Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Eve

Luke 2
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while[a] Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
4 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. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Gifts, wrapped in colourful paper, or perhaps a bag, for the last-minute crowd.
Cards, letters, calls, and a sudden desire to reach out.
A tree (in the house!), a tradition given to us by a German prince and consort.
A large, flightless bird stuffed with carbs and roasted, 20 minutes per pound, no more, no less.
An array of sides, in holiday colours, including sauerkraut at our house, allegedly a Dutch thing.
Chocolate, cookies, something called mincemeat and chocolate, chocolate, chocolate.
For the brave, a pudding that is doused in some kind of incendiary liquid and set alight. (You have to admire a recipe that calls for—among other things—suet, treacle and stout).
Eggnog, a family recipe, that contains six raw eggs and various spirits to ensure consuming six raw eggs is okay.
Movies, from It’s a Wonderful Life to White Christmas to Die Hard 1, 2, and 3. (Three is actually set in the summer, so not a Christmas movie)
And travel, by car, plane, or boat (if you are Sinterklaas). The annual migration of Christmas travelers that brings treasured guests here this evening and leads some of the faithful away to be with family and friends.

All of these traditions—and many more—provide the comfort and joy we associate with the season. There is something about the holiday that demands constancy and the familiar—touchstones that rarely vary from year to year.

If you have any doubt about the veracity of these traditions, just do a little thought experiment: imagine rolling out a rack of lamb or tofurky (yes, tofu turkey) and the kind of reaction you would get. And ironically, it will be the youngest in the crowd that make the most noise, not the seasoned Christmas veterans who have seen it all. Traditional is quickly fixed and adhered to—especially among the young.

And here at the church, we have the same affinity: Five candles: purple, purple, pink, purple and (finally) white. Hampers, dinners, and presents—with a mind to those who have less. White Gift, Cantata, and midnight mass, a tradition we maintain by ENDING around midnight—11 pm is a much more civilized hour.

And where does tradition find full flower more than the various nativity readings that bring us back to Luke 2? If it was good enough for a Charlie Brown Christmas, then it’s good enough for us. And it helps if you mention swaddling at least once, and someone should be sore afraid (right Carol?).

Augustus, census, city of David, first-born, manger, abiding, good tidings of great joy, glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and good will. You can’t not read it, and it brings the self-same comfort and joy that resides in every tradition we treasure. Luke seems to signal that the simple act of reading these words will implant the spirit we need.

And all of it, all the readings and all the prayers and and all the carols and all the sermons (so many sermons!) return to the same message:

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

Fear not. A saviour is born unto you. He is Christ the Lord. Simple, well-worn words that feel more necessary this year than other years. More relevant, considering all that 2016 has given us and will give us for some time to come.

Since the second week of November I have had more “this feels like a different time” conversations that I can remember in such a short span of weeks. Disappointment and fear are human constants, but some of the events of the past year have tested our sense of optimism and the general belief that history progresses toward the better.

From Brexit to Syria to angry voters in the post-industrial Midwest, we have witnessed profound and uncertain events that will cast a shadow over 2017 and beyond. Many are sore afraid, and would be well-advised to retreat to the comfort of scripture and the simple message “fear not.”

Why fear not? First, through the sweep of human history we have faced perilous times before and have come through, with God to guide us and fellow pilgrims by our side. A glance at many of the prophetic Christmas readings will remind us that much of our Christmas tradition begins in exile, a longing for God to return. We are never forsaken, never forgotten, never left alone.

Why fear not? Many of the later readings, New Testament prophets such as Elizabeth, Zechariah and John, give us a glimpse of the world-made-new that follows the birth of our Saviour. It is a revolution, both literal and spiritual, that arrives with visions and dreams and angel voices.

And the strongest voice is Mary, God’s servant, who first prayed “may your word be fulfilled.” Then she spoke these words:

God’s mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
God has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
scattered those who are proud in the imagination of their hearts.
God has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
God has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
God has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful.

For the proud, for those who tolerate hunger, for those who rule without mercy, history will not be kind. God is busy plotting those great-reversals that demonstrate God’s faithfulness, God’s promise of a future.

Why fear not? Because God is doing a new thing once more. Odd words, a ‘new thing once more.’ But this is where the traditional and the new meet. God is entering our world once more, to experience the vicissitudes of human living, to see what we see and feel what we feel. God-with-us, now and ever.

Now, those who listen to me week-by-week, chirping away from my wooden perch, will know that I’m fond of ‘the most important verse’ and the ‘most memorable story’ and the idea that ‘defines us.‘ And, obviously, they change with each sermon and with each time with the children, which—I expect—either annoys or delights.

For tonight, my candidate is found far from the nativity, far from the angel chorus and those who abide in fields. The verse of the night comes from Matthew 9.36:

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Matthew gives us one of his summary updates, but I like to think this was a forever-feeling, and feeling that begins at the moment of creation and continues past the cross, down to today: For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulders—and he will have compassion on them, because the are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd—And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Amen.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Advent II

Matthew 3
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”[a]
4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And 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. 10 The 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.
11 “I baptize you with[b] water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness and saying, “Repent, because we want to make Judea great again.” The crowd seemed puzzled, but he continued anyway: “I think it’s time to drain the swamp in Jerusalem.” It didn’t seem to matter to him that the whole area is desert—he was on a roll.

