“Blessings of a Different Kind” February 17, 2019 – Year C – Epiphany 6

“Blessings of a Different Kind”

February 17, 2019 – Year C – Epiphany 6

 

Nasrudin, the wise fool went to the rich man’s house for a party.  He was turned away because of his patched clothes.  Over and over he tried to get the rich man’s attention, whose name was Halil.  But he was not successful.

So Nasrudin went home and returned wearing his finest robe, turban and shoes.  Immediately he was welcomed by Halil and the guests, and seated at the banquet table.

After Nasrudin got everyone’s attention, he began to smear his elegant robe with food and filled his pockets with sweets.  “Eat coat eat!” he shouted.

What do you mean telling your coat to eat?” asked Halil.

“Surely you want the coat to eat,” said Nasrudin.  “For when I first arrived in my old clothes, there was no place for me.  Now, with my new coat on, nothing is too good for me.  This shows me that it was the coat and not me that you invited to your banquet!”

A story such as this pricks at our conscience and challenges us to look deep inside to our values.  So too does our 2 scripture texts.  Jeremiah quotes Psalm 1 and compares those who trust in God to trees, strongly rooted and nourished by streams of water.  A tree with no roots, or with weak roots, will be vulnerable to any wind that blows.  It may topple over, break, or simply die where it stands.  That is the whole point.  When we don’t feel the need to root ourselves in God, we are vulnerable to damaging winds, such as the winds of prejudice, complacency, or hatred.  This proclamation reminds us just how much we need God.

Where we place our trust is the subject of this wisdom poem in Jeremiah.  Those who trust in human strength are likened to “shrubs in the desert” while those who trust in God are like” a tree planted by water.”  Both manage to survive under normal circumstances, but, when drought comes, only the tree whose roots go deep need not fear.  Like trees by a stream those who trust in God have an abundance of life within that carries them through difficult and dangerous times.

Jeremiah wrote in a turbulent time of invasion and exile.  Those who trusted in military strength to protect them were shattered.  Those who trusted in God were able to face the future with hope.  For everyone, it was a period of testing through which their character and beliefs were revealed to God.  While only some contemporary believers experience the tribulations, Jeremiah knew we still live with the realization that the most difficult moments in life reveal what we are really like and who it is we trust.

On the street I saw a naked child, hungry, shivering in the cold.  I grew angry and asked God, “why do you permit this?  Why don’t you do something?”  There was silence.  That night God replied, “I did something!  I made you!”

Within Luke’s gospel various kinds of followers surround Jesus in his ministry.  Closest to him are the 12 – disciples chosen to be his constant companions and witnesses.  There are also other disciples who travel with Jesus, seeking to learn the way of life.  In addition, Luke seems to distinguish between the people who seek Jesus out for healing and teaching and the crowds who want what his power can do for their lives.  All swirl around Jesus in the opening verses of today’s reading.

But – it is to the inner circle of disciples that Jesus addresses the teachings on blessings and woes.  Blessed are those among his disciples who are poor, hungry, or weeping.  Blessings is theirs because God is acting in Christ to over-turn the way of the world which oppresses and diminishes God’s people.  The hunger and grief of poverty is a real reminder that all is not as God intends.  Those who now know wealth, sufficiency, and happiness have what God intends for all.  But because they have it while others do not, they participate in maintaining that which God deems unjust.  Woe or judgment will come to them.

Perhaps more telling than the specific yet relative conditions of poverty and wealth is the contrast Jesus makes between those who suffer because of their association with him and those of whom everyone speaks well.  For Christ’s disciples having the approval of everyone means they are not following in the way of Christ but in the way of the world.  Doing nothing that would bring about the transformation God intends may make for an uneventful life, but it does little to mark one as a disciple.

Both passages challenge us to explore where we put our trust.  Where we place our trust, how we discern what is important, and what we seek in life determines our path.  Sometimes we are aware of these choices, sometimes not.  When we find ourselves seeking nourishment from that which cannot sustain life, we know that we have wandered into the wilderness and need to find our way home.

In our modern densely populated world, many of us think of wilderness as the abundance of forests, rivers and animals in danger of being eroded by the spread of human settlement.  For biblical peoples, wilderness was a place where human life was barely sustainable, a place of fearful challenge.  In today’s readings images of abundance and scarcity meld with those of wilderness and water to present us with the challenge of looking at how we sustain our life with God.

Where we place our trust, how we discern what is important, and what we seek in life determines our path.  Sometimes we are aware of these choices, sometimes not.  When we find ourselves seeking nourishment from that which cannot sustain life, we know that we have wandered into the wilderness and need to find our way home.

In the theater production of Les Miserables, Fantine, the young single mother, puts her beloved child Cosette into the care of the innkeeper and his wife, and takes a factory job to pay for her care.  In the course of the story, Jean Valjean, a redeemed ex-convict, becomes the hope for this young mother as he accepts responsibility for her care, and they are both redeemed by love.

We are blessed people.  The One we follow has turned the social hierarchy upside down.  And because of that, we are forever changed.  His teachings are nothing short of scandalous, because they overturn the status quo.  However, it is into that reality that we live.

We sit beneath a tree planted by water, with its roots deep into the soil.  We are not anxious or troubled.  For we are disciples of Jesus Christ.  We are filled with love and a strong sense of self-esteem. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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“A Fishy Tale” Epiphany 5 – February 10, 2019 – Year C – Annual Meeting

“A Fishy Tale”

Epiphany 5 – February 10, 2019 – Year C – Annual Meeting

 

One of the challenging tasks a congregation faces is choosing a new minister.  A member of the Search Committee undergoing this endless process finally lost patience.  So, he stood up and read a letter purporting to be from another applicant.

“Friends:  Understanding your pulpit is vacant, I should like to apply for the position.  I’ve been a preacher with much success and also had some success as a writer.  Some say I’m a good organizer.  I’ve been a leader most places I’ve been.

