AN EPISTLE OF HOPE
So what do I do a I enter my last month of ministry as your Lead Minister? What messages do I want to share? Are there important things to say or guidance to give? I’ve been pondering that these last few weeks. It’s a humbling thing to realize that this stage of my life and ministry is coming to an end. But that’s okay. These next couple of weeks are significant. Today would have been my mother’s 104th birthday. I recall her questioning whether her baby was really called to be a minister. Being an accountant, which I was 40 years ago, seemed a far safer choice in her mind. But she came to grips with it and was very supportive until her death. Next week is my birthday which, at least for me, is also very significant. I’m not saying that because I want any presents from anyone. It’s just a realization that these dates are significant and often for more than one reason.
So after pondering, I felt called to share messages based on the book of 1 Peter in the New Testament. It’s a short little book of five chapters tucked into the back of the Bible. You could miss it if you weren’t looking for it but it’s a great little book. Like the book of Revelation, it was written to the churches in Asia Minor that are going through a time of persecution. Yet, despite that persecution, Peter encourages the readers to live with hope. Hope is etched throughout it beginning right in the first verse. 1 Peter 1:1 (NIV) tells us that this letter was written, “To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia.” But this translation does not really convey the situation of those early Christians. Not only are they scattered, they are also exiled, driven from their homes to go some place else where their anonymity might provide them with a measure of protection. They cannot go back home for fear of further persecutions.
Into this circumstance, Peter writes to encourage them to continue down the road of faith with purpose and hope. 1 Peter 1:3 (NIV) summarizes the rest of the letter when it says, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…”
Despite all that is wrong with the world in which they live, despite the cruel persecutions that they face, regardless of what the world can dish out at them, Peter gives the reason for their hope. It is because Jesus Christ rose from the dead. By his wounds we are healed. By his death we have life. By his suffering we have redemption. Sin cannot defeat us. Death cannot harm us because it has been overcome by the power of the cross. No matter what happens in life they can hang their hats on that promise and so can we because ultimately God wins.
MY CONCERN FOR THE CHURCH
I must confess that there have been many times in the past ten or fifteen years when I have needed to have some hope especially around ministry. Not that I’m not hopeful about my own ministry. I’ve always tried hard to discern what God wants from me and then tried to make it happen. I’m not one to be happy with the status quo. I’m always looking around the next bend to see what’s up ahead. And I’m also very hopeful about this congregation. I was concerned a year ago when we didn’t seem to be bouncing back from the impact of Covid-19 but I’ve seen progress in the past six months. We have some really interesting and innovative mission and outreach work going on and that’s exciting. So, I’m quite hopeful about the future of this congregation and I’m looking forward to what God as in store for the next stage of my journey.
My biggest concern is for the United Church of Canada in general. That comes from a number of sources. Over the past few months, I’ve taken quite a few Sundays off in order to burn the last of my vacation and study leave. And when I do that, I have intentionally gone to other churches to attend worship. What I’ve found is that the most people I’ve seen in other churches is thirty-five or, at most, forty people. They are predominantly older. There are few, if any, children or younger families. That does not bode well for the church in general because those demographics suggest that there is no future. Understand that some of these churches were quite healthy before the pandemic – at least they thought they were. But now their future is in jeopardy. That causes me concern.
I’m also concerned about the direction of the United Church. I received a phone call on Thursday from a sales rep from Broadview Magazine. For those who don’t know, Broadview is the offshoot of the United Church Observer which was the monthly magazine publication of the United Church of Canada. What Broadview wants to do is send us some promotional material to see if people are interested in subscribing. I told them to sent the materials and we can distribute them.
But then I decided to be honest with the woman. I said that, in my opinion, Broadview has the same problems that the Observer had. All it talks about is political and social issues usually from a fairly clear left wing bias. So it gets on the climate change bandwagon and the transgender bandwagon and the racism bandwagon. And there is nothing wrong with that in some ways because those are real issues in our society. But there is rarely, if ever, any mention of Jesus.
I can say the same thing about the regular newsletters that we get from our Region and from the national church. Most of you don’t see them but they are forwarded on a regular basis to the members of our Church Board so they can be kept up to date. Those newsletters talk a lot about racism. They talk about sexism and climate change. They talk about indigenous issues. These are all the hot button topics of society but, again, where is Jesus? That concerns me because if all the church is doing is echoing the current political and social issues, then what’s the point? When there is no discernable difference between what the church says and what we hear in the main stream media, that’s a problem. Those issues are real but where is Jesus in the discussion. What does the Bible say that can help us make sense of them as a people who are Christ followers? Somehow, the church seems to have lost its soul and a church that has lost its soul will eventually disappear. That concerns me.
