COLLEGE STREET UNITED CHURCH

People helping people in the name of Jesus

SERMONS

SERMON: College Street United Church DATE: September 20th, 2015

TITLE:   “A Child’s Story

 

TEXT:  Mark 9:36-37 “He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.’”

 

Prologue:

 

Let me begin with a word of thanks.  The choir you have been hearing today are well practiced…is this not so?  You’ve been seeing pictures of our travels … We used our own van and drove throughout northeast Scotland singing in small churches, old castles, big city cathedrals and country halls. We were on the street in Edinburgh and in the evensong service in Glasgow cathedral. And I am so grateful for their open hearts and willing hands

As always we begin …not with a long sermon but with heart-felt prayers…recognizing that we live with a great luxury: the opportunity ti reflect on our lives in safety, enjoying the security of food and health. We lift up all those particularly for those fleeing civil war in Syria.  Our hearts go out to the vulnerable and powerless, we ask God’s care for them and we recognize that all we say today is offered in the context of needing compassion and will to be instruments of peace and justice on this world.

We also pray to God for those who are beset by disease or despair…the debilitating forces that keep us low, hold us back, undercut our best intentions and leave us weak. “God …stand by us as we struggle to find directly.

We pray especially for Doreen McKenize who passed this past week. Doreen was with us during service last Sunday and then died Monday morning…swiftly and without pain. Her funeral is Tuesday at 11:00 at the Turner Porter York Chapel on Bloor Street West and visitation is tomorrow -2-4. 7-9. How we will miss her gracious, quiet manner.

But first let us prayer. “God us help us to see your presence your words in the silences of our faith.”

 

Introduction:

         There have been countless sermons perched on this passage from Mark’s gospel…extolling the virtues of children, their innocence, their light-heartedness, their hope, their frank honesty and forthright speech. And while these qualities are easily associated with children, when Jesus took a child and brought him into the midst the disciples to explain how we must all become as children, it was not because of a child’s intrinsic qualities. There was a simpler more profound purpose.

Jesus brings a child into the circle of disciples to make the point that …well …let me read you my story…perhaps it will be clear from that.  It’s called:  “A Child’s Story.”  Sit back…close you eyes if you like…here goes.

 

A Child’s Story

 

         Once upon a time … Frank.  Frank.

Frank is 10, short for his age and quiet. Blond hair—always untidy, broad smile—always shinning. Blue eyes. Frank is the first to school, Today he is moving more slowly than usual, but he knew what to do. He rides his bike from north of Bloor down Bathurst …locks it in the same bike stand every morning and walks to the same place on the school-yard. Stands for a moment and says his “piece.”

 “His piece” is pretty simple. He whispers it. So you’ll have to lean in close to hear him. Frank takes a deep breath, holds and then exhales slowly and says, “Help me to ask the right question today.” That’s his piece. “Help me to ask the right question today.” Says it every school day. First thing, then no one is around. On the same spot, head bowed. Quiet.

“Not,” you might argue, “something that a 10 year old would think up on his own.” And you’d be right. It was actually the suggestion his grandpa Tom.  That’s what Frank called his only grandparent, the father of his father.  No “grammas” were living when Frank was born. And his mother’s dad was lost to a car accident soon after his birth. “Grampa Tom” was the only old person Frank knew. Actually his name was “Vic” but Frank thought he looked so much like his father’s best friend Tom, that he started calling him Grampa Tom and the name stuck.  Now he wouldn’t know who Victor was.  It was “Grampa Tom.”  And for his part Vic had given up insisting on anything else…even his own son and daughter-in-law called him “Tom.” 

Grampa Tom lived in the basement of the family home.  As far as Frank was concerned Frank could see it has always been this way. Normal. Of course, his grandfather lives in the basement. Where else would he be? The family tells the story that Frank once visited a school buddy. It was a few years back. They went down into this chum’s basement to play.  Frank looked around and asked, “Where did you put your grandad?” In his mind all homes came with a basement full of the warm hugs, long stories, off colour jokes that every grandpa had to offer.  Downstairs was where unconditional love lives and waits. How could it be otherwise?

It was not uncommon for Frank wake at 5:30 am, scurry downstairs, tap his grandfather’s sleeping shoulder and ask, “Grampa Tom are we going to have breakfast?” And, bless his heart, Grampa Tom would rise, pour cereal for Frank and coffee for himself and  they'd share the quiet morning hours before school together.
It was in the basement that Frank first learned his “piece.” 

It’s been five months now. Every morning he does his piece and it began all those months ago because school had been hard. Frank felt alone, left behind, not able to keep up. And one early morning when it was too much, and his dammed up feeling’s broke. “No body likes me. I’m so short and small and they don’t see me. The big boys are all so cool and important …I’m a nothing.  A bug to squash or bully.  I feel so scared sometimes.  The big girls treat me like a toy doll.  And makes me feel worse. ” There were sobs lingering around the final sentence and Frank went silent.

It was in response to that plea that Grampa Tom suggested Frank start each day with a little thought. A Simple idea. “Go to your own place in the schoolyard,” Grampa Tom had suggested. “Someplace no one else knows about, and when no one is around ask yourself if today you’ll be given the gift to ask the right question.”  Frank looked puzzled, “’Ask the right question?’ Come on.” He wanted something more magical.  “The right question?”

“Try it, Grampa Tom had insisted. “Don’t worry about answers. Everybody has one of those to sell you. You start each day hoping you get the right questions.”

So every morning, Frank went to his spot—bare patch near the soccer goal posts. Early. No one around. And he asks quietly, “Help me to ask the right question today.”

The first day he tried it, nothing happened. At least that’s what it seemed like to Frank. School started, he listened carefully, the boys continued to ignore him. The girls made fun of his size and his unruly hair. The teacher didn’t notice. Frank could melt down into a puddle and slip into the floor vent by the window and no one would notice or even care.  It’s as he was thinking about this fact of his invisibility, a fact he took for unquestioned truth, that his first question came. How can I get bigger?  He thought about that for a time and suddenly a second question rose up from his unconscious mind. “How can I be a somebody?”

On the ride home from school Frank could hardly contain himself. He had the right questions.  Bursting through the front door, he dropped his knap sack, stopping only to take off his shoes as his mother requested, he bounded down the basement steps, shouting his questions. “Grampa Tom…I got it.  The Questions.  How can I be important? How can I get bigger? How can be somebody?” he was beaming. And Grampa Tom, rising quickly, gave him a great bear hug in celebration, pulled out the can of pop he’d been saving in the fridge for just such an occasion. “Well done…great questions!”

Frank wasn’t finished.  “It took some time, but once they started I can’t stop them. How do I get better. How do I get noticed. How do I come in first in baseball or spelling? How do I grow tall? How do I get what I want?” Frank was almost breathless. Grampa Tom just smiled. It was going to be okay. After Frank had gulped down his drink, Granmpa Tom encouraged him to keep up with his piece. “Don’t stop now…every morning you ask to be givent eh gift of the right questions.”

“Sure will.” Frank was keen.

“Promise me …” Grampa Tom was so insistent and since it seemed so important to him, Frank told himself he would never quit.  “Absolutely” he said sincerely and then added. “I love you Grampa Tom.”

It’s been three months now. Every morning he said his “piece” and every evening he’d come home with his questions. The “How” questions lasted for six weeks and just grew more and more vertical. “How tall will I be.” I important am I going to be come?” “How high will I rise in my career as baseball player?” How much money will I get?”

It was just as the “how” questions were at their peak that Frank noticed a change in Grampa Tom. He didn’t rise from his bed quickly. He started to lose weight and winced now and again when Frank jumped down onto the sofa beside him.

“You okay Grampa Tom?” Frank asked one afternoon, afraid of what the response might be.

“That’s a new question,” Grampa Tom sighed. “No more ‘How?’” 

Frank thought for a moment. The “how” questions wear a bit thin after a while.  I can’t make myself grow any faster and it doesn’t change anything when the older boys. They will always be faster and stronger. I’m still nothing.   

“Maybe you’re asking the wrong question.”  Grampa Tom looked at his grandson and decided it was time to tell him the facts of life.  “To answer your question. I’m not doing so well. The doctors are worried because my heart is not working like it should.” Grampa Tom chewed n his lip, trying to figure out how much information was enough. He continued, “And…and there’s something growing in my liver that it making it hard to keep up my energy.”

“NO!”  That was the first thing out of Frank’s mouth. And then “Why…why are you sick.  You can’t be sick. You’re my Grampa Tom. You’re going to live forever.”

Grampa Tom, tears ta his eyes sighed again, looking longingly at his grandson. “No one lives forever. Not me, not you. It’s how God made us.”

“Why?”  That was all Frank could say as he sat still looking at his grandfather and for the first time seeing a broken aging man.

“You keep asking that question,” Grampa Tom finally replied. It’s a better one that “how.”

So for five weeks, “Why” was the word that began ever question that Frank’s “piece” elicited. “Why is his Grampa Tom so sick?”  Why would God make people so frail?”  “Why did things have to be so bad and frightening?”  Frank’s mind would travel back to the  the morning weekend rituals with his Grampa Tom when they'd gone off to an early baseball game. Frank lived for the Bluejays.  As an infant, they'd headed out on the subway just to enjoy the train ride. As a middle school kid, they'd slip down to the waterfront for an early morning round of fishing. They’d been one, together, easy.  And another why question burst out of his lip. “Why does it have to end?

Frank asked his grandfather that final question when he got home from school and his Grampa Tom replied the same way. “That’s the way God made us.”

Frank was unsatisfied. “The ‘why” questions are a bummer. They never get answered. Silly word.

Grampa Tom, who had been lying down at the time, rolled over onto his side and looked at his progeny. “’Why’ is one of the most important questions to ask and it’s equally important never to try to answer it.”

Frank didn’t get that. Seemed like his Grampa Tom was losing it. “Maybe I won’t do my “piece” any more.  It doesn’t help...” he wanted add “it doesn’t… help you,” but that was getting a little too close to the bone…so he left the sentence dangling. 

Grampa Tom rolled to back. “Don’t give up Frank. There are still plenty of questions waiting for you.”

So Frank continued…Up until this morning now real questions emerged. Frank would say his “piece” and it was all he could to keep form crying. Grampa Tom was so weak now, so frail. He hardly had the energy to hold his hand. His eyes were still bright, but his voice was low and broken.  Frank did his “piece” more out of dedication to his grandfather than out of any expectation he would improve his lot.   “Help me to ask the right question today.”

Frank took a deep breath, prepared to walk through another day when a terrible, haunting question hit him. “Who will listen to me if anything happens to Grampa Tom?’ “Who will be there when I come home from school?” “Who will live me like he does?”

Such was the force of those questions that Frank didn’t go to school. He turned on his heel went back to his bike and pedaled home as quickly as he could. Leaving the door open, not caring about taking off his shoes…Frank went straight to Grampa Tom’s sofa.

He found his grandfather breathing heavily, but awake. He pulled a chair close to the sofa. “I know the question…the right question.” Frank began.  “He saw his grandfather’s eyebrows lift.

“You do?” whispered Grampa Tom. “Tell me?”

“Who will love me if you die?”

Grampa Tom closed his eyes, a broad smile came over his face. He took a tremendous deep breath …as to last for hours. His whole frame seemed to relax and he finally said, “The right questions in life are always the ‘who” questions. ‘Who is in need of care?’ ‘Who can I love?’ ‘Who can I trust?’ ‘Who can I forgive?’   Remember that Frank my son.” Here Grampa Tom reached out a frail hand and rested it on Frank’s knee.  Loving doesn’t end.  I won’t stop loving you just because if I die. Dying is part of living. And so is loving.  The problem is never trying to love. The greatest challenge for us as human beings is trying not to love.  We can't stop ourselves.  The ‘who’ question is all about loving…best question there is.”

Frank sat in silence. Trying to digest his grandfather’s words. Expecting more explanation.  It was two hours they sat together before Grampa Tom passed. 
               What grandparents know, as grandchildren do not, is that love is never limited by the boundaries of time and space. It is not defeated by disease or even death.  Love is the toughest substance ever created. It builds through hardship and stretches past the grave.
               The Apostle Paul got it right, "Love never ends."  Soon Frank will discover this.

 

 



Sermon: Pentecost 3   College Street United Church DATE: June 20th, 2015

 

Text: Luke 7: 37  “Do you see this woman…”

 

Title: The Greatest Apostle we Never Had”

Prelude:

        

Welcome to the summer. Every Sunday from now until September 14th, we will be celebrating in our more informal manner. Preaching in shorts so to speak. And as I have announced last week, our summer services will feature the re-establishing of the role of women in our community.   We have lived for close to 1900 years with distorted pictures of our Christian community and in particular we have given little space to the feminine, to the influence of women and their gifts and courage.  Today we retell our story and feature Mary of Magdala who is mentioned in Luke’s gospel by name in the first verses of chapter 8 and is featured in Mark’s gospel as one of the women who stood at the cross and went to the tomb on the first Easter morning. She takes on a greater role in John’s gospel and actually has the first personal encounter with Jesus after the resurrection.  Indeed, in John Mary is portrayed as much as the three central disciples of Peter, James and John and yet if you ask any Christian in the world about Mary and the first thing they will say is that she was a prostitute---a role made famous by Andrew Lloyd Weber in “Jesus Christ Superstar” where Mary sings the most poignant of love songs, “I don’t know how to love him.”

