Worship, May 8 – Genesis: a New Beginning

WELCOME to this post for the worship service for ‘Mothers Day’ 2022. Full service details and announcements can be found in the Bulletin, here on our website. After the service, some video clips will be included in this post.

SERMON: Almost two weeks ago, I was planning my final five sermons. I would call them Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. That same day, I was feeling under the weather, and tested positive for COVID-19. My final five became the final four messages! 

And it is just as well I did not preach last weekend, because on that Tuesday I got very frustrated and unhappy with you. Sharon and I were packing up the garbage and recycling around here, and what I found in the bins in the kitchen drove me wild! Ugh, I thought, after eight years, eight years here! these people still are a train wreck of recycling. 

Anyway, I cooled down, and got over it. “Gardez votre sang froid.” I’ve had more time to plan my preaching. Today, I have planned this Genesis theme: new beginnings. A new beginning for us church people is what is about to happen this year. 

Perhaps all the trash we keep putting into the world, our climate impact, our spreading of invasive species, and so forth, calls for a new creation, a new bang to start it all over again! It is hard to have hope with all the discouraging news around us. How can things be refreshed without crashing and burning first?

The timeless message of Genesis chapter one is timeless because it speaks of a newness that can happen again and again. God is a God of new beginnings.

There can be Genesis out of chaos: there can be a new beginning out of the dark. The famous first sentences of the Bible paint a picture of a chaotic realm where nothing much is. Only disorder and darkness are there, for the Spirit of God to hover upon. 

Into that unorganized void the Creator spoke. ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light, a good light. 

This scene gets at something that is deeply true about reality, and the God of it all. Light, goodness, order, can come out of dark disorder. ‘It’s always darkest before the dawn,’ we say. Out of chaos comes beautiful things.

On this Mothers Day I notice some mothering images in the Bible. I mentioned Romans 8 just a few weeks ago. To me this paragraph is exciting, but also mysterious. I’m not quite sure I understand it. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning together as it suffers together the pains of labor, 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved.

Somehow, this whole world matters. Matters to God. I know, we sing, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through,” but the New Heavens and the New Earth come together at the end of the whole story. And, as Paul seemed to think, the whole creation groans as if in labour, along with us, waiting for soul and body to be renewed.

Things are rather dark for creation, or so it looks to us. The collapse of the environment, including the climate, could well be a crisis. We people are so slow to change, to figure it out, to do what needs to be done and to stop what we need to stop doing. But may springtime around us inspire us. Remind us that the cycle of life is but a hint of the creation from chaos that started it all. The will to live, in all things, is great. It is from God. It will go on.

Here are some things I saw springing up in recent days…

Our main text today was from Acts, chapter 9. The famous conversion of Saul, who mostly gets called Paul. This is Genesis out of evil: there can be a new beginning in the life of wrongdoers

Now is perhaps like other moments we have known, when our faith in humanity is damaged. There are too many people doing too much wrong too often. Just this past week, the apartment next door to my parent’s house was raided by the police and a bunch of ‘troublemakers’ living there were taken away in handcuffs. Nearby, in the village where my cottage is, there was a murder committed. Yesterday, up in Parrsboro, where I lived 20-some years ago, theft of copper wire at two sub-stations put the power out in a third of Cumberland County!

And this is just the local news.

And these are the extreme cases of wrongdoing. Of course, our scripture is of Saul, quite a serious wrongdoer. No wonder the Christian fellow, Ananias, is reluctant to believe Saul is scheduled to get prayer and blessings.

You and I are all here at our various stages of recovery from sin. We worship because we know the One who has given us new life. There has been a genesis out of evil, a new beginning; maybe more than 1 new beginning for us. And we strive to have confidence in a God who can work such miracles in all human souls. 

I think of someone I know, and you know, who went through a dark night of the soul, twenty years ago. If she were here today, she could tell you how she got to a crisis point, dealing with the abuses in her life, her mental health, and the choices she had made. It was a make or break moment when she called out, wondering if God was really there. And God broke through to her. God was there!

That was Sharon White, and it happened to here while she was living in, of all places, Amherst, NS. Jesus, the Light of the world, breaks through in people’s lives.

This is a traditional “three point” sermon today. So thirdly, I’d say I believe in Genesis out of the faithful: there can be a new beginning in the life of a Christian

This we see in the story of Ananias, here in Acts 9. He’s a ‘good guy’ in the story, a disciple of the risen Jesus; yet he also has some learning to do, and a fresh conversion of himself. Ananias of Damascus is given a little mission: to go to a certain home on one of the main streets in town, to pray and bless a visiting man named Saul of Tarsus. Ananias seems quite alarmed! This Saul is well-known as an opponent to the new movement of Jesus followers. 

