Saturday, October 31, 2009

All Saints, Year B

Living Saints

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24:1-6; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

Every year on the first of November we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. In our worship, we consciously join ourselves to the saints in heaven. We put into practice our faith in the communion of saints.

Why do we honour all of the saints? In the early days of the Church, martyrs were remembered on the anniversary of their death. The first three centuries were times of persecution for Christians. The number of martyrs increased dramatically during that time. The number of free days in the calendar decreased rapidly. Finally in the fourth century, one day in the year was set aside to commemorate all the saints who couldn't be fit into the calendar. The important saints continued to have a day set aside for their remembrance. The lesser saints became part of the "communion of saints" that was remembered on All Saints Day.

There is another aspect to the celebration, for this day is a reminder to us that we are all called to be saints of God. All Saintstide is a reminder to us of our call to holiness. Ronald Knox, a Roman Catholic theologian, commented that "the Church in Heaven is all saints, but the Church on earth is all sorts". There are all sorts of us in the Church of God. All sorts of denominations. All sorts of theologies. All sorts of liturgies. All sorts of personalities. And we are all, all sorts of us, called to be the saints of God. We people of God are all sorts of saints.

That is probably the most difficult thing for any of us to accept. We do not like to think of ourselves as being holy. Somehow that is not cool. Besides, are we not supposed to be humble? It is probably okay once in a while on a Sunday to actually be seen praying. But to recognize our call to be a saint! That is asking too much. Why, we might have to change the way we live our lives. We might have to acknowledge that we are Christians. We might have to admit to our friends that we follow Christ. We might have to acknowledge our sense of community, our sense of belonging to the body of Christ. We might have to make a commitment. We might have to live up to the promises of our baptism.

That is the very reason it is so important to celebrate the lives of the saints of God. Thoughts about the saints arouse within us a longing to be with God and to share in their company. Awareness of the saints hopefully awakens within us the urge to live in the company of all the saints who have heard the call to absolute love and responded with enthusiastic faith. When we remember the saints in heaven, it enthuses us to practice the virtues that we see in their lives and to be filled with the life of Jesus just as they were. Recalling the saints reminds us of our ultimate destiny and our need for Christian living here on earth.

So today we remember all those Christians who have lived before us. We celebrate that we are surrounded by a community of believers, those from every age who have served Christ and who have lived the life of faith. We celebrate that we are on that same path of becoming.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “How little people know who think that holiness is dull. When one meets the real thing, it is irresistible.” So how do we come to the place where it becomes irresistivle to us and we accept our call to holiness?  

It begins, I suspect, with discovering that even the greatest of saints was a real person. Learning about their lives should convince us that they were real people with real struggles. It should convince us of their humanity. What does it mean to be one of God's saints? Mother Teresa who died in 1996 was often referred to as a living saint. In 1982, during a visit to San Francisco to mark the 800th anniversary of the birth of St. Francis of Assisi, the diminutive nun was asked how it feels to be called "a living saint."

"Possibly, people see Jesus in me," she replied. "But we can see Jesus in each other. Holiness is meant for all people."

It doesn’t take a genius to know that she was a saintly person. Her work amongst the poorest of the poor shows a dedication to the gospel that is so rarely seen. But that puts sanctity, holiness, out of reach of most of us. Perhaps we need to begin with what it does not mean. It does not mean that we are perfect. Our Christian life is a journey towards holiness. We, like the saints of old, have come through ordeals – through grief, loss, unemployment, sickness, pain, suffering. Yet we struggle to keep the faith. We struggle against the indifference of the world. When we are in the midst of pain and suffering, it is easy to feel as if we are alone. But the wonder of it all is that we aren’t. We are part of that great community, the communion of the saints. Those who have given loyal service to God. Those who have faithfully witnessed to the Gospel truth.

We are called like those who witnessed the raising of Lazarus, to see the glory of God. It is a kind of seeing by which we are able to understand more clearly than ever before what the purpose of life is. It may be coming to an understanding of evil or sin. Such revelations transform us so that we are never again the same person.

