Sunday, January 12, 2020

Baptism of Jesus

Matthew 3
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

“Never put a period where God has placed a comma.”

This wonderful quote comes from the late Gracie Allen, part of the comedy duo Burns and Allen, along with her husband George Burns. When Gracie died in 1964, the quote “Never put a period where God has placed a comma” was found in her papers, as a message for George. George, it turns out, would live another 32 years and take her advice to heart, reinventing himself and entertaining people to nearly up to his 100th!

Years later, when the United Church of Christ went looking for a motto, they took inspiration from Gracie Allen’s words. The motto said “God is Still Speaking” and adopted the comma as the unofficial symbol for the denomination. Even today you will see United Church of Christ congregations with a giant comma on their church sign, or as a graphic on their website. And while it is hard to measure the effectiveness of a motto or an ad campaign, the words “God is Still Speaking” certainly became part of the identity of the church.

And the idea itself didn’t appear out of nowhere. One of the “founders” of the United Church of Christ (and an indirect founder of our own denomination) was the Rev. John Robinson. He ministered to the Pilgrims before they left for America, and blessed them on their way saying “There is yet more truth and light to break forth from God’s holy word.” In other words, God is still speaking, and therefore we use a comma rather than a period.*

I share all this because of the voice of heaven found in the passage Bob read, the moment that Jesus emerges from the water, and a dove descends, and we hear the words “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” It is the conclusion of the baptism of Jesus narrative, and it follows that moment of dissonance that we’ll ponder in a moment or two. For now, we need to remain with these words from heaven, and the whole topic of divine silence.

It is a favourite motif among preachers that these words mark a significant shift, God breaking the silence that had lasted 400 years. And the logic seems simple enough: the Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi, the last prophet before “the long silence” that is only broken in the New Testament. There is even a name for the period, most often described as “intertestamental,” the 400-year timeline represented by the last page of one testament and the first page of the next.

Sadly for preachers, it’s not that simple. While our Bibles may go charging from Malachi to Matthew, Roman Catholic Bibles include the Apocrypha, with books like Judith, Tobit, and the Book of Wisdom. And then there is the Pseudepigrapha, which Carmen will be happy to tell you about over coffee, and then there are the Dead Sea Scrolls, which Carmen will be really happy to talk to you about over coffee.** It seems God had lots to say during this so-called 400 years of silence, God simply said it in other (non-canonical) ways.

And the events don’t bear this out this silence idea either. Back in December our Jewish friends celebrated Hanukkah, the festival of lights that began in the intertestamental period. When the Maccabees retook control of the Temple (164 BC) they reconstituted it for worship and relit the lampstand, even though they only had enough oil for one evening. Miraculously, the lamp burned for eight nights, time enough to find more oil (and inspire the festival of lights, already being celebrated at the time of Jesus). Indeed, the only reason Jesus is able to be presented in the Temple at all, is through God’s activity during the Maccabean revolt.***

So God was still speaking. God was speaking through priests as they reconsecrated the Temple in 164, God was speaking through the translators who gave us the Greek Old Testament, and God was speaking through the community at Qumran (again, ask Carmen over coffee—it’s gonna be a long coffee hour). God was still speaking through Anna and Simeon as they blessed the infant Jesus, and God was still speaking through John the Baptist—calling people into the wilderness to accept a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

And then God spoke again, saying “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” But before I say more, I promised you some dissonance—maybe embarrassment is a better word—as Jesus is baptized by John. We are supposed to raise our eyebrows over this turn of events, something John points to when he says “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me.” It does seem quite reversed, God’s incarnation seeking baptism by John. But Jesus has the answer for this, saying, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” So John consented.

“All righteousness” simply means in a manner that would please God,” or in a way that reflects the ministry that will follow. In the way of Christ, the least become the greatest, enemies become friends, and the face of Christ appears in others, particularly those in need of redemption. Jesus gets in line with all those seeking a baptism of repentance, not because he is sinful, but because he wants to walk beside them each day. This is the son in whom God is well-pleased, the one who is willing to stand with the sinful and the broken, receiving the baptism they receive, and returning only love.

And this takes us back to the comma where we began. But before we consider the ways in which God is still speaking, I want to share a story from school. When we arrived in Chicago for our preaching programme, we were told to pick a college to affiliate with, owing to the fact that the United Church of Canada is not represented among the Chicago seminaries. We (me and Jimmy) picked the United Church of Christ college, and when we were asked why, we pointed to their progressive approach to things, including LGBT matters, such as same-sex marriage. Our United Church of Christ hosts had a bit of a giggle, and said “well, that’s true of course, but we’re congregationalists.”

And when they said congregationalist, they meant it in the most positive light. We tend to use it as an insult, like saying “that church is too congregationalist—they ignore the wider church.” But in fact, congregationalism is a tradition and a worldview, one that says you are responsible for the worshipping life of this congregation, you get to pick your own minister (thanks for picking me!) and you get to decide how you will express your outreach to the community.

