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.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

11th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, Year B

Bringing Meaning to Life

Readings: 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a; Psalm 51:1-13; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

David’s behaviour is nothing short of scandalous. In our world of twitters and tweets and Facebook it would have been out in a matter of minutes. Even in David’s time such events are not kept secret for long. First of all David is lounging at home while his men are fighting his battles. Then he becomes so enthralled with a woman that he takes her and then has her husband killed to cover up his misdeeds. Don’t you want to ask David why he thought he could do such a terrible thing? What was he thinking? Did he really think that he could get away with it? Did he think that there would be no price to pay? No doubt he considers that sin is personal, that it is simply an offence against God who will forgive and everything will go on as it always has. But no matter how we might wish it, no matter how we might try to convince ourselves, no sin is an offence only against God. It always hurts others. When the powerful sin it has even graver consequences for society.

Along comes Nathan. How does a prophet survive confronting a powerful king? Nathan is brave to even consider it. His approach is clever. He tells David a story about two people, one rich and powerful; the other poor. The rich man has many flocks and herds. The poor man has a little ewe lamb which he treats as a well-loved pet, a member of the family. A traveller drops in on the rich man. He offers hospitality, but rather than preparing one of his own flock for the traveller, he takes the poor man’s only lamb, slaughters it, and feeds the man. Our sense of justice comes to the forefront when we hear the story. As listeners we become outraged at the actions of a wealthy person who would steal a poor man’s lamb.

David too is outraged. “The man deserves to die. He owes the poor man four times what he took because he had no compassion,” David exclaims. Nathan’s words ring true and cut to the core as he confronts David with his sinful behaviour. “You are the man!” What must it have been like for David to hear those words? Caught out like a naughty child! Nathan reminds him of all that God has done for him and what a terrible deed it was for him to have Uriah killed simply to take his wife. David comes, as we all must, to the realization that he has done a grievous wrong. He repents, but the fact is that he did not count the cost of his sinfulness until confronted by Nathan. He failed to consider the responsibility that comes with power.

There are many examples of it in society today. Consider the #me too movement. People who have been taken advantage of by powerful individuals are finally able to confront their abusers. Not that justice is always served. Powerful individuals are often able to make bad things go away. But the fact that people are able to confront the abuse and take back their power is the beginning of transformation for them. And when abusers do accept responsibility for their actions, it is the beginning of healing for a society badly in need of transformation.

Consider as well Canadian history with respect to our First Nations people. We took away their livelihood, their culture, their family life. We gave them diseases which wiped them out. We made treaties with them which we broke. We moved them away from their ancestral lands onto reserves. Then we took away their children, sending them to Residential Schools where they lost their language and culture, and where many suffered abuse. We are learning, but it is very difficult for people to understand that responsibility needs to be accepted and atonement needs to be made. As an Ambassador for Reconciliation I have heard on more than one occasion that it happened long ago. First Nations people should get over it. That is why it was such a transformative moment for the Canadian Anglican Church when Michael Peers stood before the National Native Convocation in Minaki in 1993 and apologized on behalf of the church. And I quote what he said: “I have heard the voices that have spoken of pain and hurt experienced in the schools, and of the scars which endure to this day. I have felt shame and humiliation as I have heard of suffering inflicted by my people, and as I think of the part our church played in that suffering. I am deeply conscious of the sacredness of the stories that you have told and I hold in the highest honour those who have told them. I have heard with admiration the stories of people and communities who have worked at healing, and I am aware of how much healing is needed. I also know that I am in need of healing, and my own people are in need of healing, and our church is in need of healing. Without that healing, we will continue the same attitudes that have done such damage in the past.”

His apology was graciously accepted, and then the real work of truth and reconciliation began. We listened and responded to the stories of abuse and lost lives and heartache. We began the long process of educating people, not only those in our churches, but also in our communities. As we accepted responsibility for the actions of our church and our nation, it began to transform our souls.

And isn’t that what is needed in our society? Isn’t that what is behind our spiritual search? During a Vacation Bible School in one of the churches I served, we had a mission project. We invited a guest to come to receive what the children had collected. He talked to the children about his mission and then asked if they had any questions. A hand went up. “What is your question?” he asked a six-year-old girl.

“What is the meaning of life?” she asked him. While we tried desperately to contain ourselves, he was at a total loss for words.

