31 January 2010

Epiphany 4 C - The Need for Prophets

Jeremiah 1: 4-10

Luke 4: 21-30

Sunday, 31 January 2010

By Stuart Pike

It could be that I’m just not doing it right, but I can safely say that, so far, no congregation has, after hearing me preach, threatened to throw me off a cliff! It could be that a congregation might have thought it, but were too polite to say anything about it! The congregation who listen to Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson has exactly this response to his words. It is amazing how quickly the people change from speaking well of him to wanting to murder him! Perhaps it is because Jesus speaks the truth, and the truth is not the comfortable

Both the O.T. lesson and the Gospel are about Prophets, about speaking the message of God. That's what prophets do: they speak the message which God wants them to speak to the people.

God speaks to Jeremiah and tells him that he is to be a Prophet and (as is usual with Prophets) he immediately protests that he is not able. Many of God's servants did the same thing:

Moses: - unable to speak

Isaiah: a man of unclean lips

Jeremiah: I am only a boy.

In response God simply does not take no for an answer. He says: You SHALL go to all to whom I send you, and you SHALL speak whatever

I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you."

Jeremiah may not actually have been a child. In the Hebrew text the word translated as boy is na'ar which could mean anyone from childhood up to age 30. What is really significant is that a na'ar was a person without authority.

Jeremiah thought that he didn't have the authority to preach. Perhaps he wondered how he would be received if he started telling the people that they were doing it all wrong and that God had other ideas about how they were to live. "Who does he think he is?", is probably what Jeremiah imagined he'd be greeted with by the people to whom God would send him.

That is often the question which any group of people will use to dismiss someone who suggests a new way which is different from the way the people are used to. When the will of God is spoken by a prophet and it opposes what the people are doing, then the people will often seem to use any excuse to dismiss the prophet - rather than listening to the message, and learning from it. He's too young - or she is without authority. Who does she think she is?

The Gospel lesson shows us how Jesus was treated when he spoke the truth about his mission. That truth did not meet their expectations and wishes and their high regard for Jesus turned into a murderous rage.

What did Jesus mean when he interpreted the Nazarene's thoughts as "Doctor cure yourself"? Remember that Jesus was preaching to his own home town. It probably means the same thing as the second thing that he says. You are a Nazarene - so make sure you heal Nazarene's. You belong to us and your mission is to take care of us. "Do also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum." In other words: Charity begins at home.

Jesus refers to two of their Scripture stories which show how God doesn't necessarily appear to the Jews. Elijah went to a foreign widow though there were many Jewish widows at the time. Naaman was a foreign leper who was healed though there were many Jewish lepers at the time.

These people want to claim Jesus as their own. Jesus tells them that he is not their servant but is God's servant. And God hasn't only come for them but for all people.

Of course the end result of all that was their wish to throw Jesus off a cliff. This is the sort of thing that Jeremiah in the O.T. was probably worried about. If he is only a boy, or has no authority and is proclaiming what the people do not want to hear. What will they do to him?

The truth is that God doesn't necessarily do our will. But because the message isn't according to our own expectations or our wishes - it doesn't mean that it isn't God's will. The messages of God are often unexpected and they are often brought by someone unexpected or without authority.

Remember Jesus saying, "When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry about what you are to say but say whatever is given to you at that time, for it is not you who speak but the Holy Spirit."

God speaks through whom he will and brings the message which we need to hear. The most common thing about the message of God is that it means change. God didn't send his Prophets to say to the people: "You're doing a fine job: keep it up." All God's messages are about change. Change for the better of course. All God’s prophets spoke to the people about how they needed to change to be faithful to God's will

Jesus, likewise didn't go about telling people just what they wanted to hear. He healed them and accepted them as they were, but he had the grace to tell them not what they wanted to hear - but what they needed to hear. Jesus told them how they needed to change.

The people in Jeremiah's time, seven centuries before Jesus - needed a prophet. The people in Jesus' time needed a prophet too.

