Friday, May 30, 2008

The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 9)

Quarter by Quarter

Readings: Genesis 6:9-22, 7:24, 8:14-19; Psalm 46; Romans 1:16-17, 3:22b-31; Matthew 7:21-29

Fred Craddock, a renowned homiletics professor was addressing a group of clergy. "To give my life for Christ appears glorious," he said. "To pour myself out for others, to pay the ultimate price of martyrdom, I'll do it. I'm ready, Lord, to go out in a blaze of glory. We think giving our all to the Lord is like taking a thousand dollar bill and laying it on the table. 'Here's my life, Lord. I'm giving it all.' But the reality for most of us is that he sends us to the bank and has us cash in the thousand for quarters. We go through life putting out a quarter here and fifty cents there. Listen to the neighbor kid's troubles instead of saying, 'Get lost.' Go to a committee meeting. Give a cup of water to a shaky old man in a nursing home. Usually giving our life to Christ isn't glorious. It's done in all those little acts of love, twenty-five cents at a time. It would be easy to go out in a flash of glory; it's harder to live the Christian life little by little over the long haul."

And yet that is exactly what we are called to do. And what is more, God equips us so that we can. That is what I see in the readings for this Sunday. First of all there is the story of Noah and the great flood. It is a story we all know so well, a timeless story that speaks to us of a God of love. Flood stories are found in many cultures. The plot of the story is very much like other folk stories found in the ancient Near East, except for one big, important difference. While other flood stories show the gods to be capricious, our God is just and merciful. Our God makes promises and then fulfills them. Our God cares for and preserves those who live faithfully.

Consider the story! God sees that the earth is in a sorry state. God acts and causes the destruction of the world, but because Noah is faithful, he is to build an ark before God destroys all other living creatures.

God promises never again to curse the earth. We might think it is because the hearts of humanity have been changed, that people have turned back to God and that creation has been redeemed. That isn't what is behind God’s promise. God says, "I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth." Drowning hasn't done any good. The people who survived didn’t take long to go right back to their old ways. Sin survived. God accepts it as part of human nature. Not that God is giving up on humanity! Far from it! Even when we are not faithful to God, God is faithful to creation. And so God establishes a covenant with all living things, the earth and its people. God looks for another way to transform creation.

There is a similar theme running through the gospel reading as well. Jesus uses a parable to illustrate an important point. A wise man builds his house on a rock while a foolish man builds on the sand. When the rainy season comes the water rises. The wise man's house built on the solid foundation weathers the storm. The wise man prepares for what is to come. The foolish man on the other hand takes the easy way out. His house is destroyed.

Faithfulness to God means building our faith, our spiritual life, on the right foundations. So often we build our lives on shaky ground. We can profess Christian faith all our lives, but until we understand the implications of God's grace it isn't making any difference in our lives. Our Christian faith needs to transform us. We are deluding ourselves about our commitment to the faith if we worship God on Sunday and then live quite another way for the rest of the week.

Not that Jesus is suggesting that we do not need to do good things! It is just that doing good things does not make us right with God. If we are right with God, we will want to do what is right. When we do things that we know are wrong, we will ask for forgiveness. We will allow ourselves to be transformed by God's grace. We need a change in our life that embraces our Lord's will as well as his life and salvation. We need experiences that change our relationship to the world, to our possessions, to the poor and dispossessed, to violence in our society, and to the idols of our society.

The parable of the wise man follows the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is speaking to a large crowd including the disciples. He is warning them about those who talk the talk but don't walk the walk. "There are people," he says, "seemingly good people, faithful people, even people who perform miracles, but they do what they do without any compassion. They are not being faithful to the gospel. Such people," Jesus says, "can expect to be held accountable for their actions."

Throughout our Christian life we are building on our foundations. The problem is that it is so easy to build on the wrong foundations. We can build on pretty shaky ground. We can profess Christian faith without living it. We can faithfully attend church but never let the message of the gospel influence our daily lives. Our Christian faith needs to transform us. We are living under delusions if we go to church every Sunday to worship God but refuse to let it inform our daily lives. It is so important to let Christ work in our lives, to see Christ in others, and to let them see Christ in us.

