Saturday, January 28, 2012

Speaking With Authority

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Year B

Based on the readings from Deuteronomy 18:15-20 and Mark 1:21-28

During the season of Epiphany, we have been exploring the many ways and times that God calls us, not only on a personal level, but also as a Church, and as a nation. The readings this week continue the theme of call, as they explore how God speaks to us through other people. They explore the whole concept of authority. How do we determine God’s truth? How do we determine who is speaking with integrity?

I came to a new realization about what authority meant a number of years ago when I participated in a healing circle. I felt a sense of embarrassment and complicity in being white in this otherwise aboriginal group. We were encouraged to pick up a stone that was placed in the centre of the circle and say what was in our hearts. I spoke of feeling honoured by being part of the circle. I expressed my own hurt at the residential schools and my sense of complicity in having taught in the system. The Elder who was leading the group let out a whoop as I finished. It took me by surprise. I was not certain what it meant. Another woman picked up the stone and explained that they were accepting me as a member of the clan, that I was a sister. They heard my words as being authentic. It was a true revelation to me as all in the group embraced me because an Elder, one who had authority, spoke on my behalf.

The question of authority was critical for the people of Israel. Prophets and priests claimed to speak and act in accordance with God’s will, and yet conflicts and disputes arose. They grappled with how God speaks to us. They settled on certain criteria. The prophet needed to be an Israelite. He was called to speak as God commanded, and then what was spoken had to be realized in the events that ensued. It needed to be confirmed.

We sometimes have the wrong idea about prophecy. We think that it is about foretelling the future. But it is far from that. The word prophecy comes from the Greek, prophetes, "one who speaks before others” or from the Hebrew “one called to speak aloud". The prophets were called to speak what had been discerned through the closeness of their walk with God. A prophet was one who listened to God. Their call was to speak with authority as the Elder in the healing circle spoke. The root of the word, authority, is literally “to make to grow”. What they said should help people grow in the way in which God intended.

There are prophets in our age. Sometimes in fact, they are much-maligned. Take for example, meteorologists who work at predicting the weather. A friend of mine retired now as a meteorologist, once told me an interesting anecdote about predicting the weather. It seems that when Pope Paul was planning his trip to Los Angeles he wanted to know what the weather would be like during his visit. A weather consultant was hired by the Vatican to make some recommendations. He looked at the last thirty years of weather in Los Angeles at the same time of year as the Pope's visit was to take place. He came back and said to the Pope, "At the time of your visit it is likely to be very hot and dry." The Pope made his plans accordingly and the trip went off as expected.

That is the basis of long term weather predictions. That is why there is no true certainty about the weather.

Scripture too looks at past history. So often the story begins with God recounting to a prophet all that God has accomplished for God's people in the past. "Wasn't I with you at the Red Sea? Did I not provide you with manna in the desert? Now go and tell my people...” and the prophet is able to speak with authority. "Thus says the Lord:” The prophet is able to challenge the people on a moral level. He is able to speak what needs to be heard in the light of past experience.

Jesus was known as one who could speak with authority. Hearing him speak in the temple gave people an understanding of their potential, of the possibilities. He did not talk down to them. He treated them as friends and equals. He taught them to be realistic about themselves. He helped them to know that God had called them to greater things than they could imagine. His authority made them do what all authority should do. It helped them grow.

Sometimes the person who bears authority is misunderstood. It was so with Jesus. A demented heckler shrieked at Jesus at the top of his voice. Jesus confronted the situation. He healed the person.

This scene is not as foreign to us as it seems. It is played out in our modern world. Jesus was saying something new. New things are often exciting, but at the same time they can seem threatening. Those who bear the prophetic word, those who advocate change, are often rejected or even attacked for their beliefs. The attack on such people can become quite personal. A spirit of open communication is essential in living out our life as a church community.

Bishop Poole loves to point out that there is a statistic that by the year 2160 if we keep on the same track the Anglican Church that we love will no longer exist. We will have died out. It should come as no surprise that we are a church in decline. Many congregations are made up of the elderly. Sunday is no longer a day of rest set aside for attending church. Many people work on Sunday as they do on any other day. Our competition is not other denominations, but rather the arena and the shopping mall. We live in a world where many are unchurched.

