Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A

An Altar on Every Street Corner

Readings: Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:8-20; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

Paul is in Athens preaching in the Areopagus. It is a quiet place where speakers can present their ideas to those who gather to listen. There, people are able to speak freely without interruption. Freedom to speak out about your beliefs and concerns is typical of this centre of Greek culture. Athens is a cosmopolitan city where people are cultured, eager to learn, well read. Here lies the difficulty for Paul, for this is a city overloaded with statues and altars, an altar on every street corner. They worship many gods. And when they are unsure which of their gods has helped them, they set up yet another altar to an unknown god.

Paul sees and judges the city as an apostle of Jesus Christ. Before he even gets to Athens he is feeling down about his mission. He has had little success in establishing a faith community in the Greek world. He views their lifestyle, their secularism, their materialism, their indifference to his message with disdain. He is indignant to find so many pagan symbols in this cultured and beautiful city. He is not enthused by its historical and art treasures. And so he finds himself presenting his views to anyone who will listen.

"I found an altar to an unknown god,” Paul begins. He understands their hunger for spiritual knowledge; he can see it in their responses. He proclaims the Spirit to the Athenians who somehow knew that such a Spirit existed but were unable to name it. He tells them about the God he worships, the Creator of the world, the one true God who does not need temples or sacrifices. He tells them about God who needs only that humanity should seek out and find; God who longs to be known, not fashioned in human or animal form, but known as one who is present; God who longs to be in relationship with humankind.

The altar to the unknown god! What a haunting image that is! What a haunting image it must have been to Paul who served a living God, whose image of God was of one who cared so much that he became one of us, that he died for us.

What Paul said of the Athenians could well be said of our own culture. Statistics show that one in three people in Canada will not attend a single church service this year. We are becoming an unchurched society. Yet many of those same people who never attend church are groping for spiritual fulfillment. Our groping for God, our searching, our longing, is all part of the human condition. People are seeking, but sadly they are not seeking in our churches.

Did it amaze you as it did me how much interest there was last weekend in the possibility that the world was going to come to a sudden and disastrous end? The search for God can take on surprising and frightening elements. Movements predicting the end of the world have surfaced from time to time, but it seemed different somehow as the media listened and took to the airwaves. It is an indicator of how spiritually hungry people are.

Our concern should be why they are not searching for spiritual fulfillment in the Christian Church. At least it should concern us if we, like Paul, know God as our creator, as the one in whom we "live and move and have our being." Can we proclaim that one to the world, because if we cannot how can we expect them not to build "altars to unknown gods"?

And what altars we humans build! Our gods are many, gods of greed, gods of power, gods of lust. We live in a society that needs to know God. It is often difficult to judge whether churchgoers themselves really have a relationship with God. It is difficult to see what difference God makes in their daily lives. It is difficult to recognize any sense of commitment on their part.

Do you know that God is present with you? Do you look with expectation for an answer to your prayers? Do you believe that God makes a difference in your life? If we as the People of God don't really know that God is present to us, how will we ever convince those who are seeking God? People are looking for answers to their spiritual thirst. They are looking for meaning. They are looking for ritual. They are looking for answers to the difficult questions of our age. They are looking for help in making ethical and moral decisions. Who better than Christians to offer them answers?

The first step, of course, is getting to know God in that way ourselves. We need to know and experience God in the same way Paul did. We must know and search out that living God, that God who is present in our lives, not just on Sundays, but every day of our lives.

It is there so clearly in the gospel. Jesus is speaking to the disciples about his need to leave. "God's purpose," he is saying "comes about not through a cold exercise of the will, but by the warm and personal love of the disciple for the teacher." That love is not a one way street. When we reach out to understand and know God, then God reaches out to us. We are not alone. God has sent another Advocate, the Spirit of truth, to be with us. We are not orphans.

That is the profound truth of the Gospel. It is the profound truth of our baptism. It is the most important message to proclaim to a world that searches for unknown gods. Jesus was an advocate for the disciples. He walked with them. He prayed for them. He guided them. He sent the Spirit to continue in that advocacy. The same promise holds true for us. The Spirit of God is within us. In that Spirit we “live and move and have our being.” Love has created a bond that transcends death. It unites us with God. It allows us to encounter the living Christ. We experience him in our hearts.