It means that when we say “God is still speaking,” we say it in the local sense. This is not a matter for church courts or denominational statements, this is a question of how we listen for God—here and now—and how we share what we hear. And as denominations fragment and decline, it becomes more important than ever to do our local listening and speaking—recognizing that congregations are the primary expression of God’s love and mercy.

Knowing that God is still speaking, what is God saying? Let me be bold and suggest a few things. First, God is speaking through global citizens, those who speak for the health of our planet and the world God made. Also, God is speaking through those who speak out, naming the mayhem caused by dangerously inept leaders, and decisions that cause harm to the innocent.

Next, God is speaking through those who truly have a heart for this community: activists and volunteers, members of the arts community, and small-business owners who first took a chance on the new Weston. Some day, when the last payday lender closes, we won’t thank governments (who have never properly taken up the issue) but rather the entrepreneurs who were willing to fill the same spaces with proper businesses.

Next, God is speaking through those who are searching for meaning. Many of our neighbours struggle to pay rent or maintain a mortgage, raise kids in a challenging time, or simply ward off the despair that comes everyday in the newspaper. But underneath that they ponder meaning, and look for hope. And our task is to listen as God tries to speak through them, and point to the compassion of Jesus and the gift of fellowship.

Finally, God is speaking through us. God speaks when we say a kind word, when we argue for love or mercy, when we stand with the oppressed. God is still speaking, and describing Jesus, with whom God is well-pleased. Amen.

*Rev. Larry Reimer, May 7, 2006.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Epiphany Sunday

Ephesians 1.3-14
11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.

There are no ropes on a boat.

There are lines, there are sheets, there are halyards, but there are no ropes on a boat. Maybe power boats have ropes, but how would I know? Ignoring that question, I want you to go home today understanding that there are no ropes on a boat.

Mostly it’s a way to torment new sailors. They will innocently point to something that in their mind resembles a rope and maybe ask a question like “what does that rope do?” and we give the standard response. There are no ropes on a boat. There are lines, there are sheets, there are halyards, but there are no ropes on a boat.

It’s not that we’re being difficult—okay, maybe a little difficult—we’re simply doing that sailors have done since the ark cast off (lifted off?), and that is to introduce people to the complexity of the thing they seek to learn. And it takes time. Everything on the boat has multiple names as well: jib, jenny, genoa, foresail or blade (that’s five) for that sail at the front that’s not the spinnaker—that’s the one that looks like a balloon dragging the boat.

Clearly we are at the midpoint between last racing season and the season to come. But that’s not why I share all this. I share all this because there are always things that are foreign to us, but known to others. Or things that we know well, but completely foreign to others. Like, for example, going to church. So far today it’s narthex, greeting, bulletin, pew, prelude, announcements, peace, prayer, hymn, get the picture. And if you give this list to someone who has never come to church before, you might lose them at narthex and say a bunch of other words that don’t make a lot of sense with the exception of announcements. Everyone understands announcements.

Now, this isn’t an evangelism sermon (not yet), I simply want you to understand the extent to which we are engaging in a slightly complex endeavor that will be unfamiliar to most. Actually, it’s slightly less than slightly, but I don’t think there is a word for that, so we’ll go with slightly. It’s not complicated like sailing, but it’s certainly unfamiliar (to many) in the same way.

So what do you do? Some churches have tried to eliminate “insider language” like narthex, and opted for lobby instead. And I guess that’s okay, but part of the joy of joining something and having a new experience is learning. It’s certainly part of the appeal of sailing— twenty years later I know that I have barely scratched the surface—and that makes it more engaging for me, not less.

And if you take away all the insider or churchy words that describe rooms and rituals, can you stop there? What about words related to faith and belief, do you take them away too? Grace, redemption, salvation—are these words too churchy? I expect few would want to ditch grace, even though it’s an insider word that describes God’s unconditional love for us. It’s part of the learning curve of faith, as is the word faith, now that I mention it.

Speaking about faith, one of the ways we learn the faith is through reciting creeds (we will recite our creed next week) or memorizing a catechism. A catechism—now that we’re confronting churchy words—is a form of instruction, usually in a question-and-answer format. If you learn a catechism, you are engaged in catechesis. The adjective is catechetical (you undertake catechetical instruction), which is not only fun to say, but an important step in a life of faith.

So why have we arrived at catechetical instruction, of all places? Well, because Ephesians said we should. St. Paul (or more likely someone writing in Paul’s name) wants to tell us about predestination, unity, and glory, more or less in that order, and he wants us to understand how unique we are—with something that is available to everyone. So let’s do first things first.

No one is predestined to win $70,000,000 on Tuesday, but buying a ticket will increase your odds—but not by much. Predestination doesn’t work that way, because if it did, we could point to any misfortune and say ‘that was their destiny,’ it was meant to be. In fact, it’s more complex than that. Misfortune, and even good fortune, comes from a melange of external factors, sheer randomness, and the choices we make in life with the ever-present gift of freewill. We live in the tension between God’s control over our lives, and the extent to which we live in a complex collusion of human factors.

