Sunday, 24 December 2017

What If God Loves You?: a Short Sermon for Christmas Eve - with Reference to Isa 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14 and Luke 2:1-20

The Christmas Eve Homily at StB in 2011.

What if God loves you? 
What if Caesar Augustus issuing that census decree which sent Joseph and Mary off on the road to Bethlehem, expecting a child, and the baby being born and wrapped and placed in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn really is part of a divine plot to show you that the Father Himself loves you? Just that. What if that really set the angel and the glory of the LORD off and scared the shepherds out of their wits? What if there really was then, and is tonight, a great company of the heavenly host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the Highest and on earth peace to everyone on whom His favour rests?

What if God’s favour rests on you tonight.   
No, really; what if God loves you? 
What if when Isaiah wrote the words in our first reading 2,700 years ago, not only did God already have Jesus—the child born, the son given, the great light—in mind, but also you and me; to light up the dark places in our souls and lives tonight? 
What if God loves you? 
What if the grace of God that brings salvation has really appeared to all people? What if the salvation bringer really is Jesus? What if He really is a Saviour sent to save you and me? What if Jesus really is making a glorious appearance here in the Scriptures, the bread and the wine tonight, newborn baby no longer, but our Mighty God and Saviour, who gave himself for you and me to redeem us from all wickedness done by, or to, us and to purify us for himself and make us his own.

What if God loves you? 
What if he loves your kids? How can you make sure they get that? 
"Rejoice," wrote Isaiah. Celebrate. Have fun. Kids are attracted to genuine joy and fun. Set them a Christmas-spirited example by saying “No” to godless living and the sinful, indulgent pleasures Paul wrote about in our reading from Titus. Live self-controlled, upright and godly lives, eager to do what is good. Kids respond to goodness. They’ll see the God who loves them in it. Hurry, like the shepherds, to find where Jesus is and go there (you got it right tonight). Come often, and bring your kids with you, make sure they hear the story, over and over again (you know how they love to have stores repeated—try and skip a page), amaze them with the good news that God really does love them. Like Mary, treasure these events and what they mean and take them home and ponder them in your hearts with your kids. Like the shepherds, go home glorifying and praising God for all the things you are hearing and seeing this night and all that you will enjoy together over the next few days.
Because, if this is all true, it changes everything. It can no longer be just Christmas that’s magic. Life gets re-enchanted. Angels, glory and heavenly hosts, blessed hope, amazing grace, and Jesus himself—Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace, the Christ—will light up your lives and the lives of your children like a Christmas tree. Batteries are included.  

What if God loves you? 


Saturday, 23 December 2017

Putting On the Armour of Light: Advent Ember Days of Prayer and Fasting for the Anglican Church—Prayers at Mid-Day

One of them in the BCP is this:
And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me.
BLESSED Saviour, who at this hour didst hang upon the cross stretching out thy loving arms: Grant that all mankind may look unto thee and be saved; who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen. (p16)
Saving faith for all is the goal. Pray for our church to be a fruitful part of that.


Putting On the Armour of Light: Advent Ember Days of Prayer and Fasting for the Anglican Church—Day Three

Well this will reveal the super spiritual saints among us! Who fasts two days from Christmas? And the awful thing is, even if we we are feeling a little full of ourselves because we do, we can’t tell anyone lest we lose our reward! (Mt 6.16-18) Sigh.

Fasting, or not, do take some time—at least a moment—to pray for the Anglican Church of Canada today—it’s people, its leaders—present and future, its Synods and councils. Pray that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ will continue to reign over us with truth and grace and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

For readings and other resources see yesterday’s post.

May your Advent waiting and Ember Days Prayer (and Fasting) be rewarded with the renewed presence of Jesus himself—extra bright, palpable and unmistakable—in your Christmas worship and in your celebrations with family and friends.


Friday, 22 December 2017

Putting On the Armour of Light: Advent Ember Days of Prayer and Fasting for the Anglican Church—Day Two of Three

Today is the second of the three Advent Ember Days of Solemn prayer and fasting for the Church (See the post on the first day here). 


