Archive for January, 2012

January 22nd, 2012. 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany

This week was one of those weeks when I felt spoilt for choice as I was deciding on a sermon topic. First of all, we had the story of Jonah, which, in and of itself, contains amazing material. Not only that, but there is enough material in today’s reading for several sermons. Psalm 65 also provided much food for thought, and, since I don’t often preach on the Psalm, I gave this long consideration as well. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which is the reading we did NOT do this week, is always a good source of inspiration, and I thought about using that as the basis for this week’s sermon. And of course, we received a new member this morning, and this is something which deserves mention. But in the end, Mark’s Gospel won out, for several reasons, which I hope will become clear to you as I continue.
You need to understand that Bible scholars believe that this was the first Gospel to be written, and that the writers of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels drew heavily from this one, when they were writing. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest one, and the others added things to what was originally written. Each one of the Gospels spoke to a particular audience, and we refer to the Marcan community, the Lucan community, and the Matthean community when we discuss the theology behind each of the synoptic Gospels. There is also the community to which the writer of John’s Gospel spoke, but that is a whole different story, as you know.
Again this week, we have a reading about God’s call to us. In fact, both of our readings are about God’s call. In the first one, he called Jonah to go to Nineveh, to save the Ninevites from themselves. It wouldn’t hurt to think about that for a minute, as Jonah’s reaction was very similar to our own, much of the time. He didn’t want to go. But the people who were called today – Simon, Andrew, James, and John – they followed with no hesitation. Would that we could be more like them! However, I am not going to speak about being called – or at least, not yet.
For now, let’s look at a bit of my past, which I want to share with you, before I get into one key thing in Mark’s Gospel. Years ago, Keith and I used to go to a town in Quebec called Fermont, which was about 27 km from our house. The main reason for going there was that they had the best pizza in the world. In fact, I still haven’t found one that is better. Last fall, we were led to a small restaurant in Baie Comeau, where the pizza came close, but other than that – nothing. Anyhow, at that time, Keith spoke no French at all, but since the waitresses could manage a few words in English, and the menus were bilingual, he was usually able to get his order understood. He always began his meal with a coffee, which wouldn’t surprise any of you who know him, and, invariably, the waitress would ask him if wanted it “tout de suite”, hence the title of today’s sermon. You see, to Anglophones, the expression “tout de suite”, used in that context, seems just a little rude. It’s almost as though we were saying: I want it right now, with no delays. Of course, we have since learned the difference, as we are becoming familiar with the nuances of Canadian French, but we still are hesitant about ordering something “tout de suite” in a restaurant.
I think that the writer of Mark’s Gospel, however, would have really appreciated this expression, as his whole Gospel is filled with immediacy. Different translations render it differently. For instance, in the pew Bible, after Jesus called Simon an Andrew, you would have read: At once they left their nets and followed him. A little later, when Jesus saw James and John fishing, you would have read: Without delay, he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him. But, in actual fact, the Greek word εὐθὺς, is more accurately rendered in English as “immediately”, and it is this word which appears in Marks’ Gospel no less than 17 times. So today, we are going to look at this one word, and figure out its impact on our lives as followers of Jesus.
The very word – IMMEDIATELY – conveys a sense of urgency, and that is what we saw in this opening chapter of Mark. Our reading began with words of Jesus – The time has come, he said. The kingdom of God is near. Note, he did not say that it was time to get ready. He said that the time has come, and it had. It came when he was born in Bethlehem, and now he was starting his ministry. John the Baptist was in prison, and it was now time for Jesus to start gathering his disciples about him, which he set about doing with a sense of urgency. You can almost hear him saying it: We have no time to waste. Let’s go and do it right now – let’s become fishers of men tout de suite.
But there is very little detail in this, and that heightens the idea that things are happening very quickly. Remember, Jesus had just three years to accomplish everything. He knew, even if his followers didn’t, that his time was limited. Even so, I often feel short-changed when I read the Gospels. I wish that the authors has written more. I want to know more about Jesus as a person, as a preacher, as a prophet, as God. And I don’t get it from the Gospel. Sometimes I think how different it could have been if there had been different authors. If John Grisham had written Mark, we’d overhear a little dialogue between Simon and Andrew concerning Jesus. Stieg Larsson would have accompanied James and John through their morning routine. Patricia Cornwell would have clued us into the rumors surrounding Jesus’ arrival. Even the author of Luke’s Gospel provides a little story that explains why the disciples find Jesus compelling. After a night of unsuccessful fishing, Simon, James, and John allow Jesus to use their boat as a podium. Jesus tells the men to put out and fish again. Simon grumbles, but an overwhelming catch of fish convinces him that Jesus is the real deal (Luke 5:1-11). No wonder Simon and his colleagues leave everything to follow Jesus! But Mark remains offers no explanation. He only says: IMMEDIATELY things happened. And we are left to wonder why.
Let’s just think for a bit about things which don’t happen IMMEDIATELY in our world. Certainly, the very first thing that happens to each of us is our birth, and there is nothing immediate about that. From the nine months of pregnancy to the time actually delivering the baby, the time can seem to drag interminably. Deciding to follow a particular career path isn’t an immediate thing either. There is time spent weighing the pros and cons, and investigating which schools offer the best training. Then there is the training itself, and, after that, looking for a job. Looking at the church, we can see that things happen very slowly here. Have you ever known a church to make a decision in haste? I certainly haven’t. Even to become a member of a church, there are steps which are to be followed. First of all, the person has to decide that he or she wants to become a member. Let’s say, for instance, that someone named Erik wants to become a member of St. Andrew’s. First of all, he would check out the church in various ways. Some people do this by talking to members. Some prefer to do their own investigation via the Internet. There is a lot of information available on the Web, which can help a seeker narrow down options. After making the decision, then Erik would have called or written the minister, to find out what steps need to be taken in order to become a member. This would be followed by a meeting of the minister and the candidate, at which time the minister would ascertain that the candidate understood what was involved. At this time, the minister would explain some of the workings of the Presbyterian Church in Canada to the candidate, and, in this church, there would be some study of Living Faith. Next, the session would meet to approve the candidate, and finally, we get to where we are today – welcoming a new member to our congregation.
And yet, Mark spoke about immediacy, about the εὐθὺς surrounding Jesus’ ministry. So let’s see what IS immediate, and also what should be. We are a very time conscious world. We want things, and we want them right now. We don’t want to wait. And yet, and yet, there is something very satisfying about waiting. As you know, I make the bread for communion in this church, and that involves waiting. But the other day, as I was getting ready to grate cheese for a meal, I remembered that I had a bag of the pre-grated cheese in the fridge, so I used that instead. Even though I do like the idea of slowly making bread, in much the same way as it has been made for generations, I must admit that I appreciate NOT having to take the time to grate cheese – and possibly part of my finger as well. We, as a society, value our time. We don’t want to take a lot of time doing relatively unimportant things. We like things to be efficient, with the Internet being a prime example. How many of you can still remember dial-up internet? Would you believe that there are still places in Canada operating on dial-up? How on earth can they manage, we ask ourselves? It seems that the idea of faster being better is the governing idea of our lives these days. But, unfortunately, this seems to have moved into the realm of decision-making as well, and this is likely not a good thing. There is an old expression: Marry in haste; repent at leisure. And this applies to more than marriage. Festina lente – hasten slowly – is one of the Latin tags I learned years ago, and I think that it bears repeating in 2012.
And yet, and yet, our text this morning vibrates with immediacy, with urgency. Let’s set the scene for this urgency. John the Baptist had been arrested, for several reasons. He spoke against the religious leaders, which was bad enough in those days. But he dared to criticise Herod and his immoral lifestyle, and that didn’t help matters any. Now, then, was the time for Jesus to begin his ministry. Remember, John was the forerunner, and now that he was out of the picture, so to speak, Jesus was ready to move centre stage. As soon as he arrived in Galilee, he set out to call followers. And, we are told IMMEDIATELY they left their nets and followed him.
But what is all the rush? Why must everything happen IMMEDIATELY? As with many questions, there are two parts to the answer. First of all, Jesus is bringing an immediate message – one which requires an immediate response. In the very first verse we read today, Jesus is proclaiming the good news of God in Galilee. And the good news is this: Jesus was born, and died for our sins so that we might have eternal life. I have often referenced the most-quoted verse in Scripture – John 3: 16. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, Jesus Christ, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life. Eternal life. Just imagine that. But Jesus isn’t talking about eternal life – yet. Rather, he is talking about the kingdom of God, and what does he say?
The time has come, and the kingdom of God is at hand. It is not something we have to wait for. It is here. It is now. It is immediate. And this is his immediate message.
And the immediate response? We say it in today’s Scripture as well, when Simon and Andrew IMMEDIATELY left their nets to follow Jesus. Jesus said to them and to us: Repent and believe the good news. In this case, REPENT means to change the direction of your life. Simon, Andrew, James, and John changed the direction of their lives. No longer setting out to catch fish, they were to be fishers of men. And when Jesus calls them, he doesn’t say: I’ll be back in a few days so you can think it over. He doesn’t say: Come follow me when you’re ready. No. He says: Follow me, and IMMEDIATELY they follow him. And he says the same to us: Follow me. He doesn’t make any of the promises we have come to expect from people on this earth asking us to follow them. Like Tim Horton’s on Facebook, and get a free gift card. Join a group and get a free T-shirt. All Jesus promises us is eternal life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about the Cost of Discipleship, and, let me tell you, it doesn’t come cheaply. Bonhoeffer himself paid with his very life. When we agree to follow Jesus, we are not taking the easy way. Rather, it is a way which is often mocked by the world, a way that can lead to a cross.
But it comes with rewards beyond our wildest imaginings. It comes with God’s love, the love of the creator of the universe. It comes with life eternal. And why would we want to wait even one more second to grab this? Where else will we find this kind of love? Where else will we find salvation but at his feet? This is one time when we need to respond immediately and completely, and one time when tout de suite is the only response we need. Thanks be to God.

