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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Baptism of Christ

January 8, 2012

And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you'.” Good morning and welcome to the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus.

This is the Epiphany season and you will recall the meaning of the word Epiphany. It is a sudden manifestation of the meaning of something, a showing forth, an ‘Aha” moment.

Our ‘aha’ moment today comes from the life of Jesus, and of course, His ‘Aha’ moment in discovering His public ministry. Recall the voice coming to Jesus. It was personal, the voice from the Heavenly Father declaring to Jesus His role. It is a clear moment of identity. “You are my own dear Son,” not “This is my own dear Son,” which could be interpreted as a voice that was heard by all.

Jesus’ own baptism comes at a time when many were being baptized ahead of him. Some scholars have suggested Jesus went into the water, to acknowledge the importance of baptism and to be one with the crowd. Earlier, we read how the crowd believed John might be the promised Messiah, as he had reached many people with his message of the need of a baptism of repentance.

Of course, John replies, “I baptize you with water, but someone is coming who is much greater than I am. I am not good enough even to untie his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

In Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus, John tries to change Jesus’ mind about baptism. “I ought to be baptized by you,” John said, “and yet, you come to me!” Jesus says, “Let it be so for now. For in this way we shall do all that God requires.” Jesus was participating in John’s baptism of repentance. He pointed the way to Jesus, who was the Messiah, the One to come, the Anointed One, the One who would save all of humanity from sin. While John’s baptism was for repentance, the baptism into Jesus was one of remission.

In his book, God Hides in Plain Sight, author Dean Nelson equates baptism to initiation, similar to initiation rites he experienced in the camping movement. He talks of how he had to go out into the bush on his own prior to becoming one of the campers.

Turns out, he didn’t actually get it done right. He was rescued from the forest by the assistant scoutmaster.
“We never told anyone we had violated the rules. If the organization’s elders are reading this now, I will send back my sash,” he writes, adding Christian baptism is a means “by which God uses the symbol of water to show that our old self is washed away and we accept our new self as a member of a spiritual family. It is a means by which we recognize ourselves as new creatures. It’s a type of initiation.”
Our own baptisms are meant to give us meaning, identity, and connection with Jesus. Therefore, the symbol of the sacrament is water. Our baptism in water is a sign of identifying with Jesus. We die, if you will, to sin. We identify with Jesus, who died for us, and in so doing, brings new life. The outward sign, then, is water. The inward grace is the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit who came down upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove. We read of the baptism in Jesus in our second reading today.

It’s been said that the sacrament is a means by which God washes away the illusion of who we think we are. Thomas Merton called baptism “the sacrament of illumination” (Thomas Merton, The Living Bread (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1956), 102). It is a means by which we discover who we really are.

We are in the season of Epiphany. The season is one of illumination and personal growth. The word means “showing forth,” so the season is all about capturing the life of Christ within us. In the process, we achieve many moments of ‘aha’ or “Now I get it.” This occasion, this celebration of the baptism of Jesus can be an ‘aha’ moment for us as Christians. Since Christmas, we have learned of the significance of the three wise men, the Magi, who travelled from the east to bring their gifts. They were the first Gentiles who arrived, and it is the ‘aha’ moment when we recognize that Jesus’ birth and coming into the world was meant for all people.

In Epiphany, we often hear of the story of Jesus’ childhood moment when He abandoned His parents in favour of being among the spiritual leaders of the day. There is another ‘aha’ moment, as we, too, recognize we must be in relationship with our Father, His Son Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Then, today, we hear of the baptism moment, when Jesus was about 30 years of age. Not long after, Luke records the temptation in the wilderness, which we will hear about in the Lenten season.

We are closely and personally connected with Jesus at our baptism. It is an individual event, and in our Anglican tradition, it is commonly children who are baptized. Likely then, you will have no memory of it unless you were baptized as an adult. Thankfully, since I have been here we have baptized adults, and I am sure if you ask them they will tell you of the significance of that moment.

At the moment of baptism, we are made members of a great Christian family the Apostle Paul calls “the body of Christ.” As such, we need each other as we move forward in the same mission of Jesus, to promote the unconditional love of God, of His forgiveness and mercy, of His desire to bless us. As such, though we are individuals, we are not complete until the body, the members, meet. I wonder how much of this concept has been lost in recent years. Not long ago, I read a blog by Professor Richard Leggett from the Vancouver School of Theology. He was walking from the Cathedral on his way somewhere else, and noticed a number of people congregated around a city park who were members of the Occupy movement…you recall them? I believe it started with the Occupy Wall Street movement and spread. Anyway, Dr. Leggett’s blog wondered what happened to the church in recent years, as many are struggling with finance and attendance.

Then, as he walked by this Occupy movement, it hit home. The church, as we know it, started out as a rag tag bunch of disciples following Jesus, who revealed Himself to be the Messiah. The whole of the purpose of this early group was founded in the teachings of the person we know as Jesus. The church as we know it started out as a group of people not unlike the occupiers, who were in relationship with Jesus and each other. They had a common cause. The Occupy movement may fizzle since it branched out into various causes to support and has no known leader. The early church is not like that. Early disciples, or “learners”, followed Jesus and grew in numbers after many came to Jesus following His death and resurrection. The Easter event brought transformation and new life. We celebrate that and recall that event each week in Eucharist. This was the gist of Leggett’s theory.

When the church turned into a religion, an institution, it lost credibility in many people’s eyes. The church as an institution was seen as looking inward and passing on its mandate to spread the Good News, that God so loved the world He sent His only Son to the end that all who believe would not perish in sin, but have eternal life. This is Good News for all. When churches focus on their buildings, their operating costs if you will, and forget the mission or worse: that we are in relationship, each one, with Jesus, that is when we suffer. We are blessed, on the other hand, when we participate with Jesus in His mission to the world.

