Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Maundy Thursday

The Miracle of Serving

Readings: Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116:10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15

"Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end." Jesus had a loving relationship with his disciples. It was a relationship that comes from a sense of intimacy for which we all need to strive. It is that sense of intimacy that happens when real trust grows between two people. In a situation of such trust, both people are able to give and receive selfless and meaningful love. It is the kind of love that is required if we are to be servants in the sense in which God calls us to serve. It is the kind of love that Jesus showed to his disciples on the night before he died.

On that night, Jesus performed an astonishing task. He took a bowl, a jug full of water and a towel. He went down on his hands and knees before his friends. He washed their feet. He washed them all, lovingly and thoroughly, with eyes full of tenderness and love for those whose feet he was washing.

It may not seem to be such a momentous occurrence for us. But in a time when dusty roads and sandals were the norm it was not only a loving gesture, but also a useful one. If you think it was no big deal, consider Peter's response. He was overwhelmed by the reversal in roles. The one he served was serving him. It was a life-changing experience.

Such acts of service are still life changing experiences. They take place in many forms in our world. When they do, although we often fail to recognize them as such, they are reflections of the love of God. We have all seen signs of such love in many forms. A nurse holding the hand of an elderly patient to reassure, to comfort; a salesperson comforting a lost child; someone going out of their way to drive a neighbour to an appointment; a neighbour dropping in with a casserole at a time of bereavement.

That example of the suffering servant that we see exemplified in the life of Christ has come down to us through the centuries. It is a challenge to all human images and concepts of power, authority and leadership. So a great person like Ghandi can humble himself by washing latrines. Mother Teresa can serve the humblest and poorest beggar on the streets of Calcutta. Jean Vanier can live in community with his mentally challenged brothers and sisters.

What a paradox Jesus presents to us! Through service one leads. Through Christian love and concern one can work miracles. Thanks be to God.

Good Friday

Why “Good”?

John 18 & 19
Every Friday morning as I wake up the commentator on the station I listen to calls out, “Good Friday morning to all you listeners!” It irks me somehow, because it takes away from the day we call Good Friday. Yet even as we come together to commemorate this day I find myself questioning why we call it 'Good’. Christ’s life is full of meaningful moments, yet none as profound as the events we have been enacting this week, the events of the last days of his earthly life.  Here is both tragedy and glory. It is far easier for us to see the tragedy than to understand the glory.  How can we see it as anything but a terrible waste of human life?  What kind of a God could allow such a terrible thing to happen to a beloved child?  How can we, knowing the depths to which humanity fell, have the audacity to call this Friday "Good"?     
The story of the crucifixion is an astounding story of hatred and hostility.  It brings up so many questions in us.  How could one of his closest companions, one who had travelled with him, the one entrusted with the common purse, deliberately agree with his enemies to assist them in capturing him?  Why should the leaders of the synagogue turn on one of their own, a young rabbi, with such animosity?  His unorthodox ways are simply not enough to explain it.  Why should the guards turn with such vehemence against their prisoner, bullying him in such a vicious manner?  How could Pilate, a servant of Rome, go against his inner convictions and impose the death penalty on one he knows to be a good person?  Why should the crowd, who only days before had cheered Jesus on with shouts of “Hosanna”, just as easily shout “crucify”?  It doesn’t make sense. 

The day was a Friday.  But it was quite unlike any other day.  For on what other day have people gone so far astray?  Were they evil – that great crowd of people?  Who was in that crowd?  No doubt there were the unemployed, the disenfranchised of Jerusalem.  One can understand in a way how they could take out their frustrations on another.  But there were shopkeepers, teachers, artisans, business people and housewives in that crowd.  People just like you and me.  There were no doubt many religious people, people with character.  Yet none of that saved them from becoming a part of that unthinking mob. 

That mob mentality is part of the tragedy of being human.  The events of that day are disasters renewed daily in our world.  Amnesty International reminds us that, even while we are worshipping here in Mississauga, some man or woman in a police station somewhere in the world is being battered or tortured for no particular reason except that he or she is at the mercy of another human being.  One cannot open a newspaper without reading about such events.  They happen all over the world – in Afghanistan, in Columbia, in Haiti, in The Congo. Terrible atrocities take place every day.  Sadly, many of them take place in the name of God. 

