Sunday, December 13, 2020

Advent III

Luke 1.46b-55

My soul proclaims God's greatness.

My spirit rejoices in God my saviour.  

For you have looked with favour on your lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed.

You have done great things for me, O Most Mighty.

Hallowed be your Name!

You have mercy on those who fear you,

From one generation to another.  

You took action with a strong arm.

You scattered the proud in their conceit.

You pulled the mighty from their thrones.

You raised the lowly.

You filled the hungry with good things.

You sent the rich away empty.

You come to the aid of your servant, Israel,

for you remembered your promise of mercy,

to our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, 

and to their children in every age.



Margaret Keenan was the first person to get the “the jab,” as they say in the UK.  The soon-to-be 91 year-old described receiving the vaccine as the “best early birthday present.”  It was a lovely moment, but then came the second recipient, an 81 year-old with the unlikely name William Shakespeare.  


Twitter erupted: “They really are prioritising the elderly,” one person wrote, “this guy is 456.”  Someone called it “the taming of the flu,” while another said, “I’m surprised they let William Shakespeare have the vaccine. I thought he was Bard.”  I should stop.  But one more: reflecting on the fame these two have gained after getting the jab, someone noted, “A plague on neither of their houses.”*


Ignoring the bad puns, it’s easy to feel joy and relief in the face of this long-awaited turn-of-events.  It has a “beginning of the end” feeling to it, and somewhat perfectly timed, as we reach what are literally the darkest days of the year.  If this was a seasonal film, this would be the moment for someone to shout “it’s a Christmas miracle!”  And it certainly feels that way.


And beyond the feeling, some remarkable things have taken place: the early word was that vaccines can take years to develop—this one took about ten months.  The early word was that finding one vaccine would be lucky—there are already three or more.  Even the manufacture of doses, something that was predicted to take months or years, was started months ago, on the off-chance that the vaccine would eventually be approved.  


So we praise God that we are here, waiting for the day we can get the jab, and we praise God for the gift of medicine, along with the gift of insight and imagination.  God has shown us once more what’s possible when we focus all our attention on a problem.  We can do something revolutionary.


Revolutionary.  Revolutionary is one of those over-used words that has lost some of its power—perhaps too many hair products or exercise machines have been described using the word.  When something is revolutionary—like developing a vaccine in a matter of months—it turns the existing order on its head, and it changes everything.  


And the word also reminds us of political revolutions, a changing of the existing political order into something else altogether.  Again, the word is often misapplied, with the most famous example being the American Revolution.  For a revolution that proclaimed “all men are created equal,” there remained the bitter reality that 700,000 African-Americans were enslaved at the end of the revolution, or nearly one-in-six Americans.  And this number would grow to 4,000,000 before slavery ended in 1865.


Turning to Oxford to help us understand what revolutionary truly means, we get “involving or causing a complete or dramatic change.”  Like the Song of Mary:


You took action with a strong arm.

You scattered the proud in their conceit.

You pulled the mighty from their thrones.

You raised the lowly.

You filled the hungry with good things.

You sent the rich away empty.


It’s no surprise that when Latin-American theologians were trying to describe “a theology of liberation,” they pointed to Mary.  Between Mary and Moses, and some early Isaiah thrown in for good measure, we begin to understand the radical nature of scripture.  These three embody complete and dramatic change.  For Isaiah it was “swords into plowshares,” an idea so powerful that it is carved in front of the UN headquarters.  For Moses, it was literal liberation, the power of God to free God’s people.  And for Mary it is predictive, a revolution that begins in Bethlehem and concludes at Calvary.  


Why concludes?  I say it concludes at Calvary because the cross is a once-and-for-all event, an event to reconcile us with God, to end death, and to ensure our freedom in the Spirit.  The world no longer has hold over us, and we are free to live with love and mercy.  But every conclusion, of course, must have a beginning: and the beginning of this revolution is God’s desire to enter the world in the most humble way possible, as a baby.  And this is truly revolutionary: no strongman, no advancing army, no tactical plan.  Just a baby, the most vulnerable form God could possibly assume.  


But before we shift all our focus to the birth of Jesus, we would do well to remember Mary.  For our Roman Catholic friends, she is the patron saint of all humanity, the Queen of Heaven, and the Our Lady of numerous locations.  Our Lady of Guadalupe, as an example, is the patron saint of the Americans.  And for all Christians, as declared at the Council of Ephesus (431), she is Theotokos, the Mother of God.  In addition, Mary is the only woman named in the Quran—mentioned 70 times—and exalted as “the greatest of women.”  Listen again to the beginning of her song:


My soul proclaims God's greatness.

