Archive for May, 2012

May 20th, Ascension Sunday

There were several choices in the lectionary readings for this Sunday, because it is Ascension Sunday. I chose the ones that would have been used if we had worshipped together on Thursday, since Ascension Day is one of the greatest mysteries of our faith, and we don’t often get to talk about it. We plan for his birth during Advent, and for his death during Lent. After Lent, we read about his time on earth before the Ascension. And, after today, we are back to waiting again for Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descends on the apostles, and the church itself starts properly. But today – well, we have to wonder why it is so important, and that will be the main focus of the sermon this morning. It seems to me that I am not the only one who wonders about the importance of this day. We celebrate Christmas on December 25th, no matter which day of the week it falls on. And Easter, of course, is always on Easter Sunday, just as Pentecost is on Pentecost Sunday. But this day – in other denominations – was celebrated on Thursday, and today the ascension is pretty much ignored. In our tradition, however, we are given the option, and I think that this day is too important to be relegated to a kind of – oh, yes, and then her ascended into heaven. This statement is part of the Apostles’ Creed, and one of the key tenets of our belief system, so I think that is needs more than a cursory comment.
But before I get into that, I need to give you a little history lesson. You see, it is believed by scholars that the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were written by the same person, and there is good reason to believe this. First, we need to look at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, which goes like this: Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to m e to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. We don’t know who Theophilus is, but it is assumed that he was a rich patron, one whom the author of Luke wanted to please, while at the same time writing this story of Jesus’ life. Now, today, we read the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, which went like this: In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. Then, he goes on to retell the story of the ascension.
In fact, two of our readings today had the ascension as the main part of the story, which could seem redundant, but it actually isn’t. You see, the ascension was really the end of Jesus’ story on earth, but it was also the beginning of the church. That is why, even though it was appropriate to have it as the end of Luke’s Gospel, it is even more appropriate to use it in the introduction to the Acts of the Apostles. Plus, there are some things which need to be repeated, just in case you didn’t get it the first time. This is one of those things. Jesus has ascended into heaven, where he is seated at the right hand of the father.
As long as Jesus was here, his followers were just that – his followers. Now that he isn’t, while we are still followers, we are also more than JUST followers. And this is reflected in the language used in the Gospels, and in the Acts. You see, in Luke’s Gospel, and, indeed, throughout the Gospels, the twelve are referred to as “disciples”, which means “students”. That is what they were – students of the Master, people who were learning. But, in Acts, even though we start with the same scene, written by the same person, a different word is used to characterize the same group of people. In Luke, we saw “disciples”. In Acts, they are called “apostles”, a word that means “ones who are sent”. Same people, but different titles. Same people, but different roles. Now the students have graduated, and are about to be sent by Jesus for a specific purpose – to continue the work Jesus began, by preaching about the kingdom, about repentance, and about forgiveness.
Of course, some people are unclear on the meaning of words, and I would imagine that the apostles themselves weren’t too sure what their role was to be in this new movement, now that Jesus was no longer physically with them.
I don’t know how many of you have ever read a novel by Christopher Moore called Lamb, The Gospel According To Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, but I would recommend it as some light reading, and also as a way to show just how little some people understand what happened on that day of the ascension. In this excerpt, Jesus – called Joshua – is sending his followers off to do their thing, to go into the villages to preach. Then [Joshua] made the call: “Okay, who wants to be an apostle?” “I do, I do,” said Nathaniel. “What’s an apostle?” That’s a guy who makes drugs,” I said. “Me, me,” said Nathaniel. “I want to make drugs.” “I’ll try that,” said John. “That’s an apothecary,” said Matthew . . . “Apostle means ‘to send off.’” . . . “That’s right,” said Joshua, “messengers. You’ll be sent off to spread the message that the kingdom has come.” “Isn’t that what we’re doing now?” asked Peter. “No, now you’re disciples, but I want to appoint apostles who will take the Word into the land . . . I will give you power to heal, and power over devils. You’ll be like me, only in a different outfit. You’ll take nothing with you except your clothes. You’ll live only off the charity of those you preach to. You’ll be on your own, like sheep among wolves. People will persecute you and spit on you, and maybe beat you, and if that happens, well, it happens. Shake of the dust and move on. Now, who’s with me?” And there was a roaring silence among the disciples . . . Joshua stood up and just counted them off . . . You’re the apostles. Now get out there and apostilize.” And they all looked at each other. “Spread the good news, the son of man is here! The kingdom is coming. Go! Go! Go!” They got up and sort of milled around . . . Thus were the twelve appointed to their sacred mission.
