Friday, January 28, 2011

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

I am not preaching this Sunday. My Lay Pastoral Associate is. I look forward to hearing what she has to say about the Beatitudes.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

Called to Discipleship

Readings: Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 4-9; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

It is no mistake that during the season of Epiphany the consistent theme has been our call to discipleship. Epiphany is about the many ways in which God is revealed to us. From the revelation of God to the Magi to the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan to our own call as Christians, it is about our relationship with God. It is about how God's coming to us changes us.

God calls us as society. Isaiah speaks to Judah, a nation in exile. They have lost their relationship with God. Here finally he gives them a message of hope. In spite of their lack of faithfulness, they will know joy in the midst of darkness. God will not abandon them. Isaiah links the coming of new light with regaining their freedom, with bringing an end to the oppression that has caused them to abandon their faith in the first place.

Many Christians in South America and Africa have experienced first hand what Isaiah is speaking about. Consider the end of apartheid in South Africa. It took the faith of a nation led by political leaders like Nelson Mandela and faithful leaders of the Christian church like Desmond Tutu to bring that kind of joy in the midst of darkness. Archbishop Tutu is widely regarded as South Africa’s moral conscience. His work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made him the voice of the voiceless. He called the people, not just to freedom, but to condemn corruption and deal with the social issues of the nation. When I visited South Africa in 1998 as part of the Women’s Festival celebrating the decade of the churches in solidarity with women it was electrifying to experience the joy of the people in the community of Seshego where I stayed. They had a sense, not only of freedom, but of everything that God was calling their nation to be. They considered that they had a calling to bring light into the darkness of the world. Nothing, not the suffering of the past, not the continuing violence of their society, not even the scourge of AIDS, could keep them from expressing their joy and hope in serving God.

God calls us as Church. Paul writes to the churches in Corinth tackling the problem of their many divisions. He reminds the people that their loyalty must be to Christ and not to the particular leaders in their community. It is God that calls them. It is God who gives them their unique gifts. Their relationship needs to be with God and it needs to be a strong one that moves them past the quarrels and divisions so that they are able to be the people of God and bring transformation to their community.

It is a call to us at this time and in this place. As we end the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity we are faced with the challenge of where God is calling us to end the divisions in our own faith communities. The conflict experienced in the early church is not far different from what we face today. The challenge is certainly how to celebrate the diversity of styles, gifts and leadership without descending into destructive rivalries. It is especially poignant for us in the Church Centre as the Lutherans go through the painful process of closing. They are, I am certain, reflecting on where God is calling them as Church. Those are reflections that need to be before us constantly as a congregation. Where is God calling this community of faith? Are we being faithful to our call?

And God calls each one of us as individuals. Matthew recounts the story of Jesus calling the disciples. What has gone on before is of real significance. John baptized Jesus in the river Jordan. Jesus went into the desert by himself for forty days. He was tempted by the devil in the wilderness. He refused to use his divine powers for his own ends. Now he is ready to begin his ministry in earnest. He settles in Capernaum, rather a strange choice of place. It is a harbour town, home to cutthroats and pagans, not the easiest setting in which to begin his ministry. The words of Isaiah about bringing light into darkness flood into his consciousness. Empowered by those words, he realizes that God is with him illuminating the path. He sets out to find disciples to assist with the work.

The story of the call of the disciples is really pretty simple. But it raises two big questions, at least in my mind. The first is about Peter and Andrew. Jesus sees them casting their nets into the sea. He invites them to follow him. "I will make you fish for people," he says. They respond immediately. Why would two fishermen respond to an invitation from a total stranger?

Then the second question! James and John are helping their father mend the nets. He calls them. They leave their father and the boat and follow Jesus. Why would Jesus even ask James and John to desert their father in the middle of their work? Didn't Jesus care about their father, Zebedee, who depended on their help in the family business?

The crux of the matter is that being a disciple involves making decisions. If they were to do God's will they first had to respond to Jesus' invitation! As Christians, we too need to respond to the invitation. We need to make a conscious decision about what we will and will not do. Only then can God reach out to a society in need of transformation. So what is our response to the invitation? What will we do to bring light and healing into the lives of others?

We live in a society that is dehumanizing in so many ways. Many people in this day and age relate far more to a machine than they ever do with other people. Many of our friendships are in cyberspace. The sheer number of people who live and work in our cities also does not allow for relationship. I experienced that over this past week. For two days I went on the Go train into Toronto to attend a conference at Trinity College. Union Station is a maze of corridors meant to lead as many people as possible in the right direction. People become very goal oriented as the work their way as fast as possible to their destination. Despite the number of people I found it strangely quiet. I was unsure of exactly where to go, but the crowd carried me in its direction. I did end up in the right place, but I felt a total lack of connection to those very people who were compelling me to follow. I felt like a rat in a maze just going through the motions of making my own decision about where to go and how to get there.

