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.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Why Do Bad Things Happen? The Book of Job (October 25, 2015)

Homily:  Yr B Proper 30, October 25 2015, St. Albans Church
Readings:  The Book of Job

For the last four weeks our Old Testament readings have been from the Book of Job, one of the most challenging, profound and, I dare say, relevant books of the Bible.  And so I want to spend some time this morning talking about the book of Job, though we will only scratch the surface. 

I expect many of us are at least somewhat familiar with the story.  Once upon a time in a land far far away there was a man named Job, a very prosperous man with wealth and servants and many children.  Now Job was a blameless and upright man who feared God, and God himself holds Job up as an example of righteousness.  But Satan, not the devil, but an associate of God in God’s holy court, Satan suggests to God that the only reason that Job is so good and so religious is that he has been rewarded for it and is prosperous as a result.  According to Satan, Job’s religion is nothing more than enlightened self-interest.  But God disagrees and allows Satan to put Job to the test.  And so Job is stripped of everything he has.  His livestock are stolen; his servants are murdered; a house collapses and kills his children, and then Job himself is struck with painful and loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.  And so we find Job in misery, sitting in a heap of ashes, scraping his skin with a shard of pottery.

This initial prologue is intended to set up the main part of the story which is to follow.  A couple of comments:

We know from the language that this is a fable or parable, and what we’ve heard so far is intended to set up what is to come. So we don’t really need to worry too much about the somewhat disturbing picture of God that we find in this introduction to the story, a God who is willing to ruin someone’s life in order to settle a dispute amongst the heavenly beings.  That’s just the set-up needed to get us to Job on the ash heap.  What we do need to know in order to continue with the story is, first, that Job is truly innocent, and second, that the suffering that has come upon him is, from Job’s perspective, extreme, undeserved and inexplicable.

The prologue also sets up the first question of the book of Job, and it might not be the one that you expect.  The first question we encounter is this:

Does religion depend on a system of reward and punishment?  Or to flip it around, if there was no system of reward and punishment, would humans still be faithful?  Is religious behaviour no more than enlightened self-interest?  Will Job, faced with his unjust suffering, curse God and die, as his wife suggests he should, or will he maintain his integrity and his faith in God?

We like systems of reward and punishment. Which of us has not cried out “that’s not fair” at some point in their life?  An important theology of the Old Testament, the theology embraced by Job himself and by the friends that come to “comfort” him in his distress, is that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked.  It is a theology of retributive justice, often associated with the book of Deuteronomy.  Why do people suffer?  According to this theology, suffering is due to sin.

But as Job found out, this theology of retributive justice doesn’t always fit the realities of life.  Christianity has, mostly, but not completely, moved away from the idea of reward and punishment in this life.  But systems of reward and punishment are persistent.  And so, often the Christian tradition has replaced the notion of reward and punishment in this life with the notion of reward and punishment in the next life.  Heaven and hell, with rules and requirements to determine which way you’re going.  Baptism as an entry into heaven.  Forgiveness dependent on confession and doing penance.  Indulgences as a way of lessening time in purgatory.  Or, more recently, the notion that you’re only going to get to heaven if “you accept Jesus as your personal saviour”. 

Why are these systems of reward and punishment so persistent in our tradition?  Why are they so attractive to so many of us?  I think it’s because they’re very satisfying psychologically.  They give us order.  They give us power and control.  If I know the rules and can comply with them, then I have power and control over my own destiny.

But there’s also a problem with this.  Operating within a system of reward and punishment can lead to self-interest rather than authentic relationship.  Do I truly love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength?  Or is my faith nothing more than enlightened self-interest operating within a framework of reward and punishment?

Back to Job on the ash heap.  When his world comes crashing down, when he suffers unjustly and his theology of reward and punishment is called into question what will he do? Will he curse God?  No, despite all that has happened, Job maintains his faith in God.  Tentative answer:  yes there can be faith beyond reward and punishment.  Yes, there is the possibility of authentic relationship with God.

But that’s not the question you’re most interested in, is it?  The question that grabs most of us is the second question of the Book of Job:  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why do bad things happen at all, to anyone?  What do we do, what do we say about God in the midst of extreme, undeserved and unexplained suffering?

As Job is sitting on the ash heap, scraping his sores, he has three friends who come to visit him.  And one by one, they start to explain what has happened to Job.  They all operate out of this world view of retributive justice, that the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished.  They tell Job that he must be responsible for his own downfall.  They tell Job that he must have sinned and that he should examine himself and repent of his sin.  And when Job insists that he is innocent, and that God is treating him unfairly, the friends take to defending God.  In fact, the more that Job protests his innocence, the more his friends find that their own orderly worldview is threatened, and the more vicious become their attacks on Job.  “Is not your wickedness great” his so-called friends tell him, in a desperate attempt to keep their own theology from falling into chaos.

