Saturday, March 28, 2015

Palm / Passion Sunday

No Other Way

Readings: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47

This is no doubt the strangest celebration of the church year. We began our service with the waving of palm branches and a joyous procession. All the emotions of expectation, anticipation and messianic fervour were reenacted. Yet we know that Christ's entry into Jerusalem led directly to his crucifixion. We reflect that knowledge in our service. The reading of the Passion overpowers the joyous beginning. It is highly dramatic. It is the real focus of our worship today. For with the reading, we enter into Holy Week, into the shock and disappointment of the Christian story. We enter into the world, as the followers of Jesus must have experienced it, a world where the kingdom has not yet come. It is the ultimate love story, for every love story comes to a sad ending. At the worst, love dies. At best, the love lives but the lover dies. So today we are left with a sense of emptiness that will only deepen throughout this week, until finally the power of death is overcome.

It is hard for us to imagine the change in mood that took place from the entry into Jerusalem up until the crucifixion. It is difficult to imagine that a crowd, who one day shouted "Hosanna", could just a few short days later, pick up that terrible chant, "Crucify"! Or is it so difficult to imagine? Perhaps the problem is that we can so easily pick out our own voices in the crowd.

As we watch the story unfold again, incident by incident, surely it should strike us that two thousand years have not made much difference to humanity after all. The changes are only on the surface. Humans are still abusers of power. We still betray one another. Much as we say that such terrible abuses cannot happen in our enlightened age, we live with the legacy of the holocaust and the horrors of its victims. We know that brutal torture still takes place in our world. We know, that violence lives within the hearts of people. We have experienced the threat of terrorism that many in the world live with daily. We know that one war follows another. Newspapers are filled with evidence to that effect, so much so that it has almost become commonplace.

There is a song by Bruce Springsteen that really speaks to me of the kind of abuse that is experienced every day in our modern day world.

"I was bruised and battered,
I couldn't tell what I felt.
I was unrecognizable to myself.
I saw my reflection in a window,
I didn't know my own face,
Oh brother, are you gonna leave me,
Wastin' away, on the Streets of Philadelphia."

The song is about the city of Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, but it could just as easily be about the streets of Oshawa or Toronto. But it affects me even more deeply because it resonates in my very soul. It sounds to me very much like a paraphrase of the haunting words of Isaiah from the Old Testament reading this morning. "I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard." As Christians we see in the image of the suffering servant, the death and passion of Christ. Do we see also stories of the oppressed, the poor, the underprivileged? They are the reason for God's great gift to humanity.

They are the reason that we cannot observe the cross of Jesus Christ objectively from a position of detachment. To be there at all is to be involved, implicated one way or another. From the crowd gathered there shouting their taunts, one passer-by, Simon of Cyrene, coming into Jerusalem from the country, was compelled to carry the cross. He did not choose to help Jesus carry the cross. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. How the taunts of the crowd must have affected him! How he must have suffered knowing the suffering of the one he was helping!

We are compelled, as was Simon, to carry the cross. We don't line up for the privilege. But we all eventually carry some of the world's guilt, pain, and suffering. We don't always deserve to. Some of the really great people, the Martin Luther King's, the Mother Teresa's of our world, actually seek out opportunities to carry a cross of suffering and self-sacrifice. But most of us are like Simon. Compelled! Dragged kicking and screaming into service!

And there isJudas, sitting at table with him, sharing in that Passover meal, knowing the terrible deed that he was going to participate in. Knowing that it all rests on him. What was he thinking? Was Judas brokenhearted that Jesus would do no more than suffer. Watching Jesus’ ministry go down the drain, so he struck out at him with the feelings of a betrayed spouse. All his pent up rage, disappointement, love and humiliation spewing out as his high hopes are shattered. Is he asking himself how he could have been so blind? Was Jesus such a disappointment? Was it just not happening fast enough, or in the way he wanted it to? Was he only in it for what he could get out of it? And when it didn't happen the way he thought it should, he simply opted out? Do I simply opt out when life gets difficult or when things are not going my way? Am I a Christian only for what I get out of it?

