Sermon Sunday May 24, 2020 Ascension
This is the Sunday when we remember how the risen Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, leaving the disciples gazing up into the clouds in awe and wonder. The Ascension of Our Lord marks the end of the 50 days of Easter, that wondrous and magical time, when the disciples of Jesus were able to walk with him, talk with him and share meals with him. A time that must’ve felt like living in a dream.
But now the season of Easter is coming to an end, and before Jesus disappears into the cloud, he commissions the disciples. He empowers them – and us – to continue his work in the world, in bringing in the Kingdom of God. He passes the baton to us, as it were, and counts on us to continue the race that he has begun. This really sets the scene for Pentecost, when the followers of Jesus are filled with his Spirit and realize that they truly are the Body of Christ, and are fully empowered to do the work that he has been doing. Today, at the Ascension, the disciples are just beginning to understand who they are. It’s beginning to dawn on them that it’s not so much a matter of asking God to bring in the Kingdom, as realizing that in the power of the risen Lord Jesus, God will work in and through us to transform the world. In a fanciful story I once read, the Archangel Michael asks Jesus once he gets to heaven, “Are you really going to entrust your work to these people? What if they fail?” And Jesus calmly answers, “I have no plan B. ”
Sometimes doing the work of Christ may involve great plans and projects. For example back in the late 50’s Canon Tanton at St. Mark’s discerned God’s will for the building of a church in the North North End. He sent a bunch of his parishioners on a mission, and filled with the Holy Spirit, they built this place, and worshipped here for the first time on Christmas Eve, 1960.
Sometimes doing the work of Christ may be a matter of personal vocation. As I near my retirement, I’ve been reflecting a great deal on my 34 years as a parish priest. What an amazing run it has been! A time of learning and growing, of stress and joy and of unimaginable fulfillment.
But whatever our spiritual calling may be, whether collective or personal, it always has to start with the foundation. Without a solid foundation it cannot prosper. As some of you may know, before buying a house in Spryfield, Michelle and I last year became owners of the family cottage in Sandy Cove, Digby Neck. In planning to renovate the house to be our summer retirement home, the first thing we have had to attend to is work on the foundation. Since many of the floors weren’t level and most of the doors didn’t close properly, we knew we had to stabilize the foundation, before doing anything else. In our faith life it’s the same. The foundation is the priority.
And the spiritual foundation for our work of bringing forth the Kingdom is very simple. It is to open our hearts. Here I’d like to call to mind the words of the lovely him that we will be singing shortly: Spirit Open My Heart. Like many of the hymns we sing, this hymn is really a prayer to God. We start with the refrain:
“Spirit open my heart
to the joy and pain of living
as you love may me I love,
in receiving and in giving.
Spirit, opened my heart.”
In times of stress and uncertainty, the great danger is always that we close down our hearts. We are tempted to think: “I have too much stress in my life” or “I have too much sadness to listen to another person’s problems. I’ve got enough problems of my own.” So easily, our hearts can simply shut down and we can go numb and just not feel “the joy and pain of living.” When we cannot feel our own joy and pain, we become unable to listen to another person’s joy and pain. And so we pray in verse one:
“God replace my stony heart
with a heart that’s kind and tender.
All my coldness and fear
to your grace I now surrender.
Spirit open my heart. ”
I am reminded once again of how Jesus says that, “Perfect love casts out fear.” In our world today there are so many things to be afraid of: disease, violence, economic hardship, and all the simple uncertainties of the immediate future. By God’s grace we are enabled to keep our hearts open in the face of all those fears that beset us.
In the last verse we sing:
“May I weep with those who weep,
share the joy of sister, brother.
In the welcome of Christ,
may we welcome one another.”
Part of this spiritual foundation is just to make it a habit to practice what I call the “hospitality of the heart:” to listen to one another with genuine concern and interest, and without necessarily needing to fix people’s problems with our advice and opinions, but simply to make a space in our hearts to hold them in love.
