Sunday, November 27, 2011

First Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 64
6 All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
7 No one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have given us over to[a] our sins.
8 Yet you, LORD, are our Father.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
9 Do not be angry beyond measure, LORD;
do not remember our sins forever.
Oh, look on us, we pray,
for we are all your people.

Mark 13
30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
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[a]! 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!’”

There is no snob quite like a book snob.

I say this, even in the afterglow of bibliophiles swapping and selling books just last week. So I say this with respect, because when I look in the mirror, I just may see a book snob too. A typical conversation goes something like this:

“You like book x, so you must really like book y.”
“I haven’t read book y.”
“You haven’t read book y? I can’t believe that you, of all people, haven’t read book y.”
“Well, I have read book z.”
“Book z? Everyone has read book z. Still, I’m frankly shocked that you haven’t read book y.”

I think you get the picture. And if you think I’m making this all up, just head across the street to the library and wait. This may explain the popularity of Amazon, all the books and less bibliographical shaming.

One of the unlikely side-effects of just such a shaming is a strange resistance to reading the book. There seems to be odd equation whereby the numbers of “I can’t believes” is inversely proportional to the likelihood that I’ll actually picking up the book. The more often you tell me to read a book the less likely I am to read it. Case in point: Ron Heifetz’s book “Leadership Without Easy Answers.” Just now I see you shaking your head and thinking “I can’t believe he hasn’t read that book: it’s a classic.”

It is a classic, and just in time for Advent I picked it up. And I’m not even out of the Introduction, and already Heifetz is a well of ideas for the season of Christ’s coming. I know, you still can’t believe I haven’t read the book before now.

Advent, of course, is a season of preparation. And true to the spirit of preparation, the readings for four Sundays in Advent reflect that theme. Today, we reflect on the apocalyptic, world-ending nature of our preparation. And for that reason, lots of ministers book this Sunday off. Next week, we meet John the Baptist, a voice crying in the wilderness, and never considered polite company. Advent III goes deeper into the message of John the Baptist, which is why we do White Gift instead, and the Advent IV is basically the same reading as Christmas Eve, minus the birth, which is why we have a Cantata. Now that all secrets are revealed, we can get on with Advent.

Heifetz’s book is about adaptive leadership, leadership that can change course in the midst of change rather than repeating the mistakes of the past. It is about entering the complexity of a problem rather than reaching for easy solutions. And it’s about understanding the life of the mind, and the way our thinking effects the way we act. For you see, when Heifetz isn’t teaching leadership at the Kennedy School at Harvard, he’s also a medical doctor and a psychiatrist, and did I mention he’s also world-class cellist, trained at the Juilliard School?

And it’s a musical idea that he points to in his Introduction, an idea that speaks to the project we call Advent. Heifetz begins with dissonance, naming it an integral part of harmony. “Without conflict and tension,” he says, “music lacks dynamism and movement.” And this tension creates longing for, or interest in, the way this tension will be resolved.

So too with Advent. “But about that day or hour,” Jesus said, “no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.” Mark records his “little apocalypse” in chapter 13, where Jesus is describing the end of time and also describing his own return. The tension begins.

In the ancient prayers of the church, this tension is called the mysterium fidei. During communion we will repeat together the words, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” And we cannot know how this is possible. It is a mystery of faith, one that finds a close parallel in the season of Advent. We will mark Jesus birth once more, but we won’t do it with cake and candles, we will mark it as the end of the old and the birth of a new. It has a world-altering quality, not just once, but for all time.

The church is to practice watchfulness throughout the year, but most particularly in Advent. Look for signs, we are told, look for the signs of the times, signs that we are on the cusp of a world made new. Again, there is tension. We are mired in the old, surrounded by examples of anything but the hope we long to see, but still we are told to look for signs. We live with the Risen Christ in our midst, but we long for his return, both at the end of time and every year at Christmas. Mysterium fidei, the mystery of faith.

Heifetz’ next idea, still on page 6, is the interplay between musician and audience. The audience and the performer are in a relationship, and the result—greater creativity and energy—is an essential part of the music. So too with Advent. The season is foremost about the interplay between God and humanity, and the creativity and energy that comes through his relationship. Consider Isaiah 65:

7 No one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have given us over to our sins.

The prophet laments the sinfulness of Israel, the extent to which the people have strayed from the path set before them. “Like shriveled leaves, we blow away” the confession goes, but then there is a purposeful shift. “No one calls on your name,” Isaiah says, “because you have hidden your face from us.” What God would name ‘free will,’ he labels the hidden face of God. Seeking direction, seeking a word, it is easy to see how this can quickly become anger and disappointment. Then another turn:

8 Yet you, LORD, are our Father.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand.

It is difficult to determine, from the context of the passage, if this is a profession of faith, or more blaming. ‘You made us,’ the prophet says, ‘what we do must be your fault alone.’

