Sermon for March 22, 2015 (Lent 5)

The fifth Sunday of Lent, Preached at St. Andrew Memorial Anglican, London, Ontario.

Text: John 12:20-36

I have never been much of a gardener. I have joked that the only plants I ever want are succulents – cacti and the like – because they seem to be the only thing that can take the neglect I would put them through. I have certainly never lived on a farm. I have always been a city kid – a city kid who loves the outdoors, but at home in the big city none the less.

My grandparent’s retirement project was a farm in the county. To seven-year-old eyes, it seemed like a big farm, but was really not more than an acreage with a turn-of-the-century limestone farmhouse, wooden board barn, and an apple orchard.

But it was the farm fields back behind their property – fields that stretched way back to the tree line, which is a long way when you’re a kid – that captivated us as grandkids. Many summer afternoons were spent hiding in the fields, creating forts, and hoping that the tall grasses and grains would hide us from the watchful eyes of parents and grandparents – wandering as far away down the back field as we dared.

As we plucked the grain from the stalks, I never, in any of those long summer days, stopped to think about what happened to the grain when we were done playing.

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, Jesus says in today’s gospel reading, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Until the seed becomes buried in the ground, it has no hope of bringing forth new life.

We have spent these last weeks of Lent participating in just that: contemplating the wheat that falls to the ground and dies and then is buried in the tomb.

It seems like just yesterday that we had ashes placed on our foreheads in the shape of a cross: “remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

Death. It has been ever present with us this Lent, in more ways than one.

And while it is difficult to imagine getting closer to the cross than the intimate placement of it on our foreheads, our readings, our meditations, and our worship together over these last weeks have been doing just that. They have been gradually bringing us closer and closer to that cross. Closer to the reality of death: Jesus keeps predicting his own death and now, in today’s reading, he is meditating on it with his disciples:

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

Strong words: Those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

I don’t know about you, but I was always taught that hate is a stronger word than I should ever use.

And the words “hate their life”?

As a society we spent so much time and money on bettering ourselves, on loving ourselves, on teaching our children to have positive self-esteem and to love themselves too. That clearly jars with what Jesus is saying here. Or does it?

We heard Pastor Marty preach on Mark’s version of those words a few weeks ago when they came up in our Sunday readings: For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. And he challenged us to take up our cross with us every day.

I like Luke’s version of the same phrase: Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.

Trying to make their life secure. That sounds a lot like playing it safe, being fearful of sticking our necks out, excessive caution, a reluctance to identify with Jesus and the way of the cross.

Today we are also commemorating the life of a martyr:

Oscar Romero, the Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador who was assassinated, while celebrating the Eucharist, 35 years ago this Tuesday.

He dared to speak up against injustice. He dared to speak up when people were being mistreated. He dared to speak up and ask for basic human rights for his people.

He challenged people to feed the poor, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to love their enemies and seek to make them enemies no longer.

He dared to live the gospel – and lost his life.

Today we also commission a new leader to a new ministry and position of leadership in the church – in this Church of St Andrew Memorial and in the whole church. Leadership in a ministry that we – all of us here at St Andrew, whether we have fancy robes and special chairs or not – share together as a family.

And as we continue this path towards the cross together, we will come to Mandy Thursday where, following in the footsteps of Jesus when he wrapped a towel around his waist and knelt in front of his disciples to lead by serving, we wash each other’s feet in loving service…

From today’s gospel: Whoever serves me must follow me … Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.

Maybe that is what Jesus is asking. It isn’t an ask for us hate who we are in order to gain eternal life in heaven. It is about now, because daily decisions that we make about following Jesus in the way of the cross are simple and are before us every day.

It is the questions of:

Can you keep loving me and serving me, even in the midst of the pain of the valley of the shadow of death?

Even on the day when the gloom clouds will not clear?

Even when your co-workers are talking about you behind your back?

Even when nothing is going right and everything is getting up in your face and discouraging you?

What about when things are going so well that the temptation is to think that you don’t need Jesus? Can you keep loving and serving me then, says Jesus?

And, Jesus adds, God honours and glorifies those who follow.

            Not those who are successful followers.

            Not those who always make the right decisions.

            Not those who never have anything go wrong or never been discouraged.

But those who follow.

Luckily for me and my brown thumbs, I don’t actually have to do the work of making the seed bring forth new life. The seed already has that new life inside of it – I just have to make sure it gets into the ground and water it now and then, when I can.

We are the Church that is the wheat which bears its fruit in dying.

