Canon Lynne Thackwray's Sermons

PENTECOST 4

Sermon by the Rev’d Canon Lynne Thackwray

 

Before I retired, when I had my own parish I used to love preaching on the Old Testament in the summer.  There are some wonderful stories in the O.T. and we very rarely get to hear about them.  They are usually just the first reading before we move on to the epistle and gospel.

The O.T lesson for this Sunday is from the Book of Genesis, the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, Isaac. It is one of the most powerful, profound, and disturbing stories in all of the Bible, and all of literature, for that matter.  The story named by Christians “the sacrifice of Isaac” and by Jews “the akedah” (the “binding” of Isaac) has engendered heated debate over the centuries. There is even a Yiddish folk tale that goes something like this: Why did God not send an angel to tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?  Because God knew that no angel would take on such a task. Instead, the angels said, “If you want to command death, do it yourself.”

So, is this a story of an abusive God, a misguided Abraham, religious violence at its worst?  Or is it a story of faith and obedience?

The narrative has gripped the religious imagination of Jew and Christian alike for thousands of years. Well-meaning people through the centuries, horrified by this story, have attempted to negate it in various ways.  Still, there is a theological depth and a rich history of interpretation in this story that should not be passed over. 2   It is worth looking at its details.

The story begins, “After these things God tested Abraham” (22:1). And what do “these things” include? God’s call to Abraham to go to a land he has never seen; God’s promise to Abraham that he will be the father of a great nation; the long years of Sarah’s barrenness; the birth of Ishmael; and at long last, the impossible birth of the boy Isaac whom they call “Laughter.”  Then Abraham, at Sarah’s insistence, casts out his first son, Ishmael, with great sorrow (see last week’s commentary). And now, God demands a most horrible thing: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go3 to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will show you” (22:2).

The Hebrew prose of this story is beautiful and succinct. Abraham does what God demands, and sets out with his son. Abraham doesn’t say much. Isaac says even less, and one is left to imagine what they are thinking and feeling. The narrator uses repetition to heighten the poignancy: “The two of them walked on together,” as the father and son walk together in silence on the third day (22:6). Together in purpose, together in love. The narrator continually emphasizes the relationship between the two, as if we need to be reminded: “Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac.” “Isaac said to Abraham his father, “My father!” and he said, “Here I am, my son” (22:7).

“Here I am” — in Hebrew hineni. It’s the same word Abraham used to answer God’s call in verse 1: “Here I am.” Abraham is attentive to God, and equally attentive to his beloved son. Here I am.

And Isaac says, “See, we have fire, and wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” And Abraham, heart torn in two, says, “God will see to the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And, again, “The two of them walked on together” (22:7-8). Whether Isaac knew what was going to happen is a matter that the rabbis debated. Perhaps he did not, which makes Abraham’s pain all that much more acute. Perhaps he did, which makes Isaac, too, an example of great faith and obedience. The two of them walk on together, father and son, the son carrying the wood for his own sacrifice. They reach the place of sacrifice, and Abraham builds an altar. Again, as if we need to be reminded, the narrator emphasizes the relationship between father and son. “He bound his son Isaac … Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son” (22:9-10).

At that moment, the LORD calls to him with great urgency, “Abraham, Abraham!” And Abraham replies for the third and final time in the story, hineni, “Here I am.” One can imagine that his tone now is one of unspeakable relief and hope.  The LORD speaks, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (22:12).

It is the conclusion of the story of Abraham, and it cannot be understood apart from the whole story of Abraham. The story of Abraham is the story of a promise. The promise was given to Abraham, and to Sarah, this childless couple, that they would be given a child, and that their descendants from this child would be as numerous as the stars. And the promise was also that they would be given a land, and the land would be inhabited by their descendants. That land came to be called the Promised Land, because it was based on the promise that was given to Abraham.

What’s more, Abraham and Sarah are to trust that God is able to give what he promises. So they are to leave a prosperous life in Ur of Chaldees, and to start a new life as nomads, leaving everything behind, trusting only that God keeps the promise.

We are to read the story of Abraham and Sarah as our story as well. For all of us, deep down, know what that promise means. We all know that we have been given a promise that life is supposed to be good for us. As little children we would greet each day with expectation and great anticipation. In time we begin to dream about who we are and what we will be. The world holds a great promise.

As we grow older we may narrow our expectations, but we still believe in the promise. We still believe that life is supposed to be good. So when we read that Abraham received a promise that life would be good, we know what that means. The story of Abraham and Sarah is the story of our life. 

Life hold great promises. But the fulfillment of those promises comes from God. That’s the point of the story. And that is what Abraham and Sarah are called to trust in their life, that all the gifts given to us come from God

The command to sacrifice Isaac is a test to see if Abraham really knows and trusts that our life is in God’s hands. God is the Creator of life, not us. That is what it means to say, “The Lord gives. The Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Then comes the last line, and the most important line in this story. Abraham named that place, “The Lord will provide.” Which is what he was asked to trust from the very beginning. He was tested over and over again to determine if he could believe, “The Lord will provide.” The God who gives us life in the first place, is able to give it to us again.

It is such a difficult story. But when I read it again, I thought of the ways you and I are tested. Can we really believe that the God who has given us life in the first place, can give it to us again? If we lose all that we have, all the things we surround ourselves with, the things that bring us comfort, the things that bring us security in this life, the things that bring us pleasure in this life upon which we become dependent for meaning, purpose, and beauty in our life, can we let them go?

I find two great truths in this story.

FIRST, ALL PEOPLE OF FAITH WILL BE TESTED.   As you look back over your life, think of the times when you did the most growing and maturing. Were those periods when life was tranquil and easy or were those periods of difficulty?  

SECOND: GOD WILL PROVIDE AS MUCH HELP AS YOU WILL RECEIVE.   God not only provides forgiveness and salvation, but also grace sufficient for every need.  

