Thursday, October 30, 2014

Unco 14 West

For the past few years I've been attending Unco (for "Unconference") East in Stony Point, New York, each May. This year, however, I was in Saskatchewan at a symposium on the theology of occupied land when Unco 14 East was held, so last week I flew to San Francisco for the Western version.

Unco West is held at San Francisco Theological Seminary - a very gracious host, by the way - in San Anselmo in Marin County, across the Golden Gate Bridge from the city of San Francisco. As I have never visited California before, memories include driving across the iconic bridge; the view of the city, Alcatraz, and Oakland at dawn as the sun rose and the fog lifted; seeing great architecture downtown like San Francisco City Hall and the opera house; tall redwood trees - the ones at the seminary are, I'm told, young, so they're only hundreds of years old; and being in the Bay area as the San Francisco Giants competed in baseball's World Series (unfortunately, they were playing in Kansas City).

Unco really is an un-conference, a reaction against expensive church conferences with highly paid keynote speakers. There are no keynotes - and no agenda, as the entire conference is crowd-sourced from the participants, many of whom have only met on social media. Some people wanted to talk about fundraising for new ministries - fine, who will lead, and which room and which time slot do you want? Some were interested in a new model for church committee structures, based on the liturgical seasons, and I participated in that one. I led a session on people with disabilities in the church, although the real discussion leadership came from my friend J.C. Mitchell, who has a ministry in Seattle for families with children with disabilities.

While I was there, the news broke that there was some kind of attack going on in Ottawa - in the parliamentary precinct and downtown, areas that I know well as I used to work there and I still know many people. My wife wasn't answering her phone and I couldn't be certain that she hadn't gone to Ottawa (it turned out that she was in Dundela, Ontario, home of the McIntosh apple, getting, yes, apples). But I was immediately surrounded by prayers and concern from American friends. The photo is of art drawn at one of the tables during that difficult day.

And I can't improve on this reflection on Unco 14 West and the San Francisco experience from Whitney Wilkinson, complete with her great photography.

Monday, October 13, 2014

God Gives You 'Every Dog-Boned Morsel': Sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday, October 12, 2014

The LORD your God is bringing you to a wonderful land, a land with streams of water, springs, and wells that gush up in the valleys and on the hills; a land of wheat and barley, vines, fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you will eat food without any shortage—you won’t lack a thing there—a land where stone is hard as iron and where you will mine copper from the hills. You will eat, you will be satisfied, and you will bless the LORD your God in the wonderful land that he’s given you.

But watch yourself! Don’t forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commands or his case laws or his regulations that I am commanding you right now. When you eat, get full, build nice houses, and settle down, and when your herds and your flocks are growing large, your silver and gold are multiplying, and everything you have is thriving, don’t become arrogant, forgetting the LORD your God:
the one who rescued you from Egypt, from the house of slavery;
the one who led you through this vast and terrifying desert of poisonous snakes and scorpions, of cracked ground with no water;
the one who made water flow for you out of a hard rock;
the one who fed you manna in the wilderness, which your ancestors had never experienced, in order to humble and test you, but in order to do good to you in the end.
Don’t think to yourself, My own strength and abilities have produced all this prosperity for me.18 Remember the LORD your God! He’s the one who gives you the strength to be prosperous in order to establish the covenant he made with your ancestors—and that’s how things stand right now.
Deuteronomy 8:7-18, Common English Bible

What I mean is this: the one who sows a small number of seeds will also reap a small crop, and the one who sows a generous amount of seeds will also reap a generous crop.

Everyone should give whatever they have decided in their heart. They shouldn’t give with hesitation or because of pressure. God loves a cheerful giver. God has the power to provide you with more than enough of every kind of grace. That way, you will have everything you need always and in everything to provide more than enough for every kind of good work. As it is written, "He scattered everywhere; he gave to the needy; his righteousness remains forever."

