Archive for June, 2012

June 10th – Communion

As most of you know, I attended the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada during this past week, and much of what was discussed there will be coming up here over the next few weeks, in one way or another. The theme was On The Edge, and the main focus was on how we, in the PCC, are on the edge of great changes. Like Joshua, who was leading the Israelites, across the river Jordan into the Promised Land, we are about to dip our feet into a metaphorical river, and, also like Joshua, we have to trust that God will be there to see us safely to the other side. I could spend the rest of today’s sermon speaking about this, but there are other things to discuss. However, stay tuned to this channel, as you will definitely be hearing more about it.
Our readings for today gave me lots to work on. In fact, you could say that I was spoilt for choice, as I was getting ready. After much deliberation, I decided to focus on the Gospel reading, and save the others for another day, even though I really liked what Samuel had to say to the Israelites when they demanded a king. It was not unlike the expression – be careful what you wish for. Samuel warned the Israelites that a king might not be the best thing for them, but they insisted. The rest, as they say, is history, and we will discuss that in future sermons or Bible Studies. But for now, let’s concentrate on Mark, and these early days in Jesus’ ministry.
I would venture to guess that many of us in this congregation are like Jesus in a couple of aspects. Many of us have moved from somewhere else in order to live in this wonderful city. And, sometimes, like Jesus, we go home for a visit. For instance, I was primarily raised in Newfoundland, and most people can tell from my accent that I am from the east coast of Canada. Some people detect the Newfoundland accent, while others just know that it is from somewhere east of here. There is something about the living close to the Atlantic, I think, that causes us to speak in a certain way. My mother, on the other hand, was from Australia, and her accent was very different from mine. To me and my friends, accustomed as we were to hearing her, there was nothing unusual about it, but people meeting her for the first time often made the mistake of assuming that she was British, as her Australian accent had softened during her time in Canada. Here, right in this congregation, we hear many different accents, but I would be willing to bet that those people who have lived in Canada the longest have also softened their accents over time. And I wonder what happens when they speak to people newly arrived, or when they telephone people who have never left. I would imagine that even they can hear the difference in accents. I remember, as a child, when my mother would call her family down under, it would take a few minutes for our ears to become accustomed to their accents again. They would accuse my mother of sounding Canadian, and she, in her turn would suggest that they were making their accents broader as part of a show. Of course, they were both wrong, and both right. Neither one actually remembered the way they used to sound, so they couldn’t really make fair comparisons.
All that being said, we all know that people’s accents change, depending on where they live. And the longer one lives in a specific place, the more likely one is to develop a different accent, or at least to change the original one, whether for the better or worse! This is probably most evident when people return to their place of origin. And this is what happened in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus had started his ministry – we are in the third chapter of Mark, and we have seen Jesus do amazing things. He had been baptized by John in the Jordan, and the Spirit had already descended on him. He had gone into the desert for 40 days, where he resisted temptation by Satan. He had healed many, driven out demons, and called his disciples. I have mentioned before that this is the Gospel of speed. It is the shortest of the Gospels, and Mark seems to want to let us know as much as possible in the least amount of time. Jesus goes from one place to another, ministering and preaching, healing and helping others. He goes from Nazareth, where he had been raised, to the river Jordan, to the wilderness around Galilee, to the sea of Galilee, to a house, to a deserted place, back to the towns of Galilee, back to Capernaum, back home to Nazareth, again to the sea, then to Levi’s house, through the grain fields where the Pharisees spotted him and his disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath, then to the synagogue for some extra preaching, back to the sea, where he preached from a boat to keep the crowds from crushing him, and up a mountain, where he anointed the twelve, and finally he went home. I don’t know about you, but I get exhausted just reading all this. And Jesus could have been no different. Remember, he was fully man as well as fully God, and his physical body became tired and worn out, just as our physical bodies do. And remember, everywhere Jesus went, the crowds followed him – some desperate for healing, others out to trap him in blasphemy. Whatever their reason, they would not leave him alone, and Jesus The one thing he had not done was something many of us are guilty of as well. He had not taken time to rest. Every time he tried to, people found him, and cried out to be healed or helped in other ways.
