Sunday, December 25, 2011

The human face of the Divine

Text: Luke 2:1-20 (birth in a stable; shepherds and angels; Mary ponders)

Advent is over. Christmas is here. And so we listen again to the mysterious and joy-filled story of the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem.

Why do we love this story so much, I wonder? It tells of God's love come to earth. It doesn't come with great fanfare or terrible signs. God's Love comes as a baby born to a poor young girl in a humble stable.

In this baby -- Jesus the Christ Child -- we see the face of God. Like us, Jesus is born helpless and dependent. And like us, Jesus is filled with God's infinite potential.

Our human potential -- which is what marks us all as God's children -- flourishes in community. We grow in family, with neighbours, and in the wider society. Without care, love, and language, our minds would not reach their potential. But in the right conditions, all of us can participate in this world of wonders and experience the peace, love and joy promised to us at Christmas . . .

This Fall, on the CBC's The Nature of Things, I watched a story that intrigued me. It profiled a man from Montreal who was born blind. And it showed how well he was able to navigate the world with just the clicks from his cane. It even showed him skating around a rink in Montreal as the reporter interviewed him. And he seemed to navigate every turn and obstacle.

When researchers examined this man's brain with an MRI, they found that he was processing sound in the part of the brain that most of us use for visual processing. His brain had developed in a way similar to that of a bat. If this man had become blind as an adult, his brain would not have had the plasticity to shift sound processing to another part of his brain. But because he had been encouraged by his family to walk and even skate as a blind child, the potential of that part of his brain became a reality.

It is the same with all of us, I believe. We all begin life like Jesus as a helpless child. And then in the wonder and magic of caring families, in churches, in communities like this, and in the wider world, our minds and hearts grow and flourish.

Of course, our society not only provides us with caring conditions in which to grow. It also contains pain, conflict, sickness, and problems of all kinds. So even though we are all children of God born with unlimited potential, we cannot live up to this full potential without God's help.

And so we hear again the story that God came to earth as a child. We hear again that as Jesus of Nazareth he grew to be a leader. And that as God's son, he was arrested and executed on a cross in love and solidarity with us all. And so tonight as in any worship service, we remember how Jesus -- both as a baby born in a stable, and as an adult killed on a cross -- shows us a path to new life beyond the difficulties and pain of our society.

In the Christ Child, we see God's love in its most tender and gentle form. God does not overwhelm us with force. God does not compel us to worship him. Instead, God in the form of the Christ Child tends to overwhelm us with beauty and helplessness.

Remember times when you looked into the face of a newborn baby. Who has not been overwhelmed by love and joy -- and perhaps also fear -- in such moments? In a newborn child, we see all the wonderful if fragile potential of life and love.

For us gathered here tonight who have lived long and sometimes painful lives, God still calls to us as a baby. It is a call both to love God and to be loved by God. And so we hear the stories again and we sing the carols again. And we remember that God is with us. Emmanuel has come again. Light has come again. Love continues to lead us through life and then surely home to God.

Tonight in southern Saskatchewan as Christmas 2011 arrives, let us sense again how silently, how silently a wondrous gift is given. It is the gift of salvation, and it is born in us today. The gift is the birth of the Christ Child in hearts turned towards love on this night as on any night. It is the coming of God as a child, a child who is both a helpless infant and a saving King. It is the mystery, beauty and power of the Christmas story. And it is available to each and every one of us tonight in this little town.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Friday, December 23, 2011

New life in a dark night

Text: Luke 2:1-7 (the birth of Jesus). Below is a liturgy of lighting Advent candles and a reflection offered last night at a "Blue Christmas" service at Wesley United Church in Rockglen Saskatchewan.

Over the last four Sundays, we have lit four candles on our Advent wreath. Tonight, we will re-light these candles one by one. As each one is lit, I have a few words to say on the theme of the candle. And after those words, I suggest that we take a moment in silence to think about the theme.

Our first candle represents hope. We value hope because there is so much suffering and loss in our lives and in the world. We believe that God in Christ offers us a firm source of hope. But it is a hope that lies in going deeper into life's valleys instead of avoiding them. Jesus is God with Us, which means that he is with us in life's despair as well as its joy. Let us now spend a moment in silence as we reflect on the light of God's hope against the darkness of the difficulties in this world . . .

Our second candle represents peace. We value peace because there is still so much conflict in our lives and in the world. We believe that God in Christ offers us the firm promise of peace. But it is a peace that comes from struggling with life's conflicts and not by avoiding them. Jesus leads us to peace through non-violent resistance to those who bully us and those who would take us to war. Let us now spend a moment in silence as we reflect on the light of God's peace against the backdrop of conflict that still remains in the world . . .

Our third candle represents joy. We value joy because there is so much pain and unhappiness in the world. We believe that God in Christ offers us a sure source of unshakeable joy. But it is a joy that grows as we go deeper into life's troubles instead of avoiding them. Let us now spend a moment in silence as we reflect on the light of God's joy against the dark backdrop of the pain that still remains in the world . . .

Our fourth and final candle represents love. We value love above everything else in life because love is the source of growth and healing. We believe that God in Christ offers us a sure source of love. But it is a love that grows when we accept Jesus' help to join him on the Way of the Cross. By dying to our old ways of life, Jesus offers us new life in Christ, which is a life of never-ending love. So let us now spend a moment in silence as we reflect on the light of God's love against the backdrop of the pain of dying to an old way of life on the Way of the Cross.


Every year, Christians around the world celebrate at the darkest time of the year. It is a celebration of God With Us, Emmanuel. It is a celebration of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem so many years ago.

But the scene at Jesus' birth is not a triumphant one. While we call Jesus the King of Kings, he is born in a humble stable to a poor young woman. Like all babies, Jesus is born helpless and dependent. He is also born as a fugitive. No sooner have the wise men and the shepherds left, than Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt to escape a campaign of King Herod to murder newborns in Bethlehem.

The humble conditions of Jesus' birth as our Messiah link up in my mind with the very humble and painful conditions of Jesus' death on the cross thirty years later.

At both Christmas and Easter, we have good reasons, I believe, to celebrate the good news of God's solidarity with us and of our salvation. But the difficult and humble conditions of both Jesus' birth and death mean that our muted Blue Christmas service tonight is not out of place with either event.

The story of Jesus as the Christ is filled with as much hope, peace, joy and love as good news ever can be. And yet it is good news that comes in a minor key. And that is part of the reason why I feel drawn to the church and to Jesus. The God who is revealed in Jesus is a God who is Love, but is also a God who suffers, a God who dies, and a God who shows us a route to new life out of this suffering and death. And I detect a strong note of reality in this.

We are confident that our sacred values of hope, peace, joy, and love are the most important ones. But given the pain of individual life and the problems in society, the news that new life comes through pain suffering can be seen in two different ways, I believe.

One option is to be depressed by this supposed "good news." Perhaps it might lead us to abandon Christianity for a sunnier religion; or drive us away from religion altogether.

The other option is to be cheered by this good news. If new life can be found through pain and death -- including the death of Jesus on the cross -- then I can see hope for all of us. Life in Christ does not mean that we will never experience pain. It does not mean that we will never experience loss. What it does mean is that we can live each moment --  whether ones of pain or joy, of loss or gain -- in and with the God who comes to us as a baby and the God who dies in pain with us on the cross.

The night may seem long and dark, but God is with us. Life may seem painful given that the more we love, the more we have to lose. But God is with us. And that is why we offer endless thanks and praise.

The God revealed to us in Jesus is not an easy God, but He is a reliable one. Against the backdrop of darkness, He is a God of hope, peace, joy and, above all, love.

And so on this long, dark, and sacred night, we say again, "Come, Lord Jesus, Come."


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Songs of love and justice

Text: Luke 1:26-38, 47-55 (the Angel Gabriel; Mary's Song). Dedicated readers may notice that this sermon is a slightly edited version of one by the same title that I delivered two years ago in Didsbury on the same text. 

From the fall of 2005 until the spring of 2007, I sang in a choir in Toronto called the Bell'Arte Singers. We weren't a professional choir. In fact as with many community choirs, each of us had to pay an annual fee for the privilege of being a member. But I didn't begrudge the money because I loved singing in this choir.

Bell'Arte had a Christmas concert the first year I was a member. One of the many things I liked about Bell'Arte was the program booklet produced for each concert. I found the notes to be quite detailed and interesting.

For that 2005 concert, the booklet commented on the meaning of Christmas and our hopes for a world of greater peace, joy and love. And that section ended with the sentence, "Another World is Possible." I was struck by this, since "Another World is Possible" was a key  slogan of the youthful anti-globalization movement of those years. You know -- the activists who show up for World Trade Organization talks like the big one in Seattle in 1999 and who protest against corporate greed.

A 2011 version would have meant trying to relate the concert to the slogans of this Fall's Occupy Wall Street movement.

Just before the concert began, I pointed out the line "Another World is Possible" to the conductor and asked if he had written it. He told me "no," but said that he agreed with the idea. In fact, he said that our concert that evening would prove the slogan right. Our Christmas Program that evening, he said, would nudge the world maybe a millimetre closer to its salvation. And while that might seem like an odd idea, I found myself agreeing with him! That night as a choir we were doing our small bit to help change the world one joyous song at a time.

When I began full time studies for a Masters of Divinity degree in the fall of 2007, I had to leave Bell'Arte because I was also still working full time, and something had to give. But I loved the Bell'Arte choir and it made me a better singer . . .

In our Gospel reading today, Mary, upon learning that she is to give birth to Jesus, sings a song. It is a song of joy, love, and hope for a better world. In her song, she rejoices in the mercy and justice of God and predicts that the hungry will be filled and that the rich and powerful will be brought down from their thrones.

This passage from Luke is one of the most famous of the entire Bible, and it is especially liked by musicians. Many different composers have set Mary's song to music, and such musical settings often have the title Magnificat because in the Latin translation of Luke's original Greek text, the first word of the song is Magnificat -- "My soul magnifies the Lord." The English translation is evocative as well.

