Archive for October, 2010

September 19th, 2010

For me, this is one of the most difficult parables in the Gospels. And I felt pretty good when I found out that I was not alone in thinking this. Even St. Augustine wrote: I cannot believe that this story came from the lips of our Lord. So I think that I can be forgiven for my reaction whenever we come to this part of Luke’s Gospel. Even the most fundamentalist of Christians must wonder if someone copied it down wrong, or at least they must ask themselves what on earth Jesus meant when he advised his listeners to use worldly wealth to gain friends for themselves. This really doesn’t sound like the Jesus we normally hear, does it? It actually sounds as if he is defending dishonesty, because that is the word which describes the steward. Listen again to what was read earlier: There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him: What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.
Obviously, something had gone wrong, and the manager had been caught. So what did he do? Well, what would you do if, tomorrow morning, you were handed a pink slip, and told that you no longer had a job? I think that your first reaction would be much the same as the manager in today’s reading. You would start to scurry about, calling in favours, trying to assure yourself of another job. And in this case it worked, as the master commended his manager, and, we assume, reinstated him in his job.
Now, if we were to take a look at Jesus’ parables as a while, we would find that about 40% of them are about money, about material things, about STUFF. The fact that Jesus was willing to spend this much of his short time talking about things tells us that he knows what is important to us, and that he wants us to realize that there are good ways to use our things, good ways to use our resources. He wants us to know that there are ways to ensure our future, but not as the manager did.
There is a huge difference between the dishonest manager and the people of the light, and it is the second person we are expected to model ourselves after. We are not expected to make the choices that the manager made, thus feathering our own nests in this world. Rather, we follow his example of making choices that are in keeping with the future. But our future is not of this world, so our choices should reflect that. And Jesus was not commending the manager. Rather, he was commending his shrewdness in making sure that he would be taken care of. Even in our pew Bibles, the title of this periscope is The Parable of the Shrewd Manager.
One of the things that I hear a lot about is the whole idea of “growing” the church. By this, of course, I mean, adding new members, and eventually turning the church into some kind of mega-church. We hear about them in other places – churches which have five services on Sunday, and standing room only at all of them. There are courses available for ministers and elders, focusing on attracting people to come to church. I wonder if, by buying into this idea, we are doing just what the manager did. I wonder if we are misusing the gifts we have been given. In this day and age, we seem to have adopted fully the idea that “bigger is better”, but is it?
I think that, if we look carefully at our reading today, we will see that this is not necessarily true. Jesus finished his parable by saying that no servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. Incidentally, the translation that I prefer to use says: MAMMON, rather than MONEY, which is a little bit different. Mammon refers to the trappings that go along with money. The mega churches, who raise money so that they can build yet another place to house their ever-expanding Sunday School – these places are surely familiar with mammon. There are churches struggling to keep the roof over their heads, and every cent they take in seems to be dedicated to that. Somehow, I don’t think that this is what Jesus had in mind 2000 years ago.
Jesus makes a reference to the people of the light, and that is who we are supposed to be. As Christians, as followers of Jesus, we are the people of the light, and we are supposed to be committed to God and to God’s purpose for us and our lives. But are we? There is a fairly simple way to figure out the answer to this, and it will require you to think a little about some things. First of all, we need to know how we feel about money. As I mentioned, some 40% of the parables and other stories in the Gospels are about money in some manner. Remember the widow who gave all she had to the temple? And the rich young man who could not give up his riches to follow Jesus? Or Levi, later known as Matthew, who was a tax collector? He gave up a very remunerative job to follow Jesus. He left everything. He knew what was the most important thing, what would make him a child of the light rather than just a shrewd manager. But the point of each of these stories is that they show what it is that people seek. They show where a person’s loyalty lies. Is it with God or mammon?
Now, as Jesus said: The people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. We see that all around us. We hear about insider trading, Ponzi schemes, and all kinds of get-rich-quick scams. And what we have to realize is that this is not the way the Christians operate. But why are the people of the world able to succeed so well? Because they know where their loyalty is. They know that the most important thing to them is money, and that they will do whatever they must to ensure that they have money. This is the kind of commitment, the kind of loyalty that so many of us, so many Christians, are lacking. We are divided. We are trying to serve two masters, and it won’t work.
You know, something I have always noticed is what happens to people when an election is called. In my time, I have campaigned for the Liberals, the Progressive Conservatives, and the New Democrats. I went door-to-door with my little leaflets. Sometimes I accompanied the candidate as he or she went door-to-door, meeting with electors. I spent hours making phone calls, and on election day, I was always available to drive people to the polling stations. That’s when I wasn’t working as an inside agent for one off the candidates. And I would imagine that many people in this church have done the same thing. But how many of us ever call a friend to suggest that they come to church with us? I know of some people here who have done that, but I’d be willing to wager – even though Presbyterians aren’t supposed to gamble – that most of us haven’t. Where, then, does our loyalty lie? We are not embarrassed to admit that we vote a certain way, or that we cheer for a certain hockey team. But when it comes to telling people that we are Christians, that we have accepted Jesus as our Saviour – well, that’s not really what we do, is it?
And maybe it is time that we did. Maybe it is time that we stopped trying to serve two masters, because, in doing that, we are doing a disservice to at least one of them. Where do we put our efforts? And where do we need to put our efforts? Sure, we live in the world, and we are of the world. There are things we have to do in order to be part of the world. But there are things we have to do in order to be part of God’s family. There are things we owe God that we are not giving him.
