Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sermon for February 27th: Matthew 6:19-34

Joy, Trust, and Focus

In our Gospel for today there’s one word that gets repeated over and over again: the word ‘Worry’. Not that worry is something that Jesus is recommending! Rather, it’s something that he’s warning us against. He says in verse 25, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear”. And again in verses 27-28: “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothes?” And again in verse 31, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’” And finally in verse 34, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today”.

Now if you’re like me, you find this a little hard to take. C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia stories, was a devout Christian, but he admitted that for his whole life long he struggled against a tendency to be a worrier. Commenting on this passage, he often wrote to his correspondents, “If God wanted us to live like the birds of the air, it would have be nice for him to have given us a constitution that was more like theirs!” I’m sure that you can sympathise with Lewis; I know I can. Like him, I tend to be a worrier. “Don’t worry – be happy” sounds great in theory, but how do you actually put it into practice? Many of us have become compulsive worriers, and the habits of a lifetime are hard to break. To us, Jesus’ saying in verse 25 - “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life” - sounds like a pipe dream.

I think we need to begin by recognising that, in this as in every other instance, Jesus practised what he preached. He does not seem to have been a person who worried a great deal; he lived his life on the principle of trusting his heavenly Father, and he tried to teach his followers to do the same. And I would go so far as to say that this made him, so far as we can tell, basically a happy person.

Yes, I know, there’s an old prophecy that said the Messiah was going to be ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’. We know that when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane and when he went to his death on the cross, the whole weight of the suffering of the world seemed to descend on him, so that his spirit was as dark as the sky around him. And we know that he wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus and that he was sad when people refused to trust God and see the wonderful things God was doing.

But these moments are exceptions. As we read a passage like today’s gospel, we should see that it flows straight out of Jesus’ own experience of life. And I would like to suggest to you this morning that there are three basic attitudes that are at the heart of Jesus’ experience of life, three attitudes that are reflected in this passage: joy, trust, and focus.

First, joy, joy in the good things that his heavenly Father had created. I’m a bird watcher myself, so I’m delighted to find Jesus recommending this as a good hobby; he says in verse 26, ‘Look at the birds of the air’! We have no reason to believe that Jesus hadn’t taken his own advice; he must have spent hours watching the birds diving and swooping on the wind currents above the Galilean hills, simply enjoying being alive. I’m reminded of something Marci and I saw a few years ago outside the rest stop at Innisfree, on the way to Lloydminster. Those of you who have stopped there will know that the restaurant and gas station are up on a hill, and the prairie winds are strong around there. We were in the restaurant having a meal and we saw a raven playing in the wind. It would flap its wings and work hard to climb, up, and up, higher and higher, and then when it reached a certain height it would just let itself go, and it would dive and swoop around until it came back to ground level. Then it would go through the whole process all over again; we watched it doing this several times while we were eating. As far as we could tell, all this activity had no useful purpose; the raven wasn’t on the lookout for field mice or other prey like a hawk would have been. It was simply enjoying itself, riding the currents of air just as God had created it to do.

I’m sure that Jesus had watched birds do this sort of thing many times, and he had figured out that they never seemed to weary themselves doing the kind of work that humans do, and yet they somehow managed to stay alive and well. And Jesus had seen all the flowers, thousands of different species - the word translated ‘lilies of the field’ here actually refers to several different plants – and had been moved by their fragile beauty. One moment they could be standing in the field, the next they could be trampled under foot by horses or cut down by a scythe. Where did all this beauty come from? The flowers didn’t spend thousands of dollars on clothes, nor did they spend several hours a week in a tanning studio getting a good tan, or in front of a mirror putting on makeup. They were just themselves – beautiful, God-given, and free.

Jesus looked around and saw all this, but he saw more than this: he didn’t only see the creation, he also saw through it to its Creator. There’s an old hymn that expresses this attitude well:

This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears

all nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.

This is my Father’s world; I rest me in the thought

of rocks and trees, of skies and seas, his hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father’s world: the birds their carols raise;

the morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.

This is my Father’s world: he shines in all that’s fair;

in the rustling grass I hear him pass, he speaks to me everywhere.

Jesus lived a life of joy because he not only enjoyed the creation around him; he also received it as a gift from its Creator, the Father of all. And none of this was about ownership. Jesus didn’t have to own the birds in order to enjoy watching them, and he didn’t have to own a field in order to enjoy the beauty of its flowers. He could simply receive it all as a free gift from his Father.

And this leads us to the second attitude that is at the heart of Jesus’ experience of life: the attitude of trust in his heavenly Father.

I was blessed – in fact, I still am blessed – with a good father. When my brother Mike and I were little boys, my Dad worked hard to put food on the table for us – first as a commercial artist in the advertising business, and later as a priest. When my Dad stopped work for two years to go to seminary, my Mum took her turn in the workforce. Between them they always provided what we needed, and so my brother and I never had to worry about not having food to eat or clothes to wear. That didn’t mean that our parents let us sit around and do nothing. They required us to do our chores, help with the dishes and so on. But because we knew that our parents loved us, we could be secure; we knew that, if need be, they would sacrifice their own comfort to make sure we had the necessities of life.

