Friday, December 31, 2010

Epiphany 2011

Our Light Has Come

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

Today we are celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany. The central image for the season is light. The light of God blazes and draws people to it. Light transforms the world into a society of peace and justice. It brings joy in the midst of despair. It gives hope in a world that knows darkness all too well. Epiphany is a joyous celebration that recognizes that God’s light shines out for the whole of humanity.

What comfort it is to see even the smallest flicker of light when you are wandering in darkness. How terrifying it is to live in darkness, whatever the reason for it! When you wander, lost and alone in the darkness, you long for the least glimmer of light. Light brings hope and alleviates fear.

The darkest time I ever remember experiencing was the blackout of the Eastern seaboard back in November of 1965. No one knew why we were experiencing such widespread power failure. There were speculations of course. Some people were certain that there had been a nuclear attack. Others suspected an invasion from another world. People feared some terrible natural disaster. But the most terrifying aspect of the whole ordeal for me was simply finding myself alone in the blackness unable to distinguish anything.

I was in the library at Trinity College studying as I often did back in the stacks. Now the library at Trinity was at that time in the basement of the old building. Even on the brightest day, it was totally dependent on electricity. In the stacks there were not even any windows. So when I say that it became dark, the darkness was total. The library went strangely silent. I waited at my desk for some time thinking that the lights would come back on or that my eyes would get used to it. But nothing changed. Finally I gathered my things together and tried to get my bearings so that I could grope my way to the door.

By this time although I still could see nothing, I could hear the murmuring of other people. I made my way towards the sounds. Then someone thrust out a hand. I took it. I remember how wonderful it felt to be linked to another person. How it gave me courage! How it gave me hope! “Reach out for someone else,” he said. And I reached out in the darkness and another hand grasped mine. We became a human chain, snaking our way towards the door.

But the best sight was yet to come. Before we got to the doorway, we could see a pin prick of light. By the time we reached the staircase, a soft glow was spreading through the building. Some of the students had thought to go into the chapel to find candles to light our way. Fear quickly gave way to laughter as we recognized friends in those gathered there. A prayer was sent up. Peace was restored.

The prophet Isaiah speaks of people being drawn to the light. Isaiah was a trailblazer. “Take heart,” Isaiah says, “for God comes like light in the midst of darkness and transforms the world.” What hope that brought to people who had long been exiled from their homeland! The Israel they had returned to was poor and shabby, a pale shadow of its former greatness. But God, Isaiah assured them, had not abandoned them. New blessings would transform Israel. Isaiah saw his nation possessing such light that others could not help but be drawn to it.

The story of the Magi is a story of being drawn towards the light. The Magi are seekers. They did not just happen to follow the star. They must have been searching for something, for someone. You do not scan the sky night after night unless you are searching. Perhaps they were dissatisfied with their old ways. Perhaps they were hoping for something new. They packed their luggage, saddled their camels, and followed without any hesitation. They blazed a trail toward a new and inclusive society, a trail that lead in new directions, in new ways of relating to God, in new ways of being God's people.

They are searching for Christ without the exact directions. They follow a pinpoint of light in the dark sky. Their story is a struggle – a long journey, a tedious search, manipulation by an power-hungry king. Like the people of Israel they can take heart. For their struggle is rewarded. They find a child filled with possibilities. They offer their finest gifts truly giving of themselves. In true wisdom they allow God to direct their journey as they return home another way.

We too can take heart. We hear the words of the prophet Isaiah in the context of the salvation God offers us in the birth of Christ. We hear clearly the message of the magi that as the best of the world’s wisdom acknowledges Christ. When we follow the light to the place where Jesus was born, when we kneel there in adoration, we place ourselves in the story. The story becomes our story. It becomes the story of the people of Bethlehem. It becomes the story of the children for whom Rachael weeps. It becomes the story of refugees who must flee for their lives. It becomes the story of rulers who are anxious and fear change. It becomes the story of the wise and educated who willingly bring their gifts and talents and offer them to God. In these stories, we hear the pleas of the disadvantaged for a more equitable share of things and are reminded of the darkness in our lives. We are reminded of how we are people who stumble for so many reasons. We come to understand our need for God to illuminate the darkness of our lives.

