”Reading the Signs” August 18, 2019 – 10th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

”Reading the Signs”

August 18, 2019 – 10th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

 

 

God comes first.  Let me repeat that in case you didn’t understand.  God comes first.  Not after your partner.  Not after your children.  But first, all the time.  Every-time.  God comes first.  Now, you have to agree that Jesus certainly knows how to get our attention.  We can’t help but sit up and take notice.  God comes first.  This is not an appeal for individual devotion.  It is about freeing ourselves from everything that gets in the way of our relationship with the Holy.  Yes, even those attachments as deeply entwined and essential as family.  God comes first.

Wow!  This is a hard concept to hear, let alone put into practice.  We have been raised to put family first.  Our wedding vows acclaim that we will put our partner first.  Many occupations insist that the job comes first.  It is into this reality that Jesus’ words come across as incongruent to 21st century living.

Jesus dismantles the illusions of safety and security we have put in place to help us sleep at night and bring us “peace.”  Jesus did come to reinforce our illusions.  What we call peace may only be a momentary deal made with our psyche not to acknowledge the lesser gods we idolize.  Those gods may be money, possessions, or the people we love.  Jesus says, “no.”  “God comes first.”  It becomes increasingly clear that this is no cushy desk job Jesus has called us to.  This is costly discipleship.

To peel away the blinders and recognize that our lives and relationships are richer when we put God first is to grow up spiritually.  In doing so, we recognize that the promise of God in Jesus Christ is the only true assurance we have.  Everything else pales by comparison.

Harriett Buell was the daughter of a wealthy American Industrialist.  She had everything she wanted as a young woman.  During one visit to New York City, Hattie and a fried came across a tent meeting of Christian evangelists.  She and her friend entered the tent just for laughs, and for the purposes of meeting a few interesting people, but left the tent having heard a life-changing message to which she responded.  The city newspapers carried the story the next day, “Harriet Buell walks the Sawdust Trail,” reporting her conversion to faith in Christ.  Her father read those headlines, and was furious.  This was a great embarrassment to the Buell family name.  When Hattie got home, he confronted her and asked her to retract the story the next day in the newspaper.  The request he made was really a threat, for if she did not withdraw her public confession of Christ as Lord within 24 hours, she would be asked to leave the family mansion, and all her inheritance with it.  After Hattie had spent a night in thought and prayer, she met her dad coming down the stairs.  Putting her arms around her father, she said, “Father, I love you dearly, but I love Jesus more.”  “You have made your decision then, he replied, and with that, she left a home of privilege in the lap of luxury.

Later, Harriett wrote a song expressing her choice to follow Christ, even at the expense of her family, entitled “A Child of the King.”  The last from over there.  Though exiled from home, yet still I may sing; All glory to God, I’m a child of the King.”

As profound as the story of Harriett Buell, the Gospel text of today gets to us.  It seems to be filled with images of destruction and catastrophe, of family breakups and divine judgement.  Oh sure, it is a smorgasbord of images and a landscape of visual concepts including fire, baptism, a fight within the family and an observation on the perceptive skills of weather watchers.  For us as 21st Century Christians, we understand the imagery of fire and baptism, but are rather startled by Christ’s comments on family dynamics.

Division and strife within families are not what most of us think of when we seek to follow the way of Christ.  However,  division – as much as the mighty signs and wonders of Jesus – may be evidence of the presence of the Kingdom of God.

Following Christ means living a different kind of life.  Such a life is obvious in our obedience to the call of God.  For some, responding to the way of faithfulness may be challenged by those people who are closest to us.

Following Jesus the Christ is a decision to be made, but not all chose to walk with him.  Sometimes within our families not every member makes the decision and commitment to walk the path set by Christ.  And that can lead to some quite devastating consequences.

It was almost 40 years ago that I was wrestling with God over whether I should leave a satisfying and rewarding career in the YMCA and present myself as a candidate for full time ministry with the church.  The concern of leaving my job was minor compared with my fear that my marriage would not be able to withstand the pressures of seminary training and congregational ministry.  And sure enough, that fear was well founded.  A year after presenting myself to my home congregation and presbytery as a candidate for ministry my marriage ended.

My personal story is minor compared with many others who have chosen faithfulness to God’s reign and have been shunned by their entire family.  However, the truth of the matter is that in Christ, some of our most fundamental relationships can be threatened.

As we look again at the reading from Luke, it makes clear the high cost of discipleship and the faithfulness that will be required of Jesus’ disciples.  There are no soothing words here as Jesus declares; I came to set the earth on fire” (the fire of judgment and of cleansing), “I bring division, and peace,” Jesus knew that before there could be the true peace of Shalom, there would need to be much upheaval.  At the time of Jesus’ birth, old Simeon foresaw the confrontations that Jesus’ life and work would bring about, and John the Baptist spoke of the baptism of fire that the Messiah would introduce.   These are strong words and images.  For the early church facing persecution, Jesus’ words bring the comfort of his understanding.  And they are helpful for us too as we struggle to be faithful in the issues of our time.

How do we deal with the divisions that appear when peace activists from our congregation picket a company making armaments parts which many of our townspeople and congregation work for, or our environmentalists confront our logging and mining executives?  We can respond to these crises out of fear, or as an opportunity for growth.  What about our position on recycling, reducing and reusing, when some in our community refuse to believe that global warming is real?  Sometimes, we wish our eyes hadn’t been opened.

Jesus goes on to say how observant and astute people are in discerning the weather, but how unable they are to deal with the meaning and needs of their present age, and the coming of Shalom.  We know well the danger in the crisis of our time. Can we also see the opportunities?  May God grant us the courage not to sell our birthright but to labour faithfully in the building of God’s new community.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr says, “I am not surprised that most prophets are itinerants.  Critics of the church think we preachers are afraid to tell the truth because we are economically dependent upon the people of our church.  I think the real clue is the difficulty one finds in telling unpleasant truths to people whom on has learned to love.”  I agree.  It is hard to stand before you and preach a sermon like this one.  It is not soft and full of love and kindness.  There are hard things I am announcing to you. Prophets have always been strident and a little crazy.  They’ve needed to be.

The prophet Deborah wouldn’t have beaten the tar out of the Canaanites by issuing directives from her living room any more than Moses would have gotten his people out of Egypt by writing letters to the Vancouver Sun.  The truth I proclaim today is God comes first.  Are you prepared to live your life in this way?  May it be so.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

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“It’s About Being Prepared” August 11, 2019 – 9th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

“It’s About Being Prepared”

August 11, 2019 – 9th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

 

There is a story about a person who was not much of a handyman but tried hard nonetheless.  He decided to save some money and change the oil in his car himself.  He prepared very carefully for this “big event.”  He went to the store and bought a pair of vehicle ramps to run his car up on.  They were on sale for only $27.95.  Next he bought a special mechanics “creeper” so he could roll under his car.;
The ‘creeper” cost $15.95.  He decided it would be best to get a special flat oil pan which cost $3.50.  And he got a super special oil-can spout, guaranteed not to leak for only $2.95.  He bought a special oil-filter, wrench, $3.25 and of course the filter itself, $5.49.  So far, he had invested $59.09.  He then drove his car up those special ramps, took out the oil plug and drained the oil into the special pan.  He unscrewed the oil filter and replaced it .  Suddenly he realized with all his preparations, he had forgotten to get the oil.  No problem.  The Walmart was only 2 miles away.  So, he simply started up the car, backed it off the new ramps and drove towards the Walmart.  Cost of engine overhaul – $895.00.  Total cost of the oil and filter change – $954.09.

