Saturday, October 15, 2016

22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, Proper 29

Finding a Voice

Readings: Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Tim 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

No one who has suffered, who has been in pain, or who has watched a loved one die would deny the importance of a strong and resilient faith. What I have heard over the years of my ministry to those who are grieving, is how important their faith is to them at such a time. Simply being a Christian does not mean that life will be smooth sailing or free of problems. In fact the communities for which the passages of Scripture read today were written experienced terrible suffering. They were tempted to abandon hope, deny the faith and give up their vision of God’s way. But in each case their faith sustained them so that they were able to overcome their adversities. They learned that God may at times seem far away, but in reality God’s faithfulness persists. God is there on the journey every step of the way. They learned the need to persist, to continue to ask God to meet their needs, and to listen for God’s caring guidance on life’s journey.

The prophet Jeremiah continues to have great hope for the people of Israel, even though he has faced imprisonment and disaster. He believes God’s promise. He knows that God is not responsible for the terrible things that have happened, but he knows that it has meaning. That is his job as a prophet. The terrible things that they are experiencing are the result of choices that people have made. But they are not to lose heart. He knows that God is not abandoning the people of Israel. God continues to call them back into covenant and into new and intimate relationship.

And isn’t that something that we all need to remember throughout our lives? It may be the only thing that keeps us faithful when we become weary of praying, or feel as if God is far away and inaccessible. We all go through dry patches in our spiritual lives.

It certainly was an important learning for Timothy. We hear in the New Testament reading about a person encumbered with care for his community. His responsibilities have become a burden that often seems too much for him to bear. His preaching seems futile as people get “itching ears” and would rather follow teachers who will tell them what they want to hear rather than a faith fraught with difficulties and persecution. He is encouraged to hold fast to the truth and to continue to be guided by Scripture.

Our whole history as the people of God is about God’s faithfulness regardless of our disobedience and lack of faith. God will never be diverted from the path, a path that leads to justice, peace and grace. That is the gospel message!

What wonderful stories Jesus tells! His parables seem to turn the tables on all that is wrong in society. He tells a parable about two very different people. On the one hand, there is a judge, not a particularly good one, rather one who has power and influence. He embodies the establishment. And on the other hand, there is a woman, a widow, who embodies the marginal, the poor, the powerless. Because she is a widow, she is totally dependent for her livelihood on the men in the family. There are no jobs for a woman. There is no social assistance. Either she gets the help she needs from her husband’s relatives, or she begs on some street corner. She appears before the judge to ask his help in getting her rights. She is too poor to offer a bribe. So he ignores her. The Hebrew word for widow means “silent one, one unable to speak”. And yet she finds her voice. Something in her whether it be desperation or resiliance, keeps her going. She keeps demanding that justice be done. The judge makes excuses. He cannot be bothered with the widow. But she persists. Finally the judge is worn down and she wins her case.

The story of the widow is played out in our modern day world over and over again. Africa is a continent gripped by poverty, war, AIDS and diseases that in most of the world are totally preventable. They are not alone in their suffering. From every corner of the globe we hear the cries of women who suffer abuse simply because they are women.

Jesus tells the story to the disciples to remind them about their need to pray and to be persistent in the faith, but there is surely a much more important learning for us. This is a reminder that even when we feel powerless, we are called to make a stand alongside those who are truly powerless and disadvantaged. We are called to be the voice of the voiceless. Jesus will be right there standing in solidarity with us in every situation. Yet so often we do nothing because we think that what little we can do will not make a difference.

A woman was walking along a beach that was littered with dead and dying starfish. Periodically, she would stoop down, pick one up and toss it back into the ocean. A man was watching her and shouted, “There are thousands of starfish stranded on this beach. Your efforts won’t make a difference.” The strolling woman stooped and picked up one more starfish, tossed it back into the ocean and said, “It makes a difference to that one.”

She knew that she was powerless to reverse a dire situation, but she also knew that there were things she could change, no matter what anyone shouting at her thought. While we hear many stories of dire situations throughout our world, we hear too of amazing people who do what they can to bring positive change to the world. They are individuals who simply will not give up.

Who has not marvelled at the strength of Malala, the young Pakastani school girl, shot by the Taliban for her persistence in pursuing an education? That she recovered is a miracle. That she continues to speak out with such a strong voice is monumental. She has found her voice and it will not be silenced.

