thinking theology

My Beloved

After everyone else, Jesus goes into the river to be baptized. (Remember why being last is important.) And then people experience a vision of God in the form of a dove, announcing that Jesus is God’s beloved, indeed a child of the Holy One. The dove of course is reminiscent of the story of the ark, the messenger that names the earth again for humankind. 

So why was this story so important to tell? What message would the first followers hear?

Perhaps considering Jesus’ upbringing would provoke some thought on this. The common assumption is that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, with his father a skilled tradesman. Nazareth had an interesting geographical situation. It bordered the Samarian lands on one side; on another the mixed communities of Sepphoris and Tiberias and then the Hellenistic settlements in Decapolis. Further north, there were settlements of Syro-Phonecians. All of these communities were geographically closer to Nazareth than Jerusalem.

Several hundred years before, Rome had punished the people of Sepphoris for a theft of armaments, by crucifying 2000 Jews. The people of the north — the Nazarenes — were thought to be slack religiously, to be overly-influenced by their Gentile neighbours, and to be speaking a barbaric form of Aramaic. Although these separate communities may have been somewhat insular, there was a shared mistrust of Rome and, at least among the Jews, mistrust of Jerusalem and the powerful there who were Roman sympathizers.

Back to Luke’s story: Who were the people who had waded into the Jordan ahead of Jesus? Mostly they would have been Jews, of course, but very few would have been rich or powerful. (The rich and powerful would able to use their own personal, ritual baths, having no need of the dirty water of a river.) Some of these, perhaps out of spiritual hunger, curiosity, or happenstance, might have been engaged by John’s rants, although his attacks on the morality of Herod would have also made participation dangerous.

Jesus walks into the water without comment. He stands not in the courtyard of the wealthy or the priests. Rather he stands with the poor, and the not quite wealthy enough. He stands with the people who could not follow the codes for ritual cleanliness or food, because they simply dId not have the wherewithal. 

Later, we know he will share food and conversation, healing and story with these same kinds of people. It would have been easy to write him off as a person of questionable background, who grew up in a mixed and perhaps not quite savoury area. His Aramaic would have revealed his northern origins.

Luke wants us to know where Jesus stands, who his people are. For the early Jewish Christian communities, the challenge of inclusivity, of resistance to an acceptance of violence, of visionary thinking, had to be rooted in the model of the the One who came as the child of God. 

I think Jesus is the child of God because God is not partial. Anyone who is humble, who is just and compassionate, reveals the face of God and is acting out the wisdom of Torah. If we say Jesus is love, peace, and justice, then we are saying something about the nature of God. Surprisingly, we are also saying something about what we can be also. If Jesus is God’s beloved, then so are you and I. 

Our lineage is not derived from service to oppressive power or imposing status. Our lineage is of the One who loves the earth, who says the last shall be first, who holds us to a higher standard of love. Our baptism is not about our personal salvation, but about the salvation of the world from fear and complicity. Our baptism must be a sign of God’s hope for all people. We personally don’t have to do anything except open ourselves to the Spirit of Wisdom who made us, to the passion of Jesus who calls us to follow him, and to the Holy One who travels ahead, making all creation new and blessed.


Liberating the Wheat

In Luke 3:7-18, we read about a reasonable John the Baptizer, who warns people to remember who they are and to whom they belong. He calls them a brood of vipers to link them to a story of the Exodus. When the refugees hungered and thirsted, God gave them water to drink and manna to eat. But eventually they were unsatisfied. Then poisonous snakes came and bit them. Sadly the poisonous snakes of doubt, of fear and of self protection came again in the first century to divide the people from each other and from their God.

To survive an occupying force requires some compliance, but John reminds them that that compliance cannot involve them turning on each other. The God of Israel requires them to be faithful, to be righteous with each other, to be generous, and to trust in God’s presence to save and to liberate. In other words, living through an occupation does not abrogate or diminish the communal demands of Torah. John’s expectations are modest. As the people recognize their need to cooperate, to take care of each other, to maintain community despite the external pressure of different gods and different laws, so they can receive the baptism of awareness.

John, however, points to the coming of another one whose words and actions will winnow the souls, to leave them holy and healthy. Chaff is the result of beating or tossing grain in the air to blow off the outer husk. What is left is the edible part, the source of bread, of nourishment.

