Wednesday, January 31, 2007

2006 Annual Report

If 2006 was a year of preparation, 2007 will be a year of action. Good Shepherd saw many changes 2006. We bought new chairs to make our worship less uncomfortably carcinogenic, we’ve launched the ChristCare Series small group ministry, and most importantly, we’ve welcomed the Moores into our church family as Cathy accepted the position as our Director of Youth and Family Ministry.

So, positive changes are happening all around us. Good Shepherd is a forward looking congregation for the future that places love for God and neighbour at the heart of its faith life. Creative Fingers, the Bridge Club, the youth activities and every other Good Shepherd ministry is built around this fundamental truth: that we can’t be effective followers of Jesus without each other.

So, if there is one word to encapsulate my ministry priorities for 2007 it is this: relationships. I believe that God is asking us to building stronger, deeper relationships with each other, with the community, and with God.

The ChristCare Series – Circles of Care with Christ at the Centre

I see our emerging ChristCare Small Group Ministry being part of Good Shepherd’s relationship building. ChristCare Groups, along with every other group in our congregation helps us focus on the mission that Jesus gave us, and helps us toward new beginnings for each other, ourselves, and our community.

I am constantly amazed by how neatly the four pillars of ChristCare; Community and Care, Prayer and Worship, Biblical Equipping, and Missional Service, fit who we are and who we feel God is calling us to be.

Our mission statement reads:

Rooted in the Gospel, our caring community

celebrates God’s grace

emphasizes worship and prayer

nurtures faith through the Word and the Sacraments

equips for service, and

witnesses to the world in Jesus’ name.

So, Good Shepherd’s mission statement begins by saying: “Rooted in the Gospel, our caring community….” We at Good Shepherd understand ourselves, first as a gospel-centred caring community, so all ministry flows from the care that we have for God, each other and the wider community.

Director of Youth and Family Ministry

I have watched with awe as Cathy established herself and her ministry so strongly within our congregation. Cathy has brought energy and spiritual vitality to our youth and family ministries, which then spills over to the whole congregation. Her ideas, enthusiasm, and faithfulness have been a tremendous blessing to me and to our church family.

As Cathy makes clear in her report, ministry to our youth and family is a priority for Good Shepherd. So, it is our job to help Cathy in her mandate to:

To raise children who are followers of Jesus, and will continue in faithful discipleship throughout their lives – and beyond.

To build relationships between all generations of our church family, through mentoring, inter-generational events, and other events that bring people of all ages together to share their lives as grow in faith.

To offer families tools they can use to develop faith with their children and parents, making the home the primary place of Christian growth.

Building Relationship – Building the Future

Over the next few months you’ll be hearing about plans to install an elevator in our building. Such a project will be a major cost initiative. What are the benefits?

An elevator will enhance our building’s resale value in the event that we move to another location, whenever that may be. But I see an elevator as a part of our mandate to build relationships with each as many people are finding it increasingly difficult to navigate the stairs to coffee fellowship time, or to any of the intergenerational events that our church hosts. If we are called to be a welcoming, caring community, then this is a strong step to making our building help us carry out that mission.

However, our new building plans have slowed to a crawl. I think this is because we haven’t yet discerned what our new building is supposed to be or do, other than solve our existing physical plant problems. Also, I feel that we are afraid to compromise our existing ministries to people if we place all our energies and resources into a new facility.

I think this is as wise fear. It shows that our ministry priorities are to people rather than to a building. I encourage you to keep the future of our congregation in your prayers, as we discern the path God is calling us to take.

Mexico Trip – Exploring Justice, Building Relationships

Going to Mexico was probably the highlight of 2006. Not because it was wonderfully rewarding to experience a different culture, but because I was so proud of our young people as they grew through their time down south.

The group of young people had a vision of what life could be, a vision they learned from hearing hope-full stories of people they encountered. The businesses that were born from the theological reflection of a Base Christian Community, the deep spirituality of the indigenous community of Amatlan, the artisans who demanded just prices for their work, even the Center for Global Education itself, were signs that hope is alive in Mexico.

If there was one thing that I learned in Mexico is that the Spirit is still moving among God’s people; people who might have given up long ago if it weren’t for God’s encouragement. In them and in the young people of Good Shepherd I find renewed hope to proclaim good news.

So, for us, I think God is asking us to walk, two by two, with people who struggle – and we all struggle – so we all walk together so that – together - we can live our salvation and proclaim the nearness of God.

