Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A

This is the first Sunday of FaithWorks, our annual Outreach campaign. I am not preaching. I am turning the pulpit over to our Outreach coordinator. I look forward to hearing her message.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A

Following the Way

Readings: Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-8, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14

Growing up as I did in a large family had its challenges. There were anxious moments where we felt that we were being treated unfairly. There were always five children vying for a window seat in our little Morris station wagon. Dinner at the dining room table meant that someone sat on a corner with the leg in their way. Seven people lined up to use one bathroom in the morning meant total chaos. But we lived in a mansion. At least that was how it seemed to our friends. The inner city rectory I grew up in was a grand old house. The entry opened into a large hall with a central staircase. There was a huge living room with an alcove and fireplace. Each child had his or her own bedroom. There was even a spare room for guests. Until it too became a bedroom, we had a playroom in the attic filled with toys. There was a wonderful backyard, an oasis in the inner city that attracted all the neighbourhood children.

Yet those doubts that come from being the youngest, or the oldest, or the middle of the pack still remained. We worried individually that we were not pretty enough or smart enough. We were worried that there was not enough love to go around and that we probably did not deserve it any way. Fears that life was not always fair made us anxious.

In the Gospel for today Jesus is addressing the disciples. Their hearts are anxious. They are concerned that God cannot accommodate them with their many differences. They are worried that if that happens they will be excluded, passed over for others who are more deserving or wealthier or cleverer.

They had been having an argument about who would be the greatest. It was self-serving, and so of course, it could not be resolved.

The problem for the disciples was in understanding how the grace of God works. They could not see how God could be so large. In a world of class and status they knew that they were at the bottom of the heap. They may be searching for upward mobility, for economic and political status. But they still doubt that they are even worthy of consideration. They are looking for validation from Jesus. And yet ironically they are simply part of a system that is being done to death in the events that are playing out before them. Their beloved leader is about to be executed. Unprepared though they might be, they are about to assume leadership for the fledgling faith community. If anyone needs to understand God’s grace it is the disciples.

Jesus assures them that in God’s house there are many rooms. It is a veritable mansion. There is a place for everyone. The way in is broad and expansive. It is also ambiguous, open, an enigma. Their skepticism remains. They simply cannot embrace the idea that the gospel is not about status. It has nothing to do with how clever or wealthy or important they are. It has to do with God’s choosing of them and their willingness to serve. If anything it is a gospel of equality and inclusivity.

Jesus might simply have dismissed the disciples’ fears. He might have thought they were being cowardly. He might have thought that given everything that was coming down there was simply no point in trying to alleviate their fears. But he understood the grace of God. He knew that the love of God is for everyone. He knew that these disciples were part of God’s plan, and he was not about to give up on them.

This gospel is addressed to each one of us. It is essential that we understand that. We need to know that despite our misgivings about our abilities, about our deeming of ourselves to be unworthy, God’s grace is accessible. Do we realize that God is with us and comes to others through us? Do we know that we are instruments of God’s grace to those around us?

Do we really know it? It is when life lives in us and death dies in us that we live out the Easter message. And that is easier said than done, because we are not very different from the disciples. We hear about God’s grace and think that it could not possibly be for us. We need to come away from this gospel knowing that God is always with us, really knowing and understanding it. We need to come away knowing that by God’s grace we are the way by which the Christian faith makes its claims. We are the truth about the Christian life. Our lives are the lives through which the Christian faith is judged. All of that is accessible to us through the free gift of God’s grace at work in our lives.

Why is it so difficult for us to accept God’s grace? That is what makes us fully alive in Christ. That is the heart of the gospel message. But how do we live out and apply that message in our lives?

The disciples faced the same dilemma. Philip said to Jesus, “Show us God and we will be satisfied.” I hear people saying exactly the same thing. They say it to me all the time. They say it out of their grief and sadness and despair. It is one of those if only … statements that we so often utter throughout our lives. “If only I could see God, then I would understand. If only God would give me a clear message! If only God had been there when …”

And Jesus had an answer for Philip as he has an answer for us. “Believe me for the sake of the works themselves.” And surely it is not enough to be shown. We cannot be satisfied with seeing God, with simply participating in a worshipping community. It is our action in the world that really matters. It is who we are in God. That is the ultimate test of the Christian faith. The world will know and understand the Christian message through our actions.

It is not what we say as Christians; it is what do, how we live our lives that brings us and those around us closer to God. It is the simple actions of a caring community that take place every day. It is the visit to a shut in, a kindly word, a note to someone going through a difficult time, a smile. Those are the actions that say we care.

That is exactly what Jesus said to the disciples. “Greater works than these you will do.” He does not expect them to perform astounding miracles. He expects that they will have a wider influence in proclaiming God’s word than he could even imagine. They will reach far beyond the area where Jesus’ ministry took place.