He then pointed to the edge of the crowd. “Look over there,” he said, “look at the crooked Sadducees! What should we do with them?” The crowd began chanting in a predictable way. When the chants died down, he said “repentance is about winning—so much winning—only if you repent.”

That’s an approximate transliteration from the Greek, with apologies to John the Baptist, who would have more than a few angry words for the pending administration. Despite this, I’m going to try to show that the same impulse that drove John the Baptist and his followers is present in contemporary political discourse. The way things are expressed—and the uneasy relationship between campaign rhetoric and the likely outcome—show us that an ancient tradition continues.

But before I do that, I want to look at just one phrase that came to dominate 2016, and the extent to which meaning takes a backseat in the hothouse of politics. The phrase in question is “drain the swamp.” What does it mean? Well, that’s a good question.

Apparently the phrase “drain the swamp” was coined way back in 1903 by an American socialist. The question was ‘why kill a few capitalist mosquitoes, when you can drain the whole swamp?‘ That actually makes some sense. However, any linguist will tell you that once a good metaphor gets out, there is no telling where it will end up.

So, in 1980’s Ronald Reagan used it, this time to suggest fewer bureaucrats meant draining the swamp in Washington. Nancy Pelosi used to twenty-some years later to describe ridding Congress of Republicans. Then Ben Carson used it, then Trump, and now we’re talking about it here.*

No one really knows what the President-elect means by ‘drain the swamp,’ and I don’t think people much care. And that’s the power of a good metaphor: you bring your own meaning and you make it fit to whatever you hope the metaphor-maker will do. Less bureaucrats, less lobbyists, less politicians—it doesn’t matter. People hear the words and they get very excited.

So back to making Judea great again. John is in the wilderness, preaching repentance and the nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven. People have come for a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, but they are not alone. The religious ones are there too, Pharisees and Sadducees, come to see what all the fuss is about. John is not impressed. In his harshest campaign rhetoric, he says:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And 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.

The argument is about the purpose of religion. Is it empty ritual to maintain some kind of spiritual status quo, or is it meant to transform lives, to produce fruit worthy of the God we serve? And what about those who can’t produce fruit? He has words for them too:

The 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.

So he’s described a program, he attacked some easy targets, and then he begins to close. This vision of the Kingdom’s return needs some fleshing out, and he really needs to clarify something important: he’s not the one.

“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than me, whose sandals I’m not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

You know and I know that he’s talking about Jesus, but it’s not entirely clear from his words. Winnowing fork? Threshing floor? Burning the chaff with unquenchable fire? This doesn’t sound ‘Jesus, friend of little children,’ the one who has the whole world in his hands, even the itty bitty babies, in his hands.’ Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. There’s no flaming chaff, is there?

Well, yes and no. There is a alternate Jesus that seems to slide from view in this sensitive age. Take, for example, Matthew 10. Jesus says, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth—I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” That’s confusing, but the passage then proceeds to describe the various ways belief in Jesus will split families and he ends with “take up your cross.” There is enough in the passage that most preachers just pass over the sword.

Conveniently, the people who put together our lectionary of readings overlooked Luke 22.35ff and didn’t make an already stressful job here in the pulpit any worse. Listen to this other Jesus, preparing his disciples for the time to follow his passion:

35 Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?”
“Nothing,” they answered.
36 He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.
38 The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”
“That’s enough!” he replied.

I share this not to trouble you as we await the birth of the Prince of Peace, but to highlight the extent to which John the Baptist’s prediction is not without some substance. We don’t dwell on disciples with swords, by it’s in the tradition and it seems to fit the idea of burning chaff.

Mostly I present it because John the Baptist seems to give us an whole basket of deplorable words—winnowing, thrashing, burning—because he wants to get our attention. He wants to underline the gravity of the situation, and he’s not above using disturbing language to do it.

He’s also employing simple and easy to remember ideas to share a message that might not be that easy to sell. Repentance is hard work—you have to turn away from sin and turn back to God—but it’s the first and most obvious step in bringing about the Kingdom. Listen again to his versions of “drain the swamp”:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”
“The ax is already at the root of the trees.”
“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
“His winnowing fork is in his hand.”

In many ways it’s Evangelism 101, John the Baptist style. But the same principle stands for everyone engaged in evangelism: share a compelling message that will somehow motivate people to act. I would add simple and compelling message (just like John), and people will flock to the wilderness.

Now, you’ll see I dropped the E-word, and maybe some of you winced on the inside. It’s an idea that we seemed to leave behind—or did we? If it’s “share a compelling message that will somehow motivate people to act” then the United Church does it all the time. The only difference is we don’t say ‘give your heart to Jesus’ we say ‘sell your mining stocks’ or ‘don’t buy these products,’ but it’s still evangelism—share a compelling message that will somehow motivate people to act.

So, the John the Baptism Advent project is to recapture the ability to express—using simple and compelling words—why someone should return to God. Maybe it’s how your week feels when you begin your week here. Maybe it’s how the decisions you make are better informed through a Gospel lens. Maybe it’s the forgiveness you extend having found forgiveness here.

Whatever the message you take home—hope, love, joy and peace come to mind—may the Spirit give you the words to share. May they be simple words, and compelling too—since so many need the comfort only faith can bring. Amen.