Monday, October 27, 2008

All Saints Day - Some early thoughts

Next Sunday we are celebrating All Saints Day. It actually lands on Saturday, the day after Halloween. On Halloween children go out with their faces grotesque and monstrous, deformed and hurt. Each one of us is in some way disfigured, imperfect and flawed. The only one who looks at our ugliness and sees beauty is Jesus. When others exclude us, reject us and do not invite us to their parties, Jesus does. When others shun us and turn their backs and reject us and hurt us, Jesus breaks bread with us. When others look at our appearances and are repulsed, Jesus kisses us. This is a wonderful feast for us to look behind the ugliness of the masks we wear – masks of sinfulness and brokenness – and experience the love of God.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Proper 30, Year A

Acts of Love

Readings: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

“What is the most important commandment?” Jesus is asked. He answered with absolutely no hesitation. His answer, the shema, came from the Torah. Scripture comes in handy when you are put on the spot. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus knew that there is ultimately one law only, the law to love. It is a law to love God with every part of our being, to love God totally. He knows that love of neighbour and love of self are inseparable from love of God. It is through opening up ourselves to love God, to come into relationship with God, that we learn to love. It is through experiencing love that we become loving people. It is through experiencing love that we enter into relationship with others and ultimately with God.

Unlike the Ten Commandments, the law to love is not simply a set of rules, but a way of life. I was reflecting on the overriding nature of the law to love. How different it is from the law as we know it. Are there other situations in life which are governed by such all encompassing laws?

This past week I was on the way to a meeting. I found myself driving through heavy traffic, something I am thankfully able to avoid most of the time. One driver was obviously in a great hurry. He cut me off forcing me to slam on my brakes. I must admit to you, my immediate thought was revenge. At that moment I wanted to chase him down, honking my horn loudly all the way, making certain that he knew the error of his ways. Instead I muttered a few uncharitable things under my breath, managing to restrain myself from any hand signals. I calmed myself and then had one of those ‘aha’ moments. There are many important laws that govern the way we drive. We had to learn them in order to pass our Driver’s test. Most of the time, we follow the rules of the road. We obey traffic lights. We refrain from speeding. Fear of getting a ticket or being in an accident gives most of us a sense of restraint. So if you asked me, “What is the most important commandment of driving?” I suspect my answer would be “Respect the rights of others”. We have a responsibility when we drive to be courteous and to drive with care. That is an overriding law that sums up all the rest. It is not that the need for the laws about speeding or driving on the right side of the road or stopping at a stop sign would disappear. It is just that by respecting others’ rights, we would naturally obey the laws.

So the overriding commandment for us as Christians is to love God and to love neighbour. Jesus makes it clear that 'loving action' is the ultimate authority. Love is beyond the claims of the law. There is ultimately one law alone, and that is the law to love. It is a law, first and foremost, to love God, to love totally in all that entails, to commit our lives to God. And the reality of our love of God is part and parcel of our love of neighbour. If we love God, it cannot help but result in loving action towards others. It cannot be lived out in our lives without looking at neighbourly love and at the question of social justice. It is a call to examine our responsibilities, not only to our next-door neighbour, but also to our global neighbours. It is no mistake that it is an integral part of our Baptismal covenant. Love of neighbour provides a simple guideline by which we can test our lives.

So the question remains, how are we doing in terms of love? Can I say that I love my neighbour and then get into my car and feel like running him down for cutting me off? Can I say that children are welcome in our church and then shake my fist at them when they make a noise? Can I say that I love my neighbour and ignore the pleas of the starving in Africa? Can I say that I love my neighbour and be complacent about the number of people who continue to die of AIDS throughout our world? To truly love our neighbours, and so to love God, we must learn to look and love beyond what first catches our eye. It must result in loving action.

Paul's ministry to the people of Thessalonica is a beautiful example, is it not, of what happens when one continues to lovingly minister even in the face of opposition. Paul's story is no fairy tale. His early ministry often took him to towns where he was stoned for his preaching and driven out. Ultimately he lost his life for the faith. Opposition to Paul in Thessalonica was particularly unpleasant. Yet he discovered something important about himself, about ministry, and about the faith from the experience. Despite the opposition there developed a real sense of commitment from many people. The communities became places of loving action and the beginning of a strong worldwide community of faith, one for which he was able to give thanks.

Loving action brings about radical change. A woman was seeking counsel for her marriage. “What is it that you want?” she was asked. “Revenge!” she said. And went on to list all the things she hated about her husband. The counsellor said to her, “If you truly want revenge the best way to get it is to go home and begin to do loving things for him. Cook him special meals. Go out of your way to be nice to him. And then when you have sucked him in, tell him you want a divorce.”

