Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent 1A

“Freedom” is a program I recently installed on my computer. It helps me get more work done and to better focus. In fact I used Freedom to get the first draft of this sermon written.

Freedom has one simple task: to disable my web browser for as long as I want or need it to. In other words, if I set Freedom’s clock for 60 minutes, I can’t access the internet for one whole hour. No email. No Facebook. No Twitter. No message alerts No downloading sermons to listen to. No internet radio. Not even my beloved blog. Just cyber-silence. (do people still use the word ‘cyber’?) If I want to access the internet, I have to go through the hassle of re-booting my computer. So, for that one hour, I have “Freedom.”

It’s beautifully ironic that the program is called “Freedom.” After all, the internet was supposed to free us. Now we have to be freed from it. The internet was supposed to make us more productive, it was supposed to help us better connect with each other, it was supposed re-create our lives, giving everyone access to the world, a platform for even the weirdest and most extreme views to find an audience. The internet was supposed to be democracy in action, where everyone has a voice if they chose to speak. The laissez-faire marketplace of ideas.

And it’s true. The internet is all those things. And more. But like most tech users, I let the medium redefine my life, at least what I call “freedom” The internet re-defined “freedom” on its own terms. And not only “freedom” but also words like “friends” “connections”

We’ve also let it re-define “work” and “time.” I’ll respond to email while waiting in line at the grocery store. I cruise bible commentary sites while watching football (Go Alouettes!). I’ll text in between hospital visits. I’m continuously connected, tethered to technology, always available.

It’s no wonder that I need “freedom.”

The people of Judah had the same problem. They needed freedom.

They were in the middle of a war. The northern kingdom of Israel and the Aramean kingdom of Damascus demanded an alliance with them in opposition to the Assyrian Empire. Judah was backed into a corner when Jerusalem was attacked. Not knowing what to do, King Ahaz sent for the prophet Isaiah1. And I wonder if Ahaz wasn’t more troubled than comforted by what he heard the prophet say.

On the face of it, Isaiah sounds hopeful; “In the days to come,” Isaiah says, “the mountains of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”

“In the days to come...” What days? When? Soon? How will we know when it’s about to happen? I’m sure Ahaz had questions. After all, his wasn’t a spiritual concern. His was a flesh and bone, blood and death emergency. His enemies were destroying the holy city. He was being forced into an arranged marriage with the Arameans. Everything he and his people had worked to achieve was being taken away from them by no fault of their own. They could no longer control their national destiny. They were the victims of other peoples’ ambitions.

They longed for freedom. But they didn’t know how to get it. Ahaz just wanted to know what to expect. And what God was going to do about the enemies at his gate.

And Isaiah brought Ahaz some good news. But he didn’t provide specifics. Isaiah just said, “In the days to come...”

But “in those days...” it wouldn’t be Ahaz who has the victory. It would be God. In those days all nations and people shall stream to the holy mountain. All people will come to the house of God to learn the ways of the Lord. ALL people. No exceptions.

And Isaiah doesn’t stop there. He says how this will happen:

“For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate between many peoples. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war any more.”

It’s a lofty vision. Some of you might even smirk at its naivete. But it’s God’s vision. And it’s God’s promise.

It is the word spoken by God that will make these promises come true. “For out of the holy mountain shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”

We Christians say this word is Jesus. The instruction from the holy mountain and the Word of the Lord is the one for whom we wait. This word of the Lord is the one who will defeat the final enemy, the power of sin and death, and will rule over the whole of creation with justice and mercy.

“O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord...!”

Ahaz may have learned the hard way that God’s promises don’t always match our immediate needs. We may find ourselves trapped in a life we can’t control. We may feel stalled by circumstance. Caught in a quagmire of consumerism.

It’s often this time of year when pain and sorrow show themselves most fiercely. There’s something about the Advent to Christmas month that turns up the volume on peoples’ grief.

Suicide rates are highest this time of year. Family squabbled become full blown wars. Loneliness deepens.

