Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B

What a Fine Mess!

Readings: Acts 4:8-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:18-24; John 10:11-18

Slap stick comedy like Laurel and Hardy was so predictably funny that you laughed before you even heard the lines. They would get themselves into a mess. Ollie would invariably blame Stan for the mess. “I thought you knew where you were going,” he would say.

“But, you told me to turn here,” Stan would say back.

It would always end with, “What a fine mess you’ve gotten us into, Stanley!”

What makes it so funny is that it is so true to life. Yet when it happens to us, when we are in the midst of such a situation, we don’t find it amusing at all. Like Ollie we are quick to declare it someone else’s “fine mess”!

The early followers of Jesus found themselves surrounded by people who stared blankly at their stories of the resurrection. They either greeted their enthusiasm with dumbfounded wonder at their stupidity. Or worse still they became hostile and suspicious. But they struggled on trying to make sense of their newfound faith. No doubt many of them simply shook their heads, saying to themselves, “What a fine mess you’ve gotten us into, Jesus!”

These faithful followers had been so certain of where this had all been heading. They had been with Jesus for three years. They had observed him in action, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, building community. Then with his crucifixion it all came crashing down around them. They found themselves in a very different place than they had ever imagined. When they realized where Jesus had brought them, they reacted as we so often do. They hid behind locked doors. Like lost sheep, they scattered in every direction.

In all of the post resurrection appearances of Jesus there is that recurring theme. “What a fine mess you’ve gotten us into!” And then Jesus comes, bringing peace, breaking bread, offering his hands to their touch, walking with them, until they see and understand that it is the resurrected Lord who is with them and will be with them. And yes! It is a fine mess! But there he is, the shepherd, caring for the flock, providing for its needs.

Put in the context of the struggle of the early church followers of Jesus, it is easy to imagine how the imagery of Jesus, the Good Shepherd became so beloved. It is beautiful, truly comforting. Even in our society, so far removed from our agrarian roots, it speaks of our yearnings to be in relationship with a loving God who truly cares for us. We picture Jesus defending the flock, laying down his life for the sheep. He walks with us through the darkest valley, leading us beside the still waters, restoring our souls.

It speaks to us of our call, not just of the call of the ordained, but our baptismal call. For the call of the Good Shepherd is a call first of all to loving. “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action,” John says in his letter. Love needs to lead to action. If we truly live in obedience to God, then it requires that we lovingly and actively reach out to meet the needs of others. In that way we live in him, and he lives in us. We all have times in our lives when we are hurting or afraid. Someone is there for us. So when others are hurting, our call as Christians is to reach out to them.

Not that it is always easy! There are many who are lost, so lost that they cannot reach out. There are those who are addicted. There are people who can’t hold a job or finish a course of studies. There are those who cannot maintain a stable relationship. There are those who wander aimlessly through life. They may be lost in our very midst, even within our family unit. It can be frustrating to feel that we may not be able to reach them all. But it is even worse to think that we often simply ignore them. How do we reach out? What is our response when someone in the congregation is hurting, or goes missing? Do we even notice?

The call of the Good Shepherd is a call to lead. It is about allowing change to transform the lives of those to whom we minister. Transformational change is something that we avoid, but it is our mission. When we hear about the closing of churches, about declining attendance, about financial difficulties, it is easy to simply give up. It is time for us to stop blaming God for the fine mess we are in and start realizing that we have a mission.

During the Easter season we replace the Old Testament readings with the account of the early Church recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. It is not by accident. It is a powerful reminder of the effect of the resurrection on the lives of the disciples. These early Christians who had been living in great fear are proclaiming the kingdom in an effective way.

Take for example Peter and John. They were arrested, and brought before the Sanhedrin for questioning. They had been talking to whoever would listen about the risen Christ. These same disciples, who had run away following Jesus’ arrest, were speaking with power and authority. They were talking about the resurrection! Not a popular topic, I may point out, amongst Sadducees who did not believe in the resurrection. But they chose to contest a healing, a good deed done to someone in need. They were not happy about the healing because they felt that God should work only through them.

“By whose authority are you healing,” the disciples are asked. And their clear answer is that it is in the name of the risen Lord. It is the presence of Jesus that has transformed their lives. In turn they are reaching out to others in real and tangible ways.

The proof of the resurrection is always the transformation that it causes in peoples’ lives. An awesome power has been released into the world. Can we see that power in our lives? Do we experience that kind of power at work in our parish?

That is what is behind Peter’s response to the authorities. “If we are questioned today because of a kindness done to someone, it is by the name of Jesus Christ,” he explains. It was in the presence of Jesus that something had happened to him. He was changed, transformed by being with Jesus. Jesus’ kindness became his kindness. Mother Teresa says, “It is the Lord, who fills us with God’s love!” We say as we reach out to others in Christian love, “It is God working in us.”
Recognizing the voice of the shepherd is a life-long, transformational process. It takes us from commenting, “What a fine mess you’ve gotten us into!” to being people who are truly alive in Christ. Like the early Christians we will be filled with enthusiasm and spiritual vitality. We will be applying our faith to our everyday life. We will know the power of the resurrection at work in our lives. We will reach out to others in real and tangible ways. We will be the Church.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B

“If you Build it They Will Come”

Readings: Acts 8:24-40; 1 John 4:7-12; John 15:1-8; Psalm 22:24-30

Perhaps you remember the movie “Field of Dreams”. It is about a young Iowa farmer who has a vision. There is a clear message. “If you build it they will come.” ‘It’ is a baseball field. ‘They’ are the great players of the past. He builds it and the players do come back from the past. It all leads him on a journey into his past where he is reconciled with his father. It is a powerful story with a powerful message.

