Saturday, February 11, 2017

No One is Disposable (Feb 12 2017)

Homily:  Yr A Proper 6, Feb 12 2017, St. Albans
Readings:  Deut 30.11-20; Ps 119.1-8; 1 Cor 3.1-9; Mt 5.21-37

Image by Chris-Havard Berge, CC
Did you find today’s gospel disturbing?  If so, that’s a good start.  The kingdom of God has come near.  And it’s going to disturb us.  Shake us up a bit.

One of the reasons that we hear today’s gospel as disturbing or even painful is because we hear it as ethics.  We hear it as a high ethical standard, which I know that I don’t meet, and that makes me liable, and I don’t like to hear that.  We hear Jesus teaching about the law as ethics, and it sounds like it’s aimed squarely at us.

But it’s not about us.  It’s about God.  This is not ethics.  This is revelation.

Two weeks ago, when we started reading the sermon on the mount together, I said that this was Jesus’ manifesto, his public declaration of who God is and what God wants.  Or, to put it another way, in this teaching, Jesus is revealing for us what it looks like when the kingdom of heaven breaks into our lives.
In fact if I had to sum up today’s gospel reading in one sentence, I would use the exact same words that Jesus used as the opening statement of his ministry:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

The kingdom of heaven is a vision of life the way God intends it to be, a vision of what it looks like when we become the people that God created us to be.

What would that look like?

In God’s kingdom no one is disposable.  People are not plastic cups.  No one in God’s kingdom will be insulted or dismissed as a fool.  No one will be denied their dignity by being objectified and looked at with lust.  People are not tools to be used for profit.  Women are not something to be discarded when they no longer serve a man’s purpose.  All people deserve to be told the truth.  When promises are made they are to be kept.

This is what God intended when God created humanity in God’s image.  This is the vision that God affirmed at our baptism when we were recreated as children of God and told that we are loved.  This is the vision of humanity that was embodied in the person of Jesus.  This is why Jesus called disciples to participate in the realization of this vision, on earth as in heaven.

In the kingdom of God, no one is disposable.  That is what God intends.  That’s what Jesus is revealing about God, what he’s trying to get us to see in today’s gospel.  It’s not about me.  It’s about God.  And it’s about God’s vision for us.  We are the people of God, and this is who we are.

It’s not like we haven’t heard this before.  Each one of us at our baptism committed to this vision, or our parents committed to it on our behalf.  Let me remind you of what you affirmed.  Here are two the questions which were posed:

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself?”

“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

To which you responded each time with, “I will with God’s help.”

These are first and foremost statements about God.  This God that we commit to in baptism, this is what God intends.  This is what the kingdom of God looks like.  First, revelation.  First, we commit to God’s vision.  Only then do we consider the ethical implications of God’s vision for his people.  How then shall we live?

Remember what Jesus is doing on the mountain.  He is not speaking in the first instance to the crowds.  He is teaching his disciples, those who have made a commitment to follow him.  He begins by teaching them who God is and what God wants, fleshing out for them what he means by the kingdom of God, pointing out the disorienting nature of a kingdom which blesses the poor and the hungry.  Then he turns the focus on the disciples, telling them, telling those of us who have committed to following Jesus, that we are the salt of the earth, we are the light of the world, and that this isn’t some kind of private practice that we are called to but rather a very public vocation that shines, that gives life and light to those who need it, life and light for the world around us.  Because as disciples we are called to embody the kingdom of God in this world and to be the very place, the very community where God’s kingdom draws near and breaks into people’s lives.

This is the vision, this is the revelation, this is our identity, this is our vocation.  First, we need to see it.  Only then do we ask the question, how then shall we live?

And now with this perspective, this new perspective, it is pretty clear that it’s not enough to not murder or not commit adultery.  Jesus is calling us to embody this new reality called God’s kingdom, a reality in which no one is disposable.  When we are angry, or insulting or dismissive with another, we fail to embody God’s vision.  When we objectify people and view them as a means to an end, we fail to embody God’s vision.  When we consider some people as not worthy of hearing the truth or of having promises kept, we fail to embody God’s vision.

And when we do fall short, and we will, we confess our failings and God forgives us and reminds us once more that he loves us and that we are his children and that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, the ones that he has chosen to make his kingdom known.  And we will, with God’s help.

Let me say a word about divorce.  I know that gospel readings such as this one can be painful to hear for those who are divorced or whose loved ones are divorced or who are in the midst of a difficult marital situation.  I know that readings such as this one have been used in a way that has caused hurt and harm. Let me repeat what I have already said this morning.  I believe that Jesus’ words here are first and foremost revelation, and not ethical instruction.  They are intended to reveal to us something of the kingdom of God, and something about who God is and what God’s vision is for humanity, what God intends for us.  God never intended for us to have to go through the pain of divorce.  God never intended that there be bad or abusive marriages.  God never intended broken relationships.  This is not what God wants, and when these things happen, God shares our pain.

In this text, I believe that Jesus is revealing to us what God intends for marriage, which is that two people should be joined in a life-long, loving, covenant relationship.  That is after all, what each of us intended at the beginning of our own marriages.  But when things go wrong, this teaching of Jesus about what God intends, this vision of the beauty of God’s kingdom is not sufficient for us to sort out the ethical issues involved.  Our church has recognized that it is insufficient to use this text alone to deal with the ethical issues around divorce.  We need also to remember that our God is a God of mercy and compassion.  We need to remember that Jesus’ most important ethical teachings are love and forgiveness.  We need to remember that the way that God deals with our failings is not by judgement and punishment but by the love manifested on the cross.  As St. Paul puts it in his majestic letter to the Romans, yes, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” but “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” and, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

This holds true for all of us. 