And the hymn that we will sing after the sermon is inspired by Mary's Love Song.

But though Mary sang this song over 2,000 years ago, the world still has too many hungry people. And it also has too many rich and powerful people whom we would like to see thrown down off their thrones. So is there any point in singing such songs of joy, love and justice?

You may have noticed this summer and fall, that singing is really important to me. I love to sing, and  the most important part of worship for me is often the hymns. I am  pleased that singing is strong in all three points of Borderlands pastoral charge, and I have greatly enjoyed being a member in the Coronach and Rockglen community choirs this Fall. I will be sad after our final concert this afternoon at Grasslands Health Centre.

When I returned to attending church services regularly in 2001, singing in the choir was a key part of it. By joining the choir at my local church, Kingston Road United in east Toronto, I found a wonderful new group of friends. I found a place to sit each Sunday. I found a role in worship. And I found that worshipping each Sunday, and trying to express our faith in song, was starting to affect me quite deeply.

Perhaps the choir wasn't changing the world; but it was certainly helping to change me. And perhaps that was enough?

In worship in general, and in sacred songs in particular, we come together to remind ourselves of what we most value in life. This Advent, as always, we have used our Sunday services to remind ourselves of God's Grace under the headings of Hope in times of despair, of Peace in times of violence, of Joy in times of difficulties of all kinds, and of Love in the face of injustice.

When worship works to transform us as individuals and as a community, it can have many effects. It might mean that we work to feed people who are hungry and to comfort people who are feeling sad. It might mean that we protest unjust rulers as young Occupy activists do.

But even when worship doesn't have these clear or immediate effects in terms of actions, it can help restore our sense of priorities and our balance. When we come together to sing songs of God's love and God's justice, we both remind ourselves of the importance of beauty, and often create some of that beauty; we both remind ourselves that God's grace is always available to us and we sometimes experience an opening to that Grace in the moment; we both remind ourselves that God's reign will be one of equality and freedom for all; and we sometimes live out that equality in the sacred space and time of the worship service; and we both remind ourselves that our greatest desire and need in life is for love of God and neighbour and we often experience God's loving touch right here and now.

Worship doesn't just involve singing, of course. It also involves spoken prayer and times of sacred silence. It can also involve dance, meditation, drumming, sharing circles, and  drama. And it often involves wordy sermons, in which we sometimes lose the thread that connects us to the Divine instead of grasping that thread more firmly!

But it usually involves at least some singing. And even for those of us who don't like to sing or don't feel confident about our voices, I imagine that the impulse to burst into song still sometimes happens. Singing involves the movement of the spirit in our bodies until it unites word with breath, bone and muscle to express ideas and emotions that are difficult to express in other ways.

And so when Mary accepted the difficult and amazing news of the Angel Gabriel, it makes sense to me that she sang a song. And it makes sense to me that it was not only a song of joy and of thanksgiving, but also a song that called for food for the hungry and for the rich to be thrown off their thrones.

But simply by singing her song, Mary didn't make God's reign appear right then and there. Nor did Luke, by writing it down many years later, make the world right just by that fact. Even the coming of Jesus, which Mary's song is about, didn't end all problems, or end all pain, or bring the reign of God to earth.

Or did it? In some ways, singing song's again like Mary's remind us both that we have a lot of work to do as individuals and as a church to make the world right; and that in that moment of singing, in that act of worship, in that reminder of what we value and want, the reign of God is right here -- Jesus is right here, in this moment, this breath, this sacred act of worship and remembrance. Another world is not only possible. Another world, God's world, the world we want -- it is right here, right now.

So this week, as Advent ends and Christmas comes again, and as we sing those familiar, wonder-filled and joy-filled carols, let us do so aware that we are joining with Mary in her song of love and justice.

On Christmas Eve and for the rest of the season, we will sing carols. In those carols and with God's help, we will remember again the hope that we feel even in dark times; the peace that we experience even in the face of conflict and violence; the joy that we feel even in the midst of life's ups and downs; and the love of God that we experience in this song, this breath, this moment, both now and always.

Advent is almost over. Christmas is almost here.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

A year without Christmas?

Texts: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 (Rejoice!); John 1:6-8, 19-28 (testifying to the Light)

Not everyone loves Christmas. Despite the hope, peace, joy and love we are supposed to experience during Advent; despite the celebrations of the coming of God's light into a dark world; and despite all the parties, meals, and gift-giving, some of us may not feel much like Christmas this year.

Maybe we are already busy and don't want a whole new round of Christmas activities to add to our calendar. Maybe we are grieving a loss and don't feel particularly peaceful or joyful. Maybe we are not getting along with some of our family members and don't look forward to big family gatherings. Maybe our budget is already tight before the annual ritual of gift-buying. 

And so, maybe this year we would rather join with Ebeneezer Scrooge to say "Bah, Humbug" instead of peace on earth and goodwill towards men.

If we feel this way, could we just skip Christmas this year?

This idea of skipping Christmas came to my mind because our weekly Scripture readings do not include a reading from Mark today or for the next four weeks. The list skips over Mark even though we are just three Sundays into the Year of Mark, Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary. 

We have temporarily abandoned Mark because Mark's Gospel -- unlike Matthew's and Luke's, whose Gospels form the spine of the other two years, Years A and C -- does not tell the story of the birth of Jesus. This week our Gospel reading is from John, which also contains no birth stories. And for a reason that escapes me, today's reading from John closely parallels the reading we heard from Mark last week about John the Baptist. 

Next week and until mid-January, we will switch to Luke. And next Sunday we will also finally come to something related to Christmas in a reading about the visit of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary. To celebrate Christmas at Sunday worship services this year, we leave Mark behind for a month.

But what about a radical alternative? Instead of padding Year B, the Year of Mark, with Christmas stories from Luke, could we not just skip Christmas every third year? Do we really need to celebrate it every year, especially since so many of us have trouble with the hoopla around Christmas?

I imagine that it might seem odd to hear this idea from a minister; and it is not one that I seriously propose. I raise it today for a few reasons: to give some background on the puzzling selections in the Lectionary, to highlight the sadness many of us experience at Christmas, and to ask the question of how we can experience true joy at Christmas instead of the forced joy that sometimes marks this season. Joy is available to us this Christmas as at any moment. But what is a sure path to it?

St. Paul in our reading from First Thessalonians today urges us to "rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances." And when life goes our way, it might seem easy to rejoice. If our family is happy, our community peaceful, our bank accounts full, the weather fair, and the economic outlook good, who wouldn't want to rejoice?

However, our household may not always be happy. We may be unsuccessful in finding love or companionship. We may be sick. We may not have recovered yet from the floods of the spring. We may be worried about agricultural prices or the job outlook. We may be thinking of moving to the city because there are still no doctors in this region. The list could go on. 

If these circumstances are ours this year, is it still possible for us to rejoice, pray and give thanks? I believe that we can do so when, with God's help, we also look deeply into our troubling circumstances. And that is a good reason, I believe, to hear the Christmas stories every year, even in the Year of Mark.

The stories of the birth of Jesus remind us again that everyday and difficult conditions are those in which God's help is most visible to us.

At Christmas, we remember that God comes to us in the form of a helpless baby who is full of the promise of light, life, and love. Christmas, like Easter, reminds us that God's strength lies in weakness, that love and grace lie in ordinary conditions and that God is with us even in the most humble of circumstances.

And so most of us look forward to Christmas regardless of how the rest of our year has gone. We look forward to the star, the stable, and the birth of God's son to a poor young woman and her carpenter husband. We connect the beautiful and humble beginning of the life of Jesus with the terrible and humble end of Jesus' life on the cross. Jesus is God in solidarity with us. Like us, he is born as a helpless infant who is filled with God's infinite potential. Like us he dies in humiliation and pain. And like us, he is raised by God to new life through the power of God's Spirit.

St Paul urges us not to quench the Spirit, to heed the difficult words of prophets like Isaiah and to test everything. Testing everything might include questioning some of our Christmas traditions. It might involve wondering about the differences between the birth stories in Matthew and Luke and their absence from John and Mark. And it might involve going deeper into our sadness, pain and loss at Christmas instead of immediately focusing on joy, wonder and praise.

Many of us, I believe, feel drawn to pray every day, to worship every Sunday, and to celebrate Christmas every year not because our situation is wonderful but precisely because it is not so wonderful. It may be tough times that prompt us to try to pray, worship and celebrate.

This is the case with St. Paul, I believe. Paul often writes of his suffering. He writes of his fears of attack, arrest and death. He writes of his disappointments in congregations that he helped to create. But he has been healed by his encounter with the Risen Christ and he lives in the sure hope of life in Christ in any moment and at the end of life. And so Paul rejoices, prays and gives thanks. 

I am glad that the early church set the date of Christmas at the end of December. You know, 90% of the people on earth live in the northern hemisphere where Dec 22nd is the shortest day of the year. So many of us crave a celebration of the return of light at this time of year. There is nothing in the Bible that says when Jesus' birth occurred. But it makes sense to me that we celebrate it at the end of December.

I am also glad that our churches more and more recognize the difficulties some of us have with the hype and forced gaiety of Christmas. One of my favourite services each year is Blue Christmas, where those of us who are mourning or dealing with sadness in our lives -- and who would not be included in that group? -- gather to celebrate the coming of the Christ Child in a sombre and reflective way. 

This year, we will hold a Blue Christmas service at Wesley United Church in Rockglen on Thursday December 22nd at 7:30 pm. And if anyone from Coronach or Fife Lake would like to come to that service, please let me know. Perhaps we could car pool there.

At that service, we will not skip the candles nor hopes for peace, joy and love in our lives. But we will search for God's hope in failure as well as success, for God's peace in families and communities that sometimes suffer from aggression and hurt, and for God's joy and love in hard times as well as easy ones.

