Sunday, January 30, 2005

Sun, Jan 31, 2005 - Blessed Failure

Micah 6:1-8

Psalm 15

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Matthew 5:1-12

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "success" as "favourable or desired outcome; also: the attainment of wealth, favour, or eminence." [] Some related words are: accomplishment, achievement, attainment; triumph, victory. The opposite of success is failure. Success is a big deal in our society. Everybody wants to be successful. Of course, what that looks like varies from person to person, but generally speaking, people who are considered successful have a good job, a nice house, the right number of cars, respect from their colleagues. And the more you have of these things, the more successful you’re considered to be. Bigger, better, and more seem to be characteristics of people or ventures that are considered successful. Businesses that have gotten bigger, practices that have gotten better, products that have increased in value - these are successes. You probably know this from work - to be considered successful at work, you have to work hard, never give up, and of course, produce bigger and better.

Now, this focus we have on success, the high value we place on it, is carried over into our religious life, as well. More specifically, into the life of the church. For instance, if I do a search for "church success stories" on the Internet, this is what I get: Wilshire Baptist Church in Texas is a success because it has grown to over 3,000 members in the last fifty years. St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Virginia is a success because it was able to raise its donations from $150,000 to $170,000 in one year. Even within this Synod and this congregation, we think of that a church is successful when it’s getting bigger and better. By contrast, when a church closes, like Christ Lutheran in Scarborough did a few weeks ago, nobody calls that a success. Some people even think of it as a failure. No doubt if you look at our annual report and see that our membership and finances are dropping, you’ll be tempted to think that we are unsuccessful. If we aren’t getting bigger and better, how can we be a success? And if we want to be a success, why aren’t we doing more to get more members and more donations?

But to all the people who say that, both outside the church and in it, I want to say, "Lord, save me from temptation." Yup - it might be a little harsh for me to say this, but this way of thinking, this way of living our lives is a temptation that we ought to be resisting.

You see, this kind of success is empty. For one thing, no matter how much money or power or status we have, none of these things love us when we’re lonely, or offer us comfort when we’re sick. None of these things have ever stopped a person from dying. The friends that you make when you’re successful are often the first people to leave you when you become a "failure."
For another thing, the pursuit of success has no end. It’s ceaseless. It makes us miserable and actually dooms us to failure because when it comes to success, there’s always more. There’s always more money to make, more people to bring on board, a bigger job to strive for, more things to buy. The problem with success is that it never actually gives you any fulfilment or contentment. You always want more. Success becomes your God - the thing which you fear, love, and trust above all else.

And people who want to be successful are taught never to let anything get in the way of that. Which sounds good on the surface, but what it really means is that they have to be cold, calculating, dispassionate, ruthless with themselves and with others. And in the end, their drive to succeed takes away their humanity, and the dignity of those around them - people become commodities, or tools, or resources, or seats in a pew.

And God doesn’t like it. "With what shall I come before the LORD," says the person seeking religious success in our reading from Micah. "Shall I come before the LORD with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" How can I be a success before God - should I give the church all my money? All my time? Will God be happy if I make all my family members go to church, too? "He has told you, O mortal, what is good;" responds Micah. "And what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" God isn’t interested in bigger or better or more. God is interested in fairness, and equality, and humility, things that usually get in the way of success. You might even say that God is interested in failure.

But, oh, is that temptation hard to resist. Success is so seductive! It promises us immediate gratification - which it doesn’t deliver. It tells us we can’t be any kind of person worth anything without it. We need it to give meaning and value and purpose to our lives. Or so we think.
It’s like drowning - imagine that you’re caught in a rushing river, clinging for dear life to a tree branch. Even though the branch is small and unstable, it’s the only thing you have, so you hold on. Well, now imagine that somebody in a boat nearby says "Let go of the branch and swim over to me." Now if that was me, I would not be letting go unless there was something else to grab onto, that’s for sure. No matter how small that branch is, regardless of the fact that I’m going to drown if I persist in hanging on to it, that branch is better than me being on my own. I need the assurance that there will be something else for me to hang onto before I let go. And in just the same way, it’s almost impossible for us to let go of our need to be successful without having something else to grab onto. When life becomes overwhelming, we cling to the first thing at hand, to this empty purpose, and with nothing else in sight, we don’t dare let go. The only way we can relinquish our hold on this dangerous false idol we’re clutching is if God offers us something better to grab onto. Something to take the place of the success that drives us along every day.

