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November 28, 2021.

Message for The First Sunday in Advent

November 28, 2021

Luke 21:25-28

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

This is the beginning of William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”, a poem that many people consider to be one of and perhaps even the greatest poem of the 20th century.  One line in particular is very well known and that is, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.”  Things falling apart and the centre not holding certainly describes the state of the world when Yeats wrote this poem one hundred years ago.

Yeats lived in a world of upheaval and turmoil.  He was a rather rare person; Irish by birth, he was both a Protestant and an Irish nationalist.  At the time when “The Second Coming” was written, Ireland was in a virtual state of anarchy.  First there had been the Easter Rebellion in Dublin in 1916 which the British government, while engaged in a life and death struggle with Germany, had put down with brutal force.  That led to the formation of the Irish Republican Brotherhood which was the forerunner of the IRA.  They waged a war of terror against the British and the British responded by waging their own war of terror.  With all of this happening, tensions rose between the Protestants and Catholics and there was the very real prospect of a civil war.  As already mentioned, Yeats, being both a Protestant and a nationalist, felt trapped and saw little or no hope for his native land.  Then again, he didn’t see much hope for the larger world around him either.

The horror of the First World War was over but there was little peace or stability.  The German and Austro-Hungarian empires had collapsed in chaos.  The Russian Revolution in 1917 had, for a short while, seemed to promise democracy for the Russians but that hope was short-lived.  Civil war broke out between the so-called ‘white’ and ‘red’ Russians.  The Bolsheviks, the forerunner of the Communist Party, gained control and proceeded to destroy all of its perceived enemies.  And then, as if all of this was not enough, there was also the first and greatest pandemic of modern times, the Spanish Flu.  Still coping with the after-effects of the Great War, most nations and societies were unable to cope with the resulting suffering and loss of life caused by this pandemic.  It was especially deadly for pregnant women and that included Yeats’ wife.  Stricken by the flu and expecting their first child, she hovered between life and death before she finally recovered.

This is the world that inspired Yeats to write his famous poem.   Surrounded by instability, war, violence and disease, Yeats was convinced that the end of the world was near.  “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”, he wrote and even though it was written a century ago, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that this poem is now experiencing a rebirth of popularity.

More than one commentator has noted the almost uncanny parallels between the state of the world today and the way it was a hundred years ago.  There is for example the threat of war and violence; China is flexing its muscles, threatening and intimidating its neighbours, especially Taiwan.  A couple of weeks ago Russia fired a missile into space to destroy a satellite claiming that that was all that they were doing, but many fear that this marks an escalation of the arms race.  After winning the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban now faces the prospect of a bitter war with ISIS who, having been driven out of northern Iraq and Syria, now dream of making Afghanistan their ideal state.  This of course is the last thing that the world needs.

To add to all of this, we are also dealing with our own pandemic as well which is certainly having a profound impact on the world today.  Indeed as I have sometimes said, without being melodramatic or pushing it too far, the impact of Covid-19 is for the present generation what the Great Depression and World War Two were for earlier generations.  And of course, unlike those people of a hundred years ago, we also have to deal with the threat of climate change.

During the past summer we witnessed almost unbelievably destructive forest fires and a record heat wave in British Columbia, and during the past two weeks we have seen images of vast areas under water because of the ‘atmospheric rivers’.  It is hard to draw a direct connection between what has happened in B.C. this year and climate change, but there is little doubt that something is going on; the world is warmer and storms that were once described as happening once in a hundred years are now happening with disturbing regularity.  In the past of course we have had heat waves but, generally speaking, they are now hotter and longer than what they used to be.  As I have often said, we are getting to the point where having air conditioning in the summer will be as much a necessity as having heating in the winter.  And what is happening isn’t just having an impact on us human beings either.

Species after species are in danger of disappearing altogether.  We can think of that iconic symbol of our Canadian north, the polars bears for example.  It is now predicted that with the rising temperatures and melting ice, they will be extinct in the wild in about 75 years time. Truly climate change has so many implications for life on this planet that it is almost mind-boggling, and so perhaps it is no wonder that Yeats’ poem is experiencing a revival in popularity today.  In so many ways it seems as if things really are falling apart and that some sort of catastrophe is right around the corner.  And like Yeats, we might well think that “Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand”.

The Second Coming:  there is perhaps no more controversial topic for Christians than this.  Some interpret today’s scripture passage literally while yet others insist that Jesus was using the language of poetry and symbolism.  Some people long for the Second Coming to happen sooner rather than later while yet others dread it and even deny that it will ever happen.  Indeed to many people, the Second Coming, far from being the good news of the gospel, is the exact opposite since it replaces the catastrophes in the world with an even greater catastrophe, the end of the world.  How can the end of the world as we know it possibly be the good news of the gospel?  In fact it seems to proclaim the exact opposite of the hope symbolized by this morning’s Advent candle.  And yet, the promise of the Second Coming is a message of hope.

No matter how we understand or interpret today’s scripture passage, the bottom line is still the same; that God is in charge and that in the end, pun-intended, God is going to get what God wants.  I like the way one writer put it:  “As it is sometimes said, we Christians don’t know what the future holds, but we do know who holds the future”.

Whether it be in the wider world around us or in our own personal world, we do know who holds the future.  God does, and God doesn’t just hold the future, he is also present and active here and now as well.  This is one of the great promises of Christmas.  Emmanuel; God is with us.  The poet W. B. Yeats may have well described both his world and our present world in his poem, “The Second Coming”, but he didn’t quite get it right in his famous line, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”.  Yes, things may fall apart but the centre will always hold.  It will because the centre belongs to God.

 

 

Pastoral Prayer

Gracious God, hear us as we come to you in prayer on this first Sunday in Advent, this day whose theme is that of hope.

As you well know, life can be very difficult at times and sometimes it almost seems to be overwhelming.  Nevertheless, we are the people of hope because we know that the great promise of Christmas is true; Emmanuel, God is with us.  No matter where we go or whatever happens, you are with us and this gives us both strength for the present and hope for the future.

We thank you for our hopes for the coming weeks as we celebrate the birth of your Son, especially after the let-down that was Christmas for so many people last year with the restrictions in place.

We pray this day for all who stand in need of hope.  We pray for all who hope for healing, whether it be for themselves or someone else.

We pray for all who grieve for the loss of a loved one, and we especially pray for those facing their first Christmas without a loved one.

We pray for all, both near and far, who hope for a better future for both themselves and their loved ones.

We pray for the people of British Columbia devastated by the storms and flooding, losing so much and hoping for relief as they look to rebuild their shattered lives, homes, and businesses.

We pray for all of us who hope that this pandemic with all of its impacts, great and small, will soon be over.  We hope and pray that the latest variant is not as threatening as some people fear it may be.

We pray this day for all those who have lost hope for themselves, their loved ones, and the future.  Comfort, strengthen, guide, and reassure all who feel trapped or overwhelmed by life, its heartaches, and struggles.  Grant that the hope symbolized by this morning’s candle may truly be a reality in the lives of all your children.

We ask these things in your Son’s name.  Amen

 

November 21, 2021.

Message for Christ the King Sunday

November 21, 2021

John 18:33-37

          “Who’s the Boss?”  Some of you may recognize this as the name of a TV show that first aired thirty-some years ago.  It was very popular at the time and can still be seen on reruns today.  For those of you who don’t remember it or perhaps never watched it, this comedy starred Tony Danza and Judith Light.  Danza played the role of a macho Italian-American baseball player whose career was cut short by an injury.  Light played the role of a very successful but very uptight advertising executive.  They were both single parents and, by a strange set of circumstances, Danza became Light’s housekeeper.  The comedy centred around their relationship and the perpetual question as to who was the boss.  Was the boss the employer or the employee?  Was the boss the man or the woman?  To further complicate things, there were obvious romantic undercurrents between the two principal characters as well.  In the end it was left up to the viewers to decide which, if either of the two, truly was the boss.

Who is the boss?  What makes a person the boss?  While perhaps not obvious at first, these are questions that we are supposed to be thinking about today, today being Christ the King Sunday.  Christmas of course is now right around the corner but before we get so caught up in it all, we pause today and ask ourselves, who’s the boss of our lives?  Is it Jesus?  If it is Jesus, then what does that mean for us and our lives?

This morning’s scripture passage is one of the suggested lectionary lessons for today, but I must admit that I find it a little bit jarring.  Since today’s passage recounts a part of what happened on that first Good Friday, it seems to belong back in the spring around Easter time and not now as we prepare to kick off the Christmas season.  And yet, focusing as it does on Jesus’ claim to be a king, it is easy to see why it is one of today’s suggested lessons.  Before we can really appreciate what happened on that spring morning so long ago, we have to first know some things about Pontius Pilate himself.

Pilate was the official in charge of Judea.  He had a challenging job in a very difficult part of the empire, trying to keep the peace and govern the Jewish people.  There was for example a group of people called the Zealots who we today would call either terrorists or freedom fighters depending upon our perspective.  The Zealots waged a war of terror on the Romans, assassinating both soldiers and government officials in an effort to drive them out.  Pilate himself wasn’t afraid to resort to violence either; on more than one occasion he ordered his soldiers to put down demonstrations and riots with brutal force and a great loss of life.  Despite this though Pilate was in many ways a typical bureaucrat; he didn’t want trouble and would do his best to try and avoid making hard and difficult decisions.  This is what Pontius Pilate was like when early one spring morning he was told that a delegation from the Temple wanted to see him.

The delegation had a prisoner with them who they claimed called himself the Son of God.  According to their religious laws their prisoner should be executed for making such a claim but only the Romans could carry out a death sentence.  Accordingly, they wanted Pilate to rubber stamp their decision to put the man to death.  To his credit though Pilate was unwilling to condemn Jesus without first giving him a hearing.