And so, we now prepare to go to the table, where we recognize that because we have died with Christ, we live with him, and, as we holding firm and following him, we shall reign with him.

Amen.

Spring (?!)

1982333_10153966181325311_1595311846_nSigns of spring are all around.

New life emerges as snow slowly melts and creates puddles of dirty slush on roads and sidewalks. But birds are singing, warmth is seeping into the world.

I have traded my warmest jacket and boots for lighter ones and colourful ones. Because these are the days when colour is also coming back into the world.

New things are afoot. I have been working with our theological students council to make things new and try new ways of working together that will, hopefully, make us more effective as a council. I have a new job – a short, part-time contract with the mental health organization I’ve been working with for a couple of years on a relief basis.

And so, in this changing and warming environment, we continue the lenten journey towards Easter when, once again, we celebrate life made new.

Sermon for February 8, 2015

Text: Mark 1:29-39, preached at St Andrew Memorial Anglican Church, London Ontario.

I’ve been hemming and hawing about whether or not to post this one. It is a little bit more personal than usual, but it was a story that wanted to be told in light the readings of the day and in light of life in my placement parish. In addition, people have asked to read it and, ultimately it has already been offered to a community and this is another, albeit more public, community of mine. The story wanting to be told came out of a conversation with my Homiletics professor about how challenging the idea of healing is for so many people, especially those of us who have grown up with the stories of Jesus healing people throughout the gospels. What does that even look like? So, with some help that is noted at the bottom, I wrote a sermon.

Perched on the edge of the Sea of Galilee, the town of Capernaum is today in ruins. Visitors can wind between the ancient stone walls and palm trees while enjoying the sunshine as they stroll out the walkway over the Sea. For the Romans, Capernaum was the town that supplied their fish: upwards of 200 boats set out from here daily to ply the waters of the largest freshwater lake in Israel, catching boatloads of fish and making their living. Capernaum, in the region of Galilee, is just down the road from Nazareth, where Jesus grew up. It is likely that Jesus visited here with his father, Joseph, to ply their trade as carpenters. And it is in this region, in this town, that Jesus begins his ministry. He launches it from the synagogue, the town centre of worship, justice, and community life.

Jesus has come to the synagogue to teach. And teach he does. We heard in last week’s readings how he taught with authority, even more authority than the local teachers. Then he amazed everyone present by casting an unclean spirit out of a man.

Perhaps it was this event, the healing of a man with an unclean spirit, that prompted Simon to look over and catch the eye of his brother, Andrew. The nod in return settled it. And there we pick up the story this morning.

There is an urgency where this morning’s reading from Mark begins: “As soon as they left the synagogue they went to the house of Simon and Andrew…”

Simon must have been tripping over himself to catch Jesus on the way out of the door: Teacher you have to come with me, come back to my house – right now!

And, immediately, back to Simon and Andrew’s house they go.

Simon: the impetuous first-called disciple of Jesus. The fisherman who Jesus called to fish for people instead.

We don’t know what his wife’s name was. We probably wouldn’t have even known he was married if it wasn’t for this story. But he must have been married, because now we are face to face with his mother-in-law.

I imagine her a strong woman, a capable woman who manages the household well. Goodness knows, with Simon, the rash decision-maker, and his brother Andrew in the house, she must have a strong personality in order to compete with theirs. I’m guessing that she has a strong handle on the dealings of the place, probably does a lot of the work of making the food that they eat and caring for the affairs of the house.

But she is sick. Not just any kind of sick – she has a fever. If they’ve had good times with the fishing, they’ve had the money to bring in a doctor to look at her. But whether the doctor has been or not, it is clear: there is not much they can do. A fever is pretty dangerous – there is not much that anyone can do to lessen its hold.

So Simon and Andrew drag Jesus home from the synagogue. After all, he has just demonstrated his authority to teach and cast out unclean spirits with a word. Maybe he will speak a word for Simon’s mother-in-law.

But Jesus does more than that. He walks over to her bedside, looks at her flushed and sweating face, stares into her feverish eyes, takes her by the hand and lifts her up.

And here is where I get stuck in today’s reading: She is healed.

The fever is gone and Simon’s Mother-in-Law is healed.

So what does Simon’s mother-in-law do? She goes back to life-as-normal. She gets up and begins to serve Jesus, Simon, Andrew, and the whole crew.

That’s normal, right?

Except it isn’t.