It sounds like a troubled relationship, and it is, but it is primarily a relationship. Like orchestra and audience, God and humanity need each other in the working out of what it means to be God and humanity. Can God save us? Is that the meaning of Advent? Jesus is born again and again, Christ is always coming into our midst, but still finds only brokenness. Is it God’s absence that causes us to fail? It hardly seems possible when God returns to our midst so frequently, and with such meaning.

“We are the clay, and you are the potter.” God creates us, we crumble on the wheel, and God remakes us yet again. This is the meaning of time as we find it in Advent. It is the continual unfolding of a relationship, love and judgment, faithfulness and disobedience, happening in real time.

Heifetz’s last point (still on page 6) is the need to search for implied meaning. This is the difference between what something means on the surface and what is the implied (or hidden) meaning. And to uncover hidden meaning, we usually look at the context. Mark begins his little apocalypse this way:

30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.

The context of the little apocalypse, and each “world-ending” statement from the lips of Jesus, is the assumption that his return was right around the corner. “I will come again,” he says in John 14, “and will take your to myself. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” Mark and the other evangelists believed that even before they finished writing their Gospel, Christ might return.

So the end did not happen, but it remains part of the implied meaning of Advent. We are to prepare like the world may end any moment. It may not happen, it almost seems certain it won’t, but we return to this theme year by year in the off chance it does. Advent, therefore, is a dress rehearsal for the end of time, a way to remind ourselves that we live in the here and now and the not yet.

“Heaven and earth will pass away,” Jesus said, “but my words will never pass away.” We think we see simple things like the passage of time and the commemoration of Jesus’ birth, but underneath there is so much more happening. There is the reality of human sin and God’s ongoing and inexplicable capacity to forgive. There is the mutual dependence between creature and Creator, and all the creativity this brings, and there is the hidden meaning in the season, that what we see is not really all there is.

We long for God, we wait for Christ’s coming, and we seek the Spirit: to be watchful, and perceptive, and above all patient. This is Good News, thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Reign of Christ

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
20 Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, 22I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

A pulpit is like a well-worn pair of slippers.

How else could you describe a pulpit that is 190 years old? Passed down through the generations, worn by dozens of pulpit-dwellers, this wooden slipper has seen it all.

Now I don’t want to stretch the metaphor too far (pun intended), but my mind does wander from time to time to the people who filled this pulpit and the message they shared.

It was Methodist, so the occasional temperance sermon was likely preached. You can tell me later if that worked. The once great enterprize of sending out missionaries would have been preached, the call to take the Gospel to the so-called heathen masses.

Some topics would have been overtly political, but not always in the way you might think. Methodists in Upper Canada were vocal opponents of the Family Compact that ruled though the early part of the nineteenth century, so we can expect that a sermon or two spoke of democracy and maybe even rebellion.

There would have been sermons on inequality, not just in the more radical United Church era, but from earliest days, when the heirs of John and Charles Wesley praised the hard-working poor and condemned the idle rich. You know who you are.

There would have been sermons against the Baptists (main competitors in the evangelical enterprize), the Anglicans (tribe from which the Methodists split) and especially the Roman Catholic Church, which preachers would simply refer to a ‘papists,’ or those engaged in ‘popery.’

We might even say that this last topic, regarding Roman Catholics, would be among the last real ‘prejudices’ that would be preached here will very little comment or sense that there was something inherently wrong with attacking another group in society. And Toronto (including Weston) took this to the next level, with members of the Orange Lodge dominating city politics. In the 1940’s three-quarters of city councilors were Orangemen, along with every mayor for the first half of the 20th century.

I share all this because I want to talk about Pius XI, the inter-war Pope, who has tended to get lost in all the other events of the era, and how gave is the gift of Christ the King Sunday, as we call it, The Reign of Christ.

Already the pulpit has started to quiver. Preaching popery! Well, not precisely, but it is unusual. For you see, we live in an era of ‘recovered tradition,’ where the parts of the church year we take for granted like Advent and Lent were lost to us for over 400 years. They were deemed too Catholic, and therefore ignored until the 1970’s. We still did Christmas and Easter (and not just for the Christmas and Easter crowd) but that was it for seasons of the church year.

