Monday, December 25, 2006

Festival of the Nativity

NB: With a bit of help from Willimon’s Pulpit Resource

Maybe you’ll notice that when it comes to thinking about Christmas, suddenly the camera goes out of focus and everything gets blurred. Inside, the turkey is roasting in its own juices. Outside, in some places the snow is blanketing the earth. At the mention of the magic word Christmas, everything becomes nostalgic, comforting, and sweet.

Christmas here drowns in nostalgia, carols, and candy. Your favorite Christmas CD playing in the background while opening presents, before retiring to the TV room to watch It’s a Wonderful Life for the 38th time. There’s nothing like an old fashioned Christmas.

Maybe that’s something the bible might say a hearty “Amen!” to. There is nothing like an old fashioned Christmas, if by “old fashioned” you mean “first century.” Where the world is not a winter wonderland. Where Santa is not in the North Pole making toys for good little girls and boys. Where miracles have yet to appear on 34th Street.

Christmas in the bible isn’t the same as Christmas at the mall.

Instead, the first Christmas was in a world where rulers raged and wickedness flourished. Where children were murdered and countries destroyed each other. Christmas, first century style, is light – light slipping into the darkness, almost unseen.

Christmas, in our hands, looks nothing like that. After we’re done with it, Christmas becomes a dream, an escape, a vacation.

Maybe that’s because of today’s newspaper headlines – who wouldn’t want a vacation from all that? - and they’re all there in Matthew and Luke as well: massacres of innocent children, political corruption, lies, deceit, fear, and the holy family just barely escaping with their lives as political refugees in an unwelcoming world.

While our lives may not be so dramatic, many lives around the world are. But if we look hard enough, we all find ourselves in the story. We all find ourselves living our own little dramas. Loneliness. Frustration on the job. A painful illness or agonizing loss. Maybe it’s all wrapped up into one. That’s what makes us jump feet first into this story to find our place within it. We wonder how the drama of our lives connects with the drama of this story.

Where are you in the story? That’s a hard question when you think about it. I know that I don’t have a clue where I fit in to this story.

I don’t see myself as one of those shepherds, that’s for sure. I don’t like staying up late at night. I’m not all that outdoorsy, and if I saw a choir of angels singing in the sky I might be more inclined to think it was bad shrimp rather than a divine announcement.

I don’t think I’m one of the Magi – or three wise men. I’m no star gazer. I don’t look to the sky to find out what’s going on in the world. I get my news from the Internet. I dabble in RESPs for my kids, not in gold; frankincense irritates my sinuses; and I prefer myrrh to be locked away at the funeral home instead of nestling in my backpack.

I’m certainly not Mary. It would be physically impossible for me to play her role. But then again, it was for her as well. And while I’m told I look good in blue, my bald head and beard might just make the story a little too creepy.

So, perhaps I’m a sheep, just like I was in a Sunday School play a thousand and one years ago. It could be my job to add scenery, atmosphere, mood. Instead of woolly garments I wear fancy robes to add an environment of sacredness to our Christmas celebrations. But then I realize that you’d be here even if I wasn’t. Plus my vanity won’t allow me to see myself as mere background in God’s saving story.

So maybe I’m a Roman – Caesar even. Strong enough to conquer the world and proclaim myself as God. I love that image of myself! Who wouldn’t? There are days when my head won’t fit inside my hat; but Rebekah has a way of deflating my over-indulged ego.

Maybe I’m the guy that Luke was talking to last night when he tried to get weasel his way into my thick skull with tales of angels in the sky and a baby lying in a manger.
Maybe I’m the guy John recites his poetry to just in case I didn’t get the point of Luke’s story. Maybe I’m the pages of the book that tells the story and announces the good news.

Maybe that’s my proper place in the story. Maybe it’s yours as well. Maybe it’s our place to pick up where the Luke and John left off. Maybe it’s our job to live the salvation story; the story of light shining in the darkness, the story of a saviour born in a barn. Maybe it’s our job to tell the world:

“[…to] not be afraid, for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.”

