Friday, November 27, 2009

The First Sunday of Advent, Year C

The Righteous Branch!

Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

On Friday evening we took some members of our Youth Group over to the Tree Lighting ceremony in Streetsville. Although it is very early for me to be celebrating Christmas when Advent is just beginning I have to say that it filled me with hope and anticipation. And those are true Advent feelings. We live in a society that has dropped any Christian connotation from the season. Yet here we were, part of a crowd, singing Christmas carols and Christmas songs and not afraid to use the proper name for the season.

Advent is a season of hope. It is a time of preparation and anticipation as we yearn for the deliverance from the evils of the world and from the oppression that we see around us. We anticipate God's promise for a kingdom of truth and justice and righteousness.

The readings today are filled with those promises. The prophet Jeremiah speaks words of promise to the people of Judah. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” They face a threat of invasion that is about to become reality. The Babylonian armies are set to invade their country. Yet illogical as it is to believe, there is still hope. “A righteous Branch will spring up,” Jeremiah proclaims. The prophet of gloom and doom, imprisoned by his own government for his gloomy predictions, offers a word of hope. It is not as if the people of Judah actually have reason to believe that they face anything but total disaster. The Babylonian army is set to pounce. Jeremiah's prophecy is one of tenacious hope spoken to counteract all of the life-sapping evidence to the contrary. He is offering real hope! That is its real power!

How does that same promise speak to us today? The final revelation and the gathering of God`s kingdom is still to come. We are servants of God working towards its fulfillment. We live among fulfilled promises, but the ultimate fulfillment is yet to come. When it comes we will be part of it even as we are now observers and participants in Jeremiah`s proclamations and promises.

That same hope, that same power is available to us as Christians. We read about the righteous Branch and say, aha! That Righteous Branch is Jesus, our hope, our salvation. Yet even as Christians sometimes things seem so terrible that we feel helpless. Hopelessness breeds a sense of helplessness and brings about the very things we dread. It is hope that will help us to bring about change.

Many in our society are without hope. How do we help those in despair? How do we share the presence of God with them? Do we understand, as Judah did, that whatever the future may be, God is within it? We need that conviction. Our culture pressures us into thinking of God as somewhere in the far distant past, as irrelevant to our time and culture. To most, God is a mere memory. Or God has never existed. But we have good news about that. God is alive, present with us. That is our hope. It is that hope that continues to be revealed throughout all of history. The theme of the readings on this First Sunday of Advent are filled with God's promises of hope. And yet there is also within the readings a sense of tension.

The passage from Luke deals with the tension in a very understandable way. There are signs around them of decay and destruction. Luke points to the signs and says, "See, the end is near. Shape up!" They have been witness to cataclysmic events in their lives, events which were predicted to them in Scripture. They have seen the destruction of their city, Jerusalem, its total and utter destruction. They have seen the temple where they worship destroyed. But the fact that the destruction was prophesied helps them to keep their faith in God even in the midst of such terror.

Let's face it! We all wonder what the world is coming to! We witness the harsh realities of our world. It is easy to see echoes of our own situation in the gospel passage. How could we not? 9-11 changed our world. It became and continues to be a place of harsh realties. Old boundaries are breaking down. We are in the middle of tremendous global, political and social upheavals. Globalization means that we are tied to what happens politically and financially all around the world. Ecological problems threaten our very existence. At a time when science is able to control so many of the scourges of the past, society is faced with new and terrifying threats of pandemic diseases. Pervasive violence and abuse have reached seemingly epidemic proportions. Moral decay seems at the root of a society that has abandoned its Judaic\Christian roots. Scenarios of heaven and hell are not only enacted in our dreams and nightmares, but also in our cities and neighbourhoods. Apocalypse in the destructive sense is a real possibility. As revelation it is a present reality.

What righteous branch is God raising up to confront all that is going on in our world? We have been reminded by Archbishop Colin that World AIDS Day takes place this week. Many people in our world live with the harsh realities of life with AIDS. The seven year old in Africa who, since her mother died last year, lives with her aging grandmother and looks after her younger siblings. The woman from Kenya living in a refugee camp who was raped and now lives in fear that she too may carry the virus and pass it on to her unborn child. The man in Cambodia evicted from his home and forced to live in terrible conditions in what has become known as an AIDS colony. The head of the Jamaica AIDS Support, a group working with gays affected by HIV, who was kidnapped and killed when it became known that he was gay. The stories could go on. People living with AIDS around our globe need a righteous branch to be raised up to spare them from shame, to let them live in safety.

