Archive for February, 2012

February 19th – Communion Sunday

We will be celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper on February 19th. This will be followed by a pot luck luncheon in the Kirk Hall. join us for this special day.

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February 5th, 2012, 5th Sunday after the Epiphany

When I am preparing for worship each week, I start on the previous Sunday by reading the next week’s lectionary readings, which are printed in the bulletin so that you can do the same, should you be so inclined. Last week, when I was reading, the sentence that leaped out at me was from the Gospel reading. Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.
Even though Jesus gathered his disciples around him, and even though he – better than most – understood the importance of a faith community, he still needed some time alone to pray. And this is something we all need, as well. We need to take time alone to pray. People say to me: I just don’t have the time every day to talk to God. Well, I am going to tell you a story which may change your mind.
The story is told about how Satan called a worldwide convention of demons. In his opening address he said, “We can’t keep Christians from going to church. We can’t keep them from reading their Bibles and knowing the truth. We can’t even keep them from forming an intimate relationship with their saviour. Once they gain that connection with Jesus, our power over them is broken. So let them go to their churches; let them have their Pot Luck Suppers and fellowship events, but steal their time so they don’t have time to develop a relationship with Jesus.”
“This is what I want you to do”, said the devil. “Distract them from gaining hold of their Saviour and maintaining that vital connection throughout their day!”
“How shall we do this?” his demons shouted.
“Keep them busy in the nonessentials of life and invent innumerable schemes to occupy their minds,” he answered. “Tempt them to spend, spend, spend, and borrow, borrow, borrow. Persuade the wives to go to work for long hours and the husbands to work 6-7 days each week, 10-12 hours a day, so they can afford their empty lifestyles. Keep them from spending time with their children. As their families fragment, soon, their homes will offer no escape from the pressures of work!
“Over-stimulate their minds so that they cannot hear that still, small voice trying to talk to them. Entice them to play the radio or cassette player whenever they drive; to keep the TV, i-Pods, and their PCs going constantly in their home; and see to it that every store and restaurant and elevator in the world plays music constantly. This will jam their minds and break that union with Christ.
“Fill the coffee tables with magazines and newspapers. Pound their minds with the news 24 hours a day. Invade their driving moments with billboards. Flood their mailboxes with junk mail, mail order catalogues, sweepstakes, and every kind of newsletter and promotional offering free products, services and false hopes.
“Keep skinny, beautiful models in the magazines and TV so that husbands will believe that outward beauty is what’s important and they’ll become dissatisfied with their wives. Keep the wives too tired to love their husbands at night. Give them headaches too! Make them dissatisfied with one another so they begin to look elsewhere. That will fragment their families quickly!
“Give them Santa Claus to distract them from teaching their children the real meaning of Christmas. Give them an Easter bunny so they won’t talk about his resurrection and his power over sin and death.
Even in their recreation, let them be excessive! Have them return from their recreation exhausted. Keep them too busy to go out in nature and reflect on God’s creation. Send them to amusement parks, sporting events, plays, concerts, and movies instead. And when they do go out on the mountains or to the shoreline – get them do it on their day of worship – and make them so active in what they do there that they don’t have time to pray, time to think, time to remember their God or thank him for his goodness.
“Keep them busy, busy, busy! And when they meet for spiritual fellowship, leave them with troubled consciences. Crowd their lives with so many good causes they have no time to seek power from Jesus. It they must talk to God, make sure that they don’t take time to listen to God. Soon they will be working in their own strength, sacrificing their health and family for the good of the cause.
“Do this and it will work!”, Satan concluded.
“It will work!” His demons replied.
So they the convention ended. The demons went eagerly to their assignments causing Christians everywhere to have little time for their God or their families. Having no time to tell others about the power of Jesus to change lives and to meet their real needs.
I guess the question is, has the devil been successful at his scheme?
You be the judge!
Private prayer is something that we all do – at least a little bit. For some of us, it is as simple as thanking God for the day as evening draws in. Other people start their day with prayer. Martin Luther insisted that private prayer was an absolute necessity in order to live the way God wanted him to. In fact, on those days when his life was over-scheduled, when he had meeting after meeting after meeting, he would take an extra hour of prayer first thing in the morning, so that he could be ready to cope with the demands of his day.
But, you know, prayer is a two-way street. We pray to God, and then we need to take the time to wait for his reply to our prayer. And we cannot do that when there are distractions. The only time we can do that is during the time we spend alone. Now, if you look at Scripture, you will see some contradictions concerning solitude. In Genesis, we read that God saw that it was not good for man to be alone. (Gen 2: 18) But, almost as a counter to that, in Daniel we can read: I was left alone and saw the great vision. (Dan 10:8) And Elijah, who was fleeing from the wrath of Jezebel, did not hear the voice of God in either the fierce wind or the earthquake, but in the silence which followed. Then he heard the still, small voice of God. And we cannot hear this voice with everything else clamouring for our attention.
