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June 21, 2020.

| Message for June 21, 2020

This date was originally scheduled to be

Boston’s 200th Anniversary Celebration

Ezekiel 34:25-31

John 10:11-15

Two hundred years ago this month a minister was travelling through what was then called ‘The Scotch Settlement’, destined to become better known as ‘The Scotch Block’.  Founded only a year earlier in 1819, living conditions were very primitive.  The people lived in what we would call glorified shacks.  The roads were little more than muddy pot-holed tracks and of course there was the forest with its massive trees everywhere.  The minister was the Rev. William Jenkins and he led a worship service in a clearing on the farm of Andrew Laidlaw.  We don’t know what that service was like though we are told that a tree stump served for a pulpit and that the people sat on logs.  One other thing that we know about that service is that the sermon text was taken from the prophet Ezekiel.

“I will make a covenant of peace with them and rid the land of savage beasts so that they may live in the wilderness and sleep in the forests in safety.  I will make them and the places surrounding my hill a blessing.  I will send down showers in season; there will be showers of blessing.  The trees will yield their fruit and the ground will yield its crops; the people will be secure in their land.  They will live in safety, and no one will make them afraid.  I will provide for them a land renowned for its crops, and they will no longer be victims of famine in the land or bear the scorn of the nations.  Then they will know that I, the Lord their God am with them and that they, the Israelites, are my people, declares the Sovereign Lord.  You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Sovereign Lord.”

These words were originally addressed to God’s people 2600 years ago when they were in the midst of the Babylonian Exile.  These were words of hope and promise.  Yes, they acknowledge that life is hard and it may appear that there is little or no hope for the future but take heart!  I the Lord am with you!  You are my flock and I am your shepherd!  All will be well!

These were words of comfort and hope to God’s people so long ago and it is certainly no surprise that the Rev. Jenkins chose this scripture passage for that very first sermon here 200 years ago.  This was a message that those first settlers, trying to make a new life for themselves in a new land, desperately needed to hear.  Imagine for a moment what their lives were like!  They were literally surrounded by dangerous wild beasts.  Starvation was always just one crop failure away.  There was the incredibly hard work of clearing the land.  Any injury or illness that we would now consider minor with our access to modern medicine and antibiotics could literally have been a death sentence back then.

Those who went before us here at Boston desperately needed to hear these words of hope; that they were God’s flock and that God, the Good Shepherd, was with them.  And the evidence that God was with them can be seen all around us today.  Indeed I imagine that those who gathered here to worship on this very site so long ago would be utterly amazed to see us today.  There are paved roads where there used to be muddy tracks, comfortable houses where their shacks once stood, and fields and wood lots in place of the forest.  This very church building itself would have amazed them; a building, that with its distinctive Scottish architecture would have so powerfully reminded them of the Old Country.  Yes, we live in a very different world than what they did but, as the old proverb puts it, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

I cannot remember the author’s name but a few years ago I read an article in which the writer said that we today are living in “the age of anxiety.”  He, or she, claimed that anxiety or fear is the predominant feeling for most people in the world today; in fact we fear and are anxious about so many different things.  We fear the international situation; if a person in a powerful position of authority makes a bad judgement then, armed with nuclear weapons, the world as we know it would be destroyed.  We have fears about the environment too; while no longer the lead story of the day, global warming continues its relentless march and the pace is picking up.  The weather and seasons seem to be so unpredictable and what will they be like in the years to come?  There is fear too as globalization continues and countries can so easily find themselves at the mercy of other nations for what they need.  All we have to do is think of the recent crisis when it appeared that we could not import enough desperately needed medical masks from China and then the American president threatened to block their export of masks to this country.  And of course this article was written several years ago, long before the present pandemic.

During the past few months we have been living through what is, I hope and pray, a once in a life-time experience.  Three short months ago life was so normal and then, everything seemed to change so quickly.  And even now as life begins to return to some sense of normalcy, things aren’t really normal and the fear and concern remains.  Should we venture out?  Should we wear masks when we do so?  Should we get together with our families and friends?  Even when worship resumes it won’t be the way it used to be.  Indeed fear and anxiety has carried over into the life of the church as well and not just because of the Covid-19 epidemic either.