When we recovered this liturgical tradition, Christ the King just somehow slipped in. Lent is old, and Advent is old, but Christ the King only started in the 1920’s, from the mind of Pius XI. He was a rather bookish pope, and like all the other popes of his era, once you were elected, the Vatican become a sort of prison. From the 1860’s until the 1950’s no pope even stepped foot outside the Vatican.

During the inter-war period, the most profound crisis facing the Roman Catholic Church was the persecution of priests. In Mexico, Spain and the Soviet Union, clergy were being imprisoned and murdered by regimes that were virulently ant-Catholic. He preached freedom against both communist and fascist ideology.

And he gave us Christ the King. He wanted to reinforce the earliest Christian creed (“Jesus is Lord”) and remind the governments of the world that Christians have Christ as their king, not the kings (or governments) or this world. Radical stuff, really, and we maintain the tradition today.


11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep.

Ezekiel was a prophet in exile. Driven out and sent to Babylon, Ezekiel experienced a series of visions. He revealed them in three broad topics: the judgment on Israel, the judgement on the nations, and God’s future blessing on Israel. It is a word of blessing we hear today, as God promised to tend the lost sheep of Israel and anoint a new king to lead them.

God promises “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” These are promises intended to comfort those in exile, those who long for home. Punishment has ended, and with it will end the pain of dislocation.

But words of comfort do not come to all. In the first part of Ezekiel 34 we hear only judgment: “Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.”

The very actions that God promises to undertake are the ones that the first group of shepherds refused to do. They ignored the flock, they enriched themselves, they abandoned the sick and the vulnerable. It is only after the bad shepherds are driven off that God will care for them, tend them, and give them a new shepherd.

It seems an obvious reading for Christ the King Sunday. The people to selected the three-year cycle of readings we call the lectionary wanted to reinforce God’s promise to tend us, to give us an alternate government to the governments of this world.

And it seems a perfect ending place as a new church year begins next week, and we look forward to God’s ultimate promise. Isaiah 9.6: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”

But before we get lost in the season of lights and bells, I think we would do well to remain a while in Ezekiel, or perhaps Jesus’ sermon on Ezekiel, found in Matthew 25. I decided to leave off reading the passage, partly because most of your know it, but mostly because we seldom hear Ezekiel.

Matthew 25 is a common funeral passage, the one we tend to choose when the person we have lost was self-less in caring for others. Having separated the sheep from the goats, “then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat…” and goes on from there.

Now the part we don’t typically read at funerals, the past to we seldom here at all is the opposite of the sentiments we know and love:

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

This is Jesus’ sermon of Ezekiel. The exile, the years in Babylon, was the result of bad kings who led the people like bad shepherd and allowed them to go astray. It was the example they failed to set as hungry went unfed and naked went unclothed and all the rest.

Bad kings, bad shepherds, bad goats, it seems we have arrived in a bad place where neglect and misrule has led to bad things. So what do we do will all this badness? We take a lesson. And the lesson, following in the steps of Pius XI, is to proclaim the government of God. It is to seek the rule that reflects God’s own way, it is to follow the example of the good shepherd and seek the lost.

The ending is never “what are we going to do,” but rather “what is God doing in our midst” and how are we going to respond? God is seeking the lost, binding up the broken, and strengthening the weak. Our task is to tell everyone, and give God the glory. Amen.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Remembrance Sunday

1 Thessalonians 4
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,* about those who have died,* so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.* 15For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.* 16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.

In trying to describe the passage of time, I might do it like this:

If the first third of your life, say to age 30, feels like an hour, and the second third of your life, say age 30 to 60, feels like 15 minutes, then the final third must feel something like Star Trek warp speed.

I don’t want to bring you down, I’m just fascinated by the accelerating passage of time. I once thought time was scientific, measured by the National Research Council, the long dash after five seconds of silence indicates one o’clock Easter Time. I was wrong. Time is completely flexible and serves only to make us anxious.

When I first came to Toronto, just shy of 20 years ago, I had two World War One veterans in my congregation. A decade later I was in Scarborough, and still managed to find two people who could share childhood memories of the First World War. They were in there 90’s, and could remember (with some terror) Zeppelin attacks on London.

Today only one veteran remains, Florence Green, who served in the Women's Royal Air Force. She’s 110, and lives with her 90 year-old daughter in King’s Lynn, Norfolk. 65 million combatants in the First World War, and one remains. We reach the end of “living memory” and there is a sense that we are somehow diminished, that something real and present to us will soon be gone.

