29 June 2009

Pentecost 3

by Peter Case

June 28, 2009 10:00

St. Luke’s Burlington

Mark 5: 21- 43

Our gospel today provides us with not one, but two remarkable stories of miraculous healings. Indeed, these are not just any healings; they are truly spectacular. In the first case, we see the healing of someone who might be described as a lost cause – a woman who has spent twelve years and all her money looking for a cure. She has exhausted all possibilities. In the second case there is the cure of a little girl who has already died. Spectacular miracles indeed.

In some ways, the two miracles are quite different. One involves an adult, the other a child. One involves the healing of a chronic condition, whereas with Jairus’ daughter, it appears that the illness has been a sudden and acute one. Perhaps the most significant difference is that the healing of the woman takes place in public with a crowd of witnesses. In the case of the little girl, however, only her parents, Peter, James and John were witnesses and Jesus told them not to tell anyone. Such admonitions not to reveal Jesus’ true identity are common in the gospels, but especially in Mark. The authenticity and rational for this so called ‘Messianic Secret’ has been debated by scholars, but what we can say is that it is consistent with Jesus’ desire that his mission not be interpreted in an earthly or political way.

In the end, however, it is not in the differences, but in the similarities of the two healings that we find the power of today’s gospel message. Both stories clearly and resonantly drive home: 1) the sensitivity of Jesus to the human condition; 2) the importance of faith; and 3) the power of Jesus to restore us to health and life.

In both miracles it becomes abundantly clear how sensitive Jesus is to our human condition. In the case of the woman with the haemorrhage, Jesus is surrounded by a great crowd. People are pressing in on him from every direction. And yet, in the midst of all that, he is aware that someone has touched not him, but merely his clothes. When he turned around and asked who touched him, his disciples couldn’t believe it. “You see the crowd pressing in on you: how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” Our response might be: “Are you crazy? With all these people, you’re bound to get touched. It could have been anyone.” But despite the crowds, Jesus was aware of and sensitive to a single individual who had approached him in need. Anyone who has ever thought that God is too busy or too remote or too inaccessible to ever care or pay attention to their situation and needs should take encouragement from Jesus’ encounter with this woman. He stopped, turned and addressed her.

In the case of Jairus and his sick daughter, Jesus did not for a second resist the unplanned interruption and detour. Remember that Jesus had recently been teaching the crowds and, as we heard last week, despite a long and tiring day, he decided to cross the lake at night. He must have had a pressing agenda to make the crossing at night. Perhaps he had planned a day of teaching the crowds on the other side and wanted to get an early start. Whatever his plans were, he showed not the slightest hesitation in going with Jairus. A schedule was not as important as the call of love. People in need were always a priority for Jesus. This should serve as a reminder to us that detours are often part of God’s plan and that we too ought to be sensitive to the plight of others notwithstanding our pressing schedules or our sense of our own importance.

Both stories also clearly set out the value that our Lord places on faith. Faith was instrumental to the woman’s healing. So strong was her faith that she believed all she had to do was touch Jesus’ clothes in order to be made well. A cynic might say that it wasn’t so much faith as desperation. After all, she had spent twelve years and all her money going from one doctor to another in a fruitless attempt to be healed. Perhaps it is easy to jump to that conclusion because it is reminiscent of our own behaviour. How often have we, after fruitlessly exhausting all our earthly resources and all known avenues, concluded that a situation is hopeless and said, “All we can do now is pray”.

In the woman’s case, however, there is no evidence that she viewed Jesus as a last resort. While it is true that she had been searching for a cure for an extended period, Jesus had only recently started his public ministry and it is likely that she had only just heard of him. What is remarkable about her faith is that it was so strong despite all the disappointment that she had previously faced. Rather than resign herself to the hopelessness of her situation, she knew - based on what she had heard about Jesus – that she would be made well; if she could just touch his clothes. And so she pressed through the crowds. Jesus was very clear in his assessment of the situation. “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”

Jairus too showed incredible faith in coming to Jesus. In fact, without such faith, we have to wonder if he would have come to Jesus at all. Consider the obstacles that might have prevented him from coming and kneeling at the feet of Jesus. He was a ruler of the synagogue. He would have had prestige and standing. He would have been a supporter of tradition, and yet he was willing to humble himself before this itinerant preacher who was flouting many of the Jewish traditions. Despite his cultural, social and religious programming, Jairus was open minded and showed tremendous faith. Just like the woman, he knew that his daughter would be healed. “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.”

