Saturday, October 25, 2014

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 30, Year A

Doin’ the Lovin’ T’ing

Readings: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

While I was studying at Trinity we had a professor of Ethics, Romney Mosley, who in his West Indian accent, reminded us constantly that ethics was about “doin’ the lovin’ t’ing!” That is certainly the theme of the Gospel for today. It is also a wonderful reminder as we deal with the events of this past week that saw the tragic death of two Canadian soldiers.

They are out to trap Jesus again. This time it is a lawyer who asks, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus turns the trap into a teaching opportunity by reminding him of the two great commandments, to love God and to love neighbour.

Jesus makes it clear that 'loving action' is the ultimate authority. Love is beyond the claims of the law. There is ultimately one law alone, and that is the law to love. It is a law, first and foremost, to love God, to love totally in all that entails, to commit our lives to God. And the reality of our love of God is part and parcel of our love of neighbour. If we love God, our love of God cannot help but result in loving action towards others. It cannot be lived out in our lives without looking at neighbourly love and at the question of social justice. It is a call to examine our responsibilities, not only to our next-door neighbour, but also to our global neighbours. It is no mistake that it is an integral part of our Baptismal covenant. Love of neighbour provides a simple guideline by which we can test our lives.

When asked, "What is the most important commandment?" Jesus did not have to think about it. And for someone of the Jewish faith, that is no small feat. There were over six hundred laws to keep. Yet Jesus’ immediate response was that it was to love God with all your heart. He went on to add that you must love your neighbour as yourself. He knew it is not a question of how to accomplish such love; the real question is why. The answer is that it is because we are in this creation all together. We as well as our neighbour are the dwelling place of God. We may not feel God's presence all the time, but that does not mean God is not with us. Our neighbour may not feel God's presence, but that does not mean that he or she is not carried by God's love. We belong together, God, you and I. When we are one, we can see God and Christ in everyone. We ourselves are then in the heart of everyone. What we do for another is done to ourselves. When another is hurt, we are hurt. Our heart is not limited to the size of the one in our chest, after all; it is as large as God's heart. The more you love yourself, the more you see who you are, the more Jesus' directive to love neighbour as self, to do the loving thing, will become a blessing for all humanity.

All of this requires having a good theology about love. In his book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” Stephen Covey writes the following about love.

“In the great literature of all progressive societies, love is a verb. Reactive people make it a feeling. They’re driven by feelings. Hollywood has generally scripted us to believe that we are not responsible, that we are a product of our feelings. But the Hollywood script does not describe the reality. If our feelings control our actions, it is because we have abdicated our responsibility and empowered them to do so.”

“Proactive people make love a verb. Love is something you do: the sacrifices you make, the giving of self, like a mother bringing a newborn into the world. If you want to study love, study those who sacrifice for others, even for people who offend or do not love in return. If you are a parent, look at the love you have for the children you sacrificed for. Love is a value that is actualized through loving actions. Proactive people subordinate feelings to values. Love, the feeling, can be recaptured.”

His thoughts about love have so much to say to us about the call to love God and to love neighbour. For the great commandment is a call to proactive love. It is a call to recognize that love is more than Hollywood romanticism. Love needs to reflect the love of God. God loves neighbour, us, as God loves self. It is not we who love God first, but God who loves us, who creates us, who sanctifies us. All of us!

The most proactive love, it seems to me, is that which results in forgiveness. Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch woman who worked in the Resistance and was sent along with her family to the infamous concentration camp at Ravensbrook, went on to tell her story and to bring a spirit of reconciliation to her people. In one of her books she recounts an encounter after the liberation with a particularly cruel guard. She was speaking about forgiveness at a Mission. She was shocked as she recognized the former guard in the congregation. Later he came back to speak to her. It was obvious from the conversation that he did not recognize her. However, he told her that he had been a guard at Ravensbrook. He asked her forgiveness for all that had happened. He held out his hand to her. It took every ounce of courage for her to take his hand, as she remembered the death of her sister Betsie, just a few days before they were freed. But somehow God gave her the courage to forgive, and it truly liberated her. That is real love of neighbour. That is the love that God shows us in giving us Jesus. That is the Gospel in action.

Paul's ministry to the people of Thessalonica is a beautiful example, is it not, of what happens when one continues to lovingly minister even in the face of opposition. Paul's story is no fairy tale. His early ministry often took him to towns where he was stoned for his preaching and driven out. Ultimately he lost his life for the faith. Opposition to Paul in Thessalonica was particularly unpleasant. Yet he discovered something important about himself, about ministry, and about the faith from the experience. Despite the opposition, there developed a real sense of commitment from many people. The communities became places of loving action and the beginning of a strong worldwide community of faith, one for which he was able to truly give thanks.