In 1998 I attended the Women’s Festival in Harare, Zimbabwe, celebrating the World Council of Churches Decade of the Churches in Solidarity with Women. I was there as a speaker, but I learned far more than I taught. Part of the experience was a woman to woman visit with a family in another part of Africa. I stayed with a family in one of the townships in South Africa. As part of the experience I visited two women who had founded a collective. They were widowed very young and found themselves in desperate circumstances. The one thing they knew how to do was bead work. They set up a small business in their village and began to make lovely jewellery. They found a buyer and soon began to find that they could not keep up with the demand for their product. They hired other women in the village, rented a derelict building and got down to work. The building was quite large. They diversified, and got some other people in the town to do tie dyed scarves and other lovely articles of clothing. They noted that there were still many people in the village without work. They began to do their own contracting to sell their products. They were able to hire more people. Eventually they began to bid for government contracts to do road work. What began as a way of providing for their own needs became the means of providing for a whole village. They are amazing women who found their voice.

Our First Nations people are beginning to find their voices. They need our support. They need us to learn their history so that we can understand the systemic nature of the abuse that caused their current circumstances. Our Canadian history is a sad one about broken treaties, about depriving people of their human rights, about causing disease and hardship, about taking away a rich cultural heritage. They continue to suffer. Homelessness, lack of affordable housing, health care issues, violence against women, child poverty – these things are a National disgrace. A First Nations woman up at Curve Lake said to me, “You know, it took seven generations to get us into this cyclical mess. It will take seven generations for us to find our way back.

But they are doing exactly that. This community took part in an appeal for clean water for Pikangikum a few years back. I read an article this week about their new school, finally completed ten years after the old school was destroyed in a fire. There are also talks about finally giving equal funding to First Nations schools who at the moment receive thirty percent less than those funded by the provinces. Our First Nations people are beginning to find their voices. Thankfully the Anglican Church is part of that change.

Many in our world are hoping for peace and justice. It must seem for them a long time in coming. There is Jeremiah’s voice, reminding us of that God of love whom we worship, calling out across the ages, “The days are surely coming! I will sow with the seed of humans and the seed of animals.” What a wonderfully hopeful word ‘sow’ is! It speaks of future hope and possibility. It speaks of nurture and growth. It speaks of change brought about by justice. It speaks of a world where God reigns. And there too is the widow, her nagging voice calling out for justice, for redressing the wrongs of the past. How can we fail to hear such a voice? Let us join in her call for justice. Let us persist in the faith, knowing that God is constantly showing us new and just ways to live.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Harvest Thanksgiving Year C

The Lord Make Us Truly Thankful

Readings: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 100; Philippians 4:4-9; John 6:25-35

North American Thanksgiving looks much the same on either side of the border. It is a family time as people come together to over indulge in turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and pumpkin pie. We may even remember to say grace as we consider the bounty on the table.

And somehow most Canadians seem to have adopted the myth that the first Thanksgiving dates back to Plymouth Rock. In reality, we have an older tradition in Canada dating back some forty years prior to the American story. Furthermore, our story does not have the same association with tragedy. It also comes with an Anglican twist.

On 22 July 1578 the Rev. Robert Wolfall, chaplain to the third Frobisher expedition, celebrated the Eucharist on board the ship “Judith”. The ship’s captain Edward Fenton noted in his journal: “Tewsdaie, the xxiiith daie: we did receave the Communion altogether, contynewing that daie in prayer and thanks giving to god.” The Calendar for the Book of Alternative Services commemorates the “First Anglican Eucharist in Canada, 1578” on the 4th of September.

For All the Saints concludes its description of this event saying: “Frobisher decided to give up the idea of establishing a permanent settlement on Baffin Island and took the entire fleet back to England in mid-September. Almost a century would pass before the Anglicans again celebrated the Eucharist on Canadian soil”.

Apparently following Eucharist they ate a rather humble meal of salt beef, rock-hard crackers and mushy peas. That is what they had in their larder for the first Thanksgiving on what would become Canadian soil. I doubt that it would ever have taken hold as Thanksgiving fare.

For our First Nations people, the idea of celebrating Thanksgiving on one particular day is ludicrous. The giving of thanks they can understand. In their culture, they give thanks to the Creator every day. After picking berries or hunting they offer tobacco and give thanks for the sacrifice. They give thanks for clean air to breathe, for clean water to drink, for good health.

