Sunday, March 21, 2010

Lent's journey . . . life's journey, Mar 21, 2010

Text: John 12:1-8 (Jesus anointed at Bethany)

Our journey to Jerusalem this Lent is almost over. At Knox, we began Lent with a ritual of ashes on Feb 16. On Feb 21st, the first Sunday in Lent, we reflected on Jesus' 40 days of prayer and temptation in the desert. On the second Sunday, we thought about the two sides of Jerusalem: both its golden promise as the City of God, and its tough reality as a place of death and desolation.

On the third Sunday, we puzzled over Jesus' parable of the fig tree and his command to repent or perish. Last Sunday, we heard again the Parable of the Prodigal Son and reflected on how it draws connections between repentance and resurrection.

Today as our Lenten journey nears its conclusion, Jesus and his disciples have come to to the very outskirts of Jerusalem -- to Bethany -- and we are there along with them.

In the reading from the Gospel of John this morning, Jesus is at the home of his friends, Lazarus, Martha and Mary. These three siblings live in Bethany, which is less than 2 km from the Wall of Jerusalem. John places this scene right after the seventh and final sign of Jesus' ministry as told by John: the raising of his friend Lazarus from the grave; and it is also six days before Passover, or one week before Jesus' crucifixion. 

Lazarus' two sisters, Mary and Martha, hold a dinner in Jesus honour. But instead of helping her sister prepare the food, Mary anoints Jesus with expensive perfume. This anointing signifies at least two things: first, that Jesus is the Christ, Messiah or King who is about enter Jerusalem in triumph on Palm Sunday. And as Jesus points out, it also anoints his body for burial on Good Friday. By anointing her friend, Mary signifies that Jesus' journey will end in both triumph and tragedy.

There are many reasons why travelling as a follower of Jesus for the 40 days of Lent and the six Sundays in Lent may speak to us. The Lenten journey models the faith journeys of our lives both as individuals and as a community. Like Lent, our lives involve friendships, hardships, conflicts, sin, repentance, healing and finally death. And as with Lent, we trust that our journeys end with new life in the Risen Christ of Easter.

This morning I reflect on what our Lenten journey this year might mean for us as individuals and also for Knox United as a congregation. I start by telling about some faith-building experiences I was privileged to have several years ago that literally took the form of journeys: they were four wilderness canoe trips.

I spoke about the first trip -- a week-long canoe trip in Ontario's Algonquin Park -- in a sermon in late January. That was in 2002, and that year and for the next three, I spent one week each summer canoeing and camping with a group of 15 or more church members in the beauty of Algonquin. The park is a three-hour drive north of Toronto.

These trips were faith journeys for me not just because they were church-organized and included mid-week communion services. For me, the key element on those trips was the structure of the week -- going into the wilderness with all our belongings on our backs, relying on the work and good will of an instant community of strangers, being humbled by our smallness as we tented on a thin layer of pine needles over granite rock, and the fact that the route each year was circular. Traveling in a circle meant that after a week of exhausting paddling and portaging, we always ended up right where we had started. Program or no program, these weeks all took the shape of the circle of life, and I loved all four of them.

But though the structure was key, I was not opposed to programming as well. For the fourth and last of those trips in 2005, I proposed to the leaders that we use an idea of the American healer and writer, Caroline Myss to enact one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church each day. My suggestion was not adopted, but one day I hope to part of such a week.

Caroline Myss was raised a Roman Catholic and has a Masters of Theology degree, but her writing falls more under the heading of the New Age than of Christianity. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading about the seven Catholic sacraments in her 1996 bestseller "Anatomy of the Spirit."

The United Church, with its roots in the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, only acknowledges two sacraments: baptism and communion. Protestant Reformers like John Calvin, Martin Luther, and John Knox made worship simpler; and they considered that only baptism and communion had roots in the life of Jesus.

The Roman Catholic church also considers baptism and communion to be sacraments, but it celebrates five others as well. The other five are: confirmation, marriage, confession, ordination, and last rites. Myss wrote about week-long retreats she led where each day focused on one of these seven sacraments; and that is where I got the idea for a canoe trip program.

