Homily for Advent 2, December 10, 2017- the Rev. Stephanie Shepard

Mark 1:1-8

St. John the Apostle

“Praying with our Minds”

May only truth be spoken here, and only truth be heard, in the name of the one, true, and living God.  Amen.

There is a tradition that John the Baptist spent years in prayer and study at the desert community of Qumran before he begins his public proclamation.  His idea that the time has come for people to repent of their sins and embrace a new life of righteousness in preparation for the Messiah doesn’t just spring out of nowhere.  A wealth of Jewish thought and theology lie behind his words.  When he preaches and teaches, he draws a multitude of people to the river Jordan.  There, they are led to understand afresh the faith of their forebears.  Many confess and are baptized.  But he tells them, “Wait.  There’s more to come.”

John urges them to continue in their journey of faith.  To live righteously: yes.  But also to keep their minds and hearts open to the revelation before them in the person of Jesus.  His finger points to the Messiah and leaves individuals to make their own decision.  He releases his own disciples to go and follow Jesus- to find for themselves what he has been prepared to understand and what he has prepared them to receive.  In the words of a recruitment poster for a theological college that I kept above my desk: “God gave you a mind and He expects you to use it!”

So when some of John’s followers transfer their loyalty to a new Master, they look to Jesus to continue the teaching.  In Luke chapter 11, verses 1-2, we read that “Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to prayer, as John taught his disciples.’  He said to them, ‘When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name…’”  You know the rest.  We came to know this teaching as the Lord’s Prayer.  Perhaps it was one that you first learned as a child.  Certainly is a prayer that all Christians come to know by heart.  The Lord’s Prayer has a place at the centre of our faith.  But just knowing the words isn’t enough.  It is a lifelong journey to live out what we pray in it.  And sometimes, it helps to have other words to explain it and comment on it.

It is a very Anglican understanding that our faith is informed by Scripture, tradition and reason.  Together, these three help our minds grasp what God is calling us to do and be.  And each of these are pathways we can use to help us pray with our minds.  Our Holy Scriptures give us a treasure trove of words to adapt to our personal lives.  Our heritage gives us both oral and written prayers.  And our own intelligence allows us to create and put into words the yearnings that lie within us.  We pray with our minds because God gave them to us as a means to learn and practice how to live humbly, gratefully, and peacefully.

First and foremost, we have the Holy Scriptures.  The word of God is available to each one of us, in the language of our own culture and time, as well as in the original Hebrew and Greek in which it is written.  These writings contain the story of our salvation and the record of the people of faith who have sought to understand and describe God at work in the world.  The prayerful study of scripture reveals new truths and insights.  And there are so many prayers within the pages that we can find new material every time we turn a page.  The practice called Lectio Divina involves praying a portion of the Bible, slowly reading and meditating on God’s word.  The psalms give us honest prayers of thanksgiving, lament, confession, cries for help and outbursts of anger: something for everyone!  When we do not know what else to pray, we can read an appropriate section of Scripture.  Indeed, many of the prayers we use in gathered worship are drawn directly from the pages of the Bible.

Secondly, we have a rich heritage of prayer through the Church.  Christians from the first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus have created and collected prayers that speak to the intimate relationship we can have with our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.  In the Anglican tradition, some have been brought together in successive editions of “The Book of Common Prayer”, which is exactly what it says.  The prayer book of the common people, in the common language, to be held in common when we worship.  In it are found different kinds of prayers you can use.  There are collects: prayers which gather up the community around theme or image for the time of year.  There are litanies, used to prayer for different needs in and beyond the congregation.  There are canticles- drawn from the songs of scripture and often used in musical settings in worship, such as the Magnificat, or Song of Mary.  Each of these can be used personally as well as communally.  Then there are the “big picture” prayers, such as our Eucharistic prayers, which each recount the story of salvation in the words and images that are lifted up to God.  Through our liturgy, we don’t just pray; we re-tell and re-teach who we are as God’s people.

More recently, we have the green Book of Alternative Services here in Canada to draw on, as well as many other resources from all corners of the Anglican communion, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, and other denominational and Christian communities.  The flexibility of our worship allows us to use many of these within the framework of the Anglican experience to help us to pray better with fresh expressions.

But prayers are not just found in prayer books in the pews.  We have through our heritage many theologians, songwriters, poets, and mystics to inspire us in our prayer lives.  The very first book written in the English language is believed to be the “Revelations of Divine Love” written by Julien of Norwich, an account of her interior prayer life during a time of painful visions.  From Thomas Cramner to Thomas Traherne to Thomas Merton, our tradition is infused with the writings of those who sought to share their faith and experience.  And many of our hymns are a great resource for prayer.  Try singing or meditating on a favourite or one that is completely new to you!  There are also online resources to explore, from daily prayer apps for your phone to supplementary materials for the Revised Common Lectionary at Vanderbilt Library.  All around us are works that can enrich and expand our prayer lives.

Lastly, there has to be a process for making prayer our own.  It doesn’t matter how many wonderful resources are available, if we don’t make some time to incorporate prayer into our daily lives.  The discipline of praying daily is the only way that you can keep communications open with God.  In practical terms it doesn’t matter so much whether you say Morning or Evening Prayer, have set times to turn to God, or a method that reminds you in key moments to lift up your heart.  What truly matters is that prayer is a priority in your life, even for the times when you don’t feel like it.

We all have periods when we feel we are going through the motions or mouthing the words.  But the very fact that we are willing to train our minds and bodies to attend to our relationship with God is what is important.  There will be wilderness times when we feel lost and without energy, when we are not sure if anyone is listening.  But by continuing to pray, we use our minds to focus our hope on what is to come.  Advent is a season which combines our knowledge of the darkness of the world with an anticipation of what might be.  Prayer is the engine that keeps us moving through the darkness, even when we cannot see the way.  And as we pray, our minds, which are so disturbed and frightened by what goes on around us, find a peace that passes our understanding.

I want to leave you with a poem by former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, which I offer up as a prayer:

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens to mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like a child.

Sermon for Advent 1, December 3, 2017- the Rev. Stephanie Shepard

Mark 13:24-37

St. John the Apostle

“Praying with our bodies”

Abba, Father: you are the potter and we are the clay, the work of your hands.  Mold us and fashion us into the image of Jesus your Son.  Amen.

Most people come to church on a Sunday morning to find a word of hope for their lives.  This morning, we are challenged by the readings from Scripture to discover where this lies.  The prophetic speech of Isaiah 64 implores God to come down in awesome might to cleanse humanity of sin.  Then Jesus proclaims what happens when the Son of Man does appear: “the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give light, and the stars will be falling from heaven.” (Mark 13:24-25).  Stern stuff.  To find hope, we need to be alert to Christ coming into our lives.  That’s why it’s always a good idea to turn to prayer.

