Monday, January 27, 2014

Epiphany 3A

Question for you:

How would you know God’s voice if you heard it? How would you describe that voice to your friends?

Would it be so clear that you could respond with great joy in knowing that you’re part of God’s saving plan for the world? How would explain that call to your family? 

Or is God’s voice a whisper barely heard? A gnawing in your stomach, a suspicion that God - somehow- wants to be part of your life, and is quietly working in the background as you go about your day-to-day business, trusting your gut. How would you put that call into words?

Or is it somewhere in between? You trust that God speaks through scripture and that’s good enough for you. For now. No explanation required.

For most of us, that’s not an easy question to answer, is it? Most stories of hearing God’s call are met with great big question marks, or even laughter. It takes some intestinal fortitude to talk about the voice of the divine. Not everyone will believe you. Few people will take you seriously. It may even cause you some trouble.

I should know. That’s been my experience.

When I first heard the call to pastoral ministry I was in the third year of my music degree. I didn’t hear any voice whispering in my ear, the heavens didn’t open up, there was no dove descending, nor did I hear a disembodied baritone address me, telling me that I was my life and my labour would be in the church. And it definitely wasn’t the voice of the community actively affirming my gifts for ministry.

It was just a strong sense that my life was going to be dramatically altered. After all, becoming a pastor was NEVER my plan. I was going to conquer the world of classical music and stand in front of the great orchestras of our time waving my arms. 

But this call was from a voice I couldn’t define, but seemed very real. I needed to explore it.

It certainly wasn’t those around me who told me I should be a pastor. In fact, many in my community were telling me to NOT go to seminary. It’s not that I wasn’t given affirmation of my call, but many of my friends, colleagues, and teachers were actively discouraging me from pastoral ministry.

The strongest response was from my conducting teacher. When I told my her that I wasn’t going to pursue a career in music and was going to seminary instead, I thought she was going to have an aneurism.

She stood up from her chair, pointed her finger at me and bellowed, “I FORBID it! I FORBID you to go to seminary!” In fact, after that encounter we stopped having any meaningful conversations. It was like she felt that she wasted her time with me.

The most “encouragement” I received was from the campus pastor, who when I initially told him I thought God was calling me to ministry said, “I guess if that’s what you want to do I suppose there’s no harm in that.”

I was still officially an Anglican at the time, although I was involved with the Lutheran Student Movement, so I went to see my bishop in Niagara to see what kinds of hoops I had to jump through to become an Anglican priest.

Back in the mid-nineties, there were, apparently, too many Anglican clergy. So I was told that I’d have to wait ten years after seminary to be ordained and receive a parish.

So, I called a number of other bishops in Canada looking for better news. But they all said the same thing. There were too many clergy. Sorry. Can’t help you.

I began to wonder if everyone was right. I began to wonder if the call I heard to ministry was something other than God-given. Did I really receive God’s call?  Or was I just talking to myself? Who was I trying to impress, anyway?

If so many people were responding so negatively to me becoming a pastor, and if so many doors were closing in my face, maybe God was saying that I shouldn’t be looking in the pastoral direction. Maybe that sense of call wasn’t as real as I had imagined it to be.

I had to figure this out because graduation was now only four months away. I had to discern my life’s path before I made a HUGE mistake.

So, I went back to the campus pastor, who was in a more helpful mood that day, and let him know what was happening. He suggested that I visit with Eastern Synod staff of the ELCIC. So I did.

I made an appointment with the assistant to the bishop, who, although didn’t welcome me with fanfare and confetti, certainly didn’t discourage me.

He outlined the process. Gave me some forms to fill out. And, most importantly, encouraged me to keep discerning whether ministry was what God wanted me to do.

And so, with that in mind, I entered seminary in the fall of 1995, after finishing my music degree, and let God do the rest.

I was surprised and saddened by what happened next. While I helped support myself up until then through trombone playing and composing music, after I started seminary, the phone stopped ringing. I stopped getting music jobs. My music life ended abruptly, and it ended with silence.