The story of the Akedah, of the sacrifice of  Isaac, makes a claim on us: All that we have, even our own lives and those of the ones most dear to us, belong ultimately to God, who gave them to us in the first place. This story   assures us that God will provide, that God will be present. And, of course, as generations of Christian interpreters have seen, it foreshadows the story that forms the foundation of Christian faith – the story of the death and resurrection of the beloved son,5 son of Abraham, son of David, Son of God. For all these reasons and more, this is a story worth preaching.

 

Pentecost 2, June 14, 2020

By the Rev’d Canon Lynne Thackwray

On the surface, this reading from Matthew’s gospel is a strange sounding, and somewhat puzzling passage. It is one we could easily dismiss since it is specifically addressed to the original 12 disciples.  The text is part of a lengthy chapter detailing the instructions Jesus gives to those 12 prior to that first “missionary” effort. This appears to be a private tutoring lesson for Jesus’ small class of first century followers. These disciples are long gone. So do these words still apply?

 Remember that Matthew was one of the 12 sitting under the shade of some tree listening to the Master give these instructions. Now he is writing to second, perhaps even third generation Christians, 40 or more years after that original mission challenge. There must be something here. I do not believe Matthew would have wasted precious papyrus had he not felt that these words were important and relevant even to his audience.   As Jesus  had taught him, so now Matthew passes the word on to his church, and their children and their children’s children. We are now the children of the children of the children, and the words still ring in our hearts and stir our imagination.

Jesus’ instructions are quite specific. “As you go, preach this message: “The Kingdom of heaven is near.”  Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.”  If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town.”

So what is this passage about for today? How do we welcome the disciples and in so doing welcome Christ and the Father? One way is by receiving their witness through the New Testament gospel. When we receive the message that they wrote down for us, we receive Christ. It’s the old, old story, as the hymn says, but it’s new in every generation and those who want to hear it the most are those who already know it best. Faith comes by hearing, as the apostle Paul wrote, hearing the word of Christ (Romans 10:17) as it was spoken and written by the disciples and by others who were converted by their words.

This is why we call the church “apostolic”: it lives on in the teachings handed down by the apostles, those who were sent on a mission, through whom Christ himself came to people. The church is not a club of like-minded individuals; it is not a voluntary organization gathered to do good or meet needs (important as these things may be); it is not a powerful institution whose product is religion. The church is a body of believers who welcome the apostles’ teaching — who trust it and live it and continue the mission

Nobody begins to be a Christian all by himself or herself though. At the very least, someone would have to help us learn to read before we could accept the message of the Bible. But in most cases we don’t learn the gospel first by reading it but by hearing it — from our parents and relatives, Sunday school teachers and ministers. Christians have sometimes distinguished    between the written word and the “living word,” reserving that last phrase for the spoken or proclaimed word in which the gospel comes alive for us through the words of another spoken directly to us. The apostolic witness, in other words, comes to us through present day “apostles” and witnesses.

This would seem to suggest that as we welcome other Christians bearing witness to their faith, we receive Christ and those who welcome us, who receive us, receive Christ in return. Seeing Christ in others and allowing them to see Christ in our lives is “mission” work.  But it shouldn’t surprise us, if we think about it. The Christian faith spread for centuries without a written New Testament. The sixteenth century reformer Martin Luther once said that it was a shame that God’s Word had to be written down because it was meant to be spoken, to encounter us in a way that our reading the words may not always do as effectively.

At the beginning of this passage as we are told that Jesus was going through all the towns and villages, preaching and healing, Matthew tells us.   That when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them” (9:36).  .” “Compassion” in the biblical languages literally means “to feel in the viscera”: to feel in your guts or in your heart.  Here Jesus sees the people of Israel harassed and helpless and he feels for them, he hurts for them.  

The whole reason for the mission on which the disciples are sent is the compassion of the Son of God. If we are mission-minded, we might learn something from this. Mission does not begin with God’s anger that some persons are sinners; mission does not begin with humanly-constructed goals for church growth; mission does not come primarily from our obedience to God’s commandments to go and make disciples. Mission all starts in the compassionate heart of God.

When we look at the events that are unfolding before us today not only in the States but around the world, are we not called to go on a mission.  Thousands of people have felt called – called upon to speak out, and to walk in peaceful protest against the indignities that are frequently heaped upon black people simply because they are black. 

We are also aware of the indignities towards our indigenous people as well.  When we have watched the brutality and injustices inflicted upon black people in the United States, we have to know that our compassionate God is weeping and wanting us, as Jesus did when he looked at the harassed and helpless Jews, to go out and preach the good news that God loves us all, regardless of the colour of our skins, we are all beloved children of a loving and caring God. During these days of covid 10 it is not always easy to go out but there are others ways of “speaking up” – signing petitions, writing letters, and of course in prayer.

This story has to do then and now, with Jesus seeing all the people in need of God’s blessings and commissioning the twelve disciples to do something about it. All the disciples are named and then Jesus gives them some initial instructions for their mission.  Think about that list of names.   We remember that several were fishermen, probably not highly educated. One is so little known that it is added that he is the son of Alphaeus. The point for us is that Christ’s mission is carried out by sinners transformed by grace, not by saints  not needing forgiveness.  Reassuring to those of us who don’t think that God could have any use for persons like us.

And the news that the disciples are to proclaim is good news.  It’s not a message here of repentance and coming doom but one of joy and excitement. It’s good news!    “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”  And by driving out evil spirits and healing every disease and sickness, things which Jesus has been doing up till now, his disciples would continue in his work.  Jesus is present in his disciples; they are his body. Through them he continues to act. Through us he continues to act.

As I write this sermon I realize that it is the feast day of St. Columba.  Last week we used our celtic service and the closing prayer which mentions Columba who sent people forth to carry the word of the gospel to every creature.  We prayed that hidden things may be revealed to us and new ways found to touch the hearts of all and that we preserve with each other sincere charity and peace.   May it be so..   Amen.