Jairus’ faith was about to be tested for very soon, some people came from Jairus’ house with the news that his daughter was dead. There was a note of finality and resignation in the message. “Why trouble the teacher any further?” In other words, it’s too late. It’s over. There is no use. But this seemingly hopeless situation was an opportunity for Jesus to demonstrate the power of faith. Jesus’ response to those who would give up – whether those of Jairus’ house or us – is: “Do not fear, only believe.”

Faith ignores the rumour that there is no hope and it is instrumental to letting Jesus’ healing power work in us and through us – transforming lives and restoring us and all creation to health and wholeness.

Finally, let us not overlook or forget the spectacular nature of these two miracles, which make clear the power of Jesus to restore to life and health those who have faith. The people laughed at Jesus when he said that Jairus’s daughter was not dead, but only sleeping. They knew better than this crazy fellow Jesus. They had seen death before and they knew that her fate was sealed – or so they thought. This hopeless situation, however – this dead end – was just the opportunity that Jesus needed to show the power of God’s love. Jesus ignores the sceptics and proceeds to restore life to the little girl just as he restored health to the woman whom no one else could help.

St. Augustine, a noted father of the church, was not always viewed as a saint. As a boy, he was undisciplined and idle. He was promiscuous and at age eighteen, fathered a child out of wedlock. What led to his transformation? In part, it may have been the sermons of the Great Bishop Ambrose, but the Bishop himself credits the faith and prayers of St. Augustine’s mother, Monica. For years, she never gave up on Augustine. She prayed for him ceaselessly and followed him from Africa to Rome. Ambrose reassured her saying, “It isn’t possible for a son of such prayers to be lost.” And so, as in the case of Jairus’ daughter, it was the faith of a parent that was instrumental in the child’s restoration.

My friends, Jesus has the same power to restore us to life and wholeness today. Whatever our burdens, whatever is weighing us down, whatever seemingly hopeless situation we are facing, Jesus has the power to restore us to fullness of life, if only we will put our faith in him. We may have to move outside our comfort zone or the norms of our conventional existence – as did Jairus, the leader of the synagogue. We may have to let go of our supposed sophistication as did the woman who said, “If I can only touch his clothes.” But if we don’t make that leap of faith, can we expect anything different or more than the result that we have always had?

It is entirely possible that others will laugh at us – either because of our faith or because of our actions or practices or moral standards that are driven by our faith. They laughed at Jesus, so why wouldn’t they laugh at us. However, just as Jesus ignored their laughter, so too should we. Remember, in the case of the woman with the haemorrhage and the little daughter of Jairus, it was Jesus who had the last laugh.

25 June 2009

Pentecost 2 - Rose of Sharyn

SERMON for 14 June 2009

II Corinthians 5: 6-10; 14-17

Mark 4: 26-34

By Sharyn Hall

Three years ago, when we had the same group of scripture readings for our Sunday services, it was my task to create a children’s sermon for the 10 o’clock service. I showed the children tiny mustard seeds; then I showed them a grown plant. I could not find a mustard plant, so I substituted a three-foot hibiscus bush (also called the Rose of Sharon). In the gospel, it says that the mustard plant grew so tall that birds could shelter in its branches. I made birds out of construction paper, and we wrote names of people who needed God’s protection on the birds, and hung them on the tree. The bush became a visible symbol of God’s kingdom.

After the service, we removed the birds, and took the hibiscus bush home to be planted in our garden. The next morning we looked out the window and the bush was gone! Someone stole the whole bush, pot and all! Once I got over the shock, I realized that someone stole, not only a three-foot hibiscus bush, they also stole the kingdom of God! That thought has generated more ideas about the parable of the mustard seed.

First of all, is it possible to steal the kingdom of God? If we think of God’s kingdom as a possession, then we realize that some people believe they possess God’s kingdom, God’s truth, God’s salvation. We all have encountered people who are convinced that they have the means to salvation, and unless we follow their lead, we will perish. We could say that they have stolen God’s kingdom from anyone who does not agree with their idea of salvation. People with this rigid belief exist in all religions, and unfortunately their attitude can lead to prejudice, injustice and violence, the very opposite of God’s kingdom.

