Sunday, July 20, 2008

Sermon for Pentecost 10: Genesis 28:10-19a

Passing It On

‘God has no grandchildren’. I think I first heard this phrase years ago from Billy Graham. What he meant by it, of course, was that being raised in a Christian home doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you will become a follower of Jesus for yourself. It’s a good thing, no doubt, but there will come a day when you will have to make a decision for yourself about the Christian faith. Another phrase along the same lines is one I heard from former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey: ‘The Church is always one generation from extinction’. By this he meant that the current generation of churchgoers can never take for granted that the next generation will also have faith. We need to be active as witnesses, sharing the good news of Christ with the next generation and helping them also to become his followers.

But this is sometimes a tricky business. Yes, we can take our kids to church and send them to Sunday School – we can make sure they know some Bible stories and watch some Veggie Tales videos and know some Christian songs and so on – but can we actually pass on faith in Christ to them? Is it possible for faith in Christ to be second hand? Does it not have to be caught first hand from the Holy Spirit? Or, to put it another way: is it really enough for us to pass on our Christian faith to our kids? Would it not be truer to say that what we’re really longing for is that they would have a transformational encounter with the living Christ for themselves, so that, rather than picking up our faith, they would grow a faith of their own?

In today’s Old Testament reading God says to Jacob, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac” (Genesis 28:13). In later years, this same God will be known as ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’, but at this point in the story Jacob hasn’t yet taken his place in the family tree of those who know God for themselves; all he’s got to go on are the stories he’s heard from his father and his grandfather about how God led the family out of Haran and brought them to the land of Canaan to live there. He’s heard how his father Isaac was born when Abraham and Sarah were nearly a hundred years old; he’s heard of the times when God appeared to his grandfather and his father and made promises to them about a land and descendants and blessing the whole world through them. But he’s never had that sort of experience himself. His relationship with God is entirely second-hand; he only knows God by hearsay.

I suspect that some of our kids, and perhaps even some of us, feel the same way. We’ve heard other people talk about knowing God and feeling close to God, but somehow it seems to have passed us by. Perhaps our parents had a close relationship with God, but somehow we never picked up from them how that happened. We picked up the churchgoing habit – we come regularly, perhaps we’ve been on vestry and volunteered around the place a bit – but when we hear about a personal connection with God, we feel this longing inside and we wonder, “How can I find that? What do I have to do? Do you have to be some sort of special person, especially good and holy and all that? Or is it available for everyone?”

Well, let’s back up a bit and learn a bit more about Jacob. Last week we read the story of his birth; we read about how his Mom Rebekah was barren, and so her husband Isaac prayed for her, and the Lord answered his prayer and gave her a son. Not only a son, but twins! The twins weren’t an entirely comfortable experience for her; she sometimes felt like there was a war going on in her womb, and when she asked God about it he explained it to her: ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger’ (25:23). When the time came to be born, the first one was covered in red hair, and the second one was hanging onto his brother’s heel. They called the first one ‘Esau’, and the second one ‘Jacob’, which means ‘he takes by the heel’ or ‘he supplants’.

When the boys grew up Esau was a hunter who loved going out on the land; his Dad loved him because he liked the wild game he brought home. But Jacob was a quiet man who preferred staying home in the tents, and his Mom loved him best. The time came for their father, who was old and blind, to give the paternal blessing to his firstborn. So he called Esau and told him to go out and hunt some game, cook it up and bring it to his father, and then he would receive the blessing. Rebekah heard this and concocted a plan to get the blessing for Jacob instead. She killed an animal from the flock, cooked the meat, and took the skin and put it on Jacob’s arms and shoulders, because he wasn’t hairy like his brother. Then she sent him in to pretend that he was Esau and to get the blessing in place of his brother. Jacob did this, and strange as it may seem to us, apparently it worked. Of course, when Esau found out about this, he wasn’t pleased at all, and he began to whisper dark plots: after Isaac died, he said, he would kill Jacob for what he had done. So Rebekah sent Jacob away, back to the land of Haran where the family had come from, to stay with her brother Laban. It was while he was on this journey that Jacob had the dream we heard about in today’s reading.

We said last week that we’re not dealing with a family of spiritual superstars here; we’re dealing with an ordinary family who make mistakes and fall short of perfection by a long way. We’ve got a Dad who seems fairly passive and is perhaps the sort of guy who, as they say, will do anything for a quiet life. We’ve got a Mom who seems rather manipulative; she’s got plans for her favourite son and isn’t above deceiving her husband to get what she wants. We’ve got two parents who play favourites with their sons, and we can only begin to imagine what that meant for the inner dynamics of this family.

What are we supposed to learn from this? Is this family supposed to be a good example for us to follow? No – as we said last week, what God is teaching us here is that it’s not his policy to reserve his blessing for the most deserving specimens of humanity he can find. If God were to look around to find a perfect family to use to spread his light, the world would be a very dark place. The family of Isaac and Rebekah isn’t a perfect family, they’re an ordinary family, and this doesn’t disqualify them from being channels of God’s blessing to others. That should be good news for us.

