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Sunday, November 10th Sermon – Lest We Forget

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you this day, our Rock and our Redeemer. Today, we are observing Remembrance Day, and I decided that, instead of using the lectionary readings for this Sunday, I amgoing to focus on Remembrance Day – or Armistice Day, as we called it when I was a child. But first, I want to share with you a couple of small pieces from Scripture, pieces which help us to figure out what it is that God wants us to do. For centuries, people have asked God for guidance – asking him what they should do in certain circumstances. The first one we will look at is from the book of Zechariah, when the people asked what they should do in order to please God. He replied: Render true judgements, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another. That seems pretty straightforward, but another writer put it even more simply. In Micah 6:8 we read: He showed you, O man, what was good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. I have always loved this verse, and never more so than when we are observing Remembrance Day.

There are many people who would suggest to us that Remembrance Day is outmoded, that it is a religious observation that should no longer be practiced, that the time for remembering the sacrifices made in wars long since past is no more – and that we should instead get on with other things. To these people I would say that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.

But there is more. Some even suggest that Remembrance Day glorifies war and encourages people to think that it is acceptable, and that to die

fighting for one’s country is a good thing; and so they say: don’t do this;  don’t remember. Instead, do something else; speak about the horror of war, and proclaim that God is against all violence, against all forms of man’s inhumanity against man. While I agree that we need to speak about the horrors of war, I will never agree that Remembrance Day glorifies it. I attended a church where Remembrance Day was completely ignored. The minister did not even want us to wear a poppy to church, saying that it spoke against the Prince of Peace. She refused to take part in the Remembrance Day services in the high school where I was teaching, and wouldn’t even come to the Cenotaph on November 11thfor the wreath-laying.

This, my friends, misses the point of Remembrance Day – it is misguided thinking. It is misguided because it equates the act of remembering the sacrifices made in the past by soldiers of our country with a glorification of war and suffering. And nobody would ever do that. At least I hope they wouldn’t. If any of you have heard war stories from people who have come back, you will know that there is nothing glorious about what happens during a war. If you have seen any of the pictures of what is happening even now in Syria and other places, you will know that there is nothing glorious about suffering.

It is misguided thinking because it equates honouring the memory of those who have died with honouring the kind of actions they found themselves having to make in the midst of a struggle that – in the end – none of them really wanted to be part of – but believed that they must be part of if others were to dwell in the freedom and in the peace that God wants us all to have. My father was one of those who served during World War II, and he didn’t do it because of glory. He – like many other people – knew that it was a job that had to be done, and he was ready to do it. He lost some good friends as a result of that war, and many others came home with serious problems, as still happens today. But it would never have occurred to him not to go.

When I was teaching, Remembrance Day was a really big thing. In the primary school, we would make poppies and learn the poem “In Flanders Fields”. In elementary and high school, we would take part in essay, poetry, and art competitions sponsored by the Royal Canadian Legion. This still goes on today, in all regions of Canada. And the purpose of it is not to glorify war, but to remember it. In Valcartier each year, there is a service at the Community Hall on November 11th, which is organized by the school here. And in Québec City, there is also a service at the Cross of Sacrifice on November 11th, but this one is organized by the Royal Canadian Legion, and has a bit more pomp and circumstance about it. Many churches also hold special services on or around this date.  Ceremonies such as this show that remembering is still important for us.

I mentioned “In Flanders Fields” just a minute ago, and now I want to read it to you. I am sure that most of you have heard it before, but I ask you today to listen carefully to the words, and see the images that John McRae creates.

In Flanders Field, the poppies blow

between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place: and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead.  Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow.

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch: be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields….

Remembrance Day is not just a time to fast and mourn. It is not just a time to remember those who died. Still less is it a time to say that war that is good or honourable. Rather it is a time when we – as we recall those who gave themselves for us, a time for us to remember just why it is they did what they did, a time to in fact remember the horror of war and vow to ourselves – never again, a time to take up the torch once more and to dedicate ourselves anew to living in such a way that we do not break faith with those who died to bring peace to the world, a time to commit ourselves once again to the struggle against evil – the struggle against the very things to lead to war in the first place.

When Zechariah responds to the people’s questions  – what shall we do?  What religious practice should we practice at this time and in this place?