Every Sunday, the offering is received, and the prayer of dedication is said. But we don’t only dedicate monetary gifts here. We dedicate our time and our talent. Today, we covenanted the Sunday School, which is one of the ways our people share their gifts. We have dedicated teachers and helpers who spend morning after morning working with the children. We have a youth group, some of whom have offered to help out with the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle campaign in December. Yet, we have, in the narthex, a blank sheet, waiting for names to volunteer a little time on Sunday. And that’s not even going to take extra time. It is a simple thing to do, but people don’t do it. The people of the world commit, but the people of the light don’t.
The people of the world promote their product, and some try to do the same with the church. They package it up neatly, distributing bracelets emblazoned with the letters WWJD – meaning, of course, What Would Jesus Do? The people who promote this try to present Jesus as a nice guy, who told cute stories, and gave good advice. This watered-down version of the Gospel is not what was written. This watered-down Jesus is not the person who was crucified some 2000 years ago. And this watered-down version of what he said is meant to make us feel good. But that is not what we, as Christians, are supposed to do. We are supposed to hear the whole Gospel, even those parts that are confusing; even those parts that make us uncomfortable, as today’s surely did. We can’t pick and choose which bits we want to read and believe. We can’t pick and choose which parts of Jesus’ advice we can ignore. Doing this reduces it to merely words – words such as can be found almost anywhere. You can find platitudes in the Chicken Soup books, in the teachings of Confucius, in the Book of Mormon.
But in the Bible, you can find the word of God. And we are stewards of the Word of God. We are the ones entrusted to share it with others, not to water it down. And sharing it is what Jesus calls being shrewd, being clever, taking care of the future. Just imagine, at some point, in the distant future, when we all meet in heaven. Just imagine someone saying, “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be here. If you hadn’t been my Sunday School teacher; if you hadn’t invited me to worship with you; if you hadn’t shown me what it meant to be a Christian, I wouldn’t be here.” Wouldn’t it be great to have someone say, “Because you made a donation to my village through Presbyterians Sharing, we were able to have a minister.” And how would it feel to hear someone say that your gift of time made all the difference to them? That, because you sat with them, and listened to them, they understood Christian love.
I watched a movie a few months ago, called PAY IT FORWARD, in which a young boy picks up an intriguing way of passing things along. This expression is used to describe the concept of asking that a good turn be repaid by having it done to others instead. To me, this is part of being shrewd. It multiplies love; it multiplies caring; it multiplies good stewardship. And that is what Jesus was talking about.
He said: Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with very much. We have been entrusted with the earth and all that is in it. We have been entrusted with the care of each other. And when we fail in our care of the earth or when we fail to care for each other, we are being just as dishonest as the steward was. But when we do what God wants us to do, then, my friends, we are his faithful people; we are people of the light. Then we will be trusted with more; then we will be given more.
Ask yourself if you have been a faithful steward. Have you taken care of what God has given you? Have you cared for the money, the time, the talents, the family, the friends, and even the faith that has been yours? If we were honest, I would think that not one of us has done that. I would think that each person in this church – myself included – has been wasteful in some way. But it’s not too late. It is never too late, as long as we have breath.
To be a faithful part of the God’s family, to be a faithful part of this faith community, it is necessary to invest in it. We must invest not only money, although that is always helpful. We must invest time and energy and emotion if we are to do what is expected of us. It’s not as if we are being asked to give what Jesus gave. What we give, we get back a thousand fold. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon’s people were told to cast their bread upon the waters, and that is what I am asking you to do. Not a whole loaf, not even a full slice. Just a few crumbs. The dividends will be amazing.

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September 12th, 2010

This week, St. Andrew’s played host to David Mainse, of Crossroads Television. He is probably best known as the former host of 100 Huntley Street, and I found him to be a fascinating man. Theologically, we are a bit different, but on the essentials we agreed. We believe in the same God, and we believe that his son, Jesus Christ, died to save us, to rescue the lost souls. We found, despite our differences, that we could agree on many things. And we found, despite the many differences among the churches in Quebec City, we could all agree on the essentials. One of the essentials is found in today’s Gospel reading, in which we heard two stories of things that were lost and now are found.
Now, to us, the lost sheep and the lost coin are not all that important, but to the people concerned, they were vital. One sheep among one hundred may not seem like very much, but my cousin, who has a small sheep ranch in Tasmania, could tell you differently. She counts her sheep at the end of every day, and if one is missing, she doesn’t go to bed until it is found. It seems that sheep know each other, and if one goes missing, then the others will be restless, because they think that a predator has taken it. It is even worse if a mother goes missing. The baby bleats in a pitiful voice until its mother is returned. And let’s not even talk about what the mother does if her baby disappears! Suffice it to say that Tracy can identify completely with the shepherd in the first story.
As for the coin – well, we need to know a bit about the economy of Jesus’ time in order to understand its importance. You see, in those days, the wealth of a family was often judged by how many coins they had. And the woman of the house would wear the coins as ornaments. Ten silver coins was a nice amount, and losing one represented losing one-tenth of the family’s wealth. When it is put like that, it sounds like a lot more than just one coin, doesn’t it? So by losing one-tenth of the family’s wealth, the woman could be putting the family in serious jeopardy, as people would start to think that she didn’t care about her family. Therefore, the search was really necessary, and the rejoicing afterwards was heartfelt.
Now, of course, the point of these stories, of course, is to show how God and the heavenly host rejoice when one person who is lost is found and returned safely where he belongs. All Christian denominations believe in this, and to illustrate it in a concrete way, I want to tell you a story about a Bible camp. Not the one I went to this summer, but one which I think was similar, in many ways. There were boys and girls at this camp, and on the very first morning, one of the campers was missing his camera. Later that day, another camper went to get his baseball glove, only to discover that it, too, was missing. It wasn’t hard to figure out that there was a thief in the camp. The counsellors went on a hunt, and discovered the missing items in the sleeping bag of a boy we will call Terry. They confronted him, and said, “Why did you take the things?” “I didn’t take them,” replied Terry. “Look, we know you took them,” said the counsellor. “They were in your sleeping bag. But this is only the second day of camp, so we’ll give you a break. I’ll return the things, and we’ll act as if none of this happened. Nobody needs to know that you took them.”
