Saturday, April 24, 2010

Mine eyes have seen the glory, Apr 25, 2010

For this week, I have posted the full liturgy to explain the context in which the sermon was written . . . Ian

Welcome to Sunday morning worship at Knox United Church. My name is Ian Kellogg and I am a student minister here at Knox this year. 34 Sundays ago, on August 30th, I came to Knox for the first time. I quite enjoyed the service that Nancy Blain prepared and led that day. I also felt welcomed and encouraged by the people I met: Rev. Nancy, Pat Bird, Doreen McEwen and many others. 33 Sundays ago, on Sept 6th, I stepped into this pulpit for the first time to begin my eight months here as a student intern. And this Sunday, we are here to worship, celebrate, and pray together as my internship comes to an end.

I will continue to work at the church until June 15th as a supply minister, but my covenant with Knox congregation and with the United Church of Canada as a student intern ends with this service.

An eight-month internship is just one of several requirements for those who want to become ordained ministers in the United Church of Canada. The others are a Masters of Divinity degree and various committee and interview processes. But in my opinion, the internship is the most important, the most challenging, the most nerve-wracking, and by far the most rewarding part of the four or five years of training for ministers. I have deeply loved my time out here in Didsbury so I am happy to be using this morning's service to mark this moment, to celebrate the end of the eight months, to thank Knox for supporting me through this process, and to worship and praise God.

This morning, as always, we begin worship by lighting a candle. The light of this candle represents the light of the Risen Christ. It calls to us, leads us, and reassures us. This morning we gather to remember, celebrate and give thanks.

Light candle . . .

We now turn our attention to the Life and Work of the Congregation. There are a number of announcements printed in the Bulletin, which I hope we will all take time to read. I will start with a few. Today is jam-packed. At 2 pm, the Junior Youth group meets. At 4 pm, we are all invited to a congregational swim at the Memorial Complex. This will be followed by a potluck dinner at 5:00 back here in the church hall. And the day ends with a meeting of the Senior Youth Group at 6:30 pm.

And I have some more words about the end of my internship and the start of seven weeks of work here for me as a supply minister. Most people may not notice any difference between these two phases of my time here; but there will be a few. I will no longer be under supervision, nor will the focus of the work be my own learning. Instead, I will try to serve the community as best I can as a paid staff member.

So I will have less supervision and more responsibility. I will also be paid more, for which I truly grateful ;-)

The Supervisor of my internship, with whom I have met every two weeks in Red Deer since September is here this morning. I would like to ask the Rev. Fran Hare to stand for a moment and accept my deep thanks and appreciation for her wise counsel and help since September. Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart, Fran!! I have felt honoured and blessed to have spent this time with you.

I have also been supervised by a Lay Support Team here at Knox for these past eight months, and their work is now also over. Would the five of you also please stand so that the community can show our thanks to you as well: John Loney, Pat Bird, Birgit Due, Joanne Ridder and Iaian Patton. Thank you so much; I have deeply appreciated your help during my internship.

This morning is the fourth Sunday of Easter. But despite that, I have placed much of the service within the season of Christmas -- and here is why. When I was wondering when to take my two weeks of vacation during the internship, I first thought about the "low Sunday" after Christmas, which is a traditional time for one of those weeks. But then I realized that I had preached a sermon for the Sunday after Christmas the year before at my field placement church in Toronto; and I thought, it might be easy to preach it again three days after Christmas Eve. That sermon was the first of four that I preached during my field placement and only the third I had ever preached. I assumed that the assigned text for Sunday, Dec 27th 2009 would be the same as for the year before, Dec 28, 2008. It is the Gospel text we will read this morning from Luke, which tells about the baby Jesus presented by his parents at the Temple as the family makes its way back from Bethlehem to Nazareth. But to my surprise, the assigned readings for this year skipped over this story and leaped ahead to the next passage, which is Jesus at age 12 discussing the Torah in the Temple.

Even so, I decided that I would not take vacation the week after Christmas; that I would preach on the story of Jesus as a 12-year-old on Dec 27th; and that I would return to the story of the baby Jesus presented at the Temple for my final service as an intern, which is today. I even announced this intention during the sermon at the late service on Christmas Eve. The sermon from Dec 2008, which I have adapted for this morning, works, I believe, as a farewell sermon. And even though I will still be here for the next seven weeks, today is a farewell to my internship; and so I have stayed with my original intention.

Whew! So having said all that, are there other announcements for the community to hear?

Hearing no (more), we now ask if there are any birthdays being celebrated this week and offerings for the birthday jar?

Finally, we think about prayers and celebrations that are on our hearts and minds this week.

Hearing no (more,) we now turn to our  Opening Easter Hymn. At my evaluation meeting on Wed evening, the team joked about all the new hymns that I have tried to incorporate into worship here this year. And I'm afraid that we have two more this morning, including this first hymn. Some people will know it, I'm sure, but I'm told that most do not. I used the lyrics of this hymn to begin my Easter morning sermon, and I hope that with a quick tutorial now, we can learn it.

The key to this hymn, like many, is rhythm. This hymn is syncopated, upbeat, and even jazzy. First, I will beat out the rhythm. Then Doreen will play it through once, then I will sing the first verse as a solo. And then we will all be invited to stand and sing all three verses together. It is . . . 

* GATHERING HYMN "The Spring Has Come" #187 VU

Thanks for trying that!

