Saturday, June 26, 2010

The 4th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 13)

Setting Our Face Toward Jerusalem

Readings: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

“When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem,” Luke tells us in the Gospel. Those few words say so much. We know the end of the story. We know what Jesus was facing in Jerusalem. He doesn’t want to go, but he knows it is what he must do. It is where God is calling him to be. It is a time of change in his life; it is a time of transition. It is a time in which he must move forward even though he knows the consequences. He looks to God for the strength to sustain him in what he needs to do.

A cousin of mine was known for his speed once he got behind the wheel. He claimed that although he drove well over the speed limit he had never had a ticket. “I drive with my eyes on the rear view mirror!” he bragged. I did not find it particularly reassuring.

I realize that many of us live our lives that way. We are constantly looking back, worrying about past mistakes, unwilling to take a risk, unable sometimes even to grow up and take responsiblity for ourselves. It can affect us in our personal lives. Churches too can be places that get stuck in the past.

The readings this week are an invitation to a new kind of journeying, a new way of setting our face towards Jerusalem. We followers of Jesus are reminded that on life's journey there will be tough choices that require clear vision and determination. There will be choices that require moving forward trusting in God's promises. They are choices that remind us not to keep checking in the rear view mirror.

Elisha is being called by God to bear the prophetic word in place of Elijah. Elijah is the tried and tested past, Elisha, the unknown future. It is difficult to assume that kind of leadership, that kind of responsibility. Elisha wants to cling to the strength, reputation and wisdom of the older man. Elijah knows that he needs to hand over the responsibility to the next generation.

He asks a wonderful question, a question that opens up so many possibilities. "Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you." He knows that Elisha must be ready to act. He must be decisive. He must even risk failure. Elisha asks for the right thing, a double share of Elijah's spirit, the same source of strength that sustains Elijah, strength beyond his own that will assist him in the challenges ahead, Godly strength.

Elijah wisely points out that it is up to him. "If you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not," he tells him. It is a matter of whether or not he has the capacity within himself to accept the grace of God. And of course, Elisha sees beyond the ordinary to the heart of the matter. His anguished cry is the cry of one being deprived of all he trusts and holds dear. It is a cry of loss, but also a cry of suddenly discovered confidence. The challenge for him is to continue to move forward with that same confidence without looking back. The task for him is to channel God's grace through his own gifts and strengths.

It is not easy to set one's face toward Jerusalem. It is not easy to be a disciple of Christ, to live as Christ would have us live, to be all that God wants us to be. Even Jesus’ own disciples did not always live the life of grace. On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples approach a village in Samaria. They are looking for a place to stay. The villagers when they hear that Jesus is headed for Jerusalem refuse to receive them. James and John, not named the sons of thunder for nothing, react with anger. “Lord, shall we call down fire from heaven to burn them up?”

Doesn’t their reaction shock you just a little? Wouldn't you think after all the time they have spent with Jesus that they would have known that it was not his way of doing things, that he was not going to approve of their reaction, that it was not God’s call to them? What they were calling for was not retaliation but a show of power that is nothing short of barbarism. It is the kind of thinking that is behind war, apartheid, homophobia, racism and any number of evils done in the name of God.
We may be shocked by the behaviour of the disciples, yet if we reflect on it, their reaction probably is not all that surprising. In similar circumstances any of us, church going and God fearing people though we may be, people trying to live the Christian life, people trying to answer the call of God, might have reacted in much the same way. All any of us need to do is to look into our hearts to see the truth of this. Are we not constantly surprised, shocked, and humbled at the feelings of anger and resentment that arise in us when we are opposed or threatened?

And yet, the question of punishment did not even occur to Jesus. Even if it had, to punish a whole village for the attitudes of a few would be not only unjust, but beyond reason. Jesus knew that the only thing to do when people refuse to love you is to move on.