The one who supplies seed for planting and bread for eating will supply and multiply your seed and will increase your crop, which is righteousness. You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous in every way. Such generosity produces thanksgiving to God through us. Your ministry of this service to God’s people isn’t only fully meeting their needs but it is also multiplying in many expressions of thanksgiving to God. They will give honour to God for your obedience to your confession of Christ’s gospel. They will do this because this service provides evidence of your obedience, and because of your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone. They will also pray for you, and they will care deeply for you because of the outstanding grace that God has given to you. Thank God for his gift that words can’t describe!
2 Corinthians 9:6-15, Common English Bible

Last week I took the train to Montreal for a meeting. And we got talking to a couple waiting for the train at Cornwall, and it turned out that the man is from Carleton County in New Brunswick, from a town near the one where my father’s family is from, and in fact his mother had changed my cousin’s diapers. So we talked all about who we knew and who is related to whom, who is still farming potatoes and who got out of farming. And that reminded me of the harvest season down home.

When my father was a boy in the 1930s in New Brunswick, in the days when you ate what you grew, they had wheat, buckwheat, barley, oats, turnips, and beans on the farm. And I assume there were potatoes, because potatoes are grown on pretty much every farm in Carleton County. In the fall they would have threshers come for the harvest. After that Grampy would load several bags filled with wheat, and several filled with buckwheat, onto the wagon. About four o’clock in the morning he would use the light of a kerosene lantern to hook up the horses to the wagon for the annual trip to the grist mill. My Dad and uncle never saw the mill, because they were never allowed to go. But my uncle George Hayward wrote this story down in his collection Growing Up in Simonds, and told how they remembered the lantern light and shivering in the cold fall air and wondering why Grampy didn’t want to take four and six year-old boys along.

It was a 20 mile round trip with a team of horses on gravel roads from the farm to the mill. It was a mill with a water wheel, like the one at Upper Canada Village. Grampy had the wheat ground into whole wheat flour, wheat hearts, and bran. The buckwheat was ground separately into meal. This was before you could buy pancake mix in a box, and before anyone knew that whole grains are better for you.

Grampy returned from the mill long after dark, and would water, unharness and feed the horses. The next morning he would bring the flour into the house and place it on tables in the parlour. That room wasn’t used in the cold months as it was unheated. Each table leg stood in a two foot-long section of metal stove pipe, to stop mice climbing up to get at the flour. Mice were a constant threat to the harvest on the farm. That whole wheat flour was used by Grammy Hayward to bake bread, the wheat hearts went into cream of wheat porridge, buckwheat flour became pancakes, and wheat bran was used muffins but most of it was fed to the cattle. Both the family and cattle ate turnips, too. The Haywards in the 1930s had little or no money, and food wasn’t fancy, but it was wholesome.

That’s a good harvest story. I could also tell you, from Uncle George's descriptions, about pulling the turnips by hand and chopping off their tap root and stalks and leaves. Or about pulling up the bean plants, letting them dry before beating the pods with a flail, and then pouring the beans into a wooden mill to clean the chaff off them. Those beans were white with a reddish-brown marking. In the Maritimes and New England these are called soldier beans, which is the name my family uses for them. Saturday night suppers on the farm were usually baked soldier beans and potato salad.

Now, these stories make it obvious that the harvest involves lots of hard work. Many of us here have lots of personal experience with that. There’s an old movie called Shenandoah, about a farm family in Virginia that tries not to get involved in the American Civil War. It seems I’ve had a lot of Civil War stories in sermons lately. The head of the family was played by Jimmy Stewart. And he says grace at supper, and says:

Lord, we cleared this land.
We ploughed it, sowed it, and harvested it.
We cooked the harvest.
It wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t be eatin’ it, if we hadn’t done it all ourselves.
We worked dog-boned hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you just the same anyway, Lord, for this food we’re about to eat.