Book Club Meeting

THe Book Club will be meeting on Wednesday, January 25th, at 7 pm in the Kirk Hall. We will be discussing Sara Gruen’s “Water for Elephants”. If you have read this book, and would like to take part in the discussion, feel free to come along.

January 15th, 2012 Second Sunday after the Epiphany

You may have noticed that there is no title for this week’s sermon. That is not because it doesn’t have one, but because I forgot to put it in the bulletin. Because some people like to know the title – I always do, anyhow – I will tell you that this sermon is called: Recognizing his voice.
When I begin to prepare a sermon, the first thing I do is read the Scripture assigned for that Sunday – the lectionary readings. Then I read them again, this time looking for a connection. Sometimes, it is difficult to find one, and I have to keep trying or decide to focus on just one of the readings in any particular week. This week, however, it was easy to find a connection. Both the Old Testament reading from 1 Samuel and the Gospel reading from John deal with a call, with someone being called by God to do a particular thing. So I thought, at first, maybe I should speak about the call we all have, to live as people called by God. And I will, but not right away. To begin, I want to show you how these people – the boy Samuel, and the men, Philip and Nathanael, were called, and how they responded.
We know a little bit about Samuel from other readings, but to refresh your memory, I will tell you a bit of his background. His mother, Hannah, was the wife of Elkanah. Elkanah had another wife – Peninnah, and there were a couple of differences between the two women. For one thing, Elkanah loved Hannah, and would give her double portions of the sacrificial meat. The other, more important thing was that Peninnah had children, while Hannah had none. Each year, Hannah would go to the temple and pray for a child, and each year, she was disappointed. But one year, while she was praying, and begging God for a child, Eli, the priest at the temple, heard her. He accused her of being drunk, and ordered her to leave the precincts of the temple. But she fell on her knees, and cried to him of her desire for a child. Eli saw that she was sincere, and blessed her, telling her that the God of Israel would grant her desire. Sure enough, Hannah became pregnant, and gave birth to a son, Samuel, whom she dedicated to God. Does this story remind you of anything? How about John the Baptist? He mother, Elizabeth, was old, and believed to be barren. And yet, she had a son, who was the forerunner to Jesus.
Now, when Samuel was weaned, Hannah remembered the promise she had made before she became pregnant. She had promised that her son would be dedicated to serving God, and so she brought him to Eli. She reminded him of his blessing, and told him that this was the boy. She then recited a prayer which has come to be known as Hannah’s song, and which many people compare to the Magnificat, which Mary sang when she visited Elizabeth early in her own pregnancy.
Now, let’s look at Samuel’s call. We don’t know how old he was, but he was referred to as a boy, which probably means that he was not yet thirteen, which was considered the age of manhood at the time. He ministered before the Lord under Eli, who was becoming old and blind. As we heard, Samuel was lying down in the temple one night, no doubt tired from his chores of the day. He heard his name being called, and thought that it was Eli, but Eli said: I did not call. Go back and lie down. This happened again, and when it happened the third time, Eli realized that Samuel was being called by the Lord. Keep that in mind – it was ELI who recognized Samuel’s call, NOT Samuel himself.
Let’s go now to the reading from John’s Gospel. In the pew Bibles, the title of this pericope is Jesus calls Philip and Nathanael. For those of you wanting to be Bible scholars, the word PERICOPE means a small section of Scripture, usually used in reference to the New Testament. Remember this word, as there could be a quiz at any time. Now, just prior to the reading for today, Jesus had called Andrew, who then went and found his brother Simon, bringing him to Jesus also. The next day, Jesus was leaving for Galilee, but found Philip first, and said: Follow me. Philip immediately went to Nathanael and said: We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. To say that Nathanael was receptive to this idea would not be exactly true. In fact, he said: Nazareth! Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
Now, I tried to find a contemporary Quebec allusion to fit here, but I really couldn’t. So I decided to make my own, based on my time at McGill. As you know, McGill is considered to be a Canadian Ivy League school. In fact, one of the t-shirts sold in the bookstore has written on it: Harvard: The McGill of the United States. Just a few blocks from McGill you will find Concordia, and the expression used to be: If you can’t get into McGill, then you go to Concordia. So I guess that Nathanael felt about Nazareth the same way McGilligans felt about Concordia. We never knew how Concordia felt about McGill, though.
So, like the boy Samuel, Nathanael didn’t recognize his call at first. For Samuel, it took Eli to point out that it was the voice of the lord he was hearing in the night. And it was Philip who assured Nathanael that Jesus was the Messiah. However, Nathanael still wasn’t convinced. It was not until Jesus said: I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you. Then, Nathanael realized that Jesus was the Son of God, and the King of Israel.
Now, let’s bring these two stories to us, today. First of all, Samuel’s call, which he did not recognize, until Eli explained it to him. Like Samuel, we are all called to the priesthood of all believers. We are all called to do something in the name of God. It could be exactly what you are doing now, or it could be something very different. When I was a child, in a Roman Catholic school, the word VOCATION was one which we often heard. At the time, we understood it to be a calling to religious life. But since then, I have come to understand the word as a calling to live the life God wants us to. He does call some of us to ministry, whether as a minister of Word and Sacrament, or a ruling elder on the Kirk Session. Others he calls to be teachers – school teachers, university professors, Sunday School teachers, or any other kind of teacher you can imagine. Certainly, doctors and nurses have vocations – calls to heal the sick. But so are veterinarians called to heal the sick. All the various kinds of therapists are called to help as well, as are social workers and psychologists. And let’s not forget those jobs which many of us tend to look down on. You only had to live in Toronto a few years ago during the city-wide sanitation workers’ strike to understand the importance of those who collect the garbage every day. In a city like Quebec, at this time of year, we really depend on the people who clear the snow from the roads. And could we eat without farmers, who, like Abel, are called to till the soil and bring forth fruit? I could go on, but you get the picture. Whatever we do, we do it because God wants us to.
If you listened to the words of the psalm today, you would have heard the psalmist say: In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. To me, this shows clearly that God has a plan, and that we are a part of it. We are chosen by God. Listen again to the psalmist: it was you, God, who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made – that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Whether you know it or not, you are already chosen. For what other reason would God have made you with so much care, if not because he had hopes, and dreams, and plans, AND responsibilities for you? Simply because he made you, you are chosen. Simply because you are a beloved child off God, you have been chosen. But being chosen isn’t enough. Like Samuel, like Nathanael, we must answer this call first, so that we can fulfill God’s plan. And in order to answer the call, like Samuel, like Nathanael, we must first recognize his voice.
Initially, Samuel thought that it was Eli calling him in the night. Initially, Nathanael scoffed at Philip. Neither of them recognized God’s voice; neither of them recognized that they were being called. Initially, many of us don’t recognize God’s voice calling us. We think that it is someone else, something else. Initially, many of us – well, we don’t scoff, exactly, but we don’t believe that God is calling us to do something in particular. Often, like Samuel, like Nathanael, we need someone else to point it out to us. Sure, it would be wonderful if we all saw with the clarity that some people do. People like Eli, who knew that it was the Lord speaking to Samuel. People like Philip, who knew that Jesus was the Messiah, and told Nathanael.
Whom do we have today? We could say that there are no prophets. But that was also said in Samuel’s time. We read: In those days, the word of the Lord was rare: there were not many visions. And at the time of Jesus, there were many false prophets, many people claiming to be the Messiah. Whom do we have today? As Christians, we have, first and foremost, Scripture. This is the revealed word of God, and, as I said to the children last week, it is the map we need to bring us to salvation.
But we have more. As Presbyterians, we have our secondary standards, primarily Living Faith, which I often use as part of our prayers on Sunday. We need to study both Scripture and Living Faith, since they both open our ears so that we can hear God calling us. He calls us in many ways. He takes many forms when he calls us. It could be something as simple as a nudge we feel which we can’t explain. He could speak to us in a dream, as he did to the Magi, warning them to return home by a different route. Maybe he is telling you to take a different route. But can you recognize his voice?
You know, it really doesn’t matter how often or how loudly God calls us. If we don’t recognize his voice, we won’t answer. But when we DO recognize his voice, then, oh then, we will hear the power behind it. We will hear God almighty speaking to us, just as Samuel did, just as Nathanael did. But recognition is key. These days, we hear all about voice recognition software, which allows people to do such things as directing their cell phones to make a call. If the software doesn’t recognize the voice, then it won’t work. And if we don’t recognize God’s voice, then we won’t work; we won’t do whatever it is that God is telling us to do.
I sometimes wish that God would just come down from heaven and speak directly into my ear, in a voice that I can hear with my own ears, but realistically, that isn’t likely to happen. In fact, when I was going through psychological evaluation during my time in seminary, one of the questions we were asked was whether or not we heard voices. I have a feeling that, if I had answered YES, I may not have passed that part of the evaluation. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t hear God speak to me, every single day. I hear his voice in the wind, and goodness knows we have had enough of that for the past few days. I may not hear specific words, but I don’t need to. I know that it is his voice, which is directing my life, and your life, and the life of every living thing.
Eli told Samuel that the voice he heard was the voice of God. Philip told Nathanael that Jesus was the Messiah. Who is the fellow traveler pointing out the voice of God to you? It could be me, but it is not necessarily only me. It could be a friend, who sees some quality in you that you are not even aware that you possess. That is one of the points of a faith community, so that we can recognize things in each other, and point them out. And, make no mistake, this IS a faith community. When I look at you on Sunday morning, that is what I see – a faith community, one which is made up of people who are all doing God’s work, people who have made a commitment to follow him, people who are trying to do what is right. I see people like Samuel and Nathanael, answering God’s call. But I ask myself: How many of you feel that you ARE called by God? Because you have been, and you will be called to walk your journey of faith with him, in the company of your fellows. God has a plan for you, as we heard in the Psalm, and if you listen for his voice, you will discover it. Listen, and pray, and when you are doing what God has planned for you to do, you will feel a sense of rightness about it that you will not feel otherwise. Listen, and you will see what God promised come to pass. Listen, and you will find what you have been looking for all your life. Thanks be to God.

