Friday, March 25, 2011

The Third Sunday of Lent, Year A

The Well is Deep

Readings: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

My father used to take so called ‘busman’s holidays’ with our family. It took us on many wonderful adventures, but often there were problems as well. One summer we had entirely too much water as it rained day in and day out. One summer we had too little water. Our family of seven was staying in a rectory on Manitoulin Island that had a cistern big enough to supply two. We longed for a much deeper well. In fact, there were many complaints to my father about the lack of water, particularly by my teen aged sister.

Water was definitely a practical concern for the Israelites as they travelled through they made their journey through the wilderness. They thirsted, and, true to form, they took it out on their leader. “Give us water to drink,” they complained. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” At a time of thirst, of longing, of insecurity and loss they blamed Moses. And God took pity on poor Moses! “Go to the rock at Horeb,” God told him. “Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that people may drink.” God graced them with water there in the wilderness, for God’s well is always deep. The water from the rock was a sign that God understood the people's thirst. But you can be certain that God's grace was more than a physical meeting of their needs, for the people of Israel thirsted spiritually as well. They needed to experience God's grace washing and refreshing them in the midst of all the loss and confusion that they were feeling. They needed to know that God was with them, leading them through that desert time, abundantly gracing their lives.

Water was a daily concern for people at the time of Jesus. Jesus himself experienced thirst as he travelled the dusty roads of Israel. One hot day as they approached a village, the disciples went off to look for food while Jesus headed for the well to quench his thirst. His throat was dry and his tongue hard. He looked into the depths of the well. There was lots of water there. But without a bucket how was he to get any. He had no choice but to wait until someone came along.

It was a Samaritan woman, an outcast even in her own society, who finally arrived at the well. The well was a deep one. It had an abundant supply of clear, sparkling water. Jesus watched as she lowered her bucket and brought it filled to overflowing.

He asked her for a drink. She was surprised that he would make the request of her. A Jewish man speaking to a Samaritan woman! Any self-respecting Jew would have endured his thirst. Even as a man, it was his duty not to descend to the level of asking a woman for help. But had he not done so, the conversation that followed could never have taken place.

That is what is behind her question. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” She knows her place. She feels threatened by his request, and she gives voice to it. But she passes the bucket to him just the same. He sinks his head in and takes a long drink.

He goes on to tell her about a well so deep that it will never dry up. He speaks about living water. As he speaks she begins to see where her life has gone wrong. Somehow Jesus makes her conscious of the futility in her heart and life. He offers her fulfillment. The Samaritan woman left home for the purpose of drawing water. She found water of a very different sort. She met Jesus at the well and became a new person.

Her story does not stop there. She goes back to the village, filled with joy and expectation, filled with good news about this person that she has met and what it has meant in her life. “This couldn’t be the Messiah, could it?” she says to them and invites them to find out more about Jesus. They believe in him because they see such a transformation in this woman’s life. Their faith journey begins. They invite Jesus to stay with them for a time. They too drink from that deep well.

As individuals we all go through times of uncertainty when we feel that the well has run dry. Many have suffered loss of one kind or another whether it be through sickness, or the death of a loved one. In these uncertain economic times many have suffered through insecurity in their work, downsizing and even job loss. There are all the disappointments and difficulties of life. At such times it becomes difficult to hold onto our faith.

As a congregation too, the well has often seemed dry. We have certainly gone through many times of uncertainty. In fact it sometimes seems that uncertainty is the normal way of life in this parish. At such times it becomes difficult to trust the leadership, either clerical or lay. It is difficult to trust that the Diocese has our best interests at heart. We know as a community that people come to church looking for spiritual answers to their thirst. And we know too that this parish has much to offer to people who come. God’s abundant grace is so apparent in the ongoing life of this wonderful, dynamic parish. How do we truly trust God and open ourselves to the good things that are happening in this place? How do we begin to trust that the well is deep and the water is abundant and pure. For the well is deep. Our parish of St. Francis continues to be a life giving source of grace for many people. We offer good liturgy, faithful ministry, diversity, a strong life of prayer, and a wonderful sense of community. We reach out into the community with ever increasing generosity of spirit.

Are we thirsty enough to meet Jesus at the well? Do we with David say, "My soul thirsts for the living God?" Our journey through this wilderness time of Lent is an opportunity to acknowledge our thirst for God. Out of that kind of thirsting, out of the kind of acknowledgement that the Samaritan woman made, out of the acceptance of our need for God, out of our reliance on God's mercy, comes that gift of grace that is able to quench our spiritual thirst.