There follow a number of meetings between Jesus and some 'wannabe' followers. As they travel along the road, someone comes to Jesus. “I will follow you wherever you go!” he says. He is caught in his emotions. He hasn’t really thought it through. Jesus knows that such emotional decisions come from good intentions but often do not last.

“Foxes have holes, birds have nests; we have nowhere to lay our heads,” Jesus points out to the man. Jesus offers change, transience and insecurity. It is a good idea to know what you are getting into before you take the plunge. We often forget that there is a cost to discipleship. We forget that it is a way that requires commitment. For the way of the Christian is costly and demanding. It promises not softness, but suffering, not comfort, but challenge, not safety, but sacrifice. There is security, joy and abundance, but there is also blood, sweat and tears.

Jesus meets someone along the road. Is it someone he has seen during his ministry? Does he see some possibility in this person? He issues an invitation, “Follow me.”
“First let me go and bury my father,” is the reply. A reasonable request, we may say. Indeed it is a sacred duty. And Jesus answers with perhaps one of the most shocking replies in all of Scripture. “Let the dead bury their own dead!” It shocks our sensibilities. It sounds like fanaticism. It forces us to ask how we respond to God’s call. It challenges family values with a higher claim of allegiance, our allegiance to God. Looking ahead is the stance that God seems to call for and affirm. The call to radical compassion challenges all other calls.

Others on the road overhear the conversation. “I will, but not yet,” they respond. It is a common response, isn’t it? First let me raise my family. Let me get the children through university. Let me get settled in my job and save a little money.
Is it impossible to really be a follower of Jesus? As he writes to the Galatians Paul sets out what it means to choose to follow Christ. He affirms the need to choose between grace and law, between wanting to do something and having to do it. The Galatians were saying that if Christ has set them free from the law then that means they can do whatever they wish. “No!” says Paul. “We are under a new law, the law of love.” That sets us free to become everything that God wants us to be. What a wonderful gift that is, but what a difficult law to keep!

Our parish is in a period of transition. The way ahead is often unclear. There are many unknowns as we discern where God is calling us. We may well be tempted to cling to the past, to what we know. We have overcome so many difficulties. We have a congregation that is committed to the Gospel. We have a caring and compassionate community. We have strong leaders with a clear vision for what this church could be.

It will require persistence in the faith on the part of every one of us. Do we have that willingness to follow Jesus? Do we take the promises of our baptism seriously? Are we willing to live differently? Are we willing to see with eyes of faith, like Elisha, to see beyond the ordinary to where God is leading us? Do we have that sense of radical compassion? Let us set our face toward Jerusalem. God will give us the grace to carry it out. We will have that share of the spirit. We will learn to channel God's grace through our own gifts and strengths. We will become all that we are meant to be, not only in our personal lives, but as the Church. Amen.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, (Proper 12)

God Restores Us

Readings: 1 Kings 19:9-14; Psalm 42; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39

Through all of life's hurts and sorrows God is there to restore us. God restores us when we are hurt by others. God restores us when we hurt ourselves. God restores us even when we hurt for no reason. That is the theme that flows through the readings this week. It is a theme that resonates for me as we celebrate National Aboriginal Sunday. Hopefully it resonates with us on a deeply personal level as well.

God restored Elijah. He is on the run. The "Rambo" like prophet had stood up against the ungodly forces of Ahab and Jezebel and had revealed the far greater forces of God over the followers of Baal. But it had not accomplished what he expected. The powers that be had not turned to God, and now Jezebel was out to get him. He feels alone in his struggle, totally alone. He cannot put aside what has happened. He is alone, and he alone is the one able to set things right in Israel. He suddenly loses courage and flees for his life.

It is a familiar story if you really think about it. It is easy when we meet opposition to run as fast and far as we can. We feel defeated and despondent. The whole world is against us. We can become soured or angry by what has happened.

That was how Elijah was feeling. He had reached a point of hopelessness. He sat down under a tree, ready to die. And there in the wilderness God restored him. God took care of him, supplying him with food and drink.