The angel didn’t say good news for some people, or good news just for these shepherds working the night shift. The angel said good news for ALL people. ALL. All people need to hear it in the midst of all their grief, loneliness, fear, and shame; among their failure, loss, anger, and sin, we are being asked to be messengers of healing.

Perhaps we need to tell the story to ourselves; when we feel like our lives are coming apart at the seams; when our relationships have grown cold and stale and we wonder if we will ever know intimacy again, and we worry if we are doomed to a life of loneliness. When we lose a loved one. When a friend is gone. When we worry that when our hearts stop beating and we draw our final breath, no one will greet us. When the shadows form around us, when the darkness grows within us; we tell ourselves the story; that God’s light has slipped into our darkness and started to grow.

John said that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. God’s words leapt from the page and began to do a little Nova Scotia jig. And God invites us to join the dance; to join the celebration that God isn’t done with you or the world just yet. We cling with both hands to God’s biblical promises of new and everlasting life, daring to believe that those promises are for us as well. We find our place in God’s saving story. We sing with the angels, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace and good will to those whom God favours.”

So, maybe we can have an old-fashioned, first century Christmas after all.


Sunday, December 24, 2006

Eve of the Nativity - Year C

Is it just me, or did people start celebrating Christmas early this year? I’m not talking about usual suspects, like folks at the Mall who put up tinsel and Christmas trees just as they’re putting away the Vampire masks, taking down the over-sized spider webs, and chucking the left-over candy that didn’t make their way into Halloween bags.

Or the Christmas-crazy neighbour who leaves his lights on twelve months of the year, regardless of threats and hostile phone calls. You expect that sort of stuff.

I’m talking about folks who, this year started blasting Christmas music in their homes on November 12, instead of the usual December 1, while their neighbours flicked the lights on that evening.

Why can’t we wait? What’s the hurry? Why is Christmas such a big deal, even to those for whom Christmas is simply office parties, gifts, and turkey?

We say that Christmas is for children, but I think it’s more about childlikeness than childhood. Even those who don’t believe in Jesus, or don’t know if they believe in him, or wish they could believe in him, Christmas holds something, but we have trouble saying exactly what that something is.

I think it’s too easy to say that we’re simply childhood nostalgia junkies, although I’m sure that’s part of it. I had some really good Christmases as a child and some Christmases that I’d rather forget. Maybe we come to see the candles gently push away the darkness. Maybe we come to listen to the calm and hushed silence. Maybe we come to bathe ourselves in the familiar. Familiar songs. Familiar carols. Familiar stories. When everything in the world seems alien.

When we are nostalgic for childhood, I don’t think it’s because childhood was such a fabulous time, but because we remember when the world was still new, and life brimmed with hope and expectation. Childhood reminds us when our mistakes didn’t cripple us, when we were not too wounded to look forward to the next day, when tomorrow was bright with possibility.

At Christmas we see the hope to become new – to leave a jaded, cynical existence behind – to see in the promise of a new born child, the promise made to us as well.

Sometimes when we tell the Christmas story, we dwell on the power and glory so much that we drain the flesh and blood from the story, which I think misses the whole point of what God is trying to tell us.

I think the point of the story is hidden in the manger, reaching out for his mother’s milk and soiling his diapers; whose newborn cries are God’s unexpected response to our cries: our cries for help, our cries for healing, our cries for peace.

Because what if it was left up to us? Or left up to you?

What would you do if you had to clean up the mess we human beings have made? How would you deal with war, violence, anger, corruption? How would you deal with fear of the future, destroyed relationships, or ravaging diseases? How would you deal with terrorism, fanaticism, or fundamentalism?

Would you send in the tanks? Would you break out the big guns? Would you launch the missiles?

Would you stage a protest demanding the government adopt your agenda? Would you picket outside of Wal-Mart insisting they take on your faith language? Would you rally the troops, get out the vote; make sure your voice is heard?

Would you send a baby? A helpless child completely dependant on those he came to save?

That doesn’t sound like a smart move, does it? At least by any human standard. But that’s the way God does things. Somehow in the worship of that child and in the celebration of his birth, everything else seems to fall away. Come, look at the baby! Forget your greed, your pride, your sin, your grief, and your shame; forget your failure, your illness, your loneliness, come gather around the baby. In the birth of the newborn child, you too, can be born anew.