When we hear today’s gospel as ethical instruction, as an ethical standard that no one I know has ever met, and for which we are liable, it is disturbing and even painful.  And maybe it’s okay that we spend a little time in that place, and then know that we are forgiven.

But when we hear today’s gospel as a vision of what God intends for us, as an image of the kingdom of God which is coming near and breaking into our lives, this is glorious.  Don’t you long for a world, for a day when no one is disposable?  When the dignity of every human being is respected?  When we recognize the image of God reflected in each member of our community?  When we can fully live into our identity as salt and light?  When each one of God’s children will know that they are loved?

That’s what God wants.  That’s what we want.  Thy kingdom come, on earth as in heaven.


Amen.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Up the Mountain (Jan 29 2017)

Jesus went up the mountain.  Does that remind you of anyone?  It’s meant to.  It’s meant to remind us of Moses.  Matthew in his gospel is presenting Jesus as a new Moses, as the one who will speak God’s words to us.  In the book of Exodus, after God has freed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, after they have crossed the Red Sea and entered the wilderness, they come to Mount Sinai and they camp there, in front of the mountain.  And Moses went up the mountain.  But the people were not allowed to go up the mountain.  The people stood at a distance, afraid.  And when God began to speak from the mountain, they became terrified, and they said to Moses, “Do not let God speak to us or we will die.”  And so the people did not go up the mountain.

But when Jesus goes up the mountain, he sits down, and his disciples come to him, up the mountain.  And so do the crowds who have been following Jesus, for though Jesus’ teaching is initially directed to those who are his disciples, we are told that by time Jesus has finished speaking, the entire crowd was astounded and amazed.

I want you to put these two images side by side for a moment.  The first is the image of Moses going up the mountain, but the people standing at a distance, terrified that God will speak, terrified of what might happen when God speaks.  The second is the image of Jesus going up the mountain, sitting down, inviting his disciples to gather around him, and as he speaks, the crowd starts streaming up the mountain to join them, to hear the word of God.

When Moses spoke God’s words, they came out in the form of commandments, you shall do this, you shall not do that.  But when Jesus speaks, the words that come out of his mouth are blessings.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

There’s a difference, isn’t there.  Something new.  And before we get into all the words of the sermon on the mount, when I take these two images, one of Moses going up the mountain and the other of Jesus going up the mountain and I hold them together, here’s what I get.

Jesus wants us to know that God is good.

The God that Jesus reveals to us is a God who wants what is good for us, what is best for each one of us.  A God who loves us and looks upon us with favour.  A God who blesses us and wants us to be blessed.  A God who is approachable and wants us to be near him.  A God who invites us to be with him on the mountain.

God is good.  Jesus wants you to know that.

I could stop right there.  If we could absorb, if we could really come to know just this one thing, it would change an awful lot.

I could stop there – but you know I’m not going to.  God is good.  But we want to know more.  And this is precisely where Jesus gives us more.  Last Sunday we talked about how Jesus inaugurated his public ministry by proclaiming a vision:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  The sermon on the mount that we begin today fleshes out that vision.  It is Jesus’ manifesto: his public declaration of who God is and what God wants.  And it is a manifesto that holds out for us a way of life.  And when we live that way, the kingdom of heaven comes near, and those who see it will say, so that’s what he’s talking about, that’s what the kingdom of heaven is.

The kingdom of heaven, or kingdom of God, same thing, it is the central message, symbol and metaphor of Jesus’ ministry and teaching.  It’s what we should be striving for.  It is at one and the same time a deep insight and a call to action.  “Repent.   Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” Jesus proclaims as he calls his disciples to follow him. 

And the disciples ask “What’s the kingdom of heaven?” even as they watch Jesus begin to embody it, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, healing those who are sick among the people.  Maybe they expect a one-sentence answer.  Instead, Jesus goes up the mountain, and sits down, and he teaches them, saying,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled
Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Now do I understand what the kingdom of heaven is?

No, not yet.  But I am starting to get a glimpse. The first thing I see is that the kingdom of heaven looks different from most of the world around me.  I live in a world where the wealthy and the healthy, the famous and the successful are assumed to be blessed.  The kingdom of heaven is an alternative vision, a radical alternative.  It is a call to see people differently, to upend our notions of what it means to flourish as a human being, to learn to favour those whom God favours, that is, those who are in need.  Our government is proud to say “we will favour the middle class.”  In the U.S.A. it's "America First".  God says that he will favour the poor, and the poor in spirit.

Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of heaven is what theologians would call an eschatological vision, a vision of the end-times.  It is a future vision of what will be when God is King, when all is the way God wants it to be, when God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven.  This creates a tension for us.  The kingdom of heaven has come near but it is not yet.  Those who mourn will be comforted, but there are those who mourn who are not comforted today.  But even today they are blessed.  God looks upon them with favour and will comfort them.  The kingdom of God is a future vision, but one that is breaking into our lives and has the power to re-shape the present.

That power comes, in part, from the fact that by making public what God wants, Jesus presents us with a program for participating in its realization.  Jesus’ manifesto calls us to a way of life.  Being a disciple, a follower of Jesus is not so much about what you believe as how you live.  He calls us to a changed life, for that’s what it means to repent.  We are to be people who mourn, not just for loved ones, but for all who are the victims of injustice.  We are to be meek, gentle with one another, living with humility, considerate of others.  We are to be people who hunger and thirst for righteousness, people who hunger to see a just society and thirst for wrongs to be made right. We are to be merciful, people who forgive one another, people who reach out with compassion and are steadfast in their love for others.  We are to be pure in heart, people who love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and whose actions are guided by that love.  We are to be peacemakers, those who strive to create God’s shalom, God’s peace, harmony, and well-being in the lives of those around us.

