Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Feverishly Thinking...

...about how to use QR codes to proclaim the Good News through promoting church initiatives, serving members, and welcoming new folk. A QR code is a pixelated picture that, when seen by a mobile phone's camera, is translated by a QR app into a link, text, or phone number. My Twitter friend @mirgray suggests replacing printed announcements in the church bulletin with a QR code for those worshippers who can use their phones and the code to go right to an announcement page online. Or QR codes could be scattered around town as part of a scavenger hunt - perhaps a youth activity, or a 'seeker' initiative that would bring people to a welcoming service.

This QR code promotes a national survey in which my pastoral charge is participating. Just an idea.


Monday, May 23, 2011


Kardinal Offishall has a song, Clear: People on the left, clear; people on the right, clear. I was thinking about clarity today, trying to follow the Church of Scotland's General Assembly on Twitter and in the British media. There were two resolutions dealing with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) clergy in the same day: one to lift a moratorium on inducting LGBT clergy ordained before 2009 to their parishes; and another to consider lifting a ban on ordaining candidates who are in same-sex relationships. Both passed, but it was unclear to an observer, even one steeped in church polity, that the first was independent of the second, and the implications of the first in particular. This may have been clear to commissioners to the General Assembly, but it wasn't to me and others, and it was embarrassing to tweet the results of the first vote based on equally fuzzy reporting in the Guardian newspaper and have to be corrected by more knowledgeable folks.

My reflection today was that so often the resolutions presented to church courts, whether the local Session, Presbytery, Conference, or General Council (in our case in The United Church of Canada) are likely just as confusing. So often we've been about to take a vote and I can hear delegates asking each other urgently, "What are we voting on?" It's made me resolve as chair of my Presbytery in 2011-12 to ensure that resolutions are as clear as possible - because, after all, there are few bureaucracies with language as opaque as the Church.

People on the left, clear; people on the right, clear.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Living Stones: Sermon, May 22, 2011

I relied quite a bit on the Lectionary commentary from the United Methodist Church General Board of Discipleship in writing this sermon!

1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14

Giving all glory and honour to God.

We have had an opportunity to talk about our identity, who we are as a congregation, with a facilitator this past week, and to think even more about it with the United Church identity survey being done online. The author of the First Letter of Peter is writing a sermon to newly baptized Christians, and this week is telling them about who they are, and who we are, and about their identity as a people. The way First Peter puts it is that we are like living stones, being built into a spiritual house.

I used to be a pretty avid rock collector as a boy. I had igneous rocks and metamorphic rocks and sedimentary rocks. I’ve lost a lot of that knowledge now, but when I was in theological college at Queen’s I would go to the geology museum and see rocks and crystals. I can see them here in Ingleside too, just near the bank where Marlene Waldroff’s father displayed some big rocks. And driving through New York State this week I went through some spectacular rock cuts in the Adirondack Mountains.

But these aren’t living rocks like the reading is talking about. This part about stones is actually a pun in the Greek the letter was written in originally. Jesus tells his friend and follower Simon, you are a rock, and on this rock I will build my church. He calls him Peter, from the Greek word for rock. It’s like nicknaming him Rocky. So this letter is like Rocky writing about living rocks.

The letter says, you are coming to God as a living stone. Even though this stone may have been rejected by humans, the way God sees it it is chosen and valuable. Whenever we feel like an outsider, whenever we’re not part of the in crowd, whenever it seems that we don’t belong, whenever we feel pushed aside and that we don’t count because of our beliefs or our appearance or our age or our gender or what town we’re from or anything else about us, this is what we must remember: from God’s perspective we are chosen, and we have value.

The ancient readers of this letter would recognize that the writer is referring to one of the Psalms, which says, the stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone. They saw this verse as a reference to Jesus, who was betrayed, and rejected, and put to death. Whenever we feel alienated and marginalized, God knows our hurt, our pain, for Jesus knew rejection. Yet he was raised from death to become the cornerstone of a new temple. This would be different from the Temple buildings Jesus and his friends visited in Jerusalem, constructed from physical stones. By the time this letter was written, that Temple was probably gone, because the Roman army crushed a Jewish revolt and destroyed the Temple. The huge complex that took decades to build was burned and its great stones pulled down. Only part of its stone wall survives in Jerusalem today, the Western Wall where Jews come to pray.