How do we experience the power of the Spirit at work in our lives? This passage gives us a sense of the bereavement the disciples felt at the loss of their beloved leader. When someone close to you dies, the sense of loss can be overwhelming. And yet we know that the relationship continues. It is different but it continues just the same. We explore our relationship in a different way. We all suffer from the same haunting sense of loss. It is part of the human condition. It causes us to question God’s love. Most of us would admit that it is at times of trouble that we find ourselves turning to God and experiencing God reaching out to us. That makes such sense, because those are the times that we are most open to inviting God to be present to us. Those are the times when we allow God’s Spirit to comfort us.

How do we hold on to that sense of the Spirit at work in us? Certainly there are people who look for signs that the Spirit is present in them. They look for gifts. They seek manifestations. They want to pray in tongues or be slain in the Spirit. They set themselves up as prophets of doom as Camping did last weekend.

The fact is we do not need that kind of sign. We demonstrate the Spirit at work in our lives not by ecstatic manifestations or supernatural gifts but through sacrificial acts of love. We experience God at work in our lives, then we let it happen to others through us. We allow our relationship with God to grow through prayer, through reading of Scriptures and through study of God’s word. Then we risk.

Are we able as a church to allow the Spirit to work within us, to reach out to the community, to draw new people in? Are we able to minister to those already in our midst? Are we able to be relevant at this crucial time in the Church's history? The answer lies in our ability to allow God to be present in our midst. It lies in our ability to experience God "in whom we live and move and have our being."

Friday, May 20, 2011

The 5th Sunday of Easter, Year A

Living and Chosen Stones

Readings: Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-8, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14

The Scripture passages for today are full of images of rocks. The images range from the poetic to the tragic. In the Acts of the Apostles there is the story of the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. The psalm uses "rock" as a poetic image of God's protection. God is our "rock and our fortress". God protects us as a rock wall protects people from their enemies. Peter refers to Christ as the cornerstone, chosen and precious. Christ is the foundation on which the Christian faith is built. And we, we are "living and chosen stones."

What does it mean to be living and chosen stones? It certainly conveys to me that I know the immensity of God's grace at work in my life. I know the reality of God's forgiveness. That says to me that now is the time for us to grow into mature, dependable Christians. Like blocks that firm up and reinforce a building we are to build up God's kingdom on earth.

There are many stones that need to be shaped and formed to fit into the great temple of God. They are part of God's plan for creation. We are called to declare the love of God for all God's creatures. We do it in our daily lives and work, in response to the great love of God and God's gift of divine grace. Yet so often, whether through lack of commitment, or through our inability to heed God's word, or through the distractions and troubles of life, we become blocks to God at work in the world. Or we simply miss the real message of the gospel. The passage from John is one that has often been misinterpreted.

My friend Maude loved today's Gospel passage. She was a single woman who had come over to Canada from England during the Second World War. Because of her economic status she lived all of her life in rooming houses. "But when I get to Heaven," she would tell me, "there'll be a mansion waiting for me." One of the earliest modern versions of Scripture changed it to 'rooms'. She was incensed. "I've lived in rooms all my life. I want a mansion." And knowing Maude, that's exactly what she got.

This passage was not meant to portray Jesus as the manager of some heavenly development project. In fact, it is not meant to tell us in any factual way about Heaven. It is not mere platitudes – 'every cloud has a silver lining'. We need to remind ourselves of the context. The disciples are on the brink of disaster. They are about to lose their leader. He will be brutally executed. Their lives will never be the same again. Their dreams of Heaven on earth will be shattered.

Jesus offers them a way forward, a cure for troubled hearts. "Believe in God, believe in me," he says to them. He is offering them real hope, building stones for the faith. Behind it all is the wonderful message of the Gospel, that he will conquer death and darkness. Because he lives, they will live. Jesus goes on to tell them that he is the way, the truth and the life.

