25 December 2016

Christmas Eve/Day 2016

Sermon by H. Stuart Pike
St. Luke's Anglican Church, Burlington, On (Diocese of Niagara)
24/25 December 2016
Photo Credit: Loci Lenar on Flickr.com

Christmas Eve/Day 2016
Isaiah 9: 2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:  11-14
Luke 2: 1-20

Once again, we have actually made it through the busy, noisy, celebratory and distracting season which is our commercial lead up to this holy day, and have found ourselves in this holy space listening to the story of Christmas and remembering what it really is about for us.

Of course all the other distracting elements that have been going on around us really had their beginnings in the celebration of holy things: so much of our Christmas decorations, our Christmas lights remind us of the triumph of light over darkness at this darkest time of the year. The gift-giving in celebration of God’s great gift so freely given to us.

Even Santa is, of course, a take on St. Nicholas who generously, and secretly, gave money to three poor girls whose family would never have been able to afford a dowry. Without the dowry the three girls future would have been very bleak.

It’s a little harder to find the holy meaning in elves, reindeer and the myriad of other characters which have firmly entered into our Christmas traditions. But more modern Christmas stories which have become our tradition including everything from the Grinch that stole Christmas to Ebenezer Scrooge are all stories of the transformation which can happen in the human (or Grinch) hearts through the miracle of Christmas.

This year, I sent out on facebook a drawing of scrooge being approached by different kind of a ghost: The caption says:
“I am the ghost of Christmas Future Imperfect Conditional”, said the Spirit, “I bring news of what would have been going to happen if you were not to have been going to change your ways.”

In any case, most of the traditions and stories of Christmas time are stories about transformation: from darkness to light, from poverty and fear to abundance and security, from distrust and enmity to sharing and love. They are stories about relationship which come about because of the transformation which happens within.

This is what our Christmas lessons are about as well.

Isaiah speaks to a people in a dark time. War and the threat of war are nigh. But Isaiah tells King Ahaz to open his eyes and to see a light which is shining in the midst of the darkness. And the realization of this light will be in the birth of a child through whom God’s Kingdom shall reign.

Of course, we don’t have to look far to see a similar reality to what King Ahaz was experiencing. In the Middle East (Ahaz’s part of the world) there certainly is war and rumours of war today. It is a dark time in our world, too, just as it was for the people of Isaiah’s time.

We are desperately in need of some of this transformation from a time of darkness, fear, poverty and enmity to light, security, sharing and love.

But a wonderful secret of which Paul writes to Titus is that through Christ, God’s grace has arrived and the transformation in this means that we can the agents of God’s grace, living lives of goodness and grace and, in turn, transforming the world as we build new relationships of sharing and love.

That’s what the Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke is about as well. The most surprising things about the story of Jesus’ birth is that it happened in such a poor and quiet way. It was only the shepherds – the most humble of folk who were out in the fields outside of Bethlehem who got the glorious vision. The regular upstanding townsfolk of Bethlehem itself are completely unaware of the miracle that is taking place in the midst of them. And not only is the author of the universe being born into human flesh, he is being born in the most humble of ways.

What could be the meaning in this? God, in choosing to become human, chose not the great entry of a King, but chose to come as the least of us. He was born in a barn. Is there anybody here who was born in a barn? Jesus’ birth was humbler than any of ours, to show us that absolutely no one is excluded from his knowledge and experience. Jesus, the King of the universe, is born as least to show that his love is for everyone in between. No one is left out.

God, in becoming human chooses to enter into our experience: into the joys and the sorrows, into the messiness of life and even into the experience of death in order to defeat its grip upon us and to transform it into eternal life.

At the same time, God, in choosing to become human shows us that our humanity matters. That it is honoured and that it can be transformed into something divine even. Jesus became human not just to save us. He came to transform us, so that we can be engaged in the transforming grace of God in acts that show light in the darkness, love and sharing in situations of desperation and enmity.

Nine days ago several of us drove to the airport and waited with growing excitement as the Syrian family we have sponsored was going through the final immigration process to allow them entry into Canada. We had been planning for this moment for well over a year. And many hundreds of people had been involved in preparing a house for them and raising the funds that we will need to support them for their first year in Canada.

After a four hour wait our family,  Said and Wisal (Dad and Mom) and children: Ahmad, Rayan, Maria and Omar walked through the gates: very happy and very tired. In those nine days we have seen already how lives have been transformed. They had been refugees in Lebanon for five years. But not only their lives have been transformed: all of us who have been working for this have experienced transformation as well. Even the lady in the supermarket (just another customer), who, when she realized that this was a Syrian family who had just arrived, was transformed. Not knowing what to do: she welcomed them with tears in her eyes and a smile on her face and gave the two girls $5 each. The girls received it with thanks, not really realizing at first what it was (though they figured it out pretty soon!)

