Friday, August 31, 2012

Proper 22 Year B

Acceptable Worship

Readings: Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Adapting to change is a constant theme in life. It is human nature not to appreciate change. Consider the number of jokes about changing. We have all heard many versions of the ‘light bulb’ joke. How many Anglicans does it take to change a light bulb? Anglicans don’t change. It is true that as Anglicans in a liturgical setting we can get upset when something changes in the rituals. The ritual may not even make sense, but we want it to continue. Heaven help the person who tries to make a change!

I know this from personal experience. I am sure if I tried I could find a few examples from this congregation, but it is much safer to look back one of my previous congregations which shall remain nameless. When I first arrived in the parish they enlightened me about some of their “rules”. The best one was that the flowers on the altar were not to exceed the height of the arms of the cross. Since the cross and the flowers were all on the altar, it was no mean feat to arrange the flowers. They had a ruler back in the sacristy and if the flowers were too high, they simply lopped them off and stuck them back in the vases. The day I realized we had to find a way around the rule was the day we had four- inch gladiolas sticking up out of the arrangement. There was no way to change their mind about the ‘rule’, but they adapted wonderfully to putting up sconces for the flowers and putting the cross on a ledge far above the altar. It also gave me much needed space on the tiny altar.

Rules can be a good thing. We need to follow the rules of the road if we do not want to end up in an accident. A classroom would be chaos if there were not rules of conduct. We live in community. If there were no rules on how to conduct ourselves, we would not exist as a society.

But there is another kind of rule. We also choose our own rules of conduct depending on the company that we keep. There are rules about how to dress. When I went on my first job interview as a teacher I wore a hat and gloves or I would not have been hired. In the 60’s if you saw a VW van with “Make love, not war” bumper stickers and a long haired driver wearing granny glasses you knew that they were hippies. In the 80’s, if you saw a BMW driver wearing Gucci shoes and a Rolex watch you knew that you were observing a yuppie. Think of some of the markers that people have today – nose rings, low slung pants, multiple earrings, tattoos.

Change is not a problem relegated to the 21st Century. In Jesus’ time it was a problem. Talking with women in the street was against traditional rules. Talking with foreign women was completely out of the question. Approaching lepers was not done. Healing on the Sabbath was a ‘no no’. Eating without washing your hands was unconscionable. There were many rules to follow. Some of them made sense. They brought order into the people’s lives. Some of them simply marked them, set them apart for who they were. Their observance of the Sabbath, food taboos and circumcision were the things that set the Jews apart from the Gentile world. Jesus did not regard the laws as bizarre or outlandish. He understood them. But at the same time he knew that it was the shema, loving God with heart and soul and strength that was the essence of Judaism. He knew that following every cleansing ritual prescribed by Jewish law would not make a difference to society. He knew that it was about more than simply following the old traditions. He knew that they needed to put their faith into action if it was going to be effective, if it was going to bring them closer to God, if they were going to live out their faith. He knew that what was needed to identify the people as God’s people was an authentic faith and a sense of justice and love. He knew that it was far more about people choosing to do the right things, not because they were following the rules, but because they wanted to do the right thing. They wanted to do things because they were convinced that it was the right thing to do.

So what is it that marks us, that sets us apart as Christians? The Gospel reading challenges us to do some honest self-evaluation. It is not through ritual that we serve God. Common sense should dictate to us whether or not what we practice as ritual has any merit. What brings us close to God is not how we practice our faith, but how we live it. Jesus pointed out the hypocrisy of their practices to the Pharisees. He let them know that they were more concerned about the enforcement of rules than the human situation. They were dependent on knowledge rather than faith. Their practices were more important than the purpose they served. And that would never make a difference in their lives.

Again and again we hear Jesus take moral issues out of the realm of mere action and into the deeper realm of motivation. How many times must we forgive? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are forgiving people. Do we say grace day after day, praying for the needs of others, but never contribute to help change their plight? Do we bring names of the sick and suffering to the altar Sunday after Sunday but never go out to minister to them? Do we have a rich liturgical life but do none of the real work of the church? Do we think that we serve God by going to church on Sunday, or by spending time in private prayer, or through our financial support of the church? These may indeed be signs of a Christian living a Christian life. But they do not change the fundamental question. “How is my heart towards God?”

