23 February 2009

Last After Epiphany - Transfiguration

Last Sunday after Epiphany - Mountaintop Experiences

St. Luke’s Burlington

22 February, 2009

A common characteristic of religious experiences is that the people experiencing them cannot find words to adequately describe the experience. It is ineffable. When one finds oneself in the presence of the divine, words stop. I think that is the reason that the story of Jesus’ transfiguration in the Gospel reading seems to fall unsatisfactorily short. The evangelist is trying to capture the experience in words, which can only point towards the experience, but can never capture it.

Because the story seems to fall short, it is too easy for us to dismiss the story as unrealistic or as only something which might have happened back then when Jesus walked the earth. The days of God’s visitation are over, many people think. People don’t really experience Divine things these days, they might think.

I think they are wrong. I think that what the Evangelist is describing and what the Disciples experienced was a classical religious experience. I also am sure that many people have these experiences today. Some of you here today have. All of you can.

It is no accident that Jesus and his disciples have to climb up a high mountain before they have their experience. One of the reasons why many people don’t seem to have mountaintop experiences is because they don’t climb mountains! Make no mistake, God sometimes does surprise people, coming like a bolt out of the blue, much like St. Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus, but more often, I think, we need to position ourselves to be receptive to God.

When I was eighteen my parents moved to Colorado Springs for three years and my brother and I would visit them every Christmas and summer when we could get the chance. One of the most exciting features of Colorado Springs is its proximity to the Rocky Mountains and its most famous Peak is Pikes Peak. We used to call it our Peak, and, being Pikes, my brother and father and I just had to climb it. Of course you can get to the top by a cog railroad, or even by a dirt road, but what would be the fun in that?

To climb it you have to take the Barr trail which is 12 miles each way. Keep in mind that your altitude at the beginning of the trail is about one mile high and at the top of the trail you’re over 14 thousand feet high or at about 2.7 miles of altitude. About three quarters of the way up you reach the tree-line. No trees can grow above that point because there isn’t enough oxygen.It seems that the trees are bright enough not to go higher, but the humans are not! The last way up is a steep switchback which uses up your reserves.

I have climbed it six times and the most recent time was a couple of years ago when I brought my family all the way out to Colorado with our little tent-trailer to show them one of my previous haunts. I found out that it is much easier to climb Pikes Peak when you are twenty years younger! But each time that I climbed it I felt a sense of the awesome power of our creator. God is great. God made all the mountains, and God made me to experience this one!

There is a clarity which comes at the top of mountains. Your sense of proportion is shifted. I feel both so much more insignificant and so privileged at the same time. It is the sense of being exalted and humbled all at once.

I remember how one of my favourite movies  "Out of Africa" begins - Karen Von Blixen, remembering her time in Africa and giving thanks for the great gift that Dennis gave to her - to see the earth as God would see it. Dennis had taken her up in an airplane. From that vantage point Karen, with all the tragedy that she has had to suffer in her life, is able to see that, yes, it is good.

It is a feeling which you can have in other places as well. Many people feel this when they are experiencing nature. I think that is one of the reasons why Jesus often went out into the wilderness in order to pray. Jesus was positioning himself to speak with God.

Your hike up the mountain can a figurative as well as literal. You can be climbing that trail, positioning yourself to be receptive to God in a metaphorical sense as well. Taking some time apart. Practising a prayer discipline can be a way to climb the mountain.

This is the last Sunday before the season of Lent, which is forty days before Easter, when we are encouraged to take stock of where we are on our spiritual path. And to allow God to transform us. How have you grown spiritually over the last year? What can you give up or take on to be more receptive to God in your everyday life? How can you go out into the wilderness, as Jesus did? How can you climb your spiritual mountain?

One of the ways that we can start our lenten journey well is to go to our Ash Wednesday service, this Wednesday and to begin by wearing the ashes as a sign of our own frailty and our need for God to bring us into life. I invite you to keep a holy lent - to climb your mountain - and to seek for an experience of the Divine. Amen.