In fact it reminds me very much of the story of St. Francis. “Build my church,” was God’s call to Francis. Francis thought it was about repairing the church building in his town. He soon discovered that God was calling him on a very different journey of discovery. God was calling him to draw people to God, to help people to grow in faith and spirituality. God’s message to him was not ‘if you build it they will come.” It was ‘find out where you are meant to be and then go there.’

It is so much easier to think, “if we build it they will come.” If only we had better facilities people would flock to this church. If only we had the right advertising people would come. If only we had an active Sunday School and more teachers people would come. If only we had more volunteers to put on better suppers and fundraisers, people would come and they would stay. After being in this parish for a few months now, I am certain that God is calling us to build up this church. However, I am also sure that we have not yet heard God’s call clearly enough. This transition time in your parish’s life can be a fruitful time of reflection about what God wants of you and what it really means to be the Church. It may confirm many things that you are doing well. It may also lead into new and exciting ways of ministering, to new ways of being the church.

The readings for today speak to us of the demands of discipleship. The Gospel reading provides us with a beautiful image of our relationship to God. It comes to us from the Old Testament where Israel is pictured as a noble vine brought out of Egypt by God and planted in a good land. However, the vine failed to bring forth fruit. With Jesus, the true vine, a new Israel emerges.

The vine, its branches, and the vine grower, are images that point to our responsibility for the work of God in the world. Jesus is the vine, the one who nurtures, the one in whom we abide. We are the branches. It is our responsibility to bear fruit. God, the vine grower does the pruning so that we can bear more fruit. Are we branches? Is the ministry in this congregation being fruitful?

We could judge ourselves in the light of the passage from the Acts of the Apostles. There we read the story of one was a faithful branch, a branch that bears fruit. The angel of God led Philip to a deserted road between Jerusalem and Gaza. A proselyte was returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Sitting in his chariot, he was reading from the prophet Isaiah. So Philip took the opportunity to speak to him of Jesus, the suffering servant. He asked to be baptized. Philip baptized him. The story ended abruptly with Philip suddenly finding himself in the town of Azotus and the eunuch going on his way rejoicing.

Many things could have kept the eunuch from experiencing faith. Because he was a eunuch, he had already experienced exclusion from the religious community. Jewish law excluded them from taking part in the assembly of the Lord. They were not considered acceptable in God's family. Yet the eunuch, through Philip's ministering, was able to affirm his faith, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?" That truly is a wonderful step of faith. He was an outcast, one of the marginalized of his society, yet Philip reached out to him and opened the Scriptures to him. It is a wonderful statement about the inclusivity of God's kingdom. His inclusion was dependent, not on his acceptability, but on his faith. God's love is a living experience.

Philip himself could have been an obstacle to the eunuch's faith. In every part of the story he is a true disciple, one who follows God's lead. He was open to God's call because he was actively searching for the place in which he could be useful. He found the right approach. He was sensitive to the needs of the eunuch. He began with what the man understood. He led him gently to the point where he could affirm his faith.

Are we branches like Philip? Or are we blocks and impediments in the way of others experiencing God? Who are the eunuchs of our society, the ones for whom our contempt is instinctive? Who are the eunuchs of this parish? What outcasts are calling out to us for ministry? Are we actively listening to God, open to God's lead? Do we live out the Gospel or do we hide that we are Christians? How many people pass us every day who have never received a relevant explanation of God's word? I don't mean the self-serving Bible pushing of a fanatic out of touch with reality. I mean the good news of the risen life as it should be lived out in this world? Are we open to the Holy Spirit working in our lives? Are we open to new ideas, new ways, which bring resurrection to our faith community and to the lives of each of us? Are there things in our lives which need to be pruned?

We are called to faithful action. Many things can keep us from living out that faith. Fear of our own inadequacies can keep us from speaking out about our faith. It is easy to become apathetic in our highly secularized world. We can begin to think that we are unable to make any difference anyway. We can become "dead wood" which needs to be pruned back. As a church community we can stagnate. We can fail to be relevant in our community and in our world. We can hang on to old ways of doing things. We can exclude people from our community.