So what does Ephesians say? First, we are called to praise the God who chose us “before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” In other words, this is our destiny: to be holy and blameless. And just to be clear, he says it again: “In love, he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.” It is God’s desire (God’s will) that we be God’s children—not just to reflect what God wants, but for God’s pleasure.

In other words, we have been adopted as God’s children—this is our destiny—that we might be holy and blameless in the same way Jesus is holy and blameless. It brings God great pleasure to have this bond with us—in Christ, and to each other. And not just us, but all people, because there is no limit to this potential bond. And this takes us to unity, and what we are destined to experience together. Let’s listen again:

With all wisdom and understanding, God made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

Again, reaching our destiny gives God pleasure, but in this case it’s a larger project than adoption, maybe the largest project of all—the end of time. Jesus prayed and said “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” and his goal was unity, “unity to all things” in this world and the next. It is, therefore, God’s desire (and our destiny) that this realm and the heavenly realm be one, and we each experience the unity this implies.

The question that follows, of course, is what do we do in the meantime? What do we do while we wait for the fulfilment that will come at the end of time? And for that answer, we need some catechism. Perhaps the most famous (in our Presbyterian tradition) is called the Westminster Shorter Catechism, originally written for the instruction of children. This is perhaps why it’s so profound, profound in it’s clarity and simplicity. And the author of Ephesians would approve. The first question is all we need:

Q: What is the chief aim of humanity?
A: To glorify God and enjoy God each day.

It’s certainly simpler than the difference between lines, sheets, and halyards, and that is no accident. The first question of the “shorter” catechism is meant to stick with you, to live in your heart and mind, to challenge and guide in the face of the everyday. So taken in reverse, do you enjoy God everyday? It is actually a tough question, but one worth pondering. If half of my purpose in life is to enjoy God each day, how will I do it?

Giving thanks—that’s a great place to start. It’s not the obligatory “thank you” that your mother made you say, but the ‘Thanks!” that you spontaneously say when someone does something really thoughtful for you, when you are really enjoying the gift. And then there is wonder, the enjoyment we find in the people we love, or the things we treasure, or the time we have been given. And then there is the mystery: enjoying God’s grace, the inexplicable, inexpressible, and often undeserved love God has for us.

And to glorify God? First, we glorify God by living well, reflecting God’s glory in what we say and do. And second, we glorify God because God deserves our praise. The author of all that is, the source of love and mercy, the light of the world—our words fail to express the glory that surrounds us. And so, we become students of glory, seeking examples of God’s glory and seeking ways to express that glory. All in the light of Jesus the Christ.

Chosen, adopted, destined—we seek to unify heaven and earth, and in doing so, give God the glory, now and ever. Amen.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

First Sunday of Christmas

Hebrews 2
11 Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.[g] 12 He says,
“I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the assembly I will sing your praises.”[h]
13 And again,
“I will put my trust in him.”[i]
And again he says,
“Here am I, and the children God has given me.”[j]
14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. 16 For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants.

Goodbye, second decade of the twenty-first century, whatever you are.

I don’t even know what to call it. The ought-teens? The twenty-teens? The awkward teen years—that seems closer to the mark. The truth is we tend to need some distance on a time before we can fully affix a name to it. Did people know they were in the middle of the Me Decade in the middle of the Me Decade? Tom Wolfe told them in 1976, pointing out that communitarian vision of the 1960s was being set aside in the 70s in favour of greater individualism. But did people see it? And can they see it now?

Some thinkers have taken the longer view, defining entire ages and eras in an effort to add some perspective. So, for example, a couple of scholars coined the term “the long nineteenth century,” (Ehrenburg and Hobsbawm) arguing that the 1800s really began in 1789 (the French Revolution) and ended in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War. In other words, the last years of the 1700s and the first years of the 1900s had more in common with the 1800s, and therefore properly belong to them.

Having settled that, what about the last century? Let’s assume for a minute that it began in 1914, and ended on 9-11. So that would be war, more war, American hegemony, and the end of the world we knew—as the Age of Terror began. Alternately, you could argue that the last century began in 1914 and ended in 2016 with the election of you-know-who. In that model, it’s war, more war, American leadership, and the sudden end of American leadership. My son makes the technological argument, suggesting that the century began at Kitty Hawk (1903) with the first powered flight, and ended with the rise of Facebook (2008? 2010?), the technological advance that ruined everything. But don’t think about that now, wait and discuss it over coffee.

So whatever we call these times, and however we measure them, there are some themes that stand out. Bob Johansen, who has the unlikely title “Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for the Future” says the era we live in is VUCA, meaning volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. The precise origin of this idea seems unclear, but there is little denying that we are experiencing all four.

Our world is volatile, meaning things change rapidly and then they change again, and nothing seems settled anymore. It’s uncertain, meaning you can no longer predict outcomes, and what you think you know, you don’t really know anymore. It’s complex, meaning that a variety of things are happening at once, and older examples of cause-and-effect no longer seem to hold. And finally, it’s ambiguous, meaning there is some confusion over the nature of reality itself.

