Sunday, 31 January 2016

The Greatest of these is Love

Today we get one of the most beautiful passages from the Bible: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (I Corinthians 13:4 – 7) writes Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. 
They are so beautiful and it sounds like it should be easy to live out. Yet, I read these words and I know deep in my soul, that I don’t live up to them. I get frustrated. I say things that are unkind. Sometimes I want what others have and I like to have my own way. Paul’s words seem like an impossible measuring stick. They are so beautiful but on any given day I’m sure that I fall short. 
That is when a little context helps out. Paul is not writing these words to people who are succeeding at loving one another. He is writing to the Christian community at Corinth because they are barely hanging on to their community. They are not getting along. Really 1 Corinthians 13, which is so often read at weddings, is the home stretch of Paul’s lecture. In Chapter 12 Paul, writes about how all the parts of the body are necessary and how the body isn’t complete unless everyone is part of it. The members of the community were in a sense fighting about whose spiritual gifts are the most important. Each person wanting to establish that theirs is the best. At the end of Chapter 12 he writes, “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way. (1 Corinthians 12:29 – 31)
The more excellent way is love. Not romantic love which the Greeks called eros or fraternal love found in families but a third kind – harder to describe called agape. Agape is word for love which was seldom used in the Greco Roman world and the word for love used in this part of Corinthians. Agape is love in action. It is in the most challenging kind of love. It is the love that puts others ahead of self. It is love reaches out. It is easy to lose sight of the more excellent way of love. 
In many ways, it is relief that church communities are the same in every age. I have yet to find a church community that doesn’t fall short. It also means that whatever it is we can get through it, we are not alone as we face these kinds of challenges. Nadia Bolz-Webber who started House for all Sinners and Saints in Denver writes this about community in her book Pastrix, “Every human community will disappoint us, regardless of how well-intentioned or inclusive. But I am totally idealistic about God’s redeeming work in my life and in the world. … [at our quarter welcome events]I tell them … I too love being in a spiritual community where I don’t have to add or take away from my own story to be accepted. But I have learned something by belonging to two polar opposite communities… and I wanted them to hear me: This community will disappoint them. It’s a matter of when, not if. We will let them down or I’ll say something stupid and hurt their feelings. I then invite them on this side of their inevitable disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it happens. If they choose to leave when we don’t meet their expectations, they won’t get to see how the grace of God can come in and fill the holes left by our communities failure, and that’s just to beautiful and real to miss. Welcome to House for All Sinners and Saints. We will disappoint you.” (Pastrix page 65 – 66) 
The beauty of God’s grace is found in that “love that will not let us go.” God doesn’t just send us out into the world with our all to human imperfections and say, “Love one another.” First God loves us into being – just as we are, with all our imperfections and mistakes. Then God gives us Jesus as that reminder of what love in action looks like. And finally, God invites us to love others, just as God loves us. 
Do we always get it right? No. But we sure do get it right a lot of the time. Love is what binds us together as brothers and sisters in Christ. Love is what makes the difference when we fail and disappoint one another. Love is what binds up hurts. In Paul words, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:12 – 13) Amen. 

