“Dem Bones” – April 2, 2017

“Dem Bones”

April 2, 2017 – Lent 5 – Year A

Choir sings “Dem Bones”

Can these bones live?  Preach it sister!  Prophesy to the bones!  “Oh dry bones, hear the word of God!”  Can you see and hear the bones rattling?  Can you see the sinew and flesh?  How about the skin?  Yes, these are living bones!  Life has been breathed into them.   Just like life was breathed into Lazarus.  Isn’t God’s Spirit amazing? 

Rain Stick

God’s hand leads us into the middle of a valley.  The valley was full of bones.  They were lying all over the ground, and they were very dry.

Rain Stick

Can these bones live?  O God, only you know.  Speak up Preacher!  Pronounce and Prophesy to these bones; say “O dry bones, hear the word of God.”

Rain Stick

Can these bones live?  Can you hear the noise?  It is a rattling!  Speak up Preacher!  Prophesy and say to the breath: “Breathe upon these bones, that they may live.”

Rain Stick

These bones live!  Preach it sister!  Prophesy as God commands.  The breath came into the bones, and they live!  The people stood up on their feet –  a huge, living, breathing crowd of people.  The bones are the people of Israel.  The graves are opened and the spirit is within the people.  God proclaims that New Life is restored!  Just look to Lazarus to see the proof!

Rain Stick

So, what do we make of the story of the dry bones?  What does the book of Ezekiel have to say to us today?  Does the song of the Black American slaves have relevance in our lives?  Let me set the scene.  Ezekiel was both a priest and prophet who lived during the Exile.  Taken with others to Babylon in 597 BCE, Ezekiel and the exiled community experienced from there the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, the destruction of the Temple, and the disintegration of the nation.  They were a displaced and despondent people.  Without a land and without a Temple, the exiles considered themselves on a exodus in reverse.  They were in the wilderness on a forced journey from freedom to captivity wondering whether they would ever see the Promised Land again.  “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost,” summarizes their despair.

It is to these hopeless people that Ezekiel prophesies the vision described in our passage today.  Brought “by the Spirit” to a valley of dry bones he is asked by God whether the bones can live.  The logical answer to God’s question is no.  But Ezekiel, knowing the creative power of God, tempers his answer and responds, “only you know, O God.”

Ezekiel is then given God’s word for these bones.  They will come together again – bones, sinew, flesh, and skin.  But putting the pieces back together is not enough.  God’s Spirit is needed.  From the 4 winds God’s Spirit comes to breathe life into a dispirited people.

To a people wondering whether they could live without land or Temple comes the good news that God is Spirit and is not tied to the land nor contained in the Temple.  Nor is God inhibited by the lifeless fear of a dispirited people.  God has come to the wilderness of their exile to give them hope. 

Little did these exiles know their experience would become formative.  The years of reflection and reorientation which took place because of the Exile caused the Hebrew Scripture’s oral tradition to be gathered in written form for the 1st time and initiated the worship pattern of the synagogue.  The practice, begun in these days of despair, of gathering in groups to worship and hear the reading of scripture has sustained both Jewish and Christian faith communities for thousands of years.

Choir sings “Dem Bones” (chorus, 1 verse, chorus)

In the Gospel of John the raising of Lazarus occurs just prior to Jesus entering Jerusalem and is one of the catalysts for the decision to kill Jesus.  Mary and Martha send word to Jesus that their brother Lazarus is seriously ill.  Jesus does not arrive, however, until Lazarus has been in the tomb 4 days.  Since Jewish belief at the time thought the soul hovered around the grave for 3 days before departing, the 4 days show there is no possibility of life left.  These are “dry bones.”

When Jesus arrives, Martha and Mary both assert their faith that if Jesus had arrived in time their brother would not have died.  Jesus wants more than their faith in him as a healer, however.  His assertion that he is resurrection and life for those who believe in him is a challenge.  It was hard for them to see Jesus as one with life-giving power both for the present and the future.  When Jesus asks Martha, “Do you believe this?” it is a question for her, for John’s community, and for us.

When Jesus calls Lazarus forth from the grave, Lazarus rises to new life with the trappings of death still about him.  Yet, when Jesus rises from death, John tells us he leaves the grave clothes and death behind forever.  Death has no hold over him because in him the Spirit of God is abundant life.