If some years we skip the decorations, gifts, and big family meals with all the trimmings at Christmas, I could be OK with that. But during any Christmas, I try to remember God's solidarity with us in Christ Jesus both as a helpless infant and as our Redeemer on the cross. At Christmas as at any time, God in Christ comes to us humbly to help turn loneliness into soulful solitude, pain into perseverance, hurt into love, despair into hope, and fear into an unshakeable joy.
And so this Advent as we wait again in hope for peace and joy, we repeat the refrain . . . 

Come, Lord Jesus, come.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Peace, inside and out

Text: Mark 1:1-8 (John the Baptist prepares the way)

Peace begins with us, it is often said. And I am sure there is truth in that statement. The more each of us can adopt a peaceful attitude in everyday life, the more peaceful our families, communities and the world will be. The other side of this states that when bullying or violence erupts around us, we are likely to suffer more inner conflict.

The first statement describes a virtuous circle: inner peace leading to less violence, leading to more inner peace. The second statement describes a vicious circle: external violence leading to inner conflict, leading to more violence.

So here is some good news on this Second Sunday of Advent. Some analysts suggest that violence is less prevalent today than at others times in history. Despite continuing brutality and war, the number of victims of war is relatively low and in decline. And violent crime in countries like Canada is also on a long and steady decline. It could be that we are living in some of the most peaceful conditions people have ever known.

This relative decline in violence, does not mean, of course, that all war or violence has disappeared. For instance, there will be approximately 500 murders in Canada this year. But the rate of murder and other violent crimes has been decreasing for decades now in Canada . . .

One thing that struck me when I moved to Borderlands five months ago was the lack of concern about crime here. We usually don't lock our houses or cars, and crime rarely makes it into the local papers.

But although we feel quite safe in southern Saskatchewan, our province does have the highest rate of violent crime in Canada. This fact might be connected to another one, that Saskatchewan also has the highest proportion of First Nations people of any province. I hasten to add that I do not believe that First Nations people are more likely to commit crime than other groups. I say it simply to point out there is often a connection between social misery and crime.

And as the news reports this past week about the terrible living conditions in the northern Ontario First Nation of Attawapiskat this week highlight, First Nations people continue to live in conditions that are much worse than those of many other groups in our country.

Housing and health conditions like the ones in Attawapiskat reflect not only the legacy of the defeat and conquest of First Nations. They also reflect ongoing racism and social barriers faced by native people, I believe. The news this week from Attawapiskat also reminds us that violence not only takes the form of crime and war but also that of social inequality and lack of opportunity.

Nevertheless, crime rates continue to drop everywhere in Canada and in much of the world. These declines lie behind the controversy about the federal government's new crime bill. All the crime experts that I have heard speak on the issue fear that this new law might increase crime rather than decrease it even as it will greatly increase the amount of money the state spends on courts and prisons.

But despite what the experts say, our government forges ahead to build more prisons, increase sentences, and focus more on punishment than on crime prevention. And since the government now has a majority of seats in parliament, this new bill will become law next week . . .

The decline in military violence came to my attention in a Remembrance Day sermon I read by Vancouver minister Rev. Bruce Sanguin. His sermon centred on a new book by Stephen Pinker called "The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined." Pinker presents statistics that show the percentage of people who are now victims of war is lower than at almost any time in history. And other forms of violence, such as police brutality, torture, and domestic abuse, are also lower today than in the past.

Of course, it would only take a "minor" war involving nuclear weapons to overturn Pinker's statistics. Nevertheless, I was cheered to learn of his book.

War does continue, of course. There is continued fighting in Afghanistan. Israel  threatens to attack Iran. There are several bloody conflicts in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. And massive resources continue to be poured into the military worldwide. Canada, with its impending order of 65 fighter jets at a cost that may approach $50 billion, is no exception.

As well, state violence such as arbitrary arrest and torture continue in various countries. We pray for democracy across the Arab world after this year's uprisings even as we watch in dismay as people continue to be killed in substantial numbers in countries like Egypt and in huge numbers in countries like Syria and Yemen.

We are often told that the main ingredient of democracy is free and fair elections. But perhaps an even more important factor is human rights. A country can only be considered democratic if demonstrators are not shot, journalists are not arrested, and torture chambers are closed. We pray and work for this reality to spread to Egypt and all countries in the world even as we mourn the current victims of state violence.

And even as family violence rates decline, I am still struck by how many of us come from backgrounds scarred by minor or major neglect, abuse or bullying. The numbers of us who struggle all our lives with the legacy or present reality of emotional or physical abuse remains far too high.

Finally, there is popular culture. It continues to trade heavily on depictions of violence. Can we imagine a culture in which the latest CSI episode showed police officers waiting in boredom because there were no murders to solve? Or can we imagine a first person shooter video game in which the protagonist searched in vain for a monster or bad guy to attack? Unfortunately, I find it hard to imagine such things happening anytime soon.

So even as crime, war and family conflict decline, our world has a long way to go before all of us can live with the security, freedom, and peace that we want.

Perhaps there is not a lot any one of us can do about war, brutality or violent crime. We can and do pray for peace with justice. We can and do speak out for nonviolent conflict resolution between countries. We can and do strive for a world order that is based more on cooperation and human rights than on competition and war. But our efforts as individuals only take us so far . . .

Our Gospel reading from Mark this morning points towards God's Holy Spirit as a key resource for peace in the world. In the reading, John the Baptist proclaims that when Jesus comes, he will baptize us with the Holy Spirit. Mark says that this is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

So even as we try to turn towards God's light this Advent, our reading reminds us that we have already been baptized into new life with Christ. And all of us continue to be supported by God's Spirit in any moment of crisis.

One of the many fruits of baptismal life in Christ, I think, is greater inner peace. Baptism helps to lift the burden of positive or negative judgement from our shoulders. When life disappoints or hurts us, Christ's solidarity with our suffering means we do not need to label ourselves as bad. Likewise, when life pleases us, our life in Christ means we do not need to label ourselves as good. In happy times, we can give the glory to God in Christ. Likewise, in painful times we can leave judgement to Christ our Saviour.

Of course, none of us lives fully into our baptismal status every moment. We often do judge ourselves or others as bad or good. And while such positive and negative judgements are a mistake, in my opinion, personally I have found it very difficult to tame my inner judge and turn it into a more honest and Christ-like voice.

In any life, there will be things, events and people that we like; and there will be things events and people that we do not like. And while likes and dislikes often lead to us to judge, this leap to judgement is not a necessary one. I try to not judge, though often I don't succeed. Still, I try. I see it as a spiritual practice that might help tame my inner critic. Instead of judging, I try to always keep my reactions at the level of likes and dislikes.

Judgements are debatable while likes, dislikes and feelings are above debate. Take the simple example of a movie. One person may like it. Another may dislike it. Neither reaction proves that the movie is good or bad. They simply tell us something  true about the two people. Tyring to go further to agree on the so-called objective value of the movie is neither necessary nor desirable, in my opinion.

I hope that by only speaking about likes, dislikes and feelings in little things like movies, I might also remember not to judge myself or others in bigger things.

When we leave judgement to God, we relieve ourselves of the need to bolster or attack our egos. Long ago, we were baptized by the Holy Spirit into life in Christ. This new life in Christ means that our identity is found in Christ and not in our egos.

In moments when we feel secure and happy, we can give thanks to God and enjoy inner peace. In moments when we feel under attack or in pain, we can try to leave judgement to God. And with God's help, we can try to maintain inner peace as we work toward a resolution to our problems.

Christ lives in us. Christ is in solidarity with us. And so we are freed to live with self-respect even when our circumstances are difficult or oppressive.

And what about those times when we forget our baptismal status? In such moments, we may judge and perhaps get caught up in conflict. Well, the good news is that the Holy Spirit is always present to wake us up again to the reality of our life in Christ.

These wake up calls restore inner balance even when we are in conflict. In such moments, the Holy Spirit helps us move from the vicious circle that spirals downwards to violence and back to the virtuous one that spirals upwards to peace . . .

This Advent as we wait and prepare for Christmas, we give thanks for the relative peace that reigns in our families and in our world. We also pray and work to end all bullying, all crime, and all war.

God's light is about to enter the world again as the Christ Child in Bethlehem. The Holy Spirit helps us turn towards this light and reminds us that we have been baptized into new life in Christ. In this new life, we are freed from the judgements of our egos and opened to the peace and justice that is our birthright as children of God.

And so this Advent as we continue to hope and pray for peace, we say again . . .

Come, Lord Jesus, come.


Sunday, November 27, 2011

Helplessness and hope

Text: Mark 13 ("The little Apocalypse")

Why is the first Gospel reading for Advent taken from the last week of Jesus' life? And why is it a reading that describes the Second Coming of Christ? Advent is a time when we prepare to celebrate the First Coming of Jesus as a baby born in Bethlehem. So it may strike us as odd that the church year and our preparation for Christmas begin by focusing on end times instead of new beginnings.

Well, one connection I see between Jesus' birth and the end times is a connection between helplessness and hope. In a newborn baby, we see both. Likewise, I believe that we can see the same helplessness and the same hope in times of crisis or pain.

I love the Christmas stories of the birth of Jesus. They are stories of light in the midst of dark, love in the midst of hate, life in the midst of death, and beauty in the midst of poverty. They tell of God come to earth in the most humble form imaginable, as a tiny baby. Like all babies, the Christ child is helpless and dependent. He is born in a stable to an poor family in an obscure part of the world.

This is the peaceful and gentle First Coming of Christ in Bethlehem. The Second Coming will be different. In our reading today Jesus tells his students that he will return as the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. The signs of his Second Coming will not be a star shining in the night sky or angels singing gently to shepherds. For the Second Coming, the signs will include earthquakes, famine, war, and the darkening of the sun and moon.