Yet none of us can become really involved in the Passion of our Lord unless we are willing to be more deeply involved in our world, unless we learn to see the sufferings of the hungry, the oppressed, the powerless, in the light of the crucifixion. For on the cross, every human suffering, every human evil, is focused on that one single event.

It is the Centurion who really got the point. He understood the reason for Jesus’ death on the cross. Indeed, his words sum up the whole of Mark's Gospel. "Truly this man was God’s son."

The question is, do we get the point? Do we come away from the reading of the Passion knowing that, knowing that Jesus is truly the God’s son? What commitment are we prepared to make? Can we take meaning from the passion story? Or do we find ourselves wishing that it all ended happily? Do we avoid going through the agony of the cross?

If we do we will be avoiding the suffering that goes on in the world around us. We will never get past it. It is only through dying that resurrection can take place. Are we open to experiencing the cross so that we can arrive at Easter and experience the joy of the resurrection? May this be a truly holy week for us as we follow the way of the cross!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B

God So Loved the World

Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

I recently came across a spectacular image of the earth from the perspective of the moon. The image was captured in February of 2014 by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. It looks like a tiny blue marble above the moon’s craters. It is one of twelve such “earthrises” that occur every day from the perspective of the moon. It gives me an overwhelming sense of the vastness of God’s creation and of our small part in it. It also gives me a sense of awe and wonder at the God who so lovingly created us.

Being loved is always a surprise. The very fact that someone chooses to love us is exciting. It supports us in what we do. It gives us new insight into our value as a human. Even when we recognize our self worth, being loved is still a startling experience. "Are we worthy of such devotion?" we wonder. "Will it last?"

It is no wonder then, that being loved by God comes as a great surprise to us. Paul says that we are created in Christ for good works. God has crafted us in God's own image. We are "works of art", part of a great masterpiece crafted by a genius artist. How hard it is to take in just how great that love is! Yet there it is. How much does God love us? God loves us enough to have created us. Not one mold, but each unique and wonderful. Each part of God's plan. What love that is! Genuine and real, the kind of love that resulted in something so great that it is beyond our imagination.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life." That is an amazing gift of love! A free gift! Love totally unmerited by us! The ultimate example of love! It is the pattern and model of the kind of love that we, as Christians, are called to show in our lives. And it is offered to every one of us.

It is probably the most cited verse of Scripture. All we need to do is say John 3:16 and people can recite every word. We make huge signs at ballgames to proclaim its message. But I wonder if we really believe it. Do we believe that God loves the world, or do we get some perverse enjoyment out of being reminded that we are saved while others are not? Do we really hear it as a statement about God’s love for the world? Or is it a threat for those unwilling to accept that love? Do we hear it as an invitation to participate in spreading God’s love? Or does it give us a reason to exclude those we think God does not love?

Many years ago I was playing the music at a retreat given by the then Primate, Ted Scott. One of the reflections was on this passage of Scripture. He asked us to recite the verse. Everyone in the room was able to do so. Like every good Anglican, we grew up hearing it as part of the Comfortable words. Then he asked us about John 3:17. There was a silence until I piped up. “He sent not his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.” You see, I had sung Stainer’s Crucifixion so often that the words came spontaneously. When he recovered that someone actually knew that verse, he challenged whether or not I had ever thought about what I was singing. And of course, I had not. He went on to reflect on how God became human not to condemn the world, but to experience life with us, to be God with us, to offer us the kind of love that results not in some future promise, but in relationship here and now. That is how God loves us. That is the love that we are called to share with a broken world.

Paul takes every opportunity to help us to understand that salvation is a free gift from God, a love gift. It is not something we have earned. It is not something we deserve. It is grace, freely given. He also emphasizes that, free though it may be, it is not without cost. Opening ourselves to the gift of God's love means that we cannot avoid the experience of the cross. Accepting the gift of God's love means opening ourselves to the possibility of suffering; it also means opening ourselves to the probability of great joy.

We just don't expect that in our lives. When we choose to follow Christ, we expect that it will mean an end to suffering. That it will mean that somehow we have tapped in to a magical way of avoiding anything bad happening. It will all work out like some Harlequin romance where every story has its happy ending.