During the last while I have been reading Andrew Root’s book, “The Pastor in a Secular Age.”  The book makes for heavy but very thought-provoking reading.  What Root does is trace the role of the pastor or minister down through the ages, showing how it has changed and evolved even as the church and society itself has changed and evolved.  We are now of course living in what many people call the Post-Christian or Post-Christendom era.  Neither the church nor the clergy command the same respect that they used to and this leaves us feeling anxious and even afraid.  What is the role and ministry of the church and her ministers in a world where so many people feel that they have no need for either God or his church?  For many people today God is an abstract concept and an irrelevant one at that.  They have no real sense of God’s presence or reality; he is not a part of their lives and they live their lives apart from him.  And this too fills the church with anxiety and even fear.

Yes, we live in a very different world than God’s people of 2600 years ago and those who gathered here to worship 200 years ago but even so, there are times when we like them may well feel that we are in the wilderness, surrounded by the wild animals waiting to devour us.  What we must never ever forget though is that God’s wonderful promise to the people in exile and to those settlers 200 years ago is still God’s promise to us today.  In the words of Ezekiel:

“You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture,

And I am your God, declares the Sovereign Lord”

 

There are also the words of this morning’s psalm, “The Lord is my Shepherd”, and today’s New Testament lesson as well:

“I am the good shepherd.

I know my sheep and my sheep know me –

just as the Father knows me and I know the Father –

and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

 

This is the good news and promise of the gospel.  We may be like sheep, weak, defenseless and feeling at the mercy of forces beyond our control but even so, we have a shepherd.  Indeed we have THE Shepherd, the one who lived, died and was raised for us; the one who even now is with us and praying for us.  And it was this, the comforting, guiding presence of the Shepherd that brought the people out of exile so long ago and enabled them to rebuild their shattered lives.  It was this, the comforting, guiding presence of the Shepherd with our ancestors in the faith here during the past 200 years that has made what we have here today possible.  And it is this, the comforting, guiding presence of the Good Shepherd that will sustain us, not only today but also in all the days yet to come.  Happy Birthday Boston!

June 7, 2020.

| Message for June 7, 2020

Matthew 28:16-20

          It was the year 561 AD and a fierce battle was fought in the vicinity of Carbury in Ireland.  On the one side was the High King of Ireland; on the other were the O’Neills, a very wealthy and powerful clan.  The battle was savage and it is said that by its end thousands of men had been killed.  But what was the cause of such mayhem?  The pride of a young man named Colm Cille, destined to become famous as St. Columba.

Colm Cille was a member of the royal house of the O’Neills and lived a very pampered life.  To put it bluntly, he had a strong sense of entitlement and a quick temper as well.  When he grew up, Colm Cille decided that God had called him to be a monk and, with the help of his wealthy and powerful relations, he quickly became a leader in the church.

Back in those days there was no such thing as a printing press and so all books had to be copied out by hand.  Because of the labour involved books were both valuable and prized possessions.  One day Colm Cille ‘borrowed’ a richly decorated psalm book without asking the owner’s permission and then made his own copy of it.  When the rightful owner demanded that it be returned, Colm Cille refused.  The owner then appealed to the High King for justice and he ordered that Colm Cille return both the original book and the copy as well.  Colm Cille however, refused and appealed to his kinsmen for help. Using this dispute as a pretext for settling their own quarrels with the King, the O’Neills responded positively; the result was the battle of Carbury which was a complete victory for the O’Neills.

After the battle however Colm Cille was horrified.  He claimed to be a disciple of Jesus, the one who preached a gospel of love, peace and forgiveness and now thousands had died because of his pride and arrogance!  Overwhelmed by remorse he decided to leave Ireland and go into exile.  Accompanied by a handful of followers, he set sail and landed on Iona, the first island from which he could no longer see his homeland.  He established a thriving monastery on Iona but, being the man that he was, he wasn’t one to sit still.  He decided to become a missionary and travel around what is now Scotland, spreading the good news of the gospel.

On his first missionary journey he traveled up the Great Glen to what is now Inverness.  It is said that as he and his companions walked along the shores of Lock Ness, they were confronted by the fabled monster.  St. Columba, as he was now called, showed no fear and at his command the monster sank back into the murky depths.  Then, a little further along, a group of pagan priests tried to stop him.  Columba simply started reciting the words of a psalm and they fled in terror.  When he arrived at the king’s palace and knocked on the gates the king refused to open them.  Columba simply knocked on them again and they swung wide open!  At this point, so the story goes, the king saw the light; he and his kingdom converted to Christianity.  And this was just the beginning of Columba’s missionary work in Scotland but why am I sharing these facts and legends with you this morning?  Simply because of what today is.

Today, the first Sunday after Pentecost, is Trinity Sunday and today’s traditional theme is that of remembering what God is like.  And what is God like?  We say so, perhaps without ever thinking about it, every Sunday morning when we gather to worship.

Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty,

Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee.

Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty,

God in three persons, blessed Trinity.

The Trinity is one of our most fundamental Christian beliefs.  Indeed it is so fundamental that we not only begin our service with “Holy, holy, holy” but we also close with another affirmation of it, the Benediction when I say “And now may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all”.  We believe in one God made known to us through three separate persons; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one in three, three in one. This doesn’t always seem to make a lot of sense though; how can God be one yet three separate persons, all at the same time?

Over the years people have come up with all sorts of explanations or analogies for the Trinity.  Consider H2o for example; in its usual state it’s water but when it is cold enough it becomes ice.  When it is boiled it becomes steam.  We experience it in different ways but it is still H2o.  To use another analogy, we can consider human relationships.  All of us play different roles in life and are known in different ways by different people but there is still only one of us.  To use myself as an example, I am known as a husband, father and minister but that certainly does not mean that there are three of me!  And so it is with God.   Why though is this belief so important that we affirm it every Sunday and even set aside one Sunday a year to remember it?

St. Columba’s followers once asked him this very same question and his response was to say that the Trinity matters because our beliefs about God matter.  They matter because what we believe about God influences and even shape our behavior.  If for example we believe that God is a righteous judge just waiting to smack us down when we break the rules, then that will have an impact on how we view people and life itself.  If we believe that God is like a loving parent then that will have an impact on us.  If we believe that God is in his heaven and has nothing to do with us, then that will be reflected in how we live our lives.  In short, we need to have a full and complete knowledge of God as possible and that is what the Trinity is all about.

As the Father for example, God is the creator and the righteous one.  As the Son, God has shown us how to live and ensured that we are forgiven when we fail to live the lives and be the people we should be.  And as the Spirit, God is with us now, guiding us, protecting us and sharing life with us.  If we take any of these away then our knowledge and experience of God is incomplete.  It is not enough for example just to know that God created the world for how much does that tell us about God?  Some days we might look at the creation and think how good God is yet at other times, after a natural disaster for example, we might look at the world and think how awful God is.  We also need Jesus too to both show us and tell us what the Father is like and to show us how, secure in God’s love and forgiveness, we can best live our lives.  Even that isn’t enough though.  Jesus and the Father aren’t here with us and we need God here and now.  In short we need the Spirit!

We may think that what we believe about God really doesn’t matter nor has any relevance for our day to day lives but nothing could be further from the truth.  Beliefs matter because they have a powerful, if often unrealized, impact on us.  St. Columba knew this and that is why he emphasized a belief in the Trinity and, according to an ancient tradition, even invented one of Christianity’s most enduring symbols for it.

The Celtic cross is a religious symbol that has long been beloved by Christians and especially by the Irish and Scots.  It is certainly a beloved symbol for us Presbyterians, even rivalling the Burning Bush in popularity.  What we often fail to realize though is that the Celtic cross is a visible expression or symbol of the Trinity.  The cross of course represents Jesus, his crucifixion and resurrection but as odd as it may seem at first there is more to Christianity than Jesus.  This is why the cross also has a circle.  The circle, with no beginning or end, symbolizes the oneness and eternity of God; it reminds us about the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Back in the mists of time there was a saint who at first seemed to be anything but a saint; St Columba.  He was one of the first Christian missionaries to go to Scotland and so he is one of the spiritual ancestors of our own denomination.  Columba firmly believed that it was not enough just to try and live a good life; what we believe about God matters too since it shapes how we live.  This was true1500 years ago and it is still true today.  Indeed living in the times we do, with the present pandemic and the upheaval following the horrific death of George Floyd, we need as full a knowledge and as deep an understanding of God as possible.

 

 

 

May 24, 2020.

| Message for May 24, 2020

Mark 4:35-41 RSV

When I look back, it was one of the strangest things that took getting used to when we came to Milton.  What I am talking about is the absence of Lake Ontario.  I grew up in Oakville and since my parent’s house was only about a mile from the shoreline, the lake in all its varied conditions was always there and it was a rare week when I didn’t see it.  When I took the Go train to Knox College I made a point of sitting on the south side so that I could see the lake.  When I worked in Toronto all those summers ago, it was close to the lake at Queen’s Quay.  After my ordination when I went to my first charge of Brighton, Colborne and Lakeport, the lake remained a part of my life.  The manse in Colborne was perhaps a mile away from the shoreline and I saw the lake virtually every day in my travels to Lakeport and Brighton.  But then when we came to Milton?  For the first time in my entire life I was not near the lake and as strange as it may sound, that took getting used to.

