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

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Remembering Africville in Nova Scotia

Mark 1: 9-15

Jong Bok Kim at Glen Rhodes UC, Feb. 26, 2012

You teach us your paths, O God.  You lead us in your truth. You are steadfast in your love for us, and merciful in welcoming and sustaining us. May we be strengthened to walk with you on this Lenten journey.  Amen.

 Last week, I was privileged to attend our UCW meeting.  I felt privileged not because I was the only man in the gathering, but because I learned a lot about the life and work of our UCW.  Initially, I was drawn to this meeting by the announcement that a guest speaker would address Black History Month.   As I expected, the presentation of the speaker, Ms. Allda Arthur, from “Women of Promise,” a women’s organization, was educational and informative.  

Before the presentation, our UCW reported on many topics like their work with other sister organizations, regional and national UCW events and their financial contribution to the Presbytery.  They also discussed the preparation for the World Day of Prayer, an ecumenical worship event organized by women’s groups around the world each year.  This year, our congregation is honoured to host this event in our sanctuary this Friday afternoon at 2 o’clock.  Our UCW will share the leadership with other women from neighbouring faith communities.  Every one is welcome to this service. 

Hearing about what our UCW had been doing recently, I was impressed at the wide range of their work and the depth of their commitment, not to mention their ongoing contributions to our Food Bank and Drop-in programme.  They are a small group of women, but mighty. 

Further, I was also impressed with their organizational skills.  When they finished the meeting with a prayer, I looked at the clock on the wall.  It had taken only forty minutes including the special presentation.  And then, they were happy to gather around a table for refreshments and more conversation.  They are not only mighty, but also wise.  They are women of wisdom.  If anyone of you are interested in learning how to organize a church meeting more efficiently, I encourage you to go to our UCW meetings and learn from them.  

On the other hand, I was humbled by our UCW’s choice of topic and way of organizing it.  They wanted to celebrate Black History Month together with the neighbouring black community.  They invited Allda to speak about it and extended the invitation to her friends.  So, our UCW was joined by more black women from the neighbourhood that day. The meeting was held in the Barbara Christie Room, but their celebration went well beyond that small room.

That meeting inspired me to mark Black History Month today.  February is the shortest month in the year and yet we have many special services in February. We move from the church season of Epiphany to Lent with Transfiguration Sunday in between.  Glen Rhodes United observes two Sundays particular to us, Sensuous Sunday and the Anniversary of our becoming an Affirming Congregation.  However, regardless of these traditional events, Alda opened to us serious reasons for celebrating Black History Month. 

Allda was soft spoken, but her message was powerful: Black history is everyone’s history! It is not just about what happened to the black people in slavery in the States.  It is about the real stories of black communities in Canada, how they suffered from discrimination for generations and yet, how many became courageous enough to stand up to and overcome the injustice and contribute to the continuing transformation of the lives of all Canadians today.

During her presentation, Allda mentioned briefly the demolition of the historic Africville in Halifax.  She grew up in another part of Nova Scotia, so she was not part of Africville, but she knew clearly what that community meant to black people in Nova Scotia.  As the term Africville was entirely new to me, after the meeting, I spent some time searching the web and was rewarded with the volume of documentation about it.

According to the historical sources, Africville certainly did not start off as a slum. At the turn of the last century, it was a community of young, hard-working people with much potential.
Its history can be traced back to 1800 when descendants of American slaves settled on the northern edge of Halifax. It was initially known as Campbell Road but, because of its black population, it was quickly dubbed Africville.  

Throughout its history, the people who lived in Africville were confronted with racial isolation. The community was not, then or ever, serviced with proper roads, health services, water, street lamps or electricity. Instead all it received from the city was an open dump, an incinerator, a prison, railway tracks and a slaughterhouse on its doorstep. The impoverished conditions of Africville became a source of deep shame for the City of Halifax so city officials decided to demolish it. They ordered all the residents to leave by 1967.  The Africville residents were stunned to learn they had to move; some of the families had lived there for 150 years.

A CBC video clip captured angry Africville residents protesting the eviction order.  In the video, a resident made it clear who was responsible for the deplorable living conditions in Africville; the city had made it a slum and now labeled it a scar on the face of the city.  A question by a CBC reporter, a white man, in the same clip was insensitive too, “Why don’t you just move to a better place to live?”  The resident raised his voice, “Where?  This is my place.  This is my home.  I grew up here and my children still play here.  Why should I move?” 

