Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Second Sunday of Lent, Year C

Sheltered Under God's Wings

Readings: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27: Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

Perhaps you will recall the childhood story of the fox and the little red hen. The sly fox spends his time thinking of ways to trap the little red hen. He finally manages it and pops her into his sack to drag her back to his lair. But she, of course, always prepared, manages to get her scissors out in the nick of time. She cuts a hole in the bag and replaces herself with a stone so that the fox will not know that she is gone.

Many farmers have true stories about the night the fox raided the hen house. However, while the stories tell of the ruckus the hens made trying to save their chicks, we all know the outcome. It makes the image of Herod the fox and Jesus the hen protecting the chicks in the gospel this morning all the more beautiful.

It starts with a warning from the Pharisees. For once they seem to be on Jesus' side. “Get away from here,” they warn him, “for Herod wants to kill you.” Jesus often reacts to “daily news” items such as this one. His parables and stories are a response to real events going on in real peoples’ lives. He lived in the real world. He knew and responded to the political situation. Yet even in the face of personal danger he did not back down.

“Go and tell that fox what you see happening!” he tells them. And he gives them a hint of what is to come. In fact, it was not Herod the fox who ultimately got into the hen house; rather it was Pilate who carried out the resolve of the Jewish authorities. Jesus did not stop his ministry when threatened by the power of the Jewish authorities, those of Palestine, or even those of Rome. Even when his work threatened the established order, Jesus journeyed under the divine imperative that took him on the way of the cross.

Over against the threat of Herod's power Jesus speaks of a “hen gathering her brood together under her wings”. What a beautiful image of God, protective, loving, warm, supportive! At the first hint of danger in the farmyard the mother hen gathers the chicks under her wings. She forgets her own needs as the little chicks crowd together trustingly under her warm body. Much as Jesus has concern for the work to which God has called him, he also has concern for the spiritual welfare of humanity. He yearns to protect God’s children. As a mother hen gathers her young under her wings, so he yearns for their spiritual well being, yearns so much, in fact, that he will embrace death on the cross, arms outstretched, to accomplish it.

We, of course are the chicks. Our lives, watched over so carefully by God are free from the terrible threats of the foxes that arise in our lives. Under those protective wings we can live our lives with boldness and courage. So why is it that we try so hard to get away from those protective wings? Why do we wander off onto our own paths? Why do we want to live our lives on our own terms?

Let's face it! The fox has an allure that is difficult to resist. The world has so much to offer. We begin to see ourselves as invincible, as being able to look after our own needs. Or we are enticed by the promise of power, of wealth. What need do we have for God? What place does God have in our lives? Or we come to a time when we are facing personal crisis. We all do at some time or another. Our reaction is to feel totally alone. No one in the world, we are certain, has ever gone through what we are going through. There is no place or person to whom to turn for comfort. We feel abandoned by the very ones we think should be the most supportive. We feel abandoned by the church. Most of all, we feel abandoned by God. It is difficult to keep the faith. It is impossible to remember that even in the most difficult and trying situations, God is with us.

In our materialistic society it is easy to make choices that kill the soul. Our choice as Christians is crucial, for we are called to emulate Christ. Jesus’ path was one of suffering and death. Does that ever cause us to wonder why our paths should be so smooth and our way so easy? While we claim to follow Jesus, most of us find little in our journey through life that resembles suffering or sacrifice for the sake of others. Are we called during this Lenten season to stand up against society to make it just and equitable? How do we proclaim God’s love?

How do we live out our call in the real world? It takes courage to stand up for what we believe. We are called to shelter and champion those who are ill-treated. The struggle to bring peace and justice into the world is a sign that God’s sheltering wings embrace us. We in turn open our arms to embrace the needs of society. We need models in our lives to imitate and lifestyles to copy.

Abram is one of those models for us. He lived under the protective wings of a loving God. However, he was not always convinced that it was the case. He was called by God to leave his homeland with Sarai, Lot and all of his possessions. He became prosperous, yet still felt cheated because he had no heir. God did not seem to have kept the promise. He quickly began to blame God for his condition. But God gave Abram a life changing experience that took him outside of himself, beyond the cares and petty concerns of his life.

