Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Second Sunday of Lent, Year B

Deny Yourself

Readings: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-19; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

In an old cartoon, B.C. is down on his knees. “God,” he says, “If you’re up there, give me a sign.” Suddenly something falls from the Heavens right in front of him. A neon sign flashing, “I’m up here!” If only faith were that easy! If only God could give us a sign once and for all! If only it meant giving intellectual assent without worrying about its connection to our daily lives! If only it meant never doubting! But the problem is that real faith involves passionate engagement. It involves entering a relationship with God. It involves giving one’s heart to God and holding it actively with love. It means having enough confidence in its reality to act on it, as incredible as it may seem.

And when all is said and done, the way we come to faith is by trusting in the promises of God. We look at our past history and see where God has been at work in our lives, and use that knowledge to bring meaning to our existence. Faith is, after all, intended to be reasonable.

That seems fine until we come to the difficult choices and tests of life. When we face times of tragedy, everything we know about faith can simply vanish. How do we achieve a vision of faith that sustains us through such times? It is the reality of the cross that needs to be behind everything that we do to give us that sense of wholeness, of holiness, that carries us when nothing else will.

Abraham had to come to that point. At the age of ninety, he questioned the possibility of making a covenant with God. “How can I,” he asks, “believe that at my age I can still become the ancestor of a multitude of nations?” He is asked to simply believe that God keeps promises. God has made that promise to Abram and sealed it with a new name. God promises also that Sarah, his wife, will bear a son. Abraham takes God’s word and makes that commitment. He embraces the gift that God has promised. And of course, God makes good on the promise.

Paul in writing to the church at Rome acknowledges that faith is anything but easy. Then he reminds them that faith brings new life, in Sarah’s case, a new life from a barren womb, and in the case of Jesus, resurrection from the dead. He goes on to remind them of the necessity of taking up the cross, not in order to earn salvation. Paul knows that Jesus has already done that. They must take up the cross in response to God’s salvation. That is what leads them, and ultimately us, to the possibility of resurrection.

But does that possibility even occur to us? We think about it at Easter, of course. But what does the risen life of Christ mean in our everyday existence? How do we allow its truth to speak to us?

Jesus reminds his disciples of the cost of following him. It is a reminder of what living in covenant with God means. He reminds them that it begins with denying themselves, taking up the cross and following him. As soon as Jesus begins to talk about the cost, about the possibility of suffering, rejection and ultimately death, the disciples change their tune. Like us, they like to hear the comfortable words, but when it comes to cross bearing and dying to sin, then they miss the real point of their faith.

Let’s face it! Self-denial is not big on any of our lists. We have all kinds of questions about what it means. What self am I denying? Is it a matter of not doing what I want to do for a while during Lent, and then going back to what I want to do? Is it about putting myself down? What are the rules anyway? Why should we “give up” during the season of Lent, or indeed at any time?

The cross is at the heart of our Christian faith. We were signed with the sign of the cross at Baptism. What did it mean for us, both as individuals and as a community? What a paradox it is! For it helps us to understand that dying is the step we must take in order to really live. It reminds us that we are called to offer the self to be formed by God for God’s purposes.

Self-denial, then, is about an alternative way of being. It is not about giving up for the sake of giving up something. It is not about giving up for a period of time, like Lent and then going back to the same way of being. It is a challenge to want something different. Instead of thinking only of ourselves and believing that it is to our good to gain wealth and avoid any path that may lead to suffering, we are challenged to be generous. We are challenged to give of ourselves, even when it may mean suffering on our part. We are reminded that all of that comes at great cost! There are times when love, if it is to mean anything, will expose us to grave danger. We are challenged nevertheless to embrace the way of Jesus. And in doing so, we will find ourselves. We will become truly human.