It was like an announcement that one life ended and another life began. It was like someone was saying that the old Kevin was gone, and a new Kevin was born.  I felt that I was severed from the person I was previously. It was a lonely affirmation that I was following God’s call.

I imagine that’s what the first disciples’ felt after they left their old lives behind and followed Jesus.

As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Can you imagine Zebedee’s reaction to having two of his sons abandon him and the family business to chase after God’s call? With just two words from Jesus, the brothers James and John left their lives - and everything - behind.

I would think that their friends and family were not at all impressed with such a display of religious recklessness. Zebedee needed them to keep the business going. Those two pairs of hands were sorely needed. Jesus’ call had consequences, and left collateral damage. Following Jesus is not without repercussions.

What about you? Where have you heard God’s call on your life? Since you’re here I’m guessing that God has placed a claim on you. In the waters of baptism, Jesus has said “Follow me” and you followed.

But what does that call look like for you? In your life? How do you hear God’s voice leading and directing you? 

Is it through the words of scripture, announcing the mighty act of God and proclaiming salvation in Jesus? 

Is it the Holy Spirit whispering in your ear, guiding you along God’s path? 

Is it the community of believers helping you discern God’s vision for your life?

Or are you still waiting, not knowing what to look for, suspicious of disembodied voices and divine intervention?

However you hear it, God’s call on our lives can be a fearful thing. And it’s ongoing. It never stops. I don’t know if God wants me to be a pastor for the rest of my life. I don’t know what God wants for me tomorrow, let alone 20 years from now.

But what I do know, is that I have been recruited into God’s salvation movement, that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near to me, that wherever God leads me, wherever Jesus calls me, I can rest in knowing that I am a child of God, shining God’s light into a world that can be devastatingly dark, bearing witness to the one who died so that we might have life.

And that’s why we celebrate today as Jase is welcomed into the family of God through the sacrament of Holy Baptism. In these waters, Jase hasn’t JUST been saved for eternal life, but also recruited into God’s saving movement in THIS life. Jase has been fished for in these waters, and has been caught in God’s net.

As he moves through his years, God promises to use Jase in God’s continuing unfolding of creation, and participating in God’s New Creation, using Jase’s gifts to build on God’s resurrection reconstruction of that which has been destroyed by human brokenness. 

That is his call to ministry, the ministry of the baptized. To minister in his own way, wherever he finds himself, with the gifts that God has given him, so that Jase can let his light shine before others, and glorify the God who named and claimed him as God’s own for ABUNDANT life in THIS world, and ETERNAL life in the world to come.

And I know the same is true for you. You have been fished for, and you have been caught in God’s net. God has a call on your life, that you are being used by God to bring love and healing to this world, where you are, and in what you do. God has given you unique gifts to serve and to build on the care for others that God is already doing. That is YOUR ministry. That is the ministry of God’s beloved community.

God has a hold on your life that will never be let go, with a hand that reaches from eternity, grabs you where you are standing, and pulls you into the life that God wants for you, so you can glorify God in all that you do. 

Because of Jesus, God’s light shines through you because that’s where God has decided to shine. In you, the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. On US, God’s light has shined.

May this continue to be so among us. Amen!

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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Epiphany 2A

It’s clear that we shouldn’t be looking to John the Baptist for advice on how to grow a church. He sends his best people over to another preacher, who looks surprised to see them.

“What are you looking for?” Jesus asks these strangers at his door. “What are you doing here? What do you want from me?” are questions that he was probably REALLY asking.

But he simply says, “What are you looking for?”

It’s a good question, though, isn’t it? Perhaps THE question. Especially for those who have a sense that God is up to something in their lives. 

Those who are looking for more from God than what they were told as children, those who who have a hunch that the universe is made up of more than that what the eyes see, the ears hear, and the fingers touch. 

Those who have a gaping God-sized hole dug deep within them that seems to get wider and more cavernous with each flip of the calendar.

“What are YOU looking for?”

That question could be directed at us here at worship. We come to worship looking for something, perhaps we can’t put that something into words. 