When this is what we seek, we are blessed.  And in the moments that we live into this vision, the kingdom of heaven breaks into our world, our present reality.  And we get a glimpse of what Jesus is teaching, a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus holds out before us.

I suppose you could say it’s circular in a way.  But it’s a good circle.  Jesus calls us to repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.  We ask, what is this ‘kingdom of heaven’?  Jesus responds with this manifesto that we call the Sermon on the Mount, a public declaration of who God is and what God wants.  The vision of the future that Jesus lays before us serves as a present call to action, a call to an alternative, counter-cultural way of life that has the power to re-shape the world around us.  And in the moments that we respond to that call, the kingdom of heaven breaks into our lives, and we and those around us get a glimpse of what it looks like.  And we are blessed.

Because our God is a God of blessing.  A God who looks upon us with favour and wants the best for us.  A God who invites us to draw near. 

God is good.


Amen.

Homily:  Yr A P5 Jan 29 2017, St. Albans
Readings:  Micah 6.1-8, Ps 15, 1 Corinthians 1.18-31, Matthew 5.1-12

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Inauguration (Jan 22 2017)

Homily:  Yr A P3, Jan 22 2017, St. Albans
Readings:  Isaiah 9.1-4; Ps 27.1, 4-9; 1 Cor 1.10-18; Mt 4.12-23

Has anyone here ever looked for the territories of Zebulun and Naphtali on a map?  Those of you with smartphones can try it if you like.  Type in Zebulun or Naphtali into Google Maps to see what you get.  Actually, to save you some time, I tried it last night.  And you know what you get?  Nothing!

Because the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali haven’t appeared on a map for over two thousand, seven hundred years.  They used to be there.  These were the lands in the northeast corner of Israel that were allotted to the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali when Joshua led the people of Israel into the promised land some 3400 years ago.  But in the eighth century BC these were the first of the lands of Israel to be conquered by foreign empires, initially by the Assyrian Empire, then the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and many others, right up until the Roman occupation in the time of Jesus.  Empires, war and oppression have made life gloomy in the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali for over seven hundred years.

But God never forgot the people of Zebulun and Naphtali.  Seven hundred years before Jesus, God made them a promise through the prophet Isaiah:

“The people who sit in darkness will see a great light; and for those who sit in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.”

When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.  He left in Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.

Is it just a coincidence that Jesus, when he left his home in Nazareth decided to move to Capernaum?  Did he simply want to enjoy some sea-side living?

Absolutely not.  Nothing in today’s reading is a coincidence.

What we have in today’s reading from the gospel of Matthew is the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry, a much more hopeful inauguration than the one we witnessed on Friday.  And at Jesus’ inauguration, nothing is left to chance.  The beginning of Jesus’ mission is intentional, deliberate and purposeful.  Clearly what he is doing matters.  And it is also a clinic in leadership, laid out in five steps.

The first step:  “It’s time.”  Jesus has been baptized.  He has been called into his identity as the Son of God.  He has wrestled with that identity and what it means during forty days of temptation in the wilderness.  He has been watching for a sign from God that will signal the beginning of his mission.  And he sees it:

“When Jesus heard that John had been arrested in the wilderness,” he knows that it’s time to begin his mission.  It is an ominous sign.  It takes courage to begin now.  It is an act in defiance of the empire that arrested John.  But it’s time. 

The second step:  “It starts here.”  Jesus deliberately chooses a place, the town of Capernaum in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali to begin and to serve as the context for the start of his mission.  One might have imagined that Jesus would go to Jerusalem, to the centre and the place of power to begin, but instead he goes the exact opposite direction.  He goes to the margins.  He goes to the people who have been sitting in darkness for seven hundred years.  He goes there to fulfill God’s promise to be a light to those who walk in deep darkness and in the shadow of death.  He is God’s light, he is the one who fulfills God’s promises, and he goes first to those who are marginalized and oppressed.

Step three:  Cast The Vision.

“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Remarkably, these are the exact same words, the exact same vision that John the Baptist proclaimed.  It is a call for action.  It is the proclamation of a new beginning.  And it is once more an act of defiance.  John has just been arrested and will soon be killed for proclaiming these very words.  Jesus chooses to proclaim them again, verbatim.  The light comes into the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.

Step four:  Build a team

Immediately after he casts out his vision, Jesus’ next step is to call  disciples.  “Follow me,” he says to Simon and Andrew, and immediately they left their nets and followed him.  “Follow me,” he says to James and John, and immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.  Why did Jesus choose these four?  What do we know about them?  Not much at this point, other than the fact that they were fishermen.  But what we do know is that they were all-in.  When called, they immediately left their previous lives behind and followed Jesus.  The most important thing that Jesus looked for in building his team were people that were all-in.

Step five:  The Mission begins.

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”  Teaching, preaching and healing.  That’s the mission, that’s what Jesus will do and it begins, urgently, purposefully, throughout Galilee.  The mission is an embodiment of the vision:  the kingdom of God has come near.  This is what it looks like.

That’s today’s reading, the inauguration of Jesus’ mission, laid out in five steps.  When I look at it I am blown away by how intentional and purposeful it is.  Jesus is in charge here, no doubt about it.  He’s on a mission.  It’s a high stakes mission.  John has been arrested and will soon be put to death.  It’s pretty clear when Jesus embarks on his mission that he is risking the same fate.

And so you might want to ask, why is Jesus so intentional and so purposeful about his mission?

And I think the answer must be this:  Because it really matters.  It matters to Jesus, and it matters to God.  Jesus’ mission is to fulfill God’s promises.  He is the light coming into the darkness.  He is the one who will reveal God to us.  Jesus’ mission matters to God because we matter to God.  God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.  God cares about each one of us and wants to be reconciled with each one of us, and today’s gospel is the beginning of that mission of redemption, salvation and reconciliation.  So, yes Jesus is intentional, deliberate and purposeful.  Because yes, it matters.