Needless to say, Job’s friends are not very helpful.  And so Job turns from talking about God with his companions to talking directly to God.  We call this prayer.  More specifically, we call this lament, the prayer of those who suffer, the prayer of those who scream out to God in anger, grief, pain and despair.  It is as if Job is clinging to God with one hand and shaking his fist at him with the other.  He holds onto God with a fierce faith, but refuses to let God off the hook for the inexplicable suffering that shadows our world.

And we learn something here:  the better response to suffering is not theology but prayer.  In the face of suffering, it is better to talk to God, than to talk about God.

Because we see that as Job laments, as he pours out his heart to God, there is movement.  Job’s words change from wanting to die to crying out for justice.  He wants to find God, to lay his case before him, and to prove to God that he is innocent.

And suddenly God answers Job out of the whirlwind:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements – surely you know?

Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?
 
Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain,
and a way for the thunderbolt,
to bring rain on a land where no one lives
and make the ground put forth grass?

Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars
and spreads its wings toward the south?

Can you draw out Leviathan with a fish hook
or press down its tongue with a cord?
From its mouth go flaming torches;
sparks of fire leap out.

It is fascinating to me as a quantum physicist that there are two long sections in this poem about Behemoth and Leviathan, the two mythical monsters of ancient times that represented chaos and randomness.  Because in recent times scientists have rediscovered just how important chaos and randomness are in our world.  When you dig down deep to the sub-atomic level, there is no cause for individual events.  Stuff happens randomly.  Now, there are overall patterns and probabilities that make this world predictable in many ways.  When I drop a pen, I can be confident that it will fall to the floor.  But microscopic events, such as the genetic mutations that enabled the evolution of human beings but also generate cancer cells, these are random processes.  For some reason that only God knows, God has created this universe as a world that is majestic and beautiful, a dynamic creation which allows for chaos and randomness within the limits set by God, enabling creation itself to be wild and free.

This is the world that God made and loves, a world that is beautiful and good and free and wild and grace-filled, a world much bigger than ourselves, a world that is not entirely safe for human beings, a world where good stuff happens and bad stuff happens.

When God speaks out of the whirlwind he does not answer Job’s questions.  Instead he paints a picture and invites Job to live in this world.

And Job’s response is awe and wonder and he places his hand over his mouth.

Out of the whirlwind, God has broken Job’s world wide-open.

You see, Job used to feel that he was at the centre of the universe, prosperous, important, people sought him out, all of that stuff.  But God has shown him that creation is not centred on Job, it’s not even centred on human beings, it’s much, much bigger.

And Job used to think he had everything figured out, that he knew the rules, that the righteous would be rewarded, the wicked would be punished and that if he could just play by the rules, he would remain in control of his own life.  But God has shown him that the world is much wilder than that and that it is not nearly so safe and predictable as Job used to think.

But God showed Job one more thing as well.  Even though Job is not as important as he thought he was and even though his life is not as safe and predictable as he thought it was and even though Job realizes that he comprehends much less than he thought he did, God has offered Job something much more valuable, and that is the possibility of living in authentic relationship with God.

Before, says Job, “I had heard about you” but now he says, “my eye sees you”.

And here, the transformation of Job is complete.  His world has been broken open.  He is still on the ash heap; he still has his sores, he still suffers.  But he has moved from wanting to die, to crying out for justice, to being overwhelmed by awe and wonder, to the determination to live again.


Amen.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

'Both-and' or 'Either-or' (Oct 22 2015, St Paul University)

Homily.  Oct 22 2015, St. Paul U.
Readings:  Rom 6.19-23; Psalm 1; Luke 12.49-53

Both-and or either-or?

Are you a both-and or an either-or person?  I suspect that if you are in the Anglican Studies program of a liberal Catholic university like St. Paul’s, living in a pluralistic, multi-cultural country like Canada, you’re more likely to be a both-and sort of person.

In fact, when I ask whether you’re a both-and or an either-or sort of person, I’m willing to bet that for some of you, your gut response is, well, I’m a bit of both, which kind of answers the question doesn’t it?

If you are a both-and sort of person, and that’s the way I tend to think of myself, then the readings we just heard today present us with a big challenge.

In the first reading from Romans, Paul tells us that either we’re a slave to sin, in which case we’re heading towards death, or we’re a slave to righteousness, in which case we’re headed towards eternal life.

The psalmist tells us to make a choice.  Follow the way of the wicked which leads to perishing, or the way of the righteous, which leads to prosperity.

