SERMON JULY 2, 2017 THE REV RON BEREZAN
May the words of my lips and the meditations of my heart be
acceptable to You oh Holy One.
Whew! I made it! It is a delight to stand before you today for the first
time as an ordained Deacon. And I have so much gratitude to all of you
for your support, prayers and mentoring along the way. I look forward
to sharing the details of this journey with you over a cup of tea, a glas of
wine, or whatever your preference may be.
And speaking of long journeys, it was exactly one year ago, at the
beginning of July 2016 that I had the opportunity to reflect with you on
our call to be pilgrims, not tourists, on this amazing life journey that we
have all been blessed with.
Interestingly, today Matthew’s gospel invites us to come full circle and
consider the flip side of being pilgrims and holy travelers– and that is
our call to be gracious and generous hosts. Indeed, Jesus sets forth a
vision of ”radical hospitality” that makes a place for all at the table and
that changes both the guest and the host in the process.
Our gospel passage today, just three verses, may well be the shortest
gospel text of the liturgical year! So let’s hear it again:
10:40 Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
10:41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will
receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous
person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward
of the righteous;
10:42 And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these
little ones in the name of a disciple -- truly I tell you, none of these
will lose their reward
This passage is the conclusion to chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel in
which Jesus prepares the disciples for their travels out to the towns and
villages of Judea just as we heard in Luke’s gospel a year ago. They were
to take no shoes, no money, no food no nothing and to put themselves
completely in the hands of those who would receive them.
Their lives had been turned upside down and inside out by this man
who in the name of God preached a liberating love for all, who healed
the untouchables, who insisted on offering hospitality to social outcasts
and to the poor, and who challenged many of the religious and social
elites of his time.
And now, transformed and inspired, they are being sent off to share this
good news freely with others. “You received without payment so give
without payment,” Jesus says in verse 8.
But the concluding verses of this chapter which we heard today are less
concerned with the disciples themselves and much more concerned
with those whom they will encounter.
Six times in this very brief scripture, the word “welcome” is used.
Clearly we are encouraged to pay close attention to this word by virtue
of its repetition. Some translations choose to translate the original
Greek word as “receive” rather than welcome. “Whoever receives you
receives me and whoever receives me receives the One who sent me…”
Whichever translation we prefer, they both invite us to an opening up to
an encounter with the other. And in welcoming or receiving the other,
we are told, therein we encounter the Divine.
To understand the significance of the welcome Jesus is referring to here,
we need to unpack the notion of hospitality as it was understood at the
time. If you have travelled in the Middle East, you know that the
landscape is often rugged, there are long stretches of desert, the climate
is severe (blisteringly hot days and very cold nights) and access to
water, food and shelter can be extremely difficult. Historically, people
travelled long distances by foot or, if they were wealthy, on the backs of
camels or mules.
Receiving hospitality from those they encountered on their way was
essential to their survival. And since everyone would at some time
require such hospitality, informal codes of welcoming the stranger
became a safety net passed on from generation to generation.
To refuse hospitality to a stranger was considered a great offence and
likewise to abuse the hospitality shown you was equally reprehensible.
Welcoming the stranger, the sojourner or the alien was frequently seen
as a sign of the faithfulness to the covenant by the Hebrew people. “You
shall love the stranger for you too were strangers in the land of Egypt”,
says the book of Deuteronomy.
According to the code of hospitality, strangers were welcomed at the
threshold of the home with the words Salam alakum for Arabic
speakers, and Shalom for Hebrew speakers. Such a practice continues in
the middle east and elsewhere to this day.
Both of these translate into “Peace be Upon You” and the utterance of
these words is a solemn promise to the stranger that they will be safe
under the roof of their host. The stranger responds in turn with the
same words to assure their hosts that they will respect the home
The guests are then offered water and food, and in some cases their feet
are washed by a servant and their heads are anointed with oil. Such
hospitality was seen as a sacred act and the hosts assumed full
responsibility for the safety and well-being of their guests. To withhold
hospitality to a stranger or traveller was generally unimaginable.
The gospel passage we hear today assumes this understanding of deep
hospitality, but takes it even further. Remember the final verse:
“…and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these
little ones in the name of a disciple -- truly I tell you, none of these
will lose their reward”
Does this remind you perhaps of another well-known parable in the
gospel of Matthew? Scholars generally agree that this final phrase is a
deliberate reference to the parable of the sheep and the goats found at
the end of chapter 25:
“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we
see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And
when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and
clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit
you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you
did it to one of the least of these, [a] you did it to me.”
By evoking this parable, Jesus adds a more radical dimension to his
vision of hospitality. It is by welcoming and responding particularly to
those in need, those on the margins, those most easily dismissed or
forgotten that we fulfill this call to a deep and liberating hospitality. A
hospitality that becomes the ground for new relationships based on
compassion, inclusion, and fairness.
And, as radical as this must have sounded 2000 years ago it seems even
more outrageous today: to welcome the stranger, the sojourner, the
hungry, or the lost is to welcome God his or herself into our midst. Such
welcoming heals broken relationships, opens us up and enables us to
encounter the Divine in those before us.
What might such a deep and radical hospitality mean for us today?
There are many possibilities to ponder.
I believe the heart of any community is how we welcome and receive
each other. We practice hospitality when we take the time to listen to
one another, to share our mutual journeys, our struggles and our joys
and to provide momentary safe refuge for each other. We bless each
other with our mutual presence, care and welcome.
While we have appointed leaders in our parish hospitality ministry,
those who greet us when we enter this place, we all share in this
responsibility together. As many of us learned at an anti-racism
workshop some months ago, we might ask ourselves, how can we
ensure that all people would feel welcomed if they walked into this
building – those who may look, think, act, love or live differently than
True hospitality, after all means to receive the guest in all of their
wonderful God given uniqueness, even if that might make us
uncomfortable in some way.
We are preparing, of course to welcome a Syrian family in the year
This is certainly a ministry of deep hospitality and one that will ask
much of us, perhaps more than we anticipate. But we join in an ancient
tradition of offering sanctuary to refugees which our foremothers and
forefathers in faith have been upholding for thousands of years! Who
knows what blessings this encounter may bring?
It has occurred to me that the Sycamore Commons project is very much
too a ministry of hospitality. We have welcomed the community to this
place with no questions asked, no strings attached. People who need
healthy food come and take it. Those who are so inspired come and
volunteer and make new social connections.
We host many workshops, usually for free or at very low cost. Many
folks come and walk the labyrinth or spend some quiet time in the
gardens. Sometimes we break bread together in potlucks and
celebrations. And this hospitality extends to the many birds, butterflies,
bees and other creatures that now take refuge here. And so we expand
our sense of community and welcome.
The biblical call to hospitality to which we are heirs, also maintains that
when we are strangers or sojourners we must not abuse the hospitality
of those who offer us refuge. When this occurs, right relationship is lost
and Shalom is compromised. Reconciliation is at the heart of shalom
because shalom is all about relationships: the way we live with God,
with each other, with creation, and with ourselves.
It is fitting that on this day after the celebration of Canada’s 150 th
birthday we ask ourselves how we might atone for the fractured
relationship that our settler communities have created with the First
peoples of this place due to the violation of our responsibilities as good
guests in this new land?
In his recent statement on National Aboriginal Day, our national church
leader or Primate has reflected that reconciliation is an ongoing
invitation to creating right relationships with First Nations peoples. It is
not a one time thing. Reconciliation is a spiritual practice he says. “For
Canadians from all walks of life, reconciliation offers a new way of living
In today’s first reading, the prophet Jeremiah challenges superficial calls
for peace (or shalom) and claims that only when right relationships
based on justice are restored can true peace or Shalom be known. I
hope that in the months and years ahead we can dialogue together as to
how our church community may take some additional steps in our
journey of reconciliation with our First Nation neighbours.
In today’s epistle, Paul reminds us that our life of Grace in Christ brings
us from death to Life. To live fully in this life of grace or righteousness is
to continually turn from the sin of selfishness and ego that closes us off
from each other, from those in need, from Creation and from God.
We are all travellers who rely on the hospitality and refuge that others
may offer as we journey through this blessed life. And we are all hosts
who can offer that same welcome to others. In this sacred balance of
giving and receiving we encounter the great promise of Shalom – the
fullness of the kingdom and the presence of our God.
May the Lord bless you and keep you, may the lord make his face to
shine upon you, may the Lord turn his face toward you and grant you
Sermon – August 21, 2016 Ron Berezan
So here we are – another Sunday gathering together like millions of other Christians around the world are doing today and have done throughout history. Sunday - a holy day, a day set apart from the other six days of the week as a time of intentional prayer, fellowship, and contemplation of the sacred stories that make up the foundation of our tradition.
Of course we have inherited this practice of a holy day of worship from our Jewish brothers and sisters who were commanded to “keep the Sabbath Holy” as a core condition of their identity and as a sign of their faithfulness to the special covenant with their God. Why all the fuss about one day a week? Is this notion even relevant anymore? Is the weekly Sabbath now nothing more than a mere habit? The battles over Sunday shopping in this country (do you remember those?) have long been forgotten and so many of us now live in world of flexible schedules, shift work, virtual reality, instant gratification and nonstop activity. The Sabbath day just isn’t experienced in the same way as it was a generation ago, let alone three thousand years ago!
And yet, today’s readings lay out a powerful vision of what it may mean for us to be a Sabbath people. Both the reading from Isaiah and from the Gospel of Luke set forth powerful visions around how we understand ourselves as a faith community, and how the idea of Sabbath is so much greater and richer than the mere observance of a holy day each week. Indeed, todays’ readings invite us to step through the Sabbath doorway into the restoration of right relationship with ourselves, with our neighbor, with Creation and with Our God.
The author of the third section of the book of Isaiah was writing at a time when the Jewish people had recently returned from a long period of forced exile in Babylon after being conquered by the Assyrians. Most scholars believe that the exile lasted around 70 years. Two or three generations of Israelites who lived most of their lives outside of their homeland and far from the great temple of Jerusalem that had become so central to Jewish religious identity. Who are we when we are cut off from all that we know, from all that has defined us?
The time of the return to Israel was marked by a great deal of chaos and social upheaval. Some of the Israelites had come to prosper in Exile, had even become wealthy, while many others were languishing in poverty and hunger. There was very little public infrastructure remaining after the war. Homes were leveled, streets were gone, public wells destroyed. The wealthy classes were focused on rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, on “making Israel great again” (pardon the expression!) but in the process they were taking advantage of the poor, paying them less than a living wage to undertake the work of construction. To make matters worse, a time of drought had resulted in widespread crop failures, food shortages, and scarcity of drinking water.
Against this backdrop, the third prophet Isaiah urges the people to remember who they are at their deepest core and to recall what God asks of them. And this is where the Sabbath comes in. For in the absence of land and temple, it was the keeping of the Sabbath that anchored the Exile community in their identity as the people of Yahweh, faithful to the ancient covenant. But what does it mean to keep the Sabbath holy and what does this have to do with what was happening in Jerusalem at around 520 BC?
The idea of Sabbath has very ancient roots within the sacred story of the Hebrew people. It begins of course in the first Creation story of Genesis where the Creator rests on the 7th day to behold and delight in the splendor of all creation. At it’s heart, “Sabbath” or Shabbat means to stop, to pause, to rest, to let go and to breath in deeply. It means to commune with each other, with Creation and with the Creator. To see others and the Created world not as objects for our consumption or satisfaction but has subjects bearing the mystery and the image of the Divine.
But the Sabbath tradition does not stop there. In the book of Leviticus and we learn that keeping the Sabbath also means that every seven years the land is to be left fallow, or unplowed, so that the soil and all the creatures who dwell within and upon it have the opportunity for regeneration. The poor of the community, along with the wild creatures are to be able to glean from the lands’ abundance. Seven years was also the maximum time that a Hebrew slave could be indentured – every seventh year, slaves were to be set free. And, of course, every 49 years (7X7) was the Jubilee year when all debts were to be forgiven and all land returned to its original owners.
Sabbath asserts that there must be limits to personal striving, to individual wealth and power. It reminds us that all of the community and all of creation are held together in the embrace of the Covenant. To practice Sabbath means to seek to restore balance, right relationship and a proper appreciation for the abundance and diversity of this marvelous Earth.
The prophet Isaiah reminds the struggling community that it is only through proper observance of the Sabbath, in all of its dimensions, that they may be restored to the Nation they once were. The scripture reads:
If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the LORD honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
14then you shall take delight in the LORD,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth
Removing the yoke of oppression, feeding the hungry, helping the afflicted, refraining from judgment and finger pointing – this is the Sabbath that God desires. The promise of such Sabbath keeping is laid out beautifully by Isaiah:
The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
Strong bones, satisfaction for our parched places, streets restored, the breach repaired, unending springs of water and well-watered gardens – what more could a people want! Such are the gifts of a community living in balance, sharing abundance, remembering who we are and what God asks of us.
Now – you cannot expect me to pass by the line “You shall be like a watered garden” without a brief comment! I believe this garden reference evokes not only the memory of the mythical Eden but is also a powerful image for a people suffering from hunger, drought and despair. For what is a well watered garden if not a place of beauty, abundance, interconnection, renewal, and communion with the mysteries of Creation?
So let’s fast forward about 550 years. The temple has long been restored, and the system of synagogues which originated during the Exile in the absence of the Temple, is well established. Jesus and his itinerant band of fishers, tax collectors, prostitutes and other marginal folk attend the synagogue during Shabbat, as they would have regularly done as observant Jews. Synagogues differed from the Temple in that they were not places of animal sacrifice and cultic practice but rather were houses of prayer, fellowship, learning and, in the great Jewish tradition, of dialogue and debate.
We know from Luke’s account that Jesus was welcomed to teach in the synagogue. Itinerant teachers were in fact common place in the middle east at that time so this was nothing new. But things change very quickly. A woman slips into the back of the synagogue, where all women where required to sit by the way. She is obviously late, and likely expecting to be unnoticed as she probably was for countless other Sabbaths. Not this time.
We are told that this woman was severely bent over and had been so for EIGHTEEN YEARS! Imagine, going through your life unable to stand up straight, to look another in the eye, to pick your gaze up from the ground. Most illness and affliction of this time in history was understood to be the result of possession by Spirits, as this woman’s condition is so described in the Gospel. But what the precise cause of her ailment was, ie what kind of “Spirit” possessed her we cannot know. But we can be certain that it came with a great deal of blame, shame and social isolation.
And what does Jesus do when he sees this doubly untouchable person (a woman AND a cripple!)? He calls her forward. He acknowledges her. He gives her a name as a child of Abraham. He reaches across the breach that social convention has constructed and maintained around this supposedly undesirable woman. And, parish the thought, he lays his hand on her. And she is healed.
I came across a powerful description of “the bent over woman” as she has come to be known in the biblical commentaries, and I would like to share this with you:
-This is the bent over woman. She is everyone who has ever struggled to rise above the pain of oppression and low self-worth and judgment from others… she is everyone who has struggled with illness, addictions, loss of value, loss of spouse, or self-esteem or innocence… she is anyone who has lived in a situation that is intolerable… anyone who has been told "You Can't" and believed it.... She is anyone who has lost hope… .
And by reaching out to this woman and affirming her deeply, Jesus restores her hope and God is revealed through the healing that she has experienced.
You know the rest of the story. The defensiveness and pettiness of local leaders who see this upstart itinerant teacher heal an afflicted woman they have been conveniently ignoring for years! Yes, she could have been healed on a day that wasn’t the Sabbath as they protest, so why wasn’t she? They had, apparently, 18 years to accomplish the task! Privileged folks, men in roles of leadership, who have become comfortable in the rules and the prohibitions of their religious community that maintain their superiority and their sense of control over the world.
But Jesus is not interested in playing that game. Jesus embodies the Sabbath tradition that is about the liberation and restoration of the oppressed and the marginalized, that reveals the fire of God’s unending love in a new covenant as referred to in today’s letter to the Hebrews.
Sabbath, after all, is precisely the time for liberation from bondage and for the restoration of wholeness within the covenantal community. This is a beautiful and challenging example of the “radical inclusiveness” lived out in the ministry of Jesus. Time and time again, Jesus demonstrates that God’s love is for All People. Those who are seen as unclean, unworthy or undesirable for any number of characteristics, are given a special welcome by Jesus into full participation in the community of faith. And so we are invited to do the same.
To be a Sabbath people is to recognize that our salvation comes not through striving, through accumulating or through controlling the people and the world around us. It comes from letting go, from allowing ourselves to breathe a bit easier and providing the space and the opportunity for others to do the same. It comes from trusting that ultimately, what brings richness to our lives are the relationships we have with others and the intimate connections we share with all life.
We can trust that, by keeping the Sabbath holy in the way that we understand this today, healing waters will flow into those parched places that linger inside of us all. That our bones will be made strong enough that we can stand straight again and share equally in the community of faith with all people. That the mystery of God will make our lives a well watered garden full of beauty, creativity and tremendous abundance.
Sermon – July 3, 2016 Ron Berezan
Creator, let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You. Amen
Well –we have crossed the threshold into summer. A few weeks of precious wet weather to nourish the gardens and now long days of sun and heat to get things really growing. A time of abundance, energy, exuberance and activity! And … a time of travel. Perhaps like me you may have noticed that our usually very lonely city streets have a little more traffic these days – I even shockingly had to wait for a full traffic light cycle on Joyce the other day! Poor, poor me!!
People on the move. Between Prisma, Kathalmiuwx, Canada Day and the coming BC bike Race, and, of course, the many natural attractions of this beautiful Coast Salish territory we live in– travellers, and tourists , pilgrims and paddlers abound. Many of our own community too are travelling – some arriving to their summer homes, some returning from exciting trips abroad, and others just leaving on their journeys. Exciting times!
Our readings today offer us a couple of very fascinating and deeply contrasting travel narratives for our summer reflection.
In the reading from 2 Kings we hear about the great military leader Naaman - a powerful, successful and by all accounts wealthy man who enjoys the favour of the King in the land of Syria. Yet, like many of the rich and powerful who present to the world an image of perfection, Naaman has a flaw – and by the social norms of his day, he has in fact a very serious flaw. Naaman has leprosy.
Considered much more than a medical condition, lepers in the ancient near east were reviled as unclean, blamed for their own condition, outcast and shunned. Of course this has not been the case only in the ancient near east. Did you know, that we had a leper colony in this part of the world not long ago? From the late 1800’s until 1927 hundreds of people with leprosy, mostly of Chinese descent, were quarantined, some for most of their lives, on D’Arcy Island, not far from Victoria). This history has only recently publically acknowledged and there is a plaque in Beacon hill Park in victoria that tells this story.
For a man of such high public standing as Naaman to have leprosy would have indeed been a calamity for his career and social position and this leads me to conclude that his leprosy was likely in its early stages – perhaps known only to his immediate family and his servants. A secret he was compelled to keep. And like all such secrets that include a social stigma, Naaman’s secret would surely have caused him great shame.
But lucky for Naaman, a Samaritan slave of his wife’s offers him a glimmer of hope. She tells of the prophet Elisha in her homeland who could surely cure her master. And here is where the travel narrative begins: Naaman decides to make the trip to Israel. He meets with his king and gets a letter of recommendation - one that the king of Israel could certainly not refuse – kind of like a modern day passport and visa, if you will. And then he packs for the journey to Israel.
