Thursday, May 28, 2009

Pentecost, Year B

The Power of Pentecost

Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 104:25-35; Romans 8:22-27; Acts 2:1-121; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

The prophet Ezekiel was in the midst of a nightmare. In the Spirit, God lead him to a valley filled with the bones of dead soldiers slain in battle against the Chaldeans.

“Can these bones live?” God asked him. On that battlefield lay all the hopes and dreams of a nation. How could Ezekiel see anything there but disaster and defeat? The situation is hopeless. “Prophesy to them!” God continues.

“What sense is there in that?” Ezekiel may well have thought. Yet even though it doesn’t make sense, God calls him to take a risk.

“Trust me! I will breathe life into them,” God tells him. And Ezekiel prophesies to the bones. Those dry lifeless bones take on sinew, and flesh. Those dry bones come to life.

What a vision of hope! And the miraculous thing about it is that the nation of Israel did indeed rise up from that terrible defeat. Life was breathed back into that community. It lived and prospered.

It may be a nightmare, but the prophet is living a real experience. It gives him a sense of God’s presence and an awareness that something significant is being communicated to him. That vision of life being breathed back into dry bones is again fulfilled with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. For with that outpouring came, not only the hope of a nation, but also the hope of salvation for all nations, the Christian hope that exceeds all we can ask or imagine. That breath of life poured out at Pentecost is the source of hope in human experience. It renews us. It assures us of God’s presence with us.

Pentecost started as a nightmare as well. The disciples were all gathered together in the upper room. They gathered out of their need to be together. They gathered more in mourning than in celebration. They were still suffering from the loss of their beloved leader. And then Pentecost happened! They had an amazing spiritual awakening. First there was a movement, then a sound, then a visible sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit amongst them. The experience so filled them with the presence of God that they began to speak in other languages. They did not have to grope for words to express themselves. The words simply flowed out of them. It was not babble; it was clear and effective communication. The Spirit proclaimed a marvellous, inclusive vision without barriers of language, race, nationality, sex, age or class. People not only heard, but they understood what God was speaking to the Church.

We so easily dismiss the significance of Pentecost. It is the birthday of the Church. It celebrates, not the coming of the Holy Spirit. That has always been God’s gift to the church. Rather it celebrates a fresh outpouring of the Spirit set loose in the world. For the early Christians it became a time of festivity and joy, reminding them that the promise of the Resurrected Christ had been fulfilled in them.

Ezekiel’s dream was not a one time event. People still have such experiences in their day to day lives. The problem is that we tend to dismiss such dreams as being of little importance. Even if we awaken in terror, we can easily put it down to a case of indigestion. We need to pay attention to such experiences in our lives, those ‘aha’ moments in which we know God to be real and present to us, in which we sense God communicating to us on a deep level.

Pentecost was not a one time event. The Holy Spirit is poured out on the Church every day. That is where our Christian energy and purpose come from. Whatever speaks to us of the genuine things of Jesus Christ is the Holy Spirit at work in us. How does it come to you? Perhaps it comes as a realization that God is speaking to you through another person. Perhaps it is as you witness to the power of the Holy Spirit at work in your life. It may be a moment of realization at the power of God working a miracle of healing in your life as you let go of the hurts of the past and offer forgiveness to someone. Maybe it happens for you when you accept God’s power to forgive and let it work in your life. It may be in the sharing of the peace, or a time when you were able to go beyond your limitations in speaking to others about your faith. Perhaps it is a time when you felt overwhelmed by life, and then found the power to do something that you felt was totally beyond your capabilities. It may be finding life taking you in new directions when you thought all the doors had been slammed in your face. Can we look back on those moments of grace scattered throughout our lives and see the Spirit of God working in and through us?

The Church needs that kind of renewable energy. Church institutions can be brought back to life again as their members who once confessed only with their mouths begin confessing with their hearts. It can change as we return to the covenant made between us and God at our baptism. God breathes on us restoring us to life and truth, to joy and purposefulness, as the Spirit takes control of our very being. It is about reconciliation, assurance, peace, joy, purpose. It is a resurrection experience that gives us that sense of new birth.

We need to pray for the Spirit of God to be upon the Church and its people so that we can stand on our feet and take responsibility as we must. I have watched in awe over the past two or three years as this parish has begun to do exactly that. What a difference it has made in our community! We have begun to blossom like that beautiful apple tree at the back of our church that tells the story of the work of you, the people of God.

