Friday, January 25, 2013

The Third Sunday of Epiphany, Year C

As Wise as Geese

Readings: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

There is a consistent theme running through the readings today, that of our Christian vocation. The Old Testament reading is a reminder that God calls us to hear, to understand, and to follow the law, not the law laid out by society, but the law of God. The people of Israel have returned from their long exile in Babylon. Their nation is in a shambles. Not only does the city need to be rebuilt, but the people have forgotten their ways. Law and order need to be reestablished. Nehemiah calls them together for the reading of the law. They are reminded of the things they hold in common, things that set them apart as the people of God. He tells them of their need to draw together as community. They are reminded to rejoice, for they are called back into community with one another, and that is cause for great joy.

We too need to return from exile. Society has exiled us. Our faith, at one time the foundation of western civilization, is constantly being called into question. Our sense of ethics is assaulted on every side. We seem to have lost the understanding that as Christians we are called to live in the world but to live as Christ. We are called to a vocation as Christians. It is our life’s work. That vocation should lead us to an awareness of God's law and its effect on how we live our lives. Do we live differently? If we do not, we are in danger of losing forever the moral precepts of our faith.

Who are the Nehemiah’s, the prophets of our time who are calling us back to the law? Do we need to be reminded of those things we hold in common, the things that make us a community of faith? They are a good reminder as we end the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, for it is a call, not to Anglicans, but to the whole people of God.

It is also fitting that we should be reading the passage from Paul's letter to the Corinthians, for it is a call to be community. He is writing to a community that is deeply divided. They are quarrelling about who is to be leader. They are arguing about which ministries are the most valuable to the community. Paul uses the image of the body to express their need to draw together as a community. It is a very clever illustration, and Paul milks it. We all know how the parts of our body work together. We know that we do not have to think about how to get from one spot to another. Our feet simply take us. We do not think about the complexity of vision, at least not until we need bifocals. We simply look and see. His analogy provides an ideal, a norm by which we work as society.

Christ, Paul tells them, exists as a body. The parts of the body are all the Christians. By baptism, we become a part of the body. The body becomes a reality. Nothing can prevent the baptized person from being a part. So we find in the community a diversity of race, of sex, of social class, all interrelated, all necessary to the unity of the church. That unity is the essence of Christian community.

Paul knows that the Corinthians need to work together as a community. He warns them not to dissociate themselves from the body because of their differences. It is their very individuality, their particular gift, which is needed for the church to function. So when someone says to you, “I can be a Christian without going to church!” remind them that while they may be able to function outside the church, the body of Christ is incomplete without them.

Diversity is the real strength of Anglicanism. We are a world wide communion of believers. We worship together in many different ways. What are the implications of Canadian society with its multicultural diversity? Is it an obstacle to growth? Or is it a challenge to change and grow? Who do we leave out because they do not look like us or act like us? Are we open to children and young people? Are we open and friendly to visitors? Do we invite people into our community? How do we work to bring unity into our diversity? How do we work with our Ecumenical partners?

That is the challenge of the gospel reading for today. It is a call to Christian vocation, our personal call to ministry. It calls us to follow Christ in reaching out to others. In this beginning of his earthly ministry, Jesus expresses the mission to which he has been called. Anointed by the Spirit he has been sent to preach the gospel to the poor, the disadvantaged, the exploited. It is the dawning of a new age. Scripture is fulfilled in the person of Christ.

God continues to be shown through individual lives, yours and mine. Jesus fulfilled his ministry through proclamation. He preached. He chose disciples and they preached. Reformations and crusades were launched. Revivals were born. Churches were built. Slaves were set free. Good news was proclaimed. That Christian mission is still being fulfilled in every part of the world. Sometimes the price is tragically high. But then the price for Christ was tragically high.

But the price for not following that mission is even more tragic. Is it a price that we are already paying in Canadian society? What are the signs, the epiphanies of today? If we listen to the prophets of our time, then the signs are of moral decay and an end to Christianity. The latest demographic report of our diocese points out that we are a church in decline. We are more used to closing churches than to building them.

Are we meeting the needs of society? Many who call themselves Anglicans are not even Christmas and Easter Christians. They come to church only for the services we offer. We might call them "hatch, match and dispatch" Christians. Do we know what people are searching for? Do we care? Do we want to make a difference in this place? Do we want to fulfill our vocation as the people of God?

