Sunday, March 14, 2010

Celtic Sunday

Central United Church – 14 March 2010 – Michael Kooiman

Matthew 28
16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

I fear we will never present worship in 3D. Sure you could describe what we do as “live action,” or perhaps theatrical: and if I ran about or leaned in an out repeatedly you might even say “it seems 3D to me.”

And it’s all the rage. 3D television has arrived, and for a mere $4,000 you can sit in the comfort of your living room and watch 10’s of hours of available programming in 3D. You will need the glasses, of course, and I can tell you they have evolved from the early paper format of yesteryear. I’m not suggesting you can wear them while walking the dog, but you could answer the door in them and no one will laugh.

A quick glance at the history of 3D cinema begins in the “golden age,” the period in the 50’s when Vincent Price made “House of Wax” and became the undisputed “King of 3D.” There was a bit of a revival in the eighties, with the aptly named film “Comin’ at Ya!” And the modern rebirth, began most famously with “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf,” both by Robert Zemeckis. Then “Avatar.” That’s my history of 3D cinema in four sentences.

The sale of those $4,000 televisions, of course, will come in the next few months when the kids discover that their DVD version of “Avatar” looks a little flat. Little Johnny or little Suzy will say “this sucks, mom” and off to mall they will go. I’m hoping that as they drive to the mall, mom will say: “you know, back in my day, ‘Avatar’ was called ‘Dances with Wolves.’ And a nice man named Kevin Costner won a mitt full of Oscars for telling exactly the same story set in American West.” At this point Johnny will say, “what are you talking about, mom? Drive faster.”

It appears that many of the billions generated by “Avatar” has come from the children. They are mad for it, they are intrigued, it moves them as few films have. And the puzzle is how? How did this film capture the imagination of the wee ones amid all the other choices inside and outside the theatre?

The answer is spiritual. Avatar presents a world infused with the spirit. Sacred seeds float around the protagonist, indicating some sort of portent. The will of the earth mother is interpreted by the clan’s leader and allows the story to continue. Unity in the natural world is such that the most fearsome beasts come to defend the planet from those who would create an open-pit mine.

In other words, Avatar creates a quasi-religion and a story that fits the only politics young people have, which is the environment. We think about the environment, they live it. We understand the issues, they don’t consider them “issues” at all. We see the need to balance a fragile ecosystem with a fragile economy, they don’t. Even evangelical Christians, notorious for ignoring this world for the sake of the next, have started to allow their young people to express a desire to save the planet. Call Avatar “The Big Chill” of the millennial generation. I predict it will define them the same way “Ferris Bueller's Day Off” defined my generation. Ouch.

I can see all the Celts are getting impatient, wondering when we’re gonna get to the good stuff, and I can say we’re here.

Every generation reaches for a common theme or a common way to express a longing that may or may not be obvious at the time. Every generation will create or recreate powerful myths or legends that remain true to the people who experience them. Enter St. Patrick. Patrick was a real person, who took up the missionary impulse four centuries after St. Paul, and brought faith to a foreign land. He reached the people by understanding indigenous customs and values, and by allowing the strength of the culture he found to remain. He transformed a society as few have, and on the way became legendary in the full sense of the word.

He may not have driven the snakes from Ireland. It’s unlikely that he used a three-leaf clover to teach the mystery of the Holy Trinity. It may not to be true that his walking stick took root in some places because it took so long to convince some people about the truth of our faith.

But it is very likely that he was the driving force behind the end to human sacrifice. He found a culture when the ritual murder of an unblemished young person was considered essential to satisfying the demands of various gods, and knew a good segue when he saw one. ‘You no longer need to end the life of one for the sake of many,’ Patrick said, ‘because the One True God has already witnessed his perfect son die for the sake of others, indeed for the sake of whole world.’

And so ended ritual sacrifice, exchanged for the breaking of bread and the pouring of wine. Patrick adapted the strength of one belief for another, and then he did it again, creating Christian communities, not along gender lines or some other division, but clans together, men and women, and all ages too. He took the strength of local tradition and added it to the tradition of the church, ensuring the name Patrick remains synonymous with Celtic Christianity and the Irish Church.

But Celtic is larger than Patrick, and Ninian and "the Venerable Bede, ” the first writer who tried to sort all this stuff out. Celtic become a touchstone, that through history has reemerged as needed and as the faith of a people required renewal. Ian Bradley, most famous for his book “The Celtic Way” also wrote a book called “Celtic Christianity: Making Myths and Chasing Dreams.” In it, he almost apologizes for deconstructing the various ways “Celtic” has returned to popular consciousness when needed, or when the conditions were right.