A month later she went back to see the counsellor. “How are things? Are you getting a divorce?” he asked. “Oh no!” she said. “Things are wonderful. I discovered when I was being nice to my husband that I really loved him. We are reconciled. Things have never been better.”

Things do not always work out that way. Marriages do break down. But we can put the Gospel of love into action every day of our lives. And it will make a difference. To know Christ is not something I think or intellectualize. Christ is a person to whom I respond by loving. And that love is shown by my loving action in the world. The Gospel calls us to more than words.

It is the small acts of love that happen every day that make this parish a wonderful, sustaining family. All we need to do to remind ourselves of that is to look at our apple tree banner. There graphically displayed are the acts of love that make this parish flourish. Those are just the beginning of the actions that you take. You pray for and visit the sick and those in need. You phone those you notice are missing from church. You cook food for the bereaved. You volunteer at the Food Bank. You take the time to listen to a friend in need. You send a timely email message to bolster someone who is feeling down.

A poem by an anonymous writer sums it up beautifully. "I sought my soul, and the soul I could not see. I sought my God and God eluded me. I sought my neighbour and found all three." Amen

Saturday, October 18, 2008

23rd Sun. after Pentecost, Proper 29, Year A

A Credit Crisis

Readings: Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

Sometimes it seems as if the only way through life is to flip a coin and leave it to chance. Take for example the current economic conditions in the world. It is impossible to avoid hearing about the ups and downs of a very volatile stock market. It is impossible to avoid worrying about our own ability to cope with the future. According to Paul Krugman, professor of economics at Princeton University, this time period is for the American economy a crisis of faith. There is a growing lack of trust in the financial institutions and businesses that have backed much of the debt of the United States. The result, of course, is that they are no longer able to extend credit and so world markets have plunged. Here is an interesting observation for you! A friend pointed out to me that the word ‘credit’, comes from the Latin, ‘credere’, to believe or trust. When the banks extend credit to people they trust their ability to repay the debt. Credit has the same root as the word ‘creed’. That makes it a part of our faith language. We affirm our faith in the words of the creed. We put our trust in God. The current economic crisis is about lack of trust between creditors and those to whom they lend. Faith crisis at any time of our lives is about our inability to put our trust in God. The passages of Scripture today point out our need to do exactly that.

The Pharisees are up to their usual tricks. Once again they are trying to entrap Jesus. “Tell us what you think?” they say to him. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” The Jews had to pay a poll tax directly to Rome. It was a mark of their political subjection to a foreign power. It was a big issue for them, one which made it impossible to separate politics and religion. Rome, a pagan power, controlled the Promised Land, the land that God gave to the people of Israel. In the eyes of many that polluted their land. And so they ask Jesus, “Should the people of God express allegiance to a pagan emperor?”

It is a very clever trap! We all know that religion and politics do not mix. Their trap involves money, power, politics and ultimately, allegiance. On top of it all, they bait Jesus with false flattery. “We know that you are sincere. You teach the way of God with truth.”

But Jesus is not fooled. With the toss of a coin, he flips the question back to them. “Whose head is this, and whose title?” he asks. Taxes were paid with the Roman denarius. The Jews used coins without the portrait for the temple tax. The only answer they can give is “the emperor’s”.

“Give to the emperor the things that the emperors. Give to God the things that are God’s.” His answer is every bit as clever as the question. It literally flips the coin back to them. It gives credit where credit is due. The secular finds its place within the sacred. Jesus does not deny or ignore the dues owed to the secular world. At the same time he does not lose sight of the eternal and ultimate world of the spiritual and the divine. Indeed he leaves it up to us to decide what we mean by ‘what is God’s’.

The gospel message is an invitation to believe, to have faith, to put your trust in God. It is an important message for us to take in when we are undergoing any crisis of faith. So many things cause our faith to falter! Being a Christian does not mean that we do not suffer. To be human is to suffer. We will suffer life’s losses. In this congregation right now are people who are suffering loss. Our prayer list fills up every week with people who are suffering from sickness, mental illness, job loss, bereavement. How do we trust God’s promises at such times in our lives?

The Thessalonians are people who know how to trust God’s promises. This fledgling congregation has been open to God's call through many trials and tribulations. They trust that God is among them in a new way. They are able to experience Christian joy even in the midst of suffering and persecution. They live a life of faithfulness to the Gospel. Paul commends them for "their work of faith, their labour of love and their steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ".

