Archive for February, 2010

February 21, 2010

As most of you know, every Sunday of the year, there are specific readings which we are meant to use as part of our worship. This is known as the lectionary, and having a lectionary is very helpful, as it tells me what text I need to preach on each week. There is a three-year cycle, with at least three Scripture readings for each week, and each reading could lead to several sermons. So there is no need for me to repeat myself. However, today is one of the Sundays when you just might hear something you have already heard – not from me, but from someone else. You see, there are certain Sundays that the church seems to recognize as almost requiring certain parts of Scripture to be used. For instance, if you look at the readings for the first Sunday of Advent, you will find a focus on the end of the world. The second Sunday of Advent always has a story about John the Baptist, while the readings for the fourth Sunday of Advent discuss the mother of Jesus. And today, this first Sunday of Lent, we always read the story of Jesus’ trek into the desert and his temptation there. Mark’s gospel only says, “At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.” But Matthew and Luke tell us the whole story, including the conversation between Jesus and Satan. I think that it is important for us to know the whole conversation, because that way we are better able to relate what happened to Jesus to what happens to us, every single day.
Let’s have a look at each one of the temptations, but not just a casual look. This time, after each temptation, I am going to talk about what Satan was really doing, and how similar temptations assail us on a regular basis. First of all, we need to know that this forty-day period Jesus spent in the desert was not a vacation. Luke wrote: Jesus ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them, he was hungry. Well, I’ll guess he was hungry! In fact, I would say that he was ravenous. My father used to come home from work some days claiming that he was hungry enough to eat the leg off the table, and I would imagine that Jesus was even hungrier than that!
So for the first temptation, Satan said, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Now, on a casual reading, we see that Satan is tempting Jesus to eat, to break his fast. Funny, the first temptation we read about in the book of Genesis also has to do with eating, when Eve is tempted to eat the fruit which God had commanded her not to eat. Eve, as we know, gave in, but Jesus said, “ It is written: man does not live on bread alone.” Whenever Jesus says, “It is written”, we know that he is quoting from the Torah, or the first five books of the Old Testament. In this case, he quoted from Deuteronomy, and it might be helpful to hear the quote in context. In chapter 8 of this book, we read: Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of Lord.” Just as the Israelites had been humbled by being forced to submit to the will of God, so had Jesus chosen to accept the discipline of the Father and to humble himself for forty days in the desert. Many people see this first temptation as being purely physical – Jesus was hungry, and Satan tempted him to eat. But listen to the first seven words Satan spoke – IF YOU ARE THE SON OF GOD. Forget the hunger; forget the bread. Satan was trying to plant doubt in Jesus’ mind. And this is what he tries to do with us, when we are tempted to replace God with material things, when we look for things rather than God to make us happy. He is trying to show us that we do not need God to make us happy, that we can be happy with the things of this world. Well, I don’t know. I keep reading about rich people who are not happy, rich people who end up in rehab over and over again, because they are looking for something which their money cannot give them. And then I hear about people like Mother Theresa, who lived a life of poverty, but who was happy serving others. Or I hear about people who volunteer time on a regular basis, right here in Quebec City, people who give of themselves in an effort to make things better or easier for others. These are the people who are happy, not the people whose lives are full of things.
The next thing the devil did was to lead Jesus up to a high place and show him all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendour, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So, if you worship me, it will all be yours.” First of all, Satan lied. He had not been given the authority and splendour of the kingdoms of the world. But leaving that aside, how does this offer tempt? Well, many people want power, or they want more than other people have. God has given each one of us gifts, as we heard a few weeks ago, and Satan tempts us to use these gifts to elevate ourselves above other people. I am smarter than the person next to me in class or at work; I am stronger than the person working out beside me in the gym; I am more talented or prettier or more handsome than my neighbour. This self-elevation, this pride – this is something which can surely separate us from God. And the really funny thing is that when we see people doing this, when we see them using their gifts to make themselves feel superior, we are not at all impressed. So we have to ask ourselves why on earth Satan thought that this temptation would have any appeal at all to Jesus?
The third temptation – following the custom of saving the best for last – heard Satan himself quote Scripture. He again took Jesus to a high place – this time on the very top of the temple in Jerusalem, and said, If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here. For it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” A few weeks ago, I referenced Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, in which Antonio said that the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. Surely, this must have had its origin in this scene in the Gospel, as Satan quoted the very psalm which we read just a few minutes ago, in an effort to persuade Jesus to listen to him. Imagine Satan asking Jesus to prove his divinity! This temptation reminds me of the rock opera Jesus Christ, Superstar, in which Herod said, “Jesus Christ, if you’re divine, turn this water into wine” and again, “Jesus Christ, if you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool.” This is something of which many people are guilty today. All around us we see God’s wonders, all around us we see God’s miracles, and yet we ask for more. Miracles are not enough – we want the show, we want the magic. And Jesus replied to the devil, as he replies to us, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Again, he was quoting from Deuteronomy, and he was telling Satan – and us – that he does not to prove himself to us.
