Saturday, April 27, 2019

The Second Sunday of Easter, Year C

Opening Locked Doors

Readings: Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 2; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

It is evening on the first day of the week. The disciples are huddled behind locked doors. After the death of their beloved leader they are naturally fearful. Jesus’ death had changed everything. Their hopes and dreams had been shattered. They feared for their lives. They had seen their leader cruelly executed. They lived in fear of the consequences of being a follower of Jesus. And so they locked the doors.

Are there doors that we lock for fear? Are there issues that are simply too painful for the Church to look at? Do we close our minds to change because we fear what it will mean in our lives? Does fear keep us from being totally committed to the message of the Gospel? We do not live in a perfect world. We are faced every day with inequities. There are problems we cannot solve. There are situations that seem insurmountable. There are injustices. There are tragedies that cry out for an explanation. There are conflicts that we cannot handle. Sometimes it seems easier and more prudent to huddle behind locked doors.

The disciples did not remain frozen in their fear. They unlocked the doors. They went back out into that same world. They faced those same authorities. They went out preaching and teaching in Jesus’ name. They did it with fervour and commitment. Even jail could not hold them back. “We must obey God rather than humanity,” they declared to the same people in fear of whom they had locked the doors.

What empowered them to unlock the doors, to open themselves up to persecution, to ridicule? What made them willing to live dangerously for their faith? It had to be more than the hope of winning some nebulous crown in another dimension. Their whole outlook changed. Your whole perspective does not shift without a momentous reason. For them to joyfully risk their lives, to endure beatings and imprisonment for the sake of the Gospel, something unimaginable had to have taken place. They were committed. They were totally and utterly convinced of their cause, and equally convinced of the blindness of those around them.

There is only one possible answer to the change. Nothing, not a lock on a door, not the grave, not their betrayal of him, could keep Jesus from coming. He came and stood amongst them, offering peace, offering hope. And it changed them.

“We have seen the Lord,” they said to Thomas. When you have seen the One you thought you was gone forever, standing before you in all of his risen glory, when you are convinced that the power of death is overcome, then everything changes.

Notice that it didn’t change for Thomas, at least not right away! “If I could see, I would believe!” he tells them. He just cannot see the signs of resurrection. In his deep pain and anguish he cannot see that he has missed something. Something has changed. The disciples have been empowered. He cannot see through his sorrow to the hope in their words. He cannot experience the peace that Jesus has brought.

How like Thomas we are! If only I could see, then I would believe. Prove to me that God is alive. Where can I see resurrection in this world in which I live? I see only death.

Think back to your childhood. Consider what you believed. As children we were able to believe the impossible. That ability disappeared as we were taught that the world of imagination is not true. Faith requires that we will ourselves not to disbelieve, that we naively recapture the sense of wonder that we had as children.

Perhaps it is easier to do if we consider some words of Aristotle. “That which is impossible and probable is better than that which is possible and improbable.”

Magic is possible, but it is certainly improbable. We have all watched with amazement as a skilful magician works his magic. Our eyes tell us to believe. We want to believe. We know that it is a trick. We try to figure out how it is done, but underneath it all we just want to believe in the magic. We know that things are not as they appear to be.

We live in an age where impossible things become reality every day. Growing up, Saturday afternoon meant a trip to the movies. When the feature was over we would sit mesmerized by a serial. Each week, they would show a new segment of a science fiction film about space travel. It seemed far beyond the realm of possibility. Rocket ships! Moon landings! Visiting other planets! Yet not many years later, sitting in a campsite my sister and I listened on the car radio as the first people walked on the surface of the moon.

Resurrection on the other hand is impossible; but in the light of the reaction of the disciples it is also probable. If we are a people of the resurrection, then we must live as an Easter people. That may mean a change in direction. It may mean unlocking the doors that keep us trapped in fear. It may mean advocating for justice. It may mean taking a committed stand against society.

It is a standing joke about the Miss World Beauty Pageant as every contestant is asked what their hope is and all make the same reply, “World peace!” But I suspect that if I asked each of you this morning what you hope for that at least somewhere in your first few responses, world peace would appear.

We long for peace and harmony in our world. We hear on the news of terrorist acts in Sri Lanka and we long for peace. We hear of North Korea arming itself and we long for peace. We hear of young people being shot on our city streets and we long for peace. We hear of family violence and we long for peace. We deal with conflict in our personal lives and we long for peace.

And there is Jesus in the midst of us, wounded hands extended, offering peace. In that gesture, offered to us in the same way it was offered to the first disciples of Christ, we recognize and accept God’s love for us. We accept in faith the teaching of the apostles and their proclamation that they “have seen the risen Lord.” Then we allow God’s gracious Spirit, the peace he came to bring, to fill, energize and propel us toward a committal of all we are and have. Then we will know and experience the power of the resurrected Lord in our lives. We too will proclaim, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Second Sunday of Lent (Transfiguration)

Transforming Moments

Readings: Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36, 37-43

The Scripture readings today focus on transfiguration experiences. The first is the account of Moses returning from the mountain. He is changed as he returns from his encounter with God. His face shines from the experience. Of course his face shone. He had seen God. In fact it shines so much that it causes fear in Aaron and the Israelites. In further encounters with God he finds it necessary to mask himself when he returns. The story reinforces the importance of Moses as the one called by God to act as mediator and convey to the Hebrew people the ongoing messages from God. The message coming from Moses is alive. It brings life and light to the people if they are willing to hear it.

