Sunday, March 25, 2012

A dying and rising church

Text: John 12:20-33 (a grain of wheat)

In the passage we heard from John today, Jesus repeats the central message of his ministry: "Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life." Each of the many times we hear Jesus deliver this difficult news in the four Gospels, it takes a different form. But it always has a shocking and counter-cultural thrust. Trying to hold onto life means death; letting go of life means rising to a new and eternal life.

This week, I hear Jesus' message against the backdrop of the life of the United Church of Canada and Borderlands pastoral charge. In rich countries like ours, Christianity continues to decline. My question is this: Is the decline of the church a symptom of dying to an old way of life and rising to a new one, or is it just decline?

I start by looking at some markers of our life here in Borderlands. First baptism: today in Coronach, we baptized a child, Austyn Ruby Dawn Marshall. Austyn is the first person to be baptized in Borderlands since the fall of 2010; three other children will be baptized in Coronach on Easter Sunday morning. Second confirmation: we are planning a class in Coronach this spring, which will be the first one in any of the three points since 2008. Finally funerals: most years, we hold several funeral services, the latest being the funeral for Jim McColl of Fife Lake, which was held in Rockglen on Friday.

The statistics in Borderlands mirror those of the United Church across Canada. When I was away on study leave last week, I read a new history of the United Church, which I really enjoyed. It contains many insights that I believe will prove useful to me over the years. But one fact above others stood out for me in this history: the decline in numbers and influence of the United Church over the last 50 years.

When the United Church was formed in 1925, it provided care to about 30% of the people in English Canada. Today, the figure is closer to five percent. When I was born, approximately 60,000 children a year were baptized in United churches. Last year, it was only 10,000. There were only 4,000 confirmations last year, as opposed to 40,000 a year when I was young. The number of funerals has remained more consistent dropping only from 30,000 to 20,000 a year. Now, any church that buries twice as many people as it baptizes and fives times as many as it confirms, is one that is withering away.

The decline of the church was also front and centre for me 10 days ago when I attended an Open House at Rosemont United Church in Regina. After 60 years of serving a post-war suburb in the northwest of the City, Rosemont will close this spring. As part of that process, they are giving away their furnishings and other materials. We hope to get some of this material here in Borderlands, which was the purpose of my visit.

The closing of Rosemont United is sad, of course. Carla Yost grew up in this church, and her father still worships there. The Chair of the Board told me that about 40 people still come to Sunday services there. But as in most churches, their members are ageing, and they can no longer afford to pay for the upkeep of their 60-year old building and for a minister. For the past few years, the United Church has closed about one preaching point a week, and this trend looks like it will continue or even speed up.

I mention all this not to discourage us -- not least of all the Marshall's! -- but because these marks of decline are part of our reality as a church living in an increasingly secular world. Of course, the United Church is not alone in its decline. The same statistics apply to all the mainline churches in Canada, the United States and Western Europe. Nor are fundamentalist churches immune. They too are shrinking.

So, I wonder, what does the rest of society know that we don't? Why are most people in Canada relaxing at home this Sunday while we have trudged out to church again?  Perhaps most people figured that the sermon would be a downer!

Well, in the search for inspiration against this grim backdrop, we need look no further, I believe, than to our baptism today and to the beautiful baby, Austyn, who was at the heart of it. For me, the cry, "Remember your baptism" is often the tonic I need.

In the sacrament of baptism, we initiate a person -- usually an infant -- into Christian life. The sacrament, however, symbolizes the entirety of life and not just our first steps into it. Baptism symbolizes repentance, forgiveness, and new life in Christ. Baptism also  contains the symbol of the cross, and therefore it is also a symbol of death.

In Romans, St. Paul puts it this way: "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, we too may live a new life."

For Austyn, of course, all of this is still only a symbol. She is not yet seven months old, and I suppose that she has only begun to reveal her personality to her parents. We pray and hope that she will have a long, big, messy, and joyous life that contains all the usual twists, turns, and surprises.

We hope that in 12 to 16 years, Austyn will return to a church to take confirmation classes, and that there she will decide to reaffirm her baptismal vows.