Day of Pentecost, May 31, 2020

At one time H.G. Wells wrote a short satirical story about an archbishop in the Church of
England who was faced with a difficult situation pray about it. He hadn’t prayed much for
himself in the past but he felt that he needed help desperately now, so he entered into his
private chapel, sank to his knees, and started to pray. He said, “O God,” and paused. A sense
of fear gripped him. He heard a voice strong and clear, saying, “Yes, what is it?” At hearing
the voice he fainted and collapsed. Next morning they found his body on the crimson carpet.
The problem with the archbishop in this story was that he prayed never really expecting to
hear God speak. It shocked him to death.
When the Spirit comes to the disciples gathered in Jerusalem the effect was a dramatic one
too. They along with many others had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Weeks
which is the second of the three “solemn feasts” that all Jewish males were required to travel
to Jerusalem to attend. To the Jewish people this feast is also known as “Pentecost” which
means 50, because it takes place 7 weeks or 50 days after Passover.
The Christian Pentecost of course celebrates a different event. It commemorates the coming
of the Holy Spirit to the apostles 50 days after the resurrection and marks the birth of the
Christian church.
Pentecost is one of the major Christian festivals. I think of three: Christmas as the festival of
God the parent, Easter is the festival of God the Son, and Pentecost is the celebration of God
the Holy Spirit. However we don’t make as much fuss about Pentecost as we do about the
others. We have escaped some of the secularism and the commercialism of Christmas and
Easter.
No one has come up with ways of marketing Pentecost. When was the last time you received
a ‘Pentecost’ card. We don’t get together for big family gatherings on Pentecost like we do at
other times. We don’t get an extra holiday to celebrate Pentecost. We don’t have Pentecost
parade where people show off their new Pentecost outfit, their new Pentecost suit, their new
Pentecost hat. There is no Pentecost music played on the radio, no Pentecost cake to
celebrate the church’s birthday. And yet of all those three holidays, Pentecost is the one
which celebrates the giving of a gift – the gift that was promised by Jesus to the disciples, to us,
after Jesus returned to heaven. I don’t know that we really appreciate Pentecost in the same
way as the other two major festivals.
Picture for a moment what happened on that day in Jerusalem. Remember how the two
disciples who were travelling to Emmaus walked with Jesus and broke bread with him, and
then when they recognized who he was, they ran back to Jerusalem to report their vision.
The Apostles rejoiced to hear the news.
They rejoiced again only a few days later when Jesus appeared to them in the upper room.
Yet even those appearances couldn’t quite erase their fears. They were afraid that the same
soldiers who crucified Jesus would come for them.
So it was no surprise that they were all gathered together in one place – hidden in that upper
room, fearful for their lives. And then as they huddled there, the Holy Spirit came upon them,
appearing as a rush of wind, a touch of fire, and these 11 scared men were transformed into a
vibrant outgoing community of faith capable of speaking to the gathered multilingual crowd in
their own native languages. They were exhilerated, they were renewed, they appeared drunk
filled with new wine.
These men might have been terrified with their circumstances but unlike the Archbishop, they
expected to hear from God. Jesus had told them he had to leave them but he promised he
would send the Holy Spirit to guide the new church. That promise was fulfilled on Pentecost
and they responded by saying “yes” to the Spirit and the church was born.
If we can say “yes” to the Spirit, we can expect that it will always be life-giving. And I think for
many of us that Spirit is what gives us hope through our dark times especially during these
days when we are isolated and under so many restrictions and are often fearful, and seem to
be so alone.
The Spirit is so full of vitality that we can scarcely imagine where it will lead. The picture that I
have of the disciples after Pentecost was a community of believers trying to keep up with the
vitality and creativeness of the Spirit. The picture that I have of us now is a community of
people responding to the spirit by caring for one another in so many different and often
creative ways.
If we can say “yes” to the Spirit, we can expect a closenesss, a deeper awareness of God
beyond our present comprehension. The Spirit is intimate and speaks to our heart. The Spirit
acts within us and makes God present to us deep within our souls.
If we can say “yes” to the Spirit, we can expect to take risks. Working with the Spirit is
risking business. But do you know what? I bet that when your life is winding down and you
think back, it will not be the risks that you took that you regret, but the risks you didn’t take
You’ve all heard the proverbial “I don’t do windows”. A while back someone wrote about a
number of biblical characters and pondered “what if they resisted the Spirit by putting limits
on the things that they would do.
What if Moses had said, “I don’t do sea crossings”
What if Noah had said, “I don’t do arks”
What if Ezekiel had said, “I don’t do prophesies”
What if David had said, “I don’t do giants”
What if Mary had said, “I don’t do births”
What if Paul had said, “I don’t do letters”
What if Jesus had said, “I don’t do crosses”
If we are going to respond, to say “yes” to the Spirit, we have to be prepared to take more
risks and we may end up doing things that we never thought we would or could do. But we
will find the life giving power of the Spirit working at the depths of our being. We will find
risk but we can also expect LIFE.
The gift of the Holy Spirit is not some special and unique gift given only to a chosen few. The
power of the Spirit is not something that we are born with. It is not something that we can
learn or even understand. It is not something that we can create. It is something that comes
from God that is totally beyond our human ability God’s Spirit is to be enjoyed by all of
God’s people.
It is not God’s Spirit suddenly present at Pentecost. That same Spirit moved over the waters
of creation. That same Spirit led the people of Israel through the desert. That same Spirit,
Jesus breathed on the disciples. He commissioned them to continue the work that he had
begun. And that same Spirit is our primary motivation as Christians. If Christmas is a
celebration of ‘God with us, then Pentecost which we celebrate today is a celebration of ‘God
still with us’, God within us.
The Holy Spirit that was with the Church since before Pentecost, was renewed among us at
that time, to equip the disciples for the mission that lay ahead and to transform the lives of
those they met on their journey. Each day we need to renew ourselves and allow God’s Holy
Spirit to transform our lives enabling us to be the kind of people God intended for us to be.
There is a wonderful story about a mother wishing to encourage her young son’s progress on
the piano, who took her boy to a Paderewski concert. After they were seated, the mother
spotted a friend in the audience and walked down the aisle to greet her. Seizing the
opportunity to explore the wonders of the concert hall, the little boy rose and eventually
explored his way through a door marked “NO ADMITTANCE”
When the house lights dimmed and the concert was about to begin, the mother returned to
her seat and discovered that the child was missing. Suddenly, the curtains parted and
spotlights focused on the impressive Steinway piano on stage.
But in horror, the mother saw her little boy sitting at the keyboard, innocently picking out
“Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”
At that moment, the great piano master made his entrance, quickly moved to the piano, and
whispered in the boy’s ear, “Don’t quit, keep playing.” Then leaning over, Paderewski reached
down with his left hand and began filling in a bass part. Soon his right arm reached around to
the other side of the child and he added a running obligato.
Together, the old master and the young novice transformed a frightening situation into a
wonderfully creative experience. The audience was mesmerized. And just like that old
master did, the Holy Spirit working with our spirit will transform and mesmerize us too.
It is Pentecost again. Today we celebrate the birthday of the Church, brought to life by the
breath and the fire of the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost and by the “yes” of the disciples
when they responded to God’s gift. It would behoove each of us to be aware of and thankful
for that gift of the Spirit in our own lives today.

