Friday, November 28, 2014

First Sunday in Advent, Year B

Living In Hope

Readings: Isaiah 63:16-64:8; Psalm 80:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:32-37

The French philosopher, Pascal, wrote, "There is a God-shaped piece of emptiness inside everyone." How true that is! We all live with expectations for our own well being and that of our children. Don’t we all long for fulfillment? That longing is very much reflected in the mood of the Advent season. As Christians, we know there is something incomplete in our lives. We search for meaning. We yearn for inner peace. We hunger for an intimate relationship with a personal God. We seek an end to the hunger in our souls. We keep searching, trusting that God will transform us and fill the emptiness in our lives.

It is a feeling of expectation that transcends time and space. You can hear it in Isaiah’s prayer of lamentation. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence,” he calls out to God. He is filled with a sense of longing, a longing for God to do something so strange, so wonderful, so beyond human expectation, that there will be no reason for him, or for that matter, anyone to doubt God’s power. He sees the destruction around him. He knows the deep sense of discouragement that pervades the lives of the Hebrew people. God seems so far away. He longs for a personal God, a God involved in every aspect of his life, present with him through all the hardships, persecution and difficulty. Then he has an ‘aha’ moment. He recognizes how God is revealed to us. That beautiful, intimate image of the potter and the clay comes to him. He sees those magnificent hands of God working the clay, molding, shaping, and reshaping the people in God's own beautiful image. He sees the deepening and intimate relationship that is possible with a God who is with us and in us.

That kind of longing, that spiritual hunger, is reflected in our secular world. People may deny the very existence of God. Yet they still seek ways of filling the emptiness that eats away at them. People are hungry for something, for anything, which will bring meaning to their lives. That is why there are so many destructive ways in which people seek fulfillment – alcohol, drugs, pornography, gambling. The list could go on. Even when people seek spiritual ways of fulfillment, they do not often turn to the institutional church. So often they are simply alienated by what they see as an archaic and meaningless exercise. Perhaps it is not unlike Isaiah's first reaction, which was to question God about motives. You will hear from people, “If there is a God out there, why don’t you do something about the state of the world?” Why do you let terrorists bomb innocent people? Why do innocent children die of hunger every day?” They don’t want to wait in expectation. They don’t want to listen for God’s direction. They don’t want to be active participants in the coming of God’s kingdom. They want God to do the work. They want God to bring about transformation of their state of being through the miraculous. They want miracles. They want to see awesome deeds. They think they will find fulfillment through material things.

That becomes evident to me when I listen to some television evangelists. “The problem with us,” they will say, “is that we don’t expect enough of God. Don’t just ask for what you need. Ask for everything you want.” They go on to say that if we send them money it will come back to us tenfold. And people buy it, because they are seeking to fill the emptiness in their lives. They are searching for an intimate relationship with the spiritual world. Yet there is something so off base about what is offered. The search can become idolatrous, for what is offered is fulfillment through material things rather than an entry into the presence of God. And yet they will go on to relate how great wealth has come to them simply by asking God to fulfill their needs.

I don't know about you. But that is not how I find spiritual fulfillment. It is wonderful to live in a land of plenty. I don't personally think I could feel any more fulfilled in my life, not even if I had a million dollars. At the point of our deepest longing is not material wealth, but the very presence of God. That longing comes from God. Pascal knew it; I know it. I hope you know it!

Contrast that approach to the way in which the people of Corinth seek inner peace and fulfillment. They face terrible conditions, poverty, slavery, brutality. Yet the Good News of the Gospel gives them a hopeful vision and outlook for the future. They are a people waiting expectantly and with great hope. They are waiting for the fulfillment of the life of grace. They are waiting until the fullness of Christ will be revealed. They are waiting not as those without hope, but with the knowledge that the gift of life in Christ is already theirs. They know that God is faithful.

We too live in a church expectant, watching with hope for Jesus' return. We, like Isaiah, may long for some miraculous and awesome display of God’s power, if even simply to help us keep the faith. But the Christian is not called to wait passively. We are called to active preparation. God has put us in charge of creation.

