“A Bit of a Tangle” – John 15:1-8

“A Bit of a Tangle”

John 15:1-8 Penticton BC, April 29, 2018

Prayer: Open us, O God, to the truth of the words we have heard from your Word this morning. Whether we speak now, or listen, send your Spirit to move in us so that we may live by that truth, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Pruning grape vines. Could there be a more appropriate place, outside the hills of Judea, to talk about pruning grape vines than here in the Okanogan Valley? For all the strange and obscure language the Bible can throw at us, today, in this week’s gospel reading, the lectionary has smiled upon us, here in Penticton. Unlike many Canadians, you know what grapevines look like. Some of you may even have pruned a grapevine. A text about pruning may make sense to you. I need to admit that I am rather squeamish about pruning. Whether it is giving houseplants a haircut or taking the shears to Saskatoon berry bushes or the lower limbs of spruce trees, Bill will tell you that I not only make him do it, but I don’t even want to watch while it is happening. “Tell me when it’s over,” I say to him. It is not rational, this anxiety of mine. I know that pruning is logical, necessary. But somehow, I feel sorry for the pruned leaves and branches. They put all that effort into growing, only to be cut away. What did they do to deserve this?

Now, you might laugh at my strange pruning phobia, but I believe it does bear some relation to this morning’s reading from the gospel of John. And I think it even connects to our lives in the church, and the churches, and especially to the question of ecumenical sharing that brought us together here in the beautiful Okanogan Valley this weekend. So, I invite you to explore with me what this pruning gospel might have to say to us.

“I am the true vine,” Jesus tells his friends, at a very long speech he delivers at that fateful final Passover meal in Jerusalem. This is not the first time that Jesus has compared himself to an object. Bill, who, apart from being the resident pruner is also a New Testament professor, points out that a special feature of John’s gospel is that in this gospel more than the others, Jesus likes to tell his listeners who he is. Earlier in the gospel, he has said, I am bread; then, I am light; then, I am the gate for the sheep. So, when Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my father is the farmer,” he is adding another thing to this collection, these objects from everyday life that we, the listeners, might employ to understand Jesus’ relationship to God and to us. Jesus, in our passage, goes into a description of the pruning process, but he quickly intertwines the pruning language with language about “abiding” in him, and with language about bearing fruit, and with the warning that those who don’t abide will be thrown away, like branches that are thrown away, and, by the way, burned. How the pruning, and abiding, and fruit-bearing, and getting thrown away all relate to each other are not entirely clear. In short, as vines can be, it’s a bit of a tangle.

Well, that lack of clarity has led to two thousand years of Christians speculating about what John’s Jesus means by all this, and especially, who will be thrown away and burned. Christians got interested very early on in the notion of the wrong people burning, and it has been an unfortunate preoccupation of Christianity ever since. Through the ages, Christian interpreters have argued with one another about this passage. Some have said that the “fruitless” branches are the people who claim to be Christians, but are not really converted, in their hearts. Others say they are people who were converted once, but then drifted away. Others have taken the words to apply to whole communities: they argue that the passage means that those who are truly faithful will be “fruitful” – they will grow, while those who are not really abiding in Jesus will wither away. One way or another, God will punish the bad branches.

Of course, this talk of fruitfulness and punishment has fed nicely into centuries of Christians mistrusting and rejecting one another. Pruning language has been used to pit “us,” the fruitful abiders, against “them,” the non-abiders, with the implication that a fiery fate awaits “them.” Has anyone accused you, or your church of not being “really” Christian? Or have you ever found yourself wondering if they, over there, can possibly be Christians? It is hard to avoid, this us and them experience, isn’t it? And whenever it happens, among the texts playing softly in the background is this reading from John, with its vines, and branches, and abiding, and fruit-bearing, and withering. Can this really be what Jesus wanted to tell his friends on his last evening with them? Something tells me that this is not the way the good news is supposed to work.

But how to untangle this complicated passage? Ironically—or perhaps this is how the Spirit moves—my help came in the form of an article by a fundamentalist Baptist seminary professor who is also a horticulturist. He wanted to know exactly what Jesus was talking about, so he found two ancient non-religious texts about viniculture—grapevine farming—that explained how grapevines were pruned and cared for in the ancient Mediterranean world. I’ll spare you the details, which are interesting, and involve Romans and trellises—we can discuss them in coffee hour—and get to the main point. Not surprisingly, the whole process of caring for grapevines was (and no doubt is) more complex than the “us and them” crowd has admitted. Yes, branches were pruned in the spring to increase their chances of bearing fruit—Jesus says as much in our text—but even fruitful branches were cut off the vines in the fall to prepare the vines for winter.

To be a good grapevine farmer, in the ancient world and probably today, too, was not about punishing the vines; it was about knowing what and how to cut off where and when. “I am the vine, you are the branches,” says Jesus. Like all analogies, the vine image is not perfect. Real branches don’t have options. But Jesus does give his branches a task. One task. The only task of a branch on Jesus’ vine is to trust that God is a good farmer. In farmer God’s hands we are part of a salvation story that is bigger than any of us can know or imagine. The point of this tangled vine analogy, it turns out, is quite the opposite of the us-and-them church-dividing finger-pointing. The point is that Jesus wants his friends to remain with him, even when times get tough, as he knows they will. Hang in with me, like a branch clings to its vine, says Jesus. Trust that even in the tangled mess of life, God has a good plan, a plan that will shape a world like the one I have been showing you: one where the hungry are fed, the sick healed. So, stick with me, says Jesus, take my words into your heart and mind and soul, and I will make you a disciple, a learner of the gospel trade. And then, and this is the crazy thing Jesus promises, stick with me, ask for anything, and there is no telling what you might be and do.

As I was preparing for this Penticton weekend, our world in Saskatchewan was rocked with the terrible Humboldt hockey team bus collision that took so many lives, especially of young people. It spread ripples of grief throughout Canada and beyond. Hearing of tragedies in other parts of the world—including a school bus crash in India that same weekend, and this week, in Toronto—only intensified the sadness. I was so proud of my clergy colleagues in Humboldt who worked with one another and town leaders to create a space and a liturgy for sharing grief and seeking comfort. In that crowded arena there were no good or bad branches, only a community clinging to the one vine in sorrow, but also in solidarity and in hope.

Now, it is good, but not entirely surprising, that people could come together in such love and care at this tragic time. Much more difficult, we know, is sustaining that vine-like solidarity day after day. Our annoying differences, both large and petty, start to surface. We get worn down with the worries that come with struggling to be church in a dismissive culture. We get overwhelmed by our own difficulties: personally, communally. My own church has enough problems; do I really need to take on your problems too?

