Saturday, February 25, 2012

New Beginnings

The First Sunday in Lent,
Year B

Readings: Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

Spring is a new beginning. Long before we see the signs of new life that tell us that winter is past, the earth is beginning to prepare itself for spring. Already we are seeing signs of that new beginning. Days are beginning to lengthen. Soon the signs will become more tangible – new colour, new life, warmth. And along with the beginnings of new life will come also the violence that accompanies re-birth. Rivers will fill with rushing water. There will be the inevitable springtime thunderstorms.

Our human experience of new beginnings also carries with it both the gentleness and the turmoil of spring. Both are necessary to produce new life, new growth. With all the wintry weather we have been experiencing it may not feel as if spring is close, but Lent is the Church’s springtime. It is the time for us to be reborn in gentleness and violence to the new life in Christ.

New beginnings are exciting. I think of some of my own new beginnings. I grew up in the hustle and bustle of the inner city of Toronto. There has always been a comfort for me in being surrounded by tall buildings. The noises of the city, the rumbling of cars and streetcars, factory noises, are all a natural part of my world.

How different my life became when, at seventeen, I moved up north to begin a teaching assignment at an Indian Residential School on James Bay. There were so many new experiences. Flying for the first time, my first class of children, experiencing a new culture, learning to drive a skidoo, a canoe trip up the Fort George River! The night sky lit up with stars! The northern lights dancing with beautiful colour! The howl of the wolves that was enough to raise the hair on the back of my neck!

New beginnings involve risk. They call us from our familiar, comfortable world into a strange and unfamiliar one. We can feel isolated, alone and unsupported as we embark on a new venture or relationship. It is difficult to see where it all may lead. My early teaching experience certainly had its storms. I was living in isolation far away from family and friends. During ‘freeze up’ and ‘break up’ no planes could get into our northern community so for weeks on end we had no contact with the outside world. I was working with small children taken away from their homes and families and cultures. I left home barely three weeks after the tragic death of my younger brother. Yet I look back on it as a fruitful time in my life that led me in life directions that have proven invaluable.

The story of Noah and the flood is an epic story of a new beginning. In the beginning God created the world. God created it out of goodness. But evil entered into the world. From the destructive waters of the flood God began over again. God entered into a covenant relationship with Noah. Covenant helps us to understand that a creating God not only brings us into existence, but also enters into relationship with us. It breaks down the barriers between God and humanity giving meaning and hope to our existence. The rainbow becomes a symbol of our solidarity with God and all of creation. It is an intuitive association and one that requires our reflective thought.

Mark tells us about a new beginning in Jesus' life. His baptism in the Jordan marked for him the beginning of his earthly ministry. Privacy ends, public life begins. It marks a covenant relationship between him and God. It is a point of intersection, a meeting of heaven and earth. “You are my Son, the Beloved,” God tells him. The Spirit of God enters him enabling him for what lies ahead. It is for Jesus as it would be for any of us, a time of decision, of pressure, of anxiety.

How do we make a new beginning in our spiritual life? Baptism is the new beginning for the Christian. We go down into the water to die. We emerge from the water to new life. It is an exciting moment in our lives as we make a decision to follow Christ. It is an exciting moment as we enter into relationship with God. It is an exciting moment as we recognize the Spirit of God at work in our lives. But there is also risk at entering the water. It is a time to let go, to lose control, to become vulnerable.

“But I was just a child when I was baptized,” you may be thinking. And there does come a point in our spiritual lives when we will want to renew that covenant with God. Whenever there is a baptism we are given such an opportunity. Many people experience times of renewed commitment through a time of retreat or a conference or a renewal movement. We need to experience times of change and growth. They may be times of great joy, the birth of a child, a new relationship. Often it happens because of the turbulence of life, times of disaster, or uncertainty, a death in the family, a move, changing jobs, unemployment, sickness, and retirement. Both are opportunities to draw closer to God, times of spiritual growth and recommitment.

Lent offers us an opportunity to renew our baptismal covenant, an opportunity to develop our relationship with God. For Lent is a time of self-examination, of checking our focus, of sorting our priorities. It is a time to reflect on God's promises and to recognize our failure to live up to our part of the relationship. It is a time to begin anew, through repentance, through seeking God's guidance, through struggle, and through renewed commitment. It is a time to seek God's guidance. Hopefully we begin to rely on God. May it be a time of renewal and hope!

Lent is a time for a new beginning. We are invited to reconsider our baptismal covenant and rededicate ourselves to a continuing conversion. We are called to begin again to enter into the death-resurrection process. We do not know where this new beginning will take us, but together we enter into a journey from ashes to Easter.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Encountering the Holy

The Last Sunday in Epiphany
Year B

Readings: 2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

This morning in Scripture we hear stories of encounters with God. They are encounters full of vivid imagery that can help us to understand how we come face to face with God and the difference it can make in our lives.