Clearly this is going to be the longest coffee time ever, or you’ll just let it go and ponder the weather instead. Tomorrow’s high is six and rain is a virtual certainty—if we can still trust the weather forecast to be true. But it’s still going to be VUCA, volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, because that’s the age to which we belong. And somehow, we need to decide what the church can offer the world we live in, recognizing that we’re experiencing our own version of VUCA at the same time.

So let’s take those in reverse, and look at the VUCA church first. We covered a bit of this territory back on Anniversary Sunday, so I won’t say too much, except to note that everything is changing, that we can’t predict the outcome, that cause-and-effect has gone out the window, and that the reality of our situation seems to be a matter of debate. It might be enough to say that mainline Protestants are on the cusp of a meaningful conversation when it comes to the future, and we shouldn’t add to the VUCA by ignoring reality.

So back to the first question: what can the church offer a world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous? Three things, in fact, but first we need to hear again from the author of Hebrews. I say ‘author of Hebrews’ because the author is unknown. It is written in the style of St. Paul, and certainly takes some inspiration from Paul, but the church has agreed from the earliest days that this belongs to some other author.

Hebrews is a demanding letter. It asks us to “to enter into full maturity as God’s children,” and be “transformed by the suffering that comes from obedience” to the Gospel.** We are called to follow Jesus, whom the author of Hebrews calls a “reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” (1.3) In many ways, it resembles John’s Gospel, unapologetic in it’s high sense of Christ and his place in our life together.

The passage that Kathy shared is a prime example of the Hebrews-way. It quotes Psalm 22 and Isaiah 8, not saying “the scriptures say,” but rather “God says…” Scripture becomes testimony and describes our place in this unfolding vision. In this passage, God is determined to help us see our relationship to Christ, as his brothers and sisters, and as children of the Most High. And further, he underlines the humanity of Jesus, dying the death we die, so that we might be freed from the power of death.

So I promised three things that the church can offer in this age of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. And we turn to Hebrews for help, because Hebrews does a remarkable job of mirroring the clarity we find in Jesus. The early church, like the church of today, found itself surrounded by misunderstanding and indifference. It fell to the early writers—the gospel writers, St. Paul, and the author of Hebrews—to confront this worldview and make the counter-argument. So what did they offer?

The first was the certainty of community. In the most primitive form this was a congregation, two-or-three or more gathering in Jesus’ name. They had each other, and they understood that there were many more who would find a place in their fellowship. For the poor—both poor and poor in Spirit—the message of new life in Christ was uniquely compelling. And this new life begins in community, fellow-travellers on the road to God.

The next was the gift of simplicity. We are brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. We are God’s children. God sent Jesus to share our humanity, to experience what we experience—joy and sorrow—and to follow the human way to the death that ends when Jesus makes an end to death. We no longer need to fear death, because death’s grip on us is no more. This simple and profound message was shared and quoted and commended until it finally took hold, and that leads to our final point.

The final thing the church can offer in this age of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity is truth, or rather, the reality of truth, the belief that there are things that are profoundly knowable, things that transcend this age and every age and point to the one who named himself “the way, the truth and the life.” Pilate famously asked “what is truth?” an unbelieving question that also belongs to every age. But we say “He is the visible image of an invisible God” and “I know that my redeemer lives, and that at the last he shall stand upon the earth.” God safeguards our past, our present and our future—protecting all of time from the trial of spiritual ambiguity.

We praise the “reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being,” and we follow in his way. We surround each other, we shelter the simple message of new life, and we share truth: he shared our humanity so we might share his glory, Amen.

**Interpretation, Luke Timothy Johnson

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Christmas Eve, 11 pm

Last year’s Christmas Eve afternoon was pretty typical for my buddy Jeff. He was putting the last touches on a trio of services— late afternoon, early evening, late evening—and getting everything in order for the normal Christmas Eve crowd, usually in the neighbourhood of 2,000 worshippers.

He was busy doing whatever ministers do in churches like that, on Christmas Eve, when the power failed. In the fading light of the afternoon it soon became obvious that this was a large outage—it seemed like much of his part of the city was suddenly in the dark. Luckily the phone still worked—good old land line—so he called the power company, wondering when to expect power on that night of nights.

“Yes, we know the power is out,” came the answer. “It was a planned outage—it will last several hours.” It turns out the power company intentionally chose Christmas Eve believing that no one would be affected. After all, businesses close on Christmas Eve. I don’t exactly remember how Jeff convinced them to put the power back on—having the mayor as a member of the congregation may have helped—so the power was restored.

I think it’s a good story for a couple of reasons. First, it gives you a glimpse of the sort of things ministers have nightmares about—that and forgetting my shoes. Second, it gives you a sense of how the world has changed. It seems that no one at the power company thought about Christmas Eve services, at the very big church, literally across the street from City Hall.