This Sunday culminates a month of celebration of FaithWorks. It is one of the ways in which we live out our life in the Spirit. It is one of the ways in which we express our love of God and our desire to see Christ in others. It is part of our spirituality that grows and flourishes in this place. The money that we raise through FaithWorks goes to support ministries across our Diocese, ministries like the DAM and Flemingdon Park, like Anglican Houses and All Saints. And of course we know that it is only the beginning of the Outreach that happens in this parish. We support people in need of emergency help. We give assistance at Christmas. We take food to Edenwood Foodbank each week. We go to Nursing Homes and residences as well as to Credit Valley Hospital.

Pentecost is about life coming together for the common good. Pentecost happens when people of faith share their faith with one another. It happens when we find ourselves moved to say to one another, “I believe”. It happens when we grow up and begin to say “yes” to God instead of saying “no”. Then love blossoms. We become on fire. May God continue to breath the fire of the Holy Spirit on us, and may we continue to embrace the Spirit within us. Amen.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year B

I apologize for not getting on line a little earlier. The demands of the week have been quite heavy. Tomorrow we have a special speaker from the Foodbank giving us a talk as we continue to celebrate FaithWorks.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B

What a Friend We Have in Jesus!

Readings: Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

We live in a time and place in which cultures and peoples mix more than at any other time in history. There was an article in the Toronto Star this week reporting on a recent study of multiculturalism. Thousands of people were interviewed. What the researchers found was that skin colour, not religion or income was the biggest barrier to making immigrants feel as if they belonged in Canada. The darker the skin, the greater the alienation!

"We were surprised that religion didn't have more effect," said lead author Jeffrey Reitz. However, on two levels the statistics did not surprise me. First of all religion no longer has the credence of society. It no longer has the importance and sway over society that it once had. Secondly, society has its own ways of dealing with multiculturalism apart from any government or societal policies that could possibly be put into effect. Sometimes the response of society is to create closed communities that keep one’s way of living intact by excluding those who are different. Or we may create exclusive communities that are beyond the means of people who are not “like us”. We may ghettoize into communities as we did with our aboriginal peoples by segregating them on reserves. Or we may force people to change and become more like us. Many immigrants gave up their language and culture in order to become Canadian.

But the Christian faith gives us a third option, that of inclusion! Open the doors and welcome people in! However, inclusion runs risks. That is obvious from the reading from Acts. When you allow God to work through you, you lose control over who belongs and who does not. The passage follows Peter’s vision about clean and unclean foods that he had been commanded to eat. He did not understand the vision until he was invited to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile. He was speaking to the household when the Holy Spirit came over them. Just as on the day of Pentecost, they began to praise God in ways that the Christian church had assumed were exclusively theirs. The believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the Spirit of God should be given, not just to them, but to the Gentiles as well.

They moved into action. “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?” Peter asks. It becomes a time of renewal for the whole community as they welcome the newly baptized into their table fellowship.

The risks are obvious also from John’s letter. He is writing to a community deeply divided by a theological dispute. Many had left the community over the difference in opinion. Some had questioned the humanity of Jesus, saying that Jesus could not possibly have been born human; neither could he have died as a human. Schism threatened the existence of the community. John asked them not to seek revenge or to be bitter, but to love. “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God,” he said to them. It is an inclusive statement that we so often glibly turn around. It calls us to love all of God’s children, not simply those we consider to be God’s children.

The risks of inclusivity are real. You might have to accept people whom you deem unworthy of the name of Christian. You might have to worship side by side with people of a different colour, race, economic status or sexual orientation. You might have to accept that we are all made in God’s image. You might have to struggle with the issues that face the Christian Church in the twenty-first century.

If the passages from Acts and the letter of John point out the risks, the gospel surely lives out our call to be an inclusive and open community of faith. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus says to the disciples. He reminds them of the great love that he has for them. He reminds them that our love is a reflection of the love God has for us. It is not simply religious sentimentality; it is our call as Christians. The loving attitude we see in Christ is a reflection of the will of God just as our loving attitude is meant to reflect the love of Christ in whose image we are made. It links love and obedience. It makes our love of God and others intentional.

But then as always Jesus goes much further! “I do not call you servants any longer. You are my friends,” he says to them. It is a tremendous affirmation of who we are. Why should we have been chosen into intimate relationship with Jesus? Do you have a long list of reasons? I certainly do not. Yet we have been chosen! It is a friendship based not on our deserving, not on our merit, but on our acceptance of God’s love.

Friendship is such an amazing thing. This week I experienced the amazing grace that friendship can be when it opens us up to the love of God. I am on call at Credit Valley Hospital this week. I received a call from a family to come in to a woman in palliative care who was close to death. The call came from her son, but when I arrived at the entrance to the hospital I was greeted by a half a dozen women who were waiting for me to arrive. They introduced themselves as her friends. They began to tell me about their friend who was dying. They all had a story of what she had meant to them in their lives, about meeting her for the first time, about how she had been there for them, how she had encouraged them, how her faith and joy had constantly lifted their spirits. As they spoke about her, I knew that this was a person I would have dearly loved to have known. They took me to her room and introduced me to her son and daughter in law. They too had stories of the transformative love that their mother had instilled in them. They wanted to be there with her as a community as she journeyed from life to death.

