Friday, March 27, 2009

The Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B

We Wish to See Jesus

Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

Jesus is in Jerusalem. There are all kinds of people around him in this Cosmopolitan city. They no doubt hear stories about him. They witness his remarkable deeds. One day some Greeks come to Philip. His name is Greek, after all. “Sir, we would like to see Jesus,” they say to him. Philip doesn’t know quite how to handle it. It is not the simple request that it might seem to us. It is a turning point, a watershed. The Greeks are a far greater danger to the Jewish community than the Romans. They consider the Jewish way of life to be very strange. Their culture in itself is a threat to Jewish belief and lifestyle. Yet here they are, wanting to find out more about Jesus.

Jesus' response to them is a strange one. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,” he tells them, “it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Then he goes on to tell them of all the hardships that they will face as Christians. Serving him is not going to be an easy route through life. He knows the road that lies ahead, a road of pain and suffering. If they plan to be disciples of Jesus they must be prepared to suffer and even die for their faith.

Most of us, even those of us who purport to have faith, who attend church regularly, don’t wish to see Jesus. We are too busy making ends meet, raising our families, and trying to make sense of the terrible things that are going on in our world to even give it a thought. We get out to church; we may even attend regularly, but somehow it doesn’t make a difference in our lives. Hearing that it may involve pain and suffering, that real faith will come at great cost, would have us running as quickly as possible in the other direction.

We do recognize the problems that the Christian faith faces in our cultural climate. We mourn the decline in the Christian faith. Yet we spend far more time grappling with how to close churches than with how to fill them. The so-called 'Generation X' is largely unchurched and sees little need to change that. When they do actually reach out and try to find their way into our churches, they are met with barriers that we have erected. We speak what might as well be a foreign language. There’s the BAS and the BCP and the ACW and PWRDF and the ACC and ELCIC. We have strange customs; we make the sign of the cross or wear crosses as jewellery around our necks, we dress up in strange-looking clothing, and we sometimes use incense. Our music seldom sounds anything like what we might hear on the radio. We may even appear to be unfriendly or uncaring. No wonder many see the Church as irrelevant. Even when it comes to the field of ethics, which should certainly be our domain, many no longer look to the Church as leaders in making moral decisions. Most people wouldn’t think of asking to see Jesus.

Yet we need to see Jesus more than ever before. The mark of our day is alienation. People feel alone, isolated. The family is no longer the strong social unit it once was. Lines of communication so easily break down. Research into family life came up with the statistic that the average couple probably spends between nine and twelve minutes a day in meaningful conversation. There was a cartoon recently in the paper. The whole Johnson family was sitting raptly watching television. At the end of the program they turned it off reflecting how wonderful it was to spend some real family time. Don’t we joke about whom in the family operates the remote control on the TV? We probably consider that it is about who has power in a relationship, but I suspect it is really an indicator of how little we communicate with one another. Far more time is spent in passive activities like watching television than in intimate conversation with one another. If we don’t find time to talk to one another, we certainly don’t find time to talk to God.

We have lost our sense of community. Our anonymous society locks itself behind closed doors. Unless you have children or a dog, you probably don’t even know your neighbours. It is easy to say that you love your neighbour if you never have to deal with them. Yet to be human is to seek the strength and support that comes from being part of a community. Companionship is a human need.

The mark of our day may be alienation, but the mark of the Christian Church is community. We gather Sunday by Sunday to break bread together. It is at the heart of what we do. There is a miracle that happens whenever we share our bread or ourselves with others. Bread symbolizes the life of the many who work together to produce it. We are sustained and nurtured by bread. It symbolizes our life, Christ’s body. We are all fed by the same holy bread. We all become that which we eat, the Body of Christ. In the breaking of the bread we see Jesus.

Jeremiah was a prophet during the time leading up to the Babylonian exile. It was a crucial time in the history of the people of Israel. He tried to warn them of impending disaster. They obviously did not want to hear any bad news. They threw him into prison for saying that the Babylonians would defeat them in battle. Even in prison he did not lose hope. He remembered the covenant that God had made with his people; he looked forward to a better time, a time of spiritual renewal. A time when the covenant would be written, not on stone tablets, but in the hearts of the people. A time when they would be a real community of faith. When God would "be their God, and they would be God's people."

What a community of faith that would be! Imagine that every member of our congregation is in a deep relationship with God. Can you even imagine what that would mean to our church? We would be a community that trusted in God. We would live out our faith in our everyday lives. We would come together week by week and be fed and nurtured by the Word of God; then we would go out as the Church back to our homes, into the workplace, into our communities, into the world. We would be a community reaching out in faith to a needy world. We would be instruments of transformation. We would see Jesus.