So what does God have for us? What does God offer that is more solid and dependable than a floating tree branch? God offers us the promise of comfort, fulfillment, and mercy - God offers us blessing.

And so we come our Gospel reading for today - the Beatitudes. Now, there are many ways of looking at what is considered the first sermon of Jesus. They are seen as ethical guidelines, as directions on how to be happy, as comfort to those who find themselves in a bad situation. And they are all of those things. But they are also signposts to success - that is, to God’s idea of success. They show us that what Jesus proclaimed last week is true, that the kingdom of heaven has indeed come near, and it can be seen in those who are trodden upon and those who are considered failures.

  • "Blessed are the poor in spirit" - well, to us, anybody who’s poor in anything is a failure, but Jesus promises them the kingdom of heaven.
  • "Blessed are those who mourn" - can’t get over your loss, you’re weak and you’ll never get anywhere, except that Jesus offers them comfort like they’ve never had.
  • "Blessed are the meek" - in our world, they’d never make it. How far can you go if you don’t stand up for yourself? Well, for Jesus, they’ll go so far as to inherit the earth.
    "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness" - righteousness - justice and equality - never got anybody a good job, but in Jesus’ kingdom, those are the people who are filled and never want for anything.
  • "Blessed are the merciful" - they’re like the meek, they’ll let anybody just walk all over them. The merciful are bad for profits. Except that in Jesus’ kingdom the merciful receive mercy themselves, something we’re all badly in need of.
  • "Blessed are the pure in heart" - if you can’t tell when someone’s out to get you, you deserve it. But according to Jesus, cynics never see God.
  • "Blessed are the peacemakers" - well, that doesn’t fit very well with "divide and conquer" does it? Unless you want to be one of God’s own children. God’s children don’t need to conquer - they’re given everything they need anyway.
  • "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake," and "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account." We all know that nobody trusts or hires anybody with a bad reputation. But, then again, who needs a good job when you’ve been given the kingdom of heaven.

Yup, God doesn’t operate on the same model of success that we do. God doesn’t reward those who are powerful, or wealthy, or highly respected. Being successful is not a sign of God’s blessing. God favours the poor, God rewards the failures, and God’s reward doesn’t take the shape of money or power. That is what the cross is all about. Jesus’ death - a failure to most people - resulted in the biggest success of all: new life and the defeat of death.

Now, this sounds all nice and dandy, but what happens when you put it smack up against reality? What happens when you try and live your life this way, shunning the successes of the world, and you find that you’re in danger of losing your job, or your house, or your church? Can we really honestly believe that we’ll survive if we turn our backs on bigger and better and more? Isn’t that a little naive? A little foolish?

Well, as Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth, in our second reading, "The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to use who are being saved it is the power of God." Paul, after God struck him blind about it, finally understands how things really work. "God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength." Paul is no dummy - he lived a hard life and he knew the realities of the world - if you followed Christ, you suffered torture. If you turned your back on success, you would be without a home or family. But Paul was able to let go of those things, because God offered him something even better. "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption."

Yes, living our lives according to the Beatitudes is foolish. Turning our backs on worldly success, on the comfort and security that it grants us, is foolish. But God is foolish and what God offers us in return is so much better - new life, mercy, comfort, the kingdom of heaven. God offers us justice and peace. God offers us a world where all people are equal, and everybody is fulfilled and content. There’s no better offer than that, and we can thank God that it is one that is offered to us again and again, until we finally accept. Thanks be to God, Amen.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Sun, Jan 23, 2005 - The Unified, Diversified Light of Christ

Isaiah 9:1-4

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Matthew 4:12-23

Well, today marks the Sunday mid-point of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. And so today, around the world, Christians of different denominations get together to put aside their differences and worship and pray in the name of the one Christ. We take to heart Paul’s words to us, that we heard this morning, "Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose." And it is vital that we do this. Lutherans, Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, Presbyterians, United, Eastern Orthodox - the list of Christian denominations goes on, but we should all be heeding Paul’s words and Christ’s wish that we would be one church. We all should be striving to put aside our arguments and strife in order to be of the same mind and the same purpose - in order to follow Christ - to teach about his love and sacrifice, to proclaim the good news of the kingdom, to bind up the brokenhearted, and to proclaim liberty to the captive. It is a huge job that we are being called to do - bringing the kingdom of heaven near - and arguments over church practice, or which hymns to sing, or how we call our bishops, although insignificant to the work that needs doing, nevertheless manage to stand in the way of us doing it. And so often we find ourselves unable to carry out Christ’s work, hampered by our own quarrels - like those in the church of Corinth, about whether we belong to Paul or Apollos or Cephas; about whether we belong to the Lutheran church or the Catholics or the Assemblies of God; whether we belong to the fundamentalist camp or the liberal camp, about whether we believe in creation or evolution, women pastors or celibate priests, gay rights or "traditional" marriage, pro-life or pro-choice. When there are as many denominations as there are issues to quarrel over, we know that we have failed. We find ourselves unable to live up to the clear Biblical witness that is before us - that we are to be one church, "united in the same mind and the same purpose."