Christ’s message is inescapable. Self-denial is not about the good it does for me. The sort of giving up that works best is that which has a deeper purpose behind it. If you want to give to others, it will almost always involve giving up something you would rather keep for yourself. Caring for a sick or elderly family member will almost certainly involve a loss of time and freedom. And yet that may be what God is calling you to do. Giving through the church or other charities means not spending money on something you might otherwise be able to afford. Being a good steward of God’s creation may mean taking the time to walk instead of using your car. It may mean doing menial labour like picking up garbage. Being an advocate for the poor and disadvantaged in our community may mean giving up time to lobby our politicians.

We in this congregation live a comfortable existence. We may not be wealthy in Canadian standards, but we have central heating and hot running water. We do not go to bed hungry like much of the world. We dress well. We live in relative luxury. And I for one have no real desire to give up any of those things. The closest I have ever come to being a missionary was teaching in an Indian Residential school on James Bay. Even there, when I think about it, the only thing I really gave up was easy access to the telephone. However, I would like to think that if God called me to go to some Third World country to feed refugees or to help grandmothers look after their grandchildren, orphaned through AIDS, or to bring relief to people made homeless through some natural disaster, that I would do it. I would like to think that I am not so accustomed to my lifestyle that I could not meet that kind of challenge. The question is, am I so addicted to the comfortable existence I live, that I have already missed such opportunities? All I can do is to trust that when God calls I will respond.

Our mission as Christians is to permeate and transform the world. Our Lenten journey is about seeking that kind of transformation in our own spiritual lives so that the transformation can begin with us. It requires examining our lives for the things that keep us from changing. May God grant us grace to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Jesus!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The First Sunday of Lent, Year B

The Rainbow Connection

Readings: Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

“Why are there so many songs about rainbows and what’s on the other side?” sings Kermit the frog. “Rainbows are visions, but only illusions, and rainbows have nothing to hide. So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it. I know they’re wrong, wait and see. Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection, the lovers, the dreamers and me,” the song goes on. It is a truly heart-warming song, full of lovely sentiments. Yet that rainbow connection of which it speaks is a connection that has already been made, a connection between God and humanity. For the rainbow is the symbol of the covenant between God, Noah and his descendents.

Today’s Old Testament lesson makes that rainbow connection. It is a story of renewed relationship with God. Humanity has brought judgement on itself by refusing to follow God's ways and by working for its own selfish means. But through Noah and his family God offers a new creation. God makes a covenant with Noah that is extended to all of us. It is a gracious gift of God on behalf of a world that did not have to ask for it, or earn it, or even respond to it. The rainbow becomes for all future generations a reminder of that covenant. More importantly, it is a reminder to God of a promise made to humanity, a commitment to preserve the diversity of life.

In our baptism we became people of the covenant, a covenant that encompasses the death and resurrection of Christ. Making that connection in our own lives helps us to understand that God not only creates us, but also enters into relationship with us. It gives meaning and hope to our existence. It is no mistake that a rainbow should make that connection for us. A rainbow stretching from one side of the horizon to the other is an amazing sight. We need to rethink it as a symbol of our solidarity with God and all of creation. It is an intuitive association, in the realm of Kermit’s visionaries and dreamers, which we would do well to reflect on. At the same time, it raises some real questions in the Christian about our relationship with God that need to be answered.

God’s promise to Noah is never to destroy creation. What does that speak to us in the light of the terrible destruction we have witnessed in recent years – the tsunami, hurricane after hurricane, earthquakes and mudslides, devastating cold? So many deaths! Sometimes it seems as if God is unleashing terror on humanity, as if God is bent on destroying creation. And so I wonder sometimes if God is looking at the rainbow and weeping.

God’s promise to us is never to destroy creation. Can we make that same promise? Our generation as no other has the power to carry out that destruction. That same power gives us a new responsibility and vocation. As if power is not enough, our greed as consumers is destroying the earth and its atmosphere. We hear every day of new threats to the ecology. It calls us to form and to paint the rainbow with God, to renew that rainbow connection. We are called to active peacemaking. We are called to be ark builders. We are called to be rainbow makers. We are called into a covenantal relationship with God.

