Friday, September 28, 2012

Harvest Thanksgiving

Don't Worry!

Readings: Joel 2:21-27; Psalm 126; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Matthew 6:25-33

Don’t you love it when someone says, “Don’t worry! Everything will be fine!”

“It’s easy for you to say,” you think. “This is my life. It isn’t happening to you. It’s happening to me. Your job isn’t on the line. Your child isn’t having trouble at school. Your marriage isn’t on the rocks. I have so much to be worried about,” you are thinking. And worry seems to be a part of our existence. We worry about everything. We are preoccupied about our health and dying a premature death. We are concerned with our aches and pains. And then there are the worries about whether or not we have enough money. Even in Canada, a country flowing with milk and honey, we worry about food, whether we will have enough to eat. We worry about what to wear, not so much about whether we have the basic necessities of clothing to keep us warm, but about whether or not we are in style. It matters so much to us about how we appear to other people.

I wonder what the disciples said to Jesus when he told them not to worry. I can hear them thinking, “Don’t tell us not to worry. We’ve given up everything to follow you. We haven’t been home in months. Most of the time we don’t know where our next meal is coming from. Not that we’re complaining!”

"Your citizenship is in the kingdom of God,” he tells them. "You can afford to lose your possessions. You can even afford to lose your lives. You are children of God. God will never fail or forsake you." Jesus is not saying, “Give up your work.” He is saying, “Examine your priorities. What are you going to put first in your life? What is important to you?”

We all know that our primary concern in life should not simply be with material things. The meaning of life is not to be found in things. It is not to be found in jobs, income, pension plans, food, clothes, reputation, status.

But hold on. That isn’t a very practical form of discipleship. It makes too many demands of people. It calls for real commitment to the will of God. It demands that we put God first. While that is a good message for us to contemplate as we celebrate the harvest, the wealth that God has provided for us, it is not an easy message. Even in our own country where we live in the midst of plenty these are not the easiest of times. We don’t worry just about death and taxes. We worry about job security. We worry about raising our children. We worry about health care issues. We worry about growing old. How are we to follow Jesus’ admonition not to worry?

The Israelites have lived a nomadic existence for generations. It has not always been an easy time. They have had their share of things about which to grumble. They are about to enter the Promised Land. "Take care," Moses says to them, "that you do not forget the Lord your God when you have eaten your fill, when you have fine houses to live in, when you have riches and wealth." They are be-ing warned to be careful not to take things for granted.

The truth that Deuteronomy communicates is that God wants us to remember that it is not by our power and our strength that we exist as servants of God. It is by God's grace. We in turn are called to extend that grace to those in need.

For Paul it was about remembering God’s bounty. He reminds the Corinthians about their need to give as God gives. It is his stewardship sermon. “God provides abundantly,” he tells them, “so that you will have enough not only for yourselves, but also to share with others who are in need.” He is not talking about having enough resources to be self-sufficient, to be independent, to get rich, but enough resources to be able to help one another.

For whatever reason, as a people who are certainly blessed with more than our share of the world's wealth, we don’t always seem grateful for what God has provided. We want more than simply a good harvest. Produce has to be perfect or people will not buy it. We import food from all over the world so that we can have variety in our lives. And yet we still find it very difficult to thank God for all the great gifts of creation. We have a long list of things that we need, but a short list of things for which we are grateful.

Why is it that we find that so difficult? What do we expect? What is central for us? What are our priorities? What do we put first in our lives? Isn’t that the point of the readings? We need to learn to live a more balanced life. We need to set our priorities. Most of all we need to understand what it means to lift thankful hearts and voices to praise God.

Celtic spirituality, which is at the root of our British heritage, had a wonderful way of living that out. They had a deep connection to God in their daily lives, a strong sense of God’s presence with them. It began with their thankfulness to God. A woman began her day by lighting the fire. "I will kindle my fire this morning in the presence of the holy angels of heaven," she prayed. She washed her face. "The palmful of the God of life, the palmful of the Christ of love, the palmful of the Spirit of peace." As she made her bed she prayed, "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. In the name of the night we were conceived, in the name of the night that we were born, in the name of the day we were baptized, in the name of each night, each day, each angel that is in the heavens." As she began her day, so she moved through her whole day, praising God for all of the simple things of life. Every aspect of life was sacred. All of life was part of God's creative work in the world. Life was lived under the shadow of God's protective arms. Awe and dread of God was balanced by trust in God's love and mercy. For her, this was God's world, a world to be claimed, affirmed, and honoured.

Our Aboriginal people have no particular time to give thanks. Every aspect of life is an opportunity to give thanks to the creator. We have somehow lost that sense of God’s graciousness in providing for our needs. We think that it has something to do with how hard we work or how lucky we are. Harvest Festival reminds us that we are to cast aside our worries and celebrate the things that God has provided.

William Temple, a great theologian of the church, once said that the most effective thing that Christians could do in the world is to lift up their voices in thanksgiving to God. Do we really believe that prayer has anything to do with what happens in the world? Do we pray for the leaders of our country really expecting that something powerful can happen? Do we see the signs around us of God's presence in our lives? Do we care for this world in a way that expresses our gratitude?

We read and experience climatic change. In all probability Canada will face more floods, droughts and tornadoes with the increasing levels of ozone in the atmosphere. Yet we continue to use up far more than our share of the world’s goods. We are avid consumers. We think that by re-cycling some of our garbage we will somehow make up for the damage that we are doing. We worry far more about the financial stresses that result from climatic change than the good of the world. Change will come about because each one of us begins to take seriously our obligation to God and to this wonderful creation. It will come about through our thankful hearts.

There is an episode of Frasier that always brings it home to me. He and his brother Niles are in the coffee shop as usual. Niles said to him, “Are you happy!”