In a week-long wilderness canoe trip, the idea might look like the following. Day 1 would focus on baptism, acknowledging that the first day of canoeing and portaging had initiated us into the community. Day 2 would be confirmation -- a more conscious entry into community after having accepted the difficulties of the trip. Day 3 would be communion -- sharing God's Grace through Christ in the midst of life's journey. Day 4 would be marriage -- acknowledging the love growing within the group. Day 5 would be confession where we could speak of any cleansing processes underway. Day 6 would be ordination, which would acknowledge that all had proved ourselves capable of ministry within the group. And the seventh and final day would focus on last rites -- a blessing of grace as we finished our journey and said goodbye to our friends.

Well, perhaps some might find such a week too intense, but I think I'd like it!

Lent also contains elements of the seven sacraments. It begins with Jesus in the wilderness immediately following his baptism. The mutual support, healing, and teaching between Jesus and his friends on their journey have elements of confession, confirmation of faith and the love of marriage. The anointing of Jesus by Mary, as recounted in our Gospel reading this morning, is like both ordination  and the last rites. And Lent ends with communion: the Last Supper of Jesus with the disciples on Maundy Thursday. In Lent, we can trace the whole of a life's journey over six weeks.

Church seasons like Advent and Lent can help us to stay awake to the spiritual side of life. They remind us that any part of life can be be a path of faith, hope and love: marriage, raising children, a work project . . . or the life of a congregation.

I have been thinking a lot about Knox United as a congregation this week, probably more so than other weeks. It began on Wednesday at the Lenten Reading Circle. Doug Waite talked about a conversation at the Men's Breakfast. The topic was how church projects sometimes bring new life to the congregation. Doug mentioned how 30 years ago Knox had sponsored a Vietnamese refugee family to come to Canada and how that effort had helped Knox at least as it much as it helped the family.

Then on Wednesday evening, I attended a workshop with eight other members of the Knox Governing Board. It was titled "Board Leadership" and people from Knox along with others from Gaetz United Church in Red Deer and St. John's Anglican Church in Olds met to discuss roles for church boards, how to build community, how to create a common vision, and how to draw a map for the future for a church. I greatly enjoyed the evening and thank Maurice Buffel for arranging this opportunity for us.

Both the idea of projects and the workshop got me thinking about aspects of ministry that I haven't focused on here. My internship has certainly been a faith journey for me. By preparing and leading services and getting involved in the work of the youth groups and pastoral care, I have learned more than I would have dreamed possible. But because I am only here for eight months (now extended to 10), I have usually focused on the short term and not the mid- to long-term.

When I start full-time ministry in the summer of 2011, I will gratefully remember discussions such as those this week that focus on the congregation as a whole. This too will be a key part of my learning as an intern.

One theme from Wednesday's workshop was that though congregations have many things in common with other organizations, we also have a special focus on matters of spirit and soul. In particular, we have the model of Jesus' life, ministry, death and resurrection as our guide.

Both as individuals and as churches, the model of Jesus' life gives us hope. Jesus shows that the circle of life -- growing, travelling, confronting, and losing  -- also contains the promise of resurrection. So congregations might grow and prosper or they might struggle and shrink; but regardless of our situation, new life always beckons.

Now this is not to suggest that failure guarantees resurrection for a church, a nation, or other groups! But the model of Christ reminds us that God's grace is always here for us whether we are (quote/unquote) "successful" or (quote/unquote) "unsuccessful." This faith gives us the joy and courage to face reality and continue the journey.

So as Knox United moves deeper into Lent and into another Easter, I am confident that we will continue to find the projects, vision, soaring spirit, and grounded faith we need to continue Christ's mission of love to each other and to the world.

Life is a circular journey that seems to end where it began. This can be true for communities of faith as well as for individuals. But though the prospect of ending up where you began might seem pointless, Jesus' life teaches us that new life is also found at the end of each journey and each life.

Each ending is a new beginning, and these new beginnings incorporate the love, growth and healing given and received during the previous journey. Each individual life is a part of the life of God, and we trust in Easter hope both for today and at the end.

This year we follow Jesus again on the road to Jerusalem and to the cross. Holy Week, with its story of betrayal, pain, and death might seem too intense. But next Sunday, we will enter Jerusalem and Holy Week again in the sure hope that repentance leads to resurrection and that every ending is also a new beginning.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

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