St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Saskatoon
St. Andrew's exists to proclaim the Gospel and to share the love of God in our church and in our community

May 28, 2017

Posted on June 10, 2017 in category: Sermons
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Preached by Rev. Dr. Stewart Folster on May 28, 2017.

Ephesians 1:15-23
Psalm 47
Luke 24:44-53

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Connected to God

It’s one of those stories that circulates around the internet. It seems that a woman came home to find her husband in the kitchen shaking frantically with what looked like a wire running from a place towards the electrical outlet in the wall. Intending to jolt him away from the deadly electricity she grabbed a piece of wood that was leaning by the back door and gave him a good whack, breaking his arm in two places. However, it was a real shame that he was not being electrocuted after all! He was merely listening to his new iPod.

But what would we have done? We walk into the kitchen and think that this fellow is being electrocuted. We can’t touch him for fear of being electrocuted ourselves. So this woman grabbed a board and hit him. How was she to know that he was just dancing to the music coming out of the tiny headset? She had to make an instant decision. And who knows, maybe he deserved a good whack anyhow.

Decisions. We’re all faced with them. And so were the disciples. Forty days had passed since the resurrection. The disciples of Jesus have finally come to believe that he is truly alive. The scriptures tell us that Jesus appeared to the disciples on numerous occasions. But it is now time for him to return to heaven.

And so once again Jesus appears to the disciples. He joins them in worship and announces to them that he will soon send the Holy Spirit to them. And when the Holy Spirit comes, they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth. And after he had spoken these words to them, after he has given them the assurance of his presence, he is lifted up before them into heaven.

What an exit! What a conclusion to his ministry on earth. Before their very eyes, Jesus ascends to heaven with the promise that the Holy Spirit will come upon them. Instead of Jesus being bodily present with them, they will become his body. Instead of his words to guide them, they will speak his word for him. Instead of his physical presence, they will have his Spirit. And be his presence in the world. And with that Spirit, they will truly experience Jesus’ promise in Matthew 28. Remember how that goes: we call it the Great Commission ( the great command Jesus gives ) – Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And lo, I am with you always even until the end of the age.

Luke, in his account of the ascension of Jesus, concludes the story by telling us what happened next. It was not long after he said this that Jesus was taken up into the sky while they were watching and he disappeared into a cloud. As they were straining their eyes to see him, two white-robed men, two angels, suddenly stood there among them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing here staring up at the sky? Jesus has been taken away from you into heaven and someday, just as you saw him go, he will return.”

And at this, the disciples returned to Jerusalem. Upon entering the city, they went back to where they had gathered and Luke tells us they were of one accord and devoted themselves to prayer. This is the first picture we have of the church of Jesus Christ. It is the first mention of what the disciples did when Jesus was no longer with them. There were of one accord and they devoted themselves to prayer. Imagine the effect the ascension must have had on those disciples. They had seen Jesus physically ascend into heaven. And they were told that they would be his witnesses. They would be his presence on earth.

Liz Curtis Higgs tells of an amusing story of when her young daughter was baptized. Like many, after getting married, Liz had drifted away from the church. Even the birth of her daughter had not brought them back. It wasn’t until her mother’s death and the ministry of the church at that time when Liz decided that it was time for them to reconnect with God. Because she had not been baptized as an infant, Liz’s daughter, Lillian, was 4 when she was baptized. The pastor met with them and spoke about baptism, telling the little girl that in baptism, Jesus enters into our heart and lives within us.

Everything went fine until after the baptism. As they gathered in the entry, Lillian seemed troubled and she refused to talk. “What’s wrong, honey?” her mother asked. With pursed lips, Lillian replied, “Nothing, I just have to keep my mouth closed, so Jesus won’t get out.” She was worried that if she opened her mouth too wide, Jesus might escape.

And yet, the opposite is true, isn’t it? In baptism we receive the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ presence comes within us and we become his witnesses. Like the disciples at the ascension, we are sent forth to be his voice. We are told to speak for him because we are connected to him. The disciples knew Jesus had ascended into heaven to be with God the Father and that was good news for them. Because they also knew that they were connected through Jesus. Through his appearences to them after the resurrection, popping in and out of their lives, the disciples knew they were connected to Jesus. And because they were connected to him, they were also connected to God. Not just to him physically as they had been to Jesus, but in spirit.

It must have been a scary time for them. Jesus had been crucified for preaching his message of God’s love. And now he leaves and tells them to finish the work he has begun. You would think they would be afraid. But the disciples knew they were connected to Jesus. And because they were connected to him, they were also connected to God. Not just to him physically as they had been to Jesus, but in Spirit.

The historical account tells us that just a few days later at Pentecost the Holy Spirit was indeed given to the disciples as they went forth into the world as his witnesses. Connected to Jesus, they were connected to God. And no matter what the future held for them, they were ok. For even though they did not know what the future held, they knew who held the future. And that was enough. That sense of being connected to Jesus, enabled them to face persecution and suffering, knowing that God was on their side. They could trust God because they knew Jesus.

It was said that the wife of Albert Einstein was once asked if she understood her husband’s theory of relativity. She replied, “No, but I know my husband and that’s enough.” The disciples knew Jesus. They knew that he could be trusted with their lives. And because they were connected to him, they were connected to God. When you and I face difficulties, and troubles in life, when life deals us a bum hand, where the future looks bleak and hopeless, we need something to hold on to. We need to be connected to God. And we are.

The same Lord Jesus who welcomed the little children into his arms, the same Lord Jesus who healed the lepers and opened the eyes of the blind, the same Lord Jesus who offered himself up on the cross for us for our salvation, now sits at the right hand of God the Father and rules over all things. He can be trusted with our days. We can depend upon him to care for us. For Jesus rules over all creation and he is the head of the church.

The disciples knew that. That’s why they responded the way they did. Remember: Luke tells us that when they returned to Jerusalem, they were all of one accord. When you think of all the diverse personalities that were part of that circle of disciples, that in itself is a minor miracle. The disciples’ hearts were bonded together by the resurrection. It’s almost as if the experience of the cross had shown them their own weaknesses. Their shared failure to stand with Jesus in his hour of need, the betrayal of one of them, and the outright denial of Jesus by another, had shown them where they all stood–each of them a weak simple human being. But more than that, Jesus’ forgiveness of them, his understanding and acceptance of them, and his willingness to receive them in spite of their failures and his promise to use them as his witnesses, that welded them together into a great unity. A unity that is a symbol of what the Church of Jesus Christ is called to be.

Connected to God. That’s what the ascension of Jesus tells us. We are all connected to God. In our baptism, we are made children of God. Jesus enters our hearts and lives and comes out in our words and deeds. And we are given a great commission—a great purpose for living—to share the caring love of Christ.

As the church of Jesus Christ, we are called to welcome one another, to forgive, to love, and accept each other with the same forgiveness, love, and acceptance we have received from God. We are called to be those who speak of God’s love to others, who bring family and friends to worship with us, who speak of God’s love for him.

The disciples knew that. They returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives after the ascension of Jesus with joyful hearts of one accord devoted to prayer and to one another. That’s what the Bible tells us. That’s their example for us. They didn’t know what awaited them. They didn’t know of the persecutions and hardships that lay ahead. They didn’t know that of them, only the apostle John would live to old age. All the rest of them would meet a martyr’s death. As they returned to Jerusalem, there was much they did not know.

But what they did know, however, was that they would need each other. And the picture that we get of those disciples in the early days of the Christian church, is one of joy. They joyfully gathered in worship with each other. They joyfully devoted themselves to prayer and they joyfully accepted Jesus’ mission to take the news of his resurrection to all the world. It was a privilege for them to represent him in the world. Because they knew they were connected to God.