Jesus had that sort of trust in his heavenly Father; he had a strong and lively sense of the goodness of God. To him, the goodness of the created world was a sign of the goodness of the one who had made it. And his teaching grew out of his own experience. When he told his followers not to worry about tomorrow, we can assume that he had learned this attitude by putting it into practice himself. He knew from his own experience that the creator of all this beauty was not a stern and stingy killjoy but a loving and utterly dependable Father. And because of his relationship with his Father Jesus was able to break free from the tyranny of worry and focus his life on the things that really mattered.

So, even though Jesus seems to have known all along that the cross was ahead for him, I don’t get the sense that he was always looking ahead anxiously, worrying about what was coming next. Rather, he seems to have been able to live entirely in the present moment and giving attention to the present task, celebrating the goodness of God here and now. And he wanted his followers to do the same.

It’s important to recognise that when Jesus tells us not to worry about food and drink and clothing, he’s not saying that these things don’t matter. He doesn’t mean that we should live an ascetic life, eating and drinking as little as possible and wearing only the most ragged and moth-eaten clothes. We’re told in the gospels that Jesus liked a party as much as anyone else, and when he was crucified the soldiers liked his tunic so much that instead of tearing it up and dividing the cloth among them, as they usually did, they threw dice for it. So Jesus enjoyed the good things of life, and he wasn’t telling us that they aren’t important. Rather, he was telling us that we are the children of a loving Father who wants to give good gifts to his children. We can trust our Father to provide for us, just as he provides for the rest of his creation.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t plant seeds and reap the harvest, or that we shouldn’t work at weaving and spinning to make clothes – or that we shouldn’t work at our own jobs and earn money to pay others for these things, as most of us probably do in this church today. Rather, we should do these things with joy, because God is not a mean tyrant who is out to get us and make life difficult for us, but our loving Father who wants to take care of us and gives us the fruits of the earth as a gift.

So Jesus would counsel us to get close to the creation and learn to take joy in all that God has made there, and he would counsel us to learn to know and trust God as our heavenly Father; the more we cultivate our relationship with this God, the easier it will be for us to live our lives on the basis of simple trust in him. And finally, Jesus would counsel us to choose our focus wisely. In the passage immediately before today’s gospel, Jesus advises us:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (vv.19-21).

And he goes on to warn us:

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (v.24)

And at the end of today’s gospel he says,

“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (vv.31-33).

Here we are getting to the heart of the matter. The reason Jesus was able to live in joyful trust in his heavenly Father was that he had made his heavenly Father’s priorities his own. And he challenges us to do the same. Seek the Kingdom of God, make it the number one value of your life, and God will respond by providing for you what you need to live. And what is the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God means God’s power and love at work through Jesus to heal the world and restore it to his original intention and plan. One day this plan will come to completion; every knee will bow to Jesus, and God’s reign of justice and peace will be established and will last forever. Jesus challenges us to focus on that vision, to work toward it even now, and to make it the number one value of our lives.

The nineteenth century missionary Amy Carmichael once wrote these words: ‘Only one life, ‘twill soon be past; only what’s done for God will last’. Of course, ‘done for God’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘done for the Church’. God’s purposes for his world are far wider than the Church; they include building happy marriages and strong families and nurturing caring communities. They include working toward a world where everyone has enough and no one has too much, and a world in which future generations will still be able to enjoy the birds of the air and the lilies of the field as we do today. And they include the spread of the good news of Jesus with a call to everyone to become his disciples.

So these are the three attitudes that I see in this passage, attitudes that Jesus lived himself and that he tried to pass on his followers: joy in God and in all the good things that God had made, trust in the goodness of his heavenly Father and in his daily provision for our needs, and focus above all, not on accumulating wealth for ourselves, but on doing God’s will and cooperating with him in the work of healing the world.

Does that sound good to you? Does that sound attractive? Does that sound better than living by the principle of ‘the one who dies with the most toys wins’? Does it sound better than accumulating mountains of luxuries and then spending our days worrying that someone is going to steal them from us? Which would you rather do: walk through what the old Prayer Book called ‘the changes and chances of this mortal life’ with only your own skill and strength to depend on, or walk through life with your hand in your Father’s hand, focussing on the things he tells you to focus on, and trusting him to provide the necessities of life for you?

I know which alternative I’d rather go for. I’m not there yet, not by a long shot, but I’m going to pray that Jesus will teach me day by day to find joy in God’s creation, to trust in the goodness of my heavenly Father, and to focus my attention on seeking God’s kingdom and doing God’s will. Would you like to join me in that prayer?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sermon for February 20th: Matthew 5:38-48

Imitating the God Who Loves His Enemies

In 1569 a young man named Dirk Willems was burnt at the stake for heresy in the town of Asperen in the Netherlands. Today many Christians look on Dirk Willems as a hero. Let me tell you why.