He did not encourage them to mourn for Jerusalem as they had mourned before – the days of mourning were in fact over. Instead he told them to love truth and peace; and he reminded them of what all the prophets had said so long before, of what God had said long before – in the day when the land was still prosperous, and war and slavery far from the people. He reminded them of the promises made by God in the days of Moses and all the other prophets – the promises that said: If you forgot your God, if you fail to keep the commandments to love God and to love your neighbour, whoever that neighbour may be, if you do evil rather than good and act unkindly towards foreigners and refugees, if you steal, lie or cheat, if you take bribes and pervert justice and slander your neighbours – then your land will be destroyed, your men killed, and your woman and your children enslaved. But if you do good, if you care for the widows and the orphans, if you give justice in the courts, if you seek to follow God rather than to grow wealthy, if you obey God’s laws rather than worship success and seek popularity if you are kind and merciful to each other – then your land will prosper and you will live long and be happy.

These are the traditions and the practices that we are asked to remember in many places in Scripture. And these are the things that Remembrance Day asks us to call to mind each year as recall those who died that we may be free. What shall we do? Let us take the torch and hold it high; let us not break with those who have died. Let us live in the way that God meant us to live – in freedom, and with the intention of preserving that freedom, by doing all that makes for perpetual freedom and perpetual peace: by doing justice, and loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. Then those who died in Flanders Fields will sleep as the poppies grow, between the crosses, row on row. Thanks be to God.

 

 

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Sermon for Sunday, November 3rd Who are the saints?

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you this day, our Rock and our Redeemer.

During this past week, a number of students from CEGEP Ste-Foy visited St. Andrew’s, as part of their course work. They had many questions, one of which concerned the saints. As you know, Québec is a very secular province, but the Roman Catholic heritage is very strong here, even if it is not practiced very much. So I explained to them that, in our denomination, we believe that we are all very much part of the communion of saints, which we affirm every time we say the Apostles’ Creed. Sometimes, though, it is difficult to believe that particular people are part of that august body.

I heard a story once about two brothers who lived in a small town. Now, to say that they were not nice people is putting it mildly. In fact, they were pretty obnoxious, and had been involved in crime of some sort all of their lives. It was even believed that they were affiliated with some very famous organized crime families as well.  Whatever the case, both brothers had accumulated much wealth through their dishonest means.

It is no surprise, then there was little grief in the town when the older brother died. But his younger brother, wanting to honour his elder sibling, went all out in planning the funeral.  The problem was finding a minister willing to do the service, given that neither of them had ever graced the steps of a church.  Knowing that the one of the local churches was in the midst of a capital campaign for some much needed repairs, the younger brother called upon the minister.

“Reverend,” he said, “I know my brother and I never attended your church; as a matter of fact we never attended any church.  I also know that you’ve probably heard a lot of things about my brother and me, this being a small town and all, but I’d like you to do my brother’s funeral.  And if you’ll say he was a saint, I’ll write you a check for 50,000 dollars.  That’ll go a long way to fixing up the church.”

After some thought, the pastor agreed to have the service. But there was a condition. The $50,000 had to be paid in advance. And so it was. On the day of the funeral, the church was crowded.  Curiosity brought dozens of people in, who were certainly not there to honour the rich man, but to see what the minister would actually say.  The remainder of the crowd was made up of mobsters and women the brothers associated with.

The service began with the usual scriptures, hymns and prayers – and then the homily began.   The minister began slowly, but then step by step launched into a litany of the horrible things the rich man had done, how he had been selfish, greedy, corrupt, caring about no one but himself, carousing with women, drinking excessively, and on and on.

The younger brother, sitting up in the front pew, was getting hot under the collar about how the minister was not fulfilling his promise, but during the service there was not much he could do about it.  He could only wait and hope that the minister would keep his end of the bargain.  Finally, after about ten minutes of outlining the rich man’s flaws, the minister concluded

his sermon in a booming crescendo proclaiming: “Yes, my friends, this man was a no-good, dirty, rotten scoundrel! But, compared to his brother, he was a saint!”

Of course, this is not what we mean when we call believers saints. We do not compare them to other people, because we know that they are different, and that no comparison could do them justice. We tend to think about people like the apostles or maybe St. Francis or – to come to more modern times – people like Mother Teresa. We would probably not think of someone like Zacchaeus, for example, and yet as we say in today’s Gospel, Jesus knew Zacchaeus by name, and not only that, but invited himself to the little man’s house for a meal.