And I’m going to argue that that’s a good thing. Back when everyone was Christian, and knew that Christmas Eve was a big deal at the church, many of the words we shared and songs we sang lost their power. When everyone knows a story, it can tend to lose its power. When angels speak to maidens and when the Holy Spirit overshadows them and when Mary sings to magnify the Lord—these become familiar to us and can lose the power to provoke or compel.

But in the new world we are entering, where the church is at the edge rather than the centre, the words and stories become less known or even unknown, and regain their power when shared for the first time. Case in point, the Magnificat:

The Lord has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered the proud
in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever.

Our work is to listen with new ears, listen as the world might listen, hearing these words for the first time. This is more that hope expressed by an expectant mum—she is a young revolutionary, plotting with God to change everything. God chose Mary to speak these words, to launch action that would change everything. And now that these words are no longer domesticated, no longer captive to the old order, they can speak once more.

May we hear with new ears, and magnify the Lord once more. Amen.

Christmas Eve, 7 pm

Luke 2
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

You could argue he was the Most Interesting Man in the World.

Long before Dos Equis and satirical advertising, there was Isaac Watts: father of English hymnody, a gifted theologian, and a noted thinker in the area of logic. Taken in reverse, Watt’s book on logic became the standard textbook for a century, and was followed by another influential book, The Improvement of the Mind, bridging logic and morality. Michael Faraday, inventor of both the electric motor and the electric generator, cited Watts as a key influence.

In theology, he was both a non-conformist and a bridge-builder, trying the draw together orthodox believers and Deists, those who believed that God was some sort of cosmic clockmaker who set the world in motion and then stepped away.

But his lasting legacy is in the area of hymn-writing: Jesus Shall Reign, Our God, Our Help in Ages Past and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross to name just three of his 750 hymns, and most famous of all, Joy to the World. His pioneering work was to move from scripture songs—hymns that simply rewrote Bible passages—to poems that described the Christian experience.

So listen again to the first verse of our first hymn, but notice the way he turns the nativity into a personal experience of the divine:

Joy to the World, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing...

In other words, you can hear the story—you can put on a wire halo, or a bathrobe and towel—but unless you prepare room in your heart for him, it’s just a good story. Further, unless earth receive this tender babe as King of Kings and Lord or Lords, the message is lost. The Lord is come in human form, the most vulnerable human form, and heaven and nature sing for the glory that will last for every age.

And it almost has an echo of the “real meaning of Christmas” question that finds its best expression in a rather famous cartoon. There is the story, found in Matthew and Luke, and then there is the meaning. We love the details, but we long for the experience—room in our hearts for generosity, for concern, and for God’s self-giving. Maybe this is why the pageant is such as an enduring tradition: it allows us to enter the story and move around, the first step toward opening our hearts.

The great irony of Joy to the World is that it wasn’t meant to be a Christmas song at all—it became one later on. Just as Handel’s Messiah was written for Easter and then become a staple of Christmas, Joy to the World was written for the Second Coming of Christ and was later adopted by Christmas. So let’s ponder the Second Coming of Christ as I remind you of some of the words:

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,

With new ears to hear, we begin to imagine the Son of Man in his glory, before him gathered the nations of the earth (Matthew 25). We know that he comes to judge the earth with righteousness, and the peoples with equity (Psalm 98). And we know that he will say come inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world—through mercy, hospitality, compassion, and generosity. These are the glories of his righteousness and the wonders of his love, and will mark the dawn of a new age.

Taken together—the gift of Christmas and the wonder of a new age—we can sing our “joy to the world,” and know that birth and second coming are one and the same. And this points to the remarkable adaptability of this night. A hymn to the new age becomes a well-loved carol. Joy and wonder turn the last days into the first day of a new creation, when heaven and earth (or nature in Watt’s telling) will sing a new song unto God.

Where else do we see the remarkable adaptability of this night? Obviously, ordinary words that we carry through the year work harder tonight, when “fear not” becomes divine assurance and “good news of great joy” brings peace to all. Certainly time changes, as we enter tonight and tomorrow. It feels like no other holiday, passing quickly for some and slower for others, but always out-of-step with ordinary time. And then there is kindness, still surprizing, still assuring, something we long for all year long.

I want to conclude with our friend Isaac Watts, and a little childhood story that illustrates the person he would become. Seems he was poetic from an early age, a poetic handful you might say, who tended to think and speak what was inside him. On one occasion, while saying his prayers, he kept opening his eyes, something contrary to the prayer discipline he was being taught. Chided, he gave this excuse:

A little mouse for want of stairs
ran up a rope to say its prayers.

Hearing enough verse for one day, his father expressed his displeasure again, and was met with this:

O father, father, pity take
And I will no more verses make.

I expect he meant it—until the next day, of course. For Watts, and indeed for the other poets that would take up the challenge of putting Christian experience to song, this was an unstoppable urge. It is the only season we enter and leave singing. From ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ to ‘Arise your light has come,’ the words animate the experience, and we are made new.