What righteous branch is God growing in this congregation, in you as individuals? Our Christian hope is that God is forming the next chapter of human history. How do we live creatively and responsibily in the present age responding to God's call to be God's people? What compassion and hope do we hold out to those who are suffering? Are we instruments of peace in a world of violence?

We may well wonder what the world is coming to. Perhaps as Christians it is more important to keep in mind what is coming to the world. Advent is a time to prepare for that coming. It is a time for us to make preparations, not in fear of what is to come, but in faith in God. Faith in our God who has come, who is here and who will come again.

God has a way of coming. In that comment is terror, for it is unknown. But in that coming is promise and hope, for God has done something that changes the ultimate path of history. No silly optimism can handle what is wrong in our world. We need another kind of assurance. We need a righteous branch. That is the real hope, for that is when the kingdom breaks through. And even when nothing else is left, God is there. What hope that is!

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Reign of Christ, Year B

A Kingdom of Truth

Readings: 2 Sam 23:1-7; Psalm 132:2-23; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

Perhaps you feel as I do sometimes when you switch on the morning news or read the newspaper over a cup of coffee. I try to wrap my mind around everything that is going on in our country and around the world. It sometimes seems as if I am trying to awaken from a terrible dream. However, the belief and hope in a Saviour that enters exactly where the forces of chaos seem to be most rampant is what allows me to get up and face the day. Particularly as we come to the end of the Church Year and consider a new beginning, I find myself taking heart in the image of Christ, a king born in the shadow of the Roman Empire, threatened, persecuted and killed by that empire, but risen from the dead and reigning on high. It is a hope in the promise of salvation that carries me through and allows me to open myself up to all the possibilities that I see in Christ.

On this last Sunday of the Church Year, the Reign of Christ, we are challenged to ponder issues of divine and human power and leadership. Do our visions of divine power shape our images of human power and authority? Or, do our visions and practices of human power shape how we view God? Do we use our visions of God as justifications for our own power relationships, our power over others? As I ponder these questions, I suspect our understandings of the relationship of divine and human power are one and the same as they relate to issues of gender, sexuality, class, political policy.

I spent three days this week pondering those same questions in terms of our relationship to our Indigenous peoples. I attended a conference training people to be ambassadors in the Truth and Reconciliation process as we come to terms with the abuse our Indigenous peoples suffered in the residential schools that robbed them of their language, their culture, their relationship with their families, their childhood. I found myself having to deal with my part in that abuse as a teacher in that same system. And over the course of the three days I found a point of healing in which I was given permission to forgive myself and reclaim what a privilege and a blessing it was to have taught in that northern community. It was a time of turning the tables on power that resonates so clearly with this week's gospel and indeed with the whole them of Christ as King.

Jesus is brought before Pilate. The accusation against him is that he is claiming to be a king. He stands there, this peasant figure, hands tied behind his back, bruised and bleeding from the abuse of his captors. "What is all the fuss about?" Pilate says to himself. "Can you, poor creature that you are, really be a king? What kind of a threat could you possibly pose to Imperial Rome?" And then aloud, he demands, "Are you the king of the Jews?"

Jesus answers boldly, "Are you asking, or is it what you have been told about me?"
Pilate is taken aback. Doesn’t this man know his power? "Do I look like a Jew?" Pilate demands. Then back to the task at hand, "It is your own people who have handed you over to me. You must have done something to deserve this treatment. What have you done?"

"My kingdom is not of this world." Jesus continues. And it is true! So true that Pilate cannot even imagine how different. Jesus’ kingdom has no boundaries, no army, no wealth. His authority comes from God alone. His is a kingdom based on justice and mercy. It is impossible for someone like Pilate who cannot help but think in worldly terms to even conceive of what Jesus is saying.