We focus this day on the ascension of Jesus to remind us that we are connected to God. We are connected to God through faith in Christ Jesus. And like those first disciples, we have the same mission ahead of us. Jesus has ascended to God the Father in heaven. He is no longer present in body form in this world, but before he left, he gave us the same promise—God will fill us with his Spirit and send us forth as witnesses of his love. We are now the presence of Jesus in this world. His word that is spoken and his love shared with others. May we be faithful in fulfilling this mission. In Jesus’ holy name. Amen.

May 21, 2017

Posted on May 21, 2017 in category: Sermons
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Preached by Guy Laberge, Synod Summer Student, on May 21, 2017.

Psalm 66:8-20
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

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Did you ever wish that you had a friend in high places – someone to help when the chips are down?

Did you ever wish that you had someone to talk to when you were lonely – someone to listen to your problems – someone who cared – someone who would love you even if you were in the wrong?

Have you ever heard someone say, “He doesn’t have a prayer” – or “She doesn’t have a prayer”? What they mean, of course, is he or she is hopeless.

Have you ever felt like you didn’t have a prayer – that you were hopeless? When you felt hopeless, wouldn’t it have been nice to have a prayer?  Wouldn’t it have been nice to talk to God and know that he is listening? Wouldn’t it be nice to know that God loves you and will help? Because, if God loves you, you are not hopeless! If God will help you, you have hope! If God loves and will help you, things will work out!

Perhaps you never felt hopeless. Perhaps you’re one of those beautiful people that we see in magazines, with symmetrical features, good hair, perfect teeth, great talent.

Or perhaps you are a good athlete, or always get A’s on tests, or make people laugh, or, as they say in the song, “Your daddy’s rich and your momma’s good lookin’.”

Or perhaps you have succeeded in your career, or things are just going well for you.

There are people like that, you know. Or at least it seems that way. Beautiful! Successful! Never in doubt!

But beautiful people have their problems too. Philip Yancey, the author, talks about interviewing the beautiful people – famous football players, movie stars, authors, TV personalities. He talks about how we idolize them – how we want to be like them – how we want to know every detail of their lives – their clothes, their romances, even their toothpaste. Then he goes on to say:

“Yet I must tell you that, in my limited experience, these our ‘idols’ are as miserable a group of people as I have ever met.
Most have troubled or broken marriages.  Nearly all are hopelessly dependent on psychotherapy.
In a heavy irony, these larger-than-life heroes seem tormented by incurable self-doubt.”

(Philip Yancey, Where is God When It Hurts?)

“Tormented by incurable self-doubt!” Hard to imagine, isn’t it! But we know that it’s true. We know about their broken marriages; their addiction to drugs and alcohol. We know that their talent has a dark side. “Tormented by incurable self-doubt!”

If the beautiful people find themselves “tormented by incurable self-doubt”, we need not feel odd if we, too, sometimes feel lonely – isolated – uncertain. That’s part of the human condition.

That’s how Jesus’ disciples felt – lonely – isolated – uncertain. You might even say that they felt betrayed. Jesus was talking about leaving them. He was talking about dying. The disciples had made great sacrifices to follow Jesus. They had staked everything on him. They had walked away from their fishing businesses. They had left home and hearth. They had allowed themselves to believe that Jesus was the one who would turn everything around – would make everything right. They had believed that he was the Messiah – the one who would save Israel.

And now he was talking about leaving them. Can you imagine how they felt? The sense of betrayal! Why had Jesus asked them to follow him if he intended to leave them? Why had he brought them this far only to abandon them?

Jesus knew that his disciples were afraid, so he made them a promise. He said, “I will pray to the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor, that he may be with you forever” (v. 16).

The New Testament was written in Greek, and the Greek word that is translated “Comforter” is “parakletos”. What does parakletos mean? It means “someone called in to help”. A paraklete could be a lawyer called in to defend you. It could be a witness called in to testify in your behalf. A paraklete could be anyone called in to help in your hour of need. Jesus, knowing that he would soon ascend back to the Father, promised his disciples a paraklete someone on whom they could call when they needed help – someone who would be there for them in their hour of need.

Jesus promised his disciples that this paraklete would be with them forever. That’s where we come in. The paraklete that Jesus promised to these first disciples is available to us as well. This paraklete is there to help us when we need help – to guide us when we need guidance- to steer us rightly – to protect us from harm. When Jesus talked about the paraklete, he was talking about what elsewhere is called the Holy Spirit – God’s Spirit dwelling within us – God’s Spirit living in our hearts.

The promise that Jesus made to those first disciples is a promise to us as well. Jesus has made it possible for us to have a paraklete – a helper on whom we can call in time of need – God with us – God dwelling in our hearts.

That might seem pretty academic to you – not especially useful “where the rubber meets the road” in the nitty-gritty of your life. But it isn’t academic at all, because it works – it helps.

I remember reading about Colonel Thomas Schaefer, the highest-ranking military officer in the U.S. Embassy in Teheran when that embassy was overrun and the Americans taken prisoners. Colonels are seasoned veterans and tend to be strong, and Schaefer was no exception. However, being taken prisoner in a hostile nation, not knowing if he would ever see his family again, held in solitary confinement in a tiny cell with nothing to read and nothing to do, Schaefer found himself at the edge of his limits. But he was a Christian, and so he got down on his knees and prayed, “God, I cannot handle this. I need your help.” He says, “And I got it!” He received the help that he needed to survive those long, seemingly endless, days of captivity. The Holy Spirit gave him the strength that he needed.

We have or will experience in our life the stress and pain of saying goodbye to someone close or dear to us. My father was diagnosed with cancer in 1997, it took 27 days before he was gone. Looking ahead and thinking about those we lost we might have said something like this: “I do not think I can stand it,” and looking back we could say: “I do not know how we were able to survive,” but the truth is we did, and we will.

I had a car accident in 2008. I am still having some mobility issues, and I deal with something called CRPS: Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome. There are no miracle cures for it, but I thank God, because I can see the sunrise and sunset every day. The lady in the other car was not so fortunate. She passed away hours later at the hospital. Her 15-year-old son was transferred to the CHEO in Ottawa. He was put into a medical coma for 4½ months. He will never be like a normal 22-year-old due to the injuries he suffered in the car accident.

All I know is: The Lord did provide as he promised and coming to trust in him is enormously encouraging for us to face the future.

As you see, those who live in the presence of the Holy Spirit cannot expect easy lives. Jesus never promised us a bed of roses. In a sermon I did a few weeks ago, I mentioned that the fact that we are Christians does not shelter us from sickness or trials in our lives. If it would be so – that we should be sheltered from pains and trials – I would not be here today preaching to you. I would be back in Eastern Ontario, working, and – who knows? – counting the years, months and days before retirement. But in the midst of all our troubles and stressful situations, the Spirit helps us to prevail no matter how difficult the circumstances.

Earlier in this sermon, I mentioned Philip Yancey, who interviewed football heroes, movie stars, television personalities, only to find that these beautiful people had feet of clay – that they were “tormented by incurable self-doubt!” He went on to talk about the other side of the coin – people whom he calls “servants” – missionaries, doctors, and nurses working in Third World countries; linguists living among primitive people in remote places, often for decades, to translate the Bible for those people. Yancey says:

“I was prepared to honour and admire these servants,
to hold them up as inspiring examples.
I was not, however, prepared to envy them.
But as I now reflect on the two groups side by side, stars and servants,
the servants clearly emerge as the favoured ones, the graced ones.
They work for low pay, long hours, and no applause,
‘wasting’ their talents and skills among the poor and uneducated.
But somehow in the process of losing their lives they have found them.”

(Philip Yancey, Where is God When It Hurts?)

Jesus promised us the Holy Spirit, and has delivered on that promise. We received the Spirit at our baptism, and can expect the Spirit to help us when we need help – anytime, day or night. We can expect the Spirit to guide us rightly. The only question is whether we will follow faithfully. If we will, God will bless us with lives that become stronger day by day – with faith to drive out fear – with lives solid at the core.