We come looking for God, or an experience of God. Where the majestic power of God washes over us, and we can see more possibility for our lives than when we walked in, and see the world with fresh eyes when we leave.

Or we come looking for community, to worship and fellowship with other believers, to know that we aren’t alone in our faith, but that there are others who can support and encourage us as we walk the Christian path together. 

Or we come looking for meaning in a seemingly meaningless world. Hope in a seemingly hope-less world. Good news in a bad news world.

Or we just come, not knowing what we’re looking for, but hoping to recognize it when we see it.

I’m sure it was the same with John’s disciples. There must have something about John’s fiery preaching that lit them up, and sent them running from their lives to follow him, feasting his every word, and soaking in his teaching. 
They probably didn’t understand much of what John was saying, but they knew what he preached was true. Truer than anything else they’d ever heard.

Which was why it must have been puzzling for them to find themselves knocking on the door of another preacher. There must be something more about this Jesus if John was sending them to him. And what’s this “Lamb of God” stuff about anyway? 

But if John wanted them to follow this other teacher, then follow him they must. After all, John pointed to God.

“What are you looking for?” the new teacher asks.

“Where are you staying?” they answer.

Where are you staying? That’s an odd reply, don’t you think? Why would they want to know that? What’s that got to do with what they’re looking for? Is where Jesus hangs his sandals a clue to what he was all about?

But the new rabbi doesn’t bat an eye. “Come and see” Jesus replies, and with that reply comes a fresh batch of recruits for his start-up religious movement.

Clearly, these new conscripts were impressed by what they saw and heard. “We have found messiah!” they announce to anyone within earshot. 
But did they know what they were talking about? That word, “Messiah,” meant a lot of things to a lot of people. And while that sounded like good news to them, some would be REALLY disappointed when they found out what that word really meant.

Many people were expecting royalty, someone to kick the Romans out of the holy land and bring in a kingdom like the one they had when David ruled that land. When other countries were afraid of them, when everyone had enough to eat, when arts and culture flourished, when God showed them the favour they believed was their divine birthright.

Others saw a religious reformer who would return God’s people to prayer and devotion, where worship was central to peoples’ lives, where the bible was read by everyone, and where people structured their lives around scripture.

And still others believed the messiah would rescue people from their earthly lives, blow up the planet, punish unbelievers and fry evil doers, and then lift the righteous into heaven.

It seems that not much has changed in 2000 years. That could be why the question “What are you looking for?” is filled with so much dynamite. We’re all looking for something. We’re all placing our hopes on Jesus even if those hopes have more to do with us than with God.

“What are you looking for?” is a question often rooted in selfish desires rather than a pursuit of something greater and truer than ourselves. 

I may be looking for God, but my motivates certainly aren’t pure. I want God to give me a great life without me having to do any heavy lifting. I want God to give me certainty rather than faith. I want God to bless everyone I love and curse those who cut me off in traffic. 

When I’m looking for God those are the desires hiding underneath my pursuit of the divine. And that’s why God isn’t terribly interested in giving me what I’m looking for.

What we’re looking for isn’t always what God wants to give us. Just look at what happened in the bible. The people wanted a King; God gave them a lamb. The people wanted their enemies destroyed; God gave them mercy. The people wanted a return to their glory days; God gave them forgiveness.

That’s why it’s hard to be a Christian who believes that God does something in our lives. It’s hard because we can’t control God. We can’t offer up our hopes and fears in prayer, and  - poof! - God answers in just the way we want.

All throughout the bible we see God ignoring the peoples’ cries then going and doing whatever God wants. But usually, God’s actions are more life-giving than what the people want.

So what are YOU looking for? 

Do you believe you will find it here, among God’s people, within the Word proclaimed and the sacraments received? 

Do you believe that, in this house of prayer and praise, together with other believers, gathered among the saints, you will encounter the living God revealed in Jesus? 

Do you arrive here, at this hour, trusting that God will meet you - in this moment - as you worship?

