Friday, August 28, 2009

Proper 22, Year B

Acceptable Worship

Readings: Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Adapting to change is a constant theme in life. It is human nature not to appreciate change. Consider the number of jokes about changing. We have all heard many versions of the ‘light bulb’ joke. How many Anglicans does it take to change a light bulb? Anglicans don’t change. It is true that as Anglicans in a liturgical setting we can get upset when something changes in the rituals. The ritual may not even make sense, but we want it to continue. Heaven help the person who tries to make a change!

I know this from personal experience. I could find a few examples from this congregation if I really tried, but it is much safer to look back to a previous congregation which shall remain nameless. When I first arrived in the parish they enlightened me about some of their “rules”. The best one was that the flowers on the altar were not to exceed the height of the arms of the cross. Since the cross and the flowers were all on the altar, it was no mean feat to arrange the flowers. They had a ruler back in the sacristy and if the flowers were too high, they simply lopped them off and stuck them back in the vases. The day I realized we had to find a way around the rule was the day we had four inch gladiolas sticking up out of the arrangement. There was no way to change their mind about the ‘rule’, but they adapted wonderfully to putting up sconces for the flowers and putting the cross on a ledge far above the altar. It also gave me much needed space on the tiny altar.

Rules can be a good thing. We need to follow the rules of the road if we do not want to end up in an accident. A classroom would be chaos if there were not rules of conduct. We live in community. If there were no rules on how to conduct ourselves, we would not exist as a society.

But there is another kind of rule. We also choose our own rules of conduct depending on the company that we keep. There are rules about how to dress. When I went on my first job interview as a teacher I wore a hat and gloves or I would not have been hired. In the 60’s if you saw a VW van with “Make love, not war” bumper stickers and a long haired driver wearing granny glasses you knew that they were hippies. In the 80’s, if you saw a BMW driver wearing Gucci shoes and a Rolex watch you knew that you were observing a yuppie. Think of some of the markers that people have today – nose rings, low slung pants, multiple earrings, tattoos.

Change is not a problem relegated to the 21st Century. In Jesus’ time it was a problem. Talking with women in the street was against traditional rules. Talking with foreign women was completely out of the question. Approaching lepers was not done. Healing on the Sabbath was a ‘no no’. Eating without washing your hands was unconscionable. There were many rules to follow. Some of them made sense. They brought order into the people’s lives. Some of them simply marked them, set them apart for who they were. Their observance of the Sabbath, food taboos and circumcision were the things that set the Jews apart from the Gentile world. Jesus did not regard the laws as bizarre or outlandish. He understood them. But at the same time he knew that it was the shema, loving God with heart and soul and strength that was the essence of Judaism. He knew that following every cleansing ritual prescribed by Jewish law would not make a difference to society. He knew that it was about more than simply following the old traditions. He knew that they needed to put their faith into action if it was going to be effective, if it was going to bring them closer to God, if they were going to live out their faith. He knows that what is needed to identify the people as God’s people is an authentic faith and a sense of justice and love. He knows that it far more about people choosing to do the right things, not because they are following the rules, but because they want to do the right thing. They want to do things because they are convinced that it is the right thing to do.

So what is it that marks us as Christians? The Gospel reading challenges us to do some honest self-evaluation. It is not through ritual that we serve God. Common sense should dictate to us whether or not what we practice as ritual has any merit. What brings us close to God is not how we practice our faith, but how we live it. Jesus pointed out the hypocrisy of their practices to the Pharisees. He let them know that they were more concerned about the enforcement of rules than the human situation. They were dependent on knowledge rather than faith. Their practices were more important than the purpose they served.

Again and again we hear Jesus take moral issues out of the realm of mere action and into the deeper realm of motivation. How many times must we forgive? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are forgiving people. Do we say grace day after day, praying for the needs of others, but never contribute to help change their plight? Do we bring names of the sick and suffering to the altar Sunday after Sunday but never go out to minister to them? Do we have a rich liturgical life but do none of the real work of the church? Do we think that we serve God by going to church on Sunday, or by spending time in private prayer, or through our financial support of the church? These may indeed be signs of a Christian living a Christian life. But they do not change the fundamental question. “How is my heart towards God?”