This description of the Second Coming is similar to the scene of the Last Judgement we heard in church last Sunday from Matthew. So just as our old church year ended with awesome power and judgement, this new one begins with similar awesome power and judgement.

In the face of the terrible signs of Christ's Second Coming -- wars, earthquakes, and darkness at noon -- most of us might feel frightened and helpless. Indeed, such terrible events might make us feel the way we once did as a helpless infant.

And when calamities like this occur in our lives, it is hard not to feel God's judgement, I believe.

How often have we heard an innocent victim of war cry out against God? How often have we heard the victims of an earthquake, tsunami, or hurricane speculate that their plight must represent God's anger or judgement against them.

While I find such reactions understandable, I don't agree with them. Just as Mary and Joseph were not responsible for the wars and poverty of the world into which Jesus was born more than 2,000 years ago, so are we not responsible for most of the difficult conditions under which we live.

Everyday in the news, we hear reports of economic crisis, destruction of the environment, natural disasters, and violence. Because of this news, we might even conclude that we are living in the end times described in our reading from Mark today. And people may have always thought like this.

So it might have appeared to Mary and Joseph when Jesus was born in Bethlehem all those many centuries ago. They were poor working people. They were Jews who lived under foreign occupation. They were threatened by the campaign of King Herod to murder all the children born near Bethlehem. And so they fled to Egypt as refugees to escape this threat. In the face of these conditions, they must have been scared and oppressed.

And yet, they raised Jesus: our Messiah, the Christ, the person who is the perfect image of God in human form. In the face of difficult conditions, they helped bring new hope into this world. Visible in the baby Jesus was God's hope of liberation, of mercy, and of salvation.

One of my favourite Bible stories occurs in Luke 2. It tells of Jesus presented as a newborn in the Temple in Jerusalem. An old and faithful man named Simeon is serving there. When Simeon sees the baby Jesus, he also sees the Messiah. And so he declares that he can now die in peace. He does not have to live another 30 years to puzzle at Jesus' parables or watch Jesus heal sick people. He does not have to wait for Jesus' death or resurrection. He experiences salvation just by holding a helpless infant in his arms. In that moment, he experiences all the hope he will ever need.

Scripture and our tradition say that all of us, as a baptized and baptizing people, carry the Spirit of Christ in our hearts. We, too carry, a Christ light into the world.

In the face of disasters -- whether collective ones like war or personal ones like sickness -- we might feel helpless. Nations have worked for peace and justice for centuries and yet war still happens. Most of us want to be good stewards of the land, air, and water and yet habitat destruction continues. We try to take good care of ourselves, and yet we all age and get sick.

In the face of such problems, we might feel helpless. We might even feel as helpless as a newborn baby.  And here is where I see a possible connection between the First Coming of Jesus as a baby and his terrifying Second Coming in clouds of glory. The Christ Child was helpless and yet holy and divine. And we too are are holy and divine despite our helplessness in difficult circumstances.

Within us flickers the same hope that entered the world with the birth of Jesus. And it is a hope that God's Grace fans into reality in any moment. This hope does not mean that we will avoid loss, that violence will cease, or that our loved ones won't become ill. It does mean that God is with us in all of life's ups and downs.

Our initial helplessness as infants does not last. We grow up to be strong, knowledgeable and capable adults. But despite our achievements, we all eventually face age, sickness and decline. And just as we start our lives helpless and dependent, we end our lives the same way.

In the middle of life, we might be tempted to deny our reliance on God. We might judge ourselves to be a person who has figured it all out. But the humiliations of life lay bare for us a deeper reality, that we are dependent on each other and on God for everything we achieve. By the same token, our stumbles and decline are part of the human condition and not the result of personal failings. So just as we can't judge ourselves as great because of our achievements, neither can we can judge ourselves as weak or evil just because life circumstances bring us low.

In fact, I believe it is when we feel most helpless that the truth of God With Us -- Emmanuel -- becomes clear. When we see a newborn infant, or when we spend time at the bedside of a loved one in the last stages of life, then we can wake up to our frail but divine reality most clearly.

We are born helpless, yet holy; and we die helpless, yet holy. We are dependent human beings who nevertheless carry the light of Christ into the world. In the face of some crises, we may be helpless. But we all belong to God and we all return to God. And this will be as true at the Last Judgement as it is in any difficulty in life.

Whenever we see the presence of God's light as the Risen Christ in our own heart or in the heart of our neighbours, we can say with Simeon, "Now let me, your servant, go in peace. This is what you promised, God. My eyes have seen your salvation" . . .

The Season of Advent is here again. We wait for the coming of God's light to the world. We prepare for the birth of new hope in the form of a helpless infant. And with God's help, we turn away from fear.

This Advent, the signs of the times might look more like the frightening ones of Christ's Second Coming than the gentle ones that heralded his birth in Bethlehem. But even when life's problems make us feel helpless, we live with the sure hope of God's salvation. It is a hope visible in the face of any infant and in the light of Christ living in each heart. And so this Advent we say again in hope . . .

Come, Lord Jesus, come.


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Judging Matthew

Text: Matthew 25:31-46: the Last Judgement

This spring, a controversy broke out among conservative Christians in the United States. It is a controversy about the nature and even the existence of hell.

In March, one of the America's most popular evangelical preachers, Rob Bell, published a bestseller called "Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived." Bell is the founder and pastor of a mega church of 10,000 people in Michigan, and a popular speaker. So when he suggested in his book that all of us might be saved and that Jesus might not condemn anyone to hell, it upset other evangelical leaders. The controversy even landed Bell's book on the cover of Time magazine.

Good for Rob Bell, I say. His stand is similar to that of many of us in the United Church. But it is a stand that is opposed by the majority of Christian preachers, I believe. Hellfire and damnation are the bread and butter of sermons every Sunday from Saskatchewan to the ends of the earth.

And perhaps Bell is wrong. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus says that he will throw those of us he judges as sinners at the Last Judgement into a lake of fire for eternal punishment. Is that the truth?

Well, for me, the short answer is, "no." But for a longer answer, this sermon includes comments on today's reading as well as on such topics as judgement, hell, hope, salvation, the church year, and the Bible.

Now, it is quite possible to preach on today's reading from Matthew and not mention hell at all. There are many other exciting ideas found in the reading: that salvation comes from compassionate action in the world and not from belief; that Christ is found more clearly in the people we meet and serve than in the Bible; and that the church's mission should be focused on social justice.

And the next time we encounter this passage, I would be pleased to examine those ideas. But since today marks our farewell to Matthew for a few years; since we have heard a lot during the last few Sundays from Matthew about the wailing and gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness, and since hell and damnation are central concerns for many churches outside the United Church, I have decided to focus on the Last Judgement today and the murky light it might throw on the Gospel of Matthew.

Today is Reign of Christ or Christ the King Sunday, and it marks the end of the Church Year. Next week, we start a new church year. We leave behind Year A of the weekly Lectionary reading list. And we begin Year B of the Lectionary. I feel some relief from this latter fact because Year A has focused on the Gospel of Matthew -- and I sometimes struggle with Matthew -- while Year B focuses on the Gospel of Mark.

I struggle with Matthew because it is the only Gospel in which Jesus talks about the Last Judgement. It is the only one in which Jesus talks about lakes of fire in which there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. And it is the only one that includes today's parable of the sheep and goats separated by the Son of Man seated on a heavenly throne.

Now, it is true that the Gospel of Mark mentions hell once (Mark 9). But in that passage, Jesus does not say that he will throw us into hell. The Gospel of Luke also mentions hell once, in the parable of the rich man and a beggar (Luke 16). But neither does Jesus say there that it was he who sent the rich man in the parable to hell.

Our reading from Matthew today is different. In it, Jesus says that he will throw those of us whom he judges to be goats into eternal punishment in hell. That seems pretty clear, does it not? As the bumper sticker says: "The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it."

Except, not for me. Liberal Christians sometimes say that we treat the Bible seriously but not literally. To understand that position better, I now turn to some of the things we know about the Gospels.

No one knows who wrote Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The authors do not identify themselves; the names we use for these four books are purely traditional. All four were written long after Jesus' death and resurrection. Scholars believe that Mark was the first one to be written, in the year 70, about 40 years after Jesus' death.

Matthew and Luke were written about 10 or 20 years after Mark, and both of them had Mark in front of them as they wrote. They often copy Mark word for word although both also contain a lot of additional material. Some of the additional material is found in both Matthew and Luke. An example of the latter is the list of Beatitudes. It is in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and in the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. Some of the additional material is found in just one of them. Today's parable of the sheep and goats, for example, is found only in Matthew. And the parable of the rich man and the beggar is found only in Luke.

The last Gospel to written was John, at least 60 years after Jesus' death. And although John betrays some knowledge of Mark, the details of his story of Jesus are quite different from the first three gospels. Hell is never mentioned in John.

I do not have issues with Matthew when he copies Mark word for word. But when Matthew changes Mark, I find that he almost always detracts from the original. Take the death of Jesus. Matthew carefully follows Mark up to the point where Jesus breathes his last. But then, Matthew adds the following: "the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. Coming out of the tombs, they went into the holy city and appeared to many." (Matt 27:51-52) Really? Zombies were seen on the streets of Jerusalem after Jesus' death, but only Matthew saw fit to mention this event? In my opinion, this addition makes Matthew's account look ridiculous.

Matthew portrays Jesus as being much more judgemental than the other three Gospels. Only in Matthew does Jesus say that "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (5:20) Only in Matthew does Jesus say that we should " practice and observe whatever the Pharisees tell you" (23:3). Only in Matthew does Jesus say "think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them."(5:17).

And since Matthew is in the Bible, most Christians believe that it tells the truth about what Jesus said. Perhaps. But consider that Matthew was written 50 or 60 years after Jesus' death. Then imagine remembering what someone said 50 years ago, and in a society with no recording devices and mass illiteracy.

The gospel writers were not reporters. None of them ever met Jesus. They wrote down stories of Jesus not as history, but to describe what God's Kingdom is like. And they shaped the stories to fit the needs of their different audiences.