The point of this reading is to tell us that, just as Jesus did, we can resist temptation. I don’t know how many of you remember the late comedian Flip Wilson, but I do. He specialized in playing other characters on his show, and one of the most popular was Geraldine, whose catch-phrase was “The devil made me do it.” Well, sorry, Geraldine, that doesn’t cut it. Jesus resisted, and so can we. So do we, every single day. I am not saying that people don’t sin. As we read Scripture, we see sinners everywhere. Peter – the rock upon whom Jesus founded the church – sinned. He denied Jesus, he doubted, but, in the end, he triumphed. He was not a servant of the devil – he was the servant of the living Word of God, and so are we. Because we are human, we are not perfect. Often we fall short of the mark. But the thing is that we keep trying. We don’t give up. And we have resources to help us in our fight.
The first thing we have is prayer. When I was a little girl, the nighttime prayer ritual was a big part of my life. Then it was simple, and consisted mostly of God blessing everyone in my family, usually including my cat. If every day is bracketed by prayer, then we know that we are arming ourselves to fight off the evil one. A minister friend of mine does her morning devotional before she gets out of bed, and carries that with her throughout the day.
The second thing we have is Scripture. We saw it in action today, as Jesus used it to put Satan in his place. When I was working with a spiritual director, one of the pieces of advice she gave me was to read my assigned Scripture over my morning coffee, so that it could be in the back of my mind while I went about my daily tasks. In my Bible Study classes, we were required to memorize certain key verses, so that we could carry them with us. This brings Scripture out of the pages of a book, and into our lives. Next month, we are going to be taking part in the Proclamation of the Word, when the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation will be read aloud in this church. What an opportunity for us to hear or read some part of Scripture we have paid little attention to until now. What a chance to find a section or even a verse that will speak to us! Armed with Scripture, we can do as Jesus did, and shoot Satan in the foot.
The third thing we have is our faith community, and I cannot stress how important this is. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus himself said, “Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” And I say that there is an unbelievable power in community, a power that can overcome any kind of temptation. Most people are familiar with Twelve-step programmes, in which individuals draw on the collective strength of others to overcome their addictions. They know that they cannot resist alone. Neither can we. And nor should we. I remember when Christ Church – the Presbyterian Church I attended in Wabush –closed. I have to admit that for a couple of weeks, I enjoyed the luxury of sleeping in on Sunday. But then I started to feel like a ship without a rudder. And I realized that I not only enjoyed the idea of a faith community – I needed it. Without it, I was weaker. Without it, even though I still had an active prayer life, I felt alone. When I pray for people, I pray for them by name. I don’t just say something generic like “God bless the members of this congregation.” In our prayer of intercession, I often name particular people. And I often leave a moment of silence so that we can name people in the silence of our hearts – people whom we know to be in particular need. And, for me, knowing that someone has prayed for me, personally – that gives me such a feeling of being loved, of being cared for, that I feel it in my heart. There is a children’s praise song about having the joy in my heart, and that expresses the sensation very well. Interestingly, the song goes to say – after expressing the idea that I have the love of Jesus down in my heart, and the peace that passes all understanding down in my heart – it goes on to say that if the Devil doesn’t like it, he can sit on a tack. And, isn’t that what we heard today? Jesus was able to resist temptation because he prayed; because he lived Scripture; and because he was part of the community of the Trinity.
I told someone this week that I was going to talk about the idea of giving up something for Lent, which was a part of many people’s lives when I was young, and still is, in some circles. The celebration called Mardi Gras was integral to this self-deprivation. This was seen – particularly in French circles – as the last day to eat fat and sugar for six weeks. It was the last day to party before Easter. In some churches, weddings were not performed during Lent, and many churches which had statues would cover them in purple for this period of time, as it was seen as a time of mourning. As children, we used to talk about giving up candy, and we heard adults talking about giving up beer or cigarettes. Sometimes this backfired, though. Once I decided to give up sugar in my coffee, and this was a time when I used to take at least two teaspoonsful in every cup. Every cup of coffee I had for those six weeks really didn’t taste very good, and I could hardly wait for Easter Sunday. But I persevered, and got through the entire Lenten season with no sugar. On Easter Sunday, I made a pot of coffee, determined to enjoy the whole thing myself. I poured a cup, added the sugar, and took a huge gulp – which I promptly spit into the kitchen sink. It was disgusting. It tasted like coffee-flavoured syrup. I still don’t take sugar in my coffee. I don’t know if any of you still follow this custom, or maybe this was never part of your lives. And, you know, I think that there are better ways to mark Lent than by self-denial. I am not telling you not to give up anything, but what I am telling you to give up may surprise you. Give up grumbling and complaining. Instead, take Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians, and “In everything give thanks.” Give up hating anyone. What a waste of energy, which could be better used to the glory of God’s name! Give up worrying and feeling anxious. Trust that God knows what he is doing with you and for you. Give up conspicuous consumerism. Live more simply. Remember that when Jesus spoke, one of the things he said that we should look at the lilies of the field, who neither toil nor spin, and yet even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
Lent is not only about giving up things we like to do, or doing without things we like to have. It is about adding things to our lives – things like love for others. During this season of preparation for the greatest feast in the church year, think about what you can add to your life. Can you visit someone who is lonely? Can you talk with someone who needs a friend? Can you pray for someone by name? In doing these things, we are heeding the words of Jesus, who told us to take up our cross and follow him. During Lent, let us do this. Let us speak up when no one else will, and follow Jesus into the wilderness, secure in the knowledge that, with his help, we can resist any temptation which comes our way. Thanks be to God.