The word “saint” has often been misunderstood, and assumed to apply only to those people who either spend hours and hours praying, or who are able to work miracles. When we say that word, we tend to think of those people whom the church declared to be saints – people whose faith and vision and moral integrity has been carefully examined and widely known. Usually, they are people who have been dead a long time, but in their lives had somehow advanced the cause of Jesus Christ in the world. They are people who have been deemed worthy of imitation and of praise. And today is All Saints’ Sunday, a day that has been celebrated for hundreds of years in the Roman Catholic tradition as well as in other Orthodox churches. But, as Presbyterians, we don’t often say much about this day. We may talk a little bit about All Hallow’s Eve – or Hallowe’en, but we don’t say much about All Saints’ Sunday, or about saints in general, come to that. We seem not to think that we could know any saints. But Paul, who wrote most of our epistles, didn’t think this. In his letter to the Ephesians, he wrote this:

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus – grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” His letter to the church in Rome began in a similar way: “Paul, a servant  of Jesus Christ, called

to be an apostle… to all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.  Grace to you and peace….” And he wrote to the church in Corinth followed the same pattern, when he wrote:

“Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…”

As Paul knew, and as Jesus knew, saints are all around us. They are normal people, just like those of us in this church. They are not perfect, just as we are not perfect. They have flaws – some of us have many flaws, but that doesn’t matter. They have been called to follow Jesus, just as we have been called, and our acceptance of this call is the thing that makes us saints.

To carry this a little further, I would say that a saint is someone who has a very strong faith, and someone whose life, overall, is something to be admired. Saints are people who live the way Jesus told them to live; people who follow the two commandments which Jesus gave us. Of course, you know these commandments, but I am going to just say them now to refresh your memory, just in case The first one is: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. And the second is: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. I don’t think that it can get any more simple than that.

And right now, I invite you to think about people you have known whom you would consider to be saints. People who have touched your own lives in some profound – or not so profound – ways; people who have inspired in you a deeper faith in God because of how they showed their own faith; people whose love awakened something in your own soul. I don’t have to think very hard to come up with a couple of names from my past. I think of a teacher I had when I was a little girl, who somehow knew the right words to say to comfort a crying child, to reassure her that everything was going to be all right, who made sure that every child in her class felt special. I think that this is what Jesus did with children – right on our baptismal font are engraved the words: Suffer the little children to come unto me. And these are words we say fairly regularly in this church.

I think of both of my grandmothers, one of whom made sure that I said my prayers every night before bed, and the other who told me the Bible stories and taught me the old hymns, many of which I still sing. Both were women of great faith, and yet, they were really nothing special. They didn’t do anything world shattering, but just lived their faith in a very real way. I think of some members of this congregation, who are always ready to step up to help in any way they can, and I know that I am surrounded by saints right here, right now.

During the children’s story, you were given stars. I would invite you to write the names of one or two people in your life – from any time in your life – whom you consider to be saints. I also invite you to place these pieces of paper in the offering plate when the offering is received this morning, and during the prayers of the people. We will thank God for each one of those people.

And I think of Zacchaeus. I think of that short little man, that tax collector, that man who was despised by all who knew him. All, that is, except Jesus. For when Jesus came to Jericho, he knew that Zacchaeus was hiding in the sycamore tree, and he called to him. “Zacchaeus,” he cried, “Hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” We can imagine how the other people reacted, for this man was hated by the other people in the town. But not by Jesus. And we saw the result. Zacchaeus was so moved by what happened that he decided to give half of his possessions to the poor, and as well, he promised that – if he had defrauded anyone, he would return to them four times as much as he had taken. And Jesus’ reaction was what we would expect – he said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.”

We are all children of Abraham; we are all part of the communion of saints. It is time we recognized that, and treated each other as such. It is time that we realized that we all have the ability to be a saint to someone else, and started living like it. It is time that we responded wholeheartedly to God’s grace, just as Zacchaeus did so that we can experience our own lives and the life of the world, transformed. For then, just like Zacchaeus, we will find that nothing is the same any more. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

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Sermon October 27th, 2019: God Be Merciful

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you this day, our Rock and our Redeemer. I have a Facebook friend – Steve Garnass-Holmes – who writes thoughtful reflections and prayers, and one he wrote this week really spoke to me. So, with his permission, I am sharing it with you. Listen to what was written in Luke’s Gospel this week: The Pharisee, standing alone, prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”

Then my friend wrote: Wow. What a hypocrite.
What an egotistical, arrogant, judgmental person.

God, I thank you that I am not like him—
Oh… wait.…

God, be merciful to me, a sinner.

I confess to you all the people I want to be better than.
But I am not.

It is your goodness, not mine, I live by.
God, be merciful to me, a sinner.

