sermons

Sermon: "Just Like Everybody Else," September 26, 2015 Rev. Ryan Slifka

James 5:12-20

The service is centered on James 5:12-20. The book of James is traditionally attributed to James, the brother of Jesus. It is a letter that encourages the practice of responsible ethical action amid the complex realities of daily life. Empowered by wisdom as God's "implanted word," Christians are called to be not merely "hearers" but "doers" who show forth their faith in specific and practical acts of love and mercy that shape and sustain community. Throughout the letter, James has emphasized that God’s wisdom has the ability to shape that community in practical acts of love and mercy. Now, at the book's conclusion, the importance and the power of prayer is emphasized as the bond that creates, sustains, and restores community.

 


"Just Like Everybody Else"
James 5:12-20
by Rev. Ryan Slifka

So this week, we come to the end of the book of James. This week we are at the very end of the book. Last week, if you remember, we hosted the middle section.

This part of the letter is pretty nice, actually, considering the rest of it. It’s all very nice. Here, James has really shifted to a tone of encouragement. Which is a great way to end any letter, really. Building his people up.

Which is interesting, because for most of the letter before this he’s spent his time sketching out what’s wrong with the world. And warns against the things that have the potential to destroy the community of faith.

He cautions against following conventional wisdom. He rails against cozying up to the rich and powerful for the church to gain power and cultural prestige. He warns against hypocrisy—with his people using their mouths to lie, to falsely accuse and curse their neighbors with the same mouths they use to praise God. And he blasts the wickedness of self-centered ambition. He kind of sounds like Pope Francis.

But this bad stuff isn’t all happening outside somewhere. He sees all these problems emerging in his struggling community of faith. Some in the community are being deliberately deceitful with each other. Some are jockeying for power in the community as a way enrich themselves and influence others. Some are languishing in despair because they live with pains both physical and spiritual to the point. Some are in need of forgiveness for the pains they have afflicted on others.

James is fed up with what he sees as the wickedness of the world. And how all this stuff seems to be oozing its way inside his community of faith. Everything he sees wrong with the world, he sees in the church. The people in the church are behaving just like everybody else.

Which is kind of surprising, if you think about it. Sometimes I think people have this impression that churches, that faith communities are made up of the holy people. The upright people who are good and who have their stuff together. Or at least the people who think of themselves as holy and upright. I couldn’t count the number of times that I have heard people’s reservations about church. I know one of the first people I spoke to at the soup kitchen last year when I started took the occasion to tear a strip off me and Christians in general. They think they’re better than everyone, he said. You’re all just so smug about how holy you are. You think you’re better than everyone else. But, “you know what,” he said, there’s nothing different about you. There are just as many liars, cheaters and stealers inside these walls as there are outside of them. You’re just like everyone else.”

I’ll admit it, I was pretty irritated at this guy. The whole time he was sounding off, I was thinking up clever comebacks. Like the irony of using a soup kitchen then attacking the character of those who serve. And other zingers to teach him a lesson. I mean, how dare he say we are just like everyone else, when he’s the one being the jerk. And the church is the one serving him a meal?

But then, you know, I realized something. I realized that the guy was right. He was right. When he said “You’re just like everyone else,” he was right. I was reminded about this story this week when I was reading James, because James recognizes that the same problems of the world wiggle their way in to the church. A faith community is not like the Bubble Boy, safely behind hermetically sealed doors that keep the ills of the world from getting inside. Ironically, in being upset that this guy saying church people think they are better than everyone else, my first inclination was to prove that I was better than him. In a way, I think the Spirit was speaking through this cranky guy from the soup kitchen. Like James, reminding me that the afflictions of the world are the afflictions of the community of faith. And vice-versa. That we, too, come with our own brokenness, our own struggles, afflictions and troubles. That people who follow Jesus really are just like everyone else.

That might be a bit disheartening, for some of us to hear. Because if anyone should have things together it should be followers of Jesus. Because he really had things together. So we should, too. If you think about it that way it seems kind of disappointing. It seems like bad news. But you know, the more I think about it, the more I think might actually be good news for us. Not only does it give us a sense of humility—we aren’t better or holier than others. That’s a good thing. But it also reminds us who we are, and what we are as a community of faith.

Here at the end of the letter James provides us with a vision of an alternative community. One where the wounded and the spiritually afflicted are made whole again.