There once was a city called Harmony.  To be true the city did not live up to its name.  For it was a hotbed of bigotry, prejudice and discrimination.  The King had long watched what was happening in the town.  He knew that he had to take action.  So he sent his son to look into the problem. 

The Prince went in disguise.  That way he could go about freely.  There were no barriers.  He made himself a part of every group in the community.  He found his way into every ghetto.  Rich and poor alike were attracted to him.  They sensed his acceptance and love.  In return they would have done anything for him. 

One day he invited all of his friends to a picnic.  The whole city turned out.  He went from group to group encouraging them to talk with one another, to share the food and drink they had brought, and to have their children play games and run races together.  Suddenly the mood turned ugly.  The rich looked at the poor and began to mutter.  “What kind of company does this man keep?”  The poor couldn’t help but notice the snobbery of the rich.  The Caucasians looked at the people of colour saying, "What are they doing here?  Who invited them anyway?"  The Prince continued to encourage them to find their common interests and to share with one another.  The more he tried to convince them the more angry they became until finally their anger turned against him.  They rose as a mob.  Their shouts and screams of hatred filled the air. 

The Prince, battered and bruised, beat a hasty retreat.  Just as he left town a huge clap of thunder was heard.  The sky turned as black as night.  It began to pour with rain.  Now the only shelter in the picnic area was an abandoned temple.  The crowd hurried inside and stood there huddled together like a flock of sheep.  They were petrified at the fury of the storm.  They knew that they had done a terrible thing.  “Was God punishing them?” they wondered.   

In their panic they forgot about their differences. The walls of the temple bound them together, as members of a large family.  The barriers fell down.  They began to comfort one another attempting to relieve each others fears.  They reflected on all that had taken place.  They understood what the Prince had accomplished for them.  When they discovered his true identity, they were overwhelmed.  Love for him overflowed.  They longed to make amends to him for their hateful actions.  Realizing how impossible that was, they made amends to one another.  “That”, they knew, “was what the Prince had been sent to do.”  From that day on Harmony began to live up to its name. 

Jesus was not a prisoner dragged to his execution.  He was a king offering himself for his kingdom.  That is the ultimate love of God.  It is not something we can know in any intellectual way.  We must experience it.  We must know it in the way we know God’s presence with us.  We must understand why he came and why he suffered and died.  For only then can we call this Friday, “Good”. 

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Palm / Passion Sunday, Year C

Do Not Weep for Me

Readings: Luke 19:29-40; Isaiah 45:21-25; Psalm 22:1-11; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:39-23:56

This week Christians worldwide are focused on the final days and hours of the earthly life of Jesus. Millions of people will devote their attention to the cross and Passion of our Lord. Perhaps it will be by listening to one of the magnificent works of Bach or singing the familiar hymns of the Passion. Perhaps it will encompass walking the way of the cross. Images of the death of Jesus will come to the forefront. In whatever way we commemorate the Passion, we will be moved to compassion and horror as we are reminded of his suffering for us. Perhaps in the midst of it all we will take time to ponder his words to the women of Jerusalem. “Do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.”

Jesus is saying no to simply offering an emotional response to what is happening. He is not saying that tears are wrong. He is simply saying that at this moment in time tears are not enough. Tears are not the appropriate action for us to be taking. They are misdirected. Tears simply to relieve tension are far from what is needed in this situation. Tears for the physical suffering of our Lord are simply not enough. They focus on the wrong things. They come from the wrong emotions. They stem from pity rather than true sorrow for the wrongs we humans have perpetrated. Pity is cheap. It in no way meets the demands that Jesus makes from the cross. Jesus on the cross demands a total change of direction in our lives.

