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A sermon based on John 20: 19-23

The very first worship service of the Christian Church took place in the evening of the first Easter Sunday. The gospel of John says that the disciples were gathered “in the house”. All the earliest churches were house churches. The followers of Jesus would gather in someone’s home. They would tell the stories of Jesus; they would share the meal as Jesus had given it to them; they would pray together. That was the shape of their worship.

As John tells it, the first worship service wasn’t much of a service at all. There were no announcements about upcoming fundraisers and programmes. Even though it was Easter, there were no special anthems sung by the choir. The worship leader didn’t say, “Christ is risen!” and the people didn’t respond, “He is risen indeed!” There were no joyful shouts of “Alleluia!” In fact, the congregation seemed to be having trouble getting past the Prayer of Confession.

That morning, some of the women had brought news of having found the tomb empty. They told of messengers telling them that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Mary said that she had actually seen Jesus and that he had talked with her. He had told her he was “ascending to the Father”, whatever that might mean. However, when the disciples gathered that evening, they locked the doors behind them.

They were afraid of the Judeans, the religious authorities. They were troubled. They were troubled not just by events in the world around them; they were troubled in their own hearts and minds. You can imagine that they were still reeling from the loss and the grief of Jesus’ death just a few days previous to this. They were confused about the reports from the women at Jesus’ tomb. I may be reading too much into it, but they were probably enveloped with a sense of failure and guilt and shame for having deserted Jesus. William Willimon called this, “the church of the sweaty palms and shaky knees and firmly bolted door. . .  All who were there had gotten an “F” in following Jesus. (You Call This A Church?)

The worship service seemed to have stalled there. They couldn’t get past the Prayer of Confession.

Then, suddenly, unexpectedly, Jesus shows up. He pronounces the “Assurance of Pardon”, the “Assurance of Grace”. He says, “Peace be with you.”  He could have said, “You guys really messed up.” He could have said, “Shame on you. I thought we were friends. Where were you when I needed you?” He didn’t. He said, “Peace be with you.”

He showed them the wounds in his side and hands. Then, he said it again, “Peace be with you.” The disciples were experiencing everything except peace and Jesus offers them this great gift of God’s mercy and grace.

He offers it not just in the first church service on the first Easter. He offers it to us every Sunday. We gather together and we bring with us the trouble that we have been carrying all week long. Most of the time we keep the trouble locked behind the closed doors of our hearts. We keep it hidden, but it is still there.

There’s trouble in the world — in the streets of London, England; in the refugee camps in the Sudan; in the sea between North Korea and Japan; in the Arctic where the ice cap is melting at accelerated rates.

There’s trouble in this neighbourhood where people are grieving the death of someone they love and parents are worried about the drug addictions of their children; and young people search for a reason to live.

There’s trouble in our own hearts and minds: the fears and worries; the regrets and sense of failure; the guilt and shame that haunt our souls.

We bring all that with us into worship. In the Prayer of Confession, we tell the truth about it to God.

Some churches no longer have a prayer of confession in their worship services. “That’s too negative,” they say. “We don’t want to make people feel bad. People come to church to feel good.”

The point of the Prayer of Confession is not to make people feel bad. The point of the Prayer of Confession is to make a space where we can tell the truth about the troubles that makes us afraid. It gives you a place where you can tell the truth about the things that you have done that cannot be made right. It gives you a place to speak the guilt and shame that is crippling your soul.

Together, we tell the truth and we offer all of it to our crucified and risen Lord. Then, we listen. We listen for his offer of forgiveness, he release from the burden, his “Peace be with you.”

The Prayer of Confession proclaims: You don’t have to keep carrying your guilt. You don’t have to keep letting fear drive your life. You don’t have to let shame hold you in its grip. Failure doesn’t need to turn to into a victim. Jesus went to hell and back to free you from all that. With grace more powerful than death, God takes you old life and gives you a new one. You can begin again, in a different place. You can move down a different path. You are no longer a victim. You are no longer “guilty”. You are forgiven and graced and redeemed and made new and set free.

I read once about a prison chaplain who had on his desk a framed photograph of a Christmas pageant. There were angels in white robes, holding candles and bringing “good news of great joy”. There were the shepherds kneeling and looking like they were frightened. Except, the characters in the photograph were not children as we are used to seeing in Christmas pageants. The shepherds and angels in this photo were rough looking men. They were convicts — convicted of murder and violent crimes; criminals serving time in jail. Yet, there they were, men who had been transformed by Christ, acting out the story of the birth of Jesus. When the chaplain was asked why he kept the photograph on his desk, he said, “It reminds me of the awesome power of God to change us, to set us free, to give us new life.” (William WillimonPeople Don’t Change — Do They?”)

We proclaim that truth every Sunday. Sometimes you will believe it. Sometimes, you will be glad and you will worship Jesus and you will find your way into the new life he offers. Sometimes, you will hear the gospel and you will doubt it. You will say with Thomas, “Unless I can touch Jesus’ wounds, I won’t believe that a new beginning is possible.”

