Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Heaping Helping of Our Hospitality: Sermon, June 26, 2011 (at Knox-St. Paul's United Church, Cornwall ON)

Matthew 10:40-42

Giving all glory and honour to God.

I hadn’t thought of a title for the sermon or reflection time today when I sent in the slides for the worship service, but it’s called ‘A Heaping Helping of Our Hospitality.’ If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s from The Beverly Hillbillies – you may remember the closing song, ‘you’re all invited back next week to this locality, to have a heaping helping of our hospitality.’

The Bible has a lot to say about hospitality, and welcoming, because it was written in a culture that placed a great value on hospitality, and a lot of honour came from how you welcomed visitors. In the book of Genesis, Abraham and Sarah receive a visit from three strangers. Abraham and Sarah don’t know that at first, but they offer their hospitality. And it turns out that the three strangers are divine visitors, for the Bible says that God appeared to Abraham in the visit. In the New Testament the Letter to the Hebrews says, do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it. Another word for ‘angel’ is ‘messenger’, so this could say that some have welcomed God’s messengers without recognizing them.

Jesus is talking about this hospitality in our reading from the Good News According to Matthew. This is part of a talk as he sends out his followers and instructs them on where to go and what to do. And he tells them, his followers who are going out as his messengers, those who welcome you are also welcoming me, and those who welcome me are welcoming the one who sent me.

So let’s think about that: When we welcome someone, a stranger, a messenger, we are also welcoming Jesus, and when we welcome Jesus we are welcoming God. This reminds me of an old Gaelic poem, which goes:
I saw a stranger yesterday;
I put food in the eating place,
Drink in the drinking place,
Music in the listening place,
And, in the sacred name of the Trinity,
He blessed myself and my house,
My cattle and my dear ones.
And the lark sang in her song,
Often, often, often,
Goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise,
Often, often, often,
Goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise.

There’s a story about hospitality, and it’s also a Celtic one, from the Iona Community in Scotland.

The guests were starting to arrive for the church’s big anniversary celebration, and the minister was standing at the door waiting to greet the new mayor. She wondered how she would recognize him.

When a chauffeur-driven car arrived at the specially cordoned-off area, she came forward and greeted the impressive-looking gentleman who emerged, and led him into the building. But after being introduced to one or two people, he tactfully informed her that he was not the new mayor! She apologized profusely, only grateful that she had not already ushered him to a VIP seat.

Meanwhile, however, she had missed the real mayor. He had passed her in the corridor, but how could she have known? Not only did he not have his chain of office around his neck, he looked so ordinary! Furthermore, he had walked to the church, and come in at the back door.

Jesus was speaking 20 centuries ago to his followers, but he is speaking to us today: in welcoming someone, we are welcoming Jesus, and in welcoming Jesus we are welcoming God. We have to believe that, just as Jesus sent his messengers out then, he is sending messengers to us now, so we can welcome him in them. The people we welcome may not look like how we think Jesus would look. Like the mayor in the story, they may be ordinary, they may come in the back way. They may be tall or short, old or young, well-dressed or casual, male or female, single or with a family, able-bodied or with a disability, white or black or Asian or aboriginal, speaking any language. They may have ideas about church that are different from ours. Often, often, often, goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise.

You know, I go to conferences on the missional church, the emergent church, the renewed church, and clergy say how much they wish their church was cooler, more hip, was in an old brick warehouse and a twenty-something congregation dressed casually with black-rimmed glasses and drinking fair trade cappuccinos and an awesome worship experience with praise and worship music performed by a band with guitars and a drum set. Rachel Held Evans, who is a blogger I follow pretty avidly, wrote about this longing for a ‘cool church.’

But there’s a story, which was in the news, about a church in North Carolina that promises that worship will be an explosive, phenomenal movement of God. That sounds like a pretty cool church. I don’t know if they have cappuccinos, but I do know that on Easter Sunday a family went to the service with their 12 year-old son, who has cerebral palsy, and when he tried to say ‘amen’ after the opening prayer a church volunteer abruptly escorted him and his mother out of the sanctuary. The church later said that their goal is to provide an environment free of distractions for their guests. The mother offered to start a ministry for special needs children, but the church staff say they offer worship, not ministries.

