Saturday, April 27, 2019

Words of Peace and Grace: A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter


Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, Ontario.  The Second Sunday of Easter, 28 April, 2019
Acts 5: 27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1: 4-8; John 20: 19-31 

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."

Today I want to talk about a particular aspect of our liturgy, the Sharing of the Peace, and about how that action in the middle of our service becomes hugely meaningful in light of today’s gospel reading from St. John.   The risen Jesus appearing to his disciples, his threefold greeting “Peace be with you”, and the grace, forgiveness, and affirmation inherent in this greeting to these disciples who abandoned and betrayed Jesus before his death, all help us understand the special greeting that we exchange right in the middle of our Sunday service.

The Peace as an action, that moment when we move around and deliberately greet one another, is  is a relatively new in Anglican worship.    Some of you will remember that in the old Book of Common Prayer, there was a formal exchange between the priest and people just after the Prayer of Consecration:

The peace of the Lord be always with you.
PeopleAnd also with you.  (p. 83)

Then with the Book of Alternative Services, the Peace moved to a place just after the confession and absolution.  The words were the same as the BCP, but the BAS liturgy encouraged the people to “greet one another in the name of the Lord”.

It seems like The Peace is different in every parish.   I’ve been in grand stone cathedrals where people sat as far apart from one another as they could, and exchanged brief glances and slight nods at one another during the Peace.   Other parishes, like us at St. Margaret’s, are much more exuberant.   People shake hands, hug, chat, seek out and welcome strangers, and it often takes a long time to call you back to order.

Not everyone shares the Peace in the same way.   It’s one of those moments where our extrovert and introvert personalities are clearly on display, and as Father Simon likes to say, that’s perfectly fine.   It’s alright to be a hugger (if people want to be hugged) or to stay in your pew and smile at others.   The important thing is what we _say_ during the Peace.

Most of us say something like “God’s peace be with you”  or “The peace of Christ” or just “peace”.   Why do we use these words rather than a phrase that we might say if we greeted one another on the street, like “It’s nice to see you” or “how are you” or “how’s it going?”

Surely the answer to this question lies in the link between our liturgy and today’s gospel.   What happens between the risen Christ and his disciples in that room makes it possible for us to say these words to one another.  The fact that Christ says “peace be with you” to these people huddled behind a locked door allows them to let go of their fear and guilt and start the process of  becoming the church.    Christ’s saying “peace be with you” gives the disciples, and us, a way to imagine our own identities as church, as an Easter people.  So the words “Peace be with you” in our greetings during the liturgy are important because peace is Christ’s great gift to the disciples in John 20, and to us today.


Let’s take a moment to remember the context of today’s gospel, to better see how powerful Jesus’ words of peace are to the disciples.   In the first half of John 20, Mary Magdalene has seen Jesus in the garden, outside his tomb, and has told the disciples about her meeting him. We would think that they might have been filled with hope and joy by Mary’s report, and that they might be out searching for the risen Christ, but to the contrary they are barricaded behind locked doors.  We are told that the disciples are fearful for their lives; certainly the detail that it is nighttime, when they would be most fearful is relevant.  


So in the middle of the night, into their fear, shock, grief, and mourning, comes Jesus.    He passes through the locked door as if to say that their fear and self-protectiveness don’t matter.   He comes to confirm the words of Mary Magdalene and the hope which the disciples don’t seem to allow themselves to believe.  He comes despite his own death, in his physical body with the wounds still on him, and he says “Peace be with you” and when he says these words, he says let go of your fear, for fear and grief and mourning and the dark of night have lost their power over me and over you.

So the first thing we can say about our sharing of the peace is that our action in the liturgy takes its meaning because of the resurrection of Christ.  We share the Peace in a place where there may be memories and even ghosts for some of us.   We can look around this church and say … there’s where Ron sat and ran the overhead presentation, and there’s where Bert sat, and Kay, and Randy … but when we say “Peace be with you”, we are reminding one anther that we are an Easter people, following the same Christ who rose from the grave and who undid the power of death.  We are reminding ourselves to let go of our fears, of our concerns for the seemingly unforgiving power of age and mortality over our bodies, and to remind one another that as the Lord is risen, so those we love and mourn are safe in his keeping, and that we will see them again on the day of resurrection.   By saying “Peace be with you”, we say, “May life, and hope, and joy, and promise, be with you”.