That expectation still holds true in the Christian Church in Meadowvale in 2008. We continue the mandate to do greater things. It is not enough to come to church to worship. We need to reach out to others with the message of the Gospel. In our daily lives we need to be the Church in the world. We come to church for spiritual nourishment and we reach out into a world that needs to share in the glory of the resurrection through our ministry. Our challenge is to receive the word of God and to pass in on so that the gospel message becomes the greater work we are called to perform. The challenge is to trust in God’s grace to enable us to live out our faith. Amen.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A

Living Under the Blessing

Readings: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” the writer of the Acts of the Apostles writes. It is a passage that typifies life in the early church with its exuberant mood, and spiritual vitality. These are people who applied their faith to their everyday lives. They were convinced that they were equipped with the Holy Spirit. They set about in their daily lives to live it out.

Not that it was an easy task! We need to remember that this was a persecuted church. Peter’s letter is obviously written to people under siege. “If you endure when you do right and suffer for it,” he writes, “you have God’s approval.” He is speaking to some early converts, servants, slaves in local households who have converted to Christianity. He is not saying that suffering is right. He is not saying that it is necessary. He is attempting to bring meaning to the persecution that they are going through. He relates their suffering to that of Jesus. They are suffering for their faith.

Henry Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest who worked in the l’Arche community in Richmond Hill until his all too early death, writes in his book, Out of Solitude, "Many people don't think they are loved, or held safe, and so when suffering comes they see it as an affirmation of their worthlessness. The great question of ministry and the spiritual life is to learn to live our brokenness under the blessing and not the curse."

Those early Christians had learned to live under the blessing. They have given us a wonderful grounding for the faith. From that first community has emerged a world wide Church that has survived centuries of persecution. It survived and prospered because of the commitment that people made to one another and to the Risen Christ! What is more, it is a church that grew exponentially. Last week we heard that on hearing Peter’s sermon three thousand converts were baptized.

There is good reason for the growth that was experienced in the early Church. It is not rocket science. It grew and spread because those who believed prayed. They spent time together in the temple praying. And more than that, they put their prayer into action. They remembered God with grateful hearts. They shared what they had with others so that no one went without. They gave praise to God. Theirs was a radical spirituality that transformed not only their lives, but the lives of those around them.

Society mistrusts such people. We find labels for them, labels such as “hippie” or “communist”. But the label we should have for them is “Christian”, and it should be the label we strive for in our daily lives.

“Will you devote yourself to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers?” Bishop Colin asked that of eight members of our congregation last week as they were confirmed or reaffirmed their faith. He asked it of all of us who witnessed their commitment. It is asked of each of us every time there is a baptism in our church. It is part of our baptismal Covenant.

We have the same call as those early Christians. But many are not hearing that call. It is a blueprint for the modern church, an ideal, a vision. If we were following it, we would be a growing church. We need to ask ourselves why we are not growing exponentially.

This Sunday focuses on Jesus, the Good Shepherd. It is a wonderful image of our loving God. It is one that so many of us get wrapped up in. Even though we are far from our agrarian roots, it still speaks words of comfort to us through all the chaos and confusion of living in what seems to be an increasingly violent and troubling era.

Is that the message we are intended to hear? Should we be hearing it more as a wakeup call? Consider! The shepherd is the protector, a wall of strength and security for the sheep. Jesus as shepherd says that he is the gatekeeper, the one who provides access to God. How badly humanity needs those who can open the way against the gigantic burdens of inhumanity! The image of shepherd is one that demonstrates that God includes all those in society who are without power, the little ones, the lowly, the no account, the expendable, the least, the uncared for – these are all children of God. These are the ones that need access.

The question remains, do we let them in? Our view of a gate is something that limits access. Jesus is not the gatekeeper at a toll booth that we have to pass under in scrutiny. We do not have to have enough money or the right address or be wearing the right clothing. We simply have to come with open hearts and minds. We have to open ourselves up to the workings of the Holy Spirit. We have to make a commitment to pray and to act and to be open to God’s Spirit. We need a radical spirituality that transforms our lives.

How do we live out our brokenness under the blessing and not under the curse? It is something that I ask of myself all the time. It is something that I have been painfully aware of these last few days. It is not always easy to live in this ecumenical setting. Our shared mission and ministry is so easily forgotten. What should be a lively sharing of faith, an opportunity for prayer, a supporting of the mission of the church, becomes a scene of mistrust. We put up walls and barriers.

The current situation is not something that needs to become a burden to members of this congregation. You do need to know that it stems from the financial problems of the Lutheran congregation. It requires the active prayer of all of us. If we are to grow within this place, there needs to be amongst all of the congregations a sense of peace and unity. We need to have, not only our own vision, but a shared vision of what this community of faith could accomplish. It is on my heart right now that we need to pray for God to be at work in this place. We have not done that enough. We have been too concerned with our own survival.

