Saturday, September 26, 2009

Back to Church Sunday

Dining With Jesus

Reading: Luke 19:1-10

As you can see, I am not preaching on the lections for Proper 26. We are celebrating Back to Church Sunday. I am using the suggested reading. For more information on Back to Church Sunday, check out their website at http://www.backtochurch.co.uk/

I love window shopping. Sometimes when I have time I will browse through stores where I know that the price is beyond my means. Invariably an immaculately dressed sales person will come to my aid. “Oh! I am just looking?” I will say. It is usually an uncomfortable moment when I feel as if I don’t really belong, but I brazen it out.

Zacchaeus knew that he really didn’t belong in the crowd that constantly followed Jesus. His lifestyle was completely opposite to everything Jesus stood for. For starters he was a tax collector. And not just any tax collector. He was the chief tax collector. That meant that he worked for the Roman government. To say that he was unpopular with the average person in Jericho is an understatement. He is tough, single-minded, courageous, independent. He has achieved a high position in a large and prosperous community. He may be small in stature, but don’t kid yourself. He is formidable. At the same time he is marginalized. It is not poverty that keeps him on the fringes of society. It is his very position. His wealth may insulate him against the hardships of life, but it also isolates him from other people. He is unacceptable amongst Jericho’s society.

Yet he is very anxious to see what Jesus looks like. Perhaps there is more to it than mere curiosity. “Who is this man who preaches, teaches and heals? Who is this amazing miracle worker?” he must have been asking himself. Maybe there is also a ray of hope in him. He feels like an outsider in his home town. It makes him feel very small indeed. He has heard how Jesus is a friend to outcasts. Perhaps he will be treated differently by this man. Yet he cannot push his way into the crowd, not simply because he is a rather short man, but mostly because the crowd will not give way to him. And so he climbs up into a sycamore tree in order to get a glimpse of Jesus.

Jesus spots him in the tree. He stops under the very limb on which Zacchaeus is perched. As he looks up into the tree, Zacchaeus is suddenly in the spotlight. All eyes are on him. They are waiting for Jesus to give him exactly what he deserves. They are waiting for Jesus to take him down a peg or two.

But that is far from Jesus’ mind. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down,” says Jesus. “I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus and the crowd learned something new about Jesus that day. They discovered that Jesus was one who reached out to those whom others assumed to be off God’s list. What is more, Zacchaeus welcomed the opportunity to be a host for Jesus.

The crowd was decidedly unhappy about the whole event. They grumbled against Jesus and the tax collector. After all, they said to themselves, Zacchaeus is nothing short of a scoundrel. He is beyond redemption. And here is Jesus consorting with him. He is not worthy of Jesus’ time. He should be punished, not saved.

Jesus found a sensitive human being who was anxious to act with justice in his community. “Today salvation has come to this house,” Jesus told him. Jesus knew all along that what Zacchaeus really needed was salvation. He needed it, and that was enough for Jesus. He offered him what he needed.

Zacchaeus had come in order to see what kind of a person Jesus was. Instead of catching a glimpse of Jesus from the limb of a tree he had a face to face encounter with him. He had a heart to heart conversation with him. He discovered something about the heart of Jesus. He discovered too something about his own heart’s desires.

It is a beautiful story of the grace of God. Zacchaeus undergoes a remarkable transformation. Whatever he may have understood about himself, Jesus saw a person who was up a tree in his life. And Zacchaeus not only responded, receiving Jesus into his home. He also made amends for his past. He gave a glad and unlimited response to God that day. It transformed his life.

I suspect we can all relate on some level to Zacchaeus. It is easy to feel as if you are out on a limb with no options. We all feel marginalized at times in our lives. I can certainly relate to it in my own life. There are times that I have wondered where God was or whether God loved me at all. I wondered if life was worth living. Life is not always easy. We go through periods of suffering or difficulty in our lives. It may be a serious sickness, or depression, or unemployment, the breakup of a marriage or the loss of a loved one. They can all cause us to lose faith.