With that picture in our minds, let’s jump to the Hebrew scripture text.  The letter to the Hebrews comes from an unknown author, is addressed to a Christian community that has grown passive in their faith.  The chapter begins by defining faith as an inner conviction within a person that is not accompanied by tangible evidence, “assurance of things not seen,”  it says.  The following verses name some things that faith does, and goes on to give examples of things that have been accomplished in history because of faith.  Where are we being called to go?  Are we aware of unexplored places in our lives that need to be visited?  Who are some women and men whose active faith has encouraged you?  Where has your faith taken you?

Perhaps your faith has pulled you into approaching some of your neighbours and you formed a neighbourhood clean-up group.  Perhaps your faith has directed you to get together with some like minded friends and study the Truth and Reconciliation report.  Perhaps your faith has nudged you to sign up for an international working experience in a developing country.  Perhaps you made a pilgrimage to a Holy site.

The letter of Hebrews offers a wonderful recitation of people who have been faithful down through history.  They are people whose lives expressed “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  They were faithful stewards of the vision and promises of God.  Abraham and Sarah left their homeland to journey to an unknown land that God had promised to their descendants, and they continued to believe in the promise long after Sarah had passed child-bearing age.  And although they died before they saw the promise totally fulfilled – descendants as numerous as the stars or grains of sand – they had the vision of what would be, and that was enough to be faithful stewards of the present moment.  Their lives were focused not on the past and what had been, but on God’s future in which they trusted.

Do you hear the repetitive refrain: “By faith…By Faith…By Faith.”   As we hear this directive, we find ourselves wondering, how?  Mary Hyatt writes, “Come now, let us argue it out.  Faith is a process that we work at all our lives.  It’s our dialogue with God.  Our faith is a dialogue with God and our living is a dialogue with the world.”

A wealthy woman, once felt that God was calling her to the religious life.  She thought she would be able to give up everything in order to follow Christ, with one exception.  She had a garden that was very important to her.  It was a place for her to be alone, to be at peace with herself and to find refreshment.  She was unwilling and unable to give up the key to her secret garden.  Her privacy was too precious even to share with God.

Are you willing to give up your garden so that you might follow Christ?  Will you give up 3 coffees a week and give that corresponding amount of money to your church offering?  Will you engage a street person in meaningful conversation each time you walk by one?  Will you invite three persons to church, sometime this year?

If someone had come up to Jesus when he was on the cross and asked him if it hurt, he might have answer like the man in the old joke, “Only when I laugh.”  But he wouldn’t have been joking.  Faith dies, as it lives, laughing.

Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than a possession.  It is an–on-again–off–again rather than once-and-for-all.  Faith is not being sure where you are going but going anyway.  A journey without maps.  Tillick, a 20th century theologian, said that doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.

Have you ever gone to sleep thinking that your day was lacking in some way?  There is every chance that opportunities were missed to meet God in the human faces around us because of on overdeveloped sense of worry and anxiety.  Opportunities missed may occur when we are turned in another direction or are unaware of the possibilities of transformation in a certain situation.  Jesus encourages us to seize the day, be ready for action and service, and to trust God into the future.

That brings to mind the wonderful movie “Dead Poet’s Society.”   “Seize the day” is the advice given by Mr. Keating to his students in this wonderful movie of the 1990’s.

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit,” reads vs 35 in the Gospel of Luke  chapter 12.  Be prepared!  Start your engines!  Ready, set, go!

Jesus is giving instruction to the disciples about what they are to do after he is gone.  Above all else, they are to be active in living out their faith.  This faith is based on trust in God, who will take care of them.  We are reminded that where we invest our lives – our time, our energy and talents, our money – is where we will be focused.  If our primary concern is to serve ourselves and amass personal possessions, we have little time for God or others.  If, on the other hand, we invest ourselves in God and God‘s realm, we are freed to live our faith.

The disciples are urged to be vigilant, like faithful servants, always ready for action and service.  We remember that the early church looked forward to Christ’s return within their own lifetime.  This passage reminds them, and us, that being faithful cannot be measured on a clock or calendar and doesn’t give immediate results.  It is a way of life, a journey of trust into the future.

Are we prepared to see Christ in our neighbor who is living with cancer?  Or in the teenager whose life on the street is safer than the home she ran away from?  Are our hearts and spirits prepared to respond faithfully to the needs of the day?

We are only able to see and meet the needs around us when we place our love for God above all else.  This is where our hearts need to be, embraced in the treasure of God’s grace, ready to love and serve God’s grace, ready to love and serve Jesus – wherever we meet him.

Throughout this passage Jesus speaks to the disciples about a different kind of wealth – investments that cannot be stolen, will not wear out, or deteriorate.  They are asked to share what they have and not be anxious about financial security.  Their true wealth is of a different kind.  The passage reminds us that where we place our investments – our time, our energy, and talents, our money – is where our life will be focused, and will show what we truly believe in.  Jesus’ followers are left as stewards of the new community until Jesus comes again.  They must be vigilant, like faithful servants, always ready for action and service.  We remember that the early church looked forward to Christ’s return within their own lifetime.  We are reminded that being faithful cannot be measured on a clock or calendar and doesn’t give immediate results.  It is a way of life, a journey of trust into the future.

We are people who have been gifted in so many ways.  Do our grandchildren and neighbours see us living lives of thanksgiving and trust in God’s future?  What is our vision?  Are we faithful stewards of God’s gifts and promises?  Are we blissful about the coming age?

One of my colleagues preached a wonderful sermon about heaven.  He said heaven is the response to the question that we’re born asking, which is, “Do you love me?”  We ask our mothers and fathers if they love us; we ask that by crying when we’re babies.  It’s a question we ask constantly of the people around us.  Do you love me?  Do you love me?  But really, it’s an ultimate question.  Does God love me?  And we ask God every day of our lives in one way or the other, “Do you love me?”  Heaven is the response that comes back that says, “Yes, I love you.”

Victor Frankl made the point that someone can take away everything you own, everything that belongs to you, but there’s one thing that they cannot take away from you and that’s your attitude toward what’s going on – your choice to live in spite of death and destruction all around you.  To me, that’s heaven.

May we live each day fully.  May those who encounter us experience God’s grace.  And may we be blessed with deep faith.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“ Praying, Sharing and Asking” July 28, 2019 – 7th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

“ Praying, Sharing and Asking”

July 28, 2019 – 7th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

 

 

Since moving to Brunswick Street my prayer life has improved significantly.  You see, I live around the corner from the fire station.  Each time I hear the siren and see the engine going by my home I say a prayer that God will comfort the person who the firefighters are responding to.  And I say a prayer that the fire-fighters will be safe in the rescue they are on.  Some days there are numerous arrow prayers sent from my home to God.

