Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Third Sunday of Easter, Year B

Close Encounters of the Spiritual Kind

Readings: Acts 3:13-15, 17-19; 1 John 2:1-5; Luke 24:35-48

The gospel writers found themselves needing to prove that Jesus really did rise from the dead. There were many who doubted. The narratives in the gospels tell the stories of the doubters. There are the holy women who come to the tomb with spices for embalming, find it empty, and run away in fear. There is Thomas who missed a resurrection experience earning himself the nickname “the doubter”. He wants proof positive. He cannot bring himself to believe what the other disciples have seen based on their word. He wants to put his finger in the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side. He wants to know for himself. There is the couple on the road to Emmaus who walk with Jesus, in rapt attention to what he is saying, and yet do not recognize him until he is actually breaking bread at their table. Then they rush to let the others know that they have seen the risen Christ.

And close on that encounter comes another. Jesus comes in to the disciples, offering words of peace. They are startled, terrified. They react as if they have seen a ghost. He gives them reassurance. “I’m not a ghost!” he is saying. “I’m real! Touch me and see.” Even when they see Jesus standing before them, even when they touch him, the fear remains. Through their joy they are still wondering, still considering somehow. How could any of this be?

And then to offer further proof he asks for something to eat. After all, ghosts don’t eat. A piece of broiled fish is brought to him. He eats it. Later as they reflect on all that has happened, the disciples come to understand through seeing, touching, feeling, knowing, eating, it really did happen. They did encounter the resurrected Christ. Jesus really was raised from the dead.

“How would we have responded?” we might ask ourselves. Would it have seemed like some dreadful dream? We have all had nightmares, those terrible dreams that seem so real. We think we have seen a ghost. It is a terrifying experience. We try to run and find ourselves unable to move. We feel its terrible presence gaining on us. Sometimes we even have waking nightmares. When someone we love dies we enter a period of mourning that can feel like a terrible nightmare out of which we cannot seem to rouse ourselves. Those are the times that it is easiest to lose faith. Our faith simply fails us. We feel as if we have nothing to hang onto. We are plunged into gloom.

It was not until later when they began to reflect rationally on those days following the death of Jesus that the holy women began to understand the message of the empty tomb. It was not until Thomas saw for himself that he was able to utter words of faith, “My Lord and my God!” It was not until it was all over that the two disciples understood fully what had happened to them on the Emmaus road. When they did understand they were quick to share the good news.

And isn’t that how it always is in real life? When we are going through the experience, we have no perspective, no understanding. All we can do is cope day to day, or perhaps even hour to hour. It is only afterwards, perhaps long afterwards, that our eyes are opened and we begin to truly understand the experience. Even then we can miss the real significance of what has happened if we do not allow the experience to transform our lives.

One of our parishioners told me a wonderful story this week about growing up in Jamaica. He was at his great grandmother’s house. Times were tough for her and it was March, a fallow season in Jamaica. There was not a scrap of food in the house. His great grandmother said to him, “I don’t think the Lord wants us to go hungry. Go check out the breadfruit trees. See what you can find.” He went out as he was asked and checked all the breadfruit trees and found not one piece of fruit. He went back sadly and reported to his great grandmother. “Go and look again!” she said. “Look more carefully!” Off he went once more. He checked all the trees, looking in the likely places on the tips of the largest branches. Not one breadfruit did he find! Back he went to his great grandmother. “Just check one more time!” she asked him. Back he went again for the third time. This time he scoured the trees. His couldn’t believe his eyes. There nestled on a shoot was the largest bread fruit he had ever seen. “There is only one explanation,” he told me. “It was a miracle! God put it there! A perfectly ripe, beautiful breadfruit in the most unexpected place!”

We humans need to touch and see. We need to touch and see for ourselves. Our senses inform our perceptions. When do you know that spring has really arrived? Is it when you see the first shoots appearing along the side of the house? Is it when you smell that first hint of warmth in the air? When you feel that warmth on your face? Is it when you hear the nestlings chirping in the trees in the darkness and still of the early morning hours? What triggers those memories of spring?