Easter 6, May 17, 2020

by the Rev’d Canon Lynne Thackwray

 

“Sometimes I feel like a
motherless chile,” sings the weary black slave in the hot southern night, expressing
her desolation at having been taken from home and family and subjected to inhuman
conditions on the plantation’s cotton fields. Although none of us has known the
bitterness of that dehumanizing experience, such a sung lament like that, could
surely express our own agony of soul from time to time, as we confront
isolation and alienation and the world becomes altogether too much.  And for some of us today, our isolation may
now be beginning to take its toll.

“The dark night of the
soul” is a fact of the religious life; the sense of the absence of God is
as real as the divine presence.  Reading
through the psalms we cannot help but catch glimpses of the alternating sense
of the presence and absence of God occurring there.  And if we assume that being a Christian will
protect us from times of doubt, loneliness, unhappiness, we have a naive view
of the way God works in our lives.

Jesus is quite upfront in today’s
Gospel as he speaks to the disciples at the Last Supper. He tells them he is to
die, he has to leave them. He does not deny the hard facts of the case. But
even as he describes their condition without him, he is assuring them it is
only temporary. “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.”
Another, and perhaps better, translation is, “I will not leave you
orphans; I am coming to you.”  you will
not be left alone.”

Orphans. Not a popular word. We don’t
even hear it very much anymore in a society that is supposed to care as much
for its people as ours is.  But we know
that even today orphans do exist.  And
they show up in the darndest places. Often you can tell them by the look in
their eyes.

There is the 50 year old man working
in the electrical department of the local hardware store. He’s just getting by,
not much for extras, and then the virus hit, store closed, job gone, isolation
at home. What is going to happen, how long will the stores be closed, how are
the bills going to be paid.  Is there
anyone to say, “I will not leave you an orphan”?

Here is an elderly woman who resides
in a nursing home, not many more days or weeks left to go as she becomes weaker
and weaker. Her niece would visit once a week but now- now there are no visits.
Her friend in the next bed has tested positive for the virus.  She is stuck in her room even having to eat
her meals there.  The nurses are busy, it
feels like no one is around, like no one cares, like she has been forgotten..  Is there any one to say,  “We will not leave you an orphan.”

And on the hospital bed in the
isolation ward is the young man with AIDS. It’s hard even to find hospital
staff who will agree to empty the wastebasket in the room unless they are
dressed for a moonwalk. Now that his business associates and fellow church
members learned he was “that way,” he doesn’t have to be worried by
too many phone calls or cards. Who is there to tell him he will not be left an
orphan?

The good news, of course, is, it is
our job, yours and mine. It comes with our baptism. Empowered by the Spirit, we
are the way Christ makes his presence known and his comfort felt. Even in the
moment of being orphans, Christ comes to us. We know his absence that we may
rejoice in his presence.

Christ comes to us in the power of
the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells the disciples it is necessary that he leave them
so the Spirit will be with them. His localized presence, available to only a
few at a time, must be sacrificed, so in the Spirit, he can be available to all
believers in every time and place. Our fellowship with Christ has taken a new
form after the resurrection. We now  see
Christ with the eyes of faith which is given to us by the Holy Spirit.

So, just how is Jesus going to
minister through the Holy Spirit to a world
which neither sees him or knows him.

FIRST OF ALL, CHRIST GIVES US A
HEALTHY SENSE OF WHO WE ARE. There is the story of Oliver Wendell Holmes
walking down a street one day when a little girl joined him. When the girl
started to turn back home, the famed jurist said, “When your mother asks
you where you’ve been, tell her you’ve been walking with Oliver Wendell
Holmes.”

To which the little girl replied
confidently, “And when your folks ask you where you’ve been, tell them you
were walking with Mary Susanna Brown.” Now, there’s a little girl with a
healthy sense of who she is!

God doesn’t forget us. He tells us we
are somebody. Those early disciples faced all matter of opposition and even
persecution, but they knew they were not forgotten. Christ had given them a new
identity. He had given them an inner peace that the world could not take away.
Christ gives us a healthy sense of who we are.

HE ALSO GIVES US THE JOY OF A GREAT
PURPOSE. That’s what he did for those disciples. He sent them out into the
world to make disciples of all humanity. That’s a purpose big enough for
anybody. 

We
are not all called to go out and evangelize the world but if we can pick up
groceries for a neighbour, call a friend who is having a hard time, send off a
card to someone to show you care, donate to the local food bank, we are
fulfilling our purpose as Christians.  

NOTICE THAT CHRIST DID NOT PROMISE
HIS DISCIPLES A LIFE FREE FROM PROBLEMS. In fact, their problems would dwarf most
of our problems.  Problems are part of
life.  Roofs leak, cars don’t start,
people get mad, feelings get hurt, we get rejected, overlooked, unappreciated.
We get sick, tired, and sometimes victimized. All this goes with being
human. 

He wasn’t worried about the obstacles
they would face, but about the inner strength and discipline with which they
would face them.   Would they be worriers or would they be
warriors?

And so he promised them that even
though he must leave them physically, he would not leave them spiritually. HE
PROMISED THEM THE GIFT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT TO GIVE THEM COURAGE AND COMFORT IN
THE DIFFICULT DAYS THAT LAY AHEAD.