The Gospel underlines the necessity of fruitfulness in our lives. How do we bear fruit? We have been cut away from the forest of sin, redeemed from its ugly consequences and grafted into the vine, into Christ. We are not called to bask in his glow, to wonder at his miracles, to anticipate all the good that God has in store for us. We are called to bear fruit, to accomplish God's purposes. When we abide in Christ and invite him to abide in us, the Spirit is able to work in our lives and in the lives of those around us. Then we cannot help but be open to people in our community. Then we will indeed bear fruit.
You don’t need a building to be the church. You need to be the church where God planted you. And as for filling this church, what would it take? The gospel is not about building churches. It is about building the people of God. If we look into our hearts we will know that. So what is stopping you? Go out and be a branch. Invite people to come and find out what this church is all about. Work on the ministry of welcoming and including. Be rooted in God’s love. Share by word and action the good news of God in Jesus Christ. Amen.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Third Sunday of Easter, Year B

Touch and See

Readings: Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:35-48

I have a friend with a wonderful tropical aquarium full of amazing and exotic fish. One day he went all out and paid $62.00 for one prize fish. It was a wrasse, a colourful tropical fish with a bright yellow tail. He had never spent that much on a single fish before. He handled it as carefully as he could, checking the temperature of the water, and observing how it got along with other fish in the tank. However, in the morning when he got up to look at his prize fish, it was gone. He must have searched the tank for an hour. There was simply no sign of his fish. His $6.95 triggerfish on the other hand looked quite smug and self-satisfied. My friend chalked it up as an expensive experience.

But later that day, as he passed the tank he noticed that the wrasse was back. He couldn't believe his eyes. There was not a mark on the fish! It was simply swimming nonchalantly around the tank as if nothing unusual had occurred.

The next morning the fish had disappeared again. Gone! Inexplicably! Just as suddenly about noon it was back again. He could not understand it. So he called the dealer and shared his dilemma. He laughed. "Didn't anybody tell you? The wrasse buries itself in the sand to sleep and doesn't get up until it's good and ready!"

So what does all this have to do with the Easter message? It is what the disciples continued to discover as the Easter story unfolded in their lives. It is what we continue to discover as we look for signs of the resurrection in our lives. They are there. God is revealed to us in many ways. But sometimes they are out of sight. Hidden away! Unrecognized! It is up to each of us to open our eyes and experience the amazing fact of the resurrection. Often it is not until we look back over our lives that we recognize how God has been revealed to us. Yet it is usually in very real and tangible ways.

That is certainly evident in the gospel account of the resurrection. It is the experience of the disciples who were met by Jesus on the Road to Emmaus. They didn't recognize Jesus right away. As they walked with heavy hearts they had no idea who it was that walked with them. Even while he talked with them about the Scriptures they did not open their eyes in recognition. It was not until they were settled at table. He broke bread and handed it to them. In the breaking of bread they recognized their friend and companion. They saw with eyes of faith. They knew the risen Saviour.

That was when they sprang into action. Once they knew, once they experienced the power of the resurrection in their lives, once they recognized the risen Saviour, they could no longer hold back the good news. They couldn't wait to get back to Jerusalem to tell the others what had happened on the road. How Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of bread.

And once you have experienced the power of the resurrection breaking through in your life, you begin to see the signs of it all around you. You cannot wait to share it. And once you begin to share it, others open their eyes to the wonder of it all.

It was that way for the disciples. The risen Saviour stood before them all. "Peace be with you." And with those comforting words, Jesus shared the good news that he was among them, really present with them, in ways that they could see and touch as he submitted to their curious, doubting, probing hands.

The fact is the great event of the resurrection is beyond all human comprehension. Yet it continues to be revealed to us. God incarnate came to us as a baby. He died on the cross at the hands of his own creatures. Now following his resurrection, he comes into our dull existence saying, "Touch me and see." Christ continues to make himself known to us in real and tangible ways. It is not by accident that we are a sacramental people. The rituals of our faith are intended to help us to see and touch.

Jesus made himself known to the disciples in a clear and tangible way. He let them touch him. He asked for food. He ate with them. In such clear ways they saw the truth of the resurrection. If we expect people to understand the truth of the gospel, then we need to reach out to them in clear and tangible ways about the faith. Do our liturgies speak in meaningful ways? Do we reach out beyond ourselves in ways which help people to see the risen Christ in our lives? All the talking in the world will not convince people about the need for God in their lives.

When I was a theological student, I got to know Kim, a young priest from Korea who was doing postgraduate studies. I asked how he came to faith. "I was a little boy living in a big city," he said. "I came from a large family. We often went hungry. One day, I was walking down the street past a big red brick building. I could hear music coming from one of the rooms. I looked in. There were many people seated around tables and they were all eating. They saw me standing by the door. They invited me in and filled a plate with food for me. I was told that I could come back whenever I wanted. They told me about Jesus and his love. But more than that, they gave me tangible evidence that Jesus loved me by feeding me. I began to go to the services. I was baptized along with all of my family. That congregation continues to help me in my studies."

It is not simply through our sacramental life that we give people tangible evidence of the Christian life. It is through reaching out to others in faith, through meeting their needs, through filling the hungry that they begin to see the signs of resurrection in their own lives.

It is important for us to remember in our parish life. We may wonder what we as one small congregation can do. There is so much need in our community and in the world. And it is not simply about food. Many people are hungry for justice. Too many people live in poverty in the midst of plenty in our Canadian Society. It is an abomination that in this wealthy nation, children go to bed hungry, and people are homeless. Our Aboriginal people continue to search for healing from the terrible abuses of the past. I speak not only of the abuses that took place in the Residential Schools, but also of the loss of their way of life, broken treaties, diseases and sickness, deprivation of culture, and the many other issues that they face on a daily basis.