And next Sunday we’ll see the next step in the mission, and there are surprises waiting for us there.  The next step is the manifesto.  Jesus will proclaim his manifesto from the mountain top.  We usually call this the Sermon on the Mount, but to call it a sermon fails to do it justice.  It is a manifesto, a call for a new world order.  We will be reading Jesus’ manifesto over the next few weeks on Sundays.  And one of the surprises that awaits us is that he who is the light of world, the one who enters the darkness, the one who is on a mission of redemption, who began his mission in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, he will in turn hand that mission over to us, and call on us to be the light that shines in the darkness.

“You are the light of the world; let your light shine before others.”

And so if we ask the question again, why is Jesus so intentional and purposeful about his mission, the answer is not only because Jesus’ mission really matters. It is also because that mission has been handed over to us, and as a result what we do really matters.  And so maybe, we should not just be amazed at the intentionality and sense of purpose with which Jesus pursues his mission, maybe we are also being called to the same intentionality and the same sense of purpose in our own lives, as we live out our mission to be the light of the world.

So did Jesus leave his home in Nazareth to make his home in Capernaum because the rents were cheaper?  Or because the employment prospects looked better?  Or because it was nice sea-side town with a good fish market?

No.  He did it because the mission matters.  And what we do, how we live our lives, that matters too.


Amen.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Reed Breaking and Wick Quenching (Jan 15 2017)

Reed Breaking and Wick Quenching

Homily: Yr A Baptism of the Lord. Jan 15 2017, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 42.1-9; Ps 29; Acts 10.34-48; Matthew 3.13-17
Image by Trudy Bloem, Creative Commons

When I used to play high school football, one of our coaches would go and scout the other teams to determine their strengths and weaknesses.  I remember the day before we were scheduled to play Merivale high school, the coach gathered the defence together and he showed us how Merivale’s favourite play worked.  The quarterback would fake a lateral to one side, holding the ball high in the air like this, and then he would hand off to the running back on other side.  And so during the game the next day, whenever we saw the fake lateral with the ball held high we would swarm the running back on the other side, and we tackled him for a loss almost every time.  We had found a weakness, and so we exploited it.

There’s a big difference between the high school football team and the high school debating team. But the coaching philosophy wasn’t all that different.  Debaters were trained to look for weaknesses in their opponents’ arguments, and when they found one, they pounced.

Power exploits weakness.  People who want to win will find a weakness and use it to their advantage.  They will break the bruised reed, they will quench the dimly burning wick.  And that’s not just in contrived situations like football games and debates.  Think of what happens among children in schoolyards.  Think of what happens among adults at your workplace.  Think about what happens between spouses in a marriage.  Reed breaking and wick quenching happen all the time.  The easiest way to assert that you’re right is to tell somebody else they’re wrong.  Too often we lift ourselves up by putting others down.  I know.  I have broken bruised reeds and quenched dimly burning wicks.  I suspect you have too.

But when God looks upon Jesus, hear what he says:

“Here is my servant, my chosen in whom my soul delights; 
I have put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations.
A bruised reed he will not break,
And a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”

We call this compassion.  The biblical language for this is the Hebrew word “hesed”, usually translated as steadfast love and mercy.

The God revealed to us in Jesus is a God of compassion, abounding in steadfast love and mercy.

Some people would have been surprised by that.  In our psalm today, the psalmist focuses on the power and the strength of God, the one who created the heavens and stretched them out.  And so when the psalmist imagines the voice of God, he imagines it as a voice which breaks cedars, a voice which flashes forth flames of fire, a voice which shakes the wilderness and strips the forest bare.

But in our gospel reading we hear a different voice.  When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came out of the waters, the heavens were opened to him and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  The wilderness does not shake, and there are no reports of cedars breaking.  What is heard is the voice of love, the voice of compassion, a voice which sees Jesus’ baptism and says, in a very loose paraphrase that I heard this week, “This is just so awesome!”

Today’s account of Jesus’ baptism begins with grace.  When John sees Jesus coming, he recognizes him as one who is more powerful.  John even says that he’s not worthy to carry Jesus’ sandals.  And so, John refuses to baptize Jesus at first, probably he has every expectation that the one who is more powerful will now take over the ministry of baptism.  But Jesus doesn’t take over John’s ministry, instead he affirms it and he submits to it.  Would that you and I were so gracious about affirming each other’s ministries!

Jesus submits to the baptism of John, because he understands that our part in baptism is to present ourselves to God and to commit to God and to God’s ways.  But the most important part of baptism is what God does.  God sends his Spirit upon us.  God gives us a name, child of God.  God tells us that he loves us and delights in us.  And God calls us to go and to be his agents in the world.

This is what happened at Jesus’ baptism.  This is what will happen here in twelve weeks at our Easter Vigil, when eight of us will be baptized here at St. Albans.

At Jesus’ baptism, God called him to a special ministry and mission, and that was to reveal to us who God is, what God is like.  And Jesus, through his life and teaching, even his death, did just that, revealing God to be a God of compassion, full of steadfast love and mercy.  We see it in Jesus’ ministry of healing, we see it in his ministry of reconciliation.  We see it when he reaches out to those who are marginalized.  We hear it in Jesus’ message of love, of forgiveness, of praying for enemies, we hear it as he proclaims the good news to all in need, people of all genders, races and nations.

Jesus surprised people.  Jesus disappointed some people.  Many thought that the Messiah, the one chosen and sent by God should act in a more powerful way.  That he should put down enemies.  That he should pick winners and losers, determine who’s in and who’s out.  Because isn’t that how power usually works?