The people were probably ready for minor reforms and for wonderful deeds - but they really needed a prophet. We seem to be in the same boat today. We are content with minor reforms in some aspects of our lives, but we are not ready to confront the darkness which is within ourselves, and in our society. We don't seem ready to change. We, too, need a prophet. We need to be able to hear the message from God for us today. The question is: what would we do with such a prophet?

Of course it's the same answer as what always happened. There are some in the parish who would be able to hear the message from God, and who would take it heart and who would change. But there are also some who would like to take the prophet to the edge of Mount Nemo and have them take the express elevator down, without the elevator!

I believe that God is calling us to change today. I don't mean minor reforms. I mean revolutionary change in the way in which we are being the Church. Our whole world is changing around us and we realize that we live in a culture which has largely forgotten all about God. We realize that there are plenty of people who call themselves Anglican and are on our Parish list, but who have little experience of the God who loves them, or of our Lord Jesus who accepts us as we are, and then asks us to change - to return to being people faithful to God. We are called to reach out to more people – both those on our parish list, and those whom we have never reached before. And we need to change in order to do that.

In which ways is God calling you to change? What message is God asking you to speak? Through your words and through your actions? And what objections do you give? Don’t say, “I’m only a boy, or a man or a woman” or “I’m too old”, or “I’m not ready”. For God is calling you to be a part of his purpose. Amen.

30 January 2010

Baptism of the Lord

Sermon for 10 January 2010

Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

By Sharyn Hall

In very early Christian paintings, the baptism of Jesus often is represented by two figures standing knee-deep in the waters of the River Jordan. John the Baptist is clothed in animal skins, and Jesus wears a simple robe. John is pouring water over Jesus as he stands in prayer. Often a descending dove appears above Jesus to represent God’s blessing of the Holy Spirit upon his beloved Son. This image of the baptism of Jesus has stayed in the Christian faith for centuries, and can be found in stained glass windows in numerous churches. The picture of John and Jesus in the Jordan presents us with the complete image of baptism, and yet we often forget that baptism is two-fold.

The figure of John represents the need for repentance in our lives. Repentance is not about groveling in the dust. Repentance is about turning away from soul-destroying desires, and seeking the saving grace of God. John’s prophetic role was to prepare the people for the presence of God in the form of a human being. John’s call for repentance was symbolized by the cleansing with water, which was an ancient Jewish custom. John the Baptizer transforms the old ritual of purification by water into a new ritual of preparation by water for a new experience of God.

Many people think of baptism as essentially washing away sin, but that is only John‘s side of the picture. That is what humanity is called to do, to walk toward God by stepping into the River, and by seeking a renewed relationship with God. That is the preparation for the Jesus side of the picture.

We can see God’s response to those who seek God in the figure of Jesus. God identifies Jesus as God’s presence within humanity. Jesus brings to humanity the possibility of a new creation. Sometimes in trying to describe the significance of the baptism of Jesus, we may slip into theological jargon and talk about the eschatological meaning of Jesus as the new Adam, Jesus embodying the perfection of creation as originally envisioned by God. But what does that mean for you and me?

Thankfully it can mean the possibility of new life every time we turn to God. The power of the Holy Spirit given by God to Jesus can be active in our lives because Jesus also was a human being. The gift of the Holy Spirit can be ours if we turn toward God and seek that new life. The baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan gives us the model for living a baptized life. First, listen to John and renounce all that draws us away from God, then turn toward the Way of Jesus, the one who brings new life to God’s creation. Our baptism is about newness given by the grace of God. We are baptized only once with the ritual of water and the Holy Trinity, but the power and potential of baptism is renewable and life-long. Again and again we can be renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit. However, we have a part to play in that renewal. We need to take that first step to follow Jesus and seek the grace of God in our lives.

This past Wednesday, I travelled to Toronto on the GO train arriving in Union Station at about 5:15 pm. I made my way through a crush of people in the train station to the subway platform. There I boarded a packed subway train to Trinity College, where I was scheduled to teach a class to Divinity students with a colleague from Toronto.

