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. All the believers in Macedonia and Acacia look to you as examples. Because of you, God's word has rung out, not only in Macedonia and Acacia. Your faith in the Lord has spread everywhere. So, nothing more needs to be said about your example. What we've heard about you tells us how you welcomed us and how you rejected old ways to believe.

Larry Broding is a Roman Catholic scholar who reviews the Revised Common Lectionary and posts his analysis online. I was drawn this week to what he had to say about his section of Paul’s writing. “The community at Thessalonika had adopted the faith in spite of great opposition. Unlike the internal strife in the Corinthian assembly, this church had a cohesive faith with a sense of unity and purpose. The many competing religious movements among the pagans in the city, the extreme loyalty to Rome and the imperial cult from the city leaders, and fierce competition from the Jewish synagogue created a survival mentality among the local Christians. There was no time for cliques, fancy theologies, or leadership intrigue. The Thessalonians were true to the teaching and example of Paul and his friends. Their church became an example for others. Why? In spite of the competition and social pressure, the Thessalonians proved themselves very hospitable, very open to the Paul's teaching, and very faithful to their new religion.”

Paul’s letters were always specific to the church and community he was addressing. In the case of the Corinthians he was writing a church divided, in conflict, bickering about leadership, arguing about whose gifts were more important than others and how conflict ought to be resolved. But in his letters to the Thessalonians Paul observes a church practicing what they preach, practicing what Paul had preached.

I often wonder how Paul would address the challenges of the church today. I think he would find it very challenging to identify with us. The church then met in local houses and was constantly being harassed by the Roman state. Christians in North America seem to have forgotten what real persecution looks like. We as Christians are free to worship as we like, where we like, with whom we like. Moreover many of our leaders openly embrace Christianity and our national holidays accommodate our Christian festivals. Even more, when we give money to our church we get a tax break and our church properties are not taxed at all. For a man sitting in prison, likely to be executed for his faith, such a relationship between church and state would sound more like the pagan faith, which posited Caesar as a god, than the movement named for a man who was executed as an enemy of the state.

Paul would also not likely understand some our doubts about miracles and healings, the discoveries of science in the generations to follow had not yet occurred. In Paul’s time miracles and healings were understood to be common practice, in religious and civil society. And Paul would have been surprised that Jesus had not returned, he and his fellow leaders in the early church expected Jesus to return, soon. More than two thousand years later I am sure Paul would be more than slightly confused.

But one thing Paul would understand about the church of today as he did about the church of his time was the need for believers in Jesus to live as Christ did. We are not just to preach and pray about Almighty God but to live it out for all the public to see. Paul was a convert to a movement founded on the life and ministry of Jesus. And Jesus was very clear about what he regarded as servant-leaders.

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45

A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.      Luke 22:24-27

When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. John 13:12-15

Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.    1 John 2:6

Paul addresses the early church in a variety of letters and over and over again he tells them to model their lives on Jesus, just as he is doing. For Paul the most effective means to passing on something you believe to be true is to live it yourself. In this text Paul suggests that the Thessalonians have imitated him as he has imitated Jesus.

A few weeks ago I told you about a new pattern in church life, grandparents bringing their grandchildren to church. More and more my colleagues see this, the missing generation in most mainline churches are people my age and thus grandparents are asking their adult children permission to bring the grandkids to worship. I want to add to that story and share that when an adult comes back to church, after a long absence, it used to be because of a personal crisis. Whenever someone in their 30’s or 40’s would just show up I would hunch there had been a divorce, a job loss, a bout with depression, something had shaken their world. But now that story has changed. Time and time again I meet one of these young adults who tell me they are back in church because a parent or grandparent has died. When the young adult had given it deeper thought s/he had concluded that there was something about their loved one they wanted to imitate. An example had been set and now someone was following in their footsteps.

Let me conclude with two quotes from an unlikely source in a Christian sermon, Gandhi. As you likely know Gandhi was a deeply spiritual man who made our world a better place. Gandhi was a practicing Hindu. He also saw Christians up close and personal in his effort to bring independence to India. The British Empire, led entirely by Christians, were not so impressed. That is the context for these quotes:

“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

My friends if you believe that your Christian faith is worthy of attention by those who currently are not connected to a church then remember that people assess this faith in large part by how they see you, how they hear you, how they experience you. You are a witness, I am a witness, and together we are sign boards for something that can and does change lives.

Amen.

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...

June 4, 2017

Author, Minister and President of Princeton Theological Seminary Craig Barnes says of our text today, “When the promising young Hebrews were dragged into exile in Babylon, they were not kept in prisons or even camps. They were free to marry, build homes, plant crops and exchange goods. Some became quite wealthy. They were also free to assemble, elect leaders and worship...

May 21, 2017

In a sermon by The Rev’d Alisdair Smith of Christ Cathedral in Vancouver on this very text we hear about General Romeo Dallaire and his impossible mission in Rwanda. “While he did all he could to save lives, he was forced by inactive governments and the UN to face this genocide with a small band of lightly armed soldiers...

May 14, 2017

I wish all of our mothers a happy Mother’s Day. I also want to wish all of our families a meaningful Christian Family Sunday. Family is a word that is being defined in a more open and fluid way these days. I am not speaking specifically here about marriage, though that obviously is part of that evolution. Here I am making reference to the way we define who is and who is not our kin. Let me share two recent examples...

May 7, 2017

I have never taken any formal courses in Marriage Counseling, though I have read several books and attended a few workshops on the subject. One thing I do recall from both text and lecture is that in the early stages of the couple’s work it is important to ask what it was that originally kindled their romance, what it was that brought them together, how did they fall in love...

April 30, 2017

Some of you know I help facilitate the faith sharing and worship time at Brunswick Street United every Sunday night, 6-8 pm. We gather in a circle, everyone participates and I offer up a brief overview of the theme for the night, a little background on the scripture, and a question designed to promote conversation and stimulate deeper thinking on what God is doing in our lives...