Your answer, I’m guessing is “Yes”....and...“No.” You look for God where God promises to be. And we do find God here. We receive God’s forgiveness and remember that we are indeed children of a living and loving God.

We hear the proclamation of God’s new world bursting into ours. On communion Sundays we receive God’s presence in the bread and the wine, believing that in the loaf and the cup, Jesus dwells within us, so we eat and we drink, and are satisfied. Within these walls, we pray with trust, and we sing with hope.

But then there are those moments when God can often seem like a ghost, a flicker in the corner of your eye, a slippery truth that you can’t quite grasp, a meal half eaten. 

When your questions don’t have any answers. When your tears are more real than God’s comfort. When the bread is stale. The wine is sour. The road is dark. When morning seems so far away.

That’s when John proclaims, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” It’s because of those things that keep us from God that Jesus came and lived among us. John didn’t proclaim his message to a confident crowd of the self-assured and fiercely faithful. 

But John gathered and sent a broken band of believers, still fresh from the battle, proudly baring the scars that life gave them, united only in their questions, and in their pursuit of God, not knowing where that quest might lead them, but daring to believe that the journey itself IS the destination.

So, when you hear “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” know that you are in good company. Know that your questions give you faith. Know that your scars are your proclamation. Know that your losses are your announcement of compassion.

Know that if you feel like your faith is constantly shifting beneath your feet, that’s because faith is always moving, always looking around the next corner, always peering over the bordering horizon. 

For some, faith is like a cathedral, fixed in one place, immoveable, splendid in solemnity, majestically lighting up  the night, and towering over all who sit under its shadow.

But for most of you, most of the time, faith is more like staggering along a dark trail, and your flashlight’s batteries are drained. So you rely on a voice you can barely hear, guiding you to where you should step, not being able to see what’s ahead, but trusting that the one leading you has already been there and knows the way, and can safely bring you home.

It’s the voice that says, “Come and see” that is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The messiah we have found, and the messiah who has found us. 

The messiah who called you by name, and set you on your path, with you not knowing where the road leads, but trusting that voice to guide you, step-by-step, when the darkness arrives, who lifts you when you stumble, and when your body grows weary and you fall asleep, carries you the rest of the way, and wakens you when you reach your final destination.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Baptism of Jesus - Year A

It wasn’t at baptism, but in an argument over baptism that I became a Lutheran. 

As many of you know, I didn’t always follow in the righteous path of Martin Luther. “Grace alone through faith alone” was foreign to me growing up. I had no idea what the catechism was until I was 25. 

And Martin Luther was, for me, both a historical curiosity, and, as I learned in my music studies, an important musical figure. 

Well, the words may have been foreign to me, but concept wasn’t. I learned that God loved me and welcomed me into God’s family, not through any works that I do, but because of what Jesus had done for me, not in a Lutheran church, but in an Anglican Sunday School. And I was welcomed into Christ’s Church through the sacrament of Holy Baptism at Grace Anglican Church, in St. Catharines Ontario, on Pentecost Sunday, 1971.

But not everyone agreed that this was a good idea.

“You need to be baptized,” I was told 22 years after the fact.

“I already am, thank you very much,” I replied.

“But you were a baby,” he said. “You don’t remember it, do you?”

“Yes, I was a baby, and no I don’t remember it,” I replied.

“Then how can you call yourself a Christian?”

“I beg your pardon?” my eyebrows raised.

“You didn’t choose to be baptized, so you aren’t saved. You have to make a choice for Jesus or you can’t go to heaven.”

“What on earth are you talking about?”

“You may have had some water poured on your head as a baby, but that doesn’t mean you’re saved. You have to make a conscious choice - a decision - to allow Jesus into your life for you to be a Christian. Baptism is a public declaration of your faith and commitment to Jesus, how could you publicly declare your faith if you hadn’t learned to talk yet? And since you haven’t done that, you can’t call yourself a ‘Christian.’”

I wasn’t sure what bible this guy had been reading but it certainly from any scripture that I recognized. But he wasn’t alone. This wasn’t the only conversation I had like this. 