According to Matthew, Jesus says that he will separate good people from bad on the Day of Judgement and throw the bad people -- the so-called goats -- into a lake a fire to burn in eternal punishment. But I don't believe this for a second. Jesus did not say it. It is not true. And further, if I could be convinced that it were true, I would no longer follow Jesus.

A God who magically perpetuated a person's consciousness for all eternity only to torture that person with fire would be a demon, in my opinion. And if the universe were run by a demon, then I could see no hope for any of us, regardless of whether we fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, believed in the Bible, or attended church every Sunday.

On the other hand, I do not believe that Matthew always accurately recorded the details of life of Jesus. There are many reasons for this opinion, not least of which are the contradictions between the books of the Bible.

Take, for instance, the Christmas stories in the Gospels. Two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke, contain stories about the birth of Jesus. The problem is this: Matthew's account does not match the one in Luke. Matthew says that Jesus was born in his parents' bed in their house in their hometown, Bethlehem. Luke says that Jesus was born in a manger in a stable far from the hometown of Mary and Joseph, which he said was Nazareth.

Matthew says that Jesus grew up in Egypt, where he and his parents fled immediately after his birth to avoid the campaign of King Herod to murder all the babies born in and around Bethlehem. Luke says that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, where his parents leisurely returned after his birth.

The two birth accounts contradict each other. Logic dictates that if one is literally true, the other must be false. More reasonable, I believe, is to assume that these Christmas stories are not history. Instead, they express in their own different ways the power and beauty of God appearing human form.

We have equally good reasons not to believe in the literal truth of stories that say zombies came out of the graves of Jerusalem on Good Friday or that Jesus said he would condemn some of us to eternal torment in hell. True, these stories are in Matthew. But to believe them just because of that fact runs the risk of idolatry.

The bumper sticker slogan, "The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it," is idolatrous, in my opinion. God does not call us to worship the Bible. God calls us worship the God who is Love.

The Gospels contain contradictions not just between supposed historical facts, but also in their image of God. Is God loving, merciful, and kind? Is God judgemental and cruel? Or both perhaps?

Personally, I am called by the God of Love who reveals himself in Jesus of Nazareth, the Prince of Peace. In spite of the contradictions in the Gospels, much of what we know about Jesus comes from them. But we also know of God in Christ through the divine light that shines within each of us. We meet Christ not just by reading the Bible, but more directly by welcoming and loving our neighbours, as today's reading from Matthew also suggests.

Matthew's story that Jesus will throw people into hell contradicts what we know about the God of Love revealed in the Risen Christ in each of us. This is not to say that there is no judgement in life or in the Bible. We will return to that topic next Sunday since the reading from Mark next week begins the new church year on the same apocalyptic note note we heard in today's reading from Matthew.

Matthew's Jesus might make us afraid of hell. But such fear is not why we try to love each other. We try to live lives of love because love -- buried though it might under the rubble of our earthly kingdoms of greed, competition and war -- is our deepest calling.

Today we celebrate Christ the King. He is not a King who lords it over the poor and humble or punishes and tortures those he judges as sinful. He is a democratic King who lives in the heart of all the poor and humble and whom we encounter every day in each other. And as Rob Bell suggests, he is a king who judges us in order to save.

On Good Friday, we say "The King is dead." And on Easter Sunday, as on any day, we say "Long live the King." He does not live on a distant throne, nor does he threaten us with hellfire and damnation. Our King is the Christ who lives in our hearts and who calls to us with love and hope.

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, November 13, 2011

Risk, reward and safety

Texts: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 (like a thief in the night), Matthew 25:14-30 (Parable of the Talents)

Life is filled with contradictions, I believe. Today's Scripture readings deal with a contradiction between risk and safety. The readings suggest that when we play it safe in life, we risk losing everything. But when we journey to Jerusalem with Jesus, God gives us abundant life and a deeper kind of safety despite all the terrible risks of that journey.

St. Paul writes about people who say that "there is peace and security" but who are then overwhelmed by destruction on the Day of the Lord's coming. And Jesus' Parable of the Talents heaps scorn and judgement upon the servant who treats his allotted wealth with extreme caution. This contrasts with the two risk-taking servants whom the Master highly praises and rewards.

Unfortunately, like so many of Jesus' parables, the meaning of this one is not clear to me. Does the parable really suggest that the cautious servant should have invested his one talent -- about 15 years' wage! -- in a bank to at least earn interest? That would surprise me since I understand that many people during the time of Jesus considered bank interest to be a sin. 

Does the Parable really mean that bartering and trading in order to maximize return on investment is what the kingdom of God is like? Or finally, does it really mean that those who have the most will be given the little owned by the poorest? 

One of the commentaries on this passage that I read this week -- from the curriculum resources we use for the Monday afternoon church school here in Coronach -- argues that the traditional interpretation of the parable is questionable. That traditional interpretation says that the Master represents God and that the risk-taking servants represent faithful Christians

Instead, that commentary suggests that the fearful servant is the hero of the story. He stands up to a boss who wants to increase his wealth by making investments that charge high interest rates. The servant keeps the money from being used for such corrupt purposes by burying it. Perhaps, then, it is the third servant who embraces God’s reign of justice and equity?

By the way, I am learning a lot by working with Donna Dyck and Carmel Clysedale on Monday Church School. Not only does working with school-age kids give me a new and challenging experience, it also helps me with preparation for Sunday worship services. 

But back to the parable . . . Well, who knows what the best interpretation of Jesus' story would be? But since the idea that risk leads to abundant life resonates with the rest of the Gospel for me, I am going with that approach.

To illustrate the risky life of Christian discipleship, I now turn to the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose name was raised in another commentary. He was a Christian who risked everything for the love of God and neighbour. And I think that his story resonates with Remembrance Day, which we marked last week.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran minister, religious leader and influential theologian who lived from 1906 until 1945. In April 1945 at the age of 39, he was executed by the Nazi Government for his part in a series of military conspiracies to assassinate Adolf Hitler, the German dictator. 

When the Nazi Party first came to power in Germany in 1933, Bonhoeffer joined with other Christian ministers to oppose Hitler's attempts to incorporate the Church into the  state. Bonhoeffer became a leader of the Confessing Church movement that spoke out against the Nazis and against those in the German church leadership who collaborated with Hitler's government. 

Bonhoeffer was particularly outraged at Hitler's antisemitism. In sermons, lectures, and international church gatherings, Bonhoeffer and other German Christians tried to resist the Nazi drive towards racism, war and genocide. 

As war approached in 1939, Bonhoeffer chose not to stay in London or New York, where he had taught in the 1930s. Instead, he returned to Germany to fight against his own government. He joined with his brother-in-law, who had a high position in the Germany military, to become a double agent spy in military intelligence. This subversive group made several unsuccessful attempts to assassinate Hitler before they were arrested in 1943 and 1944. 

Bonhoeffer's role included passing intelligence to the Allies through church contacts in neutral Switzerland and Sweden and providing moral support to the conspirators, who were traitors to their own government. 

The roles of double-agent, traitor, and accomplice to assassination are unusual ones for a Christian minister. And they led to Bonhoeffer's arrest in 1943 and his execution in 1945, just four weeks before Germany's surrender. But Bonhoeffer's stand against the Nazis and the brilliance of his prison writings accomplished many things. They helped to save the honour of at least a part of the German church. They left a theological legacy that is one of the most influential of the last century. And they became part of Bonhoeffer's own salvation, despite his early death.

If Bonhoeffer and other leaders of the Confessing Church had not resisted the Nazi government, they might have survived the war. But not speaking up for love of neighbour, for justice, and for peace would have violated their values as Christians and as human beings. People like Bonhoeffer decided that it was better to be hounded by the authorities, to be arrested, and even to be executed than to keep silent.

I can understand why many German church leaders did not join with Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church to stand against the Nazi regime. To resist the power of the state with its guns, prisons and torture chambers takes great courage. And in the drive to war, national pride often overwhelms all other values, including faith, hope and love. Unfortunately, this can be as true for church leaders as for any of us.

Bonhoeffer's legacy stands out because he was in a minority. At that time, all Christian leaders in Germany faced a terrible choice: standing for the Gospel of life and love or acquiescing to the power of the Nazi state. And who can blame those who chose safety? But this was safety that was bought at a great cost to their morals, the reputation of the church, and the integrity of the Gospel.

Bonhoeffer lost his freedom and eventually his life. But life is short for all of us. In order to live most fully, Jesus calls us to live by the sacred values of love of God and neighbour. Bonhoeffer accepted this call, despite its risk and its terrible cost. And so he lived a full life, one that was awake to the embrace of God's love in any wonder- or pain-filled moment. He lived a life of salvation, which was founded in risky and humble service and in truth-telling. 

Bonhoeffer's story is an heroic and tragic one. But does it have anything to say to us? Fortunately for most of us, life does not present such terrible choices as those faced by Christians in Europe in the 1930s and 40s. Nevertheless, life always carries risk because the more we love, the more we have to lose. 

When we invite a new friend into our life, we face risk. When we fall in love and marry, we face great risks. And when we raise children, we face what for many of us is probably the greatest risk in our life. Our children are precious. But like us, they are fragile and prone to all the pain and sin of life. No matter how blessed we are, none of us escape pain and mistakes. 

Still, we only have one life to live. And so again and again, we risk loving one another and trying to live out our values of faith, hope and love. 

Bonhoeffer's story, like that of Jesus, underlines the truth that life is fleeting and therefore precious. God's grace is always available to us in life's brief journey. And this grace helps us to stay awake to God's values despite temptations such as nationalism, racism, greed, or war. 

None of us meet God perfectly in every moment. We cannot always resist our addictions or the siren call of worldly values that at their worst result in regime's like of Hitler's Nazi state. 