That presents us with a deep theological problem, especially in a multi-racial, multi-faith society such as ours. Is Jesus saying that he is the only path to God? For it has been used to mean exactly that. It has been used to exclude any whose faith has led them in other directions. It has been used to prove that Moslems, Jews, Hindus and anyone who professes faith in other than the Christian version of God are lost. Even if people believe in universal salvation they often dismiss other faiths by saying that they simply have not been enlightened, that they will find the true path.

We need to look at it another way. For in another sense, 'believe in God, believe in me' is about each one of us, We do own the way, the truth, the life, but we carry with us the marks of our faith for others to see. When someone is aware of us as friend or colleague, then it is through us that the person views the Christian faith. We become the 'way' by which the Christian faith makes it claims. We become the 'truth' about the Christian life. We become the 'life' through which it is judged.

Mostly it happens in things noted silently, as life and relationship are lived out. We may not discover until much later that this is so. I heard some time ago from a woman about a kindness I did as a teenager that affected her profoundly. It changed her life. And yet, I had no idea. I don't even remember doing it. Yet it had such an impact on her life that she wrote to me forty years later to tell me. It was humbling as I reflected on how God uses us to reach others.

We underestimate the power of our relationship to God and its impact on the lives of those around us. It comes back to Peter's message to us that "we are living and chosen stones." What an amazing thing that is! Jesus is the cornerstone, and each of us is chosen to fit into exactly the place God has for us so that the Church is the place it ought to be.

That calls for us as a church to make a commitment of our lives to Christ. Our Baptismal Covenant reminds us of that call to commitment. We renew it each time we have a baptism. But it can be mere words. How many of us have consciously asked God to be in our hearts and in our lives? Do we take seriously our need to study God's word? We don't seem to have verses of Scripture at our fingertips. Do we take the time to pray for God to work in our lives? Do we set aside time in our day for prayer? Do we learn new ways to come into relationship with God through prayer? What kind of 'living stones' are we if we don't have those kinds of tools to help us convey our faith to others?

We are called as well to an understanding of 'the priesthood of all believers' as a foundation of our life of faith. What does that mean to us? It surely cannot mean that we can simply pay someone to be the priest in our parish and abdicate all responsibility for the work of the church. Jesus may be the cornerstone, but the rest of us need to fit together to build the temple of God. My work over the past ten years has been to encourage you to be everything that God means you to be. You are administrators, teachers, preachers, people of prayer, lay visitors, readers, servers, youth workers. The list goes on. I have worked faithfully in this parish. I have every confidence that as I leave you will continue the good work that you have been doing.

Finally we are called to a commitment that reaches out into society, that calls for change in structures that harm people, that supports the needy in our country and globally, that encourages and invites people into our community of faith. Our parish is intended to be a place of nurture for us. But Sunday by Sunday we are sent out to be the church. We are called to mission, to go out beyond this place with the good news of how the Holy Spirit is working in our lives, of the great love of God and God's gift of divine grace.

We are the living and chosen stones called to give of our time, our talents, and our wealth to reach out to others with the great message of God's love. It is an opportunity to live out our Baptismal Covenant. May we do so with a renewed sense of commitment and fervour for the Gospel! Amen.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A

Abundant Life

Readings: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

Each year on the fourth Sunday of Easter we celebrate Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the one who cares for the sheep. We who have no agrarian background strangely find great comfort in that image. Perhaps it is because it appears so often in Scripture that it becomes familiar. To name just a few of the places, the shepherds come to the stable to visit the baby Jesus. Herod quotes that the one to be born is the one who is to be the shepherd of Israel. Jesus is a descendant of David, the Shepherd King. Jesus sacrifices himself as the Lamb of God.