On Ember Days the Collect, Epistle, and Gospel, page 210, shall always be used first. (BCP p100)

This is the Collect to which they refer: 

ALMIGHTY God, the giver of all good gifts, who of thy divine providence hast appointed divers Orders in thy Church: Give thy grace, we humbly beseech thee, to all those who are to be called to any office and administration in the same; and so replenish them with the truth of thy doctrine, and endue them with innocency of life, that they may faithfully serve before thee, to the glory of thy great Name, and to the benefit of thy holy Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP p210)

For the purposes of our vigil for the Church, this is an excellent prayer, not only for those “called to any office and administration,” but we can also use it for those who presently hold such offices—our bishops, priests, deacons and lay folk, especially when they are called together as members of synods. Doctrinal truth and innocency of life would be of great help in keeping us safely in God’s will. 

The Collect for Advent (BCP p95, BAS p268) is also a good classic prayer for the Church for such a time as this. We need to be both alert enough to identify the works of darkness which threaten to lead us astray and which need to be cast away, and to be awake enough to recognize the armour of light which is available to us. 

Add to that, the PRAYERS FOR THE CHURCH, number 7, For General, Provincial, or Diocesan Synods (BCP p42—if you don’t have a BCP, you can download it by following the link here: 

Assigned readings for these Ember Days can be found here. Note the link to BCP readings also. Pray and not lose heart!(Lk 18.1)


Saturday, 2 December 2017

Good News! Help is On the Way—Today’s By the Way column for the Medicine Hat News

Kim Jong Un has just claimed “nuclear completion,” whatever that means, after North Korea tested its latest missile. Today’s equivalent of sabres continue to be noisily rattled and brandished around the globe. Women and children continue to be victimized, trafficked and abused on an industrial scale. Thousands die trying to cross the Mediterranean to find a better life. Another celebrity’s head has just rolled for “inappropriate sexual behaviour,” Matt Lauer at NBC this time. The gaunt spectre of starvation hangs over too many human beings. Despite the best intentions of good-hearted people, much of our world remains lost and weary. 

We need help. The good news is, help is on its way. 

Tomorrow is the First Sunday in Advent, the first of the four Sundays in the liturgical church calendar, reminding us that Jesus is coming again in great glory one day and to wake up and make sure we’re ready when he does. O yes, and to prepare our hearts for another merrily holy Christmas while we’re waiting. Hope, faith, joy and peace are the four bright, hopeful themes to set us up for that. 

Christianity, however, is about real people living real lives in a real world. So it is not surprising that there is another set of Advent themes to go with them—the Four Last Things; death, judgement, heaven and hell—which reflect the more sobering realities I listed above

Those themes are not just religious pessimism, darkness and gloom. They are real. We all experience them. Death comes to us all, anywhere from the moment of conception to ripe old age. Advent helps us to be ready for it. We all consider certain people (other than ourselves) are deserving of a healthy dose of God’s judgement. In the meantime, we do a pretty good job of judging one another—even, I’m ashamed to admit, in the church. Wouldn’t hurt to let Advent help to avoid that, too. Hell? Surely a loving God couldn’t even imagine such a thing. Yet, Jesus spoke of it often. While we wait, there is such a thing as hell on earth. Far too many people experience it. Even in Canadian homes. Advent helps us avoid going there. Heaven? Sounds good. Certainly better than the alternative. Worth making the Advent effort to be ready to go there when the time comes. 

Just as they all go together in a real Advent—hope, death, faith, judgement, joy, heaven, peace and hell—so they go together in a real life. That’s why the Advent journey through history and Scripture to a Saviour is so valuable. It reminds us of the Advent, presence and eventual return of someone with the power to both save us from those dark realities and fill us with peace and joy of heaven itself. Jesus. 

Friday, 1 December 2017

The Litany: the Holy Spirit in the Prayer Book—Part 9

From the Fall 2017 edition of Anglicans for Renewal Canada magazine. Subscribe to a print or digital version here

On page 30 of our Book of Common Prayer (BCP) you will find THE LITANY which is five pages of prayerful goodness. If ever there was a prayer that covers all the bases, that prays up one side and down the other of the Christian life, it is THE LITANY, “Which may be sung or said before the Holy Communion;” according to the BCP rubrics, “or after the Creed at Morning or Evening Prayer, instead of the remaining part of the Service; or as a separate service, with Hymns, a Psalm, a Lesson, the Creed, and a Sermon, at the discretion of the Minister.” I’m sad to say, other than using it (there is a Book of Alternative Services version, too—p138) as the Intercessions or Prayers of the People on the First Sundays of Lent and Advent on a few occasions, I’ve never experienced or used THE LITANY in that way, or as the rubrics also require, “The Litany should always be used at least once a month on a Sunday, and is commended for use on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Rogation Days.”