We come to realize how our churches would be transformed if we thought of ourselves as witnesses to the light of Christ. God’s grace has brought us light, has brought us truth. Is it obvious to the community of Meadowvale that God lives in the midst of our congregation? Are we part of the story? Are we reaching out with the light of Christ into our community? Are we an open and caring community of faith that invites people in to share faith?

Our world would be transformed if we Christians recognized ourselves as witnesses to the light of Christ. For we would be following the star through the streets of our towns and cities, into our work places, parks and malls. We would see the star as it stopped over the veteran, the widow, the immigrant, the young single mom. It would lead us to the man in the wheel chair, the street person with her belongings in a shopping cart, the prostitute, the aboriginal fighting for dignity, the drug addict, the mentally ill. It would lead us to look after a world that needs renewal.

And it would not stop there. For we would be opening our treasures and offering our finest gifts. We would be giving of ourselves to God and to others, because the Christ child would be born in us, not just at Christmas, but every day of our lives. The best of who we are, body, mind and soul, would be offered to God. The best of the world’s wisdom would acknowledge the Christ seen in one another.

As we enter this holy season, this time of renewing our relationship with God, this time of setting out resolutions to take us through the year, may we allow the light of Christ to illuminate the darkness of our lives. Amen.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Eve

The Contradictions of Christmas

Readings: Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

Tonight we celebrate the cosmic event of some two thousand years ago. A night when the sky opened, a star appeared, angels sang and life was born again. It all came as a surprise, though it had been dreamed and foretold for thousands of years. There are many who come year after year to celebrate this miraculous feast without having any real belief in the story. And let us be honest here! It is an unbelievable story. A Virgin birth, angels, shepherds? It sounds like the ultimate fairy tale.

So what if it is! What if it is just a heart-warming story! Christmas is a time for joyous celebration. There is no doubt about that. It is not something which needs a whole lot of discussion. We see celebrations going on all around us. There are many homes in Canada where no prayers are offered at Christmas, no carols are sung, no nativity stories are told. But there can be few homes where Christmas is not seen as a time for celebration. The secular world may reject our faith perspective. But who can reject the feelings of joy and happiness surrounding Christmas? Who can reject the warm fuzzy image of the baby in the manger?

Happily, such images transform society. And that is good, even if it lasts only a short while. We greet each other in a different way. It is a time to give. It is a time of outreach to the poor and to those in need. The celebration is everywhere. One cannot miss it.
But we Christians seek a deeper meaning in our celebration. Without the truth of the Gospel story the lights, the trees, the carols, the gift giving, all become something else – something very fine, something well intentioned and desirable, but something quite empty. For Christmas has become secularized in a way that leaves out the most important, and the best part.

And the miraculous truth of the story does not lie in facts, in history. The story of Jesus' birth is a story filled with contradictions. His earthly parents, Mary and Joseph had to uproot themselves, and leave their home in Nazareth to go to Bethlehem, several days journey at the best of times. When they arrive there, the few inns to be found are filled to capacity. And so they are led into a stable. And there the baby is born, and they name him Jesus. The Son of God, the bringer of peace, the king, the Saviour, is a baby whose family cannot find accommodation. The child is born in poverty, without a proper roof over his head.

The contradictions continue, for on a hillside outside of Bethlehem some shepherds are watching their flocks that night. These are poor humble folk, despised for their way of life. It is not the kind of occupation you choose for your sons, scarcely the best livelihood. Shepherds are the outcasts of society, not trusted, even scorned. Because of the nature of their work they are not even able to attend synagogue. But they are the ones God chose to hear the message of the angels and to spread the good news.

