Naming the Future

(Gen 17:1-7, 15-16; Rom 4:13, 18-22)
L2, Sun, Feb 25, 2018 – UBC Digby – J G White

Do some of you have days when you feel old?  Older than you’d like to be?  Past the prime; on the downhill slide?  And how does that affect your thoughts about your future?

On Wednesday, we had a service here, and later the burial, for a 71 year-old, Bruce. That day I also took part in the burial of a 101 year-old, almost 102, Minnie.  Both were prepared and ready for the end; one did wish for more time among us, one did not.  

Today’s story of a covenant or agreement from the Old Testament is of Abram and Sarai, a couple senior citizens in the ancient Middle East.  You think you feel old?  Try these two people.  We have in the Bible a whole cycle of stories about them, in Genesis 11-25, not to mention all the later comments about them in the rest of the Book.  

The moment we read today, when Abram is 99 years old, is not the first time God make a great promise to these folks.  Let’s review.

Its ancient Babylonia in the Near East.  A man named Terah takes his family, including son Abram, and migrate west, to the land of Canaan, but they ended up stopping and settling in a place about half way, called Haran.  

When Abram is about 75 years old, and Sarai, his wife, is about 65, God tells them, “Go to a land I will show you. I will make of you a great nation.  I will bless you and make you a blessing to others.” Abram and Sarai have no children.  They go.

They get to the Negeb, they get to Bethel, they settle in.  God tells them, “your descendants will be so many they will be like the dust, like the sand!”  A while later, God tells them, “Your reward shall be great,” and God makes an official covenant with them, including a religious ceremony with a bunch of sacrificial animals cut in half. By the time Abram is 86 years old and Sarai is 76, they still do not have a child, but Abram has a child with his wife’s maid, Hagar.  

Years later.  Abram is 99 years old, Sarai 89.  “Your names will be changed: Abraham and Sarah.” God again makes a covenant with them, including the sign of the covenant: male circumcision.  “Next year you will have a son, named Isaac.” Later, they have an angel visitor to confirm the plan, and they also flee a little city called Sodom.  

Finally, recorded in Genesis 21, Sara conceives, and has her son, Isaac.  Abraham is 100 years old.  

Well, the adventures continue.  Abraham dies at age 175, old enough to see his sons and grandsons.  Sarah had died young, at age 127.

Amid this – in today’s reading – a new name at 99. Abraham. At 90. Sarah.  A promise for their future.

There are a number of other name changes in the stories of the Bible.  Do you know some?  Abraham and Sara’s grandson, Jacob, gets a new name: Israel.  (Genesis 32:28)  In the story of Ruth and Naomi, Naomi calls herself Mara, which means bitter. (Ruth 1:20)  A prophet by the name of Isaiah speaks at one point to the whole people of Jerusalem with this word from the LORD:   (Isaiah 62:3-4)
You shall no longer be named Forsaken,
and you land shall no more be termed Desolate,
but you shall be called ‘My Delight Is in Her,’
(Hephzibah)
and your land, ‘Married.’ (Beulah)

There’s the inspiration for the song we learned earlier. I Will Change Your Name.

In the New Testament, the time of Jesus, we find the Messiah renaming one of his twelve chosen disciples.  Simon becomes known as Peter, which means ‘rock.’  And in the Revelation of John, in a visionary letter from Jesus to a church congregation, the people are told, To everyone who conquers… I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it. (Revelation 2:17)

So individuals get new names with hope in them, as do whole nations and peoples.  

There can be a lot of hope in a new name.  Hope for the people. We are coming to the end of African Heritage month.  If I listen, I can hear stories of the challenges and the victories of our sisters and brothers of African descent.  The horrors and the hopes are still strong in our day and age.  A no wonder the name we call a people matters.  ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me?’  No. Names matter.  Respect matters.  Hopes matter.  A direction for the future matters.

So it is with a Christian fellowship, a congregation.  This past week I was thinking of Windsor, NS, four years ago. It was four years ago I announced my resignation as the Pastor of the Baptist Church there. This was amid quite a time of transition.  We’d had a church consultant working with us on our vision and mission.  We were trying to decide if we would keep our 115 year old building that seats 600 people for another 50 years or only another 5 years.  We were in a search process for our next assistant pastor of young families.  We were having conflict too – especially the deacons and a student pastor with one of the other pastors.  He ended up resigning the same Sunday I resigned.  