When Dirk was a teenager he met some Anabaptists. In the 16th century, these were the Christians who opposed the idea of having a state church. They didn’t believe that people were Christians just because they were citizens of a so-called ‘Christian country’; rather, they believed that you had to choose for yourself to become a follower of Jesus, that you should be baptized as an adult as a sign of this commitment, and that you then became part of a fellowship of people who were learning how to put Jesus’ teaching into practice. In particular, most Anabaptists believed that followers of Jesus should not participate in war and should literally love their enemies as Jesus taught us. The state churches considered them a threat to their power, and so hundreds of Anabaptists were horribly tortured and executed.

Dirk was attracted to Anabaptist ideas, and he was baptized as an adult in Rotterdam. He then returned to his home town of Asperen and quietly began to host illegal Anabaptist meetings in his house, meetings in which he and others taught a way of being Christian that was incompatible with the way the established church at that time taught it. Eventually Dirk was arrested and imprisoned, but he managed to escape from the prison by climbing out of the window and clambering down a rope made of knotted cloths, and he ran for safety. However, he was seen from the prison, and a guard ran after him. It was early spring; Dirk approached a still-frozen pond, but he had been eating prison food and didn’t weigh very much, so he made it across the thin ice. The guard, however, had been eating rather better, and he broke through the ice. In terror of drowning, he cried out for help.

What would you have done, in Dirk’s shoes?

Dirk turned back. At great risk, he reached across the ice to rescue his pursuer. When the guard was safely on dry ground, he promptly re-arrested Dirk; one account says that the local burgomaster was watching and shouted to the guard to ‘consider his oath to do his duty’. For whatever reason, the guard incarcerated Dirk in a more secure prison – ironically, in the tower of the Asperen parish church. This time there was no escape. Dirk was tried for heresy, and was condemned to be burned to death at the stake. The execution was exceptionally painful; the wind blew the fire away from his upper body and so he died very slowly. Witnesses are recorded as having heard him cry out many times, “Oh Lord, my God!” as he was being burned.

Was Dirk right to do what he did?

Christians for many centuries have disagreed over the issue of war. Is it right for Christians to participate in wars and to kill the enemies of their country? Those who say it is right have argued that Jesus’ teaching about loving your enemies was intended to guide personal behaviour, not state policy. Personally I think there’s more too it than that, but be that as it may, what we have here is precisely a story about personal behaviour, and so, at least in theory, all Christians are agreed that we can’t wiggle out of this one. Dirk did as Jesus commanded in our Gospel for today, and he was not delivered; he suffered horribly for his decision. Why did he do that? And why did Jesus command us to do this?

The reason Jesus commanded us to do this is because this is the way God behaves. At the heart of the Christian Gospel is the story of a God who loves his enemies. And that’s what Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel reading.

But before we look again at the words of Jesus for today, let’s remind ourselves of what he is doing in this section of the Sermon on the Mount. Earlier in the chapter he told us that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will never enter God’s kingdom. Since the scribes and Pharisees were widely regarded as the most religious people in Jesus’ day, this might seem like a tall order, but as we read on we see that Jesus had a different view. To him, their religion was often only skin deep; they were satisfied with outward conformity to the letter of the law, while they ignored the spirit of it. And so Jesus challenges us, his disciples, to go beyond the letter of the Old Testament law and to focus on the inner transformation that is God’s dream for us.

And so, for example, we aren’t to be satisfied with just avoiding murder while all the time nursing anger and hatred and resentment against others; rather, we’re to do all we can to be fully reconciled with one another. It’s not enough only to tell the truth when we’re under oath in court; we’re to be such honest people that no-one would even think of asking us to take an oath because they know we always tell the truth. And let’s not be satisfied with congratulating ourselves that we’ve never committed adultery while all the time we’re nursing secret fantasies about other people; let’s change not just the outward behaviour, but the heart as well.

You see, in all the examples he gives, Jesus calls his followers to move beyond the Old Testament laws and to strive to live by the perfect law of love. He’s quite clear about what he’s asking his followers to do with regard to the Old Testament; over and over again he says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… but I say to you…”. Obviously, though he respects the Old Testament law, he doesn’t see it as completely adequate as a basis for living a godly life, and so he ‘fulfils’ it in the sense of exploring its deeper meaning and even, in some cases, apparently overturning it in favour of a more perfect way.

This is particularly relevant to today’s passage. In the Old Testament, as you know, there are all sorts of wars and violent behaviour that are apparently sanctioned by God, but Jesus offers his followers a completely different way of dealing with evil. Let’s listen again to his words:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”.