And we can’t really blame them. After all, even if Jesus tried to keep people from finding out who he was, the word was spreading. And which person in this church, having a sick child, or spouse, or parent, wouldn’t want to find Jesus and beg for the gift of healing? People then wanted healing so much that, in the previous chapter of Mark’s Gospel, they opened a roof and lowered a paralytic man through it, so that Jesus could take care of things. Here, of course, Jesus did more than they expected, and got himself into trouble with the authorities, when he said to the man: Your sins are forgiven. This upset the teachers of the law, the religious leaders, who had already started to worry about this wandering preacher, who healed and cast out demons and preached love and forgiveness.
So we come at last to today’s reading, one which is not the most popular among preachers OR congregations. It is in today’s reading that Jesus returns briefly to his home town. And remember I mentioned earlier how people in one’s home town will notice differences when one returns? Well, it was no different for Jesus than it would be for us. Jesus had been a carpenter in Nazareth, working in his father’s workshop. But when he came home, he wasn’t the same. He was no longer a carpenter, even though he frequently used carpenter-type allusions in his preaching. He was a healer, a teacher, an exorcist. I can just imagine the reaction of the people who knew him when he was a boy!
There is a story about a young man from a small town who went away to the big city, to attend university. While he was there, he learned new things, developed new habits, and began to dress differently from the way he did when he was in high school. Even his accent changed subtly over the course of his studies, and he spoke more correctly than he had when he was growing up. He eventually came home, but was not well-received by many of his former friends, or, indeed, by much of his family. The general feeling was that he was putting on airs, that he was getting above himself, that he was DIFFERENT since he had been away. And heaven forbid that he should be DIFFERENT, for we all hate change, don’t we? But that’s what happens, when we go away from home. We change – sometimes in very subtle ways, and sometimes in very profound ways. But change is bound to happen. And it happened to Jesus.
Now, I can just picture it. Jesus shows up, back in Nazareth, where everyone knew him, where everyone knew his family. And as he is speaking to the crowds, someone runs to his family – in the way that people do – warning them that all was not well with their son and brother, that maybe they should bring him home and talk to him about the danger of changing. Remember, the Jews were under control of Rome, and it was not a good thing to talk against Rome as Jesus was thought to be doing. And it definitely wasn’t a good thing to break the Sabbath laws, or to embarrass the religious leaders, as Jesus certainly was doing. So, this person goes into the living quarters behind the carpenter shop, “Mary, I saw your boy. Yeah, Jesus the one that went off to be a preacher. Boy, he sure talks funny, like the city folks he’s been hanging around with. And, well, it’s not just the way he talks, it’s what he says. That boy has sure got some funny ideas. People are talking like he’s crazy or something. You better do something about it.”

So Mary gathers up the family and sets out to find her boy. There are two motivations working in their effort to stop Jesus. One is the fact that Mary and James and the rest still live in Nazareth and what Jesus does reflects on them. Family honor and business are on the line. The second, and I suspect more powerful, motivation is love. They love Jesus. They didn’t understand him, but they loved him. And because they loved him, they didn’t want him to change – at least not so much that he would get into trouble. They thought – along with many other residents of Nazareth – that Jesus had gone out of his mind. The religious leaders – the teachers of the law – accused him of being in league with Beelzebub – the prince of demons. So, Jesus’ family, hearing this talk about him, sent someone to call him, according to our text. We assume that they wanted him to come home for a nice rest, so that he could get his funny ideas taken care of by his loving family. Actually, in the original Greek, the verb used was much stronger than simply “call”. It more closely means “seize” or “grab” or even “arrest”. So they were determined to save Jesus from himself.
You know, I have tried to picture other parents doing this to their children who became preachers. Somehow, I can’t see Mr. Rogers’ mother worrying that her son – who was also a Presbyterian minister – had lost his mind. Or Billy Graham’s mother wanting people to help her son recover from whatever had changed him. But in Jesus’ case, it seems that his family felt that it was necessary to do an intervention, something we are all too familiar with these days, from what they call reality TV. Jesus, of course, reacted as we would expect him to. He had already said that his followers had to leave their homes and families to follow him, so we are not surprised when he said that those seated in a circle around him; those who did God’s will – THESE were his brother and sister and mother. And this is the main stumbling block in this text – the fact that Jesus rejected the family who raised him in the faith; the family who loved him. I don’t think that he was doing this to REJECT them, but rather to CHOOSE to do his father’s will over the will of man. This is what he expects of us. His physical family no doubt found this difficult to accept, which is why they did what they did.
