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