What do you do when you are in that space? You keep showing up, Sunday by Sunday. You “practice resurrection”. You practice resurrection until you experience resurrection in your life. You do the slow work of making a space where God can work: you tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” as best you can. You confess the trouble, the mess, the fears and the doubts. Then, you wait for the risen Christ to show up and say, “Peace be with you.”

That’s why we share the peace of Christ every week. We practise with our voices and with our bodies the peace that Christ gives. We practise living into what Jesus says is God’s own truth about our lives. We practise trusting that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is at work in our lives too, forgiving sin, making all things new. We practise until, one day, Jesus enters the locked doors of our spirits. Then, we know we are forgiven. We know we have received the underserved mercy and grace of God. You know God’s peace is setting is setting you free and you can begin again. Thanks be to God.

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A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Corunna United Church on February 14, 2016.

 Scripture: Luke 4: 1-13

There is an ancient legend about John, Jesus’ disciple and the author of the gospel of John: When John was a very, very old man, he was carried into a gathering of the church for his final sermon. He said, “Little children, love one another.” Then, he said it again, “Little children, love one another.” He said it again . . . and again . . . and again. In fact, it was all he said. “Little children, love one another.”

Some people thought it was a shame that the silliness of a senile old man should be put on display in such a manner. But others understood: John’s sermon summed up a long life’s reflection on the core meaning of the gospel.

Jewish rabbis would sometimes test their students by asking them to summarize the Torah, the Law, in the time that they could stand on one foot. When religious scholars asked Jesus, “Which command in the Law is the most important of all?”, Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and love your neighbour as you love yourself.”

Churches can spend a lot of time developing mission statements but we already have a mission. Jesus gives it to us. “Love God with everything you’ve got and everything you are. Love God with the fullness of your life and, with the fullness of your life, love your neighbour as yourself.”

What is your mission? Why are you here? You’re here learning how to let God’s great love for you fill your whole life. You are here to get better and better at letting God’s great love for you fill your life to overflowing until it flows out into the world and into your neighbourhoods. That’s the mission.

If you push people on that — if you say to them, “Tell me what that love looks like”, many people will say, “It looks like the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That’s good advice for living in Jesus’s Way. It is the gold standard for our relationships with each other. Jesus gave it to us early in Matthew’s gospel, in the Sermon on the Mount. He gave it along with the Beatitudes and other words of wisdom for his Way.

Later in his journey to Jerusalem, though, as he was on his way to the cross, Jesus bumped it up a notch. In fact, he bumped it up several notches. He pushed beyond the gold standard, the Golden Rule, and he gave us his platinum rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” became “A new commandment I give to you: that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13: 34) It is not enough just to love others as you yourself want to be loved, as challenging as that is. Jesus commands you to love one another as he has loved you. Jesus himself becomes the standard for our love.

Do you know how Jesus loves you? Jesus loves you with a glorious staggering love. Jesus loves you so deeply, so fully, that nothing in all creation could ever separate you from that great love. Nothing. Not the terrible suffering that life can throw at you. Not the wounds that scar you soul. Not the humiliating failures that haunt your sense of worth. Not the broken relationships that cripple your spirit. Nothing. Nothing in all creation could every come between you and the great love Jesus has for you. (Romans 8: 31-38)

Jesus’ love is a love that searches for you when you are lost and does not give up until he finds you. Jesus loves you with a love so fierce and strong that he would rather die than be without you. He will go to hell and back for you. Jesus loves you as you are and not as you should be because none of us is ever going to be as we should be. The essence of the Christian life is a love affair, allowing yourself to be the recipient of God’s great love.

Brennan Manning was a Catholic priest who said, “After thousands of hours spent in prayer and meditation, in silence and in solitude, I am now utterly convinced that on judgement day, the Lord Jesus will ask each of us one question and only one question: Did you believe that I loved you? that I desired you? that I longed to hear the sound of your voice?”

Do you believe that? do you trust it? Are you learning to trust it more and more deeply? more and more fully? with all that you are and all that you have?

None of us gets very far in this journey with Jesus before our trust in that love gets tested. The story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness comes right after the story of Jesus’ baptism. Jesus begins his public ministry by showing up at the River Jordan asking to be baptized by his cousin John. When Jesus is baptized, the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descends upon him live a dove. A voice comes from heaven that says, “You are my Son, the Beloved — you are chosen and marked by my love, the pride of my life.”

That same Spirit, having conveyed God’s blessing and love to Jesus, then led him into the wilderness. For forty days and forty nights, that love was tested:

“You think you are loved by God? Let God prove it to you. You’re hungry — turn these stones into bread.”

“You think you’re loved by God? Use God’s love for you to get what you want, to make your dreams come true.”