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Spirit of the Lord

For so many reasons this is a great passage of scripture. As I preacher, I like it because Jesus missed the mark on his sermon. Comforting to me. The hometown crowd were not impressed with his preaching. Luke writes, “When they heard this, all the in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.” (Luke 4:28 – 29) 
That’s a pretty serious reaction to a sermon. And not a normal one. I’ve had many reactions some positive and some not so positive. Some for good reason. We preacher don’t always get it right. We miss the mark. One of my early supervisors, who normally used poetic language to describe my work, called one of my sermons, ‘adequate.” I knew it wasn’t great but when she said adequate, I knew it was terrible. But this is not the same thing as wanting to through someone of a cliff. So what happened that day in Nazareth? It says, “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came form his mouth.” (Luke 4:22) So it wasn’t that he was speaking. It was probably that they heard something that so challenged their essential beliefs that they couldn’t hear what he was saying. Add a little of the hometown boy getting too big for his britches – and well you get an angry crowd. Whatever happened, it was impossible for Jesus to do his usual teaching, preaching, healing ministry.
In terms of the chronology, this passage follows Jesus’ baptism and then being tempted in the desert by the devil. Jesus has invited the disciples to follow and he is speaking to groups large and small around then Galilean countryside with growing success. Then he goes to his home church, his home synagogue and he does what he’s always done. He goes and he reads these powerful words form the book of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18 – 19) He sits down and adds, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:20) That’s when the whispering starts. “Isn’t that guy, the carpenter’s son? Isn’t that Joseph’s boy?” Who does he think he is? Then Jesus has to make a quick escape before getting thrown off a cliff.  
Here’s the thing about missing the mark or not quit managing to get people to hear your message – you learn a lot. Maybe the next time Jesus spoke he refined his message. Sometimes getting it wrong is the first step to getting it right. There is a great line in one of my favourite TV shows. I liked it so much that I wrote it down. The show is called Scorpion and it is about a group of geniuses who save the world every week. In one episode, Walter O’Brian and the members of Scorpion try to save a high tech building that was attacked by a computer virus. As the owner of the building and Walter sit watching the building burn down (after of course rescuing all the people inside). The owner looks at the building and says, “Next time it will work.”  Walter says, “Next time? You’re going to do this again? This failed.” The owner says, “Walter, people think that I’m some kind of brilliant visionary. The reason I am successful is because on the heals of defeat, I start all over again. Failure is part of the process. You don’t know where you are vulnerable until you’ve failed.” (From Scorpion, Tech, drugs, and Rock ‘n Roll (Season 2 episode 6 October 26) 
Failure can be our greatest teacher. It helps us know how to improve. My guess is that Jesus learned that if you’ve a message that’s hard for people to accept you need to refine how you say it. Just because the people in Nazareth couldn’t hear the good news doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. The challenge for the people in Nazareth was that the good news meant change. It meant looking at the world with a new set of eyes. That is not always easy to do. In fact, it can be one of the most challenging things to do. 
Even though it is hard to hear, Jesus’ words are an invitation to new life. Jesus says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18 – 19)
These words are an invitation for all of all who follow Jesus to live into that promise of good news for the poor and sight for the blind and release of the captives. It is an invitation to discipleship. Perhaps we can say it like this, “The Spirit of the Lord is on us, Cochrane Street United Church, because he has anointed us to bring good news to the poor. He has sent us to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” 
The Spirit of the Lord certainly has been at work in this congregation. We are building homes and community space. It is wonderful and amazing. At the same time, I know it is not without its challenges. We miss our church. We miss the comforts of home. Our choir is practicing one place and men’s club, UCW, Messy Church and bridge are meeting in others. It is harder to do the things we’ve always done as a church family and we miss the comforts of home. 
And yet that is only one part of the story. There is more. There is our calling, that invitation from Jesus to step out – to move beyond what is comfortable and known to bring good news. There is the good news are bringing to people who need homes. In those difficult moments, when it seems that it is too hard, remember that our God is with us always nudging us in the direction of new life. ““The Spirit of the Lord is on us, because he has anointed us to bring good news to the poor. He has sent us to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Amen. 

