Sunday, December 02, 2018

Advent I

1 Thessalonians 3
9 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.
11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. 12 May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. 13 May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

Hands up if you have handwritten a letter.
Hands up if you have handwritten a letter in the last six months.
Hands up if your last handwritten letter was sent by text message instead.
Hands up if you long for the era of the handwritten letter but can’t bring yourself to actually write one.

While you are lost in longing, I want to remind you of some of the perils associated with the handwritten letter, relieving you—perhaps—of some of the anxiety you feel. There was a lot of steps involved: pen, paper, envelope, stamp, brisk walk, postbox, double checking the post box (admit it, we all do it) and all the uncertainty that comes with giving over your labour of love to Canada Post.

Or the hidden peril. Are you sending a card, or a postcard, or are you writing on paper? White or ivory? Paper or cotton? Fountain or ballpoint (I think you know the answer), and don’t even get me started on the envelope. In other words, if you’re writing on lined paper and using that old return envelope you saved, you might want to rethink the whole thing. Do you know their email?

Or the other hidden peril, in the actual act of writing. Pen and paper do not come with auto-correct. So you have to know how to spell. You have to consider how it looks on the page—no one likes untidy margins. And you need to know what you’re going to say, because there is no backspace key. Once you’re deep into a sentence there is no turning back—you can’t derail a train of thought without making a mess.

Yet even as I describe the somewhat facetious perils, I admire this who persist in writing notes. Yesterday, as numerous people described their relationship to the late president George H.W. Bush, they also mentioned some kind note he sent, and the fact that the note was now framed and displayed with pride and gratitude. So write that letter, even if all you have is some yellow newsprint paper with the gummy bits at the top.

I share all this because if there is a patron saint of letter writers, I sure hope it’s St. Paul. His letters make up a quarter of the New Testament, and taken together provide much of the framework for the Christian church. He was prolific, and attentive, and set a high bar for anyone who sits down to write something to promote the faith. But sometimes, we see peril. I want to reread the first line of our lesson today, and remind you what happens when you write in pen.

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?

This is when the kids say ‘awkward.’ I’m sure it sounds better in the original Greek. What we learn in a single awkward sentence is that unpolished Paul is authentic Paul, and that writing to the Thessalonians—widely considered his first letter—is an act of love.

There is a whole other sermon about writing a love letter, but for today we can rest in the knowledge that Paul loves the church in Thessalonica. And why wouldn’t he? He founded the church, along with his companions, but their stay was short-lived. He had quick success in the synagogue, among some gentiles, and as noted in Acts 17, among some prominent women of the town. But others were angry, seeing Paul and the others as a threat to the peace, so them stirred up a mob and claimed that Jesus—long dead— was trying to steal the throne of Caesar.

They were run out of town, not for the first time and certainly not the last, but there was something about his time there that prompted Paul to write. The clue, of course, is in our passage: “Night and day” Paul says, “we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.” How do we read this? On one hand we might think he has heard something or learned something about the Thessalonians and how they are conducting themselves, but I think we’re reading regret. Paul and his companions were run out of town, and whatever lesson plan they had, whatever expression of the Gospel they had mapped out was interrupted and remained incomplete, lacking in their faith.

So, filled with regret, and recognizing that time and paper are in short supply, he tries to distill his message into something that they can take in and share, something that will make up for the hasty departure and the unfinished business of making disciples. But before he can continue, he prays that God in Jesus clears the way for them to return. And then he tells them two things, first:

May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.

The church is founded on love. Yes, there was conflict at the beginning of the story of the First Church of Thessalonica, but now the church must make sure that everyone in town knows ‘they are Christians by their love,’ both within the congregation and outside the walls, whatever walls they had. Amazing that 2,000 years on, this is still the mark of a faithful church: loving one another within the walls and finding ways to make this love known beyond them.

And don’t want my words to go to your head, but Friday night was an excellent example of welcoming friends and neighbours in and showing them the power of love. One of our guests came to me gushing about the spirit in this place, and I could only smile and agree.

So Paul expresses some regret, and some love, and then he completes the circle:

May [the Lord] strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

Basically this is every Advent sermon in a single verse. We have four Sundays to prepare, one short season to strengthen ourselves, to become blameless and holy in the presence of the Living God and trust in the promise that Christ will come again. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

But there is more to this season than resisting well-loved carols with every ounce of strength we have (and fail every time, of course). There is more to this season of becoming, this season of the Not-Yet, this season when we ‘make a straight path for him,’ and prepare the way of the Lord.

The More of the season takes us back to Thessalonica and the near-riot that began in the marketplace and threatened to spread throughout the city. It happened like this: The mob was searching for Paul and his companions, going house to house, then gave up and made for the town square:

“These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here,” they shouted, “and some have welcomed them into their homes. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil.

This might be the moment to draw a fine line between factual and truthful. So let’s look at the facts of the case. Paul and his companions don’t have the means, motive or opportunity to replace Caesar and install King Jesus on his throne. It’s just not factual. Jesus was and is with the Most High, busy interceding for us, not preparing to take over some shiny palace on the Palatine Hill or any other hill for that matter.

But here is where we cross into truthful. In truth, Jesus was plotting to overthrow Caesar, both in the age when the most powerful man in the world was wandering around in purple, and in the age to come. This was a revolution, lead by revolutionaries from that day down to today. And while it wasn’t factual, King Jesus encamped outside the walls of Rome, it was certainly truthful, plotting to enter our hearts, becoming Lord of All, and eventually returning to show all the world the glory of his name.