As darkness falls, they settle down on the hillside with their sheep. They look out over the rolling hills toward the town of Bethlehem, resting but alert. After all, a marauding animal could decimate the flock if they are not awake to protect them. They warm themselves over the fire. The sky is bright with stars. Although it is the middle of the night, there is a glow in the darkness. Colours begin to dance and weave like the Aurora Borealis in the northern sky. Suddenly the whole sky is a blaze of light. The heavenly messengers come to them with great news. “To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is the Messiah, the Lord.” The jubilant song of the angels rings out over the hills. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours.”

It is a story of deep contradictions. And yet it is a story of great truth. The truth of the story lies in the fact of our relationship with God. God took a chance with humanity. We received God's most precious gift. Humanity is threatened by goodness. We resist it. We reject kindness and healing. Yet God sent Jesus into that very world. God continues to love, hope, trust, even as we bungle through our mistakes. Don't you wonder what it is that God sees in us?

So once again I ask, what if it is just a wonderful story? There is a deep mystery at the heart of Christmas that makes it a time of transformation. The secular world cannot begin to understand Easter, but it can identify with the homey human scene of a newborn baby, a courageous mother, a faithful husband, poor shepherds and rich kings. It can identify with our need to reach out to the poor and to those in need. So there in that stable, a strange diverse crowd huddles around a baby. Such is the mystery of the Incarnation. It does not simply symbolize. It incarnates, it embodies what we know to be true. God is with us. The story of the birth of Christ is a perfect introduction to his life, death and resurrection. The clear message of Christmas is that God is love. Love came down and dwelt among us. The purpose of the loving act was so that God could reveal to us the nature of the divine. It came about so that we might come to know and love our creator.

It is a message that continues to be shared. Christmas, even if the person celebrating does not call it that, is a time of giving, a time when peoples’ hearts open to those in need, when they give for once of themselves. It is a time when people make an attempt to reconnect with their faith community. Our churches fill up. Even those who do not make it to church take on some of the festive spirit and reach out to others in a spate of generosity. We greet each other in a different way. It is a time to give. It is a time of outreach to the poor and to those in need. The celebration is everywhere. One cannot miss it. And secularized though it may be, the world continues to get the message. And it becomes a better place, even if for a few fleeting moments.

We may look at the story in all of its improbability. We may say, “Is that any way for a king to be born!” Is it even plausible? And yet he was. For Jesus continues to be born in poverty. He continues to live with rejection and betrayal. He continues to be nailed and crowned. He continues to burst through the tomb of death and echo in the souls of those who believe. He continues to be born in us day by day. He continues to call us, his messengers, to share the good news that Christ is born in us.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Our Aboriginal Christmas Pageant

This year during Advent we have been following an Aboriginal theme as we begin to educate ourselves about our First Nations people. We have replaced the usual blue candles on our Advent Wreath with yellow, black, red and white to represent the four directions in Aboriginal Spirituality. This Sunday, the children of our parish are presenting a pageant based on Jean de Brebeuf and the Huron Carol, "Twas in the Moon of Wintertime".

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Third Sunday of Advent, Year A

Living Lives of Generosity and Love

Readings: Isaiah 35:1-10; Magnificat; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

My first parish was rural in many aspects when I moved there. People would give me directions to come out to their house for a visit. Drive up through Ashburn. Turn right. You'll see a small blue house on the corner. Turn there. Drive a couple of miles. You'll see an old shed. And so on. They would always end with, “You can’t miss it!” Believe me! That was not always the case.

Now we depend on GPS to get us to our destination. We think somehow because it is computerized that it cannot possibly make a mistake. We will surely find our destination if we simply put the right address into it. We trust it to take us to our destination by the best route. I was meeting a friend at Erin Mills Shopping Centre. Her GPS took her to a small mall on Eglinton. She went into a store to ask she was in the right mall. The woman said, “No! But it's right across the street. You can’t miss it!” But of course, my friend had indeed missed it. By following her GPS instead of her eyes, she missed it entirely.

