On to York

On November 1st, I began work as the interim pastor of Maranatha Christian Reformed Church in the village of York. York is near Hamilton, Ontario. The position is a part time one, so, we are actually living in two places, I continue with my other part time consulting work and J continues to work away in her pottery at least a few hours every week.

When we are in York, we live in a small apartment, a granny flat converted from a two car garage attached to a large rural home. The space, although smaller than any other place we have ever lived, is comfortable and warm. It was built for a beloved family member, not as a source of quick income, so the cabinetry and fixtures are of good quality. There is lots of storage space and lots of parking. We have a gas fireplace….

Even though  the unit was furnished, to make it our own we made a couple of runs to IKEA and bought some furniture. Its a big change for us to be so close to a busy center. During our first weekend we were at Ikea twice and in three different Best Buy stores and were still able to eat meals at home!

church-newMaranatha CRC is a relatively large congregation which has been without a full time pastor for over a year. The church has a very strong leadership and the congregation has a real sense of community. I have already witnessed, a deep heart. They are a congregation where four generations can be found worshiping together, where the nursery is bursting at its seams, where young families and older couples work together.

Oddly enough, the building you see in the picture above is built from the same plans (exactly the same ones borrowed from one building committee by another) as the Lucknow CRC where I last served. It is one set of beams longer so this sanctuary has five more rows of benches. Its very interesting to compare the different direction the two buildings went over four and a half decades and wonder about the discussions that happened which lead to different decisions. Maranatha is currently building a new sanctuary.

Maranatha is a congregation with great energy, and I am looking forward to being part of their story over the next months.

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The Missing Christmas Story

This is the text of the sermon preached at the combined service of the Lucknow Presbyterian and Lucknow Community Christian Reformed Churches on December 7 2014

Here we are at the second Sunday of Advent. Our candle is lit and we find ourselves just eighteen days away from the big Day, Christmas day. Festivities have already begun. Some of you have already enjoyed your family Christmas, company dinners are being held, the stores are busier every day with shoppers looking for that special unique gift. Online Christmas shopping is set to reach new highs. Children are writing their letters to Santa. There is an atmosphere of anticipation, excitement. Christmas is coming.

We sometimes need to remind ourselves about the reason for the season, Campaigns have been launched to urge us to keep Christ in Christmas, to remember it is the celebration of the birth of a baby not a reason for shopping or parties, that the season is about the gift in a manger, not the gifts under the tree.

And then we come to our scripture passage this morning. One has to wonder though how today’s passage fits in with the advent season, this season leading up to Christmas. It does start in a promising way

“The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah,[a] the Son of God,”

but suddenly we are introduced to a camel hair wearing, locust eating John the Baptist who appears out of the desert preaching repentance, baptizing folks in the Jordan, and predicting the appearance of someone greater than he, someone who would baptize with the holy spirit instead of water.

This doesn’t feel like the beginning of the story, none of this scene will look good on a Christmas card! What happened to the shepherds abiding, and the angels singing, the wise men? Where is the manger with cattle lowing and a baby that doesn’t cry (that’s what the song says). Where is the inn keeper, the warning dreams, the old people at the temple, the flight to Egypt, the slaughter of children?

Why does Mark skip over a whole section of Jesus life, the piece that makes the very best songs, the very best holiday meals, the very best reason for shopping. Why does he skip thirty years of Jesus life and within the first pages of the book already have the political leaders of the time in conflict with him and his teaching? He seems to be skipping the best parts of Jesus’ story. Doesn’t he know about these stories? Doesn’t he realize the significance of each one of those steps in identifying Jesus as the messiah?

Or could it be that he is just interested in telling us the necessary parts, the important parts? Could it be that he is focused on getting us to the cross rather than having us spend time standing in a stable?

To really answer these questions, to understand, we need to know more about the author of this gospel called Mark and his audience.

This gospel is anonymous, nowhere does the writer identify himself, tradition has attributed it to Mark an early Christian convert who travelled with both Paul and Barnabas on their missionary trips. The book of Peter mentions a Mark with apostle in Rome. While it is not clear that this is the same person, since Mark was a very common name, some sources suggest that Mark was Peter’s secretary and possibly his interpreter. It does appear though, that at the time of writing the authour was in Rome and writes the gospel from the first hand stories about Jesus he has heard from Peter.

