Saturday, July 28, 2012

Proper 17, Year B

Bridging the Gap

Readings: 2 Samuel 11:1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-15

In the Old Testament reading we are directed away from the public life of King David into his bedroom, his very private life. It is not a pretty picture. In fact one might wonder if this is the same David at all. This surely cannot be the same David whose story has unfolded over the past few weeks. David, the shepherd boy whom God chose to lead the people of Israel, to be their King, David who danced with joy before God as the Ark of the Covenant was brought into the city, David who renewed his Covenant with a loving God?

For today we hear of David’s torrid affair with Bathsheba. And the story does not end with his adulterous behaviour. The story goes on to tell of David’s conniving to unite husband and wife in an attempt to cover up his own guilt. Having failed in his attempt, he engineers the death of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, clearing the way for his own marriage to her. His self-serving willfulness is in direct contrast to his previous acceptance of God’s will.

Indeed, what place does such a story have in Scripture? What could it possibly teach us about Christian living? Yet it is not the only example of its kind in Scripture. We read many examples of people wanting to do good, and yet doing wrong. It is reflected in the words of Paul when he admits that the things he wants to do are the very things he doesn’t do, and things he doesn’t want to do are the very things he does. And do we not all resonate with that?

It is the struggle we all face, for it is part and parcel of our human nature. It is not that we condone such behaviour. It is that the struggles of David and of Paul are such human struggles. Hearing such stories may give us heart as we deal with our own struggles. We too want to do good, even to be good. Most of the time we manage to suppress what we recognize as being evil. But far too often we are simply unable or unwilling to distinguish between right and wrong. Even when we know the difference, we can choose to ignore it.

It is a paradox which pervades all of society. It is systemic. We do not have to look very far to know that. A look at any newspaper reminds us of that fact. We see it on every newscast. Wherever there is war or an act of terrorism, it is happening. And always we are faced with the discrepancy between rich and poor. But then that has been with us throughout all the ages, even in Jesus’ time. We certainly see that in the Gospel for today.

Hungry people are coming to Jesus. There are the curiosity seekers who are looking to be witnesses to a miracle. There are those who are sick hoping against hope for a cure. There are the spiritually bereft who need to experience Jesus’ care and compassion. All of them are hungry. They keep following him. The crowd swells until there are at least five thousand people gathered. People need to be looked after. How do you take care of five thousand hungry people out in the Galilean countryside?

Jesus turns to Philip, "Where are we to buy bread for them to eat?" He understands the many kinds of hunger they are experiencing. But he knows that their physical needs must first be met. He asks, not because he does not know what to do. He asks as a challenge to the disciples to respond to those who are in need. It is a test of their faith.

Philip's response is very human, totally realistic. We can all hear ourselves saying the same thing. "Six months' wages will not buy enough bread to feed all these people." Philip is right. There is not enough money in the coffers to take care of the problem of feeding five thousand people. If it depends on wealth, the situation is hopeless.

But it doesn’t. It isn't. For Jesus takes bread, simple bread, the everyday food of the poor, bread made of barley, five little loaves, provided by a little boy. His lunch! Jesus gives thanks. He gives it to the people. They eat and are satisfied. They are no longer hungry. They are full.

God’s action in history is a paradox when it comes to hunger and fulfillment. Jesus feeds five thousand people. They have their hunger sated. With a few fish, a little bread, and a word from Jesus, they eat and are filled. Many people are starving, but because Jesus has compassion on a few of those hungry people, and because a little boy has a lunch, they eat and are filled and go home. In the whole scheme of things, it was not very spectacular. It just happened and Jesus left it at that.

Many people are starving in our world. We need to ask ourselves if we are doing enough. What does the Gospel call us to do? As one of the richest nations in the world, we Canadians can find all sorts of reasons why it is not our responsibility to end world hunger. “After all,” we will say to ourselves, “not even six months wages will buy enough bread to feed all the hungry in the world.” And while I am preaching this sermon, twelve thousand children in the world will die of starvation. No matter how we look at it, it is wrong that one in five people go hungry every day. And you will tell me that they go hungry because of famine, or war, or the many natural calamities that take place on our planet. But they go hungry primarily because those of us who can choose to ignore their plight hold the wealth of the world. The situation is getting worse, not better. The number of hungry people has steadily increased since 1995. In part it is because governments and international agencies neglect agriculture relevant to the very poor in favour of wealthy nations. Consider the hype over the failure of the corn crops in the United States. Much of the problem exists, not because corn is needed to feed hungry people, or even to feed animals, but because it is being used to make ethanol in countries hungry for cheap fuel. The current worldwide economic situation is further contributing to hunger as wealthy nations consider their own needs. As well, over the past few years there have been significant increases in the cost of food production. What may be a source of grumbling for most of us is devastation to millions of people worldwide who have very little income.