Beyond baptism and confirmation, we expect that the trials of everyday existence will present Austyn with many new baptisms by fire, as is the case with any of us. We hope that in each such crisis of pain or joy, she will receive the grace to know that God is with her. We hope that each time she will accept God's help to turn towards new life in Christ, a life of trusting faith, unshakeable hope, and abundant love.

Does Austyn require church to weather the many baptisms by fire that await her? I believe that church can help, and I am deeply grateful for the United Church congregations in which I have searched for God's Spirit these last 11 years.

But if Austyn finds herself living in a community that has no United Church or perhaps no church of any kind; or if she decides at times to be part of the majority of Canadians who do not have a regular religious practice, this will not mean that God's Spirit is not with her.

I love and rely on the the sacraments of baptism and communion that we celebrate in church. I deeply appreciate the power of Christian symbols at a time of loss and grieving as at Jim McColl's funeral on Friday. And what a testament to Jim, Shirley and their family that gathering of 300 people was. It was also a testament to the deep wells of faith, hope and love that exist in our communities and of the ties that bind us together.

But God is with us even when we turn our backs on church, or when the church disappears after foundering on the shoals of a culture that it can no longer address.

Austyn's parents have entrusted her to God and to the church this morning, and for this we give thanks. But even if our church buildings fall down or the Board decides to close this pastoral charge in the future, God will still be there for Austyn. God's Spirit will still flicker within her.

Perhaps when Austyn is an adult, the church will have undergone a renaissance and will be expanding again. Or perhaps Austyn will worship with a small group of fellow Christians in a living room instead of in a church building. Or perhaps Austyn will find a path other than Christianity -- whether religious or secular -- that will give her a trusting faith in herself, her world, and in the loving Spirit at the centre of the universe and within each heart whom we call God. But church or no church, we are confident that Austyn will never be alone.

Christianity is built on failure and death. The Temple of God in Jerusalem is destroyed by the Romans, and the faithful find news ways to worship God. Jesus is killed on a cross by an evil empire, and God raises him to new life as the Christ who reigns in our hearts. Temples and churches come and go, but God in Christ lasts forever.

During my years at Emmanuel College, the Christian thinker whose works I most appreciated was the German Lutheran minister, Paul Tillich. Like many people in Europe, his faith was tested by the disaster of World War I. Tillich was a young chaplain in the German army during the War, and his faith was shaken because of the collusion between church and empire in that terrible nightmare.

After the War, Tillich struggled to find faith on a new foundation. His new faith included the following insight, which is found in his 1955 book on Jesus called "New Being,"  Tillich writes, "it is the greatness of Christianity that it can see how small it is. The importance of being a Christian is that we can stand the insight that it is of no importance."

We may love the church, but in the context of the burning of holy temples and of Christ crucified, it is of no importance. When a church is closed, we may feel sad, even devastated. At the same time, we can also view such a crisis as another baptism by fire. In all such baptisms, God helps to turn us towards a new life that is beyond our old ambitions and plans. In this new life, we taste again the eternity that helps us realize that all of our human constructions, including the church, are of no importance.

Austyn has now been baptized. Like us, she will undergo many more baptisms in the course of her life. Come what may, she will never be alone. Come what may, we will never be alone,

Remember your baptism. God is with us. Thanks be to God.


Sunday, March 11, 2012

Jerusalem and Fukushima: temples old and new

Texts: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (foolishness and wisdom), John 2:13-22 (Jesus at the Temple)

Does today's Gospel passage about Jesus in the Temple have any connection with today's anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis in Japan? Perhaps not. But the massive earthquake in Japan, which occurred one-year ago today, has been rattling around in my mind this week along with the story of Jesus' outburst in the Temple. So this sermon is about the Temple, earthquakes, uranium, nuclear power, and the strange and wonderful universe in which we live.

Jesus' act of overturning the tables in the Temple is the most aggressive act of his career. In the version from John that we heard today, he even brandishes a whip. Given that we hear this text during Lent -- a season in which we focus on sin -- ministers often use this text to ask how the contemporary church may have gone off the rails.

