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Sermon for March 15th, 2020 – Living Water

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 am going to start today with something I have never done before. When I was in seminary, I met with a Spiritual Director regularly. Sometimes, she required me to write a reflective piece to keep in my journal with no thought of sharing it. However, there is one which I wrote which is connected with today’s Gospel reading, and I felt that it would be good to begin my sermon today with this.

I am the woman of Samaria. I have been searching, searching, searching, all my life.
But for what?
That I cannot tell you. But I know that this morning, at the well, before sunrise, I found it. And now I will never lose it. This living water. This water that refreshes. This water that cleanses. This water that renews. It is mine, and I want to share it. For I know that others are also looking, are also seeking, are also lost. Take what I have. Use it for yourself. And when you are ready, you will find that you, too, have enough to share. That is something He didn’t tell me about the living water. It goes on forever. It expands until it will fill the whole world. But now I know as Adam and Eve knew, with the difference being they learned about good and evil and I learned about love.

So often, we do not realize what this encounter at the well was really about. We think that it was about Jesus revealing himself to a Gentile, to a Samaritan. We think that it was about guilt on her part and forgiveness on his. We use it to show how we can all be forgiven. But Jesus giving her what he called living water is really all about love.

As an illustration, I want to talk for just a minute about our Bella. As most of you know, she is a rather large Labradoodle, who insists on thinking that she is a lap dog. She and I spend a lot of time together. Often, when I am working at my desk, she is lying under it, keeping my feet warm, whether they need it or not. When we leave her at home alone, she is not happy, but when we get back after an absence – no matter how long – she is thrilled to see us. Of course, since we acquired OhchoCat, Bella spends a bit more time alone, or at least, away from us. But no matter how often we put her in a room where she can’t get at the cat, and no matter how often we leave her at home alone, whenever she sees us, she welcomes us with a wagging tail, and a loving lick – again, whether we want it or not.

This is love. This is something like the love that Jesus was offering to the woman at the well. This is the love that doesn’t let anything get in its way –not absence, not adultery, not living a life that others condemn. Someone once mentioned that it is no coincidence that “God” spelled backwards is “dog”, and there are times when I agree with that assessment.

And it would seem that I am not the only one. There was a recent newspaper article called “In Times of Stress, Just Call on Rover”. I found this article on the internet, and thought that it was appropriate to use today, considering my own illustration. When it comes to times of stress, the most reassuring companion isn’t your sweetheart – it’s your schnauzer. A study has found that people who were under stress showed the least amount of tension when accompanied by their dog. The stress levels were highest when the people were with their husbands or wives. “I think that dogs are non-evaluative, and they love us,” said Karen Allen,  a research scientist at State University of New York at Buffalo’s medical school.

This item caught my attention – not because of what it says about stress and our spouses. Frankly, I don’t believe that, because I know that being with Keith reduces my stress significantly, most of the time. But what attracted me was what it says about the ways dogs love us, and the benefits that this kind of love has. You see, there is something very biblical in the assertion that non-evaluative love, non-judgmental love, can reduce tension. In fact, if we look at scripture, we will learn that it does much more than just reduce tension. It gives life; it gives hope; it gives assurance to all who receive it.

Non-judgmental, accepting, all-embracing love – this is the essence of the Good News contained in the gospel. We find in statements like this one: Do not judge others lest you be judged, for the judgment you give will be the judgment you receive. Jesus accepts and embraces people whom others find wanting, people living on the margins, sinners of all kinds, tax collectors, lepers – all those people whom the scribes and Pharisees reject; all those people whom we are still rejecting.

In my time, I have been a gardener, and one thing I learned about gardening that every plant needs water to grow. Even the desert cactus must still have a source of water in order to thrive. I know that the plants that in the driest soil, the plants whose leaves are beginning to curl and lose their colour – these plants need more water than the plants which are in damp ground. And I know that plants respond to water. I have seen plants which were shriveling in their beds – or in their pots – suddenly come back to life after a good watering. Their roots go down deep, looking for water. Their leaves turn over so that they can catch water from above and absorb it. And after they do this, then they produce whatever they were meant to produce, whether it is flower or fruit.

We are – all of us – plants in God’s garden. We have been placed here for a reason. But some of us are pretty dry and we need the living water. In fact, all of us need the living water. It is just that some of us have been without it for a long time. And it is this living water which wells up to eternal life. It is this living water which overflows and brings life to other plants nearby.

There is a story about a water bearer in India. He had two large pots, each hung on one end of the pole he carried across the back of his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream, the cracked pot arrived only half full. This went on every day for two years, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots of water to his master’s house.

Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishment and saw itself as perfectly suited for the purpose for which it was made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its imperfection and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do. After two years of what it perceived as bitter failure, it spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream. “I am ashamed of myself and I want to apologize to you.”

“Why?” asked the bearer. “What are you ashamed of?”

“For the past two years, I have been able to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master’s house. Because of my flaws you have to work without getting the full value of your efforts,” the pot said.

The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and out of compassion he said, “As we return to the master’s house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.” Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the wildflowers on the side of the path. The pot felt cheered.

But at the end of the trail, the pot still felt bad because it had leaked out half its load, and again it apologized for its failure. The bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of your path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I knew about your flaw and took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you’ve watered them for me. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. If you were not just the way you are, he would not have such beauty to grace his house.

Just so did the Samaritan woman at the well bring the Good News to the other people in her village. Just so are we called to share it with others. And, even more, just so are we called to thank God for the living water he has given us, for the Good News which has been shared with us. Every day, I thank God for his love, for the living water which is constantly being poured on me, even when – or maybe ESPECIALLY when – I feel that I don’t deserve it. And in giving thanks, I do what the woman at the well did after she first met Jesus, after she first realized who he was. I point to him, to the one who is the promised Saviour, the one who accepted me and calls me sister, the one who encourages me and challenges me, the one who never rejects me, but who loves me unconditionally.

This woman at the well had three strikes against her, and Jesus ignored them all. First of all, she was a Gentile, and, as we know, many people believed that his message was first and foremost for the chosen people. But he revealed himself to her before he revealed himself to his own. Secondly, she was a Samaritan, and, as you know, Jews and Samaritans were enemies of long standing. But that didn’t matter. Jesus gave her what she needed, just as he gives us what we need. Finally, and probably most damning of all, she was a woman. Women of that time were treated as property, and as not being worthy of conversation. This did not stop him from blessing her, and calling her sister.

And this, this is why she spoke of him in her village. Not just because he knew her past; not just because he could tell her things that no stranger should know about her. It was because in knowing her, in knowing all about her – her nationality, her gender, her religion, and the history of her marriages – he treated her as an equal. He treated her as someone worthy of respect, worthy of affection, worthy of love. This isn’t just a woman, but a Samaritan woman, one with many husbands– but let’s just boil it all down to the single story: she’s an unclean sinner. Jesus, as a Jewish male, is not supposed to be talking with her, let alone accepting water from anything she has touched. Those were the rules, and life is simpler when the rules are clear. But Jesus broke the rules. Over and over again, Jesus broke the rules.