We can put that Gospel into action every day of our lives. To know Christ is not something I think or intellectualize. Christ is a person to whom I respond by loving. And that love is shown by my loving action in the world. The Gospel calls us to more than words. It calls us to share ourselves.

William Blake, an painter, printmaker and poet of the 19th Century, wrote the following:

“I sought my soul,
And the soul I would not see,
I sought my God,
And God eluded me,
I sought my neighbour,
And I found all three.”

"We are determined," Paul says "to share with you not only the Gospel of God, but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us." It is easy as Christians to be in the business of getting things organized, of busily doing good, and of sharing tasks. To share ourselves is harder. Yet that is the Gospel call. That is the loving thing to do.

This past week has been a difficult one for us as Canadians. We have experienced the shock of a misguided person attacking the very fibre of our society. We have awakened to the sad reality that we too are prone to attack, even in our Nation’s capital. It has, once again, caused suspicion of people of the Moslem faith. It has caused backlash to people who were not responsible for what happened. Such events bring out the worst in people, but they also bring out the best, as the community comes together to do the loving thing. Let it be so in our communities of faith, but especially in our hearts. The great commandment is a call to participate in a community where we always do the loving thing.

Open our hearts, God, that we may follow the example of your Son, our Saviour, and bring love to a world in need of redemption.



Saturday, October 18, 2014

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 29, Year A

Walking the Walk

Readings: Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

We all struggle with the implications of what God intends for our lives. How do we live the Christian life? What does it mean for us to live out our faith? We know that it is never enough to simply talk the talk. We must walk the walk.

Moses knew that even when things did not go as planned, he needed to follow God's guidance. It is difficult to be in a position of leadership when people balk at your leadership style and go their own way. Life in the wilderness was not easy for the people of Israel. There were many distractions from the way of God. Their relationship to God was often on shaky ground. When things went wrong it was Moses whom they blamed.

That is the situation in today's Old Testament reading. The people have been so distracted by the difficult situation in which they find themselves that they have turned to other gods. They have made and worshipped a golden calf. Moses deals with the situation as God commands, but he finds himself in need of spiritual sustenance. He has become dispirited by the heavy responsibilities that God has laid on him. He needs affirmation and support to overcome his despondency.

"Show me your glory, I pray," he asks God. "I need more than your presence. I need a sign." God communicates to him in a real and tangible way, reassuring him of his presence, restoring his confidence.

There are times in our lives when we want to walk the walk. But life overtakes us. It becomes too much for us. At such times it seems as if God is far from us. We long for a sign of God's presence. And it happens, often in some intangible way. We get a glimpse of the glory God. It may be in a dream or in a remark made by a friend. It may be that sense of reassurance that all will be well. It may come to us in our prayer time or as we take a walk immersing ourselves in the beauty of God's creation.

The Thessalonians are people who are walking the walk. This fledgling congregation has been open to God's call through many trials and tribulations. They trust that God is among them in a new way. They are able to experience Christian joy even in the midst of suffering and persecution. They live a life of faithfulness to the Gospel. Paul commends them for "their work of faith, their labour of love and their steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ".

Could Paul speak that way about this community? Are we walking the walk? Are we faithful to our calling? What labours of love are done among us? What quality of hope do we possess? Does faith give us a basis for hope amidst the turmoil of our lives?

Jesus in the Gospel for today must walk not only the walk, but also the fine line between the sacred and the secular. Once again the Pharisees are out to trap him. "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?" What they are really saying is, "Where do your loyalties lie?" Is it permissible for the people of God to express allegiance to a pagan emperor? If Jesus approves of Roman taxation, then he is against militant nationalism that enjoys the popular support of his people. If he disapproves, he is guilty of treason against Rome.

We have all heard that it is a mistake to discuss religion or politics. Here he is asked to make a choice between the two. His non-answer cuts through to the heart of the matter. "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's," he tells them. The secular must find its place within the sacred. We usually get that the wrong way around. We allow the secular world to encroach on the sacred. Jesus is saying that while we must pay our dues to the secular authorities, we can retain our integrity by also giving what is due to God. That is our loyalty, our worship, and our love.