Conclusion – Growing in Discipleship Together

ChristCare, the Director of Youth and Family Ministry, an elevator, and every other ministry of our church is, to me, pieces to a puzzle that God is putting in front of us. It’s as if God wants us to put all the pieces together before we have a vision of where God wants us to go. To say it another way: we won’t know where we’re going until we get there.

As the people of God wandered through the desert for 40 years waiting for God to show them the Promised Land, I think that God is dropping us hints as to a future that we can’t quite yet see. And it won’t be until we piece together all the parts of the puzzle that we’ll see the vision that God has for us.

Together, with God, we are building this congregation of the future during a time of great and rapid change. It demands that we ask ourselves at every turn – why do we do things the way we do? Is that the best way or just “the way we’ve always done it”? What is God asking from us today?

Many more people are joining us; let’s welcome them, and be smart about how we make way for them. We are stewards of the mysteries of God. Jesus’ message of new life and salvation is not ours to own, it is only ours to care for and to share with others, for the time that we are here.

So, keep praying for discernment. Keep looking for new opportunities for yourself and for our church. Keep listening for God’s still, small voice.

God is calling us to new and exciting ministries that will help us grow as faithful followers of Jesus. We have been given a mission to build stronger and deeper relationships with God, with each other, and with the community.

Let’s do it well, together.

In Service to Christ’s Church,

Rev. Kevin Powell, Pastor

Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd

January 11, 2007

Friday, January 26, 2007

Epiphany 4 - Year C

How would you recognize a holy man when you saw him? Or for that matter, how about a holy woman?

Would you be struck by his serenity? Would she have a calm disposition? Would he dispense ancient wisdom like spiritual McNuggets, to be gobbled up by a hungry crowd? Would her listeners nod their heads in inspired wonder? Would he be challenging, yet soothing, tossing around sweetly spiritual words that comfort anxious souls?

Or would she be more like Jesus in today’s gospel?

Things were happening at First Synagogue in suburban Nazareth; their purpose-driven, seeker-sensitive, strategy was working well for them. Their church school was the envy of the other synagogues, and the youth strategy was paying huge dividends. Their praise band just cut a CD and they just finished a building expansion to deal with the numbers of new people that were pouring into their sanctuary each weekend. These folks were on a roll, in the Zone, in a Groove, at the top of their game.

That was until Jesus opened his mouth. And this was his first sermon.

You might have thought that Jesus would have used a different strategy. I guess he was sick the day in seminary where they taught would-be preachers how to outline an argument. He forgot that you need to save your more inflammatory rhetoric after telling a joke, softening up the listeners with a heartwarming story or inspiring poem.

Not with Jesus. First day in the pulpit, first sermon, he jabs them right between the eyes with Isaiah followed by a right hook from First Kings. And the congregation goes down for the count.

When they get back up on their feet, they try to throw him off a cliff. And with that, Luke says that Jesus “went on his way.”

I guess his work was done. If his job was to leave a group of unsuspecting church folks frothing at the mouth, then, I say, “Mission Accomplished!”

But if the crowd was so angry, who could blame them? Listen to what he said, and you may remember this from last week when we heard the first part of this story:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

Fine. Good. Great, even. Reading from the bible is what we expect preachers to do. It was wonderful to see little Jesus, Joseph and Mary’s boy take his faith seriously. They remembered him when he delivered papers, letting him off the hook when their morning news arrived after their coffee had perked.

They had heard that he was making a name for himself in the city, playing the small venues, building an audience. So, they were all smiles when he walked to the front of the sanctuary and started reading the bible.

But then he sat down in the preacher’s chair. That’s when the trouble began.

It was quiet. When he was sure that he had everyone’s attention, Jesus pronounced, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

They just wanted to see a few signs and wonders, or at least a stirring sermon. They didn’t want to hear blasphemy. They didn’t want to hear that the scriptures were coming true. They didn’t want to hear that this bible thing means more than a little spirituality on the Sabbath. They didn’t want to hear that the world was changing because they had worked so hard to make it the way it was.

They may have known that their lives weren’t perfect; then again, whose is? They may have been comfortable in the prison of their grief, because they made that prison their home. They may have been happy in their blindness to the world’s great need because they knew there was too much hunger, fear, and brokenness around them to actually do something about it. They liked their lives just the way they were. How dare Jesus suggest that God was going to change their lives?

Others thought the world was moving along just the way it should. Those in prison should rot there. The poor should get jobs and stop complaining. The oppressed should learn that they will get their riches in the next life and should stop whining about how bad their lives are now. Life isn’t fair, deal with it. This preacher should just keep his nose out of things he doesn’t understand and just tell folks how much God loves them.

