Saturday, November 27, 2010

The First Sunday of Advent, Year A

As we enter a new Church year, our Lay Pastoral Associate is preaching. So I am off this morning to our bazaar.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Reign of Christ, Year C

The Upside!

Readings: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Canticle 19; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

Following a turbulent marriage, Joni Mitchell meditates on life in a song.

“I've looked at clouds from both sides now,
From up and down and still somehow,
It's cloud's illusions I recall,
I really don't know clouds at all”

In the song she admits that it is not only clouds, but life that she doesn’t really know. Her whole world is turned upside down. Nothing is the way it should be.

I am certain that we all resonate with her on many levels. I know that in my own life there have been times when nothing seemed to be going right. I would look up at the sky and see only dark clouds, even when the sun was shining. And yet I knew, even at my lowest times, that God loved me. I knew that God was there even when I could not sense God’s presence.

When it comes to faith, things often seem to be upside down. Nothing seems to be the way it should be. That is God's way of looking at things. Consider what we Christians believe! God took on human form. God is a king born in a manger. God is a friend of outcasts and sinners. God came to serve rather than to be served. God died on the cross as a common criminal to bring life to humankind.

Isn't that what we are called to reflect on this last Sunday of the Church Year, as we celebrate the reign of Christ? The readings call us to examine what it means that Christ reigns as king. What is the Christian image of kingship? For ours is a king who reigns, not from a throne, but from a cross. And that is certainly looking at it from upside down.

In our humanity, in our hunger for power, we so often get it wrong. Consider for example how often the cross has become a symbol of might rather than a symbol of peace. Christianity came about as a small group of powerless people in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. But by the time of Constantine in the fourth century, the church had become integrated into the social system of the same empire that had persecuted it. The Christians who had been persecuted became the persecutors. Constantine became the righteous king through whom God's reign would be established on earth.

In medieval times, Emperors throughout Europe considered themselves to be kings by divine right, representing the fatherhood of God on earth. How many wars have been fought because of that way of thinking? Fought in the name of God with shouts from both sides that "God is on our side"?

As Christians we are called to proclaim a very different view of kingship. In the Old Testament, the prophet Jeremiah is concerned with the quality of those who are in leadership in Israel. In fact, he does not hold a very high opinion of those who are. He makes a pledge to the people of Israel on behalf of God, the ultimate shepherd. God will gather the people back from exile. God will lead them back to Israel where they will enjoy good leadership.

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous branch.” As Christians we discern in it a promise of the coming of Jesus who embodies righteousness and offers a vision of justice that stands out in contrast to the reality of the society in which we live. We know that it will come at great price. King Jesus will indeed come, and will sacrifice life itself to give life to the people of God, because in God’s topsy-turvy world death is life.

It is there in the Gospel as well. We proclaim once again the story of the crucifixion. We are reminded by the sign placed on the cross that Jesus is a king. And even as he hangs on the cross there are those who hope that King Jesus will come in power. “Save yourself and us!” one of the criminals shouts out. Isn’t Jesus the longed for Messiah, the one who will address Israel’s hope of liberation? We proclaim it in the Gospel. Jesus marched into the synagogue and overturned the money changers. He announced good news to the poor, to the hungry, to those who mourned. He announced change.

And then in God’s mysterious way, he died on a cross as a common criminal. In God’s upside down world is it the end of power, or the beginning? Jesus was enormously powerful, even from the cross. He spread a revolution of love and grace. Christ the king is a counter image of a life poured out in compassion. That is why two thousand years later we still follow him.

What a different King he is! King Jesus holds out his hands to us. We see the scars and know that Jesus’ suffering and pain was his royal road to us. It was in giving up his life for us that he showed us God’s glory and passionate love. As Christians we are part of God’s upside down world. It is a world where contradictions bear fruit. Like existence, life does not end in death. Rather, death ends in life.

What are the signs that it is happening in our world? What are the signs of resurrection? Because so often all we can see are dark clouds. All we can understand are the illusions. All we experience is the doubts.