Paul too finds that his encounter with the risen Christ transforms all who experience it. He finds himself unmasked when he turns to Jesus. There is a new relationship. There is a new freedom. He sees Christ in all of his risen glory. Paul knows that the more you look at the divine glow in Jesus the more your life carries that same glow. He sees it not in terms of ecstatic experiences but in terms of love and compassion.

And on the mountain of transfiguration, not only is our Lord changed, but also the disciples who share the experience. It radically changes their relationship with him. In that mountaintop experience they catch a glimpse of the glory to come. They experience a moment of rapture. They hear the voice of God calling Jesus “my chosen Son”. Reflected in that same glory they begin to know themselves. They see all that they are meant to be. They are transformed into God’s own likeness. It is for them a call to action, a call to change, a call to be.

There are times in our Christian journey when we ascend the mountain with Jesus. There on the mountaintop we come to know him in his glory. Reflected in that glory we begin to know ourselves, to know all that we are meant to be. We too are called to the heights, to greatness. We are called to be transformed into God's own likeness. We are called to know the glory of God and to see it in our lives. Jesus Christ lived human life in such a way as to show that it was capable of transformation. In the same way God will bring about such a transformation in the whole of creation. The guarantee of our faith is that it will be worth it despite all of the difficult and painful things that happen in our life journey.

The problem is we often fail to see the glory that surrounds us. And if we do, we don’t allow it to transform the dreariness of our lives, because to allow that transformation to take place would mean to change our perspective. All too easily we allow the problems in our lives, the fears, to take hold.

We live in troubling times. Our world is crying out for transformation. That is obvious when we consider how many of the world’s leaders can simply ignore climate change. It is even more obvious when we consider the terrible event that took place in Christchurch two days ago. What a tragedy it is when people of faith cannot worship God without facing hatred from those who do not agree with them!

It is in these troubling times that we most need to step aside for a while, to find a quiet space in which we can pour out our hearts to God, in which we can climb the mountain of transfiguration and know God's presence as we pray and listen.

It is at such times that we need to allow the ordinary bread and wine of our existence to be held up before God to be transformed by his love into the body and blood of Christ. It is the time to allow word and table to transform our hearts. It is the time to experience the glory of God that Jesus and the disciples experienced on the Mountain of Transfiguration. For we too are invited to climb the mountain, to experience the light of God shining in our lives and then to carry it out into the world where others may see it as well. We all have those experiences in our lives, times when we are transformed by the greatness of God.

There are such times scattered throughout my life. I was transformed by the greatness of God when I saw a double rainbow stretching across the sky. I was transformed by the greatness of God when I watched the northern lights dance, when I saw the world transformed by a fresh snowfall, when I viewed the glitter of the stars piercing through a dark wintry night. I was transformed by the greatness of God when I stood on a lookout in the Rockies surveying God's wonderful creation from the top of the world. I was transformed by the greatness of God when I sat in the sunshine at the lighthouse in Finisterre looking out over the Atlantic Ocean after completing the first part of my Camino.

I was transformed by the greatness of God at a moment of conversion when I realized the utter reality of God, through answered prayer, on the wonderful day when I was ordained.

I was transformed by the greatness of God when Alice shared her last moments of life with me, giving me a glimpse of the kingdom; when an elderly woman said, “Get out my brown shoes; I'm going dancing tonight”; when a child who was not expected to live past her first birthday came running up to the altar for a blessing; when an elderly man told me his childhood memories of his mother's words to him many years before as she lay dying, words that comforted him in his last moments of life.

I am transformed by the greatness of God when I listen to great music, when I hear the sweet voices of a children's choir, when I hear a great organ being played.

I am transformed by the greatness of God each time I offer bread and wine, inviting people to the table. I am transformed by the greatness of God when we all join together to pray, “Glory to God...” I am amazed because they are transformative moments in my life. They are glimpses of the glory of God, moments in my day in which the world is transfigured. They are moments when I know that God is reaching out to me.

Grace comes into our lives in so many unexpected ways. Our relationships with other people can be transformative experiences that break down the barriers between God and humankind. There are times of disclosure and vulnerability when we allow others to really see who we are. Those are the moments that most clearly shape our lives. Without such moments others would never really come to know who we are. We would never really come to know them. And we would miss out on great insights into the nature and essence of the God we worship.

