Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Homily for New Year's Eve

What Time is It?

Readings: Ecclesiastes 3:1-13; Psalm 8; Revelation 21:1-6a; Matthew 25:31-48

One warm summer night up at the cottage I went out into our field, put a blanket down and lay there looking up at the sky. I found myself surrounded by a heavenly host of stars. It almost took my breath away. I realized how small I am and how immense the universe that God has created. It made me wonder whether God even notices us on this tiny speck of dust called earth off to one side of the cosmos. That is when I found myself singing How Great Thou Art. Consider the words for a moment. “Oh Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the works thy hands have made. I see the stars … it goes on, speaking of the awesomeness of God's creation. I was overcome by the sense of timelessness in God’s realm. It goes so contrary to our human obsession with time.

If you do not believe that we are obsessed with time, consider the ways we reflect on it.
• I have some time coming to me.
• I had a great time.
• Take your time.
• We need to save some time.
• Don’t waste your time.
• A stitch in time.
• Time waits for no one.
• Time is money.
• Time heals all wounds.
• Time is on my side.
• There is no time like the present.
And my favourite quote about time, “Time spent with cats is never wasted.”

Even Scripture is obsessed with time. There are over six hundred references to time in the Bible. The Old Testament reading for tonight is a poetic reflection on time. Some of us know it as a song from the sixties. The writer of Ecclesiastes, while he has a cynical view of the world, is still able as he reflects on time to give us insights that connect us to that awesome and almighty God whom we seek in worship. He relates the events of God and contrasts them with our human situation. God's world is timeless. That goes against all reason for humans who are ruled by time. So he tells us to enjoy whatever time comes to us as a gift of God.

He explains that there are some times over which we have no control, for they control us. The time to plant, the time to gather, the time of birth, and the time of death are all times and events controlled by God. However, there are some events over which we do have a measure of control. The time to love, the time to hate, the time for war, the time for peace, such times are somewhat within our control. But we cannot be sure, the writer suggests, because we live within a framework, which is dependent on time while God lives within a framework of timelessness.

It is natural as we come to the close of the year and the beginning of a new one that we should reflect on time. “Where has the time gone?” we ask ourselves. “What have I accomplished this year?” These ponderings on time hopefully lead us on a journey of discovery of who God is and what God means in our lives. They lead us to meditate, not only on the place of time in our lives, but also on our place in time and history. As Christians, we see such reflections as part of the nature of God's saving grace through Christ. We know that we are in the hands of a loving God who cares for us.

That brings us to our New Year’s resolutions. Most of us, I am sure, resolve to live our lives in healthier and better ways. We resolve to diet and to exercise. Those are good resolutions to make. They are good resolutions to keep. I hope that all of us have good goals in mind for this New Year. But I hope we do not stop there. I hope too that the end of the year gives us reason to reflect on all of God’s blessings, on all that God has given to us. I hope it is a time to resolve to be better people, to live our lives more faithfully and more prayerfully, a time to let go of our past mistakes, to ask God’s forgiveness and to move on knowing that God is with us.

A lovely poem was sent to me earlier today. It was quoted during King George’s message in 1939 when war was looming and England’s future looked bleak.

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year
"Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown."
And he replied, "Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!"

It is a good reminder for us as we enter a new year. It is the message of the gospel as it reminds us about where we can find God. We will find God in the hungry and thirsty. We will find God in the smelly and unlovely, in the grubby and the sick. We will find God as we search out those in need. We will find God in the body of Christ. We will find God in one another. May that be our resolution this year!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Sunday after Christmas

I hope you are all enjoying the Christmas Season. In this aftermath of Christmas while everyone else is cleaning up the tinsel and wrapping paper, we Christians are continuing the celebration. At St. Francis we will do so by having a service of lessons and carols. I will let the Christmas carols open up the Scriptures to the faithful few who will be at the service. Many blessings as you continue to celebrate the birth of Christ! May Christ continue to be born in you day by day!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Eve, 2008

A Great Light!