The people of Israel thought that to follow in God's way would mean an end to suffering and tragedy. They discovered differently. As the time in the wilderness went on and on, they began to see that, just because it's free, does not mean it is without cost. "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?" they railed at Moses. "For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food."

What they are saying is that the manna that God has provided, the free gift of God's grace, is not enough. They want more.

Are we ever like that? Do we lose patience on the way to the Promised Land? It simply does not happen fast enough for us. Or the way we expected it to. Aren't we rather prone to wanting instant gratification for our every desire? We don't expect to continue to find ourselves wandering in the desert. We don't expect to meet with any adversity or trouble on the way.

The cross for the Christian is a sign of contradiction. What was once a sign of infamy and disgrace becomes a sign of vulnerability and love, the great love of a great God. The contradiction also arises because it came about through the sacrifice of Christ. It brings about suffering, but without it there can be no resurrection. The cross, a symbol of death, is for the Christian a symbol of resurrection.

"When I am lifted up from the earth,” Jesus says in the Gospel, “I shall draw all people to myself." Moses lifted up the brass serpent in the wilderness, and all those who looked at it were healed. Jesus was lifted up. All who believed were given eternal life. The cross is a call to wholeness in Christ. Belief in the crucified Lord calls us to repentance and healing. It calls us to respond, to respond with love for our neighbour. Not the neighbour I choose to love, not the one whose culture and race match mine, but the one whom God calls me to serve.

My neighbour is the addicted, the perverted, the selfish, the corrupted. My neighbour is the one of another faith. My neighbour is the one person in the parish that I just cannot stand. Our great God, who gave us such amazing love, calls us to extend that love to others. Through service we fulfill our call.

The realization that we are really loved by God is difficult to grasp. Yet the signs of God's love are all around us. The humanity of Christ is God's fullest sign of love for us. That Christ should live and die as one of us is a truly amazing sign. If we believe it, this sign should support, thrill, excite, and re-create us. It should be a constant reminder that we are truly loved.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Third Sunday of Lent, Year B

God’s Foolishness

Readings: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19:7-14; 1 Corinthians 1:22-25; John 2:13-22

“The message of the cross is foolishness,” says Paul. The very thought of the cross as a symbol of Christian faith confronted the values of Paul’s worldview. The claim of the Christian church was unthinkable to the Jews. They were waiting for the Messiah. They certainly did not recognize it embodied in the life of Christ. They expected a figure of power, one who would free them from the tyranny of Rome. They were looking for a king riding on a horse, not Christ hanging on a cross.

The Greeks too had expectations about God. They loved oratory and rhetoric. For them, God was a concept, not someone with whom you had a personal relationship. They approached God through the rational, through the philosophical. So Christ, and particularly the cross made no sense to them.

Even for us, as far removed as we are from the horror of crucifixion, the cross is foolishness. Power and authority are the way of our world. No matter how you dress it up, coat it in gold, make it a work of art, turn it into jewellery, it is foolishness … but it is God’s foolishness.

Jesus’ action in the temple is a fine example of God’s foolishness. Imagine the scene! With the approach of Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem to the temple. The outer court of the temple was a huge area, big enough to house a few football stadiums. In this outer court were crowds of people, all vying to change their money into the currency acceptable in the temple. Once changed, they went off to purchase birds or animals for sacrifice. The area was usually closely guarded by soldiers.

It was business as usual as Jesus entered the temple. What a commotion ensued when he took action! He made a whip of cords and used it to drive out the animals. He poured out the coins of the moneychangers, overturning tables in the process. The scene was one of total chaos. What was he thinking! The very anger of Jesus in doing what he did! What was his objection? In this challenge of the status quo, is he protesting a system that places intermediaries between the people and God?

It seems likely that his action expressed disapproval of what the temple had become. Jesus knew the law. He lived the commandments. As a Jew he understood that the commandments were about not doing violence to loyalties. He knew they were about building good relationships with other people and with God. They were about ending injustice in society. Where we accept the commandments as the basis of Western moral conduct, for the Hebrew people and for Jesus it was about creating relationships that did not exploit. God had freed them from slavery in Egypt. God gave them the freedom to figure out how the rules applied to their daily lives. God provided the promise of how they could turn around their previous lives and live as God’s chosen people. Seeing exploitation, taking place within the religious institution must have offended Jesus at his roots. Is he hoping to bring about a single-handed reformation of the temple? Whatever the reason, his was a deliberate and passionate act of protest that was bound to lead to trouble.

