As I hope you know by now I take great pride in my grandchildren. I am reminded of the baptisms of my children and my grandchildren as we gather here to mark Westonís baptism. At the last baptism of one of my grandchildren I said to the fraternal grandmother-"You know I think this is what heaven is all about. We did a pretty good job of raising up these two parents-my daughter, and her son. I think this is what Jesus was talking about when he said, the Kingdom of God is already among you."
I bring high expectations to the Baptismal font because there is such a benefit being stated by your bringing your child for baptism in this community of faith-Sean and Amy. You are saying that you wish your child to be part of this church family. You are saying that you want to be nurtured and supported and that you will share of your talents and gifts in this family of faith. And here is a family, a community that has been here for generations in Caledon, one that goes back almost 150 years. 150 years of people gathered around to name children, teens, and adults, "beloved children of God." You are also saying that you want your child to be part of the United Church of Canada, a Church known for its influence all around the world.
You see, I have never discovered a star packed with special GPS guidance in the Eastern sky. Though not so long ago I sat on a rock late in to the night in Algonquin Park with my son and saw how in the absence of human light, stars shine so bright. I have never seen the Spirit descend like a dove, or heard a divine Voice in the clouds. Though, I have had nudges and arguments with God in the night throughout my life. Iíve never watched water become wine, or seen Jesusí clothes blaze white on a mountaintop. But I know my grandchildren as beloved children, fresh from God. I have experienced the Ďthin place,í that place where the boundary between the everyday and the eternal becomes permeable-through my grandchildren who I see developing and growing in to Godís way.
My Georgetown two year old grandsonís favourite grace at the table is the Johnny Appleseed grace. He has us sing, "O the Lord is good to me and so I thank the Lord for giving me the things I need, the sun, the rain, and the Appleseed, the Lord is good to me!" And he goes to the homes of his other grandparents and asks for grace, where they have long ago given up on saying any grace and my daughter starts to sing the song. The innocence of a child, who brings thanks and a little Ďfaithí out of the cynical and jaded adults sitting there around the table.
Expectations were high for John the Baptist as well. "As the people were filled with expectation and were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he was the messiah, John answered them by saying, "No, Iím not the one and by the way when the One comes he will baptize you not with water, but with the Holy Spirit, a spirit that will be like a winnowing shovel, threshing the grain to separate the wheat from the chaff and burning the chaff in the unquenchable fire."
With our western individualistic worldview, we often assume that it is unsaved individuals, sinners, that are going to end up in the unquenchable fires. But for Jesus, and for us, baptism is not an individual event. He was baptized when all the people were baptized. He was part of the crowd that had come to hear John and who were attracted by his message. God always calls people to be a part of a community, a movement of people who are embodying Godís reign on earth, making life in this world a bit more like the life that God intends for us. So it is things like injustice, greed, poverty, inequality, war and oppression that are headed to the unquenchable fire. And it is also things like our own hatred, prejudice, assumptions, judgments and selfishness that will be burned away in the fire of the Spiritís love. As the people of God today, people who have received the baptism by the Spirit, the same Spirit that fell upon Jesus, we are the ones blessed with the expectation and responsibility of separating out the grain, lifting up and preserving all those things that bring life and healing and joy not just to us but to the world in which we live.
You may have heard of the Millennial Development Goals. They were set by global institutions like the United Nations and the World Health Organization as the past century turned over into this new one. You may not remember, as I had not remembered, that they were to be achieved by 2015. Well, here we are in 2016 and it is easy to say that our world is not better, that the good fight is being lost, but all is not lost. There were eight MDGs, which specifically sought by 2015: to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and develop a global partnership for development. Yes, poverty and hunger still exist. There is still a need for Regeneration Outreach and the food bank up at St. Andrewís. The gender roles we inherited are still restricting the potential of both men and women, we still need malaria shots and the environment is in big trouble but: but: did you know that: since 2000 -over 6.2 million malaria deaths have been prevented some because school children in Canada raised money for mosquito nets used by children in Africa.