This morning I want you to encounter the Mary I have come to know, Not the prostitute, not the sorrowful companion, not the next of kin mourner, but the greatest apostle we never had. 

Now obviously we are venturing of the biblical map a bit. Bella read from a gospel of Mary that was popular in the 2nd century but not included in our canon of scripture. And while it is not more historical than any other gospel, it gives us a glimpse into another way to understand the role of women in the early church. Likewise I will be employing a long respected academic tool to uncover the real Mary of Magdala: well-informed guesswork.

Join me as we look at a heroine of the faith that was never given her rightful place.

First, let us pause and pray.  “God help me never to use my reason against the truth.”

Introduction

         One tool of theologians throughout history is what is called: the via negative.  You explain what something is by outlining what it is not.  Not only does this have the advantage of dispelling myth, it is also a way to avoid claiming too much.

So let’s start with the 3 things Mary of Magdala is not.

  1. Mary of Magdala is not a prostitute.  Underline, underline, underline!  Was that emphatic enough? How about Capital letters: MARY IS NOT A PROSITIUTE!  No where in scripture is she described by any professional designation. There is no allusion in the very scant descriptions we have of her behavior that would lead us to make that assumption. Mary does not possess anything, say anything or do anything that would make one suppose she is a woman of the night, a sinner or a wanton personality. Nothing. I will explain where this myth arises in a few minutes.
  2. Mary is not the wife of Jesus.  I know it has been fashionable of late to speak of the Holy Grail as a blood-line beginning with Mary of Magdala who gave birth to Jesus’ child and who was wisked away to France to avoid persecution.  That’s Dan Brown kind of popular speculation. And it sells books, but there’s no reason to give it more historical credence than we would a plot from Shakespeare. Some academics point to the fact that Mary of Magdala goes to the tomb on the first Easter morning to care for the body of Jesus and that this task was assigned to the next of kin, i.e., a wife.  Likewise the encounter between Mary and Jesus in John’s gospel has the colouring of intimacy. You know the story.  Mary meets the risen Jesus in the garden and presumes first that he is the gardener and when Jesus calls her by name she recognizes him and then Jesus says, “Don’t touch me.”  In Greek the verb in that phrase is actually in the active present tense: Jesus says to Mary  “Stop touching me.”  That sounds close, like the embrace of life companion or lover.  However enticing this possibility that Mary was the wife or lover of Jesus might be, there’s a simple confounding fact. If that was the case why didn’t Mary get the title? What’s the problem with Jesus having a wife? In fact it was an expected, common practice of spiritual leaders and rabbis… The earliest commentator on Jesus, the Apostle Paul, makes no mention of Jesus and his marital state…there’s no word either way …In many instances…like the one I mentioned from “Jesus Christ Superstar,”   we’re retrojecting back into the original story our romantic myths hen we claim Mary was the wife of Jesus. Of course it’s possible, but like the idea Mary is a prostitute, why would we?
  3. Mary is not nothing nor nobody. She is not how we imagine her: a dedicated, but basically arms-length, non-participant in the Galilean ministry of Jesus.  She was not on the periphery of events. We know from Luke, chapter 8, that she is described as one of the funders of his mission…We know she was demon possessed…so …she was healed by Jesus in Galilee and she followed the band into Jerusalem…a dangerous place. And she was at the cross and the tomb.  Whether or not these events are historical, Mark and all subsequent gospel writers picture Mary as a central character in the band of Jesus. There’s no reason she was not at the last supper, at the feeding of the thousands, in the boat when the storms raged across the sea of Galilee, among the disciples who witnessed the healing of Jarius’ daughter and the curing of blind Bartimaeus. There’s no reason to exclude Mary from the final weeks events …the cleansing of temple, Palm Sunday procession, Garden prayers and  we know for certain she was present during and after the crucifixion. No …Mary is not nothing nor nobody.

          

The Greatest Apostle we Never Had”     

         Okay having been through about who and what Mary is not, what can we say positively. Who is Mary. Again we are sure of 3 things about Mary.

  1. Mary is resourceful and generous. How do we know this? She always described as Mary “Magdalene” or Mary  “of Magdala.”  Now some scholars argue that this is a way of speaking of someone who lived near a tall tower or under or in someway associated with a tower or high wall…since “Magdala” in Aramaic means “tower” …perhaps she lived in a part of a human habitation attached to a high structure, or maybe she was a “tower” like woman ..physically tall or a source of great strength …All of this is suggestive, but there is a much simpler explanation. There was a small town outside of Tiberias on the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. It was primarily a fishing village and there’s no reason to assume anything other than that Mary from that town…she was a Magdalene…as Jesus was a “Nazarene.” Having agreed on that, it would make sense to say that Mary benefited from the fishing industry and was no touched by the increased taxation imposed by Herod Antipas who was trying to Romanize the lake. She had reason to resist this turn of events. Apart from her title and geographic identifier, Mary is described in Luke 8 as one of the women who followed Jesus and who provided for the itinerant mission of Jesus “from her means.” That’s a polite way of saying that Mary among others bankrolled the Jesus tour.  She therefore must have had resources…perhaps from a family business, a fish drying warehouse or fishing fleet. And she was generous. She gave from her personal fortune for the ministry of Jesus and without her assistance that healing / preaching mission of miracles would never have been possible.   It was Mary’s generosity that sustained our story and as we move forward in our future we draw from Mary’s example of sacrificial giving….
  2. Mary was courageous.  As I said, she must have followed Jesus to Jerusalem along with the other disciples…She no doubt was present at the last supper and the arrest of Jesus at the Garden.  Unlike the other disciples who either denied Jesus and fled or lost heart and hid, Mary stayed visible and present for the horrible events of Good Friday. Indeed the story of the crucifixion is concluded in Marks gospel by the mentioning of the women who witnessed his torturous death. Mary is listed first among many other women who “ministered” to Jesus in Galilee…another reference to her generosity.  Mark wants to do two things with this reference. First, it’s a historical anchor…the crucifixion was not a myth or a made up story, these women can testify to what they saw with their own eyes.  He was executed on a cross. There were witnesses. But more importantly, in the second place Mark wants to honour the many women who did not desert Jesus, but who stood by, in helpless anguish of course, but who did not desert Jesus in his moment of suffering.  There is no question that Mark is giving voice to the admiration and gratitude of the early Christian community for these women…they have the courage of their convictions and they did not run. They had every reason to leave Jerusalem, or to hide out until the tempest was past. But the picture of Mary standing firm in the midst of that emotional and political storm is a testament to the central role of women in the unfolding of our mission…as we draw on that courage even now as we remain faithful to the God’s mission on this street corner.

3. Finally Mary is determined and faithful.  We can make this assumption from two sources. First she is listed in all four gospels as the one who did not give up and quite Jerusalem, but continued to the end to fulfill her responsibilities. Having ministered to Jesus while he was alive, she was faithful even when he was dead. She leads the women to the tomb where they will perform the final services of her circle.  We must recognize that at the time she was paying homage to and honouring a convicted and executed felon. Not a pretty place nor a safe one.  Mary is skating out onto thin ice when she decides to perform the last rites for her Saviour. No one curries this danger easily. She would be certainly be mocked by other neighbours and even persecuted by the authorities.  But Mary is determined not to fail in her dedication to Jesus. She will not be deterred from the simple gestures of human dignity.  This portrait of the dedicated and faithful disciple is repeated in the passage Bella read this morning. Mary is portrayed as the one who kickstarts the post-pentecostal mission of Peter and other disciples.   In chapter 5 we read that disciples were distressed, to the point of weeping amd Mary directs them towards the good so that they can continue what seems like an impossible task: 

 

1)But they were grieved. They wept greatly, saying, How shall we go to the Gentiles and preach the gospel of the Kingdom of the Son of Man? If they did not spare Him, how will they spare us? 2) Then Mary stood up, greeted them all, and said to her brethren, Do not weep and do not grieve nor be irresolute, for His grace will be entirely with you and will protect you. 3) But rather, let us praise His greatness, for He has prepared us and made us into Men. 4) When Mary said this, she turned their hearts to the Good, and they began to discuss the words of the Savior.

 

I know this Mary …I have met her so often. The determined and faithful supporter and apostle of Jesus who is not deterred by the enormity of our mission nor the danger of our ministry. Even today we draw from her faithfulness and continue in our own way, not worrying about success or status but keeping faith for as Mary says, His grace will be with us and shelter us.”

 

Let us thank God for Mary of Magdala, the unnamed heroine of the faith, the generous, courageous faithful one,   the greatest apostle we never had.

   Now to conclude, we look at the dark side of our tradition.  We have a shadow. Mary’s generosity and courage and determination were quickly undermined by the growing Christian church. After several generations of equality between men and women and the miracle of acceptance had passed, the values of hierarchical and patriarchal Roman empire began to re-assert themselves. And while it was impossible to write Mary out of the story entirely, she could be discredited. That’s where eth title of prostitute arises. There is such a woman mentioned in Luke 7…in the story Bella read about the dinner at Simon’s house. A “sinner” woman crashes the party…and she is clearly in the sex trade.  Jesus has forgiven and loved her and she responds with a great out pouring of love and passion. Now there is no reason to associate the woman in chapter 7 with the women described at the beginning of chapter 8 but that is what has happened.   And what began a simple association by proximity became a means by which this great apostle was maligned and relegated to a forgotten place in our tradition.   I can think of no greater example of Christina misogyny and this sermon and the summer series is a step in apologizing for a history of oppressing women and disregarding their wisdom and considerable faithfulness.

 




Sermon: Christmas 2 College Street United Church DATE: Dec 21st, 2014 

Text: John 1: 1  “in the beginning was the word…”

 Title: “IN THE BEGINNING…”         

 Prelude:

Welcome to 2015…Seems impossible how quickly times passes. Ellen reminded me yesterday that we are as close to 2030 as we are to the turn of the millennium …looking back it seems just yesterday we were celebrating 2000 with great fireworks displays and noble resolutions of a new world order.  It is frightening how we see the days fall upon one another…May this yea, 2015, be one filled with promise and meaning for you.

As we begin this new world, Ellen and I would like to extend our warmest thanks…for your on-going support, sense of hospitality and fun.  We feel so fortunate to be included in your circle.

Can I show you a special video that came on my Facebook…very suggestive.  (show it)

Yes…Auld Lang Syne with a twist. Now last Wednesday night, many of us heard this traditional melody: “Auld Lang Syne.”  Indeed singing that old Burn’s poem may have been the first thing you did in 2015.  It has a venerable tradition, this song: it’s used by some youth organizations as a way to conclude their international meetings. You can also catch it as the final note in graduations. It’s used in funerals and moments when we want to venerate what has gone before us. And who doesn’t love the tune? And while most people do not know what might be the actual meaning of Auld Lang Syne, we sing it all the same for it draws from us such deep nostalgic longing. Right?   I love the sentiments. Now the song is attributed to Robbie Burns and he did indeed write a number of verses, but the phrase Auld Lang Syne has been around in Scotland for centuries.  The first verse of Burn’s song has a wonderful cadence...it is the perfect retrospective invitation.

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
for Auld Lang Syne?

CHORUS:

For Auld Lang Syne, my dear,
for Auld Lang Syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for Auld Lang Syne.

 

Essentially the first verse is a rhetorical question.  We might put it this way: “Can anyone forget old friendships?”  By extension the song is affirming that it is our common past that binds us, that helps us to forgive past wrongs and hope for future joys. When we forget from whence we come, we lose our way. Now it is clear that most people sing this song and don’t exactly know how to translate the phrase Auld Lang Syne.  It has a unique connotation:  rendered in English as literally “Old -Long – Since. ”   Some suggest we should say Auld Lang Syne is best rendered: “Once upon a time,” but that has a fairy-tale like quality…a fiction.  Why not say Auld Lang Syne means:  “Long Times Ago,” or “The Days of Long Ago” or “In Days Gone By.” 

Of course Auld Lang Syne is a Scottish idiom that has deep roots: a reminder that there is value in looking into the past. It need not be an escape. When we look back we remember how our friendships and common causes have blessed us.  To be spiritual…we look back to remind ourselves to whom we belong.

But you don’t have to know the literal meaning to get the basic feeling.  As we sing it we have this sense of ancient blessings and loves. Faces of elders and mentors come to mind, our hearts are filled with a longing and a hoping. Sweet remembrances and tingling hopes. 

If you can have that sense of the mingling of memory and hope, then you also catch also the meaning of the opening of John’s gospel. It is to understand the heart of the phrase: “In the beginning was the word,”  is our task for this morning.