The senses arouse our memories. I have a Staffordshire floral basket of my mother’s. She had a collection of them. She treasured them. They moved with her down to Jamaica and back. Just looking at it evokes memories of her. I can see her holding it lovingly in her hands. Holding it, I remember her.

Our Anglican liturgy is a feast for the senses. Vestments and altar hangings that change colour with the seasons of the church year, hymns and songs of praise, smells and bells are all part of our tradition. And Sunday by Sunday we take bread and wine and bless it. We share in the body and blood of Christ. Through those actions, we touch and see. We encounter the presence of God.

An old familiar hymn puts it so succinctly for me.

“Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face;
Here faith can touch and handle things unseen;
Here would I grasp with firmer hand Thy grace,
And all my weariness upon Thee lean.”

It is when we allow that transformation that we begin to understand the message of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We allow its truth to touch our lives. We allow it to bring healing and wholeness into our lives. We can truly say, “Christ is risen! Alleluia!”

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Second Sunday after Easter, Year B

Keeping the Faith

Readings: Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

I have a print by Sa Boothroyd, a Canadian artist with a rather weird sense of humour. In the first cell is a picture of a cartoon like character named “Faith”. In the second is “a leap of Faith”. Faith is jumping over a huge bonfire. The Easter gospel left us with many faith questions, in fact, a huge leap of faith, the holy women fleeing from the tomb in fear and amazement. We find them one week later, behind locked doors, fear still reigning. And then Jesus is in the midst of them, bringing words of peace. But for Thomas, the one who is forever labelled the “doubter”, it is a huge leap of faith, a leap he cannot make simply on the words of the other disciples.

Scripture does not reveal many facts about the life of St. Thomas. But one of the facts seems almost trivial. That is the fact that Thomas was a twin. If the writer of the gospel went to the trouble of telling us that Thomas was a twin, there must have been some underlying reason.

Was it just out of interest’s sake? I would doubt that, although twins are interesting characters. There was a set of identical twins in my class during my first year of teaching grade seven. They were a real challenge. I never did learn to tell the twins apart. I was never quite sure when I called one of their names just who actually answered. And being Jane and Joan it probably wouldn’t have mattered much. They kept all of us guessing about what they would get into next. They always knew what the other was thinking. They were bright and fun. To have twins must be at the same time a double joy and a double challenge. But that still does not explain why it was important enough to the author of John to tell us that Thomas was a twin.

Could Thomas’s twin have been one of the disciples? We read about the sons of Zebedee, James and John; so it isn’t likely one of them. Could it have been Mary Magdalene, or perhaps even Judas? None of that begins to explain the real reason that the gospel writer made a point of telling us that Thomas was a twin. But there is a reason, a profound one, found as so often happens, by reading between the lines. Who is Thomas’s twin? The answer is evidently meant to be “us”! We are Thomas’s twin, for all of us, like Thomas, are a mixture of fear and doubt, pessimism and trust, belief and unbelief. And that’s a difficult place to be, because for every one of us, our human condition has such a desire for certainty.

We see it in our 21st Century way of approaching the sciences. At a time of recession the United States has budgeted almost nineteen billion dollars for space exploration. We strive to know about what is out there beyond us. Part of the thirst for knowledge is about tracking global warming and finding ways to deal with it. Much of it is about communication and technology. But there is still that desire to stay ahead of the rest of the world. Especially there is a need to know with a certainty, without any shadow of doubt, what we do not yet know. We want to know what is just beyond our reach.

When it comes to human relationships we are even more anxious to know with a sense of certainty. “If only I had the certainty of some sign,” we will hear people say. “A sign, that there is a God. I’m not sure there is. Not that I’m saying there isn’t. I just don’t know. I say I believe it, but wouldn’t it be nice to have an unmistakable sign that there is a God? Wouldn’t it be nice to know that it’s going to turn out alright in the end? With all of the difficulties that we go through in our lives, wouldn’t it be reassuring to know that it’s going to be alright? That the bad will be punished, that the good will be rewarded, that there’s something after this? That there is life after death!”