My spirit rejoices in God my saviour.  

For you have looked with favour on your lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed.

You have done great things for me, O Most Mighty.

Hallowed be your Name!


As prophetic utterances go, this one remains true.  From her lowly station she becomes mother, guardian, guide, follower, and witness to the resurrection.  She inspires and blesses all humanity, with her song of liberation and her life with God.  She reminds us that whatever seems fixed, or certain, or impossible to change can be quite the opposite.  And she reminds us that praise and gratitude are at the centre of a life of faith.  


May God see us through the dark days ahead, and may we never lose sight of hope, with Mary to guide us, Amen.  


*https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/12/08/shakespeare-britain-pfizer-coronavirus-vaccine/ 

Sunday, December 06, 2020

Advent II

 Mark 1

4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with[e] water, but he will baptize you with[f] the Holy Spirit.”

Who is about to be born, and in early middle-age, and about to begin a promising career, and apparently doomed?  

If you answered Jesus, you would be correct.  If you answered Jesus in the season of Advent, you get a bonus point.  My riddle points to the mixed up timeline we’ve entered, and the extent to which the season is trying to accomplish several things at once. 

Of course, the Bible is filled with biographies, stories of characters that give us a glimpse of the span of their lives.  Most famous, perhaps, is Moses: from the babe in a basket to an aged liberator, gazing upon the promised land.  Or David, a mere lad, out tending the sheep while God’s anointed is being chosen.  We will see the span of his life too, victories, foundations, and personal defeats.  Or Esther, the beautiful young orphan who becomes queen, develops a mastery of court life, and saves the Jewish people from death.

In each case, the story is told straight, a linear description from beginning to end: selected or saved for service, engaged in a crisis or conflict, and triumphant at the last.  In each case, of course, it is God that is victorious, and we give thanks.  What we don’t do, in the course of telling these stories, is interrupt the order: we wouldn't tell the story of the burning bush to explain why the baby Moses was set adrift on the Nile.

In Advent, we enter a unique version of time.  Future is present, the past predicts the future, and the one for whom we wait is already here.  Heroes of the narrative occur in the middle of the story, but they help us prepare for the beginning.  The baby John the Baptist may appear in the time of Jesus’ nativity, but now he’s the fully grown John who will help us prepare for Jesus’ birth.

“After me,” says John, “comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  Again, these words fit the prelude to Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan, but they also describe our fondest hope, the time for which we wait.

The glue that holds this story together is baptism.  John is practicing one aspect of baptism (“a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”) and Jesus another.  John’s work, like Advent, is preparatory, allowing us to make room for Jesus to enter our hearts.  We must die to our old selves to welcome him in, to find new life in Christ.  St. Paul knew this better than most:

Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Rom 3) 

In Athens, the wise ones would say “tell us more, for you are bringing strange things to our ears.” (Acts 17) It is strange, to conflate baptism and death, but remember that the timelines are not what they seem.  When we were baptized we entered the death and resurrection of Jesus, not some distant event, but the same death and resurrection that happens at every baptism, both now and in the future.  

This is what John means when he describes our baptism as baptism with the Holy Spirit.  It exists outside of time, and it defies time, because new life in Christ never stops happening.  Maybe this is why Paul’s Athenian friends were so puzzled.  Your life unfolded in a predictable manner: spun, measured, and cut, without any sense that it could be respun or uncut or measured in a different way.  Jesus takes away loom and tape and scissors, sets them aside, and says ‘walk with me, and follow in my way.’  Nothing about your life is set when we’re talking about new life in Christ.

Just now the practical people are crying out for something tangible, and for them, I have a confession.  Not an actual confession, though I do have a few. My confession is the abiding belief that confession is at the very heart of who we are and what we do.  In confession, we ask God to help us set aside the things we regret and the things that are holding us back.  

But there is more than just that.  In confession we send a signal to others that it’s healthy and appropriate to name the ways we fall short and seek forgiveness.  In a world of facades and falsehoods, we can be the voice that says “we all screw up, and we all need God’s help to get by.”  We can’t self-pardon.  But when we model a way of being that includes humility and a realistic sense-of-self, it can start catching.  Maybe others will admit they’ve failed, and fallen short, and that they need something outside themselves to make it right.  That is when the Spirit moves, and new life comes.  