In today’s gospel parable, Jesus teaches his disciples that the kingdom of God is not created by human hands and is beyond human understanding. The seed of grain in the ground is watered and tended by human hands, but that would come to nothing without the mystery of God’s creative spirit. The caretaker of the plant does not see, and does not know, how the grain grows.

The parable of the mustard seed further illustrates this point. Many mustard bushes grow wild, without the benefit of human care. The amazing growth of a mustard plant from a tiny seed is a mystery. In the parable of the mustard see, Jesus reminds his disciples that God is in charge. God is growing God’s kingdom, seed by seed. This does not mean that humanity has no role in nurturing God’s kingdom. Men and women have work to do to nurture the seeds, but the unseen miracle of growth is a matter of faith.

With today’s scientific knowledge, we might be able to explain how the seed evolves into a bush, but why a mustard seed produces a mustard bush is yet another question. How would the disciples of Jesus understand this parable? They would be familiar with mustard seeds and mustard bushes; what would this image tell them about the kingdom of God?

Without our knowledge of botany, they might be more willing to accept the hand of God in the transformation of seeds into grain and plants and bushes. They more readily accepted God’s direct role in their lives, in their livelihood, and in the natural world around them. They were vulnerable to the changes of the seasons. They were powerless against ruthless overlords, and they longed for a kingdom of their own.

Jesus assured them that with God, amazing things could happen, but they must have faith, return to God’s ways, and then the kingdom of God would grow and transform their lives. God’s power to transform life was everywhere around them. They could see the results in plants and grain, and birds and animals. They needed to have faith that God’s power also was working in the human world, even if they could not see how.

The passage from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians echoes this teaching of Jesus. Paul’s writing can seem complex and unclear at times, but in today’s reading, there is a direct statement of faith to that early community of Christians. Paul says, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” If they needed to see Jesus to believe, they would never have faith, for it is by faith that they can believe in Jesus, and in his message of hope in God’s kingdom.

We may remember that it was Thomas who would not believe in the risen Christ until he saw the marks of crucifixion on the hands and feet of Jesus, but it was to Thomas that Jesus gave one of his most encouraging statements of hope for those of us who have not seen Jesus, and yet believe in him. ‘Do you believe in me because you have seen me, Thomas?’, Jesus asked. ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ The words of Jesus are for all of us who believe because of faith.  (A lovely new hymn in our hymn book, #244, has the same thought)

‘We walk by faith, not by sight.’ This is Paul’s message in our reading today. This is what Jesus is saying about the kingdom of God in the parable of the mustard seed. We do not see what makes the seed grow into a bush, and we do not see what makes the kingdom of God grow in the world around us.  We may believe that God’s hand makes it happen, but we do not see God’s hand.

Like the mustard bush, we may see the result of God’s work, if we stop to take notice, but if we do not take notice, if we do not open our eyes and minds and hearts to the possibility that God is creating miracles every day in our world, we not only will miss the wonder of God’s work, we will miss participating in the ongoing, neverending creation of God’s kingdom.

How will we recognize the signs of God’s kingdom? Look for signs of justice, acts of compassion, stories of courage, words of hope, visions of beauty, - the list goes on and on. Once Jesus was asked, ‘When will God’s kingdom come?’ His reply was that God’s kingdom is here among us. We can not possess the kingdom of God. The kingdom is God’s creation. Our task, our privilege, our calling from Jesus, is to help it grow.




Ascension Sunday


24 May 2009

Acts 1: 1-11; Luke 24: 44-53

By Sharyn Hall

The Ascension of Jesus was the conclusion of a tumultuous time for his disciples. The time began with the joyful entry into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday. It seemed joyful but the disciples closest to Jesus were uncertain and uneasy. They knew that Jerusalem was a dangerous place with soldiers everywhere, and powerful religious leaders in conflict with the people.

The disciples had reason to be anxious, because Jesus was arrested, falsely condemned to death and executed. His followers scattered in sorrow and disillusionment. Was Jesus really the Messiah? How could God’s Messiah suffer such an excruciating death?

Three days later the tomb was empty. Some of the disciples saw the empty tomb, but it seemed too fantastic to believe that Jesus was alive. The risen Jesus appeared to many people, yet they were left with a feeling of bewilderment. When the disciples were with the risen Jesus, they had no doubt that it was Jesus, but in their minds questions lingered. How could Jesus be alive again, but not in the same body? Too much was a mystery.

