Saturday, June 25, 2011

2nd Sunday of Pentecost, Year A, Proper 13

Forward in Faith

A word to friends who are following my blog: I am retiring from active ministry, so this is my last weekly sermon. However, I do intend to keep writing and will be making regular posts once I am settled in my new home.

Readings: Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

The day has arrived. The plane really is taking off. This is my last Sunday in the parish before my retirement. As I thought about what to say to this parish that is so much a part of my life, whom I have grown to love and care for more than I can ask or imagine, to whom I owe so much, I wanted to reflect on where it all started. I went back and read two sermons that I have preached previously on these readings. Those sermons are far from what I would preach today.

The first was from 2002 when I had been in the parish for only a couple of years. I preached on the Old Testament lesson about how God tested Abraham and about how difficult it is to put our trust in God. “Take your son Isaac,” God says to Abraham, “and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” It is truly a text of terror. Abraham must grapple with the reality of what God is demanding of him. God is asking him to offer his son, the one he and Sarah waited for so long to bring into the world. Abraham shows complete trust in God. He does not know how God will provide, just that God will. At just the right time Abraham’s eyes are opened to see what he was not able to see before. He sees the ram caught in the bushes and understands that God has provided it to be sacrificed instead of his son. As Christians it links us directly to our story as God provides Jesus to die for us, to be our salvation.

That theme of trusting in God’s promises, trusting that God will provide, understanding that God has provided, is what I chose to preach on that Sunday. “Trust is an issue in our congregation”, I said. “How do we trust clergy when we consider the number of priests that have served this congregation already? Why would we trust someone with the pain and suffering that goes on in our lives if we think that person may be gone in a year or two? How do we trust that we have a stable community in which to worship? How do trust that God will help us to overcome the financial woes that seem to be part and parcel of our church life? 'I don't go to church', we say, 'to read in the bulletin every week that the congregation is in debt.' ”

It was an instant reminder of where we were in the first part of my ministry here. I remember how difficult it was to gain the trust of people who were hurting from the past. I remember the comments about not wasting our money by paying into a sinking hole. I remember the hurt, hopelessness and frustration that people felt in dealing with the Church Centre.

By 2005 when I preached on these readings again, things had shifted, at least from my perspective. I preached about hospitality, about our need to be an open and welcoming community of faith. I spoke about my experience in visiting South Africa in 1998. “Africans understand hospitality in a wonderful way”, I shared with you. “When I attended the Women’s Festival in Harare, we were invited to visit another African country and to stay in someone’s home. It was my privilege to be hosted by a pair of South African women who lived in Seshego, a township near Johannesburg. When I first arrived, they introduced me to the family. A shy little girl came up to me and thrust a picture into my hand. Across the top of the picture she had printed dumele. It means “You are welcome here,” she told me. I never experienced anything to the contrary.”

I spoke about our need to become a welcoming place. It is there in the gospel for this morning. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” Jesus said. And remember that it was risky to welcome the followers of Jesus. The reward could be persecution and even death. Welcoming Jesus meant not only giving hospitality, but also hearing the message that Jesus came to give.

I went on to remind the congregation about what a wonderful experience it is to be welcomed. It is something that everyone who walks into our church should feel. They should feel as if they have come home. It is our most effective evangelistic tool. It is our call to love God and love neighbour. It is most of all the way that we are able to show the grace of God at work in our lives. I realized as I reread that sermon how much change had already taken place in those three years. It was the beginning of this parish’s growth in faith and maturity.

The message I have for you today is still about trust and welcoming but in very different ways, for this is a community that has made great strides in assuming responsibility, in taking a risk about the future, in offering hospitality to the strangers in our midst, in opening the doors wide to welcome people into the family of God, and perhaps most significantly to be good stewards of what God has entrusted to us.

If anything I have preached about lasts into the future, if you remember anything that I have said over the years I hope it will be the two things that are most dear to me. The first is about God’s grace, the second quite related to it, that through God’s grace we see Christ in others. We are loved by God. God graces us, not because we deserve it, but because it is in God’s nature. 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 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. Others see it at work in our lives.

The second is that through God’s grace we are able to see Christ in others and allow others to see Christ in us. To quote Paul, “Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” Remember that with the love of God empowering us we can do great things in spreading God's kingdom. We can confront each day of our lives with the determination to love one another and allow the Spirit of God to bring love and grace to those with whom we come in contact.