The actual relocation took place mainly between 1964 and 1967. The residents were assisted in their move by the city, but the city literally moved the Africville residents by the city dump trucks. This image forever stuck in the minds and hearts of those residents and clearly illustrated how badly these people were treated before, during and after the move.

Part of Africville is now occupied by a highway interchange. Having faced numerous protests and much criticism, the city of Halifax created Seaview Memorial Park to preserve the site from further development and placed a sundial monument with the list of the founding families.  In 2002, the federal government declared Africville a national historic site. This official recognition came 35 years after Halifax officials razed the community in the name of "urban renewal," uprooting its 400 residents.

 The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness for 40 days is always the gospel story told on the first Sunday of Lent. Mark’s account is very brief, only two verses long, and he ties the temptation directly to Jesus’ Baptism. Jesus hears the affirmation, “You are my own dear son,” and immediately is faced with the implications of such awareness. It compels him to head out into the wilderness to sort things out.

Lent is a time for self-examination— for checking our focus and sorting out our priorities. We reflect on God’s promises, God’s covenant with us, and recognize our failure to live up to our part of the relationship. It is time for confession, seeking God’s guidance. It is time for struggle and renewal of our commitment. It is time for beginning over again. 

February is Black History or African Heritage Month in Canada, a time to remember the struggles and sufferings of black brothers and sisters across the country.  It is also a time to honour the historical and present contributions of peoples of African descent. This month could also be a time when we as a congregation make a commitment to become more culturally sensitive, racially inclusive and justice-conscious. 

As part of our celebration of Black History Month today, I would like to invite you to join me in the Litany for Black History Month found in our bulletin on page 3.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Celebrating 16 years as an Affirming Congregation...

How did it all happen…from those memorable simple days in the country…surrounded by parents and relatives, wanting to go to school with the big kids when I was three, carrying books like theirs, and following them up the road till a neighbor phones mother to tell her I’ve been seen.  She got her morning run just about every day and no amount of discipline seemed to change the situation.  The only result was I got to start school a year early…still carrying the Eaton Catalogue.
Those days soon passed and I was going on the bus to Junior High with 1500 students, and I quickly got introduced to dances, constantly being asked if I’d found a girlfriend yet.  Finally, I could say, “yes.”  What a gleeful day that was but I wondered what all the fuss was about.  It was no big deal and brought me no excitement.
I took a special interest in all those team sports and always looked forward to gym days, especially volleyball and basketball.  I wasn’t tall enough for the main team so always got to play in the “B” league.  I felt uneasy in the locker room because of the urge to stare, as it somehow felt wrong to me, and I started hearing the demeaning terms applied to guys that did that. 

In Junior High School a special interest in acting developed as I got to perform in one-act play festivals and in three years at high school my talent was put to use in several play competitions. My singing voice was noticed by the music teacher in his glee club, and he chose me for comedy roles in his operettas.  By my graduation year in high school I was the comedy star in his final operetta.  In the final two years of high school I spent a lot of time searching libraries, hunting down theatre courses and schools offering drama courses.  Finally, there was a MacLean’s article on Ryerson which talked about their special courses, and one even centred on broadcasting and theatre.
I applied and got accepted much to the surprise of my parents…because of things like I “didn’t have the brains” and “we didn’t have the money so I’d have to get a job too.”  The deal was done and with a restriction of only two dollars a week after room and board I went successfully through the first year.

That was the beginning of coming to terms with my sexuality as I met several guys all too eager to inform me how like them I was…and here’s what happens.  It sounded ‘way too scary and more of a change in lifestyle than I was ready to make. In a way it was a relief to have that information, and find out there were so many like me, though I knew I’d be sent out of the family if they were to discover the truth that I was gay.
From that point of learning and subsequent return to my homeland there were many pitfalls along the way.  I had knowledge and found myself in the midst of secret societies of gay guys but not ready to open up and admit the truth because they might tell the rest of the community.  I note here that, to be caught gay was a more dangerous situation in the 60s & 70s…not unlike the situation we saw in “Brokeback Mountain” and I went through a couple similar suspicious episodes with an uncle who was attacked when he picked up a hitch hiker and, only a few years later he was found dead in his home.  Though suspicious the family had no desire for an autopsy.  The doctor wrote “cardiac arrest” and left it at that.  They work together,  those country folk.

