Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Preaching on Christmas Eve

This year, for the first Christmas Eve in twenty-four, I'm not preparing an homily for worship. As the years I was preparing one went on I remember wondering to myself, with varying degrees of anxiety, what on earth I could possibly say that would be new and fresh and engaging about the same story from the same readings to a church full of exhausted parents wrangling kids and relatives or were there out of sufferance for mum's or granny's sake. And how could I reach the people I saw in the pews only once a year (or twice if they were full C and E's) and for whom I secretly harboured the hope that that year I would finally nail them with the brilliant and incontrovertible observation that would finally cause the light of incandescent, church-going faith to come on?

The Year I Dried

One year, at St Francis, Airdrie, I dried. I stepped into the pulpit, looked at my notes, found that I had somehow, with my own hand, written them in a strange language which made no sense at all to my fevered Christmas Evish eyes. I'm not sure whether that was the year when the acolyte fainted, full-length, like a felled Christmas tree, beside the altar because of too much inhaling of the blue fog of experimental incense that hung over us all. No matter, after she had been removed (if that was, indeed, the same year), there I stood, struck dumb before the waiting, expectant, albeit writhing throng. No-more-shopping-days-left, no more time to prepare and, alas, no more coherent synapses twinkling in my sugar-plummed mind. Desperate, I stammered something out about how could I possibly add anything useful to what we had already heard in the Scriptures and the worship so far and stumbled back to the table to continue with the Eucharist. The rest of the service was a blur as I imagined a delegation from the Vestry petitioning the Bishop to have me moved on to some ministry far removed from having anything to do with people and important events such as Christmas Eve. But then, after the service, no one seemed to have noticed my public homiletic nakedness, some even thought it was profound. Sigh.

Some Things I Learned About Preaching on Christmas Eve

  1. Tell them about Jesus.
  2. It's not entirely up to me. See above…
  3. Put it all on paper or on the iPad screen. Always write my Christmas Eve (and Easter) homily or sermon out. For me, the season is too fraught for attempts at extemporaneous cleverness. 
  4. Keep it simple. Most people in the room, especially those with kids, are seriously distracted. 
  5. Keep it short. See above…
  6. Encouragement is better than guilt. That they are there at all is a wonder these days. Try and make them feel welcome—welcomed home.  
  7. Tell them about Jesus.

Some Christmas Eve Attempts That Did Get Delivered 

I can't remember why I didn't post 2009 and 2010—maybe I didn't like them.

2007

(Not Really) A Sermon for Christmas Eve: What Would Jesus Say?

2008

A Sermon for Christmas Eve: with reference to Isaiah 62.6-12, Titus 3.4-7 and Luke 2.1-20

2011

What If God Loves You?: a Short Sermon for Christmas Eve - with Reference to Isa 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14 and Luke 2:1-20

2012

Registration: a Christmas Eve Homily with reference to Luke 2:1-7

2013

Jesus and Why You and I Are Here Tonight: a Short Homily for Christmas Eve


Saturday, 22 November 2014

On Jesus Being The Way, The Truth and The Life: a Funeral Homily for Olive Burles with reference to John 14.1-6

JESUS Christ, and him risen from the dead, is the way, the truth and the life of what I have to say to you this afternoon.

Jesus is the way in to our celebrating Olive's life because by him, all things were created in heaven and earth, visible and  invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers of authorities—or Olive Burles, or you and I—all things were created through him and for him. And I'm fascinated by the way it was the tragic and sinful tangle of thrones, dominions, rulers and authorities resulting in the Second World War also caused Olive, and so many other young women (including my mother), to meet, fall in love with and cross the seas to wed or raise families with young men from other countries. Amazing and courageous behaviour in the days when you couldn't just jump on a plane for a cheap flight home if you were homesick. Yet that was the way of it those days and Jesus was involved with all of them, whether they knew and acknowledged it, or not. His way was, and is, always to love; Olive, my mother, all their husbands and kids; all of us; always inviting us closer, never forcing, but always there offering a way, the only way, of getting out from under the sin and sorrow and darkness and death that life brings, alive. That is His way. And His is also the only way to one of those rooms in His Father’s house. I am the way, Jesus said, take it; take me.