A number of years ago Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ brought the story of the Passion to the forefront for many people. It’s graphic portrayal of the Crucifixion grasped the attention of millions of people. At the time, I grappled with whether or not to even go to the movie. Finally I went, accompanied by a couple of parishioners. I knew that I could not simply ignore it.  Indeed, it opened up many useful conversations.
On the one hand, a teenaged daughter of a friend of mine told me that if that was my God she didn’t want anything to do with Christianity.  On the other hand, a neighbour told me that it persuaded her to renew her relationship with the church.  “I came away feeling as if I had to do something about it,” she said to me.  “I feel so guilty about all the years I have not gone to church.  If God did that for me …” Many people said that the movie left them feeling totally bereft.  I myself came away feeling numbed by its sheer violence and terror.   While it bore a reasonable portrayal of the gospel stories, it did not portray the true message of the Passion.   For that we need to look at why we tell the story year after year.
Is it our fascination with violence?  Is it because bloodshed is so commonplace in our lives anyway?  Are we so used to seeing violence on television and in our newspapers that we need the grisly reminder?  It certainly must strike us as we read the story year after year just how little humankind has changed. In every war we hear of violent attacks and abuse of prisoners. In every society there are power hungry individuals who manipulate and cause suffering to countless people. There are many who wash themselves of any responsibility for the state of the world. Countless people shout slogans and take up a cause rather than thinking for themselves about what is right or wrong. Are we hungry for the tragic?  Do we want to assuage our sense of guilt with the reminder that there is nothing we could have done differently? There will always be those who stand by and let the innocent suffer. Do we want to lay blame on others?  Do we believe that our participation in the Passion of Christ is a necessary sacrifice? 

It is impossible to observe the Cross of Christ in a detached way. To be there is to be involved. We are implicated in the story one way or another. Most of the disciples were not prepared to participate in the story. They ran away. They were not ready to be involved. The women of Jerusalem were not ready to be involved. That is the reason for the tears. They preferred to pity Jesus. And in pitying, we only deceive ourselves. It does not make disciples of us.
So why are we here commemorating the Passion of our Lord. Hopefully we do not come together as church out of a sense of duty or shame, nor are we here to make atonement for our sinfulness.  We are here to be reminded of what God has done for us.  We are here to celebrate the great gift of salvation that God has offered us in the death of Christ. 
We are here to confess, not our sins and our brokenness, but our hope, our hope in the resurrection.  It was not for our wickedness that Christ died, but for our weakness. 

We are here because God has called us, not to pity him, not to pity our brothers and sisters, but to feed them and clothe them, to visit them in sickness and in prison. We are called to become involved in their lives, to act on their behalf, to become involved more deeply in the world. We are called to see the sufferings of the hungry and the oppressed in the light of the crucifixion. Every human suffering comes together in this one event. For in this one event Jesus carries the sin and suffering of the whole human race. He is the promise of ultimate salvation.
We are called to be here at the foot of the cross.  We are called to be here at the foot of the cross because God will not let death have the final say.  God will not let death separate us from the great love of a great God. 
From our place at the foot of the cross we know fear, sorrow, grief, pain, and confusion, but we know too God’s glory and love.  There is hope from that vantage point as we look out on God’s new creation.  We can view the cross as the greatest of failures.  Or we can recognize and be convinced of God’s great love and compassion for humanity.  In that death, God suffered and died.  That is the measure of God’s love.  Can we understand the love behind the cross?  Can we take it and transform it into a thing of loveliness and glory that inspires us and others to take up that cross and follow those steps?  For in dying Jesus showed us God’s glory and passionate love.  There was no other way.  There is no other way but the way of the cross.   

This Passiontide do not weep for Jesus. Jesus does not need our pity. Weep for yourselves. Weep for a world which has turned its back on God. Weep for a world where violence and war still prevail. Weep for a world where people go hungry. Weep for a world bent on destroying itself. Then our tears of pity become the tears that help to heal a fractured and broken world. Amen.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year C

Lavish Love

Readings” Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:8-14; John 12:1-8

Jesus is on the road again. He has returned to Jerusalem at great peril. It is a daring act on his part, publicly entering the city, even going into the temple. He is risking his life by doing so. Perhaps even a bit shaken and scared from the danger lurking around him and hoping to find some reassurance, he sets out for Bethany to see his dearest friends.

Bethany has become his headquarters during this visit to Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover. It is not difficult to understand why. Bethany is a hamlet just over the eastern ridge of the Mount of Olives. From Bethany to the Temple is no more than three kilometres, closer even than the Garden of Gethsemane.

But there is more to the visit than that, for Jesus has three friends there, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. He loves them. They love him. At Bethany he will find friends, family, a place to relax. A place where he can be himself. They go all out and prepare a dinner party for him. Martha loves to entertain. Lazarus sits at the table with Jesus and his friends.