The gospels tell us that Pilate quickly realized that Jesus hadn’t done anything to warrant the death penalty and so he did everything he could to save him.  In an effort to arouse sympathy for Jesus, Pilate had him whipped but that didn’t work.   Pilate then offered to set Jesus free as a goodwill gesture for the Passover celebration but that didn’t work either when the mob insisted that they wanted Barabbus freed instead.  In the end Pilate gave in and took the easy way out and quite literally washed his hands of the whole matter.  Even though he knew that it was wrong, he gave the orders for Jesus to be crucified.

Now it is easy enough perhaps to condemn Pilate for what he did and to say that he should have been stronger and had the courage of his convictions.  And yet, in all honesty, would we have done any better if we had been confronted by the Temple authorities and the mob?  Indeed, are we any better?  That question was once posed by Raymond Brown who was one of the greatest biblical scholars of the 20th century.

Brown said that we should hesitate before we condemn Pilate for his behaviour because in the end, we have far more in common with him than anyone else involved on that first Good Friday.  This is to say that even now, figuratively speaking, Jesus stands before us just as he did before Pilate awaiting our verdict.  Jesus claims to be the Messiah, the Son of God, and the King.  In short Jesus claims to be not only the boss but even our boss, but what is our response to this claim?  What is our verdict?

Well, said Brown, the good news is that we aren’t like the temple authorities and members of the mob.  Unlike them we do not hate Jesus, and that is the good news.  The not so good news however is that we aren’t like the original disciples either.  To be sure they all got scared and ran away on that first Good Friday morning, but we should never forget that they were also the ones who gave up everything to follow Jesus in the first place.  They were also the ones who became the foundation upon which the church was built, sacrificing so much including, in some cases, their very lives.  Are we anything like them?  Are we prepared to be like them?  If we are honest then the answer for most of us is no, we are not.  Our commitment and discipleship has its limits and only goes so far.  The good news then, said Brown, is that we aren’t like the religious authorities, but the not so good news is that we aren’t like the disciples either.  Rather if anything, Brown insisted, we are most like Pontius Pilate.  What Brown meant by this is that most of us are only lukewarm when it comes to Jesus.  Like Pilate we are well meaning.  Like Pilate we also want to do the right thing.  We may even go so far as to hail Jesus as a king and even as our king but that’s as far as we will go.

One of the hymns that we’ll be singing during today’s service is that wonderful hymn of discipleship and commitment, “Take my life and let it be”.  Consider these stirring words:

Take my silver and my gold,

not a mite would I withhold.

Take my intellect and use,

every power as thou shalt choose.

And,

Take my will and make it thine,

it shall be no longer mine.

Take my heart it is thine own,

it shall be thy royal throne.

These wonderful words clearly imply that Jesus is not only the King, but our King and the boss of our lives so-to-speak.

I have never forgotten a woman who is no longer with us who absolutely hated this hymn; in fact she often complained whenever we sang it.  But why did she dislike it so much?  Because, she said, it was so hypocritical.  We sing these words she said, but we don’t really mean them so what’s the point?  We sing for example that Jesus is the King and that we will do anything and everything for him, that not a mite we’ll withhold and that our hearts are his royal throne, but honestly?  We don’t really mean this so why should we sing it?  Now was she right?  Are we at least a little bit hypocritical when we sing this hymn and many other such hymns?  Do these wonderful hymns of discipleship make us feel good and committed but that’s as far as it goes?  This is a personal question with a personal answer but that brings us to today’s challenge.

All around us are signs and reminders of the season soon to be, or perhaps even is already upon us.  There is the parade this afternoon, and the malls and stores are decorated.  Some radio stations are now playing Christmas music all day every day.  Every evening more and more houses have Christmas lights on.  Within the church itself we begin Advent next Sunday which is, as if it were, the countdown to Christmas.  But before we get so caught up in it all we pause today to remember who and what the babe lying in the manger is and what he means for our lives.  Who is Jesus?  Is he the King?  Is he our King?  Who’s the boss anyways?  If Jesus truly is the boss and King of our lives, then how do we show it?  How will we show it, and not just in the coming weeks leading up to Christmas either?

 

 

Pastoral Prayer

Gracious God, hear us as we come to you in prayer on this Sunday that is set aside to remember who and what your Son is and what he means for us and our lives.

The Bible uses so many images and ideas to capture at least a bit of who and what your Son is:  the Alpha and Omega, the Lamb, the Bread of Life, and the Good Shepherd.  He is called the Christ or the Messiah as well, but today we remember one image in particular; the King.  As the Lord and King of all creation, your Son is both the one who is in charge and the ultimate authority.  We thank you for this, praying that you will help us to enthrone him in our lives; grant that we may truly be his faithful obedient subjects.

We pray for the sake of your kingdom here on earth, your church, and her ministry.

We pray for the sake of your world with all of its trials and tribulations, remembering the people of Afghanistan facing hunger and hardship as their country ceases to function.  We pray for the hungry of our own land and community, even as the economy continues to struggle to cope with the pandemic.

We especially remember this day the people of British Columbia, coping with a disaster on a scale that most of us have never experienced and cannot even begin to imagine.  We remember the farmers who have seen their crops and livestock wiped out, people who have lost their homes and their livelihoods.  We pray that you will comfort, strengthen, reassure, and guide as only you can.

We pray for all who grieve this day and all who are ill, praying for their well-being.

With the parade this afternoon we give you thanks for this season that is now beginning, praying that you will help us to remember what it is truly all about; the birth of our Lord and Saviour, he who is the King of all creation.  We pray that your Son’s rule here on earth may, day by day, become an ever-greater reality.  Help us too to do our part by word and deed to make it a reality.

We ask these things in your Son’s name.  Amen

November 14, 2021.

Message for November 14, 2021

Hebrews 10:1-7

Have there ever been times in life when you have felt sad, lost, weary or frightened?  Or have there ever been times when you have felt so discouraged, and no longer sure of what you believe in or why?  That’s certainly how one small group of Christians felt at the time of this morning’s scripture passage; in the words of an old saying, they felt as if they were “caught between the devil and the deep blue sea”.  But what was their problem?

To put it simply, they were both Jewish and Christian.  By race and religious upbringing, they were Jewish and yet since they believed that Jesus truly was the Messiah, they were Christians as well.  The term didn’t exist back then, but they were what we would call today Messianic-Jews.  The problem though, to quote another old saying, was that “they were neither fish nor fowl”.  The Jews rejected them saying that because they believed in Jesus, they were Christians.  The Christians on the other hand rejected them because they thought that they were too Jewish.  These poor people were despised and rejected by both sides.  Not surprisingly perhaps, some of them started asking themselves, “why bother going on this way?  Why bother believing in Jesus?  Let’s just give up on him altogether and go back to being Jews and Jews alone”.  And that is why the letter to the Hebrews was written.  It was written to try and convince them not to give up on Christianity.

The Jewish people at that time had a very strong sense of sin and many of them saw their religion in terms of dos and don’ts.  God was the judge and he had given them the Law including the Ten Commandments.  The people were to obey the Law and when they didn’t, then they were guilty of sin.  Their sins offended God and separated them from him.  There was however a way around this.  If a person truly felt sorry for what they had said or done wrong, then they could buy an animal and have it sacrificed in the temple in Jerusalem.  Doing this showed that they were truly sorry for what they had done, and this pleased God.  And so the sacrificial system emerged.  Day after day, year after year thousands of birds and animals were ritually slaughtered in an effort to atone for sin and gain God’s forgiveness.

As time passed though, an increasing number of people were troubled by this.  How, they asked, could the slaughter of animals make up for the sins that they had committed?  There was a growing sense that animal sacrifices were not enough and that something else, or rather someone, was needed to atone for sin and bridge the gulf between them and God.  The author of the letter to the Hebrews insisted that we have that someone and that someone is Jesus.

That writer, whomever he was, insisted that all the offerings ever made in the temple could never take away all our sins.  Only God can and he has done this through his son’s dying on the cross.  Symbolically Jesus had taken everyone’s sins upon himself and then died for all as the ultimate sacrifice.  Did the Hebrews, and anyone else for that matter, really want to be forgiven?  Did they really want peace with God, themselves, and one another?  Then all they had to do was confess their sins and believe in Jesus.  If they believed in Jesus, felt sorry for what they had done and made restitution whenever possible, then as far as God was concerned it was as if they had never sinned in the first place.  Forget about the temple and the animal sacrifices the author urged, just believe in Christ and all will be well.  And what that author wrote to those sad and discouraged Christians so long ago still goes for us today.  The question increasingly being asked however is whether this is news that the world wants to or even needs to hear?

I recently read a book in which the author posed the question, “whatever became of sin?”  It often seems, he said, as if sin no longer exists; that in an effort to be open-minded and tolerant, virtually any sort of behaviour is considered to be acceptable.  And if there is no real right or wrong, then it follows that there is really no such thing as sin either.  And since there is no sin then there is no need for Christ.  What does it matter if Christ died for the forgiveness of sins if there is no sin in the first place?  And so the argument goes, but if this is the case then why are so many people troubled by such as the hurtful things said or done, or even by the good things that for one reason or another were never said or done?  Our very consciences testify to the reality and the power of sin.  This was once brought home to the Christian songwriter, Michael Card.

Card was worshipping in a Presbyterian church in Kentucky and the sermon that morning was about sin.  Card greeted it with a yawn; ho-hum, another sermon about dos and don’ts he thought.  The minister though soon had his and everyone else’s attention.  He noted that they all felt confident that they were pretty good people but then, without identifying anyone, he proceeded to specifically list the sins that he knew the people present in church that morning were committing.  To say that it made them uncomfortable was an understatement; in fact most of them started to get very, very angry.  The minister pointed out that if they thought that there was nothing wrong with their behaviour then why were they getting so upset?  They were because he had hit a raw nerve.  They were angry because even if they didn’t like to admit it, they knew that he was right; their own consciences testified to the reality of their sins.  The minister though didn’t just identify their sins or put them on a guilt trip; he also moved on from the bad news to the good news of the gospel.  That quite simply was that despite all that they had done wrong, God still loved them and was willing to forgive them.