And my oh my does Naaman ever pack! Now I consider myself a pretty notorious over-packer with my tightly stuffed suitcases on my way to Cuba – but compared to Naaman, I am not doing too badly at all. Naaman is really over the top. Let’s review what we know was on his packing list:
- ten talents of silver (one talent = the weight of one person so let’s say he packs at least one thousand pounds of silver!),
- -six thousand shekels of gold (about 200 pounds of gold!),
- and ten sets of garments. Wow he must have really been wanting to dress to impress. We can only imagine the number of servants, porters, guards and others who must have accompanied him and all his chariots and horses included in the caravan. Hardly low impact travel!
Naaman assumes that his normal way of influencing his world will get him what he desperately desires in Israel, so he comes with an impressive display of wealth and power. But things begin to unravel fairly quickly. Firstly, the prophet Elisha will not even receive him directly – a terrible snub, and secondly, the prophet instructs him to simply bathe seven times in the river. No magic potions, no special consultation, no smoke and mirrors – just go take a bath – seven times!
Like the very rich and powerful are prone to do, Naaman throws a fit when things don’t go the way that he imagines they should. On the verge of stomping back to Damascus in a pout, again the voice of wisdom comes from an unexpected source: Naaman’s servants persuade him to try the treatment the prophet recommends. Finally, despite himself, he gets beyond his ego and his pride, lets go of his pretense and power, removes the fine clothing that hides his leprosy, … becomes vulnerable and exposed … and is healed.
We find a strikingly different account of travel in Luke’s gospel today. We can pick the story up from where we left off last week with Jesus advising his disciples that the cost of following him includes giving up the security, the predictability and the comforts of a normal domestic life. This week He follows through on his word and sends off 70 men and women in pairs to spread the good news throughout the land..
OK – we need a little pause here. There’s the number 7 again! It turns out, that the number 7 appears approximately 700 times in the Bible. What’s with all the sevens? We have of course the seven days of creation in the first Genesis Creation story, with the 7th
day being of particular importance as a day of rest, reflection and deep encounter with the Creator and Creation. Every 7 years is a time to leave fields fallow to allow for the land to rest and the poor to glean from the fields. And the 49th year (7 times 7) is the Jubilee year when debts are forgiven, slaves set free, balance restored. From Genesis to the Book of Revelation, the number 7 makes very regular appearances.
To the people of the Biblical era, the number seven represented wholeness, completeness, universality, restoration. Within many cultures today, the number seven continues to have such significance. Some first Nations groups see the number seven as representing all directions: north, south, east, west, above, below and within. Completeness. Wholeness. Connectedness.
So when Naaman is instructed by the prophet to bathe seven times, it is not a random request. Naaman is restored to wholeness, he is made complete again , he is reconnected with himself, with his community and hopefully, with his Creator.
When the gospel writer uses the number 70 to reflect those being sent out by Jesus, he is suggesting that the disciples went forth to proclaim the completeness of God’s liberating love for all, regardless of their wealth, gender, social position, religious history or any other quality. All are invited to partake in Shalom, the Peace of the Kingdom of God proclaimed by the disciples throughout the land.
And what does Jesus advise his followers to pack for such a journey? … Absolutely nothing! No purse, no bag, no sandals. No I-phones to share photos to Facebook, no projectors and Power Point presentations to wow the crowds, no leaflets, no silver no gold, no spare outfits and no food or bedding. Just themselves. Which appears to be the whole point. In order to engage with the people of the towns and villages they enter, they need to go empty-handed. Through their simplicity and their humility, they find shelter in the homes of those with whom they want to share. There is no pretense of wealth or power setting them apart – these are relationships built on trust, and on basic human connection.
Twice the disciples are advised to eat what they are offered – a beautiful piece of advice which for me is all about honouring and respecting the core of who these townspeople are. By receiving their hospitality and sharing their food (which may have been unfamiliar , displeasing, and possibly against Jewish dietary laws), they are saying to these folks – we are with you, we respect your ways, we are honored to share in one of the most intimate parts of your life with you. And it was through such a basis of trust and intimacy that the disciples could open hearts to the good news of God’s liberating and healing love.
The great contrast between these two travel narratives reminds me a bit of the difference between being a tourist and being a pilgrim. The tourist usually travels in relative comfort, brings most of his or her cultural assumptions with them, and flouts their power and privilege, intentionally or otherwise, to the people they interact with. A tourist is generally interested in extracting something from the places they visit: be that souvenirs, a sun tan, some good stories and photos or an exotic experience or two. A pilgrim, on the other hand, travels with as little as possible. A pilgrim is seeking an encounter, understanding, illumination and is open to personal transformation.
As a child in Catholic schools in Alberta, I remember my post Vatican II grade three teacher, Miss Clarke, describing to our religion class that life is a great pilgrimage we are all walking. We have been given this great miracle of existence on this beautiful planet. Our years are relatively short considering the great span of time. But how we travel this journey matters tremendously. Are we pilgrims or are we tourists? Are we more like Naaman or are we more like the disciples?
I can’t help but wonder if Naaman’s return journey was any different than the trip that brought him out to Israel . Did he perhaps slow down a little? Did he, like the barefoot disciples undoubtedly must have done, marvel at the beauty of the landscape, the birds, the flowers on the side of the road? Did he have different conversations with his travelling companions? Or did he stay a demanding tourist, victorious that he had extracted his healing from the land he visited and return home smug and self-righteous? I have a hunch that he was changed, that he came back from Israel a different man than when he left. That something shifted in his world that he could not ignore. At least I hope so.
What are we packing with us on this great pilgrimage of life? Are we so loaded down by possessions, by distractions, by worries, sorrows and fears or, as Paul describes in the letter to Galatians by inflated self importance (personal or cultural), that we have no room for God’s liberating love in our lives? Do we have helpers in our lives, like Naaman’s servants, who can gently challenge us to let go of enough of our baggage to experience the miraculous presence of the divine in all people and in all of Creation? And can we be that guide for others?
In Galatians, Paul observes that we all must carry our own loads and there is an undeniable truth to this. But perhaps we can help each other to lighten these loads a bit by unpacking those things that no longer serve our journey. We can, like Naaman, finally give up those unnecessary weights of gold and silver, and the suffocating layers of excess clothing that keep us from finding healing, from human connection and from love. As a community of faith, we affirm that we are not journeying alone , that we are walking this path together.
Travel wisely. Travel with friends. Travel light.
Sermon 7 August 2016 – 12th after Pentecost
The Reverend Stuart Isto
Isaiah 1:1,10-20 * Psalm 50:1-8,22-23 * Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16 * Luke 12:32-40
After reading our scriptures for today, I was reminded of that old song,
I am a Pilgrim.
I am a pilgrim and a stranger
Travelling through this wearisome land
I've got a home in that yonder city, good Lord
And it's not, not made by hand
I've got a mother, sister and a brother
Who have gone this way before
I am determined to go and see them, good Lord
For they're on that other shore
I'm goin' down to the river of Jordan
Just to bathe my wearisome soul
If I can just touch the hem of his garment, good Lord
Then I know he'd take me home
In St Paul’s letter to the Hebrews he describes the prophets Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He tells us that these three prophets were strangers and foreigners on the earth, always seeking a homeland. St Paul says that the homeland they were seeking is a heavenly homeland. He says that God has prepared a city for them.
Many of us feel like pilgrims. I personally have gone from my birthplace in Massachusetts to Louisiana to Alaska to Colorado to British Columbia. And I think of myself as a searcher and as a seeker or sojourner. But I seem to be getting closer to home, having gone from Bowen Island to Vancouver to Powell River over the past 40 years.
But speaking of sojourners, did you read the article in the Peak about the four teen-age girls who are visiting here from the arctic? Two of them are 15-year old girls from Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. One of them, Kakkee lives in a community of just 127 people. The other, Julianne, is from Kugluktuk. Kakkee has never before left the north.
They and two 16 year old girls are in Powell River with an education program which places them with families and finds them volunteer work to do during the two weeks that they are here. The program is intended to help with transitions to bigger cities and how to get along in a new and foreign land. Reading about them reminded me of the prophets, seeking their true home.
Those sojourners Abraham Isaac and Jacob we can see as our forefathers, just as People in Jesus time saw them. Why those particular three prophets? It started with a remarkable promise which the Lord gave to Abraham. “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you and I will make your name great, so that you will exemplify divine blessing.” (Gen 12:2-3) “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
In Genesis 17:7 the Lord assures Abraham, “I will confirm my covenant as a perpetual covenant between me and you. It will extend to your descendants after you throughout their generations. I will be your God and the God of your descendants after you.”
Now everything Abraham owned he left to his son Isaac. So the God of Abraham became Isaac’s God as well. The Lord appeared to Isaac (Gen 26:2) and promised him: “I will be with you and will bless you, for I will give these lands to you and to your descendants.”
Isaac’s son Jacob became the Lord’s choice as a source of spiritual heritage. The Lord appeared in Jacob’s dream saying, “I am the God of your grandfather Abraham and the God of your father Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the ground you are lying on.” God told Jacob, “No longer will your name be Jacob, but Israel…”
400 years later, when Moses was about to lead his people out of Egypt, the Lord instructed Moses to tell his people, “The Lord – the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob – has sent me to you.”
As you know, Moses died in the land of Moab, across the river from Jericho in the promised land. The Lord said to him, “This is the land I promised to Abraham Isaac, and Jacob when I said, “I will give it to your descendants. I have let you see it, but you will not cross over there.” (Deut 34:4)
These patriarchs of the church, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are part of the foundation of our own faith, as well as the foundation for all the apostles.
In our gospel lesson from Luke, we hear from Jesus that we should be vigilant. He says in verse 12:35, “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.”
During this month many of us in this little parish are waiting expectantly, dressed for action. But what we are waiting for is the arrival of our brand new priest, someone that most of us have not yet even met. This is the Reverend Faun Harriman, just retired from her position as Rector of St Alban’s Church in Burnaby. I personally was fortunate enough to share a table with Reverend Faun at last year’s Synod. People from this parish met last week to take a lot of stuff out of the rectory for recycling. Richard in particular has been working hard to see the rectory renewed to a condition fitting for our new occupant. This included a completely remodelled bathroom, lots of repairs, and even a new kitchen sink!
Reverend Faun Harriman wrote in a recent sermon about learning to follow Jesus faithfully, intentionally and joyfully. “Like any change, any renewal, any transformation it means commitment. As Harold Percy wrote in the essay Ten Commitments You can make to help your Church Thrive, love your church but love Jesus more… following Jesus faithfully involves participation in the life of the Christian community, the church. It important to keep these two in the right order. So let us make the commitment to attend, to welcome, to create a positive atmosphere, to grow, to serve, to pray, to give generously, to be open to change, to dream and to invite. We can change the world we can replace anger with love, fear with hope and despair with optimism. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us and let us give thanks to the only wise God though Jesus Christ to whom be the glory forever.” (Romans 16:27)
Like many Christian people, Faun is a kind of pilgrim in the tradition of the patriarchs of our church about whom St Paul wrote in his letter to the Hebrews.
It would seem that the next stage of Reverend Faun’s pilgrimage will find her far away from her roots, here in Powell River BC. I sincerely hope and pray that she may find this parish and this place to be a fruitful and enjoyable place for her to begin her new ministry.
Let us pray. Lord, we pray that all who are wandering over the earth, the homeless, the dispossessed, refugees and seekers may find their way to a safe refuge in the arms of your loving care. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Sermon 15 May 2016 – Day of Pentecost
The Reverend Dr. Paula Sampson
Acts 2:1-21 * Psalm 104:25-35 * Romans 8:14-25 * John 14:8-17, 25-27
We celebrate the Feast of Pentecost this morning, a major day in the church year, right up there with Christmas and Easter. But we generally greet Pentecost with much less fanfare. No colored lights, no greeting cards, no trees. No rabbits or lilies or egg-filled baskets. Perhaps this is because there are no lights bright enough, no tree big enough to equal Pentecost’s rushing wind. No blossoms large enough, no basket strong enough to contain tongues of fire. Maybe it is just plain impossible to represent Pentecost in any way because the demand of the Holy Spirit is that Pentecost must be lived.
When the early followers of Jesus received the Holy Spirit that morning so long ago, they were energized in a way that was not only overpowering, but also amazing and eternal. That same Spirit energy persists in the world to this day, and so we celebrate Pentecost, not by petting bunnies, but by paying close attention to what the Pentecost story tells us about the Spirit.
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place." The followers received the Spirit as a community, not as isolated or scattered individuals. Tongues of fire rested on each one of them, Luke tells us, but those flames burned above a gathered community. "All of them received the Holy Spirit . . . " They received the Holy Spirit together.
Their very first act as a Spirit-empowered community was to invite more people to come in. The first power the Spirit gave them was the ability to communicate to everyone, across the boundaries of language. "Each one heard them speaking in the native language of each."
The speaking in tongues part of the story has gotten a lot of press over the years, but what about the less emphasized hearing in tongues part? Pentecost is about speaking AND hearing. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues . . . . When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment because each one heard them speaking in his or her own language.” In a polyglot urban center like Jerusalem, it would be most unusual to hear Hebrew speakers suddenly fluent in languages specific to everyone in the audience. “Bewildered and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’”
What does it mean? What does it mean when the Holy Spirit enables us to speak so that others can hear? And in turn, what does it mean to hear and understand? It means the beginning of mutual conversation, conversation that happens across cultures, generations and locations.
Perhaps it’s easier to take in how significant such conversation is by considering what happens when it is missing. When we get in the way of others speaking, when we get in the way of ourselves hearing, we get in the way of Pentecost. For example, much of the history of colonization, indigenous people and the church is about an absence of conversation. Much of the conflict in families, in various political groups and between nations is about an absence of mutual conversation.
A former summer school colleague of mine at VST is Lakota priest, Robert Two Bulls. Robert writes, “After reading the passage from Acts, I was spurred to speculate about the Galileans fluency of their new gift. Did they understand what they were saying? If so, did they continue to speak their new language and were they now bilingual? Or was it just good for the Day of Pentecost?”
Robert cautions that when we communicate the gospel, it must be with respect and a sense of obligation to keep the conversation going, on the same Pentecost terms with which it began--mutual speaking and hearing. When the gospel is proclaimed across cultures, it is important that the proclaiming culture not turn around and obliterate the traditions of the receiving culture. The rest of the story in the whole Book of Acts is the story of inviting other cultures to Christ in full partnership. Those who heard the gospel in their own tongue, were empowered to go and proclaim it to others in understandable language. Everyone’s cultural and other kinds of identity remained intact, but, were united through Christ, their identities took on a deeper dimension.
Jesus said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." It is community and inclusiveness that are at stake in his words. Our love of Jesus cannot be communicated if we retreat into our private or exclusive experience of him; we must live communally and openly what Jesus taught and did. Jesus' union with God is not private or restricted to one group, but is directed toward the life of all God's creation, which, as Paul says, is groaning right along with us. Jesus did not promise the Advocate, the Spirit, to individuals but to a community grounded in love and mutual conversation across boundaries and languages.
It is the community grounded in God’s love who shows that love to the world. The most effective testimony is our own experience. Being examples of Spirit-empowered people is the real work of Pentecost. Letting others know that God loves them, in whatever language it takes for them to understand. We don't have to learn Parthian or Mesopotamian or be expert at text messaging. We all can speak the language of kindness, of fairness, of inclusiveness. We all know how to say "Come in." Often a gesture is enough. The flames and wind that blew through Ft. McMurray last week looked like Pentecost imagery run amuck. The immense response to help the fire’s victims was Pentecost energy in action.
Every time cultures or communities of any sort come together, we can all speak and hear, empowered by the Spirit, so that real conversation can happen. And what do we speak, and what do we hear? We speak about life experiences, cultural traditions, social justice, Indigenous practices, permaculture gardens, music, prayers, worship and ministry. We hear about inclusion and diversity. But above all, we speak and hear, each in our own language, the message of human unity and the life we have in common with all creation. Perhaps there is a place for rabbits and trees at Pentecost after all. For example, a bright red flower will soon be blooming along our local road sides. Wild columbine’s seven flame-colored petals bending in the breeze have symbolized Pentecost since medieval times. Always appearing at this time of year, it’s a gentle reminder that the power of the spirit, however we imagine it, connects us to each other, to creation and to God. The flower’s speech is silent, but if we listen carefully, we will find its language is our own.
Sermon 24 April 2016 – 5th of Easter
The Reverend Stuart Isto
Acts 11:1-18 * Psalm 148 * Revelation 21:1-6 * John 13:31-35
In Mark Chapter 1, verse 8, John the Baptist said this: The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
In today’s reading form the 11th chapter of Acts, Peter tells the believers, I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit’. Peter said this after having baptized many gentiles, and he said to the believers, ‘Can anyone withhold the waters for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ Peter told them ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’
It was at about this time that the disciples in Antioch first began to be called “Christians.”
From the church in Antioch, Paul and Barnabas were sent out as missionaries.
In the Gospel reading from John, Jesus says, ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
I’d like to talk some about how Paul went about spreading the word of the Gospel.
In order to do that, I’ll tell you about a missionary named Roland Allen.
Roland Allen was born in England in 1868. He was ordained a priest in the Anglican Church in 1893. He had a very simple motive for attending clergy school, saying, “When I was ordained, I was a child. My idea was to serve God in His temple.” Almost immediately after being ordained, he applied to become a missionary to North China.
In 1895 Allen opened a clergy school in Northern China. He soon came to the realization that the missionary methods used at that time in China had been largely unsuccessful and in fact many mission stations were devastated in the Boxer uprising around 1900.
Serving at a Mission station in Yung Ching, Allen tried to change the missionary principles which he had learned in England. He helped local believers to elect church councils and take responsibility for finances, evangelism and church leadership.
Due to ill health Allen returned to England in 1903, and started to carefully study the methods of the Apostle St Paul.
He offered two principles which seemed to underlie all the Apostle’s practice:
(1) that he was a preacher of Gospel, not law, and
(2) that he must retire from his converts to give place for Christ.
These rules of practice seemed to be part of the Pauline model:
Missionaries must always prepare for their own retirement without succession by
(1) never acting alone but always referring all business regarding finance, baptism appointment of ministers and discipline to the congregation itself.
(2) leaving thing more and more in the hands of the congregation through increasing and extended absences.
These ideas of Roland Allen have come up many times in the years since he first studied and wrote about missionary work. One result from his inspiration is the development of new ways of ministering.
Bishop Wesley Frensdorff was Bishop of Nevada in the 1980’s. He was one pioneer of the idea of local churches becoming ministering communities in mission.
He wrote about his dream of a church and I will quote from what he wrote:
Let us dream of a church in which all members know surely and simply God’s great love, and each is certain that in the divine heart we are all known by name. In which Jesus is very Word, our window into the Father’s heart; the sign of God’s hope and his design for all humankind.
In which the Spirit is not a party symbol, but wind and fire in everyone; gracing the church with a kaleidoscope of gifts and constant renewal for all.
With service flowing from worship, and everyone understanding why a worship is called a service.
Let us dream of a church in which the sacraments, free from captivity by a professional elite, are available in every congregation regardless of size, culture, location or budget. In which every congregation is free to call forth from its midst priests and deacons, sure in the knowledge that training and support services are available to back them up.
A church without the answers, but asking the right questions; holding law and grace, freedom and authority, faith and works together in tension, by the Holy Spirit, pointing to the glorious mystery who is God.
A ministering community rather than a community gathered around a minister.
