Sunday, February 26, 2012

The seasons of the church, and of our lives

Text: Mark 1:9-15 (Jesus in the wilderness)

On this first Sunday in Lent, we hear again of Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness. The church uses this passage to call us to our own 40 days' journey in the symbolic wilderness of Lent. It calls us to prepare for Holy Week and Easter through practices of confession and repentance. And it calls us to follow Jesus on the road to Jerusalem and to new life beyond the cross . . .

This past week, we marked the first day of Lent with an Ash Wednesday service in Rockglen, which I appreciated. But when I awoke the next morning to write the first draft of this sermon for a service at Rolling Hills Lodge, two troubling thoughts came to my mind. The first was about how our personal calendars often do not line up with church seasons like Lent.

The second was about the timing of Lent in our calendar this year. 2012 is a leap year in which we add an extra day to February in order to keep our secular calendar in line with the seasons. Because of this fact, I wondered if this year there might be 41 days in Lent instead of 40.

I was mistaken, of course, although it took me two counts of the days in Lent to convince myself that I was wrong. The only effect that the existence of leap day, February 29, this week will have on the church calendar is that Easter will be marked on Sunday April 8 this year instead of Sunday April 9, as would have been the case if 2012 were not a leap year.

Calendars of all kinds, including the church one that sets the dates of Lent and Easter, fascinate me. The interaction of the movements of the earth, sun and moon are devilishly complex, and they have caused great difficulties throughout history for both religious leaders and scientists in creating calendars.

The church calendar is focused around two main celebrations, Christmas and Easter. Christmas has had the fixed date of December 25th since the Fourth Century, while Easter is what we call a moveable feast. Easter always falls on a Sunday, but the calendar date changes from year to year.

The December 25th date for Christmas is purely a church convention. No one knows at what time of year Jesus was born. However, it makes spiritual sense that the early Church placed the celebration of Jesus' birth near the shortest day of the year, December 21st. At a time when the 90% of us who live in the northern hemisphere crave the return of light, the church has us celebrate the birth of Jesus, the light of the world.

Sometimes I wish that the date of Christmas would move at least a little -- perhaps to be celebrated each year on the first Monday after the winter solstice. But since we usually celebrate birthdays on a specific date and not a specific day, I can understand why the church chose a fixed date for Christmas.

Easter is more complex. All four Gospels say that Jesus was raised on the first day of the week, which in our calendar is Sunday. So Easter is always placed on a Sunday. All four Gospels also link Jesus' crucifixion to the Jewish festival of Passover. Their agreement is not perfect: Matthew, Mark and Luke put the crucifixion on the day after Passover, while John puts it on the day of Passover. Nevertheless, the link with Passover is clear.

The date of Passover is based on the Jewish calendar. Like many ancient calendars, the Jewish one is a lunar -- that is, it follows the waning and waxing of the moon. This practice contrasts with solar calendars like ours, which are based on the yearly return of the seasons.

The seasons exist because of the tilt of the earth's axis relative to the sun and the time that it takes for the earth to revolve once around the sun, which is  approximately 365 and one quarter days. By the way, that extra quarter day is what necessitates the occurrence of a leap day every four years.*

But back to the Jewish lunar calendar . . . the phases of the moon do not divide evenly into the 365 days of the solar year, so lunar calendars quickly move out of phase with the seasons. Since farmers need to know the timing of the seasons, most lunar calendars make adjustments. The Jewish calendar does this not with leap days, but with leap months, which occur every two or three years in a 19-year cycle. These leap months mean that the date of Passover, while always close to the start of spring, moves about the solar year quite a bit over these 19 years.

To get around the problem of the erratic timing of Passover, early church leaders came up with the following formula for Easter. We celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. This formula keeps Easter more or less in line with Passover and the moon while fulfilling the need to have it fall on a Sunday in early spring. The formula also means that Easter can come as early as March 22 and as late as April 25th on our solar calendar.