The love of God and his willingness to forgive is the great news of the gospel.  This in fact is one of the reasons why Christ was born, died, and raised; to demonstrate just how much God loves, cares and is willing to forgive.  God in fact even wants to forgive.  It doesn’t matter what we did or didn’t do, forgiveness is always ours for the asking if we want it.  The love, mercy and forgiveness of God is beyond all our comprehension, and this was brought home to me by a TV show this past week.

For the past while Susan and I have been watching the TV show “Lucifer” on Netflix.  The show is a bit of everything: crime, comedy, drama, and romance.  The premise is that Lucifer, who is the devil, got bored in hell and decided to come to earth for a vacation.  At the beginning of the series, he acted like the devil and lived a very debauched life.  As the series went on though Lucifer slowly evolved and by the end he was a totally different being; he loved and cared about others, and was even willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of others.  At the very end of the series, he returned to hell but not to torture the inhabitants there but rather to redeem and restore them.  In short, the series is all about Lucifer’s redemption, and while this of course is all fiction, its message is actually very Christian.  If there is hope for the devil, then there is hope for everyone else as well and no one is beyond the reach of God’s love and redemption.

William Langland wrote in his great medieval poem, “Piers the Ploughman”:  “All the sins of the world are but one burning coal in the sea of God’s grace.”  I have long loved that line; what is one burning coal compared to the boundless ocean?  And so it is with our sins and God’s forgiveness.  This is the good news and promise of the Christian faith.  This is the good news and promise of the gospel.  God loves and is more than willing to forgive no matter what we’ve said or done.  The depth of God’s love and willingness to forgive stretches far beyond our comprehension and imagination.  And it is this, our belief that all the sins of the world are like one burning coal in the sea of God’s grace that sets us free and enables us to embrace the future without being haunted or tied down by the mistakes of the past.  How, asked the author of the letter to the Hebrews, could the people turn around and walk away from this?  How could we?

 

 

Pastoral Prayer

Gracious God, hear us as we come to you in prayer on this mid-November morning.

There is so much for which we can and should be grateful for.  There is the wonder of the world around us and the universe beyond us, a universe so vast that it boggles our imaginations.  Truly when we look at the creation around us and the night sky above us, we are reminded that you are God and that there is none other like you, so majestic, powerful and creative.  We pray for your blessing on your creation and all therein, and that all the good promised at the Glasgow conference on climate change may become a reality.

We thank you this day for our loved ones, praying for your blessing upon them, that they may be well and safe.

We thank you for our homes, the food that nourishes our bodies, and all that nourishes our souls and minds.  We pray this day for all who hunger whether it be for food, a place to call home, peace and security or love and acceptance.

We thank you for your love revealed to us in so many different ways but first and foremost by your Son.  We thank you for his life, teaching and example.  We thank you for his dying upon the cross for the atonement of our sins, and that he has, in the words of the hymn, “opened the life-gate that all may go in”.

We pray this day that everyone may hear and believe the good news of the gospel and in doing so, may be set free from the mistakes and burdens of the past.

We pray this day for all who are burdened, and not just by the past but also by the present as well.  We pray for all burdened with grief, illness, and fear of what the future may have in store.

We pray this day for the well-being of all as the pandemic continues, remembering those who are living with its effects whether it be upon their health, livelihoods, social isolation, or tensions over vaccine status.  Help us to remember the words of the slogan so popular at the beginning of the pandemic; that we are all in this together.  And help us to remember too that you are in it with us as well.

We ask these things in your Son’s name.  Amen

 

November 7, 2021.

Message for Remembrance Sunday

November 7, 2021

Amos 5:18-24

Luke 12:41-44

“When the prophet Amos walked down the main drag, it was like a shoot-out in the Old West.  Everybody ran for cover.  His special target was The Beautiful People, and shooting from the hip, he never missed his mark.  He pictures them sleek and tanned at Palm Beach, Acapulco, St. Tropez.  They glisten with suntan lotion.  The stereo is piped out over the marble terrace.  Another tray of Bloody Marys is on the way.

With one eye cocked on them, he has his other cocked on the Unbeautiful People – the varicose veins of the old waiter, the pasty face of the starch-fed child, the winos passed out on the railroad siding, the ragged woman fumbling for food stamps at the check-out counter.

When justice is finally done, Amos says, there will be Hell to pay.  The Happy Hour will be postponed indefinitely.  Nothing but a few chicken bones will mark the place where the cold buffet was spread out under the royal palms.”

 

So wrote Frederick Buechner in his book “Peculiar Treasures:  A Biblical Who’s Who”.   Buechner is an American Presbyterian minister and one of my favorite authors, and even though I realize that his writing style doesn’t appeal to everyone, he does give us a good idea of what the prophet Amos was like.  As Buechner suggests, Amos was a very angry man who called it the way he saw it.  But why was Amos, who lived about 750 years before Jesus, so very angry?  A historian named Stephen Winward tell us:

 

“In former times the peasants had been the strength of the nation.  Now, in the changed circumstances following upheavals and wars, they were at the mercy of the rich and their small holdings had been swallowed up in the large estates.  There was a gulf between the rich and poor.  Nor was there any redress for the oppressed in the law courts, for the judges accepted bribes from the rich, and those without money were given no chance of a hearing.  Not that the powerful and wealthy were irreligious!  The sanctuaries were thronged with worshippers, offering many costly gifts and sacrifices.  Piety and devotion went hand in hand with injustice and oppression.  Religion was divorced from justice, piety from kindness, sacrifice from mercy.  Such was the state of the nation when Amos was sent to preach.”

 

Given all this, is it any surprise that Amos was an angry man?  He was infuriated by the gulf between the way things should have been and the way things really were.  Amos’ anger certainly comes across in today’s first scripture passage.  In it he attacked the rich people’s hypocrisy saying that they thought that they were so good and religious but look at how they treated the less fortunate!  And since their religion was divorced from their day-to-day lives, God took no delight in their worship and sacrifices.  Worship and offerings were all fine and good said Amos, but in themselves they were not good enough.  They weren’t because while God wanted his people to worship him, he also wanted them to put their faith into action by caring for and respecting one another.  In short said Amos, God wanted justice to roll on like a river and righteousness like an everlasting stream.

This said Amos, is what God wants from us his people and who could disagree with him?  This I am sure is what we want too; all of us, in theory at least, are in favour of justice and righteousness.  But is this the reality though?  So often we are all in favour of justice and righteousness, at least until it begins to cost us or poses an inconvenience to our lifestyle or our pocketbooks.  Then it can be a different matter altogether.  We can think of climate change for example.

Nobody is in favour of global warming and many, indeed probably most people, agree that we cannot keep on going the way we are.  Something must be done to stop, or at the very least, slow down the earth’s rising temperature for both our sakes and that of the generations yet to come.  Indeed if we do nothing then what sort of world are we leaving to our children and grandchildren?  To do something is a matter of justice and righteousness and this of course is what the conference now being held in Glasgow is all about.  But while poll after poll shows that the vast majority of people by far agree that there is a problem and that something ought to be done about it, poll after poll also shows that most people are neither willing to pay to fix things nor willing to experience any real inconvenience to their lifestyle either.  In a manner of speaking, we want to have it both ways, but we can’t.  We can’t because justice and righteousness almost always come with a price and that in fact is what both today and next Thursday are all about; the sacrifices demanded and made so that justice and righteousness might flow.

Today and in the coming days leading up to and including Remembrance Day, we remember the conflicts of days gone by such as World War One, World War Two and Korea.  Today we also remember more recent conflicts and peacekeeping missions as well such as in the Balkans and Afghanistan.  Today though we do not just remember history, we also remember the ideals that motivated people to make the sacrifices that they did.

Imagine for a moment what the world would be like today if Europe had ended up being dominated by or even ruled by the Kaiser and Imperial Germany.  Or imagine what Europe and the very world itself would be like if Hitler and the Nazis had prevailed; the concentration camps with the mass extermination of the Jews, gays and others, as well as the inhumane medical experiments and the notion that people exist to serve the state rather than the other way around.  Or imagine what would have happened to the people of South Korea if they had been forced against their will into the North, that paranoid dictatorship where people live with the constant threat of hunger and lack even the most basic freedoms.  Or imagine what would have happened in the Balkans without the military intervention of NATO putting a stop to the genocide that was taking place.  Or to use a more recent example, we can think of Afghanistan since the departure of the NATO forces and the resulting takeover by the Taliban.  In many ways that country is returning to what we would call, ‘The Dark Ages’.

Now all of this is not for one moment to glorify war and conflict.  Indeed resorting to war and violence reflects a total failure in diplomacy and good will.  Tragically though, we live in a broken and less than perfect world where sometimes, when all else fails, we the people of peace however reluctantly, must resort to force.  But when we do so, it is so that justice and righteousness might flow.  We remember that on this Remembrance Sunday but we also remember something else as well and that is that justice and righteousness almost always has a price, and that that price can be heartbreakingly high.

Ten years ago I officiated at a wedding and the groom was a reservist with the Toronto Scottish Regiment.  He had recently returned from his tour of duty in Afghanistan.   When I first met the couple, we were supposed to be discussing their upcoming wedding service and marriage in general.  That however wasn’t what was first and foremost on the groom’s mind.  All he wanted to do was talk about what he had seen and experienced while over in Afghanistan.  While haunted by his experience though, he still firmly believed that volunteering and going there had been the right thing to do.

“That justice and righteousness might flow like an everlasting stream”.  This, said Amos, is what God desires in this world but tragically as we all know, sometimes the price paid for this to happen is heartbreakingly high.  Truly as a person once said, behind every name etched on every cenotaph is a person who loved and was loved.