Where ordained people, professional or not, employed or not, are present for the sake of ordering and signing the church’s life and mission, not as signs of authority or dependency, nor of spiritual or intellectual superiority, but with Pauline patterns of ministry supporting church instead of the common pattern of church supporting ministry.
And finally, let us dream of a people called to recognise all the absurdities in ourselves and in one another, including the absurdity that is LOVE, serious about the call and the mission but not, very much, about ourselves, who, in the company of our redeemer can dance and sing and laugh and cry in worship, in ministry and even in conflict.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, you call your Church to witness that in Christ we are reconciled to you. Help us so to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may turn to you. Amen.
- Sermon 10 April 2016 – 3rd of Easter
The Reverend Dr. Paula Sampson
Acts 9:1-20 * Psalm 30 * Revelation 5:11-14 * John 21:1-19
Harry Meier, who teaches New Testament Studies at Vancouver School of Theology, describes the Book of Revelation as the “New Testament’s noisiest book.” I, perhaps like many of you, hadn’t ever thought of the Bible in terms of how loud it is. Which might be a mistake, actually, because, now that Harry has pointed it out, I notice that indeed many of the figures in Revelation have the volume turned up pretty high. In this morning’s reading, we have myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands of angels, creatures and elders “singing with full voice.” In other chapters and verses, there are blaring trumpets or voices like them, crashing thunder, rushing waters, a loud-voiced eagle, a shouting angel, and various and sundry other voices, nearly all of them described as “loud.” Many of these voices are human, but not all of them. Some, as in today‘s example, belong to “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them.”
Harry thinks that Revelation, often thought to be about the end of the earth, can actually be read as a book about the earth’s beginning, it’s beginning in terms of restored relationships with humankind. For in the vision which concludes the book, the new heaven and the new earth co-exist within an ecology of garden, river and fruit trees. Harmony and mutuality take the place of enmity and disaster. By what agency does this take place? Human choice and divine desire according to the writer.
As those of us who may have read the book in its entirety will know, Revelation ends more quietly than it began. The landscape has changed from a symbol of the economic exploitation and oppression of Rome to a representation of the peaceful ecological balance and salvation of Christ. Imagining ourselves there, we can hear the waters gushing, the leaves rustling, the birds nesting and the earth, itself, perhaps, singing.
Contrast that with today’s readings from Acts and John, both of which also take place outdoors. But, although located in rural and lakeside locales, they assume a silent earth. All the attention is on the humans-- Saul, Peter, the disciples--nothing about the ground on which Saul fell or the lake on which the disciples fished or the beach on which Jesus stood or the fish on which they feasted. Granted, neither Luke nor John were in the business of describing the earth. They were in the business of converting the earth’s human inhabitants to a new life in Christ. Nor were they describing a vision of the end times. They were describing the realm of God.
But even taking that into consideration, it still is the case that in these passages, and most throughout the gospels, the predominant interpretation has been that the earth is more or less just the back drop for the story of human salvation. That’s unfortunate, I think, because such an understanding gives us no opportunity to consider that, one, human mistreatment of the earth might be a reason why we need salvation, or, two, that the earth is itself a partner with humankind in the redemption story. For most of Christian history, that may not have mattered. In our time of rising temperatures, dangerous downpours and frightening droughts, I think it matters a lot.
Saul’s conversion, the disciples’ breakfast, Peter’s commission, all major gospel events, took place within a religious, social, economic and political context. They also took place within an ecological context. For example, the road to Damascus, for centuries only considered in terms of St. Paul, was certainly much more than the scene of a conversion, even such a notable one. It probably began as an animal trail, the hooves of antelope, gazelle and deer marking the way to birthing grounds and good grazing. Roots of olive, oak, and tamarisk trees would have held the roadbed in place during spring floods. Even this major trade route would have had grass and wildflowers growing along it. Perhaps even an occasional badger or jackal would have put in an appearance. When Saul fell from the violence of his threats, it was the earth which cushioned him. His interrupted journey was not only an event in church history, it was also an unheralded event in relationship with earth history.
The road to Damascus led past the Sea of Tiberias where, some forty or so years before, as John tells it, Jesus had cooked breakfast for his disciples. The lakeside beach was more than a picnic site though. Like the migration route, it had a life of its own. Once at the bottom of a great inland sea, in Jesus’ time its basaltic sand was home to vines and figs, dragonflies, foxes and porcupines. Pelicans, hawks, warblers, gulls and grebes flew overhead or swam by. Oak, rockrose, cyclamen, honeysuckle, plane trees and lupine provided food for numerous insects. And what about those 153 fish? More than likely they were tilapia, but the catch might also have included sardines, for both species thrived at that time in the spring- and river-fed waters. When Peter jumped from the safety of his boat, it was the lake which supported him. So the morning meal with the disciples and the conversation with Peter were not only events which fostered human community, they were also events in relationship with earth community.
Now, I am not suggesting that we edit the earth into the gospels. But I am suggesting that we pay creative attention to the presence of the earth that is already there. With some heightened awareness we will then be able to see the landscape and the people within it as the ecological partners they actually are. This will not be easy, because most of us have been taught to think of the earth as more or less just the backdrop for our own stories. The economic system in which we live resembles imperial Rome much more than it does the realm of God. The noises we predominantly hear are not of revelation as much as they are of destruction. But we, too, can catch and hold the vision of the new earth.
Jesus said, “Follow me.” For two thousand years, millions of people have. Myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands of disciples have followed. You and I have followed. And each time a disciple has stepped forward, it is within a religious, social, political and economic context. And each time it is also within an ecological context.
For example, each time we gather here for worship or food or meetings is an exercise in discipleship. It takes place in a small town on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia in the nation of Canada. But it also takes place along a coast washed by and sometimes pounded on by salt water, within a boreal rainforest where, at this time of year, bears are ending hibernation, song birds and swans are arriving, migratory waterfowl are passing overhead, herring are spawning, sealions have gathered, and the first salmon are putting in an appearance. An ever expanding forest garden surrounds this building. When we step out through the church doors, it is this ecosystem which welcomes us. Our gatherings and leavings from this building are not only events concerning the work of the church, they are also events in relationship with the work of the earth.
As, with the psalmist, we sing to the Lord this morning, let us join with all the creatures in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all that is in them. Not just to be noisy, but to be a joyful people who follow Jesus within the embrace of both God and God’s earth.
Sermon 3 April 2016 – Second in Easter
The Reverend Stuart Isto
Acts 5:27-32 * Psalm 150 * Revelation 1:4-8 * John 20:19-31
Here are the striking words Jesus says in our Gospel lesson today:
JOHN 20:29bBlessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
Most of us here can be numbered among those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. But a big question is, what is it that we have come to believe?
Jesus had said to his disciples just days before, “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you.”
Yet after Jesus crucifixion, his disciples ran away as quickly as they could. It seemed that after he was taken down from the cross his true friends were Mary Magdalene, Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus, those three people who were not afraid to acknowledge their commitment to Jesus.
Many who have not seen and yet have come to believe are truly followers of Jesus Christ. Jesus does not ask us to believe every story we have heard about him, but simply to believe that we have been called by Jesus and that by following his commandments that we may have life in his name.
A few days ago Laurie sent me a link to an article in the Toronto Star. The article described some experiences of a United Church minister, Gretta Vosper. Reverend Gretta is the pastor of West Hill United Church with a supportive congregation and a good many friends. She has recently gotten herself in trouble by openly denying the nature of God as it is generally taught in the United Church. Indeed, she is facing a review by the national church which could result in her being defrocked.
Vosper, according to the March 31st article, has for years made no bones about her beliefs, which include rejecting the notion of an interventionist, supernatural being on which much church doctrine is based. “I don’t believe in . . . the god called God,” Vosper said last year. “Using the word gets in the way of sharing what I want to share.”
Things came to a head after she wrote an open letter to the church’s spiritual leader following the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris pointing out that belief in God can motivate bad things.
Reverend Vosper has written a book, With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe, which became a national bestseller within days of its publication in 2008. In this book she proposes the following: God is a metaphor for goodness and love lived out with compassion and justice, no more and no less.
This is an extreme example of a simple fact, that each of us understands God in a different way, and as Christians each of us tries our best to follow the teachings of Jesus as we understand them.
Some of us may have had the experience of seeing the risen Jesus. The Apostle Paul saw Jesus on the road to Damascus and other disciples saw him as well in the 40 days before his ascension. Many have experienced the risen Jesus in other ways as well.
The doubts that Thomas expressed, the need to see the truth for himself resonates for many of us in these times. I personally am a very skeptical person, and like Thomas, I have constant doubts.
Jesus called his disciples friends. If you believe in your friend, it means that you have faith in your friend, and trust that what your friend says to you is the truth and that your friend would never betray or harm you. If you have this kind of belief in someone, then your faith can enable you to be faithful to your friend.
What are you afraid of? I mean what are you most afraid of? For many of us our greatest terror is Alzheimer’s disease. Perhaps there is a way to avoid this condition which we fear so much. Barbara Bradley Hagerty has written a book called Life Reimagined, which has just been published. In this book she tells how researchers at Rush University Medical Center have found that a third of people whose brains, upon autopsy, display the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s never exhibited memory loss or intellectual impairment. The best predictor of whether someone would escape these symptoms was whether they felt strongly that they had a purpose in life. Those who did were two and a half times as likely to be unafflicted as those who didn’t.
Now as believing Christians, we do have a purpose in life. In Matthew 6:33, in the sermon on the mount, Jesus gives us a direction to follow: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness…”
Coming back to the question of belief in God, I turn to Karen Armstrong, in her book, The Spiral Staircase:
…some of the most eminent Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians and mystics said that God was not an objective fact, was not another being, and was not an unseen reality like the atom, whose existence could be empirically demonstrated. Some would say that our notion of existence was too limited to apply to God. It was even misleading to call God the Supreme Being, because that simply suggested a being like us, but bigger and better, with likes and dislikes similar to our own. The reality that we call God is transcendent – that is, it goes beyond any human orthodoxy – and yet God is also the ground of all being and can be experienced almost as a presence in the depths of the psyche. All traditions went out of their way to emphasize that any idea we had of God bore no absolute relationship to the reality itself, which went beyond it.
The Canadian theologian Cantwell Smith emphasized that our ideas of God were man-made; that they could be nothing else; that it was a modern Western fallacy dating only from the 18th century, to equate faith with accepting certain intellectual propositions about God. Faith was really the cultivation of a conviction that life had some ultimate meaning and value, despite the tragic evidence to the contrary.
Our gradual hymn was written by JR Peacey, an Englishman who lived from 1896 to 1971. This is how the church views his life: He served as headmaster of a school in Calcutta, India, in the 30s, then returned to England and became Canon at Bristol Cathedral in 1945. During his lifetime, Peacey wrote just 18 hymn texts. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to hear his hymns sung widely or to appreciate the recognition his hymns now have.
Here, on the other hand is how he is remembered in Wikipedia:
John Raphael Peacey was an English cricketer. Peacey's batting style is unknown. He was born at Hove, Sussex and educated at St Edmund's School, Kent.
Peacey made his first-class debut for Sussex against Cambridge University in 1920. He made two further appearances in 1921 against Warwickshire and Oxford University, before making a single appearance in 1922 against Cambridge University. In these four matches, he scored a total of 54 runs at an average of 9.00, with a high score of 26.
Dear Lord, we long to see your face,
to know you risen from the grave,
but we have missed the joy and grace
of seeing you, as others have;
yet in your company we'll wait,
and we shall see you, soon or late.
Dear Friend, we do not know the way,
nor clearly see the path ahead,
so often, therefore, we delay
and doubt your power to raise the dead;
yet we with you will firmly stay--
you are the Truth, the Life, the Way.
We find it hard, Lord, to believe.
Long habit makes us want to prove:
to see, to touch, and thus perceive
the truth and person whom we love;
yet when in fellowship we meet,
you come yourself, each one to greet.
You come to us, our God, our Lord.
You do not show your hands and side,
but give, instead, your best reward
as in your promise we abide.
By faith we know, and grow, and wait
to see and praise you, soon or late.
As the apostle John said to the seven churches in Asia Minor, “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come. Amen.
Sermon 20 March 2016 – Palm Sunday
The Reverend Dr. Paula Sampson
Luke 19:28-40 * Isaiah 50:4-9a * Psalm 31:9-16 * Philippians 2:5-11 * Luke 23:1-49
- We are involved in high drama this morning. In the first act, we joined a joyful parade carrying our branches, as did those long-ago rejoice-ers who bore their own branches and spread cloaks to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord,” they cried, the Hebrew way of saying, “Welcome.” Many also cried out “Hosanna,” the Hebrew way of saying, “Hurray!” and which also can mean “Please help.” In this drama, people were not just welcoming Jesus, they were also imploring him to do something.
- The other act in the drama this Sunday is Jesus’ trial, torture and death. The contrast between the celebration of Jesus and the suffering of Jesus is stark. There’s even shock value in its liturgical name: the Sunday of the Passion with the liturgy of the Palms. An uncomfortable title for an uncomfortable time. It brings us up short. It’s meant to. It is a common sermon theme on this day to remark that the same crowd who on one day welcomed Jesus were the same ones who killed him a few days later. The reflection for us, of course, is to note how often in our own lives and in our relationship with God we do the same thing, welcome and then destroy. Such reflection is important, not just during Holy Week, but during every week.
I want to return, though, to the drama as Luke wrote it. Because, unlike us, Luke did not juxtapose the story of the parade back to back with the story of the passion. As dramatic as that contrast may be for us, he was saying something more. The parade is in chapter 19 of his gospel. The passion is in chapter 23. What is in between? In between, is Luke’s portrayal of Jesus’ response to those “Hosannas” that greeted him at the Jerusalem gate. Those “Hosannas” that mean “please help.”
- What kind of help did the people want? In all likelihood, it was relief from the oppressive Roman rule and the collaboration of the Jewish religious elite which had made most of them homeless and poor, without land or employment. What kind of help did Jesus bring? Jesus offered relief in his teachings about God’s justice and liberation. New Testament scholars these days pay a lot of attention to the fact that so many of Jesus’ followers were among the dispossessed. They emphasize his teachings about justice, his radical striving to turn that first century social, political and economic world upside down. This approach explains, in part, his crucifixion, because the powers that be didn’t want to be turned upside down and responded harshly to this threat to their power.
- What then, were those teachings of Jesus? What was the help he offered which Luke has shaped into the other acts in this drama, the ones between the parade and the passion? There are many. I won’t go into all of them, but I invite you during this Holy Week to read Luke’s “in between” chapters and see how Jesus responded to the welcoming, but desperately needy crowd.
- “Hosanna. Please help us to be free from extortion at worship.” So he taught the moneylenders and other merchants that they shouldn’t be plying their trade as they were in the temple.
- “Please help. The scribes are elevating themselves and leaving out the rest of us.” So he taught the humble that the haughty are really the ones facing condemnation.
- “Hosanna. Please help us in a society which dishonors the poor.” So he pointed out to them a widow who gave as offering all she had and taught them that in the eyes of God, honor lies in giving, not out of abundance, but out of poverty.
- “Hosanna. Please help us know what to say in the face of persecution.” So he taught them that persecution is an opportunity to bear witness to truth, the truth of his words, and that by enduring they would gain their souls.
- “Hosanna. Please help us remember and bring into our own time these teachings.” So he taught all of us to break bread and share wine together in his name.
- To the crowd’s plea for help, Jesus brought a message about living together in a just and honest community. As the drama unfolds, and we rejoin it at the passion, read at the end of the service today, it looks as if the help was unwanted and the message was unheard. The disciples fled or denied him, the Jewish hierarchy collaborated against him, the crowd rejected him. The Romans mocked him, cast lots for his clothing and put him to death. Finally, one lone centurion realizes, “Certainly, this man was innocent.” The crowd departs, perhaps with some second thoughts, and that’s that.
- Well, not quite. “But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.”
- This act of the drama, in other words, does not end with terror and rejected teachings. It ends with love and faithfulness. It ends with a small group who had welcomed Jesus with their discipleship long before the Jerusalem crowd came onto the stage with their parade. A small group who had provided for Jesus, who had responded to his “Please help” long before the Jerusalem crowd met him with theirs. A small group, including women who were more dispossessed than anyone, but who did accept what Jesus taught about justice and liberation. Accepted it and lived it.
- Luke ends his passion story not when he identifies Jesus as innocent, but when he identifies that small group as faithful. And so the drama changes. It changes from the contrast between palms and passion to an understanding of how to live with faithfulness in the space in between. The space in which Jesus taught about justice. The space in which that small group testified with their presence to the hope those teachings brought them. The space in which we live our ordinary Christian lives and engage in our own high drama.
In between suffering and joy is where the work of God’s justice takes place. Fairness, compassion, respect, hope, table companionship--these are the qualities of God’s reign. They mark Jesus’ life and are the causes for which Jesus died. As we relive the events of Holy Week, let us remember that they are to be our causes, too. Let us remember also that God’s love and God’s reign are within our reach.
All we need to do is cry out to Jesus, “Hosanna. Please help.”
- Sermon 13 March 2016 – 5th in Lent
The Reverend Dr. Paula Sampson
Isaiah 43:16-21 * Psalm 126 * Philippians 3:4b-14 * John 12:1-8
- The drama that is Holy Week begins to take shape in the readings today, the last Sunday
of Lent. An array of images are before us in John’s description of what is NOT your typical St.
David and St. Paul supper club dinner. For one thing, the meal’s setting is the home of Lazurus,
a man who the week before had been raised from the dead. That alone is singular enough. We
then learn that his sisters, Martha and Mary, are co-hosting the meal. But this time there is no
conflict between Martha’s choice to cook for and serve Jesus and Mary’s desire to be at his feet.
There is conflict, though, plenty of it. There is conflict between Jesus’ friends and the
local authorities. The latter have declared that anyone knowing the whereabouts of this now
declared criminal must turn him in. Mary, Martha and Lazarus defy the decree. There is conflict
between Mary and Judas, the latter declaring his disapproval of her wasting considerable money
on a costly ointment whose fragrance was so intense it filled not just the room, but the whole
house. There is conflict between Judas and Jesus, the latter not so gently chastising his
treacherous disciple for opposing what was an act of great love, reverence and prescient
Christians for two millennia have appreciated this story for the characterizations of these
supper hosts and guests, filled as they are with poignancy and foreboding. But in doing so, our
ancestors in the faith may have glossed over another conflict in this text that, for me at least, is
glaring. It resides in what has almost become a throw-away line at the end when Jesus says,
“You always have the poor with you . . . .” juxtaposing that with his own imminent departure.
“You always have the poor with you.” Other translations include, “There will always be
poor people around,” and “The poor will always be among you.” Taken out of context, this line
appears to conflict with very nearly everything else that Jesus ever said about poverty. His
teachings throughout the gospels are about eliminating poverty, economic, social and spiritual,
not giving in to the unfair systems and institutions that kept it in place. Everything else we
know about Jesus leads to the giving of his very life for the reign of God in which there would be
no poverty. No one would be poor. So when he says what sounds on the surface like, “Well,
yeah, there’ll always be people around who are poor; what can you do?” we need to find out
what lies underneath this seemingly callous and uncharacteristic attitude which some have
called a “theological shrug of the shoulders in the face of poverty.”
