Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (Proper 13)

He Touched Me

Readings: 1:1, 117-27; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43

Jesus in his earthly ministry touched many lives. He gave hope to the poor. He offered forgiveness to those loaded with the cares of the world. He went about healing the sick. He lived his life following God’s will. In today’s gospel reading we hear about the healing of two people whose lives are intertwined. First a leader of the synagogue named Jairus came and knelt at Jesus’ feet begging him to come and lay hands on his twelve year old daughter who was near death. As he responded to the man’s plea, the crowd followed along. Then there is an interruption. The story of the healing of Jairus’ daughter is put on hold as another story unfolds.

In the crowd was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. Because of the strict purity laws of the Jewish people, such an ailment could force the woman to live in isolation. She could be deemed unclean. Indeed, she had lost her whole fortune making the rounds of various doctors without getting any better. In fact, she was getting worse.

She had heard about Jesus. “If only I could touch his clothes,” she thought, “I would be healed.” She elbowed her way through the crowd. She touched his clothing, just the very edge, the hem of his garment. That was all she dared. That very instant she felt power invading and healing her. Jesus felt power leaving him.

He wondered what he had felt. “Who touched my clothes?” he asked. The disciples laughed. “You’re in a crowd. Of course someone touched you.”

The disciples were right. Hundreds of people were touching Jesus that day. But nothing happened to them. The touching of Jesus had no power in and of itself. No power went out of him. That power comes when you reach out in faith. It happens at the moment when you share his vision and in that sharing you share his power.

The woman was healed because she believed, because she took the initiative and reached out. At least that is what Jesus told her. “Your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed of your disease.” It is part of that mystery of why one person is healed and another is not. She brought her own gifts to the situation. She was determined to struggle and to overcome her condition even when others would have become discouraged. She had hopefulness and trust, both amazing gifts to nurture within ourselves.

Then Jesus returned to the matter at hand. Some people came from Jairus’ house giving an update on the little girl’s condition. “She is dead! Don’t trouble the teacher any more.” But it was no trouble for Jesus. “Have faith!” he told the father. Then he and the three he allowed to follow him went to the house. They were already grieving the child’s death. “The child is not dead. She is just sleeping.” Jesus and the disciples hear the sound of nervous laughter. Jesus goes in alone. “Little girl, get up!” he tells her, taking her by the hand. And she awakens. She gets up and has something to eat.

These are powerful stories of healing. They raise so many questions and feelings in us. Many of us who profess to follow Jesus have never really grasped or experienced what Jairus and the woman healed of the hemorrhage instinctively knew. We press upon Jesus like the crowds who gathered to witness his miracles. Yet we often fail to embrace him with a sense of trust.

We believe in God. We pray, at least out of desperation. We try to follow his example. But when it comes down to it, we fail to allow Christ to be living and active at the centre of our beings. We come to Jesus. We hear his words speaking to us from the gospel stories. We express our needs through the liturgy and in our prayers. We praise Jesus in the hymns we sing. We touch him as we receive his body and blood in the Eucharist. But we allow our feelings of guilt, our weakness, our failures, the tragedies in our lives, to overwhelm us. Perhaps our touch has not really been the touch of faith. Have we been simply jostling Jesus in the crowd rather than embracing him?

We understand that there is power in touch. We see both sides of it. We live in an age where touch is not allowed. We have to check before we touch someone. When I first began teaching if a child became upset you could offer a hug. That changed somewhere along the line. In one sense it was a healthy change, for our society became more attuned to the problem of abuse. Children were able to voice their fears and be protected from predators. At the same time we became paranoid about protecting ourselves from the possibility of being accused of being abusive. We lost our innocence. We lost too something precious, the ability to simply reach out and touch someone.

At the same time ironically, therapeutic touch has come into its own. Healing therapies and healing ministries have returned to the Church. Many traditional cultures have recognized that a gentle touch is soothing to those who are ill. Studies have proven that touch is an essential part of human health. After all, skin is the human body’s largest organ. It contains millions of receptors that send messages through nerve fibers to the brain. A simple touch has been shown to reduce a person’s heart rate, lower blood pressure, and reduce stress levels.