At this point I was getting established in my short lived performing career…here in Toronto and on tour in several productions.  I was successfully paying my rent, performing in touring shows and in venues throughout the city.  Every touring show put together some gay men who enjoyed their lives on the road…and in Toronto it was easier to increase your social life and expand career opportunities.
In the mid-eighties our friends and acquaintances started suffering those mysterious symptoms which worsened as the decade continued.  Friends and acquaintances were dying at frightening speed, and word on the escalating devastation put us in terror. The education bombarded us and life became a celibate existence for most, while more and more cases broke out.  It’s a relief now to hear about the controls in place against the HIV infection and tests of vaccines being run on humans, in search of a prevention serum.

In all that time I was without a church, but none of the ones I attended during the 80s after I arrived were inviting for some reason.
I was introduced to Glen Rhodes in the late 80s but went on a series of tours outside the city.  When all that had ended I went back to the apartment search, and in that process, ran into the Glen Rhodes friend who knew there was an apartment in his building and introduced me to the manager.   Next time I came back, I was shown the apartment and the next month it was mine.

Glen Rhodes had just voted to become an Affirming Congregation which made it even more interesting as a place to worship.  It was only a year later my friend admitted to me he thought he might be HIV positive and was going to get checked.  A few days later he called me to say he was positive, and he was going to permit himself to be used for every medical test and procedure to bring about any kind of cure available.
One of the first things I did while attending Glen Rhodes was to join the Diversity Committee and attend the monthly Affirm United meetings set up by national office for Affirm Congregations.  These meetings were put in place as informative conversational gatherings to exchange current material on the GLBT groups who needed guidance.

The Affirm Committee had difficulty in maintaining a regular progress of topics and local attendance dropped off as we were learning the various topics of interest.  National Office then decided to close that department and our leader got a church to operate, so the monthly meetings stopped, just as word of an international conference of GLBT positive religions around the world presented their program for WOW2000, to be held in the summer at the University of Northern Illinois in Dekalb.
Thanks to our leaders and ministers for being so adamantly interested in providing the highest level of education on these elusive topics.   A large representation of United Church people met there…six of whom were from Glen Rhodes.  It was an overwhelming experience which I shall never forget, with people far wiser and far more informed, than I could ever have imagined and many facing challenges I could never endure.

I discovered the Shower of Stoles…some 200 stoles collected from donors who were practicing clergy until they were discovered to be gay, lesbian, or trans people…and were stripped of their commission and excommunicated from the church.  We had a small collection on display here when we celebrated or 10th Anniversary.
WOW2000 brought us face-to-face with long forgotten and ignored discrimination truths we still carried with us.  It was tough love we were forced to hear on the final day of our conference, which came to light in our first service and put before us almost every day after that, with the Canadians expressing surprise we should be accused.  We’re not as bad as ‘they’ are…but lo and behold,  we’re still carrying our prejudices buried deep in our heritage and we practice it without knowledge…and at WOW2003, in a whole day devoted to detailed study on the topic, the white population got well and truly educated to their inherited “position of privilege,” especially the men.  We have no idea how deeply we’re buried in our given and accepted privileges which we receive and accept without question…but both givers and takers should perhaps be aware of what we give and what we take. 

It was in Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, at WOW2006 three years later we came to terms with our age old discriminatory personalities.  A whole day of face-to-face discussion,  dramatized situations showing some unacceptable action and talking which we hear, and say, on regular basis.  Our job was to discover why and how the situations presented should look in future.  I came away with a whole new understanding how some of my comments should be adjusted.
My education isn’t over but I feel much better prepared to face the work we need to do…and feel the need to find a way to get going on that work.

As we always say…”a lot of work to be done.”

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Sunday Reflection Feb 12/2012


 Today, we celebrate Sensuous Sunday.  It has been our tradition to celebrate our physical, bodily senses just before Valentine’s Day in February.  According to the lunar calendar, the “Lunar Spring,” what we call “Ip-choon,” in Korea, my native country, started a week ago yesterday, Feb. 4th.  So, Korean people have already begun to look for the signs of Spring.  Here we were thrilled to see some signs of Spring last week.  We basked in the sun, felt brisk air on our skin and breathed in deeply the crisp air a few days.

