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Sunday, January 19, 2014

How to double your congregation in one week

There is a way to do that.  Really.

All it would take is for every single person in a parish to invite 1 other person to church next week.

Why have we become embarrassed to do that?  It goes without saying that we go to church because we get something out of it, because it feeds us somehow, because it is a positive experience for us.

By comparison, why do we feel free to recommend our favourite restaurants, good movies, gentle dentists and fun vacation spots to friends, family and neighbours?  Why do we feel free to invite them to come see our band play, try out yoga at our favourite studio or join us at the gym, but we are so reluctant to share our church with other people?

Surely, when we have a positive experience, we want to share it, and that is only natural, but for some reason, we are bashful about our faith.

This could be because the act of sharing our faith is also known by another dirty word, and that is "evangelism".

Evangelism simply means to spread the Gospel, but evangelism seems to be an activity which has been co-opted by the "evangelical" movements.  Most of us regard their style of spreading the Gospel to be heavy-handed, judgmental and irritating.

But in essence, evangelism is essentially spreading an experience of God: God as love, God as justice, God as compassion and acceptance.  It has nothing to do with judgment, self-righteousness or moral superiority.

It has to do with sharing with someone else that God cares and that we care.  It has to do with sharing a community where we come to know one another, and through knowing one another, we come to know God.

In many of my pastoral visits and conversations with people, one trend seems to be prevalent, and that is a desire for community.  Despite being in the age of technologically-assisted mass communication, people are reporting feelings of depression, isolation and loneliness with alarming frequency.

I would be the first to admit that a church will not necessarily be for everyone, but I think there is a prevailing attitude in most faith-seekers interested in attending a church that they may not be welcome there, that a church is a closed community.

This is why I think it important to invite people.  A personal invitation can go a long way.

To listen to a podcast of my sermon for this week, click here.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

What it means to be beloved

Much of what I had to say about this week's celebration of The Baptism of the Lord relates back to an earlier post on the event of a baptism in my parish (entitled "To baptize or not to baptize").  What I focused on was the aspect of choice that Jesus exercised when we submitted to baptism himself.

To recap: ancient Judaism was more a racial question than one of religion.  If one was born of Jewish parents, one was automatically Jewish, and no rite of initiation was required.  Therefore, as a practicing Jew, Jesus would not have required baptism, as baptism in Judaism was generally only performed when a Gentile (non-Jew) converted to Judaism.  Baptism was seen literally as a cleansing away of the sin and filth of a past lifestyle, and a fresh beginning.  A clean slate, if you will.

But John (and later Jesus) were preaching a baptism of repentance.  Their underlying message was that race and birthright did not guarantee salvation.  In other words, your lineage did not impress God in the slightest.  It was how you loved God and neighbour (or failed to) which was a deciding factor.

So John and Jesus were calling people to reconsider the Law.  Not to do away with it, as Jesus makes clear elsewhere in the Gospels, but to seriously reconsider our motivation for following the law.  John and Jesus seemed to have an issue with the blinkered self-righteous who followed the Law pedantically, but without love in their hearts for God or neighbour.  They were calling us to invest those Laws with love.

So what Jesus baptism comes down to is choice: making the choice to life righteously as opposed to self-righteously, making the choice to love God and neighbour, making the choice to follow the path God had set before Him.

And here is the reality of the situation: Jesus could have turned away from his path at any point.  He could have stopped speaking out, he could have stopped spreading his dangerous and radical Gospel, he could have lived a normal life without ever sticking his neck out.

But he chose not to.

Now here is something I remember from my youth: turning my back on God because I had anthropomorphized the Divine and conceived of God as a great chess player who was forcing me to do things and denying me certain things.  I resented anyone pulling my strings...I still do, for that matter, but who doesn't, right?

I don't see God that way anymore, but I have become aware that there are paths I can follow that will lead me to happiness and fulfillment, and others that won't.  I am aware that some (if not all) of the paths that scare me generally lead me to the greatest moments of fulfillment in my life.