In our readings from the Book of Acts and the Gospel of Luke today, the disciples are talking with Jesus face to face, and yet in their hearts, they are still wondering. For the last time, Jesus explained to them why he had to suffer and die and rise again. Then he ascended into a heavenly cloud. He truly was gone. It is not surprising that they stood transfixed, staring up to heaven. So much had happened in about fifty days. They had experienced such dramatic events, extreme emotions, and what must have seemed supernatural phenomena. What was real? What was certain? And now, Jesus truly was gone.

Perhaps we can imagine how the disciples felt. We focus on Jesus through the events of Holy Week and his appearances to the disciples after his resurrection, but what were the people around him experiencing? How would their feelings impact their faith? This whole period was a time of uncertainty, a time when their faith was shaken. We understand what it is to live in times of uncertainty. Uncertainty can be personal when we face illness or sorrow or cruelty. Uncertainty in our world today takes many forms – natural disasters, the threat of war and the pace of change. We often live with uncertainty in our lives. What does that do to our faith in God and our belief in Jesus?

Faith in God recently has been an open topic for debate. Over the last couple of years, books and articles, which question or deny the existence of God have received a great deal of attention. ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins is one example. A few months ago, a controversy erupted in Britain over signs on buses which read, ‘There probably is no God, so stop worrying and enjoy life.’ The bus campaign quickly spread to other countries, including our own, but have we seen them lately?

Recently when I was in England, there was a front page headline in the London Times declaring, ‘Spread the Word, God is back.’ In a very long article, the authors argue that Christianity is not only enduring, but also growing, in many areas of the world. In developing countries, Christianity is spreading because of missionaries from evangelical branches of the church. In countries, which are primarily of a different faith, Christianity is gaining strength despite being in the minority. In Europe and North America, Christianity faces opposition from secularism and atheism, but still has strength.

The authors of this article in the Times are publishing a book entitled, ‘God is back: How a global revival of faith is changing the world.’ This is only one perspective of global Christianity, which is not shared or welcomed by everyone. A few days later, a second article appeared in the London Times with the headline, ‘Rumours of God’s return are greatly exaggerated.’ This second article argues that growth in Christianity is only in pockets around the world. What has changed is that pluralism, a variety of faiths spreading worldwide, has become the norm, not the exception.

What we understood as the dominant religion of a society is changing. In Canada, we are experiencing this transformation of our society. How do we cope with challenges to our faith and uncertainty in our lives? We could declare ourselves non-believers and concentrate on our own view of the world. We could go on a restless search for meaning, moving from one spiritual quest to another. Or we could try to live with the uncertainty by searching deeper in our own faith for greater understanding and greater trust in God’s enduring love for God’s creation. There are rarely easy answers to the realities of human life. In the mystery of faith, there are often good questions, which have no answers at all.

Perhaps the first disciples of Jesus would recognize the uncertainty and insecurity of our world. They would recognize the constant tensions between conflicting and powerful religious forces. They would understand what it means to have their faith in God tested by fear and doubt and sorrow. We can gain inspiration from their example. They went forward with faith in the mission of Jesus, even when tumultuous events left them with an uncertain future. We too live in a time ,which seems tumultuous and uncertain, so it is up to us to cope with the reality we have, by accepting the guidance of the Holy Spirit, by seeking insight in the Way of Jesus, and by trusting that God’s love can strengthen our hearts to endure all things.

Thanks be to God

14 June 2009

Pentecost 2 - Holy Jazz

Pentecost 2

14 June 2009

Isaiah 42 5-12

Psalm 85 7:13

John 14: 15-17, 25-26

Evening Jazz Mass

St. Luke’s, Burlington

There are some people who think that the whole concept of a Jazz Mass is an oxy-moron: perhaps especially so in an Anglican Church, and even more so in one that is celebrating it’s 175th year. What would our ancestors who built this Church think of the sound of jazz within this holy space?

I think it is important for us to consider how jazz came to be in the first place. Jazz and the Blues originate from south of the border out of black gospel roots. Its rhythms are the same as those which brought us the great spirituals. They were an expression of the passion – the joys and the sorrows of a people in slavery. It should come as no surprise that so many black spirituals refer to the great Old Testament figures which are part of the history of God freeing the people of Israel out of slavery.

