Friday, November 25, 2016

The First Sunday of Advent, Year A

Swords into Ploughshares

Readings: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

Wake up! Be on guard! Stay alert! Be prepared! We hear that message every year at the beginning of Advent. It is an important reminder to the Christian that our Saviour will come again and that we need to be ready for that day.

Yet it always strikes me as ominous, as a dire warning about my spiritual state. Perhaps that goes back to my childhood to a time when apocalyptic readings meant hell and damnation sermons. The message of Advent is not intended that way. It is not a message that is intended to fill us with fear and apprehension; rather, it is intended to excite us and to fill us with hopeful expectation, the kind of expectation that comes as we prepare ourselves for a visit from a dear friend.

Consider how you prepare for such a visit. If you are anything like me, it begins with a thorough cleaning of the house. I change the bed linens in the guest bedroom and put out fresh towels. I plan meals and do a special shopping. I think about the people who are coming to visit, about what they might like to do. I think about all the things I want to share with them about what is happening in my life. I think of all the questions I have for them about family, friends and work.
That, it seems to me, is a good way to approach the season of Advent. The readings point out the way in which we can prepare ourselves for God’s coming, for God’s presence amongst us.
You can see it in the passage from the Old Testament. Isaiah urges the people of Israel to prepare themselves to be channels of God’s peace in the world. He has a vision of people coming as pilgrims to worship God. He calls them to put aside what kills society and to affirm what gives life. “Beat swords into ploughshares,” he urges them. What a wonderful metaphor for what needs to happen to bring about a state of peace! Instruments of war are converted into farm implements. People are able to live in contentment in their own places, tending to their own lives. Right and wrong are judged, taking away the sphere of oppression. There is no more conflict.

Do we dare stand mutely by as we read those prophetic words from Isaiah? Such words should radically transform our very lives, each and every day. They should bring us to a state of repentance. What are the swords in our lives that could be reshaped this Advent into tools of growth and peace? How can we contribute to peace in this world by our own reconciliation and peacemaking?

On an episode of CSI one of the detectives had to do an investigation in a church. She was reflecting on how it felt to be in a church, and on how rarely she attended any more. "Every time I go," she said making her excuses, "the sermon is about forgiveness." There is no mystery about that. What a need we have to hear the message that we are forgiven! What a need we have to forgive others!

What action could we take this Advent? Is there a conflict in your life that you could amend? It might be apologizing for an offense, or saying a word of appreciation to someone with whom you have a difficult relationship, or reaching out to someone who has offended you.

That is the kind of action that Paul is envisioning in his letter to the Romans. The whole issue of peace begins at a very personal level. It begins with peace within ourselves. That extends into our relationships. Only when we are at peace within ourselves will we find peace at wider and higher levels. "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me, " one hymn puts it. Paul knew that. And so he issued a wake up call. He invited the Christians in Rome to wake up, to offer to God all of their love, an active peace seeking and peace making which can bring day out of night.

Isn’t that what we need in our church? A spirit of reconciliation and love that pervades our whole community so that we look at one another and see Christ! People should be able to smell Christ on us!

Isn't that what we need in our world? We live in dark times, times of terrorism, of ecological disaster. We have come to know a world where we recognize that we live with the possibility of it all coming crashing to an end. Paul offers Christ as the means of changing our life's direction. What a need we have of conversion! Of really living our lives in the light of Christ!

What can we do to bring ourselves closer to God during this Advent season? Can it be a time of renewal through prayer and worship? Can we find ways to put aside the busyness of the holidays and make them the holy days that they are intended to be? There are so many choices to be made in our world. It can be overwhelming. We have to sift; we have to choose; we have to sort out. We have to determine our direction. The sorting out takes place through our choices. These are times to consider our responsibility as good stewards of God’s creation. They are times to use the world’s abundance with restraint and concern for the needs of others. They are times to be advocates for the poor and for the needy. Advent is one of those times in the church year when we simply need to take stock and consider all the good things that God has provided for us, and then determine where God is leading.

The wake up call is there in the gospel too. Jesus speaks with a sense of urgency. He reminds the disciples of the story of Noah and the flood. “That is what the end days will be like,” he tells them. People will be going about the daily routine. “It is up to each of you,” he is saying, “to be ready for God.” It isn’t about being good. We know that we fall short of what God expects. We know too that God is there to reach out in forgiveness. This is not about judgement. This is not a dreadful anxious watching, but a joyful readiness for the signs of the coming of God into our human experience. We can look back at past ages and see what God has done in the world. We can see the signs of God’s presence in the lives of faithful people. The present belongs to God as well. There are signs all around us that God is at work. We experience God in the beauty of nature. We see God reflected in the other people. We meet God in our worship. God is in the future as well. That is why we need to keep awake. That is why we need to be prepared. We need to recognize God in that coming.