I would like to close today with an old Southern prayer.  It says:

“O Lord, help me to understand
that you ain’t goin’ to let nuthin’ come my way
that You and I together can’t handle. Amen.

May 7, 2017

Posted on May 7, 2017 in category: Sermons
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Preached by Rev. James McKay on May 7, 2017.

Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
John 10:11-18

Looking at the Good Shepherd

Jim remembers going into an art museum last year and seeing the ACTUAL painting of “Starry, Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh. What a feeling, to be actually present to this painting and for this painting to be present to me!!

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

In the Saturday edition of the National Post in the Star Phoenix, on the eve of Easter Sunday, a huge image of a portrait by the Italian 16th century painter, Caravaggio, appeared, and what a presentation it is. The incredulity of St. Thomas depicts Thomas putting a finger into the spear wound of Jesus’ chest to prove the resurrection. The article went on to talk about the role of doubt in faith today. Inside this section were the results of a poll describing the state of current religious belief and practice in Canada. It showed that approximately 20% of us are committed believers, and another 20% are pure non-believers, and the great swath of those in between showed a great range of uncertainty and privacy in many people.

It prompted me to look more closely at an art book our daughter, Emily, gave me years ago entitled Painting the Word: Pictures and Their Meanings by John Drury, then Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. He includes many more Caravaggio paintings. The appearance of Jesus to the two sorrowful disciples from the Road to Emmaus is outstanding! But what Dean Drury’s book demonstrates so well is “the art of looking”. The art of looking at paintings for their meaning.

With these thoughts fresh, when I turned to the texts for this fourth Sunday of Easter and read so much shepherd imagery – well, things started to come together.

This morning I invite you to join me engaging in the art of looking at what, for us in this sanctuary, is the visual focal point of our worship, the Good Shepherd window. It’s unusual in a sanctuary like ours not to have a large and very prominent cross as the focal point. Here though, a very different focus.

Come closer to have a closer look… Let’s take a few moments to reposition yourselves for a clearer, closer look. Those in the balcony, come on down if you like, or… pop out your opera glasses and focus on the window.

“So what’s new” you may be asking. “We’ve seen this window so many times over the years. It’s Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Very familiar.”

I can tell you that this window was placed here ca. 1953, when this church was officially opened and dedicated. The window was dedicated to the memory of the first minister to serve the congregation immediately after Church union in Canada in 1925. The Rev. W. G. Brown provided leadership here through 1940. We Presbyterians stayed out of the union that created the United Church of Canada in 1925. Half our membership went into Union. It was a very difficult new era. A time of transition, to be sure.

The present time is also very much a time of transition for this congregation and for our denomination in the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and indeed for the Church in North America. This pulpit is now vacant, and you will be seeking a new minister of word and sacraments. The PCC is in numerical decline (approximately 2,000 members per year) and the culture of church membership, attendance, belief and practice has dramatically changed in our lifetime.

So it’s timely, is it not, to re-engage in the art of looking at the Good Shepherd?

Looking at the window…

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is dressed elegantly. Over a white tunic, he is robed in scarlet. A scarlet robe trimmed with gold filigree. He grasps the shepherd’s staff firmly in his right hand while cradling a tiny lamb in his left forearm and hand. Around his head, the halo (or nimbus) with three rose coloured accents, perhaps signifying the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is translucent with the purity of divinity. Jesus’ gaze seems solely directed on the newborn lamb, obviously vulnerable, helpless and adorable, gently supported in the protective care of the shepherd.

Around Jesus’ feet and clustered near him are the sheep, the flock. Aren’t they interesting? How many of us, during a lapse of attention – not to say a boring moment in a long sermon – have tried to count them from far away in the distant pews? How many are there?

There is more to notice than their number. Some are grazing close to the shepherd. In the green pastures of life, they are getting down to some serious munching! Some are gazing at the shepherd before coming to the table themselves, and noting the care that the little one is receiving.

A couple of sheep are gazing out at us – the “other flocks” who will yet be gathered by the Good Shepherd, to join them in their gazing and grazing. The sheep closest to the shepherd’s staff is particularly attentive to the shepherd and reminds me of John, the so-called “beloved disciple” of Jesus, who is always pictured closest to him. The youngest lamb in Jesus’ arm is perfectly content.

There are some sheep a little further back in the scene. Perhaps they represent the tendency of some sheep to keep a little distance from the preacher/teacher…

The title underneath the scene reminds us of the Gospel of John’s portrait: “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

In the top corners of the scene are trees with abundant foliage – leafy and fruitful bouquets of lush greenery! This is a garden scene like that described in the book of Revelation of the Holy City, Jerusalem… “On either side of the river flowing from the throne of God is the tree of life… and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations…” (Rev. 22:2). And again we recall Jesus’ words, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Behind the trees, the subdued skylight could be indicative of eventide or the first light of dawn.

Rabindranath Tagore has said,

“Death is not extinguishing the light
but merely putting out the lamp
because the dawn has come.” (Vanier p. 192)

One of the earliest representations of the risen Christ found in the Roman catacombs is of the youthful shepherd carrying the sheep around his shoulders.

There can be no doubt here in this window that the one portrayed is not the suffering, dying Jesus, nor the itinerant preacher of Galilee, but in truth here is the risen Christ, our risen Lord and Saviour, our eternal Shepherd!

Are we drawn to the portrait? Are we drawn into the portrait? Are we drawn through the portrait into God’s presence? Does it change or develop our spiritual perception of the love of God who, in mercy and with deep compassion, holds out to us the gift of vibrant, victorious life through a window that lets in the light and life of the Good Shepherd?

Where would you and I place ourselves in this picture? As one keeping the faith in worship and witness? As one who has some faith, but not enough to carry you through the stress and challenge of life? Or as one who is still uncertain and prefers to keep a little distance from commitment? Or again as one for whom relationship of faith in Christ is still private and personal? Maybe you’ve been on the sidelines of God’s pasture, and the life-giving grace offered – still thinking, wondering within yourself.

Will you let Jesus be the Good Shepherd of your life? This would be a good question to ask campers and all who com to Camp Christopher this summer.

A colleague of mine has used the twenty-third Psalm as a foundation for daily prayer.

For years, or for mere months, we’ve worshipped in this sanctuary while gathered before this portrait. Time and again, we’ve heard the words of the Shepherd who knows us well, knows us by name, and remarkably, in a word, a phrase, verse of hymn, portion of prayer, anthem or solo or sermon – beyond the voice of a worship leader – is the unmistakable voice, the authentic voice that is suddenly so refreshingly familiar – we know that voice. We trust that voice. We know that voice. We trust that truth.

Like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, who thought the Kingdom of God had died on the cross, but were accompanied by one whose voice so penetrated their grief that they were aware that a flame had just been ignited in their hearts.

At this very place in this sanctuary we have celebrated the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper. In the name of the Good Shepherd, we have poured out the spiritually birthing waters of baptism and have received in the bread and the cup an awakening to the living presence of our Lord!

“O taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34:8)

Indeed!

No way! Really?!? Am I really present to the Lord?!

As Dean Drury observes about the art of looking, “It’s like what happens when a painting or picture delights us with a recognition that dissolves worries and arouses faith.” (Drury p. 133)

The one who has laid down his life for the sheep has taken it up again and that is Good News for the whole created order!

As Jean Vanier notes, “Jesus wants to give life to us all:

“I am the good shepherd.
I know my own and my own know me
as the Father knows me and I know my Father,
and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14).

“Jesus came to give life and to give his life,

the life of love and light that he was living with the Father.

He came to give his life on the cross,

to take away all the blocks that prevent us from being

in communion with God

and with our fellow human beings.