I think the founders of the World Council of Churches understood that challenge. Their very first global gathering in 1948 in Amsterdam was a time of great rejoicing. Some Christians had worked for decades for that moment. The 1948 assembly issued a short message to the world. It included the phrase: “We intend to stay together.” I love that phrase. We intend to stay together. It is a vine and branches sort of phrase: we will hang in together. It may not always be easy, but we will make it work. We will make it work because, the World Council message states: “Christ has made us his own, and he is not divided.” For seventy years, the World Council of Churches has stayed together—confronting their many differences to become as one writer put it, “a miracle of unity in diversity,” offering the world a taste of the good fruit of reconciliation, justice, and hope.

The loved ones of those who died in the Broncos crash look for hope. Part of what will sustain them is knowing that we have learned something good from those precious lost lives. So, they have told us about their sons and husbands, brothers and sister. Evan Thomas was an 18-year old rookie from Saskatoon. His father says that his son was struggling a little in his rookie year in Humboldt, but he was always upbeat and undaunted. Evan, says his dad, loved his teammates; he “absolutely loved” them. That experience of solidarity and friendship is something we hope for all young people, isn’t it, wherever they live, whatever their gender, race, abilities.

Young Evan’s newspaper obituary sums up his too-short life with a slogan, printed in bold. It may be familiar to people involved in sports but was new to me: “Play for the name on the front, not on the back,it said. Play for the team name on the front of your jersey, not for yourself, the name on the back. Play for the name on the front.

Well, what if we Christians did that? What if we first and foremost played together for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, even if the names on our backs were Anglican, Presbyterian, United? What if we gave ourselves over to the joy, the uncertainty, the potential heartbreak, of throwing ourselves together, staying together as disciples of Jesus and learners of the gospel trade? What if we absolutely loved one another?

In the Gospel of John Jesus is bread, he is light, he is a sheep gate, he is a vine. Strange and wonderful images, all intended to remind us that Jesus feeds us, guides us, holds us. Abide in me, hang in with the team, he says, and I will teach you how to be my church, how to love the world as I do. Could we do it? Would we do it? Well, beloved friends, sometimes we already do it, and when we do, the tangled vines of a yearning creation surely dance a little in the spring breeze. And anything is possible.

Thanks be to God.

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“Love Unfolding” – May 6, 2018

“Love Unfolding”

May 6, 2018 – 6th Sunday of Easter – Year B

 

Imagine that you are a peace dove or a tiny angel sitting on the shoulder of one of our Ministers of the 1960’s.  You are in the office of Rev. R. C. (Bob) Gates 1958-1965, Associate Minister Rev.  U. Schuetz 1961-1964, Associate Minister Rev.  R.J. Moore 1964-1965 (we have no picture for he was here but a single year), Rev. J. L. Cronin 1965-1970, and Associate Minister Rev. R.W. Reid 1968-1970.  They are in their office reflecting on what the church will be like in 50 years.  Do you think they could even imagine what today’s church is like?  No more having the minister chair the Official Board (now called the Council) meetings.  More than 70% of United Church Ministers are women – not so in the 1960’s. The Red Hymn Book was radical in 1961 when it was published, but nothing like Voices United in 2007.  The church budget for 1961 was almost $30,000, a 20% increase on the amount spent in 1960. The Mission and Service objective for the year was $7,500.  Todays budget is over $100,00 and an M&S objective of $15,000.

A proposal for an Associate Minister in 1960 included annual salary of $4000, housing allowance $1500 and Travel $500. Total sum to be shared on the basis of Penticton $4000, Oliver $1500 and Okanagan Falls $500. There was some difficulty in raising the whole housing allowance despite urgings from Presbytery to abide by these standard conditions.

A discussion was held in a March 1961 board meeting to have male greeters at the door. In a politically incorrect turn of phrase men were ”to be over and above the present lady greeters.” I think they meant to say that they were not going to diminish the role or number of female greeters.

One of the highlights nationally in the church occurred in 1962 where the United Church Women (UCW) were formed by the union of the Woman’s Association and the Woman’s Missionary Society and things have never been the same again!  We give thanks for the impressive ministry of the women.

Vigorous activity with youth was apparent throughout the decade. Alma Wilson reported on the formation of a Brownie Pack at PUC in 1962 ‘complete with a large wooden Toadstool that stood in the centre of the Brownie Ring’.

Nationally, Sunday school population peaked in 1961 at more than 750,000 young Canadians. From this year, declining Sunday school populations subsequently reached less than 180,000 across the country (a 23% decrease) by 1993.

The first Sunday School curriculum developed entirely in Canada was the United Church’s ‘ New Curriculum of 1963.’ It was attacked in the media by conservative denominations as being too liberal and ended co-operation between the United and Baptist churches. It was widely praised by educators and theologians and copied in varying degrees by the Anglicans.  This curriculum had the audacity to suggest that some of the stories in scripture were tales and myths.  This was the first time that a curriculum spoke in such a strong liberal voice.  Thousands of “Baby Boomers” were raised on this information and continue to be shaped by this early foundation.

Proposals for a second Penticton United Church south of the Creek on Main Street were set aside after sale of the earlier acquired property on Green Avenue. The Waterford property was also disposed of in the late 60’s for $4,500. Instead extensive ($110,000) alterations were proposed for the Sanctuary and the Christian Education wing in 1966.

There were obvious indications of strong church activities in the mid 1960’s. In the first 6 months of 1964 there were 38 Baptisms, 28 Weddings and 24 funerals. Despite this, concerns began to emerge about declining membership as in 1966, for the first time since Union, national church membership declined by about 2,000 members.

In 1967, Canada’s Centennial year, an excellent Carillon service was performed on New years eve by Mrs. McGall. It was proudly noted that Penticton United Church was the only church in Penticton that was able to usher in Canada’s Centennial year in such a fashion. In the same year, in a demonstration of the power of the Centennial dollar, a generous, anonymous gift from a member of the congregation was able to provide three students in Hong Kong with full high school education for three years.

In another sign that the more things change the more they remain the same, in Penticton declines in participation and donations created financial issues throughout the 1960’s. Discussions of deficit budgets appeared in minutes of the board in 1962, 1964 and 1965 with the later crisis resulting in major fund raising activities during 1965-66.

In 1965, following a request from the Anglican church, Pierre Berton published “The Comfortable Pew”: a critical look at Christianity and the religious establishment in the new age.  Berton’s book bears truths that are worth heeding as we look to the future.

Visionaries of the day began to feel that the future lay in closer co-operation with fellow religious travellers. Discussions were particularly vigorous with the Anglican Church and in 1965 ‘Principles of Union between the United and Anglican Churches’ was published with an active plan developed for regular meetings between ministers of both churches. This issue was not resolved until the subsequent decade where a decision was made against union. In 1968, union with the Evangelical United Brethren was finalized.