Just think of the courage that
followers of Jesus needed to endure after he left them. Most were martyred
because they would not renounce their faith. But still they persevered. How
could they do it without God’s spirit within?     And
that is the same promise Christ offers us today .”  the assurance of God’s Holy Spirit within to
give us both courage and comfort. 

The church is not left an orphan by
Christ. He comes to us faithfully in the power of the Spirit, in the reading
and preaching of the Word, and in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the
cup. When we gather, even two or three of us, in his name to rehearse his story
and make it our own, he is in the midst of us.

Jesus comes to us and to one another
through each other. That is part of what it means to be baptized into Christ.
We share in his ministry to make sure no one feels orphaned or alone. Wherever
one soul is softly moaning, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless
chile,” Christ desires to be, and he calls upon us to help him get there:
to the unemployed and desperate, to the rejected and oppressed, to the feared
and misunderstood, to your partner in the pew, and to your neighbor down the
street. Christ, present in our midst, challenges us to be his hands and his
feet on the ground, as the sacrament of God’s faithfulness and generosity to a
world in need.

There is a story told of a constant
problem with noise in the infant nursery of
a large metropolitan hospital.  Crying
babies would disturb one another. The sound level was almost unbearable for the
staff as well as the newborns.  They
tried separating the babies and soundproofing the walls. This helped the staff,
but it did not seem to calm the infants.

Then someone had the bright idea of
playing a recording of a mother’s heartbeat beside each bed. It worked. The
sound that the baby heard even before it was born was the sound that comforted
it the most.

The Holy Spirit is the Father’s
heartbeat in our lives, the inner assurance that we are not alone, because he
abides with us, and he will be within us.  

We are not orphans before God.  Jesus says to us, “That can’t happen. I
will never leave you alone.  I will send
a Counselor to be with you.”

 

May 3, 2020 Easter 4 A

by the Rev’d Canon Lynne Thackwray

 

Once upon a time a man fell in love with his sports car. He drove it
everywhere. In truth, he paid more attention to the car than he did to his
family. When time came to make funeral arrangements he asked to be buried in
it. Since money was not an issue, the man’s unusual request was granted. On a
bright sunshiny day a crane lowered the sports car with the deceased man at the
wheel into a gigantic grave. A crowd gathered to witness the strange event. As
the car and corpse slipped out of sight, one bystander said to another, “Now
that is really living.”

 “Really living!”  Now just what does that mean?   Apparently, about 46% of us think about the
meaning and purpose of life very often. Sometimes we look for life in all the
wrong places, search for life in too many faces. Even in our confusion we are
longing for a life that really matters.

God likes life, He invented it. It is
to the full-flowing, free life that He invites us. 

Jesus put it
even better in John 10:10 which is the last verse in our gospel today.  He said: The thief comes only to steal and
destroy.  I came that they may have life,
and have it abundantly.“  Or in another
translation, “I have come that you may have life, and have it to the fullest.”  Or as Eugene Peterson  expresses it: “He came so that you could have
a better life than you ever dreamed of.”   .

 Jesus, who caused the blind to see, the lame
to walk, the deaf to hear, and raised the dead to life, wants us to live, not
merely survive.  He does not say you shouldn’t
want too much. Instead, He says don’t settle for too little.   I came that you might have abundant life.

Such a
sentence has no small appeal to our mind and imagination as we try to picture
the abundant life which is promised. We are not lacking for images from the
world in which we live. The abundant life? Why of course! Mercedes Benz. Chevas
Regal. Palm Beach.. These are symbols which come to mind quickly. And I do not
mean to put them down. All are quality of the first order! But they symbolize
something very different from the kind of abundant life our Lord offers.  

The abundant
life which Christ himself is and which he provides to us, is by no means a sum
total of a list of all the best products which our consumer society enjoys. It
begins with the soul within us, and reaches outward to embrace and sanctify the
material blessings put into our hands.

.Life is
sacred and valuable because God is here in the midst of us. God is not just
‘out there’ but he is in the thick and thin of our day-by-day lives trying to
help us make sense out of what is going on in our days. God has enriched every
moment with his presence.

 As I have said, we mustn’t confuse
the good life with the abundant life that Christ promised. So often this phrase
is taken out of context    There is
nothing wrong with having lots of stuff. But ultimately it cannot satisfy our
deepest needs. Only the abundant life can do that.  

Earlier this
month It has been reported that in some parks, farms, and yards of the UK,
British sheep have been experiencing a new sense of freedom. Even as parks and
open spaces are shut down due to coronavirus, and people are secluded in their homes,
sheep have taken to roaming about the newly open spaces. But rather than
wandering aimlessly through the fields, it seems, sheep have been seeking out
children’s playgrounds, and have begun [wait for it] to play! It appears, their
favorite activity is to take turns riding the “roundabout!”       You may remember that piece of
playground equipment   from your childhood.  

In playing on
a roundabout, a group of children typically sits on the base, while others spin
the wheel. It appears, sheep are smarter than we thought!  In a 40-acre farm park near Monmouthshire, a
flock of sheep were spotted pushing each other on the play area roundabout two
days in a row. After that, other sheep too were seen playing on a playground
roundabout in Preston, and still more in another little farming town.**    I don’t know about you, but for me, this
certainly redefines what it means to be a “sheep!”

This week’s
scriptures are all about sheep! Both the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian
gospels refer to God’s people (and followers of Jesus) as sheep. In the past,
sheep were referred to as rather unintelligent animals that wander aimlessly
away if the Shepherd is not there to guide them. Yet, it seems, given the
opportunity, sheep would rather play organized games than simply wander
aimlessly through the fields. They apparently have a sense of community, a
passion for assisting each other, and definitely a zeal for fun.    Open up the gate, and sheep will find a new
way to play!

Should we be
surprised? The human spirit too has a natural inclination for making the best
of new situations and predicaments, for making fun out of fumes. All you have
to do is look at the television and the internet right now to see the amazing
creativity and innovation sparked by our coronavirus seclusion. We simply will
not be held down. We will always find a “roundabout” way to do anything we
desire to do.