The first reference to the Holy Ghost in THE LITANY comes in the opening thoroughly Trinitarian invocation of Divine Mercy upon us all. 

O God the Holy Ghost, Sanctifier of the faithful: have mercy upon us.

Indeed! It is the Holy Spirit, the promised Helper, Comforter, Advocate and Guide who sanctifies—sets apart, makes holy—and is an agent of God’s great mercy. How does he sanctify us? He teaches us all things and brings to our remembrance all that Jesus said (John 14.26) The more we learn and remember, the holier we can be. 

We do need to engage, however. Some people can do it extemporaneously. They are able to worship, read Scripture daily and to pray, Holy Spirit led, in such a way as to cover all the necessary bases and without focussing too much on their own concerns and biases. I’m not one of them. I need some form of Prayer Book and lectionary framework to take me out of myself and into the vast and divine reaches of the sanctification that only comes from the barely apprehensible mystery who is the Triune God. Using that framework the Holy Spirit exposes me to all of Scripture, not just the pieces I enjoy and he teaches me and brings Jesus to my remembrance throughout because there is the reading from one of the gospels every single day. I know how easy it would be for me to miss him if I were to run down the bunny trails of my own self absorption. 

And so, having invoked the glorious Trinity, we pray that God will not remember our sins, nor those of our forefathers, and that we will be spared their toxic effects. It would be easy to slide on by the reference to our forefathers as being a mere antiquated formality. But it is one of the many brilliant details to be found in Prayer Book prayer and very much worth a pause. Almost all of us labour to some extent under the toxic effects of the sin of our families of origin—generational sin, some call it—such as idolatry, sexual sin, rebellion, addictions, broken relationships. I know I do. And I know that I, unwittingly, have passed that toxicity on to my children. THE LITANY reminds me to pray for The LORD, in his mercy, to defuse any sinful effects coming down through my family which entangle me and that I may be passing on to my children—thus enabling the Holy Spirit's sanctifying and life-giving work.  

We then prayerfully recite the things that The Father did to deliver us (p31) including 

By thy glorious Resurrection and Ascension; by thy sending of the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit was sent to fill us with all the fullness of God as he teaches and reminds us of Jesus and as he helps and empowers us to be faithful, effective witnesses of the Resurrection. The Holy Spirit was sent by The Father and so are we. In THE LITANY we also pray:

To send forth labourers into thy harvest; to prosper their work by thy Holy Spirit; to make thy saving health known unto all nations; and to hasten thy kingdom, 
We beseech thee, good Lord. (BCP, p32)

Be honest. Who still prays that regularly? Yet Jesus himself  exhorts his disciples to pray it and to pray it earnestly (Mt 9.37, Lk 10.2). There is work to be done and a key component of that work is to pray a prayer that Jesus specifically called his disciples to pray. The faithful, regular and frequent use of such tools for prayer provided by the Prayer Books as THE LITANY is a good way of getting the job done. And if we pray what Jesus asks us to pray in this way, will our Heavenly Father not give the Holy Spirit to prosper our work, make his saving health and faith known to the nations and hasten the coming of his kingdom (Lk 11.13)? 

The good news is that LORD promises not to leave us helpless orphans in this endeavour. THE LITANY invokes his good grace:

To give to all thy people increase of grace, to hear meekly thy Word, and to receive it with pure affection, and to bring forth the fruit of the Spirit, 
We beseech thee, good Lord. (BCP, p33)

“Thy people” is us. His Church. God’s grace, says James Ryle, is his empowering presence to be who he made us to be and to do what he calls us to do. Dallas Willard writes that God’s grace enables us to do things that we are not able to do on our own—things like pray and read the Scriptures every day, to hear them with the ears of our hearts, receive them with that pure affection (a lovely prayer book phrase), and to bring forth the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5.22)—surely the very best way to make the Father’s saving health known to all nations and to hasten the coming of his kingdom!

