Our Purpose and Mission Statement

Working to build God's dream. Help wanted!

We the people of Glen Rhodes United Church, are determined that our life together will be fully inclusive for people of all ages, races, genders, sexual orientations, differing abilities, ethnic origins and economic circumstances. Therefore, we hope that God will work in us so that we will be a sensitive congregation, willing to share our faith and gifts in language and worship, in the life and work of our church and wherever God calls us to do justice in the wider community, with compassion, fun and laughter

Monday, 27 January 2014

“Good news”    Robin Wardlaw       January 26, 2014 

Epiphany 3, Year A
Readings: (Isaiah 9:1–4); Psalm 27:1, 4–9; 1 Corinthians 1:10–18; Matthew 4:12–23  

News has become a business. It doesn’t just trickle from person to person, place to place anymore. Media owners can become very, very rich. What sells, apparently, is bad news. People don’t buy papers that say, “There were no big devastating events yesterday,” or “Investigation shows all those leaders you have doubts about are honest.”
Some of us just shut if off. “Enough bad news already. I’d rather be out of the picture than bombarded with those images, events and revelations.” Understandable. Today is about good news, and who we might be bearers of it. I suspect no one will get rich, or titled.
Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, for instance. He addresses a squabble that has broken out there. It seems as if the congregation is splitting into factions. Not the way to go, he says. There are no camps. We’re all in the same camp, no matter who baptized you. And speaking of baptism, he tells them, I didn’t come there to baptize. No, I came to proclaim the gospel. Gospel is from two words in Old English, good, and spel, meaning news, or a story. Goodspel. I came to proclaim the good news, is what Paul is saying.
And then we hear the passage from Matthew for today. In it, we get a glimpse into what makes the news good: Jesus was the one who could teach, preach and cure people. And what was he teaching and preaching? Not the good news of Jesus, the Christ. According to Matthew, it was the good news of the kin-dom, the reign of God.
If we’re going to be bearers, proclaimers of good news, whether it’s about Jesus or the kin-dom, we need to have something to say that is both good, and new. And that seems to be gist of today’s readings. Besides the readings from 1 Corinthians and Matthew, the passage for today from the prophet, Isaiah, is the one quoted by Matthew: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2)
 What do we have to say to people that will be important for them because it’s good news? There are two ways to go about this. One is to think up something scary, damnation, let’s say, convince people it’s something they should worry about, and then offer them the cure. There’s still a great deal of that going on. Believing in Jesus Christ as your Saviour is the usual formula cure offered.
The other way to go about it is to find out what is bad news for people, and see if we can do anything, even walking with them in their “deep darkness,” as the bible puts it, if we can’t help change things with them, if we can’t offer a cure. Later on, we’re going to talk about the different things this congregation could do to live out its purpose of building God’s dream in the world.
We will need to be discerning. Listen to the story about the lighthouse. There were many shipwrecks at Cape Point, at the southwestern tip of Africa, near the Cape of Good Hope. A lighthouse was needed. A lighthouse was built up where it should be, on the highest part of the long, tapering promontory, for maximum visibility. There were two problems with that solution. The light was visible too early to ships coming from the Atlantic, fooling them into making their turn to the east too soon. That’s when the light could be seen. It was often shrouded in fog up on its craggy perch. It was the wreck of the Lusitania in 1911 that prompted a reconsideration. Perhaps the light should go where it would do the most good, not where someone decided it should be. So the “new” light is much lower down, and much more effective.
The ideas will be good, exciting. What we don’t know is whether they will sound like good news to anybody else. If only there were some way to find out what other people need at this point in their lives, where we should put the lighthouse, so to speak. Of course there is. We only have one mouth, for proclaiming. We have twice as many ears. My theology professor, Bill Fennell, used to repeat a quote: “nothing is so useless to a person as the answer to a question they hasn't asked yet.”
In other words, we’ll gather in every good idea for ministry, sift and sort to get the ones that seem more likely, but then we’ll do the final step, and find out whether people actually want what we are proposing to offer. Remember the lighthouse.
This is one of the parts we’re missing in the bible, the needs assessment. How did Jesus gather crowds? How did he know what to say? Could it be that when he wasn’t preaching or teaching or curing people, he was paying attention? Did he see young men who used to be able to fish on the Sea of Galilee and now were pushed out of the business by commercialization, Herod Antipas’ drive to finance his big building projects? Did he find people demoralized by changing economic circumstances that were making life more and more precarious? Judging by his parables he noticed that the people who actually grew the crops were frequently hungry while those who owned them did well, and those who controlled Roman legions did exceptionally well.
Jesus responded to people’s needs, the needs he observed all around him. He offered healing without charging for it. He presided over huge meals where food was shared without cost. “The kin-dom of God has come near you,” he would say to them. A challenge to the other kingdom, the one that used brutal violence and the threat of violence to keep most people down, while swathing others in luxury.
How to be the body of this Christ here, now? How to be proclaimers of good news in our time and place? One of the most daring ways is right here on our table. “Come to Jesus’ table,” we might say to people who are hungry, “for food without cost.” We share food and caring every week downstairs, of course. We could be doing more to be faithful, without filling another hamper. We could be asking Jesus-type questions of our economy, our society. Why are so many hungry? Why is a tiny percentage doing so well? Why are we treating workers, and children and the planet like this? Why have oil and dollars become sacred instead of creation and sharing? Why are laws and justice skewed toward those who are already richer than Caesar already richer than Caesar instead of those with little?
This bread and this cup will heal your sense of being alone in the world. It will assure you that you are valued, you are loved. If you have enough to eat at the moment, though, this bread and this cup will not fill with you contentment. Instead, they will give you a righteous anger that the loaf and the cup are not shared with everyone, everywhere. Eating this bread and this cup will make you hungry for real justice, real peace.
The gospel, the table may not be good news for everyone out there. They are challenges to those who already have much and are determined to have more. We eat, and we listen. Who needs light to come? Who needs to here around this table? Who needs us to be on their side? During our short lives we are keepers, stewards of this news. If good news only gets announced in here, inside the church, it’s like building a lighthouse in a fog bank. The light needs to get out. That’s where you come in. You are called to be proclaimers of it: “Extra, extra, hear all about it.”