Following last weekend’s workshop and shared service, it is timely that we explore ways of co-operation with sister churches.  It is my view that the future of the Christian Church is dependant on sharing our resources and our faith.  Ecumenical Shared Ministry is but one way of living out the way of Christ’s Good News.

Many describe the 60’s as the decade of free love.  The Gospel of John in chapter 15 suggests that each decade ought to be filled with love, freely expressed by following God’s commandments.  Jesus strongly reminds us that he is shaped in the way of love, and so too are we.  “love others as I have loved you” is the simple directive of Jesus.  I find myself wondering if the 1960’s had a unique perspective on Jesus’ love.  Did those living in that decade risk loving in a generous, open, radical love, revealed by the Holy One?  Is that part of what distinguishes the 1960’s?  Jesus chose his disciples by loving them.  Many of you have friendships that formed 50 years ago.  Surely those relationships have endured the years because of love.  May we continue the tradition of radical love.

I believe that the 1960’s was a pivotal decade.  A new hymn book, a new Sunday School curriculum, the formation of the UCW, talks about union with other denominations, many church groups, innovative Bible studies, and partnered ministry all shaped the decade.   It was a busy time in the church.   We were a congregation with love to share.  Some people describe it as the last of the glory years.

The radical gift of love is transformative to a group, a community and to the world.  It has long reaching power.  For Penticton United Church, we have loved one another for 90 years.  We are committed to love boldly and daringly long into the future, for we are followers of Jesus.  May that be so.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

“Where is Jesus?” Easter 2018 – April 1, 2018

“Where is Jesus?”

Easter 2018 – April 1, 2018 – Year B

 

            Christ is Risen!  Alleluia!

 

Those of you who are movie fans no doubt remember the 1973 “Jesus Christ Superstar,” 1973 “Godspell,” and 1986 “The Last Temptation of Christ.”  Each of these wonderful dramas tell with vivid detail, gripping suspense, and powerful emotion the amazing story of the Good News of Easter.  But, there again, so too does the Gospel writer of John.  It is a down-to-earth story about something with which just about every Christian struggles – having a physical relationship with Jesus.

Even though we have never had the experience of Jesus standing beside us, nor have we talked with him on the phone, yet we have a real relationship with Jesus.  That is why we are here today.  Even though we know that dead people do not rise from the grave and walk around, yet we claim to have a real relationship with Jesus.  That is the stuff of an Easter faith.

Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus is extremely innate, emotional and deeply, deeply personal.  Mary looks the gardener in the eye, listens to him speak, and when her back is turned hears whispered, “Mary.”  The sound of his voice saying her name helps her to see Jesus.  Jesus does not offer a general address – oh no – he uses the simple, but profoundly personal address that is uniquely hers – her name – “Mary.”

This tells us much about how we know God.  Like Mary, we long to be know by God.  We long to be held in God’s gaze.  We yearn to be seen by God as the object of God love and desire and care.  This longing is not “general” or something abstract.  We do not want to be loved by some distant abstract entity who relates to us in the same grand way God relates to the universe.  Instead, we want to be seen for who we are in the most intimate, far-reaching corners of our inner lives.  We want to be known and understood in our bodies, our histories, our dreams and our losses.  When Jesus says, “Mary,” his words travel towards these most private places of our own lives.  And when Jesus’ words hit home, there, in that very name space, Christ is made known.  Christ is Risen.  Alleluia!

So, what does this reveal about the form of God’s appearing in our lives?  Surely it shows that God comes to us in the deeply personal ways invoked by the speaking of our name. This experience is fully embodied and very physical, just as it is intellectual and an idea or a concept.    Just as Jesus did with Mary, Jesus comes to you and me, not as an abstract or general idea or some kind of ghostly figure.  Indeed, Jesus the Christ,  comes as a presence that reaches far beyond our mind’s power of knowing and touches our lives in ways we cannot see.  Christ’s power is felt.  Christ is tasted, touched, smelled, heard, seen in images.  Often these are unconscious.  I have woken up from dreams, where God has spoken to me with such clarity.  God is known in our muscle memory, in the turn of the lip in that garden smile, in the stuttering voice of a trusted friend, in the fall of the foot’s arch in wet grass at sunrise.   In the barefoot walk along the beach, God’s coming unfolds in the world of our emotions – when we sense that the world suddenly shifts into place and has meaning.   Sometimes when I am meditating I hear Christ’s voice, calling me to the way of peace and gentleness.

Does this mean that Jesus will come to you in the garden?  Will Christ whisper your name?

Serene Jones writes in “Feasting on the Word,” “It means that as people of faith, we are called to attend as much to our physical lives as our spiritual and intellectual lives.  If Jesus comes to us through the senses, it is important that we go to church and be in a space where we physically, emotionally, communally, experience Jesus in our midst – in the taste of communion wine and bread, in the residual scent of cleanser on sanctuary pews, in the familiar sounds of a favorite hymn that stirs us in places too deep to be named, in the closing circle where we hold the hand of our sister or brother of faith, in the feel of the hug you receive as you enter and leave this sanctuary.

In this yearly Easter event, we enter into the ripe cinematic fullness of our embodied, uniquely personal lives – this is the shared space where Jesus meets us, calling our name, receiving our touch, calming our anxious worries, and reminding us again and again that grace is not an object to be known but a gift to be lived.

In our busy lives there are a cacophony of sounds that vie for our attention.  Will we slow down enough that we hear the gentle whisper of Christ calling your name?  And when you hear Christ’s bidding, will you reach out your hand and let him lead you along the path of love.

My friends, I tell you Good News.  Christ is Risen.  Alleluia!  Amen.

“Let the Good Times Roll” – April 22, 2018

“Let the Good Times Roll”

April 22, 2018 – Easter 4 – Year B

            “This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.”  Our church has both a concrete cornerstone as well as the very real spiritual cornerstone of Jesus Christ.  To be built on such a sure foundation is astounding.  To base our very existence on the faith in Christ is amazing.  And yet for decade after decade women and men, children and adults have gathered in this sanctuary and worshiped in the name of Christ.  The cornerstone of our faith is Jesus, crucified and risen, our hope and reconciler.

So it is that we gather as followers of our redeemer.  With faith we know that Christ is among us.  It is an amazing experience to know with certainty that the risen Christ offers repentance, forgiveness of sin, and new beginnings.

The 1950’s was very much a time of new beginnings for our church.  The second world war was well behind us and there was much excitement and fervor amongst the congregation.  So much so, that in 1958 land was purchased on Waterford Avenue in case a second United Church would be needed at the south end of town.  But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

Let’s start in 1951 when we were connected to the City sewer system.  A momentous event, you must agree.  The 1951 statistics are this:  membership 643 persons, baptisms 75, weddings 49 and burials 3l.  In 1952 authority was given to construct a new Christian Education wing at a cost of $32,376 and to construct a new entrance to the sanctuary at a cost of $4300.