Living in an age of uncertainty and unrest, a time in society when we worry about the state of the world, about the ecology, about whether there truly is a future, it is easy to miss the signs of hope. We long for the coming of God’s kingdom of Shalom. We look for signs of the activity of God in our daily lives. We look for signs of healing. But somehow we are not attuned to God. We are unable to look beyond our own limitations for signs of the activity of God in history.

But take heart! For John the Baptist, the one of whom Jesus says, “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than he,” missed all the signs of Jesus' coming.

John was in prison. What he heard about Jesus from the confines of his prison cell prompted him to ask some serious questions. He had an inkling that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah, but doubts kept creeping in. This Jesus with his urban approach, wandering through the towns and villages preaching good news to the poor, the needy, the outcast presents a totally different perspective to John. After all, he is the wild man out in the wilderness, preaching repentance. And so he sends word through his disciples. “Are you the one, or do we wait for another?”

And Jesus sends back word, “Tell John what you hear and see.” John does not understand what is happening. After all, signs of life are difficult to see from behind prison bars. From that perspective, it is so much easier to see death, blindness, disease, and evil. John had announced what Jesus would do. He had dreamed about how God’s power would be shown. He had preached it with fervour. He had shouted at the people, “You brood of vipers!” He was waiting to see what would happen. But it wasn't what he expected. He expected to hear about the axe falling, about retribution, about the overthrowing of the political powers; yet he hears nothing of the sort. Instead of an axe at the root of the tree, there is Jesus healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, raising the dead, preaching the good news of the gospel. It was so far from John's expectations that he could not figure it out.

There is a wonderful Peanuts cartoon of Lucy talking to Charlie Brown. She has convinced Schroeder that her religion is better than his.

“How did you do that?” asks Charlie.

“It was easy!” says Lucy. “I hit him over the head with my lunch pail,”

That was the problem for John the Baptist. He himself expected to be hit over the head, to be judged, to be deemed unworthy. He expected the changes in society to take place through retribution. His mission was to prepare the people for disaster.

For Jesus, the mission was quite the opposite. He preached a Gospel of love and generosity. His mission was to do as he was doing, healing the sick, making the blind see and the lame walk, raising the dead. He knew that it was never going to happen by hitting people over the head with a lunch pail. That would never bring them to their senses. That would never get them to accept God. He knew that it was through coming into relationship with a loving God that the kingdom would ushered in.

Isaiah's prophecies are wonderful images of healing and reconciliation. He had a balanced vision of human healing. For him it was not merely physical but was connected also to emotional well being. He trusted that would re-create new life for God's people. Wilderness would be turned into lush farmland and a salvation road could be fashioned where one had been thought impossible. Even humanity would be remade to walk the salvation road singing all the way to Zion itself. Hope, he knew is alive even at times of apparent hopelessness.

Everything about the Christian story teaches that real wholeness, real change comes from within. Rebirth comes from within our hearts, from within our lives and families from within our communities. That is why Jesus’ ministry worked. Those who found themselves in Jesus’ presence were reborn. They were healed. The lame walked, the deaf heard, the dead were raised, the poor heard good news. Change took place in people’s lives, and what a different kind of change it was. Humanity was getting healed.

We all need that kind of healing. Much as it is needed in our communities, so much more it is needed in Aboriginal communities across Canada. They are beginning to defend their identity, their nationhood, their environment. It is a challenge to every one of us, a challenge that we need to take up. They challenge us to be faithful to the treaties we have made. They challenge us to be faithful to the truth rooted in the creation covenant calling every one of us to be stewards of the land. They call us to be open to their sense of spirituality, wondering if we will accept their desire to be both Indian and Christian. They challenge us to understand our need for strong communities where people are open to helping one another.

In the Curriculum the children are studying during Advent there is a story of how Santa came to a small Gitxsan Nation in Northern British Columbia. Many years ago people found that as older traditions were lost some families became very poor. It was especially noticeable at Christmas. They decided as a community to make certain that every child in the village received a present.

The parents spent much of the year raising money for the event. The children were encouraged to write a letter to Santa saying what they would like. The parents travelled to another town to purchase gifts.