I wonder what your instinctive reaction is when you hear these words of Jesus? Perhaps you think he’s being outrageous: how can he possibly demand such a thing? Doesn’t he understand that if we act in this way we’re just going to encourage people to continue their evil behaviour? Surely he’s being impossibly idealistic here! I’m reminded of the story of a Scottish pastor who was preaching a series on the Sermon on the Mount. An old lady objected to his sermon about loving enemies, and when he replied that he was simply quoting the words of Jesus, she replied, “Yes, but Jesus was a very young man when he preached that sermon!”

But here’s the catch: don’t we assume, every one of us, that God will treat us in this way? Don’t we almost see it as our right? The God Jesus describes to us in the Gospels is constantly loving his enemies. As Jesus says, God doesn’t check to see if you believe in him before he lets you benefit from the sunshine. He doesn’t check to see if you’ve obeyed the Ten Commandments before he decides whether or not it will rain on you. No, ‘he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’ (v.45).

The God we read about in the New Testament is constantly loving people who don’t deserve to be loved. It’s almost thirty-nine years since I first gave my life to Jesus. I have to say that I’m still confessing some of the same sins, on an almost daily basis, that I was confessing thirty-nine years ago. I’ve made progress in some areas, but in others I’ve gotten nowhere at all. Sometimes I put in an honest effort to change; at other times I just like an easy life too much, or, too be absolutely honest, I find that particular sin just too enjoyable to give up. And yet, day by day, I go to God and ask him to forgive me. I never think of saying to him, “I don’t think you’d better forgive me for this, Lord – if you do, you’ll just reinforce my bad behaviour”. No, I ask for forgiveness, and I know I have received it, because he continues to bless me with a sense of his presence and an awareness of his mercy and grace. That’s what the Christian gospel is all about: a God who loves people whether they deserve it or not, because it is his nature to love.

The God we read about in the New Testament is constantly turning the other cheek. And in this case, it’s like Father, like Son. Jesus, of course, was the ultimate practitioner of his own sermon. He loved his enemies and prayed for those who persecuted him. When the soldiers were nailing him to the Cross he prayed for all who were involved in his execution, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”. And his death was the ultimate example of how God treats human sinfulness. God chose not to damn the entire human race to hell for our rebellion. Instead, he came among us in Jesus and took the sins of the world on his own shoulders. Rather than making us suffer for our sins, he chose to bear the suffering himself, so that we could be forgiven.

So this passage, you see, is rooted in the Gospel, the good news of God’s grace. Grace is a Bible word that means ‘love that you don’t deserve’. You don’t have to earn it, you don’t have to do something to purchase it, it just comes to you for free, because God is that kind of God. God doesn’t love us because we’re loveable; he loves us because he is love, whether we’re loveable or not. And that’s the wonderful good news that Jesus has commissioned us to announce to everyone, everywhere: that God has declared an amnesty to all who will take advantage of it by coming to Jesus and putting their trust in him. You can be the older brother who never left home or the younger brother who squandered his father’s property with prostitutes. You can be a self-righteous Pharisee or a tax collector who’s broken every rule in the book. God’s not choosy – if you turn back to him and put your life in Jesus’ hands, you can be forgiven. Come and join the Gospel rabble!

But – and here’s the catch – if you want to take advantage of God’s grace, you have to commit yourself to living by that same principle of grace in your own life. Jesus spelled it out for us in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”. Or, as he spells it out a bit more in the next chapter of Matthew’s gospel, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). Yes, we were God’s enemies, but fortunately for us God is in the habit of loving his enemies, and so instead of being cast into the outer darkness we were welcomed home to the Father’s house. Very good, Jesus says – now: go and do likewise.

The way Jesus sees it, children who have good parents should want to be like them; if they don’t there’s something wrong. So often, when we are confronted with some piece of sinfulness in ourselves, we say, “I’m only human, you know!” And of course God understands that, which is why he is such a patient and merciful God. But he longs for us to aim higher than that! He longs for us to look up to him and say, like a little child who is so proud of his father, “When I get older, I want to be like my Dad!” And so he ends today’s reading by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v.48). This sounds like an impossible ideal, and no doubt it is very difficult, but let’s remember that the word ‘perfect’ in this context means ‘complete, with nothing left out’. What Jesus is saying is ‘Our heavenly Father leaves no one outside the circle of his love, and you must do the same’.

No one ever said this would be easy. No one promised it would never get us into trouble. Dirk Willems knew very well that turning back to help his enemy would probably mean his death. But he did it anyway, because he wanted to be like his heavenly Father, and like his Master Jesus. Followers of Jesus are content to do as Jesus says, and trust that the same God who vindicated him will one day vindicate us as well. And so, like him, we are called to walk the costly path of love. Let us pray that the God who strengthened Jesus will strengthen us also, so that we too are able to leave no one out of the circle of our love.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sermon for February 13th: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 (by Brian Popp)

Can you remember a situation in your recent past when you needed help from someone to complete an important task? Perhaps you were planning a new business venture and needed a partner? Or maybe you wanted to change jobs and needed a career advisor or mentor to help you and provide some reliable advice? Could it be that you just needed to know what to do to become a better Christian? Or maybe you are going through a challenging time and just wanted some advice from a good friend whose honesty you rely upon!