The baptism of Jesus is like fire because it is passionate. It asks an honesty of us, and a vulnerability that shields others while exposing ourselves to the elements of a violent, selfish world. This passage is not about judgement but freedom to fully embrace our humanity, that looks exactly like the humanity of Jesus. Time to let the vipers of suspicion, of resentment, and of fire, go. It is time to walk into the healing stream that is the tough love of Jesus and the tough task he has set for all time. We are the bearers of hope in a dry land, abundance in what appears to be scarcity, joy in the face of rage. We celebrate this task because we understand that we will be liberated and reborn in the spirit of justice and truth, wisdom and love. Bread for the world, promise for the poor and healing for all. 


Lift Up Your Heads

We are living in fin de siècle times, end times, when everything that we have assumed has been called into question. We are at the end of the age of enlightenment. This period has been characterized by growth in the sciences and technology, by certainty in facts, by a belief in progress toward defeating death, outer space, sickness, and poverty. In this period, we have also staged some of the bloodiest, most unjust wars in history. We have developed particularly cruel forms of slavery and, despite our medical advances, spread plagues from continent to continent. Indeed, the earth and all its creatures suffer from our so-called progress.

It is not surprising that when we read these end times excerpts in the gospels, we can suddenly relate to the fear of the 1st century folks. In Luke 21, we hear warnings from a period in history after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. What is also on the horizon, is the strain in the Roman Empire and its colonies. So what does Jesus say as a response to both natural and social calamity? He offers no practical advice at all. He says, “Lift up your heads. Pay attention! Get ready.”

What does that mean for us as we too witness the social structures around the globe cracking and the earth fighting for its own healing? What does it mean for us to lift up our heads? I think it means don’t run to ground, don’t hide from reality, don’t cover our eyes. Some people will say that climate change is not really an immediate problem. Others will say that the market in human slavery has been exaggerated. And I will not rehearse here the denial of the crisis that precipitated the Truth and Reconciliation process between settlers and indigenous peoples. Jesus says, “Lift up your heads, open your eyes.” Be tellers of truth as you have learned it; be open to learning more. Be brave enough to see clearly. So one aspect of standing up, of lifting up our heads, is observation.

Another aspect of lifting our heads is to recognize how we will be needed in the future, how we will speak the good news, how we will model the justice and integrity of Jesus in our own time and place. I think this and all other sacred places, need to remember that we are here as sanctuaries for the desperate, as oases for the thirsty, as hostels for the wanderers, and as hospitals for the broken. Identifying the call for the future means engaging intentionally and persistently in reflective prayer. We will need to take time to feel the Spirit living amongst us, creating pathways where we can only see forests now.

And finally, I want to challenge us to think about preparation. The dramatic challenge of anticipation in the advent gospels calls us to deepen our faith as we wait so that the words of hope might come swiftly to our lips. The wonder of a world in the throes of chaos, the birth pangs of something new, should make us drop to our knees in awe and wonder that people of spirit may be the doulas and midwives of a new human paradigm.

If the age of reason is ending, what will take its place? We see some glimmers in the renewal of interest in leading lives of Spirit, in young people being less focused on success and more on quality of life. The renewal of energy and determination in indigenous people all over the world is an indicator of the ways ancient knowledge and culture is being reformulated and repurposed for the whole world. But for all of us as Christians, our task is to be open, to be aware, to listen to the powerful stirrings of Holy Incarnation that shakes the world. And so we wait, with both frightened and eager longing, and we trust in the Holy One, who uses babies and bread and wine, stories, and the earth itself, to grace us with hope and equip us for service.

Advent Musing

It is the beginning of a new church year. We call the season Advent to signify that someone or something is coming. All our prayers and music celebrate the presence of Christ in our lives. We also look to Christ continuing to move more deeply into relationship with us, a progressive second coming. 
What does that actually mean for us in our time and in our world? I would like to suggest that it is an alternate path to the transformation of the world. Neither military force nor doctrines, neither false leaders nor true; no systems of any kind have been able to save us from ourselves, or the world from our predatory behaviour. 
I think people of faith, in all the religions of the world, need to commit ourselves to the life of prayer. By that, I mean the conversion of our hearts to listen without arguing, to act without counting productivity, to open ourselves to the healing, winnowing spirit of Christ. It will be the risk of vulnerability, of being changed, of following the one who worked in relationships rather than systems.
As a personal discipline this advent, I would invite you to say this simple prayer as many times a day as you think of it. “All life is sacred. Thank you for my life and for all that lives. Jesus come into my heart.”
May this season fill you with hope, in the bright and in the dark of your life. May Christmas bring delight in your relationships and in what you value most. May the holy family find shelter with you. May Christ come to your feasting table. 