So John was right all along.  People enter the desert places longing for something, anything that can help them.  And he appears, practicing a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins—which was always just a fancy way to describe confession.  They were busy making room: leaving cluttered lives and unresolved situations to seek the new life that only God in Christ can bring.  

May God bless you as our Advent journey continues.  May you enter and reenter the story as needed, always aware that it leads to new life.  Amen.


Sunday, November 29, 2020

Advent I

 Mark 13

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert[c]! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.

35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”


Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans…

2020 has been remarkable for a number of reasons, with one of the primary reasons filed under “a change of plans.”  If we start with churchworld, you need look no further than the service we’re sharing at this moment.  Moving online for much of the year has forced us to find creative ways to celebrate God’s presence without the direct presence of one another.

Likewise, the rhythm of regular plans, from travel to time spent with others was disrupted.  The people and places we planned to see, around the corner or around the world, were set aside in the hope that next year will be better.  And there were larger life changes, retirements delayed or moves postponed, projects shelved or plans curtained.  COVID-19 left few stones unturned, and the turning continues.

Having reminded you of all this dislocation and loss, I should point to a couple of positives.  People have been more intentional about making the most of the times they did see others.  We learned to treasure what we may have formerly taken for granted.  Also, there was a lot of reassessing going on, people asking “why did we always do it that way?”  The pandemic gave us the opportunity to step away from old habits and patterns.  And then there is the need to be creative.  Finding new ways to meet, create, and manage—in all sorts of situations—has forced us to be creative.  

For the grammatically inclined, you will see that much of what I have said so far lives between past and present tense.  Changes have happened and changes continue, and we think we see the shape of the future—even as it remains uncertain.  This past and present tension is not new, and it finds an important parallel to today’s lesson.  The season of Advent, more than the others, lives in the past and in the not yet.  We are looking backward and forward all at once.

And our reading, the “little apocalypse” from Mark 13, illustrates this point.  Christ has come, and Christ will come again.  Advent looks forward to the birth of our Saviour, but Advent also reminds us that Christ will return in glory.  The form of this return is the subject of our reading, but the details are less important than the lesson to prepare.  More on that in a moment.  

If we had to create a summary, we might say that we are somewhere between First Advent and Second Advent.*  We know that Christ was born in Bethlehem, but we’re not planning a birthday party.  Advent rules are that we play it straight, preparing for the birth of Jesus like it has yet to happen.  We are called to prepare in our hearts some room for the incarnation of God.  First Advent is angels choirs, shepherd voices, and a poor couple looking for room at the inn.  

Second Advent takes the real-time preparation we are engaged in and says “now plan for him to come again.”  Take everything you know about his life, his message, his decision to reunite us with the Most High, and apply that to your season of preparation.  Take everything you know about love and mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation, and make that part of your Advent plan.  He will come again, either all at once or in eternity, so prepare.

There are a lot of things going on in our passage: quotes and references, predictions, and a sense of urgency.  One thing that is missing is certainty, the day and the hour unknown—even the angels don’t know!   Spare a thought for the angels, always visually appealing, always heralding something important, but on the matter of the Second Advent, completely in the dark.  So if the son doesn’t know, and the angels don’t know, who can fault us for making plans yet never knowing the hour or the day.  Hence the need to keep watch.

I’m going to take a big step back for a moment and talk about crisis and opportunity.  It is one of the primary tensions in this and every time.  Calamity comes, and some cannot see beyond the events themselves.  For them, a crisis is a crisis.  For others, every crisis is some sort of opportunity, if you can only see it.  Some are adept at making the most of a situation, and others see real opportunity.  

Having said all that, consider the reverse as well.  In every opportunity lies a potential crisis, things we may not see until we’re in the thick of it.  For Advent, consider that the birth of Jesus was always going to be a crisis for someone.  The man in Rome who enjoyed the title “Son of God” is one example.  Anyone who enjoyed the status quo is another example, anyone who wanted God to remain distant from us, or unattainable.  Anyone who seeks to control others by making God vengeful or unyielding will find a crisis in the incarnation, God’s desire to be with us in a new way.