However, I look at the text differently. This week we have switched from the Gospel of Mark to the Gospel of John. In Mark, the story of Jesus' clearing the Temple is set just after Palm Sunday in the week of his crucifixion. Mark says that Jesus' action in the Temple is the key reason for his arrest.

John tells much the same story. But in contrast to Mark, John places this scene at the very beginning of Jesus' ministry, a full two-years before Palm Sunday. John also points out a metaphor in the story. "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up," Jesus says. John explains that [quote] "he was speaking of the temple of his body."

The Temple in Jerusalem was first built by King Solomon, about 1,000 years before the time of Jesus. The people of Jerusalem considered it to be the earthly dwelling place of Yahweh, their God.

The First Temple was destroyed almost 600 years before Jesus' birth by the Babylonians. Jerusalem's defeat by Babylon was the national trauma that led to the birth of Judaism as a religion based on Scripture as opposed to one based on Temple sacrifice. This occurred in the decades of Jewish exile in Babylon.

Despite this new focus on Scripture, the Second Temple was rebuilt following the return of Jewish leaders to Jerusalem from Babylon. Once again, Jews considered this Second Temple to be the dwelling place of God

Then for the second time, the unthinkable happened. In the year 70, the Romans crushed a rebellion in Jerusalem. They burned the holy city to the ground and killed 10s of thousands of people. They also completely destroyed the magnificent Temple, taking it apart stone by stone.

Scholars date the writing of the Gospels to after the Year 70 since all four refer to the destruction of the Temple. Mark is thought to be the one written first, perhaps in that fateful year 70 as reports came to Jews living outside Palestine that Jerusalem was burning. John is considered to be the last Gospel written, perhaps as late as the year 100, or 70 years following Jesus' death and resurrection.

When Jesus was crucified in the Year 30, those who hailed him as the new King were devastated at first. 40 years later, the destruction of God's Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans must have devastated all Jews, included those who followed Jesus.

Unfortunately, there is nothing unusual about the death of God. In ancient times, when one nation crushed another, it was often interpreted as the death of a god. When the Babylonians destroyed the Temple 2600 years ago, those who worshipped there at first believed that Yahweh had also died in the battle. In exile, however, Jewish prophets taught something different. They said that Yahweh had used the Babylonians to defeat Jerusalem in order to punish it for its sins. This thinking laid the groundwork for the later rebuilding of Jerusalem and its Temple.

When the Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70, many Jews must have once again believed that their God had been killed. However, those among them who followed Jesus as the Christ had told of Jesus' death and resurrection for 40 years. In the face of the destruction of Jerusalem, they repeated the good news that God's Love survives such disasters. God is stronger than the Temple. Love is stronger than death on a cross. God might be killed, but the God who is Love rises to new life in our hearts . . .

In the ancient past, people often believed that earthquakes, just as defeat in war, were expression of God's anger. Today, most of us no longer think this way. We understand that earthquakes are caused by the slow movement of the earth's tectonic plates against each other. Untold numbers of such quakes over billions of years reshape the continents.

Last year's earthquake, which moved Japan almost three metres closer to North America, was one of the largest ever measured. The earthquake and tsunami not only led to the deaths of 20,000 people, they also triggered a nuclear catastrophe at the Fukushima Daichi electrical plant, which continues to unfold.

Thinking about the immense age of the earth and the strange ways in which it works led me speculate about where the uranium that was burned in the nuclear plant at Fukushima came from. It probably didn't come from Saskatchewan, although the uranium mines in the north of our province continue to be one of the world's leading sources of this rare and dangerous metal.

Then I realized that at a deeper level, uranium, like all elements heavier than hydrogen, comes from the stars. Stars are huge balls of hydrogen that have burst into nuclear fusion. Fusion slowly turns hydrogen into helium and other elements. When stars run out of hydrogen fuel after several billion years, they sometimes explode. The heaviest elements are formed in these supernovae explosions. These explosions also spread stellar dust, from which planets like earth coalesce, throughout the universe.

