Jesus Baptism and Ours

Dennis Graham, the producer, director and post-production guru said that the worship video for this weekend is one of the best we have ever done.

We looked at the story of Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan River, and also reflected on what it means to be beloved child of God.

Here is the link to the Youtube video:

Here is the text of the Learning Time:

Learning Time: “Jesus’ Baptism, and Ours”

Jesus joined a crowd of people who went to the bank of the Jordan River to hear John the Baptist preach his fiery sermons, and to be baptized. They were not baptized into the Christian church, because that did not yet exist. They were Jews called to a life of faithfulness, and offered a way to have a fresh start.

Jesus was about thirty at the time of his baptism. He had lived a lot of years since being a newborn in a manger, and from that time when he was twelve, and hung out in the Jerusalem temple, talking about God with the teachers of religion.

What did he do for those 18 years, from that time in the temple, to this moment in the Jordan River? There has been a lot of speculation about that over the centuries, and books written about the possibilities. John Prine wrote a song called “Jesus, the hidden years”, which is worth checking out on YouTube. It’s a lot of fun.

Is it possible that like the escaped convict in the little clip from “O Brother Where Art Thou,” Jesus felt like he needed a fresh start? That would make him seem a lot more human than he is usually described. 

Where were you at age thirty? What were you doing? Were you ready for a washing clean, a fresh start? Did you have a clear sense of who you were, and what God wanted you to be? Do you have that now?

A few years ago I heard a story about a young man who had led a kind of wild life. He had a lot of money, and many grown up toys. He didn’t have to work, and had more free time than many people. He was also very lonely, and at times, drank too much.

He was also had a deep spiritual hunger and curiosity. His search for more in life, and led him to walk into a church one Sunday. It was a non-denominational congregation led by a husband and wife team of co-pastors.

This very small congregation, made up mostly of seniors, met in a building that used to be a United Church. When the co-pastors saw a man in his late twenties walk in, they were thrilled. One of them actually said out loud, “Thank God, someone to help.’

The young man stuck around. Before long he was teaching Bible study, and helping with the sound system at the church, and going to Haiti on mission trips. Something in him responded to being needed to help, and he blossomed. He found himself.

That is an important and powerful thing, to discover who you are meant to be, who you are in God’s eyes, and to find your purpose in life.

This congregation practiced baptism by full immersion, and the old church building they were renting did not have running water, never mind a baptismal tank. The young man invited the congregation to use the pool at his condo for a baptismal service.

Have you ever seen that kind of baptism? It’s like what we saw in the video clip. The person walks in, or is standing in water that may be above their waist. The candidate for baptism is literally dunked under. In some traditions they are pushed in backwards, and totally submerged in the water. They are not held down, but they go all the way in, so that they are completely under water.

As a person who does not even like to put my head in the water when I swim, I would find this terrifying. If you are able, and willing, try an experiment with me. I am going to use my watch to time us for 20 seconds as we hold our breath.

That’s not very long. But it is about long enough to remind us how it feels to not breathe. I prefer to breathe. My body resists holding my breath. It instinctively knows what it needs.

You would have to hold your breath if you were being baptized by John in the Jordan River. You might also close your eyes, in case the water wasn’t clean. A lot of other people may have been dipped in that part of the river.

The experience, and the symbolism would be powerful. A total rinsing off of the dust and dirt, and messiness of life up to that point, and a rising up out of the water, with a commitment to live a new kind of life. Terror, and then relief, and perhaps joy, as you rose up out of the water.

The story says that after Jesus was baptized, and rose up out of the water, the heavens opened, the dove of the Holy Spirit came down, and a voice said to him , “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

One of the ways the church has understood baptism is as a way to participate in the mysteries of Jesus life, his death, and his resurrection.  The person totally submerged for baptism is for a moment, cut off from life around them.  They are like an unborn child, in those few seconds, except without the umbilical cord to provide all they need for life.

There is at once a hint of death, or the risk of it, and the reminder of what it is like for each of us, before we leave the safety of the womb, and enter the world. The water is at the same time, a womb, and a reminder of the tomb in which Jesus was laid, after he was killed on the cross.

Then the person rises up out of the water breathless, and is able again to breathe, and it suggests coming back to life, or being born. There is a lot of powerful symbolism there, that we may only catch a glimpse of in the way we tend to do baptisms.

But back to the story of the young man in the pool at his condo. I heard about it from his father, who is not a regular church goer, but who came to the condo pool that day. When his son had been baptized, and was getting out of the pool, he slipped on the wet deck, and almost broke his leg.