“Are any among you suffering?” he asks.  “They should pray. 
Are any cheerful?  They should sing songs of praise.

Are any among you sick?  They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.
The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up,
And anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.
Therefore confess your sins to one another
And pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”

Prayer. Anointing. Confession and forgiveness. Healing.  James knows what the troubles of the world are. And he has no illusions that his faith communities are ideal or perfect. People know sickness, brokenness, and are wounded. But through their spiritual practices and life as a community they are becoming conduits for the divine, for God’s healing and mending work in the world. They are being made whole again, physically, emotionally, spiritually. In community. To be a healing presence to others and the world. By the power of God. They know they are just like everyone else. But they know God’s healing. And God’s hope.

A pastor in Seattle tells a story of a man named Harry who walked through the doors of the church one rainy September day. Harry was middle aged. He was baptized Catholic but hadn’t practiced since childhood. A few weeks before Harry was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. And his doctor suggested he get his life in order. He had six months left, at best.

Harry had struggled all of his life. He was divorced twice. Had an on and off struggle with alcoholism. Harry had made it big in real estate, but in the process he’d alienated both of his ex-wives, and his children had cut themselves out of his life for good. They couldn’t trust him anymore. If anyone embodied the problems of the world that James rails against, it’s this guy.

But something happened. Over the next year (he had more time than he thought), Harry was welcomed into that community as one of their own. He went through their membership process. All along the way he discovered a family that accepted him and loved him in ways that he’d never known before.  He stood in front of the congregation and professed his faith, and confirmed the vows that we made for him in baptism. Members of the congregation laid hands on him. The pastor anointed him with oil, echoing the words of the Apostle Paul:  “you have died with Christ we believe, so you will also live with Christ.” Only a month later would church elders found themselves in a hospital room, laying their hands on him. Anointing him with oil, and praying for his healing. And a week after that, the congregation would find itself gathered around his grave, for a funeral.

Harry came just like everybody else to a community of people just like everybody else. With a life full of brokenness, heartache, pain and fear. Harry found forgiveness. Harry died, but the prayer of faith raised him up in new life. He’d found healing for his soul. And not only did Harry find healing, those who walked with him found Christ in him, those who suffered with him found renewal, hope, and strength in his witness. Harry came to the community just like everybody else, but through their spiritual practices as community, he discovered himself welcome, he met mercy, and experienced grace. He came just like everybody else. But there found himself named and claimed. As a beloved child of God.

This, friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, is what James intends for Christian community. And this what God in Christ intends for us. God is shaping us in to a community where we experience, and others experience the transformative love of God in our spiritual practices and our life together. Like James we know what the problems of the world are. We know that they find their way in to our lives and into our communities. We know brokenness. We have hurt others and we’ve been hurt ourselves. We know shame. We know pain and rejection. We are just like everyone else. The only difference is that we know the power of God to make all things new.

Are any among you sick?  They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.
The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up,
And anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.
Therefore confess your sins to one another
And pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”

Forgiveness for our sins. The mending of our wounds. And healing for our bodies, minds, our souls, and healing for the world God so loves. For this, thanks be to God. AMEN.

The Psalms and the Life of Faith August Sermon Series

The Psalms have been treasured as the prayer book of the Bible and world spirituality for three-thousand years. This worship series on the Psalms moves through a selection in a way which reflects how the life of faith is actually experienced—from stability to crisis, and then through to new life. Join us throughout the month of August as we explore the life of faith as patterned by the Psalms in prayer, music and in song.

Psalm 1: “The Two Ways” with Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee, Sunday, August 2th

The first Psalm opens the whole book by affirming that there is a trustworthy, though surprising “Way” to live life abundantly.

Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee is the recently appointed Butler Chair professor of preaching and biblical interpretation at Vancouver School of Theology. Jason is an ordained minister in the Methodist Church USA and joins us all the way from North Carolina where he pastored Boone Methodist Church.

Psalm 113: “Psalms of Orientation” with Rev. Ryan Slifka, Sunday, August 9th

Psalm 113 affirms that life and the world are good, reliable and stable. The world is shot through with the divine and a place of awe and worthy of deep reverence.

Psalm 69: “Psalms of Disorientation” with Rev. Ryan Slifka, Sunday, August 16th

The psalms of disorientation admit that life is not as well-ordered as a simple naïve faith may pretend.