There is a purpose to the Transfiguration event. It gives a glimpse of the glory of God, something that we humans find impossible to fully comprehend. It was a great and grand event, the mountaintop experience. In sharing in it, although we find ourselves back in the valley again, we do so holding on to the memory of the transfigured and resurrected Christ. That is a memory that transforms our lives and allows us to share the light of Christ with others on the journey.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Epiphany, Year C


From Darkness to Light

Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Today we are celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany. The central image for the season is light. The light of God blazes and draws people to it. Light transforms the world into a society of peace and justice. It brings joy in the midst of despair. It gives hope in a world that knows darkness all too well. Epiphany is a joyous celebration that recognizes that God’s light shines out for the whole of humanity.

What comfort it is to see even the smallest flicker of light when you are wandering in darkness. How terrifying it is to live in darkness, whatever the reason for it! When you wander, lost and alone in the darkness, you long for the least glimmer of light. Light brings hope and alleviates fear.

The darkest time I ever remember experiencing was the blackout of the Eastern seaboard back in November of 1965. No one knew why we were experiencing such widespread power failure. There were speculations of course. Some people were certain that there had been a nuclear attack. Others suspected an invasion from another world. People feared some terrible natural disaster. But the most terrifying aspect of the whole ordeal for me was simply finding myself alone in the blackness unable to distinguish anything.

I was in the library at Trinity College studying as I often did back in the stacks. Now the library at Trinity was at that time in the basement of the old building. Even on the brightest day, it was totally dependent on electricity. In the stacks there were not even any windows. So when I say that it became dark, the darkness was total. The library went strangely silent. I waited at my desk for some time thinking that the lights would come back on or that my eyes would get used to it. But nothing changed. Finally I gathered my things together and tried to get my bearings so that I could grope my way to the door.

By this time although I still could see nothing, I could hear the murmuring of other people. I made my way towards the sounds. Then someone thrust out a hand. I took it. I remember how wonderful it felt to be linked to another person. How it gave me courage! How it gave me hope! “Reach out for someone else,” he said. And I reached out in the darkness and another hand grasped mine. We became a human chain, snaking our way towards the door.

But the best sight was yet to come. Before we got to the doorway, we could see a pin prick of light. By the time we reached the staircase, a soft glow was spreading through the building. Some of the students had thought to go into the chapel to find candles to light our way. Fear quickly gave way to laughter as we recognized friends in those gathered there. A prayer was sent up. Peace was restored.

The prophet Isaiah speaks of people being drawn to the light. Isaiah was a trailblazer. “Take heart,” Isaiah says, “for God comes like light in the midst of darkness and transforms the world.” What hope that brought to people who had long been exiled from their homeland! The Israel they had returned to was poor and shabby, a pale shadow of its former greatness. But God, Isaiah assured them, had not abandoned them. New blessings would transform Israel. Isaiah saw his nation possessing such light that others could not help but be drawn to it.

The story of the Magi is just such a story – a story of being drawn towards the light. The Magi are seekers. They did not just happen to follow the star. They must have been searching for something, for someone. You do not scan the sky night after night unless you are searching. Perhaps they were dissatisfied with their old ways. Perhaps they were hoping for something new. They packed their luggage, saddled their camels, and followed without any hesitation. They blazed a trail toward a new and inclusive society, a trail that lead in new directions, in new ways of relating to God, in new ways of being God's people.

They are searching for Christ without the exact directions. They follow a pinpoint of light in the dark sky. Their story is a struggle – a long journey, a tedious search, manipulation by a power-hungry king. Like the people of Israel they can take heart. For their struggle is rewarded. They find a child filled with possibilities. They offer their finest gifts truly giving of themselves. In true wisdom they allow God to direct their journey as they return home another way.

We too can take heart. We hear the words of the prophet Isaiah in the context of the salvation God offers us in the birth of Christ. We hear clearly the message of the magi as the best of the world’s wisdom acknowledges Christ. When we follow the light to the place where Jesus was born, when we kneel there in adoration, we place ourselves in the story. The story becomes our story. It becomes the story of the people of Bethlehem. It becomes the story of the children for whom Rachael weeps. It becomes the story of refugees who must flee for their lives. It becomes the story of rulers who are anxious and fear change. It becomes the story of the wise and educated, who willingly bring their gifts and talents and offer them to God. In these stories, we hear the pleas of the disadvantaged for a more equitable share of things and are reminded of the darkness in our lives. We are reminded of how we are people who stumble for so many reasons. We come to understand our need for God to illuminate the darkness of our lives.

We come to realize how our churches would be transformed if we became witnesses to the light of Christ. God’s grace has brought us light, has brought us truth. Is it obvious to the community here in Port Hope that God lives in the midst of our congregation? Are we part of the story? Are we reaching out with the light of Christ into our community? Are we an open and caring community that invites people in to share faith?
Our world would be transformed if we Christians recognized ourselves as witnesses to the light of Christ. For we would be following the star through the streets of our towns and cities, into our work places, parks and malls. We would see the star as it stopped over the homeless, the refugee, the First Nations person fighting for dignity, the drug addict, and the mentally ill. It would lead us to look after a world that cries out in distress, ravaged by Global warming.

