Archive for June, 2010

June 13th, 2010 – 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

While I was studying at Presbyterian College, one of the courses we were required to take was Homiletics, which involved learning how to write sermons. Now, you would think that this would have been really interesting, and some parts of it were. However, our professor, who shall remain nameless, had his own method of teaching, and most of us really didn’t like some of what he did. One thing he did was to choose a text, and have each one of us prepare a sermon using the same text, and then we had to spend the next twelve weeks refining the sermon, rewriting it when he thought it was necessary, until we all arrived at the same theme. What text was it? It was our Gospel reading for today – Luke 7: 36 – 8: 3. By the time we reached the end of the twelve weeks, nobody in the class wanted to hear about this text ever again, and I think that most of had decided that, when it came up in the lectionary, we would avoid it, if at all possible. So when I saw that this was the text for today, I just knew that I wasn’t going to use it as the basis for my sermon. But, at the week went on, I found myself being drawn more and more to it, because, really, when you think about it, there is an awful lot of material contained in this reading. And, even though I will be preaching on the same text that we used in class, I don’t think that this sermon will bear much resemblance to anything I presented at that time.
So let’s have a look at the story. All of the elements of a good story are contained in this reading. We have characters – Jesus, of course, the sinful woman, and Simon, the Pharisee. In Matthew’s version, it is Simon the Leper who invites Jesus to his house. The woman pours the oil on Jesus’ head, and the disciples become upset at the waste. Mark’s version is almost identical to Matthew’s, which is not surprising, since it is often thought that Matthew borrowed heavily from Mark in the first place. John’s Gospel tells us that the event happened in Bethany, at the home of Lazarus, and that it was Lazarus’ sister, Mary who anointed Jesus. This was the one which was read here just before Easter, as one of our regular Scripture readings, so if it sounds familiar to you, that is why. In John’s version of the story, Mary poured the nard on Jesus’ feet, rather than his head, and it was Judas, specifically, who became upset at the waste. But the author of the Gospel points out that Judas was upset because he was the one in charge of the money, and he used to help himself to the money bag whenever he needed it. So we may be forgiven for questioning his motives.
However, we are only concerned with Luke’s version today, so let’s look a bit more closely at it. There are a couple of things that we know for sure. We know that the woman had lived a sinful life, and that she had not been invited to the dinner. However, she showed up, and she did the unthinkable. She went right up to Jesus, and cried so much that she was able to wash his feet with her tears. Then she dried them with her hair, kissed them, and poured perfume over them. Well, it is no wonder that Simon was a bit upset. Here he was, a Pharisee, one of the religious leaders of the time, and he had invited Jesus to dine with him. Maybe he was hoping to trick Jesus into something, as the Pharisees were known for doing. But maybe he was hoping to enter into some kind of serious dialogue with Jesus, to try to find out what this wandering teacher and healer was all about. We don’t know what prompted the dinner invitation, but we do know that having it disrupted by a sinful woman was certainly not on his list of things that must happen that evening.
He didn’t say anything out loud, but he thought to himself: If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him, and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner. Of course, Jesus did know this, but he also knew what Simon was thinking. Now, I don’t think that we are meant to believe that Jesus was reading Simon’s mind, but rather that he could tell by the look on Simon’s face what he felt about the whole event. You know how you can look at someone’s face, and you just know what they are thinking? Well, I think that Jesus was quite good at doing just this. But instead of confronting Simon, which would have proved nothing, he decided to tell a parable – one with a little sting in it. He said: Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Then Jesus asked: Now which of them will love him more. Simon replied, correctly: I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.
Since Simon was a Pharisee, he would have considered himself a good man, one who did little which needed to be forgiven. But the woman – well, she was sinful, and probably did a lot which required forgiveness. So this was a shot at Simon and all the Pharisees. Then, just to point out to Simon the mistakes he had made, Jesus changed tactics, and began to speak about hospitality. Now, in those days, the first thing a good host should have done was to have offered water so that the guest could wash his feet. Remember, this was in ancient Galilee, where sandals were the usual footwear, and the roads were not paved. So people’s feet got pretty dirty. Simon had failed in this first basic law of hospitality. It was also pretty hot in Galilee much of the time, and soothing oil was commonly poured on a visitor’s head to cool him down. Simon had also failed to do this, and Jesus rebuked him for both omissions.