May the sounding joy of God’s love, come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, turn your prose into poetry and your words into wonder, this night and always, Amen.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Advent III

Matthew 11
2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written:
“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’[c]
11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Suddenly my son has become a cranky old man.

Oddly, the words “cranky old man” is the dictionary definition of the term ‘Dutch uncle’—just one of many English insults to our people—so I suppose you could say my son has become a Dutch uncle. See me later if you want a catalog of other insults. I keep lists.

And it’s also a case of ‘looks like my son and sounds like my son, but is it my son? His latest complaint is workmates who make a mess: don’t organize their tools, don’t clean up after themselves, and generally don’t take a lot of pride in their work.

Meanwhile, there is a certain professor who has spent the semester making the same kinds of complaints. Spelling, grammar, footnotes—I could go on—and the general sense that these young students (some as young as 17 at the beginning of the term) are struggling with the transition to adulthood.

And so the theme of this season of discontent seems to be something like ‘don’t they understand their job?’ An organized workspace is part of the job, double-checking your paper rudimentary errors is part of the job, and it would seem kvetching about others has become part of the job. Isaac’s summary of this whole conversation is “does spelling count?” To which the answer is always “of course it counts, it’s part of the job!”

Speaking of kvetching, did you hear John’s question? Before I get to that, though, I should tell you about the neutral voice in reading. When we open our Bibles, we tend to read it in a neutral voice. Adding emotion or motive slips into the realm of interpretation—always a much larger question—and so we adopt a neutral voice. Case in point, John’s question:

“Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Without looking at the full context, we tend to allow this question to stand as a question: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” But John the Baptist is the original Dutch uncle, shouting at the religious ones: accusing them of fleeing the wrath to come, suggesting that they have asked the moral equivalent of “does spelling count” and generally failing to produce the fruit that matters in the divine economy.

So when he asks the question that matters here, it might read more like “tell me Jesus—if you can—are you the one we’re waiting for, or should we start looking for someone else?” Ouch. Yet even the ouch John delivers is understandable if we recall the context of his waiting, the context of the hope that John describes in his own unique manner back at the beginning of the story:

11 “I baptize you with[b] water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

In other words, if this is the job description of the messiah, then maybe it’s time to ask Jesus when he’s doing: are you the one we’re waiting for, or should we be casting about for someone else? Now even someone with the confidence of the son of the Most High might smart a little at this question, and feel compelled to take up the challenge of a proper reply, and he does:

4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

I think you can see the tension here. John was a smart guy, a minor prophet, a leader with followers who were trying to keep a foot in the John camp and the Jesus camp. He knew exactly what Jesus was doing from the Galilee to Judea, from the early days of selecting disciples to the latter days of crowds and growing fame. He understood that there was very little winnowing happening and even less of the unquenchable fire.

Instead, we get a snapshot and a dig. The snapshot is somewhere between a travelogue and job description, a list of every kind of vulnerability and Jesus’ cure. Everything lost has been restored, every infirmity has been addressed, and the poor have received the Good News of God’s unique regard. And then the dig: “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

Now, I may be wrong here. Maybe this is not a dig at John, but it sure has all the hallmarks of a clever comeback. John’s own unique approach (“you brood of vipers”) was equal parts compelling and repulsive. I’m sure it functioned as a bit of a personality test, whether John’s preaching drew people in or drove them away. So some would have stumbled near the river, close to accepting a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, but never getting wet. Again, I may be wrong about Jesus’ rejoiner, but it seems to fit.

Now, before I return to Jesus’ job description and why this is an Advent reading, I want to take a brief trip down memory lane. When I was a child, there were a few things you knew for certain: you knew, for example, that if a Minister of the Crown made a mistake, he or she would take responsibility for the mistake and step-aside. And you knew (if you lived at my house) that Robert Stanfield was the greatest Prime Minister that Canada never had. And you further knew that the work of government was much like making sausage—you trusted in the outcome but you didn’t really want a lot of detail about how it was made.

Fast-forward to today and the world has changed. No one steps aside without being pushed. The opposition (of every stripe) is considered the enemy rather than the loyal opposition or a ‘government in waiting.’ And whatever mystery or trust that existed between the people and their government has been replaced with something called the “mandate letter.” I’m never sure if we’re supposed to read them or simply know they exist, but I guess if you want to know what the Minister of Middle Class Prosperity is supposed to do, you could read her mandate letter.

Obviously government is easy to mock, so I’ll leave them alone (for a while). But the impulse to write a mandate letter is similar to where we started: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Are you doing everything we expect you should do, or should we name someone else the Minister of Middle Class Prosperity? There is nothing new about accountability. Trust in our leaders tends to ebb and flow, but accountability remains a concern in every era.

This is why Jesus gives such comprehensive response. The job description of messiah was very subjective, and could be found in any number of texts or teachers. So Jesus decides to settle the argument before it gets out of hand: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.

And this is why we wait: we spend Advent longing for a time when everything lost is restored, where every infirmity has been addressed, and where God’s unique concern for the vulnerable becomes Gospel in our eyes. We don’t wait as the world waits, we don’t put our trust in princes or presidents or prime ministers, and we don’t long for prosperity unless it’s to prosper in forgiveness and love.