You too, can be carried away in the care and love of this baby, for that’s what God wants you to do. It is God’s hope, that in all the oooing and ahhhing over this baby, this child born in a manger, that we might learn to oooo and ahhh over all the babies in the world, and to ooo and ahhh over the big baby inside all of us, waiting for everything old to become new again.

By pouring the wonder and glory of God into the baby, Jesus, God invites us to see with new eyes – to see within each other and within ourselves the preciousness of life. Life is always God’s response to death. Through Jesus’ birth, may you know that YOU have been born at the right time, and so learn to see and live the preciousness of life around you and within you.

This is how God sees you – precious and holy. And in giving us the gift of Jesus to transform our vision, our lives, our world, God invites you to see yourselves and others as precious and holy as well.

So maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just seeing things. Maybe people always start their Christmas celebrations early and I’ve just noticed it now.

But as I look back at it, if someone needs a message of newness and holiness to fill their air in their house, then maybe its never to early. Maybe its something that God is asking us to do all the time – remember Jesus, remember that small, vulnerable child born in a barn; and in doing so, we remember that we are precious and holy.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Advent 4 - Year C

One thing I like about the Gospel of Luke is that people break out in song. It’s like a Broadway musical where the lights dim, the spotlight comes up, and the conductor cues the music so the main character can begin her show stopping, heart wrenching, solo performance.

This morning’s gospel reading is a lot like that.

A few weeks ago we heard Zechariah, that old crooner; sing his blissful ballad because he and his wife Elizabeth did the impossible: they got pregnant when they should have been cruising retirement condos in Arizona.

Today, Mary steps into the spotlight.

“My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary sings right there in Elizabeth’s living room. “And my spirit rejoices in God my saviour. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Elizabeth and Zechariah may be the first ones to hear this song, but it certainly wasn’t just for them. This was also for her, Mary, and for the Mighty One who has done great things for her. It is for Gabriel, who first gave her good news, and for all who benefit from it – for the proud and powerful who will be relieved of their swelled heads, for the hungry who will be filled with good things, for the rich who will be sent away empty so they can have room in them for more than money can buy. Her song was for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – for Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel – for every son and daughter of Israel who thought that God had forgotten the promise to be with them forever, to love them forever, to give them fresh and endless life.”

And it was all happening inside of Mary. That’s quite the burden, don’t you think? But maybe a burden and a joy. That’s the double-edged sword of being chosen by God.

Sometimes I often wonder if Mary felt that way. She broke out in song but I sometimes wonder if she was singing through clenched teeth. After all, she may have thought her life was over. She might have had plans for her life; she might have been looking forward to finishing school, maybe going to university and getting that job she’d dreamed about since she was a girl hiding behind her mother’s skirt. An unplanned pregnancy outside of marriage probably didn’t rank high in her plans.

Also, what was she going to tell Joseph? Joseph was no SNAG (Sensitive New Age Guy), he wasn’t going to be scammed by some fairy-tale about God’s Spirit imbuing Mary with God’s love child, even if it was the truth. Mary knew that if Joseph was like some guys, he’d not only call off the wedding but spoil her chances of ever getting married again just to get back at her for ruining his reputation and messing around behind his back.

Mary said was pregnant, and crazy enough to claim that it was God's doing. Joseph only knew it wasn't his doing. He must have looked like a chump. But thankfully, Joseph was smart enough to recognize God’s handiwork when he saw it. Although I’m sure he had to endure the snickers and snide remarks from the guys at the pub. And he probably suffered the sarcasm from folks on the street and the synagogue. But he didn’t walk away. He kept his promise. You gotta respect a guy like that.

I’m sure that Joseph didn’t plan to be step-dad to the Almighty. He probably had his own career plans. He may have had his goals mapped out how he was going to build his carpentry business into the biggest in all Nazareth. However the future looked to him, I’m sure that being a surrogate father figure to God’s own Son wasn’t part of his five-year plan.