But despite our failures, God continually calls to us. It is a call to take up our cross and follow Jesus on the risky but life-giving path to Jerusalem. It is gracious path on which we lose our lives again and again only to rise to a new life in God through Christ.

Thanks be to God.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Sacrifice, war, peace, and love

Remarks made at a Community Remembrance Service in Rockglen SK, November 10, 2011. Text: selections from Romans chapters 12-14

Remembrance Day is sacred. It has that status because we gather each year to remember the sacrifices made by young people in war. And sacrifice -- the act of giving up something of value, even one's life, for a greater good -- is what makes something sacred.

Life is our most precious possession. So the deaths of young people in war make Remembrance Day sometimes feel almost unbearably sacred. This is especially the case for veterans, for families who have lost loved ones in war, and for those currently serving in the military.

War is a tough reality in our society. We all hate war and the destruction and death that result from it. We all wish that war might never occur again. And yet war has been a regular part of human history for as far back as we can see.

In the selections we just heard from St. Paul, he writes about sacrifice, love, and peace. He urges us "to offer our bodies as living sacrifices." Now, this does not mean, I believe, that we should all lay down our lives for our friends. Instead, I think that Paul is urging us to remember what is truly sacred about every one of us.

It is not the individual details -- all those things that make us unique and memorable -- that mark each of us as sacred. Instead, our sacred status flows from the truth that deep within us burns a spark of Divine light.

Each of us -- no matter how imperfect or broken we may be -- is created in the image of God. Because we know this to be true, we value everyone as sacred. And that is one reason why we mourn so deeply and honour so passionately all the thousands of young people who sacrificed their lives in the wars of yesterday and today.

St Paul also promotes the famous commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves. And he urges us to work for peace in a violent world.

Collectively, we have not yet learned how to prevent war. But trying to love our neighbours is a great place to start, I think.

When we look at our neighbours -- even our so-called enemies -- and manage to act for them in love, we remind ourselves that everyone is sacred.

War, with its terrible passions, can blind us to this awareness. But by taking time on days like today to honour the dead and by working for peace and justice every day, we remind ourselves of the presence of the Divine light within all of us.

Grace is available with each breath and in any moment. The Divine inner light that shines in our hearts and in the hearts of all of our neighbours helps us to remember and honour the sacrifices of the past and to work for peace among nations today.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Remembering forward

Texts: 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 (God will raise the dead); Matthew 25:1-13 (parable of the 10 bridesmaids)

Ministry is a great privilege, I believe. But it also carries big responsibilities, which sometimes can feel like a burden to me. And today, Remembrance Sunday, is one of those times when I feel this burden.

I felt the responsibility and the burden in a particularly sharp way three years ago today in 2008. I was in the second year of four years of training to become an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada. And one of my courses that year involved a one-day-per-week field placement in a United Church congregation in east Toronto.

On Remembrance Sunday that year, I read Scripture in that church, and the readings were the same ones we just heard today. This is not a coincidence since most of our churches now follow a repeating three-year reading list. And as I read from First Thessalonians that morning -- the reading with Paul's assurance that we will be reunited with our dead loved ones on the Day of Christ's Second Coming -- I looked up and noticed a woman listening to me. It was a mother who had lost her 14-year old daughter on New Year's Day earlier that year, 2008, in a brutal and senseless murder. And as I saw her, the words of First Thessalonians swam before my eyes, my knees became unsteady, and I felt exposed and foolish.

Who was I, I thought, to read these strange, controversial, and lovely words to a woman who had suffered so much? What did I know about the pain of the death of loved ones compared to a woman whose beautiful daughter had been taken from her, her husband, and their three other children so senselessly and violently?

Patricia Hung came to church virtually every Sunday during the time I was at Presteign-Woodbine United Church in 2008-09. She and her two sisters were pillars in that small and friendly neighbourhood church. And the siblings and cousins of her murdered daughter, Stefanie Rengel, were central to its Sunday School.

I never said more than a few words to Patricia during the eight months of my field placement. When I had asked her older sister about visiting Patricia, she had told me that Patricia was not ready for pastoral visits yet. But her gracious presence in worship each week made a big impact on me; and never more than when I noticed Patricia listening to me as I read from First Thessalonians about the Second Coming of Jesus three years ago today.

I learned more about Patricia Hung in media interviews that next spring during the trials of the 17-year old former boyfriend who had murdered her daughter and the 15-year old jealous girlfriend of the murderer who had goaded him to stab Stefanie to death on New Year's Day. And everything that I learned from those interviews confirmed what I had sensed from Patricia's presence in Sunday worship, that she was one of the most appealing and impressive people I have ever met. What a privilege it seemed to me to read Holy Scripture to her and to later preach and serve communion to her. But what a burden it sometimes felt to me as well.

When I said farewell to Presteign-Woodbine United at the end of my field placement in April 2009, nothing meant more to me than a simple hug Patricia offered me. I felt as though I had been embraced by a living saint . . .

We live in a world of too much violence, and a world where history seems to lurch forward most dramatically in times of war and revolution. And each November 11th, we remember this violence and war. We remember young lives that have been snuffed out too soon. We remember the sacrifices made by combatants in wars on all sides. And we pray and work for different ways of resolving disputes than violence and war.

And so now I stand here as your minister with the privilege and the burden to try to say something challenging and comforting in the light of our tradition and our faith on this difficult week of remembrance.

For many of us, Remembrance Day is the most sacred day in the year. In a world of pain, there are few subjects more painful than war and the violent deaths that result from it. Soldiers who have killed others in war and families who have lost loved ones in war want nothing more than to know that their sacrifice and loss have not been vain. And a key role for the church over the centuries has been to provide solace and hope in the face of the losses of the war, and sometimes to provide justifications for those wars. But surely not all wars are justified, and certainly not on all sides. And therein lies part of the difficulty for the church on Remembrance Day.

In Canada, the remembrance of war is probably easier than in some countries because so far, we have always been on the winning side of our wars. But what about a country like Japan, which was our ally in victory in World War I, but which was our enemy in World War II? Do Japanese people extol the sacrifices made by their victorious soldiers from WWI but say nothing about their defeated soldiers from World War II? And just imagine the difference in feelings between France and Germany on November 11th!

Beginning next year, our federal government has big plans to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. It was a war between Great Britain and the United States that lasted from June 1812 until early 1815, and it was largely fought in what is now southern Ontario and Quebec as well as parts of the United States. But from what I know of this war, it strikes me like many others – a war with good and bad points on both sides, and a war that was mostly a pointless exercise in death and destruction. So I feel skeptical about attempts to commemorate the supposed glories of this war over the next three years.

World War II, given the unique horrors of the Nazi regime in Germany, can more easily be cast as a just war for our side. But we might also remember that one of Canada's key allies in that war was the Soviet Union, which has its own rather horrible record of the mass murder of its own citizens and the oppression of the countries of Eastern Europe, which it dominated for 45 years after the war.

As for Canada's 10 year engagement in Afghanistan, today we give thanks that Canada's combat role finally came to an end this past summer -- although the tragic death of Canadian Cpl. Byron Greff two weeks ago in a roadside attack shows that the dangers to our troops still stationed there have hardly passed.

Remembrance Day itself was first created in 1919 by King George V, the British Emperor, to commemorate the First World War. So I will focus the rest of my remarks on the history of that war. The question I will try to answer is this: why did the war end on November 11, 1918 and not some other day?

Well, the simple answer is that after four years of slaughter and stalemate, the Allies -- Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, and Japan -- had finally defeated the Central Powers -- Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey. The war had been a stalemate until the United States, encouraged by the overthrow of the hated Russian Czar, Nicholas II, in March 1917, entered the war on the side of the Allies the next month.

The United States had been reluctant to join the Allies when that coalition included Czarist Russia, which murdered and tortured its own citizens and oppressed many smaller nations. So when ordinary soldiers and citizens overthrew the Czar in the first phase of the Russian Revolution and replaced him with a liberal government, it opened the way for the U.S. to enter what they called a "War for Democracy" with a clean conscience.

By the summer of 1918, 10,000 American soldiers a day were landing in Europe, and the tide had turned. In September and October of 1918, the Bulgarians, the Turks and finally the Hungarians surrendered to the Allies. And throughout October, the German High Command telegraphed U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson, seeking honourable terms for an armistice.

But Wilson was a democratic idealist. Unlike the empires fighting in the war, Wilson published the aims of the U.S. upon its entry into the war: freedom for colonies, the creation of a League of Nations, demilitarization, and the establishment of democracy. And Wilson insisted that the Kaiser -- who was both the King of Prussia, the Emperor of Germany, and bizarrely the beloved first cousin of King George V -- abdicate as a condition for peace.

However, the abdication of the Kaiser was not acceptable to the German military. So on October 30, 1918, they ordered their navy to launch another submarine and battleship attack against the Allies in the Baltic Sea. But this time, the elite sailors of the German fleet said, "No! We refuse to kill any more British, or French, or Canadian or American sailors. We won't go."

After the mobilization of 70 million men on all sides; after the deaths of 10 million of these men; and after the deaths of five million civilians, the German sailors said "no more!"

Their rebellion on October 30 quickly spread throughout Germany. By the first week of November, Berlin and other cities were in revolution. The military told the Kaiser that he had to abdicate to save his life, which he did on November 9th. The conservative government that had prosecuted the war resigned in the face of the revolution, and the German Socialist Party took power. And it was the socialists who then signed the Armistice with the Allies in France on November 11th, 1918.

Now, without the rebellion of the sailors and subsequent revolution that swept the German Kaiser and his government from power, World War I would still have ended. But without it, the war might have limped on until December or January and many more 10s of thousands would have died. It would also have meant that the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11 month of each year would not have had the sacred significance it has held for us these past 93 years.