Over the next three years, many well-meaning friends told me the same thing. They lent me books to read, gave me their best arguments about why they thought infant baptism was unbiblical, and even asked me to sit down with a preacher, who could lead me down the path to salvation, because clearly, as an Anglican, I was headed in the other direction.

This was the Christian group on campus at Wilfrid Laurier University where I did my music degree. Laurier Christian Fellowship (or LCF) was a haven for conservative evangelicals; Baptists, Pentecostals, Christian Missionary Alliance, and other like-minded believers who gathered regularly for prayer, worship, and fellowship. 

I had a lot of friends in the group. In fact, I’m still friends with many of them. So, I don’t share this story to slag on them. There were some wonderfully gracious Christians in that group whom I admired for their faith, and who taught me a tremendous amount about how to be a more faithful disciple of Jesus. But there came a time when I had to walk away.

From subtle (and not-so-subtle) suggestions about the state of my salvation, to guest preachers telling me who to vote for, to the intrusive fixation on our private lives, to micro-managing our moral choices, to the constant pressure about my required “re-baptism,” I decided to look elsewhere for Christian fellowship.

I was late for class one day, and as I was running through main concourse area, a sign stopped me in my boots. Well, the sign, and the stunningly attractive young woman sitting behind it. 

The sign read, “Lutheran Student Movement.” I knew who Lutherans were, and I figured these folks were closer to my Anglican roots than my friends at LCF were. But until then, I had no idea there was another Christian student group on campus. Like most Lutherans, for better or for worse, they kept a low profile.

I figured Medieval Music History class could wait. After all, I didn’t know if this attractive young woman would still be there later in the day. And so I stopped at her booth, chatted her up a bit, and inquired about who the Lutheran Student Movement was and what they did.

I signed up on their email list, got her phone number, and joined the group for supper the next day. And ended up moving into the Lutheran Student House later that year.

(All that being said, I don’t know if I would have been so hasty in signing up with them if someone else was staffing the booth that day. And, to be honest, as much as I was interested in learning about the Lutheran Student Movement, I was much MORE interested in the young woman’s phone number. I told her this story years later after we were married, and she burst out laughing because she said that she went home that day blissfully believing that she’d won a convert)

I started attending worship at the campus chapel offered by Lutheran Campus Ministry, and when I first arrived, Pastor Val Hennig greeted me at the door. When the liturgy started, I felt that I had arrived home. 

Pastor Val poured water in the font, said a prayer, and invited the congregation to “remember our baptism” by dipping our fingers in the water, and drawing a sign of the cross on our foreheads. He called us up to the font and said, “Remember your baptism, and be glad!”

I didn’t realize how much anxiety I was carrying about church until I felt it drain away that morning when I put my finger in the water, and made the sign of the cross on my forehead. 

Here my baptism was recognized and honoured. It was something to celebrate. It was a joyful acknowledgment of God’s activity in my life.

I felt that I could breathe again, and was free to explore my faith without any concerns over my salvation, and I was invited to deepen my understanding of God with people who didn’t seem to think they had all the answers to the mysteries of life and death, but were asking the same questions that I was.

And more than that, as I dipped my finger in the water, and heard the pastor’s words, it was like God’s promise to Jesus overflowed from his life and spilled into mine, when God said at Jesus’ baptism, “You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”

From that story it was was abundantly clear, that in baptism, it wasn’t MY public declaration of MY faith, but GOD’S announcement of what GOD had done in ME. It was a thundering reminder of what GOD has done in YOU. Because of what Jesus has done for US.

Upon rising from the waters of his baptism Jesus began his ministry of sharing God’s life with us, and sharing our life with God. God’s life of healing the sick and raising the dead, the declaration of forgiveness of sin, the pronouncement of justice to the oppressed, the proclamation of freedom from the chains that bind us, the good news preached to the poor and hurting.

