Let us pause for a moment in prayer…
Gracious God, your presence is known to us,
in sacrament and song, in prayers of the heart,
in the face of a stranger, in stories of faith,
in the mystery and wonder of life on this earth
and in many ordinary ways each and every day.
In the harsh realities of our world
we pray for your guidance and persistence
that we may be carriers of the gentle touch of your love
and your deep and abiding peace.
With faith and thanksgiving, we pray.
It has often struck me as odd that in the church calendar we move somewhat abruptly through the Advent, Christmas and Epiphany Sundays when we anticipate and celebrate the birth of the Christ-child and the visitation of angels, shepherds and Wise Ones. And then we seemingly leap to the Baptism of Jesus Sunday, the first Sunday after Epiphany Sunday, where the adult Jesus is baptized in the River Jordan.
The seasons in our Christian calendar follow the life and ministry of Jesus according to the Gospel accounts and the life and work of the early Christian communities of faith as expressed in Christian Scriptures.
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ birth and then go directly to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Mark’s Gospel doesn’t even tell the story of Jesus’ birth but begins directly with John’s proclamation of Jesus as the messiah and then onto the story of Jesus’ baptism.
We don’t know much at all about what scholars often call the “hidden years” in Jesus’ life from his birth to early thirties when he appears again in the Gospel stories to be baptized and begin his public ministry.
When I was at Garden View Village, just after leading a worship service on Christmas Day, a relative of one of the residents asked me why we never hear any stories of Jesus childhood. The person who asked the question is a mother who has teenage boys and was very much interested in knowing about Jesus’ years between birth and adulthood. I explained that other than a brief account of Jesus as a twelve year old we really don’t have much information about Jesus’ life as he was growing up. I told her that we can assume that his mother, his family, his faith tradition and context, influenced the formation of his ideals and values but we don’t have any written accounts to go by. However, what this conversation did for me was to make me think about the questions and interest some might have about the stories of encounters with angels and mystical journeys and miraculous birth to the very earthly and embodied, raw and gritty life and ministry of Jesus.
What we know from our experience as people of faith is that God often calls us in surprising ways and empowers us to respond with faith-filled action. God’s blessing of Jesus at his baptism heralded the beginning of his public ministry and his calling to share God’s blessings with others. In various places in the Gospel accounts we see Jesus encouraging his disciples to go out and minister to others and to bless and baptize in his name. The tradition of baptism has been practised in Christian communities throughout the centuries and is still a sacred act that publicly celebrates and welcomes people into the Worldwide Christian Community.
As a person in ministry, one of the most meaningful and sacred duties that I am called to perform is the sacrament of baptism. Baptism reminds me of the new life and hope that we embody as Christian community when we publicly acknowledge and welcome people as members of the body of Christ. It is also an opportunity to be reminded of the blessings and responsibilities we share as Christians and to reaffirm our own commitment to serving together as brothers and sisters in Christ.
As a Christian community, it is important that we hold onto and be rooted in the sacred practices of our faith tradition. Knowing who we are – our identity – as people of faith is an important factor in understanding our purpose and working together to embody our ministry together in our time and place.
I have read many books, over the years, that outline many challenges facing mainline churches today. No longer are churches automatically the centre of community life outside their own church membership. Churches have become marginalized in the wider context of Canadian life and we face many of the same challenges that early Christian communities faced. We, like our ancestors in faith in the 1st century, must be hopeful people willing to adapt to changing circumstances with a unity of faith and purpose that is welcoming and inclusive, positive and persistent. This requires a deep commitment to discerning God’s guidance and to following Jesus’ example of living with purpose and offering meaningful actions that exemplify our beliefs and values.
Nora Sanders, the General Secretary of the United Church of Canada, wrote a report for the 41st General Council last August, entitled The State of the Church 2012. This report outlines societal trends in Canada and outlines some of the challenges facing the United Church both nationally and in local congregations. Nora Sanders says,
“Change is being thrust upon us, but let us not forget the larger context. We are part of a movement that began roughly 2,000 years ago, when people were called to leave behind their familiar lives and follow the way that Jesus led. …Those who seek to follow Jesus, as we do, have invented and reinvented “church” many times over the centuries. We do not always welcome change, but it does give us the opportunity to reshape our structures and our lives, aligning them anew to the core of our faith. …Changing times are times of opportunity and hope, times to engage in fresh ways and to include new people. The calling to journey to places unknown is central to Christian life and times.” (The State of the Church 2012, Nora Sanders, August 2012, pg. 6)
Yesterday afternoon, seventeen members of this congregation met and discussed, in broad terms, some of the issues that Kimberley United Church is currently facing. We discussed the need for a better understanding and practice of stewardship and some of the ways we can be more welcoming and invitational in our approach with our own members and the wider community. We acknowledged that we are facing challenging times economically but also affirmed the importance of working together to address these issues. We explored ways that we can improve communication with the wider community and let them know what we have to offer with respect to our building and the various aspects of our life together as a community of faith. Our journey together will not always be easy but if we keep true to our conviction that we have a purpose and something important to offer as a church then we will continue to be a vibrant presence in our community now and in the future.
This past week, Jody and I watched the movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel that offers some insights into the adaptive change essential to ensure the flourishing of communities of faith in the 21st century. The movie doesn’t have anything specifically to do with church but I was fascinated with the character development and the lessons about building relationships and a sense of community that this movie offers. The premise of the story is that for various reasons a number of British retirees travel to India to live in a hotel that was advertized as an inexpensive but exotic haven for seniors. The young man who runs the hotel is a visionary whose dream for the future of the hotel is far ahead of the reality of the actual physical status of the place. Despite this fact many of the newly arrived hotel residents recover fairly quickly from their disappointment that what was advertized is not exactly the current reality and they find ways to adapt and thrive in their new surroundings. Infused in these characters is a sense of joy and exploration and the strength of adaptive change that helps them to thrive and flourish in their new environment. One of the residents, however, does not adapt well and lives in fear of her new surroundings and mostly remains cloistered within the confines of the walls of the hotel. Over time a sense of community develops and the members work together with the young hotel manager, to turn the hotel into a thriving enterprise that is attractive and welcoming of others.
May we, as a community of faith, be prepared to face the present and the future with faith and hope and the desire, not only to persevere but live with a sense of joy in the exploration and sharing of our faith with others. May we discern ways in which we can contribute to the vitality of Kimberley United Church so that we ensure our continuing and faithful presence in our ministry together. May we be reassured of God’s presence and purpose for us as people of faith today, tomorrow and always.