15 February 2009

Rector's Charge to Vestry 2009

The Rector's Charge to Vestry 2009
St. Luke's Church, Anglican  

Welcome to all of you on this our Vestry Sunday. As is our practice here at St. Luke’s on this Sunday, I will give my charge to Vestry in place of the usual sermon at this time. Following our Eucharist together we will proceed to the parish hall for some refreshments followed by our Annual Vestry Meeting. All of you are welcome to come join in with the refreshments, and members of the parish who are of the voting age of 16 and over are welcome to attend and vote at vestry.

Although this is not a sermon, I was struck by the Gospel reading which tells the story of Jesus healing a leper. The leper has faith in Jesus and says to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” And Jesus says, “I do choose, be made clean.” 

Jesus does choose for the spiritual and physical healing of people today as well. It is Jesus’ choice is that we be made whole in body and mind and spirit. And because that was what Jesus was about, that must be what we are about today. It is the task of every Christian to do the work of Jesus in our world today. We believe that every baptized Christian is called to ministry in their daily life – no matter their occupation. For we are baptized into the body of Christ and, working together, are the hands and feet and the voice of Christ in our world today. 

As Jesus was interested in the whole person – body and soul – this is also the interest of the Parish Church of St. Luke the physician as well. Body and soul. 

Today it is my privilege to have been your rector for exactly 5 months. It has been a great time of learning for me, and I feel that I know much more about the body and soul of this Church. 

When I think of the body of this Church, I think of the physical nature. There has been so much effort in this parish to maintain and to build up the physical part of this Church. A massive effort was made to put up our amazing Parish Hall which we are enjoying today and which is serving us so well in our ministry.

We know that we are getting closer to our goal of paying off the cost of this great project, but we are not there yet. For this reason, we will be asking parishioners to push a bit further in supporting the Building Fund – to go just that extra bit past your pledge, so that we can be free and clear and can focus our efforts more on the ministry which this hall was built to support. 

The leadership of St. Luke’s believes that investment in St. Luke’s Church is a very good investment indeed, because of the excellent rate of return. Your investment in St. Luke’s might be through your annual financial givings, or it could be through the transfer of capital, or a planned financial gift, or it might be a legacy which a member has left in their will to continue to be engaged in the living work of Christ, even after the member has themselves passed on to greater life. Your investment in St. Luke’s will hopefully also include the giving of your time and talent to help in one ministry or another that St. Luke’s does. 

However you give to St. Luke’s Church, the return is measured in ministry. While the vagaries of financial markets might put into question the strength of the world economy, the constancy of St. Luke’s ministry ensures, as I said, an excellent rate of return no matter what the stock market is doing. 

When I think of what a wonderful job we have done building the physical body part of our Church, it leads me to think more about the soul part of St. Luke’s. There is an amazing amount of ministry here which feeds the soul, not only of our Church members, but which reaches out to care for the souls of others as well. I want to give thanks for what we are doing in this way and to lead us on to do even more. We’ve got the beautiful body – now let’s work more on the soul. While the body is about bricks and mortar, the soul is about people. 

I want to thank all the people of St. Luke’s who have made this last year a truly successful year in terms of the quality of ministry that happens at and through St. Luke’s. It is truly amazing the sheer numbers of hours of work which St. Luke’s people do in order to reach out to the people of the parish and the wider community. 

St. Luke’s makes a difference to the lives of countless people. This includes what we do for the education of both young and old through our Sunday School and nursery, library, archives, Vacation Bible School, Book Studies, Bible Studies, Retreats and other spiritual programs. We will continue to do these and are planning to offer more opportunities for spiritual growth and learning through new programs. In my vision for our future, St. Luke’s will be known as a spiritual centre in Burlington, which draws more people who are seeking for spiritual development in their lives. 