And that brings us to today. This double celebration, preparing for God to enter our world in a new way, and preparing for Christ to return, begins in the season of purple, a wink at where this is headed. Kings and rulers can try to feel comfortable on their thrones and in their palaces, riding on Rome One or Marine One, but our hearts belong to another ruler, ever coming and already here, seeming far off but always near. Soon he will don the purple, and take his place as Lord of All. Amen.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Reign of Christ

Psalm 132
At Ephrathah we heard God's ark was there;
we found it in the region of Jaar.
'Let us approach the place where the Most High rests,
let us kneel in worship at God's footstool.'
Arise, O God, and enter your resting-place,
you and your mighty ark.
Let your priests be clothed with righteousness;
let your faithful people shout for joy. R
For your servant David's sake, do not reject your Anointed.
You made a sure promise to David,
a promise that will never be revoked:
'One of your own children I will set upon your throne.
And if they in turn keep my covenant,
the teaching that I give them,
their descendants too shall sit on your throne
in succession for ever.' R

As symbols of royal power go, this one has had a troubled history.

I’m speaking, of course, about the mace, that fancy gilded object that looks—well, like a mace—and is a symbol of the authority of the crown. It sits on a table in the center of the house, and reminds legislators that the Her Majesty (or her representative) is always present. Parliamentary fun fact: when the queen or her representative is actually there, the mace is draped with a velvet cloth, since it would be redundant to have it out.

The troubled history began during that time our town was captured by the Americans. Funny, we don’t seem to talk about it much, maybe we’re embarrassed about the defeat in April 1813, but one of the atrocities was the burning of parliament (then located on Parliament Street) and the theft of the mace. For 122 years it sat in the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, a prize of war, until FDR saw fit to return it.

Fast forward to 1849, and the replacement mace was busy serving the Parliament of the United Provinces of Canada in Montreal. Stolen by a riotous mob, it was returned. Threatened after a riotous mob burned parliament to the ground, it was saved. Moved to Ottawa when our shiny new dominion was formed, it lived a comfortable life after all that tumult only to be caught in the 1916 fire that destroyed the Centre Block, leaving the mace just a lump of gold and silver amalgam.

The great thing about symbols, though, is you can just make another one. The mace, the throne, even parliament itself can be rebuilt or replaced but the underlying authority remains. So too with the symbols of biblical kingship, beginning, of course, with the Ark of the Covenant. Constructed while the Israelites were wandering in the desert, this symbol of God’s presence became the unifying symbol during this period. It contained the shattered tablets and a pot of manna, representing God’s law and the God’s sustaining presence through bread from heaven.

When they entered the promised land, the ark led the way. The waters of the Jordan parted (more symbolism) and the feet of those who carried the ark remained dry. It was carried about the walls of Jericho seven times, leading the siege before the walls tumbled down. The ark then become an important tool of war, leading the army of the conquest, overcoming tribes and peoples until the day it did not.

Captured by the Philistines, much like our beloved mace, it became a prize of war. Apparently the Philistines didn’t have a naval academy, so the ark was toured around the land, now a symbol of the humiliation of the Israelites. Well that backfired. At Ashdod, it caused the holy statue of Dagon to fall. Outside the temple of Dagon, the people developed tumours, followed by a plague of mice, just because. Moved to Gath, then Ekron, it gave the locals boils. Moved to a nearby field, some made sacrifices before the ark, and seventy were smitten—not smitten like your first sweetheart, but smitten.

Needless to say, this particular symbol wasn’t working out for the Philistines, so they packaged it up and gave it back, return to sender. The Israelites, by this point used to fighting without the ark, sort of forgot about it. It wasn’t fully retired, but King Saul was too impatient to consult the ark or carry the ark and it began to collect dust.

Enter David. Former shepherd boy, budding poet, he quickly becomes a favourite in the king’s court, impressing Saul and befriending Jonathan, and the world seems good and pleasant. David kills the giant, and the old king begins to feel uneasy, wondering what’s next for this bright, young warrior, if it isn’t the throne of Saul himself. I’ll leave it to you to read 1 Samuel, the Bible’s own Game of Thrones, but the outcome is certain: David becomes King David, and we arrive at Psalm 132.

Power is an interesting thing. Often it’s easier to get than keep, and in maintaining to you need to have a narrative, a compelling story that becomes symbolic in its own way. And in the case of David, former shepherd boy, part-time poet, giant killer, there should be enough material to string together a myth or two that will help him maintain power. But it’s not enough.

Then he remembered the ark. Languishing in Kirjath-jearim, nearly forgotten, David decides to return it to the centre of royal power, in his new capital, a unifying (and rather convenient) symbol for the House of David. Hear the myth-making begin:

O God, remember David and all the hardships he endured,
how he swore an oath to you,
a promise to the Mighty One of Jacob.
'I will not enter my house, nor will I climb into my bed,
I will not give sleep to my eyes, not even let my eyelids droop
until I find a place for God,
a dwelling for the Mighty One of Jacob.'

Ignoring the Dr. Seuss sounding poetry, the psalmist is setting the scene, making it transactional: David will honour God by finding a home for the ark, refusing to rest until God is returned to the centre of Israelite life (and near the throne of the new king).