The second thing that connects our sharing of the Peace with the words of Jesus in the locked room is the context of forgiveness and reconciliation.   We know from the passion stories of the other gospels that the disciples have let Jesus down in many ways.  They could not stay awake in the garden when he asked them to keep watch with him, they deserted him when he was arrested, and Peter, who swore that he would never abandon Jesus, denied knowing Jesus three times.   Presumably the disciples, particularly Peter, are feeling guilt and remorse as well as grief, and yet when Jesus comes he does not accuse or reproach them.   His words “Peace be with you”  are words of forgiveness - he gives the disciples peace from guilt and self-loathing.

Thus, the second thing we can say about our sharing of the peace is that it is connected to the church’s work of forgiveness and reconciliation.   When Jesus says to the disciples,  “If you forgive the sins of man, they are forgiven them if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn 20:23) he is also speaking to us.    Our act of sharing the Peace comes after the confession and absolution.   The knowledge that we as imperfect people are forgiven our sins allows us to face on another and to remind us that we all enjoy that same grace and love.    All of the frictions that are part of church life - our ways of stepping on one another’s toes, saying unkind or impatient words, our foolish rivalries over our roles and ministries - these all must be set aside if we are truly to receive the Peace that Christ gives us from our own sin and guilt.    By saying “Peace be with you”, we say “I’m sorry for what I’ve done, and I forgive you for what you have done.”

The third thing that connects our sharing of the Peace with the words of Jesus in the locked room is the context of doubt and imperfect belief.    Thomas is the one disciple who cannot believe, despite the testimony of Mary Magdalene who saw Jesus in the garden and the disciples who saw him previously in the locked room.   He has essentially called his friends liars, or at best, deluded.   And so when Jesus says “Peace be with you” the third time, it seems directed specifically to Thomas and to his scepticism.  His words “Peace be with you” are again words of forgiveness, but also words of hope and encouragement, as if to say, “Thomas, you will believe”, and they lead to Thomas making the most fulsome profession of faith of anyone in the gospels, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28).

Thus, the third thing we can say about our sharing of the peace is that it is connected to our doubts as much as to our faith.   We may call ourselves a people of faith, but our faith is not uniform.  Not all of us may believe as readily, or as completely, as do those around us, and again, as Simon would say, “that’s ok”.    When we say “Peace be with you”, we are saying that it’s ok to be where you are in you own journey of faith.   The exchange of “Peace be with you” removes our temptation to apply some sort of  faith test and to want to think that we have to be some sort of super-believer.   The words “Peace be with you” gives those who need it permission to be a Thomas.  For those who are doubtful, to hear and receive the words “Peace be with you” is to be told that it’s ok to be doubtful, that lack of faith is not a sin, but rather is merely human.  At the same time, the words “Peace be with you” opens the possibility that the work of the Holy Spirit will bring a person to also say, with Thomas, “my Lord and my God”, and for the doubtful this may be exactly the sort of encouragement they one day need.

There are of course other scriptural lenses through which we can view and better understand this important part of the liturgy.  Jesus’ breathing on the disciples and his words “Receive the holy spirit”remind us of the vision of the valley of the dry bones in Ezekiel (37:1-14), or of the story of Pentecost (Acts 2), which speak to the Holy Spirit’s work of revival and unification which make the church possible.   Sharing the peace can draw us out of isolation and into community, it brings us together regardless of age or race or class, and makes us one.    But in the light of John 20, we see the Sharing of the Peace as what it is, a sign of grace from the God who loves us, forgives us, gathers us together and empowers us to go on - and these are things that we can do for one another when we turn to them, extend a hand, and say “Peace be with you”.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Some Happy News


It's been a while in the making, but the lovely Joy Packham and I are getting married on June 9, Pentecost Sunday, at our parish church, St. Margaret of Scotland, in Barrie. Our wedding will be part of the normal Sunday 10am liturgy, and we are delighted that we will be surrounded by the community that held us in prayer and support during our spouses' illnesses and after their passings. There won't be any invitations and none of the usual wedding-y suff, but there will be delish church sandwiches afterwards, so please join us if you are able.