I’m over 50 years of age.  I have never preached in one place for more than 3 years.  In some places I have left town after my work has caused riots and disturbances.  I must admit I have been in jail 3 or 4 times, but not because of any real wrongdoing.  My health is not too good, though I still get a great deal done.  The churches I have preached in have been small, though located in several large cities.  I’ve not got along well with religious leaders in towns where I have preached.  In fact, some have threated me and even attacked me physically.  I am not too good at keeping records.  I have been known to forget whom I have baptized.  However, if you can use me, I shall do my best for you.”

The committee member looked over the committee.  “Well, what do you think?  Shall we call him?”

The good church folks were aghast.  Call an unhealthy, trouble-making, absent-minded ex-jailbird?  Was the committee member crazy?  Who signed that application?
Who had such colossal nerve?

The committee member eyed them all keenly before he answered.  “It’s signed, ‘The Apostle Paul.”

If we were truly honest, most of us could write a similar letter of application.  Our impatience, fears, and lack of experience is often viewed as a detriment.  Many of us would say we do not read the Bible on a regular basis, we don’t have time or interest in extra projects and responsibilities pertaining to the church, and our faith is just not strong enough.  Such is the litany that is all too common.  Would we give our list of excuses if we too were called to serve our God?

In a short while we will start our Annual Meeting.  One of our agenda items is naming a Search Committee.  This group of people will be charged with the task of determining a future direction for this congregation.  There will be questionnaires and group feedback opportunities in the months ahead, to help the committee discern the faithful course.  One part of the task of the Search Committee is discerning the type of ministry that will best meet your needs.  There are many types and styles of ministry.  Part time, student, Recognized Lay, intentional interim, full time, ordained and diaconal are just some of the options.  You will be hearing more as the months unfold.

In fact, you will hear accounts of how candidates for ministry heard Jesus telling them that they will be catching people, in Jesus’ name.  For Simon Peter, James and John, it was after a long, tiring night of fishing. They were exhausted.  So, when Jesus told Simon to go out into the deep water and put down his net, Simon was less than thrilled. He had a full night of unsuccessful fishing.  The last thing he wanted to do was do back out and let down his nets.  But, the Master had spoken and being the obliging sort, Simon did as he was commanded.  Lo and behold, he caught so many fish he needed help to reel them in.  After signalling his partners in another boat, and together hauling in an amazing catch of fish, Simon fell to his knees and pleaded with Jesus to go away, for Simon acknowledged his own sinfulness.  Jesus was not deterred by Simon’s honesty and humbleness.  “From now on you will be catching people.”

What a directive!  What an amazing challenge!  What a new focus for life!  It is a call to all of us.  Jesus says to not be afraid.  In spite of lack of training or experience those fishers of old were called to introduce Jesus to others.  And it is that same call that we hear today.  We are to draw people close to Jesus’ welcoming love.  It is a call that each of us are to respond to.  Whether it be that we visit the lonely or the ill, or assist the tired and troubled, we do so as followers of Jesus.  When we search the deep waters of our lives, we see there the awesome reflection of God who calls us to follow the way of Christ.  It is the way of peace and justice.  We fling the doors of the church wide open inviting the community to come in and find sanctuary in the midst of stress and challenge.  There, all might experience Christ’s welcome and encouragement.

May we fish the waters of acceptance.  Cast your net into the river of love.  And remember, from now on you will be catching people, in the name of Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

“A Fishy Tale” Epiphany 5 – February 10, 2019 – Year C – Annual Meeting

“A Fishy Tale”

Epiphany 5 – February 10, 2019 – Year C – Annual Meeting

One of the challenging tasks a congregation faces is choosing a new minister.  A member of the Search Committee undergoing this endless process finally lost patience.  So, he stood up and read a letter purporting to be from another applicant.

“Friends:  Understanding your pulpit is vacant, I should like to apply for the position.  I’ve been a preacher with much success and also had some success as a writer.  Some say I’m a good organizer.  I’ve been a leader most places I’ve been.

I’m over 50 years of age.  I have never preached in one place for more than 3 years.  In some places I have left town after my work has caused riots and disturbances.  I must admit I have been in jail 3 or 4 times, but not because of any real wrongdoing.  My health is not too good, though I still get a great deal done.  The churches I have preached in have been small, though located in several large cities.  I’ve not got along well with religious leaders in towns where I have preached.  In fact, some have threated me and even attacked me physically.  I am not too good at keeping records.  I have been known to forget whom I have baptized.  However, if you can use me, I shall do my best for you.”

The committee member looked over the committee.  “Well, what do you think?  Shall we call him?”

The good church folks were aghast.  Call an unhealthy, trouble-making, absent-minded ex-jailbird?  Was the committee member crazy?  Who signed that application? 
Who had such colossal nerve?

The committee member eyed them all keenly before he answered.  “It’s signed, ‘The Apostle Paul.”

If we were truly honest, most of us could write a similar letter of application.  Our impatience, fears, and lack of experience is often viewed as a detriment.  Many of us would say we do not read the Bible on a regular basis, we don’t have time or interest in extra projects and responsibilities pertaining to the church, and our faith is just not strong enough.  Such is the litany that is all too common.  Would we give our list of excuses if we too were called to serve our God?

In a short while we will start our Annual Meeting.  One of our agenda items is naming a Search Committee.  This group of people will be charged with the task of determining a future direction for this congregation.  There will be questionnaires and group feedback opportunities in the months ahead, to help the committee discern the faithful course.  One part of the task of the Search Committee is discerning the type of ministry that will best meet your needs.  There are many types and styles of ministry.  Part time, student, Recognized Lay, intentional interim, full time, ordained and diaconal are just some of the options.  You will be hearing more as the months unfold.