And that is the point of this whole story and of this whole sermon. Just as Jesus did, we are called to treat others as we would like to be treated. We are called to speak with people in high places in the same way as we speak to people in low places. We are called to talk to sinners and saints with respect, whether we agree with them or not. We are called to open ourselves to friends and strangers alike, and to feel that both of them are open to us. We are called to meet people where they are, and not to judge them. We are told not to patronize people because we feel that they are somehow less than we are. When we do all this, then it is that we are starting to learn something of God’s love. Then it is that we are starting to show something of God’s love. Thanks be to God.

 

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April 12th – Easter Sunday Prayers and Reflection

Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed!

Give thanks to the Lord, for God is good; His love endures   forever. The Lord is the strength and my song. God is my salvation! The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this and it is marvellous in our eyes. This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!

Christ is risen!

People: He is risen indeed!

Minister: Let the people shout Halleluiah!

People: Halleluiah! Halleluiah!

Good morning, and welcome to our on-line worship on this joyful day, this day on which we acknowledge ourselves as resurrection people, as people for whom death has lost its sting. On this day, we cry Hallelujah and we rejoice. On this day, we put aside the Old Testament for some weeks, as we read from the Acts of the Apostles for our first reading. On this day, there will be times when I will say: Christ is Risen, and you will respond with: Christ is risen indeed.

Our hymns this morning are

# 247 – Christ The Lord Is Risen Today

# 252 – He Is Lord

# 243 – Jesus Christ Is Risen Today

And I thank David Stafford for posting Christ The Lord Is Risen Today before our worship this morning. The other hymns are also posted.

The Scripture readings for this morning are:

Acts 1-: 34 – 43

Psalm 118: 1 – 2, 14 – 24

Colossians 3: 1 – 4

And either John 20: 1 – 18 or Matthew 28: 1 – 10 I have posted both Gospel readings, as it is good to read what happened on this incredible day so long ago.

Let us pray. God of mystery and power, we have heard the Good News of Easter and we are glad to be caught up in its joy today. Your love fills us with expectation. Darkness will never overcome the light you shine in Christ Jesus. Just as Jesus spoke to Mary in the garden that first Easter day, you call each of us by name because you love us. We are so grateful for the hope we have in your resurrecting power, embracing us this day. So may we live our love for you gladly, today and every day, as we cry out with Easter joy, our hearts full of praise:

Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed!

Lord, let us come to you in faith

Faith that you will not fail us

That you will walk with us

On this journey none of us would have chosen

And as we begin our worship today

I light a candle

And I turn to you

As I always do

Seeking comfort

Seeking peace

Seeking healing

Seeking love

Amen

 

The other day, it was mentioned to me that there are some of our young people watching, and it was suggested that it might be an idea to speak to some of them, so that is what I will do now. I invite the grown-ups to pay attention as well, because often the children’s story contains something we all need to hear. People who worshiped in person with us some six weeks ago will remember that the children gathered up all the alleluias from the congregation, and we placed them in a box, not to be seen again until Easter Sunday. And you will have noticed that I have already used that word. However, I couldn’t go to collect the alleluias from the box in which we placed them back in March. So what was I to do?

Well, I found a site on the Internet that gave me an Alleluia I could use today, so I printed it out, and Keith coloured it for me. It was in four pieces, and I had to tape them together to make a great, wonderful Alleluia. Here is it, and I invite you all – children and adults – to say with me that great word – alleluia! Do you know what it means? It means: God be praised!

In just a few minutes, we will hear the story about the resurrection; we will read how Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb, and found it empty. And when they realized what had happened, that Jesus had risen from the dead, how do you think they felt? I think that they felt happy. What do you say when you are really happy? When you get a wonderful surprise that you really weren’t expecting? There are so many things we can say, and I think that the one that fits best today is the one we just said. So let’s say it again. Are you ready? Alleluia! And now I invite you to pray with me, just as we do with the children. I will say a phrase, and wait for you to repeat it. Let us pray. Our Father, we are thankful for this glorious celebration of Jesus our Lord and Savior. We are not surprised that the tomb was empty, for he has risen, just as he said he would. In his name we pray. Amen.

For today’s focus text, I chose to read from Matthew’s Gospel. Listen to the familiar words. Hear the familiar story. But listen as though you had never heard it before. Hear it speaking to you on this Easter Sunday.

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.  He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.  Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

This is the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

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 is my tenth Easter Sunday sermon, and this is certainly the most unusual so far. For this year, I think that this year, we can all identify with Jesus being in the tomb more so than we can with Mary discovering the empty tomb. This year, we are spending more time inside, more time in isolation, more time separated from our fellows. This year, we are still waiting for our resurrection. We are still waiting to be called forth, as Lazarus was called forth a couple of weeks ago. But even though we are still maintaining our distance from others, even though we are still gathering virtually rather than physically, we can still celebrate Easter, and that is what we are going to do today, as we explore Matthew’s version of what happened in that garden, when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went there on that first Easter Sunday.

The first question we have to ask is why they went there in the first place. Well, according to Mark’s Gospel, they went to anoint the body, because this had not been done in the rush to get Jesus down from the cross and buried before the Sabbath started. So, imagine them, then, walking to the tomb. It is likely that they would have walked in silence, not chattering as a group of people is likely to do when they are out for a walk. They are burdened down with the spices and other things which they need to do what needs to be done on this day. It is a sombre day, a day on which they are still in deep mourning.

There are several things I would like us to notice about today’s reading. The first is the statement – an almost matter-of-fact statement – that there was a violent earthquake. Wouldn’t you think that Matthew would have spent at least a little time discussing that earthquake? After all, surely a violent earthquake deserved more than just five words. And yet, he didn’t. Rather he went on to the next thing I want us to notice – the fact that an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. We are left to assume that this is what caused the earthquake. And, of course, we assume that the stone was rolled back to let Jesus out. But maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was rolled back to let us in. And I thought about this when I considered the other times in Scripture when we were told about Jesus appearing to his followers after the resurrection. He just appeared in their midst, sometimes when they were behind locked doors. The original locked door mystery. How did he get there? Obviously doors were no barrier after the resurrection, so why should a stone have been one? Why could Jesus have not just materialized outside of the tomb, like some kind of transported being? Obviously, he could have. But Mary and the other Mary could not have entered if the stone were still in place.

The stone was rolled back, and an angel of the Lord was sitting on it. And, of course, the very first words the angel spoke were: “Do not be afraid.” That makes perfect sense. After all, if someone went to a tomb such as this, only to be confronted by an earthquake – a violent one, at that – and an angel sitting on the top of a stone which had been rolled away, I imagine that fear would be the natural reaction. But the angel said, as so many other angels have said, “Do not be afraid.” Then he went on to tell them, “I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.  He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.”. The first sentence would have been OK – after all, most people knew that these women were followers of Jesus, so it was only natural that they would have come to the garden to do what needed to be done. But that second sentence, when the angel told them that Jesus had risen, just as he said he would – that must have given them pause. For, you see, they expected to find a body that needed tending. They did not expect to discover a risen Jesus, no matter what he had told them before all this happened. And this being – this angel – was telling them something that seemed impossible – that Jesus had, indeed, risen. I would imagine that they were more than a little skeptical.