 

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Drink Or Die: A Sermon For the Third Sunday of Lent






Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, ON, 24 March, 2019.
Texts:  Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9


Verse:
1 O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

Let’s start by talking about two kinds of thirst - physical and spiritual thirst.  Let’s start with physical thirst.

Have you ever been so thirsty that getting a drink of water was all you could think about?     

Ten years ago I went climbing in the Alberta Rockies, and after six hours on the mountain, and with three to go on the way down, I ran out of water,  just as we were getting out of the thin air and wind and back into the summer heat.    

During those last hours, all I could think about was water.  I felt my field of vision getting more narrow, my feet started to stumble, and I fell way behind the rest of my group.   Water was all I could think about.  I remember vividly how good a bottle of water tasted when I got back to the car, and how quickly I drank it.

Besides physical thirst, I suspect most of us have also known times of spiritual thirst.   I think of spiritual thirst as those moments when I felt disconnected from God. I’ve had moments in my life when I was spiritually dry, when I couldn’t pray, didn’t want to go to church, and just generally felt dead inside.   I don’t care to remember those moments much.  I’m sorry for the things I did, and sorry that I didn’t come back to God earlier, but mostly I try to focus on how good it is not to be spiritually thirsty anymore.

Today in our gospel reading from Luke, we heard Jesus saying “repent, or you will perish”.   Unless there was any doubt, he says it twice.  “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did” (Lk 13:3,5).  Sometimes I think we hear this passage and we think that it is about punishment - that Jesus is saying that people died because they did bad things.   But Jesus doesn’t actually talk about cause and effect.   He says, very simply, if you don’t repent, then you will be just as dead as these other people are.

The word “repentance” is important to Jesus - he uses frequently, and in ways that suggest he sees it as the key to his ministry, as when he says elsewhere in Luke that “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:32).

My main point today is about how we understand repentance.    Too often, I think, we tend to think about repentance in terms of saying sorry for bad things that we did.    We think of it as being sorry for the time we cut someone off in traffic, or for the time we shared in gossip, or when we had to put a looney in the swear jar at work.   Repentance thus becomes a reflex, like saying sorry when you bump someone’s shopping cart at the store.  If “sorry” is that oh-so Canadian way of getting along with our neighbours, then repentance is the way we get through the day or the week with God.

What if we rethought repentance as being about the moment when we recognize that we are spiritually thirsty?     What if repentance is the moment when we understand that the things we crave - another Amazon package on the doorstep, another pound lost, another like on Facebook — will not quench our spiritual thirst.    Isaiah speaks to this misdirected priorities when he asks, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Isa 55:2).

What if repentance was the realization that we need God to overcome the things that keep us up at night - whatever fear, shame, dark past or heavy burden keeps us from being fully alive?  What if the repentance was coming to understand, as the Psalm today tells us, that we have reached the point where our soul thirsts for God “as in a dry and weary land where there is no water”?

We all know what happens to us if we get too thirsty.   It becomes harder and harder to do the simplest things, we shut down, and we die.   Spiritual thirst can be more subtle, but its effects are sever - we have difficulty looking after ourselves or caring for others, we are prone to indifference, despair, addiction, indifference.  Sometimes the line between spiritual death and physical death is a very fine one.

What happens to us when our spirits drink and we are no longer spiritually thirsty?  Isaiah says “everyone who thirsts, come to the waters” (Isa 55:1).   Think of how a wilting plant revives after you water it.   The same is true of us.   When we are connected to God and to God’s people, we regain the capacity to live authentically.   We can see the needs and care for the needs of others, we become less inwardly-focused and more self-aware.   We gain the ability to forgive and seek forgiveness, to value healing, to let go of the shame and guilt that debilitates us.

I think the idea of spiritually flourishing is behind Jesus’ little parable of the fig tree at the end of today’s gospel.  Once again, it should not be understood as a threat.  Jesus isn’t saying, “you better be good or I’ll destroy you”.   Rather, I think the parable tells us that unless we are connected to the gardener, Jesus, if our souls are not watered and fed, then we will wither and die.    God doesn’t want that for us.   The image of the free feast in Isaiah, offered by a God who will “abundantly pardon”, reminds us that God only wants us to flourish.