Except that we have another Biblical witness - one that seems to say the opposite. We have stories in the Bible that lead us to believe that, actually, diversity and a multiplicity of choices and opinions are a rich part of our Christian heritage. The most important story we have, one that shows us clearly that God blesses diversity, comes from the Book of Acts. It’s a story we usually hear at Pentecost, but I think it’s appropriate today. Let me read it to you.

"When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem devout Jews of every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in their own language. And they were amazed and wondered, saying, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in our own native language? Par'thians and Medes and E'lamites and residents of Mesopota'mia, Judea and Cappado'cia, Pontus and Asia, Phryg'ia and Pamphyl'ia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyre'ne, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God." [Acts 2:1-11]

Here we have, in one of the most important moments in the history of the Christian church, a story of the Holy Spirit blessing the disciples with the gift of tongues so that they can speak in the languages of their hearers. It would have been easy enough for the Holy Spirit to make it so that the crowds listening could all understand Aramaic, the language of Jesus and the disciples, but instead God chose to value the uniqueness and diversity of all gathered there by doing it the other way around. Now the sound of all these different languages probably wasn’t pretty - it probably sounded like the buses and subways during rush hour - with hundreds of conversations taking place, all in different languages. No unity or one tongue here.

So, what do we do with these two opposing Biblical strands - one for unity and one for diversity? Well, I want to propose that the unity to which we are called, the unity of the Body of Christ, the Christian church, is not a unity where everything is homogeneous and everybody is identical. I believe that there is room for our differences in the vast family of God. After all, within the Christian tradition, even within this congregation, I’ll bet, there are a wide array of beliefs that we as Christians have. With opinions on everything from giving Communion to infants, to the literalness of Scripture, to same-sex marriage, to baptismal practices, to the Virgin birth, to the gender of God, to what it means that Jesus is Emmanuel, not one of us has the exact same belief as any other Christian. And yet we are all Christian - we are all part of the one Body. There is room for our diversity, and I would even go so far as to say that there is need for our diversity.

How is this possible? Well, if you were listening to the children’s message, you might be able to tell where I’m going. In the children’s message I talked about light. For those of who you who missed it, I showed the kids, with a prism, how white light is actually made up of a rainbow of colours. What we think of as pure light is actually light made up of red, yellow, orange, green, blue, and violet light. What I wasn’t able to show them, because I’m not a science teacher, was that if one of those colours is missing, the light changes. It’s no longer white. Depending on the missing colour, it can be magenta, or yellow, or cyan, or just plain muddy-looking. But it’s not white, it’s not pure.

The church of Christ is like that light - indeed, we are still in the season of Epiphany, when we speak so frequently of Christ as the light that has come into the world. And like light, this Body of Christ needs the range of colourful opinions and beliefs that exist in order to shine forth purely. If we were all Catholics, the church would be missing the colour that women and married clergy bring. If we were all Anglicans, the church would be missing the colour that informal worship services bring. If we were all Baptists, the church would be missing the colour that infant baptism brings. If we were all Lutherans, the church would be perfect. No, I’m kidding. If we were all Lutherans, the church would be missing the colour that a deep sense of responsibility for one’s owns actions brings. I could go on, but you get the idea. All the colours of the rainbow are necessary to have white light. And it may be that all the colours of faith are necessary to have the white light of Christ shine forth.

You see, I don’t think that any one Christian has a monopoly on God’s truth. God is so vast and so complex that it’s simply not possible for one single individual to know the mind of God. But together, with the complexity of our combined beliefs, we come closer to the complexity of God. I read a column by a Lutheran writer, wherein he claimed that when it came to a particular issue, either God was on his side, or God was on his opponent’s side, but it couldn’t be both. But I think, in that case, he was wrong. The church has done some of its best work when we have worked together with people we don’t agree with, or with people who share a different understanding of faith than we do. The United Church continues to remind us that pure grace and forgiveness is not enough when it comes to issues of justice - people must actually change. The Eastern Orthodox churches remind us that tradition and centuries-old worship services bring us deeper in touch with our roots. The non-denominational churches remind us that God comes to whom God wills, and that God doesn’t give two figs about whether they’re a main-line denomination or not. Diversity within the family of God brings us closer to the one God, to the truth of Christ.

