Sermon January 23 2022

While I have never been one to follow the ritual, I have been curious of late as to how the giving of traditional anniversary gifts was established. For example, why is crystal given for the 15th year or silver for the 25th? Some of the gifts for the years are really very strange. The traditional gift for the 10th year is tin or aluminium, for the 16th year it’s coffee or tea, for the 35th it’s coral?!  While gift giving itself should be no surprise and likely dates back to ancient Rome, the established traditional gifts for wedding anniversaries did not appear until the 19th century in Victorian England. Historians believe this is in part because up until then marriages were not usually based on love but on arrangements and convenience, so  not exactly something you would celebrate. It was in the 1880s when the whole idea of specific gifts like paper, silver, or tea for specific years was established and the company Hallmark took it to a whole new level in 1920 when it included an exhaustive list for every year of marriage. So like many things the tradition started as a commercial tactic.  In an article from 1886 it says that the reason one should give a gift for a wedding anniversary is not only, “in congratulation of the good fortune that had prolonged the lives of the couple so many years,” but also, “in recognition of the fact that the pair must have known a fairly harmonious existence to make it so far and that in agreement with the old idea that the harmony of the household depended mainly upon the wife that she be the one to  receive the reward.”

All silliness aside it does take a fairly harmonious existence to make it in this world. Today we celebrate Comox Valley Presbyterian Church’s anniversary as a congregation, a good 27 years. Which by the way, the traditional gift for 27 years is music. And while there have been challenges, grief,  disagreements and changes along the way, I would argue that for most of us it has been a fairly harmonious existence- even over the past two years of pandemic life! This is in part due to the hard work of those who have gone before us, those who literally laid the foundation for this church-some who are with us today! This is in part due to the harmonious effort of the leadership within session and committees. But I also suspect it has a lot to do with the Holy Spirit-to the leading, guiding, pushing, and pulling that the Spirit has done and continues to do within this church.

You know, of all the Gospels, the Holy Spirit appears most in Luke. It’s been a month, but perhaps you can recall that in the beginning of Luke, it is the Spirit who fills Elizabeth as she greets Mary. It is the Spirit that fills Zechariah as he prophesies upon the day of his son’s birth. It is the Spirit who guides Simeon in the temple. It is the Spirit that descends upon Jesus at his baptism and then leads him into the wilderness.  Now, as Jesus returns to his hometown and reads in his home synagogue, Jesus is filled with the Spirit as he reads from Isaiah.

Something important to note that might surprise you is that, in Luke,  the words Jesus reads from Isaiah in the synagogue are Jesus’ very first recorded words in public. Yes, we hear Jesus speak to his Mom when he’s lost in Jerusalem, yes, Jesus and the devil have a conversation in the wilderness, the wilderness into which the Spirit led Jesus. But the reading from Isaiah is the first recorded words of Jesus’ public ministry in the Gospel according to Luke. And it’s all thanks to the fact that Jesus is filled with the power of the Spirit.

In all likelihood what Jesus read was a much larger portion from Isaiah because what we have in our passage is a merger of two sections from Isaiah, chapters 61 and 58. You might recall last week that we heard from Isaiah 62 which is right after the passages Jesus reads and that the whole section of Isaiah 60-62 is about restoration following years of living in exile. While the people have not been living in exile, in Jesus’ day they certainly did not live with autonomy or freedom. They lived as oppressed people in their own land. So Isaiah’s words of restoration, regrowth and renewal still resonated with them. Jesus’ first words in public ministry are very intentional because they set up what Jesus’ ministry and mission will be about- particularly from Luke’s point of view.

Theologian Elisabeth Johnson points out, “Right here, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus tells us clearly what his mission is about. He boldly claims to fulfil the words of Isaiah, who speaks of the Spirit anointing him, sending him, compelling him, to bring good news to every one of God’s children who is bound up, pressed down, broken in spirit, impoverished, imprisoned, and desperately hungry for good news.” Perhaps as privileged people it is hard to understand just how liberating these words would have been, particularly as Jesus follows them up with, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” But there is a part of me who can appreciate how much we need to hear good news in these times. How much we need to hear that Jesus proclaims release from captivity and freedom and recovery. We are not captives or oppressed, most of us can not claim to be poor. Yet, we are in need of good news.

The Greek word for poor used in this passage is ptochoi which did indeed relate to economics but also to status and all the factors that could influence one’s lack of status in society, including race, gender, education, occupation, disability and even degree of religious purity. So when Jesus quotes Isaiah stating good news to the poor this really is a powerful statement of who Jesus is and whom Jesus has come to save. But this news would not have sat well with those who held power. Even for us, it can force us to come face to face with some uncomfortable truths. We are the powerful today. This can affect our harmonious existence because the Spirit stirs us with the realization that we may need to give up being comfortable. What are ways in which we can celebrate our anniversary in this community? Sure, we can congratulate our selves and remain insular in our thinking or do we hear these words of fulfilment from Jesus and ask ourselves how does Jesus want us to celebrate? For some this may be an abstract or spiritual question but Jesus demonstrated concrete examples of how to bring and be good news to the poor. Jesus healed, welcomed, liberated, many who others deemed to be on the fringes. Jesus turned tables- literally.

Back to this point about harmonious existence being something worth celebrating. You see, next week we will find out that Jesus’ words made a lot of people, particularly in his hometown, very uncomfortable. Quickly they go from transfixed and amazed to anger and violence. Jesus’ words do not fit in with their own idea of harmonious existence- even if they are living under Roman oppression. A reminder that we are still in the season of Epiphany. We tend to think that epiphany only represents the story of the visit of the Magi. We forget that there are many epiphanies recorded in the Gospels and today in the people hearing Jesus’ words, the epiphany is both enlightening and disturbing. Jesus sheds light on Isaiah and tells the people that this ancient prophet’s words to a post-exilic people have finally been fulfilled in Jesus.

This is our anniversary Sunday service- when we celebrate the gifts we have been given as a church in the Comox Valley. We can indeed celebrate with joy, and so we should, how far we have come and who we as a congregation have become. We can celebrate the harmonious existence we have had over the last 27 years. BUT I also wonder, how do we see our fulfilment in the Comox Valley? In our harmonious existence do we run the risk of becoming complacent. Where is the Spirit pushing and pulling us, filling us today? Happy Anniversary CVPC! Amen

Sermon January 16 2022

We are privileged to live in a place where a walk in the forest is readily available.  Whether it is along Brooklyn Creek, the Cumberland Community Forest or Seal Bay there are examples of forest growth in our very own backyards.   As we walk through our forests, especially, old growth or second growth, we might see the classic sight of a  “Nurse Log”. I read on an interpretative sign about nurse logs that, “Even though they’re dead, they are not gone- trees find a  way to help each other out postmortem.” A Nurse log is a fallen tree that provides “ecological facilitation” as they decay. Meaning, that the log provides new growth for seedlings through shade and nutrients. These old longs become a nursery for saplings. The signature look of a nurse log is that of a fallen log with sprouts of tree growth now bursting from it’s topside.  Nurse logs are one of the many examples of restoration, renewal and new beginnings that occurs in nature but it is quite possibly one of the simplest and most photogenic. Through these nurse logs, new beginnings are taking place. We talked about rebooting last week. Well today it is about re-growth and restoration.  Many at this time of year resolve to do something different or better or have a new beginning. Restoration, renewal and new beginnings, are top of mind still, even as we hit mid-January. In their own ways, both of our Scripture passages for this morning are about regrowth,  restoration, renewal and new beginnings.

The passage from Isaiah is all about total restoration. Now our brief section is part of a larger unit that spans from Isaiah 60-62. It was likely written in the post-exilic period, a time when the Hebrews were returning to their homelands after years of being exiles in Babylon, now Persia. This is the time when they look to restoring their lives

after decades, generations, have lived so far from home.  There is a mix of emotions within these prophecies. In this larger section there is both lament and salvation. They lament the challenges they have faced. They lament the changes that have taken place. They lament the people who have not lived to see this day of restoration come to be. They even lament the challenges that rebuilding and restoration will include; but they rejoice in the salvation that God has kept promises. The author looks forward in hope at the restoration of the people. This will be a time of regrowth for them all!