Just think about it for a minute. How often are you alone? Really alone? With nothing and no one to take your mind away from your Creator? Yes, there are times when we need society, when we need others, which is why God created more than one person. But there are still times when it is important to be alone. And I go back to my question. How often are you really alone? It may be easier to say when you are not alone. Because you are not alone when you are at work. Even if you are isolated in a cubicle, there are people around you, and constant noise and activity. You are not alone when you are on the phone. Even though you may be physically removed from the other person, you are still very much together. You are certainly not alone when you are waiting for a text message. Even if the other person takes a long time to reply, you are still connected to that person; your mind is still focused on something else, so you cannot be thought to be alone. You aren’t alone when you are sitting in front of your computer, taking part in e-mail, social networks, or any of the other various things which keep us ever-connected to the “other”.
So, truthfully, how often ARE you alone? How often are you intentionally cut off from all outside influences and can claim to be genuinely alone? Actual aloneness is about as readily available as imported glacier water. It is a commodity you CAN get, but you must be willing to pay the price. And for many of us, the price is too high.
Of course, there is a difference between being alone or choosing solitude, and being lonely. The first is a state devoutly to be desired while the second is not one any of us would want. Many times in the Gospels we are told that Jesus withdrew from the crowds following him, so that he could have time alone. Even he needed this time to commune with his – and our – father. Even he needed solitude. To use an Old Testament expression, Jesus needed to wait upon the Lord. In our reading from Isaiah today, we read: those who have hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not be faint. In other translations, this is rendered: those who wait upon the Lord, and, to me, this version offers much more of what Jesus wants us to do. We are to wait upon the Lord. We are not to demand quick answers, nor expect to hear him while we are busy with other things. We are to be still, and wait. And this is probably one of the most difficult things for us to do. I am reminded of the person who prayed: God, grant me patience – NOW!
We know, as members of a faith community, how important corporate worship is. We know, as members of a faith community, how much we can help each other. We know, as members of a faith community, how much strength we can draw from each other when we come together each Sunday, be it here in the sanctuary, or in the Kirk Hall during our time of fellowship. But we often forget that we can also gain strength from being alone with our God. We forget that we can renew ourselves during a time away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, away from the “other”. We must make the time for God to inhabit us, to fill us, to restore us, to make us once again his beloved children. We must make the time to listen to his voice, so that we will know what it is that he wants us to do, who he wants us to be. We need to remember who we are and WHOSE we are. For we are his creation, and we belong to him and him alone. But if we don’t spend time alone with him, we will forget this.
The message from Isaiah makes it clear that we are not the only ones not to listen to God. But it also makes it clear that we – as well as the Israelites – are not being given this as an option; that we must listen to God. “Do you not know?” asks Isaiah. “Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded?” These four questions are a call – to the Israelites AND to us. And each time I read these questions, I am struck anew with a sense of urgency. I can hear the prophet in my heart, for I know that he is speaking to me. He is reminding me to remember my God, to remember how he has helped me in the past, and how he will continue to help me. But even more than that, it is calling me to come to God, so that I CAN understand who he is, and how we are connected. Remember, it is by staying connected to God that we can put everything into its proper perspective with everything else.
Again, Isaiah said: Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. And what does God do for us, when we take the time to be with him? Looking back at what we just read from Isaiah, we find out that he will give us the strength we need, and will increase our power, as long as we wait on the Lord.
We know that Jesus went to the synagogue every week, just as we come to St. Andrew’s every week – or almost every week. We know that he went to the Temple in Jerusalem when it was required. He knew the importance of worshiping in community. But we also know that he removed himself from society at times. We know that he withdrew from his disciples and the crowds to go up into the mountain – to pray. We know that he went to the garden alone – to pray. And now, we know – or we should know – WHY he did this. He did it so that he could hear God’s voice, so that God would help him keep focused on what his mission was. He did it so that he would be given the strength he needed to do what he did.
Just as God had a purpose for his son, which was to redeem us all, so, too, God has a purpose for us. But we have to listen to learn what this purpose it. It is good that we make our own plans, but we need to be open to his, for he is the one who made us, the one who loves us, the one who knows what is best for us. In our Book of Praise, hymn # 57 paraphrases Psalm 91. The chorus is like this: And I will raise you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of my hand. And all we need to is to take the time to listen to his voice. Thanks be to God.