Tradition was meaningful in the early Church, as only adults were baptized and only after an intense period of training. If a person wanted baptism, it started with the questioning of this faith and the desire to know more. A sponsor was appointed and guided the person through training. At its completion, the adults to be baptized would gather, often in a cave, as Christians were persecuted in those days. The candidates were led into deep water after shedding their old clothes. Upon baptism in the threefold formula—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— the candidate was led to the other side and given a fresh set of new robes and a candle, a reminder of the light of Christ, presented to the person. The baptism itself included a complete immersion into the water and that immersion was the symbol of death—death to the old way of life and a rising to new life.

Baptism was and is a way of connecting to Jesus and His own life and death and an acceptance of the new life offered in Christ through the Holy Spirit. It was the new life taught by John when he said One was coming who would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit.

Baptism, then, gives us our identity. No matter where we go, no matter what we do, we are one in Christ, we are united with each other. This family, the community of St. James, is the body of Christ known as St. James. When one of us is missing, we all feel it. When one is hurting we all hurt. Therefore, we are not volunteers as I sometimes hear. Technically, there are no such animals as volunteers in the church. Each of the baptized bring their gifts into whatever they do, and are Christians at work, at home, at play, at sleep. When I attend a family gathering, I am a Christian and a priest. When I attend a business meeting, I am a Christian and a priest. When I lead worship I am a Christian and a priest. I find it fascinating to hear people say, “I am of the Anglican faith” when asked what their faith is. Yes, we are Anglicans, because as Christians we find our identity rooted in the Anglican tradition. But, we are all Christians first. This is a message we try and deliver each year during the week of prayer for Christian unity. Christians of all denominations share the same Lord. Our baptisms unite us.

Think of it. When you are up to your tasks at home, at work, in the community, you are always a Christian. Christ is present in your life, at work nudging you, guiding you. We are intimately connected to our Lord through worship and prayer. Our coming together on Sundays is meant to unify us and give us the energy and renewed desire to serve as Christ Himself did.

Recall that at our baptisms, we promised to uphold and support each other. We promise to seek and to serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, when we do our work, we are serving, not as volunteers, but as ministers. Anyone who is baptized is a minister, serving as Christ Himself did. Let us remember the need to continue to meet together, to continue to worship, to continue to serve in the Church and in our neighborhood and world.

May we be found this Epiphany season growing in faith, serving the Lord and serving others and may the Lord bless us as we journey together in faith.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve

About now, most of you are ready for Christmas, or should be. Many homes may have a Christmas tree and over the past weeks you have thought long and hard about what to give. You went out and tried to locate the best gift possible, as the spirit of Christmas lies in the giving. You have carefully wrapped the gifts and they sit under the tree, waiting for the moment when you either wake up on your own or are convinced the time is right to see what those gifts contain.

Over the season of Advent, we have been waiting, waiting for this moment. We have carefully thought about how to prepare. We have decorated our homes and lit candles. We have been to church; we have prayed and read or heard the stories of John the Baptist as he called people to repentance.

John, the prophet, called us to repentance as a way of preparing our hearts for the coming of One whose sandals he could not untie. He prepared people for the coming of the Messiah, Jesus. It is His birth we celebrate this evening as we recall the greatest love story of all time, the story of God’s unconditional love for us.

As we read this story once again, I could not help but be moved by the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It would be quite the journey, over rough terrain with Mary ready to give birth. Luke is a historian of sorts, and places the birth narrative in context. A census was taken of the entire Roman world and we are told Quirinius was governor of Syria at the time. These are measureable events in history that give us the time line.

The journey for Mary and Joseph was a long one, and many would be travelling. You can imagine how busy it must have been at the inn with government workers and soldiers who were entitled to free lodging, a part of their perks if you will. In the time of Jesus an inn was not anything like we’d imagine as a five star location, far from it. There may have been a circle of thatched rooms with a courtyard in the centre. The travelers would have to bring their own belongings—food, bedding, pots to cook with, etc. So, Mary and Joseph would have been weighed down with all of this extra stuff.

Then, to reach your destination, tired, dirty, hungry, and to be told there is no room at the inn must have been devastating. To be told you would stay with the animals in the manger; that would have been enough to drive anyone crazy. Contrary to some stories, the manger was not a cozy looking stall such as we see in a lot of crèches. Rather, research tells us the manger was likely hewn out of rock in a cave-like atmosphere.

Yet, despite all of this, Mary and Joseph were undeterred. Mary was ready to deliver her child and this delivery would not happen in a sterile environment, certainly not in any hospital. Imagine your infant being born in an animal stall, no fuzzy blankets, just straw and hay and cloth, along with concerned parents.

If that wasn’t enough, soon they would have visitors invading their space and telling Mary and Joseph of their encounter with angels singing and telling them to find this baby.

The scriptures tell us Mary pondered all of this in her heart. Perhaps the first thing she pondered in the midst of the chaos was the voice of the angel Gabriel. “Do not be afraid.” As the Bible says, perfect love casts out fear. Perhaps Mary recalled once again the words of the angel telling her how she would be the mother of the Saviour and how she should name him Jesus. Perhaps the story of the shepherds reminded Mary of the importance of the angels and their words.

It was into a smelly, loud, chaotic setting that Jesus was born, God’s ultimate act of love for His creation. Until now, the world was in chaos and there was war and turmoil around. The world was not a safe place. Humanity was wandering, lost and in great need. As a part of the plan of salvation, God would give us the greatest gift, that of becoming human for us. Now, I ask you. Think back five or so years. What gifts did you receive at Christmas? Can you remember what they were and who gave them to you? Whatever they were, none of them could come close to the gift God gave to you and me and to our world—the incarnation.

