Sunday, December 31, 2017

First Sunday after Christmas

Psalm 148
Praise God from the heavens; give praise in the heights!
Give praise, all you angels; praise God, all you hosts!
Praise God, sun and moon; give praise, stars and lights!
Praise God, farthest heavens,
and all waters beyond heaven! R
Let all things praise the Holy One at whose command
they were created,
who established them for all time,
setting bounds, which cannot be passed.
Praise God from the earth,
great sea creatures and ocean depths,
lightning and hail, snow and frost,
gales that obey God's decree,
all mountains and hills, all fruit trees and cedars,
wild animals and cattle, creatures winged and earth-bound,
sovereigns who rule earth and its people,
all who govern and judge this world,
young men and women alike,
old people and children together! R
Let all things praise the name of God,
the name above every other,
whose splendour covers heaven and earth.
You give strength to your people,
songs of praise to your faithful,
to Israel, the people dear to your heart. R

Days later, it feels like a distant dream.

That thing you imagined, planned, prepared—it seems over before it even began. Even now, while I’m driving to and fro, a thought flashes through my mind: “Do I have everything I need? Do I need anything from there?” Anything that takes a long time to prepare will have a sort of half-life, living in our consciousness in the days and weeks that follow.

And then there is the actual event itself. Anyone who has prepared the big meal will tell you that there is a moment—just a moment—when you think “are you just gonna eat it? Can’t we just linger over the presentation, the way these things look in their bowls, the herculean task of having everything ready at the same moment?” Again, it’s a fleeting thought, but it’s there.

Or the utter randomness of gift-giving. The item that you thought would be a hit remains unopened, while that last-minute item becomes a source of fascination and joy. Or children that insist on tarrying over the first item, when you know there are bigger things in store. Or the end of the afternoon, when the kids are more interested in the empty boxes and the mound of discarded wrapping paper than the things formerly contained inside.

What I’m pointing at—beyond perhaps a mild case of post-holiday let-down—is that pesky thing God gave us, namely free will. We make a plan and events unfold—and seldom do these agree. In many ways, that is part of the magic, not knowing what will steal the show. But it also underlines the limits of planning—since people will decide for themselves.

And the passage that provoked this somewhat philosophical post-holiday reflection—Psalm 148—has all the elements of this movement from planning to implementation. It also goes from big to small, the larger picture of God’s creation to the hearts of the creatures given to praise.

And when I say big, I’m mean cosmologically big! If it’s a movement from macro to micro, then what’s bigger than farthest heavens?

Praise God from the heavens; give praise in the heights!
Give praise, all you angels; praise God, all you hosts!
Praise God, sun and moon; give praise, stars and lights!
Praise God, farthest heavens,
and all waters beyond heaven!

Now, the scholars say this is precise description of the way ancient minds saw the universe: there was a dome above our heads, resting on the earth below, all of it surrounded by a primordial sea. God set these boundaries—the limits of sky and sea, the depths of the oceans, the vastness of the heavens—to provide order, that we might find our place. And in finding our place, we also see we are part of a larger whole:

Praise God from the earth, great sea creatures and ocean depths, lightning and hail, snow and frost, gales that obey God's decree, all mountains and hills, all fruit trees and cedars, wild animals and cattle, creatures winged and earth-bound, sovereigns who rule earth and its people, all who govern and judge this world, young men and women alike, old people and children together!

Again, we find our place. And in finding place, we strive to reflect the glory seen in the whole. The psalmist ends this part of the litany with the word “together,” to underline that all the created order belongs to God and each element belongs to the others. We cannot be separated from the rest of God’s creation—each part praises and is worthy of praise!

And so if “together” is underlined to add meaning to the whole, the final section completes the thought, adding yet another dimension to our meditation on the order of creation. In this case, it requires a bit of cross-interpretation, to find the full meaning of the words. I’m going to share what you might read in your pew Bibles, a slightly less poetic rendering of the last two verses:

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for his name alone is exalted;
his splendour is above the earth and the heavens.
And he has raised up for his people a horn,
the praise of all his faithful servants,
of Israel, the people close to his heart.