- Globally, the number of those living in extreme poverty has declined by more than half,
- primary school enrolment in developing regions has reached 91 per cent, Many more girls are now in school
- Global under-five mortality has declined by more than half,
- Maternal mortality has declined by 45 per cent worldwide.
- New HIV infections fell by approximately 40 per cent; antiretroviral therapy (ART) prevented 7.6 million deaths
- Official development aid from developed countries grew by 66 per cent
With these successes behind them, 193 heads of state and other leaders have set new targets; the Sustainable Development Goals. The climate change agreement in Paris in December is seen as an important step towards these goals which call for social, economic and environmental action by 2030.
Just before the verses we read today, Luke said of John the Baptist that crowds were coming out to hear him, crowds that included tax collectors and soldiers, those individuals like us that were caught up in systems of injustice and violence. They asked, what can we do? John replied, share what you have, donít cheat, be satisfied with what you get. John proclaimed the Good News that evil systems can be challenged and that the small things we do, the way we as ordinary people live our lives makes a difference. In the process of proclaiming his good news he challenged, rebuked Herod, the symbol of all that was evil, and Herod ended up putting John in prison. Jesus stepped up to take his place.
After the baptism of Jesus, Luke continues with a genealogy of Jesus. It includes some righteous, holy people, but also some compromised, complicated and not always good people who lived within the same sort of sinful systems in which we ourselves live. As one commentator put it, Jesus was born from as well as into a world of systemic sin.
A friend sent me an email with a link to an article in the Washington Post. It describes a study that showed that the death rate for white middle aged Americans is skyrocketing. The main causes of death are striking: suicide, alcoholism, and overdoses of prescription and illegal drugs. People seem to be killing themselves, slowly or quickly. These deaths are usually caused by stress, depression and despair. The article goes on to say, that blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans or immigrants arenít suffering the same fate, neither are people in other developed countries that are facing the same stresses of changing economics in a changing society. One researcher concluded that the white middle class people have bought the American myth that if you just work hard you can get ahead and the American worldview that individual freedom means that everyone is responsible for their own fate. Other groups know that is not the case. We canít all do and be anything we want. Sometimes we work hard and it doesnít work out. Life happens to us. Other groups know that in times like these you need the support of family, friends, a social safety net and you need faith. Many Americans, and some Canadians, have decided that they can get along quite well by themselves. They vote for fewer taxes, less government which means fewer social programs. They work hard to save enough money for a good retirement for themselves, they share little as they go along and they certainly donít have time for a faith or for God. They donít need it. Until something goes wrong.
We see the same phenomena, I would propose in the increasing mental health issues facing our youth. They expect life to work out for them and when it doesnít they have no resilience and donít know where to find it. Society has sold us a bill of goods, individual prosperity, that just doesnít stand the test of time. Too many in our culture have bought that bill of goods, hook, line and sinker. They have nothing but me, myself and I to rely upon, to blame, or to turn to. It just isnít enough for any of us. And those people are dying!! Literally dying at increasing rates in the wealthiest country in the world.
Today, as we contemplate Jesusí baptism and renew our own commitment to God and to each other, we are acknowledging that we can make changes that bring us closer to God and Godís will for the world, but only when we work together.
When Jesus was baptized the Spirit descended on him and a voice from heaven proclaimed," You are my son, with you I am well pleased." As we begin this new year, it is important to hear Johnís voice of judgment and call for repentance, but it is more important to hear the voice of the Spirit telling us that we are loved and loving, that God is pleased with us and is counting on us to be a force in our community and our world. There are signs of Godís reign coming all around us, in the look of relief on the faces of refugees that are finally safe, in the congratulatory handshakes of world leaders who have made a commitment to each other, in the statistics that show us that progress is real and positive change is possible.
In the midst of our less than perfect world, remember that God is always with us, incarnate, Emmanuel; that Jesus came and lived our life to show us how to live Godís dream for us, and that the fire of the Spirit can inspire us to make our world a more just and caring place when we come together to live an active faith, connecting God, people and community. Amen.
Acknowledging inspiration from
Fareed Zakaria Opinion writer December 31, 2015 Washington Post
Carol Lakey Hess, Feasting on the Word Year B Vol 1