Often, the transformation of our lives happens in strange and unexpected ways. The stone is rolled back. Like Lazarus, we step out of the cave into sunlight so bright that the world can barely be recognized for what we thought it was. We discover God's way of looking at life. Weeds and flowers become one and the same; our successes and failures, crying babies and crotchety old people, sumptuous banquets and dry bread, all become transformed by God’s grace.

Like Lazarus, we are brought to new life by the death and resurrection of Christ. Our membership in the communion of saints unbinds us to do God's work in the world. We help one another to remove the things that bind us and keep us from living God's life to the fullest. We accept our place in the communion of the saints of God. We fulfill in our lives the commitment to our baptismal promises.

Through baptism we become children of God, joint heirs with Christ. We are adopted into the family of God. Because we are joint heirs with Christ, we also share in the resurrection. In this way, the family of God extends beyond faithful Christians on earth, but also to the blessed in heaven. This is what makes the communion of the saints truly universal: it spans history, geography, nationality, race, and all other temporal barriers we might erect.

It is a humbling, yet awe inspiring thought to know that when we worship God in the Eucharist, we are joining our worship with every Christian in heaven and on earth from the beginning of time until the present day. May we know that no matter what happens we are Saints. And no one can take that away from us. May we live as the saints we are called to be. Amen.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Proper 30, Year B

What Do You Want Me to Do For You?

Readings: Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Psalm 34:1-8; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52

It is said that when you lose one sense the other senses are heightened. Those who are blind begin to see in other ways. I certainly noticed that in Jewel, my dog who was blind. It was amazing to see how well she could navigate without being able to see. Most of us who are sighted fail to see even what is right before our eyes. We may see, but we don’t perceive. Or we see what we want to see.

An elderly woman boarded a plane one day. As the stewardess helped her to her seat she kept thinking, “As if I’m not busy enough! Now I’ll have to spend the whole trip helping her.” The businessman seated beside her noticed her wallet bulging with pictures. “She’ll be talking incessantly about her grandchildren,” he thought to himself as he pulled out his paper. The teenager in the window seat put on his earphones and ignored her completely. Following the flight, they all picked up their luggage and walked out into the lounge. There was a huge crowd gathered to greet the old woman. “What an honour it is for us to have an artist like you visiting us.”

The disciples often had trouble with their perception. James and John, for example, had a problem with seeing. They spent three years with Jesus and still didn’t really understand who he was.

On the other hand, an old blind beggar had no trouble seeing at all. He knew everyone who passed by his stretch of road on the outskirts of Jericho. He heard their feet shuffling along in the dust. He heard the sighs of relief as they drank deeply of the cool water from the well. As certain people approached his hand automatically stretched out in anticipation for the coin that would be dropped into his palm. As others came by he shrank into his cloak.

He heard stories that stirred a deep longing within him. Stories of a miracle worker! A healer! So even in the midst of the crowds heading toward the oasis he recognized Jesus and his disciples as they came down the road. He began to call out, “Have mercy on me."

"Be quiet!" Others on the road ordered. But it did no good. He just shouted louder. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Jesus stopped when he heard the man's plea. "Call him here," he said to them. Bartimaeus did not need any further invitation. He threw off his cloak and sprang to his feet.

"What do you want me to do for you?" Jesus asked hiim. He had been waiting all of his life for someone to ask that question. He knew exactly what to ask for. He was desperately in need. He had lost everything, even his name. Son of Timaeus, they called him. Those around him had compassion on him in a way. They often threw him a few coins to keep him quiet; but underneath it all, he knew that they blamed him for his troubles. But this was Jesus. The miracle worker! Standing before him. Here was the one who could lift his life out of defeat. It was his one chance. And he seized the opportunity. He asked for healing, "My teacher, let me see again."

And Jesus said to him, "Go. Your faith has made you well." He could see. He became whole. He followed Jesus. A healing took place that day. A deep healing! But far more than that, a transformation! Bartimaeus began to follow Jesus. He became a disciple.