The resurrected Christ is still largely unrecognized in our world. Yet he still calls us. He challenges us to touch and to handle. He offers us opportunities to recognize and embrace him in faith. He has set us free. We are assured that the same power that raised him from the dead is available to us through him. He can satisfy the hunger of our souls. He can satisfy the hunger of those around us. He can give, even in the midst of this bewildering and chaotic world in which we live, eternal peace, vibrant joy.

May we go out empowered by the Spirit to share the good news of our risen Saviour! Amen.

St. George, Martyr of the 4th Century

What’s In a Name?

Readings: Ephesians 6:10-20; Mark 8:34-38

Names are important. We take such care in naming our children. Names are carried from one generation to another. There is something wonderful about being remembered by name. To be called by your name by a friend gives you a warm feeling. Your name touches something in you like nothing else. Some people have a real gift for it. I remember being impressed with a certain Bishop’s wife who met me at a Confirmation in the church in which I was organist. Months later I was at the New Year’s Day levee. She turned to her husband and said, “You remember Ann, the organist at St. Joseph’s.”

We grow into our names. I remember the circumstances of discovering the meaning of my name. After hearing over and over again the poem, “Monday’s Child” I asked my mother what day of the week I was born on. She told me, Wednesday. Now Wednesday’s child is full of woe. That did not sound very good to me. My sister on the other hand was born on Tuesday. Tuesday’s child is full of grace. That sounded very good indeed! And really, she was. She had long blond curly hair that hung in beautiful ringlets. She had blue eyes. She managed always to be clean and tidy. Everything she did was just right. Two years younger, I had a great deal to live up to. Then Father Palmer came to stay with us. He was a Cowley Father from Bracebridge. He was working for the National Church on the 1959 BCP and needed a place to stay in Toronto. He lived with our family for a time. I was complaining about my looks one day, about how my hair wouldn’t curl and so on. I truly was ‘full of woe’. He took me aside. “Your name is very special’, he told me. “You are named for St. Ann, the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Your name means ‘graceful one’.” It was a wonderful moment for a rather insecure little girl. That sense of who I was has stayed with me through the whole of my life.

This parish is named for St. George, whose day we celebrate. Few saints have been as widely popular as he. Yet not very much is known about him, at least not the true story. Legends abound, but they are folklore that grew up in medieval times long after he lived. I suspect you have heard the story of how St. George slayed the dragon and saved the beautiful princess from being sacrificed. What we do know about him is that he lived sometime in the fourth century and was a foot soldier in the Roman Army who converted to Christianity. Because he was a soldier, a career that the Church did not allow its members to follow, he was never baptised. But he was martyred for his faith and the Church came to recognize his sacrifice.

The circumstances are unclear, but we know that the Roman authorities became worried by the number of soldiers who were secret Christians and took harsh measures against them. St. George was one of them, and through his martyrdom the Church believed that he had a better kind of baptism, since he shared in the suffering and death of Christ himself. In later centuries, he became the model of the perfect Christian warrior, a figure that appealed to medieval English kings when they placed their conquests under his protection. His image has changed over the centuries so that we now see in him the pattern of what it means to be a Christian in the world. In so many ways, he has grown into his name.

It is no mystery why the passage from Ephesians about the armour of Christ was chosen for the commemoration of St. George. In describing the Christian’s spiritual panoply, the apostle Paul uses the Roman soldier as an analogy. It would have been a common site in Paul’s day. We can imagine St. George wearing a breastplate to protect himself from serious injury. Displayed on his breastplate were several medallions that he had won for his valour. On his feet were thick-soled sandals with hobnails embedded on the underside for traction. The sandal was laced to the foot and lower leg with leather straps. During the winter he would tie them around leather leggings for warmth. Shod this way, he could quick march fifty miles in one day. His sandals not only protected his feet; they were a formidable weapon.

His shield was designed to stop and extinguish flaming arrows. His helmet protected the head and neck. He placed plumage on his helmet so that from a distance he appeared to be over seven feet tall. He was totally prepared to meet the challenges.

As St. George was prepared for every challenge, so we are to be just as prepared. Armed with God’s amazing gift of grace, the Christian is to walk in God’s path, the path of loving service to others. We are to fill our minds and commit our lives to God’s word and will for us centred on the one to whom we belong.

The Gospel too reflects the self-giving life of the martyr. “Are you going to deny yourself and follow me?” Jesus asks Peter and the disciples. Peter needed to discover what the cost of following Jesus would be. St. George discovered it and paid for it with his life. It is something that every Christian needs to discover.

Self-denial is difficult for all of us. Sacrificing ourselves in the sense of denying the self in our lives is difficult enough. We live in a society where so much is available to us that we come to have a sense of entitlement for anything we might want. It stops being about what we need and becomes far more about needing everything our heart desires. If we find it difficult to deny ourselves things that we crave, how much more do we resist the thought of giving ourselves over to God?

Bob Dylan talks about it in his own life. “Jesus tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Bob, why are you resisting me?” I said, “I'm not resisting you!” He said, “You gonna follow me?” I said, “I've never thought about that before!” He said, “When you're not following me, you're resisting me.”

What if everything we have done in our religious living and personal relationship with God has been for all the wrong reasons? What if we do what we do because we are looking for rewards, for Brownie points? What if we are following Jesus simply because we think it will be a way to avoid suffering, persecution and death? What if we are simply trying to cover all the bases?