“There is nothing,” Jesus says, “that goes into a person from the outside which can make that person unclean. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that makes one unclean.” Jesus is affirming the holiness, the sacred nature of all creation.

A little child has been playing in the garden. He is covered with dirt from head to toe. He runs over to you and plants a big kiss, saying, “I love you.” How like that child we are. God loves us and we approach God with a grimy kiss. God looks through our messiness and our dirt, looks through all of these things that are wrong and sees innocence and a desire to please. God accepts our grimy kiss and is pleased with our coming, no matter what our condition.

So we must constantly ask, “Is our worship acceptable to God?” It is if we come, no matter how grimy, as children of God and go out cleansed, restored, and forgiven as servants into the world.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Proper 21, Year B

This past week I co lead an Immersion group at the Social Justice Camp in Peterborough. Our group considered Urban and Rural Realities of our Aboriginal peoples and included workshops on Treaty and the History of the Residential Schools as well as visits to the reserve at Curve Lake and the Native Council Fires in downtown Toronto. We met amazing people along the way who shared their journey of truth and reconciliation. I will share some of that with the people of St. Mark's tomorrow.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Proper 20, Year B

What Matters?

Readings: 1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14; Psalm 111; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

You are with someone you dearly love. You would like very much to convince him or her to change their behaviour. Maybe you want them to stop a dangerous habit, avoid a quarrel, forgive some bitterness, forget something from the past, or to make a decision about something that keeps being put off. It could be your son or daughter, your mother or your father, your husband or wife, a friend. She is standing there before you. He is sitting right next to you. You talk, you reason, you argue, you speak. There is no response. You might as well be talking to the wall. He just stands there staring at you. She just sits there not showing any sign of real contact. You plead, “If only you could see things the way I see them. If only you could understand what I understand. I wish I could get inside your head and make you see. I wish I could get into your heart and make you feel what I feel. If only we could both think the same way about this!

That is the way Jesus is speaking in the gospel reading. That is why we have heard the same message over and over again for the past three weeks. “Listen to what I am telling you,” Jesus is saying to the crowd. Week by week the crowd changes and grows. First it is an intimate group of followers. Then it is some friends. Finally it the crowds that gather to witness his miracles. When they find out that there is no more free bread, the crowd grows increasingly hostile. “I know what is at stake,” Jesus says to them. “Listen to me. Try to see what I am telling you. Try to see things as I see them. Try to feel things as I feel them. I come from God. Eat the bread I eat. Drink the wine I drink. Drink my blood and eat my flesh!” “Figure out what matters!” he is saying to them.

Paul has much the same message for the Ephesians. “Be careful then how you live,” he says to them. You need to decide how to live your lives. You need to decide what is worth putting time and energy and talent into. You need to ask yourself, “What really matters? What matters in my life? Is what I am doing worthwhile? Is it something that will sustain me, that will contribute to the world in which I live? Will it give meaning to my life?”

Ephesus was a great city with a fascinating and varied life. Paul knew that living there could become an end in itself. These fledgling Christians could be drawn into its sophistication, its affluence, its sexuality, its commerce, its cosmopolitanism. It had so much to offer. He is not saying that everything is bad. He is just saying that they need to make choices amongst everything that is offered. The choices they make need to be life giving for them.

What about our world today? Does it sound at all like Ephesus? Our culture is a mixed bag. It varies from the sublime to the obscene. All the things that could attract the interest of the Ephesians could attract us. We can waste our time on things that are useless, or we can live creatively and triumphantly. It has always been that way. It is, after all, a matter of choice.

How would Paul address us, living here in Port Hope? How would Jesus speak to us today? We live in a world in which millions are starving while others eat too much. We live in a world where there is crisis after crisis. We live in a world of violence. We live in a world where people die of AIDS while wealthy countries hoard drugs that could be life saving. We live in a beautiful world that is dying inch by inch because of our lack of stewardship. We live in a world which for many is a virtual world of Twitter and Facebook, often devoid of human contact. If Jesus were speaking to us, he would speak words of life. He would speak them over and over again until we learned to listen. He would use every possible way he could to get across to us, to convince us, to help us understand what is best for us. He would say that he himself, his words, his life, his witness, is for us. His words are for us if we will let them speak to us. They are for us if we allow them to be? He would use every word he could think of to let us know how much he loves us and cares for us and wants us to commit ourselves to him. He would speak even when he felt as if he were speaking to the wall.