“You think you’re loved by God? Make God prove it. Make God rescue you. Make God keep you safe from getting hurt.”

What is it that makes you doubt that God loves you?

Is it when you hear those old voices in your heart that tell you that you’re not good enough? that you have to earn God’s good opinion of you?

Is it when life throws you a curve ball and all your carefully made plans and hopes and dreams lie scattered at your feed and your prayers seems to rise no further than the ceiling?

Is it when you have been deeply wounded by someone you trusted and you’re not certain about anything anymore, much less God’s great love for you?

To be a follower of Jesus is to know that God loves you with fierce, unconditional, steadfast and faithful love. To be a follower of Jesus is to have your trust in that love tested over and over again. Journeying with Jesus into the heart of God’s love means that there will be times of wilderness testing. You will leave behind the safe and comfortable places. You will end up in a place where you are not in control. When that happens, the task before you is learning to trust more deeply in God’s great love for you. It is learning to trust more deeply that God is taking even your doubts and fears and feeble attempts to love others as Jesus has loved you and is gathering all of that into God’s own all-encompassing, redeeming, life-giving, creative love.

I don’t need to tell you that you folk are every blessed to have Blair as your minister. Last week I asked him, “What has been the theme of your ministry?” He replied, “God loves us passionately.” He tells you that over and over and over again. He tells you that over and over again because it is easy to forget; it is easy to doubt when so many voices in our culture tell you that you are on your own; that you have to hustle to be considered a success; that you have to earn God’s approval.

God loves you passionately. Nothing you could do could make God love you less. There is nothing you have to do to make God love you more.

God loves you passionately. Blair tells you that over and over again so that that deep truth lives deep within you. Trust God will all you have, with all your are, for that love is holding you fast and will never let you go.

This is a great mystery.

This is great grace.

Thanks be to God.

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A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Forest United Church, Ontario on April 30, 2017

Scripture:  Luke 24: 13 -35

Everybody lives their life by some script. Every community is shaped by a script, a story. That story tells the community what is important. It tells the people where they can find hope and purpose. It shapes the way its people act in the world.

The Church is a community that is gathered around the stories of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Actually, the Church tells four stories of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. They are all one story but each gospel tells it from its own perspective.

Mark’s gospel says that the resurrection happens as three women are going to a tomb, expecting to anoint a dead body. They are surprised by an angel who tells them that Jesus has been raised. The women flee from the tomb “and they said nothing to anyone for . .  .” That’s how Mark tells the story. When you are amazed, perplexed, and terrified, look around for signs that the God who raises the dead is at work.

Matthew says that Easter is a great earthquake. The crucified and risen Jesus invades your life in places that are dead or shut down. He breaks them open and destroys death’s hold. You are in a new world, a new creation filled with God’s grace. There is a risen Saviour on the loose. The Church has to stay on the move if it is going to catch up with him.

John says that Easter happens when the church is huddled in fear, trying to protect itself. The crucified, risen Jesus shows up and breathes new life into frightened disciples and gives them the power to offer a new beginning to others.

Luke says that Easter is an ordinary church service that gets taken over by a stranger and everything changes. The service begins the way our worship services begin: with ordinary people dealing with ordinary lives. They bring with them the tangled webs of their lives — all sorts of emotions and experiences.

There are the women who are struggling to deal with the death of someone they love. They do what they know how to do: they go to the tomb with spices to anoint a dead body. They are met by two messengers who tell them that Jesus has been raised. They, in turn, tell the men in their group. The men don’t believe them, although a couple of the men do go to the tomb to check things out for themselves.

There are two disciples who do not know what to make of all this. They start heading back to their ordinary lives in a small town called Emmaus. On the way, they talk through their broken dreams and shattered hopes together.

All of these people are a lot like us when we gather for worship. None of us has this ‘faith’ thing all figured out. When we show up here, some of us are perplexed; some are disbelieving and unconvinced; some of us are amazed at the news that Jesus has been raised from the dead and we want to talk with others about it.

All of us have lives that are not perfect. Indeed, many of us have lives that are a mess— a mixture of broken relationships, shattered dreams, and glimpses of glory and beauty and mystery. We bring all of that with us into worship.

In Luke’s church, you don’t check the mess at the door. You don’t have to pretend that you are doing better than you are. You bring it all with you. Somewhere along the Way, Jesus join us in the midst of the mess.

The chances are that we will not recognize that he is with us, at least not at first. The two disciples certainly did not. They thought he was just a stranger, walking the same road they were. Then, he invites them to tell the truth about their lives. In telling him the truth, they tell him about Jesus. Listen to their prayer of confession:

They say, “When Jesus was around, God was near.”

They say, “Our own leaders let us down. They handed him over to be killed.”

They say, “Now there are stories that he is alive. We are heartbroken. We are confused. We are wondering.”