That is why the question is so important. It is only when we accept who Jesus is that he can begin to teach us the consequences of our allegiance. What is Jesus teaching us? It is about our identity as Christians. It is about wearing that mark of allegiance as Christians. “I sign you with the sign of the cross and mark you as Christ’s own.” Those are the words we use at Baptism. We take chrism oil and make the sign of the cross on the forehead of the newly baptized. I always remind the children and their parents that they have an invisible marker on their forehead. They belong to Christ. It needs to result in action in our lives. We need to be servants of Christ. We need to deny ourselves and follow Christ. That is strongly the message of this patronal festival.

What is the cost of discipleship? It costs everything. It requires becoming a servant. It requires action. It requires sacrificing ourselves. That is difficult. Somehow it is easier to leave it all to Jesus, and to join him in a kind of fan club. But God does not intend us to be mere spectators. We are co-responsible. And what Jesus is saying so clearly in this passage is that when we take responsibility, when we deny ourselves, when we become disciples, we become more truly human. We discover our true self. We grow into our names.

St. George discovered that to be a Christian costs everything. He made that sacrifice. May we like him be true witnesses to the faith. Let us show our love of God and communicate that love to those we meet along the way. Amen


Friday, April 13, 2012

The Second Sunday of Easter, Year B

Faith is Like Falling in Love

Readings:

Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133,; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

We read in the Acts of the Apostles of a community of believers on fire with enthusiasm for the Christian faith. They are of "one heart and soul". A great transformation has taken place in them since the death of Jesus. These same people who had fled in fear following the crucifixion of their leader are now gathered together and with great power are proclaiming the good news of the resurrection. Their way of life declares their confidence in the risen Saviour. It is a community marked not by words only, but also by its service to others. They are living out their faith.

What a far cry from the discouraged and frightened band of followers huddled behind locked doors that we meet in John's gospel! They are still reeling from the affects of the past few days. They are in mortal fear that the same authorities who killed Jesus will catch up with them. Then suddenly Jesus is with them in his risen glory. This is not some ephemeral ghost, but the risen Lord, the bringer of peace, the one whom they can see and touch and handle. He is back in relationship with them, consecrating them to do mission. His presence transforms their lives.

The readings all point to the kind of faith we need to make us alive in Christ. What was it that brought the early Christians out of hiding? What made them such avid proclaimers of the risen Christ? What turned their fear into action? How can we become like them, enthused with the power of the Holy Spirit?

Fortunately the gospel shows the faith process from all sides. Faith is not always instantaneous. There is the very human reaction of Thomas. I keep thinking how futile it is to try to justify or rationalize St. Thomas' lack of faith. The name 'Doubting Thomas' will no doubt stick! That is how the Church remembers him, the one who refused to believe unless he could see. He made a bad name for himself. So what are we to make of this?

What we know of his life comes in particular from the Gospel of John where he has a rather prominent voice. It is Thomas who urges the twelve to accompany Jesus into Judea to die with him. It is he who asks Jesus where he is going and how the disciples might know the way. He is the one who goes fishing and meets the risen Lord.

Such stories suggest not one who lacks faith, but one who has a generous and tempestuous temperament. That certainly is consistent with the historical portrait of Thomas that has him going as a missionary to India and being martyred for the faith.

I can think of many reasons why Thomas doubted. For one thing he found the disciples sitting in the safety of the upper room. Why had they not left to announce their astounding good news to the world? Why had the experience of the resurrected Lord standing in their very midst not changed their whole lives inexplicably and forever?
For another thing it was unreasonable to expect of someone who had experienced what Thomas had experienced. He had seen Jesus condemned by the Romans to die. He had seen them hang him on a cross. He had seen the dead body of Jesus taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb. He had seen the stone rolled into place. If you have seen someone dead and buried it becomes a reality for you. You accept the death, at least on an intellectual level. In all likelihood that is what happened to Thomas. Along the way faith became for Thomas an intellectual act.

Urban T. Holmes, one of the great Anglican theologians and teachers of the twentieth century, says that there is a difference between faith and belief. "Faith," he says, "implies a deliberate and positive existential involvement; belief is to have an opinion or make an intellectual assertion." In other words, belief is intellectual while faith is like falling in love.

What does that mean in terms of our religious life? I suspect first of all that it means that faith requires commitment to God. That comes about not by a single act, but by a progressively fuller commitment until we believe that we live with Christ. Then we begin to reflect his life in our own. It means living as Jesus lived, putting ourselves on the line for others, reflecting God's love, and allowing people to see the risen Lord working in our lives. It means studying and reflecting on the faith so that we have a reasonable basis for our faith.

I have had occasion to speak to people who share with me that they no longer believe in God. I ask them to tell me about the God in whom they can no longer believe. I have to tell you, I cannot believe in their god either. I try to share with them the God in whom I live and move and have my being. Often there is a longing to share in my experience of God. There is a hunger. But there is also a question about how we Christians live our lives.