Grace affects all of our relationships beginning with our relationship with God. But most important, it manifests itself in action in our lives. Our lives become focused on others. We learn to share the grace by which we have been graced. Not by looking for Brownie points. First of all, God doesn't give them. But even more important, we don't need them. Grace is free. We share grace by offering Christian service, the kind of service that is always offered by practicing Christians. It is the kind of service that the world needs to see us doing, because it offers Christ to the world. It is seeing God's grace manifested in us that will change the world. People will begin to say for real, "See these Christians – how they love one another!"

Marvellous things happen when we begin to awaken to the wonderful things that God has in store for us. Let us put our trust in God's promises. God has the answer for our spiritual needs. God has the answer for our physical needs too. Let us pray that God will give us the grace and the vision to be everything that God is calling us to be.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Second Sunday of Lent, Year A

Welcome Spring!

Readings: Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

Today is the first day of spring. According to the Farmer’s Almanac it will happen at precisely 7:21 pm. When we consider the coming of spring we think in terms of growth and new life. Already around us we see the signs. This past week we have felt its warmth. Daylight is coming earlier and staying longer. In the warmer spots in the garden shoots are beginning to appear. The earth is warming up and preparing for the growth that marks our spring weather.

The word ‘lent’ although quite properly associated with fasting and penitence literally means ‘spring’. It is a very good way to consider the season, for just as spring is a season of growth so Lent is meant to be a season of spiritual growth, a time of re-awakening. It is a season of great hope. It gives us time to reflect on change and transition in our lives.

Not that change is easy for any of us! When our lives change we are often faced with a new awareness of how attached we are to our old ways. We find it difficult to put down new roots that help us grow in new directions. That takes more trust than most of us are able to muster.

That is why the story of Abraham is so important to us. For it is a story not only of the great faithfulness of God, but also of our human ability to trust in that faithfulness.

In a time of migration of peoples about four thousand years ago, Terah travelled west with his son Abram, his daughter-in-law Sarah and his grandson Lot from Ur near the deltas of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. They settled for a time in Haran, but after Terah’s death God called Abram to leave his homeland and set out to a strange place. It was a time of hope for this band of people, for Abram received God’s promise of new life. His descendants, God promised, would become a great nation if he trusted in God.

Amazingly Abram did not hesitate. He acted on God’s promise. He went where God led, even though it meant living as an alien resident. It is the touching story of a family leaving a homeland in search of a better life. Being uprooted and displaced, whether by war, disaster or choice is part of our human heritage. It is the experience of millions of people living as refugees in our own times. It is the story of many people in this parish. But of more importance to us today, seeking new life is a part of our faith story.

It is the story of Nicodemus in the Gospel. He came to Jesus by night, sneaking in the back way so that others wouldn’t see him. After all he was a devout and learned leader in the Jewish community. It would not have been good for his reputation to seem too interested in this upstart young revolutionary. He had witnessed some of Jesus' miracles. He wanted to check them out. He had some faith, but his faith was based on wrong assumptions about what Jesus was about. His wrong assumptions left him with some burning questions about Jesus. Who was this man? How was he able to perform such amazing miracles? What was he all about? He wanted to understand, and yet when Jesus explained it to him, he kept taking it literally. When it comes to faith, literal, concrete explanations simply won't do. Faith needs to be experienced. Nicodemus needed to get beyond his intellect; he needed to have a change of heart. He needed to begin to rely on God’s grace.

Nicodemus learned, that night what we all need to learn. He discovered who Jesus really is. He began a lasting relationship with Jesus. This is just the first of several times that we meet Nicodemus. He later defended Jesus against the Pharisees. He brought spices to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Was he amongst the faithful who saw the resurrected Lord? I suspect so, for he discovered what we all need to find out. He learned that knowing Jesus, coming into relationship with him, is about accessing God's free gift of grace. He learned that it is not about carrying a heavy load of guilt around with you, but about unburdening your load and letting God's forgiveness take effect in your life. He learned what it means to be born from above. He learned that life abundant and eternal is a gift from above. It isn’t something to be earned or achieved. It isn't something that can be claimed or proven. It isn't a reward for being awfully good or studying the scriptures.

That is something that each one of us needs to understand. We really need to take it in. “God so loved the world”, John says, “that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.” That is about having a relationship with God. It is about being born again, converted, transformed, saved. I recognize that for many Anglicans such language is often foreign. Whatever language you wish to use to describe it, every one of us needs it, no matter how we arrive at it.