Jesus tells us that it is like a man travelling abroad, leaving his servants in charge. Each has their own task to accomplish. The doorkeeper is to stay awake so as not to be asleep at the return of the master, a return that might happen at any moment of the day or of the night. It is not only a matter of staying awake, but of being involved in the task set for us in this world. It is a task, which will result in the fulfillment of God's promise, in the establishment of God's kingdom. God expects us to be at work at building the kingdom. That begins with our inner search for the presence of God. It begins with our own study. It begins with our life of prayer. But it calls us to reach out with the message of hope to others.

These are anxious times in the Church. We live in a post-Christian era when our Christian worldview is definitely a minority one. We see the eroding of our faith. We see churches in decline. It is a time to be alert, to be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives. It is a time of expectancy, of hopefulness, as we look to God for guidance in our spiritual lives.

These are anxious times for the people of this parish as you face change. It is not easy to open yourselves up to the work that needs to be done both to the structure of the building, but more importantly to discerning what your mission is to be as you move into the future with new leadership. How do you find the right person to help you move forward?

How do we continue to experience Jesus’ coming in the events that are unfolding around us? These are anxious times in the world. They are times of economic turmoil. They are also times when we recognize that terrible, violent things can happen. At a time of real questioning and soul searching, we are called to offer reassurance and hope. We are called to look to God, the potter, who will never forsake us but will continue to shape and mold us until we are all we are meant to be. How do we continue to experience Jesus’ coming in the busyness of the season? We are called to prepare ourselves spiritually through prayer and study of God’s word. We are called to bring others into the presence of God. We are called to be. Let us be alert, always waiting, always watching, always expectant. Amen

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Reign of Christ

I Was Hungry

Readings: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

This last Sunday of the Church Year is called the Reign of Christ. On this day we celebrate Christ as king. We celebrate Jesus' reign that began with his ascension and continues as Paul expresses it in the letter to the Corinthians, "until all are made alive in Christ". It is a celebration that calls us to look at the whole concept of leadership within the kingdom of God.

And here, as so often in our life of faith lies a great paradox, for Christ our King is a king so different from any earthly experience we might imagine. To begin with, there is Ezekiel’s image of kingship. It is one that provides both pastoral faithfulness and justice. While he demands repentance on the part of the people, he also offers such hope and consolation. He speaks of God as the shepherd King, the one who searches for his lost sheep. Like a shepherd caring for the sheep, the shepherd King rescues the strays and binds up the ones who have been hurt. It is an image of kingship, which lays out the standard for the whole community. No fat, strong sheep push aside the weak or the sick. In God’s kingdom of shalom all are valued and live together in peace.

The image of the reigning Christ in Matthew’s gospel offers us that same sense of God’s grace. Jesus appears on the clouds at the end of time as a king sitting in judgement on those who stand before him. As we stand there looking up at his grace and majesty he questions us about the way we lived our lives. “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,” he says, and we wonder when it was that we saw Jesus thirsty. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was sick and you took care of me,” Jesus says to us. And we look back in our lives and remember the times we have seen the face of Christ in those we have met along the way.

It is a passage of Scripture, which evokes many memories in me. The first is an incident that happened to me many years ago when a friend and I visited my parents who were living in Jamaica. They did not live in the tourist area along the coast. They lived up in Christiana in the interior of Jamaica. It is a mountainous area where the roads are winding and narrow. On the last day of our holiday we headed off towards the airport in Kingston in our rental car. We did not get very far. Still in the mountains close to a town called Maypen, we were involved in an accident. We found ourselves in serious trouble. My friend was charged with careless driving. I was charged with aiding and abetting. We were taken to jail in Maypen. I finally got permission from the police to make a phone call. My sister answered. My parents were out.

“Get someone to come and get us out of jail,” I pleaded with her. And a couple of hours later, who should come but my parents’ friend, the priest in Maypen, Neville De Souza, who would later become the bishop. His arrival changed everything. The hostility against us abated. We were allowed to leave, although we still faced charges and had to appear in court a couple of weeks later. I love to remind Bishop de Souza that “when I was in prison, you visited me”. I like to remind him that he is the face of Christ for me.

