Saturday, February 26, 2011

Eighth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

“Where Do We Go From Here?”

Readings: Isaiah 49:8-16a; Psalm 131; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34

Today we are celebrating Black History month as we have for the past nine years. Once again we welcome friends and family members to this joyous occasion. It is an opportunity to celebrate the gifts and talents of this parish that is home to people of diverse cultural and racial backgrounds. A few years ago one of our Lay Readers preached for this service. I remember her saying that she hoped that some day soon it would be unnecessary to set aside a special day to celebrate Black History. She hoped and prayed that in this city of ours we would all be of one mind. It reminded me of a question that Martin Luther King asked in a famous speech he gave in 1967. “Where do we go from here?”

He said that in order to answer the question we needed to know where we had been. He went on to explain that when the American Constitution was written there was a rather curious formula that declared that the black was sixty percent of a person. However, at the time of his speech he figured that the percentage had actually dropped to fifty percent since blacks had approximately half of the good things of life and twice the bad things of life when compared to whites. He backed his statement by giving some of the shocking statistics of the United States about the situation of blacks in terms of education, the unemployment rate, and the death rate of blacks serving in Vietnam. He also said that because of our sense of superiority, on the whole we whites do not educate ourselves out of our racial ignorance.

As we celebrate today in our parish, I hope and pray that the last forty years have seen big changes when it comes to racial prejudice. Indeed, we pride ourselves as Canadians at being an open and welcoming nation to people of every race and colour. However, looking at the current statistics about education and crime, it would appear that vast injustices still take place here. In Canada, blacks compared to whites have a higher suicide rate, a greater chance of being incarcerated, a higher high school dropout rate and lower income than their white counterparts. So we do still need to come together in celebration. We do need to continue to ask Martin Luther King’s question, “Where do we go from here?” Where is the hope?

The first reading today from the prophet Isaiah is a song of consolation written to the people of Israel during the Babylonian exile. It was, for those exiled people, a song of great hope. Its promises helped them to look forward to better times. Those who were imprisoned would be set free. Those living in darkness would be drawn into the light. Those who travelled along desolate highways would be provided with food and shelter and guided to refreshing springs of clear water. It would all come about through embracing a right relationship with God. God, the prophet points out, is so committed to the relationship that freedom is bound to be the result.

The passage resonates in me. It reminds me of one of my Welsh mother’s favourite hymns. I remember her singing it to us in her beautiful, clear soprano voice. The hymn was “Hark, My Soul it is the Lord” from the old Book of Common Praise, but it was one particular verse that she loved. It brought out her maternal instincts. The feminist in me says that it was the surprise to her to see an image of God that was other than white male.

“Can a mother’s tender care
Cease toward the child she bear?
Yes, she may forgetful be
Yet will I remember thee.”

It is a beautiful image of God caring for us even more than a mother cares for her child. And as I reflect on Isaiah’s message the hymn evokes so much more in me than those warm memories. It speaks of a God of consolation who can give hope to any number of people in our world. Today its message might bring hope to the people of Christchurch in Australia as they mourn the loss of life and the destructive powers of the earthquake that destroyed much of their city. It might bring hope to the people of Libya as they continue to fight for freedom. Surely for our black brothers and sisters it brings a message of consolation and hope. For it, and such liberation passages of Scripture have resonated with people throughout history. It is a song that is resonated in the words of many of the Spirituals and other black music. It reminds us of the love of a God who cannot see the petty differences we fabricate, but only the beauty of the image in which God created each one of us.

Perhaps the most important message for us to carry away with us today as we celebrate Black Heritage is the call to Israel to be a “covenant to the people” and a “light to the nations”. It speaks to us of our need to pay attention to the physical reality of people who are in exile whether it is the result of war, natural disaster, poverty, racism or injustice of any kind. Our God is compassionate beyond measure. God feels the suffering of humanity as much as a mother might feel the suffering of her children. God works to bring us all back into the safety and joy of a covenant relationship. The mission of the Church and of each one of us as Christians is to reflect the divine effort of reconciliation in a world which is still characterized by exile, by racial division, and by prejudice.