But it’s not enough to make promises, or bring it back, the story requires a beginning, middle and end, so we learn more:

At Ephrathah we heard God's ark was there;
we found it in the region of Jaar.
'Let us approach the place where the Most High rests,
let us kneel in worship at God's footstool.'
Arise, O God, and enter your resting-place,
you and your mighty ark.
Let your priests be clothed with righteousness;
let your faithful people shout for joy. R

The psalmist added a little Dan Brown here, ‘we heard where it was, we found it in the region of Jaar.’ The story of the moving the ark, the poor fellow smitten (not in a good way) when his hand touched the ark, David’s awkward and revealing dance—all of these details are omitted in the psalm because this is not history being written, this is myth.

My resident biblical scholar would interrupt me at this point to say that this is more than myth-making, this is a good example of rewritten scripture, taking the source material and adapting it to make a point or further an agenda. And overall, that’s what seems to be happening in Psalm 132. The story of David is being rewritten and set to song in an effort to add legitimacy to a fledgling dynasty. The psalmist has taken the long story of David, and specifically the promises God made to David in 2 Samuel 7, and turned them into propaganda (the good kind, to be sure, but still propaganda).

And just when the myth-making seems complete, and the promise of a perpetual dynasty seems sure, the psalmist does something unexpected. Remembering that in 2 Samuel God promises a ‘house and kingdom that will endure forever’ we hear this:

For your servant David's sake, do not reject your Anointed.
You made a sure promise to David,
a promise that will never be revoked:
'One of your own children I will set upon your throne.
And if they in turn keep my covenant,
the teaching that I give them,
their descendants too shall sit on your throne
in succession for ever.' R

Suddenly the psalmist is the real prophet, transforming the promise to ‘what God meant to say was ‘if they can keep my covenant, and the law’ then you can keep your throne forever. Kings shutter and governments pause because legitimacy is conditional, it requires faithfulness. What seemed like a sure thing, a perpetual throne and an eternal right is really no more than a contract after all.

At Westminster, the mother of all parliaments, the queen must wait before she can enter the Commons, the people’s house, owing to a little incident during the English Civil War when Charles I had his men enter the Commons to arrest some troublesome MPs. Today, in the robing room where the queen waits is a very unique document, framed and hanging in the wall: the death warrant of Charles I, the instrument signed authorizing his execution after harbouring the foolish idea that kings rule by divine right alone. It’s a symbol and a reminder, that parliament and the monarch are partners in our system, and must work together to serve the people.

The kingdoms of this world have everything they need to be faithful: the law and the gospels, the command to love God while loving neighbour, the words of prophets and seers in scripture and verse. All of these are known, and all of these are available. It doesn’t take a freedom of information request to know that governments know what is required of them. Seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God. Do these, and kingdoms endure, Amen.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 13
As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
2 “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
5 Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 6 Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 8 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.

When it comes to sacred sites with plumbing problems, we are not alone.

But in the case of the sisters of the Sacred Family Institute in Rome, it wasn’t a steampipe but a burst water pipe that caused general alarm, then astonishment, and now speculation among archaeologists around the world. The burst water pipe lead to a sinkhole, which opened up into a hidden chamber, which revealed several hundred non-Christian burials in an area of the catacombs that are known chiefly as an ancient Christian burial site.

So I’m waiting for some future steampipe mishap to reveal ancient catacombs beneath Weston. Actually, it’s not far from a vain hope, since we know that each building project on this site brings up the bones of the Methodist faithful who used this site as a cemetery for more than a century. Dip into our history books and you will learn about ceremonies of dedication and rededication as the same faithful were given an final final rest on the other side of the river.

I say final final rest, but maybe I should add a caveat to that, since the Christian hope is never one of eternal earthly rest, but a great and glorious day of return. We sang about it just yesterday, at the service for our beloved Dorothy, when we sang the old Methodist spiritual that explains the time to come:

When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound,
and time shall be no more,
And the morning breaks, eternal, bright and fair
When the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore,
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

Our history, of course, is rife with speculation about that great and glorious day. When will to come? What will be the signs? Mark 13 reminds us that the conversation and the speculation is happening around Jesus, among his followers, locating him and them in the apocalyptic themes found throughout the Bible Jesus read. All the prophets, major and minor, lift up this theme of new age, the new order that will follow when God moves to make all things new.

But something else is happening in Mark 13, a kind of back-to-the-future event that only reveals itself when we look at Mark’s context. It’s about AD 70. Mark sits down to write a gospel, collecting what is known about Jesus, his ministry, and most importantly, his death and resurrection.

And while he’s busy writing, he is surrounded by the most dramatic events since the ancient exile. The Jewish revolt, the Roman intervention, first seeming to fail and later to succeed in the most dramatic fashion possible, form the backdrop of a gospel to can barely conceal this context. In Mark, Jesus describes ruin of the great buildings of Jerusalem, not one stone left upon another, the temple destroyed in just three days as attested in each of the gospels.

But for Mark, it’s happening. He has taken his day and read it backward into the gospel, using this event to remind his readers that this terrible event was predicted, that it is but one sign of the new age, and that such destruction will the harbinger of that morning, ‘eternal, bright and fair.’ But there’s more.

As Mark sits down to write, Jesus has been gone for 35 years. And one by one the disciples have gone, along with many of the early believers Paul mentions in his letters. Even the great Paul has died, maybe four or maybe five years past. Some from natural causes, some caught up in the earliest persecutions, but nonetheless at rest.

The problem for Mark and the others in his era is the waiting. Jesus promised to return, to “take them to himself,” to call them home in but a little while. The “when” was not revealed, it could come even as a thief in the night, but they would not be left orphans, and he would soon return.