And it would not stop there. For we would be opening our treasures and offering our finest gifts. We would be giving of ourselves to God and to others, because the Christ child would be born in us, not just at Christmas, but every day of our lives. The best of who we are, body, mind and soul, would be offered to God. The best of the world’s wisdom would acknowledge the Christ seen in one another.

As we enter this holy season, this time of renewing our relationship with God, this time of setting out resolutions to take us through the year, may we allow the light of Christ to illuminate the darkness of our lives. Amen.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C

My Soul Magnifies the Lord

Readings: Micah 5:2-5a; The Magnificat; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45

The Gospel for today tells the story of two women. Truth to tell, they are women of whom we know little. The story really begins before today’s reading. God sends an angel to speak to a young peasant woman named Mary. God has chosen Mary to become the 'God Bearer'. The angel delivers the message to her that she has been chosen. She willingly accepts the unexpected demand of God, but her encounter with the angel for good reason leaves her confused. She knows what lies ahead for her in the community. A young, unmarried woman having a child is not in for an easy time. No angelic message can help her deal with her confusion or fear. She turns to an older woman, her cousin, Elizabeth. She knows that Elizabeth will understand. She needs to share not only her fears and struggles, but also her joy, her good news. She knows that her cousin Elizabeth, also pregnant, will understand.

And so Elizabeth comes into the story. Elizabeth 'consecrated to God'! That is the meaning of her name. However, Elizabeth 'the cursed one' is how she is no doubt known in the village in which she lives. Women who could not have children are scorned. They are considered cursed by God. For years she has been pleading with God asking what she has done to deserve God's wrath. God hears her plea. And now, the aged one, the one all the women in the village felt sorry for, is going to have a baby. She can hardly believe it. She had given up all hope of ever becoming a mother.

And so the stories of the two women come together. Two women caught somewhere between despair and optimism! Elizabeth was in her sixth month when Mary arrived from Nazareth. She had not been expecting the visit because it was about four days journey from Nazareth where Mary lived to Elizabeth's home in Hebron. But she knew instinctively before Mary had a chance to say anything that something even more wonderful than her miracle had happened in Mary’s life. Her response to Mary was better than any angelic message could possibly have been. It is instinctive. It comes from the heart. God has blessed her; because of her yearning she understands Mary's situation.

She is overwhelmed with a sense of unspeakable joy. “And why has this happened to me?” she says. More often than not when those words are spoken it is from a dark place, a place of blaming. There is a very different sense to those words as Elizabeth speaks that day. Usually such words are spoken out of the tragedies of our lives, yet Elizabeth is responding with a real sense of joy and love. She understands more than anyone could imagine that Mary in spite of any sign to the contrary is truly blessed to be the God Bearer. She also understands that Mary is blessed to have listened to the voice of the angel and responded to God's amazing call. She affirms Mary's call. And once again Elizabeth says exactly the right thing. She says that Mary has been blessed with this child because she daccepted that the message of the angel would come true.

The Elizabeth's of our lives are real blessings. They are quiet people who often remain unnoticed. Yet when God wants them to do something important they do not hesitate. They humbly trust God who is able to take our barrenness and turn it into a wonderful gift, a real blessing. They trust that God's word will be fulfilled. They know themselves well enough; they are secure enough in themselves, to enable others to share their own gifts and talents. They don't have to be in the limelight.

The Elizabeth's of our world give wholehearted encouragement to bring about God's purposes. They prepare the way for the Saviour to be born in us. They are models of good ministry. You see, ministry is not about something that you have hired a priest to do on your behalf. It is something to which each of us is called in our own way. The best ministry is done by people like Elizabeth who open up their hearts to those in need. They are the listening ears of the church who always know who is hurting. They are the ones who go about their work quietly in the background. They are the wounded healers of the community who reach out to the abused, to the neglected, to the needy. They bring healing wherever they go

The Elizabeth's of our world teach us about real ministry. They quietly and effectively go about doing what God has called them to do. They know that God can take our barrenness and turn it into a wonderful gift.

So it is with Mary. She responds with the song that has been growing in her heart. This is not Mary, meek and mild, pictured on a Christmas card. This is not some plaster saint. This is Mary emboldened, liberated, given permission by the acceptance she receives from Elizabeth, to sing. Her spirit can rejoice. She can see the situation, frightening as it may be, as a means of fulfillment. Her words are words of joy, but listen closely for they are also words of resistance. Mary declares both her trust in God’s decision to honour her with this calling and her own sense of God’s vision for the future. God is going to do something powerful, and she is part of God’s plan.

God will turn the world upside down. The rich and powerful will be brought low. Those living on the margins in poverty will be raised up. It is a challenging vision to say the least. Even as we celebrate it, it is an uncomfortable message, or at least it should be to those of us who lead such privileged lives.