Job's story is similar, for Job too lost everything. All he could do was to cry out to God in his need and hope that God would hear and respond. God’s answer was like that of a loving parent. God could not make the hurt go away. But God could offer a hug. A hug made it possible to bear any amount of suffering. It transformed Job. “Before, I knew you only by hearsay,” he said to God, “but now, having seen with my eyes, I retract what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes.” He witnessed God’s glory. He understood the meaning of his suffering. He felt the compassion of God. He experienced God walking with him.

“What do you want me to do for you?” God asks us on our faith journey. “What do you need? Do you have a longing in your life that just does not seem to be satisfied? Do you dare to ask me to respond to that longing? Can you name your need?” We all come to God with different needs. It may be a need born of desperation. It may be a sudden awareness of our neediness and an equally sudden response to God. It may be a gradual approach, tentative at first and then growing. We may still be searching for what it all means.

That question, "What do you want me to do for you?" is the central drama in our Christian life. We each respond in our own way. And as long as it is central in our lives, then the church lives. It is the root of our Christian vision. It includes all of us; rich and poor, blind and sighted, powerful and weak.

Naming our need is so important. It is the reason why twelve step programs work. The first step is to name the problem. “My name is … and I am an alcoholic.” Until they are able to take the beginning step, there is no recovery.

Victims of abuse too need to name their experience. It is freeing to tell your story and be believed. The greatest affirmation any victim can receive is to be asked as Jesus asked Bartimaeus, “What do you need?” It can be the beginning of healing. It can do far more than any amount of compensation.

Over the years, our aboriginal people have articulated their need for the Church to make amends for the years of abuse they endured. When Michael Peers, the then Primate gave an apology on behalf of the Anglican Church it was a significant step in healing the blindness of centuries of abuse. “I accept,” he said, “and I confess before God and you, our failures in the residential schools. We failed you. We failed ourselves. We failed God.” It was a beginning that is transforming the life of the Church. That work goes on through our National Church still as we hear and respond to the stories of abuse.

That hope springs from the experience of South Africa since the end of apartheid. Desmond Tutu’s prophetic voice speaks profoundly about the sweetness of liberation. He firmly believes that liberation came about through God’s faithful people who had a vision of what that blinded society should be like, and who were unwilling to give up that vision. He saw it as an expression of the faith and prayers of Christians throughout the world.

And somewhere along the way we need to turn that question around. We need to say to God, “What do you need from me?” We need to commit ourselves to God, responding to God's call. It is a question that we need to ask on a personal level, but also as a community of faith. Do we have a vision for our church and for our society? What is the answer to what many say is the post Christian era? What is the answer to the violence in our society? How do we reach out to people who may never have had any contact with the Christian faith? How do we make our church "user friendly" for those who may never have been in a church? How do we help our young people live a Christian life in a system that often reacts in embarrassment at the mere mention of the Christian faith?

It is about opening our blind eyes. It is about seeing and perceiving. It begins with recognizing our own need. It continues with our prayer of faith that gives us a vision for all of creation. As long as that is central the Church lives. Jesus can heal a blind society. He can heal a disintegrating civilization. Through our vision, through our reaching out to those in need, through our commitment to the gospel, through our eyes. Open our eyes, Lord. We want to see Jesus.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Proper 29, Year B

Proper 29, Year B

What God Expects From Us

Readings: Job 38:1-7; Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

Most of us aspire to greatness at some time in our lives. It is ingrained in us as we go through school. It is part of the work ethos in our North American culture. It can lead to a top of the pile mentality that causes frenzied activity in our lives. We are not alone in that kind of aspiration. It appears from the gospel reading today that the disciples of Jesus were like that too. They had listened to Jesus countless times talking about the kindgom of God. Yet here are James and John making an outlandish request.

Rather than coming right to the point, they begin with a little manipulation. It is a line we have all tried at some time or other. “Will you do for us whatever we ask?” they say to Jesus.

And he responds in probably the only way he can. “What is it you want me to do for you?” And then it comes.

“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left in your glory.” What are they thinking? Had they ever listened to one word that Jesus said to them about the kindgom?