I grew up in an inner city rectory, but we had a large yard with wonderful trees. I loved to climb up onto the branches of one of the large trees in the front yard and watch people walking up the street. There are times we would just like to quietly sit up in our tree and observe. We want to get a good look at Jesus, but from a distance. We want to watch him silently. We don’t want to be noticed.

It shows sometimes in the way we worship. It seems as if we would rather see Jesus than meet him. After all, it could be risky meeting Jesus. He might have something to say that we don’t want to hear. Reconcile with your neighbour who has upset you. Make amends to your family whom you have hurt. Give to the poor. Advocate for the oppressed. It really may seem better, after all, to sit silently in worship and see what happens.

Or we may even opt out of worship altogether. We may decide that church is not for us. After all, churches are filled with hypocrites who say they are Christians and then act in a way that says that they are not. But that is not what God needs from us. God needs a glad and unlimited response. It is in offering that response to God that we will be transformed as beloved children.

We may be like Zacchaeus. Or we may know a few people like Zacchaeus, people we have misjudged. It is easy to follow the crowd and simply let our misconceptions continue. It is about meeting them through Jesus’ eyes. Then perhaps we will catch a glimpse of one who is doing their best to be honest, generous, charitable, and true to their beliefs.

As followers of Jesus we are called to see the Christ in others and to allow them to see Christ in us. We are to join him in his invitation to dine with him and affirm the goodness that we find in every Zacchaeus we encounter.

Today we gather at the table with Jesus. We break bread and bless the cup. Together we share in communion. Hopefully you will find the grace and peace that dining with Jesus can bring.

Zacchaeus found out!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Proper 25, Year B

Holy Wisdom

Readings: Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13-18; Mark 9:30-37

A theme throughout the readings this week is that of wisdom. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” asks James. It is a challenge to all of us. We can claim to be wise. We can reiterate the adage that wisdom comes with age. We can look at the successes of our lives and claim that it is proof that we are wise. But it needs to be demonstrated in our lives. James asks that we show it by acting with humility and goodness. That is certainly not wisdom in the eyes of the world. Society promotes getting ahead. It is ambition that is rewarded, not humility. We speak about “keeping up with the Joneses”. Remember Avis’ old ads about being in second place to Hertz. Even that second place message is based on obtaining power over our competitors.

To be wise in the ways of God calls us to something quite different. It calls us to gentleness, compassion, humility and peace making. Godly wisdom teaches us that it is not about gaining power over others, nor does it lie in ambition, but rather it becomes evident in our striving to be God like. True wisdom will show itself in our lives. It will bring us closer to God. It will be shown in our quality of life, in the life giving decisions we make, in the good that we do.

It is certainly what Jesus emulated to the disciples. Jesus is at home in Galilee. The disciples are sitting at his feet. As they had been walking home they had been arguing about who was the most important. All this was happening as Jesus was explaining to them that he was going to die.

“What were you discussing?” he asks them. Suddenly no one has anything to say. They are quite rightly embarrassed. They have been caught out. Jesus has been talking about the kingdom of God. It is a new concept for them. They are finding it difficult to put into their context. They see it from their worldview. They visualize a kingdom in which the present powers are toppled and replaced with a new order with Jesus in control. They see Jesus’ mission in political terms within a hierarchical structure. It is perfectly logical. It is what they have experienced. And they see themselves assuming political roles in this new kingdom.

We get it, don’t we? They are being very human. As humans we spend time and energy disputing who among us should be considered the greatest? Is it the clergy or the laity? Is it the husband or the wife? And our educational system encourages competition based on marks rather than on learning. Children are taught from an early age to take part in sports activities, not primarily for the enjoyment of the game or for its physical benefits, but in order to win. We go through strikes which pit labour against management and leave us with the message that making more money is everything. Politics is the biggest offender with its smear campaigns that assault one another on a personal level. Advertising is big business. It encourages cutthroat competition at any cost. Competition and winning have become the primary religion of our increasingly secular lives.

