December 1, 2019

Isaiah 2:1-5 Matthew 24:36-44 “What’s a Christian To Do? (In Advent)” Today is the first Sunday in the Season of Advent. As you know, Advent is the four weeks leading up to Christmas. Whether we know it as Advent, or whether we just think of it as the lead-up to Christmas, this is one of the busiest times of the year… not just in our churches, but in almost every aspect of our lives. While most people are rushing around buying holiday presents, decorating, baking, sending cards, hosting and attending parties, watching holiday plays and presentations, and then doing some more shopping… Christians are called during Advent and Christmas do something different from the rest of the world. We are invited to stop, and to wait. We are invited to be quiet and reflective. We are invited to pause and to think about the wonder of the celebration that we are about to share at Christmas… about the amazing thing that happened so many years ago… how God came into the world to be WITH us in Jesus Christ. Well, the reality is that many Christians are running around like crazy in December too, just like everyone else. In many ways, our Christmas preparations don’t seem much different from our secular neighbours. But the beginning of Advent is a good time for us to pause and remember what this season is all about. The beginning of Advent is a good time for us to stop and to consider how we … Read more »

November 17, 2019

Isaiah 65:17-25 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 Luke 21:5-19 “Hope for a New World” Today’s passage from Isaiah 65 is about God’s vision for a renewed world. It is a description of a new world that God is going to make in which there will be peace and justice for everyone. People will live long and happy lives, working hard, and reaping the rewards of their work, living in houses, planting crops, and enjoying the blessing of a good relationship with God. For the people of Judah and Jerusalem, sometime after 539 BCE, this vision would have filled them with hope and confidence for the future, as they made their way back to their homeland after the long exile in Babylon. In exile, they had felt alone and abandoned by God. And now, even as they returned to Judah and Jerusalem, they were coming back to a temple in ruins and a lot of work ahead of them to rebuild their homes and communities and livelihoods. Rather than let the people feel overwhelmed by the challenges they were facing, Isaiah wrote words of encouragement and hope. While the people struggled with the tasks of rebuilding, and while they worried about producing enough food and enduring the various conflicts and wars that their king had them involved in, Isaiah told them that God was starting all over again. God was beginning again at the beginning, and God was making a new heaven and a new earth for them. The words of Isaiah’s prophecy … Read more »

November 10, 2019

Job 19:23-27a 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17 Luke 20:27-38 “Trusting God with our Questions” Whenever I think of the Sadducees, I think of a silly kids’ song that I learned at camp many years ago. (We did it for the kids’ song at church once too.) The refrain goes, “I only want to be a sheep, ba ba ba ba… I only want to be a sheep, ba ba ba ba, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, I only want to be a sheep, ba ba ba ba.” And then each verse mentions a biblical character that I don’t so much want to be like. “I don’t want to be a goat…. nope. I don’t want to be a Pharisee… ‘cause they’re not fair, you see. And… I don’t want to be a Sadducee… ‘cause they’re so sad, you see.” We don’t know very much about the Sadducees. They were a group of religious leaders in the time of Jesus – a different group from the Pharisees that we hear about so often in the Gospels. What we do know is that the Sadducees were part of the priestly aristocracy. They had status and power. The historian Josephus, describes them as harsh judges who were known to be most cruel among the Jews. And several times in the Gospels and in the Book of Acts, there are indications that the Sadducees disagreed with the Pharisees on a significant theological point. The Sadducees did not believe in resurrection. I suppose, … Read more »

October 27, 2019

Acts 10:1-33 Romans 15:1-13 “Hospitality in the Neighbourhood” There is a story about a pastor who felt that their church was a bit stuffy and could use a bit of friendliness. So, one Sunday he announced that the following Sunday they were going to start a custom of shaking hands and greeting each other. At the close of the service, a man turned around to the woman behind him and said, “Good morning,” and she looked at him with shock at his boldness and said, “I beg your pardon! That friendliness business doesn’t start until next Sunday!” There was an article in a church newsletter about a man who visited 18 different churches on successive Sundays. He was trying to find out what the churches were really like. He said, “I sat near the front. After the service, I walked slowly to the rear, then returned to the front and back to the foyer using another aisle. I smiled, dressed neatly. I asked one person to direct me to a specific place: a fellowship hall, pastor’s study, etc. I remained for coffee if it was served.” He writes, “I used a scale to rate the reception I received. I awarded points on the following basis: 10 points for a smile from a worshipper 10 for a greeting from someone sitting nearby 100 for an exchange of names 200 for an invitation to have coffee 200 for an invitation to return 1000 for an introduction to another worshipper 2000 for an … Read more »