St. Luke’s reaches out to the most vulnerable of our community in ministering to the very old, the sick and the dying. We also reach out to help the poorest in the wider community of Burlington, our Diocese and even in international missions. This includes a large part of my ministry and of the paid and honorary staff of the parish. I thank God every day for such a terrific group of colleagues to work with including priests and deacons as well as the office staff who simplify so much of my life. It also includes the ministry of dedicated lay people who work in many groups from bereavement ministry to funeral receptions to prayer shawl makers to ACW missions and El Hogar trips and so much more. 

St. Luke’s reaches out to all sorts of people of all ages through our worship services. We are one of the few churches which still offers traditional  Anglican Sunday worship not only at our early service at 8:15 a.m., but also most Sundays at a later “prime-time” service at 11:15 a.m.  I think that this is for many an undiscovered jewel that we need to get discovered quickly in order to reach out to more people whose souls could be fed in this way. Along with our traditional worship services, we also need to grow our contemporary 9:30 A.M. service. Particularly pressing is our need to welcome new people and particularly young families to our Church. This is, I believe, one of the biggest challenges facing us today. 

In order to address this challenge, we will be looking at how we welcome and integrate new people into our parish. We will need to be doing some new things, and, as is so often the case, we will probably find that some of them are things which the Church community did long ago.

I will ask each member of St. Luke’s to be part of the welcome that opens up our Church to new people. You can participate directly by getting involved in or suggesting new initiatives as well as indirectly by keeping an open mind and supporting us as we risk doing some new things. The fact is that this parish is a wonderful community of people and we need to share this with others, especially in a society and culture that very often leaves people feeling disconnected and unfulfilled. We have recently started a Young Families Working Group that is looking at ways to especially attract young families into our midst.

Our older members are, like all of us, getting older. They represent such experience and wisdom and we need to value these gifts which they bring. We can do them no greater honour than ensuring that their wisdom is passed on to the next generation. This is the spiritual legacy that they give to us. Their participation with a growing, younger population of new members, will give them a sense that their work and their values will go on. Although younger members might do things a little differently, the values of commitment and faithfulness transect all age groups. 

In these difficult economic times it is especially important that we continue to be a Church that is making a difference. There are more and more people who come to this Church for help and, because of the generosity of St. Luke’s parishioners, I have been able to respond on behalf of the Church. I think that this type of need will probably grow in the months to come as more people lose their jobs and face other financial stress.

We as a Church are experiencing some of this stress as well. One of the ways in which we will cut back this year is by not hiring a new assistant curate immediately after Paul Tinker has completed his curacy here. This will mean more pressure on the parish vicar and myself as we continue to do the significant pastoral ministry which will need to continue. I want to emphasize that this needs to be a short-term situation. If we are to grow, we will need to hire more staff as soon as we are able to do so. 

Our new bishop has a vision for this diocese which is outlined in a document which is circulating in the Diocese. Most of us are familiar with Bishop Michael’s watch-phrase, “excellence in ministry.” This is certainly the idea that is contained in his vision. But when he is using this phrase, he doesn’t only mean excellence in my ministry. He means excellence in your ministry as well. How can we, all of the people in the parish, be best engaged in ministry here? 

Bishop Michael proposes five main thrusts, which we will be reflecting and acting upon in the future. These are: Prophetic social activism, Effective resource management, Life changing worship experience, Outstanding leadership for ministry and a Flourishing culture of innovation. What will support this vision will be spiritual discipline, valuing diversity, honesty and integrity and passion and hard work.

In order to support all of our ministry we have made a few changes to our parish structure including the creation of two new divisions: Property and Resources, and we are just about to form a new group called the Vision and Mission Group which will draw from each division to enable us to synchronize the work that we do to support our bishop’s vision and our own.