So the angel went on, “Come and see the place where he lay.” Come, he said, I will show you that the body is no longer there. I will prove to you that he has risen. The stone was rolled away – not so that Jesus could get out, but so that we could get in to see that he was no longer there.

But the angel doesn’t stop there, and this is the next thing I want you to notice. He goes on to tell the women: “Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

He told the women to tell the disciples. The women were the very first to hear the good news, and they were the first to share it. And yet, for centuries, women were not allowed to preach the Gospel. Indeed, in some places, they are still not allowed to preach the Gospel. Isn’t it interesting that some people chose to ignore what Matthew wrote? Isn’t it interesting that some people pick and choose what to follow in Scripture? I mean, it is pretty plain here that these women – Mary Magdalene and the other Mary – were chosen to start something which is continuing to this day – the good news that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead.

And this good news shows us something special. It shows that death is not the end, but a new beginning. We are now in the midst of a pandemic. We are now struggling with something which none of us ever experienced before. The SARS epidemic, the beginning of the AIDS virus, polio epidemics of my own childhood – these all pale in the light of what is happening now. Thousands of people dead and more to come. Hundreds of thousands of people diagnosed with COVID-19, and more to come. But this is not the end. Not for us, and not for the good news of Jesus Christ.

All around us, we are hearing stories about good things that people are doing. First responders going out of their way to help people. Volunteers helping with COVID testing. My own grandson Gaetan is one of these. People are picking up groceries for neighbors who are not able or not permitted to go and get their own, and who live in places where there is no delivery service. Many are calling people who live alone, just to check up on them. We are all keeping in touch with families and friends through the wonder of the Internet. I keep hearing about people dropping off small gifts to others, while observing social distancing, and I am amazed with every single story. And all of this is one way of sharing the good news with others. Let us think a little about what Jesus said at one time: Whatever you do for the least of my people, you did also for me. So every time we call someone who is lonely, every time we do something for another person, we are doing it for Jesus.

And now, let us go back to the garden, where the women have been told the good news for the first time, and let us see what they do. Matthew wrote: So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Of course, they were afraid. Wouldn’t you be if an angel appeared to you? Wouldn’t you be if you found an empty tomb where you had expected to find a body? But afraid or not, they went to tell the others. But before they got there, Jesus met them. Note, Matthew did not say that he walked up to them. He materialized right there before them, and they came up to him, clasped his feet, and worshiped him. This reminded me of the story we were told before, about the woman washing Jesus’ feet with her tears, and drying them with her hair. Have you ever noticed how important feet are in Scripture? They were one of the focus points of the Last Supper, and they continue to be so to this day. It is our feet which carry us to places where the good news needs to be hears. It is our feet which are probably less active than usual right now, as many of us are confined to our homes. And it is our feet which will take us out once this is over, and we, too, emerge from our tombs of self-isolation.

So when Jesus met the women, he said to them: “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” Again, his first words were “Do not be afraid”, and again, they were exactly the right words to say. Let’s face it, if you had watched someone die on Friday, and not only die, but die a horrible, humiliating death, and be declared to be dead by Roman soldiers, what would your reaction be if you suddenly saw him standing before you? I think that fear would be mild.

But once Jesus had reassured them, he told them what to do. The disciples – Jesus’ brothers – were in hiding in or near Jerusalem. Maybe they were still in the upper room where they had celebrated the Last Supper. Maybe they were in Bethany, at the home of Martha and Mary and Lazarus. We really don’t know where they were, but the women did. And they did as Jesus told them.

And now is as good a time as any to remind you that, in all four gospels, Jesus entrusted the good news and the first responsibility of sharing it – not to Peter or even to the disciple whom he loved – but to a woman. Not only that, but in John’s Gospel, which is our alternate Gospel for today, he spoke to Mary, alone, in the garden. If we think about the ramifications of this – not as it would seem right now in 21st century Québec – but as it would have seemed to John’s audience some 2000 years ago, we can see that these people would have been shocked, to say the very least. And yet, according to John, that is what happened.

At this pivotal moment in the salvation history, it is a woman who represents the bright thread of hope that runs through Scripture like a vein of pure gold. It shows, more plainly than ever before, how much God trusts the little people, the marginalized, the voiceless ones. For that is what women were in those days. And let us not forget the other Mary – the mother of Jesus, who sang in the Magnificat about the lowly being lifted up and the mighty being brought down. How ironic, then, and yet how wonderful, that Jesus entrusted this first proclamation of the Good News to one of the very least of these.

This story, which happened in the garden, inspired the beautiful hymn “In The Garden”, which has often been requested for funerals at which I have

officiated. Sadly, it is no longer in our hymn book, but I still have a copy. It

is a deeply personal experience of the resurrection, and many people

dismiss it as being too sentimental or too personal, but I think that it is perfect for this day – especially the third verse. Just listen to the words of

that verse:  I’d stay in the garden with him, though the night around me be falling, but he bids me go; thru the voice of woe his voice to me is calling. In this verse, Jesus is telling Mary – and us – that we need to be in the world, doing his work here, much as we want to stay in the garden with him. For we know that we will find Jesus in the suffering world, in the needs of the world. And we know that he expects us to help this world.

We may feel close to Jesus, when we picture ourselves in the garden, but we are charged to leave the garden, to follow him into what Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan call “the Dream of God” and what we call “the Kingdom of God”, which actually begins right here on earth, in all of our lives. In our relationships and our ministries – for we all have ministries, as I have told you before – in our families and neighbourhoods and communities, in our nation and in our world, in our church and in our denomination and every other denomination, in all of these things and places there are so many opportunities for new life and new possibilities and new wonders, if only we open our hearts to what God can do to us and in us and through us. In my research this week, I came across a new-to-me author – Mary Gordon – who wrote, “For me, the meaning of the Resurrection is the possibility of possibility. The great perhaps. Perhaps: the open-endedness that gives the lie to death. That opens up the story.”

Many of us have felt that doors are closing this year. Many of us feel as though we are still inside the tomb. Many of us are missing the traditional Easter Sunday worship and the Easter gatherings outside of worship. But, you know what? Even without gatherings and churches, Easter has come. Even without crowds and flowers, Easter has come. Even without music and singing, Easter has come. And despite the unusual Easter this year, we rejoice for Christ has risen. He has risen indeed. Thanks be to God.

At this time, I would like to let you know that we will be continuing this on-line Sunday worship until such time as the rules are changed, and we are allowed to gather together again. Once we are allowed together in community, we hope to live-stream our regular Sunday worship, but until then, this is the format we will be using. However, if you are not a part of the congregations I serve, you will be able to join us whenever we begin doing this.

And now, I invite you to pause for just a moment to gather your thoughts together as we bring to God the prayers of the people. Note that they are responsive today. I will end each petition with the words “God, in your mercy”, and I will pause so that you can reply, “Hear our prayer.” Let us pray:

God of power and possibility, you broke open the tomb that held our Lord.

Now break into your church where your people are distracted by old quarrels, meaningless diversions, or unhelpful divisions about mission and service. Resurrect, renew and revive your church!