But what Jesus’ family was trying to do was really nice, compared to what other people were trying to do. I have often tried to picture Jesus living today, and to imagine the reaction of many people to him. Picture him as a gifted preacher, a compassionate pastor, tending to the needs of his own flock, and also to others. But he would be picked on and put down by religious leaders, leaders of his own church who make negative comments, and who criticize him – usually in coffee shops or the church parking lot. He would be pushed to his limit by judgmental, mean-spirited, small-minded, and insecure religious experts. But he would still be Jesus Christ. He would still be the son of God. And he would be part of a larger family, just as we are part of a larger family.
I am a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, and a friend. But none of those relationships are as important as the one I am in with God. I am a child of God and younger sister of Jesus Christ, who is my Lord and Savior. That relationship takes priority over all others and makes sense of all others. As long as I remember that Christ is first in my life, everything else falls in line.
This morning, we will share in the sacrament of the Lords’ Supper, which marks us as part of the family of the church, as part of the family of Jesus Christ. Through Jesus, the meaning of family is opened up, expanded, reframed. If you will, through Jesus, we are given a new-and-improved family, one which encompasses all of humanity, with all of its moral, physical, and spiritual beauty and all of its moral, physical, and spiritual imperfection. And we have the choice of whether or not to be a part of this family. We can choose to accept Jesus or to reject him. Someone once asked me if I believed in hell, and, if so, what would cause a loving God to condemn someone to eternity in such a place. Well, of course I believe in hell, just as I believe in heaven. But God does not condemn anyone to hell. Those who end up there, choose it for themselves, by rejecting God, and by rejecting God’s family. Susan Blain put it very well when she wrote: In Christ, we are forgiven all our failed efforts at community, and invited afresh to rejoin the family of God, seeking blessing for all. Let us do that again this day. Thanks be to God.

May 27th – Pentecost Sunday

Today, we are celebrating two important things. The first, of course, is Pentecost Sunday, which commemorates the day on which the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit, and empowered to go out and preach the Good News. And for us, at St. Andrew’s, it is the day when we welcome Xiaolei through the sacrament of Baptism. Both of these days signal a rebirth – the one for the church, and the other for an individual, but neither is less important than the other. Without both Pentecost and Baptism, the church would die. Thanks to Pentecost, the church came to be. And thanks to Baptism all came to be part of the church.
But before we look at Pentecost, at what it meant to the early church, and at what it means to us today, let’s take a look at the Psalm which we just read. The refrain which we sang bears repeating, partly because it is so connected to both the reading from the Acts of the Apostles AND to the Old Testament reading from Ezekiel. Listen to it again: Send forth your Spirit, O Lord, and renew all creation. Now, we know from the account of creation that the Spirit was present then. We are told that the Spirit moved over the waters, and when God breathed life into his creations, they were filled the spirit. In fact, the word for wind or breath was pneuma, which was used also as the word for Spirit. So here we have the psalmist crying out for God’s Spirit to renew all creation. In the Valley of Dry Bones, referenced in our reading from Ezekiel, God breathed his spirit into long dead bodies – so long dead that they were nothing more than dry bones – and they were covered with flesh and revived. This, then, is what happened – in a figurative way – on that first Pentecost.
Can you imagine what it must have felt like, there in the place where all of Jesus’ followers were gathered together? They were afraid. Their Messiah had been crucified, and just fifty days earlier, he had risen from the dead. But now he was gone, and they didn’t know what to do. We are told that there were about 120 of them, a small number compared to the rest of the world. They had been told to wait until the Holy Spirit came upon them, after which they were to be witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. So they huddled together in the upper room, praying and praising God. You see, I think that it is possible – not to mention probable – that they had no clue what was going on, or what was about to happen. They had heard Jesus promise that the Spirit would come, and they probably looked at each other and nodded wisely, but they really didn’t understand or know what to expect. We are all familiar with that. It is something which we all do when someone – our husband or wife or teacher or boss or minister tells us something which we don’t quite understand, and which we don’t bother to get clarified.