I have heard from some people that you don’t know what you will do without me. I have a reasonably good idea of what you will do. You will continue to be the people of God. You will continue to hold one another in prayer. What a powerful praying community this is! You will continue to support the ongoing ministry of the parish and FaithWorks through your generosity. You will continue to do the kinds of ministry that you do, reading, singing in the choir, serving at the altar, supporting our youth, teaching in our Sunday School, visiting the sick and shut in … The list goes on. And in case you think that you are not on that list, at the heartbeat of the congregation are you, the faithful worshippers who are here Sunday by Sunday being the church. The body of Christ includes all it members and needs the gifts and ministry of all its members.

So once again it is about trust. Many things will change during this time of transition. No doubt many things need to change. Trust in the leadership that has been raised up in this place. Trust in their ability to find a new priest with the vision to take you where you need to go. Trust in the Diocese for all they are helping to bring about in the Church Centre. Above all, trust that God has great things in store for this parish.

I see Christ in you. You have been Christ to me. I will cherish my time with you forever.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Trinity, Year A

God Is …

Readings: Genesis 1-2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

"Once upon a time," so the story goes, "there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, "Hey, there is an elephant in the village today."

They had no idea what an elephant was. They decided, "Even though we cannot see it, let us go and feel it anyway." All of them went where the elephant was. Each of them touched the elephant.

"An elephant is like a pillar," said the first man as he felt the elephant's huge leg.

"Oh, no!" said the second man, touching the elephant's tail. "It is like a rope."

"You're quite wrong," said the third man as he touched the elephant's trunk. "An elephant is like the trunk of a tree.

"It's like a fan," said the fourth man, touching the elephant's huge ear.

"You're all wrong!" said the fifth man as he touched the belly of elephant. "It is definitely like a huge wall."

"It's like a solid pipe," said the sixth man touching the tusk of the elephant. And so each had their own idea based on their unique experience.

So is our understanding of God. "God is our father," we say. "God provides us with everything we need."

"God is our mother, birthing us, nurturing and caring for us," says another.

"God is our brother, our friend, our companion."

"God is the wind; we feel God without ever seeing what God is like."

"God is a flower, a butterfly, a rainbow, a mountain, a thunderstorm …"

There is so much to know about God that we can never comprehend it all. But the great thing about being human is that we keep on exploring and discovering new and wonderful things about this great God of ours. People through the ages have written about their experience of God. In Christian terms we have come to acknowledge that experience as the Trinity.

That is the essence of this Sunday as we celebrate the attributes of our wonderful and mysterious God. Through the ages we have tried to define God. It has never been an easy concept. I have had people point out to me many times, "You've never seen God, so how can you presume to try to prove the existence of God to me." And no! I can't prove it to anyone. But through faith I can prove it to myself because I have come to an understanding of God, not only through the doctrines of the Church and through the study of Scripture, but more importantly through my own very personal experience of who God is and how God has worked in my life.

Barbara Brown, one of the outstanding preachers of our time, says "to know God, we need to learn to see the world as God sees us, and to live as if God's reality were the only one that mattered." She goes on to explain that to accomplish that we would need to use our imaginations. And of course, imagination is a dirty word. It is about make believe. That would make our search for God an emotional exercise rather than the intellectual one we seem to think it should be.

On the other hand it poses an even greater problem if we try to explain God using the doctrine of the Trinity because it is a purely intellectual way of expressing something that needs to be experienced to be understood. We make analogies to help ourselves understand how God can be three persons and yet one God. We get ourselves tied up in semantics and Greek philosophy. And quite frankly, we get nowhere.

Yet when you come down to it, isn't the doctrine of the Trinity simply way of explaining our relationship to God? 'Father, Son and Holy Spirit' are all relational terms. They are not about how we think. They are about how we relate to God. When we speak of God in human terms, we are relating God to ways in which we experience and respond. And isn't that what people are really hungry for? We want to be in relationship to God.

Today's readings open us up to exploring our relationship with God by reminding us of the connection between all living things. The Genesis passage expresses the story of our relationship to God as creator of the world. It is a very human God who whimsically yet methodically goes about the task of creating and then takes a break from it all. God has a special on-going relationship with creation. God does not create and then abandon. God creates for a purpose, for God's purpose.

In the letter of Paul to the Corinthians we meet a group of people who are the product of Pentecost. They have experienced the power of God indwelling their lives. The Spirit that energizes creation is at work in them.

