Monday, June 6, 2011

Completing the circle: an ordination trilogy

The sermon I preached on June 5, 2011 at Kingston Road United Church in Toronto seems to complete a circle that I began at my father's funeral in 2007. Also related to them are the brief remarks I made to the Toronto Conference annual meeting of the United Church on May 28th this year.

For two different takes on United Church history, see a sermon from June 13, 2010 ("Life in Christ: 85 years of the United Church of Canada" and one from May 16, 2011 (also called "That all may be one").

Now it is on to Saskatchewan and ministry in "Borderlands"

Ian

O Sacred Head . . . pre-ordination speech

On Saturday May 28th, all ordinands were asked to speak for 90 seconds to the annual meeting of the Toronto Conference. The task was to choose a favourite hymn, one verse of which was sung by the Conference, and to use that hymn as inspiration in order to give the delegates a "tantalizing glimpse of our call to ministry." Below is my hymn and my speech.

O sacred head sore wounded,
with grief and shame weighed down,
now scornfully surrounded
with thorns, thine only crown:
how art thou pale with anguish,
with sore abuse and scorn;
how does that visage languish,
which once was bright as morn!

My remarks

So why did I chose to speak to the Good Friday hymn, "O Sacred head?" Well, just as any Sunday service can be a celebration of Easter, so any moment can be one in which we remember the Way of the Cross, which is marked by sufferiing. For me, today is a special kind of Holy Saturday -- a time of waiting between the humiliations of life's ups and downs and tomorrow's ritual of renewal.

Ordination is a ritual that, like confirmation, refers back to our baptism. One of the key things that struck me about baptism in the course "Confessing Our Faith" was that none of the three main United Church statements of faith connect baptism to death.

Not so with St. Paul. In Romans he writes, "all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may live a new life."

My call to ministry is on this difficult baptismal path where the hope is for rebirth into a life beyond ego.

When I was confirmed at age 14, I became a confirmed atheist. But I went through with the service anyway since the person presiding was my father, the late Rev. James Clare Kellogg. During my teenage years as my brothers and sisters and I drifted away from church, my father sometimes tried to reach us through music. We all loved choral music, and Bach was my favourite. So Dad took us to Toronto to hear St. Matthew's Passion and he led a Lenten discussion group that centered around the choruses from that work, especially O Sacred Head.

My father's efforts did not bear fruit at that time, but my memories of them remain. And so tomorrow as I put on my father's alb, receive the laying on of the hands from my younger brother and sister, and am ordained with one of my father's stoles, I will remember the promise of rebirth that is present in the glorious music of Bach and in the sacrament of baptism. I will also remember that it is a promise that only glimmers at us dimly through a veil of suffering and death.

Thank you.

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Eulogy for my Dad, July 2, 2007

When I was in university, I read Sigmund Freud's book, "The Interpretation of Dreams." In the book's introduction, I was struck by a paragraph where Freud talked about the impact upon him of the death of his father while he was working on the book. He characterized the death of one's father as "the most important event, the most poignant loss in a man's life." Now, that seemed like a strong statement to me at the time. What about Moms, I thought. And surely the statement tells us more about Freud than about anyone else. But his words came back to me last week as we tried to be present with Dad as he died.

So, what impact will Dad's death have on me, or on the rest of his family, and his relatives, and his friends who have gathered here today? Of course, a related and more upbeat question is, what impact has his life had on us? Maybe I will speak a bit about both.

I feel shaken by Dad's death, and part of this comes from how strongly I identified with him. Perhaps more than my brothers and sisters, I seemed to be like Dad both physically and emotionally. Certain arcs of our lives seemed to have parallels. We both had a lot of trouble dealing with adolescence, and dating, and finding love -– though Dad was smart and lucky, and he eventually found our remarkable Mom. If ever it can be said that Dad was a recipient of grace, I think it would be when Mary fell in love with him . . .  and not just because Grace was the name of her Mom!

I also identify with Dad's call to ministry in the church, though I have been much more successful in resisting that call than him. Instead, I turned my spiritual enthusiasm into radical politics as a young man, and into other intellectual interests as an adult.

But mostly, I identify with a wavelength of anxiety that I perceive running through Dad's life and my own. And fortunately for me, I deeply appreciate how Dad learned to often handle his anxieties and come out the other side, to live so much of his life in joy, and in love, and in faith.

Dad wrote what is now his final sermon a few weeks ago. It was to have been delivered at his home church in Welcome this August, and it's about this topic of fear and anxiety. The night before his aneurysm burst and his ordeal in the hospital began, Dad gave Catherine an envelope at the train station that said, "To Catherine, Love Dad." When she asked what it contained, he simply said, "Read it on the train." So, she did. And since then, we have come to name this remarkable sermon as "Disaster is upon us; be of good cheer," But in reality its title is simply "Good Cheer."