From the moment of His birth, Jesus would encounter a real and human world. He would be raised by human and loving parents. He would see as we see, He would feel as we feel, He would dream as we dream, hope as we hope, struggle and be tempted as we are, but did not sin. He would come to know the scriptures. He would know love. And, as He grew, He would prepare for His mission to the world, that of bringing others to know of God’s unconditional love. As you came to know Jesus, you would know God. Jesus Himself would say, “The Kingdom of God has come near,” when He was with someone.

This is the greatest gift: Jesus, the Christ child, and that gift that gave hope to the world that night still gives us hope. That gift that Mary pondered all of her life was born that we, today, might have hope to change a world that has many similarities to the one Jesus was born into. Back in the time of Jesus, for example, life carried on around the miraculous birth. Those in the inn were carrying on their tasks, those staying at the inn were unaware of anything happening of significance. Herod carried on his murderous ways and plotted against the Christ child. Life carried on in complete ignorance of the miracle occurring.

Even today, it is similar. Folks carry on with their lives at Christmas, working, purchasing, visiting friends and family, yet unaware of the presence of Christ in their midst. It is still a dangerous world. War and violence is all around us. On the world front, our leaders are still trying to assist the democracy movement where riots have broken out and peace efforts continue everywhere from Afghanistan, to Iraq, to the Middle East to the very birthplace of Jesus. On the local front, there is still domestic violence, gang violence, high crime rates and poverty.

Christians today are a minority around the world, and especially in the very place where Jesus was born. Christians on this part of the planet ponder, as Mary did, what to make of their faith, of the words of Gabriel to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” Even in the midst of a world full of chaos, God can and does bring order and peace.

That peace starts in our hearts as we make room for Christ to be born afresh within us. As we allow room in our hearts for the gift of God, the Holy Spirit, we are transformed more and more into God’s likeness. The letter to Titus reminds us we have become heirs of God, chosen ones, having the hope of eternal life.

When we experience the love of God within us, it is that same love that drives us to serve as Jesus did, to want to make this world a better place. In many instances that love is spontaneous. Consider Margaret Newton’s story published recently in The Winnipeg Free Press:

Dec. 1 was the worst night of my life.

I left home at 5:30 p.m. to go to a gathering of friends on Pembina Highway at St. Norbert. Coming from North Kildonan, I got completely lost.

Then on a bridge, my front tire exploded. I managed to get the car to the right side of the bridge, but unfortunately it was not far from a right turn. I had no phone so I put on all my car lights and got out.

There were so many cars coming. I stood at the back of my car and waved at them. Some of them yelled at me to get my car out of the way. This went on for over a half hour. By this time, I was actually crying.

Then a car stopped and a lady came over to me. She put me in her car, and we drove to her work to get her phone. She called her husband to see if he’d fix my tire. Then we drove to pick him up and he fixed the tire.

When he discovered where I was heading and that I didn’t know how to get there, he drove my car, followed by his wife in her car to St. Norbert and the apartment where I was going. By now it was 8 p.m.

The name of this wonderful angel who stopped to help is Rosa Tervoort and her husband is Randy.

There are many such good souls in this world, despite all of the negatives stories you hear. There are many such stories right here in our own congregation I am sure. Often, Christians will give of themselves in love never expecting reward or recognition. I want to thank you especially for your contributions to the Christmas hamper that went to a large family at Peguis. The folks who picked up the hamper here in Winnipeg and delivered it were astonished by the love shown to this needy family in Peguis. God is alive and active in His world and works through you and me.

This Christmas, as we rip off the wrapping from our presents, let us remember the greatest gift of all, the gift of the Christ child born this night for you and for me. May that gift be born anew and lead us to deeper and deeper love and faith and may the Lord bless you and yours!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Advent Four

December 18, 2011
Good morning and welcome to this Fourth Sunday in Advent. As you recall, Advent is a time of waiting, of preparing, and, as our scriptures the past weeks have reminded us, it is a time of joy and hope. Now, our waiting is coming to and end as we move toward Christmas.

Perhaps the greatest joy one can experience is the joy of childbirth. It’s truly a miracle, As a father, I can recall those early years in our home as expectancy and hope as you consider the future in front of you and your new family. As a mother, I know Brenda has fond memories, not perhaps of the childbirth itself, but of the family we have been blessed with.

Perhaps mothers everywhere can relate to the experience of Mary as told in scripture—of her love, her faith, her courage. Luke is the only Gospel writer who tells this story. According to research I found, the Gospel of Luke has often been called the Gospel of womanhood because Luke has many positive stories of women. In fact, there are eight. Other than the birth stories, we also hear of Mary and Martha, Mary Magdalene and the woman who anoints Jesus’ body for burial. In the Book of Acts, believed to have been written by Luke, we hear positive stories about business women, such as Lydia, the maker of purple linens.

Today’s story actually begins with the virgin Mary visited by the angel Gabriel, who gives her shocking news.
Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus.”

Mary had much to ponder, but her response to the angel was instant. “I am the Lord’s servant. May it happen to me as you have said.

The next few months of expectant waiting must have been hard on Mary and Joseph. Mary, after all, was betrothed to Joseph, and the prospect of having a child outside marriage may have been weighing heavy.

We pick up this story today as Mary travels to the hill country of Judea to visit her cousin, Elizabeth. Considering all Mary had been through so far, learning from the angel her cousin was also about to give birth miraculously, it makes sense to look for the support of someone who knew exactly what Mary was facing.

In the Magnificat from our liturgy, we have Mary’s response to remember for all time. “My soul praises the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” I like the version we use in the Book of Common Prayer that says “My soul magnifies the Lord. And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” Here again, we read “my” three times, as this is an intense personal experience.