Psalm 27: “Psalms of New Orientation” with Rev. Ryan Slifka, Sunday, August 23rd

Psalms of new orientation see that life in the world is not safe, and is filled with heartache and danger. Yet, these Psalms trust in a brighter tomorrow based on past experiences.

Psalm 148: “Living in Praise and Trust” with Ingrid Hartloff Brown, Sunday, August 30th

Ingrid.jpg

The psalms as a whole are not meant primarily to be sung in worship. Rather, we are invited to come to worship in order that we might sing the songs in daily life. We may live lives of deep courage, conviction and hope in the face of life’s troubles.

Ingrid Hartloff-Brown was formerly Associate Pastor at Eagle Ridge United Church in Port Coquitlam, and is a candidate for Ministry in the United Church of Canada

Sermon: "Serving the Kool-Aid," July 19th, 2015

This sermon was given as part of a joint service of Comox Valley United Churches, including Cumberland and Comox United.

July 19th, 2015
Eighth Sunday After Pentecost
1 Peter 2:2-10

"Serving the Kool-Aid"
Rev. Ryan Slifka

First Peter. Not a text that is read often in worship. Not on the greatest hits of the bible list. But here it is.

Peter (could be the apostle, the well-known disciple of Jesus, could be someone else) writes this letter to encourage a group of churches struggling to be faithful in a context and culture that sees them as backwards, irrelevant, and even dangerous to the society in which they live. Nestled in some of the most modern, well-educated places in the world, economic powerhouses and centers of commerce and culture, there is little room for backwards, superstitious traditions, weird stories and even stranger ways of living. There isn’t quite full-blown persecution. But it’s more like the community is on the receiving end of slander, anger, and general suspicion from the people who live next door and down the street. The community is disappearing in the face of pressures far beyond their control and is trying to survive as a minority in a culture that seems alien, suspicious, and even hostile to them and their way of life.

We, might not live in the fear of persecution, open anger, or public discrimination. But there is a sense that faith communities like ours are odd, out of step, they just don’t fit in to the cultural landscape like they used to. A minister in south Chicago tells a story his congregation holding a beer tasting and barbecue in his backyard one fall in celebration of Oktoberfest as a way to reach out to the community. Things are going well, then one guest asks the minister how all the people here know each other. And the minister replies, with a little nervousness, “we know each other from church.” The man looks at him sideways. “Church, eh. Well,” he smiles, “I’ll drink your beer. But I won’t be drinking any of your Kool-Aid.”[1] You might have had the same experience, maybe fear of embarassment. Trying the hide the Koolaid so your guests, friends, neighbors, coworkers, don’t see it and somehow judge you as a one of those Christians. Many of us are simply growing up suspicious of all traditional institutions–political, economic, not just the church. But how do we survive as communities of Jesus in the midst of a culture that has changed so drastically that we’ve ended up at the fringes of our neighborhoods, rather than the center? Faith was once taken for granted. Now it’s on the sidelines, a suspicious activity. And so we often find ourselves lost, and find our communities in danger of fragmenting, disappearing in the face of pressures far beyond our control. Where do we go next?

As one of those “young ministers” in the church, the question I’m asked the most is: “How do we fix it?” How do we attract people to our churches? And Peter’s probably the last guy anyone wants for a minister, especially a church that’s trying to figure out what to do next. Because Peter doesn’t offer any easy solutions or techniques. He’s so... impractical. The congregation asks, “what should we do?!” and he says “Like newborn infants long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation.” We sometimes imagine that there might be a right infant formula, or technique that we might be able to invent to solve our problems. Change the music, change the God language. Become more liberal, or become more conservative. Find the right program to meet people’s needs. But here that would only be a substitute for the real thing. And for him, the real thing is a sense of longing... a sense of hunger for spiritual milk to grow in to salvation. It’s a weird suggestion. How do you tell people to be hungry?  I think he’s reminding his people, he’s reminding us to remember what’s at stake here. The hard work of changing lives. And for that there are no easy solutions or techniques.

Not only that, but success might not look like success at all. Big church, solid budget, overflowing Sunday school. Public prestige and influence.