However, we are still in the middle of harsh winter.  At this time of year usually everything looks dark, cold, and gloomy like this weekend.  Our bodies are wrapped with thick coats, scarves, hats and winter boots. Our senses are blocked due to the cold weather.  As a result, we hardly sense anything except for the coldness of the air and the thickness of our clothes.  So, it makes sense to set aside a Sunday in the middle of winter to celebrate our various senses – hearing, seeing, touching, tasting and smelling – altogether, giving thanks to God.

Before sharing my reflection, I would like to invite Gerald to come forward and talk about why he is glad to be alive, what makes him tick, keeping in mind our five senses. 


 Theological Reflection:

 God Talk with Jazz

Matthew 6: 25–34  

Jong Bok Kim at Glen Rhodes UC, Feb. 12, 2012

God of Melody, Harmony and Dissonance! May our song reflect the shape of our living. May our song glorify you and empower our brothers and sisters in faith. Amen.

Last weekend, I went to Emmanuel College to take a two-day Continuing Education course, titled “The Song of God in Our Midst: Music and Spirituality in the Key of Jazz.”  I was drawn to this course for two reasons.  First, it was offered by the systematic theology professor, Tom Reynolds.  He came to Emmanuel five years ago after my graduation and people speak so highly of him, I was looking for an opportunity to study with him.  Secondly, I was curious about the title.  I am not musical and absolutely ignorant of Jazz.  God talk with Jazz?  What is that?  My curiosity took me to the course.

I did not know Tom was a professional Jazz pianist.  Friday night, he played the piano along with a double bassist and a drummer.   During the two-hour performance, he took several short breaks to explain the basic concepts of Jazz, conversing with the other two performers.  Their talks helped me understand the key features of Jazz.  Among those, that of improvisation intrigued me most.  The Jazz musicians that night had music notes, but used them as basic structures to manoeuvre, not something to follow precisely as in classical music.  So, they had freedom to improvise on the original tunes anytime.    

According to Tom, freedom, or liberation, is one of the characteristics of Jazz.  However, it does not mean that Jazz players are free to play anything on a whim.  They have to play together in harmony as a team.  It means that they have to communicate well with each other during their performance.  For instance, last Friday night, the three shared taking the lead and the other two accompanied them.  While playing their own instruments, they used a variety of body movement like nodding or making eye contact or finger pointing, in order to know who was leading now and who was next. 

George, the double bassist, described Jazz as a higher form of communication.  To be a good communicator while playing, he said that he divided his mind into four parts; three equal 30% of his attention went to each player including himself and the rest of 10% went to what was next.  It was fascinating to hear about this kind of communication.  They engaged in such active and lively interaction with each other through their bodily senses.  They seemed to be playing such sweet music effortlessly, yet they did it by being intensely attentive to their senses. 

Having said that, Jazz players must have confidence in their senses; they have to read and follow their own deep feelings and emotional reactions in order to do the improvisation.  They must not be afraid to make mistakes.  They must be willing to be vulnerable.  They must not worry about what will happen next.  Further, as they play according to their partners’ improvisations, they must place confidence in their partners’ senses.  Not knowing where their music will go, they have to work together as a team in good faith.  In addition, their feelings and emotions will be affected by the reactions of the audience.  It means the audience also plays a role in the Jazz musicians’ improvisation: together with the audience they create lively Jazz music through the deliberate interaction of their senses.  

 Today, according to the writer of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Do not worry about your life.” Jesus is not forbidding followers from securing what is essential to wellbeing. Jesus is speaking about not allowing worry or anxiety to monopolize one’s energy and focus – “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (v. 27). Jesus first calls the disciples to look at the birds that are flying over them by the Sea of Galilee, that don’t accumulate food into barns but trust that there is abundance. Therefore, says Jesus, what God does for birds, God will do for you. This is not about not working, birds certainly work for their food. The issue is about trust, rather than fear.