Ananias needs a conversion, and he gets it. He does respond to God’s prompting, and goes to this home where the enemy is staying, lays hands for prayer upon Saul, and speaks the promises to him. Saul then sees again. But Ananias also sees something new: more was possible than he expected. 

There is always more for us, as followers of Christ. We are always pilgrims on a journey. I think one of the great ‘spiritual formation’ texts in the Bible is from Galatians 4. The apostle Paul wrote to his Christian brothers and sisters to encourage them. Paul was very emotional, he wanted his friends to make progress! 19 My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, 20 how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you! Paul felt like he was trying to give birth to these believers, he deeply wanted them to be more and more like Jesus.

I must admit I have also had times when I’ve felt this way. I’ve longed for one person to study the Bible more, for another person to develop their ways of talking about their faith, and for someone else to declare themselves to be Christian by getting baptized. It is sometimes my job to be a spiritual midwife to other believers, as it was for Paul, and help Christ ‘be formed in you’ one stage more.

There can be a genesis for church people: a new beginning. As there was a new step of faith and action in the life of Ananias. He went ahead with his God-given mission to bless nasty Saul.

So for the ‘conversion’ of believers I also pray. ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ Perhaps as you pray for me, my next chapter will also have a Genesis, and by some miracle I too will be better than ever before. Keep on praying with your life for the renewal of the earth, for the renewal of those who seem wicked or wrecked, and for the renewal of those who are Christians. Our Mighty God blesses all!

Does Good Work

(Psalm 23; Acts 9:36-43) – J G White
11 am, E4, Sunday, May 12, 2019 – UBC Digby

I’m starting with a little show-and-tell today.  So first, this little quilt, handmade by Joan White in 1984 for me. Then there is this blue, zippered hoodie she made me a decade ago, I suppose, on her sewing machine and surger. And this sweater; she hand-knit this about thirty years ago, and it is rather fun. It is pretty much the one thing she knit me that I do wear.

This is just a sampling of my mother’s good work.  I can also show you lovely things made for me by other dear people. This glass mosaic made for us as a Christmas gift last year by my sister, Michelle, in Ontario. This cross-stitch of the Prayer of St. Francis, by my friend Frank, in Halifax, as an ordination gift in 1998. This poster to celebrate me (and my friend, Nancy) walking 80 Kms in one day, last Nov., created by our friends Jonathan and Meghan and Catherine.  

All these handmade gifts are rather happy momentos, and all the creative gift-givers are still alive. Today’s Gospel story has a sad and poignant moment, when the handiwork of a woman who had just died, is on display.  The legacy of Tabitha, of Joppa, was the clothing she made. Her weeping friends celebrate her life by bringing it all out. Tabitha’s legacy also was the kind and charitable deeds she was known for, mentioned here in Acts 9.

Tabitha, we are told, had become a disciple of Jesus, a follower of the new Way.  In a sense, the Easter story continues here, as we see life-giving power displayed, when she is brought back to life.

But before that happens, the mourners and visitors take note of Tabitha’s legacy.  The good she did in her life. The things that made a difference in her world.

I sometimes wonder what my legacy is, at this point in my life. What good little things have I left behind?  What difference have I made in the life of others, so far? And I see plenty of other people wondering the same thing about themselves.

I think of John.  He wheeled into our congregation in Windsor one Sunday in his motorized wheelchair, and joined in. He was a talkative Cape Bretoner. He came to us as a man who had started the lay-pastor training program. He had led some Bible studies and even preached in other places. But he had a chronic disease that was slowly ravaging his body. Along with his increasing physical problems, mental health issues were at times quite serious for him.  

John wanted to be in ministry, he wanted to do some good work. I helped him organize a mental health support group in our church. It got off to a good start, I thought.  For about a year, it served a real need for some people in our community, who got together each week in the Church Parlour, to be heard and to encourage one another.

But it was hard for John to lead the group. Often his mood and his depression almost shut him down.  His physical abilities were decreasing. He moved to a different apartment in a different town. I lost touch with him, eventually. Curious, I looked him up last year in the obituaries, and found him there.

Did John, at times, wonder if his life was worth it?  He worked so hard to carry on, so hard at following Jesus, so hard at making a difference and at being a leader. I hope he knew, at his better moments, that his life did make a difference. He has a legacy.

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:10)

I think also of another person from that far end of the Valley. A middle aged, single woman, she came to the church in a time of emotional crisis. She had so much care and compassion to give, so much time to volunteer and help. These are her gifts. She really had no money – she was barely getting by – and she likely has some learning disabilities.  I found her language skills, both written and spoken, rather poor. She had suffered abuses and tragedies.