But it is also a message of great hope. Mary and Elizabeth remind us of another way, the way of hope. In our darkest times we can look beyond ourselves for relief knowing that God will hear our plea, knowing that we too are blessed by God.

Keep yourself in God's hands. Be prepared for whatever miraculous way God's message comes to you. Open yourself to hearing God's call. God may be preparing your life for greater purposes than you can see right now. Let Christ be born in you again and again and again. Amen.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 33, Year B

The Sky is Falling In

Readings: Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8

Perhaps you remember the fairy tale of Henny Penny the hen who thought the sky was falling in. It seems that many in our society have a similar belief. A quick glance at popular culture today shows us that apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios are all the rage right now. Such scenarios generally depict a future time of catastrophe that results in the end of the world as we know it. It is certainly possible to link such popular cultural trends to various events – the end of the Mayan calendar, catastrophic economic conditions, defining events like September 11th. Yet it may still surprise, even shock you, that in a poll taken in 2012, twenty-two percent of Americans said that they believed that the world would end during their lifetime. At the same time, you may be asking yourself, “What motivates end of time thinking?”

It seems it has always been around. Think back to the response of society as we approached the millenium. There were worries about computer crashes that would cause financial ruin. People were fascinated with what it might mean in terms of the end of time. It lead to interpretation of wars and persecution, of natural disasters and environmental changes, of almost any phenomenon you might like to name.

The focus of the readings as we approach the end of the Church Year is often from the apocalyptic material that is found in Scripture. And so we find it in today’s readings. In the passage from Daniel, the time of the end promises to bring deliverance from distress, injustice and untimely death through resurrection. The Book of Daniel comes from a time when the practice of Judaism was criminalized by a foreign emperor. The temple in Jerusalem was desecrated, its leadership taken over, and a situation emerged in which important and once-cherished institutions ceased to function in ways that were meaningful to the population. Along with their loss of religion came threats to their very existence. Judaism is not just a religion; it is tied to nationalism. It caused great confusion. How does one discern God’s presence and power in the face of such loss? How does one know what the path of faithfulness might be? How do you resist that kind of evil?
This passage uses rich symbols to imagine the end of human history. When seen from that endpoint, chaotic events no longer seem so chaotic but instead may be seen as part of a larger discernible pattern. If you are going to suffer terribly, but then rise again to a new and better existence, it makes it all worthwhile.

It is there once again in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus and his disciples are leaving the temple in Jerusalem. One of the disciples, moved by its awesome size and beauty, remarks to Jesus, "What large stones and what large buildings."

"Wake up!" Jesus responds. "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."

'Wake up' is the message to the Church on these Sundays leading up to Advent. The so-called 'Little Apocalypse' of our Gospel reading is the wake up call the Church uses.

These were difficult times for Jesus and his disciples. In the three short years of his ministry, Jesus had managed to anger, not only the temple authorities—the scribes and Pharisees about whom we hear so much—but also the all-powerful Roman authorities. They were under attack from all sides. Jesus knew that it was only a matter of time until something happened.

When a religious leader knew that he was going to die, he summoned his family and disciples and delivered what amounts to his last will and testament. It could include a survey of the past and its lessons. It usually spoke about the possibility of danger or suffering in the future. It exhorted the followers to remain faithful and steadfast through it all. This passage of Scripture certainly does all of those things. With its dire warnings of things to come, it is little wonder that it has been viewed throughout the Christian era as an ominous warning of apocalypse and final judgement.

The early church to which Mark was writing certainly viewed it that way. They understood only too well what it meant to be persecuted. They were struggling not only to survive, but also to interpret the confusing current events that were overwhelming them and to put such events into context with their new found Christian faith. Jerusalem was under the merciless onslaught of Titus and the Roman army. In fact the entire city including the massive, beautiful temple, was destroyed in 70 CE. Not only that! Peter and Paul—the two mainstays of the early church--had both been put to death. To hear such words as these on the lips of their Saviour, "When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come," must have been reassuring to that faithful remnant.

They have served as words of comfort, not only to the early Christians, but also to persecuted and suffering people throughout every era. Such times have always brought with them prophets of doom. Such prophets have found it convenient to interpret apocalyptic passages in the light of their present situation. Throughout history we read of dire warnings predicting the imminent end of the world. Or of groups of people waiting on mountaintops for the final judgement day. Cultic events such as 'Jonestown' where there was a mass suicide are the ultimate societal responses to apocalyptic thinking.

However, I suspect that most of us in this church this morning don’t spend much time thinking in terms of apocalypse. We dismiss readings about the end of times as unfulfilled or irrelevant. After more than two thousand years it seems useless to even try to update them to maintain a vision of what they were about. And yet there is so much terror to be experienced in our world.

I have never seen the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City, but I can certainly imagine that they were awesome structures. Two graceful buildings of steel and glass rising one hundred and ten stories into the air! Many tourists must have stood in the street looking up at them in amazement.

