Saturday, June 30, 2018

Proper 13, Year B

At the End of Your Rope

Readings: 1:1, 117-27; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43

I am sure that like me there are times in your life when you have felt that you were at the end of your rope. Life throws us all sorts of curves. Many things can bring us to that point. The loss of a job, the death of a spouse or a close family member, a marriage on the brink of divorce! You get to the point where you have tried everything but simply have no confidence that things are going to work out.

Jesus in his earthly ministry touched the lives of many who were at the end of their rope. He gave hope to the poor. He offered forgiveness to those loaded with the cares of the world. He went about healing the sick. He lived his life following God’s will. In today’s gospel reading we hear two stories about people whose lives are intertwined. They are stories of people at the end of their rope. First a leader of the synagogue named Jairus came and knelt at Jesus’ feet begging him to come and lay hands on his twelve-year-old daughter who was near death. As he responded to the man’s plea, the crowd followed along. Then there is an interruption. The story of the healing of Jairus’ daughter is put on hold as another story unfolds.

In the crowd was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years. Because of the strict purity laws of the Jewish people, such an ailment forced the woman to live in isolation. She was deemed unclean. Indeed, she had lost her whole fortune making the rounds of various doctors without getting any better. In fact, she was getting worse. She was at the end of her rope.

She had heard about Jesus. “If only I could touch his clothes,” she thought, “I would be healed.” She elbowed her way through the crowd. She touched his clothing, just the very edge, the hem of his garment. That was all she dared to do. That very instant she felt power invading and healing her. Jesus felt power leaving him.

He wondered what he had felt. “Who touched my clothes?” he asked. The disciples laughed. “You’re in a crowd. Of course someone touched you.”

The disciples were right. Hundreds of people were touching Jesus that day. But nothing happened to them. The touching of Jesus had no power in and of itself. No power went out of him. Jesus realized that what happened was not merely a tiresome interruption, but a moment of immense significance for someone. That power came when the woman reached out in faith. Power comes when you reach out in faith. It happens at the moment when you share Jesus’ vision and in that sharing you share his power.

The woman was healed because she believed, because she took the initiative and reached out. Isn’t that what Jesus told her? “Your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed of your disease.” She brought her own gifts to the situation. She was determined to struggle and to overcome her condition even when others would have become discouraged. She had hopefulness and trust, both amazing gifts to nurture within ourselves.

Then Jesus returned to the matter at hand. Some people came from Jairus’ house giving an update on the little girl’s condition. “She is dead! Don’t trouble the teacher any more.” But it was no trouble for Jesus. “Have faith!” he told the father. Then he and the three he allowed to follow him went to the house. Family and friends were already grieving the child’s death. “The child is not dead. She is just sleeping.” Jesus and the disciples hear the sound of nervous laughter. Jesus goes in alone. “Little girl, get up!” he tells her, taking her by the hand. And she awakens. She gets up and has something to eat.

These are powerful stories of healing. They raise so many questions and feelings in us. We believe in God. We pray, at least out of desperation. We try to follow his example. But when it comes down to it, we fail to allow Christ to be living and active at the centre of our beings. We come to Jesus. We hear his words speaking to us from the gospel stories. We express our needs through the liturgy and in our prayers. We praise Jesus in the hymns we sing. We touch him as we receive his body and blood in the Eucharist. But we allow our feelings of guilt, our weakness, our failures, the tragedies in our lives, to overwhelm us. Perhaps our touch has not really been the touch of faith. Have we been simply jostling Jesus in the crowd rather than embracing him?

But on the other hand perhaps the answer has to do with the purpose for miracles in Jesus’ ministry. They are not for show, or to convince skeptics, or to gain notoriety. They are acts of compassion in response to human need. Above all, they are signs of God’s realm breaking into our world. A woman in the crowd reached out in faith and touched the hem of Jesus’ garment and was healed. Jesus asked a grieving father to believe that God has begun working to make all things new here and now, and his daughter was restored to health. Two people at the end of their ropes are renewed in faith and hope.

So what do we believe in when we reach the end of our rope? Looking around at the state of the world in which we live makes it doubly hard to believe in anything, much less miracles. When life brings us something so painful, so devastating, that it feels as if we are beyond what is humanly possible to endure, what do we do then? Where do we turn? Is there a way to face devastating loss without giving up our faith?

We can do as we so often do, and reach out to our friends and family for support. We can reach deep into our own resources believing that our life is not over, that where one door may have closed, another is opening. Perhaps the most important thing to do is to look back at how God has been with us in the past, look to the one who has carried us throughout our lives. Then perhaps we can be assured that God is working in and through all the heartbreak and suffering in the world to bring about new life.

Let us know the healing touch of God in our lives. Let us be willing channels of God’s healing grace.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

The Birth of John the Baptist, June 24

What Will This Child Be?