Amid the turmoil – and it sometimes felt like turmoil – some of my folks latched onto a new song, by the group Casting Crowns.  It became a theme song for a while in the church; I remember the video playing and people singing along, seeking hope and health.  It is called Thrive.  

Verse 1 Here in this worn and weary land
Where many a dream has died
Like a tree planted by the water
We never will run dry

Pre-Ch So living water flowing through
God we thirst for more of You
Fill our hearts and flood our souls
With one desire

Chorus Just to know You and to make You known
We lift Your name on high
Shine like the sun make darkness run & hide
We know we were made for so much more
Than ordinary lives
It’s time for us to more than just survive
We were made to thrive

Mark Hall | Matthew West © 2014 Atlas Holdings (Admin. by Atlas Music Publishing) CCLI License # 701212

It is believed by some that “raising the [self] esteem of small congregations will top the church’s agenda for the next few decades.” (Burt & Roper, Inside the Small Church, 2002, p. 85)  Like Abram and Sarai of old, we can feel worn out and past our prime.  Even feel desperate, have a survival mentality.  But does God have a plan?  Maybe even a new name for us?  A new name or reputation usually goes with a new life – new place, new purpose, or new activities.  And some things get left behind.

Speaking of leaving things behind, we here are thinking about some perfect strangers in Lebanon, today.  Amid the war and destruction, they left their life in Syria behind, and now are ready to leave it all behind and come here.  They are Syrian refugees in Lebanon.  Family members of Rima Kenaan.  Her mother and brothers and sister and so forth – she’d love to get these seven loved ones here to Canada.  

Perhaps this is our calling now, or in the near future. To take the lead and help make this happen next year.  We’ll explore this some more in just a few minutes.

And you. Your own pilgrimage through this life has taken you to planned and unexpected places.  Perhaps you are at a point of wanting, needing, the next chapter.  Some better hope for the future.  A new name to call yourself in the mirror.

Christian composer and hymn-writer, Janet Lindeblad Janzen tells of the birth of her daughter, and how her husband took the baby in his arms and named her “my Darling Precious Angel Princess.”  It was a name too long for the birth certificate, Janet says, so we settled for “Annie.”  But the appellation has remainedher own, special name from her father.

Much more than any earthly father cherishes his precious child, so does God cherish you.

Janet concludes: Think of it–God has his own, special name for you, the apple of his eye.
(Songs for Renewal, 1995, p. 111)  

Today, does God say to you
I will change your name
your new name will be
Confidence, Joyfulness, Overcoming One,
Faithfulness, Friend of God,
One who seeks My face ?

Rainbow’s End

(Gen 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15)
First Sunday in Lent, Feb 18, 2018 – UBC Digby – J G White

What a world of violence we see.  And we can’t help but see it.  From another violent school shooting on our continent to a suicide on a local wharf (Feb 2), the sad news seems relentless.

It was interesting to hear from the Chief of the Halifax Police Department last evening at the Digby Fire Department Banquet.  One thing that Jean-Michel Blais talked about was the problem, the danger, of hearing and seeing bad and violent news every day of our lives.  It all adds to the trauma of our lives.

We sang (George Matheson, 1882)
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain
that morn shall tearless be.

The rainbow covenant; the God of love.  Is it true? Our Source and Saviour is Love, is Joy, and takes tears away?  Is this what the rainbow’s for?

The rainbow appears in the Bible, famously, after the great flood.  And it comes with a promise: never again.  It is the Noah Covenant, an agreement between God and Creation in the time of Noah.  

There are more than one very important covenants in our Bible.  What is a covenant?  A covenant is really an official agreement.  An agreement between two parties, sometimes like a contract. You do this, don’t do that, & here’s what I’ll do to keep the bargain.

The Bible covenants are not quite like NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, but they are agreements.  In each case in scripture, agreements between God and people.

There are several main Old Testament covenants.  The covenant, or Agreement, with all creation in the time of Noah, signified by the rainbow. An agreement with Abraham and Sara.  An Agreement with Moses and the children of Israel.  An Agreement with King David. And the promised new Agreement with Jeremiah.  We will look at most of these over these weeks before Easter.  And they may tell us something about God, what the Creator is like.  

Which animal on Noah’s Ark had the highest level of intelligence?
The giraffe.

