Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Are You Ready? Pack Your Bags! Advent 1A (November 27, 2011), Rev. Martha Daniels

Isaiah 64:1-9
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O God, you are our Maker; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O God, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

Mark 13:24-37
“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Human One coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Saviour, but only the Creator. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Will you pray with me? God who journeys with us, open our ears and hearts to your message; give us grace to listen with accepting spirits and to speak with ready words the message you have for us today.  In all your names, amen.

Doom, desolation, and grief; earthquakes, fire, the end of the world—these seem like strange readings for the first Sunday in Advent! Aren’t we supposed to be looking out for joy, delight, hope, peace, a baby in manger with shepherds keeping watch and angels singing of heavenly peace? What happened to swords into ploughshares and Joseph’s dreams and a young woman expecting the anointed one, the child of God?

Jesus’ coming is exactly what all this—the earthquakes and fire and desolation and whirlwind and so on—are about. We who know that Jesus was born once are awaiting his return—and until he returns in that final glory, we prepare for that return by remembering his first arrival among humans, much quieter and unheralded, as a baby in a manger. But one day he will come again, and it will be in a firestorm, whether literal or metaphorical.

No one knows when—and Jesus emphasizes this—no one knows the time, not the angels, not humans, not even Jesus Christ himself—only God the creator knows when Christ will return. Many people have tried to predict it over the centuries. The early Christians thought it would be right away; then maybe after 100 years, then maybe in the year 1000. Various dates have been popular, including 2000, and most recently, October 21 of this year. Obviously it did not happen on any of those dates! But it will happen, and since no one knows when it will be, we had better act as if it has already happened, or is about to happen, so we will be ready.

What does it mean, to behave as if God’s realm had come on earth? We pray for it every time we say the prayer Jesus taught us. “Your dominion come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” But what does that mean, to ask that God’s will be done on earth? What will God’s realm, God’s dominion, look like?

We’ve been hearing a lot about it in the last few weeks. God’s realm is like young women prepared for the arrival of the bridegroom, the VIP; God’s realm is everyone being paid the same wage no matter long or short a time they have worked; God’s dominion is sharing our gifts and talents so they produce good results, it’s seeing Jesus in everyone, and serving him in them. It’s all those things—recognising God’s presence in the world, living open-handed with all that we have been given, because all that we have and are comes ultimately from God.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent; the first of the four Sundays that lead up to Christmas. Advent means “the approach,” in other words, it’s the time of preparation for Jesus’ arrival among us on Christmas. A journey is a powerful metaphor or symbol for Advent—after all, Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem for his birth, and Jesus himself travelled throughout his ministry, as did the early disciples and the apostles. Our lives are often described as journeys, too. How do you prepare for a journey?

First, you prepare for the trip. When you go on a trip, you don’t just go to the airport and see where the planes are going. You know where you want to go—Key West, or New York City, or Paris or Italy. You make reservations at a hotel or make sure it’s OK with your friends for you to stay with them; maybe you reserve a rental car. Maybe you are travelling for a family wedding, or a vacation, or for business. And so you pack what is appropriate for the trip—shorts, flip-flops, and sunblock for Key West; your best suit for a wedding.

Then you begin your journey—you head to the airport or finish packing the car, and back down the driveway and head off. You know you have what you need, so you start off with excitement and a sense of expectation and hope.

Third, you sometimes have a crisis in your trip—luggage is lost, there’s a fender-bender with your car, a plane is delayed, the hotel loses your reservations, your friend can’t pick you up at the airport after all and you have to take a taxi, or maybe you get lost in a strange city. Something happens to trip you up, to make it difficult to remember the purpose of your trip, to remember that hope and excitement.

And finally, you arrive at your destination—and sometimes it isn’t what you had hoped for. It rains for three days straight, you catch a cold, the show you had hoped to see is sold out, the hotel isn’t as advertised, you argue with the friends who are putting you up… But often it is—the wedding is beautiful, the weather is perfect, you reconnect with your friends, the hotel is so great you don’t want to go home. And you celebrate your journey, your trip to this place, to this time, with these people, the love and happiness and joy of your arrival in the place you were meant to be.

We’ll be exploring all those phases of the journey in the next few weeks, but today let’s look at preparing and packing. Naturally, once you know where you are going and why, a lot of decisions are made easier. Key West means no sweaters or gloves; a wedding means your suit, and so on. You don’t need to rent a car on Key West, once you are there; nor in New York or Paris. But if you plan to tour the Tuscan countryside, you had better make arrangements for a car! If you hate to fly and are going to drive yourself, you make sure the oil is changed and the tires are in good shape. You prepare.