In 1953 Rev. Ernie  Rand’s salary was $3120 and his annual car expense was $400. In April 1953 Mr. T. Reed from the Observer met with the Official Board to promote the Observer.  He said, “if we are to have an intelligent church we must have an informed church. The Observer is the means of informing the church.”  That is still true today.  The congregation was offered a deal of $1 instead of $2 for the year’s subscription of the Observer.

The September 8 1953 meeting of the Official Board was held in the new church parlour.  1953 was a busy and significant year for the church, for the keys to the new Christian Education wing were presented to Harold Myers (Shirley Myers father) on Sunday June 28 by the contractor Arthur Weight after the official dedication. This wing cost $45,000 and houses 13 classrooms, office and parlour. The construction was offered by volunteers and supervised by Mr. Weight.  At the same time the chapel was built and the kitchen was moved to where the office is now.

In 1954 the Women’s Federation had 86 members. Senior choir had 42 members, the Jr. Girl’s choir had 55 girls aged 9 and older and was led by Margaret Hendry. With George Gay as chairman, the Stewardship Committee held an “Every Family Visitation.”

In 1955 the Manse at 617 Winnipeg Street was sold for $7500.00 on a part trade-in on the new manse at 96 Manor Park Road, for $16,500.00.  That year there were 38 baptisms, 60 weddings and 70 funerals.  A story is provided by Sam Kahmann: Sam and Jimmy Johnson were walking west on Eckhardt after playing sports and noticed flames coming from the basement at the south end of the church. They reported it through the radio station CKOK as they were offering “rewards” for reporting incidents. So, the boys got their $10.00, the fire department came, and the fire was put out before it became too big. He thinks it started in a garbage can in a basement room.  The fire damage at the church destroyed mostly Sunday School files.

In October 1958 it was agreed to purchase property on Green Avenue near Princess Margaret School from Mr. & Mrs. J. Bissett for $4500.00 ($1000 cash down-payment and $500 per year for the balance).

From 1949 to 1958 Rev Ernie Rands was our Minister and from 1958 – 1965 Rev. R.C. Gates served as Minister.  The decade concluded with the balcony in the sanctuary being remodeled in 1959.  It was a decade of growth, expansion, and good times.  Post war, families were being established and the church became the centre of family life.   Worship, Sunday School and mid-week activities were an accepted part of our congregation’s pattern.  Penticton United Church was a prominent church in the community.  People came to our church to hear the message of Christ, resurrected and ever glorified.

The 1950’s were good times for our church.  We longingly look back to those days and wish they could be retrieved.  We yearn for hundreds of children in church.  We ache for Christmas pageants of yester year.  We long for multiple units of UCW.   We wish this sanctuary was filled every Sunday.  But, the reality is, we are like sheep, following the Good Shepherd.  The Good Shepherd points us to The Way.  It is not a path of despair, but rather one of new beginnings.  Let the good times roll, my friends.  Not like that of the 1950’s but rather in a uniquely faithful way of 2018.  So be it.  Amen.

 

 

“Pomp and Circumstance – Not!” – March 25, 2018

Pomp and Circumstance – Not!”

March 25, 2018 – Palm Sunday – Year B

 

Many of you have attended the PNE or Expo 86 or other large gathering of people.  There is something about the hoards of people crashing in around you that leaves you feeling off base.  Such was the scene 2000 years ago in Jerusalem during the Passover.  Thousands and thousands of people were entering the Holy City from every entrance way possible.  The Passover was a big deal.  It was a “must go to” event for the Jewish people.  And so, Jesus and his entourage headed into Jerusalem so that they too could share in that sacred feast.

Imagine a roadway lined with people craning their necks to get a look at the sights.  You spot a man on the back of a donkey.  You look again.  What a peculiar sight!  There are a group of about a dozen men and some women huddled around this man on a donkey.  Is he the promised King?  Surely not!  Not riding on a donkey.  He would be riding on a magnificent steed.  Surely!  But the folk around you are shouting “Hosanna!  God save the King!  Hosanna!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Now – you have to admit – this stranger has your attention.  Is he the one prophesied by Zechariah?  Remember what Zechariah said: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!  Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  Yes, this stranger certainly fits the profile.

But why such a public demonstration.  Jesus is this quiet, private prophet and healer.  He is not one for show and pageantry.  The Jesus on the back of a donkey seems to be drawing attention to himself.  It is as if he is the Parade Marshall.  And talk about excitement amongst the crowd.

Instead of balloons tied around the arms of the crowd, they strip branches off of the trees and shrubs and spread cloaks on the ground.  A century and a half before, when Judas Maccabeus delivered Jerusalem from the Greeks, the people waved palm branches.  That is what is done for a king.  Hosanna!  Save Now!  O God – break in now and save God’s people now that the Messiah has arrived!

We are entering into Jerusalem with Jesus.  I can’t speak for you, but I really don’t want to go.  You see, I know the rest of the story.  I know that Jesus will come and visit Simon at Bethany and will have his feet anointed with costly oil.  I know that Jesus and the disciples will go to a guest room and will share the Passover meal.  I know that Jesus will go to the Mount of Olives and will pray, but his friends will all drift off to sleep.  I know that Judas will betray his friend.  I know that Peter will deny knowing Jesus.  I Know that Jesus will appear before Pilate and he will be condemned to death.  I know that we will gather again on Friday morning and we will sing and tell the story of Good Friday.  This is a week that is heavy.  We are called upon to feel.  We are called upon to enter deeply into the Holy week experience.  We do ourselves a disservice if we skip to Easter Sunday, without going through Holy Week.

Why?  You ask.  To not enter into the fullness of Holy Week cuts us off from the depth of the spiritual experience that is crucifixion and resurrection.  It is the core of our faith.  So, to walk the Palm parade prepares us to open our heart and spirit to the fullness of God’s drama.  It is a holy mystery, to be sure.  But, God walks hand in hand with us.  It is a time when prayers seem more intense.  Our openness to the everyday miracles seems heightened.  And the profoundness of life is sharper.

I invite you to utilize this upcoming week to deeply feed your spiritual senses.  Pray daily.  Take time to contemplate the faith story.  It is identified in our order of service.  Go to your Bibles and open to the Gospel of Mark and read chapters 14 and 15.  If you don’t have a Bible, there are copies of the reading on the welcome table.  Read it in full each day this week.  Then, when we gather on Good Friday you will be well prepared to experience the depth of Christ’s love for us.  And next Sunday – Oh my, what a celebration we will have!  Amen.

