Monday, December 24, 2012

"Love came down at Christmas"

Text: Luke 2 1-20 (the birth of Jesus)

When I was a child, I was a member of a junior choir that sang a musical setting of "Love Came Down at Christmas," an 1885 poem by Christina Rossetti. It has always stuck with me. And here is how it goes . . .

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

It is a poignant and moving image, love in the form of a newborn. Tonight, we may have come to church to experience the mystery, beauty and wonder of it all again.

Love is our most sacred value and lies at the heart of the work and worship of church. The Christmas story reminds us of how beautiful love can be, but also how fragile and weak it can seem.

As followers of Christ, we try to live our lives in the light of God's Love. But our faith in love is not an unreasonable one. Even when fear disappears and we are grasped by God's Amazing Grace, we do not forget that our lives are broken.

Children sometimes suffer neglect from their parents. Parents are sometimes disappointed in their children. All of us are forced to live in a world with too much destruction, violence, and irrationality. These are the harsh conditions in which we pursue love and to try to live by its light.

Even Mary, the mother of Jesus, does not escape the pain of life. In the verses from Luke that immediately follow our Christmas readings tonight, the holy man Simeon says to Mary: "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

And of course, a sword does pierce Mary's soul when, 30 years later, she is one of the witnesses to Jesus' arrest and execution by the Romans. I am sure that many of us here can relate to her heartbreak at the loss of a loved one, even the loss of a child, which must be the deepest cut of all.

The stories of Jesus help orient our lives towards love and to live with faith. But today our faith does not come only from the church or the Bible. Today much of our faith is also humanist, secular, and scientific.

This past Friday, I watched a "special Holiday" show on ABC called "Back to the Beginning." In it, correspondent Christiane Amanpour looked at evidence for the historical reality behind various stories in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim Scriptures. You can watch the second half of her report this Friday night. But although it was the #1 show on TV on Friday, I thought much of it was ridiculous.

One of the theologians interviewed by Amanpour quoted the famous line from the book Hebrews: "faith is belief in things unseen." Fair enough, except that he was speaking about Noah and the flood. He believed the flood had really happened, and personally, I don't see that as an example of reasonable faith.

Almost all of our beliefs are in things unseen. I have never seen Austria, but I have complete faith it exists. I also have faith that our final carol "Silent Night" was written by Franz Gruber in Austria on Christmas Eve 1818. This is a reasonable faith. Why would people lie about their experiences in Austria?

Today, it would take a lot of anxiety to fight belief in Austria or Franz Gruber. But Noah's Ark? In the 21st Century, belief in its historical reality takes a great deal of anxiety, which is the opposite of faith. While we can gain a lot by reading and discussing the story of Noah's Ark, searching for the Ark on a mountainside in Turkey is a big waste of time, in my opinion.

Our faith in Love does not have to be unreasonable. Faith does not mean that all sickness or heartbreak disappear from our lives. Instead, I think that faith involves accepting God's help to move through and beyond our fears about such things. It means trusting that Love is our source; that Love is born again in our hearts tonight; that Love calls to us; and that when we respond to Love's call, we may find death, just as Jesus did. We also trust that beyond the many painful deaths of our lives arises new life in Christ, a life within God's eternity.

Tonight, whether we are children or have now lived long and sometimes painful lives, God still calls to us as a baby. It is a call both to love God and neighbour and to be loved by God. And so we hear the story and sing the carols again. They remind us that God is with us. Emmanuel has come again. Love has come down again. Its light continues to lead us home to God.

Tonight as Christmas 2012 arrives, let us sense again 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 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.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Fools for love

Text: Luke 1 39-55 (Mary's song)

Christmas is a like a diamond with many facets: a celebration of the return of the sun's light at the solstice; childhood dreams of Santa and gifts; sentimental movies that celebrate family and romantic love; meals and parties galore.

However, the connection between Christmas and Christ continues to fray. A few years ago, United Church elder Ralph Milton recounted the following anecdote on his blog. Two friends noticed a manger scene in front of a church. "Look at that," said one to the other. "Now even the churches are trying to horn-in on Christmas!"

There are still moments, though, amid the mistletoe and merriment when society's attention turns to the church. On Christmas Eve, most activity stops. Stores and theatres close. Everyone returns to hearth and home. And after dark, many people still crunch through the snow to sing "Silent Night" and to hear a message of peace and love from a pulpit they may otherwise ignore the rest of the year.

Outside of weddings and funerals, the largest gatherings during my time here so far were on Christmas Eve last year. I suspect the same thing will happen tomorrow. But the fact that the Christmas Eve services were not packed to the rafters as was once the case may also reflect continuing changes in our culture.

Last Christmas, one of my nephews made me aware of a new cultural phenomenon -- online Boxing Day sales that begin at 8 pm on Christmas Eve. Even though brick and mortar stores may be closed, one can now choose to shop for bargains from the comfort of home on Christmas Eve rather than head out in the cold to attend what might have been one's only church worship service of the year.

Today, I am also aware of the calendar. Today is the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. Christmas arrives on Tuesday. Fall 2012 has now passed. The calendar of the ancient Mayans has begun a new 5,000 year cycle. And, despite predictions, the world did not end at the winter solstice on Friday when this changeover happened.

This week also marks the halfway point of my Settlement period as a new minister here in Borderlands. Settlement is expected to last at least three years, and this month is the 18th in which I have been here as the minister of Borderlands charge.

I can stay longer than three years, of course -- assuming our finances hold -- but this halfway mark seems important to me.

I've always been aware of dates and the passage of time. Sometimes this trait makes me wonder if I fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. Name an event from the life of my family or from history, and I can usually put a year to it.

One of the things that I enjoy about church life is the yearly cycle of seasons: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and so on. I appreciate aligning our spiritual life with the ancient calendar of the church and how it helps keep us in synch with the different seasons of our lives.

But as I mentioned above, church is not what it used to be. I wish the government would drop December 25 and Good Friday as statutory holidays. If this were to happen, Christmas and Easter might then take a place in our culture similar to that of Hindu, Jewish or Islamic holy days. Santa Claus and the Easter bunny would not go away, but they might become even more disconnected from church. In turn, this might make worship services more meaningful for the shrinking numbers of us who still care about the religious aspect of Christmas or Easter.

And so here we are today, a faithful remnant. It is the fourth Sunday of Advent 2012. And we hear again Mary's song of love and justice, which she sings in joy as the expectant mother of Jesus.

One of the commentaries I read this week about this Gospel reading gave me the inspiration for the rest of the sermon. It noted that a popular Medieval festival called the Feast of Fools placed Mary's song at its centre. In this Feast, young people took on roles as mock Pope and archbishops. When Mary's words "[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones" were read, the crowd threw these mock church leaders off their thrones.

This staged rebellion illustrates two things -- the desire of common people to see Mary's prediction of the humiliation of the rich and powerful become a reality; and the fact that Mary's hoped-for social revolution has not yet occurred. The poor remain the poor and the rich remain the rich.

Today the church has moved from the centre of political power to the margins of society, and yet some of us still foolishly listen to Mary's words and seek love and justice on the path of the Christ.

I am OK to be one of those fools who comes to church not only at Christmas and Easter but every Sunday. In a multicultural world, we know that the Way of Christ is not the only one on which to pursue a life of love. But it remains our Way.

Christ's path has always been a foolish one, I believe. Christ is a God who comes to us first as a helpless baby and who is killed by the Roman Empire after a brief ministry of healing and teaching. What could be more foolish than that?

But, do not all gods die? When personal gods such as addiction or ambition die, we are freed to rise to new life in Christ in which we know that God is Love and nothing but Love. God's Love calls to us from the manger at Christmas and from the cross at Easter. It calls us to seek justice in a world of misleaders.

The topics of misleaders and the slender threads that still connect Christmas with Christ make me think of our current Pope. It is a safe bet that tomorrow every mainstream news broadcast will include a perfunctory clip of Pope Benedict's Christmas greetings to St. Peter's Square in the Vatican. So I was sorry to learn that the Pope in his annual Christmas speech to the Vatican on Friday made his sharpest attack yet on gay rights. He talked about the supposed evils and destructive potential of gay marriage.

I disagree with the Pope's theology on this question. I fear that his attacks make the life of a vulnerable community more dangerous. And I am sure that his effort to stop gay marriage is doomed. 11 countries now allow same sex marriages, including Canada and Catholic Spain, Portugal, and Argentina. Great Britain and France are introducing laws to legalize gay marriage. More and more states in the US now allow gay marriage. Young people overwhelmingly support gay rights.

It is with some reticence that I criticize the Pope today because ties between Borderlands Charge and our local Roman Catholic parish continue to grow. I was pleased and honoured that Father Andrew and some of his parishioners came to the Blue Christmas service in Rockglen on Thursday. I also enjoyed working with Father Andrew in the Rockglen community choir again this Fall.

But the continued role of the Pope as the chief spokesperson of Christianity makes his attacks on the rights of gays and lesbians both notable and regrettable. If our society ever became so secular that the media no longer reported what he said, the Pope's views would not be an issue. But when the Pope uses his remaining influence to fight a losing battle against gay rights, he causes harm and accelerates the decline of the church, I believe.

I am not suggesting that we revive the tradition of the Feast of Fools in which a mock Pope is publicly humiliated. But I do pray that church leaders like the Pope who are foolhardy enough to still sit on a throne will hear Mary's message and adopt a more humble path in the future.