They planned a Christmas concert. Each day throughout December the children practiced songs and skits, and of course, a pageant. Everyone in the village came to the celebration, dressed in their very best clothes. The children performed. Then Santa came in with presents. He called each child by name. Everyone received a gift.

It was a time of great excitement. To this day, every child in the village receives a gift at Christmas because long ago, someone cared and a new tradition was started. The people of the village have gotten to know one another, to care for one another. It has transformed that community into a place of love and generosity.

Advent is a time of renewal and transformation in the Church year.  It is a time to be spiritually prepared for Christmas.  It is a time for the wilderness to be brought to new life.  There are many people who need that kind of transformation in their lives.  We need to go where Jesus goes.  We need to do what Jesus does – serving, healing, helping, and sharing out in the world.  We need to live lives of generosity and love.
Our task during this Advent season is to let Christ come more fully into our lives.  It is to share with others the joy of his presence by our concern for the suffering and the poor.  It is to embrace this wilderness time and use it as a time to grow spiritually so that the wilderness rejoices and blossoms.  It is to embrace the good news that God’s kingdom of shalom is breaking in, that change is taking place and that humanity is getting healed.  It is to live our lives in Christ.  It is to see Christ in those we meet.  It is to prepare the way of the Lord.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Second Sunday of Advent, Year A

Peace and Justice Makers

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

Isaiah was a visionary. The times were scarcely ideal. The kingdom of Judah where he lived was under threat, and yet he managed to maintain a Utopian vision of what God was going to bring about for the people of Israel. And so he prophesied. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse.” Isaiah sees someone coming through whom God will work in history. It will not be a political Messiah, but a righteous one who takes a moral stance against all the evils of society. Then follows his beautiful image of an ideal world. “The wolf shall live with the lamb. The leopard shall lie down with the kid. And a little child shall lead them.” There will be such a sense of reconciliation with nature that the whole created order will live in harmony. The coming age will be so peaceful that all will wander in safety. God's judgement will permeate the entire world. People will not need to fear because they will understand and trust that God’s judgement is just.

Paul too is a visionary. When he looked at it from his perspective as a Christian, he found great hope in that message of Isaiah. He understood Christ as that root of Jesse. He saw the purpose of Scripture as giving us hope. Hope, he knew, is the great gift of faith. Even in the darkest days of his life, times when he was imprisoned for the faith, he experienced such great hope. He was able to hold fast to that faith because he understood that God’s love is demonstrated in Christ. He may not always have felt it, but if he could find praise in his heart, then hope, he knew, would manifest itself.

Who could possibly doubt that John the Baptist was a visionary? However, with his wild appearance, his strange clothing and fiery message of repentance, he was certainly a frightening character. Like Isaiah he lived in troubled times. However, his words are far from hopeful; they are words of deep challenge. There was no shoot springing up to life for John. Instead he saw the axe lying at the root of the trees. Destroy the roots and there is no hope that the tree will survive. He was writing off the world. His message was, “You will not escape the retribution that is coming.”

John was not speaking to terrible people who had perpetrated unspeakable atrocities. The “brood of vipers” were good, upstanding, synagogue attending folk who had followed this wild man into the wilderness seeking spiritual renewal. Let us face it! You would have to be very hungry for God to do that, especially when you get the response they got from this fiery preacher. He did not tell them to go and pray. He did not tell them to offer sacrifices. “Repent! Change your lifestyle,” he demanded of them. “That is the only way to escape God’s retribution!”

While these three visionaries had very different approaches, all three are peacemakers. All three are justice makers. All three call out to us from time and place urging us to bring about the kingdom of God. They call out to us to change our hearts and to change our world.

During this Advent season we are celebrating the heritage of our Aboriginal peoples. I have to say that it is not one of finer moments as Canadians. The Aboriginal name for North America was Turtle Island. In many ways it fit Isaiah’s vision of a peaceful realm where all walked in safety. Before the arrival of the Europeans, Turtle Island was home to millions of people living in thousands of distinct societies. There were fishing, hunting and farming societies, each with its own distinct institutions, its own language, culture and traditions. These nations cooperated with one another. They resolved disputes as they arose.