The earth mostly contains elements that are on the lighter end of the scale: hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, iron and so on. But it also contains small amounts of heavier elements, which are formed in the biggest of supernovae explosions. Uranium is the second heaviest metal found in the earths' crust. Since it is also radioactive and therefore dangerous to living things, it is lucky for us that uranium is extremely rare.

When nuclear science was young a century ago, the radioactivity of uranium was key to its research. Then came the first man-made nuclear reactions -- the atomic bombs of WWII. These uranium and plutonium bombs proved Einstein right when he said that atoms contain immense energy. Humans can exploit this energy by splitting the atoms of rare and radioactive minerals like uranium.

After WWII, uranium mining for weapons production and electrical generation became a huge business. Tiny deposits of uranium, like those in northern Saskatchewan, were prospected, mined, refined, and used to arm bombs and power nuclear reactors.

A nuclear reactor is similar to the coal-fired plant here in Coronach. It creates heat to boil water that turns a turbine to generate electricity. But while the Coronach plant burns abundantly-available coal in a conventional process, nuclear reactors burn rare uranium in controlled nuclear fission. The burning of coal releases long-stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is linked to climate change. The burning of uranium produces highly radioactive spent fuel, which has to be stored for thousands of years.

When the tsunami disabled the nuclear plant in Japan last March, it released large amounts of dangerous radiation. But the accident could have been much worse. After four days of trying to contain the meltdown, plant managers came within a few hours of abandoning it, which might have left Tokyo, with its 35 million people, permanently uninhabitable. Luckily, emergency intervention by the army brought the meltdowns to a halt. Several decades of dangerous work lies ahead to bring the plant site fully under human control again . . .

In my opinion, science is our current Temple. The story I just told about stars, planets  and nuclear energy is as incredible, and as true, as anything in the Bible. We trust the story since it comes from a democratic search for scientific truth, and since it is proven in every nuclear nuclear reactor that produces the electricity we use. We may not consciously worship at the Temple of science and technology, but it many ways I think that science has taken the place of religion in our culture.

After the defeat of the Jews by the Romans in the year 70, both Judaism and Christianity showed us how God could be worshipped without a Temple in a holy city. Since God's strength lies in weakness, we need not build huge and magnificent Temples. And since life is one long experience of sacrifice, we need not travel to a holy city to offer sacrifices in order to worship God.

Today we rely on the understandings and technology that come from the temple of science. Perhaps we need to hear again St. Paul's words that strength lies in weakness and that wisdom is found in the foolishness of the cross. Could we find something more modest than a nuclear reactor to act as our altar? Could we turn our backs on unlimited growth and so remember that our world is sacred?

Unfortunately, no mechanism yet exists for humanity to collectively decide to produce electricity without unintended consequences. We have built the strong and beautiful Temple of science and technology, giving us unprecedented knowledge and power. But as a society, we do not yet know how to move from this secular strength to spiritual wisdom, which is found in weakness and foolishness.

I don't believe that there is anything inherently wrong with burning either coal or uranium to generate electricity. At the same time, the weird weather this winter -- mild in North America and cold in Europe -- help us remain aware of the dangers in the unrestricted burning of fossil fuels. And the nuclear disaster in Japan helps us remain aware of the dangers in refining and burning uranium.

As followers of Christ, we know that human folly leads us to build Temples and then conduct bloody wars, which destroy them. Like Jesus and the Gospel writers, we also know that out of the ashes of folly and defeat, new life in God arises.

In Lent, we prepare to hear again of the betrayal, arrest, and execution of Jesus. Since Jesus is our Christ, this story contains within it all the pain and horror of life. At the same time, it is a story that leads us to Easter.

Tragedies like the defeat of Jerusalem by Babylon or Rome and natural disasters like Japan's earthquake might make it difficult for us to trust life or trust God. The genius of both Judaism and Christianity is that they face the horror of life square in the face and proclaim the spiritual truth that the God who is Love lives on even in the face of defeat, destruction and death.