Human beings,
though we can be fearful at times, are also the most adaptable creatures on the
planet! When our bodies feel inhibited, when we feel we have no control over
parts of our lives, something happens to our minds and hearts. We look for an
open window or a deserted field and we find a new way to play.  We look for a tin can or wooden sticks and a
steel drum, and we begin to make music. We sing. We dance. We play. And we
typically do it together. When we can’t be face to face, still we find all
kinds of ways to connect with each other and most of all, to play!

Years ago,
doing things in a roundabout way was not necessarily a positive attribute, but
today, it’s the mark of heightened innovation! In fact, all great inventions
were brought to fruition by people who went about things in a “roundabout” way,
who saw “outside the box” or “outside the rules” and who created new ways to
“play” the game of life.

Human beings
will always look for an opening in the wall, a crack in the sidewalk, a door
never opened, a field never explored, and we will dare to enter in. This is the
exquisiteness of what it means to be part of the human planet.

We embrace
the beauty of our humanness when we embrace God, and when we follow Jesus,
because for us, God IS that open door that leads to new and exciting pathways.
Jesus IS that gateway to life that affords us freedom and exploration of what
it means to truly live! Followers of Jesus will dare to enter into that open
portal that leads to new life, into that freed up space that allows us room to become
the best version of ourselves.  .

And here’s
the reality. We most welcome freedom and community when we are most fenced in,
most threatened, most fearful, most alone.
When we are fenced in, when we are inhibited or complacent, creativity
seems to burst forth in order to create new hope, new joy, and new excitement,
even new forms of community.   The human
spirit is a playful spirit, a free spirit. And God celebrates this in us above
all else.    God knows we are people who
will seek new pathways when gates are opened and will discover new ways of
living when old ones are stymied

“One of the
most moving stories I have read in recent times is that told by Martha Beck in
her book Expecting Adam. Martha and her husband John were graduate
students at Harvard University well on their way to careers of academic
distinction. Then Martha became pregnant for the second time and discovered
that the baby would almost certainly have Down’s Syndrome. Although not
pro-life advocates, or religious in any formal sense, Martha and John decided
not to terminate the pregnancy. Expecting Adam tells the story
of their struggles, fears and pain. It also tells how the birth of Adam not
only changed their understanding of what it means to be a ‘normal’ human being,
but also transformed their lives. Near the end of the book Martha writes:

I have
discovered that many of the things I thought priceless are as cheap as costume
jewelry, and much of what I labeled worthless was, all the time, filled with
the kind of beauty that directly nourishes my soul. Now I think that the vast
majority of us ‘normal’ people spend our lives trashing our treasures and
treasuring our trash.

She
continues:   Living with Adam, loving
Adam, has taught me a lot about the truth. He has taught me to look at things
in themselves, not at the value a brutal and often senseless world assigns to
them. As Adam’s mother, I have been able to see quite clearly that he is no
less beautiful for being called ugly, no less wise for appearing dull, no less
precious for being seen as worthless. And neither am I. Neither are you.
Neither is any of us.

One of the great phrases of the Bible is to love one another—love
one another, pray for one another, encourage one another, admonish one another,
greet one another, serve one another, teach one another, accept one another,
honor one another, bear one another’s burdens, forgive one another.  That is abundant living in its truest
sense.  It is not something we are able
to do on our own. Abundant living is a gift, a gift of grace.  It is life lived out of gratitude for what
Christ has done for us.

Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it
more abundantly.”  This is one of his
best known but sadly often misunderstood sayings.  It is the favorite verse of scripture for
many modern Christians, for they read it as an endorsement of their extravagant
lifestyle. They equate the abundant life to living in the lap of luxury. They
listen enthusiastically to the pitch of the TV evangelist living in his
multi-million dollar home who declares, “God wants His people to have nice
things!” Certainly the TV evangelist lives up to his creed. Many of them live
opulent lifestyles.

In Jewish
culture there’s long been a spiritual satellite dish in every household. The
practice of setting up a mezzuzah, a small tube-like container that holds a
tiny scroll with a traditional prayer recognizing God’s eternal power and
presence, is affixed to every doorway, or every doorpost in an orthodox home.
Upon entering or leaving by a mezzuzahed doorway, the devout kiss their index
and middle fingers and press them to the mezzuzah. Before moving from one space
to another, then, they’re plugged in to the continual presence of God’s spirit
in their lives. 

Abundant living is more than simply being a do-gooder. Abundant
living is life lived out of gratitude for what Christ has done for us. Abundant
living is not something we are able to do on our own. Abundant living is a
gift, a gift of grace  

It is a
right, good and proper thing that our tallest buildings, our brightest minds,
our largest charities are dedicated to providing you and me the finest quality
of life possible because life is sacred and valued

Our Jewish friends have a beautiful phrase in Hebrew that all
of us might well take into our vocabulary.
  “L’Chaim!” which means “to life!”  It is a toast
to life, a salute to the incredible miracle of being among the living. It is a
word which recognizes life, rejoices in it, affirms it, celebrates and
appreciates it.     
L’chaim.
Amen.

 

EASTER 2

APRIL 19, 2020

 

 

Chris Anderson pastor of a United Church in Pennsylvania told this story: “One day Groucho Marx was getting off an elevator and he happened to meet a clergyman. The clergyman came up to him, put out his hand and said, ‘I want to thank you for all the joy you’ve put into the world.’ Groucho shook hands and replied, ‘Thank you, Reverend. I want to thank you for all the joy you’ve taken out of it.’

“This comment can tell us a lot about how people may view clergy, Christianity, and God. Some people assume that clergy are to be stern, Christianity is to be humorless, and God is never to be found laughing.  

Anderson noted that Jesus did use humor and that God indeed does laugh, especially at Eastertime.

There are many different ways of talking about the good news of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus.  Some early church writers referred to the resurrection:  as a big joke played on the devil.  When Jesus rose from the dead, they said, “God got the last laugh”.