But in God’s plan, it’s not enough for Jacob to have a second hand relationship with God in which he only knows God by hearsay. God wants Jacob to know him personally. And the time when Jacob is afraid and is fleeing for his life turns out to be a good time for this to happen. So we heard in our reading this morning how when he was running away he stopped for a sleep and used a pillow for a stone – which ought to have given him rather strange dreams anyway, I would think! In his sleep he dreamt that he saw a ladder from heaven to earth, with the angels going up and down on it. And God stood beside him and spoke to him, confirming to him the promises he’d made to his father and grandfather, and promising to be with him on all his journeys and to bring him safely back to his father’s house.

Most of us don’t set much store by dreams these days, but to traditional cultures around the world they have often been seen as highly significant. Jacob obviously saw it that way. When he woke up he exclaimed, ‘This is the house of God! This is the gate of heaven!’ and he took the stone he’d slept on and set it up as a memorial pillar. Not that his character was instantly transformed, you understand; it’s funny to read the bargain he strikes with God: ‘If you look after me and bring me food and water and keep me safe and bring me home and all that – then I’ll make you my God and give you a tenth of everything you give me!’ Jacob obviously hasn’t yet learned that you don’t make bargains with God. God has begun to transform him, but the process is going to take years – decades, in fact.

‘That’s alright for Jacob’, you might say; ‘He had a dream and saw a ladder to heaven. But where is that ladder? How do I find it?’

Interestingly enough, Jesus refers to this passage in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. One of his new disciples, Philip, goes and finds his friend Nathanael sitting under a fig tree; he tells him about Jesus and brings him to meet him. Jesus sees Nathanael coming and says, ‘Here’s a true Israelite with no deceit in him at all’. Nathanael is puzzled: ‘How do you know me?’ he asks. Jesus replies, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you’. Nathanael is impressed with Jesus’ second sight: ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God!’ he exclaims; ‘You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus replies, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these… Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man’ (John 1:43-51).

Do you see the reference? In the story of Jacob, there is a ladder between heaven and earth, and the angels of God are ascending and descending on it. But in John’s story, Jesus himself is the ladder; he’s the one who connects heaven and earth, and the angels are ascending and descending on him.

That has turned out to be true in my experience. When I was a child my parents took me to church and read me Bible stories and prayed with me, but somehow I didn’t have a sense of the closeness of God. Like Jacob, it would have been more accurate to say that God was the God of my parents and grandparents; I knew him by hearsay, not personal experience. The key to getting to know him, for me, was the day in my early teens, at the culmination of a period of spiritual searching, when my Dad suggested that I give my life to Jesus. I prayed in exactly those terms, and that night things began to change for me. Call it a conversion experience if you like; call it coming to faith, or my faith coming alive – I don’t really care what you call it. I only know that when I gave my life to Jesus, Jesus became for me a ladder from earth to heaven – that is to say, a road to a personal relationship with the living God in which I began to know God for myself and not merely by hearsay.

And when I look back on this experience I’m thankful that my Mum and Dad didn’t just pass on to me the customs and traditions of the Anglican Church. You can see in the story of Jacob how that might happen. He has an encounter with the living God, and it’s so transformational to his life that the next morning he sets up the stone he slept on, pours olive oil on it and dedicates it as a memorial and calls it Bethel, which means ‘The House of God’. To Jacob it’s a precious place, and no doubt in the years to come he comes back to it again and again with thankfulness to God for what he experienced there.

But the next generation didn’t have that experience; all they had was the memorial stone. In time, they might even come to have an exaggerated sense of the importance of that stone in itself, and not just as a memorial for Jacob of the living God who he met there. And I think the customs and traditions of the Church can be like that stone. These customs and traditions were begun by people who had met the living God and been transformed by him. But unless we, their descendants, have a similar experience of transformation, these customs and traditions can be as lifeless as that stone. Passing on respect for those traditions where there is no real relationship with the living God is worse than useless: it’s potentially idolatrous.

I can’t give you an infallible formula today about how to meet the living God as Jacob did. The thing about God – a thing it took Jacob many more years to learn – is that he’s in charge of the relationship. He reveals himself to us when he’s ready to reveal himself to us. It’s not mechanical, like a slot machine – pray exactly these words in this order and in this tone of voice, and you’ll get the prize! It’s more mysterious than that. People in the Bible are often told to ‘seek the Lord’, and we get the impression that it takes time and effort to do so. We can’t command him to make himself known to us. All we can do is ask.

But we are encouraged to ask. After all, Jesus did say, ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you’ (Matthew 7:7). The verb tenses here suggest that this is a continual action – keep on asking, searching, and knocking. And we can do this. We can pray simply, and persistently, ‘Jesus, show me the way. Jesus, lead me to the Father. Jesus, help me to know God for myself’.