Three days ago, we had a special Community Lunch. We do one every 1st 3rd and 5th Wednesday of most months, but this was our “Christmas” version. We had so many more people there and we sat and ate roast beef together and listened to a volunteer band of buskers singing to the music of violins, guitars, mandolins, drums and more. We brought together poor people and not so poor, lonely people and groups of friends, old and young. Some of the people who were there wouldn’t have very many opportunities to have a celebratory meal over the holidays. Tomorrow some of our own volunteers will assist at the Christmas Day dinner at East Plaines United Church which we also support financially. Once again there will be transformative experiences in which God’s grace will flow through the work of very human hands.

Four days ago, it being a Tuesday, it was our Food for Life day, as we give out free groceries to any who need them. It was special because we also gave out turkeys. In addition, many of our parishioners filled bags full of stocking stuffers for either adults or children. Many going to families who would never be able to afford to buy them for their own children. Once again stories of some people who have been reaching out with God’s grace to transform the lives of others. These are only a few stories, and stories like these continue throughout the whole year. But it is what God enables through us as God’s grace transforms our own hearts. It’s what the essence of Christmas is all about.

And it’s what being human is all about because of Christ’s birth. God choosing to be human means that the words “I’m only human” are nonsensical. To be human means so much more than to be “only” human. It means God is absolutely committed to you being you. So be you, as only you can be, transformed by the miracle of Christmas to be an agent of God’s transforming grace active in human lives. A joyous Christmas to you. Amen.

20 December 2016

Advent 4 C - Lessons and Carols

Sermon by the Rev. Holly Klemmensen
A Service of Lessons and Carols
Photo Credit: Albert on Flickr.com

11 December 2016

Advent 3 A 2016

Sermon by Canon H. Stuart Pike
11 December, 2016
Photo Credit: Stuart Pike on Flickr.com

Ours is a fast-paced existence and it seems to only be accelerating. Our attention-span seems to be ever shorter - stories in movies and on tv need to change direction every two minutes to retain interest. We skip along from sound-byte to sound-byte and not a lot actually sinks in anymore. In the weeks before Christmas, the media hype speeds up the frenetic beat of our lives as we are warned how many shopping days we have left until Christmas. And underlying all of this are the mounting expectations which are placed upon us, or which we place upon ourselves. We must have a perfect holiday - we must find the perfect gifts for our loved ones, and we must be perfect people. And people do crack under all of this pressure. The fact is that we are not perfect people and none of us live perfect lives.

Have you ever thought how good it might feel to leave all this noise behind? To walk away from our life for a bit - to leave the tv and the telephone and the six o’clock news and people in general - to hear the sound of silence again? To breathe in deeply, and to exhale, and then to breathe in again?

Deep in our souls is the need to experience silence and simplicity. That is why the wilderness holds such an appeal to many people. That is partly why we come to church. We want to leave our lives behind and experience depth.

I’m sure that’s why John the Baptist lived in the wilderness. That’s why the prophets of old often lived in the wilderness and spoke God’s will to the city. That’s why Jesus, in the midst of his busy life filled with the needs of so many people, often left and went out in the wilderness to pray.

But what were John’s expectations? It says in the Gospels earlier than this story that he preached repentance. He also preached a really good fire and brimstone message. He wanted to see the messiah come and give all the wicked people what they deserved. He was like the prophet Amos - warning about divine retribution. He didn’t realize that it was Isaiah’s message which Jesus would fulfill.

Have any of you been to a desert?

The deserts on National Geographic - the Kalahari.

The desert in Israel - near the Dead Sea.

There is little that looks as lifeless and empty as a desert. It is precisely this emptiness which can attract people of this age - the silence and the emptiness can give us the space to listen for God again.

But then it is a whole other story if there is a little rain which falls in the desert. The return trip from the Dead Sea to Jerusalem. The greening of the desert - the cactus which blooms with the rain. The frogs which come to life in the Kalahari. Deserts seem to be abundantly blessed with life when a little rain comes. It might not be what we expect.

We must, indeed go out to the wilderness - to the desert. But then we must leave our expectations open.

Jesus wasn’t what John the Baptist expected. This is why John sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he was the messiah, or should they look for another.

Jesus doesn’t directly answer his question. Instead he tells John’s disciples to report back what they have seen. The sick are healed, the blind receive their sight, the lame walk. The poor have the good news preached to them.
It is like the desert has bloomed when Jesus comes forth, and the dry aridness of John’s wilderness erupts with colour and life.

And Jesus asks the people: what did you go out into the wilderness to look at? The same question is asked of us: What do we expect when we go out to our own wilderness? When we find our quiet place - when we go to Church - when we enter into silence?

I think the answer is that we won’t get what we expect. We won’t get just the same as the rest of our life gives us. We will get something new - we will get something which will change our lives - sometimes inconveniently so. But we will also ultimately get the fullness of colour and life of a desert which has bloomed, because Jesus has blessed it with his presence. Amen.