As you can probably tell I love the lake; indeed I love all large bodies of water.  This explains one of my great pleasures in life which is simply sitting on the beach at Sauble doing nothing but gaze out at the water. God’s people in days gone by however did not feel the same as I do. Indeed they hated the sea and lakes with a passion that we can hardly imagine.

The Israelite’s origins of course lay in the desert.  Then, after the Exodus when they settled in the Promised Land, they were confronted by what they called the Great Sea, known to us as the Mediterranean.  It filled them with fear and loathing since it represented chaos and nature at its unpredictable worse.  It was also the place where the leviathan and other great sea monsters lurked!  To be fair though, they had good reason to fear the sea and other large bodies of water.  With no compass or maps to guide them, going out to sea was venturing into the great unknown.  Their ships were small and frail as well so it didn’t take much to sink them.  Perhaps the loathing of many for the water is best revealed in the last book of the Bible, John’s book of Revelation.  When he describes heaven and the life yet to come he says that one of its greatest attractions is that the sea is no more.  Truly our ancestors in the faith absolutely dreaded all large bodies of water and that is the background to today’s scripture passage.

One evening Jesus decided to leave Capernaum and travel to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  He and the disciples could have walked around the lake but as that would have taken far too long it was decided to go by boat instead.  The Sea of Galilee was noted for both the suddenness and the ferocity of its squalls and sure enough one struck the little flotilla while they were out in the middle of the lake.  The winds howled and the waves roared and before long the frail little ships were being swamped.  But where was Jesus while all of this was going on?  He was in the stern with his head on a pillow sound asleep!

Now the disciples simply couldn’t believe it; here they were in danger of sinking and there was Jesus sleeping as if he didn’t have a care in the world!  They woke him up and frantically asked:  “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?”  Jesus’ response was to command that the waves and wind be still.  Then, turning to his disciples he asked:  “Why are you afraid?  Have you no faith?”  They however didn’t have an answer.  They finished bailing out the boat and continued on with their journey, all the while wondering, “Who is this man?  Even the winds and the waves obey him!”  Who was this man who could control the most dreaded elements of nature?  What did this man mean for them and their lives?  Indeed what does Jesus mean for us and ours?

In the days following the Second World War the World Council of Churches was formed.  This organization looked long and hard for an appropriate symbol to describe itself.  Inspired by the tempests of the time, a symbol was soon arrived at.  The universal church was depicted as a storm tossed boat with a cross for a mast.  This is an appropriate symbol for the church as it has made its journey down through the ages but the storm tossed boat can also be an appropriate symbol for each one of us as well.

If we want to, we can think of our lives as being like a voyage, and during our voyage we experience all sorts of different conditions.  Sometimes our voyage is a peaceful one.  There is a gentle breeze, the water is calm and there is nothing more exciting than the simple routine of our day to day lives.  At other times our journey can be exciting; the wind picks up and we race across the waves of life bouncing up and down.  And then there are the times when it rains or the winds are against us; we have to tack back and forth just to hold our position, never mind make any headway.  At other times we may be becalmed or perhaps caught in a terrible fog, peering about in the gloom with a rising sense of panic trying to figure out where we are and where we are going.  And then of course there are the times when the storms hit; the winds howl, the waves roar and the water comes crashing in and it seems as if we will surely sink.

The storms of life take many forms and vary in intensity.  The storm for example may consist of the death of a loved one.  It may consist of ill health perhaps, be it our own, our spouse’s or that of someone else we are close to.  The storm may sometimes consist of a family problem, a problem at work or money issues perhaps.  And of course we are now living through what is for many of us, the storm of a lifetime; the present pandemic.  This storm has had, in so many ways, a negative impact on all of us.  Even now as things appear to be improving with such as more people returning to work and more of the stores reopening, the upset and fear remains.  Can we venture out?  Should we venture out?  When will life get back to ‘normal’ and what will that ‘normal’ look like?  The present crisis has left many of us floundering and when the storms of life strike we might well echo the disciples’ cry, “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?”

Even as we ask this question though, we already know the answer.  The great promise of the gospel is that God does care.  That is why he became one of us in the person of his Son.  That is why even now he joins us through the Spirit, the one whose coming we remember next Sunday at Pentecost.  God most certainly does care.  To be sure, we may not always be able to discern God’s presence but nevertheless it is real; he is present and he is involved.  Of course it takes faith to believe this and to trust in God our Father.