And what of our future here in Borderlands? I have spent a lot of energy in the past 18 months not just doing the usual work of education, administration, visits to seniors, and so on, but also in trying to articulate our faith in a secular context. I have struggled to find my voice as a new preacher and pastor in sermons, prayers, and private conversations.

I don't find this work easy. But I cherish it, and I am grateful for the chance to work in ministry with you despite our diminished numbers and influence.

I am pleased that the United Church of Canada has instituted a church-wide process for the next three years in which "everything is on the table." Beginning in the spring, all pastoral charges are invited to participate in this Comprehensive Review. My hope is that involving ourselves in this process will allow us to contribute to the church-wide discussion and also discern what we might do next as congregations.

Whatever we do in the years to come, I know that it will be as joyful fools who heed Mary's call for justice; who do our best to follow her son as the Prince of Peace; and who carry out our ministry under the banner of the God who is Love.

God comes to us in Christ as a Holy Fool. We will celebrate his birth tomorrow evening with great joy in a kind of Feast of Fools. And we will do it all for Love.

Advent is almost over. Christmas is almost here. And so we say again . . .

Come, Lord Jesus, Come. 


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Repentance and joy

Texts: Malachi 3 1-4 (the refiner's fire); Luke 3 1-18 (John the Baptist)

Today's Scripture readings present us with two Jewish prophets: Malachi, who predicted the coming of a new Elijah to prepare the way of the Lord; and John the Baptist, whom Christians believe was this new Elijah.

Last week, we heard about the miraculous conceptions of both John and his cousin Jesus. In this week's reading, John is now grown. He is preaching in the wilderness, baptizing sinners in the Jordan River, and preparing his followers for both doom and salvation with the imminent arrival of Jesus.

In this sermon, I add another more contemporary Jewish prophet of doom and salvation to the mix, Canada's own Leonard Cohen.

Leonard Cohen, the poet and singer-songwriter from Montreal, is still going strong at 77 years of age. His 2012 album "Old Ideas" is one of the best-reviewed and best-selling music albums of the year. And as is often the case with Cohen, the songs on the album are filled with religious themes.

20 years ago, Cohen released another important album, "The Future," that was also filled with references to the Bible and prophecy. The title track of that 1992 effort reminds me of today's Gospel reading. Like Luke's account of John the Baptist, "The Future" includes violent and disturbing images and a repeated refrain: "When they said repent, repent, I wonder what they meant."

About 10 years ago, when I was still trying to figure out why I had returned to the church, I joined a discussion group at Bellefair United, a church near where I lived in Toronto. Bellefair, which was once home to former Moderator Bruce McLeod, Russell Mitchell-Walker of Eastside United in Regina and Annette Taylor of Calling Lakes Centre, no longer exists. A few years ago, it amalgamated with another nearby church to become Beach United. The former Bellefair building is now a luxury condo, which is a common fate of many city churches these days.

One night, the leader of our discussion group played us a recording of Cohen's "The Future." He said that someday he would love to find a church that would play this song -- with its jarring images of violence, prophecy and repentance -- at a Sunday worship service. I can understand, though, why this is unlikely event. Despite its biblical and prophetic themes, many of us would consider much of the song inappropriate.

On the other hand, today's Gospel reading might also be considered inappropriate by some of us. Like Cohen's "The Future", it is filled with violent and frightening images: "brood of vipers . . . the coming wrath . . the axe at the root of the tree;  trees that do not produce good fruit will be thrown into the fire . . . [Jesus] will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn. He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."

These apocalyptic images are part of what John calls the Good News. Cohen's song puts it this way: "I've seen the future, baby. It's murder."

Is this what Jesus' Advent means for us? Is this why we are called to repent -- to avoid the axe and the unquenchable fire? As Malachi wrote in our first reading today: "Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire."

Enough of Advent, you might want to say. Let's get to Christmas already!

Like Cohen's song, I often wonder about the meaning of the call to repent. Repentance involves feeling regret or pain for what one has done. It means turning away from sin. But if one turns away from sin, what does one turn toward?

When repentance is seen less as a turning away from something and more as a turning towards God's light and love, then a connection between repentance and Advent joy leaps out for me.

Repentance might involve turning away from alcohol or other addictions; or away from a neglect of one's duty as a parent or spouse; or away from neglect of one's own health; and so on. All these turnings are a move away from the small self of egotism and towards the Big Self, which acknowledges our dependence upon family, the wider community, and God's Spirit.

The recognition that our ego, with its fears, desires, and preoccupations, is an illusion is at the heart of repentance, I think. And in that recognition lies the deepest joy one can ever find. Whether or not our fears come to pass -- and often they will; whether or not our selfish desires ever get fulfilled -- and often they won't; and whether or not our distractions and preoccupations ever bear fruit -- and usually they won't; there is something larger than us. This is the God who is Love. It is the inner Christ, the Holy Spirit, and God the Father.

Advent joy is not about getting the Christmas presents we most want. It is not about a picture-perfect family moment around the dinner table. It is not the joy of pleasure. Advent joy is one that shines through and leads us beyond the pain of individual and communal existence.

The dire images from the Bible that accompany the call to repent -- wheat and chaff, sheep and goats, pure metal and unrefined ore -- might suggest that only the few who can manage to repent will be saved. However, I think these metaphors apply to everyone. All of us are mixtures of wheat and chaff, metal and raw ore, and so on. Repentance is a process that prepares our hearts for the coming of Christ by burning away some of our selfishness and immaturity.

Repentance does not rely upon our own efforts. Instead, difficult events in our lives  turn us towards the light regardless of our intentions. Our defeats as parents, as children, as spouses, as church members, as citizens or as a nation often wrench us away from immature fears or preoccupations and toward the light that shines even in the darkest night -- toward the Love that beats at the heart of all of life.

Repentance is Grace, not work. Repentance might hurt. It might involve axes, wrath, and refining fire. It might burn. But it leaves us freed from our old selves. It leaves us living in the light of the Big Self of God.

The fruit of repentance does sometimes involve work. John the Baptist gives us some examples in our reading from Luke today: sharing our material goods, being honest in our dealings, not bullying innocent people. Once life's many baptisms have turned us around, such ethical behaviour flows freely. Good works are not an attempt to avoid God's punishment; they are a response to the gratitude and joy we feel in being freed by God's judgement and God's love, I believe.

During Advent, we wait and prepare for the coming of Christ, both at Christmas and at the Day of Judgement. For me, the Day of Judgement is not a singular event. It happens over and over again in all of life's baptisms by fire. These are moments of painful judgement in which God's gracious Love shines through and which turn us toward the light of Christ within and beyond us.

Advent is a time to remember this sober but joyous news. Out of the pain of life flows the deepest joy we can ever know -- our union with God. It involves preparing our hearts for Christ by burning away selfish illusions.

To close this sermon, I end with the lyrics of one of the songs from Cohen's 2012 album "Old Ideas." In a prayerful fashion, it echoes the Passion of Jesus the Christ.

Cohen, of course, is Jewish. He has also practiced Buddhism for years. As such, we might be surprised to hear Christian references in his work. But then Malachi, John the Baptist, and Jesus were all Jewish too. Cohen cheekily refers to these facts in his song "The Future" when he sings 'I'm the little Jew who wrote the Bible.'

Well, hardly. But all of the 100 or so mostly anonymous writers who did write the various books of the Old and New Testament over the course of about 1,000 years, were Jewish.

Cohen is a Canadian Jewish poet steeped in the religious culture of his youth and of our times, and one who often incorporates themes from both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek New Testament into his work. Here, then, are two stanzas from his 2012 song "Show Me the Place."

Show me the place, where you want your slave to go
Show me the place, I’ve forgotten I don’t know
Show me the place where my head is bending low
Show me the place, where you want your slave to go

Show me the place, help me roll away the stone
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone
Show me the place where the Word became a man
Show me the place where the suffering began.

John the Baptist shows us that place. It is Jesus, God's Word become a man. Despite the fact that the path to Jesus involves repentance and hence suffering, it is also the place where we find life's deepest joy.

And so this Advent, we say again . . .

Come, Lord Jesus Come. 


Sunday, December 9, 2012

Miracle births, royal families and the Prince of Peace

Text: Luke 1 5-38, 57-80 (birth of John the Baptist)

In our Gospel reading today, the Angel Gabriel appears to two different people and amazes both of them by announcing that, against all odds, they will have a child. The first is Zechariah, whose wife Elizabeth, despite being too old to have children, gives birth to a boy who will become John the Baptist. The second is Mary, a young relative of Elizabeth's, who will give birth to Jesus.

Finding out that you are going to have a child is always an important moment, and usually a blessed one. But in the cases of Zechariah, Elizabeth and Mary, the blessings might not be immediately apparent.

Zechariah does not understand how his wife could have a baby. Perhaps he forgets the stories from the Hebrew Scriptures of Abraham and Sarah or Elkanah and Hannah who have children despite age and infertility. Because of Zechariah's lack of belief, Gabriel strikes him speechless until his son John, who will later baptize his cousin Jesus in the Jordan River, is born.

Mary is also incredulous at Gabriel's announcement. She is a virgin and not yet married. But she says to Gabriel that she is the Lord's servant and will do his will. 