It reminds me for a completely different reason of the weekend I spent living on the streets of Toronto. I was doing a course in Urban Ministry, which involved doing a ‘plunge’, living as a homeless person for two days. It was a life changing experience for me on a number of levels as I came face to face with poverty. I ended up in a hostel for battered women. There I shared a room with a young woman whom I will call Elaine. She had fled an abusive relationship. She was a recovering drug addict, probably a prostitute, but she was truly trying to get her life together and hoped that she would be reunited with her children who had been taken into custody by the CAS.

On Saturday evening she said to me, “Come to church with me tomorrow. You look like someone who would like to go to church.” I looked at my grubby jeans and sweatshirt, the only clothing I had. She saw my reluctance. “It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing,” she said to me. “Just come.” And so off to church we went. What’s more, it was a rather highbrow church in a good neighbourhood of Toronto. There was no room at the back of the church, of course, so Elaine led the way up the aisle to the front where she sang the hymns loudly and with obvious enjoyment. People around us tried hard to ignore us. I have to say, they did a really good job. We were not asked to sign the guest book. We were not invited to coffee hour. For “we were strangers and they did not welcome us.” Sadly I did not see the face of Christ in them. It was in Elaine that I saw that beautiful reflection.

Matthew wants us to know that our relationship to God is judged by our treatment of the oppressed. That judgement comes to all of us. Believers, those who have faith in God, are judged. And judgement is very much a question of our relationship to Christ. Do we see Christ in others? Do we reach out to those in need, not in judgement, but in true compassion for their need? Our guilt arises not from doing wrong things, not from being evil, but from failing to do what is right.

Our Christian calling is to be Christ like. Everything we can learn from Scripture leads us to know that Jesus makes himself one with those in need. He allies himself to the poor and the oppressed. As the shepherd of Israel, he is in solidarity with the whole of human misery in all its range and depth. He came to see that everything is as it should be.

He came as an amazing gift of God’s grace to help us to find God. And that happens in the most unexpected places, and in the most unexpected ways. We might think that we will find God in some mountaintop experience that lifts us from the everyday into the sublime. Those mountaintop experiences are important to us. They open our eyes to God’s awesome glory. But when it comes down to it, it is in the midst of the dirty, the grubby, the smelly and the unlovely that we will truly know God. It is in our actions that we will live out our faith.

The word went out. Jesus was coming again. These stories had made the rounds many times before. But somehow this time it was different. Everyone set about preparing for the return of the King. There was much speculation about where and how he would return. But there was no doubt that it would happen on Sunday.

The day dawned, cold and windy. People were up and stirring, filled with anticipation. A stranger wandered through the city streets, his tattered clothing in sharp contrast to his surroundings. He stopped in front of one house, went up and rapped on the door. A woman answered. He stood there for a moment in silence.

"What do you want?" she snapped at him. "Don't you know that this is a busy day? Christ is returning. We're all getting ready for church. He's sure to make an appearance there. I don't have time for you. Besides there are soup kitchens where the likes of you can get a meal."

He turned sadly and walked on down the street. It was the same everywhere he stopped. They were all too busy to look after a poor, hungry man.

At eleven o'clock he arrived at the door of a huge church. He could hear the sound of the magnificent organ and the singing of the choir. But the door was closed. He opened it and started down the aisle toward the only vacant seat, right up at the front of the church. All eyes turned toward him. Noses wrinkled as the smell of someone who has not had a shower in many days reached their senses. They noted with disdain the holes in the knees of his jeans and his filthy jacket. Two men appeared in the aisle.

"Out you go. There isn't a seat for you. We're saving that one for Christ. We are expecting him any minute now. He's sure to come here. This is, after all, the finest church in the city."

His heart heavy, he left the building and began to walk across the park. He walked for some time and finally came to a bridge over a ravine. He could see some people sitting by a fire they had made. As he approached they made room for him and he too began to warm his hands over the flame. A pot of stew was bubbling merrily on the fire. They ladled it out and motioned to him to take a plate.

"We're waiting for Christ to come," they told him. "But I don't suppose he'll find his way down here."

And the man lifted up his eyes to heaven. He blessed the food and began to eat. "I was hungry and you gave me food," he said to them.