When I arrived at the College, I went directly to the lovely Gothic chapel where the choral evensong was already in progress. Sitting at the back of the chapel, my thoughts were distracted by memories, memories of when I sang in the chapel choir many years ago as an undergraduate in the 1960’s, memories of when I returned to Trinity College in the 1990’s as a Divinity student and participated in services in the chapel.

The memories were pleasant and nostalgic, but also I was struck by the great contrast between the serene chapel service and the hectic rush of people in Union Station. Those people experience that stressful pace of travelling to and from work nearly every day of their lives. They seemed so far removed from the serenity of the chapel. Does that mean that they are far away from God?

I guessed that attending a chapel service would be last on their to-do list for the day. They just wanted to get home, make dinner, maybe watch television, go to bed and start again in the morning. As I sat listening to the service in the chapel, I felt that I had just experienced two different worlds, the fast-paced world of life in our secular society in which the search for happiness is defined by the criteria for success, and the world where people step away from the hectic pace of secular life to seek the presence of God. The juxtaposition of these two worlds seemed to emphasize the distance between them. How do we bring those two worlds closer together?

Many people in our society say they believe in God. Many people say they are baptized Christians, but they see no connection between their baptism and their daily lives. That is one of the greatest challenges of Christ’s church today. In whatever way the Christian community opens its doors to a renewed relationship with God, the individual person must be willing to step inside. Our job as a Christian parish is to keep the doors open, to welcome those who venture in, and to be willing to keep the spirit of baptism alive in our parish community.

We all need to listen to John the Baptist, to repent in our daily lives, to turn toward God, and to spiritually step into the River Jordan again. We all need to stand with Jesus, to study the wisdom of his Way to God, and to continue his mission today. Then perhaps more people will seek the serenity of God. They will take a few moments for prayer in their busy days, and possibly they will decide that it is worth getting up on Sunday morning to find out why some people go to church. As we begin this new decade in the 21st century, we can help make that happen by our faithful witness to God in our lives, and in our commitment to make this parish community renewed again and again through God’s gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

24 January 2010

Epiphany 2 C - The Weding Wine

by Stuart Pike

Isaiah 62:1-5

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

John 2:1-11

St. Luke's, Burlington

17 January 2010

Today’s Gospel story used to leave me a little bit cold. If Jesus was going plan out his career in miracle-making, I used to think, surely he would do one of the healings first. What was Jesus’ point in making this over-abundance of wine for a wedding feast. Surely it wasn’t a life and death situation. No one’s limb was restored; no one recovered their sight. It appears that the big winners in today’s story include the host who was saved from public embarrassment and the guests themselves who could party on longer! I was encouraged that this story appears to prove that Jesus loved a party, but shouldn’t there be a little more depth here?

Not only that: most of the characters in the story are blissfully unaware that a miracle has even taken place. The steward of the feast doesn’t know. The bridegroom doesn’t know. The servants who drew the wine out of the water-jars seem to be the only ones who know, although we can assume that Jesus’ disciples know along with Jesus’ mother, Mary.

At just about the time that I am scratching my head wondering what the point of the miracle is, I remember a simple truth about my nature which I try to keep hidden, occasionally with some success. Yes, the truth is that I am really a party-animal trapped inside the body of a Priest!

Truth be told, my favourite part of seminary was the social life! Anything was an excuse for a party. There were many evenings when a crowd of us would gather at Seager hall to celebrate something good or sometimes to console ourselves after something brutal such as a philosophical theology exam. The phrase was: “Life’s a party.” Or at least that was my phrase and my general positive attitude to life. Rejoice! Celebrate! Isn’t that the essence of our faith. Aren’t we, at the deepest level, Easter people?

The feast is an image which was often used throughout the old and new testaments. In our old testament today Isaiah uses the image of the marriage feast to represent the celebration of Israel when she is finally vindicated. Jesus frequently referred to heaven as being a marriage feast. The relationship between God and his people is likened to a marriage just as Christ is referred to as a bridegroom, and the Church his bride. The wine of the feast represents the abundant blessing of God: the richness of life in all its fullness. Wine is the joie de vivre.

