August 27, 2017: Blessed to be a Blessing by Marie Paul (Exodus 1:8-2:10; Matthew 16: 13-20)

Marie Paul is a mature student minister in Westminster Presbytery (Burnaby) who cares about change in the church.  As a librarian, Marie appreciates the complexity and richness of multiple stories, especially in our scripture.  Marie looks forward to learning some of your stories as we worship together.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable to you, O God, our Rock and Redeemer.

 Thank you for the invitation and support to speak to you today; to pray, sing, and worship together.  It’s what I love to do with others!

I am a mature student minister from Westminster Presbytery, which goes from Burnaby and New Westminster, out past Coquitlam, Port Moody, and Maple Ridge.

My name, in case you missed it is Marie Paul.  I live in Burnaby.  Marie from Burnaby.

I care a lot, about change in the church.  So I’m delighted to start another field placement, this one at Jubilee United in Burnaby.

Jubilee is in the midst of change.  It is a newly amalgamated congregation formed by joining West Burnaby and South Burnaby United Churches.  The congregation worships on Rumble Street, while redeveloping the property on Sussex by Metrotown.  There will be affordable housing in Burnaby!  There will also be a worship space, and office space for community partners.

As I prepared to come and be with you, I kept humming one tune.  It took me a few days to finally realize which hymn was coming to mind. Jesus, you have come to the Lakeshore.  It’s a hymn about Jesus calling disciples away from their boats, to come fish for people.  It seems appropriate that I should hum this, as I spent a couple of days and nights hiking and camping beside Alouette Lake in Golden Ears Provincial Park, just north of Maple Ridge.

So I come to you from Burnaby with her two beautiful lakes, I come this week from Maple Ridge and the gorgeous Golden Ears Provincial Park with Alouette Lake.  I come to you from the lakeshore, here to you in the heart of the city of Vancouver.

I’ve often wanted to come to Canadian Memorial and attend events here and listen to the many speakers you get.  I love the fact that you advertise your summer series and enjoy the inspiration of hearing different voices.  Last summer I wanted to come to hear Jay McDaniel speak on eco-theology and evolutionary process theology.  It’s a far distance for me to come, from the Coquitlam side of Burnaby to Canadian Memorial.  It’s awkward to find this church and to park.  There’s no skytrain nearby to help bring in commuters like St. Andrews-Wesley has downtown.

Most recently I came here to pick up white poppies, last October – November, sharing a push for peace as we remember the wars and violence that most veterans would like to end.

I feel honoured and blessed to have known some of the great loving, fascinating and fun people from Canadian Memorial as they have shared their gifts: Susan DuMoulin acting as UCC chaplain at VST one year, Rhian and Trevor and Ryan Tristan both VST graduates, and Frances, a current student at VST.  I’m looking forward to getting to know Lonnie better in his music ministry.  Maybe this year, I’ll be able to sing with him on Wednesdays and Thursdays at VST.

Wow, you have a gifted congregation, with individuals already out there, sharing their gifts with the world.

I am paying attention to the physical geography of where I am coming from and where you are, because our physical place, our position and perspective makes a difference.  I have learnt this from our indigenous brothers and sisters and their land-honouring spirituality.

Land and setting is significant.  It makes a physical and psychological impression upon us, as we’ll see in our readings today.  Both readings open with strong statements about the setting.

In Exodus, the historical setting begins with the ominous information that there was a new king, who did not know Joseph.  You should be afraid.  This forewarns us of the oppression that comes in this story.

The Moses narrative is a “history transfigured by faith.”  The stories we tell each other, and that we honour as scripture, ingrain deep theological truths.  In this case of the epic origins of Moses, the unlikely Hebrew hero, we can notice the strength of the women who resist the oppression and resist the pressure to collude with Egyptian leaders.  We can notice the community’s pride in the clever response to oppression that the midwives showed when they used the Egyptian’s own prejudice against immigrants as their defense.  We can notice the faith community working together to support each other, especially seen in the actions of Moses’ mother and sister.  Their actions to save the baby Moses are both strategic and daring.