But regrowth and restoration does not mean a return to what once was. In this passage the prophet says that they will also be called by a new name. This isn’t a complete return to what once was but a restoration that will include something new. Nurse logs facilitate new growth through their decay. The people of Israel, in their return to their homeland will be starting a whole new journey.  In fact, there are hints at the universal message of God in this passage as well. The restoration that will take place for the Israelites will be an example to the nations.

Now, it might be a challenge to hear words of restoration when we hear words like desolation or forsaken in this passage as well. The point is that the land God had given the people has been ransacked and laid desolate by the enemies, but God is ready to change this situation. Out of the decay of the land something new will take place. What are the areas of our lives that have been left desolate that have the potential to birth new life? What are the nurse logs in our lives, as a people, as a congregation? We know that the church at large has some pretty major challenges ahead- particularly as we come out of this pandemic time- a changed people. We must rebuild and restore ourselves- but that doesn’t mean it will be a return to all that was familiar before. This is also a time of regrowth and renewal. A time of new beginnings.  Personally, I look to the possibilities and the hard work of our aptly named New Beginnings Building Committee and I see that through their vision, restoration in a new way has the potential to take place. They have been working hard, connecting with all kinds of people who can help us move forward with the vision of housing on our property and they will be presenting a recommendation to Session in a couple of weeks.  After that, I will call a congregational meeting so that the committee can share all this information with you.  We have some amazing possibilities ahead of us to give new life to our community as we look to restore ourselves within God’s plan. I’m not saying we are totally decaying like a nurse log, but I am saying that we can provide a place where through our shade and nutrients new life can grow. Isaiah claims that part of that restoration will look like a wedding feast, in which the people will desire to be with God as a man desires to be with his bride. For the record, marriage feasts usually lasted for about seven days back then- so quite a celebration!

During those days of feasting the host family would entertain guests with great fanfare. It was considered a embarrassment to run out of food or drink, especially wine. This is the predicament that the host of the wedding that Jesus’ has attended finds himself in. I love that it is Mary who finds a simple solution. She knows her son can solve this problem with just a graze of his hand. And despite his objections she takes charge and tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to-not even giving Jesus a real opportunity to back down. Mary’s words confirm her total confidence in Jesus’ ability and purpose.

Now, it might surprise you how Jesus’ first “miracle” is also a symbol of restoration. But first, I should point out that the term miracle isn’t quite right. Not once does the term miracle appear in the Gospel according to John. Not even the term “mighty acts” appears as it does in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Rather the author always refers to Jesus’ accomplishments as “signs”. This is the first sign of who Jesus is and what his purpose is. And within this sign, there is symbolism. No doubt, ALL of Jesus’ signs point to who Jesus is and what his purpose is. I think that’s why John uses the term. These signs point to the new relationship with God that we are all invited to form. But this sign in particular is steeped in restorative symbolism.

Jesus takes six stone water jars normally reserved for the rite of purification, has them filled with water and then it is converted to wine- the very best wine. By changing this ceremonial water into wine, Jesus is pointing to the newness of life that He has come to give. Through Jesus a renewal takes place.

In a commentary provided by the Church of Scotland regarding these passages it says, “The state of our nation and the Church should concern us as Christians. There is urgent need for renewal in the church.” This renewal needs to take place as a transformation- much like Jesus transforms water into wine, taking something old and familiar and doing something new, extraordinarily new with it.  The commentary goes on, “Transformation comes not by making New Year’s resolutions that we soon fail to keep, but by seeking the Lord Jesus with all our hearts and tapping into the empowering gifts that the Holy Spirit provides.” There is beauty in these words, inspiration in these words, but also, for me almost a feeling of dread, because I don’t know if I’m up to the challenge. Especially as we face MORE uncertainty. We don’t know where we’re at within this pandemic. We don’t know if things will get better or worse. But we can not miss this opportunity for transformation.

You can be assured that your New Beginnings Building Committee has spent A LOT of time looking at all the possible scenarios and “what ifs” . There is certainly concern that a building project is a big commitment. It is why we are seeking the input from experts! This committee has been in contact with various consulting firms and national church departments to help us put together the best possible scenario.  But you know what scenario would be the worst scenario? If we just let that land sit vacant, “decaying” in a way- rather than building upon it.

Like the people to whom Isaiah spoke, we are facing 2022 with a need to restore and renew ourselves. We need to rebuild in ways that may be new. We need to find ways in which we can delight in all that God has, is, and will do for us as a people and sometimes that includes regrowth.  Like the jars that hold wine that was once water, we need to be transformed, so that our community can celebrate in all that God is doing. Like a nurse log, we may need to let go of some things, BUT remember that out of the decay, new life can grow. I don’t have all the answers or expertise but I have the assurance that the Lord delights in us so long as we delight in the Lord. Amen

Sermon January 9 2022

Charles Babbage is considered “the father of the computer”, of course people like Turing and Packard and Hewlett helped develop the computer even more and then companies like Commodore, IBM and Apple developed personal computers. But it is Charles Babbage who is named “the father of the computer”, because in 1833 he designed an Analytical Engine- a prototype for the very first computer. However, it wasn’t until 1906 when his invention of computing tables was demonstrated in public. It took 73 years for his design to become a reality. This is in part because what he was attempting to do had never been done before but also because I believe that even in it’s infancy computers had bugs that would cause them to do things that we didn’t understand…and the only way to” kill” those bugs was to turn the computer off and then turn it back on again and start over. There is a British comedy show called the I.T. Crowd which follows a small tech department. Any time someone calls their department the first thing they say is, “have you tried turning it off and then on again”. If Charles Babbage is the father of the computer than he is also the father of the term “reboot”. And I know most of you know what I am talking about. Sometimes our computers force updates- sometimes at the most inconvenient times- as Mike is all too aware. Sometimes we have to force shut downs because what we are seeing on the screen doesn’t match what we think should be there. We have to turn it off and then on again. We have to reboot.  When I taught meditation to students at the University of Victoria we actually used the analogy of rebooting for our minds. Turning our selves off for a moment so that we could reorganize and start fresh. Meditation can be like that, it can reboot us. As we step into the new year of 2022, I pray that it is a bit of a reboot- that we are able to find a way in which we can start fresh. Quite honestly, spending some time talking about baptism, particularly as we hear the story of the baptism of Jesus this morning, it is also kind of like a reboot.

Today our Gospel passage comes in two parts. First we have Luke 3: 15-17 followed by 21 and 22. The passage begins with John. Throughout the season of advent we encountered the verses leading up to this week’s text. We heard how Luke was setting up the context so that we could hear the word of God coming to one in the wilderness and during a tumultuous time. Now John has garnered quite a following and people are beginning to really start to ask questions and feel the buzz- they are filled with expectation-not so much because they can sense the Messiah is near but rather because they are beginning to think that John is the messiah. John quickly corrects their assumptions and points out that he can only baptize by water, and that one who is more powerful is coming and he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. John’s declarations reveal that his own divine commission was to serve as a preparer, a town crier, a witness to the forthcoming of the Messiah. These are words that the people have been waiting for, for a long time. But John also helps them reboot their lives- their baptism by water enables them to wash off their old lives and step forward in faith ready for a new start before God.

We Presbyterians tend to skip over the part where John says that “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor” and then further where it says, “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” But these words are supposed to demonstrate the seriousness of baptism. This is not an act that one does lightly- there are commitments and vows that those undergoing baptism make or are made on their behalf but congregations make commitments too. One commentary clearly wrote, “Baptism is not a mere welcoming rite but a rite that signifies one’s separation from evil.” Yes, for us baptism is about being enveloped by God’s love and welcomed as a member of God’s family but it is also about committing to live a Christian life.  This is about pointing to our need for salvation and why we need a reboot. That is what repentance is.