It’s that last part that’s a bit of a head-scratcher, going from the NIV “he has raised up for his people a horn,” to the hymnbooks more poetic “you give strength to your people.” Now, my resident Hebrew scholar (selfishly) left town to see her family, so I had to turn other scholars to understand how ‘giving a horn’ becomes ‘giving strength’ to the people. They suggested looking at Psalm 18:

The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield[b] and the horn[c] of my salvation,
my stronghold. (v. 2)

So all of this, rock, refuge, shield, “horn of salvation,” and stronghold suggests we need saving. I know this seems obvious, but the implications are worth noting. Everything that the Psalmist points to up until the part about the horn seems to suggest that God is fully in control. And there is some comfort in the assumption. We want (and we need) God to be in control of creation, the limits of sky and sea, the order of creatures and peoples, the sovereigns who rule the earth.

But then the caveat. In raising up the horn of salvation, it reminds us that everything human is subject to free will. As soon as we were created, we had a mind of our own. It was an important design parameter, made with hearts and minds free to love and serve the one who made us. With freedom, we became the true companions to the God who made us, free to give to God the glory God so richly deserves.

But there is, of course, the shadow side of freedom, where choices for God and God’s way can be turned aside. There are moments when we reflect the glory of the Creator and times we do not. We each have a selfish gene, made to ensure our survival and regulated by “the law” that God imprinted on our hearts. And there seem to be times when the gene and the law are in balance, and times when the opposite happens.

2017, it would seem, has been a masterclass in free will. Choosing “alternative facts” over objective truth, giving voice to ideas long-banished from the public square, pursuing brazen self-interest and naming it a virtue—these and many more examples underline the extent to which history revolves rather than automatically advancing to some better future. Suddenly free will seems like a really bad idea.

But free will, like gravity, is only a bad idea if you are falling down. Mostly free will just “is,” allowing us to be our best selves when we choose to make the world a better place, and other times becoming a cautionary tale when we fall down.

And that’s where the horn of salvation comes in. God wouldn’t choose to come to earth without free will. God wouldn’t show us a better way to live if we didn’t need the example or the encouragement. God wouldn’t send us a Saviour if we didn’t need saving.

I’m going to give the last word to old Simeon, that ever patient prophet who waited in the Temple for some sure sign of God’s strength, only to be rewarded when the baby Jesus is presented. He says:

For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”

May the light ever shine, and may the glory of the people every reign in our hearts. Amen.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve

Luke 2
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.”

Don’t tell my brother, but I’m reading the book I’m giving him for Christmas.

How could I resist? Let’s begin with the title, and oh, what a title: “National Geographic London Book of Lists: The City's Best, Worst, Oldest, Greatest, and Quirkiest.” And just in case that title doesn’t light up every factoid receptor in your brain, they added a second sub-title: “Fascinating Facts, Little-Known Oddities & Unique Places to Visit.” The book practically screams “read me”—even if it’s not mine to read.

So how is it a Christmas book? Aside from the fact that it will appear under the tree in a few short hours, the topic of the big day comes up from time to time, most particularly in the section called “Menu Items at a Medieval Royal Feast.” The section begins “somewhere between the food orgies of the Romans and the all-you-can-eat buffets of Las Vegas stand the gluttonous feasts of Henry VIII and other late medieval monarchs.” (p. 58)

Roasted meats (beef, lamb, venison) consumed without vegetables (considered too lower-class); peacock, feathers plucked then replaced after cooking; roasted swan, or baby swan pie; various sea creatures, from herring to eel and even whale; and of course, offal, that aptly named ingredient that appears in various recipes. And if you want all the ick minus the bits, you could simply select blood sausage, a perennial holiday favourite.

But it was the medieval showstopper that everyone waited for, the star of the meal (especially if peacocks were in short supply): the head of a wild boar. Elaborately garnished, he (or she) was given pride of place at the centre of the table. It may be too late now to find the boar’s head needed to complete the family meal, but there is always next year. “Siri, where can I find the head of a wild boar?”

If all of this sounds familiar, it may be because the other night you set aside Die Hard (1988) and all the other well-known Christmas movies and switched over to TVO to see Tudor Monastery Farm Christmas. Listen to the teaser: “Ruth, Peter and Tom...make Tudor decorations, engage in festive [revelry] and prepare feasting delights such as boar's head, shred pies and Christmas pudding.” There’s that boar’s head again.

Near the end of the episode we meet Dr. Ronald Hutton, to explain the medieval tradition of the “lord of misrule.” Selected at random, often with a dried pea hidden in some cake, the lord of misrule would take over from the actual lord for the evening, ordering people around, directing the party, and generally subverting the social order. It may have been based on a Roman tradition, or some other source, but it remained popular throughout the age: in the manor, in monasteries, and even in the royal court.