Today we remember this; we remember those who paid the price so that justice and righteousness might flow.  Today and next Thursday however we should also stop and ask ourselves what sacrifices we are prepared to make and what price we are willing to pay so that this might happen.  Could we, or would we even, ever be like the old woman in today’s second scripture passage who, in giving her two cents, sacrificed everything she had for what she believed in?

 

 

Pastoral Prayer

God of all power and love, on this Remembrance Sunday we pray for your blessing upon our nation.  Give wisdom and strength to the Queen and govern we pray, those who govern us.

We pray for your blessing upon all the members of our armed forces.  Defend them in times of danger and grant that they may serve the cause of justice and peace.

We pray for your blessing upon our young people and grant that they may never see the flames of war or know the depth of cruelty to which men and women can descend.

On this day of remembrance, we pray for all who have or still are suffering from the effects of war and conflict.  We pray for the wounded of mind, body, and soul.  We pray for those whose faith in you and others has been shaken by the things that they have seen, witnessed, and endured.  Comfort all who mourn and those who miss loved ones and friends.

We pray this day for all who are homeless, those who are refugees, those who are hungry and those who have lost their livelihoods and a sense of security.  Help us we pray, to make this world a better place through our being a part of it.

We pray this day for all in positions of authority in every land and give them the wisdom to do what is right.  Encourage those who work for peace, and those who strive to improve the lives of others who lack so much including the very necessities of life.

We pray for your Church throughout the world, and we pray that we who bear your Son’s name may truly be instruments of your will, bringing peace to our homes, our nation, and the world beyond.

And now, rejoicing in the communion of saints, we remember those whom we love whom you have gathered into the peace of your presence.  We give you thanks for those whom we have known and loved, whose memory we treasure in our hearts forever.  Grant that at the last, we with them, may receive the crown of life that never fades.  Through Jesus Christ our Lord we pray, Amen

 

 

October 31, 2021.

Message for October 31, 2021

Ruth 1:11-18

As we may remember, a couple of weeks ago our Premier set off a small firestorm of controversy when he made some comments about immigrants coming to Ontario, saying that they should be prepared to work hard.  His comments were interpreted by many to mean that many immigrants do not work hard, and this set off an immediate reaction ranging from approval to accusations that his language and phrasing shows that he is anti-immigrant and possibly worse.  My weekly message of course is not the place to analyze what the Premier did or did not mean; it is enough to say that this episode shows what a ‘hot button’ topic immigration is for many people.  Behind all of the debate and controversy though lies a fundamental issue and that is how we as a society should relate to our immigrants and minorities.

It has been said that generally speaking, societies relate to their immigrants and minorities in one of three ways which are often called the three ‘A’s’.  The first ‘A’ is accommodation or, if we prefer, acceptance.  In this approach the minority group can keep its language, culture, and traditions provided that they are not illegal or pose a danger to the larger society.  To put it tongue in cheek, with this approach some people may eat pulled pork and listen to country music, other people may eat tacos and listen to a mariachi band, while yet others may eat curry and listen to a zither.  And as for me?  I’ll stick to haggis and bagpipes!

The second ‘A’ is that of assimilation and with this approach the majority believes that its immigrants and minorities should become just like them.  The third ‘A’ takes this one step further and it is aggressive.  With this approach the larger society doesn’t just say that immigrants and minorities should be like the majority; it demands that they will be.  And if people will not agree to this, then the attitude quite simply is that they shouldn’t have come here in the first place.

The three “A’s”; accommodation, assimilation or aggression describe the ways in which most societies relate to their immigrants and minorities but of course there is nothing new in this.  Indeed while it may not be obvious at first, majority-minority relations is the issue behind today’s scripture passage.

It was the “Time of Judges” which was a lawless era when no king ruled over Israel and violence was everywhere.  Famine also stalked the land and so an Israelite named Elimelech decided to take his family and leave the Promised Land altogether.  Elimelech along with his wife Naomi and their two boys left Israel and settled down in the neighbouring country of Moab.  Not long after their arrival Elimelech died but Naomi and the boys stayed in Moab and even started putting down roots when the boys married local girls.  Then however, tragedy struck again when both of Naomi’s sons got sick and died.  Feeling alone in a foreign land, Naomi decided that it was time for her to go back to Israel.  Her daughters-in-law didn’t want her to go but Naomi was insistent; she was going back home but they should stay in Moab where they belonged.

One of the young women sadly agreed to stay but the other young woman, named Ruth, would have no part of it.  As she said in words that have become famous:

“Where you go, I will go and where you stay, I will stay.  Your people will be my people and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried.  May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”

 

The two women left Moab and went back to Naomi’s hometown of Bethlehem.  Without a man to look after them though, life was very hard.  Back then of course there weren’t any social assistance programmes or food banks.  What the desperately poor people such as Naomi and Ruth were allowed to do however was comb over the farmer’s fields after the crops had been harvested.  In fact every farmer was expected to leave a part of their crop behind to feed the poor, and this was how Naomi and Ruth survived.

According to the story, one day Ruth was walking behind the reapers in a field that belonged to a distant kinsman of Naomi, a rich man named Boaz.  Ruth caught Boaz’s eye and he gave instructions that some of the crop was to be left behind just for her.  Naomi, realizing that Boaz had taken a fancy to Ruth and knowing that he was single, urged Ruth to pursue him.   And so in the end, to make a long story short, Ruth and Boaz fell in love, got married and had a child.  They also took Naomi in, and they all lived happily ever after.

This briefly is the story of Ruth and what a wonderful heart-warming story it is!  When we think about it though, we might well wonder why this sweet sentimental story that hardly ever refers to God, is in the Bible.  The answer to this lies in when it was decided to include it.

It was about six hundred years after Ruth and the others had lived.  The Babylonian Exile was over and God’s people had returned home to Israel.  They had been gone for decades and in their absence people of other races and religions had moved in.  Despite all of their differences though, most of the people got along and perhaps what happened next was inevitable.  People of different ethnic groups socialized with one another and some of the young people fell in love, got married and had families.  The Jewish authorities in Jerusalem however found this unacceptable and felt that something had to be done to stop it.  They reasoned that if this was allowed to continue then they, the people of God, might be assimilated and perhaps even disappear altogether!  Laws were passed then forbidding inter-faith and inter-racial marriages.  And as for those Jews who had already married ‘foreigners’?  The authorities decided that it didn’t matter how long a couple had been married or whether or not they had children, they now had to get a divorce.  In short, the authorities opted for aggression rather than accommodation or assimilation when it came to their minorities.

Much to their dismay the authorities soon discovered that there were many who objected to the new marriage laws.  Those who favoured being more tolerant pointed to the old story of Ruth and in particular its ending.

The child of Ruth and Boaz was a son named Obed.  Obed was the father of Jesse who in turn was the father of David.  To put it another way Ruth, the foreigner, was a great-grandmother of David who was of course the greatest king in Israel’s history.  And to take this even one step further, Ruth was an ancestor of Jesus himself since Jesus was born of the house of David.  And that quite simply is why the story of Ruth is in the Bible.  It is the voice of tolerance and it is a reminder of how we, the people of God, should relate to those who are different from ourselves.  We are not to drive them out but rather to bring them in.  I like the way a person once put it; instead of building higher walls, we Christians should be building longer tables.  Indeed, who knows how God may be working through and by them?  The story of Ruth is a reminder that there is only one God and that he is active in the lives of all of us, and as different as we may be, we have all been created in his image and are his dearly beloved children.  The truth is that God loves and cares about all of his children and if we would truly be the disciples of Christ, then we will strive to do the same.  With this in mind, I would like to end this message by sharing a true story with you.

A young woman named Sally attended a Bible college and one of her teachers, Brother Smith, was known for his elaborate object lessons.  One day when Sally walked into the class, she saw a big target on the wall and beside it was a table with darts sitting on it.  Brother Smith told the students to draw a picture of someone they thoroughly disliked.  After they had all done so, they took turns placing their pictures on the target and throwing darts at them.  The students had a great time doing this and the room was filled with laughter.  Sally herself was at the back of the line and was very disappointed when Brother Smith, because of time limits, asked the students to return to their seats before she had had her turn.

The classroom had been quite chaotic during the dart throwing exercise but then Brother Smith removed the target.  Underneath it was a ripped and torn picture of Jesus.  A complete hush fell over the room as the students looked at it and realized that every time they had thrown a dart at their perceived enemy, they had also thrown a dart at Jesus himself.  Brother Smith then ended the lesson with these words quoting Christ himself, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did unto one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did unto me”.

 

 

Pastoral Prayer

Gracious God, hear us as we come to you in prayer on this, the last day of October.

We praise you and thank you for the gift of this month drawing to its close, characterized as it is by the beauty and goodness of your creation.  We thank you for the gift of the month about to begin as well:  a time of remembrance, and a time of anticipation with Christmas seemingly just around the corner.

Even though we are still living with the pandemic and its restrictions, we thank you that things are returning more and more to a sense of normalcy in our lives and in the world around us.  We pray for the safety and well-being of all, remembering too those who have lost so much including their loved ones, health, livelihoods, and a sense of security.

On this Reformation Sunday, we thank you for your church and especially our own reformed tradition.  We thank you for those who have gone before us in the faith, going all the way back to the days of the Bible itself.  Grant, we pray, that we may be inspired by their faith and example.  Grant too that we may keep faith with those who have gone before us and the legacy that they have entrusted to us; to be reformed and always reforming, to do our best but always striving to do better, secure in your love and forgiveness at those times when we are less than successful.

We pray this day for all who are weighed down by illness, grief, worry, and fear.  We pray that they may find peace and healing by turning their burdens of care over to you.