And then on 9/11 we all watched in horror as the towers were reduced to rubble. Could this be the end of time? Isn’t that what was on people’s minds? Whenever there are wars or rumours of wars speculations arise. Some of the speculations even lead to people deciding that it is a good time to “get right with God”. Our churches filled up for a time as people gathered to pray for an end to war and violence.

And certainly such events give rise to renewed apocalyptic speculations. There are people in California right now who are experiencing an event of apocalyptic proportions. At any given time there are all sorts of horrible disasters that could lead to speculation that the end of time is approaching. At times the list feels quite overwhelming.

On a personal level, life can be overwhelming to people. Along with sickness and heartache can come despair. The many losses of life can make one feel as if the end is surely coming.

And I must say that I do not know exactly what to make of readings like these. I struggle with them. I continue to ponder about them. Wars and rumours of wars, earthquakes and famines have always been part of human existence. They are the things that make the headlines. And yet it seems that Jesus is no closer to returning than when I first began to think about it. So perhaps part of what we as Christians are called to receive from readings like these is the promise and certainty that God is still active in the world.

Through it all, the Church surely is called to be the voice of reason, the voice that says as Jesus said to his disciples, ‘there is no cause for alarm’. The voice that says ‘it is all part of God’s plan for us’. The voice that says ‘put your faith in God and in the future despite every appearance to the contrary’. The voice that says ‘I don’t know when the end will come. That is for God alone to know.’

Perhaps too we are called to be open and curious and to put our faith in God and in the future despite every appearance to the contrary. For our God is a God of hope. And our call is to bear that message of hope to a world in desperate need of hearing it. Amen.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 21, Year B

Transformed by the Gospel

Readings: 1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

The Gospel today begins as last Sunday’s ended. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Taken literally, that statement is truly gross. In fact, taking it literally gave rise in the early church to allegations that Christians were cannibals. What is more, it follows other statements that were equally offensive to the people to whom Jesus was speaking. For one, he claimed to have descended from Heaven. But people took Jesus literally and failed to get his message. They failed to understand that he was not speaking literally. He was speaking deep spiritual truths about himself. He was speaking about spiritual hunger. He was speaking about the yearning in their souls. He was telling them about how God reaches out to humanity, breaking down all of the barriers.

It was not just the crowds who followed Jesus who misunderstood. The disciples, his close followers, also heard in a literal sense. “This teaching is difficult,” they said. And so Jesus reassured them. “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

That need to step back and assess what is being offered is something that we in this computer age should easily comprehend. Computers are wonderful things. I don’t know what I would do without my computer. It handles all kinds of problems. It works things out so quickly for me. It gives me access to information. It does so in a totally rational way. That is its strength. It is also its weakness. It isn’t human. I still have to assess the information that it gives me. I have to filter it, judge it by what I know. Check it out for its truth. A certain U.S. president aside, there is a lot of fake news out there, and I do not want to be the one to spread it any further.

As rational beings we speak in terms of logic. We say, “Let’s be rational about this!” Even as we say it, we know that the real meaning is that something is going to happen that shouldn’t. Perhaps we are letting someone down easily about a relationship. A marriage is about to break down. A business is going to close, putting many people out of work. There is going to be heartbreak. But there is something behind the statement.

What Jesus is explaining to the disciples is that the spirit is different from the flesh. The spirit is different because it is life giving. It is directed by rationality, but it is accompanied by love. “My words,” he is saying to them, “can speak to your spirit. My words are life giving. Being in relationship with me means being in relationship with God. And here I am, standing in front of you, speaking these words of life.”

Even with his explanation, some of the disciples still do not understand. They turn back and no longer go about with him. They are offended by the message of the Gospel.

The gospel of Christ offers comfort, but it also offends. Many are ill at ease with its paradoxes and demands. They try to reduce the Christian faith to simplistic categories. They want a more palatable faith. They don’t want to grapple with shades of grey. They want everything to be black and white, right and wrong, clear-cut. They want to look it up in Scripture and know exactly what God is saying. What they fail to understand is that the Bible is not a book of answers to all of life’s dilemmas. It is not a proof text. It is not a recipe. It is not a history book. Reading Scripture is about listening to what the Spirit is saying to the Church.

As Christians we need to know that the Gospel makes demands. It is costly to be a disciple of Christ. It requires commitment to God’s purposes. That can strike at the very core of our self-centred lives. We are pretty good at recognizing sin and evil, but not necessarily in ourselves. Until we understand like the disciples that Jesus has the words of eternal life, the Christian faith can indeed be offensive.

Within the Church, it seems, it is very easy to offend. Often the reasons are beyond comprehension, or even more often we never hear how we have offended. People simply leave, and we don’t hear from them again. When I was a student I had a conversation with someone who had left the church because in the new service in the BAS the priest turned the page in the Prayer of Consecration before the people. She said that she no longer knew when to turn the page.