And now the call to worship and opening prayer . . .

* CALL TO WORSHIP (said together)

On the path of faith hope and love,
companions come and go,
but our destination remains the same:
the God who is Love, Spirit and Source.

* OPENING PRAYER (said together)

God of the path,
May we see the face of Christ
in everyone we meet;
and may everyone we meet
see the face of Christ in us.
Amen.

Dear friends, as we prepare to hear again the good news that we are reconciled with God through Christ, please feel free to now turn to your immediate neighbours and offer a gesture of reconciliation.

* PASSING THE PEACE
One: May the Peace of Christ be with you!
All: And also with you!

WE LISTEN FOR GOD’S WORD

THEME CONVERSATION: Graduation Day/Earth Day

I now invite those kids who would like, to come and join me on the front steps for a minute before church school. Good morning, I am glad to see you all here today.

Today I want to talk about two things: graduations, and then Earth Day. You know, today feels like a graduation day for me. My time here as a student intern has come to an end. And graduations from school are a big deal these days. The keu ones are Grade 6, Grade 8, Grade 12, and then graduation from college or university.

I want you thank you as children of the church. You know what you have done that has helped me the most? You have shown up! You have come to church and come to the front of the church for a minute to spend time talking and praying with me before church. And this has been a wonderful gift from you to me.

An important thing I have learned over the years is that half the battle in life is just showing up! Because you have showed up, I have learned about church school and about life as a child here in Didsbury. So I'm happy about that and I thank you.

Now last week was also Earth Day. Did any of you celebrate Earth Day on Thursday? I'm glad. Earth Day is a big celebration, but it can also make me feel a little scared -- there seem to be a lot of problems to fix in order to keep the earth a clean and safe place.

Well, at church I think we have a big part of the answer. In church, we remind ourselves of what is important. So on Earth Day, we begin by remembering how thankful we are for the earth and for all of life. And we will try to remember this again when we sing our next hymn.

Finally, I want to suggest that every day can be Earth Day where we love life and the earth. And every day can also be a graduation day where we give thanks for all that we are learning in life. So as I graduate from being an intern, I'm going to try to remember to always give thanks for what I'm learning and for the people like all of you who show up  so that we can help one another. And I'm also going to try to remember that every day can be earth day where we give thanks for the earth.

So . . . I hope you enjoy church school this morning. But before you go, I have a brief prayer, then we will pray again the prayer that Jesus taught us, and then we will sing a song. OK?   LET US PRAY . . .

Dear God,

We give thanks for each other, for showing up,
and for helping one another.
We give thanks for families and churches in which we can learn and grow
and in which we love one another and love you, O God . . .
Earth Day has come and gone, but every day can be Earth Day.
So we give thanks for soil and sun and water and life.
Help us to learn to keep the earth healthy for all living things.

Amen.

And now let us pray again together the prayer that Jesus taught us, saying . . .

Our Father . . .  Amen.

The hymn before church school is also new, but it is a lot simpler than our first hymn. In four verses, it gives thanks for the four elements -- earth, air, water and fire -- as the people in ancient Greece saw those. Doreen will play the melody; then, I will sing the first verse as a solo, and then we are all invited to stand to sing all four verses together.

* HYMN: "Mother Earth, Our Mother Birthing" #39 MV
.

SCRIPTURE:               

Psalm 148                   Sun, moon, and shining stars
Galatians 4: 4-7            Born of a woman
Luke 2: 22-40              Jesus presented at the Temple


The Psalm selection this morning is number 148

Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host! Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!

Let them praise the name of the LORD, for he commanded and they were created.
He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.

Praise the LORD from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command! Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds! Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and women alike, old and young together!

Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.

He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him. Praise the LORD!

The second reading is from Paul's letter to the church in Galatia

Galatians 4: 4-7

When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.

And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!"  So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

The Gospel reading this morning is from the book of Luke

Luke 2: 22-40
Shortly after Jesus' birth, the time came for purification according to the law of Moses. So Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord -- "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."

There was a man in Jerusalem at this time whose name was Simeon. Simeon was righteous and devout. He looked forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to Simeon by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah.

Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple that day; and when Mary and Joseph brought in Jesus, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

"Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."

And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about Jesus.

Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed -- and a sword will pierce your own soul too."

When Mary and Joseph had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee with Jesus, to their own town of Nazareth.

And Jesus grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.

One: Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Church.
All: Thanks be to God

SERMON: Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory

"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

This line, taken from the anti-slavery anthem The Battle Hymn of the Republic, was the last sentence of the last speech given by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. It will also be the last sentence of this sermon today.

I thought of King's famous speech from April 1968 as I studied our passage from Luke because what Kings says reminds me of what Simeon says in the passage.

Both Simeon and Martin Luther King have a vision of salvation; and this vision in and of itself seems to heal them. So today, I put the two visions side by side.

In our reading from Luke, an old man named Simeon is prompted by the Spirit to go to the Temple in Jerusalem right after the first Christmas. When he gets there, he meets the one-month old Jesus. Simeon picks Jesus up, cradles him in his arms, and claims that in this baby he has seen Israel's Messiah and the world's salvation. Having finally met the Messiah -- even if only a baby -- Simeon says that he can now die in peace. This is a remarkable thing to say after seeing a baby, wouldn't you agree?