All of us would like some certainty. It would make it so much easier to look at the absurdities of life. We live in a world where children starve to death, where people die of AIDS, where people die every day because of war and violence and terrorism.

We would like to be certain as well about our personal lives. We all have relationships. And yet, how can we be certain that we are really loved? We want to know that our lives mean something. That we will leave some sort of legacy behind us. We want certainty about who we are and what we have accomplished. In that way we are twins of Thomas. That is what he wanted. He wanted a sign. He wanted to see for himself. He wanted to be certain. He wanted to see the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands. He wanted to put his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in his side. Then he could be certain that there would be no more disappointments, no more false hopes.

Another thing that you might read between the lines about Thomas is that he was absent. When Jesus came into the Upper Room to the gathering of believers after the Resurrection, Thomas was not there with them. Whatever reason he may have had for not being there, he missed out on what the rest of the community shared. He missed seeing the risen Christ in their midst. He missed the words of peace. He missed the reassurance that the others received.

There are people who have the mistaken notion that they don’t need the community of faith, that they can make it on their own. The Church has no meaning in their lives. But that is a mistake. I remember reading the story of a wise old priest who was having such a conversation with a parishioner one winter day. The fire was going in the hearth. He reached down with a pair of tongs and removed a coal and left it sitting on the grate. It was not very long before the coal went out. We need the communion of others to keep our faith strong. Otherwise our faith simply grows cold.

Others think that once you become a Christian, once you accept faith, all the doubts simply disappear. They think that with faith all our rational faculties cease to be used. We simply accept the Church’s teaching and follow blindly.

But that will never be enough. Doubts will always arise. And when do doubts become most severe? Is it not when we face difficulties and hardships in our lives? “Why am I sick? Why did my child die? Why can’t I find a job? Why did my spouse walk out on me? Why is God letting this happen to me? After all, I am faithful. I believe. Why? Why? Why?”

And that is where the doubts flourish. They can overwhelm us. What use is faith if bad things still happen? Where are you God when I need you? We react as churlish little children. And in that kind of relationship, doubt can overwhelm us.

I continue to find Thomas’s story reassuring somehow. It says to me that it is reasonable to have doubts. It is understandable. It is human. There is not a husband and wife who have not at some time had doubts about their relationship. There are no two friends, no matter how committed to one another, who have not at some time in their relationship wondered whether it would last. And there is not a believer who has not experienced Christ as absent from their lives at some time or another.

Thomas challenges us to persevere when we have doubts. He stopped doubting. When he saw the risen Lord for himself, he cried out, “My Lord and my God!” Like Thomas, that must be on our lips. We must cry out, “My Lord and my God!” even when it comes out more as a question than a statement. We must persevere in our faith. We must witness to how God is working in our lives and in the lives of others. It will not be accomplished by a single act. It is by a progressively fuller commitment to Jesus Christ that it will come about, our commitment to being part of the body of Christ.

And so I leave you with the tantalizing question, “Who is Thomas’s twin? And there can be only one answer. I am Thomas’s twin. Lord, help my unbelief!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Great Vigil of Easter

Disappointment or Gift?

Readings: Acts 10:34-43; Romans 6:3-11; Mark 16:1-8

I remember a birthday. I must have been about eight. I had been dropping hints to my parents for months about getting me a chemistry set. I had my heart set on it. I saw myself as some budding scientist ready to make some amazing discoveries, ready to save the world. I had planned all the wonderful things I was going to do. I had read books about science. I was sure that my parents were not going to fail me.

The day arrived. The whole family trooped into my bedroom bringing brightly wrapped gifts. I had my eye on one package. It looked about the right size. But when I shook it I realized that once more it was clothing. I tried to hide my disappointment as I opened up my other gifts. My mother said, Aren’t you going to open that box?” And so reluctantly I took the wrappings off. I pulled out socks and underwear and a hand knit sweater. And then the light went on for me. There nestled underneath the clothing was what I had been waiting for all along. My disappointment turned to joyful expectation as I thought once again about all the wonderful experiments I was going to undertake.

