“What Happens in Bethlehem Doesn’t Stay in Bethlehem”
You’ve heard the saying, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”? This morning I noticed someone post a tweet with the hashtag #Christmas and alternate version of that saying: “What happens in Bethlehem doesn’t stay in Bethlehem.”
The story of Christ’s birth reminds us in a wonderful way that when God became flesh and entered our world as an infant, God was born in a particular place, to an ordinary family, and the news was made known to regular, working-class people who were nearby. God’s entrance was not made with a lot of pomp and circumstance, but he was born in a little town, in a stable out back of someone’s house, where very few people would notice.
But we are also reminded that God’s coming into the world in this way changed the lives of those he encountered, and eventually it changed the whole world. What happened in Bethlehem didn’t stay in Bethlehem.
In many ways, this has been a pretty normal year in and around our church. But it has also been a remarkable year. And one of the ways that it has been remarkable is the number of babies that have … Read more »
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
“Testify to the Light”
Have you heard about the war on Christmas? It’s the idea that Western secular society is out to stop any religious celebration of Christmas by banning the use of the word itself in the public sphere, by calling “Christmas trees” “Holiday trees,” and making sure that the carols sung in public places are appropriately secular. Some particularly right-wing Christians are calling it a “war” on Christmas, and they’re actively engaged in the fight to keep Christ in Christmas.
All this controversy about Christmas is an interesting development in the last few years because religious celebrations of Christ’s birth have always been held side-by-side with secular or pagan customs. Even the choice of December 25th for Christmas was not because Christians knew the exact date of Jesus’ birth, but because it seemed appropriate to hold a Christian celebration while others were marking the Winter Solstice. Things like Christmas trees, Christmas wreaths, and Yule logs were incorporated into Christian celebrations from the Winter Solstice holiday called, “Yule.”
Back in the 17th century, there was another controversy about Christmas. Puritan Christians in England wanted to purify Christianity by removing elements that they viewed as pagan … Read more »
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Someone suggested recently that if I could come up with titles for my Sunday sermons, she would appreciate that. And so, on Friday morning, just before leaving for North Battleford for our Presbytery meeting, I added one more word to the bulletin which Karen would print later that morning.
I titled the sermon for today, “Unprepared,” and I chuckled to myself because as I wrote “Unprepared” in the bulletin I was very aware of the fact that my sermon was completely unprepared as yet. I had reflected on the scriptures, made some notes, and the idea of the sermon was beginning to form in my mind, but I was still woefully unprepared.
Although ministers get used to speaking in public, I imagine that if we share a common nightmare it’s the thought of getting a total writer’s block, or of being so overwhelmed with other aspects of ministry all week, that Sunday arrives and we have nothing to say. If we take our ministry seriously, we want to do the best we can with whatever gifts we have received, and being unprepared is a terrible possibility.
I know that many of you have experienced something similar in your work … Read more »
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
“Taking a Risk”
The wretched slave cowers under the shadow of his master towering above him, and the master’s booming voice echoes around the slave… “You wicked and lazy slave! You ought to have invested my money with the bankers! Instead, all you did was bury it in the ground!”
“B,b,b,but, I was frightened. I was scared that I would lose it and you would punish me.”
“Well,” said the master’s authoritative voice, “That’s what’s going to happen now.
Give me my one talent back, and I’ll give it to someone with a bit more faith – someone who won’t just bury my gifts in the ground.”
As we just heard, there were three slaves in the story that Jesus told, and the master gave them all a bit of money – five talents for the 1st slave, two talents for the 2nd slave, and one talent for the 3rd slave.
Actually, he gave them a lot of money. A talent does not refer in this case to something that you’re good at or skilled at doing. A talent was a large sum of money. One talent was approximately how much money a labourer in Jesus’ day would have earned in about 15 … Read more »
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
“Missing the Party?”
The parable of the ten bridesmaids is all about missing a party, specifically a wedding reception. In many ways, this parable goes along with another one that we are probably all familiar with, the parable of the wedding banquet.
In the parable of the wedding banquet, the guests are invited to come to the feast, but for various reasons, they all refuse. They are too busy doing other things, so they don’t have time to go to the celebration. They miss the party.
In the parable of the ten bridesmaids, the guests have shown up ready for the party, but some of them do not come prepared to wait for the bridegroom. When they run out of oil for their lamps and have to go buy more, the party begins, and they end up locked out. They miss the party too.