Knitting Group starting at St. Andrew’s

Starting on January 11th, we will be meeting in the Kirk Hall on Wednesdays to knit together. If you are a good knitter, come along. If you want to learn, come along. There will be people to help with problems, and we will share our talents with others. You don’t need to be a member, so pass this along to your friends – male and female. No age limit!
We will meet at 2 in the afternoon, for people who are available during the day, and at 7 for people who prefer evening gatherings.

September 26th, 2010

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you this day our Rock and our Redeemer.
Both of our readings today are concerned with money. That really shouldn’t surprise you considering that last week I told you that some 40% of Jesus’ parables and other stories in the Gospels dealt with this matter. We will have a look at both of them, which is not something I often do, simply because I think that they work well together.
In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he said: The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And there was never a truer statement than that. The problem is that so many of think that money is the thing that will make us happy. We figure that if we can go into a store and just buy whatever we want, then we will be happy. A few years ago, I saw a movie called The Pursuit of Happyness, about a homeless man who turned his life around. I won’t go into many details other than to tell you that I ended up profoundly disappointed in this movie, because it seemed to me that happiness was being equated with financial success. Now, I am not trying to make people feel guilty about having money, or about buying things. We need money to survive in this world. We need money in order to be able to share with others. But the getting of money should not be our only goal in life. The getting of money should not interfere with every other thing that can – potentially – make us happy.
In our pursuit of happiness – unlike the movie – we spend a lot of time searching. We search for the right job; we search for the right person to be with; we search for a home, whether to begin our adult lives or to retire. There are times when it seems as though life is one endless search, one endless quest. And despite all this searching, despite our spending countless hours and countless dollars trying to be happy, we aren’t. As a nation, we are not happy. Look at the statistics. The divorce rate in this country is through the roof. More and more people are looking for help as they try to cope with depression, with anxiety, with fear. More and more people are taking some kind of prescription pill in an effort to be happy. More and more people are turning to illegal drugs and alcohol. And none of it is working.
Why not? Why can’t we be happy, as a people? I think that it is because we are going about it in the wrong way. If we pay attention to our Epistle reading for today, I think that we will get some good advice. Let’s listen again to what Paul wrote. He started by describing the path that many people take and then went on to say: Godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Truer words were never spoken. We will be content. What more should we want, other than to be content?
Now, Paul is talking specifically about money, but I believe that we can transfer this to happiness. In the old catechism, one of the first questions was: Why did God make us? And the answer was: God made us to know, love, and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next. So God wants us to be happy. And not only happy, but happy FOREVER. Therefore, we should know that he will provide the means for us to be happy, if only we let him. Now, here it is. God wants us to be happy. We want to be happy. But we aren’t, and we wonder why we aren’t. I think that the answer is simple. We are looking for happiness everywhere but where it is sure to be found. We look for happiness in things; we look for happiness from other people. Well, here’s a newsflash – no one else is responsible for our happiness. No one else has what it takes to make us happy. But God does. If we pursue a relationship with God, then happiness will follow, as surely as the night follows the day.
Now, let’s see who was happy in today’s Gospel reading. In the beginning, it seems that the rich man was the happy one. He was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. Now, you need to understand the significance of his clothes. The colour purple was usually reserved for royalty, because the dye was so expensive that ordinary people could not afford it. He wore linen instead of the more common cotton or wool, because he was able to buy it. And living in luxury – well, that speaks for itself, doesn’t it? But just outside his gate was a beggar named Lazarus. He didn’t even walk there on his own. We heard: At his gate was laid a beggar. Someone else placed Lazarus there, in the hopes that someone – the rich man, his servants, his guests – would take pity on him. One cannot think that Lazarus was at all happy.
Ah, but as often happens with Jesus’ stories, there is a twist. Lazarus and the rich man both die, and the angels carry Lazarus to Abraham’s side. But the rich man – well, he ended up in hell, in torment. He called out, saying: Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire. Of course, we know what Abraham said. He replied: Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go there from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us. Abraham’s reply couldn’t have brought any comfort to the rich man, but he wasn’t about to give up completely. He tried another request, saying: Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.
Now, this request came from a man who had ignored Lazarus all of his life. And even in death, he was still ignoring the other man. He did not address Lazarus directly, but spoke to Abraham, possibly because it was more befitting one of his status. Even in death, he still considered himself better than Lazarus. And yet, he expected Lazarus to do his a favour. But Abraham still didn’t give him the answer he wanted. He said: They have Moses and the prophets; let them listen to them. This wasn’t what the rich man wanted, because he knew that he, himself, had not listened to Moses or the prophets. And he was pretty sure that his brothers wouldn’t listen either. But Abraham knew better. He knew that people like the rich man and his brothers wouldn’t listen to anyone, not even to a man who had risen from the dead. He knew that the chasm that existed between heaven and hell also existed on earth. He knew that Lazarus would never be able to speak to the rich man OR his brothers.
Now, I don’t think that anyone in this church today is going to find a beggar sitting in the driveway when they go home after worship. And, as I said earlier, I am not trying to make you feel guilty. But . . . Now I have to ask you how that word makes you feel? Are you thinking: Oh here it comes! She said that she wasn’t going make us feel guilty, and then she said “But.”
So here comes the BUT. But, if we start thinking that, because we don’t have a beggar sitting in our driveway, or because we don’t spend all our time relentlessly pursuing happiness by spending money – if because of that, we think that this particular Gospel story isn’t relevant to us, then we are wrong – totally and completely wrong. As with all of the readings we do in this church, this one should cause us to ask ourselves questions. And sometimes, the answers to those questions won’t please us. Sometimes, the answers to those questions will make us feel a bit uncomfortable. But that is the point, as I keep saying. The point of most of what we read in church is to make us feel uncomfortable. There is a lot of comfort in Scripture, granted, but there is also a lot of discomfort, and that is what we are talking about today.
So what are the questions that this story raises for me? And, I hope for you? Let’s look at the rich man for a minute. In what ways are we like the rich man? Who are the people I ignore? The people I overlook? Who are the people I don’t talk to in a social gathering? Who is my Lazarus? Because, you know, we all have one. We all have a person we would rather not talk to. We all have a person we would rather not see. And that is one of the things that Jesus wants us to take from this story. We all have a person we would rather not see. I recently re-read a book called BABBITT, by Sinclair Lewis, which used to be required reading during my early days at university. One section that always stuck with me was about two dinner parties. In an attempt to move up in the social world, Babbitt invited his wealthy former classmate – Charley McKelvey – to dinner. It was not a success, partly because Babbitt and his wife were obviously angling to become close friends with the McKelveys because of their position in society. The second dinner party was hosted by another friend of Babbitt – Ed Overbrook – who was below the Babbitts, socially speaking. This was also not a success, but this time it was because Babbitt and his wife obviously thought of themselves as being too good for the Overbrooks. At the first party, Babbitt was the Lazarus, while in the second, he was the rich man. And I think that all of us are in the same position as Babbitt was, depending on the company in which we find ourselves.
In this church, we have people who give their time, their talents, and their treasure to the glory of God. Every week, people give part of their offering to the Presbyterian Church as a whole, to be used in any of the various missions sponsored by the PCC. In a little while, people will start bringing in food for the Christmas Hampers, and when the time comes to fill shoeboxes for Christmas, I know that you will be more than generous. But that’s not what I am talking about. When we read a story like this one about Lazarus and the rich man, we DO start to feel guilty, even when we have no need to do so. We feel guilty because we have so much, and because we don’t know how much more we can give, or how much more we are expected to give.
But, you know, it is always the wrong people who feel guilty. There is an expression called: preaching to the choir, which means that I am not telling you anything you don’t already know. I am not telling you anything new. So why is it that the people who will take this message most to heart are the ones who don’t need to? The ones who are already giving time, and talent, and treasure to the glory of God here at St. Andrew’s? These people are the ones who will ask themselves: Have I done all that I can do? Am I putting my family ahead of God’s family? Can I give more?
And of course, we can always give more. But are we being called upon to do this in today’s Gospel? I don’t think so. I think that the message is that we are not to let money – or the love of money – dominate our lives. We are not to let money take over to the extent that we stop caring about other people. And I don’t think that we do that, here at St. Andrew’s. I think that, simply because you come here every week, you have already made a commitment to live as God’s faithful people. So, no, I don’t want you to feel guilty. But I DO want you to feel uncomfortable. Because it is by feeling uncomfortable that we will not become complacent; that we will not think that everything is just peachy, thank you very much.
Let’s go back to father Abraham just for a minute. He spoke of the chasm separating heaven and hell, and there are similar chasms right here in our lives. There is a chasm between those who pursue the world’s goods, and those who pursue the true riches to be found with Jesus Christ. There is a chasm between those who are obsessed with getting stuff, and those who are content with godliness. And the really sad thing is that those who are on what I will call the wrong side of the chasm just don’t get it. Remember the rich man? Even in death, he still did not speak to Lazarus directly. He still didn’t get it. If you are one of those seeking true riches, continue to do so, for your reward will be great. And if any of you here are still serving mammon rather than God, listen to what you heard in today’s Gospel. Listen to what was said by the one who rose from the dead. And know that, if you continue on this path, if you do not change, then retribution will come. But if you pursue the true riches, if you seek godliness, the rewards will be greater than you could ever imagine. Thanks be to God.