There’s only one problem with the “life’s a party” attitude though: sooner or later in our lives, the wine runs out. We might be enjoying our lives like a guest at a wedding and then suddenly a sobering event might broadside us: the wine has run out. You lose your job, the diagnosis is in, the depression hits, the loved one is stricken or love is lost. Sometimes the wine runs out more gradually: middle age settles in and goals hoped for become only the illusions of our youth: and so: the wine runs out.

Perhaps you remember when the wine ran out in your life. Perhaps you haven’t experienced that yet. Perhaps you’re in the middle of that dry period now. Perhaps you feel the scarcity of it.

John, the writer of today’s Gospel, knows about scarcity and abundance. Many of the miracles which John describes are about God’s abundant blessings pouring into broken and impoverished lives: the healings of those who are ill or deformed or shunned: the feeding of the multitude, the raising of the dead.

I love how John tells the story. There is such a lovely moment between Jesus and his mother. They arrive on the third day of the wedding. In that time a wedding celebration lasted for a week! What a party, but what a disappointment because they’re not even half-way through and they’ve run out of wine. Mary looks to her son and simply says, “They have no wine.” Jesus knows the implication in her statement, but he replies: “But what does that have to do with you and me? I’m not ready to do anything about it!” Mary, the quintessential confident Jewish mother doesn’t even dignify his protest with an answer. She simply says to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you.” Although John doesn’t record it, I can nevertheless see Jesus rolling his eyes as he mutters under his breath: “Oi vey” just before he tells the servants to fill the stone jars with water.

He tells the servants to draw out some of the water and to give it to the steward of the feast, and that’s it. The miracle is done! John uses hyperbole to point out God’s abundance. Look at the sheer volume of the miracle: Jesus makes 120 or 130 gallons of wine! Now that’s a party animal! The steward, perhaps swaying somewhat to add import to his words calls the bridegroom in astonishment and says, “But everyone serves the good wine first and then they bring out the poorer wine, when the guests have become drunk, and it doesn’t matter anymore. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Not only did Jesus make so much wine, but it was the best wine. Not only does Jesus bring life into a lifeless situation, but it is the best life. I can just see Mary in the background saying, “That’s my own son, he’s such a good boy.”

John’s meaning is clear: no matter the depth of your lack, Jesus can transform your life. You can be filled with God’s abundance. Your soul can be filled to the brim and overflowing with the essence of God’s blessing.

One of the important parts of this Gospel lesson to me is the fact that Jesus uses the labour of others to help in the miracle. The really back-breaking work of this miracle was the hauling of 120 gallons of water to fill those stone jars. That’s what the servants did. Jesus works through the contribution of ordinary people, and that’s how the miracle happens.

I heard Tom Harpur interviewed on CBC radio a couple of years ago. He was speaking about a new book of his called the Spirituality of Wine. He was speaking about how wine is made. How the heavens open and the rains fall upon the vineyards, drenching them with water. The ground of the vineyard is tilled by human activity, and the vines are tended by human hands. The roots of the vines drink up the water of the ground. The grapes are collected and pressed and the juice is stored and after a time the result is wine. The water of the rain, through God’s work and our work combined has been changed into wine!

The message of today’s Gospel is one of joy. Jesus can fill our thirsty souls with new and abundant life. And we can be engaged in bringing this abundance to others. Amen.

03 January 2010

Epiphany - The Journey

Epiphany C ‑ Our Journey

Matthew 2: 1-12

St. Luke’s Church, Burlington

3 January 2009

Today we hear the story of the end of a long journey. The three wise men finally were able to see the result of the prophecy of the star. The word, Epiphany means to 'shine through'. It describes how it was that the Magi were able to travel a great distance to eventually find themselves at a humble village ‑ how, upon entering the humble home they would find a baby born in abject poverty ‑ and how, even in this unlikely setting, they were able to see God's presence there. God's love shone through in this unlikely scene, and the Magi were able to realize this. This was Epiphany for the wise men: the power of God shining through the seemingly mundane.