So here we have seen four things that this reading is about. First, it is about people like the sinful woman who need forgiveness, and who know that they need it. It is also about people like the Pharisee who need forgiveness, and don’t think that they need it. Then it is about people – again like the woman – who receive forgiveness and are grateful for it. And finally, it is about people like Simon the Pharisee who have no clue what is happening right in front of them. People who listen but do not hear. People who think that none of this applies to them. People think that, just because they are religious, just because they go through the motions, they are doing what God expects them to do.
It is these people, these people who don’t think that they need forgiveness, who are the furthest from God, even though they believe themselves to be the closest. Simon the Pharisee believed that he had every right to criticize the woman, and he saw himself as a righteous man. And he probably was, in that he obeyed the letter of the law. I’d be willing to bet that he regularly went to the synagogue to pray, and that he observed all of the Jewish Festivals and holy days. But this did not make him a “good man”. If we look at some of the people who are recognized as GOOD, people who will be remembered as HOLY, we never hear of them proclaiming themselves to be sinless, or blameless. St. Paul himself called himself “the greatest of sinners”. Martin Luther spent hours trying to atone for what he saw as his sinfulness. Francis of Assisi once said, “Nowhere is there a more wretched and miserable sinner than I.” And Mother Theresa, who gave her life helping the poorest of the poor in India, said, “The more I serve God, the more aware I am that I fall short.”
These people recognized that they needed forgiveness, but Simon the Pharisee didn’t. These people knew that they could not be saved by anything that they could do, but only through Jesus Christ. But Simon the Pharisee didn’t. He thought that, simply because he was a Pharisee, simply because he could quote chapter and verse of the Law, simply because he could identify other people as sinners – then he was not a sinner himself.
We know that we need forgiveness. Every week, during worship, we make our confession. Every week, during worship, we are assured that we are forgiven. But, in order to be forgiven, we must first admit that we need forgiveness. There are many people like Simon, people who need forgiveness, but who are focused instead on the sins of others. It is easy to see when other people are not living the way we are meant to, but not so easy to see it in ourselves. Remember that Jesus once said, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” And this is what Simon did. He was quick to condemn the sinful woman, and yet didn’t recognize that he was – in many ways – an even greater sinner. I receive devotional readings from various sources, and one which I received recently contains a sentence which seems to fit right here. Today I will find the grace to let go of resentments of others and self-condemnation over past mistakes. Today I will not try to change, or improve, anybody but me. I think that Simon the Pharisee would have benefited from reading this.
Too often, we are like Simon. We strive to live correctly. We try to follow the law – both the law of God and the law of man. But in our efforts to live correctly, we forget to live generously. We believe that our individual acts can somehow make us into the people God wants us to be. We forget that it is our faith in God that brings us to salvation. It is not our good works, even though they don’t hurt. It is not our obedience to the law that makes us members of the family of God. If we look at the reading again, we will see that it was not WHAT the woman did that brought her forgiveness, but the fact that she KNEW that she needed it.
And you? How do you welcome Jesus into your lives? Are you like Simon – inviting him to come to you, and then telling him how good you are? Or are you like the woman, like one who knows that you need forgiveness? And that is the key to this story. Jesus said to Simon, “Her many sins have been forgiven – for she has loved much.” She has loved much. That is what we are called to do – to love. To love all those imperfect people, those people who are just like ourselves. Love your spouse; love your children; love your in-laws; love your friends. When you love them when you truly love them, then you will not see their faults. You will lose that arrogance that allows to magnify the faults of others and to minimize our own.
My mother used to say, “If you can’t say something nice about someone, then don’t say anything at all.” Well, a few years ago, I heard a story about someone else who must have been raised by my mother, because she could always find something nice to say about others – no matter what they were like. It seems that one day, she got onto a city bus, and sat quietly near the back. At the next stop, a man got on, and he was obviously intoxicated. He staggered and lurched down the aisle, looking for a place to sit, but people turned away from him. Finally, he reached the back of the bus, where he sat next to the woman. Then she realized that, not only was he drunk, he smelled as though he hadn’t had a shower for quite some time. He leaned over towards her, and offered her the brown paper bag he was carrying, saying, “Hey, lady, would ya like a drink?” What on earth could she say that was nice about this person? She thought for minute, then looked at him, and said, “Sir, I see that you are a very generous person.”
Now, this is something like what Jesus would have said about the sinful woman. Generous she certainly was, with her tears, with the oil, with her love. Simon didn’t see this. All he saw was her sinfulness, and he couldn’t get beyond that. Jesus saw her sinfulness, but he got far beyond it. He got to her heart. And he can get to your heart, if you let him. Thanks be to God.