That Temple, the centre of religious life, disappeared. But Jesus is the cornerstone of a new, spiritual temple, one that isn’t built with human hands and earthly materials. The letter tells us, you yourselves are being built like living stones into a spiritual temple. We are like living stones no less than Jesus, for in his rising from death and our baptism, we have been made alive with him.

We are being built like living stones into a spiritual temple, which is the church – not the church in the sense of the bricks and mortar and plaster and glass around us, but the church as the community of believers, past, present and future. Jesus says, in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places, and it’s as if the church community of Newington and Ingleside is one room in this spiritual temple.

But we don’t build this spiritual structure. We don’t build the church as community. That’s hard for us to understand, because we, or at least Ontario Hydro, built this physical building with their hands and tools. But we don’t build the spiritual temple, the church: we are being built into it, incorporated into it. This is a really important part, a critical part, of what the author is trying to explain to us. We aren’t the builder. The builder is the Holy Spirit, God’s Spirit, who is at work always and everywhere. We join in the building, we participate in it, we are swept along and enlivened in and through it. But we don’t make it. God does.

God builds. And God calls. We are being built into this spiritual temple in which God’s Spirit lives, and we are given particular ways to fulfill our calling. Elsewhere in the Bible, the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians about another way to describe the church, as the body of Christ, and all of us are members of the body, with different roles, just like feet and hands and eyes. Some of us, Paul says, are ordered ministers. Some teach. Some lead music. Some visit. Some cook. Some fix things. But no one has greater honour or wisdom than anyone else, Paul says. A modern way of putting it is the title of a book I started reading after the conference I went to, called Open Source Church. All of us contribute, all of us are called to leadership, and we all gain when all of us let the Spirit use us to feed ideas and energy into the church.

And this First Letter of Peter says that we are together a holy priesthood. That doesn’t mean we all have to wear shirts with clerical collars. But we are all priests. The writer is thinking of the priesthood in that physical Temple in Jerusalem in ancient times, as the priests sacrificed animals and birds to God. The members of the church, the living stones in this new spiritual temple, are a holy priesthood making spiritual sacrifices to God. Not physical sacrifices of meat and blood. But like those long-ago priests, we hold the world before God for God’s remaking. We hold ourselves and one another before God for God’s transformation. Just as the ancient priesthood had God’s authority, so do we – we have the authority of Jesus Christ, whom the Bible calls the chief high priest. And so we pray for the world, we pray for ourselves, we pray for one another, constantly interceding in prayer. A United Methodist Church author I was reading calls prayer “the unceasing heartbeat” of our participation as priests in God’s mission.

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, people who are God’s own possession. That’s what this letter says. And these words cause some of us to kind of jump back in horror. We know how language like ‘chosen race’ has been used to justify slavery and genocide. We know what nations who claim to be holy have done, as they believe they can do no wrong. We know what violence and bloodshed and oppression result from words like these.

But, of course, that’s not at all what the author is preaching. Nor is it what the early believers in Jesus who heard it would hear. For the listeners when this letter was read out, at the end of the first century or so, these Christians in the first church communities, were mostly people with almost no power. These were people who were baptized, not as babies, but only after studying long and hard and taking vows that included pledging never to kill anyone for any reason. These were people who knew what it meant not to be people, who knew what it meant to be on the outside. To be told that the living stones rejected by humans are chosen and valuable to God, that they are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that gave them identity, that gave them belonging, that was good news for them, these people who had been powerless and voiceless.

And so this vision of belonging to a people was not the way we would see it today. It didn’t draw on the imperial imagery of the empire in which these listeners lived - and we live - but on the Biblical images of the scattered tribal peoples of Israel, acting as a nation that was a light to the nations, a sign of God’s glory in their weakness. These hearers of the First Letter of Peter were an unlikely nation then, and now, a nation founded on communion with God in Jesus Christ and therefore with one another, a nation based on love of God and neighbour, a nation serving in the name of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, a nation committed to constant lifting up of the world and humanity in prayer.

That was the nation, the people, of the early Christian church to which this letter was written. And it still is. As we process in our minds the meeting we just had, as we answer survey questions about our identity as a community of the United Church of Canada, a part of this spiritual temple, we can ask ourselves: If we are indeed like living stones, how is God building us into a temple of the Spirit? How are we carrying out our holy and royal priesthood? How can we live out the fullest possible vision of being a holy nation, God’s own people, in union with all the Christians who have gone before us in many generations? How are we speaking of God’s wonderful acts, God who called us into the light of the risen Christ? What emerges from the stories that we tell as living stones? These are questions for us as we sift through all that we have talked about in the last few days.