I wonder how many of us can identify with what he wrote this week? I have to confess that, every time I read this particular parable, I have to stop from patting myself on the back because I am not like the Pharisee. Because, you know, in many ways I am like the Pharisee. And, I would imagine, you also have some of his characteristics. In many ways, though, I am like the tax collector. And, I would imagine, you are also like the tax collector.

I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed it, but Jesus frequently pops the bubbles of those people who think that they are better or more important than other people. There was the story of the dinner party, in which a guest seated himself near to the head of the table, and the host told him he had to move down, to make room for someone more important. And at the same party, someone who had seated himself in a lowly spot was told by the host to come to the head of the table.  And let us not forget that we have been advised to take care of the log in our own eye before we criticize the speck of sawdust in our bother’s eye. Over and over again, Jesus cautions us against praising ourselves, but we just can’t help doing it, can we?

I remember a few years ago, when someone said to me, “I don’t go to church because it is full of hypocrites.” I replied, “It really isn’t full, and there is always room for one more.” It took a second for that to sink in, and then we had a really good discussion about the church, and hypocrites, and what it is that makes a hypocrite. And I am not calling anyone a hypocrite. I just want us all to realize that we may have more of the Pharisee in us than we realize, especially when it comes to judging other people.

There is a poem I have heard, called Heaven’s Surprise, and I thought I would share it with you.

I was shocked, confused, bewildered as I entered Heaven’s door,
Not by the beauty of it all, nor the lights or its decor.

But it was the folks in Heaven who made me sputter and gasp–
The thieves, the liars, the sinners, the alcoholics and the trash.

There stood the kid from seventh grade who swiped my lunch money twice.
Next to him was my old neighbor who never said anything nice.

Herb, who I always thought was rotting away in hell,
Was sitting pretty on cloud nine, looking incredibly well.

I nudged Jesus, ‘What’s the deal? I would love to hear your take.
How’d all these sinners get up here? God must’ve made a mistake.

‘And why’s everyone so quiet, so somber – give me a clue.’
‘Child,’ He said, ‘they’re all in shock. They never thought they’d be seeing you!’

And now, back to the Pharisee in the temple. I am sure that he was a righteous man, a religious man. I am sure that he knew the prayers, and observed all of the high holy days. According to his own testimony, he fasted twice a week, and gave one tenth of his income away. So you would think that he was just the kind of person who would be welcome in any church, wouldn’t you? But – and you knew that there would be a “but”, didn’t you? But, he didn’t focus on himself. Nowhere in his prayer – if that is what it was – did we see any humility, any sense that he needed to be forgiven for anything. Instead, he thanked God that he was not like other people – that he was not like robbers, crooks, or adulterers, or even like the tax collector. And when I read this, I wonder how many of pray the same prayer? I wonder how many of us spend our time checking out people in the church – and being grateful that we are not like them –  instead of focusing on ourselves?

There are many good, church-going people who do this. They look around, and make inward comments about the people in the pews. And most of these comments are not very positive. Comments on the way someone is dressed – not really appropriate for church; comments about the noisy child – wouldn’t you think his mother could keep him quiet? And what about the people who look at their watches, wanting to make sure that either the sermon doesn’t go on for too long or that worship finishes in no longer than an hour, so that they can go home and get about the rest of their day? I am sure that each one of these people would believe him or herself to be a good Christian. And, of course, they are, in one sense.

There is a saying which I have often used, but I am really trying not to use it any more – there, but for the grace of God, go I. On the surface, this seems to be something that isn’t bad, but, actually, it is – once again – judging someone else. It is, once again, saying that I am better than another person. Those nine words can easily be misused by us. They allow us to feel good about ourselves, and good about what we do, instead of admitting that we are sinners, and that we need God’s help every single day.

One of the old Gospel hymns probably says it best. The refrain is very simple – It’s me, O Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer. Each verse names the people who are not in the need of prayer – my brother, my sister, the preacher, the deacon – always coming back to the refrain, so that there is no doubt that the singer is the one need of prayer. I believe that each one of us would benefit from singing this hymn – or at least reciting the lyrics once in a while, whenever we start to feel that we are doing well.

Most people are made a little uncomfortable by this parable which we heard this morning – and with good reason. You see, there is nothing wrong with thanking God for everything he has done for us, but to thank him that we are not like another person – like the tax collector – well, that is really not what it’s all about. But we all do it. We all seem to need to find someone to compare ourselves to, in such a way that we appear better than we are.