But who taught you how to pray?  I didn’t learn when I was a child.  I remember going up to Camp Artaban for the first time when I was ten.  On our first morning in the chapel service, the theme leader, who happened to be a priest named Ron Barnes, told us kids to close our eyes to pray.  That was a new one for me, and I had grown up in the Anglican Church! Nobody had said anything or showed us about prayer before that.  One was supposed to absorb the right way of doing things by osmosis.  In the typical Prayer Book service, there were times when everyone stood, or sat, or knelt, or crossed themselves.  In my high church parish there was a weird little bob called genuflection that we were supposed to execute when we came into or left the pew or “acknowledged” the altar. it must have been even more confusing for visitors or newcomers, as the rest of us followed the priest and hoped for the best.

I wish that someone had sat down and explained a few basics about what to do with my limbs when I am praying.  So in case you have some of the same questions I have, I want to reflect on what it might mean to pray with your body.  I would like to consider body position, praying through our bodies when we are still, disciplining the body, and using our bodies in motion as  prayer.

We start from the fact that humans are incarnational beings.  We have arms and legs and occupy a certain amount of space.  So when we enter into a quiet time of communion with God, we have to figure out where to park.   I want to clear up one misconception: no one position is “right”.  You may have been taught as a child to kneel beside the side of your bed with your hands clasped in front of you: head bowed, eyes closed.  That is one option.  There are many more.  Standing with your head and arms raised is an ancient Hebrew prayer stance.  You see a priest take this form at the prayer of consecration.  Another way to pray is to stand with your hands cupped- expectant and ready for the blessing that God will give.  Kneeling is a classic posture for prayer, signifying our humility.  You can pray lying down too, either on your back (trying not to fall asleep) or on your front (best where there is no-one likely to step on you).  Sitting in a good chair is a well-supported position for lengthy prayer sessions so that your body aches are not distracting you.  Different positions may be more suitable for different types of prayer- whether you are petitioning for someone’s healing or asking forgiveness or absorbing God’s peace and beauty.  What you choose is simply a matter of getting yourself ready to pray, and your posture is there to remind you of what you are doing.

Prayer is one of the few practices that allows us to be still without interruption.  It gets us alone to become aware of your body.  Observe your breath and your heartbeat.  Feel the tension in your shoulders or the ache in your knees.  Let the members of your physical form speak to you of what is going on in your life.  You carry a record within you of what you are struggling with and what is going well.  Your body is trying to tell you things – it is praying for you.  The physical discomfort and pain experienced is not only something that we can bring to God in prayer; it is prayer.  There will be times when you cannot concentrate on words or thoughts because of the stress that is being manifest.  Know that your body is a witness before God, and offer it up, just as Jesus did on the cross.  At the same time, remember that in the crucifixion God takes your pain and transfigures it.

There are saints in the history of our faith who have taken this an extra step.  In a belief that the body must be subdued or “mortified”, they have practiced ways of prayer that are very hard on the body.  Imagine kneeling on a cold stone floor all night in vigil, or fasting for a prolonged period to focus one’s vision.  St. Cuthbert is said to have prayed while standing in the ocean up to his knees.  At least when he got out, he had otters come and dry off his feet.

Even if you are not hurting when you start to pray, you will probably find that staying in one position is not easy after a few minutes.   Some adjustment to seek a healthy posture is good, but prayer is a discipline.  Let any other physical exercise, we built up muscles as we practice.  As we engage, our cores are literally strengthened, and you will find that your endurance will increase.  Be wise however, to discern what is the development of balance and tone and what is a warning signal from your body to get off your knees.

Lastly, we can pray with our bodies in everything we do, not just when we are still.  In fact, some of us are twitchier than others and find it hard to maintain a single posture.  There are ways to pray that engage our bodies even when they are not at rest.  There are body prayers that put us through a sequence of movements, with or without words attached.  There are spiritual disciplines that utilize conscious breathing techniques, walking mindfully, stretching, or dance.  And there are times when the task we are engaged in invites us to do it prayerfully, whether it is knitting a shawl or writing an icon.  When worship and work are one, everything we do can be a prayer offered up.  The key is keeping our awareness on the meaning behind what our bodies are doing, and giving that over to God.

In and through our bodies, there are opportunities to become connected to the One who made us in in the Divine Image.  Sometimes this comes through others, who are vehicles for God’s grace.  When we are anointed, or experience healing touch, or the laying on of hands, then we feel the power of prayer as it is transmitted through another body to ours.  At other times, we may be the ones who are the conduit of love and peace and hope.  It may be as simple as holding another’s hand, a hug, or the joy of intimacy.  This too is prayer when God is in the moment.

We are created beings, and we are made to employ our bodies to serve as we watch for the Master.  In prayer, use what works for you to stay alert to God in your life.  We have the admonition from Jesus himself: “Stay awake”.  But don’t feel bad if one day you settle down to pray with every good intention and then fall asleep.  Remember, God gives to his beloved rest.  It might be just what your body needed to continue to hope.  Amen.

 

 

Homily November 19,2017 The Rev. Deacon Anne Anchor

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11;  Matthew 15:14-30

May these words and these thoughts that I share as a Deacon of your church be true to you gracious God.

I would like to share with you my experiences over the summer, that have deeply impacted my life. As background to this I need to go back to August 2012. I shared on that day my reason for my plans to participate in the first Walk for Reconciliation in September 2012. I feel it provides for a foundation for my ongoing passion for the issues of reconciliation with the First Nations peoples of Canada.

That day I said, “This walk is part of the ongoing goal of reconciliation with our Aboriginal peoples.  Those that attended the Residential schools and their families have challenged our church to be accountable for the ills perpetrated on them in years gone by. This issue has a personal element for me. While we were living in Vancouver I attended Southlands Elementary. It was a couple of blocks away from the Musqueum Reservation. The first generation of Musqueum children to attend public school attended Southlands and I had a good friend, Theresa, who was Musqueum.

Theresa and I had a friendship that was restricted though. I will never forget how difficult it was for me to be told by her that although she could come to my birthday party I was never able to go to her house on the reservation. At that time, even at the age of 9 or 10 I knew this was unjust and by the time we moved away I was saying, in my childhood innocence, I was going to work with Indians (to use the vernacular of the day) to right the injustice. Little did I know the depth of what had happened in the past and my dream never came to fruition. I guess this was the time when I first became aware of injustice in my world. I did not know what it was all about; I just felt that something was wrong. Over the years as I came to understand as to why I could not visit Theresa at her home I just became sad. I do not know what has become of Theresa, I pray that she has not become a victim of the legacy of the Residential Schools.”

I fast forward to today. In my covenant renewal letter to Bishop Melissa at the beginning of this year I stated that … ‘An evolving area that has been a concern for many years is to better understand and assist in the struggles involved with Reconciliation with the First Nations people and I hope to participate in some of the Diocesan activities in this area.’

By the beginning of this summer I felt I had neglected to do anything around this statement in my covenant renewal letter. Due to family commitments I was unable to attend events around Reconciliation that involved spending a day in Vancouver. This is when I felt I had buried the talent I had neglected for many years.

Yet, I knew I had to hear First Nations people’s stories, I knew I had to listen with compassion about the impact Residential Schools had on generations of families. I knew I had to listen to the pain of the families affected by the negligence of our justice system to The Missing and Murdered Women. I knew that each time I would hear such a story there would be pain in my heart and I would think of Theresa and wonder where her life journey had taken her. I felt helpless and unsure as to where my journey with these concerns would lead me.

