Saturday, September 16, 2017

Holy Cross

God So Loved the World

Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Corinthians 1;18-24; John 3:14-21

I recently revisited a spectacular image of the earth from the perspective of the moon, an image 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? Do we ignore the state of God’s creation because we mistakenly think that God will take care of us and the world, that we do not need to do anything to preserve God’s creative work?

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.

That is the foolishness of the cross that Paul was speaking about. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” While the people of Jesus’ time understood its horror; they didn’t understand its connection to God. The Jews were looking for the saving action of God that would occur through the sending of the Messiah. They were looking for signs, but not the sign of the cross. They could never even consider that God’s promised agent could be put to death. The Greeks, on the other hand, were seeking pure knowledge. A suffering god would be impossible for them as well.

I am in the habit of wearing a cross all the time. It is an automatic response in me each morning to put it on, not as a piece of jewelry, but as a marker in my life that I belong to God, that God loves me. Hopefully it is a visible sign to others whom I meet that I am a Christian. We Christians are reluctant to ‘wear’ our faith. A Few years ago I was on holidays up at the Church Camp where I owned a cottage, when an acquaintance questioned why I was wearing a cross. I was somewhat taken aback by the question, since this was a person who confesses the Christian faith and knows that I am a priest. I gave her a quizzical look; I didn’t answer right away. I needed to ask myself what was behind her question. Was it something about the particular cross I was wearing? Was it because I was on holidays? Was it what it represented? Finding myself still wondering, I finally asked her and was confronted with a barrage of hurt, anger and frustration. It became abundantly clear to me that for her the image of the cross was not merely foolish, but abhorrent.

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? 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.
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 us as Christians 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. “God so loved the world.” Not the Christian! But the whole world!

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 is a constant reminder that we are truly loved.

As I have reflected on that this week, I cannot help but go back to our carelessness about God’s creation. Surely God loves everything about this world that is so lovingly created in God’s image. We keep thinking that it is God’s vocation to look after it and us. Surely with great love comes great responsibility. Surely we are called to stewardship of God’s creation.

The closer we stand to the cross the more we can see the image of the person God has called us to be. The closer we stand to the cross the more clearly we can hear God calling our name and naming our vocation. It is at the foot of the cross that reconciliation with all of God’s creation becomes possible. It is from the foot of the cross that we are invited to see the world, both broken and blessed, through God’s eyes. May we go out into the world sharing God’s healing grace! Amen

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23, Year A

You’ve Been Unfriended

Readings: Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

When I looked over the gospel earlier this week, I quickly dismissed it as being one which I would really rather avoid. It is a difficult reading. Who wants to preach about dealing with conflict? Conflict is not easily dealt with, except, of course, on Facebook, where you simply ‘unfriend’ the offending individual. They may not even find out for months that they have been unfriended. It would solve a lot of problems in the Church, or would it?

After all, that avoids the real reason for Church. If the Church truly is to be the Body of Christ then our purpose is to build community. And that begins with us asking ourselves what kind of community we want our congregation to be. Our community could be largely social, a place to meet a few likeminded people who could get along together. But that is superficial to say the least. Perhaps we want a place that holds us accountable, where we can be honest about our hopes and dreams, our fears and anxieties. That could be risky, of course. Do we want a place where we can remain anonymous, unchallenged, uninvolved, where we can simply blend in? Or do we want to make a difference, not only in our own lives, but in the community? Do we want people to say, “Look at those Christians, how they love one another?” If we do, then it is going to take what is at the heart of this morning’s gospel in order to accomplish it.

The gospel provides us with some perspectives on the meaning of love and compassion at times of conflict and trouble. What is our Christian call when things go wrong? What do you do when things go wrong in the church? It provides some fascinating insights into communal relationships that deal, not just with the Church, but permeate all of life and society. How important that is if we truly want to be relevant in a society that says we are not! The resolution of conflict is a personal responsibility. Confrontation is something few people enjoy. Most of us will do anything to avoid it. And yet if the community, any community, is to work together, disputes require reconciliation.

And so in Matthew’s gospel we are given a process for dealing with conflict and finding it in our hearts not only to forgive, but also to reconcile. It is a process that recognizes the struggle of the early church to work harmoniously. The need for resolution when disputes arise is part of our human nature. That is exactly why confession and absolution are part of every liturgy in our church. When we pass the Peace in worship it symbolizes our willingness to be reconciled one with another.