The first is the story of Elijah being taken up into Heaven. His journey begins in Gilgal in the hill country. Elijah invites his protégé, Elisha, to go no further. It is a test. Elisha passes. He will not leave Elijah to make the journey alone. They arrive at the Jordan River. Elijah strikes the water. It parts, allowing the two of them to cross over away from the rest of the company of prophets. Elijah asks the younger Elisha what he can pass on to him.

“A double share of your spirit,” Elisha tells him. It is not that he thinks he needs twice as much of the gifts and talents of Elijah to do the job. It is that he wants affirmation. As the eldest son in a Jewish family inherited the double portion of his father’s estate, so Elisha wants a double share of Elijah’s spirituality. He knows that Elijah’s spiritual strength is what has carried Israel through difficult times.

“If you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not,” he is told. He sees the departure. It is a dramatic vision in which he sees Elijah being taken into Heaven in a chariot of fire drawn by horses of fire. It is for him a powerful glimpse of God’s presence. It is a wonderful affirmation that God is with him. He knows that the mantle has passed on to him. He knows that God has great things in store for his life. It is a moment of transformation for him, one that he can carry with him throughout his prophetic ministry.

The second story is the account of the transfiguration. Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain. So many things happen on the mountain, mountaintop experiences that affirm that God is with us. There on the mountaintop, Jesus is transfigured, changed. He appears before them in dazzling white, a sign of God’s presence. When they see Jesus transfigured, brighter than the brightest star, pure light before them, they see more than his future and risen life. Jesus shows them who they are becoming. He shows them the glory and destiny of all of humanity.

It is a watershed moment in their lives and ours. Once again we hear the voice from Heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” It takes us back to the moment of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. God is present in the cloud. Jesus is revealed to be the very Child of God.

The vision ends as quickly as it began, like a bursting bubble. The disciples are quickly transported back to the valley. It is in the valley that they are called to serve lovingly and faithfully. It is in the difficult arenas of the world that their ministry will unfold. But they will carry their mountaintop experience with them. Later when they look back on what has happened it will help them to face the difficult days, days of loss and confusion.

Hopefully those two epiphanies remind us of such encounters in our own lives. Such moments can be unpredictable, fast moving, noisy, or so fleeting and gentle that we almost miss them. Yet they are encounters with God that carry us through the difficult times of life. They affirm that God is with us.

When have you encountered God? More importantly, how did it change you? We all have those encounters in our lives, times when the boundaries between Heaven and earth disappear and we see the infinite goodness of God. It is that which allows us to see the possibilities in our own existence. Those encounters allow us to make changes in our lives, to begin to put God first, to answer God’s call.

Who has not been transformed by the beauty of a particular sunset even though there are hundreds of sunsets that they never noticed? Who has not responded to the smell of an April rain, or the quiet of an early morning, or the glitter of the stars on a wintry night?

Grace comes into our lives in other unexpected ways. Our relationships with other people can be transformative experiences that transcend the barriers between us and God. There are times of disclosure when we allow others to really see who we are. It is usually during some moment of crisis when life hangs in the balance.

Those are the moments that most clearly shape our lives. Without such moments others would never really come to know who we are. We would never really come to know them. And we would miss out on great insights into the nature and essence of the God we worship.

As humans, we are called to heights, to greatness, to moments when our souls take flight. To moments which illuminate our lives and help us to know who we are meant to be. They bring us to the place where we can truly understand who we are and the glory to which God has called us. They are the times that we can hold onto when our faith is rocky and our path uncertain. They are times of transfiguration and great joy.

Reluctant though we may be, being in the presence of God changes us. It changes us unmistakably and forever. A genuine encounter with God leaves us with a desire to act, to make a change in our lives. It may stem from awareness that God has plans for us. God may give us words to speak, or an action plan to follow. Or we may have been called on to make a change in our life.

Let us use this coming season of Lent wisely as a time of spiritual renewal and transformation in our lives. Begin by coming to the service on Wednesday. Let the ashes remind you of your need to allow God’s grace to transform your life. Then each day in Lent let yourself remember those times when you have been most aware of God’s grace.

May God’s divine illumination shining on us allow us to see the glory that is God!

Friday, February 3, 2012

To Pray, To Touch, To Heal

The Fifth Sunday of Epiphany, Year B

Readings: Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12, 21c; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

When I visited the Holy Land, one of the scenes that came alive to me was the story in today’s Gospel. We visited Capernaum where we stood on the site of the Synagogue. We walked across the road to a church built above a small house, believed to be that of Simon. There we read the passage of the healing of Simon’s mother.