For some people conversion is an earth shattering and dramatically sudden change in perspective. Take St. Augustine for example. In his “Confessions” he relates the following. “I was weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when I heard the voice of children from a neighbouring house chanting, "take up and read; take up and read." I could not remember ever having heard the like, so checking the torrent of my tears, I arose, interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book and read the first chapter I should find. Eagerly then I returned to the place where I had laid the volume of the apostle. I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: "Not in revelry and drunkenness, not in licentiousness and lewdness, not in strife and envy; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts." No further would I read, nor did I need to. For instantly at the end of this sentence, it seemed as if a light of serenity infused into my heart and all the darkness of doubt vanished away.” There is no doubt that the experience changed his life. His conversion led to his devoting his life to his faith.

We do not all experience that dramatic change in our lives. Many of us meet God in a quiet way, through the beauty of our world, through prayer, through meditation, through a blessing, in a sermon, in a conversation, through a personal relationship. God even meets us at the least expected times when we think our lives are crumbling around us. God is there at times of loss in our lives. All of the ways in which God meets us are times of grace. Such times of grace meet particular needs at particular moments. They all answer God's command to "love one another even as I have loved you."
The grace of God accomplishes great things in our lives. Through the grace of God working in us, great things happen. Jesus said that if we have the faith of a grain of mustard seed we could move mountains, mountains of hatred, of indifference, of pride, of suffering. Through the grace of our efforts, through prayer, through the sacraments, through the word read, spoken and preached, we receive sufficient grace to move those mountains, grace sufficient to our needs. We reach out, we touch, we use. Grace increases.

John’s gospel focuses on our relation with God. It is a relationship modeled and embodied in Jesus Christ. It is a relationship of love flowing in all directions. To be born again means grasping God’s great gift to us, the gift of this relationship and allowing it to bring new life into our darkness. Let this Lent be an opportunity to grow in new directions, to come into a deeper awareness of God's grace at work in our lives and to know God's abiding presence in our lives and the life of the world. Let it be a time to move out of the darkness into God's own gracious light.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The First Sunday of Lent, Year A

Making Choices

Readings: Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

In the Old Testament lesson we heard the account Adam and Eve's disobedience and the resulting tragic story of fallen humankind. God begins by giving human creation freedom and limits, leaving us with choices to make: "You may eat freely of every tree of the garden;" God tells Adam and Eve, "but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat."

The serpent, one of God's creatures, poses a tempting question. "Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?'"

The woman explains. "We may eat of any of the trees but the tree of good and evil. If we eat any of its fruit we will die."

The serpent continues, "You will not die; your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God." What a temptation that was. What a choice to have to make! To be like God! In fact, it was so tempting that they began to recognize the state they were in, their nakedness and their sense of shame, and ultimately their sense of brokenness, of broken relationship with God, the alienation that is part and parcel of our human condition.

Our lives are filled with opportunities to make choices. Most are simple. What should I wear today? What would I like to eat? What time should I get up? Most choices do not even require much thought. They are automatic.

But there are choices in our lives that require considerable reflection. Is this the right person with whom to spend the rest of my life? Should I change jobs? Where should I live? These are choices that may affect the very fabric and direction of our lives.

Olympic athletes must make difficult choices. It is not enough to have talent. Competing in a sport sounds glamorous but when you are standing outside ready to begin practice at five o'clock in the morning and your muscles still ache from yesterday's workout there is nothing to hold you there except your goals. To make it to the top, athletes put aside everything else – family, friends, relationships. The final performance at the Olympics may seem effortless but those athletes have chosen to put everything else aside.

In extreme cases, choices can even be a matter of life and death. In one of my favourite Star Trek episodes, Jean Luc Picard, the Captain of the Starship Enterprise once again encounters his nemesis, an immortal being named Q. Picard is dying because of some damage that was done to his heart in a youthful accident. Q takes him back in time to the place where it happened, and forces him to consider whether he chose wisely. He shows him how it would have turned out had he chosen other paths. Picard knows that he would survive if he changed his early choice. But in the end he realizes that the changes would not have been for the better.

Choices, particularly moral choices, are difficult for us to make. Sometimes the distinctions between them are unclear. Society constantly presents us with choices between what the world chooses and what we know as Christians to be right, questions about how to live with integrity in the business world and in society. As Christians in a secular world, we very often fear making unpopular choices. We do not want to be seen as different. Yet this is a society that very much needs us as Christians to take a stand, to be at the forefront of ethical decision making. If we, the church will not take an ethical stand, who will? Yet when we do so, we run the risk of being ignored or branded as fanatical.

In all of this we have a choice. Our choices can be God's choices for us. We can choose not to participate in activities that we know to be detrimental to society. If we were to choose good over evil in each situation, how would our world change?