And in case the disciples don’t get it, Jesus moves on to the next example; people worried about what they should wear. Jesus points to the flowers that cover the hillside, remarking that they are more glorious than what King Solomon would have worn.  The power-hungry Solomon did not trust God, but rather his own glory. Jesus then makes the final point. Life is not about striving for material goods, but rather working for God’s reign of justice and peace. It is about seeing the world as God intends it to be and then living that way. “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

As I said earlier, Jazz performance is highly visceral; too much thinking causes too much worry and anxiety.  Jazz musicians try not to think as much as constantly feel, from deep inside, listening to the ever-flowing rhythms and melodies and creating beautiful harmony.  Good Jazz musicians worry less about mistakes or what is next when they improvise, but trust what they sense from deep inside so as to be ready to respond to their partners’ improvisation with confidence.  Perhaps they have learned how to live out what today’s passage from Matthew teaches us: “Seize the moment! Smell the roses!”  Since last weekend, while driving, I have enjoyed the Jazz from Tom’s CD.  Do you think I have become hooked on Jazz?

Traditionally in the Christian West, our bodily senses have been regarded as inferior to our spirituality or relegated to stumbling blocks to our spiritual pursuit.  As a result, we have rarely enjoyed opportunities to give thanks to God for the wonder and mystery of our bodies.  Let us take this opportunity today to appreciate and give thanks for our bodily senses as gifts of God.  Let us continue to celebrate our senses sharing a variety of bread and wine at the common table provided by Jesus, the Christ.  Amen.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Most Stressful Jobs

Isaiah 40: 21–31; Mark 1: 29–39

Jong Bok Kim at Glen Rhodes UC, Feb. 05, 2012

O God, our strength, lift us up on wings as a mother eagle supports her young. When we are weary, restore us to your purpose and fill us with your hope. Amen.

Last week, there was a video clip from CNN about the most stressful jobs.  According to research, enlisted soldiers, firefighters, airline pilots and police officers are among the top ten high anxiety-inducing jobs.  They were evaluated by many factors such as deadlines, working in the public eye, physical demands and risk to one’s life.  So, the outcomes were not surprising. 

Stressful jobs?  Most of us here will agree that ministry is one of them, the ministry of working with many clients at the Food Bank downstairs every week.  We have all experienced stress in our working lives.  How can we deal with it?  Some experts say that meditation is essential to alleviate all sorts of stress.  Well, we believers may have the edge over others when we deal with stress.  What is that edge?  Today’s readings from both Isaiah and Mark offer us an answer.

Combined with last week’s story of the man with an unclean spirit in Capernaum, today’s passage from the gospel of Mark gives us a glimpse of what a day was like for Jesus. The story we read last week tells how, on the Sab­bath, he entered the synagogue, taught with authority, and healed a man with an unclean spirit. Today’s passage continues with a story from the same day.

Mark fills the first chapter of his Gospel with a report of a frenzy of activity. He records Jesus’ baptism, the calling of the disciples, teaching in the synagogue and casting out unclean spirits. Even when seeking rest at the home of Simon and Andrew, Jesus is called upon to heal Simon’s mother-in-law. Immediately crowds begin to press in around the house, demanding more words and deeds of power from Jesus: “And the whole city is gathered around the door (v.33).”

After all of this demanding work until late at night, Jesus barely finds time for rest in the early hours of the next morning.  He goes out to a deserted place to pray in the midst of his hectic days of work.  Finally, he is left alone, but, alas, not for long. His disciples “hunt for him (v. 36).” Then they grab him and say, “Everyone is searching for you (v.37).”  Right away they get Jesus back on the road to preach and cast out demons throughout Galilee.

Somehow, in that brief time for prayer in the early morning, Jesus finds renewed strength and energy to continue the journey of love and service. I wonder how he managed to renew his strength by prayer alone in such a brief period of time.  We do not know what he prays to God about.  We do not know what words he used.  There is no direct quotation of his prayer in today’s story.  Let me try to guess what his prayer might have been like.

The story continues.  The townspeople crowd the door of the house with all those who are ill or demon-possessed.  Jesus cures many who are ill and casts out many demons (vv. 32-34).  But the concluding words of this story catch my attention: “He would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him (v. 34).”  Here, Mark reminds us of the healing of a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue, the story we read last week.  Coming out of him, the demon cried out, “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”  The demon knew who Jesus was and what he was going to do (v. 24).