Yet we should not be surprised by the question. It is something that consumes us as humans. It eats at us. That very question arises over and over again, particularly when we face troubles in our lives. In fact it is the world’s most asked question. We all seek for meaning in life.

Jesus wanted to bring meaning to the crowds who followed him. “You are looking for me because you ate your fill of the loaves,” Jesus tells them. He knows that they have missed the point. They have witnessed the feeding of the five thousand. If it could happen once, why can it not happen all of the time? If Jesus can perform wonders, perhaps they can harness his power in some way. Perhaps he can pass on his powers to them. Then there would be a constant supply of free food. There would be no more worries, no more hardship or struggle. That would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? Like winning a lottery! Surely God would want that. By fulfilling their material needs, their suffering would end.

But that is a purely materialistic interpretation of what Jesus is saying. He wants them to understand that feeding five thousand people, no matter how extraordinary it is, is not the most important occurrence. The real miracle is the one they have missed out on. The real miracle is the one that can change their lives, not materially, but spiritually. The real miracle is the one who can give meaning and direction to their lives.

It is easy for us as we read the Gospel, to see that the crowd has missed the point. The writer wanted us to recognize it. However, similar experiences in our own lives are more difficult for us to perceive until we reflect back on the impact in our lives. Things become much clearer in hindsight. Such reflections, once we allow them to surface, may leave us with a far clearer understanding of the power of God working in our lives. They can give real meaning to our lives.

A scientist set about to discover the answer to the world’s most asked question. What is the meaning of life? He discovered something that we as Christians have always known. First of all the meaning of life lies in relationship. Secondly, it is about discovering, about making sense of things. Finally and most importantly, he said that meaning comes about through service to others.

We meet as a community of faith because we need to be in relationship with others. People may say that they do not need to go to church to be Christian. They are quite right. But they do need to come to church to fully experience that sense of community. We need community to grow in faith and in relationship to God and to one another. Christ is present to us in the Eucharistic offering of the church. As Jesus becomes the bread of life for us, we are the bread of life for those around us. Jesus is bread for our souls, nourishing, wholesome and life-giving. He is the bread of our Eucharist lying in our outstretched hands. The reality of Christ giving himself totally in the Eucharist is the model and criterion of Christian behaviour. To be like Christ is to love in a life-giving way. It involves being generous, sharing what we have with others. But it is about so much more. We are called to be generous, not just by providing bread but also by sharing the deeper gift of ourselves. Such sharing becomes our purpose in life. It gives present and eternal meaning to life. It transforms our souls!

Saturday, July 14, 2018

8th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15, Year B

Let’s Dance an Alleluia!

Readings: 2 Samuel 6:1-4, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

We have two very different dances in the readings today; one, a dance of life, the other a macabre dance of death.
The dance of life is a great parade with lots of music, song and dance, an exuberant celebration of God’s presence. David and the people of Israel dance before the Lord. The Ark of the Covenant, a symbol of their common life together is returned to the city amidst great rejoicing. This is not David, the dignified King. This is a down to earth David, truly celebrating with the people. He gives in with his whole being, heart, body and soul.

There is, of course an undercurrent of unrest. There is no doubt in my mind that David loves God in these wonderful stories, but there is also little doubt that he loves himself more. David is not without political motivation. It is a victory, after all; one that has not been without violence. We will see that other side of David in the stories that follow. And even in this story, not everyone is pleased with David’s joyful dance. An irreconcilable rift comes between David and his wife Michal. She does not join in the celebration. In fact, David may never have treated her as a wife the rest of her life. There is certainly political motivation behind that. If she were to have children, Saul’s line would continue. Her barrenness completes God’s choice of David and the rejection of Saul.

The dance of death is a story made in Hollywood. In fact, it has been made into a movie. There is also an opera, Salome, depicting the story. Richard Strauss achieved instant success with it. If you have ever seen the opera you know that he admirably captures not only its fairy tale qualities but also its horror. It has an amazing, if terrifying appeal.