Jesus is the gift of God

and calls us to let go of certain things in order to give ourselves.” (Vanier p. 191)

“Jesus loves us abundantly and want to give us

all we need to grown in wisdom

and greater human and spiritual maturity.” (Vanier p 188)

“Jesus, the Word made flesh,

knows how much we all need good, loving and wise shepherds

so that we may grow to a fuller human and spiritual maturity.

Not only does Jesus reveal himself as the good and wonderful Shepherd,

but each one of us, as we grow to maturity,

is called to be a good shepherd, a servant-leader for others.” (Vanier p. 186)

In this time of transition then, as we prepare to engage in a new chapter of ministry, we need only look upon our good, wonderful, noble and model Shepherd, Jesus our Lord, risen with power, and present among us, breathing his life-giving Spirit into his Church, and into the world God so loves.

Let us be eager in Jesus’ name to engage in life-restoring ministries in our neighbourhoods and in our world, while we order our congregational life around relationships that take their cue from the Good Shepherd – relationships of mutual trust, caring for one another, practicing hospitality, growing in maturity, and welcoming any and all who will, to look upon the Good Shepherd and see God.


Resources:

  • The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV 1991)
  • Preaching Through the Christian Year, Year A, Fourth Sunday of Easter, p. 264
  • Painting the Word: Christian Paintings and Their Meanings, John Drury, 2000
  • The Gospel of John, Anchor Bible Series, Raymond Brown, Ch I-XII, 1966
  • Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus Through the Gospel of John, Jean Vanier, Ch. 14, The Good Shepherd

Fundraising Concert

Posted on May 4, 2017 in category: Announcements

The Riparian Winds, a group consisting of nine people with an age span of almost five decades, will present a one-hour concert at St. Andrew’s on Friday, May 26th at 7:30 pm. The music they will present is beautiful, harmonious and definitely has “charms to soothe the savage breast”! Admission is by freewill offering, with all proceeds going to St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.

St. Andrew’s in Transition

Posted in category: Announcements

Interim Moderators for St. Andrew’s: The Presbytery of Northern Saskatchewan has appointed two retired ministers to serve as interim moderators for St. Andrew’s until we are able to call a new minister of our own. The Rev. George Yando (former minister at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Prince Albert and Mistawasis Memorial Presbyterian Church) will be working with our Session during the interim, and the Rev. Diane Tait-Katerberg (currently serving as Congregational Development Coordinator for the Synod of Saskatchewan) will be working with our Search Committee (a group soon to be appointed by Session). Both will assist with pastoral needs, as well as ensuring that the pulpit is filled each Sunday.

A Farewell Event to celebrate Rev. Amanda and her ministry with us will be held on Saturday, June 17th at 7:00 pm at Zion Lutheran Church. Prepare your favourite appetizer recipe (or fruit, veggies, cheese, whatever!) and bring it along to share with others. It will be a night of music, skits and testimonials. And, of course, there will be cake! Watch for more information.

April 30, 2017

Posted on April 30, 2017 in category: Easter, Sermons
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Luke 24:13-35

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“Jesus Walked With Us”

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend the Saskatoon Prayer Breakfast. It included some fun music by Brad Johner and his sons, some really meaningful prayers for government leaders, teachers, emergency personnel, those who are poor and struggling, and for the community as a whole. I had some theological issues with the key note speaker, but I will remember the prayer breakfast because of a conversation I had at my table before we ate.

I was sitting with a group of young Christian women in their mid to late twenties. One was studying to be a nurse, another was a new teacher, the third worked in a church doing Christian education, and the last worked a couple of jobs, including one at the Saskatoon Food Bank. As I asked them about their work, they started talking about the difference each of their vocations might make in the world.

They all agreed that the nurse’s competent care or a possible mistake made could radically alter a patient’s life. What a responsibility to carry, knowing that in a single moment, you could drastically affect the course of someone’s life. But, of course, each one of them recognized that their impact on another person could make a huge difference for the good, or for the bad… and they were rather in awe of the power and responsibility in that realization.

One of them reflected that looking back at her own life and decisions so far, so many changes and new directions were set after key conversations with people that she trusted. If she had made different decisions at those times, how different her life might have been!

I told the young women that their discussion made me think of the disciples walking away from Jerusalem on the road to Emmaus. It was the Gospel text for today that I had been reflecting on all week. You see, those disciples also had a key conversation, and one brief experience, that radically changed their direction and purpose, and transformed their grief and sadness into joy.

As you may remember, Cleopas and the other disciple were walking home from Jerusalem after the betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, and death of the man who had been their teacher and leader. In the course of a few short days, their hopes had been dashed, Jesus was dead, and they didn’t know what to do next. It was a moment of decision for them. Would they go back to fishing, or tax collecting, or whatever other occupation they had been doing before Jesus called them? Or would they somehow continue his way of life without him? They discussed these things together as they walked along.

But Jesus came and walked with them. They told him about what they were expecting, and what they had seen, and how they were confused and disappointed. And he explained the scriptures to them, and helped them to make sense of the tragedy, and stayed with them when they invited him to do so.

It wasn’t until they were sitting at the dinner table together that they recognized who he was. In the breaking, blessing, and sharing of the bread, they began to see him. And then they reflected that their hearts had already been burning in the midst of the conversation about the scriptures too.

As I told the young women at my table yesterday… in their teaching, and nursing, and helping, and sharing their faith, I am thankful for the fact that their actions and words and presence will often make a positive impact on others. Perhaps some of their conversations will be life-changing ones that open minds and transform hearts.

But I’m most thankful that the responsibility of “the rest of someone’s life” is not theirs alone to carry. I trust that Christ will be with them… walking beside them in the midst of those important conversations, and directing their hands as they serve and share with others in the name of Christ.

Of course, on a day like today, I’m reflecting on my own ministry here at St. Andrew’s too. As I think back, I have so many memories of “our hearts burning…” sometimes in worship, in sacraments, in song, in shared prayers, in Bible study, in hospital rooms, and homes, and sometimes even in committee meetings.

Some of you have recently reminded me through cards and comments, emails and Facebook messages. You’ve reminded me of moments like that that we shared together. And I am deeply honoured to have been able to share them with you, and I am filled with joy to know that such moments held some significance for you on your journeys of faith. But most of all, I am grateful for the presence of Christ walking with us, and opening the scriptures for us, and ministering to us in broken, blessed, and shared bread within this community of faith.

As I move into a time of study, and rest, and transition, I expect that there will be a few challenges ahead for you as a congregation. Some of you will be stepping up into new leadership roles. All of you will be continuing your ministry here as a team without one particular minister to provide key leadership, and that will be difficult at times.

But I am very confident that your ministry will continue, and this congregation will thrive. In a while you will call another pastor – someone to walk with you on the next part of your journey – and you will welcome him or her with joy, and share many more moments of “burning hearts” and recognizing Christ’s presence among you.

Today is not only my last Sunday at St. Andrew’s, but we are celebrating Global Church Sunday with our 3rd Annual Global Potluck lunch after worship. Today we remember that the church is not about one person, or even one congregation. The church is God’s people throughout the whole world, gloriously diverse in language, culture, tradition, and practice, but united through Christ and gifted with the same Holy Spirit.

In our reading from the Book of Acts this morning, the Apostle Peter invited a crowd of people in Jerusalem to change their hearts and lives and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins. And then he gave them this promise… a promise that applies to us as well: “Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away – as many as the Lord our God calls.”

May we, the whole church, be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit in us, and may we recognize the presence of Christ as our journey continues. Amen.

April 23, 2017

Posted on April 23, 2017 in category: Easter, Sermons
Tags:

John 20:19-31

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“The Benefit of the Doubt”

Poor “Doubting Thomas” seems only to be remembered for this morning’s Gospel story, where he doesn’t come off too well. You see, on Easter Sunday evening, Thomas misses Jesus’ appearance to the other disciples in the locked room, he declares his doubt, and then he receives the benefit of a repeat performance by Jesus eight days later so that Thomas can see for himself and believe.