Readings: Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light," proclaims the prophet Isaiah. To be out at night for the Hebrew people of Isaiah's time was to be quite literally in the realm of darkness and death. Travellers faced great danger. In that nomadic culture camping out was not an adventure, but a way of life.

The darkness holds similar dangers in our cities where women have marched to reclaim the night. And in our Northern Hemisphere with its long nights and short days darkness permeates our lives at this time of year. There is even a medical ailment connected to the lack of sunlight experienced during our long winters.

We also experience darkness in a figurative sense. The image of darkness is one that has devastating power in the twentieth century. We live with the knowledge that humankind is capable of great destruction. Terrorism has hit every part of the globe. There are wars and famine throughout our world. We live also with the knowledge that we have caused ecological damage to our planet. We have cut down our rain forests. We have overused our resources. We have polluted the atmosphere to such an extent that it has damaged the ozone layer of the earth causing who know what repercussions. Economically and politically these are dark days. We long, do we not, for light to penetrate the darkness of our planet.

It has been said that the birth of a child gives humanity another chance. How much more is the birth of the child in Bethlehem a source of hope to a world deeply concerned about its future? Who can deny that Christmas brings light into the world? It is no wonder that people who have little concern for spiritual matters the rest of the year celebrate Christmas. For a time the world cannot help but become a better place as we reach out and help one another in ways unheard of at any other time of year.

It is true that the way Christmas is celebrated goes from the sublime to the ridiculous or at the very least tacky. And of course there is the problem of what to call this holy day! I understand that the words of many Christmas songs have been changed to reflect society’s desire not to offend non Christians. So we have the “Twelve Days of Winter” and “We wish You a Happy Holiday”! One commentator wondered if he needed to change the title of a Christmas song to “It’s beginning to Look a Lot Like Thursday”! As Christians we need to deal with the whole issue of secularization, especially at Christmas. How do we reconcile the two extremes? It will do little good for us as Christians to turn it into a battle. In fact that goes counter to all that Christmas means. I suspect it is by understanding that even in the most secular response to the season a sense of promise and hope is stirred up. We can remember and share the joy that we feel as we celebrate the good news that Christ is born in us.

No matter what name it goes by Christmas will continue to stir up feelings of peace and hope. Perhaps it is connected to our childhood memories, some futile attempt to go home again. Is it a hope or even an intuition that this Christmas season of such abundant childhood treasures also holds something miraculous for the adult? We must then view Christmas as, not simply a religious holy day, but also as a cultural event. We must acknowledge that once the trappings of Hallowe'en have been cleared away, our whole society will begin to prepare for Christmas. Not the Advent preparations that we as Christians undertake, but preparations nonetheless! Then we can begin to consider how to make the Christmas celebration of the secular world a spiritual happening.

In an attempt to sort out what is essential, most people undergo a sort of repentance at Christmas time. They experience the mystery of the season. They may name it the 'joy of giving' or ‘Holiday Spirit'. It usually involves relationships, re-connecting with family or friends. People may begin to search for an alternative to the materialism of society. It is no mistake that many find their way into our Churches as Christmas approaches. There is a genuine desire on the part of society to start on a new path.

For those who come to Church faithfully Sunday after Sunday, it may feel that their own celebration of the feast is diminished by the very fact that cultural expressions of Christmas become dominant. Our tendency is to want to reclaim the birth of Christ from secular culture. Perhaps a better quest for us is to ask how we can bring a spiritual depth to a season that is at the same time both cultural and religious. How can we take advantage of the interest secular society takes in the birth of Christ? How do we make it a pastoral opportunity instead of an annoyance? How can we ensure that Christmas becomes a time of spiritual awakening and renewal? What is it that we have to offer that secular society will understand and embrace? How do we help people who walk in darkness see the great light that has come into the world? How do we share the good news that Christ is born in us?