In Luke’s account, Jesus has been absorbed in prayer and when he finishes, the disciples ask him to teach them to pray.  Jesus teaches the disciples what has become known as the Lord’s Prayer.  Luke records a shorter version than the more familiar, and likely liturgically enlarged, passage from Matthew.  It is a prayer of the community, not an individual one, and it is focused on the coming of God’s realm.  “Give us daily what we need” seems to move Luke on to the Parable of the Friend at Midnight.  An unexpected visitor has arrived close to midnight, and hospitality is a sacred act.  The host persistently knocks on a friend’s door seeking help.  The 3 loaves requested is the amount of bread needed for a meal.  The point is that if a reluctant friend will help, think how much more God will respond to our requests in prayer.  So “ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find, knock and the door will be open for you.”  Just as a parent knows how to give their children what they need, God is even more generous and willing.

A little boy prayed and prayed for a new pair of cowboy boots.  One night, he refused to say his prayers.  His mother asked, “Why won’t you say your prayers?”

Art doesn’t listen!”

“Art who?”

“Art in heaven!”

The question we ought to ask is not “Will God answer prayer?”  Instead, the question is “Will we persist in prayer?”  Once upon a time there was a church gathering, filled with good people largely unconcerned with certain injustices in society.  In the midst of this gathering, an elderly black preacher stood and said, “until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you really do not know what prayer is.”

“Knock and the door will be opened to you, says our scripture text.”  It is an invitation to break out, to open up to the world, to leave my narrow little world, my narrow little church, and open up to the world out there.

Our actions are prayer.  Assisting at Soupateria is prayer.  Counting the offering on Tuesday morning is prayer.  Choir practice is prayer.  Helping out at a concert is prayer.  Sending a note to a person who is sick or shut-in is prayer.  Serving on one of the church committees is prayer.

One evening, a little girl was saying bedtime prayers with her mother.  “Dear Harold, please bless Mommy and Daddy and all my friends,” she prayed.  “Wait a minute,” interrupted her mother, “who is Harold?”  “That is God’s name,” was the answer.  “Who told you that was God’s name?”  asked the mother.  “I learned it in Sunday school, mommy.  “Our Father, who art in heaven, Harold be they name.”

According to Jesus, by far the most important thing about praying is to keep at it.

The images he uses to explain this are all rather comic, as though he thought it was rather comic to have to explain it at all.  He says God is like a friend you go to, to borrow bread from at midnight.  The friend tells you in effect to drop dead, but you go on knocking anyway until finally he gives you what you want so he can go back to bed again.

Or God is like a crooked judge who refuses to hear the case of a certain poor widow, presumably because he knows there’s nothing much in it for him.  But she keeps on hounding him until finally he hears her case just to get her out of his hair.

Even a stinker, Jesus says, won’t give his own child a black eye when the child asks for peanut butter and jelly sandwich, so how all the more will God hear a child’s prayer?

3 year old Caitlin, had been taught the Lord’s prayer as a bedtime prayer.  After repeating the lines after her Mother, she felt ready to say it solo.  Imagine Mom’s amazement when Caitlin was offering each phrase, carefully enunciated.  Then the young girl came to the end of the prayer and she carefully stated: “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us some email.

The model prayer, and in fact, every honest prayer, is about attitude more than words.

Before the days of the chauffeur driven Rolls Royce, an elderly but alert lady advertised for a new coachman. Selecting 3 promising replies, she asked each applicant the same question: “How near could you drive to the edge of a precipice?

The first answered that he could easily drive a coach to within 1 foot of the edge.  The 2nd went one better: “I could drive within 1 inch of the edge.”

When the 3rd applicant came for his interview, he was met with the same question: “How near to the edge of a precipice could you drive a coach?

“Madam,” he replied, “I cannot tell you, for I always keep as far away from a precipice as I can.”  He got the job.

In the Lord’s Prayer, “lead us not into temptation” does not suggest that God deliberately tempts us, but rather that we be kept from our particular precipice.

“Where are you Jane?” asked mom during an ominous silence.  Came a small, distant voice: I’m in the pantry, fighting temptation.”

No one can expect to avoid temptation; but we need not make it more difficult for ourselves.

What are we seeking?  Whom are we asking?  What do we fear?  Do we believe in prayer?  Do we pray?  Are we prepared to keep knocking on another’s behalf?

Jesus apparently prayed habitually, instinctively.  He and God were like soulmates, constantly communicating.  But that was a new concept to his disciples.  If we were to compare and contrast Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the Lord’s Prayer we would find that Matthew’s has the addition of several verses.  These verses reveal something of the new church’s spiritual priorities.  Later additions, – especially the “power and glory” bits – show us the mindset of an increasingly established church.  Luke’s account is probably an older version.

Perhaps even more significant than the prayer itself, are the explanations Jesus adds.  They’re almost comic illustrations.  Is God really like a capricious parent?  Can God be badgered into submission?  Yet underlying all these examples is a sense of trust.  The friend keeps knocking because he trusts that his friend will eventually respond – the child trust that she will not be given a snake or scorpion.

It is worth remembering that in Hebrew, “faith” was more verb than noun.  You didn’t have faith – you did faith.  Our closest English verb would be “to trust”

People in the two-third’s world, or the Southern Hemisphere, might have significant questions whether “everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds.”  For them that just isn’t true.  To ask or to search, at best rocks the boat.  Threatening the status quo gets you stomped on. To ask or to search too often is to risk death.

I asked God to take away my pride.

God said, “No.  It is not for me to take away, but for you to give it up.”

 

I asked God to give me happiness.

God said, “No.  I give you blessings, happiness is up to you.”

 

I asked God to spare me pain.

God said, “No.  Suffering is part of every life, and it beings you closer to me.”

 

I asked God to make my spirit grow.

God said, “No. You must grow on your own, but I will prune you to make you fruitful.”

 

I asked God for all things, that I might enjoy life.

God said, “No.  I give you life that you might enjoy all things.”

 

I asked God to help me love others as much as Christ loved me.

God said, “Aha! Now you’ve got the idea!”

 

An opened window brings fresh air; an unlocked door opens a new possibility; and an answered prayer brings the promise of new life.  Today we are invited to visualize ourselves asking, seeking, and knocking unceasingly – yes, unceasingly – so that we may learn again and again that to persist in prayer is to move forward in faith, hope and love.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

“Many Kinds of Faithfulness” July 21, 2019 – Year C – 6th Sunday after Pentecost

“Many Kinds of Faithfulness”

July 21, 2019 – Year C – 6th Sunday after Pentecost

Dear Friends in Christ,

I am Martha and I write to you in the name of Jesus Christ our teacher and friend.

I write because I have heard of the wonderful work that the United Church Women’s group has done on behalf of your church.  The UCW is important in the life and work of the congregation.  Women have been coming together in the name of Christ Jesus for Centuries – and that is good, and I am pleased.

One thing does concern me, and this concern is what I want to talk to you about.

I know you have read about me and my sister Mary, and I know that we have been talked about a great deal in circles of church women.  Luke told you about us in his gospel – a least he told you one little portion of our story.  Sometimes, I wish that he had told of some other happening in our lives, for the one he wrote about has been preached all over the world, and, I must admit, I feel that my sister and I have been misunderstood.

It seems that we have been used to create divisions amongst women according to the work they do – and this greatly saddens my heart.  For years Mary and I have been compared, one against the other.  I know that many discussions have taken place about which one of us was the better disciple.  Many have suggested that Mary was the more faithful church woman because, from Luke’s story, she appeared to be the one most anxious to learn from Jesus.  As for me, I have not been looked on favourably.  Many have called me a fussy, complaining housekeeper, because, on that day, I was concerned about the practicalities of caring for my guests.