But Jesus points out that he has come to preach quite a different message. “The first must be last,” he tells them, “The servant of all.” He is not judging their behaviour. He is teaching them how to achieve true greatness. He is explaining the essence of greatness. He gives them a practical illustration of what he means. He hears some children playing outside. He opens the door and calls out to one of them. He brings the child into their midst. The little boy stands there nervously shuffling his bare feet, his hands dirty, his nose running. Jesus puts his arm around the little tyke and draws him closer. The little one, welcoming the attention climbs up on Jesus lap. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me,” Jesus says to them.

It must have been quite a shock to them. This is the kind of child no one takes seriously, a street urchin, the lowest level of humanity. Even in our modern day world children often do not count for much. And here is Jesus saying that true greatness is achieved not by holding great offices, but by doing services to insignificant people such as this little child.

We can think of times that such service has brought a smile to our faces. The sense of trust as a child puts a small hand into yours. A toddler’s first tentative steps towards you, arms reaching out for support. A lost child’s frightened cry replaced with a smile as you help find her family. Consider whether you would feel the same if the child were a street urchin on the streets of Calcutta, or a slum child living in the dump outside of Kingston in Jamaica.

Greatness lies in servanthood. It consists of service. As Christians we are called to live out our lives in a spirit of humility and service. But if you are anything like I am, that is not always easily lived out. It is easy to say that we are called to serve the poor, the disenfranchised, the oppressed. But it is difficult to overcome our own perceptions of people. There was a shocking story in the paper last week about a bus driver in Toronto who refused to allow some children on his school bus simply because they were Roma, Gypsies. One of the little children refused entry to the bus was in tears as he explained that he could not even think about going to that “white” school after what had happened. I know that I can find examples in my own life. They have made me wiser in the ways of God.

Growing up in an inner city rectory, it was our job as children to make and dispense sandwiches and coffee to the many street people who came to the door for assistance. Many of them were ‘regulars’ whom we got to recognize. We saw their ragged clothing. We smelled the liquor on their breath. We labeled them. They were bums. We did give some of our favourites nicknames. There was Rudolph and Pinhead. It never occurred to us, or at least to me, that they were people with names and feelings and heartbreaking stories. We thought we were doing the ‘Christian’ thing. And in our own way we were.

When I worked in urban ministry while I was studying Theology at Trinity I was able to draw on those early experiences and find ways to reach out to the street people in a way which did not devalue them as people. I learned not to judge them. I listened to their stories. I learned their names, their real names. It took me a while to realize what real ministry it was. I kept thinking that I should be giving them something. What I came to realize was that in seeing them as people, in seeking Christ in them, I became a far more effective proclaimer of the gospel than I had ever been. In giving service to them I received so many blessings.

This past summer I bumped into a friend downtown. We sat on a park bench to get caught up. No sooner had we sat down that a couple of street people headed in our direction. “They are going to hit us up for money,” I thought to myself. “I wonder how Al will react.” To my delight he greeted them warmly and introduced them to me by name. We had a conversation about the weather. After they left he told me about getting to know them. He helped them from time to time with a meal or a place to stay. But their relationship was not about what he had to give them. It was a relationship built on mutual respect and friendship.

The whole notion of exercising leadership by serving seems paradoxical. But there really is no contradiction. It is true wisdom. There can be no real exercise of authority without service. Service lies in taking sides with those whom we would serve. We must continue to ask ourselves searching questions about our how we live out our faith. Are we living out the gospel message in our ministry in the church? In the life of our congregation? In our own lives? Who are we called to serve?

Jesus’ answer to the disciples speaks to us. Who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven? Who are the wisest? The answer of course is those who mirror Christ, those who give humble service to others.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Proper 24, Year B

Spotted Alive!

Readings: Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

“Michael Jackson spotted alive!” What do you do when you read such a rumour? That was the caption in the subject line of an email that I got this week. It took me to a video on YouTube. I realized because of who sent it to me that it was a joke. But you know! Michael Jackson still alive! Who wouldn’t read a little further or stay tuned to find out what the story is? So I went to check it out. What I discovered was that despite the funeral being viewed by millions of people, there are a myriad of rumours about Michael Jackson still being alive.

