Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 26, Year A

The Vineyard is a Mess! What Will You Do About it?

Readings: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78: 1-4, 12-16; Phil 2:1-13; Mt 21:23-32

The Israelites are on a wilderness journey. Since leaving the oppression of Egypt, they have lived a nomadic lifestyle. These city folk have had to adapt to a very different life. They have traded their comfortable home for the life of the Bedouin. Furthermore they have no idea where the journey is leading them. And so they journey on by stages. I can imagine how that happens. Each night as they camp the leaders sit together to plan the next part of the journey. Scouts are sent ahead to search out the territory. They look for safe sites where nomadic people can camp in the wilderness. They look for fresh water and signs of available food. They head back to report on conditions, and the people take up the journey once again, trusting that God is leading them to the Promised Land.

We journey through life by stages. As we undertake new initiatives in our lives we plan the next stage of our journey. We may go to school and study or take courses to improve our work prospects. We may carefully plan for our retirement. We check our benefits. We save for the time when we will not be working. We consider our housing needs and where we want to live.

In our personal lives we sometimes find it necessary to plan for change. We may need to move on from a bad relationship. We may be beginning a new one. We carefully plan a way forward.

That is certainly your experience here at St. Matthew’s as you work through a time of transition, as you search for a new priest. You have set up a selection committee to assess the ongoing needs and strengths of the parish. You are beginning to talk about those needs, considering not only the needs of the parish, but also of the surrounding community. You have looked at the challenges that come as parishes age and community needs change. You continue to challenge people to share their time, talents and treasures. You consider how you might grow in faith.

Planning is important. However, sometimes things do not work out the way we have planned. That is certainly the case with the Israelites. Had we used the lections, last week we would have heard the Israelites complaining about the bad food. This week there are more complaints about the lack of water. At such times, it is the leadership that bears the brunt of the complaining. So it is with Moses. Moses must deal with the complaints. He strikes the rock at Horeb and water gushes out. Just as God provided manna for them to eat, now God provides water in the wilderness. Still they ask, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

What is it that causes them to wonder if God is with them? God gave them food when they needed it. God supplied them with water. Yet they are so caught up in their neediness, in wondering whether they will have enough to eat or enough water to drink, to even remember that God has been with them in the past and to trust that even now God is with them.

Paul speaks to the Philippians. “Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.” He is speaking to a community for whom he has a great deal of admiration. However, he suspects that some of their motives are self-serving. There are rumblings that make him suspect that there may be some conflict in the community. He reminds them that their relationship with Christ should encourage them. It should be an incentive in their lives. It is through seeking Christ in others, through allowing the love of God to work through them, that they will experience God with them. It is by reaching out to one another, by walking the walk, by living every moment in God’s love, that they will experience that close relationship with God. It is that sense of commitment to the gospel that will enable them to access God’s grace. Otherwise they will just be asking as the Israelites did, “Is the Lord among us?” If God is not providing you with compassion and love, then you need to discover why not. Otherwise your faith will simply dry up and disappear.

On our journey through life we travel by stages. We are bound to go through times when we are simply wandering aimlessly. There are times when we simply cannot satisfy the hunger pangs that assault us. What do we do when we are parched and feel as if there is no water? In our journeying through the wilderness there are times when we feel as if our resources are at a low ebb. We may even feel as if we cannot access them at all. We may feel as if God has totally abandoned us. Like the Israelites we may be asking, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

As we worship we utter precious words. Through our singing and praying, through the affirmation of our faith, we proclaim love and loyalty to God. We bring our children to be baptised. But none of those things mean that we have made a commitment in our own lives.

And so Jesus relates a parable. He is responding to the chief priests and elders of the synagogue. They are religious beyond a fault. Their good works are broad and their theological discussions are long. They like getting dressed up. But Jesus sees a disconnect between what they preach and their actions in the community.

“A man had two sons,” Jesus tells them. “He went to the first and asked him to work in the vineyard. The son said that he had better things to do, but later he changed his mind and went and did as his father had asked. The father went to the second son and asked him the same thing. He told his father that he would go and work in the vineyard. But he didn’t show up.”