May God bless our waiting for a world made new: where hope is restored, where the last become first, and where the merciful are blessed. Amen.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Advent I

Romans 13
11 And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.

Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.

If this sounds like your last office Christmas party, you might need a new job. Meanwhile, over in the Colossian office, we get this: “fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (3.5) None of this is good. But if the question is ‘who takes the cake,’ then look no further than the Galatians, seemingly given to “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these” (5.19-21). What other things? What else is there?

If just now you trying to figure out the difference between debauchery, concupiscence, and licentiousness, let me save you some time—they all mean the same as lasciviousness. This is obviously the last time you’re coming to church without a dictionary. So what are we to make of St. Paul’s comprehensive collection of lists? What can we conclude?

I think it’s safe to say that Paul had an issue with sex, but that’s not the topic we’re looking at today. Interesting and controversial sermons are set aside for low Sundays, say the one between Christmas and New Year’s, and certainly not the first Sunday of Advent. Still, we can assume these questions were top-of-mind for Paul.

The more important conclusion is that Christians ‘in here’ are supposed to act differently than the world ‘out there.’ And we can see that more clearly if set aside all the concupiscence and lasciviousness, and go with the garden-variety sins: carousing, covetousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy. Tipsy sorcerers who angrily covet what others have, whether in a pugilistic way or not, seem to have no place in the church.

Still, I think it’s safe to assume these things were present among those who gathered in the Roman church. With a concordance and an hour we could compile a list of all the ways Paul’s flock were failing, but it might be enough to say they were human. Yes, they were saved by faith and given access to grace (5.1-2) by which they stood with Paul, but they were still human. Yes, through baptism they died with Christ and were raised to live in newness of life (6.3-4), but they were still human. And yes, all things work for good among the people who love God, called according to his purpose (8.28), but they’re still human.

And human they remain. But for today, they are Advent human, and for this we need more Paul. Just moments age we heard this:

Understanding the present time, the hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light.

In other words, we live between 'the hour has come' and the challenge of living in the present time. We have entered a liminal space, a space where the ‘soon and very soon’ meets the not yet. And how do you live in such a space? You might say the danger is implied in the season.

Another way to say ‘the hour has come’ and ‘not yet’ is Black Friday. Somehow this abomination has been thrust upon us, where the pent up desire for shopping meets Christmas gift giving, where acquisitiveness and consumption define us rather than the season of reflection we enter today. (Note, nothing I am saying applies to our pop-up market place, which begins at 12.15 in the Activity Room. Please bring small change).

Sorry, where was I? We have entered a liminal space, a space where the ‘soon and very soon’ meets the not yet. And in most ways, this describes the churches founded by Paul. Waiting for signs of Christ’s return, given to slumber and sleep, needing constant reminders about the nature of new life in Christ—all these things were happening at once. But salvation is nearer now than when we first believed, nearer as the calendar leads us ever closer to our destination.

But that doesn’t make us any less Advent human. So let’s take just one example: in my compendium of careless human behaviour, envy appears three times. In three ways: Paul warns us against envy, jealousy, and covetousness. Really, three sides of the same coin. And say something often enough, or raise a matter three ways, and it’s a safe bet it was a problem. The church in Paul’s day were mostly people at the bottom in terms of wealth and power: slaves, ex-slaves, women. These were people who might experience envy, not having to look hard for people up a rung on the ladder.

In our day, it’s a variation of the same. Impossible expectations abound, with constant reminders that somehow our affection should be proportional to the money we spend. Or we’re invited to spoil ourselves, since advertising always has a selfish subtheme. Again, we’re Advent human, because we live in the world and the world hardly seems to change.

So where is the hope? What are the signs of this new age, this age of love and mercy for which we wait? Well, the great thing about a list is the opportunity to make an anti-list, a compendium of caring or consideration:

Instead of covetousness, we covet generosity.
Instead of idolatry, we see God in others.
Instead of sorcery, we look for the magic of the season.
Instead of enmities, we imagine everyone is a brother or sister in the Spirit.
Instead of strife, we say ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all people.’
Instead of anger, we have some healthy indignation, for the inequality that only seems to grow.
Instead of quarrels, we work together for peace.
Instead of factions, we agree that unity is more important that whatever may divide us.
Instead of jealousy, we jealously guard the time we have together.

In other words: hope, peace, joy and love, the reason for the season before the season with the reason arrives once more. We carry these themes through Advent because of our humanness, themes that provide shelter, maybe a bit of a shield, and certainly the four corners of this place. Salvation is nearer now than when we first believed, described in this moment as hope, peace, joy and love.

I want to give St. Paul the last word, speaking words for waiting, words to lead us home:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit. [We] groan inwardly while we wait for adoption...for in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (8.22-25).