Is it through the Spirit of sacrificial giving? Reflect for a moment. Recall first of all a Christmas when you gave a gift and it meant something special for you to give it. Now recall a Christmas when you received a gift and it meant something special for you to receive it. Is this so far from the spiritual centre of the Christian faith? "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." That too is the great truth of the Incarnation that God dwells among us.

The authenticity of Christmas rings through because it reminds us that a loving Saviour sought us out and came among us. That possibility brings great hope, a hope that transcends the darkness of our lives and fills them with light. Christ, the light of the world is born in us this day.

An ancient legend, the Golden Carol, tells how at the moment of Jesus' birth all of nature sprang into new life. The whole of creation from the smallest particle to the angels in heaven was aware of the event. Stars began to move across the sky. The water in a Roman spring changed into the finest oil. Vines in Spain flowered and bore sweet grapes. Animals surrounded the manger. Angels appeared on earth, radiating light that caused the cocks to start crowing as if it were dawn. Jesus, the light of the world, became reality in a woman's womb. Jesus the light of the world becomes reality as Christ is born in us. We need the light of that new dawn to shine in our own lives, in the lives of those who are dear to us, in our society, our environment and the whole world. May that happen to each and every one of us this Christmas! May Christ be born in us!

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B

Angels Unaware

Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Magnificat; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

It is a bright sunny day in Nazareth. Mary is just returning from the well, her water skin bursting with beautiful clear water. There is always lots of water in their town, a real gift in this arid land. She looks out over the valley far below. Then she climbs the last few steps and enters the courtyard to the small home she shares with her family. Setting the water down for a moment, she begins to reflect on her life. A smile crosses her face as she thinks of Joseph, her husband to be. A kind person with a fine reputation in the community! Yes! Hers is an uncomplicated life. She has a calm and predictable future.

Then suddenly, a great surprise! Even in the brilliant sunlight the courtyard is filled with radiance. A messenger from God! She can scarcely take it all in. Indeed, she can scarcely even look at this stranger. Such an awesome sight he is! She recognizes in this messenger, one who stands in the very presence of God. What is it he is saying to her? “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.”
“Who am I,” she thinks to herself, “that God should favour me? How can I be chosen by God? Why is God choosing me, a poor, insignificant young woman? What is God choosing me to do?”

The angel reassures her. “Do not be afraid for you have found favour with God.” There is that word again. “Favour! Me!” She looks at him tentatively at first, then more boldly. “You will conceive in your womb,” the angel continues. “And bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”

She can’t quite take it in. Her child, the baby she bears, will be the son of the most high. Then she gets a dose of reality. “How can this be?” she asks, blushing a little at her bluntness with a stranger. “How can this happen when I have never known a man?”

“With God all things are possible.” The angel speaks of this uncommon thing in common language to a woman whose concerns are totally realistic. All sorts of things are going through her mind. “What will people think? What will Joseph say? This is craziness. Is this really a message from God?” And in obedience to God, through God’s grace, she answers, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then as quickly as it began, the encounter is over. Mary is left with her pondering, but at the same time with a sense of incredible joy and peace, for she has been chosen by God to be the God Bearer.

“Well!” you may be thinking. “That’s very nice for Mary. God sent her a very clear and distinct message. If only God spoke that clearly to me! God, I wish I could see your messengers, those who stand in your very presence. I have never witnessed an angel. Nothing in my life is like that. Not anything!”

As incredible as it seems, God sent a messenger to a young Jewish girl, very poor, who held no position or prominence among her peers with the earthshaking announcement that she was chosen by God to be the mother of the Messiah. It is God’s act through Mary, God’s coming to us through the birth of Jesus, that makes her, that young Jewish woman, and every one of us, significant as God’s children.
“Here am I,” she said, “I am the Lord’s servant. As you have spoken, so be it.” Her response is untouchable, incomprehensible. For it is a response full of confidence in God’s promise to accomplish God’s purpose. And how many of us would answer so quickly and without reservation? How many of us would even know that God was calling us to servant hood?

