29 April 2018

Easter 5 B 2018 - The True Vine

Sermon by the Rev. Canon H. Stuart Pike
Photo Credit: Quinn Dombrowski on Flickr.com

Easter 5B - The Vineyard
St. Luke’s, Burlington
John 15: 1-8

            My parish just before this one was located at the gateway to the Niagara Peninsula and it was a regular occurrence as I did my regular visiting in the parish or in the region that I would see row after row of grape vines. When we had guests anytime from the late Spring to the early Fall, we would often jump in the car and take them to visit several vineyards and to taste some of their produce. And along with the vineyards were farm after farm of fruit farms. I was so grateful to be living in such a fruitful corner of the world. I would thank God that we lived in Niagara and that we could experience the beauty of grape and apple and cherry and peach growing together.

            I appreciate good gardens, but I don’t suppose that I will ever be a good gardener myself. I must have realized this early on when I was a young boy and my maternal grandmother, who could and did grow anything, was teaching my brother and me how to weed the garden beds. Well, you see, I felt sorry for the weeds! Still to this day whenever I get the chance to weed our garden, my sense of accomplishment is always tinged with a hint of regret for the unwanted green refuse simply cast aside and thrown into the compost bin. If you know how I felt about weeding, you can imagine what the concept of pruning did to my psyche!

            Between the ages of 11 and 14 years, I lived in England where my father was teaching at a Royal Air Force staff college. We lived in a marvellous house with two sets of French doors that opened out into a beautiful back garden which was filled with about 15 rose beds. There were more rose beds in the front. My father, like most of the officers at the staff college, hired a gardener to care for it all.

            Mr. Jenkins was very old and bent and kind and he would show my brother and me how he pruned the roses and cared for the rest of the garden. He seems kind, I thought, but he certainly was vicious with a set of pruning shears.

            After watching me cut a quarter of an inch off the ends of a couple of branches, he explained to me that pruning was good for the plant. It allowed it to flourish and to produce far more flowers. Short term pain for long term gain.

            When Luke was writing the book of Acts and John was writing the Gospel of John the Church was going through persecution. Many were imprisoned and tortured and executed just for being Christians. Many Christians believed that God was in control of their lives and many must have found it difficult to understand how they could be experiencing so much evil while they had such a strong faith in God. Many would have been tempted to renounce their faith, or to simply keep it a very personal faith, and not to proclaim it publicly.

            It is within this context that we must hear the story of the vineyard. This image of the vineyard was one which was very familiar to the Hebrews. In much of the Old Testament the children of Israel were compared to a vineyard which was tended by God.

            In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells his followers that God will prune the faithful to make them produce even more fruit. I think that the early followers of Jesus who were so persecuted understood that it was through their suffering that they became even stronger in their faith. I remember my other grandmother, my father’s mother, explaining to me that her great faith hadn’t been grown when everything in her life was going smoothly. It had grown during the struggles in her life which were many.

            And in remembering our time at the Royal Air Force staff college I am reminded of the motto of the RAF and of the Commonwealth air forces, including our own. “Per Ardua ad Astra.” which can be translated as “Through adversity to the stars.”

            Many people here know this truth about struggle and growth. Still, many others find that life’s challenges cause them to doubt their faith and some seem to lose their faith in adversity. How can the bad in our life possibly cause us to be more fruitful?

            We can only understand it if we experience the other aspect of gardening which we hear in today’s Gospel. More gardening lessons! Mr. Jenkins showed my brother and me how to graft a shoot of one rose onto another rose bush. He especially liked to do this if there was a problem with the root system of a rose bush and it was dying. He could not only keep the shoot alive, but it could flourish growing on a healthy bush even if its original rose bush died. We had all kinds of rose bushes with roses of different colours blooming from them. We even had an apple tree which had small green apples on one half and small red ones on the other.

            Jesus tells us that he is the true vine, and that we have been grafted into him. It is he who provides us with our spiritual life. He gives us spiritual food that we might not only survive, even in adversity, but that we will thrive and produce fruit.

            The way in which we are grafted into Jesus, the true vine is by our baptism. It is through baptism that we become full members of the body of Christ. Remaining rooted in Christ is the only way in which we can live out our baptismal covenant. It is not something which we can do alone. It is the only way in which we can flourish. That is why we are baptized into a Church community. Just as a vine has many branches, so we are grafted into a community with many members and we support each other and are all fed by Christ.

            Jesus speaks about this connectedness to him as “abiding” in him. Jesus is our vine into whom we have been grafted. Abiding in Jesus means recognizing our rootedness in Him. It means living out our life drawing from our connectedness to our faith. Abiding means living in Jesus – daily. It means that it is Jesus who feeds us, who motivates us and guides our thoughts and actions.

            What does it mean in practical terms to you? How can you tell if you are abiding in Jesus? Well, you can tell a tree by its fruit. What kind of fruit are you bearing and what does it say about you? If we are abiding in Jesus, then we will be doing the things that Jesus did – we will be working for others good, rather than just our own. We will be valuing other people as Jesus did. And we will be working to overturn structures that oppress, or exclude or are life-destroying.