Jesus is also the truth; The One who gives real meaning and hope to anything I, or anyone else, could ever say on an occasion such as this. Even though we all have kind and wise family members and friends who provide comfort and help, Jesus provides something more; a unique and trustworthy frame-work made up of divine, yet practical, teaching and the example of a selfless life which light our way as we go through the joys and sorrows and mysteries of life and death. Jesus is the truth in which we decide to believe, or not. For example, I can decide to believe that it is true that Olive was created through him and for him; that it is true that Jesus died on the cross and was raised from the dead; that he went on ahead to places for Olive and you and me (if we want one) and that Jesus is the only way to one of those rooms in His Father’s house. There is no other system of belief or code of behaviour that can get us there. Jesus is the truth and the truth sets us free (John 8.32). I am the truth, Jesus said, believe in it, believe in me.

And Jesus said he is the life. “I have come that you may have life," Jesus also says, "and have it abundantly“(John 10.10). “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, Jesus, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3.16). That’s where the way and the truth that Jesus is takes us. To abundant and eternal life. I am the life Jesus said, live in me.

But “Lord, we don’t know where you are going,” said Thomas, “so how can we know the way?” (John 14.5) That’s true for most of us at some level or other at some time in our lives; perhaps especially when we come face to face with the reality of death. If Jesus is the way, how do I find it and get on it? That’s where the leap of faith comes in. Olive took one when she decided to risk leaving home and all that was familiar to marry Clarence and start a new life in Canada. She also would have had to take a leap of faith into Jesus at some stage in her life, just as you and I must do, when we decide to believe in God and believe also in Jesus (John 6.1); that Jesus is the Son of God, sent to save us from sin and death, that he has gone on ahead to prepare places for us in His Father’s heavenly home (if we want them enough to believe it’s true) and that when our time has come He will come back and take us to be with Him that we also may be where He is. And that, wonder of wonders, The Way, The Truth and The Life is, indeed, our risen Saviour and Lord, Jesus.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

A Delicate State: Thoughts Arising From Archbishop Welby's Address to the CofE's General Synod

Recently I read The Anglican Communion's Challenges and The Way Forward, Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby’s address to the Church of England General Synod. Anyone looking for a magic bullet to solve all our problems, toss out the bad guys and make everything better will be disappointed. Instead, the Archbishop acknowledged that we are “a flourishing Communion but also a divided Communion” and that he is "utterly daunted by the differences that exist. They are huge,” and “our divisions may be too much to manage.” No rose-tinted spectacles there or here:
In many parts of the Communion, including here, there is a belief that opponents are either faithless to the tradition, or by contrast that they are cruel, judgemental, inhuman. I have to say that we are in a state so delicate that without prayer and repentance, it is hard to see how we can avoid some serious fractures.
To resolve the issues we face
is almost unimaginably difficult, and most certainly cannot be done except with a whole-hearted openness to the Holy Spirit at work amongst us. It comes with prayer, and us growing closer to God in Jesus Christ and nothing else is an effective substitute. There are no strategies and no plans beyond prayer and obedience. 
Prayer, repentance and obedience. I can’t argue with that. The trouble is I’m inclined to think it’s the people I believe are in error that need to pray, repent and obey the most. And then, what if I’m right? Or, is it remotely possible that I’ve been log-blinded and am wrong? How then shall I behave? Archbishop Welby again:
…the future of the Communion requires sacrifice.  The biggest sacrifice is that we cannot only work with those we like, and hang out with those whose views are also ours.  Groups of like-minded individuals meeting to support and encourage each other may be necessary, indeed often are very necessary, but they are never sufficient.  Sufficiency is in loving those with whom we disagree.  What may be necessary in the way of party politics, is not sufficient in what might be called the polity of the Church. 
Even when we feel a group is beyond the pale for its doctrine, or for its language about others or us, we must love. Love one another, love your neighbour, love your enemy. Who in the world is in none of those categories?
Sacrifice and love. As Jesus did, Welby covers the all love bases: one another, neighbour and enemy. No loop-holes there. Then
underpinning us is a unity imposed by the Spirit of God on those who name Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.
A unity imposed by the Holy Spirit. Can withdrawal from relationship or schism be imposed by the Holy Spirit? Paul calls the Corinthians not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers, to go out from them and be separate (2 Cor 6:14-17) but when we think believers are in error, what then? Might something like Paul's instructions to the Thessalonians apply?
If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother. (2 Thessalonians 3:14–15 ESV)
I am reminded of Prime Minister Harper's recent treatment of Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit: "I guess I'll shake your hand, but I only have one thing to say to you: you need to get out of Ukraine." Would our equivalent be, "I'm obliged to love you (agape, not phileo), but I have this to say to you, you need to stop/get out of/ repent of thus and so?" This after considerable self examination with prayer and repentance, an honest and sacrificial commitment to obey Scripture and to love the persons with whom we disagree.