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February 14 Sermon

During the past few years, I have taken part in several contemporary services, and heard praise songs which have not, as far as I know, ever been used in this church. This may change, as some of our young people are looking for something different. One of the songs which was very popular could easily have been used as part of this Transfiguration Sunday worship. The words of the chorus go like this: Shine Jesus, Shine. Fill this land with the Father’s glory. Blaze, Spirit, blaze. Set our hearts on fire. Flow, river, flow. Flood the nations with grace and mercy. Send forth your word, Lord, and let there be light. I tell you, when you hear several hundred young voices singing out these words, you can feel the Spirit in the room. And even when you hear just a few of them, accompanied by a guitar, in a living room or around a campfire, you can still feel the Spirit moving there, and you know that God is present.
In the same way, when Peter, James, and John went up onto the mountain with Jesus, they knew that God was present. For three years, they had followed Jesus, knowing that he was a prophet, and a healer. They knew, in a kind of general way, that Jesus was different from other people, that he was – somehow – special. But now, now, they knew for certain that this man was God. Just imagine what it must have been like on that mountain. The four men were praying, but while Jesus prayed, his appearance changed. His face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. He was not reflecting the light of God, as Moses did in our reading from Exodus – he WAS the light of God, illuminating the figures of Moses and Elijah, who appeared beside him.
I always found it interesting that Moses and Elijah were the two who appeared with Jesus on that mountain top. After all, there were other prophets who were surely just as worthy – Abraham was the original founder of the people of the book, from whom Christians are descended. Noah saved the remnants of humanity from the flood. Why then, Moses and Elijah? Well, both were symbols in many ways. Moses led his people out of bondage, into the Promised Land. In the same way, Jesus came to lead us out of bondage to sin, to lead un into eternal life. And as for Elijah – if you remember he was one of only two men in the Old Testament who did not die, Enoch being the other. In 2 Kings, chapter 2, we read: Then Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here: the Lord has sent me to Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As surely as the Lord lives and I live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. The company of the prophets at Bethel came out to Elisha and said, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?” “ Yes, I know,” Elisha replied, “But do not speak of it.” Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here, Elisha; the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” And he replied, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” Now we jump to verse eleven, where we read, As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. This victory over physical death symbolizes Jesus’ victory over death through sin.
As well, the whole idea of radiance and glory is seen in Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Moses, as we heard earlier in our reading from Exodus, came down from the mountain, and his face was radiant with the glory of God. The chariot and horses which swept Elijah away glowed so fiercely that they appeared to be on fire. And Jesus himself – well, his face changed and his clothes became whiter than a flash of lightning. It was this transfiguration which so deeply affected Peter, James, and John, this mountain-top experience.
Think about the many times in your life you have been struggling to figure something out – whether it was a personal issue, or a mathematical problem. After working on it for hours – or even days – all of a sudden, a light goes on in your head, and the solution is clear to you. This kind of “a-ha” moment may not happen often, but it happens often enough for everyone to be aware of it. And we want to make this “a-ha” moment last, just as Peter did. He said, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters –one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But even while he is speaking, a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And in this cloud, this cloud which was thicker than any pea-soup fog we have ever seen, they heard a voice – the same voice which Moses heard, the same voice which Abraham heard – saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen: listen to him.” Then the moment is over. The cloud disappeared, and the disciples were alone on the mountain with Jesus. According to what we read in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, they were told not to speak of this to anyone – at least not until after Jesus had been crucified and had risen from the dead. But the experience they shared stayed with them, and shaped their witness as to who Christ was.
Many people have had similar experiences, experiences which are a special gift from God. Think about Moses, whose experience was related in today’s reading from Exodus. His meeting with God changed his appearance, so that all who saw him knew what had happened. Think about Elijah, who sought God in the wind and the fire and an earthquake, and was finally able to find him in the still, small voice, in the quiet. Think about Saul on the road to Damascus, who was changed into a completely different man, even with a different name, because of his experience. Think about John Wesley, who heard a preacher speak of God’s forgiveness, and – in his own words – felt his heart strangely warmed. Think of people whom you know who insist that they have felt God with them at different times, comforting them, or telling them what to do. These experiences, while rare, are not totally unknown.