As a closing thought, what does life look life when we are no longer spiritually thirsty?   Well, I would say that life is found in the church as a healthy community that is rooted in an active fed and watered spiritually so that it is able to flourish in its mission to the world.   I said earlier that there is a fine line between spiritual and physical death, and I think the same is true of physical and spiritual life.  The whole point of Christ’s incarnation is to remind us we aren’t just spiritual beings - that God wants to know and save the physical beings that God created.

A flourishing church will make a difference to a thirsty world.   As an example, let me tell you briefly about an Anglican church in Cuba, St. Luke’s.   According to one visitor, if you go looking for it and ask locals where is St. Luke’s, you won’t find it, but if you tell people that you are looking for the church “that provides support to the elderly, that which distributes clean water in the community, [and] that … has lots of young people”.

St. Luke’s is one of many Anglican (Episcopal) parishes in Cuba that actively care for their communities in a very poor country.   

“This [caring] is especially exemplified by a one middle-aged woman known as Martha at Holy Trinity Church. Martha wakes up every morning at 6.00 am and goes to collect empty containers from the elderly members of the community, fills them with purified water at the purification plant behind the Church and have them delivered back to owners. Martha also ensures that the responsible local government department delivers water to the purification plant on time.”

By a godly coincidence, last Friday, 22 March, was World Water Day, a UN-sponsored event designed to help us think about the importance of water to our planet and to over 660 million people who lack access to sanitary water.  These parishes in Cuba understand the connection between physical and spiritual thirst.   They understand that spiritual care goes hand in hand with physical care.


Today we have considered repentance not as an act of saying “I’m sorry” but as a recognition of our spiritual thirst and of our dependance on God for our flourishing as created humans.   My prayer for us, and for St. Margaret’s, is that we always be a community rooted in and watered by Christ, so that our flourishing may be a blessing for those around us.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

From Impostor to Disciple: A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday After Epiphany, Sunday, February 10, 2019
Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, Ontario

Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11




But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8)


Perhaps you’ve been in a meeting where a bunch of people say “So and so knows this, so and so is good at this, so and so can fix this, let’s ask them” and you suddenly realize that they are looking at you and you’re thinking “What, me?   I don’t even know how I got hired here!”  
Or perhaps someone says to you “you’re such a good mother!” or “you’re such a good grandmother!”, and you think “what, me?  All I do is let the kids watch TV while I drink wine”.

If you’ve ever had thoughts of inadequacy like this, then you’re not alone and there’s even a term for it, the Impostor Syndrome.   Many people feel, despite their accomplishments, their diplomas, and their previous successes, that they are totally unqualified to do something, that they are frauds, and impostors.

Even famous people feel this way.   The actress Jodi Foster told a magazine that ‘When I won the Oscar, I thought it was a fluke. I thought everybody would find out, and they’d take it back. They’d come to my house, knocking on the door, “Excuse me, we meant to give that to someone else. That was going to Meryl Streep.” 

I think we can also suffer from the Impostor Syndrome in our church lives as well.   Someone may ask you, “You go to church, you read the Bible, tell me why God allows children to get cancer?” and “You go to church, you know how to pray” and inside you may be shrugging helplessly.  Or you may wonder, “Yes, Igo to church, but I don’t really think I’m a good person.”

I’ve been ordained for fifteen years and I’ve often felt like an impostor.   The collar doesn’t make me feel wiser, or holier, or closer to God than anyone else.   Sometimes quite the reverse.  When I’m at Borden in uniform, and soldiers salute me and call me padre, I sometimes wonder, “How did I manage to convince anyone that they should give me this job, this uniform?”

Of course, the problem with all of our doubts and self-doubting is that we forget about God and we never think that God may have more confidence in us that we have in ourselves.  Why would God call us as disciples if God didn’t believe in us?”  Which brings us to this morning’s Gospel reading (Luke 5:1-11).

I’ve read this passage many times, and much of it is very familiar.  The story of Jesus calling the fishermen and telling them from now on they will be catching people instead of fish is also told in Matthew (4:18-22) and in Mark (1:16-20).  In past I’ve focused on the boats, and the fish, and Jesus’ “fishers of men” comment, but until now I’ve never thought much about Peter’s reaction to Jesus.   Clearly Peter has a version of the Impostor Syndrome “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” but I’ve never really thought about Jesus’ response, or his lack of of a response.   More about that in a minute.