It is our ministry as servants of Christ, our bearing Christ to the world that helps us to see and understand life as it is. It begins with each one of us recognizing that we lead by serving. All of us come every day in contact with people in need. And don't think for a moment that it doesn't matter. And don't think for a moment that you don't know what to do. And don't think for a moment that you need special training. Often it is a ministry of compassionate listening which is most needed in a world where no one ever stops or cares. And every one of us can do that. It is in reaching out to others that we accept the servant ministry that reflects our acceptance of Christ as king in our lives.

As our church year comes to a close, we concentrate on the coming of the king. Does that numb us to the suffering about us and to our responsibility in the midst of it all? Or does it inspire us to loving service?

May Christ the King be king of our lives now as he shall be forever. May the truth of Christ's kingship spur us on to living our lives for him and for others.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 33, Year C

Finding Grace in an Apocalyptic Age

Readings: Isaiah 65:17-25; Canticle 3; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” So begins Dickens' “Tale of Two Cities”. Every age and culture echoes that lament, for every age and culture seems to have its apocalyptic sense. Some greet it with a sense of excitement and joy; most find that is something to be feared. The question for us is how to find grace in an apocalyptic age.

The prophet Isaiah greets the possibility of the end of time with great optimism. “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth,” he prophecies. It is a poem of great promise. His vision of that new place is idyllic. No more pain! No more suffering! It’s gates will be named joy and gladness. It will be a restoration of Paradise. God will once more be near to the people, so near that they will not even have to ask in prayer. It will simply happen.

The Thessalonians have a very different reaction. They believed that they were living in the end times, that Jesus would come again in their lifetime. Paul knows that many of them are ready to give up.  Fear of what the future may hold causes them to opt out of life.  Why bother to work if it will all end tomorrow?  They are unable or unwilling to live with the kind of uncertainty that often brings with it a sense of hopelessness and meaninglessness.  Paul writes to them. “Everyone of every age,” he says, “should contribute to the life of the community.” “You are to remain vigilant. You are to watch for the things that need to be done, and do them!” And is that not simply part of the responsibility of being a member of a family? He is trying to get across that the responsibility for ushering in the kingdom of God belongs to each and every one of them.

For Jesus’ disciples the message is ominous. They are admiring the temple in Jerusalem. It is the same temple that was continuing to be rebuilt at great price following the exile in Babylon.  Historians of the time report that the white stonework overlaid in gold glittered so brightly in the sunshine that people were dazzled by the sight. Jesus tells them that the beautiful temple they see before them will not last.  It fills them with a sense of foreboding. “What are the signs?” they want to know. 
Jesus paints a portrait of a world in great turmoil and conflict.  It is a picture of an apocalyptic age. He speaks of wars, of earthquakes, famine and plague very much like our own age. He tells them that it will be a time of testing for the faithful.  They will experience persecution, betrayal, hatred and even death.  It is a frightening picture.  It was frightening to the disciples.  It was frightening to the early Christians as they struggled with the persecution they faced.  Through every age such stories have continued to frighten people.
What worries you about the future of the world? Is it the apathy you see in people who care so little about the environment that they will throw their garbage wherever it lands? Is it terrorism, or child poverty and homelessness, or the violence in society? As the G-20 meetings in Seoul end, is it that once again the powers in the world have failed to cooperate about the trade and currency issues that caused the 2008 financial crisis, never mind their inability to agree on the ecological problems facing the world?

What worries you about the future of the Church? Some people fear that we have become irrelevant, that we need to change the way we worship and the way we approach God. Some think that we have deviated too far from Scripture. There are many who fear that we will allow issues like Same-Sex blessing to fracture our unity.

What frightens you about your own future? We all face challenges in our family lives. In these difficult economic times people face uncertainty. Job loss, financial stress, health issues … The list goes on.

