Saturday, July 29, 2017

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17, Year A

The Kingdom of Heaven is Like …

Readings: Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 128; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Jesus was a great storyteller. He told parables about the kingdom of God that opened up what God’s kingdom is like. It is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a plant large enough and secure enough to harbour nesting birds. It is like a fish hiding in the deep water that should be fished out. It is like a pearl, like a treasure, hidden in the earth. It needs to be found. It is like yeast that one puts into the dough to make it rise.

And the people listening to the stories nod their heads in agreement. They can picture it. They have planted tiny mustard seeds and seen them grow to be twelve feet high. The smallest of seeds becomes a plant that expands out and is so large, secure and encompassing that the birds of heaven come and nest in its branches, hidden and safe where their young can be nurtured.

They can see themselves finding the pearl of great price. “It really is possible,” they are thinking to themselves. Palestine was infested with brigands and soldiers. The best way to ensure the safety of treasure was to bury it. You could happen upon a great treasure. “Why, there could be treasure buried in my own back yard,” they think, “and wouldn’t that be wonderful!” And that is what God’s kingdom is like. It could be mine. The kingdom of God is within my reach.

They heard as well the ominous tone in Jesus’ voice as he told them about their responsibility. The kingdom of God is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind. The net is a drag net that sweeps along the bottom of the sea and catches every imaginable kind of fish. At the end of the day they are sorted and some are thrown back. “Could I be found wanting at the end of time?” they consider. “What do I have to do to make certain that I live as God wants me too?”

The parables that Jesus tells are attempts to grasp hold of our hearts and shake us into a new position. They are meant to be unsettling, to overturn our certainty and startle us into insight and vision into God’s kingdom. Jesus’ purpose is to reveal what God’s kingdom is about. It is a new kind of kingdom, a spiritual one that will include people of every nation and race. An inclusive kingdom that does not judge us by the colour of our skin, our sexual orientation, our intelligence, but rather by our faith in God and by how we have lived our lives. In other words, it is about our commitment to God. When we offer ourselves to God we fid a deep sense of meaning and satisfaction in our ongoing life, but we become accountable to God.

That means that the Church is like the net. Its community contains a whole spectrum of human motivations and intentions from the most self-centred to the most self-sacrificing. All are brought into the net. We are all called to a process of change, transformation and growth in Christ. As with the first disciples, we are a varied catch, ranging from the totally committed to the lukewarm.

So the question is, how much is our Christian life worth to us? How much is a sense of the presence of God, of the love of Christ, of the peace and meaning that such realities can bring into one’s life? How much are these things worth? The ultimate truth is that these realities are worth everything.

The parable is intended as a message to Jesus' disciples. "The cost of discipleship," he tells them over and over again, "is very great. It costs everything." They have found a great treasure in Jesus. At the moment it is hidden from the world. It is their secret. They must leave everything to follow him. They must look to God, not humanity, for their reward. The claims of the kingdom are total. They leave no room for self-interest. Discipleship demands total response, total commitment.

As Christians we are searching for a great treasure. We are children of the kingdom, living in a kind of exile from it, discovering glimpses of it from time to time. It is worth the search, for it is a great treasure. But the search is costly. It will cost everything we have. But the transformation in our lives will make it a treasure worth having.

Most of us would like our faith to make a difference – but perhaps not too much. We may have had a wonderful mountain top experience in our lives, a Conference, a retreat weekend, or a moment in our lives when everything came together for us. We perceived God in a different light. But over time the experience fades. We think about it once in a while. But there are problems in our lives. We have to earn a living and raise our family. There are the stresses and conflicts of life to deal with. There is sickness. We go to church on Sunday. But to make a commitment to the faith, to work at it, to read our Bibles, to pray, to reach out to others in Christian love, to give of ourselves – those things we put aside. We want to be committed Christians, but on our own terms.