Are there times when Jesus cannot be seen because of the way we present him? Are there times when we are not really looking? Do we want Jesus to fit our preconceived notions of who God is? Our lifestyle? Are we so set in our rigid patterns of worship that we become unintelligible to the uninitiated? Are we so tied to a book or a way of doing things or our own needs that we fail to let someone in to see Christ? Are we so afraid of being the wheat that we live death instead of life? Everything we do as a church is done so that we will see Jesus , in our own lives and in the lives of others. It comes as a longing inside our minds and hearts. It comes as a hunger that simply won’t go away. It comes as we journey to the foot of the cross, for we must be willing to see Jesus as the one who died and rose again, the one who accepts and who empowers.

There must be no foreigners when it comes to following Christ. There must be no 'them' and 'us'. We must be a welcoming community of faith. When someone comes seeking, we must simply do what we do in our own homes, open the door and invite them in. If we need to, we must expand the table, add a leaf, lay some more places, find some more chairs, become truly inclusive. But more than that, we must become the kind of community that reaches out beyond itself. We must be sharers of this wonderful faith.

We must seek Christ in others, and let Christ be seen in us. Let us be renewed in the Spirit this Lent.

Open our eyes Lord,
we want to see Jesus.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B

God's Gift of Love

Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

Many of us studying Theology at Trinity had unique ways of making ends meet. But Helen surely outdid the rest of us. We were always excited to hear a message come for her over the PA. "Helen! Your package has arrived." Then we would all rush to the Buttery - that's what the cafeteria at Trinity is called - to hear the latest installment. You see Helen edited Harlequin romances. I had never read one, deeming them unworthy of my time, but I must admit some fascination for them after her sharing so many with us. In fact, I found many of the stories touching. There is, after all, something universally appealing about a love story.

Being loved is always a surprise. The very fact that someone chooses to love us is exciting. It supports us in what we do. It gives us new insight into our value as a human. Even when we recognize our self worth, being loved is still a startling experience. "Are we worthy of such devotion?" we wonder. "Will it last?"

It is no wonder then, that being loved by God comes as a great surprise to us. Paul says that we are created in Christ for good works. God has crafted us in God's very image. We are "works of art", part of a great masterpiece crafted by a genius artist. How hard it is to take in just how great that love is! Yet there it is. How much does God love us? God loves us enough to have crafted us in that wonderful likeness. Not one mold, but each one of us uniquely wonderful! Each part of God's plan! What love that is! Not some Harlequin Romance kind of love, but genuine and real, the kind of love that resulted in a work of love so great that it is beyond our imagination.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life." That is amazing love! A free gift! A love totally unmerited by us! The ultimate example of love! It is the pattern and model of the kind of love that we, as Christians, are called to show in our lives. And it is offered to every one of us.

Lent is a time to reflect on God's great love. Yet love offered is not necessarily love accepted. The suitor can be spurned. We can say yes or no. And yes! There is a personal cost for the gift. Loving always comes at a cost to self. For the love so freely given to us, calls us in turn to come into relationship with our loving God, and to reach out in love to our neighbour.

Paul takes every opportunity to help us to understand that salvation is a free gift from God, a love gift. It is not something we have earned. It is not something we deserve. It is grace, freely given. He also emphasizes that, free though it may be, it is not without cost. Opening ourselves to the gift of God's love means that we cannot avoid the experience of the cross. Opening ourselves to the gift of God's love means opening ourselves to the possibility of suffering and to the probability of great joy.

We just don't expect that in our lives. When we choose to follow Christ, we expect that it will mean an end to suffering. That it will mean that somehow we have tapped in to a magical way of avoiding anything bad happening. It will all work out like the Harlequin romance where every story has its happy ending.

The people of Israel thought that to follow in God's way would mean an end to suffering and tragedy. They discovered differently. As the time in the wilderness went on and on, they began to see that, just because it's free, does not mean it is without cost. "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?" they railed at Moses. "There is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food."

What they are saying is that the manna which God has provided, the free gift of God's grace, is not enough. They expected more.

Are we ever like them? Do we lose patience on the way to the Promised Land? It simply does not happen fast enough for us. Or the way we expected it to. We live in a society that expects instant gratification. We have a sense of entitlement to all the good things in life. We expect to have everything and to have it all now! We don't expect to continue to find ourselves wandering in the desert. We don't expect to meet with adversity. We don’t expect to meet with trouble, sorrow, or hardship along the way.