As Rachel points out, this cool congregation got so wrapped up in the performance part of worship that they forgot to actually be the church. They were looking for a phenomenal movement of God – and got so distracted that they failed to notice God at work - they failed to welcome God’s messenger – they failed to welcome Jesus, who was sitting there among them. In fact, they ushered him out. Jesus is a big distraction when you want a church free of distractions.

This church in North Carolina says it offers worship and not ministries. On Tuesday I was at a meeting of the executive of Montreal and Ottawa Conference of our United Church. There we talked about how, in the old days, 50 years ago, when the church had more power and influence, when attendance was higher, when you could assume that most people were Christians, we thought to a considerable extent of coming to church, being in the church, as us doing something for God. We came to worship and give God praise and honour. And that’s still important today, it’s how we express gratitude to God for all the blessings showered on us. But thinking about church has shifted quite a bit. Many people come now, come for the first time or return after a long time, not to do something for God, but to join what God is doing.

Here at Knox-St. Paul’s, brothers and sisters, and across the Seaway Valley, we are not about offering worship and not ministries. That cannot be us as the United Church. We worship and we do ministry – and in both we seek to join what God is doing. We are participants; we aren’t guests. And part of what God is doing is welcoming and accepting, showing wonderfully generous hospitality to all of God’s children. And if we try to do that, if we try to welcome as Jesus says we should, welcome extravagantly, welcome unconditionally, welcome radically and inclusively, welcome in big ways and little ways as Jesus says, if we set aside our judgments and our knee-jerk reactions and make people feel genuinely at home and delight in the new ideas brought by these folks, whether they are brand new or attend once in a while or have come back after years away from the church or have been here their whole lives – if we welcome like that, well, then I have bad news and good news.

The bad news is, we won’t have a cool church. And we won’t have a comfortable church. Everyone here won’t dress alike and like the same music and talk about the same things. Church will be messy. There will be chaos. There will be distractions. People will disagree on issues. When a diverse group of people come together, there will be preferences expressed for music I don’t listen to and TV shows I don’t watch and political parties I wouldn’t vote for and clothing I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing. But that’s what happens in God’s hospitality for everyone.

And the good news is, if we welcome as Jesus tells us to, if we live out hospitality that fosters this kind of untidy, unpredictable diversity, then we are indeed welcoming God’s messengers, we are welcoming Jesus. And Jesus will show up, unexpectedly, surprisingly.

You know, there will be a lot of disagreements in this congregation, and in this Presbytery, in the coming year. But we need to remember the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, in practicing hospitality some have been unaware that they are entertaining God’s messengers. When someone says something that we think is wrong, it may just be God’s message to us. Are we listening? Are we welcoming? Are we extending our hospitality to all of God’s children? For in doing so, we are receiving Jesus, and in receiving him, we are receiving God. And, sisters and brothers, all will be invited back next week to this locality, to have a heaping helping of our hospitality.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Love is All Around; or, God and Tim Hortons: Sermon, June 19, 2011

This is my sermon for Trinity Sunday, June 19, 2011. I drew on 2006 and 2008 sermons for the Tim Hortons analogy.

Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Many ministers try to avoid preaching today, Trinity Sunday. For whatever reason preachers seem to find it difficult to explain the idea of the Trinity, God being one God yet three persons. One minister online commented that the Trinity Sunday sermon is like delivering an academic paper rather than a message or a reflection.

There’s a famous quote from Winston Churchill, about the Soviet Union being ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.’ Many people think of God as Trinity as being like that; a riddle, a mystery, an enigma, a code we try to break but often can’t. Someone called the Trinity the Rubik’s Cube of theology.

Well, it is a mystery, how God can be one yet three, three yet one. We sang, God in three persons, blessed Trinity. The Trinity is the concept that there is indeed one God with three distinct yet equal persons: Father or Creator, Son or Saviour in Jesus Christ, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is our way of summing up the richness and depth of our experience of God, and maybe this richness and this mystery can be best expressed as an image rather than a dry description. Preachers over the centuries have come up with different ones.

I wrote my thesis on Gregory of Nyssa, who lived in the fourth century when there was a great church council that settled the disputes among Christians over the Trinity. Gregory said that the persons of the Trinity are like three gold coins; the coins are many, but are one in sharing the same substance. The Celtic Church said that the Trinity is like one finger with its three joints. St. Patrick of Ireland used another image, holding up a shamrock and saying that just as the shamrock is one plant, so God is one; and just as the shamrock has three leaves, so God has three distinct and equal persons. And the shamrock became the symbol of Ireland. Water as ice and steam and liquid is another example of the Trinity, three with the same substance.