Where after all do we find Christ? It is in the least expected places. Our God, you see, is a king who reigns, not from a throne, but from a cross. God's sovereign way is not the way of the world. It is not the way of power, but of powerlessness, a powerlessness that overturns all of our preconceived notions about God. Thanks be to God!



Saturday, November 15, 2014

23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 33, Year A

Don’t Stuff God Under Your Mattress

Readings: Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

It is a human trait, I suspect, to worry about the future. Consider an elderly friend of mine who when she was well into her eighties told me that she couldn't spend money on herself because she was saving it for her old age. Investment companies tell us that we need vast sums of money to take care of our needs when we retire. Even in this time of economic downturn we would never think of stuffing what money we have into a mattress. We set up investment portfolios hoping to get a good return on our savings. We worry that private and public coffers may not yield enough to look after society's needs.

The readings today reflect our need to consider, not primarily our investment in our earthly future, but to invest wisely in other ways. Stuffing God into a mattress makes about as much sense as stuffing money into one.

The Thessalonians felt a sense of anxiety over the future. Their newfound faith made every moment significant. Paul warns them that God's calling to account of the human race would be sudden and without warning "as a thief in the night". That may sound pretty ominous to you. However, Paul is not trying to frighten them into obedience. He is simply saying that being a Christian gives one the awareness that all human existence is accountable, always and at any moment. It is not his intention to immobilize his listeners. Rather he wants to prepare them, to provide them with the tools for living in the light, for living in readiness. He is writing to an expectant people. They believe that the Lord's coming again is imminent. They want to be prepared in every way. Paul resists any temptation to offer them false security by giving them a definite time. His images talk of the end times sneaking up on us – like a thief in the night, like labour pains – and of our need to live our lives ‘as if’. As if the Lord might return at any time! They are to encourage one another, helping the community to grow in faith and love. They are to reach out to others in need. They are to live their lives in the real world, facing up to their societal responsibilities. They are to face the problems of society creatively and constructively, to live in hope and to express their faith with love. They are to choose the right values in their lives and to be instruments of God's peace.

The Gospel reiterates that same message in terms of responsible stewardship. The master leaves the servants with a great responsibility. He gives them no time line, no directions and no right way to proceed. There is no on-the-job training. Yet when he returns each of the servants is held accountable for their actions, no matter what talents they possess, no matter what resources they call upon. It is, in fact, the inaction of one of the servants that raises the anger of the master. He has had no less opportunity; he is just as accountable.

These are readings seem to cross the ages to speak to our own time. We live in an age of great anxiety about the future. There are many questions about how we have wasted the world's resources and what, if anything can be done to reverse the damage that has already been done. It is a time of economic upheaval. We live in a world that has awakened to the reality that terrorism can touch every life in our world. Who would have thought that Canada would have to deal with terrorism? Haven’t we always considered ourselves to be somehow beyond that? And yet we have discovered our how vulnerable we really are.

On a personal level we worry about job security. We wonder whether our pension plans will be adequate for our needs once we retire. We worry about the breakdown of societal values. We worry about marriage breakdown, about our children and teenagers as they grow up in a very different world, about our health, about aging. And there are deep moral issues that we face as no other generation before us – euthanasia, genetic altering, and cloning to name just a few.

As a Church we must give leadership to society in dealing with the issues of our age. The Church must be committed not only to sharing the Good News of the Gospel, but also to giving ethical leadership to a floundering society. We have experienced how issues such as the blessing of same-sex unions can so easily become divisive. How do we take on that kind of leadership when we are faced with dwindling resources and aging congregations? Is it possible that we, by our neglect to lovingly invest our talents and gifts in the needs of people, are contributing to the end of Christendom?

God has equipped us with all that is needed to make the church a powerful, effective instrument in a power-mad but powerless world. God would do the impossible. God's purpose is to bring order into chaos, peace into destruction, purpose into purposelessness, fullness into emptiness and healing into sickness. It is to restore aching, hungry hearts. But it will not happen if we become a church that hides God under a mattress through fear of offending the status quo.