So what matters? That is what the crowds around Jesus could not understand. They thought that it was about a miracle. They thought it was about getting everything their hearts desired. They thought it was about free food. They thought it was about being in the right place at the right time. They thought it was about being lucky.

That sounds pretty much like the world we live in. Let’s face it! We want miracles. We want everything our hearts desire. And we want it now. This week I got a letter in the mail. It was addressed to me. I suspected that it might be a request for a donation. I usually read such mail and then decide whether or not I wish to respond. So I opened it. It was a sales pitch for a good luck charm. If I were to purchase the ring they offered for only seven dollars they would guarantee that I would be lucky. All of my money and love problems would be solved. I would never have any difficulties in life again. All I need do is wear the ring.

We hear that same message in so many ways. Our materialistic culture hammers it out to us constantly. And we buy into it. If only we could move into a bigger house … If only I could win the lottery… If only …

Instead we need to keep reminding ourselves of what matters. Consider your own memories for a moment. We live in an age of extravagance. There is glitter and glamour. Yet I suspect that our most splendid moments are quite common and simple. A glass of cold water when we are hot and thirsty, a simple meal when we are hungry, a kind word when we are feeling down, a meaningful embrace expressed with sincerity … There is no act of love that is insignificant.

That is what Jesus wanted the crowds to know. He wanted them to know that God loved them. He wanted them to know that God really loved them. He wanted them to know the love of God in such a way that they could pass it on. He knew that if they saw and recognized the love of God standing there in front of them, if they understood that it was not about material things, but about warmth and attention and companionship and love, then that would be passed on from person to person.

We experience the truth of Jesus’ words in our tradition of the Eucharist. The act of celebrating life is a healing thing. It doesn’t just make us feel better. It makes us better. It is good for us. Worship is our way of celebrating life. We come together in a tumultuous and frightening world that makes us wonder sometimes whether there is even a future to celebrate. In community we share a belief that there is meaning and love behind it all. We feel touched by that love and care. It gives meaning to our lives; it gives hope. The sacred meal at the centre of our church’s life is not only nourishing for each of us, but it is nourishing and unifying for the whole body of the church. It convinces us of what really matters. Amen.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Proper 18, Year B

Transforming our Souls

David’s behaviour is nothing short of scandalous. In our world of twitters and tweets and Facebook it would have been out in a matter of minutes. Even in David’s time such events are not kept secret for long. First of all David is lounging at home while his men are fighting his battles. Then he becomes so enthralled with a woman that he takes her and then has her husband killed to cover up his misdeeds. Don’t you want to ask David why he thought he could do such a terrible thing? What was he thinking? Did he really think that he could get away with it? Did he think that there would be no price to pay? No doubt he considers that sin is personal, that it is simply an offence against God who will forgive and everything will go on as it always has. But no matter how we might wish it, no matter how we might try to convince ourselves, no sin is an offence only against God. It always hurts others. When the powerful sin it has even graver consequences for society.

Along comes Nathan. How does a prophet survive confronting the king? Nathan is brave to even consider it. His approach is clever. He tells David a story about two people, one rich and powerful; the other poor. The rich man has many flocks and herds. The poor man has a little ewe lamb which he treats as a well-loved pet, a member of the family. A traveller drops in on the rich man. He offers hospitality, but rather than preparing one of his own flock for the traveller, he takes the poor man’s only lamb, slaughters it, and feeds the man. Our sense of justice comes to the forefront when we hear the story. As listeners we become outraged at the actions of a wealthy person who would steal a poor man’s lamb.