The reason to investigate the phrase is that it has been used, by Christians and others, to
shrug our shoulders and justify superficial charity. Or, at times, no charity at all. There will
always be poor people around. It played into the mistaken principles of Social Darwinism, the
idea that some people are just genetically more evolved than others. Some are successful and
prosperous, and some aren’t as blessed by natural selection and can’t pull themselves up by their
own bootstraps. There will always be poor people around. It objectified and defined people by
their economic status and made it hard to institute public assistance programs. Don Helder
Camara, a liberation theologian, famously said, “If I give a needy person a fish, they call me a
saint. If I ask why he has no fish, they call me a communist.” There will always be poor people
But Jesus’ goal, among others, was that there would NOT always be poor people around.
So what was he telling those dinner guests? Imagine how touched Jesus must have been by
Mary’s action. He may have been as shocked by it as Judas was, but reacted very differently.
Instead of resorting to phoney concern for the poor, he resorted to God’s concern for the poor.
He didn’t just make up this phrase that seems to suggest poverty is inevitable. He quoted God’s
instructions to Moses as set out in the Book of Deuteronomy. Specifically, chapter 15, verse
eleven: “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore, I command you to be
openhanded toward those who are poor and needy in your land.” But wait. That sounds like a
line Judas might have used. Another reason not to take verses out of context. Jesus’ context
included the first part of this section from Deuteronomy, verse four: “However, there need be no
poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your
inheritance, God will richly bless you.” In the ideal, in the reign of God described to Moses and
preached by Jesus, if we share our blessings, no one is poor. In our human reality, recognized by
Deuteronomy and also by Jesus, that isn’t likely to happen. There will always be poor people
around. Remember Jesus’ words to the rich young man? “Sell all you have, give your money to
the poor, and follow me.” The man couldn’t do it. Neither can I.
Mary could and did. Nard is the fragrant extract of a plant grown in the Himalayas, rare
indeed in Israel. A pound of it would easily have cost her ten thousand of today’s dollars.
Maybe Mary didn’t sell all she had to purchase it, but she sacrificed something. She would have
agreed with Paul, writing years later, that what she gave up was as nothing, though, compared to
what she gained: a life in Christ. Jesus wasn’t completely impoverished, but the feet she
anointed had certainly walked among the poor, enriching them with hope and healing. As one
who did follow Jesus, his generosity inspired her own. She, a disciple, kneeling at his feet, may
even have inspired him to kneel at his disciples’ feet as the day of his own ultimate act of love
It is probably safe to say that Jesus’ words were lost on Judas. Let them not be lost on us.
- Sermon 6 March 2016 – 4th in Lent
The Reverend Dr. Paula Sampson
Joshua 5:9-12 * Psalm 32 * 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 * Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
A feast can be a complicated event. It can be as full of rejection as of love, as full of judgment as of welcome, as full of risk as of celebration. It all depends upon who else is there at that table with us. Jesus’ famous parable of the Prodigal Son, is a story about a feast, and this feast, it turns out, is full of surprises.
As you know, surprises are what parables are all about. They work God’s word within us because they always contain an unexpected turn that shocks us. Parables were apparently Jesus’ favorite form of teaching, and I guess that would figure, because Jesus’ whole life and ministry shocked people. It wasn’t just his stories that were full of unsettling surprises, his whole life was. This is especially true when it comes to the people Jesus ate with. Over and over, the Gospel writers tell us Jesus ate with people everyone else had rejected: tax collectors and sinners. And Jesus did this openly. And the religious elite, the scribes and Pharisees, were shocked.
Jesus knew they were shocked, he knew they didn’t understand why he would do something that horrified the religious tradition of his day. And in an act of love and acceptance of the Pharisees, “. . . he told them this parable. There was a man who had two sons.”
Unlike the Pharisees, who were hearing it for the first time, the parable of the Prodigal Son is quite familiar to us. I can’t remember when I heard it for the first time. It probably was in church school, and I probably paid most attention to the actions of the son. The parable taught me that when I had done something foolish, or worse, if I asked God for forgiveness, God would forgive me. In an important way, this is indeed a parable about repentance, about the son turning his life around, coming home to say he had made a terrible mistake. But that’s not where the surprise is. The surprise is not in what the son does; the surprise is in what the father does.
It’s not surprising at all that the son, eager but unprepared to be out on his own, ran into trouble and decided the best thing for him to do was change his ways and return home. A great many parents in this world have seen their grown children leave home only to return. But it is surprising, especially to the Jewish people who first heard Jesus tell this parable, that the father welcomed the son back with such love and rejoicing. An Irish father might have done that, or a Scott or a Welshman. A Canadian? But that is just not how a first-century Jewish father would have acted.
Especially not a father whose son had broken the fifth commandment: honor your father and mother. By taking his inheritance early and squandering it, this son had defied all the Jewish tradition and law, which demanded that a son provide for his parents by saving his portion of the family wealth. The son did not sin when he took his portion early, nor did he sin when he left home. The son sinned when he spent everything. That is why, when he is rehearsing his confession, he says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me like one of your hired hands.”
We can picture this son trudging home, nervous, barefoot and hungry, repeating the lines over and over that he will say to his father. Lines, as it turns out, his father did not need to hear. Just the sight of his returning son was enough to set the father running to meet him. Running. No Jewish elder would ever have run to greet a wayward son. But this one did. The father in Jesus’ parable did. He ran. Long before any words of confession had been voiced, this father ran to meet his son. Met him, embraced him and only then heard his repentant lines. Heard them, and interrupted them. He would not allow that son to suggest he become a hired hand, but insisted on restoration to full sonship.
Lavish celebration, reconciliation and love are what the father gives. No servitude, no rejection. What the son experienced as a father’s forgiving compassion, we Christians know as grace. The unconditional love of God. A parent who runs to meet us before we have said one word.
We need to remember that this unconditional love of God, surprising as it may be, is available to each one of us. Especially in a penitential time like Lent do we need to remember. Otherwise, there is a great danger that we might become like the Pharisees or the father’s other son: resentful, judgmental and refusing to change. Remember why Jesus told this parable in the first place: to explain why everyone was welcome at his feasting table. Everyone. No matter what their lives had been like before or were still. And that is inspiration for us to extend such a welcome to others. That is what Paul is talking about when he writes, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new. All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” Us. To you and to me.
Tax collectors and sinners and wayward sons and daughters come to our feast table, too. That is who we are. Jesus wants us to welcome and celebrate everyone`s presence here. Just as the father did. Just as Jesus does. Unconditionally. Without judgment. Without rejection.
Not so easy sometimes. But we, too, just like the Prodigal Son, have learned our lines. We say them every Sunday: “Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
We are all invited to eat with Jesus at the Eucharistic feast. Just as the Israelites were invited to eat the produce of the earth once they had arrived in the safety of the Promised Land, so we are invited to eat the Body and Blood of Christ in the safety of this community of faith. Just as the Prodigal Son was invited to eat of the fatted calf once he had returned to the safety of his father’s house, so we are invited to eat of the rich abundance of God’s love in the safety of God’s house, which is this church. And just as the tax collectors and sinners and the Pharisees, had they chosen to, were invited to eat with Jesus in the safety of his love, so are we. We are invited into safety and love, and we are also asked by God, who has delegated the ministry of reconciliation and forgiveness to us, to give safety and love to others.
Lent is a time of repentance. But the parable of the Prodigal Son is not as much about repentance as it is about love. That is what Jesus is telling the grumbling Pharisees. That is what Jesus is telling us. The only people Jesus did not need to tell that to, were the tax collectors and sinners. They already knew where the love was. The love was with Jesus. That’s why they came near to listen to him. We are here to listen to him, too. To listen and to come to his feast of forgiveness.
Sermon 28 February 2016 – 3rd in Lent
The Reverend Dr. Paula Sampson
Isaiah 55:1-9 * Psalm 63:1-8 * 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 * Luke 13:1-9
- Isaiah obviously lived before Lent was invented. “. . . eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. . . “ does not sound like the traditional directions in a time of penitence and fasting, even carbon fasting. Do Isaiah’s words about eating in abundance mean that Lent is not biblical? Just barely at the halfway mark today, what are we to make of his invitation to a banquet? The contradiction may not be as simple as it seems. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,” says the Lord. No kidding.
Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk famous for writings on spirituality, spent his life studying God’s ways. He has this insight about Lent: “We must remember the original meaning of Lent . . . as the church’s “holy spring,” in which . . . penitents were made ready for restoration to the sacramental life in communion with the rest of the church. Lent is then not a season of punishment so much as one of healing.” (Seasons of Celebration).
Similarly, Isaiah is writing about plentiful wine, milk, and bread, not in terms of unrestrained eating, but in terms of unrestrained healing. God’s abundant pardon and generous mercy heal the rifts that exist between us and God and us and our neighbor. God supplies unlimited amounts of spiritual nourishment for those who work to heal relationships.
This Lent we are considering a healed relationship with creation. When Isaiah needs imagery to convey God’s intimate grandeur, he turns to the natural world. Heaven, earth, falling rain and snow, flowing water, sprouting seed, singing mountains and hills, appreciative trees. All convey an active creation rejoicing that it is part of the healing, too.
Healing is also at the heart of the gospel reading today. It begins with another question about understanding God’s ways. This time the puzzle concerns the connection between sin and suffering. When bad things happen to people, is it because they are bad, too?
We struggle with this question still. We long to know why life takes the turns it does, especially when the turns are to illness, disaster or death. Just as when we confuse punishment and healing, we can also get really mixed up when it comes to sorting out the difference between punishment and consequences.
The people in Jesus’ day were just like us, caught up in misunderstanding and confusion. Enter Jesus. Jesus breaks the connection between degrees of sinfulness and times of tragedy. Neither the victims of Herod’s cruelty nor the unfortunate Siloam construction workers had done anything worse than any of the rest of us. God did not seek them out for cruel and unusual punishment. But, Jesus warns, knowing that these people are not worse than we are, does not let us off the hook. Just as we would never suggest that those killed in the seemingly endless bombings throughout the world in recent years did something themselves to bring about such horror, neither can we take any credit ourselves that we escaped the harm. Or, as Paul puts it, “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.”
Jesus wants to free us from the notion that suffering is a sign of God’s anger or that good fortune is a sign of God’s favor. Over the centuries, an unfortunate but persistent strand of Christian theology declares just that. It’s wrong. A loving God does not work in fixed formulas. We are all obliged to live in trust, humility and thanksgiving before God. We are not to link our perceived faithfulness to God to our notion of God’s faithfulness to us based on whether or not things happen to be going well for us at the time. We are all to mend our ways and ask God for help in transforming our lives. No one is exempt from this divine expectation.
God does not arbitrarily seek some out for punishment because their sin was worse than ours. But God has created a world where we can expect that ill advised behavior yields certain consequences. “Unless you repent, you will all perish . . . .” is another way of saying, a life lived arrogantly or recklessly or thoughtlessly or maliciously is as damaged and truncated as if a tower had collapsed on it.
The responsibility is upon us to keep that from happening, though admittedly, transforming our lives is not the easiest work in the world.
But, as Paul helps us understand, we are not expected to do this work alone. He reassures us, “God is faithful, and God will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing God will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
The parables of Jesus are a portion of what God has provided. The parable of the fig tree is a particular gift because it is a story of patience and second chances. It also contains a wonderful clue as to just what we need to do to achieve our potential for fruitfulness. That clue is in the word, “manure.”
Not in most people’s theological vocabulary, but maybe it should be. It is certainly a good, honest, agriculturally realistic word. The best natural fertilizer in the world is what we euphemistically call “waste,” a result of biological processes that we tend to find distasteful because we’re socialized to. Though it’s not quite the same thing, perhaps this parable would be easier on the ears if we substitute the word “compost.”
The point is that transformation comes in large part from disposal and disturbance. The gardener maintains that fertilizer and digging will heal the tree and result in fruit. Jesus maintains that repentance will heal and transform lives. Repentance is disposal and disturbance. Confessing our faults is like ridding ourselves of behavioral waste, and then putting it, like compost, to a new and positive use. Giving over our lives to God is like turning over the holy ground of which we are made to increase its fruitfulness.
Just as in an ecosystem, where nothing is wasted, so in our lives. God accepts all of what we are, including the parts we‘d like to throw away, and helps us turn all of it to good. The patient gardener was concerned enough about the fate of that fig tree to give it another chance. We, concerned enough about our own lives and that of all creation, ask God to do the same for us.
- Jesus, just like Isaiah, used nature imagery to make his point. Poet Denise Levertov, in her poem “What the Figtree Said” presents it this way:
“I served Christ the Poet, who spoke in images; I was at hand,
A metaphor for their failure to bring forth that which was within them
(as figs were not within me). . . . My absent fruit stood for their barren hearts.
He cursed not me, not them, but . . . their dullness, that withholds gifts unimagined.”
Let us travel together through the rest of Lent, not with dullness, but with an increasing appetite for the banquet. “Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
Sermon 31 January 2016 – 4th after Epiphany
The Reverend Brenda Nestegaard-Paul
Jeremiah 1:4-10 * Psalm 71:1-6 * 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 * Luke 4:21-30
Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and our Lord and Saviour Jesus, the Christ.
Silence for reflection
As I began to prepare for today’s message, the gospel text brought to mind two incidents for me. First, the near riot that erupted following the Parisian premiere of Igor Stravinky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ in 1913. The crowd was not expecting this ‘new’ music. The second, part of a 1990 tour of ‘Jacque Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris’ of which I was a part, where while performing on stage, we sang to the backs of heads through most of the performance while a starting crowd of 300 diminished to 7. Afterwards we discovered that the crowd had come expecting ‘The Young Canadians’ – a youth choir – and got … well, Jacques Brel which is pretty ….. earthy. At any rate, in both incidents, we have examples of what happens when a group doesn’t get what it expects. It can get ugly! Which bring us to today’s gospel reading.
It’s a beautiful Sabbath day in Nazareth. Jesus has just addressed the home town crowd from the scroll of Isaiah -
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
And then he rolls up the scroll, sits down according to custom to preach the sermon, and begins the sermon with the words... “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
We are told the initial reaction to the beginning of Jesus’ sermon was one of surprise, amazement, even pride ... hometown boy does good! ….. but by the end of his sermon, the people are so enraged that they drive him out from the synagogue in open hostility, in the hope of hurling him off a cliff! Why? What did Jesus say that caused such a reaction?
It seems that the people became angry and were moved to do Jesus harm AFTER he reminds them of two specific instances of God’s grace in their history. First, the story of their beloved prophet Elijah when he was sent ONLY to the woman of Zarephath (a Gentile, an outsider, a foreigner) despite the fact that there were numerous Israelite widows in need of help at the time of the famine - and second, the story of when another beloved prophet, Elisha, healed ONLY the one leper from Syria, Naaman, again a Gentile, a foreigner, despite the fact there were many Jewish lepers in the land of Israel. You see what’s happening here? What led a group of God’s faithful followers to become so upset as to want to hurl Jesus from a cliff resides in Jesus’ reminding his listeners of these two stories of God’s love for …….. wait for it ……outsiders.
But again why the hostile reaction? Both stories were very familiar to Jesus’ listeners - the people of Israel knew their bible – and these were stories where God’s grace was lovingly dispensed in their remembering. But in Jesus’ context, on this day they were stories that upset the people of God. Why? Maybe because these were examples of God showing grace to ‘outsiders’ who in the stories were shown to trust God, in other words have faith, more than the ‘insiders’. Maybe the people in the synagogue believed they had exclusive right to God’s graciousness. After all, they were the elect, Israel. Maybe Jesus struck a nerve in reminding the people of Nazareth that they could not control who God loved. But at the end of the day, the answer to ‘why the reaction’ is not that they hadn’t heard these stories before, but in the fact that the hometown crowd didn’t want to hear the stories as part of Jesus’ new interpretation. When we think we already know the truth, it’s hard to be open to anything new, especially if it challenges us.
So what was new? By linking the Isaiah text (The Spirit of the Lord is upon me et cetera) with the two prophetic stories of Elijah and Elisha, Jesus took hold of one of the pillars which supported the lives of the people of Nazareth and pulled it out from under them. These people lived and died with the belief THEY were the chosen people of God and no others had any right to God’s promises. Those promises belonged to them alone. Jesus throws in their faces the falsehood of such a belief - by reminding them of two cases in their holy scripture where divine blessing was bestowed on those “outside” the chosen people. And by combining the telling of these two stories with the words from the scroll of Isaiah - Jesus was telling them he had come to change EVERYTHING. Not just for the people of Israel - but for the whole of humanity. His Good News was to and for EVERYONE on God’s behalf. So as we heard in the gospel reading, this didn’t sit well with the people of his hometown - a community of the faithful - of the “chosen” people. Jesus’ words made them very uncomfortable …. It was a new interpretation, and they lashed out. It kind of makes one want to cry out – don’t kill the messenger!!
I think this story challenges the church today too, much in the same way as those long ago Nazarenes. Despite our best intentions the church continues to endanger itself by also trying to decide who is “in” and who is “out” , who is worthy of God’s grace or not, instead of making sure all will feel welcome by God’s love wherever we find ourselves. Reflecting then on ourselves, because we ourselves are the only ones we have control of changing, we need to ask:
- Do we believe God only loves us and ‘our kind’ however that might be understood? OR do we trust that the love we have experienced unconditionally is also experienced by others unconditionally even if we don’t approve of ‘them’?
- Are we allowing ourselves to be freed from that which holds us captive and creating the space for the same to happen to others?
- Are we taking off our blinders so that we can see what we need to see with our Lord’s eyes?
- Are we mindful of how we both oppress and are oppressed, wanting to be free of the former so we can stand with the latter?
- Are we willing to open our hearts to the hurting so that our caring can bind up the broken hearted no matter who they are?
- Are we aware of how we too ache for the good news, of the many ways we too can be and are impoverished, so that as we are fed by this good news, we will be moved to ensure others are also fed?
- Where do we find ourselves in these questions? The church is a people of God, in-spirited to live Jesus’ way. And today, Jesus is inviting us to expand our comfort zone from wherever we find ourselves. God loves us all, within and beyond these walls, calls us all to live a life which responds to God’s gracious love by welcoming, forgiving, serving ‘others’. Can ‘others’ see the Spirit of the Lord in us, through us? For as the Body of Christ, that is how God’s love in Christ is shown today.
What does that love look like? As Saint Paul tells us , “Love is patient: love is kind: love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends”….. because its source is the infinite well that is God. Though St. Paul’s description of love is so often relegated to the wedding ceremony, this hymn to love was actually written to describe what the church community …… the earthly body of Christ …….. was/is to look like, to be like.
Today, I invite you to drink from the well again and again that God’s love may be seen in you, that the word of good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight, the oppressed going free would be enfleshed in you and through you again and again; that this Scripture of new life for all the others in the world, including ourselves, would be fulfilled in their hearing. May it be so. For Christ’s sake and this world so beloved of God.
Sermon 17 January 2016 – 2nd after Epiphany
The Reverend Stuart Isto
Isaiah 62:1-5 * Psalm 36:5-10 * 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 * John 2:1-11
One of the central themes of the gospel is transformation. The course is translated into the fine, the ordinary becomes the extraordinary. Our scriptures today remind us of this principle.
According to Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, we all have gifts which are activated by the one spirit.
These scriptures which we just read seem to come from some world which was far different from our own. They involve extraordinary personal gifts and incredible events.
To understand them, it might be a good idea to express them in terms which are closer to our own situations and lives.
“Now,” says St Paul, “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit, and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord. There are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
To one is given through the Spirit the ability to make speculations and to reason out the gaps in our knowledge of holy things. To another is given the ability to sing beautifully and in tune. To another is given the ability to care for those requiring a great deal of special attention.