Pilate is a politician. He understands authority. He has wealth. He has power. "So that means that you are a king after all!" He says to Jesus. He wants a yes or no answer. But that is not what he gets.

"I would not choose the title "king" for myself," Jesus explains. "For to be a king as you know it is not my role. My mission is to be a witness, not a king. My subjects are those who believe what I have to say."

Those few words overturn every concept of kingship and power that one can imagine. Do they raise questions in your mind as they do in mine? In what sense is Jesus king? In what sense is he Lord of the events of my life? Who is Jesus for me? Those are the questions that arise for me as we celebrate this feast.

John the Divine gives us a long list of descriptions for who Jesus is for him. ‘The one who is, and who was, and who is to come, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth, the one who loves us, the one who has freed us from our sins, the alpha and the omega’. Can we hear in these descriptive names for Jesus the excitement that John has for the faith? So often our image of Jesus is confined to the comfortable.

For many the image is gentle Jesus with the children hanging on to his knees. That is the picture many of us grew up with in Sunday School. It is a warm and comforting image of Christ. It is a view of Jesus that takes me immediately back to my childhood. I can see myself kneeling at the side of my bed, hands folded, rattling off my prayers, “Now I lay me down to sleep… God bless mommy and daddy… ” A wonderful image, but will it get me up off my knees and out into the real world.

For many Jesus is the good shepherd. Even in our urban society where shepherds are no where to be found we take comfort in that beautiful image. We see ourselves out in the fields following after Jesus, not a care in the world. He is there to comfort, to guide, to lead, to heal our wounds, to protect us from danger.

Perhaps for us Jesus is our personal therapist. We bring all of our problems to Jesus. We come in our neediness with our long list of woes. We expect that Jesus will make our lives easy and comfortable. It is important to pray for our needs and the needs of others. But it is important because it should inspire and motivate us to action. We need to get up off our knees and do something about ourselves and about the state of the world.

Then perhaps the right image for Jesus would be that of radical reformer. If we want to change the world, to make it a better place, to put and end to violence and war, then Jesus the reformer is the one we need to follow. We want an end to violence and war. And we’ll fight to make it happen. That may seem a 60’s kind of role for Jesus, yet in many ways it is fairly traditional. At least some of the disciples seem often to be viewing Jesus in the traditional role of Messiah. They followed Jesus because in their messianic fervour they were convinced that Jesus would overthrow the Roman rulers and become the political liberator. They believed that God had sent Jesus to save the Jewish nation. They looked for a messiah who would restore the kingdom of Israel. He would conquer the enemies of Israel and become the ruler of an earthly kingdom. That was certainly the kind of kingship that Pilate’s questions to Jesus reflect.

The problem is that Jesus is all of those things and so much more. When we limit who Jesus is we lose the capacity to see God as other than a resource for personal need. We lose our vision that will propel us in the breaking in of God’s kingdom. We lose sight of the kingship of Jesus. We have a vocation. We have a Lord to serve. We have a kingdom to build.

I know that my part in that kingdom building will include something about the work that the Church needs to do in righting the wrongs done to our indigenous peoples, in walking with them on the road to healing and truth telling. At this point I am unsure just what that will entail. But I know it will bring me full circle in my life.

All of us are on that journey. How do people come to know that we are Christians? How do they know that we serve King Jesus? To know who Jesus is in our lives should inspire and motivate us to action. I am not advocating that you go out two by two into the community collaring unsuspecting victims and dragging them back to church. But if our faith does not motivate us to action, then we are lacking something. If the suffering around us numbs us then we will be unable to take responsibility for it. Being Christian, following Jesus, being forgiven and having eternal life are not so much about what affects us, but how we live as servants of God and how we affect the lives of others. May God grant that the sin that divides us from one another may be overcome, and that we may be united under the gentle and glorious rule of our Lord, Jesus Christ. We are called to loving service in the world on behalf of our king. May we proclaim that Christ is king in our lives! May it spur us on to living our lives for Christ and for those around us!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Stewardship

Our congregation is in the midst of our annual Stewardship campaign. This week in lieu of a sermon our narrative budget is being presented. Here is a sermon preached three years ago.