Monday, 20 January 2014

“How many followers?”    Robin Wardlaw     January 19, 2014 

Epiphany 2, Year A
Readings: Isaiah 49:1–7; Psalm 40:1–11; 1 Corinthians 1:1–9; John 1:29–42 

Being a follower means something very different these days. Now it involves Twitter, a kind of new age telegraph, using very short messages. If you want to see what Rihanna or Justin Bieber is doing or thinking, you “follow” them on Twitter. That means their little messages, their tweets, come in to your phone or other device automatically.
There are something like six hundred and fifty million active Twitter users. They send about fifty-eight million tweets a day, and conduct two billion search engine queries. Big numbers.
Speaking of Rihanna, the singer, she has just under thirty-four million followers. President Obama has her beat, with forty-one million. Stratford’s own Justin Bieber is doing even better—just under fifty million followers. I have a hundred and ninety-one, apparently. So now you know what the word follower has come to mean.
A follower used to mean a disciple, apprentice, helper. Someone who physically followed someone else. Jesus had twelve. Or something. There was a crowd of men and women around him, people breathing in his spirit, being sent out to test their wings. The number twelve, twelve men, came later, it looks like, as people were trying to make the Jesus story match up with what we call the Old Testament. Twelve tribes? Same with Jesus—twelve disciples. The women followers got pushed to one side, almost. Some of their names survive in the gospels: Mary, Salome, Joanna, Mary of Magdala.
Nowadays, Jesus would be startled to learn he had two billion followers. Someone would have to explain the concept of a billion first to a person from the first century. There are followers and followers, of course. For some people, their faith is a bit like following someone on Twitter. Its good to get a short little message, but it doesn’t change the way they live, or behave very much. It’s hard to tell some followers of Jesus from anybody else.
Other people take their discipleship much more seriously. Something happens for them. They hear a voice, they experience a warmth, they get turned on by Jesus’ vision of a kin-dom of fairness, dignity and sharing. They’re never the same again.
This has been going on for two thousand years. Corinth was the first place in what we know as Europe to receive the apostle Paul, and take in his message. When he writes back to them from other places, he is full of good things to say about them. Listen to this again.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind…so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Sovereign Jesus Christ.
“The grace of God…has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind…” That’s the short way of putting it. Don’t you wish you could know what Paul’s brief few weeks in Corinth were like, that people got seized with such deep faith?
Or that you had been there after Jesus’ baptism. What happened back there with Andrew and Simon and the others who followed? Did anybody else notice what was happening in those days, or were they paying attention to other things? According to John’s gospel, John the Baptist steers his disciples toward Jesus. That’s often the way, isn’t it? Someone we respect says, I tried this diet, I found this exercise program, I read this book, and so we try it, too. Even though our parents tried to stop us from blindly following our young friends. “If they jumped off a cliff, would jump off, too?” The personal connection, the personal testimony still grabs us.
These days we keep hearing about idealistic and disenchanted young men who become radicalized by an extreme form of a religion. Would it be like that? Did the original disciples’ families fret when they left town to follow the rabbi who breezed in and stirred things up? The way it happens these days, young men encounter slightly older men who take them into their confidence and make them into followers, disciples. They point out the profound problems with society and describe the holy struggle needed to defeat evil. These mentors inspire deep conviction, the willingness to go to any extreme for their faith, as they understand it.
We have a radical faith, too. We, too, have a profound critique of the society around us, in line with the thinking of Jesus and the prophets. We get convicted by our faith. The difference is what we are prepared to do and not do in the name of our faith. We believe in peace, in persuasion, in people power, not, say, bullets and bombs. John calls him the Lamb of God, not the Ram of God, the Tiger of God. And how’s that working out for us compared to the holy struggle, the jihad of the people who use violence? Our purpose is to build God’s dream, in non-violent ways. We’re going to need to be very creative, very determined, very persistent to see results. The discussion of how we do that starts after church.  I hope everyone can stay.
The prophet Isaiah talks about God’s servant being given to the nations, that God’s salvation may reach the end of the earth. God’s salvation. Salvation for…who exactly? From what? For the millions of people around the world who are slaves, trafficked across borders, fleeing for their lives in war zones, fleeing in dodgy boats to get a new life, terrified by their father or other people in their lives? Salvation from chronic poverty, or depression, or anxiety? Our job is to clarify how we think we can partner with God and others for this transformation.
Salvation is supposed to reach the end of the earth. it’s for everybody. How many followers will that take? Time to celebrate being called together here, now, to hear these stories and accept the invitation once again.
The takeaway today is, How am I as a follower of Jesus? Am I happy with my commitment? Could I do more? Am I doing too much? Am I focusing on the right things in my faith life? Am I lacking any “spiritual gift” as Paul puts it. Would you agree with Andrew that you have found the Messiah, or that the Anointed One has found you?
These are good questions. There is no need to feel panicky about any of them. It’s not a contest. It’s not a race. There’s that grace thing Paul is talking about. That’s the funny thing about faith. It’s a gift. Straining to become a better follower, a better disciple, a better believer is probably counterproductive. The struggle with Christianity is to get self out of the picture, after all, to be centred on other things, sacred stuff.
In a few minutes, we pray for people in North Africa. One of the most well known theologians of the early church, Augustine, came from there, 1700 years ago, from what we call Algeria. He was not helpful on the place of women in Christian faith, but very good on grace. He also argued against biblical literalism, on things like creation, for example, and so he helped create the idea that faith is always something we need to interpret, and grow. Although he didn’t start out a Christian, he became a very devoted follower of Jesus.
Let me conclude with half a joke. How many followers does it take to build God’s dream? That’s the first half. Unfortunately, there isn’t a joke that starts that way, as far as I know. Sorry. If there were, what would the punch line be?

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

“Anyone who does what is right”   Robin Wardlaw     January 12, 2014

Baptism of Jesus, Year A
Readings: (Isaiah 42:1–9); Psalm 29; Acts 10:34–43; Matthew 3:13–17