Jazz developed and continued in the secular arena, but I believe its origin remains the same. It comes out of a creative gift and all creativity has its origins in our creator. It is through exercising our creative gifts that humans become co-creators with God – making something completely new. In their varieties of expression, in their passion, sometimes in their plaintive mournfulness and often in their percussive joy, the writers of rhythm and blues and jazz share so much in common with the writers of the Psalms. All of these writers have “Soul.”

We are in the season of Pentecost and so this evening’s Gospel lesson has Jesus promising his disciples that he will send them the Holy Spirit. Further on in this Gospel of John, after Jesus has been taken and tried and crucified and risen again, and on Easter day, Jesus comes to these same disciples who are terrified and hiding behind locked doors, and he says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then the Gospel says, “He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”

The Holy Spirit arrived at Pentecost in the rushing wind, just like at the beginning of time: the spirit moved, a wind from God over the face of the deep. Creation came about through this holy wind.

Just as God breathed life into the clay in the creation of humankind, so Jesus breathes new life into these frightened disciples and re-creates them into a courageous and creative Church. And always, with creation, is the breath or the wind.

A man breathes into his saxophone, a woman slides her trombone and another’s fingers trill over the keyboard and hammer strikes string, which reverberates in the air, and sound washes over us all, and we experience creation all over again. How can this gift not be holy?

Music bypasses the cerebral cortex and goes straight to your spirit. That’s why it’s holy. That’s why, if you let yourself, you can get lost in the music and it can take you to a new place. It’s a holy place.

So many of the greats of jazz recognized God’s hand in their music. The year before he died, Duke Ellington published his autobiography and he wrote this:

"There have been times when I thought I had a glimpse of God. Sometimes, even when my eyes were closed, I saw. Then when I tried to set my eyes--closed or open--back to the same focus, I had no success, of course. The unprovable fact is that I believe I have had a glimpse of God many times. I believe because believing is believable, and no one can prove it unbelievable....”

Duke Ellington wasn’t able to fully express his experience of God in words, but I think he expressed it through his music. Later in life, during the last decade of his life he wrote music for and performed his sacred concerts, but even before that, his jazz was filled with holy creativity.

We can share in this creativity as well. It is said that those who sing pray twice, for we pray in the words we sing and also in the music of the notes. And singing, of course, is all about the breath.

A people who sing together breath together, and that breath is holy, for Isaiah writes in tonight’s Old Testament lesson: “Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out. Who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: ….. Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the end of the earth!”

What an awesome privilege it is to sing together and to praise God’s name. It is a holy act and can fill us with joy. So if you think you can’t sing, sing anyway – breathe with us all, and be in the music and be holy. For this is how God created you to be.

And if you ever thought twice about jazz in Church – think a third time and enter into the new creation, and be blown by the spirit of God which can even whistle through ancient and hallowed walls and fill them with new life. Hallelujah! Amen.

07 June 2009

Trinity Sunday - Mystery

St. Luke’s, Burlington

Sunday, 7 June, 2009

Isaiah 6: 1-8, Psalm 29, Psalm 29 John 3: 1-17

            I have always found it to be a challenge to preach on Trinity Sunday. Although the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is one of the most central doctrines of the Church, it is also one of the hardest to understand. In my last parish during one of our book study on Thursday afternoons we studied the book, The History of God, by Karen Armstrong, and we followed how, through history, the Church has been struggling to understand the nature of God and the doctrine of the trinity. So far, the conclusion of most of the Church and of most religions in general is that the nature of God is a great mystery. God cannot be fully known. We can only catch glimpses of God’s nature.

            The story is told of St Augustine of Hippo, the great philosopher and theologian. He was preoccupied with the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity. He wanted so much to understand the doctrine of one God in three persons and to be able to explain it logically. One day he was walking along the sea shore and reflecting on this matter. Suddenly, he saw a little child all alone on the shore. The child made a hole in the sand, ran to the sea with a little cup, filled her cup with sea water, ran up and emptied the cup into the hole she had made in the sand. Back and forth she went to the sea, filled her cup and came and poured it into the hole. Augustine drew up to her and said, “Little child, what are you doing?”  She replied, “I am trying to empty the sea into this hole.”
“How do you think,” Augustine asked her, “that you can empty this immense sea into this tiny hole and with this tiny cup?”
She answered back, “And you, how do you suppose that with your small head you can comprehend the immensity of God?” With that the child disappeared.