It seems that women after us have even been labelled ‘the Mary’s’ or ‘the Martha’s’ of their church depending on the way in which they have chosen to serve the one whom we all love.

I think much division and much guilt has arisen over this and I’m sorry that our names have been used in such a way.

As women, Mary and I both had inner conflicts about how best to serve our Lord.  Our feelings of duty to our home and to our community seemed always to be in battle with our deepest heartfelt desires for ourselves.

Both of us had to make hard decisions about our lives and about our responsibilities and this is where Luke found me that day at Bethany – caught in a struggle of duty over desire.  On that day, I chose duty.  I do not believe I made a mistake – it was the way it had to be.  Although Jesus teased me about it – he really did understand.  We’d had many talks about this struggle, and I was surprised one day to realize that it was his as well. 

Now, Mary and I are left with an image of ourselves and of our work in the church that is not accurate.  Such images are hard to change, but I want you to know that Mary and I did not intend to divide women in the church on the matter of how best to serve in faith.

In real life, Mary and I were sisters – we did not compete – we loved each other.  We were both called to be disciples and we both wanted what was best for our friend Jesus. Our only difference was that we sometimes meet his needs in different ways – in the ways in which we felt the most skilled and the most comfortable.

And so, you read about us again.  I hope that you will not think of us as women in competition.  Rather, I hope you will remember that we were sisters – birth sisters – but also sisters in faith.  And women, you are our sisters as well.  Men, we are your sisters, proud and faithful.

Women in your day have many ways to serve the church.  You all have before you a wonderful opportunity to learn, to serve, to love, and to be loved.  You all have the opportunity to grow in faith, together.

Peace be with you, my friends.

May the one who taught us to listen, to serve, to be together in laughter and in tears, be with you all.

Martha.

Let’s hear our scripture text one more time, and listen to this new translation and see if there is new clarity for you.

(Luke 10:38-42 Living Bible )

38 As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem[a] they came to a village where a woman named Martha welcomed them into her home. 39 Her sister Mary sat on the floor, listening to Jesus as he talked.

40 But Martha was the jittery type and was worrying over the big dinner she was preparing.

She came to Jesus and said, “Sir, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.”

41 But the Lord said to her, “Martha, dear friend,[b] you are so upset over all these details! 42 There is really only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it—and I won’t take it away from her!”  Amen.

“Who is My Neighbour?” July 14, 2019 – Year C

“Who is My Neighbour?”

July 14, 2019 – Year C

 

In this age of fear of picking up hick-hikers and disregard for street people, it is hard for us to hear the story of “The Good Samaritan.”  It pricks at our conscience.   We don’t want to hear that we are called to love unconditionally.

There once was a man who was travelling along a highway.  He had car trouble and had to pull over on the side of the road.  He didn’t have his cell phone because he had left it on the charger on the kitchen table.  Well, it wasn’t long before another car stopped.  But the driver of the car didn’t look like he had “helping” in mind.  He beat the man up, stole his wallet, slashed his tires, and set his car on fire.  Then he left him.

As the beaten man lay on the side of the road, a car came by.  It slowed down to take a look.  The driver was a minister, but instead of stopping to help, he changed lanes and re-engaged his cruise control – he had a board meeting to get to, and people hated it when he was late.

Then a salesman drove by.  He, too, slowed down to take a look, but then sped on.  He had promised his boss he would be back in the office before everyone else left.

Finally, a van pulled up and come to a stop.  Inside was a young woman with 2 small children.  She picked up her cell phone and called 911.  Then she got out of the van and helped the weak and bleeding man into the front seat.  She got out the first aid kit she and her husband kept underneath the passenger seat and proceeded to clean the cuts on the man’s face.

The story of the Good Samaritan wasn’t an “old favourite” the first time around.  How shocked the listeners must have been when a Samaritan – racially unacceptable and a heretic besides – was chosen as the model of love that is essential to eternal life.  The parable is told in the context of a lawyer wanting to test Jesus.  “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  A trick question perhaps?  At best a somewhat selfish question, showing concern for preserving one’s own future.  Jesus responds with a question that draws out the issue of concern for others, for one’s neighbor.  The lawyer tries to evade the issue by challenging, “Who is my neighbor?”  It was not more information he needed; rather it was action on what he already knew.  In the tale that Jesus told, the first 2 travelers who passed by the wounded one were clergy – a priest and a Levite, or in other words, a priest’s assistant.  Perhaps their lack of action was due to rules about touching a dead body or fears that his was a hoax – a reasoned response.  But the Samaritan, unencumbered by should and oughts and intellectual arguments, saw only a human being in need and had compassion.  Compassion literally means “to suffer with.”

12 years ago I arrived at the church on Easter Sunday morning only to find swastika’s and profanity spray painted across the exterior wall of the church.  Who would deface a church in this way?  After calling the police we gathered around the entrance and I said a prayer for the vandals, that they might come to know God’s great love and mercy so that their lives might be turned around.  I prayed for us as a community of faith, that we might know deep compassion and forgiveness, so that we might continue to be good neighbours.

 

 

 

At its heart, we need to recognize this parable as deeply offensive and subversive to all that our culture holds dear.

The priest and the Levite, the minister and the lawyer, the people we might expect to give help to the helpless, passed by on the other side.  But in Jesus’ time, they were expected to.  Touching the victim would have rendered them unclean.  They would have to purify themselves before they could operate the food bank, visit the hospitals, or provide legal aid to poor people.

Then the kicker.  A Samaritan!

Family feuds are most bitter between the closest kin.  The Samaritans were the Jews’ closest kin in the Middle East.  And a Samaritan helped a good Jewish boy.

To get a comparable effect, we have to imagine the last person on earth we’d expect to receive help from, the person we’d go out of our way to avoid having contact with.  Someone with HIV/AIDS, perhaps.  Or high on fentanyl and living on the streets.  A squad of Hell’s Angels.  A frothing-at-the-mouth racist.  A mass murderer.

That person, the parable asserts, is our neighbor.

Who is my neighbor?  The person who needs my help, or who can give me help.  Even if it’s the last person on earth that I’d expect.

Mitch Albom, the author of “Tuesdays with Morrie” tells of a conversation between himself and Morrie.  “Life is a series of pulls back and forth.  You want to do one thing, but you are bound to do something else.  Something hurts you, yet you know it shouldn’t.  You take certain things for granted, even when you know you should never take anything for granted.  A tension of opposites, like a pull on a rubber band.  And most of us live somewhere in the middle.”

“Sounds like a wrestling match,” says Mitch Albom.

“A wrestling match,” Morrie laughs.  “Yes, you could describe life that way.”

“So, which side wins?”  he asks.

He smiles at me, the crinkled eyes, the crooked teeth, “Love wins.  Love always wins.”

Hans Kung writes in the book “On Being a Christian,” “Jesus is not interested in universal, theoretical or poetical love.

For him love does not consist primarily in words, sentiments or feelings.  For him love means primarily the great, courageous deed.  He wants practical and therefore concrete love.

According to Jesus, love is not simply love of another person but essentially love of neighbour.  It is a love, not of people in general, of someone remote, with whom we are not personally involved, but quite concretely of one’s immediate neighbor.