“Come to him,” says Peter, “come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight.” He’s talking about Jesus. Jesus is the living stone. What’s more is that Peter says that God is building a temple with this stone at the corner. He uses this image of God constructing a new temple on mount Zion. The builders look at this stone, see it as useless and toss it to the side. Jesus, the living stone, is rejected–by his friends own people, his own culture, his own society, and put to death by the powers that be. Rejection, suspicion, being marginalized by our culture might be one of the harder things for us to deal with. There was once a time when the Prime Minister of Canada would consult the Moderator of the United Church before major policy decision. And now people just think we’re passing out Kool Aid.

The reason why this image is so powerful is because Peter’s people are used to rejection. Though Jesus is rejected by his culture, he’s chosen and precious in the sight of God. While the builders reject him, God chooses him as the solid foundation of the new temple. Jesus was rejected by his culture, they have been rejected by theirs. Jesus is chosen and precious by God, they are chosen and precious by God. Though we may be rejected by our culture, we too are chosen and precious in God’s sight.

And what’s more… God seems to have a completely different criteria for measurement than the builders do, we do, or the world does. Success might not look like success at all.“Come to him,” says Peter, “like living stones.” Like Jesus, he says, “let yourselves be built in to a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God in Jesus Christ.” I imagine one of those human pyramids that cheerleaders do. A spiritual house being built by God. This is temple language, this is the temple that he’s talking about. In Israel, God’s dwelling place is the temple, where God’s presence can be encountered. The Celts would call it a “thin place” where heaven and earth intersect. God is building a beloved community to take up residence.

But God isn’t just building us in to a house to hang out in. Peter says the living stones being built into a temple for God are also the priests inside the spiritual house, offering spiritual sacrifices. Our word priest comes from the Latin pontiff, meaning “bridge.” A priest in the temple is a bridge-person. A bridge between God and humanity, where God can be met and encountered. In the temple a priest is a conduit for the energy of God. And whereas in the Jerusalem temple, this happens through a sacrifice, here Peter says the sacrifice is actually our lives. Our lives are being built in to a dwelling place for God, but also a bridge between God and the world. Through our relationships. Through our vocations, our jobs. Through our care for one another and the least of these in our neighborhoods and our beloved Comox Valley. God is somehow met in and through us. We are transformed so the world can be transformed. When people see our lives, and our life together as a community, they are to somehow encounter God. When they are meeting us they are meeting God.

I can tell you, that, as somebody who wasn’t raised in the church, who didn’t know the story. Who walked in to a church one day almost by a fluke, someone who was completely suspicious, always worried, always telling myself, “well I’ll hang out with them, I’ll drink their beer, but I won’t drink the Kool-Aid.” What drew me in wasn’t the right theology or the right ideas. Though I think theology and ideas are important. It wasn’t the right political causes or actions. It was the fact that I encountered a community, a people where the story of God, the story of God’s work in the world, was somehow made real. The Word made flesh. Living stones you could touch and see, and when you did, you could feel the energy. Now I’m the one who presides at the Lord’s table serving the Kool Aid.

So, brothers and sisters. Remember this–in these strange and difficult times we now struggle through in doubt and suspicion. Remember that we are here to witness changing lives, of being nourished by spiritual milk, and growing in to salvation. Remember that success does not always look like success. It is often hard to see success when you’re standing on this side of the cross. Yet, even in the midst of trouble, sorrow, and rejection, remember, too, that God is building a beloved community with you as living stones, firmly planted on the solid foundation of Jesus Christ, the living corner stone. You are the ones chosen for this high calling of priestly work, ambassadors of Christ to a world in need.

Come to him, as living stones
though rejected by mortals
chosen and precious in God’s sight
Once you were not a people
but now you are God’s people
Once you had not received mercy
but now you have received mercy

Mercy for you, mercy for us, and abundant, endless mercy poured out through us for the whole world. And for this, thanks be to God.

[1]Kool-Aid is a reference to the infamous Jonestown Massacre. "Drinking the Kool-Aid" is now a figure of speech commonly used in North America that refers to a person or group holding an unquestioned belief, argument, or philosophy without critical examination. It could also refer to knowingly going along with a doomed or dangerous idea because of peer pressure. From David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier.

Sermon: "Earth Invaded by Heaven," June 21, 2015 Lord's Prayer Series Part 2

This sermon was given as part 2 of our 4 part sermon series and adult study on "Living the Lord's Prayer." You can find out more about the series here.