PProper 33
Year B

Readings: 1 Samuel 1:4-20; 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8

Most of us don’t spend much time thinking in terms of apocalypse. We dismiss readings about the end of times as unfulfilled or irrelevant. After two thousand years it seems useless to even try to update them to maintain a vision of what they were about. And yet when you are in a moment of crisis and everything is in total chaos you wonder if it will ever end. You ask ‘where is God in this?’ Then the resilience of our human nature causes us to take a step backward and ask ourselves what is truly important. What is truly lasting?

What if everything you owned was suddenly gone?
Both California and British Columbia have experienced devastating forest fires this year. They destroyed not only large tracts of forests, but also many people lost their homes and possessions as the fire raged through populated areas. Listening to the news I could not help but be struck by the resilience of people. The comments from those who had lost everything were about what they had not lost. “We are all safe!” you would hear as they surveyed the ruins of their homes. “We have only the clothes on our backs, but we are fine!” It really struck home to me after receiving an e-mail from a former parishioner now living in B. C. He mentioned that they had lost everything. Yet what they wanted from us was their baptismal and confirmation records.

It is the kind of response that arises from a question such as the one a disciple is asking as he leaves the temple. He is suddenly struck by its awesome size and beauty. He remarks to Jesus, “Look teacher! What large stones and what large buildings!”

“Wake up!” Jesus says to him. “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” He and the other disciples must have looked at Jesus in bewilderment. These were buildings made to last. They were monuments to human ingenuity. Only something of apocalyptic proportion could bring them tumbling down. There are more important wonders to be experienced in life.

Hannah knew that. Her life was defined for her by the barrenness of her womb. Even her husband’s understanding and love are not enough to overcome the sense of despair that she feels. She comes to God in her need. She prays with such fervour that Eli thinks she must be drunk. God hears her prayer. Samuel’s birth is miraculous, the answer to a barren woman’s prayer. Beyond that, it is part of the divine plan at a crucial time in Israel’s history. Samuel becomes the mouthpiece through whom they come to know God.

We often think that there is nothing we can do about the state of the world. Yet our prayers, actively putting our trust in God, does more than we can imagine. It is what Jesus is saying to the disciples.

These were difficult times for Jesus and his disciples. In the three short years of his ministry, Jesus had managed to anger, not only the temple authorities, the scribes and the Pharisees, but also the Roman authorities. They were under attack from all sides. Jesus knew that it was only a matter of time until something happens. Jesus prepared his disciples for the inevitable. “Endure to the end,” he tells them. “When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come,” must have been reassuring to that faithful remnant.

And yet there is so much terror to be experienced in our world. Isn’t it what we experienced as the Trade Centre came crashing down? We all watched in horror. Could this be the end of time? Isn’t that what was on people’s minds? Whenever there are wars or rumours of wars speculations arise. Some of the speculations even lead to people deciding that it is a good time to “get right with God”. Our churches filled up for a time as people gathered to pray for an end to war and violence.

And the Church surely is called to be the voice of reason, the voice that says as Jesus said to his disciples, ‘there is no cause for alarm’. The voice that says ‘it is all part of God’s plan for us’. The voice that says ‘put your faith in God and in the future despite every appearance to the contrary’.

Hannah’s barren future turned to joy. “My heart exults in the Lord,” she sang out. The disciples fear was transformed as they experienced the joy of resurrection. We experience the love of God and see into the very kingdom of Heaven.

Friday, November 6, 2009

All Souls, Year B (Transferred)

Remembrance

Wisdom 3:1-9; Psalm 116:1-8; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 6:37-51

Last week we celebrated All Saints Day. We reflected on the lives of the Saints and what it means to be called to holiness. We reflected on our own place within the communion of saints. We were reminded that we are all sorts of saints. And today we gather to remember all sorts of saints, this time the ones particular to our lives. We come to remember also those who died in service to our country.

The celebration of Remembrance Day does not come particularly easily for me or my generation. We grew up in the sixties protesting vehemently against everything in general, but against war and violence in particular. It is not that I cannot relate to the tragedy of war. It is that for my generation there is a futility about what happened that we would just as soon forget.