Why did Noah have to punish and discipline the chickens on the Ark?
Because they were using “fowl” language.

Who was the greatest financier in the Bible?
Noah – he was floating his stock while everyone else was in liquidation.

The flood stories here – Noah’s Ark – are ancient, sacred stories.  Told for many centuries, and finally written down and edited into their biblical form.  The events themselves were, for centuries, thought to have happened about 2,350 BC, Noah living more than four thousand years ago.  

For a long time, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy were considered the Five Books of Moses.  So these Genesis stories were thot to be recorded almost 1,500 years before Jesus.  

Many Bible scholars of the past century have seen evidence that this was actually written down in the time of the Jewish Exile, just 500 years before Jesus, a thousand years after Moses, who knows how long after Noah himself.

So for thousands of years the flood and Noah’s ark stories have been told.  In each era of the Middle East – and now the whole world – Jews and then Christians have found powerful hope in this holy tale.  

Such as George Matheson, who wrote that hymn we sang, O Love that Will Not Let Me Go.  When he was 19, and finishing university in his hometown of Glasgow, Scotland, he was starting to lose his sight.  He told his beloved girlfriend. She said she did not want to be married to a blind man, and they parted.

George went blind.  He remained a bachelor.  He became a pastor.  It was at age forty, on the eve of his sister’s wedding, that an evening of grief and inspiration hit him.  And and wrote that hymn, in 1882.   
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain
that morn shall tearless be.
The rainbow is a sign of hope, again and again.

Like so many other foundational Bible stories, this one conveys a profound, repeated message.  God is gracious.  God is better than people realized.  Kinder.  Let me show you.  

Many narratives in the Old Testament actually do something we usually never think of doing.  They tell about God changing.  Changing God’s own mind, God changing God’s plans, changing God’s own attitude.  Remember, in the story of Jonah, God repented of the calamity God was going to bring upon Nineveh city.  Or once the Hebrews had a King, the LORD declared: “I regret that I have made Saul king…” (1 Samuel 15:11)

Today, we are at the finale of the whole flood story; Noah’s Ark has safely weathered the storm, and landed on dry ground.  People were wicked, Genesis 6 tells us, a flood was sent to destroy everything and start again, and a few humans and a few of every other animal are saved in the giant boat.  

One part of the telling of this story we may not notice is the grief of God.  The deep feeling expressed in these chapters.  At the start of the whole thing, 6:6&7 says, And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. “I will blot out from the earth the human being I have created – people together with animals…

After the destroying flood, survivor Noah builds an altar and offers burnt offerings.  Then God’s heart is mentioned again.  We read that when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.  Then the Agreement is made, that we read, in chapter 9, with the sign of the rainbow.  

Notice that it is God, God alone, who is changed.  After the flood, people are the same.  The human heart is still evil from youth, the ancient text says. But God changes what God will do.  In the same breath, the LORD says, I will never again curse the ground, never again destroy every living creature.  

This is the essence of Gospel.  God doing more.  Doing good.  Doing what we didn’t do, won’t do, can’t do.  Scholar Walter Brueggemann says, “The one-to-one connection of guilt and punishment is broken.  God is postured differently.” (Interpretation: Genesis, 1982, p.84)  The ‘guilt and punishment’ system is broken apart.

How many times in the Bible is this told?  The story of things going wrong, of God punishing, but then the punishment is revoked, the harm is healed, grace is freely given.  It happened in the story of Jonah and Nineveh.  It happened for forty years in the wilderness with Moses and Aaron and Miriam. It happened to Job.  It happened when the people were ruled by kings. It happened when the Jews were taken into exile in Babylon.  The biblical story, again and again, declares the end of violence.  In every chapter of history, we find these ‘never again’ moments from God.

It happens with the story of Jesus.  As the church season of Lent begins, we hear again the start of the adult Jesus story.  He gets baptized; He spends forty days alone in the desert; He starts preaching that God’s Kingdom is nearby, so turn around.

Yet our versions of that Kingdom have sometimes been rather oppressive and, well, even violent.

17 years ago Philip Yancey wrote a book called Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church.  Chapter 1 he calls Recovering From Church Abuse.  