Could Paul speak that way about our community? Do we really trust God’s promises? Do we live out the faith of our baptism? Are we faithful to our calling? What labours of love are done among us? What quality of hope do we possess? Does faith give us a basis for hope amidst the turmoil of our lives?

How do we learn to trust in God? “A television program preceding the 1988 Winter Olympics featured blind skiers being trained for slalom skiing, impossible as that sounds. Paired with sighted skiers, the blind skiers were taught on the flats how to make right and left turns. When that was mastered, they were taken to the slalom slope, where their sighted partners skied beside them shouting, "Left!" and "Right!" As they obeyed the commands, they were able to negotiate the course and cross the finish line, depending solely on the sighted skiers' word. It was either complete trust or catastrophe.”

That is a wonderful parable for us in our life of faith. As we navigate life’s journey, in our blindness we often wander far from the path. And yet God is there showing us the way, shouting “left” and “right”. We can ignore the guidance, or we can put our trust in God. We can pray for our needs to be met. We can give thanks to God for all of God’s blessings. We can trust in God’s promises.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Some Early Thoughts

The financial crisis going on all around the globe is a constant reminder of how interconnected we are in the world today. The gospel reminds us that while we owe our lives first and foremost to God, we have a dual citizenship as Christians. How do we make our voice as Christians heard? How do we speak out against injustice and poverty? What tensions does that raise in us?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Harvest Thanksgiving - And He Was a Samaritan

I am not preaching this Sunday, but am posting a sermon based on the reading from the gospel which I preached I preached on Thanksgiving in 2002.

Readings: Deuteronomy 8:7-18; Psalm 65; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Luke 17:11-19

"Take care," Moses says to the people of Israel, "that you do not forget the Lord your God. When you have eaten your fill, when you have fine houses to live in, when you have riches and wealth." The Israelites have lived a nomadic existence for generations. They are about to enter the Promised Land. They are being warned to be careful not to take things for granted.

It is an especially important message for North Americans who get caught up in materialism. We grow in numbers, wealth and power, but forget God. We consider ourselves to be self-sufficient. We think that accumulating more and more things will make us happy. How would we live without DVD players, cable TV and Air Conditioning?

But hold on a moment! We are grateful for what we have. We know how to say thank you. That is something that we were taught when we were little children. We say grace before a meal. We go to church and share in worship. We give to the church. What more could God want from us?

The truth that Deuteronomy communicates is that God wants us to remember that it is not by our power and our strength that we exist as servants of God. It is by God's grace. We in turn are called to extend that grace to those in need.

That becomes abundantly clear when we look at the message of the Gospel. On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the border country between Galilee and Samaria. It is a wilderness place inhabited by outcasts and misfits. There he is approached by a band of lepers who call out to him for help. They call out for mercy. And mercy is what they are given.

"Go and show yourselves to the priests," Jesus tells them. They do as they are told. They know the rules. They have lived their lives by the rules. They don't live in this wilderness place by choice. They are outcasts of society. By Jewish law they wear rags and keep their distance. Here it is their leprosy that defines them. Jew and Samaritan they live by the same rules. They know that only the priests can lift this ban from them.

Yes! They do as Jesus tells them. And the abundant grace of God is poured out on them There is no question from Jesus about who is deserving and who is not, about who follows the rules and who does not, about why they got sick in the first place or about whether they have faith. They are made clean, each one of them. They are given what they need.

But one of the lepers, a Samaritan, is different, startlingly different. When he sees that he is healed he turns back to the healer. He prostrates himself before Jesus and thanks him. He doesn't do what he has been told to do. He doesn't go with the others to show himself to the priest. He does what his heart tells him to do.

It is far more, isn't it, than that simple admonition that our mother would give to us as we headed out the door to a party. "Remember to say thank you." Much as ten lepers are healed, this one who breaks all the rules receives so much more. By returning and praising God, the leper gives voice to the faith that heals him. He comes into a new relationship with God and the kingdom of grace. The wholeness that he receives is far more than the physical healing of the nine. He receives salvation.

That is the message to us as we celebrate Harvest Thanksgiving? How do we give voice to the faith that heals us? Clearly the message of the tenth leper goes far beyond that simple message of gratitude. His response to Jesus implies that following God's laws is not enough. It is simply not enough to meet the requirements of our faith. I can pour over Scripture as much as I wish. I can follow the commandments of God to the letter of the law. I can give generously to meet the needs of the poor. I can do all that and more and still miss out on the blessings that God has for me. It is not enough to do as we are told. We need to come before God with our whole heart.