Beyond the connection with Passover, there is also a deep spiritual significance to celebrating Easter in early spring. Just as Christmas is a celebration of the birth of light in the time of year with the longest nights, so Easter is a celebration of new life at a time when plants are starting to sprout. It also results in the two most important dates on the church calendar, Christmas and Easter, being relatively close together -- in some years, within less than three months of each other.

Hmm . . . all that from pondering the problem of leap day for Lent this year!

The other, perhaps more important, thought that came to my mind after Ash Wednesday's service was about how our personal calendars often don't jibe with official ones. The church says that Lent began on Wednesday, and so we are urged to repent and prepare. But what if we have been in a personal wilderness before Lent -- a wilderness  perhaps marked by sickness or loss -- and so we are already deep in a Lenten mood long before Ash Wednesday?

Or maybe our situation is the opposite one. Perhaps we have had an experience of conversion and repentance into new life before Easter arrives on the calendar. Perhaps it is a repentance that has been triggered the resolution of a conflict; or by a confrontation with addiction that, with grace, has yielded to peace, joy, and greater unity with God's Spirit.

Those of us already in a personal wilderness may not need the church to call us to follow Jesus' into the wilderness this Lent, for we are already there. Those of us who have just emerged from a wilderness experience may be living in the light of Easter long before April 8th this year, for which one could only give thanks . . .

And yet there are those spiritual and psychological reasons behind the creation of church calendar. Personally, I am grateful for the reminders this calendar gives me each year to attend to different aspects of our spiritual journey -- preparation in Advent and Lent, celebration at Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost and spiritual growth in the long Season After Pentecost .

This week, regardless of what is happening in my life or the life of our communities, I welcome the reminder of Lent to look inward, to listen for God's call, and to journey with Jesus on the difficult but gracious path to Jerusalem.

Lent is not meant to be an easy time of year. Practices such as meditation, fasting, self-reflection and penitence can be painful. But Lent and its observance are pregnant with all the possibilities that lie dormant in the wilderness of winter and which burst into new life in spring and Easter. Because of this, I look forward to journeying with you during the 40 days of Lent. This journey, as it does every year, will take us through the pain of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to a glorious celebration of new life on Easter Sunday.

All of us as individuals and communities have some seasons that feel like time in the wilderness and others that feel like time in a lush garden. No matter where we might be today, we have heard again the wonderful words that Jesus spoke after his time in the wilderness: "The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."

Our reading says that it was the Spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism. It is the same for all us, I believe. We are not fully in charge of lives. It is God's Spirit that blows us where it will. And although the journeys of our lives sometimes involve pain, we know that God's Spirit is always leading us back to the Love that is our source and our destiny.

This Lent, as we seek forgiveness and try to repent, we know it is God's grace that gives us fulfilment at the end of Lent's journey in Easter and at the end of any life's journey. Life, like Lent, is always a journey from God to God.

And so as we enter deeper into Lent this week, we repeat our refrain . . .

Thanks be to God. Amen.

* In fact, The solar year is just a little bit less than 365 and one quarter days, by just under 11 minutes.. Those 11 minutes further necessitate the feature of our calendar that it skips leap days in all years divisible by 100, like 1900, but not in ones that are also divisible by 400, like 2000!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Changed from glory into glory

Texts: 2 Kings 2:1-12 (Elijah ascends to heaven), Mark 9:2-9 (Jesus is transfigured)

Church school on Monday afternoons in Coronach continues to go well, I think. It is a challenge for me, though, not least because of questions the children ask. Some of those questions came last Monday after we read the story from Mark where Jesus heals a leper, the same one that we had read in church the day before.

One child asked what the leper's name was. I replied that we didn't know because Mark didn't tell us. But I agreed with her that telling us the leper's name might have improved the story. Then another child asked if this story of a miraculous healing was real. I also thought that this was a good question. Unfortunately, I didn't have the presence of mind to use his question as a chance to ask the children in what ways we consider a story to be real. Instead, I simply said that yes, I thought the story was real.

