Friday, February 27, 2009

The First Sunday of Lent, Year B


New Beginnings

Readings: Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

During this Lent we are using a program called "Ashes to Easter". It focuses on the symbols of Lent that prepare us for Easter. They are signs of our Baptismal Covenant that speak to us of our commitment to God.

Spring is a new beginning. Long before we see the signs of new life that tell us that winter is past, the earth is beginning to prepare itself for spring. Already we are seeing signs of that new beginning. Days are beginning to lengthen. Soon the signs will become more tangible – new colour, new life, warmth. And along with the beginnings of new life will come also the violence that accompanies re-birth. Rivers will fill with rushing water. There will be the inevitable springtime thunderstorms.

Our human experience of new beginnings also carries with it both the gentleness and the turmoil of spring. Both are necessary to produce new life, new growth. With all the wintry weather we have been experiencing it may not feel as if spring is close, but Lent is the Church’s springtime. It is the time for us to be reborn in gentleness and violence to the new life in Christ.

New beginnings are exciting. I think of some of my own new beginnings. I grew up in the hustle and bustle of the inner city of Toronto. There has always been a comfort for me in being surrounded by tall buildings. The noises of the city, the rumbling of cars and streetcars, factory noises, are all a natural part of my world.

How different my life became when, at seventeen, I moved up north to begin a teaching assignment at an Indian Residential School on James Bay. There were so many new experiences. Flying for the first time, my first class of children, experiencing a new culture, learning to drive a skidoo, a canoe trip up the Fort George River! The night sky lit up with stars! The northern lights dancing with beautiful colour! The howl of the wolves that was enough to raise the hair on the back of my neck!

New beginnings involve risk. They call us from our familiar, comfortable world into a strange and unfamiliar one. We can feel isolated, alone and unsupported as we embark on a new venture or relationship. It is difficult to see where it all may lead. My early teaching experience certainly had its storms. I was living in isolation far away from family and friends. During ‘freeze up’ and ‘break up’ no planes could get into our northern community so for weeks on end we had no contact with the outside world. I was working with small children taken away from their homes and families and cultures. I left home barely three weeks after the tragic death of my younger brother.

The story of Noah and the flood is an epic story of a new beginning. In the beginning God created the world. God created it out of goodness. But evil entered into the world. From the destructive waters of the flood God began over again. God entered into a covenant relationship with Noah. Covenant helps us to understand that a creating God not only brings us into existence, but also enters into relationship with us. It breaks down the barriers between God and humanity giving meaning and hope to our existence. The rainbow becomes a symbol of our solidarity with God and all of creation. It is an intuitive association and one that requires our reflective thought.

Mark tells us about a new beginning in Jesus' life. His baptism in the Jordan marked for him the beginning of his earthly ministry. Privacy ends, public life begins. It marks too a covenant relationship between him and God. It is a point of intersection, a meeting of heaven and earth. “You are my Son, the Beloved,” God tells him. The Spirit of God enters him enabling him for what lies ahead. It is for Jesus as it would be for any of us, a time of decision, of pressure, of anxiety.

How do we make a new beginning in our spiritual life? Baptism is a new beginning for us. The symbol of baptism is water, and so today you see along with ashes from Ash Wednesday, a fountain of water. It is a reminder of the place of water in our lives. Water is at the centre of our lives. We are born out of it. We are sustained by it. We drink it. We swim in it. We wash in it. The power of water is mighty, sometimes gentle, and always mysterious. As a mighty force it extinguishes fire and generates electricity. In its gentle flow it cleanses and heals. As a symbol of our Christian faith it is a reminder of our baptismal covenant. We go down into the water to die to sin. We come out to new life. It is a watershed moment in our lives as we make a decision to follow Christ. It is a watershed moment as we enter into relationship with God. It is a watershed moment as we recognize the Spirit of God at work in our lives. But there is also risk at entering the water. It is a time to let go, to lose control, to become vulnerable.

“But I was just a child when I was baptized,” you may be thinking. And there does come a point in our spiritual lives when we will want to renew that covenant with God. Whenever there is a baptism we are given such an opportunity. Many people experience times of renewed commitment through a time of retreat, a conference, a Lenten series, or a renewal movement. We need to experience times of change and growth. They may be times of great joy, the birth of a child, a new relationship. Often it happens because of the turbulence of life, times of disaster, or uncertainty, a death in the family, a move, changing jobs, unemployment, sickness, and retirement. All are opportunities to draw closer to God, opportunities for spiritual growth and recommitment.

