Monday, December 26, 2005

Christmas Eve

I have cooked many turkeys. Every year, often twice or three times, I hunt down the elusive bird. I sometimes think it would be easier to actually hunt one than find a decent fresh turkey in this town. And every time it's turkey time I struggle to remember the stuffing specifics: Sage and summer savory? Sage and poultry seasoning? Poultry seasoning and allspice? And what is allspice, anyway?

Enter the Internet. For those of you unfamiliar with cooking online, there are thousands of cooking sites that offer advice to the brave and the not-so-brave in the kitchen. Faced with confused stuffing, and not wanting to foul the festive bird (couldn't resist), I did a Google search for "turkey." It was less than helpful.

Deep Fried Cajun Turkey
Arizona Turkey with Chipotle Sauce
Maple-Roasted Turkey with Sage, Smoked Bacon, and Cornbread Stuffing (sounds great, actually)
Black Lacquered Turkey
Gumbo Turkey Ya-Ya

It appears that there is some diversity in the world of turkey, and the traditional roasted turkey with stuffing is but one way to go. In fact, if you do a quick survey of Christmas meals there seems to be increasing variety in the centrepiece of the meal.

Year by year I have participated in a number of Christmas hamper programs and over time there has been a gradual shift in opinion regarding the festive bird. At first, we would run around town with a carload of frozen birds and all the other ingredients of a typical meal. This approach, of course, assumed a few things: you have a freezer, an oven, a desire for roast turkey, and the ability to cook it. Eventually we abandoned the bird altogether in favour of greater help with the staples.

Here, at the Churches by the Bluffs food bank a similar approach is taken, and by mid-December the basement was filling up with supplemental items to make the entire season easier, not simply Christmas Day. In this sense we have a double blessing: the blessing of meals we will enjoy with family and friends and the blessing of knowing that through our outreach we have helped many families through a tough time of year.


His name was "Exalted One." He was called "Saviour" and "Son of the Most High." His birth was said to have signaled "the beginning of Good News for the world" and with his death it was decreed that he should be known only as "God."

The person I'm speaking of is not Jesus (who would some day carry these same titles) but his contemporary Caesar Augustus. Historians consider his forty-year reign the high point of Roman history, the era for which the phrase pax romana or "Roman Peace" was coined. On September 17, in the year 14, less than a month after his death, he was declared a god.

I think it is safe to say that few, if any, people today worship Caesar Augustus. And I think it's a safe bet that few people, outside of those who were listening too carefully in Grade 11 history remember that his name was Gaius Octavius. In the first century, when he was the most famous man alive, few would have guessed that rather than celebrate his birth we would gather to celebrate the birth of a Jewish peasant from the very edge of the Empire.


In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

The first few verses of Luke 2 are among the most familiar parts of the Bible. People who have little or no knowledge of the Bible or Christianity still seem to know the story of the trip to Bethlehem and that there was "no room for them at the inn." Sparse and beautiful in its description of Jesus' birth, the narrative still reveals much about the sub-text of the story.

To say that there was no room for them at the inn is not quite true. It would be more accurate to say that there was no room at the inn for a couple who were near the very bottom of the economic latter. With enough money to pay, the innkeeper himself would give up his bed and head to the stable for the night. But for Mary and Joseph, who would later on give the temple offering of the very poor, there were few options for the night.

Luke, as he tells this story, seems to put Augustus and Jesus together, perhaps to emphasize the very truth that we can see with the gift of hindsight: The most humble has been exulted and the highest of all has been brought low in our sight. What we are seeing is a transformation of values: a kingdom of love taking the place of a kingdom of power.


As we prepare to gather at the table of our Lord this evening, we recall that the act of communion is rooted in the earliest Christian tradition when meals were shared and no one in the community went without. The command "do this in remembrance of me" was a command to not only break bread together but also to ensure that no one went without bread. This is the love that came to us at Christmas: love that shares openly, love that stands with the broken and the dispossessed and a love that cries out for common mission.

I want to conclude tonight with a prayer from New Zealand:

Welcome, welcome, Jesus Christ our infant saviour,
baby who makes every birth holy.
May we, who like the shepherds
have witnessed in the stable a new kind of love,
return to our work with love.
May we, for whom the heaves have been opened
to proclaim that God is with us,
we that have been fed on living bread
and drunk the wine of heaven,
go out to be instruments of your peace, day by day.

Christmas Day

Isaiah 9
2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined.
3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.
4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

There must be a lull in the scientific community in the autumn of each year. If so, the lull produces some dramatic theories to help us understand Christmas in greater depth. For example:

How do eight tiny reindeer accomplish so much on one night?
Experts in quantum physics suggest that Santa travels through "wormholes," tiny perforations in the space-time continuum.