Now, in the Acts of the Apostles, it was presented a little differently, and, in a way, more applicable to us today. Let’s take a look at it again. Jesus had just been taken up into heaven, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky?”
Theologian Bruce Epperly felt – rightly so, I believe – that it was this question which is key to the meaning of this day, this question which can not only mean something to us, but can help us make more sense of this important event in church history. He wrote: the heart of this passage is that we have work to do here in this lifetime, in this precious and unrepeatable moment and life and in this beautiful world. This world is not the front porch to eternity, not is it worthless in the light of eternity. Rather, our life is in the here and now. Heaven is heaven, and earth is earth, and both are beautiful. Our calling as Christians is to heal and transform the world – THIS world. It has been said that there are some people who are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good, and that was the temptation for the disciples – to gaze at the heavens, to wait for a Second Coming, and to forget that their calling is to live faithfully in THIS life, as God’s partners in healing the world. We do not need to look up to the heavens to find meaning and fulfillment. The heavens are right here in this wondrous moment. God is here in our lives, and God has given us everlasting life right where we are.”
So when the men in white said: Why do you stand here looking into the sky? Every time I read this, I am reminded of myself as a teenager, when it was my turn to do the dishes. I would often stand at the sink, and start to daydream, because, of course, I’d rather have been just about anywhere than there, doing just about anything rather than washing dishes. My father would usually check up on me, and say something like: Those dishes aren’t going to wash themselves, you know. It was his not-so-subtle way of reminding me of what I was supposed to be doing. And the men in white were actually telling the apostles that they were not to do stand around, gazing into the sky; rather, they were to go about the work Jesus had set for them.
The apostles were being reminded – and so are WE being reminded – that our work is in the here and now. It isn’t in heaven or in expecting the Second Coming or in awaiting some kind of apocalyptic disaster. Cries of doom and gloom from televangelists have no relevance to us as followers of Jesus. People interpreting the Mayan calendar and deciding that it will all be over on December 12th are not doing what Jesus wanted us to do. Our time is now, our place is here. The impact of our actions in this moment are limited by factors beyond our control, but nevertheless what we do makes a difference – and can be a tipping point – in global, communal, and personal well-being.
A popular hymn which is often used at camp is This Is The Day The Lord Has Made reminds us that we are to rejoice in this day, in every day that the Lord has made. Each day is unrepeatable, each day has its own special characteristics, and once the day is over, it will never be back. Opportunities will be lost, regrets will be felt, but the day will be gone. Every day, God has work for us to do, and that work was set for us by Jesus on that Ascension day.
According to John’s Gospel, before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed for his followers – and, remember, that includes us! He was concerned for them and us – and his concern was well-founded, as we have seen. He prayed that we would be in the world, but not of the world. There is a difference. Being IN the world means simply that we do live with other people, that we interact with other people, that we do not isolate ourselves. If he had wanted us to do that, he would have given us directions to a deserted island, and instructed us to form a community there. He didn’t do this, so he wants us to remain IN the world. But we are not to be OF the world. What a difference a small preposition makes! There is a story from Ireland which exemplifies the difference. A bombing of civilians in the town of Ennishillen, Northern Ireland in 1987, killed many civilians. The IRA claimed responsibility, leaving no doubt of the perpetrators. A 20 year old student nurse, Marie Wilson, was trapped in the rubble with her father, Gordon. She asked him if he were all right, and clutching his hand said her last words, “Daddy, I love you very much.” She was removed from the rubble, but later died in the hospital. Gordon Wilson grieved for his 20- year old daughter, yet he said he felt no ill will. Indeed, he said he would pray for the people who planted the bomb. Normally reprisals are the response to such an act. Wilson’s words of forgiveness defused the community’s anger. He was definitely IN the world, but just as definitely, he was not OF the world.