If we are to bring about that kingdom of shalom then we need to walk in faith, to serve in joy and to praise God in all the circumstances of our lives. In other words, we are to be as ready for the coming of the kingdom as were the people of Thessalonica. How can we discover or recover all the missing talents? How can we inspire the people of God to be all that they are meant to be? How can we change the structures of the church to make it a more inviting and inclusive community? It takes a risk on our part as Christians. Are we willing to invest in the future of the Church by challenging oppression? Are we willing to invest in a just society?

What is the mission of this community as you move forward in faith? Do you have a clear idea of who you are as God’s people? Some communities of faith cannot move beyond their glorious past. They live on the talents and treasures of past members. Some church communities look after themselves and fail to reach out missionally.

It begins, no doubt, with finding meaning in our own lives. It begins with nurturing each other in the faith, by praying for one another, and by becoming so seeped in spirituality that people smell God on us and want what we have. It comes about through having a clear mission. It comes about by being the kind of church that reaches out to those in need. It comes about by our actively becoming instruments of God in the world. It comes about when we actively invest ourselves in the pursuit of God's reign.

As we allow God to work in and through us, our lives change. We open ourselves to God's kingdom. Our communities change. God has entrusted us with so much. Let us not be held back by fear. Let us act; let us risk. For it is risking that we will truly discover everything we are meant to be. So don’t stuff God under a mattress. Let us use all of our talents to further the work of God’s Kingdom of Shalom. Amen.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 32, Year A

Remembering

Readings: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

The Israelites after years of wandering in the desert were settling into life in the Promised Land. Life was good. It was easy to forget the struggle that had brought them there. So Joshua did a very wise thing. He assembled the people. He reminded them of the gracious acts of God toward them throughout their history. He reminded them of Abraham’s relationship to God and of the covenant that God had made with the people. They remembered the time of slavery in Egypt. They remembered God’s faithfulness to them in the wilderness. It was a reminder to put away the foreign gods, the false gods, that had arisen among the people and to turn back to God. It was a reminder that they could not follow the crowd and still be God’s chosen people.

Paul is speaking to the Thessalonians who are grieving for loved ones who have died before the return of the Lord. He calls on them to remember that we all live between the life of Jesus and the coming of Christ, and that all of creation will, with the coming of God’s realm, belong once again to God.

And there is the parable that Jesus told. Five foolish bridesmaids took their lamps with them to the wedding, but didn’t bring any oil. Five wise bridesmaids on the other hand came prepared with enough oil for any contingency. The bridegroom was late in arriving. The wise bridesmaids were able to trim their lamps and meet the bridegroom. The foolish ones asked for oil from the wise ones. Their request was met by refusal. It does seem rather mean-spirited that those who brought oil did not simply share what they had, but the point of the story is that we are to be ready to serve God wherever and whenever God appears. Once again, it points out to us a choice we must make between the way the world lives and the way our Christian faith calls us to live. It calls us to remember how God has been with us in the past, and how God will continue to be with us.

Remembering is so important to us as humans. Whether it is a story of love, of tragedy, of faithfulness, of generosity, our human story needs to be remembered. Something forgotten does not function any more in our conscious life. It plays no conscious role in our decision-making. If it appears to us in a dream it is not understood. It goes over our heads. The tragedy of life is that everything can be forgotten. This Remembrance Sunday calls us to remember so that war will end and peace will prevail.

I have to admit to having some difficulty around Remembrance Day. I am at heart a pacifist. So when it comes to this celebration I am reminded about the tragedy of war, the loss of life, the inhumanity. I consider how we have glorified war. I consider how all sides in war have asserted, “God is on my side,” And I know that the truth is that God weeps for all of God’s children. I look back at the person closest to me who was in the military. He was my uncle, a medical doctor who rose to the rank of Brigadier General, whose whole career was in the military, but who never bore arms. He served on the Italian front in the Second World War and in Korea where he ran mobile units. I remember him recounting his stories to us when he returned from Korea. What stands out in my mind is that he considered that the bravest soldiers who served in the army were the conscientious objectors who refused to bear arms, but went onto the battlefields to carry the wounded back to military hospitals. And so, yes, I hate war, but not the soldiers who believed in their cause. I hate the cost to human life, not just in loss of life, but also in the unseen costs. We hear of veterans who come back from war suffering from Post Traumatic Stress, and I know how much they need our compassion and care. I see the events we have experienced over the last few weeks, as misguided individuals act out their hostilities on the military. And once again, I know that God weeps. And I am convinced that we need to remember. We need to remember so that it does not happen again.