Jesus called his disciples from various walks of life, all with different opinions about God. But in their following him, as Simon and James in our reading did, they became united. They didn’t always agree on everything, but they walked together on the path Christ lay before them. And the same is true for us. Us contemporary Christians don’t always agree on everything, either, even within this congregation. But we do walk together on the path Christ has laid before us, and the Holy Spirit uses all of us to bring the kingdom of heaven closer. While it’s true that sometimes our disagreements get in the way of that, it’s also true that sometimes they help us to see Christ more clearly, they help his light to shine more brightly. Like the rainbow of colours combine to make a white light, our rainbow of denominations combine to make the church of Christ, the united Body, shine forth into the darkness of the world, increasing its joy.
Now it doesn’t make sense for me to have the last word in this sermon, since I’m only one voice - I’m only one colour of the rainbow. So let’s all sing together, with all of our different colours, the words of our Gospel hymn, number 755 in the blue hymnal.

We all are one in mission; we all are one in call,
our varied gifts united by Christ, the Lord of all.
A single great commission compels us from above
to plan and work together that all may know Christ’s love.

We all are called to service, to witness in God’s name.
Our ministries are diff’rent; our purpose is the same:
to touch the lives of others with God’s surprising grace,
so ev’ry folk and nation may feel God’s warm embrace.

Now let us be united, and let our song be heard.
Now let us be a vessel for God’s redeeming Word.
We all are one in mission; we all are one in call,
our varied gifts united by Christ, the Lord of all.

With One Voice, 755

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Sun, January 16, 2005 - The Fellowship of Christ

Isaiah 49:1-7

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

John 1:29-42

In the movie, the Fellowship of the Ring, taken from the book by J.R.R. Tolkien, there is a scene where a young, only slightly adventurous hobbit, named Frodo is called to carry a weapon of destruction into the heart of evil to destroy it in order to save the world. It is a pivotal moment in the movie, and a touching one, because Frodo neither wants to nor is really even capable of carrying out such a task. His idea of achieving something big is to get the weapon out of his home village, across the land, and into the home of the elves, so that they can destroy it. Instead, he is called to go far beyond himself, far beyond any adventure he might have wished to have had, straight into the mouth of hell itself. It is, as Gandalf his friend describes it, a fool’s errand. It is dangerous, full of peril, and if Frodo fails, which he is almost certain to do, the whole world will be taken over by evil and destroyed.

Of course, since this movie and book are only the first of three, you can guess what Frodo does. He accepts the call and goes on a quest to destroy the weapon - a ring - and save the world. However, Frodo is not called to go on this journey alone. Instead, he is given eight other companions to help him, and these companions - this "fellowship of the ring" - help Frodo in such a way that he is actually able to destroy the ring and save the world.

But this fellowship is sometimes a difficult thing. It begins full of hostilities. The elf and the dwarf hate each other. One of the men is highly suspicious of the other and actually attacks Frodo at one point to gain control of the ring. Two of Frodo’s friends are just along for the ride and cause terrible things to happen because of their foolishness, but despite all of this, without them, without the fellowship’s weakness and mistakes and failures, without this flawed fellowship, Frodo would not have been able to save the world. Without them he would have failed, and died, but with this community, through the support and strength of this fellowship, he does, indeed, save the world.

Today’s readings are, believe it or not, about fellowship and being called by God to do great things in order to make the world a better place. These things aren’t easy, they’re maybe not even things that we would want to do, but we are called to do them none the less. And we are given a fellowship to help us.

So, to start, the calling. What are we called to do with our lives? Well, we’re going to leave J.R.R. Tolkien now, and go back to the Bible. And in our reading this morning, we hear the author of Isaiah begin by telling his, or her, listeners that they’re not called to "raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel." In other words, they’re not called to the mighty task of restoring Israel after its invasion by the Babylonians, they’re not called to bring back all of God’s lost Hebrew children. That task is, actually, too... well... small for them. It’s not too big, although it is a huge task. It’s actually too small, too light a thing. Instead, God wants Isaiah’s listeners to be a "light to the nations, that [the Lord’s] salvation may reach to the end of the earth." They are called to the enormous task of restoring not Israel but the whole world. They are called not to bring back God’s Hebrew children but to go out to all of God’s children wherever they are, no matter where they come from, no matter who they worship. It is a giant task, one that seems pretty much impossible to carry out, and yet that seems to be what God wants. And that seems to be what God is calling us to do, as well.