The basket made by Moses’ mother, a woman in the Priestly Levite line, is described using the same Hebrew word used to describe Noah’s boat in the flood.  Using the word ‘ark’ to describe Moses’ basket connects Moses to a heroic faith story from the past Noah’s ark and the future ark of the covenant.

Moses’ sister not only ensures the safety of the baby, but also sees that it is the powerful princess who discovers him.  Her daring offer to find him a Hebrew nurse, provides the opportunity for his own mother to remain close, and to be paid for her mothering!

The epic infancy narrative of Moses and his family encourages confidence in God’s chosen leaders and confidence in God’s care for our faith communities.  Similarly, Matthew’s gospel today encourages confidence in Jesus, through the faithful declaration of Simon Peter. 

This New Testament story is a typical travelling tale.  As Jesus and his disciples walk, Jesus teaches.  Notice the significant setting in the opening line.

[The following is a re-telling of the story with dramatic gestures.]

Jesus and his followers from Galilee are walking towards Caesarea Philippi, far in the North, on the road to Damascus, the capital of Syria, days and days away from their home towns.

They see the great Imperial fortress , the city renamed by the local ruler to declare to everyone, whose man he is.  Herod Philippi is Caesar’s man, and he is harsh and oppressive.  At the bottom of the rock escarpment, he forces his enemy prisoners to fight each other for the spectacle of battle.  He forces them to fight fierce beasts for their lives.  He throws his captive enemies into the bottomless crevice at the back of the cave, known as the Gate of Hades, as living sacrifices, to be judged acceptable or not by the deep waters.

Everyone there knows who Herod Philippi is and what he believes in, power and brutal imperial force.

The Imperial Roman city sits on top of this huge rock escarpment, that grows more massive with each step the travellers take.  The rock face blocks out other horizons.

Here is where Jesus turns to his disciples and asks them “Who do people say I am?”

They struggle to answer.  Some say you’re one of the old prophets come again as was foretold, but they know better, because in a vision they saw Elijah standing beside him, so he’s not Elijah.  And he’s not his cousin John the Baptist.

Simon Peter puts it out there:  Jesus, you are the Messiah, the anointed one.  You are the son of the living God.

There it is, that declaration of faith, better than any t-shirt slogan.  Jesus turns to Simon Peter, “You are Peter, petra. On this rock, on this solid declaration of faith, I will build my church.”

The Gates of Hades will not prevail against the gathered faithful people. No cave will judge people with a death sentence in the Christian community.  Instead Jesus gives the disciples the keys of the kingdom of heaven. “How you interpret my teachings will be the way church communities are built.”

This group of travellers, is a little like a group of Canadians walking up to Mount Rushmore in the United States.  The patriotic American presence is carved into the rock, which towers over visitors, looking down upon the little people.  Imagine a shrine there for Donald Trump.  Now, are you going to buy a T-shirt that says: “Jesus is Lord” or one that says: “Make America Great Again?”  Everyone knows what Trump stands for, racism and profit, like money in your pocket.

For the followers of Jesus in Caesarea Philippi, for their own protection in a foreign, imperial land, they were not to tell anyone who was the Messiah.

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Today, I came to you from Burnaby, from the lakeside, to talk about how we build the church.   Our faith forms the solid rock foundation for our communities.  This is a time of intentional re-structuring, re-building our United Church of Canada.  The remits have passed and over the next 2 years and even into the next 5 years, we are saying goodbye to our Presbyteries and creating new ways to support each other: in collegial relationships, in clusters of shared concern and justice work, and by accompanying each other in our faith journeys.  Hopefully this saves money and requiring less volunteer time and effort, making the church more sustainable.  Instead of Presbyteries, our BC Conference or Region will take on new roles supporting clusters of congregations with shared concerns.

