Friday, January 29, 2010

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany Year C

The Word of the Lord Came to Me

Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

In a study group I was leading some years ago the discussion turned to how we as individuals or as community could serve as prophets to one another. One person in the group was quick to reply, "Oh that's easy. We're Anglicans. It's a non-prophet organization." Although she was not serious, I think that it is easy for us to really believe that. We are not certain exactly what prophecy is. Surely to be a prophet is to be at best strange and at worst fanatical. It brings to mind people such as the group in Waco, Texas. Ordinary people just don't prophecy.

But I have news for you. We are all called to prophetic ministry. And I know, you'll protest. "I'm in business. I'm no prophet." or "I'm just a housewife." or "What do we pay clergy for anyway?"

I have some reassuring news for you. You are not the first, nor will you be the last person to feel that way. There are stories of many reluctant prophets in Scripture. Take Jeremiah, for example. The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah at a time when religious practice in Israel was completely corrupt. The temple, once holy ground, had no meaningful place in the people's hearts. The whole nation was sorely in need of repentance. God chose Jeremiah to bear the prophetic word to the people of Israel. “The word of the Lord came to me,” says Jeremiah. Yet even though he knew and understood that God was calling him, he was still reluctant to respond. Bearing the prophetic word is not an easy call. His response was a pretty normal one. “I don’t know how to speak,” he said to God. “After all I am only a boy.”

“Don’t say, ‘I am only a boy,” God responds. God does not take no for an answer. “I’ll give you the words to speak.” Jeremiah was called to speak the truth. He was called to be critical of institutional authority and to speak out against popular opinion, not an easy task, but one that with God’s help he was able to accomplish.

What kept him going? He was encouraged by the promise that God would be with him. He continued to hear this same message over and over again throughout his life. Although he faced persecution and ridicule, he stayed true to the message. He held on to those beautiful reassuring words, “I knew you before I formed you in the womb.” How could he fail when he is known so well and held so closely by our loving God?

But that was then and this is now. What is a prophet anyway? Is this a contemporary message? Are there still prophets? Who is God calling to be the prophets of the 21st century? What is it that God is calling us to do as individuals? What is God calling us to do as a church?

The word prophecy comes from the Greek, prophetes, "one who speaks before others." It translates a Hebrew word which meant "one called to speak aloud". Often it has been taken to be some kind of ecstatic speech, but in Scripture the prophet is a person who is totally grounded. It is one who is speaking what has been discerned through a close walk with God, through listening to God. And is that not what each of us is called to do?

Perhaps a look at the prophets of our age can give us some insight. In my parish in Brooklin there was a prophet. He was in a much maligned occupation, a meteorologist who worked at predicting our weather. He once told me the following story.

It seems that when the Pope was planning his trip to Los Angeles he wanted to know what the weather would be like. A weather consultant was hired by the Vatican to make some recommendations. He looked at the previous thirty years of weather in Los Angeles at the same time of year as the Pope's visit was to take place. He came back and said to the Pope, "At the time of your visit it is likely to be very hot and dry." The Pope made his plans accordingly and the trip went off as expected.

Farmers' Almanacs work on the same premise. They look at the past and make a prediction based on reasonable expectations. Of course, in a time of environmental changes sometimes expectations go out the window.

Scripture too looks at past history. So often the story begins with God recounting to the prophet all that God has accomplished for God's people in the past. "Wasn't I with you at the Red Sea? Did I not provide you with manna in the desert? Now go and tell my people..." and the prophet is able to speak with authority. "Thus says the Lord:" The prophet is able to challenge the people on a moral level, speaking what needs to be heard in the light of past experience. Often it is a message that is unpopular, that leads to recriminations.

That was certainly Jesus' experience. It is there in the Gospel this morning. The word of the Lord came to Jesus in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. There he had announced that the long awaited Day of the Lord had come at last. It was good news. Prisoners would be set free. The blind would see. There would be freedom for the oppressed.