The central act of the church is a common meal. Each Sunday we gather in communion with one another. Together we celebrate the Eucharist. Through that celebration we participate more fully in the life of Christ. Bread is taken. It is blessed, broken and distributed. We share bread and wine with each other as a sign that in our daily lives we strive to share our bread, our blessings, and ourselves with others.

The bridge between God’s abundant provision and the world’s desperate need is the sacrificial love offering of each of us. It is a significant act, for it demonstrates the meaning of the cross. Through the sacrificial act of Christ salvation came. Jesus gave all that he had. A child gave all that he had. We offer all that we are and all that we have. There are so many hungry people. It is not for us to question why. It is for us to use all of our gifts to provide the answer. God acts through us to bring about what is needed. We may feel as insignificant as a little boy with five barley loaves and two small fish. But we are not insignificant to God. By his grace we can be channels of love to others.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Proper 15, Year B

Let’s Dance an Alleluia!

Readings: 2 Samuel 6:1-4, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

We have two very different dances in the readings today; one, a dance of life, the other a macabre dance of death.

The dance of life is a great parade with lots of music, song and dance, an exuberant celebration of God’s presence. David and the people of Israel dance before the Lord. The Ark of the Covenant, a symbol of their common life together is returned to the city amidst great rejoicing. This is not David, the dignified King. This is a down to earth David, truly celebrating with the people. He gives in with his whole being, heart, body and soul.

There is, of course an undercurrent of unrest. David is not without political motivation in all of this. It is a victory, after all; one that has not been without violence. Not everyone is pleased. An irreconcilable rift comes between David and his wife Michal. She, for whatever reason, does not join in the celebration.

The dance of death is a story made in Hollywood. In fact, it has been made into a movie. There is also an opera, Salome, depicting the story. Richard Strauss achieved instant success with it. If you have ever seen the opera you know that he admirably captures not only its fairy tale qualities but also its horror. It has an amazing, if terrifying appeal.

The setting is a magnificent banquet hall in Herod’s palace. From a terrace at one side of the hall you can see the dungeon in which John is confined. Salome goes out onto the moonlit terrace to take a look at the prisoner. John has denounced Salome’s mother, Herodias saying that she is an evil woman. Salome is at the same time smitten by John and angered by his words. He seals his fate when she tries to lure him, and he rebukes her instead of succumbing to her charms. Later, during the sumptuous feast, Herod asks the beautiful Salome to dance for him. He tempts her by offering to give her anything she asks. She performs the seductive Dance of the Seven Veils. After its wild climax she demands the head of John the Baptist. Herod, knowing that it is wrong, offers her anything else, peacocks, gems. But he finally gives in and has John executed, then in a fit of remorse kills Salome as well.

The facts, though distorted, do not change the effect of the story. The adultery, the evil, the lack of conscience, the weakness, the spirit of intrigue; all are in opposition to God. John is caught up in the vicious feuding of an evil family. It foreshadows for us the way Jesus gets caught up in the sinful power struggle that leads to his death.

Mark’s story of John’s death is incredibly sophisticated. The characters are truly complex. It tells far more about Herod, Herodias and her daughter than it does about John. The girl is young and impressionable, not yet capable of thinking for herself. Herodias has it in for John to a violent degree. Herod is a total contradiction. He likes to listen to what John has to say, but is condemned because of his adulterous relationship. He protects John, but then has him killed. He is boastful, but he is afraid. He is truly sorrowful for what he has done. Perhaps underneath it all he is a person honestly seeking the truth.