Geese can teach us a great deal about our need to be part of the body of Christ. Perhaps you have read this in some form or other. It is not clear who wrote it or for what purpose, but geese have a sense of interdependence, which speaks some deep truths to us as Christians. When you see geese heading north for the summer or south in the fall, flying along in "V" formation, you might be interested in knowing what scientists have discovered about why they fly that way. It has been learned that as each bird flaps its wings, it creates uplift for the bird immediately following. That “V” formation adds at least 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own.

Do we share a common direction and sense of community? We can look back to a glorious past and rest on our laurels, or we build on each others’ strengths and change and grow.

Whenever a goose falls out of formation, it feels the drag and resistance of trying to go it alone. It quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird immediately in front.

If we have as much sense as a goose, we will stay in formation with those who are heading in the same direction as we are.

When the lead goose gets tired, it rotates back in the wing and another goose flies point, teaching us that it pays to take turns doing hard jobs.

Geese honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep up their speed. Do we encourage others in their lives and in their ministries?

When a goose gets sick, or is wounded by gunshot, and falls out, two geese fall out of formation and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay until the goose is either able to fly or has died, and then they fly together until they catch up with their group. If we have the sense of a goose, we will stand by each other, protect one another and sometimes make new friends who seem to be going in our direction.

We are a Christian community. We are the body of Christ. By baptism, each one of us is called to Christian service. Each one of us is important to the fulfilling of our mission as a church. Let us see the face of Christ in those around us. Let us be a community of love.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Second Sunday after Epiphany (Proper 2) Year C

When the Wine Runs Out

Readings: Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

There is something in our human nature that loves a miracle. The more astounding the better! Consider the Guinness World Book of Records. For instance did you know that “a crowd of thousands turned Seattle into a blizzard of snow balls last week as the US city's downtown area played host to area a record-breaking icy battle?” Almost six thousand people helped set a new world record for the largest snowball fight.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise to you that Facebook currently holds the World Record for the largest online social network.

However, I doubt that you know that Ann Atkin has two thousand forty-two gnomes and pixies, on her Gnome Reserve in West Putford, Devon, UK. Or that Donald Gorske of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, USA has consumed twenty-three thousand McDonald's Big Macs . He has been eating them on a daily basis for almost forty years.

But when you come down to it, what difference does it really make? And for whom? What difference does it make in the whole scheme of things? And yet these records are kept, and people keep trying to do better in order to get their names published in a book. And obviously other people buy the book and are fascinated by the many feats that are accomplished.

And so we come to the wedding feast in Cana. The “wow” factor in the story is astounding. It is one amazing fact after another. It is a Guinness World Book of Records in itself. Five hundred litres of wine produced from water! And not just your run of the mill wine! The best wine these people have ever tasted! But I have to ask, what difference did it make? Who even knew that Jesus had performed such a miracle? His mother, his disciples, the stewards who took the wine into the host? Really, who cares?

For that very reason the miracle at Cana is often referred to as the “luxury miracle”. “Was it even necessary?” scholars ask. It took place in the everyday occurrence of a wedding. The same Christ who refused to turn stones into bread to satisfy his own hunger turned water into wine to allow some guests at a wedding to make merry. What is that all about? Apart from helping the host out of an embarrassing situation, it had no lasting effect or benefit for those present.

And so as we look at this story we need to look deeper, past the glitz, past the “wow” factor, past the sensationalism, to the real reason that John told the story in the first place. I think he told it for many good reasons.

He told it because he wants us to remember that we have a God who graces us, who is lavish with love. Our loving God does not worry about what is practical. God does not worry about the impact of God’s actions. God simply connects with humankind where we are. God reaches through time and space to be in relationship with us.

He also told it because he wants us to remember that the very ordinariness of life is the source of the celebration. While we in our humanity are impressed by big things, and oppressed by great problems, God demonstrates power in a simple, unassuming way. Observing what God has created should convince us of that. The lacy pattern of a single flake of snow, the beauty of a weed along a country lane, a rainbow arching across the sky!

The best reason of all is simply that there are times when we have no wine. It runs out. There are times when it happens suddenly and without warning. Disaster strikes and we have no energy to face what has happened. A close friend dies, suddenly, without warning. An accidental death rips the whole community apart. The world is ripped apart by terrorism, by pandemic.