The Messiah (which is a Hebrew word), or Christ (which is its Greek translation), or Anointed One (which is its English translation) was to be the long-awaited King of Israel. The Messiah would bring Israel back to the glory of its days under God's Anointed, King David. And yet Simeon somehow is able to say that in the baby Jesus he has seen this Messiah. And further, this Messiah is not just to be the ruler of Israel, but will also be a light of revelation to the rest of the world.

While Simeon's vision is healing, it also contains the shadow of the cross. Simeon blesses Mary and Joseph and then says, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed -- and a sword will pierce your own soul too." Simeon's blessing is one that comes with a cost!

In a nutshell, Simeon has laid out the entire good, but difficult news that is the Gospel. The Gospel says all that all are blessed in the coming of the Christ, but that a sword will pierce our souls and that his coming will lead to the falling and rising of many. The falling is the cross and the rising is new life in Christ.

Somehow, in holding this newborn baby in his arms, Simeon experiences salvation in an instant. This salvation involves dying to an old way of life, which can feel like a piercing sword. But the good news is that after dying to our old way of life, we are free to rise to a new one, which is a life in which we are healed.

Here at Knox last week, Ormand Lavenne and David Gilchrist got to hold three babies in their arms They baptized Jessa, Blake, and Mike. I felt honoured and moved to be part of that sacrament; and those baptisms also made me think of Simeon in the Temple.

Imagine cradling a newborn baby in your arms, looking down at it, and seeing the Christ there. In really looking at a newborn baby, we are sometimes, if only for a moment, taken out of our usual worries and cares. We stop centring our attention on our small selves, and instead we can see life as it should be: whole and divine. The baby lacks power, but it contains infinite potential. This potential flows from the baby's reality as a human being, created in the image of God; and from its life in a family, neighbourhood, faith community, and global village. And sometimes in seeing the divine image in a baby, we might be reminded of our own fragile but divine status as well. When we receive the grace to see like this, we touch salvation.

There is a Celtic Blessing that captures the message. It goes like this: "May the Christ who walks on wounded feet, walk with you on the road, May the Christ who serves with wounded hands, stretch out your hands to serve. May the Christ who loves with a wounded heart open your hearts to love. And may you see the face of Christ in everyone you meet, and may everyone you meet see the face of Christ in you."

Simeon looks at the newborn Jesus and has the grace to see there the face of Christ. And I believe that when Simeon looks up at Mary and Joseph, they also see the face of Christ in Simeon. Because in this moment, Simeon's old life has fallen away. He is living in the new life of Christ, which is in tune with God and is a life freed from fear. Feeling blessed in that moment, and no longer afraid, Simeon says that he can now die. It is not that he needs to die, even though he is an old man; just that he no longer fears death. He is "in the moment;" he is following the prompting of the Spirit; he is free.

Simeon does not need to live another 30 years to see what the adult Jesus will do, to puzzle at his parables, or to experience Jesus' death and resurrection. For Simeon, it has happened in an instant when he sees salvation in the face of a baby.

Simeon's story reminds me of my experience this year with Knox United. In one of my meetings with Fran Hare in Red Deer in November, we talked about how I was starting to relax into the internship; how pleased I was with the way the work was going; and how much I was enjoying being a supply minister. But then I went further: I said to Fran that somehow out here, in Mountain View County, between the foothills and the prairie, in Didsbury, and with Knox United Church, I was feeling different. I told Fran that I felt as though I had met my salvation here!

Such healing is always the work of God, but for me the work of God this year has flowed through the people and activities of this beloved community, Knox United. Borne by your presence and energy, I continually meet the Risen Christ. He is here with us; and if we look deeply into each other, we see His face again and again.

It is not that there are no problems in Knox. Some people are usually happy, while others are often unhappy. Some feel content with a decision or situation, while others are disturbed. As in all families, there is conflict, fear, and pain enough at Knox. It is not that I don't see that side. But our difficulties flow honestly from our reality as fragile human beings living with the stress of our mortality and in a world of violence.

And yet our inner divinity shines through. It shines when we worship, when we reach out to the community, when we sing, when we discuss church and community issues, and when we pray together. Each week, we gather to remind ourselves of what we value most in life and of the gracious path that God has laid out to us. Doing so helps us to not only see our broken and pain-filled selves when we look at each other. It helps us to also see the face of the Christ in each other.

Perhaps it is easiest to see inner divinity in a baby. But we also see the face of Christ in seniors, in mid-lifers, in youth, and in children. Simeon saw it, I see it, and you see it. At worship each week, we remind ourselves of this reality and we celebrate the divine Love that flames inside each and every one of us.

And now at the end of my internship, this sense of being saved has led to a new realization. Last Mon and Tue, I attended a retreat with 15 ministers at Pincher Creek United Church. The focus was on spiritual practices that could help us stay balanced amid the stresses of ministry.

By the end of our time together, I had come up with an odd idea. I decided that my decision to follow a call to ministry would take the form of retirement. I now believe that I am about to retire into ministry in the United Church of Canada! It is not that I don't know that the work of ministers can be complex, difficult, or busy. But nevertheless, after eight months at Knox, ministry looks to me like retirement.

For me, it will be retirement from a career as a librarian. But more importantly, as a person who has often struggled with anxiety, it will also be a moment-by-moment retirement from anxiety. With grace, it will be a retirement from fear into faith; from loneliness into community; from despair into hope; and from apathy into love. Such healing, of course, is not a one-time thing. With grace, it occurs over and over again. It is available to all of us as we minister to our children, our parents, our church, our world and our God . . .

