Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 21, Year B

Transformed by the Gospel

Readings: 1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

The Gospel today begins as last Sunday’s ended. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Taken literally, that statement is truly gross. In fact, taking it literally gave rise in the early church to allegations that Christians were cannibals. What is more, it follows other statements that were equally offensive to the people to whom Jesus was speaking. For one, he claimed to have descended from Heaven. But people took Jesus literally and failed to get his message. They failed to understand that he was not speaking literally. He was speaking deep spiritual truths about himself. He was speaking about spiritual hunger. He was speaking about the yearning in their souls. He was telling them about how God reaches out to humanity, breaking down all of the barriers.

It was not just the crowds who followed Jesus who misunderstood. The disciples, his close followers, also heard in a literal sense. “This teaching is difficult,” they said. And so Jesus reassured them. “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

That need to step back and assess what is being offered is something that we in this computer age should easily comprehend. Computers are wonderful things. I don’t know what I would do without my computer. It handles all kinds of problems. It works things out so quickly for me. It gives me access to information. It does so in a totally rational way. That is its strength. It is also its weakness. It isn’t human. I still have to assess the information that it gives me. I have to filter it, judge it by what I know. Check it out for its truth. A certain U.S. president aside, there is a lot of fake news out there, and I do not want to be the one to spread it any further.

As rational beings we speak in terms of logic. We say, “Let’s be rational about this!” Even as we say it, we know that the real meaning is that something is going to happen that shouldn’t. Perhaps we are letting someone down easily about a relationship. A marriage is about to break down. A business is going to close, putting many people out of work. There is going to be heartbreak. But there is something behind the statement.

What Jesus is explaining to the disciples is that the spirit is different from the flesh. The spirit is different because it is life giving. It is directed by rationality, but it is accompanied by love. “My words,” he is saying to them, “can speak to your spirit. My words are life giving. Being in relationship with me means being in relationship with God. And here I am, standing in front of you, speaking these words of life.”

Even with his explanation, some of the disciples still do not understand. They turn back and no longer go about with him. They are offended by the message of the Gospel.

The gospel of Christ offers comfort, but it also offends. Many are ill at ease with its paradoxes and demands. They try to reduce the Christian faith to simplistic categories. They want a more palatable faith. They don’t want to grapple with shades of grey. They want everything to be black and white, right and wrong, clear-cut. They want to look it up in Scripture and know exactly what God is saying. What they fail to understand is that the Bible is not a book of answers to all of life’s dilemmas. It is not a proof text. It is not a recipe. It is not a history book. Reading Scripture is about listening to what the Spirit is saying to the Church.

As Christians we need to know that the Gospel makes demands. It is costly to be a disciple of Christ. It requires commitment to God’s purposes. That can strike at the very core of our self-centred lives. We are pretty good at recognizing sin and evil, but not necessarily in ourselves. Until we understand like the disciples that Jesus has the words of eternal life, the Christian faith can indeed be offensive.

Within the Church, it seems, it is very easy to offend. Often the reasons are beyond comprehension, or even more often we never hear how we have offended. People simply leave, and we don’t hear from them again. When I was a student I had a conversation with someone who had left the church because in the new service in the BAS the priest turned the page in the Prayer of Consecration before the people. She said that she no longer knew when to turn the page.

Let’s face it! People are offended by all sorts of things, but primarily by change. They want the church to remain static and unchanging. They want it to be available to them for rites of passage. But they don’t want it to change their lives. That is why they are offended. They are offended when we ask them to contribute to the ongoing operating expenses of the community. “All you ever do is ask for money,” we hear at our once yearly commitment campaign. And actually I stopped hearing that when my congregation undertook a massive stewardship campaign that required me to preach about it once a month. There are some who become offended over issues, without even understanding what the church is saying about such things, or without understanding the way in which, at least in our denomination, we go about making decisions.

For example, many people left the Anglican Church over the ordination of women. They were offended that the Church would allow women the right to answer God’s call. They had all the Scriptural references, but there was little reason or scholarship behind it. And now most people would acknowledge that the decision to ordain women was indeed the Spirit speaking to the church.