Sunday, November 24, 2019

Reign of Christ Sunday

Colossians 1
11 [Be] strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and [give] joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

I don’t want to go all Dan Brown in you, but we’re surrounded by powerful symbols.

Take your bulletin, for example. First notice the fold is perfect, done by a highly-qualified expert. Then look at the overall shape of the bulletin, taller than it is wide, like a window, or a book, or a portrait painting. And here is where it gets interesting: if you take one of the bottom corners and fold it to meet the opposite side of the page, you will have something that begins to resemble paper airplane—but it’s not. Next, fold the upper portion over, and then unfold. You should see that the line across the page creates a proportion of one to point-six. Taken overall, the bulletin had a patio of one to one-point-six. And this, according to everyone including Dan Brown, is called the golden ratio, or the golden mean, or what some have called it the divine proportion.

And now, without dragging you down the rabbithole of the Fibonacci and a sequence of numbers that will blow your mind, we can simply look around us and see the divine proportion. Faces have it, except for those two Russian guys arrested in connection to the impeachment investigation (Lev and Igor, if you’re following the news). You can see the divine proportion in the way the shell of a snail spirals outward, or the way sunflower seeds are arranged on the face of the flower. We live in a galaxy that takes the shape of the divine proportion, and even the double-helix of our DNA has it too. Think of a well-proportioned building, like St. Lawrence Hall at King and Jarvis. Each window has the divine proportion, 1.6 over 1. Take four of these windows, two over two, and the shape is the divine proportion. Take nine windows, arranged over three stories, and the effect is the same—the divine proportion.

Maybe your mind is blow even without discussing Fibonacci (you can google him later), but let’s add one more: the dimensions of the Ark of the Covenant, instructions given by the Most High to create the symbolic vessel of God’s presence in the tablets of Sinai—which match the divine proportion, two-and-a-half cubits by one-and-a-half cubits. And just because, one more: look up in your mind’s eye at the Creation of Adam, Michelangelo’s masterpiece, and measure. From Adam’s shoulder to the tip of his finger, then the tip of God’s finger to the tip of God’s toe—the divine proportion of one to one-point-six.

The thing about things like the divine proportion is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. The ratio between the length of your hand and the length of your forearm—it’s obviously hard to stop. Where was I? Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. Something invisible has become visible, something seemingly undisclosed has been disclosed and then cannot be hidden. St. Paul said so himself:

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

It’s such a simple thing: Jesus is the visible image of an invisible God. Want to know what God is like? Look to Jesus, before all things and in all things, the firstborn of creation. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood (Peterson).

But how does it describe Christ the King, the Reign of Christ in our time? Well, hidden in plain sight is the order of things: “whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” Students of history may wince that this point, thinking of the so-called ‘divine right of kings,’ and the kind of turmoil caused when rulers ignore the will of the people. But the verse says no such thing. The verse reminds rulers that they are uniquely obligated to follow the direction of the King of Kings—to rule his way, and follow his will.

And the letter doesn’t stop with kings and other rulers. Paul turns his attention to the church, insisting that Christ “is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.” Not the pope, not the moderator, and never the minister—Christ is the head of the body that he himself personifies. He is the ‘first born from among the dead,’ at the head of a long line of saints from the beginning down to today. When Paul begins Ephesians and Philippians with “to all the saints” he is inviting us to add our name to the list: to all the saints in Weston, God’s holy people, faithful in Christ Jesus.

And while we’re on the topic of seeing the unseen, this is still another layer of making visible the invisible, namely seeing Christ in others. See how it works? When we see Christ, we see God. When we see Christ in others, we see God. So whether we see Christ or whether we see Christ in others, we are seeing God. The visible image of an invisible God is manifest everywhere we look, and within everyone God favours—the poor who are first in the Kingdom, and those who mourn, the vulnerable, those who hunger for justice, the merciful and the pure of heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted, who are very often one and the same.

And just when the poetry of seeing God seems to have reached a conclusion, Paul says ‘just one more thing.’ And the one more thing might be what someone practical person might call ‘the point of the exercise,’ the place where this conversation is leading—and that would be incarnation:

19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

And while I said incarnation, you would be correct if you said ‘yes, but I heard atonement.’ Making peace through his blood is certainly one way to describe the way we are reconciled to God, but I think Paul is saying more. I think he is giving us two options here, two options in the face of a mystery that will only be revealed in time. This is why you only ever hear the phrase ‘atonement theory,’ because there are a few.

In one theory, Christ wins a cosmic battle over the forces of evil, bridging what separates us from the divine. In another, humanity is rightly convicted of malfeasance, but Christ pays our penalty. In yet another, the story itself, on a hill far away, is enough to turn hearts of stone to hearts of flesh for God alone. And then one more: “pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Christ, and through him reconcile all things to himself.” In other words, incarnation.

Obviously, this topic will come up more than a few times in the next few weeks. And when it does, I hope you can see what can often go unseen: God in Christ, pleased to dwell. Christ in others, blessed to reveal. And God in each of us, in some sort of divine proportion, allowing us to be Christ to one another. Amen.