June 21, 2015
Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:1-4

"Earth Invaded by Heaven"
Rev. Ryan Slifka

"Psalm 85" by John August Swanson

"Psalm 85" by John August Swanson

“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We started our sermon series last week with “Our Father, in heaven,” and talked a bit about God coming close, yet being beyond our imaginations. Something of a mystery we can’t see. Yet one that is close as our own breath.

God is an intangible mystery, as close as God may be. God is not concrete in the sense that we can grasp and touch God directly. And so one of the famous criticisms about Christianity, and religion in general, even, is that they are all about “pie in the sky when you die.” Not concerned with the material world. The stuff of everyday life. Or human suffering.

But then we have this next line: “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” “Kingdom” is a bit of an old timey-word that we in the democratic nations of the West don’t use much anymore. It conjures up images of Kings and Queens, Knights and maybe even the occasional dragon (if you watch Game of Thrones). Sometimes in the Bible it’s called God’s kingdom, sometimes the kingdom of heaven, but the meaning is the same. In the Bible it’s often imaged as what’s called the “peaceable kingdom.” Human beings put aside their warring and study peace on God’s Holy mountain. Lion’s and lambs lay down together. Human hunger and poverty are wiped out. In favor of abundance.

One of the most powerful images happens shows up in the final book. The heavenly city of Jerusalem comes down from the clouds to earth. A tree of life grows up in the midst of it. All tears are wiped away. Suffering is no more. Death no longer holds power over the inhabitants of the earth. Occasionally, we have thought of God’s kingdom (or the kingdom of heaven) as some otherworldly place off in the clouds where God lives. And we go. If we are lucky. But it’s the reality of God coming to us here. It’s God’s royal rule. God’s reign, God’s realm, God’s commonwealth. What it’s like when God is in charge of things. The material world. When we pray this way we are praying for God’s invisible reality to become the visible reality of life on earth. Your kingdom come. The earth finally set right.

Which is kind of a strange thing to pray for, if you think of it. Because by praying this way, we imply that the way the world is arranged. The world as it is. Is not how things are supposed to be. That the world as we know it is not the way it is supposed to be. Or God wants it to be. When we look out on the world, look out on our country, and look in to human history we see all sorts of struggle, suffering and trouble that make us think: “that should not be.” War. Violence—both religious and secular. Inequality. Poverty. Hunger. Disease. Ecological destruction. Or when we look into our own communities. Our own backyards and in our own lives we see lives touched by brokenness and pain. Trauma. Intergenerational abuse and violence. Addiction. Cruelty. Greed. And the sometimes untimely deaths of those who we love and care for. When we encounter these things, we realize that there is something that isn’t quite right about them. There’s something deep inside us, some deep intuition that says, “this is not the way it should be.” It ought not to be that way.

“Thy kingdom come” touches that deep intuition that many of us—if not all of us hold—is true. At least according to the story of the scriptures. And according to this prayer. That the running assumption in the Bible is that the world as it is, as we see it, is not the world as it is meant to be. That things as they stand in human life are not the way that God created the world to be, nor the way God intends the world to be. It ought not to be that way. And it should be different. To pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven is to pray for a different world. A whole new one.

Now, I am well aware that talk like this can sound sentimental. Some kind of flowery, hippy-dippy talk. To say that a better world is possible. We have this temptation in the church and in society to simply think that if only people were nicer to each other. Or more educated. Or would vote for the right political party. Or recycled. Or, on the opposite side of the political spectrum—if we just threw all the bad guys in jail or killed all the terrorists. If we all just would do the right things. Then God’s kingdom would come. If only it were that easy. Because we probably would have got it done it by now.

But we have this conviction as part of our faith tradition not just that a better world is possible. If we do x, y, or z. But rather that God is already at work creating that kingdom. And it’s not just a fanciful dream. But we have received a vision of that kingdom here on earth. We have caught a glimpse of it. In the flesh. In fact, one of the first things Jesus says, in the good news according to Mark—the earliest of the accounts of Jesus—is “the kingdom of God is at hand.” The kingdom of God is at hand. The kingdom of God has come near. Has been inaugurated. Has become present in the here and now. In Christ we have seen that future that our hearts long for already among us. In Jesus, we see the kingdom breaking in. Heaven, the unseen beauty and reality of God, invading earth. And turning it all upside-down.