On this autumn day we pray for the sake of your good creation after the way we human beings have not only used it but abused it.  As the pace of global warming and climate change picks up speed with all if its implications, we pray that something good and constructive may come out of the conference now being held in Scotland.  Grant wisdom and courage to those in positions of authority and grant the same to the rest of us as well, that we may care for your creation, both for our own sakes and that of the generations yet to come.

We ask these things in your Son’s name, He who is the mighty redeemer of everyone and everything.  Amen

 

October 10, 2021.

Message for Thanksgiving, October 10, 2021

Exodus 32:1-6

Luke 17:11-19

          In a column that was written a few years ago, the Rev. Dr. Stephen Farris related an episode that happened during his student days when he was training for the ministry.  The class was discussing the scripture passage where Jesus said that whoever doesn’t receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.  “But why like a child?”, the professor asked.  Then, in Farris’ own words:

 

“One student raised a hand and asserted with considerable confidence, ‘Because little children are naturally good and innocent.’

The professor simply replied, ‘You don’t have any children, do you?’  It was true; any parent would know better.

Someone else answered, ‘Because children are all so humble.’

The professor stroked his beard and asked, ‘Have you ever stood outside a schoolyard during recess and listened to the children?’

Several more possibilities were raised, each more unlikely than the last.  Finally the professor reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet and extracted a $20 bill.  He walked over to a student named Don and gave the bill to him.  Don turned the shade of a Canadian Mountie’s dress uniform.

‘You don’t like me giving you money, do you?’ asked the professor.  Don was holding the bill as if it was burning the tips of his fingers.  ‘Now if I asked you to come over to my house to do some yard work and I paid you, you wouldn’t mind at all.’  There were nods of agreement.  After all, we would have earned the money.

‘But what if I gave the money to a child?’

No further words were necessary for the picture came to mind of a child reaching out a hand to receive what had not been earned, a child who thought it the most natural thing in the world to receive a gift.  There is a word I have heard for the gift we have been given, the gift we can never earn.  That word is grace.”

 

The unearned and unmerited gift of God’s love and forgiveness; that is grace.  It occurred to me though that in place of the word grace, we could also use the words gratitude or thankfulness.  A child is happy to receive a gift and accepts it for what it is; an unearned and undeserved present with no strings attached.  It may well be though that gratitude comes more easily and naturally for a child than an adult because so often we adults are too proud to accept an unearned gift or wonder what the catch is when we are offered one.  And yet being thankful for what we have received through God’s grace and love, however undeserved or unearned, is what today is all about.

Today’s first scripture passage describes a part of what happened during the Exodus.  Moses was up on Mount Sinai getting the Ten Commandments and had been gone for quite a while.  In his absence, the people collected all the gold they could, melted it down and then made it into the shape of a calf.  After that they started worshiping the calf saying that it was the god that had freed them from slavery in Egypt.  Not surprisingly, Moses got very angry when he came down from the mountain carrying the Ten Commandments and discovered what they were doing.  But why was Moses, and even God himself, so upset?  Not for the reason we might expect.

Most people assume that God and Moses were angry because the people had broken the second of the Ten Commandments, the one about not worshiping foreign idols.  This is a natural assumption, but it is wrong; what we have to remember is that the people hadn’t even seen the Ten Commandments yet!  So why then were both God and Moses so angry?

Simply because the people had already forgotten about their dependence upon God.  It was God who had freed them from slavery.  It was God who saved them when they were trapped on the shores of the Reed Sea.  It was God who had made sure that they had enough to eat and drink during the journey.  God had done all of these wonderful undeserved things for his people and yet there they were:  far from feeling grateful, in no time at all they had totally forgot about God and their dependence upon him.  But of course that is not the only time when God’s people displayed a shocking lack of gratitude for their undeserved blessings; we can consider today’s second scripture passage.

That lesson is the ‘traditional’ New Testament lesson for Thanksgiving and it’s certainly not hard to see why.  As Luke tells us, one day when Jesus entered a village, he was met by ten lepers.  Leprosy was one of the most dreaded diseases of the ancient world as it was not only terribly disfiguring but incurable as well.  If a person contracted the disease, then that person became an outcast and was expected to go and live in the local cemetery.  In fact, one custom was to even hold a funeral service for the leper since he or she was now considered to be dead to their family and friends.  One day then as Jesus entered a village, he was met by ten of these unfortunate people.  They asked him to cure them, which he did.  Then Jesus told the ten to go show themselves to a priest as only a priest could give them a clean bill of health.  Off they went and so far so good, but then comes the twist; only one of the ten returned to say thank you and he was the one that we would least expect to do so, the foreigner!  But why didn’t the other nine return?  Or why were the Hebrews in the Exodus so desperate to avoid acknowledging their dependence upon God that they created a god of their own imagination?  Or to return to the student named Don at the beginning of today’s message, why was he so reluctant to accept the $20 bill?

The answer quite simply is pride.  The truth is that whether it be to God or someone else, many people find it difficult to say a heartfelt thank you simply because that means humbling themselves and acknowledging a need and perhaps even a dependence upon others.  We live in a society where independence is prized but saying thank you and really meaning it is an act of humility that goes against the grain for many, unlike the members of the Masai tribe in Africa.

When a member of that tribe wishes to express their heartfelt gratitude to another person, they lie down on the ground before the other person.  Then, instead of just saying ‘thank you’, they say ‘my face is in the dust before you’.

Now that is gratitude in action, but can you imagine any of us ever doing something like that?  How humiliating!  It is ironical but nevertheless true that often the more we have to be grateful for, the less we really are.  Rather than admit to our dependence and even our need for both God and others, we prefer to reason that we either deserve or else have worked hard to earn life’s good things.  And if we deserve them or have earned them, then why should we be thankful?  To paraphrase an Old Testament passage, we often like to reason that:  “It is my power and the strength of my hands that have produced all this wealth for me”.

Pride and independence do have a place in our lives but even so, as Moses said, “It is God who gives you the ability to produce wealth”.  It is God who has made it all possible in the first place and that in a nutshell is why we need Thanksgiving.  Today is the day when we pause to count our blessings and then say thank you for everyone who touches our lives for the better, and for all of life’s other good things as well.  Indeed the depth of our ultimate dependence upon God is made clear by this little episode.

 

“One day a hungry boy asked his mother, ‘How long does it take to bake a loaf of bread?’

‘Oh, about a million years’, came the reply.

‘A million years!  How come?’

‘Well’, said the mother, ‘before I could bake the bread the wheat had to be ground.  Before that, it had to be harvested and of course before that it had to be grown.  But before that God had to create the seed, the soil, the climate and a world that would enable the wheat to exist and grow.’  ‘That’s why’, she said, ‘it takes a million years to bake a loaf of bread; the loaf is just the last step of a very long process that God started a long, long time ago, all so that we might have something to eat for lunch today.’”

 

We may not always realize it and we may not always like to acknowledge it, but we are dependent upon both God and others for so much in life.  That is why we have Thanksgiving and that in fact is why we even need Thanksgiving.  We need it to remind us not to take God and his many blessings for granted, believing in our pride and foolishness that it is the power and strength of our hands that has provided all this wealth and life’s other good things for us.

 

 

Pastoral Prayer

Gracious God, hear us now as we give you thanks on this Thanksgiving Sunday, for even as the pandemic continues, we still have so much to be grateful for.

We give you thanks Lord, for the products of field, forest and factory, and lake, ocean, and air as well.

We give you thanks Lord, for farmers, fishermen, inventors, factory workers, those who transport their products to us, and those who sell them.

We give you thanks Lord, for our houses and apartments, and for those who design, build, and service them.

We give you thanks Lord, for the sights and sounds of country and town, and the ability that we have to enjoy them.

We give you thanks Lord, for the pleasures of entertainment and the arts.

We give you thanks Lord, for the companionship and love of family and friends.

We give you thanks Lord, for your Church, her witness and ministry.

We give you thanks Lord, for the creating, redeeming, wonder that is you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As we give you thanks, we also set before You the needs of others, and so we pray for the hungry and the homeless, the sick and the abandoned, the poor and the destitute, the exploited and the dispossessed, the wounded and the broken.

We pray for those struggling for justice and those who work for peace.

We pray for government and non-government agencies as they seek to alleviate human need both here and abroad.

We pray too for those of special personal concern to us during this Thanksgiving season.

We ask these things through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen

 

 

October 3, 2021.

Message for October 3, 2021

Matthew 20:1-16

It is one of my less happy memories of childhood.  I am almost five years older than my sister and so I was allowed to do many things long before she was such as go to movies and stay overnight with friends.  Now I am sure that this only seems natural to us, but my sister thought that this was so unfair!  Why should I get to do these things when she couldn’t or, to turn it around, why couldn’t she do the things that I could?  I can still see her, sometimes crying and sometimes yelling, her voice quivering with rage, “It’s not fair!”

It’s not fair.  Many of us expect that life should be fair but, as we all well know, sometimes it isn’t, and this can be very hard for us to accept.  This in fact may be why many people really don’t like today’s scripture passage.

It was the end of September, and the grapes had to be harvested before they were damaged by the driving rains of autumn.  One of the great landowners decided that he needed extra help and so early one morning at about six o’clock, he went down to the village square where the day labourers had gathered hoping to be hired.  He offered some of them a job:  if they would spend the day picking his grapes then he would pay them one denarius.  The men quickly agreed and off they went.  Three hours later the landowner realized that he needed more help and so he went back to the square and hired some more men.  This time though he didn’t promise to pay a certain amount of money, instead he simply promised them a fair wage.  These men agreed and went off to work.  At noon he did the same thing again.  Then, at five o’clock as the workday approached its end, he returned to the square where he saw some men still standing around.  He asked them why they had been standing around all day and they told him that no one had hired them.  He decided to do so and off they went to work.