So, we are required to live in this world, not of the world. We are required to perform our daily tasks, focusing on what needs to be done right now. And believe me, there is much that needs to be done right now. Jesus commanded us to love one another, as the first step in being apostles. He talked about how we should look after the marginalized in our society, about how we should not be attached to our THINGS, about the true cost of discipleship. And his words were plain, not at all confusing. So the problem lies with us, with our refusal to understand. Like the disciples, we stand, looking up to the sky, hoping for one more word, something that might make things a bit easier for us. Maybe we want Jesus to say that we must love only those people who are like us. Maybe we want a parable which somehow says that it is OK to accumulate more THINGS while others in our city go hungry. Maybe we are looking for some kind of cheap discipleship. But the men in white tell us – as my father did me – those dishes won’t do themselves. The disenfranchised among us can’t dig themselves out of their pit.
Next Sunday, we will join with the apostles in the joy of Pentecost. In the same way, we are called to share in their task of discipleship. Do not stand, looking up into the sky. Rather, look around you, at the people who need you, and who need God’s grace. Then go out into the world, and do what we have been commanded to do. Thanks be to God.

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May 13th, 6th Sunday of Easter

Two of our readings for today are concerned with love, which shouldn’t surprise us, because that is what being a Christian is all about. Jesus said to his followers: My command is this: love one another as I have loved you. At this time, Jesus knew that his death was not far off, and he could have been saying anything to the disciples. He could have been expounding on Scripture; he could have been revealing the secrets of the universe. But he simply said to them: Love one another.
And this is the commandment which we need to follow today, maybe even more than in those early days of the church. Last week, we spoke about abiding in Jesus, about being branches of the true vine, and this week, we are told how to do it. Simply put – love one another. You have often heard me mention Henri Nouwen, a theologian who wrote amazing books on spiritual disciplines. He put it a slightly different way in his short book In The Name Of Jesus, when he said that we are called to love Jesus and to love the way Jesus loved. Loving the way Jesus loved is the thing that is most difficult for us, and that seemed to be the most difficult for the early church as well. But more about that later.
For now, let’s focus on what Jesus said, and on how it applies to us today. The first thing to point out is that he said that the apostles – which includes us – are no longer his servants. Now, this may sound strange to us, seeing that in the 21st century, we don’t really consider ourselves anyone’s servants. But, if we look at the word in the original Greek, and check the real meaning, we will see that being a servant is not necessarily a bad thing. You see, the word DOULOS, which translates as the slave or servant of God, was not a title of shame in Jesus’ time, or in the time of the ancient Israelites. Rather, it was a title of honour. Moses was the doulos of God (Deuteronomy 34: 5); so was Joshua (Joshua 24: 29); and so was David (Psalm 89:20). Doulos was a title which Paul counted it an honour to use (Titus 1: 1); and so did James (James 1:1). The greatest men and women of the past were proud to be called the douli, the slaves of God.
And yet Jesus says: “I have something greater for you than this, you are no
longer to be called my slaves; rather I call you my friends.” Again, there is some explanation needed here. We think that we understand what the word “friend” means, and we do – in OUR context. However, there is a deeper meaning, which I found in my research for this week. You see, the word “friend”, when applied to being Jesus’ friend, means much more than it does if we refer to each other as friends. At that time, and even centuries later, the rulers of the land had a select group of people who had special privileges. I am not referring to the members of the court, who were most often there pushing their own agendas. Rather, I refer to those people who were known as “friends of the king” or “friends of the emperor”. These people had access to the ruler at all times, even when he was sleeping. It was common for them to come to his bedroom at the start of the day, before he met with statesmen or diplomats or generals. The friends of the king were the people with whom he was most intimate. And here is Jesus saying that the apostles – and we – are to be called HIS friends.