That child's question "is it real?" can lead to the bigger question of whether Mark's Gospel is history or not. Is Mark a factual biography of a poor preacher and teacher from Nazareth in Galilee nearly 2,000 years ago?

My own view is that biblical stories tell deeper truths than can be found in either history or biography. In this view, it doesn't matter whether or not Jesus healed a man's skin infection simply by using his voice and touch. Regardless, the passage reminds us that a relationship with God in Christ heals us of anxiety and brings us back into community, which allow us to endure the pain and illnesses of life with greater grace and courage. That truth is a key way in which the story of Jesus and the leper is a real one for me.

Today's Scripture readings -- the ascension of the ancient prophet Elijah to heaven on a chariot of fire, and the meeting of Jesus with Elijah and Moses on a mountaintop in Galilee 900 years later -- might also challenge those of us who wonder if biblical stories tell historical facts.

Moses and Jesus are separated in time by about 1400 years with Elijah lying between them. Yet the transfiguration scene has the three of them talking together. One might then wonder what language they used. Being from such distant eras, would they not all have different native tongues?

Or one might wonder how Peter, James and John knew that the figures speaking with Jesus were Moses and Elijah No one knows what Moses and Elijah looked like. Did they have name tags, then?

For me, the mysterious details of the transfiguration story do not matter. Instead, I focus on the truths in the story -- that when Jesus is seen as the Christ he becomes a dazzling image of the divine. Or that life in Christ is consistent with Israel's heritage of the Law and the Prophets -- the Law being represented here by Moses and the Prophets by Elijah. Or that our status as baptized followers of Jesus means that at any moment we can be transfigured into glorious unity with God like the glory experienced by Jesus, Moses and Elijah.

The transfiguration marks a turning point in Mark's Gospel. It is the point where Jesus turns from his ministry in Galilee to his journey to Jerusalem, a journey which we will follow during the next six Sundays in Lent. The transfiguration also confirms the divinity of Jesus as the Christ. And the transfiguration underlines that Jesus is unique among the company of disciples.

At the same time, the transfiguration also shows us the glory that is available to all who follow Jesus. As baptized Christians, we all participate in new life in Christ. Because of this truth, we are confident that we will all be "changed from glory into glory," to use a phrase from Charles Wesley's hymn, "Love Divine." The transfiguration story dazzles us with the unique glory of Jesus even as it anticipates how God's love can transform any of us at any moment . . .

Today's other Scripture reading -- the ascension of Elijah to heaven -- was the subject of a conversation I had last spring with Rev. David Shearman, the chairperson of the Transfer and Settlement Committee of the United Church's Toronto Conference. This was during the process that led to my transfer from Toronto Conference to Saskatchewan Conference and to my settlement here in Borderlands.

In one of our phone calls, David asked me how I was feeling about my upcoming ordination. I told him that I had never worn an alb -- the long white robe often worn by ministers -- or a stole before, but that on the day of the ordination service at the end of the annual meeting of the Toronto Conference on May 29th, I would wear an alb that I had inherited from my late father, and that one of his red stoles would be placed on my shoulders during the act of ordination. David was impressed by these details and said they reminded him of the story of the death of Elijah and his passing of the mantle of his prophetic ministry to his adopted son Elisha.

This passage from Second Kings is where the expression "passing the mantle" comes from. In the story, Elijah passes his mantle, or cloak, along with his prophetic and spiritual powers to Elisha. The mantle is a symbol of this power.

The fact that albs are usually white symbolizes the transformation represented by religious rituals like baptism or ordination. Of course, just putting on a white robe doesn't bring transformation. Behind the symbol are the real life experiences of grace, love and grief that are the real agents of transformation.