All of us are hard-wired to be fascinated by pregnancy and to greet the arrival of newborn babies with joy and delight. But now that there are seven billion people on earth, the announcement of a new pregnancy is not that unusual. On any given day, about 500,000 women learn that they are pregnant and announce this blessed news to their friends and families.

As I am sure you all know, one of the 500,000 pregnancies announced this past Monday became a media sensation -- that of the Duchess of Cambridge, the wife of Prince William. The extensive coverage of her pregnancy reflects the fact that the first baby born to William and Kate will be third in line to the throne of England and will one day become the head of state of the United Kingdom, Canada and 14 other countries that still place themselves under the British Monarchy.

Royal families have been a big deal for as long as there have been kings and queens. Today I look into which families get to be called royal ones and which ones do not.

At Christmas, we remember that the Holy Family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus is also a royal family. Joseph, although poor and unknown, is a descendant of King David. Jesus is born in the royal city, Bethlehem. In later life, he will be hailed as the new King of Israel, the Messiah. According to the church, Jesus' royal family is the real one. Other so-called royal families, such as the one of King Herod in Jerusalem or of Caesar Augustus in Rome, are illegitimate.

Jesus' ministry, death and resurrection challenge the royal claims of Herod, Caesar and their sons. Their kingdoms are ones of oppression and violence. God's Kingdom, which Jesus inaugurates, is one of equality and non-violence.

Jesus could not be more different from Caesar and the czars, kaisers, and kings who succeeded the Roman emperors after the fall of Rome 1500 years ago. The throne of Jesus does not lie in a palace in Jerusalem, Rome, or London. It lies in the heart of all believers whom we collectively call the Body of Christ. In this way, Jesus is a King who not only reigns over us, but also within us. Jesus is a king who lives through the people who follow in his Way.

Why, then, more than 2,000 years after the births of John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ, are we still so focused on the lives of royal families like the British one?

Monarchy today is mostly for show. Affairs of state such a taxation and war are no longer in the hands of kings even in those few countries that still have a monarchy. Royals today are celebrities more than political figures. Kate and William stand alongside Brad and Angelina more than they do Barack Obama or Stephen Harper.

So why the extreme media focus on make-believe monarchies? This past Monday a lot of things happened around the world. Approximately 3,000 people died in car crashes. But that is not news because it happens every day. Approximately 10,000 children died of malnutrition or easily preventable diseases on Monday. But that is also not news because it happens every day. On Monday, 85 million barrels of oil and 22 million tons of coal were burned, which is equivalent to burning a dense forest the size of large country. But that is not news because it too happens every day. Finally, on Monday, 500,000 women announced to their families that they were pregnant. But only one of those announcements was newsworthy because that pregnancy is in the world's most famous surviving royal family.

I am sure that all of us wish Kate and William well with her pregnancy. I am sorry that they were forced to make their announcement earlier than they would have liked because of Kate's hospitalization. Like everyone, I am saddened and sickened by the apparent suicide of one of Kate's nurses in the aftermath of an adolescent prank by two Australian radio hosts.

But why on earth was this radio prank broadcast to billions of people on every "news" broadcast and "entertainment" program that exists? It's as if a Halloween prank on Main Street in Coronach had been recorded and had become the talk of everyone on the planet for a few days. To my mind, there is something insane about the intensity of the media focus on the British royal family.

On the other hand, I admit that I often succumb to the celebrity halo surrounding the royals. Many days I would rather celebrate the joy of an impending birth to a rich and handsome couple in England than hear about the latest death toll in the Syrian civil war.

I admit that during the past 21 months of civil war in Syria, I have fast forwarded through most TV news reports about it. The situation in Syria seems so complicated and hopeless to me that mostly I would rather not know about it. Still, the news this week was not that hundreds more were killed -- that happens every week so it also has ceased to be news. The news was that Syria might soon use its stockpiles of nerve gas to continue its killing.

Countries like the United States, Russia, and China have vast stockpiles of these weapons of mass destruction, which seems bad enough. That a country like Syria, which is descending into lawlessness, also has such weapons frightens me.

We might like to be distracted from this reality by the antics of Prince Harry or the picture-perfect marriage of Kate and William. But when this one family's domestic drama dominates our so-called news media in the face of all the other wonders and concerns in this world, it has become a distraction against which we should stand, I think.

During Advent and Christmas, the church directs us to focus on the coming of the Prince of Peace. However, Christmas today also seems to be a shell of its former self. In this status, it reminds me a bit of the monarchy. Our calendar is still shaped by the Christ story. December 25th and Good Friday remain statutory holidays. Christmas presents and Easter chocolates are still big business. We number the years on our calendar from best estimates of when Jesus was born, about 2012 years ago. But these features of the calendar do not shape many of us deeply now, I believe.

Two weeks ago at Church School, I asked the children how long ago they thought it was since Jesus was born. One boy in Coronach said he thought it was a long time ago -- perhaps in the 90s. One girl in Rockglen guessed 50 years, another 100, and a third 200 years ago. None of them connected the year 2012 to the Latin phrase, A.D., Anno Domini, or the Year of our Lord.

Church is marginal these days, which gives us freedom to choose. Should we go with  the sentimental flow of holiday movies and Santa Claus at Christmas, or should  we proclaim the stark message of a humble baby, born to overturn the kingdoms of this world?  Should we bow before worldly rulers, or should we proclaim God's kingdom in which humanity is finally united in a world of justice and peace?

The kingdoms of this world do not follow the Way of the Cross or the Path of Peace. As Christians, our call is to stand against them.

We also proclaim that no family by virtue of heredity is more royal than others. All newborns carry the image of God and are eligible to be baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. We are called to welcome each baby with as much joy as any other. For Christians, all families are holy; all families are royal ones.

Despite the media barrage that informs us of every detail of the personal lives of Elizabeth and Philip, Charles and Camilla, and William and Kate, the church's message at Advent is that the time of the kings of this earth is passing. Instead, we prepare to welcome the Christ. He will reign as a new type of king in all of our hearts and in all of our royal families forever.

This Advent we prepare again for the Prince of Peace. Against the hurricane of media coverage of the royals, our Advent message might not seem strong. But in our hearts, it continues to burn bright.

And so we say again, Come, Lord Jesus, Come.


Sunday, December 2, 2012

"Do they know it's Christmas?" Advent, coal, the Apocalypse, and hope

Text: Luke 21 5-10, 25-36 (signs and parable of the End)

"Do they know it's Christmas?" is the name of a British music video that helped raise money for Ethiopian famine relief in 1984. It came to my mind this week for two reasons: a CBC Radio interview about a recent video that spoofs it -- more on that later; and because the assigned Gospel reading for today is so removed from Christmas.

This first Gospel reading of Advent is not set in the weeks leading up to Jesus' birth. It is set in the final days of his life in Jerusalem. Last week, we closed the church year with a reading from John about Jesus' trial before Pontius Pilate on Good Friday. Two weeks ago, we heard what will be our final reading from Mark for two years and . . . it was almost the exact same reading that we just heard from Luke!

Why do the powers-that-be in the church suggest that we end one church year and begin another with nearly identical readings about wars, earthquakes, floods, and the coming of the Day of Judgement?

The creators of the church's Lectionary are trying to show us, I believe, that Advent is not only a time of waiting and preparation for Christmas. It is also a time for us to prepare for the awesome Second Coming of Jesus. These readings might stir up more fear than hope, but I believe that we can see God's hope in them.

Our reading today is one of those places where Luke copies Mark quite closely. The passage is often called the Little Apocalypse because, in it, Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem as well as signs of the coming of the Son of Man -- wars, earthquakes, and dreadful portents in the heavens.

In the two weeks since we heard Mark's version of the Little Apocalypse, I have watched a five-part TV series on Vision TV called "Apocalypse When?" and a one-woman teleplay about Rachel Carson on the 50th anniversary of the publication of her influential environmental book "Silent Spring."

The Vision TV series served to debunk the notion that the end of the world can be accurately predicted by religious leaders. It also suggested reasons why so many of us are fascinated by predictions of the end of the world, such as the ones found in our Gospel readings today and two weeks ago.

All of us face The End in the sense that we know we are going to die. Of course, our individual deaths do not mean the end of the world for anyone other than ourselves; and we also trust that death leads to a reunion with God's Love. Still, our fears about death may partly explain the popular fascination both with disasters and the idea that this world might someday end for everyone at the same time.

Also, despite the repeated failures of religious predictions of the end of the world, recent social developments provide new fuel for our apocalyptic imaginations -- nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, rapid social change, news of disasters such as earthquakes and famines, and fears about the well-being of the natural environment.

I enjoyed seeing a broadcast of a one-woman play on pioneer environmentalist Rachel Carson this week on PBS. It is hard for me to believe that it has only been 50 years since the publication of her book "Silent Spring," which opposed pesticides such as DDT. Almost single-handedly, her book helped to launch the environmental movement. It led to laws that banned DDT and the establishment of environmental protection agencies.

Despite 50 years of progress, the greatest environmental threat yet -- climate change -- continues unabated; and it is now back at the top of the media's agenda because of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey in October. For instance, the lead  item on the NBC Nightly News this past Thursday was a report on the melting of the huge ice packs on Greenland and Antarctica and the resulting rise in the level of the world's oceans.