His Gospel is written for his fellow church members,  Christians in Rome. The Bible as we know it was not yet available. Mark is actually the first of the gospels to be written, before Matthew, Luke or John. It was the first written account of Jesus life.

These Roman Christians would have studied the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures which had been translated into Greek nearly two hundred years before. They very likely also had copies of the letter they had received from Paul a few years before as well as copies of those written to the churches in Galatia, Thessalonica, and Corinth. They would have told each other stories of Jesus life as they had heard them from others.

There had been a Christian church in Rome for a number of years already with historical documentation of a Christian community there as early as the year 49 less than twenty years after the crucifixion of Jesus.

Mark writes into a world of trouble and suffering.

Nero has been the emperor since the year 55. His first five years have been good ones, he’s been a good leader, a good ruler. But around the year 60 something happens. There is a fire in Rome which burns a large portion of the city. Some historians say that Nero started it himself. There is huge damage and huge loss of life. A scape goat needs to be found, someone to blame and Nero points the finger at the Christian community in the city.

Round ups and arrests take place that make what ISL is doing in the world today look like child’s play. These Christians were dressed in the skins of wild animals and torn apart by wild dogs, they were crucified, they were dipped in tar and set on fire to light Nero’s immense gardens. They hid, but were betrayed by their friends. They met in the catacombs, the tombs under the city in secret. Their suffering was intense.

It’s to these people in their suffering that Mark writes. His Gospel shows them a savoir with whom they can relate. They find that nothing they could suffer from Nero was alien to Jesus. Like them, he had been misrepresented, falsely labelled. He had been betrayed by one from his close circle of friends. They read in Jesus words, recorded by Mark, that persecution could be expected in the life of the Christian.

And so, the Gospel of Mark is direct and to the point. It gets right to the meat of the story, the source of hope, the remedy for suffering. It starts Jesus down the road to the cross very quickly, because these folks need to know that they have been saved and how, they need to know there is hope and where it is coming from.

It’s over ten years ago now that I had an attack of kidney stones. Anyone who has suffered with kidney stones knows that word attack is a good one. I woke up in pain, with no idea what was wrong. Jocelyn wasn’t home. I passed out on the bathroom floor.

My daughter Rebecca took me to the Emergency room at the hospital. My symptoms were very typical and so a diagnosis was not difficult. The doctor gave me a wonderful drug called Toradol, an anti-inflammatory pain killer.

Now, it may have been very interesting to know about the clinical trials that had gone into the approval of toradol. It might have been nice to know about the company that makes the product. It might have been cool to know something about the history of the product, the drugs that came before it. It might have been of value to understand how the product works, its chemical make up, its mode of action.

Thankfully, the doctor didn’t extend my suffering with all of these details, I could find them on the internet later, at my leisure. At that moment he was asking me to trust him, that this drug was good news for me, and to drop my pants.

And that’s really what Mark does here as well. In eight short verses

He tells us clearly what his story is about, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Good News. The Greek word he uses here, evangelon, the source for our word evangelism and evangelical, would have rung clearly for his Roman readers. This word was used to make announcements about the accomplishments of the emperor, the royal leader, Nero, Caesar Augustus, and all the others. This was royal language, powerful language, language that sets this news of Jesus right up beside that of the most powerful leaders in the world. It would have made folks sit up and pay attention. He takes authority from the word. Gives hope through it. Shows that the savior they have is right up there with supreme leader, the one who hold their lives in his hand.

He then takes authourtiy from the words of the Hebrew Bible. Mark doesn’t spend a lot of time proof texting like Matthew does, he doesn’t use the words “as fortold by the prophets” very often but here knowing his audience is familiar with these writings, he makes something of an ancient mash up of texts from Exodus, Isaiah and Malachi to tie his good news to the word of God that had been passed down through the ages. Words that call for preparation, words that come from the wilderness, words that were originally written to give hope to a suffering people.