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June 11th – Anniversary Service

250 years ago, some brave souls decided that they need to have an official Presbyterian presence in this country. It took them another 50 years before they were able to have their own building. During the time between, they rented space in various places, but eventually, they were able to build their own sacred space, their place to worship, and it has been here ever since, standing as a monument to the importance of a settled faith community in their lives. There have been many changes since that day in 1710, but the basic premise remains the same. This building is still the place where Presbyterians come to worship – not as many as in the old days, or even in the days of less than a century ago – but still a place that we call home, a place where we find comfort and community.
Both of our readings today can be applied to this sanctuary. We will start by looking at the Old Testament, the reading in which Solomon dedicates the temple. Solomon was the king, but he was not a priest. He was a lay person. And the fact that it was Solomon who dedicated the temple shows us how important lay people were at that time. This is no less true today, in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Each church has a minister – a teaching elder. But we also have a session, the people who are the ruling elders of each congregation. The session may be larger or smaller, but they are the people who govern the church. In fact, we have even had lay people as the moderators of our General Assembly. We have a Board of Managers, people who are responsible for a lot of the physical demands of owning a church building. They are the people who worry about the money, and who make recommendations to the session and congregation on the spending and saving of assets. We have readers who take part in worship every week; we have people who greet you when you come in and who give you a copy of the order of service; we have people who receive the offering each week; we have people who prepare the coffee for our social time; we have people who organize flowers; we have people who teach Sunday School; and the list goes on. And without these people, the church would be just a building – a very attractive building, but still just a building. As you will hear in our closing hymn today, the church IS the people.
What, then, is the point of having a building? Could not people just pray at home, without worrying about getting here every Sunday? Surely there are times when you would rather sleep in, or go out of town for the weekend. But you get yourselves here most Sundays, and I hope that most Sundays you find the trek worthwhile. Let’s go back to Solomon for a minute. We read: The Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in front of the whole assembly of Israel. He didn’t stand in his living room, or out in a field to be closer to nature. He stood before the altar of God. And the people of Israel stood there with him. Not for them the comment that “I am spiritual but not religious.” You would not have heard the Israelites say, “I find that I am closer to God when I am alone with nature than when I am in church.” Nor would they have said, “There are so many hypocrites in the church that I really don’t want to go.” No. They knew the importance of community. They knew that it was essential that they worship together. After Solomon had finished his prayer, there were many sacrifices. And this was important for the people of that time and place. No self-respecting Israelite would have prayed without offering a sacrifice. For us, Jesus Christ was the ultimate sacrifice, and we no longer have to do this, but we still have to present ourselves to God through Jesus. And that is the point of having a building. It gives us a place to come to, as a community. It gives us a place to worship God together, as a community. In Living Faith, we read: The church lives to praise God. We have no higher calling than to offer the worship that belongs to God day by day, Sunday by Sunday. We are told that worship draws us into the work of Christ, and could there be any higher calling than that for each one of us? Whatever role we play in this church, in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Québec City, we are united with Christ because of our commitment to this building.
And now that we have come to the building, let’s take a look at the reading from Matthew, which most people are familiar with. There is a children’s hymn about the wise man who built his house upon a rock, and how the house withstood all the storms that nature could hurl at it. Now, in this story, which comes at the end of what we know as The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is talking about two men and two houses. We really don’t know a lot about either the builders or the houses they built. They both could have been experts, and they could have used the same house plans. In fact, the houses could have been identical. Let’s transfer this to us, because that is what Jesus meant people to do with his parables. Let’s look at two people who call themselves Christians. They follow the same plans, in that they both attend church – more or less regularly. They hear the same sermons, and they may even go to the same Bible studies. But the thing Jesus wants to draw our attention to is the difference between them. Going back to the parable, we can readily see the difference between the two houses. One was built on a rock, and the other was built on sand. And when the rains came, so that the streams rose, and the winds blew, the house that was built on sand fell down with a great crash. Well, that certainly shows the importance of a solid foundation.
Let’s go back to our two Christians, who seem to be the same. But one has a good foundation, and the other doesn’t. How did this happen? Well, many people are Christians by default. They were baptized as babies, and just continued the tradition as they grew up. But they never really built their life on the foundation of Jesus Christ. They never really thought that it was necessary. They probably aren’t bad people, but they do not have a good foundation. And when the storms of life crash against them, what happens?
Just think about all those people who have built houses in earthquake zones in California. They are usually expensive homes, and they look great. But every year, houses in these places are destroyed when nature decides that it is time for another seismic shock. As Christians, we need to be sure that Jesus is our foundation. We need to be sure that we are not led to the wrong foundation. And there are plenty of wrong foundations out there; there are plenty of false gods, just waiting for us. There is the god of pleasure whose motto is: If it feels good, do it. There is the god of riches, who leads us to believe that, as long as we have enough – or more than enough – money, all will be well. Most of us can see through these false gods, but how about this one? How about the god of good deeds? People who follow this god think that, if they do good things, so that other people praise them, then God must be pleased with them, too. This one is a little harder to recognize, and that is what makes him dangerous.
Our forefathers and foremothers knew this, and they knew that one of the best ways to avoid being caught in the trap of false gods was to establish a faith community. That is why this church was built, and that is why we continue to worship here. In order to have a firm foundation, we need to be exposed to the truth. We do this by coming to church, and by reading Scripture regularly. We also need to listen to the word of God. It is not enough just to hear it. This is one of the reasons the Presbyterian Church insists on well-educated ministers, ministers who have studied God’s word, and who are able to interpret it. But it is not enough just to let the minister expound on the word of God. It is also important that you interact with it yourself, and that you ask questions when you read it. This can happen in a Bible Study, or after Sunday worship, or at just about any time during the week.
The people who built this church knew this. They knew the importance of having a place where they could come to worship. They knew the importance of a faith community, just as did the Israelites of Solomon’s time. And so do we. This is why we are celebrating this weekend. That is why we believe it is important to recognize that, even though the church IS the people, the building itself is important. Solomon recognized this, and, even though he was the king of the nation, called himself God’s servant. Solomon knew that the people needed to come together to keep their faith alive, and the early Presbyterians here knew the same thing.
As Presbyterians, we consider ourselves to be always reformed, and ever reforming, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And where do we find this guidance? In Scripture, and also in worship. It is in worship that most people hear the words of God; it is through worship that most people become familiar with Scripture. People who take part in worship as readers here often comment that it was through reading Scripture out loud that they gained a new insight into the words.
The cornerstone for this building was laid 200 years ago. The fact that the building is still standing is a testimony to the builders of the day, who laid a good foundation. The cornerstone for your faith was laid over 2000 years ago. The fact that it is still around shows that Jesus laid a good foundation. If you remember, one of the things he said was: You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church. The church is still being built, but because the foundation is solid, it will withstand any trials thrown at it. Always reformed, ever reforming – because there was a good foundation, the church can do this. Because there was a good foundation, the church is able to change to meet the demands of changing times. And your own faith? If Jesus is the cornerstone, if Jesus is the foundation, then it will survive and grow. This means that St. Andrew’s will survive and grow, so that in 40 years, we will be celebrating our 300th anniversary as a congregation. We will still trace our roots back to Scotland, and further, to Galilee. Because we do this, we know that we cannot just look to today. We have to look to the future, so that this congregation will still be worshipping on this spot, decades from now. The wise man built his house upon a rock, so that it would survive. We have built our church on the rock that is Jesus Christ, and, as long as we remember this, we will survive and grow. Thanks be to God.