In fact, you will hear accounts of how candidates for ministry heard Jesus telling them that they will be catching people, in Jesus’ name.  For Simon Peter, James and John, it was after a long, tiring night of fishing. They were exhausted.  So, when Jesus told Simon to go out into the deep water and put down his net, Simon was less than thrilled. He had a full night of unsuccessful fishing.  The last thing he wanted to do was do back out and let down his nets.  But, the Master had spoken and being the obliging sort, Simon did as he was commanded.  Lo and behold, he caught so many fish he needed help to reel them in.  After signalling his partners in another boat, and together hauling in an amazing catch of fish, Simon fell to his knees and pleaded with Jesus to go away, for Simon acknowledged his own sinfulness.  Jesus was not deterred by Simon’s honesty and humbleness.  “From now on you will be catching people.”

What a directive!  What an amazing challenge!  What a new focus for life!  It is a call to all of us.  Jesus says to not be afraid.  In spite of lack of training or experience those fishers of old were called to introduce Jesus to others.  And it is that same call that we hear today.  We are to draw people close to Jesus’ welcoming love.  It is a call that each of us are to respond to.  Whether it be that we visit the lonely or the ill, or assist the tired and troubled, we do so as followers of Jesus.  When we search the deep waters of our lives, we see there the awesome reflection of God who calls us to follow the way of Christ.  It is the way of peace and justice.  We fling the doors of the church wide open inviting the community to come in and find sanctuary in the midst of stress and challenge.  There, all might experience Christ’s welcome and encouragement.

May we fish the waters of acceptance.  Cast your net into the river of love.  And remember, from now on you will be catching people, in the name of Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

“What a Job Description!” January 27, 2019 – Year C – Epiphany 3

“What a Job Description!”

January 27, 2019 – Year C – Epiphany 3

            Imagine, if you can, that you are the local boy from Nazareth, Jesus.  You have come home.  It is the sabbath (sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday) and you have gone to the synagogue as you do every sabbath.  You stand up to read.  It is the scroll from the prophet Isaiah.  It turns out to be the message first proclaimed 6 centuries earlier recorded in chapter 61 of the words of Isaiah.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to bring good news,” you announce.  Really!  Do you hear what you have just said?  The Spirit of God is upon you!  God has anointed you!  Anointed you to bring Good News!  Oh Jesus!  What have you gone and done?!  And it is not just Good News, but Good News to the poor.  Yes, that means all our homeless and under-employed are recipients of the Good News.  God has sent Jesus to proclaim release to the captives!  Not just those imprisoned in jail –  but those who are imprisoned with mental health issues – those captive by political systems that oppress – and the list goes on.  God has sent Jesus that those who cannot see might have recovery of sight.  Surely the medical interventions for cataracts, glaucoma, macular-degeneration are today’s examples of God’s Spirit at work.  Jesus decreed that the captives be released.  Those who are held captive by political systems that oppress, partners who suffer abuse, and aboriginal brothers and sisters who suffered the horrors of the residential school system, all cry out for freedom.  The year of jubilee is announced.  Oh, such liberation!    All of this, Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah’s words.  He concluded the reading by saying: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  What an acknowledgement of Jesus ministry!

Jesus has returned home to Nazareth in the area of Galilee.  It is his first time to address his family and friends in the synagogue.  It is a little like when a new minister stands before the congregation for the first time.  He or she is measured.  Yes, she preaches well.  No, I don’t like that awful coloured shirt he is wearing.  Yes, I can hear him well.  No, that prayer was too long.  And the evaluation continues until one Sunday you realize that this minister is truly yours!  Thus, was the case for Jesus.  He reads well and the people are expecting a nice, pleasant recitation.  The oration they got was not liked.  Not one bit!  He announced, “that’s a sign of a new age is starting now with me.”

The congregation knew him – this kid and his family – since way back when. However, he deserves to die, for what he said.  This is not the decision from Jewish leaders, but rather from Jesus’ former neighbours and friends!  That may seem like harsh judgment, but his pronouncement was nothing short of heresy.

Rejection always hurts, but when it’s from our family and friends, it is worse.  Our congregation become like family, and when they reject us it hurts. This congregation knows that oh too well.  You have gone through that experience, not so very long ago.  The rejection that Jesus faced resulted in death.  However, his message is still being proclaimed around the world, full of promise and hope.  We understand it as a message of direction and ongoing challenge.  It is a manifesto of sorts.  But the cost to following it can be one’s life.

Are we willing to follow the One who is so radical that it calls us to feed the poor who hang out in our door ways and stair-wells.  And so, we give food packages when they ask for one.  Will we write letter on behalf of Amnesty International seeking release of prisoners of conscience?  Will we support the Mission and Service fund so that those who are oppressed might go free?  Will we knit prayer shawls for the lonely, the ill, the and the bereaved?

Puccini, one of the great composers of the last century, wrote a number of operas, including Madame Butterfly, Tosca, and La Boheme.  When he was in his early 60’s, Puccini developed a terminal illness.  Because he felt he had at least one more opera inside, he got to work, writing as quickly as his failing health allowed.  He was working on the last scene of the opera he called Turandot, when he died in 1924.

Not long after his death, some of Puccini’s students pulled together his notes and, going by what they knew of their teacher’s intentions, finished Turandot.  In 1926, they presented it in a great premiere performance.  It was a very emotional night and the most dramatic moment came during the final scene.  When they reached the final notes that had come from Puccini’s pen, the conductor stopped the orchestra and turned to address the audience.  With tears in his eyes he said, “Thus far our master wrote.  Now we must go on with his work.”  Then he turned to the orchestra and cast and led them to a triumphant finish.

In our gospel, Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah.  When he is finished, he announces, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  And yet, in many ways, Jesus’ mission remains incomplete.  Like the students of Puccini, we can say, “Thus far our master wrote, Now, we must go on with this work.”  That is why the disciples were left behind, and as modern disciples of Jesus, we join them in the work he assigned.  May we give generously to the Mission and Service fund.  Love extravagantly by sharing time with the lonely and hurting.  Work for justice by caring for the environment.  Live faithfully by praying, meditating, and honouring our God.  May the spirit of God be upon us all.  Amen.

 

“Will You Respond?” February 3, 2019 – Year C – Epiphany 4

Will You Respond?”