And so we read again the story of Simeon and the baby Jesus in the Temple. It is about babies and salvation; piercing swords and crosses; a fearful old way of life and a trusting new way. All this might seem like a lot to find in a short Scripture reading. But I think that the truths packed into that story from Luke can also be seen in our modern-day Simeon -- the African-American civil rights activist, Baptist minister, and cultural hero, Martin Luther King Jr.; and I will end with his story.

In the spring of 1968, King travelled to Memphis Tennessee to support a group of public works employees who were on strike. On the day before his murder, King delivered what became his final speech in the Mason Temple of the Church of God in Christ.

It is called the "Mountaintop Speech" because King says that he has been the top of the mountain and has seen the Promised Land. His vision is of a world without racism and a world of peace and justice. King realizes that he may not get to the Promised Land. But just as it was with Simeon -- for whom it was sufficient to see the promise of the Messiah -- for Martin Luther King, the vision is enough. In fighting for this vision and believing in it, he has been healed and freed.

So I close this sermon with the end of King's speech from that night 42 years ago:

"I got to Memphis. And some talk about the threats that are out there. Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

Amen

Our hymn of response is . . . 

* HYMN "A Little Child the Saviour Came" VU #445

WE RESPOND TO GOD


PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE

And now let us pray . . .

Let us pray,
    for the whole people of God in Christ Jesus
    for all people everywhere according to their need
    and for the entire web of life . . .

God of Life, help us to be aware that you are with us every moment of our lives;
help us to give thanks for this and all our blessings.

For babies in whose face we see the face of Christ we give thanks,
For the flame of your Divine Love alight in all our hearts we give thanks,
And for companions on the journey to share our concerns and give and receive support, we give thanks.

God of Faith,

Help us to trust in this life even when we feel afraid.
Help us to build beloved communities even when we disagree.
Help us to live out love, even when we feel burdened by life.
Help us to touch your gracious support, which underlies every moment.

God of Hope,

Help us to look well into today, to see that love that is here for us.
In doing so, help us to turn all our yesterdays into dreams of happiness
and all our tomorrows into visions of hope.

God of Love,

Jesus comes to us not only as a prophet of hard truths, but also as the Prince of Peace and the embodiment of your life of Love.
In a world of dubious values, help us to follow Jesus' path of self-giving Love and so taste the joy that is our birthright.
   
God of Healing,

May we feel your healing touch during times of physical and emotional pain, in times of loss, and when we feel afraid and alone.

God, we need your loving presence.

We raise up for support and love those that we have named aloud and those whom we now remember in silence . . .

Gracious God, these are our concerns, these are our joys, these are our prayers. We lift them up to you.

All of this we pray in the name of the Risen Christ, our Redeemer and our Hope. Amen


MINUTE FOR MISSION: Caring for Creation

OFFERING

We now return a small portion of what we have been given. The offering will now be received.

* OFFERING & THANKSGIVING #541 VU
    Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
    praise God all creatures high and low;
    give thanks to God in love made known:
    Creator, Word and Spirit, One

Our closing hymn is . . .

* CLOSING HYMN "All Creatures of Our God and King" #217 VU

* BLESSING

Dear friends, as we leave this sacred place we go knowing that we do so
with the love of God,
the grace of Christ
and the communion of the Holy Spirit both now and always.

* Benediction Song -- Battle Hymn of the Republic
    Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
    He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
    He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
    His truth is marching on.

   Glory, glory, hallelujah!
   Glory, glory, hallelujah!
   Glory, glory, hallelujah!
   His truth is marching on.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Blinded by the light, April 18, 2010

Texts: John 21: 1-19 (Jesus appears to the fishers)
Revelation 5: 11-14 (Worthy is the Lamb)
Acts 9: 1-20 (Saul’s conversio
n)

This is the third Sunday of Easter, and so it seems appropriate that our three readings this morning describe four different encounters with the Risen Christ.

The first encounter is between Jesus and his disciples back in Galilee following his death and resurrection. The second encounter is a vision of the end of time given to the writer of Revelation, John of Patmos, about 70 years after the resurrection. The third encounter is with Saul, whom we usually refer to by his Greek name, Paul. Saul is Hebrew for Paul, and the book of Acts first introduces him using his Hebrew name.

In our story this morning, Saul/Paul is struck down by a blinding light while on the road to Damascus. It is a few years after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and Jesus calls to Paul in a vision and orders him to stop persecuting the followers of the Way of Christ. Paul is not only knocked to the ground by this vision, but is also struck blind. His friends then lead him the rest of the way to Damascus.

The fourth and final encounter with the Risen Christ from our readings this morning is with his disciple Ananias in Damascus. In a vision, Jesus instructs Ananias to find Paul, heal his blindness, and baptize him.

We ended our readings today with the one from Acts about Paul and Ananias because it is about baptism, and this is a baptism Sunday for us here at Knox.

Of course, the story of Paul's baptism is far different from the three we have participated in this morning. Paul is not a baby; he is an adult and a committed religious leader. In fact Paul is a zealot who persecutes fellow Jews who follow Christ. And Paul's baptism follows a real trauma. The vision of the Risen Christ knocks Paul to the ground, and the brightness of its light leaves Paul blind. Jesus' message to Paul is stern. Paul has been persecuting Jesus and his followers, but Jesus commands him to stop. After hearing this stern command, Paul does not eat or drink for three days. Instead, he sits in Damascus in blindness and prays.