It’s no wonder they tried to push him off a cliff. I probably would have done the same thing.

If bible promises are coming true then that means my life might change. It means that God is asking me to do something that I might not want to do. It means that I might be pulled kicking and screaming out of my comfortable rut.

I don’t know about you, but I like to think of myself as reasonably self-reliant. Yes, I’ve gotten some help along the way, but it was me who studied for my exams. It was me who wrote the papers. It was me who went looking for a job after I finished school. I was taught at an early age that the world owed me nothing. Whatever I wanted, I had to earn. Period.

So, Isaiah’s promises that were fulfilled in Jesus don’t sound like good news to me. So where is the gospel for those of us who have worked hard and played by the rules? Where is the gospel for those who try to do things that are right and good and pleasing to God only to be told that God’s promises are for someone else?

Grace isn’t fair. Deal with it.

That’s what I think God would say. If there’s one theme that runs through the gospels it is that grace is patently UN-fair. The older brother in the story of the Prodigal son gets shafted when his younger brother arrives home after squandering his dad’s hard earned cash on beer and prostitutes. The workers, who worked all day in one of Jesus’ stories, received the same wage as those who only worked an hour. That doesn’t sound very fair does it?

God’s only Son, the only sinless person to have ever walked the earth, is born into a world of sin, pain, and death, only to be executed in one of the most horrible methods ever devised by the human imagination, simply because he preached love, peace, and forgiveness. That doesn’t sound very fair either, does it?

But if we want to find ourselves in the story, maybe we should look at those parts of our lives that are not strong: our fear, our failures, our faults. Maybe we need look at our pain and grief imprisons us, keeping us captive from the life that God wants for us. Maybe God is asking us to discover our own blind spots, keeping us from seeing where God is alive and active in the world. Maybe God is challenging us to learn just how poor we are, that way we can notice the poverty of others all around us.

Then maybe we will find good news because we’ll know that Isaiah’s promises, fulfilled in Jesus aren’t just for those who are weaker than us, but that they are for us as well.

Then, perhaps, we’ll be able to see the suffering of others through the lens of our own pain. And maybe, we’ll receive with joy God’s gloriously unfair grace that Jesus came to give to the world.

Then the holy men and women we meet will be in each other, and ourselves. May this be so among us. Amen.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Q: How do you know that Lutherans will be the first ones to rise on the day of resurrection?

A: Because scripture says that the “dead in Christ will rise first.”

I used to tell that joke a little differently. Instead of “Lutheran” I mentioned another church family that would drive me theologically crazy. But then Rebekah gave me a good talking to about being so mean to some of our Christian sisters and brothers. I didn’t think I was being mean. I thought I was being funny.

Today, I’m supposed to preach about Christian unity. To be honest, I haven’t a clue where to begin. I haven’t had a whole of confidence over the whole Christian unity thing over the last little while. To me, it too often seems to be one sided. Only voice speaks, only one interpretation of the gospel is expressed. It seemed that there was only one way to “do” Christian Unity.

But it wasn’t always that way.

When I was in Halifax and was Conference Dean, I was invited to go to all sorts of inter-church, inter-faith, and ecumenical gatherings as the token Lutheran. Some gatherings were wonderful. I had the opportunity to connect with some brilliant, compassionate, and wise church leaders, folks who shepherded me as I took on a greater leadership role within my faith community.

Other gatherings were not so great. From one group of church leaders, I was made fun of for believing certain core doctrines, or scorned for not having the same pastoral priorities as them. And the message was clear: if I wanted to partner with them, if we to do common mission activities, then I and my denomination had better shape up.

Maybe the international ecumenical movement would fair better.

In 1999 the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. In other words, they were going to sign a paper that said the other side wasn’t going to Hell for believing what they did about what was the defining issue of the Reformation.

Well, the ink wasn’t yet dry before Cara statement from atop the Vatican was released asserting the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church over every other Christian body, including the Lutherans, of course. So much for a historic agreement, we Lutherans muttered to ourselves.

But then, in case you think I’m coming down hard on our Roman Catholic friends, a Lutheran body took out a full page ad in USA Today and the National Post

to make sure the world knew that whoever Lutheran signed and affirmed this declaration with the Roman Catholic Church didn’t speak for them, and that, the Roman Catholics, were indeed, still bound for eternal heat blisters.

No one fights as well as Christians.

Don’t get me wrong, I would LOVE for Christians to find better ways of coming together. I just don’t know exactly what it looks like or where we really need to begin.