But this isn’t the first time that Thomas shows up in the Gospel of John. Thomas speaks way back in the eleventh chapter just after Jesus and the disciples get the news that Lazarus has died. Most of the disciples don’t want to go back to Judea where some people had attempted to stone Jesus, but Thomas is willing to go no matter what challenges they may encounter there. Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

A few chapters later, Thomas speaks up again. This time Jesus is explaining that he is going to be killed, but then he will be raised, and he will go ahead of the disciples to the heavenly home that God is preparing for them all.

When Jesus assures them that they all know the way to the place he is going, Thomas is willing to voice the confusion that the others are likely feeling as well: “Jesus, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And Jesus responds, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” It is through relationship with Jesus that the disciples, then and now, will find our way through life in this world and into the next.

Poor Thomas wasn’t always the doubter. Sometimes he was courageous enough to declare that he was willing to go with Jesus and die with Jesus. Sometimes he was bold enough to ask for clarification when he didn’t understand.

Although the last mention of Thomas in the Gospel includes a moment of doubt, it also includes a moment of faith as Thomas professes Jesus to be his Lord and God. And Thomas’ faith didn’t just culminate in belief, but as his life as a disciple and apostle continued his faith was expressed in the way he went out in the power of the Holy Spirit to tell others about the good news of Jesus Christ.

Christian tradition holds that the Apostle Thomas travelled outside the Roman Empire to preach the gospel, travelling as far as Tamilakam in present-day India. He got to that land by about the year 52, baptized numerous people, and founded the church known today as the “Saint Thomas Christians.” A moment of doubt set aside, he is now often regarded as the patron saint of India.

But let’s step back into that difficult and confusing time just after Jesus’ death and resurrection. After appearing only to Mary Magdalene in the garden earlier that day, Jesus came and stood among the group of disciples, assuring them with that prayerful greeting, “Peace be with you.”

He showed them his hands and his side, and they were filled with joy when they realized that he was truly dead and now he was truly alive. He breathed on them, giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit, telling them that they were to go out with the good news, continuing his mission, forgiving one another, and reconciling people to God.

But poor Thomas missed the dramatic resurrection appearance that his friends were able to experience. When the others said, “We have seen the Lord,” Thomas said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

It’s not that Thomas was always doubting, but in that moment, there just didn’t seem to be enough evidence to support the conclusion that Jesus had risen from the dead. And we can relate to that doubt, because we’ve had our moments of questioning and wondering and worrying too.

In a “New York Times” article, Julia Baird relates a story from a couple of years ago when the Most Rev. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said that at times he questioned if God was really there. As you can imagine, the reaction in the media was harsh: “Even God’s earthly emissary isn’t sure if the whole thing is made up!” one report stated.

The International Business Times called it “the doubt of the century.” Archbishop Welby’s admission had not just “raised a few eyebrows,” it declared, but “sparked concerns that the leader of the Church of England would one day renounce Christianity as a whole.” Another journalist wrote excitedly, “Atheism is on the rise and it appears as though even those at the top of the church are beginning to have doubts.”

Despite the alarm, the archbishop’s remarks were rather tame. He told an audience at Bristol Cathedral that there were moments when he wondered, “Is there a God? Where is God?” Then, asked specifically if he harbored doubts, he responded, “It is a really good question… The other day I was praying over something as I was running, and I ended up saying to God, ‘Look, this is all very well, but isn’t it about time you did something, if you’re there?’ Which is probably not what the Archbishop of Canterbury should say.”

But Archbishop Welby’s candor only makes him human. He may lead 80 million Anglicans worldwide, but he is also a man who knows anguish, rage, incomprehension, and the cold bareness of grief. He lost his firstborn child, Johanna, a 7-month-old baby girl, in a car accident in 1983, a period he has described as “utter agony.” As a teenager he cared for an alcoholic father. When explaining his thoughts on doubt, he referred to the mournful Psalm 88, which describes the despair of a man who has lost all of his friends and cries out, “Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?” The psalm reads bleakly: “Darkness is my closest friend.”

Julia Baird argues that “Faith cannot block out darkness or doubt. When on the cross, Jesus did not cry out, “Here I come!” but he prayed in anguish, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” His disciples also brimmed with doubts and misgivings.

But just as courage is persisting in the face of fear, so faith is persisting in the presence of doubt. Faith does not mean unwavering belief all the time. Faith exists as a gift from God – often as tiny as a mustard seed – and it exists side-by-side with doubt in each of our hearts.

Jon Sweeney suggests that doubt can actually be a benefit to our faith. He says, “Doubt invigorates faith, demands more of it, and causes us to ask more of each other. Doubt connects us to each other. Doubt binds my faith to yours. It makes me reach out. Discover. Explore. Question. Challenge. Learn. A person who doubts is one still on a journey.”

Or, as one of St. Andrew’s elders said earlier this week, “If we’re doubting and questioning, that means that God is still at work in us.”

Like Thomas, we are invited to trust, and believe, and live as disciples of the Risen Christ, even though we have not seen Jesus ourselves and we do not have any proof that his assurances will be fulfilled. The author of John’s Gospel has Jesus declare about us, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

And the amazing thing is that somehow, even though we have no proof, and even though we have moments of doubt ourselves, we have come to believe that Jesus is Lord. (At least, we believe it most of the time!)

We have come to believe that we can live in relationship with Jesus, and that in getting to know him, we are getting to know God. We have come to believe that God is both all-powerful and all-loving, and that despite the troubles and trials all around us in the world, that one day everything will be made right. We have come to believe that God has a mission in the world of reconciling all things, that the mission was begun in creation, continued in the life of Christ, and that we have a part to play in the mission as well.

Yes, there are days when most of us don’t believe these things as confidently or faithfully as we think we should. There are days when we can easily relate to the father of a sick child in Mark’s Gospel who wanted so much to believe that Jesus could heal his son. When Jesus told him that anything was possible for someone who believes, the father cried out, “I believe; Help my unbelief!”

Some of the commentators point out, when reflecting on Thomas’ doubt, that his problem was that he wouldn’t believe his friends. The other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” and he wouldn’t take their word for it. He said he’d have to see it for himself. Thomas wouldn’t give the other disciples the benefit of the doubt, assuming that they knew what they were talking about, rather than assuming that they were crazy or deluded.

But as much as Thomas declared his doubt and his need for proof, what I notice about the story is that he still hangs around. It seems that his friends have all lost their minds, that they’re having hallucinations, and declaring that a dead man has come back to life, but Thomas stays with them.

Eight days later, he’s still there, probably listening to their accounts of what the risen Jesus said and did, probably wondering if he’ll ever get to see Jesus himself or have their ludicrous story debunked. But he’s still there.

Thomas stays in the community of faith, listening, watching, and waiting for the experience of seeing for himself. And when Jesus does appear among them again, he is able to make his own profession of faith in Christ, his Lord and his God! Thomas does give the other disciples the benefit of the doubt, at least enough so that he is willing to stay with them until he is ready to sincerely declare that he also believes.

I think that the Christian community functions in a similar way today. The church is not a gathering of unflinching believers who are filled with perfect faith all the time. It is a community in which some of us, past and present, have had an experience of the Risen Christ, received the gift of faith, and declared, “We have seen the Lord!” We believe that Jesus is Lord, that the Kingdom of God is coming, and that we have a part to play in the healing and reconciling of the world.

And sometimes we doubt. Sometimes we get discouraged when we do not see Christ, or we do not see things getting better. But we stay together, and we listen to each other’s stories, and we share our faith, and we give each other (and those people of faith who came before us) the benefit of the doubt. And we wait, and we watch, and we work for God’s purposes, and we keep our eyes open for glimpses of Christ among us and out in the world.

