comes to us outside the walls of our established churches too, and many times I believe God goes to the wilderness places quite intentionally.

When I first came to Bethany I put a sermon title on our large outdoor sign that read, “Looking for Jesus, he is on the #15 bus.” I received a lot of email and letters asking how this could be true. If Jesus were among us why would he ride the #15 bus? My answer to those inquiries was this, if John the Baptist came dressed as oddly as he did, in the wilderness, if Jesus came to a manger and was raised in the most ridiculed town in the middle east, Nazareth, if Jesus ate with the outcasts and told people that if they were looking for God they should know the story of the Samaritan who helped the Jew, then why wouldn’t Jesus come to ride the #15 bus.

Look where you normally would not expect to find Jesus. And find church where you would not normally expect to meet your new best friend. God will surprise you. Amen.

November 5, 2017

Over the summer and fall of 2017 I have been reading a series of books written by historian Margaret MacMillan. In particular I have been reading MacMillan’s texts on the First World War, the years leading up to this conflict, the war itself and the year spent coming to terms with the war’s fallout. In case you don’t remember...

October 22, 2017

A popular translation of our text for today reads like this:

You know what kind of people we were when we visited you. We were there for you! And you became just like we are. Just like the Lord is. After all, even in great turmoil, you accepted God's word with the joy only the Holy Spirit can give...

October 15, 2017

The Apostle Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians from prison. According to Jesus scholar and Bishop Tom Wright “Paul sat in prison in Ephesus with only a few friends and colleagues looking after him when suddenly a guest appeared bringing news from the church in Philippi...

October 8, 2017

When a challenge presents itself in your life how do you respond? I am a problem-solver, who likes to look at creative solutions to complex problems, I usually take a deep breath and start thinking about all the possible things I can do or say to bring about a better tomorrow. Do I pray about it? Yes I do. But the prayer is often when I walk...

October 1, 2017

It is human nature to tell stories! Why else would thousands and thousands of people crowd into an auditorium to hear the late Stuart MacLean share his Vinyl Café stories? Frankly any of us can hear such stories on the internet, watch them from the comfort of our own homes on Netflix or listen to a podcast on satellite radio in our car. There is something about the live human voice sharing a reflection...

September 24, 2017

One of the hardest parts of my work, one of the greatest privileges I am afforded, are the conversations I have with persons who are aware that their death immanent. Facing one’s own death with that kind of clarity can lead to some very powerful insights and revelations. If you watch movies or television you have likely heard some of these conversations...

September 17, 2017

How we live with disagreement in community is never an easy thing to navigate. If you are like me there is that tension between wanting to feel a sense of integrity, that the community you belong to shares your values and on the other hand the worry that you an extra get a dose of “self-righteous purity” imagining that everyone must think just like you...

September 10, 2017

Five years ago I was invited to participate on a national United Church committee that looked ahead to equipping churches for the 21st century. One model we looked at closely was the house church, specifically house churches across Canada where faith-filled people with interest in United Church theology and practice were actually living together under one roof...

September 3, 2017

We didn’t talk much about evil when I was growing up. Throughout my upbringing in the 1960’s and 1970’s there was enormous faith in progress, technology and education to eradicate all forms of ignorance. And the consensus view in that time was this; there is no such thing as evil (a mere superstition). Terrible atrocities, like genocides, were the fault of a lack of education, knowledge, and eventually could be removed from the face of the earth with the right strategy...

August 27, 2017

Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon point out that this section of the Lord’s Prayer is the “most difficult to pray, the longest and most involved petition in the prayer itself.” Author NT (Tom) Wright suggests the reason forgiveness is such a potent topic in the Christian faith is because for many believers knowing how and when to forgive another can be the most difficult part of one’s faith journey...

August 20, 2017

When couples come together under one roof there is always some negotiation and flexibility required to find a way to live into new rituals. Eating meals together, and usually in our culture households gather at supper time, is one of those rituals that each partner in the relationship bring their own experience. When Kim and I were first married... 

August 13, 2017

Last Sunday night we were discussing the Lord’s Prayer at Brunswick Street United Church and the person sitting next to me leaned in and said, “When we live out the justice and love God intended us to embody as a community, as a world, we find the Lord’s Prayer alive and real.” He looked me in the eyes and repeated, “Thy Kingdom Come.” Indeed...

August 6, 2017

One of the crossroads in my life was a period in the late 1980’s when I had just completed six months of work as a Labourer-Teacher in the Canadian north with Frontier College. My work there was to fetch resources for carpenters and iron workers who were building forms for concrete to be poured...

June 25, 2017

In recent years I have come to lean more on the Psalms than any other part of the Bible. In my early years of ministry I read the Gospels for inspiration and direction, in particular Luke’s Gospel with its message of liberation and solidarity with the most vulnerable in our midst. But over time I found I needed to be in a more conversational mode with God...

June 18, 2017

As you know there are many different kinds of laughter. The type of laugh I want to talk about this morning is distinctive, it is the reaction to being told that you are about to do or be something you never imagined possible. All of us have been there, someone we know tells us to be prepared to assume a certain responsibility, an unexpected role, and we simply can’t believe our ears. And we laugh...

June 11, 2017

92 years ago yesterday the United Church of Canada came into being at a hockey rink in Toronto. Among the challenges that the founding denominational partners had to grapple with were the Articles of Faith, 20 statements that defined the United of Canada. These founding statements of faith shaped our identity, even today. Reviewing those 20 Articles of Faith you will find some rather dated language, words we don’t use any longer and the questions about God we still wrestle with today...