January 29th, 5th Sunday after the Epiphany

Have you ever seen those Canadian Hinterland commercials? You know, the ones where they show videos of Canadian wildlife in their natural habitat? They are short, and interesting. I found that I learned a lot from these little vignettes. But a few years ago, there was a different one. It started the same as the others, with that distinctive music, and the serious-sounding announcer’s voice gradually fading is, as the film began to play. Here is the text of what he said: “It’s night-time in a kitchen just like yours; all is quiet, or is it?”
“The North American house hippo is found throughout Canada and the Eastern United States. House hippos are very timid creatures and they are rarely seen, but they will defend their territory if provoked. They come out at night to search for food, water, and materials for their nests.”
“The favourite foods of the house hippo are chips, raisins and the crumbs from peanut butter on toast.”
“They build their nests in bedroom closets using lost mittens, dryer lint and bits of string. The nests have to be very soft and warm; house hippos sleep about 16 hours a day.”
That looked really real, but you knew it couldn’t be true, didn’t you? That’s why it’s good to think about what you’re watching on TV, and ask questions, kind of like you just did.
Of course, the point of this commercial was to alert children, in particular, to the idea that, just because something was on TV, it wasn’t necessarily true. And my point in telling you about it is to alert you to the idea that some amazing things can be done with video. Also, if you think about computer generated images, even more amazing things can be done. When I think about TV shows like the original Star Trek, or some of the earliest movies, and compare them to some of what we can see today – well, it is obvious that we have come a long, long way.
But, because of the knowledge we have acquired over the years, we have become a nation of skeptics, ready to question just about everyone and everything we see. In fact, there are sites on the Internet dedicated to exploding bubbles, to letting people know that something-or-other just isn’t true. And, possibly because of our skepticism, we are a little uncomfortable to some of today’s Scripture. We read: Just then, a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out. “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” The evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.
We modern people, living in the 21st century, are more than a little uncomfortable with the idea of demon-possession. We explain it by saying that people who were thought to be possessed must have been suffering from some kind of mental disorder, or possibly epilepsy, because surely there can’t be such a thing, can there? But there must be some wee, little part of our psyche which still believes. Otherwise, why would movies such as the Exorcist be so popular? But whatever we think, we wonder why Mark chose to start Jesus’ public ministry with this casting out of a demon instead of a wedding feast, as John did. And, despite our modern UNBELIEF in demons, Fred Craddock commented that we have not managed to eradicate evil in today’s world.
My point is that, if we believe in God, if we believe in all that is good, then we must also believe that evil exists. And too many of us are unwilling to accept both sides of the coin. I remember a young man in one of my senior high classes getting very upset with me because I told him that, of course, I believed in Satan. I did not mean that I worshipped Satan, but that I was very much aware of his existence. This is where so many people make a big mistake. They deny Satan’s very existence, and this is what can give him power and authority, the like of which properly belongs only to God. And it is even more important for us to hear what the evil spirit – the demon – called this man teaching in the synagogue on that Sabbath in Capernaum. He called Jesus the Holy One of God. No one else recognized him, but the demon did. The demon knew that this was the one person on earth who had authority over even him. He knew that this man could command him to stop tormenting the possessed person, and he would have no choice but to obey. He cried out: Have you come to destroy us? The simple answer is, of course, YES. But there is really nothing that is simple about Jesus.
At the beginning of today’s reading, we were told that Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. Now this was not unusual at that time, for a wandering preacher to show up at a synagogue on the Sabbath. In fact, it was almost expected, and the people looked forward to it. But today, ah, today was different. Because this man “taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” You see, the teachers of the law were EXPECTED to know their Scripture. They were EXPECTED to be able to expound on esoteric meanings. In much the same way, a congregation today EXPECTS the minister to be able to cite chapter and verse. People who are in these positions have studied, some longer than others, and are familiar with Scripture generally. But this man, this Jesus, who just appeared out of nowhere, he did more than the scribes and teachers. He spoke as “one with authority”. Now, in Mark’s Gospel, we don’t hear many of Jesus’ words. Think, for example of Matthew and Luke, both of whom relate the story of the Sermon on the Mount. They give us many of Jesus’ words. But the writer of Mark – well, he’d rather tell us ABOUT Jesus’ preaching, and tell us HOW he preached instead of WHAT he said.
And, according to what we read this morning, Jesus spoke with AUTHORITY. Now, this is a word which often leads to misunderstanding, as we tend to equate it with power, but the two are not necessarily the same. In fact, because of the confusion, there is often misunderstanding. So today, we will focus on AUTHORITY, to see how it applies to us as Christians, to us as Presbyterians, and to us as people. As people, there are some situations when we have to bow to authority, no matter how we perceive it. For instance, if I were pulled over by a policeman, it really wouldn’t do much good to disagree with him, if he said that I had jumped a red light. He has the authority to make such calls, and this is one situation in which I have none. Similarly, if someone is placed in a position of authority over me, like a professor, then it is to be expected that I would do as that person tells me.