This attitude, that we have done all this by ourselves, is what this morning’s reading from the book of Deuteronomy is about. Moses is giving the people of Israel a warning. They have been in the desert for four decades after being brought out of slavery in Egypt. They haven’t even entered the promised land yet. But Moses knows these people. He knows that, even though God brought plagues on Egypt so their oppressors would let the Israelites go, even though God parted the sea so they could escape, even though God made bread appear on the ground to feed them and made water flow from a rock in the desert, the Israelites complained. In the TV comedy show Family Guy, there’s a scene where Moses adds another commandment: “There’s nothing I can do about the sun.” That isn’t in the Bible, but it sounds like something Moses might say, trying to get the complaining Israelites through the desert. They are completely dependent on God for survival, but Moses is still trying to get this across to them after 40 years.

Moses knows that when they get to the new land, they will have wheat and barley, grapevines, fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil, and honey, that in this land there will always be food on the table and a roof over their heads, their flocks and herds will grow, and everything they have will thrive – and then, Moses knows, they will be tempted to forget the lesson they were supposed to learn during their time in the wilderness, that they rely on God. Don’t become arrogant, he tells them. Don’t think to yourself, My own strength and abilities have produced all this prosperity for me. The Message version of the Bible translates this as, “I did all this. And all by myself. I’m rich. It’s all mine.” If Moses had heard Jimmy Stewart’s character in the movie, he would have said, "Don’t say to yourselves, We wouldn’t be eatin’ this food if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-boned hard for every morsel."

Jesus tells a story about this attitude, about a rich man whose land produces a bountiful harvest. The man says to himself, “What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for my crop. I know. Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones for all my grain. Then I’ll say to myself, ‘You’ve done well. You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life.’”

Moses is warning Israel against pride. He is trying to tell them that, despite what people think and what Jimmy Stewart’s character and the rich man have to say, they didn’t do it all themselves. It may be their labour that plants and tends and harvests the wheat and barley, grapevines, fig trees, pomegranates, and olives, but they didn’t invent these things or the natural processes that cause them to grow. As our reading from the Second Letter to the Corinthian believers says, it is God who supplies seed for planting and bread for eating. Jesus tells another little story, about scattering seed on the ground, and the seed sprouts and grows, but the farmer doesn’t know how. The earth produces crops all by itself, Jesus says, first the stalk, then the head, then the full head of grain to be cut at the harvest.

A lot of us are now pretty removed from the harvest, These days we may bring in vegetables from our own gardens, or we do what I did on Friday, go to the grocery store and buy a turkey and vegetables and potatoes and bread that someone else raised and grew, dressed and processed and baked. But we can still fall into the trap Moses and Jesus are speaking about, of believing that we can take all the credit, of thinking that any wealth we may have is the result of our own striving, or because we are better than others.

Remember the Lord your God, Moses says. God gives you any ability you have to produce food or anything else. And when we remember God and that everything comes from God, when we recognize that we are dependent on God for all that we have, when we realize that we have not achieved anything on our own, then we have to accept that what comes from the earth is not ours to hoard for ourselves. God has given it to share. The Corinthian church is told, you will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous in every way. Such generosity produces thanksgiving to God.

So at this harvest time, remember the Lord your God who gives seed that becomes food for us, who gives us gifts we can give away, which grow into well-formed lives, grounded in God, rich in generosity, giving God the glory, producing abundant and bountiful gratitude to God. Let us show our thanksgiving through our generous offerings to our needy brothers and sisters. That’s how we can bless God in the wonderful land God has given us.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Taking a Good Look at Our Communion Liturgy

This is the sermon at the South Stormont United Churches on World Communion Sunday, October 5, 2014.

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.
1 Corinthians 11:23-29, English Standard Version

At the Last Supper Jesus tells his apostles to remember him whenever they break bread and share the cup. Soon the church began doing this as part of worship, as a sacrament, a symbol and sign of God’s grace. It was called Communion, or Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. And it’s good to talk about what we do in Communion, so that it is truly meaningful for us and not just a ritual we do without really understanding its significance.

