January 20, 2019

An old friend of mine is a lifelong Episcopalian, active in his church, faithful to God, eager to share his gifts for the common good. My friend is a university professor, has written several books and has had the ear of a few Presidents. My friend has, what we sometimes refer to as “influence”. My friend’s academic research focuses on evaluating government programs designed to assist the poorest of the poor citizens in his country. So it’s not surprising that the Episcopal Church he chose to attend was a faith community with a diverse demographic. The congregation is located in an urban area with a high rate of poverty. It will come as no surprise to you that this church has a foodbank.

My friend has volunteered at the foodbank for many years. One day I received an email from him expressing some frustration that his gifts were not being fully utilized by his church. As he said to me, “Here I am a university professor bagging groceries every Saturday, surely there are more important things I could be doing…”

The Apostle Paul is credited with more books in the New Testament than any other Biblical figure. Paul’s conversion experience and his evangelical zeal connected him to countless churches spread out in his large region. James Boyce, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary has this to say about this particular faith community in Corinth. This was a “charismatic” community, defined by the exercise of various gifts: speaking in tongues, healing, prophecy, etc. The Corinthians took pride in their gifts to the point of one-upmanship. The leadership of the community must have felt threatened, for the Corinthians were splintering into groups with their own rivaling leaders.

As you have heard me assert many times central to Paul’s theology is the doctrine of grace, that God loves us unconditionally, that God calls us into existence, God gifts us for relationship and God focuses our efforts on a common good, that is a shared sense of community, what makes us whole and brings out the best in all of us. The sign of this faithfulness is the assurance of the Spirit’s active presence in all persons and community and, no matter what their fears and particular evidences to the contrary, as ones called into this community we are not lacking in any gift that the Spirit has to offer.

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The guiding principle, in the form of a Pauline mantra, is confidence that with the Spirit’s gifts comes the wisdom to understand and the ability to work for that which “builds up the community. “All things are lawful; but not all things are helpful” (6:12; 10:23). Consideration of these two verses together underscores that for Paul “what is beneficial,” “what builds up,” and living in the “freedom” of “all things being lawful” are mutually interdependent realities. When considering God’s gifts, Paul says, we always need to begin by getting one thing straight. The central “gift” of the Spirit is our common confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. This confession, empowered by the event of the cross and resurrection, binds this community and all Christian communities together in a unity that overarches all our differences. This central idea is the purest form of freedom, it releases us from our fears and anxieties, if Jesus can die in his witness, sharing his gifts, affirming others’ gifts, and be resurrected to new life surely there is nothing that can prevent our God from using our gifts for the common good. Circumstances may look bleak, our gifts may appear to be exercised with no immediate results in the offing but our God will redeem our sacred offering, our God will prevail and our gifts will rebuild and renew and refresh.

“The common good” (12:7) is given with particularity and with purpose “for the common good.” Of course that “common good” is not always transparent; it has to be negotiated in practice, again by the use of the gift of wisdom, in consideration of what it is that “builds up the community.” Paul argued against notion of their narrow notion of “grassroots” leadership. Instead, he argued for the big picture. For Paul, God was in charge. This was Paul’s cultural presumption. The Jewish notion of Creation could be simply stated that all things came from God, so they would return to God. To address the question of how to organize these various gifts of the Spirit Paul tried to make a cultural accommodation to the Greek community. The highest virtue in the Greek world was wisdom, the ability to make clear and correct judgments. Such a virtue was higher than knowledge, for it guided the person to seek the right knowledge. Both wisdom and knowledge led to firm faith. The rest of the gifts were based upon spiritual power and the needs within the community.

So back to my friend in the Episcopal Church, he wanted to offer his spiritual gifts, which he would describe as macro planning, the ability to imagine ways to move people to better outcomes. Instead of this kind of gift sharing this disciple felt he was wasting his talents by bagging groceries and sorting food donations. At a critical point my friend began exploring other Episcopal Churches, ones where he felt that the other members were more like him, would value his unique gifts, where he might be more effective. He told me there was a critical moment when he became aware of that “still small voice” of the Spirit, that told him to contact the church leadership team at his home church and tell them about his dilemma.

With some reflection and conversation this church and my friend came to a “wise” understanding that 1) bagging groceries was in fact a spiritual gift, a gift of labour and a gift of humility and 2) there ought to be other ways for my friend to exercise his discipleship but it was important that his gift be “tested” by the quest for a “common good”. In other words, it was important that my academic friend find a way to partner with others in the church so together they could meet a need in their community. The small team my friend assembled reached out to the church and the community and asked what was needed and what they heard was job training, personal support and personal development. And so my friend and his team began to implement a program to meet this need, to help the church offer something that might change lives, build people up, improve the common good of the community.