In today's lesson,1 Corinthians 3: 1-9, Paul tells us about the challenges faced by the early Church in Corinth. He tells members of the congregation bluntly that they are still like `infants in Christ` despite the efforts of Paul, Appollos and other servants to nurture them in the faith. Because of their jealousy and constant bickering they are not ready to live spiritually and learn from those Servants who are workmen of God! Their worldliness has made it necessary to give them milk to drink (basic teaching) rather than solid food to eat (more advanced teaching) - They can`t even comprehend food for thought! How then can we move from being infants in Christ to becoming ``spiritual`` people. Paul talks about behaving according to human inclinations rather than spiritual discernment. He advises that only when one has been instructed by the Holy Spirit can one interpret spiritual things in spiritual language. The people of Corinth seemed incapable of comprehending this.

What comparisons can we draw between the parishioners of our modern day churches and those referred to in our reading this morning? Are we still challenged by infants in Christ who put worldliness ahead of faithfulness? Does their faith rest not on the power of God but on human wisdom? I personally received my early Christian education in a small Lutheran parish in rural Saskatchewan many years ago. Since that time I have traveled extensively , lived in many communities and attended many parishes. Each one has enriched my life and my spiritual knowledge. I would hope I have progressed from basic teaching to more advanced teaching BUT I still have much to learn before I would consider myself a spiritual or spirit-filled Christian - but I am a believer in life-long learning!

The Apostle Paul further discusses with the people of Corinth the Servant/Master relationship essential to building the Church on a solid foundation - God's foundation that is!

How do we define a servant? The Oxford Modern English dictionary defines a servant as a devout follower. We think about waiters and waitresses as servers/servants or a maid or valet as servants. Or a devout follower of a particular political leader or as servants to royalty. But there are better illustrations of servants within a religious context - many described in a variety of Bible stories. In this particular reading Paul and Appollos are referred to as Servants through whom the Corinthians came to believe in God. Who did these servants serve - the people of Corinth? God? Themselves? Let us consider servant hood and what it means in this context.

Servants refers to all who serve the Lord. Servants of Christ can also refer to Christian ministry. They are God's fellow workers. Their work is given to them by God! Ministers, ordained or lay, are servants who tend to God's creation. In today's church they work together with the Vestry and members of the parish, as well as Diocesan leadership, under the Bishop, and help perform the duties assigned to them by Our Heavenly Father. But servants do not work alone. They are part of a team that guides and directs our worldly efforts to serve our Master, that being our God!

Paul says in verse 6 - "I planted, Appollos watered but God gave the growth." His explanation is simply that the role of church members is in planting the seeds and watering them so they will grow! We may, as servants, plant and water but ONLY GOD can make them grow. Unless the people of God follow His direction nothing will happen. The seeds will wither and die and no new growth will appear! As servants and followers of God we can all help with the Church's Vision and Mission in this world but we cannot expect it to work without the Master's help and direction.

I have experienced this in areas of my personal faith journey. I recall participating in a Visioning process in a parish in Calgary where the Vestry was developing the future direction for the parish using a process that lasted for several months. We had been struggling unsuccessfully for several meetings to produce a Vision Statement. One Saturday morning one of our vestry members stated:

I think our Vision should be:

" Opening Hearts and Minds to God's Grace"

Everyone sat in wonder and amazement! Two things then became apparent:

1. These were the words we had been seeking for the past several meetings, and

2. The Holy Spirit was in the room with us!

This Vision continues to guide the direction of the Parish 10 years later!

I had a somewhat similar experience when I decided I wanted to become a lay reader. One of my greatest apprehensions was preparing and delivering a sermon. While I have done public speaking many times in my life there is something about presenting to you, my peers, that makes me nervous. I have never been known to PREACH!

I initially struggled preparing this sermon today and prayed to God many times in the past three weeks that it would be to His Glory. I only hope that you and God accept it in that light! How can we as members of this parish develop a lasting Servant/Master relationship that will further God's work in this place?

During the past year we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the establishment of St. Margaret's Anglican Church. We acknowledged the contributions of many servants - clergy and lay - and the work of all past and present parishioners in obtaining this site, building this church with their own donations and sweat equity and planting the seeds of this new parish in south west Edmonton. We gave thanks to God for Tim, and all previous Rectors, for their leadership during the past 30 years in making St. Margaret's what it is today - OUR CHURCH HOME! We also thanked God who has led and blessed our growth over the past 30 years and will continue to do so into the future!

During the past year some of us also participated in the Diocese of Edmonton's 62nd Synod. The theme of this spiritual gathering was - LOOK AROUND---the FIELDS ARE RIPE FOR HARVEST! This theme celebrated the work done Diocesan-wide over many years by many servants in planting the seeds and watering the fields. The celebration and worship praised God's leadership, support and direction of the Diocese's growth and development over the past decades. We all know that planting, watering, growth and harvesting are an annual cycle repeated in perpetuity!