When Peter, James and John saw Jesus on the mountaintop, they saw him transformed. When Elisha saw Elijah ascend into heaven, he saw him transformed. All of us, I am sure, have experienced the same thing in daily life. When we look into the eyes of our beloved or our children we might see them both as ordinary people and also see in them a blinding vision of Love Incarnate. In the eyes of anyone we love or serve, we might see the face of Christ and so have a "mountaintop" experience that fuels our ministry for a moment or a lifetime.

This week, I watched an episode of American Idol. One of the songs performed was the jazz standard, "I Only Have Eyes for You," and it reminded me of transfiguration. The lyrics go like this: "My love must be a kind of blind love; I can't see anyone but you. Are the stars out tonight? I don't know if it's cloudy or bright. I only have eyes for you." It is a song about being blinded by the light of love.

But as we know, happy love songs are often followed by heartbroken songs of grief and love lost; and this tough fact is as true for Jesus as for any of us. After the transfiguration on the mountaintop, Jesus returns to the valley to begin his journey to Jerusalem, which is also a journey to the cross and to death. This arc of love and grief also characterizes the life of any individual or community. God's Love transforms us, but life in Christ also involves heartbreak, suffering and the painful death of old ways of life.

So as we end the Season After Epiphany with this service and prepare to begin Lent at an Ash Wednesday service in Rockglen, I will close by repeating remarks I made to the Toronto Conference annual meeting last May on the day before my ordination.

On Saturday May 28th, all us who were to be ordained the next day were asked to speak for 90 seconds to the meeting. The task was to choose a favourite hymn, one verse of which was sung by the gathering, and to use our hymn choice as a way to give a glimpse into our call to ministry. I chose the Good Friday hymn, O Sacred Head. The lyrics of its first verse are as follows:

O sacred head sore wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
now scornfully surrounded with thorns thine only crown:
how art thou pale with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn;
how does that visage languish, which once was bright as morn!

After we had sung this verse, I said this: "I chose the Good Friday hymn, 'O Sacred Head' because, just as any Sunday service can be a celebration of Easter, so can any moment  be one in which we remember the suffering of the Way of the Cross. For me, today is a special kind of Holy Saturday -- a time of waiting between the humiliations of life's ups and downs and tomorrow's ritual of renewal.

Ordination is a ritual that, like confirmation, refers back to our baptism. But like all matters in the church, we don't all have the same understanding of baptism. One thing that struck me about baptism in the course "Confessing Our Faith" was that none of the three main United Church statements of faith connect baptism to death.

Not so with St. Paul. In Romans he writes, "all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may live a new life."

My call to ministry is on this difficult baptismal path into death where the hope is for rebirth into a life beyond ego.

When I was confirmed at age 14, I became a confirmed atheist.  Despite that, I went through with the ritual because the person presiding was my father, the late Rev. James Clare Kellogg.

During my teenage years as my brothers and sisters and I drifted away from church, my father sometimes tried to reach us through music. We all loved choral music, and Bach was my favourite. So Dad took us to Toronto to hear St. Matthew's Passion and he led a Lenten discussion group that centred around the choruses from that work, especially 'O Sacred Head.'

My father's efforts did not bear fruit at that time, but my memories of them remained. And so tomorrow as I put on my father's alb, receive the laying on of hands from my younger brother and sister, and am ordained with one of my father's stoles, I will remember the promise of rebirth that is present in the glorious music of Bach and in the sacrament of baptism. I will also remember that it is a promise that only glimmers at us dimly through a veil of suffering and death."

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

Love, safety and belonging

Text: Mark 1:40-45 (Jesus heals a leper)

Do you remember the first day of school when you were young? I was often a mess on those days. Would I fit in? Were there any bullies in the class?Were there other kids more likely to be bullied or rejected than me?

I was afraid that I might become an outcast. I hoped to blend into the crowd and not come to the attention of an in-group.

School can be a cruel place, and because of that fact, children often hide who they really are. But it is not just school. Sometimes even in our closest relationships, we are scared to reveal our true selves. The pain of not being accepted hurts som uch that it is sometimes the thing we fear the most.