We all have treasured memories from our early days. I remember crouching at the curb on our street in Oakville on days in the spring when everything was melting. Water was streaming along, headed for Lake Ontario, I guess. Like many children, I was an amateur engineer, forming dams, channels, a lock system, tiny bridges over the torrent. I vaguely remember having wet mittens frequently.
Water never seems to lose its appeal. Water has another side, of course. Ice forming on overhead branches, water pouring into a basement, a giant wave forcing its way up onto the land—these things are not so much fun, not so benign as water play by the roadside. In many parts of the world, water is a very precious resource, the source of conflict when it is scarce, its absence, or sudden presence the cause for great suffering now that we have changed global weather patterns.
In the bible, water goes from the very first page to the very last, from the waters of creation to the rivers that flow out of the heavenly city to water everything, to give life. Water can be an obstacle in the bible—people fleeing slavery get to the shore of the Red Sea, wilderness wanderers get to the shore of the Jordan River. But according to scripture, it is not an obstacle for long. There is a way through.
Baptism calls up all these aspects of water. Baptism reminds us that we are mostly water, that all life on earth depends on it. It is just a couple of common gases, hydrogen and oxygen, that form this hardy molecule. In it, amino acids can be switched on, so to speak, become self-replicating, and suddenly, life is. Water tempers our planet, absorbs heat and carbon dioxide, burgeons with species.
We float for many months before our birth in a water world, so have a ritual of spiritual birth in water. We imagine sin being like a stain, and so we have a ritual of becoming symbolically clean in water. We need to let an older self die away, and so we have a ritual of death and rebirth in water. We need to become part of the faith community, so we have a symbol that goes back countless centuries, that unites us, in water.
We use the image of baptism to mean an introduction. “He was just a raw beginner until he went through his first set of cutbacks in the office.” “She was just a talented amateur until she went through her first playoffs.” Baptism by fire, we sometimes say, meaning an experience that tempers us, opens our eyes to what’s what.
In Judaism, baptism was one of the things a newcomer had to do, in order to become Jewish. John is doing something daring out at the river, telling everybody they had to repent. He must have offended a great many people even as others heard his call to live differently. Matthew’s gospel works hard to give us the picture of a person who felt reluctant to baptize Jesus. “You should be baptizing me!” So Jesus gets baptized.
Into what? This is the beginning of his public ministry. Sort of. Matthew, Mark and Luke tell of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness immediately after his baptism. A time out, a clarifying of the mission. John just skips that story and goes straight to the calling of the first disciples. And what kind of ministry will this be? A person could read the gospels for herself, or go straight to Acts, chapter 10, where Peter is giving the thumbnail version of Jesus’ life and teaching: he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil; put to death, raised from death, appeared (to some of us); commanded us to preach while he is the judge of the living and the dead. “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:34-43)
And there’s the nub. By the time of Luke and Acts, around the year 90 or 95, the Jesus movement has evolved into a religion. The man has been replaced by the legend. In another generation or so, there will be no one left alive who actually saw Elvis Presley perform. But there will be records and tapes, and people dressing up like him and singing like him. In a hundred, five hundred years, who knows what the church of Elvis will be like?
In the case of Jesus, his politics seem to have fallen away after just three generations or so. It all seems to be personal, spiritual stuff in this version of Jesus’ ministry in Acts. And that reminds me of the old joke about baptism, the kind of baptism where both the minister and the person being baptized are standing in the water. It seems that in this town, the preacher had his eye on one sinner in particular, but this man didn’t come to church, and didn’t seem to care about faith. Then one day, as he’s doing baptisms in the river, he sees this guy on the shore. 
The minister says, "Mister, are you ready to find Jesus?"
The man says, "Yess, Preacher. I sure am." Slurring his words a bit.
The minister then dunks the fellow under the water and pulls him right back up. "Have you found Jesus?" the preacher asked.
"Nooo, I haven't!"
The preacher then dunks him under for quite a bit longer, brings him up and says, "Now, brother, have you found Jesus?"