Jesus takes their stories — all the broken pieces, the hurts, the losses, the hopes, the questions and assures them that God’s mercy and grace is already at work in their lives. He sets those pieces into God’s story, the story of God healing this broken world with self-giving love and amazing grace. As he does that, the disciples find their place in that great story.

That’s what we do every Sunday. We take this book of ancient stories. We set ourselves under them. We wrestle with them. We listen for a word from God in them. For a few minutes every Sunday we live in the strange new world that the Bible tells. We practice living in the country of God’s grace.

As you set yourself under these stories often enough, the stories begin to shape how you live in the world of your ordinary, every-day life. For instance, you are faced with an impossible situation and everybody else says, “We are a dead end. There is nothing to be done but to give up.” You begin to look for signs that God is at work with resurrecting power. You begin to look for the risen Christ to make a way where there is no way.

Or, you meet a stranger and the world says to you, “You better be on your guard. Perhaps she is dangerous. Perhaps he will hurt you.” However, you enter into relationship with him or her and you wonder, “Is she an angel in disguise? Is he a messenger from God with surprising news that will bless my life in unexpected ways?”

You may be struggling to find your way forward and you go for a walk by the lake. When you see the water you remember, “I am a baptized person. I have been claimed as a beloved child of the One who went to hell and back so that I may know that nothing in life or death, in sickness or in health, nothing in all creation can ever come between me and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus my Lord.”

These stories tell us where to find hope. They tell us where to find courage. They tell us where to find strength for the day. One of the great blessings of being part of the Church is helping people wrestle with these stories. It is a gift to help them get these stories into their hearts and minds, so that they see the world from inside the Story of God’s action in the world.

You need the stories we tell here so that you can face all that life will bring you. When the bully in the workplace tries to intimidate you, you will face the situation differently when you know the story of David and Goliath; when you know that David found courage to face Goliath because trusted that God was with him. God had been preparing him for this moment and had given him the gifts and skills he needed through long, lonely nights of watching sheep and protecting them from lions. God is with you too, giving you what you need to face the giants that threaten you.

Or, when you are asked to do something that compromises what you know to be good and true and right, you face the situation differently when you have wrestled with the story of Daniel in the lion’s den. You remember the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, figuring out how to live faithfully even while they worked in the Babylonian civil service. Have that story in your heart and you find the courage to live authentically, faithfully even in very ambiguous situations.

You need to know the twenty-third Psalm deep in your bones so that when life takes you through deep valleys, you cling to the promise, “The Lord is my Shepherd; I have everything I need.” You hold on knowing that the Good Shepherd will leave 99 sheep in the sheepfold in order to go looking for the one that is lost and won’t give up until the lost is found. That story becomes the rock where you find refuge and hope and a reason to keep living.

Everybody lives their life by some script. Every community is shaped by some story. Our story is the story of a living God who loves us with death-defying love. Our story is the story of a crucified and risen Saviour who takes and blesses and gives the broken pieces of our lives so that we become instruments of God’s grace and love and hope and peace. Our story is the story of the Holy Spirit who adopts us into a community of faith and then sends us into the world to tell the story of God’s healing, reconciling, redeeming work in ordinary lives.

Easter is formed among the people who worship this God. The risen Christ shows up and gives you hope and purpose and courage. Praise be to the One who meets us on the Way and leads us to new and joy.

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“Thirsty Souls”

A sermon based on Exodus 17: 1-7

In a number of different contexts, I have been encouraging people to practice an ancient Christian tradition: lectio divina, or ‘holy reading’.

You take a passage of scripture and work through four steps with it. Here’s how I have described the steps:

Lectio Divina

Lectio Divina is a slow, contemplative praying of the scriptures. It helps us to listen deeply for God in the scriptures and engages us in conversation with the living God.

LectioRead the scripture passage  (or a portion of it, if it is long) slowly, preferably out loud. Do this several times (at least three times).  Pay attention to the words or phrases or images that speak to you.  Some unexpected word or phrase may emerge as you repeatedly read the passage.

MeditatioMeditate on the word or phrase that has drawn your attention as you read through the passage in the lectio stage. What thoughts, hopes, memories, desires, concerns, ideas come to mind?

OratioPray the word(s) or phrase(s) that you have been meditating on. Enter into an unhurried, loving conversation with God.  Interact with God as you would with one whom you know loves and accepts you. Offer to God the experiences that emerged in your meditation. Let the words or phrases from the scripture text speak to those experiences, with God’s healing grace.

ContemplatioRest in God’s presence, allowing yourself to receive God’s transforming love.

For many people, this is a different way of engaging the scriptures. As with any new skill or habit, people can feel uncomfortable with it. They tend to say, “I don’t get it”, or “I am not getting anything out of it”. When someone is learning to play the piano, it takes some time before they actually ‘hear the music’. When someone is first training to run in a long distance race, it takes some time before they find the rhythm. You learn to dance, to paint, to play baseball by making your way through a time period when you feel awkward.