Still Elijah kept running. He hid out in a cave. There God met Elijah. Not as he might have expected, with a great show of power, but in the stillness and quiet, God spoke to him.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?” God asked him. He poured out his complaints. “The whole world is against me. I alone have remained faithful to you. They are out to kill me.” God put things into perspective. He is not alone. He does not have to do it all himself. He needs however, to trust God and let go of the past. Our loving God restores us even when we hurt ourselves.

Our Aboriginal people need restoration. They need redress from the past. They have been hurt by government policies. They have been hurt by the Institutional Church. We as Canadian Anglicans have a great deal to repent of when it comes to Aboriginal rights. Our government made treaties with them as nation to nation. We have not lived up to the intent of those treaties. Instead we removed them from their ancestral lands. In an attempt to assimilate them into 'white' society, we shipped their children off to Residential schools, many run by the Anglican Church, destroying family ties and uprooting generations of people. Many of the schools were places of abuse. Even the good schools were places that deprived the children of their relationship to their family and tribe, to their language and cultural heritage.

Work has been done to restore our Aboriginal people. We are beginning to listen to the stories of abuse, of deprivation, and neglect. Yet Canada has still to sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. It gives them basic rights that every Canadian should expect and enjoy – health, freedom, work, traditions, representation in government. It outlines their right to an environment that supports their livelihood. Why is our government unwilling to sign the document? Why are we not insisting that they do so? We have a call to right the wrongs of the past and be part of God's plan of restoration.

Stereotypes still abound about our Aboriginal peoples. For the most part we are able to ignore their plight saying that their situation is the same or better than that of other Canadians. This is despite findings by the Auditor General of Canada which highlighted the critical shortage of adequate housing on reserves and findings released by Statistics Canada that point to concerns about health, education, housing and water safety for off-reserve Aboriginals. In fact statistics show that the majority of Canadians blame their poverty on lack of effort rather than circumstances, many citing substance abuse as the greatest factor.

God restores us when we hurt for no reason. What an amazing story of restoration we have in today's Gospel. In the person and work of Jesus God confronts and defeats evil so that a human is set free to live the life God intends him to experience. We may not have the same understanding of evil or of demon possession as is present in this story of the deliverance of the man from Gerasene. However, we can see Jesus present in the life of the demoniac, in the lives of the townspeople, and present in our own lives, restoring us to faith, removing our burdens, setting us free. We can certainly see the need for such restoration in the lives of the mentally ill and those victimized through discrimination.

Some people become legitimately burdened by the cares of life. Life is not always easy. Being a Christian does not guarantee that we will not suffer. Sickness, the death of a loved one, unemployment, marital discord, all the troubles of life that people face, can make them feel alone. Is there a God? If so, is God listening to me? Does God care what is happening to me? Why do I feel so alone in all of this? Hopefully it is evident even in our modern day world that God relieves distress, expels demons, cures illnesses and restores lives.

The man whom Jesus healed was so grateful for his restoration to life that he wanted to accompany Jesus and the disciples on their mission. But Jesus pointed out to him that he had a mission of his own. “Return to your home,” Jesus told him, “and declare how much God has done for you.”

The message from God to Elijah was similar. “What are you doing here?” He left the warmth, the silence, the peace of the cave and went out into the community, no longer feeling as if he was on his own, but knowing that God was present with him and would help him to be the leader he was meant to be.

God has done great things for us in our lives. We need to declare how much God has done for us. We need to share the experience of how God is at work in our lives. Especially we need to be aware of the ministries to which God is calling us. To be advocates to the poor and those in need. To speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. To be Christ for our community. Thanks be to God.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11) Year C

Spreading the Right Rumours!