There is a Japanese folk saying that goes this way, “The scent of the flowers remains on the hands of the person who gives the gift away.” That is the way of the kingdom of God. That is the way the kingdom comes, yielding the treasure to others, giving away the pearl of great price, making bread and opening our arms so that others can come and find a home secure in us.

We have access to a treasure so great and awesome that it is enough to share with a hungry world. What a treasure we have in our Christian faith! What a treasure it is to know what it means to be loved by God, to be totally accepted by God. The tragedies and conflicts of life can discourage us but they do not change God's love for us. Failures and defeats may bother us, but they do not affect our relationship with God. God's love and reconciling grace are forever. God's will is carried out through us. We are children of God.

Of what value is a sense of the presence of God, of the love of Christ, of the peace and meaning that such realities can bring into one's life? How much are these things worth? The ultimate truth is that these realities are worth everything. The Christian story is one of miracles. It is the story of lives turned around, of hope reborn, and of amazement at how, when we seek to live in concert with God's will, great things can happen. May we find that great treasure!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16, Year A

Called By Grace

Readings: Genesis 28:20-29a; Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

It is the dark of night. Jacob is on the run – again. He is running in fear from a disaster of his own making. He is a fugitive with known anger behind him and unknown dangers ahead of him. It is a long story, almost a soap opera as we hear one thing after another from this trickster. First of all, he does his slightly older twin brother Esau out of his rightful inheritance. He then cheats him out of the blessing that is rightfully his as well. Esau is ready to kill his brother, so his enabling family helps him by spiriting him away to a relative’s place to find a wife. After all, he now has the family inheritance. It is important that he find a suitable wife in his ancestral lands.

It is while he is on the run travelling from Beersheba to Haran, that this story takes place. As night falls, he is still far from his destination. He uses a stone for a pillow, and despite the unfamiliarity of his surroundings, he falls asleep. He has a dream. In his dream there is a stone stairway reaching from earth to heaven. There are angels on the stairway, ascending and descending. God is there, not at the top of the ladder as one might expect, but right there beside Jacob. And surprise, surprise! God brings a message, not of recrimination, not of reproach and accusation, but one of great comfort and blessing. "I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.”

And here is the real kicker. “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land.”

It is an amazing promise. What is even more amazing is that God is giving this promise to Jacob. One might have expected a little vengeance. One might imagine that God would have something a little different in mind for Jacob, something a little more suited to his bad behaviour. A little justice if you will. Some come-uppance. Yet there it is. Not even a harsh word. Instead, an unforgettable dream! It would, of course, take a long time for the dream to reach its fulfillment, for Jacob to become the great father of Israel as God had promised. On the other hand it did not take long for Jacob to realize what had happened and to make the most of it.

He wakens up from his sleep. There are some fearful moments as he takes stock of what has happened. He feels that sense of awe that comes over one who has met God, who has seen God face to face. After that momentary period of introspection, he moves on.

He does take the time to build a monument in honour of the place, calling it Bethel, “house of God”. But let’s face it! His behaviour continues to prove that he has not really changed at all. He is still the grasping man that his name suggests. The baby that came out of the womb grabbing his brother’s heel, the young man who grabbed his brother’s inheritance, is quick to grab for what he wants, even when God is the giver. He is also quick to avoid the real work of redemption to which God has called him.

And so we are left to ponder, what on earth is God thinking? There are two truly amazing aspects of this story. The over riding one, of course, is God’s amazing grace. The other is whom God chooses. There is no other answer for it, is there? Jacob does not even attempt to climb the stairway to meet God half way. And yet God chooses to bless him.

Did Jacob ever come to his senses? Did he finally express remorse for his trickery? For those he hurt? Did he acknowledge God’s generosity and goodness? For that matter, was it enough to make him mend his ways? The judgement is out on that one. But then the judgement is out on you on me as well. Consider what God has been doing for us on our life’s journey. How God has graced our lives! What God has been doing all along! That is clearly the message of the Gospel. God has graced us. God did that most clearly through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is what God has been doing ever since for a world, for a church, for people like you and me. So that we can be blessed!