Generally, we have been used to reading a passage of scripture in order to understand it. You ask, “What does this tell me about God or about Jesus or about how I should live the Christian life?” Some people get more serious about studying the Bible and seek to understand the historical background of a passage. What was the culture like when the story was happening? What did the words mean originally?

Other people, using the scriptures in their daily devotions, may approach a passage asking, “What does this tell me about prayer? about how I should treat my neighbour?” They stand back from the passage and figure out how it applies to their lives.

Many people have found these approaches helpful. However, a lot of people could not see how the Bible applied to their lives. There were some passages they just could not understand, no matter how much background information they got. Eventually, they gave up reading the Bible altogether.

Lectio divina does not invite you to understand the Bible. It invites you to stand under it. It says, “Do not step back from the scripture; step into it.” In lectio divina, you do not go to the scriptures to find out about God. You got to the scripture to encounter the living God, who is waiting to meet you there.

I encourage people to develop this practice because I am convinced that people do not first of all need to know more about God. They need first and foremost to know God. Years ago, I was at a workshop where the instructor asked someone, “Do you know the Shepherd’s Psalm?” The participant answered, “Yes, and I know the Shepherd too.”

We have thirsty souls: souls that are parched for the living God. Do you know what a thirsty soul feels like? When our throats are thirsty, they are dry and scratchy. When a soul is thirsty, it can feel like that deep yearning that hovers in the backgrIMG_3676ound of a busy life: a yearning that, when you stop long enough to attend to it asks, “Is this all there is?”

A thirsty soul can feel like a deep loneliness that does not go away, even when you have lots of family and friends.

In today’s Bible story, thirsty souls showed up in the midst of a crisis about having no water in a desert. The people were afraid and angry and feeling powerless. They turned on Moses because they needed someone to blame.

They turned to Moses, because that’s what we often do with our thirsty souls. We look for someone or something to fill the emptiness or to stop the loneliness. We think that it is someone or something that we are yearning for.

One of the elemental lessons to learn in your spiritual journey is that your deepest yearning, your deepest thirst is for the living God.

Somehow Moses knew that. When the people started complaining to him, he knew that he could not give them what they wanted. he know that only God could do that. So, he turned to god. He prayed a direct, honest prayer. He does not begin with polite or vaguely religious words. He launches into prayer: “What can I do with these people? Any minute now, they are going to kill me!” In other words, “This is your problem, God! Do something!”

Sometimes our prayers don’t go very deep because we are too polite with God. We only bring the surface stuff into our conversation with God — the places where we are still in control; the places where we still retain the illusion that we are in control. It is harder to trust God with the ugly parts of our life, with the broken places in our souls.

Even after God provides water for the people, Moses call the location “the place of quarrelling; the place of complaint”. This, too, is part of the journey. There will be places and times when our thirsty souls cry out, quarrelling with others, complaining about what we do not have. This story signals that even our quarrelling and complaining are invitations to encounter God. Even our brokenness and yearning and emptiness are invitations to place our whole lives in God’s hands.

Interestingly, when God answered Moses’ prayer, God provided water but, more importantly, God provides God’s own presence: “Go to the rock that you will strike with a rock and water will come out AND I will be standing there in front of you.”

God is not just ‘there’ to meet your needs and to answer your prayers. God is standing there in front of you, longing to enter into relationship with you; yearning to be in communion with you. In every part of your life, God is reaching out to be with you and to share God’s great love and grace and transforming power with you.

Do you believe that?

Brennan Manning was an author and public speaker who, often, would invite people to trust that deep love of God and to enter into it. In one talk, he says, “In the forty-eight years since I was first ambushed by Jesus in a little chapel in the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania, and then, in the literally thousands of hours of prayer and meditation, silence and solitude over those years, I am now utterly convinced that on judgement day, the Lord Jesus is going to ask us one and only one question: “Did you believe that I loved you, that I desired you; that I waited for you day after day; that is desired to hear your voice?”  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQi_IDV2bgM)

Do you believe that? That is what your soul is thirsty for. Jesus offers you himself — living water to quench your thirst. That is the invitation the lectio divina offers: an invitation into the heart of God’s love and God’s great longing for you.

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Faith enough

A reflection on Luke 17: 1-10 and 2 Timothy 1: 1-14

When the apostle Paul wrote to the young recruit, Timothy, he said, “Join me in suffering for the gospel . . . we’ll only be able to keep going by relying on the power of God, who first saved us and then called us to this holy work.”

You’ve got to wonder: is that any way to grow the church? Is that any way to inspire young people to sign on? “Come and join me in suffering for the gospel.” Yet, it speaks to the deep longing to give our lives to something that matters.

God is alive and active in the world, transforming it by healing brokenness, confronting evil, creating communities where love and forgiveness shape who they are. Given the nature of the work, there will be resistance, confrontations, rejection, suffering.