Climate change is an issue for everyone on earth. But it may have special importance for an area like ours that mines and burns fossil fuels. Without the coal mine and coal-fired electrical generating plant built here in Coronach in the late 1970s, our area might have withered away entirely. In this sense, the coal industry here has been a boon for Borderlands.

On the other hand, burning fossil fuels such as coal, gas, and oil for energy and transportation is the main source of the release of carbon that is causing climate change. This process threatens to destroy the environment within which human civilization has developed over the last 10,000 years. If humanity ever finds a way to curb the release of carbon into the atmosphere and so reverse global warming, there is no doubt that coal mines and electrical plants like the ones in Coronach will have to close.

Please be assured that I am not suggesting that our church start agitating for the closure of the mine and plant. Not only would such a move be unpopular and ineffective, the closure of the coal industry in Coronach by itself would have virtually no impact on the world's climate. China opens a new coal-fired electrical generating plant every week. Closing the one in Coronach would thus be an empty gesture. It would devastate the Borderlands area while doing the world little good.

Nor do I plan to exchange my car for a horse anytime soon. Not only would riding a horse make it difficult for me to get to all those pesky Presbytery meetings in Swift Current. Individual actions like that also seem useless to me. Even if everyone in Saskatchewan gave up their cars and trucks, the world's atmosphere would hardly be effected. After all, Saskatchewan's 1 million people represent only one seven-thousandth of the world's population.

If humanity does find a way to use less energy and to generate it using something other than fossil fuels, it will not just affect coal regions like Borderlands, but every town and city in innumerable ways.

Unfortunately, no road map exists to take us from a world in which 85 million barrels of oil and 22 million tons of coal are burned every day to one where carbon levels no longer rise in the atmosphere. Given this fact, it seems to me little wonder that apocalyptic fantasies run riot in our culture.

A positive trend that helped counter the fear generated by the subject of climate change was sparked in my mind last Sunday after church in Rockglen. Hazel had brought mandarin oranges for our lunch, and like so much of our food today, these oranges were from China. I remarked on how 30 years ago, it would have been hard to imagine that one day much of the food we eat in Canada would be produced in China, let alone so many of our manufactured goods. But since China adopted free market reforms 30 years ago, its economy has grown with astonishing speed, and several hundred million Chinese peasants have been raised out of extreme poverty.

A similar process is now happening in Africa. I read an article in the Globe and Mail newspaper this week that talked about the 21st Century belonging to Africa despite continuing political problems there. Then on CBC Radio, I heard about that spoof video of African aid programs, which you can find at the "Africa for Norway" website. I watched the video,  called "Radi-Aid," and I thought it was funny and provocative.

The video details a fictitious aid campaign in which Africans send heating radiators to freezing Norwegians. It is designed to look like 1980's music videos for Ethiopia such as "Do They Know Its Christmas?," "Tears are Not Enough," and " We Are the World."  It makes two points: that aid campaigns for Africa  sometimes foster stereotypes about that continent; and that many parts of Africa are undergoing rapid economic growth at present.

Of course, rapid economic growth in China, India, Brazil, and parts of Africa increases the burning of fossil fuels and hence speeds up climate change. But it also means the end of poverty for huge numbers of people and a reversal of the apocalyptic visions with which China and Africa were painted when I was a child.

Both Hurricane Sandy on the negative side and Radi-Aid on the positive side reveal big changes in global society. The Greek word Apocalypse means "to reveal," which is why both the rapid decrease of poverty in the Global South and climate change can be viewed through an apocalyptic lens.

Our world continues to change so rapidly that it sometimes feels impossible to keep up. Jesus calls us to stay awake in the face of such cataclysmic change. His call applies both to our individual lives and to our society. He reminds us that personal or social crises often reveal signs of his coming.

On Christmas Eve, we will celebrate the gentle signs of Jesus coming -- a manger, shepherds singing 'Glory to God' on a hillside, and a baby in his mother's arms. At the same time, we are also called to search for signs of Jesus' coming again, even though those signs might frighten us. Though more dramatic than Christmas, we trust that Jesus' Second Coming will also be from Love and will lead us to Love. Jesus reminds us of this in our reading today: "When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

Death awaits all of us at the end of life. God in Christ helps us to face this reality with our eyes-wide-open. Destruction may also be in store for humanity as a whole, whether through war or an environmental catastrophe like climate change. God in Christ also helps us to face these disasters with eyes-wide-open.

In Advent and Christmas we remind ourselves of Emmanuel, God With Us. There are no guarantees in life other than this -- that God is with us. This fact is as true on a starry night at Christmas as it is at the bedside of dying loved one or in the face of human-created environmental disasters.

It is easy to be afraid in the face of apocalyptic signs, even the positive ones. But when we accept God's help, we can move beyond fear into a trusting faith. We can await our redemption.

The Season of Advent is here again. In it, we wait in hope for the coming of God's light to the world whether in the form of a helpless infant or as the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power. And so this Advent, we say again in hope . . .

Come, Lord Jesus, come.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Kings, human and divine

Texts: 1 Samuel 8 1-20 (Israel asks for a King); Revelation 1 4-8 (ruler of the kings of earth); John 18 33-37 (King of the Jews?)

On this Reign of Christ Sunday, I reflect upon human kingdoms, God's Kingdom, and two different visions of Christ as King. Our Scripture readings provide us with background.

The reading from First Samuel tells how Israel changed from being a group of tribes under the rule of priests 3,000 years ago to a centralized monarchy under King David. It also lists the problems that often plague human kingdoms.

The reading from Revelation shows Jesus in Heaven ruling over the kings of the earth. It portrays Christ the King in all His Awesome Majesty.

Our Gospel reading from John shows Jesus on trial before Pilate as the supposed King of the Jews. Before the might of the Roman Empire, Jesus is all-too human and powerless. But he is the bearer of God's truth and love and hence is a king to whom we can give our allegiance without reservation . . .

Last Sunday, in our reading from First Samuel, we learned of the miraculous conception of Samuel, and how his mother Hannah handed him over to the Chief Priest Eli so that he could serve in the Temple in Shiloh all the days of his life. Today's reading show us that Samuel is not a big fan of monarchy.

Samuel is now an old man. He has succeeded Eli as Chief Priest and ruler of Israel. But Samuel's sons prove themselves unworthy to be his successor, hence the demand of the Israelites that Samuel find them a king.

Samuel does this reluctantly, first anointing Saul as the King of Israel, and then later anointing David as Israel's second and greatest King. Through Samuel, God warns Israel that having a king will bring them taxation, slavery and war. The monarchy will be a disaster for Israel, which the rest of the Old Testament confirms.

1,000 years after Samuel and King David, Jesus comes before Pilate as an arrested criminal. The kings of Israel have long since been deposed by other empires: Babylon, Assyria, Greece and Rome. Only puppet Jewish kings like Herod remain; the real power lies with Caesar in Rome.

Many Jews in those days longed for a new King David. He would be God's anointed, the Messiah, or the Christ. Peter and the disciples thought they had found their new King in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus told them he was this Messiah, but he would not be a king like David. He would be a king who will be rejected and killed.

However, the dream for a Christ who would be like a new King David lived on long after the disciples. For instance, in the fantastical book of Revelation, Jesus as the Risen Christ is pictured sitting on a huge and elaborate throne in heaven. He is said to wield a sword, which he uses to wage war and kill untold numbers of the wicked.

Revelation attacks the Roman Empire more sharply than any other book in the Bible -- although it uses Babylon as a code word for Rome. As Peter had hoped, Revelation shows Jesus attacking Rome in the way King David had attacked the enemies of Israel -- with war, death and destruction. Revelation provides us with amazing images, which show up in hymns like the triumphant ones with which we began our service and with which we will close the church year today.

But Jesus' power is not military might; it is the power of Love. We accept him as our King because He is the way, the truth and the life. Jesus comes before Pilate with nothing but his integrity and divine presence. Because he speaks "truth to power" Jesus is killed; but by being raised to new life and inspiring his followers to also speak truth to power, Jesus shows us that love is stronger than violence and empire.

Just as Pilate felt powerless in the face of the hatred of the religious leaders and their mobs who demanded Jesus' death, so later emperors would learn that their power could evaporate in the face of the rebellions of simple people who resisted the empire's authority and refused to kill for it.

Both the non-violent resistance of Jesus before Pilate and the triumph and violence of kings like Saul and David have a place in our Bible and in our tradition. The more majestic images might have fit better before the two world wars when Christianity was the official religion of the empires of czars, kaisers and kings in Europe. But now that those days have passed, these images can still help us to express some of our anger at injustice and our confidence in the ultimate triumph of truth and love, both for us as individuals and for the world.

The other side of Christ as King --  resisting injustice without violence, even accepting death on the cross -- expresses a core truth of our lives. In the face of bullying, we can choose non-violent resistance that preserves our love of God and neighbour, though it might cost us dearly.

For our hymn of response, I chose "You, Lord, are both Lamb and Shepherd" because it juxtaposes the two sides of Christ as King. I hope you will hear  both as we sing it in a moment: prince and slave, defeat and victory, death and life, and so on. The hymn also talks about the narrow way where, with grace, we neither become victims of empire nor react in violence against it. The same narrow path is also offered to us by God when there are conflicts in our families and communities.