Terry insisted, “I didn’t take them.” But the worst thing was that, the whole time he was talking to the counsellor, he had no expression on his face. You could tell that his life away from camp wasn’t easy, and that he had to behave in a certain way, just to get along in his home and in his neighbourhood. Did I mention that Terry was from what we call the Inner City? And that’s not really a good place to be from.
So the next day, Terry was out in a boat with another camper, and he stuck a fishhook in the other camper’s leg. Back he went to the counsellor. “Why did you do it?” asked the counsellor. “I didn’t do it,” said Terry.
Well, clearly, the counsellor was at his wit’s end. What was he going to do with this 12-year-old? It seemed as if the only solution was to send him home. But any of you who have ever been to camp know how much counsellors and camp directors hate having to admit defeat. Did I mention that this was a Roman Catholic camp? And one of the people working there was a retired nun – Sister Ruth. Even though she was officially retired, she showed no signs of slowing down, and during the summer, she worked at the camp, doing the chores of a handyman. That’s what her father had been, and he had taught her everything about repairing things, so that is what she did. The kids called her “Sister Fix-it”, and it turns out that she could fix just about anything.
The counsellor mentioned Terry at the staff meeting that night, and the next morning, Sister Ruth – who got up before anyone else – went to Terry’s cabin, and woke him while the other campers were still sleeping. “Get up and come with me,” she said, “I need you to help me.” And that’s the way things continued. The other kids would be playing baseball, and Sister Ruth would appear and say to Terry, “Come with me. I need some help in the garden.” The other campers would be swimming. Sister Ruth and Terry would be painting the chapel. The other campers would be eating. Sister Ruth and Terry would be having their lunch outside, while they took a break between their chores. Wherever you saw Sister Ruth, you saw Terry. Wherever you saw Terry, you saw Sister Ruth.
Instead of sending the kid home when the new campers came in, the parents and camp director agreed to leave him another two weeks. The new batch of kids did not know the history of the kid with who worked with Sister Fix-It, and they would ask him, “Do you want to play baseball?” He would look at her and she would say, “Go play baseball. Then meet me back here. We have work to do in the garden.” The other kids would be going horseback riding and would say to him, “Want to come riding?” He would look at her and she would say, “You go riding. Then meet me back here and we’ll paint the bench down at the lake.”
And that’s how it went for another two weeks. She let him out and she reeled him in. She let him out and she reeled him in. At the end of the two weeks, the kid was integrated into the life of the camp.
The day his parents came to pick him up, they waited with the camp counsellor and director on the hill overlooking the camp. They all saw them at the same time. The old nun known as Sister Fix-it and the kid with no expression on his face. They were coming up the path that led down to the lake. Even at twelve he was taller than she was. She had her arm around his waist and a glow on her face like a woman who had found a coin she had long searched for. With each step she pulled him against her. She was hip-hugging him all the way. And he was letting her do it.
Now can you just imagine the rejoicing? This kid, who had come to camp as prickly as a porcupine, this kid, who seemed determined to do things to upset people, this kid was suddenly a valued member of the community. He was lost, and, thanks to the persistence of Sister Ruth, was found.
I think that this story about the bible camp, as well as the stories Jesus told in our Gospel reading for today, all talk about love. Jesus is letting us know that we are loved; that no matter how far we stray, we will be welcomed back. We need to know that his love for us perseveres. In Timothy’s letter, which we also read today, the evangelist wrote: Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Jesus Christ. We all need to hear this; we all need to be reminded that, no matter how bad we think we are, God won’t give up. He will keep calling us, and calling us, until we finally respond.
And he will keep answering our prayers, even when we fail to keep our end of the bargain. Just think about it for a minute. How many times have you said something like, “God, if I pass this test, I’ll go to church every Sunday.” But something comes up, and you miss first one Sunday, then another, and then another. Or you say, “God, make this interview lead to a better job, and I’ll pray more often.” The interview worked, but because the new job demanded more time, you actually prayed less. God kept his side of the bargain, but you didn’t. And that happens more times than not, with all of us. And you know what is really funny about this of bargaining? We actually think that we CAN bargain with God, that we are on an equal footing with the Creator of the universe. Talk about arrogance! Of course, even if we keep our side of the bargain, that is not going to guarantee our salvation. Jesus Christ already did that, when he died for us. That is something that we, as Christians and as Presbyterians, believe. That is something that we, as Christians and Presbyterians, know.
But there are times when we feel lost, when we feel cut off from God’s love, cut off from God’s goodness. We sometimes feel as though we are truly lost, and probably not even worth saving. But, you know, we are probably not really that bad. I remember hearing a story about a kindergarten teacher who said, “Let’s pretend that the bad boys and girls are painted red, and the good boys and girls are painted green. What colour would you be?” Think about that for a minute. What colour would you be? I think that most of us are like the little boy who replied, “I’d be striped.” Those of us who claim to be good, really aren’t that good. And those of who think we are bad, still have some redeeming qualities. God knows this, even if we sometimes don’t.