But isn’t that they way life works out most of the time? Our best laid plans get interrupted by life’s plans for us: sudden illness and surprise babies, the break down of relationships and the presentation of new opportunities. Dreams diminished and hope renewed.

Maybe. At least some of the time.

Sometimes life doesn’t give us happy endings. Often, there is no satisfactory resolution at the end of some of our stories. The spot on the lung spreads to the bones, the divorce papers arrive in the mail, or the flowers delivered to the church are for a funeral instead of a wedding.

But it would be nice to know how it all works out beforehand, wouldn’t it? It would be nice to plan for things like that. It would be easier to go through life with a navigation map so we’d know that the changes and challenges of life actually end up somewhere good and beautiful. And to steer clear of the trails and roads that lead to failure and tragedy.

But God doesn’t give us a map. Mary certainly didn’t know how the child in her womb was going to end up. All she had were stories of how God acted in the past and promises of how God will act in the future. And when we stop and think about it, that’s all we have as well: stories and promises.

Sometimes those stories and promises blossom into songs and celebrations, just like with Mary and Zechariah. I think I’ve been here long enough to know you folks well enough that you won’t wait for the lights to dim before you start singing. Yours’ is no solo performance. You start your singing while folks are coming in the doors, ensuring that everyone knows melody if not the words.

Sometimes we offer hymns of praise, other times we sing songs of lamentation. But we sing – together – because we put our hope in God’s promises and we suspect that God’s promises have something to do with us -together.

Songs and celebrations may not feel like enough, but at least it’s a start. Maybe songs and celebrations are guideposts and resting places, as the night’s long journey slips into the morning. We sing and celebrate God’s promises because sometimes that’s all that we feel we have. But for most of us, that just might be enough to get us to the next resting place.

That’s the good news that Mary believed. If she didn’t than I don’t know how she could have endured carrying God’s universal promises in her womb. She didn’t know who this child was or how he was going to end up. But I’m sure she had her suspicions. And those suspicions made her queasier than morning sickness ever could.

“[So] If there are any big changes going on with YOU right now – if something is happening that you can’t predict the end of, and your stomach is rolling with your own version of morning sickness – then maybe you want to follow Mary’s lead. Who knows? Maybe the Holy Spirit has come upon you. Maybe that shadow hanging over you is the power of the Most High.” (BBT)

As we begin this new season of joy and hope and newness: May your souls magnify the Lord, and your spirits rejoice in God your Saviour, for God has looked with favour on you, and all generations will call you blessed. For the Mighty One has done great things for you, and holy is his name. Amen.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Advent 2 - Year C

NB: With a wee bit 'o help from Willimon's Pulpit Resource, and Worship that Works

With Christmas just hovering over the horizon, Advent becomes something we put up with. Maybe because that’s the way Christians have been doing it for two thousand years. So there must be some wisdom in it. It’s sort of like eating your broccoli just so you can get some ice cream.

But since we’re stuck with the Advent blue before we get to put on our Christmas white, we might as well hunker down and get comfortable, because we might be here awhile.

I think if we’re honest with ourselves, and maybe with each other, Advent is where most of us live most of the time.

Advent has been compared to the anticipation of a child’s birth. But I know from experience that such a wait is not all joy and hope, it’s also fear and trembling. Will the child be healthy? If she’s not, will I be able to deal with the challenges she will face? Will I be a good parent? What will the world be like that she will inherit? Or even more fundamentally, will she like me?

There are two sides to the Advent story. The first is, yes, a saviour is coming, and that’s good news. The flip side is that we need a saviour in the first place, and that’s the bad news.

I think that’s what the prophet Malachi was trying to get at. He sounds angry in today’s passage, doesn’t he? You almost need to dodge the fire spitting from his mouth. It’s the kind of stuff you expect an old time prophet to say. And you can certainly hear where John the Baptist drew his inspiration from.

It was the same old story with the prophet preaching the same old message. God’s people have broken their agreement with the Almighty. They’ve done awful things to each other. They’ve forgotten their God.

So, there’s a sobering side to this season of getting ready. In just two weeks we will turn our hearts and minds to the babe of Bethlehem born to be our redeemer. If you think John the Baptist's demands are tough, wait until you hear what Jesus asks from us!