But even as I say that I would just as soon forget, I know how important it is to remember. For it is in remembering that we correct past errors of judgement. It is in remembering that we learn to make life-giving choices for ourselves and for future generations. It is in the retelling of the story that we begin to see ourselves mirrored and attempt to bring about changes that result in true justice. It is in remembering that we keep the story alive for ourselves and for future generations.

And so today we remember. We remember those who died and continue to die in service to our great country. We heard this past week of the tragic death of yet another young soldier in Afghanistan. Today is also an opportunity to remember our loved ones who lived a life of faith and have died. We look back at their lives of faith, at their contribution to the world, at all they meant to those who loved them. We remember their successes and their failures. We share in their joys and their sorrows. We look back with pain at their suffering. We mourn their absence from us. It is our need as those still on the journey to do that kind of remembering, because the alternative to remembering is forgetting.

I was seventeen when my younger brother died. At the time of his death, I became almost obsessed with remembering things about him. It was as if I had to remember every detail of his life and of the way he died in order to keep him alive in some way. Some of those things can still trigger memories of him after all these years. I simply cannot hear someone whistle through their teeth without remembering Patrick. Yet at the time I worried that I would forget what he looked like, the funny things he did, the songs he loved to sing.... It was so important to me to remember him.

As I reflect on my need then, I realize that it is important to remember. Something forgotten never comes into our consciousness. It no longer plays a role in our decisions. It does not inform our relationships. If it comes back to us as a dream, we may not even recognize the symbols that help us to understand the significance of the dream. It is lost. And so it is a human need to keep memories alive. We hold the memories of those who have meant much to us in life and are now dead. That is a powerful reason for celebrating All Souls Day.

There is a sense as we gather, especially since we are also celebrating Remembrance Day, of a kind of passing of the torch, a passing of the collective memories, of those successes and failures of the previous generations. What we may forget is that when you are the one carrying the torch, you can easily be burned. When you are the one standing alone, torch in hand, there is nothing brighter. But that too can be a terrifying realization.

As generations pass and we come closer and closer ourselves to being the “older” generation, the responsibility falls more and more to us. Finally it is ours completely. There is no one else to blame for the human condition. We alone bear the responsibility.

And there is Jesus reassuring us, “I am the living bread that came down from Heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” What a wonderful promise that is! He gave his life in life and in death to bear the offer of life to all that may accept God's choice to love and accept them. Even more astounding is that what Christ has promised has already been granted. The atrocious event of death that threatens and appears to destroy what God has created becomes the servant that swings open the gates to everlasting life. We are citizens of the new kingdom. It remains a mystery to us; but the guarantee is that we will experience fully the splendour and beauty of the new kingdom where we can live and serve in supreme joy without the limitations and temptations of mortal life upon this planet.

As Christians we put our trust in God. We renew our commitment in faith. But we do so in faith knowing that there are no guarantees. How the secular world loves to remind us of that! But perhaps that whole realm of remembering needs to go much deeper for us when we consider mourning. For one of the things that is important to many who have suffered loss through death, is to recount things about the person. To keep the person alive in their memories.

Have you ever recognized someone before they ever entered the room? How does that happen? How do we recognize a friend before we actually see them? Animals, of course, are much more adept at it than we are. Gemma and Meaghie, my two dogs, know the sound of my car in the driveway. They know my footstep. They know the sound of my voice. I think they even sense that I am coming long before I arrive at the house. Our senses are not nearly as keen as those of our pets, but we all have people close to us whom we recognize before they ever enter the room. We know them by their own, unique personal qualities - their little eccentricities, their foibles, their habits. Those unique qualities stay with us even after someone dies.

And so today we stop and remember. We reflect on the lives of those we love but see no longer. Everyone who lights a candle today has a story about what that person meant to them. In the silences of this service think back to what they mean to you. Think of the things you did together, of what the person taught you about life and about faith. It may be a moment of great joy for you as you look back at the richness of their gift to you. A smile may cross your face as you recall the moment. Or it may be a moment of great sadness. A tear may come to your eye. I hope and pray that whatever the emotion you will remember that you are blessed to have shared in their lives and blessed to have shared in this time of remembrance.

The Second Sunday of Easter, Year C

Opening Locked Doors Readings: Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 2; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31 It is evening on the first day of the week. The d...