February 3, 2019 – Year C – Epiphany 4

            Have you ever used the phrase, “I’m only.”  Perhaps it went something like, “I’m only a simple high school educated person.”  Or, “I’m only a new-comer to the church.”  Or, “I’m only a first-time member of this study group.”  The boy-prophet Jeremiah discovers that God’s not buying the “I’m only” routine either.  Thankfully, God’s insistence that Jeremiah take on the huge responsibility before him, comes with the assurance of God’s presence every step of the way.  It’s much more difficult to say “I’m only” when God’s own hand is touching your mouth.  With the confidence of knowing that God’s hand is upon us, leading and guiding us, our “I’m only” is transformed into a faithful “I will!”

Next week we will be electing a search committee, so that they might work together in determining the direction for ministry in the future.  They will work together in selecting a new minister for this church.  Imagine Jeremiah being a candidate.  If asked for his qualifications, he would say he was chosen in the womb for this opportunity.  He would say that he tried as a young boy to make a career change, but that God said that Jeremiah would be given the words he would need, thus explaining his lack of seminary degree.  The interview ends and Jeremiah, as a pastoral candidate, would disappear.  Jeremiah might be muttering on his way out the door about plucking up and pulling down, adding the message to destroy and overthrow.  The search committee would be thinking that is the last thing we need to hear.  They would never even hear Jeremiah talk about building up and planting.

What about your call from God?  When did you experience God nudging you to be a nurse, or a teacher, or to work with your hands, or what ever God nudged you to consider?  Did you heed that call?  How long ago was it when God planted a dream in your soul of how you might serve God?  Perhaps it was a call to serve others with kindness and compassion.  Possibly it was a call to use your talents and skills in a particular way.  Some of us heard God calling us to be Sunday School teachers.  Others felt God opening the door to serve on a church committee or Council.  Some to sing in the choir.  Jeremiah’s call is a reminder that God still calls people – folk of all ages, abilities, and experiences in the church.  How is God calling you?

The story of Jeremiah is a fascinating one.  We learn how God formed, knew, consecrated and appointed Jeremiah.  In 6 short verses we come to understand that God was with Jeremiah from conception through to his call to ministry.  Sometimes we forget that this truth applies to each one of us.  God knows us intimately and calls us to live as specially chosen followers of God’s way.  Imagine being a young child and knowing that God has plans for you to be a prophetic voice.  It must have been overwhelming to Jeremiah.  No wonder he was frightened.  But what words Jeremiah uttered!  While part of his ministry was to destroy and overthrow, he also built up and planted new hope.

Just like you and me, Jeremiah had his doubts and apprehensions. He strives for some independence – some wiggle room, we might say –  but God would not hear of it.  Instead God directs with a firm command, ordering Jeremiah to go where he is sent and speak whatever he is told.  I can’t help wondering if our lives would take a different path if we were better disciplined in prayer and meditation, so that we would go where God sends us and speak what God would have us say.

I know that one of the messages that God has for us to utter is the amazing Good News of Jesus Christ.  We are challenged to speak of the impact that our brother and companion Jesus has on our lives.  We are called to introduce to others the astounding miracle of Jesus by modeling our lives after the manner of Jesus.  We are invited to witness to the way of liberation, justice and shalom, as modeled by Jesus of Nazareth.  With these encouragements, let’s look at the Lukan account of Jesus in Nazareth.

He listened to God’s direction to head to his home-town and speak in the synagogue.  Our text is a continuation of last weeks account of Jesus quoting Isaiah 61.

Jesus is well liked.  How could he not?  This is Joseph, the carpenter’s son.  The hometown congregation is proud.  He is the people’s choice.  He knows Scripture well.  In fact, he has a profound and unique understanding of the Hebrew text.  So, when Jesus speaks, the eyes and ears of the congregation are fixed on him.  They expect outstanding greatness.

However, Jesus is clear that he is not there to be likeable.  “No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown,” he announces.  Like Jeremiah’s tough sell message, Jesus acknowledges that rejection is woven into his job description.  As if that is not bad enough, Jesus dismisses any sense of privilege that his listeners may have assumed was theirs.  Jesus goes on and tells the story of Elijah and how a Gentile woman in Sidon was the recipient of grace.  Then, Jesus told a second story about a leper from Syria who was cleansed, while the Israeli lepers were ignored.

Why did Jesus tell these stories to the home town folk?  Jesus, the “proud son of Nazareth” becomes one who now has created a sense of rage.  Was he no longer the elite one?  Was it because his message was threatening?  Was it because his words were demanding – so very demanding of at least repentance?

So often we think of Jesus meek and mild.  Yet, there was a firm, direct, bold side to him.  He was not hesitant to name atrocities for what they were.  He raged against evil.  He was committed to name it like it was.  He was a straight shooter.

A professor at one of the American Theological colleges was known for his liberal insights.  Before telling his classes that the Bible might not be inerrant, or that Gandhi might get into heaven, he would always say, “now don’t tell your home church I told you this, but…”

As we read the story of Jesus’ homecoming sermon in his “home church,”  we are reminded that proclaiming the good news, even when it is difficult, is more important than catering to an audience.  Those who follow in Jesus’ footsteps – bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, and letting the oppressed go free – risk much.  It may be that we can’t go home again, but we can extend grace, love, mercy and justice beyond the walls of our ‘homes” and past the boundaries of our prejudices.  Let us commit ourselves to the challenge of bold faith sharing.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Searching Diligently” January 6, 2019 – Epiphany – Year C

“Searching Diligently”

January 6, 2019 – Epiphany – Year C

            Epiphany!  It is such a wonderful word.  It almost sounds like a sneeze, doesn’t it?  But, instead, it is that awesome day of the manifestation of the Christ Child to the world.  There are fabulous stories that go with the revealing of the amazing Child.  We hear about astronomers, or perhaps they were astrologers, or spiritual seekers, or maybe even Wise Men, or some stories call them Kings.  Tales are told that even name them – Malchior – Balthasar – and Gaspar.  Because the story reports 3 gifts, we choose to suggest there were 3 Magi.  Yet, all this speculation and wondering does little to diminish the sense of wonder and awe. So, let’s get on with the story.