            St. Augustine woke from his reverie a wiser man than before. He knew that no one can understand the immensity of God. The doctrine of the Trinity gives us a way to understand only something of God.

            In the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah, we have the story of the experience which changed Isaiah forever and made him a great prophet of God. It was a disturbing time in Israel’s history when the King had died and the people were in fear of foreign rulers ready to take advantage of the power vacuum.

            Isaiah is a man of the temple and that is where his is when he has this earth shattering experience of God. The experience is so great that he cannot describe God, but only says that the hem of God’s robe filled the entire temple. Isaiah effectively uses these few words to give us an inkling of the greatness of God which can never be captured in words. The fantastical scene is filled with visions which we cannot even imagine. The seraphim are flying, the foundations of the Temple shake with the voice of their praise, and the temple is filled with the smoke of incense. Isaiah is filled with awe and with a deep sense of his own unworthiness. And yet, by God’s grace his sense of guilt is healed so that when God asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”, Isaiah immediately says, “Here am I; send me!”

            Isaiah’s vision of God gives us a glimpse of he whom we would call the first person of the Trinity, God the Father. He is a God who is loftier than we can imagine and our words are only weak indicators. In his immensity, he is remote, and so completely “other.” This is the God of the 29th Psalm, the God whose voice breaks the cedar trees and shakes the wilderness. The God whose voice splits the flames of fire. This is the God whom we approach with fear and trembling, and yet we are drawn to seek an experience of this God. We seek and yearn for this God whom we fear.

            In the Gospel lesson we have the story of Nicodemus who is also a seeker. He is drawn to find Jesus because he knows that he is from God. He must go at night because Nicodemus was a religious leader and most of the religious leaders of the time were opposed to Jesus. Nicodemus wants to know more about God. By his initial conversation with Jesus, it appears that he wants to get it all figured out logically: “How can anyone be born after have grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

            Jesus takes him out of his logical frame of mind and speaks of the Spirit. “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the spirit.”

            Once again we have the spirit compared to the wind, like last week when the spirit came in wind and fire at Pentecost. The Spirit is as moveable and changeable as the wind. It isn’t about understanding it logically, it is about experiencing it. This is the God in whom we live and move and have our being. It is not the God who is lofty and remote, but it is the God who touches us when we are not expecting it and who leads us into the unfamiliar and unknown and who guides us without words.

            The one who mediates this experience of God is Jesus the Christ. God would not be simply “other.” God would be one of us. What a truly amazing thing to realize. This God whose hem would fill the temple would live among us and experience a humble human life and death so that we could find the God whom we seek and fear. And, in the finding, we might, beyond the fear, know a person: a person who loves us and gives his life for us.

            At the waters of baptism we remember the Spirit of God who hovered over the face of the deep. In the giving of flame, we remember the Spirit who came in the flames of Pentecost. As people who are baptized we need to remember that we are baptized into a community of people who, together in the faith remind us that God became human, and lived among us. And we remember that God is a community, a trinity who is three and is more than three. For as it has been said, “When we think about the Trinity we must forget how to count.” And let us remember that the nature of God is as mystery. As theologian, Justo Gonzalez wrote, “Trinity is a mystery, not a puzzle. Love is a mystery, a crossword is a puzzle. You try to solve the puzzle, you stand in awe before a mystery." Amen.

03 June 2009

Holy Fire

Pentecost 2009

St. Luke’s Church, Burlington

31 May 2009

Acts 2: 1-21

Several memories have come together for me as I have been preparing to celebrate this wonderful feast of Pentecost. On Tuesday night this past week, the clergy of the diocese gathered together outdoors for their evening prayer at clergy conference. We gathered in a circle around a crackling fire, and as the light started to wane in the sky, we prayed and sang and lit candles to celebrate the presence of holiness among us.

A couple of years ago, on Friday night I helped lead and chaperone our annual Youth Fest Sleep-over. I prefer to call them wake-overs because it seems a bit more descriptive of the actual event. There were about twenty kids and a couple of leaders and we actually slept in the Church at St. George’s in St. Catharines. Not in the parish hall, but in the Church. -- I remember the story of Samuel who would sleep in the temple of the Lord, and one night, heard the Lord calling to him. -- Before we slept in the Church we did have a program of fun and games and candle-making and muffin-making to provide for the breakfast program which feeds anyone who comes to their Church every morning every day of the year.