Choir sings “Dem Bones” (chorus, 1 verse, chorus)

Just imagine what our world would look like if our achy, tired flesh and bones, our dead spirits, had a spiritual awakening.  The entire earth would be alive with clean, pure air and water.  Plants, animals and humans would live in harmony and respect.  Resources would be shared equally amongst all people, not just those who live in the Northern hemisphere.  We would witness to the truth that all people really are equal.  And we would actively take our part in the ongoing drama of resurrection hope.

As followers of Jesus Christ we experience the breath and spirit of The Holy.  Some of us may well be able to let go of that which is death producing and instead claim the possibility of new life.  Perhaps some of us will experience the life and breath and spirit of God in renewed ways.  May our bones live!  Amen.

Choir sings “Dem Bones”

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“Eyes Wide Open” – March 26, 2017

“Eyes Wide Open”

March 26, 2017 – Lent 4 – Year A

 

One of the stories that came out of Haiti during the earthquake in January 2010 is the rescue of 23 year old Wismond Exantus.  Wismond was a shopkeeper in a grocery store in Port-au-Prince when the earthquake hit.  As the earth shook and the building began to crumble, Wismond took refuge beneath an old oak desk.  Afterwards, he could reach a few cans of pop and come cookies to sustain him, but that was all.  For 10 days he waited to be rescued, but after 10 days, the government of Haiti called off the search.  The next day Wismond’s brother and a friend came back to the store to look for him.  They called his name and heard his voice beneath the rubble.  Then they got a French rescue team to make a narrow tunnel through to Wismond’s head.  But his feet were trapped by the desk and he could not crawl out.  So the rescue team made a 2nd tunnel to free his feet and discovered that someone would need to squeeze into that second tunnel with a saw to cut away the desk and free him.  A member of the rescue crew, a tiny woman from Israel, volunteered to enter that place of death and cut away the wood.  When she did so, Wismond did not have the strength to pull himself out, so she pushed on his feet and his rescuers were able to pull him out the rest of the way.

That small woman was like Christ, who enters our places of death, and pushes us into the light, into new life.  Christ enters into our places of blindness and restores sight.  You and I are called, like her, to enter the distressing places of our world, to visit the sick, to assist the needy, to comfort the sorrowful, to gently remove that which blocks, blinds, or traps …. And push them into healing light.  It is a call to open our eyes and respond.

Hearing our gospel text, it seems a strange and wondrous notion that mud, made of earth and spit, could be part of a cure for blindness.  Imagine mud providing clarity of vision!

And yet I can so easily imagine a deep healing, as Jesus spread a layer of mud on that man’s eyes and sent him to wash.  Just thinking of it seems restful to me.

So, the man born blind could now see.  Look with me at what he saw –

  • The neighbours talking about him: “Isn’t that the blind beggar?” “No way – it must be someone who looks like him.”  When they ask, he tells them his story and they look right past him for the one who did this.
  • The Pharisees, talking about him and past him. They hear his story and look for the one who did this – on the Sabbath!
  • His own parents – who don’t want to get involved in the argument – look the other way and say, “Ask him. He is of age.”
  • The Pharisees ask again for the blind man’s story. He replies, “One thing I know; I was blind and now I see.”  Then he begins to teach the teachers about God and they drive him out, preferring their own muddy, mixed up view of things.  Preferring, perhaps, that the blind beggars of this world would stay in their place so they would not have to adjust their own vision.

Jesus saw through it all and I wonder whether God laughed or cried.

Can you imagine being blind from birth, having mud spread over your eyes, being guided to a pool, finding your way into the water, and washing the mud away to find only annoyance and distress and no one to celebrate with you?

What do you see when you look at the world?  What do you need to wash away to be able to sing and dance and rejoice with the one who is made whole?

There is a wonderful old gospel hymn that says, “Walk in the light, beautiful Light, come where the dew-drops of mercy shine bright.  Shine all around us by day and by night, Jesus, the Light of the world.  That is the song that the writer of the gospel of John sings.  I think it is the song that the blind man and everyone who walks in the Light sings as well.

When Nelson Mandela was released from 27 years on Robin Island and became the president of an apartheid free South Africa, lots of people thought that there would be more bloodshed, more payback, more state violence, but Mandela’s leadership and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission did much to heal the brokenness within the community, build bridges between the polarized communities, and address the damage done by years of apartheid.  It was not all sweetness and light.  There is still much work to be done today but Mandela’s leadership did much to lead South Africa from a dark past to a brightening future.  The book and the movie “Invictus” gives us a sense, albeit a Hollywood one, of this journey into light – into new vision..  Eyes were opened and new life for South Africa resulted.