Well waiting, as any child will tell you, is difficult. Time seems to slow and the promise that follows the waiting begins to seem more and more remote. Some even doubted the promise, and so Mark and others feel compelled to remind them. Members of the twelve ask, “When will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” but we know this was a question in Mark’s community too, likely asked the day he put pen to paper.

So what is it and what is it not? What are the signs, and what can we expect? Whenever I’m confronted by questions that cannot be easily be answered, I retreat to the comfort of the greats, Barth and Moltmann, to name just two, towering voices of twentieth century theology. And picking up the topic of the age to come, I found this:

To apprehend the Beginning in the End (this is how Barth describes the end times)...neither should we join the sentimentalists in expecting some magnificent or terrible FINALE, nor should we comfort ourselves for its failure to appear by embracing the confident frivolity of modern protestant cultured piety. (Romans, p. 501)

With this the kids might say “oh, burn.” Barth says, in effect, ‘you’re both wrong.’ The conservative Christians who have made an industry out of the end of the world, or who neglect every problem the world faces since it will soon end anyway, you’re wrong! Likewise we, playfully dismissed by Barth for the modern protestant cultured piety that defines us, have turned away from the new age.

Instead, we think we can create heaven on earth with the latest issue or consciousness raising exercise, heaped upon the last. We should not forget that “modern protestant cultured piety” led to Indian residential schools, cultural hegemony disguised as global missions, and the folly of temperance, imagining that we could force all of society to our way of thinking and expect that they would thank us for it.

So if it’s not column A and it’s not column B, what is it? What will be the signs? Moltmann wants to back up even further, to remind us that even the topic itself is little understood. What is “the mysteries of the end-time” he says, “God’s future and the righteousness of his kingdom...are concealed and cannot be known under the conditions of the present age.” (Crucified, p. 167)

In other words, we have to be satisfied with signs. God will only be fully revealed “at the end of the old age and at the beginning for the new” and until then we wait. We can read the signs, and we can wonder at the promise of the age to come, but we cannot fully know its measure.

So we are left to locate our hope in the signs we have. And what are they? Well, we look around us and we find hope in each other. We are the hope of the Risen One, alive as his body, doing his work in the world as we tend to each other and those beyond these walls. Next, we see hope in the Advent of our Lord, the days of waiting that reveal God’s willingness to enter the world in a new way. And, of course, the cornerstone of Christian hope, the death and resurrection of Jesus, commemorated every Sunday in this place.

But this isn’t just theology of philosophy, nerds with books like me who read and reread looking for insight. It’s a living question that begins in the catacombs and other sacred sites, to churches surrounded by cemeteries with loved ones long past. It weighs on us because it finds the heart of the Christian message and the answer to the questions “what are the signs?” and “how long will we wait?”

Here is Jurgen Moltmann’s answer:

For the Easter hope shines not only forwards into the unknown newness of the history which it opens up, but also backwards over the graveyards of history.(p. 163)

We are at the intersection of a faithful past and a hopeful future, and the answer becomes “now is the time.” Now is the time to show others the compassion of God in Jesus, now is the time to express God’s hope for the living and the dead, now is the time to remind everyone that this reality is not all that is, now is the time to point to our future hope, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven. Now is the time we see glimpses, but soon we will see God. Amen.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Remembrance Sunday

Psalm 46
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear.

Come and see what God has done,
the wonders wrought upon the earth.
God makes wars to cease in all the world,
God breaks the bow and snaps the spear,
and burns the shields in the fire.
Be still and know that I am God,
exalted among the nations, exalted in the earth.
The God of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

John 15
12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Obviously every town and village in England is unique, but Accrington deserves our attention today.

First, it’s the birthplace of Charles Edward Hoyle, the young man we honour today in our service of remembrance. It’s also the home of his nephew Jim, who received the letters that were so carefully preserved by the Canadian Virtual War Memorial.

But there are other things about Accrington that stand out: the town is famed for making the hardest and densest bricks in the world, used in the construction of the Empire State Building, and the foundation of the Blackpool Tower. In town, the Haworth Gallery holds Europe’s largest collection of Tiffany Glass. And there is one more thing the town is known for— the Accrington Pals.

The Pals were part of a unique strategy employed in the Great War, reportedly the brainchild of Lord Kitchener himself, that entire battalions would be made up by recruits from a single town—pals. The logic here was that young men would be more inclined to perform valiantly in the service of friends and neighbours.

It doesn’t take a lot of 20/20 hindsight to see what might go wrong. On July 1, 1916, just one day after the death of Charles Edward Hoyle, the Accrington Pals joined the Battle of the Somme near Serre, resulting in over 600 casualties in the first 30 minutes. At the same moment, maybe a mile away, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was virtually wiped out, a 90 percent casualty rate that was only surpassed by the West Yorkshire Regiment fighting some six miles south. It fell to a German officer to put all this in perspective: “Somme,” he said, “The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.”

The Somme joins a list of military disasters beginning all the way back at Cannae, to Antietam, and Gallipoli just a year earlier. History tends to turn on such battles, national identities are forged, lessons are (sometimes) learned, and the real cost of war becomes plain to see. We don’t celebrate the end of wars, we mark them: with solemnity, and humility, and a sense of awe at the sacrifice made.