The holy women heading for the tomb knew what to expect. It had been so exciting to be part of Jesus’ ministry. They had watched the miracle worker. They had hung on his every word. They had heard stories which made their drab lives seem rich and full of meaning. It had raised their expectations to new levels. And then the events of the past three days had shattered all of that. There beloved Jesus had been killed as a common criminal.

But in a state of shock, grief and sorrow they found themselves heading to the tomb. They knew not only the disappointment, but also the futility of going. They had watched as a huge stone was placed across the entrance to the tomb. Yet something drew them there. They carried with them spices for the burial, hoping against hope that somehow they would be able to find the strength to remove the stone. And when they got there they saw that it had already been moved.

Expecting disappointment and then finding the barrier removed filled them, not with excitement, but with fear. Who had removed the stone? Was it a trap? Were the authorities heaping yet more indignities on their beloved leader? But they put it all aside and entered the tomb.

A young man greeted them. “Jesus who was crucified has been raised. He is not here,” he said to them. And then he gave them their mission. “Go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” It is simply too much for them to take in. They run in terror.

Later they will remember and reflect on all that took place. They will remember the emptiness of the tomb. They will remember the things that Jesus told them about himself. They will find themselves face to face with the risen Christ.

We all know disappointment in our lives. What does it mean to be disappointed by Easter? For many there is a deep disappointment that there is no proof of the Resurrection. “How can you believe such a story?” they say. “You are simply deluding yourself. It comes out of your own fear of death. You’re simply trying to paint a rosy picture, because you don’t want to face the fact that once life is over, that's it." Death is always a disappointment; it is an end to expectations. It leaves behind incomplete plans.

Whether or not Easter is a great gift or a great disappointment depends on our point of view. It is about opening the gift. It is about exploring our faith and opening ourselves to the great possibilities that God places in this world of ours. It is about capturing the moments when a sense of awe breaks through into our lives. It is about digging deeper into that gift bag of expectations, where underneath the socks and the underwear and the ordinary things of life we reach the real gift.

Tonight we bring into the body of Christ two of our children. We have Alyssa, a baby, brought by her parents Maurice and Carol. And we have Sierra, old enough to say the promises, but still needing the guidance of her parents to help her keep her Baptismal Covenant. Their parents and sponsors will promise to bring them up in the faith. It is so fitting that it should happen at Easter, for baptism is an Easter moment. Death and life come together in the waters of baptism.

Hopefully for all of us as we renew our baptismal covenant it is a time of grace and insight. As we complete our Lenten journey, as we read the faith stories, as we reflect on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as we break bread together, let it be a gift. Let it be an ‘aha’ moment in your life when you see clearly the face of Christ, when you realize the beauty and the glory of the mysteries of Christ. Let it be a time when you feel a sense of astonishment at the sheer goodness of God. Let it be a time to treasure and keep as a moment of grace.

Let us see the resurrected Christ in those around us. Let us shout with confidence, “Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!”

Friday, April 10, 2009

Easter, Year B

The Truth of the Resurrection

Readings: Acts 10:34-43; 1 Cor 15:1-11; Ps 118:1-2, 14-24; Marl 16:11-8

Through baptism we have been joined to Christ in his death so that we can begin a new life. That is the bold claim of Easter! What a message of hope it is. It is the message we acclaim with joy as we ring bells and shout joyful alleluias.

But is it true? Can I dare to believe it? How do we know that Easter happened? How do we know the truth of the resurrection? There is only one answer to that. We believe because we have encountered the risen Christ in the experience of the Church.

But when I read the gospel it raises all sorts of questions for me. The women are heading back to the tomb. They are grief stricken at the events of the past few days. Their beloved leader has been executed like a common criminal. His followers have scattered in fear. They themselves are heading to the tomb with a sense of futility. They had seen with their own eyes the huge stone that had been rolled into place across the entrance to the tomb. “Who will roll away the stone for us? They murmur to one another. It is a formidable obstacle. They could have given up and gone back home. They could have given up hope. Yet they needed to do something. And so they gathered together the spices needed for embalming and headed to the tomb.