I mentioned earlier the Vestry Visioning Process in a parish in Calgary during our time as members of that parish. Our Vestry here at St. Margaret's has worked and continues to work on a similar process. We, like all parishes in the Diocese of Edmonton, have a MAP - Mission Action Plan. This Plan defines actions that will be taken to ensure our Vision is achieved.

Our current Vision within that Plan is:

" To help our congregation grow as an all age community of followers of Jesus, reaching out together to change lives within the Church and beyond"

Let us think for a moment about the future of St. Margaret's and how today's reading from 1 Corinthians might impact our growth and future development.

In a recent letter to all parishioners Tim stated that our average Sunday attendance has risen over 11% in 2010. He also noted what a joy it is to welcome new members to our congregation! I know of many urban and rural parishes that would welcome our growth in place of their declining attendance!

New initiatives like Preschool Sunday School, Back To Church Sundays and Spaghetti Church, in addition to book and Bible studies, have been developed. These new initiatives need new servants of God to assist current and future parishioners organize these and other new initiatives they might want to develop. To paraphrase Paul's letter - we need more of you to help plant and water! But we also need all of us to ask God, in prayer, to continually bless us and give us continual growth in our own lives but also in the future growth of St. Margaret's.

This part of our city is one of the fastest growing residential areas of Edmonton. The University farm across 127th avenue from us will soon cease to exist. There are plans unfolding for new communities to the west and south of us that will house 150,000 people and the supporting infrastructure. New schools, libraries, LRT lines and commercial establishments will change forever the face of our environment. St. Margaret's will need to consider our future. We may not be able to continue as a "rural" parish but become a suburban parish. This may mean expanding the programs we offer and the potential for an expansion of the church building. It may mean some exciting opportunities but some challenging times as we consider how we continue our current ministry while thinking about the future! It will mean that we must plant and water and seek God's help and prayerful direction in our future growth!

And what will the reward be for this planting, watering and growth? As our Vision Statement says:

CHANGING LIVES WITHIN OUR CHURCH AND BEYOND!

In summary, I believe there is much we have done in our past 30 years at St. Margaret's but much more to do in the years to come! We must all be servants - devout followers - of God! He will use all of us to bring the message of truth and love to others, to plant the seeds of hope and water them but it is He alone who wakes the hearts of men to new life - a life of caring and sharing! We must learn from today's bible reading that "Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything without God who gives the growth"

Thanks be to God!

Amen

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Week of Feb.7th - 13th, 2011

C A L E N D A R

Monday February 7th, 2011

Tim’s day off

Office is closed

Tues/Wed. February 8/9th, 2011

Tim is on Retreat

Thursday February 10th, 2011

7:00 am Men’s and Women’s Bible Studies at Bogani

2:00 pm Women’s Bible Study @ M. Rys’s house

Saturday, February 12th, 2011

Tim off

Sunday February 13th, 2011

9:00am Holy Communion

10:30 Holy Communion

February Roster

Feb 13th – Epiphany 6 – Holy Communion

Greeter/Sidespeople: A. Shutt/B. Cavey

Counter: C. Aasen/ D. Schindel

Reader: T. Cromarty

(Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm119: 1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9)

Lay Administrants: M. Rys/ L. Thompson

Intercessor: D. MacNeill

Lay Reader: B. Popp Matthew 5: 21-37

Altar Guild (Green): M. Woytkiw/10:30Peggy Major/ A. Shutt

Prayer Team: L. Sanderson/ K. Hughes

Nursery:

Sunday School (School Age): M. Aasen

Sunday School (Preschool): E. McDougall

Kitchen: D. Molloy

Music: E. Thompson

Feb 20th – Epiphany 7 – Holy Communion

Greeter/Sidespeople: The Hughes

Counter: G. Hughes/ T. Cromarty

Reader: D. MacNeill

(Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18, Psalm 119: 33-40, 1 Corinthians 3: 10-23)

Lay Administrants: C. Aasen/ D. MacNeill

Intercessor: L. Thompson

Lay Reader: L. Thompson Matthew 5: 38-48

Altar Guild (Green): J. Mill/L. Pyra

Prayer Team: E. Gerber/M. Rys

Nursery: E. McDougall

Sunday School (School Age): P. Rayment

Sunday School (Preschool): M. Horn

Kitchen: A. Shutt

Music: M. Eriksen

Feb 27th – Epiphany 8 – Morning Worship

Greeter/Sidespeople: The Aasen’s

Counter: D. Mitty/ B. Popp

Reader: T. Wittkopf

(Isaiah 49: 8-16a, Psalm 131, 1 Corinthians 4: 1-5)