04 December 2016

Advent 2 A 2016

Sermon by Canon Stuart Pike
Photo Credit: Jim Forest on Flickr.com

Sermon Text:

Advent 2 A – 2016 – Prepare Ye the Way

Isaiah 11: 1-10
Matthew 3: 1-12

“Prepare Ye the Way of Lord, Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.

This is the way that your local group of singers from St. Luke’s started out our Music at St. Luke’s version of selections from Godspell last Spring. It starts with John the Baptist talking about the need to prepare for the coming of the Lord. John was the one who announced that one who was greater than he was coming. He was pointing away from himself, to announce the coming of the messiah. “The Kingdom of heaven has come near”, he says.

What was happening at this time that brought people so far out into the desert to the Jordan river to see this shaggy locust-eating, camel-hair wearing exceedingly intense man who ekes out an existence in the desert.

Those of us who went to the Holy Land four years ago know what the environment here looks like. It’s that part of the Jordan river which lies just North of the Dead Sea. In the days of John the Baptist, one would have to travel for a long day by foot, or by donkey through the desert to get to the Jordan River. When we travelled across the Jordan River and entered into the predominantly Isalmic Kingdom of Jordan, we passed a site which the Jordanians claim was where John the Baptist preached and baptized. John the Baptist is also considered a great prophet in the Islamic faith.

What was it that was drawing people to go to such extremes to journey from the comfort of their homes to listen to John?
And consider his message. It wasn’t a nice, fun, or comfortable message.

Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. Get ready. Prepare the way. And the people are coming out from Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside in droves. What drove them? My answer is, it was the Spirit working in them. At the deepest level of their being, people want to build a relationship with their God and, when people are ready, they are willing to go through extremes to build it.

So how does one prepare the way for the Lord? John certainly has an answer for that.

Repent is his message. “Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near.”

Ok, now that word brings most people up short. Especially at this time of the year. How come we have this figure coming and disturbing our pre-Christmas planning with this severe message?

I had to go to the mall last week. Something which I am loath to do. I call shopping malls Babylon. It seems to have that feel to me. So I go to Babylon last week and I’m listening to Rudolph on the muzac over the P.A. system. There are fake evergreen garlands everywhere, strewn with tinsel and there is a monstrous great throne for Santa, who was mercifully absent. There are several residents on my street that have put up their outdoor Christmas decorations already. Everyone is Holly-jollying and here we have this voice crying out in the wilderness: repent! Won’t someone just give the man an egg-nog or some mulled wine or something and tone him down a little?

Repent? How does repentance fit in with the holiday season? First of all, let’s talk about the word. Most people seem to think that repentance is about feeling really badly about who you are, and about  learning how to grovel in the dirt. They think it’s about judgement and guilt. This really isn’t very helpful because it doesn’t provide much of a solution or a way forward. Groveling more or less keeps you stationary, right there in the dust!

Repentance is something much more positive and active. It is about movement, about changing your direction and aligning your path with God’s will. Repentance is about renewal and relationship, rather than about shame. Repentance is about listening to the spirit which is the deepest part of your being which is calling your forward, just as it was calling all those people who walked through the wilderness to hear John.

Of course, there was a section of his audience that got a harsher message: it was the Pharisees – most likely there to check up on John, who was creating such an impact outside of the official Temple establishment rules and regulations. The establishment didn’t like anything happening which didn’t originate from the temple.

Still, no matter what congregation I have ever preached to, I’ve never felt the urge to call a group of them a brood of vipers! What an interesting hook!

But you, see, John’s wrath is directed at those who were stopping people from developing, from changing, from moving to deepen their faith. The Pharisees didn’t like change. They didn’t like anything outside of their control, and the Holy Spirit is certainly outside of any person’s control.

The symbolism of this baptism was incredibly important too. It was through the Jordan river that these people’s ancestor’s crossed to enter into the promised land. It was the way that they sealed the covenant with God, by being washed, by being made new and entering into the promise as a new people.

John’s audience knew that what they needed was renewal, so they trek back out to the Jordan river to be sealed into a new covenant. They didn’t know all of that at the time, but this is what they were entering into. A new relationship with God, for the Kingdom of God was near, in fact it was just around the corner.

And what about you? What is it that is drawing you forward? What newness are you seeking in your life? Sometimes the inner voice of the Holy Spirit is really small. Sometimes, it has been a long time since we have heard it, or remembered it is there, calling us forward. But it is certainly there. You who have been baptized have been sealed into a new relationship with God and the Holy Spirit is within you calling you forward into a deeper relationship with God.

So, during this season of Advent, during all the hustle and bustle and preparations for the biggest commercial season of the year, for heaven’s sake, take the time to put down the eggnog and listen to your deepest desire, which is inspired by the Holy Spirit and asking you to prepare. Repent: that is move forward, or change your direction in alignment with God’s will, for the kingdom of heaven has come near – it’s just around the corner. The Lord is coming, prepare his way and be ready to meet him! Amen.