Why would Jesus object to such testimony? Some interpreters have suggested that the answer lies in the link between the interpretation of the term “Son of God” and the term for exorcist or miracle worker. Although, according to the gospel message written with the hindsight of two generations of story-telling, Jesus has come to destroy Satan’s power, he has not come to do so by exercising miraculous powers. Jesus must suffer and die; his enemies will ridicule him with the fact that he is unable to save himself from crucifixion (15:31-32). According to this interpretation, Jesus, the Son of Man, as he calls himself, comes to suffer and die, not to win the flattery of the crowds through working miracles. I am encouraged by this interpretation.

Leaving Peter’s house in the darkness well before dawn, Jesus goes to a deserted place to pray (v. 35). What does he pray to God about?  My guess goes like this: it is through his prayer that he makes sure of the purpose of his ministry; he comes to do God’s will, not to seek his own advantage or popularity through miraculous works; “not mine, but thy will be done.” (Matt 26:42)  Through his prayer, he finds renewed strength and energy from God to get back to work.  

When I visited her last week, Dora sat in her wheel chair in the door of her room.  I was glad she was able to recognize me immediately, exclaiming, “O, you are my minister!”  I said, “Yes, I am, Dora.  It’s been a while.  How are you doing?”  Her response surprised me: “I am useless, sitting here everyday doing nothing.  I really miss the church.  I wish I could go back to work at church.  It is terrible not doing anything here.”  Then, the tears rolled down her cheeks.  I did not know what to say so I just held her hands and sat beside her for a time.  Given her age – ninety eight this year – and physical condition, I was utterly amazed by her never-ending passion for her ministry.  Where did she get such enduring strength and energy?  I wonder if it wasn’t that she had found it in serving others and God downstairs for so many years.

As many of us know, Dora was one of those who started the Food Bank and Drop-in programmes downstairs almost three decades ago; she dedicated herself to those programmes until she was no longer physically able. She committed herself, not to her own fame or popularity, but to God’s mission in our midst.  She became exhausted physically, but not spiritually. She still wishes to serve God. 

The bad news though is that the demands of our programmes have never stopped increasing while our resources have been shrinking.  According to Donna, Chair of the Mission and Outreach Committee, last year we served over 3,000 breakfasts at our Drop-In, 1,300 Community dinners and distributed over 7,000 hampers to our Food Bank clients.  She told me that she had to look after five Community Dinners by herself last year and foresees she may have to do the same this year because there are not as many volunteers or coordinators as there used to be.  Donna is working full time.  It is worrying to think what would happen if Donna is no longer available.   

Nonetheless, the last Community Dinner went exceptionally well.  Coordinated by Ellie a couple of weeks ago, the baked ham dinner was well prepared and served.  The kitchen was packed with staff from outside our church and later joined by the Boy Scouts, led as usual by Warner.  Guided by Ellie, a group of young volunteers from Kimbourne Park United gathered to clean the tables.  It has been a while since we have seen such support and cooperation at the Dinner.  I think that experience gives us an example of how to do it in the future.  I mean we need more support from outside, especially from neighbouring congregations and faith communities.  Among the eleven East End United Church congregations, we are the only one which has run a Food Bank programme.  Let us remember that this is God’s mission.  We should not be shy to go out to our friends and invite them to join us in this hands-on mission of God.

In today’s reading from Isaiah, the prophet calls us to remember our source of strength, -- the one God who has created the universe and rules everything within it. 

Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31, NRSV) 

Through our prayer, may we be assured of the purpose of our ministry and “mount up with wings like eagles” to continue our journey of love and service in our community and beyond.  Amen.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Guest Speaker: Rev. Peter McNaughton                          JANUARY 29, 2012

EPIPHANY 4B                                                Deuteronomy 18:15-20

                                      Mark 1:21-28

 Our readings for this morning are perhaps unduly appropriate for a Sunday when we commission and covenant with the Joint Search Committee that is undertaking its work on behalf of this congregation, and Presbytery.

 And I say this because there are a couple of themes coming out of them that I wish to explore with you.  One concerns the notion of false prophets; another the issue of speaking with authority; another recognizing the word of God, especially in today’s society, and finally, one that is perhaps more relevant to the congregation than a Search Committee—the desire of the Israelites to have a prophet appointed so that they don’t have to deal directly with God.  Which, to my way of thinking at least, kind of raises the question of why congregations need Ministers in the first place.  But it is a question that, with the looming shortage of Ministers in the United Church at least, many congregations will have to address.  And some reflecting on that question provides an opportunity to re-imagine how we ‘do’ church; an honest – and painful attempt at answering that difficult question forces congregations to focus on what it is to be church and what it is to follow Christ.  I was talking with someone in the social time following the December fund-raising concert, and that person mentioned to me ‘this is our last chance; we know we’ve got to get it right this time’—a reference to Glen Rhodes’ financial situation.  So—no pressure on you as Search Committee members!  But hopefully, that kind of reflection will only need to happen under less-stressful conditions.  Because I firmly believe you have a purpose here—and that there are boundless opportunities to be ‘church’ in this area.

