Friday, May 25, 2012

Pentecost

Can These Bones Live?

Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 104:25-35; Romans 8:22-27; Acts 2:1-121; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

The prophet Ezekiel was in the midst of a nightmare. In the Spirit, God lead him to a valley, a valley filled with the bones of dead soldiers slain in battle against the Chaldeans. It was a horrifying scene of destruction.

“Can these bones live?” God asked him. On that battlefield lay all the hopes and dreams of an entire nation. How could Ezekiel see anything there but disaster and defeat? The situation was hopeless. “Prophesy to them!” God continues.

“What sense is there in that?” Ezekiel may well have thought. Yet even though it doesn’t make sense, God is calling him to take a risk.

“Trust me! I will breathe life into them,” God tells him. And Ezekiel trusts God. He prophesies to the bones. Those dry lifeless bones take on sinew, and flesh. Those dry, lifeless bones are animated. They come to life.

What a vision of hope! And the miraculous thing about it is that the nation of Israel did indeed rise up from that terrible defeat. Life was breathed back into that community. It lived and prospered. It was a nightmare, but through that dream the prophet lived a real experience. It gave him a sense of God’s presence and the awareness that something significant was being communicated to him.

That vision of life being breathed back into dry bones is again fulfilled with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. For with that outpouring came, not only the hope of a nation, but also the hope of salvation for all nations, the Christian hope that exceeds all we can ask or imagine. That breath of life poured out at Pentecost is the source of hope in human experience. It renews us. It assures us of God’s presence with us.

Pentecost started as a nightmare as well. The disciples were all gathered together in the upper room. They gathered out of their need to be together. They gathered more in mourning than in celebration. They were still suffering from the loss of their beloved leader. And then Pentecost happened! They had an amazing spiritual awakening. First there was a movement, then a sound, then a visible sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit amongst them. The experience so filled them with the presence of God that they began to speak in other languages. They did not have to grope for words to express themselves. The words simply flowed out of them. It was not babble; it was clear and effective communication. The Spirit proclaimed a marvellous, inclusive vision without barriers of language, race, nationality, sex, age or class. People not only heard, but they understood what God was speaking to the Church. What’s more they acted on it.

We so easily dismiss the significance of Pentecost. It is the birthday of the Church. It celebrates, not the coming of the Holy Spirit. That has always been God’s gift to the church. Rather it celebrates a fresh outpouring of the Spirit set loose in the world. For the early Christians it became a time of festivity and joy, reminding them that the promise of the Resurrected Christ had been fulfilled in them.

It would truly be a mistake to assume that Ezekiel’s dream was a one-time event. People still have such experiences in their day to day lives. The problem is that we tend to dismiss such dreams as being of little importance. Even if we awaken in terror, we can easily put it down to a case of indigestion or something that we saw on television. We need to pay attention to such experiences in our lives, those ‘aha’ moments in which we know God to be real and present to us, in which we sense God communicating to us on a deep level.

Pentecost was not a one-time event either. The Holy Spirit is poured out on the Church every day. That is the source of our Christian energy and purpose. Whatever speaks to us of the genuine things of Jesus Christ is the Holy Spirit at work in us. How does it come to you? Perhaps it comes as a realization that God is speaking to you through another person. Perhaps it is as you witness to the power of the Holy Spirit at work in your life. It may be a moment of realization at the power of God working a miracle of healing in your life as you let go of the hurts of the past and offer forgiveness to someone. Maybe it happens for you when you accept God’s power to forgive and let it work in your life. It may be in the sharing of the peace, or a time when you were able to go beyond your limitations in speaking to others about your faith. Perhaps it is a time when you felt overwhelmed by life, and then found the power to do something that you thought was totally beyond your capabilities. It may be finding that life takes you in new directions when you thought all the doors had been slammed in your face. Can we look back on those moments of grace scattered throughout our lives and see the Spirit of God working in and through us?

The Church needs that kind of renewable energy. Church institutions can be brought back to life again as their members who once confessed only with their mouths begin confessing with their hearts. It can change as we return to the covenant made between us and God at our baptism. God breathes on us restoring us to life and truth, to joy and purposefulness, as the Spirit takes control of our very being. It is about reconciliation, assurance, peace, joy, purpose. It is a resurrection experience that brings with it a sense of new birth.

Churches need that rekindling, that renewing of life, that rebooting of energy. What would it mean for this parish as you move forward? We need to pray for the Spirit of God to be upon the Church and its people so that we can stand on our feet and take responsibility as we must. This is a parish that needs to do that. You need to be aware of the community around you, of its needs, of its longing for God, of the spiritual resources you have to offer. This is a congregation that needs to open its doors and welcome the community into its midst, not just for social events, but because you love God and you want to share your experience of the resurrection at work in your lives.

