Friday, October 26, 2012

Proper 30, Year B

With Eyes Wide Open

Readings: Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Psalm 34:1-8; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52

It is said that when you lose one sense the other senses are heightened. Those who are blind begin to see in other ways. Most of us who are sighted fail to see even what is right before our eyes. We may see, but we don’t perceive.

An elderly woman got on a plane one day. As the stewardess helped her to her seat she kept thinking, “As if I’m not busy enough! Now I’ll have to spend the whole trip helping her.” The businessman seated beside her noticed her wallet bulging with pictures. “She’ll be talking incessantly about her grandchildren,” he thought to himself as he pulled out his paper. The teenager in the window seat put on his earphones and ignored her completely. They all picked up their luggage and walked out into the lounge. There was a huge crowd gathered to greet the old woman.

“What an honour it is for us to have an artist like you visiting us.”

The disciples often had trouble with their perception. James and John, for example, had a problem with seeing. They spent three years with Jesus and still didn’t really understand who he was.

But an old blind beggar had no trouble seeing. He knew everyone who passed by his stretch of road on the outskirts of Jericho. He heard their feet shuffling along in the dust. He heard the sighs of relief as they drank deeply of the cool water from the well.
As certain people approached, his hand automatically stretched out in anticipation for the coin that would be dropped into his palm.

As others came by he shrank into his cloak. He heard stories that stirred a deep longing within him. Stories of a miracle worker! A healer! So even in the midst of the crowds heading toward the oasis he recognized Jesus and his disciples as they came down the road. He began to call out, “Have mercy on me."

"Be quiet!" Others on the road ordered. But it did no good. He just shouted louder. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Jesus stopped. "Call him here," he said to them. Bartimaeus did not need any further invitation. He threw off his cloak and sprang to his feet.

"What do you want me to do for you?" Jesus asked him.

He had been waiting all of his life for someone to ask that question. He knew exactly what to ask for. He was desperately in need. He had lost everything, even his name.
Son of Timaeus, they called him. Those around him had pity – enough perhaps to throw him a few coins to keep him quiet; but underneath it all, he knew that they blamed him for his troubles. But this was Jesus. The miracle worker! Standing before him. Here was the one who could lift his life out of defeat. It was his one chance. And he seized the opportunity.

"My teacher, let me see again."

And Jesus said to him, "Go. Your faith has made you well."

He could see. He became whole. He followed Jesus. A healing took place that day. A deep healing! But far more than that, a transformation! Bartimaeus followed Jesus. He became a disciple.

Job too lost everything. All he can do is to cry out to God in his need and hope that God will hear and respond. God’s answer is that of a parent. God cannot make the hurt go away. But God can offer a hug. A hug makes it possible to bear any amount of suffering. It transforms Job.

“Before, I knew you only by hearsay,” he says to God, “but now, having seen with my eyes, I retract what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes.”

He sees God’s glory. He understands the meaning of his suffering. He knows the compassion of God. He knows that God walks with us.

“What do you want me to do for you?” God asks us on our faith journey. “What do you need? Do you have a longing in your life that just does not seem to be satisfied? Do you dare to ask me to respond to that longing? Can you name your need?” We all come to God with different needs. It may be a need born of desperation. It may be a sudden awareness of our neediness and an equally sudden response to God. It may be a gradual approach, tentative at first and then growing. We may still be searching for what it all means.

That question, "What do you want me to do for you?" is the central drama in the Christian life. We each respond in our own way. And as long as it is central in our lives, then the church lives. It is the root of our Christian vision. It includes all of us; rich and poor, blind and sighted, powerful and weak.

Naming our need is so important. It is the reason why twelve step programs work. The first step is to name the problem. “My name is … and I am an alcoholic.” Until they are able to take the beginning step, there is no recovery.

Victims of abuse need to name their experience. It is freeing to tell your story and be believed. The greatest affirmation any victim can receive is to be asked as Jesus asked Bartimaeus, “What do you need?” It can be the beginning of healing. It can do far more than any amount of compensation.