God took him outside to view the starry sky. There at night beneath the stars he caught a glimpse of himself and began to see how really blessed he was. “Look toward heaven,” God told him. “Count the stars, if you are able to count them.” It brought Abram into a new relationship with God. He moved beyond words, beyond arguments, even beyond his own efforts, to a sense of trust, to faith that what God has promised, God will bring about. It was the beginning of a covenant between God and Abram.

The covenant was reassuring for a time, especially as Abram began to think back to his former life in Ur. Of course, insecurities began to creep back in. Once more God renewed the covenant between them. At God’s suggestion Abram brought out the heifer, the goat, the ram, the turtledove and the pigeon. He cut them in two laying each half over against the other. In the darkness as he slept the smoking fire pot and flaming torch passed between the pieces. Rather like a blood brother ritual, it symbolized what would happen if either broke the agreement.

“May I be split open and left to die,” God is saying to Abram, “if I do not keep the promises I have made to you today.” Abram had little reason to believe what God said. Yet he trusted in a promise so outrageous that it was beyond belief.

Paul too is a model, not only for the people of Philippi, but also for us. Paul was writing to the Philippians from prison. In the midst of his own personal struggle and deprivation, he wanted to reassure them so that they would continue in spite of all the problems and hardships they faced. Philippian society was decadent. They lived at a time of excess. A great gulf lay between rich and poor. They were a people obsessed with sexuality. They overused their resources. They searched for meaning in a meaningless existence. Paul demands of them a quality of life, a higher purpose that will give meaning and direction to their lives. He calls on them to live as if they believe God’s great promise of salvation. He calls on them to live within the shadow of the cross, to live with the knowledge of the great sacrifice that Christ made on their behalf. If they believe that God is building a kingdom of love, they will live loving lives that belie the society in which they live. They will not live their lives focused on instant gratification, but will seek inner peace and spiritual growth.

It is easy, in fact, utterly human, to refuse to take responsibility for our actions. Yet when we allow ourselves to be sheltered by God's protective wings, when we remember the promises that God has made to us, when we remember the sacrifice that Christ made, then we know how blessed we truly are. We know how unworthy we are of God's call!

And if we forget again, then God reminds us again. God calls us out of the darkness as he called Abram. God helps us to wrestle with our private demons. God graces us and we begin to trust the promises again.

Like a mother hen God through Jesus Christ gathers us in in safety. We are part of God's life, living under those protective wings. From that warm and safe place we reach out to others, drawing them in to the love of God. The Lenten journey we have begun is one of discovery, of renewing our covenant with God, of looking beyond the cares and concerns of life. It is a time to renew our faith. It is a time to understand how God's promises have played out in our lives. It is a time to accept God's spiritual embrace, to take shelter under those wings.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The First Sunday of Lent, Year C

Into the Wilderness

Readings: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

A friend of mine, a meteorologist, has a phone message at this time of year that gives all the ingredients for the arrival of spring. He explains that the earth prepares itself long before spring actually arrives. Under the snow the earth is warming up, ready to nurture the seeds.

Although we do not usually think of it in those terms, Lent is the springtime of the church year. It is a time of spiritual renewal and preparedness. It is a wilderness time in our lives when we look for direction. Too often we think of it as a rather grim time when we should feel guilty about the things that are wrong in our lives. We think of it in terms of giving up. It is not simply about guilt for our sinfulness or giving up, although those are important things for us to consider in our spiritual journey. Rather it is about the barrenness of winter giving way to the promise of spring. Such wilderness times in our lives can be times of danger as we search for the right direction, but they are also times of growth as God makes a path through the wilderness, a path leading us home.

Following his baptism in the Jordan River, Jesus entered a Lenten time in his life. It was a time of preparation for leadership. It was common practice for people to go to a desert place to prepare themselves spiritually. It was a reminder of the forty years of wandering in the wilderness, and of their hope for liberation. So Jesus went out into the wilderness. It was a time to prepare for what lay ahead, a journey that would ultimately lead him to the cross.

There in that wilderness place he grappled with the devil. “If you are the Son of God,” the devil said to him, “make bread!” What could be the harm? After all, God provided manna for the people of Israel when they were going hungry in the wilderness. It was a subtle temptation, for Jesus often thought about how to feed the hungry. It would have brought him instant popularity amongst the poor. Jesus, however, was interested in another kind of hunger. He knew that it would take more than bread to satisfy the deep needs of humanity.