An hour later at the end of the workday it was time to pay the men.  The landowner ordered that those who had been hired last were to be paid first and that they were to be paid a denarius.  What this meant of course was that even though they had only worked one hour, they still got an entire day’s pay!  Naturally the rest of the men rubbed their hands in anticipation reasoning that if those who had worked only one hour got a whole day’s pay, then how much more would they get?  To their complete utter shock though, they too were paid one denarius each.  Predictably they started to complain.  Why should those who had worked only one hour get paid as much as them?  Or to put it another way, why should those who had worked up to twelve hours only be paid as much as those who worked for one hour?  It wasn’t fair but that’s not how the landowner saw it.  He had promised those hired first a denarius and he had upheld his side of the bargain.  “Take your pay and go” he said and so they did, no doubt some of them bitterly complaining about the unfairness of it all.

This is one of the more controversial stories that Jesus ever told.  It is controversial and perhaps even disturbing because it challenges one of the principles that most of us hold dear in life, namely that life should be fair.  And yet here we are being told that life isn’t always fair.  Indeed, since the landowner in this parable obviously represents God, this story even implies that God himself might not always be fair.  So what then is Jesus telling us?

Historians have long known that one denarius was the average day’s pay for a typical labourer in those days but only recently have the historians discovered what life was like for those workers.  Originally the labourers owned their own small farms.  Life wasn’t easy and they lived on the edge; if they had one bad crop then they were forced to borrow money for the next year’s seed.  After a couple of years of bad harvests or low prices, the farmers were so far in debt that they could never repay the loans.  The result was that they lost their farms.  Slowly but surely the small family farms were bought up by the rich landowners and the farmers themselves became landless labourers.  And back then of course there wasn’t any such thing as employment insurance, welfare, and food banks either.  If the men missed a day’s work, then their family could go hungry.  If they didn’t work for a couple of days, then things really got grim.  If they didn’t work for a couple of weeks, then starvation was a real possibility.  The last men to be hired in today’s lesson were not lazy lay-abouts.  Rather they were desperate and that is why they were still there at five o’clock.  They would have been hoping against hope that someone would hire them for even an hour; one hour’s pay wouldn’t have fed the entire family but at least it would have bought something for their children to eat.

With this in mind, imagine their gratitude when that landowner was so generous and gave them a whole day’s pay for one hour’s work!  He didn’t have to and yet he knew that anything less than a full day’s pay would leave a family in need.  The landowner opted for compassion and generosity rather than fairness, but the rest of the workers didn’t see it that way.  Rather they could not or would not look beyond themselves and so complained about his unfairness!  The message of today’s lesson is really quite simple though.  On the ‘positive’ side, we are to try and be like the landowner.  When we see someone in need and can do something to help, then we are to just do it and not worry about what is fair.  On the ‘negative’ side, we are not to be like the majority of the workers in today’s lesson, begrudging others and being jealous of their good fortune.  But this of course can be easier said than done simply because many of us cling to the notion that life ought to be ‘fair’.  Consider this small example.

Suppose that you had been buying lottery tickets for years and had never ever won a thing.  And suppose that last night the phone rang, and it was your best friend.  She was so excited!  Until yesterday she had never bought a lottery ticket before in her entire life and she had just won the jackpot!  She is now rich beyond her wildest dreams and just had to phone and tell you, her best friend, the good news.  Now what would our reaction have been?  We would have probably said that we were so happy for her, but in our heart of hearts, would we have not felt at least a twinge of jealousy, reasoning that it just wasn’t fair?  We had been buying tickets for years and never won anything while she had just won with her very first purchase!

God has blessed us with so much and acknowledging this is what next weekend, Thanksgiving, is all about.  And yet despite the many blessings that we have and experience, too often perhaps we feel discontented and are afraid that someone will undeservedly get one step ahead of us.  Sometimes it even seems as if some people go through life with a little score card keeping track and getting upset if everything doesn’t match their version of ‘fair’.  We can live this way, but this is not the way to peace and contentment.

There are times when life doesn’t seem to be very fair and we may sometimes even reason that God himself isn’t always very fair either.  Perhaps he isn’t by our standards but what we have to remember though is that our ways and God’s ways aren’t always one and the same thing.  Indeed I suspect that in the end, God is more concerned about compassion than he is about fairness and that is the point that Jesus was making in today’s scripture passage.  Perhaps these words written by a theologian who has thought long and hard about today’s parable provides a fitting note on which to end today’s message.

“The principle of fairness is one of the standards people use in their dealings with one another.  And if we want to hold ourselves and others to some standard of fairness, it seems appropriate to apply the principle to our expectations of God.  We expect God to be fair.  But this parable makes it clear that fairness does not exactly apply to the ways of God.  It does not seem fair that the people who worked for only one hour in the vineyard got as much for their labour as the people who worked all day in the hot summer sun.  The love of God transcends our human assessment of what is fair, and we cannot understand God solely in terms of fairness.  Can we see the blessings that come to others and give thanks for them?  If we live with the God of grace then we rejoice when undeserved blessings come to us, and to others.”

If we take today’s scripture passage to heart, then next weekend at Thanksgiving we will not only give thanks to God for his many blessings to us but also for his blessings to everyone else as well, even if at first it doesn’t seem to be fair.

 

 

Pastoral Prayer

Hear us we pray as we once again come to you in prayer, with both our thanks and our concerns.

We thank you for the gift of this autumn morning with all of its goodness and beauty.

We thank you for all whom we love and all who love us; for all of the people with us and with you who have meant, mean and always will mean so much to us.

On this Sunday before Thanksgiving, we thank you for the many material blessings that we have; that in a world where so many lack so much, we have so much such as our food, clothing, homes, medical care, peace, and security.

On this Sunday following the first official day dedicated to Truth and Reconciliation, we acknowledge that as a nation we have often failed the peoples who were here before us.  Help us to learn from the mistakes of the past so that there may truly be reconciliation, now and in the future.

We pray this day for our nation as the pandemic continues, and especially for the people of Alberta and Saskatchewan as their medical systems still struggle to cope.

We pray for healing for all those who are ill, whether it be from Covid or another illness.

We pray for all those who grieve because of the loss of someone they loved.

We remember and pray for all those who, even in this land of plenty, are struggling to get by.  Keep us mindful of the needs of others, whatever their needs may be.  Help us not to be self focused, concerned about what may or may not be ‘fair’.  Grant that we may see what you see, hear what you hear and then do what you would do.

We ask these things in your Son’s name.  Amen

September 26, 2021.

Message for September 26, 2021

Esther 7:1-6

Once upon a time there was a king who was the ruler of the mighty Persian Empire; his name was Ahasuerus or, as some translations of the Bible call him, Xerxes.  Xerxes seemingly had it all since he was one of the richest and most powerful men in the entire world!  Despite all of his wealth and power though, Xerxes was lonely.  He had been married but the relationship had not lasted.  Feeling sorry for him, one of his advisors suggested that the king ought to remarry and should in fact have a contest to find a new wife.  The empire was divided into 127 provinces and the advisor suggested that each province should send him its most beautiful representative.  The king could choose the most beautiful of the 127 women to be his new bride.  The king decided that this was a great idea and so it was ordered that this be done.

As it happened, the most beautiful maiden in the kingdom was a young Jewish girl named Esther.  Esther had been orphaned at a very young age and had been adopted by an older cousin named Mordecai.  Mordecai was a junior official at the royal court, and he encouraged Esther to enter the contest.  What did she have to lose?  Why this could be her ticket to the good life!  The one thing that Mordecai warned her not to do however was let the king know that she was Jewish.  Even back then anti-Semitism was alive and well.  Despite being the shy young woman that she was, Esther entered the contest and to no one’s surprise, except possibly her own, she won!  The king took one look at her and the other 126 contestants may as well not existed.  In no time at all Xerxes and Esther were married but did they live happily ever after?

As I have already mentioned, Mordecai was a junior official at the royal court and he offended the Grand Vizier, a man named Haman.  Since he was the Grand Vizier, Haman thought that everyone should defer to him but Mordecai refused to do so.  To make matters even worse, Mordecai was Jewish and Haman was, to put it mildly, very anti-Semitic.  Indeed such was the depth of Haman’s hatred for God’s people that his great ambition in life was to wipe out the entire Jewish race.  Haman succeeded in convincing the king that the Jews were a threat to national security and had to be done away with.  As a further incentive to convince the king to go along with his plan, Haman also offered the king the equivalent of eighteen million dollars as a bribe.  The king fell for this, and orders were sent to all of the provincial governors stating that on a certain day all the Jews in the empire were to be put to death.

This plan became public knowledge and Mordecai wasted no time in getting in touch with Esther telling her that she had to do something.  Mordecai even suggested that that was why Esther had become the queen in the first place; so that she would be in a position to save her people!  Esther however didn’t want to get involved and pointed out that she was just the queen and that the king had all the power.  Perhaps the king would even divorce her if she spoke up!  Also, since the king didn’t know that she was Jewish, she herself might be killed!  Why should she risk everything she had, including her very life itself?  Mordecai however remained insistent, saying that she had to do something.  Eventually, but very reluctantly, she agreed to intervene with the king on her people’s behalf.

She entered the throne room and asked the king for a favour.  “Name it and it shall be yours” said the king, “you are so beautiful, and I love you so much.  I will give you whatever you wish, even up to half of my kingdom”.  Esther’s request however was not what we might expect.  Instead of speaking up on behalf of her people, Esther said that she wanted to have a great big dinner party and that it just wouldn’t be complete if the king and his Grand Vizier weren’t present.  One can only assume that she was trying to flatter him before making her request. The king agreed to attend as did Haman.  Haman in fact was puffed up with his own self-importance since he had been invited to dinner by the queen!  Everyone had a wonderful time at the dinner, but Esther’s nerves failed her.  She simply could not bring herself to mention the subject of what was going to happen to her people in a few days’ time.  The best Esther could do was suggest that since this dinner party had been such a marvellous success, why didn’t they have another dinner on the following night?  Both the king and Haman thought that that was a wonderful idea.