It could be the increasing darkness wreaking havoc on our brain chemistry. Or the longer nights and shorter days simply bring out what is already there, and now we don’t know what to do with it.

And so we wait for the saviour to do what we can’t do ourselves: to free us from what keeps us trapped, to bring peace to our troubled lives and the conflict stained world, to bring newness when we are tired and discouraged.

We wait for the “...days to come [when] the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.”

We wait for the day when we are pulled out of the darkness we are drowning in, liberated from the traps the world lays for us, when peace will rule over our lives and our world. We wait for the day when all God’s dreams will come true.

We wait for the day when God will have the final victory. Indeed, God already has. The Word has gone forth from the holy mountain and become flesh in Jesus. In Jesus we are taught God’s ways and walk in God’s paths. In Christ, we are tomorrow’s children, claiming God’s resurrection promises today.

This Advent, I encourage you to ask God to give you eyes to see what God is doing because we don’t always recognize divine promises being fulfilled. It’s because we’re in this in-between time where God’s future touches us, yet is not fully blossoming around us. God’s future is here. But we’re still waiting for it. That’s the mystery of Advent.

And until that day comes when all people worship at the mountain of the Lord, the day when all people are freed from the power of sin and death, the day when God’s promised future arrives in all its fulness, we wait.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Reign of Christ the King

This morning we meet a paradox, or tension, or even a contradiction. On this Reign of Christ the King Sunday we sing the great triumphal hymns proclaiming that “Jesus Shall Reign!” before we “Crown Him With Many Crowns!” Music so strong and confident that we are swept up in the glorious majesty of the divine.

But then, a few minutes later, we find Jesus dying between two thieves. Naked. Humiliated. Tortured. Terrified.

The sign above his head proclaiming him as king was meant to mock him, but it was really an announcement for those who had eyes to see. If you were looking for a king who would crush his enemies, then you might want to divert your eyes. This king forgives his enemies. And he doesn’t raise a finger to protect himself against those who would kill him.

It looks like we have two kings competing for our attention and adoration. Two contrasting visions of who we say God is. Two wildly divergent understandings of how we believe Jesus brings us salvation.

We have a king who is high above the heavens ruling over the universe with a strong arm. And we have a king whose throne is a cross, and whose crown was made of thorns.

This contrast is nothing new. This is as old as the gospels themselves. Just listen to the story.

The Romans mounted a sign over Jesus’ head, “King of the Jews.” That was, of course, supposed to be a joke. This Jesus certainly wasn’t a king. He was anything but a king. Look at him. He was just a poor wandering preacher who said the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person. The world was full of folks like that.

It turns out that history - and Christians - agreed with the Romans. That sign over his head WAS a joke. The poor, suffering, nobody from the middle of nowhere didn’t rule over anything - not even his own death. This Jesus on the cross couldn’t be a king - at least not one worthy of our devotion.

So Christians elevated him. We clothed his naked body with royal robes -purple - befitting a king more deserving of our attention. We took him off the cross and placed him high above the earth in the heavenly realms where he could rule over everything with power and might. We shuffled him away from the poor and suffering, transforming the cross into a sword, and we sent him into battle to destroy our enemies.

From the emperor Constantine who saw the flaming cross in the sky and believed it was God leading him to glorious victory in war. To the crusaders who battled the muslim hordes, believing that God desired both the death of sinners and a political victory. To those Christians who believe that our politicians must genuflect to them and their agenda, because they assume that the Kingdom of God can only come through political power. We mask our fetish for strength and power with religious piety.

By proclaiming that “Christ is King” many Christians are really saying “The Church is King.” Some Christians want to dominate rather than serve.

When we as Christians look too lustily at the strength and power of the world, we hear Jesus whisper in agony, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing” and we we abandon the suffering Jesus dying on the cross for the sins of the world.

And so we then find ourselves at Jesus’ bloody feet, confronted by his self-giving, suffering, love. And we realize what true power looks like. We see that true power come from giving of our selves so that others might have life. True power comes when we forgive those who’ve hurt us rather than seek out revenge.