Not only that, but he said: You did not choose me, but I chose you. Now, this whole concept of being chosen is pretty special. You may find this hard to believe, but when I was young, I was not very athletic. In fact, the best word to describe me was “clumsy”. Even my father, who loved me dearly, referred to me using that word. I have been known to fall UP the stairs. I used to say that it was because I was always rushing from one place to another, but now I’ll admit it. I just am not well-co-ordinated. I tell you this so that you will understand how much it matters to me that I was CHOSEN. You see, when I was a child, we played outdoors a lot – no TVs or computers or video games for us. And a lot of the time, we played things which required up being in teams – baseball, Red Rover – that kind of thing. And guess who was almost always the last one chosen? The clumsy one, the one who was afraid of the ball, the one who couldn’t run bases fast enough not to be tagged out. But none of this matters to Jesus. He doesn’t care if we aren’t athletic; he doesn’t care if we can’t sing; he doesn’t notice what talents we have or what talents we are lacking. He has chosen us to be his friends.
Today, we saw that in evidence here at St. Andrew’s, when Cheung Hun and Dennis became members of this congregation and of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. They were already Christians, but today they stood in front of you and announced this publicly. They have been chosen to be his friends, and to be members of this church family. What was it that led them to this church? I can’t answer that, but I know what made them stay. They felt as though they had friends here. They felt welcomed here, and that shows how we, in this church, follow Jesus’ command to love one another.
And here’s another word which needs some explanation – the word COMMAND. Here, it isn’t meant in the legalistic sense, in that we are obligated to love one another, even though we are. It doesn’t refer to a set of laws, such as we can read in other parts of Scripture. It isn’t placing strictures on us, such as dietary laws or laws of cleanliness. In fact, the whole theme of John’s Gospel is love, plain and simple.
We need to remember that John was addressing a small, struggling community of faith, one which did not have centuries of tradition behind it. He is talking about a kind of unselfish love, which binds people together in community AND in relationship to Jesus. This is the kind of love which was crucial then and which is crucial now. Remember that the disciples, whom Jesus was speaking to, were about to face possibly the most difficult thing a community such as theirs could face – the death of their leader. And Jesus himself – well, he was facing his own death. Not only that, the community being addressed in this Gospel, known as the Johannine community, were a generation or two removed from Jesus, and were themselves facing persecution from religious and civil leaders alike. Today, we are facing a different kind of persecution. Here, in Canada, I call it persecution by apathy. So many people no longer attend church. So many babies are not baptized because their parents just don’t bother with it. They say things like: I’ll let him choose when he is older. Well, guess what? If they are not raised IN the church, then the chance of them CHOOSING it later is a very slim one.
So we all, the disciples, the early Christians, and today’s Presbyterians, all of us are called to love one another. Henri Nouwen wrote: “The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.” And remember, I have told you many times, that we are ALL called to ministry of some sort. But we cannot be ministers unless we love.
I don’t know how much you know about liberation theology, but this is not really a new thing. It happens mostly in developing countries, where whole classes of people are eliminated from any kind of good life. They are oppressed, and often abused by those who believe themselves to be superior. This happens especially in Latin America, where drug lords reign supreme, and where it is not uncommon for people just to disappear. When I was studying liberation theology, I learned about Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was definitely one of the privileged ones in el Salvador. He became archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, and many of the priests in the country were upset at this, believing that, because of his privileged life, he would not be sympathetic to their stand regarding ministry to the poor. However, one month after his appointment, a Jesuit friend of the Archbishop was assassinated, and he realized that there was something seriously wrong in his country. He became known as one who could be both a prophet to the rich and a pastor to the poor and oppressed people of El Salvador. He didn’t turn away from, or ignore, the setting in which he preached, or the people who needed a word of hope about their lives, then and there, not simply pie-in-the-sky promises of heaven while their loved ones were disappearing into the violent machinery of a corrupt state. In faithfulness to the love of which Jesus speaks in this passage, Romero ultimately laid down his life for those he loved, when he was himself assassinated on March 24th, 1980, while he was celebrating Mass in a small hospital chapel.
This is what Jesus knew would happen; this is why he told us to love others – specifically, in another place, he told us to love our enemies. If we were to read just one more verse in the Gospel reading, we would hear Jesus day: If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. He knew, you see, that it wasn’t going to be easy for the disciples, or for the early Christians, or for liberation theologians like Oscar Romero, or for people like Mother Theresa, or for us today, as we struggle to live out our faith in face of the many challenges we face. In one of our best-known hymns – Amazing Grace – we sing about the dangers, toils, and snares through which we have come, thanks to God’s grace. And, in this sermon, Jesus reassured the disciples – and us – that we face these things as his friends, not merely as his servants.