And the day of Pentecost came. They had been going about their lives, doing their own thing, and mostly keeping quiet about what had happened, for fear of drawing attention to themselves. It must have been akin to creation all over again – with a violent wind and tongues of fire resting on them. And then came the speaking in tongues. If we compare this to our Sunday worship, there is one thing we can be certain of – whoever these early followers were, they were certainly NOT Presbyterian! In fact, anything LESS Presbyterian would be hard to imagine. Be that as it may, that is what happened on that first Pentecost, and the followers were probably just as amazed by it as modern readers are in the 21st century. Today, we call speaking in tongues glossolalia, and we tend to treat it with some disbelief. You see, according to Paul, there is such a thing as a gift of tongues, or the ability to speak in other languages. But there is also the gift of interpreting divers languages, and if the second is not present, then the first is questionable. But this is very different from what happened on that first Pentecost. On that day, there were present in Jerusalem, people of many nationalities. And each one of them heard the apostles speaking in their native language. If you will remember, going back to the book of Genesis again, at one time mankind spoke one common language. They became so arrogant that they decided to build a tower which would reach into the heavens, so that they would be able to ascend and descend at will. But God sent his messengers among them, and confounded their language so that they could not understand one another, and were not able to complete the tower. Now, here came the Spirit, causing them to be understood by everyone when they spoke. This speaks to the unity which Jesus wanted for the early church. He knew, as do we, especially in this province, how language can serve to separate. And he knew, as we do, especially in this province, how language can serve to unify.
The names mentioned in the reading – which I won’t repeat, as I have managed to say them correctly once today – represented the known world at that time. And, at that moment, they were united in all hearing the same thing, in their own languages. As you noticed, they tried to blame it on drunkenness, but Peter set them straight, quoting from the prophet Joel.
Now, there is something else you must understand, because otherwise you may wonder why there were so many foreigners around, listening to the Good News in their own languages. On that day, which we have come to call Pentecost, Jerusalem was again full of visitors, because this was the day on which everyone celebrated the spring harvest, by giving back of the first fruits in the form of sacrifice at the temple. The reference to Jesus’ followers as “Galileans” doesn’t mean anything to us today, but at that time, it carried a huge meaning to the other people in Jerusalem. Galileans were known as ignorant people, kind of like country bumpkins. So to hear them suddenly become impassioned orators would have been something that would have astounded everyone who heard them. Fortunately, Peter – who seems to have come into his own since Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension – was able to explain things. In his interpretation of Joel’s words, he made a slight change. Joel was, according to the scholars, speaking about the last days, about the time when the world would end. And Peter wants people to be clear on the fact that the world as they have known it – HAS ended, that it is no longer something to be anticipated, but something which is here. And it is still here today – here in Quebec City, in the Presbyterian Church in Canada.
Those who were gathered together were faithful Jews, looking for a Jewish Messiah. They had no more intention of starting a new church than did Calvin or Knox or Luther. They saw a need for reform, which is something we, as Presbyterians, continue to recognize. It is no longer enough to say: We’ve always done it this way. The time has come for us – just as it did for the followers of Jesus – to change, to become open to rebirth. And this is what the first Pentecost was all about – not a new birth, but a rebirth, not a new covenant, but a renewed covenant, one which would change the minds and hearts of the apostles and other followers of Christ, and which would renew the face of the earth.
This is, indeed, Good News for us on this celebration of Pentecost, as the PCC prepares for its General Assembly. It is at the General Assembly that we make changes in our church. Remember, the motto of the PCC is: always reformed, always reforming, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And we took this from the first Pentecost. The followers of Jesus, who were not yet called Christians, started the first great reform. And that reform is continuing.
Think, for a minute, of those people who have become members of St. Andrew’s in the past year. Think of those who have been baptized, including Xiaolei. And multiply that by all of the Presbyterian churches in Canada. All of these people are part of this reform, this rebirth. And they come from many different places, geographically and culturally. Ask yourself what it is which draws them to the church at this time. Many of them have not been raised in the church, and yet they have chosen to become a part of it. What are the visions that these young people see, and what are the dreams that the “old” members still dream, dreams that they long to share and build on with the youth? How might their arrival bring a shaking up of the church, as so often happens with the creative and renewing energy of the Spirit? For, make no mistake, these new members have ideas and visions, and want to share them with the rest of us.