God, in your mercy,

All: Hear our prayer.

God of resurrection and new life, you broke into the hearts of Jesus’ fearful friends. Now break into our relationships with one another. Where they are vibrant and life-giving, nurture them. Where they are strained by old hurts and misunderstandings, or carelessly taken for granted, resurrect, renew and revive our life together!

God, in your mercy,

All: Hear our prayer.

God of might and mercy, you broke the schemes of those who stood in the way of your love. Now break into the governance of your world. Stir the minds and hearts of leaders to work for justice and equitable sharing. Where laws are corrupt, or people suffer under harsh rule, resurrect, renew and revive the leaders of the world!

God, in your mercy,

All: Hear our prayer.

God of healing and hope, you broke the bonds of death which tried to shackle new life. Now break into situations of illness, pain, grief, and loss. Especially at this time, be with those who have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Grant them healing and peace. Wherever people are sick in body, mind, or spirit, and wherever someone mourns the loss of any relationship or dream, resurrect, renew and revive our lives!

God, in your mercy,

All: Hear our prayer.

God of Easter Renewal and Resurrection, you have broken into our lives again this day. Break into all our moments of celebration and joy. Give us gratitude, the impulse to share, and a spirit of grace and understanding.

Resurrect, renew and revive our souls and spirits!

God, in your mercy,

All: Hear our prayer.

Lord, now that we have finished our Lenten journey and arrived at the new life of the Resurrection, help us to remember that, despite everything, we

are resurrection people. Even though many of us feel trapped in our

homes, we know that our souls are free. At this time, wherever we find

ourselves, at home, in apartments, in care facilities, pour out your Spirit

upon your people and on the gifts of the feast of the resurrection. May the

bread which is broken open like the tomb, strengthen us so we may go to

rebuild shattered hopes, to bind up the hurts of the world. May the cup

which is filled with the fruits of your steadfast love, nourish us to leave the

shadows of our fears and doubts to stand with the lonely and forgotten, to listen to the cries of the world.

God, in your mercy,

Hear our prayer.

We pray all of these things in your most precious name. Amen.

Scattered from one another, we can still go with God into the world. We will offer healing and hope to all who wander in the shadows of life. Separated from one another, we can still go with Jesus to serve others. We will listen to the ignored; we will speak out for the forgotten.Alone, stuck wherever we live, we can still join the Spirit in offering steadfast love. We will hold on to the fallen; we will rebuild shattered communities. And now, as we go about our days, may the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn his countenance towards you and grant you peace. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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April 5th -Palm Sunday Prayers and Reflection

Good morning, and welcome to our worship today, which is Palm Sunday. Wherever you are, whether you are watching this live or not, know that you are in my thoughts and prayers at this unusual time. In the days to come, I will be posting either a prayer, written by me or someone else, on the church’s Facebook page, in addition to the one I write for my own page every day, or a hymn, or a reading from Scripture, or a streamed devotional. So please check back each day.

Today marks the beginning of Holy Week, and throughout the week, there will be extra services live-streamed. On Maundy Thursday, April 9th, we will be celebrating the Lord’s Supper virtually. We will also be sharing in a hand-washing ceremony. This service will start at 7 pm, and if you wish to share in it, I invite you to have the following things ready: A bowl of water and a cloth; a candle; bread and wine or grape juice. I will post reminders of this throughout the week. On Good Friday, April 10th, we will do a streamed Walk with the Cross. I hope that this will be ecumenical in the sense that people who watch it are not all members of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. This service will also start at 7 pm. Then, on Easter Sunday, at our regular time, we will join with the rest of the Christian world in celebrating the resurrection and look forward to our own resurrection.

Today we have only two Scripture readings – Psalm 118: 1 – 2 and 19 – 29, and from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 21: 1 – 11. Again I have provided links for the hymns prior to worship starting. They are # 214 – All Glory, Laud, and Honour as our opening hymn. After the Gospel, we would normally sing # 218 – Hosanna, Loud Hosanna. And our closing hymn today is # 217 – Ride On, Ride On, In Majesty.

Normally, on this day, we would have a procession of the palms through the sanctuary, but this is not a normal Palm Sunday, so instead of the procession, I invite you to think about the palms. The palm branches which are still in my car are used to remind us of that first Palm Sunday, that day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem, riding a donkey. I posted a picture of a palm branch for you to print and colour earlier this week, and I show you mine now. And I realized that, in addition to palm branches, which we may not have this week, we have other palms, the palms of our hands, which have become even more important during this time when we are constantly washing them. Many people have figured out creative ways to count the 20 recommended seconds for washing out hands, from singing Happy Birthday 2 times all the way through reciting the opening words of the Star Trek TV series. I invite you, the next time you wash your hands, to pray for people who need your prayers at this time.

On this day, we gather virtually. We gather at different times and in different places. But still we gather. Come, all of you who are heavy burdened, and lay your burdens at the foot of the Lord. Here you will find rest for your souls.

Let us pray.

Lord, every year, I give up something for the season of Lent. But I had never planned to give up this much. I never planned to give up seeing friends and family. I never planned to give up going out to eat with my husband. I never planned to give up worshiping together on Sunday morning. But more than what I have given up without planning to, I have taken up things I never thought of as being my responsibility. I have taken on the health of my community, as I practice self-isolation and compassionate distancing. I have taken up a new appreciation of teachers who work with many children every day and still find time to care for themselves and their families. I have taken up boredom and found that it is not such a bad thing. I have figured out a new rhythm to my days, a way to fill the hours in such a way that they are both productive and nourishing. I am finding new ways to connect with others, including my partner. I am finding time – time that I never thought I had. Time to walk and organize my life; tome to wonder at people; time to care. This is not the Lent I had planned, Lord. It is not the Lent any of us had planned. But it is the one I am living this year. May I live it all to your glory and arrive at Easter knowing that I am still part of the resurrection people.

Let us come to you in faith

Faith that you will not fail us

That you will walk with us

On this journey none of us would have chosen

And as we begin our worship today

I light a candle

And I turn to you

As I always do

Seeking comfort

Seeking peace

Seeking healing

Seeking love

Amen

Our focus text this morning is taken from Matthew’s Gospel, and tells the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. As I read it, I want you to picture this. I want you to see Jesus on the donkey, one which had never been ridden. I want you to see the crown, waving palm branches and spreading their cloaks on the ground for the donkey to walk on. I want you to hear them crying: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Matthew 21: 1 – 11

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples,  saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me.  If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

 “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them.  They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on.  A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna[ to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

This is the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

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 saw Jesus enter Jerusalem in supposed triumph. At least as far as the crowd was concerned, as far as the disciples were concerned, this was a triumphant entry. But Jesus knew that this triumph was to be short-lived. We will be discussing that late this week, so for now, let us focus on what was happening in Jerusalem on that day so long ago.