One of the videos, supposedly of him hopping out of the back of the coroner’s van, has had nearly two million hits despite the fact that you can scarcely tell what vehicle it is, never mind who is getting out of the back of the van. There have been eye witness accounts of his crossing the border into Mexico, of his lounging around a pool chatting with his friends, and of him working with the CIA. There have been theories put forward that he was hiding out in a bunker somewhere hoping to escape his financial problems. It has taken over from the “King”!

Rumours have always been a problem. There is James warning the early Christians to be careful of what they say about other people. His admonition is not simply about being tactful or holding back what we really think, but a reminder that we are made in God’s image, and our attitudes towards other people should reflect our understanding of what that means and our faith.

What would be the fastest way to start a rumour or story? These days of text messaging it is very easy. It only takes a moment to pass on the news to everyone on your contact list. Of course, we all know that it pays to “Snope” it out before you hit send.

If someone spread an untrue or confusing rumour about you, how would you fight it or persuade people to accept your word and truth? How might the stories or inaccuracies affect your life in rather negative ways? It is good to know what people are actually saying about you. Maybe some of those things are behind Jesus’ question to the disciples in today’s gospel. After all, there were many misconceptions about who Jesus was. Even the disciples were not always clear. And so Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?”

Often we are the last one’s to hear the rumours in the rumour mill. Jesus is wise to check it out with his followers who are more likely to hear what is going on than he. And he gets back a rather ominous list. John and Elijah and the prophets were all on pretty dangerous paths. If popular opinion was right, then the future could be pretty precarious for Jesus.

The conversation does not stop there. Jesus asks a further question, a far more important one for Peter to respond to. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus knows human nature. What we have heard about people often informs our own opinions of them and of what they have accomplished. He needs to know how his followers view him. It is one of the great moments in the gospel, a time for commitment, for soul searching, for decision making.

Peter answers. He answers intuitively. He answers from the heart. “You are the Messiah, the anointed one.” He knew what it meant, at least to a certain extent. It must have been a shock to him to hear it coming out of his mouth. He must have begun to realize the implications of being a follower of Jesus. If he did not get the full impact of his statement, certainly Jesus’ words about suffering and dying and rising again would give him pause for reflection. That is why Peter rebukes him. He cannot face reality. He cannot yet face the cost of discipleship.

We all come to the point where we need to honestly answer Jesus’ question. He is standing there, asking each one of us, “Who do you say that I am?” There are so many answers. I realize that over my lifetime I have changed my mind many times about who Jesus is. Is Jesus a freedom fighter? That was probably in Peter’s mind. There are many who see Jesus as liberator. Saviour, redeemer, creator, nurturer, friend, brother, companion, Lord, God, Almighty, King!

As it did for Peter and the disciples, it comes down to the real question. “Are you going to deny yourself and follow me?” As with Peter it needs to sink in to us not only who Jesus is but what the cost will be of following him.

Self denial is difficult for all of us. Sacrificing ourselves in the sense of denying the self in our lives is difficult enough. We live in a society where so much is available to us that we come to have a sense of entitlement for anything we might want. It stops being about what we need and becomes far more about needing everything our heart desires. If we find it difficult to deny ourselves things that we crave how much more do we resist the thought of giving ourselves over to God?

Bob Dylan talks about it in his own life. “Jesus tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Bob, why are you resisting me?” I said, “I'm not resisting you!” He said, “You gonna follow me?” I said, “I've never thought about that before!” He said, “When you're not following me, you're resisting me.”

What if everything we have done in our religious living and personal relationship with God has been for all the wrong reasons? What if we do what we do because we are looking for rewards, for Brownie points? What if we are following Jesus simply because we think it will be a way to avoid suffering, persecution and death? What if we are simply trying to cover all the bases?