January 8th, Epiphany Sunday

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you this day, our rock and our redeemer.
A few years ago I heard a joke about the three Wise Men, which most of you may have already heard, but I am going to repeat it again, just in case. What would have happened if it had been three wise women instead of three wise men? They would have arrived on time, brought practical gifts, cleaned the stable, and made a casserole. And, while this is just a joke, there could be a kernel of truth to it, until we look at what actually happened on that day, on the day we now celebrate as the Feast of the Epiphany.
First of all, let’s make sure that we all understand what is meant by the word EPIPHANY. This is one of those words which has been taken over by literature teachers and writers, and has come to mean an awakening, as in a coming-of-age novel, when the protagonist suddenly realizes something or other. But this word has been around for much longer than English literature classes, and has a much more important meaning to us as Christians. It comes from two Greek words – ἐπί (epi, “upon”) + φαίνω (phainō, “I shine, appear”). In literature, the actual definition is: an illuminating realization or discovery, often resulting in a personal feeling of elation, awe, or discovery. Webster’s dictionary phrases it a bit differently, saying that an epiphany is a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something. While that particular definition makes me long for my own epiphany, the meaning which concerns us today is: a manifestation or appearance of a divine or superhuman being.
And you know, the last two definitions can be tie together when we think about the Magi, and their trek to Bethlehem. You see, when they saw Jesus – who, by the way, was no longer a baby by this time – they had an epiphany. They had a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential meaning of Christmas, when Jesus Christ, the Messiah, was revealed to them. And isn’t it interesting that they weren’t Jews? They were non-Jews, or Gentiles, and yet the baby was revealed to them, and not to Herod, or to any of the Jewish religious leaders. This shows us plainly that Jesus’ message was for all people, and not just the chosen few. This is a fact which we should apply today. It is time for our message to go outside of the church, and, indeed, outside of Christianity itself. Our message is meant for all people, and by keeping it to ourselves, we are being selfish. Epiphany itself celebrates God’s revelation to unexpected people – to magi and shepherds, to outcasts and adversaries, and not to the elite and powerful.
In one of our devotionals this week, Keith and I read about a pastor who, when he first became a Christian, used to hang around outside pubs in Glasgow, singing hymns, and trying to convince the patrons to accept Jesus as their saviour. Needless to say, he was not well-received. He also said that, perhaps, that was not the most sensible way to make his faith known to others. But what IS the way? It is to let our light shine in the nations, in the cities, in the workplace, and in our homes.
We do this by responding to Christmas, by letting ourselves truly experience the joy that God’s gift to us is meant to give us. To do this, we need to let go of the walls we usually build around us, the walls that keep us from God. It is in this way that, like the Wise Men, we can experience an epiphany, and be totally overwhelmed by what has happened, by what God has done for us.
Now, I would like to go through parts of today’s Gospel reading, just to expand on them a little, and show how they apply to us as well as to the Wise Men. We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him. What have you seen which pointed you towards faith in Christ? What are you prepared to do to worship him? For most of us, Sunday worship answers that question, but there is more we can do. We can live the life of a Christian, and, as the hymn says – they will know that we are Christians by our love.
When King Herod heard this, he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. Now, other translations use the word “frightened” rather than disturbed, and, if we look into Herod’s history, we can see that he had good reason to be frightened and disturbed. Herod’s own rise to power had been marked by violence and intrigue, and his own son, Antipater, being eager for the throne, had already tried to poison him. So Herod himself would have been disturbed by the thought of another contender being born. And of course, the people of Jerusalem would also have been concerned, because instability in leadership often lead to war, which was not something anyone wanted. With Herod and all of Jerusalem, we should also be disturbed by the birth of this baby, because he is the one who can change our lives, if we but let him. And that is the key point of this verse – that we must be willing to let him change us. It is no good to fight. I did that for years, but finally, he wore me down, and the result is that I am here, today. What will the result be if you acknowledge your own disturbed heart, and do what it is that God wants you to do?
Herod said to the travelers: Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him. Of course, we know that Herod had no intention of worshiping the child. We know what his plans were. And we found them out a few verses later, when he ordered all of the boys in and around Bethlehem to be killed, for fear that one of them should be the king for whom the Magi were searching. And, while we say that we would never do something like that, we should ask ourselves if there are times when what we do has another motive other than the perceived one. How often do we do things out of fear or because of self-interest or maybe just because we are hypocrites? And before you answer, examine your motives carefully. We are really good at hiding them, even from ourselves.
When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. This was – for them – the epiphany. When was yours? When did you realize what had happened? Maybe you have had more than one. I think that, for most Christians, life is a series of epiphanies. And they are not necessarily sequential or chronological. Some of us feel our first epiphany at a very young age, while for others it takes longer. But just knowing that there is another epiphany waiting for us makes the search worthwhile. Think about the joy that comes into our lives when we acknowledge who Jesus is, and how he is connected to us.
They bowed down and worshipped him. Again, I went to different translations of this verse, and the one which struck me was: They knelt and worshipped him. Now, as Presbyterians, we are pretty clear on whom we WON’T kneel before. We don’t kneel for crowned heads; we certainly won’t bow down to terrorists; and, being a non-hierarchical church, we definitely don’t kneel for bishops. And this is another way in which we resemble the Wise Men. They didn’t kneel before Herod, who probably expected them to. But when they found the child Jesus, there was no hesitation. And like the Wise Men, we should know which things are not worth our adoration, and which things should drive us to our knees. Now, in this church, we do not have kneelers, as some others do. But sometime today, I challenge you to do this. I challenge you to get down on your knees, open your arms out to your sides, and bow your head. Or if you’re feeling especially brave, try touching your forehead to the floor. If your body can’t do these things, assume whatever posture speaks to you of humility and reverence. And while you are there, think about the child who brought the Magi to their knees. And then think about the child as a man, a man crucified for us. And then think about him as the resurrected Christ, as the one who conquered death to bring us into eternal life.
Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts off gold and of incense and of myrrh. We have already discussed, in a round-about way, how unusual these gifts are. But, considering the context, each one of the gifts is perfect. Gold is a traditional gift for a king, and that is who Jesus is. Incense – which we commonly call frankincense in our retelling of the story – was used in worship, and still is, in some denominations. Therefore, it is a perfect gift for a deity. And, at the time Jesus was born, myrrh was one of the ointments used to anoint bodies to preserve them, thus it was a symbol of death, the death which would save all humanity. There is a church supply website where you can get ornate containers which hold small amounts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The set of three costs just under thirty dollars, and I suppose that groups buy them for Nativity scenes. But if you were to visit it now, you would see the words: Sold out for the 2011 season. No more gold, frankincense or myrrh for you! The Church and the world will both have to wait, possibly as long as until next August. I hope we’re only out of the three gifts in a literal sense. Because we need an ever fresh supply of these three gifts to offer this child as he grows and becomes strong. We need gold to value his identity as a king over our lives. We need frankincense to affirm his identity as the Son of God. We need myrrh to remind ourselves of his identity as a crucified messiah, to prevent our forgetting the forces within ourselves and our world that threaten this precious life in our midst.
If we look again at the last verse of our Gospel reading, we will see another message, one which is even more important for us. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. This season of epiphany, as well as being a season of discovery and self-realization, is also about alternative routes. In our case, of course, it is not an alternative route from Bethlehem so as to avoid Herod, but an alternative route to our future. So many of us think that we have our futures planned out, and then something happens to throw a monkey wrench into our plans. Jobs are cut, relationships unexpectedly end, illness interferes. Then we need to find a different route to get to our future. And the most important things is that we know that there is always a different route, and that, with God’s guidance, we will find it. As we begin 2012, there are two questions we must ask. The first is: Who IS in control? If we try to control things ourselves, we are bound to fail. If we let God have control, and if we do as he wants us to, we cannot help but succeed. And the second question is just as important. Where will I place my energy? As for me, I will look to a star, but not to one which will ever be recorded by any astrologers. I follow a star which heralds the birth long ago of God with us and is told again and again in the lives of people who follow Jesus faithfully looking for the coming of a new kingdom, worshipping God, and eating and drinking bread and wine as food for their journey through exile home to God.
Unlike the Magi, we do not have a star which will lead us, but we do have the light which is Jesus Christ. On this feast of Epiphany Sunday, we acknowledge this – perhaps even more than we do on Christmas Day, for it is on this day that he was revealed to the OTHER, to those who were not even expecting him. It is on this day that we acknowledge that, maybe, we need to find a different route. We are all on a faith journey. We must be grateful that, as a faith community, we can travel together into the future, no matter which direction it takes us. As we leave Epiphany behind us, ask yourself where you are on this path. Is there anything you need to let go in order to continue on the journey? Is there anything you need to find, in order to take the next step? I would share with you now, an epiphany blessing, which was recently sent to me, for those who have far to travel. If you could see the journey whole, you might never undertake it; might never dare the first step that propels you from the place you have known toward the place you know not. Call it one of the mercies of the road: that we see it only by stages as it opens before us, as it comes into our keeping step by single step. There is nothing for it but to go and by our going take the vows the pilgrim takes: to be faithful to the next step; to rely on more than the map; to heed the signposts of intuition and dream; to follow the star that only you will recognize; to keep an open eye for the wonders that attend the path; to press on beyond distractions, beyond fatigue, beyond what would tempt you from the way. There are vows that only you will know; the secret promises for your particular path and the new ones you will need to make when the road is revealed by turns you could not have foreseen. Keep them, break them, make them again: each promise becomes part of the path; each choice creates the road that will take you to the place where at last you will kneel to offer the gift most needed— the gift that only you can give— before turning to go home by another way. Through God, we have found that way. Thanks be to God.