Now, for many of us, this kind of experience is difficult to accept, because it is beyond our realm of understanding. I am reminded of a story that I heard years ago, about two hunters who decided to go duck hunting together. Only one of them had a dog, and he warned his friend that the dog was a bit unusual. Off they went, into the woods. After a few hours, one of them shot a duck, which fell into the lake. The dog walked over the water, picked up the duck in his mouth, and brought it back. The owner glanced at his friend, who didn’t say anything. This happened several times over the course of the day, and the friend made no comments. On the way home, the dog’s owner finally said, “Did you notice anything different about my dog?” “Yes, I did,” said the friend, but I didn’t like to comment.” “Didn’t like to comment?” asked the owner. “Well,” said the friend, “I just never met a hunting dog before now who didn’t know how to swim.” This was obviously a person who missed the point.
And how many people miss the point of the transfiguration? A person’s face starts to glow, and his clothes become so brilliantly white that they appear to be shining. What is happening here? Surely something which Peter, James, and John had never seen before. They had seen Jesus, but not as he now appeared to him. I think that the point of the transfiguration is to show a different way of looking at things. And that is a recurring theme in my sermons – that we need to look at things differently, in order to see what God wants us to see.
There was once a monastery which had been thriving, and was visited annually by thousands of pilgrims, but in later years, it fell into decline. Young monks were not joining, old monks were losing their enthusiasm, and pilgrims no longer came, as they found no spiritual renewal there. The abbot of the monastery was at his wit’s end, as he could see that, unless something was done, the monastery would have to close. Close to despair, he went into the woods, where there lived a holy hermit, to seek his advice. He arrived at the simple hut, and was warmly welcomed. After a meal, and a time of prayer, the abbot laid his cards on the table. He told the hermit just how desperate the situation was, and asked if he had any advice for them monks. The hermit replied, “I will tell you just one thing. I will not repeat it, and when you share it with others, you may only say it once. My teaching to you is this: the Messiah is among you.” The abbot returned to the monastery, and called the monks together. He told them his story, and concluded by saying, “After I tell you what the hermit told me, we are never to discuss this again. This is the teaching: One of us is the Messiah.” Now, this wasn’t exactly what the hermit said, but it caused a kind of reformation in the monastery. The abbots began to look at one another, wondering which of them was the Messiah. As they went about their daily lives, they treated each other differently, because, you never know! Brother John MIGHT be the Messiah. Or Bother André. Or the abbot himself. Word soon spread about this new sense of appreciation, this new respect for the other, and pilgrims came back. Young men came flocking, eager to be a part of this community. And it all happened because the monks were looking at each other with a newly awakened sense of worth.
This is how we are to look at each other – with a sense of each other’s worth. This is how we will achieve our own transfiguration. If you will remember, after the transfiguration, the mountain became covered in a fog, and the apostles had to return to their daily lives. But they were changed, changed forever. Mountain-top experiences, encounters on the road to Damascus – these cannot last forever. But we can bring enough of them with us to change our lives.
You have often heard me speak of C. S. Lewis, as both a theologian, and as the writer of some of the best children’s literature in the world. He understood these mountain-top experiences very well, and wrote about them in The Silver Chair, the fourth book in the Narnia series. In this particular book, a young girl named Jill is on top of a mountain, being given a task by Aslan. Aslan, you may remember, is the lion who is the Christ-figure in the series, the one who is willing to lay down his live to save the others. Jill would rather stay on the mountain, but Aslan is insistent that she leave. He says, “I give you a warning. Here on the mountain, I have spoken to you clearly. I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear, and your mind is clear. As you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the Signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the Signs, and believe the Signs. Nothing else matters.”
In our day-to-day life, we often do not see the signs clearly. We often do not hear the small, still voice. Even if we have had an a-ha moment, even if we have experienced God, we forget what it really felt like. Things are not as clear as they were. But what we need to remember is that God is with us. The messiah is among us. We may have to look a bit harder or listen more carefully, but we can see God all around us; we can hear God in the voices which speak to us. On this last Sunday before Lent, as we turn with Jesus towards Jerusalem, let us look for God. Let us listen for his voice. He is one of us. Thanks be to God.