Luckily for Jacob that God doesn’t love people because of who they are. It is rather about who God is. That is the nature of God’s grace. Maybe some of you learned about grace in your preparation for Confirmation when you memorized the Catechism where it is defined in the following way. "Grace is God's favour towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills."

Grace is undeserved favour. It is not given to us as a reward for our knowledge or any of our abilities. It is simply given. It affects all of our relationships, beginning with our relationship with God. And hopefully it manifests itself in our actions. We learn to share the grace by which we have been graced, not by looking for Brownie points. First of all, God doesn’t give them. But even more important, we don’t need them. Grace is free.

Not that it is always easy to access God’s grace! We tend to strive in life, to mistrust anything that is free. But there is simply no other way to receive God’s grace. God has already made the choice to bless us. We need to accept the gift and then use it. We use it by offering Christian service, the kind of service that is always offered by practicing Christians. It is the kind of service that the world needs to see us doing, because it offers Christ to the world. It is seeing God’s grace manifested in us that will change the world.

So it is not just lucky for Jacob that God’s grace is freely given; it is lucky for us. Jacob did go on to father a great nation. And many generations later, Jesus of Nazareth was born into his family. That is God’s grace at work. Let us awaken to the wonderful things that God has in store for us. Let us put our trust in God’s promises. Let us pray that God will give us the grace and vision to be everything that God is calling us to be.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Proper 15, Year A

What is God’s Spirit Saying to the Church?

Readings: Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Jesus leaves the house and goes down to sit beside the sea. What a natural thing for him to be doing! It is something all of us like to do now and then, especially during the summer months. We leave everything behind, head out into nature and sit quietly at the lakeside. In Jesus case, more is going on than we have been told. He has faced some difficulties in his hometown. People think he is out of his mind. Even his disciples don’t always understand him.

Then the crowds gather. Jesus leaves his solitude, slips into a boat and addresses them from the shore. He tells a parable, a story to which people in this agrarian society can relate. As the story unfolds, they can picture it. They can picture themselves walking through the unploughed field, scattering the good grain they have kept from the last harvest. There is lots of seed. They simply scatter it. They know that some will land on the hardened soil that forms into paths through the fields. It may be lost. The wild thorns that grow up after the ploughing will choke some of the seed. There are stones just under the soil. You can never tell just where they are, out of sight until the field is ploughed. The seed that lands there will surely be wasted. Some seed even gets scattered to the very edge of the field. Birds scoop up some of the grain. But there is plenty of seed. You can afford to lose some. And some of it will produce even in the poorest soil. As he tells them about the sower they understand what is going on. They get it. That is, until he tells them about the bounty of the harvest.

They cannot even imagine producing that kind of a yield. With even a small harvest a farmer is able to put aside enough seed for the following year. What if the harvest was thirty times what was sown? “With that kind of yield,” they are thinking. “I could pay off my debt, put in irrigation ditches and erect a new barn. With sixty times what was sown I would be the richest person in the area. And if it were ninety percent, I would be able to export grain to other countries. I would own it all,” the dream continues.

Jesus simply ends the story there. “Let anyone with ears listen!” he says. They are all ears. Jesus is speaking to them.

But what is he really saying? What does he expect them to make of the story? The parable contrasts seed that never grows and bears fruit with seed that is fruitful. And yet somehow the fruitful seed makes up for the waste that has been involved. We might hear it as a story contrasting faith and unbelief. God’s realm will flourish with or without our help.
Matthew had ears to hear. He interpreted the story for us. He made it a parable about different degrees of faith. It is a very different interpretation, a pep talk to the early Christians. Some were excited by the faith initially, but did not understand. They were unable to receive the message. Some, no doubt, did not put down roots. They lasted for a time, but when troubles arose, persecution, suffering they lost faith. They may even have seen it as proof that there is no God. Some were lured away by worldly possessions. It was more important for them to get ahead in life. Or maybe they simply became too busy to deal with spiritual matters. They put other things first. “But” Matthew points out, “there were enough of those who were fruitful” in good works. Hearing was matched by understanding. They responded to God’s call and were open to God’s leading. They bore fruit.