But Jesus is the one who will not break a bruised reed and will not quench a dimly burning wick.  When he encounters people he will not condemn them for their bruises nor will he dismiss the dimness of their light.  No, he will see our bruises and our dimly burning light and he will be moved with compassion towards us, loving us as we are, bringing healing and grace into our lives.  Jesus reveals God to be a compassionate God, abounding in steadfast love and mercy.

In baptism we commit ourselves to God, and God names us as his beloved children, puts his Spirit upon us and calls us to go and be compassionate, agents of God’s steadfast love and mercy in the world.

Is that a big task?  It’s huge!  Compassion is hard, it’s something we have to learn and practice, every day.  So much of the time we see and do the opposite, power-seekers who exploit weakness, those who would break the bruised reed in order to gain advantage, and snuff out the smouldering wick to make themselves appear strong or to prove that they’re right.  We live in a world where often compassion is not the norm.  But you in your baptism were called to lift people up, not to put them down.  You are to support the one who is bruised, to tend and heal the broken reed.  You are called to affirm even the dimmest light, to celebrate that light even as it smoulders, to show compassion and to help it burn brightly again.  For every person you will encounter is a brother or sister made in God’s image who has the light of God within them.

Let me remind you of some of your baptismal vows.  At your baptism, you, or someone on your behalf, promised,

To proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ.

To seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself.

To strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.

Those are big promises, difficult promises to fulfill, which is why in our baptismal liturgy the response is always,

“I will, with God’s help”

The God revealed to us in Jesus is a compassionate God, abounding in steadfast love and mercy.  In your baptism you promised to follow in this way, following the example of Jesus.  May it be said of this church that we are a compassionate community that builds people up, not that brings them down.

May it be said of each one of us:

Here is my servant, in whom my soul delights.
A bruised reed she will not break, and a dimly burning wick she will not quench.

Amen.


Saturday, January 7, 2017

Overwhelmed with Joy (Epiphany, January 6 2017)

In November I was fortunate enough to attend a preaching workshop in Toronto with colleagues from across Canada, and the main text we focused on was this very text from the gospel of Matthew.  In preparing to preach, one of the things that Anna, our workshop leader insisted on is that you have to go into the text and wrestle with it until it speaks to you.  And so, after spending time with the text, reading it, questioning it, discussing it, looking at commentaries, whatever, the first question that you have to ask yourself before you start preparing your sermon is this:

What is the moment in the text that gets you?  That is, that fascinates you, troubles you, thrills you, haunts you, disturbs you, or otherwise jumps up to meet you?

We broke into small groups for this exercise, and we asked that first question.  What is the moment in the text that gets you?  And we went around the room:

“overwhelmed with joy”
“overwhelmed with joy”
“overwhelmed with joy”

All six of us picked the same moment:  “When the wise men saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”

Then we moved to the second question of our exercise, “Why does this moment in the text get you?” and our responses again were the same.  It was because the phrase “overwhelmed with joy” awakened a deep longing in us, a deep longing to be overwhelmed with joy.  There was a wistfulness in our midst. We had caught a glimpse of something in the text, and we wanted it.  We really wanted it.  Real bad.

Do any of you have a great longing to be overwhelmed with joy?

Do you remember a moment when you were overwhelmed with joy?

We asked that question too in our group.  And, again the answers were remarkably similar, at least at first:

“The birth of my child”
“when my child was born”
“The birth of my child”
“I don’t have any children”

The wise men in today’s gospel had a deep longing.  They must have had a deep longing, otherwise why undertake such a long and arduous journey through the desert.  They were seekers, and they saw something in the night skies that inspired them to set off on their quest.  “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage?”

It’s a strange story, this story of great longing.  Wise men, who naively ask the King of the Jews about the child who has been born king of the Jews.  Do you see the problem here?  This is the same ruthless King Herod who put his own children to death to avoid any risk of premature succession.  He will not respond well to the question of the wise men.  Strange too is the behaviour of the star, which goes ahead of the wise men to Bethlehem and then stops over the place where the child was.  Stars don’t normally do that.  And the wise men, who had journeyed long and far, not quite sure of what they would find, not quite sure of where they were going, when they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.  On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage.  And I expect that Mary and Joseph found all of this a bit strange!

Our stories of longing are often strange stories.  Our deepest yearnings tap into something that we don’t fully understand.  On the Camino de Santiago, it’s a common experience for pilgrims to burst into tears of joy when they finally arrive at the Cathedral of St. James, the end point of the journey.  At one level we understand why.  It is the end of a journey, the culmination of months of effort and determination. Sometimes we have a good idea of what it is we’re longing for.  Expectant parents long for the birth of their child.  Pilgrims long to arrive at their destination.  Wise men from the east long to see the child that has been born king of the Jews.

But at other times it’s hard to articulate just what it is we’re longing for.  We have this deep yearning for something that may seem just beyond our grasp.  Throughout the ages, poets and mystics have entertained the possibility that these deep longings have something to do with God.  The Hebrew poet writes in Psalm 42,

“As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you O God.  My soul is athirst for God, athirst for the living God; when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?”

St. Augustine in the fourth century also felt within himself a restless yearning for God. “O Lord,” he cried, “our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

More recently C.S. Lewis wrote in his autobiography Surprised by Joy how even as a child he experienced deep yearnings, longings for something beyond, moments of which he labelled as joy.  Later, as an adult he wrote about these experiences:

“If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

Do you have this sense of longing within you?

Do you know what it is you’re longing for?

And if you get there, or if you glimpse it, will you let yourself be overwhelmed with joy?

My colleague, the one with a great longing to be overwhelmed with joy but who hadn’t yet experienced it in the birth of a child the way some of us had, she took some time to think, and then she had an insight.

“Maybe I’ve never been overwhelmed with joy because in my life I just feel so overwhelmed most of the time.”