Here, in Québec, we are not called to do what Oscar Romero did. It is difficult enough to lives our daily lives as Christians, in a society that is increasingly secular. There is a book by Jim Wallis, titled Called To Conversion, which puts it quite well. Wallis describes something that happened at a conference in New York City on social justice that included religious leaders of all kinds. “At one point,” he recalls, “a Native American stood up, looked out over the mostly white audience, and said, ‘Regardless of what the New Testament says, most Christians are individualists with no real experience of community.’ He paused for a moment and then continued: ‘Let’s pretend that you were all Christians. If you were Christians, you would no longer accumulate. You would share everything you had. You would actually love one another. And you would treat each other as if you were family.’ His eyes were piercing as he asked, ‘Why don’t you do that? Why don’t you live that way?'” Let’s pretend we are all Christians. What would that look like? How would it be different from the way we live today? I can’t paint a picture, but I would be willing to be that, for many of us, there would be changes.
But there were also changes in the early church. People had to change the way they lived, the way they looked at others. This is evident in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles. In this we are told that the circumcised were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. Now, to get this, we have to look at it in context. You see, the Jews who followed Jesus – the early Christians – really believed that Jesus had been speaking ONLY to Jews. And this despite the fact that he healed Gentiles, and hung out with sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes. And despite the fact that the first person to recognize him as the Messiah was a Samaritan woman. And despite the fact that the first people to bring him gifts were the Magi – more Gentiles. If we had looked at the previous chapter in this book, we would have seen Peter’s vision, which I would like to share with you. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him: “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord,” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
For a long time, this was thought to refer to the removal of dietary restrictions, and that may well be one of the messages. However, a more important message is that the Good News is for everyone, and this is a hugely liberating message for all kinds of reasons. Peter is himself liberated from his belief that Gentiles needed to follow the rules of Judaism in order to follow Jesus. Gentile believers are liberated from the dietary rules as well as – for the men, at least – an uncomfortable surgical procedure. Peter also realized, as the followers just realized, as we also should realize, that God pours out the Spirit on whomever he chooses. He ignores what we think; he doesn’t care whom we believe to be suitable. And we are called to trust him, and to love all of those who are called, no matter what we think of them. After all, that’s what he did to us. Thanks be to God.

May 6th, 5th Sunday of Easter

Today’s image of our relationship with Jesus is one which particularly appeals to me. Jesus as the vine, me as one of the branches, and God as the gardener who tends the vine – this is surely one of the most powerful images ever. I am not sure you know much about vines and branches, but from my experience as a child, when my grandfather grew grapes on vines, I can tell you that, when the branches are in full leaf, it is almost impossible to see any difference between the vine and the branches. They appear to be just the one entity, and I think that is the idea behind Jesus’ using this particular image to describe our relationship.
I, myself, am not a great gardener any more. I used to have a great vegetable garden, and for a while, I grew many plants indoors. When my youngest daughter left home, I turned her bedroom into a kind of greenhouse. That room got lots of sun, plus I bought the grow lights, which simulated the rays of the sun during times when we didn’t get much natural light. Of course, living in Labrador, we got more sun than just about anywhere in Canada, but in the winter, the days were quite short, so I needed the artificial sunlight at times. One thing which I learned quite early in my gardening career was that plants would grow towards the sun, and, if I didn’t turn them regularly, one side would be much more lush than the other. This type of gardening is called heliotropism, from the Greek word for SUN – Helios. Plants grown by this method are not forced to grow a certain way, but encouraged. I used heliotropism to make my plants grow evenly on every side, and to ensure a non-random crop each year.
Then, there were the tomato plants. These were not rotated, but staked. They were kept in one spot, and all I could do about the sun was to hope that the plant would receive enough to keep it healthy. Plants grown like this were forced to grow in a particular way, but even so, I could see the flowers on these plants turning their faces towards the sun. This is what plants do – they turn towards the sun.
