Sermon: Pentecost 16 College Street United Church DATE: September 28th, 2014
Text: Exodus 17:
Title: “Where’s the Water?”
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.
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.”
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.
Text: Matthew 20: 14: “The first shall be last and last shall be first.”
Title: “Where God Isn’t”
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.
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.
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:
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:
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 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
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”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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”
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.”
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.
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.