As THE LITANY draws to a close we ask The LORD to forgive those who wish us harm and, 

To give us true repentance; to forgive us all our sins, negligence, and ignorances; and to endue us with the grace of thy Holy Spirit, to amend our lives according to thy holy Word.
We beseech thee, good Lord. (BCP, p34)

Sin, negligence and ignorances—not much can escape that matrix. More grace. More Holy Spirit. To amend our lives according to God’s living-and-active (Heb 4.12), not-going-back-to-him-empty, accomplishing-his-purpose, succeeding-in-the-things-for-which-he-sent-it (Isa 55.11) and holy Word. 

What we’re praying for in all the above is for the Holy Spirit to be made manifest—made obvious, demonstrated—as the faithful are sanctified; as all come to know that the Holy Spirit was sent by the Father; as the work of the harvest labourers prospers; and as the fruit of the Spirit and grace abound. 

And all for building up the church (1 Cor 14.12). Amen. 


Sunday, 12 November 2017

Common Prayer: Medicine Hat Catholics and Lutherans Commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation—an Homily

Jesus must be the first word out of my mouth as I speak to you this afternoon—Jesus, the first and living Word—capital W (John 1.1), the Name above all Names (Phil 2.9). Jesus is our shared Saviour and Lord. Jesus is our shared imperative, our distinctive, our centre. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, the life, our hope, our peace, our salvation, and, as we were just reminded in the reading from John 15, our true vine (John 15.1) in to which we were all grafted in our baptism (another thing we share, by the way). Let’s worship him…

O Come Let Us Adore Him
We’ll give You all the glory
For You Alone are Worthy. 

The Reformation. Picture, if you will, a 500 year old theological minefield, dotted here and there with great names and events, great joys and accomplishments, great sorrows and tragedies. And a little group of Catholics and Lutherans gather here on the edge of it here in Medicine Hat and say to each other, “Who will venture out onto that minefield to speak to us on November the 12th?” I know, let’s send an Anglican! Anglicans are expert at navigating through theological minefields. They’re so polite! And, if he is unfortunate enough to step on one of those mines, none us will be hurt and we won’t have to be mad at each other. So, here I am. 

I am honoured beyond words to have been asked to address you in name of Jesus, our shared Lord and Saviour—you are both parental denominations for us Anglicans. Catholic and Protestant. We like to think we Anglicans got the best of both your worlds. You guys went at it for a time, we joined in here and there depending on Henry VIII’s marital status at the the time, and whether the Queen was Mary or Elizabeth, (that was the conflict part of the journey) then, after the dust had settled, we moved in and helped ourselves to your best bits. And we Anglicans have been, as some have said (rather unkindly, I thought) loving Jesus with a slightly superior attitude ever since. We consider ourselves to be Catholic, only English Catholic rather than Roman Catholic. And Protestant—Thomas Cranmer drew, too, from Luther and the other reformers when he composed our Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The via media—middle way between Catholicism and Lutheranism—Queen Elizabeth I called us. 

I’m not going to talk about the conflict part of the Reformation this afternoon. It happened. There was goodness in it and there was not. Whenever the Spirit moves, so do the World, the flesh and the devil, usually in opposition and mayhem. God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, has and will continue to redeem it in the power of the Holy Spirit—that we are here this afternoon working on bringing communion out of the conflict attests to that. 

I’m more concerned about what we do now, 500 years later. How shall we know Jesus more clearly, love Jesus more dearly and follow Jesus more nearly here and now, in the time and place the vinegrower chose to place us—Catholics, Lutherans, (and I’m going to include Anglicans and all the rest)—followers and worshippers of Jesus all—divided and yet, one.

Jesus tells us. Even in the few verses I read from John, chapter 15, there is much to mark, learn and inwardly digest. First, this reminder: Jesus is the True Vine (John 15.1). There can only one True Vine—sola vinea. In other words, through Jesus come all the nutrients we need to stay alive as Church and individuals. That’s good. I like that. And I like the image of God the Father as the vinegrower that comes with it, I can picture him wandering through the vineyard with his watering can, (not bothering to pull the weeds, of course, the Bible says they should be left until the final harvest)—the breeze of the Holy Spirit riffling his hair, the leaves on the vines gently swaying—a lovely pastoral image—Lutherans and Catholics all together in the sunshine being lovingly tended and looked after. 

