Saturday, September 27, 2008

Is the Lord Present Among Us?

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost,
Proper 26, Year A

Is the Lord Present Among Us?

Readings: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

The parable in today’s gospel reminds me of a saying that goes something like this. Some people change when they see the light. Others change when they feel the heat. It is a parable about two brothers. It follows a debate between Jesus and some of the elders. Jesus’ consternation comes through as he relates the story.

A man had two sons. He went to the first and asked him to work in the vineyard. The son said that he had better things to do, but later he changed his mind and went and did as his father had asked. The father went to the second son and asked him the same thing. He told his father that he would go and work in the vineyard. But he didn’t show up. Jesus goes on to tell the elders that the very people they look down on, the tax collectors and prostitutes are living out their faith better than they. What counts is not making the promise; it is following through on it. It is a story that I suspect resonates in us.

Perhaps we find ourselves rather like the first son. We have better things to do than to waste our time reading the Bible and saying prayers. Church is boring, and we have no intention of going. There are simply too many rules to follow. We live our lives for ourselves. And yet somewhere along the line we realize that it is not working for us. We find our way back. We ask God for forgiveness for the kind of life we have led. We allow God’s forgiveness to transform our lives.

Or perhaps we are more like the second son. We are familiar with the faith. We go to church. We bring our children to be baptised. But somehow or other we never really let it touch us. It is something reserved for Sundays. The rest of the week we live as if God does not exist. We don’t let it inform our attitudes and actions. We talk the talk, but never walk the walk.

I want to opt for a third option, a third child. Let’s face it! Most of us are somewhere in between. We would like our faith to make a difference, but not too much. We may go away on a renewal weekend and truly get something out of it. It may be one of those mountain top experiences that lift us for a time from our dry, everyday existence. We begin to see God in a new and exciting way. But we get back to the cares and frenzied pace of our daily lives, and over time the experience fades. We think about God once in a while. We may even remember the excitement of that experience, but it fades over time. We go to church. But we want it on our own terms. We begin to wonder, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

The Israelites are like my hypothetical third child. They are not happy with their nomadic existence in the wilderness. They are complaining. In fact, they never seem to do anything else. Don’t you feel sorry for Moses in his hapless leadership role? It is especially puzzling when one considers how much God has done for them. They have had the ultimate mountain top experience. God led them out of slavery, parted the Red Sea, gave them food to eat when they were hungry and made water gush out of a rock in a veritable fountain when they were thirsty. Yet still they question, “Is the Lord present among us?” Where is this question coming from? Their fears lie, not in the lack of food or water but in their lack of faith. Even the most astounding miracles have failed to transform them. They are still not ready to be the people that God intends them to be.

Paul is forever challenging the people to whom he writes about letting God make a difference in their lives. “Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling,” he says to the Philippians. He is speaking to a community for whom he has a great deal of admiration. However, he suspects that some of their motives are self-serving. There are rumblings that make him consider that there might be some conflict in the community. He reminds them that their relationship with Christ should encourage them. It should be an incentive in their lives. It is through seeking Christ in others, through allowing the love of God to work through them, that they will experience God with them. It is by reaching out to one another, by walking the walk, by living every moment in God’s love, that they will experience that close relationship with God. It is that sense of commitment to the gospel that will enable them to access God’s grace. Otherwise they will just be asking as the Israelites did, “Is the Lord among us?”

So what about us! Do we see ourselves in these stories? We have experienced the miracle of salvation through God’s grace. Have we allowed it to transform our lives? Do we really trust God’s word? Is the Lord present among us or not? How do we go about living it out in our lives? If God is not providing you with compassion and love, then you need to discover why not. Otherwise your faith will simply dry up and disappear.

In our worship we offer up not only words, but ourselves. As we sing and pray, in our creed and confession, we proclaim love and loyalty to God. Promises are important, but we can so easily fail to keep them. We can find all sorts of excuses for not getting out to church or spending time in prayer. We can tell ourselves that it is not even all that important. God will understand that I need family time. God will understand that my life is busy. I am going through a rough patch in my life. I need to deal with this myself. God will understand.

Jesus must be so fed up with church folk who say, “I go, sir!” and then never do what Jesus tells them to do. Yet even when we fail to keep our promises, Jesus never stops reaching out to us, seeking to restore us to a loving and obedient relationship with God.

And what is it that we are to do? The great commandment is to love one another as God loves us. It is to look to each others interests and not merely our own. It is to reach out to those in need. It is to know that the Lord is surely present among us. More to the point, it is to know that we are with the Lord.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 25, Year A

In Giving We Receive

Readings: Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-6

Today is a wonderful celebration at St. Francis. We are honouring all of you who volunteer your time, your talents, your treasure to support our amazing parish family. When we started to consider whom we should thank we realized that this event needed to include the whole congregation. It takes all of you, the whole body of Christ, to make this church thrive. Every one of you deserves a thank you.