Even Paul has trouble finding concrete ways of bring diverse Christians together with a common message.

“You all are different members of one body,” Paul scolds a terribly fractious Corinthian church. “you have a diversity of gifts. Some of you are good at one sort of ministry, but others of you are have gifts for another sort of ministry, etc.”

But I tell you, this time around, as I was trying to come up with something hopeful about Christian unity, a phrase jumped out and grabbed me by the throat, shook me up and down, and become more than mere words on a page, they became the Word of God.

Paul simply says, almost off-handedly, “Now that you are the body of Christ.” It’s amazing to me that Paul would have said that to that particular church. For the last number of chapters Paul was hammering away at them for everything they were doing wrong. The ecclesiastical fist fights they were getting into. The smear campaigns they launched against each other. The fact that they were tearing their church apart because they couldn’t agree on what the heart of their faith was.

He said they ought to be ashamed of themselves, calling themselves Christians and acting they way they were, with their family feuds and doctrinal ignorance, petty divisions and cowardly disloyalty to the faith that Paul so lovingly nurtured in them. This body of Christ was cancerous, and surgery might have been able to save its life.

But, even after all that scolding, Paul does NOT say something like, “You OUGHT to be the body of Christ,” or “If you stop fighting with each other, if you get your theological house in order, if you stop behaving like children crashing down off a sugar high, and start behaving like the Christians you were taught to be, THEN you will be the body of Christ.”

No, Paul just says flat out “You ARE the body.” It’s an amazing thing to say about a group like them. It’s would be an amazing thing to say about a group like us Lutherans.

But Paul just says, Whether you like or not, you are a church family. You are Christ’s body. For all your faults, for all your disagreements, for all your mistakes, you are the only visible form the risen Christ has in the world.

That’s quite the rebuke, don’t you think? But a rebuke and a promise. It tells us that no matter what we do to each other, no matter how much we fight and disagree, no matter far we stray off the beaten theological path, we can’t escape each other. We’re stuck with each other, like it or not.

Does that sound like good news to you? It does to me. But I had to dig around for it. I think God not only sees as we are, fractious groups beset by petty rivalries, but also as we will be: God’s people united in the gospel, joined together by Jesus’ death and resurrection, bonded by a common mission. Christian unity isn’t just something we have to work at, it’s something we’ve already been given. It’s a gift that we’ve received.

I don’t know about you but that brings me tremendous comfort. Sometimes when I think that Christians are probably the only group in the world that can’t get along, I come back to this passage, and the promise that we are already united because we have a common faith in the one who knit us together.

But God still has a lot of knitting to do. But I wonder if the real unity that God is building happens not in the sanctuary during worship, but in the fellowship hall afterwards, at the college where we partner with other churches to serve a good Christmas meal for students, at joint choir rehearsals.

And maybe God is calling us to greater co-operation and partnership as we tackle the greatest threats to life on this planet. The World Council of Churches decided that this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity theme will be the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. It’s as if God is saying to us, Stop your fighting and start doing something real. And nothing is more real than an entire continent cries out in agony away while we play religious games.

I believe history will judge us as Christians by how we deal with the African HIV/AIDS crisis. And God will uphold that verdict.

It’s like God is asking us to die to, our cultures, our histories, our customs, and maybe even some of our theologies, and to look in the eyes of a dying child. It would be blasphemous for children to die of horrible diseases while Christians were more interested in keeping the walls between each other strong and clean.

I believe God is placing a challenge before us. God didn’t create this disease, but God wants it stopped. And God is bringing us together and equipping us as God’s people to meet this challenge.

It’s a challenge, an opportunity, and a call for us to respond to suffering cries of an entire continent dying from AIDS. But together, we can help, we can answer that call – together. Those suffering children are asking the world from us. And God is asking even more.

May we have the strength and the will to follow wherever Christ leads us, and may we follow Christ together. Amen.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Epiphany 2 - Year B

NB: Willimon's Pulpit Resource was helpful in putting this sermon together. -kgp

Grace to you and peace from God’s beloved.

Chances are, you and I might be tempted to dismiss this story from today’s gospel as mere fantasy. A nice bible story. Sure we affirm that, yes, Jesus did indeed turn water into wine, at that wedding feast in Cana. And, yes, we believe and affirm that Jesus performed and is performing miracles today. I wonder if we really expect him to. At least in any way we could actually see and experience.