The foundation of our faith is the life of Christ. He is the rock on which we need to build. If we do not intend to live that kind of life we are deluding ourselves to say we are his. It is easy to talk about what should be done for the poor, the homeless, the drug users. It is comforting to be counseled about our problems. But somewhere along the line we have to stop talking about our faith and start living it.

American Senator, Mark Hatfield tells of touring Calcutta with Mother Teresa and visiting the “House of Dying,” where sick children are cared for in their last days, and the dispensary, where the poor line up by the hundreds to receive medical attention. Watching Mother Teresa minister to these people, feeding and nursing those left by others to die, Hatfield was overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the suffering she and her co-workers face daily. “How can you bear the load without being crushed by it?” he asked. Mother Teresa replied, “My dear Senator, I am not called to be successful, I am called to be faithful.”[i]

We too are called to be faithful. We are called to build on good, solid foundations. We are called to weather the storms of life. What counts ultimately is the life of compassion for others, not the one that is solely devoted to Jesus, but the one that lives compassion for the sake of the people who need it. It is, after all, about spending that thousand dollars, quarter by quarter.

[i] Beyond Hunger, Beals

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

FaithWorks Sunday

I am not preaching this Sunday. We have a speaker from the Primates World Relief and Development Fund, one of our FaithWorks partners. The Gospel is especially poignant as it tells us not to worry about what we will wear, or about what we will eat or drink. There are people who worry because they genuinely do not know where their next meal is coming from. We worry in spite of the fact that we have so much. May we know how blessed we are by God's grace.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Feast of the Trinity, Year A

Knowing God

Readings: Genesis 1-2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

A woman is out in her front yard. She watches the little boy from the house next door walking past her house heading for home. He stops every few steps to take a look at something or other – a dandelion that he blows on, a wiggly worm, a bird singing at the top of a tree, the clouds up in the sky. She asks him, “Tommy, where have you been?”

“I’ve been to Sunday School, learning about God,” he tells her.

“I’ll give you a dime if you tell me where God is,” she says to him.

“I’ll give you a dollar if you tell me where he isn’t,” the child replies.

Seeing God is about looking on life with eyes of faith. When we look with eyes of faith we see what is there before us. We see it with our own two eyes. We see exactly what is there, but we view it in a different way. We see through a different lens. Yet unlike Tommy we so often simply miss it. I am going to read you a poem that I found. I do not know its origins. But it speaks to me of my struggle to know and understand who God is and how I experience God in my daily life. It speaks to me of how much I miss when I fail to see with eyes of faith. And it is so easy for that to happen.

I whispered, “God, speak to me”
And a meadowlark sang. I did not hear.
So I yelled, “God, speak to me!”
And the thunder rolled across the sky
but I did not listen.
I looked around and said, “God, let me see you”
and a star shone brightly.
but I did not notice.
And I shouted, “God, show me a miracle!”
And a life was born but I did not know.
So I cried out in despair,
“Touch me, God, and let me know you are here!”
Whereupon God reached down
And touched me.
But I brushed the butterfly away
And walked away unknowingly.

We encounter God in so many ways in our daily lives. Yet how we miss the point! So we come at it with our intellect. We come up with doctrines that describe our experience. Trinity Sunday is one of those days when we trot out such a doctrine. And you know, we come up against a real problem when we try to explain God using the doctrine of the Trinity because it is an intellectual way of expressing something that needs to be experienced to be understood. So we go a step further. We make analogies to help ourselves understand how God can be three persons and yet one God. We get ourselves tied up in semantics and Greek philosophy. And that gets us nowhere.

Yet when you come down to it, isn't the doctrine of the Trinity simply an emotional exercise that explains our relationship to God? 'Father, Son and Holy Spirit' are all relational terms. They are not about how we think. They are about how we relate to God. When we speak of God in human terms, we are relating God to ways in which we experience and respond. And isn't that what people are really hungry for? We want to be in relationship to God. We want to know and understand that God is present with us in all facets of our lives.

Today's readings remind us of the connection between all living things. The Genesis passage expresses the story of our relationship to God as creator of the world. It is a very human God who whimsically yet methodically goes about the task of creating and then takes a little rest to check it all out. God has a special on-going relationship with creation. God does not create and then abandon. God creates for a purpose, for God's purpose.

