Restore Us, O God

A sermon by Peter Hildebrand on December 23, 2018, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, called “Restore Us, O God.”

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Christmas at Morden Mennonite

Wondering what’s up at Morden Mennonite this Christmas? Here’s the low-down on all our up-coming church-wide events:

  • Dec. 23 @ 10:40am, Fourth Advent Service with music led by an intergenerational MMC choir
  • Dec. 23 @ noon, Church Christmas Potluck
  • Dec. 24 @ 7:00pm, Sunday School Christmas Concert – but be sure to be there by 6:45 for the prelude!
  • Dec. 25 @ 11:00am, Christmas Day Lessons & Carols Service with music led by the Pahl family
  • Dec. 30 @ 2:00pm, Church Skating Party at the Access Event Centre

Call the church office for more info!

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Rejoicing in Justice

A sermon by Pastor Michael Pahl on December 16, 2018, the Third Sunday of Advent, called “Rejoicing in Justice.” It is a reflection on Luke 3:1-18.

Here is a written excerpt from the conclusion:

“Prepare the way of the Lord! Level the mountains, fill in the valleys! Straighten the crooked ways, smooth out the rough paths! Let’s get this road built! The King is coming! And all flesh will see the salvation of our God!”

This is good news! All those powerful people Luke lists at the beginning of this story—Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanius, Annas, Caiaphas—they are not the king who is coming. They represent the kingdoms of this world, the way of kings that only leads to social injustice, economic oppression, political violence—the way of death.

But the king who is coming—the Lord God—is bringing God’s kingdom of justice and peace and joy! And all flesh will see the salvation of our God! Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth!

“So what do we do, John?” people ask him. “How do we build a highway for this kind of empire to come? Tell us: how do we fill the valleys and tear down the mountains and straighten the crooked ways and smooth out the rough ways, so that this king can come and reign?”

And in reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

Clothe the naked. Feed the hungry. You who have much, give to those who have little. Economic equity, not the economic inequality of empire.

Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

Don’t be deceitful or manipulative. Don’t commit violence, or even threaten it. Don’t participate in the economic oppression and political subjugation of empire.

Here, then, is how God’s way of righteousness is being paved, this is how God’s kingdom is coming near: through everyday, down-to-earth acts of justice and mercy. Those who have are content with what they have, and they share with those who have not. Those in power refuse to abuse their power for their own ends, and they use their power to empower others.

This means we need to do some soul-searching. It means we might have to make some tough choices. That’s what “repentance” is all about: soul-searching and tough choices.

Do I have more than I need? Do I know those who need what I have? Then I need to give—even if it means giving up some of my comfort or ease.

Do I have power or status over others—in my society, in my church, in my school, at my job? Do I know others without power or status, who are vulnerable or suffering because of this? Then I need to use my power and status to increase theirs, even if it means losing my own power or status in the process.

Do I benefit from the “empire” in which we live—our political system, our economic system, our society and culture, our religious community? Do I know others who are not benefiting from this “empire,” who are even being harmed by it? Then I need to use my benefit for their benefit.

The Messiah whom John the Baptist pointed to once described the kingdom of God as a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds. So tiny, so insignificant, that you could easily lose sight of it, or even lose it altogether. Yet when it is planted in the ground, it grows and grows until it becomes a giant tree, making a home for the birds of the air and shade for the whole earth.

Everyday, down-to-earth acts of justice and mercy. Tiny seeds of justice and mercy. Giving a coat, a meal, a cup of cold water. Comforting the grieving, healing the sick. Choosing honesty over deceit, choosing kindness over cruelty, choosing gentleness over violence, choosing contentment over greed, choosing selflessness over our own comfort and security.

And from these everyday, down-to-earth acts of justice and mercy, a highway will be built in the desert of our dark and dying world—smooth and straight and level, the best of roads—and God our king will come among us, bringing his kingdom of justice and peace and flourishing life for all.

And then, in the words of Isaiah,

we shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before us
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands! (Isa 55:12)

Amen! And amen.

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On Giving to Your Local Church

This is cross-posted from Pastor Michael’s blog.

The Christmas season is often called “the season of giving.” Those of us who follow this tradition, whether Christian or not, give and receive gifts this time of year. For some Christians, this includes giving a little extra to their local church—an especially helpful gift at a time of year when many churches are struggling to meet their budgets.

Giving to local churches has declined in recent decades. To a certain extent this has simply followed the similar decline in membership and attendance, but there are other reasons also. Fewer people are donating to charity than in the past, and, when they do give, their donations are going to a wider variety of causes and organizations.

This is not all bad. Large, cause-specific organizations like MCC or MDS can do things that a local church or even church conference cannot do. But this does raise a question: Why should Christians give to their local church at all?

The New Testament has quite a bit to say about money, including giving within the local gathering of believers, the local church.

In stark contrast to the Old Testament expectation based on the Law of Moses, the New Testament ideal is not a “tithe,” everyone giving a set percentage of their income (say, 10%), but rather “generous giving according to one’s means” (e.g. 2 Cor 8:9-15). This frees those who have little from the burden of giving a tithe they cannot afford, a tithe that can leave them without enough for their own necessities. It also frees those who have much to give more than a mere 10% when they can certainly afford to do so.