We are called not to be a light of God only in our homes and among our friends but to be a light to the entire world, to every single person we come across, in every single minute of our day, whether we want to or not, whether we feel like it or not. We are called to be living witnesses to the light of God, not just when we walk out of church and feel good about the world, not just when the sun is shining and the snow is melting, not just when people are nice to us, but when we’re tired, when we’re angry, when it’s thirty minutes to the end of work and we’ve just learned we have to work overtime. We’re called to shine forth the light and love of Christ in the world when we’re in pain, when we’re suffering, when people hate us. This is no walk through the meadow we’re called to. Like the hobbit, Frodo, who wasn’t called just to bring the ring to Rivendell, the home of the elves, a huge task in and of itself, but to bring it all the way to Mount Doom, to the heart of evil, we are called to something much, much bigger than ourselves, to something that seems impossible, to bring Christ’s light and love to the end of the world, to the heart of other people’s darkness. A fool’s errand.

But God does not call us to carry out this task alone. We wouldn’t be able to do it alone. Without the fellowship to support him as he grew weak, to remind him of the reason for taking on this difficult quest, to draw fire for him, to remove obstacles from his way, Frodo would never have been able to fulfill his mission. And the same is true for us. Without a similar fellowship, we, too, would be completely unable to carry out God’s call.

But, lucky for us and lucky for Frodo, that is not how we are meant to do it. Instead, we are given companions, to help us on our way. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, says as much when he says, "God is faithful; by God you were called into the fellowship of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord." God has created a fellowship for us, made up of other Christians and, most importantly, of Jesus Christ. And this is what is going to help us. You see, Paul tells us that through Christ, we have been given the grace of God, we have been "enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind. . . so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift." Because we are brought into fellowship with Christ, through baptism, we have all the tools we need to take on this impossible call. We have been given patience, endurance, love, and the ability to forgive others. We are made able to be this tremendous light to the nations, to bring the Lord’s salvation to the end of the earth. But we must do it in fellowship with one another. Otherwise we will fail.

A year ago this Sunday, we as a congregation embarked on a year-long process of determining where God is calling us. And after much thoughtful and prayerful consideration, you, the congregation, have highlighted six areas of growth that are going to help us to accept God’s call. The first one, which you have in this month’s newsletter, is relevant to today. It says, we will use our gift of hospitality to strengthen this community by getting to know better the people whom God has sent into the life of this congregation. This statement is about fellowship. It’s about walking together to help each other be a light to the nations. And through the coming months, we will be working to make this statement a reality. We will be looking at various ways to get to know one another better, to enter into fellowship with one another.

Now fellowships aren’t always comfortable. Just because people are companions, committed to helping each other achieve the impossible, just because they are a fellowship, doesn’t mean that everyone will get along. We may find, in getting to know one another, that we don’t always really like someone else, or agree with them. We may want to hide certain things about ourselves, or put up walls to prevent others from seeing our sins.

But the fact remains that without fellowship, we have no hope of even coming close to fulfilling God’s call to us. The gifts we are given through Christ are given to us as a group, to use as a group. And so we risk certain things for the sake of God’s call and for the sake of the fellowship. We risk our privacy. When we enter into fellowship with Christ and with one another, we risk people really knowing who we are - what our failures are, our weaknesses, our deep-dark secrets. We risk our independence. When we commit to being companions, we can no longer put ourselves first, doing what we want when we want. We have to put the well-being of the fellowship, and its goals, first. And we risk intimacy - when we become part of a community dedicated to answering a common call, we risk actually getting to know and love the people around us. We become vulnerable to sharing in their pain and suffering. We risk a lot when we enter into fellowship with Christ and with one another in order to answer God’s call.

But we can do it because Christ entered into fellowship with us first. Christ risked loving us, and being known to us, and entering intimately into our pain and suffering in order to be in fellowship with us, and then, knowing more about who we are than even we ourselves, knowing our failures and weaknesses and mistakes, Christ gave us his strength to accomplish the task God has set us to. "My God has become my strength," says the writer of Isaiah. "The testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you," says Paul. "He will also strengthen you to the end." We are not called to do what Christ has not already done for us. We are not, in fact, called to do the impossible.