So where are we going, this Advent, and what will we need when we are there? In common with every Advent, we are heading to the realm of God, wherever that is and whatever it looks like. Even Jesus couldn’t describe it except in terms of metaphors and parables. “It is as if…” he says. Or, “The realm of God is like…” It’s not that he doesn’t know what it will be like, but more that the human language does not have the words to describe it.

It will be a—well, we can’t really say place, because it is out of our time and space, isn’t it? It is where our human failings are gone—all those miscommunications, all the times we said one thing and meant another, when someone said or did something hurtful—maybe for the best of reasons!—when we hurt others or were hurt, where hunger and injustice and pain and illness are no more, where there is perfect understanding between people, no fear of judgement or conflict or hatred or anger. Even predators will be at peace with their prey—Isaiah says the lion will lie down with the lamb.

Wow. I can just barely imagine a place like that.  How do you—we—prepare for a place like that? How do we pack? What will we need to bring with us? What should be in our suitcases?

First is confidence and reliance on God’s love for us. We belong in God’s dominion; the decision does not lie with any human being, but with God and God has welcomed all creatures into God’s realm. So begin with that sure knowledge that we are welcome there and no one will reject us or tell us to leave—because we belong there and no one doubts it. With that confidence, then, we do not need to bring fear or anger. Nothing can harm us, we cannot harm anyone in God’s realm—so there is nothing to fear. No hate—hate comes from fear and anger, from a lack of understanding that God created all beings good and loves all that God has created. Even those we hate or fear or are angry with—the parent or boss or sibling or friend—may well be present in God’s realm—remember, the decision is God’s, who most truly knows each person’s heart; the decision doesn’t belong to us humans, who can only judge by what we see on the outside, and so do not really know the other person. If we want to be forgiven by others, then we must also forgive.

What else should we bring? Wonder—the wonder of a child, a phrase we often hear around Advent and Christmas. Children don’t doubt—the day a child begins to doubt her place in the universe is the day she is no longer a child. Sadly, that day comes too soon for many children, made to feel less than, unwanted, rejected. But unless and until that day arrives, children have a certainty that they belong, and the knowledge that God loves them, and that amazing things can happen if we can keep that certainty of God’s love for us in our hearts.

Well, my friends, it’s time to get ready—pull down your favourite suitcase or backpack or bag from the closet or under the bed, and start packing. Put in all your wonder, all your certainty that God loves you, your forgiveness, and your hope. Leave behind your fear, your anger, your doubt, your uncertainty. Pack it up, get ready to go on this wonderful Advent journey.  The taxi will be here soon; are we ready?

In the name of God who journeys with us, amen.

Monday, November 21, 2011

"Giving Our Gifts" Rev. Martha Daniels, MCC Windsor, Reign of Christ Sunday, November 20, 2011

Ezekiel 34:11-24
For thus says the Holy One, our God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
As for you, my flock, thus says the Holy One: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet? Therefore, thus says God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Holy One, will be their God, and my servant David shall be ruler among them; I, the Holy One, have spoken.

Matthew 25:31-46
“When the Human One comes in glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the Ruler will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by Abba-God, inherit the realm prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Teacher, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the Ruler will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Sir, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Please pray with me. Holy One, open our hearts to your grace. Give me your words to speak so that our spirits and minds are moved by your truth and love. In the name of your child, our saviour and friend, Jesus the Christ, amen.

When I was about five years old, my family lived in an L-shaped house—a long ranch style house with the living room and bedrooms that was the upright part of the L, and a garage, joined to the rest of the house by a breezeway, or closed porch, that was the short part of the L. Inside that L was a patio, partially paved, where we had a sandbox and a swing set and my mother had a garden. One very hot summer afternoon we set up a wading pool and filled it with water. Two of my older sisters, me, and my younger sister took turns jumping into the water. Over and over we jumped into the pool, splashing water everywhere. I got the bright idea of running and jumping into the pool, and stood by the back door to the breezeway, giving myself plenty of room for a run. “Geronimo!” I shouted, and flung my arms back, ready to run.  Crash! My arm broke through the glass on the door, and gashed my arm deeply. Blood was everywhere. My younger sister—all of three at the time—stood and stared. One of my older sisters ran, screaming. The other one, cooler under fire, grabbed a towel and wrapped it around my arm, calling for my mother. My mother, after one glance at the carnage, called a neighbour, Mrs. Barber, to ask for a ride to the doctor, since my oldest sister had the family car. Now, Mrs. Barber’s daughter had recently been in a terrible car crash, and Lori needed someone with her on a regular basis. But when my mother called her, Mrs. Barber came, without hesitation. She drove us to the doctor and waited to find out if the doctor would stitch me up or send me to the hospital, so she could take us to the hospital if that were the doctor’s verdict. She didn’t refuse at the sight of the blood; she didn’t plead her daughter’s need of her; she didn’t even ask us to put a towel on the seat. She simply drove us to the doctor’s office.