But instead of doing that, I invite you become the tax collector. Become the person who admits that he – or she – needs God’s help, needs God’s forgiveness. The prayer which the tax collector prayed – God, be merciful to me, a sinner – is probably the most important prayer that we can say. This short prayer is a breath prayer, and one which can be said in the space of one breath. In fact, a version of this prayer has come to be known as “The Jesus prayer”, and is one which spiritual directors routinely use. Because we are Christians, we say, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” These are words which we can live by, words which can guide us in the right direction. Praying this prayer is a sign of true humility, for in doing it, we admit what we are, and we acknowledge how dependent we are on God – for everything, but especially for forgiveness.

Throughout the examples I have used today, the final sent4ence of today’s Gospel reading was echoing in my head. In our pew Bibles, we would have read: Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted. I believe that this is something we all need to work on. Because, you know, it is difficult not to exalt ourselves. It is hard not to think that, in one way or another, I am better than some other person – better than that tax collector, that liar, that cheat, that bully. It is hard, but we can do it. It isn’t necessary to believe that ours is the only way to salvation, or that because we do something either better or more often than other people, we are somehow better than other people. You see, we are – all of us – God’s beloved children, and he takes us just the way we are. Then, of course, he remakes us, but that’s a topic for another day.

We need to remember that we are all God’s creation, and that we are of value to him – not because of anything we can do, but simply because of what we are. Despite the fact that – thanks to free will – we all do things that God cannot accept, he will still reach out to us, and call us to come to him.

One of the communion prayers I sometimes use has these words: Come to this table, not because you must but because you may, not because you are strong, but because you are weak. Come, not because any goodness of your own gives you a right to come, but because you need mercy and help. Come, because you love the Lord a little and would like to love him more. Come, because he loved you and gave himself for you.

For today, then, let us just remind ourselves that we are sinners, and that, thanks to Jesus Christ, we are saved. This is not a time to be thankful that we are not like the tax collector or that we are not like the Pharisee. It is not a time to pass judgement on others, but a time to remember that we will all be judged. And frankly, it is a time to be grateful that God is the one doing the judging, because I think that we are harder on our fellow people than God could ever be. It is a time to recognize that all of us – Pharisees, tax collectors, and the whole spectrum of people in between – are God’s beloved children. We mess up from time to time, but he is always there, waiting to forgive us and to welcome us home. Thanks be to God.

 

 

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Sermon for Sunday, October 20th: Still She Persisted

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you this day, our Rock and our Redeemer. Can you remember a couple of years ago, there was an incident in the United States when Jeff Sessions was being confirmed at the Attorney General of the United States? The vote was close – 52 – 47, and, if you will remember Senator Elizabeth Warren was quite vocal in her opposition to his appointment. However, she was silenced, and after the ruling to silence her, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Those final three words were adopted by many feminists, especially in the United States, and became something of a rallying cry for women. And despite the hype surrounding them, I still use them frequently.

Women – for centuries – had no right to vote. Then the suffragette movement came along, and they persisted. And they won the right to vote. Women were not permitted to be ordained as ministers, and that took even longer than getting the right to vote. Interesting, though, because the Salvation Army has a long history of treating men and women as equals. And here, in Québec, a woman in clerics still gets odd looks and sometimes questions. I was once involved in an accident during my early days here, when I was coming home from having a service at St. Brigid’s, and the police officer who responded wanted to know why I was wearing a costume. He was rather surprised when I explained to him that these were my working clothes. And still I persist in wearing them whenever I am representing the church, or conducting any kind of church business.

Both of our readings from the New Testament – Paul’s letter to Timothy and the Gospel – praise persistence, although in slightly different ways, and I will be talking about them in a few minutes. But first, I want to share you a story I found while surfing the internet after googling the word perseverance – which is pretty much the same thing as persistence. The assistant manager of a large department story saw a boy standing at the bottom of the escalator one day. The boy wasn’t doing anything, just standing there. But the assistant manager found something odd about it, and so he continued to watch. The boy was staring intently at the moving handrail, and not looking at anything else. After a little while, the assistant manager walked up to the boy and asked him, “Is there a problem, young man?” “No, sir,” said the boy. “I’m just waiting for my bubble gum to come back.”

That is perseverance. That is persistence. That boy was not about to move from the spot until his gum came back to him. And today, we heard about perseverance. We heard about persistence. And we know that they are desirable qualities to have, in religion, and in life.