We speak as well about touching people emotionally, about the influence that we have on others as we live our lives. How wonderful it is to be touched by the love of another human being. Yet often we are unaware of how God has used us to touch the life of another. We are truly blessed when we learn that we have touched someone’s life.

During the service this morning we will offer as is our custom, the sacrament of healing with the laying on of hands and anointing. It is a awesome process in many ways. Illness can affect every aspect of people’s lives and profoundly wound their spirits. The real benefit of the healing ministry is that it can reassure people that they are loved and cared for, no matter what happens with the physical course of their disease. It can reassure those who are emotionally or spiritually scarred. It can touch them in their lives.

Yet so often when healing is not evident to us, we become guilt ridden. Why do I continue to suffer? Why is my condition not changing? I have faith. At those times of uncertainty we need to consider what changes God is making in our lives. Healing comes about in so many different ways.

I had a dear friend, Jo, a woman of deep faith, who had cancer. As one of her Christian friends, she shared her journey with me. She asked me to pray for her. As she went through surgery, then chemo and radiation treatment, I spent a great deal of time by her bedside, reading to her, sharing dreams, praying for her healing. Then one day she shared with me. “I think God’s healing is going to come in a different way for me. Pray for me that I will have a peaceful death and be with Jesus.” It saddened me. It made me feel guilty. Was I lacking in faith? Was she? And yet I could see peace surrounding her. I could see the pain and fear draining away from her. I came to realize that she knew God’s healing touch. Her death was an answer to our prayer for healing.

As we hold people in prayer during this service let us know the healing touch of God. Let us be willing channels of God’s healing grace.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12), Year B

God’s Grace Amid Life’s Storms

Readings: 1 Samuel 17:32-49; Psalm 9:9-20; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

We all know and love the story of David and Goliath. I suspect we view it as a kind of fairy tale, but it truly does not have the elements of a fairy tale. It is a far more realistic story than say “Jack in the Beanstalk”. The powerful Philistine army is lined up on the hillside. The militia of Israel stand quivering on the other. They are afraid of the secret weapon of the Philistines, the Mighty Goliath, a strong warrior, a formidable foe. David, the shepherd boy, too young to be in the army, is acting as gopher. He is delivering provisions to his brothers. He sees the situation.

“I’ll go and fight the Philistine,” he offers. What a ludicrous thought! This small boy against all that might! But no one else is willing to go, so they deck him out in armour; it just weighs him down. But he has a few secret weapons of his own, amongst them a sling, a few smooth stones from the dry river bed, skill, experience, and most important, faith. We know the story. David is able, through the grace of God, to face Goliath, terrifying, malevolent. In facing the terrible Goliath, he overcomes all odds. It becomes obvious to everyone. This is the one whom God has chosen. He is the one in whom the Lord is present. The fairy tale becomes a story of virtue overcoming strength and power. What a sense of hope that gives us!

The gospel is a similar story in many ways. It is the end of a long day. Jesus and the disciples need a break from the crowd. Jesus seizes the opportunity at hand. He and his disciples put out to sea in one of the boats. They have fished on the Sea of Galilee all their lives. They know its little quirks, it dangers. It is a very shallow lake surrounded on every side by the gentle sloping hills of Galilee. Storms can come up with great ferocity and little warning. But they need to get away, to escape the crowds.

Jesus was tired. Filled with the cares of many a busy day, tired of the thronging crowds. In fact, he was tired enough to lie down in the boat and go off into a deep sleep.

Sure enough, during the night a storm began to rage, a violent storm, life threatening. Huge waves were about to swamp their small boat. The disciples were terrified. Yet Jesus slept on. Is he simply indifferent to what happens to them? "Do you not care that we are perishing?" they cry out to him.

And he wakes up, wondering what all the fuss is about. He stills the waves and the disciples are filled with a different kind of fear and awe. The storm is nothing compared to the awesome power of this person. "Who is this," they ponder, "that even the winds and the sea obey him?" He showed his own power over forces beyond human control. God is truly with him.