Healing hardly ever comes like that, at least not in my experience. You’re not sick and dying one day and carrying on as if it never happened the next. Even a minor cough or cold can put you out of commission for weeks. And for those who have been laid low by serious illness or a traumatic injury, it is hard to say if the healing will ever be complete. Indeed, all of those of us who have broken bones in the last year can attest to that: we are still doing the therapy needed to regain full use of our broken fingers, wrists, and arms. It is unheard of that someone as ill as Simon’s mother-in-law could get up and go about the task of feeding a full house so soon after her fever left her. In this world, in this life, it just doesn’t work like that.

Which is probably the point.

It is no wonder that the news of Simon’s mother-in-law’s healing spread so quickly – seeping out of the house and down alleyways, drawing everyone in the city to gather around their front door, bringing with them all of their sicknesses and troubles.

It is no wonder, really. Because who doesn’t yearn for that time before: Before I fell. Before the terrible car accident. Before the diagnosis was given. Before my relationship fell apart. Before my loved one died.

Before.   Before.    Before.

Before and as full of the old life as Simon’s mother-in-law now appears to be.

But could she really have returned to “before” – been fully returned to how she was before she was sick?

She has experienced something that, though it didn’t take her life, has still taken something out of her and replaced it with something entirely new, something different. If nothing more, she has an awareness that she did not possess before.

For her, and for all of those crowded outside of Simon and Andrew’s front door seeking healing, life will never be the same as it was before: they have experienced the depths of despair, the heights of hope, and the wonder of life renewed in a way they likely haven’t felt before.

At least that is how it was for me.

I have to go back many many years now to get to that place, to the autumn when my mum died. To those long weeks, months, and years while we watched her health decline, watched her get weaker and weaker, and then struggle just to breathe – all of the while yearning and praying – to go back to before. Back to a time when she was healthy and we could just be a normal family. And while our prayers for her to be restored to health increased in frequency, our awareness that this was not likely to be also increased. At least it would not a return to health in this life.

Of course, this is not a perfect example, because we did not get that miraculous healing – at least not in the conventional sense.

But I will not forget the awareness that came to me one night as I was sitting in my friend’s van, while we talked and cried together. I realized that while I would do anything to have her back, for things to go back to how they had been before, I would be hard-pressed to give up anything I now knew:

About the preciousness of human life and the gifts of the laughter and music as friends gathered around mum’s bed to talk and sing songs.

About the wonder of community who showed up in a thousand and one ways to love us and care for us.

About the bond of family and friends who will drop everything just to come and be present.

About my own resilience and the profound, inexplicable, but so very real presence of God.

And about how faith did not die when it came up against some of the worst of what life can deal, but was mysteriously strengthened.

I wonder if Simon’s Mother-in-Law and all those gathered around their door, those who encountered the healing touch of Jesus experienced something of that as well in the aftermath of their respective miracles and their return to their ‘old lives.’

Of course, even the stories of healing we hear now are just a glimpse of what will be one day. Jesus knows this, which is probably why he didn’t stay in Capernaum in the house of Simon, of Andrew, and of Simon’s mother-in-law.

Before today’s reading is done, we’ve followed him, in the wee early hours of the morning, to a deserted place where he rests while he prays.

Perhaps he, too, is trying to make sense of everything that he has seen, heard, and experienced. Maybe Jesus is trying to put things into perspective as well, and the only way he knows how to is in the presence of God.

And then his disciples track him down – everyone is searching for you, Lord. And so are we… and Jesus recognizes that there is more to be done, because the work of God is so much broader, wider, and deeper than any of us can ask or imagine. His preaching, and his healing, throughout the region of Galilee is a taste of everything that God will one day do.

It could not be contained by the four walls of one family home. It could not be contained by one small fishing town. It couldn’t even be contained by the whole region of Galilee.

It is meant for all of the world.

Amen.

While this story is completely mine, the inspiration for the second half of the sermon came from Rev Dr Janet Hunt, whose words and story so clearly articulated what I was trying to say that I borrowed many of her ideas and some of her words and phrases. She has graciously posted on her website that those of us who preach may use her posts in whatever ways we feel called in our sermons. I am so grateful for them because they gave voice to what I was trying to say. Thank you for those words and allowing them to be shared even further. She posts weekly, generally on the lectionary, and I always find inspiration in what she writes, even if I am not preaching.

Month in Review

I’m still here!