If the Gospel message is offensive to Christians, it is even more offensive to society. A teenager in my last parish was sent home from school to change one day because a teacher found her t-shirt offensive. You might think that she was sporting foul language. I want you to know that the offensive language on that t-shirt was “What would Jesus do?”

To our detriment, we have learned as Christians to be careful of how we speak about our faith so that we will not be offensive. It was pointed out to me one day in a mall that I should not say “bless you” when someone sneezes. We no longer celebrate our holy days like Christmas in schools because it might offend someone of another faith. We don’t share our faith with others.

A priest was standing outside his church when a stranger approached him. What kind of people live in this town?”

“What kind of people lived in the town you just left,” the priest asked him.

“They were horrible,” the stranger said waving his had in emphasis. “They were dishonest, selfish and inconsiderate.”

The priest shook his head, “I’m sorry to say that’s probably what you’ll find in this town too.”

The stranger moaned and walked away.

Later that day another person happened past the church and stopped to talk to the priest. He too asked, What kind of people live in this town?”

“What kind of people lived in the town you just left,” the priest asked him.

“They were thoughtful, friendly, and kind,” was the reply. “I hated to leave them.”
The priest put out his hand and smiled. “I’m pleased to say that is about how you’ll find people here.

Not that we can simply sit back and think that the way we act is fine because we are Christians. Sometimes the things that good, church going people do to others in their midst, is truly offensive. It causes rifts in a congregation. If you find people leaving in droves then it is time to look at the way you behave and make some positive changes. The Gospel is about transformation. How do you as a congregation change the perception, rightly or wrongly that this is an unfriendly place? Because, face it, that is the perception! How do you draw people in instead of chasing them away? How do you transform this place into a place of light and joy?

I have to say, I was so pleased to hear the letter that Walter read two weeks ago saying that there is a will in this congregation to bring about change, to be known as a welcoming and faithful place. It begins by welcoming a new priest and his family into your midst. The backbiting and anger and blaming about the past need to be gone. It begins with offering and accepting forgiveness for wrongs and perceived wrongs. It means letting the light of Christ shine through you into the community.

In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul says that we should walk carefully and live gratefully. We cannot ignore what is going on in our lives while we stand firm against the world. It is not about being right, but about discerning the truth. Our minds must remain open to knowing the truth, even the truth about ourselves. So be aware of God’s presence in all aspects of your lives. Be committed to the faith. Open yourselves up to the Spirit. Above all, know Jesus in whose presence we break bread. Amen

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, Year B

Finding God in the Ordinary

When I was growing up, my mother baked all the bread for our large family. Saturday morning was bread-making day, and I can remember the delicious odours that came from her kitchen. As children, we were not always very appreciative of mother's efforts. When Sunbeam came out with a big advertising campaign, we longed for that over processed white bread. I remember asking mother if we could please have some "real" bread for a change.

My mother talked about how her mother, my grandmother baked bread back in Wales. They lived in a terraced home with a small oven, not large enough for baking bread for the large family. At the end of their terrace was a communal oven, in which the local families could bake their bread. Grandmother would make huge loaves of bread, each with her particular marking – as I recall it was a knob on the top of the loaf – to set her loaves apart from those of other people, and then take them to the oven to be baked.

I have carried on the family tradition and become a bread baker. I do not bake all of my bread. I find that when I do so I eat too much of it. So now I bake bread for the most part to give away. I made some yesterday as I wrote this sermon. I have tried many kinds of bread from bagels to sourdough to rye. I even tried rice bread. However, I forgot the rising properties of rice. I had to keep separating the dough into different bowls. The bread was good, but there was far too much of it.

Bread is ordinary, everyday food. Most people think that unless you have a bread machine it is difficult to make, but in reality it is quite basic. It is made from simple ingredients – flour, salt, yeast, water, sweetener, (I use honey!). Truly it does take time and patience. It needs to rise. One gets a good workout kneading the dough until it is lovely and smooth. But it is not difficult to produce good results.