But first let’s pray.

“God help us never to use our reason against your truth.”  

 

Introduction:

We have no idea of the authorship of the fourth gospel.  Given that it makes historical events that took place many years after the crucifixion/resurrection event, it is highly unlikely that the author was part of the original disciples circle or even the first generation of followers. More than likely the version we currently have of John’s gospel began to be shaped at the turn of the first century..70 odd years after Jesus. 

The fourth gospel departs from the other three in so many ways, one sermon can hardly even scratch the surface of its beauty and unique qualities…you’ll have to come to the vent we are hosting with Bishop John Spong in April…he will focus his presentation on the fourth gospel which her reveres as the work of a Jewish mystic[1]. But what can be said here is that as a Jewish scholar, John wants to open his gospel with the exact words that open the Torah… “In the beginning…” It has a majestic, nostalgic tone…we hear it even if we do not understand from whence it comes…there is the wonderful majesty of creation that lurks behind the phrase…. Marvelous…we are at the start of all things. 

But the gospel does not continue the phrase from genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” In place of this creating act, John places a very suggestive idea…In the beginning is “the Word.”  Now we all know this word: “word.”  We use it all the time …it is the foundational building block of every idea, phrase and slogan: words. And in that sense John gets it right.  The beginning of all thought is the “word.”  And much has been made of the idea that indeed God’s first creative act starts with three words: “Let there be light.” An idea we celebrate on this second Sunday of Christmas…the light of the start of Bethlehem being a symbolic reminder of the original, primordial light.  So John is right, the start of creation is a “word.”

Then Martin Luther and others added the idea that John is referring to the “Word of God,” the good news, the gospel. At the start of all things is this Good News.  Then we progress to the notion that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh …that’s how the logic goes.  God’s benediction and promises is captured in this one we call Jesus and in him all the previous creative words found in Genesis are made real and concrete. 

In The Beginning

But John means more than all of this …in Greek the phrase  “En arche en ho Logos.”  In the beginning was the word. But the  Greek word “logos” means a great deal more that literally “word.” While it means that, it is also a rich philosophical term that was used to connote the primordial building block of all that its, the foundational principle.  Star Trek fans would say it is the “prime directive” Quantum physics might say “the principle of relativity.” The point of John is that he wants to declare that the world begins, is founded on and relies upon a binding action of God.  “At the heart of all things,” “when you get right down to it,”  “if you go to the bottom line,”  …at the root of everything is a principle, a word, a concept of creation.” John is going to go to explain that this root principle, word, binding principle or foundational building block is  “love.”

But that often gets reduced to emotional sentimentality, the LUV we see so often paraded out at the end of a Hollywood movie. Love is a such a richer concept.

 John’s concept of a primal binding agent might better be translated as relationship or community or connection.  His point is that our world is created and held together by compassionate connection…right relationships…or as the bible puts it: Shalom.  In the beginning: “love.” In the beginning: “right relationship.” In the beginning “Forgiving acceptance.”  In the beginning: “Shalom.” That’s where it all starts.

As we begin 2015, I have not clear vision of what may come our way, what challenges we will face, what miracles will possess us or which pains we will endure. None of us has such foresight…but looking back and giving thanks fro the hands that have held me, I know I can move forward with confidence and hope. 

When we look back on our years we see that we are grasped  and sustained by relationships that do not abandon us. Chief among our relationships: we are made by a Creator whose love does not leave us, but calls us forward.

 Often our evaluation of our days past is measured by those loving connections that made a difference.

So as we face forward, it is healthy to look backward or as Ellen suggested to me…let’s go back our way into the future…for as we see those hands that reached out to us, we recognize to whom we belong and why we have hope for the future.

In this regard Burn’s final verse gets it right.

And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give me a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for Auld Lang Syne.

For Auld Lang Syne, my dear,
for Auld Lang Syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for Auld Long Syne.

 

For this reason, to be reminded that we are held together in a ancient connection of loving, we hold hands at the end of every service…acting out our beginning and our end.

Now, I realize that we are often broken and distraught. That words of hope fall on deaf ears as we struggle with our sense of loss and abandonment…all the hand holding in the world can’t dispel our anxiety…it’s tough and the God who works like a divine social worker is unsatisfying…too pedestrian. I don’t want to leave you with the sense that God nothing more than a hand shake.   If you have trouble understanding the first few verses of John’s gospel you are also feeling his desire to paint a picture beyond cognition. There is a mystery here we cannot grasp entirely…and it is better not to try too hard. In this respect let me conclude with a very moving poem that deserves to be read at the beginning of every New Year. Written by the German theologian and activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wrote it from jail just before he was executed in 1945, he tries to weigh his life and find his identity in the progression of events.  Entitled, “Who am I” this poem captures John’s invitation to understand our beginning and ending in relation to a great mystery.

 

Who Am I? by Deitrich Bonhoeffer

Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As thought it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectations of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine! [2]

 


[1] John Spong is coming to College Street United Church on Friday April 17 and Saturday April 18th, See chrislevantoursinc.com for more details

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. by Eberhard Bethge, New York: Touchstone, 1997.



Sermon: Advent 1 College Street United Church DATE: Nov. 30th, 2014 

Text: Isaiah 64:8b “We are the clay, and you are the potter, O Lord, we all are the work of your hand.”

 Title: “The Gift of Letting Go…”           

 Prelude:

Throughout this Advent season we are looking at the time: Christmas is 4 giving…a fun, little play on words.  At Christmas we think more about giving, than any other time of the year. And there are four Sunday’s of preparation for the birth of Jesus.  And there is a sense in which the whole seas can be…not by scolding, not by cajoling or badgering or bickering.  God calls us into the light by forgiving us.

         So this morning I want to speak of the first think we can give in this season: “the spirit of letting go.” I’ll explain more on this and let’s start with a brief look at the perils of parenting.

         There are some advantages to having children that we do not recognize until we get much older.  After the sleep deprivation fades and the awkward visits with the teacher become a distant memory, then we start to see what we have learned from our children and what we have been given through them.  It wasn’t until my oldest kids were launched, that I saw how they did it …they figured it out. I thought I would be the only parent with dysfunctional children, but to my great surprise and relief, they actually get it. And then I knew…I knew I had been given a grace-filled revelation. “It’s okay to let go.”

You see, when we are young, unreflective parents, we think we know the score. Yes, we have a plan to impose on our children…one that will bring them success and satisfaction. We’re in charge, in the driver’s seat. We won’t repeat the mistakes of our parents. No way! Our kids need to listen to us. And if only they would follow our instructions and directions, life would be so much easier. Let us show them how to do it. They would avoid the pitfalls and headaches and grow strong through the wisdom we want to share.  So we think all we have to do is them direction and they follow them…that’s how the parent game should work. We’re here as parents to push our kids into the right path.

Now, years later …well, we see…that parenting isn’t that simple. Of course we give guidance, we model our deep intentions and live our finest virtues, but in the end, parenting is chiefly about “letting go.”  Our kids require the best we have and then they require freedom to exercise their own control over their lives. 

And this is the tough point. “Letting go” is a painful and nerve racking exercise. We watch as out children, the ones we love most, make their own mistakes and we have to let they do it. We can’t intervene except to sympathize. They take risks that we would never have take and we cringe with fear for them. When they fall, our own bodies hurt. If their egos are bruised, we wince. When they break hearts, we cry and when their hearts are broken, we feel the collapse of meaning. 

I liken parenting to a roller coaster ride. We start the machine going, give it our best, most careful maintenance and then once she’s rolling our job is to hold on. We relinquish control. We’re on for the ride of our lives.  With each twist and turn we realize we have to let go of our fretting and fuming and trust our kids…Never easy.

I wanted to reflect on the virtue of “letting go” by referring to the image Hannah read about today found in the 64th chapter of Isaiah. The prophet speaks for us: “We are the clay. Our Creator is the potter.”  And to help us I wanted to pass out some clay crosses…they’re made in Cuba by a man named Lazarus and you can take one if you like. If there are not enough, you’ll find a form to fill out so we can get you one the next time we go down. Silke is going to help me here…Take a cross as a reminder of how God shapes us like clay. We’re not in charge down here, not really.   God shapes us like these crosses

So the gift of “letting go,” but first let’s first pray

 

“God help us never to use our reason against your truth.”  

 

Introduction:

          One bit of insight we gain as we grow our children, as we watch them here in the church or work with them in classroom or gymnasium is that they are not all alike. What is a simple task for one child can be an impossible obstacle for another. Boys learn differently than girls. Older kids need less direction and more freedom than younger ones.  In a word we learn “contingency.” One size does not fit all. The human species is endlessly diverse and so a person’s ability to learn and grow, to love and forgive is “contingent.”  So much depends on our personal background, the gene pool from which we arise, our social and economic status…Contingency teaches us that we must adapt our ideas and lessons to a wide variety of needs.

         Now we can apply contingencies not just to individuals but also to entire communities. And we see that which worked for past generations does not work today. What one society desperately requires is different from the needs of another. The chief challenge of our parents is not ours.

So let me very broad and general and suggest that our world does not need to learn how to achieve.  Being a “northern” society we have developed a culture of “go-getters.”  Chilly nights and frosty mornings are great incentives to get on with it, to produce, to strive, to build, to construct, to innovate and create.  

If Canadian society were a teenager, we would have to admit that our trouble is not laziness, while sometimes we find it difficult, our problem is not getting out of bed in the morning.  As a culture we value productivity, we praise growth and entrepreneurial drive. You get plenty of rewards for pushing hard, working past lights out.  We’re all about burning the candle at both ends, 60 hour weeks and workaholism.  It’s in the air we breathe: get out there and make a difference.

And living in that atmosphere can be tough…especially if you’re not an over achiever.  We feel like a loser if we are not successful, smart, and rising.

Be that as it may, our problem is not …not on the striving side of the equation.  It’s not like we don’t know how to make things happen, control our destiny and push our futures.  No that’s not our issue.

The challenge for this culture is “letting go.” And that’s the gift we could share this season.

 

The Gift of Letting Go…

In Isaiah chapter 64, we encounter what scholars call the third Isaiah.  From chapter 55 onward a new pen is writing in this book…actually the third author.  The final chapters of Isaiah were written at the time when the leaders of the people of Israel are returning to Jerusalem.  After 80 odd years of exile, they can now come back to the holy city.  And while the foundations of the temple are in place, the great re-construction project has fallen into a slump. The initial enthusiasm has gone and the people are caught in an in between time. The exile is over and that is source of great joy. But it seems impossible to gather the financial and political means for re-establishing the Temple and ancient spiritual traditions.  As people who do building will tell, the only thing worse than not being able to start on your project is having it stopped mid-stride.  An empty hole in ground…bad sign.

Chapter 64 seems to be a lament…a mea-culpa confession. The prophet gives voice to the disappointment of the people who have fallen short of their goal.  And this is understandable…they’re so close. They went through the trials of exile, waited patiently from generation to generation. They kept their faith and fixed their hopes on returning to Jerusalem. And now that they have arrived…well it feels like a still-birth.  No sooner had the dream come alive and real than it stalled and died.

Rather than focus on the historical conditions, look at Isaiah as a journey of the heart.  It’s a recognizable path…we have all been on it…the path of not-quite-making-it.  We’re close, but not close enough. We show promise, we have some gifts, but not quite enough…If only we tried harder. A bit more…

And like the people speaking through the prophet in Isaiah 64, we lament our state …blame ourselves and beat ourselves up as God’s failures. We let the side down.  Loser R Us.  And the pain of that condition is made all the more difficult in this society which, as I said, favours achievement and success.

Now it can be an escape that this point to stay right there in our misery, to wallow in self-pity and doubt.  No one knows better that you, how we can drown in our broken promise and get lost in recrimination…Ironically, it is very tempting to stay right here…self-pity is safe…we’re in charge…even if it is a bad place, at least we know how we got here and who is to blame. When we circle around the misery of our lives we are in control…Boy, there are moments when I want to stay there…in the deep shadows of my own faults because in that darkness I have no responsibility to move or leave or grow. 

However, the poem of lament does not allow itself that luxury of self-pity.  Lament is like having a good cry…it’s cleansing …but then comes verse 8.  The tipping point. Verse 8 acts as the hinge in the equation, the turning point on the journey of the heart.  Now, this hinge or turning is found throughout scriptures, and it is implicit in all we do when we face Maker who sees our own frailty. Verse 8 is the big “nevertheless” of prayer.  We are broken promises, almost-rans, failed experiments…nevertheless…God blesses us. We are not what we would like to be, nevertheless God loves us dearly.  In spite of all my flops, and flubs, in spite of the blows that have brought me down, in spite of our own inadequacies …still we belong to God. 

We are the clay in God’s hands…God shapes us …we are not in charge…and in this season of light, give yourself the gift of letting go …Take a deep breath …do that now…pretend our toes are your nose…deep breath…Allow yourself to turn over all the anxiety and stress, the striving and grasping …

It’s the Christmas season…we’re just beginning…gift yourself a gift of conversion of your heart…take you hand off the throttle, easy off on the accelerator and allow God into the driver’s seat…be clay…let the potter do the work.  It’s about trust...as we saw from the kids…letting go requires trust…trust God, the force of love from which you were made and to which you are going.