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:7-13; Acts 13:14b-26; Luke 1:57-80

There is something very powerful about the name we have been given. I came to understand that through an elderly priest who lived with us for a time. Being the middle child of five I lived in the shadow of my older siblings and particularly of my sister Rebecca. I wanted to be in every way like her. She was the most beautiful, graceful person that I could imagine. She had long, curly blonde hair, which always did what it was supposed to do. She was dainty and petite. She was neat and tidy. If she ate an ice cream cone, it didn't drip. She never had any problem keeping her half of the room looking just the way mother expected it to.

On the other hand, I was just plain old Ann. My hair was straight and dark. No amount of trouble ever got even a kink into it. They teased me about how skinny I was. Can you believe that? And how I would never be able to wear a pair of nylons. As soon as I got an ice cream cone, it started to melt all over me. No matter how hard I tried, I still looked like yesterday's hand-me-downs. And my side of the bedroom always looked like a cyclone had hit it.

Then I read a childhood poem. No doubt you have heard it. Monday's child is fair of face, Tuesday's child is full of grace...

And so I asked my mother, "What day was I born on?" Fateful question! "Oh, it was a Wednesday!" That figured for me. Wednesday's child is full of woe. "What day was Rebecca born on?" I asked. But somehow I already knew. "Tuesday's child is full of grace."

It was not until I was about ten that I came to terms with it. An elderly priest, a friend of our family lived with us for a number of months. One day, I was complaining once again about the straightness of my hair. He suggested that I eat lots of carrots because they make your hair curl. I was dubious. Then he told me about my name. "Ann" he told me, "was the mother of Mary. Your name means 'graceful one'." It was a special moment of insight and transformation for a rather insecure little girl. It was that day I began to like my name.

We grow into our names. They become part of who we are. Aren't there names that you just hate because you associate them with a particular person or event? Some primitive societies regard an individual's name as containing the essence of his or her personality. If you think about it, a whole lot of things begin to make sense; the injunction in the commandments against taking the Lord's name in vain, including a saint's name at baptism, the giving of titles.

And so we come to our celebration of the birth of John the Baptist. Elizabeth was barren. She and her husband, Zechariah, a priest in the temple, had given up hope of ever having a child. Yet as they grew into old age God made a promise to Zechariah that they would have a son and that his name should be John, 'God is gracious’. When Zechariah questioned how it could possibly be, he became unable to hear or to speak.

Great joy attended the birth of this special child. Friends and relatives gathered as they do for such events. "What will you name the baby?" they all asked of Elizabeth, fully expecting that she would name the child after his father. "His name is John," she insisted. Thinking that the pain of childbirth must have affected her in some way they go off and check with the baby's father. They motion to him, "What is the baby to be called?" He writes on his tablet, "His name is John."

His power of speech is restored as a sign from God. I can imagine the scene. Zechariah standing with his newborn son in his hands, those priestly hands that had carried many offerings to the altar of God! Here he offers his son to be named by God. God has intervened twice. God has named this child. When God names a person it determines his destiny. This is a manifestation not only to Elizabeth and Zechariah but also to the people of Israel. The friends and relatives can only ponder, "What will this child become?"

And of course, John is destined to become the last of the great prophets. He is the bearer of the prophetic word as he calls the crowds to repentance, to transformation. He is the bearer of hope that their relationship with God and each other will improve. He is the forebear of the light that will come into the world. God is indeed gracious.

John’s vocation was to truly live up to his name. He was called to challenge injustice, to subvert the things that keep us from God, to embrace the Christian life, and above all to point people toward Jesus Christ. That is a pretty amazing vocation, one to which all of us must aspire.

"What will this child become?" is not only an interesting question. It is the whole point of the narrative.

It is the question we must continually ask of ourselves, for at the very depth of human longing is the hope that such a message brings. There are times of barrenness in our lives when we lose sight of God's promises. We pray but our prayer is dry and lifeless. We wonder if God has abandoned us, or if there is any God there at all. Is our plea falling on deaf ears? We are unable to open our hearts in praise.

And then somehow God sends us a gracious gift: a kind word from a friend, an unexpected phone call, a ray of sunshine, an awareness of God's presence. Whatever it might be, it somehow awakens us to the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We begin to understand that God is greater than all the suffering that we have endured. We experience the faithfulness of God in our lives. We know that we are beloved children of God. And we cannot help but sing praises to God who created us, sustains us and redeems us.

So what will you become, you child of God? For God has named you. There is such hope in that naming. For God helps us to become all that we are meant to be. Thanks be to God.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Proper 10, Year B

Do Not Lose Heart

Readings: 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Psalm 138; Mark 3:20-35

There is a consistent, though difficult and troublesome, theme throughout the readings today, that of spirits and the ever-present reality of spiritual warfare in the human soul and human affairs. Our twenty-first century mindset responds in one of two ways to such a theme. We either totally deny the existence of such a reality. Let’s face it! God is not the only being to suffer death in the last century. Or it becomes a god. Look at how many people put their trust in fortunetellers or the gurus of modern society. A friend of mine, recently bereaved, who discounts anything to do with religion told me in detail about a palm reading that she had. “You wouldn’t believe how right the fortune teller was,” she said to me. “She knew my husband’s name. She told me that everything was going to be fine. Of course, I don’t really believe it, but …” It means that as Christians it is of the utmost importance that we examine spiritual realities. What is more, such realities can cause us to lose hope.