And in our Gospel Jesus says:  “Do you think I that I have come to bring peace on earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!”

Not a lot of “both-and” in any of those three readings.  And I think it’s Jesus’ words that really stick in our craw.

I mean, I know it’s still October, but imagine using Jesus words to greet each other this Christmas:  “Unto us a son is born.  Fire on earth and division among people.  Merry Christmas.”

Is this the Jesus we all know and love?  Maybe it’s time for us to get real about Jesus and to stop constructing him in our own image.  As Canadians, we’d kind of like Jesus to be, well, nice.  A friendly sort, polite and tolerant.  The sort of person who would apologize if he bumped into you by accident.  Well, there’s not much evidence for any of that in the gospels.

I remember watching the 1977 movie Jesus of Nazareth as a teenager, with the blue-eyed Robert Powell cast in the role of Jesus.  And I remember being so impressed by the way that Jesus was always calm and serene, pausing and considering his words before he spoke.  But in today’s gospel, Jesus is anything but calm and serene.  “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”

How often do we imagine Jesus as being stressed?

We’re more likely to imagine that Jesus came to bring peace.  But maybe our world just isn’t ready for peace.  In Jesus own day, to bring peace meant the Pax Romana.  Rome by virtue of its power and military might would defeat its enemies and clamp down on rebellion and conflict within its borders, thereby bringing peace.  In our own day it looks more and more like it is the Russian army that will bring peace to Syria, by picking a side, defeating opposing forces and imposing its will on the country.

Jesus’ mission at least as it’s articulated in today’s gospel is not to bring peace.  His mission rather, is threefold:

1.   To bring fire to the earth
2.   To be baptized
3.   To bring division.

Fire, in biblical language, has three inter-related meanings.  First it is a sign of God’s presence, as in the burning bush, the cloud of fire in Exodus, and the tongues of flame at Pentecost.  But it is also a symbol of judgment and purification.  Jesus is God’s presence on earth.  Those who encounter that presence will make their own judgments about Jesus and will themselves be judged.  Those who walk with Jesus will begin a process of purification, something that Paul refers using the language of sanctification in our reading from Romans.

Jesus mission to be baptized is an allusion to the cross, to the suffering and death that await Jesus now that he has set his face towards Jerusalem, now that he has publically predicted his coming passion.  The language of fire, judgement and purification conjures up images of pain and suffering.  The irony, the surprise, the most amazing thing about Jesus mission is that he himself is the one that will bear the brunt of that pain.

And the division of which he speaks?  Jesus’ mission is to proclaim by word and deed the Kingdom of God, that the kingdom of God is near, within reach.  That kingdom is a new world order.  It is a new world order that is characterized by things like forgiveness.  Humility.  Repentance.  Compassion. Service. Sacrificial Love.  And God has promised that his new world order will one day replace the present order, the ways of the world, our normal human way of doing things, a world order characterized by things like wealth, power, status, fame, accomplishment and violence.

And so on the one hand we have the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims, and on the other we have our present world order.

Can we have both?  Or are the two so radically different that this is an either-or proposition.  Because if this is an either-or proposition, then it will result in division.
  
We don’t like division.  I think that’s why we do often try to turn this into a both-and sort of thing.  But can we really be both-and about the kingdom of God and our usual human ways of doing things.  If we try to make peace between the two, what happens?  We run the risk of watering down the gospel, of compromising the things of God and covering ourselves in hypocrisy.  And we know what Jesus thought of hypocrisy.

Jesus didn’t come to make things easy for us.

For me, this is a hard gospel.  I don’t like division.  I don’t like the either-or approach to things.  I’ve seen people get hurt by either-or statements, by us vs them mentalities, by the very household divisions that Jesus predicts.  I’ve seen the damage caused by division.  I don’t like it. 

So what is a both-and person supposed to do when confronted by an either-or gospel?

Here I turn both to Paul and to the psalmist for advice, because I think they are both in their own way telling us the same thing.

And that is, we begin by grounding ourselves in God.  Paul tells us that if you ground yourself in God, the advantage you get is sanctification.  The psalmist says much the same thing, right at the beginning of the psalter, using the image of the tree that sends its roots into the ground seeking the source of life.

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor lingered in the ways of sinners, nor sat in the seat of the scornful!

Their delight is in the law of the Lord,
And they meditate on his law day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,
Bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither;
Everything they do shall prosper.

If we are grounded in God, we will grow in the ways of God’s kingdom, ways of forgiveness and humility and sacrificial love.  That may create division.  So be it.

May you too be grounded in God, nourished by streams of living water and may you grow in God’s ways every day of your life, now and forever.

Amen.