From here, with the introduction of John the Baptist, Mark makes a straight line trip to the cross, because, for Mark the gospel message is the cross, not the manger, it’s a story of humiliation not one of adoring angelic choirs, it’s a story of sacrifice not one of gifts from foreigners.

In our Christmas celebrations we often forget the cross.

On Wednesday evening our community came together to sing together, to sing our Christmas music at our annual Carolfest, to kick off the Christmas season together. We sang of shepherds, and stars, of mangers and angels. We urged the ringing of bells. We turned our faces toward Bethlehem. While Pastor David, in his welcoming remarks did make reference to the end of the story, the cross, I believe only one of the carols sung did. It was in the beautiful Christmas Hosanna from St Josephs that we got a glimpse of the cruel cross, the dripping blood, the nail pierced hands.

In it all, we need to see the cross. The shadow of the cross lays over the scene in the stable, it stands behind those singing angels, and the light of the guiding star shines through it.

Without the cross, Christmas is just a good excuse for a holiday, a reason for a party. The manger has no saving power.

The angelic song of peace on earth and good will toward men is just an empty dream without the cross.

The gifts of the maji are no more than expensive baubles given to a destitute Hebrew child by a group of misguided bookworms without the cross.

Mark’s beginning is a good reminder.   It reminds us that at the end of the Advent day, all the stuff we want to constitute the real “beginning” of the story is not the core of the story after all.  It reminds us that while keeping Christ in Christmas may be a cool slogan, it is more important to keep the cross in Christmas.

Yes, you can tell the story of Jesus without Bethlehem’s stall. You can tell the story of Jesus without shepherds and angels, without wise men and a stable.  If Mark were the only gospel we possessed in the church, a great deal of what fills up our imaginations in the month of December would disappear but the one thing that would not disappear would be the Gospel, the core of which is recognizing Jesus as the One sent from God to save us from our sins.

As you celebrate this season, celebrate the birth of our Savior with gusto. Celebrate the coming of the Emanuel, God with us, but at the same time remind yourself that this is only part of the story; that the Christmas Story is not complete without Good Friday and Easter. That God’s grace to us comes through the cross, through a sacrifice given in love, a sacrifice that is symbolized, for us this morning, in the bread and the cup as we celebrate the Lord’s supper together this morning.

Pace and Direction in Life has Changed

When I started this blog back in the summer of 2009, it was my way of taking others along on a journey. I was stepping off the path I had been on and going down a road which was very new for me, with lots of new things to examine and describe along the way. The destination of the journey was never clear and I was surprised to find myself occupying the office in the corner of a rural church, my home church even.

Over this past y20131103_135207ear, getting my feet wet in a bi-vocational ministry, I have written a little about the experience. I’ve written about my call, explained how it is to be bi-vocational, shared the ordinations service,posted about baptism of my granddaughter, shared news about a fire in the church, but the interval between posts has grown, interspersed with book reviews and records of holidays.

It’s not that nothing is happening in life, that I have nothing to say, that my mind is empty. Certainly, I am busy writing, likely more than before, sermons, bulletin announcements, various reports keep my fingers near the keyboard. I don’t need the blog to fulfill the urge to write.

My days and weeks have been  taken over with things that are not really for public consumption and it’s likely this keeping me away from this forum. My thoughts and feelings about the funeral I conducted last week are best shared in private. The day belonged to the family as they remembered, not to me, the servant of the event. The visits made to my office, and to the homes in my parish are wonderful, but not the fodder for internet discussion. The struggles we go through daily, are best shared with people who are close, rather than the whole world.

I read a number of other blogs written by pastors some of which are repositories for sermon manuscripts (I could do that). Others write at length about denominational politics, theological dilemmas, and cultural issues (I could do this too, but likely won’t very often, it’s just not me). Most pastors, though, are silent. Shepherding is a local task.

So, we’ll just need to be satisfied with a lower rate of posting. I’ll still write about the events of life, the grandchildren born, the trips taken, the books read, my own thoughts from time to time about things happening around me, but a large part of my life will be kept from view, it’s not mine to share, only to hold.