Readings: 1 Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a; Psalm 5:1-8; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3

Rumours! We live with them every day. The internet, it seems, is a great medium for spreading rumours. Well meaning people send you the latest misinformation about how some terrible virus is about to attack your computer. While most rumours that spread over the internet are harmless, some that involved personal attacks particularly on young people have had disastrous consequences, leading even to suicide.

The problem with rumours is that it is difficult to overcome them. They seem to take on a life of their own. Church communities adopt rumours about themselves. Take our congregation for example. When I came here there were a few rumours that this parish had accepted about themselves. “We have a revolving door when it comes to clergy!” I was told. And another big one was, “The bishop says that we are the most unfriendly parish she has ever been in.”

Rumours, it seems, have always found voice, sometimes with dire consequences. Take for example the Old Testament lesson for today. Naboth has a vineyard. It has been in his family for many generations. It is a lovely vineyard right beside the palace of King Ahab. Ahab wants it for his own. He requests to purchase the vineyard from Naboth in exchange for either another vineyard or money. Naboth sees it as belonging to God. He does not believe that he has the right to sell what God has given him. He refuses the offer. Ahab understands, but he still covets it, pouting like some petulant child.

His wife asks him what is wrong. He tells the story, leaving out the rather crucial information that it is Naboth's inheritance. “You're the king,” she says to him. “You should have whatever you want.” She hires some thugs to start a rumour about Naboth that he has cursed God and the king. He is taken out and stoned to death. Ahab's pouting leads to the telling of half truths. That leads to manipulation and finally to plotting, murder and theft. The real hero of the story is Naboth who realized that any power or security that he possessed was a gift from God that he could not afford to sell at any price. It cost him his life.

The gospel is another story about rumours. The rumours are about an unnamed woman. There was a party given by a rich Pharisee in honour of Jesus. While they were reclining around the table, the woman, uninvited, and about whose life there were many rumours, all of them bad, came in and began to wash Jesus' feet with her tears. She dried them with her hair, kissing his feet and pouring precious ointment on them. Simon was appalled that Jesus would allow her to touch him in this way. "Can he be a real prophet," he wonders, "if he does not even recognize what kind of a woman she is."

Even before Simon can give voice to his sentiments Jesus addresses him. He doesn't let the rumours influence him. Rather he sees past the rumours to the real person. He sees her loving nature. “Her sins which were many have been forgiven,” he says. The rumours may be well founded, but it is Simon who needs to learn about God’s love. She already knows. That is what has brought her to Jesus. That is what has prompted her acts of kindness and love. She knows that she is a sinner, but she also knows that God loves her. She knows what it means to be loved. That experience of unconditional love has enabled her to become a loving person.

To love as God loves is the Christian call. It is a call to "do" acts of love.  We all know that.  But let's face it; most of the time, doing the loving thing does not come easily or naturally.  It does not always leave us with warm or peaceful feelings.  Truly, it is often the way that requires the most effort to accomplish.  It is far easier to find other ways to get people to do as we think they should.  Fear, punishment, manipulation, even abusing power come to mind as pretty normal tactics. 

Don’t you just hate to hear someone say, “I’m only telling you this out of love”? Or even worse, “God told me to tell you…” You know that the ‘advice’ comes with an expectation that you will not only listen to what is said, but you will change, even if it is based on rumour. How different it is when people do act out of love, for true acts of love are responses to the unconditional love of God.  They come from our utter dependence on God who is love. 

Most of us put conditions on love. If he weren’t so stubborn … If only she would stop nagging … If only I could get them to clean their rooms …

And truly, we live in a materialistic society where nothing is unconditional. We become suspicious if something is offered to us for free. We ask, “What will it really cost?” And when we look into it, of course, we find that our suspicions are well founded.

Paul knew that God's love was unconditional. He knew that it was not by keeping to the letter of the law that we please God. “How is it possible”, Paul responds, “for a human being to stand before the throne of God, perfection itself, and have any hope of being accepted?” The wonder of it is that we are justified through the grace of God who offers us unconditional love. Forgiveness depends on our faith in God’s compassionate love, and not on how righteous we may strive to be.