My last parish was in Mississauga, which of course is multicultural. I was asked by a community group that works in the school system to give a presentation at St. Francis to a group of children in grade 5 and 6 about the Christian faith. They were making visits to various religious institutions. They came from many backgrounds. Not one child had ever been inside a church before. They were intrigued, even hungry. I took them on a tour of the church and asked them to observe and figure out what was important to us in our faith. Of course, they remarked on the plain wooden cross which dominates the sanctuary of the church. They noticed the font and recognized that it was a bowl for washing and wondered why it was in the church. They loved the pictures in the stained glass windows. And so we were able to piece together the important elements of the Christian faith in a way that these unchurched children could understand. It led me to reflect once again how vast our Christian mission is.

Perhaps the most challenging and transforming call of Christ when it comes to authority is that we must learn to give up our own freedom and power for the sake of others. We church folk tend to hold on to power. We do not want things to change. After all, we are the ones who have supported the church with our wealth. Don’t we deserve to have the same liturgies that have sustained us through our own lives? We want the same hymns. We want to hear the same comfortable words. If they come to our church we want children to be seen but not heard. We want newcomers, but we want them to be just like us, upholding the traditions that we hold dear.

If we are truly following Christ and are committed to the Mission of the Church, if we wish to bear the prophetic word, if we wish to answer God’s call to bring healing, then we must be follow the authority of our Saviour who was the servant of all.

Friday, January 20, 2012

"God Don't Sponsor No Flops"

The Third Sunday after Epiphany
Year B

Readings: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

God calls us, not once, but again and again throughout our lives. God calls us to renew our baptismal covenant, to renew our life in Christ. Sometimes we are called to choose new priorities. Sometimes we are called to leave behind the things that have been keeping us from God, things that impede our discipleship. Sometimes we are called to make changes in our lives. Often a call comes to us when we are facing crises in our lives, for those are times when change is not only necessary, but even welcome. Whatever our call, it is a call to action. What is happening right now for us as individuals, as a church, as a nation? More importantly, how will we respond? Those are good questions for us to ponder during this season of Epiphany.

I was visiting my sister many years ago. I was sitting in the living room with my then teenaged niece. We were chatting, getting caught up. My sister called her to come and help with setting the table. She ignored her mother completely and kept on talking to me as if she had heard nothing. My sister called again a little louder. Once again it was as if Deirdre had not heard a word that was said. I asked her, “Why aren’t you answering your mother?” Her reply: “She isn’t mad enough yet?” Of course, my sister did eventually really lose her cool. Then Deirdre got up and did as her mother demanded.

When God calls on us to act, it can present a very similar reaction in us. We can find many excuses. “I didn’t hear you!” “I don’t understand what you want!” “It’s too hard!” “Find someone else!” “I don’t have enough knowledge.” “You couldn’t possibly mean me!” The real reason is far more likely to be “I don’t want to” or “I’m afraid.

Consider the story of Jonah. God called Jonah to action. No ifs, ands, or buts! He was to go to the people of Nineveh to give them a message from God. God wanted him to tell them that he was going to overthrow them because of the evil things they had done. Jonah was their last chance. And you know! He refused. Like my niece with her mother he heard what God was saying to him. He ignored the message. God went to great lengths to move him to action. He even had him swallowed by a great fish and thrown up on the shores of Nineveh. Still Jonah was reluctant to act. Finally God got through to him. He began his walk through the streets of Nineveh. “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” he cried out to the people. And, much to Jonah’s astonishment, perhaps even disdain, they heard and believed. They changed their ways. They proclaimed a fast and everyone put on sackcloth. The whole of Nineveh’s society got involved in changing their ways. Nineveh was spared.

The Gospel is about the call of the disciples. Jesus comes to Galilee preaching a message very much like his predecessor, John. A call to repentance. Yet it is a call to far more than simply asking for and receiving forgiveness. It is a call to renewed faith and radical change.

You know the story well. As Jesus is walking by the Sea of Galilee he sees brothers, Simon and Andrew fishing. He calls out to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people."

Surely that is one of the memorable lines in Scripture, even with the change in wording. It cannot help but speak to each of us. It draws us into the story with its very simplicity. At the same time, it raises some questions. How could it possibly be that easy? How could a few simple words spoken by Jesus be heard with such clarity by these simple folk? Did it really happen that way? How could anyone respond so completely and so quickly to God's call? Would I have responded as Andrew and Simon did? I suspect I’d be more like Jonah in my response.