Yancey tells of One church I attended during formative years in Georgia of the 1960s presented a hermetically sealed view of the world.  A sign out front proudly proclaimed our identity with words radiating from a many-pointed start: “New Testament, Blood-bought, Born-again, Premillennial, Dispensational, fundamental…”  Our little group of two hundred people had a corner on the truth, God’s truth, and everyone who disagreed with us was surely teetering on the edge of hell.  Since my family lived in a mobile home on church property, I could never escape the enveloping cloud that blocked my vision and marked the borders of my world.

Later, I came to realize that the church had mixed in lies with truth. (p. 1)  And Philip Yancey gives us a book about learning the whole truth of the Gospel, the amazing agreements of God that are so good.

The rainbow covenant with Noah is one amazing agreement, compared with the usual agreements of the Ancient Near East.  The Agreement is with all people of the future, not just with Noah and his surviving family.  The Agreement is with all of creation, not just with people.  The Agreement is all on God, the people don’t have to do anything to keep up this contract.  

And the Agreement is a promise of non-violence.  A Rainbow.  A Bow in the sky.  Not a bow like the knot in our shoelace, or a bow on a box of chocolates for St. Valentine’s Day.  No, it’s the weapon, a bow that shoots arrows.  God hangs up God’s bow in the clouds.  It is not needed.  God is no longer in pursuit of an enemy – those nasty humans!  No, it is not like that.  

Every era in biblical history needs to hear this again, and new stories are told here of the people’s experience of God.  God who changes before their eyes.  Not the Punisher anymore.

And the next generation needs to hear that same Good News.  

What about our generations, and the next generation?  The end of the rainbow – the reason and meaning of the rainbow covenant – just may be the end of violence.  God is not violent.  God is peace and grace.

Life’s Blood

(John 6:52-60, 66-69)
Sun, Feb 11, 2018 – UBC Digby – J G White

Tomorrow, at the Clare Legion in Saulnierville, our nearest blood donor clinic will be open, and a few of us from here will go down to give blood. Blood: it’s in you to give.  Thanks, in part, to Dr. Drew, we have this medical way of giving life to others.  

Diane H— got moved this week from Yarmouth Hospital to Digby Hospital.  She seems improved; one month ago she was getting blood transfusions, among other treatment.  Bruce G— is in hospital in Halifax.  He told me he received a blood transfusion since he has been there.  In the blood is life.

In Christianity, we say that the shed blood of Jesus is life-giving.  Perhaps many of us are so accustomed to this way of talking we don’t notice the shock it gives to others.  We sing the old hymns all the time, such as What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Blood, when it is leaking out of a body, is typically gory, gross, awful.  Some people turn away at the sight of blood, and some even faint.  I have one friend like that. Blood gets associated with violence, with horror movies, and with illnesses.

But I don’t think these are the reasons those listening to Jesus one day were appalled.  “Amen, amen, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

“How can he give us his body to eat?” some asked.  “This is a difficult teaching,” said some of Jesus’ followers, “Who can accept it?”  

Think of who these people were, way back then, and what they knew.  Theirs was the Hebrew religion, with a history of lots of sacrifices to God of grain and of oil and of animals.  Animal sacrifice.  That was worship.  They knew the stories of Moses and their people of old, set free from slavery after each family sacrificed and ate a young sheep. They were a people fed with manna in the desert: bread from heaven.

“I will feed you now,” Jesus tries to tell them.  “I will give life to your souls.”  Killing of living things and shedding of innocent blood is over and done – Jesus will finish it.  In his most recent book, Brian McLaren suggests that when Jesus overturned the tables in the Temple, one day, Jesus was overturning that belief that God is angry and needs to be appeased with blood. (The Great Spiritual Migration, 2016, p. 27) Jesus, now, is life-giving.

Most people did not get it. After a lot of Jesus’ followers quit, He asked the twelve chosen disciples if they would leave too.  “To whom can we go?” said Peter.  “You have the words of eternal life.”

It is a different kind of Life Jesus offers.  The whole story of His blood being shed has a lot of complicated explanations.  I want to make it simple.  Life is given away.  To us.  To all who will take it.  Life is shared, flows out to reach us all.  