Jesus walks the walk. He does not deny or ignore the existence of the secular world or the dues that must be paid to it. He points out to his followers that clearly we still live in this world. We have dues in the world. Willingly or unwillingly we must pay our taxes. We must live as responsible citizens in our country. We must be a part of the reason that it is a great country that deserves our loyalty and allegiance. But like Jesus, we must not lose sight of the one to whom we owe our ultimate allegiance. To find genuine meaning and purpose in our lives we must keep our minds on the eternal world. To toil and risk and sacrifice only to keep on good terms with the world around us is to misunderstand what our purpose is. It is to live in a wrong relationship, not only with God but also with God's creation.

The coin the Pharisees showed to Jesus had on it a portrait of Caesar marking it as belonging to Caesar. We, by virtue of our baptism, bear on our souls the imprint of God. We owe our lives and all that may include, to God. We must pay our dues to the world, but with integrity. We do not need to give in to the world's choices.

Yet with the secularism of our society Christians are constantly in the position of making choices that may bring us into conflict with society. In order to be on good terms with the secular world we give in to its demands. But when secularism conflicts with our Christian faith, we must be prepared like Moses to take action, like the Thessalonians to proclaim the Gospel and like Jesus to resist injustice.

How do we walk the walk in our personal lives? God calls us to live out our faith in every aspect of our lives. "Seven whole days, not one in seven …” That is a call to spend time in prayer and study of God's word. Our decisions about how we spend our money and how we plan our lives begin with prayer.

How do live out our lives in the workplace in faithfulness to God? We live in a secular age. Our faith often conflicts with the dictates of society. Every day we face issues that come into conflict with our faith. God calls us to make life-giving choices that may be unpopular. We may need to make decisions to live authentically to our faith. Our lives need to bear witness to the God we serve.

All of us like the individuals and communities in today’s readings struggle with the implications of God’s way for our lives. How do we open our minds and hearts to where God is leading us? How do we achieve that level of commitment to the gospel? What impact would our church have on the community if we committed every part of our lives to God? What is God calling us to give?

A much-loved king was in need of a heart transplant. There was a great concern throughout the kingdom. A crowd gathered outside the castle screaming their support. “Take my heart, King, take my heart!”

The king didn’t know what to do. Finally he called for quiet. “I’ll throw down a feather,” he said, “and whomever the feather lands on, I will take their heart for the transplant.”

He dropped the feather. The people watched it drift back and forth. They kept calling out, “Take my heart, King, take my heart!” But with one difference! As the feather came close to the crowd, they would lean their heads back and blow the feather back into the air. “Take my heart, king! (blow), take my heart! (blow).

How do we walk the walk in the church and in the community in which we live? "Can we make any difference?" we ask ourselves. It means giving voice to those who cannot speak for themselves. We need to be advocates for change. We live in a world where there are starving children and refugees, people who are poor and uneducated, people suffering from plagues like Ebola, environmental issues, war and famine. As long as those injustices exist in our world, our worship is not complete. We have not given to God what is God’s.

God is calling us to make a difference through our lives. Let us open our hearts and minds to God. Let us give to God what belongs to God. Let us give ourselves.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Proper 28, Year A

RSVP

Readings: Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

The king announces a royal wedding. As for any wedding there are many preparations to be made. The hall is booked. Caterers are hired. The guest list is prepared. Invitations are sent out. The RSVPs start to come back. Much to the king's amazement, there are many excuses. A farmer declines the invitation. All of a sudden he has far too many chores to do. Likewise a person who runs a business says no to the invitation. It seems far more important to amass personal wealth than to attend the king's function. Their own responsibilities come first. One of the invited guests goes so far as to beat up the slaves when they come with the invitation.

For the most part, the reasons for ignoring the invitation seem valid enough. Responsibilities come between guest and acceptance of the invitation.

This is precisely what happens in human experience at such times. The possibility of encountering God arises in our lives. Such moments – moments of synchronicity, times of blessing, happenings that we know could only be God at work in our lives, times when we know God is with us – happen over and over again in our daily lives. Yet we find good excuses for ignoring such moments. It is not rejection so much as prioritization. We do not intentionally make light of God's invitation. We simply give more weight to other things. It is easy to dismiss such events and to attribute them to the mundane.

We intend when we have time, to worship, to do Bible study, to learn more about the church and to become more involved in our spiritual quest. We have every good intention. But we never actually accept the invitation that sounds deeply inside ourselves. We never allow God to transform our lives.

Back to the wedding feast! This time the king invites everyone to the feast. It is an open invitation. There is perhaps one catch. You have to accept the invitation to enjoy the party. Apart from that, there are no qualifications or standards to meet. You simply have to show up.