October 20, 2019

1 Corinthians 12:12-31 Psalm 133 John 17:20-23 “I Have Need of You” Back in my seminary days at Knox College, I took a preaching class with Stephen Farris that was specifically focussed on preaching 1st Corinthians for congregations in conflict. You may remember that the Church at Corinth was the epitome of a congregation in conflict. In the first chapter we hear that some say they belong to Paul, others to Apollos, and others to Peter. They have divided themselves into different groups with different allegiances, and they aren’t being very kind to one another. Some of them think that they are better than the others because they have special spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues. When they get together for the Lord’s supper, some are getting well fed while others go hungry. And when they share times of worship, there is chaos happening too – a kind of a power struggle over leadership and who gets to interpret God’s Word. They are even having arguments that lead to lawsuits. Things are not good. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians provides excellent material for challenging and encouraging congregations that are experiencing conflict today. In the class, we were given a particular situation of congregational conflict and instructed to preach a passage from 1 Corinthians that would speak to that situation. It wasn’t a difficult assignment, especially with imaginary circumstances. I never could have imagined seventeen years ago that I’d one day be Moderator of the 2019 General Assembly and challenged to … Read more »

October 13, 2019

Luke 17:11-19 “The Thankful Samaritan” I have always liked the fact that today’s Gospel reading about the ten lepers who are healed often lands on Canadian Thanksgiving Sunday. There are options in the Revised Common Lectionary of Sunday readings to choose special readings for Thanksgiving, but the ones we heard this morning are just the regular ones set for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost. They just happen to include a perfect Gospel story about giving thanks. So, the simple message we might take away from today is “remember to say thank you.” Like young children learning their manners for interacting with others, we are taught by Jesus that it’s right and good to make an effort to say thank you. It’s not uncommon for people to forget, to take good things for granted and fail to express our gratitude. In the story from Luke’s Gospel, there are ten lepers who approach Jesus and ask for his mercy and help. And he gives it to them all. He doesn’t make a big show of healing these poor sick people, who would have been excluded from the community, living just outside the village so that they would not infect their neighbours with the disease of leprosy. But Jesus does heal them. He tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. And as they go, they discover themselves to be suddenly clean and well. The instruction to show themselves to the priests may seem odd, but it anticipates the fact that … Read more »

September 29, 2019

Genesis 1:1-2:3 Genesis 2:4-15 Romans 8:18-21 “Love the Trees” The opening Scripture reflection in my sermon today comes from a sermon by Dr. Paul Ladouceur. Paul teaches Orthodox theology at the University of Sherbrooke and Trinity College in Toronto, and I know him personally through our involvement in the Canadian Council of Churches at which he is a representative for the Archdiocese of Canada of the Orthodox Church in America. On a path on Mount Athos, the monks put up a sign for passing pilgrims: “Love the trees.” Father Amphilochios, an elder on the island of Patmos in Greece, used to say, “Do you know that God gave us one more commandment, which is not recorded in Scripture? It is the commandment ‘Love the trees.’” “Love the trees.” Why should this be important for Christians? The Genesis account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden contains two valuable indications of how humans should relate to the world around them. In the first chapter of Genesis we read, “God said to the man and the woman: Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” This may suggest that humanity stands at the summit of creation and that the rest of creation exists to serve humanity. Why should this be so? One line of reasoning points out that God created humans … Read more »

September 26, 2019

Ephesians 4:1-7, 13-16 John 17:11-21 “Growing Up Together” A Sermon for the 75th Anniversary of the Canadian Council of Churches at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, Toronto I am deeply honoured to be here tonight and to preach in this church at this celebration. A week ago I was in Hungary and Romania on a Moderator’s visit to the Reformed Churches there that are partners in mission with our Presbyterian Church in Canada. While in Budapest, we met a Korean pastor who is serving the one Korean-language congregation in the Reformed Church of Hungary. After a few minutes of getting to know each other, he felt comfortable enough to express his surprise at meeting the Canadian Presbyterian Moderator and discovering that the Moderator looked like this! He said, “In Korea, our moderators are usually old men.” “Yes, I understand. In Canada that is often the case too.” And then the Hungarian Church’s ecumenical officer chimed in, noting that before our visit he had looked at the pictures of past moderators on our church’s website. He said, “It looks like the church went in a different direction this time.” Well, I’m still kind of shocked that I am the Moderator this year. But I would like to think that the main reason for my election was unrelated to my gender or my age. I think perhaps that I was chosen for this moment in our church’s history because people could see that I would bring a focus on the unity of the … Read more »