And what about our own ears? Do we have ears to hear what God’s Spirit is saying to us today? What is the Spirit saying to the Church? What is the Spirit saying to the world? How are we to hear this parable, here in the 21st century in Port Hope? Do we get it? It isn't enough to hear. We have to understand. And even understanding is not enough. At its earliest level, the parable on Jesus’ lips may have been saying that despite all the setbacks they were facing, God had other ideas. God’s realm would come with all of its surprises. The rewards, the outcome, would be beyond imagination. To the uninformed that would have seemed stupid, just as ridiculous as scattering seed willy-nilly seems to us. Who could have imagined that a motely crew of fishermen, tax collectors and sinners could spawn a worldwide religion that would exist two thousand years later? It is absurd, isn’t it? It is Paul’s folly of the cross!

It is easy to look at the Church and see its shortcomings and failures, its lack of relevance. But perhaps that is our failure to recognize what the Church is. It is not our building, beautiful though it might be. We are the Church. That is why we need to meet Sunday after Sunday. How can we be renewed and go out into the world and be the Church if we are not sustained and nurtured by our faith? Are we in our lives and in our work in the world, bringing God's love to a world that needs to hear it? Are we committed to the faith? Are we sowing the seed lavishly? Or have we just given up. We look at the world and its problems. We look at our dwindling numbers and aging congregations and throw our hands into the air.

We need to remember that God has not given up. Faith is empty without action on our part. Church isn't about a building. It also isn't about insightful preachers having wonderful messages to share Sunday by Sunday. It is about the commitment of the Christian community. It is easy to listen to the parable of the sower and gloat about how responsive we are to God, to see ourselves as good seed landing on good soil. Many good churchgoing people are unresponsive to God's call. We have all sorts of excuses for our lack of faith. It isn't our fault. It is the way we were brought up. It is because of what happened to me in my childhood. It is God's fault for treating me this way.

We choose our own paths. The good news is that God is there to give us guidance and support. The church is there to nurture us on the way. But it requires action on our part. We who are privileged to hear need to respond. We don't need to find excuses. We just need to do what God calls us to do.
If we would believe the parable of the sower, although God does not seem to be at work in the world, although God does not seem to be in control, nevertheless, God's realm is coming. In its coming it will make up for all the failures and disappointments which have gone on before. We are assured of abundant success despite failure. We are privileged – we Christians – to be bearers of God's truth in the world. We bear a message of great hope. "Let anyone with ears listen!"

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Proper 14, Year A

Comfortable Words

Readings: Genesis 24:34-48, 58-67; Psalm 45:11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Jesus is in a pensive mood. “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn,” he says, and then goes on to reflect on the life of John the Baptist as well as his own situation. John the Baptist lived simply, practicing ascetic behaviour that put him at odds with society. Jesus points out that because he wouldn’t dance he was considered to be a madman.

Jesus, on the other hand, lived life and laughed and welcomed all kinds of people. He ate and drank with outcasts and sinners. Yet his Jewish contemporaries condemned him. Because he didn’t mourn with them when they “wailed” they wrote him off as a glutton and a drunkard.

“You just cannot win,” Jesus seems to be saying. And we can all relate. We have all felt that way at one time or another. We do everything we can and find ourselves being criticized. It happens in family relationships. It happens in our work. It happens in churches. It happens when society looks at the church and finds it wanting, considers it hypocritical. Jesus is feeling down about it, but not for long. There comes a change of tone. How did he chase the blues away? How did he bring things back into perspective?

It seems to me that it happened through opening himself up to the wider mission, to the larger picture as he considered the task God had in mind for him. And from his prayerful reflection came a newfound awareness of the state of the human condition. He perceived the heavy load that we carry as a result of our humanity. He understood the sense of loss that we all feel.