February 7, 2010

When my children were teenagers, one of their favourite words was “awesome”, and they used it far too often, I thought! Their meal was “awesome”, someone’s prom dress was “awesome”; the new guy in class was “awesome.” I don’t know if they ever really thought about what this word means, and, if I had tried to explain it to them, I don’t think that they would have understood. But if you look at the reading from Isaiah for today, you will see the meaning of the word quite plainly. Let’s listen to Isaiah’s words describing God and the scene which the prophet saw in his vision.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces; with two they covered their feet; and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord almighty, the whole earth is full of his glory. At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
Now, if anything were going to provoke awe, it would be a scene like this. Picture the Lord seated on a throne – this points to the majesty of God. The seraphs, the angels with six wings, were so humbled in the presence of God that they covered their faces. They could not even look upon the face of God. The Hebrew word which Isaiah used when referring to God emphasized the idea of God’s power and authority. And when the angels spoke, they said Holy, Holy, Holy, which, in the Old Testament, gives the idea of something that is set apart, something that is divinely unique. If we put all these bits and pieces together, we get a picture of a God who is almighty, transcendent, and totally majestic. Now this, THIS, is something which is truly awesome.
And it is something which is a little different from the picture many people have of God today. Well, yes, we admit, that God is different from us. But he is like us, isn’t he? After all, were we not created in his image? But this reading tells that, somehow, he is radically different. He is awesome, in a way that we can never be. The three-times-repeated HOLY reinforces this difference, this awesomeness. There is the holy Father, whose father-like love for us exceeds what we can imagine or what we deserve. There is the holy Son, whose sacrificial love for us is something we humans cannot understand, and nor should we try to. And there is the holy Spirit, whose indwelling love for us surpasses anything that we can find on this earth, no matter how hard we try.
Then the seraphs tell the prophet that God’s glory fills the whole earth. The whole earth! It is no wonder that Isaiah was shaking in his boots. It is no wonder that he cried out, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord almighty!” To be in the presence of God, to see God – this was something which was unimaginable to the people of Isaiah’s time. But the seraphs responded by cleaning his lips with a live coal from the sacrificial altar. Through this, said the seraph, Isaiah’s guilt was taken away and his sin atoned for.
What was Isaiah’s reaction to this? Well, when the Lord looked for a messenger, he volunteered. And he became God’s messenger, bringing God’s message to the people. Now, I can only imagine how he must have felt, how eager he was to share what had happened to him with others. And I thought about the things that we are willing to share with others.
How many times have you read a good book, and you couldn’t wait to tell someone else about it? Or how many times have you been in a conversation with someone about a particular sporting event, and couldn’t wait to brag about how well your team is doing? I remember when Brad Gushue and his curling team from Newfoundland and Labrador won the gold medal at the Olympics a few years ago. That was all anyone could talk about for weeks. People were looking for some way to claim some kind of relationship – no matter how distant – with any of the team members. Often, I have heard people talking about the concept of six degrees of separation, and using it to show that they are connected with SOMEONE. Like, my cousin’s wife’s hairdresser went to the same school as the person who does Celine Dion’s hair. No matter how tenuous the relationship may be, people say things like this. And if people see a good movie, they are excited about it, and want to tell other people about it. For instance, the movie Avatar has started numerous conversations, and the word AWESOME was certainly used many times in discussing it. Now, how often have you been excited about knowing God? How many times have you claimed a relationship with God? How many times have you looked for some way to share this relationship with others?
Look again at the two questions which God asked Isaiah. God said, “Whom shall I send? Who shall go for us?” He was asking Isaiah – and us – Who will speak my word and teach my people? Who will bring my good news to the nations? Who will bring comfort to the sorrowing and afflicted? Who will proclaim my righteousness and tell my people that I have saved them? These are good questions, and now we will dig even deeper, Who will speak God’s word and teach God’s people, if it is not us? Who will point the way to God, on God’s behalf, if it is not us? Who will heal the wounded, and help the broken-hearted, and visit the prisoners, if it is not us? Who will be the fishers of people, if it is not us?
Let’s move to today’s Gospel reading, to hear the call to the first apostles. At the beginning of the reading, Jesus is speaking to the crowds, and they are pressing in around him. I was trying to picture it, Jesus standing by the edge of the water, and the crowds of people coming ever closer. I wonder if maybe he was feeling a bit overwhelmed, and that is why he got into Simon’s boat. Remember, this was in the days before wireless microphones, so he must have had a pretty powerful voice, in order to be heard by those on shore. After he finished preaching, he turned to Simon, and told him to go into deeper water, and put down his nets for a catch. He didn’t suggest this, or ask him if he thought he should do it, but made it a direction, almost a command. You have to wonder how Simon must have felt. After all, HE was the fisherman – this Jesus person was a carpenter. What would he know about fishing? So Simon didn’t exactly argue, but he did say, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
Now, of course, Jesus knew that there had been no fish caught the night before. If there had been, the fishermen would have been busy unloading their catch, and preparing it for market. And we know what happened. They caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink. Simon Peter fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord, I am a sinful man!” Isn’t this very similar to what Isaiah said? “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord almighty!” Both Simon and Isaiah recognized their unworthiness, but this did not stop them from serving God, from dong God’s will.