I do not believe that anyone who prays that prayer will be disappointed forever. I believe that Jesus has in fact been standing at our elbows for years, waiting patiently for us to pray this sort of prayer. And I believe that, as we begin to experience his answer, like Jacob, we’ll be transformed. Not all at once – Jacob was still a deeply flawed human being, for decades after this first meeting with God, and God had to take drastic measures on a couple of occasions to bring Jacob face to face with his own need. And for us, too, the moment of genuine encounter with the living God is the beginning of a lifetime’s journey of transformation.

But a journey begins with a single step. And if you feel this morning as if you haven’t yet taken that step, let me suggest that you begin to pray, and keep on praying persistently, that Jesus will show you the way to the Father. Sooner or later, that prayer will be answered, and you will never be the same again.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Keeping Updated on the Lambeth Conference

This summer the Bishops of the Anglican Communion are meeting for their once-a-decade conference in England, the Lambeth Conference. This has the potential to be a decisive conference; people on both sides of the issue of same-sex blessings seem to be hoping that our bishops can come up with a magic formula to keep the Anglican Communion together. Whether or not that is what the Holy Spirit has in mind remains to be seen! A number of conservative bishops (mainly from central Africa) have boycotted the conference altogether, but at last count approximately 680 of a possible 820 bishops are present.

There are a number of places you can go to find news about Lambeth:

The Lambeth Conference Official Website (which includes a daily cartoon from the official Lambeth cartoonist, the brilliant Dave Walker).

The Church Times blog (also administered by Dave Walker).

Episcopal Life's Lambeth Journal (American)

Ruth Gledhill's Articles of Faith (Ruth is the religion correspondent for The Times; Articles of Faith is her blog).

Our Canadian Anglican Journal website is also carrying some Lambeth stories.

But the best coverage from Lambeth is from the bishops who are blogging there! Here are a few of them:

Alan Wilson (Buckingham, England)

David Rossdale (Grimsby, England)

Greg Kerr-Wilson (Qu'Appelle, Canada)

David Chillingworth (St. Andrew's, Dunkeld and Dunblane, Scotland)

Nick Baines (Croydon, England)

Stacy Sauls (Lexington, USA)

Robert O'Neill (Colorado, USA)

Chilton Knudson and Stephen Laine (Maine, USA) (they have videos too!)

Gene Robinson (New Hampshire, USA) (who is not officially part of the conference) is in England and is also blogging.

These should keep you going! Remember to pray for our bishops (especially our Bishop Jane and her husband Tim).

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Sermon for Pentecost 9: Genesis 25:21

‘Isaac Prayed’

Some years ago a man in one of my previous parishes decided that he was going to read the Bible all the way through. Like many Anglicans, he had never really read the Bible for himself; he’d heard the readings in church on Sundays, but he had only a very vague idea about how it all fit together. He had a copy of the Good News Bible, which is a pretty easy translation to read, and he decided that last thing at night he’d read a few chapters and see how far he got.

I’m glad to say that he read through the whole thing over a period of about six months, but it wasn’t all plain sailing for him. In fact, I remember that when he was about half way through the Old Testament he and I were having coffee one day and I asked him how it was going. “It’s not what I expected at all”, he confessed. “I thought the Bible was going to be an inspiring and uplifting book, but it’s not! It’s full of people who fight and kill and commit adultery; it’s full of animals being slaughtered as sacrifices and so on. Am I supposed to see these people as a good example to follow? Because I really can’t!”

I know what he meant! If you think of the life of someone like King David, well, yes, there are stories of obedience to God and faithfulness and courage and all that, but there are also stories of disobedience and murder and adultery and abuse of power and all manner of other sins. Abraham is held up in the New Testament as the father of faith, but when we actually read his story in the book of Genesis we find that his faith was often weak, and sometimes he was so scared of the people around him that he told his wife to pretend she was his sister so that the neighbours wouldn’t kill him and steal his wife from him! There’s courage for you!

But how could it be otherwise? After all, the Bible is the story of God’s work through ordinary human beings, and human beings are a mixture of good and evil. We’re made in the image of God but also infected by sin; we do our best to create a good and just and beautiful world, but it seems inevitably to fall short of our dreams for it. This is the material God has to work with; yes, he rejoices in our gifts and strengths, but he often has to make allowances for our weaknesses as well.

In today’s Old Testament reading we have the story of the birth of Esau and Jacob, who are the grandchildren of Abraham. As you might remember, Abraham and his wife Sarah had to wait until they were a great old age to have a child. God first spoke to Abraham when he was seventy-five years old, promising this childless couple that they would be the ancestors of a great nation. But it was twenty-five years before the promise was fulfilled, and Sarah gave birth to the miracle child, Isaac. This miracle motif comes up again and again in the Genesis story. Sarah and Abraham are childless, but God promises them a child, and indeed a son is born to them in their old age. In today’s story, we read that ‘Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived’ (25:21). The same thing happens in the next generation: Isaac’s son Jacob has several wives, but his favourite is Rachel. However, for many years she seems unable to have children, until finally the LORD hears her prayer and gives her the gift of a son, Joseph, who turns out to be the saviour of the whole family when the great famine comes upon the land.