June 6th, 2010 – 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

I want to start my sermon today by talking a bit about death. Well, not so much death, but about funerals. I have done a bit of research into funerals at different times, and customs vary according to the time, place, and culture of the people involved. One of the most amazing kinds of funerals I have read about is a New Orleans jazz funeral. As you probably know, a jazz band consists of mostly brass instruments, and when someone wants a jazz funeral, a band is hired for the occasion. Of course, funerals are solemn occasions, and in this country, when the procession is going to the cemetery, all is usually very quiet. But this is not the case at a jazz funeral. There would be solemn hymns, such as Amazing Grace, or Just a Closer Walk with Thee, and there would be none of the frills commonly associated with jazz – just the sombre music, as would be appropriate for such an occasion. But after the burial – well, then there is a change. The band would burst into praise songs, such as When the Saints Go Marching in, and the mood would shift to one of celebration – a celebration of someone’s life, rather than a mourning of a death.
I was privileged to take part in a funeral a few years ago that was also a celebration. The person who had died was well known in Montreal’s artistic community, and each of his children became some kind of professional entertainer. One was an actress, one a singer, and one a musician. All of them brought their friends to the funeral, and this meant that we had an amazing choir plus a band to pay tribute to the girls’ father. Even though there was a sense of loss, there was also a tremendous sense of joy. The hymns which were chosen were hymns of praise, hymns of gratitude. All of the people who spoke during the service were able to share some story about how Jerry had influenced what they eventually became.
But not all funerals are celebrations. Some funerals are times of deep sadness, and the one in today’s reading from Luke was one of these. Of course, we know how it ends. We know that Jesus raises the widow’s son from the dead, but that is not really what concerns me right now. What I am thinking about is the beginning of the story. We heard: As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out – the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. Now, to us, in the 21st century, that is sad, but to the people of Jesus’ time, it would have been much more. In fact, the mother of the young man might as well have been buried with her son. As a widow, the only source of income she would have had would have been what her son could give her. Her son would have been responsible for supporting her, and, if he had married, she would have lived with him and his family until her own death. But now, she had no son. Now, she had no way of supporting herself. And, even though the crowd was accompanying her to her son’s burial, they would soon leave her, and she would have no one. Traditionally, the whole community was responsible for supporting women such as this widow. But all she was entitled to was what was left after the harvest. After the crops had been taken in, then she could go into the field and pick up the scraps that were left.
But when Jesus saw what had happened, we read: His heart went out to her, and he said, “Don’t cry.” Jesus knew that it was more than grief that was motivating her tears. He knew that she could see her own bleak future, and that was why his heart went out to her. If you remember, when he was dying on the cross, he took care of his own mother, when he said to John, “Behold your mother.” He made sure that his mother, who was also a widow, would not be left with no one to care for her. Yes, Jesus knew the fate that was in store for a widow whose only son had died, and he knew that he could fix this. Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up.”
In this scene, Jesus violated two laws. First of all, he touched the coffin. According to Jewish law, this would have rendered him unclean, as only certain people were permitted to touch a dead person or the coffin. He didn’t need to touch the coffin in order to raise the young man, but he did. In doing this, he was proclaiming that the old laws did not apply any more, that he had brought a new law. Secondly, he violated a law of nature. What is dead stays dead. But not when Jesus comes along and intervenes. Then even the laws of nature are circumvented, and the young man sat up and began to talk.
Can you imagine the reaction of the crowd? Here they were, mourning the death of a young man. Not only that, they all knew what fate was in store for his mother, and all of a sudden, Jesus comes along and death is no more. The young man gets up, and begins to talk.
In our translation, we are told that the crowd was filled with awe, but the word “phobus” actually is also often translated as “fear”, and I would think that this would be a more accurate reflection of the crowd’s reaction. Here was a man, who had been dead, but who is now alive. I think that a bit of fear would be something to be expected. They do praise God, and they spread the word about what Jesus had done, but they are still afraid. And the young man and his mother? What do they say? Nowhere is it recorded that anyone thanked Jesus. Indeed, the young man sat up and began to talk, but we don’t know what he said. I think that, if he had thanked Jesus, it would have been recorded somewhere, and it isn’t. Remember the story of the ten lepers whom Jesus cured? Only one of them came back to give thanks, but the author of the Gospel recorded this fact. And there is no mention of thanks in today’s reading.
But maybe this reading is not about gratitude.