The father said his son was sore for a few days, but not seriously hurt. It could have been a lot worse. That little story, of falling on the wet deck is a reminder that this business of baptism, of life, and death, and new life, is risky.  You never know what’s going to happen. Did Jesus know what would happen in his life, after he submitted to John’s baptism?

The father told me this story of his son’s baptism, 4 years ago, while we stood together at the reception after his son’s funeral.  There was a great deal of sadness over this young man’s death. But in the midst of this, I also heard that the happiest, most fulfilling part of his short life began when he joined that little church, was baptized, and grew into a new understanding of his purpose. He found his identity as a beloved child of God, when he began to live a life that was about serving God, by helping others. It is so good that he found that little church, and found out who he was meant to be.

In the 1700’s there was an Anglican minister named John Wesley, who found the church he grew up in, and in which he had been ordained, to be a fairly dry, lifeless, and ineffectual institution, that was failed to reach the people who most needed it. The industrial revolution in England had made some people very wealthy, but it had also displaced many people from traditional rural lives, and pushed them into the cities in search of factory work. The cities were filled with the casualties of poverty, and poor education, and alcoholism, and child labour. Some evangelical ministers had begun preaching on street corners and holding open-air meetings to try to reach people who had no connection to a church.

Wesley became one of those people who brought the church to people where they were. He organized people into small groups, or classes, of 12 or so people, who would meet regularly to learn and pray together, and hold each other accountable for how they were living. The members would minister to each other, in between the visits from travelling preachers who would each watch over a number of these local classes. This system came to be called Methodism, and the Methodist Church in Canada was one of the denominations that joined together as the United Church in 1925.

John Wesley believed it was helpful to offer people them the opportunity to re-new their covenant relationship with God, and with their fellow believers. He called them “Covenant Services”, and I have borrowed some parts of a service he wrote, for our service today. Near the end of his life, Wesley tended to have these services around New Year’s- it seemed like a good time to offer people a fresh start.

So at the end of this service we have the opportunity to renew our faith commitments.  You can dip your fingers in warm water, and make the sign of the cross on your forehead.

This is not a baptism- but a symbol of your faith in Jesus, or at the very least, your desire to believe. This is a chance to say to ourselves, and to God, that we are choosing to live as beloved children of God.  Amen

Harrow United Church Easter 2020 Worship Service

easter stained glass HUCThere is a link below to the video of this service. The video opens with a wonderful “virtual choir” singing Morning Has Broken. Our scripture lesson is read by the members of our confirmation class. I recorded a sermon in the sanctuary, which is followed by “Thine is the Glory”, with piano and vocals by Naomi Woods, and trumpet and vocals by Joel Woods. The sermon and pastoral prayers for today will be included in this post. After the pastoral prayer, I have included an Easter Treat. Nicole Wells, who was a member of the choir and congregation at Applewood United Church in Mississauga, made a video of her singing a song by John Legend which carries a good message for the time in which we are living. I liked it so much I asked her if we could have it as part of our worship for this Easter morning.

Link to Video of Easter Worship

Scripture Lesson:   John 20:1-18

Sermon

At the end of the verses the confirmation class just read, Jesus told Mary Magdalene not to cling to him, because he had not yet ascended to the Father.

In this season of social distancing, and self-isolation, we can relate to the awkward sadness of wanting to reach out and offer someone a hug, and it not being possible.

Things have changed, and we are living in a new normal, that we do not understand, and to which it will take some time to adjust. We are hearing that phrase a lot these days.

After the first Good Friday, Jesus’ disciples faced a new normal, without their beloved teacher.

They’d enjoyed an amazing three years of travelling with him from village to village, town to town. They met thousands of people. They shared intimate moments with their teacher and friend, and grew to love and trust him, and each other. They built a tight-knit community, a family of the heart, and they were learning, slowly, hesitantly to offer love to people beyond their cozy circle.

Great things were happening. Everywhere they went, crowds gathered to get a glimpse, hear a word, have the experience of being with Jesus. There was an aura of peace, of love around their teacher, in which they felt safe, and blessed. They may have come to believe that anything was possible, as long as they were with him, and he was with them.

But not everyone was so enthused about Jesus, and his message of God’s unlimited, unconditional love, that burst through barriers of class and privilege, race and religion. Jesus was shaking things up.