I was sitting next to a parishioner when her beeper went off. "Is there a phone I can use?" she asked. I let her into my office and went back to where the women were gathered. Knowing that it possibly meant that a kidney was available, they were already deep in prayer. She came out a few minutes later. "Not this time! False alarm!" And we all went back to our meeting.
It was amazing to me that she could wait as weeks turned into months with such a deep sense of serenity when it meant so much to her. I knew that three mornings a week she went to the hospital for dialysis. I knew the restrictions on her diet. I knew that she carefully measured her intake of fluids. What a trial that is for someone who loves a good cup of tea! I knew that she lived daily with the knowledge that without a transplant she would not survive. Yet she lived each day in hope and expectation. Her deep faith accepted that God would answer her prayer, either with the needed surgery or she would meet face to face with the God she served.

Then came the day when the beeper went off for real. She hurried to the hospital. It was a good match. She had the surgery. Everything went well and day by day she grew stronger. Not that the watching and waiting were over. There were foul smelling anti-rejection drugs to take. (They really do smell like a skunk!) There were still the restrictions on her diet. But day by day the colour came back into her face.
There came the wonderful celebration when she was back at church. At the chancel steps she placed a bouquet of white roses. In the centre of the bouquet standing out from the rest was one beautiful red rose – "for the person who gave me new life," she explained – and one yellow, "for my new life."

As we journey through Advent, let us watch and wait in joyful readiness for the signs of the coming of God into our human experience. It is a time to welcome Christ into our hearts. It is a time to turn the swords in our lives into ploughshares of love, understanding and peace. It is a time for repentance. It is a time for renewed faith and commitment. It is a time to hold fast to the hope that Christ will come again in glory. It is a time to wait in joyful expectation.

Let us keep this promise alive so that we can say at last, "Maranatha! Jesus comes!" What a wake up call that will be!

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Reign of Christ, Year C

Faith's Illusions

Readings: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Canticle 19; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

Following a turbulent marriage, Joni Mitchell meditates on life in a song.

“I've looked at clouds from both sides now,
From up and down and still somehow,
It's cloud's illusions I recall,
I really don't know clouds at all”

She goes on to say that it is not only clouds, but life that she doesn’t really understand. In her topsy-turvy world up is down, good is bad, more is less.

I resonate with her on many levels. There have been turbulent times in my life when nothing seemed to be the way it should be. I would look up at the sky and see only dark clouds, even when the sun was shining. And yet I knew, even at my lowest times, that God loved me. I knew that God was there even when I was unable to sense God’s presence.

Our faith is based on a topsy-turvy world. That table turning, topsy-turvy way of looking at things is God’s way. Consider what we believe! God took on human form. God is a king born in a manger to lowly parents. God is a friend of outcasts and strangers. God came to serve rather than to be served. God died on the cross as a common criminal to bring life to humankind.

That is, after all, what we are called to reflect on this last Sunday of the Church Year, as we celebrate the reign of Christ. The readings call us to examine what it means that Christ reigns as king. What is the Christian image of kingship? For ours is a king who reigns, not from a throne, but from a cross. And that is such a topsy-turvy way of expressing kingship.

In our humanity, in our hunger for power, we so often get it wrong. How often has the cross become a symbol of might rather than a symbol of peace? Christianity began as a small group of powerless people in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. But by the time of Constantine in the fourth century, the church had become integrated into the social system of the same empire that had persecuted it. The Christians who had been persecuted became the persecutors. Constantine became the righteous king through whom God's reign could be established on earth.

In medieval times, Emperors throughout Europe considered themselves to be kings by divine right, representing the fatherhood of God on earth. How many wars have been fought because of that way of thinking? Fought in the name of God with shouts from both sides that "God is on our side"?

What a different view of kingship we Christians are called to proclaim! In the Old Testament reading for today, the prophet Jeremiah proclaims, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous branch.” He is concerned with the quality of those who are in leadership in Israel. In fact, he does not hold a very high opinion of those who are. He makes a pledge to the people of Israel on behalf of God, the ultimate shepherd. God will gather the people back from exile. God will guide them back to Israel where they will enjoy good leadership.

As Christians we discern in the reading a promise of the coming of Jesus who embodies righteousness and offers a vision of justice that stands out in contrast to the reality of the society in which we live. We know that it will come at great price. King Jesus will indeed come, and will sacrifice life itself to give life to the people of God, because in God’s topsy-turvy world death is life.