We are surrounded by people like Thomas, people who are searching for the truth; people who wonder how we can say that we know the risen Lord, and yet behave in the way we do; people who need to see signs that we are living our faith; people who need to see that our faith reflects the Lord we follow.
Like Thomas they say, "If I could see, I would believe." What are the signs that we can share with them? Where do you recognize the risen Lord working in your life? Was it when you found strength you didn't know you had to face a difficult time? Was it the courage you found in the face of adversity? Was it in answered prayer? Was it in the beauty of God's creation? Was it in the birth of a child or the friendship of a loved one? Was it in the kindness of an unexpected action? Was it in the breaking of the bread or in a passage of Scripture? Was it in a simple act of faith or a random act of kindness?

Saint Augustine says that "faith is to believe what we do not see, and the reward of faith is to see what we believe."

Once upon a time there was a terrible drought. The fields were parched and brown from lack of rain. People searched the skies for any sign of relief. Day after day, week after week, not one drop of rain fell.

Finally the clergy of the local churches called for an hour of prayer on the following Saturday. They asked that everyone bring an object of faith for inspiration.

Saturday came. People flocked to the Town Square clutching a variety of objects - rosaries, prayer books, and crosses. They prayed there together, and when the hour ended, a gentle rain began to fall. People cheered and held their objects high in gratitude and praise. One faith symbol, however, seemed to overshadow all the others. One little girl had brought an umbrella.

Do we live out our faith in our lives? Are we witnesses to the resurrection? Are we witnesses to the power of God? The early Christians had a faith that praised. Do we open our hearts in the liturgy? Is our faith in the living, breathing, dynamic Christ who lives and reigns in us? If it is we will experience the deepening faith of the early church. Through worship we will continue to come into God's presence. We will search for depth and balance in our spiritual lives. We will share and grow in faith. We will experience the risen Christ in our lives and in our hearts.

And what kind of church will this be? If we really believe that Christ has risen, if we really proclaim and live it in our lives, then this will be the place it is meant to be – a dynamic and exciting place where Christ dwells. We will be in love with God. We like the early Christians will be alive and welcoming. We will be a community dedicated to the task of proclaiming and demonstrating that Christ is alive and that his saving grace and abundant life are available to every living creature.

So let us fall in love with God all over again! Let us proclaim: Christ is risen, Alleluia!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Easter Sunday

The Feast of the Resurrection

The Disappointment of Easter


Readings: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 118:14-24; Acts 10:34-43; Mark 16:1-8
When Mozart passed away, he was buried in a churchyard. A couple of days later, a man was walking through the cemetery and heard some strange noises coming from the area where Mozart was buried. Terrified, the man ran and got the priest to come and listen to it. The priest bent close to the grave and heard some faint, unrecognizable music coming from the grave. Frightened, the priest ran and got the town magistrate.

When the magistrate arrived, he bent his ear to the grave, listened for a moment, and said, "Ah, yes, that's Mozart's Ninth Symphony, being played backwards."

He listened a while longer, and said, "There's the Eighth Symphony, and it's backwards, too. Most puzzling!" So the magistrate kept listening; "There's the Seventh... the Sixth... the Fifth..."

Suddenly the realization of what was happening dawned on the magistrate; he stood up and announced to the crowd that had gathered in the cemetery, "My fellow citizens, there's nothing to worry about. It's just Mozart decomposing!"
Your laughter is good for two reasons. One is that in the Eastern Orthodox tradition jokes are told on Easter Sunday to imitate God’s last laugh on Satan, who thought he had won with the death of Jesus. The other is that the rest of this message is a serious one. You see, I am going to speak out about something that no one ever talks about, the disappointment of Easter. The Easter story the way Mark tells it, is a series of disappointed expectations. Nothing in the story turned out the way it was expected.
When the Sabbath was over the holy women made their way to the tomb. They were in a state of shock. They had seen their leader, the one in whom they had invested so much hope, brutally executed. Just a short time ago, they had followed his every move with excitement. The crowds could not get enough of him. They followed him everywhere, hoping for a miracle, looking for healing, and hanging on his every word. Over the last three days, the mood had changed. The same crowds had taken up that terrible chant, “Crucify him!” And now he was dead. They had laid him hurriedly in the tomb. Now they were carrying spices with them to prepare his body for burial.
They knew that there was one formidable obstacle in the way. A very large stone had been placed across the entrance to the tomb. As they walked along the road that morning, they were all wondering the same thing. How would they ever move it away from the entrance? And yet, they went to the tomb anyway. And when they got there the stone had already been rolled away.

Not that it made them feel any better! It just made them wonder, “What is going on? What indignity has been done to him now?” But they entered the tomb. There they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, seated on the right side of the tomb. “Don’t worry!” he said to them. “You’re looking for Jesus. He has been raised. He is not here!” His words of reassurance did nothing to quell their fears. They fled in confusion. It is difficult for us to imagine their terror, but it was well founded. Their allegiance to Christ put them in grave danger. What fear, what confusion, what disappointment those women met on that first Easter day!

Many people are disappointed in Easter. For some the disappointment is that there is no proof of the Resurrection. “How can you believe such a story?” they say. “You are simply deluding yourself. It comes out of your own fear of death. You’re simply trying to paint a rosy picture, because you don’t want to face the fact that once life is over, that's it." Death is always a disappointment; it is an end to expectations. It leaves behind incomplete plans.