The Roman Catholic writer John Aurelio points out that we are each a trinity. I am a trinity. My father is in me. My nose, and much of the rest of my appearance come from his side. My mother is in me. Her height became mine. The way I blend all these together, like mixing cream and sugar and coffee together, are the unique me. I am three in one. This is just one way I am made, and each of us is made, in the image of the Trinitarian God.

Preaching on Trinity Sunday a few years ago, I used another example. The Trinity is like Tim Hortons coffee. What more Canadian idea could there be?

If you order a Tim Hortons double-double, in the cup there is coffee, cream, and sugar. Each is distinct. Each is equal, for if any one is absent the taste is completely different. Yet all are one, and cannot be separated from each other in the cup. They are in relationship. Three in One, and One in Three.

Coffee, cream, and sugar. Each is unique, yet each is present in every sip. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Each is unique, yet each is present in everything God is. In Zen Buddhism there is a saying: seed and grain and flour are not three things, but three aspects of one thing. That’s the Trinity, too.

In a while we will say the creed that came out of that great church council in the fourth century, held at Nicea in Turkey, where the church stated that we believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. That’s one person of the Trinity, the Father or Creator. And we believe in on Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God. That’s another person of the Trinity, the Son, the Saviour, the Word. And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life. That’s another person of the Trinity, the Spirit, the Sustainer.

That was the fourth century. In 2006 the United Church of Canada produced A Song of Faith, which expresses the same belief in the Trinity, but in poetry, and we will be taking a closer look at this faith statement in an upcoming service. And the Song of Faith says that with the church through the ages, we speak of God as one and triune: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We also speak of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer; God, Christ, and Spirit; Mother, Friend, and Comforter; Source of Life, Living Word, and Bond of Love; and in other ways that speak faithfully of the One on whom our hearts rely.

Now, this Tim Hortons example of the Trinity isn’t a perfect one, because in a double-double the three parts aren’t in equal proportions. There’s more coffee than there is cream and sugar. I don’t think I could drink equal parts coffee, cream, and sugar. But maybe that’s the way a lot of us see God – we tend to emphasize on person over the others. When we say ‘God’ we often mean the Creator, the Father – we’re not thinking of Christ or the Spirit. We’re seeing the three persons of the Trinity as distinct, but not equal. But Gregory of Nyssa said that it is impossible to think of one of the three members of the Trinity without thinking of the others; they are like a chain of three links, pulling each other along.

So that’s the Trinity, summed up in a few minutes when we could spend our entire lives exploring this mystery. The church has had great debates between Christians who believed that the three persons of the Trinity are equal, and those who believed that the Creator is superior to the Son. Yet what do these really matter? How can this enigma of the Trinity have any relevance for our daily lives and our spirituality, as we try our best to love God and each other, feed the hungry, and work for God’s realm of love and justice and peace?

Well, there’s a clue for us in the Song of Faith, which in its first lines acknowledges that dealing with the idea of the Trinity is a challenge. The Song of Faith says, God is holy mystery, beyond complete knowledge, above perfect description. Yet, in love, the one eternal God seeks relationship.

And that’s why, sisters and brothers, the Trinity is relevant to us as believers. As the Trinity is in relationship, and seeks relationship with us, so we seek relationship with each other. The Trinity is the model of relationship for us.

When we discuss the Trinity, God as Trinity seems static, unmoving, abstract. Even when we think about images of the Trinity like a shamrock or three coins or a Tim Hortons double double, these can’t capture all of the mystery of the Trinity, because they seem too static and unfeeling. For the Trinity is all about movement. The Trinity is all about relationship. The Trinity is all about love. God is love, Scripture tells us. The Father loves the Son with all that God is. The Son loves the Creator in exactly the same way. The Holy Spirit is the love that moves between the two of them. There are three persons of God, but they aren’t solo, they’re made one in a perpetual state of giving and receiving. Love is always moving, always flowing, among the three persons of God.

You know, as some of us buy gifts for Father’s Day, the Father gave Christ an infinite gift to express infinite love, the gift of the universe. Billions of galaxies. Uncounted numbers of stars and planets. All created by the Father in Christ and for Christ, for all things in heaven and on earth were created through him and for him.