In our scripture readings, we heard about the perseverance of faith, which comes from the hope we have in God. We demonstrate it by the way we live in the world, which is what Paul was exhorting Timothy to do. He said, “Continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of because you know those from whom you learned it. I give you this charge: Preach the Word. Be prepared, in season and out of season.” Other translations of this use the words “favourable times and unfavourable times” rather than “in season and out of season”, and I think that these may be better suited to my message today.

Because, I have to confess that in some ways, we are living in unfavourable times. We are facing issues far more serious than having our bubble gum get stuck on an escalator handrail. We are living in a world that sometimes seems completely mad, completely out of control and it is easy to fall into despair. Often, when Keith turns on the TV, he puts it on CNN, and if that was all I listened to all day, I would definitely feel like giving up. Between the politicking on the one hand, and the disaster stories on the other hand, it sometimes feels as though there is nothing left to live for. It’s no wonder that so many people become immune to such stories after a while. It’s no wonder so many people change the channel rather than sit through another story of starving children. It’s no wonder that we feel helpless and hopeless at the same time.

And, you know, even though Timothy lived in the days before television and mass communication, he faced a period in his life when he felt like this. This is why Paul wrote him encouraging letters like this one. Timothy attempted to preach the Gospel, and like the other early preachers, he was threatened by the authorities. He tried to share the good news, and was ignored by the crowds. He spoke about healing and salvation, but even those who responded often ended up arguing about doctrines and beliefs as if they were the most important things. This still happens today, with various denominations insisting that theirs is the only way to salvation, and that if we don’t believe exactly what they do, we will end up in hell. But poor Timothy – he must have often felt like a hamster in a cage, spinning around and around endlessly on this wheel, but getting nowhere. So Paul wrote to encourage Timothy, telling him to “correct, rebuke, and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.”

Timothy – and Christians today – are engaged in a spiritual batter, and we need to use the tools provided by God in order to win. Of course, the most important tool is prayer, and this brings us to our Gospel reading.

By the time Luke’s gospel was written – a generation or so after Jesus died, people were starting to feel discouraged. You see, they had expected Jesus to return and lead them to a final victory over the empire that was persecuting them. They were anxious and they were suffering. They were tired of waiting. But the Gospel is about waiting and NOT being discouraged, NOT giving up. However, too often people see this as advice to nag God with our requests, so that, eventually, God will throw up his hands and answer us. But that’s not the point of it at all. Jesus used an illustration to make his point, and that illustration was about as different from God as you can get.

He chose an unjust, disrespectful judge who had no fear of God or of men, and he said – in so many words – if such a person would eventually hear the case of a poor widow just to shut her up, then how much more likely is it that God will hear and answer our prayers? But, you know, the judge is not the key character in this parable. Jesus once again used a marginalized person to prove his point. You need to know that in ancient Hebrew, the word for “widow” means “silent one” or “one unable to speak”. John Pilch explained that “in the patriarchal Mediterranean world, males alone play a public role. Women do not speak on their own behalf.” So this widow, this silent one, is acting out of context when she finds her voice, and speaks up for herself. Maybe this is because she knows of what we often call God’s preferential option for the poor. Throughout Scripture, we find God working for widows, orphans, and aliens – for the marginalized of society.

So let us ask ourselves who the silent ones are today, who are the ones without a voice who speak up anyway, protesting injustice. The first one that came to my mind was Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist, who this past week spoke in Alberta. Some of the reactions from the high and powerful showed us that they were feeling threatened by the persistent protests of the little ones they would like to dismiss.

But she is only one example. On September 27th, there were climate strikes, and students from schools around the world walked out of class to protest what is happening to our world. Do we hear their voices? Are we willing to listen to them?

Jesus talks a lot about faith. If you will remember, when he told the story of the mustard seed, he made it clear that there was no such thing as “more” or “less” faith. Either there was faith or there wasn’t. And the widow in the story had faith that her case would be heard. But this isn’t the only time in Scripture where we have seen widows having faith. Remember Ruth and Naomi? They had to work around the rules in their society, because everything was stacked against them. And they did it for themselves and for the people they loved. These widows cry out for justice, and I can assure you that God hears them

Barbara Brown Taylor – whom I often quote – got inside this story and explored the heart of this woman. Society may have told her that she was a nobody without a voice, but she knew better, and her persistence helped her get what she wanted. Taylor wrote: “She was willing to say what she wanted – out loud, day and night, over and over – whether she got it or not, because saying it was how she remembered who she was. It was how she remembered the shape of her heart.”

