For Goodness’ Sake

A meditation by Pastor Lawrence Siemens on December 2, 2018, the First Sunday of Advent, called “For Goodness’ Sake.” It is a reflection on the different ways we understand personal “righteousness,” and how despite these differences we can all confess that “the Lord is our righteousness.”

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To God All Are Alive

A meditation by Pastor Michael Pahl on November 25, 2018, Eternity Sunday, called “To God All Are Alive,” Jesus’ words in Luke 20:38. Eternity Sunday (also called Totensonntag) comes out of the German church tradition and is celebrated on the last Sunday of the church year, the Sunday before Advent. It is a time for remembering those who have died.

It can be easy to forget.

In a world of tweets and Facebook updates and blog posts that are here today and tomorrow are ancient history, in a world where what is newer is always better and what is older is inevitably worse—in this kind of world, it can be easy to forget.

It’s hard work to remember. Certainly, it’s hard work to remember well.

Dozens of times in Scripture God’s people are commanded to “remember,” precisely because it is so easy to forget.

“Remember the Lord,” we’re entreated. “Remember what God has done,” we’re told. “Remember Jesus’ broken body and shed blood,” we’re commanded.

And tucked away in Hebrews is this call to remembrance: “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Heb 13:7).

Of course, this is speaking of church leaders in particular—whether formal or informal leaders—all those who have shepherded God’s people and shaped their hearts and minds toward faith and hope and love. We are to remember these people, to remind ourselves of the way they lived in order to follow their faithful example.

But this call to remembrance also recalls the long list of people just a couple of chapters earlier: the “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11. And not all of those people were “leaders” in any formal sense.

Remember Abraham: by faith Abraham obeyed God. Remember Sarah: by faith Sarah trusted God’s promises. Remember Jacob: by faith Jacob worshiped God. Remember Moses: by faith Moses identified with God’s suffering people. Remember Rahab: by faith Rahab welcomed God’s people into her home and her land.

The author could just as easily have said of all these people—both leaders and followers—what he says later in Hebrews 13: “Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.”

It can be easy to forget.

It’s hard work to remember well.

But God does not forget, and so neither should we. God remembers, and so should we. God hears our cries, God bottles up our tears, God sings over us with joy, God numbers our days—God’s eye is always upon us (Ps 56:8; 139; Zeph 3:17). And his eye is not just on us who still live, but also on those who have gone before—whether leaders or not, whether faithful or not—for, as Jesus puts it in Luke 20:38, “to God all are alive.” Did you hear that? To God all are alive.

And so we are commanded to remember, and we remember because God remembers. One might even say we have a moral obligation to those who have walked among us, who have gone before us, to remember them—to speak their names, to recall their faces, to tell their stories.

Of course, neither God nor our loved ones want us to dwell in the past. We dwell in the eternal present, in light of the past and in anticipation of the future. We remember, but we always remember with a forward look.

“Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus commands us at the Last Supper—“and so we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26). We remember the Lord, we remember what God has done, we remember Jesus’ suffering on our behalf—we remember those who have gone before us—so that we can step into the future with God more faithfully.

It can be easy to forget.

It’s hard work to remember well.

But it’s a good work to remember well, to remember those who have passed away, to “consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith,” perhaps, or even just to speak the names and recall the faces and tell the stories of all those who are still alive to God.

And so, on this Eternity Sunday, we remember.

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Confident Faith, Courageous Love

A sermon by Pastor Michael Pahl on November 18, 2018, called “Confident Faith, Courageous Love,” reflecting on Hebrews 10:19-25.

Here is a written excerpt from the introduction:

Hubert Robert, The Fire of Rome

Fifteen years. It had been fifteen years since the first round of persecutions.

They were Jews, living in Rome. Jewish “Christians,” actually: physical descendants of Abraham, free children of Hebrew slaves in Egypt, covenanted to Yahweh at Mount Sinai through the Law of Moses—and believers in Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord.

That first round of persecution, fifteen years ago, that one had affected all the Jews in Rome. There had been some trouble in the city’s Jewish neighbourhood. The official verdict was that the trouble had been sparked by a slave named “Chrestus,” but word on the street said differently. A bitter dispute had broken out between Jews who did not believe in Messiah Jesus, and Jews who did. The trouble was over “Christus”—Christ—not someone named “Chrestus.”

It really didn’t matter how it started, though. The end result was the eviction of the Jews from Rome by edict of the Emperor Claudius. Their leaders were punished, they were forced out of their homes, and they were banished from the city with only the possessions they could carry.

Five years later—ten years ago—the Emperor Claudius died, and upon his death his edict was annulled. Jews began to move back into the city and buy back their homes. Even better, Judaism began to have favour again in the new Roman court, under the new young Emperor, Nero.

That first round of persecution faded into memory.

This time, things were different. This time it wasn’t the Jews who were targets of persecution, it was the Christians. Jewish Christians couldn’t catch a break in Rome: persecuted first as Jews, now as Christians.

They were easy targets for bullying, these Christians. From the perspective of most Romans, Christians were superstitious fools at best and seditious traitors at worst.

These Christians foolishly followed a crucified Jewish peasant from that backwater of the Roman Empire, Galilee. Even more bizarrely, they claimed this Jesus had been raised from the dead by God. Then they had the gall to insist that this crucified and risen Jesus was “Lord”—even Lord over the Emperor!

They had strange customs, too, these Christians. “Eating Jesus’ body” and “drinking Jesus’ blood” sounded like cannibalism to many, and who knew what went on at those gatherings they called “love feasts”?

Foolish ideas, bizarre and even treasonous claims, strange beliefs and rituals—and a very small minority. A few hundred, maybe a couple thousand at most—Christians were a mere speck of dust in the seven hills of mighty Rome’s one million inhabitants.

Like I said, they were easy targets for bullying, these Christians. And perfect scapegoats, too—which Emperor Nero used to his advantage.

Because young Nero had grown up, and the result was not pretty.

When he was first emperor, at only 16 years old, Nero followed the careful guidance of his guardians, including the famous philosopher-poet, Seneca. But within a few years things had begun to change. Extravagance, promiscuity, corruption, cruelty—these began to be the hallmarks of his reign.

Nero was constantly concerned about his image, wanting to be popular among the common people—and largely he was. He had a strong populist following. But his behaviour was becoming a problem—sparked by an erratic, even volatile temperament.

It was not a good time to be a mistrusted, even despised minority.

During the night of July 18, AD 64, a fire broke out in the city on one of those seven famous hills of Rome. The fire burned for a week. Homes, mansions, temples were destroyed. In fact, three of Rome’s 14 districts were destroyed, and seven more were badly damaged. It was devastating for the city.

A rumour began to spread almost as fast as the fire, that Nero had started the fire himself. He wanted to build a new Rome, so the rumour went, a glorious new Rome in his honour. He wanted to build a Golden House with a 30-meter tall statue of himself, the Colossus of Nero. Can you imagine it!

Nero acted quickly. To his credit he organized a relief effort, searching for survivors and bringing in food and supplies for the homeless and hungry. But he also ramped up the fake news, starting a rumour of his own: it was not Nero who started the fire, it was those Christians. A mistrusted and despised minority—perfect scapegoats.

And so, even as he was helping the victims of Rome’s inferno with his right hand, with his left he was rounding up the Christians, throwing them into prison, and executing them without trial.

In the end, whether Nero started the fire or not, he got what he wanted: Rome was rebuilt in his honour, with his Golden House and his 100-foot Colossus of Nero.

There’s a lot we don’t know about the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Bible book that our Scripture passage is from this morning. We don’t know who wrote it. We don’t know for sure when it was written, or to whom. But it’s quite possible that it was written to Jewish Christians in Rome just as I’ve described, some years after the Emperor Claudius had expelled Jews from Rome, and not long before the Emperor Nero executed Christians for burning Rome.

The letter is written to Jewish Christians. And it does mention both a persecution in “the early days” which resulted in imprisonment and confiscation of property, as well as a current round of suffering and hardships which could well turn ugly for those Jewish Christians (10:32-39; 12:1-4). The letter also describes how some of their number have turned their backs on Christ—still Jews, which was safe to be, but no longer Christians, which was a dangerous name to claim (e.g. 10:26-31).

I call it a “letter,” and it is. But the author himself calls it “a word of encouragement,” or “a word of exhortation” (13:22). That was a Jewish way of referring to a sermon. So the Book of Hebrews is really a sermon. (He also calls it a “brief” sermon—only an hour or so!)

“A word of encouragement.” How do you encourage people who have gone through real persecution, who are mistrusted and despised by those around them, who are in danger of even greater persecution, and who are seeing people leave their congregations because they can’t take the heat?

Our passage this morning sums up the central section of Hebrews, and so it sums up the heart of the author’s “word of encouragement” to these Christians. And even though we are not a persecuted minority (in spite of what many Christians today claim!), these words can be a tremendous encouragement to us also.

In a nutshell, the encouragement of Hebrews boils down to this: because of Jesus, we can have confident faith in God no matter what may come, and we can walk in courageous love for all no matter who they are.

Confident faith, and courageous love.

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Expressing God’s Love

A sermon by Pastor Michael Pahl on November 4, 2018, called “Expressing God’s Love,” reflecting on Jesus’ three parables in Luke 15. The sermon is the eighth and last in a series exploring our church vision and mission statements.

Here is a written excerpt:

There were two schools of thought among the Rabbis.

Rabbi Shammai, on the one hand, had declared that the Torah should only be taught to those who have proved themselves worthy. Those who have repented of their sin, who have demonstrated their repentance with good works, who have inclined their heart toward the Law of Moses—only these are worthy of being taught the life-giving teaching of the Torah, according to Rabbi Shammai.

Rabbi Hillel, on the other hand, had declared that the Torah should be taught to all who will hear, whether they are worthy or not. This will bring them to repentance, provoke them to good works, and incline their heart toward the Law of Moses. Sinners, even Gentiles, should be taught the life-giving teaching of the Torah—and through this they can become worthy.

There are two schools of thought among the Mennonites…

Along comes Rabbi Jesus, and where does he fit in?

Like Rabbi Hillel, Jesus teaches the Torah to all who will listen, proclaiming his kingdom gospel to all who have ears to hear.

Yet he sometimes speaks in parables, “story-riddles,” that can make it hard to know what he means—and hard to accept his meaning once you get it.

Also like Rabbi Hillel, Jesus teaches the Torah to sinners—in fact, he says, this is why he has come, for sinners! His teaching is specifically for the unworthy—and through hearing, trusting, and following this gospel teaching they become worthy of the kingdom of God.

Yet he doesn’t merely teach sinners—he welcomes them in and shares meals with them.

And this sets the Really Religious to grumbling.

“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” one says to the other (Luke 15:2). “He’s a glutton and a drunkard,” the other says to the one, “a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34)

“A glutton and a drunkard”—now that’s a serious charge! That could get you executed under Moses’ Law! (Check it out in Deuteronomy 21:21.)

“A friend of tax collectors and sinners”—well, that at least was true.

In fact, we’re told, “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen” to Jesus. Every last one, desperate for one drop of good news from a powerful religious man. (These are few and far between, after all.)

All the “sinners” came near to Jesus—all those on the fringes of acceptable behaviour, or well beyond it.

Poor Galilean peasants. (Everyone knows the poor are lazy, right? And can anything good come out of the North End?)

Prostitutes—sexually promiscuous, even sexually “other.” (They make us married men nervous.)

The demon-possessed, the mentally unstable—those most sensitive to the unseen tides of evil in the world.

The unclean sick—oozing lepers and bleeding women and dying slaves and more.

Godless Gentiles, foreigners and immigrants and oppressors—right alongside the extremist zealots who violently oppose them. (There’s an interesting dinner party mix.)

Even “tax-collectors,” the ultimate “sinners”—traitors to God’s true people, collaborators with God’s enemies.

The worst of the worst were coming near to Jesus, to listen to him. Jesus even broke bread with them—all the time. He welcomed them wherever he went, gathering them around his borrowed tables, sharing meals with them in generous hospitality. They couldn’t get a dinner invitation to any respectable home—so Jesus welcomed them to any home who would host them.

In fact, these “sinners” made up Jesus’ entire roster of disciples. This was his church membership list.

“Morden Mennonite Church: Friend of Sinners.”

“Morden Mennonite Church: Where sinners are welcomed and we all eat together.”

Can you imagine? What a terrible reputation to have! What would our neighbours say?

Well, this sets the Really Religious to grumbling.

“Church is for the worthy!” one says to the other. “We’ve got our reputation to consider!” the other says to the one.

So Jesus responds by telling some stories, a few of his special “story-riddles” that comfort those with ears to hear and gnash the teeth of those without.

These are stories about lost things—lost sheep, lost coins, lost sons. They’re stories about us, in other words.

But, even more, they’re stories about God.

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2018 Peace Prayer Walk

Join participants from local churches in our sixth annual Morden Peace Prayer Walk on Sunday Nov. 11 at 3:00 pm starting at Confederation Park (Stephen St. and 9 St.). The walk will last about an hour, after which there will be hot chocolate and fellowship. All are welcome, including families with children. Dress appropriately for the weather.

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A Nurturing Community

A sermon by Pastor Michael Pahl on October 28, 2018, called “A Nurturing Community.” The sermon is the seventh in a series exploring our church vision and mission statements.

Here is a written excerpt from the introduction:

We have a deep need to experience nature, to connect with the earth. We are, after all, created not only “in the image of God”—that’s Genesis 1—but also “out of the earth”—that’s Genesis 2. Being close to the earth—experiencing soil and water and grass and trees and wind and sun and sky—is healing for us.

The Lord is our shepherd…
he makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul. (Ps 23:1-3)

One of the things that I find so restorative about this experience in nature, this experience of the earth, is the simple realization of how interconnected all things are.

It’s so easy to forget this. We can sit down for an evening meal—and be completely ignorant of the fact that the light over our table is actually water and wind, that the home in which we live is actually trees and rocks, and the foods which we eat were once themselves living things. The energy we get from eating grains and vegetables, meat and dairy, is the energy of living beings: an energy nourished by water and soil and air, an energy ultimately received from the sun.

It’s so easy for us to forget this. In our industrialized, technologized, manufactured and processed and often-virtual world, we can lose our intuitive sense of connection with the earth.

But when you spend any time in nature—ideally the wilder the better, but even a play park will do—you begin to realize afresh how interconnected everything is, including ourselves.

We’ve all learned this in school, right? Everything is part of an ecosystem—a complex, interdependent network of living organisms within their physical environment.

Down by the lake, even as I’m praying, the water is nourishing the grass and shrubs and trees. The trees are holding the soil, keeping erosion at bay. The soil is feeding the grass and shrubs. The grass and shrubs and trees are feeding the animals and birds. The grass and shrubs and trees and animals and birds live and then die, their bodies decomposing, and then re-composing the soil.

And on and on it goes, evening and morning, the trillionth day.

We know this interconnectedness, this interdependence, intuitively—even if we are often unaware of it in our conscious thinking. Ecosystems—intricate webs of mutual interdependence in particular environments—are a reality of life. They are, in fact, what life needs.

And that includes us.

All this ran through my mind this week as I thought about our church vision statement. That’s what we’ve been exploring this fall together in our worship services: our vision and mission as a church. We might be familiar with the short form of our vision and mission—“We are on a journey with Jesus toward greater peace, greater witness, and greater service”—but we might not be familiar with the full statements.

Here is our vision as Morden Mennonite Church; this is what we would like to see become reality:

We, as a Mennonite congregation in Morden, seek to express the reconciling and transforming love of God, through Jesus Christ, being guided by the Holy Spirit, to be a nurturing community of peace, witness, and service to one another and the world.

Did you catch the mention of “ecosystem”? No, of course the statement doesn’t use the word “ecosystem,” but it might as well: we are being guided by the Holy Spirit to be a “nurturing community.” We are, you might say, being re-created by God into a healthy ecosystem, a flourishing web of mutual interdependence within our particular environment, here in Morden.

A healthy ecosystem needs clean air and clean water and mineral-rich soil, a balanced diversity of bacteria and plants and animals. What does a “nurturing community” need? Pretty much the same stuff, really: an environment devoid of toxic attitudes and behaviours and rich with nourishing and edifying resources, populated by a diversity of people committed to mutual flourishing. Easy peasy, right?

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From Death to New Life

A sermon by Pastor Michael Pahl on October 21, 2018, called “From Death to New Life.” The sermon is the sixth in a series exploring our church vision and mission statements.

Here is a written excerpt:

Our Scripture passages this morning tell a Tale of Two Rich Dudes (Luke 18:18-30; 19:1-10).

Two Rich Dudes. They were both men in a man’s world, both among the wealthy 1% of their day. They were both Jews, so they knew both the Law of Moses and the oppressive cruelty of the Roman Empire—even if their social status kept them from experiencing that cruelty themselves. Beyond this, though, their paths diverged sharply.

The first man is nameless to us. We know him only as a “rich ruler.” Matthew calls him a “young man,” so put together he’s often called the Rich Young Ruler. He might have been a civic leader. He might have been a synagogue leader. We don’t know. We only know he was a Rich Dude with status and power.