“There is nothing,” Jesus says, “that goes into a person from the outside which can make that person unclean. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that makes one unclean.” Jesus is affirming the holiness, the sacred nature of all creation.

A little child has been playing in the garden. He is covered with dirt from head to toe. He runs over to you and plants a big kiss, saying, “I love you.” How like that child we are. God loves us and we approach God with a grimy kiss. God looks through our messiness and our dirt, looks through all of these things that are wrong and sees innocence and a desire to please. God accepts our grimy kiss and is pleased with our coming, no matter what our condition.

So we must constantly ask, “Is our worship acceptable to God?” It is if we come, no matter how grimy, as children of God and go out cleansed, restored, and forgiven as servants into the world.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Proper 21, Year B

Where Can I Go?

Readings: Readings: 1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

A friend was telling me about a colleague who had left his church in a huff because he felt that the clergy had let him down at a time of great need in his life. He knew that my friend was quite involved in her church and conversation often centered on the Christian faith. She found him to be a caring person, a person of great integrity, and it bothered her that he had left over a bad experience. She found it sad, not only for him, but for his parish. As much as she empathized with him, she was not about to let him off the hook. “It’s no good staying outside and complaining about things,” she told him. The only way to make a difference is to come in and be part of the solution. The church is like a family. Sometimes people let you down, but they never stop being family to you.”

He left his work at the company to begin a new career. She phoned him up to see how things were going. His first week had been particularly difficult. He asked her to pray for him. At first she thought it was a joke, but she realized that he was totally serious and wondered if perhaps her words had struck a chord in him.

People have all kinds of objections to God and to the church. There are numerous excuses for being offended at the Christian faith. People get offended that we say “God bless you” when they sneeze. They are offended that we want prayers in schools and public places. They are offended by anything religious. A young person I know was told to turn her tee shirt inside out at school because it was offensive. You might think that it was because it used foul language. Actually it said, “What would Jesus do?”

So no wonder when we come across passages of Scripture like the Gospel for this Sunday, people find it offensive. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” Jesus says in John’s gospel. And as Anglicans, Christians in a liturgical tradition, we have a pretty good grasp of what that means. We meet Sunday by Sunday to break bread and drink wine in remembrance of God’s great gift to us. While we may not understand the nuances of consubstantiation, we do know that the Eucharist is about being nourished at the table so that we are able to spiritually nurture those around us. At the same time it is not difficult to understand the kinds of questions that could arise about those words. Certainly the claim that people should eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood is grossly off putting when taken literally. Let’s face it! It sounds like cannibalism.

If it is off putting to those of us who have some understanding of where it is coming from, then we can probably gather that such language was enormously offensive to the Jews of Jesus’ time. Jewish law forbade anyone to drink blood. Drinking blood was a terrible offense against Jewish law. Even the secular Romans during the early stages of Christianity considered Christians to be practicing cannibalism, and in fact wrote against it.

One parishioner commented this past week that many years ago when a Jewish friend questioned her about it and commented that it sounded like cannibalism, she did not know how to begin to respond. No wonder! They are words that offend. There is no doubt about it. It seems unrefined. It brings things down from the sublime to the ridiculous.

As Christians we are to understand that eating the body and blood of Christ gives eternal life. How could “eating his flesh and drinking his blood” do such wondrous things as giving eternal life? That is the promise that is given repeatedly in this text. Those who eat the flesh of Jesus and drink his blood receive eternal life.

No wonder many who heard the words of Jesus fled in disgust. Even the disciples wondered if they were on the right track. “This teaching is difficult,” they said to Jesus. “Who can accept it?” They are finding the claims about Jesus to be over the top, more than they can handle. And so Jesus explains it in a new way. He assures them that he is not speaking literally; he is speaking a spiritual truth. And then he asks them a very telling question. “”Do you also wish to go away?”

It is a time of reckoning. They need to make a decision. They need to make a commitment. It is Peter who puts their thoughts into words. “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” They have been on a spiritual journey with Jesus. They have seen him in action. They have a personal relationship with him. They know and trust him. Through him and his actions they have come to know God in a very real way. They still suffer from doubts, but they have already made the choice to follow him.