Thankfulness is an important trait, yet a very difficult one to nurture. We live in a society that is never satisfied with its lot in life. How much is enough? When do we consider ourselves to have enough food, money, or clothing? When do we have enough strength, courage, hope or grace? That is the theme that I see running throughout the readings today. It is a theme that resonates strongly with the world in which we live, a world that thinks that life is totally unfair. Isn’t that a sentiment that comes easily to our lips? If you have teenagers living in your home you hear it all the time. And you are certainly not alone.

Consider the Israelites. They are living a nomadic life in the wilderness. It is not a pleasant time. Their lives are out of control. Plans are not working out. They have more questions than answers. They look for someone to blame. It is Moses who bears the brunt of their ire. “We’d be better off as slaves in Egypt than starving to death out here in the wilderness,” they rail at him. The security of Egypt looks attractive when viewed from the insecurity of hunger. The past looks rosy.

We hear such sentiments all the time as people yearn for what once was, at least in their memories. “Remember the good old days!” they will say. “Life was so good. The pace was slower. Kids behaved themselves better. There was no violence. Why we could leave our doors open without worrying for our safety! Remember when we had two hundred children in our Sunday School? Remember when our church was full every Sunday? Remember when there was no Sunday shopping, when people went to church instead of the mall?” We yearn for times when Christian values meant something.

Jesus tells a parable that resonates with that feeling that life is unfair. A certain landowner goes out early in the morning to hire people to work in the vineyard. They agree on a wage, the usual daily wage, and begin to work, happy to have found good employment. Later on the landowner goes out again and hires more people, once again agreeing on their wage. Towards the end of the day he needs to hire more people. The cynic in me wonders if those early workers slacked off and did not get the work done. Perhaps there is just too much work. The harvest is ripe. It is important to get the crops in. It must be done. Once again those hired later in the day agree with the owner for a reasonable wage.

When the time comes to pay them, he pays everyone a full day’s wage, and what is more, he pays the last ones first. You might ask, “Why does he allow the last to receive a full day’s pay for just an hour of work? How fair is that? Is it injustice? Caprice? A generous whim?

I go and talk to the workers who have been toiling all day. “How can he treat us this way?” one man says to me. “It isn’t fair. I feel so angry. After all, I worked hard today out in the hot sun during the hottest time of the day.” The others chime in, “Yes! We all worked hard the whole day. We should get more than these other people for our work.”

I make my way over to the group that started work a little late. “I don’t know what to think,” one of them tells me. “We got more than we expected, but you know, we worked harder than others who got just as much. We are lucky, but not as lucky as we could have been. I guess I feel a little guilty.”

Then I talk to those who worked only an hour. “We got more than we could possibly have hoped for,” they share with me. “I tried all day to find work,” one man says. “It was not until late in the day that I got hired. I worked for an hour and then got paid first, even before those who worked all day. I can hardly look them in the eye. But let me tell you. I am so grateful. My children will be fed tonight. I was worried that they might go to bed hungry again. My wife and I will not have to hear their cries.”

This is a kingdom turned upside down. Individuality, self-worth and deals do not work. What we do does not get us into the kingdom. The generosity of God does. Justice is love expressed in terms of the sheer human needs that we all share. Who comes first in the kingdom of heaven? It is those who simply fall through the cracks, the old, the disadvantaged, the sick, the poor. Those are the ones who are privileged in God’s community. They come first.

It is after all about leaving behind the world’s assumptions. The Christian message is about changing. It is about living our lives differently. And it truly is a contemporary message. No one needs to hear these readings, really hear them and take them in, more than we do. We live in a selfish society. We want everything that is coming to us and more. We bring up our children to expect the best of everything. Gratitude is almost a lost art.

That is why today is so important. As Christians we choose to live our lives differently. We choose to give of our time, talents and treasure to help transform our society. We give freely not expecting to get anything back for our efforts, but knowing that we will. All of us know the joy of giving. We know that it is in giving that we receive. We know that as we offer ourselves to God we are blessed. We know that it does not mean that we are all going to suddenly find ourselves rich beyond imagination. We are not all going win a lottery. It is after all about how much is enough! It is about being thankful for everything that God has provided. Most of all it is about allowing God to change and transform our lives. That is how it all comes back to us.

It reminds me of an old song by Donovan, “Happiness Runs”.
“Happiness runs in a circular motion
Thought is like a little boat upon the sea.
Everybody is a part of everything anyway,
You can have everything if you let yourself be.”