The banquet on the second night was even more successful than the first.  The king was so happy that he once again told Esther that she could have whatever she wanted, and this time Esther found the courage to speak up.  “Don’t kill me!”, she begged.  When the king demanded to know what she was talking about, she revealed that she was Jewish and so, by implication, the king had sentenced her to death along with the rest of her people.  When the king heard this he flew into a terrible rage.  Even though he had been more than willing to go along with Haman’s plan in the first place, ordering the deaths of thousands of innocent people, he now saw the plan for what it was, a monstrosity.  The king realized that behind the term “the Jews”, there were real people including his beloved wife.  Angrily the king ordered that Haman be put to death by being hung on the gallows that had been prepared for Mordecai.  And even though he was just a junior official, Mordecai was then promoted to become the Grand Vizier in Haman’s place.  And as for Esther and the king?  They lived happily ever after.

This is a very simplified version of the story of Esther which is one of the books of the Old Testament.  If this story sounds a bit like a fairy tale though, that’s because that is what it is.  Yes, there is some history in the story, but most scholars firmly believe that the story of Esther is mostly just that, a story.  But did you notice that God is virtually nowhere to be found in this story?  Unlike virtually every other book in the Bible, God doesn’t speak or intervene; in fact he is hardly ever mentioned.  And so, we might well wonder, why is this tale a part of the Bible?

This ancient story is a part of the Bible simply because it reminds us of two very important truths.  The first is that even when God seemed to be absent, he was still present with his people.  But the story of Esther however doesn’t just remind us that God is always present, in its quiet understated way the story also reminds us of how God usually works.

The Bible is full of wonders with God at work in truly spectacular ways.  We can think of such episodes as the Burning Bush and the Exodus in the Old Testament for example.  In the New Testament, we can think of Jesus’ miracles such as the feeding of the thousands, healing of the sick and raising of the dead, all leading up to the greatest wonder of all, his own resurrection.  But while God can and indeed does sometimes work through the spectacular and the miraculous, he usually doesn’t do so.  As I have said in previous sermons and messages, more often than not God works through the ordinary.  In the story of Esther for example, God could have saved his people through the spectacular, perhaps by striking the evil Haman dead with a thunderbolt, but he didn’t.  Instead, God chose to work through the beautiful but shy, insecure, and very reluctant Esther.  And as he chose to work through Esther despite her weaknesses and shortcomings, so he has chosen to work through each one of us as well.

All too often we may be tempted to look at our lives, past, present, and future, and wonder what the point of it all is; do the things that we say and do really matter?  Do we really matter?  We seem to be so small, powerless, and even insignificant in the grand scheme of things.  The truth however is that the things we say and do do matter.  Our lives do have purpose and meaning.  They do simply because we are, day by day, deed by deed, bit by bit, doing nothing less than building the New Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God here on earth.  And it is this that makes our lives so important and even precious.  To put it another way, every time we say the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.  But just how is this done?  Through and by each one of us, and that is not a fairy tale.

 

 

Pastoral Prayer

Gracious God, hear us as we come to you in prayer on this, the first Sunday of yet another season in the life of your creation.  When we look at the world around us, we see the earliest of the leaves now beginning to change their colours, and we are reminded of the season of beauty now upon us.  In two weeks’ time we will be celebrating Thanksgiving and so we are reminded too of the season of goodness now upon us.

We thank you for the holy wonder that is you.  You have called everything, from the greatest to the least into being.  Sometimes we human beings in our arrogance and foolishness pride ourselves on our accomplishments, but what are the greatest of them compared to yours?

We thank you this day for revealing yourself in all of your works, but above all, we thank you for the greatest self revelation of all; your one and only Son.  We thank you that our lives are of such value that you humbled yourself by becoming one of us, and that you did this so that we might have life in all of its glorious abundant fullness, now and forevermore.  We thank you that our lives are of such value that you are always with us, and that you have even entrusted your work into our all-too-often frail hands.  Help us we pray, to realize just how important and precious our lives and those of everyone else truly are.

We pray this day for the well-being and safety of everyone both near and far as the pandemic continues.  We especially pray for our young children who are so vulnerable with the return to school and cannot be vaccinated at the present time.

We pray for the well-being of our nation and society after another gruelling election campaign.  As a nation and a society, we have different ideas about values and priorities but even so, we pray for the sake of all those elected to office, that they may seek the common good and well-being of all.

We pray for your presence this day in the lives of all those who are hurting; the ill, the grieving, and those whose lives are filled with uncertainly and fear.  Help all of us to always remember that we never walk alone and that truly your love and compassion is over all that you have made.

We ask these things in your Son’s name.  Amen

September 19, 2021

Message for September 19, 2021
Omagh’s 183rd Anniversary
John 1:1-14

Have you ever had the experience of going to a world-famous landmark
which did not, for whatever reason, live up to your expectations? While I have
never seen it, this is how many people I know have reacted to the famous
Statue of Liberty in New York City. I don’t know how many people have told me
that “It’s so small! I expected to see something far larger!” And then again there
are those places that do live up to our expectations and more.

One such place for me is Peggy’s Cove, and especially its famous
lighthouse sitting on the massive rocks. It doesn’t matter whether I was there on
a sunny or foggy day, that place has always enthralled me. But of course we
also have some beautiful lighthouses closer to home. I think of some of those
located on the shores of Lake Huron for example and especially those around
Tobermory such as Big Tub, Cove Island, Cabot Head and Flowerpot Island.
Truly there is something almost magical about lighthouses that appeals to our
imaginations, and so perhaps it is not inappropriate that lighthouses are
sometimes used as a Christian symbol, especially in light of some of the
imagery used to describe Jesus himself.

This morning’s scripture passage is the famous Prologue to John’s gospel,
and it sets out many of its themes. Writing of Jesus, John said: “In him was life,
and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness and
the darkness has not overcome it”. Later in the Prologue, John went on to write:
“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world”.
This theme of Jesus being the light is picked up by Jesus himself later in
that gospel: “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes
in me should stay in darkness”. And of course there is also the famous: “I am
the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will
have the light of life”.

This theme or image of Jesus being the Light of the World is certainly an
appropriate one. Jesus for example came to shed his light upon us, teaching us
how to live and how to get the most out of life. All too often people think that
their true peace and happiness lies in doing what they want regardless of the
feelings and needs of others. Not so said Jesus, true happiness, peace, and
contentment are to be found by following the light of his teaching and example.
But Jesus of course isn’t just the light for life here and now; he is also the light
that proclaims that in the darkness of death, there is indeed a life yet to come.
As he famously said: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in
me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever believes in me shall never
die”.

Truly Jesus is the Light and is like a lighthouse shining in the darkness,
but of course what describes him should also describe us as well. As Jesus
said in his famed Sermon on the Mount: “You are the light of the world”. This is
what we and the church are called to be; we are the light or, if we prefer, we are
to be like lighthouses. In a world that all too often seems to have lost its way,
we shine in the darkness striving to proclaim the light of Christ’s teaching by
both word and deed. In a world where so many people lack so much, we strive
to help fill some of the needs. We do so for example through such as our
contributions to Presbyterians Sharing which supports the work of the larger
church. We also shine through our support of PWS, Presbyterian World Service
and Development, which works to alleviate some of the needs of the Third
World. Closer to home we have supported Evangel Hall, our denomination’s
inner-city mission in Toronto that works with many who are homeless. Even
more closer to home, we have supported the Salvation Army as it strives to
meet the needs of the less well-off of our own community. Indeed, without being
the least bit egotistical about it, this church’s light shines through me; by
supporting a minister, other ministries can and do happen in our community.
We may be a small church family here at Omagh, but we have, and still try to do
our part to shine in the darkness. As I have sometimes said, we punch above
our weight. But while we let our light shine, acting like a lighthouse by the things
we do, we also shine in yet another way as well and that is through this very
building itself.

If only because they are so expensive to build and maintain, there has
been a great deal of debate in recent years about the role and purpose of
church buildings. At one end of the spectrum are those who believe that we
should get rid of the church buildings altogether; why think of the ministries that
could be supported with that money! At the other end of the spectrum are those
for whom the building is the end all and be all; one would almost think that the
congregation exists to serve the building and not the other way around. The
truth however is to be found somewhere in the middle since a building does
provide a place to worship and may be used by other groups in the community.
The building however doesn’t just serve as a lighthouse through its use; it also
serves as a lighthouse by its very existence.

As we are constantly reminded, we are now living in what is called “the
post-Christian era” and the statistics certainly bear this out. While the vast
majority of Canadians still identify themselves as Christians, the truth is that
fewer and fewer people have any real connection with organized religion at all
whether it be Christian or another faith. In fact, the fastest growing group of
people in our society today are those who identify themselves as non-religious.
In such a world, our church buildings do have a vital role to play. It doesn’t
matter whether it be a great big cathedral with a spire reaching to the sky or a
smaller building such as our own, by their very existence churches silently bear
witness to the world that God exists, that Jesus is his son, and that there is more
to life than the here and now. To put it another way, borrowing from military
imagery, churches are God’s boots on the ground. This came home to me a
few years ago.