Think about it for a moment – the scribes knew where the promised Messiah was to be born.  At Herod’s command, they searched their scriptures, and came up with the answer.  Bethlehem.  But until the Magi – strangers, foreigners, visitors from another country – come to see this Messiah, it didn’t matter.

Those outsiders can be crucial in shaping a nation’s self- perceptions.  Depending on their interests, local people may suddenly see that their rivers can be dammed to generate electricity.  Or that their mountains can be mined, for copper.  Or that their lands can grow roses for someone else’s flower shops, or beef for someone else’s hamburgers. Until then – Bethlehem was the town proclaimed in Hebrew scripture for the coming King.

Fortunately for us, the Magi came to worship.

There’s an intriguing reversal in the story of the child they came to see.  The stable where Jesus was born probably wasn’t a building, but a cave.  Just think, Jesus’ life starts and ends in a cave.  At his birth, people came into a cave to see him.  At his death, people came into a cave and didn’t see him.  It is a thought that bears more exploration and study.  But, for now, we enter the cave and see the babe.

Here we have a poor family – peasants who are young and just starting out.  What kind of gift would be most suitable?  Clothes for the little one?  Blankets –  perhaps?  How about some diapers?  What gifts do you bring to new born babies?

But no, these fellas from the east bring gold, frankincense and myrrh.  What kind of baby gifts are these?  They are almost useless.

Some occasions do not necessarily call for the most practical gifts.  We can get into trouble by being too practical-minded and getting a gift that isn’t especially thoughtful. Like the “Home Improvement” episode where Tim gives Jill a Power Window Washer for her birthday.  Or the movie “Father of the Bride” in which the groom-to-be gives the bride-to-be very nice blender.  He doesn’t understand when she runs up the stairs crying and wants to call off the wedding.

Some occasions call for impractical, extravagant gifts.  The Magi were said to be  learned, sophisticated, wealthy people.  They gave the very best gifts they could give.  It represents who they were.

By giving gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they were in a sense giving themselves to the Christ child.  They gave the fullness of who they were.  And they were overwhelmed with joy.

What is it you and I are prepared to give to God’s most well-known child?  Each week in our worship service we take significant time to present our offerings.  They represent our commitment to Christ’s ministry within this congregation and abroad.   Are our Sunday by Sunday offerings similar to the gold given by the Magi?  Is it a generous gift that will truly honour Christ?  Do we give our commitment to serve Christ in ways of compassion, kindness, and tender-heartedness?  Are our loving behaviours like the frankincense, permeating the very air we breathe and actions we make?  Do we give so generously knowing that we need not hold anything back, for we are well prepared for our death?  Are we so devoted to the Christ Child that we are fearless approaching death?  Myrrh, the perfume used for preparing a body upon death, was the Magi’s gift to Jesus.  Ours is complete devotion, even to death.  The giving of our offering is very much like the Magi giving gold, frankincense and myrrh.

I have the privilege of reading to the Al Mohammed children every Friday afternoon.  They are one of our Syrian refugee family’s.  Shaad is 6, in grade 1, Yasin is 9 in grade 4 and Haadi is 10 in grade 5.  I have been reading to them for just over 2 years and they teach me far more than I teach them.  They work hard at school, diligently do their homework, and love playing soccer.  They call Beryl, the secretary at St. Saviour’s Anglican church, “grandma,” and Gerry Neilsen and I have an honourary place in their lives.  Like the Magi, the family travelled far from Syria to find a place of security.  The whole family marvel at the beauty of the night sky.  Growing up in Allepo Syria they didn’t see the beautiful moon and stars twinkling.  Instead, they saw dust and smoke.  It was not a star that led them out of the war-ravaged country.  They fled to Damascus and then thanks to our generosity and that of the Anglican church, made Penticton their new home.

Darkness is real for too many people here in Penticton.  The Safe Shelter is full with women who have fled abusive relationships.  Our Narcotics Anonymous groups continually receive new people who are powerless over drugs.  I hear more and more people who are addicted to gambling, and find the casino too tempting.  Others find the darkness of loneliness and  depression to be persuasive.  What is your darkness?

With help from SOWINS, 12 step programs and Discovery House, as well as medical assistance the cloud of darkness can be lifted.  By participating in this church community, many people have found relief from the very struggles I have named.  May each of us see through the darkness and peek at the light of the night sky.

Perhaps, this evening, we need to step outside and marvel at the night sky.  Moonlight and stars glistening are signs of great delight.  “You are the light of the world…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Maker in heaven,” said Christ to the disciples early in his ministry.  So, we ask ourselves, “By what light do we see God?”

Do we see God, made manifest in the manger in Bethlehem, by the light of the star that the magi are said to have followed?  Is it a single star that guides our hearts and spirit toward the Bethlehem child?  Or, do we see light in the eyes of a person of faith, radiating grace, justice and devotion.  Perhaps we, like Isaiah, have seen the light of grace that touches God’s people with illuminating glory.

God’s call throughout the ages is “Arise!  Shine!”  We have the light and are to show it.  It is as if God is saying to us, “find the darkness and show light!”  As Christmas festivities have drawn to a close and Epiphany is upon us, surely the least we can do is radiate light into dimness.  Perhaps it is donating to our food cupboard, knitting a prayer shawl, visiting one of the people on our prayer list, or devoting 10 minutes every day to praying for the people of this congregation.

Let us join the trek to follow signs of great joy!  May we be transformed by what we see.  And may we lead others to experience wonder, each day!  Amen.

“The Hand That Rocked the Cradle” Advent 4 – Year C – December 23, 2018

“The Hand That Rocked the Cradle”

Advent 4 – Year C – December 23, 2018

 

What a time of magic and delight!  Regardless of one’s age, we can’t help but being caught up in the sense of awe and wonderment.  It is the stuff of pageants and parades.  Here we encounter some of the most beautiful poetry and drama one could imagine.