As I reflect on our call as Church I believe our most important call is to be a warm and welcoming community that stands in contrast to all in society that dehumanizes. I suspect that most of you come to St. Francis because you find it to be exactly that, a warm and welcoming place that you call home. If it is that for you, then what action are you taking to make certain that it continues to be a place of nurture? How do we bring this church alive? How do we become a community of faith that engages society with a vision of God's kingdom? How do we convince people that we really do serve a loving God? Would they know it by the way we live our lives?

Our community needs the commitment of every one of us. We need to make a faith commitment that says that we are not simply a rat in a maze being carried along by the crowd not really knowing where we are headed. We must be disciples, each one of us, leaving the nets and following Jesus to learn at his feet. It takes a commitment to being in regular attendance at church. It takes a commitment to read Scripture, not just on Sunday, but every day; to take in and understand the Word of God; to become literate in the Christian faith; to prepare ourselves spiritually to be Christ in the world.

Our community needs each one of us to make a commitment of time and talent. This church depends on volunteers. As we approach Vestry it is a good opportunity to take seriously you call to give your time and your talents. It is easy to leave it to the faithful few until they simply burn out. Consider how you might serve. What are the skills that God is calling you to share in this community?

Our community needs each one of us to make a commitment of treasure. God has richly blessed us. We are privileged to live in one of the richest countries of the world. We may not be the wealthiest people in our country in the whole scale of things, but we have enough and more than enough. Yet we often live as if we are impoverished. Can we learn to give to God from our abundance?

Our community needs each of us to be so committed to the faith that people will be drawn in. For me that really is the only reasonable option. I must be so committed myself that people will be drawn in. I cannot be lukewarm about my faith and expect to encourage other people. It only takes a spark, but the spark has to be there. Bishop Victoria said that people are drawn to the faith because they smell God on you. There is a wonderful truth in that. The best way I know to bring people to faith is to live it out in my life. That means constantly inquiring further into the spiritual, learning all I can about God. It means setting aside time for reading the Scriptures and for prayer. It means examining my life and realizing that I fall short of God’s glory. It means asking God for forgiveness. It means seeing things the way God sees them. It means watching for the opportunities that God gives me to share the good news. It means following where God leads me. It means seeking out people in the way that Jesus sought out the disciples. It means engaging others in the vision and agenda of the kingdom with light and compassion.

I invite you to do exactly that! Amen.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

How To

Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

One can find out how to do almost anything on the internet. There is actually a site called exactly that. It offers information amongst other things on how to teach an old dog new tricks, how to service your car, how to cook, how to run a garage sale, how to write a will or get a divorce, and even should you ever need to know, how to raise mealy worms. Now I have not checked out the information, but there are, of course no guarantees that what you might discover on such a website actually works.

The readings this week, on the other hand, present us with many useful ‘how to’s’ tried and trusted over many centuries. The psalm suggests how to find inner strength, how to tap into our hidden gifts and resources. It is a psalm that praises God for deliverance from a tumultuous experience of desolation. In it, despair turns to praise as the psalmist remembers how trustworthy God is. Even in the midst of his troubles he remembers the times that God has been faithful. He opens his heart in praise.

Paul writes a letter to a Christian community not noted for its harmony. It is a fractured and divided community. They are richly endowed with spiritual gifts, but love often seems to be lacking. Paul knows that God has chosen them. God only knows why. Paul’s actions give us a good model for ministry. He continues to pray for them, to give thanks for their gifts, and to understand that part of his call is to bring back those who are struggling with the faith. He affirms the work they are doing. He affirms their gifts. Somehow or other God does get it right. Everything comes together.

In the Gospel there is a very simple ‘how to’ about evangelism that gives a demonstration of what God calls us to do. Two of John’s disciples overhear a conversation in which John the Baptist proclaims, “Look! The Lamb of God!” It is enough to pique their curiosity. They follow Jesus. Jesus engages them in conversation and finally invites them to see where he is staying. It is an invitation they immediately accept. But it does not stop there. Andrew, one of the two disciples heads off to find his brother. He can hardly wait to share his experience. When he finds his brother he says to him, “We have found the Messiah.”