God continues to communicate with ordinary, everyday people. The problem is, we are not always attuned to God’s presence. God communicates with those who listen and respond. God turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. If we do not hear, then perhaps we are not tuned in. Perhaps we are looking in the wrong place. Or maybe we are looking for the wrong thing.

As incredible as it seems, God still sends messengers. Are there not moments in our lives when God is communicating with us? Have we not all experienced moments of closeness to God, times of insight, of enlightenment.
It is astounding the number of stories there are of peoples’ encounters with angelic beings. This is one of them.

On Sunday afternoon, June 1st 1975, Darrel Dore was on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Suddenly it wobbled, tipped to one side, and crashed into the sea. Darrell was trapped inside a room on the rig. As the rig sank deeper and deeper into the sea the lights went out and the room began to fill with water.

Thrashing about in the darkness, Darrel accidentally found a huge air bubble that was forming in the corner of the room. He thrust his head inside it. Then a horrifying thought sent a shiver down his spine. "I'm buried alive". Darrell began to pray and as he did, something remarkable happened.

Later on he recounted it in his own words. "I found myself actually talking to someone. Jesus was there with me. There was no illumination, nothing physical, but I sensed him, a comforting presence. He was real, he was there." For the next 22 hours that Presence continued to comfort Darrel. But now the oxygen supply inside the bubble was giving out. Death was inevitable. It was just a matter of time. Then a remarkable thing happened. Darrel saw a tiny star of light shimmering in the pitch-black water. Was it real or was he hallucinating? Then the light seemed to grow brighter. He squinted again. It was real. In fact, it was coming from a diver's helmet. The nightmare was over. He was rescued.

Such stories abound. Annunciations happen in any number of ways, through prayer, through worship, through the grace of other people. We ourselves are often messengers of God’s grace, although we may not ever become aware of how or when. In an amazing way, God is born in us and through the Spirit reaches out through us to accomplish God’s purpose in our world. May Christ be born in us this day! Amen.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Fourth Sunday of Advent

This week I plan to tell Mary's story as the angel announces God's plan to her. It is an almost low key conversation that she has with the angel. "This is what God plans to do?" the angel says to her. In her blunt way she asks, "How is it possible?" The angel reminds her that with God all things are possible. She accepts. Most of us would be ranting and raging and saying "Not me! Anyone but me!" She simply accepts that God is calling her to be the God bearer. I wonder, am I able to affirm as Mary did the wonderful news that Christ is with us?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Third Sunday of Advent, Year B

Dare To Rejoice!

Readings: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Magnificat; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

The hopeful news of Advent is that in the midst of suffering, oppression and persecution, God is faithful. God is faithful to the promises of the covenant. God is faithful to believers. God is actively faithful in a world in need of freedom, justice and peace. That is cause for great rejoicing. Perhaps not the kind of rejoicing that we see happening all around us at this time of year. The weeks and days leading up to Christmas are filled with joyful occasions – parties, Santa Claus parades, concerts, casual get-togethers. It becomes difficult to distinguish the good news of Advent hope from the holiday hype. Surely the challenge of the season is to clear enough space amid the frantic pace of life as we shop till we drop to the hum of “muzak” coming over the PA system to know the joy that is at the heart of Advent.

Today is known as “Gaudete” Sunday. “Dare to rejoice” Sunday! It is there in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. “Rejoice always!” he says to the persecuted believers in Thessalonica. What strange advice to give to people in the midst of hostility. But, as one who has endured suffering, Paul knows so well that it is not about feeling ecstatic, about being on cloud nine, but about the joy that rises quietly from within, from one’s personal trust in God and from the sense that God is with us. That is true joy, for it happens even when circumstances are difficult. It is a joy that comes even in the midst of deep suffering.

In his joy, the prophet Isaiah sings a hymn filled with images of great hope to the people of Israel. They were returning to their homeland after a long period of exile. They faced the inevitable task of rebuilding their cities and communities. It would be a formidable task. Yet they brought with them skills and expertise. They brought passion for their homeland. They had all the material things they needed to rebuild their lives. What they lacked was the spiritual dimension. They had lost their sense of covenant, their connection to God. They had lost their faith. They needed the prophetic word to be shared so that faith and hope could be restored.