Why this constant theme of barrenness and then seemingly miraculous conception? What are the authors of Genesis trying to get across to us here? I believe what they are trying to tell us is that the creation of this family which will become God’s people Israel isn’t merely a story of human expertise and strength; it’s the story of God’s miraculous intervention into the history of the world. The world is going nowhere; like the womb of Rebekah, it’s barren. God created a world full of wonder, but human history has been poisoned by sin, and if we read the first few chapters of Genesis we see that sin in all its darkness and horror. If the world is going to be saved, it needs something more than human expertise and wisdom; it needs a miraculous act of God to begin to put things right again.

But what exactly does God do? He doesn’t perform an act of judgement like the flood, destroying all the sinners on the earth. He doesn’t send a great military victory like those celebrated in the annals of ancient superpowers like Egypt. Rather, he creates a new community, a people who will learn the ways of God so that they can be a light for the nations. In later years they came to see themselves as God’s chosen people, but that never meant that God was only concerned with them and not for the nations around them. Rather, God’s original promise to Abraham said, ‘In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3).

You and I stand in continuity with that promise today. Our Lord Jesus Christ has come, from the family of Abraham, and his gospel message has gone out to the whole world; the blessing promised to Abraham has spread through all the earth, just as God promised. And God has called the Church - a multinational community now, not an ethnic community like Israel – to carry on Israel’s work of spreading the light and love of God everywhere we go. As we love others in the name of Jesus and as we spread the gospel and invite others to follow Jesus, we’re taking our place in that great plan of God that started four millennia ago when wrinkled old Sarah had a baby and called him Isaac.

But sometimes that work seems to hit a roadblock. Sometimes churches seem to stagnate and get stuck in ruts. Sometimes we get focussed inward on our own survival or our own life, and don’t look outward in love to the world that God wants to bless through us. Sometimes we forget that the church is always only one generation from extinction; we forget the call to go out and make new disciples and we come up with all sorts of sophisticated reasons why evangelism is not such a good idea after all. Sometimes we get absorbed in the creation of beautiful buildings and splendid liturgies and forget that Jesus told us to serve him in the poor and needy. And sometimes churches are rocked by conflict – conflict in denominations, such as our current Anglican struggles about homosexuality, or conflict at the local level between flawed and imperfect human beings who bring their insecurities and power struggles into the church with them.

What do we do when we hit a roadblock like this? Well, the leaders lead, the managers manage, the visionaries share their visions, the facilitators facilitate, and so it goes on. Dioceses send in consultants, and consultants help churches come up with mission statements, and committees set goals and objectives, and off we go!

Unfortunately, though, we sometimes forget what Isaac did when he and his wife Rebekah ran into the roadblock of childlessness. Genesis tells us simply, ‘Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren’ (25:21a). This story is told in a very simple and straightforward way. It doesn’t say that Isaac got out a prayer book and went through a complicated liturgy; it doesn’t talk about him offering a thousand rams and a thousand lambs in sacrifice to God, like some of the later Israelite kings did. It sounds more like a child coming to her Mom and saying, “Mom, can I have a piece of cake?” And Mom replies, “Of course you can! I’ll get one for you right now”.

This guy Isaac isn’t exactly a spiritual superstar, by the way. He comes across in the book of Genesis as a quiet man who is easily manipulated by his clever wife; later on in the next chapter she devises a plan to make sure that the younger son, Jacob, who is her favourite, gets the paternal blessing from Isaac, rather than his favourite, Esau, the older son. We get the sense that she knew her husband well and knew how to mould him to do what she wanted to do. And also in the next chapter we find Isaac doing exactly what his father Abraham had done; going to live in a foreign country for a while in a time of famine, being afraid that the locals would kill him and steal his wife, and so asking her to pretend she was his sister so this wouldn’t happen. No, this isn’t the archangel Gabriel we’re talking about here; this is hen-pecked old Isaac who prefers a quiet life and enjoys taking his older boy out trout fishing on Saturday afternoons.

This is the sort of thing my friend came up against when he was reading the Bible all the way through for the first time; this was what scandalised him so much. To be quite frank, in the Bible God doesn’t seem to be very picky about whose prayers he hears. Let me remind you of some of the people whose prayers got answered in the Bible: Moses, who killed an Egyptian and buried his body in the sand to try to hide the crime. David, who committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers, and then had the soldier killed so that he could take Bathsheba for himself. Solomon, whose sexual appetites were so voracious in later life that he had seven hundred wives. Nehemiah, who when he got mad at people didn’t just yell at them, but beat them and pulled out their hair! Paul, who before his conversion worked hard to stamp out the church by having Christians arrested and executed, and who even after his conversion doesn’t always seem to have been a particularly pleasant chap to be around!