I said some prayers and read from Scripture. Then I offered a blessing. A sense of real peace and love came into the room. It was a time of grace in the midst of suffering.

How do we create a community in which there is understanding and love in a life-giving, self-giving way? To create such a community would surely be risky on so many levels. It begins with responding to Jesus as friend. In doing so we would on some level “lay down our life for our friends”. It is unlikely that it would be the ultimate sacrifice. Yet we are called to ‘put our lives on the line for one another’. We are called to put others before ourselves. We are called to love in a life-giving way. It means being generous with other people, not just by providing bread but also by sharing the deeper gift of oneself. In the Eucharist we share the bread and the one cup with each other as a sign that in our daily lives we strive to share our bread, our blessings, and ourselves with others. It is in the doing that Eucharist becomes honest and effective.

Laying down our lives for one another may mean sacrificing time, thought, worry, concern, caring, sensitivity. It will result in abhorrence for the ways of the world, for the killing and alienation of the violent society in which we live. In the light of Christ’s Eucharistic sharing such things become even more abhorrent. Christ’s gift revealed in the Eucharist enables us to understand the unique value of human life and then respond.

How do we respond to Jesus? Do we respond as friend and brother? For we are blessed to have such a friend! Amen

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B

This month is FaithWorks month at St. Francis. FaithWorks is the Outreach campaign of our Diocese. This Sunday, our Outreach co-ordinator is giving a talk to the parish about our outreach into the community. I am not preaching, but here are a few thoughts.

Once again we have a wonderful image. The vine, its branches, and the vine grower, are images that point to our responsibility in God’s work. Jesus is the vine, the one who nurtures, the one in whom we abide. We are the branches. It is our responsibility to bear fruit. God, the vine grower does the pruning so that we can bear more fruit. Are we branches? Is our ministry being fruitful?

We could judge ourselves in the light of the passage from the Acts of the Apostles. There we read the story of one was a faithful branch, a branch that bears fruit. The angel of God led Philip to a deserted road between Jerusalem and Gaza. A proselyte was returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Sitting in his chariot, he was reading from the prophet Isaiah. So Philip took the opportunity to speak to him of Jesus, the suffering servant. He asked to be baptized. Philip baptized him. The story ended abruptly with Philip suddenly finding himself in the town of Azotus and the eunuch going on his way rejoicing.

Are we branches like Philip or are we blocks and impediments in the way of others experiencing God? Who are the eunuchs of our society, the ones for whom our contempt is instinctive? What outcasts are calling out to us for ministry? Are we actively listening to God, open to God's lead? Do we live out the Gospel or do we hide that we are Christians? How many people pass us every day who have never received a relevant explanation of God's word? I don't mean the self-serving Bible pushing of a fanatic out of touch with reality. I mean the good news of the risen life as it should be lived out in this world? Are we open to the Holy Spirit working in our lives? Are we open to new ideas, new ways, which bring resurrection to our faith community and to the lives of each of us? Are there things in our lives which need to be pruned?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Shepherding the Flock

The fourth Sunday of Easter has become known as “Good Shepherd Sunday”. The readings focus on the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. It is a beautiful image for us. Even in our urban society where most of us have little experience around sheep the shepherd imagery of the twenty-third psalm is universally known. The God who shepherds us, leads us, walks with us through troubled times. This is the comforting picture of the good shepherd who meets our needs, who cares for us. The good shepherd is depicted in artwork, in stained glass windows. We have one in our church. The image speaks to us of comfort and care.

At our Clericus this week we had a discussion about sheep and shepherds. There was a reluctance to consider ourselves as priests and pastors to be shepherds. If we are the shepherds then taking it one step further our people are the sheep. Sheep have a bad image of being rather stupid creatures, blindly following where the shepherd leads.

But the irony of it all is that in John’s time as in Jesus’ time, shepherds were the dispossessed, the lowest rung of society. Having lost their land and then their sheep, they hired themselves out. They often became the hired hands of wealthy Roman urban dwellers, the absentee landlords so often mentioned in the parables of Jesus.

Not only were they poor, but they depended on work that required them to be out in the fields and away from their families. They were considered to be unreliable at best, bandits at worst. The shepherds of John’s time were despised in much the same way as the Samaritans. To be a “good shepherd” was as much a contradiction in terms as to be a “good Samaritan”. One person suggested that in our day he might well have said, “I am the good migrant worker.”

