June 13, 2021

Sunday worship, Pentecost 3, June 13, 2021

Posted by FirstPresbyterian Regina on Sunday, June 13, 2021

Mark 4:26-34

“A Resting Place for All”

You may have noticed that I only included one Scripture reading this morning. The lectionary each week provides four – one from the Hebrew Scriptures, one Psalm, one from the Epistles of the New Testament, and one Gospel passage. That’s a lot to hear, to consider, and to digest. Often, I drop one reading just to make it a bit more manageable. Sometimes I drop two of them so that we can have a little more focus to the service. Today I dropped everything except the Gospel text.

It seemed in keeping with the Gospel reading itself – two little parables about tiny seeds that grow to produce abundant harvests and wonderful big plants that provide a home for all the birds of the air. It’s just one short passage from Mark’s Gospel, but it is full of wonder, and inspiration, and hope for the Kingdom of God that is planted, and growing, and coming up in our world. One little passage today should be more than enough to satisfy our spiritual hunger.

In the parables today, Jesus is teaching about the Kingdom of God. It was his absolute favourite topic of conversation! He didn’t talk much about religious rules or practices. He hardly said anything about doctrines we needed to believe or not believe. And despite the heated debate in the church today, Jesus didn’t really weigh in on marriage or sexuality either.

But the Kingdom of God was really important. The fact that it was coming was the main thing Jesus preached about. And he went around demonstrating it and showing it to the world in his healing, and forgiving, and welcoming, and embracing of all the wounded, regretful, left-out, and lonely people of the world.

The Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven) as Matthew’s Gospel confusingly names it, is not where we go after we die. It’s the time and the place in this world where love is shared, forgiveness is given freely, people are well, relationships are harmonious, and everyone knows that they are beloved of God and treasured as members of the human community.

In the last few weeks, it’s been rather difficult to recognize the Reign of God growing in the world around us. Two weeks ago, we were all shocked and saddened by the discovery of the unmarked graves of about 215 children who died and were buried near the Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.

Although we were well aware of the abuses committed in the residential schools and the systemic problems with the whole program of forcing Indigenous children into schools where they would be Christianized and enculturated into European languages, practices, and norms, many Canadians were unaware of how many children never came home from the schools. Thousands of survivors and their families were re-traumatized by this discovery, and another aspect of our collective sin was revealed for us all to lament, grieve, and commit to address.

Then, almost a week ago we heard about the murder of a Muslim family in London, Ontario. The Afzaal family was simply out for a walk in their neighbourhood when someone intentionally drove a truck into them for no other reason than their religious faith. A grandmother, mother, father, and teenage girl were killed. A nine-year boy survived without his family.

Meanwhile, the 146th General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada met online for the first time ever from last Sunday to Wednesday evening, and it was really difficult. While the Clerks and Moderator, and staff, and dozens of volunteers worked hard to make the Assembly function well in an online format, there were some commissioners who questioned whether it was valid for us to meet in this way.

There was vigorous debate about the processes we would use, and what should be given priority on the agenda. And the fact that we were dealing with difficult and divisive issues related to human sexuality, biblical interpretation, and allegations of racism made for a high stress and exhausting few days for all of us.

But it wasn’t a disaster. The Assembly did its work, and I believe that the Spirit of God was at work among us, even though it was very challenging. Many seeds of the Reign of God were planted last week, and others had the opportunity to grow up a bit. And I am placing my trust and hope in the promise of God that those seeds will “grow up and become the greatest of all shrubs, and put forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in their shade.”

Early in the meeting, the Assembly supported an additional motion “That, in consultation with the National Indigenous Ministries Council, the Moderator and immediate past Moderator be asked to write a statement and pastoral letter responding to the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.”

With the support of the highest court of our church, that statement is almost completed. And more than just being a statement of confession, regret, and lament at the discovery, it is a re-commitment to the work of healing and reconciliation.

Very practically-speaking, we’ll be committing as a church to initiate investigations into possible burial grounds near the residential schools that were operated by our church – like the one discovered in Kamloops, like the one found here in Regina at the former Regina Indian Industrial School.

Although it will be painful to find more abandoned graves, the truth-telling, acknowledgement, and respectful commemoration of these burial grounds are a critical part of the work of healing and reconciliation. I am praying and trusting God that those seeds when planted will grow.