Humans build wonderful temples; and then we tragically lay these temples to waste. The good news is that out of the ashes arises the unquenchable Spirit of God's love, which continues to shine within each foolish heart.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The cross: accept no substitutes

Texts: Romans 4:13-25 (faith and the law), Mark 8:31-38 (take up your cross)

This winter, United Church congregations across Canada are voting on church doctrine. The General Council of our church has asked us to vote on a suggestion that the Doctrine (or teaching) Section of our denomination’s founding constitution, the Basis of Union of 1925, be expanded.

In 20 articles that fill four pages, the Doctrine Section sets out "the substance of the Christian faith." On three different occasions since 1925, the General Council has accepted other such statements: a more conservative "Statement of Faith" in 1940; the well-loved New Creed of 1968, which is printed on the back of our bulletins and which we will recite as part of our communion prayers today; and a longer and more poetic piece from 2006 called "A Song of Faith."

Each United Church pastoral charge has now been asked to decide if we agree with the suggestion that these three other faith statements be added to the Basis of Union. If so, they would stand alongside the original 1925 Doctrine Section. In Borderlands, our discussion and vote on this matter will happen at our next Central Board meeting, which takes place in Rockglen on Wednesday evening March 21st.

This voting process came to my mind this week when thinking about today's Gospel reading. For me, this passage, with Jesus' first prediction of his suffering, death and resurrection and his call to us to take up our cross, is the most important text in the entire Bible. Among other things, it touches on two of the central doctrines of our faith: the meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection and the cost of discipleship -- and it does so in ways that may strike us as surprising.

For most Christians, God's grace is found in the idea that Jesus died for our sins. We assert that Jesus' death on the cross atones for, or makes good, our sins. His death satisfies a legal requirement that someone pay for our sins and repair the damage caused by them. This doctrine -- sometimes called substitutionary atonement -- is upheld by most Christian leaders not least because of the many biblical texts that say as much. One such text is found in the reading from Romans that we heard this morning. St. Paul writes, "Jesus our Lord . . . was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification."

However, I am not keen on the doctrine of atonement. One key reason for my skepticism is today's Gospel reading. In it, Jesus says that "if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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."

Jesus does not say here that he undergoes suffering and death on our behalf. Instead, he calls us to take up our own cross and follow him to Jerusalem where we too will inevitably suffer and die. Jesus suffers and dies in solidarity with us, but his death is not presented as a substitute for our own cross, our own suffering, our own death, and our own resurrection to new life in Christ.

Well, who knows? Sermons on doctrine like this one are often not appreciated. They dwell too much on matters of the head and not the heart. They often lack stories or emotion. And they ignore the fact that when it comes to questions of church teaching, many of us respond with a shrug. After all, who cares?

One of the marks of our United Church has been a relative lack of focus on doctrine. Our congregations are often more focused on what we do than on the beliefs we carry in our heads. Christian life for many of us is more a matter of love expressed in actions than of love expressed in written formulae. 

When the leaders of Canada's Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregationalist churches worked to create the United Church in the years before 1925, they decided to de-emphasize doctrine. Although they discussed and agreed upon the 20 articles of the Doctrine Section, they decided to not create a "creedal" church. This means that when people like me request to be ordained into ministry, we are not asked to subscribe to every detail of a particular creed like the Apostles Creed, the Doctrine Section of 1925, or the 1968 New Creed. Instead, we only have to state that we are in "essential agreement" with the 1925 Doctrine Section. 

This compromise idea of "essential agreement" has a looseness and flexibility to it that upset some of Canada's Presbyterians. More than the Congregationalists and Methodists, Presbyterians emphasized statements of belief. The lack of a requirement for ministers to agree to a creed was a key reason why one third of Canada's Presbyterians did not join the United Church in 1925. 

Since then, the United Church's focus on action instead of creeds has helped us become more diverse, inclusive, and flexible. We have shifted our focus and thinking as society has changed. We have also drifted further away from those denominations who put energy into convincing people to verbally agree to certain statements such as "Jesus died for my sins, and I accept him as my personal saviour."

While there are many in the United Church who uphold the importance of statements of belief, others of us seek salvation in the areas of social justice, human rights, and spiritual enlightenment. Christianity, in this framework, is less about what we believe and more about the work we do to create loving families and communities. Many of us care most about helping each other face injustice and hardship, being present with each other in mourning and celebration, and working to strengthen the community. "They will know we are Christians by our love" as the song says.