January 1st, New Year’s Day

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you this day, our Rock and our Redeemer.
When I started to prepare this week’s sermon, I first of all considered the fact that, unusually, this Sunday would be January 1st. Now, I did some checking, and found out that this will not happen again for five years; after that, it will be six years before January 1st is on a Sunday, and then it will be 11 years. So it isn’t that common for us to be really able to celebrate the New Year together. Next, I thought about the name off this month, which is, of course, January. Latin scholars can tell you that this comes from the name of the Roman god Janus, who was considered to be the god of beginnings and transitions. Because of this, he was also thought of as the god of gates, doors, endings, and time itself. He was usually depicted as a two-faced god, because he was thought to look to the past AND to the future. On this day – or maybe yesterday – many of us do look to the future, as I said in the children’s story. We have hung our new calendars – when I was growing up in Newfoundland, it was considered bad luck to hang a calendar before midnight, so there was often a bit of a competition to see just who could get a calendar hung first, without doing it at the wrong time. We have made our resolutions, and, in some cases, already broken them.
For many of us, making resolutions reveals something about our personalities. For instance, the one I mentioned to the children, that I intend to practice the piano and the violin every day this year, probably reveals that I like a structure to my life. I like to know what I am doing, and when I am doing it. This shows most when I am planning a vacation. I don’t know that I have ever just hopped into the car and driven until I was ready to stop. I make reservations; I print out maps from Google and programme various destinations into the GPS. In the old days, of course, I would get road maps, and trace my route so that I would know where I was going. I talk to friends who have visited the places on my itinerary, to find out what things I MUST see, and what things I could just as easily skip.
However, and I know that some people may find this difficult to believe, I would really like to be more spontaneous. I would like, one of these days, to get up and NOT know what I will be doing for the rest of the day. I would like to take a week’s vacation, and not have every minute planned either by me or for me. And every year, I tell myself that – maybe – this is the year. And I resolve anew that I will try. After three years of studying theology, and another three living it, I have realized that this is really a theological question – whether or not I can just let go and let God. Because, when I try to control everything myself, it often doesn’t work out. Like most humans, I suffer from the hubris of thinking that I know best, and that I can operate just fine, keeping God in the background. Of course, he is always there, but there have been times when I have tried to ignore him, and made my own decisions, without consulting him. I need not tell you that these decisions have not always been the best ones. As Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ, and as Presbyterians, we need to acknowledge – I need to acknowledge – that we have a destiny which was laid out for us long before we were born, and which certainly doesn’t need us messing about with it. God wants us to trust his love, and to set out on journeys we may not have planned, going places we have never dreamt of going, secure in the knowledge that he is with us, and that our future is safe in his hands.
So what does any of this have to do with our Scripture for today? Well, I am going to focus on the reading from Luke’s Gospel, which is definitely connected with destiny. It begins some 41 days after Jesus’ birth, when, according to the law, his mother was to be purified, and the baby himself was to be named. Imagine, if you will, what must have been going through their minds when they brought the baby to the Temple. This was the day when their son was to become officially part of God’s covenant people, and to receive the name which would indicate his role in adulthood. Now, it is important to realize that, although the first-born son of devout Jews of that time were to be dedicated to the service of God, by making an offering, Mary and Joseph were actually buying back the contract. Jesus, you see, was of the house of David, and it was the house of Levi with traditionally served as priests. However, in order to fulfill the law, parents made an offering to serve as a substitute for their son. When the offering was made, the child was given his name, which had, of course, already been chosen by the parents. In those days, names really meant something, and were chosen after a great deal of thought. Unless, of course, you were John the Baptist or Jesus, in which case an angel of the Lord revealed it to your parents.
In Canada – and, I would venture to guess, in most parts of the world – this practice of choosing a name like this has pretty much passed out of vogue. Babies are named after some relative, or maybe they are given the “name of the week”. I remember, when I was teaching, in one of my classes I had no less than five girls all named Lori. Even worse was the year when I had four Ashleys – two girls and two boys. But a couple of years ago I met a girl from Mexico whose parents had named her Genesis, after the first book of the Bible. She explained to me that they meant the bible to be the thing which was to guide her life, and that she was to look on every day as a new beginning. I believe that she did this. When I met her, she was studying at McGill, planning to become a doctor, and after that, she intended to enter the seminary so that she could be a medical missionary. There are still some cultures where the naming of a child has the Biblical sense of symbolizing the destiny which God hopes to fulfill in a person. And, not that very long ago, in Roman Catholicism, a child chose a confirmation name, one which was somehow connected to the personality and traits of the child. Monks and nuns changed their names when they entered religious life, thus symbolizing that they were giving up any connection they had to their human family, and devoting themselves completely to God.
As for Jesus himself, of course his name had huge significance. Jesus is a form of the Hebrew name “Joshua”, which means Saviour. No doubt we all remember the story of Joshua, the one who fought the battle of Jericho, when the walls came tumbling down. That Joshua was the physical hero and liberator of his people; Jesus was sent to be the spiritual liberator. His parents, of course, really didn’t know what was in store for the baby. They could not foresee that he would be rejected by his own people, nor that he would ultimately be crucified for the salvation of all humankind, thus opening the door to eternal life for us all. But on this day, the day when Jesus was officially given his name, God already knew what was going to happen.
And for us, as Christians, even though we are usually called by name long before our baptism, it is this sacrament which identifies us as children of God. It is this sacrament – one of the two our denomination recognizes – which officially names us. In baptism, we are affirmed as God’s beloved children, and members of his eternal family. I believe that one of our roles as parents is to raise our children to know that they are part of this family, that they are part of the Christian community. We baptise with water, symbolically cleansing the child – or adult, in some cases – and drowning them to a way of life which cannot control us, as long as we continue to acknowledge the resurrection in our own lives.
There is a story told about Martin Luther and baptism which I found interesting. As you know, at the time, the church was in turmoil. Luther himself was trying desperately to reform Roman Catholicism, which he believed had become totally corrupt. He fought against the pope and the emperor, and found himself involved in the peasants’ rebellion. Much of the time, he wrestled with the twin demons of doubt and despair, wondering if he were really doing God’s will. spending a decent part of your life knowing that there are powerful people out there who want to kill you will do that to a person. When things got really bad for Martin Luther, he would remind himself, “Baptizatus sum.” What a wonderful reminder for you and me, as well! When all seems right with you and your life and the world is your oyster, you are baptized. When it seems like everything has gone wrong and everything is messed up, you are baptized. And when it seems that all you have going for you is your Baptism, then you have everything!
And today is New Year’s Day, a day when it is as well to remind ourselves of our baptism. Years ago, when I was studying music at the University of Calgary, we were responsible for a full choral concert each year. One year, we were privileged to work with France David as our conductor, and she chose as one of our pieces a selection called A New Year Carol. The music was composed by Benjamin Britten, but the words were so old as to be anonymous. Part of the first verse went like this: Here we bring new water, from the well so clear, for to worship God with, this Happy New Year. The whole concept of
“newness” is one which matters to us. As baptised people, we are new people. And on this day, as I said to the children, we start the first page of a new calendar, one which has at yet no black marks, no disappointments.
We could choose to spend our time looking back over the past, brooding over past mistakes. In fact, when tragic or disappointing things happen, it is easy to become a backward-looking person, believing that our best years are behind us. But, because of our baptism, we Christians live eternally in the land of beginning again. Jesus is alive. He was born, and he rose from the dead. Because of this, because we were given a saviour who is Christ the Lord; because of this, our destiny is sure.
As humans, we are always looking for new beginnings, for a fresh start, for renewal. St. Benedict, who is looked on at the expert on monastic life, wrote as part of his Rule: Always we begin again. It is because of this innate longing in us for renewal that we so often look to the new year. Queen Elizabeth II gives an address to the nation each year, in which she discusses the low and high points of the previous year, and looks forward to the one that is about to begin. With the queen, we look for improvements next year; we look for a better life; and we make resolutions to help bring this about.
For many New Year’s Eve is a time to party, to send out the old year with a bang, and to welcome the new one with the singing of Auld Lang Syne and a special toast. However, it seems to me that, for more and more people, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are becoming a time of reflection, a time of introspection, a time to think about what has gone before and to listen to their longing for what lies ahead. Retreat centres around the world , as well as churches, choose this time of year to offer opportunities for meaningful ritual and practice. Of course, celebrating with friends can be a truly joyful thing, but the traditional New Year’s Eve celebration with ever-flowing alcohol has become less satisfying for many of us. There is an emptiness, a hollowness about it. St. Augustine said: Our hearts are restless until they rest in you. And on this day, as we cross the threshold into a new year, we see the potential each one of us has to deepen our spiritual lives. This can lead to a richer life overall, as we start to see the connections between the physical and the spiritual.
So, even though you may have already made your resolutions, I would ask you to take some time – at least an hour – to really listen for your deeper longings. Too often, we begin the year full of resolutions and promises to ourselves to perhaps eat better, exercise more, work less, find more time for friends or for ourselves. But these resolutions often rise up out of our sense of scarcity and the busyness and immediate desires we feel at the surface of our lives. It would be better, instead, to reflect, and, instead of making resolutions based on perceived shortcomings and faults, we will find ourselves looking for new doors within us which are just waiting to open.
I would close today with a blessing for you, one which I hope will bring you into a new year – one in which the Christmas Spirit is with you every day.
God grant you the light of Christmas, which is faith; the warmth of Christmas, which is love; the radiance of Christmas, which is purity; the righteousness of Christmas, which is justice; the belief in Christmas, which is truth; the all of Christmas, which is Christ. Thanks be to God.