Remembrance Day can be a meaningless ritual, which we continue to observe out of some sense of duty to people who are for most of us nameless individuals. Yet they died in a cause, which has benefitted us. What of the society they helped to form? As we ponder the events of the past few weeks, as we face the fact that we have moved from a country largely untouched by terrorism into one that knows the sorrow of senselessly losing young soldiers, as we begin to awaken to how quickly our peaceful society can be torn apart, let us consider how it has changed our sense of peace and well-being.

Pacifist though I will always be, I find what moves me most on Remembrance Day is something so familiar that I would have thought it would become trite. And yet, it never does. It is the poem, “In Flanders Fields”. I can recite every word of that poem. I memorized it back in grade school, complete with every nuance. Then I spent many years as a teacher preparing classes to recite it at assemblies. And yet pondering on the familiar words, I find myself reflecting on it in a new way, hearing things I have never heard before. At this stage in my life, it has less to do with the task of completing the unfinished work of those who died, of taking up the torch; rather it makes me consider just what has been taken away through war. What greatness has been lost over the centuries? What greatness did Canada lose through the death of Corporal Cirillo? We can never know. So I believe the greatest memorial we could possibly offer is in the continued struggle for peace and justice everywhere and for all people.

So let us remember. There is a sense as we gather on this Remembrance Sunday, of a kind of passing of the torch, a passing of the collective memories, of those successes and failures of the previous generations. What we may forget is that when you are the one carrying the torch, you can easily be burned. When you are the one standing alone torch in hand, there is nothing brighter. But that too can be a terrifying realization.

As we remember, we may feel a sense of grief and loss. But above all, I pray that we feel a sense of faith, a sense of hope. Faith that God gives us, faith in the promises that God makes, hope with the allaying of our fears, the uplifting of our hopes, the forgiveness of our anger, the strengthening of our faith.

As generations pass and we come closer and closer ourselves to being the older generation, the responsibility falls more and more to us. Finally it is ours completely. There is no one else to blame for the human condition. We alone bear the responsibility.

That is the time to remember that the kingdom of God does not come overnight into our lives or relationships or societies. We need to live out a sustained, lasting faith. We do not need some sudden outburst of ecstatic spirituality. We need something that will go the whole distance. We need a “for better or for worse” spirituality that will sustain us through difficult times. We need the wisdom to prepare, to have enough oil in our lamps to keep the flame alight. Let us remember that we are called to live each day in expectation of the approach of God. Let us remember to have peace in our hearts and to keep fanning the flame.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

All Saints Day

Unmasked!

Readings: Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-legged beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us.


So goes a rather flippant prayer for All Hallow's Eve, better known to us as Hallowe'en. On Hallowe'en children went out dressed in all manner of costume, their faces scarred and ugly. They banged on doors demanding candy and treats from people they didn't even know. They did not think about the historical significance of Hallowe'en. They did not delve into its relationship to the Christian celebration of All Saints Day. But we need to make some of those connections as we celebrate All Saints Day.

It is a celebration that calls us to see ourselves as saints of God. It is a time for us to look behind the ugliness of the masks we wear, masks of sinfulness and brokenness, masks of hurt and ignorance, and experience the love of God. Isn't that what we really want from our faith? Isn't that the kind of healing power we want in our own lives?

John tells us in his vision of the kingdom that we are part "of a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages". This is a celebration that says we are numbered among those saints of God. We – Saint Mary, Saint Cheryl, Saint Gord, and Saint Michael – belong to that vast company whose bonds stretch beyond time and space into the ultimate reality of God's presence. In these secular times when we see numbers in the mainline churches dwindling, when we see the Christian faith being eroded, what a hopeful image that is!

But hold on there just a minute. There is something wrong with this picture of the kingdom of heaven. There are people who don't seem to belong, who don't seem to fit in. There are people of other cultures and creeds. There are people who don't speak English. There are the ugly and the deformed. There are the poor and the handicapped.

Another crowd scene! We are seated on a hillside across from Tiberius overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Wherever Jesus goes these days the crowds gather. This crowd is a microcosm of the kingdom of God.