And in the Gospel we meet the disciples, a fractured community following the resurrection, but a redeemed community, an empowered community being sent out into the world to relate to it as God relates to us.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not some great truth that God has put in stone for us to believe. It is a metaphor developed over the centuries to express how we experience God’s presence. The concept of the Trinity should open us up to explore our experience of God in our lives. It calls on us to turn to God to satisfy our hunger. In the midst of anguish and trouble we experience the God who walks with us. In the beauty of nature, we experience the One who created us with wisdom and care. Through the study of science we understand God’s awesome power. When life gets too serious, we experience God joyfully dancing at the thought of creating the human race. When we are filled with guilt, regrets and anxieties, we experience a God who justifies us, not in a legal sense in black and white according to some rule book, not because we are worthy, but because we have claimed it and are significant to God.

I have bumped into God many times over the past few weeks. I bumped into God in a conversation with some dear friends over a leisurely lunch; during a walk with my dogs around Lake Aquitaine; watching a heron take off from the reeds along the shore; over a cup of coffee in the garden early one morning as I watched the sun come up; when memories of good times spent here at St. Francis came flooding back as I read over some of the pages in the Scrapbook you have made for me; being with a family as they celebrated the life of their beloved mother, grandmother and great grandmother, seeing the relationship between the generations. Think back over the past week about your own list. Are those not the kind of events that we translate as love? Are they not ways in which we relate to our loving God?

Truthfully, that can only leave us hungering for still more. Can we ever be satisfied of that hunger for truth? What we need to discover during this season is that the hunger is the Spirit itself drawing us into the truth, guiding, teaching, interpreting so that we may come to a deeper understanding of God. We need to allow ourselves to experience God in new and wonderful ways. Our prayer times can be effective ways of allowing God into our lives, but really the way to meet God is to open up every facet of our lives. All of life is sacramental, holy. The way to be in relationship with God is to understand that and live our lives open to God’s grace.

We can have confidence in God, our loving and caring creator. For we know the saving action of Jesus Christ. We know the guidance of the Spirit. We continue on our life long journey of discovery of the God in whose image we are created. That is the great mystery of the Trinity that we celebrate today. We share in the joy of the God who created us, sustains us and redeems us. Amen.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Pentecost, Year A

God’s Gifted Ones

Readings: Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:24-34; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23

Pentecost, the birthday of the church, does not really celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. That gift has always been given to God’s people. Rather it celebrates a fresh outpouring of the Spirit set loose in the world. The image in all of the passages of Scripture today is of Spirit-filled people, on fire with passion for the mission of the Church, strong people filled with gentle breath, people able to celebrate the presence of God’s Spirit in the world and in the Church. And so I wish you all a very happy, Spirit-filled birthday!

The Gospel takes us back to that first Sunday evening when the risen Saviour appeared to the disciples. He gave them a gift that day. He left them a commission and a promise. He commissioned them to witness to what they had seen and experienced and to proclaim the Gospel they had heard him preach. He promised that they would be fully equipped to accomplish the task. He promised that they would be everything they were meant to be. He offered them the peace of the justified sinner. Breathing on them he imparted to them the Holy Spirit, giving them the power to bring reconciliation and healing to a needy world.

The Acts of the Apostles recounts the fulfilling of the promise to pour out the Holy Spirit on the disciples. The Christian church was assembled for worship. A loud rushing noise was heard. The sound gave way to tongues of flame that settled on each person. They were inspired by the Holy Spirit to speak in other languages. No explanation was possible for the newfound ability. The onlookers, bewildered by the happenings, attributed it to drunkenness. It is for us to know and understand. They are people filled with God's gentle breath. They are people who know that God’s power is within them. They are people able to celebrate the presence of God's Spirit in the world and in the church.

Pentecost is about the gift of God’s grace poured in its rich abundance into our lives. Paul speaks to the people of Corinth about how God’s gifts are being manifested in their lives. He reminds them that their gifts are not for their own benefit, but for the common good. Paul knew that the community would thrive if everyone’s gifts were being affirmed and used. Only then, he knew, would there be the kind of energy in the Christian community that would carry them, that would help them to look beyond themselves to those who needed their help. It would be through their loving service to others that the Spirit would bring renewal and fresh insights. It would be through their openness to God’s grace that ministry would flourish. And so it was! We hear over and over again in the Acts of the Apostles that the Church grew with new converts. That is strongly the message that we need to take away with us today as we celebrate new beginnings, new beginnings for four people who will receive the sacrament of baptism, new beginnings for me as I move into a new phase in my life, new beginnings for you as you take on the process of finding a new priest, new beginnings too as you assume responsibility for the Lutheran space.