“If you are the Son of God, be a political leader!” the devil continued. Many in Israel were hoping that the Messiah would be a conqueror who would deliver them from the power of Rome. They lived in an oppressive regime; they wanted freedom. Would not Jesus have made a great king? Power can be a real temptation. Jesus knew whom he served. He knew what kind of a king he was called to be. He knew that his throne would be a cross.

“If you are the Son of God,” the devil continued, “pull a spectacular stunt. Get noticed!” What harm could there be? Would it not be for the better good? Would it not accomplish far more in the whole scheme of things?

The time in the wilderness is a defining moment in Jesus’ ministry. It defines his potential. If you are the Son of God, you do not need to prove it. You simply need to be all you are meant to be, all that God calls you to be. These are temptations which define who Jesus is and who he is not. What kind of liberator is Jesus? What kind of miracle worker? What kind of king? For he is not a liberator, a miracle worker or a king in the way of the world.

Temptations are defining moments. At least, the way we respond to them defines us. What kind of people are we? Are we all that God is calling us to be? Or do we allow ourselves to be lured away onto easier paths, in worldly directions. Our purpose is to be all that God wants us to be. The Lenten Season offers us the opportunity to explore who we are meant to be. This Lent more than any other I am aware that we need to seize the opportunity, not only as individuals, but perhaps even especially as a congregation. This Lenten season offers us opportunities, but it also offers challenges.

During Lent we embark on a journey that takes us into wilderness places. The Old Testament reading is a wilderness story. The wilderness experience for the Israelites was a fruitful one in many ways. In the wilderness they served God without being diverted by society. It was a time of closeness to God, of intimacy. So now as they enter a time of wealth and prosperity, the people are called to remember the oppression that they suffered in Egypt. They are called to remember God's deliverance. They are called to remember the experiences of wandering in the desert and of the joy of knowing that they could depend on God to meet their needs.

It is something of which I am very much aware as I prepare for our Vestry meeting this afternoon. In fact, sometimes as I look back on the past five years I am aware that we have been wandering in some rather difficult wilderness places already. These have been challenging years as we got our operating deficit under control. They have been challenging years as we considered how best to deal with the problems that arise out of our unique arrangements in the Church Centre. They have been challenging years as it became more and more obvious that the Lutherans were not able to carry their fair share of the expenses. It has become more and more challenging as we found ourselves blamed for the difficulties our partner in ministry has been going through.

Those of us who manage this congregation, our wardens, our boards, and myself, know that the wilderness journey in many ways has just begun. Over the next few months many important decisions will need to be made by this Vestry.

There will be temptations along the way. We all know from our own experience that many things tempt us as humans. There is the temptation to use God to meet our own needs and wants rather than what God has in mind for us. We may be tempted to see the testing in our lives as a sign of abandonment or failure. We can forget that it can be a sign that God's grace can enable us to accomplish whatever God has in store for us. What we may not realize is that there are also many things that tempt churches. Churches can become places for entertainment, or social empowerment, or middle class compromise. We can forget the ministry to which we are called.

As we meet for Vestry we will be asked to reflect on just that. Where is God calling our congregation? How best can we accomplish the ministry to which God is calling us? We will take our time to explore all of the options. We will study. We will pray. We will dream. We will remember God's many blessings on us in the past and of how God has sustained us through many difficult periods of transition. We will listen to one another patiently and with compassion. We will listen to where God is leading us. Most of all we will remember that our true call is to follow the way of the cross. There at the cross the power of sin and death are defeated. All too often when we are wandering through wilderness places we see the testing and not the faith. Testing is the sign that God's grace will enable us to meet whatever is in store for us. Let us remember that we move ahead in faith and that we do not do so alone. Amen.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ash Wednesday

"We are But Dust"

Readings: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17a; Psalm 103:8-18; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6

“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm,” says Joel to the people of Israel. He sends out a terrible warning to the people as he warns of a dreaded locust plagues. He describes the threat with dire warnings that fill the people with fear and a sense of helplessness. He calls them to turn back to God. He calls them to do more than simply go through the rituals. He admonishes them to acknowledge who God is and that God is in contol. Even though they face a terrible threat, even though everything seems to be out of control, yet God reigns. “Even now”, he is saying, “it is not to late. Turn to God and ask God to spare the people.”

