24 March 2009

Lent 4B - Lenten Journey - Trusting in what God Lifts up

By Rev. Paul Tinker

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Our strength and our redeemer… Amen


Are we there yet?                                    Are we there yet?

This is the end of March break and undoubtedly this question was heard a lot. For many - traveling with kids – means hearing this question. In case you think the question is limited to only to kids, think back to the last time that you were in a commercial airplane – when the movie not on, the screen displays the location, airspeed and the remaining time to destination. Or consider the popularity of a modern piece of technology – the GPS – global positioning system, a small device which can tell you a host of information from a satellite and back,  tuned to within 10 feet, but it all amounts to answering the same fundamental question - Are we there yet?

This affliction of ‘impatience amidst the journey’ is not a new thing, in fact it is precisely what got our spiritual ancestors into hot water, or rather tip-toeing through poisonous snakes. “But with their patience worn out by the journey, 5the people complained against God and Moses”. And so we can understand their complaint. They are trapped in between times. They are caught between ‘promise and fulfillment’. Traveling is the wilderness in the midst of 40 years between slavery in Egypt and the promise land of milk and honey. And they are complaining – and saying “Are we there yet?”

We too are journeying in a time between times – we are in the season of Lent, pretty much right in the middle of it. To be a Christian is to enter into a strange understanding of time. Through out the Christian year we hearken back to points in history and live in the moment, if only for a brief time. We do this each and every Sunday as we listen to the readings and share in communion – we perpetually continue a holy remembrance. We also have extended periods of time in which we journey along side our spiritual ancestors – as we observe Lent. A 40 day period of time of remembering the wanderings of 40 years in the wilderness or the 40 days of trial and temptation of Christ in the wilderness. We have readings that draw us into the process of journeying. Call us to reflect and understand the stages of a holy journey. And maybe, just maybe complaining is part of it. Maybe we need to look forward longingly - wanting it to come sooner.

I believe God wants us to look to the future in hope and expectation that the promises of God will come true. I believe God wants us to have faith in His provision. But that is not what the ancient Israelites did – they didn’t look to the future trusting in the promises of God. They complained about the present. They looked longingly to the past when life was predictable – in slavery. They didn’t trust in God.

There are 8 significant situations during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, where their lack of faith got them in trouble. This time God sends them poisonous snakes. I can imagine God saying “you ungrateful creatures, I rescue you from 400 years of slavery, I feed you with bread from heaven, manna, and I even give you quails for meat. I offer the promise land and you reject it, while traveling I give you military victory over those that attack you. And still you complain about the journey – well let’s see how you deal with snakes…”

            But there is a change in the story – there is shift in the mood. And now - here is where it gets interesting. Here is the point in the story where we are all given a window into ‘God’s good graces’. Consider the process - What do they do? And what does God do? Simply – they repent. They consider their role, their part in what is happening to them and they start to understand. They say “We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you…”They have sinned – how? They have sinned because they didn’t trust in God’s provision. Sin – being the act of being out of step with God’s plans for us. They see their sin – and they repent. And ask God’s agent – Moses to pray for forgiveness – for protection and provision.

Now consider God’s response. God doesn’t press the hyperspace button – God doesn’t whisk them away from their troubles, manifested in the form of snakes. God instructs Moses to fashion a snake out of bronze and nail it to a post and raise it high for all to see. Those that look upon the bronze snake and believe, they that have faith in God… are healed – saved. Those that don’t - make their own decision and perish. The death-dealing forces of chaos are nailed to the pole. God sends a strange remedy, in the midst of them God provides an object for their faith. Here of course we, modern day Christians, we - who each year retell the story of trials that lead up to victory of the cross and of Easter. We see God’s consistent approach to saving us.  The typology is clear as can be. And of course this is what Jesus reveals to Nicodemus and to us.