When Jesus says, “When you did it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it to me,” that is what he means. That free giving to the person who needs whatever it is you have to give. We had a desperate need of the doctor and no way to get to him; she had a car. She drove us to the doctor’s office and waited to see if we needed to go anywhere else. We needed a car, Mrs. Barber had a car, and she gave it to us. Not literally—she didn’t just hand over the keys. She knew that Mom was in no condition to drive, and besides, Mom had to calm me down. She couldn’t do that and drive, too. Mrs. Barber gave us what we needed, not because she owed us anything, or because we offered to pay her—although I think my parents took her and Mr. Barber out to dinner a few weeks later—or because she was counting up her brownie points towards heaven. Mrs. Barber helped us because we needed help and she could give it.

This passage from Matthew is difficult for many people, because it portrays Jesus as a judge who decides who will have everlasting life, and who will not. It’s hard to think of Jesus, who loves all God’s children, as a stern judge. But who better? Jesus is the child of God; he is human and divine. Jesus knows what it is to be human; at the same time, he is God. And so we know that Jesus is not arbitrary or without understanding of human failings. But—there’s always that, isn’t there? The fundamental requirement is still there. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus says we are to love one another as we love ourselves. Well, this is how we show it—this is how we demonstrate our love. We can’t just talk the talk—we can’t just say we love others—we have to walk the walk; we have to show that we love others by our actions towards them.

 You know, I could say I love my neighbours, I love everyone—but if I don’t help people, if I don’t show that love, then how can anyone know that I really do love my neighbours? It’s easy enough to say that I do, but to show it, to live it—that’s a bit harder. Jesus as ruler is judging us on our behaviour not because God doesn’t know what’s in our hearts and has to go by what we do. God knows us intimately, and God knows what is in our hearts. But that’s not enough, to simply have that intention or that thought, or belief. We have to act it out, make it real and tangible, in this world, not hidden away in our hearts. What’s the Rogers and Hammerstein song say—“love’s not love until you give it away?” Our love has to be visible in order for others to see it, know it, benefit from it. If I’m hungry, don’t tell me how much you love me—give me a meal. If you want to set an example, you don’t just lecture—you do.  It doesn’t do any good to tell people to “do as I say, not as I do.”

Another thing about making our love visible: we have to do things simply out of love, not because we expect anything back, not even the satisfaction of having helped someone. Anyone who has worked with the public, or in social services work can tell you that even when you have helped others, it is not always appreciated or even recognized. We do things out of love for love, not for anything at all in return, even our love returned. Once we expect something in return, the relationship becomes an economic one—“I give you a drink of water and you give me gratitude.” “I give you a place to stay and you give me $100;” well, that’s a hotel. Or “I give you a meal and you give me a morning’s work in the yard.”  Those are trades. Love simply gives: “You’re hungry; here’s a meal.” “You’re ill; let me bring you some soup.” When I was going through chemotherapy, one of my friends called me on Friday afternoons to find out what I wanted for dinner—and then brought it by. She didn’t want me to pay her, she didn’t even expect me to sit and visit with her for  a while—she simply dropped the food off, without coming in, simply giving me what I needed, without any expectation of return or an exchange.

Notice something else here—we’re not expected to solve the person’s problem for them. We give them water to drink; we don’t dig a new well for them. We comfort people who are sick; we aren’t expected to heal them. My friend couldn’t ease the side effects of chemo, but she could help me deal with them.

            I find this very comforting, because it means I don’t have to take on the world. If I thought I had to take care of each person’s problems, help him or her solve all the issues in their lives—well, I wouldn’t get very far, would I? Elsewhere Jesus says that we will always have poor people with us. He didn’t mean we should give up on the issues of poverty! He meant that poverty is not our problem to solve; it is beyond our capabilities to eradicate it completely. What we can do, what we are called to do is to make the sting less, ease the burden on those who are poor. Now, that we can do.