Powerful people, with much to lose, conspired to silence the persuasive, subversive voice, that threatened to topple the carefully balanced system of officially sanctioned religion, puppet kings, and Roman imperial control.

Jesus was arrested on phony charges, subjected to a mock trial, and sentenced to public execution on the cross. He was beaten, humiliated, stripped of his clothing, and crucified. His closest family and friends watched his body breathe its last, and the saw to the burial of his dead body.

Then Jesus’ followers went away, most of them, and hid. At least one of them even denied ever knowing Jesus. That part of their lives was over, behind them, and they were going to have to sort out what to do next, once they were no longer stuck behind closed doors. We can relate these days to being stuck behind closed doors.

Jesus’ companions were paralyzed by grief, by fear, by the shock that comes when you lose a loved one, when your hopes about how life was supposed to be are dashed.

Have you ever got so deep into the plot of a good book or movie, or tv show, that you kind of lose track of time? Ever feel like you just want to stay with story, and maybe hope it never ends? I remember when the Harry Potter books were first coming out, and at our house we all read them, and we could not get them fast enough.  I can remember wanting to go from one to the next, with as little break in between as possible- so the spell, the charm of that imaginary reality would be sustained.

I have friends who are ardent sports fans. They are sad these days, because so much of what they almost live for, is suspended. No games to watch, listen to, read about, talk about right now. In the old normal, I can remember how some of them would follow a favorite team all the way through regular season play, and then into play offs. If their team was eliminated, they’d choose another to cheer on, if only so they could remain a little longer in that charged up fan-space.

A friend told me once, at the end of a play-off series in which his team actually did come out the victor, that it was bitter-sweet for him. He was thrilled his team came out on top, but also sad, because the time of heightened excitement was over. There would be next year, or he could change his focus to another sport- but it wasn’t the same.

These things we love, all seem to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Our earthly lives are like that as well- we are being reminded of that on a daily, hourly, minute by minute basis lately. The fact that there will be, at some point, an end to our earthly life can make it all seem more precious. Every moment counts!

When I was little, and still sometimes as an old guy, there were, and are, the days when I resist going to sleep. My body may be tired, but I don’t want to let go. Eventually, my weary eyes and bones win the argument, and I do sink into slumber. I repeat the cycle of day, and night, and full day.

That’s the way of things. Day, night, new day. Spring and summer, autumn and winter, then spring again. Live, rest, wake up. Grow, blossom, wilt and fade. Life, death and new life. Sunrise, the glory of a new day, sunset, and then the new day.

There is no going backwards, and no staying still. The wheel keeps turning, the cycle continues. We see it at this time of year. Seeds planted in dark soil, in which they decay enough to break open with new growth, burst upward to find the light of day. Caterpillars that will cocoon themselves, and be transformed, and emerge as something new, that flies off into the warm wind.

Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene at the tomb where his body had been laid out for burial. When she realized who he was, she was overjoyed, and wanted to reach out, and hold him tight. He warned her against clinging to him. Things were different. A new normal.

We don’t always feel ready for the new life, the new normal. We aren’t done grieving, aren’t ready to let go of the old. We don’t want to lay our head on the pillow and let go of the day we are in.

Left on our own, we might not. We might try to stay awake, and not let go of the day. We might try to hold on to the way things were, and deny that change, and death, are the way of things. We might be that way, left on our own, and if we were in charge.

But the Easter story reminds us that we are not left on our own, and that we are not in charge. God is in charge, of life, and death and new life. The new normal.

Jesus appeared again, in a new way, on that first Easter morning. He showed to Mary Magdalene, and then to a few more of his close friends, that there was more to come.

Resurrection is a weird word. It’s not the same as resuscitation, or restoration. It has nothing at all to do with a return to the way things were, before the pain, the death, the grief. There is no promise to freeze time, and keep everything the way it used to be.

When it sank in with Jesus’ friends that there was a new normal, it startled them out of their sad stuck place, and energized them. They moved beyond the closed, tight, hidden circle, and out from behind their closed doors, and shared the message of new life, and God’s love, with thousands and thousands more people. A whole new movement, bigger than anything that had happened during Jesus earthly life, began to grow, and spread. It was like nothing any of Jesus’ first friends and followers could have possibly imagined.

I’m thinking about the food drive we had here at the church last week for Windsor’s Downtown Mission. So many people responded to the call, and drove up, and dropped off food. They dropped off cash and cheque donations. So many people offering kindness, to help people they have never met, and may never meet.