The real question for me all week has been is there a message in the gospel that is relevant for Christians living in the world today? And the answer is, most definitely! I know that it is said that religion and politics should not mix. However, that is impossible, at least in this instance. The reading is about justice. It invites us, above all, to have the courage to be truth tellers. There are consequences, even today, to bearing the prophetic voice. As Anglicans we love to play it safe in order not to offend. There is a sobering reality in the story that calls us to stop playing it safe and take a risk for our faith.

How many times has this story been lived out in our own era? It is a truly contemporary story. It could have been written about Oscar Romero, the voice of the voiceless in El Salvador. An all-powerful government martyred him as the church looked on helplessly.

It could have been written about Esquivel, a human rights worker in Argentina, the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980. In spite of torture, he continued to witness to his faith and to help the families of those who disappeared, fight back against an oppressive regime.

It is the story of continuing terrorist acts throughout the world. Senseless killing and loss of life carried out over and over again in the name of God!

It is the story of Colombia in South America, designated the most savage country in the world per capita. A never-ending cycle of violence continues in a country described as being at war with itself. A forty-year conflict between government and rebels drags on. And, of course, it is the poor who pay the highest price in a country of thirty five million people where there are an astounding million refugees.

It is the story of many African nations – Sudan, Nigeria, Algeria, of the middle east, of Haiti, of all the troubled spots in our world.

It is a story that happens here in our own country over and over again. I can think of many examples; people hurt or killed in acts of family violence; the case of child soldier, Omar Khadr; acts of homophobia; police brutality during the G20.

The story of Herod and the death of John the Baptist is shocking. But by far the most shocking thing about it is that someone who could have acted differently didn’t. That is also what is most shocking about the stories of violence that take place in our daily lives. For most of the time someone who could have acted differently didn’t, resulting in lives scarred irreparably or lost.

Any act of violence is shocking, all the more shocking when we see that violence is so commonplace. It has become an expression of frustration, which by its silence is condoned by society. We need to find a cure. There are many models put forth for violent behaviour. Movies and television are full of them. Can we replace such models of violence, such heroes, with models of peace, with our own heroes and role models? Can people like St. Francis, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King and Jean Vanier be role models to us? Can we ask God for peace in our hearts, in our minds, in our souls?

The gospel is a call to each of us to seek for justice in the face of entrenched political power. We are called to fight against the violence that abounds in our world. We do not need to be part of it. We can overcome it. We can let God’s peace flourish within us. This can be a different world. Is not that the message of the cross? Jesus came to bring peace. Let us be instruments of peace.
Perhaps the answer lies after all in David’s dance of life. Is it time to put aside the balance sheet, the BCP and the BAS and simply kick up our heels and dance an alleluia to the giver of all good and perfect gifts? Amen

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (Proper 14)

My Grace is Sufficient

Readings: 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Psalm 48; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

There were some people whom Jesus simply could not reach. He was preaching in his hometown synagogue. His message and ministry there were heckled and rejected. People were not able or willing to understand how he could speak with such authority and wisdom. “Where does it all come from?” they ask. After all, isn’t he just a carpenter, the son of Mary, Jo’s boy? Don’t some of his brothers still live in the town? While they acknowledge his wisdom and power they cannot really accept it. After all, they knew him when he was growing up.

Jesus doesn’t really give it a second thought. He doesn’t let it consume him. He simply comments: “Prophets are not without honour, except in their hometown, and among their kin, and in their own house.” Jesus is simply saying that this is the way things are.

Families and people who have known us our whole lives have a habit of cutting us down to size, sometimes gently, often harshly. You can grow up and mature and have a respectable position in the community and still be remembered as the brat who was always getting into a fight. You can be a dependable parent yourself and still be reminded about your teen years when you tried your parents’ patience by coming in late. People can even take offense at your achievements. Human nature being what it is, rather than admit blindness to someone’s growth and change we can become angry at their achievements. How dare he or she prove our assumptions so wrong?

Jesus knew that his disciples would also face rejection. He prepared them for it. He gave them some directions, some rules. They had to take care of their own travel. That is what the staff and sandals were for. But for the rest of their needs they were to depend on the hospitality and resources of the community.

What was it that Jesus wanted the disciples to learn as he sent them out? He has nurtured them. Now he gives them responsibility and the opportunity to decide and respond and to act on their own. He sends them out in pairs. We need mutual support and encouragement. How important it is to have feedback on how your ministry is going! But most of all he is teaching them that they are to rely on God. They are to have no reliance upon their own means. Messengers who wish to provide for every emergency simply do not have enough faith. How can you believe the word of a person who relies on their resources rather than on the message they proclaim? They are to make use of what is provided, but things are in no way to become a hindrance to them.