What brings us like the tenth leper to a sense of salvation, to real wholeness? Do we come to God with a genuine sense of gratitude at the great gift that God has given us? Most of us seem to think that what we give is out of the goodness of our hearts. The fact is that whatever we give to God already belongs to God. We can never give enough.

Who is the Samaritan in your eyes? How many times have we heard since 9-11, 'You know what Moslems are like?' What misconceptions do we have of people based on our biases? Hopefully we all know people like the tenth leper, people for whom the faith is a living entity, the saints of our times. I suspect they are the least likely people, those on the fringes of society who seem on the surface to have little respect for the rules. They are often people who have gone through much on the road to salvation.

Take for example my friend Bill. He works in street ministry in downtown Toronto. Fifteen years ago he lived on the streets. His family has totally rejected him and he knows that he has only himself to blame. He made their lives a living hell through his drinking and gambling. Now he is an advocate for the poor and homeless. He will be the first to tell you that it is God who changed his life. It is a life marked, not merely by healing but by real wholeness. He is the tenth leper.

Most of us are the nine. And that isn't a bad thing to be. We are healed. We are graced by God. We do our best to follow the rules and live our lives according to God's commandments. We ask for and receive God's mercy. We open ourselves to God in prayer and in the rites of the church. We know what to do and do it to the best of our ability. And there is nothing wrong with that. We are ones who have kept the church going through the ages. We are ones who make certain that the Church continues.

But we are not the tenth leper. For that we would have to follow our heart, not the instructions. We would have to accept our life as a gift and then give it back. Our thanksgiving would have to come from so deep inside of ourselves that it would totally change our lives and the lives of those around us. We might have to break from tradition and stop simply following the crowd. And we are so much better at following the letter of the law and at making certain that everyone else does.

This thanksgiving let us open ourselves, heart, mind and soul, to God who graces the outsider, the outcast, the sinner. Let us worship God with abandon. Let us be truly reconciled to God and open our lives to God's healing grace.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Thanksgiving

I am not preaching this coming Sunday, our National and Harvest Thanksgiving. But I will post some of my thoughts over the week. I will also post a sermon from a previous year.

Perhaps you have been told, as I have, to count your blessings. It is intended to move us to give thanks. There are times when such words have no appeal to me. In my head I know that I should be thankful. But in my heart is only heaviness. The power to appreciate and be grateful is a gift from God. Thankfulness is not put on. Rather it wells up in us. "Give us thankful hearts," is a good and realistic prayer, not only at this time of Harvest, but all through the year.

We have been challenged this year at St. Francis to "count our blessings" in a tangible way. Every time we have something to thank God for, we put our spare change in a little jar that we have been given. The jar is to be brought back to the church on Sunday. I have enjoyed the challenge. It has helped me to realize just how blessed we are to be living in Canada. The stock market may be fluctuating wildly, but we have plenty to eat and a roof over our heads. As we come to a Federal election, it is wonderful to reflect on the freedom we enjoy in this wonderful country of ours.

Have a blessed Thanksgiving.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

Instruments of Peace

Readings: Job 9:1-16; Psalm 148:7-14; Galatians 6:14-18; Matthew 11:25-30

The Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

When I was studying theology one of my assignments was to find the source of the Prayer of St. Francis, to trace it back to its origins. Having grown up listening the stories of St. Francis and in particular to “The Little Flowers”, I thought that it would be an easy task. I would simply look back through his writings and find the prayer. I found a lovely prayer of St. Francis. It was called “The Canticle of the Sun”. I recognized it right away. It is a favourite hymn. We know it as “All Creatures of our God and King”. No matter how hard I hunted through the writings of St. Francis I simply could not find what we know as his prayer.

Then in my research I began to come across some references to it. They were from the First World War. Strange! I thought, and continued to search thinking I must be mistaken. Everything bore it out. One story was that it was found in the trenches in France handwritten on a card bearing the picture of St. Francis of Assisi. It was published anonymously in 1912 in a French magazine, La Clochette and is possibly written by a Roman Catholic priest, Father Bouquerel. That it remained connected to our patron saint is no mystery. The prayer, if not written by him, certainly reflects his life. It reflects the way he lived. It reflects who he was.

He was an instrument of peace in a fractured world. To be an instrument of peace means to be an advocate of those in our society who are suffering, the poor, the hungry, the abused. Francis gave up a life of luxury and privilege to live in poverty and to help those who are on the very fringes of society. As a young man, he once came across a leper. He found himself totally repulsed by the man's condition. He fled in horror. But then thinking better of it, he went back, embraced the man and gave him all the money he had.