Also, there is no mention that the mother asked Jesus to raise her son. Much of the time, in the Gospels, Jesus’ miracles are requested by someone. At the wedding feast at Cana, his mother asked him to fix things. Lepers and blind people begged Jesus to heal him. The woman who was bleeding knew that, if she only touched the hem of his robe, she would be healed. And just before today’s story, we can read about the centurion who said to Jesus: Just say the word and my servant will be healed. All of these people had faith that Jesus would be able to cure them. But this mother, as far as we know, didn’t even ask. Jesus just happened to be nearby, and he was so moved that he raised the young man without being asked.
So this reading is not about faith, either.
I believe that this reading is about grace, about the gift that Jesus gives us, without our even asking. Jesus didn’t raise the son because of the mother’s faith. He didn’t raise the son because he wanted gratitude. He raised the son because he felt compassion for the mother. His heart went out to her. And his heart goes out to us. Every single day, his heart goes out to us. As far as grace is concerned, we don’t do anything to deserve it. We don’t have to. All we have to do is accept it. We don’t have to have the faith that the centurion had, or the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ robe. All we have to do accept the gift that Jesus gives us.
And I am sure that the young man and his mother accepted the gift they were given. But I have wondered what happened to them afterwards. That is one of the problems I sometimes have with Scripture. We hear part of the story, but not what happens afterwards. Even in fairy tales, we are told that they lived happily ever after, but we seldom know what happens afterwards when we read about an event in the Bible. I would imagine that there were some changes, though. When I hear about people who have narrowly escaped death, I often hear about how their lives were changed by their experience, and that is where I want to go next.
Both of our readings today are concerned with change. And, in some sense, they are also concerned with death. I spoke with the children about the transforming power of God. We saw this on the road to Damascus, when Saul, one of the most anti-Christian people you could imagine, was suddenly transformed because of his encounter with Jesus. His life was completely changed that day, and we know that he became one of the greatest missionaries of the early church. And in the Gospel, we heard about someone whose life was restored because of his encounter with Jesus.
Fine, you say, but that was then. People don’t encounter God these days. Jesus isn’t waiting in the parking lot to speak to me as I get into my car to go home. But, you know, he is. All you have to do is listen. And take what he gives you. The dead young man took the gift of life that Jesus gave, and Saul – well, he took the gift of new life, along with a new name, and finally did what he had been meant to do. So many people are not willing to do this, not willing to accept what Jesus has to offer. And in refusing this gift, they are only depriving themselves.
Now, there are many different kinds of Christians, but I want to mention only two. First of all, there are those who believe that everything is predetermined, and that God never changes his mind. Then there are those who believe that, by praying, they can move God from his original plan. Now, I believe in predestination because, as a Presbyterian, I accept what is taught in Scripture. In Ephesians, we read: In love, he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ ; and also: In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will. And in Romans, which has also been called the Letter to the Presbyterians, we read: For those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
I don’t claim to understand predestination, but I do know that it is clearly supported in Scripture. So it is part of my faith, part of my personal theology. I know that nothing happens by chance, that everything really is a part of God’s eternal plan.
But I have also read in Scripture instances when God answered prayer, when people’s faith has caused Jesus to do something. Over and over again, we can hear Jesus say something like: Your faith has made you whole; or: Your faith has healed you. When people asked for help, like the centurion I have already mentioned, then Jesus helped them. Prayer, combined with faith, can indeed cause changes. This does not deny predestination, but instead shows the importance of our communicating with God; the importance of our believing in what God can do for us.
In today’s Gospel, there was no prayer; there was no faith. Jesus just happened to be there at the right time, and he intervened. On that day in Nain, there were two processions – one being led by death and heading away from Nain to a grave; the other being led by Jesus Christ, the Prince of Life, and heading into Nain. Because these processions met, death was conquered, and the young man was restored to life. This is not the only time Jesus interfered with death. In fact, if you look at it, whenever Jesus was around death, he managed to change what was supposed to happen. It happened with Lazurus, who was already buried by the time Jesus arrived in Bethany. It happened with Jairus’ daughter, who died before Jesus could get to her. We have just seen it happen in Nain, and it will happen again after the crucifixion, when Jesus himself will leave the tomb. And, in another way, it happened on the road to Damascus. Paul, known as Saul, was dead to the message God had for him. Because of his encounter with Jesus, he was brought to life. New life is possible, and more than possible, it is probable, if Jesus is part of it.
If we take one last look at the Gospel reading, we will see that the people said: God has come to help his people. They did not say that God had come to help only the widow or only the son or even only the citizens of this small town. No, they said that God has come to help his people – all of them. God is here to help you and to help me. All we have to do is let him. Thanks be to God.