Most of us do not have the ability or opportunity to come to such an understanding as the disciples did through an experience provided for their learning. I have to say, I did have such an opportunity when I was studying theology. I did a course in Urban Ministry. One of the requirements was to spend two days living on the streets of Toronto. I kept telling myself that I didn’t really need to do it, but it was made clear that if we did not participate we would not pass the course. And so one cold November weekend I set out with only the clothes on my back. Now I had prepared myself. I talked to the street people with whom I was working. “You’ll never survive a weekend on the streets,” they told me. But they helped me to prepare, giving me good advice. “When you ask for money,” they told me, “look for a couple. Look down. Speak to the woman. Have a good story ready. She’ll give you a lecture about finding a job, but then she’ll turn to her husband and tell him to give you something.” I must say, it worked every time.

I knew that in the cold of November I could not sleep outside on a grate. And so I planned on staying in a hostel. I had been working that year in a Food Bank. I remember seeing people pacing in front of the building. I would think to myself, “Why don’t they just come in? We always help them. We always give them something.” Then I found myself pacing in front of a hostel. I must have wandered back and forth for fifteen minutes before I went in. I realized that the most difficult thing for me to do was to say “I need help”. But when I did, the help came. They found me a place to stay.

Over that weekend I questioned whether it was the right thing to do, the ethical thing. But I know that without that life changing experience I could never have learned the things I learned about myself, about ministry, about human nature, and most especially about my need to rely on God. I needed to experience that God’s grace is sufficient for my needs.

Unfortunately in our human fallibility, it takes the crunches, the difficult times of life to bring us closer to God. It is times of affliction, trouble and adversity that cause us to seek refuge and dependence on a higher power.

For one it might be a diagnosis of cancer. How does one deal with the initial shock of the illness? How does one deal with the resulting treatments that leave one physically and emotionally spent? How does one deal with friends who find such illness threatening? How does one face one’s own sense of mortality?

For another it might be the death of a loved one after a long illness, the prospect of a life alone. How does one fill lonely days which have been spent in the care and nurture of one who has been ill? How does one deal with feelings of inadequacy and guilt? How does one deal with anger at being abandoned?

For another it may be the loss of a job after a life-time of dedicated service. How does one begin again? How does one face the financial crunch of being out of work or the feelings of inadequacy as one gets turned down for job after job? How does one even get up in the morning knowing that there is no job to go to? It is the crunch times of life that bring us to the point where we admit that we need God.

It was a crunch time for the apostle Paul that brought him to know that he could depend on God for his needs. He shares at a very deep level about a spiritual experience in his life. It is far from clear just what he experienced, but such things are often beyond words. Then he admits that it was the thorn in his flesh and not the mystical experience that caused him to put his reliance on God. He kept asking God to remove the “thorn”. Finally he accepted God’s response. “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

By ourselves we are inadequate to deal with our brokenness. The things that happen to us, the tragedies and difficult times, cause us to question our faith. Can that same brokenness which leads us to seek God help us in some tangible way to cling to God? Can the memory of our brokenness help us to hold on to that sense of dependency when things are going well? Can the reminders of our brokenness prevent us from going backwards in our faith journey?

Henri Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest and the author of the book “The Wounded Healer”, explains that it is our brokenness that allows us to minister to others. It provides us with an understanding of the brokenness of others. In our brokenness we reach out in compassion to others.

I can well imagine that it was Jesus’ compassion for those in need, which led him to give authority to the twelve whom he had chosen. He certainly intended that in this first period of preaching, they would learn that his power extended beyond his presence and could even be delegated to them. They would learn to depend on God for their needs. They would learn that God could supply their temporal needs. They would learn that despite opposition, God would not fail them. They would learn that even in their weakness they could depend on God.

“My grace is sufficient for you,” God is saying to each one of us. Can we open ourselves to God working through our weaknesses? Can we see God’s grace at work in our lives? Can we learn that reliance on God will help us, not only in our daily lives, but will allow us, in compassion to reach out to others? 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 ...