In the Gospel there is another rainbow connection. Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan River. As he comes out of the water the heavens are torn apart. The Spirit descends like a dove on him. A voice comes from Heaven. Like the rainbow across the sky, a connection is made between earth and heaven. God speaks. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God is once again in full relationship with humanity. The covenant is renewed. The connection is made.

And once that connection is made, the Spirit takes over. Mark simply tells us that the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness for forty days. What follows for Jesus is a time apart; a time of reflection, for this deepening of his relationship with God marks the beginning of his public life.

It is for Jesus as it would be for any of us, a time of decision, of pressure, of anxiety. He faces all of that with a time of prayer and fasting.

We all face such wilderness times in our lives. They may be times of change and growth. They may be times of disaster, or times of uncertainty. They may even be times of great joy; the birth of a child; a death in the family; moving to a new place; changing jobs; a time of unemployment, sickness or retirement. All are times of risk, times when we risk losing control, times of fear, of vulnerability. And all are opportunities to draw closer to God. All are opportunities for spiritual growth and recommitment. All are rainbow times.

This parish is going through one of those rainbow times. Many of you were shocked and devastated at last week’s vestry to learn that the budget in its present form cannot support full time ministry. It is a time to make that connection to God, to draw closer to God and one another, and to make a commitment to the life of this parish. Much work has gone on over the past week by your leadership as they looked at possibilites. There is much more to do. But there is hope. It will take the time, talents and treasures of all of us. It will take prayer and commitment.

Lent offers us such an opportunity to make some of those rainbow connections. It is an opportunity to develop and rekindle our relationship with God. For Lent is a time of self-examination, of checking our focus, of sorting our priorities. It is a time to reflect on God's promises. It is an opportunity to recognize our failure to live up to our part of the relationship. It is a time to begin anew, through repentance, through seeking God's guidance, through struggle, through renewed commitment, through allowing ourselves some time to make those rainbow connections through the renewal of our baptismal covenant.

This Lent offers us an opportunity to reflect on God's promises and to renew our own commitment to God. We recognize our failure to live up to our part of the relationship. We seek God's guidance. We renew our commitment. Hopefully we begin to rely on God. May it be a time of renewal and hope for each one of us!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year B

Changing our Perceptions

Readings: 2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6;
2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

During the season of Epiphany we have explored our unique relationship to God. With the magi we followed the star to its rising searching for meaning in our existence. Like Samuel, we listened for the call of God. We explored how God can be both loving and powerful. We explored our call to ministry. We experienced God’s healing touch. As we complete this season and prepare ourselves for a holy Lent we encounter God on the mountaintop. On the mountaintop, we look to God to transform our lives and transfigure our perceptions.

It is part of our human nature that we almost always seem to grasp the truth about a person long after we should. We are especially blind to the greatness of people we know well. Blindness to their gifts can come about through peer pressure. It can happen through our own ambition or from our lack of willingness to see who they really are. That was the very human relationship that the disciples had with Jesus. They simply didn’t understand who he was.

Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain. So many things happen on the mountain, mountaintop experiences that affirm that God is with us. There on the mountaintop, Jesus is transfigured, changed. He appears before them in dazzling white, a sign of God’s presence. They witness Elijah and Moses talking to Jesus.

When they see him transfigured, brighter than the brightest star, pure light before them, they see more than his future and risen life. Jesus shows them who they are becoming. He shows them the glory and destiny of all of humanity.

It is a watershed moment in their lives and ours. Once again we hear the voice from Heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” It takes us back to the moment of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. God is present in the cloud. Jesus is revealed to be the very Child of God.

The vision ends as quickly as it began, like a bursting bubble. The disciples are quickly transported back to the valley. It is in the valley that they are called to serve lovingly and faithfully. It is in the difficult arenas of the world that their ministry will unfold. But they will carry their mountaintop experience with them. Later when they look back on what has happened it will help them to face the difficult days, days of loss and confusion.