But she always believed in herself.  She often dreamed big dreams of things she could do and of new career paths. She was often longing to do what she saw her friends do: who were pastors and chaplains, firefighters and prison ministry volunteers.  She overestimated her capabilities regularly.

But, as I say, she believed in herself.  Others inspired her. And she overflows with compassion for other people.  Her life still makes a difference.

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Cor. 15:38)

I wonder about myself, my legacy, the difference I have made in this world for Christ. I have moments that I fear my efforts and my effects have been feeble and few.  It is likely true that our day and age, here, is a more difficult one for Pastors than the past century.

I go back to the town where I first served as the Minister, and meet people I baptized. The ones who quit taking part in church in the years since I was there. And the folk who left the Baptist Church and went to something else in town. Did I succeed in keeping the people in the pews safe and happy while I was there, but the real spiritual transformation of souls that could have happened, never happened?

I don’t always think this way, but I often wonder these things. Then I recall Isaiah’s poetry (49:3-6):

And he [God] said to me, “You are my servant,     [Israel,] in whom I will be glorified.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity…”
And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant… “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

In my heart of hearts I know and believe that our lives matter.  We all do good work. It may be often that we don’t reach our potential, and that is not only sad but, at times, even a sin. Not reaching our potential can be against the will of God. Being a mediocre me is cooperation with the evil one.

Then I get inspired. Praise God!  Like at the Fresh Expressions Vision Day in Halifax on Thursday, put on by our Baptist convention.  Or Dr. Harry Gardner’s sermon in Wolfville on Friday evening, at the service for the Divinity School graduates.

Or, when I remember the little devotional reading that sparked my long-pondered decision to answer the call to the ministry, in 1991.  

Many of us have a sort of vision of the kind of person God wants us to be.  We must be true to that vision, whatever it is, and we must try to live up to it by living the way we believe we should live. We can believe that God has a vision of what he wants us to be like.  In all people there is the good person which God sees in us, the person we could be and that God would like us to be. (Twenty-Four Hours a Day, Dec. 2)

I want every one of you to be inspired to ‘be all that you can be!’  To know the difference you make. And to grow that inner confidence that is both humble and hopeful. Christ in you is the hope of glory!

The wise Preacher of the book of Ecclesiastes said: I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. (E 3:14)

Once Peter performed the miracle, and Tabitha is seen to be alive again, Christ gets the attention.  Luke does not say, “This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in Peter.”  Nor does Luke write, “and many believed in the Church.”  Luke tells us, “many believed in the Lord.”  

This is Jesus. Jesus, who once had said, No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Mtt 5:15-16)

Yet this Jesus also taught us to pray secretly, quietly; and to give to help the needy in secret.  

This is all so that the good we do will point to the source of goodness, spelled with a capital G.  So, each daily task you do, each moment of helpful action, makes a difference in this world, in God’s Kingdom.

Thanks be to God that ‘she does good work,’ he does good work, they do good work, we do good work. Thanks be to God!

Religious Conversion

(Acts 9:1-20) – J G White
11 am, E3, Sunday, May 5, 2019 – UBC Digby

A number of months ago some divinity college students met ‘a convert.’   

One Friday, I went with my favourite divinity student, Sharon White, and others, to prayers and a luncheon at Umma Mosque in Halifax.  For the divinity students, it was an assignment: to visit a very different worship event.

It was during interfaith harmony week, and the Mosque was ready for lots of visitors.  We were part of a big crowd visiting that day, observing their Friday Prayers. And there was a big lunch served after, information booths, and a panel discussion.  

After prayers, before lunch, a friendly young woman from that faith community, wearing a hijab, spoke to the little group of us, and answered our questions.  Ironically, this Islamic woman who stopped to welcome a group of Baptist divinity students, was a former Baptist. She had left being a Christian, and converted to Islam.

What happens when the religious persons makes a conversion?  By ‘Religious Conversion,’ today, I don’t mean getting a non-religious person to become faithful.  I mean, getting a religious person to change their religious ways.

Today’s Bible story, the Saul of Tarsus story, is of a very religious person converting to a new Way.  It is not the story of ‘a heathen’ seeing the light and meeting God. This is a faithful Jew, meeting the Messiah, and learning to follow Jesus.  

It is, really, another ‘resurrection appearance’ of Jesus!  And though we use the phrase “Damascus road experience,” Saul’s story is not necessarily the typical, normal conversion story.  It’s not how I became a Christian. Saul, who becomes know better as the Apostle Paul, gets moved to make a big step. As a Jew in the ministry, he becomes a leader of a new religious movement, that eventually becomes Christianity.  