This is what makes the second part, verses 21 and 22,  of this morning’s reading so fascinating. Luke is rather neutral about the story of Jesus’ baptism and it only takes two verses. This seems almost out of character for Luke, especially when he went into such great detail regarding the birth stories of John and Jesus. I mean, really, we managed to spend four weeks in a Bible study studying the songs alone, never mind the details surrounding Jesus birth. Whereas Luke was quite dramatic about the birth he is rather nonchalant when he records the story of the baptism.  Yet, if baptism is about a reboot and repentance and separation from evil, a washing away of an old life and stepping forward in faith, why does Jesus do it?

Luke, in his simplicity, states that while Jesus was also being baptized and was in the midst of prayer, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit like a dove descended. And a voice comes stating just how beloved Jesus is and whose Jesus is. The commentary went on to say, “This majestic moment in Luke gently recounts Jesus’ private divine confirmations of his identity as the Son of God.” That’s why Jesus gets baptized. So that both he, and us, can confirm his divine identity as the Son of God. Due to these two verses alone we can understand the person and the work of Jesus. The only person in the whole world who didn’t need a reboot was Jesus. Yet, I don’t think Jesus’ baptism was a reboot but it is an example. This story informs us who it is that we will be following throughout the course of the Gospel of Luke. It is a bit daunting, frankly a reboot can be a bit daunting- what if the update changes everything!

This is where the reading from Isaiah can be helpful. I will admit that this is one of my favourite passages, and it is only since coming to CVPC that I have come to understand this passage beyond it’s original exilic context. The Lord’s words to the people of Israel through the prophet Isaiah begin with “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” Claus Westerman in his commentary says that this phrase is not meant to be a psychological exhortation for an audience to muster courage, but that it is a divine action meant to banish fear. It is meant to be a soothing passage. It is meant to create a sense of calm. It is meant to bring us the peace which the angels declared to the shepherds upon Jesus’ birth. It is meant to bring us assurance. At the start of this new year we can be assured that we will not face challenges alone, not only do we go with the presence of God, but God calls us by name. When we pass through water or fire or whatever this year has in store for us- and for the record I pray it is not more water or fire but our environmental impacts have a lot to do with that. No matter what this year has in store we can breathe deep and know that God is with us. Let me assure you that this is what I meditate upon when I need to reboot.

We are invited to revisit our baptisms today. This may be an actual recollection or an opportunity to reflect on what your baptism means to you in this moment of your life. Baptism is a rite that signifies a separation from evil. Tied in with the beginning of a new year, perhaps revisiting our baptism, means washing ourselves of the year that is  behind us and stepping forward with confidence in God, trusting God to call us by name, and be present with us, in this year ahead. We can start fresh.  Luke says that the people were filled with expectation. At the beginning of this year, we expect, yearn, hope for this year to be different from last in a lot of ways. But we also read in these Gospel lines that Jesus is that expectation realized. The prophecy is fulfilled through him. Take a moment to reboot (Pause), breathe deep, let go of the old and step forward with confidence into the new. Amen

Sermon December 26 2021

We all know how steeped in tradition our Christmas celebrations can be. I know I certainly struggle with expectations around this time of year. I expect that I will drive around looking at lights listening to a Christmas Carol. I expect that I will hear and sing familiar songs. I expect that I will be filled with the warmth and joy of the season. And to be honest, I don’t always live up to those expectations. Often it feels like I spend a month preparing for Christmas Day and by Boxing Day it’s all over. Yet, in the church season, the feast of Christmas is just getting started. In the Eastern churches, they haven’t even had their big Christmas celebrations as yet. In the medieval church, yesterday was the start, not the end,  of a twelve day festival. We are in the midst of the twelve days of Christmas! Liturgists, ministers, music directors and congregations always have some version of the debate of when to start singing Christmas Carols. Some traditions absolutely refuse to sing carols until after Dec. 24th. Advent is supposed to be a time of reflection, pondering, and preparation while the season between Dec. 25th and Jan. 6th is to be the big event. I tend to blend the two. But I have recently come to appreciate that the church has this opportunity to be a little counter-cultural when it comes to Christmas. Yes, we can embrace the fact that December is the only month in which we might hear a carol or hymn while also grocery shopping. But why not reclaim the twelve days of Christmas- as a great and wonderful festival within our tradition. Why not hang on to and celebrate this Christmas season a little more and a little longer. Spend the next twelve days reading through the rest of Luke chapter 2 in which Jesus is named, presented at the temple, returns to Nazareth and then twelve years later shows up in Jerusalem.

You might think it is a bit strange to hear the story of Jesus, getting lost in the temple at 12 years old, as part of our Christmas celebrations but I think this is part of the reclaiming of the twelve days of Christmas.  Because the twelve days of Christmas aren’t about holding onto the image of a baby in a manger. In hearing this story in Luke, we are reminded that the idyllic story of Jesus wrapped in swaddling cloths surrounded by cattle and sheep, doesn’t last long. Next week we will be reminded that this story also involved fear and violence, in amongst a great revelation. The story of Jesus in the temple reminds us that we don’t get to stay safe and cozy in our faith, rather we have to ask the question how Jesus is incarnate in our lives and communities. Do we see Jesus in our every day or does he get lost in the temple?

In Luke’s story, “Jesus is depicted as sitting, listening, and asking questions.” Then it goes on to describe how all who heard Jesus were amazed at his understanding and his answers. Now, it makes sense that often when this passage is interpreted that it is used to demonstrate just how fully Jesus understands his authority, even at twelve years old. I’m going to argue that this time around what I hear is a clearly intelligent twelve year old, who is asking and answering questions. This story is a model for faith formation. It invites us to ask questions, and tackle difficult theological subjects. It says that the incarnation is not just about a cute story of a baby in a manager but it is also a story about going deeper with God and being open to all kinds of possibilities.

I also want to point out that Jesus has been missing for three days. Imagine being his parents. We might read a foreshadowing of the resurrection into this story but for his parents it was likely a agonizing three days. Mary says so herself when she chastises Jesus stating, “I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” I wonder if we ever search for Jesus with great anxiety? Jesus’ rebuttal of, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” is also astounding. It might seem obvious to us- that Jesus is found in the temple or in our language- the church- but how often do we really find Jesus incarnate in the church?  The story of Jesus getting lost in Jerusalem and being found in the temple forces us to ask, do we seek, find and become amazed by Jesus?

Commentary writer Phill Mellstrom points out that, “The Luke passage invites us to go deeper than “seeing” and move towards “recognizing”. Jesus is growing up…What does it mean for us to see Jesus growing up- beyond the infant, beyond the safe romanticism that can pervade Christmas traditions? How is Jesus incarnated in our homes and communities? How are we recognizing Jesus in the difficult spaces that can come with this time of year? Christmas is not a perfectly gift-wrapped time where people forget the worries of their reality. [It isn’t a Hallmark movie]. It is a time where isolation, grief, debt-fuelled stress can be very real. How do we recognize Jesus in the midst of this? Are we prepared to even look for Jesus in these hard places?”

Last year, we managed to catch Lucy Worsley’s BBC Tudor Twelve Days of Christmas Special in which she recreates how the twelve days of Christmas were celebrated in Tudor times. I would highly recommend it if you see it come up on Knowledge Network. Each day within this festival had meaning.  Still today, within the Eastern Orthodox tradition, these days have special meaning.  Now I’m not suggesting we reclaim all these days, within the reformed tradition it might seem strange to all of a sudden celebrate saint’s days. But it is fascinating to learn the themes behind some of the days- which then helps us to see those hard places where Jesus is made incarnate.