Coming to faith is a similar process. But it is a process which is different for each of us, for each of us comes with different needs. What is coming to faith like for you? And I say, "is it like", for it is an ongoing process. It is a journey which continues throughout our lives. For some people, it is a desperate attempt like that of Bartimaeus. There is a sudden awareness of need and an equally sudden response to God. For others the approach is gradual, tentative at first, and then growing. Perhaps some of us are still searching for what it means to be a Christian. Perhaps we are here searching for the beginning of faith.
Whatever the process is for us, hearing Jesus’ question , "What do you want me to do for you?" is the central drama in the Christian life. Each of us needs to respond in our own way. And as long as it is central in our lives, then the church lives. It is the root of the Christian's vision, for it includes the vulnerable of society, the weak, the needy, the marginalized. It has the capability of opening every one of us to God's transforming grace.

We saw it in South Africa as Desmond Tutu spoke the prophetic word about the sweetness of liberation. He firmly believes that liberation, the end of Apartheid, came about through God’s faithful people and their vision of what that blinded society should be like, and who were unwilling to give up that vision. He saw it as an expression of the faith and prayers of Christians throughout the world. And I believe along with him that our prayers were effective.

Do we have a vision for our church and for our society? What is the answer to what many say is the post Christian era? What is the answer to the violence in our society? How do we reach out to people who may never have had any contact with the Christian faith? How do we make our church open and accessible for those who may never have been in a church? How do we help our young people live a Christian life in a system that often reacts in embarrassment at the mere mention of Christian faith?

The end to such blindness begins with our personal affirmation, with our commitment to the life of faith, with our naming and recognizing our need. It continues with our prayer of faith. It is our personal life of faith that gives us a vision for all of creation. As long as that is central the church lives. If Jesus can heal a blind man, he can heal a blind society. He can heal a disintegrating civilization. Through unexpected sources; in unexpected ways; through our vision; through our reaching out to those in need; through our commitment to the gospel; through us, the faithful servants of God.

Open our eyes, Lord. We want to see Jesus.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Proper 29, Year B

To Suffer, To Serve

Readings: Job 38:1-7; Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

Two incongruous themes are interwoven throughout the readings. We are reminded once again that the Church is meant to be a serving church in the world, that greatness comes through service; but we are reminded also that service does not come without suffering. Being good and living righteously does not mean that we will not suffer. There is no short cut to God’s favour. Indeed, the path to glory is one that, more often than not, requires that the innocent must suffer.

Job struggles to understand why he is suffering while he continues to serve God. He calls on all of his resources, his friends, family and neighbours. They have many suggestions for him. “Look at the evil in yourself! Blame God! Give up!” But through it all he remains faithful to God. In one of the most poignant passages of the Old Testament, God speaks to him out of the chaos and disorder. And from those words of wisdom come the order and clarity that Job needs.

“What right,” God asks him, “do you have to question me? Do you presume to know the whole picture? Were you present at creation? What would this chaos be like if you were in charge?” Job realizes that not only does he lack knowledge; he is powerless before God. Who of us has not felt that awesome presence of God as we struggle to bring order to the chaos in our own lives?

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews presents Jesus as the Great High Priest. There is a difference though between Jesus and the rabbinical High Priests. For Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. It is that which enables him to identify fully with us in our weakness. Through his own suffering he knows the full extent of human suffering. He understands our human frailty with all of its limitations and trials. His suffering brings us into direct relationship with God.

In the Gospel, the disciples are trying to manipulate Jesus. “Promise us something!” they ask him.

“What is it you want me to do for you?”

And they ask, “Let us sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Don’t you have to ask yourself where they have been all this time? Have they ever listened to one thing Jesus has told them? Do they understand what is at stake?

And Jesus tells them why he came. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many,” he says, explaining the purpose of his life. His life is one of service and suffering. He sets before them the example of true greatness. Jesus overturns ordinary values in society. Authority comes through service. Through his innocent suffering he serves humanity and alleviates the sinful suffering of those who follow him.

We are not much on suffering these days. Our lives are pretty easy. We can switch channels when it becomes too much for us. We can turn our heads away and avoid the poverty and suffering around us. We can assuage our consciences by sending money while avoiding the risk of danger or disease. We can persuade ourselves that it is not our fault and that we bear no responsibility for the suffering of others.