The words “looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” are significant, as God has chosen Mary to fulfill his purpose to bring the Messiah into the world. Mary was nothing more than a slave girl, the lowest on the social scale of the time, her father’s property when she was a part of his household and engaged to Joseph.

This is also an eternal truth, that God works through those we might see as the lowliest, in order to achieve His divine purposes. The statement draws attention to the fact God chooses the foolish to shame the wise, the poor more than the rich, the sick more than the healthy.

This point is driven home in the Magnificat, as we read “He has stretched out His mighty arm and scattered the proud with all their plans,” or as the BCP version states, “In the imagination of their hearts.” I like that phrase as well. Any wisdom, any wealth, any position we have in life is given us by God. When we forget that, when we believe our own talents provide all of this, we can be devastated when crisis befalls us.

Martin Luther once said of the Magnificat that it “comforts the lowly, and terrifies the rich.” In the Magnificat, God changes the order of things—the top goes to the bottom and the bottom to the top. God changes the way we think and act and live. The Magnificat reminds us of God’s economy and his compassion for the poor and the weak. When we truly acknowledge the Lord within our lives, that same spirit drives us to compassion.

At this time of year, you can see evidence of that as the Food Banks get refilled, hampers are filled, banquets are laid out for the homeless and more reach out to give. It is the essence of Christmas, the spirit of giving and it comes from the spirit of Christ within us. The love of Christ within us naturally moves us to do compassionate and loving things.

If you listen closely to the news or scan through the daily paper, you will see fitting examples of love in action. There’s this story, for example, given us from Theresa Patel in Gimli. She writes:

“I want to thank three special people who “stood guard” at my car a few weeks back. I was doing some last-minute shopping at Cabela’s on Ellice Avenue. My car was full of gifts from my day of shopping. In my rush to get into the store, I must have accidentally pressed both the lock button and the trunk opener on my key pad, leaving the trunk open.
"My three special people noticed my wide-open trunk. Two of them stayed at the car, while the third person came in to inform the store manager who then made an announcement about the make of the car and the license number.
"I was apprehensive as I left the store wondering what had happened, and standing there, at the back of my car, trunk wide open, were these three wonderful people. Thankfully, nothing had been removed and they were making sure I was there before they would leave.
“I just want to say a very special thank you to these people for taking the time to wait for me. They saved me from what could have been a very expensive shopping trip! It makes the Christmas season even more special.”

This unselfish love is the love of Christ. This is the challenge of the season, to remember the love Mary had, that unconditional love that says “Let it happen to me,” that love for our Lord that gives us unending joy and moves us to praise and witness through our actions. Thankfully, today, we are blessed with the very presence of Jesus in our lives, through the Holy Spirit. God has had a plan of salvation from the beginning of creation. That plan was only partially revealed in the Old Testament. Yet, as we read in the epistle of Paul to the Romans, the plan is fully disclosed in Christ.

Through the Holy Spirit, we have the strength to continue to work with God, to partner with our God in bringing salvation to the world. There is Good News for us to share, that God so loved you and so loved me that He sent the greatest gift of all to us, His Son Jesus, to the end that all who believe will not perish in sin, but have eternal life.

In John’s Gospel, we are further reminded that in the Father’s House are many mansions, and that He has a room prepared for each and every one of us. The promises of salvation are fulfilled and live in us as we come to believe. Jesus is not a myth or a fairy tale. There is no gray in our understanding here. Either He exists or He doesn’t. For us, as Christians, we believe that Jesus exists and lives within us. This brings us true joy at Christmas. It gives us hope and it gives up purpose for life, to love unconditionally and to serve as Jesus served.

Are we prepared, this season, to acknowledge the presence of Christ in our lives and to allow the Holy Spirit to move us to unconditional love? Are we prepared to look into our hearts and to repent of those actions that take us away from God? Are we prepared to follow Mary’s example of obedience and trust in our Lord? Are we prepared to welcome the birth of the Messiah?

With God’s help, we can make a difference in our world, and often that difference begins one person at a time. May we be open to the working of God in our lives and may the joy within us lead our souls to magnify God this season!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Advent Three

December 11, 2011
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Good morning and welcome to this, the third Sunday in the season of Advent. Our wait for the coming of Christ continues.

Typically, this Sunday’s theme has been one of joy. What exactly is joy? We hear of people being joyful and there is even a well-known hymn that has joy as its focus—“Joyful, joyful we adore thee, God of Glory, Lord of Love.” Remember that one?

In my research, I hit the web and found a good explanation of joy by author Mike Ratliff. He writes that the secular perception of joy is “lasting happiness.” However, the Bible interprets joy very differently.

In fact, God commands His people to be full of joy. That’s good to know isn’t it? Psalm 37:4 talks of joy, along with Philippians, which we read from today.

Joy, says Ratliff, is both an outcome of our relationship with the Lord and our source of strength for our obedience of him (John 15). Nehemiah 8:9 says the joy of the Lord is our strength. God desires for His people to be strong in Him so He graciously gives us joy as we cooperate with Him in our sanctification, which is the process of becoming holy.

The joy of the Lord is the source of our fulfillment. Christ-likeness deepens for those who have determined in their heart to walk the walk by faith and live for God’s glory alone.

When the believer walks in this way, their joy filled heart produces true worship of their Lord. This worship is true worship because it is in spirit and truth (John 4:24). This means worship is completely God-centered, fully intent on His glory. In this manner, there is no hint whatsoever of this being simply entertainment. The worship focus is entirely off us, as humans, and focused on blessing the Lord. When we lift up our voices in praise, that joy is revealed. Imagine if in our singing, we were heard to say blandly…. Joyful… joyful… we adore thee (drawn out and slow as it is sung).