Do you know the comic strip “Hagar the Horrible”? In one strip we find Hagar kneeling in prayer. He prays: “It’s not easy to believe in you, God. We never see you. How come you never show yourself? How do we know you even exist…”

Next we see…

·      A flower springing into life beside Hagar,

·      A volcano erupting in the distance,

·      An eclipse of the sun turning the sky black,

·      A star shooting across the stratosphere,

·      A tidal wave rushing over Hagar,

·      Lightning flashing,

·      A bush beginning to burn,

·      A stone rolling away from the entrance to a tomb.

Hagar pulls himself from the mud, dripping wet, surrounded by darkness. “Okay, okay, I give up! Every time I bring up this subject, all we get is interruptions.”

Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe. And blessed are we who open our eyes and our hearts to see what God is revealing to us day-by-day. Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief. Amen.

April 9, 2017

Posted on April 9, 2017 in category: Lent, Sermons
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Matthew 21:1-11
Psalm 118:1-4, 19-29
Isaiah 50:4-9a

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“The Whole Story”

Over the last 40 years or so, Presbyterians, together with many of the other mainline Christian denominations, have begun to follow the “Church Year” in our worship and devotional life. Downstairs in our church library, there is a wonderful felt wall hanging that can be rolled down for a lesson on the “Church Year.” It’s got a big circle like a pie chart, and the pieces of the pie are different colours for the different seasons… blue for Advent, white for Christmas, green for ordinary time, purple for Lent, white for Easter, and a little sliver of red for Pentecost Sunday.

As we make our way through the church year, we remember the story of our faith, the events in the life of Jesus, and the experiences of the early Christian Churches. The readings from the Revised Common Lectionary guide us to follow Jesus from his birth, through his childhood, his baptism by John, and time in ministry as he travelled throughout Galilee.

But this week, Holy Week, is perhaps the most dramatic time of the year as we are invited to journey with Jesus through the final week of his life. Today, we remember his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. And if we follow the daily lectionary readings through the week…

  • On Monday we hear about Mary of Bethany, anointing Jesus for his burial.
  • On Tuesday Jesus teaches his disciples that those who love their lives must lose them, and he tells them that when he is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself.
  • On Wednesday, Jesus tells his closest friends that one of them will betray him.
  • On Thursday, he washes the feet of his disciples, and gives them the new commandment to love one another as he has loved them.
  • Friday includes Peter’s denial, the other disciples running away, and Jesus on trial, followed by torture, execution, and death.
  • On Saturday we hear about Joseph of Arimathea taking Jesus’ body down and placing it in a tomb. The tomb is sealed and guarded.
  • And finally on Sunday, the tomb is found empty. Jesus’ body is gone. In some accounts, Jesus appears to his friends, in others angels speak to them and tell them that he is raised.

Even if we don’t do the daily readings, we are invited in our worship to enter into and experience the different parts of the story… triumphal entry, foot washing and the Last Supper, death, burial, and resurrection. We pause at each event to dwell in that moment, with those feelings.

But it is a bit artificial… because we know the whole story already. When we join in the “Hosannas” of the crowds on Sunday, we already know that the voices will soon grow silent. When we gather on Good Friday to stand at the foot of the cross and mourn, we know that the darkness of that day is not the end of the story.

Earlier this week, I spent some time reading about today’s first two readings – the Gospel story from Matthew about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and the passage from Psalm 118 that is paired with it in the “Liturgy of the Palms.”

The first thing to note, of course, is the reason for the pairing. When the crowds call out “Hosanna!” to Jesus, and say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” they are quoting from Psalm 118. They are taking lines from a familiar, Jewish, processional psalm. And by doing so, they are saying something significant about what they believe about this Jesus who is riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.

You see, the psalm is a song of victory for a king. As the king rides back into the city after the battle, the people sing with joy and declare their allegiance to him, asking for his protection with their cries of “Hosanna! Lord, save us!” and giving him glory with their declaration that he is the blessed one who comes in the name of the Lord. It seems that this warrior king was not expected to be victorious. He had previously been rejected, but because of his unpredicted success, the people praise him and place their trust in him.

One commentary helps us to make the connection between Jesus and the king for whom the psalm was originally composed. The author explains, “God worked in both situations to elevate and exalt the lowly to a place of prominence. Though in each case the lowly had to move through oppression and opposition, they were not overtaken by death, literal or otherwise.”

But the difference is, that for the ancient king, the oppression and opposition is in the past. He has won the victory, and the people are turning to him as their leader. For Jesus, Palm Sunday is just the beginning of a week that will be filled with betrayal, denial, abandonment, torture, and death. For Jesus, the rejection is yet to occur.

But, you know, when the author of Matthew’s Gospel told the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, he knew the rest of the story too – just as we do. He wasn’t telling it like an eye-witness reporter, just writing down what he saw. He was telling it like a person who had taken time to reflect on what happened that day, and what happened that week, and to think about what it meant.  He was telling it like an evangelist who wanted to get a message across about Jesus’ identity… the very question that got the people of Jerusalem talking… “Who is this?”

The Gospel-writer wants to tell us what he and his early Christian community have come to believe with all their hearts – that Jesus is the King who comes in the name of the Lord, who was rejected but became victorious, who seemed to be defeated, but would triumph.

It makes me wonder about how much Jesus already knew as he rode into Jerusalem that day. Certainly, the Gospels have Jesus warning his closest disciples about his impending death. They don’t want to hear it, but he seems resigned to it. He’s going to die. It is inevitable. But on the third day, God will raise him up again. He predicts it again and again.

One of the readings for the “Liturgy of the Passion” today is part of the “Suffering Servant” tradition in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. The prophet tells of a servant of God who suffers terribly at the hands of violent enemies, and he doesn’t fight back. In the text today, we hear how he puts up with their physical attacks, insults, and spitting without any kind of retaliation. And what seems to get the servant through the time of suffering is the assurance – the sure and certain hope – that God will help him. God is near, and God will declare him innocent, and God will save him.

Although in its original context, the suffering servant may have referred to the People of Israel or perhaps to the prophet Isaiah himself, when heard in Christian worship, the lines of this passage interpret for the church the life and death of Jesus. In the life of Jesus – especially during this Holy Week – we see Jesus as the suffering servant who, with determination, suffers bravely through it all, encouraged by the hope that at the end there will be vindication.

Knowing the whole story helps, I think. For Jesus, and perhaps for us as well, when there is struggle, or pain, or anguish, knowing that relief and joy and gladness will eventually follow makes a big difference.

Maybe it’s like child-birth… when the pain becomes manageable because of the long-awaited child that will ultimately be born.

Maybe it’s like coping through the pain of the first steps on a newly-replaced knee. It hurts like anything, but the steps are required in order for the knee to grow strong and support your weight for all the walking you long to do again.

Maybe it’s like a harsh treatment for an illness, like chemo for cancer. The terrible side effects can be accepted, terrible as they are, because of the hope and possibility of recovery.

Or maybe it’s just like when someone you love and rely on is away from you for a time. You miss them, and you long for them. But you’re okay for a while, because you know that they will return.

In contrast, suffering can be very difficult indeed when we don’t have an assurance for the future… when we don’t know if the child will be healthy, when we don’t know if the treatment will help, when we don’t know if we’ll be left alone forever.

Any time that the future seems to be in jeopardy, that’s when most of us are given to despair. We don’t know if we can heal that relationship. We don’t know if our adult child will find a good job. We don’t know if there will be any cure for our illness. We don’t know… We don’t know.

Unlike Jesus, at least the way the Gospel writers tell his story, we don’t know what’s next for us, or how things will turn out. And so, in the midst of our times of struggle, we can become disillusioned.

But as people of faith, we must remember that we do actually know the end of the story. No, we don’t know the details that come in between. And when we wish we knew, it can be really hard to live with all the question marks.

But we do know the end of the story. Because our story is intertwined with the story of Jesus, and his ultimate victory over sin, and death, and hatred, and evil is our victory as well. Because he was raised, we will be raised also. Because he is in heaven with God, he promises to prepare a place for us there as well.