Impetuous and affectionate, Mary comes forward during the dinner bearing a flagon of costly perfumed oil. Pouring the rich ointment over Jesus' feet, she bathes them with oil. What is her intention? Is she trying to communicate her love to Jesus? Perhaps it was a resurrection experience which caused Mary to anoint Jesus' feet. Her act anticipates the death of Jesus. It is a gift of humility. It displays love and generosity of spirit. It is a lavish gift from a prodigal child. Whatever her motive it is a gift given in gratitude, a gift of pure thanksgiving.

Judas immediately reacts to her unselfish act. “Why waste such a lavish gift? Convert it to cash. Make it useful,” he says to her. “Use it for good works and deeds of mercy.” And at first glance he seems to be right. The oil cost the equivalent of a year's wages. Is it not an excessive gift? It could feed a lot of hungry people.

But imagine the expression on Mary's face as it changes from joy to shame. For what Judas has really failed to understand is that Mary's gesture is hers to give. It is not his. It is not ours. And it was exactly the gift that Jesus needed. He accepted the gift with the same generosity of spirit with which it had been given. He saw the bitter sweetness of the gift. And so he accepted it with sadness as well.

His words to Judas are not angry words of rebuke. They are the words of one who sees love betrayed. Jesus knows that Judas' attack on Mary reveals Judas' lovelessness. It reveals Jesus' failure to communicate what is going on in his life. It is the failure of his gospel message of love. He knows that her gift is an anointing for burial.

He speaks words of truth. “You always have the poor with you, but I will not always be here,” he says. Jesus is not forgetting the poor. He spent his ministry befriending the poor. He ate with outcasts and sinners. He healed the sick. He fed the hungry. He knew they would always be needing our concern and help. He knew that his followers would continue the work that he began. He knew that he was preparing his followers to reach out to one another in love.

We have the poor with us always. That is certainly not difficult to understand. Food Banks that we naively thought would be a short term solution to a problem continue to expand. In Canada, one of the richest countries in the world, children go to bed hungry. Child care funding in our own Region of Peel is less than half of the other regions across Ontario. Adult Services funding is one third of the provincial average. And here in Mississauga we hide the needs so well.

Yes! The poor you have with you always. I am reminded of it every time I go down to the Synod Office. Invariably at the off ramp from the Gardiner onto Jarvis there is someone standing, Tim Horton cup stretched out to receive whatever spare change drivers are willing to part with. Sometimes the person will proffer a crudely written message. “Out of work. Hungry.” If the light permits I offer a little spare change. But always I carry on a little dialogue in my mind. “He'll just spend it on booze.” Fortunately it is a fleeting thought. I personally would rather give a little change to alleviate his suffering than miss giving it and think that he might really need the most basic things in life. I remember too that surely our gifts to anyone in need, large or small, are tokens of our loyalty and commitment to the Christian faith. They are expressions of our love for Christ.

There are other kinds of poverty as well. In our impersonal society, so many people live impoverished lives. They live an existence that is not really living. There are the bereaved. There are the sick and the suffering. There are the lonely. There are the unemployed. There are those who deal daily with mental illness. There is so much need around us. How do we become Christ for them?

A young woman I know suffers from deep depression. She told me how meaningless her life was. She spoke of non existence, of lack of memories, of not being a person. She said that she experienced only death. She had made elaborate plans for her own death. Then one day she came into my office looking totally different. Happy. Not a manic high, but truly happy. She spoke differently. There was no talk of suicide. She had experienced something wonderful. A whole new way of looking at herself.

"I know the feeling of happiness will not last," she told me. "But it doesn't matter somehow. Now I know what it is like to live. I"ll remember it when despair sets in again. It will never be as bad again."

There are those who are spiritually impoverished. For whatever reason they have not heard or believed the gospel message. How do we share the good news of Christ with them?

Mary knelt at the feet of Jesus and offered the lavish gift of her love. At the altar we offer our best gifts. We break bread. We bless wine. These are symbols of human life, products of human hands. They satisfy the basic human needs of hunger and thirst. As Jesus offered himself, his body broken, we offer ourselves in our brokenness. As Jesus identified the bread broken and wine poured with his suffering and death. In the Eucharist we remember that obedience, that selfless giving. We share in it. We go out as bread to the world. As bread we may meet rejection, but in faith we share in the joy of the Resurrection. Thanks be to God.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C

Our Prodigal God

Readings: Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 34:1-8; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 22-32

All of us have key moments in our lives when we realize who we are and what we must do. All of the Scripture passages this morning illustrate such times. It is a new beginning for the people of Israel. They are poised between the wilderness and their first conquest in the new land. As they make the transition to their new life, they begin by taking the time to observe their traditions. For the people of Corinth it is a time of decision as Paul calls them to further their relationship with Christ. He wants them to understand what God has done for them. In the Gospel, Jesus tells that wonderfully familiar parable of the prodigal son, speaking to us of those moments of self-realization in our lives when we move from flight to return, from abandonment into discovery, from dying into living.