Diverse as they were, First Peoples shared things in common. Their relationship to the Land defined who they were. All of their needs, food, clothing, shelter, culture, spirituality, came from the land. They took seriously their collective responsibility to serve the land, not as owners, but as stewards.

Then the Europeans came and claimed the land from the First Peoples. They set themselves up as discoverers of North America. They made treaties that gave them ownership of the land, something that would never have occurred to the Aboriginals.

More and more the Europeans devised ways of taking the land from the Aboriginal peoples. Some was taken in war. Some was stolen outright by the government who wrote laws to enable them to do so. They even resorted to killing. Whole nations of people were wiped out.

British policy was to assimilate. Part of that assimilation took the form of removing Aboriginal children from their communities and placing them in church-run boarding schools, often far from their home communities. I taught in one such school on the east coast of James Bay. We were told as young teachers that our job was to teach the children to become white. We were discouraged from learning their language and culture. The children themselves were punished for speaking in their native language. Having arrived at the school at the age of five many of the children never saw their families again until they left the school after grade seven. You can imagine the irreparable loss to those families. Whole generations lost what it means to be a family. They lost their parenting skills. And of course, we have heard the stories of abuse, sexual, physical, and cultural, that have led to the largest class action suit in Canadian history.

We do not have to look far for examples of evil at work in the world. To understand the preaching of John the Baptist we only have to take a look at the bad people in our world – the deranged, the wicked, the evil, and then look inside ourselves at how we have fallen short of the glory of God. The thing is that when we consider our own culpability in the scheme of things we can come up feeling pretty good about ourselves. We can look back at the history of our Aboriginal people and simply pass it off as part of the culture of the day. I have heard the Residential Schools likened to an English Boarding School. Or I have heard people say, “That is just the way things were!” Countless times I have heard that Aboriginal people bring their poverty and hardship on themselves. No wonder we cannot see the relevance for us in the message of John the Baptist! The deeds that disturb John are not the works of darkness, of people who never go to church, who know nothing of the faith. They are the self-destructive behaviours of those who do. “Demonstrate to me,” he is saying, “that you really are repentant.” Ask for God’s forgiveness. Stop cheating in your business dealings. Reconcile with someone you haven’t spoken to in twenty years. Take your commitment to God seriously. Look after the poor and those in need. Be an agent of justice and peace. Give evidence that you have really changed your life.

And isn’t that the way that we will arrive at Isaiah’s vision of hope? What an amazing vision! “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” God’s kingdom of shalom will be achieved.

Reconciliation with nature and trust among power structures are within the realm of possibility. We can do something to redress the evil that was perpetrated on our Aboriginal Peoples. We can share with them their vision of God’s amazing creation and our place in it as stewards. There are many signs of hope in the world today. We do not have to have a vision of destruction. We are not helpless spectators. We are stewards and instruments of God. We are in relationship with God. We are part of the process of redemption.

It begins, of course, with an understanding of our own contribution to the evil that we see in the world. We need to recognize the sinfulness in our own lives. And we need to come before God and seek God’s forgiveness. The wonderful thing about it is that we have a God who wants so badly to forgive.

We cannot fathom the wickedness that is in the world. We cannot fathom what possessed our ancestors to treat the People of the Land in such a terrible way. But we do know the secrets of our own hearts and our need for forgiveness.

Let us hear those words of John speaking to us across the ages. “Repent! Change your lifestyle! Demonstrate in your lives that you really are repentant.” That is what Advent is calling us to do. Let us commit our lives to God knowing the power of Christ to forgive. Let us reflect that power to forgive in our own dealings. Let us reflect the love of Christ in our lives. Let us seek the love of Christ in everyone we meet. Then we will be participating in the ushering in of God’s peaceable kingdom. Shalom!

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 ...