After years of obedience to empire, the German sailors said, "Enough! We refuse your commands to kill. More than that, we are willing to die to stop the war." They had realized that their English, French, Canadian, Russian, Japanese and American foes were not their enemies. Instead they were their neighbours, and as neighbours, they deserved their love. The true enemy of the German sailors was their emperor, who along with his government and his church, had led them into the nightmare of war. In essence, these German rebels received their own salvation in that moment of rebellion and led the world a huge step toward peace and reconciliation as well . . .

Still what does the German rebellion have to do with the murder of Stefanie Rengel in 2008 or with our Scripture readings on the Second Coming of Christ? Well, the connections I perceive are that all three involve violence, death and sacrifice. And all three involve rising to new life in the face of the tragedy of death.

Jesus of Nazareth showed by his life, death and resurrection that he was the Christ, which is a Greek word for King. So in a war like the First World War where most of the combatants were led by an Emperor titled King, Czar, or Kaiser, the rebellion of the German sailors can be seen as a rejection of empire as an idol and a recognition that their true Kaiser was the Christ who lives in their hearts and in the hearts of their so-called enemies. Of course, the move of the German rebels from obedience to an earthly emperor to obedience to a divine inner spark might not have been a conscious one, but I think it was real nevertheless. Their rebellion, which brought the horrors of World War I to a quick end, strikes me as a moment of resurrection . . .

Our readings from First Thessalonians and Matthew today are about unexpected delays in the Second Coming of Jesus. And even as we still wait for the Day of the Lord's coming today, we also know that Christ returns to live within us innumerable times.

In the church, baptism symbolizes the death of the ego of a child and the rebirth of Christ in the child's heart. As St. Paul says in Galatians, "I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me." When the German sailors rebelled in October and November 1918, it showed that for them sovereignty no longer lay with the Kaiser in Berlin, who had sent them to kill and be killed, but with the Risen Christ living in their hearts. Likewise, when ordinary Russian soldiers, workers and peasants overthrew the Czar in March of 1917, it showed that for them sovereignty no longer lay with the Czar in St. Petersburg, who had sent them to kill and be killed, but with the Risen Christ living in their hearts.

When Stefanie Rengel was baptized 18 years ago, it symbolized her family's wish that she not follow a Caesar, a Czar, a Kaiser or a King. Instead, it symbolized their hope that she would follow an inner Christ. And I am sure that Stefanie became aware of this inner Christ many times in her short life . . .

Perhaps salvation will look like the glorious images we heard from First Thessalonians today, images of meeting Christ in the air with our dead loved ones. But salvation can also be found in any moment, I believe. I am sure that Stefanie Rengel was with Christ as she lay dying on a snow-covered street in Toronto nearly four years ago. And I am sure that the German sailors who brought the horror of World War I to an end in 1918 felt God in Christ within and between them whether they died in their revolution or survived it.

So this November 11th as we honour and remember the fallen soldiers of too many wars, we can also remember where our deepest allegiance lies, with the Christ living and dying within us and rising to new life with us beyond this world of violence, wars, and false gods.

On Friday, I will also remember Stefanie Rengel, her mother Patricia Hung, her father Adolfo Rengel, her stepfather James Hung, and her three younger brothers, Ian Rengel and Patrick and Eric Hung. I will remember the love they all shared, the pain of their early separation, and their hope for new life together in God. I will also remember the ordinary Germans rebels who secured for the world an early end to war on the 11th day of the 11th month of the year 1918. And finally, I will try to remember forward to an era where all the world's emperors have been overthrown and replaced by the Christ within. It is this inner divine spark that can unite humans from every nation with the God of peace and justice.

For followers of Christ, this world's emperors -- whether given the title of Caesar, Czar, Kaiser or King -- are nothing beside the sovereign God who has humbly come to us in Jesus and whom we worship as a divine spark within us. And we know that no empire, no war, and no death -- no matter how violent -- can ever separate us from the love of God, which flames within us now and always.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Lord, how I want to be in that number . . .

Texts: Revelation 7:9-17 (blessing, glory, wisdom . . .) and 1 John 3:1-3 (children of God)

Halloween, the evening before All Hallows or All Saints Day, is a time for thrills and chills. And this Halloween, researchers at the United Nations have given us an additional reason to be scared. They estimate that sometime tomorrow the world's population will pass the seven billion mark for the first time.

Perhaps the UN deliberately chose the date October 31st to scare us. After all, their science is not an exact one and the United States Census Bureau estimates that the seven billion mark will not be passed for a few more months. But regardless, the milestone is coming. The world's population continues to increase in dramatic fashion.

A focus on population fits well, I think, with the celebration of All Saints Day on Tuesday and All Souls Day on Wednesday. For more than 1,000 years, November 1st has been set aside by Christians as a time to remember the heroes of our tradition. And November 2nd is a day where we are urged to remember and honour all of our ancestors whether we think they were saintly or not.

This year, there are clearly more of us alive than ever before to celebrate our ancestors. But have you ever wondered how many ancestors we have? Just how many human beings have ever lived and walked on the face of the earth? Well, I did a search this week on the topic, and found an informed guess in an article from the journal Population Today. The article speculated that there may have been as many as 100 billion humans born over the last 50,000 years . . . though perhaps only 50 billion of those people survived beyond infancy.

The Population Today article was written to counter an urban legend from the 1970s. That legend suggested that 70% of all the people who had ever lived were alive at that time. Not so, says this article. If the figure of 100 billion is close to being accurate, the percentage is more like seven than seventy. Still the legend had a ring of plausibility to it because of the huge growth in human population in the modern era.

When I was born, the number of people alive was less than 1/2 of what it is today. And when my parents were born, there were fewer than 1/3 as many people alive then as  now. The population increases of the past few generations -- despite the many deaths caused by wars, starvation, and epidemics -- have been startling.

Here are some milestones. There were only a few million people widely scattered across the earth 8,000 years ago when agriculture first began to replace hunting and gathering. By the time of Jesus, that number might have risen to 200 million. The half billion mark was reached by 1650; the one billion mark by 1800; two billion by 1930, three by 1960, four by 1975, five by 1985, six by 2000, and seven billion now. If current trends continue, the earth might see 10 billion people by 2050.

So when the saints finally do go marching in on the Day of Judgement, it could be a very long line!

On the other hand, we live in Saskatchewan, which has struggled with population declines for much of its 100+ year history.  Saskatchewan's population boomed in the first three decades of the 20th Century and had nearly reached the one million mark by 1930. But with the dirty 30s, the population shrank. By the 1960s, the one million mark was nearly reached again. Then after some dips in the 1970s, it was finally passed in the mid 80s. But our population declined again in the 90s and has only now passed the one million mark for the second time during the last few years of economic boom.

And then there is the movement of people from the countryside to the cities, which is as much a part of Saskatchewan's reality as any place else. So even as Saskatoon, Regina and other cities grow, towns like Big Beaver or Killdeer teeter on the brink of the ghost town status that has overtaken so many other places across rural Saskatchewan. Still, regardless of our size, the church urges Christians across the world to celebrate our saints and ancestors this week.

The texts we focus on today for All Saints Day are from First John and  Revelation. Both talk about our future hope in God. But while the reading from First John is vague about the details, Revelation contains nothing but vivid detail.

The Church used to think that the Gospel of John, the three letters of John, and the book of Revelation were all written by the same person. But today, scholars no longer believe this. And the big differences between these texts help to make their argument.

I love much of the imagery of Revelation. And when I hear our reading today, it brings to my mind the glorious final chorus from Handel's masterpiece, the Messiah. This chorus, "Worthy is the Lamb," uses the words we just heard from Revelation in a repeated line that sounds like this: "Blessing and honour glory and power be unto him, be unto him, that sitteth upon the throne and unto the Lamb." And later, "Blessing, Honour, Glory, and Power be unto him." This long chorus concludes with a five minute fugue where the the choir repeatedly sings just one word, "Amen." Most people know the Hallelujah chorus from the Messiah and some of the Christmas parts. But my favourites are the choruses based upon Revelation.

And it is a glorious vision, don't you agree? However, my attitude to Revelation changes when I look at the verses that immediately precede and follow today's reading. The first eight verses of chapter 7 describe a mark placed on the forehead of 144,000 people, 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel, to protect them from God's wrath. Despite its strangeness, I am OK with this passage -- except when some Christians use it to argue that out of the 100+ billion people who have ever been born, there may be just 144,000 of us who are to be saved from eternal damnation.

And then in the next two chapters of Revelation, Jesus opens the final seal of the Day of Judgement and all hell literally breaks loose on earth. Vast numbers of people are killed in a succession of attacks and calamities, and those not slaughtered are tormented. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 9: "From the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions. They were told not to harm grass or any green plant or tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. The locusts were allowed to torment these people for five months, but not to kill them. And their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone. And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die but death will flee from them." Hmm. Is this the Word of the Lord?

So while Revelation contains glorious images of a New Jerusalem flowing with living water and lit by God's glorious light, it also contains horrible images of mega-death, torture and eternal torment.

Revelation is the work of a passionate, pain-filled and angry man. He is John of Patmos and he has been imprisoned on that island because of his Christian beliefs. John has an understandable hatred of the Roman Empire. And so he writes an Apocalypse about end times and about heaven and hell. And with some controversy, early church fathers included his book as the final one in the New Testament.

But if I, like him, believed that upon Jesus' return, God would mercilessly torture people who did not have a mark on their foreheads, I would be unable to worship. So even as I treasure certain passages from Revelation, I discount other images from it of death and torture. But is this a legitimate move for a Christian minister?

Well, I am glad that the Lectionary readings for All Saints Day include not only a reading from Revelation but also a reading from First John. First John also talks about life at the end of the age. He says, "we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is." And that is it. Now we are God's children. What we will be has not been revealed – despite the sometimes wonderful and sometimes lurid details of Revelation.

Perhaps the author of First John did not own a copy of Revelation, otherwise he would not have claimed that the future has not yet been revealed. Who knows? But I am glad that First John is in our Bible, just as I glad that Revelation is there too. Like much else in the Bible, the two help bring balance to each other.