And Jesus goes on to explain to them once again what it takes to be truly great. “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant. Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” And he reminds them of his own call, a call that ultimately leads him to suffer for the sins of humankind.

The disciples needed to learn the price of greatness. They needed to know what was at stake. They needed to know that greatness consists of understanding what your particular call is. They needed to know what God expected from them. They needed to know that there was a price to be paid. They needed to know whether they were ready to pay the price.

It is important for all of us to understand at the end of the day what really motivates us. When all is said and done, what really matters? The reason it is so important to know and to understand is that it will determine the way we live the whole of our lives. It is important in our personal lives.

Jesus was certain about the mission that God had sent him to do. He understood the purpose of his life and indeed of his death. There was nothing that would keep him from fulfilling it. We see that throughout scripture. It is an integral part of the gospel passage. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

We are all candidates for that kind of greatness. It is a call to servanthood. It consists of knowing what your particular call may be. Take for example the story of a young woman who aspired to become an Olympic champion. Her aspirations absorbed her in intensive training until she finally ranked ninth in the world in the women's hundred yard dash. She had everything she needed to achieve greatness including talent. It looked as if she would participate in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.

“Competing in a sport sounds glamorous,” she said. “But when you are standing outside ready to begin a run at five o'clock on a cold and miserable morning, with every muscle aching from a weight-training session the evening before, there is nothing to hold you there except your goals. Yet eventually,” she goes on to say, “ I got to the point where I realized that as much as I loved my sport, there were some values that were even more important to me. I wanted to get married and have a family. I wanted to be more involved with my friends and in my church community. I could not fit everything into my life. The realization led me to give up my Olympic aspirations.”

Was it an easy decision for her? Not at all! She agonized over it. Particularly when the Olympic Games were on. Yet it was in watching her team mates as they made the finals that she came to accept that it was, for her, the right decision.

You won't find her name in any book of records. But she did go on to live the life that God was calling her to live. I would say that she achieved true greatness.

It is just as vitally important for us to understand our call as a parish. Some years ago I received a short article adapted from “Good News People” by Harold Percy. In it he outlines the difference between parishes which are simply sustaining themselves and parishes which are mission minded. He gives many examples of the difference between maintenance and mission. As I reflect on this parish I see us moving from maintenance to mission. I see us beginning the transformation from a congregation that struggled simply to maintain its presence in this place to a church that is reaching out beyond itself into the community. We are beginning to think about how we can best support the community. We are raising up good leaders.

We have responded to God's call to servanthood. I see the many ways in which that is happening. As I look at our Apple Tree Banner on the back wall I am constantly amazed at how many people take an active role in this congregation. You give freely of your time and talents. There are names of young people who offer their time as servers and assistants. We would not have been able to host a wonderfully successful Vacation Bible School last summer were it not for the time given by our teens. In total, they scored up a whopping one hundred and eighty hours of service amongst them. That is just our teens. We have lectors, teachers, Bible Study leaders, the ACW, secretarial help … The list goes on.

You give generously, both for the work of this parish and for our Outreach into the community. During the last four years our givings have steadily increased so that we are more and more able to meet our commitments.

This is the beginning of our Stewardship campaign for this year. The theme for this year is “What God Expects of us”. That is a wonderful theme. So often we let God know what we expect of God. That is what James and John did when they asked to sit by Jesus' side in the kingdom. But what does God expect from us? Over the next few weeks, we will keep that theme before us. We will be reporting to you about the needs of this church as we move forward into a new year. We will present our budget in the form of a narrative so that everyone can plainly see the needs of the congregation. Hopefully it will be a reminder of our mission to respond to God's call, to serve, and to commit ourselves to the gospel message.

This morning we have another task. Actually as I think about it, it is not another task. It is part of our stewardship. For this morning we are also holding a special vestry. I want to bring before you briefly a couple of issues of importance not only to this parish but also to the Church Centre. Let us move into our Vestry.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Harvest Thanksgiving, Year B

Don't Worry!

Readings: Joel 2:21-27; Psalm 126; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Matthew 6:25-33

Don’t you love it when someone says, “Don’t worry! Everything will be fine!”