In its many forms, it is the most widely consumed food in the world, eaten by people of every race, religion and culture. It is the food of rich and poor alike. Bread has been around for thousands of years. Evidence from thirty thousand years ago in Europe found starch residue on rocks used for pounding plants. In all likelihood, starch extract from the roots of plants, such as cattails and ferns, was spread on a flat rock, placed over a fire and cooked into a primitive form of flatbread. Scripture refers to bread as the staff of life. God provided manna in the desert for the Hebrew people. Bread is a relational food. Breaking bread together is a universal symbol of peace. It is ordinary, everyday food.

Jesus broke bread for a crowd of hungry people. He took a few small loaves and some fish, blessed it, and fed the people who had followed him out into the wilderness. But they got hungry again. They kept coming back for more. Their expectation was that Jesus would keep giving them free bread. In reality he offered them far more. “I am the bread of life,” he told them. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” He was offering them not free food, but spiritual food. He explained to them that giving them bread and fish would not solve their problems. He asked them to make him and his way of living the “bread and butter” of their daily lives. Yet they could not accept it from him. They could not see beyond the Jesus they had grown up with. They saw the carpenter's son. They saw Joseph's kid. They did not see what he had to offer them. In fact, it was unthinkable. How could anyone as ordinary as Jesus, someone just like them, be the bread of life, the Saviour?

The crowd is expressing a reasonable human feeling on any number of levels. If you are hungry and you suddenly find a source of free food it is difficult to give it up. It is like winning the lottery. But how much more difficult it is to change one’s vision of someone we know, someone we have watched grow up. Yet when you think about it, it is in the ordinary, in people like you and like me, that God chooses to make a dwelling. God only knows why. And then God comes to us in so many disguises. Honestly, some of them can be terribly offensive. Old age, ugliness, poverty, leprosy, woundedness! It is a divine paradox, isn’t it? Our part in it is to look beyond it all to the source.

We too are offered that same spiritual bread. Jesus offers himself to us as bread from God, as grace for our lives, the bread of life. We are offered that choice. But there are many kinds of bread offered to us by the world that, while far from nourishing, are very tempting. They hold great promise. They promise wealth. They promise success. They promise an easy existence.

On the other hand, Jesus offers himself as the life of the world, the life of all of creation. He is our creator. He is our sustainer. God has chosen, through Christ, to be involved in our world. That is a choice that we too must make. For that choice is what makes atonement a possibility. That is what is offered to us in the Bread of Life passages of John's Gospel. Our responsibilities, our choices, are very real. We are offered a conscious choice to see the evidence of the risen Christ in the world around us. We need to see, not simply Jesus, Joe and Mary’s son, but to see Christ, to be, as Paul says, "imitators of God", to emulate Jesus, to follow him. We are called to demonstrate God's love to others through the way we speak and act, through the company we keep, through everything that we do.

Is it possible to be united with Christ through baptism, to confess our sins and receive absolution, to go through the motions of worship, and still fail to comprehend what it really means to believe in Jesus Christ? God has given us grace. But it is a two way street. I remember something that Corrie Ten Boom said in a talk that has stayed with me throughout the years. God has no grandchildren. We must choose to be children. We must choose to be beloved of God. We must hear the word. We must accept it. We must feed on the bread of life. We must appropriate it for ourselves and consciously accept God into our lives. Take God into the centre of our being. Become one with him through Christ. In that way, his life becomes our life. His love becomes our love. His purpose becomes our purpose. His goal becomes our goal. We are redeemed. We communicate his love and become broken bread to those around us.

Think what kind of a world we would live in if we accepted Jesus’ lifestyle and adopted it as our own. No child would ever die of hunger. No senior citizen would be lonely. AIDS would be wiped out, because we would not be hoarding needed drugs out of greed. We would be using good stewardship of the resources of the world. We would be attentive to one another, using the gifts that God has given to us. We would be serving at the table of the world.