John Grisham is a well-known author, and one of the reasons his books are so popular is because many of us can see ourselves in his characters. When I was preparing this sermon, thinking about the lost things being found, and the lost people being saved, I couldn’t help remembering Grisham’s novel THE TESTAMENT. In this book, Grisham paints a portrait of one man’s surrender to God’s will. Nate O’Reilly, a disgraced corporate attorney, is plagued by alcoholism and drug abuse. After two marriages, four detox programs, and a serious health crisis, Nate acknowledges his need for God. Grisham describes the dramatic transformation in these words: With both hands, he clenched the back of the pew in front of him. He repeated (his) list, mumbling softly every weakness and flaw and affliction and evil that plagued him. He confessed them all. In one long glorious acknowledgment of failure, he laid himself bare before God. He held nothing back. He unloaded enough burdens to crush any three men, and when he finally finished Nate had tears in his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he whispered to God. “Please, help me.” As quickly as the fever had left his body, he felt the baggage leave his soul. With one gentle brush of the hand, his slate had been wiped clean. He breathed a massive sigh of relief, but his pulse was racing.
Perhaps, like Nate, you have a list of things you need to bring to God. Perhaps, like Nate, you are burdened down by what you see as the bad things in your life. Perhaps, like Nate, all you need to do is to let go, and pass things over to God. Don’t even try to make bargains with God. It doesn’t work like that. Just go to him, tell him you are sorry, and you will be forgiven, and welcomed home. That’s the good news for all of us. No matter how many times we mess up, no matter how many times we think that we should be painted all read instead of striped, God isn’t going to give up on us. Rather, God will keep on being there, keep on welcoming us back, until we finally get it, until we realize just how boundless is his love and forgiveness. Jesus himself said it: There is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. Thanks be to God.

September 5th, 2010

This week, it was difficult for me to focus on just one of the Scripture readings. Each one of them speaks to me, for a different reason, even the one we didn’t use. I will just mention each one briefly, and then switch to my theme for this morning, which is God as a craftsman. In the reading we didn’t use, but which was mentioned in last week’s bulletin, there was a letter from Paul to Philemon, in which Paul asked Philemon to set free the slave Onesimus. Interestingly, this short letter has been used by slave-holders and abolitionists alike to justify their very different positions. I would invite you to take some time this week to read this letter, and see if you can come to any real conclusion on Paul’s attitude towards slavery.
Then we had the Gospel reading, which I used as the focus for the children’s story. You have often heard me mention the cost of discipleship, usually in the context of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and you know that I think that many people are not willing to pay that cost. This is a theme on which I have already preached here, and no doubt, I will be preaching on it again and again, as it is one of my favourites.
Psalm 139 is another favourite of mine, and I was particularly struck by the verses which we read this morning. Let’s have a look at them again, just so you can see why this means so much to me. We read: O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
The message here is that we – all of us – are known and accepted by God. And isn’t that amazing? God knows us completely – even to the extent of discerning our thoughts. Now some people may not like that idea, that God knows our thoughts, and what we are going to say before we say it. But I must jump in to say that God is NOT Big Brother. He is not a giant surveillance camera like the ones in banks or fast food restaurants. Our thoughts, our deeds, our words, are not going to be reported to the authorities. Although, if that were going to happen, I am not really sure to whom God would report in any case!. The point is that, knowing us, God accepts us completely. That is the amazing thing. And if God accepts us, then why do so many of us have trouble accepting ourselves? Why do so many of us suffer from low self-esteem? Every day I see people who are hell-bent on self-destruction; people who live lives of anger; people who are so consumed by guilt that they cannot function; and all because they cannot accept themselves as God created them.
Ah, but the Psalmist said: I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. If we but accept ourselves as one of God’s wonderful creations; if we but acknowledge that every single person in the world is also one of God’s wonderful creations, then we would stop beating ourselves up for our weaknesses, our failings, our flaws. And, even better, we would stop seeing those flaws, those failings, those weaknesses in others. Acceptance, whether of self or other, is crucial.
For me, though, the key words in this Psalm are the words “knit” and “woven”. These are skills which are commonly associated with women, and most of us have been conditioned to think of God in terms of a man. After all, every Sunday, we say the Lord’s Prayer, which begins “Our Father”. Many of the prayers I write for worship use the term “Father”. We refer to God as the “King”. But do we really know? Can we really know? If we look through Scripture, we will find many feminine references to God. Jesus comments that he wants to gather Jerusalem to him in the same way as a mother hen gathers her chicks. And in Isaiah, the Lord compares himself to a nursing mother, when he says that he could no more forget his people than a woman could forget a baby at her breast. My point is not to feminize God, but to show that God is not only powerful and strong, but caring and nurturing. And God is a craftsperson. God makes things. We are one of the things that God makes, but we are not the only thing.
And now let’s move to Jeremiah. The image of God as potter is certainly one of the most powerful ones in Scripture, occurring as it does in both the old and new Testaments. In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, we can read: But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. Here, the jars of clay refer to our bodies, which are made from dust and which will return to dust.
Now, I want you to go back to your childhood for a minute, to the time when you made things with modeling clay or play dough. Some of you were probably very talented, but more of you were probably like me. I made excellent worms and snakes, but not much else. And I eventually reached a stage where I could take many of my worms and stack them on top of each other to make a kind of bowl. Not a great one, admittedly, but recognizable as a bowl. The best thing about clay, however, was its forgiving nature. If I made something and really didn’t like it, it was a matter of just a minute and I could squish it back into a ball, and start all over again. And as long as I stored the clay properly, I could work with it for days or even weeks.
A potter – a real potter – works in much the same way. She will sit at her wheel with a lump of clay. As the wheel goes around, the clay forms into a container. Those of you who say the movie GHOST will no doubt remember the scene where Patrick Swayze’s character – as a ghost, of course – sits behind Demi Moore’s character as she is working at her wheel. As the wheel turns, the potter breaks off lumps of clay, and tosses them into a bucket, where they will accumulate and be used again. If the original pot doesn’t suit the potter, it is also tossed into the bucket, and remade at another time. Eventually, the pot is ready to be fired, and the scraps are made into something else. Nothing is wasted. Nothing touched by the potter is ever a failure.