Why is Ebenezer Scrooge so unhappy? Clearly he is depressed, likely the result of unresolved grief at the death of his partner, Marley.

Rudolph's red nose? Most likely the result of a parasitic infection found in reindeer.

The elves? A disease of the pituitary gland that hobbles their growth.

And finally, the Grinch: he’s a walking list of symptoms. Depression, insomnia, irritability, microcardia (a heart two sizes too small), hyperpigmenation (excess colour in the skin) and an alarming disposition toward whole-word monosyllabic repetition: “noise, noise, noise, feast, feast, feast, sing, sing, sing. Surprisingly, all of these symptoms point to an actual ailment named Addison’s disease, of which the most famous sufferer was John F. Kennedy (aside from the Grinch, that is).

Explain it, dissect it, theorize over it, commercialize it, dress it up, set it to catchy holiday tunes…it is still Christmas, it is still the day we gather to celebrate God’s coming in a new way. It is still the day we reserve for the people closest to us, the day we try to honour others with gifts in the same manner that God honoured us.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

We know who he is…or at least we think we do…Son of God, Prince of Peace, Saviour…but the question remains: What is Christmas? What does it mean? How could we explain it to someone completely unfamiliar to our tradition and our system of belief.

It can be a helpful exercise, to stand back, and try create a thumbnail sketch of what we think we know, or what we take for granted as a commonly understood idea.

So what is it? Give me your working definition of Christmas.


Isaac would give me the obvious…Jesus’ birthday. And them he would launch into the apparent contradiction in celebrating Jesus’ birthday on December 25, when clearly we mark time from the birth of Jesus, which no doubt should be on January 1st, the first day of the year. Trying to trip up the old man, eh? Why did it take me three years of theological college to spot the problem, and the boy still resides in grade five.

John Donne’s “Nativity”

Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves his well-beloved imprisonment,
There he hath made himself to his intent,
Weak enough, now into our world to come.

“Weak enough, now into our world to come.” In Donne’s theology, God’s immensity is transformed into the most vulnerable human form to enter our world, to take on our humanity, to wear the fragility we wear.

Why do this? Why become vulnerable when the way of the world seems to be strength and power and the ability to move beyond others. Why would God become weak enough to enter our world?

1 Corinthians 1:26ff: Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.

Jesus is “wisdom from God.” A new kind of wisdom, a new expression of God, never before presented to humankind.

There were other appearances. God came to us before Jesus is a myriad of ways…wrestling with Jacob, speaking from the burning bush on Sinai, and another noteworthy appearance that goes largely overlooked: (from Jack Miles)

Once when Joshua was by Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went to him and said to him, "Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?" He replied, "Neither; but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come." And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped, and he said to him, "What do you command your servant, my lord?" The commander of the army of the LORD said to Joshua, "Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy."

The man claims to be the commander of the Lord’s army, but the command for Joshua to remove his sandals, and his reaction of falling on his face, make it clear that this is God. This is the God that so many hoped for…that so many anticipated…sword draw, laden with armor, ready to defend God’s people with a swift arm and great strength.

But the wisdom of God changed. God changed. A world ruled by the might of sword and armor didn’t need the commander of the Lord’s army, one more competitor on the field of battle. The wisdom of God was no longer that God would appear and fight on our behalf, but rather that the way of service and humility and vulnerability would carry the day. Hearts would be transformed, and the line between us and adversary would vanish when God appeared not as Jew or Greek, slave or free, Roman or no, but as baby…a baby without politics or preference or power but the kernel of God’s immensity.

This wisdom would grow, and learn of us and our ways, our needs and hurts, our pain and predicament, and choose to live and die in our midst, that we might learn and grow and begin to reflect God’s wisdom anew.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Advent 3

Mark 1
1The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2It is written in Isaiah the prophet:
"I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way"[b]—
3"a voice of one calling in the desert,
'Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.' "[c] 4And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5The 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. 6John wore clothing made of camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7And this was his message: "After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8I baptize you with[d] water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

'Tis the season to be...

Just for fun I googled 'tis the season...' just to find our what the world is saying. Here is what I found:

'Tis the season to be pro-retail. (shopping)
'Tis the season to be sorry. (Sydney's mayor for last years' half-hearted Christmas celebrations)
'Tis the season to be suspicious. (internet fraud)
'Tis the season to be canny (about which credit card to use)
'Tis the season to be knitting. (?)
'Tis the season to be appropriate. (at the office party)
'Tis the season to be cautious (pet safety and poison)
'Tis the season to be stressed-out. (obvious)
'Tis the season to be broke (spending money we don't have)

Clearly there is some confusion afoot. The season to be jolly has become a troubled melange of emotions that include fear, stress and anxiety. Will consumers spend enough to offset the effect of Katrina? Will they spend online? Will they poison their pets or fail to keep their hands to themselves. Is this Christmas or the end of the world as we know it?