Another hymn in the Bible captures both sides of Christ as King. It is from St. Paul's letter to the Church in Philippi. The first half describes Jesus as humble servant, emptying himself even to death on the cross. The second half describes Jesus exalted to glory.

Paul's prayer is that we accept Jesus as our next king -- the anointed one we both scorn and crave, the king of both gift and cost; the king who asks us to accompany him in death and the king who assures us that new life flows from those deaths. I close with Paul's hymn from chapter two of Philippians. Paul writes:

"Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
  but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name that is above every name,
   so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bow,
   and every tongue confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord."

Thanks be to God.


Lyrics for "You Lord Are Both Lamb and Shepherd" by Sylvia Dunstan

You, Lord, are both lamb and shepherd.
    You, Lord, are both prince and slave.
    You, peacemaker and sword-bringer of the way you took and gave.
    You, the everlasting instant; you, whom we both scorn and crave.

Clothed in light upon the mountain, stripped of might upon the cross,
    shining in eternal glory, beggared by a soldier's toss.
    You, the everlasting instant; you who are both gift and cost.

You, who walk each day beside us, sit in power at God's side.
    You, who preach a way that's narrow, have a love that reaches wide.
    You, the everlasting instant; you, who are our pilgrim guide.

Worthy is our earthly Jesus! Worthy is our cosmic Christ!
    Worthy your defeat and victory. Worthy still your peace and strife.
    You, the everlasting instant; you, who are our death and life.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Farewell Mark, hello Luke

Texts: 1 Samuel 1:4-20, 2:1-10 (Hannah's Song) * Mark 13 1-8, 24-28, 32-33 (destruction of the Temple)

Periodically, predictions about the end of the world crop up in popular culture. The next projected doomsday is just five weeks away -- December 21st, 2012, based upon a reading of the Mayan Calendar of ancient Central America. At the winter solstice next month, this Calendar ends one 5,000 year-long cycle and begins another. Some people think that earthquakes will wipe out all of humanity on that date.

The latter disaster scenario was the premise of the blockbuster movie "2012" released three years ago. But despite how close Dec 21, 2012 now is, I have not seen much mention of this fearful prediction this Fall. This pleases me because like many people, I don't take such predictions seriously.

I mention the end of the world for two reasons: first, the church calendar begins a new year two weeks from today with Advent; and second, each church year ends and begins with Jesus' apocalyptic prediction about the destruction of the Temple and about the end of days that we heard today in our Gospel reading.

The title of this sermon, "Farewell Mark, hello Luke," refers to the fact that with the start of the new church year on December 2nd, our church along with many others shift the focus of our weekly worship from the Gospel of Mark to the Gospel of Luke. In fact, today is the last time that the weekly suggested Bible readings includes a passage from Mark until November 30, 2014. And like the first reading from Mark assigned 12 months ago for the first Sunday in Advent on November 27th 2011, the last one today also comes from Mark's apocalyptic 13th chapter. But more on the apocalypse later. For now, I will focus on our church calendar.

Here in Borderlands, we follow a three-year biblical reading list, which has been used by many denominations, including the United Church of Canada, for the past 20 years or more. When I was a child, my father didn't follow such a list. He chose a text to preach upon each week as he saw fit depending on the time of year (Christmas and Easter being the most obvious examples) or the needs of the the community.

But today, most churches follow an assigned reading list, the Lectionary. It is a way of reading through much of the Bible over a repeating three-year cycle. Each year focuses on one of the first three Gospels: Year A covers Matthew; Year B, which we are just finishing, covers Mark; and Year C covers Luke. Selections from the fourth and final gospel, the Gospel of John, which is quite different from the first three, are read during Easter each year; and the rest of John is covered in Year B, the year of Mark. John is added to the Year of Mark since Mark is quite a bit shorter than either Matthew or Luke. In fact next week, which is the final Sunday of Year B, the Gospel reading for Reign of Christ Sunday is from John.

The Lectionary doesn't only focus on the four gospels, of course. There are 23 other books in the New Testament and 39 books in the Old Testament; and the Lectionary tries to cover them as well. Each Sunday, the Lectionary suggests four readings: one from a Gospel, one from an Old Testament book, one from a New Testament letter, and one of the 150 Psalms. On most Sundays, I only chosen two of those four readings, with a bias towards the Gospel selection, and sometimes I take a few liberties with the suggestions to fit other purposes.

This three-year cycle leaves out some of the Bible -- small bits of the Gospels, a few passages from the letters of Paul and the other letters, and quite a bit of the Old Testament. But I like how it tries to be thorough, and how it weaves these readings around the yearly church calendar of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and the long Season After Pentecost.

Reading lists for Scripture have been around for as long as Judaism and Christianity have existed. The three-year Lectionary cycle which Borderlands and many other United, Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic churches now follow has its roots in the Vatican II Council of the Roman Catholic Church of the 1960s; and I think the Lectionary is a wonderful example of inter-church cooperation. The widespread use of this list has led to a greater emphasis on the seasons of the church year and to the creation of new aids for worship leaders. It also means that with our reading today, we say goodbye to Mark for two years.

Five years ago this Fall, a New Testament course I was enrolled in also made a switch from Mark to Luke. In the first half of the course, we had focused first on Matthew and then Mark. When we returned from Reading Week, our professor began by saying three things: one, that we would now turn to Luke; two, that we would use a different method for studying it (namely the response the text evokes in the reader rather than an historical or scientific analysis of the text); and three that he would start us off by giving his response to Luke. He told us that he didn't much like it!

I was pretty shocked by his statement. How could a seminary professor, an ordained minister in the Lutheran church, and the teacher of future United Church ministers say something negative about Luke, one of the four Gospels upon which so much of our faith and tradition are based?

Eventually, though, I came to understand my professor's viewpoint. He objected to Luke when he smoothed off some of the rough edges in the stories of Jesus found in Mark. He recognized that Luke was a more sophisticated writer than Mark and was a skilled storyteller. But perhaps some important things found in Mark might be missing in Luke.

Now, this course on the Gospels did not lessen my own affection for Luke. But I appreciated our teacher's main point that there are differences between the four  gospels and that having four of them instead of one gives us a richer view of Jesus. So I will now offer a bit more about what we learned about the four gospels.

Scholars think that the first Gospel to be written is Mark, probably in the year 70. Matthew and Luke come about 10-20 years later, and both of them copy Mark, often word for word. Commentators make a big deal when Matthew and/or Luke make deletions or changes to Mark as they copy him.

Matthew and Luke also add to Mark some sayings of Jesus, such as the Beatitudes, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and of the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. Each one also adds some material that is only found in either Matthew or Luke. John comes last, about the year 100, and while John may have had one or more of the first three gospels in front of him when he wrote, he tells a quite different story from the first three with a different tone and emphasis. For these reasons, John is known as the spiritual gospel.

This set of ideas about the gospels explains a lot: why so much of Mark is repeated in Matthew and Luke and why John is so different. It also allows us to see how different early Christians interpreted Jesus' life and message.

There is much that I love about what is unique in Luke's portrayal of Jesus: the birth narrative with stable and shepherds, the parable of the Good Samaritan, which Luke adds after the reading about love of God and love of neighbour that we read from Mark last week; the parable of the Prodigal Son; the story about walking with the risen Christ on the Road to Emmaus, and so on.

I look forward to trying to preach to the the needs of this community in relationship to the Gospel of Luke during the new church year, which we begin in two weeks. It is not that I will never mention Mark again in a sermon until November 2014, since the changes and additions that Luke or Matthew make to Mark can sometimes show us important things. But as always, we rely on the Spirit's guidance when we read, interpret and act upon the sacred writings of our tradition.

When discussing biblical scholarship, it is also helpful for someone like me who loves intellectual puzzles and arguments to remember that we don't worship the Bible. We worship God: the Sacred Ground in which live and move and have our being. Scripture readings, sermons, and prayers are only crude attempts to point us towards God in Christ and to remind us of the values of love and justice that we hold sacred. We rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to help us limp towards God as we pray, preach, and carry out our work of loving service to our community.

Which brings me back briefly to our two readings from this morning -- Hannah's song, and Mark 13. Hannah's song from 1 Samuel also points us towards Luke because Mary's song of joy and liberation, the Magnificat, which she sings when she learns she is pregnant with Jesus. Mary's song seems to be modelled on Hannah's and is found only in Luke. We will read the Magnificat with joy this year on Advent 4, December 23rd.

Our other reading, Mark 13, with its warnings of wars, earthquakes, and falling stars  probably does not point towards the end of world next month. Instead, it probably betrays the dire times when Mark wrote down the stories of Jesus. As Mark was writing, the Roman-Jewish war of the late 60s was coming to a close. Jerusalem was burned to the ground. Tens of thousands of Jews were killed, and the Second Temple was utterly destroyed. Perhaps it is this context which gives the Gospel of Mark such relevance and immediacy today. Like Mark's community, we too live in an time of wars and rumours of war, of which this week's fighting between Israel and Gaza is one of the latest and most frightening instances.

When Mark told the story of Jesus' journey to Jerusalem to face his death, his first hearers could relate to the horror of it all too well. But by the time Luke copied and changed Mark's version 15 or 20 years later, the horror of the destruction of Jerusalem was starting to fade in memory. Luke's community was trying to live inside a Roman Empire that did not seem as violent and hostile to Jews and Christians as it had in the time of Mark. So Luke emphasizes different things than Mark; and I believe that our Bible is richer because of this.

