As a minister, I hear from people who talk about their experiences with God. And though there are great differences, because God tends to come into a personís life in particular, personal, unique ways, there are some common themes. One of the most common themes is surprise.
We tend to expect that God will come to us when we are going through some tough time in our lives. When our nerves are frayed, our emotions raw due to some difficult or tragic event that comes upon us, then weíre calling upon God to intervene.
But as I listen to people describe their actual experience of the advent of God into their lives, I must admit that God often seemed to come to people when they were not prepared. They werenít looking for God, werenít expecting God, maybe they really didnít even feel they needed God. And yet God came to them.
Perhaps this tells us that the incursions of God among us are works of God, rather than based on our heightened awareness, our well-developed sensitivity, or even our need. God is free, sovereign, free to come and go as God pleases. Therefore intrusions among us are bound to seem surprising, unexpected.
The stories I hear are about people driving to work, or sitting around the breakfast table, or sitting quietly at home watching television, or waking up in the morning, or moving through a crowded subway platform. What strange places for God to appear! What strange timing!
And yet the very strangeness itself is a reminder: Godís comings and goings among us are Godís work not ours.
One January, a few days in to the new year, I received a call from a police officer. Was I Ross Leckie, whose parents lived at 33 Aberdeen Avenue in Sarnia? Yes, I replied, somewhat worried about what news would come next. "Well, Iím sorry to inform you that your parentís home has been trashed. Thieves have made a mess of the place and may have walked off with some of their belongings." My parents were actually on the way home after visiting us after Christmas. It was quite an anxious time. Their reaction bore some of the signs of grief-denial, anger, disbelief. They took it personal, "how could someone come in here and trash mementos and steal keepsakes that have been passed on from our parents?" The incident brought flash-backs of other traumas from the past. My parentís minister responded along with friends, an insurance representative and crisis clean-up workers of the Salvation Army.
Once things settled down there were some amazing things that happened because of that experience. My parents lived in the same house for 35 years. The neighbours on one side had been there all along. The man in that house worked construction. He was away from home for periods of time. His wife relied on my parents for some things. I would cut their grass if they were away in the summer. When Jack retired he was around all the time. He worried about things I thought were pretty trite. Like, how high our driveway was relative to his lot. So when the cement drive went in, my dad made sure there was a curb to the driveway, so water wouldnít run on to the neighbourís yard. Jack didnít want any snow piled from that driveway onto his yard, increasing the spring run-off. So my dad shoveled all the snow to one side onto our yard only. This went on for so long that enmity developed between Jack and my dad. Communication was cut off. But Jack was the one to discover that the back door to the house was ajar after the robbery. He smelled the gas that was leaking from the flow to the pilot light on the range downstairs. He called the police.
So there was a kind of reconciliation that happened when my parents went next door to thank Jack for raising the alarm. A number of months later my mother talked about the things that had been lost, but emphasized that they were only Ďthingsí and how the experience emphasized more the importance of the relationship with us as her family. "I had been tied down to those things. I was afraid to leave the house for fear this might happen. That was no good."
Perhaps this story Jesus offers us a learning, of how a thief may rip off just that aspect of ourselves that needs ripping off. We cling so tightly to so much stuff. Sometimes, we think of ourselves as collecting things, when the reality is our things are busy controlling us. When things get torn away from us, perhaps it may be possible for us to think of our lives as having improved. We havenít so much lost our possessions as regained our lives!
Todayís Scripture comes from a people who have been waiting. We are reading words attributed to Jesus, and they do sound like what Jesus might have said. And yet we are also reading words recorded by Matthew in the context of a church that was waiting, waiting for Jesusí return.
To those who had become despairing and disillusioned in waiting, todayís gospel said, "Be patient. Hold on. Stay alert. After all, God may come among you like a thief in the night."
A thief? What kind of image of God is that?
From time to time a zealous group comes along and predicts the end will soon come. They have said, "Jesus will return soon, and Godís kingdom will be established!" But todayís Scripture warns against such speculation. We donít know the hour or the time. All of this will happen, "Like a thief in the night."
In the mid 1980ís the AIDS virus found its way in to North America. Through awareness and education the spread of the disease has lessened. Through the use of drug cocktails many of those who are HIV+ can live reasonably well, even with the disease. It came to us like a thief in the night. As a society we were fearful and irrational in those early years of the disease. Here was a disease that we couldnít control and it was striking down young people at an alarming rate.
Yet, in those early days we learned as a society, we learned in the church too. We learned from those who were faithful to one another. There were those like June Callwood who helped establish Casey House, an AIDS hospice in Toronto. There were those who cared for their loved ones at home with assistance from caring physicians who overcame fear and ignorance to learn proper precautions and appropriate therapies.
In many parts of the world, particularly the African continent societies have not been able to cope with the realities of AIDS. Young people and parents continue to die at alarming rates. In the Matthew scripture, we read the words "There will be two, one will be taken and the other left." I can visualize a playground of laughing children, but one by one they disappear to death until the playground is empty and forlorn.
One of the ways the United Church of Canada is still contributing toward the end of the AIDS crisis is through Canadian Churches in Action. Organizations consistently deal with human rights and gender issues as they relate to HIV and AIDS. Canadian Churches in Actionís human rights and gender project has produced a curriculum for training-by promoting attitude and behavior change among men and women, the project aims to help community leaders, churches, ministers, nurses, counselors and others as they work to reduce the negative impacts of HIV and AIDS in their societies and communities. This is a picture of such a project in Tanzania.
We have friends who are visiting their family in Vermont this weekend. Thanksgiving has become quite a celebration in the United States. This is the holiday that people of all faiths and cultures participate in. There is much entertaining and gift-giving associated with it. Black Friday has creeped in to marketing in Canada too. Tomorrow night on the news there will be a report on how Thanksgiving sales have gone.
Here we are faced with a great contrast. The economy is decided or pivots on those shopping days leading up to Thanksgiving. But for Christians, our faith, our lives, our future, pivot on a different event, the coming of Christ once again in to our lives. Be watchful, be on the alert, be ready for the surprises presented by our Lord! Amen.