Bradley counts six distinct moments of “Celtic Christian revivalism” beginning with Bede, who created a contrast between fifth century purity in the church and eighth century corruption. Next, in the twelfth century it returned, in the same era that gave us Arthur and Camelot; then the Reformation, with Celtic Christianity set as a nascent version of British Protestantism; then an eighteenth century romantic view, tied to the rise of nationalism; then an early twentieth century revival through ecumenism and the Iona Movement; and finally, the revival we’re experiencing today.

Bradley points to several recurrent themes: Beginning with Bede, an ongoing attraction among non-Celtic people who see it as a purer version of Christianity than their own. It is prized for a simpler, more primitive mode, with a deeper spirituality. There is an element of tracing one’s spiritual roots, cutting through history and dogma to an earlier form. And there is a link to the natural world, with the sense that Celtic Christianity is closer to a pre-Christian regard for the earth, and finds a spiritual centre in creation. Having summarized what Celtic Christianity is and is not, he makes this wonderful summary:

Celtic Christianity has been a vehicle through which people have chased their dreams. In medieval times these were often dreams of fantastic voyages and epic quests. In more recent times they have been dreams of deeper spirituality, a gentler and ‘greener’ Christianity and simpler and more open church structures.*

At another important moment in the history of our faith, the days that followed the death of resurrection of Jesus, the Lord came to his disciples and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” It was not a complex message. Jesus didn’t say ‘go and set a good example in the vain hope that people will notice and decide to come to church.” He said “make disciples of all nations.”

And for Patrick, Ninian, Columba, David, and all the other Celtic saints this meant leaving the comfort and security of home and entering the world of the stranger, going to the nations that desperately needed the love of God and the grace of Jesus and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. It meant following the voice of God that said, “speak to the Irish” and “get up, your ship is ready.” It meant danger on land and on sea, and it meant an uncertain future for all the ones we don’t remember and cannot name.

If Patrick were here this morning, he would say “I was walking by the way, and saw that the nations are here, now. No longer,” he would say, “do you need to face a long sea voyage or walking miles of trail when the world has come to you, the very nations you need to reach are here in Weston, ready to meet Christ.” Wise one, that Patrick. The world has come to our doorstep, and where appropriate, and in the absence of another great religion, we have a duty to share the life-giving message of Jesus Christ, a message of compassion and love, of justice and mercy, the message of a world made new through the sacrifice of one for the many.

And he would say to all those 3D kids: “Jesus loved the environment too, he talked about the natural world every day.”

Patrick would love Weston, he would drive the snakes into Etobicoke, he would find clover on an untreated lawn, and he would see human need: the need for meaning, the need for understanding, and the need for God’s redeeming love. Amen.

*Ian Bradley, "Celtic Christianity: making myths and chasing dreams," Edinburgh University Press, 1999.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Third Sunday in Lent

Luke 13
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
6 Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” 8He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’

Time for an old joke:

Preacher is getting warmed up and declares to the congregation: “One day, everyone in this parish, will die.” In the front row a man chuckles. The preacher is puzzled, so he says it again: “One day, everyone, in this parish, will die.” The man laughs out loud. Now the preacher is upset: “One day, everyone, in this parish, will die!” The man laughs louder. On the way out of church, the preacher stops the man and says, “Sir, I stated an obvious truth, that someday everyone in this parish will die, and yet you laugh!” The man smiles, “Well, you see Father, I’m not from this parish.”

Luke 13 begins with the biblical version of the six o’clock news: tyrannical governor commits another atrocity and a tower collapse kills 18. Then the people lean in for some insight or understanding to explain all this suffering, and Jesus says: “One day, everyone in this parish, will die.”

But no one is laughing. Instead, we think of Katrina and Haiti and Chile and we struggle to understand. We demand to understand, and the world does it’s best to help us understand, but in the end, and without wanting to seem redundant, “One day, everyone in this parish, will die.”

We live in an instant age. Twitter first came to international attention in 2008 when it was noted that people began “tweeting” about the earthquake in Sichuan province while the earth was still moving. People thousands of miles distant learned about this newsworthy event before it concluded, with the typical duration measured in seconds. The cynical question, of course, is does Twitter improve the quality of news gathering and reporting, of does it simply add to the din?

I don’t have the answer, but Twitter seems to be one of those love/hate places on the internet where people get really excited or the want to throw their new iPad across the room. Instant or no, the pattern is the same. News breaks, with a pattern or image that denotes something unique or momentous. “We have breaking news” still jolts us, even when some news outlets have abused it with ex-jocks in Broncos in low-speed car chases.

The first hours are spent learning the scope of a disaster. Real news is scarce, and pundits are engaged in mostly comparison to previous disasters. Pictures begin to arrive, and the first “on the ground” tell the story while reminding us that they are the first on the ground.

Maybe I’m illustrating nothing more than the fact that I consume far too much news, but I think you can see the pattern. There is an arc to every story, and within a few days it fades from our mind and until some future date when we say, “oh yeah, Sichuan province, I forgot about that.”