So don’t think you have to be some sort of spiritual hero in order to pray and have your prayers answered. The prayers of the Bible aren’t the prayers of spiritual heroes; they’re the prayers of ordinary human beings like us, and some of them are definitely not nice people – if you doubt that, read some of the psalms! If God only heard the prayers of spiritual heroes, no one’s prayers would ever be heard.

So here’s the people of God in microcosm – the little family of Isaac and Rebekah. They believe God has called them to be part of the family line of his chosen people, but at the moment their future isn’t going anywhere, and so they do the best possible thing they could in the circumstance: they pray. Now let me ask you – do we do that?

Here at St. Margaret’s in some ways we’ve hit a roadblock. Our growth seems to be flatlined; people join our congregation but people leave too, and when we have a good year it seems our gains are about equal to our losses. And our natural inclination is to try to engineer a solution to this problem. We might get a consultant in and set some goals and objectives (we’ve done that); we might redesign the internal administration of our congregation so that it more closely fits a church of our size (we’ve done that); we might change things around in the building or add bits onto it so that it’s more user-friendly (we’ve done that, and are still talking about it); we might even hire a community evangelist to help us share the good news with our neighbours!

None of these things are necessarily wrong, but by themselves they aren’t enough. There’s a very simple step we need to take, a step that needs to be first and last and front and centre in all of our planning and thinking and working. ‘Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren’. And do we pray to the LORD for our church, because she appears to be barren right now?

Quite simply, no matter how welcoming we become or how financially prosperous we are as a congregation, spiritually we will not get anywhere unless we become a people of prayer – a people who have developed the habit of turning simply to the Lord, just like Isaac did, when we run into situations that seem to be too difficult for us. This means that each of us needs to learn how to seek the Lord in prayer on a regular basis; it means that we make it a priority to come together as a congregation and pray, not just in a formal way on Sundays, but at other times as well.

When I was the minister of the Church of the Resurrection in Holman, in the high Arctic, we planned an evangelistic mission for our parish. We invited Terry Buckle, who twenty years before had been the minister in Holman, to come back and lead the mission. We planned evangelistic services every night of the week, and meetings in people’s homes during the day. We really wanted people in the community to hear the gospel message through Terry and give their lives to Christ.

But Terry said we should pray, so we did. We decided to have a prayer meeting on Friday mornings at 7.30 a.m. When I first announced this in church, one of the men said to me afterwards, ‘You meant 7.30 p.m., right?’ ‘Nope – early in the morning!’ So for six months we met every Friday morning to pray, usually about half a dozen of us. Officially, we were praying about the mission, but when people get together to pray you can’t keep them in topic, and before long all sorts of other stuff was being prayed about. When the week of the mission finally arrived we decided to pray every morning, but we moved it to ten o’clock which was coffee break time in Holman; people walked over to the church for half an hour, and each day about twenty people gathered there to pray.

The mission was great and people’s lives were touched, but the really great thing was that after it was over the people said, “We can’t stop doing this praying!” And so they decided to keep meeting at 10.00 on Friday mornings, and when I left Holman that prayer meeting was still going on. It was one of the most fruitful things we did in all the time I was in that community.

‘Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived’ (25:21). Could I ask you to do as Isaac did? Remember, you don’t have to be a spiritual superstar; God hears the prayers of ordinary flawed human beings just like you and me, all the time. You don’t have to make a big song and dance about it; it can be quite simple and childlike, which is the way Jesus told us to pray anyway. So please, pray for our church. Pray for our worldwide Anglican church as our bishops from all over the world meet at Lambeth this week to talk about the enormous challenges facing us at this time. But pray for St. Margaret’s, too, that the Lord would send his Holy Spirit to change us into the image of Jesus and that he would lead us out in mission to our neighbourhoods. And as you pray, ask God for opportunities to get together with other Christians to pray, because I believe that in the long run, that is the only way that we as a congregation are going to experience the new life of the Spirit leading us out of barrenness and into fruitfulness for Christ.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Sermon for Pentecost 8: Matthew 11:25-30

Some Things Only a Son Knows

In Tom Wright’s little book about the first half of Matthew’s Gospel I found this great story:
I went this morning to a memorial service to honour one of the world’s greatest sportsmen. Colin Cowdrey was one of the greatest cricketers of all time; not quite cricket’s Babe Ruth, but not far off. He was known and loved all around the world – not least in India, Australia, Pakistan and the West Indies, whose cricketers had learned to fear his extraordinary ability, and whose crowds had come to love him as a man, not just as a player.