And as for us, we turn towards God. In the hymn Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee, we can see the following words: Hearts unfold like flowers before thee, opening to the sun above. We are not staked, and forced to grow in a certain way. Nor are we denied the light of God’s love. Rather, it is there for us to turn to, all of our lives. And, to carry the analogy a bit further, Luther once said that, in sin, the human will becomes bent, turns away from God, and in on itself. Since it has always been my contention that sin is a rejection of God, then this makes perfect sense. In sin, we focus on self rather than on God, and we become spiritually warped, until, like the branches which are cut off from the vine, our souls shrivel up.
Will Willimon, talking about the Lord’s Prayer, commented that this short prayer is a lifelong act of bending our lives towards God in the way that He has offered. The way that he OFFERED. Not the way that he REQUIRED or the way in which we are “forced”, but in the way that he OFFERED. We are free to accept this or not, just as we wish. But, like plants yearning for the sun, so do we yearn for God.
As Christians, we want to share this with others, but there is one thing we must be mindful of. We need to remember that the people who come here are like branches on the vine that is Jesus Christ, and it behooves us well to recognize that their way may not be the same as our way. But as long as they are turned towards God, then they are part of the true vine, just as we are. We should not tie them to what we see as the stake which is necessary for them to grow. Rather, we should cause our own light to shine in such a way that others will be drawn to it. If we look back over our own lives, we should all be able to name other people who shone in this way for us. For me, there were ministers AND priests, who reflected God’s love out towards others, and therefore attracted others to it. There were teachers – mostly nuns, in my case – who lived the Gospel, who acted in a Christ-like way all of the time. There were people like my grandmother, who opened her doors to everyone who came, and never let them go without a cup of tea – which often meant a full meal! Having these people as examples made me want to live my life as they did. I don’t always succeed, but I keep turning my soul towards God, in the hopes that people will see the bright sun of his love through the way I act, the things I do and say.
Now, I want to go back to my gardening adventures for a minute. I remember one summer, the plants had been growing beautifully. The leaves were green, flowers had come in their proper time, and fruit was starting to appear. That year, I had tomatoes and cucumbers as my main crop, and every morning, I loved to go into the garden and see how well they were doing. And one morning, I noticed that some of the green leaves were turning yellow or brown. Some of the blossoms were no longer blooming, and, even worse, some of the fruit just seemed to have stopped growing. So I waded into the morass of vines, and started checking the discoloured bits. I was astonished to find that they were all part of a single plant. I couldn’t see any reason for this to have happened, so I got down on the ground to find the base of the plant. When I got there, I discovered that cut worms had attacked this particular plant, which meant that the entire plant died because it was no longer connected to the roots.
For us, as branches of the true vine, we need to stay connected to OUR roots; we must remain attached to the vine. Otherwise, we will die spiritually. When we ARE connected, we will produce fruit. It is as simple as that. Our connection is through Jesus Christ, through whom we are nourished spiritually. The light of God comes to us through his love, just like the light of the sun comes to plants. If you have ever walked in a dense forest, you will know that the smaller plants have great difficulty growing properly, because they cannot get the sun. They get water, and nutrients from the soil, but without the light-giving, life-giving sun, they are unable to reach their full potential.
Now think about yourself. You come to church regularly, which is the plant equivalent of water and nutrients. It is here where you hear the word of God, and here where you are nourished by this faith community. But if you cannot see the love of God, you cannot reach your full potential. We all know people who do many good things, but they burn out. They reach a point in their lives where they are frustrated all the time; angry all the time; and so tired that they can barely force themselves out of bed in the morning. This is particularly true for people in what we call the “caring” professions – nurses, social workers, doctors, teachers, and, yes, ministers. This can become so bad that these people end up leaving their jobs because they just see no sense in what they are doing any more. But then, we see other people in the same professions, doing just as much, if not more, and yet they are not living in despair. They are full of hope, full of compassion, and full of joy in their work. The difference is that the one is nourished by the light of God’s love, and by what is found only in a faith community. The other is trying to do everything alone, which doesn’t work. For without God, without being connected, we will wither and fall off.
When I was compiling my list of caring professions, I almost didn’t include “minister”, because I thought: Who else is better connected to God than ministers? But then, I rechecked the statistics, which tell us that, within five years after graduation from seminary, only 25% of the graduates are still serving in congregational ministry. And that tells me that too many of our ministers do not feel the connection to God which they preach. Too many of our ministers feel cut off from the true vine.