To one is given the ability to maintain our church building and assets. To another the ability, by the same Spirit to turn a barren piece of ground into a fruitful and sustaining garden.
To someone is given the gift of leadership, that we may be led in the path of the Spirit.
To someone else is given knowledge of accounting practices and asset management.
Yet another person is blessed with the ability to offer up inspiring and much-needed prayers. And another can find a way to support refugees in desperate situations.
One person has the gift of being able to deliver a profound and inspired sermon. Another can organize community meals. One person can teach Sunday school and another can organize the parish library.
All these gifts are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
It is only because of the combination of these many gifts that we can continue to be a true church of God, and serve others as God would have us do.
Some of us seem to naturally know how to do the right thing almost all the time, others can only reach that goal after making countless mistakes. I have a good friend who seems to have a gift for saying the right thing at the wrong time.
This friend told me a true story a few days ago.
It seems that when he was a little boy, his mother took him with her on a long trip on the train. Before they left for this trip the mom carefully prepared the little boy for how he should behave on the journey. She told him that he would have to behave himself and not be too loud or get lost. Then she said to him, “and if the conductor comes around and talks to you and asks you how old you are, you must tell him, ‘I’m five years old.”
So the day for the journey came and the mother and child boarded the train and sat down and the trip began. Presently the conductor came along checking people’s tickets. He noticed the boy and said to him, “You’re a smart looking young man, how old are you?”
My friend answered as directly as he could: “I’m five years old, but I’m really six.”
Our Gospel lesson today tells the story of Jesus’ first recorded miracle. This story is only related in the Gospel of John. In the space of a very short time, Jesus had been baptised by John, then started to gather disciples. Jesus actually brought some of his new disciples to the wedding in Cana.
There is more mystery to the story than first meets the eye. The first question which springs to mind has never been answered except by speculation. That is, whose wedding was it? Mary, the mother of Jesus seems to played an important role in this wedding, but we have no idea whether it was some relative of hers who was getting married, in fact we know nothing at all about the people in the wedding. The second mystery is, where did the wedding actually take place. Once again we can only speculate where Cana was actually located, except somewhere in Galilee. The next mystery is, what sort of wedding party would require such an extraordinary amount of wine, around 150 gallons, according to the gospel record. The fourth mystery is, of course, how did the water in the water jars turn to wine? Jesus is not shown to have touched the water or done any direct thing which would cause such a magical event. This event was said to have caused his disciples to believe in Jesus, but for some of us it is just as likely to cause us to doubt. This seems more like the work of a magician than the miracle of a saint, if you’ll forgive me for saying so. One more question comes up as we ponder this event. The steward at the wedding mentioned that generally the good wine is served first, then when the guests have become drunk the inferior wine is brought out. But we know that the wine which was first served at the wedding had already been entirely consumed. So perhaps the wedding guests could hardly be relied upon to evaluate the new wine. Obviously it is possible to try too hard to puzzle out these stories.
It seems obvious to me that we need to search for the symbolic meaning in the transformation of water into wine, that this must suggest some other transformation, perhaps the transformation of our sinful, weak selves into something better and more pleasing to God. For Jesus the spiritual world and the everyday world were always intertwined.
This is surely a kind of demonstration by Jesus of the power of faith, that by faith the ordinary things or people might be made extraordinary. Or turning water into wine is an act of turning scarcity into abundance.
I’m reminded of that hymn from Brian Doerksen,
“Refiner’s fire, my heart’s one desire is to be holy, set apart for you, Lord.
I choose to be holy, set apart for you my Master, ready to do your will.”
Jesus said, in the Gospel of John, that signs such as the turning of water into wine were so that people would see the signs and believe. As Jesus said to a royal official in Capernaum, “unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”
This was, according to John, the first of seven signs by which Jesus’ divine status is attested. St Columba of Iona was said to have performed an identical miracle when he served as a deacon in Ireland and there was no wine for the communion.
Going back to the idea that each of us has certain gifts which are activated by the one Spirit, I’d like to mention that our annual meeting is coming up soon, February 14, to be exact. This is a perfect opportunity for us to make known our special gifts. The nominating committee is looking for a few dedicated people to fulfill some specific roles on Parish Council. You may have already been contacted, or you may wish to discuss how you could serve with one of the members of the nominating committee.
As we sang just a little while ago,
Summer and winter and springtime and harvest
Sun moon and stars in their courses above
Join with all nature in manifold witness
To thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.
Great is thy faithfulness Lord unto me.
- Homily 10 January 2016 – The Baptism of the Lord
Hannah Main van der Kamp
Isaiah 43:1-7 * Psalm 29 * Acts 8:14-17 * Luke 3:15-17,21-22
Holy Father of the Lord Christ who received the Holy Spirit in His Jordan baptism, may we all become more like Him who knew his life’s task and received from you affirmation.
I speak to you brothers and sisters in the hope that we can all hear the old stories again in a new way. Amen.
The two parts of the Gospel. John the Baptist, fiery, Jesus calm.
Why did Jesus submit to John’s Baptism of Repentance? This event must have made a big impression because all four Gospel writers, though in slightly different words, tell this story. If we understand Jesus to be the Incarnate God, He would have no need for repentance. Yet Jesus walked from Galilee to the Jordan to seek this ritual cleansing.
What do we know about Jesus from the time that he was about 12 to the time of his Baptism about 18 years later? Nothing.
If he had been in Nazareth all that time working as a carpenter, as some traditions suppose, he would have found it hard to leave behind his business, his income, his responsibilities in the community and to friends and family. He may have been a leader in the synagogue. We know he knew the Jewish scriptures; he was invited to read from the scroll of Isaiah on at least one occasion. Or he might have found his life in the village too difficult. His mother was under suspicion because of the odd circumstances of the conception of her first child. Who had heard or believed that Annunciation story? Possibly she and her son were on the devalued people list because people in those villages have long memories and suspicions about those who broke the law. Perhaps Jesus had been the object of scorn and needed to leave while he was still a teen. Perhaps he and John the Baptist spent time in the desert together seeking visions, living ascetically. We know their mothers were related and closely bonded. Maybe those two young men had been hiding out because their criticism of the existing powers had already been noticed. Jesus may have deferred to his older ‘cousin’ who had an apocalyptic vision of what would happen next.
There are scholars who have proposed that Jesus may have gone on a long journey to foreign lands. Nazareth was within easy walking distance of the city of Sephoris. That Roman sentinel town had been rebuilt when Jesus was a teen because the Romans had destroyed it as punishment for a Jewish rebellion there. Jesus may have gone there with his father to be employed as carpenters when the town was rebuilt. The thing to note about Sephoris is that it was a major stop on the trade routes. Spices, silk, oils, slaves came from far away in order to be taken to the coast for trade and transport. Maybe Jesus was an adventurous twenty something and followed that road East…to what we now know as Iran, India or Tibet or China. Such strange religious observances he would have observed there! Although the Jewish Scriptures were etched in his bones, would he have been influenced by some of ancient teachings?
Travel can do that; change your perception of yourself and your life task. Perhaps Jesus was enabled through travel to “reframe’ the OT image of a Davidic king. “Kings and kingdoms all fade away…” is the impression one can get in travel as some of you know. How did Jesus come to understand that his role was not about political power?
This is not idle speculation. We can imagine into the story. We may get new perspective on the Lord when we receive the story of his Baptism as a living, recreating text.
Have you ever wondered what Mary told her son about her experiences and ponderings? Good parents know that it is not wise to tell children of great hopes and expectations for them. Perhaps some of you have had too heavy agendas laid down for you when you were young: “God’s Plan for your Life”. It is not healthy for children to be burdened in this way. Did Jesus know what Gabriel had told Mary (that God will give Jesus the throne of his ancestor David and he will be king forever) or Simeon’s prophecy ( a light for the whole world and the hope of Israel)? We simply do not know.
Here’s what we do know.
The land of Palestine was in utter turmoil. There was expectation everywhere that a new Davidic king would return to rescue his people. Rebellions were breaking our everywhere, cruelly put down by the Roman oppressors. The Jewish kings whom the Romans installed were cruel and ineffective. The priesthood had become corrupt, a huge hierarchy based on temple commerce. The powerful Pharisees were a purity cult, teaching the letter of every Levitical and Deuteronomical Law, handing out guilt to those who could not keep such strict requirements, making ordinary people like you and me feel even more hopeless.
(Here the parish librarian would like to interject,. There’s a great book on this, historical context, SIMPLY JESUS by NT Wright WHICH IS IN THE PARISH LIBRARY!)
When Jesus came to be baptized, the “time was fulfilled”. Had he made other earlier attempts to set things right? Had he been a follower of some of the other messiah figures going around the country preaching revolt? He did not come out of nowhere. No leader does.
Had he experienced discouragement in previous years when he had tried to put something right either by disobeying the Roman rules or the Pharisaical rules. Was he “putting off’ beginning on His life task, waiting for a sign, a confirmation that it was time? We can relate to that. That’s a thoroughly human experience. You know there is something you need to do, want to do, are called to do and skilled to do and yet…you put it off.
I’m not necessarily speaking of great and glorious things. The establishment of Christ’s rule on earth does not depend solely on holding marches, organizing conferences, giving all you possess away. Remember what John the Baptist said when he was asked, “what shall we do?” (Rev Paula preached on this in Advent.) He said if you are in the military, don’t be abusive, if you are in finance, and don’t cheat. Do what you are called to do, however humble but do it with integrity, do it well.
I can speak personally to that. I have a project on my desk that has been sitting there for months. I know I have to do it. It will be difficult at times but I’m pretty sure that it is a God-directed task. Then I hear my inner whiner saying, “ but who needs I”’ and “it probably won’t be any good” or “how about some other time”. Talk about pressure, really Hannah! Get started. “But but…God, I’ll do it but just give me a word, just tell me I am on the right track…”
Let’s look again at the Collect of the day we will say later in this morning prayer service… “faithful to their calling”!
Here’s what Dean O’Driscoll (by the way, his book about the Collects is in, yes, our parish library!) had to say about it. “Surely the voice which proclaims Jesus as Son can be heard by us at a like moment in our spiritual journey. If we set out from ‘home’ and the familiar in genuine search for what God’s will for me may be and in genuine intention to offer my life to God, surely my self offering will be rewarded by a deep sense of affirmation, a sense of being named by God as son or daughter. And should this happen there will come inner peace and joy which are true gift s of the spirit.”
Sometimes all we need is a spark, not a conflagration to get going. Jesus heard “yes, now, go” and Luke reports that immediately when Jesus stepped out of the Jordan he went to the desert for forty days and then to Galilee to begin his Ministry of preaching, celebration, healing and conversion.
In your faith journey who or what event was your baptism in the Jordan, what lovely dove-like hovering was there be above you? These are the stories we need to tell each other.
The last verse of the Gospel hymn we sang today:
We too have found a roadway;
It led us to this place.
We all have had to travel
In search of hope and grace.
But now beside this water
Again a voice is heard;
“you are my own, my chosen
beloved of the Lord.”
Sermon 3 January 2016 – The Epiphany
The Reverend Dr. Paula Sampson
Isaiah 60:1-6 * Psalm 72:1-7,10-14 * Ephesians 3:1-12 * Matthew 2:1-12
- This morning, the kings are welcomed at Christ’s cradle. The kings. But I don’t mean
the three kings of the carol, even though we just sang about them. No doubt those three visitors
were very majestic, grand and wealthy. At least the treasured and costly gifts they brought to
Jesus indicate that they were wealthy. But majesty, grandeur and wealth alone do not make a
person royal. Actually, the three magi who followed the star to see the baby born to be savior
were probably not kings at all. Nowhere in Matthew’s story of this visit does he say that the
visitors were kings. More likely, they worked for kings, the kings of ancient countries like
Persia and Arabia. The maji, or sages, were people whom kings hired to watch the stars and
make pronouncements about the future. We would call them astrologers, cosmic forecasters.
These people told kings what was going to happen, but they were not kings themselves.
So if the magi visiting Jesus are not the kings I mean, who are? It is actually quite
difficult to find many kings at Christ’s cradle because, throughout a lot of Christian history,
most have failed to show up there. Historically, the powerful sovereigns of the so-called
Christian nations of the world, with some notable exceptions of course, have been more
interested in conquering and colonizing. They haven’t seemed interested in going very far out of
their way to pay attention to the small and vulnerable. Nor is it just historic figures I refer to.
The rulers I am talking about are people like ourselves whenever we are in positions of authority
and we take advantage of that, even when we don’t know we’re doing it. We aren’t always
aware of this, but we all have some sphere, even if small, over which we have influence. Any
time we are given power, we become, in a manner of speaking, a monarch, and if we abuse our
power, by being unkind or unjust or irresponsible, we remove ourselves from the cradle of
It is not up to me to make judgments about people, especially not in a sermon. In fact, to
do that would be an abuse of my power as a preacher. But, a look at our human past and our
human present indicates a general human tendency sometimes to misuse power. That’s what sin
is, basically: abuse of power. Even though we would like the world to be the place Isaiah
describes where “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn,” so
much of the time it still is the place the prophet first described. Whether political or business
figures or just someone acting thoughtlessly in a family or a forest, dictatorial types do not
bother to remember Christ’s cradle, let alone show up there.
Where do they go instead? Of course, the only person I know about for sure is myself.
The place I find myself when I have misused power in some way, if I’ve been unfair or made a
selfish decision or held on to a possession that someone else needs, I am not at Christ’s cradle, I
am at Herod’s palace. Kings like Herod are frightened of losing their power, and so they try to
grab more or else rid themselves of all threats to that power. I have to remind myself not to be a
tyrant like Herod. Herod was a king who killed children, when he should have gone to worship
Paul tells us how to be the kind of sovereign who does come to the cradle of Christ. He
writes, “. . . although I am the very least of ll the saints, grace was given to me to bring to the
Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ and to make everyone see what is the plan of
the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the
wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the
heavenly places . . . . “
True rulers are those who possess not the riches of nations but the riches of Christ, not the
wealth of economic exploitation but the rich variety of God’s wisdom revealed to us by Jesus
and taught, we hope, by the church. Real kings and queens do not use their power to leave
people out. The knowledge of Jesus was made known to all the people of the world, not just the
Jewish people, but the people of Persia and Arabia and Europe and Asia and Africa and Powell
River. In like manner, the regal ones on earth, whether they are in capital cities or corporate
board rooms or schools or homess , the real sovereigns on earth who recognize the power of God
in their lives, share the gospel by sharing their power. They, we, value mercy and justice and
love. They fit the description of the king in the psalm for today: freeing the people from
oppression, not leading them into it.
It is the sharing and responsible use of power that make up the very best gifts we can give
the Christ Child. They are not the gifts of material wealth, but they are just as treasured and
costly. They are the gifts of our hearts, hearts of true royalty. God does not require us to come
from far distances or figure out star patterns in order to show our reverence for Jesus. All God
requires is that we open our eyes to see the light of Christ in that cradle. Or in that garden. Or in
that neighbor. The response we receive gives us riches untold. The riches of God’s love.
Isaiah tells us to “Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come
to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’
arms. They you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.”
When we gather at this table for eucharist, let us be queens and kings appearing at
Christ’s cradle. We, not three kings, but many monarchs. Not frightened or greedy Herods, but
wise and reverent leaders, aware of our particular spheres of influence. Not ordinary kings, but
God’s own generous majestic ones, shining with “royal beauty bright.”
- Sermon 27 December 2015 – First Sunday after Christmas
- The Reverend Dr. Paula Sampson
1 Samuel 2:18-20,26 * Psalm 148 * Colossians 3;12-17 * Luke 2:41-52
In twelfth century Germany, Dominican monk Meister Eckhart composed a Christmas
Eve sermon. He preached from the Book of Wisdom, whose ancient text foretells the Christmas story and its theology. Eckhart began with Chapter 18, verse 14: “When peaceful silence lay over all, and night had run the half of its swift course, down from the heavens, down from the royal throne, leapt your all-powerful Word.” This evocative quote from Wisdom not only equates Jesus with Wisdom, but it also describes vividly a cosmic, majestic sense of grandeur surrounding Jesus’ birth. Both very appropriate images for the season of Christmas.
- Appropriate, but, by themselves, incomplete. So, to keep us from getting too carried away with the majesty and grandeur part, the Lectionary assigns the only gospel story we have about Jesus’ childhood for the Sunday after Christmas. It fits well then. After all the tinsel and the glitter, all the hyperventilating of the media (and even of the church sometimes) to make this season so “special,” we need to come down to earth ourselves to see God’s drama of salvation unfold. We come down to earth because that is what God’s Son did: “the all-powerful Word” came down to earth where apparently one of the first things he did was get into trouble with his parents. If there is any question about Jesus’ humanity, this story helps answer it, which may have been why Luke related it.
- Although that is not all that Luke is up to here. How do you think Luke would have even known about this event? Did he ask Mary what Jesus was like as a child? Did Mary reply, “Well, let me tell you about the time . . . .” Doubtful. Luke wrote 80 years or so after Jesus’ birth, and it’s unlikely he ever met Mary. But Luke had two other motivations: he had the newly emerging Christian tradition, and he had the need to deal with the increasing separation between followers of Jesus and followers of Judaism.
- By noting that Mary and Joseph went every year to Jerusalem for the Passover, Luke establishes that Jesus grew up in a faithful Jewish household. This might not mean much to us now, but when Luke wrote (80-90 CE) tensions were high. His congregation believed that the ministry of Jesus began the realm of God. They also welcomed gentiles without prior conversion to Judaism. Other Jewish groups did not share those beliefs. As Luke’s gospel, in common with the other three, describe how the ministry of Jesus unfolded, it is clear that Jesus had considerable conflict with Jewish authorities over how to interpret God’s presence and purposes.
By recollecting that Jesus was raised in a faithful Jewish atmosphere, and recalling that Jesus was in learned conversation with rabbis from a young age, Luke assures listeners that the viewpoints of Jesus and the church are authentically Jewish. Luke’s church did not reject Judaism. They interpreted Jewish convictions in light of their experience of Jesus. Of course, Luke was primarily an evangelist, and his gospel accounts are not merely a series of literary moves written to confront one or the other of several religious factions who opposed Christianity. There is the good news of Jesus Christ in his and all the gospels. That is why we read them!
- Good news at the turning of the year is both sorely needed and always present. We just need to look carefully. At times we find ourselves like Mary and Joseph desperately looking for a Jesus who seems to be missing. Where is God in the midst of 2015’s headlines? Mary and Joseph, searching for Jesus, eventually found him in the temple. We don’t require the same pilgrimage to find God, we have only to open our eyes to discover God always and already around us. As we look back on the year behind, where do we Jesus? Among other places, in the generous response of so many to the plight of refugees. In St. George, Ontario which celebrated Christmas in October for a boy who would die in December. In the wake of Nepal’s earthquake as thousands race to the rescue. In the Paris climate change agreement. In the help for flood victims in Uruguay and the UK and tornado victims in Texas. And as we go forward into the year to come and keep looking for Jesus, we will find what we’re looking for. Jesus will in fact find us. Val Ogden, a Methodist minister in the UK wrote new words to a familiar carol to reassure us of that:
- Away in a manger is not where he sleeps.
In the midst of our mad world a vigil he keeps.
He bids us watch with him, from cradle to cross,
Reflecting his glory, rejecting the gloss.
Though infant-eyed, Christ is well able to see
How the world gropes for sense in its insanity.
And does he desert us? No, God’s choice is plain:
To be born and to dwell here, again and again.