As the butterflies flutter and the bees buzz, Jesus continues, 
My Father removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. (V2)
Here’s where we venture out on to that minefield I mentioned earlier. Did Jesus have denominations in mind when he used the branches image? Some Catholics thought for a while (maybe some still do) that, because of the Reformation, us Protestants were “removed” from the true vine—and some Protestants thought the same of them. It’s got to stop! Removal didn’t, and won’t, happen because, and as long as, we’re still on the Jesus vine—despite our differences—and we’re still bearing fruit, not as much as the vinegrower would like, perhaps, but bearing. Which brings me to where I have take another step in that minefield.   

Pruning—the root of the Greek word here refers to pruning and cleansing. There has been and there will continue to be pruning—often with sharp things which can seem unreasonably painful at the time. But we all need it. The abundant life which comes to us through Jesus, the one true vine, comes so we will bear fruit in witness and service. That’s the point of the true vine having branches like us. 

What’s fruit for? Reproduction. How does that work? Fruit is usually sweet and a delight to the eyes (Gen 3.6). Why? So people and animals will eat it and the seeds will be distributed so new plants will grow and more fruit produced (No need to go further with that idea just now). Our Father , the vinegrower, wants us to be sweet and tasty so the people around us will be drawn to taste and see how good the LORD is (1 Peter 2.3). How do we get sweet and tasty? 

“Abide in me,” Jesus said, “as I abide in you.” Abide—remain; stay; reside; wait for; continue to exist; keep on—in Jesus. Abiding in Jesus is the essence of the post-conflict communion upon which you’re working. We’re none of us sweet enough on our own. For, 
4 …Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
How shall we abide in Jesus, so? 

We present ourselves to be fed from the one true vine at Holy Eucharist. Regularly and frequently. That’s something we all do. I’m sorry we’ve painted ourselves into some awkward corners which prevent us from doing that together—for now. The day will come. We’ll either work it out, or the LORD will make it happen miraculously. 

We, all of us, have rich traditions of daily prayer and Bible reading. All we have to do is use them. Take hold of that which it truly life (1 Tim 6.19)! Savour the sweetness of our Saviour in Scripture and prayer! That is our life-line through which we abide in and feed on Jesus, the one true vine, and are sweetened up for the sake of those around us. Worship, read and pray for unity, for winsome and irresistible witness and for service that is sweet and shining with the light of Jesus. 

Do it as individuals—from now on to mark this anniversary, or for Advent and Lent. Do it in community. Like this. There are other stirrings, too. I was at a gathering at Victory Lutheran on a Tuesday evening a couple of weeks ago where a group of Lutherans, Catholics, Pentecostals and an Anglican prayed for revival and reformation in our city. 

Another thing. In your, and our, common witness, service and growling unity, I think we all need to be more intentional about using his name, Jesus. In this post-Christendom, post-modern age, we can no longer just let the name of Jesus be implied in what we say and do. There is power in it. We need to develop the habit of using his name, Jesus, in our lives and conversations, to wield it as what it is, the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (Eph 6.17). 

You might have to work at it at first. A good place to start could be to prepare an answer for the time when someone asks you why you go to mass? Think up a response which uses his name. For example, “I meet Jesus there and he feeds me.” Consider how you could turn that into an invitation. Why do you bother reading the Bible someone might ask? “Because, just like Martin Luther said, ‘the Bible is the cradle in which Christ is laid.’ The Bible brings Jesus to me.” Why would you bother shoveling my driveway? “Because Jesus loves you and I follow him.” If you’re really brave, you can add, “If you’d like to know more about Jesus, I’d love to have you come to church with me as my guest!”

The thing is, you have all you need. Your abiding in Jesus, the one true vine, happens in and draws on a wonderful, long, rich, tradition of faithful saints—giants of the Christian faith—running all the way back to Jesus himself. Men and women of deep prayer and simplicity, mystics, martyrs, people of great learning. Feed on Jesus through them. Allow his sweetness to infuse and transform you, but don’t just sit there. Bear witness. Find ways to serve and bless. 

Finally, something Bishop Henry, the last Roman Catholic bishop of Calgary told us Anglican clergy at a conference once. “If you’re saved, inform your face!” As you bear your common witness and serve others, smile! Jesus is the best news in the world. 

And now I will finish as I began, with the one who is our one true vine, without whom we can do nothing, the one with the sweetest and the most beautiful Name there ever was. Jesus.