December 25th, Christmas Day

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you this day, our rock and our redeemer.
Today, I am going to start by telling you a story which I have told before, and which I will probably tell again, simply because it seems to be so appropriate here.
One of the greatest theologians who ever lived, Karl Barth, was asked to be a guest lecturer at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Now, you need to know that Barth does not write easy books. In fact, even books written ABOUT him can be difficult. He was brilliant, and could have done just about anything he wanted to do, as an academic. However, he was a theologian and preacher, and was in great demand as a guest speaker. At the end of the closing lecture at this particular university, the president of the seminary announced that Dr. Barth was not well and was quite tired, and though he thought that Dr. Barth would like to be open for questions, he shouldn’t be expected to handle the strain. Then he said, “Therefore, I will ask just one question on behalf of all of us.”
He turned to the renowned theologian and asked, “Of all the theological insights you have ever had, which do you consider to be the greatest of them all?
It was the perfect question for a man who had written literally tens of thousands of pages of some of the most sophisticated theology ever put into print. The students held pencils right up against their writing pads, ready to take down verbatim the premier insight of the greatest theologian of their time.
Karl Barth closed his tired eyes, and he thought for a minute, and then he half smiled, opened his eyes, and said to those young seminarians, “The greatest theological insight that I have ever had is this: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. And isn’t that the truth? And isn’t that the point of today, of Christmas Day, that Jesus loves us. And that is why I chose to title my sermon today “Love Story”, because Jesus does love us, and will continue to love us. But that is one of the things that many of us don’t think of, in our day-to-day lives. It is for that reason that I am glad that Christmas comes once a year, to remind us of this great love. For many of us, Christmas is the first time that we become aware of God’s love, in the story of the baby born in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago.
You know, when you think about love, you have to realize that it is truly a miracle. It is amazing how we just happen to be in the right place at the right time. Paths cross when they need to, in order for us to fall in love with another human being. I would ask you to think about the first time you were in love. What had to happen in order for this to happen? Obviously, you had to meet the other person. For some of us, that initial meeting happened when we were too young to remember it, because our parents were friends. But for more, it happened because of choices both halves of the couple made. Will I go to this university or that one? Will I take a job in this community or a different one?
My parents were from different parts of the world – one from Newfoundland, which was its own country at the time, and the other from Australia. Had it not been for World War II, they would never have met. Now, I’m not saying that the war happened in order to facilitate their meeting, but there were certainly a great many young women from other countries who ended up in North America because they fell in love with a young man from this part of the world. And I don’t believe that this was a coincidence. I believe that this was all part of God’s eternal plan of love. Paths crossing, lives intersecting, and the world changes as a result.
Today, Christmas Day, marks the intersection of our lives with the life of Jesus Christ. This is the commemoration of his first meeting with humanity, the meeting that had been planned from the beginning of time. And it was planned because we are loved.
Someone once commented that true love doesn’t happen because someone is perfect. Rather, true love happens when we know all about the other’s imperfections, and love them anyway. And that is how God loves us. He – better than any human being possibly could – knows exactly what we are. He knows all of our secrets, all of our imperfections, and loves us anyhow. And here, today, in the manger, we have proof of his love for us. The most quoted verse in all of Scripture has to be John 3: 16 – For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him should not perish but should have everlasting life. But it had to start somewhere. Our paths had to cross at some point, and what better way for them to cross than with the birth of a baby? Not only is a baby a sign of love, but it evokes love in those who see the little one.
But who would have expected the intersection to come in the tiny town of Bethlehem, in a stable, rather than in a metropolis, maybe in a palace? It happened as it did so that we would be able to identify with the baby, and so that the baby would eventually be able to identify with us.
This amazing love, which caused the first Christmas to happen, still growing. In God’s love, we are not expected to be perfect. In God’s love, we are forgiven, unconditionally. In God’s love, we are saved.
As well as a time of love, Christmas is a time of peace – a peace which begins with the knowledge that God loves us. But for some, it is a time of sorrow, as we remember those who are not with us to celebrate. We long for just one more Christmas with our parent, our child, our spouse. And these feelings sometimes threaten to overpower the joy that is Christmas. And, you see, without the joy that is Christmas, these feelings can do just that.
The children’s story was about a nativity pageant, and I would like to tell you a different one, one which the children may also like. Of course, like the first one, this one didn’t go quite as the Sunday School teachers had planned. The youth group at a certain church was performing a manger scene. Joseph and Mary and all the other characters were in place and ready. They did their parts with seriousness and commitment, looking as pious as they possibly could.
And then it came time for the shepherds to enter.
— Dressed in flannel bathrobes and toweled head-gear, the shepherds proceeded to the place in the sanctuary where Mary and Joseph looked earnestly at the straw which contained a single naked light bulb that was playing the part of the glowing newborn Jesus.
With his back to the congregation, one of the shepherds said to the person playing Joseph, in a very loud whisper for all the cast to hear, “Well, Joe, when you gonna pass out cigars?”
The solemn spell of that occasion was not simply broken by his remark, it was exploded. Mary and Joseph’s cover was completely destroyed as it became impossible to hold back the bursts of laughter.
The chief angel, standing on a chair behind them was the worst of all. She shook so hard in laughter that she fell off her chair and took the curtained back drop and all the rest of the props down with her. She just kept rolling around on the floor holding her stomach because she was laughing so hard. The whole set was in shambles.
But do you know what? The only thing that didn’t go to pieces was that light bulb in the manger. … it never stopped shining.