At least at first it seemed to be good news. People were moved by his words. They were in awe of what he said. After all this young man had grown up in their midst. The kid from down the block! Joe's boy! Then Jesus reminded them of two stories from Scripture, stories that they all knew well. “There were many widows in Israel,” Jesus reminded them, “but God sent Elijah to help the widow of Zarapheth. And there were many lepers in Israel, but God sent Elisha to Namaan.” They got the message loud and clear. Both were outsiders, foreigners, not Israelites, yet both were set apart by God to receive special grace.

"Often," Jesus is telling them, "it is those outside the religious community who are able to hear and respond faithfully to God's call." The so-called "insiders" are more often than not the ones who miss the point.

The Pharisees taught that the Day of the Lord was to be the day when the elect would be separated, once and for all, from the non-elect. A day of judgement! And here was this young man they had watched growing up, saying that it was not for them, the deserving, but for everyone. As the message began to hit home, they lost their enthusiasm. The year of grace is a great idea. But if it is not to be for them alone, then what is the point? They became so hostile that Jesus was in danger.

Yet Jesus spoke the truth. He spoke courageously and joyfully, even though he knew it would provoke a hostile reaction from the self-righteous. For the truth must be spoken if justice is to be attained.

Just as Jeremiah was called and commissioned, so to the Church in Corinth was called. Paul defined the call for them. “Your call is to love,” he told them. He knew that despite their great differences God could be known in the love that they shared with one another. They face challenges, but with God's help they can overcome them. He reminds them that God calls them first and foremost to love. He encouraged them not to forget that they could be certain that God would give them what they needed to persevere in love.

As Christians we are constantly learning more about listening to God, about responding to God’s call, about coming to a clearer understand, about bearing the prophetic word. We seek for those ‘aha’ moments when the dim becomes clear, at least for a time. We have doubts. We have fears. And yet we can return to God to pray and to ponder all that is taking place in our lives. We can continue to struggle with what God is calling us to do. We can pray to discern God's call.

I was doing some pastoral visiting at Credit Valley this week. I went into the Chaplaincy office to sign out. It was late in the evening after the office had closed. One of the pastoral visitors came in. Not expecting to see anyone there, she was startled. After she recovered her composure we had a conversation. She asked about my sense of call as one who is ordained. I explained to her that I had a sense of call to ordained ministry from the time I was a child, but that the church did not catch up to me until much later in my life. Then she shared her experience with me. “It is wonderful, isn't it? I worked my whole life knowing that what I was doing was just a job.” she told me. “Now that I am retired I am truly able to answer God's call and minister to people. It is such an amazing experience to have someone open up and share their story with me. I thought I wouldn't have the right words. But I never worry about what to say, because somehow I always find that God gives me the right words when I need them.”

Do we find excuses? I am too young, or too old, or too weak, or too poor. I am not articulate. I don't know enough about the Bible. I don’t have the training I need. Do we let our own fear continue to hold us captive? For the truth needs to be spoken. We need prophets in our time. We need to be critical of institutional authority. We need to speak out against popular opinion. We need to live out the freedom that love brings so that people never lose their value, and are never written off.

Knowing that God knows you, what do you think God is calling you to do and say that will build up or tear down so that God's love will be known by all? What good news do you have to share? For that is your call as a Christian. Let us respond to that call.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year C

When the Wine Runs Out

Readings: Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

There is something in our human nature that loves a miracle. The more astounding the better! Consider the Guinness World Book of Records. For instance did you know that the fastest time for eating a twelve inch pizza is 1 minute 45.37 seconds. It was set by Josh Anderson of New Zealand in March of 2008. Or that Dainik Bhaskar of India holds the record for the largest tea party. She hosted 32,681 people on February 24, 2008. Did you know that Vasilii Hazkevich of Russia holds the record for travelling the furthest by tractor. He travelled 21,199 km in 2005. Were you aware that Ashrita Furman holds the world record for jumping on a pogo stick for twenty-three miles? Or that Suresh Joachim of Sri Lanka balanced on one foot for seventy-six hours and forty minutes? Did you know that Stephen Clark holds the world record for pumpkin carving? He carved a pumpkin in twenty-four seconds.