When the disciples caught a glimpse of what Jesus was asking of them, they realized that they were out of their depth. Overwhelmed, they cried out, “Increase our faith!” Jesus says, “It’s now about how much faith you have. If you have faith as small as a grain of mustard seed, you would be able to say to this mulberry tree,’Go jump in the lake’ and it would do it.”

How many mulberry trees have you transplanted lately? We can’t even convince our children to join us in worship on Sunday morning! All it would take is faith the size of a mustard seed?

We have our doubts; we feel inadequate; our failures loom large in front of us. Somewhere in his writings, Eugene Peterson says that the predominant characteristic of people in churches these days is feeling inadequate. Each of us looks around the sanctuary, sees the other people sitting there and is convinced that everybody else is more sure about their faith than we are. They are more confident; more committed; more settled.

Yet, our doubts, our feelings of inadequacy, our failures don’t seem to disqualify us in Jesus’ eyes. He recruits us for his mission anyway. “Just do it,” he says, long before the Nike shoe company adopted the slogan. “Just do it, the way servants just do the jobs they are given to do. Do what God gives you to do. Go into your workplace and speak the truth and act with integrity. Refuse to participate in the gossip. Create a home for your family. Pray for someone you care about and then pray for your enemies. Do your ordinary, everyday tasks and offer them up to God.”

Faith is not the opposite of doubt. It is not as if you have to have all your questions answered, all your uncertainties settled and then you can say, “Okay, now I have faith.” Faith is about venturing forward into God’s project, God’s transforming work, bringing your doubts and your feelings of inadequacy with you, and then seeing what God will make of what you offer.

It is not an easy time to be a disciple of Jesus. The truth is that nobody has enough faith for the challenges that face us. If you are not failing at least some of the time, if you are not being driven to your knees by the challenges you face, if you are not crying out, ‘Lord, increase my faith’, then you have probably settled for too little.

We serve a living God who is intent on nothing less than the transformation of the world. God is healing our brokenness. God is making a new creation where the lost and the lonely are fathered into a feast of love and a banquet of joy. Jesus invites you to join up, doubts, failures, inadequacies, uncertainties and all. He takes what you offer to him; blesses you; breaks your life open; pours his life into your life and offers you to the world. By the power of God’s grace, you become channels of Christ’s grace, instruments of the Holy Spirit’s peace, signs of hope for the neighbourhood and the world. Apparently you don’t need a lot of faith for that to happen. You just have to be willing to do what God asks you to do. The rest depends on the goodness and grace and mercy of God. Thanks be to God.

 

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In the Christian calendar, this Sunday is a feast day called “the baptism of our Lord”. Jesus began his public ministry by showing up at the Jordan River and being baptized by his cousin, John the Baptizer. The Feast of the Baptism of our Lord used to be a more important celebration than Christmas. A surprising number of icons painted by the early church depict Jesus’ baptism.

For early Christians, baptism was a life-defining act. If you decided you wanted to become a follower of Jesus, you presented yourself to a local congregation. They would question you. Then, you would embark on a programme of preparation of baptism that would last two years.

During those two years you would learn the stories of Jesus and participate in the worshipping community. Mentors would teach you to pray. They would help you examine your life and learn to live the odd, peculiar ways of Jesus’ community.

Being baptized was neither automatic nor easy. It was also dangerous. For much of the first three centuries of the church’s existence, Christians were a persecuted minority. You made a very intentional decision. It changed who you were. It gave you a new identity, a new life. You became different from others around you.

Then, all that changed. One night, the Roman Emperor, Constantine, had a dream, or a vision, of a cross in the sky. He heard a voice that said, “By this sing you shall conquer.” When he woke up, he decided that everyone in the Roman Empire was going to be a Christian. Roman soldiers would come to a village, herd everyone into a lake and everyone would emerge baptized.

The soldiers themselves had to be baptized. They did not know much about being a follower of Jesus, but they did know that it means renouncing violence. They knew Jesus had said, “Turn the other cheek.” This created a problem for soldiers. How could they be baptized as followers of Jesus and still fulfill their duties to the Emperor?

Some of them came up with a solution: as a soldier was being immersed in the waters of baptism, he would hold his sword arm out of the waters. That meant that the soldier had been baptized — all of him except the hand which held his sword. With that arm he could serve the Emperor.

We all do it. We all hold some portion of our lives out of the waters of our baptism. God can be Lord of our lives on Sunday but, when we get to work on Monday, we operate by a different set of rules. We can let Jesus comfort us when we are troubled or suffering but, in those times when we are strong and feel like we are in control of our lives, we figure we do not need to refer to him.

In the 1940’s, Clarence Jordan founded a community in Americus, Georgia. In the deep south of the United States, he founded a community that was to be a living sign of and witness to the Kingdom of heaven which Jesus had inaugurated. It was a community where everyone was welcome — blacks and whites, rich and poor.