The service was magnificent. Tributes flowed in from around the world; a former prime minister gave the main address; a special song had been written. But for me the most moving moment was when one of Cowdrey’s sons came forward and spoke of his father from his inside knowledge. This great public figure, who gave of himself in later life to every good cause he could find, had never lost his close and intimate love for his children and grandchildren. There were many fine stories which only a son could know, and only a son could tell. It was a heartwarming and uplifting occasion.
I wonder what it felt like for Colin Cowdrey’s son to sit in the memorial service and listen to all the other tributes being paid to his father? On the one hand, he must have thought, “This is wonderful! I’m so proud to be this man’s son!” But on the other hand there must have been times when he felt frustrated, because many of the tributes were based on knowledge of his father which was much more superficial than his. There must have been times when he could hardly wait to get to his feet and tell the inside story, the intimate truth of what this great man was really like, in his home and with his family.

This story may give us an insight into what it meant to be Jesus, the Son of God, walking the earth and trying to share the truth about his Father with human beings. And not just with any human beings: with God’s chosen people Israel, who had been learning about God’s ways for a millennium and more. Was Jesus surprised by their lack of interest in the message he brought? It seems that he was. In the passage just before today’s Gospel he reflects back on some of the cities in Galilee where he has been preaching and healing the sick. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (v.21). In other words, “If I preached and healed like this among the pagan nations, they’d be turning to God by the thousands!”

The problem, of course, was that God’s people didn’t think they needed any help learning about God, and they certainly didn’t need it from an amateur, a carpenter who’d never been to one of their seminaries or got a Master of Divinity degree! Who did he think he was, telling them about God? They’d been studying the Torah all their lives. They knew the six hundred and thirteen commandments and could divide them into two categories, injunctions and prohibitions. They knew all the explanations the rabbis had given down through the centuries applying each general law to specific situations. And then along comes Jesus, an upstart with a strong northern accent, and presumes to instruct them about God. They must have thought, “Go away to university for a decade, Jesus; then when you come back, we’ll talk!”

But Jesus’ knowledge of God came from a completely different source. Jesus had learned about God the way a son learns about his father – by living with him, by watching him at work and at play, by imitating him and learning to be like him. He was like an instinctive musician with perfect pitch, walking around among people who knew all about the history of classical music, but were entirely tone deaf themselves.

Think about how frustrating this must have been sometimes for Jesus! I’m a musician myself, and I have a pretty good ear as well. I can tell when my guitar is in tune or out of tune, even when no one else can hear it; I can tell when a singer is bang on, or flat or sharp. This isn’t something I’ve achieved by hard work, so I can’t take any credit for it; it’s something I was born with. And I often forget that other people don’t have it. It surprises me that they can’t hear the things that I can hear.

That must have been what it was like for Jesus to be walking around on this earth. We talk about people taking time to ‘discover who they are’. For Jesus, part of that process involved discovering that other people didn’t have the same kind of intimate knowledge of God that he had. There are some things about a father that only a son can know.

And so Jesus said these words in verse 27 which sound so arrogant and shocking and exclusive to us: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him”. The word for ‘handed over’ refers to the formal handing down of religious traditions from generation to generation. We would say, “The Anglican tradition has been handed down to us from our ancestors”. But Jesus speaks in a much more direct way: “I didn’t get it from my ancestors; I got it from my Father in heaven”.

If this sounds arrogant, let’s remember the story of Colin Cowdrey’s son at his father’s memorial service. Let’s imagine him again listening to the tributes people were paying to his father. Some of them might have caused him to quietly shake his head and think “No, that’s not right”. Others might have caused him to think, “Yes, I can see how it might have looked that way from the outside, but the inside story gives a very different picture”. The other things that were being said were not all wrong, but none of them were based on the kind of intimate knowledge that the son had of his father.

So right at the heart of this Gospel reading there’s a paradox. On the one hand, there’s an exclusive claim Jesus makes: he has inside knowledge about God that no one else has ever had, before or since. But then immediately afterwards comes this wonderfully inclusive invitation: the Son has no interest in keeping his knowledge of the Father to himself. He wants to share it with everyone. He invites everyone to come to know God as he knows God, and so to find rest and release from the burdens they are carrying. And so he says,
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (vv.28-30).

Many of you here will remember all the predictions that were being made in the 1970’s about how by the turn of the century we’d all be down to a twenty or thirty-hour work week. Labour-saving devices were going to save us so much time that our biggest burden was going to be finding out how to use all this extra leisure time we’d be enjoying. Boy, were they wrong! Our bosses soon found out that labour-saving devices meant they could pressure us to be even more productive, and now we’re working longer and harder and faster than we ever did! When I started out as a pastor people were quite happy to wait a week to get an answer to a letter; now they want a return email within the hour, or they want to know why!

So it’s tempting for me to preach on this passage of Scripture in such a way as to offer you Jesus, the ultimate relaxation specialist, and St. Margaret’s as a sort of spiritual spa! But if I was to do that, I wouldn’t be faithful to the text. Because the kind of burdens that Jesus has in mind here are primarily religious burdens. Jesus is saying to his hearers, ‘The kind of religion you’ve learned from the experts doesn’t take the load off your shoulders; rather, it increases it. That’s not what I’m offering you today. I’m offering you a relationship with God that can give you rest from the burdens religion has laid on your back’.