That is why the question is so important. It is only when we accept who Jesus is that he can begin to teach us the consequences of our allegiance. What is Jesus teaching us? It is about our identity as Christians. It is about wearing that mark of allegiance as Christians. “I sign you with the sign of the cross and mark you as Christ’s own.” Those are the words we use at Baptism. We take chrism oil and make the sign of the cross on the forehead of the newly baptized. I always remind the children and their parents that they have an invisible marker on their forehead. They belong to Christ. It needs to result in action in our lives. We need to be servants of Christ. We need to deny ourselves and follow Christ.

Dorothy Day, a contemporary American saint started the Catholic Worker movement, opened homes for the homeless and community farms for the poor. She was special. She did extraordinary things. Yet she became quite indignant when told that.

“You say that I am special because you don’t want to do what you see me do. You can easily do what I do, but by convincing yourself that I am someone special you can escape from your own responsibility. We are not so different. You can do what I do.”

What is the cost of discipleship? It costs everything. It requires becoming a servant. It requires action. It requires sacrificing ourselves. That is difficult. Somehow it is easier to leave it all to Jesus, and to join him in a kind of fan club. But God does not intend us to be mere spectators. We are co-responsible. And what Jesus is saying so clearly in this passage is that when we take responsibility, when we deny ourselves, when we become disciples, we become more truly human. We discover our true self.

The gospel warrants a few choice rumours being spread around. “Jesus spotted alive in Meadowvale Church” the headline reads. The article goes on to talk about the wonderful things that are happening in our lives here in this parish. We are hearing and responding to the word of God. We are witnessing to our faith. We are reaching out into the community. We are growing in grace. Amen

Friday, September 4, 2009

Proper 23 Year B

Touched By God

Readings: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-10, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-10; Mark 7:24-37

Jesus is traveling outside of his usual haunts. He goes to someone’s home. He is trying to keep a low profile, but news of his miracles has preceded him. He is noticed, especially by a woman whose daughter is suffering from what her mother describes as an evil spirit. The woman begs Jesus to heal her daughter. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” Jesus says to her. What an insult he throws at the woman. I find it so difficult to fathom. What was Jesus thinking? His words must have hurt her so badly. But her love of her daughter is greater than any hurtful words could be.

And so she answers Jesus, “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.” Jesus has a change of heart. He heals the woman’s daughter. But once again the story surprises me, for he doesn’t touch her. And so I am left asking why not. The gospel constantly gives us glimpses of the miracle-working touch of Jesus. He touches someone whose eyes are opened. He touches another who gets up and walks. Yet another is restored to health and gets up out of bed to serve.

And then there is the story that follows that of the Syrophoenician woman. Jesus is back in Galilee. The crowd follows him, bringing people in need. Amongst those brought to him for healing is a deaf person. Because he cannot hear, he cannot speak clearly. Jesus takes him aside privately. He puts his fingers into his ears. He spits and touches his tongue. Then he simply says, “Be opened,” and the man can speak freely.

And so this week I have led me to reflect on our sense of touch. We use the word ‘touch’ in more than one way. We use it to describe the physical sensation of touching. Our skin, our largest organ, is the sensor for our sense of touch. So our whole body is involved. We also use the word ‘touch’ to describe an inner sense, an emotional response to what happens in our lives. I was so touched by what you said. I was so touched by your kindness. I was so touched by what you did for me.

Sadly often we cannot touch people in a physical sense anymore. Teachers can't put their arms around children in their classes. Even in the church, we have to be careful to check out whether or not it is all right to touch someone. We have to make certain that our actions are not misunderstood. Yet the value of touch is well known and documented. Modern medicine uses therapeutic touch. We may not understand exactly why it is important, but we do know that it works. It is important to our well being. The healing ministry of the church recognizes its importance. It is a ministry not only of prayer. We anoint with holy oil; we lay hands on the sick.