Then there are the skeptics. They are disappointed in everything life has to offer: "I'll believe if only you'll give me proof positive that any of this happened." And the simple truth is that neither I nor anyone else can provide them with proof. For one thing, there aren't a lot of facts. And for another, when I look around at a world torn by war, terrorism and civil strife, how can I presume to preach a message of the risen Christ? In a world where it is estimated that sixteen thousand children die of hunger every day, how do I convey a message of hope for a better existence? In a world where we hear of natural disasters destroying peoples’ lives, how can I see anything but destruction? In a world in which 'seeing is believing' how can I possibly convince people to have faith in something as intangible as the resurrection? In a world of fast fixes how do I convince people of the need to commit themselves to a way of life that benefits them, not now but in the afterlife?

And there it is! The disappointment for me! The resurrection is the cornerstone of our faith. Yet it is impossible to prove. The “how” continues to defy us. It cannot be proven in any logical way. There is no historical evidence or contemporary analysis that can offer proof.

But there are signs of resurrected life! We need only search them out! The child’s eye in each of us is full of wonder when we see a flower bloom! Who can help smiling at an animal frolicking with abandon at the mere thought of the arrival of spring? The artist’s eye in each of us is full of wonder when we see a beautiful sunset or the colours of the rainbow following a storm. Acts of kindness on the part of a total stranger can bring new meaning to life. There is new research every day that brings hope for a cure for cancer. Even something as simple as Earth Hour last week as people turned off their lights committing themselves to improving the quality of life on this beautiful planet of ours is a sign for me of the resurrection.

How do we help people get over the disappointment of Easter? The stone has been rolled away from the tomb. How do we get them to go in and see for themselves the emptiness of the tomb? When they have seen how do we keep them from simply running away in fear? How do we make certain that death does not have the final word?

Jesus who lived and walked and taught on earth is not in the tomb. He is not to be sought in the far distant past. His saving work is a present reality in the community of believers. This is where we encounter the risen Lord. It is in you, the people of God, that others will see the risen Christ. And seeing they will believe.

The world expected that the death of Jesus would mean the end of Christianity. But the once defeated and disillusioned disciples became people alive with joy. They became messengers ready to proclaim their faith. They put aside their disappointment and became believers.

So let us put aside our disappointments. Let God's Spirit move us to faith in the resurrection. In doing so we will discover that Christ is alive in us, through us, and forever. Then we too will proclaim: “I have seen the risen Lord. I have experienced resurrection in my life. God has rolled away the stone. I have seen for myself the empty tomb. I believe.”

Alleluia! The Lord is risen.
Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!

The Great Vigil of Easter

Our Christian Story

Exodus 14:10-15:1; Isaiah 55:1-11; Zephaniah 3:14-20; Romans 6:3-11; Mark 16:1-8

We have been on a spiritual journey through the whole of Lent, but particularly on these final holy days. It is a journey, which calls us back into covenant with God until we stand at the very foot of the cross. It opens up for us the mystery at the heart of our faith. Tonight we complete that journey of faith, bring Alexander into membership in the body of Christ and renew the promises of our own Baptism. It is a time of remembering as we recount the story of our faith.

It begins with the story of the Jewish people as Moses leads them out of slavery in Egypt. They have fled from the tyranny of their Egyptian captors only to face a huge barrier, the Red Sea. Moses takes his rod and stretches it out in front of him. The water divides. The people of Israel walk safely on dry ground. The Egyptian army in hot pursuit is drowned as the water returns to its normal depth.

“ Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Isaiah reminds the people of Israel that God provides. God provided manna in the desert. Water gushed out of a rock. Always God has been with God’s people.

The story continues with yet another turbulent time in Israel’s history. They are in exile. It is a time of moral decline. Religion has suffered. Zephaniah invites the people to rejoice. He looks to a time when God will lead the people once again. He reminds them that God, in their midst, is their salvation.

The holy women make their way to the tomb. They are carrying spices to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. They are in a state of shock. It is a time of dashed hopes as they deal with the death of their beloved leader. They go wondering how they will ever cope with the insurmountable obstacles that stand in their way. One in particular absorbs their attention. How will they ever roll away the huge stone that has been placed across the entrance to the tomb? When they get to the tomb, nothing makes sense. The stone has been rolled away. The tomb is empty. A young man is sitting there. “Go tell his disciples that he is going ahead of you into Galilee.” It is difficult to imagine their terror. They run away as fast as they can.

Dashed hopes! No stone! No body! When did they begin to realize the meaning behind it all? When did they begin to get the message of the empty tomb? When did they understand what the young man at the tomb was saying to them? When did they realize that Jesus wouldn’t stay in the garden? The garden was a good place for a tomb, for a burial for someone who had died. But it was no place for the risen Christ!

What are you looking for as you renew your baptismal covenant this evening? What stones need to be rolled out of the way? Sometimes it is easier to continue to live in a Good Friday world of confusion and despair. The holy women were living in a Good Friday world. But Easter came for them. It made a difference to their doubt, grief, guilt and pain. It can come into our Good Friday world as well.

Each of us has a story as we come to renew our baptismal covenant this evening. We all have those moments in our journey when we say “Aha!” and the light goes on. For a fleeting moment the stone is removed. We see and understand the emptiness of the tomb. We realize the beauty and the glory of the mysteries of Christ. We feel a sense of astonishment at the sheer goodness of God. We understand the great gift that God has freely given to us.