In the time of Jesus, to be a leper was to be an outcast. People were afraid of you. There were no antibiotics to cure you. You smelled of rotting flesh. As a leper, you lost all contact with family, friends, and work. The only people you could be with were other miserable lepers.

In our reading from Mark today, a leper confronts Jesus in a surprising way. This man doesn't stand back. He doesn't keep in his place. He steps forward to Jesus, and on bended knee begs Jesus to make him clean. The leper knows that Jesus is someone who can heal him.

Mark says that Jesus is moved by compassion for this man. But there is footnote in the text that says the translation from Greek into English is not certain here. Another possible translation for the word that we read as compassion is anger. In either case, Jesus is moved by this man's story. Where most people respond to leprosy with fear, Jesus responds with compassion or anger or both.

It is easy for us to imagine why Jesus would feel compassion for the leper. He is sick, isolated and outcast. But why might Jesus also feel anger? Perhaps because lepers are cut off from family and friends. Perhaps because the religious authorities enforce this ostracism? Perhaps he is angry because most people respond with fear to people with skin diseases and not with compassion.

Today in Canada no one suffers from leprosy. And while there are still far too many lepers in countries like India or Brazil, the number is declining because of antibiotics.

But we have two definitions for the word leper. One is a person suffering from the bacterial skin infection. The other is a person who is a pariah or an outcast for any reason. So while it's unlikely that any of us have experience with the terrible skin disease of leprosy, we do have experience -- far too much of it -- with outcasts.

As I mentioned at the outset, this can happen in school. Kids often form in-groups, and out-groups -- the bullies and the bullied. I am glad that more attention is being paid to bullying in recent years and that campaigns exist to try to reduce it. A key example is the "It Gets Better" campaign, which was started by Dan Savage on YouTube last year. This campaign focuses on youth who are bullied because they are gay or lesbian.

It is not just youth who are sometimes ostracized, of course. In certain circles, senior citizens are excluded; or people with disabilities; or recent immigrants. The list could go on, unfortunately.

Even those who aren't the direct victims of bullying are affected and hurt by it. We hide our true wants and our true feelings because they might not be accepted by our family or colleagues. We stifle some of our pain or hurt or anger because we fear that it won't be well received. We wonder what would happen if we were truly ourselves. Would we continue to fit in and be OK?

Our story today of a leper in ancient Galilee can stand as an image of one of our worst fears; of being miserable and not finding acceptance; of needing love but not getting it; and of fitting in absolutely nowhere.

In Mark's story, Jesus does an unusual thing when the leper confronts him -- he reaches out and touches him with his hands. This might be the first touch the leper has felt from a healthy person in a long time. And Jesus speaks these wonderful words: "I do choose. Be made clean."

Perhaps as important to the leper as the cure is the relationship that Jesus offers. Jesus is clearly a person with deep feelings. Like the leper, he is angry at disease and social ostracism. He is moved by the man's suffering. And he is stern in his parting warning to the cured man.

More than that, Jesus sees this man, reaches out to touch him, and speaks to him. While healing this man's skin, Jesus also heals the social wounds that made him an outcast. In effect, Jesus brings him home.

It's a simple moment, with the simple acts of seeing, touching, and speaking. And is this not precisely what we most want? . . . to be seen for who we are, even if we sometimes don't like how we look. To be touched by the kind hands of someone who loves us and accepts us despite our brokenness. To belong to a community that is made up of others who have feelings, needs and doubts similar to our own.

The leper in Mark's Gospel has Jesus to reach out to him. But whom do we have? In a rich country like Canada, we don't suffer from leprosy. But most of us have deep unmet needs. When we come to church on a Sunday morning, we probably come wanting to hear that we are loved and accepted even if we are broken in various ways. We come to be accepted even if our feelings of despair, doubt, pain, or fear seem too big. We come hungry to know that we are not alone and that we have a community to which we belong.