That can be most discouraging but this is a church of hope. We are a people of hope and our faith is built on hope. So where is the hope in all of this? Let’s return to the book of 1 Peter and read 1 Peter 2:4-10 (NIV):
4 As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him – 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For in Scripture it says:
“See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”
7 Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,
“The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,”
8 and, “A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.”
They stumble because they disobey the message – which is also what they were destined for.
9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
I read this passage this week in light of the conference that I attended last week in Hamilton. It was an amazing experience because lots of my friends in ministry were there including Orville James who you may remember was our guest speaking at last year’s anniversary worship.
The conference was hosted by a group called Cruxifusion. What is Cruxifusion? It’s actually a very exclusive group. To be a member of Cruxifusion, you have be in paid accountable ministry within the United Church of Canada or a retired minister. Only ministers can belong. That’s not really a bad thing because there needs to be space for ministers to gather to share our thoughts and concerns. There is value in pastors meeting together as pastors. That’s what Cruxifusion does.
This is also a unique group in the United Church because it is designed specifically for those of us in the evangelical or conservative wing of the church. I’ve been part of the group for a few years now and I really appreciate the support and encouragement that I get from the other Cruxers as we call ourselves.
One of the reasons why Cruxifusion is so important is because evangelical United Church minister are small by significant part of the United Church. Most of our peers are far more liberal in their biblical interpretation and really don’t focus on Jesus the way that we do. I confess that, when it comes to the United Church, I have often felt somewhat like Elijah who, when he faced the 400 prophets of Baal and then Queen Jezebel, in 1 Kings 19:10 (NIV) said, “I am the only one left and now they are trying to kill me too.” Being an evangelical in the United Church has at times been a very lonely experience. So it is good to gather with other ministers who share a similar theology and love of Jesus.
There is a lot of hope in this group. We get hope from knowing that we are not alone that I’m not alone. There are other ministers out there in the United Church who believe the same things that I believe. We believe that Jesus is who he said he was, the only begotten son of God. We believe that he died on the cross to pay the price of our sins and that he physically rose from the dead to open for us the gates of eternal life in his kingdom. And we believe Jesus when he said that he is the way, the truth and the life and that no one goes to the Father except through him. The good news in this is that there are a lot of other ministers out there who are not afraid to speak the truth in love about who Jesus is and what he did. We don’t make any excuses and we don’t apologize for being Christians. We speak the same language about Jesus and it is most refreshing to see and hear that.
In fact, I confess that while I was there, I mentioned to a few of my peers that I would be retiring at the end of the month and that maybe they should check out Cottam United Church as biblically based, Jesus centered church.
That’s the first thing that gave me hope, the knowledge that I’m not alone. The second thing – and this was a huge surprise – is the demographics of those who attended the conference. Many of them were younger – under the age of forty – and that is unusual these days in the United Church. But it seems that it is the younger ministers who have more of a heart for Jesus. Many of them were also ministers who have come to Canada from other countries mostly from what is called the Global South. I met ministers from Africa, South America, the Caribbean and India. And to a person, they impressed me. I was humbled by their enthusiasm, by their energy, by their passion for ministry and by their love of Jesus. They were not encumbered like so many Canadians seem to be by a sense of entitlement. They see ministry not simply as a forty-hour-a-week job but as a vocation and a lifestyle. With their enthusiasm and their heart for Jesus, they are giving new life to United Churches that were previously wilting on the vine. They are sharing the gospel of Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit, they are moving hearts. And it’s really quite amazing to see and I am in awe of what they are accomplishing.
The other exciting part about this is that these young ministers represent a whole new generations of evangelicals within the United Church of Canada. There is a vibrancy about these new ministers that I found most refreshing. This speak to me of real and vital renewal within the church, fired by a new generation of Spirit filled evangelical minister who believe that they can change this denomination, if not the world.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
So what does this mean for us? Maybe it means that we claim who we are in God’s creation and become part of the renewal that I believe may soon start to sweep across the United Church of Canada. For a long time now, our attitude has been very congregational. We have said the General Council can do what it wants to do but we will simply go on doing our thing and ignore them when we have too. Maybe it’s time to change that thinking. Maybe it time to reconnect.
In 1 Peter 2:9 (NIV), it says, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” That’s who we are. We are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. And our purpose is to declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light. That’s the most important and most precious mission in the world today and it has been given to us. We are called to share that good news with the world.
When I was at the Cruxifusion Conference a few years ago, I picked up a t-shirt with the theme of the conference stenciled on the front. It says, “I believe, I belong, I witness.” That’s a great theme and I think it has a message for us today.
I believe. I believe in Jesus and I’m not afraid to say it. I believe that he came to the earth to show us how to live, that he died on the cross to pay the price of our sins and that he rose again from the dead to open for us the gates of the kingdom so that all who put their faith in him will spend eternity with him in God’s great kingdom. I discovered that there are all kinds of other United Churches out there sharing that same message. That’s what I believe.