That is what is reflected in the words that follow. "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,” Jesus says, “and I will give you rest." 'The comfortable words' we call them in the Book of Common Prayer. And on the surface they are comfortable, for with them Jesus extends an invitation to us. It is an invitation that offers fulfillment. It is an invitation to unload the heavy burdens we carry. Or if not to unload them, at least to have someone share in bearing the load. Who has not felt at one time or another the cares and burdens of life? Finding our way through life is tiring. We suffer through no fault of our own. From unemployment, unexpected expenses, marital discord, depression, illness, loss, fear! We can easily become overwhelmed with life.

On the other hand, many people go through life carrying heavy loads of their own making. They let life make them weary. They remember everything that ever happened to them. They remember the harm and damage done to them far better than the joy and affirmation they received. They won't eat macaroni and cheese because it reminds them of tough times when that was all they had to eat. They don't relate to certain groups of people because once long ago someone said something or did something to harm them. They end a friendship because of some little thing that happened. Years later even though they have forgotten the details they avoid that person. They are in fact a terrible burden both to themselves and to those around them. They never forgive; they never forget.

All of us know such people. If we are honest with ourselves, we have all been there. There is something of them in each of us.

We also know people who are able to overcome great suffering and turn it into powerful ministry. We know that they have not had an easy time. We have heard bits and pieces of their story. They have overcome great obstacles in their own lives. Yet they have time for a cup of tea with a friend. They have time to listen to the pain of others. They may not have much to say, no great words of wisdom. But they are the ones to whom we turn when we need a listening ear. Henri Nouwen, theologian and writer, calls them the “wounded healers” of our world.

What do such people possess that helps them not only to deal with what happens to them in life, but to reach out to others with the love of God? They have allowed themselves to be touched by Jesus. They have given the heavy burdens of life to him to carry. They have found rest for their souls.

There is a scene from the movie The Mission that speaks to me of that need to rid ourselves of our burdens. It is the story of the Jesuit mission in South America. The movie is about their mission to the Guarani, a tribe the Spanish are attempting to wipe out. One of the central figures in the movie is Mendoza, a slave trader who makes his living trapping these same people. After he kills his brother in a flash of anger, he yearns for redemption. The missionaries assign him a penance. He must climb a huge cliff by a steep waterfall, dragging behind him a net filled with armour. Again and again he attempts to scale the cliff only to have the net drag him down. In the end it is one of the Guarani, who cuts the heavy weight from his back. The anger drains from him and he collapses in a fit of laughter freed by the very people he has persecuted.

Many of us go through life without ever letting go of our burdens. We get used to the weight. We become somehow attached to them. Imagine yourself trudging along a road. The air is stifling hot. You are weighed down by a heavy backpack. With every step you take you wonder if it will be your last. A car stops beside you. A friend offers you a lift. You gratefully get into the car but you never remove the backpack. You continue to bear the full weight of the load even when you are in the car.

It doesn’t make sense, does it? Yet when we are offered forgiveness we often choose to hang on to guilt. When we are offered help we often choose to go it alone.

If you are experiencing loss and grief, is there some way God wants to use your experience to bring life to others? If your life is going well, how can you give a little bit more of your time, treasure and talents to ease somebody else's pain? It begins by turning your burdens over to Jesus, by leaving them at the foot of the cross.

Life will continue to put obstacles in the way. Life is like that. To be human is to suffer. But yoked to Jesus we will be better off. His yoke will be lighter in the long run than the one we are carrying. It will mean the end of much of the tension and depression that weighs us down. It will end the discouragement and negativity under which we live. With our burden lighter, we will travel lighter and breathe more easily. It is so much easier to carry our burden when someone is sharing the load.

What is the yoke that we will be taking up? Is it the world with all of its problems? The starving, the deprived the oppressed! It is difficult to imagine that such a yoke could be easy. But it is the yoke of our Lord, the yoke he asks us to take upon ourselves. Taking up that yoke, we can lay claim to his promises that we will find rest for our souls. 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 ...