Each of us have our own Epiphany experiences during our life, or at least we can have them. These are times when God's love shines through and touches our hearts. It can happen for us in the everyday, mundane things of our lives. And we come to realize that the Epiphany experience almost always happens during the seemingly unlikely times. So, I guess, a poor home in Bethlehem wasn't really unlikely at all. The God who created the universe appears to humankind in abject poverty. And our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom all things were made, spent his early years as a refugee in a foreign land.

The three wise men probably had a very arduous and long journey. It was only their faith which kept them going. The irony of it was that the Messiah of the Jews was born among the Jews, and yet throughout Jesus' life and afterwards, it was really non‑Jews, who recognized who Jesus was. The Magi were not Jews, and it was among the Gentiles, that most of the Church was formed after Jesus' death.

This can point out to us that just because we are part of the Christian Church, it doesn't mean that we have achieved all that God expects us to. We might be left behind as others make the discoveries about God, and grow in wisdom.

It was Oscar Wilde who wrote: "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."

The Jews lived in the same world as the Jews of the time, and Jesus was even born among them, yet it was the Magi who looked at the stars, and followed what the stars told them to find God in the world.

In Matthew's Gospel they were called wise men. I wonder if they were people who understood the value of listening to the intuitive and inner voice, as they took time to search for God and a deeper meaning to life. While others were busy with their labour and their daily lives, these wise men were watching the stars and responding to the signs which came to them from the heavens.

This past month has been a time of busy‑ness for many of us. The weeks before Christmas can be over‑full of things to get done and places to go. The world seems to spin a little faster and our lives get a little more hectic. This seems to be the general flow of our lives each year as well. The pace of life seems to pick up more and more.

Epiphany is about putting ourselves into a different mode. It is about setting out on a journey of faith, just as the Magi did. They started an actual physical journey as they set out to look for the Messiah. Ours is a spiritual journey. It is about becoming aware of the light of Christ in the world around us as we journey to ever greater truths. Even if we do have busy lives, we must be the people who look at the stars.

There are plenty of people around us who know this truth. If we think about it we will probably remember a friend or a relative who seemed to have something about her or him. A way of seeing the world in spiritual ways. Some people have the gift of spiritual insight.

You see, if you are not careful, you can end up living your life just in the rat race. There are many people who do succeed in the rat race. They put their time and their energy into it and they might even rise to the top. The thing about the rat race, though is that even if you win the race, your still a rat! You can forget that living has a purpose and is not an end in itself. Living is about growing and changing and moving in our faith and in our relationships with each other. Life is not about just getting through it.

My father used to have a saying which I'm sure we've all heard before. It goes: "The longest journey begins with a single step."

Of course that single step is followed by another and another. The real trick is to take that first step, and then to keep the steps coming, being aware all the while of God's creation around us and that God has a purpose for us.

It is in the spiritual journey that we have our Epiphany experiences. The light of Christ can shine in the darkness at any turn of the path, and it can appear in even the most unlikely situations. But only if you have your eyes ready to perceive it.

Sometimes I wonder if Christians in the western world have become just a little too comfortable with where we are. Change is a nasty word to so many of us. Yet growth is change and all of life is about change. We as the Church have slowed right down in our journey of faith. I think some of us have stopped the journey entirely.

As we begin a new year and we wonder what the future has in store for us we can be fearful about the changes which we will have to make. It is time to think differently about all of this. It is time to take the courage to move forward ‑ even into the unknown. It is time to shake the dust off our slow moving selves and get those feet moving again. One step ‑ and then another ‑ and then another. Let's make that our New Year's resolution: to move and grow in our faith again.

Here at St. Luke’s we offer plenty of ways to help get the process going: Try coming to one of our Bible Studies or books studies. Or try coming out to learn about contemplative prayer. Or try joining one of our groups which reaches out to help our community.

I wish you all a happy Epiphany. And I wish you all your own Epiphany experiences. Keep looking at the stars in your life to see the signs that God is giving. And let us keep ourselves on the Journey. Amen.