It was not just the first disciples that grumbled and questioned difficult teachings and chose not to follow Jesus. Many people wonder if Christianity has anything of value to say to them. Does it speak to the human condition? Is it simply wishful thinking? Is there any truth to it? What should I believe? Our faith can be offensive. It is difficult to be at ease with our faith’s paradoxes and demands. It requires commitment to God’s purposes. That strikes at the very core of our self-centred lives. We recognize sin and evil, but not necessarily in ourselves. Until we understand like the disciples that Jesus has the words of eternal life, the Christian faith can indeed be offensive.

If we continue to grapple with the faith, there comes a time in our spiritual life when we realize there is no turning back. It becomes inconceivable to us to follow any other path. That is not to say that we do not go through periods of doubting. Life is fraught with difficulties, for the Christian as for any human. Yet we come to a point where we know what choice we have made.

Some, of course will choose to be offended. They will choose to be offended by the little things. I know that I have been the cause of offense. I have caused offense to more than one person by simply being a woman priest. One person was offended that I wore sandals without nylons on a hot summer day. People are offended all the time that in this parish we insist that parents attend baptismal preparation before we baptize their children. People become offended at us as Christians when we uphold what is important in our faith. There is little we can do about such things except to pray for those who take offense.

We are fast approaching Back to Church Sunday. That is the Sunday that this church is going to be filled to overflowing with people who used to go to church but have gotten out of the habit. It is an opportunity to seek out those who have been offended, or who have simply drifted away. Pray for them. Send them a card, or better still visit them and personally invite them. Invite them to come to church with you on September 27th. Remember to ask them what time you can pick them up. It may not be easy. But it will be rewarding if they find they their way back to God. And you may find yourself becoming more centred in the faith, more committed.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Proper 20, Year B

What Matters?

Readings: 1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14; Psalm 111; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

You are with someone you dearly love. You would like very much to convince him or her to change their behaviour. Maybe you want them to stop a dangerous habit, avoid a quarrel, forgive some bitterness, forget something from the past, or to make a decision about something that keeps being put off. It could be your son or daughter, your mother or your father, your husband or wife, a friend. She is standing there before you. He is sitting right next to you. You talk, you reason, you argue, you speak. There is no response. You might as well be talking to the wall. He just stands there staring at you. She just sits there not showing any sign of real contact. You plead, “If only you could see things the way I see them. If only you could understand what I understand. I wish I could get inside your head and make you see. I wish I could get into your heart and make you feel what I feel. If only we could both think the same way about this!

That is the way Jesus is speaking in the gospel reading. That is why we have heard the same message over and over again for the past three weeks. “Listen to what I am telling you,” Jesus is saying to the crowd. Week by week the crowd changes and grows. First it is an intimate group of followers. Then it is some friends. Finally it the crowds that gather to witness his miracles. When they find out that there is no more free bread, the crowd grows increasingly hostile. “I know what is at stake,” Jesus says to them. “Listen to me. Try to see what I am telling you. Try to see things as I see them. Try to feel things as I feel them. I come from God. Eat the bread I eat. Drink the wine I drink. Drink my blood and eat my flesh!” “Figure out what matters!” he is saying to them.

Paul has much the same message for the Ephesians. “Be careful then how you live,” he says to them. You need to decide how to live your lives. You need to decide what is worth putting time and energy and talent into. You need to ask yourself, “What really matters? What matters in my life? Is what I am doing worthwhile? Is it something that will sustain me, that will contribute to the world in which I live? Will it give meaning to my life?”

Ephesus was a great city with a fascinating and varied life. Paul knew that living there could become an end in itself. These fledgling Christians could be drawn into its sophistication, its affluence, its sexuality, its commerce, its cosmopolitanism. It had so much to offer. He is not saying that everything is bad. He is just saying that they need to make choices amongst everything that is offered. The choices they make need to be life giving for them.

What about our world today? Does it sound at all like Ephesus? Our culture is a mixed bag. It varies from the sublime to the obscene. All the things that could attract the interest of the Ephesians could attract us. We can waste our time on things that are useless, or we can live creatively and triumphantly. It has always been that way. It is, after all, a matter of choice.