And let us focus also, on what is happening here right now. I don’t know how you feel about the last few weeks, but when I think about how many changes have happened since March 11th, if is easy to get overwhelmed. And when I wonder what the world will look like by the time it is all over, it is easy to get overwhelmed. And when I look at the needs of the people living in Québec City and Saint-Gabriel-de-Valcartier and the resources that are going to be required to bring back some semblance of normalcy, it is easy to get overwhelmed. And when I look at those isolated at home and see the frustration and depression which loneliness and isolation can bring, it is easy to get overwhelmed. And when I speak to people who are in nursing homes who do not understand why they are having no visitors, it is easy to get overwhelmed.

But Jesus’ early followers – they did not get overwhelmed. They did what he told them to, no matter how insignificant it may have seemed. Today, when they reached Bethphage, he told two of them to go into Jerusalem, and being back a donkey and a cold which they would find tied conveniently for them. He said that this was to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah: “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

And it is the significant things that we can do now that will make a difference. We can do what we can to show God’s love to others. We can telephone people who are living alone, just so they will hear a human voice other than one on TV or radio. We can pray – oh, Lord, we CAN pray. If we are allowed out, we can offer to pick up groceries or prescriptions for our neighbours. There are many little things that we can do at this time. And by doing them, we will not be overwhelmed as we would if we were trying to do some big things.

The people waiting for Jesus in Jerusalem were likely not overwhelmed by his appearance. In fact, they may well have been a little UNDER-whelmed. They had been waiting for his arrival for a long time – centuries, in fact, ever since it was foretold by Isaiah. And now it was about to happen. They were excited, and I can imagine that the city streets were full of chattering people. They weren’t gossiping, but rather were sharing stories of hope, hope that no matter how bad things used to be, no matter how long they had been suffering, things were going to be different now, because of Jesus.

He was the one, the one they had been waiting for, for generations. They had waited; they had hoped; they had dreamed. And now, he was coming. On this very day, he was coming to Jerusalem. People were starting to call him their king. People were expecting him to make a huge difference in their lives. People were waiting for him to overthrow Rome and to fill their city with pride once again.

I will use a sports analogy to try to demonstrate what people were feeling on that day. In 2003, I have been told, LeBron James made the decision to sign a contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers.  He was – at that time – considered the greatest prize ever in the NBA draft, and ignited the hopes of a city so long downtrodden in the arena that it no longer cared that much about the fact that it has a world-class medical centre or an art museum that was superior to many or an amazing symphony orchestra. The people on the street didn’t care about these things. What they wanted was hope and glory and a national championship – football, baseball, basketball – it didn’t matter. They were crying out for hope and glory.

But it wasn’t JUST about hope and glory. The once-great city was suffering, and its people were tired and struggling. Many people were unemployed, and many of those who were employed were what we call underemployed. People with money chose not to live in the city, but worked there, and returned to their homes outside the city at the end of the day. Getting LeBron James to sign with them brought a lot to the city. There would be jobs – jobs for people in the parking lots, in the arena, in hotels, and in restaurants. And of course, all of these jobs would lead to spin-off jobs, and the city would be revitalized. It would be filled with new life, new hope, and new promise. You know, when you think about it, that was a lot to ask of one 18-year-old boy!

Sadly, with our 20/20 hindsight, we know how this turned out, despite the fact that James was named Rookie of the Year during his first season, and winning the NBA MVP award in 2009 and again in 2010. There was no championship, and he3 left Cleveland in 2010 to sign as a free agent with the Miami Heat. He went on to greater and greater glory, but Cleveland didn’t.

Now, let’s go back to 1st century Jerusalem. Jerusalem, at the time, and for centuries before, had been a city of both hunger and hope. Like Cleveland in 2003, Jerusalem in Jesus’ time recalled her past glories and looked to her future promise. They remembered the great King David, and hoped for a Messiah who would also rule with justice and in peace, and who would restore them to those former glories. Remember, the Messiah was said to be a son of David, and they longed for someone who would be the actual king of Israel, a nation that had lived under the heel of one oppressive, violent empire after another – all the way back to Egypt, and later Assyria, Babylon, and now – Rome.

You will remember that the Romans took heavy taxes from the ordinary people. They had their own troops deployed in Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside to keep a nervous peace, always expecting some kind of revolution. They also chose people from the inhabitants, people who would collect taxes, people who would help them rule. Think about Herod, whose first loyalty always was to Rome. Think about the tax collector Matthew, who became a disciple. Think about the high priests, who collaborated with Rome in order to keep their own positions secure. If Jerusalem itself, many people were drowning in debt. We say today that people are living form payday to payday. This was even worse, as there was no payday. Farmers unable to pay their taxes had their lands taken from them, so that the wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few people. Many people were hungry, poor, and desperate.

After David, many of the kings of Israel were corrupt. They did not do what God expected them to do as rulers, and, if you will remember the Old Testament, many prophets often took Jerusalem to task for the way the city neglected the poor, for the rampant injustice and greed.  Even though Jerusalem was the holy city, it was also, as Jesus said, “The city that killed the prophets”. And right now, power rested in the hands of the Romans and those who collaborated with them.

On the day that Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, entering from the eastern gate, someone else was coming through the western gate, and His entrance was more than a little different from that of Jesus. This was Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, who was coming to the city to keep the peace during the festival days of the Passover. This was a time of year when zealots were most likely to mutiny, remembering Israel’s release from captivity in Egypt, so it was necessary that Rome make a show of force on that day. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan wrote about Pilate’s grand entrance. They said, “Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city – a visual panoply of imperial power: Cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armour, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Hear the sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. See the dust swirling, And look into the eyes of the silent onlookers – some curious, some awed, some resentful.”

We see this as the power of the empire on display, and it was that. But it was more. Remember, to the Romans of the time, the emperor was thought to be the son of God, so this was a kind of theology as well. And if the Roman emperor decided to increase taxes, then it was the will of God. This worked out well for the wealthy, but not so well for the ordinary people, the people like you and me.

And now, let’s go to the eastern gate, the gate where a donkey was carrying Jesus into the city. He is surrounded not by an armed cavalry, but by peasants, by the poor of the city, by those who are longing for a bit of good news.  They are full of hope that this man will be the one promised by the prophets, the one who will bring a time of peace and justice to the land, the likes of which had not been seen since the time of David. You will remember that, earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, we heard the story of the Magi, and how Herod felt so threatened by the birth of Jesus that he ordered a mass killing of baby boys under the age of 2. Jesus was seen as a threat to the powerful then, and during this Holy Week he will be seen that way once again. We know that the chief priest and his minions will figure out a way to hand Jesus over to Rome, and that the empire will kill him. That is what empires do. That is what empires have always done.

But today, today is not about death. Today is about Jesus riding into Jerusalem, ushering in a reign of peace, not of war. Alas, that was not the people wanted. But we will speak of that later in the week, not today. Today, I wonder what Jesus was thinking about as he rode into Jerusalem, into the city that was going to reject him in just a few days. Today, I wonder what the people of Jerusalem were thinking – at least those who knew who Jesus was. Because not everyone knew. Remember the last verse of our reading – “Who is this?” the crowds were asking. And the reply was, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.