But when you come down to it, what difference does it really make? And for whom? What difference does it make in the whole scheme of things? What does it matter how long anyone could stand on one foot, or carve a pumpkin or jump on a pogo stick? And yet these records are kept, and people keep trying to do better in order to get their names published in a book. And obviously other people buy the book and are fascinated by the many feats that are accomplished.

And so we come to the wedding feast in Cana. The “wow” factor in the story is astounding. It is one amazing fact after another. It is a Guinness World Book of Records in itself. Five hundred litres of wine produced from water! And not just your run of the mill wine! The best wine these people have ever tasted! But I have to ask, what difference did it make? Who even knew that Jesus had performed such a miracle? His mother, his disciples, the stewards who took the wine into the host? Really, who cares?

This miracle is often referred to as the “luxury miracle”. “Was it even necessary?” scholars ask. It took place in the everyday occurrence of a wedding. The same Christ who refused to turn stones into bread to satisfy his own hunger turned water into winae to allow some guests at a wedding to make merry. What is that all about? Apart from helping the host out of an embarrassing situation, it had no lasting effect or benefit on those present.

And so as we look at this story we need to look deeper, past the glitz, past the “wow” factor, past the sensationalism, to the real reason that John told this story in the first place. I think he told it for many good reasons.

He told it because he wants us to remember that we have a God who graces us, who is lavish with love. Our loving God does not worry about what is practical. God does not worry about the impact of God’s actions. God simply connects with humankind where we are. God reaches through time and space to be in relationship with us.

He told it because he wants us to remember that the very ordinariness of life is the source of the celebration. While we in our humanity are impressed by big things, and oppressed by great problems, God demonstrates power in a simple, unassuming way. Observing what God has created should convince us of that. The lacy pattern of a single flake of snow, the beauty of a weed along a country lane, a rainbow in the sky!

The best is simply that there are times when we have no wine. It runs out. It can happen suddenly and without warning. Disaster strikes and we have no energy to face what has happened. A close friend dies, suddenly, without warning. An accidental death rips the whole community apart. The world is ripped apart by terrorism, by pandemic. Haiti's world simply collapsed this past week as it was hit by that devastating earthquake. Imagine the grief of the people. Imagine the chaos that has disrupted their lives. Talk about not having any wine!

But it is not always so sudden. In fact sometimes the wine runs out so gradually that we don’t even notice it happening. The joy simply fades from life. We lose our job. Unemployment insurance runs out. We face sickness in our own lives or in the lives of those we love. We face broken relationships. A marriage falls apart. A child is alienated from the family. We are betrayed, hurt by the actions of a friend.

At those times in our lives we need to know that we can do something about it. The wine that has run out can be replaced. We have resources at our disposal. God will listen to us. We can pray, openly and honestly, knowing that as we come into closer relationship with God that God will reach out to us with that healing touch. God give us friends, people who will listen to us as we pour out the troubles of our hearts. They will hear our pain. In their concern we will find healing.

We can pray. Paul talks about the spiritual gifts that grace our lives. Prayer is surely one of those gifts. God gives us the resources that we need to face the down times in our lives. The Spirit at work in our lives is a miracle. It does not have to be a mountaintop experience. It needs to be whatever brings us into a deeper relationship with God. God will hear our simple, heartfelt prayer asking for help from the depths of our being. God will hear our prayer of thanksgiving. God will hear our anger and hurt. God will hear our prayer for forgiveness.

And we can be perfectly honest with ourselves. We can look at our actions. We can assess the things that have gone on. In all of those ways we can make new wine. We may even discover that the new wine is better than the old. After all, it is enriched by our tears and pain.

We can be open to the gifts that God has given to us, accepting them, using them. The best spiritual gifts are the ones we don’t even know we possess. They are the ones that enhance the life of the whole community. Wise advice, a listening ear, time, joy, thoughtfulness, patience, spirituality …

Paul reminds us that ecstasy or enthusiasm is no criteria for true spirituality. A deep religious experience is just not enough. God is the giver, the source of every gift. Each, even the one that seems the least significant, is a spiritual gift. There needs to be a quality of spirit in the life of the Christian, he tells them, a quality that enhances the life of the whole community. And you know, the wonder of it all is that the gift used for the common good offers the most back to the one who offers it. It makes new wine.