It is difficult for us to even conceive of that. How can we be expected to understand a God who loves unconditionally? It isn’t how we experience life. We expect to have to earn our way. And the wonder of it is that God does not accept us on some basis by which we can never be acceptable. God does not listen to the rumours about us and judge us on the basis of what is said about us. God does not grade us with some pass/fail system. God does not expect perfection. We are judged by whether we have loved or not. We are judged by whether we do the loving thing. Because we know God’s love, we know that we are forgiven. Because we know God’s love, we are able to reach out in love to others.

So we need to be able to say for ourselves, “God loves me”, knowing that it is not because we deserve it. It is not because we have earned it. It is not because we are clever. It is not because we are attaining perfection. To be able to say “God loves me” and stop there is the beginning of knowing God’s grace at work in our lives. It is the beginning of knowing that we are forgiven, reconciled people of God. It brings us to the understanding that we are created by a loving God who continues to find us precious and valuable.

That is what the unnamed woman did. She said to herself, “God loves me.” She knew it to be true. And so she did a remarkable thing. She wept, knelt at Jesus feet, anointed them with oil, and wiped his feet with her hair. She became a healing presence.

So the real question for me comes back to the rumours. How do we change the rumours about ourselves. In our personal lives it is about telling ourselves that God loves us. It is about saying it over and over again until we believe it.

We can do it as a community as well. In recent years I have not heard you say that St. Francis has a revolving door. You have pretty much dispelled the myth that you cannot keep a priest. As for being the most unfriendly church in the Diocese, that too is pretty much dispelled. But what other rumours have we adopted along the way? I think there is a rumour in this congregation that we are a poor community that simply survives. I think there is a rumour that we can never grow. I for one do not believe the rumours. I want to start a few of my own. This is the congregation that can open its heart to the community around it. This is the congregation that prays for one another and expects God to answer our prayers. This is the congregation that is diverse and youthful and full of life and joy and peace. This is the congregation that is Christ in Meadowvale.

Believing that God loves us is just the beginning, you know. We are called to share that message with others, to reach out with that same loving spirit. Become a healing presence. See Christ at work in others. Share the love of God with those in need. Pass on that message of love. It is a message that is sorely needed in our world. So let us share that all important rumour. God loves us. Amen

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 10)

God's Compassionate Love

Readings: 1 Kings 17:8-24; Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-17; Luke 7:11-17

The word of the Lord came to Elijah and he answered immediately. Not an easy thing to do, for in responding to God’s call Elijah is deliberately moving into the heart of enemy territory. It is an area where the religion of Baal has its stronghold. He finds lodging with a widow. Without the support of family, she is one of the most vulnerable in her society. Indeed, this particular widow is no exception. She and her son are on the brink of starvation. It is a Catch 22 situation for her. To help him could put her at great risk. Not to do so will mean starvation for herself and her child.

She takes a chance in helping Elijah, and for many days things go well. There is enough food for the household. They seem to be weathering the storm. Then her son becomes gravely ill and dies. “What have you against me, O man of God?” she rails at him. It is a cry from the depths of the human heart. She has lost her child. She searches for meaning where there is none. She turns on the one who has helped her. It is pain, bereavement, loneliness, fear, all pouring out of her.

And then she turns against God. The real culprit is God. After all, God could have prevented the tragedy. God is the villain. Isn't that our human response? Oh, we may not give voice to it. We may fear that if we do then something even worse may happen. Our faith mistakenly teaches us that God is a God of vengeance who will wreak even worse things on us if we do not toe the line. But she rails. In her anger and fear, she rails against Elijah. She rails against God.

And Elijah acts once again. Not without blaming God himself! But he springs into action. “Let this child's life come back into him again,” he prays fervently. And God answers his heartfelt prayer. The child is revived. Elijah returns him to his mother.