This worship that comes from the joy within our hearts cannot be fully contained in the context of a service. Yet, spirit filled worship leads us to deeper and deeper hunger for the spiritual life.

The joy we experience springs naturally from a heart of repentance, which is why this week’s readings continue their focus on John the Baptist. You recall John was the last of the prophets of the Old Testament tradition and came out of the desert baptizing and preaching a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.

There are several lessons to be learned from this passage. First, those baptized must be taught. That requires those who are equipped as teachers to teach. In today’s world, much of John’s message still applies, especially when we look at the life of faith. Yet, there are still some who come to the Church and request for a child to be baptized next week. Proper preparation and instruction of candidates is essential if we expect them to make a decision for Christ in their lives.

Second, those who profess and promise repentance must show some evidence of it in their lives. Here, again, we want to guard against simply stating things with our lips that we do not carry out in life. One of the greatest critiques of the Christian faith is that Christians go to Church and are taught how to live a life of faith, but then do not live that life when they leave the service. Thankfully, I can say to these same folks that the Church is not a place for the perfect. As Jesus reminded us, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 23:23)

Finally, this passage shows us that those who desire to do their duty must desire to know their duty and enquire concerning it. The first good word that the Apostle Paul said after his conversion experience was “Lord, what will you have me do?”

What will you have me do? It is the eternal question for all the baptized while we have breath on earth. I find it fascinating that John’s message was delivered to the people gathered, the publicans and the soldiers. Presumably, the Pharisees and Sadducees, religious leaders of the day, did not feel they needed to heed any message from John. Our message today is also one that applies to all, and that includes those within the Church itself.

Perhaps we will find the answer to the question of purpose when we re-visit the very words of Jesus in the Synagogue, when He read from the scroll and sat down to teach. The words from the prophet Isaiah applied to Jesus and they apply to us. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The Spirit of the Lord is within each of us who are baptized, and it is the Holy Spirit who convicts us of our sin, who brings us to seek forgiveness and to repent and who moves within us to accept forgiveness when offered. It is the Holy Spirit who anoints us for our daily ministries at work, at home, at school, at play, in the neighbourhood, around the city or anywhere we may go. We have good news to share, that God so loved the world, He gave His only begotten Son, to the end that all who believe will have eternal life. Obviously, there are many ministry opportunities He calls us into—whether it is binding the brokenhearted, liberty to captives, or release to prisoners. We each have at least one spiritual gift given by God to be used in ministry and to His glory.

All of these teachings contain truth for us even today, as we recognize that all of this starts with the need of the human heart to repent, to turn away from those things which we do or fail to do that ultimately take us away from God and His love for us. We need to guard ourselves from belief that we have the only truth and all will go well if only others listen to us.

John must have been a powerful preacher, as the many who heard his message actually thought he might be the very Messiah they were waiting for. He answered that the one who was coming would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. It is this same Holy Spirit predicted who is ours today. At our baptisms, we received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus fulfilled His promise to never leave us orphaned. He is as close as our breath. The Holy Spirit, working within us, is the One who brings us to true repentance and joy.

In this season of Advent, we must focus on the spiritual. Then, we need to understand any growth in faith comes largely as a result of the grace of God in our lives. God’s grace can perhaps be best understood when we are able to recognize our frail human nature and shine the light on the darkness that occurs in our lives from time to time. These tests and trials of our lives are God allowed circumstances that are tremendous tools in His capable hands to grow us in grace. As we turn away from what is dominating us, giving us pain or struggle we are urged to turn to God instead and place our hope in Him. God, in fact, draws us to do this. “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) When we do this, with a spirit of repentance and help of God, we will find joy.

As Ratliff reminds us, when our joy is in anything or anyone other than the Lord, it can be stolen or taken away because everything apart from God is simply temporal. When our joy is in the Lord, it cannot be stolen or taken away because He is eternal and what He promises to do He does (John 16:22, 23).

What is joy? A better question might be “What is the joy of the Lord?” The fuel that drives the engine of our worshipping hearts is the joy of the Lord. Our worshipping hearts keep us focused on the Lord for our fulfillment. As we delight in Him, He grows us in grace. This, of course, is more than simply being religious. Rather, it is walking through every moment of every day living for His glory. The joy of the Lord both empowers that process and grows from it.

Perhaps St. Francis of Assisi said it best concerning our life of faith. It is our task in this life to preach the gospel to others. So, Frances said, “Go…preach the gospel, and, if necessary, use words.”

As we wait, let us preach the gospel with our very lives in tune to the life of Christ within us. In the process, may we find that joy that passes all understanding and may we bring that joy to others.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Advent Two

December 4, 2011
Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.” Good morning and welcome. The words of the prophet John the Baptist remind us we are all on a journey, the journey of life. The journey of faith starts at baptism, when we are brought before God and baptized into the community of faith.

The journey continues, in our tradition, with Confirmation, often later in life. In many instances, Confirmation students are about 12, but these days we have adults being both baptized and confirmed. At St. James, we are continuing the process of Confirmation on Tuesdays at noon, for example.

In between baptism and Confirmation, of course, we offer both Nursery and Sunday School and it is a joy to have children in our midst. The children learn about their faith and parents take them home to continue the learning. Yesterday, for example, the adults joined with their children for the Rector’s Christmas party.