It is an exciting time to be part of St. Luke’s parish. Our future is bursting with possibilities. I am so very grateful to be part of this Church which has been very supportive of me in my first five months. A great thank you to everyone here who is engaged in the mission and ministry of St. Luke’s. You make my work a dream come true.

A special thank you to our two retiring wardens, Chris Lamb and Bryan Cox. They and the rest of the Executive have made my transition here go smoothly. We wish them well as they continue in ministry in other ways through St. Luke’s. We welcome our two deputy wardens who will shift into the outgoing warden’s chairs: Marilyn Barnes and Bev Alexander. Following our appointment and election of officers we will welcome two new deputies to take their place in the Executive.

Lastly, I want to thank my wife, Katherine and our daughter, Louisa. I simply could not do my ministry without their support.

I believe that this next year will be both challenging and good for St. Luke’s. There will be much that we will do together. I think that we will continue to engage in the ministry and mission which is Christ’s own. Like Jesus, we will choose to act, for the healing of those who come to us, and for the healing of ourselves: body and soul. And to that I say, Amen.


01 February 2009

Epiphany 4 - Are you in Control? - Sermon

by Canon Stuart Pike

Mark 1: 21-28

St. Luke’s, Burlington

1 February 2009

I remember one Sunday in my home parish Church when I was studying theology at Huron College in London. Service was just about to start and we had a very good turnout for the time of the year. There weren’t too many obvious places left to sit. Here and there you could find a seat in the middle of the pew. You would have to sidle by the people already sitting there.  Most people were dressed in their Sunday, go-to-meeting finery. Some of the older ladies were wearing their pretty hats. The organist was just finishing up the prelude and about to fire the opening salvo for a great and glorious processional hymn when the stranger showed up.

You could tell even from the gait of his walk that he wasn’t “normal”. He had that lock-step twitchy manner and disheveled look of the newly-released patient from the large Psychiatric hospital which provided St. Thomas’s streets with a collection of interesting characters. They might stay around for a few days or even a few weeks before they moved on to their own hometowns.  The newly-discharged would replace those who left. Many people were afraid of them. Most people ignored them. They would usually get the idea and clear out.

So what was one to do if one of “them” walked into our quintessentially Anglican service on a Sunday morning? With which hat lady would he sit? Would he be able to control himself during the whole of the service? Would he get out of hand?

Perhaps this question was going through the minds of the many people who heard the ruckus and turned to see the brief interchange between the man and the sidesman, who wasn’t taking any chances. He intercepted him from behind as the man reached about the fourth pew from the back. The sidesman (a burly man in a three-piece suit) grabbed him by the shoulders, spun him around, escorted him to the back of the Church, said something to him and indicated the exit. Wow! A bouncer sidesman among whose many tasks included protecting our perfect liturgy from dubious worshippers.

The people of Jesus’ time would have understood the importance of this function. There were all kinds of rules about who was included and excluded in Jesus’ time. The temple had sections for different classes of people. Women were allowed so far, men were allowed in the centre of the temple, there was a court for clergy and beyond the curtain, in the holy of holies only the high priest could go in, once per year.

Then there were the ritual purity laws. You had to be sane and whole to be in the temple at all. It was the same for attendance at a synagogue. Illness excluded you from worship and even from contact with society. And so, as you might guess, being demon possessed certainly put you on the exclusion list. One of the most surprising elements of the story is that the man was even there at all. How did the bouncer miss him?

And so, here is Jesus impressing the good folk of Capernaum with his teaching and his amazing wisdom and in the midst of a perfectly good liturgy, this demon-possessed man explodes centre-stage onto the scene. Who was this man and why was he there? He addresses Jesus with a mixture of scorn and fear. Perhaps his first question is simply asking what others in the synagogue would like to know:

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Elsewhere in the scriptures Nazareth is spoken of with scorn – “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Some of the observers would probably have been questioning how this carpenter from Nazareth could have gotten all this suppos├ęd wisdom. Maybe some were astounded at his teaching, in the wrong way. Who does he think he is? Perhaps this is the good thing about the demon possessed, they dare to ask the questions which the finer people have in their hearts, but are afraid to ask.