I love that expression – the shape of her heart. And I sometimes wonder what my heart looks like, and if my prayer life is as persistent as hers was. I know that in monasteries and convents, there is constant prayer. Many of my Anglican friends also do a Daily Office, which is specific prayers to be said at specific times of the day. Devout Muslims pray five times a day, no matter where they are. I think that this kind of praying is something which will bring you closer to God. But I recognize that this is not for all of us, so that is why we have faith. And our faith must be nourished constantly, so that it will thrive.

Another story about faith – and this one is personal. Some of you may remember that we used to have a small dog, named Wooly. Wooly always came with on vacation, and she really enjoyed visiting people. One summer, we were staying at our son’s house in Bedford, and one day a bird flew down the chimney and out into the living room. Wooly happened to be in the living room when it happened, and she went wild. The bird escaped through an open window, but for the rest of our stay, Wooly sat beside the fireplace, convinced that another bird would eventually come in to play with her.

That is the kind of faith we need, faith that if we sit by the fireplace long enough, or stand at the foot of the escalator long enough, the bird will come back, or the gum will come back. One of our hymns enjoins us to “rejoice in the Lord always” and in chapter five of James’ Epistle, we read: Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.

Our prayer life can sustain us even when things are all going wrong, and it will keep us close to God, which is even more important. Barbara Brown Taylor wrote: “You are going to trust the process regardless of what comes of it, because the process itself gives you life. The process keeps you engaged with matters most to you, so you do not lose heart.” So today, I tell you to pray always, for we know that God is always listening. Thanks be to God.

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Sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday – Gratitude

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you this day, our Rock and our Redeemer. This was one of those weeks when I was almost spoiled for choice in sermon material. It is Thanksgiving weekend, and I could have done a decent sermon about gratitude. Because we all have so much to be thankful for, and so often, we forget to give thanks. The reading from Jeremiah spoke to me this past week, as it talked about making a home wherever God has placed us. I have done this several times, and considering that we have many students and military people in this area, there are a number of people who are used to moving and to making new lives many times. The psalm, with its resounding opening of “Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth” would certainly have been appropriate for Thanksgiving. And Paul’s letter to Timothy, with its reassurance of eternal life – well, what could be better than that? And what could we be more grateful for than this eternal life which is waiting for us? But then I read the Gospel, and was immediately struck by the irony of it.

You see, the lectionary is not chosen with secular holidays in mind, and yet today’s Gospel is really appropriate, as we consider all we have to be thankful for. For here we have the ten lepers who were healed, but only one came back to say “thank you”. Only one. 10 percent of those healed returned to give thanks to the one who had healed them all. And it made me ask myself how often I also neglect to give thanks. How often do I take things for granted – things which so many other people do not have, could not even dream of having? So I decided that, today, I would have a look at the lepers, and then see how we can compare ourselves to them in many ways.

There were ten of them, and each one had a story to tell. We were not told whether they were men or women except for the one who returned to give thanks. We were told that he was a man, and not only that, he was a Samaritan. So let’s talk about him for a minute. You will remember the story of the Good Samaritan, how he was the only person who stopped on the side of the road to help someone. You will remember that the priests and Levites passed by, and left the traveler to die. Now, In Jesus’ time, priests and Levites were supposed to be the good people, the people you could turn to for help. But Samaritans – well, Samaritans and Jews had a long history of animosity, so for a Samaritan to stop to help a Jew – that would have been almost unthinkable. You will also no doubt remember the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, the one to whom Jesus promised living water. She was the first person to recognize him as the Messiah, as the Son of God. And yet, she was not one of the chosen people. I think that one reason Samaritans keep cropping up in the Gospels is because we are being enjoined to be open and welcoming to everyone, even – or maybe especially – those whom we consider unworthy. Because, after all, who are we to judge? That is not our job. We are to welcome people into our church, into our lives, and leave the judging to God.

So this Samaritan, he came back to thank Jesus. He knew what his life had been like before his encounter with Jesus. He knew that he had basically been condemned to death. Lepers were not permitted to live in the community, and there was no medical treatment available. If the leprosy didn’t kill them, then they died from pneumonia or some other medical complication. Because they didn’t live in a community, they were often killed by bandits or wild animals, and their life was brutal and short. To be suddenly rescued from that – well, it must have felt as though a death sentence had been lifted. And the Samaritan wanted to express his gratitude to the one who had made this possible before he went back to his normal life.