I think she’s on to something.  Life can be overwhelming at times.  And so with that in mind, let’s return to the wise men, and see if we can learn anything from their story.

I think that a first lesson from the wise men is that if we want to be overwhelmed by joy, we need to make time and space for what matters.  Clear the clutter.  Simplify.  In order to go on their journey, the wise men needed to leave many things behind, and they had to put lot of things on hold in order to spend months and years traveling across the desert.  Create the time and space to go on your journey.

And then, when you get to a place of joy, stop!  Follow the example of the star.  When the star arrived at the place where the child was, it stopped!  And so did the wise men.  It would have been easy to rush on to the next thing.  After all the wise men did have Herod on their tail.  But they stopped.  They allowed themselves to be present, and they were overwhelmed with joy.

And not only did they stop, but even more importantly, they knelt down and paid him homage.  They worshiped.  They gave thanks to God.  They connected with the divine dimension of that experience of overwhelming joy.  They gave gifts, and they celebrated.  Take the time to worship, to celebrate and to connect with the divine in your moments of overwhelming joy.

And finally, don’t be afraid to be naïve.  We don’t have to have it all together, we don’t need to look good, we can’t always justify our longings and our quests.  When Matthew’s readers first heard the story of the so-called wise men walking up to the ruthless King Herod and asking him where was the child who had been born king of the Jews, they would have laughed at how naïve and foolish those wise men were. 

Your deepest longings are a gift of God.  They are holy and they are good and you should pay attention to them, even if some might think that naïve.  Make time and space for what matters.  When you get to a place of joy, stop!  Kneel down, pay homage, give thanks, worship and celebrate.  And may you too, with the wise men, be overwhelmed with joy.


Amen.

Homily:  Epiphany, January 8 2017, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 60.1-6, Ps 72, Eph 3.1-12, Matthew 2.1-12

Friday, November 13, 2015

"Worthless" (Nov 15 2015)

Homily:  Yr B Proper xx, Nov 15 2015, St. Albans
Readings: 1 Sam 1.4.20; 1 Sam 2:1b-10; Heb 10.11-25; Mark 13.1-8

“Worthless”

“You are worthless.”  I hope you’ve never been told that.  But my fear is that many of us either directly, or perhaps more subtly, have been told, more than once, in a whole variety of ways, that we are worthless.  And when someone is given that message again and again, it eats away at them.  When our worth is questioned repeatedly by the world around us, we can’t help but start to question it ourselves.

Hannah has been told that she is worthless.  Everyone tells her she is worthless.  Her whole society, her whole culture tells her that a woman who does not bear children is incomplete.  Useless.  Cursed by God.  Worthless.

And that eats away at Hannah.  Being told you’re worthless causes huge psychological and spiritual damage.  It is not a damage that can be healed by positive thinking or a stiff upper lip.  It is a persistent, unsettled ache.  Listen to the words used to describe Hannah in today’s Old Testament reading, listen to the words she uses to describe herself.  She weeps, bitterly.  She will not eat.  She is deeply distressed, deeply troubled, in misery, with great anxiety.  She pleads with those around her, “Don’t regard me as worthless.”

Not only does Hannah feel worthless, not only does she suffer from anxiety and depression as a result, but she is both misunderstood and abused by those who are closest to her.  Her husband Elkanah is trying, I suppose, to help, but he is at best a clumsy oaf who just doesn’t get it.  “Why are you sad?  Am I not more to you than ten sons?”  Well, no actually it’s not about you, Elkanah.  Elkanah’s second wife, Peninnah, the one he was allowed to marry because Hannah wasn’t able to do what a wife should do, she sees Hannah as a rival and torments her with her worthlessness.  And even the priest Eli, who God knows should do better, when he sees Hannah praying at the temple, he accuses her of being drunk.  There is only one it seems, who actually sees Hannah for who she is.

God sees Hannah, the one the world says is worthless, praying at the temple.  And God says, “I choose you.”

In our own day, we no longer see someone who is infertile as cursed by God.  It is still a serious problem and often a source of great sadness, but hopefully, not a cause for feelings or accusations of worthlessness.  But we still struggle with questions of worth in our own time.  Social stigma around mental illness and unemployment come to mind.  Self-esteem issues that relate to body image among teenagers.  And to stay with today’s theme of women’s stories, think about women at home with children.  What are the messages that they get from us, from our culture? 

“Why don’t you put your children in daycare so that you can get a job?”

“Do you go back to bed when your kids go off to school in the morning?”

These daily reminders of the loss of income, of prestige, of independence that go with staying at home do their part in chipping away at the sense of worth of those people, mostly women and some men, who stay at home with their kids.  And too often, even those closest to them misunderstand, and like Hannah’s clumsy oaf of a husband Elkanah, say completely the wrong thing.  I know, I’ve been that clumsy oaf of a husband on too many occasions.

When we consider the patriarchal world of the Old Testament, it’s pretty amazing that we find the story of Hannah right at the beginning of the book of Samuel.  The book of Samuel is the story of the rise of Israel, the story of a tribe which goes from being a fragile, corrupt, disorganized people threatened on all sides to a strong nation under the great king David.  And that story begins with Hannah.  God chooses Hannah to begin the story of the rise of Israel and the beginning of the Davidic line, a story which in turn gives rise, after many twists and turns along the way, to the birth of Jesus, and therefore to our story as well.

Despite her struggles with self-worth, despite her struggles with mental illness, Hannah turns to God. In the depth of her distress, Hannah chooses not to be resentful towards Elkanah for his misunderstanding, nor to strike out angrily at her rival Peninnah.  She didn’t do a Sarah, Abraham’s barren wife who in the book of Genesis insisted that Abraham send his child-bearing wife Hagar into exile. Instead, Hannah rose and presented herself to the Lord.  She was deeply distressed and she wept bitterly but she took her concerns to God, in prayer, at the temple.  And God uses Eli, the insensitive priest, to assure Hannah that her prayer has been heard. Knowing that God has heard her, Hannah’s sense of worth is restored, and her countenance is sad no longer.