"Noooo, I have not Reverend."
The preacher in disgust holds the man under for at least 30 seconds this time, brings him out of the water and says in a harsh tone, "My God, man, have you found Jesus yet?"
The man splutters and wipes his eyes. He says to the preacher... "Are you sure this is where he fell in?"
What is baptism supposed to do? Finding Jesus, so to speak, is important, but what happened to the rest of Jesus’ teaching? Did all the prophets really testify that the Messiah would offer forgiveness of sins, period? The Isaiah reading for this morning is one of the four servant songs. It looks ahead at the coming of someone special. The servant is the one “…whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” So far, so innocuous. And then in the very next verses, this:
I have put my spirit upon him;
   he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
   or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
   and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
   he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
   until he has established justice in the earth;
   and the coastlands wait for his teaching. (Isaiah 42:1-4)
Then we hear God talking about him- or herself:
I am God, I have called you in righteousness,
   I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
   a light to the nations,
   to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
   from the prison those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42:6-7)
Justice, a light to the nations, freedom for prisoners, the opening of eyes. Not a mention of sins or the forgiveness of them. Is the book of Acts quoting Peter accurately here? Is this really the sermon he gave to eager listeners in Caesarea? In Caesarea of all places, where King Herod had pulled out all the stops, spared no expense to create a memorial to himself, a kind of a Sochi on the shore. Roman engineers had just figured out how to pour concrete underwater, so Herod ordered a breakwater on the Mediterranean that could enclose three hundreds ships. It’s still there. He ordered an amphitheatre that seated three thousand. With a skin roof to shade against the sun. He had a palace built, right on the waterfront, the “Promontory Palace,” the “most magnificent” of all his palaces, according to an historian of the time. It had a freshwater pool in it, bigger than an Olympic pool. Take that, Mr. Putin. Freshwater? That needed an aqueduct from Mount Carmel, fifteen kilometres away. The picture is emerging? A fortune in costs, for one man’s ego, at whose expense? Might there be resentment of Roman rulers in Caesarea Maritima?
Would Peter have dared to be political in the home of a Roman centurion who wanted to be faithful? Cornelius had a dream about Peter. Meanwhile Peter was having a dream about what God did and did not permit. He was having his consciousness raised, his presuppositions about who could be a follower of Jesus challenged. Cornelius’ family, cousins and friends are all at his house in Caesarea when Peter gets back, and this is the sermon Peter delivers to them. Maybe. Maybe Peter went further. Love Caesar or love Christ. You can’t have it both ways.
That is all so last millennia, though. The question is always, what does your baptism mean to you? It could be about forgiveness of sins. It could be about daring ministry. It could be about belonging in community, or all of those things and more, all wrapped up together. We can’t channel this water, make it go where we want, deliver it neatly by aqueduct from A to B. The waters of our baptism are not so neat, not so predictable. And as powerful as a tsunami. The blind see, prisoners, the imprisoned part of us, goes free.
Who is acceptable to God? Peter apparently poses this thought in Cornelius’ house. These days we might be inclined to say, everybody. Who would God turn away? Peter tells the centurion and his companions, “…in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable…” (Acts 10:34) Whoever fears God instead of Caesar, that would be. Whoever does what is right. What is right? The key is that, thanks to his dream, Peter now realizes, “…God shows no partiality.” This is huge. No one has a head start on acceptance. No one has an in. Herod? No. The wealthy? No. The connected? Whoever fears God and does what is right. This is revolutionary stuff.
And is the goal just forgiveness of sins? That’s the watered down version. We want the watered up gospel, the one that stretches us, takes us out of our comfort zone so that the world is more fair. We don’t know exactly what is right, at least I don’t. We’re going with the Christ current, trying to be a channel for the Spirit, wherever that might lead. No, that still makes it sounds too tame, like melt water at the side of the road. If we have stepped into the torrent pouring from the font, we may be just happy to keep our head above water as the Christ current takes us…who knows where?