Every time we say the Lord's Prayer, we pray, "Give us this day our daily bread." Are we like the crowds that followed Jesus? Are we asking for a free meal? Are we asking merely to have our material needs met? Or are we asking to be fed, to be nurtured spiritually by the true bread, Jesus Christ? Perhaps we simply rattle it off, not even conscious of what we are praying.

I am going to make a challenge to you. This week take those words and let them speak to you. Every day this week pray the Lord’s Prayer. Really pray, thinking about what it would mean to a hungry world to be fed those words of life. Think about it. We would die but not remain dead, because we would have eaten the bread of life. We would be like Jesus was, is and will be forever.

That is the Christian message. It speaks about sin and salvation, about death and life, about dying to sin and coming alive to God, about creation and redemption. What God has done in Christ affects not only us, but also the whole of creation. It is a call to renewal, to work with God to discern God's presence. It is about doing God's will, so that we can be transformed and then go on to be transformers in society.

What happens in the Eucharist happens on behalf of the whole world. The bread set before us brings the starving into our presence. It brings the joyless, the sick the suffering. For it is a reminder that what we hold, we hold in trust for all. So let us break bread together. Let us eat. Let us be bread for a broken world. Amen.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

11th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, Year B

Bringing Meaning to Life

Readings: 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a; Psalm 51:1-13; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

David’s behaviour is nothing short of scandalous. In our world of twitters and tweets and Facebook it would have been out in a matter of minutes. Even in David’s time such events are not kept secret for long. First of all David is lounging at home while his men are fighting his battles. Then he becomes so enthralled with a woman that he takes her and then has her husband killed to cover up his misdeeds. Don’t you want to ask David why he thought he could do such a terrible thing? What was he thinking? Did he really think that he could get away with it? Did he think that there would be no price to pay? No doubt he considers that sin is personal, that it is simply an offence against God who will forgive and everything will go on as it always has. But no matter how we might wish it, no matter how we might try to convince ourselves, no sin is an offence only against God. It always hurts others. When the powerful sin it has even graver consequences for society.

Along comes Nathan. How does a prophet survive confronting a powerful king? Nathan is brave to even consider it. His approach is clever. He tells David a story about two people, one rich and powerful; the other poor. The rich man has many flocks and herds. The poor man has a little ewe lamb which he treats as a well-loved pet, a member of the family. A traveller drops in on the rich man. He offers hospitality, but rather than preparing one of his own flock for the traveller, he takes the poor man’s only lamb, slaughters it, and feeds the man. Our sense of justice comes to the forefront when we hear the story. As listeners we become outraged at the actions of a wealthy person who would steal a poor man’s lamb.

David too is outraged. “The man deserves to die. He owes the poor man four times what he took because he had no compassion,” David exclaims. Nathan’s words ring true and cut to the core as he confronts David with his sinful behaviour. “You are the man!” What must it have been like for David to hear those words? Caught out like a naughty child! Nathan reminds him of all that God has done for him and what a terrible deed it was for him to have Uriah killed simply to take his wife. David comes, as we all must, to the realization that he has done a grievous wrong. He repents, but the fact is that he did not count the cost of his sinfulness until confronted by Nathan. He failed to consider the responsibility that comes with power.

There are many examples of it in society today. Consider the #me too movement. People who have been taken advantage of by powerful individuals are finally able to confront their abusers. Not that justice is always served. Powerful individuals are often able to make bad things go away. But the fact that people are able to confront the abuse and take back their power is the beginning of transformation for them. And when abusers do accept responsibility for their actions, it is the beginning of healing for a society badly in need of transformation.