Our Celtic forebears had a similar worldview. Their prayers accompanied the thoughts and actions of each day as they went about their daily tasks, continuously acknowledging the God of all creation.

The notion that we in North America invented Thanksgiving is ludicrous. In reality Thanksgiving ceremonies go back to the beginning of time. The earliest rituals deal with the gathering of the community to eat together and to give thanks to the creator.

That is the setting for the passage from today’s Old Testament reading. The passage from Deuteronomy gives instructions for the festival of the first fruits, an ancient Hebrew Thanksgiving celebration. It is one that still goes on today.

I lived for a time in a part of North York that is predominantly Jewish. I was startled my first year there during the fall when my neighbours turned their patio into something that resembled a tree house. It seemed to be a fairly permanent structure. They decorated it lavishly with plants and dried leaves. I finally got up the courage to ask what they were up to. They explained that for a week they would be celebrating Sukkot, the harvest. I was invited to a sumptuous feast that took place on the patio. During the course of the evening, they retold the story, much as we read it in Deuteronomy today.

Repeating the words about wandering in the desert, and about God providing manna for them to eat, they thanked God for all the gifts they had received. "God," they said, "has heard our prayers. God has brought us to this rich and fertile country. God has saved us from oppression and want." They praised the God of history who has been with them through the ages, providing them with spiritual sustenance. And remembering what it was like to be a stranger in a strange land, they offered hospitality to those, like myself, whom they had invited to share in the festivities.

I was touched by how much the recalling of the story meant to that Jewish family. Centuries later, in a different time and space, they still recount the wanderings in the wilderness. They remember it, not as a time of bitterness, but as a time of closeness to God, of intimacy. It is the golden age of their innocency. It calls them to return to the ancient, simple and loyal faith. It gives them opportunity to reflect that everything they have is an inheritance from God. Everything belongs to God and is given freely for their use.

And that calls them, in turn, to open up their hearts to those in need. There is a sense of cooperation between God and them. God will continue to provide. They will continue to help others.

I suspect that to be truly thankful for what we have we need that sense of history. We need a story that draws us together as community. Our Christian story is certainly such a one. We come together as community. We give thanks. 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. Seedtime 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 facet of human experience. We are acknowledging our dependence upon the Creator and Sustainer of all things. We are putting our trust in God and thanking our Creator for all that we have.

Yet we can easily lose sight of the ordinariness of the food and drink we offer. We can become mesmerized by them. We can be taken up by the words and the actions. We can bury our heads in our prayer books and fail to know and understand our obligation as we break bread. Our obligation is to the poor, to the disenfranchised, to those who suffer, to the alien, to the stranger in our midst.

We know well that obligation. Yet it is very easy to pass it off, to expect that social agencies should deal with hunger. Yet clearly, the gospel message points out our obligation to be good stewards of all that God has created and to share our bounty with those who are in need.

Today's gospel is no exception. Jesus continues to provide for those in need. He continues to offer bread for hungry people. Jesus is being hounded, much like a modern rock star. He has fed five thousand people. The crowds find him. He tries to explain that their reasons for seeking him out are the wrong ones. The bread and fish he gave them will not solve their problems. They will get hungry again. “But my way of living!” he is saying, “That can change everything!”

There is much hunger in our world, and it isn’t all about food. Many hunger for love, acceptance, life and truth. The North American way of life is to try to satisfy our hungers in material ways. We come to services to give thanks for such things. I hope that today we will go away filled with what our true thanksgiving is. I hope we will go away thinking about what we can contribute.

We live in an age of spectaculars and extravaganzas with glitter and glamour, and yet some of the most splendid moments are quite common and simple – a glass of cold water when you are hot and thirsty, a kind word, an embrace or a touch given with sincerity. These are the things that really matter. No act of love is so small that it is insignificant. This Thanksgiving can we be satisfied with smaller things?

In the world there are many who are hungry. There are many who are in exile. There are many who are so caught up in despair that they can think of no justifiable reason to give thanks. As Christians we need to be aware of them all, and to address their physical needs as generously and bountifully as Jesus did when he fed the five thousand. We also need to celebrate the God who gives us much to be thankful for, even in the midst of a broken world.
When Jesus becomes the Bread of Life for us, we become bread to others about us. This becomes our purpose in life and gives present, perpetual and eternal meaning to life. It gives real reason to give thanks. 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 ...