Of course, this has always been so. The last veteran of the War of 1812 died in 1905, the last 1837 rebel died in 1914 and the last veteran of the US Civil War died in 1956. Historians mark these dates and bracket time to record the moment when an eyewitness account is not longer available, when the story of a conflict can no longer be told.

So we are encouraged to ask questions, and encourage the people who were there to tell their story. Even Thucydides, writing his History of the Peloponnesian War, knew that the names and dates of battles paled in comparison to importance of an eye-witness account.

Sadly, access to the first-person account of war will not leave us soon. The nations of the world continue to produce veterans, wars are fought and won, and the long-ago idea of the “war to end all wars” passed along with all those who spent time in the trenches.


St. Paul wrote these words:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.

On a Sunday when we remember the fallen, it seems appropriate to hear what St. Paul has to say to the church on the topic of death. Some have suggested that 1 Thessalonians is Paul’s earliest letter, and being largely pastoral in nature, seems to reflect on the real concerns of his audience.

The church was worried about those who passed away before Christ’s promised return. Would they miss the Second Coming? Would they be overlooked in favour of the living? It was a real concern for those who believed that Christ would return at a particular moment-in-time, meet the faithful, and return to God without taking into account those already gone.

In his letter, Paul claims the opposite. It is the dead who have died to the Lord who will be taken up first, and only then will the living meet God in the air. Those who have passed await the end of time, and the living can take comfort knowing that God has not forgotten them.

And Paul, writing these words with the abiding sense that Christ’s return was right around the corner, would not have known that these words still apply today. And even if you are among the many believers who discount the idea of the Second Coming, the question of those who have died is still pressing. We want hope, we want to know that the promise of eternal life is true.


Paul addresses another question, one that contemporary study has confirmed. He says “we do not want you to be uninformed…so that you may not grieve as others who have no hope.” In effect, he is reminding his friends that there are many who live without hope in the face of death, and that they need not be among that group. He is assuring them, but he is also claiming a kind of superiority for believers.

In our time, and certainly within the United Church, this has become a problematic idea. We no longer triumph our superiority over other faiths, we no long condemn non-Christians to hell, we even have a hard time telling people that the United Church has more to offer than those other churches. All of this is a good thing. Telling your neighbours over potluck to only United Church people are going to heaven seems rude, to say the least.

So we make everyone equal, we nod when people say “it’s more important to be good than to go to church” and we may even believe it. We don’t want to have a lock on the truth anymore, mostly because the other people who claim to have a lock on the truth are just scary. We would rather say nothing than claim to have something, because being better than others seems, well, un-Canadian.

But what if we are better? Reginald Bibby did vast amounts of research some years ago and showed that the church can be broken down in basically three ways: the stuff we wish we were better at, the stuff we think we are better at, and the stuff that we’re actually better at.

Guess what? We think we’re better at all sorts of things that other people do better. Greenpeace does the environment better, Amnesty International does human rights better, lots of agencies do social justice better. But the area we shine, the one place where are the undisputed winners, is in the area of death. When it comes to comforting those that mourn, we win. When it comes to facing our own morality, we win. When it comes to making death a part of life, and gaining a measure of acceptance unseen in the rest of society, we win. We are the best of the best when it comes to death, dying, grief, acceptance and support.

Long ago, when I was a cook in a daycare (my frail claim at a previous career), the daycare teachers decided to show a movie to the kiddies on a rainy afternoon. They picked Bambi. Well, you would think they showed Terminator 2 based on the reaction of the parents. “How could you show that to the children” they said, “how dare you introduce my kid to the idea of death!” I’ve never seen the movie, so I think I may have just spoiled it somehow. Nevertheless, it seems that discomfort with death lived among the parents in this situation, and not so much with the kids.

The one place parents and children seem to be getting it right is in a new appreciation for Remembrance Day. When I was training, we were encouraged to ignore Remembrance Day in favour of some sort of peace Sunday—spectacularly bad advice if I’ve ever heard it. Even the civic commemorations have gone from sparse to plentiful, something that pleases veterans and gives November 11th the importance it deserves.


On a Sunday when we remember the fallen, it seems appropriate to hear what St. Paul has to say to the church on the topic of death. With Paul, we live with the assurance that the fallen are not forgotten, and that all will be resurrected on the last day. We also believe that they did not die in vain, and that the very things that they died to protect are still present to us. And will not grieve as they that have no hope, trusting in God’s presence always, amen.