- This piece of the gospel’s good news has a caveat to it, though. We hear it in Jesus’ response to his parents’ anxiety. “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I would be in my Father’s house?” We should know that about Jesus, too. He’s about God’s business. But we aren’t always ready to let go of our expectations and let him do that. We do not want to accept that Jesus did not come to fulfill our expectations. We won’t find him in sentiment for the way things used to be or the way we wish things could still be. Jesus is about the future. Jesus was born, lived, died and rose to be about God’s business of putting an end to our searching by making plain the way to God, even if that means shattering our expectations. Which it almost always will.
- Luke tells another story about Jesus, too, one that took place roughly 20 years later. Once again, he is missing and gone forever it seems. His disciples have just witnessed his death and burial. Once again, after three days, they find him and, again, in the most unexpected place:
- risen and present among them, asking for something to eat!
Meister Eckhart also knew to bring his listeners down to earth. In that sermon, he asks an important question. “What good is it that God was born in Bethlehem if God isn’t born in me?” the best place to find Jesus is to look within ourselves and each other.
- Sermon 24 December 2015 – Christmas Eve
The Reverend Dr. Paula Sampson
Isaiah 9:2-7 * Psalm 96 * Titus 2:11-14 * Luke 2:1-20
Someone has said that preachers should compose sermons with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Sound advice if a sermon is to be relevant. In our day, there is some doubt as to whether newspapers are still relevant, but I have been paying attention in recent years to December issues of Macleans Magazine. Last year, for example, they reviewed a book called Does Santa Exist? I’ll get to that issue and this year’s in a bit, but it was a particular article several years back that really got my attention. On the magazine’s cover were three shepherds and three magi following a star while below them the headline proclaimed, “The Truth about Christmas: what to tell your kids.” Leaving aside that Western biblical interpretation tells us that the shepherds preceded the magi to the Christ child by at least two weeks, I was still interested in the confident instructions, “What to tell your kids.”
I’m of the mind that a lot of challenging theology can emerge from the secular media, so I read on. The first paragraph of journalist Patricia Pearson’s article explained her dilemma: “As Christmas approaches this year, my six-year-old daughter Clara, is still trying to sort out some relationship issues. To wit: if Santa Claus is not Jesus’ uncle, then what exactly is his connection to Jesus’ birthday celebration? And if Mary is the mother of Jesus, then who is the mother of God? And how can Joseph not be God . . . if he is Mary’s husband and Jesus’ father?” Ms. Pearson goes on: “I sympathize with Clara’s confusion and try to answer her questions as best I can. The Santa connection has been challenging for me, too. At one point, I ventured that he was also known as St. Nicholas, an important servant of God centuries ago who lived and died in . . . .” Then I clapped my hand to my mouth. “Santa’s dead?” my daughter asked in horror. “No, never mind. I didn’t mean that. I just mean Santa is God’s helper.”
Patricia Pearson made a gallant effort. But if that is all we tell our children, or ourselves, about Christmas, concluding finally that the main Christmas message is just that Santa is God’s helper, I fear we haven’t done a very good job of getting at “the truth about Christmas.” Though it is a nice thought: Santa as God’s helper.
Discovering the truth about Christmas, I suggest, is a lifelong task. It takes more than a magazine article, it takes a whole life. It’s impossible if we pay attention only to today’s commercial/consumer emphasis, which has for the most part obliterated Christmas truth. It’s impossible if we try to de-spiritualize it. I quote again from MacLeans describing another parent’s approach. “I have no faith in a god,” he says, “but we feel guilty about totally abandoning the intention of Christmas, so we try to say that Jesus is great because he was . . . the first advocate for the underprivileged, but we take all the God stuff out.” We can leave aside scriptural details again (God and Moses were the first advocates for the underprivileged), but we simply can’t “take all the God stuff out” and have any of Christmas left. The only way to discover the truth about Christmas is to pay attention to our own human experience read in the light, not just of MacLeans Magazine, but of scripture. For the truth about Christmas is that God became a person and physically entered human history. “The Word became flesh and pitched its tent among us,” John’s gospel says. Doctrine of the Incarnation, church teaching calls it.
Whatever we name this human birth into a human world of a human child who is also divine, what do we tell, not just our kids, but ourselves and the whole world about it?
I think the most important statement we can make about the Christmas truth is that we are an essential part of it. Saint Paul made that clear when he wrote to Titus, disciple in charge of the early church in Crete. The divine grace of God appearing in the human Jesus, whose birth we celebrate this night, restored us to truth by showing us how to be divinely human. As Paul wrote, “. . . training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope . . . . He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.”
Or, as an Archbishop of Canterbury said, “God has made us in such a way that we only become really human when we are in harmony with God’s life and love.”
Being in harmony with God’s life and love. It is, as young Clara Pearson realizes, a question of relationships. Ours with God. Ours with each other. It isn’t so much how we are able to explain Christmas, it is how we are able to live in the light of it. Clara’s mother, searching for a way to help her confused daughter, ended up taking her to a Christmas pageant at their local Anglican church to give her, as she put it, “. . . a narrative she could follow about the holiday.”
A narrative she could follow. . . A story about relationships between people and their God come to fruition in the birth of a human child who was also God. That is how to tell kids or anybody else the truth about Christmas, by giving them a narrative they can follow. A story about being zealous for good deeds. A story based in Scripture but also formed from our own human lives lived here and now with the very same love, compassion, honesty, and thirst for justice and peace that Jesus had. That not only tells the truth about Christmas, it incarnates that truth right into our lives, our human lives infused with the divine grace of God.
So, if Macleans was so helpful at Christmas a few years ago, what’s on offer this year? Last week’s issue featured “The Year in Pictures,” and this week’s presents “The Year Ahead.” Maybe not narratives we want to follow, because much of recent past and expected future is both disturbing and challenging, but nonetheless the story our world is living now, according to Mcleans at least. What these editions provide is a way to remind ourselves, viewing their mosaic of pictures and predictions, it is right here, on this earth, in real time, that God exists in the midst of human activity and human promise. Not all of it is joyful, but all of it is human. Not all of it is certain, but all of it is possible.
Returning to writer Patricia Pearson, as a mother, she was doing her best to help her child understand. Another mother had a similar task two thousand years ago. Her name was Mary. Luke tells us that Mary “pondered . . . in her heart.” We don’t know for sure where Mary’s ponderings led her, but I suspect they led her to the truth about Christmas.
May the imagination of the shepherds, the acceptance of Joseph, the pondering of Mary be in our minds and actions tonight and always. May the God of the child delight our adult, and the blessing of God in human flesh be perceived in us and in all our narratives, now and forever.
Sermon 20 December 2015 – Advent IV
The Reverend Dr. Paula Sampson
Micah 5:2-5a * Canticle 18b * Hebrews 10:5-10 * Luke 1:39-55
- This, the fourth and last Sunday of Advent, the church pauses in its preparation for the birth of the Savior, to reflect on the experience of the Savior's mother, Mary. When the gospel of the day is from Luke, as it is this year, that reflection becomes especially forceful because Luke has given Mary an especially forceful song to sing. We just sang it, too, in modern version, as a way to participate with Mary as she reflects on what the birth of her son will mean, not only to her but to the whole world.
Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is one of the clearest expressions in all of Scripture declaring what the love of God is truly about. It is about justice. Mary continues the centuries-old tradition of her people when she proclaims how and why it is that her soul does magnify the Lord. Her ancestor, Miriam, proclaimed this first at the Exodus on the shores of the Red Sea. "Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea." In the Book of Judges, Deborah takes up the anthem. "To the Lord I will sing, I will make melody to the Lord . . . . Perish all your enemies, O Lord! But may your friends be like the sun as it rises in its might." Hannah voiced the same sentiment before the birth of Samuel. "My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God . . . The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength." It's last echo in Hebrew Scripture comes from Judith. "Praise my God with the tambourine, sing to the Lord . . . extol his name, invoke it! He has pitched his camp in the middle of his people to deliver us from the hands of our enemies."
Mary, knowing she is to play a birthing role as God's salvation continues to play itself out in history, stands firmly and strongly in the tradition of these matriarchs and reminds all of us that salvation does not just mean deliverance for individuals, it means justice for communities.
It is important to put Mary's proclamation in its context, not just of her visit to Elizabeth, but also the social and political context in which those two women and all like them lived, the world into which Jesus was born. It was a world of poverty and oppression. Luke gives us a lot of details about this world when he tells the Christmas story we’ll hear Thursday night. The Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, has ordered that all the world should be taxed. Why? So he can fund an army to maintain a brutal and violent order around the Mediterranean. People like Mary and Joseph, probably a peasant who had lost his land and so went somewhere else to find work, have to return to their home town to be registered for the tax. So off they go, Joseph and Mary, not because they wanted to but because the emperor forced them to.
On their journey, Mary carries with her more than the child in her womb, the bringer of hope to Israel's future. She also carries with her the words of her people, the language of hope from Israel's past. Her song praises God for acting to save all the poor, exploited and marginalized. In Caesar's world, it is the proud, powerful and rich who have everything. In God's world, it is the reverent, the lowly and the hungry who receive. In Caesar's world, those who have power do all they can to increase it. In God's world, the all-powerful One acts in mercy to lift up those who have no power. In Caesar's world, the emperor is worshipped as a god. In God's world, there is no emperor. The political and economic realities are reshaped by God's imperative for justice, and Mary knows it is her son who will do that reshaping.
Mary knows, and she proclaims what she knows. Some call Mary the Queen of Heaven; some, the God-bearer; some, the prophet of the poor. The point, though, is not that the woman who sings the Magnificat is lowly, humble and unimportant compared to almighty God. The point is that God has looked on her poverty and oppression and helped her and all living beings in the same situation.
For Mary didn’t just sing to Elizabeth, she is singing to all of us. I would like to think, for example, she is singing to all those included last week when the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions presented their report and also to those of us in the once proud and oppressive institutions who took their childhood away. She could also be singing to the families of the Missing Indigenous Women and Girls and perhaps even to those who took their loved ones’ lives away. She might also be singing to the 60 million of the world’s refugees and to those who have closed their hearts and borders to them.
For Mary’s song has a warning in it for all of us about where our priorities, our proclamations are to be. It is not the well-fed, the proud and the power seekers whom we are to serve or resemble. Rather, it is the hungry, the humble and the poor. Luke will remind us of this over and over again in his gospel this year. We hear, for example, of the rich young ruler who asks Jesus what he must do to enter the kingdom of God. "Sell all you have, give your money to the poor and follow me," Jesus replies. In other words, become poor, become hungry and then you, too, will be raised up and filled with good things. The rich young ruler couldn't bring himself to do it; it can be hard for us, too.
But then we think of Mary. Mary who had very little to begin with gave it all to God: her reputation, her betrothal, her desire to be just a regular mother with a regular child. And, along with that, she gave God what she had an abundance of, and that was love. Her love for God is evident in the Magnificat, and her love for her son is evident throughout the gospels.
All of us are rich in our ability to love. If we can't start, as most can't, by giving away all of our possessions, we can start by giving away to God and our neighbors all of our love. For, after all, God has given all of God's love to us. That's why we have so much. God measures our love for God by the justice we show in love to neighbor. Most of us are not Roman emperors, but all of us have the capacity to act like one from time to time. Abuse of power can happen in homes and workplaces today as well as palaces in the first century. The poor, hungry and homeless don't just live in Vancouver or long ago Palestine. They are here, too. The poor, the hungry and the homeless are not limited to humankind, either. Habitat loss and species extinction are also forms of oppression and disregard for the vulnerable.
I said earlier that salvation is not just deliverance for individuals, it is justice for communities. Mary's song tells us what community justice looks like. Mary's son tells us how to achieve it. As Christians, it is our job to work against those sinful systems which oppress and keep all of creation poor, which promote self-serving hatred over unconditional love, which encourage war instead of peace.
Mary proclaimed what she knew: God's justice. We proclaim whom we know: God's son. She magnifies the Lord and we do the same.
Sermon 13 December 2015 – Advent III
The Reverend Dr. Paula Sampson
Zephania 3:14-20 * Canticle 3 * Philippians 4:4-7 * Luke 3:7-18
John the Baptist was truly been an amazing man. According to the gospels, people came out in droves to listen to him and receive baptism, in spite of the fact that he could be quite abrupt. If today's reading from Luke is any indication, it seems to have been his habit to insult his listeners. Calling a group of religious seekers a "brood of vipers" is not exactly how most of us would choose to start a sermon in which we hoped to help people change their lives.
But John the Baptist was a man in a hurry. He had a message to proclaim and a task to accomplish, and he didn't have much time. Shortly after John’s transformative work began, King Herod arrested John and threw him in prison. Today's reading may well contain the last words John ever spoke to a crowd. John didn't have much time, certainly not enough time to sugar coat or soften his message. So it isn't a surprise that he chose to offend his listeners in order to get their attention.
And why did he particularly choose to call his listeners a brood of vipers? Vipers are poisonous snakes, common to the Palestinian countryside, who tend to hide themselves in the sand before they strike. John sees that a good many of his listeners have become both mean and dishonest, and he wants them to change in time to prepare for God's judgment. He wants them to turn the poison of their dishonest behavior into the antidote of charity and fairness.
John’s audience wants to change. They know in their hearts those places where they have indeed behaved with venom or sneakiness, and they want to change. They don’t ask, “Why is this man calling us snakes?” because they know why. They ask instead, “What then should we do?”
And John tells them. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none.” In other words, be charitable and merciful. “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you. . . do not exhort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” In other words, be fair and just.
Notice in this story who the people are whom John is both insulting and advising. Among others, they are tax collectors and soldiers, the despised and marginalized of their culture. Notice who they are not. They are not the religious and political leaders. They are not the admired and powerful. Over and over again we will hear this year in Luke’s gospel that it is the underclass who pay attention to Jesus. They are also the ones who paid attention to John.
How did John know the answer their questions? When they asked, “What should we do?” how did he know what to say? Last week I suggested that John was a prophet, one who speaks words God provides. He knew his tradition. He knew about Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Amos. And he knew about Zephaniah, whose words we also heard this morning.
Zephaniah talked about God’s judgment long before John did. Zephaniah described what it looks like when the judgment is removed. It looks like mercy and justice. John knew what to tell the tax collectors because Zephaniah knew. “I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise.” John knew what to tell the soldiers because Zephaniah knew. “The Lord is in our midst, a warrior who gives victory. He will rejoice over you with gladness and renew you in his love. Even though Zephaniah prophesied about Israel’s release from Babylon and John preached about Israel’s release from sin, their basic message is the same. Zephaniah describes rejoicing after salvation, and John describes repentance before salvation, but both describe in no uncertain terms that God is the only source of whatever kind of salvation it is we need and seek.
Yes, John the Baptist was truly an amazing person. But equally amazing, to me at least, were the people who came to hear both his insults and his advice. They were amazing because they wanted to change. Not many people do. Not many people are interested in radically reforming their lives which is, of course, exactly what John was proposing they do. Yet, again and again, in response to his challenges, people asked, “What should we do?”
That must be our question, too, now in Advent as we expect the Christchild at Christmas and at all the other seasons and days, as we expect the risen Christ’s presence in our lives. “What should WE do?” And where will WE find the answer? Paul tells us exactly where. “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” John’s study of former prophets tells us, too. Prayer and study. We learn where the scriptural stories came from, discover their context then and how to apply them to our own lives now.
One other dimension is also important, and that is community. Prayer and bible study and faith discussions are best done corporately: in groups, in living rooms, around kitchen tables, in gardens and in church. We learn about God and God’s world from each other. We are prophets for each other, not, we hope, in order to hurl insults and snake metaphors back and forth, but to help each find answers to that most important question, “What should we do?”
That very question was just put to us yesterday in very specific form through the climate action agreement reached in Paris. 195 nations, including Canada, declared what they should do to slow and maybe even eventually stop the danger and injustice of human-caused climate change. As Canadians, as Christian Canadians, each of us is involved in their decision. What advice might John the Baptist have as we begin this transformative work?
Maybe instead of giving up one of our coats, he would demand we give up one of our cars or at least one of our consumer habits. Maybe he would insist we collect, not just our fair share of income only, but also just our fair share of creation’s gifts only. Maybe John would require that we find material satisfaction with enough, only.
The future held big changes for John’s crowd, as it does for us. In their case, as in ours, spiritual and economic outcomes are at stake and deeply interrelated. John was in a hurry, and from what I understand about climate change, we don’t have a lot of time either. What we do have, though, are the imagination and expertise of many in our global and local communities to help us. And we have the unconditional love of God, on the way to be born among us yet again.
In our hopes and in our fears, come Lord Jesus.
In our homes and in our world, come Lord Jesus. Amen.
Sermon 6 December 2015 – Advent II
The Reverend Dr. Paula Sampson
Baruch 5:1-9 * Canticle 19B * Philippians 1:3-11 * Luke 3:1-6
When you were a child and people asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” did you ever answer, “I’d like to be a prophet?” No? Neither did I! The image of prophets I held then was not appealing: stern, sort of scary, no sense of humor, issuing dire warnings about what would happen if people didn’t obey God. Nor did it help that, for the most part, their warnings came true. The Hebrew people saw their nation divided and then defeated by foreign armies. Those who survived were carried off into exile for several hundred years. None of this convinced me that prophecy was an attractive line of work.
- On the other hand, not all the prophets wrote of apostasy and forecast doom. Baruch was a prophet who wrote of exile and forecast hope. “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.” It’s not that Baruch ignored transgressions. Earlier in his book, he asks, “Why, Israel, why are you in the country of your enemies, growing older and older in an alien land?” and answers, “It is because you have forsaken the fountain of wisdom! Had you walked in the way of God, you would be living in peace forever.” Baruch speaks the truth here, but he also is able to speak of hope and better times.
The tradition teaches that God speaks through prophets, placing God’s words on their tongues. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel described it, “Prophets are guided not by what the prophet feels, but by what God feels.” Which is why prophets speak as much about tenderness as they do about penalty, as much about new life as they do about old mistakes, as much about the age to come as they do about the time now. Prophets do not live in gloom, they live in fullness.
- So, prophets have a positive message, too, which might make their job description a bit more attractive for anyone here today thinking of making a career move. I’m not talking about looking for a new job. I’m talking about doing better the job we, as the baptized, already have. As children, we may not have named prophesy as an ambition, but prophecy is in fact our vocation. God can speak through us, too, in many ways, most of which do not involve thundering on humourlessly about God’s wrath and punishment. We can do quite a lot just by smiling. That is why children are often the best prophets around: whenever they smile they remind us of the joy and hope of God‘s promise of new life.
- We hear about a child prophet this morning in the words Zechariah spoke to his son John, whom we call the Baptist. “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High.” Granted, much of the rest of what we know about John fits the scary, fire and brimstone stereotype. Maybe, in his day, that’s what it took to get people’s attention. But that is not what his father saw. “In the tender compassion of our God the dawn shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Later in his gospel, Luke records how John’s message involved sober reflection and repentance, but it also promised new life: “Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Prophets of whatever age or temperament do more than forecast what will happen. Their more fundamental role is to explain what is happening. Zechariah was a prophet when he realized the birth of his child meant that God had remembered God’s promise of eternal and steadfast love. In his child’s smile, Zechariah saw this promise come to life.
- Paul was a prophet when he wrote to the communities he founded. To the church at Philippi he forecast success. “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” He also proclaimed meaning. “It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me. . . . “ Just like Zechariah, Paul saw God’s promise coming to life, not in a child’s smile, but in a Christ risen and a church active.
