Saturday, July 26, 2014

Proper 17, Year A

Is Three Dollars’ Worth Enough?

Readings: Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 128; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

So many of the parables that Jesus tells begin, "the kingdom of Heaven is like…". What is the kingdom? What is it like? Isn't it something we all wonder about? It is one of the deep questions about existence. We look around us at the world and see hunger and poverty. We see violence and tragedy. We wonder if God is in control, if God cares at all about creation. We may even question the existence of God. We all ask those burning questions about what lies beyond this life.

Jesus told parables about the kingdom to the crowds who followed him everywhere. He is speaking to the poor and the helpless, to the weak and the downtrodden. They bring with them all the cares of daily life. They bring also their hope for a better life. And Jesus shares with them a vision of God’s realm. "The kingdom of Heaven," Jesus tells them, "is like a treasure hidden in a field." They can picture what they would do in a similar situation. It was possible. It really could happen. Hiding valuables in the ground was normal in Palestine. During an invasion the invader would dig a hole in the ground and bury the booty. If he were killed or died before recovering the spoil, it would remain in the ground until someone discovered it by chance. Everyone listening to Jesus could imagine the joy of finding the treasure.

Yet it is a rather strange story. It makes us feel uneasy. When a story makes us feel uneasy, like there is something there for us to consider, when it 'niggles' away at us, then we need to ask ourselves what the Spirit is saying to us. It is a disturbing story. It stirs up feelings inside of us, feelings of longing. Wouldn't we all love to find buried treasure? Feelings of guilt! What would we be willing to give up? Feelings of excitement! Could it really happen?

Buried treasure is a dream that many have had. I remember, as a child, the excitement I felt at visiting Oak Island in Nova Scotia. It is thought to be the site of a great treasure. No one knows exactly who buried treasure there. Over the years it has been conjectured that it might be the hiding place of some famous pirate like Captain Kidd. Perhaps the most intriguing explanation is that, centuries ago, the Knights Templar used it as a storage place. Maybe the Holy Grail is stored there. At any rate, millions of dollars have been spent fruitlessly trying to find the treasure that everyone is certain is there. All efforts have met with failure, but it doesn't stop one from feeling a great excitement and anticipation that perhaps this time the treasure will be found – that the great puzzle of how to get at a treasure so carefully and deviously hidden will suddenly be clear.

But that is a very different message from that of the parable. The message there is that we are in search of a great treasure. It will cost us everything we have to find it. But it is attainable, and not only attainable, but assured.

The man buries the treasure again. Then he sells everything in order to make it his own. What is the treasure? What are we willing to give up in order to attain it? What is it worth to us to attain the kingdom of Heaven?

Then there is the merchant who goes searching for one perfect pearl. Once he has found it he sells everything he has to buy it. It is the same story, except this time the merchant went searching until he found exactly what he was looking for.

What are you looking for? Where do you find it? What do you do with it? There are no easy answers, are there. We are searching for a great treasure. It will cost us everything we have to find it. But it is attainable; in fact, it is a sure thing. It is also costly. It will cost us everything we have. But it is within our reach.

The parable is intended as a message to Jesus' disciples. "The cost of discipleship," he tells them over and over again, "is very great. It costs everything." They have found a great treasure in Jesus. At the moment it is hidden from the world. It is their secret. They must leave everything to follow him. They must look to God, not humanity, for their reward. The claims of the kingdom are total. They leave no room for self-interest. Discipleship demands total response, total commitment.

As Christians we are searching for a great treasure. We are children of the kingdom, living in a kind of exile from it, discovering glimpses of it from time to time. It is worth the search, for it is a great treasure. But the search is costly. It will cost everything we have. But the transformation in our lives will make it a treasure worth having.

Most of us would like our faith to make a difference – but perhaps not too much. We may have had a wonderful mountain top experience in our lives, a Conference, a retreat weekend, or a moment in our lives when everything came together for us. We perceived God in a different light. But over time the experience fades. We think about it once in a while. But there are problems in our lives. We have to earn a living and raise our family. There are the stresses and conflicts of life to deal with. There is sickness. We go to church on Sunday. But to make a commitment to the faith, to work at it, to read our Bibles, to pray – those things we put aside. We want to be committed Christians, but on our own terms.

Wilbur Rees, a pastor in the States wrote the following poem that sums it up for me beautifully.

“I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.”

Why buy three dollars worth when you can seek a great treasure, enough to share with a hungry world? What a treasure it is to know what it means to be loved by God, to be totally accepted by God. The tragedies and conflicts of life can discourage us but they do not change God's love for us. Failures and defeats may bother us, but they do not affect our relationship with God. God's love and reconciling grace are forever. God's will is carried out through us. We are children of God.