David too is outraged. “The man deserves to die. He owes the poor man four times what he took because he had no compassion,” David exclaims. Nathan’s words ring true and cut to the core as he confronts David with his sinful behaviour. “You are the man!” What must it have been like for David to hear those words? Caught out like a naughty child! Nathan reminds him of all that God has done for him and what a terrible deed it was for him to have Uriah killed simply to take his wife. David comes, as we all must, to the realization that he has done a grievous wrong. He repents, but the fact is that he did not count the cost of his sinfulness until confronted by Nathan. He failed to consider the responsibility that comes with power.

There are many examples of it in society today. Consider the abuse at Penn State University. Sandusky, of course, has been convicted and is paying the price for the evil he has done. The university also faces sanctions that will be very difficult to pay. Many people think that the university should not be held accountable for a crime committed by one of its employees. But the fact is that they put football before the lives of the victims. As one commentator put it, ‘They didn’t issue the death penalty to the university. They went further than that. They ordered the university and those who run it to transform their soul.’ That, I would say, is what Nathan did for David. David not only repented; it transformed him. That is the role of the prophet. And we have far too few prophets in our world today.

Closer to home, consider Canadian history with respect to our Aboriginal people. We took away their livelihood, their culture, their family life. We gave them diseases which wiped them out. We made treaties with them which we broke. We moved them away from their ancestral lands onto reserves. Then we took away their children, sending them to Residential Schools where many were abused. Yet it is very difficult for people to understand that atonement needs to be made. It was a transformative moment for the Canadian Anglican Church when Michael Peers stood before the National Native Convocation in Minaki in 1993 and apologized on behalf of the church. And I quote what he said: “I have heard the voices that have spoken of pain and hurt experienced in the schools, and of the scars which endure to this day. I have felt shame and humiliation as I have heard of suffering inflicted by my people, and as I think of the part our church played in that suffering. I am deeply conscious of the sacredness of the stories that you have told and I hold in the highest honour those who have told them. I have heard with admiration the stories of people and communities who have worked at healing, and I am aware of how much healing is needed. I also know that I am in need of healing, and my own people are in need of healing, and our church is in need of healing. Without that healing, we will continue the same attitudes that have done such damage in the past.”

His apology was accepted, and then the real work of truth and reconciliation began. It continues as we listen and respond to the stories of abuse and lost lives and heartache. As we listen to the stories, as we accept responsibility for the actions of our church, it transforms our souls. Then we truly understand the message of the Gospel.

Jesus wanted to transform the souls of the crowds who followed him. “You are looking for me because you ate your fill of the loaves,” Jesus tells them. He knows that they have missed the point. They have witnessed the feeding of the five thousand. If it could happen once, why can it not happen all of the time? If Jesus can perform wonders, perhaps they can harness his power in some way. Perhaps he can pass on his powers to them. Then there would be a constant supply of free food. There would be no more worries, no more hardship or struggle. That would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? Like winning a lottery! Surely God would want that. By fulfilling their material needs, their suffering would end.

But that is a purely materialistic interpretation of what Jesus is saying. He wants them to understand that feeding five thousand people, no matter how extraordinary it is, is not the most important occurrence. The real miracle is the one they have missed out on. The real miracle is the one that can change their lives, not materially, but spiritually. The real miracle is the one who can give meaning and direction to their lives.

It is easy for us as we read the Gospel, to see that the crowd has missed the point. The writer wanted us to recognize it. However, similar experiences in our own lives are more difficult for us to perceive until we reflect back on the impact in our lives. Things become much clearer in hindsight. Such reflections, once we allow them to surface, may leave us with a far clearer understanding of the power of God working in our lives. They can transform our lives.

What is our relationship with Jesus all about? Is it about what we get out of it? Christ is present to us in the Eucharistic offering of the church. As Jesus becomes the bread of life for us, we are the bread of life to those around us. The reality of Christ giving himself totally in the Eucharist is the model and criterion of Christian behaviour. To be like Christ is to love in a life-giving way. It involves being generous, not just by providing bread but by sharing the deeper gift of ourselves. Such sharing becomes our purpose in life. It gives present and eternal meaning to life. Jesus is bread for our souls, nourishing, wholesome and life-giving. He is the bread of our Eucharist lying in our outstretched hands. “Evermore give us this bread.” Transform our souls! 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 ...