Traditionally, this parable has been understood as an allegory of the “close of the age” – the “end of time”. The bridegroom represents the Messiah, and his arrival is the awaited Second Coming. Our minds automatically jump to conclude that the parable is about being prepared when Jesus returns so that we will get into the party … Read more »
When I was growing up in a Presbyterian church, I don’t remember celebrating “All Saints’ Day.” It’s only in recent years that I have noticed it in the Church Calendar and begun to think about what it means. Even Presbyterian churches that follow the lectionary quite strictly could miss “All Saints’ Day” because it’s not really a Sunday celebration. “All Saints’ Day” is November 1st – whatever day of the week that happens to fall on, and so most of the time it passes by without any mention of it. Unless, of course, a minister decides to put aside the Sunday readings and choose to celebrate “All Saints’ Day” instead. And that is what we have done.
You probably know that many of the well-known saints have a feast day. It’s a day when Christians celebrate and remember the life and witness of a particular saint. The feast days of the saints are not held on their birthdays, but on the day they died. Often they were martyred – put to death for witnessing to their faith in Jesus Christ – so they are memorialized on that day.
St. Francis was a holy man who lived in the late 12th … Read more »
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
“Moses or Joshua?”
The words of the psalmist, and some of the songs based on them have been running through my head all week: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God… Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.”
It has been quite a week in our country. Two soldiers were run down by a car, and one of them killed on Monday in Quebec. Another soldier was shot as he stood guard at the War Memorial in Ottawa. A young man who was clearly mentally unstable ran into the Parliament buildings and began to shoot. MPs, journalists, and tourists barricaded themselves in rooms until he could be stopped.
And then we watched and listened to the reaction over the next few days. We saw politicians hugging each other. We heard about bystanders helping and encouraging the injured. There were certainly some words of anger and fear, and the suggestion that this occurrence might change our country in a significant way. But mostly, we heard expressions of courage and determination … Read more »
2 Corinthians 9:6-15
“A Thankful Response”
This morning’s scripture readings invite us to reflect and to respond. As we celebrate Thanksgiving weekend together with our Canadian neighbours, friends, and families, we are invited to remember that this holiday is about more than a big meal and pumpkin-themed decorations.
We don’t call it “Turkey Day” because it’s not just about the menu, but it can be for us, as Christians, a special time of reflecting on the goodness of God and responding to that goodness with our lives of service and generosity.
The passage from Deuteronomy that we just heard is Moses addressing the Hebrew People. They are at the point where they have just finished their long 40-year journey through the wilderness, and they are about to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land.
You will remember that they have been through a terrible time. After escaping slavery and a harsh existence in Egypt, they have wandered through the wilderness for years – living in tents, coping with scarcity and danger, complaining and arguing with each other at times, and sometimes nearly giving up hope.
But soon all that will be over. Moses tells them that God is bringing them into a good … Read more »
Late in the first century A.D., a group of Christians is gathered to worship God and tell the stories of their Lord Jesus. They come together regularly, especially on the first day of the week. They sing songs of praise. They recount the stories of Jesus that have been passed on for decades – the things he said, the wonders he did, and especially the way he gave his life for theirs.
Then they share a meal together – a simple meal of bread and wine, and they tell each other of the meals that Jesus once shared with his followers and the way he told them to remember him in the breaking of the bread.
Today, it is Matthew’s turn to tell the story, and he recounts a parable that Jesus once told to the chief priests and the Pharisees. It’s another parable about a vineyard. They’ve heard a lot of those recently, but Matthew assures them that this one is different.
There’s a landowner who decides to plant a vineyard. He puts a fence around it, digs a wine press in it, and builds a watchtower. Then he leases the land to some tenants who are supposed to work the … Read more »
We’ve been talking about friendship this weekend with the Saskatchewan Presbyterian Youth. We looked at the story of David and Jonathan to see what we could learn about friendship from them. We studied the passage from John’s Gospel where Jesus calls his disciples friends, and thought about what it means to be a friend of Jesus. And we watched and discussed the play, “The Shape of a Girl” – a play about friendship, and bullying, and things getting out of control, and having the courage to speak out.
More than any of us, the youth are probably most used to thinking about and talking about friendship. At their stage of life, making and keeping friends is a big part of life. When we are young, we learn about being friends… maybe from our parents, and maybe from our peers… we learn how to play together with others, how to share, how to care, how to listen to someone else and share our feelings with others too.