Beyond Kings

In this era that feels pre-apocalyptic, I want to reflect on what this feast day of Christ the King might mean. In the 1800s, a philosopher and diplomat by the name of Joseph-Marie Comte de Maistre — a man of significant influence — argued for the divine right of kings, the supremacy of the Church, and the right and obligation to impose Christianity on all people. He famously said that the people received the government they deserved. He would also have agreed with the Doctrine of Discovery that asserted that the church should colonize all nations not presently under the rule of the Catholic Church and the Pope.

We persist in thinking that we no longer share in these ideas but we continue to make little kings and queens out of the people we elect and then react with anger when they are clearly human, buffeted by conflicting demands and realities. The problem with government is that it is asked to act on a history not redeemable and on situations that are not legislative but based in relationship. For example, in the government’s relationship with First Nations, I wonder how often we ask those representatives about their suggestions, rather than rushing to partial and unsatisfactory solutions. Parental, solution-based decisions sabotage relationships. In other forms of government as well as democracy, there remains the idea that the whole must be governed by a small group who know what is best for everyone, and certainly for themselves.

I wonder if we are standing in Pilate’s shoes when we try to make Jesus a king of this world who will mandate culture, politics, even economy. I worry when any of us employs the name of Jesus as a political tool or benchmark. I recall Jesus handing back the coin with the face of Caesar on it and remarking that the product of empire belonged to empire. At trial, Jesus mocks Pilate and scoffs at the title of king, a title laden with corruption, violence and self-interest. 

So what is the truth to which Jesus testified? I think he was pointing to a revolution of human self-understanding. I think he would encourage us to get beyond depending on whomever we have made a king. I think he would say that if we want a different world, we will have to make it one meeting at a time, one hour in prayer at a time, one act of courage at a time.

In the world, we must pay taxes, vote, discern the best paths. In the world of Christ, we are remaking how we imagine life and society. We are an undercurrent of change gently whirling society from top-down to consultative decision-making, from imposition to exploration in relationship. Kings will be kings. But we will carry a hope and a vision for humanity that is beyond kings, beyond armies, beyond law.

Our vision begins with the idea that the creation is holy, people are holy. Life is sacred. It is irrelevant whether this is achievable. That is the measure of kings and corporations. What is relevant is what is happening in each human, in you and in me, and in how seriously we undertake this transformation. The solution is not out there, but in our hearts and minds. From the Alpha to the Omega, from the beginning of understanding to its fulfillment, it is all made in goodness. To understand this is to stand in the midst of the Divine, with Jesus, forever.

In Mark 8:27-37, we read about the struggles in the early church to place Jesus in some kind of traditional context. There are serious questions to be answered. If Jesus was the son of God, why would that God allow him to die a scandalous death? Who really was his father? Was he actually John the Baptist? If he wasn’t the Messiah, then perhaps he was Elijah, who would precede the Messiah. He certainly didn’t fit any of the expectations of a messiah. He wasn’t a king or a fierce warrior. He seemed to have no interest in insurrection or political leadership. In fact, his teaching and his behaviour were inconsistent with the expectations of a messiah

In this narrative, we “overhear”a conversation between Jesus and Peter. We become the disciples who were listening in. Jesus seems exasperated that Peter cannot understand, and therefore cannot correctly transmit Jesus’ teaching. Jesus is not the anticipated messiah, nor is he anyone else but his own unique self. Raised in the spiritual expression of the Judaism of his era, and in the experience of Roman occupation, Jesus is anointed by the suffering and oppression, initially of his own people. That broadens into an awareness of the potential for human liberation, both spiritually and politically.