And when they got there, the stone had been rolled away. They went in, wondering how it had been moved. All sorts of things must have gone through their minds. Who could possibly have removed the stone? What further indignity had the authorities heaped on their beloved leader? They must have been filled with fear. And yet they dared to enter the tomb.

And they were greeted by a man. “Go and tell his disciples and Peter that he is going to Galilee,” he tells them as if it is an everyday occurrence. And what is their reaction to his message? Awe and shock! Terror stricken, they flee from the tomb. They run and hide. They tell no one. What kind of a message of hope is that? What are we to take away with us from their response to the empty tomb?

I must say that I can understand their reaction. It is the normal reaction of people faced with the death of a loved one, right from the need to be doing something to the shock and disbelief at what their eyes are telling them. Following a death there is nothing to do, and yet there is so much to do. Nobody goes to work. Nobody is hungry. Nobody has anything to say. Helpers feel helpless and in the way. There are so many things to attend to. Legal matters! The funeral! Music! Choosing the casket! Finding a burial spot! There are people, relatives and friends, to inform about the death. There are dozens of phone calls to make. The reception needs to be arranged.

And through all of that busyness you are trying to grieve. You need to feel anything through that sensation of numbness that overwhelms you. The death of a loved one brings you face to face with the reality of death. Life is not easy. Facing the death of someone you love is overwhelming. The hardest thing of all is facing your own death. We struggle to exist knowing that death is the one constant in our existence. We even joke about it – death and taxes. That is one of the many ways we have of coping with the knowledge that we will all die. We live in the present, refusing to even think about tomorrow. Or we live our lives in a kind of dream world where we don’t have to face reality

We began our Lenten journey with the symbol of ashes. It reminded us not only of our sinfulness, but also that we are mortal. Our Lenten journey has taken us from ashes to the cross, to the empty tomb. We look for hope. And Easter gives it. Easter proclaims that Christ is risen. Easter proclaims that death has been conquered. Once and for all! It gives us hope in life.

But back to that question, do I dare believe it? Consider the people who were eye witnesses to the Resurrection. The holy women, those same women who scattered in fear when they saw the empty tomb! They became part of a Church alive in Christ. They had one of those ‘aha’ moments that are scattered throughout our lives. They got it. They began to understand the message of the empty tomb. They really got it! And in that ‘aha’ moment Easter entered their Good Friday world. It transformed them. It changed their grief and sorrow and pain into joy.

And it isn’t just the women who were transformed by the event. There is Peter, brash Peter who swore never to abandon Christ, but who denied ever knowing him. He became so fearful for his life that he ran away. But Peter became the rock that Jesus knew him to be. He preached Christ crucified; he proclaimed Christ risen from the dead.

And what is true of Peter is true of all the disciples of Jesus. Something so astounding happened that they began to proclaim their newfound faith in the risen Christ. Their fear turned to enthusiastic, spirit filled proclamation.

What about us? It is difficult for us to understand the terror of those first Christians. But it was well founded. They were in danger because of their allegiance to Christ. It is such a far cry from our experience of Easter. For us it means alleluias, special music, people we have not seen since Christmas, chocolate bunnies and Easter eggs. Those are not things that bring about terror or amazement. How do we recapture a sense of the wonder and awesome mystery at the hear of the Christian faith? Are we so anaesthetized by familiarity that we cannot fathom such feelings? Can we capture moments when that sens of awe breaks through? There must be moments on our journey when we say ‘aha’ and the light goes on. For a fleeting moment a door opens and we realize the beauty and the glory of the mysteries of Christ. We feel a sense of astonishment at the sheer grace and goodness of God. Those are moments to treasure and to keep. Those are moments that transform our lives.

Mark’s Easter account is full of Good News. It is good news that needs to be shared. They are to go to Galilee to meet the risen Christ. The resurrection is the cornerstone of our faith. And yet the ‘how’ continues to defy us. It is after all about going to Galilee. It is after all about meeting the risen Christ. It is not about proving through historical evidence or contemporary analysis. It is by living and acting on the basis that it is true despite any feelings or emotions or scientific evidence to the contrary.