The Pharisees and leaders of the church tell the healed man that they know Jesus to be a sinner.  But what do they really know?  Theirs is a dangerous brand of “knowing,” rooted in presumption, nostalgia, and a lust for power.

The healed man is operating out of a more useful form of knowing that is based on real experience in the here and now.  He has learned from what he has experienced and can look the Pharisees in the eye and say, “This happened to me, deal with it.”

How bold this insightful man was to speak his truth!  How boldly do we speak our own?  How boldly does Christ’s church speak it present truth?

St. Saviour’s Anglican Church, here in Penticton has released a report to its congregation.  The report is entitled: ”A Legacy to our Spiritual Great-Grandchildren” a report on our Life, Mission, Ministry and Stewardship – Building Sustainable Christian Community.”   It includes the following quotes.  ”Stewardship is the free and joyous activity of the children of God, the Church, in managing all of life and life’s resources.  It is an acknowledgement that all that we are and have are God’s gift to us.  We therefore have to care for and use these gifts wisely so that we can pass them on to others, including future generations.

Congregational growth doesn’t necessarily mean numerical growth, but rather, the growing strength of our faith in and commitment to Christ.

Are we content to be an ever-declining and ageing congregation, looking after one another in a caring Christian community, but one that will inevitably die in the next foreseeable future; or do we want to continue to work hard at also leaving a rich legacy behind for our spiritual great-great-great grandchildren?”

This report well describes the current and future reality for a sister church.  It could well be speaking of Penticton United Church.  Are our eyes open to our important ministry?  Do we see the light, illuminating a path of faithful commitment which ensures that Penticton United Church is strong and able to meet the diverse needs of the people of Penticton?  Do we believe enough that God has an important calling for us as a faith community – today and in the future?

Last week someone spoke to me suggesting that we will continue with full time ministry until I retire in January of 2020, but after that we will have to have part-time ministry leadership.  I commented that it will be interesting to see what parts of our existing ministry we will be prepared to give up, if part-time ministry becomes reality.  Will your new Minister be limited to only a few hours for visits and caring?  Will the new Minister only work select days and therefore unavailable for funerals, weddings and other services on days off?  Will the new Minister be expected to do all the many facets of paid ministry but only be paid part-time?   But, I am an idealist and I believe that not only is there work to be done, but there is and will be the outreach, new initiatives, and compassionate leadership that marks us as a vital congregation.  I believe that we together can see our ways clear toward stable finances.  I believe that we together can see our ways clear toward being a thriving congregation. I believe that we have a mission and ministry that is vital and needs to be shared.  I believe that Christ is calling us to be a presence of radical love in downtown Penticton.  Such is the vision I have.  What about you?

Miriam is from war-torn Somalia.  Her father went to work one day and never returned.  Her mother was brutally raped and killed by government soldiers.  Miriam and her 4 brothers and sisters escaped to a refugee camp and eventually, through church sponsorship, to Canada.  Miriam is now 27 years old.   She works in a local Walmart store.  Her brothers and sisters are all enrolled in school.  Their sponsoring congregation is a big support, but nothing will replace the loss of their parents and the horrors they endured as children and occasionally relive in nightmares.  Theirs is a journey from horror to light.  Miriam’s eyes are open to the atrocities of the world, but also to the generosity and compassion of people of faith.  Her new vision is one of hope and possibilities.

May we too see with eyes wide open.  May what we see be loving, gentle and full of hope.  May we see with critical eyes the plight of divisiveness, oppression and injustice.  And once we have seen, may we risk to act compassionately.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

“Life Giving Water” – March 19, 2017

“Life Giving Water”
March 19, 2017 – Lent 3 – Year A

My sister and brother-in-law have a home outside of Phoenix, Arizona.  This year has been an unprecedented wet one.  Day after day there has been rain.  Being desert, the rain has no-where to go, so newly formed creeks overflow their banks and flooding results.  My sister tells me that the blooming cactuses are spectacular.  Never has she seen such a glorious array of blossoms.  Rain sure helps to brighten up the otherwise dull desert.