 

Do Not Be Afraid

Here is the sermon from the Lucknow Strawberry Fest Service on June 22 2014

Sermon June 22 2014

Matthew 10:24-39

 

How many of you remember Greer’s pond? Back in the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s Greer’s pond was the swimming pool for the village of Lucknow. Just outside of the village on what is now called Harper’s line there were two ponds, one for swimming, seemingly open to the public, but without all the signs about using at your own risk, and the other stocked with fish.

 

The ponds are still there, but I don’t see much swimming there anymore. When I was a kid, on hot summer days, Greer’s pond was full of village kids and we would be there too, a couple of time a week.

 

My story really isn’t about Greer’s pond though. To be able to enjoy the pond safely one had to know how to swim. Knowing how to swim is a good thing anyway, so my parents enrolled us in swimming lessons. It was a time before a pool in Lucknow, so off we went to Wingham. I have a vague memory that there may have even been a bus to take us there.

 

I was the biggest kid in Guppies and I was terrified. I’ve looked at the requirements to pass Guppies since then and I’m not sure what my problem was. It all looks pretty simple now. Bobbing twice, opening eyes under water and retrieve two objects, float two body lengths, tread water for 5 seconds (I never really understood the value of treading water). It all seems pretty innocuous now, pretty simple, but I knew I was a land animal and water was not my normal habitat.

 

The biggest terror though, was the high board. After all of our floating, bobbing and treading, if there was time, the class would be allowed jump off the high board. It wasn’t really that high, six feet off the water maybe, but to an eight year old kid it was enormous. While the other kids in the class weren’t my peers, they were all younger than me, it was peer pressure that got me up the steps and had my toes edging to the end of the board.

 

Did I mention my problem with heights?

 

I’d seen the other little kids jump, it seemed easy, but from where I was now there was no way. But, the next kid in line was already standing behind me, there was no way back, at least no way which would preserve any dignity I had left.

 

The life guard, seeing my predicament, my hesitation, the look of supreme terror that might soon lead to yellow water running down my already wet legs, offered me the end of the hook. This hook was at the end of a long pole and one might imagine it was made specifically for scooping land animals like me off of the bottom of the pool. I took it gratefully, with both hands, and pushing back tears of terror, I jumped.

 

Our scripture passage this morning is in the middle of a longer conversation Jesus has with his disciples about mission, about how they should share the good news of the gospel with the world around them. About how they need to jump off of the high board into a world that was as foreign to them as water was to me, the land animal. Jesus is clear that this job will not be an easy one, he is sending them, he says, like sheep among the wolves, he tells them that their normal support group, their families will turn against them, points out that they should not expect to be treated any differently than he, their teacher was treated, and that didn’t turn out all that well did it.

 

Crosses are frightening things.

 

Jesus recognizes that his disciples will be tempted, to stay on land, not to engage the world, not to step into the world as kingdom builders where building God’s kingdom means running in opposition to the kingdoms already here.

 

He knows what bringing the message of the gospel and proclaiming a new kingdom will mean for his followers. They will be marginalized, they will come last in popularity contests, they will be pushed to the edges of society, in fact he goes as far as to say some of them will be imprisoned and even killed.

 

For over 2000 years, disciples of Jesus Christ, when they are carrying out His mission, when they are actively working to bring the kingdom of God into this world, find themselves resisted and marginalized.  Many of us resist stepping up to the task put in front of us. We are afraid to climb up onto the high board and content ourselves with merely hanging around the pool. Some of us are good at giving money so that someone else swims in the pool, jumps off the high board, but we really hang on to the fact that we are land animals and are afraid of getting wet.

 

And we think we are likely ok where we are at the edge of the pool. We know about grace don’t we. We know that Jesus died for us, to bring us back into relationship with God and that there is nothing we can do to arrange our own salvation. Grace comes through Jesus, and it free. We just need to believe and sit back and enjoy the privileges. Jesus, we say, has let us into the fenced area around the pool, paid our admission, but we don’t need to get wet do we?