How can you refuse such an offer? Such is the grace of God that all are invited. We simply have to respond to God's call. We can still make those same excuses. No one is forced to respond to God's loving grace. Things often come in the way of our response – job, career, family, paycheck, goals, even religious exercises – can become excuses. We have to respond. We must recognize who we are and what we have become by the grace of God. We must accept that we are graced.

It all sounds so simple. Why is it that we are so prone as humans to ignoring God's call? Why are our hearts not so filled with joy at the love of God that we can't help but respond? It seems on a beautiful Thanksgiving weekend in what must be the most wonderful country in the world that it should be a simple matter of will. But we are not, on the whole, overwhelmed by God's love.

The wedding feast again! And here comes the real problem with the parable. One of the guests comes improperly dressed. The king deals with it harshly. The man is tossed out – not just out of the wedding feast – out of the kingdom. "Unfair!" you say. "Just because he doesn't get dressed up in tuxedo and cummerbund he is bound hand and foot and tossed out of the kingdom." What is going on here? If the king is such a loving king, inviting to all, how can he suddenly turn on someone for not dressing properly? It doesn't make sense. Everything in us says that it is not fair.

To get an understanding of what is going on here, we need to read between the lines. The king confronts the man about his attire; he is speechless. The man knows that he has done something wrong. His silence speaks volumes. He reminds me of Ralph Kramden on the Honeymooners. When he knows he is wrong he simply follows after Alice spluttering but with no words coming out. God is simply asking him, "Why are you still sinful, still refusing my love, still unrepentant, still cold towards me?"

Who of us really has an excuse when confronted by God? We are surrounded by God's providence, taught by the church, nourished by Christ's flesh, nurtured by his word, washed in his blood, coaxed by the Spirit, and sought, hunted and pursued in a million ways. What explanation could we possibly give for our ultimate failure to comprehend the love of God?

Truly we have struggles in our lives that make it difficult to respond. But deep down they are not enough of an excuse to flee conversion or to refuse a change of heart. There are many aids to conversion in our lives – the sacraments, Scripture, the prayers of faithful people, friendships. We have a choice to make. We can still refuse. It is up to us to respond. What is the quality of our acceptance? What investment do we have in being the guest? What is the depth and reality of our involvement in the Christian community?

God invites all human life to experience the presence of the divine. For us today the invitation can come from a friend. It may be an inexplicable longing to get back to the faith. It can be the discovery of the church by one’s children and the pressure to respond. It can be a conversion experience.

God wants God’s house filled, not with people who don’t want to be there, but with people who do. There is a choice to be made. You have opened yourself to the invitation. Don’t let the invitation go to naught. There is no time to be lost. Dress yourself in the joy of the party. Live its celebration in righteousness and grace.

And remember, we are to invite the poor, the blind, the lame, the homeless, the hurting to join us at God’s banquet feast. We are to go to them and invite them to be part of the banquet, to be part of God’s kingdom.

The king wants us at the banquet. Everything is prepared. The tables are groaning with fine food. The invitations have gone out to all and sundry. It remains only to open our hearts, minds and souls to God's wonderful grace. How can we refuse such an invitation? See you at the feast!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Harvest Thanksgiving

Don’t Forget to Say Thank You

Readings: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 65; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Luke 17:11-19
As children, whenever we went to a party at a friend's house, the last thing my mother always said to us was the reminder, "Don't forget to say thank you!" I remember, as well, the painstaking care with which I wrote notes after Christmas to aunts and uncles saying thank you. I am the first to admit, that since I had very practical relatives, I did not always feel grateful for the socks or the hat and mittens, but what mother said went. I sat down the day after Christmas or my birthday, and dutifully wrote a note expressing my sheer and utter gratitude for the lovely gift.

In this electronic age, writing thank you notes is a lost art. I feel fortunate on the occasions when I receive a message on Facebook that at least the gift has been received. It would seem that gratitude has become a radical response. I say this in the sense that it seems to be unconventional, surprising, perhaps even shocking to write a thank you note. We seem to have the sense that saying thank you to God is important, but why? God does not have a need to hear us say thank you. The fact that is so often overlooked is that we ourselves have a need to say thank you. Gratitude is important to our wellbeing.
The power to appreciate and be grateful is a gift from God. Thankfulness is not something that one can put on. It is something that wells up in us. I suspect it has little to do with how much we have, and everything to do with our ability to allow God’s grace to permeate our lives. “Give us thankful hearts” is certainly a good and realistic prayer, not only at Harvest Thanksgiving, but the whole year round.