Upon rising from the River Jordan Jesus shared OUR limitations with God. Jesus shared our worries and our hungers, the water for which we thirst, the anxieties that threaten to overwhelm us, the grief that grabs our hearts, the regrets of our past and our fear of the future, the sufferings we endure and deaths we die, so that we, joined to him in his baptism of the cross and the grave, can share in the power of his risen life. And live his resurrection today, in our lives, now, at this moment. And meet him, one day, in eternity.

When people ask me what my favourite part of my job is, I answer without hesitation: baptisms. Because my own baptism is such a vital part of my own story in God, that I feel honoured and privileged to welcome others into God’s story through the water poured out, the Word proclaimed, and the promises spoken.

It is at the font where I see God’s love flow into our lives most visibly, where we hear God’s saving story, and where God includes us in that unfolding tale. 

Baptism is the beginning of a journey that starts at that moment when the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit claim us as God’s own, and it ends in eternity. It’s a reminder that God has not given up on us and never will.

It is in baptism where God’s promise to Jesus overflows from his life and spills into ours, when God said, “You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Sunday, January 05, 2014

Christmas 2A

I rang the doorbell and a young woman answered.

“Hello, I’m Pastor Kevin,” I said.

She let me in and we sat down on the couch. The baby was asleep in the crib by the window.

After a little chit-chat, I got straight to the point.

“So, why a baptism?” I asked.

“Well, I think it’s important to have God in my child’s life,” she said.

“What’s the baby’s name?” I asked looking over the crib.

She muttered something I didn’t recognize, and don’t remember.

“That’s an interesting name, “ I said. “What’s the story behind that? Is it a family name? I don’t think I’ve heard that name before.”

“No, it’s not a family name,” she answered.

“Do you know what it means?” I asked.

“No, it doesn’t have any meaning. It’s just a word I made up. I like the way it sounds.”

It wasn’t always this way, and she is an extreme case. And while the young mom had every right to make up a word with which to name her child, I wonder if she missed out on an opportunity. 

Names can connect us to a greater story than the one we can make us on our own. Names connect us to our past, so we know where we came from. Names can offer a message about who we want our child to be when they grow up.

Most people know what their names mean, or why they were given their name by their parents.

What does your name mean? Most of us have names that mean something. Perhaps they reflect the hopes and dreams parents have for their children. Or they’re carrying a family tradition. Or they name them after a celebrity or an admired public figure.

My oldest daughter is named “Sophia” because it’s the biblical word for “wisdom.” Her mom and I chose that name to honour Lady Wisdom found in the book of Proverbs. Sophia in proverbs is a feminine expression of God, and her mom and I wanted to recognize aspects of the divine that are often overlooked.

Sophia’s (or “Sophie” – she hates being called “Sophia”) sister is named “Naomi” to remember the biblical story of Ruth and Naomi and the message of faith and commitment that it inspires. It’s a wonderful story of integrity and sacrifice for others. And we wanted our child to embody those virtues.

When my parents named me, I know they struggled for days to find just the word to describe who they saw when they peered into my future. They wanted to place upon me the mantle of my destiny, hoping that I would be a force for good in the world, that I would lead others into a new and better tomorrow. 

And so they reached out to the heavens and grabbed with two hands and pulled down the name “Kevin” which means...”handsome.” Or more accurately, “handsome from birth.”

And every time I look in mirror I’m absolutely shocked by how prophetic my parents were!

Bible names all mean something. In fact, if you don’t know the meaning of the many of the names you could miss the point of the story.

For example,  Matthew and Luke both have Jesus’ genealogy recorded. But they’re slightly different. But neither genealogy are a clinical listing of names. Each genealogy tells a story about Jesus, within a specific jewish tradition. But if you don’t know what the names mean, or who these people were, you’d miss a lot about what they were trying to say about Jesus.

Mary and Joseph did what they were told and named their son, “Jesus” which means “God rescues” or “God saves.” They were glad to give him this name because they had laid all their hope on him, as one who would save God’s people from their sins, and rescue them from the hands of their enemies.

And as we heard on Christmas Eve, Jesus grows up like most Jewish boys. Mary and Joseph, as required by law, bring Jesus to Jerusalem to offer the usual sacrifice as a thanksgiving to God, and to circumcise him on the eighth day.