 

 

“Depression, War and New Possibilities” – March 18, 2018

“Depression, War and New Possibilities”

March 18, 2018 – Lent 5 – Year B

 

 

September 10, 1939 is a date that has forever changed the course of history.  The Battle of the Atlantic and the outbreak of WW 2 saw Canadian men and women engaged in conflict that would last 6 years.  During that time our congregation was faithfully singing the National Anthem immediately following the doxology.  We were proud of our home and native land.

During the war years Rev R.C. McGillvray served as our minister.  In 1944 it was determined that 2 ministers were needed and Rev. Bob Stobie and Rev. Ernie Rands were called to serve in our midst.  Sermons such as “When God Seems Hiding”, “What is Man?”, and “Getting the Best Out of Life” were proclaimed from this pulpit.  Mrs.  Monica Craig Fisher was our faithful organist for our morning and evening services.

We were a busy church, especially post war.  In addition to our Board of Stewards we had a Sunday School, a Mission Band, 40 girls in CGIT in 1944, Young People’s group, a Boy’s Club, Red Cross Unit, 5 Women’s Circles, The Couples Group, and As One That Serves (a men’s group) consisting of 40 men in 1940.

Some interesting tidbits gleaned from our archives include: in 1940 a motion was passed to support more temperance legislation.  That same year the Senior Choir organized a fundraising concert featuring Luther King, a black tenor.  In 1941 the Women’s Auxiliary raised $1,387 at their bazaar.  They organized socks, sweaters, and clothing to send to the Red Cross.  In 1943 a Fellowship Committee was established to visit homes and support the young wives of absent soldiers.  In 1944 the lot immediately north of the church was purchased.  Room was needed for the Sunday School, with attendance averaging 185 children.  Plans were discussed.  Membership was 471.  There were 30 child baptisms, 8 adult baptisms, 43 marriages, 25 funerals.  In 1945 The Sunday School registered 269 children with 29 teachers.  In May 1946 the Young People held a bike-hike to the Summerland Experimental farm with supper at the farm.  In 1947 the M&S covenant was $1,600.  By 1948 a Building Committee was formed to evaluate the condition of the premises and to carry out any needed refurbishing.  Such a committee has been active ever since.  In 1949 the AGM called for $50,000 to be raised for the construction of the Memorial Hall (Narthex)

In the minds of many, the 1940’s were the glory years.  We thrived as a church in-spite of the hardship of war.  We had a cause and we were determined to support our men and women in the very best way we could.  Post war we grew and thrived.  Marriages and births were celebrated in numbers we had never seen before.  We were a faith community that had found its legs.  20 years old and all was going well.

Like today, Sunday worship was an important constant in a greatly changing world.  The reading of scripture and the sermon was vital to a strong faith, was the understanding of our large congregation.  And so, scriptures like we heard were offered and expounded upon.

Jeremiah warned the people of the catastrophe that would befall their nation.  This was news the people didn’t want to hear.  Just like the outbreak of the Battle of the Atlantic, fear fell over God’s people in the 6th Century BCE.  Yet, it was in this context that the prophet Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant.  Jeremiah was a prophet in Judah during the last days of that nation’s sovereignty around 627 BCE.  He had been in conflict with the official theology of the nation for much of his ministry.  While many around him saw the covenant as broken beyond repair, Jeremiah saw God creating a new way.

The conditional covenant theology of the Exodus was rejected by Jeremiah as untrue to God’s nature.  God the creator would create something new that would better express the nature of God’s relationship with God’s people.  Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant written on the heart, not in books or precepts.  With this new covenant the law will be within God’s people and they will know God’s way within their very being.

This new covenant has been interpreted by Christians from the earliest days of the church to refer to Jesus.  So it is that you and I seek to live our lives in such a manner that God is revealed in all that we say, do and are.

To have God’s way written on our hearts and lived out faithfully in our lives is surely grace.  I can just imagine that on September 2, 1945 when war was declared over there was not only cheering and hugs and kisses.  I imagine that God was saying, “learn from this, my way is in loving relation with all my people from now on!”  We have not done a very good job in living out that directive.

Like the people of Jeremiah’s day, Jesus’ disciples and followers were not pleased to hear predictions of doom – they did not want to hear about Jesus’ impending death.  In the Gospel text, Jesus uses the visit of the Greeks as an opportunity to tell them again about what lay ahead for him.  Like Jeremiah, he also gives them a word of hope through his comparison of his death to the planting of a seed of wheat.  “Only if a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies will it bring forth fruit,” he says.

The image of the seed lies at the heart of John’s understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ death.  The death of the single grain brings about the growth of many new seeds.  Through Jesus’ death on the cross, something new will enter and transform the world.  Through this amazing truth, you and I are forever made new.

None of us want to look to the future and foresee doom.  We squirm a little knowing that Good Friday is just less than 2 weeks away.  Yet, we know that our call is the way of the cross. The middle verses about those who love their life and therefore will lose it, have a strong resemblance to parallel sayings in Matthew, Mark and Luke.  The mention of taking up one’s cross as a part of following Christ is another saying that we hear in all 4 gospels.

Jesus’ horrible death does not release us from having to go through our own death in order to emerge into the fullness of eternal life.  The process of transformation from seed to plant, death to resurrection, this world to eternal life is clearly a difficult and painful process.  However, the gospel of John does provide us with a wonderful assurance that through whatever we must endure, we are never alone.  As we take up the crosses of our lives, we are assured that we have a close and loving companion.

So, what cross are you prepared to take up?  Is it one for the environment?  Is it one to give a little more time volunteering to a worthy cause?  Will you take up the cross of racial justice?  What about committing yourself to contacting 2 lonely people each week?  How about writing letters on behalf of those facing abuse?  Could you do a little extra donation to the church to ensure it continues to proclaim the Good News for the next 90 years?

Well, there you have it.  We have looked at our 2 scripture texts and reflected on the call to bring forth fruit.  The 1940’s was a decade that bore much fruit.  We have a history to be proud of.  We honour our veterans.  Please take time to view our memorial Plaque in the narthex on your way down to coffee hour.  The men and women who helped to build this country and this church deserve to be honoured.  May our celebrations continue.  Amen.

 

Rev. Laura J. Turnbull

Penticton United Church

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Bite of Freedom” – March 11, 2018

“The Bite of Freedom”

March 11, 2018 – Lent 5 – Year B

 

Two monks, on a journey together, came across a woman who was standing beside a river.  The woman was very beautiful, and the water was too deep for her.

One of the monks lifted her on his shoulders and carried her across.

The 2nd monk was astounded.  “How could you do such a thing?” he demanded.  “You know our vows.  It was sinful for you to carry that woman.”  And the 2nd monk went on and on about the sins of the first monk until finally the 1st monk stopped.