The cross for the Christian is a sign of contradiction. What was once a sign of infamy and disgrace becomes a sign of vulnerability and love, the great love of a great God. The contradiction also arises because it came about through the sacrifice of Christ. It comes about through suffering, but without it there can be no resurrection. The cross, a symbol of death, is for the Christian a symbol of wholeness, of new life, of resurrection.

"When I am lifted up from the earth,” Jesus says in the Gospel, “I shall draw all people to myself." Moses lifted up the brass serpent in the wilderness, and all those who looked at it were healed. Jesus was lifted up. All who believed were given eternal life. The cross is a call to wholeness in Christ. Belief in the crucified Lord calls us to repentance and healing. It calls us to respond, to respond with love for our neighbour. Not the neighbour I choose to love. Not the one whose culture and race match mine, but the one God calls me to serve.
My neighbour is the addicted, the perverted, the selfish, the corrupted. My neighbour is the one of another faith. My neighbour is the one person whom I just cannot stand. Our great God, who gave us such amazing love, calls us to extend that love to others. Through service we fulfill our call.

The realization that we are really loved by God is difficult to grasp. Yet the signs of God's love are all around us. The humanity of Christ is God's fullest sign of love for us. That Christ should live and die as one of us is truly an amazing sign. If we believe it, this sign should support, thrill, excite, and re-create us, for we are truly loved.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Third Sunday of Lent, Year B

Passionate Living

Readings: Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Corinthians 1:22-25; John 2:13-22

We are part of a broken world. How evident that is as we read in the newspaper about war and conflict. Just to name a few of the terrible situations faced by people in our world, there is Darfur which has seen some 350,000 people killed and another 1.8 million displaced. There is the Civil War in Sri Lanka. There is the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. There is the situation in Gaza. Peace and diplomacy so often fail to resolve conflict. What is the Christian way to view what is happening? How can God’s word speak to us in the midst of turmoil?

The Ten Commandments, God's covenant with Israel, speak to us at every level of human experience. They speak to us as individuals, as community, and as nation. They are moral guides to our growth as people who live in communion with one another and all of creation. They cover all aspects of life. They are summarized for the Christian in Jesus’ call to us to love God, and to love neighbour.

If we take the Ten Commandments seriously – and I certainly trust we do – we must surely be asking ourselves some difficult questions about the way we live our lives. What gods do we put before God? Where do we put all of our energies? In placing our energies, do we leave time for God? Are there any discrepancies between what we profess as Christians and how we act towards others? How do we keep Sunday holy when society demands that we work? What injustices do we see going on around us? Are we willing to speak out against them? Are we willing to do something about them? In this consumer society of ours, which causes us to covet from cradle to grave, do we stand up to the desires of the world and put God and neighbour before our own needs? The command to love God and love neighbour makes us responsible for the world in which we live. We are responsible to help those who live in poverty. It is our responsibility to care for the sick, to live in peace, to live out our ministry as servants in a broken world.

This is a time for passionate living. The symbol for this third Sunday in our Lenten series is fire. It gives light and heat. It can create atmosphere in a room. It purifies and refines. It can also destroy. The bush fires this year in Australia which destroyed animal habitat, people’s homes and even their lives are a testimony to that. Fire describes anger and revenge. It also describes love and devotion. For us during this Lenten season, fire is a symbol of the burning away of the old self. The mystery of fire brought the Hebrews to associate God’s presence with fire. Moses first encounter with God was through a burning bush. The people of Israel were led through the wilderness by a “pillar of fire”. As Christians it symbolizes the Spirit of God among us. At Pentecost, the Spirit descended as tongues of fire on the people of God. Fire symbolizes the Spirit of God among us. It is a sign of conversion, a symbol of the burning away of the old self. Conversion experiences test us. Something is burned off; what remains is stronger, purer. It allows us to live passionately. The Spirit is a fire that purifies, creates, refines, destroys and transforms if we let it. It allows us to live passionately.

And so in the Gospel today we see a Jesus who lives passionately. And yes, I admit it. I feel uncomfortable about his anger. That is because I can’t quite understand it. What was his objection? What was he thinking? It was business as usual, a normal day in a busy synagogue at a busy time of the year. Animals and birds were supplied for sacrifice. Foreign currencies had to be exchanged for the temple currency. The very anger of Jesus in doing what he did! It was a deliberate and passionate act of protest. Was he protesting against the power and exploitation of the religious order of the day? That is certainly what it seems to me to be. He seems to be challenging the status quo. And it is bound to get him into trouble.