That is why John's work is important for us. It helps us prepare, like training for a race or a contest. He has us work our spiritual muscles. John is helping us to get ready for Jesus, so we can hear what he asks of us and what he promises for us, as nothing less than an entrance into the land of light and joy.

So, consider this our second Sunday in training. Think of John the Baptist as our spiritual coach; making us do our sacred calisthenics, stretching us, challenging us, until our hearts are pounding and our muscles ache.

He prepares us to receive the Divine intervention that has come and will come again. He strengthens us to work for and expect righteousness. He shows us what it means to be a voice crying in the wilderness.

In our daily living, in our work, on the news, and even as part of our entertainment we are surrounded with acts of selfishness, power grabbing, and manipulation. We are part of a culture that says, "Go ahead; if you want something, just take it!" We know in our hearts this is not what we were made for. But if we start to question, refuse or challenge these things we find out pretty quickly what it’s like to be a voice crying in the wilderness.

John offers us courage, and stirs our hearts to hope and commitment, so that we can do what he is asking. Is it worth the risk of ridicule and scorn to turn away from the things that will destroy us? Is it worth the laughter and contempt to show the world another way of living?

John doesn’t say if it is worth it. He only invites us to take the plunge, telling us to prepare for the coming light that will never be overcome by darkness.

“Darkness? What darkness?” You ask? 30 000 children died last night of hunger and malnutrition related diseases, and 30 000 children will die tonight, largely because the wealthier nations of the world haven’t learned how to share.

What darkness? There were no salmon to be caught in the Yukon this season, and no one knows exactly why. Some native folks are frightened, faced with the prospect of culling their sled dogs and finding food somewhere else for the long winter.

What darkness? The Middle East seems to be coming apart at the seams, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon, and Canadian soldiers are still dying in Afghanistan in a mission without defined goals or a clear end.

That’s what I call darkness.

Yet we are called to prepare ourselves.

What does that mean, prepare? How do we do that?

In our second lesson for today, Paul insists that our good works are the result of God’s work among us. God began the good work among us; God will bring it to completion. He also says the harvest of righteousness comes through Jesus Christ.

In other words, it is not we who are building the kingdom of God – the kingdom of God is already built! But we are called to plant “advance signs” of the kingdom.

Like signs on the road, “Warning – falling boulders ahead” or “deer crossing ahead.” Instead it’s “Warning – God’s kingdom ahead” or “God-crossing ahead.” Our preparations are to be the warning signs of God’s coming – they are not the actual event itself.

We can set up the signs that let others know God is coming. Signs that God is alive…the signs of love, and care, a cup of cold water for anyone who is thirsty, bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, visits for the sick and imprisoned. Announcing good news to the poor, letting the oppressed go free.

The other piece of good news is that God is coming to us. John asks us to prepare the way of the Lord, which means God is coming to our lives, into the very midst of us. God does not choose someplace extra special, or unusual, or particularly good. But in our lives – that is where God is coming. Bless this mess – and God does. God comes to us to bless the mess of our lives.

We live in an in-between time. Theologically, Advent and Christmas aren’t really seasons, they are ever-present realities. Christ is coming, now. Christ is born in us, now. Christ will come again, now.

That’s where, I think, most of us live, at least most of the time – in those in-between moments. Paul says that he is “confident that the one who began a good work among us will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” I think that the confidence Paul is talking about is a confidence that spawns hope. A defiant hope. After all, isn’t hope by its very nature defiance against despair, a light challenging the darkness?

Prepare yourselves. Get yourselves into shape, so you can live in your lives now the signs that God is here. Be – you, yourself - the flashing neon light, the quiet roadside sign that points to God’s presence and power. And show all those around you that God’s presence is a blessing now – in the mess of whatever darkness surrounds you.

That’s the defiant hope that is God’s gift to us today. AMEN.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Advent 1 - Year C

When you hear the word “gospel” what pops into your head?

In my final year of seminary we were asked to define the word “gospel” in one sentence, for our respective theses. Being little too full of both myself and Jurgen Moltmann’s major theological writings, I made 8 revisions. But when I thought I finally had it down in perfect theological prose, my thesis advisor, usually a cross between a teddy bear and Santa Claus, pulled out his red marker, scratched out my wonderful words, and bellowed, “Make is simpler!”