We have a whole theology around Communion. If you look back at the statements of faith of the United Church of Canada, the 1940 Statement of Faith has this to say:

We believe that the Lord’s Supper perpetuates the fellowship between Christ and his disciples sealed in the upper room, that at the table he is always present, and his people are nourished, confirmed, and renewed. The giving and receiving of bread and wine accompanied by his own words signifies the gracious self-giving of Christ as suffering and living Lord in such wise that his faithful people live in him and he in them.
A Song of Faith, our latest faith statement, also speaks of Communion:
Carrying a vision of creation healed and restored, we welcome all in the name of Christ.
Invited to the table where none shall go hungry, we gather as Christ’s guests and friends.
In holy communion we are commissioned to feed as we have been fed, forgive has we have been forgiven, love as we have been loved.
The open table speaks of the shining promise of barriers broken and creation healed.
In the communion meal, wine poured out and bread broken, we remember Jesus.
We remember not only the promise but also the price that he paid for what he was, for what he did and said, and for the world’s brokenness.
We taste the mystery of God’s great love for us, and are renewed in faith and hope.

So our faith statements tell us that in Communion we have fellowship with Jesus, remembrance of Jesus and his life and death, promise, renewal, commissioning, mystery. But our Statements of Faith aren’t printed for us in the hymn book – well, the New Creed is, but not the others – and they aren’t in a booklet in the pews. They are printed in the United Church Manual, but we don’t have copies for each person. However, all of these meanings of the sacrament, and more, are present in the words and actions of Communion itself. The Lord’s Supper has been a very old way for the church to tell the story of salvation, to share together, and to send us out as disciples of Jesus. In fact, Communion prayers are pretty similar across denominations and have been much the same back to the ancient church. Some churches use the same prayer each time they celebrate Communion; we vary the language but keep the structure roughly the same.

Let’s have a look together at how we share in the Lord’s Supper and what this tells us about the sacrament and our faith.

We start off with a Prayer of Confession. The Second Corinthians passage we read has some of the most ancient words about Communion we have. In it the Apostle Paul talks about examining yourself before eating the bread and drinking the cup, and that’s what we do in our confession (This prayer was written by Catherine Tovell, Dundas Street United Church, London, Ontario, and is used with permission from Gathering, Summer/Autumn 2012, page 51).

O God, in our daily life we gather many times around tables. We sit at tables to eat, to talk, to do business, to weep, to comfort. Yet too often our tables are places of exclusion and pain, rather than reconciliation and support. We use tables to divide, to set rules of who’s in and who’s out.

You call us to one table, an open table, where all are welcome, all are equal, and all are valued. Forgive us when we try to close your table, to claim it as our own possession, to misuse it. Amen.

Then we have the Invitation to the Table, just as A Song of Faith says: We welcome all in the name of Christ, invited to the table where none shall go hungry.
All are welcome at this table. It is a table where everyone is a guest. You may never have been here before, or you may have been coming to a table like this all your life. It doesn’t matter. You are welcome here today. This is not the table of this congregation or the United Church of Canada; it is the table of Jesus, who invites us to come and eat, to fill our hunger and quench our thirst, to find new life in him. So come, because you are welcome here.

Now we come to the Great Prayer. It starts off with these responsive words:

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give God thanks and praise.
In Latin these are called the Sursum Corda, and go back at least to the third century, so we are saying them with generation upon generation of Christians before us.

Then the prayer has words of thanksgiving:

Thanks and blessings to you, Holy One, who summons galaxies into being.
We bless you for our world.
The diversity of our planet amazes us, from the prairies and forests of the Americas to the deserts of Africa and Asia, from the majestic mountains of Europe to the vast outback of Australia.
We give you thanks for the multiplicity of humanity, with our complexity of colour and culture, yet called into oneness of being through Christ.

Jewish prayers would tell what God has done, and the church perpetuates that in this prayer:

We give you thanks that through the waters of the sea you delivered your people from slavery;
On your sacred mountain you called us to truth and holiness;
In the words of your prophets you called us to justice and compassion.
Yet we turned away from you.
Finally, you sent Jesus, the newness of your promise to us.
One of the most important things we do as a church is to tell the Biblical story – so here is the story of creation, then the story of God’s action saving the people of Israel, how Israel turned away from God, and God’s response in sending Jesus. This brings on the Sanctus and its words from Isaiah and Revelation:
So, with those who trembled at the foot of your holy mountain, with all who have gone before us, with the angels of the heavens, and with all who will follow us in the community of faith, as we join our voices in praise to you:
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

So this prayer is packed full of meaning. And it continues in the Post-Sanctus, which carries on the story of salvation in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, so we will remember this story.