In many ways our current world situation is similar. These are difficult times in which we live. You cannot turn on the news without hearing about tumbling markets and loss of jobs. It is a world-wide crisis. For most of us that means prioritizing. It means putting aside things we want and choosing instead the things that we need. It means finding a way to pay off our debts and learning to live within our means. For others it means real hardship. We hear every day about lay offs and closures. It hits every sector of the economy. Many may wonder what there is to hope for. Where is the joy?

There are places in the world where people are living without hope. It distresses me to read in the newspaper about the beautiful people of Zimbabwe and how they are suffering. Imagine an inflation rate eighteen digits long! I cannot even say the number. Then consider living in a country with the highest rate of AIDS infection in the world. Add a cholera epidemic, the closing of hospitals whose doctors have not been paid in months, and constant water shortages. Our world needs to hear and heed the prophetic voice.

So often, Advent is a forgotten season. It gets lost in the busyness and rush and commercialism of Christmas. It needs to be different, particularly this year. As Christians, we have something important to share with a world in crisis. We know and have experienced that when we find joy and peace, when we turn to God in our grief and sorrow, we are able to face the storms of life. We cannot be grateful for the terrible and ugly things that happen. But we can dare to rejoice. We can dare to rejoice with confidence that God’s promises will be kept. We can rejoice with the assurance that God is not the author of such things. They pain God. God’s will is to be present with us in all that we do; not to change it, but to be there. Emmanuel, God is with us. And so we do indeed dare to rejoice. We demonstrate our trust through rejoicing, through prayer, and through thankfulness for all that God has done in our lives.

Once again the Gospel focuses on the great prophetic figure of John the Baptist, one who dared to rejoice at the coming of the Saviour. His was not an easy task. He uses the words of Isaiah to describe his vocation, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’.” There is in those words a poignant sense of loneliness. God has called him to a task which alienates him from society. He feels alone and at odds with the world.

As a Christian in a secular society, I often feel as if I am a voice alone crying in the wilderness. As my mother always used to say, “It’s like talking to the walls.” When we speak out about issues we are seen as fanatical or eccentric. Yet giving voice to the voiceless is clearly the call of the gospel.

I think we all begin to feel as if we cannot make ourselves heard or understood. It becomes especially difficult at this time of year. For this holy time in our church year is a time which is celebrated by the secular world, but without any real understanding of what is being celebrated. They don’t even listen to the message. They simply dismiss it. The Christmas tree is simply a festive decoration. Carols are not sung if they are too religious.

But amazingly even when Christmas is completely secularized the image of the mother and the child in the manger never really disappears. It appeals to people. They like the feelings of joy and happiness surrounding Christmas. They appreciate the warm 'fuzzies'. They greet each other in a different way. They like the sense of celebration. It may even get them out to church, although they’ll probably complain at how crowded it is. They like the giving and receiving of gifts. It is a time of outreach to the poor and to those in need as people loosen their purse strings. And for a little while the world is a better place, although we know that those feelings will not last.

The reason that does not happen is that it is not rooted in God’s call to service. For those who honour our king do not know him. It is to be sure, an acknowledgement. But it is mere lip service. That can be discouraging, even disillusioning. Or it can bring us to a clearer understanding of the call of the gospel. We are called to reach out with the gospel message. Although we may feel like a voice crying out in the wilderness, we are not alone. God is with us. Let that transform our actions during this approach Christmas. Dare to rejoice during this holy season, “For the spirit of God is upon us”. Christ is born in us.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Second Sunday of Advent, Year B

Our Advent Journey

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a, 18; Mark 1:1-8

Antonio Machado, a famous Spanish poet wrote the following poem, which became a song during the struggle for independence in Chile.

Wanderer, your footsteps are
The road and nothing more;
Wanderer, there is no road,
The road is made by walking.
By walking one makes the road,
And upon glancing behind
One sees the path
That never will be trod again.
Wanderer, there is no road--
Only wakes upon the sea.