At other times it is so gradual that we don’t even notice it happening. The joy simply fades from life. We lose our job. Unemployment insurance runs out. We face sickness in our own lives or in the lives of those we love. We face broken relationships. A marriage falls apart. A child is alienated from the family. We are betrayed, hurt by the actions of a friend.

At those times in our lives we need to know that we can do something about it. The wine that has run out can be replaced. We have resources at our disposal. God will listen to us. We can pray, openly and honestly, knowing that as we come into closer relationship with God that God will reach out to us with that healing touch. God gives us friends, people who will listen to us as we pour out the troubles of our hearts. They will hear our pain. In their concern we will find healing.

We can pray. Paul talks about the spiritual gifts that grace our lives. Prayer is surely one of those gifts. God gives us the resources that we need to face the down times in our lives. The Spirit at work in our lives is a miracle. It does not have to be a mountaintop experience. It needs to be whatever brings us into a deeper relationship with God. God will hear our simple, heartfelt prayer asking for help from the depths of our being. God will hear our prayer of thanksgiving. God will hear our anger and hurt. God will hear our prayer for forgiveness and reconciliation.

And we can be perfectly honest with ourselves. We can look at our actions. We can assess the things that have gone on. In all of those ways we can make new wine. We may even discover that the new wine is better than the old; after all, it is enriched through our tears and pain.

We can be open to the gifts that God has given to us, accepting them, using them. The best spiritual gifts are the ones we don’t even know we possesss. They are the ones that enhance the life of the whole community, things like wise advice, a listening ear, time, joy, thoughtfulness, patience, spirituality …

Paul reminds us that ecstasy or enthusiasm is no criteria for true spirituality. A deep religious experience is just not enough. God is the giver, the source of every gift. Each, even the one that seems the least significant, is a spiritual gift. There needs to be a quality of spirit in the life of the Christian, he tells them, a quality that enhances the life of the whole community. And you know, the wonder of it all is that the gift used for the common good offers the most back to the one who offers it. It makes new wine.

And we can celebrate! We come together as community. We break bread together. We share the cup of blessing. We open ourselves up to all that God has done for us. God is revealed to us, and through us wine is poured out abundantly to a needy world.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Baptism of Our Lord, Year C

I Have Called You by Name, You are Mine

Readings: Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus is nothing extraordinary. He is simply part of the crowd who come out to the wilderness to be baptised by John. It is after his baptism while he is praying that the Holy Spirit comes to him in a special way. A voice proclaims, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It is a watershed moment in Jesus’ life. It is as if a new light suddenly dawns on him. It is a new beginning for him, a beginning of his earthly ministry.

Baptism was a radical moment in Jesus’ life. It brought about a change of direction in his life. He became equipped to do the task God had assigned to him. He assumed his prophetic call.

Baptism is a radical moment in the lives of each one of us in church here today. For by baptism, we share in the same relationship and mission that God had with Jesus. Baptism is a gift and a calling. It initiates the work of God and Christ in and through us. It commissions and empowers us for ministry.

For most of us though, it does not seem to be a very radical occurrence. If you are a “cradle” Anglican it is highly unlikely that you even remember anything about your baptism. Your parents likely brought you for baptism as an infant. Your experience is probably rather like mine. I was baptised on the afternoon of May 24th in the little church in Byng. I was a little over a month old. My parents, Godparents, a few assorted relatives and my older siblings gathered around the font. I wore the family gown, as did my older siblings and seven generations of Smith’s before me. My father, an Anglican priest, sprinkled me with water. Five years earlier he had immersed my brother David, but was forbidden by my mother to ever again do that to one of her children. They named me Ann Martha. Then they had a family party. It does not seem very significant in the whole scale of things. There were no voices from heaven. There were no claps of thunder, although it being the Queen’s Birthday there may have been fireworks. Spectacular or not, my understanding is that something very significant happened that has sustained me my whole life. It made the death and resurrection of Christ applicable to my life. It identified me as Christ’s own. It is the most significant event in my Christian life.

