20 January 2019

“Joy-Bringers” (sermon)

San Juan Presbyterian Church, Trinidad
January 20, 2019
Scripture:  John 2:1-11

I have to confess that I’ve never been to a wedding here in Trinidad.  But back home in Canada, a wedding is a BIG DEAL.  The planning for a wedding usually takes a year, expectations are highbudgets are extravagant.  Much thought is given to where to hold the party, what colour the decorations and dresses should be, what type of flowers to have, what style of dress the bride will wear and how her hair will be styled.

Expectations are so high that even before the invitations to the wedding are sent out, the couple will usually send a “Save the Date” card to the guests that will be invited, to make sure that the guests will be able to attend.  If you are invited to a wedding, you will go out of your way to attend, even if it means flying across the country or half-way around the world.

And then at the wedding, there is food, there is music, there is dancing.  Weddings are an opportunity to visit with friends and family members that you haven’t seen in a long time.  Weddingsare a time to celebrate.  Just last week, one of my cousins posted a picture on Facebook from the wedding of my father and stepmother 12 years ago, and that picture triggered a long thread of memories and reminiscing about that day.

And what is a wedding but a joyful celebration of love and family?!

And so I love that Jesus’ first sign, his first miracle in the gospel of John, takes place at a wedding.  Jesus, who is the embodiment of God’s love, gives us a sign of God’s joy and abundance when he transforms water into wine at a wedding, which is a celebration that is full of joy and love.

But I found this week, as I was reading this familiar story once again, that I was drawn especially to the mother of Jesus.  She is there at the wedding, along with her son and his followers.  Maybe it’s the wedding of one of their relatives; maybe it’s the wedding of one of their neighbours.  But she seems to feel some sort of responsibility to make sure that the celebration goes well, to make sure that the correct level of hospitality is extended, and so I like to speculate that this is the wedding of one of her family members.

And the mother of Jesus notices that the wine has run out.  She notices that the expected hospitality will not be extended.  She notices that shame is going to be brought on to the whole extended family.  But she knows that her boy, the son that she raised, this child that she watched grow into a man – she knows that he can do something about this.

And so she tells him, “They have no wine.”  But Jesus, at first he brushes her off.  “What do you want me to do about that?  What does this have to do with me?”  But his mother, she doesn’t give up.  She pushes back.  She persists.  She didn’t take no for an answer.  She tells the servants to do whatever her son tells them to do; and then before anyone else at the party noticed the problem, there was an abundance of excellent wine, more than the party would ever be able to drink.

I wonder what would have happened if she hadn’t persisted?  What if she had accepted Jesus’ first refusal, and just walked away?  Would the wine have run out?  Would the celebration have turned to anger?  Would the joy have turned to despair?  Would shame have been brought to the whole family?

But the mother of Jesus persisted.  She knew that the God that she worshipped was a God of joy.  She would have known and sung the psalms that told her,
“Joy comes with the morning.”
“God has turned my mourning into dancing;
God has taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.”
“Taste and see that the Lord is good!”
“All people feast on the abundance of God’s house,
and God gives them drink from the river of God’s delights.”

She knew that the God she worshipped desired joy for all people; and she knew that her son could do something about it.

And so she persisted.  She persevered, and water was turned in to wine.  And the joyful celebration continued.

When I read this passage from John’s gospel this week, it was the mother of Jesus who stood out to me.  The mother of Jesus who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.  The mother of Jesus who ensured that the party would continue.

And I think that each one of us can learn from the example of the mother of Jesus.  We know that the God that we worship is a God who celebrates love and joy.  We know that later in John’s gospel, Jesus will say that he came so that everyone might have life and have it abundantly.  And we can learn from the example of the mother of Jesus and notice where the joy is missing, notice where the love is missing, notice where the abundance, the fullness of life is missing.  And like the mother of Jesus, we can persist until the world is better aligned with God’s vision for the world.