The end of the world will come some day. But as Jesus said, "About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come."

With Hannah, we look forward in hope to a time when the poor are raised up and the oppressors are overthrown. With Jesus, we look forward to a new heaven and earth even though its birth pangs may be frightening. And each one of us looks forward in hope to union with God in Christ at any moment, and at the end of life.

So this Fall, as we end one church year and start a new one in two weeks, may we approach the stories of Jesus, whether told by Mark or Luke, Matthew or John, with our hearts open to their mystery and power. May we continue to rely upon the Holy Spirit to guide us in our worship, in our understanding, and in our work of service in this community. And with God's help, may we do all this as Christ's followers on the path of faith hope and love.

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

War and remembrance in the age of Obama

Text: Mark 12 28-34 (the greatest commandment)

November 11th is a solemn day of pride and pain in which we remember the fragility and sacredness of human life. Today's sermon ends on the theme of Remembrance. First, though, I reflect on our Gospel reading about love of God and neighbour. I do so by placing it against the backdrop of the results of the U.S. election last week.

These two topics -- Nov 11th and last week's election -- present a sharp contrast. Remembrance Day is a time for tradition, silence and ritual; a time in which we look back to the past with respect. The U.S. election highlights big shifts in our culture and points us to the future. My hope is that the contrast will help us to think about the challenge of how to respect the past and our traditions -- indeed the faith of our fathers -- in the face of rapid social change

Four years ago, the rise of U.S. President Barack Obama surprised and delighted many of us. But given the disappointments of his first term -- a slow recovery, high unemployment, and staggering deficits and debts; and given how vilified Obama has been in the media -- including outrageous claims that Obama is a secret Muslim, that he was born in Kenya and is therefore ineligible to be President, and that he is some kind of communist -- his re-election with 51% of the votes surprised me.

Don't get me wrong -- like most Canadians, I had hoped that Obama would win again. But with a lot stacked against him, I didn't expect it. His re-election is a defeat for the right-wing who spent more than $1 billion trying to unseat him. I also believe that his re-election contains warning signs for the church.

Here are what exit polls tell us about the U.S. Presidential election: the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, received the overwhelming majority of votes cast by white males, people over 65, people from rural areas, evangelical Christians, and people who go to church at least once per week. Obama won an overwhelming majority of the votes of blacks, Latinos, gays and lesbians, city-dwellers, single women, unionized workers, and people who never go to church, as well as a healthy majority of the votes of people under the age of 30.

On Tuesday, voters in three states also voted to approve gay marriage and to legalize the possession and use of marijuana in two others. Candidates who had became notorious for their opposition to legal abortion even when a pregnancy resulted from rape were defeated. And the first Buddhist and Hindu candidates were elected to Congress as well as the first open lesbian.

These results reflect big changes in the United States. White male Christians and people of all colours and religions who oppose abortion, recreational drug use and homosexuality can now be out-voted by a coalition of secular city dwellers, recent immigrants, and non-Whites, even in a time of economic uncertainty.

I am pleased about the strength of the coalition that supported Obama on Tuesday, although according to the polls, I should be on the other side. I'm no longer young; I'm a white male; I go to church services . . . often three times a week; and I live in a rural area. OK, that last item might be a little suspect. I still feel pretty much like a city person, although I do love the beauty of this land, the people of our towns, and our work together in ministry.

And although I am one of those "suspect" church-goers, I worship and work in the United Church of Canada. Ours is a denomination that strives to become intercultural and to welcome newcomers, that has supported feminist, peace and anti-poverty concerns for decades, and that is now led by a gay Moderator.

The U.S. election signals trouble for right-wing, evangelical Christianity, I believe. The re-election of George W. Bush as President in 2004 was a high-water mark for the influence of the Christian Right. The 2012 re-election of Obama signals a marginalization of that current.

The urban, young and diverse coalition that voted for Obama includes many people who are turned off by religion. It's not that people in Obama's coalition would disagree with Jesus' teaching to love God and neighbour. The issue lies in how one answers the questions "what is the nature of this God whom we should love?," and "who are our neighbours?"

In the Gospel of Luke, the scribe we encountered in today's reading from Mark asks Jesus that latter question --  "Who is my neighbour?" Jesus answers with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The hero of that parable is a hated foreigner, a Samaritan; and thus the Parable suggests that love of neighbour extends to so-called "enemies."

Unfortunately, churches that campaign against gay rights and immigration reform seem to offer a different answer. In my opinion, the Obama coalition is more on the side of the Good Samaritan on the question of neighbourliness than are some churches.

Then there is the question of love of God. Even in this secular age, most people still believe in God -- but which one? There seem to be so many competing versions of God out there. Is God a terrifying Judge who punishes most people for all eternity in lakes of fire? Is God worried about petty issues of morality? Is God behind everything that happens, even pregnancies that result from violence or deaths in natural disasters and war?

Further, does loving God mean we have to turn our backs on science? Vote against gay marriage? Picket outside abortion clinics? Support tax-breaks for billionaires?

Many of those who voted for President Obama answer "no" to all the above questions. Many of them also think the church answers differently, which explains why they are turned off. They perceive church to be hostile towards them. They perceive the God who is worshipped in church to be a God of hate and not love . . .

Our culture has shifted, and the shift is not to the advantage of religion. Old certainties and traditions seem to be melting away beneath our feet.

A few weeks ago at a Bible Study in Coronach we were talking about immigration, and I suggested that all of us were immigrants. We have emigrated from a far off land called the 20th Century where values seemed more stable and have landed in a strange place called the 21st Century where the culture looks foreign to us.

Mostly I am encouraged by these cultural shifts even though they present challenges to the work of the church. I want to live in a society where "neighbour" is defined as broadly as possible. I want to worship in a church where "God" is a God of Love, of inclusion, of justice, and of welcome. I am grateful that the United Church is one in which humble service, faith in the midst of doubt, hope in the midst of darkness, and love in the midst of diversity are encouraged.

Here in Borderlands, the population shifts reflected in last week's U.S. elections are not readily apparent. But 90 years ago when our towns were founded, Borderlands was about as diverse a place as anywhere in the world. People from all corners of Europe and of many languages and creeds came to homestead and work here. Now, four generations later, our differences have withered away after years of joint work on the land, in communities, and in churches.

Still, the winds of change from big cities, immigration, and new lifestyles affect us just as much as people elsewhere. We may not always know how to relate to these shifts, or even notice when they are occurring deep within our own hearts and minds. But mostly I think that we should welcome them; and I look forward to our ongoing discussions about them.

War is another area where attitudes are changing; and once again, Barack Obama can serve as a marker of this change. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Obama was a State Senator in Illinois where he voiced his opposition to it. The rationale for the war -- that Iraq harboured weapons of mass destruction -- was proven false after the U.S. invasion. So now after the deaths of thousands of Americans, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and more than $1 trillion in expenditure, Obama as Commander in Chief has withdrawn U.S. troops from Iraq.

In the light of this history, how do the families of loved ones who died in Iraq confront this sacrifice on Remembrance Day?

For those who have lost loved ones in war, and for those who have served their country and survived to return home, coming to grips with their sacrifices must be that much more difficult when the legitimacy of the war is questioned.

Here in Canada, we have not had to face such dilemmas. Canada, unlike virtually every other country, has never lost a war. Nor have most of the wars  we have fought in been controversial. These facts don't make our losses less painful, but perhaps they make our task of Remembrance more straightforward.

So, in a society that is rapidly changing, we take time each November to stop out of  respect; to look back in gratitude; to honour the sacrifices of past generations; and to offer support to those who have suffered in war or who mourn the loss of loved ones.

Love of neighbour demands that we honour and respect the ultimate sacrifice made by over 100,000 Canadian soldiers in wars of the last 100 years. We do this by wearing poppies and attending community services like the ones in the schools in Rockglen and Coronach on Thursday. We do it by offering prayers of thanksgiving for the freedom and prosperity most Canadians enjoy today and for the willingness of so many young people to offer themselves in service to their country.

Another way we remember war and honour the dead is by praying and working for a world of peace with justice.

The cultural shifts I have mentioned today also affect our work for peace. The church in North America is moving to the margins. From these margins, I pray that we can better speak out for peace. From this more modest place, we can continue to try to live out the commandments to love God and neighbour. We may not have the same reach that church had 100 years ago, but we have the Gospel, which is a pearl of infinite price.

Who is our neighbour? All of war-weary humanity is our neighbour. With God's help, we are commanded to love everyone in the world as ourselves.

Who is the God we are commanded to love? God is Love Incarnate -- Jesus the Christ. God is Love's Power -- the Holy Spirit. God is Love's Source -- our Heavenly Father.

Today with love, we remember and honour the sacrifices of our ancestors. We also look forward in modest hope to greater peace in this strange and wonderful new world called the 21st Century.

Peace with justice is not an easy goal. But we know that with the help of the God who is Love, all things are possible.

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Ancestors of Jesus; descendants of the Christ

Texts: Ruth 1: 1-18 (Ruth follows Naomi)* Ruth 3: 1-5; 4: 13-17 (Ruth weds Boaz)

"Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die." Today, if people know anything about the book of Ruth, it is probably these lovely words of fidelity, which are often recited at weddings.