And so that brings us to Jesus and the choices that he made. In that wilderness place Jesus was confronted by three very human temptations. "You must be hungry,” Satan said to him. “Use your power to turn those stones into bread. Throw yourself down from the temple. You will not be harmed. Angels will protect you. Fall down and worship me. Everything you see will be yours." Jesus is confronted by three temptations that come to all of us; food, religion and politics. What could be the harm in any of them? They are all ways for Jesus to become an influence, to become known to people. Wouldn’t that be a good thing? The problem with such temptations is that they all have powerful meaning in our lives, so they can all be abused. With his deep connection to humankind, Jesus resists the temptations. He lives by that great commandment, “Love God and love your neighbour.”

Times of temptation will occur in our lives. We may have a deep sense of loss because of the death of a loved one. We may lose our job, or go through the pain of a broken relationship. We may suffer through sickness, or depression. We may be tempted by power or by wealth at the cost of integrity. How we allow such times in our lives to bring us into relationship with God and with others is the measure of the temptation.

Each of us has the power through our choices to shape and give meaning to life. Living as a Christian is a response to a deliberate choice. It calls for a decision to place our faith in Christ. It is a call to commitment.

Lent is a wilderness time in the Church year. It is a time of commitment to spiritual growth. It provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the meaning and consequences of our choices. Our life is a series of choices. What has shaped your life? What shape would you like it to take? How can it take new shape during this holy season of Lent? It is an opportunity for us to reform ourselves, to allow God's Holy Spirit to re-shape us so that our whole community is re-created. I have heard that forty days is the optimal time in which to re-shape some aspect of one's life. Let us use this time, not primarily as a time to give up something, but as a time to bring ourselves into a closer and more open relationship with our creator. Let it be a holy and life-giving Lent for each of us.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday

A Time for Listening

Readings: Joel 2:1-2, 11-19; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

The trumpet call of Joel is sounded as a warning. A locust plague is about to descend on the people of Israel. The sky is black with its approach. It is devouring everything in its path. "Even now," he tells them, "it is not too late." He calls them to fast and pray. It is a call to conversion. It is a call to return to God.

Such a call could go out into the world in which we live every single day. The world needs to be converted, not primarily to Christianity, but simply to humanity. Look at the injustice in our world. How many children will go to bed hungry tonight? How many people, even in our own wealthy cities and towns, lack shelter? How many people have died in the struggle for freedom?

We live in a world of injustice and cruelty. What a topsy-turvy place it is. There are hockey players who earn more than entire towns in Africa! There are people whose personal wealth could wipe out the national debt of any third world nation. What greed exists in a society that allows a few people to control that much wealth when millions are living in poverty, even in first world countries? There is more than enough wealth in the world to wipe out economic poverty. Do we care enough to make it happen?

Joel calls us to rend our hearts, not our garments. Romero, the Bishop of San Salvador, martyred for his advocacy of the poor, calls us to a preferential option for the poor. Jesus calls us to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven rather than on earth. They are all calls to examine our lives and consider how we might live differently.

There are many ways that we can begin to live more responsibly, creatively and compassionately. I hope that this Lent we will take seriously our call to change our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. In a world like ours, we truly have to rend our hearts, acknowledge our guilt and ask God to create in us a clean heart. Then we have to act on our convictions and change the way we live our lives to reflect our faith.

We think of Lent as time for giving up. I think that Lent is primarily a time for listening, for going into the sanctuary of our hearts and searching the corners and shadows for the way God wants us to live.

Lent is a time for listening. It is a time for resting in the life, passion and death of Jesus. It is a time for choosing a unique, personal path of discipleship. It is a time for listening. It is not a time for self-denial unless that is what we hear in our hearts. It is not a time for giving or self-giving unless we hear those words within our hearts. It is not a time for fasting unless we hear those words in our hearts.

Lent is a time for listening. Let us listen to God's call for the way God wants us to live. Let us trust our hearts and live as God calls us.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Last Sunday of Epiphany, Year A

Glimpses of Grandeur

Readings: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:12-18

Throughout this Epiphany season God has been revealed to us in many ways. We have worshipped with the Magi. We watched Jesus as he entered the waters of baptism in the Jordan River. We have talked about what it means to serve God. We have learned about the God we serve. We have been encouraged in our own sense of discipleship. We have reflected on the Beatitudes with their radical call to justice. We have struggled with what God requires of us. Today on this last Sunday of Epiphany we follow Jesus to the mountaintop where we see him transfigured before us. It is a mountaintop experience, which is intended to carry us through the forty-day journey that lies ahead of us and ends at the foot of the cross.