It was such a hunger for love, safety, and belonging that brought me back to church in 2001. However, the plain truth is that I haven't always found all of this in church, probably for the good reason that we who make up the church are only human. Unlike Jesus, our inner shame about our own brokenness or dark emotions sometimes make us incapable of loving and accepting one another.

God in Christ calls us to welcome the outcasts, to love and accept all who are broken and hurt, and to create a space where our most difficult questions can be asked and our darkest feelings can be poured out. We are called to create a community where we recognize ourselves in each other and in the God who has compassion for us. But we know that, unlike Jesus, we do not always measure up to this call.

And that is OK. For while we may sometimes fail, God in Christ does not. Inside us, between us, and all around us, we have been given Christ's Spirit to hear our misery; a Spirit that touches our hearts; a Spirit that feels anger and compassion alongside of us: and a Spirit that gives us a home where we belong. It is a home where with grace we are able to create more loving and more accepting communities.

We won't always succeed in offering one another all the love, safety, and belonging we so need and deserve. But God in Christ will not fail us. His hands are always there, ready to touch us in love, and to show us the way home

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, February 5, 2012

Faith healing, then and now

Text: Mark1:29-39 (many are healed)

This week's Gospel reading is the second of three in a row in which we hear of healings and exorcisms by Jesus. So today and next week, I want to talk about miraculous healings and their role in the Bible and in our ministry today.

In today's reading, Jesus has just left the synagogue where he has amazed his new disciples with the authority of his teaching and his ability to cast out an evil spirit. Jesus then enters the home of two of his disciples, Simon and Andrew, where they discover that Simon's mother-in-law is in bed with a fever.

Immediately, Jesus takes her by the hand, lifts her up, and heals her of the fever. Later, the day ends with a crowd gathered around Peter's house -- the entire population of the city, Mark says. Jesus cures many more of these people of their illnesses and casts out more demons.

The next day, after a time of prayer in the desert, Jesus tells his disciples that they will now travel to other towns of Galilee to proclaim the coming of God's kingdom in synagogues and to cast out more demons.

What are we to make of the healing power of Jesus in these stories and of his later commission to his disciples for them to heal the sick and cast out demons? Jesus' commission to the disciples in Matthew's account, includes the following statement: "Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons" (Matt 10).

But although I am now a minister, nowhere in my training was I taught how to cleanse lepers, cast out demons, or raise the dead. As modern people, we might have difficulty with the miraculous healing stories of Jesus and with his commission to us to continue this work of healing

In an era dominated by science, the healings and exorcisms in the Bible might strike us as irrelevant or embarrassing. Many of us don't perceive the supernatural or paranormal in our everyday lives. Instead, we relegate supernatural ideas to children's stories, horror movies and TV shows.

In my first year as a theological student, some of us went for a drink one evening after class, and our conversation turned to the films of M. Night Shyamalan, You may remember his first big success in 1999 called "The Sixth Sense" in which a young boy complains to a psychiatrist that he can see dead people. The movie is a ghost story with a nifty twist ending, and a lot of us liked it.

The general line of our discussion was that we enjoyed each subsequent film by Shyamalan -- all with supernatural elements such as superheroes, aliens, werewolves, or devils -- less than the previous ones. I then suggested that perhaps we should ignore his movies altogether since we were theology students, and as such, we didn't believe in the supernatural, did we? Everyone laughed. But I was serious. Despite our call to ministry in Christ's church, many of us didn't believe in the supernatural.

I think the same thing could be said of the writers of the gospels. When the Gospels were written almost 2,000 years ago, people did not distinguish between forces like gravity, which today we call natural, and forces like demons or angels, which today we call supernatural. Back then people perceived only one seamless reality, and it was all pretty much a mystery and demon-haunted.

Mental and physical illness, which today we know to be caused by natural forces, were believed to be caused by demons. Cures were perceived as the gracious intervention of angels or of God.