There’s an old Yiddish adage that says, “Man plans, and God laughs” (Mann tracht, un Gott lacht).  It’s a wonderful expression that we take to mean that God is busy undoing our plans, or making other plans for us.  Instead, I think it fits in the existential file, meaning God finding humour in our earnest desire to control outcomes, organize everything, and set the plan we want.  But life doesn’t work that way, doesn’t conform to our agenda, as well-meaning as it may be.  

Rather, God is busy creating opportunities for some and crises for others.  God gives us ample opportunities to love and serve others, as an example.  Meanwhile, God finds humour in those who seek to control the world around them, or those who imagine they are completely self-made.  The future God is designing for us, in whatever form it comes, will be a future based on new beginnings, and a new way of being.  It will take all that we know and join it to all that we long for, the Advent of hope, peace, joy and love.  Amen.  

*Beverly Gaventa


Sunday, November 22, 2020

Reign of Christ

 Ephesians 1.15-23

15 For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, 16 I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. 17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit[f] of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.



If you know me, you know I like a good metaphor.


A good metaphor can change the way we think, it can alter our sense of the world around us, and it can even direct what we do. A good metaphor can reveal hard truths, it can mobilize people into action, and it can sometimes lead us in the wrong direction. In other words, a good metaphor may not be good at all—but it can be extremely effective.


Case in point: In 1964, Lyndon Johnson announced the War on Poverty, a comprehensive response to the poverty rate in the US approaching twenty percent. Now, to our war-weary ears—having lived through “wars” on drugs, cancer, and terror—calling to mind the War on Poverty doesn’t have the same impact as it had in 1964. Back then, just nineteen years after the Second World War, using the war metaphor was highly effective.


You see, the war metaphor creates a mindset. Nations at war must band together, confront a common enemy, and make sacrifices. The appeal is obvious, and in 1964 it led to the creation of numerous social programs as well as a general sense of concern for something that was often hidden. The shadow side, of course, can be seen in the War on Drugs, an effort that took hold in several countries and led to criminalization of addiction, militarization of the police, and the disproportional targeting of racialized communities.


Most recently, we have witnessed the use of the war metaphor in relation to the pandemic. It is perhaps the closest parallel to an actual wartime situation, where the public is urged to make sacrifices for the sake of safety, warned against hoarding, and generally urged to “do our part.” One foolish man in Washington even declared himself a “wartime president,” before losing interest in the whole thing.


Again, there is a shadow side to the use of the war metaphor in the context of disease. There is no “front” in this war, with the virus lurking everywhere. It has led some to cast blame on the people and places the disease began. And it can lead us to celebrate sacrifice, especially among frontline heroes, without always asking what they truly need, like better hours, paid sick leave, or greater access to PPE. And then there is the question about disease generally: is it something you conquer or something you learn to live with? We need to handle our metaphors with great care.


Along with great care, we also need to lend metaphor great respect. In the realm of scripture, we know that when seeking to describe the sublime, we often reach for metaphor. The Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God, the Light of the World, the Bread of Life, the Alpha and Omega. These are things we can see and touch, used to describe that which we struggle to comprehend. We try them on, we adopt a favourite, and it transforms our understanding.


St. Paul, master of words, is also busy giving us figurative language to try on. And he’s pretty transparent about it, famously admitting “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9) Some have cast “all things to all people” in a negative light, but for Paul it points to his concern—bordering on desperation—about the state of our soul. And so we read these words today:

18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe.

Again, metaphor. Having eyes on your heart would be awkward—but in the poetic realm, it’s magic. He could have simply said “open your eyes to the hope he has given you” but he chose to add another image instead. And before we really dig into this image, I want to point out one more thing. Metaphor is a literal “rabbit hole” when you consider these two short verses.


You can’t see hope, unless you use imagination. 

The riches of this glorious inheritance can’t be taken to the bank, they live inside us. 

There is no outward sign that we are holy people, but God can see it.

We are given “incomparably great power,” but it’s not the power that the world would recognize.


The richness of symbolic language only works if you set aside the literal meaning of these words and enter the world that God has made, the “realm of God” where these words have power.   And with Paul as our guide, we can truly appreciate what the eyes our heart might see. To do this, he might have us open our Bibles and go back, way back, to see where all this began.


An early version of the “eyes of the heart” might be found in Genesis 6, where God is confounded by the creature God has made, and tries to understand. The author reaches for the word yetser, meaning “thoughts of the heart” (Gen 6.5) or “what is framed in the mind” (BDB, 428a). In a word, this is imagination. And in Genesis it’s generally about the mischief we can get into when we really put our minds to it. Still, it frames this idea of imagination, and it begins in the heart.