Perhaps Charles Dickens can help us. Christmas is coming after all…he maps out the same journey of the heart. In his classic,  A Christmas Carol Dickens personifies our society and its desperate, unforgiving spirit and our personal lives bound by rabid striving in the person of Ebenezer Scrooge who he describes as

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster[1].

 

No one wants to be the unconverted Ebenezer Scrooge…no…no…In the voice of his nephew, Fred, I hear our direction today…allowing the love of the season to flow through us and to join together on this journey of the heart. When Scrooge, the over achiever, scolds Fred for making no profit from Christmas, Fred replies for us all:

"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say," returned the nephew.  "Christmas among the rest.  But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round -- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that -- as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys[2]


[1] Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, London, Chapman and Hall, 1843, Stave 1

[2] [2] Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, London, Chapman and Hall, 1843, Stave 1

 

Sermon: Advent 1 College Street United Church DATE: Nov. 30th, 2014 

 

Text: Isaiah 64:8b “We are the clay, and you are the potter, O Lord, we all are the work of your hand.”

 

Title: “The Gift of Letting Go…”           

 

Prelude:

Throughout this Advent season we are looking at the time: Christmas is 4 giving…a fun, little play on words.  At Christmas we think more about giving, than any other time of the year. And there are four Sunday’s of preparation for the birth of Jesus.  And there is a sense in which the whole seas can be…not by scolding, not by cajoling or badgering or bickering.  God calls us into the light by forgiving us.

         So this morning I want to speak of the first think we can give in this season: “the spirit of letting go.” I’ll explain more on this and let’s start with a brief look at the perils of parenting.

         There are some advantages to having children that we do not recognize until we get much older.  After the sleep deprivation fades and the awkward visits with the teacher become a distant memory, then we start to see what we have learned from our children and what we have been given through them.  It wasn’t until my oldest kids were launched, that I saw how they did it …they figured it out. I thought I would be the only parent with dysfunctional children, but to my great surprise and relief, they actually get it. And then I knew…I knew I had been given a grace-filled revelation. “It’s okay to let go.”

You see, when we are young, unreflective parents, we think we know the score. Yes, we have a plan to impose on our children…one that will bring them success and satisfaction. We’re in charge, in the driver’s seat. We won’t repeat the mistakes of our parents. No way! Our kids need to listen to us. And if only they would follow our instructions and directions, life would be so much easier. Let us show them how to do it. They would avoid the pitfalls and headaches and grow strong through the wisdom we want to share.  So we think all we have to do is them direction and they follow them…that’s how the parent game should work. We’re here as parents to push our kids into the right path.

Now, years later …well, we see…that parenting isn’t that simple. Of course we give guidance, we model our deep intentions and live our finest virtues, but in the end, parenting is chiefly about “letting go.”  Our kids require the best we have and then they require freedom to exercise their own control over their lives. 

And this is the tough point. “Letting go” is a painful and nerve racking exercise. We watch as out children, the ones we love most, make their own mistakes and we have to let they do it. We can’t intervene except to sympathize. They take risks that we would never have take and we cringe with fear for them. When they fall, our own bodies hurt. If their egos are bruised, we wince. When they break hearts, we cry and when their hearts are broken, we feel the collapse of meaning. 

I liken parenting to a roller coaster ride. We start the machine going, give it our best, most careful maintenance and then once she’s rolling our job is to hold on. We relinquish control. We’re on for the ride of our lives.  With each twist and turn we realize we have to let go of our fretting and fuming and trust our kids…Never easy.

I wanted to reflect on the virtue of “letting go” by referring to the image Hannah read about today found in the 64th chapter of Isaiah. The prophet speaks for us: “We are the clay. Our Creator is the potter.”  And to help us I wanted to pass out some clay crosses…they’re made in Cuba by a man named Lazarus and you can take one if you like. If there are not enough, you’ll find a form to fill out so we can get you one the next time we go down. Silke is going to help me here…Take a cross as a reminder of how God shapes us like clay. We’re not in charge down here, not really.   God shapes us like these crosses

So the gift of “letting go,” but first let’s first pray

 

“God help us never to use our reason against your truth.”  

 

Introduction:

          One bit of insight we gain as we grow our children, as we watch them here in the church or work with them in classroom or gymnasium is that they are not all alike. What is a simple task for one child can be an impossible obstacle for another. Boys learn differently than girls. Older kids need less direction and more freedom than younger ones.  In a word we learn “contingency.” One size does not fit all. The human species is endlessly diverse and so a person’s ability to learn and grow, to love and forgive is “contingent.”  So much depends on our personal background, the gene pool from which we arise, our social and economic status…Contingency teaches us that we must adapt our ideas and lessons to a wide variety of needs.

         Now we can apply contingencies not just to individuals but also to entire communities. And we see that which worked for past generations does not work today. What one society desperately requires is different from the needs of another. The chief challenge of our parents is not ours.

So let me very broad and general and suggest that our world does not need to learn how to achieve.  Being a “northern” society we have developed a culture of “go-getters.”  Chilly nights and frosty mornings are great incentives to get on with it, to produce, to strive, to build, to construct, to innovate and create.  

If Canadian society were a teenager, we would have to admit that our trouble is not laziness, while sometimes we find it difficult, our problem is not getting out of bed in the morning.  As a culture we value productivity, we praise growth and entrepreneurial drive. You get plenty of rewards for pushing hard, working past lights out.  We’re all about burning the candle at both ends, 60 hour weeks and workaholism.  It’s in the air we breathe: get out there and make a difference.

And living in that atmosphere can be tough…especially if you’re not an over achiever.  We feel like a loser if we are not successful, smart, and rising.

Be that as it may, our problem is not …not on the striving side of the equation.  It’s not like we don’t know how to make things happen, control our destiny and push our futures.  No that’s not our issue.

The challenge for this culture is “letting go.” And that’s the gift we could share this season.

 

The Gift of Letting Go…

In Isaiah chapter 64, we encounter what scholars call the third Isaiah.  From chapter 55 onward a new pen is writing in this book…actually the third author.  The final chapters of Isaiah were written at the time when the leaders of the people of Israel are returning to Jerusalem.  After 80 odd years of exile, they can now come back to the holy city.  And while the foundations of the temple are in place, the great re-construction project has fallen into a slump. The initial enthusiasm has gone and the people are caught in an in between time. The exile is over and that is source of great joy. But it seems impossible to gather the financial and political means for re-establishing the Temple and ancient spiritual traditions.  As people who do building will tell, the only thing worse than not being able to start on your project is having it stopped mid-stride.  An empty hole in ground…bad sign.

Chapter 64 seems to be a lament…a mea-culpa confession. The prophet gives voice to the disappointment of the people who have fallen short of their goal.  And this is understandable…they’re so close. They went through the trials of exile, waited patiently from generation to generation. They kept their faith and fixed their hopes on returning to Jerusalem. And now that they have arrived…well it feels like a still-birth.  No sooner had the dream come alive and real than it stalled and died.

Rather than focus on the historical conditions, look at Isaiah as a journey of the heart.  It’s a recognizable path…we have all been on it…the path of not-quite-making-it.  We’re close, but not close enough. We show promise, we have some gifts, but not quite enough…If only we tried harder. A bit more…

And like the people speaking through the prophet in Isaiah 64, we lament our state …blame ourselves and beat ourselves up as God’s failures. We let the side down.  Loser R Us.  And the pain of that condition is made all the more difficult in this society which, as I said, favours achievement and success.

Now it can be an escape that this point to stay right there in our misery, to wallow in self-pity and doubt.  No one knows better that you, how we can drown in our broken promise and get lost in recrimination…Ironically, it is very tempting to stay right here…self-pity is safe…we’re in charge…even if it is a bad place, at least we know how we got here and who is to blame. When we circle around the misery of our lives we are in control…Boy, there are moments when I want to stay there…in the deep shadows of my own faults because in that darkness I have no responsibility to move or leave or grow. 

However, the poem of lament does not allow itself that luxury of self-pity.  Lament is like having a good cry…it’s cleansing …but then comes verse 8.  The tipping point. Verse 8 acts as the hinge in the equation, the turning point on the journey of the heart.  Now, this hinge or turning is found throughout scriptures, and it is implicit in all we do when we face Maker who sees our own frailty. Verse 8 is the big “nevertheless” of prayer.  We are broken promises, almost-rans, failed experiments…nevertheless…God blesses us. We are not what we would like to be, nevertheless God loves us dearly.  In spite of all my flops, and flubs, in spite of the blows that have brought me down, in spite of our own inadequacies …still we belong to God. 

We are the clay in God’s hands…God shapes us …we are not in charge…and in this season of light, give yourself the gift of letting go …Take a deep breath …do that now…pretend our toes are your nose…deep breath…Allow yourself to turn over all the anxiety and stress, the striving and grasping …

It’s the Christmas season…we’re just beginning…gift yourself a gift of conversion of your heart…take you hand off the throttle, easy off on the accelerator and allow God into the driver’s seat…be clay…let the potter do the work.  It’s about trust...as we saw from the kids…letting go requires trust…trust God, the force of love from which you were made and to which you are going.

Perhaps Charles Dickens can help us. Christmas is coming after all…he maps out the same journey of the heart. In his classic,  A Christmas Carol Dickens personifies our society and its desperate, unforgiving spirit and our personal lives bound by rabid striving in the person of Ebenezer Scrooge who he describes as

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster[1].

 

No one wants to be the unconverted Ebenezer Scrooge…no…no…In the voice of his nephew, Fred, I hear our direction today…allowing the love of the season to flow through us and to join together on this journey of the heart. When Scrooge, the over achiever, scolds Fred for making no profit from Christmas, Fred replies for us all:

"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say," returned the nephew.  "Christmas among the rest.  But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round -- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that -- as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys[2]


[1] Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, London, Chapman and Hall, 1843, Stave 1

[2] [2] Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, London, Chapman and Hall, 1843, Stave 1

 



Sermon: Pentecost 21   College Street United Church DATE: Nov. 2nd, 2014 

Text: Matthew 23:12 “The greatest will be servant of all.”

 Title: “Apron Theology”          

 Prelude:  

          Last Sunday afternoon Ellen and were invited to an upscale music bar for a jam session …marvelous. You heard Heidi sing a solo last week in church.  What a gift! But hearing her sing a few Jazz specials. Incredible.

Heidi had invited her friend Tom along to be her accompanist. Turned out he was very good.  Approachable and quite humble actually. I had never met him though when he told me his last name it became clear: Tom Reynolds.  He teaches at Emmanuel College.  Of course! Tom is their systematic theologian.

Perhaps you have heard of that designation: systematic theology. If you didn’t know better, you think it sounds like a God- mechanic or a heaven sent IT specialist.   

But it’s a serious discipline and quite different. When you go to theological college you take course in bible and church history. There are separate classes for preaching and pastoral care. You can spend all your free electives studying church music or philosophy of religion.  However, the queen of the sciences is Systematic Theology.  And not just at an undergraduate level. You get a masters or even a doctorate in Systematic theology.

So what is it?

The idea originated in the middle ages when scholastic devised system of thought. They divided the study of faith into a distinct series of disciplines …five in fact. So to study systematic theology is to explore carefully each of these five disciplines in order and see how they relate to each other. The five disciplines:  the study of God…”Theology,” strictly speaking. “Christology” is the exploration of the two chief questions about Jesus: Who is he and what did he do? The examination of the human condition is called: “anthropology.” Investigation into of the life of the church is: “ecclesiology.” And finally when we ask question of history and its final purpose and destiny we are in the world of “eschatology.”

Those are the broad strokes…of course every science has it sub disciplines…systematic theology is no different. Under ecclesiology we have the question of “soteriology” …how human beings experience salvation … Epistemology is the study of how human come to know anything.  Hermeneutics is the science of reading and interpreting scripture. It goes on and on …systems within systems.

I’ve spent the better part of seven years immersed in what is called premillennial eschatology…a subsection called: dispensationalism…at that time it was all consuming…a preoccupation. How do we speak of hope in the end of days if we imagine history ending in a cataclysmic loss of life in the battle of Armageddon.

However…however the longer I am in this game, the less important systematic theology has become. Not that the disciplines are misguided or unimportant, but in the context of a small, minority size movement I feel they are too cumbersome and get in the way of some thing more pragmatic. I am reminded of what Mark Twain once said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” There is a world of faith that can be reduced to what we hear from Matthew this morning about serving…I would call it “Apron Theology” and this morning I wanted to explain why you will find me in the kitchen as much as in the pulpit and why if I had a chance to direct ministry education again I would insist on a full year course in cooking your way into God’s presence.

We’ll get to that but first let’s first pray

 

“God help us never to use our reason against your truth.”  