As a part of the Confirmation process, we ask students to invite someone to act as a sponsor. The sponsor is one who has been a church-goer and who is quite a distance along in his or her journey of faith. This way when the student has questions, the sponsor can answer based on experience and personal knowledge. At Confirmation class, I told the students the only stupid question was the one that is not asked. Questions are at the heart of growth in faith. At any age, we will have questions, such as “Why is there so much suffering?” “Why does God allow storms to come and kill so many?” “Why would a God of love not have prevented that violence from occurring?” “Why doesn’t God intervene in the amount of hunger and poverty that exists?” “Why or how does God answer prayer?”

There are many questions. I am sure if you think about it, you have many more and they cannot all be answered in one sermon. Yet, what I can say is that God reveals God’s self to us individually as we journey through life. Just as your views change on certain subjects as you grow older, that, too happens as you grow in faith, your positions on certain matters of faith may change.

Sticking then to the analogy of a journey, let’s think of journeying as travelling. When you head out on a trip, whether to the local grocer or to a foreign land, I am sure you don’t just decide to go somewhere and just leave. Or do you? If you just headed right away out the door, you might discover it is cold. You need a warm coat, and while you are at it, it may not hurt to have boots and a hat and scarf. Then, when you head out, you decide. If it is not far, maybe I’ll walk. If it is further, maybe I will drive. If I am headed overseas, you can bet I will need to do a bit more advanced thinking on what I might take and where I might stay and what airline and how much cash and other preparations.

Preparing for the journey, in other words, is pretty important. Yes, you can act on impulse and simply go, but that has its consequences. If you simply go to the airport, purchase a ticket at the counter and board the plane for, say, Florida, that’s great. Now where are you to stay once you are there? Will you rent a vehicle? Take a bus? Have someone pick you up? Decisions go on. Preparations must be made for the journey.

Advent is a season of preparation, as we read in the Gospel. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

John was the last of the great prophets and lived in the desert wilderness. Scripture says he was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed a message of repentance in preparation for the coming of the Lord.

What is repentance? It is an essential part of the journey of faith. The words "repent" and "repentance" occur 56 times in the New Testament. It is similar in meaning to the word translated "convert" or "turn", which is also common. The main theme of the preaching of John the Baptist, who prepared the way for the coming of Jesus, was: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matthew 3:2). The first recorded words of the public ministry of Jesus are also "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matthew 4:17). Jesus declared that the purpose of His coming and ministry was to call "sinners to repentance" (Luke 5:32). When Jesus sent out His disciples to preach, we read that "they went out and preached that people should repent" It is obvious from the above references, and there are many more, that if Jesus and those He trained knew what they were talking about, none of us will find a meaningful relationship with God unless we do what the Bible calls "repent". That being the case, it is important to find out what it means. (

Repentance is not simply feeling sorry for something. To get a proper picture it is important to understand that repentance always takes place in relation to someone — always in relation to God, and sometimes in relation to other people as well. Repentance is never a private affair. God created us to live in relationship — first with himself, and then with others. That is the reason why religions that do not have a personal God of grace with whom we may enjoy a loving relationship, and from whom it is possible to stray, have no proper place for repentance. Hinduism, Buddhism and New Age thinking come into this category.

Essentially, repentance is simply that process by which a person who is away from God recognises that situation and goes back to God. As C. S. Lewis explained, repentance is not something God demands of you before He will take you back, and which He could let you off of if He chose; it is simply a description of what going back is like. It is basically a U-turn. Instead of going away from God, or ignoring Him, you turn around, go to Him and choose to give Him His rightful place in your life. Repentance, therefore, has more to do with your will than it has to do with your feelings. You may feel deep sorrow about certain things that you regret, or you may not, but the real issue is whether or not you go back to where you belong. Of course, sorrow may assist that process.

The Greek word translated "repent" in the New Testament has the basic meaning of "changing your mind". However, in the Bible it goes further than just changing one's thinking about something; it means changing one's attitude towards that thing. To truly repent you must make two changes of attitude — towards both God's truth and God Himself. (

John then was calling the people of his day to change their hearts, to look inside and examine their relationship to God and others. He knew there was great need of change. People don’t like to be told to change their lives. This came as a hard message but it is also a fitting message for this time of year. When we look at our world, at our society, there is plenty of room for change. To the south, our neighbours are worried about the economy. Profit seems to be the motivator. In Durban, Africa, our country has been called to task on its attitudes toward the environment. Significant changes need to be made to protect the environment. Communities across the north of Canada are suffering with shortages of water, sewage and homes. One community in particular was in the news this past week and the Red Cross had to respond. There are plenty of examples in the air of the need for change. However, even today, we want to avoid change. Greed and jealousy and envy and malice exist and it is easier to point beyond ourselves, to blame gangs, the government, our neighbour, anyone else rather than look inside and begin the change from within. Then, there are a lot of people who believe in God, and who yet miss the good news. For them God is always coming, but never here. God is always promising, but never delivering. God is always near, but never quite in touch... do you know anyone who has that attitude?

Advent is also all about coming...the coming of Christ. God lives. Christ is here. And Christ is coming here. At Christmas, Christ comes and is reborn in our hearts. Christ will also come again as He has promised, and at a time we do not know. In the meantime, Christ is within us and you can see Him daily.

You can see Him in the face of a new born baby,
You can see Him in the gaze of young lovers,
You can see Him in the look of old married couples,
You can see Him within your own hearts,
when you take time to look.

God will accomplish His purpose.
The kingdom will come.
The question for us is - will we get an attitude?
Will we be a part of the fulfilment of God's purpose?
Will we partner in God’s loving purposes for the world, for our neighbourhood?
Or will we journey instead in darkness?

Our journey of spiritual life involves change. Change from within starts with the examination of our lives. Am I in relationship with my God? Is it one of love? Is that relationship causing me to change the way I approach people and stay in relationship with them? Am I forgiving? Am I accepting forgiveness? Am I seeking God’s forgiveness when my relationship has moved far from Him? These are not easy acts. Yet, if we are honest and call upon God, transformation comes as we repent, as we turn our lives around and our faces toward God. Help comes through the Holy Spirit moving within us.