It was not a wise thing to do. Why did he not write a letter to the authorities, or talk quietly to a few of the people in private? The fact is, Jesus was thinking from God’s point of view. He was making God’s point as clearly as he could. Making that point, foolish though it may seem, was worth getting into trouble.

What foolishness it is to buy into the nonsense that Jesus, the son of a carpenter turned preacher could do any good. Yet that is what we believe as Christians.

What foolishness it is to believe that a God of love reigns over this fractured, violence-ridden world of ours. Yet it is at the heart of what we profess as Christians.

What foolishness it is to think that God cares about starving millions, the deprived, the poor, the downtrodden, the victims of society. Yet that is what we proclaim as Christians.

What foolishness it is to insist that we have a personal relationship with God, that God is in our midst caring for us, that God is personally concerned about each of us. Yet that is what keeps us going through all the difficult patches of life.

And if we really do believe in the saving act of Christ, then the real foolishness is that we are not acting on it, that we are not working to transform our world. The suffering Jesus dying on the cross turns the tables on power. The cross becomes a symbol of love broken and poured out for all. We become bread for a hungry world.

There is much we could learn from Jesus and his table turning tactics, for there are many injustices at work in our society. There is much we could learn about living passionately. Are we passionate enough to challenge the systems of the Church and the world? Are we passionate enough to become advocates for the poor and for those in need? Are we passionate enough to speak out wherever there is injustice? Are we passionate enough to challenge a world where war is condoned because it is economically practical? Lent is surely an appropriate time to take a good look at ourselves, at our motives.

It should happen for each of us on a personal level. Lent is a time, first of all to test our own lives. Who do we refuse to forgive? What barriers and stumbling blocks to a close relationship with God have we allowed to enter our lives? How are we living out our covenant with God?

It should happen in our parish. Who do we turn away through our perceived lack of resources? Who do we keep out because we see them as too needy, or too different?

It should happen as Church. What marketplaces do we make of the church of God? What abuses happen in God’s name?

And when we have examined our motives, then we need to do something to change them, to turn the tables on them. I believe passionately that armed with our Christian faith we can change the world. Our prayers make a difference. They can bring about healing to this fractured world. They can change our hardened hearts and help us to live as brothers and sisters.

What are the issues we live with daily here in Oshawa for which you have a passion? Is it related to mental illness? It is such an issue in every community. How do we ensure that the voiceless are heard? How do we ensure that the are kept safe?

Or maybe your passion is for those who live in poverty. That too is present in the city of Oshawa. Food Bank usage continues to increase despite the fact that it was, from its inception, to be a bandaid solution. The Community Development Council of Durham released a study on poverty in the region and found as much as fifteen percent of Durham residents live in poverty. Our poor are working poor, people working multiple part time jobs at minimum wage to support their families. Our government gives families money for their children and then takes it back in the form of claw backs. Others are the elderly, living on fixed incomes. How can we become advocates for the poor? Isn’t that what the gospel calls us to be?

Is your passion homelessness? Once again here it is more hidden. But lack of affordable housing is more and more an issue in our cities. The average wait in Oshawa is almost four years. Sixty-eight percent more units are needed to solve the problems that exist. That kind of statistic means slum landlords and substandard housing.

Perhaps your passion is the environment. The Community Garden is, of course, a wonderful response to the issue. We are all recycling and doing our part, but what else needs to happen? Is it the greening of our neighbourhood and church? Is it through Advocacy for our First Nations people in their quest for justice?

The cross is foolishness. But it is God’s foolishness, and the foolishness of God is wiser than we are. During this Lenten season let us embrace its foolishness. Let us take up the cross and follow Jesus. Let our faith make a real difference in our lives and in the lives of those we touch. Amen.

The Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

Come and See Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42 Invitations come in many shapes and sizes. They ...