Today, Dec. 26th is of course, St. Stephen’s Day. We know it thanks to Good King Wenceslas but in reality this is a day that commemorates the very first Christian martyr. Stephen was stoned for his belief in the incarnational Jesus! The account is found in Acts 7 and you know who approved of the killing? Saul- later to be named Paul. While we don’t generally celebrate saints-I think it is important for us to remember that sometimes recognizing the incarnated Jesus is risky. Or perhaps like Good King Wenceslas this is also a day in which we are the incarnated Jesus, caring for those on the fringes.  Do we search, find and become amazed by Jesus? Do we become Jesus in those hard places?

Another interesting day within the twelve days is Dec. 28th which is sometimes called the “Feast of the Holy Innocents”. This is a day that commemorates what happens after the wise men go home by a different route and Herod realizes he has been tricked.  Herod demonstrates his tyrannical nature and calls for the the massacre of all the children two years old and under. You see the twelve days of Christmas are not always celebratory feasts. What Lucy Worsley pointed out is how comforting this day was in a time period where infant mortality was high. It acknowledges hard places found within our world. Do we search, find and become amazed by Jesus? Do we become Jesus in moments of grief?

January 1st is  known as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ because according to Jewish tradition a male child is circumcised 8 days after his birth. What I find fascinating is that within the Roman Catholic tradition, as part of this feast it is the World Day of Peace. Like baptism in our tradition, circumcision, was a way in which children were enveloped and claimed as one of God’s own. So, I find beauty in also seeing this as day in which could mark peace. Something many corners of this world lacks. Something many corners within our busy lives lack.  When we are in need of the  peace which passes all understanding, the peace of being enveloped into the family of God, do we search, find and become amazed by Jesus?

Of course the whole twelve days ends with epiphany- the day in which we celebrate the Magi’s gift giving. I know Ross will touch on that a bit next week so I won’t say too much. But it continues this theme of searching for, finding, and being amazed by Jesus.

Mellstrom says, “Just as Joseph and Mary didn’t know where to find Jesus, we must ask ourselves similar questions- do we know where to go to find Jesus? Can we recognize signs of His presence? Do we recognize Christ in the guise of stranger as well as friend? Where are we afraid to look? Where are we afraid to go, to wait, and to dwell in expectancy?” I know, I’ve been asking a lot of questions- and not giving you many answers. I know you probably expected a sweet Christmas message about an adorable baby. But sometimes we don’t get what we expect. And like Jesus as a twelve year old in the temple, sometimes we have to ask questions. We may not always get answers right away- although almost always the answer in the end is Jesus. I invite you to celebrate the Christmas feast time in all kinds of ways searching for, finding and becoming amazed by Jesus. Amen

Sermon December 19 2021

In 2003 the American pop group The Black Eyed Peas released the lead single from their album Elephunk. will.i.am one of the writers said that inspiration for the song came from the general anxiety following the attacks on Sept. 11. Over Christmas in 2001, just 3 months after the attacks, he wrote some of the music, shared it with his friend Justin Timberlake who helped write the chorus and then shared it with his band mates. There were some initial production challenges but when the song was released a few years later it was a break out hit for the group and garnered them two Grammy nods the following year.  The song is entitled, “Where Is the Love?”  and the group states that it is a protest song which takes an “Intersectional approach to societal criticism from a racial justice perspective.” I’m not going to sing or rap the song- I simply am not talented enough- but like Billy Joel’s “We didn’t start the fire”,  the song references modern issues and challenges facing particularly marginalized people in North America. One part goes, “Father, father, father help us/ Send some guidance from above/’Cause people got me, got me questioning/ Where is the love?” It is challenging to think that a song that calls for love could be seen as revolutionary or as a protest song. Yet, like the Beatles “All You Need Is Love” or Costello’s “What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding” the song “Where is the Love?” draws on the fact that within much of our every day- loving your neighbour- is more elusive than it should be. It may seem like a stretch- and I don’t want to claim that these pop songs have deep theological meaning- BUT Mary’s Magnificat is a protest song, is a revoluntionary song and is about reclaiming God’s love. It is also about asking, where is the love? Every year, at about this time, when we have been overly saturated by the “commercialism” of Christmas, I start to question where the love is too.

The love between Elizabeth and Mary is profoundly important to the story of the birth of Jesus. Those of us who have been participating in the Bible study got to study the Magnificat, Mary’s song, in detail.  They might recall how we discussed that Luke uses songs, not just Mary’s to make some theological claims on who Jesus is and what is expected of him. This song is called the Magnificat because Mary’s soul magnifies (magnificat) the Lord. Mary’s song also demonstrates who she is and what is expected of her. Despite the fact that she is clearly a strong person Mary would have been feeling very vulnerable given the strange circumstances around her pregnancy. It is no shock to us that she would go and spend time with Elizabeth, her elderly cousin who was also expecting. Mary needed to surround herself with love. Yes, she has assurance that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and that the most high will overshadow her. Yes, she knows that nothing is impossible with God. Yes, she has the support of Joseph who has also been visited by an angel. But, women’s bodies and choices have always been scrutinized and that was particularly true in first century Palestine. You’ve heard me say it before, according to Biblical law Joseph was within his right to request that Mary be stoned to death. We are not told why Mary goes to visit Elizabeth but staying in her community would not only have been uncomfortable but unsafe.

The narrative portion of what we heard this morning highlights this importance of finding love in the care, prophetic words and blessing of Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s words allow Mary to feel joy about this unusual pregnancy. As Mary approaches, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit- she becomes a prophet in her own right- and with her prophecy exclaims that Mary is blessed. What is interesting is that it is John who stirs the Spirit within Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s yet to be born son John recognizes Mary’s yet to be born son Jesus. It’s why the bulk of Advent focuses on John’s story. In truth, John is the first to recognize that Jesus is Lord, is Emmanuel, is God with us. It is John’s leap in his mother’s womb that allows Elizabeth to react with such jubilation which in turn allows Mary to sing her revolutionary song or say her prophetic protest words, and boy does she let loose.

The pure fact that it is Mary who makes these statements is revolutionary enough. This is one of the few texts in the Bible, where a woman is presented not only as a main character but speaks prophetically. It certainly mirrors Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2 when she presents her son Samuel to God’s service. Both women proclaim that God is doing something not just for them but through them all people will be drawn in, to God. But it is rare to have records of women speaking in such a way. Note, I believe it is not that these occurrences of women speaking prophetically was rare but it was rare that it was recorded. Mary’s words also introduce a theme that will unfold throughout the books of Luke and Acts; that salvation comes through the reversal of the norm or status quo.

This reversal starts with Mary- a lowly servant of God who has been called blessed. Mary is not of high standing. There’s no real reason for us to even know her name. Until God chooses her, of all people, for this significant role. Mary’s own soul magnifies the Lord and her spirit rejoices in God. She recognizes her part within this story. But very quickly these words move from an individual to an entire nation, people, and society. Not only has Mary’s place in this world been reversed but then God, through Jesus, will reverse systems oppression. The powerful will be brought down and the lowly will be lifted up. Mary personifies a cultural shift.

But hang on, linguistically, something else is going on that is important to note. Unfortunately we lose a little in most of our English translations. In the NRSV Mary speaks in the perfect tense, as in, “He has shown strength, He has scattered, He has brought low, He has filled, He has helped” implying that the actions in the past continue on into the present. But in the original Greek they are all in the past tense- full stop. God showed strength, scattered, brought down, lifted, filled, helped; implying that the actions are completed. A great commentary by Wesley Allen Jr. pointed out that this means that Mary’s Magnificat is a paradoxical prophecy! “It speaks of a future God will bring in through the yet-to-be-born messiah using the past tense verbs. There is a sense, then, in which Luke is proclaiming that already at the point of awaiting the coming of the messiah, salvation is done deal. The paradox of the Magnificat is the paradox of our faith. This is the “already” and the “not yet” [that we speak of at this time of year]. Already the reign of God has arrived, but when we look around at the world we plead that God’s reign might yet come.” If Jesus’ birth meant a reversal of systemic oppression then why do we live in a world where we still have to ask ourselves, “Where is the love?” This is what Advent is all about. It is about the paradox of Jesus already in our midst and yet we wait, prepare, and hope for Christ to come.