And yet Jesus says, "I am the Good Shepherd." He goes on to tell what it means to be a good shepherd. A good shepherd cares for the sheep, knows them by name, knows which ones are sick or suffering. A good shepherd protects the sheep, putting their lives before his own. A good shepherd lovingly leads the sheep. A good shepherd searches for the sheep when they get lost.

Once again Jesus uses an identity despised by society to challenge our preconceptions about others. It is an invitation now as then to think about what is truly important in human relationships. We are not to condemn others. Rather we are to look into the eyes of those we are tempted to categorize as unworthy and embrace them. We are to see them as beings created by a loving God. We are to see in them the face of Christ. We are to see them as brothers and sisters.

And that brings me to a rather ominous note in the gospel. “I have other sheep who do not belong to this fold,” Jesus says. “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” This is the downside of the Gospel, the part that makes a demand on each of us, the part that is not so warm and cozy. The part that should make us feel a little uncomfortable; make us squirm, in our seat. For Jesus says, "I know my own and my own know me."

Such phrases in scripture have been used to create exclusive communities that shut out those who don’t look, behave or believe like us. Yet what we have here is Jesus’ response to people who have questioned him, intending to entrap him. "Are you the Christ?" they demand. A subversive question calling for an equally subversive answer! And Jesus gives it to them.

"Because you do not know me, because you are not in relationship with me," he tells them, "you cannot answer that question. On the other hand, if you recognized my voice, if you knew who I was, you wouldn't have to ask the question in the first place."

It is, after all, not about being excluded from the flock. It is about excluding oneself. There are always other sheep that do not belong to this fold and yet belong to Jesus. God tells us that it is precisely those on the other side of the wall who belong to the fold. It is up to us, not to change them, but to accept them and rejoice that they belong to God.

This passage speaks to us of our call, not just of the call of the ordained, but our baptismal call. For the call of the Good Shepherd is a call first of all to loving. That is the call of every Christian. “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” So says John in his letter. Love needs to lead to action. If we truly live in obedience to God, then it requires that we lovingly and actively reach out to meet the needs of others. In that way we live in him, and he lives in us.

We have all had times in our lives when we were hurting or afraid. Someone was there for us. So when others are hurting, our call as Christians is to reach out to them. Not that it is an easy task!

Sheep do get lost, at least in a geographical sense. When this happens the shepherd goes out and looks for them. Often it is an easy job to find them. The shepherd gets to know where the sheep hide out. When found the shepherd brings them back and they reenter the fold.

We too get lost in a geographical sense. It happens in faith communities. People come to church, get involved in the community, seem committed to the faith, and then somehow lose themselves. They drift away from the community and from the faith. The tragedy is that so often we do not even notice that they are gone. We do not miss them. We may think from time to time, “I wonder what happened to …” but that is the job of the clergy.

In September we are going to celebrate “Back to Church Sunday”. It is a time to invite those who used to go to church but have lapsed. It is a simple plan. Everyone in the congregation is going to ask a friend or colleague to come to church with them that day. We’re going to practice. “Will you come to church with me on September 27th? What time can I pick you up?” That part is the easy part. Then as a church community we need to be prepared to welcome them. And that is not as easy as it might seem.

I remember speaking to a woman in my first parish. She had been an active member of the congregation and then simply disappeared. People would bump into her in town, but no one asked her why she had left the church. I asked. Her response, “I just got out of the habit of going.” She wasn’t angry at the church. She just stopped going. So I invited her to come back. Her response was “I wouldn’t even know where to begin.” She was worried about what to wear, what had changed in the service, whether she would still know any of the people. It took a great deal of courage on her part, but she came back and was welcomed. She was embraced by the congregation.

But as humans there are other ways in which we get lost. In fact, most of the time we get lost in so many other ways! We are good at finding ways to get lost. We become addicted to alcohol or drugs. Or we can find ourselves unable to maintain stable relationships in our lives. Or we wander through life without managing to finish anything or ever holding onto a job.

When people become lost in such ways it is very difficult to find them. In such cases it is the task of the shepherd, not so much to find them as to help them find themselves. As a congregation, how open are we to helping the lost find their way? Would we recognize it if they got found?

The call of the Good Shepherd is a call to lead. That is about allowing change to transform the lives of those to whom we minister. Transformational change is something that we avoid, especially we Anglicans, but it is our mission. The proof of the resurrection is always the transformation that it causes in peoples’ lives. An awesome power has been released into the world. Can we see that power in our lives?

And then can we act on it? Can we apply our faith to our everyday lives? That is how we will come to know the power of the resurrection at work in our lives. We will reach out to others in real and tangible ways. We will be the Church.

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 ...