- John was a prophet when he inserted himself into the era’s political and religious power circles and looked beyond them to give new meaning to old words foretelling salvation. But John did more. Isaiah had proclaimed, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” John proclaimed that the first step removing the obstacles along that way, the first step making a smooth and even path across mountains of oppression and valleys of injustice, the first step was into the Jordan for baptism.
- John was a prophet when he baptized. We are prophets when we live into our baptismal vows. Prophecy might not be the object of our childhood dreams, but it is the calling of the church’s baptismal vision. Our baptismal promises become prophecies when we make them. They anticipate future behavior with hope: we will continue, we will persevere, we will proclaim, we will seek and serve. They also explain present needs: teaching, community, bread and prayers, resistance, repentance, love, justice, peace, care for human dignity and planetary healing.
- Are there warnings in these prophecies, too? One, I think. Within both the promise and the present is the implicit warning that without the help of God, both the future and the present are fragile and endangered. The need remains to link future hopes to present realities. Are the mountains of oppression any lower now? Are the valleys of injustice all filled in now? Are the crooked places level and smooth now? Not exactly.
And so, there is one more thing to say about prophets: they do not just speak for God, they act for God. The “road conditions” though the mountains, the valleys and along the way are our responsibility now. Our baptism directs us to that work and gives us the means by which to accomplish it.
- Every Advent we listen to prophecy. We hear the familiar lessons which foretell the coming of God’s reign. This Advent, let’s do more than listen. Let’s engage in some prophecy of our own. Let’s foretell that our ministry, inspired by the birth of the Christ Child, will continue to grow. Let’s forecast that our open doors and minds will continue to welcome all who seek God’s reconciling friendship and ours.
- Paul’s confidence that “. . . the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” is not misplaced. We the church in 2015 are what the “age to come” became. As imperfect, as troubled, as incomplete as it is, the promise and the present are still where where God’s feelings and our own meet, today and in the next “age to come.” That begins, incidentally, right now!
Sermon 29 November 2015 – Advent 1
The Reverend Stuart Isto
Jeremiah 33:14-16 * Psalm 25:1-10 * 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 * Luke 21:25-36
Have you noticed how little light we are experiencing these days?
Yesterday I looked around just after 5pm and it was already getting dark.
I seem to be getting up a little later every day, as the sun is also later rising.
But today is the beginning of Advent Season. This season marks the very faint glimpse of the light to come. At the end of the season of Advent, the days start to get longer again and we start to look toward Spring.
So we’re beginning a season of hope, of anticipation of lighter times to come. Next week begins the season of Chanukah, also known as the season of light. In the season of Chanukah, candles are lit, just as we light the candles in our advent wreath.
This first Advent Sunday marks the beginning of the Church Year, and the theme for this Sunday is hope. As we prayed earlier, kindle in us the light of hope that we may be channels of your peace, joy and love to our broken and hurting world.
This is particularly a season of hope and light for me. Yesterday was the due date for a new baby girl, my grand-daughter, to be born in Amsterdam, Holland, my son Reynold and his wife Saskia’s first child.
Of course continual bad news especially news about refugees make us apprehensive. This past some of us met two Iraqi people who are trying to help Chaldean Christians to come to Canada from refugee camps in Lebanon. It may be that we’ll be able to sponsor one of these families some time in the new year.
During this season of Advent we remember Christ’s first coming into the world 2015 years ago, and we also celebrate his coming back into the world, as St Paul says, with all his saints. In this season we can also celebrate Christ coming into our own lives, the other personal advent we all experience sometimes and hope to experience now.
A couple of days ago I was out walking, and I stopped to think, how lucky I am to be living here in Powell River, where I can go out for a walk and fully expect to arrive back home safely. Here where I’ve never been robbed or assaulted or arrested or shot at or taken hostage or found myself in prison.
Then I stopped and wondered if I can feel good about my own good fortune, when so many others don’t enjoy this kind of security. Can I be happy and content in a world where there is so much hate and discontent, danger and scarcity?
This is what we heard from the Gospel of Luke today:
There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken…Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
Jesus told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near...Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away…Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.
Advent Season means moving towards the light, and we’re seeing changes right here in this church which may move us closer to the light. Here’s our first advent change: our new windows let in new light in our church and we can better see out into the world now as well.
Here’s another change. You’ll notice that the lectern has been moved down closer to the ground at last. In Luke chapter 14, Jesus tells this story, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host, and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, Give this person your place, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, Friend, move up higher; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
It’s a delicate balance, because we want to proclaim the gospel for all to hear, yet we must think twice about putting ourselves above others.
The American Episcopal Church has a new presiding bishop, Michael Curry, just newly consecrated this month. Bishop Curry has recently written a book titled “Crazy Christians.” In this book he calls on us to live the way of Jesus in our own time. Here is what he says:
Our Christian faith and tradition are pointing beyond themselves to the will, the vision, the sublime purposes, the passionate desire of God. The kingdom or reign of God, which Jesus talked about probably more than anything else, is the realization of God’s dream and vision for human life, human society, and all of creation. That dream of God is in part the motive for God’s involvement and God’s mission in the life of the world, from the days of the Bible until now. That dream is the reason God came among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who showed us the way to live beyond what often are the nightmares of our own sin-filled human design and into the direction of God’s dream. Being a Christian is not essentially about joining a church or being a nice person, but about following in the footsteps of Jesus, taking his teachings seriously, letting his Spirit take the lead in our lives, and in so doing helping to change the world from our nightmare into God’s dream.
- Why not a world where no child will ever go to bed hungry again?
- Why not a world in which poverty is truly history, a thing of the past?
- Why not a world in which every person is treated and valued as a child of God?
- Why not a world where we lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more?
- Why not a world reconciled to our God and to each other as children of God and brothers and sisters of one another?
- Why not a world that looks less like the nightmare of our human devising and more like the dream of God’s creating?
- Why not?
- We who would be disciples of Jesus are people who have made a commitment to follow his teachings, his manner of life, and the loving and liberating reality of his Spirit in the direction of God’s dream. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
- Let us pray. Lord open our hearts to new hopes, to new friends, new grandchildren, new light in our lives. Amen.
Sermon 01 November 2015 – All Saints
The Reverend Dr. Paula Sampson
Isaiah 25:6-9 * Psalm 24 * Revelation 21:1-6a * Matthew 5:1-12
Today is one of the four great feast days of the Christian church. Compared to Christmas, Easter or even Pentecost, All Saints Day doesn’t get a lot of press anymore, but it is a feast day with qualities equal to the other three, qualities closely connected to baptism. That is why All Saints is one of the four times each year designated for baptism and why we will renew our own vows this morning.
For the ancient tribal peoples of Europe and the British Isles, from whom many of us are descended, this day marked the beginning of a new year. Even as shadows grew darker and daylight grew dimmer, our ancestors began life anew. Nestled deep in the roots of pre-Christian European beliefs is this one: on the day halfway between the Fall Equinox and the Winter Solstice, the “veil is thin between the two worlds,” and thus is a time for the living to cautiously, and often fearfully. respect the dead, those who had crossed over to the spirit world. And so, our ancestors went about with prayers and just the right rituals to bless and make things holy, or, as they said, “hallow” and “sain” them. We hear the echoes of their words in our own: Halloween. All Saints Day. When these tribes became Christian, it wasn’t that difficult to incorporate their theology of the interconnection between the physical and spiritual worlds into their new Christian belief.
There are some major differences, of course, between Christian belief and the rituals of the Celts. One is that Christians don’t believe the veil is thin between the two worlds, we don’t believe there is a veil at all. Whatever separation may have existed between God and humankind, between the spiritual and the physical worlds, was eliminated forever at the Incarnation, when Jesus Christ was born among us here on this earth. Jesus is living proof that in God’s creation the sacred meets the ordinary and makes it holy.
But still, the church chose November 1st, that same cross quarter day between equinox and solstice, to honor the saints, those whose witness to the faith had been particularly notable. Over time, though, the observance has changed. Halloween is now a secular amalgamation which commercializes fear of the dead and capitalizes on the playful impulse of the living to be somebody else, for an evening anyway.
For the most part, the whole sainthood piece has faded away. Certainly the saints we celebrate today would find the present emphasis on Halloween puzzling. For one thing, they did not fear death. For another, they never pretended to be other than who they were. That’s what got a lot of them in trouble. Take the group we sang about at the start of the service today.
Lesbia Scott wrote this children’s hymn 83 years ago. Disarming in its simplicity, it lauds people who respond to God, as they perceive God, in the circumstances in which they find themselves. Scott’s theology is straightforward: saints are us. A doctor, a queen, a shepherdess, a soldier, a priest, a theologian, anyone can be a saint at any time. How do we know that? Because we have the stories of Luke the physician, Margaret queen of Scotland, Joan of Arc, Martin of Tours, John Donne of London and Ignatius of Antioch. In their work and witness, we catch a vision of what we are called to be.
And what is that? Luke was a healer, Margaret a mother, Joan a leader, Martin a pacificist, John a poet, Ignatius a letter-writing bishop. Their life stories may or may not match ours, but they do match Jesus’ vision of what we are called to be: blessed. Blessed by being among the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful and the hated.
They are among the many who exhibit those qualities I spoke of earlier. In his ministry, his teaching and his very being, Jesus has given us a whole new sense of what it means to hallow and to sain. He has given us a new meaning for holy and shown us a new way to think of blessing.
This is the life that we have been baptized into. Either we ourselves or our parents and godparents on our behalf, promised to own this holy, this hallowed, this sainted and blessed life in Christ. In our Christian ritual of baptism, when we promise to pray, share food, resist evil, proclaim good news, serve Christ in everyone, strive for justice and peace, and care for creation, we are answering Jesus’ call to right living first heard in the Sermon on the Mount.
In Matthew’s version of the Sermon, Jesus calls us to live out our call to holiness, not just in right rituals, but in right living: living that admits of poverty, grief, humility, want, mercy, purity, peace and suffering. And what does this kind of blessed life bring? Life in the realm of God. Life that is described by Isaiah as a feast of joy and dignity. Life that is described in Revelation as God’s home, fed by the spring of living water running through it like a river. It is not always easy to see this life as blessed. Luke was the last disciple to see Paul alive. Margaret lost three sons and a husband before her own early death. Joan was burned, allegedly for heresy but really for winning. Martin was jailed for giving his war bounty away. In his early years, John traded ambition for poverty. Ignatius was killed by lions.
Poverty, grief, hunger and suffering don’t sound attractive. They aren’t. But they have been transformed by the witness of Christ himself and countless saintly witnesses since that new and holy life are found through them.
These sainted witnesses, along with countless others, dead and living, are the blessed ones who love, pray, turn the other cheek, are generous, expect nothing. That is the job description of the baptized. Saints are us. If that gathering song didn’t convince you, perhaps these words from Annie Dillard will:
Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?
Or who shall stand in the holy place?
There is no one but us.
There is no one to send,
Nor a clean hand,
Nor a pure heart on the face of the earth,
Nor in the earth,
But only us,
A generation comforting ourselves
With the notion that we have come at an awkward time,
That our innocent ancestors are all dead
(as if innocence had ever been)
And our children busy and troubled,
And we ourselves unfit,
Not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly,
Made a false start,
Yielded to impulse
And the tangled comfort of pleasures,
And grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread,
Weak, and involved.
But there is no one but us.
There never has been.
October 11, 2015 Thanksgiving Sunday
The Reverend Stuart Isto
Joel 2:21-27 * Psalm 126 * 1 Timothy 2:1-7 * Matthew 6:25-33
It is said that the following poem is engraved on the tombstone of
Robert Louis Stevenson
UNDER the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you 'grave for me:
Here he lies where he long'd to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
This is thanksgiving and a time for us to give thanks.
Our scriptures for today assure us and call on us to not be afraid:
“O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God;
For he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before.
For our book study this fall we chose the book Falling Upward by Richard Rohr. One of the things we learned about in this book is what is called the hero’s journey.
This is the classic hero’s journey as described by Joseph Campbell:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Jesus’ life was a most classic hero’s journey.
Thanksgiving is a celebration of the homecoming in the hero’s journey.
Recently I have been personally shaken by two events. The first of these events was the shooting and killing of 9 students in Roseburg Oregon. Roseburg is a small city, the same size as Powell River, a mill town with a small community college. It so happens that my brother Ted is a teacher at this college. On October 1st Ted left home in the morning on his way to the college for a normal day of teaching. He was stopped on the road by police who informed him that he couldn’t go into the college and should turn around and go home. In the meantime teachers from the college had called Ted’s home and asked his wife, Denise if she knew where Ted was, since these shootings had just occurred. Denise told them that the last she knew he was on his way to the college. 40 minutes later Ted returned home unscathed, after Denise had been left worrying for what seemed like an endless time.
I heard about the shootings that day and called and talked to Ted and Denise, and was so thankful that his life anyway had been spared, while another professor was killed by this crazed gunman. I felt the uncertainty and hazard that surrounds us in life all the time.
This week I was shocked to hear that my friend Bruce Ede had died suddenly here in Powell River. Bruce Ede was a long time Powell River resident and well known to many people here. Though quite crippled, he maintained a schedule that included driving his car daily and swimming at the Rec Centre daily. On the day he died, he had gone swimming as usual, came home, and passed away soon after his return home. I give thanks for his life and for the positive influence he had on me. I got to know him by playing bridge with him at the Senior’s Centre. He was a formidable bridge player, but also a person who was interested in conversation. He had plenty of stories of his own to tell but was equally interested in finding out about me.
Our lives seem to go on and on, but we don’t know when or where they will come to an end. But we are reminded of our own fragile nature when others pass out of our lives.
In his letter to Timothy, St Paul asked that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. Today we will offer these prayers as we do every Sunday.
Some of us have lived nearly our entire lives in Powell River. Some of us would hardly know where to go if we wished to go back home. Some, like Bruce Ede came from far away, England in his case. His life was a hero’s journey in its own way, and ended back at home as a hero’s journey should. To paraphrase TS Eliot’s words, he was only undefeated because he went on trying.
Despite the uncertainties and dangers in our lives we must have faith, as in the scripture, knowing that we need not worry about what we will eat or drink or what we will wear, as our heavenly Father cares for us and watches over us every minute of every day.
Many of us here no longer have parents or grandparents to celebrate thanksgiving with.
This is a simple fact of life, that if we live long enough, then we are ourselves the elders, even though we are unprepared for this role. Those parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts are now only with us in our memories. So now we celebrate thanksgiving with our friends or our children and grandchildren.
I pray that each of us may find our way home in whatever way we can, and that we may still if not already find the meaning of our lives.
I’ll conclude with another poem, this one by AE Housman
Home is the sailor, home from sea:
Her far-borne canvas furled
The ship pours shining on the quay
The plunder of the world.
Home is the hunter from the hill:
Fast in the boundless snare
All flesh lies taken at his will
And every fowl of air.
'Tis evening on the moorland free,
The starlit wave is still: Home is the sailor from the sea,
The hunter from the hill.
Sermon 04 October 2015 – 19th after Pentecost
The Reverend Dr. Paula Sampson
Genesis 2:15-24 * Psalm 8 * Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 * Mark 10:2-16
- While doing some research once, I read a book called The Footnote: a curious history. The author points out, using a massive amount of footnotes himself, that adding details at the bottom of a page is a fairly recent practice. In the lessons this morning, we experience the world before footnotes. Mark quotes Genesis passages within his own narrative. The anonymous author of Hebrews includes lines from Psalm 8 in the body of his letter. If they had used footnotes (“see Gen. 2:24” or “See Ps. 8: 5-7”), and if the lectionary editors hadn’t directed us back to the original sources themselves, we might have less complex and more creation-friendly readings.
That would have been handy this Sunday as we mark the liturgical Season of Creation. Today, appropriately also St. Francis Day, we focus on our Christian relationships with God’s creation. That focus, described in the Anglican Marks of Mission is this: “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.”
Can the lessons today help us do that? The Genesis story talks about tilling and keeping the earth, but it also places animals within human categories. The Hebrews reading is couched in the language of incarnation and sacrifice, but also of hierarchy. The gospel is mostly a condemnation of divorce, with a side comment about children. What creation themes run through any of that? Should we have chosen other lessons, ignoring our commitment to the common lectionary? Should we have left out the difficult wording? Should we have chosen another Sunday? The big question, illustrated by these smaller ones is, can we safeguard the integrity of creation and the integrity of Scripture at the same time? We can’t rewrite the Bible, but we may be able to add some footnotes in order to give new understandings to old words.
That possibility is behind the two versions of Psalm 8. Both are Jewish poems praising God and placing humankind in relationship to creation. One poem is ancient, the other was written two years ago. One is part of a text sacred to two major faith traditions, the other is available on amazon.ca for $12.00. One is about power; the other about partnership.
What could we find in today’s other readings about power and partnership that might relate them to creation care? That is not just a technical question for a preacher. It is an essential question for any Christian, especially as we seek to find urgently needed ecological guidance in a sacred book that, on its face does not seem to provide much. The original Psalm 8, for example. How can language that places animals, not at our feet but under them, lend itself to anything resembling ecological partnership? The psalm’s reappearance in Hebrews just reinforces the domination idea for Christians. There is good evidence that the author of Hebrews and the early church considered Psalm 8 to be about Christ, not humanity in general. If sermons had footnotes, there would be one here talking about singular and plural Hebrew and Greek words for “man” and the difference that makes. But psalms aren’t written, sung or said with footnotes, and how many of us have the time or skill to do word studies? The impression remains that humans are above, not within, creation.
We, in our time, seek to live by words proclaimed in another time. Bishop Spong calls this the challenge of holding on to our faith “without twisting our 21st century minds into first century pretzels.” I call it the challenge of looking for words about power and balancing them with words about partnership.
Today’s story begins with a partnership search. God’s power created the human from the earth, gave the earth into the human’s care, and then made other creatures from that same earth to share the earth-keeping task with the human. Everyone, human and non- has a part to play. We know now these interconnected roles are essential for a healthy ecosystem. God gave the human power to name the animals, but in the context of shared participation in creation’s ongoing well being. But the human needed more, and so another partner arrived, also from the earth in a slightly derivative way, but still at God’s initiative and still sharing the goal of care for the garden called earth. We know, as the story unfolds, how the human desire for power overcame the desire for partnership. Nevertheless, this creation story from Genesis, sometimes overshadowed by the more elegant version in Chapter One is no mere footnote. It stands on its own and offers scriptural support for sustaining and renewing the life of the earth.
That, however, was not why Mark quoted it. Mark had no reason to include any eco-theology in his gospel because Jesus did not present any in his teaching. An endangered earth was not a first century problem. But Jesus did have a reason to emphasize that wholesome human partnerships are part of God’s creation. Jewish law allowed a man simply to write “I release and divorce my wife this day,” and send her away, homeless, for no reason and with no resources. This was abusive power, and it left women powerless and vulnerable. Even when women sought divorce (allowed in Roman law), the resulting imbalance and lack of mutuality caused Jesus to renounce any dissolution of a creation based partnership, especially when it resulted in harm to the powerless.
Could we then extend his concern for human dissolutions to the dissolution of balanced and caring relationships with our earth partners, the other living beings with whom we still share the garden? Human abuse makes nature vulnerable. Habitat destruction is like the old Jewish divorce writ, rendering our partner creatures harmed and homeless.