Reading this parable from Matthew’s gospel “I knew you were a harsh man.so I was afraid and hid you talent’. I felt like the unworthy servant who buried the talent. I had done nothing since I was in Elementary school about wanting to ‘work with Indians to right the injustice’.

Something changed at the beginning of the summer when Trudi and I attended an event at Douglas College. It was here that we heard stories from local people of the effects of the Residential Schools on their families.

I heard the story of a First Nation Cree 2 Spirited UBC doctoral student. For clarification, the two-spirited person, has been in the tradition of the First Nations people for many moons as cross-gender roles, the male-female, the female-male.

I heard the stories of Cease-Wyss who is a respected ethno-botanist who shares her wisdom about this local land on which we exist and also I heard from Fred Hulbert,

Council Member, Kwikwetlem First Nation

It was this evening that stirred my longing, and empowered me to get closer to unburying the talent that lay dormant for many years.

It was the words of the First Nations Cree Two-Spirited person that hit my heart the most and caused me to weep. I felt his sadness of the impact of the Residential Schools on his story that ran parallel to my brother’s story of the impact the church had on his upbringing as a clergypersons’ child who knew he was gay but was not free to be himself in the life of the church in those days.

Later, Lilian and I attended an evening at Town Centre Park sponsored by the Tri-Cities Ministerial where an apology was offered for the involvement of the churches in the Residential Schools. I left this revival meeting frustrated, as for me it left much unsettled and I wondered as to the benefit of it.

After that evening I heard of the Welcome Post Project and Tasha Faye Evans. I had seen Tasha Faye at Sophie’s school (Pleasantside) when she coordinated the Welcome Post Project there but had never met her. I did wonder how she would respond to Trudi and me (as clergypeople) when we attended our first Welcome Post Project evening at the Noons Creek Hatchery. In her awesome way Tasha Faye was very receptive to us and I felt that special connectedness to her as happens when you meet certain people.

At these evenings I grew and took amazing steps forward on my journey to Reconciliation. I saw people of Port Moody journeying to embrace Reconciliation. Having Tasha Faye join us at the end of the summer to speak was an amazing blessing and I was more than pleased that Council agreed to support the Welcome Post Project.

Some of the parish engaged in a discussion on Linda Gray’s book  ‘First Nations 101’. This was a fruitful experience as we discussed what we did and did not know about our First Nations People. Out of these groups came a desire to go deeper into reconciliation, how this will happen has yet to be determined.

The readings we just heard are pretty challenging. As I read them I wondered to myself where is the good news. The gospel is one that I have real difficulties ending with saying … ‘This is the good news of Jesus Christ’

Being overwhelmed by all that is happening in our world causes me to wonder, whether it is easy to understand the one who buried the talent. We are being challenged, as Matthew’s Jesus challenges the status quo of his day, to do our best with what God has given us. We are not to allow our actions to be overshadowed by our fears. Fear, when it gets hold of us can freeze us into inertia, to lose hope for the future. I have, at times, found myself wondering whether the hope in what I say or do is going to have any effect on anyone or any situation. Yet, as I speak these words I can hear my mom saying….

“Anne we can’t give up hope, for as soon as we do the darkness will win”

My hope is based on my belief in the grace of God and this is what I hang onto when I get discouraged. Without my belief in a gracious God the door for the darkness to take over would be opened.

We are further being challenged by the reading from Zephaniah when it says …

‘’At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs”, and continues, ‘the great day of the LORD is near, and hastening fast”

Our hearts, and more importantly, our actions, must show that we recognize and are thankful for our God given talents, and we are not to hesitate to go out and use them for the betterment of this world which we hold to be God’s kingdom here on earth.

And finally in the passage from Thessalonians we are reminded that

‘we are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.’

Although I have felt challenged in my commitment to my covenant and my hearts’ concern for First Nations people, I wonder now if perhaps I had not buried my talent but had allowed time without forcing the issue for the talent to grow into something that would serve a purpose for the betterment of all.

In the fall, Trudi and I went to hear Roy Henry Vickers speak. Roy Henry is the First Nations artist of the books we used this summer with the children for their First Peoples Principles of Learning. One of the many impactful statements I heard from this brother of the land was his closing after sharing his life story and the story of the treatment of his grandmother at a BC Residential School, by saying something that really challenges us, I paraphrase it here …

Although the pain and sadness continues I live in the hope that love will prevail and we all will live in harmony one day ….

As I discovered this summer there is hope for Reconciliation with First Nations people. I believe there is a generation coming soon when all peoples; whether Indigenous or immigrant; whether gay or straight; whether Christian or one of the many other ways of honouring the Creator will live in harmony.

May we never be a people who rest complacently on our dregs. May we continue to be children of light and live in the faith of God’s grace. May we never forget we are to use the talents God has given us for the betterment of all creation. May we live in hope that the foundations we lay now will become a reality of unity in generations to come.

On the Facebook page for the Roy Henry Vickers event we attended he is quoted as saying  … ‘Great happiness and peace comes from knowing that you make the difference for good in the world so go out and make that difference.’

AMEN

 

 

 

 

 

 

Homily for Pentecost 21, October 29, 2017- The rev. Stephanie Shepard

Matthew 22:34-46

St. John the Apostle

“Life Belongs to God”

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

 I want to share with you something that happened while I was on retreat this week.  Coming in late from a walk around the lake with some of my colleagues, I did not have time to wash my hands before the next session.  To begin, our retreat leader led us in a breathing meditation that goes something like this.  You may stand and try it with me if you like:

Breathe in as you bring your hands together in front of you in the classic Christian position of prayer.

Breathe out as you cup your hands together and offer them up.

Breathe in as you wrap your hands around you in consolation.

Breathe out as you extend your hands away from your body in a giving away motion.

(repeat)

Thank you.  This is a powerful body exercise in what God offers to us and how we respond in love.  We were doing it in the context of how our heart, soul, body, and mind were being touched by God’s creation around us.  And as I lifted up my cupped hands, I realized in horror that they were filthy.  In the moment, it became a powerful metaphor for my complicity in what I personally have done to this planet, and what I have not done when I could have made a difference.  I was ashamed, for life belongs to God, and I had neglected to offer up all that I could.  My longing was indeed for the wholeness of creation and the coming of the kingdom, but what had I done?  Here I was caught with my hands dirty.

But then I reflected on the hike I had taken.  The rocks I had scrambled over, the tree trunks I had clung to for support on the steep sections.  I remembered holding onto a friend’s hand to help him down the path.  Of the sense of belonging I felt for nature and for my fellow walkers in that time.  And I saw that there was another side to those uplifted hands offered to God.  My hands were engrained with dirt because I had touched creation.  And in lifting up my hands, I was receiving its life and its pain into my care.  Belonging in love means getting our hands dirty.

Life begins and ends with breath.  And through our breathing, we are connected to God, the One who gives us life and breath.  We belong to God, and we also belong to everything around us.  When we breath in oxygen, we are receiving what the green plants have released to us.  And when we breathe out carbon dioxide, we are returning it for growing things to use.  What a wonder: that we live in a sacramental universe where everything is able to speak to us of the love of the Creator.  When we pay attention, we find communion.  We find signs of that great love.