During my time at seminary, there were many people placed in positions of authority over me. I, first of all, had to answer to my home presbytery, the people who had been the first to see that my call was genuine. There were the professors, at McGill and at Presbyterian College. Even if I disagreed profoundly with what some of them said – and we’ll talk about that another time – I had to produce the work they demanded. I had a mentor, of whom you have heard me speak many times, and she was the one to whom I felt most accountable, as she was the one with whom I worked most closely during my time in Montreal. However, there were other people to whom I gave authority, people who had no real connection with the seminary or even the Presbyterian Church in some cases. I worked with a spiritual director, who guided me over many rough patches, whose comments I came to respect more than I ever thought possible. These people earned their authority by being the kind of people they were. And this is the kind of authority which the people saw in Jesus that day in Capernaum.
This Jesus who is presented to us in Mark’s Gospel is slightly different from the one we met in Luke’s. In Luke, Jesus started his ministry by going to the synagogue, and introducing himself. He read from the book of Isaiah, saying: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. In Mark’s Gospel, the language is very different. We read about the demon being cast out, and we see words such as DESTROY, CONVULSE, and SHRIEK. But Mark’s Gospel shows us Jesus’ actions, shows us what it was that he DID, which gave him authority. And this authority has nothing to do with power. As we see every Holy Week, Jesus himself had very little power on earth. But he DID have authority.
In the church, authority is vested in positions. It really doesn’t matter who the person is – that person has authority because of the position held. In the Presbyterian Church, we have no real hierarchy, as some other denominations do. However, we DO have people called Ruling Elders, who are ordained to their position. We believe that Elders are called by God to their position, and, even though we do have an election by the congregation, this is more to show that the congregation will support the elders as they govern the individual churches. Many people who are not Presbyterian have problems with this. They are so used to directives coming from “on high” that they can’t believe that we are not answerable to some kind of earthly authority. And when we tell them that our national moderator is elected for one year, and that the moderator’s sole role is to conduct one meeting – well, this stymies them completely. But it works for us.
The ministers in each church have authority in spiritual matters. In actual fact, ministers may have influence in other matters, but when push comes to shove, the minister – who is called a Teaching Elder in our denomination – defers to the Kirk Session. Fortunately, in this church, this works well. I have found that the Kirk Session and I are on the same wave-length most of the time. Now, that doesn’t mean that one or the other of us is nothing more than a rubber stamp. It DOES mean that we all want the best things for this church, and that we – for the most part – agree on what those things are. Not all Sessions are as focused as this one. Some are hungry for power, and see the Kirk Session as one way to get it. These usually end up being totally dysfunctional.
Now, back to Jesus. He had no Session, and he was not himself a ruling elder. But he SPOKE WITH AUTHORITY. Where did he get this authority? And, even more importantly, how did other people recognize it? We know that they recognized it because we read: The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. But if these teachers of the law didn’t have authority, why were they in such positions? How could they have been placed there, if the people didn’t respect them? The teachers of the law – also called scribes – were interpreters of the law of Moses. Such people still exist today in Judaism, and they still interpret the law. But their authority was given to them by the texts, rather than anything else. These were learned men, men who devoted their lives to reading and studying, and to sharing what they learned with others. People would come to them with questions concerning such things as kosher food preparation, or marriage and divorce laws, and these men would reply in the light of what Scripture said. So their authority came THROUGH Scripture. But Jesus’ authority was contained in himself. It is still contained in himself. He is not merely interpreting the law that was given generations before. Jesus is bringing a new message to the people. He didn’t want to get rid of the law. Remember, on other occasions Jesus insisted that he had not come to ABOLISH the law, but to FULFILL it. And the people who listened to him on that day were amazed.
Not so the man who was possessed. The demon in him recognized Jesus, and he was afraid – afraid for his very life. He also recognized Jesus’ authority, but, unlike the other people in the synagogue, he knew its source. He knew that Jesus came from God, and he knew that the only real authority was also from God. And that is something we need to remember, today. Any authority we have is from God, and his is the only authority which really matters. Too many of us accept a different authority. Too many of us allow other things to control our lives – things like money, or the lack thereof; things like addictions to alcohol or drugs or video games or food. We let the clock and the calendar dictate to us what we should be doing and when. We are under the authority of chronos time, rather than kairos time. We let fear and prejudice dictate our reactions to other people or situations. We allow the expectations of other people – or of society in general – determine our behaviours.
And I would tell you that these so-called authorities count for nothing in eternity. What counts is God, and God’s authority. God DOES want to have authority over us; God DOES want to control our lives; God DOES expect obedience from us. And in return, we receive his abundant grace and blessings in this life, with life eternal just around the corner. Thanks be to God.