In the letter of Paul to the Corinthians we meet a group of people who are the product of Pentecost. They have experienced the power of God indwelling their lives. The Spirit that energizes creation is at work in them as they align their wills to God. Their experience of God so excites them that they want to share it, to pass the experience on to others.

And in the Gospel we meet the disciples, a fractured community following the resurrection, but a redeemed community, an empowered community being sent out into the world to relate to it as God relates to us.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not some great truth that God has put in stone for us to believe. It is not mentioned once in the Bible. It is a metaphor developed over the centuries for how we experience God's presence. We call God ‘Father’ or ‘Mother’ because we originate from God. God is our creator. We call God ‘Son’ because we are all created together in the Son. We are redeemed by God’s saving grace. We call God ‘Spirit’ because God breathed on us from the beginning of creation.

The concept of the Trinity allows us to explore our experience of God in our lives. It calls on us to turn to God to satisfy our hunger. In the midst of anguish and trouble we experience the God who walks with us. Through the beauty of nature, we experience the One who created us with wisdom and care. When life gets too serious, we experience God joyfully dancing at the thought of creating the human race. When we are filled with guilt, regrets and anxieties, we experience a God who justifies us, not like Judge Judy, in black and white according to some rule book, not because we are worthy, but because we have claimed it and are significant to God.

In a way we learn about God by identifying what God does. That leads us on a journey to learn about what God is calling us to do. We are called to go out joining God in caring for the earth. We are called to go out and tell people about Jesus. We are called to take up the work of loving the people no one else loves. We are called to pay attention to the places where God’s Spirit is at work building peace, and then immerse ourselves in that work.

It is not always easy to respond to God’s call. We can get caught up in our own importance. Or we can think that we lack the skills needed to carry out the mission of the church. We can so easily get distracted and not notice where God is. So as we go we need to remember that God who created us watches over us, that Jesus loves us and forgives us, and that God’s Spirit is with us, to comfort and empower us in ways that we could never ask or imagine. And if we like, we can call it the doctrine of the Trinity.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Feast of Pentecost, Year A

God’s Power to Transform

Readings: Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:24-34; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20: 19-23

When I was in my curacy my supervisor, Harold Roberts, came into my office just before Pentecost with a picture of the outpouring of the Spirit. “What’s wrong with this picture?” he asked me.

I took a good look at it. It was a picture of the upper room, filled with people, men and women, and over each one of them was a tongue of fire. It seemed to me to be a pretty reasonable and accurate depiction of Pentecost, so I said to him, “Not a thing! Looks good to me?

“But there are women in the picture,” he said to me. “Was he bating me?” I thought to myself.

“Indeed there are!” I remarked. “I have always understood that the whole community was gathered together.”

And so we began to read the passage of Scripture from the Acts of the Apostles. Harold decided at that point that it was just the inclusive nature of the New Revised Standard Version of Scripture from which we were reading. So I got out my Greek Testament, and sure enough, in Greek there is a clear distinction between the first chapter which is recounting the events of Jesus and his disciples, and the second chapter which makes it clear that the whole community was gathered together. “They were all there,” it says. Women, men, children, all of the faithful assembled for worship. The Spirit of God moved them in an astounding way. The Spirit moved all of them, these beleaguered people who had been hiding out in fear ever since the execution of their leader. And it had an astounding effect on them. They were suddenly transformed. In fact, the transformation is so great that Luke can scarcely find the words to express it. It was a sound, he says, “like the rush of a violent wind.” Then the sound gave way to tongues of fire that settled on each person. Each one was filled with that gentle spirit which swept through the place that day.

And what a difference it made in their lives! They were inspired to speak in other languages. They were freed up to preach the Gospel. They understood the risen Christ to be the Lord of their lives. They proclaimed the Good News of the Gospel, that Jesus Christ who is risen is alive for evermore. So awesome an experience was it that they never looked back. Two thousand years later the Church still proclaims Christ, risen, ascended, glorified. Pentecost truly is the birthday of the Christian Church. It is the culmination of the Easter story.