What can we learn from these simple ‘how tos’? Many people are calling for a return to faith in God. People are searching because they are reeling from the brokenness of the world in which we live. The drug culture, the violence of our modern society, the breakdown of family values, the failure of marriages, terrible events like 9-11 and the Tucson rampage of last week, the murder of a police officer on the streets of Toronto, the impact of the natural disasters which seem to be happening in every corner of the globe! People are more and more aware of the uncertainty of time. That is when people begin to ask deep faith questions about life and about life to come. That is when they look for fulfillment in their lives.

That makes it a fruitful time for the Christian church, a time of opportunity, a time in which we should have increasing relevance. And yet often we don’t. We remain stuck in old ways of doing things. We should be reaching out to the seekers and the unchurched in our society. We should be finding ways to meet the spiritual needs of the community. In this season of Epiphany during which we celebrate the many ways that God is revealed to us, we have an opportunity to reflect, not only on our baptismal call, but also on our responsibility to do exactly that, to reach out to those who are seeking.

The gospel does not simply tell us that we are called to discipleship. It demonstrates it for us. It gives us a wonderful model to follow. The first thing, the very first thing that Andrew does when he is introduced to Jesus is to take his brother to see him. He does not worry about his lack of qualifications. He does not consider what his brother might think of his actions. He does not wait for someone else to do it for him. He acts. We think that it is such a big deal to share our faith. It is so 'unanglican'. It was natural for the disciples. How do we make it natural to share our faith in our workplace and in our community? How do we begin to share our religious experiences?

It surely begins by considering our own call. Why do you go to church? Seriously, why? Why are you called? What difference does being a Christian make in your life? If you don't know the answer to that question, you are not ready to share the gospel.

What really counts is that Jesus Christ calls us to this tradition. We are still reading the same Scriptures that were read two thousand years ago. We are breaking the same bread and sharing the same cup that have been broken and shared for two thousand years. Our baptism calls us to share in a tradition that goes back two thousand years. Either we are in a terrible rut, or God is calling us to do something about it. What does God want from us? How do we live that out in a changing society?

We are called to discipleship, to share our faith, to have an impact on society. Most of us just say that it is an impossible task. We become so immobilized by anger or fear or insecurity that we cannot do anything to bring about change. But surely if we are creative, we can do something to improve conditions. We can feed hungry people. We can lobby the government for adequate housing. Think of the wonderful outreach our parish accomplished during the last year. We gave money to FaithWorks that funds community ministries like the Dam and Anglican Houses. We provided services at Credit Valley Hospital, Erin Meadows, Edenwood and Heritage Glen. Our ACW raised funds for many wonderful projects. We provided families with Christmas hampers. We made over twenty gift boxes for Samaritan's Purse. We provided hundreds of dollars in food vouchers for needy people in our community. The list can go on and on.
But there is more to discipleship, isn't there? We need to show people what God is like. And truly it may not happen as it has in the past. People who have no memory of church or what impact faith can have in one’s life will look for fulfillment in other ways. We may need to explore new ways of being church. We may need to find what are being called “Fresh Expressions” of church. We may even discover that we already have some fresh expressions of church happening here.

The question still remains, how do we get across to people what God means in our lives? John knew Jesus because the Spirit remained on him. And that same spirit is given to us. It remains with us, strengthening, guiding and leading us on to experience more and more of God. We in turn share it with others.

About your own call, you wouldn't be a part of the church if you weren't called. So know that you can make a difference and do something about it. Share with others what God is like, what God has done in your life. Live out your calling. And do not worry about how to do it. God will provide the words. God will provide the way. Amen.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Baptism of the Lord, Year A

Reflections in the Water

Readings: Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

The season of Epiphany which we have entered takes its name from the Greek word ephiphania which was used by the Greeks to explain the visit of a god to earth. As Christians for us the season celebrates how Jesus becomes known to us as the Son of God. It is about how God is revealed to humanity. These Sundays during the season of Epiphany show the divine power of our Lord in some of his most striking miracles. All are ways in which God makes God's self known to humanity.

Today the readings centre on the baptism of our Lord as he enters into his time of public ministry. We hear the story of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. It is a story that celebrates who Jesus is. Jesus, the sinless one, is baptized by John in a baptism of repentance. For the Jews a baptism was a ritual washing. For the Greeks baptism meant literally to wash. John was ritually washing people to demonstrate that a change was taking place in their lives. For Jesus it was a call to ministry that changed the whole meaning and role of the rite. As he comes up out of the water the heavens are opened, the spirit of God descends like a dove and lights on him. Those present hear the voice of God announcing, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus is revealed as God’s chosen one. It is, if you wish, his ordination, the beginning of his earthly ministry.