Paul’s reflections in his letter to the people of Corinth were about the spiritual warfare that he was facing. His was a common battle, one that many of us face. He wrote about the spirit of hopelessness that he faced in his life. That sense of hopelessness can be totally pervasive of your life. It can cause you to lose heart, to simply give up, to forget about your responsibilities. Paul knew all about that. When he converted to Christianity it put him at odds with his Jewish heritage. It also put him at odds with the Roman authorities.

Probably the most significant factor was Paul’s involvement with the Christian community at Corinth. The Corinthians were a constant source of aggravation to him. As they came to terms with their newfound faith, they were poised between two cultures that often clashed. The influence of Greco-Roman society on the congregation was profound. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reflects the problems with which he had to deal – the influence of the current philosophy as well as the issues of patronage, idolatry, immorality, social standing, and secularism. Not only that, but the church membership changed in number and character in the years following Paul’s departure. His absence, along with a succession of other preachers like Apollos and Cephas led to a crisis in Corinth. Paul invariably ended up in the middle of the fracas.

No wonder he began to lose heart. And yet Paul knew that there was one thing that could lift him out of his moments of depression and weariness. For Paul the Resurrection was not only a past event. He believed it passionately as such, but at the same time he realized that it could be a present source of grace when he needed it most. He knew that death could issue in resurrection. The resurrection was a reality in his life.

Jesus too grappled with spiritual warfare. One day when Jesus returned to his home in Capernaum he could not find any privacy. The crowds even followed him into the house. They would not leave him alone. He could not even get himself something to eat. There were the usual curiosity seekers who wanted to see the miracle worker for themselves. There were the hopeless who needed a miracle. There were the devout who simply wanted to be near this wonderful person. And there were the detractors. They were by far the worst. They lied about him. They said that he must be mad, that his works were the work of the devil.

Most disheartening of all, Jesus’ family bought into the whole situation. Families so often do that. They listen to the opinions around them. They base their own decisions on the popular points of view. Jesus’ family was no different. They found they could not simply dismiss the crowds. They wouldn’t go away. They upset the whole routine of the household. They could tell themselves that it was Jesus’ safety that concerned them. They could say that the accusations against Jesus reflected on them as a family. It was embarrassing. They tried their best to restrain him. But it was impossible.

It must have been disheartening, but Jesus did not lose heart. In fact, he answered them all in a way that they could understand. To the people who followed him he spoke in stories that spoke to their lives. To the Scribes and Pharisees he spoke in logic with which they could wrestle. He answered their criticism. "How can Satan cast out Satan?" It is not logical. "You don't enter a strong man's house to plunder it without first tying him up." It really would be insane to attempt it.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to grasp is what he said about his family. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” It is easy to hear Jesus’ words today as a rejection of the family who were once his entire world. That is not what is happening here. Jesus is expanding the definition in a way that opens up the whole understanding of what it means to be family. “Whoever does the will of God is my mother and my brother and my sister,” Jesus says. Family is marked by the choices we make. Throughout his earthly ministry he will say it in many different ways. He will sum it up with the commandment to love God and love neighbour.

What causes us to lose heart? Let’s fact it! A life of faith is not a free pass. All the faith in the world does not relieve us of the necessity of struggling with many things both from within and without ourselves. Faith is our resource to deal with the struggle, not a magic potion to give us the ability to avoid it. The fact is that the Christian community is a continuing source of grace to people. That is why we continue to struggle to keep faith.

There are so many things that can cause us to lose heart. The world and our experience of living within it gives us all sorts of causes and reasons for discouragement. We experience it in our lives, in our communities and in our congregations. It is easy to look at the fractured world in which we live and simply despair. Acts of terrorism touch every life. Acts of violence happen in every community. We witness the results of Global Warming while detractors say it is all a lie.

And in our churches we experience decline. Our congregations are not only dwindling but are aging. We compete not with other denominations that are also dwindling, but with many of the things that Paul dealt with. Secularism of society, immorality, social status, idolatry. We live in a world where so many things take the place of God. And yet we know that the cause for not losing heart cannot be what it once was. We are not going to get back what we consider to be the glory days of the church. Maybe God has something even more amazing, even more miraculous, than pews filled with people and Sunday School rooms overflowing. Maybe God has more in mind that simply finding ourselves in the black.

And I keep coming back to Paul’s urging not to lose heart. Where do we find heart? Like Paul we look for the signs of resurrection all around us. We see the resurrection not as some far distant past event, but as a present reality. We look for the signs of resurrection springing to life around us. We find it in the ‘aha’ moments of life when God speaks to us, when God affirms us. Most of all, we find it within the life of the Christian community, through our real family. Through their affirmation, through their companionship, through corporate worship, our life of prayer, through coming together as a community and sharing in the life of faith. That is how we renew our strength. Through the family of Christ we rekindle our faith. We renew the promises of our baptism. We live in hope. 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 ...