Jesus’ answer to the disciples was remarkable when you think about it.  He called them to persevere in the faith.  He recognized that they were living in a time of terrible threat; yet it was too, as such times always are, a time of deep rewards and rich promise. They are to continue to trust in God’s promises and live in hope. They are to be part of God’s plan as they await the coming of the Kingdom.
I trust that it puts our own faith into perspective as well.  It is not up to us to make claims about special knowledge when it comes to the signs of the end of time.  It is up to us to remain faithful to the message of salvation and to be obedient to the teachings of Jesus.  It is up to us to live out our lives in faith, being like Christ. 
So perhaps the question we need to ask is what excites you about the world in which we live? What excites you most about the future of the church? Those are the real signs of the kingdom of God breaking through. I find it so amazing to look back at the changes that have taken place in this particular community of faith over the past ten years. I see such hope in our life together. We have a diverse community that is representative of the rich cultural diversity of Mississauga. We have people who give of their time, talent and treasure to ensure that we are able to reach out into the community. We encourage one another in the faith and in our personal lives. We offer a place of peace and comfort. We reach out to those in need. We are responding to God’s call.
It is a call is to follow Jesus, to be like Christ, to seek Christ in those we encounter in our lives, to be Christ in the world. So what if we stop wondering when the weeping will cease, and start to do something constructive about the state of the world? We live with anxiety and uncertainty, but it is also a time of great rewards and benefits.

Discipleship is not about waiting for God to do something; it is about anticipating God’s actions in the world. It is about being Christ in the world. It is about serving with compassion and mercy. What will you do today in anticipation of the fulfillment of God’s promises? It is ultimately up to each one of us. It begins with putting our trust in our loving God. It continues with living our lives faithfully and prayerfully. It means especially living out God’s promises in everything we do.

Friday, November 5, 2010

24th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, Proper 32

Remembering

Readings: Haggai 1:15b-2:9; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38
 
An Indian Chief named Crowfoot once proclaimed most eloquently, "A little while and I will be gone from among you, whither I cannot tell.  From nowhere we come, into nowhere we go.  What is life?  It is a flash of a firefly in the night.  It is a breath of buffalo in the wintertime.  It is a little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset." 
 
Those are the words of one who has pondered the meaning of life, one who has reflected on his sense of mortality and faced it with wonder and hope.  He sees death as an extension of life.  Is he not reflecting on a question that we all think about? "What happens after death?"  We all think about it, but most of us don’t talk about it.  In fact, we avoid talking about it.  We don’t even use the word.  We say that someone has passed over, or passed away, or my personal favourite, ‘shuffled off this mortal coil’. 
 
One thing is certain, as we travel through life, we are all confronted with the inevitability of death.  We must all face it, difficult as it may be to look at.  We fear what is beyond our experience.  A friend of mine once described it to me this way.  "It is like looking at the sun.  You look and then you look away."  It causes us to question.  It makes us uneasy and fearful.  We don't like to talk about it, even, or especially when we know someone is dying.  And yet I think perhaps the most tragically lonely way to die must be when one is unable to talk about the experience because there is no one ready to listen.  
 
I experienced that with my father when he was dying.  He shared with me that no one would talk about what he was experiencing.  I said that I would.  We began to talk about the whole process of dying.  Just then my sister, a nurse by profession, entered the room.  She immediately changed the subject.  He said to me, “See! I told you.”  I let him know that our conversation wasn’t over.  It was some of the best sharing I ever had with him. 
 
As we celebrate the Feast of All Soul's and Remembrance Sunday, that question about what happens after death comes to the forefront.  What we really want to know is what is life all about?  What has happened to those I love who have gone before?  How can I walk in paths that lead to life, now and eternally?  What is my place in the whole scheme of things?  Such questions are important, in fact, basic to our existence.  It is probably the most universal question known to humanity.  People of all ages and in every culture ask it.  If you question whether or not it is relevant to the average person, you need only consider the number of books that have been written about near death experience and about the afterlife. 
 
It is a universal question because death touches each one of us.  How is it possible to wipe away our first childhood experience of death?  How can we forget when it invades our family circle taking away one we love?  As we approach Remembrance Day, how can we forget the obscenity of war with the death and destruction it causes? I find it especially poignant as we hear of more and more casualities of the war in Afghanistan. We have a whole new generation of Veterans to remind us of those who have died serving their country.  
 