It is especially fitting that baptism should be part of our celebration today. The message of Pentecost is the message of baptism. Baptism is the fulfillment in our lives of God’s promise to be with us, to indwell us. That same Spirit given to the followers of Jesus is unloosed in our lives. God’s free gift of grace is given to each of us in baptism. The question is what will we do with it? What is our baptismal gift? What is it about those being baptized today that is essentially and truly their gift now to the church that will always be their gift to the church? There are three children who have been brought by their parents and sponsors for baptism. It is your job as sponsors and as a parish to help these children in the ongoing process of discerning what gifts God has given to them. John, being an adult, begins a discernment process of his own. As this parish embraces him in his new life in Christ, hopefully he will discern what gifts God has given him, and what God is calling him to do. As you renew your baptismal covenant hopefully it will remind you that it is your responsibility to use the gifts that God has given you for the common good.

I have been conscious this past month of the many things I am doing here for the last time. I look back on events that give me a great deal of satisfaction and joy.
• Confirmation classes filled with young people questioning, exploring.
• Baptismal preparation lead by the laity of our parish
• Youth Group meetings that have often worn me out but have at the same time miraculously kept me feeling young.
• Amazing Vacation Bible Schools and Children’s festivals.
• Easter Vigils
• St. Francis Day with its Blessing of the Animals
• Contemporary music leaving us all dancing
• Lenten Studies
• Holy Week services
• The fellowship as we come together at Christmas to wrap gifts and fill hampers to overflowing with food
• The beauty of this holy place as we gather Sunday by Sunday
• The diversity of our congregation
• Services in Seniors residences

I look back on some sad, even tragic events in our lives as well. I remember some special people who were part of our community who died and whose lives we have celebrated. And I know as I ponder all of these things that the people of the parish of St. Francis of Assisi will always have a special place in my heart.

And I look back on you your gifts and talents. Especially I look back at the gift that you have been to me. You have allowed me into your lives when you were at your most vulnerable. I have laughed with you. I have cried with you. I have struggled with you over your faith issues. I can never express what it has meant week after week to see your faces intent on the message I am attempting to convey through my preaching. I have seen Christ in you as you came forward to receive the sacraments. You have no idea what it has meant to me to receive a phone call asking for prayer. It reminds me of the strength of the prayer ministry we share.

I have watched this parish grow in faith. I have seen you take up the challenge of sharing ministry in a less than ideal situation. I have seen your ability to accept new ways of doing things. I have seen acts of generosity as you committed yourselves to the ongoing work, not only of the parish but of meeting the needs of the greater community. I am proud of what you have accomplished as a parish. You have fed me. You have nurtured me.

And so we come to this day, not my very last day in the parish, but the day we have chosen to say a formal farewell. It is rather like waiting for a plane to take off, isn’t it? You rather dread the moment that the person heads into the departure lounge. You stand at the gate until they are out of sight. You may even go up to the observation deck to watch as the plane taxis out to the runway and then finally lifts off the ground. But eventually the time comes for you to get on with your life here and look to tomorrow with hope, expectation and love.
That is what I expect this parish will do. You will embrace the future of this place so that it will be everything that God wants it to be. You will use your gifts and talents for the common good. You will continue to embody the Holy Spirit. You will live out your Baptismal Covenant. You will live out our mission statement.

“Together we are walking with and celebrating the spirit of St. Francis on a journey of worship, service, fellowship and peace”

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year A

Who’s Holding the Bag!

Readings: Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11

The period between the Feast of the Ascension and Pentecost is a time of transition for the disciples. The resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples strengthened them and gave them hope. It was a time of great joy for the disciples as they were reunited with the risen Saviour. The Ascension, as he withdraws from his disciples, as he is carried from them into Heaven, marks the end of Jesus' earthly life. Before he makes his final departure from them, he commissions them to continue his earthly work. As witnesses of the resurrection, it is their task to continue his proclamation. It is their responsibility to carry on the work that Jesus began. Jesus lives! Jesus reigns! Jesus has left his disciples holding the bag!