Water – such a precious commodity.  Long ago, Moses and his entourage could not find water.  Stuck in the wilderness, thirsty as all get out, they grumbled and complained among each other and to God.  Help us, they cried.  As the story goes, Moses took his staff and struck a rock and water gushed forth.  Sounds pretty amazing, doesn’t it?  However, it is not so improbable when you realize that likely the rock had a pool of water in the centre and a large calcium deposit sealing it.  Hitting the rock on just the right spot would knock off the cap and water would be revealed.

Water – such a precious commodity. Long ago, a Samaritan woman came to the community well and sought to draw water.  Jesus asked her for a drink.  Stunned –  the woman – an outsider – a foreigner – a woman of ill repute – a broken person, was engaged by Jesus.  While the woman could offer Jesus water from the community well, Jesus offer her Living Water.  Talk about restoration and healing.  Precious grace!

Donna Sinclair, in a book entitled “A Woman’s Book of Days 2” writes the following: “In Kenya, where I was traveling with other women all sent by the church, two of us stayed for a few days in a very small village named Dumbeni.  The people were Lua, and they were members of the African Church of the Holy Spirit.

Every morning in Dumbeni, when I went to the bathhouse – a tiny roofless brick enclosure – a large basin of hot water was waiting for me.  I could stand and wash the dust out of my hair, and pour hot water over my head and all down my body… Every morning.

The women of the village had to carry water for a long distance. They had to collect firewood piece by precious piece.  There were no taps, no water heaters, and there was no electricity.  Every basin of water, heated over an open fire, represented hours of work.  The women who did this did not count those hours.  They referred to us as sisters.

Although I did my best afterwards to tell their story as clearly as I could, as often as I could, I cannot measure up to this love.  Which is, I suppose, like the Holy Spirit itself; free grace, undeserved.  Generous love, unconditional.”

Our scripture texts encourage us to examine what it means to be fully alive.  With every cell of our body quenched with hydrating water, we flourish.  With every cell of our spirit bathed in Living Water we are set free to live lives of grace and abundance.  I understand this as being gentle lovers.  I see this lived out as Marianne and Dolores distribute food hampers every weekday morning.  I hear this when you seek out and enter into conversation with a newcomer to our congregation.  I believe it as I join you for worship each week. 

A traveler dying of thirst in the desert came across an old pump.   Attached to it was a can of water.  And attached to the can was a note.  It said: “There is lots of water in the well.  Use this water to prime the pump.”

Consider the choice facing that person. 

The water inside the can is a sure thing.   It’s there right now.  It may be the difference between life and death.

But drinking that water eliminates that possibility of getting more water from the well.  For that traveler, or any other later traveler, that would be the reality.  Because there won’t be anything with which to prime the pump. 

Using the water to prime the pump is an act of faith.  That the unknown writer of the note told the truth – that is an act of faith.  That there really is water in the well – that is an act of faith.  That the pump will work – that is an act of faith.  And that there’s enough water to prime the pump – that is an act of faith.

A dehydrated person would need extraordinary self-discipline to pour the can of water into the pump.

That story reflects the dilemma that faces our world today.  People are not confident that the well has water in it.  Or even that there will be a tomorrow when they need that water – of there is any.

So what’s the point of self-sacrifice, or self-discipline, if you have no assurance it will work.  Why not get what you can right now: a drink of water, the oil and gas laid down by millions of years of life, a good time, a profit from the tropical rain forests.

The message of Jesus for the Samaritan woman at the well becomes even more compelling:  “If you drink of this water, you will thirst again.  But if you drink of the water that I can give, you will not thirst.”

The words roll so glibly off our lips.  But in a parched world, most people will choose a drink of water right now, rather than wait for something that may or may not work out. 

It is easy to say, like Peter, “You are the Christ.”  It’s not easy to stake your life on there being water in the well.

The Christian church is in a time of flux. At the “Once and Future Church” forum 2 weeks ago, we were told that every 500 years or so, there is a major time of upheaval and dramatic change for the Christian Church.  It would appear that we are once again in that 500 year cycle.  It is a rather frightening time for some of us.  We see nearly empty churches and we are scared.  We look to our neighbours and watch them close their churches.  Many are facing financial crises.  Leaders are burning out.  And we have a new generation of people who describe themselves as “Spiritual but not religious.”  We don’t know what to do.  We try offering programs that are interesting, and few attend.  We bring in new music and that draws a new group of people but it offends the established folk.  We offer alternate services, but there isn’t the money to cover all the costs.  What do we do, that is faithful and Living Water?