People ridiculed them. They found themselves embroiled in a number of legal battles because it was against the law for blacks and whites to share meals together, much less raise their children together.

Clarence’s brother was Robert. At the time he was just a country lawyer, but he would eventually become a state senator and a justice in the Georgia Supreme Court. Clarence asked Robert for help with a legal battle. Robert replied, “I can’t do that. You know my political aspirations. If I represented you, I might lose everything.”

Clarence replied, “We might lose everything too. Why is this so different? When we were boys, we joined church on the same Sunday.”

Robert said, “I follow Jesus up to a point.”

“Would that point by any chance be the cross?”
“That’s right. I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not going to get crucified.”

“Well, Robert,”  said Clarence, “I don’t think you are a disciple of Jesus. I think you are an admirer of Jesus. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to and tell them that you are an admirer of Jesus, not a disciple.” (Stanley HauerwasMatthew, p.57)

We are not used to making such a harsh distinction. Our traditions around baptism were shaped largely by a time when everyone was baptized as a matter of social custom. We tend to think of it as a ritual that mostly involves babies and little children.

If you ask the parents who still seek baptism for their children, “Why do you want your child baptized?”, they are, for the most part, unclear about it. They are unsure not only about why they are asking for baptism but also about what baptism means.

That might be true for most of us. That can be partly explained because the cultural understanding of what baptism is, is changing. It is no longer something everybody just does as  matter of course. As the church moves back to being on the margins of society, we are becoming more like the early church. Baptism is again taking a more central role in the identity and mission of the church. Once more, it is becoming the gateway into a community of people whose lives are shaped by commitments and convictions that are different from much of the rest of the culture. We are a community that becomes different from the world as we participate in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Baptism is not just something that happened to us when we were babies. It initiated us into a way of living where we are continually turning, or orienting, our lives toward to God who is revealed to us in Jesus of Nazareth. It happens once but it takes a whole life to live into it. It shapes our spirituality. It forms our identity. We are a baptized and baptizing community of faith.

Martin Luther lived in the sixteenth century and was a leader in the Protestant Reformation. The spirituality that was shaped by his baptism led him to confront the abuses and corruption of the church in his day. He was often in trouble. He was often troubled. When he was troubled, he would trace the sign of the cross that had been marked on his forehead in his baptism. He would say to himself, “I am a baptized person.”

He didn’t say, “I was baptized.” He said, “I am a baptized person.” It reminded him that God had called him to speak truth to power. It reminded him that the Holy Spirit surrounded him and kept him in the midst of trouble.

A few years ago, I led a study group that looked at the meanings of baptism. I invited the participants to go through the week saying, “I am a baptized person” and to trace the sign of the cross on their foreheads, either literally or simply in their minds.

They came back the next week and many of them reported how amazed they were at the difference it had made in their lives. One woman said, “I was in situations where I was tempted to be petty or mean — to join in office politics and gossip. I would visualize the sign of the cross and say to myself, “I am a baptized person”. That enabled me to turn away from all of the meanness and to live into a the better standard that I cherish for myself.”

Another person found the ritual enormously comforting. It reminded her that nothing that happened to her could take her outside the realm of God’s redeeming power and gracious love.

Baptism is a gateway into a way of life that is shaped by God’s claim upon us. This is both wonderful and rightening.

It is wonderful because God has a good and holy purpose for our lives — a purpose that lifts us up and gives dignity and hope and meaning. In baptism God gives the Holy Spirit to empower us for all that that entails.

It is wonderful because, when we learn constantly to turn our lives toward Jesus Christ, we experience the presence of God in amazing and life-giving ways.

It is frightening because we are often afraid that God may demand more of us than we are ready to give. God may ask us to make changes that we do not want to make. We may be afraid that God will judge us for not measuring up, not being good enough, not doing enough.

Both the wonder and the fear are gathered into the waters of our baptism. As you live into that powerful event, you rise again and again to hear more and more deeply the words first spoken to Jesus, “You are my Beloved. You are my delight.” (Matthew 3: 13-17)

That is who you truly are. It is a gift that will see you through all your days. It is a gift you get to offer to others.  We are a community called to flood the world with the love we have received. This week, whenever anyone or anything makes you feel small or insignificant or alone, remember your baptism. Live into your high and holy calling. It is the gift of God’s grace for you. Thanks be to God.

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A sermon based on Luke 3: 51-22 for Baptism of our Lord Sunday

If someone were to ask you, “Who is Jesus?”, what would you say?

Is he an interesting human being or is he the Son of God?

Is he a great spiritual leader among the world’s other spiritual leaders or is he Lord of lords and King of kings, Very God of Very God?

Is he the person in the picture on a wall from your childhood or is he your Lord and Master and saviour?

Is he someone you have bet your life on?