For each of us is called, by virtue of our baptism to share in the ministry of Christ. Through baptism we respond to an intimate call to become known by God's name. By baptism we share in the same relationship and mission that God had with Jesus. It empowers us to stand with those whom the world sees as unlovely and unlovable and to affirm that in God's realm there is compassion. Baptism initiates the work of the Spirit in and through us. It gives us the responsibility for others. It identifies us as God's children and servants. It calls us to action.

Today as we celebrate the baptism of our Lord, we will renew our own baptismal covenant. How do we respond to the promises made at our baptism? Somehow or other we need to accept them as our own. We need to take responsibility for our Christian life. We need to accept the relationship to God, which was formalized at our baptism. We need to accept that God has called each of us. We accept those words of Isaiah, “I have called you by name, you are mine.”

That realization comes to us through God’s Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not some mysterious and unattainable gift. It is meant to be part of the experience of each one of us. We do not have to look for some unusual happening in our lives. We do not have to speak in tongues or proclaim great prophetic words. We do need to recognize the times when God is truly present with us. Then we will know and understand that indeed the spirit is upon us.

Good things are happening in this parish. We need to share the good things that are happening in people’s lives. We need to share the good news about what God is accomplishing in us. It is wonderful news that in spite of being without a full time priest this year, this congregation was able to move forward in faith on so many things. Look at all that you have accomplished! Sunday School at St. George’s, new people joining the congregation, work being done on the buildings, luncheons and activities going on, outreach, stewardship, Youth Group events. Is it not wonderful news that even in the midst of difficulty, if we look for it, God is there?

I know that many of you are aware of how God is at work in your lives. I know because you share it with me. We need to share those good news stories with each other.

God has called us by name. The question remains, will we accept the mission and ministry to which God is calling us? We can go on moaning that the church is a dying institution, or we can all take our ministry as the people of God seriously. We perpetuate the mistaken idea that ministry is for those who are trained. But more often all it takes is being a good listener. It may seem as if one is doing nothing. But in this day and age when no one has time for anyone else, a listening ear is a fine gift.

Praise is a fine gift as well. Praise helps immeasurably one whose self-esteem is low. It helps those in leadership positions in the congregation who often put in many hours of thankless labour without any expectation of gain. What a gift it is when we thank them for their selfless service. Yet what a small gift it is. And it is one that we all have an opportunity to use. If we do, it will make a radical difference to our community.

We need to practice the gift of compassion. We live in a lonely society where many need to feel that they are loved. How important it is to pick up the phone and let people know that they are not forgotten.

Hope is such an important gift in our day. We can look around us at the state of society and simply give up. The ability to offer hope to one who is suffering or lonely or afraid can turn a life around.

The opportunities for ministry are all around us. Such opportunities build up the life of the community. And the most wonderful thing about ministry is that through reaching out to others, our own lives are enriched. We are brought into a closer relationship with God and with other people. So take it in. Really know it and understand it and its implications. God has called you by name; you belong to God.

It was quite an event, my baptism. Not that I remember it! Oh! I have heard the stories about that day. So even though my memory does not hold it, I know that it was the most important day in my life. The fact that I am baptised fills me with sheer wonder. To know, to really know that I am God's child, God's Beloved, is a source of deep joy. That is what keeps me praying that I will live faithfully as God's child. In the silence of my heart I imagine God proclaiming, “Here is another one of my beloved children!” Amen.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Feast of the Epiphany

Star Struck!

Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Light is a central theme for the Christmas season. It is a wonderful image for God’s ability to change humankind. Light is God’s great gift to us. It transforms the world into a society of peace and justice if even for a short time. It brings joy in the midst of despair, and hope to a world that knows darkness all too well. The light of God blazes and draws others to it. As Christmas comes to a close, that sense of light’s transforming presence continues to be the focus as we celebrate the Epiphany. It is a reminder that God’s light is not just for us as Christians but also for the whole world. Jesus is the light of the world.

Does that knowledge open up new possibilities, new directions, new insights as we enter the New Year? Does it help us to communicate our hopes and dreams to others? That is what the birth of Christ communicated to the world; it is what we as Christians are still called to share.

The passage from Isaiah filtered through our Christian faith is a wonderful reminder to us of exactly that. The people of Israel had returned after a long exile. The Israel they came back to was a pale shadow of its former greatness. Isaiah reminds the people that God has not abandoned them. He reminds them that new blessings will transform the darkness into light. For Isaiah, Israel possessed such light that others could not help but be drawn to it. As Christians we know that the light has come. The glory of the Lord has risen upon the world. The light stands out distinctly in the darkness. It shines. It beckons. It draws.