Love of God is proved in love of neighbour, and in fact love of neighbor is the exact yardstick of love of God.

I love God as much as I love my neighbor.”

Back in 2007 I work in a church in a large Ontario city.  One day I received a phone call from a family telling me they were in serious trouble.  After over ½ an hour of listening to their story I realized that they were either very good story tellers or were in deep, deep trouble.  I decided to interpret the situation in the later – but only somewhat.  So, after explaining that I could help them with some food vouchers that the church provides and which I would deliver to them – I suggested a number of community resources – I felt I had done my job.  But, that was the problem.  I did my job.

So, later on that day I drove toward the airport and found the home, only to be confronted by such incredible poverty and squalor conditions that I wanted to vomit.  The home they were living in was in the shadows of the airport, with doors and windows in disrepair.  Rotting boards, holes in walls and no food in the fridge and no gas in the vehicle to get to work.  The family was pleased to no longer live in their vehicle and instead have a house to live in.  And as appreciative as they were for the food vouchers, they had no gas to get to the grocery store, which was several miles away.

And there was me, with my full tank of gas, my designer clothes and my beautifully decorated home.  Needless to say, my drive back home was an uncomfortable one.  So, the next day I arranged with the family that I would put gas in their vehicle, for they are my brother and sister in Christ.  They are my neighbours.  After all – it was the least I could do.

I continued to visit with this family for the better part of a year.  I helped them access some community supports.  I shared with them some hints and ideas of navigating through the Social Services system.  But, most of all, I befriended them.  There was nothing I wanted in return.  They were my neighbours.  I came to love them.

To love deeply and unencumbered is our call.  To see the face of Christ in every person we encounter is our mission.  To be neighbor to all God’s people is our great challenge.  May we love with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our strength, and with all our mind, and our neighbor as ourself.  Amen.

 

 

“Keep it Simple” July 7, 2019 – 5th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

“Keep it Simple”

July 7, 2019 – 5th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

There’s a legend that tells of Jesus’ return to heaven, still bearing the scars of his cruel death on the cross.  Gabriel approached him, “Master, you must have suffered terribly for humans.”

“I did.”

‘And,” continued Gabriel, “do they know all about how you loved them and what you did for them?”

“Oh, no,” Jesus replied, “not yet.  Right now, only a handful in Palestine know.”

Gabriel was perplexed.  “Then what have you done,” he asked, “to let everyone know about your love for them?”

“I’ve asked Peter, James, John, and a few more friends to tell others about me.  These will tell still others, and my story will spread around the globe.  Finally, everyone will know about my life and love.”

Gabriel frowned skeptically.  He knew humans all too well.  “Yes,” he said, “but what if Peter and James get tired?  What if the people who come after them forget?  What if people in the 21st century just don’t tell others about you?  What are your back-up plans?”

“I don’t have any other plans,” Jesus replied.  “I’m counting on them.”

Imagine Jesus standing in the middle of the sanctuary saying: “I select You, and you, and you, until Jesus has ultimately pointed to each one of us.  Would we say to the people we encounter, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”  You see, that is the challenge that is presented to us.  We are to heal the sick while proclaiming God’s
Good News.  It is a simple message that must not be weighted down with extraneous details.

No purse, luggage, sandals, or back-pack for us.  We are to simply head along the streets and roads and proclaim, “Peace to this house!”  And then we are to point out that “the kingdom of God has come near to you.”  If we are not welcomed, we brush the dust from our feet and move onward.

As you hear the phrase “shake the dust off your feet” you might have found yourself thinking of the movie “Babette’s Feast.”  Babette is a French cook who finds herself working in the dour home of a Norwegian family.  When she wins some money, she decides to cook them the finest meal they, and their guests, will have ever had.  They are suspicious of the food and her motives, but she is not about to shake the dust off her sandals. She hangs in there with the family.

 

Perhaps you are wondering why such a mission? The writer of the Gospel of Luke is writing in a period of expansion for Christians around about the year 85 CE.  This description of the mission of the 72 disciples is not mentioned in the other gospels.  Jesus sends the original 12 disciples on a mission to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal, but Jesus expects something else from the 72.  They are to prepare a way for him to visit the towns to which they are sent.  Although all the gospels record stories of missionary journeys, only in Luke do we get both a sending out the 12 and the 72.  Their mission is simple They are to heal the sick and proclaim the reign of God.  Luke concludes with a joyful homecoming scene where there is great rejoicing about the success of the mission, and a reminder from Jesus that wonderful things have happened because they belong to God.

As John the Baptist heralded the Messiah in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the 72 herald the journey of the Messiah at the beginning of his journey to Jerusalem.  Their ministry is focused and purposeful.  They must not stay in towns where they are not welcome, nor take rejection personally, and not take credit for miracles.  That is pretty hard to do.  They were to set their own ego aside and go confident in God’s grace.

We are called to preach, teach, and heal in God’s name.  Wherever there is poverty, discrimination, war, evil, violence, and exploitation of humans and the planet earth, then there is an urgency to move into these areas and work to change the unjust structures.

Our church’s Mission and Service fund has heard that call and responds.  Through our donations to the M&S fund projects that feed the hungry, seek justice, support the oppressed, and care for the planet are supported.  Our letters on behalf of Amnesty International is proven to help free prisoners of conscience.  Our intentional care for the planet by reducing, reusing, and recycling is an important commitment.

Wholeness, healing, acceptance, and forgiveness comes through God’s grace. God, in turn, challenges and supports us to become a new creation, and to wholehearted commitment to lovingly, happily, and joyfully creating a better world.

“How do we do that?”, You might ask.  I believe it first of all becomes real when we stop hiding our faith under a basket.  We are called to speak our faith, live our faith, and even sleep our faith.  In other words, in all we do we are to exemplify God’s grace.  Second, we are called to take risks.  We are to venture the path of bold courage.  This means that the care for our planet and the people on it must be a priority.  Writing to manufacturers demanding that wrapping be reduced and be bio-degradable.  Using products that are non-toxic.  Walk more and drive less.  Support initiatives that place people and the planet as priorities.  And finally, we are called to invite others into our circle of faith community.  Evangelism is not a 4 letter word in the United Church.  And yet, many of us are reluctant to invite friends and neighbours into our community of faith.  If we are to grow, it is imperative that we extend invitations to those around us.  If we believe in the message that the kingdom of God is near, then we must let it be known.

“Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary,” a worship resource states: “that the disciples are sent out in pairs shows us that even at its simplest level, Christian missions is never a solo voyage.  Christian existence and Christian life are corporate in nature, for Christ calls us into life and action as God’s people, not merely as God’s persons.  In turn, as Jesus sends out these teams, he speaks deeply ironic words, telling them that the harvest is ready and great, but the workers are few.  We should not forget that Israel was a religious nation.  Religious concerns and practices coloured the fabric of everyday life, but Jesus says despite the religious cost of life and the number of religious leaders there were few workers available for God’s work.  The saying reminds us that religious activity that is merely directed toward God and not directed by God may be useless.

Our congregation knows the importance of two or more joining together for worship, service, study, and fellowship.  That is why we take seriously the call to be a vital, alive community of faith.  We seek to know Jesus intimately in all that we are about.