That is a historical moment that we will always be reliving as his disciples. We each agree to follow a particular expression of Jesus’ mission and vision. To understand that mission and vision, we must learn the stories about him that shape our faith. And we need each other to test our ideas, to develop our shared understanding, to learn how to live out our faith.

Today, we’re going to baptize Noel into this community, this faith. And how will he learn this faith? Will you show him love, understanding, conviction, action in Jesus’ mission? We are promising today that we will never abandon him, we will be his safe harbour until he can choose Jesus’ path for himself. We will continue to be learners with him. And we will grow in discipleship with him.

A service of Baptism

Trinity 6, July 8: An Order of Service for Holy Baptism

Gathering of the Communitybaptism

L: There is one body and one Spirit;
R: there is one hope in God’s call to us.

Opening Hymn

The Collect for Purity (Anglican Book of Alternative Services, Canada)
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hidden. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy name. Amen

Holy God, open our eyes to see the truth that is before us, to sharpen our understanding so that we might learn, and to encourage us to seek the path of Jesus at all times. Amen. (Gertrude Lebans)

Invitation to Readings
L: Let us prepare ourselves for the Word of God as it comes to us in the reading of Holy Scripture.
R: Our hearts and minds are open.

A reading from Isaiah 55
L: Holy Word, Holy Wisdom.
R: Thanks be to God

Psalm 84, Anglican Church of Canada Hymnal: Common Praise, 498

Holy Gospel
L: The Good News according to John.
R: Praise to you O Christ.
(John 3: 1-6)
L: This is the Gospel of Christ.
R: Blessed be the Word.

Sermon (The sermon offered in this service may be found at Baptism: Transforming Community)

The Celebration of Baptism
(This section is adapted from both the New Zealand Prayer Book and the Book of Alternative Services)

Presider: God is love. God gives us life. We love because God first loved us. In baptism God declares that love; in Christ God calls us to respond.

From the beginning the Church has received believers by baptism. On the day when the apostles first urged his hearers, saying “turn and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus the Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are far away, everyone whom God may call.”

Sponsor and Candidate: I hear God’s call and come for baptism.

Presider: Will you learn to recognise what you need to grow and change for the good?
Sponsor and Candidate: I will, with God’s help.

Presider: Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?
Sponsor and Candidate: I will, with God’s help.

Presider: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself?
Sponsor and Candidate: I will, with God’s help.

Presider: Will you work for justice and peace among all people? Will you care for God’s creation?

Sponsor and Candidate: I will, with God’s help.

Presider: Do you trust in Christ’s love which brings freedom and life? Will you turn to him in time of trouble?
Sponsor and Candidate: I will, with God’s help.

Presider: Praise God who made heaven and earth,
All: whose promise endures forever.

Presider: We thank you God for your love in all creation, especially for your gift of water to sustain, refresh and cleanse all life. We thank you for your covenant with your people Israel; through the Red Sea waters you led them to freedom in the Promised Land. In the waters of the Jordan your Son was baptized by John and anointed with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Now sanctify this water by your Holy Spirit that those who are here cleansed and born again may continue forever in Christ’s resurrection.
All: Amen. Come Holy Spirit, lead us to light and life.

Presider: We thank you that through the new covenant we are made members of your Church and share in your eternal kingdom. through your Holy Spirit, fulfill once more your promises in this water of rebirth, set apart in the name of Jesus Christ.
All: Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom, thanksgiving and honour, power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.

Presider: I baptize you in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. We sign you with the cross, the sign of Christ. Walk in the faith of the risen Christ.

Presider: Receive the light of Christ.

All: Amen. God receives you by baptism into the Church. Child of God, blessed in the Spirit, welcome to the family of Christ, and shine with the light of Christ.

Prayer Leader: Let us pray for the church and for the newly baptized. God our Maker, fill our hearts with love for each other and for you so that everywhere we look, we see holiness, everything we hear, tells us of your Word and everyone we meet is an opportunity to experience Jesus the risen Lord. May all who have been baptized into your Way, find Life in their calling, and seek eagerly after the truth of love and service. Amen.