The Importance of Small Churches: Called to Be Some Things to Some People

(Psalm 84; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23)
Sun, Feb 4, 2018 – UBC Digby – J G White

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself… at your altars, O Lord of hosts… (Psalm 84:1, 3)
Whenever I read this I remember the Sunday, oh, twenty years ago, when two pigeons got into the little, one room, Baptist Church of Diligent River. During the evening communion service they stayed quiet, perched high up at the back.
Welcome to Church. Our lovely, little church. No cooing pigeons, no churchmice. Just us people.
In his book on being a healthy church, Dennis Bickers says: The community surrounding the small church benefits from the presence of the church. In many places the small church still serves as a meeting place for the community. It may serve as a building where people vote in local and national elections. Community youth groups such as scouts or 4-H may use the church building as their meeting place. People in the community often want to be married in the small neighbourhood church.
(Bickers, The Healthy Small Church, p. 17)
Our building here is our base of operations, and a big tool for our local mission. We do use the word ‘Church’ for such buildings as this. We love these ‘dwelling places’ of the Lord. We also know that people are more important than things. We know that I am the Church, you are the Church, we are the Church together.
So we, here, are amazing, more amazing than this spectacular Episcopal building. You and I are the greatest tools for good Digby Baptist has. Greater than any buildings or budgets we sustain. You and me. I feel like calling us ‘Super Christians,’ for that is what we are, in Christ.
Paul, of the New Testament, was a remarkable person. He figures prominently in the early years of this new entity, the Christian Church. As a widely travelling missionary around the Mediterranean, he became all things to all people. Perhaps he coined the phrase, right here in his letter we call 1st Corinthians.
A normal sized church like Digby Baptist can’t be all things to all people, even in our own local area. I don’t believe we are called to be all things to all people. But we are called to be some things to some people around here. Maybe for quite a few people around here.
So, like Paul, we might become many things to many people. Unto the non-religious we become non-religious, that we might gain the non-religious; to them that are fishermen become as fishermen that we might gain them; to them that are elderly as the elderly, that we might gain them that are of riper years. To the church alumni we become like those who long ago quit church, that we might gain some of them. To the young unchurched we become like them, that we might by all means save some.
Some of these categories, or others, could be our main things. Our calling from God this year.
Thom Ranier conducted a study on formerly unchurched people who joined a church. One of the findings of the study was as follows.
The formerly unchurched deeply desire to be a part of a church that makes a difference. They want to be involved in small groups, Sunday School, and ministry. They want to participate in a church that has clear direction and vision. And they do not mind, indeed they desire, churches that expect them to do ministry for God in the church where they met Christ.
(Bickers, The Healthy Small Church, p. 15)
We who live right here in and around Digby are the best experts on the citizens of Digby and area. We live in our mission field. We can see who needs our help, and what can be done.
I love the name of the new Wesleyan Church down the neck, planted last year, using the old Pentecostal building. It is called the Live Well Community Church. But, as Pastor Tim explains, it has a double meaning – quite obvious now with the live well challenge going on. The live well on a fishing boat connects to the Church name too. ‘Live Well’ cares for the people of their fishing community.
Here, in these pages [the Bible] we can hear Jesus saying His disciples will do greater things than He did! John 14:12 Amen amen, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going… Jesus spoke this before He departed. Jesus left, and His body – His disciples – the Church – continues to do His amazing work in this world.
Sometimes a fellowship loses its positive self-image and starts to have low self-esteem. I chuckled when I read this in Rev. Sara Scott’s article about motherhood in Tidings magazine:
On the way to church service at Grand View Manor, the nursing home where Sarah is a chaplain, her seven year-old daughter, Rowan, says: “You know, the other girls call it the funeral home.”
Sarah: “I can see why. That does sound like nursing home.”
Rowan: “Well, it does give the funeral home business.”
If a little congregation starts to feel that most of what it does is give the funeral home business, it needs a holy pick-me-up!
The importance of one person is not to be underestimated. The significance of one small church – fifty people, a hundred people – is not to be dismissed. As Dennis Bickers spends a whole book explaining, a small church can be a very healthy congregation.
There’s nothing wrong with large churches, of course, but there’s also nothing wrong with small churches. Some small churches will never experience great numerical growth, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important or that they have little to contribute.
(Bickers, The Healthy Small Church, p. 14)
We just had our annual meeting; we are ready for another year. Good thing too – it is already February! We have some good things to contribute.
Woe unto us, if we preach not the good news! Like Paul, our reward is found when we share good news, and make the gospel free of charge.
Let us keep on being some things to some people, so many will be blessed. It is a very important mission!