If, while the potter is working, she sees an air bubble in the clay, she cuts it out. If the air bubble is too big, then the whole chunk of clay must be taken off the wheel and reformed. And that is the key word for us, as Presbyterians. Reformed. We are a reformed church, but we are not finished. We are not yet ready for the kiln, for we are always reforming, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Our church was formed in the 16th century during a time in which the institutional church had accumulated many flaws – many air bubbles. A movement to reform the church sprang all over England and Europe. Our particular branch sprang up in Scotland, with help from France and Switzerland. One thing we need to remember, as a reformed church, is that any church can develop flaws, just as clay on a potter’s wheel can develop flaws. We need to be constantly on the alert for such flaws, which is why our church has the governance it does. This is why we do not have bishops, and why our moderator is elected for a one-year term. There is – we hope – no danger of any hierarchy becoming entrenched, and guiding the church in a way that is not Scripturally based.
We can see that society has changed drastically, and that it is continuing to change. Some denominations are digging in their heels and refusing to change. But, with Jeremiah, and thinking of ourselves and our church as lumps of potter’s clay, we can see that change can be not only good, but in some cases, may be necessary. In the early days of the Presbyterian church, music was not permitted, other than the Psalter. And even that had to be sung without instruments. Now music is such an integral part of our worship that we cannot imagine a service without it. And it is only just over 40 years ago that the first women were ordained in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. As far as I am concerned, this was a good move and a necessary one.
Jeremiah, in referring to God as a potter, is speaking to us as much as to the Israelites. God, as a potter, wants to make beautiful and useful vessels. Just as an earthly potter hopes that her creations will be used to hold something, so does God want his creations to hold something. While the earthly potter hopes that her creations will hold water, or food, or flowers, God wants us – and his church – to carry his Good News to all people.
I said earlier that the potter cuts out flaws before firing the finished vessel, but sometimes, despite the best efforts, despite the most drastic cuts, the finished creation turns out to have a flaw. One would think that it would then be discarded, but this little story will illustrate how even what we perceive as flawed creations can be useful. A water bearer had two large pots, each hung on each end of a pole which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house, the cracked pot arrived only half full. For a full two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pot full of water in his master’s house. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, perfect to the end for which it was made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do. After two years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, it spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream. “I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you.”Why?” asked the bearer. “What are you ashamed of?” “I have been able, for these past two years, to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master’s house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work, and you don’t get full value from your efforts,” the pot said. The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and in his compassion he said, “As we return to the master’s house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.” Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wild flowers on the side of the path, and this cheered it some. But at the end of the trail, it still felt bad because it had leaked out half its load, and so again it apologized to the bearer for its failure. The bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of your path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you’ve watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house.” Each of us has our own unique flaws. We’re all cracked pots. But if we will allow it, the Lord will use our flaws to grace His Father’s table. In God’s great economy, nothing goes to waste. So as we seek ways to minister together, and as God calls you to the tasks He has appointed for you, don’t be afraid of your flaws. Acknowledge them, and allow Him to take advantage of them, and you, too, can be the cause of beauty in His pathway. “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead. I press on toward the goal to win the prize.
Each one of us needs to be ready to be moulded. Each one of us needs to be ready to have our flaws cut out. But we also need to remember that, even with our flaws, we are still God’s creations, and that, even with our flaws, we can be used to complete God’s work. Thanks be to God.

August 29th, 2010

During my final year in Montreal, I was placed with a congregation as a student minister. This is called our in-ministry year, and it involves the student working closely with the minister, and the congregation during the last stages of preparation for ordained ministry. It is a learning experience, and, at times, a humbling one. You see, up until that time, most of my preaching had been done at Presbyterian College, in front of the faculty and other students, not with a real, live congregation. This meant that my preaching was pretty academic most of the time. Now, that worked at Presbyterian College, but, I soon found out, that some of the things I had taken for granted then just didn’t work as well with a congregation. For instance, the word “lectionary”, which I assumed everyone would know, was totally foreign to most of the people at Ephraim Scott.
So today, I will start by explaining to you what this word means, just in case there are people here who don’t know. In the Presbyterian Church in Canada, we use something called the Revised Common Lectionary to choose our scripture focus. For the past several months, I have given you the readings for next week in this week’s bulletin, so that people who are interested, can read ahead, and maybe think about what message I might deliver. The way the lectionary works is quite simple. Each week, there are 4 readings from Scripture. One is from the Old Testament – usually from one of the historical books, or from one of the prophets. The is also a Psalm every week, which we use as a responsive reading every Sunday. There is what we sometimes call an Epistle, which is from one of the letters in the new Testament. And there is the Gospel reading. Now, the lectionary runs over a three-year cycle – A, B, and C, and we are getting near the end of Year C. Year A will start on the first Sunday of Advent. Each one of the years chooses one of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, or Luke – as its focus, and there are readings from the Gospel of John thrown in during each year. This year, we have had mostly readings from Luke, and next year, it will be Matthew, with Mark’s Gospel the following year. Then it starts all over again.
As an aside, I heard one of my younger colleagues in seminary once say that a minister should leave at the end of three years, because he (or she) will have preached all his sermons then, and rather than write new ones, can just go to a new place and recycle the ones already stored on the computer. Most of us didn’t agree with that!