I’ve seen these burdens. I’ve seen people who live in fear that, no matter how hard they try to keep God’s commandments, they’re never going to measure up. They’re never going to be good enough. They see God as a cruel taskmaster standing over their shoulders laying the burden of commandment after commandment on them, and if they slip up and don’t pull their weight, no heaven for them! Some people are so scarred by this kind of religion that they turn away from God for the rest of their lives, never suspecting that the God they are turning away from is not the God Jesus told us about.

Then there’s the burden of ‘church’. I’ve been the pastor of tiny congregations with a building handed down from their ancestors, which they just have to maintain. The numbers get smaller and smaller because the young folks have moved to the city and anyway they don’t want to worship in a quaint little clapboard church with a woodstove and a pump organ; they want bathrooms and Sunday School and a good worship band with lively music. The ancestors who built the place would probably turn over in their graves if they saw the burden it was laying on the backs of their great-grandchildren; they were common-sense prairie pioneers, after all, and they’d probably say, “Torch the place, for goodness’ sake; let’s be practical here!”

Many of Jesus’ contemporaries were probably tired of the weight of the religious traditions they’d inherited from their ancestors. What was the specific way in which an animal should be sacrificed? The law said not to work on the Sabbath, but what exactly was work? Was walking work, and if so, how far could you walk before it became work? What was the exactly correct way of washing your hands in order to be ritually clean before a meal? And so it went on – hundreds of ritual laws which had very little to do with loving God and loving your neighbour. But if you were a shepherd and had sheep to look after, how could you avoid breaking the sabbath? Or if you didn’t have access to clean water, how could you do the correct ritual washings? And so for some people the law stopped being a road to God and became instead a road block.

Jesus says, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (v.30). Think about this word ‘yoke’. We’re talking about oxen here, and the wooden contraption that binds two of them together and allows them to cooperate in pulling a plough. Jesus was a carpenter; he’d probably made a good few yokes in his time, and he might even have advertised them with a slogan like “My yokes fit!”

This helps us to understand another paradox in these verses: in verse 28 Jesus promises us rest, but by the end of the passage he’s talking about us bearing his yoke, and that doesn’t sound like rest! But some translators have suggested that verse 30 might be better translated, not as ‘my yoke is easy’, but ‘my yoke fits well’. In other words, the yoke of discipleship Jesus lays on us is something that is suited exactly to us, and our condition. It’s not a way of life that adds to our burdens of guilt and fear and tiredness; rather, it sets us free, because it teaches us the way God designed for us to live in the first place.

Eugene Peterson captures it well in The Message. This isn’t a literal translation of the passage; it’s a paraphrase, but a paraphrase that gives us good insights into what Jesus was saying. Here it is:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me, and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly”.

To sum up: No one knows the Father except the Son. Some people think they know God, but the religion they pass on to us doesn’t help us to live free and joyful lives; it just binds us down with heavier burdens. Does that describe your Christian life sometimes? I know it has often described mine. And if that’s the case, then we definitely didn’t learn that way of life from Jesus.

Jesus is inviting us to lay down the burden of religion based on human opinion and expert hearsay. We’re invited to come to the Son, the one who really knows the Father as no one else can, and learn from him what life with God is all about. And the Son will teach us this life, a life that will not burden us, but will set us free to be all that God designed us to be.

The invitation goes out to everyone; no one is left out. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke fits well, and my burden is light”.

Friday, July 4, 2008

July Roster 2008

July 6th - Pentecost 8
Greeter/Sidespeople -- Aasens
Counter -- C. Aasen/T. Wittkopf
Reader & Psalm -- T. Rayment
Readings: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45:11-18, Romans 7:15-25a
Lay Administrant -- C. Aasen
2nd Administrant -- D. MacNeill
Intercessor -- D. MacNeill
Lay Reader -- E. Gerber (Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30)
Altar Guild -- 9am P. Major /10:30 K. Hughes
Kitchen -- S. Gerber

July 13th - Pentecost 9
Greeter/Sidespeople -- Gerbers
Counter -- C. Aasen/M. Lobreau
Reader & Psalm -- D. Schindel
Readings: Genesis 25:19-34, Psalm 119:105-112, Romans 8:1-11
Lay Administrant -- L. Thompson
2nd Administrant -- A. Zinck
Intercessor -- T. Chesterton
Lay Reader -- D. MacNeil (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)
Altar Guild -- 9am J. Mill /10:30 L. Schindel
Kitchen -- M. Chesterton