The Gospel once again proclaims the story of the crucifixion. The sign placed on the cross reminds us that Jesus is a king. And even as he hangs on the cross there are those who hope that King Jesus will come in power. “Save yourself and us!” one of the criminals shouts out. Isn’t Jesus the longed for Messiah, the one who will address Israel’s hope of liberation? That Jesus is, after all, the Jesus of the Gospel. Did he not march into the synagogue and overturn the tables of the moneychangers? Did he not roll up the scroll in the temple as he announced good news to the poor, to the hungry, to those who mourned? Did he not proclaim change?

But then in God’s mysterious way, he died on a cross as a common criminal. In God’s topsy-turvy world is it the end of power, or the beginning? Jesus was enormously powerful, even from the cross. He spread a revolution of love and grace. Christ the King is a counter image of a life poured out in compassion. That is why two thousand years later we still follow him.

A family, father, mother and two small children lived in a small house in a rural village. One night there was a terrible fire. The house went up in flames. There was no fire engine in this remote spot, and so the villagers stood around helplessly, watching the blaze.

Just then a young man arrived on the scene. Taking no thought for himself he darted into the house. He emerged carrying a small child under each arm. The children were unharmed, but he himself was badly burned.

The parents of the two children died in the fire. There was much sympathy for the two children. Several people wanted to adopt them. When the judge arrived to decide who would adopt the children, there were two petitions that came before the court. The first was a wealthy landowner. He had money, position, and a fine house to offer the children. The second was the man who had rescued the children from the flames. When the judge asked him what right he had to ask the court for the children no words were necessary. He merely held up his hands to reveal the scars.

What a different King we follow! King Jesus holds out his hands to us. We see the scars and know that Jesus’ suffering and pain was his royal road to us. It was in giving up his life for us that he showed us God’s glory and passionate love. As Christians we are part of God’s topsy-turvy world. It is a world where contradictions bear fruit. Like existence, life does not end in death. Rather, death ends in life.

What are the signs that it is happening in our world? What are the signs of resurrection? Because so often all we can see are dark clouds. All we can understand are the illusions. All we experience is the doubts.

It is our ministry as servants of Christ, our bearing Christ to the world that helps us to see and understand life as it is. It begins with each one of us recognizing that we lead by serving. All of us come every day in contact with people in need. And don't think for a moment that it doesn't matter. And don't think for a moment that you don't know what to do. And don't think that you need special training. Often it is a ministry of compassionate listening which is most needed in a world where no one ever stops or cares. And every one of us can do that. It is in reaching out to others that we accept the servant ministry that reflects our acceptance of Christ as king in our lives.

As our church year comes to a close, we concentrate on the coming of the king. Does that numb us to the suffering about us and to our responsibility in the midst of it all? Or does it inspire us to loving service?

May Christ the King be king of our lives now as he shall be forever. May the truth of Christ's kingship spur us on to living our lives for him and for others!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

26th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 33, Year C

Hope Amidst the Doom And Gloom

Readings: Isaiah 65:17-25; Canticle 3; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19 These Sundays leading up to the end of the church year reflect our need to live our lives in expectancy. They call us to find grace in an apocalyptic age, an age that dwells on the end of time. They call us to deal with the ambiguity of living with uncertainty about the future. They call us to live authentically. It represents a classic theme in Scripture and a distinct view of history. But it is a theme that can create a culture of fear. Like the little hen, Henny Penny in the children’s story who thinks the sky is falling in, we can begin to see nothing but chaos, doom and gloom all around us. Or we can look for hope as we remember our continuing relationship with God, a God of grace and love.

That is the theme of today’s gospel. Jesus is speaking to the disciples. He tells them that the beautiful temple they see before them will not last. It is the same temple that was rebuilt at great price following the exile in Babylon. "What are the signs," they want to know.

Jesus paints a portrait of a world in great turmoil and conflict. "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven." Jesus tells them that it will be a time of testing for the faithful. They will experience persecution, betrayal, hatred and even death.

Let’s face it! That is a frightening picture. It was frightening to the disciples. It was frightening to the early Christians as they struggled with the persecution they faced. Paul in writing to the people of Thessalonica is talking to those who are ready to give up. Fear of what the future may hold causes them to opt out of life. Why bother to work if it will all end tomorrow? They are unable or unwilling to live with that kind of uncertainty that often brings with it a sense of hopelessness and meaninglessness.