Lent offers us an opportunity to renew our baptismal covenant, an opportunity to develop our relationship with God. For Lent is a time of self-examination, of checking our focus, of sorting our priorities. It is a time to reflect on God's promises and to recognize our failure to live up to our part of the relationship. It is a time to begin anew, through repentance, through seeking God's guidance, through struggle, and through renewed commitment. It is a time to seek God's guidance. Hopefully we begin to rely on God. May it be a time of renewal and hope!

Lent is a time for a new beginning. We are invited to reconsider our baptismal covenant and rededicate ourselves to a continuing conversion. We are called to begin again to enter into the death-resurrection process. We do not know where this new beginning will take us, but together we enter into a journey from ashes to Easter.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Ash Wednesday

Ashes to Ashes

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, is named for its primary symbol. Using ashes as a symbol of penitence is a custom which goes back over a thousand years and has its basis in Hebrew Scriptures. While we share in a very ancient ceremony, ashes have real meaning in our modern day world. What images emerge for you as you think of ashes? Perhaps it is the image of the World Trade Centre in the aftermath of the terrorist attack as Manhattan was blanketed with dust. Perhaps it is the devastation caused by the war in Afghanistan. Perhaps you see in your mind’s eye a picture of a child lying in a hospital bed, limbs blown apart by a bomb. Perhaps it is the image of our city blanketed in smog, the result of our careless stewardship of the earth’s resources.

Whatever the image, it is a symbol of death. Ashes remind us of the fragility of life, of how tenuous our lives really are. We may think back to the funeral of a loved one. “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” we say at the committal as we toss the first handful of earth onto the casket. It is a stark reminder that we are committing the person who has died into God’s care. As we hear the words today as that smudge of ash is placed on our forehead, we are reminded that God created us from the dust of the earth and in death we return to that dust. And so today we are called to wear a symbol of our mortality right on our faces in plain view.

Given the world in which we live, given the ashen weight of the world’s pain and terror, ashes may be the last symbol we want to embrace. Why do we do this? Why do we begin our Lenten journey in this way?

Lent is a season of penitence. As the prophet Joel called the people of Israel to repentance, so we are called to repentance. They faced the devastation of a locust plague. They felt totally helpless. They saw only death and destruction around them. Joel called them to acknowledge that despite all appearances to the contrary, God was in control. He called on them to show God in some tangible way that they trusted in God’s promises, that they trusted that in the midst of death and devastation God would be with them. The people showed their faith by fasting and mourning. They rose above the ashes of their lives. The ashes of their fasting and mourning became a symbol of hope.

So it should be for us. That smudge of ash on our forehead is a symbol, not only of death and destruction. It is also a symbol of hope. Ash Wednesday offers us the grace to examine our lives with a sense of honesty. It challenges us to admit to our own sinfulness. How have we been complicit in the devastation around us? How has our sinfulness contributed to the brokenness of the world? More importantly, what are we going to do about it?

Lent is an opportunity to admit to ourselves that something is wrong with us, individually and collectively. On our own we will never fix everything. But as a community we can get down on our knees in prayer. We can resolve to begin anew. We can resolve to ask God’s forgiveness for our complicity in the state of the world. We can ask God’s grace in moving ahead, in accepting forgiveness. We can remind ourselves throughout these forty days through prayer, fasting, and study that we are determined to make things right.

Lent means springtime. The hope of Lent is that spring is coming. How do we bring hope to this day? A little Koala bear, affectionately named Sam, rather bewildered and quite badly burned emerged from the ashes of the bushfire in Australia. He became a beacon of hope in the midst of the devastation. A volunteer firefighter came across Sam cowering in a burned out section of the forest. He approached the terrified animal, offering it a drink of water. He talked gently to the animal until it trusted him enough to put a paw on his hand and begin to drink from his plastic bottle. The animal was taken into care and its burns treated. Another picture emerged. That of Sam recovering from his burns lying in a cage, another koala with a protective arm around him.

That is a good image for us of this season that begins with the ashes of Ash Wednesday, takes us to the devastation of the cross, and then to the glory of the Resurrection. Thanks be to God.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Seventh Sunday of Epiphany, Year B

And God said "Yes!"

Readings: Isaiah 43:18-25; Psalm 41: 2 Corinthians 1:18-22; Mark 2:1-12

CTV news interviewed a Hockey Coach and the Team Captain of a winning Peewee team earlier this week. The team won without one penalty through the whole season. In fact, they were able to use their sense of fair play to their advantage. They attribute their win to their good sportsmanship. While the opposing team had players sitting in the penalty box they went on to score goals. The young team captain had an amazing sense of self. It was his proud smile that said it all for me. I can imagine him on the ice, making a triumphant gesture with his arm. “Yes! There! That is how it is supposed to be done! That was our very best!”