William Clare Menninger, a distinguished American psychiatrist, toured the states for years as a lecturer and consultant. Frequently people asked him for the secret of a good and happy life. He always said: "Find a mission in life and take it seriously."

It is good advice. Even more important for us as Christians, it is our call. It is our call to find the mission to which God has called us, and to take it seriously. Jesus offers us that mission. He proclaims, "The kingdom of God has come near." The kingdom with all its spiritual blessings and possibilities is here, now, in this place, at this very time. Turn back to God. Repent. Accept the Good news. Have faith. Act on it.

No matter what our worldly vocation, we are all invited to share in the redemptive dream of God for this world of ours. We are called to use our own special gifts and talents to ensure the success of the kingdom. We are called to follow, to love, to forgive, to witness, to serve, and above all to hope, to hope that our offering will make a difference.

I suspect that is the most difficult thing to overcome. We look at the task and think, 'it is just too much. There is too much to do. I can never make a difference.' When we think that way it is very easy to convince ourselves that there is no point. But if we are to live up to the hope of our calling, we must trust that we are part of the solution. We must trust that God's plan will ultimately prevail. We must trust that God will enable us to accomplish what we are called to do.

There is a wonderful story about Ethel Waters, the black actress and singer. She was performing in New York when Billy Graham was holding a crusade back in the fifties. She went one evening and slipped into the choir. Reporters found out and questioned her, "Aren't you afraid to identify yourself with something like this? You're famous. You have a reputation. This might fail." She replied, "God don't sponsor no flops."

God calls us, not once, but again and again throughout our lives, to renewed life in Christ, to choose new priorities, to leave behind the things that keep us from truly serving God. Like Jonah, God may call to us through the crises of our lives. Like the disciples, God may call us from the ordinary routines of our lives. The question remains, how will you respond to God's call? Whatever your call may be, remember that "God don't sponsor no flops!"

Saturday, January 14, 2012

If You Build It

The Second Sunday after Epiphany
Proper 2, Year B

Readings: 1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20); Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

I understand that Canadians have the distinction of being the greatest users of the telephone in the world. We are used to calling others and to being called. In this day and age we feel uneasy if we go out the door without our cell phone. But when it comes to being called by God, we are less sure. We wish it were as easy as receiving a phone call. We question. What does it mean to be called? How does it happen? How can we discern God’s call? Are we all called by God? Our readings today explore the ways in which God reaches out to us and helps us to discern our calling.

Samuel received a call from God when he was just a child. He was three years old when his mother took him to live in the temple at Shiloh where he was to serve. Eli, the priest in the temple, was an old man. His two sons were servers in the temple. But their greed had given it a bad name amongst the people. Eli had not spoken out about their bad behaviour. This had cut him off from God’s good graces.
There in the darkness of the night, God called Samuel. Samuel heard the call, but not on his own. He needed Eli, the very one who was out of favour with God, to help him respond. He needed someone’s guidance. He needed help to know that it really was God calling him.

Fast forward! Jesus invites Philip to follow him. He in turn finds his friend Nathanael and invites him. Nathanael’s first response is negative, perhaps even scornful. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” He retorts. Philip knows better than to argue. But he also knows Jesus. And indeed the answer for him is a resounding “yes!” So he invites Nathanael with the same words that Jesus used in inviting him. “Come and see.” What is he inviting him to come and see? Come and gain insight into the mind and purpose of God. Come and deepen your relationship with God. Come and answer the call to serve.

Fast forward to the present! James Hillman, author of the book, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. His is not particularly a Christian way of looking at call, but he comes surprisingly close to describing the process through which God helps us to determine who we are meant to be. He says that even very young children have a sense of call, and that if we really listen to what they are saying, we can help them to discern their life’s work. He recounts the story of the English philosopher, Collingwood, who at eight years of age tried to read Kant’s Theory of Ethics. He could not understand it. He knew with a sense of urgency that he needed to. It became his life’s work. Was he called by God? That is how I would name it.

Martin Luther King was aware even as a young child that God was calling him to fight against racism. Even when his family, worried about his safety, opposing his efforts, he continued to challenge racial discrimination.