But, of course, ministers are not the only people to feel this way. There are far too many people who are cut off from the source of life, and, in our Gospel reading, Jesus tells us, bluntly, what happens when we are cut off, when we no longer remain in him. He said: If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire, and burned. And this is what happens to us when we do not abide in Jesus Christ, when we are not connected to the source of true life. We end up not unlike the branch I used in the children’s story today, not much good for anything.
Of course, there are times when it is necessary to prune bushes, when it is necessary to cut off the dead wood. If you will remember, we have often, in this church, spoken about the new shoot coming from the stump of Jesse. We have talked about the idea of new birth, of rebirth, and how this cannot happen without the dead wood being eliminated. This can happen on an individual level as well, when we cut off those things which are holding us back from abiding in Jesus; when we are ruthless in eliminating those parts of us which shade us from the light of God’s love.
But, in cutting off the useless bits, be careful not to prune too much. Be careful not to cut yourself off completely. I know that cut flowers sometimes last a long time – a couple of weeks in some cases – but, eventually, they, too will wither and die, because they have been cut off from their source of life. Without our connection to the life-giving Jesus, this is what will happen to us.
Ask yourself: To what am I connected? And before you give an answer, think about it. In this 21st century, it is possible to be connected to more people and things than ever before. But at the same time, we are more and more alone. It is possible to have more Facebook friends than real friends, and many of us spend more time chatting online than we do sitting down face-to-face with people. We are “linkedin” to various professional acquaintances, but rates of loneliness and depression are higher than ever before. We have access to more sources of news and information than our grandparents could have thought possible, and yet many of us are shrivelling up because we don’t have anything close to a real relationship.
Maybe that’s where we should start – by looking at the difference between being connected – through the various social networking sites – and being in relationship. Because this is what Jesus is offering us – a real relationship by being connected with him.
However, just because he is offering us this, we shouldn’t think that everything is going to be wonderful. Time to take off the rose-coloured glasses, and admit that being in relationship with God is not always going to be easy. Being part of a community – a real community, not a cyber-space one – isn’t always going to be easy. Any kind of relationship is going to have ups and downs. That’s why, when we marry, we use the words: in better and in worse, or something similar, as part of the vows. And because of this, when we are in relationship – whether individual or community – we become vulnerable. You see, we often forget that communities are made up on individuals, with all of our individual foibles and quirks. Some, granted, are generally nicer than others, but we all have our good days and our bad days. We all have days when we keep running into people we can only describe as jerks, but there are also those days when that is only word that can be used to describe us. We may find it easy to recognize this in others, but the real challenge is to recognize it in ourselves.
But here, I am talking about being in relationship with other people, not with Jesus Christ. And he is the one with whom we need a real relationship. It is through our relationship with him that our other relationships can become better. If we are connected with Jesus, if we are being lighted by the light of God’s love, then we can be honest about who and what we are. We will have no need to hide anything. If you will remember, we have heard in the Psalms as well as in other places, that evil loves the darkness and hates the light. But it is through living in the light that we will be what God wants us to be. It is through living in the light that we will do the right kind of pruning, so that what is left will grow into the light of his love. Thanks be to God.

From Bach to Broadway

Join us at St. Andrew’s on Sunday, May 27th for what we hope will be the first of many concerts. This is a fund-raiser, and all of the money raised will go towards repairs to the church. As the title says, you will hear music ranging from Bach to Broadway, and many things in-between. There will be jazz, classical music, and even the bagpipes of the Fraser Highlanders. Performing artists include: David Stafford, organist, St. Andrew’s, The Fraser Highlanders Pipers, headed by Alan Stairs, Terry Christophersen, flautist, Jay Hébert and Keith Burgess, guitar, Arianne Roberto, soprano, Andrée Bernard, outstanding Quebecoise jazz singer, and Deborah Jeans, soprano. All of the performers are donating their talents so that we can realize the most profit.
Start time is 2 pm, and tickets are $20 each. You can reserve by calling Rev. Burgess at 418-9=694-1347 or Deborah Jeans at 418-655-6064.