All these centuries later, within Christianity, Christians can need ‘conversion.’ A big change.  A paradigm shift, as some call it. The Spirit moves, and your way of being a believer gets made new.  

This is what the revival movements of the past centuries were all about. Converting your religion.  & what’s religion, but a way of sharing your spirituality?

But a big change is not just up to you: it is God at work. As with Saul, Jesus gets actively involved, and He also recruits helpers to work with you.   In Saul’s case it was a man named Ananias who was Saul’s helper, aiding a new faith to be born in Saul.

And even the messenger chosen to help Saul needed some convincing to take up the mission.  Ananias was even told that Saul would be told how he must suffer. Sounds like a hard sell! Yet Saul was transformed.

When someone’s religion gets converted, some things change, and some things stay the same.  Saul, he kept the same scriptures. He had the same skills. He had the same line of work, so to speak.

In our days, there is a lot of change in the practice of our Christian Faith.  Everything old is new again. Notice the Three Priorities of our denomination? The Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada?  
65 New Congregations
75 Emerging Pastor-Leaders
300 Mission-Edge Churches

65 New Congregations: Multiply! Multiply! Multiply!  New Churches. Multi-site congregations.  Re-planted churches. Fresh expression of church are creatively being established.  Pray about something new your neighbourhood needs. How many times will your church multiply over the next 8 years?

300 Mission-Edge Churches: We must discover how to live on mission at the edge of culture in our neighbourhoods, engaging neighbours effectively, living out a faith that attracts people to Jesus.  Is your church displaying the markers of a mission-edge church? Remember the six markers of a missional church?  I gave you six sermons in a row about them last September and October.

Things are changing a lot in Christianity, in our lifetimes: it is a new reformation, 500 years later. The ways things have always been don’t stay the same.  God breaks & remoulds them, like a Potter with clay.

Example: ‘Not Your Grandmother’s Offering Plate’, a webinar by John Campbell, ADC:
Tithes and offerings just aren’t what they used to be. People in our pews have a wide range of options when it comes to where and how they give their money to the Lord…and it’s not always in your offering plate. In this workshop, we will discover the changes in giving across generations in Canada. We will wrestle with a theological understanding of tithing to the Lord and then explore practical ideas of how we can better help people to support your local church ministry.
Join me for a live webinar on Tuesday, May 7th 2:00pm.

Such little things, these pieces of our lives, get to be new, every once in a while.  The way we always did things shifts. Our attitude gets an adjustment.

When your personal religion gets converted, it can mean several things.
Your beliefs change.
How you practice your faith changes.
How you understand who is in your religion, who is in fellowship with you, changes. Joining changes.
What kind of God you serve may change.
The stories you tell and that you sing change.

I am so grateful to Christ for own transformation through the years.  As a child and a youth, I loved all the activities of my local Baptist Church.  When I was almost 18 years old and moved away from home, I met some Baptist Christians who opened the door from me to think new thoughts I was ready for, and worship in fresh ways I had never before experienced.  I was given real permission to believe God was great enough to have created the world over the past 14 billion years, not just six days. I was encouraged to trust the Bible to speak not just as history, but to inspire as a form of holy poetry and storytelling.  I was welcomed into worship that was quite fancy and formal and serious and beautiful.

Years later, I am a Pastor in my thirties, and I must come to terms with what I am as a leader: because it is not what I thought leadership was supposed to look like.  The leadership of Jesus, and Moses, and others, again opens more doors for me as a person with purpose.

Today, my thinking about our Bible storytelling and how we explain the Gospel is being touched by God.  The violence we see that runs so deep in the Holy Scriptures, and in our Church History, must be handled carefully and creatively.  I am just now learning how to read the Bible more like Jesus did.

When God wills the change in us, it is an improvement, of course. It is the next step for you and what you do.  Sometimes, as with Saul, it will involve being told what we will have to suffer for the sake of our mission in life.  And, like Saul, we become convinced, motivated, transformed. We count the cost, and go for it. And we thank those who led us and corrected us and inspired us.

There may be a better way for you.  A better way for you to live you life.  A better way for you to live out your purpose in the world.  Better ways to be religious, to share your spirituality. Your next step in the right direction may not start with a ‘Damascus road experience,’ but it may be an important change, nevertheless.  

Somewhere down the road, just around the bend, there may be a turnaround. A new thing.  A fresh expression of live Faith in Christ. It’s not that we need to get saved. But, you and I may still be ‘New On the Road.’