While the Good Shepherd imagery is comforting, those in John’s Gospel are just plain confusing. Jesus does not say that he is the shepherd. He says that he is the gatekeeper. Or is he the gate? Or perhaps he is the one who enters by the gate. While it remains confusing, they are all fine images. They portray Jesus as the one who gives humankind access to God. How badly humanity needs those who can open the way against the burdens of inhumanity! We serve a God who includes all those in society who are without power, the little ones, the lowly, the no account, the expendable, the least, the uncared for. All these are children of God, the very ones that need access to God’s grace and mercy. And so it is fitting that the passage ends with one of the most profound promises in all of Scripture. Jesus says, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”

That is, after all, what we want out of life isn’t it? Abundance is particularly attractive to our insatiable western culture. We are collectors of things. We spend our lives accumulating possessions. On the whole, even those who consider themselves poor by Canadian standards have their basic needs and many of their wants met. We look to things for fulfillment. Businesses thrive on our desire to live abundantly. Ad companies have discovered that emotion based ads outperform factual ones because they make people feel as if things will be fulfilling to them. They will run faster in a certain brand of shoes. They will make friends if they drink a certain kind of beer. They will be happier if they buy the right car or live in the right neighbourhood.

But when it comes down to it, that is not our experience. The accumulation of things rather than satisfying us tends to make us want more. And so we remain spiritually impoverished. How do we access the kind of abundant life that Jesus is offering? He is not talking about accumulating stuff. He is not telling us that being faithful to God will result in untold wealth being ours. That is the message that some interpreters of Scripture would have us believe. I have heard it espoused by televangelists. “Support my ministry,” they will say. “Send money and it will come back to you a hundred fold.” In telling us that he is coming so that we might have abundant life, Jesus is saying that he is the way to fulfillment, enrichment, meaning, and purpose in life.

How do we tap into that source of abundant life? How do we begin to access the generosity of our God? Jesus knew that his shepherding of people was about accompanying every human being to the place where they could be at home. It is about mutual trust, about opening up our lives so that we can trust in God’s promises. It is about awakening our inmost selves and bringing to light something we have known but deeply hidden, so that we can put it into words and recognize it again. It is about speaking in words that we can understand. It is about walking with us on the road of life and showing us how to live.

Jesus the good shepherd speaks in words we can understand. Lives are opened up. Change takes place. And isn't that kind of shepherding that we as Christians are called to? Loving and leading are the two ministries of the church. First we communicate caring for those to whom we minister. That is balanced with leading which allows change to take place in the lives of those to whom we minister. Ministry challenges. It challenges people to become everything they are intended to be.

The reading from the Acts of the Apostles is a reminder to us of the vitality of the early church, its exuberant mood as it began to live with the knowledge of the resurrected Christ at work in its midst. Today we read about that community as it begins to live out its baptismal covenant in the knowledge of the resurrection. "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."

It is a picture of a community working together, living out their faith in their daily lives, and reaching out into their community in love. They were convinced that they were equipped with the Spirit. They tried to show it in their lives, not only by telling others about the faith, but also by expecting that the Spirit would work through them to reach out to others in real and tangible ways. Wonderful things happened in their lives because they believed. "Awe came upon everyone," we read, "because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." The call to be the Church was the call to assist one another, to help the poor and needy, to expect the Spirit of God to work in and through them.

The church today has the same call to teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer. These are surely the marks of a Christian community that is truly alive. We are reminded of them each time we celebrate a Baptism and renew our own commitment to God. What difference do those words make in our daily lives? How can we become a Christian community that is truly alive? Do we recognize our own call to reach out to others in Christian love?

For it is not the specific call of the clergy, but rather the call of every believer. We are all called to shepherd God’s people. As I retire from this place it gives every one of you ample opportunity to respond to that call. If I have done my work as a pastor, then you are already exercising your ministry. Together you can discover how to develop and exercise the gifts of everyone as you learn to share leadership. As you move into what is always an uncertain future, God will give you a vision of your ministry together.

What a church this will be! Like the early Christians it will be a place filled with enthusiasm and spiritual vitality. You will be fulfilling your call to teaching, fellowship and breaking of bread. You will be reaching out to the poor and needy. You will be applying your faith to your everyday life. 'And day by day the Lord will be adding to your number those who are being saved.' You will be the Church.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Third Sunday of Easter, Year A

Emmaus, A Road Filled With Questions

Readings: Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116:10-17; Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

On Easter evening, two of Jesus’ disciples were returning to their village of Emmaus from Jerusalem. The road was long and winding. Their hearts were heavy with sorrow. The death of their beloved leader, Jesus, had plunged them into an impenetrable gloom. Their dreams about him being the long-awaited Messiah had been reduced to rubble. As they trudged along they spoke in hushed whispers about his death. They went over it again and again. They looked at it from every possible angle, and still it made no sense at all to them.