Likewise, the Greeks, when pondering imagination (what could be more Greek than pondering imagination?) gave us the word phantasia—literally things that appear. Obviously, we don’t have to go too far out on a limb to see what Paul is conflating for us: thoughts of the heart and things that appear come together to give us the “eyes of the heart.” Here is Paul, all things to all people, bringing together his Jewish self and his Greek thought to help us see God. You need the eyes of our heart to see the glorious inheritance God has given us through Jesus Christ. Full stop.


To conclude, we need a final metaphor, and that would be Christ the King, or the Reign of Christ, whichever you prefer. It takes considerable imagination to make Christ the king of your heart— with all your mind, and all your soul—but once you do, the riches of God dwell in you. Put another way, we can “put on Christ,” (Rom 13) and be transformed. Whatever metaphor you choose, Christ becomes the Lord of your life, and the eyes of your heart will open.


I want to give the last word to Charles Wesley, words from a hymn that first appeared in the wonderfully named collection Hymns for those that Seek, and those that Have Redemption (Bristol, 1747) I think that describes all of us! And I think his words best describe the Christian hope, when the eyes of your heart are open:


Jesus, thou art all compassion,
pure, unbounded love thou art;
visit us with thy salvation,
enter ev’ry trembling heart.


Amen.


Sunday, November 15, 2020

Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Judges 4

Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, now that Ehud was dead. 2 So the Lord sold them into the hands of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. Sisera, the commander of his army, was based in Harosheth Haggoyim. 3 Because he had nine hundred chariots fitted with iron and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the Lord for help.

4 Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading[a] Israel at that time. 5 She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided. 6 She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. 7 I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’”



Again the people did an evil and wrongheaded thing in the sight of the Lord. So they were placed in the hands of the apprentice king, who reigned first from somewhere on 5th Avenue. Mitch, the commander of the hundred, was based on swampy ground near the Potomac River. Together, they oppressed the people for four long years, and the people cried out for help.


Nancy, a prophet, held court near the same swampy ground as Mitch, in a place that was supposed to settle disputes for the benefit of the people. An election was called, and she sent for Barak, and said, “Go to the tens and the hundreds, socially-distant in their cars, and remind them of the ways of hope and change. And the people were led to the polls, and reversed the wrongheaded thing they did four years earlier.


This is not the New American Standard Bible, though a translation by that name does exist. I’ve given you an attempt at dynamic equivalence (Nida), a contemporary rendering that gives you a sense of the text without the avalanche of impossible-to-pronounce names. It’s also meant to underline the main theme of the Book of Judges: the endless cycle of obedience and disobedience that defines the relationship between Israel and her God.


Any historian will tell that history is a loop rather than a line, and that the seeming progress we experience will soon loop around to the past we thought we had left behind. And the cycle we see in the Book of Judges provides a perfect illustration. Overall it’s obedience and disobedience, but in text we find a more elaborate pattern:


The people do evil in the eyes of the Lord (v. 1)

The people are sold or given into the hands of their enemies (v. 2, 3)

The Lord lifts up a prophet or leader (v. 4, 5)

The Spirit of the Lord rests on the leader (v. 9)

The enemy is defeated (v. 7, 15, 22)

The people live in peace once more (5.31)*


Until the cycle begins again. A quick Bible search of the words “cried out” will reveal all the moments this movement is underway. The people forget the Lord their God. The people turn away, the people are disobedient, the people adopt idols, the people take foreign wives, the people fall in love with Baal once more. They cry out, and the Lord sends them a Moses, or an Elijah, or a Deborah. And the Lord saves them once more.


But Deborah is unique here. Not only is she the only woman named a judge of Israel, but she joins the war party in their battle with the Canaanites. And she goes further: “Certainly I will go with you,” she says. “But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” Like Elizabeth I at Tilbury, Deborah transforms supposed weakness into strength, and underlines God’s desire to save.


And, of course, it’s the end of the story, the part we did not read, that becomes the most memorable. The Canaanite general, Sisera, is defeated, but manages to escape the battlefield. He wanders into the tent of an ally, Heber the Kenite, and finds himself alone with Heber’s wife Jael. He demands water, and Jael gives him some warm milk instead, and a cuddly blanket, and soon Sisera is sound asleep. At this moment Jael takes a hammer, and a tent peg, and…well, you can guess the rest. The Canaanite defeat, at the hands of Deborah and Jael is complete, and peace returns.