“Greater love hath no man than this,” Jesus said, “that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

In all things, Jesus begins with the individual and human cost of where we find ourselves: giving calm in the midst of trouble, healing in the face of suffering and loss, a word that brings life when the world cannot. He gave his disciples the seemingly simple command “love one another,” and knew that only in the fullness of time would they come to understand what this means. This was not kindness or amity, but a love that remains costly and implausible.

The first sacrifice, of course, would be his own. The water was barely wine when we learn that the temple that will be destroyed in just three days is his body. That unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains but a single seed. The world will see me more no more, he says, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.

And this brings us back to the Somme, Vimy, Hill 70, and all the other names and places lodged in memory. It was Sir John Arkwright who managed to describe the journey across this ruined landscape, putting the individual and human cost in perspective:

Still stands His Cross from that dread hour to this,
Like some bright star above the dark abyss;
Still, through the veil, the Victor’s pitying eyes
Look down to bless our lesser Calvaries.

One hundred years on and there is a natural tendency to relegate these things to the pages of history. For many in our society, the Great War seems as distant as the War of 1812. The difference, of course, is the continuing presence of monuments and plaques, preserved and in some cases updated to include Afghanistan and dates from our century.

And these memorials, many designed and dedicated in the 1920s, broke with the past and the conventions of remembering victories in battle. Gone were the equestrian statues and their supposed symbolism, one leg raised for a wound received in battle, or the triumphal arch.

Instead, the memorial makers opted for a different direction, Lutyens Cenotaph in the centre of the street at Whitehall becoming the most emulated design. An arch or pedestalized rider became an empty tomb, the wreath of remembrance in stone, a place to remember the dead who were missing or far away.

The other difference is the listing of names, ten in this room, and dozens more in our Upper Room. Search long enough, and most public buildings from the first decades of the last century will have a list of names: employees, students, members, individual names that draw the eye, asking only that we pause and remember.

Within the church, of course, we have a unique role to play, both in remembering and putting human conflict into the context of our faith. And it’s not just for the aftermath: chaplains were found in trench and field, sharing words of comfort, often quoting verses such as the psalm we shared this morning:

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear.

God makes wars to cease in all the world,
God breaks the bow and snaps the spear,
and burns the shields in the fire.

Back home, these same words gave comfort and reminded worshippers that God’s desire was peace, and an end to the wars that begin in the human heart. For concord between the nations, and justice within the borders of the same.

One of the resources I fell upon this week was a copy of the service of thanksgiving, published by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, for use on Sunday, November 17, 1918. And while the hope of the moment remains only a hope, even a hundred years on, the words still speak:

“Grant that a just and merciful peace may repair the losses and heal the wounds of war: unite in the bond of brotherly charity those who have been at enmity; and continually guide the counsels of the nations, to the promotion of thy glory and the lasting welfare of [human]kind.”


Sunday, November 04, 2018

Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 146
Praise God, O my soul. As long as I live I will praise God.
Yes, as long as I have life I will sing praises to God.
Put not your trust in princes, nor in any mortal,
for in them there is no help.
When they breathe their last they return to dust;
then their plans come to nothing.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is the Maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
the One who keeps faith for ever,
who gives justice to the oppressed,
who gives food to the hungry. R
God sets prisoners free, restores sight to the blind.
God straightens those who are bent;
loves those who are just.
God cares for the stranger in the land,
and sustains the widow and orphan;
but the way of the wicked God turns to ruin.
God shall reign forever, O Zion,
your God for all generations. R

My mother liked to tell the story about the time she was an enumerator, visiting homes throughout East Gwillimbury, adding people to the voter’s list. She and her co-worker were met at the door by a potential voter with a less-than-welcoming look. When informed about the purpose of the visit, the person was quick to say “I’ll not be registering to vote—you see, I’m voting for God.” My mother’s co-worker, without missing a beat, said “I see, ma’am, but God’s not on the ballot.”

There is something magical about having just the right comeback at just the right moment. I think we all wish we were as quick-on-our-feet as my mother’s co-worker that day. But setting aside the power of a good comeback, I’m left puzzling over the response, and the extent to which religious people vote for God.

If we could track down this anonymous non-voter, she might tell us that there should be a strict separation between church and state, and that those most actively involved in a life of faith should focus on that realm alone. Most Amish, for example, choose not to vote, believing that politics belongs to the material realm, and they would rather remain in the spiritual realm.

Or, perhaps her motives related to our “fallenness,” the idea that humans are too corrupt to govern themselves. It was Billy Connolly who said “The desire to be a politician should bar you for life from ever becoming one. Don't vote. It just encourages them.” I’m not sure this person in the wilds of East Gwillimbury was channeling the great Scottish comedian, but the impulse is the same.

The last suggestion is that she was advocating for theocracy, literally “rule by God.” One need only point to Calvin’s Geneva to see where this leads. In the mid-1500s, people in Geneva came to believe that God had ordained that Calvin should rule every aspect of faith and life in the city. Social control was maintained by a group of twelve elders who heard reports once a week of any moral infractions. Penalties included fines, excommunication, banishment, and death. Blasphemers, traitors and adulterers were put to death. Every “vice” was banned, including alcohol, dancing, cards, the theatre, laughing in church, coming late to service, and so on.

Obviously this is an extreme example, but theocracies exist in our world, and at least one politician was campaigning this past week on the idea that it’s okay to make war on your neighbours if they don’t support a program that bans abortion, same-sex marriage and idolatry. And all of it hinged on obeying “biblical law” without defining what that means.