And you know, this is really the heart of the gospel isn’t it?  That no matter our fears and our weaknesses, no matter what the world around us says about our sense of worth, no matter what we believe about our own worthiness, when we turn to God, God sees and God hears and God says to us, you are valuable and beautiful and wonderful in my eyes. I want you as my child and I choose you.  And that changes everything.

It certainly did for Hannah. We get to see that great transformation play out in her story.  She is sad no longer.  God chooses her to bear a son.  Hannah receives her son as a gift from God, and she in turn, astonishingly, gives her son Samuel back to God a few years later, bringing him to live with Eli at the temple.  The boy Samuel will grow up to be the key figure in the rise of Israel, the last of the judges of Israel, one of the greatest of Israel’s prophets and the one who anoints David as king.

And Hannah’s story doesn’t end with the birth of her son, the prophet.  She too becomes a prophet, and her prophetic song is the one we used as our psalm today.  It is a song of joy and of strength, the song of a changed woman, a song that attests to God as the one who brings transformation to our lives and to our world, who makes the feeble strong, who feeds those who are hungry, who raises the poor from the dust and who breaks the bows of the mighty.  We will hear another song much like it in a few weeks when we enter the season of Advent and hear once more the song of Mary.

Our God is a God who does remarkable things, who chooses those who are weak and worthless in the eyes of the world to begin new stories, stories of hope, stories of change, stories of joy, stories of redemption.  If this world is ever getting you down, and it will sometimes, and if people ever say or do things that make you question your own worth, and they will sometimes, and if you’re ever troubled by sadness and anxiety, if you ever feel misunderstood, remember the story of Hannah.

Hannah turned to God in her distress, and God said “I choose you.”

And with those words, the new story begins.


Amen.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Money (November 8, 2015)

Homily:  Yr C Proper 32, Nov 8 2015, St. Albans
Readings:  Ruth 3.1-5;4.13-17; Ps 146; Heb 9.24-28; Lk 12.13-21, 32-34

“Money”

There once was a letter sent to Dear Abby by a young woman, and it went like this:

Dear Abby,
I think that my boyfriend and I should be sharing the cost of my birth control pills, but he hasn’t offered to do so.  I don’t know what to do.  I don’t know him well enough to talk about money.

Money is a touchy subject, isn’t it?  It’s not something that we talk about a lot, certainly not at church.

But when you think about it, that’s kind of strange.  Because Jesus is always talking about money.  It’s one of his go to subjects, especially in the gospel of Luke from which we read today and from which we’ll be drawing most of our gospel readings in the coming year.  We’ll hear Jesus talk about tax collectors, about financial managers, about entrepreneurs.  Jesus will answer questions about taxes, he’ll tell parables about stewards, he’ll throw the moneychangers out of the temple and he’ll look at one rich, young man with compassion and tell him to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor.

Jesus is always talking about money.  He knows it’s important to us.  He knows that what we do with it says a lot about us.  But what Jesus has to say about money is often difficult for us to hear.  In the first part of today’s gospel, Jesus tell a parable about a successful farmer who has a bumper crop, such a good crop that his barns are too small to store it all.  And so, being not only a good farmer, but a good entrepreneur and businessperson, he uses this opportunity to tear down his old, small barns and replace them with new larger barns which can store all of his harvest.  By the standards of our culture, by the rules of our economics, this successful farmer is doing the right things isn’t he?  Isn’t this the sort of business investment that our government would encourage?  Why then, at the conclusion of the parable, is he called a fool?

Then, just in case we’re not getting the point of the story, Jesus repeats his message about money as a direct statement, clear and to the point.  “Sell your possessions and give the money to the poor.” 

That’s not a message that goes down well in our culture.  We’re more concerned about the middle-class.  We’re much more used to hearing messages like “earn as much money as you can.”  “Buy stuff.”  Save your money so you can buy stuff.  Buy things to make yourself beautiful, successful, happy, popular, sexy . . . . You’ve all seen the billboards.  You’ve all seen the advertising.

Money is a complicated thing in today’s world.  No longer does it simply facilitate the exchange of my wheat for your wool.  No, money has become a symbol of much more than this.

I have a couple of good friends who have a friendly competition going on.  In the game of life, they say, the one who has the most toys wins.  And so when one takes the lead by buying a kayak, the other will surge back in front by buying a high end racing bike.  Money of course is the key, the way to win the game of life by accumulating the most toys.

But we see money as much more than a way to accumulate possessions.  How would most of you feel if you woke up one morning to find out your pension savings had been wiped out?  This isn’t hypothetical, it’s something that happened a few years ago to lots of Nortel employees in this city.  What would you feel?  I suspect there would be feelings of anxiety, of insecurity.  Money, whether it’s in the bank, in the house or in a pension fund, is a symbol of security for us.  Stripped of money, we would feel exposed, maybe even naked.

A few years ago a friend of mine and another woman were doing the same job for the same employer.  My friend was reasonably satisfied with her salary – that is, until she found out that the other woman with the same qualifications, doing the same work, was being paid quite a bit more.  Her reaction was outrage.  Why?  Because what she was being paid was a measure of her worth, a measure of how she was valued, and it was outrageous to her that her employer should consider her to be less valuable than the coworker.

I remember another occasion when I was working in the technology sector here in Ottawa, and dealing with a venture capitalist.  He was a wealthy man, and was content with his lifestyle.  One day he confided to me that he didn’t need any more money, but in his investments he tried his darndest to make as much money as possible anyways, because money was his way of keeping score.