How much is our Christian life worth to us? Of what value is a sense of the presence of God, of the love of Christ, of the peace and meaning that such realities can bring into one's life? How much are these things worth? The ultimate truth is that these realities are worth everything. The Christian story is one of miracles. It is the story of lives turned around, of hope reborn, and of amazement at how, when we seek to live in concert with God's will, great things can happen. May we find that great treasure!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16, Year A

Our God is an Awesome God

Readings: Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

In today’s Gospel Jesus tells another parable. A farmer had a field, with deep, rich soil. In the spring he sowed it with his finest seed. He sat back, confidently waiting for a good harvest. Each morning he went out to feast his eyes on the field. He saw the green shoots as they sprang up. What joy he felt watching them sway in the gently breezes!

One morning, however, he got a terrible shock. Growing among the young shoots of wheat were weeds. Not just a few weeds here and there, but weeds everywhere he looked. Weeds in his best field where he had sowed his best seed! It was the last thing he had expected to see. And it was a terrible blow!

"What did I do wrong?" he kept asking himself. Yet he knew that he was not responsible for what had happened. He concluded that an enemy must have spread the weeds during the night. But what could he do about it? They were ruining his chances at a good crop. He would have to get rid of them. But how?

Get his field hands to pull them up? That seemed a good solution. But they looked so much like the wheat. And they were growing so close to the stalks that pulling them up would mean uprooting the wheat as well. Plough up the field and start again? Tempting, but it was too late in the season for that. "No!" he concluded. The only thing to do was to look after the wheat as best he could, to coax it, to encourage it to outgrow the weeds.

When the harvest came he was able at long last to separate the wheat from the weeds. What satisfaction it gave him! What was even more surprising was the fine harvest that resulted from all of his hard labour. It proved more than adequate to meet his needs and the needs of his family. And bonus, he was able to use the weeds as fuel.

Once again Jesus takes an example from the world around him in order to illustrate a truth about the spiritual life. As with all parables, we can look at it as a ‘nice’ story or we can allow ourselves to reflect on it until we come to that ‘aha’ moment when we see what Jesus is getting at in our particular context.

I have a love-hate relationship with weeds. When I walk along the path through the ravine near my house I see their beauty. I know how important, for instance, milkweed is to the butterfly population. I see and hear the birds and frogs around the pond. Every time I take a walk I enjoy the beauty of God’s creation. And then I go back to my garden and take a look at yet another crop of dandelions, crab grass and creeping Charlie taking hold of my lawn. When I moved into my brand new house in a brand new subdivision I knew that the soil would not be the best for preparing flowerbeds. So my first Spring I bought what seemed like a mountain of topsoil to spread around the garden. I mulched and reseeded, and yet two years later, although the garden is beginning to take shape, I am still battling the weeds. So for me personally, this is yet another good Gospel for the time of year, as plants and weeds continue to grow.

As I look at the weeds thriving in the garden and wonder how to tackle them without destroying the plants around them, I consider God’s problem with us as humans. Does God deal with the weeds and risk damaging the crop, or does God allow us to grow together and perhaps even change one another for the better? I do sometimes feel surrounded by “weeds”, the negative and even evil influences around me. We live in the world, and it is a world where there are harsh realities. It is a world in which injustice and oppression abound. At such times, I can honestly thank God that it is God who is ultimately the judge. I do sometimes wonder at whom God chooses, but then I remember that God chose me with all my foibles and that rather changes the picture for me.

When you come to think about it, God does choose some unlikely people. Take the Old Testament reading for example. Jacob is running in fear, and I cannot say that I have much sympathy for him. His difficulties are of his own making. He swindled his brother out of his birthright with a bowl of soup, and tricked his father Isaac into giving him the blessing of the firstborn. Despite all that he has done, his mother, Rebekah, who favours him over his brother Esau, talks to Isaac, persuading him that since it cannot be undone, the family line should be secured. He should be sent to visit her brother Laban to find himself a wife. Isaac gives him a final blessing, this time a sincere one and he is sent off to Haran.

As night falls, Jacob finds himself in a desert place with no shelter. He takes a stone to put down under his head and falls asleep. There in that forsaken place he has a dream in which he glimpses the divine. He dreams of a ladder, a “stairway to Heaven”, with angels of God ascending and descending on it. And God gives him a promise; not just any promise, but the same promise that God gave to Abraham and Isaac, the promise that his legacy will be a great nation and that God will keep him wherever he goes and will bring him back to the land. This person, hardly an upstanding model of faith, is shown the grace that God has in store for him.