I am a visitor in your beautiful country, so I don’t know what the specific issues are here.  If I were speaking to my congregation back in Canada, I might point out issues like the poor conditions that Indigenous Canadians are living in.  I might point out issues like the salary difference between women and men.  I might point out issues like discrimination against our LGBTQ community.  I might point out issues like the damage that we are doing to God’s creation by our dependence on oil and gas and other fossil fuels.  These are some of the issues that we are facing in Canada that separate us from the fullness of life that God desires for all people.

I don’t know what specific issues are present here in Trinidad and Tobago, and I’m not going to pretend to know.  But the question that this passage of scripture should raise for all of us is: where can we see joy being denied for all people?  Where can we see the fullness of life being taken away from all people?  And once we have noticed these places, like the mother of Jesus, we can persist.  We can persevere.  We can never give up, until the whole world is living in the abundance that God desires for all of creation.

God’s Word has become flesh.
Water has been turned into wine.
Transformation is possible.
The same God who ensured that the wedding celebration could continue in Cana calls us to be agents of that transformation.  By the Holy Spirit, we are being transformed into the image and likeness of Christ, we are being drawn into the endless dance of God.  The joy that God desires, the abundance that God promises, the fullness of life that Christ gives to us – all of this can bubble up in us and overflow to the world around us.

We are called.
We are gifted.
Let us go and do the work that God has given to us to do.
May it be so.

Let us pray,
God of limitless love,
let your joy bubble up in us
like the finest wine,
and let it overflow to the world around us.
Help us to proclaim your message of abundance –
that there is always enough for all people –
to the world.
And continue to blow your Holy Spirit through our lives,
transforming us more and more into the image of Christ,
so that we might be the hands and feet
and eyes and ears and heart of Christ,
as we continue the work of Christ in our world.
I pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ,
your Word-made-Flesh.

13 January 2019

"Visible Signs" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
January 13, 2019 - Baptism of Jesus
Scripture:  Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

I invite you to remember some of the more memorable meals that you’ve had.  Maybe you’re thinking of a holiday meal like Christmas or Thanksgiving with your family gathered around a large table, celebrating together.  Or maybe you’re thinking of a dinner party where the atmosphere and the guests just clicked and the meal became more than it would have been otherwise.  Or maybe you’re thinking about a restaurant meal where the food and the service and the atmosphere were something extra special.

I’m thinking of a dinner at my apartment in Nova Scotia in January, 4 years ago.  I’d just finished my first semester at school and I invited 5 classmates over to share a roast chicken.  We didn’t know each other very well yet, but as the meal progressed, the stories that we shared became deeper and more intimate, and the laughter became louder.  When we finally left the table at midnight, our friendship was cemented, and when I think back to that meal, there is a warm glow that hovers over my dining room.

Now I want you to take a moment and imagine what your special meal would have been like without the food.  No smell of roasting chicken wafting through the house.  Empty glasses raised in a toast.  Empty dishes being passed around the table.  Cutlery clattering on empty plates.  No food changes this memorable meal into something memorable but for very different reasons.  Food is important.  Food changes things.

We are not purely spiritual beings – we have physical bodies as well, and our physical selves need food and water to survive and thrive.  And that’s OK.  God created the physical world, and God saw that it was good.

In the United Church of Canada we recognize two sacraments – baptism and communion.  But what do we mean when we say “sacrament”?  I am drawn to St. Augustine’s definition of a sacrament – even though he wrote 1600 years ago, his definition still resonates with me today.  Augustine wrote that a sacrament is a visible sign of God’s invisible grace.  A visible sign of God’s invisible grace.

God’s grace, God’s love is invisible.  We can’t see it, we can’t reach out and touch it, but it is always there.  But since we are physical beings, made of matter, made of cells and molecules and atoms, God has given us physical, material ways to experience God’s love.  Ways that we can see and touch and taste and smell and hear God’s love.

The water of baptism, and the bread and wine of communion – they don’t replace God’s love, but instead they are signs – they point us towards God’s love.  Just as a stop sign doesn’t directly stop our car, but directs us to stop, the sacraments direct us towards experiencing the always-present, never-ending love of God.