When the religious leaders ask Jesus which commandment is the greatest, for them it is but one question in a long series they hope will reveal some heresy for which they can have him arrested.  The Pharisees have already tested him on authority, taxes, and the resurrection.  No doubt they have a few more surprises ready to spring at him, like the question about the Messiah that follows.  But Jesus takes their inquisition at face value.  They themselves should know the answer.  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and first commandment”.  But he doesn’t stop there.  “And a second commandment is like it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  Jesus links the love of God, the love of neighbour, and the love of self together.  They belong together.  Together, they express the orientation of the faithful person.

Our spirituality is not one of isolation, but of intimacy.  This is why we cannot withdraw from the issues around us in the world and pretend that they do not affect us.  What hurts one part of creation hurts God in God’s very being and wounds each of us inside too.  We each long for a world where there is security and justice and enough for each of us not just to survive, but to live abundantly.  But if I want that for myself, I have to want it for others as well.  Loving my neighbour means that I have to think about “ours” rather than “mine”.  This is what belonging is about.

It seems a little overwhelming.  There are big scary topics like climate change and reconciliation with First Nations peoples, terrorism and hatred and world hunger.  When we lift our hands to God, they don’t seem to hold much that will help.  But God will give to each of us as much as our hands and hearts are able to hold, and assist us in distributing what we have as widely as possible.  Even the little we are able to receive will help, if we are willing to get our hands dirty.

For me, that breathing exercise is the ultimate act of stewardship.  I bring myself to God: through prayer, through awareness of the beauty and joy of creation, through the touch or sight of my neighbour.  I cup my hands to receive what God is passing into my care.  I steady myself to ready myself for action, reassure myself that I am held in God’s love as I commit to love. Then I release what I hold into the hands of others so that God’s work of love continues in this world.

Our retreat leader offered us four practices to help us stay rooted in the knowledge and love of God, and of his beloved child Jesus:

  1. Simply taking time to be quiet and pay attention to small things. A child, a bird, a leaf.  What can it tell us of God’s love?
  2. Practice gratitude. Say thank you more often to remind yourself that everything is a gift.
  3. Honour your body. It is the little bit of God’s creation with which you alone have been entrusted.
  4. Live a more natural life. Find touchpoints to the rhythms of creation in what is local, sustainable, or renewable.

If we do this together, as a family, as a church, then too deepen our lives in belonging.  We are never alone.  As long as we have breath, we have God with us to act in love.  A God who longs for us as much as we yearn for belonging.  The Anglican mystic, Julian of Norwich writes,

I saw three kinds of longing in God, all directed to one end.  We have the same three in us, of the same virtue and for the same end.  The first is that he longs to teach us to know him and love him ever more and more, as is suitable and profitable for us.  The second is that he longs to have us up in bliss, as souls are when they are taken out of pain into heaven.  The third is that he longs to fill us full of bliss, and that will be accomplished on the last day, to last forever.” (p. 218)

When our days are done, love reclaims us as His own, and satisfies all our longing at last.  Until then, life belongs to God, and we belong to life.  Amen.

 

Pentecost 16, September 24, 2017

Matthew 20:1-16

St. John the Apostle

“Why are you standing around?”

I speak as a sinner to sinners, and as one who is loved to the beloved of God through the mercy of God.  Amen.

Today Jesus tells us a story of the labourers in the vineyard.  We hear about the ones that the landowner hired in the morning for the work, and as we sit in the pews we tend to identify and to side with them.  We are just like Jesus’ first listeners- both his followers and the religious leaders.  It makes sense that those who are hired for a job agree upon a wage before they spend all day in the field.  Where our sense of natural justice gets assaulted is the next part.  The landowner then goes on to pick up more workers as the day progresses and adds them to the workforce.  And in the evening, when the pay is handed out, everyone gets the same.  That’s not fair.

It depends on our perspective.  For those who have slaved away from dawn til dusk, it doesn’t seem fair that we have been worked so hard and so long for this small sum, even though it is what we agreed to in the beginning.  It’s not just a matter of reward or righteousness.  We are tired, we have given our all, and there is so much work to do.  Why couldn’t the landowner have brought in the extra help a little earlier, and saved our aching backs?  Those who were first to be in the field resent those who didn’t have to work for such a long day not just because they got the same amount of money for a shorter shift, but because they were standing around.

But from the point of view of those who were still in the labour lineup in the marketplace, waiting to be hired, those who were already at work were the lucky ones.  They wanted a job to do.  So why are they standing around?  If we look at this parable as those who want to work but don’t have the opportunity, we get a sense of what Jesus is saying to us about God’s grace and justice.

Some people don’t appeal to employers. They may not have the connections with the company to get their foot in the door, or have the prior work experience or qualifications that meet some hiring standard.  They may not present as well in an interview because the way they dress or speak.  There are many people who would be assets to a workplace if given a chance, but if you are competing against others that speak English better or have Canadian degrees or have confidence and a glowing reference, the chances of being hired are diminished.  There are the doctors and scientists and teachers who have immigrated to Canada only to find that the jobs open to them are as taxi drivers or house cleaners.  Even though our society is in need of their specific skills, they start, at least, with work outside their field to feed their families.  These are the ones who are seen by those in authority as unskilled labourers in the marketplace.  Sometimes we do not discover what gifts a person brings to an organization or company because we never bother to ask what they can do.  We leave them on the margins and compl

There are also those who stand around because they do not hear of the work opportunities.  When we do not hear what is needed, and how we can help, it is difficult to offer.  And sometimes we are not very good at knowing what we need in the way of assistance, let alone advertising for it.  There are more jobs available than there are people to do them, and yet part of our population is unemployed and despairing of finding meaningful work.  This happens in the Church as well.  The tendency is for a few good people to do much of the work quietly and behind the scenes.   Others neither realize how many hours are being put in, nor understand what they might do to share the load.  Our other problem, especially as an organization, is to resent the people who come in “later in the day” to labour with us.  Well established patterns for getting things done might be challenged by different ways if a new person is allowed to join in.  It takes energy to explore alternatives rather than just dismiss the idea because “we’ve always done it that way”.  Whether it is a workplace or an organization like the Church, we have to decide that if we are to seek more workers, we have to be prepared to be changed by what they bring to the job.  Specifically, if we as a faith community are to share the good news about God, then who we invite into ministry will bring new talents and ways of being disciples.

And just like in the Scripture story, there are those who are left standing around because they have been judged not suitable for the job.  The landowner probably chose those labourers he saw as the fittest for the hard work in the vineyard.  But maybe when he came back to the marketplace a second and third time, he began to see other possibilities for the ones who were still there.  As a society, we value those who are young and strong and clever.  We are more hesitant to engage with those who have physical or mental challenges.  And we do not value the gifts our elders bring to our work in the way that we should.  Just because bodies slow down and minds get forgetful, it doesn’t mean that seniors should be set aside as useless to our common good.  A recent federal report on the status of the elderly in care facilities highlights the tendency to warehouse and forget those who have decades of experience and wisdom.  In the province of BC, seniors in assisted living received less than 3 hours a day of personal interactions with staff.  This means that for those elderly persons who have few friends or family members who visit, they spend more than 21 of 24 hours each day alone.  There is no one to help with personal needs or even to share a recollection or an insight.  As a society, how do we treat our elders?  We leave them standing around, waiting for someone to show an interest in their worth.