This Sunday is not simply a celebration of who Jesus is. It is a celebration for each of us, for baptism is our ordination, the beginning of our ministry. In our Lord’s life, his offer of himself for baptism was followed by his full commitment to ministry. In the excitement of the day as we celebrate baptism, particularly the baptism of a baby, we often forget that it must always be followed by commitment. We see it more as a rite of passage, as a time of naming rather than as full membership in the body of Christ. We need to affirm baptismal ministry by living out our faith in every sense of the word. We need times of re covenanting, reminders of our baptismal promises. That is why at every baptism there is an opportunity to renew our covenant. Even though we have no baptism today, the renewal of our baptismal covenant will be part of our worship.

So what does it mean to celebrate baptism? The heart of the Christian faith means that by baptism each of us is brought into intimate relationship with a loving Lord. The simple fact is that I am God's beloved daughter. You are God's beloved son or daughter. It is for each of us to claim that and to live in the joy and confidence of it.

There is something very special about baptism. Something miraculous happens! I sense it in every baptism that I do. It is about realizing as I say the words, “I baptise you” that this person now belongs to God in a special way. When I hold a baby in my arms and pour water over the child's forehead, I share in the hopes and dreams of the parents who have brought the child for baptism. I have no way of knowing what the future holds, but I know that this particular child is in the hands of a loving God.

I see the reflected in the waters of baptism some of the children I have baptised. I remember my first baptism. I was working as a Chaplain in a Toronto Hospital during my studies at Trinity. I was on call one night when I was paged from the ward I was working in, the neonatal unit. I knew what that meant. In fact, it was what I had suspected. A mother had gone into early labour and had delivered a tiny preemie, scarcely the size of my hand. She was not expected to live. The family wanted her to be baptized. I found a basin and some water. I baptized her there with her family gathered around her. “Katie Harper Hall” they told me when I asked her name. I remember the feeling of awe as I looked around the room at those gathered for her baptism. I named her, choking back my own tears. I sprinkled water over her, baptizing her in the name of God, the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It was a sacred moment in which we all shared.

I see reflected in the waters of baptism some of the children from my first parish. There was a set of twins from Bequia adopted by one of the parish families. There was the baby girl who sang as I held her in my arms.

I see reflected in the waters of baptism many people from this parish. There is Jack. He was old enough to participate in a meaningful way in preparing for his baptism. I told him that I would sign him with the sign of the cross using holy oil and that that sign would stay with him throughout his life. He asked me several times after that if I could still see the sign of the cross on his forehead. Many of the children who have been baptised here continue to participate as full members of the body of Christ. They come to our Sunday School. They are servers at the altar. They are living out their Baptismal Covenant.

I see reflected in the water of the font, adult baptisms that have taken place. There is something so inspiring about an adult baptism. It is a joyful celebration that recognizes the transformation that takes place in our lives as we come to faith and accept it as our own. A wise woman named Corrie Ten Boom told me when I was just a child, “God has no grandchildren”. I did not fully understand what it was she was saying to me. That came later as I realized that just because my parents were believers did not mean that I was. It was something I needed to accept for myself.

Even though it is normative to baptise infants, there still comes a time when each of us is called on to accept the responsibility that comes with serving God. That is why adult baptisms are such special occasions. They are not being baptised as is sometimes the case with infants simply as a formality, as something that parents have “done” to their children. They are responding to God’s call. They are recognizing the longing in their hearts. They are feeling that need to belong, to be a child of God.

I see my own reflection in the waters of baptism as well. I know the story of that day, both from my parents and from my godparents. I certainly do not remember the event. I was a little over a month old. What I do know is that something extraordinary in my life took place that day in that small church in Byng. It was the most important day of my life. The fact that I am baptized fills me with sheer wonder. To know that God has received me as a God’s child is a source of endless joy. That day I became a member of the Body of Christ. It was the beginning of a life long journey of discovery about God, but also about myself. It amazes me to think that God says about me, “Here is another one of my beloved children”.

So what difference has your baptism made in your life? There are consequences to baptism. We are redeemed and reconciled by the Spirit. We are called to follow Jesus. We have the task of being light to the nations, of opening blind eyes, of bringing prisoners out of bondage, of feeding and clothing the poor and hungry. We are called to serve God. We are called to be Christ in a broken and needy world.

That brings me to the final reflection in the waters of the font. For reflected there in all of his risen glory, I see the face of Christ. Amen.

The Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

Come and See Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42 Invitations come in many shapes and sizes. They ...