            There are examples of what happens to people when they do not abide in their faith, or in their deepest selves. It is an extreme example, certainly, but, sadly there are more and more examples like it: the senseless destruction of life perpetrated by Alek Minassian in Toronto last week. The fact that these types of tragedies are happening more and more frequently is an indication, to me, that people are living more and more disconnected lives. Disconnected from other people, and certainly disconnected from a deep faith, or from the true vine, which feeds us, and gives us direction for living fruitful lives, and for making a difference for good, that we might me builders of God’s kingdom in the here and now.

            I invite you to look at all the ministries that we do here at St. Luke’s and to find a way to be more deeply rooted into Jesus, the true vine. You will find many ways to bear fruit by being engaged in some of our ministries, or you may bear fruit in most other areas of your life, if you live your faith as one who is fed by Jesus, the true vine. Let your love of Jesus give you insight into what God would have you do. Let Jesus be the one who directs your decisions and actions.

            I pray that we will each remain rooted in Christ, that we will continue to grow in faith and that we will bear much fruit. Amen

26 April 2018

Stewardship Sunday

Sermon by the Rev. Pam Couture
22 April 2018
Photo Credit: Stuart Pike on Flickr.com
2 Chronicles 31:1-10 and Luke 9:10-17
Stewardship Sunday, 2018