I can imagine the cries of Hosanna spreading through the crowd. I can imagine the buzz as the word of Jesus’ arrival passed from one to another. I can also imagine the buzz on the other side of the city as Pilate entered in all his splendour. The people of Jerusalem had to choose – which procession will they join? And we have to ask ourselves the same question – which procession will we join?

In this time of pandemic, can we find the hope that we need to follow Jesus? Can we find the hope to do what needs to be done? In a time of isolation, hope often seems to be in very short supply. But it is hope that will get us through this. It is hope that will keep us following the guidelines until they are lifted. And it is hope that will allow us to see the positive things that are coming out of this, just as it was hope that allowed the citizens of Jerusalem to cry Hosanna on that Palm Sunday. So today, let us celebrate hope. Thanks be to God.

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE

Let us gather our thoughts together as we bring to God the prayers of the people. Let us pray. Lord, this day I pray for the huggers who are missing their hugs. I pray in particular for our Lise, who greets me with a hug every Sunday morning, and who finds it really difficult when I stop her because I may have a cold. May our time of hugging soon return. I pray for the introverts who are stuck in their homes with their families, unable to find the alone time their soul and body crave. May they soon be able to get away and be alone with you. I pray for the extroverts who are stuck in their homes with only their families. May they soon be able to go out and about and gather in good company to celebrate a new freedom. I pray for the immunocompromised or disabled who are often dismissed as not mattering. May we all recognize the wort of every single person. I pray for the families of the immunocompromised or disabled who are trying to keep them safe. May things return to normal soon so that aids which once were taken for granted will be available. I pray for children who are bored and lonely and really don’t understand what is happening or why it is happening. May they be blessed with patient parents. I pray for those who are worried about their parents and those who are worried about their children because that is what families do. Grant them good health and the common sense to maintain it. I pray for doctors and nurses, for technicians and researchers, for cashiers and shelf stackers, for custodial staff and garbage collectors, for truckers and all those people whom we often don’t notice and on whom we depend. I pray for those people who are out of work, people who have been laid off, or put on reduced hours. I pray for people who are working form home, struggling to figure out new computer programmes so that they can keep their jobs. I pray for those who live daily with anxiety or depression; those who deal with mental illness; those who live with addiction – all of those people for whom this weight is heavier because they already deal with so much. I pray for the sick who cannot get tests or treatment because of the risk of infection. I pray for those whose surgeries have been postponed or canceled because of scarce resources. I pray for the dying and the families of those who have lost family or friends. In particular this week, I pray for William Hush, whose mother died this past week. In times like this, we are really conscious of the distance from Canada to Scotland. And I pray for each one of us, because this is a time when we all need prayer. We pray all these things in Jesus’ name. Amen

Now we will set aside our palm branches, to go and serve at God’s side

in a broken and fearful world. Now we will pick up our cloaks and follow Jesus wherever he leads, to learn from those the world ignores, to be touched by the grace within them. Now we will sing songs of wonder,

as we work alongside the Spirit, sustaining the weary with peace and hope.

And, as our worship comes to an end, I offer you this blessing:

May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn his countenance towards you and grant you peace. Amen

 

 

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March 29th – Prayers and Reflection

Good morning, and welcome to our worship today, which is the 5th Sunday in Lent. Wherever you are, whether you are watching this live or not, know that you are in my thoughts and prayers at this unusual time. In the days to come, I will be posting either a prayer, written by me or someone else, on the church’s Facebook page, in addition to the one I write for my own page every day, or a hymn, or a reading from Scripture, or a streamed devotional. So please check back each day.

Our Scripture readings for today are: Ezekiel 37: 1 – 14, Psalm 130, Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8: 6 – 11, and from John’s Gospel 11: 1 – 45.

Again, we will not be reading them all, but I invite you to take some time later today to read each one. The reading from Ezekiel is set in the valley of dry bones, where the Lord told Ezekiel to prophesy to the dry bones, and they were brought back to life. This pericope led to the Gospel song Dry Bones, which is still sung today in many evangelical churches. Our psalm is one of lament, as the psalmist cries out to God to hear his voice. I am sure that these days, there are many people crying out to God, and today we will join our voices to theirs. Paul reminds the church in Rome – and us – that we dwell in the Spirit, and that this is where we are to set our minds. Let us remember this at this time, even though so many of us are presently focused on our bodies. And our Gospel reading tells the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. If you remember, it seemed at the beginning, that Jesus had not paid enough attention to the summons from Mary and Martha, who had called him when their brother was taken ill. And by the time he arrived, Lazarus was already buried. The sisters reproved him, but Martha had faith that Jesus could still do something. Which, of course he did. And Jesus can do whatever we ask of him, too.

In normal times, we come to worship with our hearts full of joy. We bring our pitchers to be filled with the living water which Jesus can give us. Today, we come differently. We gather without gathering. We come together while staying apart observing compassionate isolation. We share our hearts without sharing our physical selves. Come, all of you, lay down your burdens, for here you will be welcomed. Here you will find rest.

Let us pray.

Lord, during this time of pandemic, we often find it hard to hope. And yet as we look outside the window, we see it brimming out of the trees getting ready to bud. We see it in the melting snow running in rivulets down the hills. We see it in the children who still go outside to play, being careful not to touch things they shouldn’t. We hear it in birdsong, as the birds are starting to return from their winter sojourns. We hear it in the laughter of children, whose joy cannot be contained. We hear it in music on the radio, on YouTube, and in myriad other places, sometimes when we least expect it. We smell it in the scent of spring, that peculiar smell that we cannot define, but that we recognize as soon as we smell it. We smell it in baking bread, speaking to us of the bread of life, and promising nourishment for the body and soul. We smell it in disinfectants, which are everywhere now, reminding us of the difference between clean and unclean. So, let us come to you in hope. Hope for the future, for a time when this will be just a distant memory. God of our lonely places and hard times, there is no place so dark that your presence cannot bring light. There are no situations beyond your grace. Yet we confess we sometimes lose track of you, when sorrows stack up or loneliness surrounds us.  Forgive us our hopelessness. Stay with us as we go through the valley of dry bones knowing that you can bring them to life. Bring life where there is death, healing whether there is pain, and courage where there is fear.

Let us come to you in faith

Faith that you will not fail us

That you will walk with us

On this journey none of us would have chosen

And as we begin our worship today

I light a candle

And I turn to you

As I always do

Seeking comfort

Seeking peace

Seeking healing

Seeking love

Amen

 

As I did last week, I have posted links for today’s hymns so that you can listen to them or sing along with them. It is my hope that music will help you find an oasis during a week of bombardment with news from the world which seems to be filled with COVID-19.

SCRIPTURE

Our focus text for this morning is taken from John’s Gospel. It is a lengthy reading, and I miss having someone else to read it for me as I normally do on Sunday. However, I will read it as she would have, and I invite you to listen carefully, even if you think you are already familiar with the story. John 11: 1 – 45

Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.  (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”

When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.”  Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.  So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”

“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”

Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light.  It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”

 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”

His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.”  Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.

So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem,  and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.”  When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.  “Where have you laid him?” he asked.

“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

Jesus wept.

Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.