The questions arise from the uncertainty of the world in which we live, a world where war and violence still exist, where people die unnecessarily.  But I wonder if the real questions are the deeper existential issues, the issues with which philosophers have grappled throughout the ages.  "Why are we here?"  "What is life all about?"  "Is there purpose to our existence?"  Hopefully an underlying concern is "How should I live my life?"  Many want to have reassurance.  "I'm not certain I can buy into this religious stuff,” they seem to be saying, “but ... just the same, I want to cover all the bases.  How can I make sure about what is to come?  That I'm in on it?"  This is all part of what we are doing today as we remember those dear to us who have died and as we remember those who have died in war.  I see it reflected in the readings for today. 
 
The exiles returning from Babylon certainly questioned their existence.  They come back to find total destruction; Jerusalem has been turned to rubble.  They begin the task of rebuilding the city.  Yet it is a city that most of them have never seen before.  They have lived their whole lives in exile, dreaming for the day they would be ‘home’ yet knowing nothing of that place.  They have no memory of its former glory.   Not only that, it is a period of terrible drought.  Money and resources are in short supply.  The constant barrage from enemies hampers progress.  They question their very existence.  The job grinds to a halt.  Through it all, the prophet Haggai maintains his sense of vision of what is possible if they trust God.  He assures them that they are not alone, that God is with them as they persevere.  Of course, his prophecy did come true.  The temple in Jerusalem was restored even beyond its former glory.  It became a true memorial to those who were not able to return. 
 
Paul has a similar situation with the people of Thessalonica.  Life has been difficult for them.  It is not a temple that they need to build, but a community of faith.  Rumours about the end times abound. Such rumours are always frightening.  They cause us to examine the fragility of our lives.  They remind us that death comes to all of us.  For these early Christians there is always a sense of hope, for they have been taught that before the end times come, Jesus will return. The hope keeps coming to them that they will be spared death through some special intervention; Christ will return during their lifetime.  They look for miracles.  They look for an end to the misery and hardship around them.  Yet time passes.  Hope begins to dwindle; the rumours become more prevalent.  Paul reminds them that God has chosen them, that they are part of God's purpose.  It is a reassurance and also a challenge as they come to terms with their part in God's plan of salvation.   
 
The Gospel begins with an argument about the resurrection.  Although the intention of the Sadducees is to entrap Jesus, concern with the afterlife is certainly behind their question.  They did not believe in the resurrection.  If you don't believe that there is anything to look forward to after this life, then those deep concerns about what does happen become even greater.  And so they ask that convoluted question about whose wife the woman will be in the afterlife.  Despite its underlying agenda, Jesus answers it in a very pastoral way.  What he says in effect is that all life consists in friendship with God.  Nothing less is worthy of the name of life.  Death in no way severs that relationship.  It merely puts an end to physical existence.  Relationship is eternal.  People may lose their friend by death, but not God.  It ends with a wonderful affirmation. 
 
“He is God, not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” What reassuring words those are! Christ involves himself in human life.  He offers an eternal quality of life, not a quality that begins after death, but one that carries us through all of life.  It begins when we look at life through our Lord’s eyes, when we try to reflect in our lives what we see in his, when we see how his birth, life, death and resurrection offer us a lens through which we come to see meaning in our human experience. 
 
Today we remember those who have died, but are alive in Christ.  We celebrate their lives of faith.  We remember everything in which they were great.  I invite you if you have not already done so to prayerfully light a candle as a memorial for those who have died having touched your life.  On this Remembrance Sunday let us lift up also those who died in the great wars and those who continue to die in service to their country.  Let it be more than just words.  Let us be mindful of our need to be advocates for peace and justice everywhere and for all people. 
 

All Saints, Year c

I Have a Dream Propers Daniel 7:1-3,15-18 Psalm 149 Ephesians 1:11-23 Luke 6:26-36 Martin Luther King had a dream. His dream was put in...