More than almost unimaginably difficult, perhaps. Yet, we live and move and have our being in a world where a virgin gave birth to son who was subsequently raised from the dead. I don't understand how the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ did that any more than I can see how he might hold the Anglican Communion together in a way with which all parties can live and enjoy, but I know he is capable of much more than my puny mind can ask or imagine. And a good thing, too.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

A Matter of Timing: a Short Funeral Homily for Dr Jack Edwards—with Reference to Ecclesiastes 3.1-8 and John 14.1-6

Jesus, his life and death, his words, some of which we’ve just heard, and him risen from the dead, is the best context in which to make sense of times like this; life and death and all the wonder and mysteries they bring.

Life is all about timing and “there is a time for everything, a season for every activity under heaven” we heard in the first reading from Ecclesiastes. It goes on to give us a pretty realistic list of the times and activities of life—all of which Jack experienced in his almost ninety-four years and, in particular, “A time to be born and a time to die,” the timing of which in Jack Edward’s life is why we’re all here this morning.

And there are a couple of times and activities which are especially appropriate for Jack like the “time to heal” (Ecc 3.3 NLT)—his profession which was so well described by Dr Davis in his eulogy; exercise time, also described by Dr Davis, to avoid rusting out; and the “time to keep” (Ecc 3.6 NLT); which reminds me of keeping time in music-making—one of his favourite past-times—in my experience always together with Margaret—the love of his life—I can see them at the keyboards together still. The music before and after this service was chosen to recognize that. Jack's sons and daughter told me about how, as children, they would go to sleep to the sound of that music and wake up to it, too. Ken told me about how he was tired of a song they played over and over again, so he asked them if they could please learn a new one.

Be that as it may, on days like this, one might be tempted to think with Jack’s death and this time for us to lose, cry and grieve, that the music has faded, Jack’s time is up and your’s and my time will be up one day, too, and that’ll be that.

But before we go there, consider the other reading; the words of Jesus. And here’s timing again. Amid all the millions of times, seasons and activities in the world,
When the fullness of time had come… (Gal 4.4 ESV) 
God, the Father, sent his Son Jesus, Saviour and LORD, for the love of the world.
When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. (Rom 5.6 NLT) 
As the time of his death on the Cross drew near, Jesus tried to prepare his disciples for how they’d feel when he’d been crucified and they thought his time was up and it was all over.
Don't be troubled. You trust God, now trust in me. There are many rooms in my Father's home, and I am going to prepare a place for you. If this were not so, I would tell you plainly. When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. And you know where I am going and how to get there. (John 14.1-4 NLT)
But they didn’t, of course. They weren’t able to get their heads around the future he was describing. As far as they could see, that timing couldn’t have been right.
"No, we don't know, Lord," Thomas said. "We haven't any idea where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14.5 NLT)
When Jesus was killed, they thought his time was up and they’d just misunderstood him. But Jesus was raised from the dead and went on ahead to prepare those rooms so they (and we, if we want) can always be with him where he is—note the time and the tense. Time wasn’t up then and it’s not up now.
I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Jesus told Thomas, “No one can come to the Father except through me.” (John 14.6 NLT)
“When we’ve been there ten thousand years” we heard in Amazing Grace at the beginning of the service, “bright, shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun.” The music continues; I’d like to think that Jack and Marg will be a part of the band.

At just the right time, the way to the Father’s house and home of that heavenly chorus was revealed in our Lord and Saviour, Jesus.

UPDATE: and see the homily for Jack's wife, Marg, from October 2010 here.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

The Shadows Lengthen

CBC host, Jian Ghomeshi's dismissal and the resulting fall-out have delivered us into the midst of what one columnist calls "World War Q" and another calls a "national conversation” about sexual assault." The word that has stuck in my mind from it all is crepuscular. It was used in an article to describe the alleged state of affairs in Ghomeshi’s bedroom. According to Google's definition, crepuscular means "of, resembling, or relating to twilight," or, of an animal, "appearing or active in twilight."