Introduction:

         I was ordained 37 years ago into church that no longer exists.  Back in the seventies, we were opening a church every week, building new Christian education halls and gyms…we were state of the art in community centres and social programming. Our moderator of our church had the prime minster on speed dial and we mattered: the largest Protestant denomination in Canada. Our United Church was a rising star.  We had a structure to match our importance and a sense of status and purpose. I recall thinking that was joining the company of giants…saints who were going before me: moderators who had come to my mom’s kitchen table, elders of the church who graced my childhood with grandeur.

         And that church understood sophisticated systems of thought…built to grapple with complex questions of power and politics, designed as strategies to steer a major social institution to respond to its role as a quasi-official chaplain to the country. That church hired preachers to do nothing but study in their offices and write brilliant sermons for the throngs who attended Sunday services.  We wrote church curriculum that were reviewed by newspaper book editors. That church engaged the principalities and powers on an equal footing and shaped policies for nation building.

Over the course of the past thirty years I have watched as that glorious church has imploded. Institutions built in the first part of the last century were systemically dismantled in the last half so that when the new millennia turned and we entered the 21st century we were a much reduced, smaller, much more humble movement. Modern buildings shaped for the boom of the suburbs are empty, sold off as child-care centres. Old downtown temples are used either as museums or the façade for condominiums.  I have felt we have been living on the memories of past glories, struggles won…like the inclusion of gay and lesbians in our leadership and community life and yet we are ill-equipped for the road of today.

And if our institutional structures and real estate are out of step with what we need, so too is our thinking.  We’ve been raised on reasoning and systems of thought built for the bright sunshine of a growing, majority institution. Very few voices have been raised to help us entre the darker times.

Here’s how I would describe it metaphorically. It’s as if we have been driving a Ferrari, built for show, speed and finesse. When we were in the fast-track that made sense.  And we’ve been training ministers and church leaders to drive that Ferrari well. But in these days we can’t afford it and, indeed, we don’t really need it.  We’re living in a congested city and riding a 10 speed is both more economical and much more practical. 

That being the case, let’s grow a theology that works for this new world, for our mission at the corner of Bathurst and College. And that’s where I arrive at “Apron Theology.”

 

Apron Theology

So let’s put on an apron (donning an apron) and begin.

The first thing I recognize when I put on this apron is that faith is an action not a frame of mind or posturing of the heart. This apron says I am going to cook and serve.   The identity of the Christian the 21st century is as a server…a waitress or waiter. It’s a humbler place than we have been occupying in the past. We’re not at the front, in a pulpit lifted 10 feet above contradiction. We’re not whispering in the ear of the ruler, decked out in gold finery and fancy linen.  We are not in the driver’s seat, so to speak. We’re in the kitchen, hidden away from the bright lights. We won’t be mentioned in the headlines…or even in the liner notes. We’re invisible to most people.

I mean in this in all seriousness. Christianity has been used to being noticed. To be seen as virtuous, respectable and charitable.  We are bout to move into an era when we become invisible.  Nothings…to those who don’t care to look closely, we will be nothing more that servers and cooks. Foolish people who abandon fame in order to feed.  I don’t see this donning of the apron as a temporary thing, as a faddish posture or piety.  The movement began in humility and serving. Recall in John’s gospel how Jesus himself took a towel and washed his disciples feet…and then invited us to do likewise. Serving is not a distraction or a temporary necessity. It’s who we are.  At our best Christians do not seek the limelight, but desire to offer service of the sake of God’s love and justice right here, right now. 

And in this regard our faith is concrete. It’s historical and purposeful. God has gifted us with this corner. I am told that 20,000 people pass by our front door every day.  And many are hungry…quite literally; many more are starving for purpose. Some are even wanting to find peace and purpose …Our role at this stage in our church’s life is to serve them.  Ask nothing more. No pressure, no hidden agenda, no ulterior motive. Serve…feed the hungry. And lest you wonder about this, feeding, as know is a profoundly spiritual act. It makes a connection, it brings people together around a common need and in the place of vulnerability, that is to say when we are hungry, we create right relationships.

And this is what Christian thinking has always being pointing towards: the creation of right relationships. Sound doctrine has never been about getting into heaven or establishing perfect peaceful escapes to another realm.  Sound theology brings us back to the historical moment God has given us and it invites us to create relationships of love and justice …with our creator and with our neighbor.  That’s the whole point…everything we do is about establishing relationships.  And that is why the most profound part of our soup days and peace of pizza programs is that we serve and we eat with those who are hungry. We invite them into the kitchen when they are able to help us …it’s all about establishing a safe place where all can serve and be served.

Now I am sure that what I have just said about “Apron theology” you haven’t heard before. And you have seen me often enough wearing this apron…seems I am always in the kitchen. 

Two things I would say in conclusion

First, when you find me in my apron in the kitchen I am not avoiding my role as a minister.  I am doing it. Making scones is a form of pray.  For me, serving turkey dinners is a lived and very practical bible study and when we eat together I can think of no better form of pastoral care. 

Second concluding remark. Apron theology is collaborative effort, it’s everyone’s work.  Serving is where we form community and I am so grateful to live in a community where this is taken for granted. I have watched many in this place use the kitchen as a place of healing and restoration…the offering of coffee or a sandwich, the houses we spend preparing food for guests or people who use our hall for their meetings…this is a expression of love and acceptance.  And as we work to fee, God lives among us. And for this we give thanks.

And all the people say, “Amen.”




Sermon: Pentecost 19   College Street United Church DATE: Oct. 19th, 2014 

Text: Matthew 22: 19 “Is it rightful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

 Title: “The Joy of Paying Taxes”         

 Prelude:  

 

Some questions are not really questions.  Sometimes they are more like expressions of concern: “How are you doing?’  What’s up?”  No one expects an honest answer to those questions since they are intended as a way to make a connection, not elicit information.  Other questions are closer to being censure: “You’re not going to wear that are you?  Who thinks like that?”  That type of question is meant to shut down debate, not open it up. Still further, some questions are an affirmation of commonly held values: “Are you a Leaf’s fan? Can you believe what Doug Ford said last night?”    Finally, other questions don’t require an answer. Asking them is enough:  “How old did you say you were? Are you losing weight?

This morning Ricardo read for us form the 22nd chapter of Matthew, an encounter on the temple mount where the opponents of Jesus ask him “the” question of his time.  “Do you pay taxes to Caesar?”  That’s one of those questions that does not need an answer. Asking it is sufficient.  Recall that Jesus and his followers have come to the capital, Jerusalem, the heart beat of their faith and the pinnacle of political power for their tribe.  It’s poassover, …powder keg time. There is no hotter spot to ask a question about the occupying forces: the Romans. And the question isn’t really about money. Sure taxes require shelling out your cash, but behind the issue of cash is the real question: “Will you collaborate with the occupiers, go along with their plan, and submit your will to a foreign nation?”  In a monotheistic world 2nd temple Judaism, Caesar was a foreign god, an idol. Certainly the vast majority of citizens in the empire called him a God, Saviour, and prince of peace.  So the question gets more pointed:  “Will you break the 2nd commandment and bow down to an idol?” 

So the Jesus detractors put to him the question that any reasonable citizen of Galilee or Judea was asking. “Do we resist or capitulate to the occupiers?” Put bluntly, they were asking, “Which side on you on?” 

And it would not be an exaggeration to say that the initial reaction of the first audience who heard this question would have felt uncomfortable.  A bit tactless. Too blunt, certainly treacherous. Of course, it was on everyone’s mind and everyone had to face it like a watershed moment. Just hearing the question would start blood boiling because it reminded everyone that they lived in occupied territory…that dirty, defiling gentiles were in charge of their holiest of holies.

And the question was enough because everyone knew the options for answers. Yes, I pay taxes because I benefit from Rome. No I don’t pay taxes because I am devout Jew.  Yes, I pay taxes because I am upwardly mobile. No, I am joining the band of zealot resisters in the hills.  Yes I pay taxes, I am afraid of the legions. No I don’t pay taxes I am afraid of looking like a turncoat. 

So in sum the question was about values. The questioners wanted to know Jesus’ values: “Are you getting with the program? Do you play by the empire’s rules? Do you accept a world where military violence and economic power hold sway?” 

So questions are never just questions. This morning I want to lift the dynamics of the question of paying taxes and situate it within the next weeks’ municipal elections.

First let’s pray:

“God help us never to use our reason against your truth.”  

Introduction:

         There was a story told about the Catholic Church in Quebec during the first decades of the last century. Apparently it was common for the priest to stand at the front of the church before election day and offer a bit of covert advice to the congregants. Then as now, the conservative party colour was blue and the liberals were red.  The priests would conclude their pre-election mass with a benediction, “Mes enfants, souvenez-vous que le ciel est blue et l’enfer est rouge.”  (translated: “My children remember that the heavens are blue and hell is red.”) How often have I heard that joke told as caution against using the pulpit as a political platform?

         This morning I don’t intend to use my position to advise about which candidate one might choose for mayor, but I do feel our gospel invites us into a broader political debate and I spent the week researching current trends and options.

I wanted to talk about what everyone is avoiding, the elephant in the room. Taxes!  It does appear that is the one word and question no one wants to mention. How will we pay for our city? And to further focus out time let’s begin with the second big “T” word: “transit.”

 

The Joy of Paying Taxes

         Just as the question of taxes in the time of Jesus was more than an issue of money, the issue of taxes in our day is also about something much greater than paying the city some of our hard earned cash.  Jesus heard the question as a choice between capitulation or resistance.  Where are your feet…in the kingdom of Caesar or the Kingdom of God?

We hear taxes in a similar way. It’s a choice between personal and collective prosperity. Will I keep my money for myself and pay directly for the services I want or will I share my income for the broader project of the common weal?  How far does my responsibility go to fund projects and programs which I may not use but which benefit a wider audience or a more vulnerable sector of our community.  Where is your money…in your own pocket or the public purse?

And the problem of transit helps make this choice clearer.  That we have a problem no one is denying. Indeed, transit is the chief question this civic election. Everyone in the room has experienced the gridlock of highways and the congestion of streets. In rest of Canada people get in the car and the first question they ask themselves is notnot how do we get there. However, in Toronto it’s our chief audience participation sport: the niggling and constant struggle to avoid traffic. Everyone has a secret route and a horror story to relate. It’s a losing game…we know this. As development mushrooms in the downtown core streetcars fill up, buses are bursting. Who hasn’t watched as a subway train passes by too full to board? And the major highways more often resemble parking lots than thoroughfares. Lanes of cars steaming away in summer and freezing in winter. Then you add to the mix the constant disruption of construction and the odd marathon, like the one running outside right now, and you get the picture: a city paralyzed by congestion.

And it’s not just about travelling with ease; the problem with our unpredictable and bottlenecked transit is expensive. It’s costing us all. Metrolinx estimated in 2006 that traffic problems cost the economy something around 3.3 billion dollars in lost productivity and delayed services.  And this figure will double as we reach the 20’s of this century.  As the Toronto/Hamilton horseshoe represents the economic engine of the country, this is problem that requires our attention…not just for Toronto-centric benefit but to remedy national interests as well.

Fortunately there are no shortage of proposals: big sky dreams.  One candidate is proposing close to add 100 km of new subways.  A relief line to centre core, an extension of the Shepherd line further east and west to Jane, a Eglinton conversion from LRT to traditional subway, a brand new line south down Jane Street from Steeles to the Bloor line. Fantastic…The first 40 odd km will cost 9 billion and will be paid for with the sale of air rights, increased taxes from developer fees and the sale of public assets.

Another candidate has a more sober plan to use existing GO transit lines to introduce a subway like frequency of service from the suburbs to the core. Every 15 minutes.  It will be quicker than building digging subways and come out at a fraction of the cost. We’ll pay for this idea with what is called: “tax-increment financing.”  That’s where we borrow money against the future tax revenues arising from development created and inspired by new transit lines.

Almost everyone in this election is supporting the focus on a relief subway line, to take the pressure off the Yonge/University line that will only grow as the crosstown LRT comes into service funneling people from northeast and northwest onto an already congested line 1 at Eglinton. 

So we all agree it will be expensive and we all agree not to talk about funding it. But what a fantastic vision...the way forward

But let me bring some sobriety to this debate with a personal story. Two weeks ago on a Tuesday there was a serious delay online 2 at the Dundas West Station…just around the corner from where Marie lives. Apparently some contractors were working the westbound tunnel when they damaged the wall. It was jerry rigged and trains ran for a few hours before we had what sounds to me like a partial cave in…clay and water poured onto the tracks and that brought the system to halt.

It happened on a Tuesday when I was to pick up Jack for an afternoon trip to the ROM.  Jack lives in Mimico…there’s no option to get to his house apart from taking the subway across to Royal York and south on the bus to Stanley Street. So while I had heard about the delay, I knew I would have to go through it.  Grit your teeth.

Now I have often heard about delays over the TTC public address system and they very hopefully report: “Shuttle buses are running.”  Problem solved.   I had to get off at Ossington and take a shuttle bus across to Keele station. Only 5 stops…a piece of cake.