No matter how difficult, or terrible, or troubling some events in our lives may be on a given day, we must remember that Jesus has experienced those struggles too. He knows and shares in our anguish. And in the midst of it, he places his trust in God who will help him, who will help us.

As we begin this Holy Week together, let us remember that we already know the whole story. At least, we already know how the story ends. And may that knowledge give us hope, and strength, and peace today and every day. Amen.

April 2, 2017

Posted on April 2, 2017 in category: Sermons
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Proverbs 11:24-25
1 Timothy 6:17-19
Luke 19:1-10

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“Extravagant Generosity”

This week we are finishing up our series on “Five practices of fruitful congregations,” and “Extravagant Generosity” is the final practice. If I could have avoided preaching another sermon about stewardship, I probably would have. But it’s one of the themes I committed to preaching through this series. And also, I think that Robert Schnase is right – that fruitful congregations do practice extravagant generosity.

Now, when I think of extravagant generosity, I think of more than just money offerings. Gifts of money are needed to maintain a building, pay staff, purchase resources, support missions, and contribute to the wider ministry of the denomination. But generosity of time, skill, and spirit are also needed to work in the ministries of the church, to spend time in praying for the church and the world, and to engage with our children, youth, and adults (both inside and outside the congregation) to share our faith and spread the good news about God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.

Just think of the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. There were two generous men in that story… Certainly Zacchaeus was generous as he committed to giving away his money and possessions, but Jesus was generous first, as he offered to spend time with this outcast, possibly corrupt man, coming over to the house of Zacchaeus, the tax collector, for dinner.

So, when I think about the generosity of this congregation, I’m not just thinking about the revenue side of the monthly financial statements that we look at during our Board meetings. I’m thinking about the people visiting one another, or calling each other up when someone hasn’t been at church for a while.  I’m thinking about one member guiding another through the education and training process to get into a new profession. I’m thinking about people offering each other rides, whether to church or other activities – sometimes going well out of their way to make sure someone else can be part of the community.

I’m thinking about people making extravagant efforts to reach out and invite someone to church, going the extra mile to listen when someone is struggling, or just doing their best to keep on being kind, and forgiving, and patient with each other despite our human failings and foibles.

I do believe that St. Andrew’s is a wonderfully generous congregation. And I think that many of you believe that too. I’ve often heard St. Andrew’s leadership say things like, “Whenever there is a need, this congregation responds.” And I’ve seen you do it too!

I’m thinking of our Spring-time special appeals for Camp Christopher. We’ve provided a bunch of kayaks, a whole lot of cameras for the photography program, T-shirts for all the campers a couple of times, and last year we re-stocked the camp with about 25 new foam mattresses.  When we asked for donations for a refugee sponsorship, the money flowed in very quickly. We’re still waiting for our family to arrive, but the resources are ready for when they come. And last year, when there was a terrible fire in Fort McMurray, and I invited you to make special donations for the Presbyterian Church in that community, you responded quickly and generously. I think, perhaps, that giving for the General Fund budget of the church itself is not quite as rewarding or fun, as that’s the area that we struggle with the most… but as a whole, you are a generous people.

In his chapter on “Extravagant Generosity” Robert Schnase suggests that generous giving is not just responding to a need, however. He argues that church stewardship programs should avoid the pattern of asking people to give because there is a desperate need. Whether we are saying, “Oh no, we’re not going to balance the budget unless you give a little more…” or “Oh no, someone is in trouble, and we need to take up a special offering to help…” or “Oh no, our missions are going to shut down unless we have more money to keep them going.” Schnase says, “Stewardship rightly focuses on the Christian’s need to give rather than the church’s need to receive.”

Remember Zacchaeus again for a moment. There was no appeal for financial giving as Jesus passed along the roadway that day. Jesus didn’t say, “Look, Zacchaeus, I’ll be happy to come over for dinner at your house if we can talk about what kind of donation you’re willing to make to help the poor in this community. You know that there are a lot of hungry people who need your help.”

Zacchaeus didn’t give away his money and possessions because he recognized a desperate need from those around him. He gave away what he had out of gratefulness and joy in receiving Jesus’ gracious welcome. And I expect that he felt absolutely wonderful, and free, and happy as he gave away what he had for the good of others.

I put some rather unusual questions for your reflection on the bulletin insert today. What’s the most fun you’ve ever had giving money? What made the experience delightful, memorable, and meaningful?

Maybe you’ll fondly remember a friendly competition in an auction fundraiser. Maybe you’ll think of a cause you were able to support that was close to your heart and where you saw that your gift made a real difference. Maybe you’ll reminisce about a person you supported out of love, hope, and possibility for their future.

Robert Schnase says that “Extravagant generosity changes the life and spirit of the giver” even as it helps the person or ministry that receives the gift. And so, our giving is not ONLY to fulfill the needs of the ministry, but we give because it is good for US when we give. Sometimes giving feels absolutely wonderful, delightful, and meaningful. And sometimes it just feels RIGHT because we are living into God’s will and purpose for our lives.

Schnase tells the story of a young couple that discerned that they should move towards the goal of giving 10% of their income to the ministry of the church. When they started thinking about it, they realized that their offerings were only about 2% of their income, and so they slowly and carefully increased their giving over the course of about 5 years.

Along the way, they had to make changes in their lifestyle. They had to have lots of conversations about their priorities. They had to rethink their use of money, and begin to think about their responsibility to be good stewards of every single dollar, making sure that all that they had was used wisely and carefully for God’s glory.

And in the process, they grew closer to each other, and to God, and to the church in which they had deeply invested their lives and their gifts. As they gave more and more away, they learned to put their trust more and more in God, rather than relying on their resources for security.  And they discovered that the proverb is true – that “a generous person will be enriched” – not in the sense of gaining more money or earthly riches, but in the sense of spiritual enrichment and the opportunity to “take hold of the life that really is life,” as the Apostle Paul puts it.

As we think about this final theme in the series on fruitful congregations, we are challenged to consider how God may be calling us, as a congregation, to grow in our practice of “Extravagant Generosity.”  How can we create a culture in which we do not give only because there is a need, but we give out of gratefulness and joy for all that God has done for us… where we give because we want to be good stewards of all that God has entrusted to us… where we give because the giving brings us joy, frees us from fear, allows us to trust in God and put God first, and enables us to participate in God’s life-giving work in the world.

Schnase says that “The practice of Extravagant Generosity changes churches. Churches that nurture proportional giving and tithing among their members thrive. They accomplish great things for Christ, offer robust and confident ministry, and have the resources to carry out ever new and helpful missions. They escape the debilitating effects of conflict and anxiety that are the fruit of a scarcity mentality. They prosper for the purposes of Christ and make a difference in the lives of people.”

We might want to pause today and give thanks for the generous gifts of those who came before us in this congregation and in the Christian Church as a whole. Generous people gave to build churches, train ministers, start programs, begin missions, and pass on the faith to the next generations and to the world. We have received so much from God’s goodness, and from the generous gifts of time, talent, and tithe of those who came before us. And we are invited to continue and build on that legacy, in gratefulness for God’s abundant goodness and grace towards us.

Let me share one more story about a grandfather who was inspired to give: A long-time member and proud grandfather stood at the baptismal font with his family for the baptism of his baby grand-daughter. Another infant from another family that was new to the congregation was baptized at the same service. Following the service, the two families intermingled at the front of the church as they took turns having their pictures taken.

At one point, the mother from the new family needed to get some things out of her bag, and the grandfather from the other family offered to hold her baby. Other church members were mixing and greeting, and several commented on the grandfather with the baby, and he found himself saying several times, “Oh, this one isn’t mine; I’m just holding him for a minute.”

Monday morning the grandfather called the pastor at the church office and said he wanted to see him right away. The pastor assumed the worst, thinking somehow the long-term member was upset about something from the day before. When the grandfather arrived at the church office, he told the pastor, “I want to change my will to include the church, and I want to talk to you about how to do that.”