 

That’s called cheap grace. Cheap grace is a term coined by Dietrich Bonheoffer. He describes it this way:

 

Cheap grace means grace as bargain basement goods, cut-rate forgiveness, cut-rate comfort, cut-rate sacrament; grace as the church’s inexhaustible pantry, from which it is poured out without hesitation or limit. It is grace without a price, without costs. . . . Cheap grace means grace as doctrine, as principle, as system. It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. . . . Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ. . . . Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock again and again.

 

It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it gives them their lives. It is costly, because it condemns sin; it is grace, because it justifies the sinner. Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s son—”you were brought with a price”—and because nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God.[1]

 

This morning we are called to discipleship, we are called to climb up on the high board and to jump in. We are called to jump into a world where justice is often a scarce commodity, where mercy has been replaced with a drive for profits, where folks who walk humbly with their God as seen as losers, outsiders, misfits.

 

We are called to be kingdom builders this morning, to cast our lot with the poor, the homeless, the mistreated. We are called to advocate for the underdog, the disinfranchised, to care for God’s creation, to stand up for what is right, not what is expedient. We are called to be witnesses to what Jesus has done and what we are called to isn’t popular, isn’t easy, isn’t safe. We are called to get wet in the world, to jump off of that high board, to leap in faith.

 

But, we don’t leap alone. Just like the lifeguard extended the hook for me to hold on to, Jesus promises not to abandon us, not to leave us, encourages us not to be afraid. We are so important to our Father, God, that even the hairs on our heads are numbered. The most insignificant part of us is known and important. As we make this leap into mission, this step toward discipleship, work that will change us and the world around us, we do not go alone. Just as I grabbed that lifeguard’s hook and held on with both hands as I jumped into a very hostile environment, the water, we can wrap our arms around Jesus, in fact, he wraps his loving arms around us as we leap, sheltering us, watching over us, giving us courage for what is to come, for the work before us. Jesus encourages us as we go, just as that lifeguard long ago did, shouting, don’t be afraid, I’m here, I’ll take care of you.

 

So, what did Greer’s pond have to do with this whole story anyway. It did give some local flavor to my story, but I think it can be larger than that as well. You see, there were no lifeguards at Greer’s pond. No high board either but there was a diving board, and even though I didn’t pass Guppies that year, I think they gave me a Minnows badge instead, it wasn’t long before I was diving off of that low board at Greer’s pond, by myself and swimming underwater to the other side.

 

Something that seemed so impossible as I stood trembling and wet on that high board above the chlorinated clarity of that pool, became something of a second nature in the brown murkiness of Greer’s pond. Oh there were still times of panic in the water when rough housing town kids held the little farm kid underwater for just a little to long, the water never really became my friend, I was still a land animal, but because a life guard with a hook on a pole encouraged me, told me not to be afraid I was able to find a place in it.

 

Many of you here this morning are standing on the edge of the pool, your admission was paid by Jesus Christ, you stand afraid of fully committing to a life of mission, a life of kingdom bringing, a life which makes a difference which brings Jesus into real life through you. You have found it comfortable on the edge, living quietly while injustice and misery go on unchecked around you and around the world. You know you should act, you should jump in, you should do something, but you let fear hold you back.

 

This morning, hear the voice of Jesus ringing through the litany of bad things that will happen when we truly act as his disciples, with a clear do not be afraid, you are valued, you are loved, you are watched over, now go, jump into the water, jump into the mission I have for you here, share the good news of the gospel and bring change to the world in which you live a change based in loving God and Loving neighbours. It won’t be a popular movement, it won’t be a safe task, but you don’t need to be afraid, because a God who cares about falling sparrows, knows the number of hairs on your head is there to protect you to guide you to watch over you because to this God you are worth more than many sparrows.

 

Amen

 

 

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer (2003), Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 4. Fortress Press pg 29

Today We Butchered the Easter Bunny (in Church)

I’ve never really understood what Easter Bunnies, and Easter Eggs, have to do with an empty tomb other than a way for the merchandising machine to capitalize on this holiday. Chocolate tombs, or tomb closing stones for that matter, really wouldn’t cut it up on the shelves of our local grocery store. Bunnies do though.

So today, for the children’s message, I looked for a way to link the two ideas. There is a common thread, but to get there, we needed to butcher the bunny.