Jesus lays out that God’s love is not a finite resource.  God’s grace extends to all who are willing to join in, no matter what their fitness or prior experience.  There is room and a job for everyone.  The task of the Church is to invite and equip persons for ministry.  That means extending the labour pool.  Sometimes we bemoan that there are not enough people to do all the things we want to get done in the Church.  The answer is to get more help.  It may be late in the day, but there are still people out there who have not been invited.  Maybe we have missed asking them in the past because they don’t appeal as much to us.  Maybe we haven’t been too good about getting the word out that there is a place for them, and then when they come, actually making a place for them.  And maybe we have some work to do to discern the special gifts of those we thought were less suitable for what God was about.  The point is that God’s amazing and astonishing grace is to keep searching for those who are willing.  And God will show us how to be ready and able to help.  Nobody should be left just standing around.  Amen.

 

 

 

Homily for Pentecost 15, September 17, 2017

Exodus 14:19-31

St. John the Apostle

“True Story”

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

An Anglican priest, a Baptist preacher and a Jewish rabbi are fishing in a boat on a lake. The preacher has forgotten the bait, so he walks across the water, grabs the bucket and walks back. Then the rabbi realizes he’s forgotten his lunch, so he walks across the water to the shore, picks up his lunch bag and walks back.

The Anglican then remembers he didn’t lock the car, but when he gets out of the boat he falls into the water. He swims back, gets back into the boat, and says, “God, let me walk across the water.” He tries again and falls into the water, swims back, tries again and falls again.

The Baptist leans over to the rabbi and asks, “Do you think we should tell him where the stepping stones are?”

We want to believe in miracles and at the same time we want to be able to explain them.  One criteria for a miracle is that it is not explicable by natural or scientific laws.  But as human knowledge extends into new fields, things that were once regarded as supernatural occurrences are found to have a basis in science or history.  Thunder, earthquakes, plagues, eclipses, molecular interactions, can be examined and observed to find out how they work.  But does this make them any less miraculous?

There is a news report of Saint Peter’s bones purportedly discovered this week in a small church undergoing renovations (It makes one wonder what we will find here!).  According to the Vatican, human remains were found in a couple of clay jars in the Santa Maria in Cappella, Rome.  They will undergo DNA testing and be compared to other bones kept at St. Peter’s basilica which are also thought to be those of this first century apostle.  Will they be any more holy if there is a match?

This week the Christian Church also celebrated the feast of Holy Cross day on Thursday.  On September 14 in the year 335, the Emperor Constantine dedicated a large shrine and church on the site of where Jesus was thought to have been crucified in Jerusalem.  While the site was under construction, Constantine’s mother Helena happened to be helping out and found some old pieces of wood.  Doctors of the faith did the 4th century version of scientific testing.  They apparently had a corpse laid on the fragments and when the person came back to life declared that this miracle was due to the healing power of the cross of Christ.  The relics were taken back to Rome and venerated, and soon many important churches across Christendom managed to produce a sliver. Each faith community eagerly hoped for a miracle to prove that their splinter was the real deal.

There are a lot of miracles recorded in the Bible.  Many are the basis of documentaries, which try and tease out textual details to support scientific discovery.  From the story that has been passed down, first as an oral tradition and then as a sacred text, people have attempted to reconstruct the “true” story.  Whether this invites faith or skepticism, there is an underlying need to understand how God did “it”.

In the Hebrew Scriptures passage that was read this morning from Exodus 14, we heard the story of the Israelites escaping through the waters of the Red Sea.  The miracle of the slaves’ escape from Egypt by God’s mighty hand is a story that is crucial to understanding how they understood themselves to be a chosen people.  Did it literally happen step by step as it is described in the pages of Scripture?  Countless scholars have spent years huddled over maps of the Near East, trying to match up times and place names to see when and where the event actually occurred.  Various scientific explanations of tidal influence, wind patterns, and climate conditions have laid out scenarios by which this group of people might have passed through what was normally a body of water, while Pharoah’s chariot army was unable to follow.  The Hebrew slaves crossed the Red, or possibly Reed, Sea and the Egyptian pursuers drowned.  Do we need to understand exactly how in order to appreciate that there is a divine hand involved?

For some, this is a matter of faith.  Anything that can be explained by natural means proves, de facto, that God didn’t need to be involved: it was a matter of happy circumstance for the Israelites and bad luck for the Egyptians.  That is, if this story actually had any basis in fact and wasn’t just made up as a charter myth of the Jewish people.  For others, the grounding of details found in the text lends even more power to God’s purpose.  Why wouldn’t the Creator use the mechanisms of creation in order to guide the path of human history?  And for more, the details don’t actually matter.  The footnotes in a Bible, although interesting, neither add or detract from the words of Scripture.  The story is true on a deeper level, as a proclamation of what God is about rather than how.

So what is God about here in this story?  The crossing of the Red Sea is a miracle of love and forgiveness and trust.  For the Hebrew people, it is the death of an old life in oppression and sin, and the beginning of a new life that is a journey towards the God who loves them and redeems them and will sustain them in their wilderness.  The details that are recorded may have happened exactly like that to a people long ago.  But they also can resonate with a modern hearer that has never been to the Middle East, never fled across a desert pursued by Egyptians.  We can put ourselves into the text because of our own experiences that run parallel.

And when we come to baptism, this story becomes even more true.  This story of the crossing over is what we each enact when we begin the path of a Christian life.  We chose between the captivity of the world and the journey to a Promised Land.  We go through the water that marks both death and life.   And we trust in a God who loves us enough to rescue us and forgive us and claim us as God’s own forever.  Do we need to see the rocks under the water?

The stage is set again this morning for the retelling of this wonderful story.  The miracle here is this small child, Alexander Brian McGlashan.  Brought into the world by love, brought to this community in love, to be baptized this morning for love.  Can anyone look at a baby and not know something of the mystery of God in these tiny hands?  And maybe years from now his mother and father and sister will tell him the story of this day.  They may laugh and recount the little details.  But whether they get it exactly right or not, the main point of the story is still this:  You are a miracle, by God’s grace.   Amen.

 

 

Homily for Pentecost 14, September 10, 2017

Romans 13:8-14

St. John the Apostle

“It’s not too late to say you’re sorry”

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

When I came into the church this morning, there was a beeping from the alarm panel.  The back-up batteries were low, and so it was reminding us that we need to attend to it.  Now.  That irritating sound that you hear won’t give up until you do something about it.  That’s much like the passage we hear this morning from Romans chapter 1.  St. Paul sounds like a nagging parent: “You know what time it is”.  Do we ever?  I for one have a remarkable capacity for putting off the things I need to do unless I put a deadline in place.  For everyday tasks, writing a sermon for example, I have a clear end date- Sunday morning.  But there are other things that we know we should do someday soon, but procrastinate about.  Having an emergency kit stocked and ready seems like a sensible idea, but how many of you have one near the door of your home?  We tend to put things like this off because although we have been told that someday there will be an earthquake, the probability is that it will not be tomorrow.