Maybe we need a moment, after all that excitement, to ponder Western art in the High Renaissance. There seems to be a bit of debate about the preponderance of religious art: was it some sort of custom or decree, the fact that most of the art is religious, or was it simply that the church was the wealthiest patron of the arts? We’ll let the scholars argue over that one, but we should note that even the preponderance fell into predictable categories. Madonna and child, important saints, and predictably, women bathing, such as Susanna or Bathsheba. And then there is Jael, hammer in one hand, tent peg in the other, and…well, you know the rest. (In most paintings she looks really mad, but in Salomon de Bray’s remarkable painting we see the psychological complexity of this character).


In a Christian framework, we see the very same pattern. John the Baptist cries out “who told you to flee from the wrath to come?’ and then Jesus appears. The lost and the disobedient are found and forgiven, and the daily walk begins. Disciples are called, lives transformed, and moments later they are arguing about which one gets to sit at the right hand in glory. Jesus forgives their foolish ways, and the walk continues, up to a lonely hill where pieces of silver are exchanged and denials are made. Even the soldiers that mock and flog will recognize that this is the Son of the Most High—a day later, but never too late.


Failure and misfortune, faith and forgiveness, and the path continues until it loops around once more. It describes a life of faith, and it describes life on earth—the alternating times of promise and peril, progress and failure. Last Saturday, we celebrated the end of an era, the first major defeat in the battle against extremism and populism. By midweek the celebration was over, with numerous elected officials pointing to some sort of fantasy outcome—the rest of us mistaken. Who knows what the mood will be next week, or what brand of crazy we will endure, but the pattern is familiar.


And while we can’t necessarily end the pattern in our time, we should be able to disrupt it, or diminish it in some way. So this might be the moment to revisit something that we talked about last fall, some research on recent trends, from an article with the uncomfortable title “Populism is growing because more people than you think want chaos.” In the article, we learn that a close study of attitudes and activities across several Western countries highlights the real divide of our time. It’s less the division between left and right, even though those old lines remain clear—and more between those who would maintain the existing order and those who would tear it all down.


And these researchers have made the alarming discovery that nearly 40 percent of the population across these countries fall into the ‘tear it all down’ category. These people have lost faith in the existing order, including governments and the leading voices in society, and are seeking alternatives. They come from both the left and right, they tend to be disadvantaged in some way, or have simply lost faith in the idea that the future will be better than the past. They are particularly open to voices that cast blame or propose simple solutions to complex problems. And they are easy to reach—social media amplifies alternate voices and allows people to find each other—for good or for ill.


And on one level they have a point. Wealth inequality, a changing economy, the environmental crisis—none of these problems have been adequately addressed by the people who lead us. But the alternative—‘tear it all down’—is too frightening to contemplate. So the authors of this study make a simple suggestion: that moderates on both sides of the political divide work together to solve the problems that lead to hopelessness and despair. Begin to address the complex problems we face, and over time fewer and fewer people will be drawn to chaos. It’s the hardest simple solution in the world, or the simplest hard solution, take your pick.**


Whenever It’s time to conclude a sermon like this, there’s usually a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to help us make sense of the situation we find ourselves in—and he never disappoints. This quote was shared in an address to the Montgomery Improvement Association’s first mass meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church.


I want to tell you this evening that it is not enough for us to talk about love, love is one of the pivotal points of the Christian…faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.


When Dr. King shared these words, he was just 26 years old. So he underlines a couple of things. The first is that young people will inevitably lead us forward, since they seek to create the world they will inhabit the longest. And the second is that whenever we ponder love correcting that which revolts against love, we’re talking about God. God is love. And God’s love is always “love in calculation,” seeking ways to lead us home.

Meeting this moment may not require the drama of Deborah or Jael, but it will require the same trust in the power of God to transform lives. In our work, and in our prayer, we turn to God to calculate the love needed to build the kingdom, to make it known, now and always, Amen.


*Guest, 2003

**https://www.thersa.org/blog/matthew-taylor/2019/09/chaos 

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Remembrance Sunday

 1 Thessalonians 4

13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.



The idea began by chance.