After getting the bunny out of its pink cardboard and cellophane box, he was laid on a cutting board and a very large knife was produced. One of the fifteen or so kids suggested that the bunny’s head be cut off. So that is what we did, in one fell swoop.

Guess what we found out. The bunny is empty, just like the tomb on Easter Sunday. There is nothing inside. One of the kids even thought looking down the bunny’s headless torso, that the emptiness looked like a cave, an empty cave.

So there you have it. The Easter Bunny is a legitimate purchase since it helps us remember the tomb is empty, while at the same time providing a chocolate fix.

Noah: The Movie

MV5BMjAzMzg0MDA3OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTMzOTYwMTE@._V1_SY630_SX426_We went to see Noah last night. It was surprising that it turned up in our local movie theater so soon after it’s release, but there it was. After hearing the CBC review yesterday morning, it seemed like a good idea.

There were a number of folks at the show who I knew; church folks. On the way out, one of them stopped me and said, “Well that sure was a disappointment”. He looked like he’d been held up at gun point and lost his watch and wallet.

I’m not sure what he expected, or what I expected, for that matter. Noah is not a retelling of the Sunday School story, although all of the well known elements of the story are there. The Creator speaks, Noah builds, the animals come as does the water, the dove flies, and something of a rainbow appears. Oh, and wine is invented too. So, you can’t say the creators of the movie aren’t faithful to the few verses of scripture they had to work with. From there, though, they let their imaginations fly and in so doing answer a lot of my childhood questions about the story. How did all those animals fit in the ark? How did that little band of people keep them all fed and watered? How could they have enough feed along? And what about all the manure? How did Noah and his family manage to build such a big project? Where did all the wood come from? Why didn’t everyone else in the world force their way on to the ark as well?

The answers to my questions are surprising and imaginative. As a drama, a story, of a family working against the odds toward a vision it was a wonderful two and a half hours, money well spent.

So, what was my friend’s problem? He may have been looking for the Gospel to come through somehow. There was one, but it was more of an environmental message than a Christian gospel. In fact, I don’t think God was ever named God; it was always “The Creator”. Noah’s understanding of the Creator’s plan for the second chance is actually very Calvinist (and he never smiles), a totally depraved humanity is responsible for all the trouble in the world. Creation comes first.

Anyway, go and see the show. The scenery from Iceland is breath taking, the special effects are amazing, the story has enough action, and art, to satisfy both sides of the couch; there is romance, new life, and cute cuddly creatures. But, don’t go thinking that this is any sort of proof of the literal truth of a man named Noah, or that your Sunday School version of the story will be supported.

This is Hollywood, and Hollywood knows the name Noah would put more bums in more seats than Gilgamesh would.

 

The Stole, Images

The stole I received on Friday night did not come off the hanger in a liturgical vestments shop. It was custom made for me by my good friend S. It is unique and special.

Stoles carry symbols, often crosses, or flames, symbols that are meaningful to the wearer and which will invoke meaning in those that see it as well. The colour of the stole also has meaning

CameraAwesomePhoto (2)My stole has two symbols. The first, closest to the top is a stylized dove. The dove is the universal symbol for the Holy Spirit. The dove on my stole faces out symbolizing the Holy Spirit’s movement out from me through the preaching of the word. It reminds me that my words are empty on their own, just words, unless they are empowered by the Holy Spirit. It also assures me that it is not my job, solely, to connect with my listeners. I don’t work alone.

CameraAwesomePhoto (1)The second symbol is the denominational symbol, the cross superimposed on a triangle representing the trinity. This symbol has been turned into a fish, the same sort of fish you see on the backs of lots of cars, the same fish early Christians used to identify themselves to each other in times of persecution. The Greek word ἰχθύς means fish, but was seen as an acrostic, using the first letter of the words Ίησοῦς Χριστός,  Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ which are translated Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior. Thus, the fish.

All of this is on a white background. Many pastors have multiple stoles for use during the different seasons of the church. Mine is white, and for now anyway will be the only one. Since I will likely only use the stole for “special” events white works even though it may not be totally liturgically correct.

The stole is the most cherished physical gift of Friday night.