Marcus Borg, with whom I often disagree, sometimes says things which I not only accept, but want to endorse. In his book Reading The Bible Again For The First Time, talked about how the first Pentecost served to undo the damage which was done during the attempted building of the Tower of Babel, by bringing together the broken, divided community that was humankind. Ask yourself in what way our church and our community needs to be reunited and brought together. There are divisions in the Presbyterian Church, and General Assembly is one of the ways we attempt to deal with it. It is at General Assembly that we air our differences, and explore solutions. It is my hope that the Spirit of God will be at the meetings, so that we will understand and accept each other. Even though we will not be divided by language, there will still be times when we will fail to communicate effectively. This is part of being human, but we need to rise above that. We need to open our hearts and minds to the Spirit, and recognize that a new day has come.
Those of us who have been present at a birth know that it really isn’t quiet and peaceful. Nor is rebirth. Phyllis Tickle, the founding editor of the Religion Department of Publishers’ Weekly, is herself an authority on religion in North America. In her book The Great Emergence, she reflects on what she sees as the regular ‘garage sale’ that the church experiences every five hundred years or so. She looks at the church today and sees the possibility that we are in fact in the middle of one of those inspired, cosmic rummage sales: a refocusing of our hearts and minds on what the good news means in our own day, while honoring the contributions of those who have gone before us. This can be a time of great renewal for the church and the individual churches, an opportunity for re-examination of the fundamental questions and a re-commitment to a renewed living of our faith. Is it perhaps a time for our ‘sons and daughters to prophesy,’ for our ‘young to dream dreams’ and our ‘old to see visions,’ for an outpouring of Spirit that calls from tomorrow overwhelming our preconceived notions and neat perceptions in favor of the expansive and inclusive reign of God?
If we look only at our own church – at St. Andrew’s – we see great diversity, in culture, and in language. These differences could separate us, or they could help us to grow together. Differences can actually enrich and enliven what we share, if we can reach across what separates us, not only in language and culture but also in religious upbringing, economic class, educational background, and basic personality types. If we learn to communicate effectively, to hear what God is still speaking today, we will hear a call, together, that may astound us and gather us into something more effective and more amazing that we were before.
The whole idea of Pentecost is something that, although it is foreign to us, can enrich us, and by enriching us, enrich the church. There is a moment in all of our lives when belief comes alive. For the Apostles and other followers of Jesus, it happened on that first Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on them in tongues of flame, with a rush of wind. For some people, it still happens in that way, but that is not the only way in happens. For John Wesley – the founder of Methodism – it came when he was listening to Martin Luther’s Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and he felt his heart “strangely warmed”. For me, it often happens with music, as when I am listening to one of the great hymns of the church or to one of the modern praise songs. It can happen in church or out of church. It can happen in the company of others or when we are alone. For some people, it happens when they look on the face of their new-born child, while for others it can happen at the moment of death, when we see the look on the face of the person who finally sees God. Whenever and however it happens, it changes lives. Sure, we may fight it. We don’t really want to be changed, as we are quite comfortable the way we are, thank you very much. But God will not leave us alone. He will not let us rest on our laurels. He wants change, for without change comes stagnation, and that is not what we are all about, as Presbyterians.
And however it happens, we know when it happens. We can feel the Spirit moving within us, and as it moves in us, it flows through us to others. It is like the wind; it is like the gentle flapping of a dove’s wings; it is like fire; t is like a river; it is like a still small voice. And, as we prepare for the General Assembly, let us pray on this Pentecost Sunday that the Spirit will move within the commissioners, and within the congregations they serve, so that whatever is decided will be for the good of the church and for the rebirth of the church. Thanks be to God.

Sunday School Picnic

After worship this Sunday, June 17th, we will be heading to the Johanson’s farm for our annual Sunday School Picnic. It seems that the weather is co-operating, so it should be a fun day. Bring something to put on the BBQ and something to share. Don’t forget your lawn chairs!