The assignment was harder then you might think. After all, the word “gospel” has become to mean anything that people want it to mean. It’s become shop worn, a rather limp sort of word. It’s become so many different things to so many people that the word has been rendered virtually meaningless. When someone says the word “gospel” it could mean anything from something of individual significance, to the forgiveness of sins, to the ticket to eternal life.

However, many of you know that the word “gospel” simply means “good news.” At the end of the gospel reading each week I say “This is the good news of Jesus Christ” because I like translated language better than the word “gospel.”

But Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder said that to translate “gospel” as “good news” misses something. He translated gospel as “revolution.” It wasn’t just any old good news, he said. There was social and political significance, not just personal meaning in that word.

For example, when one city was at war with another, fighting for its civic freedom, “good news” was the report that a runner brought to a city. “Good news! The battle has been won!”

Or when a son was born to a king, ensuring the political stability of the kingdom, “gospel” was what they announced to the public, “Good news! A child has been born to the king! Our reign is secure!”

I think he makes a fascinating case.

Others aren’t as sure. They suggest that the gospel writers were merely appropriating the word “gospel,” for their message of Jesus’ complete renovation of their lives. They say that Jesus was talking about a revolution of the heart, not a political insurgency; a spiritual uprising, not a historic revolt.

So which is it? An upheaval of the social order or an overhaul of one’s life? Is it justice for the oppressed or forgiveness for sinners? Does the gospel bring peace on earth or does it heal the sin-sick soul?

I think the gospel is about both. If we relegate the gospel to either the social/political realm or reduce it to the personal forgiveness of sins, then we are saying that there are parts of the world, or parts of our lives, where God doesn’t belong.

But I think the bigger question is: what is good news?

Before we can talk about good news, we need to talk about bad news. I suppose the difference between good news and bad news is where you’re standing when the good news arrives. Where I stand, on my privileged perch, benefiting well from the present order, well fixed. Comfortable. Some may say TOO comfortable. I don’t want, nor do I particularly NEED a revolution, if it benefits only those on the bottom rung.

“Good news, a saviour is coming whose going to set everything right, who’s going to turn everything on its head; who’s going to take food out of the mouths of the well fed, the warm coats off the backs of the rich, money out of the wallets of the self-satisfied … Then forgive me for not catching the first bus to Bethlehem. Jesus is bad news for those who love things as they are, who are comfortable, who look out for themselves while hurting those who need their help. After all, who needs a revolution when life is good?

But the gospel is good news for the Mexican family living on less than two dollars a day. It’s good news for the single mom who got her EI cut because her 16-year-old daughter got a part-time job at Burger King. It’s good news for the homeless guy who can’t find his way into Alberta’s booming economy. For these folks, the revolution starts now!

But the gospel is also good news for the young dad dying of cancer, praying that the Spirit will guide his children after he is gone. It’s good news for the couple whose marriage is crumbling down around them, and they turn to Jesus hoping to renew their relationship. It’s good news for those reaching the end of their years, hoping that after they close their eyes in death, they will open them again in the presence of God.

That’s also the revolution that Jesus was talking about. That’s the revolution for which we wait.

Advent is a two-edged sword. We wait for the baby Jesus, but we also wait for Christ’s return. Today Jesus asked us to look for signs of his coming again. As much as I affirm the fact that he will return as he promised, I also wonder if he’s talking about returning within peoples’ suffering; if he’s saying to look for the revolution in our lives, tucked away, hidden inside the pain and anguish of a broken, hurting, and sin-stained world.

If you’re still wondering how I first defined the gospel for my Master’s thesis, it went like this “the gospel is the eschatological fulfillment of Israel’s messianic expectations” (warms the heart, doesn’t it?). When my thesis advisor was finished with it, it said “the gospel is new life in Jesus.” And that’s what I think Jesus wants to tell us, that he is still in the business of making all things new.

That’s the revolution that Jesus was talking about. And may that revolution be among us. Amen.