The New Testament describes at least two broad reasons for giving within the context of the local church.

The earliest Christians gave to support the preaching and teaching ministry of the church. “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour [that is, respect plus remuneration], especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim 5:17). This was based on the teaching of Jesus that “the laborer deserves to be paid” (Luke 10:7; 1 Tim 5:18); or, as Paul puts it, “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Cor 9:4-14).

The earliest Christians also gave to help those in material need, both those within the church and those beyond it. Within the local congregation this was predominantly widows, who were some of the most economically vulnerable people in society (Acts 6:1-6; 1 Tim 5:3-16). Beyond the local congregation this was “the poor” more generally, including poor believers in other places (e.g. Gal 2:10; 2 Cor 8-10).

The goal of this giving was what might be called “essential economic equity”: to ensure that everyone had their basic material needs met, their “daily bread” (Matt 6:11). “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3:11; cf. Jas 2:15-17; 1 John 3:17). “As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little’” (2 Cor 8:15).

The motive for this giving? Following the teaching and example of Jesus. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing” (Matt 25:31-46). “You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).

Things have evolved since the New Testament era, some would say not entirely for the better. Now most churches have full budgets that include everything from church facilities to staff salaries to programs in education and outreach and more. That’s some ways away from small gatherings of believers pooling their money to pay the elder teaching on a given Lord’s Day, or to provide food for the widows and orphans among them without family support.

Still, the New Testament teachings on local church giving can guide us today. They should prompt us to ask some probing questions of ourselves as churches and as individual Christians.

  • To what extent do our church budgets reflect the core ministries of the church? Do they support the teaching of Scripture and the preaching of the gospel? Do they assist those in material need, both within the church and beyond it? If not, what needs to change?
  • Am I truly giving generously according to my means? If my basic needs are met through my income, can I give more than I already am?
  • Do I really value my church’s preaching and teaching ministries, enough to show it not only through my attendance at worship services, Bible studies, and Sunday school, but also through my financial support?
  • Do I really need that [insert first-world comfort item here], when there are people in the world, even right in my church and community, who are struggling simply to feed and clothe and house themselves and their families?

Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. (2 Cor 9:7-8)

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Pointing to Peace

A sermon by Pastor Michael Pahl on December 9, 2018, the Second Sunday of Advent, called “Pointing to Peace.” It is a reflection on Luke 1:57-79.

Here is a written excerpt:

There’s a lot of singing in the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel, have you ever noticed? In fact, the opening of Luke’s Gospel has so much singing it could be a musical.

Mary shows up at Elizabeth’s door—two unlikely women glowing with child, blessed by the Spirit of God—and they immediately burst into song. It’s a duet, actually: Elizabeth sings a blessing upon Mary, and Mary sings praise to God.

Then Elizabeth gives birth to her child and at the circumcision ceremony Zechariah bursts into song: the song we have as our Scripture text this morning.

But keep reading into chapter two. Mary gives birth to her child and a whole choir of angels appears to a bunch of shepherds out in the field, and they burst into song: “Glory to God in the highest heaven!”

And then Mary and Joseph appear in the Temple for the birth purification ceremony, and first old man Simeon and then old woman Anna burst into song.

You can’t hardly turn a corner before someone bursts into song! There’s a song for every occasion in the story of Jesus’ birth, from pre-birth announcement to post-birth ceremony, from the heavens above to the earth below.

But these are not just any songs—they are subversive songs of hope and peace and joy. Subversive, because they sing about peace in the midst of turmoil. Subversive, too, because they sing truth to power.

Scan through Luke 1-2 sometime, and just read the lyrics to these songs. They all have similar themes:

God has shown his power and mercy,

and this is good news of salvation for the lowly, the humble, the hungry, and the poor,

but it’s not-so-good news of judgment on the rich, the powerful, the cruel, and the violent.

The result of this divine salvation and judgment? Peace. True and lasting peace.

This is in fact the ancient song of the singing prophets, from Miriam and Deborah to Amos and Isaiah.

God is coming!

Woe to the privileged powerful!

Blessed are the weak and lowly!

Peace on earth for all on whom God’s favour rests!

Of course, for those living in turmoil, this takes a lot of faith, to believe this good news. We still live in our “hill country of Judea,” after all. We still live under the pretentious delusions of our “King Herod.” We still live under the oppressive thumb of our “Emperor Augustus.”

But that’s what good songs do, inspiring this kind of impossible faith. It’s what good art does. It holds up a mirror to the human condition, giving us a dose of cold hard reality, while at the same time inspiring us to look through that mirror to something more, something beyond, giving us a sense of who we can become.

So, as we journey this Advent on our way to Christmas, as we live in the turmoil of our world and the turmoil of our own hearts and minds, let’s seek out subversive songs of hope and peace and joy. Let’s allow our moral imaginations to be sparked by songs and stories and painting and poetry and more—not the shallow stuff that leaves us unchanged, comfortable in our delusions, but the good stuff that shows the world as it truly is while also showing the world as it truly can become.