Frasier turns the question back to Niles, “Why do you ask?”

Niles responds, “It’s just that I saw an orphan receive a pair of cheap shoes. And there was such an expression of gratitude on his face. He was so happy. Why was he so happy? Here I am wearing a pair of $400.00 shoes. I look at them and wonder if I even really like them. Do you like them? They have tassels. I don’t really like tassels. What do you think?”

And Frasier spends the rest of the show trying to decide what it is that makes him happy or if he is happy at all.

Think of a desert place. It may seem to us to be nothing but sand. How can anything survive in such a climate,” we ponder. Yet if we look beneath the surface of that desert, excavate the sand, we will see a vast ecosystem at work. It is cool underground; the plants harbour moisture; all the needs of those desert dwellers are there.

Like Niles we wonder sometimes how people who lack the luxurious lifestyle that we take for granted can be happy. How can children living in misery in Afghanistan or Haiti or India or The Sudan ever laugh? How can they play and sing when we can’t with all that we have? How can they play and sing and hold hands, and fall down on the ground and rejoice? But they can. And they know enough to thank God for it.

On this Harvest festival, can we reflect that what we have may be a hindrance not only to God, but to one another? Can we lift thankful hearts to a loving God who cares for each of us, and provides for our needs? Can we learn to share our bounty, and in that sharing find the happiness that God would have us know?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Proper 24, Year B

The Cost of Discipleship

Readings: Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

Rumours pose a problem when it comes to famous people. Elvis continues to be spotted, apparently alive and well and living in Memphis. When Michael Jackson died he took some of that hype over from “the King”. After his funeral there were eye witness accounts of his crossing the border into Mexico, of his lounging around a pool chatting with his friends, and best of all, of him working with the CIA.

Often the rumour mills focus on the Royal Family. This week their private life was once again invaded as the paparazzi took pictures of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge vacationing at a private home in the middle of nowhere. It seems that people who would take such photos cannot or will not learn from past mistakes.

These days of instant communication it is easy to start a rumour. We can tweet it or post it on Facebook and in a moment or two everyone on your contact list has the bit of gossip complete with picture. Privacy is a thing of the past.

But then, rumours have always been a problem. James warns the early Christians to be careful of what they say about other people. His admonition is not simply about being tactful or holding back what we really think, but a reminder that we are made in God’s image, and our attitudes towards other people should reflect our understanding of what that means; indeed it should reflect our faith.

If someone spread an untrue or confusing rumour about you, how would you fight it or persuade people to accept your word and truth? How might the stories or inaccuracies affect your life in rather negative ways? It is good to know what people are actually saying about you. Maybe some of those things are behind Jesus’ question to the disciples in today’s gospel. After all, there were many misconceptions about who Jesus was. Even the disciples were not always clear. And so Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?”

Often we are the last one’s to hear the rumours in the rumour mill. Jesus is wise to check it out with his followers who are more likely to hear what is going on than he. And he gets back a rather ominous list. John and Elijah and the prophets were all on pretty dangerous paths. If popular opinion was right, then the future could be pretty precarious for Jesus.

The conversation does not stop there. Jesus asks a further question, a far more important one for Peter to come up with an answer. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus knows human nature. What we have heard about people often informs our own opinions of them and of what they have accomplished. He needs to know how his followers view him. It is one of the great moments in the gospel, a time for commitment, for soul searching, for decision making.

Peter answers. He answers intuitively. He answers from the heart. “You are the Messiah, the anointed one.” He knew what it meant, at least to a certain extent. It must have been a shock to him to hear it coming out of his mouth. He must have begun to realize the implications of being a follower of Jesus. If he did not get the full impact of his statement, certainly Jesus’ words about suffering and dying and rising again would give him pause for reflection. That is why Peter rebukes him. He cannot face reality. He cannot yet face the cost of discipleship.

We all come to the point where we need to honestly answer Jesus’ question. He is standing there, asking each one of us, “Who do you say that I am?” There are so many answers. I realize that over my lifetime I have changed my mind many times about who Jesus is. Is Jesus a freedom fighter? That was probably in Peter’s mind. There are many who see Jesus as liberator. Saviour, redeemer, creator, nurturer, friend, brother, companion, Lord, God, Almighty, King!

As it did for Peter and the disciples, it comes down to the real question. “Are you going to deny yourself and follow me?” As with Peter it needs to sink in to us not only who Jesus is but what the cost will be of following him.

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?

There is a wonderful story about Bob Dylan talking 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. As I prepare children for baptism I always remind the children and their parents that they have an invisible marker on their forehead. They belong to Christ. It always reminds me of Jack. He was four years old when I prepared him for baptism. He was a bright little boy with a lot of questions. I showed him the chrism oil and talked to him about making the sign of the cross on his forehead. For many years after he would ask me if I could still see the sign of the cross on his forehead. I have to say, I always do.

That invisible marker, that sign of the cross, that promise at baptism, needs to result in action in our lives. We need to be servants of Christ. We need to deny ourselves and follow Christ.

Dorothy Day, a contemporary American saint was a tireless worker. She started the Catholic Worker movement, opened homes for the homeless and community farms for the poor. She was special. She did extraordinary things. Yet she became quite indignant when told that.

“You say that I am special because you don’t want to do what you see me do. You can easily do what I do, but by convincing yourself that I am someone special you can escape from your own responsibility. We are not so different. You can do what I do.”

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.

The gospel warrants a few choice rumours being spread around. “Jesus spotted alive in Port Hope Church” the headline reads. The article goes on to talk about the wonderful things that are happening in our lives here in this parish. We are hearing and responding to the word of God. We are witnessing to our faith. We are reaching out into the community. We are growing in grace. 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 ...