         Let’s be clear: I was asked to preach for stewardship Sunday because I opened my mouth at vestry about tithing. I said something like: “St. Luke’s is a tithing congregation. In addition to the monetary donations people give, many people here dedicate much of their time to activities that generate cash that supports our ministry.” So today, I’ve been asked to elaborate. 
         Tithing appears in the Old Testament thirty-eight times. A tithe refers to the first tenth of crops or livestock that is dedicated to God and shared with the community, especially people who need food. Tithes are frequently mentioned in conjunction with first-fruits of the harvest or with “tithes and other donations.” Deuteronomy 14:22-29 specifies that when transporting food long distances would cause it to spoil, the food may be sold and money may be donated. But the purpose of tithing clear: sharing the tithe is primarily a way to be sure that all people in the community can eat.
         Who gets the tithes? Tithes are always dedicated to God, always support the priests and the Levites--people like Stuart, Holly and me, whose full-time work it is to study the word of God on behalf of the community--and always support people who are vulnerable and in need, usually represented in the Old Testament by the widow, the orphan and the sojourner. Beyond that, tithes may be used immediately or warehoused, may be exchanged for services from the priest, and may provide food for community feasts. But the lesson about tithing is this: God is worshipped and the community will be healthy when the community gives and receives. 
         That said, tithing, defined literally as the first 10% of our income, rather than our crops and livestock, is theologically problematic. First, it’s hard to calculate a literal 10% in an economy that is structured very differently than the ancient agrarian world. And, the literal 10% inspires guilt or anger in many people who can’t give a tenth of their income but may contribute in many other ways. But most significantly, the literal 10% implies that if we give 10% to the church, the rest belongs to us. Not so. For a Christian, all of what we do or are belongs to God. Our material belongings, our skills and abilities, even our children are trusts that God gives us for a little while. Our vocation is to care for those trusts. And the money that supports our vocation, even if it is not given to the church, is also given to God. 
         So, recognizing that we give to God in many ways in and beyond the church, let’s return to our stewardship of the ministry of St. Luke’s Parish. Our ministry can be summed up in six words: we feed people, spiritually and physically. That’s what our clergy do, that’s what our lay ministries do, and that’s what our building is used for. 
         What we aspire to at St. Luke’s is found in the Old Testament image in 2 Chronicles 31: 1-10. King Hezekiah shares generously of his wealth, and the people follow suit. They embrace God’s community. They eat of their tithes and offerings, and there is food left over. No one goes hungry, and they are exuberantly happy. That generous giving is at the heart of what we treasure at St. Luke’s and why I call it a tithing church.
          Now, to be honest, generosity is not our only experience here. We also share our economic anxiety. Last year, especially, we were threatened by the fear of scarcity. As we look to the future, the stewardship committee that monitors the “storehouse” of our tithes and offerings knows that the death or relocation of a few dedicated members can rock our economic ark and that their economic commitment may not be replaced by newer members. 
         So each year, the executive projects and the vestry—all of us—approve a budget for operating expenses and mission. The stewardship committee projects our income based on current giving patterns and considering donors who have died. Then, they estimate “the gap” between projected expenses and current income.
         St. Luke’s will ultimately finance “the gap” in three interrelated ways. First, sharing our material wealth through direct giving. This year, the gap between projected expenses and current giving based on last year’s patterns is roughly $30,000. Spread equally among our givers, St. Luke’s needs about $100 more per person to fill the gap. For some, that’s too much; others can give more. As part of your stewardship pledge, can you help close “the gap” by increasing your direct giving?
         Second, we fund the church through multiple other income streams. Every year we depend on earnings from investments, such as the Memorial Fund and the Legacy Society. We depend on income from assets like the building and cemetery. And we depend on income-producing events, where we build relationships, make friends, dispel loneliness, and contribute to the financial support of St. Luke’s ministry. The Christmas Market, the rummage sale, pie sales, Music at St. Luke’s, church suppers, parking during special events—such projects fund about 10% of St. Luke’s budget. As part of your stewardship pledge, do you have a contribution you might not have thought of before to these multiple income streams?
         Third, we have a community-wide responsibility for engaging new members, adherents, and friends. New people come to this congregation for worship, and we are good at identifying and welcoming them. But most people enter St. Luke’s Parish for many other reasons, including touring the historic building; or seeking rituals, such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals; or being invited to social activities. These visitors are often the fringes of St. Luke’s Parish. We are regularly in contact with people whose lives are enriched by St. Luke’s who, if we who are members are genuinely curious about them, might consider a more fulsome or committed relationship. As part of your stewardship pledge, can you make one new friend at St. Luke’s this year? Can you reach out to befriend someone whose ties to this parish are more tenuous than your own?
         All of this work constitutes our tithing. But, we should constantly remind ourselves: Why? Why should we fill the financial gap between the budget and the currently anticipated income? What do we have to offer that sustains us and might attract new people to seek a closer relationship with St. Luke’s?
         At St. Luke’s, we feed the five thousand. If you have known loneliness, or despair, or estrangement, or sought healing, you know the urgency with which the crowd followed Jesus to that deserted place. If you have gone to bed hungry, you know what they needed as the day drew to a close. The story of Jesus feeding the five thousand is in all four gospels. Jesus tells the disciples to feed the crowd that has followed them. They only have five loaves and two fishes. Jesus tells them to divide the people into groups and sit them down on the lawn. And then Jesus “took the bread, blessed the bread, broke the bread, and gave it to them.” This traditional Jewish blessing has become for Christians the words of institution that are always repeated at the Eucharist. The passage anticipates the Last Supper and has spiritual, even mystical overtones. But it’s also very down-to-earth. The five thousand were hungry. I was taught in seminary that the way the five thousand actually ate was that they shared what they had brought. It was one more pot luck supper, one more contribution, not of a tithe, but of the fruit of the earth. It was definitely one more dedication of food to God. And they even had some left over, enough to fill twelve baskets. The passage is filled with symbolism—but most importantly for us today, because the people shared, their bodies, as well as their souls, were fed. And it’s come to be known as a miracle.
         So why help fill the gap between the projected income and the budget at St Luke’s? Because at St. Luke’s we give and receive with one another, and miracles occur. Some of those miracles are dramatic—like the one we celebrated two  weeks ago. It is truly an unimaginable sharing of time and energy that Heather White wrote grants for over $100,000 to upgrade the church’s kitchen and that Roger White supervised ongoing sweat-equity construction crews. And some of us—perhaps many of us—doubted that they could pull it off. But now, the kitchen is there to feed the five thousand: the seniors who attend Phoenix on Wednesday, those who attend community lunches, the families who need food from Food for Life, those of us who take home tourtieres to our own families. It is there for us when we follow the “regulation concerning tithes” in Deuteronomy 14:22-25: “Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed…you may turn it into money…you may spend the money for whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat it there in the presence of the Lord Your God, you and your household rejoicing together…” Does that sound like Music at St. Luke’s? The new kitchen is a miracle, but not the only one we celebrate. If you doubt that miracles occur at St. Luke’s, ask the children at El Hogar, or the Hajj-Kasem family. 
         And for the dramatic miracles that happen at St. Luke’s, there are many, many significant, life-changing, hidden ones that most people never hear about, that arise from the relationships that are formed here. It was a miracle that when I was halfway around the world in Tanzania, and Jim had chest pains at 4:00 am, he could call Deborah Roberts in our choir and Pam Franks, who sits in our pew, both of whom live in our building, for help. They phoned the paramedics, notified the church, cared for our dog, and, seven hours later, when I, knowing nothing, called Jim by Facetime, Pam answered Jim’s phone in a calm and reassuring manner. I was so grateful for St. Luke’s care of both Jim and then my mother, who were hospitalized simultaneously while I was away. These kinds miracles are stitched into the fabric of the community called St. Luke’s. You can tell your own stories of this type. I take none of them for granted, and I am grateful for your financial and energetic support of St. Luke’s that makes each such miracle possible. Thank you. 

08 April 2018

Easter 2 B 2018 - Doubting Thomas

Sermon by the Rev. James Glass

Photo Credit: Waiting for the Word on Flickr.com

01 April 2018

Easter Day 2018

Sermon by the Rev. Canon H. Stuart Pike
Photo Credit: Fr. Lawrence Lew on Flickr.com