I want to invite you now… no matter how old you are… to think about the friends you have had over the years. Remember your friends at school or in the neighbourhood when you were a … Read more »
“As We Forgive”
Way back in Matthew chapter six, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray. He encourages them to pray honestly and sincerely, telling them not to be concerned with using many words, and not to pray just to be seen praying by others.
And then Jesus teaches them the prayer we still use every Sunday in our worship. He says, “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.”
And Jesus goes on to explain, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
How often we pray the Lord’s Prayer and ask for God’s forgiveness of our sins! How often those words slip easily across our lips, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”! But how very rarely do we pause to consider the implications of … Read more »
This morning’s Gospel text may be one of the most practical and applicable passages in the whole Bible. It’s not a complicated parable with many layers of meaning. It’s not an apocalyptic saying with mysterious symbolic language. It’s not a poem, or a prophecy, or even a commandment from long ago that makes us work hard to figure out how to apply it to our contemporary lives.
This morning’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew is instead a very practical set of instructions from Jesus for what to do when conflict arises. You see, Jesus’ disciples and the people they met along their missionary journeys experienced conflict. There’s even a Gospel story about Jesus’ disciples arguing with one another as they went along the road – arguing with each other about which one of them was the greatest.
Jesus’ first disciples got into conflict sometimes, and even Jesus got into conflict. I imagine that most of the time Jesus probably kept his cool when conflict arose – when the Pharisees tried to trick him or test him, when his disciples didn’t understand him or even tried to oppose him. There’s even one story in which Jesus does get angry and … Read more »
“Here I am, Lord”
The Hebrews were a group of marginal, oppressed people, living in the land of Egypt long ago, and in an attempt to keep their population under control, the king of Egypt ordered that any male babies born to the Hebrews be thrown into the Nile river to drown. And that’s when Moses was born.
After hiding the little boy for three months, Moses’ mother placed him in a basket and released him to float down the river, from which he was rescued by the Pharaoh’s daughter, who took him in and raised him as her own son.
We don’t know anything about Moses’ life as he grew up in Egypt, just as we don’t know much about Jesus’ early life. But the book of Exodus indicates that although Moses had the privileges of royalty, he did know that he was born a Hebrew, and he had a certain amount of identification with their plight as an oppressed People.
The first story about Moses’ adult life is about him trying to stand up for a Hebrew who was being beaten by an Egyptian. But rather than just order the Egyptian to stop, Moses’ anger takes over and he … Read more »
Exodus 1:8 – 2:10
Can you imagine being Shiprah or Puah when Pharaoh ordered them to start killing all the baby boys? How scary it must have been for them to disobey the king’s orders and lie right to his face about it!
Can you imagine being one of Jesus’ disciples when he asked, “Who do YOU say that I am?” How difficult it must have been for Peter to say out loud what he really believed about Jesus when everyone else seemed to think he was just some kind of prophet!
In some ways, this morning’s readings are very different from each other. But on another level, they are connected because they’re all about people of faith finding the courage to speak and to act on their faith in spite of great opposition.
On Friday evening, I went to a short play with my friend, Martha. It’s a play that we’re considering including in the program for the Saskatchewan Presbyterian Youth conference at the end of September. And it’s a pretty heavy play because it’s all about girls bullying girls.
It’s one of those one-actor plays that always impresses me so much because the actor performs for an hour straight, remembering … Read more »
“God Turned it Around for Good”
How very good and pleasant it is when families live together in unity!
This morning’s readings got me thinking about families… about families like the Drovers, bringing their youngest child for baptism this morning, about my own family, about traditional families, and blended families, and broken families, and reconciled families, and people seemingly without families, and our church families. How very good and pleasant it is when families live together in unity!
One of the things that is great about the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, is that it doesn’t tell stories about perfect families, and challenge us to live up to their examples. Instead, the Bible is full of stories about real people and real families with all their conflicts, struggles, blessings, and possibilities.
On the plane, on my way to Ontario this summer, I watched the recent movie version of the story of Noah and his family. Whoever wrote the screenplay got a bit creative with the story that we know so well from the Bible and filled in some blanks where we don’t have any details. But what struck me about it most was how human the characters were.