Still, I like our title. After all, Catherine tells us that Dad spoke to her that day of an impending sense of doom – both for himself and for our society. And the sermon talks about our many social and personal disasters and tragedies, and how we might persevere in the face of those.

Like me, Dad was always waiting for disaster. And for him, it occurred the day after he gave that sermon to Catherine, as he was rushed to Peterborough in excruciating pain.

And yet, "Good Cheer." That was his message, based upon a line ascribed to Jesus in the Gospel of John. Speaking to the disciples on the night before his execution, Jesus said, "In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world."

Now, Dad notes in his sermon that the world has NOT been overcome. Our personal and social troubles persist, and we all face the certainty of pain, and struggle, and death. But while the world might not be overcome, Dad overcame his fears.

He was afraid to look for love, but nevertheless he found it, got married, helped to raise five kids, and gloried in his grandchildren. He was scared of public speaking, but he got into the pulpit thousands of times and delivered a Word of God. He was beset by all the doubts that any minister who has been through a modern seminary faces as they learn how their childhood beliefs are founded on sand; and how difficult a mature stance is in the light of modern knowledge and the amazing and dreadful moment of history that we are fated to live within. And yet, he carried his ministry through to the end.

We saw Dad triumph over his anxiety again in the hospital last week in Peterborough. Dad, unable to speak because of breathing tubes, often in discomfort, and stripped of almost everything, communicated his joy to us despite all that. On his third day in the hospital, after a 30-minute family conference where the doctor gave us very little hope that Dad would survive, and that the last-ditch therapy would mean deep sedation; we gathered in a circle around Dad. Essentially we were saying goodbye. Dad was awake. Mary put her hand on his forehead. Paul spoke to him. Dad waved his arms in recognition, he smiled, and he communicated his gratitude and his contentment to us all. It is one of my favourite memories ever of my Dad, and the last time that I saw him conscious.

Despite pain, despite imminent death, despite not being able to talk, Dad trusted in the moment; he focused on his blessings and on love. He focused on his family.

A key insight for me during my surprising return to the church these last six years has been about the word "faith." The word faith has about five different meanings in English, and my least favourite is to define it as belief in a set of incredible doctrines. On the other hand, my favourite definition of faith is as "trust:" trust in the universe despite its cosmic, awful mystery; trust in our bodies despite their pains and their finitude; trust in love despite our essential aloneness as individuals. In this sense, and in the face of his anxieties, Dad struggled all his life and every day to be a man of faith; and mostly I think he succeeded. In this best sense, Dad is my roots, my forerunner, and my role model. I treasure his memory in my heart. And I will miss him until the day of my death. Despite all the ups and downs in his role as one of our parents, I am filled with thanks that he was my Dad.

But I want to give him the last word in my remarks. So, here now is the closing paragraph of his "Disaster" sermon:

"Trouble in this world, Jesus said – no doubt about it. The world overcome? Hardly. But the word has gone out – "Fear not!" The road opens before us, the future is ours, the world waits, and wonders. "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." "If God be for us, who can be against us?" Who indeed? So pick yourself up, dust yourself off, take a deep breath, and go on. And – "Good cheer!!"

Ian Kellogg, July 2, 2007, Cobourg Ontario, Trinity United Church

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Tumbleweed and rottweilers

Sent via email on May 18th, 2011

Dear friends,

Well, I've been to Borderlands, returned to Toronto and survived. In fact, I think I will quite like living and working there.

Two things prompted me to fly to Saskatchewan for four days over the past weekend: the need to find a place to rent when I begin work as the minister there on July 1st and the fact that Chinook Presbytery, which gathers only three times a year, was meeting in one of the three Borderlands churches (Wesley United in Rockglen) last Saturday, May 14th. So after graduating from Emmanuel at the convocation ceremony last Thursday, I flew to Regina the next evening, drove west to Moose Jaw, and then continued the drive south early on Saturday morning.

The geography of Rockglen, Fife Lake and Coronach -- nestled just west of Grasslands National Park and just north of the Montana border -- is varied, weird and spectacularly beautiful. Rockglen reminds me of the Badlands near Drumheller Alberta with steep hills rising everywhere. The 30 min. drive east to Coronach is one of long sloping hills, which at present are dotted with numerous sloughs that glisten dark blue when the sun shines, as it did all weekend. In between is Fife Lake, a hamlet of 50 people. To me, the latter looked like an abandoned Hollywood set of the Wild West, except that the hotel and church are still operating. The Fife Lake church is tiny and gorgeous, and the five women who came to worship there on Sunday afternoon with the current minister, Rev. Kevin Johnson, and me, welcomed me warmly.