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

“Where is the child?”   Robin Wardlaw   January 5, 2014 

Epiphany, Year A
Readings: Isaiah 60:1–6; Psalm 72:1–7, 10–14; (Ephesians 3:1–12); Matthew 2:1–12  

On a cold winter's morning a husband and wife were listening to the radio during breakfast. They heard the announcer say, "We are going to have 20 to 25 centimetres of snow today. You must park your car on the even-numbered side of the street, so snow plows can get through conveniently".
So the woman went out and moved their car as instructed. A week later while they are eating breakfast again, the radio announcer said, "We are expecting 25 to 30 centimetres of snow today. You must park your car on the odd-numbered side of the street, so the snow plows can get through." The woman went out and moved the car again.
The next week they are again having breakfast when the radio announcer says, "We are expecting 30 to 35 centimetres of snow today. You must park..." And then the power went off.
The woman was upset, and with a worried look on her face she said, "I don't know what to do. Which side of the street do I need to park on so the snow plows can get through?"
Her husband replied, "Honey, why don't you just leave it in the garage this time."
This is the time of the year when we can joke—about women following directions, perhaps, about men not asking for directions. There were no maps. Who knows how long those magi wandered around before they knocked on Herod’s door?
Then we could joke about what the gifts would have been if the three visitors had been women. You get the sense, reading the gospels, or any of the New Testament, actually, that no one’s joking. About anything. For them, it’s intense.
A man was coming out of church one day, and I was standing at the door as always to shake hands. I pulled him a bit to one side, and said to him, "You need to join the Army of the Lord!" He says, "I'm already in the Army of the Lord, Pastor." I said, "How come I don't see you except at Christmas and Easter?" He leaned in and whispered, "I'm in the secret service.” I’m joking. No one has ever put it that way.
Being Christian, or at least participating in a community such as this one, at this time in the history of the world, allows certain freedoms, and a certain perspective, that our forebears did not enjoy.
“Arise, shine; for your light has come.” (Isaiah 60:1a) Where is the child, where is the person who can make this happen? Arise. What is that? Get up from my…despondency? Self pity? Fatalism? Cynicism? Arise.
Shine. Instead of…what? Glowering? Moping? Weeping?
What is it you need born into your world, your life? World peace? Inner peace? Less loneliness? More justice? Redemption?
Who is Isaiah talking to? Who is the gospel of Matthew talking to? What kind of salvation do they need, and how does that speak to us? Isaiah chapter 60 is in the later part of Isaiah. The author is celebrating with the people taken hostage six decades earlier by Nebuchadrezzar of Assyria. Cyrus, of Persia, is now in charge, and has a different policy, one of good will. Hostages can go home. Not only will the descendants of the captives go back to their broken down country, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Restored Israel is going to be a beacon in the world.
Matthew is talking to Christians in a Roman world. Several empires have come and gone in the six hundred and fifty years since Cyrus. The Roman empire has made their emperor into a god, and insisted everyone under their control worship him. With some exceptions. The Jews, for instance. They are so resistant to Roman religion for so long, so willing to spill their own blood in futile fights against well-armed troops that it seems easier to let them have their own religion. By the time of Matthew’s gospel, perhaps around 95 years after Jesus’ birth, people who take Jesus as their Messiah are seen as troublesome by Romans and Jews. The Christians won’t worship the emperor either, but they don’t have an exemption, like the Jews. And they’re spreading, growing in numbers.