What I did not picture was the reality of switching subways to buses. A regular TTC subway train can carry 1000 passengers at a time and a shuttle bus has room for 48.  You’d need 20 shuttle buses to cover just one subway delivery and with subway’s arriving at Ossington every 5-7 minute the problems became obvious. I arrived and, sure enough, there were shuttle busses running, plenty of them, but the chaos was incredible. Bus platforms, hallways, stairs and subway platforms filled up with lines of people waiting to get on a shuttle bus. Bloor Street was filled with shuttle buses, one after another for blocks on end. But traffic lights and the regular flow of trucks and cars meant that nothing was moving.  Add a few wheelchairs, the boxes, bikes and briefcases we all carry and you have a perfect storm of congestion.

The ride that is usually 35 minutes, took close to 2 hours. The problem of transit is not only about dreaming up a new scheme. There is a more pressing problem. We aren’t paying adequately for the upkeep of what we have in place right now!  Operating a world-class transit system is expensive. People who point to London or Paris or even Montreal and say we are falling behind, do not recognize that these cities have been investing world class dollars in maintenance for a lot longer than we have. Before we build another foot of subway track, we need to fix what we have…and that means not just repairing train tunnels, but establishing and keeping bus frequency and streetcar delivery so that we can meet current needs of commuters. 

The transit system is being strangled by a lack of funds. And the problem is only going to get worse as we add more services with insufficient budgets to maintain them

And that brings me to the elephant in the room.  It’s time to pay. And while there are plenty of creative schemes to have someone else foot the bill, eventually the question taxes comes to each one of us.  Whether we pay a parking tax, land transfer tax, a congestion levy or gas tax, or higher property tax …very soon we will have to face it. The bill has to be paid.

Can someone in the civic election say it? We have to pay more.

And here the question of what is behind the tax question becomes relevant.  Will we be willing to increase the public purse so for the wider good?  Are we ready to fund programs that we might not use, but which benefit a segment of our community, usually a more vulnerable sector?

Is there joy in paying taxes?  Of course, no one is happy about losing income, it represents loss of personal control and safety. Admitedly, I am not a wealthy man and so I consider this issue with great interest. But in the end, there seems no way around the question. I am happy to pay in order to protect the powerless, offer service to those who have no other means of transport and who depend on public good will to make their commute to work timely and affordable.  There is a joy in paying taxes!

It sounds bizarre, I know.  But I am not alone. A recent Ipsos poll suggested that while 90% of Torontonians found it a very difficult city in which to live, many living pay-cheque to pay-cheque, over half of us are willing to pay more for Transit if it meant better service. So let’s do it and get the world-class city we want to become.

Now our sermon today is just a teaser for a public meeting we are holding in this sanctuary tomorrow night …all candidates meeting for ward 20 …this will be our chance to ask someone about how we fund our dreams …please attend if you are able…again it is our way of being present to the community at the corner of College and Bathurst streets.     

Sermon: Pentecost 16   College Street United Church DATE: September 28th, 2014

 

Text: Exodus 17:

 

Title: “Where’s the Water?”          

 

Prelude:  

 

         This is a picture of an antique. (above). My first computer: called a “Hyperion.” I bought it in 1983 as a revolutionary, innovative way to start my doctoral program. As you can see it’s portable…weighed only 21 lbs and came in a case much like the ones used for enclosed a sewing machine.  Fantastic. And here’s the icing on the cake. It had 264 K of memory. Imagine that!!!!  It cost $7500 retail but we got it on sale for only $4500…a bargain…I shared it with a lawyer friend Ernie Vaudry and we would shuttle it between our houses. (ergo the portable). 

Ernie and I thought we had died and gone to heaven.

At the time, operating systems were much larger than any computer’s memory chip, the way you started a computer was to insert a start-up program disk into the floppy slot port, wait for the computer to recognize the program and boot up the system.  Then once the program was on the screen, you took out that program start up disk and put in a word processing disk. Easy…I couple of key strokes (there was nothing called a “mouse” or “touchpad” in 1983. At that point those delights were a few years off) and the computer began to chew  (It literally made chomping noises) away on the data and eventually up came the simple text creating program. There was nothing like auto save or drop down menus. No tool bar, computer preferences. Everything was done by selecting and using a series of function keys to imbed changes right within the line of text. To get quotation marks, I had to do CTR Alt, function 3…that’s was to open them and CTR Alt. function 4 to close them. 

Slow?

         It didn’t seem to be at the time. On the contrary we were flying down the electronic highway at light speed.  It would take me 2-3 minutes to start my computer and get finally to a clean page on which to write. You’d just sit and wait. Everyone did it.  In 1984 waiting 3 minutes was nothing…on the contrary it was flash velocity.  I had a Bother printer that could do seven characters a second  “Seven!”  Unimaginable! To print a full page double spaced text, that printer would take a mere 2.5 minutes.  I remember listening to a friend who in hushed and holy tones told me that in the future printers would be able to do a full page in seconds. We couldn’t believe it was possible.

         Compare those first portable computers to my current model. This one weighs under 3 lbs.  It has 750 Gigabits of memory.  (that’s 28,400,000 times more memory that my first)  It starts instantly when I open the lid and getting to the word processing package is a function of how fast my fingers move the mouse and click. No waiting. 

         And that’s the whole point of current technology. No wait time. No frustrating pauses or interruptions in the stream of communication.  Quite separate from all the other changes to our lives, technology has reduced our tolerance for waiting. On the tomb stone of this North American culture the epitaph might read “We Couldn’t Wait.”

         And then when you come to church it’s like crashing into an invisible wall.  All the technological speed and finesses of the modern world is missing. We are moving at a snail’s pace.  We spend time in silence, nothing happening. Dead air space. We pray for God’s help and then wait. Can you credit it?  And often our requests are not trivial…like wanting more time to play video games or getting a bit extra cash to buy a new I-tunes song.  We pray to God asking for the blind to have sight returned, we often mention those how are living with cancer, asking that their lives be restor4ed to life. How often do we mention those who are mourning the death of a loved one? Then there are those who come to this place feeling lost and alone. Not petty stuff.  These are big problems we toss in God’s lap and then we wait.

It’s tough to wait!   Particularly when there is no hope in sight.

         Modern wait times having been shortened dramatically, we have even greater trouble. Is it any wonder that church crowds shrink and communities of faith are in decline? We can’t produce the goods, get the results people need and want in a time that makes sense. 

I’m not being flippant here.  There is a sense in which the church’s spiritual time line is grossly out of step with the pace of modern life.  That’s why we are live streaming our church services, using phone and internet to make weekly connections and hold together our connections.

But there is no getting around the fact that God takes time…more time than many people think they have.

Let’s look at the question of waiting for God as our theme for today’s sermon. I’ll use the story of the chosen people in the dessert, dying of thirst  as the text for this morning.

For now, let us pray:  “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

 

Introduction:

This past week we heard of the news about the Mike Duffy trial…A scandal in the making. Looks like he’ll be airing the senate’s dirty laundry just as the federal election gets seriously underway.  At issue is a question of corruption and collusion.  At the heart of the debate is the issue of someone paying off Duffy’s illicit gains for housing expenses.  No one questions that he was guilt of receiving subsidies to which he was not entitled. There is no one saying the money should not be paid back. Everyone agrees that the bills was in fact settled…very soon after it came to light. Duffy paid his bill.  He might well ask, “What’s the big deal. I made good on my promise and reimbursed the public purse!”  A favourable outcome, for sure.

However, it’s not the outcome that the trial wants to examine. Rather, the problem is how it all happened. It’s the method that confounds us and angers us.  Sometimes “how” a thing is done is as important as “what” is done.  It’s call deontological ethics. 

  Welcome to the water from the rock scandal of Moses and the people in the wilderness.  You perhaps recall it. They were complaining that their leader had brought them into the dessert to die of thirst and more than  a few were looking over their shoulders at the slave pens in Egypt. We may have been slaves, but at least we had daily rations of water and beer. 

Moses was desperate. The people wouldn’t wait. “Where’s the water?’ He could hear them mumble. So much for a land flowing with milk and honey. We’re stuck in the wilderness with a leader who can’t even provide the simple basics. Moses could feel mutiny in the air and he was genuinely worried for their thirst.

Now in the book of Numbers, this same story is told in chapter 20, but in that case God instructs Moses to speak to the rock. However, in Exodus and in Numbers, Moses strikes the rock.

And water gushes forth from the rock. A miracle. It is written into the hearts of the people so that even hymn writer records the event in Psalm 78 that we read this morning. Water  in the wilderness, flowing from a solid rock. Moses is quite the guy!

So Moses strikes a rock and, presto, out gushes water…Good result!

But God is not pleased!  In fact. God is so vexed that God refuses to let Moses enter the promised land.  That was his punishment for doing such a bad thing.

 “What’s the matter?” You might ask. “Why did God rebuke Moses for doing what had to be done?”

The later Hebrew divines who comment on this Exodus/Numbers passage place the blame on Moses for acting preemptively, for not having patience, for not trusting in God’s instruction…just ‘speak” don’t act. It’s as if Moses called God’s bluff so to speak. You don’t treat God that way. Moses acted like a precocious, impolite kid grabbing what he wanted. No long term vision. Immediate gratification.  In God’s household you don’t take what you want, just because you can. There is something called “patience” involved in devotion to God. There is wisdom that only comes through waiting.

 

Where’s the Water

For my part I have sympathy for the people who are crying out, “Where’s the water?” They weren’t being just greedy. They were dying and they needed water. Seriously. In this place how many times am I confronted with similar situations: people who have no cash for food. “Where’s the water?” Folks who are lost, feeling no zest for life. “Where the water?”  Mourners who can’t keep find their way in the shadows of grief.  Where’s the water?

And I have sympathy for impulse to pull a rabbit out of the hat. The solve the thirst problem, to strike the rock and get results immediately.  To fix it…now. That’s the pressure we feel. It drives the church to seek every new fad as a way to solve its apparent decline in popularity. Christians of all stripes offer cheap answers to life’s costly questions, hoping that their bargain basement axioms will solve all issues.

The bible, however tells us to wait,  to  take a breath, to live with our problems and give god a chance to answer.

It has been my experience that I all too often jump to conclusions and solutions. Not waiting with the problem long enough to understand it, to see deeper wisdom.  This sermon is for me, for sure.  Remember Isaiah:

Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength

They shall mount up with wings as eagles,

They shall run and not be weary

They shall walk and not faint.

 

There is renewal and energy in waiting on God, in still our hearts and opening our souls …allowing God to speak.

Now lest I sound like an old evangelical that argues we should put up with pain or suffering because it is God’s instruction, let me conclude with a story of how we wait.

This past Thursday, at the morning rush hour, I was passing out Olivia Chow leaflets at the Broadway subway station. And it is remarkable how people look so different. I would make eye contact and wish people a “good morning” and some folks were dead. It eyes showed nothing but hardship, struggle or resignation. They were trudging off to their day, it might as well have been an appointment with a torturer.  No excitement, no life.  On the other hand there were some eyes that were on fire. Look at their face and you could see it: “Joy.” Each morning was bowl of cherries. The smiles in their eyes spoke of new adventures and delights.

Now every one of these people are like you and I …waiting…waiting for hours to pass, routines to fall in line. But some waited with absolutely no hope while others waited with active. Expectancy.

And that would where I end today. Our waiting on God is not passive resignation, fatalistic apathy. We wait with the lively and assured hope that God will act. That God’s purpose and direction will be made known.  We will see it… We shall rise up with wings as eagles, we will run and not be weary, we shall walk and not faint.

This is what I mean by faith. It is not acceptance of church doctrine or a specific interpretation of scripture. Faith is waiting with the expectancy that God will not abandon us, but walks with us always…Our job is to be wait in that assurance.


Sermon: Welcome Back   College Street United Church DATE: September 21st , 2014

 Text: Matthew 20: 14: “The first shall be last and last shall be first.”

 

Title: “Where God Isn’t”       

 

Prelude:  

 

         Walking back to the church this week I crossed Palmerston Avenue and witnessed first hand the results of our congested city. Two cyclists were waiting at the corner, wanting to cross College Street. They were taking up the driving lane and trying to get across between the oncoming cars. Not easy. Behind them was a Volvo station wagon wanting to turn right, but unable to do that because of the bikes blocking his path.

Can you see the storm approaching?  The bikers stood on their privilege as eco-friendly commuters and the motorist was steaming over having to wait, yielding to biker riders who flout traffic rules.   The Volvo beeped his horn. The cyclists flipped the bird. The Volvo rolled down the window and called into question the biker’s mother’s pedigree. 

Remember … Tuesday morning this past week was a cool one, but on that street corner things were boiling over.  Frustrated the Volvo backed up, narrowly missing the car behind. More horns honking. More expletives. He then whipped out to pass the cyclists on their left just as they pulled forward …right into the path of Volvo. Screeching breaks, shouting accusations …fortunately the traffic cleared and the Volvo was able to speed away.