Later in the Assembly, we welcomed Imam Muneed Nasir as our interfaith guest. Imam Nasir is a member of the National Muslim Christian Liaison Committee which is a forum for respectful dialogue on things of common interest between Canadian Muslims and Christians. Our denomination is pleased to be a participant in this dialogue, working to build friendship and cooperation between members of our two faiths.

In light of the recent attack in London, the Moderator was able to offer condolences and prayers for our guest and his religious community. And the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee proposed two additional motions which were overwhelmingly supported – that the Moderator write to the Muslim Christian Liaison Committee with a message of support, and that all Presbyterians be called to reach out in love to our Muslim neighbours in every community where we live across Canada.

On Friday, with the approval of the First Church Session, I was able to deliver letters of prayer and support from First Church to the Islamic Association of Saskatchewan (Regina Mosque) and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, also here in Regina. I am trusting that the seeds planted in these days following this tragedy, will grow into closer relations between religious and cultural groups, greater understanding of one another, and safer communities for all people in Canada.

The other seed I want to talk about today is one that was planted a long, long time ago. About 30 years ago, The Presbyterian Church in Canada began to have conversations about human sexuality, sexual orientation, and eventually the place of LGBTQI people within the congregations and ministries of the church.

I don’t know why the seed of full inclusion took so long to grow in our church. Perhaps the soil of our hearts was too dry, or there were too many weeds trying to strangle it every time it began to grow. But this week during the General Assembly, we witnessed some real and significant growth, and I think we can be quite confident that the tree is going to survive and thrive.

The Special Listening Committee re. LGBTQI people, also known as the Rainbow Communion, was established by the General Assembly in 2017 to respond to the call to repent of the harm caused by homophobia and hypocrisy in the church. And on Monday, the final report was presented, sharing stories the committee had heard recounting harm done because of homophobia, transphobia, heterosexism and hypocrisy in the PCC towards LGBTQI people and others. It also included stories of grace received in the face of challenge.

Of the 139 stories shared, many were from people who were harmed within and by the church. They did not feel welcome, but instead too often felt ostracized and shamed for who they are. Gratitude was expressed by commissioners to all who told their stories, and the Assembly affirmed that all people, whatever their sexual orientation or gender identity, are equally beloved by God.

By adopting all recommendations from the Rainbow Communion, the Assembly encouraged congregations to provide opportunities for all to offer their gifts in the worship, life, and ministry of the church. It also agreed that identifying as LGBTQI or being in a same-sex marriage is not grounds for discipline and censure in The Presbyterian Church in Canada.

The Church will offer a public confession to all individuals and congregations harmed by the church through exclusion and marginalization, seeking forgiveness from God and from all those affected. Resources will be created in the coming years to equip an inclusive church and a fund will be established to support psychotherapy and counselling for those who have experienced harm.

Lengthy discussion dominated the meetings on Tuesday regarding Remits B and C in the Committee on Remits report. After years of prayerful debate and study, and much passionate and heartfelt discussion, The Presbyterian Church in Canada agreed to make changes to its theology and practice regarding marriage, permitting people to choose to define marriage either as a covenant relationship between a man and a woman or a covenant relationship between two adult people. These decisions provide Presbyterian ministers with liberty of conscience and the freedom to choose to officiate or not officiate at the marriages of same-sex couples.

Additionally, the church agreed that LGBTQI people (whether married or single) can be ordained and are welcome to serve as ministers and ruling elders.

These decisions are not an indication that everyone in the Presbyterian Church now agrees about how we interpret the Bible or what are appropriate God-honouring ways to live out our sexual and family relationships. Our church still includes many people with a traditional understanding of marriage.

The changes we made this week were intended to make space in the church for all of us, regardless of our sexual orientation, gender identity, or theological perspective on these questions. And this new vision of our life together with unity and diversity in the church calls us all to show love, respect, and care for one another across our differences.

As I was writing this sermon yesterday, I was sitting on the couch in my living room. And whenever I needed to pause to think, I would look out the window at the tree on my front lawn. Green leaves fluttering in the wind, branches extending in all directions, and plenty of shelter for birds to come and find safety, and build their nests, and rest a while.

That’s what the Kingdom of God is like, Jesus teaches us. It’s like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs.

Let’s give thanks for the seeds being planted in these days. Let’s rejoice in the growth we see happening around us today. And let’s trust in God’s promise that the tree will grow up, and there will be a resting place for all.