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.