May 30, 2010 – Trinity Sunday

And so the church year rolls on. Again we have arrived at Trinity Sunday, which, to me, is a very important day for a host of reasons. I am pretty sure that most of you don’t remember that – exactly one year ago, according to the church calendar, I preached here for the very first time. Trinity Sunday is another of those movable days, and last year it was on June 7th. Easter was late last year, so this year Trinity Sunday arrived 8 days sooner than last year. I remember arriving here last June, and wondering what I was getting myself into. Even though I had spent three years preparing myself for this, I really wasn’t sure if it was the right thing for me or for you. As you know, in the Presbyterian Church, we believe strongly in the call process, but that doesn’t mean that mistakes can’t happen. As I said in the children’s story, we need to listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If we do this, we cannot be misled by other guides, but that happens. We do listen to other voices – the voices of our friends, of our families, or society in general. Then we go in the wrong direction.
But listening to the Spirit – that is different. It is through the Spirit that the Presbyterian Church is constantly reforming; it is through the Spirit that we make the right decisions on our journey of faith. It is the Spirit who moves parents to seek Baptism for their children; it is the Spirit who moves adults to affirm their faith in a very public manner. And it is the Spirit who brought us together as a congregation, and who will accompany us on our faith journeys together.
Each person has a different faith journey, and each journey tells its own story. When people want to talk to me, they usually want to tell me their stories. They don’t want me to talk; they want me to listen. Each one of us has a story to tell, and it is through telling these stories that we discover who we are. I suspect that the adolescent fondness for texting is connected with telling stories. No longer do people sit around a campfire sharing stories. Rather, they text each other. And the fact that it is done this way does not make it any less valid than it was in the old way. Teenagers are still finding out who they are, still on a journey of discovery. And the only way that they will know for sure who they are is by telling their story, over and over again. Hence, the text message. They text friends with good news and bad news. When they see a new movie, they share it with their friends, through texting. I have seen two young people sitting beside each other, texting rather than talking. While I have to confess that I don’t understand the appeal of this, it works for them. They learn about each other, and about themselves at the same time. They are sharing their stories, and through telling their own stories, they learn who they are. If you don’t tell your story to someone, then your story dies.
Newfoundlanders and Quebecers have a long oral tradition, with stories passed down from generation to generation. In the days before television, long winter evenings were often spent telling the old stories over and over. During the time when quilting bees were common, stories were shared around the quilt frame. This is how many young people learned what they needed to know in order to survive in the adult world. Old men would talk about the best time to plant, or the best places to catch fish. Old women would tell young women which natural remedies worked for which ailments. There was no universal health care then, and often no doctors, so these folk remedies were often the only thing that people had. Many of these stories are no longer relevant. Most of us don’t depend on nature for our livelihood, and even those who do have found ways to circumvent what nature can do to us. We build greenhouses so that we can grow things year round. We have drugs which can bring down a fever. So we don’t need to listen to the old stories, and sometimes I think that we are poorer for it.
But there is still a story that is told over and over again. This is the Christian story, the one which we all share. And why is it so important? Because it is through the re-telling of our shared story, the story of Jesus, that we learn who we are, as Christians. And in telling the story of Jesus through the Gospels, we are also telling our own story, because the Gospels are stories about us. As we tell God’s story, we learn more about ourselves. We see ourselves in the characters in the Gospels, and in the characters in the Old Testament. At times we have been the prodigal son, while at other times we have been the good Samaritan. At times, we have been Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet, while at other times we have been Martha, bustling around, getting things done. Our story is, first and foremost, a story about relationship – about our relationship with God, about how we are made in God’s image. And the most important thing about this story is that it is always changing, as we go further along the road of our faith journeys.
There is a story about a woman who went to a farmer’s market. She saw a stand called: God’s Fruit Stand. Well, she thought, it’s about time. At last I’ll be able to get perfect fruit, fruit with no blemishes, which will last me until I eat it. So she walked over to God, who was working there that day, and said, “I would like a perfect banana, a perfect pineapple, and a perfect cantaloupe.” “Sorry,” said God, “but I only sell seeds. You have to grow the perfect fruit yourself.”
While we are on our faith journeys, how many times have you been looking for perfection? And how many times have you been disappointed? That is because God only gives us the seeds, and it is up to us to grow to perfection. We do this by listening to the word God has given us, by listening to the Spirit, and by doing as we are directed.
Listen again to some of what we read today from Proverbs. “To you, O men, I call out; I raise my voice to all mankind.” There is another section which we did not read, but I want you to listen to it now: Listen, for I have worthy things to say; I open my lips to speak what is right. Choose my instruction instead of silver, knowledge rather than choice gold, for wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her.
Now, Wisdom, in the Old Testament, is the personification of the Holy Spirit. Wisdom, called hokmah in Hebrew, Sophia in Greek, and sapientia in Latin, is consistently referred to as “she”. The nouns themselves are feminine, but most of us know very little about her, and that is too bad, because there is much we can learn from her. She is known as the female representation of God, and she is the one who is with us now, the one who was sent on the first Pentecost, to interact with us, to give us directions along the right path.