“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.  I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

Therefore, many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

 

SERMON

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. Members of my congregation will remember that I have a certain amount of difficulty preaching from John’s Gospel. And hearing today’s reading will probably explain some of my issues. Many of the things Jesus says just don’t seem to make sense. For that matter, many of the things that happen also don’t seem to make sense. For instance, why did the writer of this Gospel feel that it was necessary to identify Lazarus’ sister Mary as the same one who had poured perfume on Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair? Other Gospels seem to disagree with this. Matthew does not give the woman a name at all – something which is quite common in Scripture, not to name the woman – but just says that she came to Simon the leper’s home and anointed his feet with nard. Mark’s Gospel tells the same story, but with considerably fewer words than Matthew. Luke sets this in the home of a Pharisee, who I suppose could have been Simon the leper, but in his account, it is a sinful woman who does the anointing. Again, the woman is not named. Earlier in John’s Gospel – chapter 12, to be exact – we are told about the anointing, which, according to this writer, took place at the home of Lazarus, and it was Lazarus’ sister Mary who did the anointing.

Of course, we know that the writers of Matthew’s, Mark’s, and Luke’s Gospel all used the same source – one whom Biblical scholars refer to as “Q”, while the writer of John’s Gospel didn’t. However, it seems odd that there would have been two anointings, which is what we must accept if all of the stories are correct.

So here is the first lesson for today. Just because something is not factually correct does not mean that it is not true. We have to accept that a woman – whether it was Mary of Bethany or some other, unnamed woman – did wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, and anoint them with nard, and dry them with her tears. The point of the story, of course, is to prepare us to accept the fact that Jesus will soon die, and that he will then be anointed for his burial.

Then we read: “So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.” Now, I don’t know about you, but when I hear that a dear friend is sick, to the point that his family is asking me to come, I would drop everything that I was doing to be with him. But then, I am not Jesus, and, as we learn a little later, he had his reasons for delaying the trip to Bethany.

His followers, as we read, thought that this was not a great thing to do. They reminded him that the last time he had been in Judea, people there tried to stone him, and they suggested that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to return. They went so far as to ask him why he would go back. I can see their faces, and hear their unspoken thoughts. They were no doubt wondering what on earth was the matter with Jesus, and why he would want to place himself – and probably them too, in danger. Now, Jesus’ answer puzzled me greatly. He replied, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light.  It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”

Does it seem to you that he answered their question? No, I didn’t think so. He kind of rambled around, using words that made sense in another context. But in this one – not at all. However, that was his answer, and he didn’t explain it. He just left it there. His next sentence must have made them even more confused, for he said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”

Now, as we know, sleep is considered to be nature’s healer, and Jesus’ followers were at first relieved, but then Jesus contradicted himself and said, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

And here comes another unusual thing. Thomas – yes, that same Thomas who was to doubt the resurrection in just a few short weeks – took a leadership role, and said to the others, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.” You see, the disciples were convinced that Jesus was to die in Jerusalem, and, as we know, they were not wrong. But for Thomas to say that he was ready to die WITH Jesus – well, that was a first. And even more unusual – they all followed him. Peter, the blunderer, James and John, the sons of Thunder, Judas the soon-to-be betrayer, and the rest of them. They all followed Jesus to Bethany.

Of course, when he got there, the first thing that happened was that Martha reproached him. But even while she did so, she petitioned him to return her brother to life. Again, it seems that Jesus speaks in riddles when he says, calmly, “Your brother will rise again.” Now, this is not what Martha wanted to hear. She said something like, “Yes, yes, I know that. He will rise at the last day. But that’s not what I want.”

She is not unlike the little boy who was afraid of the dark in his bedroom and wanted his mother to stay with him. His mother comforted him by saying, “Don’t be afraid. Jesus is with you.” The little boy replied, “Yes, I know, but I want someone with a body.”

Just so did Martha want someone with a body. Just so did she want her brother back NOW; she did not want to wait until the last day to be reunited with him. So the two of them had what must be one of the strangest conversations in Scripture. Just listen again: Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

This whole pericope has been a series of disconnected conversations, in which people ask questions and get answers that seem to have nothing at all with the original questions. And that is one of the things about John’s Gospel. It makes us think. It makes us see things differently from the way we have always seen them.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I read this Gospel, I was struck by how appropriate it is for us right now. I am preaching to you from my home. We are not permitted to be together. In a sense, we are all like Lazarus in the tomb, isolated from each other. In another sense, we are all like Martha and Mary, who were grieving the death of their beloved brother. We are grieving the loss of companions. We are grieving the huge number of deaths that have already happened, and dreading the ones to come. Like Martha, we do not want to wait until the end the end of the world to be reunited with our loved ones. And I have to tell you that I never thought about Lazarus as being quarantined until this past week. And now – well now, I kind of am thinking about him that way. He was in the tomb and he could not get out. Just so are many people here in the province of Québec in their homes and unable to leave them. Just so are many of our seniors in their residences, some even confined to their rooms, and unable to leave them. We are separated from each other, just as Lazarus and his sisters were separated from each other.

And when they took Jesus to the tomb, we read the shortest and, to me, the most moving, verse in scripture. Jesus wept. He wept because his friend was dead. He wept because he was fully human, with all of the emotions we experience. He wept because he loved Lazarus. Even knowing what he was about to do, Jesus wept. Even knowing that Lazarus was about to come back, Jesus wept.

The people who saw him weep had different emotions. Some of them saw how much Jesus had loved his friend. Others nasty, making comments like, “Well, if he REALLY loved Lazarus, he would have gotten here in time to keep him from dying.” Doesn’t it strike you as odd that these people, who were actively plotting against Jesus still acknowledged the power he had? Doesn’t it strike you as strange that these people, who wanted to get rid of Jesus still admitted that he could heal the sick?

Now we come to a rather messy verse, for when Jesus tells them to roll away the stone from the tomb, Martha objects, saying that, since her brother has been there for four days, there would already be a bad odor. Other translations are much blunter. The new King James version reads, “Lord, there is already a stench because he has been dead for four days.” And the King James version we are more familiar with says, “Lord, by this time he stinketh, for he hath been dead four days.”

This past winter, when we lost electricity, we also lost a deep freeze that was full of meat. It took us a while to realize this, because we didn’t use that one a whole lot. By the time we found it, it was too late to save anything. And I learned firsthand about the stench of rotting meat. So I can imagine the people standing around, with their hands or robes covering their mouths and noses; some of them probably already gagging at the thought of what they were about to see. Remember, this was in the days before embalming, and it was likely quite warm in the area.

The stone was rolled back, and Jesus prayed, saying “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.  I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” He prayed for the benefit of the people standing around, not because it was necessary. He knew what his father was going to do, and so he

called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  Then we are told that the dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

Our reading ended with the words: Therefore, many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

But if we had read just a little further, this is what we would have read: But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. And this is where, if we were writing a screenplay to make a movie of this, we would cue music of an ominous nature. This is where we would realize that the raising of Lazarus from the dead set into motion the events that would ultimately lead to Jesus’ own crucifixion and death. But that did not stop Jesus from doing what he did, even though he knew what would eventually happen. That did not stop Jesus from doing what he did, even though he knew that some people would even use this against him.