Sunday, 17 January 2016


There is a hymn that I love called, “My Jesus I love Thee.”. Its found in the old “Song of the Gospel” hymn book. I heard for the first time in a little church in Aspen Cove. Every verse tells of something wonderful Jesus has done and the last line of every verse concludes with the words, “If ever I loved thee my Jesus tis now.”  Being a follower of Jesus is both joy and challenge. There are times when it is hard to be a follower of Jesus, there are times when it is a joy and there are times when it see that the calling to love and serve others is something beyond my capabilities.
But then you come to the first of the miracles or “signs” in John’s gospel and doubts someone wash away. Water becomes wine. I admit that I love any story that turns water into wine. And we are not talking in this story about the cheap stuff – but good wine. This is a “sign” of blessing is a reminder that our starting place as followers of Jesus is God’s abiding abundance and grace. The wedding at Canna is the first of the “signs” or miracles in John’s gospel. It follows hot on the heals of baptism and Jesus calling the disciples with the invitation “come and see.” Next scene a wedding. Not quite like the weddings of today which are a day long affair. A wedding in Jesus’ day lasted a week and was a community celebration. Jesus was there with his whole family, disciples and community. 
Over the course of the celebrations, the hosts ran out of wine. Now this may not sound like a big problem. Today we’d probably think nothing of it. If the wine runs out, we pop up to the store and buy another bottle. Not a big deal. But it was major social faux pas in Jesus’ day. Mostly it was a big deal because of what the wine represented. Wine was a sign of God’s abundance and to run out of wine was like saying that God’s love had dried up.
 Upon hearing the news, Jesus’ mother turns to him, with an expectant look in her eyes. I think it’s the look only a mother can give and says, “They have run out of wine.” Can’t you just hear Jesus saying back to her as he rolls his eyes, “Oh Mother, why are you worried about that. Besides which, this not my time, it is not the hour.” But she pays no attention to him. Son of God or not, she knows best. Not only does she know him best, she knows its his time. She is the one whose watched him learn and grow. So Jesus mother takes matters into her own hands. She turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you to do.”  
I’m guessing that Jesus reluctantly tells the servants to fill six huge containers – each holding 20 to 30 gallons of water and to take them to the wine steward. The wine steward tastes the wine and is amazed. He calls the bridegroom and compliments him for saving the best wine for the last days of the celebration. This is the first of what John calls the signs of Jesus and other gospels call miracle stories.  These signs that point us to God and the nature of God’s grace. 
Sometime it helps to put things in context. Today can be mass produced and shipped easily from one place to another. Not so in Jesus day. In today’s measurements “A standard bottle of wine is 750 milliliters (ml), meaning a case of 12 bottles contains 9 liters, or 2.378 gallons. At 150 gallons per ton, a ton of grapes becomes 150/2.378 gallons per case, or a little more than 63 cases of wine. With 12 bottles per case, we have 756 bottles in total.” ( For Jesus to change the ordinary gift of water into extraordinary wine was amazing. That is just like God’s abundant grace. It is unexpected. It is good wine when you are expecting the cheap stuff.
In the words of the psalmist, “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.” (Psalm 36: 7 – 9) Grace upon grace. It is like the words we heard last week form Isaiah I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. … Because you are precious in my sight, and honoured and I love you.” (Isaiah 43:1 – 2, 4)
God’s infinite grace is hard to understand sometimes because all too often we operate in the scarcity mode. One of my theology professors said that the good news is so good that it is hard to believe. And it is so true. Living in faith, living with God’s grace daily doesn’t mean that life is perfect or that there is a magic that cures all our troubles. Barbra Brown Taylor in her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, writes, “I call it full solar spirituality since it focuses on staying in the light of God around the clock, both absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith.” (Learning to Walk in the Dark page 15) Faith that only endures when life is good, doesn’t stand up when life tragedies come to our door step. And invited or not, we know to well that sorrows and tragedies come our way. 
Here is the thing about God’s grace – it walks with us in times of faith and times of doubt. Grace is the comfort that comes after a night of pain. Grace is knowing that even the worst of mistakes are forgiven. Grace is being loved just as we are. Grace is the hope that rises from despair. It reminds me of the scene in the third book in the Anne of Green Gables books – Anne of the Island. Anne has just found out that her life long nemesis is dying. It is in that moment that she realizes that she loves him. She spends a long night hoping, praying for good news. In the morning she goes for a walk and finds out that Gilbert will make it. “The trills and trickles of song from the birds in the big tree above her seemed in perfect accord with her mood. A sentence from a very old, very true, very wonderful Book came to her lips, “Weeping may endure for the night but joy cometh in the morning.”” (Anne of the Island, page 651)
God’s grace never runs out or is in short supply. It is like 756 bottles of the best wine when you least expect it. It is the surprising hope that comes in spite of evidence that would have us give up. The wedding at Cana is an invitation into come and see God’s abundant grace. The last line of our reading from this morning says, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” (John 2:11) It is the same invitation we receive today. Come and see -- grace upon grace. God’s abundance. How can we not make our song each day an offering of praise? “I’ll love Thee in life, I will love Thee in death. And praise Thee as long as Thou lendest me breath; If ever I loved thee, my Jesus it is now.” Amen. 