Time for a deep breath. Time to try to relax. One of the things I do when I feeling stressed out is to turn the car radio off. It's a particularly helpful thing to do if I'm not certain why I'm feeling stressed out. There is something about being confronted by relative silence that allows the mind to wander. Wandering, the mind will often follow a path to the place it needs to go: the place that is either the source of the stress or, in really helpful moments, the source of stress and a way out of it.

I made this discovery quite on my own, but others tell me they also use a form of this 'therapy' to search for clues to anxiety. It has also been confirmed by one of the great thinkers of the last century, C.S. Lewis. In this weekend of Narnia (film release was Friday) he has words of advice given in his unique (and edgy) style. He turns things on their head and offers ways to promote God's absence:

Avoid silence, avoid solitude, avoid any train of thought that leads off the beaten track. Concentrate on money, sex, status, health and (above all) on your own grievances. Keep the radio on. Live in a crowd. Use plenty of sedation. If you must read books, select them very carefully. But you'll be safer to stick to the papers. You'll find the advertisements helpful; especially those with sexy or snobbish appeal. (Yancy, p. 121)

'Tis the season to look within, say the inventors of Advent: Look within and discover the source of whatever anxiety or stress you feel. And if it is as simple as you are doing too much, slow down. When that last gift appears in a clearly recycled gift bag or the last tray of cookies is no where to be found you can always fall back on that seasonal favourite: it is the thought that counts.


1The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2It is written in Isaiah the prophet:
"I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way"—
3"a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
'Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.' "

Enter John. John came, baptizing in the wilderness region, preaching the message of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He had crazy clothes and a crazy diet and crazy words about someone who would arrive with a winnowing fork in his hand.

In Matthew's Gospel he finds his edge too:

"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

Clearly he missed both "How to Win Friends and Influence People" and Norman Vincent Peale's "The Power of Positive Thinking." Never one to fool around, John the Baptist gives us a fine distillation of the Old Testament prophetic tradition for a new era. "I baptize you with water for repentance, he said, "but after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."

Behind the bluster and the fire is a quiet assembly of people. "People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan" we are told. "Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River." Following that path through the desert, car radios turned off, they came to hear a message and express their regret. They came to participate in a particular style of baptism: "A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins."

Baptism, in its literal meaning, translates "to wash." There were several baptisms in the Jewish tradition, most connected to ritual purity and the need to remain 'clean' rather than 'unclean.' It was John who employed an early metaphor that transforms this washing to include repentance for the forgiveness of sins. After this the meaning will shift again, when Jesus says: "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?" Our baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus will become the normative meaning in time.

Back in the wilderness, however, John is welcoming desert wanderers and offering them an opportunity to repent. It is his baptism that will release them from all the things that they have carried into this wasteland, and allow them to resume their lives in freedom. They have entered a season of forgiveness where they can shed the things they regret and can join with others to form a community of the baptized. Together they wait for the onc long promised, the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire. They wait for the Lord.


I want to share with you part of Margery William's classic story "The Velveteen Rabbit." What I will share is part of a conversation between Rabbit, who is new to the nursery and the old Skin Horse, who has lived in the nursery for a very long time. Rabbit is anxious about his place among the shiny new toys of Christmas, especially the mechanical ones, and anxious to know that he is real.

"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

"I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.

"The Boy's Uncle made me Real," he said. "That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."

'Tis the season to be real. 'Tis the season to find our place in the desert and cast off the things we would sooner leave behind. 'Tis the season for silence and reflection, seeking the source of our anxiety in a desire to let it go too. 'Tis the season to wait and watch, to search our signs of Christ's coming and be ready to receive him in. Again, 'tis the reason to be real, and to be loved as those who are truly real. St. Augustine said this of God: "By loving the unlovable, you made me lovable." May we have the confidence to know that it lasts for always. Amen.

Monday, December 05, 2005

The sermon preached at the covenanting service between the Rev. John Brown and Cosburn United Church, East York, Ontario.

Luke 1
46And Mary said:
"My soul glorifies the Lord
47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers."

I firmly believe that there should be a twenty-four hour rule on great comebacks. You know the situation: confronted by unexpected words or a surprising turn of events you find yourself speechless. And if you are like me, you know that within twenty-four hours you will have something brilliant to say in response. It usually happens in the car on the way home, and I say "Ha Ha! So there!" And I can catalogue one more gem-like response given far too late.

Poor Mary: Confronted by the angel Gabriel, she is overwhelmed. Her halting speech and her confusion seem perfectly appropriate in the context of the angel messenger's words:

You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."