It is this kind of foundation that has made St. Margaret of Scotland such a strong church over the years, and has made it such a pleasure for me to serve here. As we look to the future, let us ask God to continue to keep our hearts open to one another, and to all around us, that we may move ahead in the confidence that truly we are the Body of Christ in this place, and that we are empowered by Christ to bring God’s Kingdom of love and peace to fruition. So may we be blessed. Amen.
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 10, 2020
Over the last few weeks we have been learning more than we ever cared to know about viruses. So what then is a virus? Well we know it’s a tiny little ball of genetic material that has the ability to make copies of itself endlessly. Once it gets inside a living cell, it makes millions of copies of itself, which are then released, to go and invade other cells. And so it can replicate itself endlessly, infecting cell after cell and person after person.
It’s not just in the realm of biology and medicine that we come across viruses. Nowadays we hear about computer viruses. A malicious little program gets into your computer and makes your computer generate endless copies of itself, and send them off to infect other computers.
And in the world of social media we hear of a post “going viral.” That’s when someone shares something with others that gets shared again and again, so that it gets multiplied more and more, sometimes into the millions within a very short span of time.
Ideas and ideologies can also be viral in their own way. On Monday, as part of our 36th wedding anniversary celebration, Michelle and I watched that great old movie, The Sound of Music. I had forgotten what a good movie it was! As you may recall at the exciting climax of the movie the whole von Trapp family escapes from the Nazis, fleeing over the mountains into Switzerland. We discover that the young fellow who had been romantically interested in Lisle (16 going on 17) has now become one of the Nazis. We can see how his mind has become infected by that evil ideology. And it made me think again of the power of ideas, and of how an ideology can take on a life of its own, and infect a large group of people, sometimes with tragic consequences. And within a group of people these ideas can become mutually self-reinforcing, and can come to distort people’s whole understanding of reality and sense of morals.
But not everything that goes viral is evil. Faith is also something which can be passed on from person to person, can be shared more and more, and so become a contagion of its own. Faith is something that we catch from others, and at some point each one of us caught faith from someone, whether from our parents or from other members of the Christian community. And within the community of the Church our faith can be something that is mutually self-reinforcing. I have often used the image of the campfire, which has died down to a glowing bed of embers. If you take a pair of tongs and remove one of those embers from the fire, and place it on a rock by itself, it will soon be stone cold. But if you put it back in the bed with the other embers, in no time it will be glowing with the rest. So is our faith something, which is always stronger when it is shared.
And it is our faith in Jesus Christ that gives us our identity as God’s people. Peter writes in his epistle this morning: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.”
The core ideas that define us as a people are that Jesus is in fact the Christ and the Son of God. It is the truth we heard in today’s gospel from John, that Jesus is the Way the Truth and the Life. And that Jesus Christ reveals our true human nature, that we are in fact children of God and sisters and brothers of one family. It is the truth revealed by Jesus on the cross, that love is stronger than death. The idea that we are called to lives of mutual service and love, and to reject the ways of power, coercion and control. It is our trust in the power of forgiveness to bring new life and hope.
These are the ideas that the early Christians were willing to die for. In our reading from the Book of Acts we heard the story of the first martyr, St. Stephen, whose confidence in Christ gave him the courage to die for his faith.
And what is passed on from person to person is not just our beliefs about God and Jesus, but a living relationship with God in Christ. And it comes from our lived experience of God’s love, which comes to us in so many ways.
I see our parish church as an epicenter of that transmission of love, and as a hotbed of the contagion of compassion and a breeding ground for faith. It is this grace given to us in Jesus Christ that makes our community of faith powerful, so that we continue to thrive in the face of every challenge. I see this every day in the way our members are reaching out to one another and to neighbours, friends and strangers through all the phone calls and the cards and the many ways that people show love and concern for one another. May we continue to be blessed, that we may share God’s blessing with all around. Amen.
Here is the Sermon from Sunday May 3, 2020.
Recently I read a piece pointing out that only a few months ago some of us were saying that 2019 had been a terrible year, and we were hoping that 2020 would be better. And the writer challenged us to think about what exactly it was that we were so worried about last year. And I found it quite difficult to actually remember much at all about the state of the world in 2019. It all seems like a dim memory. What was it that we were so worried about?