Many in this crowd are poor; listening to the words that Jesus speaks gives them great hope. They have come hoping to be healed from their various infirmities. They have come hoping for help. Jesus calls others in the crowd to see them not as masses of poor people but as brothers and sisters, as members of God's family. He reminds them that it is their call to be a blessing to those who are not as well off as they.

There are people in the crowd who have suffered persecution for their faith; Jesus offers them hope as well. Christian faith is sometimes costly, demanding courage and sacrifice. It takes courage to challenge trends in society. It takes courage to go against what your peers think. It takes courage to stand up for what is right. It takes courage to challenge the authorities when they become oppressive. Jesus reminds the people that the highest human activity is to seek justice and the rights of others even when it entails great cost to oneself.

There are people in the crowd who are carrying great burdens in their hearts. They have lost loved ones. They know the loneliness, grief and heartache that accompanies such loss. Jesus knows that by acknowledging their loss they will be open to the resources that they will find comforting. They will, in turn be open to God's love. They will receive the strength they need to face the days ahead.

There are people in the crowd who sometimes seem to be afraid of their own shadow. Looking at them you wonder how they will ever cope with life. How can they expect to work at anything but the lowliest of jobs? How can they expect to get ahead in life? They are born losers. Yet Jesus is telling them about his own experience. He is meek, but he is certainly no doormat. As he tramped the hills of Galilee, he rebuked the stormy seas, he fed and healed the multitudes, he tangled with wily scribes and Pharisees, and he cast moneychangers from the temple. He proved that meekness has nothing to do with cowardice. "You are a gift from God," he tells them. "See yourselves as God's precious children."

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus does not offer a cure for human ills. His sermon does not offer something to be attained or accomplished; it is the goal of Christian living. As saints of God we strive to live within its guidelines. It does not lead to salvation; that is ours by grace. It leads to authentically living out our Christian faith. It is the portrait of a saint that results in the kind of life that communicates God's healing power to the lives of sick, lonely, oppressed, broken and unhappy people in our world and community. It is a way of life that helps us to grow as members of God's family.

The point, then, of this All Saints Day celebration is that God is much more generous than we would ever imagine. Where we would put up barriers to keep people out God breaks down every barrier. Where we would include only the select few to be saved, those who are most like us, God accepts us all. Where we would cut back the numbers to acceptable proportions, God expands them to people of every language, race, creed and way of life.

And you know, once in a while we experience something going on in our world that reminds us the sanctity of humankind. I could not help but reflect on that as I watched a video on You Tube this past week. In the video, a man named Zakaria Ghanem is dressed in a traditional Muslim gown called a Dishdasha while another man, Devin Giamou, berates him in public and says he wouldn’t feel safe getting onto a bus with him.

Reactions pour in from other people waiting for the same bus who don’t know the whole thing is staged.

“You can’t stereotype and judge people by their clothes,” one man said. “Or their nationalities or anything else, you know what I mean?”

One woman commented that what happened to Cirillo in Ottawa was “awful and tragic,” but could not see any reason to “persecute someone just because of what they’re wearing.”

One man objected to Giamou’s staged racism so much that he punched him in the face. Now I do not condone punching someone, but the decency that came out in that crowd was an affirmation of the inherent goodness in people. We are, all of us, called to be saints, and somehow the best manages to come out once in a while.

Back to Hallowe'en and those terrible masks! Each of us is in some way disfigured, imperfect and flawed. But Jesus looks on our ugliness and sees beauty. Jesus looks on our disfigurement and sees perfection. Jesus looks on our flaws and sees righteousness. When others exclude us and reject us Jesus invites us to the party. When others shun us and turn their backs on us and hurt us, Jesus breaks bread with us. When others look on us with repulsion, Jesus welcomes us with open arms. When we take off our masks of sinfulness and brokenness then we are able to experience the love of God and truly become members of the family of God.

So take off your mask and open yourself up to the love of God. Look around you at the saints of God. See each other as saints living in the kingdom.


The Second Sunday of Easter, Year C

Opening Locked Doors Readings: Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 2; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31 It is evening on the first day of the week. The d...