It will always remain true that a person’s greatest glory is not what they have done but what God has done for them.  For instance, it might well be claimed that the discovery of the use of chloroform saved the world more pain than any other single medical discovery.  Once someone asked Sir James Simpson, who pioneered its use, “What do you regard as your greatest discovery?”  expecting the answer, “chloroform.”  But Simpson answered, “My greatest discovery was that Jesus Christ is my Saviour.”

May we take delight that Jesus has called us to proclaim the Good News.  May we do so with joy and conviction.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

“Full On Commitment” June 30, 2019 – 5th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

“Full On Commitment”

June 30, 2019 – 5th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

 

Fred Craddock, a noted theologian, tells of a time when he was preaching in a university church in Oklahoma, when a young woman came up after the service.  That night, Dr. Craddock had preached from the passage in which Jesus called his disciples to follow him, and they left everything to follow him.  A young woman came up to Dr. Craddock and said she wanted to talk to him.  She said, “I’m in med school here, and that sermon clinched what I’ve been struggling with for some time.”

“What’s that?”

“Dropping out of med school.”

“What do you want to do that for?”

She said she was going to work in the Rio Grande Valley.  She said, “I believe that is what God wants me to do.”  So, she quit med school. Went to the Rio Grande Valley, sleeps under a piece of tin in the back of a pickup truck, and teaches little children about Jesus everyday while their parents are working in the field.  She dropped out of med school for this, and her folks back home in Montana are saying, “What in the world happened?”

Our scripture passages of this day challenge us to reflect on the faith journey that is ours.  Jesus was heading toward Jerusalem and invites us to follow.  With all the conflict in the Middle East, are we willing to go there?  Are we willing to risk our own safety to travel to the site of holiness?  Are we so spiritually centred that we will put our lives on the line?  Are we so confident that the pilgrimage is something we must do?

Will we make a financial donation to First United Church, in Vancouver’s east side?  Will we support the soupateria?  Will we give to the Mission and Service fund who give grants to projects that work for justice?  Yes – we are heading to Jerusalem with Jesus!

However, we have barely started on our pilgrimage and already we can see that it is not going to be easy.  We are going through foreign territory.  Following Jesus is no picnic.  We venture along with the prostitutes and johns – through polluted lakes, rivers and oceans – beside fentanyl users and the homeless.  Are we really willing to put our faith on the line?

Fred Craddock tells of a time when he was teaching at Princeton.  In the refrectory, he found a place at a table, and there was a young woman there.  “You a student?”

“Yes, I’m a graduate student.”

“In what field?”

“Theology.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes,” she said, and they talked more.  She was a Roman Catholic nun – she had not been one for long.  She said, “I was a buyer for Macy’s in New York.  I had a nice apartment, and everything was just really going my way.”  She said, “In fact, I was engaged to be married.  About 2 months before the wedding, I had prayed, I had thought, I had prayed, I had thought, I called my fiancé.  He came over and I gave him the ring.  He didn’t understand, but he took the ring and left.  Some time later I was on the subway in New York.  I was wearing my nun’s habit, and all the seats were taken.  I was standing, holding the strap when I suddenly realized, facing me, holding the strap right in front of me, was her former fiance.  I said, “hello.”  He said, “Hello,” we both cried and said goodbye again.”

The account in the Gospel of Luke brings to mind similarities between Elijah and Jesus.  Both of them have recognized that their lives are reaching their climax, and both have an important journey to make.  Both are dealing with disciples who need a strengthening of spirit if they are to carry on their mission.  Jesus makes a decision to journey to Jerusalem via Samaria.  He is rejected by the Samaritans because he is going to worship in Jerusalem rather that at Mt. Gerizim, their holy sanctuary.  Jesus is not discouraged by this rejection.  James and John, on the other hand, want to call down from heaven as Elijah did.  This would certainly show who Jesus is, just as it revealed God’s presence at Mt. Carmel and changed the people into believers.  Yet Jesus responds instead from a clear focus and determination.  His parable makes the point that no one ever plowed a straight furrow while looking back over their shoulder.  In the same straightforward way Jesus moves on in his ministry and he calls others to join him.  We followers of Jesus are reminded that there will be tough choices that require clear vision and determination.

At what point did Jesus seal his fate?  Theoretically, right up to his trial, he could have backed out.  Even during the trial, he could have defended himself.  But he didn’t.  Perhaps he didn’t think it was worth the effort.  Once he disrupted the temple, he left his opponents no choice but to rid themselves of him.  But he didn’t have to go into the temple.  He could have stayed in Bethany.  Better yet, he could have stayed in Galilee, out in the boonies, where no one expected much religious purity.

Galilee was a bit like Canada’s farther-out provinces of today.  The country could tolerate an occasional socialist government in the sticks, in Saskatchewan or Prince Edward Island, but have one in Ontario or British Columbia throws the whole country into an economic depression.

But did Jesus really have that choice?  As a male Jew, he was obligated to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem.  By race and religion, he was committed.  Every act led inexorably to another.  And once he started on that road, he could not turn back.  Not without betraying himself.

It was karma or fate.  Once Jesus decided he had to go to Jerusalem, he didn’t look back.  Lot’s wife looked back and froze.  Jesus didn’t.  Nor should we.  As followers of Jesus we are to follow the path of the cross.

Fred Craddock tells of the time when he was a pastor and a 30 something year old came up to him and said, “Let’s see now, was it next Sunday that my daughter was going to be baptized?”

Craddock said, “Yeah, next Sunday.”

“Well, she has dance lessons next Sunday.”

Craddock said, “Well, this is Sunday morning.”

“Well, the dance lessons are at 10:30.”

“on Sunday morning?”

Yeah, the dance studio has classes on Sunday morning.”

“On Sunday morning.” That’s what the Mother said, Sunday morning.

“So,” Craddock said, “Then we have a decision to make, don’t we?”

Well, that’s just it.  We always have decisions to make between what is good and what is even better.  It is not that there is anything wrong with taking dance, or even on Sunday.  It is not a matter of choosing between good and evil, but between good and better.

We are called to follow Jesus.  Will our ears be open to hear the message?  Will we be courageous enough to leave behind our prejudices and long held patterns?  Will we be faithful enough to leave behind our friends and loved ones, for the sake of following Christ’s way?  May we journey with Jesus.  Let us travel to Jerusalem.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

“Set Free”  3rd Sunday after Pentecost – June 23, 2019 – Year C

“Set Free”

 3rd Sunday after Pentecost – June 23, 2019 – Year C

 

“Come on Simon, have you noticed, in fact, have you seen this woman?”  How could he not have!  A woman of questionable reputation, in his house, right where guests were having lunch!  Had Simon seen her?  Yes, he had, but on the other hand he had not really seen her.

Jesus saw her.  He saw a woman, deeply conscious of her failures and sins.  He saw a woman who loved deeply, repented, and therefore experienced forgiveness.

Jesus saw Simon as well.  But, Simon did not see himself.  He was too shielded by his goodness to see his badness.  How could he repent unless he saw his own sin?  How could he love deeply the source of his acceptance without sensing the source of his need?  I don’t know which comes 1st – the sense of need, the love, the repentance, the forgiveness, or if they are all jumbled together.