What must Paul feel after this frightening encounter? What distress must it involve? Paul believed that he had been a righteous and God-fearing man. Here is how he describes his pre- conversion self in a passage from Philippians, which we read on March 21: "I was circumcised on the eighth day. I am of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless."

Paul persecuted the followers of the Way of Christ not because he was an evil person. He believed that he was acting in the service of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Moses. But now, praying in blindness in Damascus, his whole sense of self is shattered. He thought Jesus was a false Messiah. But this same Jesus has now appeared to him in a blinding vision, and has told him that his righteous zeal is dead wrong. This is the painful and stark message that Paul receives before his baptism.

Even for people who aren't Christian, the phrase "the Road to Damascus" conjures up images of repentance, conversion and a new stage in life. But perhaps not many of us have as clear an encounter with God as Paul's encounter. And while Paul's encounter sounds painful, at least it has the virtue of being hard to ignore. Surely if any of us had such a vision, we would not ignore God's message? Is it not likely that we, like Paul, might repent and turn our life around?

But perhaps Paul's Road to Damascus experience is not so unusual. Imagine if you will  that our lives as individuals, communities, and nations can be looked upon as so many "roads to Damascus" on which we are knocked down again and again by blinding visions and given the opportunity to hear God's voice. After these encounters, we are then offered a chance to sit in darkness, to pray, and to search for a new direction in life. I also want us to imagine that while we might have many encounters like this, we might not always repent or change course.

Is this far-fetched? The life of an individual begins with energy and growth, which leads to career, marriage, children, and so on. And often on this path, we get knocked to the ground and are at least temporarily blinded. We lose a job. A marriage crumbles. Beloved children cause us pain. We find ourselves sunk in addictions of various kinds. Illness strikes or other misfortunes bring us up short.

Or a nation, which once seemed shining and full of promise, finds itself at war or brought down by economic or environmental crisis. It may be threatened by internal divisions, racial tensions and other difficulties.

Now I don't mean to suggest that all such calamities are gracious gifts of God. But I would like us to reflect on how, with grace, we might use such experiences -- where we are thrown to the ground and temporarily blinded -- as opportunities for repentance and conversion.

Paul is a law-abiding man of God. But in the dark in Damascus, he realizes that his old life was full of self-righteous anger and misplaced ego. His dark night of the soul in Damascus opens his heart. Imagine the relief that Paul must feel when Ananias, a follower of Jesus, finds Paul three days later. Ananias lays his hands upon Paul, heals his blindness and baptizes him in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And Paul knows that after this, his life will never be the same.

Here is how Paul describes his post-baptismal life in Galatians: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me." And in Romans: "All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life."

The old Saul/Paul is dead, crucified with Christ, slain in a dark night of the soul that follows his encounter on the road. After his repentance and baptism, Paul has new life, but it is no longer he who lives, but Christ who lives in Paul. The Risen Christ, who appeared to Paul in a blinding vision, now also lives in Paul's heart.

So it is with us. As we grow up, our egos expand and our capabilities blossom. And then -- limited mortals that we are -- we stumble or are otherwise laid low. This arc of growth and decline in life is inevitable. No matter how talented or lucky we are, we can't escape it. But Grace is always available to us in moments of crisis. The Grace might be the voice of Jesus calling us toward an ego-free life in the Body of Christ. It might be the grace of a path laid out before us where freedom and joy are found in service and not in ordinary human foolishness.

So why might we ignore such opportunities to reflect and repent after being knocked to the ground and temporarily blinded? I suppose there could be lots of reasons. Responding to the call of God can be dangerous. Like Paul, we might find ourselves preaching the Good News of Christ far and wide but often being attacked or jailed because of this work.

As well, conversion is painful. Listening to God's call during a dark night of the soul involves confronting ourselves: opportunities missed, mistakes made, and ego-traps built. If we do confront these factors, it is almost always painful. So it might seem easier in the short run to deny the promptings of Spirit and the call of Christ and remain stuck in old ways.

Further, when we do listen to the call of God, there is no telling where a life in the Spirit might take us. Like Paul it might be a life of danger. But then life without risk and danger is not really possible, is it?

Every time we love -- whether friends, spouse, children, congregation -- we are opened to both the joy and pain of living. And I believe that this two-sided reality is visible in today's baptisms in the love shown between parent and child. But we will return to the topic of the joy, danger and grace found in looking into the eyes of a baby in next week's sermon!

Or imagine, if you will, that you had been a life-long city-dweller from the East, who was once a left-wing activist and a skeptic. If such a person were foolish enough to follow the call of God, he might even find himself preaching from the pulpit of a rural church in Western Canada in front of a group of people who once were all strangers, but with whom he has now fallen in love and who seem to love him. You just never know the risky and gracious places where God's path will take one!

A dark night of the soul can become a baptism into the path of faith, hope and love of Christ. This is a free and joyous path. And though it is hardly without risk or danger, we wouldn't want any other way.

Blinding moments that open us to repentance and conversion do not occur just once. With God's Grace, they occur as many times as is necessary, even to the end of life. In each and every such instance, we are confident that the God who is Love provides us with the healing hands of an Ananias to help us; and the stern but forgiving voice of Jesus to lead us toward a life free from ego and open to the joy of love.