Frodo, in the pivotal moment in the movie when he accepts the call laid before him, says, "I will take the ring, though I do not know the way." We are called to say the same thing to God - to accept the call to carry God’s light to all corners of the world, though we do not know what will come. But, like Frodo, we are given a fellowship, eternally bound by the love of Christ, and so we cannot fail. So, I encourage you, as you leave this place and go out into the world, to carry the light of Christ with you, to the end of the earth, knowing that you are supported and strengthened in your work by the people around you, and by Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Sun, Jan 9, 2005 - Who Are You?

Isaiah 42:1-9

Acts 10:34-43

Matthew 3:13-17

Who are you?

Really. Who are you? It’s a fair question, I think - one that other people ask us, one that sometimes we ask ourselves. Who are you? It’s an interesting question, especially since it seems that the answer changes depending on who’s doing the asking. For instance, if someone church related asks me who I am, I say, "I’m Kayko Driedger Hesslein, I’m the pastor of Emmanuel in Toronto." If someone from Lethbridge, Alberta, where my grandparents live, asks me who I am, I say, "I’m Kayko Driedger Hesslein, I’m Dr. Driedger’s granddaughter." If somebody from my husband’s work asks me who I am, I say, "I’m Kayko Hesslein, I’m Josh’s wife." The answer changes, depending on who’s doing the asking. If someone asks you who you are, you might define yourself in terms of your job; "I’m so-and-so, I’m the fill-in-the-blank at this company." You might define yourself in terms of your family; "I’m so-and-so, I’m the mother/grandfather/ cousin of that person." Depending on the situation, you might say who you are in relation to something that you own; "I’m so-and-so; I own the grey Toyota." Or, the broken TV, or the gas lawnmower. You get the idea. And all of these different answers mean different things to different people. Saying I’m the pastor of Emmanuel means something to people who go to church, and something less to people who don’t. Some people respect me more because of it, and some people less. Saying I’m the granddaughter of Dr. Driedger changes people’s perceptions of me if they know who he is, and does absolutely nothing if they don’t. How we define ourselves does change how people see us.

Likewise, how others define us changes the way we see ourselves. Little Gabriella who is being baptized this morning is the daughter of Ken and Maple Kyriacou, and the little sister of Anna Rose. That probably doesn’t mean anything to Gabriella right now, but one day, that definition will. Hopefully it will help her to see herself as part of a rich heritage of Filipino and Greek culture, hopefully it will help her to see herself as a valuable member of an extended family.
Each of you has, no doubt, been described in different ways by different people throughout your lives, and some of these descriptions have probably made a difference in your life - to how you think of yourself and to who you think you are.

For instance, if you have older siblings, you’ll know what it’s like, and how it’s affected your life, to be known as their younger brother or sister. If you’re the youngest in the family, being known as "the baby of the family" has probably helped shape your self-identity. If you’re the oldest, being defined as "the one in charge" has probably had an effect on who you are. If you’re the middle child, well, those who are named as "middle children" grow up with their own set of unique characteristics.

Our definitions of ourselves, and other people’s answers to the question of who we are can build us up, or bring us down. They shape us, for good or evil, throughout our lives. I’m sure that each one of you can remember someone describing you in a way that led you to be a better person. I’m also sure that each one of you can remember someone describing you in a way that made you a little less secure about yourself. Who we say we are, and who others say we are, has a great impact on the people we come to be.

And so we come to today - the day we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord. Now, baptism is many things. It is the forgiveness of sins, the promise of salvation, the sealing of the covenant between God and us, the gift of unconditional grace in the form of water. But it is also a time when we are given a new way of describing ourselves. It is a time when we are given a new identity, a new answer to the question, "Who are you?"

It all starts with Jesus. According to the Gospel of Matthew - and it’s different in every Gospel, Jesus’ baptism by John led to a new definition of who he was. When the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended on him, the voice of heaven described him as "my Son, the Beloved." Now that’s a title - that’s a description that’s going to change your life. You can’t go back to being plain old Jesus from Galilee when you’ve just been proclaimed as the Beloved Son of God. Who are you? I’m Jesus, the Son of God, but really I just run a carpentry business in Nazareth. Uh uh - no way. You have a new identity. You’re on a new path after that. Jesus’ path led him away from being a carpenter in Galilee to being a healer who wandered through Israel, a Messiah who proclaimed God’s love to all, and ultimately, to being a Saviour whose death and resurrection redeemed the world. Jesus’ life was completely changed from what he thought it might have been, growing up, all because he had been baptized and received a new identity, all because he was now known as God’s Son.