Unfortunately we live most of our lives in the lowlands and valleys. There our vision is limited. It is when we are in the mountains that we know that we are called to great heights, to take wings. If we really wish to see Jesus as he is, we must ascend the mountain with him. Discipleship is an invitation to do just that. It is an invitation to be transformed into new people. Jesus’ transfiguration is a sign of the change we all undergo as we live out our faith as disciples of Jesus. It is a sign of great hope that the death experiences we all face in our daily lives will be followed by resurrection experiences.

Does it happen for us? Frederick Buechner, an American Theologian, says yes. "Even with us something like that happens once in a while. The face of a man walking with his child in the park, of a woman baking bread, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it's almost beyond bearing."

How do we allow the mountaintop experiences to transform the drudgery of life? Moses came down from the mountain with such a vision of freedom that he was able to lead the people of Israel out of bondage. Elijah had such a vision of God that he brought fulfillment and hope to a nation in exile. Elisha learned to accept God’s grace at work in his life. He knew that the mantle had passed on to him. He knew that God had great things in store for his life. It transformed his prophetic ministry.

God’s grace can transform us. It begins with changing our perception of ourselves. We need to see ourselves as beloved children. God loves you. If you never hear anything else in a sermon that I preach, hear that. God loves you. It is so important to take that in, to really know it. To be as sure of it as we have been of anything in our lives.

Is it easy? No! Life has a way of putting us down, of making us feel unworthy. If we can begin to change our perception of ourselves, then we will be able to change our perception of others. Believe me when I say it works. I have seen it work.

I can remember many difficult children from my teaching days. One of the most troubled was a little girl in a grade five class. She was the most unlikable child I have ever met. Looking back I cannot remember any particular reason for not liking her. I was not alone in my perception. People instinctively took a dislike to her. The children in the class would walk by her desk and give her a poke. I heard complaints about her from other teachers. I found it very difficult to be civil to her. I realized I had to do something about it. I decided to find something positive to say to her each day. I knew it needed to be genuine. I remember my relief as she walked into the classroom that morning wearing a rather nice pink dress. I complimented her on how pretty she looked. It was as if she couldn’t believe it. Her face lit up. I don’t remember when the change in the classroom took place. It was gradual. But I do know that the children eventually began to treat her differently. The teasing and poking stopped. We all began to see her in a different light. I like to think I made a big change in that child’s life. I certainly learned something about myself, and my capacity to change a situation.

What transformation needs to take place in the life of this congregation? No doubt many of you feel disheartened. You have been without an Incumbent for almost a year. There is no sense of stability. How does it become a place on fire with enthusiasm? How do we begin to see signs of God at work in our lives? How do we change our perceptions?

It begins with looking around you. This is a wonderful Christian community. You care for one another; you see yourselves as a family. There are committed people who participate actively in so many ways, lectors, servers, choristers, lay readers, wardens. Can we allow God’s grace to change our perceptions so that we will become all that God wants us to be? Can we see the potential in this parish and support it with our time, talents and treasure? Can we take up the challenge and see this place transformed.

What transformation needs to take place in our world? Economic instability! Fear of people! Threat of war! How do we begin to change our perceptions? We need to pray for peace in our world. We need to pray knowing that God can transform the world.

Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday. Lent is a spiritual journey, which can bring about transformation in our lives. It is said that forty days is the optimal time in which to bring about change. Let us use it wisely as a time of spiritual renewal and transformation in our lives. Begin by coming to one of the services on Wednesday. Let the ashes remind you of your need to allow God’s grace to transform your life. Then each day in Lent let yourself remember those times when you have been most aware of God’s grace.

Our Lenten study based on the movie, Chocolat, will focus on the process of change, on transformation, through giving up, giving out, getting wise, getting real and finally on growing up. If you cannot come to the Lenten study, then find a study for yourself. There are many resources on line that can help you to focus.

May God’s divine illumination shining on us allow us to see the glory that is God!

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 ...