That surely is the point of the story of the visitation of the magi. They followed the light of a particular star through the dark nights and at the end of their long journey, they met Christ. They knelt before the child, offering rare gifts, gifts full of meaning and hope. But the drama of the story does not stop there, for it has a dark side.

The journey of the magi is interrupted. They are looking for a child who has been born as a king, and so they find themselves in Jerusalem seeking out King Herod, the King of the Jews. Actually Herod, the King of the Jews, was not a Jew at all. He was Idumean. They had been conquered by the Jews, forced to convert to Judaism but then treated as second-class citizens. Herod had no love for the Jews. Furthermore, he was a ruthless leader, even by the standards of his own day. To say that he found the visit of the magi disturbing is an understatement. He had real reason to be concerned. A king born of David’s lineage would have more religious support than Herod could have dreamed of.

He calls the chief priests and scribes together and asks them where the king is to be born. “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they tell him. He asks the magi to bring him word when they have found the child.

The magi, warned by God in a dream, return another way to their own country. And Herod, not to be outdone, has all of the children under two put to death. But the child Jesus and his family, also warned by God in a dream, flee to Egypt, returning only when Herod dies.

On so many levels, it is a story that provides an amazing statement about Jesus’ ministry and the Christian faith. It breaks the pattern of the past. God is God, not only to the people of Israel, but to the Gentiles as well. The Epiphany is a wonderful celebration of inclusivity. We who stand in Israel’s tradition are to kneel alongside the magi in acknowledgment that the divine meets us here. It is a celebration of who Christ is. It links Jesus to Israel’s past and to the world’s hopes. It becomes a story, not of a baby in a manger, but of a Saviour who will die on the cross to save humankind.

How does the story speak to us? Where do we fit into it? For in a real way, it is a universal story. There are few details, yet storytellers throughout the ages have added to the lore. That is because there is deep truth at the heart of the story. It is the story of the people of Bethlehem, both past and present. It is the story of the children for whom Rachel weeps, of refugees who must flee from the security of their homes, and of rulers who are anxious and fearful of change. It is the story of people like most of us who are simply willing and able to offer ourselves and our gifts.

What does it mean to us that Christ is the light of the world? What does it mean in practical terms? How do we live it out in our daily lives? How do we become beacons of light that draw others to Christ? Don’t we all know such people? I think of a family whose three children I baptised many years ago. They were a loving and caring family, community minded and very active in the church. They decided to have another child. She was born with Downs Syndrome. Someone remarked to me that they could not understand how God could allow that to happen to such a wonderful family. I couldn’t help but think that God knew exactly what family to give that special child to. She has grown up loved and nurtured in that home. She has received total acceptance from her parents and her siblings. She has lived up to her full potential. What’s more, she has brought great joy into their lives.

Think in your own life of those who have brought you the light of faith. If you are like me there are many faces that come to mind. My grandmother’s face smiling with pure joy as she sang “All Through the Night” in Welsh, her voice beautiful and clear even in her eighties! A beloved teacher opening yet another bottle of Lily of the Valley cologne and making me feel as if it was the bestnChristmas gift ever! A Sunday School teacher who is still, after all these years, my good friend and mentor! A parish priest who recognized my call to ordination!

The Christmas season is coming to an end. The excitement is over. All that remains is the aftermath. But it should not be a time of depression, apathy, or inactivity in the church. Something so significant happened on that first Christmas. A light so bright that it cannot be extinguished entered the world. A connection was made between God and us that changed all of history.

Those connections continue to be made through us. We carry the light of Christ out into the darkness of our world. As we enter this New Year, we reflect on the changes that we wish to make in our lives. It is a time to make resolutions that we will try to keep throughout the year. Let us think about the gifts we bring to Jesus. What loving actions can we offer to help spread God’s realm? What can we do to help transform our own lives and the lives of those we touch? Let your loving actions be a part of your prayers for them and for everyone in need.

Jesus comes to us as a little baby, drawing us closer to God. As the wise men bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, so we bring our gifts of love to God. And in so doing we reach out into a needy world with the light of Christ, a light that transforms all of creation.

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 ...