But Jesus made a promise to them. They are not alone. They are equipped. They have everything they need to carry out their mission. The Holy Spirit will be their ongoing comfort and strength. While Jesus tells them to await the coming of the Spirit it is, nevertheless, that same Spirit that moved on the waters at creation. It is the same Spirit that led the people of Israel through the desert. It is that same Spirit that hovered over Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan River. That same Spirit, Jesus is telling them, will come with new and renewed energy to assist them in the work that God has called them to do.

And so they are to wait, to spend time in preparing themselves for what is to come. They are between loss and promise, a difficult time for any of us to face. And so they turned to God in prayer. They looked back on what Jesus had told them and savoured his message. They remembered his promises and looked forward to their fulfillment. They focused on what was vitally important.

And they lived in hope. There is such an air of expectancy about the disciples during this period of waiting. There is a sense of urgency about their vision for the future. “What next?” they are asking themselves. They are about to embark on a new path without the guidance of their beloved leader. The path ahead is unclear. It is a time of testing and self-discovery. They were fruitful times. We hear over and over in the Acts of the Apostles how the Church grew with new converts. We know that over two thousand years later we still bear the fruit of their faithful witness.

As the Easter season comes to an end we deal with the consequences of the resurrection in our own lives. We enter a period of transition. We are thrust out into our world with that same great commission. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” Jesus is saying to us as he said to the disciples. We are sent out into the world to communicate the Good News of the Gospel. It is up to us to continue the work that Jesus began, that the disciples continued, and that countless Christians throughout the ages have carried on. We are not called to be observers; we are called to embody and communicate new realities because of what we have seen, because of what we believe.

This is a period of transition in the Church of God. Many see this as the Post Christian era, a time when personal world views, ideologies and religious movements are no longer rooted in the traditions of Christianity. Many people are unchurched. It is more common to hear the name of Jesus used in profanity than in worship. Jesus’ earthly mission may be over, but the work of the kingdom has barely begun. It is to be carried out through us, Jesus’ 21st century disciples. How do we reach out to the unchurched in ways that will open them up to the richness of God’s grace? How do we find creative, new expressions of our faith that will draw people in to the Christian community?

This parish is facing a time of transition. In many ways, we are living between promise and fulfillment. We are awaiting the outcome of the Diocese purchasing the Lutheran space. There are constant hurdles to overcome. It sometimes seems as if it will never end. As well, you will be between clergy as I take leave of you in a few weeks. Hopefully it will be a time not only of testing, but also of self-discovery for you as the people of God.

The question is, what do we do in the meantime? How do we live with our sense of loss as we await the fulfillment of the promises? The disciples are a wonderful role model for that. We can begin by following their example. We need to be people of prayer. The disciples came together as a community and they prayed. They prayed for one another. They prayed for the needs that they saw in the world around them. They looked back on what Jesus had told them and they held onto the message. They remembered his promises and looked forward to the time they would be fulfilled. They focused on what was really important. And they lived as if … They lived with hope, trusting in God’s promises.

And of course we know that we need to gather the community together and pray. We need to pray for God’s guidance about our future. We need to pray that God will be present with us. We need to pray that God will be at work in our lives. But particularly when we face a time of transition, a time of loss or change, we need to pray. We need to pray even when the only prayer we can pray is “God, I can’t pray!” That kind of prayer will help us to look back and remember the times that God has been with us. It will help us to remember the promise that God made to be with us always. It will help us to learn from our sense of loss. What does it mean in my life? What changes need to be made? Does it mean that I need to spend more time with my family? Does it mean that I should look for ways to become a better person? Does it help me to figure out what to do with this time of change? Does it help me to cope with the change?

We still encounter the risen Lord. But it is a mystery which eludes our grasp. It is rather like trying to view a beautiful piece of art through the slats of a venetian blind. We can see the image, but not clearly enough to understand its beauty and perfection. We get flashes of insight. But to fully appreciate it we would have to view it under the proper conditions, our view unobstructed, with proper lighting. When the risen Lord encounters us we do, at least for a moment, fully comprehend. Yet it is almost impossible to hold on to the image.

If we have eyes to see the mystery of the resurrection we will glimpse it all around us. We will catch sight of it in nature – the smell of the rain, the wildness of a thunderstorm, the beauty of a flower unfolding, the sight of a starry sky. We dream it, the kind of dream you wake out of without quite remembering what it was about. We meet it through liturgy, through music, through literature, but most of all we it in other people.

Jesus has left, but we are not alone. His promise to the disciples holds true for us. May we live by the Spirit.

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 ...