It worked. All members of this small team offered different spiritual gifts but it was the gift of wisdom that helped the community, helped my friend, to be reminded about the “common good”. All gifts belong to God and exist for God’s purpose. Each of us has many spiritual gifts that come from our Creator and they exist for the very purposes of our Creator. What a joy to know we have these gifts, to know what they are for, to know in our Easter faith that God will use these gifts to redeem our broken world. Thanks be to God for this deep and wise understanding. Together we can and we do live this vision into life. Amen.

January 13, 2019

I want to share a story with you, you may have heard it before. A family is riding home from church on Sunday. Their four-year-old son in the back seat of the car was baptized that morning. Suddenly, midway home, he bursts into tears. When his parents ask what on earth is wrong, he sniffles out the answer:  "The minister who baptized me said I would be brought up in a Christian home. But I want to stay with you guys!" OK, it’s an old one but I think it still has legs. On this Baptism of the Lord Sunday we have an opportunity to reflect on what exactly we think Baptism means, what effect this Sacrament has on us, what it means to our lives.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that the gospel writers believe Jesus’ Baptism is crucial.  Everything starts at the river where Jesus entered the waters and placed himself in the arms of his cousin John. "And the heavens were opened. And the Spirit descended upon him as a dove. And a Voice came from heaven saying, 'This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.'" The ministry and teachings and trials and triumphs and almost all that make us remember Jesus took place after his baptism. While we do hear Angel voices in the birth stories God's voice spoke for the first time at the river, acknowledging that Jesus was claimed by Someone special and called to do something special. 

Well-known preacher The Rev. Dr. Michael Brown believes those words, “we belong to Someone special and we are called to do something special” are vitally important to understand our Christian call. At some point in time, a voice spoke your name and said, "This is My beloved child, with whom I am well pleased."  Perhaps you were only a baby when that happened, too small to understand the concept of God, too young to know that there even is a God. But that wasn't the point. Remember, Jesus didn't say or do anything at his baptism either. It was all done from the top down. It was all a matter of God claiming him, just as in your own baptism, God claimed you before you'd done a single thing to earn it. Paul Tillich was correct when he said that, "Salvation is simply accepting the fact that we have (already) been accepted."

In my pastoral visits I frequently meet with couples who tell me how they met and how much they, as partners, mean to each other. One common narrative is the one where a partner was at loose ends in life until the other partner came into his/her life and “everything changed”. You’ve likely heard this story before, “little by little, because I wanted to live up to her/his love, I became less and less troubled. Ever since we formalized our partnership I've spent my whole life trying to make him/her as happy as s/he made me. The truth is, s/he loved me into loving." There is a sense in most of our lives that we need someone or something to “love us into loving”. This gift is what we need to perpetuate “loving our neighbor as we love ourselves”. And while many of us may instantly reflect on who that person or persons have been for many that reflection may take some time. Knowing that God loves us, unconditionally, is an affirmation that makes all the difference.

God claims us and Baptism is a reminder that God sends unearned, unconditional love our way. When I hear “S/he loved me into loving” my mind goes to the theological language of grace, and nowhere is it more visibly symbolized than in Baptism. "This is My beloved child," whom this day I choose as my own, not by their merit, but by My mercy! That's what God said to Jesus at the river and what God says to you and me. I choose you as part of My family. I choose you to possess Divine legacy. I choose to "walk with you through the waters, and the rivers shall not overwhelm you…and to walk with you through the fire, and the flames shall not consume you…You are precious and honored in my sight, and I love you…So fear not, for I choose to be with you" in all things, in all times, in all places, in all circumstances, now and forever. I choose to love you whether or not you are always lovable. That's the message of Baptism, one which should grip and inspire us: It is a symbol that we are claimed by Someone special.

Baptism symbolizes that we are loved free of charge. Someone special claims us, asks us to be part of the family. "This is My beloved child, with whom I am well pleased."  And that act of grace loves us into loving. We remember our Baptism and are so overwhelmed by being claimed that we suddenly feel called. "The Spirit descends as a dove" and settles into our hearts, and we want to pay all the favors of grace forward, sharing with others the gift that has been shared with us.