That was then. Since those days, Christianity got into bed with empire. Not good. Then recently it got kicked out, and participation fell dramatically. It’s true, the plunge in attendance can leave a long time member feeling a little disoriented. Where’d they all go? Is it something we said? What do we do with all this space?
This is an exciting time to be Christian. We’re not the state religion anymore, and that is excellent. We don’t have to justify what the state does, or give it some kind of spiritual cover. And no one feels like they have to go to church these days for social reasons, so anyone who’s here is pretty interested in the message, the mission.
We know the story about the three wise men is all made up. The gospels are put together by people looking back at Jesus.Great people have to have significant births and early lives. Obviously. These stories were common then. Supernatural experiences, descended from gods, miraculous signs or escapes. We’re still prone to look backward at the early days of the great hockey player, the great leader. See, they were destined for greatness! So ninety or a hundred years after his birth, with no photos, no yearbooks, no living witnesses left, people rummage through the Old Testament for references to the Messiah instead. How will Messiah come? How will we know? What are the signs? They find mention of a young woman having a child, a certain town mentioned, camels, nations coming to pay homage—a collection of images. And so we have these competing stories from Matthew and Luke about the birth of Jesus.
No matter whether every detail is exactly right. The question for all of us at the heart of the story is still the same, still true: Where is the child? Where do we look for that which gives meaning? Who is Messiah for us? Beautiful questions.
There is a legend that the Magi were three different ages. This is what happens to the story of prophets. Rich details are added. Intensity may be lost. Back to the legend. Gaspar was a young man, Balthazar in his middle years, and Melchior a senior citizen. When they approached the cave in Bethlehem where baby Jesus was, they first went in one at a time. Melchior found an old man like himself. They spoke together of memory and gratitude. The middle-aged Balthazar encountered a teacher of his own years. They spoke passionately of leadership and responsibility. When Gaspar entered, a young prophet met him with words of reform and promise. The three met outside the cave and marveled at how each had gone in to see a newborn child, but each had met someone of his own years. You see how the legend suggests that words of reform are things you leave behind when you gain middle age? Anyway, what conversation might you have with Jesus?
We’re not just following orders, moving the spiritual car from one side of the road to the other or something. We’re trying to build a dream, God’s dream. There had never been a time just like this. And it’s still true, there is no map where we’re going. We’re not secret agents, undercover. Sometimes we have to wear the many sins of historical Christianity, but we keep other people’s disappointment, their anger in perspective. We have changed. We are setting a new course. We have seen what we can do as a group, how the Spirit can move when we dream with God, and share our vision.
The thing about those magi—after they had found what they were looking for, they were warned, in a dream, not to go back to Herod. They went home by another way, as Matthew puts it. Pay attention to brightly beaming stars. Keep looking for the child. Epiphanies come again and again. Think about the gifts you bring. Pray for places such as this. Be ready to be changed by God’s dream, and to work for change.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