With Grace, this path of new life beyond ego is shown to us again and again. And then with the disciples in Galilee, we might feel compelled to cry out "It is the Lord!"

Or as in the scene from Revelation, we might then feel compelled to join in the heavenly chorus of myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands and sing, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain . . .  to receive power and wealth, and wisdom and might, and honor and glory, and blessing!"

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Called by name . . . Easter healing, Apr 4, 2010

Text: John 20:1-18

"New light, new day, the spring has come,
 let all the church be part of it!
 New leaf, new thrust, the sun is warm,
 let all God's children play in it!
 New bud, new shoot, the spring has come,
 new people are the flowers of it!"

These words are from the Easter hymn "The Spring Has Come," which we will sing later this month. This hymn came to my mind yesterday as I reflected on the joy of Easter. Our long journey of 40 days and nights through Lent is over, and we have landed where we had hoped: amidst Easter sunshine and with the Risen Christ.

We are the new people that the hymn says are the flowers of spring. In Easter worship and in communion, which we will share in a few minutes, we celebrate both the resurrection of Jesus and our own resurrection. We are new people today -- no longer just ordinary citizens, but also blessed members of the Body of Christ.

So it is for Mary Magdalene in the garden outside of the empty tomb.  She is grief-stricken as the scene begins as she comes to Jesus' tomb early on a Sunday morning while it is still dark. She has suffered through the Sabbath day -- a day of anguish for the followers of Jesus after his Crucifixion on Good Friday. Mary has come to the tomb at the earliest possible moment to tend to the body.

But the stone at the tomb's entrance has been rolled away, and Mary fears that Jesus' body has been stolen. She rushes to tell Peter and another disciple this bad news. The disciples return to the tomb with Mary, confirm that the body has been removed, and then leave. But Mary stays and enters the tomb herself. Jesus' body is not there, but the tomb now contains two angels.

When Mary turns back to the garden at the tomb's entrance, a man is there who asks her why she is weeping and for whom she is looking.  She assumes that he must be the gardener and asks him if he has taken Jesus' body away.

But the man is Jesus, and he answers her simply by calling her by name. "Mary," he says. And at once she recognizes the speaker as her Teacher, whom she calls Lord. By calling her by name, Jesus reveals himself to Mary as her Lord and Saviour.  And this act of being called by name is key, I believe.

Mary, like others who encounter Jesus after his resurrection, does not recognize him at first. Perhaps her tears obscure her vision; or perhaps she cannot imagine that a person, whom she knows is dead, could be standing in front of her. In any case, Jesus is often not recognized after his resurrection.

Mark's Gospel includes no resurrection appearances; just an announcement by a man dressed in white in the empty tomb that God has raised Jesus and that he will reappear in Galilee. Matthew shows the Risen Jesus present with his disciples in Galilee where he commands them to baptize in his name, though some of the disciples are doubtful. Luke tells of a conversation between the Risen Christ and two disciples on a long walk to the town of Emmaus, and yet they do not recognize Jesus until he breaks the bread at dinner. As soon as the disciples do recognize him, Jesus vanishes. Later, Jesus appears to all the disciples, but several of them think they have only seen a ghost.

In John's Gospel as we heard this morning, Jesus first appears to Mary Magdalene in the garden. Later he appears to the disciples gathered in a locked room. But Thomas doubts he is Jesus until he inspects Jesus' wounds. Finally, Jesus appears to the disciples when they are fishing in Galilee, but at first they too do not recognize him.

On Easter morning, Mary recognizes the figure in front of her as the Risen Christ when he calls her by her name. And perhaps when Jesus says "Mary," he is answering his own question, "Whom are you looking for."  Mary is looking for the body of her dead friend. But perhaps in her grief she has also lost herself. "Whom are you looking for?" Jesus asks. And his reply is "Mary." When Jesus calls her by her name, Mary see both Jesus and perhaps she also sees herself anew in Christ.

After all, Jesus will soon be gone again, ascended to his Father, but the work of Mary and his other followers is just beginning. They become the Body of Christ and continue ministry in the power of the Spirit of Christ . . .

Imagine for a moment if you will that while resurrection brings joy, it might sometimes also feel like a burden? The crucifixion of Jesus was a terrible and painful shock for his followers. Surely they must have thought that his death meant the end of their ministry. With the re-appearance of Jesus, their grief changed into joy. But then their real work begins. Jesus' crucifixion is not the end. Instead it is only the start of their journey. And on this renewed and longer journey, the disciples can no longer simply follow Jesus, puzzle at his parables, and marvel at his healing. Now the work falls on them: they are the ones who are called to preach, to heal and to serve. Might this call sometimes feel like a burden? . . .

Here is an analogy, which might seem a little trite, but I have been thinking about it this week. Three times in my own working life, I worked in an office which was suddenly closed. Each time, all of us who worked there were laid off. Each time we were surprised, angry, and frightened. But each time, I was also at least a little bit relieved. All the problems and tasks we had worried about were no longer important. The powers-that-be had decided our work was no longer needed. All that was left was tying up loose ends, archiving the files, and looking for work elsewhere. And as a person who often battles anxiety, I felt some relief.