The parable is a familiar one. Yet in its familiarity it continues to speak to us on a deep level about our own lives and our relationship with a loving God. If we examine our lives we can see ourselves in the characters in the story.

There is first of all the younger child, the prodigal son. He does something unthinkable in a Jewish family. He demands that his father give him his inheritance. Think about it! What he is saying to his father is, "I wish you were already dead.'' He wants what is coming to him, and he wants it now.  He wants to have it all now.  He wants to see it all.  He wants to explore it all.  He wants all of life, and he wants it now. He has no regard for the consequences to his family. He is thinking only of himself. By his actions he cuts himself off from his whole family and even from the community. He severs every relationship in his life. And then he skips town with his new found wealth.  He wants to get going, no matter where as long as it is away from home. 
The story gets even more shocking. He is wantonly wasteful. He squanders his whole inheritance. He leads a dissolute life. In his new found sense of freedom, he goes all out. He spends money lavishly. He becomes a slave to his appetites until there is nothing left. 
Just when you think things cannot get any worse for the son, they do.  A famine hits the land. He has no money.  He has no job.  He has no prospects. He has no friends or relatives to fall back on. He hires himself on to the only job he can get, the lowest of jobs, this young Jewish man, feeding the pigs.  He even envies the pigs their carob pods; the only time pigs will eat them is when there is nothing else to be had.  He is totally lost. 
Then he comes to his senses.  Not that he is thinking about anyone else!  He is still thinking only about himself.  This is not a point of conversion in his life.  It is simply a realization that there may be a way out of his troubles.  He might even be able to maintain a sense of dignity and pride through it all.  He will return home and offer himself as a servant.  He is willing to work, grant you, but only on his own terms.  He will save himself.   He will have to ask for forgiveness, but he doesn’t need to mean it.  Let us be clear about it! He is not repentant.  At least not yet!
That brings us to the father. It is not until his father comes running out to him, arms open in forgiveness, that there is a change of heart in the son.  “Father, I have sinned against you and against heaven,” he says to him.   
And the father forgives him.  Don’t we all expect something quite different to happen?  Aren’t you just waiting for the father to pounce?  Jesus audience would have been startled by the father’s behaviour.  They would have been hanging on every word that Jesus spoke, certain that the young son was about to get everything he deserved and more.  They fully expect to hear that the father has banished him forever, given him his just desserts.  Yet where they expect judgement the father shows love; where they expect condemnation he shows compassion.  This is, after all, no ordinary father.  This is the prodigal father.  Without any hesitation, he can forgive the wandering child and welcome him home.  As his son was lavish in living, so the father is lavish in love. He is prodigal in mercy, and in grace. What a transforming gift that is for the son!

The father’s mercy extends to the older son as well. Truth to tell, he does not come up smelling like roses in the story.  His younger brother spends his inheritance having a good time while he has been taking care of the family business. Then when he returns home, he gets all the attention. What about reaping what you sow? It just doesn’t seem fair. Shouldn’t he be paying for his sins instead of having a party?

The older brother asks for nothing. He wants nothing. He also enjoys nothing. He devotes himself to his father’s service. He never disobeys. Yet he is the centre of his every thought. He reacts with jealousy. “This son of yours…” he says. He is disappointed, to say the least. He fails to experience the loving relationship of a loving parent.

We may see ourselves like the younger son, wanting to live life recklessly. We may drift away from the faith. As the family grows up, somehow we get out of the habit of going to church. We intend to go. We sometimes yearn for the sense of community that we once had. But at the same time, it seems impossible to go back. We feel unworthy. We do not feel as if we belong. We do not see ourselves as beloved children. And so we stay away. That is somehow easier. For by staying away, we don’t risk being rejected. But if we go back, the parable assures us, God receives us back.