And maybe this is what is meant by God saying "This is my beloved son in whom I am well-pleased" in the Gospel passage for today.  It is not as though God would have said "You are a jerk and I hate you" had Jesus not made the gesture of submitting to his own baptism.  Jesus felt God's love all the more because he had decided to follow a path of service and selflessness.

I truly believe that God wants us to be fulfilled.  That does not always mean being comfortable or safe, but often comfort and safety are simply not fulfilling.  It is therefore in following a "Godly" path that we meet our truest fulfillment.  The greatest fulfillment we can possibly attain is when our will and God's will coincide; when our path and God's path are one in the same.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

What would YOU bring to a king?

So I seem to have misplaced my voice recorder, so until it surfaces, I will have to give a written version of my sermons:)

This past Sunday was Epiphany, a word which means "revelation" or "sudden realization".  This is the commemoration of the moment Christ was revealed to the Three Wise Men.  As a corollary, one could also say this day commemorates the revealing of Christ to the whole world.

A few things have to be realized about the Three Wise Men, sometimes called the Three Magi or Three Kings.  They were likely not kings at all.  More likely, they were emissaries of kings.

Their story is only told in the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-12).  Although they are never named in the Bible, tradition has assigned them the names Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar.  Legend also has it that they came respectively Persia, India and Arabia.

Realistically, there may have been more or fewer Wise Men.  The Bible does not specify their number, but that there were three of them is inferred by the number of gifts they brought.

In reality, the gifts the Three brought were not anything special.  Yes, gold, frankincense and myrrh were valuable, but they were fairly formulaic gifts which were given to any and all kings upon their ascension to the throne.  They were symbolic of the different aspect of being a leader.

Gold represented the material wealth and prosperity which were wished upon kings and their kingdoms.  Frankincense represented the divine nature of being a king (kings were seen to be ordained and anointed by God, and incense smoke was thought to bring prayers up to God), and myrrh was a soothing ointment significant of the wounds a kings would have to suffer during his life.

In modern terms, although the gifts were well in keeping with the customs of the time, they were about as personal and thoughtful as a box of chocolates, a bottle of wine, and I gift certificate to Winners.

But sometimes, all we are left with is the symbolism of gifts: what could you possibly give to a king that he doesn't already have?  By definition, kings are wealthy and have everything they could ever want.

My family and I try to do something around Christmas.  At this point in our lives, we have every material thing we have ever wanted, and so Christmas would become a futile re-shuffling of extraneous wealth had we not all decided to give gifts a little more deliberately.  We all have our creative outlets, and so we try to give hand-crafted gifts to each other which come from our talents.

So although we may not be able to present Christ, our family, our friends, our job, out church, our community with gold, frankincese or myrrh, we need to consider what gifts we do possess.

One thing I have noticed in my discussions with people in and outside the church is that many of us are adept at pointing out our shortcomings, the things we dislike about ourselves.  Ask most people what they dislike about themselves, and they will be able to name 10 things in under a minute.  Ask them to name 3  things they like or respect in themselves, what gifts they have to offer the world, and it may take a while.

On this Epiphany Sunday, perhaps we can take the time to think consciously and affirm in ourselves and each other the gifts and talents that we actually have to offer...I guarantee you that you have gifts, and those gifts have been the answer to someone's prayer.

We need to know what we would be able to bring before a king.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

To baptize or not to baptize?

This past week we had a baptism, and it gave us an opportunity to reflect on this often-forgotten and even more often-misunderstood Christian sacrament.

We should first understand what a sacrament is.  A sacrament is a ritual or a rite of passage.  It is something sacred, a moment which is set apart or which sets us apart as something special.  The Anglican Book of Common Prayer defines a sacrament as "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace".

In other words, the form of the sacrament or what the sacrament actually accomplishes is perhaps less important that what we think the sacrament accomplishes.