And in this time in which we find ourselves, it’s not just the past that is dim. When we look toward the future, we see nothing but uncertainty. We don’t know when all the restrictions will be lifted. We don’t know when we’ll be back in church. And we wonder, “What will it be like when things open up again?” It’s impossible for us to plan anything. And so in these days we find ourselves kind of betwixt and between. Our horizons have shrunk down and it’s like we’re stuck here in the present moment.
We have all had times like these in our own lives, when things happen that place us in this betwixt-and-between state. Perhaps a medical diagnosis, or the death of a loved one, job loss, or some other crisis comes along and puts us in this state. It is a place of disorientation, where we can no longer count on our past certainties, and many of our old habits have had to change. It’s a time of supreme disruption. It is certainly an uncomfortable time. When we are in this in-between time, we just can’t wait for it to be over. But wait we must. As they say, “You can’t push the river.”
Well, this is an in-between time for our whole society these days. And for all of us it is a time to question our assumptions, for example, to ask, What aspects of our old life we want to go back to? And, are there perhaps things we’d happy to let go? It’s been a time for us all to ponder the purpose of our life. This in-between time can be a time of waking up. Perhaps in some ways before this all happened, we were just sleepwalking through life. And in this time we have all been called upon to draw on our inner strength, to dig deeper in our faith, and to tap into our inner resources. Above all, it is a time to deepen our trust in God.
Every year on the fourth Sunday of Easter, sometimes known as Good Shepherd Sunday, we read the 23rd Psalm. This psalm is of special significance for me personally, because many years ago, when I was going through a particularly stressful time in my life, this psalm became for me a great source of strength. I had never been much of one for memorizing scripture, but I did memorize this psalm, and found myself saying it many times a day. The words of this psalm invite us into a deeper relationship with God, and remind us of the many benefits of prayer.
It starts out on a note of trust. “The Lord is my shepherd.” We start off by admitting that like sheep, we really don’t know anything. We see the grass in front of us and we nibble at the grass and that’s about it. We don’t see the big picture. Only God sees the big picture. We have to depend on God’s guidance and protection.
It continues, “I shall not be in want.” There are so many ways in which we can be afraid of being in want, even if we have enough of the basics in life. We can be in want of companionship. We can be in want of joy and satisfaction in our lives. We can be in want of meaning and direction. When we turn to God in prayer, all our fears of lack and want are diminished, and we begin to remember in our hearts that if we have the Lord as our shepherd, we will in fact be alright. We begin to receive that precious gift of contentment.
“He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.” Sometimes in this in-between state, we may feel like we should be doing more things. The anxiety of our uncertainty can lead us to frantic activity. And even if we are not actually doing much, our minds can become agitated with many thoughts and questions. Sometimes God is saying to us, “Stop. Just rest. You can lie down in the green pastures or take a quiet stroll beside the still waters. It’s OK. I give you permission.” There are times we need to let go of all our effort, and simply rest in God.
“He revives my soul.” When we allow ourselves to rest in God, we are able to tap into inner resources we didn’t know we had. We experience again a joy and energy that we may have forgotten about. We know that times of stress and grief can be times of tremendous fatigue. In times like these, God is offering us refreshment and renewed strength.
“He guides me along right pathways for his name’s sake.” Part of being in the in-between time is disorientation. In many ways we can feel lost and we don’t know which way to go. Sometimes even the simplest decisions can become difficult. If we take the time to listen deeply in our hearts, we will indeed hear the voice of the Good Shepherd calling our name, and leading us in the way we need to go. The first step is to admit our confusion and our need for guidance. We need to lay our questions before God, and wait patiently for God to show us the way forward. And we also need the courage to be open to what God may be saying to us. After all, it may not be what we expected.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” At this point the psalm turns. Until now we have been talking about God and God’s care for us. Now we turn and actually talk to God. Every time we say this verse, it is a chance for us to make our relationship with God more real and more personal.