“What do you think?” Jesus asks them. “Who did the will of the father? After all, ” Jesus is saying, “What counts is not making the promise; it is following through on it.”

God called on a certain priest. “The vineyard is a mess!” God said to him. “Will you go into the vineyard and work on it?”

“Of course I will,” said the priest. And off she went to the vineyard. She held a worship service. She preached a wonderful sermon. But the vineyard was still a mess.

And so God called on the Parish Council of a large congregation. “The vineyard is a mess!” God told them. “Will you go into the vineyard and work on it?”

They were gratified that God would call on them. “Of course we will,” they said. And off they went to hold a meeting to decide what to do about the mess. They talked for months, finally deciding to raise some funds so that they could hire a company to clean up the mess. Months later the vineyard had not changed one iota.

And so God called on some prostitutes lounging around on a street corner. “The vineyard is a mess!” God said to them. “Will you go into the vineyard and work on it.”

They felt uneasy. Why was God calling on them? At first they said no, they just couldn’t see themselves dealing with that mess when their lives were such a mess. “Who do you think we are that you would ask this of us?” But then they went into the vineyard. They found all sorts of things to do. They fed some hungry people. They looked after the sick. The vineyard began to look much better.

If we are to know that God is amongst us, then it needs to be about more than words. We need to preach the gospel with our lives, because we want others to see the gospel in action. We want to experience the water gushing forth from the rock. We want to drink deeply of the waters of salvation. We want to feel that encouragement in Christ, that consolation from love, that sharing in the Spirit, that compassion and sympathy. Amen.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

St. Matthew the Apostle (Patronal Festival)

St. Matthew the Apostle
September 21, 2014

Responding to God’s Call

Readings: Proverbs 3:1-6; Psalm 119:33-40; 2 Timothy 3:144-17; Matthew 9:9-13

Today we celebrate our Patronal Festival, the Feast Day of St. Matthew for whom this parish is named. What we know of him comes from Scripture, from the Gospel according to Matthew, which is ascribed to him. The Gospel message today is one of inclusion and of living faithfully in response to God's call. Both are wonderful themes as we celebrate our Patronal Festival. They are also powerful reminders of the promises of our Baptism as we bring four people into the Body of Christ.

As Jesus was walking along, we are told, he saw a man called Matthew sitting in the tax booth. Jesus issued an invitation to him. "Follow me," he said, and the amazing thing was that Matthew got up from his work, immediately got up from what he was doing, and followed Jesus. He did not ask where they were going. He simply got up from his work and became a disciple of Jesus. Had he been waiting for that invitation? Had he witnessed the works of Jesus and the disciples? The simple fact of leaving what he was doing and following Jesus should amaze us, but there is more to the story. Matthew was a tax collector. Tax collectors were despised by the Jews so much so that they were disbarred from even walking in the door of the synagogue. They were considered unclean by Jewish law. You see, Jewish tax collectors worked for the Romans collecting Roman taxes. They made a healthy commission for their work and were the wealthiest people in town. We believe we are taxed heavily, but at least we receive the benefit of social services, whereas in Palestine the money went straight into the coffers of Imperial Rome. And the taxes were punitive. First and foremost, there was a Land tax, which would have provided the bulk of taxes gathered. It was linked to the amount of produce grown on a piece of farmland. In cities and towns it was replaced by a house tax. Secondly there was a head tax levied on males, and finally there was a Customs tax, which was likely what Matthew was collecting. These were collected on goods passing through city gates, and at ports on goods and produce coming ashore.

And yet incredible as it seems Jesus called Matthew, a tax collector, a social outcast, to become one of the twelve. Not only did he call him to be a disciple, he went to his home for a meal.