Not long after the Ghomeshi story broke, this and this appeared on Huffington Post. Several other stories and blog posts about sexuality in crepuscular places have caught my eye just in the last week or so:

"We know we cannot stop the tsunami of pornography," says Pam Krause, of the Calgary Sexual Health Centre in a CBC story about increased school calls for sex education here.
Jennifer Lawrence explaining why she posted pictures of herself nude in the cloud: “I was in a loving, healthy, great relationship for four years. It was long distance, and either your boyfriend is going to look at porn, or he’s going to look at you.” How could an intelligent woman see a relationship requiring her to provide such pictures as loving, healthy and great? See Rowan Pelling's National Post piece here
Sarah Bessey, Christian author and blogger weighs in here.

That's just a sampling. Add to that the national tragedy of so many missing and murdered women across our land, domestic violence, human trafficking, women's bodies being sold as commodities and it's clear that something is seriously off with the state we're in. The so-called sexual revolution has delivered us, particularly women and girls, into some sort of predatory sexual twilight zone. I suspect crepuscular is too light a word. The shades, whatever the number, have gone beyond mere grey and twilight to downright stygian, as in gloom and deep darkness. With apologies to Dylan Thomas, surely this is not a night into which we need go. This is also a dying of the light that needs raging against, particularly as it affects women and girls.

In 1967, Pierre Trudeau claimed that there is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation. By and large our society has embraced that notion. But, as a Christian clergyman in 2014, I'm concerned that many women and girls are suffering because there is less and less a place for Christian or any other religious teaching or moral compass in the nation's bedrooms either. 

How did we ever get from falling in love, getting to know one another, getting married, then enjoying love-making with one another and having babies—to a "tsunami of pornography" (even on our flight decks), hook-ups, friends with so-called benefits and all the other crepuscular grey shadings of our ageSurely the bedrooms of our nation would benefit from being re-illuminated with the loving goodness, purpose and delight God intended for human sexuality. 

Saturday, 25 October 2014

For Genevieve Lush: Short Homily for Her Memorial Service in St Barnabas, Medicine Hat—with Reference to Psalm 139, Ecclesiastes 3 and Isaiah 25.

Jesus brought us all together this morning. Jesus brought us together because Genevieve believed in him, followed him and decreed that we should be having this service in his church which meant so much to her—I can just hear her saying, “My dear, this is the way it’s going to be”—and because we all loved Genevieve here we all are.

It’s because of Jesus the words were written for the hymn Genevieve chose for us to sing earlier: “Sun of my soul, thou Saviour dear.” Genevieve knew our LORD and Saviour Jesus is like the sun; providing the divine light she needed, and you and I still need, to find our way safely through the twists and turns, seasons, times and matters (Ecc 3.1) of this life.

Life presents us with some dark times, it’s true. The writer of Ecclesiastes lists some of them in what Marjorie read. Times when things break down, when we weep, lose, tear, hate, make war, kill, die and mourn (Ecc 3.2-8). Genevieve experienced many such dark times in her life, yet she never let them hold her down. She knew that “Even the darkness is no darkness with thee,” just as it says in the passage she chose for us to pray from Psalm 139 (v11) today, “but the night is as clear as the day: the darkness and light to thee are both alike.” So, going back to the hymn, it is perfectly reasonable for us to sing, “It is not night if thou be near,” because Jesus, Sun of our souls and light of the world illuminates our way.

Just words, you might be tempted to think, especially if this is a season and time when matters on that dark list have gotten the better of you and it is hard to find comfort in them. But it was love for and the love of Jesus is what caused every word of the Scriptures and the prayer book we’re using today to be written.

Genevieve loved them—her Bible and her prayer book—but words, too. Didn’t she love to talk. Of her seasons, times and matters past. Of Newfoundland. Of her children and grandchildren, her parents and Mr and Mrs Knee. Of cod and salt beef. It was like a sort of Newfoundland stream of consciousness well salted with wonderful Newfie-isms. Many of her stories and memories included those good sun-lit things in life also listed in Ecclesiastes; birth, planting, healing, building up, laughter, dancing, good gatherings, embracing, peace and love (Ecc 3.2-8). So, it is fitting to read verses three and four of Psalm 139 with Genevieve in mind: “For lo, there was not a word in her tongue, but thou, O LORD, knewest it altogether.” And there were a lot of them, but we know and are grateful for the way, “Thou hast beset her behind and before, and laid thine hand upon her.” I enjoyed listening to her. I was glad to know her and that I got to share the journey with her for a season and a time. She was a true witness to the resurrection power of Jesus.