I can imagine God making such gestures as Jesus goes about healing, touching, forgiving. “Yes!” says God as Jesus reaches out to heal a blind man. “Yes!” says God, as a leper is cleansed. “Yes!” says God as yet another sinner receives forgiveness.

Yet I know that there are many times when we find it difficult to imagine God as really saying “Yes!” at all. We have a very negative view of God. We see God constantly saying “No!” to us. “Does God answer prayer?” we question. “After all, I prayed for healing for my friend when she got cancer, and she died.” “I asked God to help me get a new job, and I am still pounding the pavement.” But you know, God throughout history has affirmed humanity. God’s “yes,” affirms the possibilities there are for us in our personal lives and as a church. So how do we begin to hear God’s “yes”?

It starts by hearing God say “yes” to forgiveness. God’s “yes” is that God will not remember our sin. God will forget the past so that we can be open to the future. What a wonderful gift of grace that is! Isaiah reminded the people of Israel that it was God’s gift to them. “Don’t forget God’s saving acts from the past,” Isaiah says to them. ‘Forget the disasters that have happened. Don’t dwell on the past. Take responsibility for what has happened. But rely on God. Remember what God has done. God gave you manna in the desert. Water gushed from a rock! Remember what God has promised. Let your past experience of God carry you through your present difficulties.’

Paul too knew that we can depend on God’s affirmation. Circumstances had arisen and Paul had cancelled a scheduled visit to Corinth. The people were none too pleased to have received a letter instead of a personal visit. They saw it as a breach of trust. Paul reminds the Corinthians that it not about trusting him, but about trusting God. Paul is following God’s plan for his ministry. He never really answers their objection. ‘I don’t see a problem in changing my plans,’ he seems to be saying. ‘I did it to be faithful to God so that God can work in and through me.’ He has that sense of assurance that what he is doing is fulfilling God’s call. As far as Paul is concerned, God is saying “Yes!”

God said “Yes!” to the paralytic. It was not simply about healing. Forgiveness was the real gift. This is someone who didn’t even have the resources to get to Jesus himself. Even with the help of his friends he couldn’t get in the normal way. He couldn’t get through the crowded doorway. His faithful friends didn’t give up on him. They found a way, a pretty drastic way! They cut a hole in the roof and lowered him to Jesus on his bed.

What a great gift Jesus gave to the paralytic! “Your sins are forgiven,” he told him. What a great gift God gives us! “Your sins are forgiven,” God tells us over and over again. Wiped clean! Erased! A new beginning! A clean slate!

It is, after all, a common metaphor to link paralysis and guilt. That is not because we think that paralysis is caused by sin. It is because guilt can be like a paralysis in our lives. It can keep us from feeling truly free. It can keep us from realizing God’s continuous love and forgiveness. It is by freeing ourselves from that paralysis, by accepting God’s forgiveness that we are freed from all that paralyzes us. Then we can look back and see how God has been at work in our lives, how God has been saying “Yes!” We can look back and recognize the times when God has been most with us. We can remember the times that we have called out to God for help. It needs to be the ground of our belief that God will continue to be with us.

Forgiveness has to be the most difficult gift for anyone to really take in and accept. Let’s face it! Even on a human level it is pretty difficult to simply accept graciously. There is an episode of “Dharma and Greg” that illustrates that beautifully. Dharma says to Greg, “OK, let’s make up.”

“What?” says Greg.

“I’m done arguing. Let’s make up,” she says.

“But we haven’t resolved anything. Nobody won,” he says.

“Good point! You win.”

“But you can’t just do that!” he says.

“OK. I win.”

“No, you don’t!” replies Greg.

“Boy, you really love to argue, don’t you?” Dharma says to him.

“I do not.”

“Then stop it,” she says.

“But we’re not done yet.”

“Yes we are.”

“No we’re not.”

“I love you!” says Dharma.

“What?”

“I … love … you.”

“Oh man, you really don’t play by the rules, do you?” says Greg.

“Nope!”

Greg kisses her, “I love you, too.”

God doesn’t play by the rules. God doesn’t worry about whose fault it is. God loves us enough to simply to forgive us and to keep on forgiving. God’s “yes” comes when we finally get it, when we accept God’s forgiveness, accept God’s wholeness and move on in our lives. You are forgiven. You are healed. You are free. You are my children. Let us affirm God’s “yes” to us because we can be sure of it.

Monday, February 16, 2009

It's a Girl!