Presbytery was . . . well . . . Presbytery. But I am glad to now know most of my colleagues, even if some of them are more than six hours drive away, and none closer than an hour. After the all-day meeting, Kevin graciously hosted me at his apartment, and I learned a lot by spending many hours talking with him. Borderlands has three worship services every week, with a lunch after the second one in Rockglen. Besides the five people in Fife Lake this week, there were 14 people each in Coronach and Rockglen. Worship in three small points will be a change for me, but one that I look forward to.

A highlight for me was getting a tour of the manse after the first service in Coronach. It turns out that the couple now renting it will probably move into their newly purchased home before July 1st, so after looking at some rental places in both Rockglen and Coronach on Monday, I've decided to take the manse. It is a 5-bedroom, 1970s bungalow, and I quite like it. You can see the exterior of it on Google Maps Street View if you search for 142 3rd Street West, Coronach, Saskatchewan. It is the one with a weeping willow in the front yard. 153 3rd Street W. -- the one with the blue cross on the front -- is the "Lutheran parsonage." The Lutheran minister and a Roman Catholic priest in Rockglen (a recent immigrant from India) are the only paid clergy besides me in the three communities.

Coronach is very isolated, but the beauty to be experienced in driving from there to Assinboia, or Moose Jaw or Regina (the latter is about 2.5 hour drive away) cheers me. The 30-minute drive between the two furthest points in the charge is an easy one, except when it is covered in ice or snow. Monday was a very windy day, and tumbleweed was flying everywhere. Not surprisingly, there is virtually no traffic given that only 900 people live in Coronach and only 400 in Rockglen. I saw one deer by the road when approaching Moose Jaw Tuesday, but very few cars.

And the rottweiler? He was lurking in the entrance to the bar in Rockglen, where I met the chair of the Search Committee for dinner on Monday. But despite his appearance, the dog like the owners of the bar, seemed very friendly.

I may drop you a line about further wild west adventures sometimeafter I have moved out there in July.

Cheers, Ian

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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Good Cheer -- June 5, 2011

Sermon preached by Ian Kellogg at Kingston Road United Church, Toronto, Ontario. I have included the text of the lesson from John because I use the RSV translation for John 16 -- the version used by my father four years ago -- and the NRSV translation for John 17. The last paragraph of the sermon is inspired by the anthem "Deep Waters," which the choir sang just before the sermon -- Ian

Text: John 16:29-John 17:11

The Gospel reading this morning is from John. I am including a bit more of from John than is printed in the bulletin. I will start with last five verses from John 16 since that is the text used by my late father, the Rev. James Clare Kellogg, in his final sermon four years ago

[On the night of his betrayal, Jesus had spoken at length to his disciples. And at the end of his teaching] they said, "Ah, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! Now we know that you know all things, and need no one to question you; by this we believe that you came from God."

Jesus answered them, "Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every one to his home, and you will leave me alone; yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world."

When Jesus had spoken these words, he then said "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.

I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.
And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

SERMON: Good Cheer

Let us pray . . . Gracious God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight. Amen

This coming Friday, the United Church will celebrate its anniversary. June 10th will mark 86 years since our church was formed in 1925 at a worship service in downtown Toronto. In many United Churches this year, not too much is being made about the anniversary, especially compared to last year when it was our 85th.

Nevertheless, since today is my farewell to Kingston Road; since I want to talk about the state of the church; and since the Gospel reading this morning is, as it always is on the final and Seventh Sunday of Easter, from John 17 from which the United Church adopted its motto -- "That all may be one" -- I have decided to highlight our church's anniversary today . . .

I mention that this is my farewell to KRU although I have not often been around during the past three years. In 2008-09, I fulfilled a required Field Placement in Presteign-Woodbine United Church in East York. In 2009-10, I lived in Alberta as a student intern where I was the minister of  Knox United Church in Didsbury. And this past year as I finished my third and final year of a Masters of Divinity degree at Emmanuel College, I have "church-hopped" most Sundays in order to learn how other congregations worship and live out their faith. And now I am leaving on July 1st to work as a full-time minister in southern Saskatchewan.

But my absence from KRU for much of the past three years does not mean that this church  doesn't hold a central place in my heart. When I first walked into KRU 10 years ago, I knew right away that I had found what I was looking for. I had no idea then how far the Spirit that dwelt here would take me, but I knew this was the right place. So, for helping to bring me back into the church, for helping me find a new purpose in life, and for supporting my journey towards ordination over these past four years, I thank Kingston Road and all of you who are here today . . .