Jesus’ anger is a stumbling block to me in the same way that the cross was a stumbling block for the Jew. It seems foolish. However, what foolishness it is to buy into the nonsense that Jesus the son of a carpenter turned preacher could do any good! Yet that is exactly what I believe as a Christian. What foolishness it is to believe that a God of love reigns over this fractured violence-ridden world of ours; but I cannot help but see the hand of God in this world. What foolishness to believe that God can bring peace where there is enmity! Yet I believe it all passionately. I believe passionately that God can bring about peace. I believe passionately that my fervent prayers along with yours can bring wholeness to our fractured world. I believe that God can change our hardened hearts and help us to live as brothers and sisters.

Fortunately throughout history there have been people passionate enough about the Christian faith to challenge the systems of the Church and the world. It has been said that if Jesus taught us anything it was how to die, not how to kill! Martin Luther King Jr. put it in the following way. "To our most bitter opponents we say: 'we shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We shall appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.'"

Oscar Romero, the Bishop of El Salvador became bishop because it was thought that he would not challenge the status quo. He had a conversion experience and because of it became a passionate advocate for the poor and underprivileged people of his country. He challenged both the state and his own church. In a sermon preached shortly before being gunned down in his church he said, "They may kill me, but I shall rise up in the people of San Salvador."

So how do we let the Spirit move us? Are we passionate enough to challenge the systems that exist in the Church? Are we passionate enough to change the injustices in the world? Do we believe that it matters? Do we believe that we can make a difference? Are we willing to work for justice for those who live in poverty? For the homeless and under housed? For those with mental illnesses?

Because it begins with changing ourselves and we know how difficult that is! We cannot hope to change the Church or the world if we are not willing to make changes within ourselves. We must allow the Spirit of God to work in our lives. That means not only being passionate, but being forgiving. It means accepting God’s forgiveness for the wrongs we have done and allowing ourselves to offer it to others.

The Gospel of repentance and conversion is proclaimed in the Eucharist and in the Sacrament of reconciliation. Sunday by Sunday we are called to renewed faith in God. We are called to be a reconciled community of faith. As we pass the peace after the absolution we accept God’s forgiveness. We reach out our hands to others in peace and in love. It is a response that deepens our faith. It is a renewing of our baptismal covenant. It is a new beginning. Let us passionately embrace God’s forgiveness and allow it to change our hearts. Let us carry it with us into the world. Amen.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Second Sunday of Lent, Year B

A Covenant of Salt

Based on the readings from Genesis 17:1-10, 15-19; Romans 4:16-25; Mark 8:31-38

Last week we began a journey from ashes to Easter. Lent always begins with ashes as a powerful reminder of our need for repentance. Last Sunday, the symbol of water reminded us of the new beginning we made as we entered the waters of baptism. Today we add the symbol of salt.

Salt is such a modest metaphor! It is not dramatic at all. It is certainly not overwhelming. It is a functional, everyday metaphor, and yet it has a dramatic effect on the environment. In fact salt has about 14,000 uses. Let me name just a few. In many cultures it is a symbol of hospitality. Salt changes food. It makes it tastier, livelier. Yet simple and everyday as it is, salt has caused wars and revolutions. It has lead to trading partnerships. It is a basic human need. Without it we would not survive. Once you put it on food you cannot separate it out again. It becomes incorporated into the food. Both the salt and the food are transformed.

Through baptism we become one with the body of Christ. We become part of the community. As members we enhance the community without losing our identity. We are transformed and become part of the wholeness of the community.

We Christians are to be salt for the world. As salt flavours and transforms, so the church permeates and transforms the world. The initiation of new members into the church strengthens us as the body of Christ and enhances our mission. Lent is an opportunity to examine our lives individually and as a community to see whether the salt has lost its savour or whether it continues to transform the world.

Lent provides us with an opportunity to transform our lives. What does it mean to believe? Does it mean intellectual assent without any connection to our daily lives? Does it mean never doubting? Faith involves passionate engagement, relationship with God. It involves giving one’s heart to belief and holding it actively with love. It means having enough confidence in its reality to act on it, incredible as it may seem.

Faith begins with trusting God’s promises. That is what brings us to a sense of holiness, of wholeness. Where do we find that kind of wholeness, of meaning? How do we achieve a vision that will sustain us through the difficult choices and tests of life?

We all undertake many covenants during our lifetime. We form covenants in marriage, in friendship, in professional life, in relationships of every kind. Covenants not only give us a sense of responsibility, they make us responsible for our actions. When we make a covenant with another person, we take on a sense of responsibility and commitment. We carry it through. When we make a covenant with God we commit to faithful discipleship.