We are so privileged to be the people of God. God has chosen us, you and me, to work in the vineyard, to offer our time, our talents, our treasure. Maybe God chose you when you were a child. Then you have worked your whole life to further God’s kingdom. Or you may have just recently begun that spiritual journey. Wherever you are, let it be transformative in your life. Jesus gave everything for us. Let us rejoice that we are able to give ourselves. As we share in the body and blood of Christ let us know that we are blessed.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Holy Cross - A Love Story

Readings: Numbers 21:4b-9; Psalm 98:1-6; 1 Corinthians 1:18-24; John 3:13-17

Today as we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Cross, I want to share some love stories with you. It is not difficult to understand why love stories are popular. Love brings joy and happiness our lives. It also makes us vulnerable. It is transformative in our lives. Remember for a moment the first time you fell in love. What was it like to be head-over-heels in love with someone? Our gospel is a love story, the greatest love story of all. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” What a wonderful reminder that is that God’s grace reaches out to us, saying “I’d do anything for you.”

Love has the power to transform. I’ve seen it. I remember as a teacher dealing with a little girl whom no one liked. In fact, the children picked on her mercilessly. I found it difficult to like her myself. She had a skin condition that left her looking strange. She was messy in her work. She came to school looking dirty and unkempt. The constant teasing from her classmates led to behavioural problems and aggressive behaviour. I knew that it had to stop. I also knew that it was not going to be easy, even for me. I began to find little things to praise her for. Every day I said something positive to her. Sometimes it was difficult to find anything. But I persisted. And somehow it rubbed off. The children in the class began to react differently to her. They stopped the teasing. Her aggressive behaviour changed. She began to take more interest in how she looked and in her work. Over the course of that year she blossomed until all the teachers in the school and her parents were remarking on it.

And God’s love is much greater than ours. I have experienced it in my life and in the lives of others. There is my friend Bill. Because of his addiction to alcohol, he lost everything – work, family, friends. When I first met him he was living on the streets of Toronto. I helped him get into a rehab program. Now he works with street people helping them to overcome their addictions. He will tell you that it was God’s love that changed things for him. It was God’s love that turned his life around.

I truly believe that God loves me. I have experienced that amazing fact in my life. There are the obvious signs that God loves me. I see it all around me in the beauty of the world God has created, the kindnesses of people, the acts of generosity. And there are the serendipitous things in life that remind me constantly of the nature of our loving God, the things that happen in my life that I know I do not deserve. They just happen. They are pure grace. I experience God’s love in prayer, both as I reach out in my own times of prayer, but also as we worship as the body of Christ. I experience the awesome power of God as we offer up prayers of intercession and of thanksgiving. I experience it as we gather at the table. And finally I look back at the times that without God’s love I simply would not have survived, those moments when life was at its darkest. Those are the times that I truly know that not only nothing I could do would make God love me more but also that nothing I could do would make God love me less.

The cross has the power to transform. It is a sign of God’s love. It is God’s way of uniting suffering with love. It is God’s way of showing us that God would do anything for us. It is a symbol that we look on with a sense of reverence and awe. We make the sign of the cross. We wear crosses in recognition of our faith. We use it as a symbol of God’s redeeming grace to decorate our churches. Through the ages the event of the cross has become the symbol of God’s love.

A friend of mine questioned me about why I always wear a cross. I was taken aback by the question, since she is a person who confesses Christian faith. She also knows that I am a priest. I gave her a quizzical look. I did not answer right away. I needed to figure out what was behind the question. Was it something about the particular cross I was wearing? Was it because I was on holidays? Was it what the cross represents? Finally I asked her and was confronted with a barrage of hurt, anger and frustration. It was abundantly clear to me that for her the image of the cross was not merely foolish, but abhorrent.

Indeed, it is a very strange symbol to have at the heart of our faith. That is exactly what Paul is saying to the Corinthians, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” Of course it is! The people of Jesus’ time understood the horror of the cross. There is simply no way they would ever have connected it to God. People of the Jewish faith expected salvation to come through the long awaited Messiah. They could never even consider that God’s promised agent could be put to death. The Greeks were seeking pure knowledge. A suffering god would be impossible for them to accept. And still today people who are themselves carrying heavy crosses, the sick, the elderly, the handicapped, the unemployed, the lonely, the depressed, may find themselves unable to fathom the cross as a symbol of the love of God.

Yet for those of us who believe it is a reminder that God’s power is able to transform even the most terrible suffering. It is a reminder that God is with us. Through our encounter with the crucified Christ we learn that the sharing of suffering is the beginning of its transformation to wholeness and joy. We are reminded by our very ‘woundedness’ that God loves us. The ultimate test of love is whether it is giving. Through our own inadequacies and sufferings, we begin to understand the great gift that God has given. Salvation truly is a gift, a gift of love.