Yet here I am today talking about hard-to-understand doctrines like substitutionary atonement and the meaning of suffering, death, and resurrection. Grace is key, I believe. God's grace means that salvation is not up to us; it is God's work. And the doctrine of substitutionary atonement -- that Jesus suffered and died for us -- fits well with this idea, even if the grace in the concept is often undermined when it is linked to a requirement that we signal our agreement with the idea as part of the deal. Surely if Jesus' death saves, then one does not have to believe it or say anything about it for this grace to be effective.

On the other hand, Jesus' call to take up our cross can appear to be the opposite of grace. He says we have to deny ourselves, suffer, and lose our lives to be saved. At first hearing, this call can seem like a very difficult one. 

Well, here is how I see it. Whether or not we heed Jesus' call, we will all suffer and die. In many ways, we were all born impaled on a cross, as one can try to illustrate [I stretch my arms wide]. This is how we were born. This is how we live. This is how we will die. As Bob Dylan once sang, "those not busy being born are busy dying." 

The good if painful news contained in our mortality is that we are certain that at death our egos along with their addictions, distractions, and ambitions will be dissolved. At the end of life's joy- and pain-filled journey our small selves return to the Big Self of God's Spirit. Now, not everyone believes that such salvation is for everyone. But personally, I have no doubts. I trust in this destiny with all my heart and soul.

Jesus' call to take up our cross not only underlines our morality and the painful salvation found there, it also calls us to wake up to this reality now, long before our individual death. By hearing Jesus' call and by joining him on his journey to the cross, we are shown how to taste eternal life beyond ego and its anxieties at any moment.

How often have we seen people experience a spiritual awakening upon receiving a fatal diagnosis? In the face of a terminal illness, many of us clarify our priorities and rediscover the essential values of faith, hope and love. In today's Gospel reading, Jesus gives all of us a terminal diagnosis, one that we know but often try to deny.

If this call wakes us up to reality, then we taste eternal life beyond ego even before our death. Such life in Christ and in loving community can be experienced at any moment on the Lenten road to Jerusalem.

The call to deny ourselves, take up our cross and lose our lives in order to save them is a call to enlightenment. The grace in this call is that losing our lives is unavoidable. The glory of this call is that we can respond to it at any moment. The difficulty in this call is our fear, which prevents us from experiencing new life beyond ego for more than brief moments this side of the grave. The wonder of it is that can we hear it during any moment of pain or joy. One does not have to believe anything to hear this call. One does not have to do anything to heed this call. However, when we wake up to its grace, we are likely to carry out loving actions of great courage.

Throughout history, people have responded to the call to take up the cross and entered into new life in Christ. These are people who sacrifice themselves in heroic acts in wars, revolutions, or in the face of natural disasters. They are parents who extend themselves in love for the sake of their children. They are the saints of the church who visit the sick and comfort the lonely and the lost. They are the people who wake up to love on their death beds and repent of their past concerns. 

For me, faith is not about creeds or belief. It is about trust on the journey: trust in one's self, trust in one's companions, and trust in the God who calls us to the cross where we can lay down our ego-ridden lives and rise to new life in loving community.

If we never consciously heed this call, we still find new life at the end. If we do heed this call, we experience brief moments of new life in Christ this side of the grave. 

Answering the call and living into the truth that we belong to God instead of ourselves is often difficult. That difficulty is one of the reasons why I appreciate Lent. Lent encourages us to to engage in spiritual practices that help us lay down our fearful guard and open ourselves to the wild winds of God's Spirit that flow through our community and our tradition. 

After the next hymn we will gather again at the Lord's Table. The hope is that it will be a joyous and sombre reminder of the feast of life that God gives us. It is a feast that glimmers at us beyond the pain and suffering of the cross, both the cross which Jesus bears for us and the cross we also bear on this or any day of our mortal lives. The table is not set for believers as much as it is set for lovers; those who want to love life, love their families and neighbours, and who glimpse as through a mirror darkly how new life beckons to us beyond the cross.