For example, the sacrament with which Anglicans are most familiar is Communion.  We generally do it every week.  The form the sacrament takes is that of bread and wine, and in a literal sense, all we are doing is eating and drinking that bread and wine.

But what we think  we are doing is more important and meaningful than the outward appearance.  Whether we think we are symbolically or literally partaking in the body of Christ, whether we feel we are symbolically or literally partaking in the fruits of creation, or whether we think we are just sharing a meal with friends, family and neighbour, the important part of the ritual is the emotional and spiritual result it has upon us.

The sacrament of baptism has been and continues to be a hotly debated topic in Christendom.

In years gone by, many theories have been proposed, the most tasteless of which being the notion that if a baby dies without having been baptized, that baby goes to hell.  If that is the way you feel God works, I have no idea why you would worship him.

Another theory is that baptism cleanses away sin.  But how could a months-old baby possibly sin?  If that were the case, wouldn't baptism be more effective on our death bed, after we have had a lifetime to sin?

And if our rite of baptism descends from Christ's baptism, are we suggesting that Christ required a cleansing of sin or that he required baptism to be on God's radar?

The fact of the matter is that the Christian form of baptism comes from our Jewish forebears.  Ancient Judaism did not require baptism of all members, as Judaism was principally a racial consideration.  However, if a non-Jew converted to Judaism, baptism was required to cleanse the new initiate of his or her past life of sin, which is perhaps the source of some Christians' belief that baptism is a cleansing of sin.

The biggest question brought up by Jesus' baptism is why would he need it?  He was born and raised Jewish, and so would not require a baptism.

But here is where perhaps the most important aspect of baptism comes in.  Jesus' baptism represented a choice on his part.  It represents his choosing God and choosing his mission.  And this is what baptism represents: choice.  If you read the service itself, it consists mainly of a series of promises that we exchange with one another.

But here is one of the controversies about baptism, and it has been the cause of schism in the church: how can an infant possibly make an informed choice in the matter?  Surely they have not nearly attained the age of reason.  This is why some denominations only practice adult baptism.

This is where we need to re-evaluate what actually happens during baptism.  In reality, it is of course not the child who is making the promises.  The parents and godparents make promises on behalf of the child, and the congregation makes promises to the child and family.  Essentially they make promises to support, encourage, protect and nurture one another.

In reality, these promises should not have to be made out loud.  Parents, friends and family members should already want to do those things, should already have a desire to do those things, should already feel them naturally.  In the same sense as marriage vows are redundant (a couple should already want to support and protect and be faithful to one another), so are the baptismal promises.

So why do it?

The power of ritual is that it marks the moment as sacred.  It sets us and the moment apart.  It marks our transition from one stage of life to another, and emotionally, psychologically and spiritually, that is profoundly important.

The tragedy of modern North American culture is that we have very few rituals, very little that is still sacred.  For example, how do we know when we became an adult?  When we graduated high school?  Got our license?  Moved out of our parents?  Got our first job?  Got our first house?  Got married?  Had kids?

By these definitions, there are many people in their 80s and 90s who never became adults, and yet we would not argue that they are.

Many cultures (ours included in years gone by) have specific rituals which let a child know they are now to give up childish ways and take on the mantle of adulthood.  There is a discrete moment when this change occurs.  Physically, very little has changed from one moment to the next, but psychologically, this shift is palpable.

Our culture seems to have lost this, and so we have generations of adult children with little sense of responsibility and maturity.

Baptism marks a moment in the life of a family, and it has less to do with membership in the church than it has to do with moving from being a couple to being a family with a child.  It is a move from one sphere of responsibility and influence to another.  It is a public proclamation of those feelings and responsibilities which should naturally be on our hearts before we make that move.

Unfortunately, I get the impression that for many people today, churchgoers included, view baptism as a photo opportunity.

In reality, it is an important sacrament that deserves to be taken seriously.