Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

Walking the Extra Mile

Readings: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

The gospel for this Sunday is once again from the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount. I have to admit, that “Don’t worry! Be happy!” philosophy that runs through the chapter begins to cloy after a while. The Old Testament reading from Leviticus is one thing as it reminds us of our need to love our neighbour. It at least is a practical reminder of what it means to be holy. It calls us to make practical decisions about our affluence. But then Jesus takes it so much further. What is he thinking? Jesus reminds us that we are called to love those who harm us, oppress us, and even enemies intent on destroying us. We are to offer those harming us the other cheek. We are to give those trying to steal our coat, our cloak as well. We are to offer to walk the extra mile, to give liberally to everyone who asks, to do good to those who persecute us. We are to smile through it all. And then the clincher as Jesus sums it all up. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

I think it is the perfection that really gets to me. That kind of hyperbole, if that is what it is, is a sad reality that has driven many to despair, compulsion, perhaps even suicide. In this day and age when we hear so much about cyber bullying and its terrible effects, how do we live out what Jesus is saying in this passage? And as if that isn’t enough, many people drive themselves to perfection in their work and in their scholastic endeavours. The lives of saints are filled with tales of self-abuse. Then there are the young women whose body image causes them to diet to the point of anorexia. What of the cult leader who imposes his doctrine on a group of people? The path to human perfection has even led to schemes to rid the world of whole races of people.

So what is Jesus on about? What did he mean by telling us to be perfect the way God is perfect? How can we be perfect, flawless, completely pure and whole? We will never be able to rid ourselves of all the imperfections in our lives. We will never be able to cut them away or change them so that we are perfect. Truly Jesus must have had something else in mind, something that issues from his unique understanding of God. In the Beatitudes, Jesus is teaching the disciples about the coming of the kingdom. It is a teaching deeply rooted in his understanding of the call of the Christian to perfection in this life. It is a call that brings God and humanity into closer relationship and allows the kingdom of God to exist here and now. It is a call that truly asks of the Christian to walk the extra mile in everything that they do.

So when Jesus asks us to learn to love even our enemies it is so that we will no longer return evil for evil, but will find some way to offer blessing and love. Because Jesus knows that it is what the world needs. The question remains for me. How do I even begin to learn to do that? How do I begin to learn to breathe love the same way that my heart beats? How does love become a part of my very being?

I would have found it much easier to understand if Jesus had told me a story. It might have gone something like this. A man set out on his usual jogging route one afternoon. He headed down a busy street towards the park. He had not gone far when he felt a terrible pain in his chest. He fell right there in the street. There were lots of people around. A woman close by noticed him fall. “He must be drunk!” she said to herself as she crossed over to the other side of the street without even a second glance.

A man in a business suit looked at his watch. “If I stop and help him I’ll be late,” he muttered to himself and pretended that he hadn’t seen what happened.

Mary was driving her daughter home from school. She saw the man as he began to fall. She saw him grab at his chest. She pulled over. “Call 911!” she said to her daughter. “Tell them where we are and that we need an ambulance right away.” She got out of the car and turned the man over. She could see that his colour was poor. Somehow or other her Girl Guide training in CPR came back to her. By the time the ambulance pulled up she was breathing life back into him. They got him stable and prepared to take him to the hospital. Not wanting him to face this all alone, she followed along in her car. She and her daughter waited with him until his family arrived at the hospital. He called her his guardian angel. When asked why she stayed with him, she said, “We need to walk the extra mile for one another.”

Come to think of it, Jesus did tell that story. He told it many times and in many ways. It is after all the story of the compassion of the Good Samaritan who walked the extra mile for a stranger in need. It is the story too of the Prodigal Father who cared so much for his son that he would not give up on him but lavished love on him. It is Jesus’ own story, for he loved us so much that he gave up his life on the cross for us.

Walking the extra mile, turning the other cheek, giving until it hurts is not about trying as hard as we can to love God and to love our neighbour. It is not about allowing ourselves to be bullied. It is not about being perfectionists. It is about living generously. It is about allowing God’s grace to work in our lives. After all that is how God lives with us. That is the possibility for which we were made. So it is about understanding how much God loves us and then allowing God’s love to transform our lives so that we have all the love we need to pour out for others to become everything that God is calling us to be. Wouldn’t that usher in God’s realm here on earth?

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Presentation of Our Lord (Candlemas Day)

My Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Lord

Readings: Malachi 3:1-4; Psalm 84:1-7; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:2-40

At this time of year I always like to watch the movie Groundhog Day. It is about an extremely cynical weatherman who is sent to cover the groundhog’s yearly appearance and to report on whether or not he has seen his shadow. The problem is that it is always Groundhog Day. Tomorrow never comes. He finishes the day only to find it repeating itself over and over again. At first he uses it to over indulge and to do crazy things, knowing that even if he kills himself, tomorrow will come. A transformative change comes over him as he begins to see it as an opportunity to improve his life. He is able to take one day and live it until he gets it right. It becomes a story of great hope.