Celebration of Faith
Let us celebrate our faith.
We believe in God, creator of the earth, creator of life and freedom, hope of the poor.
Do you believe in Jesus the Anointed One of God?
We believe in Jesus the Christ, friend in suffering, companion in the resurrection, way of peace.
Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
We believe in the Holy Spirit, that holy force impelling the poor to build a church of the beatitudes. We recognize one baptism in the blood of witnesses to truth; we confess our faith in the law of love. We wait for the resurrection of the people and joyfully praise our Lord, who has looked with favour upon the disinherited, those who have no bread, no home and no land. Amen.
(Fray Guillermo Chavez, Ecuador “Iglesia Solidaria”, 1987)

Prayers of the People
(Adapted from the Book of Alternative Services)
L: Let us pray together to the Lord, saying, “Holy One, hear us with compassion.”

L: Loving God, we thank you for your many gifts to us, for the love which brings us together, for the earth which provides for our needs, for the new life you have given us in Jesus Christ, (for…). Let us pray.
R: Holy One, hear us with compassion.

L: We pray to you for our Christian family (especially for…) and for grace to grow in your love. Let us pray.
R: Holy One, hear us with compassio

L: We pray to you for our world, for all its care and needs, and for all who lead us and care for us (especially…). Let us pray.
R: Holy One, hear us with compassion.

L: We pray to you for those in need, for the sick and the lonely, for the hurt and the frightened, and for those who live without hope (especially…). Let us pray.
R: Holy One, hear us with compassion.

L: We pray for those we love who have died, that you will surround them with your care and love (especially…). Let us pray.
R: Holy One, hear us with compassion.

L: We pray for one another, asking you to bless us, our friends, and relatives. Bless the places where we work and bless our home and our life together.
R: Holy One, hear us with compassion.

The Peace
Presider: May the grace and peace of Christ be with you.
All: And also with you.

Celebration of the Eucharist

Offertory Hymn

Prayer over the Gifts
Holy One, we bring ourselves and these gifts from our abundance. May we grow in your service. Amen.
(Gertrude Lebans)

The Great Thanksgiving
(Gertrude Lebans)
Presider: May the Spirit of the Holy One abide with you.
All: And also with you.

Presider: Lift your hearts to the skies where the winds sing praise to God.
All: We raise our hearts in trust and hope.

Presider: Let us give thanks to God
All: Who blesses us with life for evermore.

Presider: Holy Mystery, you touch all people with a sense of your abiding presence. You dwell within the human heart at peace; you teach compassion by sending messengers of justice and understanding. Joining in the song of the universe we proclaim your glory:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

Presider: Gracious God, for all people you offer human examples of love and peace. We received Jesus as our teacher and friend, the one who would show us how to open our souls to you. through his life, we remembered the mystery of incarnation, the holiness that is at the heart of all life, that rocks the cradle, the world in which we live.

In his great compassion, Jesus healed the sick and saw in each person dignity and potential. For us, he became Love Incarnate in human form. For us, he became your promise of life everlasting and love beyond all exhaustion or limit.

When Jesus knew that his time of trial approached, he gathered his friends and family together. Anointed as sacrifice and blessing by a woman disciple, Jesus reached out to those who loved him. He took bread, gave thanks to you, broke it and gave it to his friends, saying, “Take and eat: this is my body which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.” After supper, Jesus took the cup of wine, gave you thanks, and said “Drink this all of you,” as a sign of his life, given as the covenant of love and forgiveness for everyone. He said, “Whenever you drink it, remember me.”

Holy Spirit, love in creation and love in relationship, may these gifts from the earth become insight into the holiness that is your breath in the world and in our lives; through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, in relationship with all that lives and has given life, we lift our songs of praise.
All: Alleluia, amen.

The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

Breaking of Bread
In Christ we are made whole.
In him we find hope and joy.

This is the table where Christ is host. All are welcome to come, guests and family together.

Communion Hymn

Prayer after Communion
As Jesus constantly revealed your love and compassion to others, so may we learn to reflect your grace in our lives. Amen.
(Gertrude Lebans)

As you return to the world, remember that you are Christ’s hands and feet. Walk gently on this sacred earth. Bless those you meet, sowing seeds of hope and reconciliation. In the name of the Holy One who creates, the One who calls us into community, and the One who inspires our imagination, Amen.
(Gertrude Lebans)

Closing Hymn

Be joyful and make the world more peaceful and loving as you carry Christ in your heart.
All: Alleluia!
(Gertrude Lebans)