Oh, but the embarrassment of it all! There is nothing worse for perfect liturgy than having people who are not in control of themselves! And that is the main issue isn’t it? It’s about control. We want, we need to be in control. If we aren’t in control, then, surely, we’re not free. Imagine not being in control of oneself! The very thought of it brings fear into the heart of most people. And what could possibly be worse than being under the control of a demon! Thank goodness we are not him, the people thought.

But then, we live in such a more knowledgeable age now. Thank goodness we don’t need to be worried about demon possession, right? Medical knowledge has developed so far now. We know about things like epilepsy and schizophrenia and psychosis. We have medications and treatments to help us. The talk of demons and possession are just superstitions, right? We’re just so much more enlightened, now, or at least some of us are.

Fortunately, that stranger in that Church in St. Thomas, having been thwarted by the bouncer sideman, headed toward the exit as indicated and then did a ninety-degree turn up the side aisle and reached our pew where I stuck out my hand and introduced myself and my mother handed him a hymn book opened to the correct hymn.  A few people around noticed and I read a “thank you” in their eyes. Others shifted nervously. He sat there beside us for the entire service. He usually said the right responses. Not always at the right times, though. Sometimes he shook his head and twitched. Sometimes he mumbled something under his breath. He followed us up to the altar rail (though he didn’t walk in a very straight line) and he knelt and took communion and said, “Thank you Jesus” in a voice that was too loud. He returned to the pew with us and then, after the blessing but before the end of the last him, he left without a word. We never saw him again.

            Who was this man and why was he there? Perhaps he came to unsettle our comfortable pew. Maybe he was there to make us think about being in or out of control. Thank goodness we’re not him, we think.

            Aha, but that’s really what it is about, isn’t it? We are him! We are the demon-possessed man! At the deepest level of our being we know the truth that we aren’t in control. We’re controlled by deep desires which we don’t really understand. Not only the demons of psychosis, but also the demons of fear, self doubt, addiction and selfishness and many others are alive and well and living within us. Our own deepest and truest self (the self that is most connected with God) isn’t in control. Probably the greatest demon alive is the demon of materialism. For, this demon makes us think that we own our possessions and need to have even more of them, whereas really, they own and possess us.

            This Gospel story is about us having the courage to come to the holy temple where our demons cringe in fear. Something inside of us might be telling us that we don’t belong, that we’re not good enough, that we are unclean. We fear to be cast away and so we try to control ourselves, to act the part, to standardize our behaviour. And to demand the same of everyone.

            But the truly great news about our Gospel is that Jesus heals.  Jesus welcomes everyone, just as we are, right into the centre of holiness, and then brings us to health. If we will give control of our lives to Jesus, he will heal us of all that possesses us and our truest deepest self will walk free and he will bring us to wholeness of being again. And that is the Gospel truth! Halleluiah! Amen.

Epiphany 3 - Sermon

SERMON: 25 January 2009

by Canon Sharyn Hall

Jonah 3: 1-5,10

Mark 1: 14-20

            Two weeks ago there was a story on the news about an unusual advertising campaign in London, England. The advertisements on the buses read: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” As you may imagine, the signs have caught the attention of many people and caused some controversy.

            The signs are sponsored by the British Humanist Association, with outspoken support from Richard Dawkins, who is famous for his book, “The God Delusion.” The Humanist group says that the signs will be a refreshing change from posters threatening eternal damnation, and advertising that Jesus is the only way to salvation.

            Reaction to the signs on the buses has been mixed. Some people find the posters outrageous. Other people welcome the campaign as a way to make people think  and wonder about God. Financial support for the campaign has been surprisingly high.