“Brother,” he said gently.  “I set that woman down by the edge of the water.  Why are you still carrying her?”

Todays scripture passages are rich with preaching possibilities. I could talk about the promise of eternal life – or the wondrous healing offered by God – or the light and darkness imagery presented in the Gospel. But instead of any of those rich themes, I want to explore that which bites us.

Sometimes we are like the monk and we carry around with us a whole lot of burdens.  It has been said that the burdens in our heads are far heavier than the burdens on our backs.  We find it difficult to set them down and leave them in God’s care. Some of the burdens that we are carry around, are the weight of judgmentalism,  fear, anger, helplessness, anxiety and loneliness.  For some of our neighbours there is the burden of poverty, homelessness, and indifference.

When we are burdened, we crave healing.  What kind of healing do you seek?  You see, today we have heard about 2 different kinds of healing.  We heard about Moses and the snakes.  We also heard the famous John 3:16 passage about Jesus.  The comparison is drawn between Moses lifting up the snake and Jesus being lifted up on the cross.

The Israelites simply had to look at the bronze serpent and they had life.  For us, though, seeing has nothing to do with it.  We must have faith in Jesus, then we get eternal life.

The bronze snake only gave more physical life – physical life that had to be lived out where you were, in the same circumstances and problems and challenges.

The snake’s cure is really only temporary.  It is a Band-Aid solution.  On the other hand, Jesus is a permanent cure.  Unlike the snake, we aren’t just cured to go back to our regular grind in the same old way.  We are freed to live the same old grind as new people, with new possibilities.

We don’t even have to see the old grind as the old grind.  Now we can see it as a place to meet Christ and a place where God waits for us.  A place of God’s opportunities.

Marion Best, our friend and neighbour from Naramata, wrote the following, while Moderator of The United Church of Canada, “The Israelites were grumbling and complaining and I suspect their leadership didn’t always know what to do either.  And yet God did provide.  Sometimes the way God provides isn’t what we’re looking for, so maybe we have to be open to surprises and not be too anxious.  It’s hard not to be anxious.

I suspect the grumblings and the murmurings were based in Israelites’ fear and sense of loss. Thad that’s familiar to us.  Maybe we’re only at the beginning of what will be a long period in the wilderness for our church.

It’s not that you do nothing during that period.  But how do we decide what to do.  It seems to me that one of the things we do is stay in touch with the source of our strength.  For the Israelites, that was clearly God.  This is a really important thing and so I think prayer and remembering who we are will be essential to our survival.

We didn’t just come from nowhere.  We have roots.  We have ties with these Israelites, and all the others since, who have found themselves wandering in the wilderness.  So, I have this yearning to stay rooted.  But at the same time, I have to realize that a lot of what I’ve called familiar and a lot of what I’ve counted on may not be what God wants for us right now,” says Marion Best.

Our text from the Gospel of John provides an insight into the way in which Jesus and the early church used the Hebrew Scriptures – which of course were the only scriptures they had.  Most of us have heard and even have memorized the famous John 3:16 passage (“For God so loved the world that God gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”).  Yet, how many realize that these words are placed in the text immediately following the descriptions of Jesus as one who is lifted up by God in the same way that “Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.”  Just as when Moses help up a staff with a bronze snake on it and all who were dying from snake bites were mysteriously healed when they looked on it with eyes of faith – so does Jesus’ death on the cross provide a similar gift of healing and wholeness for those who believe.  “By his wounds you have been healed,” said one early Christian writer (1 Peter 2:24).  By looking upon – and facing – an image of our greatest fear – death – God is able to release us from it through eternal life.  Thus, when we gaze upon the cross, we face our own fear and are reminded of the promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even death.  For us as Christians the death and resurrection of Jesus puts a permanent seal upon this promise.  Talk about Good News!

How might you and I experience the bite of freedom?  How do we experience the healing message that sets us free?  Being on medical leave from November through to January taught me many lessons about God’s healing pathway.  I turned to as many different healing practices as I could, and built them into my daily pattern.  I swam which is both physically helpful but also a meditative practice.  Yoga is a particularly helpful breath work practice with meditation a central part of each session.  I utilized the skills of a counselor and Spiritual Director. I used tuning forks several times each day, to help centre myself.  I asked for prayer from friends and I know I was on several prayer lists.  I did a lot of reading.  That is some of what was helpful for me.  What you might need is possibly different.  Reading sacred books, long meditative walks, reading scripture, drumming, singing, walking a labyrinth, all are possible resources in your spiritual journey.

In his book “Running to Paradise”, R. Maurice Boyd tells of a sign which he noticed in a nursery one day.  It read “The best time to plant a tree was 25 years ago.  The 2nd best time is today.”

The best time to have said “yes” to God voice was the 1st time we heard that voice.  The 2nd best time is today.  Let us say a clear “Yes” to our God.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

“Remembering What Was Said” – March 4, 2018

“Remembering What Was Said”

March 4, 2018 – Lent 3 – Year B

 

The other day I was looking at the list of swimming pool rules. It begins with “Thou shall not….”

  • run
  • dive in the shallow end
  • Swim with open wounds

And the list goes on.  Having grown up around swimming pools I long ago memorized those pool rules.  They are standard from swimming pool to swimming pool.  They are what keeps everyone safe and happy.

Such is true of the 10 Commandments.  10 simple statements that help to guide life.  If we all follow them, then life goes along smoothly.  To put it another way, we have been given 10 freedoms to grant us full life.  In the ancient Hebrew language these statements were likely 10 words.  The first 4 – 1) only 1 God – 2) no idols – 3) honour God’s name – 4) Sabbath – speak to our relationship with God and our bondage to self.   We are free to relate to one another with love, care and respect.  The remaining 6 freedoms speak to our relationships to others. 5) parents – 6) killing – 7) adultery – 8) stealing – 9) false witness – 10) coveting

Every faith tradition has some form of rules of life.  They are a list of how to live in a orderly and lovingly manner. The commandments offer a glimpse of the world that, in accordance with the promise, God will one day bring about.  One day there will not be murder, or stealing, or idolatry.  What a fabulous vision of the future.  What a way of freedom for all humanity.

We can imagine the Hebrew people having spent years in the wilderness and recently escaped from Egypt, needing direction for how they were to be in relationship.  No longer living as slaves, this new way of life calls for guidelines for freedom.

I hear people questioning if the 10 commandments have relevancy in 2018.  It seems to me that they might have more relevancy than ever before.  Living in a world of me first, and disregard for the sanctity of human life, I believe that we need a directive of valuing human life and embracing the dignity of all humanity.  The 10 commandments serve as a basis for non-exploitative relationships among one another.