He comes seeking “eternal life,” that is, “life in the age to come.” “Eternal life” in the Bible is not “existing up in heaven forever.” “Eternal life” is not even just “life after death.” “Eternal life” is life after resurrection, life in God’s fulfilled kingdom on earth, life in God’s renewed creation. It’s God’s full “salvation” from sin and death, in other words. Read the story in Luke 18 again carefully, and you’ll find all these terms used interchangeably.

“Teacher, how can I make sure I get this life?” this first Rich Dude asks.

Jesus doesn’t walk him through four spiritual laws. He doesn’t give him a sinner’s prayer to pray. He does what any good rabbi would do: he points the Rich Dude to the Ten Commandments—curiously stopping short of #10. (You know, that last little rule about not coveting other people’s possessions.)

“I have kept all these commands my entire life,” the Rich Dude responds. “Scout’s honour.” And he’s probably telling the truth.

But then Jesus gets serious. He looks deep into the man’s heart—Mark’s Gospel says “Jesus looked at him and loved him”—and Jesus says to this poor rich man, “You own everything you want, which means you lack the one thing you need. Sell everything you own and give the money to the poor. Then come and follow me.”

The Rich Dude cannot do this. His wealth, his possessions, his comfortable way of life, his respect within his family, his good standing within society—all this is more important to him than truly experiencing the life God wants him to have.

Let’s pause and think on this a moment, this story of Rich Dude #1. This guy is wealthy, he’s successful. He’s appropriately religious (not fanatically so, just appropriately so). He’s well-respected. He’s an all-round good guy. He’s exactly the kind of person we’d look up to. He’s the kind of person we’d vote in as mayor this week if “Rich Young Ruler” or “Nameless Rich Dude” were on the ballot.

But this man has amassed his wealth without a sideways glance at the poor and needy around him. His comfortable lifestyle and social reputation are more important to him than truly, deeply loving his neighbour as himself—all his neighbours, including the poorest, the most vulnerable, the most despised. In spite of his diligent goodness and outward success, he is entangled in his wealth, unable to imagine life without it, and unwilling to fully share his wealth with those who really need it.

Jesus’ verdict? The Rich Young Ruler is “unsaved,” the text says. In other words, it goes on to say, he has not entered God’s kingdom. He has not received that promise of eternal life he came looking for. As Luke so poignantly notes, “He went away sad, because he was very rich.”

That’s the first Rich Dude. The second Rich Dude has a very different story.

For one thing, we know this man’s name: Zacchaeus. The name means “pure” or “innocent”—which is ironic, given his background. Like the Rich Young Ruler he’s a Jew, but he’s not quite so devout—he has in fact cheated his way to wealth. He has collaborated with the Romans to oppress the poor in Galilee through heavy taxation, and then added his own levy on top of that.

This second Rich Dude is wealthy, but he’s not respected. He’s despised, a clear “sinner” in the eyes of all. So people are more than a little shocked when Jesus invites himself over to Zacchaeus’ house for lunch.

“Zacchaeus, you wee little man!” Jesus says. “Come on down from that sycamore tree! I’m coming to your house today!”

And so he does, walking through the crowds of Really Religious as they grumble to each other. (You’d think they’d have heard about this even down in Jericho, that Jesus had this thing about sharing meals with “sinners.” If there are any social, political, or religious outcasts in town, that’s where you’ll find Jesus, eating and drinking until kingdom come.)

But they don’t even get to the meal before Zacchaeus has to unburden his soul. “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor!” he declares. “And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much!”

Jesus hasn’t even said anything to him! No four spiritual laws, no sinner’s prayer—not even the Ten Commandments. There’s not even a “sell all you have and give it to the poor and come follow me.” Jesus doesn’t have to say this because that’s just what Zacchaeus does. Half his possessions? And then repaying back four times what he stole? He won’t have much left!

Nothing but eternal life, the kingdom of God, and salvation, that is.

For that is exactly what Jesus’ verdict is: “Today salvation has come to this house.” Today—not some point future, not after death in heaven, not even after resurrection in a new creation. Today, right now, God’s deliverance from sin and evil has happened. Today, right now, God has once again brought life out of death.

Two stories in Luke’s Gospel, two encounters with Jesus. In one, the opportunity for transformation is rejected, and true life slips through his fingers. In the other, the opportunity for transformation is embraced, and salvation comes to his house.

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