For the people of Israel giving thanks was about remembering the good things that God had provided. It is very much a part of Jewish faith to do that kind of remembering. They recognized that God wants us never to forget that it is not by our power and our strength that we exist as servants of God, but by the grace extended to the least among us. The passage read this morning begins by remembering the past, not with a sense of nostalgia and longing for the good old days, but with a view to correcting the present and looking to the future. They are not to take things for granted; they are to remember that what they have belongs to God. They are reminded that as God journeyed with them through the wilderness times, so God is with them in their time of prosperity.

For Paul it was also about remembering God’s bounty. He reminds the Corinthians about their need to give as God gives. It is his stewardship sermon. “God provides abundantly,” he tells them, “so that you will have enough not only for yourselves, but also to share with others who are in need.” He is not talking about having enough resources to be self-sufficient, to be independent, to get rich, but enough resources to be able to help one another.
In the Gospel. it is about having a sense of gratitude for all that God has provided. It describes an encounter between Jesus and a group of ten lepers who sought healing from him. Instead of healing them on the spot, he sent them to show themselves to the priests. That was the requirement before they could return to society. They did as Jesus told them to do. They scurried off to show themselves to the priest. As they went in obedience to Jesus they discovered that they had been cured. One of the lepers, a Samaritan, a foreigner, gave praise to God for his cure and returned to thank Jesus. He received more than a cure. He became whole. It is not that the other nine lacked faith. They were all healed. Yet their faith remained incomplete, because it did not result in gratitude.

What can make us truly grateful? Such a question always brings to mind a certain episode of “Frasier”. He and his brother Niles are in the cafĂ© as usual. Niles says to him, “Are you happy!”

Frasier turns the question back to Niles, “Why do you ask?

Niles responds. “It’s just that I saw an orphan receive a pair of cheap shoes. And there was such an expression of gratitude on his face. He was so happy. Why was he so happy? Here I am wearing a pair of $400.00 shoes. I look at them and wonder if I even really like them. Do you like them? They have tassels. I don’t really like tassels. What do you think?” And Frasier spends the rest of the show trying to decide what it is that makes him happy.

Like Niles we wonder sometimes how people who lack the luxurious lifestyle that we take for granted can be happy. How can they be close? How can children living in misery in Haiti or Peru or Zaire ever laugh? How can they play and sing when we can’t with all that we have? How can they play and sing and hold hands, and fall down on the ground and rejoice? But they can.
Surely the most effective thing we can do is to give thanks. Do we really believe that prayer has anything to do with what happens in the world? Do we pray for the leaders of our country really expecting that something powerful could happen? Do we see the signs around us of God's presence in our lives? Do we care for this world in a way that expresses our gratitude?

We hear over and over again that climate change is real, that it is having a dramatic effect on our world. We see it in our weather patterns. Unprecedented violent storms like the ice storm last winter! Weather systems that linger on for long periods of time! Drought in parts of the world, flooding in others! We see documentaries showing picture of open water in the Arctic, and of animals and birds that are in decline. There are predictions about climatic change and the probability that Canada will face more floods, droughts and tornadoes with the increasing levels of ozone in the atmosphere. The most perplexing part of it is that no one wants to take responsibility for the changes that are occurring. My suspicion is that change will come about because each one of us begins to take seriously our obligation to God and to this wonderful creation. We have an obligation to be thankful for God’s bounty.

Our Christian story is about remembering to give thanks. We come together as community. We break bread. We share together. We ask ourselves how we too can share fresh bread with others. At the heart of what we do at worship together, bread and wine are taken and blessed. They are the fruit of the earth. God's promises have again been fulfilled. Seed time and harvest go on producing food for us.

The bread and wine are products of our hands. People make that bread and produce that wine. In bringing food and drink as an offering to God we are enacting the deepest facts of human experience. We are acknowledging our dependence upon the Creator and Sustainer of all things. We trust and thank God for all that we have.

As we celebrate the harvest, can we make certain that what we have is not a hindrance to our relationship with God and with one another? Can we lift thankful hearts to a loving God who cares for each of us, and provides for our needs? Can we learn to share our bounty, and in that sharing find the happiness that God would have us know?

May we be moved beyond the gratitude of satisfaction to the risk of generosity! Amen

thank for it.

The Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Sing a New Song Readings: Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17 People often tell me that they cannot sing. Invariably th...