And so that question, “Where do we go from here?” continues. The Gospel reminds us that God demands our ultimate obedience. Nothing less will do. God needs to be ultimate in our lives. If we are to experience peace within revolution, security within instability, we must be set free by God to serve God. We must be committed, not to what is in it for us, but to God’s teachings and purpose. That is what we need to consider in our every aspect of our lives. It needs to drive our relationships, our friendships, our skills, talents, charisms and gifts. If it does then racial divisions will end. We will be an inclusive community of faith that cannot help but be covenant and light. Amen.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany Year A

Walking the Extra Mile

Readings: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

The gospel for this Sunday is once again from the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount. I have to admit, that “Don’t worry! Be happy!” philosophy that runs through the chapter begins to cloy after a while. The Old Testament reading from Leviticus is one thing as it reminds us of our need to love our neighbour. What is Jesus thinking in taking it all so much further? Jesus reminds us that we are called to love those who harm us, oppress us, and even enemies intent on destroying us. We are to offer those harming us the other cheek. We are to give those trying to steal our coat, our cloak as well. We are to offer to walk the extra mile, to give liberally to everyone who asks, to do good to those who persecute us. We are to smile through it all. And then the clincher as Jesus sums it all up. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

I think it is the perfection that really gets to me. That kind of hyperbole, if that is what it is, is a sad reality that has driven many to despair, compulsion, perhaps even suicide. It isn’t enough that many people drive themselves to perfection in their work and in their scholastic endeavours. The lives of saints are filled with tales of self-abuse. Then there are the young women whose body image causes them to diet to the point of anorexia. Or the cult leader who imposes his doctrine on a group of people. The path to human perfection has even led to schemes to rid the world of whole races of people.

So what is Jesus on about? What did he mean by telling us to be perfect the way God is perfect? How can we be perfect, flawless, completely pure and whole? We will never be able to get rid of all the imperfections in our lives. We will never be able to cut them away or change them so that we are perfect. Truly Jesus must have had something else in mind, something that issues from his unique understanding of God. In the Beatitudes, Jesus is teaching the disciples about the coming of the kingdom. It is a teaching deeply rooted in his understanding of the call of the Christian to perfection in this life. It is a call that brings God and humanity into closer relationship and allows the kingdom of God to exist here and now. It is a call that truly asks of the Christian to walk the extra mile in everything that they do.

So when Jesus asks us to learn to love even our enemies it is so that we will no longer return evil for evil, but will find some way to offer blessing and love. Because Jesus knows that it is what the world needs. The question remains for me. How do I even begin to learn to do that? How do I begin to learn to breathe love the same way that my heart beats? How does love become a part of my very being?

I would have found it much easier to understand if Jesus had told me a story. It might have gone something like this. A man set out on his usual jogging route one afternoon. He headed down a busy street towards the park. He had not gone far when he felt a terrible pain in his chest. He fell right there in the street. There were lots of people around. A woman close by noticed him fall. “He must be drunk!” she said to herself as she crossed over to the other side of the street without even a second glance.

A man in a business suit looked at his watch. “If I stop and help him I’ll be late,” he muttered to himself and pretended that he hadn’t seen what happened.

Mary was driving her daughter home from school. She saw the man as he began to fall. She saw him grab at his chest. She pulled over. “Call 911!” she said to her daughter. “Tell them where we are and that we need an ambulance right away.” She got out of the car and turned the man over. She could see that his colour was poor. Somehow or other her Girl Guide training in CPR came back to her. By the time the ambulance pulled up she was breathing life back into him. They got him stable and prepared to take him to the hospital. Not wanting him to face this all alone, she followed along in her car. She and her daughter waited with him until his family arrived at the hospital. He called her his guardian angel. When asked why she stayed with him, she said, “We need to walk the extra mile for one another.”

Come to think of it, Jesus did tell that story. He told it many times and in many ways. It is after all the story of the compassion of the Good Samaritan who walked the extra mile for a stranger in need. It is the story too of the Prodigal Father who cared so much for his son that he would not give up on him but lavished love on him. It is Jesus’ own story, for he loved us so much that he gave up his life on the cross for us.

Walking the extra mile, turning the other cheek, giving until it hurts is not about trying as hard as we can to love God and to love our neighbour. It is not about being perfectionists. It is about living generously. It is about allowing God’s grace to work in our lives. After all that is how God lives with us. That is the possibility for which we were made. So it is about understanding how much God loves us and then allowing God’s love to transform our lives so that we have all the love we need to pour out for others to become everything that God is calling us to be. Wouldn’t that bring about God’s kingdom here on earth?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Not posting this week

I am not posting a sermon this week. Our Lay Pastoral Associate is preaching. If I were preaching, I suspect it would be about choosing life from the Deuteronomy passage.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

Salt and Light

Readings: Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 112:1-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; Matthew 5:13-20

Discipleship is an exciting and challenging task that demands of us every ounce of creativity and energy we possess. How do we distinguish between the ways of the world and the ways of God? The choices are usually far from easy. The real measure of right and wrong comes, not from pronouncements made by the governing body of the church, or from rules and regulations rigidly adhered to, but by our actions towards others. The ethics professor at Trinity constantly reminded us that the basis of our ethical decisions should be whether or not we were doing – here his West Indian accent always came out! – "the lovin' t'ing."