It is fitting that on this Feast of the Pentecost we should celebrate. We celebrate through our liturgical acts, through our hymns and prayers, the coming of the Holy Spirit. But it seems to me, that is not truly what Pentecost is about. The gift of the Spirit has always been given to God’s people. What we should be celebrating at this time is that fresh outpouring of the Spirit set loose in the world. Pentecost has happened to us. We do not need to sit around and wait for supernatural signs of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The Holy Spirit has been given and continues to abide within the lives of those who follow Christ.

So today we are going to celebrate the gifts that God has given to us. It is a wonderful day to do that for this year it falls on Mother’s Day. And so that secular celebration takes on new meaning for us as we cherish the gift that motherhood brings. Consider the gifts that our mothers bring into our lives. As I look back on my own mother I realize what a gift she was. She loved and nurtured us as we were growing up. She had strength of character that taught us that no matter what life brought, we could handle it. She may not have the scholarly intellect of our father, but she had a curiosity about life, common sense and a quick wit. She had a beautiful faith which sustained her throughout her life. Today I celebrate the gifts that she shared so freely during her lifetime.

And then our Diocese sets this day apart as one in which we honour our cultural riches and the diversity of our community of faith. Just as the people of God of every description, male, female, young and old, rich and poor, were gathered together in that upper room on the first Pentecost, so we in all of our diversity are gathered in communion all over the globe. In this congregation we are truly blessed. We come from all parts of the world. Yet we share in common our love of Christ and the traditions of our Anglican communion. We are reminded at Pentecost about who we are and about how we are called to be Church. We look forward to the time we can realize the vision that Christ makes possible. Christ transforms our life together, so that no one is a stranger, but all are members of the household of God.

So how do we allow the Spirit of God to transform our lives? What would happen in our churches and in the world if we did? If we were truly alive in Christ … If we were passionate about our faith … If we were fired up with enthusiasm … How could our gifts transform the world?

The answer to that is endless. It depends only on using the gifts that God has given us. We come to church to renew ourselves, to awaken ourselves to all that God is doing in our lives, to open ourselves to the gifts of the Spirit. Sometimes we think a gift of the Spirit has to be amazing, supernatural. Or we confuse gifts with talents. That is because on the whole the world values talent and skill far more than it values gift. Skill has to do with our role in life, what we have learned to do. Gift has to do with who we are. We need to discover in ourselves how God has gifted us. That is far more difficult to do than to assess our skills.

We all have gifts, attributes that make us truly who we are. Gifts are things like joy or hope or compassion. Our gifts define us as humans. They are gifts of God’s grace alive in us. As a community it is up to us to affirm one another in the gifts that we see, to draw out in each other that spiritual gift that is uniquely ours.

Take a moment to consider how God has gifted you with grace. Think about someone you know in our congregation. What word would you use to describe that person’s gift? You may even find yourself sharing your thoughts with that person. It may be something he or she needs to hear to spur them into action.

Pentecost has happened to us. The Holy Spirit has been given. The Spirit continues to work within our lives. And so we pray, Holy Spirit, move within us that we may know you to be at work in our lives and in our hearts. Amen.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year A

An Air of Expectancy

Readings: Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:5-11; John 17:1-11

The Feast of the Ascension coming as it does mid week on a Thursday passes without much notice. If there is a service it is usually a quiet one attended by the faithful few. I grew up in a tradition where it was marked with great solemnity. Children from the congregation were encouraged to attend a morning service. We were given a holy card to take to school to explain our lateness, so of course, we attended in droves.

I remember the service well. The paschal candle, lit for the first time at the Easter Vigil and then for each service during Easter tide was extinguished. It was removed from the centre aisle of the church and placed by the font. In a very tangible way it caused us to reflect on the meaning of the Ascension of Christ, that the risen Christ was no longer present in physical form. It resonated in us the question the disciples were asked as they continued to gaze toward Heaven. “Why do you stand looking up into heaven?” It was a reminder that the time for a tangible, visible presence is over. Jesus is still present to the Church. Jesus will always be present to the Church, but in a new way. This is not the time for stargazing. This is the time to prepare ourselves to be the church in the world.

That makes it a time of transition in our lives. We know such times in our personal lives. They can be times of bewilderment and fear; they can also be times of great excitement and progress if we do not allow ourselves to get bogged down by what is happening. Above all they are times marked by the passing of the torch.