Pentecost is about life coming together for the common good. Pentecost happens when people of faith share their faith with one another. It happens when we find ourselves moved to say to one another, “I believe”. It happens when we grow up and begin to say “yes” to God instead of saying “no”. Then love blossoms. We become on fire. May God continue to breathe the fire of the Holy Spirit on us, and may we continue to embrace the Spirit within us. Amen.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year B

Between Loss and Promise

Readings: Acts 1:15-17; Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19

I find as I prepare for preaching on this last Sunday of Easter that there is a piece missing. That is because most of us missed out on a feast day that fills in the gaps. Last Thursday was the Ascension of Our Lord. It is forty days after Easter, so it always lands on a Thursday. It is an important preparation for Pentecost. Fortunately the themes connect to this Sunday between Ascension Day and Pentecost.

When I was growing up, I went to a Private Girls' School run by a religious order. We had some unusual holidays. Ascension Day was one of the more memorable ones. We began the day by trekking down to the local church affectionately known as “Smokey Tom’s” for Eucharist, and then we piled on buses, and the whole school went to Toronto Island for a picnic. It was a day of celebration and fun. It marked the beginning of the end of the school year. We ate and played and raced and generally had a good time.

I have to say that it influenced my thoughts greatly. Indeed it still comes as a surprise to me to discover that the Ascension and the Sunday that follows is not about a picnic. Indeed, it is anything but a picnic.

During this Easter season, we have been discovering that Jesus in his full humanity has been given new life in the resurrection. The Ascension, as he withdraws from his disciples, as he is carried from them into heaven, marks the end of Jesus' time on earth. Like the other post Easter experiences, it is clearly an encounter with the risen Lord. Jesus has appeared to the disciples bringing peace into their midst. Then he commissions them, as witnesses of the resurrection, to continue his proclamation. It becomes their responsibility to carry on the work that Jesus began. "Jesus lives! Jesus reigns! Jesus has left his disciples holding the bag!"

I can well imagine what it must have been like for them to discover that the risen Lord was not going to stay with them. Their sense of loss must have been profound. They must have felt that they were being left on their own. But it truly is not the end of the story; it is only the beginning. Jesus and the disciples are entering into a new relationship. What Jesus began in his earthly ministry he now expects the disciples to continue. But fortunately for all of us, we do not have to do it alone.

“I am risen. I am still with you.” That is the message to the disciples. It is clearly the message to each one of us on this Sunday between loss and promise.

All of the readings are about that sense of loss and promise. In the account from the Acts of the Apostles Peter faces a difficult task. Judas, the betrayer, is to be replaced. The community has been fractured by the betrayal. But the time has come for them to make a choice that will help them to move on. They pray, they cast lots, and God shows them that Matthias is the one who is to continue the God’s work. It is a wonderful reminder that Jesus is the Lord of our failures as well as our successes.

Are there similar situations in the life of a congregation? There are always things that fracture a community. They are not as shattering as Judas’ betrayal, but they are difficult to deal with just the same. Life is full of losses. We learn early in life to mourn our losses – loss of innocence, loss of friendship, loss of status, and the loss that comes with death. This is a community in transition. Transition periods are difficult. They are times of loss, of change, and we do resist change. As a priest retires and Interim clergy come and go, and as you await the appointment of permanent leadership it can be a difficult time in congregational life. The sense of loss can be profound.

And yet John’s letter attests to the faithfulness of God at such times in our lives. He reminds the community that their daily experience is a testimony to their faith. That is an important learning for us. During times of loss how do we sense God’s presence with us? When have we been empowered to overcome some terrible situation in our lives, or to respond to something which seemed beyond our capabilities? When has the ordinary been transformed for you or for me or for this congregation? The signs of resurrection in our lives bear rich testimony. They make our lives full and rich with meaning. Our lives are different because Jesus lives in us. And if our lives are not different, then we need to ask ourselves if we are really know Jesus.

And finally there is the heartfelt prayer of Jesus as he prepares to take leave of the disciples. It is a wonderful prayer, particularly when you consider that it is the prayer of a person who knows that death is imminent. He is thinking of those he is about to leave behind. He is praying for them, and he is praying for the world and the state it is in. Is he thinking about structures of racism, competition, exploitation, violence, discrimination, greed, neglect? Is he praying for the poor, the wretched, the leper, the orphan, the spiritually impoverished? He is certainly praying for his followers, for those who dream his dream, for those who put everything on the line to enhance the coming of the kingdom.