But we simply cannot avoid the fact that to be human is to suffer. It is one of the conditions of human existence. It continues to be one of the most difficult faith questions for us to deal with. Why does God not simply change the human condition? Is suffering God’s will? If we say that suffering is God’s will, what do we mean? Do we mean that God intends that we suffer? That God causes suffering? That God brings about suffering for our own good? That was certainly the message of Job’s friends. It is often, even unthinkingly, the message conveyed to people who are sick.

It is not helpful to a person struggling with cancer to hear that it is God’s will. It is not helpful to a woman involved in an abusive marriage to be told that she must go back to her abuser because it is God’s will. It is not helpful to our First Nations people to hear that their poverty and difficulties came about because they needed to turn to Christianity. Such teaching – and I assure you that none of the examples I’ve given are fictitious – turns the Church into an oppressor. And that is contrary to the message that we are called to be a serving church.
So why do people suffer? Why do good people suffer? C.S. Lewis was asked that very question, "Why do the righteous suffer?" "Why not?" he replied. "They're the only ones who can take it."
The question then becomes, how do we draw the line between suffering that is part of creation’s goodness and suffering that is harmful? The line must surely be drawn at the point at which suffering ceases to serve life. It does not serve life for a victim of abuse to stay in an abusive relationship. It does not serve life for our First Nations people to continue to live in poverty. Such suffering requires repentance on the part of the perpetrator. It requires societal change.

We must recognize that there are times when suffering, either our own or that of someone close to us, brings us closer to God; when we feel God’s presence breaking through to us. If that were not so, we wouldn’t be gathered here in this church. It happens like that moment when the sun breaks through the clouds and the rainbow forms in the sky. All of the conditions are right. We see God’s glory so clearly at that point that we find ourselves in God’s very presence. Such times of deep spiritual clarity help us to know God’s presence when times are difficult. It is the kind of experience that Job had as God spoke out of the chaos of the whirlwind. It brings order to the chaos.

It is important for us to know that God participates in human suffering. We need to know that nothing can separate us from God’s participating love. We need to really know it, because to know it is to be a vital part of God’s response to human suffering.

Suffering is part of our world. We see it in peoples’ daily struggle against sickness, poverty, disease. We see it in the indifference, the hatred, the exploitation that exist in our world. But our faith provides us with a process to deal with suffering, and ultimately to come closer to God. We need to renew, to recharge our faith from time to time, to make certain that we keep the faith. There will be wounds, even scars to remind us of the wounds. But there will also be grace that brings us closer to God.

O God, grant us the serenity and peace of knowing that you are always with us. Amen.

Friday, October 5, 2012

National Thanksgiving

An Attitude of Gratitude

Readings: Job 1:1, 2:1-10; Ps 26; Heb 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Luke 17:11-19

There was a certain preacher who was known for his uplifting prayers. He always found something for which to be grateful. One Sunday morning the weather was so gloomy that one church member thought to himself, “Certainly he won’t think of anything for which to thank the Lord on a wretched day like this.” Much to his surprise, however, he began by praying, “We thank Thee, O God, that it is not always like this.”

We Canadians have so much to be thankful for, and yet it takes specific times of the church year to remind us to give thanks to God. It is easy to come up with a list of needs and petitions for our prayers, but seemingly much harder to come up with a list of things for which we are grateful. As we look around at the decorations in our church this morning we know how blessed we are to live in Canada. To live here means to share in the bounty and beauty of one of the wealthiest countries in the world. It means to live in freedom. It means to live in comfort. Sometimes we need to be reminded that such bounty brings with it responsibility. Along with the fruit and vegetables that we use to decorate our church, what we really offer to God is ourselves. We offer willingly and with thankful hearts all that we are and all that we have. It is that attitude of gratitude that comes through in a wonderful way in today’s gospel. It is an attitude that is not always easily acquired, even, or perhaps especially in our first world mindset.

The gospel today links gratitude to God with healing, with coming to wholeness. That is a wonderful thing for us to consider as we celebrate our National Thanksgiving.

We live in a world that is calling out for healing. Many in our world suffer from hunger, from want, from disease, from oppression. The gospel holds out the promise of healing and liberation through the message of salvation in Jesus Christ.