I think Mary speaks this way because she is not only telling the world of her visions and hopes and truths about her son, about what is to come but because Mary has lived this reversal herself. She has experienced it first hand and she can now share this joy with the one other woman who understands what’s going on. Because Mary, a lowly servant has been called blessed, the lowly have been,  are and will be lifted up. Mary is stating that even before Jesus’ birth, God’s salvation has come, is here, and will come.

Where is the love? It is in the support Elizabeth gives this young unwed mother. Where is the love? It is in Mary’s prophetic and revolutionary song.  Where is the love? It is in a humble manger. Where is the Love? It is in a small vulnerable baby. Where is the love? It was strung up on a cross. Where is the love? It is still manifested each time we break down systems of oppression or hatred or inequality or inequity. Jesus is present, comes again, each time we respond to need, love our neighbour, turn our other cheek. Where is the love? It came down at Christmas. It is here among us. It will come again. Amen

Sermon December 12 2021

It has been many years since I read Charles Dicken’s classic Great Expectations, however, as I was thinking about all that we expect out of this season that book kept popping into my mind, not the least because of it’s title. Like the classic we read at this time of year, A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations was written as a serial from Dec 1 1860 to August of 1861. And the opening stage, as I recall, does indeed take place at Christmas. Now, assuming that not all of you have read the book, or it’s been a while for you as well,  in brief, it is a coming of age story about a boy named Pip who manages to overcome poverty through a benefactor. The story really begins when Pip steals a pie and brandy that were meant for Christmas dinner. To be honest, not many people had any great expectations of Pip since he was also an orphan, but that is what makes the title relevant to the plot. As the story unfolds some expectations are met and some take totally different turns. At this time of year I always expect to be drawn towards Victorian or Dickensian classics, I didn’t expect this year to be so drawn to re-read Great Expectations.  As we hit the middle of December I think we all begin to assess our expectations of the season. I tend to put a lot of weight into Christmas dinner, even when it’s just Mike and I, I expect that this year, like most years we will have kraft dinner and chili around a campfire. But sometimes even that expectation is not always met.  Along with joy, today’s theme is really about great expectations.

As we heard last week, Luke often spends time on details about time and place. He likes to situate everyone within a larger historical framework which helps us understand a little better why so many were ready to hear Jesus’ message of hope, peace, love, rebellion and redemption. What Luke is trying to point out is that while these events seem to be taking place on a small world stage they are of global significance. Luke had expectations of Jesus- which is why he writes his Gospel.  We hear in this song that Zechariah has expectations too.

Zechariah had some great expectations for his son John- and we know based on last week that many of those expectations are met while others take some turns. For a little refresher it might be handy to remember that Zechariah, a priest of the order A-bi-jah had been married to his wife for quite some time when he receives word that his wife will bear a son. This is not something Zechariah expected for either himself or his wife so late in years. It is so unexpected that he questions the angel Gabriel who then declares that because of Zechariah’s unbelief he will be mute, unable to speak, until his son is born. The angel does tell Zechariah that upon the day of John’s birth, Zechariah will be filled with joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth. Clearly over the nine months Zechariah and Elizabeth have not only come to terms with this pregnancy but are indeed filled with joy! But this joy must have also been filled with expectation and even concern.

When the baby is born, as is expect, Zechariah names him John. The name John is a short form of the term Jehohanan, which means Yahweh (or Jehovah)’s gift or God is gracious. This unexpected baby is indeed a gift from God not only for these elderly parents but for the world at large. We can hear in Zechariah’s song the joy he feels about this gift. But also in this song we discover that Zechariah has caught a glimpse of who he expects his son to become. In the NRSV translation this section is given the title “Zechariah’s Prophecy”. But this song is also a hymn of praise.  As we have learned throughout our Advent Bible study, Luke uses hymns throughout his opening chapters to provide commentary on these extraordinary events. This song is most often called the Benedictus because the first word Zechariah says after being mute for 9 months is “Blessed” or Benedictus in Latin. From verses 68 to 75 it truly is a hymn of praise.

Zechariah bursts with joy not only declaring the blessedness of God but also in celebrating God’s faithfulness. Zechariah sees the words of prophets from days gone by as finally coming to fulfilment and he expects his son to be a part of that story. We know from last week that Malachi is really the prophet that highlights the expectation of not only a saviour but a forerunner to the saviour. We heard the verse, “See I am sending a messenger to prepare the way.” A town crier is coming! But it was generally expected, in part because that is how other parts of Malachi are interpreted, that this forerunner would not be someone new but would be Elijah. Through his praise Zechariah, a priest who would have been well informed about the expectations surrounding the arrival of a messiah, we learn that God can not only throwback to prophesies of days gone by but also do something new with them. God can show mercy and keep promises and remember the holy covenant, but God is not just the God of the past but of the present and the days to come. With God we have certain expectations but we also have to expect the unexpected.

The second section of Zechariah’s song really gets to the heart of the prophecy. Zechariah expects that John will be this messenger and will prepare the way for the coming saviour. Every advent, no matter the cycle in the lectionary, we are faced with the theme of being prepared. Yet, I think most of us avoid talk of preparedness when it comes to the messiah. I remember hearing Ben Douglas talk to the Church Breakfast  about emergency preparedness and he finished his presentation by stating, “if you don’t get these supplies in the next 72 hrs, you likely will not get those supplies.” Meaning that, we all know we should be prepared for an emergency, many of us, including me, say, “Oh yah, we should get one of those earthquake kits.” But unless we are motivated to do it following a presentation like that, than it always remains a “should have” task rather than get implemented. Until it is, of course, too late.  Our talk about preparedness during advent usually boils down to just that, all talk. We spend so much time preparing for Christmas and thus expect much from this season. Yet, how do we prepare to welcome Jesus?

Zechariah sings of knowledge, that this messenger will give the knowledge of salvation. I think the saying is, “knowledge is power.” We celebrate with joy the knowledge of God’s forgiveness. Practising this knowledge, embodying this knowledge, living this knowledge is a way for us to be prepared.

However, I also wonder along with being empowering if knowledge can also be worrying. You see, we know what happens to John because we have read the story. It’s why it is helpful to hear this song following last week’s sermon. We can read the song with hindsight.  We know John will garner a following. But we also know that this following will make the authorities uneasy, which will get him arrested and out of fear and selfishness John will end up beheaded, all because of the knowledge he held. Many of you know the popular song, “Mary Did You Know?” it is a beautiful song, but the truth is that yes, yes she knew exactly what would happen to her child because she too sings about it. But I wonder, did Zechariah know what would happen to his song? Based on his song, I’m not sure. He expected his son to speak of repentance,  to shine a light on Jesus, to guide people towards peace. Did he expect that the story would end the way it did? Probably.