When we think of the word “call” our immediate response is likely that it refers to the call to ordained ministry, the call to be a priest or a deacon in the church. We do speak of our priestly vocation as a calling. But 'call' can also be translated 'invite'. Perhaps the most astounding fact of all history is the call of Christ, the invitation of Christ, to all of us sinful people to follow him. It is not an invitation to casual acquaintance or weekly worship. It is not an offer of help when we are in trouble. It is a call to follow, to love and to serve. It is an invitation issued to each one of us. It is an invitation that we celebrate today. As sponsors take on the responsibility for these three children, as Caitlin as an adult seeking Baptism takes on her Christian responsibility, as we renew the promises of our baptism, we are responding to the invitation of Christ.
So what does it all mean? What is baptism all about? Baptism is a radical moment in the lives of each of us. 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. It is, if you will, our ordination as the people of God.

For most of us though, it does not seem to be a very radical occurrence. If you are a “cradle” Anglican, that is you have been an Anglican all of your life, 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. 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 being the 24th of May there may have been fireworks. And yet 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 important event in my Christian life.

The first baby I baptised was when I was doing On Call Chaplaincy at Toronto General Hospital. She was premature and was not expected to survive and in fact, had been expected to be stillborn. The family had gathered together and wanted her to be named. We found a basin of water and I held her in my arms. She was so tiny she would have fit in one hand. There in that room with her mother, father, aunt and uncle she was named Katy Harper Hall. For a few minutes we were held in a bond of love that I have experienced very few times in my life. Katy's mother later shared with me that during the baptism she felt caught up into God's presence.

One of the most meaningful baptisms I have attended took place some years ago in the parish in which I was organist. A whole family – parents and two children – came for baptism. Some friends had brought the children to the church. They joined the choir and Sunday school and became quite active. Mother and father came to a potluck supper and were overwhelmed by the welcome they received from parishioners. They too became regular attendees at worship. They asked about receiving communion, and on discovering that baptism was the requirement asked that the whole family be baptised. The church was jammed that Sunday with supporters. It was a moving experience for all of us.

I use those illustrations this morning as examples of the place of baptism in the mission of the church. None of the examples represent mission in the sense we have come to expect of the word. But all three happened as a result of mission, of evangelism. There was no hell and brimstone preaching. There was no altar call. But there was mission. Like Jesus’ call to Matthew there was an invitation to come and see. There was a response – openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit in the life those who were baptised.

Shortly we will renew our baptismal covenant. We will affirm our faith. By water and Spirit we will bring into the family of God, four people. As they are baptised we take on a responsibility to continue to invite, to support and uphold them in their Christian journey. It is not easy to bring your children up in the church. It is not always easy to get yourself out to church. So many things keep us away; it takes commitment. So pray for them, encourage them to continue on the path they have begun.
Let us be as willing as Matthew to respond to the call of God. Let us follow in his footsteps as we grow in faith. Let us live out our Baptismal Covenant. Amen.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Holy Cross

Love Story

Readings: Numbers 21:4b-9; Psalm 98:1-6; 1 Corinthians 1:18-24; John 3:13-17

Today as we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Cross, I want to share some love stories with you. It is not difficult to understand why love stories are popular. Love brings joy and happiness our lives. It also makes us vulnerable. It is transformative in our lives. Remember for a moment the first time you fell in love. What was it like to be head-over-heels in love with someone? Our gospel is a love story, the greatest love story of all. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” What a wonderful reminder that is that God’s grace reaches out to us, saying “I’d do anything for you.”

Love has the power to transform. I’ve seen it. I remember as a teacher dealing with a little girl whom no one liked. In fact, the children picked on her mercilessly. I found it difficult to like her myself. She had a skin condition that left her looking strange. She was messy in her work. She came to school looking dirty and unkempt. The constant teasing from her classmates led to behavioural problems and aggressive behaviour. I knew that it had to stop. I also knew that it was not going to be easy, even for me. I began to find little things to praise her for. Every day I said something positive to her. Sometimes it was difficult to find anything. But I persisted. And somehow it rubbed off. The children in the class began to react differently to her. They stopped the teasing. Her aggressive behaviour changed. She began to take more interest in how she looked and in her work. Over the course of that year she blossomed until all the teachers in the school and her parents were remarking on it.

And God’s love is much greater than ours. I have experienced it in my life and in the lives of others. There is my friend Bill. Because of his addiction to alcohol, he lost everything – work, family, friends. When I first met him he was living on the streets of Toronto. I helped him get into a rehab program. Now he works with street people helping them to overcome their addictions. He will tell you that it was God’s love that changed things for him. It was God’s love that turned his life around.