How do we personally discern God’s call? Sometimes it happens through other people in our lives, people like Eli who have insights into the way God works. Such people are able to share their insights with us and help us to discern God's call. I had such a mentor when I came to discern my call to ordination. I went to tell my parish priest that I felt called and intended to seek ordination. He leaned back in his chair, gave his characteristic hmmph! "It's to be avoided if at all possible," he said to me. Two hours later after I had given him all the reasons why I couldn't avoid it, he said to me, "Well, that's wonderful, isn't it!" He was a strong advocate as I went through the process.

Sometimes it happens through invitations like the one of Philip to come and see. God calls us as individuals in a personal way to serve, to follow, to share. Where have you heard God’s call? How have you passed on that call to others? How do we become open to God’s presence and call?

Sometimes it happens to a group of people who begin to listen and act on God’s call to them. It rather reminds me of the movie “Field of Dreams”. In it, a man receives the message, “Build it and they will come.” ‘It’ is a playing field. And he builds it, not, of course, without running into difficulties. He converts the field on his farm into a playing field complete with lights and seats for people to watch. ‘They’ are the great players of the past. And they come out of the corn stalks to play great baseball. People come from all over to see the games. But most importantly, the builder is confronted by his own past.

“Build it and they will come” seems to be the way we operate in the church. A few people get together and build a lovely church. They begin to hold services and wait for people to come. And it used to work. Those of us who are ‘Cradle Anglicans’ grew up in a church where that worked. Going to church on a Sunday was a given. Even now given the right location, people may notice the church and come. Like Samuel, they may come in to find out what it is all about. They may even become involved and begin to serve in some way. But, like Samuel, they may not yet know the Lord they are serving.

Or they may be like Nathanael, hanging around the fringes, rather angry and suspicious. Yet there is some sense of longing they cannot seem to fulfill, a sense of need in their lives, or a sense of duty. ‘I come to church for my children, for my family.’ Or a sense of guilt! 'It’s the right thing to do.’

But if the church is really going to be vital, if it is really going to reach out to the community, then just building it and waiting will never work. The people who come will never be enlivened. You see, invitations need to go out. People need to be invited to come and see, to come and meet Jesus, to come and see who we are, to come and see what Christianity has to offer, to come into relationship with the God who walks with us.

It is not enough to assume that people will hear the message. We need to invite them in a personal, eyeball-to-eyeball way. So 'unanglican', isn’t it! We are all ministers of the Gospel. We all have parishes or arenas of service. We are all called. We can invite. People should be able to see something of God’s love and saving power in our lives, in the things we say, in the things we do and primarily in how we live our lives.

And we need “Fresh Expressions” of church. If you have not heard that way of putting it, you will hear lots about it from me. I truly believe that if the Church is to survive, and I am speaking not about this particular congregation but about the Church of God, we need to find new ways of being the church. It means moving out of our comfort zone and finding a way to speak to people in this modern world of ours in a way that they can understand and appreciate. It means finding new ways to draw people in to share in the faith that we take for granted.
What is God’s call to you, the people of St. George’s, Newcastle or St. Saviour’s, Orono? Is God calling you to be a church that meets the needs of its longtime members? Or is God calling you to be a vital and living message of God’s love to this community? Do you want to be an inviting and vital church? If you do, you must lose your complacency. You cannot wait for people to come in. It doesn’t work to simply wait. Just ask yourself a simple question, “How has it been working for us?” Then consider what God is calling you to do about it. How is God calling you to be the church?

You are in a good position to reach out to others. The community is growing. New families are moving here. The church is well located. But you cannot sit within these four walls and wait for people to come. You must be inviting. You must have good programs to offer them when they get here, good music, a fine Sunday School program, activities for people young and old, people on hand to welcome, modern liturgies that speak to people’s souls, programs that reach out not only to those who have an affinity for traditional Anglican worship, but the dechurched and the unchurched.

People are looking for fulfillment and renewed spiritual life. They are looking for God. If God is at the centre of our lives, they will find what they are looking for. This place will be alive in Christ. We will discover what Paul wanted the Corinthians to discover. It is not a matter of just following the laws set out by the community, but of living our lives centred in Christ Jesus. Being different. Being set apart. Living lives of prayer and service to God. And then sharing it with a needy world. Amen.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Feast of the Epiphany
Year B
Following the Star

Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

The reading of horoscopes is a popular way of predicting the future. Many people read their horoscope as faithfully as they brush their teeth. Now I am not an advocate of horoscopes. Basing life’s decisions on the stars is not the Christian way of dealing with the future. But the custom of reading horoscopes is as old as the people that have been impressed by the thousands and thousands of lights in all kinds of patterns in the sky. The popularity of reading horoscopes is a clear indication that people are searching for meaning in their lives.