In some ways it is kind of a pity that the lectionary bounces around, from pillar to post as it were, at least with respect to the readings from Hebrew Scripture, because we don’t get a chance to do a lot of in-depth study.  Last week we had a glimpse of Jonah, the reluctant prophet; today we’re back in time in history and next week you will be into Isaiah.  But there is a bit of a link between last week’s theme—which was on call, and today when we begin to explore how we act on God’s calling as Ministers.  There’s also a sub-theme, as it were, these last two weeks relating to the exile. 

 This notion of exile is an interesting one—my dictionary refers to it as being expelled, or long absence from one’s native land.  Which is, probably, a technically accurate definition, but one that – to me at least -- doesn’t address the emotional state that comes from being in such a situation; the emotional state when you find yourself in a strange situation—when the world you knew is no longer there-- ungrounded; rootless—with nothing firm to grasp; to anchor you.  And I sometimes wonder if the church today isn’t in a form of exile.  Anyone who is familiar with United Church history knows that, in its early days, it helped shape social policy in Canada.  Today, we seem to be more of a lonely voice crying out in the wilderness.  And some are feeling confused by this; and wondering what our purpose is—not unlike the Israelites so long ago.  This is not to say that there is no vibrancy; no life within us—because we are still making a difference—but we do it differently now.  As we have moved into a more secular and multi-cultural society that big booming voice we once had now seems to be smaller—but it is still there.

If we were doing some more in depth study, we would read through more of the Deuteronomistic History (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 & 11 Samuel, 1 & 11 Kings) which endeavours to show the Israelites why they ended in exile—and which just might provide us with some insights as to why we’re in the situation we’re in today. In those days, the prophets played a major role in speaking God's word, calling the people back to the first commandment, which is to worship God alone.   It was this failure by kings and people which, according to the writers, led to the demise of the Davidic kingship, loss of land and temple.  However, in all fairness it is difficult to apply the test of future fulfillment – if the prophesy does not come true, then it is not authentic -- when one is hearing the prophet's warning in the midst of a crisis – sort of like that quip from my days in working in Government —when you’re up to your backside in alligators, it’s hard to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp.

Going back to Israel’s history, it is easy in hindsight to say the people should have listened to one prophet and not another.  To apply this criteria today is equally difficult because those who feel called to proclaim God's word presumably believe that what they are saying is the authentic word of God – how do we know which prophet, or, for that matter, which politician to believe, and thus to follow?  Much of American politics is dominated by issues of what passes for faith—the conservative evangelical movement is very influential.   And we catch glimpses of that here in Ontario, and Canada as well, as anyone who has seen Charles McVety on the news can attest.

Daniel B. Clendenin, of the Journey with Jesus Foundation, in a now somewhat-outdated blog posting provides a delightful commentary on Pat Robertson, a one time Presidential contender, who, “after claiming that God caused Ariel Sharon's massive stroke as punishment for conceding land to the Palestinians, later claimed that Satan caused Dick Cheney's shortness of breath that briefly hospitalized the Vice President. Why? "Because he is dedicated to defeating the evildoers in Iraq, and that angered the evilest doer of all, Satan." On that same show Robertson extended condolences to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who needed fifteen stitches in his lip after "a motorcycle accident that I'm pretty sure was caused by Satan. ‘ Satan, Robertson advised, ‘is no match for a Republican’ ."  Which, I am sure, is great comfort to Americans. 

I happened, purely by accident, to catch a glimpse of the Republican Primary Debate in Florida on Thursday evening. I caught a portion of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich answering a question about how their faith would impact their presidency.  Stupidly, because I wanted to watch something else, I did not stay tuned, but I did catch the beginning of Newt’s answer, which was, in essence that one needed to turn to God for all things, because no decision a President makes can be made without Divine guidance.  Hmmmm I thought as I reached for the remote—so God will speak directly to Newt and guide him on all his decisions—wonder how much listening he’s done so far. 