Rather than being guilt inducing, these 10 freedoms liberate us to let go of consumerism, militarism, racism, and almost any word that ends with an “ism.”  Those gods, and others, truly enslave us by making us more selfish, greedy, and hurtful to others.  Putting God first sets us free to be the persons and community God intended.

I can’t imagine that God was first in the mind of the people in the temple when Jesus entered and saw the mayhem.   This gospel text, commonly called “Cleansing of the Temple,” presents a picture of Jesus, not mopping the floor with Pinesol as the title may suggest, but, turning the tables over.  Flipping out.  Getting royally ticked.  Getting angry.  It wasn’t that he was shocked about the moneychangers in the temple; he’s been to Jerusalem and the temple several times before.  But he saw that the Law of God, formulated in the Ten Commandments, had been reduced to rules and regulations.  So, where it was supposed to foster a right relationship between God and humanity, it had become just another means of exploitation.

 

If you have experienced St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church’s “Walk to Bethlehem,” you have walked the streets of an imaginary Israeli village and engaged with the market vendors.  It is noisy and congested.  Merchants trying to sell their wares, animals rubbing against you, and palm readers beckoning you to learn your life’s journey, all are vying for your money.  It is congested and noisy.  Money changers stand at the entrance of the temple and the poor beggars are huddled nearby seeking your spare change.  As you move further into the temple the stench is almost unbearable and the noise is a cacophony of shouting in multiple languages.  Goods are sold, ranging from straw brooms to beautiful bronze urns.

The Passover was near and Jesus returned to the Temple, with all its bustle leading up to the high holy day.  The corruption he saw there ignited the fires of his anger.

Bureaucrats changed the foreign currency that pilgrims brought from all over the known world into a common Temple coin, so that these pilgrims could then buy their animals for sacrifice at the Temple.  The exchange rate they charged was way out of line.  It was thievery upon the unsuspecting and helpless pilgrim.

Jesus looked wild, as he bodily tore into Jerusalem’s equivalent of our Stock Exchange, bringing it all to a halt.  To enter Jerusalem on a donkey was one thing.  To interrupt Temple commerce was quite another.  He had touched a raw nerve –  he had to die!

Have you ever been that angry?  Harriet G Lerner in her book The Dance of Anger states: “ Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to.  Our anger may be a message that we are being hurt, that our rights are being violated, that our needs or wants are not being adequately met, or simply that something is not right.  Our anger may tell us that we are not addressing an important emotional issue in our lives, or that too much of our self – our beliefs, values, desires, or ambitions – is being compromised in a relationship.  Our anger may warn us that others are doing too much for us, at the expense of our own competence and growth.  Just as physical pain tells us to take our hand off the hot stove, the pain of our anger preserves the very integrity of our self.  Our anger can motivate us to say “no” to the ways in which we are defined by others and ‘yes” to the dictates of our inner self.”

What causes Jesus to be angry today?  Is he angry when we fail to take seriously the degradation of the environment?  When we buy cheap products ignoring the company’s deplorable working conditions?  When it is still OK that Canadian women are paid 69 cents to a man’s dollar?  When many Indigenous Canadians living on reserves have unsafe drinking water? When sexual abuse destroys innocence?   Is Jesus angry when these situations continue?

Will we continue to support the Mission and Service fund so that these issues and causes will continue to be addressed?  Will we invest time in writing our M.P. letting him know our concern and asking that the government take action?  Will we invest time in prayer, seeking God’s wisdom?  Will we overturn the tables of indifference when we see injustice around us?

On this 4th Sunday of Lent we draw ever close to the cross of Calvary and the empty tomb.  Some of us are ready for Easter right now.  We want the lilies and other pretty flowers.   We are ready to live resurrection rather than introspection.  We would prefer not to journey this 6 weeks of Lent.  We really don’t want to have to examine the challenging directives of the 10 Commandments.  We’d rather not look at the issues that our righteous anger calls us to address.  But, here we are.  The 10 Commandments are our freedom, not our burden.  The temple is cleansed and we are called to follow Jesus.  Let that be so!  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Covenants – Then and Now” – February 18, 2018

“Covenants – Then and Now”

February 18, 2018 – Year B – 1st Sunday in Lent

The 1930’s – 90th Anniversary Celebration

It was the fall of 1929 the Stock Market in London, England and in New York, USA plummeted to an unprecedented low.  The world fell into what came to be known as “The Great Depression.”  Drought in the prairies and countless men and women out of work set the scene for a decade that is often called “the dirty thirties.”

The fledgling United Church of Canada faced many challenges throughout this decade.  The place and role of women in the church was debated at General Council throughout the decade.  Two female students attended the Presbyterian Theological College in Saskatoon, now called St. Andrew’s College with Lydia Gruchy graduating first in her class with honours marks.  Following her graduation from seminary, she served churches among the Doukhabor people near Verigin Saskatchewan (near Kamsack), and then moved on to Wakaw United Church and Kelvington United Church,  both in Saskatchewan, performing all the tasks of ministry except the sacraments.  Finally, in 1936, Lydia Gruchy was Ordained a Minister of The United Church of Canada, becoming our first female Ordained minister.  Penticton United Church did not call a female minister until 1996 (60 years later) when Helen Stover Scott became our duly called minister.

The Church Board fully accepted women on the Board throughout the 1930’s.  Mrs. AA Swift, Mrs. Leslie, Mrs. Meldrum and Mrs. Standen were members of the board during this decade. 

During the 1920’s a team of musicians from across the country developed a hymnbook that was published in 1930.  The beloved blue Hymnary came into general use and was not replaced until 1971. In January 1931 a noon banquet was held costing 50 cents per person, with the proceeds going toward the purchase of the new blue Hymnary.  Dr. Oliver, Moderator of the United Church of Canada attended, along with representatives from area churches. 

Year-end statistics for 1931 show 9 baptisms, 9 marriages and 8 burials.  9 people were received by profession of faith, 23 by certificate (or today we would call it transfer from another denomination).  The Mission & Maintenance Fund (like our Mission &Service fund) reached its allocation of $1,400.00 with $18.00 surplus.  The 48-member Women’s Association raised $1,386.33 and the Sunday School and teachers numbered 327. 

Since last week was our annual meeting, you might be interested to know that in the 1930’s it was customary to open the AGM by the singing of the Doxology (which we will sing today as our offertory).  The meeting was chaired by the minister and usually held in the evening following a dinner provided by the Women’s Association.  The AGM closed with singing God Save the King in 1936 and 1937 and or O Canada in 1939 as well as a benediction.  Attendance at the 1936 AGM was 240 – 1938 was 300 – 1939 was over 400 and last week was 51.