The truth of the resurrection does not depend on me, on where I am, on my feelings. I can run away in fear. I can find myself unable to understand what is happening. But sometime I will stop running. Then I will see the face of Christ in those around me. I will boldly proclaim that Christ is risen. Alleluia!

Alleluia! Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Maundy Thursday

Washing One Another's Feet

Readings: Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116:10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15

Passover is one of the most important religious festivals in the Jewish calendar. Jews celebrate it to commemorate the liberation of the Children of Israel who were led out of Egypt by Moses. It is an age-old celebration dating back to about 1300 BCE.

The story of the Passover is told in the Book of Exodus. The Children of Israel had been slaves in Egypt for over two hundred years. God promised to release them from slavery, but not before Pharaoh had refused their release and God had visited ten plagues on Egypt to demonstrate God’s power. It is a celebration of freedom, not just in Biblical times, but throughout history. Jews believe freedom to be one of the basic human rights. Jews living under oppression often use the Passover as an expression of their own desire for freedom.

Like the Christian celebration of Lent, Passover marks springtime. It is a time for the Jewish people to do some serious Spring cleaning. It symbolises hope, new life and the importance of starting afresh. It is a pilgrim festival, one of the three occasions in the year when, according to the commandments of the Torah, Jews were to go to the Temple in Jerusalem.

So it is little wonder that Jesus and the disciples decided to celebrate by eating the Passover meal together. They made arrangements for a place, a room in the upstairs of a house. The traditional meal was laid out on the table. But before the meal began Jesus took a bowl, a jug full of water and a towel. He went down on his hands and knees before the disciples. He washed all of them, one by one, lovingly and thoroughly. As he washed their feet he looked with eyes full of love and tenderness at the faces of those whose feet he was washing.

It was an unexpected gesture, for here was the rabbi, the teacher, doing the work of the slave. Washing their feet was Jesus’ final lesson to his disciples. It was the only way to teach them the reality of the gospel. He washed the feet of the ones who loved him unquestioningly. He washed the feet of the ones who would run away when times became difficult. He washed the feet of the one who would deny that he even knew him. He especially washed the feet of the one who would betray him.

He needed them to know that for them authority was to be a form of service. No one should be allowed to rule who had not first proven that he could serve. He did not demand that they look up to see God. He knelt in front of them so that they looked down on him. He put himself in the posture of the powerless, unliberated and helpless. He needed them to know that it was down on the floor in service that they would see God. Down there on the floor in service was where they would be the Church.

In that gesture, Jesus washed the feet of all of us, believers and unbelievers, old and young, saints and sinners, pimps and women of the street, bishops and lay people, rulers, rich and poor, filled and hungry, dressed and naked. He looked us in the eye, each one of us, calling us to be his hands and his feet in the world. He gave us a model of what we should do to each other, washing each other’s feet, breaking bread together, sharing with all of humanity, until he is with us in God’s realm.

What can turn the tables on us? What can help us to live out our call? Our Diocesan Bishop, Colin told the story of his daughter Rachael, serving as a nurse in South Africa. The day before her twenty-fourth birthday she spent the night holding a child dying of AIDS. She prayed, she said, trying to think of the prayers that her father might pray in such a situation. She prayed out of love and compassion so that a dying child would know in those last few hours of her life that she was loved. She did it because she knows that we are all called to servant ministry. She did it to be Christ in a world of tragedy and suffering.

What kind of a world would we live in if we lived with that kind of compassion. Whose feet would we wash? What if the wealthy washed the feet of orphans and widows, if the powerful washed each other’s feet? If we were servants, as Christ served us and gave himself for our sakes? Is that how we too will bring the gospel to the world?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Palm / Passion Sunday

Our Deacon, Vernal Savage is preaching this Sunday. I will post some thoughts on the readings later today. I will be posting sermons for Holy Week and Easter over the course of the week. Many blessings as we enter this holy time of our year.

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 ...