Jesus was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. He and his disciples left the synagogue and walked the few steps to the house of Simon and Andrew. Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever. When the others told him about her illness, he did not hesitate for a moment. He went in to her, took her by the hand and lifted her up. The fever left her. She began to minister to their needs. The one who is healed becomes the one who serves.

The story calls out for a response on our part, for it serves as a pattern for the Christian life. The woman, who is brought to Jesus by others, is given new life and responds with service. Her restoration is immediate and complete. She is in touch with God. She becomes the deacon, the one called to a position of service. Women did not traditionally serve at the table, yet that is her response to the healing that has taken place in her life.

However, the story does not end there. It is just the beginning. Later that evening the crowds gathered around the door of the little home. As Jesus’ fame spread like wildfire, the place quickly filled up. It seemed as if everyone was there. They came out of desperation. They came in their neediness. Jesus healed many who were sick, and cast out many demons.

The life of wholeness in the Christian requires a response; it requires action on our part. The story is a graphic reminder of the desperate need of the masses of people in our world. It is a graphic picture of the one who is able to provide healing and fulfillment for those needs. What the Gospel calls us to remember, and what we too often forget, is that this same Christ applies his divine touch to the ailments of suffering people in and around us today. What is more, he does it through us. We who receive God’s healing grace are called to reach out to others with Christ’s healing touch.

"We live in another age," you may say. "We don't believe in that kind of thing any more. We don't expect miracles. I mean, get real. In Jesus’ time they believed in demons and heaven only knows what else!"

Yet even the medical community is finds itself accepting the role that faith has in healing. They are more likely to consider that healing has to do with a better outlook on life, but they agree that Spiritual wellness is an important aspect of healing. Historically science has not embraced the connection between faith and health but an increasing number of scientific authorities acknowledge that spiritual practices, including prayer, worship, and service to others, influence our health. It comes from a new holistic sensitivity that has made medicine re-examine its perspectives. It comes too from examining stories of miraculous cures.

The gospel calls us to reflect on what keeps us from wholeness. What demons afflict us? Do we have worries and fears that keep us from being truly alive? Do we have bad habits and unhealthy practices that nag at us? Do we have weaknesses or compulsions that we know keep us from God?

We know that we must trust medical science. After all, God uses the skills of doctors and nurses to bring about healing. However, we must also recognize the healing power of God. As Christians we believe that the healing power of God is present in every celebration of the Eucharist. In the Prayers of the People Sunday by Sunday we bring our own needs and those of others before God. We offer the ministry of reconciliation, recognizing the connection between wholeness and being right with God and with the community. We offer the reserved sacrament to shut ins and those who are sick. And in the tradition of the early church, many congregations offer anointing with oil. Using holy oils consecrated by the bishop at a special service during Lent, they anoint and lay hands on the sick and on those who are in need.

When people came to Jesus for healing, Jesus said that he did not come only to heal sick people, but to bring wholeness to the world. He came to change the world in such a way that sickness would disappear. He asked them to look for the reasons for so much of the sickness in our society and to change their priorities.

That continues to be our call as Christians. Some mission sisters went from Europe to start a clinic in an impoverished area in Africa. People came bringing their children. The clinic was successful, but the sisters wondered whether they were doing the right thing. Almost all of the cases they treated were children suffering from diarrhea. It dehydrated them, so the sisters would treat them overnight, and it would seem like a miraculous recovery. Yet they knew that the cause of the sickness was the drinking water. They knew that treating the symptoms was not the answer. They knew they needed to prevent the disease. They started visiting people in their homes and addressing community groups to bring about a change in lifestyle for the people

Exploring the whole process of healing is important to us as Christians. We need an awareness of the power of God to heal. And we need to recognize our neediness before God. Like Jesus we need to take time out of our busy lives to renew our strength. That, it seems to me is the key to wholeness. Jesus knew that there were times when he needed to withdraw from the crowds. How many times do we read in Scripture that he withdrew to a lonely place to pray? That is no mistake. There, in the quiet, he came in touch with the source of his power. There he renewed his strength.

How important it is for us in our busy lives to withdraw for prayer, to be in touch with God. To know God. To recharge our batteries. To be alone. To be renewed.

How can we find the power, the inner joy and peace, the spiritual health to keep ourselves strong and motivated and whole through the difficult times of our lives? How do we sustain the life of our congregation? How can we channel power and peace and joy to the difficult people and situations all about us? It begins with the closeness of our walk with God. It is through allowing God to keep in touch with us through Word and Sacrament, through prayer and praise. Then God will be able to work in and through us for the wholeness of the world.

I need your divine touch, O Lord. Only then can I be what you want me to be. Have your way in me and through me today. Amen.

The Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

Come and See Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42 Invitations come in many shapes and sizes. They ...