My challenge to everyone in our parish is to put prayer into action. Pray every day for St. Francis and for the other two churches in our building. Pray for a spirit of reconciliation and unity. But also do something about it. Get to know someone from one of the other churches. Invite them to our coffee hour, not with any idea that they should become an Anglican. They are already people of faith. Simply invite them so that we can get to know them. Drop in on their coffee hour. This is about healing rifts. That needs to happen. This is a wonderful congregation that should be a dynamic and living entity in this community. Yet too much of our energy goes into survival. The Spirit can change that. Let us live under the blessing! Amen

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Third Sunday of Easter, Year A

On the Road Again

Readings: Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116: 10-17; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

On Easter evening, two of Jesus’ disciples were returning from Jerusalem to their village of Emmaus. It was a journey of seven miles, but with the terrible events of the last few days it seemed much further. The death of Jesus had plunged them into an impenetrable gloom. Their dreams about him being the long-awaited Messiah had been reduced to rubble. As they walked along they talked about his death. They went over it again and again. Looking at it from every possible angle, they still could not make sense of all that had happened. Especially they could not make sense of the rumours that had started to circulate, rumours about an empty tomb, about resurrection appearances.

Then a stranger joined them on their journey. And they found themselves opening up to this man, pouring out their grief to him. How easy it is sometimes to open up to someone you have never met before! They spoke about their deep longing for the Messiah, and the hope that had been stirred up in them when they met Jesus. They recounted the events which had shattered their illusions. “Some of the women even claim to have seen him alive!” they told him.

And then the stranger opened up the Scriptures to them. As they listened, they began to understand. It all began to fall into place for them. They arrived home, and offered the stranger hospitality. He accepted. They hustled around, putting food on the table and making the man welcome.

And then the journey to Emmaus ended unexpectedly, abruptly. Jesus, still a stranger to Mary and Cleopas, sat at table with them. He took bread, blessed it, and broke it. He offered it to them. In the gathering darkness of that first Easter evening, the flash of recognition came. How can you walk with someone you know and love for seven miles without realizing who it is? Yet it was not until he offered them bread that their eyes were opened. It was in the breaking of bread in all of its familiarity, that they were able to see with eyes of faith. And then just as quickly he was gone from their sight.

He was gone, but in that flash of recognition everything changed. They looked back on the experience remembering how their hearts had burned within them. And that encounter with the risen Christ moved them to action. They went back to Jerusalem as fast as they could travel. The seven miles seemed nothing. When they got there, they found the disciples. They shared the story of what had happened on the road and how they had recognized the risen Christ in the breaking of bread. And Mary and Cleopas on the road to Emmaus met Jesus on the road to God.

At Clericus earlier this week we were talking about this passage of Scripture. We were sharing our resonating stories. One of the clergy recounted his trip to the Middle East. He spoke no Arabic. The taxi driver who drove him from the airport to his hotel spoke very little English. The driver noticed his cross and showed him a tattoo on his arm. He explained in his broken English that the tattoo was their way, in a Muslim world, of showing that they were Christians. The priest asked the driver where he could go to church the following day. He could not get the man to understand. Finally he made the gesture of holding the bread and breaking it. There was an immediate recognition of what the priest wanted to know. The taxi driver arranged to take him to church on Sunday morning.

Like the disciples, we too may be on an Emmaus road. We may be going down a path that is sad and lonely. We may see Jesus as little more than a shadowy figure living in the musty pages of a Bible we scarcely open. When we do open it, it may be difficult to find any meaning in what we read. How can we feel his presence at our side? How can we come to know Jesus in a personal way? How can we come to understand that it is the Resurrected Christ in whose presence we live?

Jesus was made known to them through Scripture and Sacrament. And is that not how we come to know Jesus? As Anglicans the breaking of the bread speaks to us from the depths of our being. Sunday by Sunday we are invited to the table. We are invited to share in the family meal. Bread is broken and distributed. The cup is passed. Through word and sacrament we are brought into the presence of Christ.

For the disciples on the Emmaus road, it was their image of Christ that was faulty. They might have recognized Jesus, but the risen Christ was different somehow. They needed to see him with eyes of faith. It was in the breaking of bread that they were able to see.

How do we recognize a friend? Is it not their eccentricities, their unique qualities that enable us to recognize them even at a distance? Don’t you have a friend that you recognize before that person even enters the room? A footstep, an accent, the way the friend rings the doorbell? Or by the generosity of a gift that is the perfect gift? It can only be from … Or by some personal quality?

Do we recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread? Do we know his presence with us as we celebrate Eucharist? We acclaim it. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. We affirm it in the creed. “We believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” But the real test is whether or not it makes a difference in our lives. Christ continues to speak to the Church through the Eucharist, through the Scriptures, and through our relationships with one another. We come together in worship. We share the body of Christ. And then we are sent out.

The rest is up to us. How do we share what has happened on our road to Emmaus? We all have a story to tell, but so many of us are silent. Like the disciples we need to make the choice to return to the city. We need to join the community of faith through which we are graced. We leave the Eucharistic liturgy in order to spread the good news and to break the bread of life with others. Only if this is done can Christ be recognized in the Christian community today.

So often we do not share because we are afraid that we will not know what to say. It does not take words; it takes actions. It takes relationships. We have seen the risen Christ! He is at work in our lives! Let us share that good news with a broken world that so badly needs to come into relationship with a loving God.

The Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Sing a New Song Readings: Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17 People often tell me that they cannot sing. Invariably th...