An old friend of mine who has a chronic illness was in hospital for some tests. During her stay, she picked up a viral infection that was resistant to antibiotics. She suddenly found herself in isolation. People had to scrub and put on gown and gloves before entering her room. She felt as if, somehow, it was her fault for catching the virus in the first place. People avoided visiting her. Nurses treated her differently. What she missed most was any form of contact. No one would touch her. It was, of course, for the protection of other patients. But she got the distinct feeling, that even though the nurses knew they were not the ones at risk of becoming infected, an instinctive fear for their own well being kept them even more remote from her. After several months it still bothers her at a deep level.

There is also the experience of nurses dealing with the SARS outbreak. Two of the nurses became ill and so saw the epidemic from both sides. They in particular spoke of the sense of isolation, of not being touched. Patients suddenly found themselves in isolation. Family members were not allowed to visit. Nurses had to scrub and put on masks before entering a room. They spoke about feeling as if, somehow, it was their fault for catching the virus in the first place. Even those who did not get sick said that their whole reason for being nurses was called into question. The sense of ‘tender loving care’, the ability to touch people in a healing way, was taken away from them.

And so I reflect on the other ways in which Jesus touched people. A tax collector turns from his cheating ways to become a follower of Jesus. One who hates Christians, seeking them out to destroy them is transformed by the love of God and becomes a propagator of the gospel he set out to destroy.

Jesus touched people. His touch did not simply bring healing to the deaf man. It freed up all sorts of things in the crowd who witnessed the miracle. The witnesses to the event are touched on an emotional level, opened up. New possibilities blossom within them. Perhaps Jesus is not merely a hometown boy, the son of the carpenter, Joseph. Perhaps he is more than just another itinerant healer. He is, after all, remarkable. “He does everything well!” they exclaim. Healing and wholeness come through this one who stands before them inviting them to be open, touching them, not only physically, but also to their very core.

Jesus through touch, steps over taboos against relating to unclean persons. He widens God’s unending circle to include all of us. By touch eyes are made to see, ears to hear, tongues to speak, feet to walk, hands to serve. He disentangles the broken strands of life, the discordant harmonies of fear, despair and hopelessness. He touches, and people are brought back into relationship with a loving God and walk once more within divine order and orbit.

In the same way, Jesus reaches out into our world. Alcoholics, drug addicts, criminals, the sick, the lonely, the empty, the suicidal, are touched by the Spirit of God and transformed into loving, serving children. And redemption comes to us through God touching us. God identifies with us. God enters into our way of life. God becomes one of us. God reaches out and touches us. We are drawn close through Christ, united, once and for all with God.

The touch of the Christ is on each of us. It comes to us through the Spirit at Baptism. We renew it throughout our lives as we make our own commitment to the faith. It does not do away with all of our problems and conflicts, but it does bring about transformation in our lives. It brings about meaning and purpose and salvation.

For that touch from God is our invitation to be opened, to be opened up to new possibilities, to be touched on many levels. We in turn reach out and touch others.

Openness to God is revealed in action. To be touched by God is to be called into action. As James says, “Be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” We have been blessed by hearing the word. How do we now “do” what we have been blessed by hearing?

Faith is not merely listening, speaking, discussing, arguing and analyzing. Those all help us to learn about our faith. But knowledge is not enough. Faith is acted out. It is lived out in the Christian life. It is not enough to hear and know all about it. That will never touch another life. As ‘unanglican’ as it may seem, witnessing to what God has accomplished in our lives and acting on it, are an integral part of our faith. Our faith is useless unless it is backed up by our actions. What earthly use is the Christian community if it stands at a distance from the world, preaching at it? How will that touch people’s lives? How will that convey to people a God who walks with us? How could it possible open people up to the truth of the gospel?

The Christian community is called to involve itself with the struggles and problems of the world, a world which is searching to become more truly human. We are not called to stand in judgement. We must not stand at a cultural distance. We must identify with all of humanity. We must enable people to find ways of expressing the life of faith and worship.

May we live out our faith with a sense of justice. May the Spirit of God in us touch others as our lives have been touched by God.

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...