We may be rather like the older son, carrying resentments and jealousies. Here we are trying to serve God. Trying to do God’s work. Then the homeless, the addicted, the downtrodden, the hopeless sinners, get all the attention. “If I hear one more sermon about domestic violence or abuse!” “Where is the justice?” We ask. “Don’t I deserve more?”

In retreat a man was meditating on the story of the prodigal son. He used an etching Rembrandt once made of it with the father embracing his lost and found son. The man strongly identified with the younger son. It brought him with a jolt to the sudden realization that God forgave him. Even more he understood that God loved him. Then he had a further insight. It moved him to tears. He realized that the young son forgave himself. He accepted his shadow side and decided to do something about it. He loved himself as the father loved him. It lead him to the realization that he needed the same sense of forgiveness.

It is a profound learning. It is difficult to forgive others; it is much more difficult to forgive oneself. That is why it is one of the greatest gifts of healing that we could possibly receive. The sense of divine acceptance is so radical and sweeping that sometimes people cannot wrap their heads around it. It angers them. Like the older son they are filled with resentment and rage at a God who could possibly be so unfair as to offer forgiveness and grace so freely.

How like God! God gives us dangerous freedoms.  God allows us to live our own lives.  God entrusts the world into our hands, knowing that we are capable of destroying the wonderful work of creation.  God welcomes sinners to the table.  God offers us salvation, not because we deserve it. Not because we have earned it. Simply because God’s mercy extends to each of us.

This is a story that has the power to shock us. It has the power to offend. That is because it speaks to us of God’s free gift of grace. Grace not only has the power to offend us; it does when it is exercised. Let’s face it. Most of us want some assurance that our obedience and good behaviour and faithfulness to God actually count for something. We do not like to see someone get away with bad behaviour. The notion that God simply graces us, all of us, bothers many people. That is because we fail to understand the idea of free grace, of undying love.

At every turn God surprises us with grace.  God is merciful and loving beyond all reason.  The salvation that God offers us is more than a legal transaction; it is a loving relationship.  Our prodigal God rushes out to meet us, bless us, reinstate us, and call us God’s own.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Third Sunday of Lent, Year C

Disaster DIY

Readings: Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

Some people came to Jesus with the daily news. A group of Galileans had been put to death by Pilate. They had been worshipping in the synagogue. They were killed and became sacrificial offerings themselves. The onlookers were horrified by what happened. They want Jesus' opinion. Why does God allow such things to happen? Were the deaths judgement for their sins?

Jesus in turn tells the story of another disaster, a tower that fell over killing eighteen people. The accident created a sensation as such disasters do. Outrage followed. “How could God permit it?” was the overriding perception.

It was a warm and sunny day in Port au Prince as the Haitians began their day's work. Planes landed delivering people ready to enjoy a wonderful vacation. Then the earth began to shake. Buildings crumbled, killing thousands of people, leaving countless others injured. The infrastructure of a whole country collapsed with the total devastation of their capital city. During the days that have ensued there has been widespread misery. Lack of food! Lack of water! Lack of shelter! Lack of medical care for the injured!

The world was horrified by what happened. How could God permit an already poverty stricken nation to suffer so horribly? Many questioned, “Why does God permit such bad things to happen?

It is a very contemporary story! Towers do fall, building are crushed, earthquakes shatter, storms hit, tsunamis destroy, disease strikes. Some popular theologies will always assume that such events are “acts of God”, programmed by a God who punishes arbitrarily and at will.

It happens on a personal level as well. “God is punishing me because I am sick!” That is not an uncommon thought. It is also not a helpful thought. That kind of understanding of God when sickness has drained one's energy and there is none left to think of alternatives leaves one with no resources. The voices of so called friends simply echo one's own feelings. “They are always having problems. If only they would turn to the Lord.”

It is the kind of thinking that easily translates as well into common societal prejudices. “If only the unemployed would pull themselves together!” “What is it with those welfare bums? They just sit around waiting for a check so that they can head to the beer store.” Many in society have the preconceived notion that people who live in poverty are there because there is something wrong with them.