Intercessor: M. Rys

Lay Reader: B. Popp Matthew 6: 24-34

Altar Guild (Green): M. Lobreau/MW

Nursery: M. Aasen

Sunday School (School Age): C. Ripley

Sunday School (Preschool): M. Eriksen

Kitchen: G. Enns

Music: R. Joseph

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sermon for February 6th: Matthew 5:13-20

Making a Difference

Some of you probably remember the 1986 movie The Mission; it tells the story of an eighteenth-century Jesuit mission in South America which had the misfortune to be in the way of government-supported slave traders. At the end of the movie, after the slave-traders have massacred the Indians and some of the Jesuits, the Jesuit Superior - who was forced to allow their action by the King of Spain - is reading their report. He turns to one of them and says, “Do you have the effrontery to tell me that this slaughter was necessary?” “Such is the world, Your Eminence”, replies the slave trader. “No”, says the Jesuit Superior; “Such have we made it”.

Complaints about the state of the world are made every day. You hear them in newspaper editorials and coffee row conversations, and Christians are as involved in them as anyone else. But in the midst of all this complaining we often forget that we Christians have been called by our Master to do more than gripe about the state of the world. As the Jesuit Superior in the movie reminded us, the world is as it is because we human beings have made it that way. Now Jesus is calling us, as his people, to demonstrate by our way of life that there’s a better way.

I said last week that the Sermon on the Mount could be called ‘Lessons in the School of Jesus’. Most people who enroll in the School of Jesus do so because of a sense of need in their own lives; we’re coming to Jesus for help for ourselves, and that’s fine as a place to start. However, we discover very quickly that this School of Jesus doesn’t just exist for my benefit as an individual; it exists to change the world. This is very clear in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus starts in the Beatitudes by telling us that we’re welcome in the Kingdom of God whether we’re saints or sinners, beginners or long-time Christians. But he then goes on immediately to remind us that the purpose of the School of Jesus is to produce disciples who can make a difference in the world by being like salt and light. And that’s what today’s gospel is all about.

“You are the salt of the earth”, says Jesus in verse 13. ‘You’, here, is a plural; he’s addressing his followers as a community, not just as individuals. We, as a community, are to act on the world as salt acts on food. Salt, of course, was used in the ancient world, not only to add flavour to meat, but also to prevent it from going bad. The purpose of the salt was to influence the meat, not the other way around! So Jesus calls his disciples to have a positive influence on the world around us, and of course we can’t do this if we’re no different from the world. In God’s plan, our usefulness to the world depends on our being different, living by different values, following a different Master.

In this passage Jesus explicitly warns us about losing our distinctive flavour. Now, modern table salt can’t actually lose its flavour, but in the ancient world the salt was not pure; it was picked up from the shores of the Dead Sea and many other impurities were picked up with it, impurities that looked just like salt but actually weren’t. The pure salt, of course, was water soluble, so that it would not be uncommon for all the saltiness to be washed away and only the impurities be left. So Jesus warns his disciples: there will be a lot of pressure for you to ‘wash away’ your distinctiveness and to blend in with the world around you, going along with its priorities and its standards of behaviour. He’s warning us not to give in to that temptation, because if we do, we kiss goodbye to any opportunity to actually make a real difference for God in the world.

And we are to be visibly different; that’s the point of the second illustration. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (vv.14-16).

Of course, in John’s gospel Jesus says, “I am the light of the world”, but here in Matthew he says to us, his followers, “You are the light of the world”. Darkness in the Bible stands for evil, sin, and ignorance, and Jesus is bringing light into the world – truth, goodness, holiness. It’s the call of his disciples to be like him, so that they also may spread his light wherever they may go. And the question for us as a community is surely this: does our life together as followers of Jesus remind people of our Master? Do they see his light in us?

When I think of a Christian community in recent times shining with the light of Jesus, I think of the Amish of Nickel Mines, and their response after a gunman broke into their schoolhouse and shot a number of their children before turning the gun on himself. Instead of anger and calls for revenge, the Amish reached out in love and forgiveness to the family of the gunman, and they insisted that the financial help that was being sent to them should be shared with the family of the gunman as well. When asked why they were doing this, they pointed out that it was very plain in the teaching of Jesus that people should love their enemies and forgive them rather than taking revenge on them. “We pray it seven times a day in the Lord’s Prayer”, they said. Many people in the media commented on this, and it seemed to really puzzle some of them, but my own thought was, “At last, instead of people talking about ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ someone is actually living it”. That community was definitely acting like the shining ‘city built on a hill’ that Jesus talks about here, the city whose light can’t be hidden.

This example also reminds us that often it won’t be in our planned activities and outreach programs that people see the face of Jesus in us. Rather, it will be when stress hits our lives or when tragedy happens. Of course, no one in their right minds prays for tragedy to happen, but Christian history contains example after example of God working in times of tragedy to shine his light into the world as his people respond together in a Christ-like manner.