 

In the early centuries of Christianity, all of Easter Week was celebrated as “one continuous feast . . . a week of intense happiness and spiritual joy.” For Orthodox, Catholic, and, eventually, Protestant Christians in many countries, Easter Monday, especially, was a holiday:  parishioners played games, took “Emmaus” walks in the country, held picnics, and played practical jokes and pranks on each other.  

                                                                                                                    Later, Monday was and is, considered to be a day of rest for many overburdened pastors and church staff and it simply became more practical to transplant the celebration to the Sunday after Easter

 

So, In1988, a group called the Fellowship of Merry Christians began to encourage churches to resurrect what was originally referred to as “Bright Sunday”, and call it “Holy Humor Sunday.”  Since then, hundreds of churches have celebrated the Second Sunday of Easter as a Sunday of laughter and joy.      

 

And when you think about it, it really is a pretty great way of talking about Jesus’ death and resurrection.   Sometimes, when people talk about atonement, they make it sound like God demanded this suffering, but I agree with Christian thinkers like Brother Roger of Taizé, who insisted that God never desires or causes the suffering of any creature.  

 

You may have things in your life, or in the life of our world, which are grieving your heart just now, and I respect that. “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus says, “for they shall be comforted.” As Christians, we are people of paradox, so we know that sadness and joy can coexist in our hearts and our world. Sometimes humor even helps to give us strength in times of sadness. And in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, we find perhaps the biggest example of how sadness and joy can mingle. So, today, we celebrate the saving power of Christ, and the joy he gives us, even in times of sadness

 

During this uneasy time of the covid virus, humor has played a large part in helping to comfort people and lower their stress levels.. Many of us have had great guffaws over jokes and videos sent over the internet. In spite of all our hard times and difficulties, if we lose our sense of humor and our ability to laugh, we really are in trouble.  

 

It is the practice of many churches to start off with a joke but I’ve saved mine for the middle so hang on for a few short funnies! 

 

A pastor fell out with his church council over various church policies and procedures, including how the finances were handled. After bitter arguments and many nights of lost sleep, he decided to leave the congregation to take a job as a prison chaplain. He preached his last sermon at the church on John 14:1: “I go to prepare a place for you.”

 

And then there is the story of

The children who were lined up in the cafeteria of a Catholic elementary school for lunch. At the head of the table was a large tray of apples. A nun had  written a note and posted it on the apple tray: “Take only ONE. God is watching.”
Moving along the lunch line, at the other end was a large tray of chocolate chip cookies. One of the girls also wrote a note, which she put next to the tray of cookies, “Take all you want. God is watching the apples.”  

 

And finally……

   One Easter Sunday morning as the pastor was preaching a children’s sermon, he reached into his bag of props and pulled out an egg. He pointed at the egg and asked the children, “What’s in here?”
      “I know, I know!” a little boy exclaimed, “pantyhose”

Well, as we heard in John’s gospel, the disciples were probably not in a humorous mood in the days following the crucifixon.  They had locked themselves in a house for fear of the Jews.  And then Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  He showed them his hands and his side and as John tells us “the disciples rejoiced!”  

But there was one among them who was not there to witness Jesus’ appearance.  Thomas was a sceptic and didn’t buy into the disciples’ story until a week later when Jesus came again to stand among them.  This time Thomas not only saw but he touched and he believed.  And I am sure then that Thomas was able to rejoice with his brothers.

We believe in God,                                                                                            who made us in His image.                                                                                  We live, we love, we laugh,                                                                            because we are like Him.

We believe in Jesus Christ,

the Son of God, our Lord and Savior.

He had the last laugh on the devil

when He rose from the dead.

 

We believe in the Holy Spirit,

coequal and coeternal with the Father and the Son.

Our counselor, our guide, our motivator –

He is our joy!

 

Forgive us, Lord, when we take ourselves too seriously, when we don’t claim the happiness that is rightfully ours as your children, when we forget that you will have the last laugh in this world.
  

When Jesus crosses over from death to life, we receive once and for all the good news that God suffers with those who suffer; and that when we are faced with evil and death, love and life will have the last word. This is the source of a joy which bubbles up into laughter.  Alleluia!

 

GOOD FRIDAY

APRIL 10, 2020

There is an old spiritual that asks this very familiar question: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” It’s a question that has been asked through the ages. And every generation has provided its own answer. You and I must answer it as well. Were we there? Were we there when they crucified our Lord?

Were you one of the soldiers who cast lots for his clothing?  Were you one of the mob who chanted, “Crucify him!” and then came to make sure the job was done.  Were you one of the women who had come to support Mary as she watched her son die. Were you one of the disciples who were hiding in fear and dread unable to be there and watch to the end.  Just what would have been your role back then on Good Friday in Jerusalem! 

However I find another myself asking another question during these days of germaphobia and social distancing and isolation,..

Were you there when my mother died of covid 19 in the nursing home?  Were you there when my friend risked going into the hospital to get her chemotherapy?  Were you there when my husband underwent life-threatening surgery and struggled to recover?  I couldn’t be there.  Were you there when my company laid me off, my food cupboard was almost bare and my children were hungry?  Were you there when I couldn’t pay my rent? Were you there?

“Were we there when they crucified our Lord?”  is the question that that old spiritual seems to be asking,    And the correct answer is usually determined to be: yes we were there, as was all humanity. Anyone who has ever been cowardly and given in to the crowd, anyone who has ever kept silent in the face of bigotry and persecution, anyone who has ever been weak when you know you should have been strong was there encouraging this . . . the most tragic crime in history.

 During the fears and anxieties and isolation resulting from the virus the real question “were you there” seems to me to be asking, “where is God in all of this?” 

 Where were you God -. Were you there when Jesus laboured to carry his  cross to Golgotha, were you there when they nailed him to the cross, were you there when the soldiers cast lots for his clothing.  Were you there when they crucified your son, when Jesus suffered a most degrading, painful, public execution

We know that Jesus’ mother Mary was there, and her sister-in-law, Mary, wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. We also know that his beloved disciple John was there. The soldiers were there of course and those who came to gawk at the three men hanging on display but no mention was made of any of the other disciples including Peter the “Rock”.   