Let’s face it! People are offended by all sorts of things, but primarily by change. They want the church to remain static and unchanging. They want it to be available to them for rites of passage. But they don’t want it to change their lives. That is why they are offended. They are offended when we ask them to contribute to the ongoing operating expenses of the community. “All you ever do is ask for money,” we hear at our once yearly commitment campaign. And actually I stopped hearing that when my congregation undertook a massive stewardship campaign that required me to preach about it once a month. There are some who become offended over issues, without even understanding what the church is saying about such things, or without understanding the way in which, at least in our denomination, we go about making decisions.

For example, many people left the Anglican Church over the ordination of women. They were offended that the Church would allow women the right to answer God’s call. They had all the Scriptural references, but there was little reason or scholarship behind it. And now most people would acknowledge that the decision to ordain women was indeed the Spirit speaking to the church.

If the Gospel message is offensive to Christians, it is even more offensive to society. A teenager in my last parish was sent home from school to change one day because a teacher found her t-shirt offensive. You might think that she was sporting foul language. I want you to know that the offensive language on that t-shirt was “What would Jesus do?”

To our detriment, we have learned as Christians to be careful of how we speak about our faith so that we will not be offensive. It was pointed out to me one day in a mall that I should not say “bless you” when someone sneezes. We no longer celebrate our holy days like Christmas in schools because it might offend someone of another faith. We don’t share our faith with others.

A priest was standing outside his church when a stranger approached him. What kind of people live in this town?”

“What kind of people lived in the town you just left,” the priest asked him.

“They were horrible,” the stranger said waving his had in emphasis. “They were dishonest, selfish and inconsiderate.”

The priest shook his head, “I’m sorry to say that’s probably what you’ll find in this town too.”

The stranger moaned and walked away.

Later that day another person happened past the church and stopped to talk to the priest. He too asked, What kind of people live in this town?”

“What kind of people lived in the town you just left,” the priest asked him.

“They were thoughtful, friendly, and kind,” was the reply. “I hated to leave them.”
The priest put out his hand and smiled. “I’m pleased to say that is about how you’ll find people here.

Not that we can simply sit back and think that the way we act is fine because we are Christians. Sometimes the things that good, church going people do to others in their midst, is truly offensive. It causes rifts in a congregation. If you find people leaving in droves then it is time to look at the way you behave and make some positive changes. The Gospel is about transformation. How do you as a congregation change the perception, rightly or wrongly that this is an unfriendly place? Because, face it, that is the perception! How do you draw people in instead of chasing them away? How do you transform this place into a place of light and joy?

I have to say, I was so pleased to hear the letter that Walter read two weeks ago saying that there is a will in this congregation to bring about change, to be known as a welcoming and faithful place. It begins by welcoming a new priest and his family into your midst. The backbiting and anger and blaming about the past need to be gone. It begins with offering and accepting forgiveness for wrongs and perceived wrongs. It means letting the light of Christ shine through you into the community.

In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul says that we should walk carefully and live gratefully. We cannot ignore what is going on in our lives while we stand firm against the world. It is not about being right, but about discerning the truth. Our minds must remain open to knowing the truth, even the truth about ourselves. So be aware of God’s presence in all aspects of your lives. Be committed to the faith. Open yourselves up to the Spirit. Above all, know Jesus in whose presence we break bread. Amen

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, Year B

Finding God in the Ordinary

When I was growing up, my mother baked all the bread for our large family. Saturday morning was bread-making day, and I can remember the delicious odours that came from her kitchen. As children, we were not always very appreciative of mother's efforts. When Sunbeam came out with a big advertising campaign, we longed for that over processed white bread. I remember asking mother if we could please have some "real" bread for a change.

My mother talked about how her mother, my grandmother baked bread back in Wales. They lived in a terraced home with a small oven, not large enough for baking bread for the large family. At the end of their terrace was a communal oven, in which the local families could bake their bread. Grandmother would make huge loaves of bread, each with her particular marking – as I recall it was a knob on the top of the loaf – to set her loaves apart from those of other people, and then take them to the oven to be baked.

I have carried on the family tradition and become a bread baker. I do not bake all of my bread. I find that when I do so I eat too much of it. So now I bake bread for the most part to give away. I made some yesterday as I wrote this sermon. I have tried many kinds of bread from bagels to sourdough to rye. I even tried rice bread. However, I forgot the rising properties of rice. I had to keep separating the dough into different bowls. The bread was good, but there was far too much of it.

Bread is ordinary, everyday food. Most people think that unless you have a bread machine it is difficult to make, but in reality it is quite basic. It is made from simple ingredients – flour, salt, yeast, water, sweetener, (I use honey!). Truly it does take time and patience. It needs to rise. One gets a good workout kneading the dough until it is lovely and smooth. But it is not difficult to produce good results.