Jesus tells a parable that reminds us of our need to be in right relationship with God. It resonates with the wonderful compassion of our loving God. He tells the parable to dispel the misconception in listeners’ minds after hearing stories about terrible tragedies, that have them believing that sin and suffering are linked. Indeed, Jesus' own story contradicts the very notion. Jesus, the righteous one, suffered and died on the cross. He knew that bad things happen. He knew that it is simply part of the human condition. He wanted those who came to him for advice to see Pilate's massacre as Pilate's massacre and not as something that Pilate did by God's authority. “We cannot” Jesus is saying, “lay the blame for society’s wrongs on a few. The whole of society is responsible.” He tells the parable of the fig tree, with its image of judgement and grace.

A man has a fig tree in his vineyard that has failed to produce any fruit in three years. He tells the gardener to cut it down. It was not unusual to plant a fig tree in a vineyard. But it had to be fruitful. Fig trees require a lot of water, which in an arid climate might better be used in the production of grapes. The gardener persuades the man to nurture the fig tree for one more year and see if it will bear fruit.

The parable is a good description of what we need in order to become spiritually whole. Healing requires the right conditions. To become whole we need to make some changes in our lives. We need forgiveness for the past so that we can begin to live a healed existence. We need to stop laying the blame for what has happened in society and in our own lives and open ourselves to change and wholeness. As Christians, we need to bear fruit, to be everything that God is calling us to be. We need to be part and parcel of changing society so that it reflects God’s kingdom on earth.

Lent gives us an opportunity to come into right relationship with God. God is there to prune us and stir us up so that we can be everything God intends us to be. It is not up to us to explain human suffering. We simply cannot explain it. We cannot explain the actions of God. But we can take responsibility for one another. We can be accountable for our own lives, and for those who share our faith journey.

While we cannot explain the actions of God, we can experience God with us. Jesus is present again and again whenever we allow him into our lives. He is with us through pain and sickness. He is with us through disaster. His love quenches our thirst and satisfies our hunger. He is there reaching out to us as we reach out to others. And God’s kingdom of mercy, compassion and hope draws us in.

So how do we as Christians move towards a just and equitable society? What is our responsibility for our own actions, our community and the world? Lent is a time for generosity. It is a time for justice. It is a time for repentance. It is a time for change. Let it be a time of conviction in our lives. Let us take steps to become good stewards of God’s wonderful creation.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

World Day of Prayer

Let Everything that Has Breath!

Readings: Psalm 150; Acts 16:16-34

We all need approval for the things we do. Some of us are better than others at getting it. Take for example the little boy who was playing with his Dad. “Let's play darts!” he said to him. “I'll throw and you say, “Wonderful!”” Even though we know that it furthers self esteem, most of us are quite sparing in our praise of others. In our affluent society, thankfulness does not always come naturally to us. We certainly do not consider that God needs to be thanked. After all, we do set aside certain times of the year to praise God, to be thankful for what we have. But for the most part, when it comes to our relationship with God we have a long list of needs and a short list of things for which we are grateful.

The women of Cameroon have chosen a wonderful theme for us to reflect on for this World Day of Prayer. “Let everything that has breath, praise the Lord!” It is a reminder to us of our need to come before God with grateful hearts. It is a reminder to us of our need to praise God in everything. It is an especially poignant message as we hear of the tragedies of daily living in their country. While women are the economic backbone of the nation, they are largely marginalized in society generally and in the economic sector in particular. In fact they are more dependent on men economically now than they were in traditional times. Studies show that more girls are infected with HIV than boys. It is not difficult to understand why when you consider that women are unable to determine much if anything about their sexual life. That makes them vulnerable to acts of violence, rape and other social abuses, vulnerable to forced marriages, archaic inheritance laws, ritualistic abuses such as genital mutilation and the modern form of slavery, trafficking. Culture, the law, male chauvinism, poverty, lack of education, are all ongoing causes of discrimination and violence against the women of Cameroon and indeed many other countries in Africa and around the world.

And yet, the women of Cameroon tell us, “In the Cameroonian context people praise God even in and especially during difficult times in their lives. This is because generally we consider life to be God's greatest gift to us. As long as one has breath, there is hope. So we sing in the hope that things will be better.”

They go on to tell us of how they praise God in joy or in sorrow. “We praise God while sowing millet or sorghum, while cooking, on our way to streams and rivers to fetch water, while tilling the soil, in cocoa farms, on our way to and in church, during traditional marriage ceremonies, for the birth of a new child, and even during funeral ceremonies to celebrate the life of the departed. We praise God in all things.”