I truly believe that God loves me. I have experienced that amazing fact in my life. There are the obvious signs that God loves me. I see it all around me in the beauty of the world God has created, the kindnesses of people, the acts of generosity. And there are the serendipitous things in life that remind me constantly of the nature of our loving God, the things that happen in my life that I know I do not deserve. They just happen. They are pure grace. I experience God’s love in prayer, both as I reach out in my own times of prayer, but also as we worship as the body of Christ. I experience the awesome power of God as we offer up prayers of intercession and of thanksgiving. I experience it as we gather at the table. And finally I look back at the times that without God’s love I simply would not have survived, those moments when life was at its darkest. Those are the times that I truly know that not only nothing I could do would make God love me more but also that nothing I could do would make God love me less.

The cross has the power to transform. It is a sign of God’s love. It is God’s way of uniting suffering with love. It is God’s way of showing us that God would do anything for us. It is a symbol that we look on with a sense of reverence and awe. We make the sign of the cross. We wear crosses in recognition of our faith. We use it as a symbol of God’s redeeming grace to decorate our churches. Through the ages the event of the cross has become the symbol of God’s love.

A friend of mine questioned me about why I always wear a cross. I was taken aback by the question, since she is a person who confesses Christian faith. She also knows that I am a priest. I gave her a quizzical look. I did not answer right away. I needed to figure out what was behind the question. Was it something about the particular cross I was wearing? Was it because I was on holidays? Was it what the cross represents? Finally I asked her and was confronted with a barrage of hurt, anger and frustration. It was abundantly clear to me that for her the image of the cross was not merely foolish, but abhorrent.

Indeed, it is a very strange symbol to have at the heart of our faith. That is exactly what Paul is saying to the Corinthians, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” Of course it is! The people of Jesus’ time understood the horror of the cross. There is simply no way they would ever have connected it to God. People of the Jewish faith expected salvation to come through the long awaited Messiah. They could never even consider that God’s promised agent could be put to death. The Greeks were seeking pure knowledge. A suffering god would be impossible for them to accept. And still today people who are themselves carrying heavy crosses, the sick, the elderly, the handicapped, the unemployed, the lonely, the depressed, may find themselves unable to fathom the cross as a symbol of the love of God.

Yet for those of us who believe it is a reminder that God’s power is able to transform even the most terrible suffering. It is a reminder that God is with us. Through our encounter with the crucified Christ we learn that the sharing of suffering is the beginning of its transformation to wholeness and joy. We are reminded by our very ‘woundedness’ that God loves us. The ultimate test of love is whether it is giving. Through our own inadequacies and sufferings, we begin to understand the great gift that God has given. Salvation truly is a gift, a gift of love.

How can we lighten the load for those who find it unfathomable? How do we help them to understand that God loves them? It is, after all, about sharing the love of God, about sharing our Christian love story. It is about reminding them that from the cross Jesus is saying, “I’d do anything for you.”



Saturday, September 6, 2014

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23, Year A

Gathered in Prayer

Readings: Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Jesus said to the disciples, “When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” When I visited South Africa as part of the Decade Festival in 1998, I saw that lived out.

I stayed in the homes of some wonderful women of faith. What struck me most was that no matter where I went the first thing they asked me to do was to pray with the family. We stood in a prayer circle there in those simple homes and offered up our prayers of thanksgiving for new friendships and prayers of blessing on all who lived in that home. Their lives revolved around prayer.

On my last day there, I stayed with a widow, her widowed daughter and two children. In the morning the woman went in to awaken her daughter to get ready for work. She found her incoherent, her mouth drooping, unable to move. She summoned me along with several of her neighbours to pray while she went to phone for an ambulance. That whole day while they awaited the outcome those neighbours stayed in the home and prayed. Our prayers turned to prayers of thanksgiving when the doctors reported that she had a mild stroke and would recover quickly.

A theology student doing a placement in Jamaica described a similar thing. He was awakened one night by someone who was obviously disturbed. She had a terrible nightmare. She knocked on the rectory door for help. He couldn’t think what to do for her. “What do you need?” he asked her.