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And so, on this Baptism of Our Lord Sunday, remember your Baptism…and live into your calling. Another way I might offer this reminder to you is with this evergreen bough. I intend to dip it into our Baptismal Font and sprinkle you with the waters of Baptism, receiving the Asperges or sprinkling with the baptismal water. I will do so many times, to ensure the waters have touched as many of you as possible. Each time I will proclaim, "Remember your baptism and be thankful." The "remembering" is about recommitment, the response to the gift of God’s love, a “loved me into loving”, a mission to love our neighbor as God first loved us.

Remember your Baptism and be thankful. God has loved us into loving. We belong to Someone special and we are called to do something special. God is good. Grace is unconditional. Love is a beautiful gift. Thanks be to God. Amen.

January 6, 2019

I’ve mentioned this comparison before but I want to repeat it, given the Epiphany Sunday we celebrate today. A wise friend of mine once compared how people from the eastern part of our world think/imagine and how people on the western part of our globe think/imagine. Most of us here today are creatures of western thought...

December 30, 2018

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey...

December 24, 2018

Of course this is a very beautiful and cherished reading. It is the story of the birth of Jesus filled with joy and hope. But sometimes the impact of its message is lost on us because it is too familiar. Thus I think we often overlook that the opening of the story is designed to set up a comparison between Jesus, who too would become a King, and Caesar...

December 16, 2018

Placing the focus in Advent on joy in the middle of December is an interesting move by lectionary planners. In the beginning of Advent we remind Christians that we are to wait, anticipate, expect, this Advent of hope and peace into our lives. To get there we have to discipline ourselves that something is in fact going to come...

December 9, 2018

Luke 3:2-6

During the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region of Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the prophet Isaiah...

December 2, 2018

What difference does Advent make to you? Be honest, every year we decorate this church, we place these candles up front by the Communion table and we plan ahead for events like Old Fashion Christmas, the Living Nativity and of course the Christmas Eve celebrations. And then…it all comes down. I am no cynic, I know there are moments of grace...

November 25, 2018

When I was in Seminary our professors would ask us to refrain from a preaching technique they called “dualism”. You will have heard preachers and other public speakers use this technique, to suggest all important issues can be distilled to a choice between two opposites. It will not surprise you to know the preacher would weight...

November 11, 2018

A few years ago a colleague of mine, a Canadian Forces Padre, asked me to fill in as a Reserve Unit Padre. I enjoyed the work and meeting young women and men committed to serving others. One of the tasks associated with this role was to meet with soldiers who had been asked to serve overseas, deployed to a mission where troops would be “in harm’s way”...

November 4, 2018

When Kim and I sold our home in Toronto the realtor sent a “stager” to visit us and offer suggestions on how to make our house more attractive to potential buyers. Among the suggestions was to remove all family pictures and replace them with mirrors. I asked why. The stager explained that buyers want to imagine themselves living in the house...

October 21, 2018

October is Volunteer Appreciation Month at Bethany and thus I ask each of you this morning to consider the reasons you volunteer, at Bethany, elsewhere, wherever you offer your labour without cost. I have spent a lifetime being around non-profits, churches, minor sports, and talking to people who offer their best selves for the organization and its mission…

October 14, 2018

One question I am asked repeatedly will not surprise you, “Kevin, why is it that more conservative churches seem to be growing, or at the very least maintaining their relative size and enthusiasm, while more progressive or liberal churches seem to be in decline?” Have you heard this question? My hunch is that you have...

October 7, 2018

As you have heard me say many times I always read Luke’s story about a host and his guests at weddings where I am the presider. I do this for rather predicable reasons, I want the couple to make room in their lives for others, that in a bond of love the openness to others is a profound and added blessing to any spirit-filled life...

September 30, 2018

In our Gospel story this morning Jesus is confronting his disciples on the question of a “stumbling block”. That is Jesus tells his followers they must run a race and that race leads to a prize and the prize is salvation. Now some of you will hear that word, salvation and feel like you know exactly what Jesus means…

September 16, 2018

Jesus asked his disciples, “And you—what are you saying about me? Who am I?” Peter gave the answer: “You are the Christ, the Messiah.” He then began explaining things to them: “It is necessary that the Son of Man proceed to an ordeal of suffering, be tried and found guilty by the elders, high priests, and religion scholars, be killed, and after three days rise up alive...

September 9, 2018

Sandra Hack Polaski, Professor of New Testament at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, Virginia, shares this insight about our James reading this morning, “Nearly every one of us who sits on a platform or in a choir loft during the worship service has at some point seen a stranger entering the service late...