I am distressed by how superficially I sometimes look and therefore I judge.  I may think that nose-rings and coloured hair tell me a lot about that individual.  In reality they tell nothing about the real person.  I can’t help wondering if there is there someone out there brave enough to hold a mirror up to me so I can truly see me?  And if so, am I brave enough to look?  What about you?  Will you look deep inside yourself and realize that God loves you unconditionally, even with your shortfalls?

Let’s look a little deeper into the story about this fascinating woman.  The woman of this story has sometimes been confused with Mary of Bethany who also anointed the feet of Jesus, and with the woman who poured ointment over Jesus’ head in the home of Simon the leper.

This particular unnamed and uninvited woman enters the home of Simon the Pharisee and weeps tears onto Jesus’ feet.  She dries Jesus’ feet with her hair, kisses them tenderly, and rubs in perfumed ointment from an alabaster jar.  How did this woman get into Simon’s house in the 1st place?  When Simon confronts Jesus for allowing this woman to touch him, Jesus replies with a story.  It is a tale that challenges Simon about his own mistreatment of Jesus who, as a guest of Simon, could expect to be greeted with a kiss, offered oil for his face and hair, and have his feet washed.  Simon is appalled that Jesus would allow such a person to touch him in this way and ponders whether Jesus can be a real prophet if he does not know what kind of woman she is.

This story of love and forgiveness challenges us to be slow to judge and quick to forgive, and to look for signs of God’s presence in our everyday lives.

It is a wonderful account of Jesus and his gracious acceptance of people who are “other.”  We do not have the woman’s whole story here, but we are told that “the great love she has shown proves that her many sins have been forgiven.”  Nor do we know much about Simon.  It would seem, that both have encountered Jesus before, but their responses are quite different.

In the world of the New Testament, hospitality was the greatest social obligation.  This included greeting a guest properly in one’s home by washing their feet and anointing their head with oil or cooling ointment.  Simon, a religious leader, was very concerned about the conduct of Jesus and the conduct of the woman, but failed in his own conduct.

The story continues with the account of Jesus traveling with “some women who had been healed of evil spirits and diseases” – Mary, Joanna, Susanna and “many others,” we are told.   Perhaps the woman of the previous story was one of them.  In response to God’s love, these women, “used their own resources” to help Jesus carry on his ministry.  These women, like many before them and since them, responded to God’s great love by seeking not the easy path, but doing what was needed, despite the criticism and lack of understanding shown by many around them. They traveled with Jesus, supporting his ministry financially and became some of his closest disciples.   This leads to the question; what does our conduct say about us?  Do we have generosity of spirit?  Are we exuberant in our loving?

I wonder where such exuberant love comes from.  And, I’ve come to the conclusion we have it in ourselves as children.  And as long as we know that we will be forgiven, we can continue throughout our lives to be exuberant.

A colleague tells about his son Jamie.  Jamie, who was quite young, broke a window.  He and a pal got carried away, and a stick went through the window.  His Dad discussed this with Jamie and together they decided that Jamie will pay for it from his piggy bank.

That night, there were hugs and kisses as usual.  Jamie knew the incident about the window was forgiven.  No forgotten, but forgiven, and so he was able to love as exuberantly as ever.

That’s what Jesus said about the woman.  “Her sins; which were many, were forgiven. Hence she has shown great love.”  Jamie and this woman could love exuberantly because their sins were forgiven.

Our scripture text offers a gentle nudge to watch out for love in action.  Like Simon the Pharisee, we know what it is like to make mistakes, to err on the side of self righteousness and proclaim ourselves as always right.  Knowing all this, we nevertheless are to act like the woman in Luke’s story.  How hospitable are we?  Do we tend to give all of self for others and not guard your own need for compassion toward oneself?  We are called to watch out for congruity in our lives and to safeguard the inheritance we have been given in Christ.  We are called to love self and love neighbour, neither one more, or less, than the other.

Today, as we listen to the scriptures being read, and as we have pondered the account of acceptance and forgiveness, we are struck by the astounding love of Christ.  He models for us the way of freedom.  In our world today there is Venezuela in unrest.  We hear of the tensions in Europe as Great Britain seeks autonomy.  We know the plight of African nations who face drought along with turmoil.  What does today’s gospel tell us in the face of such realities?  I know that power over someone is corrupt.  Therefore, I believe that God is calling us to a way of graciousness and tolerance.  When we let go of false pride we see with new clarity.  We recognize each other as sisters and brothers united by love.  We become ambassadors of repentance and mercy.  We are truly God’s beloved.

May we live as aware and gracious as the unnamed women.  May we be as open and vulnerable as the Risen Christ.  May we be filled with God’s spirit.  Amen.

 

“Getting our Attention”May 5, 2019 – Easter 3 – Year C

“Getting our Attention”

May 5, 2019 – Easter 3 – Year C

            Are you able to hear Jesus asking each of us, “Do you love me?”

Rabbi Moshe-Leib tells the following story.  “What is love?  I feel I ought to tell the truth and confess that I learned its meaning from 2 drunkards.  Yes, drunkards.  I saw them sitting in an inn, drinking – silently.  But from time to time they would stop for a brief exchange. ‘Are you my friend, Alexei? Asked the younger one.  “Do you love me?”  “Yes, Ivan, I do.  I am your friend.”  They emptied another glass and dreamed their separate dreams in silence.  Again, the younger peasant turned to his companion: “Alexei, Alexei, are you really my friend?  Do you truly love me?”  “Yes, I am your friend,” said the older peasant.  They emptied another glass and another moment went by in silence.   Again, the younger peasant spoke up: “Tell me, Alexei, tell me the truth; are we friends?  Do you love me as a friend?”  Finally, Alexei got angry.  “How many times must I tell you, Ivan, that I do!?  Don’t you believe me?  Are you drunk?  You are my friend and I am yours; and my heart is full of brotherly love for you.  Must I go on repeating it all night?”  At that point, Ivan looked at Alexi and shook his head sadly.  “Alexei, Alexei,” he said, “If you are my friend, if you do love me, then how come you don’t know what is hurting me?”

I don’t know about you folk, but I can’t imagine the depth of the disciples’ loss.  These friends of Jesus shared their lives with him and experienced so much together.  And now it was over, from the ordinary daily routines to the extraordinary miracles and lessons.  They didn’t just want to see the risen Christ, the desperately needed to see him.

I must admit to a strange, subtle envy of the disciples.  At times, I feel as desperate as they must have been to have Jesus that near, and real.  How I would love to see him just once, and reach out to touch his face, not so much to squelch doubt but in some fumbling, inadequate way to simply thank him.

But I wasn’t the one who lived his earthly life with him.  I never laid down beside him after a long day, looked up at the starry night and said, “Good Night rabbi” before drifting off to sleep.  Still, every now and then, in my prayers I ask Jesus to come and reveal the truth of his presence in our absurd human condition.  By God’s grace and by the Spirit’s whisper, Jesus responds, “I did that.  Now it is your turn.”

Are you able to hear Jesus asking each of us, “Do you love me?”

Oh, so comfortably we respond with a “yes.”  And yet, we live in a world starved for love.  We see around us folk hanging out in our church’s stairwells, stoned and lonely.  We see the long lineup at the Soupateria every noon hour.  Do we donate food or money?  We experience the long list of people requesting prayer.  Do we keep them in our daily prayers?  But, with all this said, we hear Jesus asking, “Do you love me?”