They did not even notice the stranger until he drew near. It was comforting somehow to have the company on this lonely stretch of road. They opened up to him, sharing their grief and uncertainty. It is amazing how easy it is sometimes to open up to someone you have never seen before. They almost felt as if they knew him. There was something about him that seemed so familiar. They spoke about their deep longing for the Messiah, about the hope that had filled them when they first met Jesus, about the events of the past few days, about the shattering of all their illusions.

“And now,” they told the stranger, “he’s been dead for three days. We were convinced that he was the Messiah, but now we know that we were wrong. It’s unthinkable!”

And the stranger opened up the Scriptures to them. “You think that because Jesus died like this he couldn’t possibly be the Messiah. Haven’t you read what the prophets said about the Messiah?”

Their hearts burned within them as they took in all that this man was saying. When they reached their home in Emmaus they invited him in. While he was at the table with them he took bread, blessed and broke it. It was in the breaking of the bread that it all became clear to them. They encountered the risen Christ. They saw with eyes of faith. They believed.

Like the two disciples on the road we may be going down a lonely stretch of road of our own. Even though we are believers, sometimes Jesus is little more than a shadowy figure living in the musty pages of the Bible. It is difficult to find any meaning to what we read. How can we, like the disciples, feel his presence at our side? Can we know Jesus in a personal way?
Haven't we all experienced the journey of the two disciples in some form or another? What does that road represent to you? Perhaps it is a road of disappointment, failure, sorrow, grief, shattered dreams, or lost jobs. Those are the very times that we most need to open our eyes to the risen Lord walking beside us on the road. Yet often we get so wrapped up in our problems that it is not until much later that we are able to understand that God has been with us all along.

It is so easy to lose our perspective when we are going through a difficult time. We are at a loss about what to do, about how to cope. We feel totally alone and inadequate. It is all we can do to simply cope day by day, or even hour by hour. Afterwards, perhaps even a long time afterwards, if we give ourselves the opportunity to reflect, we realize that we were not alone on the journey, that after all Jesus was there with us on the Emmaus road. We may even be grateful for what we learned in the experience. We may realize that because of it we are better people. We may come to understand in some tangible way the message of the resurrection. We may come to see the signs of resurrection in our own lives.

But it is not enough to just see it in our own lives. It was not enough for the two disciples. When they recognized the risen Christ they did not keep it to themselves. They made a choice to return to the city. They recounted what had happened on the road. They shared the good news that Christ was risen.

In turn we may become the companion on the way, the wounded healer. We may find ourselves called upon to deal with people who are hurting. We will find ourselves putting aside our feelings of inadequacy. We will discover within ourselves resources and gifts that we had no idea we possessed. After all, what it takes is something that we can all attain – a listening ear and a generous heart. If we learn to be good listeners we may find people searching us out to share their stories with us. As listeners we can hear their stories not only with our ears, but also with our hearts. Lovingly, patiently, we invite others to share what they need to share. Through sharing our hurts they lose their power. We are able to move forward towards healing, towards resurrection.

How do we share what has happened on our road to Emmaus? We all have a story to tell, but so many of us are silent. Like the disciples we need to make the choice to return to the city. We need to join the community of faith through which we are graced. We come together to be nurtured. We come together to break bread and drink the cup of blessing. We are sent out to spread the good news and to break the bread of life with others. Only if we are willing to do this can Christ be recognized in the Christian community today.

So often we do not share because we are afraid that we will not know what to say. It does not take words. It takes actions. It takes relationships. We have seen the risen Christ. He is at work in our lives. What remains is for us to share that good news with a broken world that so badly needs to come into relationship with a loving God.

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...