How would Paul address us, living here in Mississauga? How would Jesus speak to us today? We live in a world in which millions are starving while others eat too much. We live in a world where there is crisis after crisis. We live in a world of violence. We live in a world where people die of AIDS while wealthy countries hoard drugs that could be life saving. We live in a beautiful world that is dying inch by inch because of our lack of stewardship. If Jesus were speaking to us, he would speak words of life. He would speak them over and over again until we learned to listen. He would use every possible way he could to get across to us, to convince us, to help us understand what is best for us. He would say that he himself, his words, his life, his witness, are for us. They are for us if we will let them speak to us. They are for us if we allow them to be? He would use every word he could think of to let us know how much he loves us and cares for us and wants us to commit ourselves to him. He would speak even when he felt as if he were speaking to the wall.

So what matters? That is what the crowds around Jesus could not understand. They thought that it was about a miracle. They thought it was about getting everything their hearts desired. They thought it was about free food. They thought it was about being in the right place at the right time. They thought it was about being lucky.

That sounds pretty much like the world we live in. Let’s face it! We want miracles. We want everything our hearts desire. And we want it now. This week I got a letter in the mail. It was addressed to me. I suspected that it might be a request for a donation. I usually read such mail and then decide whether or not I wish to respond. So I opened it. It was a sales pitch for a good luck charm. If I were to purchase the ring they offered for only seven dollars they would guarantee that I would be lucky. All of my money and love problems would be solved. I would never have any difficulties in life again. All I need do is wear the ring.

We hear that same message in so many ways. Our materialistic culture hammers it out to us constantly. And we buy into it. If only we could move into a bigger house … If only I could win the lottery… If only …

Instead we need to keep reminding ourselves of what matters. Consider your own memories for a moment. We live in an age of extravagance. There is glitter and glamour. Yet I suspect that our most splendid moments are quite common and simple. A glass of cold water when we are hot and thirsty, a simple meal when we are hungry, a kind word when we are feeling down, a meaningful embrace expressed with sincerity … There is no act of love that is insignificant.

That is what Jesus wanted the crowds to know. He wanted them to know that God loved them. He wanted them to know that God really loved them. He wanted them to know the love of God in such a way that they could pass it on. He knew that if they saw and recognized the love of God standing there in front of them, if they understood that it was not about material things, but about warmth and attention and companionship and love, then that would be passed on from person to person.

We experience the truth of Jesus’ words in our tradition of the Eucharist. The sacred meal at the centre of our church’s life is not only nourishing for each of us, but it is nourishing and unifying for the whole body of the church. It convinces us of what really matters. Amen.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, Year B

Real Bread

Readings:
2 Samuel 18:1,5,9-15; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

When I was growing up, my mother baked all the bread for our large family. Saturday morning was bread-making day, and I can remember the delicious odours that came from that kitchen. As children, we were not always very appreciative of mother's efforts. When Sunbeam came out with a big advertising campaign, we longed for that over processed white bread. I remember asking mother if we could please have some "real" bread for a change.

Later on, my sister and I became the bakers of the family bread. We baked enough, not only for the family to eat for the week, but enough to sell around the neighbourhood for spending money for ourselves. It did not matter how much bread we baked. We could always sell it. People valued it. They valued its nourishment. Bread became a significant factor in our lives. We got creative in trying new kinds of bread, buns and rolls, and then sweet breads that people were willing to pay much more for. It became a vocation for us.

There is an old Chinese saying that goes something like this. When you want to help feed people, don’t give them a fish; teach them how to fish. Anyone who has ever worked in a food bank knows the truth of that saying. If you offer only food, the line forms every day because people get hungry again.

Jesus took a few small loaves and some fish and fed a huge crowd of people. But they got hungry again. They kept coming back for more. Their expectation was that Jesus would keep giving them free bread. In reality he offered them far more. He offered them spiritual food. He explained to them that giving them bread and fish would not solve their problems. He asked them to make him and his way of living the “bread and butter” of their daily lives. Yet they could not accept it from him. They could not see beyond the Jesus they had grown up with. They saw the carpenter's son. They saw Mary's kid. They did not see what he had to offer them.

We too are offered that same spiritual bread. Jesus offers himself to us as bread from God, as grace for our lives, the bread of life. We are offered that choice. But there are many kinds of bread offered to us by the world that, while far from nourishing, are very tempting. They hold great promise. They promise wealth. They promise success. They promise an easy existence.