Now, we on this side of the border have an internal mechanism, somehow inserted at birth, that protects us from wacky things that happen down there. It’s a self-protection thing, allowing us to say ‘yeah, but that’s America’ without needing to spend too much time worrying that what happens there will somehow happen here. The reflex keeps us sane, but it also lulls us into a false sense of security. Sleeping next to an elephant, as Trudeau the Elder famously said, means that “no matter how friendly and even-tempered is the is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

Just now you’re thinking ‘this sounds like one of those pre-election sermons that the preacher feels compelled to preach, but we’re not having an election. Has he been listening to too much MSNBC again?’ Amazing how I can read your thoughts. And I might agree that I’m listening to too much MSNBC except that the lectionary, our three-year cycle of weekly readings, gave us Psalm 146, one of the most overtly political psalms in the hymnbook.

It begins by echoing our old friend up that country lane in East Gwillimbury:

Put not your trust in princes, nor in any mortal,
for in them there is no help.
When they breathe their last they return to dust;
then their plans come to nothing.

This seems to have shades of Billy Connelly, but it’s clearly a hymn to the Most High, as the very next words say “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is the Maker of heaven and earth.” This is voting for God, seeking help and hope when the princes of this world have returned to dust.

So let’s travel this road for a moment, and consider what this ‘vote for God’ might look like. And most often, we begin with a platform. Good metaphor, the platform, which of course is made up of planks, things politicians stand on, and ask for our vote. And the psalmist, God’s campaign manager, doesn’t disappoint:

[God is] the One who keeps faith for ever,
gives justice to the oppressed,
gives food to the hungry.
sets prisoners free,
restores sight to the blind.
straightens those who are bent;
loves those who are just.
cares for the stranger in the land,
sustains the widow and orphan;
but the way of the wicked God turns to ruin.

Just now you’re thinking ‘this God sounds like a Democrat, maybe Beto O’Rourke’ but I don’t think you’re right—not that I want to disagree with your imaginary interior monologue. That’s probably rude. No, the clue that this is not about a party or their platform, as close as it may appear to Psalm 146, is in that last line: “but the way of the wicked God turns to ruin.”

The great Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar and dean of applied theologians, would say that’s Pharaoh, the ultimate object lesson when “the way of the wicked God turns to ruin.” We want to imagine that there is some sort of running battle between progressive forces and those that stand in their way, when (for Brueggemann) the stakes are higher and the objects of the lesson are bigger.

Let me explain. First, we are reminded that there is a mystery at the heart of the story of the Exodus. God hears the cries of the Israelites, and God moves within history to free the people, but God does it by hardening the heart of Pharaoh. Somehow God brings an end to empire by acting through Pharaoh and what are the very worst impulses of maintaining power in the face of popular rebellion. Even Brueggemann can’t explain it.*

Next, Brueggemann underlines the true reality of what’s happening at the Exodus. And he does it by lifting up one of those verses that is easy to overlook in the scope of a dramatic story. The verse is Exodus 11.7:

"But against any of the people of Israel, either man or beast, not a dog shall growl; that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between the Egyptians and Israel."

In other words, this is the God who takes sides. Not between political parties or contrasting ideologies, but between oppressed and oppressor, slave and taskmaster, the hungry and those who are excessively fed. It’s a remarkable thing, this God who takes sides, but it’s also a note of caution, and a safeguard of sorts to be aware that we alternate between oppressed and oppressor, we can feel enslaved but we can enslave others, and we generally spend more time feeling fed than hungry. We can get very excited about the God who takes sides until we soberly assess which side we’re on–sometimes depending on the day of the week.

And there is one more thing, a kind of coda to this platform that God is running on, this manifesto for the bent, the blind, the prisoner, the stranger seeking asylum, and the widow and orphans at the rear of the caravan. The God who remains ‘wholly mystery’ and more-often-than-not inscrutable, does provide moments of clarity and comprehension. And this takes us to the second reading Victoria shared:

“First,” Jesus said, “Love God through the mystery, with all your heart, your soul, and your strength. And second, do this [knowing full well that it was a perfect summary of bent, the blind, the prisoner, the stranger seeking asylum, and the widow and orphans too]: love your neighbour as yourself.” Amen.

*The Prophetic Imagination

Monday, October 29, 2018

Anniversary Sunday

John 11
38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

What’s the shortest verse in the Bible?

I don’t want to burst your bubble, but the answer is ‘it depends.’ If you’re talking about the Bible in English, and specifically the King James Version of the Bible, then yes, “Jesus wept” is the shortest verse in the Bible.

If, however, you are looking at the original Greek, the answer is found at Luke 20:30 which says “the second.” You can see why we don’t like sticklers. There is nothing memorable here, a snippet of a verse that recounts the story of the widow who married six brothers before finding herself in a rather awkward situation in the hereafter.

I can share all this because “Jesus Wept” has it’s own Wikipedia page, sharing details like the controversy over the shortest verse and equipping you to be uniquely tiresome at your next dinner party. But this is fun, because the entry reminds us that, “Jesus wept” is commonly used to express exasperation.

So, as you go on and on about that thing your minister told you about “Jesus wept,” it would be entirely appropriate for someone to say “Jesus wept, what kind of sermon is that?” As we try to escape this homiletical funhouse mirror, I should say that some describe Jesus wept as a “minced oath,” that thing you might say that your mother claimed as still swearing—like ‘gosh’ instead of ‘God.’ So “Jesus wept” instead of taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Whatever it is, it’s only the shortest because we want it to be, the verse that everyone can claim to have memorized, the verse that packs a punch because it’s at the very centre of an important narrative in the unfolding story of Jesus in John.