It is easy sometimes to reduce a story like this to a wonder. That will just leave us wondering why we do not have the power to avert destructive hurricanes and tornadoes today. God knows we could do with such control.

But this story and the story about David and Goliath have a far more important message for us. They remind us that we are called to have faith in God, whose power and presence undergirds all of life and who undercuts false assessments of security and strength. So why do I find myself feeling terribly uneasy at Jesus’ censure of the disciples’ lack of faith? I am with them as they fearfully plead with him for help. After all, I am not beyond calling out to God in fear, “Do you not care that I am perishing?”

I have called out that way at many times in my life. I have called out in desperation. I have called out in fear. I have called out in frustration. In our day to day lives things happen that simply wear us down. Just when you think it cannot possibly get any worse, it does. Unexpected household expenses arise. Something goes wrong with the car and it needs repairs. And on top of it all you are let go at work. You are at the lowest ebb of your life. There is nothing to do but to grit your teeth and bear it.

Or is there? Somehow when we call out to God at times such as those, something happens. When the real storms of life rage somehow, somewhere, we get the energy to deal with it.

Numerous times I have observed care givers dealing with the sickness of a loved one. No matter how tired they get, no matter how discouraged, they lovingly go about the routine of caring for their every need. They forget about their own needs as they nurse their loved one back to health. Sometimes they wonder if they have the strength to endure any more. And yet the resources come from beyond themselves. They have strength enough to keep going. It seems very much like Jesus. He is bone weary. The disciples awaken him out of a deep sleep. “Peace! Be still!” he says. And the winds quiet down. The storm ends. What might we glimpse if we truly opened ourselves up to the resources that Mark tells us come from beyond?

We live in a world filled with problems – economic pressures, war and terrorism, storms and climate change, violence and crime. We feel like crying out to Jesus. We feel like laying the blame squarely on God. Then we hear the voice of reason. “Don’t you have any faith? I created, redeemed and appointed you for just such times as these. I am with you always, working out my will through you. Trust me. I won’t let you down. Your place is in the midst of the storm. That is where I have called you to be. I will be there with you.”

That is when we truly need to remember that God cares for humanity. In the midst of all our stupidity and greed, God truly cares for us. God’s grace is there for us. We don’t even have to earn it. It is there. God does not promise to cancel out all the storms of life as he did on the Sea of Galilee. We are still going to get tossed about. We may even think that God must be sleeping. What God does promise is to be with us as we face and endure the storms that whirl about us. We need to accept the promises and power and lay claim to the amazing sense of peace that comes in the midst of the raging storms that beset us. These stories show us the way. Thanks be to God.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (Proper 11)

The Kingdom of Heaven is as if ...

Readings: 1 Samuel 15:43-16:13; Psalm 20; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17; Mark 4:26-34

The kingdom of Heaven is as if ... Jesus begins many of the parables in just that way. And then he goes on in very human terms about the unknowable. He gives us a glimpse of the glory of God.

For Jesus the glimpses of the kingdom often came through nature. “The kingdom of Heaven is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground.” It may not mean a great deal to us in modern world, but it certainly got the attention of everyone in that agricultural society in which Jesus lived. They knew what he meant. They knew that once the preparatory work had been completed, the ground prepared, the seeds planted, their part was finished. All that remained for them was to wait patiently for the seed to grow. The growth, they knew, came from inside the seed. They created the conditions and let God do the rest.

The parable helped them to understand a great truth about the kingdom. When we receive the seed of Jesus in ourselves, we are capable of bringing forth much fruit. We don’t need to labour over it. The seed has already been sown. We need to patiently wait as God brings it to wonderful fruition.

The kingdom is as if ... Jesus gives another illustration. “It is like a mustard seed,” he told them. Once again, the crowd listening to Jesus already had a picture in their mind. It was a common saying in Palestine where that tiny seed becomes such a great shrub that the birds can build their nests in its shade. From something tiny and inconsequential grows something so large and secure and encompassing that it becomes home to the birds.