Truly, there have been times over the last weeks that it has felt like we’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death. And we in Nova Scotia have indeed come face-to-face with evil. Our collective response has been an overwhelming show of love, support and solidarity. Together we have experienced what Jesus said, that “love casts out fear.”
“You spread a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” We may or may not literally have enemies in our lives, but perhaps we could say that hatred, violence, cynicism, despair, that these truly are our enemies. The image of God spreading a table before us makes us think of happy times, sharing in love and fellowship, unconcerned with the troubles of the world.
“You have anointed my head with oil.” This verse reminds us of our baptism, how God has called each one of us by name, has made us his own and has anointed us with the Holy Spirit.
“My cup is running over.” This reminds us that God’s grace is unlimited, and that the only thing that limits God’s grace is our own capacity to receive it. No mater how much we are able to receive, God always has more. All of our spiritual disciplines of prayer, worship and service are ways that we can make our cup bigger, and increase our capacity to receive God’s grace.
“Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” Though nothing really lasts forever in this world, and everything around us is passing away, God’s love can never pass away, and God is with us for all time and eternity. Even death itself cannot break the bond of God’s love for us, nor alter the love we have for one another.
In these strange times in which we find ourselves, let us dive deep into God’s love, and place our whole trust in the one who made us and who will lead us home, every one. Amen
Here is the Sermon from Sunday April 26, 2020
Well it has been quite a week. We have been experiencing layer upon layer of grief. One might almost say we have been swimming in grief. Already there was the grief of our lives and our relationships being disrupted by our public health crisis. Missing the hugs of others, and not being able to gather as families or friends or as a parish family, this is no small matter. And then there came of the horrific events of last weekend, deeds of violence that defy comprehension. This is a collective grief that we share with every citizen of our province. And of course, in addition to these griefs, each one of us has our own personal griefs to bear as well. For me personally, there is the real grief of beginning to make my farewell to the people I love here at St. Margaret of Scotland. I have been through this process before throughout my career, but it doesn’t get any easier. In fact it has never been more difficult.
Considering the trauma we have experienced in our province, sometimes it may feel like we are living in a dream, or we are in a novel or a movie. We feel, this cannot be happening. This cannot be real. But grief is not something we can go around. We cannot go over it or under it. We have to go through it. And as someone said, if we do not grieve now, we will grieve forever. I sometimes picture grief as an enormous cookie, as big as a tabletop. We cannot eat the whole thing at one sitting. We take a bite. We feel the pain. It takes time to digest it. And then later on when we’re ready, we take another bite. And so we dip in and out of the sadness. There are moments when we feel okay, and other moments when we’re definitely not okay.
In today’s Gospel reading we hear again the story of how the disciples encountered of the risen Lord Jesus on the road to Emmaus. And while at first the disciples are unable to recognize him, it is noteworthy that it is precisely in the midst of this process of grief, that the risen Lord Jesus Christ shows up. It is when we are most lost and hurt and confused, that Christ comes and helps us begin to make sense of things.
In this Easter season we affirm that we are indeed a resurrection people. That pattern of death and resurrection is in our very DNA, as Christians. And so, when we are traumatized and in pain, we know in our hearts that this can never be the end of the story. Although we may be unable to recognize him at first, the risen Lord Jesus is here with us, sharing in our pain and sharing with us the gift of new life. Our Easter faith is that there is never anything so bad, that God cannot somehow bring good out of it. God is not the cause of our suffering, nor does God ever will evil to happen. But God always has the power to bring good out of evil.
From the earliest days Christians have tried to seek meaning in Jesus’ death on the cross, and much has been written about how it was all part of God’s plan of salvation for the world. This kind of theologizing goes all the way back to holy Scripture itself. But let us not forget that the event itself, taken on its own terms, was wrong, and should not have happened. Jesus truly was God’s love incarnate, and when he was tortured, humiliated and died a slow and agonizing death on the cross, his death was real and final. We don’t hear Jesus saying “I’ll see you in three days.” Jesus death on the cross was wrong in every sense of the word. And yet out of that great wrong God was able to bring great good. When the followers of Jesus experienced the resurrection, and especially at Pentecost, when they were filled with the Holy Spirit, it is as if Jesus replicated himself. Now there was not just one Christ in the world, but hundreds of Christs, thousands and millions of them. Not only do we believe in the resurrection of Christ. Truly we are the resurrection of Christ.