A lowly, young teenager is awestruck that God has chosen her to bear a most amazing child.  Imagine, a servant girl is the one that God has chosen to be the bearer of our Redeemer!  A young peasant gal from a tiny, no name Judean town was blessed with a child who would change the course of her life, and that of yours and mine.  The hand that rocked the cradle brought new life into the world.  The hand that rocked the cradle shaped the values of the Messiah.

Or, at least that is how the story is told.  Another understanding is that of an adolescent girl visiting her cousin Elizabeth.  Both women amazingly pregnant.  Perhaps they were the talk of the town and knew they needed each other.  Perhaps they knew that their pregnancies were exceptional and could not have happened without the astounding intervention of God.  Perhaps it is a tale of exceptional mystery.

Isn’t there a sense in which the birth of Christ within us as individuals, or within our communities, is always a miracle and a bit of a scandal?  When someone, or a group, starts to act in a way that is different, or contrary to the usual norms of the town;  tongues will wag.  Christ has always been a scandal.  When we are full of him, probably we will be too.  And today, I’m full of Christ.  What about you?  He is my hope for a love filled world.  He is my hope for a peace filled world.

The prophet Micah proclaims, “he shall be the one of peace.”  Not only the one who speaks of peace, but the One of peace.  He will transform all of our dreams and ideals of peace into something tangible – a human life.  His life will show us that the power of peace and the strength of God are best revealed in human weakness.  He will be peace incarnate, and he will change forever the shape of our dream of God.

Peace will no longer be merely the absence of war and bloodshed, God will smile on our attempts to attain it, but this peace will always be mysteriously out of reach.  It will no longer reside in the false contentment that the world offers, but in the hearts of those who know God.  The peace of God beyond our understanding will be the source of our longing, our inspiration, and the font of our strength.

From now on, peace will be synonymous with Christ, God-with-us, the one we call the Prince of Peace.

The poet George Herbert noted that the letters by which we spell the name “Mary”, the mother of Jesus, can also spell the word “army.”  Is there some kind of connection being made here between the name of Mary and the forces of death and violence?  Does this lowly adolescent also hold within her a confrontation with the forces of death?    It is a point for pondering, don’t you think?

 

We often hear about famous people who grew up in small towns in trying circumstances.  In our reading from Micah the people are told that God will bless them with a shepherd-king from Bethlehem, “one of the smallest towns in Judah.” Imagine!  Our Christ, born in a nothing town, much smaller than Penticton.  And yet we know the name Bethlehem as commonly as we know Vancouver.   This unlikely sovereign, descended from King David – whose father also came from Bethlehem – will he bring peace and security to the people?   Because we know the story, we realize that the answer is a resounding “maybe.”  The peace and security that Jesus offers is not a watered down absence of war nor unending comfort.  Instead, Jesus presents to us a model of radical love that calls for welcome to all.

Micah, the lyrical prophet of the 8th century BCE, called the poor and oppressed “my people”.  He lashed out against the greed of wealthy land grabbers who impoverished peasant farmers.  Having grown up in a small town, he was witness to the misery of the destitute.  To Micah, great leadership could only be born among those who had experienced hardship.  We hear the words of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” playing in the background, as we think of the small town where Christ was born.

As I listen to and read the daily news, I can’t help but hear Mary’s poem as a backdrop.  Are the Guatemalan refugees seeking new homes in Columbia, the poor that Mary speaks of?  Are the Mexican border crossers any different than Mary, seeking new life amongst welcoming throngs?  Is God the merciful One for all the world’s people?  Is Penticton home to Christ?  Will we welcome an impoverished, pregnant, unwed teenager into the fellowship of this congregation?  Will we do so without condemnation and comment?

A Chilean woman writes:

“With pride and dignity I sing my song of joy

When I feel the Lord’s presence;

I am poor and very ordinary,

But one day the Lord looked upon me

And the history of the poor

Will give witness to my joy.

God is unfettered and unpredictable,

God is called our great friend.

And throughout our history

God has favoured those of us who are weak.

God triumphant force

Shows itself each day when

God exposes the foolishness of the powerful.

God uncovers the feet of clay of those in power,

And nourishes the yearning of the poor.

To those who come hungry

God gives bread and wine.

And to the wealthy

God exposes their selfishness

And the emptiness of their ways.

This is God’s desire:

Always to favour the poor.

Now finally we can walk.

God is faithful to God’s promises.”

May it be so.  Amen.

 

“Listen and Hear” December 16, 2018 – Year C – Advent 3

“Listen and Hear”

December 16, 2018 – Year C – Advent 3

 

Oh, My God.  The audacity of John.  How dare he speak like that!  What a commotion he is making!   We just want to be baptized – not lectured.  He called us a brood of vipers!  When we asked him what we should do, we had no idea that he would make such high demands of us.  Sharing our coats.  Giving up food.  Tax collectors to collect only what is prescribed. Be satisfied with our wages.   How preposterous!  Oh, My God, will we listen to John?

Like the people of John’s day, we are filled with questions.  Must we listen to his message to fully understand the Good News?  Must we get our heads around the proclamations of John in order to comprehend Christ’s message of love?

John doesn’t sugar coat his message.  It is “in your face” direct.  There is an urgency to what he has to say.  Don’t flee from the wrath of God, he says.  Stay and do what you can to make it right!  Don’t rest on your ancestral laurels, do something yourself that displays your faith.  In all this directness, there is good news just the same.

The Gospel of Luke describes John’s message as “good news”.  But for whom?  It is not good news for those who are unwilling to change or see no need of it.  It is good news only for those who long for a different society, a reality transformed by God’s powerful love and justice.   It is good news for those who long for the coming One who will complete the work God has already begun.  The image of a harvest underway is one of God already acting to bring about a new reality.  The one who is to come will baptize with God’s own Spirit and, like the beginning of creation, blow new life into humanity.