After each layoff, I found a new job. In these new jobs, there were new problems and tasks for me to worry about. Did these new jobs also represent new life? Hardly. They seemed just like more normal life, filled with all the worries and chores that are part of our everyday work lives.

Now I am confident that this is not what the disciples feel after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. After all, Jesus sends the Spirit to comfort and guide his disciples and the church. And it is through the power of the Spirit that we continue the work of Jesus even to this day.

Before the resurrection, Jesus and his followers have a lot work to do. After the resurrection, this work remains. But the context is completely different.

By calling her by name, Jesus shows Mary that he is the Risen Christ. After recognizing Jesus as her Risen Lord, Mary is not the same old person. When she rushes to tell her friends the good news, she is changed. Mary now lives in Christ and Christ in her. By hearing the Risen Christ say her name, Mary feels known by God and sees herself reflected in God. Even though her work as a follower of Jesus continues, she and her friends carry out this work in His name and not in their own. They work as members of the Body of Christ in the power of Christ.

When I found a new job after being laid off, it was still just me and my old, addicted ego trying to make a living much like I always had done.

But when the crucified and risen Lord confronts us and calls us by our name, we are changed. In face of the Risen Christ, it is no longer Mary who lives, but Christ who lives in her. She might still call herself "Mary" in this new life, or perhaps she is moved to change her name the way Saul changed his name to Paul, or Simon changed his name to Peter. In either case, an old anxious way of life has died, and a new life of freedom and trust has begun. In this new life, what once seemed like a burden is now a light task in the hands of God through the power of God's Spirit.

In moments of Grace like Mary's in the garden, we live in the light, praise God, and do God's work. But it is not just us and our old egos any more. In those moments, it is the Risen Christ living within us and shining through us. Our old burdens have died with Christ; and our new life is beyond those old anxieties and burdens.

Of course we don't live every moment in such a state of grace -- neither Mary who sees her risen Lord on the first Easter, nor us worshipping God as Father, Christ, and Spirit so many years later. Paul put it this way in First Corinthians, "Love never ends. But knowledge will come to an end. For now we know only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. Now we see as through a glass darkly; then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known."

At the end of life, we are confident that our anxieties will be laid down for good and we will know Love completely. Until then and with grace, we follow as best we can the path of faith, hope and love. And on this path, just as Mary did in the Garden, we often encounter the Risen Christ. We might stumble upon Christ unawares while spending time with our children. We might see Him in a neighbour whom we visit in hospital or in a person we serve in the Thrift Shop. We might encounter Christ alone while hiking in a mountain meadow or in a quiet moment in worship. Or we might see Christ in the eyes of our beloved. Wherever it is that we encounter the Risen Christ, in those moments He calls us by our name and reminds us again that Love never ends.

Moments like this where we taste eternal life might come and go a thousand times in one broken lifetime. Often we fall back into anxiety and tiredness. Even church can sometimes feel this way. Didn't we just celebrate the resurrection last Sunday? Didn't we just serve communion last month? Didn't we just sing Christmas carols last year? Do we have to do it again? Will this ministry and this path ever end?

But then Jesus call us by our name, the burden dissolves, and the joy of life beyond fear and ego arises. And though we might see Jesus only through tears or as through a glass darkly -- even so, in those moments we do see Jesus. We see God within us and beyond us, and we know again and again that Jesus has risen and that we have risen along with Him.

This is Easter morning. Jesus Christ has risen today!

Hallelujah! And Amen.

Our hymn of response and hymn before communion is . . . 

* HYMN "I Have Called You by Your Name" #161 MV

Friday, April 2, 2010

Darkness at Noon, Apr 2, 2010

For Good Friday, as for Palm Sunday, I have included most of the liturgy along with the sermon . . . Ian

Welcome to Good Friday worship at Knox United Church. Good Friday is the most solemn day in the Christian calendar. This morning we retell the Passion of the Christ.  In doing so, we remember Jesus' solidarity with our human journey in all of its joy and pain. His solidarity is one that leads to death, even to death on the cross. May we all feel God's Spirit today as we come to the end of our Lenten journey this year, a love- and pain-filled journey towards the hope and joy of Easter.

Let us join together in our opening hymn . . . 

* GATHERING HYMN "Spirit, Open My Heart" #79 MV

. . . and the words of our Call to Worship and Opening Prayer

 * CALL TO WORSHIP (said together)

Today the carpenter’s hands are nailed to a cross
and the king of kings is crowned with thorns.
Today he sets us free, himself imprisoned on a tree.
Today is God’s Friday.
We come in worship.

* OPENING PRAYER

Good Friday God:
Grant us your presence on this day of Christ's passion
that we might be with him through death to resurrection.
We pray in the name of our crucified Saviour.  Amen.

SCRIPTURE:   

Isaiah 53: 3-12             Suffering Servant
Psalm 22                      "My God, My God"
Luke 23: 26-47            Jesus' death


Sermon: Darkness at Noon

"It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun's light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." Having said this, he breathed his last."

We have arrived at the still point of the year. We have journeyed to Jerusalem and to the cross. We have retold the story of Christ's passion and death. And now we wait . . . we wait through the rest of Good Friday, through Holy Saturday tomorrow, through Saturday night, and until dawn on Easter morning. At that time, we will gather again to hear the good news of the empty tomb, the good news that God has raised Jesus to new life, and the good news of Mary Magdalene's loving encounter with her risen Lord.