But we never know how much time we have.  Events can overtake us quickly.  Think of those residents in the interior of BC that had to leave their homes quickly because of approaching wildfires or floods.  Even with warnings and evacuation alerts, it was difficult for many to pack what was needed in time to flee.  And for the residents of the southern states, past experience with hurricanes may led some to believe that they could weather this storm, only to find that supplies like gasoline and plywood were sold out by the time they really needed them.  Hour by hour Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and those that will follow, move across the Caribbean on courses that change in intensity and direction even with the best of predictions.

We are slow learners, and so we need to be reminded to not take for granted that things will unfold on our schedule.  In Exodus, at the first Passover, the Hebrews didn’t even have time to allow the bread to rise before they left Egypt.  They had to bake the unleavened loaves and eat them in a hurry.  In the comemoration every year of this event, Jews still eat the crackers called Matzah to call to mind that God’s salvation can come quickly and unexpectedly.  And in our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus tells his followers not to wait to forgive another.  Rather than triangulating by complaining to a third party, we are to confront sin and estrangement directly.  Our task is not to put off reconciliation, but to take the steps to have healthy relationships.  This is important for people of faith not just in our personal lives, but at a systemic level as we counter racism and fear in our society.

And there surely is a certain urgency to our present time.  Even without the background of natural disasters, economic disparity, and political instability, this really is a moment for the world to wake from sleep because our salvation is nearer than when Jesus spoke about forgiveness.  We can live in fear of the dark days that appear to be leading towards the apocalypse, or we can get our priorities straight.  For each of us has a choice to start working on our unfinished business or to ignore the signs and continue hoping that we have more time, a lot more time.  The point that St. Paul is making is that love is an urgent matter.

Old habits can keep us from living and loving more fully, especially those habits that hinder us from seeking forgiveness.  We are all more comfortable with the words “mistake” or “weakness” than that archaic term “sin”.  It’s hard to admit even when we say it in the Lord’s Prayer.  But there is at work within something that drags on our ability to respond in willing compassion to another.  It may be fear, it may be pride, it may be selfishness, it may be that lack of energy to change or challenge.  St. Paul speaks of it as “the desires of the flesh” in contrast to the Spirit.  Whatever we want to label it, this force works darkness instead of light.  We are called to lay aside the things that keep us from loving, and that means getting on with the business of forgiveness.

It is not easy to say sorry, and even when we do, we are sometimes not clear what we mean by it.  Especially for Canadians, “sorry” can imply anything from “I didn’t intend to bump into you but it was an accident” to “I am expressing sympathy for the death of your loved one.”  And sometimes we think that just by saying “sorry” we have solved the problem that lies between us, when there is much more work to do.  Dan Furman is a writer who runs a business writing apology letters.  On CBC’s program “Out in the Open”, he explains that people often ask for help to make an apology sound sincere.  It is not just a matter of magnitude.  Whether you are dealing with a neighbour who is annoyed by your barking dog or revealing to your spouse that you have committed adultery, the same rules apply.  Furman shares four rules:

  1. Include the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize”, not “I regret”
  2. Take responsibility by naming what you did
  3. Show you understand the impact your action has had on the other person
  4. Explain what you will change so that it doesn’t happen again or how you will make reparations

Without these components, he says, an apology is worthless and you are better off not offering one.  The focus should not be on who is to blame or who is right, but on reconciliation.  As soon as you qualify your apology or defend your actions, you have defeated the purpose.

Jesus, too, speaks not just of the process of naming and healing a rift, but the motivation.  Our goal is to be loving relationship, expressed in listening to the other and problem-solving in community.  Living honourably means moving beyond the quarreling and jealousy that tears our world apart.

In our corporate worship, we practice this when we say words of confession.  The familiarity of Sunday morning sets up good habits for the rest of the week in our prayer lives.  Talking to God is not just about asking for help, or even giving thanks.  It also must include times of self-examination and the willingness to admit and take responsibility for our part in hurting others.  Only when we bring this before God can we hope to accept God’s capacity to forgive us.

It is not too late to say you are sorry.  In fact, now is a good time to act.  Who knows what tomorrow will bring for any of us?  If we can do today something that will show more of our love, then we are truly dressing ourselves in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Many Christians wear a cross, around their necks or on their bodies.  It was on the cross that Jesus said of humanity, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they do”.  If we are to bear this ultimate sign of forgiveness to the world, isn’t it time we acknowledged that we are forgiven when we ask.  And get to the urgent work of forgiving others.  You know that time it is, and It is not too late.

Homily for Pentecost 13, September 3, 2017

Exodus 3:1-12

St. John the Apostle Port Moody

“Identity and Courage”

I speak to you as a sinner to sinners, and as one who is loved to the beloved of God through the mercy of God.  Amen.

When I was very young, the coming of Labour Day marked the turning of the year.  The hot lazy days of summer were nearly over and I would be heading back for another grade in school.  After post-secondary education, the first Monday of September took on a new meaning.  I was working for a public services union, advocating for the rights and safety of working people.  Labour Day highlighted the toil of generations before me who had sacrificed and lobbied in order to bring about that which we sometimes take for granted: parental leave, health benefits, defined working hours, financial support when one is ill or injured.  It is a yearly reminder that the working conditions that I and many in this country now expect are a recent development in human history, and one we can so easily lose when a different political administration comes to power.

In many parts of our world, the political and cultural climates have driven ordinary citizens to fear for their livelihoods and their lives.  Some have groaned under the weight of oppressive regimes or war-torn regions.  Others have fled as immigrants or refugees into a wilderness, leaving behind family members and friends.  The thought of going back and facing what is going on in their countries of origin is terrifying.  Even if they are not persecuted for who they know or what they may have done, there is little opportunity to use their trades or skills to earn a living.  Why would they go back when even the most menial of jobs here in the new world is safer?

Moses was a political refugee in the wilderness of Midian.  He had fled Egypt for killing an Egyptian who was beating one of the Hebrew labourers.  In this foreign society, he has found a wife and a job and a new life that has nothing to do with his previous position and privilege as a prince of Egypt.  He has adopted a new identity that has nothing to do with his cultural or religious roots.  But one day, when Moses is looking after his father-in-law’s flock of sheep, he encounters God.   Not in a temple or a sacred ceremony, not in some special revered place, but in Horeb, which means ‘the wasteland’.  But it is not enough for God to show up.   Only when Moses shows he can both see the burning bush, and he turns aside to find out what is going on and why, does Moses hear his name being called.   At this point, he could have run away. It might have been safer. Wildfires can be deadly, and unfamiliar voices can mean danger for a refugee.

In having the courage to answer, Moses is taking a risk.  The one who was once drawn out of the water of the Nile is being drawn into something new.   The writer of the story immediately puts in his mouth the words that any prophet would say to a heavenly call: “Here I am.”  But this is a man who has distanced himself from his Hebrew roots and the suffering of his people.   He steps up before he knows what is going to be asked of him.  Because from the onset, God claims Moses back as his servant.  “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Israel”.  Moses may not want to admit it, but he is still an Israelite.  He can’t avoid his past.  He sees the burning bush and he remembers what it is like to be oppressed.  Then God lays out his mission: “I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”  And now Moses is truly conflicted.