I can’t help wondering if John’s message is needed once again in the political scene that the world finds itself in.  Perhaps we need the sharp, prophetic message of repent and do justice.  I suspect that we need to hear the bold directive for sharing.  Give away what you don’t need.  Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God, are all present in John’s rhetoric.   Via television we have seen enough poverty, starvation, killing, and human misery, to disturb our sleep for a long time to come.  The message of sharing and justice might be better news than we think to us who have more of this world’s goods than we need.  It surely would be for those who have too little.

When the people ask if John is the Messiah he reminds them that his baptism is one of water and repentance.  Redemption is the name of the game.   He states that the One who comes after him will baptize with the Spirit and fire.  The Greek word for Spirit and wind are the same. It is Ruah.  Wind and fire are both transforming elements which change what they touch.  Christ’s coming is transformative and if we wish to know the joy and peace of the Divine transformation we need to open ourselves now to a new world – a world in which power is shared and all have what they need.  And if our actions proclaim that such a world is possible, what joy that will bring!

Frank McCourt, Pulitzer prize winning author of Angela’s Ashes, has a children’s book titled “Angela and the Baby Jesus.  Angela was McCourt’s mother, and at age 6, she worried about the baby Jesus in the nativity crib in the church near her home.  She wondered why no one put a blanket over him.  She knew cold and hunger firsthand and decided she would do something about the baby without anyone knowing.  Angela sneaked into the church and took the baby home in order to give him a warm place to stay.  Her brother, Pat, caught her trying to get the baby Jesus into the house.  He became the tattletale and told their mother that Angela stole the baby Jesus.  The whole family climbed the stairs and found the baby Jesus with his head on a pillow.  “Mother O’ God!” said little Angela’s mother.  “Is that the Baby Jesus from St. Joseph’s?”  They all knew it was.

Her mother asked, “And why, for the love of God?”  Angela answered, “He was cold in the crib and I wanted to warm him up.”  It was decided that the baby had to be returned to the church immediately and to his mother.  Upon arrival at the church, the priest and policeman greeted the family at the door.  Angela admitted to taking the baby.  The tattletale bother turned protector when the policeman suggested that Angela might have to go to jail.  “The strange thing now was the tears twinkling on the cheeks of the priest in the December moonlight.  The policeman coughed and gave his baton a bit of a twirl.”  The priest urged Angela to place the baby in the crib and promised that his mother would keep him nice and warm.  She complied, and “When she put the Baby Jesus back in the crib, he smiled the way he always did and held out his arms to the world.”  Angela’s day included judgement by her brother and redemption by the priest when she was simply trying to care for Jesus.

Redemption – now that is what today’s message is all about.  John proclaimed redemption through the act of baptism.  The One who’s birth we await lived redemption in all he did – in all he said – and in how he loved!  May redemption be known by each one of us.  Amen.

 

 

“Dreaming the Impossible Dream” Advent 1 – December 2, 2018 – Year C

“Dreaming the Impossible Dream”

Advent 1 – December 2, 2018 – Year C

 

In one of his sermons, Dr Paul Wilson tells of Alec.  “Alec is a child with Down’s Syndrome who is attending kindergarten.  The teachers had all of the children sit in a circle in the classroom.  Then each one was asked to say something for which he or she was thankful.  Everyone was used to Alec, for whom they would often wait.  Sometimes he would answer and sometimes he wouldn’t, and even when he did, he was often hard to understand.  When it came to be his turn, they waited, and he got a big smile on his face, and he lifted one of his hands and pointed, first at one teacher and then at the other.  He got his big smile on again.  And one of the parents who was sitting in on the class noticed that both of the teachers started crying.  Some may have found that place holy.  But God can be found in any moment, in any place, most surely with the needy, empowering each of us with acts of love.”

Neighbourhood children use the local campus as a playground.  They show up on sunny days with their mothers.  The other day there was a group of kids kicking a ball, a clear plastic inflatable ball.  When the ball came close you could see that it actually was a globe, printed with the shapes of the continents.  One boy kicked the ball up and another caught it deftly.  “Poor old world,” she said.  Her words resonate with us, for these days our earth seems tossed around.  Poor old world.

One of the great musicals is Man of La Mancha.  Based on a book written in prison by Miguel Cervantes in the 17th century, it is the story of the adventures of an errant knight, Don Quixote, and his companion Sancho Panza.  In the musical production by Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion, one of the great songs is “The Impossible Dream,” part of which says: “To dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, to bear with unbearable sorrow, to run where the brave dare not go.”

Now that may not be your dream, but we all have dreams.  We have dreams for ourselves and for our families.  We have dreams for our communities and for our nation, and we pursue these dreams personally and collectively.  We work hard to attain our personal dreams and we seek out like-minded people with whom to pursue our communal dreams.  In a sense we have a lot in common with the man of La Mancha.  In a very real way his song is our song.

One of our great poets, Langston Hughes, writes: “I dream a world, where love will bless the earth .. and joy, like a pearl, attend the needs of all mankind…”

Hughes dreams a world of which the Old Testament prophets would have been proud.  Can you hear the prophets sing their Advent song?  Can you hear the angels sing their heavenly chorus?

What is your dream?  Is it a dream of personal success, a dream of health and happiness?  Perhaps it is a dream for peace in our world or simply peace within your extended family.  Maybe it is dream of a world free of poverty or cancer, a world in which all God’s children have hope and prosperity.  We each dream a world, and that dream shapes us, gives our lives purpose and direction.  In that sense, the future shapes the present.

Jeremiah had a dream that God would one day fulfill God’s promise, that God would cause a righteous branch to spring up as a sign, as a symbol, like the “yellow ribbon round the old oak tree” as an indication that hope springs eternal. The situation in which he lived was as ghastly as any we can think of.  A terrible threat hung over his head.  Yet he refused to give up hope.  He had his dreams:  the dream of a saved nation, the dream of his people dwelling in security and peace, the dream of justice and righteousness residing in the land, and to the end of his days he hung on to his dreams.

The magnificence of this hope – the audacity of this hope – is the fact that there is no logical or tangible evidence for it.  The great gift of Jeremiah, indeed the great gift of Judaism is to hope in the face of no hope, to dream the impossible dream.