For some, there are what my wife calls, believers in the “parking lot god.’ You know who I’m talking about. Those folks who say they prayed for a parking spot to open up close to the front doors at the mall two days before Christmas, and vioala! A parking spot sits empty right in front of the Shopper’s Drug Mart at noon on December 23rd, and they pull right in, praising God.

While we might laugh pray for weightier things, I wonder if we could learn something from the parking lot prayer.

We pray for healing for sick people each week, maybe half-heartedly expecting God to actually to break open the divine medicine chest. We pray for peace but don’t really expect our soldiers to return home from Afghanistan anytime soon.

The liturgy itself has the same prayers, week after week. It’s as if we don’t expect God to answer them because we plan to say them again and again.

When you think about, we don’t really expect all that much from God, do we?

“Let’s ask Jane to take on this job,” said one member of the planning committee. “Jane never does anything halfway; she always does a great job with anything she takes on.” There was widespread agreement in the group.

Then the pastor piped up, “Do you really think that’s fair to Jane? She already has three jobs in the church. She’s one of our busiest, most hardworking members.”

“That’s just my point,” said the chairperson. “Everyone knows that if you want a job done right, give it to someone who’s busy. Busy people seem to be the people who can find more time to do more.”

Down the street at a different church, a couple sit in their pastor’s study, “Pastor, we have decided to adopt the foster child we’ve been keeping. He’s such a great kid. The parents have given him up for adoption, and we think we could give him a really good home.”

“Do you really think that’s wise?” the pastor asked. “You already have four children. Don’t get me wrong, you’re a great mom, but think of the cost to your existing kids. Don’t you think there are limits of how much you can give?”

“When it comes to love, “she said, “I have not yet found the limits. From my experience, love is a renewable resource. The more love you give, the more you seem to have. At least, that’s how I’ve seen it.”

Two different sets of expectations. Whose would you say were the more realistic? I’m guessing it would on depend who you ask.

Just like in today’s reading, Jesus seems to be the one with lower expectations.

If you know the story, you know that Mary was nagging Jesus. There’s no other way to put it. Jesus came to the wedding looking for a good time. Mary put him to work. He tried to weasel his way out of it, “That’s not my problem. Plus, my hour has not yet come.”

“Don’t give me that, young man,” Mary seems to be saying. Then she turns to the stewards and says,

“Do what he tells you to do.”

Mary puts Jesus on the spot. So what choice does he have now?

He steps up to the plate, or the jars, as the case may be. He may have rolled his eyes like sons do to moms, but doesn’t lay hands on the jars. He doesn’t say an eloquent prayer for divine intervention for this wedding feast that didn’t stock the bar well enough. There were no reports of angel sightings delivering divine brew.

He just told them to taste it. And to bring some to the wedding party.

I think that’s a really cool miracle. Subtle. With a touch of mystery. And completely unexpected. Even for Jesus. I’m sure he had no intention of starting his ministry by providing libations for a young couple who misjudged how much wine they needed for their wedding reception. But it was Mary who enlarged his vision of what he would do in the world.

That’s what this season of Epiphany is all about. Seeing God working where people don’t expect God to.

I know some folks don’t like this story because they’re suspicious of the miracle part of Jesus’ ministry. They say it’s a fanciful diversion from the weightier issues of justice and compassion. Plus, they can’t wrap their scientific heads around things that can’t be explained rationally.

Others don’t like this story because they’re so cautious and restrained. If Jesus can change water into wine, what else can Jesus do? If Jesus is still doing what the bible says he did, then what does that mean for my comfortable, cautious existence? Might Jesus ask us to look more broadly at what God wants us to do as a church family?

I don’t know about you, but that’s what scares me about this passage. What scares me is that God thinks I can do more than I think I can do. God thinks I’m more gifted that I believe I really am. God thinks that we, as God’s people, can be more faithful, compassionate, and loving, that we believe is possible. God thinks we are limited only by God’s power.

Last year, before we left for Mexico, Rod Jerke shared this quote from Marianne Williamson with the group, and it made quite the impact with some folks:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small doesn't serve the world.
There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so
that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us, it's in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other
people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.

Maybe that’s what Jesus was getting at when he turned the water into wine and then gave us the cup to drink from. His hour may not have come when he expected it to, but then again, whoever said we could predict what God is going to do in our lives? Whoever said that God wanted us to be live safe and secure?

So where is God challenging you? Where is God asking you to look more broadly at the mission God has given your life? Where is God encouraging you to shine more brightly?

Chances are, it’ll happen when and where you least expect it. But I think you’ll be amazed by what God will do through you. And through all of us. Amen.