Sunday School was an important and significant ministry of the church.  In reports of 1934 we learn that 380 children were on the role and an average attendance was 245 young ones.  Just imagine trying to manage that number of excited children in a limited space.  This is the time before our Christian Education wing was built.  I can’t help but think of the noise that this number of children would generate as they were squeezed into the narthex, the vestry, the choir room, and the big room (hall) that is downstairs.

In the July 1931 minutes, it contains the first, but far from the last, mention of acoustic problems in the church.  Does this sound familiar?

On the August 9, 1932 Quarterly Official Board meeting, the financial report to the end of June showed receipts of $1,295.83, expenditures of $1,266.48, balance of $9.35, but also liabilities of $305.00 still unpaid.  It was decided to have a drive of members and adherents to raise sufficient funds to cover the present liabilities and save any further appeals for the remainder of the year.

On October 24, 1933, the Treasurer reported a Balance of $10.76 with all salaries paid, but there was still something owing on the bank loan.  The envelope Steward reported that he had sent out quite a number of statements to those in arrears, but, did not have many responses.

Throughout these bleak years our forebears upheld the covenant made in 1928.  They were doggedly determined to handle finances judiciously.  They upheld the tenants of the original founding churches – The Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists.   They faithfully turned to scripture and sought guidance and wisdom. 

Surely one of the scriptures that was a guide was Genesis 9:8-17 that was read earlier.   This frequently told story of Noah and the rainbow tells the amazing tale of God’s covenant with all creation.  We encounter God as “One who Remembers.”  On this anniversary Sunday, we too remember.  We recall that God is to be honoured and praised.  We remember that the rainbow covenant is a lasting reminder that God is invested in us as individuals and collectively as a congregation.  It is a covenant of blessing to a fledgling church, back in the 1930’s and is a covenant of possibility to us in 2018.  The covenant is represented by many symbols – the rainbow, the cross, the Bible, and a candle.  May we remember God’s covenant is colour-blind.

Turning to our Gospel lection (Mark 1:9-15), we hear the dramatic account of Jesus’ baptism, his 40 days in the wilderness, John’s arrest and Jesus’ early preaching – all in six (6) verses!  A voice from heaven cries out, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  What greater proclamation is there?  “You are my Son.”  “You are my Daughter.”  What a lovely affirmation.  And then to be told, “With you I am well pleased.”  God says that over and over to each of us.  God is well pleased with you and with me and with all people everywhere.  Now, the challenge is to live up to that wonderful blessing.  I have a feeling that our foremothers and forefathers of the 1930’s church were encouraged and uplifted to hear this scripture passage proclaimed.

May we learn from the past, live with integrity in the present, and dream big for the future.  Amen.

Rev. Laura J. Turnbull

“Mountain and Valley Experiences” – February 11, 2018

“Mountain and Valley Experiences”

February 11, 2018 – Year B – Transfiguration Sunday – Annual Meeting

 

Imagine that a mountain is before you.  Jesus, Peter, James and John are climbing it.  You are itching to join them.  But, it is a venture that is for the 4 men only.  Much happens on this pilgrimage.  It is transformative.  In fact – it is transfiguring for Jesus.

With this story as our backdrop, I want to tell you about my experiences of worshipping in 3 unique congregations over the 3 months, November to January, that I was on medical leave.  The 3 churches presented 3 very different styles of worship.  All 3 services had a time in the worship service where you stood up and shook hands with one another.  All of them had greeters at the door who offered a warm welcome to everyone who entered.  However, in one of the churches that I worshipped in for 5 weeks, only 1 person came to me and introduced themselves.  It was a warm and friendly church on the surface, but when it came to inclusion. It fell very short.  The other 2 churches did a better job of welcome, but, failed to print in their order of service, or offer verbally, the directions in order to follow along in the service.  So, for a newcomer, one was lost.  2 of the churches offered services that ran an hour and 20 minutes to an 1 ½ hour and there seemed to be no concern about the length of the worship time.   It was only in 1 church that the sermon consistently tied in to our personal lives and gave us food for thought for being a little more faithful.  2 of the 3 churches had a music leader at a microphone in addition to the choir, assisting in the singing of the hymns. At one of the services, the choir got into a disagreement with the Choir Director and the tension was obvious throughout the service.  All 3 churches had a coffee time following the worship service.  I found it uncomfortable to attend unless someone personally invited me and asked me to sit with them.

I offer these reflections as feedback on our own worship experience.  What does a newcomer encounter when attending one of our worship services?  Is it a mountain-top pilgrimage with Jesus, or is it a dark valley time that is never to be repeated?  Do we honour Christ, God’s beloved, in the very best way possible?  Are we open to change, so that we might welcome the stranger, and listen with attentiveness?

I love transfiguration Sunday, for it gives us an opportunity to reflect on our mountain and valley experiences.  For us as a congregation, the fact that we are celebrating 90 years of faith-filled ministry is astounding.  I remember 2 years ago stating emphatically that we definitely would make it to 90 years actually shocking the persons with whom I was talking.  They were sure we would be closed by this time.  I believe we have experienced a mountain top high as we celebrated 4 adult baptisms in just over a year.  However, our valley has been deep as we have mourned the deaths of 17 friends and loved ones.  I had the privilege of standing with 4 jubilant couples as they married in 2017.  Our church has handed out nearly 400 bags of food to the hungry in our community, this past year.  We closed the year in a much better financial position than we anticipated, giving us hope and courage to continue doing the good works that we are called to do.  Several of you have welcomed great grand children into your hearts and lives.  Many of you are experiencing health challenges that are disturbing and frightening.  This leaves you vulnerable in ways you never anticipated.  It can feel like walking in a valley.  In all these realities, Christ walks with us.  Up the mountain and down in the deep valley we are not alone.  But – rest assured, that God’s voice heralding “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” is for us all to hear.  When we slow down long enough that we actually can pay attention to God’s murmurings, it is a glorious message.  When we open our hearts and spirits, there is a nudging that invites us to lean in and experience the wonder of God with us.

I have sat at the bedside of persons as they make the transition from life to death.  I am always astounded how I see the face of Christ as this transition takes place.  It is as if I am on a mountaintop and I have seen the power of God working in that experience. Each time, I am changed.  It is such a privilege.  So – even though we fear that our church – Big Blue – may be facing some big changes, we must not loose faith.  Perhaps we must die in our present form, so that we can resurrect in a new form.  Possibly we may have to look seriously at shared ministry, or some kind of amalgamation.  Might we look at taking on a new focus in our ministry?  In a couple of minutes, we will begin our Annual Meeting.  Let us go into it with hearts, minds, and spirits open to the possibilities that are before us.  Let us be gentle with one another.  Let us venture up the mountain and descend into the valley, knowing that Christ walks with us.  Amen.