It has been a slow start to writing in 2015, mostly because I broke my hand just before Christmas and am only a few days back into having two hands available for typing. It is a wonderful feeling to have all ten fingers working[mostly] properly again! It was a freak finger jam of the finger I dislocated as a kid and I spent the second half of December in a bright blue cast from finger-tip nearly to elbow, then the last two and a half weeks in a removable splint. Thursday I was set free to “take it easy” which, obviously, I have been doing…

The last month in review:

IMG_1827We had a lovely Christmas week at Matthew’s family’s home outside of Ottawa, then down to Montreal for a few days with some of both sides of my family before heading to Sarnia for New Year’s Eve with that fantastic gang.

School has begun again, rather uneventfully. Some good courses this term, with a nice balance of practical and academic. I remain in placement at St Andrew Memorial Church and have been refining learning goals for a new term of new learning.

Matthew and I continue to plan our wedding – we’ve met with one caterer and will meet another next week. The date (October), venue, and priest to do the ceremony have all been settled. Fitting for two priests-to-be, the things we have been deliberating on most have included liturgy and who will read what for the service!

Niagara Falls

This past week was Faculty of Theology reading break here at Huron.

Matthew and I took the opportunity to take two days away and go to Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake – time with each other, time to explore nature, and time without having to think about school or school work for a couple of days.

It was a lovely getaway to a place I have not been since I was 11 or 12.

One Year

One year ago this weekend I finalized the pack-up of my life in Victoria and got on a ferry for a few days in Vancouver, before flying to Ontario to start a whole new chapter.

A whole new chapter? Yes, I suppose it was, though the chapter has been just one in a journey of many that started with the first conversation I had, out loud, pondering a call to ordained ministry as a priest.

The last year has had lots of new adventures. I’ve been exploring a new city and region and re-exploring the province of my birth. I’ve been within spitting distance of extended family members who I haven’t lived near in 20 years.

I have started the seminary journey, completing first year (with top grades in the class!) and have begun to lay the foundations for my field placement for this upcoming year. Lots of new friends have joined me on this journey, some who I know I will have for the rest of my life.

I had the opportunity to travel to El Salvador, participating as an international elections observer and witnessing the human rights and development work done by PWRDF partner the Cristosal Foundation.

And there are more adventures to come! Later this month I will be experiencing the Stratford Festival for the first time! Then, I head to Turkey with a group from the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa. I continue to work with the theological society to plan orientation for this upcoming year of school. Second year classes begin in a little over a month (eeek!) and I’ll be starting my field placement at a local Anglican church.

Southwestern Ontario is a far cry from Vancouver Island,  but it is beautiful country with wonderful people, and more things to learn and places to explore.

Here is to year two in Ontario!

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Thunderstorms

I enjoy a good thunderstorm. When I was a kid, I would sit on Dad’s lap on the large wrap-around front porch of our home in southeastern Ontario. We would listen to the thunder and smell the rain as it pounded down around us.

Storm over the Trans-Kalahari Highway

Thunderstorm over the Trans-Kalahari Highway, 2012

Ten years on Vancouver Island meant ten years with thunderstorms being few and far between. A thunderstorm is an event there: one crack of thunder or one lightning flash sees all taking to twitter: “was that thunder?” or “did anyone else see that lightning in downtown #yyj?” It just doesn’t happen very often at all. For a city surrounded by water, thats not a bad thing. I would not want to be on a sailboat with a tall mast in the middle of a thunder storm.

One memorable night in the Solomon Islands, the Pacific Grace was surrounded by lightning. We had to turn off all of our electronic equipment to ensure it wasn’t destroyed if we were struck. (See Offshore Documentary, part 2, starting about the 2:30 minute mark for the footage.) It was a little unsettling to be in the midst of it, but also an amazing reminder of the power of nature.

Driving into a storm, southwestern Ontario, 2014

Driving into a storm, southwestern Ontario, 2014

We’ve had a lot of storms in southwestern Ontario over the last week. Sunday, after church (and after the Dutch beat the Mexicans in World Cup action), Matthew and I drove up to Lake Huron. We were hoping for some beach time and, since we’re about equal distance between Lake Erie and Lake Huron, we can pick and choose where we want to explore each time! This time it was Huron’s turn. It was a beautiful blue day when we set out. Soon, we noticed an ominous cloud towards the Lake. Then, the wind began to pick up. Next, I saw several bolts of lightning streaking down towards the ground (Matthew was being a safe driver and watching the road so he missed them). Pretty soon we were in the middle of the storm. The rain was coming down so hard that we nearly pulled over to wait for better visibility.

Lake Huron, 2014

Lake Huron, 2014

Then, just like that, the rain stopped, the sky cleared, and we were at the beach to enjoy the rest of the afternoon.