We give thanks for John’s teachings on repentance. May our lives this Advent and Christmas be filled with joy as we turn our faces and our hearts toward Christ, our Lord and our Saviour.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Advent One

December 4, 2011
Therefore, keep awake – and, what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Good morning and welcome.

Well, this is a Sunday I know I have been waiting for. It’s Grey Cup Sunday. Bombers fans everywhere have waited a very long time, over 20 years, to bring home the coveted cup. This year’s team has been compared with one that won the last cup, so we stand a good chance. It has also been a good year for Grant Park High School where, they, too, have waited. Last month, they were rewarded with the school’s first championship, and Brenda and I were thrilled that our son Michael was part of that history. He will not soon forget that.

We are in a new year, did you know that? It seems out of place to be wishing folks a Happy New Year, but in fact the church’s new year begins today. That’s why at times we have trouble finding the readings in the lectionary. You have to remember the church year starts always in November. It is Advent, and the season of Advent is all about waiting. We wait for the coming birth of the Messiah. We wait for the Lord’s second coming. Yet, just as it is hard to wait for the next championship to come home, it is also hard to wait for the coming of Christ into our midst. There is much struggle and pain today—wars, violence, sickness, family strife to name only a few challenges. That is, unless we prepare. If we should come home with the Grey Cup after today, that will be great…but it didn’t just happen. There was much done ahead in order to prepare for exactly this day.

Forget about the many losing seasons, especially the one where we had to fire a head coach here. Forget about the 2010 season under a newly minted head coach of the Bombers. I believe we went 4 and 14 that year. Then, this year, we started the journey back to respectability as we won many more games than we lost. Our defense became known as the best in the land, and fans here began to chant “Swaggerville,” — even the Grant Park Pirates, who borrowed the phrase, chanted “GP Swag! GP Swag! until the end of their championship game.

All of the losses taught us something about the nature of football and of the team mentality and of hard work, discipline and focus. Sure, we might lose one game, but the next one the Bombers would come back and handily defeat a team like Hamilton or Montreal or Toronto. As the Bombers waited for their opportunity, they prepared by playing and learning. This, I believe teaches us something about the season of Advent and our faith.

Advent is all about preparation while we wait. All you have to do is look at the Gospel reading. “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware; keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.”

Just as Michael and all of the football players on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Grant Park Pirates football team used all of their experiences to learn and prepare for the trip to the championship game, so, too, does the Church have to look at preparations. In Advent, we are looking at preparation for comings. We prepare for the coming of Christ, for the celebration at Christmas of the birth of the Christ child and the birth of Christ in our own hearts. We look to the coming of Christ a second time as He promised. In the Gospel, again, we are encouraged to be alert, to ensure we are ready for when Christ comes again.

So, then, what can we do to prepare?

1. Well, if you look to the liturgy, we light the Advent candle each week as a reminder. It will point the way to how much time is left before Christmas.

2. When you look to the outside, you will see many in the neighborhood put up Christmas lights and trees and even hang wreaths. Each of these has a Christian understanding—the lights reminding us of the light of Christ, the trees being evergreen and representing the eternal life we are promised, and the wreath similar in the circle having no start and no end. As people, we are seen in great numbers in malls theses days, searching for exactly the right gift. Anyone in the malls for Black Friday searching for deals? What is that all about? Far more than a secular exercise, at this time of year, I would hope it would be for us a reminder of the need to give beyond ourselves. We give to help others, we see a need and provide. This is the sacrificial piece of the Christian faith, though it may not often be thought of. I would also say that each gift that is purchased is likely done with great consideration of the other and may take some time to find.

3. Perhaps the most important way we prepare in this season is intensely personal, through our life of prayer. Christ is present and alive today and He is present in our hearts. Through prayer, we come into direct contact with our God, with our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Through prayer, we are led by the Holy Spirit to mission or ministry. That mission or ministry will by necessity be one of servanthood, as we pattern our lives after the life of Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve. We are moved into action, into servant ministry through the Word, so at this time of year, we often have a study or time of prayer. Beyond Sunday, we can join in study such as any of the Adult Education or Confirmation opportunities that start Tuesday at noon here at the church. In our time of prayer, in preparation, we will look at our inner life as a whole, asking ourselves, “How is my relationship with Christ? Am I continuing to pray, to read the Bible, to attend study, to reach out to others? Is there anything in my life that needs changing to accommodate my life of faith? Do I need to apologize to someone? Do I need to accept forgiveness? Do I need to forgive myself for anything that may have happened recently? The letter to the Romans says this “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us live honorably, as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy.”

Instead, says Paul, we need to put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh. When Paul says “the flesh,” he means anything we as humans do that will take us away from concentrating on God and His love. To put on the Lord Jesus, we need to first acknowledge and accept Him as a genuine part of our lives. To put on Jesus is to understand that living the Christ-filled life is living a life filled with grace, as we heard in today’s epistle to the Corinthians. “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus.”

Paul wrote his letter to the early church to remind them they were imperfect and needed the grace and forgiveness freely and unconditionally given by God. He wanted them to know that just as the football teams learned from their mistakes and preparations for the big game, Christians can face an unknown and unpredictable future in confidence. No matter what losses they may face, no matter what struggles, no matter what fears, the Lord Jesus would be with them and strengthen them and prepare them for the journey ahead.