I say Jesus in John because the story of the Raising of Lazarus only appears in John, and has the important role in the story of being the seventh sign, the seventh miracle that John wants to mark for us and make us take note. So we will. But before we do, we should review the story of the death of Lazarus.

The story of the raising of Lazarus is the longest single story in John aside from the passion story. It begins with news sent to Jesus, some miles off, that Lazarus is sick. Mary and Martha send word that their brother is ill, but Jesus decides to remain in place longer, explaining to his disciples that “this sickness will not end in death.”

When Jesus finally arrives at Bethany, Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. A crowd has gathered to mourn Lazarus, and support the sisters in their grief. Martha meets Jesus first:

21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

You might say everything that follows this brief exchange is just an add-on, details to fill out the story. But God has more to show us, so we continue. Mary confronts Jesus next, making the same argument, and this time Jesus wept. Voices in the back ground swell up, ‘could he have not prevented this may from dying, he healed others?’

Jesus insists that the tomb be opened, and the practical people object: ‘four days, Lord, he’s been in there for four days.’ Then Jesus says, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” He is speaking, of course, to us as much as Martha and Mary and the anxious crowd. The stone is rolled away, Jesus prays for Lazarus and then says in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The dead man comes out dead no more.

Before I take you back to the seven signs, I want to go back to “Jesus wept.” While it may not be the shortest verse in the Bible, it is the shortest verse to provoke the most discussion. Why did he weep? Is this the human Jesus showing us his humanity? His dismay over the seeming power of death? His empathy for Mary and Martha?* Shame for the delay and hurt he may have caused them? Whatever the exact reason, the tears transfix us, and open our heart to Jesus in a new way. This is no bystander, or simply-God-in-disguise—these are real tears.

So seven signs in John: turning water into wine, healing the official’s son, healing at the pool of Bethesda, feeding the 5,000, walking on water, healing the man born blind, and raising Lazarus from the dead. There were other signs, because John tells us this at the end of his Gospel. But these are the seven he shares, the seven that show us everything we need to know about the glory of God made know in Jesus.

Good number, seven. My resident scholar tells me that seven is the number of completeness, wholeness, the last day when God rests, the end. There’s even a verb for it in Hebrew she tells me, and if you want to know more you can ask her over coffee. She’ll even parse it for you, if you ask nicely.

So seven signs to completeness, seven movements that take us to the end of this part of Jesus’ earthly ministry. We know it’s an ending because a verse later we’re building up to an arrest. Like Icarus flying too close to the sun, Jesus has upset the existing order of things and officialdom has taken note. Suddenly everyone is at risk because Jesus has overcome the one thing the occupying Romans hold over everyone: the power of life or death.

Note too that the signs build: the first is light-hearted, water into wine, hardly a threat to anyone outside the temperance movement. Healing the sick, feeding a crowd—none of these threaten the overseers, because in fact they lighten the load. Itinerant preachers and miracle-makers who decrease demand on the Imperial bread supply are hardly a threat. But reversing death, that’s a threat, because Rome was built on the fear of death—for slaves, opponents, rebels and the like.

But Jesus wasn’t busy defeating death to make a point. He wasn’t trying to start a revolution, or defeat Rome in a direct way. He was simply marking the end on one era and the beginning of another. You see, seven is the number of creation, and completeness, and the raising of Lazarus is the end of death in the classical sense, the sense that nothing could be done. But Lazarus still dies, not that day, but some time later.

So the raising of Lazarus may mark the end of an assumption, but more would need to be done. Rob Bell says “the old creation had a death problem,” from the Garden to Jesus and back to the garden, when we find the tomb is empty and death is no more.

Call it the eighth sign, a new creation, which Bell also notes is happening right here in the midst of us:

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne shall lead them to springs of living waters: and God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes.

An anniversary is an opportunity to gather the saints in light, to call them to mind and give thanks that so many paused to spend time in this place, to enrich our lives, to show us—through their very lives—the glory of God. A congregation is a special place in creation. It is more than a meeting or a service, it is the body of Christ and a living monument to the power of God to transform lives. It is another sign of the new creation that surrounds us and blesses us each day.

Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. Some seek signs but we are surrounded by them: the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

*Texts for Preaching B.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 10
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’[d]”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

I’ve got good news and bad news.

The good news is that I’m not going to preach on stewardship for five Sundays in a row, as recommended by the latest program from the national church. It’s too bad, really, since the resource includes five sample sermons and a nice break for the preacher.

The bad news is that I won’t be letting the topic go, and I will be mentioning stewardship from time to time over the next few weeks—from the pulpit, in a letter, and in other non-invasive ways. I say non-invasive since the program from the national church also suggests we stop my your house and make our case, something few people seem very keen on.

So let’s call it a pact. You receive our letter and consider what it says, and I won’t preach a stewardship sermon every Sunday until Advent. And as an added bonus, no one will stop by, so no needless tidy-up required. I love it when a plan comes together.

So stewardship. You might say “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” is the stewardship sermon that writes itself. Nice young man wants to know what he has to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus reminds him of the messy interpersonal commandments, and he assures Jesus that he’s kept them all. And then a personalized commandment: ‘Thou shalt sell everything you have and give to the poor.” Mark tells us that the young man went away sorrowful on account of his many possession, Jesus then shares an interesting visual with camels and needles, and the twelve ask the next obvious question, “who then, can be saved?”