I remember when I was 15 years old, I had my first summer job.  I worked hard all summer, saved the money I made, and at the end of the summer, I bought myself a stereo for my room.  That stereo was for me a source of great pride, and I used it for over thirty years until it finally fell apart.  It was a symbol for me of my own capabilities, of my ability to do things for myself, and of the hard-earned independence that I gained as I transitioned from adolescence to adulthood.

I tell you these stories to illustrate why it is that money can gain such a hold over us.  It is not just a convenient means of exchange.  It is much more than that.  It is a symbol of our independence, a measure of our worth, a way of assuring ourselves that we’re doing well in life.  It is intricately tied up with our sense of security and our self-esteem, not to mention all the connections advertisers try to make between buying their products and the good life.  Both in our conscious thought and deep in our sub-conscience, money has become the means by which we achieve the things that matter to us in life.  At least, that’s what we think.

But what if we’re wrong?  What if this [hold up a $20 dollar bill] isn’t the thing that matters most?  What if it can’t achieve for us the things that matter most?

This happens to be an American 20 dollar bill that I’m holding up.  Now there is something very ironic about American money.  If you were to look carefully at this 20 dollar bill, and at every other American bill or coin, you would see that there is an inscription written on it.

It says, “In God we trust”.  That seems a bit ironic doesn’t it?  Because when I look at the way the world works, it seems to me that there are an awful lot more people who trust in money than who trust in God.

In what do you place your trust?  In dollar bills, or in God? 

If we really trusted in God, I guess we could just do this.  [Tear the bill into pieces].

Does that get your attention?  How easy would it be to trust God instead of money?

Does it bother you that I tore up that bill? 

Well you know what?  It bothers me too, and as a result, I’m going to keep the two halves, and I’m going to tape it back together.  But it doesn’t bother me because it’s a waste, or because it might even be against some law.

No, the reason that I shouldn’t have torn this bill into two is because it doesn’t belong to me.  It belongs to God.

***

Everything I have is a gift of God which has been entrusted to me for a time and a purpose.  I do not own it.  I have not earned it.  I have no right to do what I please with it.  I am simply a steward, a manager, a caretaker who has been entrusted with both a gift and a responsibility.

Despite what the laws of our society say, despite what our economics tells us, the things that we have do not belong to us.  They belong to God and they are given to us so that we can use them in accordance with God’s purposes.

The next time you receive your bank statement, I want you to do the following. Where it has your name at the top as the owner of the bank account, cross out your name, and instead write in “God”.  Then, below that you can write, in the care of Mark Whittall, 44 Wendover Ave.

And the next time you receive your pay statement or your OSAP cheque, you might also think about scratching out your name, and making it payable to God, care of Mark, in the city of Ottawa.

Or pull out the deed to your house, and imagine that the owner is God, and that the property is only entrusted to you.

What Jesus teaches about money is a radical reversal of the way we think about it and the way we deal with it.  And it’s not just about money.  All that we have, our time, our health, our lives, our capabilities, all these are not really ours.  They belong to God, and they have been entrusted to us for a time and a purpose.

Last year I went to a stewardship conference.  And according to some the people at the conference, at least those on the financial side of things, the hope is that when we talk about stewardship, people like you will look at your household income and then prayerfully decide whether you will give 1% or 2% or more to the church as your offering.

But when I listen to what Jesus has to say about money, it seems to me that that sort of thinking has it a bit backwards.  Because it makes the assumption that your household income belongs to you!

It doesn’t belong to you.  It belongs to God, and you have been charged with managing it on God’s behalf.  So the question becomes not how much are you going to give to God, but what are you going to do with God’s money?  And after you’ve done the things that God is calling you to do, how much will be left for your own needs?  Half of it?  80%?  99%?

Do you find this reversal a bit worrying?  Money does after all represent our security, our value, our independence, all those things we talked about before.  Are we able to let go?

Today we are launching a stewardship initiative here at St. Albans.  And after everything that I’ve been talking about so far, you might be surprised to find out that the stewardship initiative is not primarily about money.

It is first of all about community building.  It is about connecting with others in our community here at St. Albans and getting to know each other.  It is about deepening relationships. It is a time to learn about each other’s gifts and find ways to use those gifts to strengthen our community.  It’s about helping people to become engaged and get involved.

Secondly, it’s about education and communication.  It’s about laying out the vision of our parish, and letting people know about all the awesome stuff we’re doing.  This initiative is a way of telling people, of telling you, about our student and campus ministries and our support for those experiencing homelessness.  About our small groups and our student intern program.  About the Open Table, the Big Give and ministry that goes far beyond our community, support for the Church of the North and refugees. I could go on and on.  The ministry and mission that we do as the church in our neighbourhood and beyond is awesome.

Thirdly, our Stewardship Initiative is about providing each one of us with the opportunity to reflect a little bit about our own lives, to review our priorities, to decide how and where and why we want to become more engaged, and to pray about how we can best use the gifts that have been entrusted to us to further the work of God’s kingdom here on earth and especially right here at St. Albans.

To help us do that we have a group of Stewardship Visitors who will be contacting and visiting every member of this community over the next three weeks.  You will be provided with information and given the opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback on our community, its vision and its mission and ministry.  And you will be asked to complete and return a pledge form in response, by November 29th at the latest.

As you might guess, the timing of this initiative is not an accident.  For four years, the St. Albans community has been subsidized financially by the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa.  Now, as of December 31 we need to become financially self-sufficient.  That is a milestone to celebrate.  Most new church plants never get to financial sustainability.  By God’s grace and your stewardship of what God has entrusted to you, we have the opportunity to do so.

All that we have, all that we are, is a gift which has been entrusted to us by God for a time and a purpose.

Amen.