We live in a technological age, a secular age. Many of the choices that we are offered every day are far from life giving. Many choices are destructive to the world in which we live. They are destructive of people and of things, of relationships, of resources. I think of just a few of the life and death issues of our age, genetic manipulation, cloning, euthanasia, abortion. The list is endless. And the problem is that when it comes to ethical decisions there are no easy answers. Life is not black and white.

That came to me very clearly as I read a novel by Judi Foucault this summer. “My Sister’s Keeper” is the story of a girl who gets herself a lawyer so that she can stop being an organ donor for her sister who is suffering from leukemia. The story is told from many points of view and offers many choices of how to live. There is Anna, the girl who was conceived to be her sister’s donor. She wonders whether she is loved for herself or simply because she can keep her sister alive. There is the sister who is dying of leukemia who struggles with pain and suffering and sometimes wishes it would simply end. There are the parents who try to make decisions for all of their children. There is the brother who feels left out and neglected and who acts out his frustration. There is the lawyer that Anna hires to represent her who has his own problems. And at the end of the story you are still left with the dilemma of wondering who is right.

How does that connect to Jesus, the Bread of Life? He offers himself as the life of the world. Not our life only, but the life of all creation. He is our creator. He is our sustainer. God has chosen, through Christ, to be involved in our world. That is a choice that we too must make. For that choice is what makes atonement a possibility. That is what is offered to us in the Bread of Life passages of John's Gospel. Our responsibilities, our choices, are very real. We are offered a conscious choice to see the evidence of the risen Christ in the world around us. We need to see, not simply Jesus, Joe’s son; we need to see Christ. To be, as Paul says, "imitators of God", to emulate Jesus, to follow him, to demonstrate God's love to others through the way we speak and act, through the company we keep, through our ethical choices, through everything we do.

Is it possible to be united with Christ through baptism, to confess our sins and receive absolution, to go through the motions of worship, but still fail to comprehend what it really means to believe in Jesus Christ? God has given us grace. But it is a two way street. I remember something that Corrie Ten Boom said in a talk that has stayed with me throughout the years. “God has no grandchildren,” she said. “God only has children.” And that is a choice we must make for ourselves. We must choose to be children. We must choose to be beloved of God. We must hear the word. We must accept it for ourselves. We must feed on the bread of life. We must appropriate it for ourselves and consciously accept God into our lives. Take God into the centre of our being. Become one with him through Christ. In that way, his life becomes our life. His love becomes our love. His purpose becomes our purpose. His goal becomes our goal. We are redeemed. We communicate his love and become broken bread to those around us.

We should “eat” him. Think what kind of a world we would live in if we accepted Jesus’ lifestyle and adopted it as our own. No child would ever die of hunger. No senior citizen would be lonely. AIDS would be wiped out, because we would not be hoarding needed drugs out of greed. We would be using good stewardship of the resources of the world. We would be attentive to one another, using the gifts that God has given to us. We would be serving at the table of the world.

Every time we say the Lord's Prayer, we pray, "Give us this day our daily bread." Are we like the crowds that followed Jesus? Are we asking for a free meal? Are we asking merely to have our material needs met? Or are we asking to be fed, to be nurtured spiritually by the true bread, Jesus Christ? Perhaps we simply rattle it off, not even conscious of what we are praying.

What if, for this week, we tried to take those words and let them speak to us of our human condition? Every day this week pray the Lord’s Prayer. Really pray, thinking about what it would mean to a hungry world to be fed those words of life. Think about it. We would die but not remain dead, because we would have eaten the bread of life. We would be like Jesus was, is and will be forever.

That is the Christian message. It speaks about sin and salvation, about death and life, about dying to sin and coming alive to God, about creation and redemption. What God has done in Christ affects not only us, but also the whole of creation. It is a call to renewal, to work with God discerning God's presence. It is about doing God's will, so that we can be transformers in society.

What happens in the Eucharist happens on behalf of the whole world. The bread set before us brings the starving into our presence. It brings the joyless, the sick the suffering. For it is a reminder that what we hold, we do so in trust for all. So let us break bread together. Let us eat. Let us be bread for a broken world. Amen.

The Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Sing a New Song Readings: Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17 People often tell me that they cannot sing. Invariably th...