Are we in his prayer? Do we pray his prayer, for this could well be our prayer in a fragmented and argumentative age? We need to be reminded that what we do as a worshipping community we do in Jesus’ name. Sometimes truly it is easier to have faith in God without seeking commitment to the church. Churches can be fractured places. In this church this morning there are many different ideas about how to do things and about who should be doing the doing. There are no doubt opposite hopes and plans. But I hope and pray that there is unity in agreeing that it will be accomplished in carrying out our Lord’s will.
Our work as a congregation during the time of transition is to come together in prayer. It is to ask for grace to deal with one day at a time. We pray to be able to offer our struggle and pain and anxiety to a loving God. The prayer of Jesus gives such a sense of mutual belonging and caring for each other. It is something that we need to experience as a congregation. How can we strengthen that understanding of ourselves as church? What are the values of the faith community that we show to the world? How do we discover in this time between loss and promise that we are not alone after all?

“I am risen! I am ascended! I am glorified! I am still with you!” That is the message to the disciples. It continues to be the message to the church today. We still encounter the risen Lord. Yet it is a mystery which, not surprisingly eludes our grasp. Our encounter is rather like trying to view a beautiful painting through the slats of a venetian blind. We can see the image, but not clearly enough to understand its beauty and perfection. We get flashes of insight, but to fully appreciate its beauty we must view it under the proper conditions. Our view must be unobstructed. There must be proper lighting.

When we are encountered by the risen Lord, we do, for a moment fully comprehend. But we find it impossible to hold on to the image. Yet if we have eyes to see the mystery of the resurrection we will glimpse it all around us. We will see it in nature; the smell of the rain, the wildness of a thunderstorm, the beauty of a flower unfolding, the sight of a starry sky. We will dream it; the kind of dream you wake up out of without quite remembering what it was about, and yet you feel better for having dreamed it. We will experience it through the liturgy as we break bread together, as we sing hymns of praise, as we pray. We will experience it through the world of books. We will experience it through other people. By God’s grace we will know the resurrected Christ at work in our lives.

Living between loss and promise is no picnic. We may be left holding the bag, but we are far from alone. Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to help the disciples, to guide them, to keep them, to protect them. That promise is there for us as well. May we live by that same life giving Spirit!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Sing a New Song


Readings: Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

Most of us can cite some experiences of what it feels like to be left out, to be excluded. For instance, people often tell me that they cannot sing. Invariably the story will start something like, "When I was in grade one I was in the blackbird group. I was so out of tune the teacher made me mouth the words. I still can't sing." They talk about how terrible it felt to be excluded from classroom singing or from the choir.

Others of us remember the terror of choosing sides for a game. The two most popular, athletic types were always chosen as team leaders. The kids would gather around. One by one sides would be chosen. And there you would be, the odd person out, the only one not picked to play on a team. Then one of the leaders finally relents, "Oh, you can be on my team!" But because you're small and uncoordinated, you sit out most of the game or the star hovers around you grabbing the ball whenever it comes anywhere near you.

We live in a time and place in which cultures and peoples mix more than at any other time in history. Some time ago, there was an article in the Star reporting on a study of multiculturalism. Thousands of people were interviewed. What the researchers found was that skin colour, not religion or income was the biggest barrier to making immigrants feel as if they belonged in Canada. The darker the skin, the greater the alienation!

"We were surprised that religion didn't have more effect," one of the authors explained. However, on two levels the statistics did not surprise me. First of all religion no longer has the credence of society. It no longer has the importance that it once had. Secondly, society has its own ways of dealing with multiculturalism apart from any government or societal policies that could possibly be put into effect. Sometimes the response of society is to create closed communities that keep one’s way of living intact by excluding those who are different. Or we may create exclusive communities that are beyond the means of people who are not “like us”. We may ghettoize into communities as we did with our aboriginal peoples by segregating them on reserves. Or we may force people to change and become more like us. Many immigrants gave up their language and culture in order to become Canadian.

But the Christian faith gives us a third option, that of inclusion! Open the doors and welcome people in! However, inclusion runs risks. That is obvious from the reading from Acts. When you allow God to work through you, you lose control over who belongs and who does not. The passage follows Peter’s vision about clean and unclean foods that he had been commanded to eat. He did not understand the vision until he was invited to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile. He was speaking to the household when the Holy Spirit came over them. Just as on the day of Pentecost, they began to praise God in ways that the Christian church had assumed were exclusively theirs. The believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the Spirit of God should be given, not just to them, but to the Gentiles as well.

That got them moving. “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?” Peter asks. It becomes a time of renewal for the whole community as they welcome the newly baptized into their table fellowship.