What does it say to us as we celebrate Ash Wednesday, as we begin this Lenten Season? For that matter, why do we do what we do on Ash Wednesday? As I reflect on it, the call of Joel is still, twenty four hundred years later, a contemporary message. We all know what darkness the future can hold. In this wealthy country of ours we know what darkness the future can bring. The economic problems of last year leave many seniors wondering whether they will have enough for their future needs. There is unemployment. More people are working part time simply because they cannot find full time employment. Shockingly, there are children who go to bed hungry even in Canada. There are homeless people living on the streets of our cities. Worldwide people face war, famine, pandemic … The people of Haiti must feel as if everything is out of control. They must feel totally helpless as they try to pull the pieces of their lives together following the dreadful earthquake.

Is God calling us to examine why we do what we do? Is God calling us to understand that we need to return to God in a real way?

Why do we do what we do on Ash Wednesday? Why do we take ashes and smear them on our foreheads? Why do we look for things to give up or take on during Lent? We need to drive home a message about ourselves and our destiny. We were formed from the dust of the earth. God has breathed into our dust giving it life. Those facts are the foundation of human hope. We are more than the physical entity that we see. We have immense significance. We are sacred. We know sin and violence. We know too that we have need for atonement. Ash Wednesday convinces us of our dark side.

Our modern age denies that we are dust. We take charge of our humanity. We see ourselves as the owners of our destiny. We need reminders that we are but dust. We need to remember what we really are. We need to remember as well that we are creatures who can turn this planet into dust. Ash Wednesday can be a clear reminder to us of the charge over creation that God has given us. It can be a call to us to be stewards of God's creation.

Is God calling us to “sanctify a fast”? Is Lent calling us to make sacrifices? And I don't mean giving up chocolate, although that might be something we decide to do. For we need to ask ourselves for what reason we are giving something up? We know that as Canadians we are the ultimate consumers. Is Lent a call to examine our footprint and to make changes that cut down on our consumption? What worthy causes can we support ? Can Lent be a call for us to exmine our givings to the Church and to other worthy causes? Is it time to make some changes in our life style? Are their healthy alternatives to our usual diet? Can we walk more instead of getting into the car? Is it a call to a sacred agenda, to find time for prayer, study and fasting? Are there issues in our personal faith that need to be addressed?

Jesus says in the Gospel, “Give alms, pray, fast!” Lent should remind us that we do not have to impress God with our goodness. We do need to acknowledge our sinfulness and our need to change. And so I offer you an opportunity to begin a Holy Lent. Let us reflect on our call and begin the Lenten journey with new resolve to be all that God is calling us to be.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Last Sunday of Epiphany, Year C

Transforming Moments

Readings: Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36, 37-43

In “Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul” a man named Richard shared a transformative moment from his life. He was going into the subway in a large city. There was the usual rush of the crowded station, but people were, as usual, anonymous, keeping to themselves. An elderly woman called out from the top of the elevator. “Good morning!” She went up to one man. “How are you this morning?” He nodded and moved on. Unpreturbed she shouted across the tracks. “How are you all?” Richard found himself caught up in it. He shouted back, “I'm great!” Then he watched as she disappeared back up the escalator. He got on his train and found himself sharing a pole with several people. He simply couldn't help himself. “Good morning!” he said to the woman next to him. She looked at him rather tentatively. He shared the story about the woman in the station. People began to talk about it. “Do you think she was an angel?” one of them asked. Richard agreed. After all, isn't that what angels do? They carry messages to people. All of the people in the car became animated, laughing and talking and greeting one another. As she went to leave the train, the woman thanked Richard for sharing a moment of joy in what was usually a rather humdrum part of her day. It was moment of transformation that those people will carry with them. Who knows what lives it changed?

On this last Sunday of Epiphany Scripture focuses on stories of transfiguration experiences. The first is the account of Moses returning from the mountain. He is changed as he returns from his encounter with God. His face shines from the experience. Of course his face shone. He had seen God. In fact it shines so much that it causes fear in Aaron and the Israelites. In further encounters with God he finds it necessary to mask himself when he returns. The story reinforces the importance of Moses as the one called by God to act as mediator and to speak the ongoing messages from God. The message coming from Moses is alive. It brings life and light to the people if they are willing to hear it.