When a person is baptized, either as a baby or as an adult, we don’t baptize just with words, it isn’t just a spiritual baptism where we know that the Holy Spirit has descended on this person.  Instead, there is water as well as words – water that we can hear being poured, water that we can see, water that we can touch.

When we gather at the communion table, we gather with words, but we also gather to share the bread and the juice – bread and juice that we can smell, taste, and see.

God made matter, so matter matters; but God also became matter in the person of Jesus Christ.  We’ve just finished the season of Christmas when we celebrated the time when God didn’t just put on humanity like a coat, but God actually became human.  God loves us so much that God became one of us.  God’s word became flesh.  Matter matters.

And we are given these sacraments so that our material selves – our flesh and blood – have something material to touch and taste so that the love of God can be made real to us.

In our scripture reading this morning, we heard about how Jesus came to the Jordan River and was baptized by John.  Again, this isn’t a purely spiritual baptism – there is physical water present.  Jesus waded into the river, went under the surface of the water, and came back up out of the water again.  And then Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and he saw the Spirit descending like a dove, and a voice from heaven said to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

In that moment of Jesus’ baptism, the whole Trinity is present.  The heavens are torn apart, and God descends like a dove and rests upon God, and the voice of God says, “You are my Son, the Beloved.”  And when we baptize in our church today, we baptize in the name of this same Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Our sacraments then, are this fabulous place where the physical and spiritual meet.  In the physical elements of the water, bread, and wine, we encounter God.  Because Jesus Christ was fully human and fully God, because the heavens were torn apart and the Holy Spirit descended, God is fully present in our world.  One of my favourite theologians, Richard Rohr, writes, “God is always present in the bread.  We just need to bring our hunger.”

In baptism, we make a covenant with God.  God is always present, and God’s love is always with us, but it is formalized in baptism.  We, or our parents, make promises, and we hear that each one of us is a beloved child of God.  The Holy Spirit hovers over the waters of our baptism, just as the Holy Spirit hovered over Jesus at his baptism.  And as a sign of God’s love, and as a sign of the promises that are made, water is sprinkled or poured or we are fully immersed in it.

And in the meal of Holy Communion, we are reminded again of God’s love for us.  We are reminded of God’s faithfulness in all generations, and we are strengthened in our faith.  The Holy Spirit hovers over the bread and the wine, and hovers over all of us when we gather at the table, closer to us than our very breath.  And we eat and we drink together, uniting us in that overwhelming love of God.  This isn’t a meal without food – empty glasses and bare plates.  This is a meal where God is present through the Holy Spirit in real bread and real juice.

God is fully present in the world – nothing can separate us from God and from God’s love.  Our sacraments are physical, tangible signs that point us to that love.  God made physical matter; God became physical matter, and so matter matters.  We are not just spiritual beings, but we are physical beings as well, and through the sacraments, God cares for us, and nourishes us, both physically and spiritually.

Thanks be to God!

The Youth Group and Sunday School helped us to remember our baptism
by flinging water from the baptismal font at the congregation!

6 January 2019

"Following the Star" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
January 6, 2019
Scripture:  Matthew 2:1-12

Today, January 6th, is the Feast of the Epiphany.  It’s the day when we read about the journey and the arrival of the magi, coming from some unspecified country to the east of Palestine, who arrive at Bethlehem bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  We read about how King Herod was afraid of a new power taking over; but how these magi knew Herod’s intent, and so changed their travel plans so that they could avoid telling Herod where the baby was.

But what does that word “epiphany” mean?  It’s a word that we sometimes hear outside of the context of this church holy day, but not one that we hear often.

When we hear about someone having an epiphany, it usually means that they have had a sudden or striking realization or insight; an “A-ha” moment.  It might mean that they have a new or deeper perspective on something that they have been studying; or that they have an intuitive grasp of a new reality.

If I think about the moments in my life when I have had an epiphany, they are usually pretty memorable.  There is the moment when I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God loved me just the way that I was – that I was a beloved child of God, no matter what I had done or hadn’t done, just because I was me.