At the conference I was at, there was a session on science fiction and faith, and people talked about how the Christian story is reflected in Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica and other movies and TV shows and books and comics. I said that I was probably one of the few people there old enough to remember the first Star Trek TV series, and two things made it important for me: the stories, and the community it depicted. Star Trek was one of the few shows in the 1960s that had a black woman, and an Asian man, and a Russian, all working and living together. It modeled what a community should be like.

And so, sisters and brothers, as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, we try our best to lead Christ-like lives and model what a community - a community of love, a community of faith, a community of belonging, a community of welcome, a church - should be like, as we pray, as we care, as we act, as we tell the Christian story through our stories. And as our reading from the Good News According to John tells us, in believing in Jesus and following his way, we know and live truth, the very truth of God, and we will do the works that Jesus did, and even greater works for love and justice and peace. As the captain on Star Trek: The Next Generation used to say, make it so. Amen.

Friday, May 20, 2011


On Monday I drove - seven and a half hours in the rain - to Stony Point NY, on the Hudson River north of New York City, for Unco11, held at the Presbyterian Church (USA) conference centre there. I got to see lots of Adirondacks and Catskills scenery on the way there and back, including zipping into the US Military Academy at West Point (which was overcrowded during Graduation Week) and driving past Revolutionary War sites at Newburgh, Fort Montgomery, and Stony Point itself.

The Unco11 un-conference is intended to be an alternative to the usual church conference. The agenda is crowd-sourced: attendees write their suggested topics on a board, and then discussion leaders nominate themselves and are assigned discussion rooms. I went to sessions on bivocational ministry, moving the church forward, palliative care for dying congregations, science fiction/fantasy and faith, and requirements for ministry training and ordination - and learned lots. There were also amazing worship services. I suggested reading in different languages for the closing worship to show that we are not going out into a unilingual world; and we had the Gospel read in English, Korean, French, and Greek.

Folks were drawn from PC(USA) and a few from other American denominations like the United Methodists and Disciples of Christ - and two Canadian attendees, myself and an Anglican priest, to make Unco international for the first time. They tended to be younger, and tech-savvy - there were more iPad 2s at Unco than exist in all of the three United Counties here, I'm sure.

Unco for me: Just what I needed after an insanely busy April, with Holy Week, Easter, and my mother's death. Lots of learning. Lots of inspiration. Lots of real-life connections with people whom I had only seen in tiny pictures on Twitter. Lots of sharing. Lots of quiet, too, so I could decompress. And now back into the world, to put all that I've learned and digested into practice, knowing that I have a new network of support and prayer to draw on.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Mother's Day

My mother died on April 23, so our Mother's Day included a visit to her grave. This is a portion of my prayers from the worship services for the Third Sunday of Easter - Mother's Day or Christian Family Sunday - as I try to pray for all kinds of mothers.

On this Mother’s Day, we pray to you, God, mother of our hearts, that you will hold us in your warm and encircling arms, soothing our troubled thoughts, kissing better our hurts, disciplining us with love filled with wisdom, forgiving us when we stumble and fall. We pray for mothers; and we pray particularly for all of us who are in sorrow over the deaths of our mothers, for children who do not know their mothers, for mothers who grieve for children, mothers separated from spouses and children through travel or work or broken relationships, mothers who are estranged from their children, mothers who gave up babies for adoption, adoptive mothers, foster mothers, women who made hard choices not to become mothers, and women who have not been able to bear children.

140 years ago Julia Ward Howe called for Mother’s Day to be a day of commemoration of all killed in war, and of counsel among women for peace. We pray today, God of peace, for our world, trapped in violence; we pray for our wrestling with issues of war and peace, when so often in our broken world it seems that we can only achieve a limited peace through making war; we pray for victims of war and terror, for all the lives lost and changed since, and even before, 2001; we pray for your kingdom to come, your realm where there is no more death, or pain, or grief, for the former things will have passed away and everything will be made new. And we pray for ourselves, that we will be peacemakers, making peace with every little act of peace in our families and neighbourhoods and community and country. God, make us instruments of your peace.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

'The Sword of Murder is Not the Balance of Justice': Sermon, May 8, 2011

Thanks to Martha Spong, of North Yarmouth Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, for her blog post that inspired this sermon.

Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Luke 24:13-35

Giving all glory and honour to God.

On this Mother’s Day, as I miss my mother, I remember that she had lots of mysterious folk wisdom. If your nose itched, it meant that you were going to kiss a fool. If you dropped a fork, a man was coming over. You could predict a baby’s gender by dangling a needle over the mother’s stomach. And a lot of the time this stuff came true. And both stories this morning have elements that are just as mysterious and unbelievable. How could the couple walking with a stranger from Jerusalem to Emmaus not recognize that he was Jesus? How could he just disappear after they recognized him as he blessed and broke the bread? How could 3000 people have their lives changed as they were baptized after Peter’s sermon?

It seems impossible. But it also seemed impossible when 3000 people had their lives changed, in New York and Washington and a field in Pennsylvania, on September 11, 2001. Their lives were taken away from them. And this week we have thought of that day, and those lives, and how our lives changed, too. On Sunday night I was using my computer, and on Twitter there was an announcement that President Obama would make an unscheduled national security announcement at 10:30. I just thought, uh oh. In movies this usually means that a meteor or comet is heading for the earth, or we have contacted aliens. But soon we knew that American commandos had killed Osama bin Laden.

And celebrations broke out in the United States. This is understandable, that people felt joy that a figure who had done such harm to Americans and so many others was dead, that they finally had a real victory in the war on terror, that this was part of healing the wounds of 9/11. And I can’t judge anyone who was celebrating. I only know what I believe our faith tells me as a follower of Jesus Christ about how I, and maybe we, can react to news like this.

Osama bin Laden was a criminal responsible for the mass murder of many innocent people, and exploiting and twisting the Islamic religion to promote hatred and division. As far as we know, he never showed any remorse for the harm he caused, and in fact bragged about it. Many Christians feel relief that he is no longer able to threaten us, and that is a legitimate reaction. But faced with the death of a person, I as a Christian cannot rejoice. That’s the way I see it. I can’t view the death of anyone, no matter how reprehensible their actions and beliefs, as an occasion for street parties like a win for a sports team.

Others have said that, hearing of bin Laden’s death, they had to rejoice in this news, and their faith justified them doing so. They could point to, among others, the song sung by the Hebrews in the book of Exodus when the Egyptian army was drowned in the sea, and the verses in Ecclesiastes, there is a time to mourn, and a time to dance, a time to love and a time to hate. And that is true. But it also says in the Old Testament, in Proverbs, ‘Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble.’ The prophet Ezekiel quotes God as saying, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.’ And Jesus tells us, in words that we discussed here in February, ‘Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.’

Let the wicked turn from their ways, and live. Osama bin Laden seemed bent on not turning from his ways. He was probably plotting the deaths of more people. So what do we do when the wicked will not turn away? Augustine, one of the great figures of the ancient church, said, yes, Jesus tells us to love our enemies, but there are times when love requires us to go to the aid of the innocent and to turn the wicked from their ways by using violence in the cause of justice. War could sometimes be a necessity to obtain peace, Augustine thought. Yet, he continued, even in war we as Christians must cherish the spirit of peacemakers. War is only a last resort in a just cause that tries to restore peace. It cannot be used for revenge and retribution on our enemies.

Although both the president and our prime minister say that justice has been done, for many people killing bin Laden is revenge. And as followers of Jesus we cannot bask in the satisfaction of vengeance. Now, refusing to embrace revenge does not mean that, even if we find it in our hearts to forgive bin Laden for his crimes, we forget his deeds, or his victims. But if we accept the unfortunate necessity of violence in our broken world, we must also recognize that all bloodshed, no matter how justified, only perpetuates the cycle of violence and counter-violence. This week, bin Laden may be dead, but there is still terrorism, there are still wars, and we know that his death will bring retaliation someday. The cycle continues.

Jesus shows us a better way. The couple who walk with him on the way to Emmaus tell him how disappointed they are, how Jesus had been a great prophet but was put to death. They had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel. They had hoped he was the Christ, the Messiah, but the Messiah they expected, the warrior king who would expel the Roman occupiers from their land with arms and bloodshed. And so they don’t recognize Jesus, because he is not what they expect. And, so often, we don’t either, because we expect Jesus to follow us in the violent ways of the world we have made, rather than us following him in his way.