Some have argued that it functioned as a bit of a release valve, reversing the social order to correct whatever build-up tension existed between master and serf. Others saw it as a reminder that the social hierarchy that exists in this world is temporary, and all will be equal in the next. Whatever the purpose, it certainly underlined the world-altering nature of Christmas, when God arrives in our midst in the most vulnerable form possible, and earthly kings kneel to adore him.

But I think the image goes further: The Christ-child becomes the Lord of Misrule when we reflect on the words of Mary we heard just a few short days ago:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.

These are the words of a revolutionary, a “subversive element” they might say in some of the troubled places in our world. Mary understands that God is doing a new thing, refusing to bless the existing order and practising misrule instead. Simeon the prophet said the same thing when Jesus was dedicated in the Temple: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many people.”

So what is the exact nature of this misrule, aside from making a baby the Lord of All? As we’ve already noted, some of the changes will be political. When the author of love and the source of mercy becomes the Lord of All, it becomes an immediate commentary on anyone who holds power in our world. Getting and keeping power will no longer justify itself, it must reflect the compassion and grace revealed in Jesus.

And then there is the manifesto of misrule, when Jesus called “blessed” the least and the last in his time and ours: blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those hungry and thirsty for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who persecuted in the pursuit of righteousness.

And finally, there is the handbook of misrule, when the Son of Man gathers the nations and separates the sheep from the goats. To the sheep he says “inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: I was hungry and you have me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me in, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick or in prison and you visited me.” The quizzical sheep respond, asking ‘when did we do these things?’ And the answer? “When you did them for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it also for me.”

So we have the politics of misrule, and a manifesto of misrule, and even a handbook of misrule, but how do we make it personal, how do we make it local? One way is to look back at the year that was. We did all the things we are known for, housing vulnerable seniors, feeding the hungry, offering support and two community spaces for people to gather. We did all these things together, but we also did something that seems counter to the what the world (or at least Fox News) might have us do: we got involved in refugee sponsorship.

On the topic of refugees, worldly voices might say ‘it’s not our problem, or we have our own problems’ (without ever really addressing them). They might say ‘how can we know it’s safe?‘ or ‘they’re not even Christian—why would a church do that?‘ The answer is misrule, doing the opposite of what the world might do because the compassionate example of Jesus demands we do it.

So let me conclude with a story, fitting—I think—for the week of baby Adam’s birth. Months ago, at one of our gatherings, one of our dear volunteers asked Suheir if she knew what she was having. And without missing a beat, Suheir said “We’re having a Canadian.”

Each birth is sign of hope, of new beginnings and a fresh start. And on this night, it’s also a sign of misrule, where we set aside the way things are, and lift up the way things could be. Tonight may you sleep and dream in heavenly peace, dreaming of a world made new. Amen.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Advent I

Mark 13
24 “But in those days, following that distress,
“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’[a]
26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it[b] is near, right at the door. 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[c]! 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!’”

I want to begin by reminding you that time travel is dangerous and ill-advised.

Having been sufficiently warned, I should also remind you that things are different in the past, and you ought to be prepared. As soon as next week we may find ourselves transported to Bethlehem, so there are a few things about the past we ought to note.

Take time, for example. The passage Taye shared describes the division of time in the Bible, with evening, midnight, when the rooster crows, and at dawn. The shiny watch on your wrist will cause alarm, so you will need to get used the seeming vagueness of time.

The days of the week are a little more precise, but no less confusing. Only three days per month had an actual names back then: calends, the first of the month, nones, eight days before the ides, and the ides, that fell in the middle of the month. So forget Sunday—today would be called Five Days before the Nones of December. After the ides (the 13th or the 15th, depending on the month) things get silly. Christmas is no longer the 25th, but Eight Days before the Calends of January. It hardly rolls off the tongue. The thing to remember here is that we count the days, while Romans counted down.

Finally, the year was divided into twelve months, but counted from the beginning of the Roman calendar in March. So September is named for the Latin word for seven (septem) and December for ten (decem). Other months are named for various rituals (February is named for purification) or for gods or god-emperors like July and August.