The book of Proverbs is not often used as a reading in the Christian church, but when it is, we need to listen. Lady Wisdom is like one of those street preachers we have heard about, one who cries out with messages of reproach, warnings of punishment, and promises of redemption. She tells us that nothing can compare with what she can give us, and, to move it to the 21st century, she says that she is worth more than anything you can win on the lottery. In a book which we recently read in St. Andrew’s Book Club, we saw a depiction of the Holy Spirit as a kind of New Age, rather vague woman, and I think that this did a grave injustice to the third person of the Trinity. To me, the Holy Spirit is vital, and full of energy. If we look at Genesis, we can read: The earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. The Spirit is also referred to as the wind which brought life to the earth, and now the Spirit is moving to bring new life, as the church is seeking ever more reform.
And how do we experience God’s Wisdom? How do we experience the Holy Spirit in our lives? There are so many ways, and they can be different for each one of us. Maybe you have seen the Rockies, with the sun shining on the snow-capped peaks, and you have felt awe and wonder. Then you have experienced God’s presence. Maybe you have watched a flower open, absolute perfection for one brief moment. This, too, is experiencing God’s presence. But it is not only in the joys and beauty of life that we experience God. Paul wrote: And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. WE REJOICE IN SUFFERING. How’s that for a concept? But Paul knew what many of us don’t. He knew that the difficulties and defeats which he would face would eventually bring him closer to God, that through his suffering, he would be more like Christ.
Maybe you have experienced God’s Wisdom at a dark time in your life. Maybe you have been sitting by the bedside of a loved one who is dying. Through your own suffering, you may have felt a closeness to God, in knowing that you are not alone, that God is with you. For many people, it is through this that they find God, as it is at times like this that they realize just how much they depend on God.
So, there is God in nature, and God in our suffering. But God is also there in our joys. For you, it may have been the birth of a baby. Holding a new baby in your arms for the first time brings such overwhelming joy that the parent can barely contain her or himself. Maybe this joy came to you at a graduation ceremony, whether your own or someone else’s. It is events like this – a birth, a graduation – which help us to feel God’s presence in our lives.
In the Gospel reading for today, which we did not read, Jesus said: When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will tell you what is to come. These words of Jesus are also spoken to us. It doesn’t mean that the Spirit will let us know the future. That is not for us. What it means is that we need to ask God for help, and for insight before we make decisions. If we listen to what God is saying to us, if we really listen, and not blot out what we do not want to hear, then we will understand the consequences of our actions, and we will make the right decisions.
Most of us have times when we wonder about our decisions. For me, Trinity Sunday last year was one of those times. I had not yet been called to this church, but I felt strongly that this was where God wanted me to be. The last time I felt such a strong sense of God speaking to me was also on a Trinity Sunday, in 2005. That was the day when I knew that God was calling me to ordained ministry. On both of those Sunday, I prayed. I prayed that what I was feeling was what God meant me to feel. I prayed that I was making the right decisions. I prayed for those who would be affected by my decisions, that they would understand why I felt I had to do this. But I knew that I was making the right decision, and I felt such a sense of peace, such a feeling this was the thing I needed to do, if I were going to do what God wanted me to do. For most of us, when we make the right decision, this is how we feel. Maybe we have been thinking about it for weeks or months or even years, but once the decision is made, there is a huge feeling of relief. And this is the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives; this is what helps us not only to make the right decision, but to KNOW that we have made the right decision.
In 1968, the Steve Miller Band had a hit song called: You’ve Got the Power. This title became the slogan for all kinds of things. Motivational speakers are still using it, saying things like: You’ve got the power to transform yourself. We have heard about woman power; we have heard about the power of youth; and there is also the power of one, a novel by Bryce Courtney, which has also been made into a movie. And I am telling you today, that you have the power. You have the power of the Holy Spirit, which was given to us through Jesus Christ. Now, it is up to you to use it. Unused power is like unharnessed hydroelectricity. Nobody benefits. The power that we have been given is not power as the world knows it. We are not able to rule nations, or to control businesses. The power we have been given is power as God knows it. It is not the power to destroy, or to put people down, or to hurt people or the environment. It is the power to know what is right, and to do what is right. The prayer of St. Francis of Assisi sums it up pretty well. He wrote, in part: Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Through the power of the Spirit, indwelling in us, this is what we will do when we bring Christ’s gift of salvation into the world.
No matter what we do, no matter how old we are, we can do this. Today, we have the opportunity to leave behind those things which encumber us, those feelings which hold us hostage. Today, we can strike out on a new path of love, a love aided by the presence of the Holy Spirit, by the presence of Lady Wisdom. Let us not be like the woman looking for the perfect piece of fruit, but let us acknowledge that we are like the seeds – perfection waiting to happen. We are far from perfect, but with God’s help, we will stay on the road to perfection, and with God’s help, we will eventually get there. Thanks be to God.