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Because You Are Precious in my Sight

I have read the passage from Isaiah many times. It comes up in the lectionary every three years. And yet this week it was like I was reading the words for the first time. Tears welled up in my eyes and I was overwhelmed by the beauty and the promise of it. It was like God was speaking directly to me reminding me that I, Miriam, am precious and honoured and loved. And somehow down through the ages these words have spoken to hearts reminding all of us that we are precious in God’s sight – beloved children of God.  
This particular passage of scripture from Isaiah was written during the Babylonian captivity. After the destruction of the temple, after the people of Israel had been dragged from their homeland to some strange land where they were not really welcomed. Isaiah 49 describes the people of God as, “deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers” (Isaiah 49:7) It was a time when they wondered how to worship God in a strange land. And this is God’s word to them, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. … Because you are precious in my sight, and honoured and I love you.” (Isaiah 43:1 – 2, 4) 
In the time since those words were written, many things have changed, but one things remains firm. God says to each one of us, “you are precious in my sight, and honoured and I love you.” (Isaiah 43:4) It’s not always easy to take these words to heart. After all it is much easier to believe the worst about ourselves. But God says no to that. God says, “I have called you by name, you are mine.” When we say ugly, or dumb or screw up or idiot or worthless or shameful, God says, “precious, honoured, loved, mine.” 
Talk about good news. The kind of news that changes hearts and lives. Callie Plunket-Brewton tells this story. “A month or so ago, I met a man who has two names. His given name is Jeremy. He’s been called “Twitch” for years. Twitch, he told me when we met, was the name he went by when he was in and out of jail before he got clean. I said that I would call him Jeremy, thinking he wouldn’t want to be called a name associated with his pretty harsh past. He then said the most extraordinary thing. He said he wanted people to keep calling him Twitch so that it would be clear to the people who had known him before that he was a transformed man. He was afraid that if he started to go by Jeremy people might not realize that he was the same Twitch who’d been in jail with them, used with them. He comes around pretty regularly to the homeless ministry where I sometimes serve and hangs out with our homeless guests. Many of them know him. He wants them to recognize him and to take heart that God can transform their lives, too.” ( 
There are so many things that come with terms and conditions – but God’s love is not one of those things. It is gift. It is grace. It is promise. It is new life. One of the ways we recognize that grace is through baptism  which is a visible reminder of the invisible grace.  Baptism is so important that each of the Gospels begins Jesus’ ministry with his baptism in the Jordan River. Matthew and Luke both tell stories of Jesus birth, John’s begins with poetry, “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God.” Mark skips all that stuff and goes right to the heart of the matter – baptism. In all found Gospels, the waters of baptism are barely dry when Jesus begins his teaching and healing ministry.  
In Luke’s gospel, John the Baptist is preaching up a storm in the wilderness. He is preparing the way for Jesus. He says “‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’” (Luke 3:16) What happens next is a powerful reminder that Baptism is God’s work alone. John the Baptist was arrested by Herod and in jail and does not baptize Jesus. It is the work of God through the Holy Spirit. 
Luke describes it this way, “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21 – 22) With that promise ringing in his ears Jesus sets out on his ministry of healing and teaching.
Baptism is the daily reminder that "You are my child, with you I am well pleased."  This is not just a message for Jesus it is for us today. God said this to us the day we were baptized and every day since then. A lifetime of ups and downs cannot erase that promise, that gift of grace. Whether you remember your baptism or not it doesn’t matter.  The grace that comes with baptism has no expiry date. With the sign of the cross, we are chosen, claimed forever as God’s beloved children. 
That is the good news. On those bad days, those days when we are tempted to believe the worst about ourselves, we can remember the words that Gods speaks to us all, “You are my child with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22)  “I have called you by name, you are mine.  Because you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you.” (Isaiah 43: 1, 4) Everyday God whispers those powerful words in our ears. How can we not share them with others? Precious, honoured, loved, mine. Say them to yourself everyday – tell them to others. So everyone knows deep in their hearts that God’s love is for all. Precious. Honoured. Loved. Mine. Precious. Honoured. Loved. Mine. Amen. 