— My dear friends in Christ, that baby in the manger is the light of my world, even when my world is in shambles…For in that baby the Divine and the human cross paths. The infant Jesus is our living, breathing sign of the immeasurable love that God has had for all of us from the very beginning. Christmas is the living promise that we are never ever alone. No matter where we are in life, no matter in what condition we find ourselves, no matter how far we might stray away, or how unfaithful we are, God, the supreme lover, will pursue us in love for eternity!
Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. It’s a love that never stops shining. Thanks be to God.

December 24th, Christmas Eve

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you this day, our Rock and our Redeemer.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were terrified.
Well, I suppose they were terrified. For the angels of the Lord are nothing like the little cherubs we see on cards at Valentine’s Day, or even like the angels we have in our crèches during the Christmas season, and certainly not like the angels some of us have on the top of our trees right now. In fact, they would certainly have been terrifying creatures. Just listen to what Ezekiel had to say about the physical appearance of angels: In appearance their form was human, but each of them had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. All four of them had faces and wings, and the wings of one touched the wings of another. Each one went straight ahead; they did not turn as they moved. Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. They each had two wings spreading out upward, each wing touching that of the creature on either side; and each had two other wings covering its body. Each one went straight ahead. Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, without turning as they went. The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire or like torches. Fire moved back and forth among the creatures; it was bright, and lightning flashed out of it. The creatures sped back and forth like flashes of lightning.
Now, if seeing something like that wouldn’t make a person afraid, then I can’t think of anything that would. But the shepherds conquered their fear, and stayed to hear the message the angel brought to them and to all humanity. They may have stayed, at first, because they were afraid for the sheep, but, in the end, they realized that what the angels were saying was true, and they said to one another: Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that had happened, which the Lord told us about. So the shepherds were the first to see and to believe.
However, I have often asked myself, if I had been there that night, with the shepherds on the hills just outside of Bethlehem, what would I have seen? What would I have heard? Would I have seen what Ezekiel described or something totally different? Would I have heard the choirs of angels singing? Or would I just have heard the sounds of the sheep and lambs bleating in the night? And had I gone to the stable, would I have seen the star shining on the birthplace of the Messiah, or would I have two scared young parents, having to cope with things they could never have imagined? Would I have understood the hushed silence of the divine presence, or would I just have felt the chill of a cold east wind? Most importantly, would I have understood the message of Emmanuel, God with us, or would the implications of that amazing evening have simply passed me by?
I believe that, if we were able to speak to the people who were in Bethlehem on that night about what happened, no two of them would give the same account. It’s like witnesses at a crime scene. Rarely will their stories corroborate each other. This is why, when two people give the identical story to the police, they are not believed. In fact, they often end up implicated in the crime, because that just doesn’t happen. And the other thing about that night is that we have to realize that God never reveals himself in such a way that we are forced to believe. We always have an option, because that is the way God does things. This is why one person can say: It’s just a coincidence; while another can say: It is part of God’s plan.
Let us remember that the reason Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem was because of a census. And the reason that there was no room for them in the inn was because the small town was suddenly filled to over-flowing with visitors. The sound of the angelic choir was drowned out by the sounds of haggling in the market. And the bright star in the sky was apparently only seen by pagan astrologers from the east. If anyone, other than the shepherds, DID see the small family on that night, they were probably too preoccupied with their own problems to pay much attention, or to offer any help. And isn’t that just as true today, here? Aren’t most of us so preoccupied with our own problems to pay much attention to the fact that Jesus Christ was born, that he lived among us, and that he died for the salvation of all mankind?
But even many of those people who did know about the baby born over 2000 years ago didn’t know who he was. They knew about a birth, which in itself, is a miracle of sorts, but they didn’t realize who this baby was. Too many people see things, and don’t realize what it is they are seeing. Too many people see the superficial, the appearance, and never bother to look beneath to see what it is that God has hidden there.
On one of the cable channels now, we get old episodes of the TV series All in The Family, and I think that one of them would be appropriate to demonstrate this kind of dual vision, this kind of dual perception. Edith and Archie are attending Edith’s high school class reunion. Edith encounters an old classmate by the name of Buck, who had been a football star in high school, and definitely one of the most attractive boys in the school at the time. However, unlike his earlier days, he had now become excessively obese, and lost his beautiful blond hair. Edith and Buck have a delightful conversation about old times and the things that they did together, but Edith doesn’t seem to notice how much or in what ways Buck had changed. Later, when Edith and Archie and talking, she said, “Archie, ain’t Buck a beautiful person?” Archie looked at her with a disgusted expression – you know the one – and says: “You’re a pip, Edith. You know that. You and I look at the same guy and you see a beautiful person and I see a blimp.” Edith gets a puzzled expression on her face and says something unknowingly profound, “Yeah, ain’t it too bad?”
You see, what we see, what we hear, what we understand in life depends not upon the events which happen, but on our perception of them. A few years ago, it was very popular to say: Perception is reality, but, as we have just seen, this isn’t necessarily so. Perception is A reality, in the sense that it is something we have to deal with. However, perception is NOT reality itself. In fact, perception is often demonstrably false. What is not false is what happened on that night so long ago and so far from Quebec City. What is not false is that Jesus Christ was born on that night, and that the world changed as a result. Thanks be to God.