He awakens from the dream, a dream in which he has glimpsed the divine. It fills him with both fear and awe. “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of Heaven!” he exclaims. He takes the stone on which he has been sleeping and makes it into an altar. And he makes a vow with as many conditions as he can possibly dream up. “If you’ll be with me,” he demands of God, “and if you’ll make certain I have enough to eat and clothing to wear, and if I can return safely to my father’s house, then I will believe in you and tithe what I have.”

After all, this is not a fairy tale story with a perfect ending. Jacob does not act much better than he did before his encounter with God. But God remains faithful to the promise made to Jacob. God remains faithful to us. And those spiritual awakenings, those ‘aha’ moments in our lives, call us back into relationship with God.

Life is sown with such moments of grace. They are moments of sheer bliss, moments to hold onto when the weeds seem to be taking over. There are such moments of grace scattered throughout my life. When I need to feel that sense of closeness to God, that Spiritual presence, at times of Spiritual dryness I call them to mind and find myself once more transported into God’s presence, where I can say, “How awesome is this place!”

Perhaps my favourite ‘moment of grace’ is a real place. I visited it only once, but have gone back in my prayer time over and over again. I was visiting a friend who lived out in the country on the Credit River near the Forks of the Credit. She suggested a walk, and said that she would take me to a very special place. We walked along the river until we came to a grove of trees. There was a path through the wooded area that led up a hill and then back towards the river. I could hear rushing water, and yet the river remained quite calm. We walked once again along the bank of the river until we came to a bend. The only way forward was to take off our shoes and wade in the water. The bend opened up into a large cave. Beyond the cave was a lovely waterfall that extended across the river. Water was cascading into a pool. There was a huge rock out in the centre of the pool. We climbed up on the rock. We spent a lovely afternoon sitting there, bathed in mist and sunlight, praying, listening to God, renewing ourselves spiritually.

Like Jacob our journey of faith may be filled with moments of loneliness, fear and despair that are transformed by the presence of God standing beside us. It is in looking back that we see where God was at work. Then we are able to say as Jacob did, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” Amen

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Proper 15, Year A

Let Anyone with Ears Listen!

Readings: Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 16-23

When I was in my curacy I was given a simple but wonderful gift, a parishioner who gave me feedback on my sermons. This was not just a “nice sermon” kind of feedback; she had an uncanny ability to sum up the sermon in one sentence. That one sentence gave me insight into how my sermons were being heard. It was a good learning for a novice preacher. Sometimes I would say to myself, “She really got it!” Other times I would be puzzled by her interpretation of what I had said. In reflecting on the process I came to realize that the real message is not what is said, but what is heard.

I suspect that is why Jesus told parables such as the one in today’s Gospel. I also reasonably certain he did not intend his words to be interpreted on some grand scale. That is why I chose to read only the parable and not the explanation. Jesus’s story did not need anything more than the invitation that he issued “Let anyone with ears listen! Go off, think about the parable, let my words sink in, and then do something about it”, he is saying.

A large crowd has gathered to hear him speak. He gets into a boat and looks out the people. He sees many familiar faces amongst them. There are, of course, his disciples, his closest followers, the ones he has chosen. And there are others who stand out from the crowd. They are people who gather whenever he begins to speak. But there are many whom he has never noticed before. He recognizes the hunger and suffering that has brought them to this place. He sees the sense of hope in their eyes. "Let anyone with ears listen!" he says and they hear him. They know he is saying it to them.

He has much on his own mind – the difficulties in Nazareth, his hometown, people who think he is crazy, the constant harassment of the officials of the synagogue. All of these things he puts aside as he begins to speak. Knowing that even the disciples don't always understand he tells them a parable about a sower. He sees the farming people in the crowd relax. The picture he paints is familiar to them, part of their everyday life.

He talks of a sower sowing the seed. They can picture themselves walking through the unploughed field, scattering the good grain they have kept from the last harvest. There is lots of seed. They simply scatter it. They know some will land on the hardened soil that forms into paths through the fields. Some seed will get choked by the wild thorns that grow up again after the ploughing. There are stones just under the soil. You can never tell just where they are, out of sight until the field is ploughed. The seed that lands there will probably be wasted. But there is no way around it. Some seed even gets scattered to the very edge of the field. You cannot tell where the best places are to sow the seed. But there is plenty! You can afford to lose some. And some of it will produce even in the poorest soil.