First, this passage is chosen as one of the traditional Epiphany gospels because it is one of those moments when people see something about Jesus’ true identity.    At first, when Jesus tells the fishermen to go out into deep water, Peter’s response “Master” seems politely respectful, the way one would speak to a rabbi.   It’s probable that Peter knew Jesus, at least from a distance, as this was a village society and Jesus had already built a reputation as a preacher and healer.

Probably because of this respect for the teacher, Peter agrees to the odd request, even if he has to have a bit of a grumble first: “we have worked all night but have caught nothing”.   After the amazing haul of fish, the grumbling turns to wonder and some sort of recognition that Jesus is something more.   However, rather than focusing on Jesus, Peter looks at himself and sees his own inadequacies, recognizing that he is a ‘sinful man”.

What has Peter done that he should be so sinful?   After all, he’s just a fisherman, how bad could he be?  But that’s not the point of the spiritual Impostor Syndrome.   Peter judges himself unworthy to be in God’s presence, and here he may remind us of people that we know who avoid church or faith because they don’t think they’re good enough for God.  Certainly Peter is no different from many other prophets that God calls in the old testament, such as Jonah and Isaiah.  

In our first lesson we heard how Isaiah’s first reaction to God is a kind of horrified sense of his inadequacy.   After an overwhelming vision of God’s holiness, Isaiah is almost obliterated: “Wo is me!  I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (is 6:1-13).   The story of the coal touching Isaiah’s lips may function as a kind of act of forgiveness and absolution, but it also seems to be a symbolic  sealing of his new vocation as God’s spokesman, who will now speak only God’s words.

But the story in Luke is so different.   One podcast I heard this week made the point that Jesus never actually forgives Paul.  I don't mean that Jesus punishes him or denies him anything.   It's just that there is no grand act of forgiveness or purification as there is in our first reading.  Instead, Jesus simply says “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people”.

Jesus says “Do not be afraid”, which are words that we often hear in Luke’s gospel when heaven touches earth, but he never revokes the job offer because Peter thinks that he is unqualified.   In fact, Jesus acts as if Peter has accepted the offer, for his next words, “From now on you will be caching people” are spoken as if this is Day One of the new job.  Peter is now a disciple, whether he thinks he is ready, or not.

I think this story is helpful for those of us in our faith lives who think that we are, well, impostors, and that some spiritual deficiency or flaw might somehow keep God from wanting or even needing us.   If that is you, or if that is someone you know, think about Jesus and Peter.   If Peter knew, in his own bumbling, blustery way, that he he was less than perfect, how much more clearly would Jesus have seen him and seen through him?   And yet it doesn’t matter for Jesus.   Jesus sees the worth in Peter and calls him to this new life of attracting others to God.

Some of us who suffer from the spiritual Impostor Syndrome may think that we need some grand, Isaiah-like vision or action to purify us so that we can be worthy of God, even if we aren’t keen on the hot coals part.   If so, then I submit to you that you’re not likely to get that grand act of forgiveness.   I would encourage you instead to think of how God knows you far, far better than you know yourself, that God loves you and believes in you, and that God has a use for you.


So the good news for us today is that we may are the only ones judging ourselves.  God’s already signed us up, we’re in the crew.  We may say, "But Jesus, we're not good enough for you, we're sinners", and his answer is "Yes, of course you are, come on let's go". 

One last thought about fishing for or catching people.  For us, perhaps the word "attracting" makes more sense than "fishing" or "catching", words which may seem problematic for us (think of "phishing" or other kind of spam emails that try to trick of catch us.   Attracting people to the gospel message is much closer to what we want to do as church, and really, what's more attractive than self-confidence? Self confidence is really the opposite of the impostor syndrome.  

I see St. Margaret's each Sunday, filled with people who should be confident.  Some of you have come a long way, from the early storefront days of this church.  Some of you came from St. Giles and brought the best of that loving and faithful community with you.   Some of you came from no church, but came here anyway because, like the fishermen, you were called.   Together we are old and young, rich and poor, we are a community regardless of the race or sexual orientation.   All of us are deeply known by God, loved by God and have a place in God's plan.    There are no impostors, there are only disciples.  

Saturday, January 26, 2019

God's people, God's Word: A Sermon for the Third Sunday After Epiphany


Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21
Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario, Diocese of Toronto



“[T]he priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding.” (Neh 8:2).