It is a wonderful story of the compassion of our loving God and of our need as the people of God to care for the stranger, the weak and the vulnerable.

Fast forward! Two processions, one entering the town of Nain, one leaving. Entering the town is a large and joyful crowd filled with hope for the future following their charismatic leader. Jesus is becoming known as the healer, as the compassionate one who cares for the sick and the downtrodden. Everywhere he goes a crowd follows. Leaving the town is a somber funeral procession. At the head of the procession is a woman, a widow, who is now burying her only son. For her there is no future, only private memories and regrets.

Here on the edge of town the two processions meet. Silence falls over the crowd as the mourners give voice to human loss and bereavement. Jesus has compassion on the widow. He knows that without her son she faces a bleak future. “Don’t cry!” he says to her. He is not telling her that crying is not a necessary human response to her loss. He is not telling her that she is weak for succumbing to her tears. He is not saying that there is something wrong with her. He is simply saying that there is no need for her to cry.

And then he speaks some words which must have startled the onlookers. “Young man, I say to you, rise!” What happened next must have shocked them even more, for the dead man got up and began to speak to his mother.

We could get into the usual arguments about this healing. We have no way of testing the reality of what might have happened, whether the son really was dead, whether symbolism or legend created the account, whether it emerged in a creative attempt to link Jesus with Elijah. What we do know is that the early Christians believed this account. In the whole scheme of things it did not make a great impact on society. It did make a huge impact in the life of one particular widow whose son was restored to her. It made all the difference in the world. At that moment Jesus becomes the source of new life to a young man and his family. By extension, we need to understand that Jesus is the source of new life to us.

It is certainly evident from Paul's story. His story is an amazing witness to God’s life giving action in the world. He loves to recount the transforming miracle of his conversion. Indeed, it almost sounds like bragging. He remembers the Damascus Road, the blazing light, the crashing fall, his blindness, the voice of God calling out to him. As surely as God gave new life to the dying child held in Elijah’s arms, as surely as Jesus gave new life to the young man outside Nain, so Christ gave new life to Paul. And he rejoices in it.

Let us fast forward once again to our own time. A friend of mine says that the saddest thing she had to do was to sell the family home following the death of her father. It brought home the reality of his death. As she packed up his things, memories welled up in her of shared family times, of her growing up years, and of wonderful family gatherings centered around food and always, she told me, there was music. The thing she remembered most about family events was gathering around the piano to sing.

The sale of the home didn’t go well. The house was in a state of disrepair. The decor was less than up to date. The price had to be dropped several times. It finally sold, but for far less than she had expected. And along with it went her treasury of memories.

Some weeks later she had the opportunity to meet the new owners. Not only were they lovely people, but they had children and grandchildren and a wonderful sense of family. The most astounding thing was that they were a family of musicians.

Now looking back at her reaction to the sale, she reflects, “Who cares about money? If Dad’s home continues to be filled with love, life and music, then it was the perfect sale.”

Our human condition is such that there are many ways in which we can be regarded as dead. Our faith can be dead. Our love can be dead. Our sensitivity, or joy, or hope, or trust can be dead. All that Jesus can say to us is, “I say to you, rise!”

Whatever we want to believe about miracles, they have a definite role within the Christian perspective. This miracle in particular has a powerful message for the way we live out our Christian faith. This is Jesus doing the ministry to which he was called by God. His ministry addressed the real needs of people. He did not simply preach. He lived the gospel. His loving and compassionate actions reached out to those in need in real and tangible ways. That is God's mission for each one of us. God loves humanity. Our mission is to reflect that great love as we reach out to those in need. Our compassion and love can bring about miraculous changes in the lives of those around us.

As surely as God gave new life to the dying child held in Elijah’s arms, as surely as Jesus gave new life to the young man outside Nain, as surely as Christ gave new life to Paul, so God offers new life to us.

So rise, and rejoice in it. Amen.

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 ...