But Jesus isn’t the only one given a new identity - he’s just the first. When you were baptized, you, too, were given a new identity, a new way of describing yourself: Who are you? You’re a child of God. Right now, little Gabriella is just Gabriella, daughter of Maple and Ken. But in about ten minutes, after she’s been baptized, she’s going to be Gabriella, child of God.

And this new description changes things, it changes who you are. You are no longer just your job description, or who you are in relation to your genetic family - you are a child of God. You are a sister or brother of Jesus Christ. You are a sister or brother to every other Christian in the world. You are a sinner who has been transformed into a saint.

When you were washed in the waters of baptism, the same water used for those who live in royalty and those in poverty, the same water for those who become Saviours of the world and for those who struggle in sin, when you were washed in those waters, you became the equal of every single other person in the world. You aren’t any greater than anybody else - being a child of God doesn’t make you superior to anybody, but, you aren’t any less than anybody else, either. There is nobody in the world who is more valuable than you, because you are God’s child. You are deeply loved and made new in Christ.

And this means that it doesn’t matter who you or other people say you are, or how they describe you. Whether you are the president of the organization or the one who’s never going to get a promotion, whether you are the person who has what it takes or the one who can’t get it together, whether you are the best parent in the world or the one whose kids have no respect for anybody, whether you’re a saint or a sinner, it’s totally irrelevant. Take the best description of yourself and the worst and throw them both away. If you’ve been baptized, none of those things make any difference to who you are. You are a child of God, and that’s all that people need to know about you. It’s all you need to know about yourself.

Who are you? Today as we celebrate the baptism of Our Lord, and baby Gabriella’s baptism, we are reminded of our own baptism, and who we have become through that. And as you go through your week, as you define yourself and are defined by others, keep this first and foremost in your thoughts: Who are you? You’re a baptized child of God, beloved. Amen.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Sun, Jan 2, 2005 - The Light Shines

John 1:1-18

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it."

"I don’t get it." "I don’t understand." How many times a week do you say or hear that? It’s a phrase we use constantly, sometimes in puzzlement, sometimes in annoyance. And sometimes in a tone of frustration. "I can’t understand what’s going on. I don’t get why these things are happening to us." There’s a lot we don’t get in the world. There’s a lot we don’t understand. One of the things that is particularly hard to understand is the darkness of the world we live in, the seeming absence of any hopeful light. Even though Christmas was a week and a half ago, and even though we proclaimed then that there was light in the darkness, I wouldn’t be surprised if the glow of Christmas was over quickly. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re right back where you were before Christmas, wondering where all the light and love in the world has gone. One of the consequences of living in the world today is that we are constantly engulfed by darkness - it doesn’t stop because of Christmas. You only have to watch the news at night, especially with the tsunami coverage, to start thinking, "What has happened to our world? Where are all the good things? Doesn’t anything go right anymore?" With all the darkness surrounding us, it becomes difficult to for us to comprehend the light that is shining in our midst. We have a hard time understanding how that light can continue to shine. We have a hard time even grasping hold of the idea that there is a light shining amongst all this darkness.

The truth is that there is darkness in the world, we can’t ignore it. But we know that the light came into the world because of this darkness, and the only way to truly comprehend the brilliance of that light is to fully realize the depth of the darkness. Jesus was born in the middle of the night, that time when we’re laying in bed and things seem their utter worst. Jesus wasn’t born at noon, when the sun is shining and all our cares seem like nothing. Jesus came during that time when our world looked the blackest, in order to bring light to the deepest dark.

And even though we are Christians, that doesn’t make us immune to the despair that engulfs others. Our midnights are just as tortuous as an atheist’s. Our darkness is just as black. Sometimes, Christians find it even harder to recognize the light than non-Christians. I don’t know why - I suspect it is because the devil gets a bigger kick out of seeing Christians struggle. But the point is that we do have dark nights, when we can’t see the light that we know is supposed to be there - or if we can see it, we struggle to understand how or why it is even shining. These nights can last a few hours, a few days, a few weeks, or even longer. Many of the psalmists wrote about the seeming hopelessness of the night.