His sense of peace drew other like minded people to him. They embraced his way of life. He founded a religious order for men called the Friars Minor, the Poor Clares, an order for women, and the Third Order, a Franciscan order of lay people wanting to live a life of simplicity and dedication to the poor and those in need within the context of their own lives.

So many of the stories of his life speak of how he helped to light the spark of faith in peoples' lives. He said that we should “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.” One day he suggested to one of the novices that they go into town and preach. He was overjoyed at being asked by Francis to accompany him on this little mission. They walked together through every part of the town, finally returning to the monastery. The novice reminded Francis that they had gone out to preach, and had not spoken one word.

My son,” Francis replied, “we have preached. We were preaching while we were walking. We have been seen by many; our behavior has been closely watched; it was thus that we have preached our morning sermon. It is of no use to walk anywhere to preach unless we preach everywhere as we walk.”

He knew the joy of embracing hope. It comes through in his love of all God's creation. Francis knew the awesome power of our creator God. His affinity with nature came from that deep love of God. Like the birds and animals with whom he communed, he lived a life unburdened by possession. He searched for perfect joy, not by owning things, but by owning nothing. His thankful heart did not come about by having possessions, but by abandoning things and embracing God. His call to us, “Don’t worry! Be happy!” speaks to our materialistic society of a more fulfilling, happier way to live. Joy for Francis lies in not having to worry about wealth.

Yet he also knew from his own life what it meant to despair. Some biographers have attributed it to his disillusionment at the behaviour of the Crusaders. Whatever caused it, he withdrew for a time from the world. It was St. Clare who was able to draw him out of his despair. Even at the darkest times of his life, times of pain, he felt that sense of divine joy.

One of the things that I find most reassuring about our patron saint, is his humanity. His is a story, not about some “holier than thou” saint, whom I can never hope to emulate, but of someone who is totally human in his becoming. Francis truly experienced reconciliation. He experienced the transformation that God can bring about through conversion.

Francis's conversion was a dramatic one. He was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. He grew up with a life of ease and privilege. A time of sickness and a period of military service led him to reflect on his life. One day he was in the church of San Damiano. He heard Christ saying to him, "Francis, build my church." He took the words literally. He sold a bale of silk from his father's warehouse to pay for repairs to the church. His father was irate. He confronted him and disowned him for what he had done. Francis in turn renounced his father's wealth. He left his home and his life of luxury wearing only the clothes on his back. There is even a story that he took off all of his clothes so that he would take nothing with him of his old life. He declared himself "wedded to Lady Poverty", and devoted himself to serving the poor.

As Christians we are called to turn the world upside down, to bring about the impossible. Where there is hatred, to bring love. To bring resolution and peace where there is discord. To bring hope into lives that are living in despair. To bring light into a world of darkness. To change sadness into joy.

Make me a channel of your peace” is our parish motto. It holds a wonderful truth about peace. We often think that we can do nothing to bring about peace. The world is in too much of a mess. I am only one person. I don’t know where to begin. But the reality of our faith is that we are not passive recipients, but active instruments of peace. That is so important for us to understand, to really take in.

What does it mean to be a channel of God’s peace in a broken and troubled world? The only way we can confront the difficulties and troubles of the world, the lack of peace, the disunity both in society and in the Christian Church, is by throwing off our helplessness and being bearers of peace, and of hope, and of love in the world. It begins by being bearers of peace in our own place. The call to peace is a call to justice. Differences, distinctions and divisions are present not only in society at large, but also within the Church. Such divisions can exclude people from fellowship within the community. We continue to face many important issues that could divide the Church. We need to search for common perspectives among our diverse theological approaches, as we keep alive the prophetic ministry of Christ. So Lord, make us channels of your peace.

Today we celebrate a wonderful saint. We celebrate the Good News of Christ. We worship God, serve our world and our community and strive to be instruments of peace. We know ourselves to be forgiven. We strive to be forgiving. As we travel on our journey we recognize our need to rebuild the Church of God. It starts with our church here in Meadowvale, this place that nurtures us. As we bring Grace into the communion of Christ, as we renew our baptismal covenant, we try to emulate our patron saint. We remember that it is not just about this building. It is about being the Church in the world. It is about our ministry together. It is about being a welcoming and nurturing community of faith. It is about serving beyond our four walls in our community. It is about openness to the Spirit of God working through us. It is about seeing Christ in others and allowing Christ to be seen in us.

May we grow in grace and in the likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.



The Second Sunday of Easter, Year C

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