We all place expectations upon this time of year and not all of them are met and many take strange turns. You probably didn’t expect to hear two sermons about John back to back! It’s not particularly “christmasy” is it? But that is part of the advent experience. John lays the foundation for us so that we can receive Jesus with preparedness, knowledge and joy. We expect to have a season seeped in traditions and the familiar but this is also a story about new beginnings. Zechariah sings that, a light will shine. Tom Gordon, a former hospice chaplain, has an interesting take on this song from Zechariah, he says, “It’s a light-bulb moment that means freedom from darkness and the amazing nature of a new beginning in Christ in our personal acceptance of the peace He brings.” Zechariah’s song is indeed a song of joy about his son John, but like his son, Zechariah points to the incarnational power of Jesus.   What more can you expect? Amen

December 5 2021

I was recently asked, “If you weren’t a minister, what do you think you would do?” Truthfully, I had to think long and hard about the answer and then I said, “You know, I think I would be a really good Town Crier.” There is no denying that I have a loud voice- my inside voice is often louder than most outside voices. The person then asked, “Do town criers still exist?” and I had to admit that likely they didn’t or at least it wasn’t a paid profession. I have since discovered that there are 144 towns in Great Britain who have registered Town Criers and that some of them are indeed paid. There is the Ontario and Nova Scotia Guild of Town Criers. As recently as 2016 the town of Burlingame, California added a town crier to their payroll and Provincetown, Massachusetts has had an active Town Crier position since 1840. So, I suppose there is a career for me if this goes belly up. Of course,  town criers were much more prevalent when most of the population could not read. They were the greatest means of communication, often proclaiming bylaws, market days and other special announcements. They often began their speeches by ringing a bell and declaring “Oyez, Oyez, Oyez!” which comes from an old French word blending ouir (ear) and ecouter (listen). But there are records of town criers that date as far back as ancient Rome. You can likely guess where I’m going with this, today we hear about John the Baptist who essentially served as Jesus’ town crier. But I also suspect that someone in Philippi would have served as the “town crier”, disseminating Paul’s letter to the rest of the congregation.

In relation to Luke’s Gospel it kind of feels like we are doing things a little out of order. And quite frankly, it’s true, we are. We are going to hear John’s announcement this week and next week we will hear Zechariah’s Prophecy, or song, about John on the day of his birth. But this is in part to give us some context. Zechariah’s words next week will make more sense because we know who John is and what he becomes. Speaking of context, Luke really sets the stage for us and gives us a very clear context of when all this takes place and who is in charge. At first it might seem like irrelevant details but here is what I think is going on. Luke states that this takes place in the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius. Naming the emperor, who is way off in Rome may seem like unimportant information but it was Tiberius’ stepfather Augustus who was the first emperor, so this form of government was still quite new. Tiberius’ relationship with the senate was very touch and go.  I think Luke mentions Tiberius, not only to provide a date but so that we can understand the state of the world. That it is a tumultuous time. Then Luke refers to local politics by stating that Pontius Pilate is governor of Judea and that Herod and Philip were rulers of the region. Luke is anchoring John’s announcement of a coming Lord within a specific political time and place. But then Luke turns to the religious situation and names two High Priests, Annas and Caiaphas. What’s very strange about giving their two names is that it was unheard of to have two high priests serving at the same time. We might not realize it, but original listeners would have picked up on this, there is something strange happening within the temple system, something not quite right, something out of the ordinary. It is within this unstable time politically and religiously that John makes a proclamation! Also, by being so specific to the context Luke is actually demonstrating the universal significance of the story, something we might come to realize when we hear the closing verse that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

To claim that all John is, is a town crier, is also not accurate. We know he wasn’t dressed in white breeches and a tricone hat like most town criers of our folk lore. John certainly goes around the region making this grand announcement, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins but much like the prophets of the days of old, this proclamation comes to him. The word of God came to him in the wilderness. John is not just a town crier but a prophet as found in the old testament. Our call to worship today comes from one of those prophets, Malachi, and in that passage we are told that a messenger is coming, a prophet and preparer. John bridges the days of old in which prophets acted as reminders and town criers to the people and the days about to come in which Jesus will shine a light on God’s will.  John is telling the people it is time to get yourselves organized! One paraphrase I read stated that John’s message was, “The King of kings is coming. Mend your minds as well as your roads, your faith as well as your politics, your hearts as well as your structures. Get yourselves ready, so that you are fit for the King to see!”

John’s call is certainly a call to preparation and expectation, which of course makes it well suited for advent. As I think about last week’s passage in which we are told to be alert to the signs of God at work in our world, I wonder how John’s call to preparedness might relate. Luke not only locates John’s arrival within a political and religious context but Luke also states that the word of God came to John in the wilderness. Things have been pretty wild of late. Not just politically or religiously, but literally- with various weather bombs and climate change events. To hear that God’s words can come to one in the wilderness reminds me that even in the most desolate areas of the world are part of creation and are of concern to the creator. No matter how wild things get- God’s words can still break through, get through, be heard and proclaimed! We are not only to keep alert and see the signs of God today but hear those words and proclaim them. Much like last week those signs bring me hope, this week those words bring me peace.

Now, Presbyterians don’t really talk about repentance much, because it’s not something that generally brings us peace. However, what John’s ministry was all about, was a call to an altered life and a symbol of grace, that our sins are forgiven which transforms our existence. This is where Paul’s letter comes in. Paul seemed to really get on with the Philippians. It is a pretty positive and upbeat letter. We heard a few weeks ago that it is called “Paul’s happiest letter.” Today we hear how Paul gives thanks to God every time he thinks of this congregation. It’s actually a multifaceted expression of thanksgiving. There is prayer, joy, the experience of grace, compassion, concern and anticipation which makes this letter quite a proclamation. Paul is confident that God will continue to work among the Philippians. In part because they are shareholders with Paul in God’s grace. In verses 5 and 7 Paul uses the term share. They share in the gospel and they share in God’s grace. Because they share in this way, Paul declares that he is confident that God will bring to completion the work among the Philippians that God had begun earlier.

Today we share in communion, because we too are a part of this greater context. We too hear the words proclaimed by John that even in our own context of political and religious uncertainty, even in our own wilderness, we need to be transformed so that we can cry out- not only making sure our voices are heard but the voices of those who are unable to speak. “Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! We need to mend our minds as well as our roads, our faith as well as our politics, our hearts as well as our structures. Get ourselves ready, so that we are fit for the King to see!”   Amen

November 28th 2021

In 1989, in celebration of his 40th birthday, singer-song writer Billy Joel began to reflect on various events that had taken place over his then four decade life time. He started to write down a list of significant events from 1949 to 1989 and he came up with 118 political, cultural, scientific and sporting events. The list included all kinds of things like the establishment of the communist party in China to Woodstock to the first airing of the game show Wheel of Fortune and ending with the Cola wars.  That list turned into a fast paced song and became Billy Joel’s third single to reach number one in the United States. The chorus of which went something like, “We didn’t start the fire/It was always burning, since the world’s been turning/ We didn’t start the fire/ No, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it.” Joel wrote the song with the intention of pointing out that though things seem crazy in this day and age, that things have always been crazy and will continue to be crazy. It is simply a sign of the times- that the times have always had signs. I have not heard how Joel feels about the times we are living in now. It has been over 30 years since he wrote that song and perhaps he is older and wiser or feels the same as he did then. As 2021 begins to whined down. As we celebrate a new church year on this first Sunday in Advent. As we look with hope towards 2022. And as we hear our passage from Luke I am reminded that each advent, but in particular this one, asks us to look at the signs of the times and be ready for what God will unfold.

We have to realize that by the time this passage comes up in Luke. A lot has been established about Jesus. Luke’s gospel begins with the most detailed birth story. We have a few missing years and then the story picks up again once Jesus is in his thirties and beginning his ministry. Chapter after chapter we hear parables, miracle stories, and many teachings of Jesus whom Luke often refers to as “The Lord”. Jesus has made the journey from Capernaum to Jerusalem, has had a triumphal entry with palms a-waving, wept over Jerusalem and cleansed the temple. Chapter 21 is a collection of prophetic messages spoken by Jesus in the final days of his earthly ministry. Both Jesus, and Luke as the recorder, are lamenting and expressing dissatisfaction with the way of the world in their day and age.

Verses 25-28 are the most apocalyptic, which makes them very challenging to preach on, especially on the first Sunday in Advent in which we celebrate hope! The Message paraphrases this passage in this way stating, “It will seem like all hell has broken loose-sun,moon, stars, earth, sea, in uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic by the threat of doom.” Where is the hope in that! Yet, if we see these words as an expression of dissatisfaction with the way of the present world, perhaps these are not hopeless words but rather a yearning for an altered future. Jesus is convinced, as we should be, that God ultimately exercises authority over all creation. One commentary wrote, “The cosmic distress is but evidence of the power of God that is at work to bring about the redemption of those who believe in and recognize the authoritative work of God.”  That certainly sounds more hopeful than I initially thought.