“It’s easy for you to say,” you think. “This is my life. It isn’t happening to you. It’s happening to me. Your job isn’t on the line. Your child isn’t having trouble at school. Your marriage isn’t on the rocks. I have so much to be worried about,” you are thinking. And worry seems to be a part of our existence. We worry about everything. We are preoccupied about our health and dying a premature death. We are concerned with our aches and pains. And then there are the worries about whether or not we have enough money. Even in Canada, a country flowing with milk and honey, we worry about food, whether we will have enough to eat. We worry about what to wear, not so much about whether we have the basic necessities of clothing to keep us warm, but about whether or not we are in style. It matters so much to us about how we appear to other people.

I wonder what the disciples said to Jesus when he told them not to worry. I can hear them thinking, “Don’t tell us not to worry. We’ve given up everything to follow you. We haven’t been home in months. Most of the time we don’t know where our next meal is coming from. Not that we’re complaining!”

"Your citizenship is in the kingdom of God,” he tells them. "You can afford to lose your possessions. You can even afford to lose your lives. You are children of God. God will never fail or forsake you." Jesus is not saying, “Give up your work.” He is saying, “Examine your priorities. What are you going to put first in your life? What is important to you?”

We all know that our primary concern in life should not simply be with material things. The meaning of life is not to be found in things. It is not to be found in jobs, income, pension plans, food, clothes, reputation, status.

But hold on. That isn’t a very practical form of discipleship. It makes too many demands of people. It calls for real commitment to the will of God. It demands that we put God first. While that is a good message for us to contemplate as we celebrate the harvest, the wealth that God has provided for us, it is not an easy message. Even in our own country where we live in the midst of plenty these are not the easiest of times. We don’t worry just about death and taxes. We worry about job security. We worry about raising our children. We worry about health care issues. We worry about growing old. How are we to follow Jesus' admonition not to worry?

The Old Testament passage from Joel is God's response to the people of Israel. They suffered a terrible locust plague. Rather than moaning about their fate, they responded by appealing to God. They remembered their past experience with God. In their remembering, they gave thanks that the God of history, the God they have worshipped in the past, the God that has sustained them through many difficulties and trials, that God is with them still.

And God responded to their needs. "You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame." It isn’t perhaps the message that we want to hear. It is not a promise of great wealth. They haven’t won the lottery. It is not a promise that nothing will ever go wrong again. This is real life. It is part of our human condition to suffer. But God is promising to continue to journey with the.

The passage from the letter to Timothy urges the people to pray, to intercede, to give thanks, for everyone. He calls for them to understand the importance of prayer. God knows the needs. But they are the vehicles through which God can meet those needs with that loving grace which is so freely given. That kind of prayer calls for thankfulness. It calls for remembering what God has done for them and continuing to praise God with all their hearts.

For whatever reason, as a people who are certainly blessed with more than our share of the world's wealth, we don’t always seem grateful for what God has provided. We want more than simply a good harvest. Produce has to be perfect or people will not buy it. We import food from all over the world so that we can have variety in our lives. And yet we still find it very difficult to thank God for all the great gifts of creation. We have a long list of things that we need, but a short list of things for which we are grateful.

Why is it that we find that so difficult? What do we expect? What is central for us? What are our priorities? What do we put first in our lives? Isn’t that the point of the readings? We need to learn to live a more balanced life. We need to set our priorities. Most of all we need to understand what it means to lift thankful hearts and voices to praise God.

Celtic spirituality, which is at the root of our British heritage, had a wonderful way of living that out. They had a deep connection to God in their daily lives, a strong sense of God’s presence with them. It began with their thankfulness to God. A woman began her day by lighting the fire. "I will kindle my fire this morning in the presence of the holy angels of heaven," she prayed. She washed her face. "The palmful of the God of life, the palmful of the Christ of love, the palmful of the Spirit of peace." As she made her bed she prayed, "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. In the name of the night we were conceived, in the name of the night that we were born, in the name of the day we were baptized, in the name of each night, each day, each angel that is in the heavens." As she began her day, so she moved through her whole day, praising God for all of the simple things of life. Every aspect of life was sacred. All of life was part of God's creative work in the world. Life was lived under the shadow of God's protective arms. Awe and dread of God was balanced by trust in God's love and mercy. For her, this was God's world, a world to be claimed, affirmed, and honoured.

Our Aboriginal people have no particular time to give thanks. Every aspect of life is an opportunity to give thanks to the creator. We have somehow lost that sense of God’s graciousness in providing for our needs. We think that it has something to do with how hard we work or how lucky we are. Harvest Festival reminds us that we are to cast aside our worries and celebrate the things that God has provided.

William Temple, a great theologian of the church, once said that the most effective thing that Christians could do in the world is to lift up their voices in thanksgiving to God. Do we really believe that prayer has anything to do with what happens in the world? Do we pray for the leaders of our country really expecting that something powerful can happen? Do we see the signs around us of God's presence in our lives? Do we care for this world in a way that expresses our gratitude?

We read and experience climatic change. In all probability Canada will face more floods, droughts and tornadoes with the increasing levels of ozone in the atmosphere. Yet we continue to use up far more than our share of the world’s goods. We are avid consumers. We think that by re-cycling some of our garbage we will somehow make up for the damage that we are doing. We worry far more about the financial stresses that result from climatic change than the good of the world. Change will come about because each one of us begins to take seriously our obligation to God and to this wonderful creation. It will come about through our thankful hearts.

There is an episode of Frasier that always brings it home to me. He and his brother Niles are in the coffee shop as usual. Niles said to him, “Are you happy!”

Frasier turns the question back to Niles, “Why do you ask?”

Niles responds, “It’s just that I saw an orphan receive a pair of cheap shoes. And there was such an expression of gratitude on his face. He was so happy. Why was he so happy? Here I am wearing a pair of $400.00 shoes. I look at them and wonder if I even really like them. Do you like them? They have tassels. I don’t really like tassels. What do you think?”

And Frasier spends the rest of the show trying to decide what it is that makes him happy or if he is happy at all.

Think of a desert place. It may seem to us to be nothing but sand. How can anything survive in such a climate,” we ponder. Yet if we look beneath the surface of that desert, excavate the sand, we will see a vast ecosystem at work. It is cool underground; the plants harbour moisture; all the needs of those desert dwellers are there.

Like Niles we wonder sometimes how people who lack the luxurious lifestyle that we take for granted can be happy. How can children living in misery in Afghanistan or India or The Sudan ever laugh? How can they play and sing when we can’t with all that we have? How can they play and sing and hold hands, and fall down on the ground and rejoice? But they can. And they know enough to thank God for it.

On this Harvest festival, can we reflect that what we have may be a hindrance not only to God, but to one another? Can we lift thankful hearts to a loving God who cares for each of us, and provides for our needs? Can we learn to share our bounty, and in that sharing find the happiness that God would have us know?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

On the Path

I am posting two sermons today, one for our Patronal Festival, and the second for the Blessing of the Animals.

Readings: Job 9:1-16; Psalm 148; Galatians 6:14-18; Matthew 11:25-30

One of the real benefits of dog ownership is that it forces you to walk. I take my two little dogs out twice a day, rain or shine. We are blessed in Mississauga to have many places to walk. Bicycle paths lead in every direction. They take you through parks and under busy roads so that you never have to leave the path. The many paths can be confusing. When I first moved to Mississauga my dog and I got hopelessly lost by following a path out onto the wrong street.

One of my favourite paths takes us around Lake Aquitaine. Even when the weather is fine and warm and many people are taking advantage of it, the park is a tranquil oasis in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city. As fall sets in the lake takes on a different feeling. It returns to nature as fewer joggers and cyclists take to the paths. The trees begin to turn glorious colours. The reeds at the side of the lake wave majestically. Ducks swim on the lake. Squirrels are everywhere. We will often stop at the top of a hill and look out over the lake, taking it all in. A sense of peace comes over me. It opens up within me a great dream of what the world might be and of how we might be at peace with one another. It reminds me of our patron, St. Francis and of our parish mission statement.