Advent Carol - Light in the Darkness

Sermon for 20 December 2009

Micah 5: 2-5a; Luke 1: 39-55

By Sharyn Hall

On this day we are beginning a seasonal turning-point called the winter solstice. In these hours, the earth completes its turn away from the sun. It is the time for us in the northern hemisphere when our days shorten and the darkness closes in upon us. We now recognize that more darkness than light in our lives can have a profound effect on our well-being, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Darkness can foster feelings of despair and hopelessness.

Darkness in the bible is a physical and spiritual reality as well as a symbol for some of the most profound human experiences. In these seasons of Advent and Christmas, we read about the darkness in the lives of the Hebrew people. The prophet Isaiah describes the people walking in darkness as they struggle to survive the oppression of conquering armies. In the darkness they have lost their way, they have been separated from God, and they long for a light to lead them back to God and to freedom.

“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light, and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”

To me and perhaps to some of you, those words of scripture are forever linked to music in Handel’s oratorio, “Messiah”. Handel appropriately set this text to a bass voice, and the melody meanders up and down without a clear sense of direction to capture the idea of being lost in darkness, but when the people see the great light, the melody rises upward as the people are lifted up out of darkness on to the path of salvation. Although I can remember the melody, my best imitation of a bass voice would give a poor impression of the wonderful musical effect.

The deep bass voice reminds us that we feel darkness as bound to the earth, and we look up for light, which comes from the heavens, from the mercy and love of God. To the ancient people of Israel, the light of God was a sign of hope for the future. They kept this hope alive in their prayers and worship and religious customs, which continue in Jewish communities all over the world to this day. Our Jewish neighbours have just concluded the festival of Hanakkah, also called the festival of Lights.

Recently I read a story about a Hanakkah celebration in a small Jewish community of the American state of Montana. Montana does not have many Jewish people now, but in the late 19th century, there were thriving Jewish populations and synagogues in several cities. The number of Jewish families dwindled as children grew up and moved away. In 1993, in the city of Billings, Montana, vandals broke windows in homes that were displaying menorahs of lighted candles to celebrate Hanakkah. In a response organized by local church leaders, more than ten thousand of the city’s residents and shopkeepers put make-shift menorahs in their windows to protect the small number of Jewish households. The vandalism stopped. Hanakkah is now a special time of celebration in the state of Montana.

In this story, Christians brought light to their Jewish neighbours in their time of darkness. The lighted candles on a Jewish menorah are reminders of God’s faithfulness to all people. The ‘great light’ that the prophet Isaiah foretells is the hope of the Hebrew people that God will send them a Messiah. The prophet Micah predicts that a Shepherd-King will come forth from Judah to bring peace and security to a people who have been lost.

Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, the people hold on to the hope that the light of God will break through the darkness of hardship and oppression. That light and that hope would be a Messiah. When young Mary humbly accepted her role to give birth to the child of God, she praised God’s mercy for her people, for this child would be the salvation of her people according to the promise made to Abraham and to his descendents forever. The birth of this child would be a turning-point for the world, a turning away from darkness toward the light of justice, compassion and peace. The history of the world since the time of Isaiah and the time of Jesus has revealed that darkness is an insidious force, which must be vanquished again and again by courage and faith in an eternal God of love. Like the turning of the earth away from or toward the sun, there are points in history when humanity has turned toward or away from God.

As we experience again the winter solstice, when the darkness of the longer nights begins to slowly fade into the growing light of longer days, do we see the hope of new light in the world? Do we see greater respect for the dignity of every human being? Do we see greater understanding and acceptance of the worship and customs of other faiths? As Christians, we see that beacon of light in the life and ministry of Jesus, who was born into a world of hardship, war and cruelty. Every year we celebrate a festival of light, not the twinkling lights in the winter darkness, but lights of hope for peace and good will among all people. Like the festival of Hanakkah, we remember that God is our eternal source of light to lead us out of whatever darkness clouds our lives. In the midst of darkness, we can see light because in our worship, our prayers and our praise, we welcome again the hope of a baby born two thousand years ago into a world as dark as our own. Thanks be to God. Amen.