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, reminds them of the covenant made on their behalf, of the kind of commitment on which their faith and ours rests, for we share the faith of Abraham. Paul reminds them that the unexpected happened to Abraham very late in his life. God gave him the promise of a blessing, the promise of fruitfulness, a fruitfulness which was born out in the birth of their son Isaac, the child born to Sarah and Abraham in their old age.

Lent is an opportunity to renew our covenant with God and our commitment to the faith. It is a salty time in our lives. For the Jewish nation every sacrifice was seasoned with salt to remind the people of their need to remain faithful to the Covenant between them and God. The salt made the covenant a binding agreement. It represented loyalty and truthfulness between them. Salt was a symbol that could heal the rift in a relationship. If there was no salt used in the Covenant it meant barrenness.

That promise of fruitfulness is born out in our own lives over and over again. I remember seeing a wonderful film; it must have been a National Film Board undertaking. It was about life in the desert. All you could see on the horizon was sand shifting in the wind. Then it rained – something that happened if I recall correctly only about once in seven years. Yet in no time at all, that barren wilderness was transformed into a beautiful garden. Plants bloomed and took root in that wasteland in a way that you could not have imagined. For seven years those seeds had lain dormant in the earth waiting for enough moisture to bring them to life.

What deserts have you seen come to life? A marriage that seemed to be dead, and grace is given and it blossoms into a stronger relationship. A relationship dies; a new one begins. A life is shattered by illness or bereavement; grace brings about new life. Someone thinks that they have no talent; suddenly they discover great personal gifts. A door closes; another door opens leading in a new direction, to new opportunities, to new possibilities.

The life of commitment brings about fruitfulness. But more important for us to recognize is that the Christian life requires commitment, more commitment than we can imagine. Total commitment! Costly commitment! For anything good that we set out to achieve has a cost. Somehow we come to believe that to put our trust in God is to put an end to all of our problems. If we believe that then our Christian life is bound to be disillusioning.

I suspect that was Peter's problem when he rebuked Jesus. Jesus told his disciples that he would suffer and be rejected and killed. That could not have been easy for any of them to hear. Their leader, the one whom they expect to be their king and lead them to victory is telling them instead that he will be put to death. Suddenly their commitment to their leader takes a turn for the worse. What are the implications in their own lives? We like to hear good news. We like comfortable words. When it comes to bearing the cross, then we cop out or crawl back into our kindergarten approach and miss the real point of having faith.

"Commitment to me," Jesus tells them as he tells each one of us, "means taking up your cross and following me." The disciples knew what that meant in a way we can never fathom. They had all witnessed Roman execution. They had seen victims carrying their cross out to the place of execution. To think that their friend and maybe even they themselves might face such a death was unthinkable. Yet through the cross Christ was able to offer real wholeness to the world. The cross, a symbol of torture, became the way to wholeness.

And what a symbol it is to the Christian! It helps us to understand that dying is the step we must take in order to bloom. What does it mean to “deny ourselves” and take up our cross and follow Jesus? What self am I denying? Is it about giving up something for Lent and then going right back to it as soon as Lent is over? Is it about constantly putting myself down?

It is certainly not about any of that. It is about offering ourselves to be formed by God for God’s purpose. It is about becoming holy people. It is about wholeness. It is about discipleship. It is about commitment to the faith. Through self-denial we accept discipleship in a community that lives the way of the cross. We were signed with the sign of the cross at baptism. What did that signing mean for us as individuals and as community? It is at the heart of our Christian faith. As Christ bore our sins on the cross, so we find the grace and strength to live the Christian life. We accept responsibility for living the Christian life. Instead of thinking of ourselves we embrace the way of Jesus. It is above all finding our true selves, becoming all we are meant to be and understanding in a true sense what it means to be human.

As Christ bore our sins on the cross, so we find the grace and strength to live the Christian life. We trust in God's promises to bring us to a sense of wholeness and allow us to enter into the life of the community. We commit ourselves to the gospel message. We commit ourselves to faith in a gospel which calls us to service, to make a difference through our lives, through love of God and of neighbour.

So make it your mission to be salty people. Begin with your own commitment to the gospel. Let your faith make a difference in this needy world. Lent calls for a good seasoning of salt. As we move forward in ministry we need to be salty Christians. To be salty is to have a spiritual thirst that means that you cannot help but want to learn more about God. It means that you want to share what you have learned with others. To be salty is to keep your baptismal Covenant to the best of your ability. It is to see Christ in others and allow them to see Christ in you. It is to be the people of God. Amen.

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 ...