When we try to say who Jesus is, we tend to use titles, names, and ideas. When the gospels try to tell us who Jesus is, they tell us stories. In those stories, it is never completely obvious who Jesus is. Different interpretations are always possible. Who he is is always open to debate.

We think we have trouble knowing who Jesus is because we know so much. Modern science tells us how the world works — what is possible and what is not possible. It teaches us to be sceptical about the claims that Jesus healed a leper or fed 5000 people with five loaves and two fish. Besides, we are in contact with people from other faiths who worship other gods. What do you do with someone who claims, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through me.”

We think we have trouble with Jesus because we know so much more than the people of Jesus’ time. “No,” say the gospels, “Jesus’ identity has always been contested. It has always been uncertain.” A few people believed that he was the Saviour of the world. Most thought he was crazy and wanted him dead.

A few people said, “This is God in the flesh, living among us full of grace and truth.” Most people thought he was an arrogant trouble-maker who ought to be silenced.

Even those who followed him — his friends and companions — were not always sure what to make of him. Mostly, they just caught glimpses that left them awestruck and wanting more.

The gospel writers do not just give us titles for Jesus. They do not give us definitions or explanations. They tell us stories. Stories, it seems are a much better vehicle for telling the truth about who this Jew from Nazareth is. Stories are deeper and more complex than definitions, just like Jesus is.

One story all four gospels tell is the story of John the Baptist. They all tell that story at the very beginning of Jesus’ adult ministry. If you want to know who Jesus is, you have to get past John first.

John is always out in the wilderness, in the desert. The wilderness is a place where survival is at risk. There are not a lot of resources easily available for you to live. When the gospels tell you that John is in the wilderness, they are not speaking about geography as much as they are doing theology. They are saying that you probably won’t really figure out who Jesus is until life takes you to a wilderness place. There is something about Jesus that is simply not compelling to people who are comfortable with the way things are. People who are at ease in the world do not seem to find him of much interest.

You don’t really start getting to know who Jesus is until you get news from the doctor that shatters your comfortably settled world and you find your life turned upside down.

You don’t really start wrestling with this Saviour until you realize that there is a dark and dangerous wilderness in the middle of a quiet city where innocent people can be kidnapped and killed.

You don’t work too hard at figuring out who Jesus is until your church is two thirds empty Sunday after Sunday and all the programmes and solutions you try don’t work to turn things around and you start wondering whether or not your church is going to survive.

That’s when you really start having to have an answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?”

The gospels take you deeper into your wilderness and introduce you to Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptizer. John the Baptizer was a wild, eccentric character. He was preaching out in the wilderness, saying out loud what everybody knows: “Things aren’t working anymore, folks. The economy isn’t working and there is no easy fix. We’ve messed up creation with our greed and carelessness and now floods and storms and earthquakes are shaking up our world. Relationships are broken — between individuals and between communities and between nations. If we keep heading in the direction we are heading, we shall just encounter more troubles. It is time to turn around. It is time to head into a different direction.”

The crowds loved it. They go worked up and started thinking, “Maybe he is the one. Maybe he will be able to lead us out of the mess we are in. Maybe he will be able to fix what is wrong.”

John says, “Not me. I am not your Saviour. I am just here to point you to the one who is your Saviour. He is mightier than I am. His power is so great that I am not worthy even to be his slave. When he shows up, then things will really change. He will tell truth so scorching that every feeble excuse you make, every lie you have been telling yourself, will burn up and blow away. The words he speaks will expose your idolatries. He will shake your world and disrupt all the complacent defences you are putting up against God. That’s who Jesus is.”

Then there comes the best line in the whole story: “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.” Does John’s speech sound like ‘good news’ to you?

Not everybody wants a Jesus as powerful as what John describes. Herod didn’t want as much truth as even John told and Herod put him in prison. Within three years, he would do the same and worse to Jesus.

It is a curious way to introduce us to Jesus, don’t you think? If I were going to introduce you to Jesus I would tell you that Jesus is a steady anchor when everything else in your life is in chaos and turmoil.

I would tell you that Jesus, the living Christ, can be your sure and steadfast friend when life takes you to the depths of loneliness.

I would tell you that the resurrected Christ is God’s promise that even our dead ends won’t stop God’s good and loving purposes.

But, I am not the one telling the story here. The gospel writers are. They are people who bet their lives on this Jesus and they begin by telling you that Jesus will tell you the truth about your life so powerfully that he will knock your socks off. It is a curious way to introduce us to Jesus, unless this Jesus really is God’s beloved Son, with whom God is well-pleased. It is a curious way to introduce us to Jesus unless Jesus really is the one upon whom the Holy Spirit rests and the truth he tells is the truth that will give you life in all its fullness. The truth he tells is truth that heals your brokenness and sets you free from the fears that bind you. The truth he tells gives us God’s glory and power and love.

If that is the truth, perhaps then, the real question is not “Who is Jesus?” Perhaps the real question is, “Will you let him near?”

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