John 17, part of which we heard this morning, marks the end of Jesus' long farewell speech to his disciples at the Last Supper. Every year at the close of the Easter season, a selection from John 17 is one of the assigned readings, and it is set alongside the story from Acts of Jesus' ascension to heaven, which we also heard today. Next week is Pentecost where we will celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to the early church and learn how they continued as a community without Jesus in their midst.

Personally, I don't find the text today to be the easiest one to follow. Like the rest of the 3,000 word speech of Jesus that John records from the Last Supper, the ideas are thickly packed together.

The United Church particularly picked up on Jesus' hope for unity expressed in John 17. We took this as an inspiration to mend the divisions in the Christian church. So in 1925, the Methodist Church of Canada, two-thirds of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Congregational Union of Ontario and Quebec, and the union churches from Canada's West united. It was a wonderful moment of hope and enthusiasm and it created what was then and remains today the largest Protestant denomination in Canada.

But many of our church's hopes have not come to be. After 40 initial years of growth, the United Church entered what is now more than 45 years of decline in the 1960s. We are probably smaller today than we were in 1925, even as there are three times more people living in Canada today than 86 years ago.

Our decline is hardly unique. All mainline churches in Canada and in most other rich, industrialized countries have been shrinking for 50 or more years. On the other hand, Christianity on a world scale is now growing quite rapidly. This growth is in rapidly industrializing countries like China, India and Brazil, and in many of the desperately poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Asia. But there is reason to believe that if these countries were to achieve a level of economic and social development like that in Europe, North America, and Japan, a process of secularization similar to what we have experienced might occur there too.

The United Church's dream of greater church unity has not come to pass either. With the exception of one small union with the Evangelical United Brethren in the 1960s, we have not merged with other denominations. In fact, since the 1970s the United Church has been isolated from most other Christians because of our theological openness and our support for inclusion and justice.

Think, if you will, of the top 5,000 leaders of Christianity around the world today. This overwhelmingly male group would include the Pope, all the Roman Catholic cardinals, the leaders of the flourishing Pentecostal denominations in Africa and Latin America, the Orthodox Patriarchs, the archbishops of the various Anglican churches, the major televangelists in the United States, and small groups of leaders from all the world's other denominations. One of the few women would be Mardi Tindal, our Moderator, who would be joined by perhaps one other United Church leader. In this group of 5,000, I suspect that I would have major disagreements with well over 4500 of them. I would consider most of them to be on the wrong side of issues like equality, justice, church democracy, and attitudes towards modern culture. Most of the 5000 would oppose equality for women in both church and society. Almost all of them would be hostile to sexual minorities. I would dislike the theology of all but a handful of them.

And yet, when I was ordained in Orillia last Sunday I was ordained as a minister of Word, Sacrament, and Pastoral Care within the Holy Catholic Church -- that is, within the universal church of Christ. Similarly, when Christina was baptized this morning, she was baptized into the One, Holy, Apostolic and Catholic Church of Christ. But while Christina's baptism will be recognized by any church around the world, my ordination will not have much purchase outside our own walls.

And I don't have a problem with that. I am quite happy to work in ministry with the 200,000 or so of us who gather for worship each Sunday in thousands of United Churches across Canada. I don't want to be recognized by Pentecostal or Baptist ministers who preach a message that often strikes me as nonsense. I don't want to be recognized by Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches that don't allow women to be ordained, let alone gays or lesbians. And so on.

So while more than two billion of the seven billion people alive today are Christian, the unity that Jesus hopes for in our reading this morning and which first inspired our denomination remains only a dream. And this has often been the case.

In the first 300 years of the church, its small numbers and its isolation led to a  profusion of wildly diverse Christian sects. Some groups thought that Jesus was divine -- a modern incarnation of Yahweh, the God of Israel -- but not also human. Some thought Jesus was human -- another prophet like Moses or Elijah -- but not also divine. Some embraced all the tenets of Judaism. Some turned their back on their Hebrew roots. Some focused on the practical work of mutual aid and healing. Others pursued ecstasy and enlightenment through strange rituals. Each city's church had its own unique collection of gospel stories and other texts.

This changed in the Fourth Century when Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. With a series of Councils that began in 325, the Imperial Church created a common Bible, a common creed, and a common way of running the church. But this unity was created from above through police action, book burnings and forced conversion to Catholic Christianity. The Roman Empire created a unified church that at one level might be seen as what Jesus hoped for, but at a cost. The cost was replacing a gospel of justice and love with one of oppression and fear.