Small is large. Every small child is of tremendous significance. A small amount of food is enough to feed many people. A small person has a generous spirit. A small ragged band of followers becomes a world-wide church. A small baby becomes an important hinge in history. A small gesture represents a great love. A small group becomes a wonderful community. A small church accomplishes great things. A small glimpse takes us beyond ourselves to the kingdom of God.

Our human nature wants to know the unknowable, the unimaginable, the mysterious. We want to unlock the great mystery that is God. From time to time in our lives we get such glimpses of glory. They are the ‘ah has’ of life. We may not recognize them for what they are, glimpses of God’s kingdom, the kingdom of God is as if ..., but somehow through those glimpses we know a little more clearly that we are beloved of God, that we, small as we may be, are part of something so immense and wonderful that it cannot really be explained in human terms. It has to be experienced.

We all have such moments of revelation. For Wordsworth the kingdom of God is as if ... What else could he be saying when he wrote? “I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er hill and dale, And all at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden daffodils.”

There are times I have known that the kingdom of God is as if ... When something has been revealed to me. And yet when I think back on the moments my sense of them is so fleeting that I almost forget.

Most often such glimpses of the kingdom come to me through the beauty and wonder of nature. The kingdom of Heaven is as if ... someone visited the Rockies for the first time.

At least it was for me. It was a hot summer day when we left Calgary to head through the Rockies. Yet at Roger’s Pass we could quite comfortably have worn a winter jacket. I remember standing at a lookout and thinking that I had never seen such awesome beauty. The enormity of it ... peak after mountain peak as far as I could see. Cold grey rock, white snow peaks and blue sky. If you have been there, you know what I mean. But I suspect I cannot begin to explain it to someone who has never been there.

The kingdom of God is as if ... someone planted a grove of date palms along the Dead Sea. My visit to the Dead Sea was one of the most memorable parts of my trip to Israel. You have probably seen pictures of people floating in the Dead Sea reading their newspapers. It is a remarkable experience. The salt is so dense that even a non-swimmer will float. Great icicles of salt form above the surface of the water. The salt invades the land. There is so much salt in the soil around the sea that nothing should be expected to grow there. It should be barren desert. And most of it is. Yet there in that arid countryside, date palms flourish as the people of Israel reclaim the soil. It was one of many glimpses of the kingdom that I experienced on that amazing trip.

The kingdom of God is as if ... someone planted willow trees beside a stream. I lived for a time close to a large park in Toronto. Much of the park was unmanicured, left in its natural state. It was wonderful to walk into that part of the park at dawn or again at dusk. I would head toward a rather marshy area. There were a number of willow trees along the bank of a stream. There, the birds nesting in the trees would sing and chatter. The noise level was deafening, but not one creature could be seen in the dense foliage.

Is the kingdom here on earth like that? Are our churches and communities like that for the poor and the least of the world? Is the universal church a great sheltering tree of lost migratory birds? Whom do we hide and to whom do we give security in our lives?

If this kingdom, this reign, this place, this community of Jesus is a mustard plant, who is nesting in our branches? Which birds come to dwell with us in safety, hidden from the outside world in a secure place where the young can be nurtured and grow up knowing a home? Are there all kinds of birds, unnumbered birds, sheltering in this safe place?

If there are not then our eyes are not turned toward the kingdom. We do not share in that vision of God’s kingdom. For ever since Jesus sowed the seed, the light of the coming kingdom has been shining. But it depends on us to sow the seed. Otherwise we will fail to communicate the world. It depends on us to catch those glimpses of God’s glory and share with others our vision of God’s kingdom come. Let us plant one seed and trust that if our cause is good, God will support us and it will grow and prosper. Let us in our small way reach out as Church into this community and into God’s world. Let us hasten the kingdom. Amen.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Feast of the Holy Trinity, Year B

Eyes To See God

Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

The early church leader Augustine was once accosted by a heathen who showed him his idol and said, "Here is my god; where is thine?" Augustine replied, "I cannot show you my God; not because there is no God to show but because you have no eyes to see Him."