The Gospel continues, "For when two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." Simone Weil, the 20th Century French philosopher, activist and mystic, writes, "Two and three, and there should be no more." She was not saying that larger groups of people should not pray together. She was saying that something special happens when two or three people gather together in prayer. Anyone who has ever prayed at the bedside of someone who is ill or on a special occasion knows the power of that kind of prayer. It shows us how good the Lord is and how present in our lives.

In 1998 when I went to Africa to participate in the Women’s Gathering and the World Council of Churches, I stayed with some families in one of the townships in South Africa. My host families gave me a wonderful sense of what it means for Christ to be present in prayer. As soon as I entered a home I was invited to pray with the family. As we gathered in prayer all the barriers dropped away. It is something we are not accustomed to, but that is our loss. Many people will ask me for prayer, but they squirm if I actually begin to pray out loud. They want me to go off on my own and pray for them. They don't understand the relationship that comes through praying together. It isn't even about finding the right words to say. The idea behind such prayer is to allow God to work in and through our lives. We continue to trust in God who helps and protects us. Then we are able to fulfill the great commandment, that we love one another as God loves us.

But on this weekend, I cannot help but think that the global implications are far more important for us to discern. What do these readings have to say to us on the heels of one disaster after another? Fire, famine, earthquake, hurricane – what a list of disasters across every part of the globe! Just before we come to September 11th, a day when the world changed, the world has changed once again. Once more we have a date that will not be forgotten. This time the watchword will be ‘Irma’, a storm of epic proportions that has unleashed its fury on the Caribbean and is heading towards Florida, a country still reeling from the effects of ‘Harvey’. Once more the media is filled with heart wrenching stories of loss and tragedy. Whole islands are devastated. Nothing prepares you for any of that. It does not prepare you for the kind of devastation that so many people are facing. To see the widespread destruction that nature can unleash, to know that once again so many lives have been lost, to witness the despair of the victims of this disaster, people in dire need, cannot help but change the way we live our lives.

At such times we turn to our faith for answers to the deep questions that arise within us. Is God in charge of our world? Is God watching over us? Does God even care? Or have we so destroyed our world through our lack of stewardship that it can never recover? It tries our faith. It becomes painfully obvious that Christian faith gives rise to more questions than answers. If that is true of us, how can we possibly convey to people who have not experienced it, the kind of strength we receive through our faith, the nurture that we receive through worship and prayer?

We struggle together as the people of God, certainly in moments of personal conflict, but also in times of national distress, in times of instability. We trust in God who helps and protects us. How do we share that with others? How do we put into words what can only be experienced through participation in the community of faith? How do we tell people the things that we learn through a lifetime of searching for the truth?

It isn't just about sharing our faith with others. We struggle as we live out our faith with what it means to be a Christian. We have a conviction as Christians that we need to live in harmony with God's creation. Yet tensions arise between what we believe and what is going on in the world. The tension arises because living the Christian life is not a matter of black and white. Truly, there are laws to follow. There are the Ten Commandments. There is the great commandment to love God and to love neighbour. Yet so many things in our Christian lives fall into grey areas that are matters of the heart. We can search for rules to guide us in making right decisions in such matters. We can pray for discernment. But when it comes down to it God simply calls us to do the loving thing.

That is the basis of Paul's reminder to the Christians in Rome. I would remind you that they knew a great deal about living in a troubled world. Paul affirms the need to follow the Ten Commandments, but sums them up as "love of neighbour". "Love does no wrong to a neighbour: therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law." The law to love supersedes all other laws for the Christian. Such teaching about love fits well with the Ten Commandments. Old Testament rules are good rules, not because they are in the Bible, but because they are based on love. If we always do the loving thing, we find that we are following God's rules. In fact, if we always did the loving thing then there would be no need for rules. It is our frailty, our inability to put our neighbour first, our inability to see Christ in others that dictates our need for rules.

Love calls us to repentance. Instead of complaining about the high cost of gas, perhaps a true sense of repentance calls us to examine our sense of stewardship. Are we good stewards of God’s creation? Are we using more than our fair share of the world’s resources? Are there things that we can do to reverse the damage that our wastefulness has caused in the world?

Love calls us to action. We need to give with compassion. How do we help the devastation that is faced at this moment by so many in our world?

And finally, love calls us to prayer. And so today we pray for the people who have been so devastated by this storm. We pray for their safety and for their well-being. We continue to trust in God who helps and protects us. 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 ...