I remember so well that feeling as I participated in the funeral for my father. I looked around at my brother and sisters and realized that we were now the older generation. The torch had been passed to us. It came to me as I suspect it comes to most people with a sense of shock. It was now up to us to carry on the family traditions. Mine is the generation that is responsible for the state of things. There is no one else to blame. That is an awesome responsibility.

Is that why the disciples stood there looking up into the heavens? They have been basking in the glow of the resurrection. They have been rejoicing that their beloved leader after being cruelly executed is with them once again. They have been experiencing the power of God at work in their lives. And now Jesus has been taken away from them. This time there is a finality about it. He has prepared them for the time, but somehow you are never really ready for it. He has commissioned them, giving them a wonderful promise. “You will receive power. You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” It is now up to them. They are to carry out the mission of Jesus. The torch is theirs. It is an awesome responsibility. They can stand there and star gaze, but they will be no earthly good. They can turn inward and become so wrapped up in their sense of loss that they miss out on the opportunity to serve God. They can run away in confusion as they did following the crucifixion. Or they can remember the promise that Jesus has made to them that they will be equipped for the work that needs to be done. And they can begin to act as if…

There is something very exciting, energizing, about having the torch passed on to you, about coming into your own, about taking responsibility. I think the time I see that excitement most clearly is when people become parents. So many things change for them. They change the way they live their lives. They drive more cautiously. They give up their self indulgent ways to live more simply, to consider the needs of the family before their own. Life becomes focused on the family. They become more concerned with their faith. They bring their children for baptism as these two families have today. They make decisions about their sense of commitment.

The disciples were energized by Jesus’ promise. That is evident by their actions. They become a community gathered in preparation. They have shared in the difficult times. Now they share in prayer. It is an excellent model of what needs to happen at St. Francis if this congregation is to be truly alive.

Like the disciples we may be handling a difficult situation in our personal lives. It may be an in between time in our lives, a time between loss and promise. We all face those times in our lives – the loss of a loved one, empty nest syndrome, broken relationships. How we deal with them and allow ourselves to know the promise of God is a measure of our commitment to the gospel.

It happens in our parish life. It is not always easy to live as we do as part of an Ecumenical community of faith, especially when one of our partners is unable to meet their financial obligations. The Church Centre seems like an amazing opportunity to share in ministry, but the reality is that when survival is in question human nature being what it is, we look for someone to blame. It is easy to become self absorbed and not open yourselves to the wider community. There is the worry that they will get swallowed up by the larger congregations. We forget what a blessing it is to serve God in our diversity of ways.

There is an energy that comes about whenever people share their faith with one another. It is a curious thing, but when we find ourselves moved to say to one another, “I believe”, then that excitement gets passed on. The question is, how do we do it? How do we live in uncertain times still holding the promise of Jesus? The same promise that he gave to the disciples, he gives to each one of us.

For that, the disciples are a wonderful role model. We need only follow their example. The first thing is obvious; the others are implied. They prayed. They came together as a community and they prayed. They prayed for one another. They prayed for the needs they saw around themselves in the world. They looked back on what Jesus had told them and they savoured the message. They remembered the promises and looked forward to the time they would be fulfilled. They focused on what was really important. And they lived as if … They lived with hope, trusting the promises.

There is such an air of expectancy about the disciples, a sense of urgency. “What next?” they seem to be saying. They are about to embark on a new way without Jesus to guide them. This is uncharted territory. The way ahead is not clear. It is a time of testing, of discovery.

We all need times like that in our lives. They are fruitful times. So in those in between times we need to pray. Pray even when the prayer is “I can’t pray!” Consider the loss and find out what it means in your life. Does it mean that I should be spending more time with my spouse? Does it mean putting into action something that I have been intending to do my whole life? Where is God leading me?

As a congregation we need to grasp the in between times in exactly the same way. Our Advisory Board is going to do exactly that as they go away for a retreat. Maybe there are others who would be willing to be part of that. We need to go away to learn, to pray, to dream and especially to hope. To look for the hope in everything that is happening. And then to put it all into action, knowing that God’s promises hold good.

Let us live with an air of expectancy, with a sense of urgency about the faith. Let us share our faith with conviction and excitement.

The Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

Come and See Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42 Invitations come in many shapes and sizes. They ...