Even though Noah’s family … Read more »
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
“Three Parables in One”
Jesus’ Parable of the Sower is found in the Gospel of Matthew between stories about opposition to the gospel. In chapter eleven, Jesus has criticized various cities for failing to repent even though they have witnessed Jesus’ deeds of power. And later in chapter thirteen, Jesus will be rejected again – this time by the people of his own home town, Nazareth.
And so, we may read the Parable of the Sower as a kind of explanation of what is going on in Jesus’ ministry. Perhaps Jesus’ disciples (or even Jesus himself) are getting discouraged. They go about preaching, and healing, and doing miracles, and they expect a wonderful response. Why isn’t their little band of followers growing? Why aren’t people responding to Jesus’ teaching by changing their lives? Why aren’t they convinced by the miracles, the healing, or the wise teaching?
The parable provides a good explanation. It’s as if a sower is sowing seeds. The seeds are God’s Word being sown in the hearts of people. Sometimes, of course, the people do not understand God’s Word, and so it does not grow within them and lead to a fruitful response. Sometimes people receive the Word … Read more »
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
“Take My Yoke Upon You”
All the way through the Gospel stories, Jesus shows up in villages, in cities, in the countryside, beside the sea, and in the middle of people’s lives, and he invites them to respond to his message, to his presence, and to his call.
Jesus showed up beside the Sea of Galilee, and invited some fisherman to radically change the course of their lives. He said: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And they did.
Jesus showed up in front of Matthew’s booth, and said to the tax collector: “Follow me.” And Matthew got up and followed him.
Jesus showed up in the middle of a crowd where he had been casting out bad spirits and healing those who were sick. One person said he wanted to follow Jesus, but he just needed to take care of his father’s funeral arrangements first. But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”
Jesus showed up where a rich young man was wondering about what he had to do in order to be saved. He claimed to follow the commandments, so that wasn’t the problem. Jesus said to him, “If … Read more »
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
“Not the Easy Way”
What interesting scripture readings we have to consider this morning! First we heard the story of Hagar and Ishmael. They are rejected and mistreated by Abraham and Sarah, sent out into the wilderness to die of thirst, but God takes care of them and protects them. God saves them and provides a future for them.
Next we heard from the psalmist who was struggling with some kind of trouble. In the midst of his situation he does not despair, but he calls on God for hope and help. He remembers that God has done wonderful things before. He remembers God’s power and might, and prays that God will help him once again.
Then we had a passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans. The Apostle has just finished explaining that our justification by faith through God’s boundless grace is a free gift from God. God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
And then, in today’s passage, Paul says that “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death… we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so … Read more »
Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a
“Entrusted to Us”
As many of you know, I spent the last two weeks in Toronto taking a course as part of my doctoral program. The topic of the course was “Theology of Ministry,” and its overall purpose was to assist each of us as students to develop our own theology of ministry as we understand it in our particular contexts and roles in Christian ministry. I titled my preliminary draft paper for the course, “Partners in the Ministry of Christ: A Presbyterian and Ecumenical Theology of Ministry.”
My theology of ministry is rooted in a conviction that all Christian ministry is the ministry of Christ. The members of the church – the Body of Christ – all receive different gifts from the Holy Spirit, and are called and equipped to serve God in a variety of ways. Some are called to the Ministry of Word and Sacraments, to Ruling Eldership, or to Diaconal Ministry, and others are called to use their gifts and serve as lay people in a whole host of different ways – through music, teaching, evangelism, hospitality, generosity, healing, and many other ministries of leadership and service. Whenever Christians minister to one another … Read more »
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
“Jesus Prays for Us”
He’s got the whole world in his hands.
He’s got the whole wide world in his hands.
He’s got the whole world in his hands.
He’s got the whole world in his hands.
The songs we sing in daily life, and especially in worship, have a lot of power to shape our thinking and believing about God, the world, and ourselves in relationship to both. I grew up in church and at camp singing songs that expressed the love, care, and concern of God for the whole world… and that perspective has been a part of my theology ever since. God has the whole world in God’s hands: the sun and the moon, the wind and the rain, the tiny little baby, and you and me and everyone else as well.
If you share that kind of thinking about God’s interest in the world, you conclude that God loves your new Muslim neighbour, and God is concerned about what the agnostics and secular humanists discuss when they meet as the Saskatoon Centre for Inquiry. God cares about the First Nations children living in sub-standard housing on a northern reserve, about the young Indian woman who was stoned to … Read more »