We followed the whole of the good news according to Mark from January until Easter this year. We saw Jesus ministry in full. In Christ, people experience healing. In Christ, demons—all the things that hold us captive and hold us back from life as God has always intended it—are cast out. In Christ, the hungry are fed. And those who cry out for mercy receive it. Those who are poor and those who are oppressed are given justice. And receive fullness of life. And even in his own death, the powers of the world, the power of death no longer hold their sway. Because in Christ we’ve seen the dawning of a whole new world. We have received an answer to that prayer “your kingdom come” and “your will be done.” Because heaven has touched down on earth for all the world to see.

The thing is… the good news for us, is that it means that not only the world might be different. It also means that our lives might be different, too. We pray that God’s kingdom might come. And God’s will be done. That heaven might invade our own lives, too. Here and now. It means that we can experience healing an wholeness for ourselves and in our relationships. Forgiveness is possible. For us and others. It means that we can be set free from our own demons that hold us back from fullness of life. Addictions, histories of violence, and family abuse. It means that the alleviation of poverty, hunger, homelessness and disease, are not just idealistic pipe-dreams. But God’s will and God’s way, God’s dream for the earth. Because for those of us who have seen that glimpse of God’s kingdom. Have seen a better way. Won’t settle for anything less any more.

Brothers and sisters: we pray “your kingdom come” and “your will be done” with a sense of incredible hope. And expectation. That the world, and our lives, not only ought not to be that way. But that they don’t have to be that way, either. And are, in fact, not gonna be that way in the end. We can start again. Because we have seen the more beautiful world that our hearts know is possible.[1] Walking the earth. In the flesh. Feeding, healing, and raising the dead. In Christ there is resurrection. In Christ there is new life. God’s future kingdom can be known. Can be experienced. In the here and the now. And always.

And so we pray “thy kingdom come” and “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Because our eyes have already seen the glory of the coming of the LORD.

Amen.

[1] I owe the phrase “that better world our hearts know is possible” to my friend Trevor, who got it from Charles Eisenstein. See Charles Eisenstein, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, North Atlantic Books, 2013.

Following the sermon, the congregation was invited to sing "O Day of God, Draw Nigh," a hymn that, in similar fashion to the prayer, calls for God's kingdom to come. The tune is the well-known St. Michael, from the 16th century Geneva Psalter. The words, however, were written by R.B.Y. Scott, a United Church Minister and world-renowned scholar on biblical wisdom literature. Written in 1937, at the height of the Great Depression, the hymn reflects the deep social concern of the Biblical story:

O day of God, draw nigh
in beauty and in power;
come with your timeless judgment now
to match our present hour.

Bring to our troubled minds,
uncertain and afraid,
the quiet of a steadfast faith,
calm of a call obeyed.

Bring justice to our land,
that all may dwell secure,
and finely build for days to come
foundations that endure.

Bring to our world of strife
thy sovereign word of peace,
that war may haunt the earth no more,
and desolation cease.

O day of God, draw nigh
as at creation's birth;
let there be light again,
and set your judgments on the earth.

The Lord is My Shepherd and Anne Lamott

This past Sunday (traditionally known as "Good Shepherd Sunday"), we hosted John 10:11-18 and Psalm 23 as our worship texts. John's gospel is where Jesus' title of "The Good Shepherd" comes from, whereas the King James version of the 23rd Psalm is one of the best known biblical passages in the West:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott

As I mentioned in my sermon, it's almost impossible to say anything new about this text. Yet, while reading it, I was reminded of a story the author Anne Lamott wrote about in her book Traveling Mercies. Lamott recounts in this book a time of her life that was particularly hard--a time of struggle, cocaine addiction and alcohol abuse. At this time, Lamott became pregnant with the child of a married man, and chose to have an abortion. Lamott's story, while also heartbreaking, seemed like the 23rd Psalm in action on the ground.

The sermon was essentially about how the Psalm is a summary of the good news of the Christian Story: that God is with us and for us. The final line of the Psalm that says "goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life" might be better translated (as Eugene Peterson does in the Message translation) "goodness and mercy shall track me down. As the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann notes in the Message of the Psalms: "It is God's companionship that transforms every situation. It does not mean that there are no deathly valleys, no enemies, but they are not capable of hurt. Psalm 23 knows that evil is present in the world, but it is not feared. Confidence in God is the source of a life of peace and joy." It is God's goodness that comes to us where ever we are. God's presence matters--and can transform even the worst of situations.