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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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On Being—and Doing—Church

Cross-posted from Pastor Michael’s blog.

There are many good New Testament passages one can explore to envision what the church should be and do: Romans 12-15, 1 Corinthians 12-14, and Ephesians 4-5 are all good options, among others. Still, when I think about the church there’s one specific verse that always seems to come to mind first:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)

To me this description of the first Jesus followers on the day of Pentecost nicely sums up what it means for us as Christians to “be the church,” to “do church” together.

As the church we are “devoted” to certain things. These are the things that we commit ourselves to, that we are centred on as a church—which is a way of saying that there are lots of other things, maybe even some good things, that aren’t so central, that we’re not as devoted to. There are lots of things we can be and do as a church, but these things are at the heart of them all.

First and foremost, we are devoted to learning and living the way of Jesus as taught by his Apostles: “the apostles’ teaching.” This means we commit ourselves to studying the Christian Scriptures, and in particular the New Testament where we find “the apostles’ teaching,” in order to learn about Jesus and his way of love. As we faithfully follow Jesus in his way of love, God’s justice and peace and flourishing life (“God’s kingdom,” or “salvation”) is manifest in and among and through us.

We are also devoted to the community of fellow Jesus followers, the common life we share together: “the fellowship.” This means we commit ourselves to one another within the church, to each other’s wellbeing, to caring for one another and helping to meet one another’s needs. At bottom this is because, in the midst of our diversity, we hold the absolute essentials in common: everything we are and do centres around Jesus and his way of love.

We are devoted to gathering together in worship and hospitality: “the breaking of bread.” This means we commit ourselves to “breaking bread” together around the Lord’s Table, along with other acts of worship (symbols, stories, songs) that likewise orient us around the central story of Jesus. This also means we commit ourselves to “breaking bread” together in our homes, following Jesus’ example of radical hospitality for all—not only friends and family, but also sinners and strangers, outcasts and enemies.

And we are devoted to regular times of prayer together: “the prayers.” This means we not only pray as individuals as an act of private devotion, but we also gather together regularly to pray: to meditate on who God is and what God has done for us, to praise and thank God for these good gifts, to confess our sins to God and accept God’s forgiveness, and to entreat God to move among us and through us in the world.

Jan Richardson, The Best Supper

For many Christians, this is not the church they envision. Or, perhaps more accurately, they might nod in agreement with this vision of church in theory, but in practice they are either not fully devoted to these things, or they are devoted to other things above these things.

Many Christians envision a church that has lots of programs—especially programs aimed at their particular demographic. These programs are not bad in themselves, of course, and they can in fact be wonderful ways of expressing and nurturing the devotion Acts 2:42 describes.

The problem comes when people want programs that have little if anything to do with that fourfold devotion—they really want a social club with a religious veneer, which they can participate in at their convenience and for their pleasure. Fine, but that’s not a church.

Many Christians envision a church filled with people, often recalling a bygone era of buzzing foyers and bursting sanctuaries. There’s nothing wrong this either—Acts 2 itself describes large numbers of people joining the Jesus movement and participating in new Jesus communities. However, a preoccupation with numbers can be problematic for at least a couple of reasons.

First, many Christians want the large numbers without having to devote themselves to studying the Scriptures and learning the way of Jesus, gathering together regularly for Jesus-centred worship and prayer, and showing radical hospitality in the way of Jesus. It’s ironic—though not terribly surprising—that the Christians who are most critical of “the way things are being done” at church are often the ones who don’t attend Bible studies and prayer meetings and only show up for Sunday worship once or twice a month.

Second, many Christians have bought into a “free market” notion of church. We are competing with other churches for “market share.” We need to produce a good church “product” in order to attract Christians, our “buyers.” If people don’t like our product they’ll go find another “seller,” another church with a better product: high quality music in a style they enjoy, interesting preaching that increases their happiness through moderate self-improvement, vibrant programs catering to their particular demographic, et cetera. So, if we want to increase our market share (i.e. “grow our church”) we need to produce a better product.

Not only is this view of the church thoroughly unbiblical, it’s also unethical—it’s church growth through sheep-stealing, not sheep-finding.

Programs and numbers, then, while being potentially good things, are not central to being and doing church. What is central is this: devotion to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Lest anyone think I’m being too idealistic, raising a bar too high for the church in the real world, let me add this: Jesus welcomes all to his table, whatever the level of their devotion. Jesus in his way of love stands at the centre of the church like a bonfire on a cold night, drawing people in by its warmth and light. Some gather close around the fire, freely sharing their songs and stories, bread and wine. Others stay back in the shadows, content to listen and observe. Some drift in and out.

However, while the level of devotion varies among Christians and even changes throughout our lives, the things we are devoted to remain the same: not programs and numbers, not pleasurable music or comfortable teaching or enjoyable socializing, not even correct doctrine or proper behaviour or rituals done right, but learning and living the way of Jesus together, gathering in worship and prayer, in radical hospitality and mutual care, all of this in love.

Anything less—and anything else—is simply not church.

But a church that looks like this? It’s what the world—and we ourselves—desperately need: a living embodiment of God’s kingdom vision of justice, peace, and flourishing life for all.

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