“I don’t need anything!” was her reply. “I only came to pray with you for a moment. I am alone at home.” He prayed with her and her anxiety cleared. She left calmed by the prayer.

My experience in Africa taught me not to be shy about praying for people. I got into the habit of offering prayer, not only on a visit to a home, but also over the phone if I felt it was needed. One woman in my last parish was going through a crisis at work. She would sometimes phone and ask for prayer.

Simone Weil, the French mystic wrote, “Two and three, and there should be no more.” She was not excluding praying in a larger group, but she knew that prayer amongst two or three has a very special power. Anyone who has ever prayed at the bedside of someone who is ill or on a special occasion knows the power of that kind of prayer. It shows us how good the Lord is, and how present to us.

Each Sunday we pray for people for whom prayer has been requested. We may not recognize the name. We may not know the need. But God knows. And so we lift them up to God. It is a collective prayer spoken by one, but prayed by all.

Yet it often seems that prayer is simply a last resort. At times of disaster churches fill up with people. People turn to God for answers. They find themselves trusting in God. They trust that God helps and protects us.

In this congregation as in many throughout the Anglican Communion, we offer anointing and the laying on of hands. We do so in recognition of the power of prayer at work in our lives. It is a very personal kind of prayer as we ask for healing for ourselves. During the Eucharist today anointing will be offered. You are invited to come, not to be anointed for someone else. That would be like receiving communion and instead of eating it, giving it to a friend. It is meant to be a spiritual blessing to the one being anointed. If you come for anointing you come with something that needs healing and restoration in your own life, whether it is a physical, psychological or spiritual need. As I ponder the readings today I realize that if we put Jesus’ words into context we need to be willing to work through strained and troubled relationships. The prayer of the Church includes prayer for reconciliation.

An elderly man was dying. For years he had been at odds with his best friend. Wanting to straighten things out, he sent word for the man to come and see him. When his friend arrived, he told him that he was afraid to go into eternity with such a bad feelings between them. He apologized for the things he had said and done. He offered forgiveness to his friend for the hurts that had been done to him. Everything seemed fine until his friend went to leave the room. He called out to him, “But, remember, if I get better, this doesn’t count!”

It points out in a humorous way just how difficult the process of forgiveness is for most of us. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” we say in the Lord’s Prayer. It is a reminder that we are called to be forgiving people, to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. As Paul points out to the Romans, “Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

But that brings up so many questions, doesn’t it? Who is my neighbour? How is “love to do no wrong”? What is the “right” that love must do? How do we live in harmony with God’s creation? Taken to its logical conclusion, it touches every level of our lives.

The readings provide us with some Godly perspectives on the meaning of love and compassion at times of conflict and trouble. What is our Christian call when things go wrong? What do you do when things go wrong in the church? In the gospel we find some fascinating insights into communal relationships. Confrontation is something few people enjoy. Most of us will do anything to avoid it. And yet if the community, any community, is to work together, disputes require reconciliation within a context of deep and heartfelt prayer.

And so in Matthew’s gospel we are given a process for dealing with conflict and finding it in our hearts to forgive. It is a process that recognizes the struggle of the early church to work harmoniously. It was followed to help resolve difficult issues. “If someone sins against you,” Jesus says, “go and point out the fault to that person in private.” It is important to give a person an opportunity to make things right. That is what reconciliation is about. We all know that it does not work to harbour a grievance. It will simply fester and grow out of proportion. Jesus does not stop there. He knows that people do not always take kindly to criticism. The dispute may have to be aired publicly. “If the member refuses to listen, take it to the church.” ‘Take it to the two or three gathered together in prayer,’ Jesus is saying. He knows that we struggle together as the people of God. We are all struggling for the same result, a relationship between earth and heaven, between us and God and each other.

The passing of the peace in our liturgy symbolizes our willingness to be reconciled to one another. As we reach out a hand in friendship the barriers simply come down. We are ready to come to the table, eat and drink, and go out reconciled to be bread for a hungry world.

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 ...