And the Spirit is there at the creation, as we read at the beginning of the Bible, moving over the waters. The Spirit is there, bringing Jesus into the world so that he can show us how much God loves us. And it is the power of the Spirit that raises him from the dead. All this shows that the Trinity is not an abstraction. The Trinity is action. The Trinity is events – creation; incarnation; resurrection.

Creation is not a one-time thing but is ongoing. God has created and is creating. God is the source of everything that is in every moment of time - and all because of the love that moves constantly among the Maker and the Saviour and the Spirit.

It is in God that we live and move and have our being. God is the medium in which we exist, like the air, and as God in Trinity is love, it is like we are breathing in love. All creation exists in God’s love. All creation depends on God’s love. We know God’s love because we breathe it in.

But it can’t stop there. To breathe in air and hold onto it would kill us. We have to exhale. And so we must breathe out the love we breathe in. We can’t hold onto God’s love. We have to give it away.

We love because God first loved us. We love because we have no choice; love is all around us. We can’t stop breathing - and we can’t stop loving. That’s the Trinity. And that’s why the Trinity for us is not some irrelevant and abstract doctrine. The Trinity shows us how to love like the three persons of God: continuously, without limit, bound to each other in love, always seeking relationship.

And so Jesus, who is God in human form, love made known, calls us to live in love, to serve in love, to act in love:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to do everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Statements of Faith

When I was growing up we said the Apostles' Creed every Sunday in worship. Then, in adult life, we said the United Church of Canada's A New Creed pretty regularly. At Ingleside and Newington we say A New Creed about once every two months on average - partially a consequence of having two services, and the Newington service MUST end on time so I can get to Ingleside! I suppose this says something about the importance of confessions of faith in modern spirituality.

But during June and July I plan to ask everyone to say a different statement of faith each week, including A New Creed and the tried-and-true Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, but also Eric Liddell's creed (which he wrote in a Japanese prison camp in China during the Second World War), our United Church of Canada's recent Song of Faith, and this statement of faith just written by my friend Connie Waters, the 'Mama Outlaw' of Outlaw Preachers. I hope this will allow us to reflect on what Christians have believed over the centuries, how these ancient words can have meaning for us today, and how we can retell the Jesus story in our own words. Maybe we'll be inspired to write our own statement!?

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Unco11 fallout...or blowback...or whatever.

A key takeaway for me from the Unco11 conference was the teaching (articulated by Brian Merritt and others) that we don't need to wait for permission from the institutional church - we just need to risk, and go for it. I've been trying to do that in small ways since May 18, and thinking about larger ways.

So, for instance, prior to Unco I got the big idea to work on a partnership between our United Church of Canada Presbytery and the United Church of Christ Association on the other side of the US border, involving a joint witness for peace during the upcoming War of 1812 Bicentennial. I've now set up a discussion of training for ministry and ordination standards between our Presbytery and the UCC Association. I'm sure our two denominations do talk at the national level, but I haven't heard much, and believe that there's much learning to be done as we both deal with putting national decisions into practice and cut denominational standards to fit our own cloth.

As another example, our Montreal and Ottawa Conference has no official Twitter presence, and last year at our annual meeting the table stewards told me not to tweet. This year I didn't wait for the Conference to get around to using Twitter - I went with my tablet and live tweeted the entire meeting, and produced a volume of tweets (and retweets) that enabled me to lobby the new president-elect (who was ordained with me in 2009) to have official tweeting next year.

And our Presbytery, of which I have the honour to be chair this year, is undertaking a major revisioning and restructuring initiative which breaks the traditional 'one minister = one pastoral charge' mould. We began this with little consultation with other levels of the denomination, and I plan to continue to do so - in fact, I am setting up consultations with other Presbyteries interested in our bottom-up process.

None of this is because I'm hostile towards, or suspicious of, The United Church of Canada I love dearly. I'm just an open source church kind of person. I'm thankful that our United Church of Canada is working within a planning framework that recognizes that much of the energy and innovation in the church comes from trying new things at the local level. However, I'm under no illusions that such thinking has support at all levels of our institution. Sometimes, if not most of the time, you have to follow the words of Barry Manilow: "You get what you get when you go for it."