In the cross lies the painful grace of salvation. We cannot avoid it. Jesus calls us to embrace it. We need accept no substitutes.

Thanks be to God.


Friday, March 2, 2012

Let justice prevail

Text: Luke 18:1-8 (the persistent widow) * reflection for a World Day of Prayer service at Rolling Hills Lodge in Rockglen, SK, March 2, 2012

Let justice prevail. I appreciate this theme for this year's World Day of Prayer. In a minute, I will briefly talk about connections between prayer and justice. But first, on behalf of everyone here, let me say thank you to the organizers of this day: to the international network of women who sustain the World Day of Prayer year after year; to the Women's Inter-Church Council of Canada; and above all to Marian Spagrud and other women from St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church who organized today's service here in Rockglen. Our sincere thanks to all . . .

Justice has many different sides – all the ways in which we yearn to be right with one another. We work to be right with God, with ourselves, with our families and friends, and with our community. At the level of society, we pray and work towards a world in which everyone lives with peace, equality, dignity, human rights, and adequate food, water, shelter and companionship.

In today's parable of the persistent widow, Jesus reminds us that it is God who gives justice to those who cry out day and night. To me, this seems like an apt passage to hear during this holy season of Lent. During the 40 days of Lent, we journey with Jesus to Jerusalem and to the cross. It is a time when we take stock of our lives and the life of our communities. Many of us undertake spiritual practices during Lent: fasting, meditation, penance, and above all, prayer.

Our Lenten journey is an inward one and also one undertaken with our church and with other Christians of all denominations, which is why today is so special. On this journey, no matter how dark the road may appear, God promises us to give us justice.

Lent can also remind us, I believe, that we do not always get exactly the things for which we pray. This coming Sunday, we will hear Jesus confirm to Peter and the other disciples that he is Israel's Messiah, which overjoys them. But Jesus immediately goes on to say that he is a Messiah who will be betrayed, rejected, abused, and killed, and then raised on the third day. Peter is so upset by this statement that he grabs Jesus and rebukes him. Jesus stands firm in the face of Peter's anger. He calls all who would follow him to take up our cross as well.

Like Peter, the suffering and death of the cross is not what many of us might pray for at first. But Jesus' message, although a difficult one, is a realistic one and therefore one that we can trust. Before we rise to new life in Christ through the grace of God, we first suffer and die to an old way of life, which is always painful.

Our old lives may be focused on worldly things like money, power, or pleasure. They may be lives in which we are distracted from the love of God with addictions of many kinds. When we cling to such old lives, Jesus warns us that we will surely die.

New life in Christ is different. It is beyond worldly success or pleasure. It is a life freed from anxiety, distractions and addiction. It is a life beyond ego in which the fruits of the Spirit – such as peace, hope, joy and love – are present.

This new life in Christ to which God raises us might not be the one for which we first pray. However, it is a life in which we are given all that we need.

Prayer serves many functions, as we know. It can remind us of what we most want in life, such as good health for ourselves and our loved ones, or an end to violence and oppression in the world. It can remind us of our deepest values: faith, hope and love. Persistent prayer can, with grace, also help us let go of our own wills and achieve unity with God's will.

When we pray – in church, in community, or in the quiet of our own troubled hearts -- we may not get exactly the answers we want. But answers we do get. Jesus' prayers in the wilderness and our own in Lent do not lead us to worldly success. They lead us to the suffering and death that is an inevitable part of the human condition.

Beyond the death symbolized by the cross lies new life. This new life can appear in any moment. And above all, we have faith that new life is found in the mystery of our return to God's spirit at the end of life's journey.

Prayer can keep our vision and will focused on the type of family, community, and world we want. Prayer can help us remember the love that is our source and destiny. Prayer can remind us of God's grace that gives us the gift of justice in surprising and new ways.

Let justice prevail. For this we pray today. And although we may not always recognize how God's justice is unfolding in our lives or in society, we trust that just as the Lenten journey leads us to Easter, so humanity's journey leads us all home to God's Spirit.

Thanks be to God.