When God extends a hand and says, “Will you dance with me?  We have the opportunity to transform our world by saying “Yes”.  It is a dance of liberation for our tired spirits.  It is a dance of comfort for our grieving spirits.  It is a dance of jubilation for our buoyed spirits.

All we have to do is look to the story of Saul’s conversion and we find ourselves also transformed.  Saul probably thought he had a pretty good job.  Bounty hunting has certain advantages, after all.  Being the hunter is a good way to ensure that you won’t be mistaken for the hunted.  So, Saul sets out on the Damascus road to hunt down some followers of the Way – and in the twinkling of an eye his life is turned upside down.

He is an interesting person, is he not?  One day a bounty hunter and the next an evangelist.  One day he is a person determined to destroy the lives of followers of Christ Jesus.  The next he is a zealous proclaimer of the Good News of the risen Christ.  Sure, Saul – now named Paul – had his struggles.  He was a stubborn, impatient, ill, follower of Christ.  He had his baggage.  But that is part of the reason we so love him.  He was so very human.  He responded faithfully to Jesus’ question, “Do you love me?”

It was out of that deep love that Paul responded with a determination that we can’t help but admire.  He is that same person who penned, “love is patient and kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  Love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends.”

So, are we open enough to receive the gracious love poured out in the very life of Christ?  Are we vulnerable enough to break open our hearts to the transformative way of love?  Will we follow Paul along the path of vulnerability?  You see, serving Jesus means we may have to go to places we would rather not go to.   Sometimes it is to the bedside at the hospital.  Occasionally it is to coffee shop to listen to a troubled soul.  Frequently it is right here in our day by day lives that we are called to venture faithfully.

Perhaps a story best illustrates what I am trying to say.  “An old pencil maker took his newest pencil aside, just before he was about to pack it into a box, Imagining the little fellow as a person he recalled a few things about the pencil.

“There are 5 things you need to know,” he said to his pencil, before I send you out into the world.  “Always remember these 5 things – never forget them – and you will become the best pencil you can be!

The 1st thing is to remember that you will be able to do many great things, but only if you put yourself in someone else’s hands.

From time to time you will experience a painful sharpening, but, remember that this will make you a better pencil.

Also, keep in mind that you will be able to correct any mistakes you might make along the way.

And the most important part of you is what’s on the inside.

And remember this, as well, upon every surface that you are used, you must leave your mark.  No matter what else happens, you must continue to write.”

It seemed the pencil listened to him and promised he would remember these 5 things so that he could live his life with heart and purpose.”

So, we come back to Jesus’ question:  Are you able to hear Jesus asking each of us, “Do you love me?”  Amen.

“The Funeral that Wouldn’t Be”April 21, 2019 – Easter Sunday – Year C

“The Funeral that Wouldn’t Be”

April 21, 2019 – Easter Sunday – Year C

 

On Good Friday many of us stood at the foot of the cross and tearfully watched Jesus be crucified.  It was a time of pain and sorrow.  We felt helpless.  There, on a plain wooden cross hung our Redeemer.  And there was nothing we could do.  The day was dark.  So were our spirits.

Here we are.  It is Sunday.  Join with me and let’s walk to the tomb where Jesus was laid.

We need to walk carefully for the ground is rocky.  We follow Mary Magdalene.  She is carrying spices to anoint Jesus’ body.  She reaches the tomb first.  She is taken aback.  The air is sucked out of her.  She is ready to faint.  The tomb stone has been removed from the cave.  Not even stopping to get her breath, Mary runs to Simon Peter and the other disciple – the one whom Jesus loved.  They too run to the tomb.  All the stuff associated with death is there – but no Jesus.

You would think that at such a scene these followers of Jesus would understand what is going on.  Surely, they have an idea of what has happened to their friend and leader.  But, instead, they reach into the darkness and believe.

Mary stands outside the tomb and weeps.  Me too.  In all her grief and hurt she is mystified and uncertain what is happening around her.  It seems too much to take in.  What is she to say to all the questions that we ask?  With blurry eyes clouded with tears Mary doesn’t recognize the man with whom he is speaking.  Even with all the tenderness shown to her, she fails to recognize the Great Teacher.

A few minutes pass.  Jesus whispers to her.  “Woman, why are you weeping?”  She thinks that it is the gardener who is speaking to her.  More time passes.  “Mary,” the voice whispers.  Mary recognizes the Beloved.  Do we?

The light of dawn caresses our face.  Along with Mary, we too have seen the Risen Christ.  Alleluia!  Christ is Risen.  He is risen, indeed.  Alleluia!

All of us have experienced the death of someone close to us.  We know the pain and sadness that goes along with death.  We so wish that we too could hear our name spoken, one more time.  Oh, how we wish that our loved one could utter our name.  Our hearts would turn cartwheels!  I am sure that Mary’s heart did.  “Mary” the risen Christ utters.  “Laura” the risen Christ whispers.

Maggie was in the darkened hallway of the hospital, bending over in pain.  She waited there for the 5 minutes each hour she was allowed to go in to be with her husband.

They had never been apart.  In the 55 years they had been married, they had never spent a night apart.  Through all the years on the farm, the births and raising of their children, through illnesses they had both suffered, they had never been apart.

Now he was dying.  The nurse tells her that Harold could not last the night.  “Why don’t you go home,” I suggested.  “I’ll sit here for a while.”

“I can’t go,” she said.

The nurse told us that we could have our 5 minutes.  “Don’t forget the gowns and masks,” she commanded.  “We don’t want the infection to spread.”

Harold didn’t seem to recognize the 2 green-shrouded figures that came to his bed.  At least, not until Maggie took his hand, moved her mask and touched her lips to his cheek.  I said a prayer out loud, but all the time she was whispering to him.  She kept her head right alongside his on the pillow.  She talked to him like she belonged there.

Later, in the hallway, she was weeping.  “What did you say to Harold?” I asked – more to cover the silence than to get information.

“I told him that I loved him and that I would stay with him.

“You know he’s very ill.  He may not be with us in the morning.”

She stared at the floor for a long time.  “I know,” she said.  “He knows he’s dying too.  He’s afraid a little.  I can tell by the way he holds my hand.  But it’s all right.  I know he’s all right now.  I told him that it will be Easter in the morning.”

I didn’t know what to say.  It was November.  Had she forgotten?

“Um.  It’s not really Easter,” I offered.  “I know, Reverend,” she said patiently.  “But it is for us.  We’ve practiced celebrating Eater together for all of our years.  Now for Harold and me, tomorrow is our Easter.”

On Easter morning the church door opens and Sharon walks in.  She’s 20 years old and hasn’t seen her family for a year.  They are standing in the front row.  The usher knows this is a big moment.  He grabs her and holds her and pulls her all the way to the front row.  Her father sees her, peering around the edge of the pew.  It is such an incredible moment.  The whole family, all 5 of them, just collapse on each other.

Danielle is 12 and her mother died this year.  It was the first time she had been back in church.  We sang “Amazing Grace”.  When I saw her,  I thought, this is going to be hard for her.  During the service, people kept reaching out to touch her.

I’m in complete awe of the courage these people come with.

Such are the Easter experiences in your life and in mine.  Together we witness the Risen Christ.  It is a holy mystery, to be sure.  But, with faith we are assured that Christ’s Spirit dwells within us.  May we too be open to the Risen Christ.  Alleluia!  Amen.