14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:14-18)

The process is the same – the Son of Man will be lifted up on the cross. A strange remedy – an unexpected transformation of events – the very symbol of the most brutal form of death being the tool in which death is defeated. Those that look to Jesus in faith will be saved. Those that turn away from their worldly ways and look to Jesus raised up on the cross – to save us from our sins - have the promise of eternal life. This is the purpose of cross – to save. Jesus in his response to Nicodemus is telling us with no uncertain terms – that he came to save. He did come to condemn or judge the world. The world is given the “free will choice” to judge Jesus. …It is for you to choose Jesus…He has already chosen you…

As John the Baptist puts it just a little bit later in the same chapter, when his followers are questioning him about Jesus: Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God remains upon him (John 3:36)God’s saving grace is there for the choosing – there for the believing. The alternative is the wrath remaining upon us. The poisonous snake venom staying with us.

I know for some that it is a an uncomfortable, all too simple notion, for our worldly cynical minds to accept that - life is a choice – that faith is merely something to say yes to. We think of our world as a hard place and nothing comes for free. We are uncomfortable with the Pollyanna ideas and ways of living. And in that context – we are right – in the world and the ways of the world. Cynical is the reasonable response. But that is not what is at stake. We are offered salvation beyond the limited scope of the worldly ways. We are given the promise of not perishing but having eternal life.

This Sunday like every other Sunday I as the preacher, was given the choice for the 8:15 and the 11:15 of the Old Testament or New Testament reading – I choose the Old because I said the Ephesians passage is basically a commentary of both the Numbers and Gospel passage. Here is what St. Paul has to say

You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world… 4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved (Ephesians 2:1-2b & 4-5)

In all three readings today the message is simple and clear. We are loss… dead… with-out hope… if left to our own devices – if left to our worldly ways. BUT by God’s good graces. By God’s provision alone, not anything that we do at all. We are offered salvation. We just have to accept it.

Today as we consider the strange time warp that we Christians live in. Looking backwards to history – in the middle of observing a time of Lent. When in Lenten time… “we are not there yet” – yet in the midst of that time. Consider how we are called to look forward and consider the cross. Also reminded of God’s provision when we were wandering and complaining in the wilderness. Shown the pattern towards righteous, holy living  (twice) - Repentance – asking for forgiveness – faith in God’s providing – and salvation. God redeeming the situation by transforming it.

Remember as uncomfortable as it is to our modern sensibilities. The Gospel is at root a rescue story. It is a bailout package of enormous proportions. Jesus saves!                        Amen

07 March 2009

World Day of Prayer - Sermon

(Each year, the World Day of Prayer service is written by the women of a different country. This year, it was written by the women of Papua New Guinea, and prayed by women, and men, around the world.)

by Stuart Pike

St. Luke’s, Burlington

Friday, 6 March 2009

            It’s about weaving tonight: different kinds of weaving: weaving together cotton threads, weaving together reeds, weaving together string, and weaving together stories. 

            I have never been to Papua New Guinea, though I have spent a month on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines which, as the crow flies, is only about 1200 miles away, which is less than the distance it is from this, my third parish, to my first parish in GaspĂ©, Quebec.

            There are many similar characteristics between Mindanao and Papua New Guinea. They are island nations. They have a plethora of tribal groups and many different languages. They are both very close to the equator and are therefore, mostly very hot and humid. They have many people who live in remote villages. 

            I’m going to tell you some stories tonight which are about weaving and they are also a weaving together of my own factual story and some facts which I have learned about Papua New Guinea. So, while some of my story tonight is not factual in the sense that I witnessed it,  I think that we can say they are true stories in the sense that they contain truth. 

            A woman sits on the uneven floor of her hut. She is barefoot and she is poor, but she is industrious. She works many hours each day with her backstrap loom which, like the floor, is made with pieces of bamboo.

            Working the loom means that you have no support for your back because you open and close the loom by moving your back forward and back again. She works with thin, bright cotton threads. Today she is working on holy things: making two stoles at once – a red one and a green one. When they are done they will be worn by priests to symbolize their ordination. When they wear the stole which she makes, they will be doing holy things: bringing people together around a holy meal of bread and wine, just as Jesus did. 