We gathered in the Church for worship and we lit candles and we read today’s lesson from Acts which tells of the first Pentecost of the Church and we spoke about how the Spirit came in wind and fire at that time.

I recalled the times when I especially felt the presence of the holy - the presence of God when I was about their age. I remember when I was a cub at cub-camp and how, as the light failed in the sky we gathered together - a great ring of boys in a clearing in the middle of the trees and we waited in expectation around a large pile of wood, set just so with an opening in one side. At the right time in the service, an arrow of fire shot out of the trees and straight into the heart of the wood which erupted in flames. Oh the exhilaration of it all! And we listened to stories of the creator. But later, when the fire had burned low and we had sung and listened and seen stories acted out and it was almost time to head for our kit and our sleep, we sang the song which stabbed me through with chills of holiness:

“Day is done, gone the sun

from the lakes, from the hills, from the sky

All is well, safely rest

God is nigh.”

Yes, I thought, God is nigh. God is here. The embers of that fire danced and rippled with waves and rills of light and I saw God dance in them. God, too, was above us in the starry vastness. And God was in a circle of boys who were hushed into silence for a moment, but who could only look at the fire and at each other and see the reflection of that fire glimmering in each others eyes. I was perhaps nine years old, but my heart stretched and smiled with recognition. My creator was here.

Perhaps this was why the Holy Spirit appeared in the dance of wind and fire on that first Pentecost, when the disciples were gathered huddled and scared behind locked doors. Last week we remembered how Jesus left his disciples but promised them that he would send a comforter who would clothe them with power from on high. John the Baptist foretold of the messiah who would come after him who would baptize them, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. And, so often the Holy Spirit is associated with fire in Holy Scriptures.

On the Friday night of the wake-over, one of the youth asked me, “What is that red lamp with the flame in it which is at the front of the Church for?” I told him, “That is called a presence lamp and it symbolizes the presence of God in the Church.” A small flickering piece of fire that reminds us that the Church is a holy place and that God is always present.

It wasn’t long after my experience at cub camp that my educational career took a scientific turn. I learned about scientific method and mathematics and logic. The principles of hypothesis, experiment, analysis and proof made good sense to me. This is the way to understand and learn more about the world in which I live, I thought. My classmates and my teachers thought so too. The thrill of discovery replaced the excitement of experience. It wasn’t long before I realized that many people thought that if you couldn’t prove something through scientific method, then it just wasn’t real. The only true thing was a provable thing.

And yet, from time to time I would have a deep experience of holy recognition again. The night I slept out under the stars in the wilderness and heard the wolves howl at the moon. The very first time I heard Samuel Barber’s Adagio for strings. Candlelight service. Singing words that George Herbert wrote.

But there were the dry periods too. There were even dry years when my memories of any holy moment seemed like they must have simply been delusion or youthful exuberance. Were they real?

Charles Henderson writes of a great Indian mystic who tells the story of a child who grew up in the squalid streets of Calcutta. He was fifteen years old but had not ventured more than a block or two beyond the bleak neighbourhood where he was born. There in the centre of that great city, tall tenement apartments rose up on all sides so that, looking upwards, the best that child could ever see was a narrow strip of blue sky, and perhaps just a hint of the white, fleecy clouds passing by. The light of the sun shone down into the shadows of that ghetto for only a few moments each day when the weather was clear. Otherwise it was mostly grey and depressing. So that's exactly the impression that young boy had of the world itself.

Occasionally, on an especially bright morning in the springtime, the smell of flowers from some distant field would find its way into that squalid place and the boy would wonder about that strange scent. But the sweet smell of grass and flowers did not seem real to the boy. What seemed real was the stench of that city, and the garbage, and the peeling paint, and the poverty of the people. The noise of the traffic, the rumble of cars and trucks, these the young boy could believe in, but as for that ribbon of blue sky, he soon ceased wondering about that, for clearly nothing that beautiful could be real. And as for the fresh air of springtime and the smell of flowers, they must merely be some illusion, some fantasy from a world of dreams.

Another thing which came together for me recently has been our most recent book study of the book, “A Totally Human Hope” written by our own newish parishioner, Archdeacon Richard Berryman. In this book Richard points out that the language of the artist, whether painter, poet, writer, composer or sculptor is also the language of religion. That language is metaphor and it can only properly point toward holy truth, rather than define it. Perhaps this is why I and so many others have experienced holy moments when in the presence of the metaphor of art or the symbolic acts of liturgy.