When looked at in context, however, the passage might not seem appropriate for a wedding. Ruth is speaking not as a bride to her groom but as a recently widowed woman to her mother-in-law. She speaks at a desperate time when both women are grief-stricken, single and childless and living in a patriarchal society.  Today, I examine the context of the book of Ruth as a way to discuss both the ancestors of Jesus and the descendants of the Christ.

Ruth is a story about hardship, migration, loyalty, courtship and above all, family. Set 3,000 years ago, it is the eighth book of the Old Testament, nestled between Judges, which tells the troubled history of Israel following the conquest of the Promised Land and 1st Samuel, which tells of the first two kings of Israel, Saul and David.

The book highlights the surprising fact that King David's great-grandmother is Ruth, a foreigner and member of a hated enemy nation, the Moabites. In the last lines of our second reading today we hear that [quote] "they named [Ruth's son] Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David." That David is King David, the second and most renowned of the kings of Israel.

Ruth also brings to mind the surprising fact that Jesus also numbers Ruth among his ancestors. Matthew begins his Gospel by detailing 40 generations that link Jesus with Abraham. 35 of those generations are marked solely by the name of the father, which is what one would expect in the male-dominated First Century when Matthew wrote. But there are five cases where Matthew includes the mother's name as well. These five are Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba, Mary (the mother of Jesus), and Ruth.

These five stand out not only for being women in a long list of men, but also because all could be questioned for their morality; and because, except for Mary, they are not Jewish. Tamar was a Canaanite woman who seduced her father-in-law to conceive a son. Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute who helped Joshua destroy her hometown of Jericho. Bathsheba was married to the Hittite Uriah when she conceived a son with King David. Mary, of course, became pregnant before she was married. And Ruth was a Moabite widow who seduced her mother-in-law's rich relative Boaz to secure a second husband.

In passing, I will also note that the genealogy in Matthew 1 does not match the one found in Luke 3. Luke's genealogy lists 56 generations between Abraham and Jesus, not 40; Luke mentions no mothers, not even Mary; and Luke goes back farther than Matthew -- 19 more generations before Abraham all the way back to Adam. Among other things, these differences between Matthew and Luke reinforce the argument that reading the Bible as history often gets us nowhere.

But to return to Matthew's women: why does he single out four non-Jewish women of questionable morals in his genealogy of Jesus? Well, whatever his reasons, I'm glad he does so because it helps show how the Hebrew Scriptures have meaning for all people and not just for the Jews who first called them sacred.

Take Ruth: she is not Jewish, but from a tribe that is hated and opposed by the Jews, the Moabites. The Jewish man she first marries has come with his parents and brother from Bethlehem to Moab because of a famine. When he dies, Ruth promises to follow his mother, Naomi, back to Bethlehem.

Once back in Bethlehem, Naomi helps Ruth meet and seduce Naomi's rich relative Boaz. God blesses this somewhat-questionable action by giving Ruth a son. Marriage to Boaz provides Ruth and Naomi with safety in a time when it is dangerous to be a woman without a man. Further, Ruth's son leads to a great-grandson, David, who grows up to be the most beloved King in the history of Israel. Then further down the generations, her son is also linked to the birth of the King of Kings, Jesus. So who are we to judge Ruth, Naomi or Boaz? If the Hebrew Scripture and the Gospel of Matthew hold them up as saints and not sinners, I can hardly disagree.

The Old Testament contain untold riches of story and poetry even as it also contains other passages that disturb me. An instance of the latter is found in this account from 2nd Samuel that shows how King David deals with his great-grandmother's people, the Moabites: [quote] "David defeated the Moabites. He made them lie down on the ground and measured them off with a length of cord. Every two lengths of them were put to death, and the third length was allowed to live. So the Moabites became subject to David and brought tribute." Not very edifying stuff, in my opinion.

Besides such violent episodes, the Old Testament is also filled with injunctions against inter-marriage between Israelites and others. Now, these injunctions would  disturb me more if it weren't for the fact that intermarriage keeps happening despite them! Many important Hebrew leaders -- including Moses, Judah, King David and King Solomon --  marry non-Jewish women.

The Old Testament includes demands for racial purity even as it details the gracious truth that many men, including Israel's central leaders, marry women from different nations. These so-called mixed marriages lead to great kings, and eventually to Jesus. In the end, the contradictions in the Old Testament around ethnic purity are resolved in favor of the universal salvation God promises to Abraham in Genesis: "All the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you."

Today we live in a unified world where people from every continent, religion, and culture live side by side. It is a world with so many links of trade, communication and migration that humanity has become one. This reality gives us another vantage point from which to view the story of Naomi and Ruth. Like many of us, Naomi and Ruth are nomads: people who move where the economic winds blow. And like Naomi and Ruth, many of us are forced to overcome ethnic divisions and conventional morality in order to help one another and keep our families safe.

Ruth, despite her ordinary life, is also one of the ancestors of King David and of Jesus of Nazareth.

And what about Jesus descendants? 10 years ago, Dan Brown's bestselling novel, "The Da Vinci Code," which was later made into a Hollywood movie, made a splash because it argued that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had married and had children, and that their descendants were living among us to this day.

While many were entertained by "The Da Vinci Code," I don't take its historical fictions seriously. Besides, as members of the Body of Christ, we have another way to think about the descendants of the Christ.

In a few minutes, we will celebrate again the sacrament of Holy Communion. Not only does communion help us remember the sacrifice of Jesus. It also reminds us that we are incorporated into the life of the Risen Christ. When we eat the bread of life and drink from the cup of blessing, we graphically remind ourselves that we are the branches of a vine that is Jesus the Christ. In this most important way, we all become descendants of the Christ.

Who knows who the real ancestors of Jesus of Nazareth were? Matthew and Luke do not agree in their lists. Luke, by going all the way back to Adam, helps people like me view these lists more as theology than as history. Matthew, by including the names of four women who were from enemy nations of Israel, helps remind us that Jesus offers salvation not just for the people of Israel but for all of humanity. The fact that these four women also made choices that are at best questionable might also cheer us. Jesus' ancestors include ordinary people from many backgrounds who are just as prone to sin as any of us.

But even though we may not be sure who Jesus ancestors are, we do know who the descendants of the Christ are. It is all of us. We are people who hear the call of God in Christ and who come to His Table to remind ourselves that we have been baptized into Christ's death and resurrection. With God's help, we try to take up our cross and follow Jesus through the pain of everyday life toward a new life in God. God's realm, which is inaugurated in this new life, includes all families, all tribes, and all nations.

The ancestors of Jesus were a motley crew who look a bit like you and me. The descendants of the Christ are all the diverse people of the earth. Christ invites each one of us to come to His Table in order to die and rise again.

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Opening the path to healing

Text: Mark 10 46-52 (blind Bartimaeus)

Who gets access to healing? That is one of the themes of today's Gospel reading. In it, we hear again of the healing power of God in Christ. But like many such stories, it also has a shadow side. It is another instance where the disciples try to prevent a sick person from gaining access to Jesus.

When Bartimaeus shouted, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!," many sternly ordered him to be quiet. But when he persisted with his cry for mercy, Jesus heard him, stood still, and asked that Bartimaeus be brought to him. Jesus then assured him that his faith had made him well . . .

In our Bible study discussions on this passage this week in Coronach and Rockglen the topics of medicare and refugees came up. Last week, Saskatoon MP Kelly Block was the object of protests and media scrutiny about a mailing to her constituents that focused on those two issues. Her mailing trumpeted the end of what she and the Conservative government term unfair benefits for refugee claimants. It read. "until this year, new arrivals to Canada have received dental and vision care paid for by your tax dollars. They have had free prescriptions. Not anymore."

Some of those in her riding who received this mailing objected to it -- as much for its tone as for the merits of the issue. The mailing did not express regret that healthcare benefits had been withdrawn from what is arguably the most vulnerable sector of Canadian society -- refugees seeking asylum from persecution in their home countries. On the contrary, Block's mailing seemed to express pride in this decision since the sentence "Not anymore" was printed in bold and underlined.

Is there a connection between the disciples trying to prevent blind Bartimaeus from gaining access to Jesus and the federal government's recent decision to deny dental, vision and drug benefits to refugee claimants? Some might disagree, but for me the connection leapt off the page.

What follows is a possible analogy between the government's refugee decision and our Gospel reading. Those of us in Canada who have dental, vision and drug benefits would be like the disciples: people with privileged access to healing. Those who do not have such benefits -- and this group would now include refugees to Canada who, unlike landed immigrants, come to Canada without jobs and the health benefits that often come with a good job -- would be like Blind Bartimaeus. Finally, the federal government would play the role of the disciples in trying to prevent sick people from getting access to healthcare.

Canada has had universal healthcare for several generations. But medicare does not yet cover dental and vision care or prescription drugs. So perhaps the government has made the right decision in this case.

Perhaps the government should let refugees suffer from dental complications or uncorrected vision. Perhaps it should let them get sick because they can't afford prescription drugs. After all, the Conservative government has added $125 billion to the federal government's debt since the Great Recession started in 2008 and it is eager to find cost savings.

Then there is the issue of fairness. Some Canadian citizens do not have extra healthcare benefits. Personally, I am glad that my position with the church provides me with such benefits. But others of us here today may not have coverage. Seniors sometimes lose benefits upon retirement; and self-employed people like farmers have to buy insurance if they want coverage for drugs, or dental and vision care.