How can we lighten the load for those who find it unfathomable? How do we help them to understand that God loves them? It is, after all, about sharing the love of God, about sharing our Christian love story. It is about reminding them that from the cross Jesus is saying, “I’d do anything for you.”



Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A Proper 23

Gathered in Prayer

Readings: Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Jesus said to the disciples, “When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” When I visited South Africa as part of the Decade Festival in 1998, I saw that lived out.

I stayed in the homes of some wonderful women of faith. What struck me most was that no matter where I went the first thing they asked me to do was to pray with the family. We stood in a prayer circle there in those simple homes and offered up our prayers of thanksgiving for new friendships and prayers of blessing on all who lived in that home. Their lives revolved around prayer.

On my last day there, I stayed with a widow, her widowed daughter and two children. In the morning the woman went in to awaken her daughter to get ready for work. She found her incoherent, her mouth drooping, unable to move. She summoned me along with several of her neighbours to pray while she went to phone for an ambulance. That whole day while they awaited the outcome those neighbours were there praying. Our prayers turned to prayers of thanksgiving when the doctors reported that she had a mild stroke and would recover quickly.

A theology student doing a placement in Jamaica described the same thing. He was awakened one night by someone who was obviously disturbed. She had a terrible nightmare. She knocked on the rectory door for help. He couldn’t think what to do for her. “What do you need?” he asked her.

“I don’t need anything!” was her reply. “I only came to pray with you for a moment. I am alone at home.” He prayed with her and her anxiety cleared. She left calmed by the prayer.

Simone Weil, the French mystic wrote, “Two and three, and there should be no more.” She was not excluding praying in a larger group, but she knew that prayer amongst two or three has a very special power. Anyone who has ever prayed like that at the bedside of someone who is ill or on a special occasion knows the power of that kind of prayer. It shows us how good the Lord is, and how present to us.

Those of us who meet together on Wednesday morning to pray for those on the prayer list experience that in a very real way. Often we know only that someone has offered their name. We may not even know the need. But God knows. And so we lift them up to God. We all pray, even if the only prayer we can offer is in the silence of our hearts.

Yet prayer is often simply a last resort. This week marks the anniversary of 9-11. Do you remember how our churches filled up following that disaster? There were prayer vigils attended by thousands of people. At times of trouble people find themselves trusting in God. They trust that God helps and protects us.

And if we put Jesus’ words into context we need to be willing to work through strained and troubled relationships. The prayer of the Church includes prayer for reconciliation.

An elderly man was dying. For years he had been at odds with his best friend. Wanting to straighten things out, he sent word for the man to come and see him. When his friend arrived, he told him that he was afraid to go into eternity with such a bad feelings between them. He apologized for the things he had said and done. He offered forgiveness to his friend for the hurts that had been done to him. Everything seemed fine until his friend went to leave the room. He called out to him, “But, remember, if I get better, this doesn’t count!”

It points out in a humorous way just how difficult a process forgiveness is for most of us. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” we say in the Lord’s Prayer. It is a reminder that we are called to be forgiving people, to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. As Paul points out to the Romans, “Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

But that brings up so many questions, doesn’t it? Who is my neighbour? How is “love to do no wrong”? What is the “right” that love must do? How do we live in harmony with God’s creation? Taken to its logical conclusion, it touches every level of our lives.

The readings provide us with some Godly perspectives on the meaning of love and compassion at times of conflict and trouble. What is our Christian call when things go wrong? What do you do when things go wrong in the church? In the gospel we find some fascinating insights into communal relationships. Confrontation is something few people enjoy. Most of us will do anything to avoid it. And yet if the community, any community, is to work together, disputes require reconciliation within a context of deep and heartfelt prayer.

And so in Matthew’s gospel we are given a process for dealing with conflict and finding it in our hearts to forgive. It is a process that recognizes the struggle of the early church to work harmoniously. It was followed to help resolve difficult issues. “If someone sins against you,” Jesus says, “go and point out the fault to that person in private.” It is important to give a person an opportunity to make things right. That is what reconciliation is about. We all know that it does not work to harbour a grievance. It will simply fester and grow out of proportion. Jesus does not stop there. He knows that people do not always take kindly to criticism. The dispute may have to be aired publicly. “If the member refuses to listen, take it to the church.” ‘Take it to the two or three gathered together in prayer,’ Jesus is saying. He knows that we struggle together as the people of God. We are all struggling for the same result, a relationship between earth and heaven, between us and God and each other.

The passing of the peace in our liturgy symbolizes our willingness to be reconciled to one another. As we reach out a hand in friendship the barriers simply come down. We are ready to come to the table, eat and drink, and go out reconciled to be bread for a hungry world.

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 ...