The pastor was stunned and couldn’t help asking about what brought the grandfather to this decision. The older man’s eyes grew moist as he said, “Yesterday I realized something while I was holding that other baby, the one from the family that just joined the church. I kept telling people that he wasn’t my child, but then it dawned on me that he was part of my family, part of my church family, and that I have a responsibility for that little boy just like I have for my own grand-daughter.

I’ve been a member of this church for more than forty years, and in God’s eyes I’m a grandfather to more than just my own. I’ve taken care of my own children with my will, but I just realized I also need to provide for the children of the church. So I want to divide my estate to leave a part to the church as if the church were one of my children.”

Let us pray…Gracious God, we are so grateful for your mercy and love towards us, for your gracious welcome, for your unconditional love.We are thankful for all those who gave generously from their resources of time, talent, and tithe to pass on their faith to us, and for those who give generously today for our well-being.Open our hearts also, to give freely and even extravagantly in response to your love.And teach us to build a community of growing generosity, for the sake of all you want to do in and through us for your kingdom. Amen.

March 19, 2017

Posted on March 19, 2017 in category: Lent, Sermons
Tags: , ,

Philippians 3:10-17
Psalm 1
Luke 2:42-52

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“Intentional Faith Development”

I had the privilege this weekend, of being able to sit in on a number of Camp Christopher interviews for counsellors for this summer. We interviewed quite a few young people from Saskatoon, a couple by Skype from Prince Albert, and there are still a few more interviews to do in Regina.

And I found it most interesting to listen to them answer questions like, “Why do you want to work at a Christian camp like Camp Christopher?” and “What is the most important message about God that every camper should leave with?” and “What do you hope to accomplish by the end of the summer?”

It was wonderful to hear about their love for children, their enthusiasm about spending the summer outdoors, and their excitement about the friendships they will develop at camp. But what struck me most was when they talked about “wanting to grow in faith” at camp.

There was one young man who particularly impressed me in his interview. He talked about going to church was he was a kid. His grandparents used to take him every Sunday, and he loved it. But when he was eleven, his parents decided that they didn’t believe in God, and they put a stop to his church attendance. So, after that, attending Christian camps in the summer became his only opportunity to hear Bible stories, and experience worship, and learn to pray… until recently.

And at 16, he decided himself to go back to church again, and youth group, and try to pick up where he left off. He was really nervous about the interview, I think, because he figured he wouldn’t “know” enough about Christianity yet to be a counsellor. But he was really honest, saying, “I’m just getting started. And I want to learn.”

And if my own experience of working at a Christian camp as a teenager is any indication, then I think being at Camp Christopher all summer will be the perfect place for him to learn, grow, ask questions, and explore his faith. And his desire to learn and grow will be a blessing to the other staff and to his campers too.

I think that the essence of today’s theme, “Intentional Faith Development,” the third practice of fruitful congregations, is developing an attitude of “I’m just getting started. And I want to learn.”

In his book on the “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations,” Robert Schnase argues that growth in Christ spans a lifetime. And he points to one of the most influential early Christians and teachers of the faith – the Apostle Paul – and notices that even he was on a journey of continually learning and growing in faith.

Writing to the Church at Philippi, Paul says, “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own… Straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal.” You see, faith is not something that we get all at once, but faith moves, grows, changes, and matures when we open our minds and hearts to God’s Word and the Spirit’s guidance.

When you reflect on your journey of faith thus far, I wonder what experiences you remember that shaped your faith. Most of us can begin by naming some church programs – Church School, VBS, Christian camps, youth or adult Bible studies, church membership classes, spiritual retreats, church conferences, lay education courses (or seminary training, for some of us).

Or we might think of books that we have read that had a profound impact on us – not only the Bible itself, but devotional books, theological books, and other books that raised questions and helped us to think deeply about the meaning of our lives and the reality of God.

And then there are the life experiences that challenge and test our faith as well. I wouldn’t say that God sends us challenges in order to test our faith, but when bad things do happen, God so often strengthens us to make it through them. And when we reflect back on our health crises, or grief experiences, or relationship difficulties, or or employment challenges, very often we notice that we have come to believe more strongly, drawn closer to God in prayer, and perhaps learned to recognize God’s presence and love in the midst of daily life.

Of course, we are grateful for the all the ways that God has drawn us into relationship with him and guided us in following the way of Jesus with our lives. But Robert Schnase points out that growth in faith does not come easily or automatically, but requires placing ourselves in community to learn the faith with others. In other words, we need to be intentional about it – both as individual Christians and as congregations.

That’s what Lenten disciplines are all about. Whether we have committed to daily prayer, joined a Bible study, or chosen to #Read4Reconciliation during this season, Lent is about intentionally turning ourselves away from sin and selfishness once again, and turning to God with open hearts and minds to be taught and guided in our lives of faith.

As a Methodist Bishop, Schnase is quick to look to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, for guidance. And he finds there the encouragement not only for intentional faith development, but intentional faith development in the context of the community of faith: “Wesley commended the practices of public and family prayers, the searching of Scriptures, the receiving of Holy Communion, and the practice of works of mercy – all in supportive community. We learn the life of Christ and will of God by studying God’s Word and through experience with other people of faith…

“The practice of learning in community gives disciples a network of support, encouragement, and direction as we seek to grow in Christ. As we consciously appropriate the stories of faith with others, we discover that our questions, doubts, temptations, and missteps are not unusual but are part of the journey. We are emboldened to new ways of thinking about God and to new ways of exercising our faith in daily life.”

A few years ago, we had a young man come to join our community here at St. Andrew’s during the short time he was living in Saskatoon. He had been curious about Christianity for a number of years. He had read the Bible cover to cover, and watched preachers online and on TV quite a bit as well. But this was the first time that he was part of a church.

And during that year or so that Andreas was with us, we were reminded of gift we have in the opportunity to learn and grow in faith together. Our Sunday morning Bible study group was infused with energy as we grappled with his questions and introduced him to life in the believing community. And those of us with many years of church experience grew in faith also because he was with us, because we spent time with him and took him seriously.

Schnase says that “Maturation in Christ is always about content AND relationship. Ideas change people, and people change people; and God uses both together to work on our behalf and to shape our lives in the image of Christ. Transformation comes through learning in community.”

Jesus knew that. He demonstrated his desire to learn and grow in community when, as a twelve-year-old, he stayed behind at the Temple in Jerusalem to discuss and debate and explore with the rabbis that gathered there.

And when, as an adult, he began his own teaching ministry, he called together a community of disciples who learned together (through stories and teachings, as well as through watching Jesus’ example, and being sent out to actually join in his active ministry).

As individuals, we are invited especially during this Lenten season to be intentional about our faith development. We are encouraged to make commitments and try to stick to them. We are encouraged to set ourselves where God can shape us (whether that’s in a Bible study group, or in a theological course, or at a Christian camp, or simply in the church choir where we spend time together singing our faith). We are encouraged to set ourselves where God can shape us, intentionally opening ourselves to God’s Word and call.

And as a congregation, we need to be intentional too. Robert Schnase argues that “Vibrant, fruitful, growing congregations practice Intentional Faith Development” because “the followers of Jesus mature in faith by learning together in community.” These churches “offer high quality learning experiences that help people understand Scripture, faith, and life in the supportive nurture of caring relationships.”

So, as we continue to reflect, pray, and discuss what God may be calling our congregation to do next, as we seek to become more fruitful… today, let us consider our practice of intentional faith development. Let’s take a few minutes to reflect quietly on the questions on the green inserts in your bulletins. And after that, we’ll spend some time in discussion with our neighbours in the pew. Don’t forget to record your ideas so that they can be gathered at the end of the service, and added to our growing collection of good ideas and possibilities.

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