And nothing will stop Jesus from helping us at this unusual time, this time when we cannot even gather together in person, this time when people who cannot meet virtually are not meeting at all. Jesus knows how to handle this situation, just as he knows how to handle any situation. He has gotten us through difficult times before, and he will get us through this time now. So I invite you to place your trust in him; to turn to him, knowing that he is more than able; to put your hand in his, stepping forth into the future together, a future filled with new life. Thanks be to God.

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE

Let us gather our thoughts together as we bring to God the prayers of the people. Let us pray. Let us begin with thanks this day, O Lord. We thank you that our Gospel story reminds us of your mighty power, of the fact that you are the master of life and death, of the record of your love which helps us to trust you and lean on you. Thank you for the Spirit who blew over the earth at the very beginning, whose breath then blew over the valley of dry bones, and later appeared as tongues of flames over the heads of your followers. Thank you for your son, our saviour, Jesus Christ, whose touch healed the lame and gave sight to the blind, whose word raised Lazarus from the dead, and whose death brought us salvation. Thank you for those we love, for family and friends, and thank you also for your other creatures who are also included in our circle of love. Thank you for all your gifts to us, even for those we often do not notice until we no longer have them.

This day we pray for all those afflicted by COVID-19. We pray for those who are still in self-quarantine after returning home from a vacation to something they never expected. May their time in isolation pass quickly and may they return soon to a new normal. We pray for those who are working on the front lines, as nurses, doctors, and technicians. Grant them the energy they need at this time, and keep them well. We pray for those people who are cleaning and disinfecting public places such as hospitals and supermarkets and other places deemed essential. May we come to a true appreciation of their work now and in the future. We pray for cashiers who are constantly out in the public and interacting with other people. May they be kept safe and healthy and may we thank them for their work. We pray for those who are stocking shelves and greeting us at the supermarkets with a squirt of hand sanitizer. May we greet them with a smile and a word of thanks. We pray for those people living in residences who are now even more isolated than before. May we make the effort to stay in touch with them through telephones or the internet. We pray especially for Frances Kelly, who has recently exhibited symptoms of COVID-19. Grant her peace at this time and pour your healing grace upon her and the other residents who are also exhibiting symptoms. Lord, you whose Spirit gave breath to the valley of dry bones, give ear to our prayer today. As this time I will hold silence for a space of time so that you may lift up to God those people or situations you know of who especially need God in their lives this day. (Silence) We ask all of this and we give thanks for all of this in the name of your most precious son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Let us remember that this day, and every day, we are called by Jesus. Listen now to his call.

Come out! Jesus commands, and calls us from the tombs of our existence into the brightness of a new day.

Come out! Jesus cries, and unbinds us from the chains of our past.

Come out! Jesus calls, and entices us into a world filled with grace and possibility.

So:
Go out! Into a world that needs our life, our breath, our spirit!

Go out! Into a world that needs the Spirit of God, carried on our lips and in our loving arms.

Go out! Into the world to live as God’s resurrected people!

Go out: and go on the breath of God’s holy wind!

And as you go, may the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you. May the Lord turn his countenance towards you and grant you peace.

 

 

 

Reflections/Prayers/Devotionals

April 3rd – The Peace of Wild Things

Today, I thought to share with you a poem by Wendell Berry. Take a minute to read it, and then I will share some of my thoughts on it.

The Peace of Wild Things
Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but there has never been a time in my life when I have felt so close to despair. Not when my father had a massive heart attack; not when my mother had a stroke; not even when my daughter was diagnosed with cancer. For now, the despair is not for me or even my family, but for the whole world.
I woke this morning to the news of another death in Québec City – this time a man in the palliative care section of the Jeffrey Hale Hospital. Every day, I wake to the news of more deaths, and sometimes they are close to home.
But then I look our my window, where I see trees clustered closely together, where sometimes I see little creatures going about their business just as they have done since they were created. And, with Wendell Berry, I realize that life does go on in the face of pandemics, in the face of wars, in the face of deaths. Wild things continue to be wild. They continue to live their lives as they have always done and as they will always do.
Meanwhile, we are still self-isolating, still practicing compassionate distancing, still being careful whenever we have to go outside. But no matter how long we need to do this, we never need to isolate ourselves from God. Indeed, if there were ever a time when we needed to come closer to God, NOW is that time.

Let us pray.
Loving God,
As we continue to live
A very different kind of life
Separated from those we love
We thank you that
You are always with us

We can feel your embrace
For there is no distance
Between you and us
We can hear your voice
For you will never
Isolate yourself from us
We do not need to be careful
About reaching out to you
For you are always reaching out to us

Grant, Lord, that we do not
Give into despair
But that we cling to hope
Hope that this will soon be over
And that we will remember
The lessons we have learned
During this unusual time

May we be more compassionate
More loving
More caring
More giving
So that after this is over
The world will be a better place
Amen

Reflections/Prayers/Devotionals

April 2nd – Lenten Responsive Liturgy and Short Reflection

The Presbyterian Church in Canada sometimes sends us liturgies which are responsive. I thought that, today, I would share this one with you, which is based on two of last Sunday’s lectionary readings – Ezekiel 37: 1 – 14, and John 11: 1 – 45. It is responsive, but since that is difficult for some in these days of self-isolation, I invite you to imagine the second voice.
This liturgy was written by the Reverend Iona MacLean from the Church of Saint David in Halifax.

One: God set the prophet down in a valley of dry bones
Many: asking, “Can these bones live?”
commanding, “Hear the word of the Lord.”
promising, “I will put my spirit in you, you shall live.”

One: Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend
Many: hearing the grief, “Lord, if you had been here . . .”
knowing the doubt, “Could not he . . .”
commanding life out of death, “Lazarus, come out!”

One: We are tempted by hopelessness and despair
Many: In our own pain
at the world’s brokenness
saying, Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost.”

One: Lord, have mercy
Many: Christ, have mercy
One: Lord, have mercy

Let us pray:
Creator God,
we wait for you and in your word we hope.
For with you is steadfast love
and great power to redeem.
Help us to trust you
and to share your resurrection life
with all people and the whole creation.
SO all may be raised from despair to hope,
from darkness to light,
from death to life;
through Jesus Christ, who is
the resurrection and the life. Amen.

Interestingly, this liturgy was written long before COVID-19 entered our world and our lives, and yet, I was struck by its appropriateness for this time. Many people feel as though they are living in a valley of dry bones, in a place where hope seems to be lost. People are despairing, despite the fact that other people are working hard to bring us back to a new normal. Some people are questioning God. Hope seems to be in short supply, and many people are ready to give up.
But now is not the time to give up. Now is the time for us to come together – virtually – in prayer. Now is the time for us to place our trust in God and in modern science. For faith in God will give us hope that modern science will put an end to this 21st century plague. Faith in God will give us comfort while we wait for self-isolation to end. Faith in God will keep us practicing compassionate distancing. Faith in God will keep us washing our hands, even when they hurt. Faith in God will get us through this time.
Blessings as you go about your day.
Blessings as you do what needs to be done.
Blessings as you find ways to fill the hours.
Blessings on each one of you.