I belong. I belong in the United Church because this is where God has planted me and this is where I have grown. Maybe it’s time for me to own that and stop trying to ignore the denomination that ordained me and gave me the ability to minister in its midst. Do I like where the United Church has been going over the past forty years? Absolutely not. It has been like a ship without an engine and without a rudder. It has floundered and capsized. But maybe it’s time to do something to right the ship once again. And maybe it’s time for us as a congregation to get on board and see if God is calling us to do something to recreate the United Church into faithful, mission driven, Christ centered, biblically literate denomination. With all of the disagreements that we have had with the United Church over the years this is still where we belong.
I believe, I belong. The third one is this: I witness. God gives many missions fields to his people where they are called to witness to the truth of the Gospel. That is as true of us as it is of anyone. But where is our mission field? What if I were to suggest that our mission field is the same place where we belong? One of the best mission fields out there is the United Church of Canada. We as a congregation have so much to offer the other churches in this area. We are very different. Other churches know that we are difference. Maybe we need to be more clear about why we are different. We are a chosen people, a royal people, a holy nation, people belonging to God… I get that. But what I have come to know since the Cruxifusion Conference is that so is the rest of the United Church. Some have just lost their way and become discouraged and frustrated. Wouldn’t it be great if we could be one of the tools that God uses to remind other congregations of just who they are in God’s eyes; to remind them that they too are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God. Remind them of who they are. Remind them of what Jesus did for them and remind them that they have a gospel message to share and a mission to fulfill. Then they too can be the Church of hope that God intends for us to be.
I believe, I belong, I witness. May that be our testimony as well.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Loving God, we come as children seeking the pure spiritual milk that only you can offer. We come from our busyness and the stresses of everyday life to find refreshment for our spirits. You, O God, offer us what we can find no where else. You nourish us and nurture us. You give us peace and security. You protect us from the powers that would harm us. You lift us above the difficulties of life and enable us to deal with whatever is thrown our way. Thank you for staying with us. Thank you for walking beside us and never leaving us alone. Even when we forget about you, you do not forget about us. How great and awesome you are.
We offer our thanks for the coming spring. It’s been wet but pray for some drier weather that the farmers may get onto their land to get the seeding done. We also pray for the bees that pollinate our fruit trees in the various orchards in the county. We pray even now for a good harvest this fall, thankful that you hear our prayers.
We also give thanks this day for the coronation of King Charles III. Bless him as he seeks to reign with justice and compassion for all people. Give him strength and wisdom in all things.
We lift up in prayer the continuing strife and suffering in the Ukraine, Sudan and the Middle East. We often don’t know how to think or what to do but you, O God, are a God of peace and miracles. The world could use a few now.
We pray for those who are ill this past week. Bless them with healing and wholeness. Be with their families and calm their fears. Soothe their anxieties and give them the peace that only you can offer.
God of Heaven and Earth, hear our prayers and the prayers of all those who, in faith, seek you. Feed our hungry souls and lead us onto your path of peace. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
May 7, 2023 / Easter 5
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; John 14:1-14; Acts 7:55-60;1 Peter 2:2-10
CALL TO WORSHIP
God is our Rock; the stronghold of our lives.
God is our Rock; the foundation of our salvation.
Come, let us worship him in Spirit and in truth.
We come to you, O God of Life, as newborns awaiting your spiritual milk. Come and quench our thirst. Feed us with your Spirit. Refresh us by your streams of living water. We need your hand to hold us and your light to lead us if we are grow and mature in faith, hope and love. Enter our worship. Enter our hearts. Renew our lives by your Holy and Indwelling Presence. Amen.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
We seek your presence, even in the midst of our own sinfulness. Like our ancestors, we turn away from your prophets when they say those things that we do not want to hear. Our resistance to change leads us to ridicule those who call us to holiness. We prefer the familiar and the comfortable even if they are not your ways. Forgive us, O God of Mercy, when we stumble and fall. Pick us up and set our feet back upon the way of life. Amen.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
The Glory of Christ is like a shining star in the dark skies of night. It twinkles and glows and gives us reason for hope. Be assured that that glory is able to overcome even the greatest sin. In Jesus, we have forgiveness and reconciliation with God, with one another and with all Creation.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
Your gifts, O God, are greater than our imagination. We cannot begin to comprehend what you have given and done for us. Our desire is that you would take what we have and use it for your purpose. May your love and your compassion be shown in our gifts and our lives. Amen.
COMMISSIONING God’s love is everlasting. God’s mercy is eternal. God calls us to live our lives with love and mercy for all people. Be born again as new creations in Christ, not only today but everyday. Live the lives that God has called us to live