This is our story, this is our tradition, and this is our faith. Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God and God's anointed Christ, has died on a cross. It is also our story, our tradition and our faith that Jesus will be raised as God's Christ on Easter Sunday morning. We celebrate the mystery of this story not only during Lent, Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. We also celebrate this mystery every Sunday at worship; and the story forms us in the very core of our hearts and minds.

So as we worship and wait this morning, a few thoughts about the Passion story . . .

For me, the main thing about the Passion is not what we learn from it or doctrines that we craft from it. I am not too concerned about putting into words what the story means, or what actions it moves us to take. To me, the main thing is the journey and its path -- the way of the Cross.

As told in the Book of Acts, the earliest followers of Jesus called themselves the People of the Way. And the Way they followed was a path of faith, hope and love; and it was the Way of the Cross.

As we can tell from the pain in the Scriptures we have heard this morning, this Way is not an easy one. But the difficulties in the story, I believe, are also why it can speak to us. Life, despite all that we love about it and all the joys and wonders we experience, does not always seem easy. Because the Christian Way does not flinch from showing how painful the path to new life can be, it speaks truth to us in a way that a more sugar-coated path might not.

As a child, I thought our religion was nothing but sweetness and light. You needed only to be pure and good and do the right things, and God would make life come out right. But when I returned to church as an adult, the pain of Good Friday showed me that the Christian Way was not an escape from life. Instead the Way of the Christ goes right to the heart of life, moves onto death, and then beyond death to new life.

Now it is true that we often feel joy on the path of faith, hope and love. Nevertheless, it is not an unrealistic path. The Way of the Cross reveals terrible truths about life; and so it is a Way that we can trust and love.

Jesus as the Son of God undergoes a terrible Passion. And so we know that God will be with us through wars and disease, through economic and environmental upheavals, and through lives filled with loss and suffering.

It is often the case that the longer we live and the more that we love, the more losses and failures we also experience. These losses flow from many sources: from the broken and fallen world into which we have born; from the human condition of birth, growth, maturity, and ageing; and from the inevitable mistakes and sins we commit.

The Passion of the Christ shows that what we most value in life -- the God who is Love -- is present with us even on the worst days  And most mysterious and wonderful of all, it shows that this God of Love leads us to new life in the midst of loss  . . .

As so on a Friday many years ago, darkness came over the land at noon, and three hours later, Jesus breathed his last and died.

And now we wait. We wait with our fallen Saviour who lived and died in solidarity with all the best and worst of our human lives. We wait even as we mourn. And we wait in hope for new life.

Our journey to Jerusalem and the cross has ended. Our time of waiting continues a little longer.

This is the still point of our year. And into the stillness let us say once again . . . Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Amen

Decoration of the Cross

At this time, all are now invited to participate in decorating the cross. We received a strip of red ribbon when we entered the sanctuary. As a form of prayer in motion, we are invited to reflect for a moment on loss or pain in our lives. Then all who wish are invited to come to the front and tie our ribbon to the cross as a way of symbolizing this prayer. As people come forward to decorate the cross, we will repeatedly sing the simple hymn, "Jesus Remember Me." None of us are obligated to tie a ribbon to the cross, but all our welcomed to do so.

On Easter Sunday during worship, we will again transform the cross with the children as we celebrate the resurrection hope of Easter morning.

Let us begin this time by singing Jesus Remember Me through one time, and then as we continue to sing, people are invited as you feel moved to come to the cross.

singing "Jesus Remember Me" #148 VU

Thank you. Let us now sing together the hymn . . .

* HYMN "What Wondrous Love Is This" #147 VU

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE

And now let us pray . . .

Let us pray for the whole people of God in Christ Jesus,
for all people everywhere according to their need
and for the entire web of life.

God of Life and Death, in the midst of Good Friday's sombre mood, help us to be aware that you are with us every moment of our lives, perhaps especially on days like this. Help us to give thanks for this and all our other blessings.
   
    For a Way of faith hope and love, we give thanks
    For the promise of new life through death, we give thanks
    And for church communities in which to walk this Way, we give thanks.

Having come this far through Lent, even to the foot of the cross, we now address you this morning, Lord, in the words of the songwriter:

God of still waiting, God of deep longing, God of the heart's true rest: hold us in fathomless peace, guard us with un-waning love . . .

God of Healing, some of us may be hurting today
May we feel your healing touch during times of physical and emotional pain, in times of loss, and when we feel afraid and alone.
God, we need your loving presence.
And we now raise up for support and love those whom we remember in silence . . .

Gracious God, these are our concerns, our joys, our prayers. We lift them up to you.

And now let us draw all our prayers, spoken and unspoken into one Great Prayer by saying again the Prayer that Jesus taught us

Our father, whom art in heaven, hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever -- Amen.

Let us now join together in our closing hymn . . .

* CLOSING HYMN "God of Still Waiting" #20 MV

* BLESSING

Dear friends, as we leave this sacred place and wait for dawn on Sunday, we go knowing that we do so with . . . the Love of God, the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Communion of the Holy Spirit both now and always.

Amen.

* BENEDICTION SONG (tune, Passion Chorale, #145 VU)


I wait for you, my comfort, eternal guide and friend.
My soul awaits your presence, seeks hope until the end.
Like those who keep a vigil, I watch for sunrise bright;
A symbol of the sharing of love’s redeeming light.