The adoption of Meaghie went through this afternoon. She is a Bichon Frise rescue, almost five years old. She and Gemma hit it off right away. She a very sweet but rather shy little girl.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B (Proper 6)

Winning the Race

Readings: 2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45

The strenuous effort of gospel labour and its single-minded purpose leads Paul to a comparison with athletic competition. It makes sense if you think about it. Athletics was important to the Graeco-Roman world to whom he was writing. This is the culture which gave us the Olympics.

And so he says to them, “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize. Run in such a way that you may win it.” It is a unique way of looking at our spiritual life. It is a unique way of looking at the way we do church. Competition certainly takes place, but it does not seem to me that it is the way to holiness. It usually focuses on the number of people in the pews or whether or not we have met our expenses. So what do we take away from this passage of Scripture? What is its message as we hold our annual Vestry meeting?

The news this past week has focused on the Olympics to take place a year from now. On my day off I was fascinated to listen to an interview with Peter Jensen. He is a performance psychologist who works to prepare teams for the Olympics. His job is not to improve their technical skills, but to prepare them mentally to perform their best.

He has taken his coaching skills and applied them to life, and particularly at this time of economic down sizing, to searching for a job. “Everything starts with the way that you look at the world,” he says. You need to understand what your personal biases or slants about the world are, and be true to them, in order to make the best decisions about the direction your career can take. It might be nature or nurture or life experiences. It really doesn't matter. Once you know that about yourself, you can start to make choices."

He goes on to explain that so often our perceptions about ourselves are influenced by external factors – our friends, family members, bosses, mentors. In order to be successful we need to understand how we have been affected by the views of others.

Right on the heels of listening to the interview I went out to do some grocery shopping. The cashier, a young woman barely out of her teens was serving the customer before me, another young woman. They were deep in conversation about their future. “I’d love to be a doctor,” she said to her friend, “but I know it will never happen. I doubt that I could even become a nurse.” Her friend commiserated with her.

As she was checking my groceries, I asked her about the conversation. “Why do you feel so doubtful that you will become a doctor?” She had a long list of her shortcomings, all to do with other people’s perceptions. I said to her, “Do you really want to be a doctor?” She told me that as long as she could remember it had been her dream. “I think you should pursue it,” I said to her. And I shared with her a little of how I had felt leaving the comfort and security of teaching to change careers, and yet how rewarding it had been to achieve something I had dreamed of my whole life. She thanked me for my words. She said, “I listen too much to what other people think. I really do think that I could do it.”

Then it led me to consider my spiritual goals. Do I have markers that help me to understand how far I have come? Is there some intentionality in my approach to my spiritual life? Am I deliberate in my study? Paul, servant of Christ, apostle, evangelist, is considering how he might be disqualified even though he has been proclaiming the gospel. What would cause me to be disqualified? Would it be my failure to ask for forgiveness? Would it be my failure to rise from defeat? Would it be listening to the negativity of those around me?

And then I started thinking about our Vestry. Once again, do we have markers that help us to understand how far we have come? I certainly do. This parish has come so far. I used to be in fear and trembling when I heard from the Diocese, because it was bound to be about how far behind we were in our assessment. How different it was to receive a phone call this past week in which we were congratulated on our excellent stewardship! We need to celebrate our achievement.

We have a wonderful marker on the back wall of our church. The apple tree banner is an amazing reminder of the hours and hours of dedicated work that has taken place over this past year. What is more, it is a work in progress. By the end of our Vestry meeting, there will be new names to put up on the banner as people take on the work of the church.

Perhaps the hardest aspect of our life together to understand as a competition is in assessing our spiritual goals. If we are only thinking about the business of the church, meeting our expenses and so on, then will we find ourselves disqualified? If we set ourselves up in competition with other churches, are we furthering the kingdom of God? What kind of competition do we need to pursue?

What if we simply strive to be the best Christians we can be? What kind of a church would this be if we put all our effort into being as loving as we can be? What if we put our effort into the practice of prayer? What if we put our effort into being inviting and open to our community?

For me that is probably the most important way forward. I want to share a simple project with you that I hope we will put into practice this year. It won’t cost us a lot of money. It is something in which we can all participate. It is called “Back to Church Sunday.” (Show PowerPoint presentation)

Let us compete with one another to make people feel at home in our community. Let us be open and willing to share the good news that God is in the midst of us. Let us proclaim Christ as Lord of our lives. Amen

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Fifth Sunday of Epiphany, Year B



This Sunday we are celebrating Black Heritage at St. Francis. It is a yearly event. We have special music, a pannist as well as our worship team musicians, a drummer and an augmented choir. Our deacon, The Rev. Vernal Savage is preaching. The best part of it all is the amazing potluck that follows the service.

The picture is our Youth Choir from a previous year.

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...