200th Anniversary Celebrations

Friday, June 11th
7:00 pm: Church Service and Meet and Greet at St. Andrew’s, 5 Rue Cook, Vieux Québec.

Saturday, June 12th
Noon – 4:00 pm: Art Exhibit in the Kirk Hall. Lunch will be available to purchase.
1:00 pm – 4:00 pm: Tours of St. Andrew’s and the Morrin Centre.
5:00 pm – 6:30 pm: Happy Hour at the Kirk Hall. ($10.00)
7:00 pm: Dinner at the Garrison Club. ($50.00) Semi-formal dress code. Wine will be available to purchase.

Sunday, June 13th:
10:30 am: Worship at St. Andrew’s. This will include a Kirking of the Tartan, and will be followed by fellowship in the Kirk Hall. The Art Exhibit will continue on this day.

3:00 pm: Music at St. Andrew’s: Celtic, Folk, and Renaissance Fundraiser Concert. (Freewill offering.)

For more information, call 418-694-1347.

Classical Guitar Concet

On Thursday, June 3rd, there will be a classical guitar concert to raise money for research into breast cancer. Grégoire Gagnon will be playing selections from Scarlatti, Barrios, Tarrega, and Roux. Tickets are available at the door for a cost of $20.00, half of which will be given to the Fondation du cancer du sein de Québec. The concert will start at 8:00 pm.