Sunday, December 28, 2008

First Sunday after Christmas

Galatians 4.4-7

4But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our* hearts, crying, ‘Abba!* Father!’ 7So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

Someone once told me that driving around with the radio off can give you special insight. You see, the radio is a mental distraction, not on the scale of a blackberry or a screaming kid, but a distraction meant to fill the idle mind. When all the water outside begins to freeze tomorrow, driving will be anything but boring: but under normal circumstances, we need the radio to keep things lively.

Radio off, however, and something else begins to happen. We enter a different type of consciousness where the mind begins to wander and fill with that which demands to be recognized. Something similar happens with small children, when after a minute in bed they will reappear and claim to be having bad dreams. What is truly happening, however, is the appearance of the urgent thoughts of an idle mind.

So, back to the car. We are driving and looking forward, and all the while we are occasionally glancing backwards in the carefully positioned rear view mirrors. Forward and back, all at once. And this, the theory goes, is the source of all that special insight. Looking forward while looking backward teases the mind in a unique way. We begin to assimilate forward and backward and draw connections in our mind's eye. If you have every had the experience of solving some vexing problem or having a “eureka” moment while driving, credit the forward-backward theory.

Today is December 28th. Maybe you're not ready for 2009, but there is precious little you can do about it now. The fact that the international time people added a leap second this year, artificially extending your lifespan by another second, is cold comfort for those of you who dread the dawning of a new year. 2009 sounds distant, some thing that ought to belong to the future, and not the end of the week.

This week, of course, has the same forward-backward orientation as driving with the radio off. We are inundated by year-end reviews, best-of lists and the newsmaker stories that remind you of all that you forgot or wish you could forget. Those of you tied up in the dangerous world of equities will know of what I speak. This week functions as a sort of time capsule, recounted, summarized, and set aside as the new year begins.

The forward looking work of the last week of December is a little more tricky. Setting aside the National Enquirer work of seers, we are left with a mishmash of planned events and hazy predictions. Will all four quarters suck? Every economist has a different answer. Will the Leafs win the cup? I think we know the answer to that one. Will the Harper government flame out, forcing me to learn how to spell Ignatieff without using Google? Will President Obama usher in a new age, or even a better age, or just a less embarrassing age south of the border?

The inauguration, 25 sleeps away, feels like one of those watershed moments in our collective history. Proudly Canadian, one can't help but enjoy the shift that is taking place. For me it began with John Adams.

John Adams was the second president of the United States. In the recent miniseries based a wonderful biography, John and Abigail, both northern abolitionists, enter the nearly completed White House and register their disgust that the then-called President's Mansion is being constructed by slaves. This is one that most history books overlook. One of the primary symbols of freedom and democracy (at least in the American mind) was constructed with the stain of slavery.

As the recent election was nearing the end, an occasional reference was made to an African-American family living in the White House. Then, after waiting with some alarm, finally a news item that recounted the shameful history of the building and the irony that Obama's wife and children are the descendants of slaves. Talk about looking forward and looking back. If you call this a reversal, it has almost biblical proportions. It has been reported that people on the extreme right have been busy since November 5th seeking a judge, any judge, who will grant a court injunction to stop the inauguration. They have a variety of reasons, most related to the time Obama spent in Indonesia as a boy. This is racism, again under-reported. The world is changing, and some are late to get on board.


But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba!* Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

Christmas is God's story, starring Jesus, Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, and a few minor characters such as Anna and Simeon. But it remains God's story. God's son is sent into the world to redeem us and complete our adoption as children of God. God's spirit follows him into the world, to teach us and remind us of all God has said up to this point, and bless our adoption with the spiritual gifts we need to undertake the difficult work of being disciples.

“God sent his son, born of a woman,” to demonstrate the ultimate act of solidarity, the ultimate union between the seen and the unseen. What we do with this demonstration, this gift, is the work of the Spirit:

'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Paul and Luke are constructing an argument here, one that begins with birth and moves quickly to fulfillment. No longer enslaved to the things of this world, we are freed, as surely as the words were preached that day in Nazareth, freed to imagine a way without sin and sorrow, a way that involves liberation and truth, a way that includes healing and wholeness, a way that favours weakness over strength.