True power leaves us vulnerable. We may be taken advantage of. We may get hurt.

But the power of the cross, the power of Christ our King, only grows the more we give away. The way of Christ our King isn’t what we get, but by what we give.

To many, this power looks like weakness, like we’re capitulating to those who don’t have our best interests in mind. That it’s not practical. It’s a fool’s journey.

After all what would our foreign policy look like if reconciliation was the operating principle? Would our strategy in Afghanistan be any different? How would our laws work if they functioned by forgiveness rather confrontation and punishment?

But then again, forgiveness and reconciliation is not a mere strategy. It’s not a way of getting what we want. Forgiveness and reconciliation is a way of being in the world. Like Jesus on the cross offering forgiveness to those who were killing him, it’s saying that evil powers of the world will not control our lives. My enemies will not dictate how I live my life. Retribution and retaliation may be bred in human bones, but God calls us to a different way of living.

Jesus is saying, my enemies want to hurt me, but I want to love. The principalities and powers of the world want to destroy me, but I want to build people up, creating a world where all people can live and thrive. The world may rage with war and violence, but I will live peacefully. Others may live according to what they can get, I will live according to what I can give. They may live selfish lives, doing violence to others, but they won’t drag me down with them. I will not let them turn me into who they are because of what they have done to me.

That is Jesus’ life. It’s not an easy life. But it is God’s life. And today, Grady and Kylie are being called into this life, they are being recruited to serve this Christ who is our King. Through the waters of baptism, they are being killed to the death dealing powers of the world and they are rising to live in the joy and freedom that comes from being children of God. Their lives will bear witness to God’s alternate vision of the world. A vision that places forgiveness over revenge, a vision that gives before receiving, a vision that plants freedom in the centre of their lives

As servants of Christ our King, the God on the cross, they will be known by how much they love, bearing witness to the Christ who loved us so much that he died rather than lift a finger against those who were killing him, so he would rise to transform the whole world into his likeness.

And may this be so among US. Amen.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

All Saints

(NB: I’ve had to dip into the vault and pull out one of [what I call] Kevin’s Klassics. It’s been a long week and I was sick during the time I had budgeted to write my sermon. This is from All Saints 2005.)

The condo-development where my mom lives backs on to a local cemetery. In fact, this cemetery has the distinction of being one of the only cemeteries in Canada that has a highway running through it. In that small strip of highway the feverish pace of southern Ontario life connects with the stoney stillness of history and death without stopping to reflect.

A few years ago, while visiting my mom, we were feeling a little cooped up in my her house, so Rebekah and I took the kids for a walk through the cemetery.

“What are those rocks sticking out of the ground?” Sophie asked.

“Those are headstones,” I replied, “They tell us who is buried there and when they lived.”

Sophie is still trying to figure out the whole death and dying thing. She knows that my dad is in heaven, as is our dog Zooey. And she can’t figure out how people can be buried, yet still be alive in somewhere else.

But I wonder if any of us have that really figured out.

As we walked through the cemetery, we noticed how some graves were immaculately kept. The grass around the headstone was neatly trimmed, even if weeds on the pathway covered our shoes.

Some graves looked abandoned. Or forgotten. Someone whose memory has been left to whither.

Others were decorated with mementoes. Objects that meant something to the deceased. Or told a story about what that person loved to do: A nine iron. A construction helmet. And in one sad instance, a Teddy Bear. Relics of a life lived well or not so well lived; or maybe just simply lived.

I’ve been told that it’s morbid to walk through cemeteries. That it’s better to live life than to brood about death.

So maybe I’ve got a bigger morbid streak running through me than most people. From the time I was five and my grandmother passed away, I’ve always had a certain fascination with cemeteries. I read the names and the dates. I wonder who they are. What they loved. What they despised. What contribution that made to the world – if any. If they enjoyed their lives or simply muddled through them.