Together we are walking with and celebrating the spirit of St. Francis on a journey of worship, service, fellowship and peace.

As a parish we are trying to follow the path set for us by St. Francis. We live generously, reaching out into the community, opening our hearts to those in need. Our spiritual life is rich. This is a community that knows how to come together in prayer and in praise. The diversity of our congregation both in age and in culture brings richness to our worship and to our fellowship. We are growing in so many ways.

But the pathway is filled with twists and turns that challenge us. There are times when we are wearied by the journey, when we need encouragement. There are times when the path comes to a dead end and we must go back and look for new ways to carry on. There are times when it takes us in new directions where we lose our way or find ourselves on uncharted territory.

So it was for our patron saint. Born into privilege, power and wealth, during his early life Francis was on a pathway of self indulgent behaviour. He experienced an amazing conversion in which his life was turned around by God. It began with a journey. Francis met a leper. The man’s condition repulsed him. He overcame his feeling, reaching out and embracing the man. That simple gesture changed everything for him. Afterwards he reflected that what had formerly been bitter had become sweet. What was formerly sweet had become bitter. As he came to recognize Jesus in other people and through the beauty of nature, his conversion deepened. He renounced all of his worldly possessions in order to commit himself to serving God. He served the poorest of the poor. He spent his time with lepers, prostitutes and those whom the world abandoned. He embraced poverty and even pain with a sense of joy that could only be found by living out his life as God had called him. Through all of the challenges of life he became an instrument of God’s peace.

His gospel witness inspired a band of followers including people who had partied with him in his former life, along with members of the nobility, and clergy. They adopted a rule of life inspired by three passages of Scripture opened at random by Francis. “If you would be perfect, go and sell all you have and give to the poor and follow me.” “Take nothing with you for the journey.” And finally, “If anyone will follow me, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” He and his brothers spent their lives doing exactly that. They brought about a spiritual renewal that began with the rebuilding of ruined churches, but led to a wonderful renewal in peoples’ lives.

St. Francis died on the eve of October 4, 1226, lying on the bare floor, poor in the eyes of the world, but rich in God’s grace. Among his last words was a call to continue the work of renewal in the church. “Let us begin again,” he said, “for until now we have done nothing. May each of us do our share to spread the Gospel.”

Is there not in each of us that dream of how the world might be and how we might be at peace with one another in the world? In the dream we are not simply receiving a gift from God. We are co-creators helping bring it into fruition. It is a dream planted in us from our birth. But things happen to shatter the dream. It seems unattainable. We may long for it, yet it is beyond our grasp. Somehow we are not able as Francis was to give ourselves fully. Life throws obstacles in our path. We are held back by our fears, insecurities, infirmities. We busy ourselves trying to make our lives as secure as possible. We try to take care of ourselves and those we love. We become preoccupied with putting aside enough for our future needs. Unthinkable things happen – tragedy, sickness, loss. We grow older and perhaps wiser, but we defer the dream or even abandon it.

How did Francis manage to keep the dream alive both in his personal life and in his community? It was his deep commitment to prayer, to the study of Scripture, to worship. It was his deep commitment to living out his life seeing Christ in others and allowing them to see Christ in him. It was in his allowing God to reshape his life.

As we reflect on our life as a Christian community, where is our path leading us? Where is it leading you personally? Have you let Christ change your life? We need to spend time in personal prayer and reflection on Scripture. There are guides for us to do that. There is a booklet available on the tract rack to help guide us in reading. Our Seekers group will be starting its leadership course soon. Hopefully that will lead to new Bible Study groups becoming available to people. But put aside time in your busy day to pray. Francis prayed as he went about his daily life. His life became a prayer. Sending up a prayer of praise as we go about our lives is a good way to stay on the path.