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Home by Another Way

Ever since the new star went up on Signal Hill – the one that shines so brightly across our city I’ve been thinking about the Magi – the wise men. The ones who saw an ancient star. The ones who were so wise that the people thought they were magic. The ones who knew the meaning of every star in the sky and couldn’t believe it when they saw a new one at its rising. The ones who wondered what all this could mean. Should they follow it? Should they see where it was leading them? Perhaps they wondered what people would think about embarking on this journey to an unknown destination. 
And yet they went. Their wondering led them to walking and a journey like no other. Their story – taking a chance on that unknown path reminds me of Mary and Joseph.  When they said yes to God’s promise about their child they had no idea what it would mean for them – and yet they too left behind all that was familiar to follow in God’s way. They left their home in Nazareth to travel a strange city to be registered and then fearing for their lives they journeyed to Egypt. The sign at St. Mark’s Church before Christmas said it well, “Christmas: A story about a Middle East Family Seeking Refuge.” It reminds me of the Syrian refugees who arrived this week and indeed of all the refugees who come to Canada leaving behind all that is familiar to travel to a foreign land hoping for a new life. Like the Magi the set out not knowing what the future would hold but they go anyway – following that star that shines so brightly or following a dream or seeking hope.
It is a story that we can understand as a congregation. Our church family made the bold choice to follow an unknown path – to follow that star, that hope, that dream. No church in the city has done what you’ve done. It’s a decision that means uncertainty and traveling new directions – like worshipping here. It means living with a bit of uncertainty and lots of questions and as with anything new fears. As we head down this new road, no doubt there will be other firsts and new things along the way. 
So today we begin our journey. We are as a church family worshipping in a different place. And it is not familiar. It is not our church home. But as it says in the song “Home” by Phillip Phillips “Hold on to me as we go. As we roll down this unfamiliar road, and although this wave is stringing us along. Just know you’re not alone. Cause I’m going to make this place your home.” This is our church home for the next few months.  And we are not alone. We have one another, the hospitality of our friends here at St. John’s Seventh-day Adventist Church and a God who is always with us helping us down this unfamiliar road. 
In the story of the Magi who travelled their own unfamiliar road we find a story of faith and blessings. Listen to what it says in Matthew, “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. “(Matthew 2:10 – 12)
There is the joy of arrival. There is the gift of finding what you’d been searching for and meeting the holy child. There is the moment they offered prayers and blessings. But like any journey, it leaves a mark on your lives and the Magi go home differently. Jan Richardson describes the story this way in her poem called, “The Blessing of the Magi”

There is no reversing
this road.
The path that bore you here
goes in one direction only,
every step drawing you
down a way
by which you will not

You thought arrival
was everything,
that your entire journey
ended with kneeling
in the place
you had spent all
to find.

When you laid down
your gift,
release came with such ease,
your treasure tumbling
from your hands
in awe and

Now the knowledge
of your leaving
comes like a stone laid
over your heart,
the familiar path closed
and not even the solace
of a star
to guide your way.

You will set out in fear
you will set out in dream
but you will set out
by that other road
that lies in shadow
and in dark.
We cannot show you
the route that will
take you home;
that way is yours
and will be found
in the walking.
But we tell you
you will wonder
at how the light you thought
you had left behind
goes with you,
spilling from
your empty hands,
shimmering beneath
your homeward feet,
illuminating the road
with every step
you take.
As we embark on this journey into the unknown as a church family, there will be times of uncertainty and fear and there will be blessings all along the way. As we move into this new and uncertain time, we are reminded of that light the glows from the stable that brings hope and lights our path. God is with us as we go guiding us, supporting us and by faith we know that we are no alone. The light that guided the Magi so long ago on their journey guides us today. By God’s grace, with God’s help this unfamiliar road will be a blessing for our church family and for others as we build for the future. And so like so many before us we travel in faith and in hope. Thanks be to God. Amen.