Here's the longer passage from the Lamott book:

“After a while, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone. The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there–of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.

And I was appalled. I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends, I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.”

I felt him just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing him with.

Finally I fell asleep, and in the morning, he was gone.

This experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and booze and loss of blood. But then everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in. But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever. So I tried to keep one step ahead of it, slamming my houseboat door when I entered or left.

And one week later, when I went back to church, I was so hungover that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling–and it washed over me.

[After going to church that weekend...], I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running at my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said ‘Fuck it: I quit.’ I took a long deep breath and said out loud, ‘All right. You can come in.’

This week, I pray that goodness and mercy will track you down--where ever you may find yourself.

Sermon: "It's Good to Be Here" February 15 2015, Transfiguration Sunday

February 15, 2015
Transfiguration Sunday
Mark 9:2-9

JESUS MAFA. Transfiguration, from  Art in the Christian Tradition , a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

JESUS MAFA. Transfiguration, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

"It's Good to be Here"
Rev. Ryan Slifka

Here we are… continuing on through the gospel of Mark. Which we’ll be hanging around in until Easter. The transfiguration story. Probably the strangest story in Mark’s gospel. We’ve seen plenty of strange things up to this point—the Spirit descending like a dove, miraculous healings, demons confronted and cast out. But here things are at their strangest. And maybe this is kind of the point. This isn’t something you see every day. There’s a lot happening in this story. It’s all very mysterious. Not even the most confident of scholars can exactly pin down what it means. But what’s most clear about this story is that this is a unique encounter with the divine. Jesus takes the disciples up a mountain—a place where heaven and earth are thought to intersect. He transforms from regular old Jesus in to shimmering whiter-than-bleach Jesus. Showing his divine identity and character. And then two long-gone figures from biblical history appear. Moses—who led Israel out of slavery in Egypt. And Elijah. Both figures who are believed to have been taken directly to heaven following their deaths. And these two folks are just chatting with Jesus, as if nothing is out of the ordinary. And the sight of these strange things, it says, leaves the disciples “terrified.” Which is fair enough. Because this isn’t something you see every day. It’s what the Christian tradition has called a “theophany”—the appearance of God. Where God, usually hidden from our eyes, somehow shines through. This is as close to heaven as anyone can get in our world.

                But the fascinating part here is how one of the disciples, Peter, reacts to this heavenly encounter. “Rabbi,” Peter says to Jesus, “it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” A house for Elijah… a house for Moses… and then one for you, Jesus. He’s suggesting that they set up camp on the mountain. He’s suggesting they stay up there on the mountain.  And who could blame him, really?  Because just a chapter before Jesus is telling his disciples that he’s going to undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes. And be crucified, and after three days rise again. And what’s even worse is that he says that his followers are supposed to deny themselves and take up their own crosses to follow him, and that those who lose their lives for his sake with save them. In the face of a future wrought with suffering. “It is good for us to be here.” It’s an oasis, a welcome escape from the troubles at hand. In the face of all the trials ahead, and all the suffering down on earth. Up on the mountain makes more sense. Heaven is the place to be. A welcome retreat from the cross. A welcome retreat from suffering.

When I was wrestling with this story this past week, I was reminded of an encounter I had about a year ago at the University of British Columbia. With a student who described himself as an atheist. Without actually saying it, his problem with Christianity, even religion in general—was Peter from this story! I was seated at a table with three university students at the University of British Columbia for orientation day. He was a younger guy, maybe at the end of his degree, and introduced himself. As I said, he described himself as an atheist. But not one of those atheists, he said. He told me that he’d met plenty of religious people who were some of the kindest, most generous, reasonable, and intelligent people he knew. He didn’t think religion was necessarily a bad thing. Like some atheists do. We talked a little bit more, and I asked him, if religion wasn’t such a bad thing, why atheism? He thought for a moment. “Atheism is just more realistic,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great comfort for people who are suffering in life. I can’t really blame anyone for wanting to ease their suffering with the thought of an afterlife. But we have so many problems in the world to deal with. Religion just seems like an escape from dealing with the world’s real problems.” His problem wasn’t the existence of God, the Bible, or the church. But that, like Peter, religious people seem to be so preoccupied with setting up camps in heaven that we end up avoiding the inevitable suffering on earth below. Faith is, to paraphrase Johnny Cash “so heavenly minded it’s no earthly good.” That, while providing necessary relief from the world’s suffering, it does nothing to actually face it.