The fact is, though, that there is hope. From the beginning of the Bible to the end, we are constantly reminded that where there is darkness, there is God. And where there is God, there is light. John starts his Gospel with "In the beginning." But there’s another beginning. "In the beginning, the world was a dark, formless void." Genesis. It almost sounds like our world - a dark and formless void. The Hebrew word that describes this state of being is "tohu abohu" and it means a rolling, churning, chaotic mess. Sound like life around you? But God was there too, present in all the rolling and churning and chaos, just like God is present in all the chaos of our life. And God who is not willing that the darkness should rule our life, said, "Let there be Light!" And there was light! In the midst of the darkness, suddenly there was light! It illumined the dark, and ordered the world, and brought form to the chaos. The light changed this "tohu abohu" into the earth, teeming with life - animals, plants, and us. God wasn’t daunted by all that darkness. The void wasn’t an obstacle. In the same way, God isn’t daunted by all the darkness we encounter now. War, famine, disease. None of these things are enough to prevent God from bringing the light into our world. To shine in the darkest dark, and the longest night.

So why do we have such a hard time seeing this light? Why is it so difficult for us to understand how God’s light can shine in the midst of our human darkness? We know the light is there; we’ve been told it’s there, over and over, we celebrated it not more than nine days ago. Yet we still have despairing nights, and we still hang our heads over the evening news. What we know with our head, we don’t seem to get with our heart. We think, "Well, I’m Christian. Why is it so hard for me to find the light?" We search blindly in the darkness, trying to find this light that brings life, trying to understand why it’s there. The light shines in our darkness, and we cannot comprehend it.

One of my favourite artists is Bev Doolittle. Her works are paintings of scenery; snowy birch forests, rocky escarpments with rivers rushing underneath, things like that. However, what makes her paintings so unique is that within each picture are hidden various animals: wolves, Indian ponies, bears, eagles. When you look at each painting, you have to search for what is camouflaged. I used to spend hours staring at these paintings, not seeing a thing, until one of my sisters would show up. She would point out a tail, or an outline of an ear, and then suddenly, "I get it! I see it! There it is!" It was like finding lost treasure. I knew something was there, but I needed somebody to help me find it.

We need help to see the light. God knows we can’t do it on our own. Have you ever noticed how when you’re in the midst of a depression, it takes somebody else to pull you out of it, to show you the way out of your dark cave into the light? God knows this. So two thousand years ago, when the world seemed its darkest, God sent people to show us that the light is shining. God sent somebody to point out the tails, and ears, until we finally exclaim, "I get it!" God sent messengers to proclaim the good news, to announce salvation to all the nations of the earth. John the Baptist was one of these messengers. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe. God showed John who Jesus was, so that John in turn might show us. Luckily for us, John did more than just point out a tail or an ear. John pointed out the whole thing. He said, "Behold, the Lamb of God!" John helped us to understand that the light which came into the world was Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He helped us to comprehend that the light shines in the darkness in order to bring us life.

So what is this light like? Well, first of all, it continues to shine, even when we can’t recognize it and when the darkness around us threatens to extinguish everything. It’s actually quite interesting, because in the original Greek, it says "The light shines in the darkness." Shines is a present tense verb - not "the light shone in the darkness." No, the light shines. I think the use of the present tense was very deliberate. The light is still shining, right now. This minute. And it will continue to keep on shining for as long as we are here. Even when we feel caught up in darkness, knowing the light is there but not being able to see it, it’s shining. Nothing can put it out. The light shines into the darkest corners of our lives, and banishes all of the shadows. The light sets everything ablaze. With that light, we get the most miniscule detail. But the most important thing we get, the most important thing we understand is that despair and darkness do not have the last word. The terrible things that we live through in this world, the losses we suffer are not the end. The night that seems endless has a dawn, for the simple reason that God is there in the darkness, creating light.

The author of the Gospel of John wrote: What has come into being in the Word was life, and the life was the light of all people. In the midst of the darkness that encompasses the world, we know and with the help of God’s messengers we understand that this light is God. This light is hope, and love, and life, all wrapped up in a tiny baby boy named Jesus. That is why we come to church, even though Christmas is over, to hear, again and again, about the light has been brought into the world. To hear that this light continues to shine, regardless of all the darkness around it.

I would like to end with the words from hymn 49 in the LBW. "O Saviour of our fallen race, O Brightness of the Father’s face, O Son who shared the Father’s might before the world knew day or night, O Jesus, very Light of light, our constant star in sin’s deep night: Now hear the prayers your people pray throughout the world this holy day. O Christ, Redeemer virgin-born, let songs of praise your name adorn, whom with the Father we adore and Holy Spirit evermore." As we begin another new year, let us remember that in the midst of all the darkness we encounter, God is there, too, causing the light to shine and bringing life to us all.