And we can celebrate! We come together as community. We break bread together. We share the cup of wine. We open ourselves up to all of God’s blessings. God is revealed to us, and through us wine is poured out abundantly to a needy world.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Baptism of Our Lord, Year C

Beloved of God

Readings: Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus is nothing extraordinary.  He is simply one of the many people in the that day who come out to the wilderness to be baptised by John.  It is not until after his baptism while he is praying that the Holy Spirit comes to him in a special way.  A voice proclaims, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  This call from God, this naming, is not something that those around him hear. But Jesus hears and understands. Beloved, the voice from Heaven proclaims. It is spoken with such power that it brings with it a change in direction in Jesus' life. Beloved, that name spoken and taken in by Jesus equips him to do the ministry for which God has called him. With that naming of Beloved Jesus assumes his prophetic call.

It is a watershed moment in his’ life.  A new light suddenly dawns on him, a new beginning. Beloved becomes the name that he carries with him into his life, into his teachings. It is the name he gives to those he meets, those in need of healing, those in need of inclusion, those in need of hope, those in need of love.
 
This naming of Jesus as Beloved celebrates his uniqueness and his role as a model for all who will be baptised. Baptism is a radical moment in the lives of each of us.  One person described it as “this holy moment when we are named by God's grace with such power it won't come undone.” God names us Beloved. For by baptism, we share in the same relationship and mission that God had with Jesus.  Baptism is a gift and a calling.  It initiates the work of God and Christ in and through us.  It commissions and empowers us for ministry. It is a naming of who we are and what we will become.

For most of us though, it does not seem to be a very radical occurrence.  If you are a “cradle” Anglican it is highly unlikely that you even remember anything about your baptism.  Your parents likely brought you for baptism as an infant.  There were no claps of thunder.  There was no voice from Heaven, at least not audible to you or those around you. And yet you need to understand that something very significant happened that can sustain you throughout the whole of your life. For Baptism identified you as God's Beloved, as Christ’s own.  It is the most important event in your Christian life. 
 
Each of us is called, by virtue of our baptism to share in the ministry of Christ. Through baptism we respond to an intimate call to become known by God's name.  By baptism we share in the same relationship and mission that God had with Jesus.  It empowers us to stand with those whom the world sees as unlovely and unlovable and to affirm that in God's realm there is compassion.  Baptism initiates the work of the Spirit in and through us.  It gives us the responsibility for others.  It identifies us as God's children and servants.  It calls us to action.  

Today as we celebrate the baptism of our Lord, we will renew our own baptismal covenant. How do we respond to the promises made at our baptism?  Somehow or other we need to accept them as our own.  We need to take responsibility for our Christian life.  We need to accept the relationship to God, which was formalized at our baptism.   We need to accept that God has called each of us.  We accept those words of Isaiah, “I have called you by name, you are mine.” 

The prophet Isaiah was speaking to the Israelites who were going through a time of tribulation and unrest. He is reminding them that despite all indications to the contrary, God is faithful. God has chosen them to be God's people, God's beloved. They will pass through troubling times over and over again. “When you will pass throught the waters,” God tells them, “I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” When things happen to us, we get stuck. We forget that God has been there for us in the past. We forget that while bad things have happened, we have not been forgotten by God. In fact sometimes it seems that it is more that we have forgotten that we belong to God, that we are beloved of God.
 
That realization comes to us through God’s Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is not some mysterious and unattainable gift.  It is meant to be part of the experience of each one of us.  That is the story behind the reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Peter and John have gone to Samaria to be with those who have been converted and baptised. Their task it to pray that these people might receive the Holy Spirit. What they do is simply to affirm what God is doing in the life of the community. We do not have to look for some unusual happening in our lives.  We do not have to speak in tongues or proclaim great prophetic words.  We do need to recognize the times when God is truly present with us.  Then we will know and understand that indeed the spirit is upon us. 
 