God refuses to oppose evil with evil. On the cross Jesus does not retaliate with violence against those who use violence; instead, he forgives them. And he rises from death to overcome evil and death. At Good Friday and Easter, Jesus conquers the hatred that inspires violence, and the revenge that inspires counter-violence, exposing the lie that makes this cycle of violence inevitable. He is not a warrior, but a lover, who gives himself in love rather than take life, who extends God’s healing love to all who suffer, and the forgiving love of God to all who use violence for their purposes – yes, even Osama bin Laden.

Jesus comes to bring the kingdom of God, whose story denies the story of the violent world where we live. We are trying as followers of Jesus to live in and to extend this realm of God, the realm of love and justice and peace, while living at the same time in a world of hatred and domination and brutality. We are citizens of heaven, yet with responsibilities and duties as citizens of Canada. And that is a struggle. That’s why there is no one Christian response to the death of Osama bin Laden, or the war in Afghanistan, or the war in Libya. There are many legitimate reactions as different believers interpret Scripture and their reason and experiences and tradition. The Apostle Paul tells the Philippians, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, and that is what each of us is trying to do as we are confronted with how we can respond in faith to issues of war and peace.

As I said, it is understandable that pent up rage and fear that has lasted nearly 10 years burst into celebration on Sunday. But I think that this could have been, and can still be, a somber time, a time for serious reflection, not a time to dance and chant slogans. A death like this should cause us to ponder the serious responsibilities each of us has before God to follow Jesus in his way of peace, and to commit ourselves to working for God’s realm of peace, and love, and justice. Osama bin Laden was about hatred, and division, and death. We cannot be.

Jesus says, all who draw the sword will die by the sword. He knew how much we love to get revenge, and how vengeance just spirals into an unending cycle of bloodshed. He knew that we are trapped in webs of violence that seem inescapable in this world. We cannot figure out ways for peoples to live together without war being a necessity to keep peace.

Yet there is hope. Look back through the story of the week before Easter, to Thursday night, when Jesus goes with his friends to the garden to pray. Peter and the others, knowing that Jesus is in danger, do what makes sense to them to protect him – they bring weapons. And when the authorities arrive to arrest Jesus, Peter draws his sword and strikes at one of them, and wounds him.

Peter, like us, is trapped in the violence of our world. He, like us, knows no other way to respond to threats. He, like us, can’t see how we can live in peace and security without threatening death and harm.

Yet Jesus tells Peter to put away his sword. And here Peter is in our reading today, preaching to the people of Jerusalem, ‘Repent every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven. The promise is for you, for your children, for all who are far away, everyone whom God calls. Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ Peter who drew the sword in anger has been changed by the words and the resurrection of Jesus into Peter who preaches the good news of peace, Peter who brings people into the community of Jesus who died and rose again to show that love is stronger than hatred. Peter is doing what he can to extend God’s realm, for true peace does not come because an enemy has been killed, but because God’s realm is at hand.

One of the earliest calls to celebrate Mother’s Day was in 1870. Julia Ward Howe, who earlier had written the hymn Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, wrote her Mother’s Day Proclamation in reaction to the carnage of the American Civil War. She stated that women need to say firmly, our sons cannot be trained to injure the sons of the women of another country. And she continued, the sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Women must meet to commemorate the dead, and then solemnly decide how the human family can live in peace.

On Mother’s Day, a day originally intended to be dedicated to peace, the news is still dominated by violence fostering more violence. Bin Laden is dead but little else has changed. Yet we are called, as Peter was called, as Julia Ward Howe called to other mothers, to be peacemakers. We are called to grieve, for the thousands who were murdered on September 11 and the lives that were changed, for the thousands who have died in the wars that followed, for those who will die as these wars drag on for years to come. We are called to pray, for the world, for our leaders, for the common good, for God’s kingdom to come. And we are called to look at ourselves and the opportunities we have to make peace. We are called to let Jesus and his resurrection change us as Peter was changed, called to travel the way with Jesus like that couple on the way to Emmaus, walk with him on the way to peace, not just in the imperfect choices we must make in matters of war and national security, but especially to build peace right here in our families and our community. And maybe then we will reach out to a stranger, and in gestures of friendship we will recognize Jesus, and we will run back to the community with this good news and to embody the grace and love of Christ. May it be so.