And how remarkably like our own time and place! We live in a broken world. We live in a world where there is never peace. War in the Middle East, the war against terrorism, tribal wars in the Sudan and other parts of Africa, conflict between Moslem and Christian, Moslem and Jew, Tamil and Senegalese. The list seems endless. On top of that, there is an increase in the destructive forces of nature; consider the destruction of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti. There is proof, even though many deny it, of global warming as the polar icecaps recede more and more. There are famines. There are plagues such as we have never encountered before like SARS and AIDS. There is poverty in the midst of plenty. There is violence. Many continue to question whether we live in the end times.

The people to whom Isaiah writes, a people in exile felt the same way. The Hebrew people might deserve to be rejected as a whole, but there are genuine committed people in the community. For their sake God’s promises will be fulfilled. It is an apocalyptic vision of a new heaven and a new earth. It will be a restoration of Paradise. God will be so near that the people will sense God’s presence everywhere.

Jesus too gives a message of great hope to the faithful. His answer to the disciples was remarkable when you think about it. He called them to persevere in the faith. He recognized that it was a time of terrible threat; yet it was too, as such times are, a time of deep rewards and rich promise.

“Do not be led astray!” Jesus reminds them. This may be a time of anxiety and uncertainty, but it is a time to keep your wits about you. It is a time to think for yourself, to use the reason that God has given you.

“Don’t go after the ones who would lead you astray,” he continues. Voices may tell you that the end is near. Don’t follow those voices. Follow God. Trust in the promises that God has made to you. Trust in the promises that God has continued to fulfill in you, God’s people.

Finally he tells them, “Don’t be terrified!” Don’t let fear stop you in your tracks! You may feel lost in a wilderness where there are a million questions and no answers. Continue to trust in God’s promises and live in hope.

It is not simply good advice to the disciples; it is also good advice to the early Christians. The early believers were persecuted and tried. Many were martyred for the faith. They needed Jesus’ words to help them live with courage and conviction. Their perseverance in the faith has meant over two thousand years of faithful witness and service.

It puts our own faith into perspective as well. It is not up to us to make claims about special knowledge when it comes to the signs of the end of time. It is up to us to remain faithful to the message of salvation and to be obedient to the teachings of Jesus. It is up to us to live out our lives in faith, being like Christ.

What frightens you most about the future of the Church? Some people fear that we have become irrelevant, that we need to change the way we worship and the way we approach God. Some think that we have deviated too far from Scripture. There are many who fear that we will allow issues like Same-Sex blessing to fracture our unity.

What worries you about the future of the world? Is it the apathy you see in people who care so little about the environment that they will throw their garbage wherever it lands? Is it terrorism, or child poverty, or the escalating violence in society? Dare I say it? Is it that a misogynistic, racist, sexist person got himself elected president of the United States?

Those words of Jesus continue to speak to us. “Don’t be led astray!” There are many voices out there that can lead us astray. I suspect that for many of us it is those nagging voices that tell us that there is nothing we can do to change what is going on. “Don’t go after those voices,” Jesus reminds us. Our call is to follow Jesus, to be like Christ, to seek Christ in those we encounter in our lives, to be Christ in the world. And especially “don’t be terrified!” That will just stop you from accomplishing anything.

So what if we stop wondering when the weeping will cease, and start to do something constructive about the state of the world? We are faced with terrible threat. And yet it is also a time of rich promise. We live with anxiety and uncertainty, but it is also a time of great rewards and benefits. Do we look forward to the coming of God’s reign?

Discipleship is not about waiting for God to do something; it is about anticipating God’s actions in the world. It is about being Christ in the world. It is about serving with compassion and mercy. What will you do today in anticipation of the fulfillment of God’s promises? It is ultimately up to each one of us. It begins with putting our trust in our loving God. It continues with living our lives faithfully and prayerfully. It means especially living out God’s promises in everything we do.

Because, you know, we live in a world that is full of God’s grace and love. That can be seen all around us. It is difficult to miss as we look at the beauty of the changing seasons. We see it in the smiling faces of children. We experience it as we come together as a community of faith.

So no, Henny Penny! The sky is not falling in! There is hope amidst the doom and gloom. Let us affirm that hope as we say together the words of the Canticle for this morning.

Isaiah 12.2–6
Surely, it is God who saves me; *
I will trust in him and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defence, * and he will be my Saviour.
Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing * from the springs of salvation.
And on that day you shall say, *
Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his name;
make his deeds known among the peoples; *
see that they remember that his name is exalted.
Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things, * and this is known in all the world.
Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, *
for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel. 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 ...