It is much harder to go back than to go forward sometimes.  Moses has made a new life for himself in this wilderness.  Now he is being asked to go back to Egypt.  He is to give up the security and companionship of his new family in Midian.  The possibility is facing imprisonment or death for his past actions.  And if he tries to advocate for the Hebrew labourers, then there will be ridicule, opposition, and further persecution from the Egyptian ruling class, to which he once belonged.  The God before him is asking him to choose a side.  Is he Midianite?  Is he Egyptian?  Or is he indeed a child of Israel?  Moses is not just suffering from fear of leadership.  He is having an identity crisis.  “Who am I?”, he cries.

God’s response reconnects him to the story of salvation.  “I AM will be with you”.  Who Moses is lies grounded in who God is.  The holy name of God is revealed on the holy ground where Moses is now standing barefoot.  It is a phrase so sacred that the Jewish people will not speak it aloud.  It is only written in Hebrew consonants on the pages of scripture, and every time it is to be pronounced, the word “Adonai” or “the Lord” is substituted.  The meaning of God’s name is fluid because of the way the verb “to be” is structured in Hebrew.  So God’s name could mean, “I Am what I am”, or “I Am what I will be” or “I Am what I am becoming” or “I Am what I am for you”.   Moses has first declared “Here I am”, and God is telling him that where Moses is, God will be also.  Moses has asked “Who am I?” and God has reaffirmed that he is a child of the Israelites, just as God is the God of the Israelites.  Because God is “I Am”, Moses can find his way back to his identity and his courage.

It takes courage to turn back and take on a task with the shadow of the past hanging over us.   For some it may be simply going back to school or to work after time away. For others, going home after a fire or flood have changed the landscape.  For more, standing up to oppression by having the courage to identify with those who have less power.  But the promise is that God is calling us not to stand alone.  In answering the call of justice and love and compassion, we are united with the Holy One.  We have found holy ground.  Amen.

 

 

11th Sunday after Pentecost , August 20, 2017

Genesis 45:1-15

St. John the Apostle, Port Moody

“Family Reunions”

I speak to you as a sinner to sinners, and as one who is loved to the beloved of God, through the mercy of God.  Amen.

Family reunions can be such tense occasions that there are whole websites devoted to how to plan fun and stress-free encounters with one’s relatives.  First you have to decide who to invite.  Then where it is going to be held.  Oh, yes, and who is going to pay for it (or how you are going to get your relatives to contribute a fair amount.)  How long can you put up with each other, and what are you going to do together so that nobody gets bored or offended?   What to wear so that others don’t judge you?  I got stressed just visiting the websites.

Once we get to the meet and greet, we all have a “best self” that we want others to see.  But the temptation is to slip into a role that we have previously been cast in during our family history.   Do we once again succumb to the “favoured child”, the “peacemaker”, the “martyr”, the “only one who gets things done around here”, the “font of all wisdom”, or another character?  The label we wear doesn’t just identify who we are and how we fit in to the family tree, it also can determine whether we help or hinder healthy relationships.  Reunions can strengthen ties of affection or they can enforce barriers previously built between people.  It is up to each of us to react to others the way we always have or to find a way to get unstuck.

Reconciliation is about getting unstuck.  When we no longer cling to a previously believed right way of doing things, and we are willing to try something different for the sake of the relationship, there is opportunity for forgiveness and healing.  It’s too bad that it took Joseph and his brothers 8 chapters in the Bible to get to this point.  That’s how much of the story we have skipped from last week’s tale of Joseph being sold into slavery and today’s reunion.  There is a happy ending, but a lot of troubling stuff happens in between if you go back and read Genesis 38 through 45.  This is the stuff of human relationships:

  • envy and revenge
  • dissention
  • attempted fratricide
  • grief
  • incest
  • adultery
  • execution
  • imprisonment
  • famine
  • human trafficking
  • deceit and fraud

And you thought the Bible had nothing to do with everyday life?  All of these events have shaped Joseph and his family.  They are not the same people as when they last saw each other.  They have hurt each other and they have hurt themselves with their choices, and they have been hurt by circumstances sometimes beyond their control.

And was any of this God’s will?  God doesn’t say that this is so.  It is Joseph who, through his trials, has come to an understanding that good has come out of the bad that has befallen him.  When he comes face to face with his brothers, who are pleading for mercy with this prince of Egypt, Joseph has a choice.  He can do likewise. He can play the official card and hurt the children of Jacob just as he has been hurt, or he can reveal his best self.  Joseph choses the path towards reconciliation.  He reveals himself to his brothers as their sibling, and tells them, “God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5).

They all weep, with both joy now and sorrow for what has been.  And they exchange the kiss of peace, symbol of love and right relationship.  This complicated family is restored to a balance that has world-wide implications.  The tribes of Israel, also known as Jacob, are reunited.  At least for now.  But the work of reconciliation doesn’t happen just once.  It is an ongoing labour.  Time and time again in the Biblical narrative we encounter the friction points and fractures amongst these twelve brothers, making future family reunions just as difficult.

And so it is in the world today.  Reconciliation is an ongoing labour that requires each of us to understand and to relate in healthier ways.  We can’t just fall back on familiar roles, whether it is in a family or community, or nation.  That’s just too easy.  It is too easy to harden into a narrative of fear and hate when we don’t want to face past hurts.  It is too easy to stop listening to the voices that cry out for change when we don’t want to give up power.  And it’s too easy to rewrite history rather than figure out where things started going wrong and how they need to be different.

As Christians, we need to be consistent in our message that the good news is for all of humanity.  God’s children can’t be sorted by mother or colour or race or ethnicity.  Racism and hatred have no part in our creed.  The gospel condemns the violence and ignorance of individuals and groups that refuse to admit another human as their brother, and who refuse to find ways to reconcile and overcome their hurts and prejudices.

Our times call for brave voices that don’t give in to violence or appeasement.  This week I was listening to William Bell, the mayor of Birmingham, Alabama.  This is the city which is considered the birthplace of the 1960’s civil rights movement.  Now the state of Alabama is threatening to sue him and the City because there is a law on the books that prevents the removal of commemorative works of art.  He was weighing in on the debate regarding a Confederate statue in a public square that, like so many, has been a flashpoint for race relations.  In a very measured response, he said that there were two options.  Either the statue could be removed to private land, and the owner could do whatever he wanted with it.  Or the history of slavery and the struggle for equality could be the narrative to explain the statue’s public presence rather than the glorification of a white Confederacy.  The face it presented to the public had to change to bring reconciliation.  In a like manner, William Bell commented that mayors across the United States have stood up to voice their dissention from the White House on issues such as climate change, immigration, and heath care.  It gives me hope that people are coming together to take action in spite of the fear, greed, and hatred that come from other groups in the civil society.