The risks of inclusion are obvious also from John’s letter. He is writing to a community deeply divided by a theological dispute. Many had left the community over the difference in opinion. Some had questioned the humanity of Jesus, saying that Jesus could not possibly have been born human; neither could he have died as a human. Schism threatened the existence of the community. John asked them not to seek revenge or to be bitter, but to love. “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God,” he said to them. It is an inclusive statement that we so often glibly turn around. It calls us to love all of God’s children, not simply those we consider to be God’s children.

The risks of inclusivity are real. You might have to accept people whom you deem unworthy of the name of Christian. You might have to worship side by side with people of a different colour, race, economic status or sexual orientation. You might have to accept that we are all made in God’s image. You might have to struggle with the issues that face the Christian Church in the twenty-first century.

It may not seem like much to you as the story is told, but to the early church it was a complete change, a revelation. They were Jews. Their little community was a small sect, an insignificant branch of the Jewish faith. They maintained their ties to the synagogue. Even in the dispersion as the Jews began to spread throughout the Greek world, the expectation was that Christianity would continue to grow within Judaism. They kept the Jewish traditions. They adhered to Jewish law. But to their amazement, perhaps chagrin, the Gentiles were drawn to this new sect.

Judaism has never been an evangelical faith. They do not proselytize. Except perhaps through marriage, one does not often become converted to Judaism. One is born a Jew. It is tied to nationality as much as it is to faith. The early Christians grappled with how to maintain their allegiance to Judaism and live out their Christian faith. Could they remain Jews and still open up their faith to include the Gentiles? Yet that is where the Holy Spirit seemed to be leading them. And they listened.

When Peter and the early Christian community accepted Cornelius and his household as converts, they set a precedent, which changed their way of life completely. They went out on a limb for their faith. They went against culture, tradition, nationality, and religion. They were cut off from their roots. Yet their willingness to change opened up wonderful new possibilities. Christianity became a world religion.

Put that alongside the message of the Gospel. "Love one another as I have loved you," Jesus says. It is a call to inclusivity. It is not a call to love the loveable, the cuddly, the beautiful, the wealthy; rather it is a call to love those whom God has chosen. Yet what boundaries we put on God's love! We claim it exclusively for ourselves. We fail to affirm the validity of the religious experience of others simply because it does not resemble ours. We fail to respond to those who are looking for affirmation in their faith journey.

Jesus at the last supper offered the gift of himself. It was a gift without reservation, without restriction. In the Eucharist he continues to offer us that wonderful, free gift of grace. The reality of that giving is the model and criterion of Christian behaviour. We are called to "lay down our lives", to put others before ourselves, to love in a life-giving way. It is a call to be generous, not just by providing bread but also by sharing the deeper gift of ourselves. In the Eucharist, we share the one bread and the one cup with each other as a sign that in our daily lives we strive to share our bread, our blessings, and ourselves with others. In the carrying out of the mission of the church the Eucharist becomes honest and effective in our lives.

Jesus makes it clear that we do not do the choosing. We are the chosen. If you think about it at all, that is a tremendous affirmation of who we are, even of human nature. Why should we have been chosen to come into intimate relationship with God? Do you have a long list of reasons? If it were others choosing the teams, would we make it? If we were doing the choosing who would we exclude, or leave on the sidelines? With Christ doing the choosing we may find a few people included whose presence we find disturbing. The children God has chosen may break into the quiet flow of worship. The stranger with his hand out for help may assail our sensitivities. The HIV positive person reaching out for compassion may cause us to flinch. We are called to be inclusive of children, the poor, young people, refugees, social activists, the physically challenged, the mentally challenged, women, men, all whom God has chosen. Each of us is called to make our hearts open to those whose presence may disturb our peace and our assumptions.

How do we create Christian communities in which there is understanding and love in a life-giving, self-giving way? To create such communities would surely be risky on so many levels. It begins with responding to Jesus as friend. In doing so we would on some level “lay down our life for our friends”. It is unlikely that it would be the ultimate sacrifice. Yet we are called to ‘put our lives on the line for one another’. We are called to put others before ourselves. We are called to love in a life-giving way. It means being generous with other people, not just by providing bread but also by sharing the deeper gift of oneself.

Laying down our lives for one another may mean sacrificing time, thought, worry, concern, caring, sensitivity. It will result in abhorrence for the ways of the world, for the killing and alienation of the violent society in which we live. In the light of Christ’s Eucharistic sharing such things become even more abhorrent. Christ’s gift revealed in the Eucharist enables us to understand the unique value of human life and then respond.

How do we respond to Jesus? Do we respond as friend and brother? For we are blessed to have such a friend! If we are responsible Christians truly living out the gospel, then we like Peter must be open to the Holy Spirit moving in peoples' lives. It is not for us to ask how it could be that God would choose this person or that one; it is up to us to open ourselves and our community to others in Christian love. May we be a loving and caring community of faith. Amen.

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...