Consider as well Canadian history with respect to our First Nations people. We took away their livelihood, their culture, their family life. We gave them diseases which wiped them out. We made treaties with them which we broke. We moved them away from their ancestral lands onto reserves. Then we took away their children, sending them to Residential Schools where they lost their language and culture, and where many suffered abuse. We are learning, but it is very difficult for people to understand that responsibility needs to be accepted and atonement needs to be made. As an Ambassador for Reconciliation I have heard on more than one occasion that it happened long ago. First Nations people should get over it. That is why it was such a transformative moment for the Canadian Anglican Church when Michael Peers stood before the National Native Convocation in Minaki in 1993 and apologized on behalf of the church. And I quote what he said: “I have heard the voices that have spoken of pain and hurt experienced in the schools, and of the scars which endure to this day. I have felt shame and humiliation as I have heard of suffering inflicted by my people, and as I think of the part our church played in that suffering. I am deeply conscious of the sacredness of the stories that you have told and I hold in the highest honour those who have told them. I have heard with admiration the stories of people and communities who have worked at healing, and I am aware of how much healing is needed. I also know that I am in need of healing, and my own people are in need of healing, and our church is in need of healing. Without that healing, we will continue the same attitudes that have done such damage in the past.”

His apology was graciously accepted, and then the real work of truth and reconciliation began. We listened and responded to the stories of abuse and lost lives and heartache. We began the long process of educating people, not only those in our churches, but also in our communities. As we accepted responsibility for the actions of our church and our nation, it began to transform our souls.

And isn’t that what is needed in our society? Isn’t that what is behind our spiritual search? During a Vacation Bible School in one of the churches I served, we had a mission project. We invited a guest to come to receive what the children had collected. He talked to the children about his mission and then asked if they had any questions. A hand went up. “What is your question?” he asked a six-year-old girl.

“What is the meaning of life?” she asked him. While we tried desperately to contain ourselves, he was at a total loss for words.

Yet we should not be surprised by the question. It is something that consumes us as humans. It eats at us. That very question arises over and over again, particularly when we face troubles in our lives. In fact it is the world’s most asked question. We all seek for meaning in life.

Jesus wanted to bring meaning to the crowds who followed him. “You are looking for me because you ate your fill of the loaves,” Jesus tells them. He knows that they have missed the point. They have witnessed the feeding of the five thousand. If it could happen once, why can it not happen all of the time? If Jesus can perform wonders, perhaps they can harness his power in some way. Perhaps he can pass on his powers to them. Then there would be a constant supply of free food. There would be no more worries, no more hardship or struggle. That would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? Like winning a lottery! Surely God would want that. By fulfilling their material needs, their suffering would end.

But that is a purely materialistic interpretation of what Jesus is saying. He wants them to understand that feeding five thousand people, no matter how extraordinary it is, is not the most important occurrence. The real miracle is the one they have missed out on. The real miracle is the one that can change their lives, not materially, but spiritually. The real miracle is the one who can give meaning and direction to their lives.

It is easy for us as we read the Gospel, to see that the crowd has missed the point. The writer wanted us to recognize it. However, similar experiences in our own lives are more difficult for us to perceive until we reflect back on the impact in our lives. Things become much clearer in hindsight. Such reflections, once we allow them to surface, may leave us with a far clearer understanding of the power of God working in our lives. They can give real meaning to our lives.

A scientist set about to discover the answer to the world’s most asked question. What is the meaning of life? He discovered something that we as Christians have always known. First of all the meaning of life lies in relationship. Secondly, it is about discovering, about making sense of things. Finally and most importantly, he said that meaning comes about through service to others.

We meet as a community of faith because we need to be in relationship with others. People may say that they do not need to go to church to be Christian. They are quite right. But they do need to come to church to fully experience that sense of community. We need community to grow in faith and in relationship to God and to one another. Christ is present to us in the Eucharistic offering of the church. As Jesus becomes the bread of life for us, we are the bread of life for those around us. Jesus is bread for our souls, nourishing, wholesome and life-giving. He is the bread of our Eucharist lying in our outstretched hands. The reality of Christ giving himself totally in the Eucharist is the model and criterion of Christian behaviour. To be like Christ is to love in a life-giving way. It involves being generous, sharing what we have with others. But it is about so much more. We are called to be generous, not just by providing bread but also by sharing the deeper gift of ourselves. Such sharing becomes our purpose in life. It gives present and eternal meaning to life. It transforms our souls!

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 ...