Likewise, Jesus’ care for children, also vulnerable, could have implications for the small and fragile elements of creation. The more powerful grownups pushed the children away, but Jesus blessed them, pointing out that only children know how to truly and deeply receive God’s love. In the same way, it is the smallest seedlings which have the most immediate receptivity to sunlight and soil. Is that not reason to consider that they are blessed, too?
We can’t transform every part of Scripture into a proclamation of earth care. But we must find ways to use more of it than we do for that purpose. Our ecological footprints as Christians will be softened to the degree we put our minds and hearts into discovering some ecological footnotes in the teachings which guide us. This does not require us to be pretzels. It requires us to be caring, powerful partners, with God, with each other and with the earth.
- Sermon 13 September 2015 – 19th after Pentecost
The Reverend Stuart Isto
- Proverbs 1:20-33 Psalm 19 * James 3:1-12 * Mark 8:27-38
- Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
- These are the last words of the psalm which we just sang, Psalm 19, and I`m sure you`ve heard many preachers quote those same words at the beginning of many sermons.
- What’s the most important thing about being a Christian?
- What do you think?
- What springs to mind immediately is what Jesus said to his disciples in his farewell discourse as described in the Gospel of John:
- As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. (Jn 15:9)
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (Jn 15:12)
- In that same chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus goes on to tell his disciples an incredible thing, and it applies to us as well as to them.
- You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last. (Jn 15:16)
- Like the Hebrew people in the Old Testament, we are ourselves chosen ones of God. Don`t ever forget Jesus`words, ``You did not choose me but I chose you.``
- As we sometimes sing here in this church, they`ll know we are Christians by our love. In today`s lesson from Mark, Jesus tells a crowd of people, ``ìf any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.``
- This week we received the shocking news that one of our members sustained a very serious accident while riding his bike on Padget Road. Tyrone Butler has been in hospital this week with a fractured pelvis and a concussion after wiping out on a curve in that road. He is just beginning to recover from this event, and will surely be on crutches for months.
- Almost immediately, I realised how important Tyrone really is to this gathering of people. Tyrone is one of those people we often take for granted. His Christian faith is strong enough that he is constantly serving others without much thought for the cost.
- For example Friday was choir practice day, and Tyrone is almost always there to lend his voice to our choir. His absence from the choir practice left a noticeable gap. Then Saturday morning was men`s breakfast here in the church. Where was Tyrone when the cooking was going on. Where was Tyrone when the cleanup was going on. He was more obvious in his absence than he would have been on a normal Saturday. Saturday night we celebrated the queen with a pub night. Normally Tyrone would have been there, applauding the music and sharing the festivities, but it was obvious that he wasn`t there. Now this morning we look around for Tyrone, and he`s not here singing in the choir or serving as a sidesperson or standing at the lectern reading the scriptures. If you are looking for an example of what it is to be a Christian, just think of Tyrone.
- To be a Christian is to be part of a small minority of people. This was true in New-Testament times, and it is still true today, for as it says in Matthew 22:14, many are called but few are chosen. As it also says in Matthew, as Christians we are the salt of the earth.
- Someone asked, ``Why do we have to keep hearing the same lessons and messages over and over Sunday after Sunday when we come to church.`` When we learn our lessons in science, we are taught about the principles of mathematics and the law of gravity and the periodic table of the elements. We don`t have to be taught these things over and over and over. Why are we taught these Christian principles over and over again.
- Here`s the best answer I can give to that question. Even scientists, when they are trying to understand some new thing, must constantly go back to first principles and reason from that point further on to understand the new thing. So scholars too must return again and again to the basic principles which organize their knowledge.
- Even more so with moral and spiritual principles. Our natural waywardness often causes us to disregard the most basic principles upon which our faith is based. It is necessary to be reminded again and again about the purpose and goal of our life as Christians. When we stray from the teachings of Jesus we have to be reminded of the most basic things. Like not judging others. Like turning the other cheek. Like being the servant of others and humbling yourself. It seems strange that we could forget these basic things repeatedly, but that`s just what does happen. So please bear with me as I remind us all yet another time about those things which we so readily forget.
- And here is the most important thing about being a Christian:
- I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. (Matthew 31:35)
- Though not all people will become Christians, yet Jesus` message has gone out to all people for thousands of years many have learned from his teachings and led better lives on account of his example.
- Remember that caring for others is not a uniquely Christian thing, but something that people from every culture do even without being taught. At the furthest extreme, even my cat Josie brought me a dead bat this morning.
- Let us pray. Gracious creator of heaven and earth, your Word has come among us as the true son of righteousness, and the good news of his birth has gone out to the ends of the world. Open our eyes to the light of your law, that we may be purified from sin and serve you without reproach for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Light and our life. Amen.
- Sermon 23 August 2015 – 13th after Pentecost
The Reverend Dr. Paula Sampson
1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43 * Psalm 84 * Ephesians 6:10-20 * John 6:56-69
“This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Not the most positive of lines in a gospel reading. Other biblical translations offer no help. Some say, “This language is intolerable.“ Others use the words, “hard saying” or “These words are offensive.“ There’s a real challenge here, because the teaching which Jesus’ disciples are complaining about lies at the very heart of most Christian sacramental theology. We heard other verses of the teaching: “So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.“
Based on this “difficult teaching,” we pray, eat bread and drink wine together every Sunday. Based on this “intolerable language,” we take the consecrated elements to the sick. Based on this “hard saying,” we call Holy Communion a sacrament. “These offensive words” may indeed be difficult, but they are also central to the Christian faith, particularly for Anglicans. We need to spend time seeking to understand them.
Why is the teaching difficult? Because the teaching is outrageous. Human beings, whether in the first century or our own, are generally quite uncomfortable with the idea of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of another person. It sounds a very strange and even repulsive practice. In fact, the early Christians, among whom John was living, worshiping and writing his version of the gospel, faced accusations of cannibalism from both Jews and Romans because of it. In the face of regular and cruel persecution from both religious and political opponents, this was an additional charge they did not need. And yet, they persisted with their eucharistic practice, consuming the body and blood of Christ, and repeating his words, “This is my body; this is my blood,” as they shared bread and wine.
Why? Because Jesus had told them to? No doubt that is largely the reason. But I think a strong reinforcement was their own experience. Jesus did not use the imagery of himself as food and drink just to be outrageous. He used it because it is the strongest imagery possible to use when one is talking about human survival. And that is what Jesus was talking about: the survival of humankind as the children of God within the reign of God, the place of justice and mercy and peace.
Human survival depends in real terms on food and drink. Without them, we die. In biological terms, as one scientist put it, “Food contains the information our bodies need.” He was talking about chemical nutrients. In just as vital a way, Jesus has the information our spirits need. Spiritual nutrition is essential too, and there is no more powerful way to point that out than to connect Jesus directly and unmistakeably with food and drink. Notice he did not say, “I am like food and drink;“ he said, “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” No other words could convey Jesus’ significance to our survival as true human beings with as much shock or accuracy as that proclamation did. Difficult teaching it may be, but for us, true teaching it is. “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life,” he tells the disciples.
A hundred years or so later, the people in John’s community were experiencing in their transformed lives just how true the teaching was. Their experience of God’s reign which Jesus had summoned into the world was life-giving in every way. Perhaps the reality in their lives of Jesus as feast is why John ends his gospel with a story about Jesus cooking fish on the beach, feeding his disciples yet again.
Who knows? Actual reasons for how Scripture came to us in the way that it did are lost in the mists of antiquity for the most part. What remain are the words, and it is our task to face their interpretation, even when difficult, just as the first disciples did. As they equated Jesus with food and drink, the very basic elements of human survival, so can we. This really is not a difficult association for humans, but an easy one. For example, North Coast Indigenous peoples once depended heavily on the annual run of a smelt species we call oolichan. It is more than an interesting coincidence that our area’s First Nations called oolichan “savior fish,” long before they had heard about redemption in the Christian gospel. Saved from starvation each spring by the arrival of these fish, they recognized God’s salvation because they had experienced it.
When we experience Jesus as essential for our survival, we understand the teaching, too. Then our task becomes that of living our transformed lives in a way that testifies to justice and mercy and peace and invites others to this banquet, this feast within the reign of God.
In order to do that well, we need another human basic: shelter. For the people of Solomon’s day, shelter meant the protection of God. Guided out of Egypt and through the wilderness, they recognized God’s safety because they had experienced it. Sheltering the ark of the covenant within a magnificent temple was their assurance that safety would continue. In another part of the reading from Kings, Solomon prays, “If there is famine in the land, if there is plague, blight, locust or caterpillar; if their enemy besieges them in any of their cities; whatever plague, whatever sickness there is; whatever prayer, whatever plea there is from any individual or from all your people Israel . . . Then hear in heaven your dwelling place, forgive, act, and render to all whose hearts you know . . .”
Paul explains to the Ephesians they will find shelter in the armor of God. Not armor with which to be aggressive or hostile to others, but armor to protect. Faith is a shield, salvation is a helmet, truth is a belt, righteousness a breastplate, the spirit a sword. To his list of defensive hardware, Paul adds an outrageous image of his own. “ . . . put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” Christians do not seek shelter and protection in order to hide or inflict, but in order to proclaim and live boldly the reign of God‘s justice and mercy and peace.
Christians have the essentials for human survival within our midst. We have Jesus as food and drink, and there is a banquet every day. We have shelter and protection within the love of God, and safety is as near as our next prayer. Even when disaster takes away our physical shelter, as it has in Rock Creek, God’s presence remains. In Rock Creek, people are feeding and protecting each other, an example of God’s reign of justice and mercy.
A difficult teaching? Intolerable? Hard? Offensive? Listen to the words of the Eicharistic Prayer in a bit and decide for yourself. In the gospel story, some of Jesus’ followers were so troubled that they left before the banquet. I don’t see that happening here.
- Sermon 12 July 2015 – 7th after Pentecost
Hannah Main van der Kamp
Amos 7:7 – 15 * Psalm 24 * Ephesians 1:3-14 * Mark 6: 14-29
Lately, I have been getting my hands dirty.
If you grow your own potatoes, you’ll be enjoying some already. You know how to keep the plant growing but dig under it carefully with your hand and feel for the potatoes that are the right size, gently sever then from the roots and pull them out. Your hands get quite dirty! The plant keeps going, developing tubers. Maybe your plants have already died if you are having difficulty getting enough water to the garden. If you live in the Kelly creek area, you may have started to worry about your well. One of my neighbours has two wells; one for the garden and one for the house and the first one has gone dry already. Conserving water means going from overhead watering with a sprinkler to watering by hand from the hose so I am spending a lot of time in the tater patch these days and have time to think about those humble tubers.
Now you are wondering how is she going to tie the anecdote about potatoes in with the death of John the Baptist and the reading from the OT prophet Amos.
John the Baptist was a truth-teller and it cost him his life. The story we read from Mark does not need re-telling; you know it. Herod, who had John killed, respected him, knew him to be righteous and holy. But then Herod had to keep his word, a foolish promise he made in public and John was beheaded. Herod felt guilty though. When he heard of the healing miracles that Jesus was doing his first thought was, it’s John come back to life.
Amos was a truth teller. He lived during the reign of Jeroboam, a time of great prosperity and peace for Israel. Not unlike our times here in Powell River. But Amos said it’s not good. We are relying on military strength, we have extravagant but shallow devotion and we are not caring for single parents and their kids. Amos infuriated the powerful because he said terrible things would happen to Israel. They did. A generation or so after Amos, the Assyrians conquered the Northern tribes and relocated them to the far corners of the Assyrian empire and the people never returned.
Truth telling is a risky business. In the OT there is an emphasis on “cleanliness” as an expression of holiness. “Purity” was a spiritual concept for the ancient Hebrews though by the time of John the Baptist, ritual purity had become an obsession for the Jewish leaders like the Pharisees. The psalm for today speaks of holiness as those who have “clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their soul to what is false and who do not swear deceitfully.” So perhaps we could read that old purity code now as a rule for truthfulness.
(BTW, this is off topic, have you seen the touring Anne Frank exhibit that is currently on display in the Town Centre Mall? If you haven’t, please do so. This is a true story. It is here for another week. You know most of the story but the exhibit explores more of the background. Anne kept a diary from age 13 for the two years she was in hiding. before she was taken to Nazi death camps. After the war, her father, the only one to return alive from the 8 persons who hid in the Annex, read the diary. He was astounded. He said he had no idea what was going on in his daughter’s mind. He felt he hadn’t really known her. In her diary she tells a lot of painful truth, things she might not have been allowed to say. She observed the pretensions and shallowness of some of the others. Maybe good she didn’t say it out loud. Good that she had a diary in which to confide. A diary or a journal is a good confidant. Especially if one uses it to approach The Confidant, Creator of heaven and earth.)
Amos said about himself he was a nobody. A herder and a yardman, with undistinguished parentage, from a small village. John was a humble ascetic, preaching repentance, already aware that his cousin would reveal great things but he himself not. Last week we heard from the Gospel that those who scorned Jesus in Nazareth complained that Jesus was a nobody, just a carpenter and his family nothing special.
Are you a nobody? Here’s a poem by the American 19th century poet Emily Dickenson:
I’m a nobody! Who are you?
Are you Nobody too?
Then there’s a pair of us.
How dreary to be Somebody
How public like a frog
To tell one’s name the livelong June
To an admiring bog
Sometimes “nobodies” are called to tell the truth in public, not just to a diary. Could you be someone who has a truth to tell publicly? Jesus transformed others by telling the truth about God. And we are imitators of Jesus.
I have an uncomfortable truth to tell.: it’s about potatoes. Grow your own or buy them from a local organic gardener. Do not purchase potatoes or potato products that come from large monocropping potato farms. Why? They are toxic. Shock and dismay, how could Hannah say such a thing in public? Here’s the truth. We have been deceived by agro-business and the chemical companies that make herbicide. Commercially grown potatoes are soaked in an herbicide known to be linked to the enormous increase in chronic diseases. In order to harvest earlier and faster, it is sprayed on plants so they will die quickly and the mechanical harvesters won’t have to deal with still green foliage and stems. The spray does not wash off potato peels. It is systemic, entering the tubers. (I don’t even want to tell you about commercially grown wheat or sugar beets or…)
You might argue, “We can’t afford organic potatoes.” Can you afford not too? Buy locally grown…there is a vibrant culture here in PR working towards making healthy clean food available and affordable to all. That’s in part what the Sycamore Commons is about…showing folks how to grow the good stuff safely and economically right here.
And here’s a truth about weather; unusually hot? Yes, climate change is related to human activity, no question. Period. But the heat is not a problem, it is a symptom and symptoms have causes. The cause: We have been in a wrong relationship with the Earth.
What would Amos say? “Disaster ahead?” What would John the Baptist say? “Repent?” What does Christ say? What do you say?
Get your hands dirty for the sake of truth. Be a brave “Nobody”!
You can find lots more information about herbicides and potatoes on web in sites like:
Potatoes are a member of the nightshade family like bell peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant. It is not wise to eat too many of these at any one time.
Potatoes are very easy to grow; you don’t even have to have a garden. You can grow them in bags on a sunny patio or deck. Ask around at SDSP where there are lots of potato growers.
- Sermon - June 28, 2015 - 5th after Pentecost
Reverend Stuart Isto
Lamentations 3:22-33 * Psalm 30 * 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 * Mark 5:21-43
What is the nature of God?
I’m preaching on the passage from Lamentations, so take out the reading and follow along if you like.
If we understand something about the nature of God, we’ll understand better our place in creation and the purpose of our lives.
So, to start with, the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.
All through our lives, at every moment the Lord is with us. Every single day. The Lord is my portion, says my soul. Therefore I will hope in Him.
Lamentations was written to describe the dreadful situation of the inhabitants of Jerusalem following the overthrow of the city. The common theme in Lamentations is the agony of the people, the apparent desertion of Zion by God, and the hope that God will yet restore a humbled and repentant Israel.
The author of Lamentations says to us, He does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone. It’s good to wait quietly for the Lord’s salvation, for in his steadfast love, he will have compassion.
The text goes on to say, in verse 40, Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord. Let us lift up our hearts as well as our hands to God in heaven.
In Psalm 30, the psalm appointed for today, the psalmist cries, I will exalt you oh Lord, for you have lifted me up. I cried out to you, Lord, and you restored my health.
Think back over your life, and remember when you were sick, when you were filled with fear.
Now remember how you were rescued from your sickness and your fear. God does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.
As the Lord shows compassion, so we must show compassion. It is by conscious meaningful acts that we may show our concern for others. As God does for us, so we must do for each other. As St Paul says in the Corinthians letters, if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable. We must give what we can and no more is required of us.
Jesus shows us in Mark’s gospel how his great compassion called on him to act for others, even when it seemed impossible. In Mark 5, Jesus tells us how both compassion and faith can change even what seemingly cannot be changed.
The woman who suffered from hemorrhages believed that Jesus could make her well. She touched Jesus’ clothes, having faith. Daughter, he said, your faith has made you well.
Jesus’ compassion for Jairus’ daughter caused him to take the girl’s hand and call to hear, little girl, get up. And she got up and began to walk. This might be the most striking of al of jesus’ miracles.
Here is a picture my great great uncle Edward Isto painted in Berlin in the year 1900.
We can try to comprehend the great compassion Jesus had for this girl, so strong that it could bring her back to life, not by her faith, but by his.
As we read this morning, God does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone. God does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone. What can that mean? We all have grieved and been afflicted, yet it’s not by God’s will.
St Peter said in 2nd Corinthians that it is appropriate not only for you to do something, but even to desire to do something. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable.
We now are living in precarious times, certainly as precarious as people during the time of Jesus’ life. If we compare ourselves to people in the Holy Land 2 thousand years ago, perhaps we are more like the Romans than like the Hebrew people.
I had a dream night before last, almost the same dream that I had just a week before. In my dream, it was a winter evening and there was snow on the ground. I got into my friend’s car and started driving. But the accelerator pedal must have been faulty because the car started going faster and faster and I couldn’t stop it by stomping on the brakes. Then I abruptly woke up with a feeling of fear.
This made me think about our precarious times. As Bruce Coburn said in a famous song, we’re living in a dangerous age.
My dream from a week ago was similar but different. This time I was driving my own car on a highway at night. I kept getting sleepy. My head would drop and the car would start to go off the road, then I’d be jolted awake. I wouldn’t have guessed that you could fall asleep in a dream. Once again I awoke with a start. This too reminded me of the dangers we are surrounded by.
All around us, in the interior, on Vancouver Island, in Washington and Oregon and California, people are experiencing drought, dryness, and forest fires. BC has already spent nearly all of the government budget for fighting fires, and the fire season has hardly started. There are restrictions on water use nearly everywhere. I hardly have to mention all the other crises, things going wrong all over the world.
As in my dreams, we have to stay alert and mindful, not allowing ourselves to fall asleep. We have to try to slow things down so that we don’t deplete all our precious resources in the space of one or two generations.
Some believe in the prophesies in the Bible, some don’t. Some ignore them. Some believe in the prophesies of climatologists and other scientists, others do not. Some simply ignore these predictions.
Some prophesies and predictions come to pass, some don’t. Some have not yet come to pass. But we are foolish if we ignore the predictions and prophesies which we hear and know about.
As a small community of Christians we can work together to make a difference in our community and in the world. As St Paul said, you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, so excel by giving what you have to give.
Let us pray. God our Father, glorious in giving and restoring life, do not hide your face from your people, overcome with loneliness and fear; turn our mourning into dancing and raise us up with your Son, that we may rejoice in your presence for ever. Amen