Anyway, back to the lectionary. Most Christian denominations use the same lectionary reading, so if you were to visit an Anglican or Roman Catholic or United Church on any given Sunday, you would likely hear the same Scripture readings that you would have heard here at St. Andrew’s. There are some ministers who don’t like using the lectionary, and I will admit that there are times when I think that I would just as soon not use the assigned readings. However, overall, I am glad that we have this direction, this path to follow through Scripture. For if we didn’t, I would probably preach only on those texts I like, only on those texts that I am comfortable with. And we all know that this is not the purpose of Scripture or of my preaching. The words of Jesus are not meant to lull us into complacency, but to challenge us. The words of Jesus – or the words from the Old Testament, or the words from the letters written in the early days of the church – are not meant to make us think that everything is all right. Rather, by studying them carefully, we are meant to see what things we need to change in order to live as we are meant to live.
And there is something I have noticed. Even when I have difficulty with the chosen passages, even when I struggle through the entire week, there is always something there which speaks to someone. I have had people come to me after worship, and comment on a particular thing I said, and tell me how it answered a prayer that morning. Then I know that it was the Holy Spirit guiding me which allowed me to write those words.
This week was one of those weeks of struggle for me. I read over all of the readings, and tried to figure out how they could go together. The reading from Jeremiah, for instance, in which God accused Israel of forsaking him – the spring of living water: This, to me, seemed as though it should have been paired with the story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at the well rather than another story of Jesus dining at the home of a Pharisee. There was a little more of a connection between the reading from Hebrews – which we didn’t use in this church – and the Gospel, in that both referred to making people feel welcome. But still, trying to preach on all of them at the same time is more that I felt capable of doing. So I decided to focus on one – the Gospel reading, because it is so rich with messages for us, and yet, at the same time, so open to misinterpretation.
I always find it interesting when Jesus eats in the homes of people who are not his followers, as he did in this reading. We heard that when he went to eat in the home of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. We skipped over the part where he again healed on the Sabbath. I suppose that, after what happened in last week’s reading, nobody was willing to challenge Jesus on this point any more. Then we moved to Jesus’ words. As usual, he had been observing what was happening around him, and he noticed that the guests were vying for places of honour at the table. I can picture the look of disgust on his face, as he launched into what could be taken as an etiquette lesson. He said: When someone invites you to a wedding feat, do not take the place of honour, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. It so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, “Give this man your seat.” Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place so that when your host comes, he will say to you, “Friend, move up to a better place.” Then you will be honoured in front of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
Jesus, as usual, was not just speaking to the people at the dinner party. Nor was he just instructing them about where they should sit. He was speaking to us. He was advising us against arrogance, against assuming that we have a right to put ourselves ahead of others. More than that, he was saying that we need to leave such decisions to God – our heavenly host. If you will recall, some months ago, we heard a story about the mother of James and John, who wanted Jesus to promise that her sons would be seated next to Jesus when he came into his kingdom. Jesus said: To sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father. Now, that was pretty blunt. And it was honest. Even Jesus cannot make this decision, as it has already been made by the Father.
And when you come right down to it, choosing a better place really has no effect on the eventual outcome. At a dinner party, everyone ends up well fed. At a concert, everyone hears the same music. In a church, everyone says the same prayers. When I was preparing this sermon today, I couldn’t help thinking about the movie TITANIC, which I saw several years ago. In this movie, you could really see the differences that people perceived among themselves. The ship had many physical levels, and people were not permitted to cross from one to the other. Picture it like a pyramid, with the multi-millionaires like Guggenheim, Astor, and Strauss at the top. These first class passengers enjoyed a particular way of living and were treated in a particular way by others because of their class. They only spent time with each other, because that was how they could continue to make the deals that kept them rich and others poor. They were given seats of honour at every meal, and they just assumed that this was how things would be.
At the next level, the second class passengers were those people who hoped to strike it rich some day. They probably lived a comfortable life, but aspired for more. They looked up to the Astors and Strausses and Guggenheims, and looked down on the third class passengers. And the third class passengers – well, they also knew their place, but they also aspired for more. That is why they left their homes in Europe to undertake the journey to America, where they were convinced life would be better.
Of course we know what happened. The unsinkable titanic sank. Rich and poor alike drowned. There was no distinction made when the icy waters of the Atlantic claimed over 1500 lives. What, then, is the point of jostling for position? What, then, is the point of fighting for the best seats at the dinner table? As Jesus pointed out, there is no point. Far better, instead, to wait until we are told where we belong.
The second part of today’s Gospel reading is possibly a bit more difficult for us to grasp. After all, if we are giving a party, shouldn’t we be able to choose whom we want to invite? Shouldn’t we be able to choose whom we welcome? Theoretically, we should, but listen to what Jesus says. When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
Now, all of us have heard stories about people who took this advice literally, and who reaped tremendous benefits as a result. But somehow, I don’t think that Jesus means us to go out into the streets of the city, seeking out people to invite to our homes. I think that what he is talking about here is the idea of doing something for someone without expecting anything in return. In just a few minutes, you will hear an announcement which is the result of a visit I had from Major Carver of the local Salvation Army. Those of you who will sign up to take part in the activity will certainly not be getting anything in return. Well, nothing of any material worth anyhow! But you will be reaching out to others in a very real way. It is easy for us to drop a few dollars into the red kettle off the Salvation Army. How much harder will it be to sit with the kettle for an hour or so on a busy Saturday?
Jesus said: when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
We cannot see ourselves doing this, and there are some very good reasons for NOT doing it. But when was the last time you stopped for a few minutes to offer some words of encouragement to someone who was obviously unhappy? When was the last time you said a prayer when you saw an ambulance rushing by on the way to a hospital? These are ways of inviting others to the banquet. These are ways of including others.