During the last few centuries, great strides have been made in medicine based on the scientific method. And one of the bedrock assumptions of this method is that all phenomena result from natural laws.

The amazing successes of science has created skepticism about ancient stories of possession and miraculous healings. Today when trying to cure injury and illness, we focus on the human immune system and on treatments involving drugs, surgery, diet and lifestyle.

The rise of science has caused us to split our conception of reality into two spheres: the natural and the supernatural. In biblical times, most or all events were assumed to be the action of gods or devils. Today most or all events are assumed to be the result of the blind workings of natural laws. Since the Bible often seems to dwell on what we now call the supernatural, some of us may wonder if these stories are still relevant.

The United Church has a modernist bent. But an article in the January issue of the United Church magazine "The Observer" focused on current TV shows that have paranormal or supernatural themes. The article suggested that the success of these shows points to a longing among many of us to believe that there is more power available to us through God than science and medicine might indicate.

Personally, I don't believe that God intervenes to either cause illness and injury or to miraculously cure them. But this belief does not mean that I don't believe in faith healing. The faith that we grow into with God's help is about trust: trust in our bodies, despite their fragility and mortality; trust in the universe despite its unpredictability; trust in our fellow human beings despite social problems; and trust in love despite our essential aloneness as individuals.

Faith as trust often flares up strongest in our lives when we hit bottom. Fortunately or unfortunately, it is often when we are most hurt and humiliated by relationships, by sickness, or by social problems that we awaken to the truth that God's love exists in the world, in human culture, and in our friends and families, and that it supports us regardless of our circumstances.

Now, this side of the grave, we are never completely grasped by such a trusting faith. But we experience enough of it to soldier on as faithful individuals and as a faithful church despite life's problems.

This faith that we often stumble into helps us to see Gospel stories of the miraculous healings of Jesus and his disciples as true pointers to the power of God in Christ, even if the stories reflect an ancient worldview.

Faith as trust does not mean we won't be injured, won't succumb to viruses and bacteria, won't develop cancer, or won't get heart disease. Instead, such faith heals our anxious spirits to the point where we can suffer through injury or illness without losing our connection to our source and our destiny, which is the God who is Love.

Personally, I am not skeptical of stories where healing touch, prayer, and trust in God lead to seemingly miraculous cures. Even though scientific medicine marches on, there is much that doctors do not yet know about the healing powers of the immune system and the deep connections between body, mind and spirit. Such healings, however, do not lead me to then make a distinction between a natural and a supernatural realm. Like the biblical writers, I perceive one natural reality, and it is one that is lit up and supported by God's love as its very core.

In a few minutes, we will we celebrate again the sacrament of Holy Communion. In that mysterious ritual, I don't imagine that we will experience anything other than an everyday miracle. Communion is a ritual of prayer and action that reminds us that we can trust in God and be made whole by God no matter how healthy or sick we are in body and mind.

I said earlier that theological training did not teach us how to cure leprosy, cast out demons or raise people from the dead. But perhaps this statement was short-sighted. Ministry often involves deep spiritual healing that in its effects welcomes people that have been treated like lepers back into the embrace of the community; or that casts out our demons of addiction in favour of the God who is Love; or that reveals the truth that we have been graciously raised from a dead-end of despair into a new and joyous life beyond ego.

Perhaps, then, all of us who work in the church here in Borderlands are healers and exorcists. With God's love, we help each other move from death-in-life to resurrected lives in Christ.

I am confident that this is the truth. So when I hear our next hymn, with its echoes of today's Gospel reading -- in which Jesus as our Precious Lord, takes a woman's hand, leads her on, and lets her stand -- I see all of us in that story.

As we sing the hymn again today, we do so confident that this same hand of healing is extended to any of us in a moment of need or crisis. The hand of Jesus offers deep healing, and it is a healing that never, ever fails.

Thanks be to God.