December 18th, 4th Sunday of Advent

# 1: Genesis 1: 26 – 31, 5: 1b – 2
On this morning, rather than a sermon, there will be a series of reflections, based on some of the Scripture readings. These will be short, and will, I hope, show how the readings may be applied to our lives now, in Quebec City, in the 21st century.
The reading we just heard was one of the Creation stories, and it shows us how God blessed humankind, right from the very beginning. In this particular story, there was no hint that God created man first, and then created woman to be his companion and helper. Rather, God created man in his own image; male and female he created them. Now, the important thing to realize about this, is that it is not scientific or historical. Rather, it is a poetic theological reflection on creation, on the nature of its creatures, and on the God who brought it all into being. It is poetry that expresses joy, wonderment, and awe at what God has created. At the same time, it confesses complete trust and confidence in God’s power and authority.
Other creation myths are not nearly so gentle, building as they do on wars and killings as the source of humankind. In Genesis, there is a God who simply speaks, and everything comes into being. God speaks, and in doing so God simultaneously acts. And at the heart of this speech-act is God’s declaration about the creation, namely that it is “very good” (v. 31). Creation is not an after-thought or by-product; the universe and all things that are in it aren’t slime beneath God’s notice. Instead, God creates and takes pleasure in the creation. God’s creation is judged by the one who made it and it is seen as very good.
Each of the eight creations came about when God said the word “let”. Let there be light; let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water; let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear; and so on until we come to: Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. And everything that God spoke into creation – he saw that it was good.
And his final creation – male and female he created them. He created them together, in his image, which shows that they are equal but distinct reflections of God’s nature. Thus there is a sense that you cannot properly conceive of God without the masculine and the feminine. This is how God created, and it IS very good. Thanks be to God.
# 2: Genesis 9: 8 – 17
In this reading, God established a covenant with Noah and his descendants. The story of Noah’s Ark is one with which most people are very familiar. We all know how Noah built the ark, with very specific instructions from God. We know how he loaded it up with animals, two by two, male and female, so that the earth would be able to be repopulated after the waters subsided. But today, we are concerned with the covenant, with the promise God made to us. One of the things which I noted is that, even though God made a promise to us, Noah was not required to make a similar promise to God. In other words, Noah did not have to promise God – on our behalf – that we would be good forevermore. And I think that this is because God knew that we could NOT be good forevermore. He created us, and gave us free will, and because of that, we are not, and never will be perfect. God knows this, and loves us anyhow.
In this section of Genesis, we see for the first time, the Hebrew word BERIT , which means covenant, appears for the first time. So the covenant with Noah marks the beginning of God’s covenantal journey with us, the journey which culminates at Easter.
Our reading today consists almost entirely of God’s words which outline exactly what the covenant entails, as far as God is concerned. Interestingly, the covenant is not only between God and humanity, but every living creature, including the animals. And the sign of the covenant, of course, is the rainbow. I remember, when I was a child, being told that the rainbow was a sign for me to know that there would never be such a flood. But, if you look more closely at our text, you will read God’s words, which show clearly that the rainbow is a sign for him to remember, and not us. God said: This is the sign of the covenant I am making. To clarify his meaning, he said: Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind.
To be sure, the rainbow is a sign of our covenant with God. It reminds us of God’s promises first and foremost, a sign that reminds us that God remembers us and has not abandoned us. It is a sign that God’s memory is more powerful than our forgetfulness, that God’s desire for resurrection and new life overcomes our appetite for destruction and death. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, God will see it, and will remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth. Whatever we do, God remembers; God is faithful; and God continues to be in covenant, to be faithful to us. Thanks be to God.

# 3 – Isaiah 9: 2, 6 – 7
We all know the importance of light. The Christmas season, and the sister celebration of Hanukkah for our Jewish friends, are festivals of light – from candles in our homes, to massive displays of colour and Christmas scenes around town, even down to the flashing bulb on Rudolf’s nose. It’s our way of snubbing our noses at the darkness, at the cold of Christmas, and for those of faith, it is our way of welcoming the Light of the World, the Light that will never be extinguished.
If you have ever done any real camping, out in the back country, you know how dark it can get, and at the time of Isaiah, without the light pollution we suffer from these days, this kind of real darkness was more common than it is now. I remember going to candle light services, where each light in the church was extinguished until we sat in near-darkness. The organist had a small light to see the music by, and the reader had another to see the pages. It was amazing how much these two small lights helped dispel the darkness of the sanctuary.
These were just small lights, and Isaiah talked about a great light which came upon the people living in darkness. He was referring, of course, to the Messiah, to the one who was to bring the light of God’s redemptive love to his people. The word LIGHT, as Isaiah used it, refers to change, and change is certainly what happened because of that birth in Bethlehem. Light also refers to victory, and, in this case, it is victory over sin. Because Jesus was born, we know that sin will be defeated, and that we will live forever in the eternal kingdom.
Here, in Canada, we know all about darkness. We are just two days away from the shortest day of the year – or two days away from the longest night, depending on how you look at it. In any case, for a good part of the year, we spend more time in darkness than in light. That could have the effect of making us depressed, but we are resilient. We celebrate the daylight hours we do have, and we burn lights to combat the dark. All over Quebec City right now, there are Christmas lights bringing cheer to residents and visitors alike. We know about darkness, but we also know about light, and we make sure that there is light aplenty in this darkest time of the year.
With this message from Isaiah, we learn about light and rejoicing. We learn that the light is coming, and that this will be a light even upon those dwelling in the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus is out there, in the blackness, but sometimes we can’t see him because our own fears crowd him out. Advent prepares us for the coming of the Christ Child. Advent prepares us to accept the light. With Isaiah, let us be ready to accept Jesus Christ, the true light.
# 4 Luke 2: 8 – 16
Today in the town of David, a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. Every year, I receive birth announcements. Sometimes they are just a phone call, but more often, they are printed on fancy paper, much the same kind as is used for wedding invitations. And nowadays, they often come via the Internet. But when God Almighty announced the birth of his son, he did not use any of these methods. He sent angels to make the announcement. And he didn’t announce it to the people you would have thought were his friends – the priests or the rulers of the land.
The angels appeared to the lowest of the low – the shepherds, tending their flocks in the fields that night. I think that the shepherds were chosen because it would be easier for most of us to identify with them than with religious or civil leaders. And, you know, I think that because the shepherds were the first to receive the announcement, this is why Jesus was born in a stable. After all, if he had been born to wealthy people, in a fine home or palace, the shepherds would not have been as likely to come and worship him. And, if they DID go to visit the new baby in a fine home or hotel, would they have been made welcome? They would have felt intimidated, just as most of us would feel intimidated when confronted with the high and mighty.
And yet, who could be higher or more mighty than the Son of God? But, by choosing to be born in a stable, by choosing to come among us as one of the lowliest of people, Jesus allowed us access to him. Luke’s gospel has always been known as the gospel for ordinary people, people like you and me. And Jesus is also for ordinary people, people like you and me.
This is something I would like you to think about during this Advent and Christmas season. How are we presenting Jesus to other people? Are we presenting him as some who is accessible to all? As someone who came to save us all? Or as someone who is confined to those people who worship as we do? And before you answer, remember where he was born; remember who was the first to welcome him. And let us welcome others with the same openness with which the shepherds were welcomed.

January 2012