Of course, there will be a judgment time at the end times, and our Gospels point to that. Yet Jesus is the One who will judge and we can be confident He is leading us in faith through the Holy Spirit. We know He is leading when we know there is love and the evidence in our lives as pointed out again by Paul in his letter to the Galatians. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.” (Galatians 5:22) If you see these attributes in people of faith, you know the Spirit is at work. I see these attributes all around at this time of year, but particularly here at St. James as we held yet another Christmas Bazaar for the neighborhood.

Therefore, “keep awake” says Jesus, “for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.”

May we all be found awake and working for our Lord, spreading the Good News in our neighborhood and world. And may God bless us all as we journey in faith together! Now….Go Bombers Go!!!!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Reign of Christ

You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world.” These words of Jesus to Pontius Pilate were delivered prior to Jesus’ death on the cross, and is a clear statement of the kingship of Jesus.

Welcome to this feast of the celebration of the Reign of Christ, or Christ the King Sunday, or the Sunday Next before Advent as it is known in some places. It is held at the end of the church’s calendar year and ahead of the first Sunday in Advent, starting next week.

When we think of kings, we can have preconceived notions of men in ornate fancy robes, with crowns on their heads and yielding great power. Over the centuries, there have been many kings, some fitting that description and others who didn’t. In the Old Testament lesson, we read of bad kings, called “shepherds.” The prophet speaks out against them. Historically, the southern kingdom of Judah is now subject to Babylonian rule. Some Israelites have been deported while others have scattered.

In the midst of this situation, we are reminded of the Lord’s Kingship. “I, myself, will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.”

I like this imagery for kingship, as it is nurturing and caring, as of course the shepherd is for the sheep. Jesus referred to Himself as the Good Shepherd who seeks the lost and knows His own.

Anyway, there have been many kings, good and bad,even the mighty King David, called and anointed by God as a young man. David was the one we credit with having written many of the psalms we now use in worship. This same David was as human as you and me. He sinned, committing adultery, for example. These men were human and made their share of mistakes, but they were led by God.

In our own Anglican tradition, much of our heritage is traced back to a king, Henry the Eighth. Henry was King of England from April 21, 1509 until his death. He was the second monarch of the House of Tudor, succeeding his father Henry VII. Henry VIII was most known for his role in the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church. There is a poster on the upstairs wall of the cathedral that states “There is much to be said about forgiveness in a Church that was headed up by a man with six wives”

Henry VIII may be thought of as the founder of the Anglican Church due to his inability to get a divorce from his first wife, Catharine of Aragon, but that would not be accurate. His beef with Rome had to do with the Pope sending foreign bishops to have control over the Church in England. His struggles with Rome led to the separation of the Church of England from papal authority, the dissolution of the monasteries and the establishment of himself as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. He also laid claim to the title “Defender of the Faith”, a title the Queen holds today.

In Henry VIII’s reign, the structure inherited from Rome remained, with its bishops and archbishops, priests and deacons…the structure we are familiar with today. We were known as the Church of England in Canada up until some time in the 1960s and I remember when the name was changed to the Anglican Church of Canada.

Kings and the monarchy remain with us today, but I will always recall the words of a former Primate, Michael Peers. It was during a dark time in the Church’s life. The Anglican Church of Canada faced bankruptcy over the issue of Residential Schools and the many claims that had been filed. Anglicans were panicking, including those Aboriginal Anglicans gathered at the national Sacred Circle. Many were thinking the Church would disappear.

In his message to that Circle, our Primate said that over the ages, many have come and gone. Our Church has seen emperors come and go, kings and princes come and go, but this one fact remains. After it is all said and done, the Church will remain. Why? Because the Church is the Body of Christ and the only King that matters is Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

So what about this Kingdom of Jesus? Where is it? It is in the past, when Jesus walked the earth and said “The Kingdom of God has come near you,” It is perhaps more importantly in the present when the Body of Christ gathers as we do today. The kingdom is with us in the here and now. We, too, today, can say to someone “The Kingdom of God has come near you,” when we approach someone, since the Holy Spirit resides within us. The Kingdom is also in the future, when Jesus will come again to judge the earth as we hear about in the season of Advent.

The kingdom could be found within Jesus and is not of this earth, as Jesus tried to explain to Pilate. The kingdom is within. This kingdom is one of peace and love and joy. Jesus said this of the kingdom… “Those who do not accept the kingdom as little children will not enter it.” By this He meant the nature of children, the attitude of trust and openness found in children. Accept it, not like children in childish ways, but as children, in child-like ways, open to the working of God in your life.

Paul speaks of kingdom life, the inner spiritual life in his letter to Ephesians read today. He says this… “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know Him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.”

Those words are inspiring for us today…a Spirit of wisdom and revelation…think about that….the wisdom that comes from God is not the same as human wisdom. This wisdom, along with prayer and discernment will bring about revelation from God as to how to approach mission and ministry. “When two or three gather in my name,” says the Lord, “there I am in the midst of them”. Paul asks for these gifts so we may know the Lord better, so we might grow or mature in our faith in Christ. It is that genuine faith that moves us to action and any action taken with the help of the Lord will be accompanied by great power.

This inner life, this kingdom life, is seen in each of us when we accept and acknowledge the sovereignty of God in our world and in our lives. The kingdom of God, this kingdom of peace and love and joy, is within, and can be passed along to a world that needs it. As we become like little children in our attitudes of trust and obedience to our King, we begin to spread that Good News to others around us.

The kingdom view often looks nothing like the kingdoms of this earth. Since the earthly kings are human, they will make earthly mistakes. Yet, every king, every authority, every aspect of our earth owes its reliance on our God and King. When peace reigns in the heart, the individual is moved to extend that peace to others.

The writer of the Book of Revelation perhaps said it best concerning Jesus. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”

May we be found accepting the kingdom within and may that acceptance lead us to assist others to do the same, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen