Our Purpose and Mission Statement

Working to build God's dream. Help wanted!

We the people of Glen Rhodes United Church, are determined that our life together will be fully inclusive for people of all ages, races, genders, sexual orientations, differing abilities, ethnic origins and economic circumstances. Therefore, we hope that God will work in us so that we will be a sensitive congregation, willing to share our faith and gifts in language and worship, in the life and work of our church and wherever God calls us to do justice in the wider community, with compassion, fun and laughter

Sunday, 25 December 2011

DECEMBER 25, 2011 CHRISTMAS DAY

Rev. Malcolm Spenser

The Humble Birth

My earliest memories of Christmas centered around the barn at home. We had to milk the cows on Christmas Eve and get to church late and had to sit at the front of the church. Then Christmas Day was spent with aunts, uncles, cousins and Grandpa and Grandma and we had food and singing around the piano, carols and of course presents. There was often snow to shovel as well. In a prairie winter you can expect anything.

Our Christmas celebrations then and now are not all like the first Christmas which took place in a lowly stable with animals and another group low on the social ladder of the time – shepherds, who often slept outside with the sheep, but it was to these persons that the angel spoke and they came to see the babe Jesus. So at the coming of Jesus to the world animals and shepherds and his young parents, no doubt frightened and worried yet relieved to have a son - a bit like being born in a taxi these days - no midwife and friends of Mom there. Jesus came to us in a lowly way as we all start life - as a vulnerable child among the vulnerable of his day.

When Octavian became Emperor of Rome he was titled Augustus and called son of God, saviour of the world and even had a month named after him in the new 12 month calendar right beside his kinsmen Julius, July and August our summer months named after them. While the names are still around the Roman Empire is gone. But Jesus was born for us, born humbly and without any fanfare of young parents no doubt pleased to have a safe birth but anxious for the future – Mary cradling this baby holding in her hand the fruit of her obedience forced to bear him in these rough conditions yet his a great moment of hope. We can bring to life Jesus in the humble setting of today. His birth was accompanied at the margins of society and today, like then the people in power had given up on justice and equity and these days on the environmental issues yet young voices shut out of the economy and the super-rich powerless and yet got the eye of the press and the public given birth to hope in our time and we see these same young people donating time for kids at Christmas with toy and food drives. Jesus grew up to feed the multitude to live out the word of walking humbly with God. That is the real meaning of Christmas - the poor can take hope, the ones with nothing will be filled.

The early church did not celebrate Christmas like we do. They looked to the season of Epiphany, the Greek for showing: this was a celebration Jesus the incarnate son of God came amongst us and lived with us as one of us, we still celebrate that season after Christmas in order to follow Jesus’ life from his Baptism until his decision to go to Jerusalem.

But when the Church figured out to evangelize was not the best way to destroy pagan temples and celebrations, rather it was better to turn them into churches and

Christian festivals, so Saturnalia the Roman feast of the shortest day when you looked for the light to return and partied for a week became a time to celebrate Christ’s birth. Sometimes it feels like we live in a 6 weeks contemporary Saturnalia with parties singing and shopping.

The real Christmas is in the heart of us who follow Mary in delivering good news to a world of woe. That is what makes Christmas great –we enter a celebration of the loving God coming to us in the form of a vulnerable child to invites us in to carry the story of this manger birth in our hearts all the time – remembering it when we are vulnerable and as we comfort the vulnerable in our times and place.

Prayer:
Help us find compassion and caring within both for ourselves and others this Christmas. We ask this in the name of the babe of Bethlehem, Jesus our Saviour. Amen

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Virgin Birth?

Luke 1: 26-38

Jong Bok Kim at Glen Rhodes United, Dec. 18, 2011

O God, in the birth of Jesus you come among us embodied in human flesh to bless and to love. Come now and be among us today. Empower us with new understanding of your coming in Jesus, the perfect love.  Amen.

When I was young, my mother used to tell me about a dream she had when I was conceived.  In her dream, she saw a big golden dragon ascending to the sky from the sea at dawn.  The next morning, she knew she was going to have a boy.  This is what we call, in Korean, a “Tae Mong,” a conception dream.  People in Korea still believe that the conception of a baby is made known through an unusual dream usually by the mother, yet sometimes the father or other relative of the family.  When they see mythical creatures like a dragon or a phoenix or an exotic flower in their dreams, they begin to talk about who is going to have a baby in their families.  When they see something powerful like a dragon, they predict that it is going to be a boy; when they see something beautiful like flowers or birds, it is going to be a girl. 

While reading today’s passage from Luke, known as the Annunciation, I was reminded of Korean conception dreams.  “He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary." “Round yon virgin mother and child."  We say and sing these words in church. Once a year we even blast the words of the carol over loudspeakers in shopping malls.  Some passers-by may shake their heads in amusement or amazement over this “primitive mythology."  Some Christians, especially theologians and preachers, sometimes fight bitterly over it.  But what does it mean? Why all the fuss?

The doctrine of the virgin birth is certainly of great importance in the history of Christendom. Much ink has been spilled about the meaning of the virgin birth.  But it should be pointed out that the story of Jesus' birth is recorded only in Matthew and Luke which were written almost half a century after Jesus died. It is not mentioned at all in Mark or John. Paul never mentions it in any of his letters, some of which were written much earlier than any of the four Gospels; nor do any of the other New Testament writings. Does this not indicate that many of the first Christians, including Paul himself, could be real Christians without talking about, perhaps without even knowing about the story of Jesus' miraculous birth?

My mother’s conception dream made me feel great.  I felt I was special; I was not born by accident; I was born, surrounded by a mystery associated with an ancient myth; I felt like I was born into this world with a certain purpose or plan.  As I grew up, I knew what this was all about.  Its point was clear: I was assured I was a valued human being.  In fact, it offered me great confidence in who I was and helped me a great deal go through my troubled adolescence. 

We are not sure if Mary told her boy about the story of Angel Gabriel’s visit when he was conceived.   If so, there is no doubt that, like me, as he grew up, the child Jesus must have appreciated it.  I never asked my mother, “Did you really have that dream?  Didn’t you just make it up for me?” Whether she actually dreamed it or not did not matter.  What mattered most was that her dream meant a lot to me.  Likewise, the child Jesus would never have asked, “Mom, did it really happen?”  Obviously, that would be the wrong question.  Like about many other miracle stories or parables in the bible, it is important for us to ask good questions today, like, “What is the point of the story?  What are the writers of the Gospel trying to say through the story of the virgin birth?   What does that mean to us today?”

I found an interesting comment on the virgin birth from one of the commentaries.  Karl Barth, one of the great theologians of the last century, has noted that the exclusion of a human father in Jesus' miraculous birth tells us something about ourselves as well as about God. Human history has usually been the story of human males, the story of the power and accomplishments of statesmen, warriors, explorers, entrepreneurs, philosophers and so on. But now in the most important event of all history the mighty male is excluded! It is a woman who is the agent of God's work in the world.

The birth stories of Jesus tell us that he was born as a real flesh-and-blood human being just like us.  Jesus was born as we all are. He was once a helpless baby who had to be fed, whose diapers had to be changed, who had to develop and mature slowly.  His birth stories emphasize that he came into the world in the same way every other human being does. He did not just appear out of nowhere like a ghost, a "heavenly body," or an alien from outer space.  It insists in Jesus' real humanity by putting his birth in line with other marks of real human existence: born, suffered, died and was buried.

Jesus was born into a real world.  The Christmas story is anything but the sentimental, harmless, once-a-year occasion for a "Christmas spirit" that lasts only a few days before we return to the "facts" of the "real world." Christmas is the story of God’s coming into the real world where we live all year long—a world where there is political unrest and injustice, poverty, hatred, jealousy, and both the fear and the longing that things could be different.

Jesus was a Jew.  He was a Jewish human being.  He was one of that group of people who, from the first century to the present, have been laughed at and joked about, excluded and persecuted and slaughtered in the millions, sometimes by people who called themselves Christians. Although the New Testament shows no interest in what Jesus looked like, we may be sure that he was not the blond, blue-eyed, pink-complexioned figure of much Western religious art and Hollywood productions. Men of the Near East look neither like Anglo-Saxons with long hair nor like All-American boys.

Belief in the doctrine of the virgin birth does not make or prove Jesus to be the Saviour or the Messiah.  Even if it could be proven that his mother was a virgin, that would only prove that his birth was a medical anomaly.  We Christians do not believe in Jesus because he was born of a virgin.  On the contrary, because we have already come to believe that he is the Christ, we listen to the stories of his miraculous birth.  The movement is from faith in Jesus to the virgin birth, not vice versa.  Faith comes by seeing, hearing and experiencing what he does.  We come to recognize Jesus as Emmanuel, God-with-us, not first of all by speculating about the meaning of birth, but by listening to the story of his life after his birth.

Jesus lived always in perfect love for God and other people.  His friends and associates were not the good church people of his day. They were his enemies, not because he rejected them but because they rejected him. His friends were political revolutionaries like the Zealots, dishonest business people who were also traitors to their nation like the tax collectors, tragic women like the woman caught in adultery, social outcasts like the Samaritans. He did not minister to well people who did not need a doctor but to sick people who did.

Today is the fourth Sunday in Advent and we lit the candle of love.  In fact, we began to celebrate today’s theme, Love, a week earlier.  Last Sunday afternoon, some of us joined me in visiting several members who had not been able to come to church because of illness or age.  In their homes and institutions, we were happy to share our stories and memories of our church.  Certainly, it was time to share the love we have learned from Jesus, the one who lived in love for other people.  Before sharing bread and wine during the Communion, we read together Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, one of today’s passages and remembered God’s love in Jesus’ coming among us as a baby.


  I would like to close my sermon with a prayer from the Communion service.  Let us pray.

            God of Advent, we thank you for being with us here.
            We anticipate your coming among us.
            May we join Mary in singing joyfully of your love and care.
            May our spirits rejoice in your coming among us as an infant lying in a manger.
            God of Love, we give you thanks and praise for your gift of love.
            You bring creation to birth and send prophets to awaken us to your Advent among us.
            We thank you for those who, like Mary, have the strength and courage to give birth to
            your love in the world, for those who, like the shepherds, dare to seek out the child of
            Bethlehem.
            We praise you that your everlasting light is shown to us in womb and tomb, in cradle
            and cross, in tenderness and compassion.
            For Jesus Christ, in whom you gather the hopes and fears of all the years, we praise
            you, joining with all your people of every time and place, and with angels and
            archangels who proclaim the holy birth:
            Praise be to God, the Source of Love; Praise be to Christ, Love Incarnate;
            Praise be to the Spirit, Love’s power. Amen.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Sermon December 11, 2011

An Azalea on “Gaudete Sunday”

Isaiah 61: 1–4, 8-11

Jong Bok Kim at Glen Rhodes United, Dec. 11, 2011


God of true joy, you gave of yourself so that life might prevail. We are grateful that your mind and heart lie deep within the Earth. We hear Earth’s cries, voice and song. Awaken us and move us all to work for climate justice in the way of your love. Amen.

 I have several indoor plants at home.  I have never bought any of them.  Some of them were given to me as gifts; others were rescued from somewhere.  I have enjoyed them all, looking after them and learning about their characteristics.  I appreciate them particularly at this time of the year when my garden becomes desolate after most of the plants have gone into hibernation.  Among them, I am especially drawn to one of them, an azalea sitting in the bay window in front of my desk in the living room; it began to bloom last week.  It is going to come into full bloom this coming week. 

This azalea brings me joy at home as azaleas are quite common in the countryside of my native country, where their pink flowers cover the hills and mountains in April each year.  I remember how it was when I rescued this one from my neighbour’s driveway on a hot day a few years back.  It appeared to be dead and thrown out in its tiny plastic pot into the garbage.  I picked it up anyway because of my personal connection with it.  Amazingly, it revived and thrived after it was repotted.  More amazingly, this variety blooms twice a year and brings me great joy at this time of the year against the backdrop of my bleak, snow-covered front yard.

There is no better time for this azalea to bloom than this week as we celebrate the third Sunday of Advent today, known as “Gaudete Sunday” from the Latin word “rejoice.”   The Advent candle being lit this Sunday is a rose colour—a lighter shade of purple, the very colour of the azalea flowers I have at home – to denote the “joy” of this day.  This pale rose-coloured candle is lit to emphasize the joyous anticipation of God’s coming among us. 

The joy described in today’s passage from Isaiah is not the same as pleasure, or personal satisfaction, or even the emotional high we call happiness. This kind of joy is deeper than happiness, which can be very superficial and linked to temporary pleasures. Joy has to do with God’s presence, coming from an assurance that the challenges and struggles of life are all held within God’s loving embrace.  The capacity for such joy in the midst of difficulty is a gift from God.

When returning from Babylonian exile, the people of Israel encounter a harsh reality.  They find that Jerusalem is no longer the home they remember. Various conquering armies have over time devastated Jerusalem. They “mourn in Zion.”  However, the prophet announces that God is eager to reverse Israel's previous misfortune. There is to be a new day for those steadfast and faithful to God’s promise.  For the oppressed people Isaiah's prophecy represents the highest hopes and dreams that the faith community could envision. God lifts up and encourages the spirits of the downcast and disheartened. The reversal of fortune is a divine promise, offering hope to the people overwhelmed with such devastation.

Recently, while working with other church leaders from around the world at the UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa, Mardi Tindal, our Moderator, posted two of her video clips on the United Church website.  She invited us to recommit ourselves to this critical issue of climate change and pray together for these historic international talks, calling upon world leaders to act on behalf of all humanity.

According to a document from KAIROS, the Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives Coalition, it is time for us to undertake decisive measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or face ecological destruction on a scale unprecedented since humans first walked the Earth. The impacts of human-induced climate change are growing in intensity, causing some 300,000 people to die every year.   Last year, floods in China and Pakistan and other climate-related calamities displaced 38 million people, twice as many as the year before.  Air temperatures above land last year were the second warmest on record. The world’s mountain glaciers shrank for the twentieth consecutive year. Greenland’s glaciers deteriorated more last year than any other year on record.

The Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent is reported to have said in public that “However acute the international pressure, we will not agree to taking on a second commitment period target under the Kyoto Protocol.”  Once again, he made it clear that Canada would be among countries to break its legal and moral obligations under Kyoto.  Some claim that the Canadian government’s opposition to curbs on emissions is due to Canada having become a “petro-state,” overly dependent on petroleum exports. Oil companies plan to invest $2 trillion in building and operating the Alberta tar sands over the next 25 years, raising production capacity from the current 2 million barrels a day to 5 million by 2035.

What has been going on in Durban so far is very disappointing.  There is no hope for a new binding agreement among 194 countries to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which expires next year.  Political differences, the worldwide financial crisis and a divergence of priorities among rich and poor countries are blamed.  It is far from the good news we hope to rejoice about.  We are worried about the future we are leaving for our children.  What can we say to the next generations about the dire consequences of this human induced climate change?

However, today the prophet Isaiah invites us to look beyond what seems like a hopeless situation and see what is yet to come.  In the midst of ruin the exiles find in Jerusalem, there is promise of justice and a new beginning. They rejoice, though what they celebrate has not yet fully come to be. Their rejoicing, therefore, is a daring act. They are willing to make a claim on the future that transforms their experience of the present. It is a high calling to celebrate in the face of trouble, persecution or loss. It takes courage to expect joy in the midst of circumstances that are less than hopeful.

According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus uses this Isaiah text as he preaches his first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth.  What more powerful word could there have been to the world into which Jesus was born? Faced with economic, political, and military turmoil—all courtesy of a Roman occupying force—the faithful Jews were desperate for a word of hope-filled promise. Most people can endure any sort of circumstance as long as the future looks different from the present. This is the picture Isaiah paints for the prophet's faith community. Later, Luke receives this magnificent promise and proclaims the hope it furnishes in the life of Jesus.

What is promising in terms of climate change is that, in spite of the repeated failures to keep binding agreements among the nations, the awareness of the urgent need to action among ordinary people around the world has been growing.  As a faith community, we would join them in envisioning a new world where all creatures in God’s creation exist in harmony, rejoicing in each other.  As part of such envisioning, our congregation has already joined the Green Awakening Network, a collaboration of over 50 United Churches, other faith communities and local environmental groups in the Toronto region.  As members of this network, we are encouraged to change our lifestyle responding to the challenge of climate change, reduce the carbon footprint of our building and become catalysts for action within the wider community.

Rejoicing is always about freedom and new life, even when they have yet to appear. We rejoice in God’s reign and participate in it through our acts of faithful living. Like an azalea blooming in the bleak midwinter, on “Gaudete Sunday,” let us choose to live with joy, rejoicing in the hope God promises.

I would like to close my sermon with a prayer Mardi Tindal asked us to pray together. Let us pray.

Living and loving Christ, You gave of yourself so that life might prevail.
We are grateful that your mind and heart lie deep within the Earth.
And that you know the whole Earth to be holy, all creatures to be kin.

We hear Earth’s cries, voice and song. As we listen and see, awaken us.

Come among us, as you came among your frightened disciples.

Bless us, so that our unexamined thoughts and assumptions are challenged

and move us all to work for climate justice in the way of your love.

Bless governmental leaders everywhere,
and put courage in their hearts to do the right things.

Inspire us all with a sense of our responsibilities,
leading us ever more boldly into what and who we are,
who you and Earth truly are.

All my relations. Amen.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Sermon December 4, 2011

“Comfort, O Comfort My People!”

Isaiah 64: 1-9; Mark 13: 24-37

Jong Bok Kim at Glen Rhodes United, Dec. 04, 2011


We open our hearts to you, O God.  As we continue on our Advent journey, may we hear your words of peace and become messengers of peace to others. Amen.

           Last Sunday afternoon, we enjoyed  the musical celebration, “Gift of Love.”  Singing Christmas carols and popular Christmas songs and listening to professional soloists, we experienced the power of music in our lives once again.  Thanks to Gerald’s superb leadership, all the music and songs have lighted up our life together for this blessed season of Advent.

Singing is not my gift;  do not ask me to sing.  However, I enjoy singing along with you.  I like singing along to various kinds of music.  Particularly, I love to listen to classical music.  Like many of you, one of my favourite classical music compositions for this season is Handel’s Messiah.  I always feel uplifted when I listen to the Hallelujah chorus.  Sometimes, while driving, I try to sing along with it, “Hallelujah, Hallelujah....” 

It is no accident that Handel chose the text from Isaiah 40 as the introductory recitative and aria for his magnificent oratorio, Messiah.  It opens with the tenor, “Comfort, O Comfort my people….,” which we read from Isaiah a short while ago.  These are words of comfort and hope for a depressed and desolate people in exile, who had longed for a Messiah to come and save them.

Isaiah is thought to have been written by at least two authors. Chapters 1–39, the words of one prophet, warn Judah that its covenant with God is in jeopardy, primarily by worshipping gods of other people. Chapters 40–66, written by at least one poet-prophet, are often described as “The Book of Comfort.”

Clearly, comfort comes to those who are prepared and who have waited. Let us listen to him again: “A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” (vv. 3-4)  It sounds like we have to build a highway for God to come to us. At the outset of his Gospel, Mark introduces John the Baptist with the words from Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (v.3)  Both the evangelist Mark and the prophet Isaiah ask us to prepare the way of the Lord by making straight a highway for our God. 

The second part of Isaiah is believed to have been addressed to the people of Israel who were in exile in Babylon.  The Israelites who were in captivity far away from their homeland had desperately longed for years and years to go back home.  They had dreamed of returning home day and night.  They had yearned for so long to be saved from their miserable life of slavery.  So, for them, the highway meant the way home, being rescued from their terrible captivity.  The highway meant the way of returning home with great joy, being redeemed from oppression. 

“Comfort, O comfort my people!”  While many of us today might equate comfort with stability or lack of change, it is important to remember that our ancestors in the faith were living in a foreign land to which they had been taken by force. Although they were able to build homes, plant fields, marry, and have children, they were not free to leave. For them, “comfort” meant being released – set free.  Leaving Babylon to return to a destroyed Jerusalem was not a simple act. The return would be through the wilderness, high mountains and deep valleys, between Babylon and Jerusalem.  In the image of mountains lowered and valleys lifted a major change occurs.  Therefore, comfort meant change, major social change, perhaps turning the whole world upside down.

Is it a once-upon-a-time story?  Last week, the media drew our attention to the conditions of First Nations communities across the country, thanks to the public appeal by the chief from Attawapiskat near James Bay, a remote northern Ontario reserve, accompanied by a shocking video tape of their housing crisis.  We had a picture of twenty-first century exiles living in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. This housing crisis is shocking and horrifying.  Many of the overcrowded homes, consisting largely of shacks and tents, are without running water, adequate heating and proper hygienic conditions. Human waste is dumped into ditches.  It is heartbreaking that children in the reserve suffer more than anyone else. It is also appalling that their land hosts the richest diamond mine in North America.  In one case as many as 27 people are living in a home while up to 90 live in a construction trailer left behind by the diamond mining company De Beers Canada Inc. Both the federal and the provincial government are reluctant to take the responsibility for the situation.  Later, Mr. Harper tried to blame the First Nations community themselves, the victim of the situation.  “Comfort, O comfort my people!”  What does comfort mean to them?  I wonder if they will have to wait until “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low” (v.4) before they will be comforted.   

In the video, one mother said that a prison cell was larger than her home which she shared with her grandparents and young children.  No wonder that aboriginal people are over represented in prison.  In some Federal Penitentiaries, more than half the population is aboriginal.  Now, the Federal Conservative government is trying to pass the controversial omnibus crime bill before the holidays.  The bill is troubling as it proposes new and mandatory minimum sentences.  For example, judges won't be able to consider individual circumstances like the horrible living conditions of the First Nations communities when imposing sentences.  “Comfort, O comfort my people!”  What does comfort mean to the aboriginal offenders behind bars?  I wonder if they will have to wait until “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low (v.4)” before they will be comforted. 

When thousands of Egyptian protesters took over Tahrir Square, no one was concerned that they were violating local bylaws.  Last week, ‘Occupy Toronto’ was ordered to obey the bylaws and get out of St. James Park.  Some critics say that if the Occupiers want to take it further, they should join a political party.  In theory, democracy is one of humankind’s noblest creations — a system in which people govern themselves. In practice, the results have been, well, disappointing. 

Just look at what is going on in our city hall right now?  We seem to have a mayor who knows only numbers and has no idea of what the life of ordinary people in this city will be like if so many essential services are cut next year.  Is the election of such a mayor a celebration of democracy?  Democracy is disappointing us in this city.

As the Occupiers note, the concentration of wealth in the hands of the top 1 per cent undermines meaningful democracy, blocking the will of the bottom 99 per cent.  The Occupiers have drawn attention to nothing less than the fundamental dysfunction of our economic system, which massively favours a privileged elite at the expense of the rest and which led to the disastrous 2008 financial collapse, from which millions still suffer around the world including in Canada.

“Comfort, O comfort my people!”  What does comfort mean to us?  Today’s passage from Isaiah makes it clear that comfort means more than wishing for things to be all right. To comfort is to nurture and encourage, strengthen and empower for movement, change and action. The prophet Isaiah calls the exiles and us to build a superhighway, lifting up every valley and making low every mountain, so that God may ride in triumph and bring comfort to us. 

The theme for the second Sunday in Advent is peace.  It is only through our movement for change and action that we will be able to build a highway to usher peace into the present tension and turmoil of our world.  The biblical concept of peace, Shalom, is relational; it involves a sense of unity and harmony with oneself, with others, with Creation and with God.  As we continue our Advent journey, may we build a highway for our God today and in the days ahead.  Amen.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Sermon Nov. 27/2011 - Signs of Hope Jong Bok Kim

Signs of Hope

Isaiah 64: 1-9; Mark 13: 24-37

Jong Bok Kim at Glen Rhodes United, Nov. 27, 2011


God of Hope, you lead us from fear and despair into your land of promise.  In this Advent season, we turn to you for hope in the midst of our challenges.  As we remember the birth of the child Jesus and prepare in hope for the coming of Christ among us, we commit our lives anew to working with you for peace on earth. Amen.

Last Sunday, thousands turned out to welcome Santa Claus in downtown Toronto.  It was “Occupy Toronto” of a festive sort, as thousands of Santa fans of all ages took over the downtown streets. This, Canada’s largest Santa Claus Parade, always signals the beginning of the secular holiday season in our city. 

Well, as Christians, we start this season differently.  For us, this is the season of Advent, a time of preparation for Christ’s coming—both in remembrance of the birth of the child Jesus and in expectation of the coming of Christ among us.  For us, it is hard to imagine the Christmas season without the celebration of Advent. On each of the four Sundays of Advent, we focus on a different aspect of our personal and communal preparation for Christmas. The theme for the first Sunday in Advent is hope.

It has been said that hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all; as long as matters are really hopeful, hope is mere flattery or platitude; it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength.  Today’s passages from Isaiah and Mark tell us that this is the case.

A time of national chaos frames the prophecy in Isaiah. The temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed and many of the people of Judah taken into exile in Babylon. The prophet appeals directly to God to come down and save the people. Calamity has come because the people have turned from God’s way. Yet, the prophet reminds them, God is the creator. God has awesome power, and has done great deeds in the past. God is their only hope.

The Gospel of Mark was written at a time when the young Christian communities were undergoing persecution, probably between 65 and 75 of the Christian Era. The Jerusalem temple was destroyed in the year 70, CE, and there was great suffering at the hands of the Romans at this time. Mark reminds these first readers of the gospel, and us, that God is very near. We must keep awake for we do not know when God will come to save us.

Last Wednesday morning, I attended the East End Mission Developer Steering Team meeting.  As you may know, the East End project was initiated by the Presbytery a few years ago to support the ministries of the eleven United Church congregations in this neighbourhood.  At the meeting there was a brief report of how the eleven congregations were doing these days: Dentonia Park United has sold its building and is moving to Hope United.  Beach United is moving out of its building for a year while renovations take place.  Cosburn United and Presteign Woodbine United have relatively new ministers and are redefining what it means to be church in their communities.  Three are in the midst of JNAC processes.  Three are facing significant financial and attendance problems.  The conclusion was: none of the congregations is in good shape.  It sounded hopeless.  

On the other hand, also last week, I was so pleased when I opened an envelope containing the result of our congregation’s responses to the United Church Identity Survey which was conducted last May.  The overall results are now available on the United Church website.  A total of close to 7,500 people from the 22o pastoral charges across Canada participated in the survey, the largest in United Church history.  The average response rate is 36%.  Guess our response rate.  Twenty-four of us did it.  It means ours is almost double the average.  Congratulations! 

The purpose of the research was to build a portrait of our identity, values, and beliefs as the people of The United Church of Canada. The survey result will help to set the stage for planning, priority setting, and decision-making for the 41st General Council in August 2012. 

Let me share with you some of the findings from this survey.  We United Church people are deeply committed to our church and to our faith.  We are engaged and committed.  Although we are not evangelists in the sense that we try to increase our numbers by “converting” people, surprisingly two-thirds report that we have talked about our faith to a non-churchgoer!  We say that attending worship services and making financial gifts are fundamental to our faith.  We all put a high value on a church that is welcoming and supportive, where faith is translated into action, and where belief is not a matter of dogma but rather a journey of questioning, debate, doubt, and ongoing discovery.

Moreover, there is significant attachment to the denomination itself—as well as hopefulness about what the church and its people might be able to accomplish in the world. When asked about our views on renewal of The United Church of Canada in the 21st century, most opt for a prophetic role for the national church.

What to make of the age of United Church people? Many of us may be older, but we are in the full bloom of mature adulthood. We are at a point in our lives when we are able to truly step outside ourselves and attend to the needs of others - in other words, actively live out that commitment to community and social justice that is so central to our faith.  In short, we represent a “community of broken but hopeful believers...a church with a purpose,” as our Song of Faith puts it. 

The survey results strongly suggest that there is hope within ourselves as a church.  Here is a little piece of good news.  At the East End Mission Developer Steering Team meeting, I was surprised that our Food Bank programme was not widely known to other neighbouring congregations.  For example, Cosburn United has always sent their White Gifts to an agency in the west, not knowing ours at all.  I was pleased when the Rev. Linda Petrides, their minister, a member of the Steering Team, promised to support our programme, by collecting food items we need and passing their White Gifts on to us starting this year.  I have already sent her information about our programmes including the Drop-in and Community Dinner.  Indeed, there is hope when we work together as church.

Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, writes: “Hope means more than just hanging on. It is the conscious decision to see the world in a different way than most others see it. To hope is to look through the eyes of faith to a future not determined by the oppressive circumstances of the present. To hope is to know that the present reality will not have the last word. It is to know that God rules.” 

We are called to be ready at all times to live out this hope, filled with expectancy for its fulfillment.  Advent is about waiting and preparing with hope. The people of Israel waited with hope for the birth of the promised Messiah and the coming of justice and peace among them. Today we still wait and work for this promised peace on earth with expectancy and hope.  Sharing the bread and wine today, let us celebrate our hope for Christ’s coming among us.  Amen.




Friday, 25 November 2011

Concert and Silent Auction

GIFT OF LOVE
A Sunday Afternoon Concert
A Collection of Christmas Carols & Love Songs

Sunday, November 27, 2011 - 2:00pm
Glen Rhodes United Church
1470 Gerrard Street East

Silent Auction & Refreshments
$20 (or pay what you can)
All are Welcome




A small selection of the many baskets in the silent auction.
Silent Auction Baskets...
            
       A basket is a wonderful gift!

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Sermon November 20, 2011

Michelangelo’s Last Judgment

Matthew 25: 31- 46

Jong Bok Kim at Glen Rhodes United, Nov. 20, 2011


Reign in our hearts, O God, and shape us as your people. Help us to celebrate all the ways you reveal Christ to us – through our giving, receiving, serving, witness and worship.  Amen.

 Today is Reign of Christ Sunday.  Christians in general observe it on the Sunday prior to Advent.  The church year starts on the first Sunday of Advent.  This means today is the last Sunday of the whole church year.  We celebrate our hope of the final rule of our Christ on the last Sunday of our calendar.  So, today’s lectionary readings provide an opportunity to explore what it means to live as members of God’s realm and to explore the new images of kingship and leadership that Jesus modelled.

From Matthew, we have just read what is commonly called the parable of the last judgment.  Most of us have heard the story of the separation of the sheep and the goats interpreted as to whether we have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and so forth.  This story, however, brings to mind the stern sword-wielding image of Christ separating those on the right who are floating upward into rosy clouds from those on the left who are being dragged down by horrifying demons into all kinds of horrible torture.  Such images remind me of some medieval paintings I have seen. 

While preparing this sermon,  I ‘googled’ the words, “last judgment.”  Numerous relevant websites came up in a second; my attention was drawn by Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Through its own website, the Vatican museum provides a view of the whole colourful picture of this magnificent masterpiece along with comments.  Some of you may have seen it personally if you have visited the Sistine Chapel, but I have never been there.

I spent some time looking at this vivid masterpiece. I was struck by two things: the nudity and the particularity.  By particularity I mean that the moment of the last judgment is portrayed in great detail.  If you read today’s passage from Matthew, you do not need any further explanation to understand this masterpiece.  Every detail in this picture speaks for itself.  The muscular white man in the centre must be Christ who raises his right hand high as if in the moment of pronouncing the verdict.  Next to Christ is a woman who turns her head in resignation waiting for his judgment.  All the saints and angels surround Christ in varied lively postures, but all looking anxious to hear the verdict.  At the bottom there are many grotesque demons and devils who prod the damned in their fall to hell.

By nudity I mean that most of the figures in this picture, whether men or women, are almost naked. I was not alone in being startled by this nudity. According to the commentary from the Vatican museum, this masterpiece, painted nearly five hundred years ago, caused violent reactions among Michelangelo’s contemporaries. For example, a commentator said that "It was most dishonest in such an honoured place to have painted so many nude figures who so dishonestly show their shame and that it was not a work for a Chapel of the Pope but for stoves and taverns."  The controversies continued for years.  Almost two decades after this masterpiece was completed, the Congregation of the Council of Trent decided to have some of the figures in the Last Judgment which were considered "obscene" covered. The task of painting the covering drapery, in fact, continued into the following centuries.

I am not a critic of art.  However, it seems to me that the nudity is one of the key images Michelangelo wanted to present to us in this masterpiece.  He was a genius.  This genius reminds us that we will become completely naked, totally vulnerable, in the final day of judgement.  Not one of us will survive that judgment, if we are to be judged only by what we have done in life.  How can we possibly feed all the hungry, give water to all the thirsty, clothe all the naked, take care of all the sick, and visit all the prisoners whom we have met throughout our life.  It would be too much.  It is an impossible demand.  All of us would have to look forward to the end with stark horror.  Who among us, no matter how moral or religious, would not be counted among the wicked for our failure to obey this too demanding command?

I am reminded of the book, “St. Augustine’s Confession.”  I was curious about the real life of this saint.  I had thought that his life would be quite a different one from that of ordinary people like me: surely his life must have been full of piety and integrity.  On the contrary! It was quite the opposite.  His life was not different at all from ours: his life was full of anxiety, regret, greed and jealousy.  He even admitted that he had had a mistress for years and abandoned her in the end, seeking success in his career.  If we were to take what Matthew says literally, we would have to find St. Augustine at the very bottom of Michelangelo’s painting of the Last Judgment.

After reading his book, I asked myself, “What made him a saint anyway?”  My conclusion was that it was his courage in disclosing himself to others as he was.  He chose to take off all his wrappings and be naked and vulnerable. He wrote his book when he was at the highest point of accomplishment in his life.  Everybody looked up to him as an archbishop.  He had great power as a religious authority in those days, but he was willing to talk honestly about himself.  He was courageous enough to humble himself as a vulnerable human being.  I believe that such courage must have come from his strong faith in Jesus Christ who spent his whole earthly life as a friend with the poor, not with people in power.  For me, it was Augustine’s faithfulness that made him a saint. 

If we are to think biblically about the future of the world, we have to get rid of such pagan mythology as pictured in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.  Rather, we have to think in quite a different way about what is going to happen on the judgment day.  The whole picture changes as soon as we remember who the judge will be: not a vengeful or even unbiased “blind” judge, but Christ himself!  The one who will judge sinners is the very one who loved and devoted his life to them.  The judge who stands at the end is none other than the compassionate one who cares for sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, widows and children. 

A week ago, I was deeply touched by a documentary movie, “War in the Mind,” aired on TVO on the night of Remembrance Day.  It was about the stories of Canadian soldiers and their families who are affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This hour-long film documented the struggles and battles they face against this disabling and destructive disorder which remains under-acknowledged by the Canadian military.  This movie is still available to watch through the TVO website. 

There were so many real heart-breaking stories in this documentary.  However, the story of Senator and retired General, Romeo Dallaire, touched me deeply.  It is well known that he himself suffered from PTSD after serving as commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda in 1993 when the Genocide took place.  From the beginning to the end, he sat in front of the cameras as one of the victims of this mental illness as well as a champion of its recognition and fair treatment. 

There has been a strong stigma against those who suffer PTSD: “They are mentally weak; they are substance abusers; it is their problem.”  Against such stigma, this once highest ranking military officer chose to be vulnerable.  When he talked about his own suicide attempt, following the horror of the Rwandan Genocide, it was as if he took off all his decorations and became naked in front of the camera. 

According to this film, 58,000 US soldiers died in combat in the Viet Nam War.  In contrast, 102,000 Viet Nam War veterans have died by suicide since.  Twenty-four U.K. soldiers died in combat in the Gulf War; 107 Gulf War veterans have died by suicide since.  On the other hand, in Canada, no government statistics are yet available for suicides following past missions.  Senator Dallaire is campaigning to remove the secrecy which surrounds the issue, willing to be vulnerable.  I admire his leadership and courage in doing so.

As a congregation, we have worked together in an Intentional Interim Ministry since I came here last year.  The primary purpose of this Interim Ministry is to prepare ourselves to begin a faith journey anew with the calling of a new minister.  Our transitional work has been going well so far and will reach the highest point when we call a new minister next Spring.  Early this month, our Joint Needs Assessment Committee (JNAC) report was accepted by the Presbytery and a vacancy has been declared.  So, today, we celebrated the disbanding of our JNAC, thanking them for their hard work.

Our Joint Search Committee began their work early last week and finalized an advertisement for the United Church Observer.  Now, we are looking forward to the next step -  receiving applications and interviewing the shortlisted candidates early next year.  On this Reign of Christ Sunday, it is appropriate to reflect on the kind of leadership we need.  It is time to explore leadership questions for the interview and be ready to ask the applicants good questions about their understanding of church leadership.  May God guide us and bless us on this journey.   Amen.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Homily, November 13, 2011

NOVEMBER 13, 2011 -  22 AFTER PENTECOST
REV. MALCOLM  SPENCER

THE LOST SELF

The talent as money at the time of Jesus was about $1000 or 15 years of wages for a labourer. Like large bills today people rarely saw them. This was the treasure entrusted to slaves that the master made and in typical exaggerated parable fashion it seems like he is giving over his fortune to his staff. Do you think anyone would really do it except for some banks recently that trusted other peoples money with a lonely trader making wildly speculative trades. We are unlikely to see that again soon. The point Matthew is stressing here is of generous, sharing boss who trusts others to look after his fortune. But the parable of the talents is really not about money just as the parable of the bridesmaids last week was about weddings. This story is a parable about the realm, the kingdom of God.

God created us with gifts of Gods self and trusted that we in our freedom would be aware of those gifts and use them. Tom Harper said of this parable in his book Water into Wine “…as we awaken to the truly amazing God given treasure we have been granted stewardship over, there is a debt of gratitude that swells up in our innermost being and we want to do our utmost to make the gift count”. P.157 This is what the parable of the talents is all about. The tragedy of the 3rd slave was not that he had little to invest compared with the others. He was frightened and hesitant and that caused him to go and bury the money. That is often what happened in life we bury our hopes and aspirations and settle for far less. We often deny any divinity inside ourselves yet this is the constant theme of Jesus’s parables. If you have yes to see you can see the kingdom of God around you. You are mystery, we are given the gift of God’s sight and as Helen Keller found you don’t have to see or hear but you can discover that inner gift. Part of prayer of Richard of Chichester read:

Dear Lord Three things I pray
   To see thee more clearly
   To love thee more dearly
   And follow you more nearly day by day

Unfortunately lots of people today claim they have a direct line to God and spread hate and violence but then there were plenty of religious extremists in Matthews day also but this is a parable about the abundance of God. There is a way of burying your true self in the false extremism as well as in apathy, fear and lack of trust.

When we bury our true selves deep down and cast ourselves out into the cruelty and suffering of the world we are like the slave who buried his one talent. His is the faith of living unawares of the abundant grace of God.

2. The other slaves seemed to know that reason the master gave them the stewardship of his resources was to invest them and trade them and have them double in value. Again Tom Harper commented on this parable saying that “ rather than a me in my small corner spiritualty we must seek one who is engaged with others for others…we have been given the task, and the responsibility for building the kingdom of God on earth … that is fully in our hands.”p157 When we dig deep and find our true selves the one created by God we find the joy of our master.

American surveys say that 2/3 of the occupy movement are under 34. Andrew Rawsnley in a column in the Observer a British Paper commented that the “protesters strike a resounding chord when they complain that financial elites are getting rewarded with special treatment while punishment for their mistakes is meted out to the rest of society.” He ended his column with this comment “Protesters or leaders? I know who looks more grown up.” Some say the young people are wasting their time- well our conscience is often wasting its time on us or is it- in our digging for the spirit of God within we will locate compassion, solidarity, energy for caring for the earth. These stores of the bible are meant to empower us to go out into our world with confidence and a loving heart able to use are ego not to rule our lives but to protect them and keep us knowing how precious we are in God’s sight.

That is how Deborah was able to call her general and go to war against a greater enemy. She knew the promise of God and that is yet another gift of the spirit of God inside us and that is courage. When we say the vignettes of Church history last week so well presented we remembered the courage of many who needed and received courage for the task that was at hand, That is how our faith came to us by courageous women and man who kept the tradition and began the works of compassion and care and prayer in troubled times.

The thing is that if we can dig out this gift of love God has planted in us we will become the most joyous, generous, daring, peaceful and justice filled people we can be, and unafraid to invest ourselves and extend the realm of God in our place and time. Next week is the reign of Christ Sunday when we celebrate the gift of Jesus lamb and shepherd to the world and after that we move into the advent season.

A good time to discover our true selves made in the image of our creator, made for love, made for others, made for finding our way back to God.

Help us find compassion and caring within both for ourselves and others. We ask this in the name of Jesus our Saviour Amen