“Refugees abroad”   Rev. Malcolm Spencer December 29 2013

Well here we are after Christmas still celebrating the good news but this year our readings have Jesus becoming a refugee. Could you imagine if Egypt had passport controls in those days how difficult this trip would have been? But the holy family just rode on to the old nation of Egypt and found shelter and welcome. 

Today the UN protects 10 million refugees and estimates there are 40 million refugees of various sorts in the world. One might ask how could this happen? Just like Jacob’s fear so many refugees fear for their safety in the place they have left; others are near starvation seeking help. 

Back at the time of the birth of Christ there were many fears about the actions of rulers mostly allied with the imperial power of Rome and it was wise to lay low if you were from Galilee, a veritable hot bed of protest and the home of strong prophetic wanders who called for repentance and justice in the land.
  1. What does refugee status look like?

The new Red Cross refugee centre in Portsmouth England describe people as very grateful for help but are often destitute and need medical assistance – one refuge from Iran who had been disabled for 30 years was reunited with his wife and daughter. Another refugee from Algeria with a large family needed the small benefit he was receiving and he was informed that it would stop. He needed to reach out and the centre spoke for him and it was restored. A young woman from Ethiopia arrived with no English and needed support to learn the language and basics such as paying rent and taxes etc.
These are stories of the fortunate refugees who had help but we can see from their stories what refugees face. They needed to learn the ropes and seek help and accept it when offered. 

Is the church like a refugee camp where we gather to learn a new language of love, hope, joy and peace, coupled with compassion and forgiveness? Where, like the holy family, we are welcomed because we are who we are.  Where we find help to navigate in this complex web of society where it is so easy to fall between the cracks.  Joseph was fortunate; he arrived with a popular trade. Who didn’t need a carpenter then as we need one now? We bring our history, our omnipresence in society and our compassionate availability. As refugees, we make our way in our society protected by law and by public acceptance. 

We speak a language many in society around us do not know. We look beyond ourselves for meaning in the dark night of Bethlehem, on the lonely camel road to Egypt. We find our neighbours cordial and we try to work out issues and troubles with a sense of values that speak of compassion and realism. We are aware of the balance we need to be as refugees on a journey of faith and the changing social scene around us. 

2. Like many refugees we hear the word it is safe to go home and leave the status of refugee but as a returnee to the homeland and in many ways like Joseph, we hear the challenge to go back to the world we knew and face the world as it is. 

George Vanier had returned from World War One with an artificial leg but his life continued - teaching in the military college, becoming a general in WW2 and later our Governor General. He attended mass every day in those army and diplomatic years. He lived in a world of great violence and then political service to the country yet the church was his home and his wife Pauline was very generous and kind and his son Jean has become a spiritual guru for us in our time, and as one of the founders of L’Arche, Jean showed that what makes us human is not our intelligence, it is our compassion and interpersonal ability to relate to others. 

 So we, in our time, need to step out of our refugee status and go home and raise Christ in our hearts in ways that change our communities.

Christmas is about God loving the world and coming into the world to witness to us what divine love is. It is unconditional, humble and is available to us as we pray for it to saturate our life with the spirit of Christmas all year round and the joy, peace, love and hope of this season can be available to us every day. 

So If we are going to make any resolutions in the new year maybe we would be wise to ask for the power to pray that we can take these Christian ways and offer them in our daily interaction with others and in our role as citizens and community persons that we struggle with others to build a fairer peaceful and caring world. 

From his refugee experience Jesus grew up at home to become our saviour – coming as a child and then a young man speaking words of hope and healing. 

May we carry the best gifts of Christmas in our hearts through the next year and grow in our spirit and in our hope.

Bless you in this task and may you have a blessed and happy new year. 

Let us pray

Dearest Babe of Bethlehem, reassure us and be our guide and support in our lives as we live your hope and love in our time