Holy are you, God of all creation, and blessed is Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord.
Yearning for us to know you, he came to be your face of love and compassion for all.
Hungering for reconciliation between you and your children, he became the broken Bread of Life.
Witnessing to your holy teachings and fulfilling your holy law, he suffered on the cross. Yet he was raised from the grave to lift us all up from death and sin into freedom.
He is known to us in the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup.

The Institution Narrative which follows is based closely on the description of the last supper in the Gospels and Second Corinthians, as Jesus breaks the bread and shares the cup at that last supper and commands us to remember him in this way.
On the last night he spent with his friends, Jesus took an age-old tradition of his people and transformed it into something new.
He took bread, staple food of his land, blessed and broke it, and gave it to those around him, saying ‘Take, eat; this is my body, broken for you. Whenever you do this, remember me.’
After supper he took a cup of wine, common drink of his people, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink this, all of you. This is the new promise of God in my blood. Each time you do this, remember me.’
And these are not just words. The church learned long ago not to rely only on the spoken word, but to engage all of the senses. We hear the words of Jesus, we taste the bread and the juice when the supper is served, and we see the last supper acted out. Some churches have incense, so there is smell too. So we reenact, not just retell. As celebrant I repeat the actions of Jesus, taking, blessing, breaking and giving, and in recreating the original event we somehow experience again the reality of Jesus himself being present with us.

We than have a Memorial Acclamation together, proclaiming the mystery spoken of in A Song of Faith, God’s love in Jesus who died, rose and will come again:

By remembering Jesus in this way now, we claim our common heritage as we proclaim the mystery of faith:
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

And now we move on, to the Epiclesis. This is a prayer for transformation, calling on the Holy Spirit to transform the gifts of bread and juice, and transform us, to do what the 1940 statement says Communion does, make this a sacred meal which nourishes, confirms and renews us:

Send, O God, your Holy Spirit upon us and what we do here, that we and these gifts, empowered by your Spirit, may become signs of peace and justice to each other and to all peoples of this earth.
As this bread, once scattered, was brought together and made one, it is our hope that your people will be brought together from the ends of the earth into your reign of justice and love.

And we conclude with the Doxology, praising God in the Trinity of Creator, Christ and Spirit:

Through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ,
In the unity of the Holy Spirit,
All glory is yours everywhere, now and forever.

So there’s a lot in these words and actions: Self examination. Welcome in the name of Christ. Thanksgiving. The story of Israel. Praise. Retelling, reenacting and remembering the story of Jesus. Mystery. Renewal. It’s as if our Communion liturgy is a mini-course in our faith. It’s one of the ways we tell each other and the world what we believe and whose we are. So let’s listen and watch as we celebrate this holy meal that means so much to us.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Working Group on Theologies of Disability

I've been working on a small United Church of Canada group on theologies of disability, responding to a request to the church's Theology and Interchurch Interfaith Committee (of which I'm a member) stemming from a national consultation with people with disabilities last year. We have only met once, largely to set parameters for our work, and are now awaiting nominations of additional members. But here is the language from the nominations document, telling the church what we will be doing:
How does disability matter for our theologies? How do our experiences with disability shape our understandings of God?

The mandate of the working group is to engage the United Church in an exploration of theologies of disability, which could include engaging concepts such as healing, cure, sin, and normalcy, and to make this work widely available in the church.

The working group will explore questions and concepts that relate to the attitudes toward people with disabilities, and intersections between disabilities and other identities—including gender identity and racial identity. The group’s work will relate to the church’s work on intercultural engagement; it will also seek to explore concepts related to difference, diversity, power, and privilege. The working group may also explore how disability theologians have worked on medical, social, and cultural models of disability; in addition, it may consider theological topics such as what it means to be made in the image of God (imago Dei), providence, and the disabled God.