September 8, 2019

“Transformation” Jeremiah 18:1-11 Right from the moment that God called Jeremiah to serve as a prophet, God made it clear that Jeremiah would often be bringing bad news to the people. The reality was that God’s People in the Northern Kingdom of Israel were not living very faithfully towards God or lovingly towards one another. And Jeremiah got the unpopular job of warning them to shape up or experience God’s power against them. The wonderful metaphor of God working on us like a potter carefully and gently transforms a lump of clay into a beautiful and useful vessel can easily lose the clear, harsh judgment that Jeremiah was announcing against an unfaithful People. It’s not just that God wants to smooth out our rough edges or give us a fresh coat of paint. Jeremiah is talking about a much deeper and greater transformation… from self-centered, selfish, self-loving people… into people who love God and want to show that love by caring for others, by putting others first, by loving our neighbours and the stranger who is in need. We’re talking about big changes here… transformation… That’s what God wants to do in our lives, and God has the power to do it too… like a potter who can not only smooth out a rough edge, but who can choose to squash the pot that isn’t turning out right… to squish it and pound it work it into useable clay, and begin again… to form it into the beautiful vessel that … Read more »

September 1, 2019

Jeremiah 2:4-14 Luke 14:1, 7-14 “Cheering for the Right Things” Do you remember the year that the Winter Olympics were hosted in Vancouver? In the weeks leading up to the Games, the Olympic torch was carried in a relay across the country, and it made a stop just outside the Presbyterian Church in Saskatoon where I was serving at the time. On the day of the event, I stood in the middle of the crowd gathered on the street outside the church to watch the show and prepare to welcome the torch runners into our community. I enjoyed the first part of the presentation very much. There were local choirs singing, and Native groups sharing traditional drumming and singing as well. It was nice to be able to host these groups, as they were using our church basement to put on their costumes and get ready. And it was remarkably warm for a Monday in January, so being outside in the crowd of Saskatoon citizens was surprisingly comfortable. But my reaction changed as the presentation went on – as the Olympic sponsors RBC and Coca-Cola took over the show. They certainly had some spectacular things to share… There was an artist who spun his canvas round and round as he painted with his hands, and created a beautiful picture within only a few minutes. And there were some very talented dancers and acrobats, who jumped and flipped and balanced and flew across the stage in some truly amazing ways. But … Read more »

August 25, 2019

Jeremiah 1:4-10 Hebrews 12:18-29 Luke 13:10-17 “Shaking Things Up” After this morning’s bulletin was printed with the sermon title, “Shaking Things Up” I started thinking that I should have called it “To Shake or Not to Shake: That is the Question.” You see, the reference to shaking in today’s reading from the Book of Hebrews brought to my mind all kinds of associations with shaking. And some of them favoured shaking things up as a good plan, while others suggested that shaking was really negative. To Shake or Not to Shake: That is the question I want to consider today. I must say that Presbyterians are generally pretty disinclined to shake. We have a reputation for being reserved and thoughtful, not wild and enthusiastic. Some have called us “the frozen chosen” and we’re not prone to ecstatic utterances. You might say that Pentecostal Christians, when the Spirit is moving them to raise their hands, move to the praise and worship music, or even speak in tongues are the exact opposite of quiet orderly Presbyterians. But then I remembered the Shaker Movement within Christianity. Many of us know the Shakers from their musical contributions to the wider church, especially the Shaker hymn, “’Tis a gift to be simple” with the tune we use in the “Lord of the dance” hymn that we love. And beyond the church, many people will know the Shakers for the unique style of furniture that they designed. They believed that making something well was in itself, … Read more »

August 18, 2019

Hebrews 11:29-12:2 Luke 12:49-56 “Some Were Tortured” When I was a teenager, I stood up at the front of the Presbyterian church that I had attended with my family for nearly ten years. I stood up with a couple of other young people to publicly profess my faith in God for the first time, and to declare my intention to live my life as a follower of Jesus. It was an especially memorable moment for me because I was also baptized on that day. As the water was poured, the baptismal words were spoken, and the choir sang the Aaronic blessing over me, I experienced an overwhelming sense of belonging. I belonged to a community. I belonged to a church family. I belonged to the God who had made me and loved me. I don’t really remember what we talked about in the membership class at the church as we prepared to make our professions of faith. Probably it was much of the same material that we cover today in our classes… God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Church, the Bible, discipleship, worship, prayer, service, mission, stewardship, and all of that. We likely discussed many or most of those things, but one thing that I’m pretty sure we didn’t talk about was the idea that what I was deciding to do with my life was going to be challenging. I don’t remember thinking about NOT going through with it. I don’t remember feeling nervous or scared, or even apprehensive about … Read more »