In Matthew’s Christmas story, this tradition led some astrologers from the East to the child Jesus. What were they searching for as they scanned the sky, night after night? Were they looking, not just for a new star, but for a new way of living their life? They must have been dissatisfied with their lives to have been searching so diligently. They were hoping against hope for something new. So when they saw a new star they packed their luggage, saddled their camels, and followed without any hesitation. They blazed a trail that has been followed ever since, the trail toward a new vision, a new society. It is a trail that leads in new directions, in new ways of relating to God.
Surely it is our life work as Christians to follow that star, to search for the whereabouts of Christ in every situation, to see where and how and in what area Jesus wishes to be King. It is our vocation to keep asking, “Does Jesus reign in my life?”

These days are the darkest of the year, a time when the stars are most visible to us. One star in particular gives hope to us and to our faltering world. It leads to something significant. The magi followed a particular star through the dark nights and they met Christ. We are called to be the stars that lead others through the darkness of night to Christ who is the light of the world.
What is the star for me? What is the single, over-riding purpose of my life? What is the purpose or dream or hope or challenge in my life? Those are the questions of this season of Epiphany. Does the star bring me into relationship with Christ? Am I willing to follow the star where God is leading? How do I even know where God is taking me? Do I take the time in my busy life to look up at the night sky and see the star? Am I aware enough to see the star stop?

Does anyone notice in the rush and madness of twenty-first century life? Someone is mugged. He screams out to passersby for help. And except for the disinterested glance of the taxi driver, a politician, a salesperson, and a few hundred people, it goes unnoticed, unchallenged. It leads me to ask, “Where are the sages in our world?”
Where does the star lead me? Do I track it through the streets of Newcastle, in my workplace, in the park, to the mall? Do I follow it as it stops over the refugee, the widow, the immigrant, the young woman with the child? Does it take me past the person sitting in the wheelchair, the street person with her shopping bag and cart, the disturbed young man crying out his obscenities, the drunk lying in the gutter? Does it take me past the child shivering in the cold? Does it take me past the needy waiting in line at the Food Bank?

Do I follow the star wherever it leads? Do I follow to Bethlehem where I offer my gifts, my talents? Does it lead me to the place where I can worship God? Do I lead others in the search for Christ? Do I help them on the journey to hope?

To what or to whom do I open my treasures? What gifts do I offer? Are they my finest gifts? Do I give of myself to God and to others? Does that become the consequence of knowing Christ?

The magi were transformed by their visit to the manger. In what way has my life been transformed? If I continue to walk in old paths, in old directions, then what has Christmas accomplished? What difference has the Incarnation made in my life? New life means new paths, new goals, new attitudes, new motivations. What paths are being opened up before me as I enter a new year? Am I a new person? How has my encounter with the Christ child affected my life, my way of living? What is God trying to accomplish in me at this very moment?

The season of Epiphany that we are entering is a time to reflect on the changes that we need to make in our lives. It is a time to make resolutions that we will try to keep throughout the year. Let us think about the gifts we bring to Jesus. What loving actions can we offer to help spread God’s realm? What can we do to help transform our own lives and the lives of those we touch? How can our loving actions be a part of our prayers for them?

This is a time for this parish to reflect on the changes that need to be made in your corporate life. As a parish in transition you face new challenges. You are beginning a search for a new Incumbent. How prepared are you for the changes that will inevitably come about over the course of the next few months? How do you open yourselves to embrace new ways of doing things, new leadership? What growth needs to take place? What are the challenges to growth? How does this parish continue to reach out into the community to draw people into deeper relationship with God? How do you embody Christ in the twenty-first century? Those are the things we need to explore together over the next few months.

We have a huge task ahead of us. But God is there in the midst of us. Jesus comes to us as a little baby, drawing us closer to God. As the magi bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, so we bring our gifts of love to God. And in so doing we reach out into a needy world with the light of Christ, a light that transforms all of creation.

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 ...