Resurrection does not depend on me, on where I am, on my feelings. I can run away in fear. I can misunderstand what is happening. But sometime the running has to stop. Then I will arrive in Galilee. I will see the Resurrected Christ standing there before me. I will see the signs of his resurrected glory. I will see him in the face of those around me. The new dawn will appear. I will proclaim: Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Good Friday

Meditations on the Cross

Readings: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22:1-17; Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42

There are many moments during Jesus' life which are memorable. But surely none can be as profound as these last days which we commemorate. Here is both the tragedy and glory of his life. Here we see glimpses of our own humanity shining forth. Let us journey together through the final scenes of Christ's earthly life.

The Garden of Gethsemane

First we go with Jesus and the disciples to the garden of Gethsemane. When pilgrims visited the city for a festival like Passover, it was not unusual for a group of people to find a place to spend the night. Jesus and his followers spent many nights under the olive trees in the garden. There, just beyond the city wall, was a quiet place apart, a place of prayer and communion with God and one another.

Judas knew perfectly well where he would find Jesus. It was no secret. His treachery was so simple. Although he brought an armed detachment of soldiers along with him, Jesus offered no resistance. He could have used violence to protect himself. Peter's rash action in taking up a sword is the proof of that. But Jesus chose what is life-giving even in that ultimate moment of distress. He chose to break the cycle of violence. He refused to enter into the violence of the world.

If that is the foolishness of the cross, Lord, then give me the strength to face it. Let me experience the cup of blessing. I am called to drink from the cup in willing obedience to your will whatever it brings. I may be called to stand up for what is right against all odds. I may be called to love the most unlovable of your creation. I may be called to risk everything for the gospel. Whatever it means, I pray that I may be worthy of my calling.

Hymn: Blue 194: Stay With Us

Peter's Denial

Peter's struggle is that of a person for whom there is no perfect answer. "Is it better for me," he must have reasoned, "to lie and remain free so that I can continue the struggle? Or should I risk everything to follow Christ to the cross?"

We see it throughout history. It is the dilemma of the Jesuit priests in the movie, The Mission. One of them chose to face whatever without retaliation. He died, cut down by enemies of the church. The other chose to fight back. He died too. Who was right?
I see people struggling to keep their faith in the midst of crippling sorrow and senseless loss. Peter is practical if nothing else. His world is simple. You have to do this or that, you have to act, you have to establish standards, set things right, even things out. Or so he tells himself. And even though he wants to be there in Jesus' hour of need, yet he convinces himself that the risk is not worth it.

Peter represents the discipleship of his own day, but he represents also the discipleship in Newcastle, or Toronto, or wherever else there is a Christian community. We can persuade ourselves that our loyalty to Jesus has no limits. We confess our faith in the creed. We proclaim our loyalty as we sing our favourite hymns. But do we proclaim who we are to the world? Do we tell people how much we love Jesus? Or do we worry about being ridiculed? Do we worry about being labelled fanatics? Or do we simply say: "I am a follower of Christ," whatever the risk?

Hymn: Blue 197: O Dearest Lord

Jesus is condemned to death.

Pilate's struggle is not so much an inner struggle, as a struggle with the complex and unbending rules of his society. He knows the law. He is responsible, wise, has all the right arguments, but a frozen heart. He prefers to hand over one whom he knows to be innocent rather than to take on the mob. It is so much easier too if you do not believe that there is such a thing as truth. If you believe nothing, you can do anything. You don't need character or conviction or reflection. It becomes just a part of the power game.

There is something too about the way Jesus faces Pilate at the time of his judgement. His quiet demeanour in the face of death could be taken for weakness on his part. But one only need look back on his years of ministry to witness the truth. This is not a weak man simply caving in to authority. He spoke out in the temple. He answered the charges of the Pharisees as they tried to entrap him with his own words. He was a friend to outcasts and sinners never worrying about what society might say or think. But here he stands silent before his accusers, silent for he knows that the way of the cross is the way to glory.

Hymn 202: There is a Green Hill Far Away

At the Foot of the Cross

A group of the faithful gather at the foot of the cross, the holy women, the beloved disciple. It is a time of faith for them. They see beyond the fact of Christ's death. If we consider only the external appearance of Golgotha, the world will go on as it is, and we will become discouraged and follow the way of the world. But if we take in the meaning of the cross we will understand that it creates a place of love and glory. We will know that serving people is more important than having power or control over them. We will know that love cannot die. We will know life, for the cross is the beginning of life if we accept it.

Hymn 179: Tree of Life vs. 1, 2, 6a

Jesus is crucified

The crucifixion as John expresses it is not a scene of horror. For Christ on the cross has conquered death and fear. Out of the darkness shines the glory of God. Out of the depths of our despair, we meet our Saviour. The world loved darkness better than light. But from the cross the light shines against the darkness of the sky turned black.

On Good Friday we see the truth of who we are. We see our sinfulness. We know without a doubt that despite all our good intentions we are sinners. In the cross we see the goodness of God. God is a God of love who is determined to forgive us no matter how sinful we are. Such is the grace of God. What Christ has come to do has been accomplished. Our relationship with God is restored.

Hymn 192: Were you there?

The Second Sunday of Easter, Year C

Opening Locked Doors Readings: Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 2; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31 It is evening on the first day of the week. The d...