The other nine – they didn’t come back. And I have to wonder why. It is possible that they were so excited to be cured that they didn’t want to waste a moment before returning to their families. We don’t know how long they had been apart, but I can just imagine how they must have felt when they realized that the separation was about to be over.

But there could have been other reasons. Even though the lepers had not been part of a community, they likely had heard stories about Jesus. They likely knew that the Romans and the religious leaders didn’t care much for him, that he was not on the right side of the law. So maybe they didn’t want to be associated with him. Maybe they were afraid that the civil and religious leaders would also consider them traitors or blasphemers if they hung around Jesus for any length of time. So once they were healed, off they went, anxious to put as much distance as possible between them and him. Many people today also disassociate themselves from people they consider undesirable, people they look down on. It is possible that, in so doing, we are separating ourselves from the one who saved us, too.

Maybe they intended to go back and thank Jesus. Maybe they thought that there would be time – after they got their lives back in order. But you know how it is – day follows day, week follows week, and before you know it – well, Jesus was crucified and it was too late. It is possible that there is someone you have always meant to thank, but you just never got around to it, and now you think it is too late. Well, with Jesus, it is never too late. We can always thank him for everything he has done for us.

Maybe they had lived with leprosy for so long that they didn’t know any other way of life, and now that it was gone, they just wanted to leave it behind them. Maybe they thought that going back to thank Jesus would just serve to remind them of what they had left. Today, we keep telling people that they need to take care of themselves, and this could be one way of doing it – by ignoring the past. At least, that is what some people seem to think. And it is possible that the nine who didn’t thank Jesus felt like that. It’s over – let it be over.

Sometimes, because lepers didn’t live in community, they behaved as if the laws of the land didn’t apply to them. After all, who was going to come and arrest them? People avoided lepers as much as possible. In fact, lepers were required to carry bells which they  had to ring when they saw other people approaching, to warn them off. I would imagine that some of the lepers had broken the law before they met Jesus. And now that they were healed – well it is possible that they could have been arrested. So maybe they wanted to fly under the radar, to escape the notice of the authorities, so that they could try to return to normal. And maybe they thought that, if they were seen with Jesus again, they would be noticed. So they figured that the best thing to do would be to put as much distance between Jesus and themselves as possible.

You see, there are many reasons for not giving thanks, many reasons for not showing gratitude. But you know what? I don’t accept any one of them. I think that the lepers – and those of us sitting in this church – owe gratitude to God for what we have been given. Whether it was healing of the mind or body or some other gift – we need to give God thanks. But what is interesting is that it doesn’t matter to God whether we give thanks or not. He will still pour out his abundance on us.

I was reminded of a little story I heard. You may have heard the same one, or one similar to it, with a couple of minor changes. One afternoon a shopper at the local mall felt the need for a

coffee break.  She bought herself a little bag of cookies and put them in her shopping bag.  She then got in line for coffee, found a place to sit at one of the crowded tables, and then taking the lid off her coffee and taking out a magazine she began to sip her coffee and read.  Across the table from her a man sat reading a newspaper. After a minute or two she reached out and took a cookie.  As she did, the man seated across the table reached out and took one too.  This put her off, but she did not say anything.

A few moments later she took another cookie.  Once again, the man did so too.  Now she was getting a bit upset, but still she did not say anything. After having a couple of sips of coffee she once again took another cookie.  So did the man.  She was really upset by this – especially since now only one cookie was left. Apparently the man also realized that only one cookie was left.  Before she could say anything he took it, broke it in half, offered half to her, and proceeded to eat the other half himself.  Then he smiled at her and, putting the paper under his arm, rose and walked off.

She was not impressed.  Her coffee break was ruined, and she was already thinking ahead of how she would tell this story to her family. She folded her magazine, opened her shopping bag, and there discovered her own unopened bag of cookies.

How many times, I wonder, do we do something similar to that? We may not eat someone else’s cookies, but we may not realize what we are taking from someone else by our own privilege. We may not realize how many people we need to be grateful to for things they do for and to us. During this past week, my family has had many reasons to be thankful. As some of you know, Aurora-Claire was very sick a few days ago, and had to be rushed to hospital, where she was treated for asthma and pneumonia. As I was writing my sermon, she was still there, still being treated, and still improving. I spent a lot of time asking God to help us, and as soon as she started to improve, I began to thank him, and I am still thanking him. It was a scary time – as all medical things are – but with God’s help I was able to get through it, and with the doctors at the CHUL, so was she. So this week, this week which starts with thanksgiving, I invite you to give thanks in everything and for everything. Thanks be to God.