Think about this. Jesus himself did these things. He reached out, he comforted and fed and encouraged. He loved others, and acted out that love in tangible ways, most powerfully and ultimately on the cross. He did not expect anything back from anyone. He knew what he had been called to do through love, and he did it.

And there is this too, my friends. We all are called to something—each of us has gifts and talents to use in God’s service. And those gifts may not be the obvious ones—the ones you use to make a living or that you share every day in your family. While it is good to see the retired high school teacher lead the youth group, it is, to me, even more fulfilling to see him head up the altar guild or coordinate the care of the memorial garden. But whatever it is, God has called you to—something. And when we are called, we have no option, in the end, but to answer that call—because that is only way we feel fulfilled. And so we respond to that call, and act, and do.

Now, before anyone starts thinking “Works righteousness” at me, let me say that the works alone are not the answer, either. “Works righteousness” is the idea that all the good deeds we do are marked down to our benefit in a sort of heavenly ledger or bank account. We cannot earn our way into God’s realm by doing good deeds. We do these things because we love God, because we love another. There’s a real question as to the understanding of what Jesus says—are the sheep blessed because of what they do, or do they do those things because they are blessed? Which came first? Or do they feed each other?

We are saved by grace through faith, as shown in our works, in what we do for others. It is because we have faith that we do works—we do not do these works to gain faith (although works strengthens faith), nor to earn grace. You cannot earn grace—it is freely given, before we are even aware of our need for it. When we care for others, when we love our neighbours as ourselves, it is because we first loved God, and then we could love our neighbours and ourselves. We are blessed by what we do for the least of these our sisters and brothers, and because we are blessed we do these things for our sisters and brothers.

It goes without saying, I think, that those who “butt with head and shoulder,” who push away the hungry sheep in order to eat all the grass themselves—they are not doing the works of God, and that is why Ezekiel reports God as saying that “I will save my flock and they shall not be ravaged;” God will not allow God’s children to be destroyed.

Mrs. Barber loved my mother and me. She drove us to the doctor because it was what we needed—not what was convenient for her, but what we needed. She couldn’t stitch up my arm, but she could take us to the doctor. Mrs. Barber reached out in love and did what she could, what she saw that we needed.

Remember what Jesus did. Remember what he says to Peter elsewhere: “Feed my sheep.” Remember that he told us to love our neighbours as ourselves. Remember that when we feed or clothe or visit the least of our brothers and sisters, we do it for Jesus. Jesus, the child of God, who fed the hungry and strengthened the weak and loved every other child of God.
Go thou, and do likewise, in all God’s names. Amen.                                                         

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Something's Coming, Something Good....


Here's a bit of what's happening at MCC Windsor...

Lectionary Bible Study: Every Wednesday, 7 pm, in the Friendship Centre (lower level; accessible by elevator). There are four readings suggested for each Sunday of the year--an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a reading from the New Testament (other than the Gospels), and a Gospel reading (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). And sometimes the person bringing the message (the "preacher") will add a reading from outside the Bible, too.  In a small group setting, we read and discuss the readings for the coming Sunday--even the ones Rev. Martha isn't preaching on. So come and get a head start on Sunday!

World AIDS Day: Thursday, December 1, 7 pm; (with the AIDS Committee of Windsor); at the Art Gallery of Windsor. Join us as we remember those we have lost and resolve to continue the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Detroit Together Mens Chorus: By special arrangement, the Detroit Together Men's Chorus (DTMC) will present a concert of seasonal music on Saturday, December 10, 2011 at MCC Windsor (in Westminster United Church). The renowned men's chorus, under the artistic direction of Brian Londrow, is known for spirited and clever renditions of holiday music, as well as more traditional music. Mark your calendar now for this very special event! Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door and may be purchased at MCC Windsor events or by calling 519-977-6897.

Coming next year.....

Saturday, January 21; Concert by Shawn Thomas of Aaron's Rainbow Ministries! Join us for a concert of Christian music in celebration of our 24th anniversary! Shawn will be joining us for worship on Sunday afternoon as well--don't miss it!

Sunday, January 22: 24th anniversary celebration! A very special worship service with guest Shawn Thomas, special music by our choir, The Works in Progress, and much more!

Sunday, February 12: Relationship Sunday--join us in recognition of ALL relationships--family, partners, spouses, friends...

Wednesday, February 22: Ash Wednesday begins the Christian season of Lent,  as we prepare for Good Friday and Easter Sunday. A special service welcomes this season and leads us to commit to the self-examination and reflection of Lent.