Or, in a different kind of holy moment, there is the time when I was studying quantum chemistry in my undergrad.  I just couldn’t wrap my brain around it; but I found that if I didn’t try to think too hard about it or look straight at it, but almost kept what I was studying in the peripheral vision of my mind, all of a sudden I caught a glimpse of great beauty and awe of the universe.

So epiphanies are moments of great transformation or insight – moments when we might catch a glimpse of God or what God has done.  We usually can’t plan for these moments, or hold on to them once they have passed, but they have the power to change our lives moving forward.

So what about these magi?  I’m fascinated by them.  We aren’t told how many of them there are; we aren’t told where they are from; we aren’t told how far they traveled or what means of transportation they used to get from “the East” to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem.  The Greek word “magi” which is often translated as “wise men” is actually related to our English words mage, magic, or magician.  They might have been magicians, they might have been astronomers or astrologers, they might have been learned or wise scholars.

But whatever their profession, or wherever they have come from, they travel a great distance because they have seen a star.

On Christmas Cards, this star is often depicted as being hundreds of times bigger and brighter than a regular star.  But if this were the case, then surely someone would have noticed it other than this group of magi.  If there was a huge and bright star in the sky, why wasn’t the whole world flocking to Bethlehem?  Current-day astronomers have looked for some celestial event 2021 years ago, give-or-take, that might explain the star that the magi were following, but they haven’t found any record of a comet or a supernova appearing in that period of history.

But have you ever looked up at the sky at night?  Millions and billions of little dots of light.  If a new star were to appear there tonight, do you think that you would notice?  So the only thing I can think is that this group of magi was particularly observant.  They studied the stars so carefully that when something new appeared, they noticed it, even when the rest of the world didn’t.

So these magi had an epiphany – a new insight or revelation that led them to Jesus; and their lives were changed by that encounter.  But I don’t think that their epiphany came out of the blue.  They studied the stars, they paid attention to them, and then when they noticed something different appear, they were willing to act on it.  They didn’t just sit back and say “That’s nice” and go back to their stargazing.  Instead they got up and followed the star, no matter how many months it might have taken them to get to Bethlehem.

And then did you notice at the end, they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and instead of brushing it off as just a dream, they went home by a different route.  A new epiphany.

I think that if we listen to the Holy Spirit, all of us can experience these epiphanies, these new insights about God and how God is working in the world and in our lives.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit shouts at us, like the army of angels appearing in a field to a bunch of shepherds, proclaiming that Jesus had been born.  But sometimes the Holy Spirit nudges us instead.  A new star in the sky where there was no star before.  A dream or a feeling that you need to do something new or different.

And so I see the magi as offering a challenge to all of us.  How can we look for God working in our every-day lives?  If we are looking for exploding stars and supernovas and extraordinary miracles, then we might need to wait a long time; but if we are observant, if we pay attention, we can see God working in every minute of every day.

Before the end of the service, I’m going to be offering everyone a “Star Word.”  This is an assortment of words, each printed on a paper star.  I will invite you to take one from the basket without looking to see what is written.

Maybe you will like the word that you choose, or maybe it will make you feel uncomfortable.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit offers us comfort in our lives; but sometimes the Holy Spirit pushes us in new directions, to places that we never thought that we would or could go.

And so I invite you to take a word for this year ahead.  Reflect on this word, let it sit in the back of your mind.  You can ask God to show you how this word applies to your life; you can ask God to lead you by this word.  If you really, really don’t like your word, I will have the words with me next week and you can exchange it for a different word, but I encourage you to sit with your word for at least a week before exchanging it.

God is working in the world, and God is working in our lives.  The call of Epiphany is a call to pay attention; to look for the new star appearing in the sky; to listen for the nudges that the Holy Spirit gives us to do something differently.  And when we do so, we can catch glimpses of God.

May it be so.

My "Star Word" has found a home on my bulletin board

If anyone would like a Star Word, let me know in the comments
and I will pull one from the basket for you