But how often are we as willing to share the Good News of the Gospel with people? How hard do we try to share with others our relationship with God, no matter how distant? Now, I’m not saying that we need to run from this church and go door-to-door, in an attempt to share this, even though that is what Isaiah did. I think that most of us would be pretty uncomfortable doing this. But there are other ways in which we can be God’s messengers, in which we can share God with others.
Let’s take a look at some of the perhaps surprising ways in which we can respond as did Isaiah and Peter. I want you to think about the times you go to a restaurant, and have a great time. The service is quick and efficient, and the food is prepared the way you like it. Of course, you will recommend it to other people, and try to get back there whenever you can. But what if the service is slow, the waiter gets your order wrong, and when you finally get the food, it is, at best, lack-lustre? You will, no doubt, tell other people about your bad experience, in the hopes that they will not go to the same place and be similarly disappointed. And it is unlikely that you will return to that place looking for a meal. When visitors come to our church, we have only one opportunity to make them feel welcome; we have only one opportunity to make them want to come back. This is how we evangelize; this is how we share the Good News – over a coffee in the Kirk Hall. It might not seem as earth-shaking as what Isaiah and the apostles did, but it is what we do, and I have been told that we are pretty good at it. I saw it in action last week, at Isabel’s party, when people shared memories and fellowship to honour a pillar of this church.
All that being said, I think that the reading from Luke’s Gospel is about more than that – about more than getting people to come to church. The idea of getting people to come to church, the idea of going out and bringing them to the pews, is uncomfortable for many. Proselytizing is not something many people are comfortable doing. When we think of it, many of us think about the old-time revival meetings, where people are invited to come to the altar to make a commitment to Jesus. Most of us main-line Christians shy away from such emotion, feeling rather uncomfortable with such public displays of faith. And with good reason. People who are caught up in the emotion of the moment are like the seeds that are planted in shallow soil. They grow rapidly for a while, but because they have no roots, they wither and die. The roots are the things we need, and we get these over time, when we reach deeper into our faith. You will have noticed that Jesus told Simon to put out into DEEPER water, and I think that this is what he is telling us to do. He wants us to go deeper into ourselves, not to be content with the superficial. He wants us to have a deeper relationship with God, a relationship that is not confined to an hour or so on a Sunday morning.
Like Isaiah, we may well react with fear at first. We may, like Simon, think that we know more about how our lives operate than Jesus does. But God knows better. Maybe we don’t want to look deep inside, being fearful of what we might find there. But Jesus tells us not to be afraid, that he will be with us while we look for what he knows is there. Maybe we have been searching already, with no luck, and this is what we tell Jesus. Does this sound familiar? “We tried that once, and it didn’t work. So we won’t try it again.” Jesus would reject this completely, as he did with Simon. And when Simon went into deeper water, when he listened to what Jesus said, then his nets were filled to the point of breaking. And that can happen to us. Jesus will fill our souls so full that we won’t know what to do with it all.
Most of us spend our lives in the shallow waters, where it is safe. And, if we are lucky, we will get enough to keep us going. But we will never get everything which God has for us if we are not willing to take risks, if we are not willing to venture into the deep waters. It is when we venture into the deep waters that we will find the abundance in the same way that Simon found it in the Lake of Gennesaret. But the abundance we will find is so much more than that which Simon found. It is the abundance of God’s love which will fill our hearts and our lives. This is the spiritual reality which transforms us, and which we will share. On this PWS&D Sunday, we are meant to think about sharing material things with others, and this sharing will lead to a generous spirit. The vision of global peace and deep joy continues to inspire those who work with PWS&D, and to inspire those of us who give, whether materially or in other ways.
Just think back to what I said earlier about wanting to share good things with people. Telling people about a book you enjoyed, or a movie which impressed you, letting people know that you have a connection with a famous person – these are things you do now. And you become passionate about these things. By exploring your relationship with God, by looking deeper into it, you will become passionate about it, too. As Christians, we already have a relationship with God. As Christians, we look forward to a new life, but we don’t need to wait until the resurrection to enjoy it. We can enjoy it right here, right now. As Christians, we will be so empowered by God’s love for us, that others will be able to see it in what we do and in what we say.
Next Sunday, we will see two of our young people confirmed in this church. This means that they have accepted their role as Christians. With Isaiah, they will say, “Here I am! Send me!” With Simon, they will do as Jesus tells them, because they have recognized him as the master, as the Son of God. My prayer for them, and for all who have acknowledged the place of God in their lives, is that others will see how God has touched us. And, more than that, that they will continue to be touched by God throughout their entire lives.