Today’s readings speak to us about how our identity as a church, our identity as the people of God, is dependent on our hearing and understanding the word of God.  In Nehemiah and Luke the  people hear the words read aloud to them and react in quite different ways, reactions which speak to how these words have power, how they can challenge and even transform those who hear them.   For we who hear the word of God spoken in our midst today, these readings remind us of we are formed and shaped as church, Sunday by Sunday, in our encounters with this word.

We have a funny relationship with the Bible, don't we.   We are a little in awe of it, like this bible - The Harper Collins Study Bible (NRSV) - which I find pretty useful because it has a ton of references and footnotes and it’s thick enough to stun an ox.  It’s an impressive looking tome.  Last Thursday, while we are at Faith on Tap, I hauled it out to look up a verse and people were rather impressed and some humorous comments followed:  “oooh, that’s a big bible!"   "Where did you get that?"  "I’m not going to argue with you!”.

So it was funny, but it also left me thinking about how we as Anglicans relate to the bible.   We tend to put the bible into the hands of experts, priests who have been to seminary and taken courses on Hebrew and Greek, and learned how to interpret it and explain it in preaching.  Now experts have their place. Paul says in our second lesson that not all of us can be teachers (1 For 12:28-30).   But our understanding of the bible as church never rests on any one person's understanding of it.

Like many other preachers, I have my trusted commentators and interpreters that I consult before starting a sermon.   Because it's not up to me alone to decide what scripture  means.   Preaching and interpretation should be guided by the received wisdom and discernment of the church built up over time.   Preaching should not one person’s eccentric and uneducated opinion.  That's why we read it together, argue over it, and work together to try and understand how the bible, as we are doing currently as we discuss changes to marriage in the church.

We hear and read the bible together because it belongs to the church.   We may not read it all with the same confidence or knowledge base, but it is ours.  The bible is our family story, it shapes and guides our actions, it gives us hope for the future and, most importantly, it is our best way of knowing who God is and how God relates to us.  So the bible belongs to all of us, whether we have been to seminary or whether we are new to church and barely know our Philistines from our Philippians.

Our reading from Nehemiah is all about the relationship of God’s people to God’s word.  We don’t hear this book of the Old Testament that often in the life of the church, so we need to understand the this is a book that’s about God healing and restoring.  Nehemiah writes about how the Jewish people return to Jerusalem and rebuild it after their long captivity in Babylon.   As slaves and exiles they haven’t been allowed to be themselves as God’s people, and so this is a story about they re-discover who they are and who God is.   

So our first reading describes a special occasion, as the people get to hear a reading the Torah, the first five books of the bible, that they haven’t been able  for a long long time in captivity.  Nehemiah tells us that this is for ALL the people:  “the men and the women”, and the reading takes half a day, “from early morning until midday”.   This seems like an extraordinarily long time to us (the people stand - do they get to sit down again? (Neh 8:5) but instead of complaining, we hear that the people weep, even though they were told not to.   Why would they weep?

To understand why they would weep, we need to remember what Nehemiah means by “the book of the law of Moses”.  The book of the law, or Torah, includes the first books of the Bible, from God’s naming of Abraham as the founder of a people dedicated to God, through Exodus, where Moses leads his people out of slavery to the promised land, and then in Deuteronomy and Leviticus giving the people laws that will set them apart as God’s people.  In other words, this is the story of creation, rescue and salvation by a God who loves, leads, and cares for his people.   So of course the story is emotional for a people who God was rescuing again, leading them back to rebuild a shattered Jerusalem that had seemed lost.

If you have ever heard Martin Luther King’s last speech in Memphis, just before he was murdered, and heard him talking about his dream and of how he had been to the mountain top and seen the Promised Land, and heard the African American audience cheering along because they believed that they were the children of a God even in a racist America, well, then you have an idea of why these people would have wept when they were allowed to hear God’s word read again and have remembered that they were no longer slaves.

Nehemiah and his priest, Ezra, thus read scripture to the people to remind them who they are and who God is.   The message is about celebration, about having the freedom to rest and to worship God, and to share with one another.   This is a totally inclusive message, for it calls the listeners to remember that they are blessed, and to share that blessing with those around them who may be less fortunate:  “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine, and send potions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared” (Neh 8:10).  This celebration is for all, not for a few, because no one is excluded from God’s family.