What is real to you? What are your proofs? Or do you need them?

On that Friday night, after we finally got the kids settled, I unrolled my sleeping bag right beside the Pascal candle in the chancel and almost under the presence lamp and I remembered about fire and spirit and my own story with each. Amen.

To be Real

Easter 6  - To be Real                                                                                                         

Canon Sharyn Hall

17 May 2009

John 15: 9 – 17                                                                              

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become REAL. It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time.”

This is a brief quote from the children’s book entitled, ‘The Velveteen Rabbit.’ The book was written by Margery Williams in 1922, and has become a classic work enjoyed by many generations of children. The story is about toys becoming real because they are loved, but the underlying wisdom of the story is about people. Margery Williams understood how toys and people become real through the experience of love.

Although I knew of the book, I did not read the whole story until a young couple asked me if they could include a brief excerpt from the book in their wedding. When I read the book, I quickly saw the connection between the message of the book and the gospel story for today. Both ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ and this gospel emphasize the amazing power of love. The transforming power of love is what Jesus is talking about when he says, ‘Abide in my love and your joy will be complete.’

Jesus is talking about love, which encompasses every kind of relationship, including the kind of love between two people who want to join their lives together, also the kind of love, which can grow within members of a family, and the kind of love we might call compassion for anyone in distress, and the kind of love, which calls us to stand up against injustice and oppression of people we do not know. When Jesus says, ‘Abide in my love’, he is describing the love he has for us, and he is calling us to build relationships of love with others.

When Jesus says, ‘IF you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love,’ he is not placing a condition on his love, he is offering the means to abide in his love. That little word, ‘IF’ can be interpreted in different ways. It can be seen as a warning – in other words, ‘you only receive the love of Jesus and the love of God IF you keep the commandments.’ Some people believe that they can only earn God’s love and the love of Jesus by striving to follow many rules, particularly the ten commandments of Moses.

The ten commandments are inspired commandments to live by, but Jesus did not call them the greatest commandments. To him, the greatest commandments were to love God and to love people – a few words, but words packed with challenge. These are the two commandments, which open the way to abiding in the love of Christ. They are ancient commandments of the Jewish faith. They are the foundation of the covenant between God and the Hebrew people. The religious leaders of the Hebrew people turned these commandments into so many rules and laws that love was forgotten. Jesus came into the human world to bring back real love into the relationship between God and the people, and to bring the healing power of love among all people, rich and poor, scribe and sinner, priest and beggar.

That little word, ‘IF’, give us the choice and the opportunity to abide in love. IF we keep the commandments to love, the way of love can become a way of life. “Abide in my love,” Jesus says. The word, ‘abide’, seems an old-fashioned word to use in our modern time, but the word, ‘abide’, has in it the qualities of the strength of love. ‘Abide’ means to sustain love, to be grounded in love, and to let love be the guiding principle of life.

To abide in the love which Christ taught us is to see the potential for love in our daily lives. This may sound like seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses, but it is more realistic than that idea. It means to see the possibility of good, when faced with the reality of hatred, cruelty and sorrow. Reality need not be a synonym for the troubles of the world. Reality also may be the potential for compassion, for friendship, loyalty, justice, and for love. To be REAL means to face all the challenges, which love can bring.

In the book, ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’, the little boy loves the Rabbit so much that the Rabbit is with him wherever he goes, - in the playroom, where the Rabbit is jostled by the mechanical toys, who think they are superior to a silly, stuffed Rabbit, - out in the woods, where the Rabbit gets a little dirty, - and most of all, in the boy’s bed, when the boy holds him close all night long. This is wonderful for the Rabbit even when the boy becomes seriously ill with scarlet fever. The Rabbit loves the boy and stays with him to comfort him. When the boy becomes well again, the doctor orders that all the toys must be burned, so the little Rabbit is gathered up with the bedding and taken to the garden to be burned. Then something happens. The Rabbit realizes that he can run and jump and twitch his nose. The boy’s love has made him real, so he escapes from the bedclothes and runs into the woods to meet other real rabbits.

This is a children’s story, but it is more than a happy ending. We remember the Rabbit’s desire to be real, to be alive, to be loved. We are reminded that it is through love, both given and received, that we become really alive as God’s creatures in God’s world.

                                                            Thanks be to God.    Amen..