The setting is a magnificent banquet hall in Herod’s palace. From a terrace at one side of the hall you can see the dungeon in which John is confined. Salome goes out onto the moonlit terrace to take a look at the prisoner. John has denounced Salome’s mother, Herodias saying that she is an evil woman. Salome is at the same time smitten by John and angered by his words. He seals his fate when she tries to lure him, and he rebukes her instead of succumbing to her charms. Later, during the sumptuous feast, Herod asks the beautiful Salome to dance for him. He tempts her by offering to give her anything she asks. She performs the seductive Dance of the Seven Veils. After its wild climax she demands the head of John the Baptist. Herod, knowing that it is wrong, offers her anything else, peacocks, gems. But he finally gives in and has John executed, then in a fit of remorse kills Salome as well.

The facts, though distorted from Mark’s account, do not change the effect of the story. The adultery, the evil, the lack of conscience, the weakness, the spirit of intrigue; all are in opposition to God. John is caught up in the vicious feuding of an evil family. It foreshadows for us the way Jesus gets caught up in the sinful power struggle that leads to his death.

Mark’s story of John’s death is incredibly sophisticated. The characters are truly complex. It tells far more about Herod, Herodias and her daughter than it does about John. The girl is young and impressionable, not yet capable of thinking for herself. Herodias has it in for John to a violent degree. Herod is a total contradiction. He likes to listen to what John has to say, but is condemned because of his adulterous relationship. He protects John, but then has him killed. He is boastful, but he is afraid. He is truly sorrowful for what he has done. Perhaps underneath it all he is a person honestly seeking the truth.

The real question for me all week has been is there a message in the gospel that is relevant for Christians living in the world today? And the answer is, most definitely! I know that it is said that religion and politics should not mix. However, that is impossible, at least in this instance. The reading is about justice. It invites us, above all, to have the courage to be truth tellers. There are consequences, even today, to bearing the prophetic voice. As Anglicans we love to play it safe in order not to offend. There is a sobering reality in the story that calls us to stop playing it safe and take a risk for our faith.
How many times has this story been lived out in our own era? It is a truly contemporary story. It could have been written about Oscar Romero, the voice of the voiceless in El Salvador. An all-powerful government martyred him as the church looked on helplessly.

It could have been written about Esquivel, a human rights worker in Argentina, the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980. In spite of torture, he continued to witness to his faith and to help the families of those who disappeared, fight back against an oppressive regime.

It is the story of continuing terrorist acts throughout the world. Senseless killing and loss of life carried out over and over again in the name of God! Consider the current situation in the world. There is Syria. More than 400,000 people have died because of the Syrian conflict since 2011, with five million seeking refuge abroad and over six million displaced internally. There have been chemical attacks, civilian casualties, the withholding of humanitarian aid, starvation as a war tactic, torture and ill treatment. The list goes on, and countries around the world argue about their responsibility to help.

And what about the ecology? What really are we doing about global warming? Are we simply giving it lip service and hoping that the whole problem doesn’t affect us? How do we forge the link between human rights and environmental abuses?

We cannot forget our responsibility here at home. Canada enjoys a global reputation as a defender of human rights, yet we face longstanding human rights challenges, particularly when it comes to our indigenous peoples; inadequate access to safe drinking water, mercury poisoning, violence against Indigenous women and girls, treaty rights. We also need to grapple with human rights issues in relation to immigration. The United States is not the only country to hold children in immigration detention.

The story of Herod and the death of John the Baptist is shocking. But by far the most shocking thing about it is that someone who could have acted differently didn’t. That is also what is most shocking about the stories of violence that take place in our daily lives. For most of the time someone who could have acted differently didn’t, resulting in lives scarred irreparably or lost.

Any act of violence is shocking, all the more shocking when we see that violence is so commonplace. It has become an expression of frustration, which by its silence is condoned by society. We need to find a cure. There are many models put forth for violent behaviour. Movies and television are full of them. Can we replace such models of violence, such heroes, with models of peace, with our own heroes and role models? Can people like St. Francis, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King and Jean Vanier be role models to us? Can we ask God for peace in our hearts, in our minds, in our souls?

The gospel is a call to each of us to seek for justice in the face of entrenched political power. We are called to fight against the violence that abounds in our world. We do not need to be part of it. We can overcome it. We can let God’s peace flourish within us. This can be a different world. Is not that the message of the cross? Jesus came to bring peace. Let us be instruments of peace.

Perhaps the answer lies after all in David’s dance of life. Is it time to put aside the balance sheet, the BCP and the BAS and simply kick up our heels and dance an alleluia to the giver of all good and perfect gifts? Amen

Epiphany, Year C

Epiphany 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 ...