Early in the New Year, a parishioner said to me, "we need to share good news, good stories of what is happening in our lives.  Good things that God is doing in our lives."  She is so right.  Good things are happening in this parish. Good things are happening to people in our parish. Is it not wonderful news that we were able to raise more funds for FaithWorks than last year? Is it not wonderful that our congregation is growing? Is it not wonderful news that even in the midst of difficulty, if we look for God, God is there? 

I know that many of you are aware of how God is at work in your lives. I know because you tell me.  We need to share those good news stories with each other. 
 
God has called us by name.  The question remains, will we accept the mission and ministry that God is calling us to?  We moan that the church is a dying institution.  It will not be a dying institution if we all take our ministry as the people of God seriously.  We often think that ministry is for those who are trained.  But more often all it takes is being a good listener.  It may seem as if one is doing nothing.  But in this day and age when no one has time for anyone else, a listening ear is a fine gift. 
 
Praise is a fine gift as well.  Praise helps immeasurably one whose self-esteem is low.  Yet what a small gift it is.  And it is one that we all have an opportunity to use. If we do, it will make a radical difference to our community.

We need to practice the gift of compassion. We live in a lonely society where many need to feel that they are loved.

Hope is such an important gift in our day. We can look around us at the state of society and simply give up. The ability to offer hope to one who is suffering or lonely or afraid can turn a life around.

The opportunities for ministry are all around us.  Such opportunities build up the life of the community.  And the most wonderful thing about ministry is that through reaching out to others, our own lives are enriched.  We are brought into a closer relationship with God and with other people.  So take it in.  Really know it and understand it.  God has called you by name, and you belong to God. 

It was quite an event, my baptism. Not that I remember it! Oh! I have heard the stories about that day. So even though my memory does not hold it, I know that it was the most important day in my life. The fact that I am baptised fills me with sheer wonder. To know, to really know that I am God's child, God's Beloved, is a source of deep joy. That is what keeps me praying that I will live faithfully as God's child. In the silence of my heart I imagine God proclaiming, “Here is another one of my beloved children!” Amen.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Epiphany, Year C

Because God Deserves the Best

Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

In his book, "Brother to a Dragonfly" Will Campbell, a civil rights activist, writer, and sometimes Baptist preacher tells a story about a bathrobe his Aunt Bettye received one Christmas. “And she wore the flannel bathrobe to church the very first Sunday after Christmas. Because it was the prettiest thing she had ever seen and the Lord deserved the best. And because it was 1933, and she didn't have a bathroom.”

How different from Christmas, 2009! At the top of children's wish lists to Santa this year were scampering hamsters called Zhu Zhus, a princess and a transforming robot. One parent got to the toy store intent upon purchasing a Zhu Zhu for her daughter only to find that they were sold out. She was almost in tears as she asked the clerk, “What am I going to tell my daughter on Christmas morning?”

If I were she I would begin by telling her the story of Aunt Bettye's flannel robe. And then I would go on to recount the story of Jesus. I would tell her about the Son of God, born in the smelly straw of a barn because there was no room for him in the inn. I would tell her about a family fleeing for their lives with their young child. I would tell her about a Saviour who came to give up his life so that we would have eternal life. I would tell her about one who came not to give us everything we want, but to give us everything we need.

The society in which we live gives us a sense of entitlement to have everything we want, especially at Christmas. Then after the day has passed we feel let down. We suffer from the aftermath of Christmas. I see it all around me. After the busyness of the day a kind of apathy sets in. People who couldn't wait until the first week of December to put up the Christmas tree now hurry to take it down. The decorations are put away. Wrapping paper and bows are recycled in a cupboard waiting for next year's rush. The perfect gift so carefully chosen by Aunt Sally is returned so that you can get what you wanted in the first place. The last bite of turkey disguised in as many creative ways as possible has finally been consumed. The dieting has begun in earnest.

There should, of course, be a Christmas aftermath, but it should not be one of depression, apathy or inactivity. Aunt Bettye's sense of giving the best of who we are should be our agenda, not just for Christmas Day but for every day of our lives. That is strongly the message of Epiphany.