In its many forms, it is the most widely consumed food in the world, eaten by people of every race, religion and culture. It is the food of rich and poor alike. Bread has been around for thousands of years. Evidence from thirty thousand years ago in Europe found starch residue on rocks used for pounding plants. In all likelihood, starch extract from the roots of plants, such as cattails and ferns, was spread on a flat rock, placed over a fire and cooked into a primitive form of flatbread. Scripture refers to bread as the staff of life. God provided manna in the desert for the Hebrew people. Bread is a relational food. Breaking bread together is a universal symbol of peace. It is ordinary, everyday food.

Jesus broke bread for a crowd of hungry people. He took a few small loaves and some fish, blessed it, and fed the people who had followed him out into the wilderness. But they got hungry again. They kept coming back for more. Their expectation was that Jesus would keep giving them free bread. In reality he offered them far more. “I am the bread of life,” he told them. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” He was offering them not free food, but spiritual food. He explained to them that giving them bread and fish would not solve their problems. He asked them to make him and his way of living the “bread and butter” of their daily lives. Yet they could not accept it from him. They could not see beyond the Jesus they had grown up with. They saw the carpenter's son. They saw Joseph's kid. They did not see what he had to offer them. In fact, it was unthinkable. How could anyone as ordinary as Jesus, someone just like them, be the bread of life, the Saviour?

The crowd is expressing a reasonable human feeling on any number of levels. If you are hungry and you suddenly find a source of free food it is difficult to give it up. It is like winning the lottery. But how much more difficult it is to change one’s vision of someone we know, someone we have watched grow up. Yet when you think about it, it is in the ordinary, in people like you and like me, that God chooses to make a dwelling. God only knows why. And then God comes to us in so many disguises. Honestly, some of them can be terribly offensive. Old age, ugliness, poverty, leprosy, woundedness! It is a divine paradox, isn’t it? Our part in it is to look beyond it all to the source.

We too are offered that same spiritual bread. Jesus offers himself to us as bread from God, as grace for our lives, the bread of life. We are offered that choice. But there are many kinds of bread offered to us by the world that, while far from nourishing, are very tempting. They hold great promise. They promise wealth. They promise success. They promise an easy existence.

On the other hand, Jesus offers himself as the life of the world, the life of all of creation. He is our creator. He is our sustainer. God has chosen, through Christ, to be involved in our world. That is a choice that we too must make. For that choice is what makes atonement a possibility. That is what is offered to us in the Bread of Life passages of John's Gospel. Our responsibilities, our choices, are very real. We are offered a conscious choice to see the evidence of the risen Christ in the world around us. We need to see, not simply Jesus, Joe and Mary’s son, but to see Christ, to be, as Paul says, "imitators of God", to emulate Jesus, to follow him. We are called to demonstrate God's love to others through the way we speak and act, through the company we keep, through everything that we do.

Is it possible to be united with Christ through baptism, to confess our sins and receive absolution, to go through the motions of worship, and still fail to comprehend what it really means to believe in Jesus Christ? God has given us grace. But it is a two way street. I remember something that Corrie Ten Boom said in a talk that has stayed with me throughout the years. God has no grandchildren. We must choose to be children. We must choose to be beloved of God. We must hear the word. We must accept it. We must feed on the bread of life. We must appropriate it for ourselves and consciously accept God into our lives. Take God into the centre of our being. Become one with him through Christ. In that way, his life becomes our life. His love becomes our love. His purpose becomes our purpose. His goal becomes our goal. We are redeemed. We communicate his love and become broken bread to those around us.

Think what kind of a world we would live in if we accepted Jesus’ lifestyle and adopted it as our own. No child would ever die of hunger. No senior citizen would be lonely. AIDS would be wiped out, because we would not be hoarding needed drugs out of greed. We would be using good stewardship of the resources of the world. We would be attentive to one another, using the gifts that God has given to us. We would be serving at the table of the world.

Every time we say the Lord's Prayer, we pray, "Give us this day our daily bread." Are we like the crowds that followed Jesus? Are we asking for a free meal? Are we asking merely to have our material needs met? Or are we asking to be fed, to be nurtured spiritually by the true bread, Jesus Christ? Perhaps we simply rattle it off, not even conscious of what we are praying.

I am going to make a challenge to you. This week take those words and let them speak to you. Every day this week pray the Lord’s Prayer. Really pray, thinking about what it would mean to a hungry world to be fed those words of life. Think about it. We would die but not remain dead, because we would have eaten the bread of life. We would be like Jesus was, is and will be forever.

That is the Christian message. It speaks about sin and salvation, about death and life, about dying to sin and coming alive to God, about creation and redemption. What God has done in Christ affects not only us, but also the whole of creation. It is a call to renewal, to work with God to discern God's presence. It is about doing God's will, so that we can be transformed and then go on to be transformers in society.

What happens in the Eucharist happens on behalf of the whole world. The bread set before us brings the starving into our presence. It brings the joyless, the sick the suffering. For it is a reminder that what we hold, we hold in trust for all. So let us break bread together. Let us eat. Let us be bread for a broken world. Amen.

The Second Sunday of Easter, Year C

Opening Locked Doors Readings: Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 2; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31 It is evening on the first day of the week. The d...