August 11, 2019

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 Luke 12:32-40 “Learning to do Good” When I read the Scripture texts for this Sunday, I started thinking about some of the things that happened at the General Assembly of our church back in June. You’ve already heard from me that the Assembly was both difficult and important. We engaged in a process of decision-making regarding same-sex marriage that brought out our deep differences and challenged us to find a way forward as a denomination together. But sexuality was not the only important topic addressed by the 2019 General Assembly. Another important thing that happened at the Assembly was that we marked the 25th anniversary of our church’s confession to God and to Indigenous Peoples regarding our participation in the colonial and assimilationist practices of this country, and especially our role in the Residential School System. It was 25 years ago, in 1994, that the 120th General Assembly made the confession and then Moderator, the Rev. George Vais, presented it to Phil Fontaine, who was the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. At the time, Phil Fontaine accepted the apology, but was not yet prepared to offer forgiveness to the church. Which is fair, I think, because we were still just beginning to understand what we had done, the colonial system in which we had readily participated, the harm we had inflicted on Indigenous children, families, and communities, and the cultural genocide in which our church had assisted. The prophet Isaiah had a vision concerning … Read more »

August 4, 2019

Hosea 11:1-11 Colossians 3:1-11 Luke 12:13-21 “A Roar of Warning” The Bible is full of great metaphors, and the prophets are especially good at teaching us about God through interesting and memorable analogies. In this morning’s passage from the prophet Hosea, we have a classic one. God is a parent – an adoptive parent – and God’s People Israel, is the child. As we listen, God is recalling God’s relationship with this beloved child: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son… I taught him to walk, and took them up in my arms… I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” God sounds just like any parent reminiscing about the wonderful moments of child-rearing. Like so many parents, God remembers being present with God’s children, helping them along the way, rejoicing in their successes, comforting them in trouble, and working so hard to make sure that they have everything they need. But God’s reminiscences come out of an experience of despair and anguish because the child that God loved and nurtured has now turned away. Like a teenager who has run away, or a young adult who has cut herself off from continuing relationship with her parents, Israel has turned away from God, and God is suffering and grieving this loss. God remembers, “I taught them to … Read more »

June 30, 2019

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 Galatians 5:1, 13-25 Luke 9:51-62 “Our Inheritance” What have you inherited from your parents or grandparents? When I think about an inheritance, I first think of money – a bequest left in a will. When my grandfather died last year at the age of 102, I was pleased to see that he gave generously to the church and its mission (both before he died and in his planned giving). But he also included gifts for his children and grandchildren, and each of us will have a little more security and confidence in the future because of that inheritance that we received. But we often inherit much more than money, or other things besides money. Perhaps some of you inherited something like a house or a car or a cabin when one of your relatives died. And there may be smaller things too, sometimes with less monetary value but more sentimental value. Maybe you inherited a piece of furniture, a set of teacups, or a special piece of artwork. Maybe you inherited all your grandmother’s photo albums or your uncle’s research about your family history. Through these kinds of inheritances, our loved ones live on in a way. We think about their lives whenever we sit down to work at that beautiful old wooden desk, and we are flooded with memories each Spring when we open up the family cottage passed on to our generation. If we think about it, though, very often our inheritances include more … Read more »

June 23, 2019

1 Kings 19:1-15a Psalm 42 Luke 8:26-39 “In the Strength of that Food” This is the season in the Church Year that is called “Ordinary Time.” If I were dressed more formally in my alb and stole, I’d be wearing the dark green stole and I’d be sticking with that colour all the way through from now until Advent at the end of November. Now, it’s not called “ordinary time” because it’s nothing special or just a regular Sunday. Ordinary Time actually refers to the ordinal numbering of the Sundays after Pentecost. Today is the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, and we’ll keep counting the Sundays like that all through the summer and fall. But some commentaries suggest that paying attention to the more common meaning of the word “ordinary” may actually help us think about what comes after big events for a community. We celebrated Holy Week and Easter with great planning, and many people involved, and special music and liturgies. We marked Pentecost too – the birthday of the church – and rejoiced in the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out to give us courage, and confidence, and wisdom in sharing the good news with all people. Now that the high holy days are past, and the big events (including General Assembly for me) are over, we move into a quieter time… ordinary time. Of course, there are people who find their way back to church only for those special days of celebration. They join their grandmas for … Read more »