There is one last thing I would like to say about today’s Gospel. I have often had difficulty with the idea that we do things here on earth so that we will be rewarded in heaven. That, to me, seems to take away the whole idea of doing good for the sake of doing good. After all, if I am only doing good things so that God will reward me, then that kind of defeats the whole idea of altruism. That kind of defeats the idea of doing things because we are loving our neighbours as ourselves. But I think that the point of Jesus saying this was to give us a place to start. Being human, we always ask: What’s in it for me? What will I get out of it? What will my reward be for doing this? Jesus knows this, and he gives us an incentive to get us started. The idea is that, after a while, we will realize that the good things we do are, in fact, their own reward. The good things we do, no matter what they eventually lead to for us, are primarily to benefit others. And that is why we do them. That is why – I hope – we will have members off this congregation sitting with the red kettle in December. This is why – I hope – we in this congregation welcome those who show up here unexpectedly on a Sunday morning. This is why – I hope – we will all be seated at the heavenly banquet, where there will be no jockeying for position, where all will be content with their place.
William Temple, an Anglican minister, used these words in a sermon: When I get to heaven, if I do, I imagine I shall be surprised at three things. First, I’ll be surprised that I’m there. Second, I shall be surprised at many of the other people who are there. Third, and most astonishing, will be their surprise that I’m there at all. And since our heavenly Father does the assigning of places, I am sure that there will be many surprises. Thanks be to God.

August 15th, 2010

Today’s Gospel reading is certainly not an easy one to understand. We have become accustomed to Jesus speaking about peace and love, and today we heard words that certainly were not gentle. Let’s look at parts of it again, and this time, really listen to the words. Jesus begins by saying: I have come to bring fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled. In Scripture, fire is a very powerful symbol, and may be used for good or bad purposes. Moses was awakened to his mission by a burning bush, which is now the symbol of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and while he was leading the Israelites out of Egypt, they were led during the night by a pillar of fire. When Isaiah was called to be God’s prophet, his lips were touched by a burning coal, which represented forgiveness of sins as well as the idea that he would be inspired to speak God’s word to the people. When Elijah prayed, God sent fire to destroy the altar of Baal, thus demonstrating his power to those who worshipped there.
Of course, it is not only in Scripture that fire is so important. We use some kind of fire to heat our homes, and to cook our food. Granted, we have moved a long way from the days when a pot was hung over an open flame, but still, the concept is the same.
Many of us fear fire because of its potential for destruction, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. When I was a child, I lived in a paper town, and we knew all about forest fires. Every summer, hectares of woodland were destroyed, often due to human carelessness. Now, most people look upon forest fires as being completely negative, but you know, they aren’t. The year after a forest fire was always a prime year for blueberries, which seemed to thrive on burned-over ground. And, without the cleansing effect of fire, trees would eventually choke themselves out of existence. New trees would not be able to grow, because there would be no room for them. We were told that fire was necessary for the forest to continue growing, that without this kind of fire, the forests would be no more.
And this is the kind of fire Jesus was talking about – a cleansing fire, one that would destroy that which was choking his people. This fire may be compared to a refiner’s fire, one which burns off the impurities and leaves only the gold or silver behind. This fire is meant to enflame us, to bring us to God, in the same way as the fire led the Israelites out of Egypt. If you remember the story of the first Pentecost, it was tongues of flame which appeared over the apostles’ heads, and which gave them the courage to do what Jesus had told them to do. They were not told, and we are not told, that this would be an easy task.
We also heard Jesus say today: Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. Now, this is not something we expect to hear from Jesus, the Prince of Peace. But think about it for a minute, those of you who come to church every Sunday, those of you who are believers. You are divided, you are separated from many people, probably even from some of your family members. You are mocked by those who do not believe, and even some who do believe think that your devotion is a bit over the top. Every Sunday we have visitors in this church, people who think that it is so important that they spend time with God each week that they will even seek out a church when they are on vacation. Let me tell you, you are in the minority. If all of the tourists in Québec City wanted to attend church on Sunday morning, there would not be enough pews to accommodate them all. But you are here. And that is a division.
Within many families, there is also a division. People raise their children attending church regularly, and when the children are old enough to decide for themselves, many of them stop. Sometimes one child will continue, while his brothers and sisters won’t. And, you know, the division becomes more noticeable when someone feels called to ministry. I count myself very lucky that my own family has been supportive, but some of my colleagues in seminary did not feel the same support. Parents who bragged that their children were attending university suddenly stopped when the child decided to go to seminary. It was almost as though they were a little embarrassed to have a child who wanted to be a minister. I never quite understood that, but it happened.
Now, I have to admit that some of my friends were a bit taken aback when I started telling them. One said: I thought that you were too intelligent for all that stuff. What do you say to someone like that? Fortunately, they have stopped doubting my intelligence now that several years have passed, but I think that they still wonder sometimes about my sanity.
That being said, ministers in Canada really don’t have it so bad. I have spoken before about my trip to Cuba and some of the things I saw there. I didn’t tell you that it is only in the last few years that ministers have been able to preach openly. The Roman Catholic church was, for many years, the only church that was permitted, and that was only because the priests preached what the government told them to. Ministers of other denominations were often arrested, and kept in jail for years. Sometimes they just disappeared, which meant that they were killed. For a long time, house churches were the only places people could worship. Even now, denominations other than Roman Catholic are considered suspicious by the government, and being a member of one of these denominations – Presbyterian included – often means that you will not be considered for a higher paying job. And it is not only Cuba where Christians are persecuted; where Christians are still imprisoned; where Christians are killed. In Afghanistan just the other day, a young missionary nurse was shot by the Taliban, along with the rest of the medical team. Ten people, who were doing God’s work, in the name of Jesus, were executed, and nothing will be done about it.