As Christians we follow an unknown path that leads us into new ways of being. There is always tension as we search out new directions. Life is like that. Just when we think that we are at the end of the road, we discover a twist or a turn or a fork that leads us in new directions. Into new beginnings!

We think that our children are lost to us, and we discover that they are simply looking for independence, that they are becoming adults. We think that we have lost a friend, and we find that it has turned from a dependency into a mutual friendship that will carry us through our whole life. We think that our parish is in a state of decline, and then we see signs of new, fresh leadership. We see energy and deep spiritual growth. We are in awe of the faith that we see in one another. We look at the world around us. We witness violent terrorist acts. “Surely,” we say, “these are the end times.” And as we are thinking that civilization is about to crumble before our very eyes, we hear about acts of great compassion. And as we worry about the economic climate in our country and throughout the world wondering where it will all end, we open our hearts in generosity so that no one will go without.

And hopefully through all the twists and turns of life we remember that God offers grace, comfort and guidance on the road. We are offered such hope in God’s promises. That is the message of Advent, for it is a season of new beginnings, a season of hope, a season of new found faith, a season of joy.

Isaiah offers the people of Israel a message of hope and comfort. He reminds them of God’s promises. They will return home and God will be with them. God is bigger than all the suffering they have endured. God remains faithful and strong. They are to prepare the way through the wilderness as they might for any monarch. The exiles will return to Jerusalem on a straight and level road. “You can depend on the promises of God,” Isaiah tells them. “God will be there with you, leading, guiding, comforting. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” What a message of hope it is! It touches the very depth of human longing and hope.

The early Christians found themselves travelling a new and strange road. They had expected the imminent return of Jesus. When it did not happen, they found their hopes and dreams of a kingdom of shalom shattered. Peter told them that the delay was part of God’s plan. God wants the whole of creation to be transformed. He challenges them to prepare themselves for the day when Christ will come again. Can we hear in his message that the promise of God is for transformation? We are to be a transformed and transforming people. We are to seek peace by being reconciled to one another and working for economic and political justice. It is through us that the kingdom of God will become a reality.

In the Gospel we hear the call to change direction on the road of life. We hear the challenge of John the Baptist calling us to repentance, to a new way of living our lives. John offers repentance as the way of entering into the kingdom. He points beyond himself, offering hope through renewal of right relationship with God. It is a call to change focus, to literally turn our lives around. It is a call to faith.

How do we answer that call? Do we all really need conversion? I believe myself that the answer to that is yes. But I do not for one moment think that we all experience conversion in the same way. We often think of conversion as a sudden transformation, a flash of insight, a moment of enlightenment or awakening. And that can be the case. For some people, there is a definite and distinct time in their lives when they experience God's call in a new and life changing way.

I suspect that for most people in church this morning, conversion has been a lifetime process, a lifetime of following God, a lifetime of commitment to the Gospel. For such people, conversion is a quiet recognition of how God continues to work in their lives. I know that if I look back on my own life I cannot find a time when I was not a Christian. There are low times when I wondered if God cared. There are also times when I had mountain top experiences. There have been times along the way that I can only describe as 'aha' moments when God gave me insights that deepened my experience and strengthened my faith.

What we all need is an authentic faith that we claim as our own. I think for that to happen we must have a sense that something is, not necessarily wrong, but that something is missing from our lives. Then we need a glimpse of who we are meant to be. That happens in many ways and at many times in our lives if we let it. It demands openness, honesty, integrity, and above all, courage. It means working at it. It means spending time in study, in examining our way of living, in committing as much time and energy to the spiritual dimensions of our lives as we do to the secular.

No matter at what stage of our Christian life we may be, there is possible a deeper encounter with the Christ who waits to enter our experience. So be prepared to search. Be open to the possibilities. Each discovery takes us deeper. It becomes a new beginning, a new birth, as Christ is born in us.

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 ...