If you have ever been on a mountaintop you know that everything looks different from up there. I travelled one summer through the "Rockies". It was an awesome experience. I had seen postcards of Banff and some of the other scenic spots showing the beauty and grandeur of the mountains. But the experience of being there, of standing as if you are on the very edge of the world looking down on God's creation, is inexpressible. The breathtaking beauty is only part of the experience. To drive up and up on those winding roads, to feel the change in gears, to experience the change in atmosphere, are all part of it. I remember leaving Banff in the warmth of a summer day and then a couple of hours later having my breath taken away by the rush of cold air that greeted me as I stepped out of the car in Rogers Pass.

In the worldview of ancient Israel it was on the mountaintop that Heaven met Earth. God could be perceived more clearly and completely from the mountain. It was from the mountaintop that the most important revelations were issued. Indeed it is sometimes so far beyond our ability to understand God that we cannot begin to get a clear picture from where we usually live. We need to get away from the distractions and demands of everyday living to keep our vision clear and fresh.

The disciples who gathered around Jesus during his earthly ministry had left everything to follow Jesus. They may have assumed that their sacrifices would resolve into positions of wealth and glory. Did they think that Jesus was to be Israel's future king? Certainly Peter, James and John were in a wilderness time in their lives. The euphoria of following Jesus has been shattered by the revelation of what messiahship would involve. They have discovered that this is a call for Jesus, not to insurrection, but to rejection and death. How shattering that was for his faithful followers, especially coming so close on the heels of Peter's confession that Jesus is Messiah!

And so Jesus takes these three close disciples to the mountain where he is transformed or changed before them. "His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white," we are told. It is a totally new way for the disciples of viewing Jesus – a view of the ultimate glory of righteousness. And then Moses and Elijah, both of whom experienced rejection and suffering, both of whom were expected to return in connection with the messianic age, are there with him.

No wonder Peter wants to enshrine it. He wants to hold the memory in a real and tangible way. He has caught a glimpse of glory. He doesn't want to lose it. But there is more. So much more! Once again God speaks those same words for the three that Jesus and John heard at his baptism in the Jordan River. "This is my Son, the Beloved! With him I am well pleased; listen to him!" If they have any doubts about who this is, they are dispelled. God is revealed to them.

We tend to think of "mountaintop experiences" as being ecstatic experiences, emotional highs. True revelations are very difficult to express to other people. I suspect that is because it is a uniquely personal experience. It is meaningful to the person within his or her own context. And so we search for the right words to describe our experience of God. It is that inexpressible quality that leads us to call those deep revelations "mountaintop experiences".

Those of us who live a normal Christian life spend most of our time with both feet firmly on the ground. We try to live the Christian life. We participate in worship. We give our time and talents to the work of the Church. We spend time in prayer and study. We try to live a good and moral life.

Life is not an easy journey. We all experience wilderness times in our lives, times of frustration, pain, suffering, difficulty. Sometimes it seems as if there will be no end to the wilderness time. When one thing after another happens to us, we ask the age-old questions. Why is this happening to me? Why must I suffer? Our faith comes into question. It is at those times that we call on our mountaintop experiences, those times when God was revealed to us in some inexplicable way that gave us a glimpse of glory.

It is those deep experiences of God that make it possible for people facing deep tragedy not only to sustain their faith, but to continue to affirm that God is a God of love, that God is there for them. When I look back over my life I become aware of many such moments. They are often just fleeting glimpses of the grandeur of God. The easy ones to express are times when I have experienced God through a great piece of music, a walk in the woods, a stimulating conversation with a friend, a synergistic moment when the right story or the right word came at exactly the right time. I have to say that some of them I would have great difficulty even beginning to explain to you. There have been moments of great clarity when I knew that God was with me. There have been times of prayer when I felt a deep connection to God. There have been times of danger when life was spinning out of control, and yet I knew that God was there.

They are not experiences that we can go looking for. They are ways in which God chooses to be revealed to us. It is about letting God lead us. It is about opening ourselves to God. It is about letting God come into relationship with us.

During this season we have reflected how God has been and is being revealed to us. We began and ended with the same words, “This is my Son the Beloved.” Hopefully those words are a wonderful reminder that God wants to come into relationship with us. God is powerful and mysterious beyond our understanding. It is through our relationship with Jesus that we glimpse the mystery a little more clearly and closely.

On Ash Wednesday we begin a wilderness time in the Church's year. We begin a forty-day journey that ends at the foot of the cross. We take with us a glimpse of the mystery of God. We take with us the knowledge that God wants to be in relationship with us, and that we too are beloved children of God. Amen. Alleluia!

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 ...