As Christians, we are called to wholeness. But more than that, we are called to share that wholeness with others. Most of us if asked what wholeness is, would speak in terms of being physically well. But true wholeness is far more than that. It is no accident that in Greek, the word we translate as "salvation", can also be used to mean health. In fact, modern psychology is just catching up with Greek, as it begins to see the strong link between health of body, mind, and spirit.

Luke tells a story that shows that link so clearly. Jesus was travelling between Galilee and Samaria. He was venturing out into the unknown, into a dangerous and uncertain place, a place where anything can happen, There he meets ten lepers. They are not in that "uncertain" place by choice. They are conforming to the law, a law which says they must keep their distance from people. However, they are allowed to call out for charity.

"Have mercy on us," they beg Jesus. And Jesus, in compassion, says to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." As they go on their way, they find that they have been cleansed, made clean. One of them, a Samaritan, an outsider, on finding himself healed returns to thank Jesus.

"Your faith has made you well, healthy, whole in every way," Jesus says to him. Not only is he clean as are the other nine, but he has received salvation. Because of his gratitude he has been made truly whole.

We need to question why that connection between gratitude and wholeness is so difficult for us to make. Indeed, it often seems as if those outside the established faith community are more open to the full healing message of Jesus Christ than those inside.

Let us reflect for a moment on the nine lepers who did not come back to Jesus. What kept them from acknowledging the healing grace that had been given to them that day? Was there something in their past which kept them from real wholeness?

Many things can keep us from being grateful. Perhaps fear or distrust kept the lepers from reaching out beyond themselves. Fear can keep you from accepting a gift of grace, even God’s grace.

Perhaps they were too angry at life to ever say thank you for anything again. When anger consumes you, there is no acceptance of the good things that God has in store. There is no forgiveness for what has happened in one’s life. You are beyond that kind of acceptance. And that is tragic.

Perhaps they did not connect the healing with the healer. It happened too easily. Because it was so simple, it was easy to think that it was all a dream. It didn't really happen at all. If something is too easy we may not see the need for gratitude. We may simply expect it as our due. We may think we have earned it as a right.

Perhaps they were so used to sickness that they could not handle being well. There are people like that. They get so caught up in being sick that they don't even know how to be well. They revel in their sickness.

Perhaps they were so overcome with emotion at being healed that it was impossible to talk about it. Or perhaps they were so anxious to talk about what had happened that they couldn’t wait. Was there family waiting for them? Children perhaps who had not seen their parent for many months? The excitement of being with loved ones could keep one from remembering. Are we ever forgetful of the good things that God does for us?

But one of them came back. What was different about the one who came back to say thank you? Part of it certainly lies in our childhood lesson about saying “thank you”. But the one who came back came not just to say thank you, but to give glory to God. Giving glory to God, recognizing that through Jesus God is active in our world, focusing on God, takes his action beyond that of simply giving thanks. He is offering himself. He is acknowledging God’s saving grace. And that is what made him whole. That is what gave him salvation.

What keeps us from real wholeness? How do we return to give thanks to God? All sorts of things that happen in life keep us from wholeness. But the real point is that Jesus doesn’t sit around waiting to be thanked. Jesus healed all the lepers. God offered each one a gift of grace. It is offered to each one of us, a free gift, no strings attached.

So let us come up with an amazing list of things for which we are thankful. We are thankful on this Thanksgiving weekend for family and friends with whom to share the bounty of God’s creation. We are thankful for the privilege of living in Canada, a land of opportunity, of peace, of wealth. We are thankful for freedom to worship, for the heritage of this lovely building, for its history, for people of faith who have worshipped here, and made it a holy place; for people who continue to support the ministry of this congregation; for the life and witness of Vincent Massey whom we honour anew this day, remembering his great contribution, his great leadership as Governor General of Canada.

It is through gratitude, through counting our many blessings, that we accept that free gift and realize God's healing grace. It comes about through our faithfulness to God. It is expressed in our worship. It is demonstrated through love. Let us daily remember how much we have to be thankful for. This thanksgiving can we open ourselves, heart, mind and soul, to God who freely graces our lives? Can we worship God with abandon? Can we be truly reconciled to God and open our lives to God's healing grace?

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 ...