Luke 13, though, concerns the middle of the news cycle. Pilate’s misdeeds and the tower collapse are still fresh in the minds of Jesus’ audience, and they ask the “why” question that always appears at the mid-point between breaking news and the fade from view. This is the moment in time when Pat Robertson will say something truly stupid, or the first conspiracy theory is floated. In the Gospel, Jesus is using a rhetorical technique when he says “do you think these people were worse sinners than everyone else?” Then he answers his own question, “No, they weren’t.” But then there is a semi-colon, maybe the most important part of the passage, and then he says, “but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Two things. First, there is a semi-colon, and you know what that means: “closely-related independent clauses not conjoined with a coordinating conjunction.” Say that ten times fast. That was from Wikipedia; something they didn’t teach in Ontario schools in the seventies. So we would map it out thus:

Rhetorical question regarding deserved suffering.
Jesus says “no.”
Conclusion as warning: no one escapes death.

The semi-colon is the most important thing in the passage, because they are closely-related independent clauses not conjoined with a coordinating conjunction. It wasn’t “no, but you better watch out” it was “no.” And then he said, “One day, everyone, in this parish, will die!”

Since time began we have demanded to know why. Mere months after learning how to speak we begin to demand to know why. Toddlers stack their whys, and we barely evolve through life demanding an answer to the very same question. There is nothing as unsatisfying as “we don’t know” or “I wish I knew” or “maybe someday we will know the answer.” So we make stuff up, or postulate a theory, or we learn to live with not knowing. The last one is the toughest of all.


A few years ago I heard Mark Epstein give a lecture, the author of the wonderfully titled book “Going to Pieces without Falling Apart.” Epstein is a Jewish scholar, with expertise in study of Buddhism. Of you might say a Buddhist scholar, who was raised a Jew. Either way, his work involves a synthesis of these two great religions, and in doing so, casts light on what it means to be human.

He told the story of an epic journey, to the outer reaches of a far-flung place, to visit and gain wisdom from a very famous and very reclusive teacher of the four-fold path of Buddhism. The journey is long, and they are welcomed with a glass of water and the warm smile of the great teacher. Teacher, they say, we have traveled far to see you and hope that you can impart some insight or secret worthy of your great reputation as a teacher and guide. The teacher nods, and lifting his water glass he says, “my friends, this glass is already broken.” He says no more.

Like the work of all great teachers, you have to go away and think about it before the real value is clear. I like that fact that you can remind yourself every time you lift a water glass, unless you are drinking from a plastic bottle, then you’re into a whole other sermon.

Every November I go to the Ashley sale. I can’t remember when I started, but it was long enough ago that I used to be the only man in the place, feeling a little out of place, but happy knowing that I could do most of my Christmas shopping in one fell swoop. I have a thing, you see, for china. I like the feel of it, the strength of such a thin cup or plate, the designs, the imprint underneath, the gold on the lip or edge. In short, life is too short to eat off anything but china. Here endeth the lesson.

No, that’s not the lesson. The lesson is that one by one, every dish and every cup will break. The gold wears off, the edges chip, the tile on the floor is no cushion, and one by one these wonderful pieces break. It is the way off all flesh. But life is too short to eat off anything but china. Now, I could get a china cabinet, they sell those at the Ashley Sale too, but what would be the point of putting them under glass if I don’t get the daily pleasure of eating and drinking from these little bits of art?

So my Royal Grafton coffee mug with January printed inside the rim is already broken. I’m using it, I’m enjoying it each day, but I Iive with the knowledge that someday it will be no more. I will be sad for a while, and I may try to replace it, but even if I did, the new one would break too. Bittersweet may be the only word that fits here, bittersweet being the “middle path” between the pleasure of enjoying something in the full knowledge that someday it will be no more.


A parable is meant to be an emotional roller coaster. Bad tree, no fruit, cut it down! One more year, a little manure, let it be. Still no fruit, bad tree, then cut it down. You see the emotional highs and lows?

The Leafs suck!
Yeah, the Leafs suck!
But we’ve got Phaneuf!
Yeah, we like Phaneuf. Okay, one more year!

The answer is, we live in the ‘one more year.’ It is our only theme, unless you happened to get caught under that tower in Siloam. And that is exactly the point. Some are tragically taken away, but the rest of us have one more year, then another, then another, until we go to Siloam too. And this is not one of those “repent or die” messages, not even a “you’re gonna die so why not repent?”

This is a message about a water glass that is already broken and a tree that always has one more year. And God is always the same: I gave you the glass to enjoy on a temporary basis, because like everything, it is already broken. You are my tree, and next year’s dialogue will be an updated version of this year’s dialogue, because with God it’s always ‘one more year, one more year.”

“One day, everyone, in this parish, will die!” Meanwhile, live well, enjoy the people around you, and try to be good.”