Jesus then moves on to tell them a parable. Ok, great, we have discovered recently that parables can be read in a multitude of ways, can have messages of hope, can teach us lessons, can reveal something about God and God’s kingdom! And this parable does not disappoint. Jesus uses the lesson of the fig tree to tell his followers that the signs are all around them. But Jesus complicates the matter by stating that heaven and earth will pass away!

Jesus softens his words a little by telling them to be on guard, be alert, watch for those signs and keep your minds focused on the task at hand rather than over consuming in merry making and alcoholic beverages. This very day, the first day of advent, is usually the beginning of a month long binge of merry making! This passage is not helping me get in the advent mood at all. But you know, I’m beginning to think, that perhaps Jesus’ promise of redemption and statements about the coming of the Kingdom were in reference to his upcoming crucifixion, not in relation to some as of yet unrealized event. If that is the case, then the signs Jesus was talking about were more related to the sombre observations of holy week then advent.

And yet, and yet, advent is always about the “already and the not yet’. What if, in relation to advent, and all that this season represents, and, on this Sunday, hope, what if what these prophetic words are supposed to do is direct us to be attentive to God’s leadership and playfulness in relationship to our human condition. What if Jesus’ words are meant to be a warning but also an assurance. I think we can all agree that this year has not turned out the way we expected it to! In some ways I am glad I didn’t know a year a go what I know now- I think I would have been so discouraged. I would have read these words of warning and felt utterly hopeless. BUT, if we keep our eyes open, if we are on guard, if we are alert, then we realize that the signs that God is with us are all around us.

I do want to acknowledge that for many within our congregation and certainly within the broader world this year’s celebrations will be different. There will be one less guest at many tables. When others are singing blissfully away at all the familiar carols some of us might be pulled into moments of melancholy. Not everyone can see signs of hope especially when they are in the fog of grief. Yet, advent is a season of light during a very dark time of year.

I could list off, all kinds of things that have happened over my 40 years on this earth, I could list off tragedies, political events that made us shake our heads, various cultural events that have changed us as a people and then I could throw in a pandemic that none of us saw coming or playing out the way it did. But perhaps those aren’t the signs we are supposed to looking for. Ruth Harvey, current leader of the Iona community says, “As we read the signs of the times, we are not asked to debate, or write a list, or even to ponder- but we are asked by our Lord Jesus Christ, to “stand up and raise our heads.”” We are meant to keep alert at all times, in our times, seeing the signs of God in the here and the now, at work in our worship, in our play, in our hoping and dreaming, in our actions and words, in our neighbours and neighbourhoods.

The next question that arises in my mind is, how do we keep alert to hope when things seem hopeless or when it comes to our budget meeting after the service. You have all seen the numbers, it is hopeless to try and stop the rising cost of basic necessities. Projecting another deficit is absolutely concerning. But also within the pages I see hope. We are planning on continuing various ministries like our Pastoral Care Assistant- a literal God send to this congregation. We may not have had our nativity display this year but within the lines of this budget it is clear we anticipate having it next year! It is our hope that we not only meet the challenge of making our budget but exceed it- covering our costs so that our community can see the signs of hope in this church.

When Jesus tells his followers to look to the fig tree, he tells them to look for signs of growth, of hope, of new beginnings, of brighter days ahead. We need to see the signs of God at work in this world- God’s kingdom on earth- see the signs of hope that have been all around us as we struggled along over this past year and more, as we head into this new church year, as we look towards a story of hope in which the world was illuminated by a light, the light of Christ. It’s not about starting a fire- that fire has already started-but it is about fanning the flames with wisdom, love and hope. Amen

Sermon November 21 2021

Sermon for Nov. 21, 2021

Stepping Forward in Faith

As many of you know I’m walker. I love walking over any other mode of transportation. I am not, however, a runner. Even as I continue to work on staying active, running, is not one of the things on my exercise routine. Honestly, I really don’t understand the pleasure of running. Yes, I’ve heard of a “runners high” but the excruciating effort it would take to reach such a state does not appeal to me. If you are a runner. Good for you. It’s not for me. But whether one is a runner or not, all of us can understand the metaphor of “running a race.” Living through this pandemic has made us feel like we are on an endurance run. And it hasn’t always been easy, we are definitely not at the “runners high” stage, nor have we reached the finish line.

Our lives are a journey- that sometimes feels like a 100m dash, sometimes a sprint, and many times like a marathon. At times, it feels like we’re going around in cycles on a track and other times like a cross-country jog. At times, the path is intense, as we keep moving, trying to keep up. At times, it is a straight line. At times, it is all over the map. The apostle Paul took many circuitous routes as he journeyed over land and across the Mediterranean Sea, from Damascus across Turkey to Macedonia and Greece and back to Jerusalem, planting churches and raising funds for the church in Judea. There is a lot to love about Paul’s writings but one in particular is that all along the journey he is thinking about the future and always moving forward. This movement is rooted in his relationship with God through Christ, who is always calling him forward.           In Philippians, we hear that Paul wrote, “I am well on my way reaching out for Christ who has so wondrously reached out to me.” But here is the crazy thing about Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul wrote it while in jail, his work was under attack by competitors, he has been planting churches for 20 years with very little reward and yet, this letter is called “Paul’s happiest letter” within biblical scholarship! Perhaps at this point in Paul’s life he has found that runner’s high! Even from prison, Paul helps early church communities move forward, because he has his eye on the goal, far beyond any present circumstance. The goal is, drawing near to God known to us in Christ. The path is wherever or whatever God is calling us to do- to serve, to learn, and to be in relationship. Paul doesn’t claim to be an expert. In The Message’s version of our passage verse 13 goes, “I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made, but I have my eye on the goal where God is beckoning us onward. We are off and running and we’re not turning back!”

In our church calendar, today is called, “Legacy Sunday” and much of what we will hear comes from excerpts from the Stewardship and Planned Giving department within our national church. Today they really hone in on the idea that the reason we are a part of this race is because we wish to leave a lasting legacy. Legacy gifts, or planned gifts, are a way for people to keep moving forward in faith, as is our weekly offering. This is about supporting ministry that is forward thinking. The most common type of legacy gift comes to the church when a person dies: money left in a will, a gift of life insurance or a charitable gift annuity. However, a planned gift can also be given when a person is alive, like stocks, bonds or mutual funds.  I’m not going to pretend I understand it all but I have witnessed, especially over the past two years, how much of an impact legacy gifts can have. Planned gifts can have a big impact on communities. Think about the conversations we are having around building affordable housing on our property. Think about how you all did an incredible job this year in raising funds for our roof and furnace. I mean, truly it is astounding, to know that when we put out the call not only did people respond so that we met our goal but we exceeded it! Nearly tripling our goal. And you know what that means? It means that we will not be depleting as much from our GICs. Instead it means we can use our GIC funds to invest in further ministries that are forward thinking, like an affordable housing building project.  The legacy of investment in ministry that can be felt for generations to come.

The planned giving office shared the following story. As we hear this story of giving I pray it inspires us to think about our legacy in this community. Like Paul, Mary Hobley thought about the future ministry of the church. Mary was passionate about music. She was still singing in her church choir and taking weekly voice lessons into her 90s. She wanted to pass the gift of music on to future generations, so she left a gift in her will for St. Columba by-the-Lake Presbyterian Church in Pointe-Clare, Quebec. Interest from this gift allows St. Columba to support music ministry in Mary’s name. Half the money provides two music scholarships annually for high school students in the community who have graduated and are going on to study music. The second half provides funds annually to support St. Columba’s ministry, which the session can designate as it sees fit. Some years it has been used to enhance the music ministry, like piano maintenance, but it has also been used to help fund sanctuary renovations and a new Food Ministry Coordinator at St. Columba. Mary’s gift has enabled that particular congregation in forward thinking ministry.