It is the doing, the action, the lovin’ t’ing, that is behind two powerful images in the Gospel, salt and light. “Salt of the earth,” Jesus called the disciples. “Light of the world,” he said to them. “You are salt and light.” When Jesus says 'you are salt' it is no small compliment. Salt was essential to life in the ancient world. It was, of course, used to preserve food. It was also a requirement for sacrifices. It was mixed with incense for the temple. It was used as a sign of covenant. It was even rubbed on newborn babies. Not that it was easily attainable. It had to be mined and transported with considerable labour and expense.

And yet to us it is such a modest metaphor! It is not dramatic at all. It is certainly not overwhelming. It is simply a functional, everyday metaphor, and yet it has a dramatic effect on the environment. In many cultures salt is a symbol of hospitality. It changes food. It makes it tastier, livelier. At this time of year in Canada it is especially vital. It melts ice. Where would we have been during this past week without salters out on the roads? We use it as a healing agent, a cleanser. Yet simple and everyday as it is, salt has caused wars and revolutions. It has led to trading partnerships. It is a basic human need. Without it we would not survive.

For the Jewish nation every sacrifice was seasoned with salt to remind the people of their need to remain faithful to the Covenant between them and God. The salt made the covenant a binding agreement. It represented loyalty and truthfulness between them. Salt was a symbol that could heal the rift in a relationship. If there was no salt used in the Covenant it meant barrenness. So being a disciple of Jesus called for a good seasoning of salt.

Light is also a simple metaphor, but a wonderful compliment. It abolishes darkness. The darker the darkness, the more visible the light! We do not even realize how essential light is to us until we find ourselves in the dark hunting for a flashlight or a candle. We have all experienced blackouts. We had one in the north end of Mississauga a couple of weeks ago. There have, of course, been serious blackouts like the one a few summers ago that left us without power for days.

When Jesus says 'you are light' it is a contemporary Christ making an unapologetic call to contemporary Christian vocation. We are meant to see the metaphor of light in terms of our relationship as disciples of God.

In Aboriginal folklore, God first created animals. God called all the creatures together and gave each of them a gift in a box. The Old Turtle immediately opened his box and from it came the earth for the animals to inhabit. The whale opened her box and out poured life-giving water. One by one the creatures opened their gifts and creation came into being. But they could not see the beauty of what God had given them, for there was no light. Finally there remained only one box unopened. It belonged to the seagull who was determined to keep it for himself. The animals pleaded and pleaded. But the gull refused to share his gift. Finally the animals tricked him into opening the box and out poured streams of light. They could finally see the beauty that God had created.

Being light is a social thing. It must be shared. Light shines in our Christian community not only through personal conversion to Christ, but by our actions in the world, by doing the 'lovin' t'ing'. Our call to be light is a call to reach out to others in compassion. It is when we live with compassion that we truly encounter God and understand the joy that comes from discipleship.

So what does it mean for us to be salt? What does it mean to be light? Jesus calls us, his followers, to be salty Christians. He calls us to light up the world around us. It is a call to conduct our lives so that we will bring attention to the presence of God within us. It is a call to discipleship, an exciting and challenging task which takes every ounce of creativity and energy that we possess.

As we move forward in ministry we need to be salty Christians. To be salty is to have a spiritual thirst that means that you cannot help but want to learn more about God. It means that you want to share what you have learned with others. To be salty is to keep alive our baptismal covenant in which we promised to follow Christ’s teachings, to resist sinful behaviour, to be a Godly example to the world, to see Christ in others, to let others see Christ in us, to strive for peace and justice.

You are called to be light. You are called to light up a world in desperate need of light. In so many ways these are dark days. There is much to be worried about in our modern day society. It is a violent society. We face economic shifts that affect us globally. The environment is sick. We as the people of God have experienced the grace of God’s light. We are called to share that light with others.

When did God use you as salt? We have all been salt to someone. Perhaps God has used you to help thaw someone’s heart so that they could love again. Perhaps you gave someone hope when they were feeling desperate. Maybe you helped someone to heal from life’s hurts. Perhaps you listened in compassion to someone’s story as they opened up to you, trusting you with their innermost thoughts. Was it when you comforted a lost and frightened child? Was it the time you cried with someone in their pain and sorrow?

Has God used you to light up someone’s life? Did you mend a lost friendship? When did your smile light up a room and bring joy into another person’s life? Have you brought someone to faith? Have you seen the change in that person as God transformed them? Have you acted on an impulse and brought dinner to someone in need? Have you given a helping hand to a friend? Have you reached out into the community?

Then you have been salt. You have been light. In remembering to do the 'lovin' t'ing we are salt, and we are light, and we are Church. 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 ...