It is the message of the Old Testament reading from Isaiah. He gave the very best of who he was to God. He shared it with his people. He called the people of Israel to take heart. He knew that God comes like light in the midst of darkness and transforms the world. He shared that message with people who needed that kind of transformation. They badly needed to be transformed by God's love. What a gift he gave to people who had been exiled for so long from their homeland! What hope he gave to people who had returned to a country now poor and shabby, a pale shadow of its former greatness. Isaiah's words assured them that God had not abandoned them. New blessings would transform Israel. Isaiah saw his nation possessing such light that others could not help but be drawn to it. He offered them great wealth, not in material value, but in spiritual things.

Paul, too, gave the best of himself to God. The hidden wealth for Paul, the mystery at the heart of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ, was that the covenant with God that had been broken became the vehicle of salvation for all people. It transformed the whole faith. It broke down the barriers which had existed between God and humankind. It brought new light into a dark world. It brought joy as Paul communicated that inclusivity to those to whom he preached. He shared a wonderful message that we are all part of God's plan because God's grace is given for all of us to share.

We all know the story of the magi and their great gifts to the baby Jesus. The astrologers from Persia travelled long distances through adverse conditions to find a child foretold in the stars. They were seekers, these Magi, searching for something, for someone. You do not scan the sky night after night unless you are searching. They were hoping for something new and wonderful. They packed their luggage, saddled their camels and followed the star. It was not an easy journey. It was a struggle, the journey long and tedious. They slept by day. By night they scanned the skies. They had no exact directions; they simply followed a pinpoint of light in a dark sky. It was a journey fraught with difficulties. But they followed the star through the dark nights and they met Christ. God, the God of Israel was revealed to the world.

It is a story about gift giving. The magi brought rich gifts to Jesus. The gift of gold, fit for a King! The gift of incense, it's lovely fragrance rising in the air as our prayers arise to God. A rare gift brought from the far east. The gift of myrrh, another rare spice related to incence, used by the Egyptians in embalming, a reminder that this child will suffer and die.

But most of all, they bring themselves, for it is a beautiful story of seekers willing to leave everything behind to follow a dream. It is a story too of missed communication, for the Magi follow the signs but miss a turn in the road. They find themselves in the court of King Herod in Jerusalem. It makes perfect sense to them that the child would be born into a royal household, and Herod, though not of royal lineage is king. He is a king who rules through fear and intimidation. The time of King Herod is for the people of Israel a time of oppression, suffering, brutality and fear. When he hears about the birth of a young king he is filled with rage at the thought of his power being usurped. In his devious ways he convinces the Magi to return to him with news of where the child is born. But God intervenes. God speaks words of warning to them through a dream. They go home by another road, saving the child from the wrath of the king.

It is a story of deep transformation. The magi were transformed by their visit to the manger. How could they not be transformed? That kind of spiritual journey through life has a profound effect on our lives. That giving of self results in a profound change in our lives.

In what way has my life been transformed? Do I continue to walk in old paths, in old ways? Then what has Christmas accomplished? New life means new paths, new goals, new attitudes, new motivations. What paths are being opened up before me as I enter a new year? Am I a new person? How has my encounter with the Christ child affected my life, my way of living? What is God trying to accomplish in me at this very moment? What of my self am I willing to offer to God?

There is a legend that the Magi were three different ages. They went into the cave one at a time. They each met someone their own age. Melchior met an old man who spoke to him of memory and gratitude. Balthazar met a middle-aged teacher who talked of leadership and responsibility. Gaspar met a young prophet who spoke words of reform and promise. Afterward they entered the cave together and met a baby twelve days old.

The message of Christ speaks to us at every stage of our lives. Christ continues to be revealed to us as we grow in faith and maturity. To find Christ at any stage in our lives is to find ourselves. And when we enter together we find a deeper truth, that we are children of God. What a wonderful gift of God's grace! May we enter this New Year full of hope and joy, and ready to offer ourselves to God!

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...