Perhaps in this time when we are all being reminded of our shared vulnerability, there is an opportunity to embrace being more kind, more generous, more thoughtful. How wonderful it would be if these qualities became more evident in our new normal.

That’s the deal, with new life. It’s not the old life. It’s new. It’s what comes next, not what happened before.  The Easter story reminds us God is still with us, offering us the energy, and inspiration, and possibility of the new day, the new normal. God is in it with us.

That’s the hope and promise of our faith, as expressed in the New Creed of the United Church of Canada:

We are not alone,
we live in God’s world.

We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus,
the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others
by the Spirit.

We trust in God.

We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to live with respect in Creation,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.

In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.

Thanks be to God.

Naomi and Joel sing “Thine is the Glory”

Pastoral Prayers

God of Love, and Hope, and New Life;

We pray for people we know who are especially challenged these days. Those who live alone. Those who are in isolation. Those who cannot visit loved ones. Those who are sick. Those who are dying. Those who are grieving. We remember the families of Delight Cracknell and Roberta McLean.

We pray for those who feel alone. Those who feel unsafe in their homes. Those who worry about their loved ones, whose work places them at risk.

We pray for our leaders, and all in positions of responsibility, authority, and duty. We pray for our communities, our county, province, nation, and all the nations. We pray for a spirit of cooperation and common cause to be at work in the conversations between levels of government, and between nations, that will nudge out the tendency towards rivalry and self-interest.

We pray for our church, and all other communities of faith who are discovering new ways to share hope and bring joy, and offer pastoral care and practical help to people in need. Bless the leaders of our church, and all other faith communities.

God who Creates, and is always at work in creation, in this season of new life, we remember that Jesus talked about ordinary things like mustard seeds and grains of wheat to encourage us to look closer at life, and the world around us, to see you at work.

If we open our hearts, and look around with loving eyes, there is much to see.

Like the persistent plants that somehow find their way to grow up through cracks in broken concrete, your love finds a way, to break through all that is weighing us down.

There is kindness in this world. People are buying groceries for their neighbours, to save them a trip to store.

There is generosity in this world. People are making donations of money, food, protective gear, to help where it is needed.

There is compassion in this world. Ordinary people with hearts of love are doing their jobs, many going beyond the call of duty, to make sure that the necessities of life are available. Brave souls with loved ones of their own, leave their homes each day to care for the sick.

There is humour, and lightness of heart in this world. Where we are still able to laugh, to make each other smile, we can live through almost anything.

There is ingenuity and curiousity at work in this world. People are setting aside the pursuit of profit and personal gain, to dedicate their efforts to make things that relieve suffering, protect the vulnerable, and make people who work on the front lines safer.

We are your people, and in this strange time in which we live, we give thanks for the glimpses of resurrection that are all around us. Let us use this time in which many of us are compelled by circumstances to lay low, sit still, and be safe, to be more watchful for those signs, more grateful when we notice them, and more bold in sharing the good news of what we see.

We make these prayer in the name of the Risen Christ, and we continue in prayer with the words Jesus gave us:

Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father, who art in heaven,

hallowed be 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 us 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,

Forever and ever. Amen

Lyrics to the John Legend song: If You’re Out There

If you hear this message, wherever you stand
I’m calling every woman, calling every man
We’re the generation
We can’t afford to wait
The future started yesterday and we’re already late

We’ve been looking for a song to sing
Searched for a melody
Searched for someone to lead
We’ve been looking for the world to change
If you feel the same
Then go on and say

If you’re out there
Sing along with me
If you’re out there
I’m dying to believe that you’re out there
Stand up and say it loud
If you’re out there
Tomorrow’s starting now
Now, now

No more broken promises
No more call to war
Unless it’s love and peace that we’re really fighting for
We can destroy hunger
We can conquer hate
Put down the arms and raise your voice
We’re joining hands today

Oh I was looking for a song to sing
I searched for a leader
But the leader was me
We were looking for the world to change
We can be heroes
Just go on and say

If you’re out there
Sing along with me
If you’re out there
I’m dying to believe that you’re out there
Stand up and say it loud
If you’re out there
Tomorrow’s starting now
Now, now

Oh now, now

If you’re ready we can shake the world
Believe again
It starts within
We don’t have to wait for destiny
We should be the change that we want to see

If you’re out there
If you’re out there
And you’re ready now
Say it loud
Scream it out

If you’re out there
Sing along with me
If you’re out there
I’m dying to believe that you’re out there
Stand up and say it loud
If you’re out there
Tomorrow’s starting now