So here, in Canada, we don’t really have it so bad, as we are free to worship and to work in God’s name. But even here, talking about Jesus brings division. How many wars have been fought in the name of religion? And I’m not talking about Muslims and Christians here. I am talking about people who believe in the same God, who believe that Jesus Christ died to save us. And yet, they kill each other in the name of religion. We are fortunate that this seldom happens in Canada, but other things happen, which show how we value our differences. It is not that long ago that this province had denominational schools, just as we did in Newfoundland. I remember that it was just about forbidden for students in the Catholic schools to associate with students from the other schools. And most of us are familiar with the what they call the troubles in Ireland, the issues between Roman Catholics and Protestants. I don’t know how many of you have read the book TRINITY by Leon Uris. The hero of the book is a man by the name of Conner Larkan, an Irish Catholic. Conner Larkin is the biggest and the best in his school. He has the brightest brains. He is a scholar and the valedictorian of his class. He is also the greatest athlete in his class. He is a star rugby player in Ireland. He is a great artist. As Conner Larkin grew up, he became part of the Irish Liberation Movement. He became passionate about it. He became fanatical about it. The movement became his whole life, so much so that he didn’t want to fall in love and get married. To fall in love and get married would make him soft and less passionate about the mission that he was part of. He was to be fully dedicated to the Irish Liberation Movement. He was not going to fall in love with a woman and get married. And of course, he does. Not only does he fall in love, he falls in love with a Protestant woman. But he continues to be just as involved in the movement. Of course, the inevitable happens. The secret about his marriage leaked out, and it leaked out through a Protestant prayer circle. The women of that Protestant prayer circle quietly spread the news about “that woman” and her secret marriage to a Catholic man. By that evening, she had been murdered, dismembered and thrown into a garbage can. Meanwhile, Conner Larkin was captured and tossed into prison. When he found out that his true love had been assassinated and her body torn apart, he fell apart. He emotionally disintegrated in prison. Ever so slowly, ever so slowly he healed from this enormous trauma. As he healed, he came even more fanatical for the mission of the Irish Liberation Movement. He became totally committed to the Irish Liberation Movement for the rest of his life. If only fanatics like this could be as committed to living a Christ-like life as they are to destroying people who don’t believe exactly as they do! That would be an end to sectarian violence once and for all.
Talking about Jesus brings division, as we each think that we have the answer. And yet, we don’t even see Jesus in the same way. Some people see Jesus as the baby in the manger, while others see him hanging on the cross. Some people’s vision of Jesus is that of a teacher, one who instructs his followers in the right way to live. There is a story that I am sure most of you have heard about the little girl who is busily drawing a picture in her Kindergarten class. When the teacher asks her what the picture is, she replies: “I’m drawing God.” “But,” says the teacher, “no one knows what God looks like.” Without missing a beat, the little girl says, “They will when I’m finished.”
And how do you see Jesus? Do you see the Jesus who gathers the little children to him? Do you see the Good Shepherd? Or do you see the Jesus who called his listeners hypocrites? He said: “Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?” Harsh words, indeed, from the man who preaches love and peace. And he was not just speaking to his followers 2000 years ago. Perhaps you might think that the signs are not so easy to interpret. But that is why we have Scripture – to guide us, to help us interpret the signs. Remember, in Jesus’ time, people were more dependent on the weather than we are now, so it was crucial for them to be able to interpret signs, so that they would know if it would be necessary to harvest their crops before bad weather destroyed them. The signs that we look at today are more likely to be the Dow Jones or the TSE, but in either case, what we are looking for – what the people of Jesus’ time were looking for – is security. But the only security we need is that which we find in Jesus. The only security that really matters – and this is the point of Jesus’ words today – is that which he gives us.
In order to have this security, we need to examine our lives, to see if we are living with the Kingdom of God or against it. We call ourselves Christians, but it is not always noticeable to others that we are living a Christ-like life.
While I was working on this sermon, a friend posted an interesting status line on Facebook, which I told her I was going to use at some point. I think that it fits here. Gandhi said: I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. Sadly, those words are no less true today than they were when Gandhi first said them. As Christians, our lives should be forces for healing and reconciliation in the world. Sadly, they often are not. So we need to ask ourselves a couple of questions. If our lives are NOT a force for healing and reconciliation, what do we need to change? What do we need to learn and to do in order to follow Christ better? How can we share in the suffering of the world?
Because, in following Christ, that is what we are called to do. We are called to share in God’s mission of healing, of reconciliation, of justice.
Doing this is an act of faith, and like any other act, it will have consequences. If you give God faith, he will ask for more. If you, through faith, commit to discipleship, God will ask a greater commitment. If you, through faith, become a leader in the church, God will ask more, and ask you to take on greater responsibilities. Faith has consequences. But, if you do these things through faith, then the rewards are exponentially greater than you can imagine. If you commit to discipleship, God will shepherd you. If you become a leader, he will equip you. One of my favourite mottos is: God doesn’t call the equipped; he equips the called. And all you need to do is to have faith. Thanks be to God.

October 17th, 2010

On October 17th, members of the Board of Managers will be conducting worship at St. Andrew’s. You are invited to worship with us on that day, starting at 10:30.

October 10th, 2010

On October 10th, we have been invited to worship with Chalmers-Wesley United Church. On that date, the Reverend Martyn Sadler will be preaching. Members of St. Andrew’s will know him as the Minister Emeritus of Chalmers-Wesley. You are reminded that worship starts at 11:15 rather than our usual 10:30. Katherine will be out of town that weekend.