We may think that we don’t know enough to read the Bible or pray. The Gospel reading from Matthew speaks to us of a faith dependent not on our intellect, but on our experience of God. We don’t need great intelligence or education to be close to God. The Bible stories are meant to connect to our story. The Acts of the Apostles and saints of the Church continue to be enacted in our communities through our actions. We need to allow the Spirit of God to work in our lives. Francis made those connections in his life. He possessed great charm. He was attractive to people. People took to him. They may have been startled by what he had to say, but they were drawn to his child-like curiosity, to his sense of humour, and to his sense of joy. They listened to him and responded to his preaching. More importantly they responded to the way he lived his life, to his close relationship to Christ. We can all do that.

Where is our path leading us as a parish? As Francis did, we celebrate the Good News of Christ. We worship God, serve our world, our country and our community and strive to be instruments of peace. We don’t do it alone, for Christ is with us on the Journey. Christ walks with us on the path. When our pathway becomes fraught with difficulty, Christ continues to journey with us. This parish is a spiritual centre. It is a haven for people in need. It is a place of healing, comfort and nurture. Our church is filled with people who are being the church in the world. We are truly beginning to live out our mission statement.

So remember that we never walk this road alone. God walks with us. There are many who share the road, family, friends, neighbours. And Francis is a model for us, offering us guidance as we follow his example and live our lives seeing Christ in others, reaching out to a needy world, recognizing all of nature as part of God's magnificent creation and having 'peace' as our watchword. Let us continue to follow the path as we celebrate the Good News of Christ, as we worship God and as we strive to be instruments of peace.

The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

Blessing of the Animals

October 4, 2009

If you are a pet owner you know the benefits of having a pet. Mine would be a lonely place to come home to if it were not for my two wonderful dogs, Gemma and Meaghie. They greet me at the door when I come home from work. We walk together. Their companionship is a part of my life. Seniors’ residences acknowledge the benefits of having pets. We have certainly observed that in the residences that we visit. One in particular had a wonderful dog that wandered the halls making friends with residents and visitors. He made people feel at home.

There are also spiritual benefits to consider. Pets teach us so much about love given and received. They love unconditionally. They respond to our moods. So it is little wonder that St. Francis of Assisi is one of the most beloved of saints, for he is known as the patron saint of animals. We bless our pets in remembrance of his love for all creatures.

His connection to animals comes from the many stories that centre on St. Francis and his love of nature. He once allowed himself to be ousted from his small hovel by a donkey in need of shelter. He tamed a wolf that was attacking the townspeople in a small village. One of the most famous stories is about his relationship to the birds.

One day he was walking through the Spoleto Valley with some of the brothers. He spotted a number of birds of all varieties. He left his friends on the road and ran out into the field among the birds. He greeted them, expecting that they would fly off. Instead they drew close, even letting him touch them. Echoing the words of Matthew, he told them to continue to praise the creator who gave them feathers for clothes, wings to fly and everything that they needed to sustain them in life. He walked amongst the birds and gave them a blessing, making the sign of the cross over them.

In reflection to his friends later on he wondered why he had never preached to birds before. After that he made it a habit to seek out animals of all kinds. He would invoke them to praise their creator God. Animals understood and responded to his preaching.

There was a rabbit that had been caught in a trap that was brought to St. Francis. He advised it to be more careful in the future and then released the little animal. It hopped right back onto his lap. He took it into the woods and set it down, only to have it follow him back. Finally one of the brothers had to take it deep into the woods and let it go.

Even fish were known to obey Francis. If a fish were caught in his presence, Francis would return the fish to water, warning it not to be caught again. The fish would often linger near the boat listening to Francis preach. When he gave them permission to leave they would swim off.

Unbelievable stories? I don't think so! But then, my Great Uncle George once asked the camels to come out of their hut at the zoo in High Park so that he could speak to them. They came right over to him at the fence, and seemed intent on what he was saying to them. I also have my little dogs who have taught me so much about love and about relationships. And you each have a story about your pet, about its unique qualities, about how well it understands what you say to it, your feelings and moods. The cover of Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover's Soul says that pets are "teachers, healers, heroes and friends". I suspect that it is because of those wonderful traits that you are here today. This celebration is about blessing our pets. It is also about how we have been blessed by having a pet to care for. And so today we bring them to God, our creator, who cares for every living thing. And we ask God to bless us too.

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 ...