But we also know that God was there, God was present in the midst of all that pain and agony. God did not abandon His Son on the cross.

God was there – weeping, loving compassionate God. And God is there the same way for the parent who has succumbed to the virus in the nursing home, And God is there in the same way for the cancer victims going into the hospital for their chemotherapy treatment.  And God is there in the same way when those in need of urgent surgery are struggling to recover in the midst of chaos in the hospitals dealing with covid19.

God does not abandon us.  God is there for all of us in our loneliness and our fears and anxiety.   God is there as we worry and pray for those we love and cannot be with.  God is there with the doctors and the nurses on the front lines, God is there with the truckers and the workers in the grocery stores and pharmacies.  God is there with the neighbour who picks up our groceries and delivers them to our door. God is there in the kindnesses we see as people reach out to one another – on the phone, through the internet, a holler of hello and how are you from across the street. 

We are blessed with a God who loves us unconditionally, who cares when we are in trouble, grieves with us in our sorrow, supports us in our worries, comforts us when we are feeling ill, and suffers with us when we are in pain.    Know that we are never alone.  May we recognize in our life, the presence of the divine which connects us with the rhythm of the universe. 

Thanks be to God.

 

THE FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT

MARCH 29, 2020

One Sunday afternoon, Bob announced to the group of junior high school students in his Bible study class that they would begin a study of the Gospel of John. “It’s a good book,” he said, “and we think the church youth group should read it.” To begin the study, he gave the kids an assignment to flip through John’s Gospel until they found a verse that meant something to them, memorize it and come back the next week and recite it for the rest of the group.”

The next week they went around the circle, starting with Diane. “My verse is John 3:16,” Diane said. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  When asked why she had picked that verse. Diane said, “My grandmother said it was important.”

Next was Mark who quoted, “Truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3). When asked why he selected it, Mark said, “I opened my dad’s Bible and saw these words were printed in red ink. I figured they must be important.”

On around the circle they went and then it was time for Jonathan who happened to be the minister’s  son. Jonathan said, “My verse is John 11:35.”  Bob said, “Can you remember how it goes?”

“Sure,” said Jonathan. He cleared his throat, stood erect, looked around the group and with a note of sobriety he said, “Jesus wept.”

That did it. The rest of the kids burst into laughter. When asked why he had picked that verse, Jonathan replied with perfect teenage logic,  “Because it’s the shortest verse in the Bible.”  Which is very ironic considering the length of our gospel reading today.

At first glance, that brief verse looks like a lightweight compared to other verses.  John often uses single sentences to reveal deep meaning, but the sentence “Jesus wept” does not sound like one of them. Even when the New Revised Standard Version expands it to four words (“Jesus began to weep”), it doesn’t seem to carry the full freight of the Gospel.

That brief verse occurs of course in the story of the death of Lazarus, a significant event in the ministry of Jesus. Lazarus was a disciple whom Jesus loved (John 11:5). More than a servant, Jesus called him “friend” (John 11:11). Yet Lazarus was stone-cold dead in the tomb when Jesus arrived too late. If he had come sooner, he might have healed the illness.   But by the time Jesus had reached Bethany, nothing could be done               

According to the story in John, the death of a beloved friend was the event that prompted Jesus’ tears. His tears looked like our tears. This fact had led some commentators, and a lot of preachers, to assume Jesus was deeply moved, overcome by grief, sentiment, and sadness at the death of his friend At the tomb, Jesus appeared as human as the rest of us.

In the midst of tragedy, it is a great comfort to know Jesus wept as we weep, that indeed there are tears in heaven as there are tears on earth. We want to know God is compassionate, that the Lord of Israel suffers with us. When people gathered outside the tomb of Lazarus, some saw those tears and said, “See how Jesus loved him” (John 11:36). At the point of human brokenness, it is comforting to know the Holy One sympathizes with us.

But wait a minute. Others outside the same tomb said, “Couldn’t Jesus have kept his friend from dying? Isn’t there something curious about these tears?” The answer to both questions, of course, was yes. Both Martha and Mary knew it. Each came independently and said, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They knew his power. They knew Jesus could do whatever he wanted. But he did not prevent the death then, just as he still doesn’t keep people from dying today.

That suggests a second possible explanation for his tears. According to the story, Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” Was he upset at human unbelief? No, Martha said she believed. Was he angry for not arriving soon enough? No, Jesus acted on his own timetable. What was the reason for his tears? Perhaps along with his sorrow, he was indignant at the destructive forces in creation that killed Lazarus. And I have to believe that Jesus weeps for us today as we are dealing with the destructive forces of the global pandemic of covid 19.

Two things occur in today’s Gospel which give us another insight into the Jesus who is described by John. As well as being told that Jesus wept, we read Jesus describing Lazarus as his friend,  

To be a friend means to be willing to share with another a common life, to support and be supported.   Lazarus and his sisters had been a source of comfort and comfort to Jesus.  Jesus went to be with them them to comfort them in their grief.  We are also called to be a source of comfort and support to others who need it especially during this time of restrictions and anxiety and grief over our losses –  loss of job, loss of income, loss of time spent with many of those whom we care about and even in some cases loss of life.

If you recall, there was one other time that the Bible tells us that Jesus wept.  During his last days, when he drew near to the city of Jerusalem he wept.   He weeps because of the conspiracy of human sin and human ignorance, because he understands the weakness of human flesh    .  :

To weep means to identify with another’s pain and sorrow and to admit it as our own. When Jesus wept beside the tomb of Lazarus he was weeping with every person who has ever lost a loved one to the power of death.    Jesus knows our grief and suffers the pain of loss as we do. These words assure us that the Jesus who makes those magnificent claims about himself throughout John’s Gospel is not simply some divine being set apart from us, but he is one of us. God is a human being! Or, as John puts it at the beginning of his Gospel, “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

The good news is Jesus wept tears of action. It was not enough for him to weep over the world’s pain, or to distinguish between God’s way and the ways of the world. Jesus committed himself to make a difference in the face of death. Jesus experienced grief and loss and he stands with us now as a friend, comforting and supporting us in our time of need.  ‘Thanks be to God.