            The media headlines call the signs the atheist bus campaign, but atheists usually attempt to prove that God has never existed. The slogan on these signs says simply, “There’s probably no God.” The implication is that God’s existence does not matter one way or the other. This attitude of indifference is more worrisome than a futile attempt to prove that God does not exist. With this indifferent outlook, God becomes irrelevant to human life, an option for people to embrace or ignore. This idea is reinforced by the phrase, “Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” In other words, God in your life is a burden, not a comfort or a joy.

            In the Jonah story of the Hebrew scriptures, Jonah finds God’s presence an unwelcome burden. God calls Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh, and urge the people to repent of their sinful ways. Nineveh is a huge city full of powerful noblemen, wealthy merchants and a strong king. A message of repentance would not be welcome. Jonah viewed Nineveh with fear and awe, so he resisted God’s call and ran away.

            His ordeal at sea and his fearful experience in the belly of a huge fish made him think twice about saying no to God. So Jonah prayed to God for deliverance. The fish obediently spit Jonah on to dry land, and Jonah began is mission in Nineveh, proclaiming the day of the Lord and the need for repentance. To Jonah’s surprise, all the people, including the king, repented of their evil ways and God spared the city from destruction.

            This fantastic story has captured the imagination of people for centuries, and there may be several suggestions as to the moral of the story, but perhaps we can say that Jonah’s mistake was to question God’s judgment. Jonah believed the people of Nineveh would not repent. God believed the people would repent, and God needed Jonah to make that happen.


            A call from God is to be accepted or not; however, if we choose not to accept God’s call, we may find that God is persistent. Whether we believe in God, ignore God, or even dismiss God’s existence as irrelevant, there may come a time when we encounter more than we can handle. At that time, God gives us a choice – do you want to accept my way, or do you want to go your own way?

            That is what Jesus did when he encountered the fishermen by the sea of Galilee. He invited them to leave their everyday life and follow him. They had a choice. We are told that Simon and Andrew and James and John left their nets and followed Jesus. We are not told if there were other fishermen that day, who chose to stay by the sea and continue their ordinary lives. It’s a good guess that the village people thought that the ones who stayed behind were wise, and the ones who left with Jesus were foolish, and perhaps irresponsible. They left their families and their community for a wandering life, which could be harsh and dangerous.

            Jesus was calling his disciples to a life in which God was the centre of existence, a way of life which questioned the natural human tendency of self-preservation and self-interest. If we follow Jesus, we are reminded that God gives us a choice in the big decisions of our life, and in the everyday moments of a routine day. God is always available for consultation

            In the most celebrated events of last week, God’s presence and blessing were sought by millions of people. Prayer to God played a prominent role in the inaugural celebrations for Barak Obama as President of the United States. Some people might dismiss the prayers and church services as simply tradition, but as one commentator noted, Barak Obama was surrounded by prayer. Although much of the prayer was Christian, there was also a recognition of other faiths, which come to God in their own ways.

            God got good publicity last week. God was not an option, or a burden, but a source of hope, of strength, and of guidance. Millions of people around the world, in Asia and Africa, in Europe, Russia and Britain, heard the call for God’s presence in the future of global humanity. In his stirring inaugural speech, President Obama referred to the noble idea of “the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” He was paraphrasing the American Constitution, but there was no doubt that such ideals are rooted in the belief that God is the benefactor of humanity. Although God-given, those ideals require human commitment and hard work to be realized and sustained in our world.

            In conclusion, Barak Obama stated confidently that “ with God’s grace”, the gift of freedom would endure into the future. Because of that gift of freedom, we can choose to believe in God or not, to accept God’s call to us or not, but we may find that God is persistent, reaching out to us with love, and drawing us into the way of justice and peace and compassion for all people. As Christians, we believe that there is perfect freedom in service to God.   Amen.

Note: Since I preached this sermon on January 25, the advertisement campaign has come to buses in Canada, causing comments and controversy. There are opportunities for comments on various websites.