So nothing good is ever lost. And when people we love die, their goodness lives on in us. That’s why eulogies are so important. We need to be inspired by their example, by their goodness, so that they may live on in us.
The same is true for us collectively here in this province. All this week I have been thinking of Nova Scotia as bearing a terrible wound. I guess Bruce McKinnon was reading my mind, when he drew a picture of Nova Scotia with a wound running from Portapique to Enfield, a sutured wound. When there is a wound in our body, we know that that is when the antibodies come, the antibodies that defend us against infection. When I think of all the memorials, the prayers, the paper hearts, the Nova Scotia tartan, bells being wrung across our country, and just all the loving, supportive conversations across this province, these are the antibodies bringing healing to our society.
But to be truly healing and effective our love must be universal and unconditional. And so it is important for us to be clear what it is that we condemn. It is not for us to condemn the soul of the killer. Judgment is God’s work and God’s alone. Difficult as it may be, we must not allow ourselves to hate him, because hate is always the real enemy. Hate is what we must condemn. We must condemn hate, violence, cynicism and the kind of alienation and amoral fatalism that can infect a human soul, and lead him to think that his life does not matter, and that the lives of other people do not matter.
Perhaps you have heard of the concept of social capital. This is the net sum total of trust, love, goodwill and cooperation in our society. Every single act of kindness makes a deposit in our collective social capital account. I have often said that here in Nova Scotia we are social capital millionaires. We are reminded of this when we hear the words of Mirna Yazji. Mirna came to Nova Scotia with her daughter in 2016, as a refugee from war-torn Syria. She said that in the place she had to flee, she experienced the same kind of wanton, meaningless violence on a daily basis and for long periods of time. She said that since she arrived in Nova Scotia she has felt safe, and added that this past weekend’s tragedy will not rob that sense of security from her, and should not rob it from others living in the province, or hoping to move here. She said: “This is not going to change Nova Scotia. It’s going to stay a peaceful place, with the kindest people in the world.”
Though this may be a time of grief and loss, let us also know it to be our season of Easter. And may the Christ who walks on wounded feet walk with us on the road. May the Christ who serves with wounded hands stretch out our hands to serve. May the Christ who loves with a wounded heart open our hearts to love. May we see the face of Christ and everyone we meet and may everyone we meet see the face of Christ in us. This both now and forever more. Amen.
Here is the Sermon from Sunday April 19, 2020
There is an old saying: “You can’t believe everything you hear.” At no time in history has this been more true, than in our present day. We live in a time when many of us have instant access to the sum total of human knowledge through a computer we can carry in our back pocket. We live our lives awash in a sea of the information. The only problem is that not all of that information is correct or true. So, the much heralded “age of information” has become for us also the age of fake news, of hoaxes and conspiracy theories of all kinds. There’s the one I heard of called “chemtrails.” The idea is that those white streaks across the sky left by jets are actually someone trying to poison us or change our weather. Or how about the crazy idea that the latest cell phone technology is somehow causing coronavirus, so that in some places people have been burning cell phone transmission towers. There seem to be a lot of people who are believing these things! And through the power of social media it sometimes seems like everyone is an expert, so much so that there are many who don’t trust any expert. And since everyone is an authority, there are many people who don’t believe any authority.
For example, there is the sad story of the Rev. Gerald O. Glenn, pastor of a church in Virginia. Pastor Glenn was a beloved pastor, but he as one of those who don’t believe the authorities, who don’t believe that we need to “stay the blazes home.” He defied the authorities, and gathered with his congregation on the 22nd of March. He said, and I quote, “I firmly believe that God is larger than this dreaded virus.” He trusted that Christ would not let him or any of his congregation get sick. He had complete faith in the healing power of the Holy Spirit. Tragically, on Easter Eve, April 11, Pastor Glenn died of Covid 19.