“How sweet to rest for ever on my Saviour’s breast,” Genevieve also had us sing. Sweet indeed. The season which Genevieve is now enjoying. A feast, in fact, just as Isaiah described in what Mollie read—“of rich food…a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines.” (Isa 25.6) Death swallowed up, it went on, and tears wiped away, all good and rich and tasty and fine and all because of Jesus.

So, I know you will understand and agree as I use the words of Psalm 139 again: “I will give thanks unto thee,” O LORD, for the life and witness of Genevieve Lush, for she and all of us are “fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works, and that my soul knoweth right well.” (v13)

The chosen and beloved heart of all God’s fearful and wonderful making was Jesus. “All things were made through him,” wrote John in his gospel, “and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men and women. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:3–5 (ESV)) Genevieve was made through Jesus, so were we all; in him was her life, and ours; he was the light of her life, as he is ours if we so choose; and no darkness could have, or can ever, overcome the clear, warm, constant, life-giving light that Genevieve enjoys and that comes from Jesus.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

A Short Funeral Sermon with Reference to Ecclesiastes 3.1-8 and John 14.1-3—for Norman Hamel

Jesus is the reason we’re doing this here this morning. We’re here because this is his church and because his church, Norm and Pearl, and many of us, are witnesses to his resurrection from the dead (Acts 1.22).  We’re here because Norm and Pearl believed that, as I do and as many of you do, too. We believe that Jesus rose from the dead and is present with us now, just as he was when Norm died, is where Norm is now and has been with Pearl, then, before and ever since.

To believe it doesn’t necessarily mean, or require, that we understand how God did it. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have doubts, or behave badly, or hurt one another. After all, as we heard in the passage Steve read in Ecclesiastes, life is real. Along with all the good stuff: the being born, the planting, harvesting, healing, building up, laughing, dancing (Norm and Pearl loved to dance, by the way), embracing, mending, peace, and love (Norm and Pearl enjoyed plenty of that); comes the hard stuff—the killing, crying, grieving, turning away, tearing, war, hate and the dying. Norm and Pearl experienced some of that, too, and so have we all. And so here we all are.

And yet. And yet. There’s this Jesus. Look at what he said in John’s Gospel—page 589 in our service book (The Book of Alternative Services)
Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also (John 14.1-30). 
Jesus said that just before he was killed because he knew his disciples, who he loved dearly, would be shattered and grieving when he died. He loved them and wanted them to have hope. He knew the Resurrection was coming. He wanted them to know about those rooms reserved for them in his Father’s house. Jesus wanted Norm and Pearl, and wants you and me, to know it and take comfort from it, too.

When Jude and I met with Pearl to plan this service, Pearl showed us a card Norm had given her. Here’s what it says:
All I want to do is love you forever.
All I want to do is love you for the rest of my life…
to wake up every morning with you by my side, knowing that no matter what happens, I’ll be able to come to your loving arms.
All I want is to share everything with you…to talk to you about our ideas, our dreams, the little everyday things that make us laugh, and the not-so-little things that we can’t help worrying about. All I want is to give you my love…as a place you can always come to for acceptance or the simple comfort that silence brings, when things left unspoken can still be understood.
All I want is to grow old with you…to watch our life unfold, our dreams, one by one, come true.
All I want is to love you forever. 
I read that and thought that’s lovely. What a blessing for Pearl to receive and Norm to give, what a blessing to love and be loved in that way. And then, I thought, Jesus has been saying something very similar to us through the ages in the Bible and in Church Sunday after Sunday:
All I want to do is love you forever.
All I want to do is love you…no matter what happens, so you’ll know I have a place for you if you’d like it.
All I want is to share everything with you…to come to you and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.
All I want is to be with you to talk to you about your ideas, your dreams, the little everyday things that make you laugh, and the not-so-little things that you can’t help worrying about.
All I want is to give you my love…as a place you can always come to for acceptance or the simple comfort that silence brings, when things left unspoken can still be understood.
All I want is to share your life as it unfolds, and as your dreams, one by one, come true.
All I want is to love you forever. 
How could we not have heard that? Have the noise and disappointments and mess that life brings—the pain on days like this—drowned his voice out? As we enjoy our good memories of Norm this morning—as we honour him and The One who created him—let’s listen carefully. Every word we've heard and will hear in our service this morning is inspired by the Risen Jesus.