If you’re out there
If you’re out there
If you’re out there

If you hear this message, wherever you stand
I’m calling every woman, calling every man
We’re the generation
We can’t afford to wait
The future started yesterday and we’re already late

Songwriters: MARCUS JOHN BRYANT, DEVON HARRIS, KAWAN PRATHER, JOHN STEPHENS

Signs of Hope and New Life

sidewalk chalk

My wife and I were out for a walk one evening this week, and I began to take pictures with my phone, of the signs of hope and new life I saw. The image above is one of my favourites. The concrete driveway in front of this house was covered with messages and pictures. We talked (at a safe distance) to one of the homeowners, who said his daughter was having great fun putting happy things on their driveway. I asked him to tell her that she had made my evening.

I think the little girl has it right. It is important to put to positive images and words out there. Not to block out the bad news, but to keep it context.

Even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are countless signs of hope and new life. I believe that, and I see it everyday.

I want your help in spreading the Good News. Please send me your photos, of things you encounter in your life, that are signs of hope and new life. I’d like to put them into a slide show that could be part of our Worship for Easter morning.

Please send your photos to me at:

darrow@revdarrow.com

 

An old story about new life

Almost 20 years ago I wrote a short, simple drama for presentation to a group of leaders who gathered to pondering the future of their congregations. It has been published in one of our denominational resources, and performed in a number of Bible illustrsettings. I revived, revised, and recycled it for use this past Sunday at Harrow United Church. My daughter, Naomi Woods brought expression and life to the role of narrator. Laura George and Jeff Csikasz went all out as the fisher-folk. The costumes, props, and acting were great!

Gospel of John 21:1-14

Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Tiberias. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together.

 “I’m going out to fish, ” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.”

 So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, ” Friends, haven’t you any fish? “

 ” No, “they answered.

 He said, ” Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some. “

Narrator: Imagine you were on that boat, with the disciples. What was going through their minds when they heard a person that they did not yet recognize, tell them how to fish? They had been fishing all night, without success, and were probably tired, and discouraged.

The story does not say the disciples immediately followed the advice to throw their net on the other side of the boat. Maybe they had to strike a committee, and talk about it first.

Disciple 1: I don’t know. We have always fished this way. There have been too many changes lately. This is the way we have always fished.

Disciple 2: But we haven’t caught anything for a while. Some of the other boats have had to quit. Their crews quit coming out. The younger ones are saying that fishing isn’t relevant.

Disciple 1: We are fishing the way we were taught. My parents, and their parents before them fished this way. It was good enough for them. Where’s your sense of loyalty and tradition? That’s what’s wrong with the world today.

Disciple 2: Times change. Conditions change. Maybe the fish have moved. What can it hurt to try a new thing?

Disciple 1: Look! We’re tired. Some of us have been fishing a long time. We can’t put a bunch of energy into some half-baked idea. We just have to get ourselves better organized, and try harder.

Disciple 2: What if he’s right? What if it’s time to try a new way?

Disciple 1: Are you going to take the advice of some stranger? We’ve known each other our whole lives. Our families fished together! Our grandparents built this boat. We can’t let some new guy come in and take over!

Disciple 2: But maybe he’s got a point ….

Disciple 1: I don’t even know this guy. Did he grow up around here? Does he fish? Who is his family? What will people think if we try his way, and we still catch nothing? They’ll laugh us out of Galilee!

Disciple 2: If we can fish all night and catch nothing, maybe there are no fish out there. Maybe it’s time to give up fishing.

Disciple 1: Do you mean that you would quit? Give up the tradition? You can’t do that! You have to have faith!

Disciple 2: No, I have to have fish. I have a family to feed, and bills to pay.

Disciple 1: That’s exactly why we have to be careful. We can’t just change direction without thinking it through!

Disciple 2: I have been thinking about it, all night. There hasn’t been much else to do, except look at the empty net, and think. And you know what I think?

Disciple 1: I am a little bit afraid to ask, but what?

Disciple 2: I think that we have to decide whether we are out here to fish, or to catch fish.

Narrator: The ad hoc committee on ways and means of fishing came to a decision. Half the disciples watched and waited, and were ready to point out errors, while the other half took a chance, and pulled up the net, and threw it on the other side of the boat.

When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!”

 As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, ” It is the Lord, ” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it of and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full offish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards.

 When they landed, they saw afire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.”

Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast. “

None of the disciples dared ask him, ” Who are you? ” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.