I don't know how that strikes you, but it is a reminder to me that with every breath I take I renew the gift of life. That is surely something for which to praise God.

Paul and Silas are on their way to the synagogue. They meet a slave girl, a gifted seer, who has made a small fortune for her owners. She sees something about the faith of Paul and Silas. She begins to shout it out to anyone who will listen. After putting up with her harassment for several days, Paul finally loses his temper. He casts out the demon that gives the girl her ability. I suspect that there is more to it, for Paul certainly sees that the girl is held bondage by her spiritual gift. If not by her gift, she is certainly being held bondage by her exploitative masters.

And so the story does not stop there. The masters are incensed that Paul and Silas have taken away their money cow. They have the two men beaten and thrown into prison, charged with disturbing the peace. Their good deed in freeing the girl from her bondage is not appreciated. Yet even their own imprisonment does not deter them from praising God. As they pray and sing, the other prisoners hear and respond to the word of God.

It is a story that speaks to us on many levels. As Christians we can find ourselves captives, imprisoned by any number of things that separate us from the love of God. We may be held prisoner by our fears, prejudices, attitudes and feelings. Remembering to praise God at such times can give the Holy Spirit permission to work within us, to bring us to a sense of joy and peace. It can also help us to listen to God calling us to be agents of change.

It is a story that speaks to the situation of the children of the Cameroon. Girls in particular are exploited. Those who come from poor families are hired out to the wealthy to serve as housemaids. They are often sexually abused by the people who take them in. If they become pregnant they are dismissed from the household. They can easily fall prey to exploitative people and become victims of trafficking. They face so many terrible hardships, and yet through it all they praise God.

John Wesley, an Anglican Cleric and theologian largely credited with founding the English Methodist movement, grew up in a privileged home. He had a keen mind and good looks and could be quite sarcastic and snobbish. One night something happened to change his heart. He was travelling back to Oxford on the train. While speaking to a porter he discovered that the man lived in impoverished conditions. Yet he was an unusually happy person, filled with gratitude to God. Wesley thoughtlessly joked about the man's misfortunes. “And what else do you thank God for?” he said quite sarcastically.

The porter responded, “I thank God for my life and being, for a heart that loves Him, and above all for a constant desire to serve Him.” Wesley was deeply moved by the man's witness to God at work in his life. It was a transformative moment for him. He learned the lesson well. For many years later on his death bed in extreme weakness, he began to sing the hymn, “I'll Praise My Maker While I've Breath”.

The women of Cameroon can praise God for their poverty. Paul and Silas can praise God from a prison cell. So why do we find it so difficult to praise God in the midst of all with which we are blessed? Praise gives testimony for what God has done in our lives. We have so much for which to be thankful. I am sure that we all have a long list of things for which to praise God.

The beauty of creation! Who has not stood in wonder and awe at the sight of a rainbow in the sky? What of the majestic beauty of a mountain range, the reds and golds of autumn, the warmth of the sun on your cheek.

The wonder of love! The birth of a baby. The hand of a small child reaching up trustingly. A reassuring hug as you head out the door. A neighbour dropping in with a pot of soup when you are feeling rotten. The dog greeting you at the door as you come in after a long day of work.

Life, freedom, peace, food, shelter, broccoli …

The amazing thing is that when we begin to see all the gifts that God has given us, then we are able to open ourselves up in praise to the giver of the gift.

But you know, it cannot stop there. Our praise of God needs to move us to action. As Christians we are called to be transformers in the world. We are called to act differently because Christ is the centre of our lives. We are called to witness to others of the love of God at work in us. We are called to be advocates for the poor in society. We are called to help people like the women in Cameroon and in other places in the world. How do we help to change their situation? What can we do to change things for those living in poverty in our own country? How can we bring about change in government attitudes towards poverty which, in Canada becomes so easily hidden in the midst of wealth?

It begins by opening ourselves to understand how very fortunate we are to live in this great country. We need to testify to all that God has done for us to praise God for all of God's many blessings. We need to pray for an end to violence and exploitation around the world. We need to pray that we will end our complacency and open ourselves up to all that God is trying to accomplish in us. We need to come with grateful hearts and happy voices. We need to praise God as loudly as we can, wherever and whenever we get the opportunity.

Praise the Lord!

The Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

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