She will, however, get her twenty-four hours to respond. And respond she will. Her initial (and appropriate) response saying "I'm too young" will recede from the front of her mind and she will have her moment to express the texture of what is happening inside her. Listening, it could well be a psalm or the words of some great prophet that she speaks:

My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.


I speak for all of Scarborough Presbytery when I say we were sad to send John to you. John is dear friend, but also a treasured colleague who brings wisdom and integrity to whichever setting he finds himself. We were lucky to have him in three pastoral charges over 5 years and now reluctantly release him to you. (Of course he hasn't drifted far from me, since I live about 500 metres from here)

Part of John's most recent experience in Scarborough Presbytery is serving in a context that is undergoing an intensive self-assessment process called SpiritWork. A couple of years ago the leaders of the presbytery decided that the malaise that had settled over many of the 22 churches in Scarborough had to be addressed. Declining membership, two closures, and the presbyteries own struggle to attract leadership all pointed to the need for some sort of reflective process. The questions were vexing: Why the persistent decline? Can it be arrested or reversed? What resources do we need to counteract the trends?

The presbytery engaged a consulting group and began meeting with congregations and groups of interested individuals. Ministers were consulted, and demographic information gathered. Finally, two years ago, a group was gathered to sift through the data and make recommendations. In the spring of 2003, the SpiritWork steering team issued a report.

As a small sample, I would like you to consider one of the group’s insights, and how we can apply it to the life of the church. The insight involves types of change. I begin with a simple illustration: When a woman is pregnant, her life begins to change. This might include her diet, sleeping patterns, daily routine, weight, shopping habits, and gradually her self-perception. She will soon be a mother. Her life is changing. This is known as adaptive change. Something shifts, and she adjusts to the change. All the while she can continue to come and go when she chooses, travel, go to work, and experience the freedom she has always known.

Then the baby is born. Everything is changed. Suddenly, she is never alone. Her schedule depends on the baby, and the patterns of waking, sleeping, eating, moving about, and engaging in anything resembling her former life is gone. She has experienced deep order change. Deep order change is complete and irreversible. You can’t say "this one cries all the time, I think I’ll send it back." For better or worse you are a parent and will continue to be a parent until they are grown and even then you never stop being a parent.

The consensus in Scarborough Presbytery is that we are in the midst of a new style of change. The period where you could simply add a new program or call a new minister and expect the church to grow is gone. The days when young families with children would flock to church and quickly find their place are gone. And (hardest to hear) the days of one congregation, one building, and one full-time minister are soon to be gone too.

So what is the church to do? The first pastoral response is to recognize that change is disorienting and often leads to conflict. People need time to grieve the loss of the old style of church: two services on a Sunday, 400 children in the church school and more committees than Jesus had disciples. They need to see the new reality and not be given to despair. It's tough though, to remember the days when the church was the centre of the community and then realize (as we did in Scarborough) that the worshipping presence of the United Church now touches 0.4% of the population of our part of the city.

I want to share with you words from writer Walter Burghardt. His words give a clear sense of where I hope our SpiritWork conclusions lead:

"You must be men and women of ceaseless hope, because only tomorrow can today's human and Christian promise be realized; and every tomorrow will have its own tomorrow, world without end. Every human act, every Christian act is an act of hope. But that means you must be men and women of the present, you must live this moment - really live it, not just endure it - because this very moment, for all its imperfection and frustration, because of its imperfection and frustration, is pregnant with all sorts of possibilities, is pregnant with the future, is pregnant with love, is pregnant with Christ." (Imaging the Word, p. 92.)

And it is with this pregnant hope that we return to Mary and the blessing of Advent. She took her twenty-four hours to ponder and dream of a way to express her sense of what God was doing in her life. This is what she said:

From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
God's mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers."

The revolutionary nature of these words has not been lost on those seeking a radical departure from the past. Like Pharaoh ruling proudly from his throne, so many ignore the radical implications of a God that chooses to enter human experience and usher in the Kingdom. This is deep order change: That a pregnancy like no other will result in a birth like no other and God will be present to us as never before.

It is easy to get swept up in the excitement of the season and forget the profound changes that Mary points to: The hungry will be filled. The humble will be lifted up and those who are proud “in the imagination of their hearts” will be scattered. Politicians beware.

And for you, at Cosburn, the season finds you pregnant with possibility. Here, in the midst of change and surrounded by even larger changes, you seek to remain faithful. I urge you to take your cue from Mary and praise the God that remains ever in your midst and seeks to enter in ever new ways:

My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.

May God bless your work together. May you be strengthened to keep the vows you make, and may God continue to enter this place in new and surprising ways. Amen.