And they encounter Simeon, the old man who’d been around the temple forever, whose eyes may have given out, but he could see God’s promises being fulfilled in a baby.

And Anna then wants to hold the baby, because she wants to feel in her arms the very power of God. After all she’d been praying for him for years.

Both of them may have had a lot more years behind them than in front of them, but they could see God’s bright future being born among them. They could see that everything old was passing away. And that God was doing something new.

It was like there was a flip of the calendar and a new age had begun. And they were glad that they could see God’s heavenly future before they closed their earthly eyes.

And at this flip of the calendar what are YOU hoping for? What are YOU looking for God to do?

This is the first new years where it actually feels like a NEW year. It could be because I’m in a very different place physically, emotionally, and spiritually than I’ve been in a while. Being in this environment, and carving out a new life, has forced me to think about what I REALLY want from my life. What I REALLY want my time on earth to be about. How I think God REALLY wants me to use my gifts.

The challenges I face personally and professionally are opening doors for growth and creativity. And I look forward to what God will do in 2014, and how I can respond to God’s gracious possibilities

So this flip of the calendar spells opportunity for me.

What about you? How do you meet 2014?

Is it just another year, just like the last one, where you go on your day-to-day activities, not thinking of the future or worrying about the past? Just taking life as it presents itself?

Or do you see 2014 as a time pregnant with possibility, and you feel that anything is possible, and you just can’t wait to get in the game, grab the ball, and run to the end zone?

Or are you anxious about 2014, not knowing what’s around the corner, since 2013 has provided unexpected challenges?

Or are you hopeful that this will finally be the year when you get your life together?

Or are you all of the above? A muddle of mixed motivations? A patchwork of expectations?

What about for us here at St. John’s? What do you hope for our congregation in 2014? What do you want God to do with us? What would you like to see God do with this church?

No doubt, we have challenges ahead. Like most other churches. Challenges that may demand creativity. Challenges that may require difficult decisions. Challenges that may stretch us beyond what we’re comfortable with. Challenges may insist that we re-think what we do as a church and how we do it, in order to meet the opportunities that God is throwing at us.

We may be asked to make tough choices to maintain our effectiveness in mission and witness. God may inflict some holy discomfort on us as we move forward in the direction of God’s vision. 

We don’t grow in wisdom when we are comfortable. We don’t grow in faithfulness when things are running smoothly. We don’t grow in knowledge when we are constantly being told what we already know.

God maybe asking us to look with open eyes at what the world is doing, and to listen with open ears to what the world is tellings us. Not so that the world can dictate to us what we should proclaim, or impose a set of beliefs that are at odds with what we have traditionally confessed. 

But to respond to a world in pain, to immerse ourselves in the struggles of those who need good news,

a world alienated from its past, and struggling to understand itself,
a lonely world hungering for the intimacy of a community

a world searching for God but not knowing where to begin looking,

a world that suspects that there is more to life than prosperity, but can’t put their fingers on it,
a world craving rootedness, but constantly finding itself on the road

a world that is suspicious of institutions such as the church, but who longs to touch the divine.

The world isn’t what it was. And so God is opening our hearts, minds, and labour to new and fresh expressions of an ancient faith.

It’s harder to be Christian than it was even ten years ago. It’s harder to be church than when we were growing up.

But God has put us here at this time, to respond, at this moment, to the cries of a hurting world. But not as people superior to others, but simply as a people chosen to do this work.

As we heard in today’s reading from Ephesians,

“In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.”

No matter where you are in your life. No matter the challenges, expectations, quandaries, or possibilities, you can trust in a God who was born in the middle of all of this messiness, blessed you in our confusion and your hopes, so that you can rise to meet God’s future with open hands.

No matter where WE are as a church, no matter the demands, struggles, or opportunities, we still call God “Immanuel” because we believe that “God-is-with-us,” as promised this Christmas season.

Again, as we are reminded in today’s second reading:

“[For] just as God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”

May this be so among us. Amen.

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