I am glad that this unity did not last. First there was the break between the Greek-speaking Orthodox Church in the East and the Latin-speaking West 1,000 years ago. Later there was the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, which shattered the church in Europe into a dozens of shards. The timing of the Reformation was ironic. This was the point where the European empires began to conquer most of the rest of the world. Through colonialism they knit all the world's continents into one economic system for the first time. European conquest also allowed Christianity to leap ahead of Islam, Hinduism and other faiths to become the most dominant religion in the world. It was both a moment of imperial glory for the universal Catholic Church and also the beginning of secularization and the fracturing of the church into the wild diversity it exhibits today.

I had an up-close experience with the diversity of Canadian churches last year during my internship in Didsbury Alberta. I represented Knox United in the meetings of the Didsbury and Carstairs Ministerial Association, which met for lunch one day each month and which planned worship services at retirement homes and long-term care facilities. I am glad that I attended these meetings with the 12 or so other pastors from the region. But also I often felt like a stranger in a strange land there. Other than me and the United Church minister from Carstairs, all of the pastors were fundamentalist right-wingers in various Mennonite, Lutheran, Missionary Alliance and Anglican garbs.

Each month, the host pastor began lunch by telling the story of his journey to faith, and I often struggled to hide my astonishment. All of them had come to adopt theological ideas that I considered to be bizarre and irrational. So I felt nervous when it was my turn to host. But the others listened respectfully as I spoke about being a preacher's kid who grew up in eastern Ontario in the 1960s and 1970s; about how along with my most of my friends, I became a secular atheist as a teenager, and a political radical as a young man; how a trip to Nicaragua in 1984 marked a turning point for me both spiritually and politically; and how I returned to church via Kingston Road after 9/11 where I found a new way to trust the Christ and follow the Way of the Cross. Perhaps my story might have confirmed their prejudices about the United Church just as their stories might have confirmed my prejudices about small-town evangelical pastors.

And yet at a deeper level, I could sometimes see our connections. Despite our differences, I liked most of the other men around the table. And I am sure that in moments of celebration such as birth and marriage and in moments of mourning such as sickness, loss and death, these men were true pastors to their congregations. Despite our theological and cultural differences, at the deepest levels of life, in moments of heightened awareness, and in ones where each of our uniqueness was most evident, we might touch hearts and hands and be united in Christ.

Jesus put it this way: by giving us the gift of a life in God through Christ, which is a birthright symbolized by the sacrament of baptism that we participated in this morning, we are also given eternal life. And what is eternal life? Jesus simply says that it is to know the God who is Love.

This eternal life is right here, right now. We may not always be aware of it, but in our deepest moments it beckons to us and helps unite us across our differences.

All of which leads me to conclude with a question: how is that we can move from the shallow end to the deep end? And the quick answer -- we don't have to do anything; life continually throws us into the deep end whether we want that or not. The deep end can be found in dark moments of illness, family conflict, social oppression, pain or loss. It can also be found in joyous moments of connection, sharing, community and love. In such deep moments, we are best able to know our own unique brokenness and loveliness and also, paradoxically, best connect with other people.  Such a connection is a unity from below. It is unity built on compassion, mutual respect and solidarity. While it might not always solve our practical problems, such a unity in God through Christ heals us and put us in touch with eternity regardless of our circumstances.

I suspect that the Christian church will never achieve the denominational unity that our ancestors hoped for in 1925. Nor, I suspect, will our broken world achieve political unity, which we so badly need to solve our many military, environmental, economic and social ills. But in our individual and collective tribulations, we have experienced again and again the truth that God in Christ has overcome the world. Because of this, in the midst of fear, we often touch faith. In the midst of despair, we often touch hope. And in the midst of conflict and violence, we often touch love.

These eternal moments of union with God happen most often in the deepest waters, which is where the trials of life continually throw us. Therefore we can say with Jesus, be of good cheer. In deep waters, where only love can make us go, harvests of faith will overflow. Harvests of faith will overflow.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

We Respond To The Word

Our hymn of response is VU#331, "The Church's One Foundation." This hymn was sung as the processional hymn at the founding worship service of the United Church on June 10, 1925 at a packed Mutual Street Arena in downtown Toronto. Years later, the first Moderator of the United Church, The Very Rev. George Pidgeon, said that as the elected General Council commissioners from the Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregationalist, and Union churches marched into the arena to mingle together for the first time as members of the United Church, the hymn was sung with quote "an emotion that can scarcely be imagined." Let us now sing it together.

HYMN: VU #331 "The Church's One Foundation"

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