Every day we are called upon to practice healthy ways to live in relationship with each other.  And although we will certainly at times fall back into earlier patterns and roles, the more we practice, the better we will get.  Long years of using our forgiveness muscles and striving for a posture of empathy will strengthen us for the trials we face in the future.  Even a family reunion.  Amen.

Pentecost 11, August 13, 2017

Matthew 14:22-33

St. John the Apostle

“Spero Me Patronum (with apologies to J.K. Rowling)”

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Last Sunday evening, I drove through Kamloops on my way to Sorrento Retreat Centre on Shuswap Lake.  It was an apocalyptic landscape.  The sun was low like a hung-over red eye in the brown sky, and the buildings on either side of the highway were obscured with the smoky haze.  Gone was the city or any view across to the hills.  Except for the vehicles on the motorway, there was no sign of people or life.  With the temperature at 33 degrees Celsius and the heavy smoke, we kept the windows of the car sealed and we kept going.  Seeing the effects first hand, I was troubled for the residents of the city and all the communities fighting the wildfires this summer in BC: more troubled than I expected.

Then I realized that the scene was familiar to me:  it came from a recurring childhood nightmare.  I am a child of the 1970s.  It was a period when tensions between East and West were uneasy, and television programming was pre-empted with newscasts from war zones.  World powers were amassing nuclear warheads pointed at the other.  Social consciences were beginning to awaken and speak out against the proliferation of these weapons of mass destruction.  I remember saying, as a child, that I did not expect to live til I was 20.  And I had some bad dreams.  Perhaps they had roots in reality and fantasy; documentaries like “If you love this planet” and horror movies of the time.  One, which came more than once, found me with my family in a car driving through a post-nuclear landscape.  I remember being afraid to roll down the windows because the atmosphere outside was poisonous, and being fearful any desperate humans that might appear out of the murk to attack us.  It was this ghost of a memory that disturbed me in the present.

Part of being human is feeling fear.  And there is much to be afraid of in the world, from present dangers to future possibilities.  There is a satirical skit on the political show “This Hour has 22 minutes” that spoofs a Fox News -styled presenter.  Every episode she rants “here’s what you should be afraid of this week”.  And sadly, we absorb anxiety from much of what the media bombards us with.  Bad news sells.  And there is always new bad news.  This week alone, the tension ramping up between North Korea and the United States leaders, the growing violence in communities like Surrey, the continuing wildfires,… all add to our burden of making sense of the world.  This is overlaid on our personal struggles:  illness, responsibilities for family members, the death of loved ones, financial difficulties, insecurity and change in our jobs. Every day we deal with the chronic stress of modern life even as we juggle how to face the new challenges that are thrown at us.  At times, it feels like too much, and we begin to sink under the load.

The message “Do not be afraid” is not only counter-cultural; it seems laughable.  How can we not?  Yet this is the message that comes through again and again from God through our Holy Scriptures.  Usually it is in the mouth of angels, sent as messengers to individuals to show a way forward in a particularly stressful situation.  But today it comes from Jesus himself.  What can he mean for us, when we find ourselves in waters too deep to cope with?

If we start with the disciples, you can see that they are an awful lot like us.  In the story from Matthew 14:22-33, they have just finished a miraculous picnic with Jesus and five thousand of his followers.  They are amazed and filled with both bread and hope: here is the Messiah who will make everything all right in Israel.  All they have to do is stick with him.  But in the next sentence, Jesus compels his companions to leave him.  They are sent away from their Master to the other side of the lake, while he goes alone to spend some time in prayer.  They do what he asks, but what were they feeling as they set out in their little boat?  Some separation anxiety, perhaps, or resentment that they weren’t invited to stay and share quality time.  Maybe they are nervous about what he is going to expect of them next, since they didn’t manage to come through with their last catering assignment.  Then the storm comes up, and they are helpless against the wind and the waves.  They battle all night to keep afloat.  With experienced fishermen on board, they are realistically frightened about what happens when one is caught in the middle of the sea of Galilee in a gale.  By morning, they are reduced to survival mode.  It is then that they get the fright of their lives.

Their terror stems from the apparition walking towards them on the water.  “A ghost”, they cry, in the Greek, “a phantasma”.  Their fear of the unknown focuses on supernatural bad news.  They don’t immediately jump to the idea of rescue, but of destruction.  Here is a spirit from the dead coming to take them to a watery grave, or worse, a creature of chaos from the depths of their ancestral stories.  They are not afraid.  They are terrified beyond belief.  And even when Jesus tells them, “be comforted.  It is I.  Do not be afraid,” they are not convinced.  He’s used key words which should remind them of their faith, including the holy name of God “I Am” and the words spoken by every angel.  But at this point, the disciples are not too rational.

Peter, bless him, is the first to respond, although not in the smartest manner.  He challenges this unknown phantom to call him out of the boat if he is really the Lord; to prove it with another miracle.  And so he climbs out and starts walking on the water.  But the boat, although tossed by the waves, is safe in comparison to the wildness of the sea, and Peter quickly loses confidence in his ability to carry out Jesus’ command.  Overwhelmed, he begins to drown.  Sometimes we, like Peter, can take the risk of jumping out of a boat that is barely afloat into rough seas.  There are times when it is actually safer to stay in the boat and await further instructions.  But when we do decide to venture out, fear and doubt will work against us, and try to paralyze us from taking steps or even staying on the surface.  The only thing we can do is to put our trust in God to see us through.  “Lord, save me!” Peter cries.

In the J.K. Rowling books, there are particularly nasty creations called Dementors.  They personify fear, and anyone who has experienced depression has known them in one form or another.  One of Harry Potter’s professors describes them in the following way:

“Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles feel their presence, though they can’t see them. Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself — soul-less and evil. You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.”

– from The Prisoner of Azkaban

The only way to repel these fearful beings is to use the Patronus charm, which is conjured with a strong happy memory.  Harry learns to use his powers with great effect to counteract the terrible feelings that threaten to overwhelm him.  But a memory from the past alone is not enough to overcome despair and fear.  He learns to draw on present hope and the love of those he senses still around him in order to defeat its power.

“Expecto Patronum” is a latinized expression which loosely could mean “I expect/call on my patron”.  Similarly, Peter called on his patron to save him.  He puts his trust entirely at this point in Jesus as his Lord and Master, not in his own actions. Peter is not relying at this point on a happy memory of his childhood, his family, or even his recent experiences as a disciple of Jesus.   He doesn’t beg the other disciples in the boat to throw him a rope.  Maybe they already tried.  What he does is turns to the One who for him is the Son of God, the source of his present love and hope.  And Jesus, as the Son of God, stretches out his hand and catches him.

So what are we supposed to do with this? There are times when we get in over our heads.  If God is calling us to something new, then the risk of faith we take is to obey, but not to trust in our own ability to keep it together.   What is to be is in God’s hands.  What is in the past can be forgiven and laid aside.  And now, in the present, we need to reach out our hands to the presence of the One who will catch us when we start to sink under our fear.  We are not actually being asked to walk on water.  But we are being asked to trust the One who can.  To put aside our anxiety and doubt would be a miracle indeed.  In the midst of our life situations, it is enough to know that Jesus is there to help us get back into the boat and calm the wind until we get to the other side.  Amen.