But in order for this to happen – in order for us to truly be salt and light and to have a positive influence on the world around us – there needs to be genuine transformation in our own lives, and it can’t just be superficial; it has to go deep. This is what Jesus goes on to address in verses 17-20, where he says,

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”.

As it stands, there is an obvious difficulty with this teaching. The difficulty is that it does not line up with the practice of Jesus, because Jesus did, in fact, sit rather lightly to some of the commandments. For instance, he allowed his disciples to harvest grain on the Sabbath. He healed the sick on the Sabbath. He declared that it was no longer necessary to keep kosher, because it was not unclean food entering the body that made a person impure, but rather evil actions coming from within. He was not, in fact, always especially scrupulous in observing every little detail of the law himself! So how are we to understand this passage?

I think we need to remember that Jesus was raised in a rhetorical tradition in which exaggeration was an accepted form of speech and teaching. He talks about a camel going through the eye of a needle, and about not trying to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye when there’s a great plank of wood in your own, and being able to use faith to move mountains. Teachers in Jesus’ day often exaggerated intentionally in order to make a point, and we need to take this into account when we are interpreting what Jesus had to say.

So what’s he trying to say in this passage? Surely the point is that faith in him involves obedience to God’s commandments. No one should misunderstand his example of hanging out with sinners as implying that he was okay with sin; he wasn’t. He wanted to welcome everyone into the kingdom to begin a journey of transformation, so that together they could become people whose lives were visibly different, in such a way as to have a positive influence for God in the world. In this way, he said, he came to fulfil the law and the prophets; his movement would produce people who were more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees, not less.

In the rest of Matthew chapter five Jesus gives us some concrete examples of what he’s talking about, and in every case it’s clear that he’s taking the law and internalizing it. He’s not interested in righteousness that’s only skin-deep; he wants the word of God to penetrate into our hearts, so that we are transformed on the inside as well as the outside.

So it’s not enough, he says, to congratulate yourself because you haven’t murdered anyone; murder is caused by anger and resentment, and you must root those things out of your lives as well, and do your best to be reconciled to your adversaries instead of nursing a grudge against them for decades. It’s not enough to congratulate yourself that you’ve never committed adultery while all the time you’re nursing secret sexual fantasies about other people, real or imaginary. It’s not enough to congratulate yourself on the fact that in your divorce you followed the law to the letter; God didn’t establish the institution of marriage with divorce in mind, so it’s far better to work for reconciliation. It’s not enough to proudly say that when you take an oath in court you never break it. Why do you need to take an oath in the first place? Are you saying to people that you can’t be trusted unless you take an oath? It’s not enough to follow the Old Testament law that limits vengeance to exact equivalence – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Rather, don’t take vengeance at all; turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and love your enemies, just as your heavenly Father sends sunshine and rain on both good and bad alike.

You see what’s going on here? Jesus is focusing not so much on the letter of the Law, but on the positive inner qualities which God is looking for – reconciliation, marital faithfulness, honesty and truth, forgiveness and love for all. This is what Jesus means by ‘fulfilling the Law and the Prophets’, and it helps us make sense of his saying about our righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees. The scribes and Pharisees were seen as the most religious people of their day, but the problem, according to Jesus, was that often their religion was only skin deep. They would keep the commandment about murder but continue to seethe with anger against others and see nothing wrong in that. They would keep the commandment about adultery but continue to nurse lust for others in their hearts. They would keep their oaths but not be so scrupulous about telling the truth at other times. They would congratulate themselves on having achieved an amicable divorce rather than working for reconciliation in their marriages. They conformed to God’s standards outwardly, but inwardly they were unchanged.

This may look good on the outside, but it is not what Jesus is after. Not that he is against outward actions. Sometimes that’s the way it works; we learn to do some outward action, and gradually it transforms us on the inside as well. We learn a new habit, which at first is only an outward thing, but gradually it starts to go deeper. Young couples who are madly in love with each other often hold hands, but it works the other way around as well; older couples who continue to hold hands often find that it enhances the feeling they have for each other. The outward action is meant to lead to an inward transformation, and it’s the inner transformation that Jesus is most interested in, because that’s what makes it possible for us to make a difference to the world around us.

Let’s go around this one last time.

Everyone is welcome in the Kingdom of God, because God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are. However, he loves us too much to leave us there! He knows that living lives of disobedience and sin is ultimately bad for us, and so his purpose is to lead us out of that darkness into the light of a new way of life. And he does this, not just for our own sake, but so that the world might be transformed by his light. We, the disciples of Jesus, are called to be a community that learns a new way of life from our Master and lives it out together. We, as a community, are the salt of the earth, the city set on a hill, the light shining for all to see. The world is meant to be able to see our way of life and take note.

But in order for this to happen, our obedience can’t just be skin deep. Rather, the Holy Spirit has to work below the surface to transform us into people who love to do the will of God. And as we continue our studies in the Sermon on the Mount, we’ll look a little more closely at the examples Jesus gives of the deep work of transformation that God wants to do in our hearts and lives.