I wonder if that’s what we’re doing on All Saint’s Day: taking a walk through a cemetery. For some, the names that we hear read out loud today are like the names we see on headstones; many of them are strangers, but with stories to tell that teach us something about life.

For others, these names are of people whom we know intimately. People who shaped our lives, for good and for ill; whose legacy is still lingering around years after they’re gone.

And maybe, All Saints' Sunday is also like a family reunion, or like pulling out our old photographs and remembering where we came from.

We remember those who angered us and those who inspired us. Those who raged against the dying of the light and those who went quietly their rest. But we know, whether we acknowledge it or not, that we are – somehow- linked together. All Saints Day makes the bold claim that all our stories matter, that are lives are webbed, interwoven with God’s Big Story of life and salvation.

St. Benedict said that an important spiritual discipline is to constantly remember that you are not the centre of the universe, but, to use Benedict’s words, “Keep death daily before your eyes.”

I think that’s wise counsel. Death tells us a lot about life.

I’m old enough to remember the sirens blasting from a tower just a block away from our school, and the teacher telling us to hide under our desks.

These types of drills, a practice for the end of time, while out of vogue in most of the rest of Canada, still happened on occasion in my hometown well into the ‘70’s.

“It’s because of Niagara Falls,” the teachers would say. “Niagara Falls is a nuclear target.”

So from the earliest of ages, my classmates and I learned that all life as we know it could be wiped out at faster than a well aimed spitball.

That is what we live with as children of the Nuclear Age. Now when hostilities between India and Pakistan heat up we all hide under our beds. Or when North Korea gets snippy, we all wonder if the world is going to end before the next commercial break. Or when we hear that Islamic terrorists may have gotten their hands on old Soviet-era bombs, we turn on the hockey game and hope for the best.

So I wonder that when it is all said and done - if or when the Big One comes, if our lives and the stories they tell, will amount to a hill of radioactive beans.

Many people remark to me that they wonder the same thing, nuclear threat, terrorism, or not. They wonder if the headstone that marks their burial place will be the only monument left by which people will remember them; they wonder if their story will be lost, their name forgotten.

They wonder if when they close their eyes, they will never open them again.

So they come to the cemetery looking for some kind of guarantee. What clues to eternity are hidden amidst these stones? Are our loved ones really in heaven? Will we eventually join them? What really happens to us when we die?

That’s when God’s Big Story captures our attention, a story about the one who has been there and back again: Jesus the faithful bearer of God’s story. The story that tells us that our life is in God and God does not die.

When I make my occasional pilgrimages to the cemetery, I don’t just see death. I see promises yet to be fulfilled. I see possibilities hiding underneath each headstone. I see stories, some known to many, and some known to God alone. But God, one day, telling those stories.

I did a funeral once for a woman who took her own life. She was about to be charged with a crime and couldn’t live with the shame she felt she brought to her family. The son came to see me and asked that if any reporters came poking around that I should deny any knowledge of the service. He didn’t want any reporters crashing the funeral.

It turns out this woman’s story made it to the paper. And she would be forever known as for the crime she is said to have committed.

Her daughter shared some stories with me of this woman’s life. But stories mostly about how good she was with the grandchildren. How these small babies would stop crying when grandma picked them up. How she spent a month caring for the little ones when their mom was suffering from post-partum depression. How she worked hard to raise her children as a single mom. Her daughter wanted me to know that her mother’s story was more than the story people heard about in the newspapers.

Then others started sharing more stories with each other about this woman’s life. People wanted to remember that she was more than what the newspapers said she was. She impacted those around her in ways she probably didn’t know.

I couldn’t help but think that these are the stories that God remembers. These are the stories that God tells to the angels. These are the stories that tie us to God’s Great Story, where we are linked with that great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne crying out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God…”

So what is your story? How will you be measured among the saints? How does your story connect with the stories of others, or with God’s Big Story?

But we know that, no matter what stories our lives tell, we will never be forgotten, for we will live with those whose lives have connected with God’s, and together we’ll sing songs of praise to the One whose story makes our story live.

May this be so among us. Amen.