Remarkably, it was Julius Caesar who standardized the calendar to 365 days plus an additional day every four years. Even with this seeming precision, his calendar adds three days every four hundred years, meaning that the Julian calendar is currently off by 13 days. Again, you only need to worry about this if you are time-traveling, or joining your Greek friends for Christmas or Easter.

To recap: Christmas is December 25th here, and January 7th on the Danforth, Eight Days before the Calends of January for Joseph and Mary, and just 22 days away. But we can’t think about that yet, since today is the First Sunday of Advent, and there is a whole liturgical season between us and the big day.

And just to underline that we are in the Not Yet, the reading for the day is about as far from Yule as you could possibly get:

24 “But in those days, following that distress,
“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’[a]
26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

You will no doubt recall that we begin every Advent with a variation on this theme—the world-ending and time-defying completion of all that is. We seem to begin at the end of the Christian story, and not the beginning—that thing we are anxious to mark in a few short days.

Of course, the return of Christ is something we think about throughout the year, but for Advent I it takes centre stage. Other times we reference it in different ways. In communion, for example, in the memorial acclamation, an ancient verse we say together:

Christ has died,
Christ has risen,
Christ will come again.

And some have suggested we point to this every week when we say, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it in heaven.” This is more that just a hope for mirroring—that somehow we’ll make earth more like heaven—but that earth and heaven become one in the fullness of time.

In many ways, it’s a tough sell. We love Christmas, and we love Easter, but the end of time just doesn’t bring out the crowds. There is no well-loved canon of end-of-the-world hymns, we don’t name our churches for it, and on the list of top five Christian doctrines it might be number six.

We can’t even seem to agree in what to call it. Some cling to the Greek and go with parousia or eschaton, some make it more dramatic and call it the apocalypse, and some simply say the Second Coming. It does appear in the creeds of the church, particularly the Apostles and the Nicene Creed, which says: “He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”

But look what happens with A New Creed, the expression of faith we use in the United Church, written in the 1960s to sum up who we are. It describes the work of the church, culminating in the call to “seek justice and resist evil, and finally “to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope.” You can hear an echo of “judge the living and the dead” found at the end of time, but that’s about it.

I think we’re resistant to the overall concept of the end of time, and I think we’re resistant for a couple of reasons—one obvious and one unexpected. So we begin with the obvious. There is a bumper sticker that reads “Lord Jesus, please save me from your followers.” The followers in question are currently getting set to vote in a special election in Alabama and some (if not all) are convinced that the world could end any minute.

And while this idea is rather neutral, the implications for some Christians are problematic. Some feel compelled to quickly convert everyone else before the end. Some are completely indifferent to the natural world that they see as time-limited anyway. And some have supported Israel not for their right to exist but rather as the location of the opening act of armageddon. That’s the obvious reasons.

The unexpected reason for downplaying the end-of-time is our own hesitation, based mostly on a love for the present age. We’re invested in the time we inhabit, we made it, we’re making it right now, and we hope to continue to make it into the future. And that’s an understatement.

Imagine everything you love—your community, your family, the things you do day-by-day—somehow overwhelmed by the completion of all things. We don’t even have adequate language to describe this mystery, and even if we shy away from the dramatic and the apocalyptic, it is still deeply unsettling. If “heaven and earth will pass away” as Jesus promises, what will happen to us, and everything we know?

So we tend to set this aside. We set it aside because it has been terribly misused, because of our own fear of loss, and because we are invested in the present age. And this is as it should be. St. Paul makes this clear in 1 Corinthians when he says: “Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1.7-8)

Paul’s idea of blamelessness is all the work that we’re doing in the meantime. All the “loving and serving others” and all the “seeking justice and resisting evil” is the work we do while we wait. Part of the instruction to “keep watch” is to remain faithful even in the face of an uncertain end. If we are look for a new reality, “on earth, as it is in heaven,” then we have to follow the rest of the prayer too: sharing our daily bread, avoiding temptation, and forgiving trespasses. Being delivered for evil, it would seem, belongs to the end of time.

And so I encourage you to dwell in the Not Yet. Allow time to pause or just slow a little as you ponder God’s desire for us and all things. Don’t dwell on the end of time, but the completion of time. Like the Romans we count down, not to the end of days, but the culmination of God’s hopes and dreams for us:

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore, the sun shall not strike them, no any scorching heat. For the lamb in the midst of throne will be their shepherd, and lead them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Amen.