Padre David Railton, British army chaplain in the First World War, happened upon a recent grave marked by a rough cross. This, in and of itself, was not unusual, but written on the cross, in pencil, were the words “An Unknown British Soldier.” From that moment, and the impression it made, came the idea of gathering the remains of an unknown soldier from a battlefield in France and burying that soldier “amongst the kings” in Westminster Abbey.*


In 1920, the Dean of Westminster and the Prime Minister agreed that this would be an ideal way to honour those lost in the Great War. Remains were exhumed on the 7th of November for transfer to London, resting first within the ancient citadel at Boulogne. On the morning of the 10th, the casket was led in procession to the harbour, accompanied by a thousand schoolchildren and a division of French troops.


At noon, the casket was carried aboard the HMS Verdun, and departed Boulogne with a flotilla of six destroyers. Arriving at Dover, the unknown soldier was transferred by rail to Victoria Station, platform 8, and remained overnight. A small plaque between platforms 8 and 9 continues to mark the spot, and a service is held there each year on the 10th of November.


“Immense and silent crowds” met the procession as the casket moved through London to the Abbey. When entering the Abbey, the casket was flanked by an honour guard of one hundred recipients of the Victoria Cross. The guests of honour for the ceremony were nearly one hundred women, “chosen because they had each lost their husband and all their sons in the war.”


Soil was brought from each of the main battlefields, and covered with a silk pall, with the casket atop. When finally lowered beneath the floor of the Abbey, a large slab of black Belgian marble was laid, with the inscription, “Beneath this stone rests the body of a British warrior, unknown by name or rank, brought from France to lie among the most illustrious of the land.” It remains the only marker on which visitors are forbidden to walk.


The idea that began at Westminster Abbey was mirrored in France and other Commonwealth countries. It signaled that commemoration was no longer for the great and the good alone, but for ordinary citizen soldiers, working men and women who gave the most in war. It was an attempt to honour loss on an unimaginable scale, and it remains the most stirring monument in the great Abbey.


Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.


Like those who mourned the missing from France and Belgium, believers in the early church were confronted by uncertainty in the midst of grief. They believed that death would not visit them before Christ returned, leaving them with a vexing problem. The march of mortality returned, and trumpet blast had not sounded. What will happen to the dead, they asked, if Jesus returns for the living? Will the dead be overlooked on that great and glorious day? St. Paul said “no.”


…we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.


Only then, Paul insists, will the living be “caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” We hear these words—remarkable words—yet our modern minds push back. Less than a generation passed from Jesus’ promise to the letter Paul wrote, and two thousand years on, the question only grows. Is it a reasonable hope, this promised return and the consummation of all things? Is it even desirable, when so many believers have used the endtimes as an excuse to ignore problems here on earth?


This last suggestion, a longing for escape, ignores the primary desire found in Jesus’ own words: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We cannot know if this long-imagined terminal point will come to pass, we can only surrender to the mystery—and trust the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. We may or may not be the generation that meets the Lord in the air, but we can rest in the knowledge that “in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Cor 15)**


Much of what we do in this place becomes a mirror on our lives. We are encouraged to remember our baptism and give thanks. We witness vows that loving couples make and we recommit to our own vows. We listen to the words of the eulogist and wonder what will be said of us, at our own service of thanksgiving. We hear stories of sacrifice in war and we wonder what we would have done—or what we will still do—to safeguard the freedoms we enjoy. The dead in Christ surround us, calling us forward, encouraging us to be agents of mercy and peace. We give thanks for the foundation they laid, the service they rendered, and the love they shared. And we give thanks that those who are unknown, are always known to God. Amen.


*The Unknown Warrior, Wikipedia

**This quote is also inscribed on the Abbey maker

Sunday, November 01, 2020

All Saints' Sunday

1 Thessalonians 2

9 Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

13 And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.I suspect my mother was a secret Catholic.



I suspect my mother was a secret Catholic.


And while my evidence may be vague and and a little flimsy, it remains a question in my mind. My suspicion began with the purchase of a late 70s Corolla, used, brown in colour with a beige vinyl roof. Already you find this story troubling, and that’s before you sit inside. For there, in the middle of the dashboard, was a small ornament, like a small coin on a pedestal.


Me: Mother, what is that?

Mother: That’s St. Christopher, patron saint of travellers.

Me: But you’re not Catholic.

Mother: I know, but he’s the patron saint of travellers.

Me: You’re just gonna leave it there, aren’t you?

Mother: Of course.