January 31, 2010

When I chose my sermon title today, I knew that I would owe a thank you to Joe DiPietro, who wrote the lyrics for this long-running musical comedy. It seemed to fit exactly what I wanted to say, and some of what Paul had to say as well. Remember that, in this letter to the Corinthians, Paul was writing to people who were in conflict. The Christians in Corinth were not getting along in the way that they should have been, and we have heard Paul telling them so in no uncertain terms for the past couple of weeks. At one point, Paul even said, I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. Pretty harsh words – it almost sounds as though as Paul is ready to give up on them.
But of course, we know that he didn’t. And why? It was because he loved them. Indeed, it is only because we love people that we sometimes say harsh things to them. We might say, as Paul did, that we want to show someone a more excellent way.
As we have learned in the past couple of Sundays, there were many wonderful people in Corinth. There were teachers, healers, and prophets. There were people who were wise, and people who could cast out demons. There were people who spoke in tongues, and people who could interpret what was said. You would think, wouldn’t you?, that they had everything a church could want? But they didn’t. Paul wrote them again and again, counseling them, telling them what they needed to do. And in today’s reading, we heard the most important advice.
Now, this particular passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is one which many people know very well. It is often used as part of a wedding service, and because of this familiarity, people often don’t really listen to the words. So I want to read this once more, and this time, pay close attention to the words. Don’t just let them drift over your heads as they have done so many times before. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
It is easy to see why so many people want these words read at their weddings. They seem to be ideal. But sadly, in this 21st century, we see that love often fails. With divorce statistics on the rise, we could be forgiven if we wondered why people even want these words used. But let’s have a closer look at what Paul says.
In order to do this, we have to look at the Greek text. In Scripture, there are three distinct Greek words used for love. The first iseros, which is erotic love, and which is an important part of the love between a husband and wife. Then there is the word phileo, meaning the love felt by brothers and sisters for each other. From this, we got the name of the city of brotherly love – Philadelphia. It also means a love between friends, which we know to be very important. But the word used by Paul in this text is agape, the love felt by God for us. This is a self-giving love, a love which protects, trusts, hopes and perseveres. This is the more excellent way which Paul promised to show the Corinthians, and which he is now showing us.
Of course, Paul is also known for his rhetoric, and one technique of getting people’s attention is hyperbole, or exaggeration, which Paul uses to great effect in this passage. He says that if you can fathom all mysteries and if you have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, then you are nothing. If you give away everything you own, and even sacrifice your own life, but do this without love, then you gain nothing. So we need to figure out the difference between this agape love, this love of God for us, and the other kinds of love, the love that so often ends in disaster.
Think about the different kinds of love you have known in your life. When my son was about three years old, every time we went to my mother’s house to visit, he would tell her over and over again how much he loved her. He liked nothing better than to climb into her lap, and hug her tightly, as though he were clinging to a life-line. Of course, the fact that she always had his favourite cookies close at hand may have had something to do with that. But that is love for a three-year-old.
Then a few years later, he announced that he was no longer going to kiss people good night, as he was too old for this. Nope, now he was going to express his love through a manly hand-shake. That didn’t last too long, thank goodness, but for a while, that was how he expressed love.
Now look back to a time when all of your friends were the same gender, when you wanted nothing to do with the opposite sex. Was that not also love? Even though you would never have used the word at the time, that was what you and they were feeling for each other. If you are lucky, some of these relationship have continued through adolescence and into adulthood.
Then comes first love, and we can all remember that. The feeling that this is it, that there will never be anyone else who can make you so happy, there will never be anyone else who can meet all your needs in such a perfect way. If I remember, this first love is usually short-lived, lasting until someone else comes along who catches your eye. But this is the kind of love that songs are written about, the kind of love that can cause hearts to be broken.
Eventually, if you are lucky, you really do find what we call true love, and this leads to a wedding. Then it all starts over again. We think that maybe, just maybe, everything will be perfect. If we are familiar with agape love, we think that this is it. We just know that we will do anything to make our partner happy, and we know that our partner will do anything to make us happy. And that brings me back to the opening of my sermon and the title. I love you, you’re perfect, now change. The mistake, I think, is the word “perfect”. We are not perfect. None of us can ever be perfect, and it is in looking for perfection that we will find disappointment. When we don’t find perfection, when we realize that our perfect mate has feet of clay, then we feel let down. Then we feel as though we have been cheated. The funny thing is that we don’t realize that we also have feet of clay.
Now just look at the love we have for another – this love starts with us and goes out from us, so it is colored by our own expectations, by our own beliefs. And, unfortunately, unlike God’s love for us, it usually goes out with a condition. We say, “I love you,” but we mean, “I love you the way you are now.” That is to say, “Don’t change, because if you do, I may not love you any more.” We say, “I love you”, but we mean, “I love you the way I think you are,” and when we find out that our vision is faulty, then we don’t love the person any more. We say, “I love you,” but we mean, “I love the person I think you can become, and I will help you change into that person.” Well, guess what? That change won’t happen. Luckily, God doesn’t put conditions on his love for us, or we would be in a sorry state indeed! God’s love for us is unconditional, and never-ending. God doesn’t ask us to change; he just asks us to love him.