That is strongly the message of the Gospel on this Sunday as we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Trinity. The gospel tells the story of Nicodemus, a seeker, one who wanted eyes to see God, coming to Jesus. Nicodemus holds a high position in the synagogue. He is intensely religious in his own way. He is open to new possibilities, at least on the surface. Yet he comes to Jesus in the darkness of the night. It is the only way he feels free to come and find out about him. He senses the aura of godliness around this man. He is curious about him.

And what he finds out is more than he bargained for. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” Jesus tells him. They are startling words that take him aback as he discovers that the Christian faith is more than a nice way of life. It is a new way of looking at reality. It is a new way of looking at God. It means abandoning every attempt to become righteous on his worthiness and willingly accepting the free gift of God’s grace.

He finds it difficult to wrap his mind around it. “How can it be?” he asks Jesus. He wants to understand. He wants so much to learn about Jesus. Yet how difficult he finds taking that first step! And yet we know that he did, for he became one of those who were close to Jesus. He did open his eyes to see. He was there at the crucifixion. He was a witness to the resurrection.

So often we struggle to understand. We grapple with difficult theological concepts about God. The concept of the Trinity is one of those difficult things that we try to wrap our minds around. We struggle to explain God theologically. We struggle to put it all into words. We look for illustrations that will help people to understand how God can be three in one and one in three. We recite the creed. We search scripture for what it speaks to us about God. And those are truly good things to do. We need to know more about God. We need to exercise our minds about God. But when it comes down to it, like Nicodemus, we need to be seekers. We need to open our eyes. We need to see and experience how God is at work in our lives.

A couple of weeks ago some children doing a course in diversity came to St. Francis to find out about the Christian faith. I could have talked to them about what we believe but their eyes would have glazed over and they would have left with no more understanding than when they walked through the door. I let them loose in our church to explore. I got them to look around at what was important to us, at how we worship God. Through answering their questions about what they observed I was able to help them to understand and experience what we believe about God. They saw the cross towering above them. They followed the Way of the Cross through our Stations. They stood around the altar with me as we talked about sharing a meal. They examined the Paschal candle and the font. They and their parents and teacher experienced at least a taste of our approach to God. In fact, one parent said that she intended to find out more about the Christian faith.

This festival should not be one that leaves us confused. It should not have us arguing the fine points of Scripture. It should not have us debating the meaning of the creeds. It should not have us trying to explain the deep mystery of God. Rather, it should reinforce what we know about God. It should help us to experience God in new and exciting ways. It should open us up to new possibilities of worship and a new understanding of how God’s grace works in our lives.

Spirituality, our search for God, is more than human effort. It is more than reason. It is more than our pursuit of God. It is more than mindset. It is revelation. It is intuition. It is God reaching out to us. It requires our trust as well as our knowledge. What Trinity Sunday challenges us to do is to examine our image of God and to allow God to be revealed to us so that we can approach God and grow spiritually.

What is your image of God? Who is this God in whom you put your trust? Who are you worshiping Sunday after Sunday? Scripture cannot adequately express that for us. Each of us must come to terms with who God is and how God is revealed to us personally.

I find God in prayer and I do not mean in the formal prayers of the church, although there is something powerful about our Anglican liturgy. It is in my honest conversations with God that I feel God’s presence. It is in engaging in active listening that I discern God at work in my life. God talked to me as I walked my dogs this morning. I saw the hand of God in the beauty around me, and it became my prayer. The carpet of lush green in the woods, the sun filtering through the trees, the freshness of the morning air, the sound of the birds, a little grey squirrel sitting on a stump eating breakfast. I rejoiced that we have a loving Creator God.

I experience God so often through other people. It is not the things they say about God, but the things they do, their actions, their living faith, that convince me that the Spirit of God is working in and through humanity. I see it in children who have not yet lost their ability to simply be. I see so clearly in them that we are created in God’s image.

I experience our loving God as I look back over my life and see where God has led me. I see how Christ has walked with me through times of despair and sadness. I see how Christ has been with me as one door slammed shut and another opened for me. I see how Christ has been there at times of joy. I know and experience the saving grace of God.

God so loved the world. God so loved the world. God so loved the world. Let us have eyes to see our awesome God.

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 ...