In this intentional re-structuring time, we have a chance to re-form the role of the congregation in the wider church.  I come to you today to ask you to consider that congregational role and your faithful position in the wider church.  Your congregation sits in a position of privilege, here in the centre of the city, in the centre of the Lower Mainland, with easy access to speakers and BC’s seminary, the Vancouver School of Theology.

We are blessed, to be a blessing to others.  We are healed and inspired, and prepared and educated, and supported, and encouraged to share our learnings.

Last week I led a worship service at St. John’s United Church on the sunshine coast.  St. John’s is part of the Vancouver-Burrard presbytery.  After 17 years with Rev. Janice Young as their minister, they went through a 2 year, intentional, interim ministry with Rev. Wendy Read, and have now called a different minister to their congregation, Rev. Alan Claassen, who will begin October 1st.  I served on their 2 year Transition Team during the interim ministry.  Rev. Brian Burke also served on their Transition Team.  Normally that role of accompaniment and representation of the wider church is filled from within your own presbytery.

There are roles to play in supporting each other’s congregations, while all our church is going through intentional transition.

If you know other United Church members from other churches, ask them how it’s going at their church.

I wonder how, as a congregation, you can support other churches, that are more on the margins and that don’t have the same easy access to resources.  In Burnaby, we have a sister city in Japan. If you go up Burnaby Mountain, you’ll see sculptures, one points to Japan.  One is a unique specialized eco-sculpture, made of growing plants that Burnaby has become known for.  There is an eco-sculpture of two herons,

their plants growing together, entwined in a heart shape, with an egg at their feet.

Meanwhile Burnaby has the Nikkei Centre just off Kingsway, and past Metrotown.  The Nikkei Centre is a National Japanese Museum, memorializing losses and educating Canadians about the Canadian internment camps that held the Japanese, reducing them to poverty and terrible, poor living conditions.  Through the year, there are Japanese festivals, and there’s a great Japanese restaurant on the premises.

I wonder what could happen if our churches developed supportive, sisterly relationships between congregations? Imagine Sister Congregations, with strong connections between urban and rural?  Between West Coast and interior?  Between inter-cultural and indigenous?

If you know that you have a strong program, offer to share it with your neighbouring or even distant churches.  If there’s one thing I’ve learnt at Vancouver School of Theology, it’s that what I’ve been taught is meant to be shared.  As disciples of Jesus, we are called and commissioned, called and sent out to share the good news.  Your good news may be that a fantastic speaker is coming to town.  Maybe the speaker would like to do two presentations, and meet more Christian communities, just an hour or so down the road.

It is appropriate that these supportive church relationships be considered feminine, ‘sister’ relationships.

In our gospel text, written in Greek, Jesus tells Simon Peter, upon this rock I will build my church.  Rock, ‘petra’ is feminine.   Church, ‘ecclesia’, is feminine.  Peter . . .  is masculine.  The grammar of the language, the gender of the words, is in agreement between the rock and the church.  But the feminine word ‘rock’ is not based on Peter.  The rock is not Peter but Peter’s declaration of faith.  “Jesus, you are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”

Upon this rock, the rock of ages, the rock of faithful knowing, upon this rock, God builds the church, a new kingdom of supportive, loving relationships.

Your church, the Canadian Memorial United Church, is a wonderful Christian community, inclusive and diverse.  You have been blessed.  You are a blessing to the wider church community.

Both our readings today open with a significant setting; both readings end with a bit of word play.  So what follows is my attempt at word play with your congregation’s name.  I’m slightly embarrassed.  This may be a bit corny.  You can let me know over coffee whether it works or not.

As a fellow Canadian, I appreciate your diversity.  Please Remember that together we can build more unity, by inviting in the margins of the wider church.

Canadians Remember the Unity of our Church.

Let’s pray together.

We are not alone.

We live in God’s World.

     God is with us.

We are not alone.

Thanks be to God.