I want to look at that question a little later, but first, I want to talk about the next hymn. “Take my life and let it be” is a personal favourite, written by Frances Ridley Havergal, the same poet who gave us “Lord, speak to me that I may speak.” The simplicity and the clarity of her words, her ability to describe the very personal nature of commitment—these are the elements that make these hymns timeless.

My only frustration with the hymn we will sing in the few moments is the exclusion of the best verse—or rather half the verse—as it appears in our hymnbook. I like to call it “the Dutch verse,” and I’ll tell you why after I share it.

Take my silver and my gold,
not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect and use
every power as thou shalt choose.

I said half the verse because the hymnbook editors did find a way to retain “take my intellect and use,” but silver and gold when out the window. And it’s not clear why. The verse ties in very nicely with today’s lesson from Mark, and there’s also a reference to the widow’s mite found in Mark 12. And it makes a handy talking point in a stewardship-sermon-that’s-not-part-of-a-five-week-series. So I really don’t understand their thinking.

And the idea that this a Dutch verse—well, you’re just going to have trust me. Culturally, we’re pleased to show all we have, and remind you that it is a product of our hard work, and then quickly admit that everything in this life is fleeting and may soon be gone. For the full treatment, I recommend Simon Schama’s “The Embarrassment of Riches,” a 700-page look into the Dutch psyche—and the extent to which we never really got over the Golden Age.

And you don’t even need to read it really, just look at the front cover: Jan Steen’s formal portrait of a wealthy merchant and his daughter, captured at the very moment that a beggar and her young child stop to ask for a handout. Is it sign of his concern for the poor? Is it a meditation on a moment we have all faced—and a challenge to reflect on how we would respond? Or is it a acknowledgement that fate could see their fortunes reversed? Maybe all three, or just another visual reminder that treasure in heaven comes when you give away your silver and gold.

And all of this leads me to another idea. Take the simple yet eloquent words of a Victorian-era poet, and the cultural and historical world that it opens for me, and you get something that the late Michael White called “absent but implicit.” When we experience something—like a well-loved hymn—it opens a world for us based on our experience. This is a world that is both subjective to me—and maybe some of the other Dutchies in your midst—and carefully hidden. It’s absent but implicit because it’s my lens, and it colours how I see the world.

That’s one half of “absent but implicit.” The other half of this idea is the shared lens that we all carry, the lens that goes unspoken but is very much a part of our shared experience. For this, I’ll take an ancient example that will allow us to circle back to Mark. The reading we didn’t hear today was from the Book of Job, the riches to rags story that recounts Job’s suffering and the lengthy and comprehensive ways in which his so-called “comforters” try to help Job see that it’s all his fault.

‘It has to be,’ they argue, ‘since everyone knows that God rewards the righteous and causes the wicked to suffer.’ Job is suffering, they argue, and argue, and argue, and therefore Job must have done something to offend God. Identify the sin, repent, and voila! back to riches.

The problem is that Job has done nothing wrong. And this small bit of information becomes the heart of the story because it contradicts something that everyone believed: the good prosper and the wicked suffer. This idea is “absent but implicit” in every story of suffering (“who sinned that this man should be born blind”) but also present in every story of prosperity. And that brings us back to the rich young man.

Most people looking in, would see a rich, young ruler who by his very situation must be upright. How could it be otherwise? Consider Proverbs 14.24, almost lyrical in it’s redundancy: “The crown of the wise is their wealth, but the folly of fools brings folly.” So the disciples and everyone in town that day saw this ancient near-eastern dot-com millionaire and thought ‘the crown of this wise young man is his wealth, and something-something folly.‘

Everyone, of course, except Jesus. Jesus ignored the absent but implicit assumption that this prosperous young man must be uniquely right with God, and peered instead into his soul. Jesus overthrew convention and common sense and opted instead for a deeper look—at the anxiety that comes with gaining and maintaining wealth, the pressures of station and status, and the assumptions put on others. He knew, just in his approach, that this person needed to transfer his earthly store to heaven by giving away all he had.

So two things are happening, one a bit scary, and one that needs to be shared. The scary thing is that Jesus wants me to say “take my heart, it is thine own, it shall be thy royal throne.” He’s not interested in outward signs of righteousness, displays of piety, even ostentatious giving (but we don’t don’t mind that). Jesus wants to help us overcome the absent but implicit barriers to devotion that he knows, and we know, and really want to shed.

The other thing that is happening here is a reassessment of wealth in our world, a reassessment that we have tried to forget since the very moment Jesus said that seemingly crazy thing about camels and needles. Wealth is a number—and a lifestyle—but it doesn’t follow that you should be considered clever enough for high office. Nor should we assume it gives someone special insight into how the world works, or more say on the important matters of the age. To be fair, some have displayed unique compassion and generosity: Bill and Melinda Gates come to mind, and J.K. Rowling—famous for being the first billionaire to stop being a billionaire because she gave so much of her fortune away. Jesus smiles.

So we made a pact, we gained a bit of insight into the Dutch brain, and we disabused ourselves of some harmful ideas about wealth. What we’re left with, of course, is that nagging question: ‘who then, can be saved?’ What the disciples meant was ‘if the prosperous aren’t good, and favoured, upright, then who is? Who can be saved?

And Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals the answer is impossible, but not for God—for God all things are possible.” Amen.