But how does all this come to pass? How will if be finally fulfilled? Let me tell you a story. In a small southern town named Anderson, the town fathers and mothers decided to create a centerpiece, an Olympic-size outdoor pool in the very centre of town. The effect was transformative. Children had a place of gather and play in the long, hot summers, when heat and idleness take their toll. Mothers and fathers gathered to watch, and brave ones had a dip amid the splashing and the sound of children in the water. Swimming became a local passion, with a marked improvement when children met to swim competitively. Life was grand for the children of Anderson, or perhaps I should be more specific and say life was grand for the children of Anderson who happened to be white.

You see, Anderson, like all of the south, was segregated, and the pool at the very centre of the town was 'Whites Only.' Yet times changed. Civil rights activists began to chip away at segregation on the Old South. Schools were integrated, children were bused in and out of formerly segregated places, and public policy began to change. The federal government forced states to act, court cases were heard and won, and small towns like Anderson were ordered to integrate stores and schools and the outdoor pool at the centre of town.

Late one night, before the first black child could enjoy the sensation of splashing in the pool at the centre of town, the same town fathers and mothers ordered soil, truckload after truckload, dumped into pool until the centre of town was marked by a large mound of earth where the town pool once was.

Aside from the cross, I can think of no clearer crucifixion symbol than the pool at the centre of Anderson. No one died, and there was no blood, but the crucifixion in Anderson was the death of a dream, the death of a dream that was sadly repeated in communities all across the South. Some would sooner have every child suffer, white and black, that let go of long held beliefs and prejudices. 40 years on, the mound remains. Paul said:

God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba!* Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

The cry Abba! Father! is also the cry from the cross, as Jesus forgives his executioners for their malice and their ignorance. It is also the cry that marks the turning point from slave to child of God, as Jesus forgives us for our very humanness and takes the sin of the world on himself. God speaks from the cross, not to condemn the world, but to free the world through the graciously given gift of his son. In the midst of our cruelty, God speaks forgiveness. In the midst of hatred, God brings reconciliation: reconciling himself to us through the very act of dying on the cross. While we are busy being ourselves, God is being God and bringing a new world into being.

Beware that some will overstate the meaning of January 20 and all the history being made. Beware that expectations will soar to the point that no human could begin to meet them. And beware that the continuing scourge of racism should somehow be discounted because it happens that the man at the top is not white.

And then, if only for a moment, think of the slaveholders that managed the constuction of the the White House, and think of the mound at the centre of Anderson, and think of the activists and their rearguard action to overturn the election. The world they represent is coming to an end: because, as Dr. King said, the “arc of the universe bends toward justice.” The cross is a tool of the executioner, but for the world it beings new life.

May 2009 bring new hope and new life to all of our homes, and may the blessing of new beginnings be for us all. Amen.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Advent 2

John the Baptist is the Holden Caulfield of the Bible.

Like Salinger’s famous character, John the Baptism has abandoned any sense of propriety. He has stopped caring what people think. He is the prophetic ‘voice in the wilderness.’ Listen to this description of one that equally applies to both:

"His bitterness is a form of self-protection from the hypocrisy and ugliness he perceives in the world around him."

That’s Holden, according to an article in Wikipedia that even now high school students are reading and summarizing in such a way that their teacher won’t notice. Holden is jaded at seventeen, tired of all the phonies in the world, and looking for something pure, something unspoiled, something he can point to in his troubled little world.

The Catcher in the Rye has sold 65 million copies since 1951, so we know that there is some kind of cultural resonance here. It is the second most assigned novel in high school English, and also the most frequently banned book in high schools. I’m not sure how that works. Nonetheless, the voice of Holden, both idealistic and jaded, seems to have a timeless appeal for young readers.

Listen to our other Holden, found in the Gospels:

"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

If you’re trying to win friends and influence people, I’d say don’t start with John the Baptist. John is the very definition of ‘the voice in the wilderness,’ the voice that understands that few people are listening and even fewer seem to care.