If you read “the Lift” for this week, you’ll get a deeper analysis of this encounter …how it takes energy to hate and even more soul strength to not hate.

I relate this story not just for municipal politicians.  It’s not only a question of transit, and congested street. It’s about and creating a culture of accommodation …which is a spiritual challenge …but I won’t repeat the Lift here…if you’re not on you should sign up.  Go to our web-site and book in …an every Friday bit of inspiration for the weekend.

This morning I’m telling you about this little bit of road rage, because we’ve all been there.  Whether on the 400 highways, during our commute to work, stepping aside for cyclists who run up on the sidewalk,  waiting in line at the bank, or holding on line …we know the angry edges of impatience and indignation when we feel we are not being treated properly. When someone gets ahead unfairly or cheats his or her way to the head of the pack…our hackles explode.  You see, apart from hockey and Tim Hortons, Canadians believe in proper order and fair treatment. We hate it when someone appears to circumvent the system, jump the queue or weasel their way into an unfair advantage.  No cheating, no special deals or corruption. One of our marks as a people is that social order and collective rights. The individual does not rule…not yet.  Perhaps we owe this faith in social order to our Scottish heritage.

So you do know what it feels like to be a victim of unfair play, watching someone get ahead by bending or breaking the rules. We get angry …I want you to feel that …imagine it happening right now …at our BBQ pushing to the front of the line…grabbing a hotdog before anyone else …Can you feel it?  You want to shout, “Arggg”  try that …”Arggg.” 

If you can touch that frustration and anger, then you can understand the gospel story this morning. Jesus tells a parable about what it will be like when God’s reign comes to earth. “The Kingdom of heaven…which means when God rules this planet and the human community, here’s what things will look like: and then he recounts what is known as the parable of “the vineyard workers.”

This parable is only found in Matthew and in it Jesus paints a familiar picture: unemployment and desperation. Nothing new here. He was surrounded by desperate men, taxed to starvation, they knew too well what it was like to depend on rich landowners to provide for their families.  Many of his followers were day-labourers who had lost their farms and therefore their ability to feed hungry families and they would have to gather in the market place hoping to earn a day’s wage. Food for the children. So the parable begins that this predicament. A vineyard owner needs harvesters and so he arrives early at the market, promising each worker a fair wage: one day, one denarius. The workers agree and go off to pick grapes. The harvest is so great, that the vineyard owner has to go back at 10, at noon, a 3 and 5 …to hire more workers.

When it comes to get paid, the workers line up, beginning with those who arrived last and ending with those who had worked all day in the beating sun. And miracle of miracles these who have worked only one hour get a full day’s pay. One denarius.  Wow…the land owner is generous! The rest of the workers in the line are rubbing their hands together…this will be a good day if one hour gets you a day’s pay, how about a full day’s work …we’ll be rolling.

But when it comes for their pay, these all-day labourers also get only denarius.

What?

Talk about feeling let down, cheated, …how could these  “Johnny-come-latelies” get such a good deal while those who had been faithful were denied their just deserts. Remember that “Arggg” feeling?  Now is the time to say it again.  What a terrible injustice!

And this is what Jesus says it will be like when God reigns here on earth.  I can feel my self-righteous self saying, “I’ll take pass then.  This Kingdom of God is not only unfair, it is corrupt!”

Are you confused, wondering what Jesus could have meant by this parable?  You’re not alone. It’s your consternation we’ll examine this morning.

I want to you to sit with that sense of discomfort and confusion. Let’s pray:

“God help us never to use our reason against the truth.

Introduction:

When we trip over a parable that makes no sense to our common thinking we have to remind ourselves of two facts.

First, a parable is not intended to be an extended metaphor with endless comparisons to be made between the objects and characters in the story with our current living conditions. No point comparing the landowner to a prime minister or corporate boss and the labourers as voters or assembly line workers….for instance. Parables are closer to a one-line joke. They have a zinger point…once you get it you have understood what Jesus intended.

         Second, a parable is often about stirring us out of complacency.  It works because it surprises us, subverts our common sense. It’s tempting to apologize our way out of the embarrassments of the gospel, spin our logic into knots hoping to make what makes no sense, sound more palatable—rubbing off the rough edges.  Let’s not go there. Let us let the parable disturb us!

        

“Where God Isn’t”

 

So what’s the one-line message of the parable of vineyard workers?  Have you got it?  Let’s try a few statements:

  1. In God’s kingdom, workers don’t get paid according to common practice. 
  2. When God rules the world, those who think they are first will be last, and those who know they are last, will actually come first.
  3. God rules with values that are opposite to the world’s values.
  4. In God’s country, your need, and not your experience or status, determine your remuneration.
  5. In the kingdom God, no one is exploited. No one starves.
  6. God isn’t where you think God is or should be.

 

Let’s explain this in a bit more detail.

In the context of Matthew’s first audience, we could deduce that there’s a problem, to which this parable is a response. The problem is that many faithful followers of Jesus, an entire generation were being tested in the fires of discrimination. They had passed through what we call the “First Jewish War,” a revolt against Rome that also looked a lot like a civil war on the ground. Horrendous. These wounded disciples had paid the price for their loyalty to Jesus. And after the conflict dust settles, newcomers are arriving at the Jesus circles wanting to enjoy the benefits of food security and open fellowship. The Jesus share meal circles were becoming more popular and attracting people who had not suffered, had not known the deprivation and hard work of those first disciple communities.  So Matthew uses a parable to meet that peculiar historic dilemma head on.

On a religious level the distinction could be between Jews and Gentiles. The older Jewish community was working hard to stick to the law and all it’s demands, while these new gentile disciples didn’t have to pay the same price in personal effort.  The parable is a way of explaining how the new gentile followers are as righteous and worthy as the older Jewish ones. That would certainly be a part of Matthew’s thinking…in his gospel he is trying very hard to understand the Jewish resistance to Jesus as the new Moses/Messiah.

But the difference could also be generational and ideological.

And you can hear the older folk complaining, “How come “they,” these youngsters get all the benefits we enjoy, but they didn’t do any of the work!”  Typical, predictable.  It’s the complaint of every older generation about the young people growing up, taking hard won victories for granted. Older feminists make that critique of younger women. “They have no idea what we have accomplished on their behalf.” Testy, crusty, strike hardened socialists say the same thing about unthinking self-indulgent university students.  “They don’t care!  They get it all for free!”  

But whether the parable is about the dynamics of a growing

Old Christians vs. new believers, the tension between Jews and gentiles or older people against younger people, the one line message cuts through arrogance and self-righteousness and reminds everyone: the smug who think they are pure …aren’t …and the uncertain ones who don’t know…they are closer to God:

  • When God rules the world, those who think they are first will be last, and those who know they are last, will actually come first.

 

I hear this parable as a corrective to a creeping cultural intrusion in the Jesus circle. The community of faith began emerging into the Empire at the end of the first century was losing ground. It was turning from a flas-in-the-pan movement  to a long-lasting institution. So it was having to establish it’s basic principles. Matthew is found at the start of Christian scriptures because it was view as the “church” gospel.” It reads like a manual for right practice and the rules for living in the share circle of Jesus. And this parable is fighting against the economic and social values of empire that were and commonly accepted:

1.First come first served,

2. Productivity pays. You work you get paid, you don’t work, you don’t get paid.

3.Financial exploitation is acceptable and necessary

And Matthew is asserting through this parable that God’s values are not the same.  God isn’t found in common sense…first come first served values. When God comes to rule the world, the most vulnerable are served first.  Your place in line is not about timing or privilege, but need.  Likewise in the kingdom of God, your need for food and shelter are not subject to economic vagaries. You are not what you do or don’t produce. 

So what?

So what does all our concentration on Matthew’s first century gospel say to us in the 21st century?

We could point out that a quick historical analysis could connect the dots between this parable and the modern innovations like universal health care and progressive taxation. The values described in Matthew 20 championed by the social gospel found their way into preferential ethics: the most vulnerable need the most protection, some parts of life…like medical services are exempted form principles of economic exploitation.

Back to Palmerston Avenue and out street-side altercation. How do we apply the Kingdom ethics to that dilemma?

Okay…I’m going to stray away from roadway applied ethics and suggest that God isn’t present in claims of cyclist rights or protests of vehicle drivers.  God isn’t in the world that demands a first place or legal order.  Rather the world of the Jesus community began with an open heart and accommodation for the vulnerable. Our role is to ask who is most at risk…and invite everyone to a humble place where we question and a critique our sense of self-reliance.  

And this is not just a small matter. As our life at the corner of Bathurst and College continues, we will be called upon more and more to offer a safe place of accommodation to many and varied positions and people.  The soul strength that resists self-righteousness…that is where God is present. our corner

 

Sermon

College Street united Church

 

DATE: January 5th, 2014  EPIPHANY

TEXT: John 3: 16a “God so loved the world, God gave….

 

TITLE: “A License to Operate …Faithfully”

 

Preface

It is a joy to be back with you …our first Sunday in a new year.  2014 …may this year be a blessing and an inspiration for us all.

Ellen and I wanted to begin this year by offering our deep thanks for all the love and support we have received from you, our faith community. It is your warmth and generosity that make this a safe and healing place to live.

We look forward to new beginnings in worship and service and the continuation of our rich traditions of hospitality and home-spun fellowship.

Many of you know that I ride a motorcycle, and in fact my beast in waiting down stairs in the car park for the sunshine of spring…but what you may not know is that I never passed a license to drive it. Old guys who have been riding Harleys since their youth, often pull up beside me and ask how it’s going, what the ride is like…or comment on how cool my Goldwing looks. I once was driving across the Don Valley bridge when a police car pulled out beside me. I knew I wasn’t speeding but I wondered if I had a broke head lamp. The  cop ;pulled up even with me, rolled down his windows …now I am in trouble, and he said, “nice ride!”  And he was right. My bike is lovely. Other riders call it a “classic” which means very old like me, and well preserved, again like me.

Now all those other bike riders assume I have had my permit to drive from my wild teenage years. A veteran. And in one sense they are right, and in another they’re mistaken.

I’ve only had a bike for four years. It was only four years ago that I actually bought a bike and started riding, having practiced many hours in a parking lot and on lonely suburban back streets. 

I have never had to pass an examination of my motorcycle driving skills, never taken a course of training or faced an objective examiner…because when I was 16 I got my driving license…and at the time you could do what was called a “chauffeur’s” test…If you passed it you were qualified to drive taxi, and cars-for-hire and they threw in a motorcycle license for good measure.

Today to get the same license I received for no effort, you have to take a community college course, do a written exam and a road test …no fooling around. And this is indeed how it should be and with increased pedal bike traffic, mopeds, e-bikes and various power assist two wheeled vehicles. We can all use lots of lessons that come from licensing.

And maybe in a world that like to regulate behavior and insist on compliance structures we should have more licenses. Not just from driving.  We have them marrying, we could use them for divorcing.  We require them for doctors and dentists, teachers, nurses, heavy equipment operators, therapists and chiropractors. How about for the softer professions…the ones we all rely on heavily but never acknowledge: parenting for example. That might be problematic. But I think the past years events might inspire us to insist on a license to be a city mayor, or a member of the senator. Why not one for preachers? 

Robert Fulgum actually devised a story teller’s license…he called it a “creed” and every year he renewed his commitment to telling truthful stories by reciting this.

I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge.

That myth is more potent than history.

That dreams are more powerful than facts.

That hope always triumphs over experience.

That laughter is the only cure for grief.

And I believe that love is stronger than death.

   In that spirit, and sensing that this new year asks for a revamped and revisited commitment, why don’t we ask ourselves today about a license to operate faithfully?  What would a discipleship license look like, how would we judge it and sustain it?

I have taken as my text for this task, the very famous passage from John 3:16 …I see it referenced all around the back lanes of this country. “God so loved the world that God gave …”

First let’s pray:  “God give us courage to live by your truth, grace and wisdom. 

 

Introduction:

Now in a perfect world, a license is not really a means of control…at least not initially. Its primary purpose is to inspire and honour enlightened behavior. And when I speak of a license to operate faithfully, it is in this sense.  I have no desire to control or restrict belief.  For such things are by their nature governed by God’s Spirit.

But if we were to ask about the coming year and our dreams and hopes, there may be some merit in listing the things that make for good faith, deep discipleship. What are the essentials?  After all, we know that when you go to drive a car, you need good eyesight, freedom from distorting substances or distracting influences. No cell phone gazing while your hands are on the wheel, no alcohol in your veins when you’re in the driver’s seat.  We restrict drivers by age and mental agility. Authorities will take away our right to drive if we exhibit erratic or irresponsible behavior.

So if we can do it or driving, why not discipleship? To make this easy…what are the five things we would say you must have to get or retain your license to operate faithfully?   Here’s our creed for 2014…If this were a classroom exam …now would be the time to takes notes.