How surprised they are to hear Jesus speak of the wonderful bounty of the harvest! Is it possible? Can you even imagine producing that kind of yield? Even when the harvest is small a farmer is able to put aside enough seed for the following year. What if the harvest was thirty times what was sown? A farmer could pay off debt, put in irrigation ditches and erect a new barn. With sixty times what was sown one would be the richest person in the area. And if it were ninety percent? Why with ninety percent a farmer would be able to export grain to other countries. He would own it all. What a dream! "Let anyone with ears listen!" They are all ears! Jesus is speaking to them.

For some time I had a little cottage up on Lake Simcoe. One day I watched my neighbour reseeding his lawn. He had a very small bag of seed that he was sprinkling here and there. This was not a well-manicured lawn that needed a little boost; there were more weeds than grass. I had read this week’s readings and was thinking in terms of the parable of the sower. I had to restrain myself from shouting out to him, “Get a huge bag of seed. Throw it everywhere on that lawn. Let anyone with ears listen!”

I feel like shouting out that same message this morning. Are we all ears? What is Jesus saying to us as individuals? Do we get it? Do we trust what we believe? I consider the rocks that I have encountered in my life, the roadblocks to being everything that God intends me to be. I think of the hard ground, the times when I wanted to shout at God “Are you even there?” I think of the weeds that I have allowed to grow up in my life, the failures and setbacks. And yet I know that despite all of those things God has been there for me, gracing my life, leading, guiding in ways that I was not even aware of until I looked back at where life had led. There were people who encouraged me in my life of faith. There were opportunities that opened up the way to do what God was calling me to do. There were ‘aha’ moments that allowed me glimpses of the glory of God so that I could hold on when life presented its twists and turns.

It is a message that I want to shout this morning. Are we all ears? What is Jesus saying to us? How do we, the Church – this church here in Oshawa, the churches in our Diocese, other denominations, churches throughout the world – hear what Jesus is saying? Do we get it or not? If we do get it why is the Church in such a state of decline? Do we sow enough seed? What kind of harvest do we expect?

What kind of harvest do you expect as a parish? This is a time of transition for you, a time of change. It is human nature not to embrace change, yet it can be a fruitful time in the life of a congregation. I see that in you. This is a congregation that knows how to look after one another, “the parish with a heart”. How do you turn that sense of belonging into something that extends into the community? How do you ensure that there are no poor in our parishes or neighbourhoods? How do you make it clear to all, both those in church and not, that something exciting is happening, growing and being produced? How do you become a committed community sharing the faith? What would happen if you managed all of that? People would be looking at you, saying, "Look at those Christians, how they love one another!"

What kind of harvest should we expect as the Christian Church in the world? How do we ensure that Christianity is a global force? How do we become a moral presence in all the countries of the world? How do we make our influence noticeable in politics, in education, in health care, and in economics? When we come together in solidarity we are able as a Church to do wonderful things. I have experienced it. A few years ago in an initiative largely undertaken by the World Council of Churches millions of people worldwide signed a document asking the G7 nations of the world to forgive debt. Six hundred thousand of them were Canadians, most of them from the Christian community. The most powerful nations in the world took note and listened. They were able, knowing that they had the backing of so many people in their own countries, to forgive enormous debts of the poorest nations of the world. But it was only a drop in the bucket. How much more we could accomplish! "Let anyone with ears listen!"

If we would believe the parable of the sower, although God does not seem to be at work in the world, although God does not seem to be in control, nevertheless, God's realm is coming. In its coming it will make up for all the failures and disappointments which have gone on before. We are assured of abundant success despite failure. We are privileged, graced by God, we Christians, to be bearers of God's truth in the world. We bear a message of great hope. "Let anyone with ears listen!"

Saturday, July 5, 2014

4th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14, Year A

Stress Management

Gen 24:34-38, 42-49. 58-67; Psalm 45:11-18, Rom 7:15-25a; Matt 11:16-19, 25-30

"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." 'The comfortable words' we call them in the Book of Common Prayer. With them Jesus extends an invitation to each of us. It is an invitation that offers fulfillment. It is an invitation to unload the heavy burdens we carry. It is, if you will, Jesus’s pep talk on Stress Management. Who has not felt at one time or another the cares and burdens of life? Finding our way through life is tiring. We suffer through no fault of our own. From unemployment, unexpected expenses, marital discord, depression, illness, loss, fear! We can easily become overwhelmed with life.