            Her work is hard, but she is used to it. Her children play in the dust outside her hut, the oldest ones looking after the youngest. Her husband is nowhere near, but is looking for work in the city. She does not know how he is doing. With the work of her hands, she supports her family, and her work supports holy things.

            Another woman, much like her, sits on a low stool in the shade outside of her hut. She too is weaving. She is using the dried reeds which were collected just at the right season in a marshy area many miles away. She and her children collected them together. She loves collecting these reeds with her children, because it is something which they can all do together. Since her husband was killed in tribal fighting six months ago, she knows that working together as a family is the only way that they can keep together. 

Each reed is just the perfect width for her work. Some of the reeds have been died a brilliant red colour. She works quietly and expertly to produce a beautiful woven bag called a Bilum, which will be strong and will carry many things. Everyone uses these bags. The men use the long handled one to carry over their shoulder. The women and children use the shorter handled ones which they wear slung over their foreheads with the load behind their backs.

            Tomorrow the whole village will be carrying their bilums full of food for a feast. It will be a great celebration – a holy feast because tomorrow, their own church, the first in their isolated village, will be consecrated by their bishop. Although they built the Church two years ago, the Bishop has been unable to get there for all this time because of the remoteness of their village.

The woman looks up from her weaving to see her seven year old daughter carrying her infant sister in a bilum slung over her forhead.  This infant, who was born after her husband’s death gives her hope for the future. And she smiles: the work of her children and herself made this simple container which will carry food for a holy feast and now carries the holiness of life itself. Yes, her work is holy work.

            We leave the security of the old dirt highway and are met by young men from the village with poor skinny ponies each with a grain sack tied to their back to use as a saddle. It is as hard as a rock and with no stirrups to support my weight, I wonder how long a trip it will be. It will be long.

            We travel uphill all the way through the jungle for hours. These ponies are the only way that vegetables from their village make their way to be traded at the highway for kerosene and other goods. The young man whose pony I ride walks in front on the muddy path only a foot wide. He is barefoot, but the soles of his feet are tough like shoe leather. There’s no conversation because of the narrowness of the path: I would have to shout to the bishop ahead of me to be heard, and the young men on foot cannot speak English.

            After hours, I think I’m hallucinating when I momentarily see the face of a young boy in the foliage ahead of me, but the image disappears more quickly than it appeared in the first place. But I am not wrong – he must have been sent to be a spotter and raced on ahead of us to tell the village that we are finally arriving.

            We turn a few more corners and we are met with the sound of many small gongs to welcome us into the village. The village chief is there to meet us but I need to be helped down from my trusty pony and held up while the feeling returns to my legs and the young men laugh at me.

            It is late and the dusk is approaching so we are given a quick meal and then retire to sleep on straw mats for the night.

            The next day I see the village more clearly.  The earth floor of my hut is the same earth which brings forth all the food which gives life to the village, and it is the same earth which forms the mud floor of their beautiful Church which we will bless today.

          It is my task to preach at the service. I put robes on and place the holy stole around my neck and the Bishop and I walk into a Church filled with singing.

            When it is time to preach I step forward along with my interpreter. I stop and take off my shoes and step bare foot onto the swept mud floor of the Church, joining all the parishioners who are also barefoot. My interpreter, without missing a beat, stoops and removes his shoes too. And we talk about holy ground and holy places and holy moments.

            Afterwards, the feast is plain good food: Taro root and sweet potato and vegetables wrapped together and each serving packaged in a banana leaf which the women wove together and steamed. Banana and papaya complete the meal. We eat with our hands and we eat with laughter and great joy.

             But underneath the laughter and joy I remember what hard lives are lived here. The sickness and suffering, the violence and poverty, and I ask myself, “What are the structures of our world which gave me wealth and these ones poverty.” And then I think of the work of many hands, the bare feet on bare earth, the hands that weave holiness into this moment, the giving and the sharing and gathering around a holy meal. And I marvel. Amen.