A License to Operate

So here we go. I have listed in proper bureaucratic fashion the five things I believe are necessary criteria one must meet if one is to obtain a license.  One footnote:  It is helpful to note that our creator, the one who sets the ultimate exam for faithfulness, has always been focused on this earth.  Whatever might happen in heaven is God’s business, ours is down here on earth. And indeed God loves this wo3lrd so much that God gives completely and fully for its restoration and revitalization.  That’s where our faith traditions begins. Jesus Christ is God’s gift to this world’s salvation. Heaven is in hand. Our license is to operate down here. 

So the license.

  1. Eyes that see wonder: “Thou shalt keep thy eyes on this world of wonder.”  Let’s face it. We are placed on this earth to wonder at God’s gift or love and life.  To honour and rejoice in the wondrous majesty that god has planed in every minute given to us…that is how e praise our Maker.  Wonder is where it all begins. Faithful operators will keep their eyes open at all times because the wonder of life is waiting to be seen at every turn. This past week Ellen and I watched kids on the beach and their joy is contagious. The sea and sand are like an endless game. Each time they fly off into the waves, is a first time. And they laughter and surprise and the wonder of it all are essential attirubtes that are trained out of us as adults but need to be re-introduced. If you think we are singing more and dancing more in our worship, it is for that reason …it’s bit messier but wonder is like that…it take sour neat little ideas and categories and mixes them up, plays with us and sets us off on new adventures. Eyes to see wonder are essential for believing because it is from wonder that generosity grows and grace abounds.
  2. Hearts that flow with forgiveness.

There can be no operating of this license to faithfulness without the humble acceptance that we need forgiveness: we need to forgive ourselves and we certainly need to forgive others…the two are reciprocal and the Lord’s prayer indicates…you can’t have one without the other.  No forgiveness. No discipleship. I have tried to long to operate my life without the need to ask for grace and understanding. It’s a miserable and ultimately destructive way to drive through life.

In a strange reversal of the ordinary thinking around regulating licenses, the license to operate faithfully requires that we admit to ourselves, to our God and to our community that we can’t do it on our own…that’s not easy in a world where “effectiveness” and “leadership” and synonymous with a perfection.  In the discipleship world it’s the reverse. As Jesus says in the sermon on the mount, “The meek shall inherit the earth.”

Mo one gets license to operate faithfully expect by way of forgiveness.

  1. Hands that reach up to God and down to help humanity.

In the license for operating faithfully, you want to keep your hands off the wheel.  You have two hands…the left is for reaching up the heaven, or across to God or within to your Maker. The point is that one direction of your yearning is towards the One who made you and loves you without condition. This reaching or yearning is never simple or even reasonable, but we all do it…we strive to unite ourselves again with the love that made us…where we are safe and secure.  And one dimension of discipleship is the constant search for the God who loves us so much and gives to us so extravagantly.

In equal measure our other right hand is there to reach down or up, across or within to the ones around us who are lost, in need, asking for help, offering gratitude or grace. That’s it’s purpose. 

Reaching to God or to our fellows is not optional. It’s not a burden or a duty. It’s natural. It’s what we long to do when we have learned the lessons of wonder and forgiveness.

I am struck by this fact every time I fly to Cuba. It’s planeload of people who all will tell you they have brought something to leave behind. The most hard-nosed traveller will confess that when they travel there, they want to give something to their maids or gardeners…to someone in need.  It’s what we do as license operators. We reach out.

 

 

 

  1. Minds to discern our times

Operating a faithfulness license requires brains.  The head is always trying to understand the heart and so much our work as disciples is trying to figure out what our trust in God means, where God might be active and how we can join her in his work. Rather than handing our intellect at the door when we come to church, this is the place where thinkers dwell… we have bibles studies and conferences to help us discern our place in this world that God loves and we exercise our reason so that we can know how to live the love that god wants for this world in which we dwell.

I’ll say more about this is the weeks ahead, but for now let me say that this year, 2014, will be one in which I will invite us all to discern more carefully our journey of discipleship.

  1. Souls to trust

Finally you want a license to operate faithfully. You souls to trust.Last month I was in the passenger seat of a car with two soins …as they learned how to drive. We were going round and round a special parking lot in Fredericton set aside for the purpose of training and for me it was an exercise in trust. I had not control of the car, I turned that over to them …in some small sense this must be how God feels with us …you have no choice but to trust.

In our case, our discipleship license becomes operational if and only when we let go.  You can’t push it or force it. Our faithfulness happens when we let go and learn to trust in the God who made us. After all the cramming to understand wonder, forgiveness, reaching up and out and our efforts at reasoning, we have to let it go …

Here’s something an exercise Ellen taught me…breathing   …why don’t we let this be our conclusion of our license test…learning to let go.

Let’s close our eyes and breath deeply ….turn our toes into your nose and slowly deeply, breathe in, breathe out , breathe in, breathe out  breathe in, breathe out! 

Conclusion:

There …now here’s the surprise ending.  Even before we begin, we’ve all passed. God so loved the world God gave…we have all we need to operate faithfully. In that vein let me pass out these licenses now …so we can all begin our discipleship in 2014 with assurance and good will.  

Sermon: Advent 2   College Street United Church DATE: Dec  8th, 2013

 

Text: Matthew 2:11 “And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

 

Title “BEARING GIFTS”          

 

Prelude:

 

         Those who were here last week will recall that our theme for this Advent season is to look at our Yuletide celebrations and ask what Christmas isn’t and what it is.  There is a great deal we have done to the birth of Jesus that does not appear in the story itself or has been exaggerated out of proportion, perhaps manipulated to serve a different purpose.   There’s a lot of what Christmas isn’t.  And this Advent I want to look at some of the major things we have added to our nativity …not to dispel or discourage, but particularly to see how the wisdom of the human heart has worked its way into our Christmas celebrations and filled out, so to speak, what the gospel writers wrote.

Now last week I wrote in the sermon but did not preach the following comment. It is particular apropos here. One of the great and largely unhelpful things we have done to Christmas is to jam the two gospel stories into a single birth narrative. When I was a child our church put on a Christmas pageant and we included everyone—probably to get as many roles for as many people as possible. Christmas was therefore prophets and elders, angels and shepherds and Herod and Wise men, Elizabeth and Mary, Joseph and little children. And we combined them in a very specific way which needs to be undone.  The tradition is to start with the gospel of Luke, his pastoral “it came upon a midnight clear” silent night and then we add, almost like an afterthought, the Magi from the east. They follow the Bethlehem star and fit themselves into Luke’s tranquil manger scene. That’s what we do. I have a half dozen crèches around my house with exactly that tableau and I love them and the story they depict.

However, we do a grave injustice to Matthew if his tale of Magi is simply tacked onto Luke’s angel tale.  Matthew intended something much more dramatic, political and gripping.  When it was first heard Matthew’s story was not “peace on earth” but a horror show of civil war, innocent suffering and mass graves. No joy to the world!  

So using Matthew’s 2nd chapter story of the birth in Bethlehem,  let’s see what we have done with the Wise men and their gifts.

         But first …let’s pray.  “God, help us to never use our reason against the truth.”

Introduction:

         Given the scandals in the senate, and the recent revelations of city hall, it’s hard to believe that we could be shocked by what a public official might do. But this past Thursday we woke up to further allegations against our Mayor Rob Ford.  Our chief magistrate, the head of the continents 4th largest city, is reported to have smoked a great deal more than crack. Police wire-taps have gang members and drug dealers talking of how he used heroin, marijuana. There appears to be evidence of blackmail by criminals and extortion, bribes to reposess the infamous video of the mayor smoking up and clandestine negotiations for more drugs. The sordid affair has long ceased to be entertaining and even a sense righteous vindication for those who opposed Ford is now misplaced.

I just feel sad, dirty and dismayed.  How can it come to this?

         All the while we watch as our duly elected mayor unravels in public.  One of the most poignant moments on TV was when he was caught in an outright lie and he had to admit that he had mislead Torontonians. He apologized and stared straight ahead at the cameras…like “Look folks I got nothing else.” The whole scene reminded me of a young kid caught in the headlights, facing the school principle, a can of spray paint in his hand and a school wall full of graffiti.  “Oops!”  Who hasn’t been caught out in a lie? You want to cry out…find a way to surrender and slink away with what dignity ou have left.

Ford has imploded and to do so …so publically…well, it’s cruel. He is a living example of addiction. No matter the substance, he has been brought to his knees by his inability to stop.  He’s impaled on his inability to resist the momentum of his past decisions, emotional demons and political aspirations.

         That is the power, the terrible power of addiction.

         And that brings us to the current Christmas celebration and our gift giving frenzy.   

 

Bearing Gifts

         According to theological defenses, the practice of exchanging presents arises from this story of the wise men. They came bearing gifts.  “And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”  If they gave presents to Jesus, why wouldn’t we do the same for each other. God’s gives us the gift of our son and we model and respond to the first great gift by giving gifts to others. Gift- wrapped presents are not in the story. There is no sense that the Wise men were bringing “treats” or “surprises.”  Their gifts were “homage.” That is to say they were thinly veiled offerings to disguise what we would call “bribes.” You honoured a king with gifts to curry favour, to show due deference to a higher powers and preserve good will between peoples.  The gifts are not really all that important to the story. It would be like us focusing on the limousine that drives a visiting dignitary to the White House.  At best peripheral. Christmas isn’t gift giving.  It isn’t really about giving at all. Christmas is receiving God’s grace…with grace.

However we made the connection between Magi and gift giving and lifted up this small detail to astronomical heights. What began as a simple exchange of love tokens, a bit of candy or an out-of-season fruit has blossomed into the single most important motor for the world’s economy.  “Gift giving” is no longer a sufficient way to describe what we do every December 25th. It’s an “orgy.”

And it happens without our recognizing it: Christmas excess.

The emperor Constantine decreed on March 7, 321 that the dies Solis—December 25th, should be venerated: “…let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed.” It’s a reasonable idea…give people a break once in a while.  Christmas was set aside as a Sabbath break in the empire…but then it grew. 

Fast forward to the twentieth century. In 1991, the Cuban president Fidel Castro had a similar idea.  He held a meeting with Christian leaders suggesting the liberalization of statutory regulations to make Christmas a holiday for everyone. He wanted to improve relations with the Rome in anticipation of the Pope’s first visit since the revolution. Making Christmas a holiday was a first step. Of the dozen Christians in the room, all but two voted “yes.”  The hold-outs claimed that they didn’t want Christmas made into a civic holiday…it would just be an excuse for excessive drinking. The meaning of the festival would be diluted and lost.  Simple logic: give people a day off and they will make the most of it…all the Christian admonitions to sobriety to the contrary.

Indeed, in England, Christmas was banned in 1644 by the Puritans for just such a reason. The extravagant 12th night parties held by the nobility had become notoriously outlandish. King James 1st  (of bible translation fame), was particularly culpable. His Christmas parties almost bankrupted the monarchy. So when the Puritans gained power they literally outlawed Christmas, right down to holly leaves. It wasn’t until 1856 that Christmas was made a holiday again in Great Britain. Even then the Victorians were reticent.  It took the popularity of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol and the poem:  “Twas the Night Before Christmas” to turn up the volume.  Once St. Nick became a Christmas icon it was only matter of time before we would “give like Santa and save like Scrooge.”

And there’s no stopping it. Christmas has a built-in accelerator, whether it’s pushed by rulers or tycoons, the human propensity to overdo a good thing is operative in Christmas. I’m not blaming. It’s better to think about Christmas as an addicted holiday. It is hooked on happiness and there can be no going back once you’ve experienced the rush of good will and self-indulgence. Every hit has to be greater than the last.

Alas, as many people know, and as we are witness in our Mayor’s recent denials, when one is addicted (all the protests to the contrary) there is very little hope for reasoned or principled withdrawal. We’re beyond volition. All our assurances of reform are illusory. Maybe the Puritans had it right. Better to go “cold turkey” and be rid of Christmas all together. It’s too potent a practice to take in small doses.  Christmas can’t sustain this addiction.

That’s what Christmas is and isn’t at the same time…it is not about gifts. We know that.

However, the gift giving, when we strip away all the wrapping and ribbons is not about the object within the packing. What are we doing on Christmas morning, opening presents?  Is the stocking stuffer really a way to say simple words: “I love you.”  “You matter to me!” “You are not forgotten!” “You are not alone!”  “Let’s spread the love around!” And surely these are important things to say to one another.  Absolutely! And in as much as buying a gift that fits exactly means that people are spending a good deal of energy and time try to understand and please their circle of family and friends, we can applaud it!

Now inanimate objects are pretty poor communicators, so while I want to honour the gift giving as being basically about whispering words of love, I can see that the materialism can garble our words or distract us.

Here’s what do we do …well in this I think we are helped by pother voices. I listed this u-tube video on this week’s lift and I think Rick Mercer puts it nicely into one minute …what we can do to honour the gifts and not get addicted.

 

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Hcqw2gMhnQ&list=UUt3Ag7rdgR6mtzOMEhd_v6g   

 

 

 

 

 

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