It was only later that I learned that St. Christopher had been demoted—maybe reassigned—within the list of Catholic saints. I can’t imagine that this information would have any bearing on the shiny metal object in the middle of the dash, since leaving it there was more about avoiding bad luck. In other words, she was not-so-secretly superstitious rather than secretly Catholic.


If you are currently looking at the St. Christopher medal on your keychain, I do not mean to offend. He’s an interesting case, and represents an important step in the evolution of the idea of sainthood. His story mirrors numerous saints who emerged in the middle ages and became increasingly popular. Christopher, like his colleagues St. Nicholas and St. George, appeared with the kernel of a story that was embellished over the centuries.


The name Christopher means Christ-bearer, and he is said to have carried a young child across a river, only to discover that he was carrying Christ. In this sense, he blesses travellers, as he was blessed. He becomes the embodiment of “entertaining angels unawares” (Heb 13) or serving Christ in the form of the “least of these.” (Mat 25)


This, of course, was not enough to keep him on the formal list of saints. Church reform in the 1960s demanded that saints who were more legend than fact be removed from the primary calendar of commemoration. They were never fully omitted, just placed in a new category. This allowed the church to emphasize saints that were recognized through the highly organized process of canonization.


Over here in the Protestant Church, we’ve taken a different approach. Our Anglican friends continue to commemorate pre-Reformation saints, but have shifted focus to “saints and heroes” of the faith. On the west front of Westminster Abbey you will find statues of Martin Luther King Jr. and Óscar Romero, modern saints and heroes, just two examples. Methodists have taken a similar approach, never praying to saints, but lifting them up as examples to follow.


The phrase “hero of the faith” is helpful, since the common definition of sainthood is to display “heroic virtue.” Beginning in the middle ages, this meant demonstrating the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance) along with the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. If these three sound familiar, it may relate to the many weddings you have attended. St. Paul commends faith, hope, and charity in 1 Corinthians, though we usually flatter the bride and groom by using the alternate translation, “faith, hope, and love.”


In many ways, Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is an expanded version of faith, hope, and charity. The letter is less concerned with matters of doctrine, and more about living together as believers. The passage that Joyce shared is like a letter inside the letter, giving us the gist of the matter:


For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.


Paul is keen to remind them that he was trying to set an example, demonstrating “faith, hope, and charity” at Thessalonica, and urging them to do likewise. In some ways it sounds immodest, reminding them that he and his helpers were “holy, righteous, and blameless” while with them, but it strengthens his point. By living lives worthy of God, we practice the ultimate form of devotion, the greatest gift we can give.


His words are not fully without doctrine, because he shares an important principle in the next section:


And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.


“You accepted…the word of God, which is indeed at work in you…”


I’m going to be bold and suggest that what Paul is giving us is a summary of sainthood, a summary that includes virtue (in the word of God) and the abiding sense that God is at work in us. Consider it: when we follow the word, we take it on, we embody it—then we take it into the world. Without us, there is risk that the word of God will simply be words in a page. But when we live it, when we personify the word, then God is working in us.


And this, of course, is why we treasure scripture. It provides comfort and hope, inspiration and direction, but it also reminds us of the many ways we can allow God to work in us. Think about some of your favourite passages, and then consider the mandate of allowing God to “work in us and others.” Think of Micah 6, for example: “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Countless believers have lived these words on their daily walk with the Most High. Likewise, these words from Proverbs 3: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” (Prov 3)


Perhaps the Proverbs passage is a little less familiar than Micah, but “lean not on your own understanding” is also at the heart of sainthood. We imagine that the great heroes of the faith had all the answers, knew exactly what they were doing, always did the right thing—but this is not the case. Allowing God to work in us, allowing God to anchor our lives, doesn’t make us less human. In fact, allowing God to work in us will make us more aware of our need for redemption, and the power of God’s mercy.


I want to conclude with the list of church names that we have been compiling since last Sunday. As an anniversary project, the list represents all the churches that formed us, and formed Central, making us who we are today. That was last week. This week, we ponder the list and call to mind all the saints represented by the congregations of the list. Consider the service rendered by these congregations: the mercy shown, the comfort given, the instruction shared, the inspiration kindled. Each church on our list represents devoted service—the work of saints—to keep the faith, share hope, and enact the charity that God provides.


We’ll pray over these names in a few moments, but for now we give thanks, thanks for lives lived and love enacted, in Jesus’ name. Amen.