Jesus would answer that it is not in our doing, per se, but rather in our faithfulness.  Prioritize your faith and the church as first and foremost in your life.  That means that prayer, meditation, and financial giving are a way of life for you.  Daily prayer and meditation is the cornerstone of being a follower of Jesus Christ.  So too is tithing.  An examined life of giving generously to the ministry and mission of your church is a sign of faithful living. 

We are called to be a people who believe that the water is pure and fresh.  We are embraced by a God who lavishes us with Living Water.  Won’t you come to the well and drink deeply?  Won’t you strike the rock and see the water pooling in the crevices?  Water – such a precious commodity.  Faith – such a precious commodity.  Amen.

“Moving With the Spirit” – March 12, 2017

“Moving With the Spirit”

March 12, 2017 – Lent 2 – Year A

 

 

Robert Frost wrote – I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence;

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less traveled by.

And that has made all the difference.

 

On this second Sunday in Lent, we look at the road and how it diverges into a path of faithfulness.  To do so, we look to our ancient story of Abram and Sarai.

God calls Abram and Sarai with a demand and a promise, and Abram and Sarai responds obediently.  The demand is 3-fold.  First, the ancient people are called to leave their country, or land.  Abram and Sarai were called to leave the largest cultural group within which they moved.  Together Abram and Sarai moved away from national security.  Second, Abram and Sarai leave their kindred.  The kindred, or clan, refers to a grouping smaller than a tribe but larger than the extended family.   God calls Abram and Sarai to abandon their social context.  Third, Abram leaves his father’s house.  Leaving the father’s house was to abandon his right to the family inheritance.  Abram and Sarai  were called to leave both family and economic stability.

The promises offered to Abram and Sarai corresponds to those 3 things they sacrificed.  Leaving country to find a new land resulted in a great nation being formed.  Leaving people or clan pointed to the promised descendants that would become a great nation.  And leaving the financial security of his father’s house, became blessing upon blessing as prosperity was gifted to the people.

I can’t help thinking of today’s refugees.  They too leave country and national security, They say good bye to family and they leave the stability of having parents and other relatives nearby.  Our 2 Syrian refugee families are doing an amazing job of assimilating into Penticton.  They are learning English and growing accustom to our way of life.  But when I think of all they left behind, I am humbled.  I am not sure I’d be as adaptable.  I value the security of the familiar.   Yet, it raises for us the question, “would I pull up stakes and venture to where God is calling?”

Abram and Sarai’s call marks the beginning of perhaps the most pivotal time in the history of the people of Israel.  I don’t sense from the narrative that Abram was at all reticent about the journey before him.  I don’t hear him asking God to move on to the next guy because he is content where he is now.  I admire that go-for-broke faithfulness that maintains a focus on the journey, not the destination.

Every Christian denomination is living in a time of call and promise.  Collectively, we are today’s Abram and Sarai, called to be a blessing to God’s people as they hover on the cusp of radical change.  Like Abram and Sarai, we have a choice.  Do we stay, or do we go forward?  Abram and Sarai opted to venture into unknown territory, with only God’s promise to guide and protect them.  That took some serious courage.

We don’t know what the unknown terrain of the church’s new reality will look like.  However, we have all the tools we need for the journey:  faith, promise and an extra helping of courage.  We dare to dream.  We dream of a church that will reach out to the powerless.  We dream of church that loves radically.  We dream of a church that truly wells all – regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, or social standing.  We dream of a church that welcomes through baptism, sojourners like Jenny.   We dream of being courageous spokespeople for those whom God adores.

Woodrow Wilson reminds us: “We grow great by dreams.  All significant people are dreamers.  They see things in the soft haze of a spring day, or in the red fire on a long winter’s evening.  Some of us let these great dreams die, but others nourish and protect them; nourish them through bad days till they bring them to the sunshine and light which comes always to those who sincerely hope that their dreams will come true.  Don’t let anyone steal your dreams!”

God’s spirit is telling us to move.  We are to move past the glory days of what has been.  We are to move with reckless abandon among those who have a vision for justice.  We are to move our creaky joints in the way of compassion.

May we be like Abram and Sarai and faithfully take the path less travelled.  Amen.