So what went wrong? One could say that Pastor Glenn had great faith. But this begs the question: “What is faith?” One of my best friends is a devout atheist. One might almost call him a fundamentalist atheist, if there could be such a thing. He dismisses the whole idea of faith, saying that faith is nothing but blind belief and superstition. He firmly believes that it would be a better world, if we could just do away with faith altogether. As you can imagine he and I have some pretty lively discussions! What I recently wrote to him on Facebook was that for me, faith is not about believing this or that assertion to be true. Rather faith is a living relationship with God, deep in our hearts, and at the heart of our community. That faith becomes for us a wellspring of every other human virtue. It is a source of love, compassion, courage, integrity, caring, hope, and deep joy. To describe faith as a living relationship with God, is only one way to put it into words. I believe that true faith goes deeper than any religion, and that even someone who doesn’t believe in God intellectually can be a person of great faith. In fact, I would describe my atheist friend as a man of deep faith. We may have difficulty in actually defining faith, but the fact that we cannot define it is no cause for concern. The same can be said for all of the great things in life, which cannot be defined, such as beauty, truth or love.
Perhaps I should nickname my friend, “Thomas,” Thomas who has been called the patron saint of doubters. We don’t know why he wasn’t home with the other disciples, when the risen Lord Jesus came and blessed them with his presence. Maybe he was out getting groceries or taking care of some other business for them. We don’t know. But we can certainly sympathize with him. He comes back to his friends and they are telling him that something has happened, which is clearly impossible. Thomas had seen with his own eyes Jesus’s lifeless corpse. Any reasonable person would say, “Yes, you may have had a hallucination or perhaps even a vision, but that doesn’t mean that it is really true that Jesus has risen from the dead.” The fact that this story features so prominently in the Gospel of John makes me think that Thomas may not have been the only one to doubt. The Gospel according to Matthew also alludes to some of the disciples doubting the risen Christ.
But in the end it is Thomas the doubter who goes further than any of the other disciples, and exclaims to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” It is because of the living relationship he has had with Jesus, that Thomas is able to experience the risen Christ. And it is not only because of this relationship. It is also because of his living relationship with the other 10 disciples. I always wonder what it was like that week with all the disciples there together, all of them knowing that Jesus was alive again and Thomas doubting it to be true. It’s a testament to their love that he didn’t leave them, and they didn’t reject him.
Doubt is an essential element in any healthy faith. But doubt has two sides. On the one hand, doubt can be at defense against the Truth, perhaps something that we know to be true deep in our hearts. Doubt can arise out of our fear of surrender, and out of our inability to trust. Doubt can be like the person who never once in life can bring themselves to say to someone the words, “I love you!”
But doubt is also an essential part of any healthy faith. Doubt allows us to question. It allows us to seek for answers. As the philosopher said, “The truth can bear examination.” We are right to question the power motives of anyone tells us, “Do not question. Just believe what I say.” Faith gives us the courage to question all of our prejudices and cherished beliefs, and to know that God always shows up.
At my age, I have come to question more and more. I have come to take every religious belief and story with a grain of salt. The more time I spend in prayer and meditation, the more I feel that less and less do I really know with any certainty. I’m like Bob Dylan when he sang, “I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.” But in the midst of all my questioning, the one thing I am more sure of than ever before, is God’s abiding love for me and for this whole world and everyone in it. I experience God’s love and God’s presence more and more, every minute of every day. This relationship, this faith, is the bedrock upon which everything else is founded.
Jesus said to Thomas, “You have believed because you have seen. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.” Let there be no doubt that the risen Lord Jesus Christ is present here today, here in this mostly empty church building, here in the homes of every family and individual who is “staying the blazes home” this morning, here present in the hearts of every one of us gathered together, and all who are watching this sermon later on. And day be day God is inviting us, each one, to go deeper in that living relationship, to trust in the risen Jesus Christ more and more, so that we, like Thomas, may declare, “My Lord and my God!” So may we be blessed. Amen.