June 16, 2019

Trinity Sunday 2019: Take Your Daughter to Work Day Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 Romans 5:1-5 John 16:12-15 Every year, on the Sunday after Pentecost, the Revised Common Lectionary invites us to celebrate “Trinity Sunday.” While other designated Sundays mark events in the life of Jesus or the experience of the early church, this Sunday is focussed on a Christian doctrine – the concept that God is three persons in one God-head. Living Faith, our Presbyterian Church’s statement of Christian belief expresses the idea of Trinity this way:“… with the one church universal we believe in one God, eternal Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three in one, one in three, equal in power and glory. God is the Father to whom we come, the Son through whom we come, the Spirit by whom we come.” This week, as my pastor friends were preparing for Trinity Sunday, my Facebook feed included quite a few postings and memes about this upcoming theme. I noticed one that suggested that in order not to accidentally preach something heretical, ministers should consider not saying anything about the Trinity, but perhaps show some nice photos of kittens instead. In other words, it’s really challenging to try to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. All the typical analogies that preachers use like a three-leaf clover, or a triangle, or the three states of water – as liquid, ice, and steam – fall terribly short of describing the mystery of how we believe in one God who is simultaneously … Read more »

May 26, 2019

Acts 16:9-15 “Come and Stay at My Home” This morning’s passage from the Book of Acts is a story about faith-sharing and a story about church-planting. In the early days of Christian Church, apostles like Paul were intentional about going out, sharing the good news about Jesus, and helping new worshipping communities to get started. They followed the Spirit’s leading, and paid attention to dreams and visions and ideas that came to them in the middle of the night. And the church grew, and lives were blessed, and love was shared, and hope soared. I heard a statistic the other day from our Synod’s Congregational Development Coordinator, Jo Szostak, that in the last 20 years, 53 new congregations have been formed in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. 20 of those were Korean congregations, 18 were other ethnic congregations, and only 15 were non-ethnic Presbyterian congregations. I don’t know the numbers on how many congregations have closed in that time, but I’m sure that it’s quite a bit higher. Jo attended a conference a couple of weeks ago for people in our Presbyterian Church who would like to work on starting up new worshipping communities. That would include new churches, but also other creative new ministries that don’t look quite like traditional churches. And one of the pieces of advice that she shared for the discernment process about where, and how, and when to start up a new ministry was this: The leader said it was like people deciding where to … Read more »

May 5, 2019

Acts 9:1-20 John 21:1-19 “Converted for Mission” This week I was drawn into the story from the Book of Acts about Saul’s conversion to Christianity. Saul, the Pharisee, who was still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of Jesus, who was making plans to arrest any he found who belonged to the Way… Saul was going along and approaching Damascus, when suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard the voice of Jesus. And to make a long story short, he was converted from a persecutor of Christians to one of the most influential Apostles of Christ, who brought the Gospel to the Gentiles and recorded the Good News in writings and letters for generations to come. Reading the story of Saul’s conversion makes me think about other stories I’ve heard about people in our time coming to faith in Jesus Christ. Some of them even have stories as dramatic as Saul’s experience! I remember someone telling such a dramatic story many years ago when I was in university. I was at a Christian gathering on campus and there was a young man named Stephen telling his story of coming to faith, giving his testimony. Stephen told us about the challenges of his childhood and teen years. His parents split up, and he was not a very happy child. He didn’t think that either of his parents really loved him, so he got into all kinds of rebellious activities, desperately trying to … Read more »

April 28, 2019

John 20:19-31 “Standing Again”  When I sent out my Friday email to the congregational email list this week, I included a rather goofy image of a winking Jesus saying, “I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down.” For a couple of days, I couldn’t get that song by the band, “Chumbawamba” to stop repeating in my head: “I get knocked down, but I get up again. Oh, you’re never gonna keep me down…” It’s both a thoroughly annoying earworm, and a song of hope, and courage, and determination. When I think about Jesus, remembering his arrest, torture, and death, it can be the song of triumph on the third day when he is raised and it becomes clear that love wins, that God wins. A little song from the Iona Community expresses the same sentiment more gently, but just as joyously: “Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Vict’ry is ours, vict’ry is ours through him who loved us. Vict’ry is ours, vict’ry is ours through him who loved us.” These are the kinds of songs that we need to keep running through our minds, because sometimes it feels like we are continually getting knocked down. As individuals, we may be knocked down by illness, by broken relationships, by heavy responsibilities that we feel helpless to manage. We may be knocked down by challenges and losses that seem to come … Read more »