It was a Sunday morning here at Omagh and when I stepped outside to
greet people following the service, I noticed two young women in their late teens
or early twenties off to the side, huddled against the front of the church. They
were sitting on the ground and were obviously upset. When I asked them what
was wrong, they told me their story. They had been at a party the night before
somewhere north of Toronto and while there they had met a couple of young
men who were from Milton. They invited the two of them back to town with
them, an invitation that they accepted even though the men were complete
strangers. They ended up in a house somewhere in town where, before long,
they realized that they had made a terrible mistake and fled. Totally lost, they
wandered all over until somehow they ended up here, feeling scared,
bewildered and unsure of where to go and what to do. They were looked after,
but the point of this little episode is this: they knew that they could go to a
church and that there, that here, they would find help.
That Sunday morning this very building itself served as a lighthouse
shining in the darkness, showing the way to help and safety. That is what this
congregation started to do back in 1838 and that is what it has been doing ever
since. In the beginning we were the church of the pioneers, and if we don’t think
that the first settlers here didn’t need the light offered by Christ and this church,
then all we have to do is read what is written on some of the tombstones in our
cemetery. Then we became the church of the settled countryside. And now?
The countryside and the world around us are changing before our very eyes but
while some things may change, some things do not. One constant is Christ, the
Light of the World, and the other is our role; to shine in the world around us.
Being the good Presbyterians that we are, we have the Burning Bush on the
sign just outside the front door. Now I am not for one moment saying that we
should ever change it, but truly this symbol could just as appropriately be a
lighthouse.

Pastoral Prayer
Gracious God, hear us as we now come to you in prayer on this, the last
Sunday of summer and this church family’s 183rd anniversary.
We thank you for this season drawing to its close, and also for the season
of beauty and harvest that will soon be upon us.
We thank you for this land and nation in which we live, and that we have
the right to choose those who exercise power over us. With tomorrow’s election
in mind, help us to follow our beliefs and conscience, that we may choose wisely
and well.
We thank you for what it is that we celebrate here this morning: 183 years
of witness. We thank you for those who have gone before us, many of whom
we have known and loved. Grant that we may be inspired by their examples of
faith and sacrifice.
We thank you for your Son, the foundation upon which your church and
this very congregation itself is built. He came as the Light of the World and in
his love he has entrusted his ministry to us. We thank you for this, praying that
through your Spirit you will help us, individually and collectively, to shine as well.
We pray for your light in the many places and situations where there is so
much darkness; the darkness of illness, grief, want, violence and fear.
We pray for your light in our society as the Fourth Wave continues. May
the ill find healing, the grieving find comfort, and that those whose task it is to
heal and comfort find the strength and comfort to do so. We especially
remember this day the people of Alberta with the threat of their healthcare
system being totally overwhelmed. Through your light bring us through the
darkness of the present time.
We ask these things in your Son’s name. Amen

September 12, 2021.

Message for September 12, 2021

James 2:1-10

There was once a young man who had recently left his native land and had arrived in a new country that he hoped to call home.  The young man was a very serious individual and had a very keen interest in spiritual matters.  He had been raised as a Hindu but, for various reasons, was unhappy with that faith.  He’d had some limited exposure to Christianity and being curious, he had bought a Bible and read it.  The Bible, and especially the parts about the life and teaching of Jesus, had quite an impact on him, so much so that he decided that he would attend a worship service even though he had never stepped foot in a church before.

One Sunday morning then he got up early, had his breakfast and made himself presentable.  He made sure that he was at the church long before the service began and when he stepped inside, he was met by an usher.  But did the usher warmly greet him, shake his hand, and thank him for coming?  Not at all.  Instead the usher curtly told him to go away since he was not allowed in the church; he wasn’t simply because he was not white.  The young man turned around and walked away but he did not just walk away from that church that Sunday morning, he also walked away from the very Church itself.

He did so because to him there was such a discrepancy between the teaching of Jesus and the behaviour of the usher.  He quite rightly assumed that if the church was really following the teaching and example of Jesus, then it would never have told him that he could not enter and worship God because of the colour of his skin.  Since the church had rejected him, he in turn rejected the church and even the very Christian faith itself.  Indeed years later when a prominent missionary asked him why he disliked Jesus so much, his response was to say that he didn’t dislike Jesus at all; in fact he admired Jesus very much.  His problem wasn’t Jesus, rather it was the followers of Jesus who would not take his teaching seriously.  But who was that young man?

Mahatma Gandhi, and this happened in South Africa over one hundred years ago.  Eventually Gandhi left South Africa and returned home to India where he, more than any other person, helped bring about India’s independence through his policy of passive, non-violent resistance, a policy that was directly inspired by Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.  No one knew it at the time, but that Sunday morning was full of ‘what ifs’; what would have happened if that usher had welcomed Gandhi instead of turning him away?  What would have happened if that church had really paid attention to what James had written so many years before?

Like last week’s, today’s scripture passage was also written by James, a younger half brother of Jesus.  In the decades following his elder brother’s death and resurrection, James became the leader of the Christian congregation in Jerusalem.  At that time the church was, for the most part, made up of such as slaves, the poor and the outcasts.  To belong to the church was not fashionable; in fact it was the exact opposite.  As time went by though, attitudes began to change.  More and more people including the well-to-do, realized that these Christians were on to something good and so more and more of them started dropping in on the Sunday morning worship services.

Naturally this thrilled the congregation.  It was good to get any visitors at all, but it was even better to get these socially respectable visitors with their nice clothes and gold rings!  These visitors were fussed over but this behaviour infuriated James because of the double standard.  When the well-to-do showed up, they were fussed over and given the best seats but when the poorer visitors showed up, they were told to sit on the floor.  The Christians were making distinctions amongst themselves, and James firmly believed that this was completely and utterly wrong.  More than anything else, Christians were supposed to obey the ‘Royal Law’, which we today call the Great Commandment.  “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.  And you shall love your neighbour as yourself.”  Love of God and neighbour was what the church and even Christianity itself was all about and this meant treating other people as they themselves wished to be treated.  Would they have liked it if they had showed up at church for the first time and had been told to go and sit on the floor while seeing other people being fussed over and given the best seats in the house?  Not very likely!  More than anything else the Christians were to love, and if they truly loved then there wouldn’t be any partiality or favouritism; everyone, absolutely everyone, would be equally welcome and treated the same.

I have never forgotten a minister’s children’s time at an anniversary service at Omagh years ago.  During it the guest minister asked the children who the most important person or people in the church were.  The children had all sorts of answers and at the end of his message the minister told them that they were the most important of all; they were simply because they were the church’s future.  Now I know what that minister was driving at and to a point, I agree.  Children are important; they are in their own right, and also because they are the church’s future.  As it has been said, the church is always one generation away from extinction.  Where I found myself disagreeing with him though, was with his assertion that the children are the most important, with the stress being on the word ‘most’.

In the church there is no most important.  Children are not more important than adults, nor are adults more important than children.  Men aren’t more important than women, nor is it the other way around.  The Session is not more important than the Board of Managers or vise versa.  Certainly, the minister isn’t the most important of all either.  Within the church there isn’t any ‘most’ important for the truth is that we are all equally important.   In fact, love does not allow for any ‘most’ important.

To use an analogy, we can think of the church as being like a family.  Would we ever say that some members of our families are more important than others?  No, all are valued simply because they are a part of the family.  While his language is certainly dated because of our use of inclusive language, I like William Barclay’s vision of what the church can and should be like, bearing in mind that when he used the word ‘man’, Barclay actually meant everyone.  As he wrote back in the 1950’s:

“The Church must be the one place where all distinctions are wiped out.  There can be no distinctions of rank and prestige when men meet in the presence of the King of glory.  There can be no distinctions of merit when men meet in the presence of the supreme holiness of God.  In his presence all earthly distinctions are less than the dust.  In the presence of God all men are one.”

Truly in the presence of God, and within his church, we are all one, equally valued and equally important.  So said James, and while we may not realize it or appreciate it, what he wrote has had a direct impact upon what is happening in our country right now.

We are of course in the midst of a national election.  The right to vote and indeed the idea that we are all equal before the law regardless of our race, income, education, or anything else, is one of the most cherished ideals of our society.  That we do in fact believe this though is in no small part due to the impact of Christianity and, more specifically, today’s scripture passage.

We may not realize it but James’ insistence on equality within the church and, by implication, outside of it, was revolutionary at the time and still is today.  Truly, as I wrote in one of my messages a few weeks ago, this belief about the equality of all makes us members of one of the most radical and revolutionary institutions in the world.  People may like to look at the church and dismiss it as being irrelevant and old fashioned with no meaning for our modern world, but nothing could be further from the truth.  If we take our faith seriously then we are amongst the greatest radicals and revolutionaries of all time.  We are simply because Christianity believes that everyone, regardless of their race, colour, social status, wealth, or anything else is equally loved by God and so equally important.  Perhaps it is no wonder then, that there was debate about including James’ letter in the Bible in the first place, and that some people down through the ages such as Martin Luther wanted it removed altogether.  Maybe, just maybe, James with his radical claims can be a little bit ‘too hot to handle’.

 

 

Pastoral Prayer

Gracious God, hear us as we come to you in prayer on this late summer day.

We thank you for the gift of this day, and that you have created us to be a part of your glorious creation.  We pray that your creation may be all the better for our being a part of it.  We thank you for everyone and everything that makes this day a gift to be treasured, praying for the well-being of all those dear to us and that of your very creation itself.

We thank you for the holy mysterious wonder that is you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We thank you for making yourself known to us in so many different ways, but above all we thank you for your greatest self-revelation of all, your Son.  We thank you for his life, teaching, death, and resurrection and all that they mean for our lives, now and forevermore.  In gratitude for all that you have done and made possible for us, help us as best we can to follow his teaching and example.

We pray this morning for the sake of all of your Son’s disciples everywhere, and your church as well as she strives to minister in these difficult and challenging times.

We pray for the well-being of our children and young people on their return to school as the pandemic continues.  We pray for all who are ill and all who mourn the loses of the past year and a half.  We remember too those people, rightly or wrongly who are filled with anger and even rage at what is happening in their lives.  As the election continues, we thank you that we do have the right to vote, praying for the safety and well-being of all of the candidates willing to stand for office.

Today we remember James’ vision of what the church, and by implication, what even the world itself could and should be like.  Through your Spirit, help us to help make James’ vision a reality so that this life may truly be a foretaste of the life yet-to-come.  We ask these things in your Son’s name.  Amen