Paul too finds that his encounter with the risen Christ transforms all who experience it. He finds himself unmasked when he turns to Jesus. There is a new relationship. There is a new freedom. He sees Christ in all of his risen glory. Paul knows that the more you look at the divine glow in Jesus the more your life carries that same glow. He sees it not in terms of ecstatic experiences but in terms of love and compassion.

And on the mountain of transfiguration, not only is our Lord changed, but so are the disciples who share the experience. It radically changes their relationship with him. In that mountaintop experience they catch a glimpse of the glory to come. They experience a moment of rapture. They hear the voice of God calling Jesus “my chosen Son”. Reflected in that same glory they begin to know themselves. They see all that they are meant to be. They are transformed into God’s own likeness. It is for them a call to action, a call to change, a call to be.

There are times in our Christian journey when we ascend the mountain with Jesus. There on the mountain top we come to know him in his glory. Reflected in that glory we begin to know ourselves, to know all that we are meant to be. For we too are called to the heights, to greatness. We are called to be transformed into God's own likeness. We are called to know the glory of God and to see it in our lives. Jesus Christ lived human life in such a way to show that it was capable of transformation. In the same way God will bring about such a transformation in the whole of creation. The guarantee of our faith is that it will be worth it despite all of the difficult and painful things that happen in our life journey.

The problem is we often fail to see the glory that surrounds us. And if we do, we don’t allow it to transform the dreariness of our lives, because to allow that transformation to take place would mean to change our perspective. All too easily we allow the problems in our lives, the fears, to take hold.

Is anyone afraid today? Is anyone troubled? Then today is a time to step aside for a while,
to find the quiet space in which you can pour out your hearts to God, in which you can climb the mountain of transfiguration and know God's presence as you pray and listen.

Today is the time to allow the ordinary bread and wine of our existence to be held up before God to be transformed by his love into the body and blood of Christ. It is the time to allow word and table to transform our hearts. It is the time to experience the glory of God that Jesus and the disciples experienced on the Mountain of Transfiguration. For we too are invited to climb the mountain, to experience the light of God shining in our lives and then to carry it out into the world where others may see it as well. We all have those experiences in our lives, times when we are transformed by the greatness of God.

There are such times scattered throughout my life. I was transformed by the greatness of God when I saw a double rainbow in the sky. I was transformed by the greatness of God when I watched the northern lights dance across the sky, when I saw the world transformed by a fresh snowfall, when I viewed the glitter of the stars piercing through a dark wintry night. I was transformed by the greatness of God when I stood on a lookout in the Rockies, looking out over God's wonderful creation.

I was transformed by the greatness of God at a moment of conversion when I realized the utter reality of God, through answered prayer, when I made my first confession, when I was ordained.

I was transformed by the greatness of God when Alice shared her last moments of life with me, when an elderly woman said, “Get out my brown shoes; I'm going dancing tonight”, when a child who was not expected to live past her first birthday came running up to the altar for a blessing, when an elderly man told me his childhood memories of his mother's words to him many years before as she lay dying, words that comforted him in his last moments of life.

I am transformed by the greatness of God when I listen to Handel's Messiah, when I hear the sweet voices of a children's choir, when I hear a great organ being played.

I am transformed by the greatness of God each time I hold the bread and wine out to you and invite you to come to the table. I am transformed by the greatness of God when we all join together to say, “Glory to God...” I am amazed because they are transformative moments in my life. They are glimpses of the glory of God, moments in my day in which the world is transfigured. They are moments when I know that God is reaching out to me.

Grace comes into our lives in so many unexpected ways. Our relationships with other people can be transformative experiences that transcend the barriers between us and God. There are times of disclosure when we allow others to really see who we are. Those are the moments that most clearly shape our lives. Without such moments others would never really come to know who we are. We would never really come to know them. And we would miss out on great insights into the nature and essence of the God we worship.

There is a purpose to the Transfiguration event. It gives a glimpse of the glory of God, something that we humans find impossible to fully comprehend. It was a great and grand event, the mountaintop experience. In sharing in it, although we find ourselves back in the valley again, we do so holding on to the memory of the transfigured and resurrected Christ. That is a memory that transforms our lives and allows us to share the light of Christ with others on the journey.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C

This week at St. Francis we are celebrating Black History Month. One of my Lay Readers is preaching, so I am not posting a sermon. I may post a few thoughts later, since I will be giving a homily at 8:30.

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 ...