Throughout scriptures we are reminded that everyone is blessed, valued and entrusted with resources. We are given these resources by God and it is up to us to decide how we use them. The ministry we do, and the impact of legacy gifts, looks different in each congregation. As a church, especially as Presbyterians, we are known to be thinking people. We think carefully before we do things. We assess and reassess; we pray and we ponder. We look at the big picture and the long-range goals. We create budgets and prepare reports. Don’t forget we have a congregational meeting next Sunday to review and approve the 2022 budget.

But even with all that planning, there are things we don’t know about how ministry or our lives will unfold. The past two years has taught us that sometimes we have to rethink everything! And yet, we keep moving forward in faith. We pledge from our resources, make use of our gifts and strengths and invest in what will enable us to serve God and make our community better. Stepping forward in faith always involves a risk and an investment. Paul risked everything to share God’s love, creating and supporting communities that would live out the way of Jesus. He ended up in jail because of this work. People of faith have always taken risks, in the generous use of their lives and financial resources. We are asked to take the risk to love, to hope, to be generous, and to try something new. Like Paul, we are not always experts, but when we continue to run the race, and when we continue to be generous, our lives are enriched.

As we step forward in faith together, we move towards the God who created us and who loves us. The road is not always straight or paved, frankly, the road is not always clear or safe, but God goes with us. As we step forward taking risks and sharing our resources, there is always life-giving legacies in our community to be found. Amen

The Rev. Jenn Geddes

November 14 – Remembrance Day Sermon

Sermon for Nov. 14, 2021
Honour and Sacrifice: Remembrance Sunday
          One never knows what they might find when renovating an old house. Veronique Cote knows that better than most. She was renovating her home in Chambly, Quebec. It was time to remove the old papers and put in proper insulation. She began the arduous task and was pulling out all kinds of old newspapers that had been stuffed between the wall when all of a sudden an envelope fell to the floor. Inside the envelope was an 8 page love letter dated Sunday, May 23, 1943, written by Lt. Robert Macfarlane to his young wife Jean Macfarlane. A portion of the letter stated, “My dearest wife, I’ve just come in from a walk of a few miles and thought I would write down, if I could, some of the things I’ve been thinking about you, things that are deep in me but that I’ve expressed perhaps only rarely to you, I hope you won’t find it too sentimental. I don’t think you will, I know I never do when you write that way to me.” Veronique says that it was a beautiful letter about how much this engineer serving in the Canadian Armed Forces overseas deeply missed his wife. Veronique wanted to know the end of the story, wanted to know if Lt. Macfarlane made it home. She posted a picture of the envelope on social media and hoped that she might learn a thing or two about Robert and Jean. The next day, while she was back at work removing the paper between the walls, there was a knock at the door. The 70 year old man at the door introduced himself as Bruce Macfarlane, son of Robert and Jean. A friend had phoned him just 12hrs after the post went up. Macfarlane had grown up in Chambly and from the Facebook post describing the letter, he recognized the house where it had been found. He decided to drive from his home in the Eastern Township about 115 kilometres away and see the letter for himself. Robert did indeed return from the war and grew the Macfarlane family. This is just one of many stories of  sacrifice that we know took place and takes place amongst our armed forces families. Sacrifice is a funny word because it is usually made in reference to an offering towards a deity, but in this case we are talking about giving up or surrendering a part of ourselves in the service of others. The widow in our scripture passage today displays sacrifice as she makes a small offering at the treasury.

The passage we hear today occurs in two different places amongst two different groups but the two situations are closely related and linked to all that Jesus has been preaching and teaching for the last little while. In the first scene Jesus is in the temple amongst a mixed audience, disciples, followers, religious leaders, likely a few scribes too. In the next scene Jesus is opposite the treasury, within the temple grounds or nearby and he calls to only his disciples to make his final point.

Jesus has been teaching in the temple for the last few chapters. He has been fielding  of all sorts of questions about the resurrection and David’s son. Our reading picks up at Jesus’ cautionary words about the scribes who walk around with their swelled heads and expecting esteem as they make their way through the market place. Yet, as they take up the best seats in the house they are also devouring the widow’s houses. It is unlikely that Jesus meant that the scribes were literally devouring widow’s homes but perhaps it was the result of either demanding tithes from the widows beyond what they could afford or mismanagement of the widows’ assets with which the scribes would have been entrusted. Either way the scribes are behaving badly.

In the next scene, however, Jesus then points to an example as he sits opposite the treasury and sees a widow put in two copper coins. In this two part story Jesus is transforming our understanding of honour and sacrifice. Those who are listening to Jesus’ warning would have typically either been the scribes expecting respect in the market place or those who gave respect to the scribes in the market place. Yet with his follow up example Jesus is declaring that it is the widow who sacrifices much and therefore it is the widow who deserves honour. This would certainly have surprised the disciples who would likely have had pity for widows but not honour.

It is also perhaps surprising that this widow gives so much. Two copper coins, or lepta, was the smallest denomination in first century Palestine. Jesus seems to know about this particularly widow’s financial situation and states that she has put in her whole life. Truthfully, the NRSV version that we heard does not give a proper translation. The Greek expression is olon ton bion autes which means, “her whole life”. Yes, she puts in everything she had but really, she puts in what her life depends upon.

I read a commentary by Amanda Brobst-Renaud in which even our traditional reading of this text may be in need of some transforming. Yes, this is a story about stewardship and giving all that we are to God. But, what perhaps we might begin to wonder is, in relation to Jesus’ warning about the scribes devouring widow’s houses, why is the widow who gives two copper coins so poor? And why is she giving to a clearly broken system? Why does this woman sacrifice everything to an institution that has devoured her house?

You know, over the past year in particular, I have had a lot of conversations about why the church still matters, especially as we reflect on horrendous moments in the church’s history like the residential school system. One of the reasons I remain in the church, is not because of the story of redemption or salvation or grace, but because the church is often a broken system- and the only way it can be fixed is by sacrificing time, energy, and finances in trying to make it more like the kingdom of God. I suspect that many of my friends who serve or have served in the military feel somewhat similar. They serve not because it is the perfect system but because they want to work towards providing hope and peace and justice in a broken world.

Brobst-Renaud says, “Perhaps this widow’s house has been devoured as she gives the last of it to a broken system. Maybe this widow places her whole life in the treasury (not because she trusts the scribes but because) she trusts God with all she has and all she is. Maybe the widow’s offering is both an expression of trust in God in the midst of the world comprised of broken people, systems, and communities of faith…Those whose sacrifices provided for the temple financially were not the ones who gave the most. Rather than lifting up those with power and influence in the community, Jesus identifies the widow as having given more: she gives herself.”

This past week we took a moment to reflect and remember people who sacrificed their youth, their love, their efforts,  gave themselves up for our country, an often broken country, but this sacrifice represents hope, and for many trust in God. Giving of our whole lives to God means that the systems that are broken have a chance to be fixed. It forces us to ask the question, where do we put our energy, our finances, our time, our sacrifice, and our patience? Who do we honour?  How do we give of ourselves so that the kingdom of God, the realm of peace, and hope, and love, has a chance? When we remember- it is also an opportunity to reflect on how we can do our part to make it better.

As we think about how we can give of ourselves to fix a broken world or system and to demonstrate our trust in God,  I’m going to close today’s meditation with words written by F.B. MacNutt from his book A War Primer: an Anthology of War Prayers, Intercessions, and Prayers of Devotion:

We arise today with the power of God to guide us, the might of God to uphold us, the wisdom of God to teach us, the eye of God to watch over us, the ear of God to hear us, the word of God to give us speech, the hand of God to protect us, the way of God to direct us, and the shield of God to shelter us. Amen