Okay, so it’s easy to poke fun at those on the extreme.  But all this raises the question, which is relevant to the Search Committee, of how we determine authenticity in someone who claims to be a prophet, or, in our case, a Minister.  And again, I will turn to Clendenin for some guidance.  And although his message is not meant primarily for Search Committees, his insights are, I think, relevant.  He begins by saying:  “Start with your sanctified common sense. Also, remember that speaking truth does not mean you never offend someone. (He continues) The Scriptures for this week then suggest two other principles that should guide us”.

“First, people who speak truly for God operate with a healthy sense of the audacity of what they are attempting. They are acutely aware of the presumption inherent in claiming to speak for God.”  He continues: “Who in their right mind would hazard such a claim given the combination of human frailty and divine inscrutability?!  Every sane preacher who has ever mounted a pulpit has experienced the dread and adrenaline shock of his preposterous task—in some stumbling and bumbling way to speak a word that is true to God.   And I would extend that concept to much of our current political rhetoric.  I can’t tell you how many times, when I’ve heard the Prime Minister authoritatively stating that ‘Canadians want such and such’ and thinking uuuhhhh, this Canadian –and I’m sure many others, doesn’t want that.  I just want to take a moment to insert part of the epistle reading for today, from the 8th Chapter of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth.  Paul writes: “3The question keeps coming up regarding meat that has been offered up to an idol: Should you attend meals where such meat is served, or not? We sometimes tend to think we know all we need to know to answer these kinds of questions—but sometimes our humble hearts can help us more than our proud minds. We never really know enough until we recognize that God alone knows it all.   But knowing isn't everything. If it becomes everything, some people end up as know-it-alls who treat others as know-nothings. Real knowledge isn't that insensitive.”

Which leads in to his second point in which Clendenin begins by turning to Paul, who “insisted that concrete deeds of love accompany genuine claims of divine knowledge: "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up" (1 Corinthians 8:1).  In Mark's Gospel we read that people were amazed at Jesus' authority and his "new teaching." But in marked contrast to how the religious establishment operated, writes Mark, Jesus’ was an authority that authenticated itself by fostering human healing and wholeness (Mark 1:21–28).  [The fourth century Christian theologian] John Cassian called this "integral wholeness," and we wish it not only for ourselves but for every human being.”

Clendenin continues; “Here too the ruthless realism of the monastics can save us from foolishness that masquerades as wisdom. Those grizzled monks experienced every sort of pompous pronouncement, spiritual fraud and pious pretense. They knew what it meant for a deluded believer to be "deceived by his innumerable revelations and [wrongly] believe that he was a messenger of righteousness."  Their antennae were especially sensitive to what Cassian called "specious authority" and loveless judgmentalism.”  Now, hopefully that latter isn’t likely something you are likely to encounter in your search, but his next sentence throws out some aspects for consideration in your new Minister:  “Rather, they counselled an unqualified compassion toward human weakness, a consideration for frailty, and heartfelt empathy for those who struggle.  Christians truly close to the heart of God "never frighten with bleak despair those who are in trouble or unsettle them with harsh words." They gladly, fully, and freely proclaimed that God alone was "the gracious arbiter of hidden strength and human infirmity." They looked "with a kind of overwhelming wonder at God’s ineffable gentleness."  So should we.”

Now, heeding Clendenin’s advice, I’m not going to stand here and say that just because I am wearing a clerical collar and fancy robes, and thus have some sort of ‘authority’ conferred upon me by the church, you should blindly follow everything I’ve jut said.  But it speaks to me, and frankly, I wish that what he says could be heard by more people – because I am concerned that we, as a society, are in danger of losing our way.  So much of our political and social agenda seems to have been taken over by simplistic formulas, by fear-mongering and authoritarian appeals to our personal self-interest, not the interests of society as a whole.

And this is why the United Church is so important to our Canadian society.  We are the church of social justice; of compassion for those in need.  We are the church that clothes the naked, cares for the sick, and visits those in prison, that feeds the hungry and gives water to those who thirst, the church who welcomes the stranger.  And it is precisely those actions that give us our authority—and give you yours as you continue your ministry.