Groundhog Day is, after all, a very hopeful day. The groundhog coming out of its hole reminds us that winter is half over. The days are beginning to get longer. Spring is just around the corner. Especially this year as we seem to be enduring endless winter, this is a hopeful day. However, I hate to disappoint you; we do not celebrate Groundhog Day in church. However, Candlemas, which we are celebrating, has some curious connections to the secular celebration that coincides with it. Not only do they occur on the same day; they both mark the day on which winter is half over. There is an ancient rhyme about Candlemas that may well remind you of the groundhog and his shadow.

If Candlemas day be sunny and bright,
Winter again will show its might.
If Candlemas day be cloudy and grey,
Winter soon will pass away.

It came to be called Candlemas because that was the day on which the year’s supply of candles for the church were blessed. Candles were lit to symbolize that Jesus Christ had come into the world as light. Today it is celebrated as a commemoration of the purification of The Blessed Virgin Mary forty days after the birth of her son. It also marks the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple. It is a celebration of great hope as we recall the saving purpose of the incarnation.

Luke tells the story through the eyes of two saintly people, Simeon and Anna. Simeon is a devout Jew who is waiting for the coming of the Messiah. Each day he goes to the temple to pray. Even though he faces great difficulty in his life he never loses hope. God has promised that he will see the Messiah before he dies. He knows that God will keep that promise. Anna, an elderly prophet, spends her time in the temple, fasting and praying, awaiting with expectation the day of the Lord’s coming.

The day comes when Mary and Joseph bring Jesus into the temple. He is the first-born son, and is to be dedicated to God as is the custom amongst Jewish families. His parents then reclaim him by paying a small ransom to the priest. A wealthy family would be expected to give a large gift. Mary and Joseph are poor. They bring with them a small gift, a pair of turtledoves.

As is his habit, Simeon is there, praying. When he sees the child he takes him in his arms and gives thanks to God. Through his faithful prayer, through faithfully seeking God, he comes to a meeting place with God. He knows God’s grace at work in his life. “My eyes have seen your salvation,” he says, recognizing who it is in his arms. This is no song of resignation in an old man ready to die. This is a call to action as he takes up his ministry. He is embracing the future with all that it holds in store for him.

Anna too discerns the mysterious significance of the child Jesus. Like Simeon she becomes a model of what we might strive and pray for, the capacity to recognize the on-going creativity of God in the world.

What a wonderful concept of God they both have! What a breadth of vision! It reminds me that our God is too small. We want our faith to be a personal thing. God is “my God”. Religion is my personal possession. It is about my well being, my problems, my needs. God becomes the God of my church or my way of life or my race. It gives me great hope for the future of a world which often sadly seems to be in its death throes.

It is difficult to watch the news without being confronted by a barrage of hopelessness. We hear of violence of nation against nation, of people against people. We witness catastrophic events, earthquakes, floods, fire and drought. We hear of children dying of hunger. We wonder where it will all end.

The Church is not without its dire warnings. One of our Bishops preached of the likelihood that his would be the last generation of the Anglican Church. We see the people in our churches aging and wonder if he might be right.

Our Church needs the vision of Simeon. We need the wisdom of Anna. We are a wonderful and diverse communion, rich in cultural makeup, rich in liturgical tradition. We have so much to offer to our communities.

From what I know of this community, it is one which has faced change with a sense of adventure. You embraced a vision of this building and of how it could reach out to the community around it. You made it happen. How do you continue to reach out to a growing and changing community with your limited resources? How do you encourage young people to stay and be part of your community? How do you bring up your children in the faith? How do you face the challenges of a society that is becoming more and more secularized? How do you keep faith when the world around you seems to be in a state of chaos? How do you remain hopeful?

We need to hear from the Simeon’s and Anna’s in our congregations about their particular ministries. We need to hear their stories of commitment of time and talent. We need to respond to God’s call to each one of us, abandoning the excuses.

‘I don’t have time for one more thing,’ you’ll say. ‘It isn’t the right time. My job is too demanding. My family is my priority. There are others who are more suited, more capable than I. I am getting to old. Besides, no one asked me.’

Like Simeon and Anna in the temple, our eyes too have seen the glory of God. We have seen it all around us. We have seen it at work in our lives and in the lives of those we love. We have seen how God graces us. It is a glory that we need to share. We do that by offering ourselves, our time, our talents, our treasures, to God. That is the hope for the Church. That is the hope for a world that badly needs to experience God’s 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 ...