Jesus had a dream not too dissimilar from Jeremiah’s, a dream in which he would bring good news to the poor and proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed be free and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord (Luke 4).

Jesus speaks a word of hope.  Although we see the tide going out and we cry in despair, we can realize that it will turn and return with new life and new possibilities.  We can see such signs as an ending or as a new beginning, as a righteous branch sprouting and bringing with it the promise of new growth.  The birth of a new understanding, of a new way of relating, like the birth of a child, is often difficult.  As with the birth of a child, a new generation is created whose ways are often not our ways.  But underneath are God’s eternal arms, this God who is called Emmanuel, God with us.

So look up, raise your heads, for your redemption is near, promises our God.

In August 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his now famous “I have a Dream” speech in which he said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed …”

It is a dream that echoes that of the prophet Isaiah, “That every valley shall be exalted and every mountain made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places made plain.” (Is 43) Or as we hear from Jeremiah, “I will heal my people and will let them enjoy abundant peace and security.  I will cleanse them from all sin …” (Jer 33)

All God’s children have dreams, some more impossible than others, some demanding great faith and some requiring great sacrifice, some requiring great patience.

This Advent, I have a dream for each of us, that the baby born so long ago might be born in us.  That the child of Nazareth who grew in wisdom and in understanding might also grow in us.  That the Christ, the adult Jesus, might teach us how to reconcile and make new.  That we might become channels of God’s peace, singers of God’s grace, instruments of God’s healing love, bearers of God’s holy joy.

To that end I want to stand with Jeremiah and with Jesus.  I want to stand with those who promote justice and seek peace.  I want to stand with those who dream of a new heaven and a new earth.  I want to stand with those who seek to make the crooked straight, with those who give of themselves to make the rough places plain and to that end I sing:

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far

To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell
For a heavenly cause

And I know if I’ll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I’m laid to my rest

And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star

 

 

 

“A Walk in the Wilderness” Advent 2 – December 9, 2018 – Year C

“A Walk in the Wilderness”

Advent 2 – December 9, 2018 – Year C

 

Over the years, countless numbers of hikers, cross country skiers, snow-shoers, and outdoor enthusiasts have ventured off the paths and got lost in the wilderness.    Hunters and anglers have set off for a day in the woods, only to have become lost and frightened. It can be a scary experience.

Many of us have experienced the wilderness of the mind.  It is a desolate and solitary time.  Loneliness, depression, anxiety, and grief can all be wilderness times.  Most of us understand the metaphor of the wilderness when it comes to describing one’s mental state.

Imagine wandering through a city where everyone speaks a language other than English.  Wouldn’t that be a wilderness time?  Or think about all the political conflict echoing across the globe and we hear the cry of wilderness.  The wilderness is where the world is raw, exposed and harsh.

However, many of us crave time in the wilderness.  It is a place of mystery and awe.  The wilderness represents peace and serenity.  When stress and busyness becomes too much, it is off to the woods for many of us.  Taking time communing with nature can be restorative.  This kind of wilderness experience is far different than the frightening vastness of wasteland.  This wilderness is the place of radical hope.  It is where we can hear the voices of prophets.

John the Baptist received his prophetic call in the desert, symbolically recalling Israel’s journey out of Egypt towards the promised land.  John calls the people to make such a journey again, but this time it is a spiritual one.  They are to turn away from the captivity of sins and be baptized.  This journey into the Jordan will symbolize choosing God’s way and acknowledge God’s leading just like crossing the Red Sea had done in the past.  Then all people will see God’s salvation.  The gospel writers saw John the Baptist as the messenger described by the prophet Isaiah, the one sent by God to get the road ready.

Martin Luther King Jr., a prophet in his own right, used todays’ Luke reading in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.  Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of thousands of people, King quoted John’s words about “making paths straight.”  This is how he described what that could mean in our day, “With this faith, we will be able to work together, pray together, struggle together, go to jail together, stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day,” said King.

Prophets are the ones who call from the wilderness to tell us there is hope for something better.  Some of our modern day prophets are connected with the Christian faith, and would easily place themselves in this text.  Environmentalists like David Suzuki, advocates for HIV/AIDS care in South Africa such as Stephen Lewis, Peace activists like Ernie Regiers of Project Ploughshares are all modern day prophets.  So too are our local visionaries, like the members of the Save the Oxbows group, the refugee transition committee members, and Pat Simons the chairperson of the Churches for Social Justice group.  These are people who see what they do through different lenses, but, are nonetheless prophetic.  John the Baptist set a standard for atypical prophets, leaving wide open the possibility that anyone, even a member of this church, can prepare the way of the Lord.

Living where we do, we have a unique perspective on Isaiah and John’s vision of making paths straight and leveling hills and valleys.  We hear with the ears of experience “the crooked shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth.”  Driving on our local roads and highways is a matter of assent and descent, and twist and turn.  There are few places in British Columbia that are not mountainous.  It was with this type of typography in front of them that Isaiah and John uttered these famous words.

So, what would our world look like as we prepare for the coming again of Christ?  Will our Aboriginal brothers and sisters be free from the horrors of the Residential Schools?  Will our villages, towns and cities be colour blind as people of all races are treated as equals?  Will we heed the warnings of scientists as they call us to conserve our resources for the sake of the planet?

What would our church be like if there were no impediments to its ministry?  Would we have a Senior’s resource centre, where information and services are under our roof?  Would we have a weekly supper for the hungry?  Would we be a drop in centre for folk with mental illness?  What can you imagine our church offering the community, if the mountains of deficit thinking and budgeting was made low?  What can you envision is the ministry needs for the next 10 years, if we were not paralyzed by too few able-bodied persons?  What is God calling us to be about?

Will we be daring, like John, and go to the wilderness of downtown Penticton and live out our baptism?  Will we live boldly and courageously, knowing that God walks with us.  It is not an uphill journey!  We are each forgiven and set free to see the salvation of God.  That is Good News, my friends!  Amen.