I didn’t really have a good one-liner to send back his way that time. But I knew that wasn’t the end of the story. But maybe I should have told him the whole story of the transfiguration. Because, as much as Peter wants to stick around on the mountain, it’s Jesus that leads him back down to earth. Just as this scene is ending, a cloud overshadows them. And from the cloud a voice booms “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” And then all this stuff seems to disappear. The amazing encounter on the mountaintop is over. And they are left alone with plain old Jesus. And a divine order to listen to him—to follow him. To follow him back in to the suffering world down on earth.

But the most remarkable thing in my mind isn’t just that Jesus sends his disciples back in to the world of suffering. But that Jesus goes with them. Jesus goes with them in to the world of conflict. He heads down in to the world of suffering. He heads down in to the world ultimately rejects him. He heads down in to his life that ultimately ends with his own suffering, and his death. One that Jesus faces head on—is killed and is raised. This encounter on the mountain is not an escape, but a sneak preview of what is to come. And this is the message at the heart of the Christian story. At the heart of the gospel message is not us going up to the heavenly mountain to set up camp to leave the world’s troubles behind. It’s about God coming down, and bringing heaven to us. It’s about God coming down with us in to our world of suffering to make all things new. Our ordinary, everyday mundane lives. Our world filled with hurt and trouble.  It seems to me that faith—or at least the Way of Jesus Christ—is not a retreat from the troubles of the world. But a divine summons to face them head on. With courage. With mercy. And with grace. Knowing that it is Christ who walks with us. And makes it possible. That’s the good news in a nutshell.

To end the sermon, we’re going to have a moment of silent prayer. During this time of prayer, I am going to ask you to stop and think of one person who you know who is struggling here on earth. It could be anything. And I want you to think about how you might be able to minister to them. How you might be able to bring heaven to them--Christ’s peace to them—and share their load. And think about what you need from God to make it possible. Let us pray.

Sermon: "Going Home a Different Way," Jan. 4, 2015 Epiphany Sunday

Sermon: "Going Home a Different Way," Jan. 4, 2015 Epiphany Sunday

When the wise men show up in Matthew's gospel, it's anything but cute. It's kind of dark, actually. Outraged tyrants. Murder plots. Last minute escapes. Matthew's story doesn't have any angels, shepherds, donkeys or a sweet little manger, even. These all belong to Luke's story. Which is the kinder, gentler gospel. The wise men get a little spotlight time this time of the year. But kind of like any Christmas pageant, they are usually tacked on to an already awesome story. As a bonus or something.

Sermon: "The Divine in the Dirt," Dec. 24 2014 Christmas Eve

Why go through this same script? Year after year after year? Jesus, Mary, Joseph. Shepherds. Angels. Maybe it’s because Christmas is one of our favorite and most treasured holidays. It could be warm childhood memories. It could be the gathering of family and friends all in one place. And/or it could be that this story is often paired with a stiff serving of eggnog on the side.

Sermon: "Broken Branches," Dec. 21, 2014

What a way to begin a story. Mark’s gospel begins in the thick of things with John the Baptist at the side of the river Jordan shouting “repent!” Luke’s gospel begins with a dedication to a faithful reader. John’s gospel begins cosmically, way back at the beginning of time with “in the beginning was the Word.” And Matthew’s gospel begins… with a list. A long, tediously precise list of names. Beginning with Abraham, the father of all nations. Through King David, Israel’s most celebrated King. On through the Babylonian exile. Name after name after name all the way down to Jesus. It might be the least exciting way to show someone your family tree.

Sermon: "The Call," September 7th, 2014

The following sermon was delivered by Rev. Foster Freed of Trinity United Church Nanaimo, on the occasion of the covenanting service between St. George's United Church and its new minister, Rev. Ryan Slifka.

            First and foremost, let me say how delighted I am to be here in your midst this afternoon.  This is, in so many ways, an exciting day: an exciting day for Ryan, an exciting day for this congregation, an exciting day for Comox-Nanaimo Presbytery.  It goes without saying that I am pleased to be in your midst…and that I am honoured to have been asked—by Ryan—not only to attend, but to offer a word as part of this wonderful occasion...