We see the same sense of inclusiveness in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, his message, over and over in today’s reading that they are one people who “were all baptized into one body” regardless of race or status or gender.  In his well known comparison of members of a church to parts of a body, Paul reminds us that we all have different functions and that are of them are important.    A quick look at the insert of our bulletin makes the same point:  Simon teaches about marriage, Jen leads fitness sessions, a few teach music, a few work with young people, a lot of people help with funerals - we couldn’t be St. Margaret’s otherwise.

What we sometimes miss when we hear this reading is that the message is larger than just “we all do our part” or “please volunteer”.  You could hear the same message at a meeting of Kiwanis or the Lion’s Club.  Paul is talking to people who were transformed - some were foreigners, some were free, some were slaves, and now all find that through their baptism and through the Holy Spirit they are, profoundly, remade and made together in Christ.   Indeed,  Paul reminds us that the church exists for a very specific purpose which is to show Christ to the world.  “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor 12:27).  Each Sunday, when we come to church and hear the word of God, culminating with the Gospel read in the middle of our assembly, we are reminded that we are hear because of Christ, and hear to show Christ to the world that needs him so badly.

The transforming presence of Christ in the world is seen strongly in our gospel reading from Luke.  Again we have a scene where the word of God, in this case Isaiah, is being read to the people, in this case the synagogue in Nazareth that Jesus has been part of all his life.   The parts of the message — “good news to the poor”, release of prisoners, healing, freedom, favour - are from the Old Testament, so in this sense the gospel closely matches the situation in Nehemiah, God’s people being encouraged by the faithfulness and love of God as described in scripture, but here the situation is different because of who the reader is and what he says: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21).

In other words - “this is all happening now”.   Jesus, by announcing that he is the Messiah foretold by scripture, moves the promises of God from the future to the present.   We go from “God will save us” to “God is saving you, now”.   It will take a long time for the people around Jesus to get it, and in fact, in the verses that follow (4:22-30) there is a riot as the people try to kill Jesus.   For the people that new him then, Jesus’ claim that he embodied God’s power, was unacceptable.   For us, the people that hear him now, the challenge is, can we allow ourselves to be shaped and transformed by the word of God that we hear?

Our gospel today begins by telling us that Jesus was “filled with the power of the Spirit”, reminding us that he speaks with God’s authority and with God’s purpose.  Likewise, when we hear the gospel read in the midst of our assembly, we remind ourselves that this an event that touches all of us.  “The Lord be with you” says the reader, and we acknowledge, “and also with you”.   That exchange of words brings us all together, as God’s people, waiting to hear what God will say to us through these stories of the words and actions of his Son.

Each Sunday, we are reminded of the same things that the returned exiles in Jerusalem hear, and that the people in the Nazareth synagogue hear, that God is faithful to his promises and faithful to his people.   The exiles hear that God is their strength.   The Nazareth synagogue hears that God is fulfilling his promises now.   Likewise we hear the same thing this morning.  We don’t hear the promise of some distant future, but rather, we hear that “the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” - right here, right now, God is delivering on his promises.

One of the things that makes Luke’s gospel unique and wonderful is this sense of immediacy, this sense of right here, right now.   One scholar notes that it has do with the word “today” as in “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.    Jesus uses that word “today” elsewhere in Luke’s gospel, especially towards the end.   Just before he enters Jerusalem for the last time he enters the house of Zacchaeus and says “Today salvation has come to this house” (19:9).   On the cross, Jesus says to the man hanging beside him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” ((23:43).  We get the sense in the synagogue in Nazareth that the focus has shifted from future to present, that God’s promises are embodied and happening now in Jesus.

For we who hear these words today, I think the realization that this is about the present can a wonderful thing.   We are told that all the things that are promised in scripture - freedom, good things for the poor, healing, restoration - are happening in the here and now, thanks to Jesus’ presence in our midst.    The same joy that gave strength that allowed the Jews of Nehemiah to rebuild Jerusalem gives strength to us now.   The same Spirit that sent him to Nazareth now touches us.  That same Jesus who embodies all these promises is in our midst, making us his body, his presence for us to show one to another, and to the world beyond.   We may still face troubles in our lives, but we know that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus which is our hope and our salvation,  happens today, each day, right here, right now, through the word of God proclaimed in the midst of us.   




Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Living With Emmanuel, God With Us

A Sermon For Christmas Day, Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario, Diocese of Toronto, 25 December, 2018

Recently Joy and I were in the Anglican cathedral in Melbourne,  Australia, a gorgeous, soaring building that inspires awe and an otherworldly sense of devotion.  But in that space was something very worldly and real.  One of the first things we noticed as we entered the nave was a large statue looked a little like a very large Christmas tree, and the colours were festive, reds and oranges. However, as we looked closer, we could see that the tree was made out of scraps of fabric from lifejackets.  A sign nearby told us the these lifejackets were worn by Syrian refugees. The installation reminds us of how these desperate people risked drowning at sea in unsafe, overcrowded boats to escape war in their homeland.   Many of them drown at sea in the process of trying to escape.



The sculpture was there to remind us that this is the world that the Christ child enters, each and every Christmas.   As Simon+ told us last night, Emmanuel, God with us in Jesus, comes to our messy and imperfect world.  The world of the Syrian refugee in our time is, in many ways, a world that Mary and Jospeh would have understood.  They were familiar with powerful and narcissistic leaders who wanted to preserve their power at any cost, and whose whims could cause the deaths of thousands.  The story in Matthew’s gospel of the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt to escape King Herod seems terribly contemporary to us.   When we see a poor family seeking safety, whether by buying passage on a rickety boat, or marching through the Mexican desert, we see something of the Holy Family in them, and we see the promise of God with Us in all these cases.

The Christmas story can seem fragile, like a single flickering candle,  How can one child, then and now, make a difference amidst so much darkness?   Yet it is John, who tells no Nativity story but puts it all in perspective, when he starts his gospel by saying that “in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (Jn 1:4-5). The Christmas story is the story of how God overcomes the darkness of sin and death.  It’s a story that is as plain and simple as a crude barn in Bethlehem, and yet is cosmic in scope, as God does battle against the things that threaten God’s creation.  G.K. Chesterton put it well when he wrote that 
“…our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.”

The Victorians who gave us some of our most beloved carols put this cosmic struggle into lyrics that we need to hear with fresh ears.  Joy to the World talks about God ending the curse of Adam, as if he is reclaiming an overgrown Garden of Eden:

“No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.”

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen tells us that Jesus was
“born on Christmas Day
To save us all from Satan’s pow’r
When we were gone astray”

And Hark the Herald Angels puts it best I think:

Light and life to all he brings, 
Risen with healing in his wings 
Mild he lays his glory by, 
Born that man no more may die”

How God accomplishes these things is a mystery yet to be unfolded, but these old carols help us better understand the Incarnation.  We don’t have to wait for some unspecified future where God rescues us from a sinful world.  Emmanuel, God With Us, means that Hope is also with us, so that we don’t have to fear the darkness or be afraid of death.   Emmanuel, God With Us, means that Love is with us, so that we don’t have to be captive to our own selfish impulses that lead us to fear the stranger or the refugee.   Emmanuel, God With Us, means that Justice and Righteousness are with us, so that we don’t have to give the last word to tyrants and dictators, the Heroes of our day.

Emmanuel, God With Us, changes the world we live in.   It defines God’s Kingdom, not as place of walls and borders, but as a place where the refugee finds welcome, where the poor and humble find dignity, and where all are treated justly.  We get a glimpse of this kingdom in Mary’s song in Luke’s gospel (Lk 1:50-53):

His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation. 
He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly; 
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty. 

When the people of Melbourne Cathedral built that sculpture out of the life jackets of refugees, they were building a vision of God’s promise at Christmas, but they were also reminding Christians of their duty as followers of the Christ child.   Emmanuel, God with us, means that we live hopefully, that we act charitably, and that we work for Justice and Righteousness.    The traditional second reading on Christmas Eve, from Titus, speaks of how God will make a people “who are zealous for good deeds” (Ti 2:4).  


My prayer for us, this Christmas and in the year to come, is that we live in the unshakeable belief that Christ is Emmanuel, God with us, so that our hearts are hopeful, so that our words and actions are loving, and so that we demand justice and righteousness for all.  

May God bless you and yours, and may you know God's love and blessing this Christmas and in the year to come.
Michael

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.

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