First John says that we are children of God, which we symbolize in the church by baptism. We don't know, he writes, about the future except that it will be in God. His words echo those of St. Paul who wrote "We know only in part . . . but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end . . . now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known." (1 Corinthians 13)

In distinction to Paul, the author of Revelation claims to have seen the future clearly. But I don't believe him. I believe that he sees the future dimly, like St. Paul, like the author of First John and like the rest of us. He sees it as through a mirror.  And while I trust in our tradition and in God, I don't trust in either the gory or the glorious images that John of Patmos so vividly paints.

Which leads me to two questions: what has become of our departed ancestors, and what does the future hold for us? Will we be in that glorious number when the saints go marching in? And will we be joined by the billions of other people, Christian and non-Christian alike, that have come before us?

The passage from Revelation that we heard today presents an image of a wide, perhaps universal salvation. Multitudes from every nation, tribe, and language gather around God's throne. Would this multitude only include Christians? I for one would argue not.

Of the 100 billion or so people that have yet been born, only a small fraction have ever heard the name Jesus let alone embraced Him as their personal Saviour. For this reason alone, I imagine that non-Christian people would be part of any uncountable multitude such as the one John imagines in front of the throne of God.

Those of us gathered here embrace Christianity as our spiritual tradition and as a path to salvation, and for that I give endless thanks. But the big majority of our ancestors who never heard the name Jesus also sought God's healing. And I trust that they found it, just as non-Christians today aso find it.

On weeks like this when we stop to remember, thank and honour our ancestors, I imagine that their souls flicker briefly again in us. We also trust that their spirits have gone where we all originated; to the One Spirit that animates and sustains the universe.

The assurance that I find in our Scripture and tradition does not take a detailed form like that found in Revelation. Instead, like St Paul and First John, I perceive dimly as through a mirror that our baptismal life in Christ is a movement away from individuality and towards union with all the spirits who are now striving or who have striven for love.

I trust that our ancestors have found ultimate safety and fulfilment in the arms of God, as will we all. Further, when we want to taste now the eternity and the healing that is promised to us, we need only open ourselves again to the grace of our baptismal vows. They are vows of death to an old way of selfish life and promises of resurrection to a timeless and selfless life within the Spirit of Christ.

With Grace, we can taste this communion with Christ now and see our salvation as through a mirror darkly. Soon enough, we will see God face to face in the communion of all the saints and then know completely the glory that is to be found by dying to an old way of life and rising to new life in Christ.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Occupy Borderlands! Gods, emperors and taxes

Text: Matthew 22:15-22 (Render unto Caesar . . . )

People have been complaining about taxes for as long as government has existed. Many of us don't like paying them and we are often unhappy with the services that our taxes support. In Canada, we rely on government for healthcare, education, roads, regulations, and security even as we often complain about their cost and quality.

Imagine, then the negative feelings people must have towards taxes when their government is a foreign empire that uses its taxes to oppress and exploit them. The latter describes the situation faced by Jews during the time of Jesus. While the Romans did provide the people of Palestine with roads and peace, they prevented the Jews from having their own state. And the Romans used the taxes paid by their conquered subjects to support the lavish lifestyles of the ruling elite in Rome and the armies that conquered other humble people throughout Europe and Asia.

This is the background to the conflict between the Pharisees and Jesus found in our Gospel reading today. The Pharisees ask "is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?" Jesus immediately realizes that their question is a trap. If he answers "yes," he risks angering his peasant followers who hate Rome and its tax collectors. And if he answers "no," he risks exposing himself as a dangerous subversive.

Instead, Jesus uses a Roman coin to come up with a reply. He notes that the coin has a image of the Roman Emperor on it, and then says that we should "give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." Or in the more familiar words of the King James translation, Jesus says, "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's"

This reply silences Jesus' enemies. But what does his phrase really mean? It is not immediately clear to me if it means that his followers should pay taxes to the hated Roman Empire or not. And if money is among the things that belong to Caesar, then what exactly are the things that belong to God?

Thinking about this story brings to my mind current political struggles around taxes, government spending, and the economy. These have been hot topics since the financial crisis of 2008. We are told that it was only massive government bailouts of the banks in 2008 and 2009 that saved the world economy from a depression. But there has been a backlash since then against both the banks and the governments that propped them up with tax dollars.

In the United States, one early reaction was the formation of the Tea Party. This movement takes its name from a tax revolt in the British colony of Massachusetts just before the American Revolution. Many American colonists did not like paying British taxes on tea. Their slogan was "no taxation without representation." And their symbolic protest that dumped tea into the harbour in Boston helped to spark the Revolution that led to the establishment of the United States in the late 18th Century.

Today's Tea Party is angry about the massive rise in government debt in the United States following the bailouts of the banks. However, it is hardly a revolutionary movement. It opposes most government spending other than the military and therefore opposes most taxation.

A newer protest movement in response to the same issues is Occupy Wall Street, and it has been dominating news coverage this week. Tomorrow will mark one month since this movement began in New York City, and by now it has spread to hundreds of cities around the world, including here in Canada.

The Occupy Wall Street participants are protesting against economic inequality, corporate greed, and the cozy relationship they see between governments and the very rich. They claim to represent the 99% of us who have not benefited from government efforts to deal with the economic crises of the last three years. The 1% who do benefit, they say, are billionaires, many of whom are to blame for the financial frauds that led to the crisis in the first place.

Occupy Wall Street has received support for the same reasons as the Tea Party. Despite the massive amount of tax money funnelled into banks over the last three years of economic crisis, few positive effects seem to be flowing to ordinary people.

On both the left and the right of the political spectrum in the United States, people are angry that trillions of tax dollars have been spent propping up the banks and that this spending has not yet stopped people from losing their homes or their jobs.

A trillion dollars is a hard figure to understand. Many of us had never heard of the world trillion until three years ago when government bailouts began. In order to help us better understand the world trillion, I present a word picture involving seconds.

1,000 seconds equals 17 minutes. 1 million seconds equals 11 days. 1 billion seconds equals 32 years. And 1 trillion seconds equals 32,000 years! So if someone gave you a dollar every second for the next 32,000 years you, too, could have a trillion bucks!

And now Europe's banks are teetering on the brink of collapse, and another 1.5 trillion dollars of tax dollars is the suggested cure. Bitter people wonder why the government doesn't just directly pay off poor peoples' mortgages instead of giving the money to banks and their rich executives. Well, I am sure there must be good reasons to funnel tax money to those at the top instead of those of us at the bottom, but I can also understand people's resentment.

In 2009, when billions of tax dollars were invested in General Motors to prevent its bankruptcy, I chatted with a member of the Kingston Road United Church choir in Toronto who is a manager with GM in Oshawa. I suggested to him that instead of the bailout, the government should just buy every family in North America a new truck! That way, the average person would at least get something from the bailout. He thought it was a good idea. But I guess that is not how spending taxpayer's money works . . .

Jesus' phrase to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's" can be understood in different ways. The one that I find most useful is based on the following observation. Not only was Caesar the Emperor of Rome, he was also considered to be a god. The Romans had other gods such as the immortals who lived on Mount Olympus. But although he was a mortal human, the emperor was also said to be a god and the son of a god. Not only did his subjects owe the emperor tribute in the form of taxes. They also owed him devotion as the bringer of peace from heaven to earth.

I believe that this fact explains why Jesus' reply silenced the Pharisees. As devout Jews, the Pharisees argued that there was only one God, the God of Israel. But rendering unto Caesar what was Caesar's meant not just paying taxes, but also worship. And worship of any god other than Yahweh was a sin for devout Jews.

Jesus does not directly answer their question about taxes. But by drawing attention to the image of the Emperor on Roman coins, he highlights the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. They try to be both devout Jews and dutiful subjects of the hated Roman empire. But Jews and Romans understand Jesus' directive to give to God what is God's differently.  For the Jews, God is the God of Abraham, Jacob, and Moses. For the Romans, god is the emperor in Rome whose armies conquer and oppress poor people everywhere.

So which God are we to choose? The emperor or Jesus? A few days after today's Gospel story, the Empire executes Jesus. And God raises Jesus to new life. 40 years after that, the Romans burn God's Temple in Jerusalem to the ground. And out of the ashes of Jerusalem arises a new faith made up of the poor. From defeat, God continually shows us a path to a new life of love beyond earthly standards of success. God makes the choice between Jesus and Empire an easy one for us.

Where one's treasure lies is also where one's heart lies. If this is true, then it must be true that many people today worship wealth, luxury, and power, just as people in Ancient Rome worshipped the power and wealth of their emperor god.

Do the trillions of dollars in taxes spent in propping up the banks over the last three years indicate that banks are the new gods of our current empire? Should we then join the protest of the supposed 99% against government support of the rich 1%? Should we start an Occupy Coronach/Rockglen/Fife Lake movement perhaps?

Well, I am not suggesting the latter. But I do believe that the current anger about government money going to the banks instead of to poor people reflects a common theme in history as found in our Gospel reading today.

As followers of Jesus, many of us value solidarity in suffering more than success in business or war. Many of us value loving service to our neighbours more than a rat race in which the person with the most money and influence wins. Many of us value faith, hope and love more than fear, despair and violence.

As followers of Jesus, we try to render unto God what is God's. We uphold values centred on love. We worship a God who suffers with us and shows us the path to new life that rises above the false gods of either Rome of 2000 years ago or of Wall Street today. We gather each Sunday to remember that our strength lies in weakness, that humble service can create a life of hope and love, and that death leads to resurrection.

Those of us gathered here today and in churches all around the world do not belong to the 1% who have super-wealth and privilege. Instead, we are part of the 99% who continually receive the grace to remember that solidarity is more beautiful than victory, that service is more valuable than wealth, and that love is stronger than death.

Wall Street may sometimes seem to have occupied our governments. But God in Christ has occupied our hearts.

Thanks be to God, Amen.