And Paul is asking us to feel this same kind of love for others, this love that allows us to see others as God sees them. We have heard the characteristics of love. Now let’s try to apply them to ourselves. And be honest! I won’t be checking, and I won’t give you my answers, but let’s just think about it. Am I patient? Really? All the time? Am I kind? Am I not envious? Not boastful? Not proud? Not rude? Do I keep a record of wrongs? Now, think again – what would your spouse say in response to these questions about you? What would your friends say? I wonder if the answers would be the same? I know that I lose patience frequently. If I am busy and the phone rings, I would just as soon toss it through the window as answer it. The old trick of counting to ten sometimes helps, but at other times, I probably need to count to 100. Much as I try to be perfect, much as I try to feel love all the time, there are times when I am not perfect; there are times when the last thing I feel is love. I know this is hard to believe – that your minister is not perfect! I know this is hard to believe – that your minister does not love everybody all of the time! But there it is. I am not perfect. I do not love everybody all of the time.
But you know, when I feel like this, I think of one of the songs we sang in my high school choir – Whenever I Feel Afraid – which says that I can pretend to feel something even if I don’t. The point of the song is that, after a while of PRETENDING not to be afraid, we actually overcome fear. So does this mean that, after a while of pretending to be patient, I will actually become patient? Does it mean that if I pretend to love someone, I will actually find something lovable in that person? I think it does, and I think that this is one of the things Paul wanted to happen in Corinth. He wanted them to love each other, but in a special way. He knew how difficult this kind of love – this agape love – was to achieve, but he told them that it was necessary, if they wanted to be the kind of people God wanted them to be.
For us, in the 21st century, this means several things. If you don’t feel like being kind to someone – for whatever reason – be kind anyway. Say something nice to or about that person. You might be amazed at the results. If you are on a committee, and you just KNOW that your plan is the best one, but someone else’s plan is chosen, what should you do? Well, if you are going to listen to Paul, you will let your plan fall by the wayside, and do your best to make the other plan work. But we have to do it with love, or it is less than nothing. We have to do everything with love, or it is useless. However, being human, we find this kind of selfless love the most difficult. And this is the kind we need to work on. There is one way we can achieve this kind of love, and that is to start with God.
Richard Foster, a Quaker, who is also one of the leading contemporary writers and speakers on Christian spirituality, wrote: Today the heart of God is an open wound of love. He aches over our distance and preoccupation. He mourns that we do not draw near to him. He grieves that we have forgotten him. He weeps over our obsession with muchness and manyness. He longs for our presence. And he is inviting you, and me, to come home, to come home to where we belong. His arms are stretched out wide to receive us. His heart is enlarged to take us in, for too long we have been in a far country; a country of noise and hurry and crowds, a country of climb and push and shove, a country of frustration and fear and intimidation. And He welcomes us home.
And I ask you, isn’t that what we all want? To be home? To be where someone loves us best of all? For without love, we might as well be with Max, the little boy in the book and movie Where the Wild Things Are. Without love, we are a part of all the noise and hurry and crowds; we are the people who push and shove. Without love, it is no wonder that we are frustrated and afraid or intimidated. With love, however, with love, we will be home, home where we are safe, home where we are loved.
How often have we wished for someone else to change? If only my husband would change, then I would be happy. If only my neighbours would change, then I would not feel so alone. If only my co-workers were not so competitive, then my job would be more fun. If only my boss were not so demanding, then I would not live in fear of losing my job. As I said earlier, these people are not going to change. These conditions are not going to change, so it is no good asking for it. The only thing you can change is yourself. The only thing you have any control over at all is your own behaviour, and your own reaction to the behaviour of other people. With God’s help, you can change. With God’s help, your reactions to other people can change. If we listen to Paul, we will know how God wants us to change. We will know all of the things that God wants to do and to be. And the thing he wants us to do most of all is to love.
Most of us have spent our lives asking God for things, and most of us have been disappointed. But when we listen to God’s answers, when we figure out what his answers mean, then the disappointment will go away. Then we will know that we have found the more excellent way. A friend sent me this a few days ago, and I thought that it would be appropriate to use here.
“I asked God for strength, that I might achieve; I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey. I asked for health, that I might do greater things; I was given infirmity, that I might do better things. I asked for riches, that I might be happy; I was given poverty, that I might be wise. I asked for power, that I might have praise; I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God. I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life; I was given life that I might enjoy all things. I got nothing that I asked for — but everything that I had hoped for.”
And what do we hope for, if it is not love? My friends, if we do not have love, we have nothing, we are nothing. If we have love, then we have everything that we need. Thanks be to God.