July 20th - Pentecost 10
Greeter/Sidespeople -- T. Willacy/M. Lobreau
Counter -- T. Willacy/M. Loreau
Reader & Psalm -- T. Wittkopf
Readings: Genesis 28:10-19a, Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23, Romans 8:12-25
Lay Administrant -- D. Schindel
2nd Administrant -- E. Gerber
Intercessor -- L. Thompson
Lay Reader -- L. Thompson (Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43)
Altar Guild -- 9am M. Woytkiw /10:30 L. Pyra
Kitchen -- M & A Rys

July 27th - Pentecost 11 - Led by Rev. Frank Wilson & JOINT COFFEE
Greeter/Sidespeople -- Mitty's
Counter -- G. Hughes/B. Rice
Reader & Psalm -- G. Hughes
Readings: Genesis 29:15-28, Psalm 105:1-11; Romans 8:26-39
Lay Administrant -- G. Hughes
2nd Administrant -- D. MacNeill
Intercessor -- M. Rys
Lay Reader -- E. Gerber (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52)
Altar Guild -- 9am P. Major /10:30 M. Lobreau
Kitchen -- A. & D. WILSON

Thursday, July 3, 2008

One Goat Can Make a Difference

For a couple of years at St. Margaret's we raised money to buy goats for families in the developing world. Ever wonder how efective they were? Read this column by Nicholas Kristof from the New York Times:

“I am one of the luckiest girls in the world,” Beatrice declared at her graduation party after earning her bachelor’s degree from Connecticut College. Indeed, and it’s appropriate that the goat that changed her life was named Luck.

Beatrice’s story helps address two of the most commonly asked questions about foreign assistance: “Does aid work?” and “What can I do?”

The tale begins in the rolling hills of western Uganda, where Beatrice was born and raised. As a girl, she desperately yearned for an education, but it seemed hopeless: Her parents were peasants who couldn’t afford to send her to school.

The years passed and Beatrice stayed home to help with the chores. She was on track to become one more illiterate African woman, another of the continent’s squandered human resources.

In the meantime, in Niantic, Conn., the children of the Niantic Community Church wanted to donate money for a good cause. They decided to buy goats for African villagers through Heifer International, a venerable aid group based in Arkansas that helps impoverished farming families.

A dairy goat in Heifer’s online gift catalog costs $120; a flock of chicks or ducklings costs just $20.

One of the goats bought by the Niantic church went to Beatrice’s parents and soon produced twins. When the kid goats were weaned, the children drank the goat’s milk for a nutritional boost and sold the surplus milk for extra money.

The cash from the milk accumulated, and Beatrice’s parents decided that they could now afford to send their daughter to school. She was much older than the other first graders, but she was so overjoyed that she studied diligently and rose to be the best student in the school.

An American visiting the school was impressed and wrote a children’s book, “Beatrice’s Goat,” about how the gift of a goat had enabled a bright girl to go to school. The book was published in 2000 and became a children’s best seller — but there is now room for a more remarkable sequel.

Beatrice was such an outstanding student that she won a scholarship, not only to Uganda’s best girls’ high school, but also to a prep school in Massachusetts and then to Connecticut College. A group of 20 donors to Heifer International — coordinated by a retired staff member named Rosalee Sinn, who fell in love with Beatrice when she saw her at age 10 — financed the girl’s living expenses.

A few years ago, Beatrice spoke at a Heifer event attended by Jeffrey Sachs, the economist. Mr. Sachs was impressed and devised what he jokingly called the “Beatrice Theorem” of development economics: small inputs can lead to large outcomes.

Granted, foreign assistance doesn’t always work and is much harder than it looks. “I won’t lie to you. Corruption is high in Uganda,” Beatrice acknowledges.

A crooked local official might have distributed the goats by demanding that girls sleep with him in exchange. Or Beatrice’s goat might have died or been stolen. Or unpasteurized milk might have sickened or killed Beatrice.

In short, millions of things could go wrong. But when there’s a good model in place, they often go right. That’s why villagers in western Uganda recently held a special Mass and a feast to celebrate the first local person to earn a college degree in America.

Moreover, Africa will soon have a new asset: a well-trained professional to improve governance. Beatrice plans to earn a master’s degree at the Clinton School of Public Service in Arkansas and then return to Africa to work for an aid group.

Beatrice dreams of working on projects to help women earn and manage money more effectively, partly because she has seen in her own village how cash is always controlled by men. Sometimes they spent it partying with buddies at a bar, rather than educating their children. Changing that culture won’t be easy, Beatrice says, but it can be done.

When people ask how they can help in the fight against poverty, there are a thousand good answers, from sponsoring a child to supporting a grass-roots organization through globalgiving.com. (I’ve listed specific suggestions on my blog, nytimes.com/ontheground, and on facebook.com/kristof).

The challenges of global poverty are vast and complex, far beyond anyone’s power to resolve, and buying a farm animal for a poor family won’t solve them. But Beatrice’s giddy happiness these days is still a reminder that each of us does have the power to make a difference — to transform a girl’s life with something as simple and cheap as a little goat.

(h/t to Mike).