On the other hand, many people go through life carrying heavy loads of their own making. They let life make them weary. They remember everything that ever happened to them. They remember the harm and damage done to them far better than the joy and affirmation they received. They won't eat macaroni and cheese because it reminds them of tough times when that was all they had to eat. They don't relate to certain groups of people because once long ago someone said something or did something to harm them. They end a friendship because of some little thing that happened. Years later even though they have forgotten the details they avoid that person. They are in fact a terrible burden both to themselves and to those around them. They never forgive; they never forget.

All of us know such people. If we are honest with ourselves, we have all been there. There is something of them in each of us.

We also know people who are able to overcome great suffering and turn it into powerful ministry. We know that they have not had an easy time. We have heard bits and pieces of their story. They have overcome great obstacles in their own lives. Yet they have time for a cup of tea with a friend. They have time to listen to the pain of others. They may not have much to say, no great words of wisdom. But they are the ones we turn to when we need a listening ear. Henri Nouwen, theologian and writer, calls them the “wounded healers” of our world.

I have such a friend. It often seemed to me when I first met her that she was not for real. She is the embodiment of selfless love. She never has a bad word for anyone. In fact she finds a way to excuse bad behaviour. I thought mistakenly that she must be from a sheltered background, but that is far from the case. She grew up with abuse, with being told that she was stupid, useless and a financial burden.

I asked her how she kept such a positive outlook on life, so free of bitterness. “I left home at sixteen,” she told me. “I started to become bitter, but then I decided to forgive my parents every day. I think that is what has made the difference. Even though I have lived apart from them all these years, I still keep in touch and try to keep the lines of communication open. There is no point in bitterness.”

Another such story is that of a friend of mine. She and her husband waited until quite late in life to begin a family. Early in the pregnancy they learned that the child would be born with Downs Syndrome. Abortion was suggested as an option, but it was not an option for them. Instead they learned everything they could about Downs. Because there were few resources in their small town, they turned to the church. Through their congregation they set up a support group. When their little girl was born they loved her and helped her to live to her full potential. They continue to support others in their community. In the process they have learned the joy of having a special child in their life.

What do such people possess that helps them not only to deal with what happens to them in life, but to reach out to others with the love of God? They have allowed themselves to be touched by Jesus. They have given the heavy burdens of life to him to carry. They have found rest for their souls.

That is what Jesus offers us in the reading today. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." Jesus offers himself to us as the ultimate focus of our life’s longing and searching. He is the bread we hunger for. He is the ultimate relationship we seek. It is the lovely truth at the heart of the Gospel.

“For my yoke is easy,” he continues. “My burden is light.” The yoke was commonly used in Jewish writings as meaning obedience to the law. Jesus is offering an alternative to the often legalistic and harsh adherence to the 'yoke of the law'. A yoke should not be oppressive. After all a yoke is made to ease the task of carrying a heavy load. Had Jesus, the son of Joseph the carpenter, helped to make yokes? They were 'made to measure' for a particular ox. The carpenter would rough out a yoke and then the ox would be brought in to the shop for a fitting. Jewish law had become a burden to people. Jesus offers to make the burden bearable, to lighten the load. His yoke is easy not because it makes lighter demands, but because it brings you into a relationship with Jesus who is gentle of heart.

Yet many of us go through life without ever letting go of our burdens. We get used to the weight. We become somehow attached to them. Imagine yourself trudging along a road. The air is stifling hot. You are weighed down by a heavy backpack. With every step you take you wonder if it will be your last. A car stops beside you. A friend offers you a lift. You gratefully get into the car but you never remove the backpack. You continue to bear the full weight of the load even when you are in the car.

It doesn’t make sense, does it? Yet when we are offered forgiveness we often choose to hang on to guilt. When we are offered help we often choose to go it alone.

If you are experiencing loss and grief, is there some way God wants to use your experience to bring life to others? If your life is going well, how can you give a little bit more of your time, treasure and talents to ease somebody else's pain? It begins by turning your burdens over to Jesus, by leaving them at the foot of the cross.

Life will continue to put obstacles in the way. Life is like that. To be human is to suffer. But yoked to Jesus we will be better off. His yoke will be lighter in the long run than the one we are carrying. It will mean the end of much of the tension and depression that weighs us down. It will end the discouragement and negativity under which we live. With our burden lighter, we will travel lighter and breathe more easily. It is so much easier to carry our burden when someone is sharing the load.

What is the yoke that we will be taking up? Is it the world with all of its problems? The starving, the deprived the oppressed! It is difficult to imagine that such a yoke could be easy. But it is the yoke of our Lord, the yoke he asks us to take upon ourselves. Taking up that yoke, we can lay claim to his promises that we will find rest for 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 ...