Yesterday was another one of those days. I was nearly caught in three torrential downpours whilst cycling around town. After missing the first, a London Hydro employee encouraged me to buy a lottery ticket…I guess that first deluge was a big one! It intrigues me how localized the weather systems are in London. While I could see that there was a magnificently dark cloud over part of the city yesterday, I couldn’t tell that it was raining elsewhere. While I smelt the rain when I got to a different part of the city, and witnessed the second downpour from the safety of my favourite coffee shop in town, I have no idea if it rained a third time in a different part of the city. One neighbourhood: bone dry. Six blocks away: rivers in the street from the rainfall.

One thing is for certain: thunderstorms are fun to listen to, but I’m glad I haven’t been caught outside in one yet!

Summer

The thing about writing is that, if you don’t do it, you can’t do it.

It seems strange to think about losing the practice of writing. After all, over the course of a year in school, tens of thousands of words and hundreds of pages of writing are produced.

But it is different.

The writing was accomplished as spring was bypassed in the abrupt shift from winter to summer. The term ended and a sigh was released as the flowers gradually began to show their faces above the dirt.

Summer.

Summer is fully upon us: Yesterday was 35 degrees and today will likely be much like it.

Summer is long days and the possibility for adventure. Interspersed between sporadic shifts at work – the life of relief staff – have been trips here and there. First to Toronto to spend some time with an aunt and being treated to an afternoon on the water.

IMG_1145Lake Ontario. It isn’t an ocean but it seems as vast from the shoreline. However it lacks the smell of the Pacific, that smell of salt and seaweed and sea creatures stuck on ancient rocks as they are bashed by waves. It is also conspicuously lacking tides, something strangely disconcerting to one used to charting their shifting movements. There was something distinctly tropical about its look at the end of May.

IMG_1165Then it was off to Sarnia and visiting aunts, uncle, and cousin. Theatre, rummage sales, and art shows. Boardgames and barbecue.

Meanwhile in London it is dinner, pastries, coffee, beer, spontaneous conversations, and so much more with godparents and family.

One of the joys of remaining in Ontario throughout the summer is the proximity of people I haven’t spent enough time with over the years. When filling out my tax return this year, I had to detail the distance between old address and new school versus new address and new school. I discovered that I have moved over 4200km – that is if I were taking the shortest route through the northern United States – and it would take me about 41 hours to drive.

So I’ll look forward to the visits when they come and enjoy the novelty that is summer in southwestern Ontario.

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Encounters at home

It was an ordinary day on my recent visit home to Victoria. Midmorning on a weekend, walking up a less-busy downtown street, enjoying the smells and sights of home after nearly eight months away.

I didn’t tell many people I was in Victoria. It was a short visit and I was on limited time. But suddenly I heard my name yelled out. Yelled.

Unsure if it was me (but how many Gillians are there?!) I turned to see where the call was coming from. And then I saw him, one of my former clients from the shelter, running across the street. He reached me on the other sidewalk, picked me up and swung me around in a giant hug and, as he set me down started to talk.

He’d just moved into his own apartment – first one since transitional housing at the shelter. He was doing really well and was really excited about life … and he just wanted to tell me that since he hadn’t seen me for awhile.

I was smiling for the rest of the day.

 

El Salvador

IMG_2680I’ve been going full-tilt since I arrived home a little over a week ago – so much so that I haven’t even stopped to edit/review my photos. (Though you can see a few that I posted to Instagram while I was down there if you scroll back through my web feed)

This week is reading break so I’m hoping that I will have some time to catch up with myself, if only to prepare for the two papers and two midterms due next week before I head off to Victoria for Diocese of BC events.

Processed with VSCOcam with g3 presetI did do some blogging whilst in El Salvador, though the justgeneration.ca website went down so blogs have been posted since I’ve arrived home. The blogs are, wonderfully, filling two purposes: updating our justgen website with stories about what two of our PWRDF partners are up to in El Salvador and becoming the reflection paper I have to write as a part of the program requirements for school.

Notably missing from the blogs will be my concerns with the long hours while we were there and the fact that I got sick from sheer exhaustion. But evident will be the beauty of the country, the warmth of the people, and the amazing work that our partners are doing down there.

In case you haven’t found them yet, I’m not going to reproduce them here, but the blogs can be found here:

Preparing to Leave for El Salvador

Reflecting on Archbishop Oscar Romero

Observing an Election

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On the same day as reported on with the Oscar Romero blog, I had another, even more moving experience related to a friend of mine from home. It is a beautiful story that I am still deciding on whether it is mine to share. Regardless, some amazing moments out of that trip.