So he decamps. He leaves behind polite society and heads for the Jordan, the river that runs through the heart of his world. Since running water was such a rarity in this part of the world, we can assume it represents some sense of purity in a nation of stagnant pools. Maybe it pointed to the first ‘crossing over,’ when the Israelites entered the Promised Land purified through desert wandering and finally came home. Whatever your symbolism, John settles in to wait, and so do we.

John is waiting for the ‘one who is more powerful than I.’ The one for whom he is not worthy to ‘stoop down and untie his sandals.’ John has a baptism of water; ‘the one who comes’ will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ Through it all John is proclaiming ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’

See the contradictions? The world is corrupt so he must flee. The people who follow him are corrupt, so he curses them, then offers them a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ But they must wait some more, for one is coming that John himself is unworthy to approach. John demonstrates forgiveness through water, but it cannot compare to the power of the Holy Spirit yet to appear.

Despair and hope; anger and forgiveness; water and the Holy Spirit. John is all over the map. He’s cynical and hopeful all at the same time. He is surrounded by phonies and hypocrites and offers them hope. Why, you might ask, do we even bother with John the Baptist in the weeks leading up to Christmas? Was the sermon store all sold out of angel stories and barnyard animals? The answer is yes, they were all sold out. Try Christmas Eve, I say, I hear they are getting in a new shipment.

Did you know that consumer spending makes up two-thirds of the North American economy? And did you further know that up 40 percent of all retail sales happen in the days leading up to Christmas? I know I’m giving you a John the Baptist Christmas, but think about it. People are using money they don’t have to buy things they don’t need. Every item is waiting to become landfill, and next year we’ll do it all again. We’re cooking the planet and the most important thing on our minds is something called ‘consumer confidence.’ At one time police office and firefighter were two of the most dangerous occupations in town, but now you can add Wal-Mart greeter to the list. Even when told an employee had been trampled to death, shoppers complained bitterly that the store was closing. “We waited in line,” one shopper said, “so let us shop.”

While we’re playing ‘spot the hypocrite,’ I should tell you that I’m pretty sure one of Santa’s elves is bringing me an iphone. When two-thirds of all economic activity involves shopping, you can be pretty sure all of us are complicit. Maybe like me you try to dress it up by bringing your own bags, but it’s still shopping. ‘John the Baptist Christmas’ sermons write themselves, a dash of guilt, a cup of statistics, and stories of shoppers gone mad.


If John the Baptist had lived long enough to see the end of the story, he would have come to the same conclusion as St. Paul:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6.3-4)

John would love Romans 6. He would have loved the fact that Paul could draw together all his favourite themes, that he could link baptism and death and newness of life. He would have loved that going beneath the water of the Jordan people died to former ways of being, died to self, and emerged from the water new people. He would have loved Paul’s link between the death and resurrection of Jesus and the very same thing he was trying to do in the muddy Jordan.


Where’s the hope in a ‘John the Baptist Christmas?’ The hope is coming, the hope is moving now to the Jordan, ready to accept the same baptism we accept. The hope is the death of sin that comes at Calvary. The hope is in an empty tomb. The hope is in a God who is willing to enter human experience. The hope is in a God who suffers when we suffer and laughs when we laugh because God came to us long ago and learned how we live. The hope is in utero now, waiting to come, but promising to overturn all we know about a God who seems distant and remote and hard to know.

Notice how everything has a place: River Jordan, Calvary, Bethlehem: This God is profoundly local, with rivers and hills and caves: a cave for birth and a cave for death. The people are real, not in the factual sense but in the actual sense: meaning they have actual lives like ours will faults and problems and hypocrisy. We are all Holden Caulfields, cynical and optimistic at the same time, fleeing to the desert but surrounded by the same broken people, waiting for new life and a little worried at the same time.

I wish for all of you a ‘John the Baptist Christmas:’ with enough hope to get you through, and enough pause to be a little wary. We wait with John at the riverside, for new life to come. Amen.