On the other hand, many healthcare professionals argue that denying benefits to refugees will not save money. Refugees who get sick from lack of medications end up in emergency rooms. Refugees who can't afford drugs to cure diseases like tuberculosis might spread disease in the community. Refugees who struggle with their sight while waiting for their cases to be decided, may have a harder time adjusting to life in Canada or finding work.

Personally, I support free health benefits for refugee claimants. Refugees have fled persecution or terror. Not all refugees quickly get work permits. They are often destitute and under great stress. But even if I were persuaded that the government should no longer provide benefits to this small and poverty-stricken group, I would not boast about that decision.

I agree with protestors that MP Kelly Block's mailer seemed designed to sow resentment and division among Canadians.

But why is it so easy for people like Kelly Block to divide us into an "in" group and an "out" group? The disciples illustrate this trap very well for us, do they not? They were early followers of Jesus' call to repent and proclaim the kingdom of God. In our story today, their journey from Galilee to Jerusalem has come to its end. In the very next verses in Mark's Gospel, Jesus and his followers enter Jerusalem in triumph.

During their long journey, Jesus has consistently preached that God's realm is for everyone; and that those who are last shall be first and those who are first shall be last. Jesus offers a special welcome to foreigners, the poor, and the sick. So why, even at this last hour, do his disciples still not get it? Why do they try to prevent a marginal and sick person like Bartimaeus from seeing Jesus?

Perhaps Jesus must continually repeat his message of inclusion, healing for all, and an end to special privileges because our tendency to exclude so-called "outsiders" and cling to our privileges is so great. This was so back in Jesus' time. It continues to be so in Canada today . . .

The largest outcry around refugees in Canada in the past few years involved a boat filled with Tamil refugees from the southeast Asia Island country of Sri Lanka. 500 Tamil refugees landed in British Columbia in August 2010. I remember this incident well since I have a personal connection with a Tamil refugee.

Four years ago, I took a pastoral care course at Emmanuel College in Toronto, and the class was very diverse. Two of us were training to become ministers in the United Church of Canada. One woman was studying to become a priest in the Anglican Church. One man was an immigrant priest serving a Ukrainian Roman Catholic Church in Toronto. One was an immigrant priest serving a Greek Orthodox congregation north of Toronto. One student was a lesbian from the Metropolitan Community Church in Toronto; another, a Presbyterian woman from Korea; another, a baptist woman born in Canada. And finally, one student was a Roman Catholic priest from Sri Lanka, Father John Baskaran.

Father John had come to Toronto from Sri Lanka a few months earlier as a refugee. Like many Catholics in Sri Lanka, he was an ethnic Tamil, and the period during which our class met was a terrible one for Tamils. The winter and spring of 2009 saw the end of a 26-year long civil war in Sri Lanka in which the government, dominated by ethnic Sinhalese people in the south and who are almost all Buddhist, finally crushed the attempt of Tamil people in the north of the Island, who are almost all Hindu or Catholic, to establish an separate Tamil state.

We all loved Father John because of his joyous disposition and his kindness. And we were heartbroken as he told us of the parish that he had left behind and of the dreadful history of Sri Lanka that had led to the civil war between Sinhalese and Tamil people.

After he fled to Canada in the summer of 2008, the 400 people in his parish had been forced to flee their village into the jungle. Scores of them were killed in the final battles of the failed independence war. A second priest in his former parish, whom the Catholic Church had also tried to sponsor as a refugee to Canada along with Father John, was among those killed.

Father John told us that the seeds of the conflict had been planted by the British Empire during its long rule over Sri Lanka. In the 1500s when Portugal conquered the island today called Sri Lanka, it was divided among three different kingdoms: two that were Sinhalese and one that was Tamil. The Portuguese kept the three kingdoms intact as administrative units. 100 years later, the Dutch ousted the Portuguese and made the Island into a Dutch colony, but they too kept the three kingdoms separate from one another.

Then in 1802, Britain won control of the Island from the Dutch. In their wisdom and for administrative efficiency, the British decided to dissolve the three kingdoms and rule the island as one colony, which they called Ceylon. As was the British policy everywhere, they used divide and rule tactics to control the indigenous people of Ceylon. The British gave key civil service posts and other privileges to people from the Tamil minority in the North, who then ran the colony, populated mostly by Sinhalese people, for the British. For the next 150 years, until Ceylon's independence from Britain in 1948, resentment towards Tamils and their privileges built up among the majority Sinhalese population.

Following independence, this ethnic resentment led to discrimination and human rights abuses against Tamils by the Sinhalese-dominated government. Over time these abuses sparked an independence movement among the Tamils in the north, and then to the 26-year civil war, in which as many as 100,000 people were killed.

The situation for Tamils has been difficult for most of the period following independence from Britain; and one of the worst times for Tamils came after the defeat of the Tamil independence movement in 2009. Because of what Father John had told us, I was sure when the boat filled with 500 Tamils reached British Columbia in 2010, that they would all easily get refugee status in Canada.

But instead of welcoming these 500 Tamil refugees with open arms, the government tried to spread fear that Canada was being flooded by refugees. Instead of decrying the history of violence and discrimination in Sri Lanka, with its roots in British rule there, the government tried to whip up panic that the refugees might include people who had fought in the failed war of independence for the Tamils, and who might therefore be considered terrorists.

Not only does such rhetoric ignore the fact that Canada's prosperity, like that of most rich countries, depends on large and growing immigration from poorer countries; it also helps sow distrust between those of us who already live in Canada -- virtually all of us descendants of immigrants and refugees -- and those who come seeking hospitality in times of desperate need.

Of course, the best solution to the world's refugee crises -- whether in Syria and Burma today, or Sri Lanka and Afghanistan a few years ago -- is for all countries to treat their citizens with respect and civil rights; and for all people to have adequate food, water, education and healthcare. But as long as ethnic conflicts in countries like Sri Lanka and Syria erupt into civil war, there will be refugees seeking safety.

When such refugees make it to Canada -- whether by church sponsorship, by airplane, or on a boat run by commercial smugglers -- I would hope that Canada would welcome them. As I read it, the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls on us both to offer hospitality to refugees and also to work for a world in which people are no longer forced to flee their homes because of persecution.

The good news contained in today's Gospel reading is that God in Christ offers healing to marginal people despite the best efforts of people like the disciples -- or like the federal government and MP Kelly Block -- to prevent them from getting it.

God in Christ offers sight to the blind and healing to the sick regardless of nationality and social status, and regardless of the cost of such healing for Jesus. Jesus is willing to bear any burden for us sinners, even death on a cross.

He also calls us to follow him on this journey of self-sacrifice and love. He calls us to include all, heal all, love all. He calls us to end divisions. He calls on all of us -- blind and sighted, citizen and refugee, sinner and saint -- to enter Jerusalem with him, to take up our own cross, to die to our old small lives, and to rise to new life in Christ.

And with God's help, we can all follow Jesus on this path to healing and new life.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The 13th Man: in the stands, on the field, on the cross

Text: Mark 10 32-45 (greatness in service)

This past Monday afternoon, we read a version of today's Gospel story at church school in Coronach. (In Rockglen, we read a different Gospel story in what was our first church school on Thursday afternoon -- the one about Jesus welcoming children since that seemed like an appropriate choice for a first class. Five children came, including Shelby and Sadie who are here this morning).

This story about two brothers, James and John, who ask to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus when he is in his glory hit a chord with the children. They themselves are often focused on small privileges such as who gets to blow the candle out after opening worship, who gets a second cookie during snack time, who gets to sit beside whom, and so on. And when there are 20 children -- as there have been so far this fall in Coronach -- the noise volume of the requests for such privileges can become quite high!

So I was pleased that this week's Gospel passage was about a childish request made by two of the disciples. The children's attention seemed to shift as we got to the  part of the story where James and John ask for pride of place. Perhaps in these two brothers the children finally saw some disciples with whom they could identify!

At this point, Jesus' journey with his disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem is almost over. He has just given his followers a third and final prediction of his passion, death and resurrection. And yet James and John still don't get it. Jesus' glory is one that comes from a baptism of suffering and death, and from drinking a cup that is composed of tears and blood.

Jesus agrees with James and John that they will be baptized in the same baptism as him and will drink the same cup as him. But the privileges that flow from this baptism and this cup -- the two great sacraments of our life in the church -- are the privileges of a servant and not the privileges of a great leader.

Jesus reminds the 12 disciples that he came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. He also says that James and John (and by extension, all of us) will follow him in his great sacrifice -- drinking the bitter cup of suffering and being baptized by the fires of crucifixion. There is new life and glory to be found in this baptism and in this cup, but it is not the glory pursued by the world's rulers. To be baptized with Christ into his death and resurrection is to find joy in the death of one's ego and a new life that is expressed in serving others and not in fulfilling childish desires for individual advancement.

Of course, we do not arrive at a mature place of selfless service without first going through many of life's ups and downs. This is why I love the metaphor of Jesus' journey with his disciples to Jerusalem. It is a journey filled with wonders and marvels; with misunderstandings and bickering; with friends who fight with, and care for, one another; and it is a journey that ends in pain, death, and new life.

We are all disciples on this journey. Even when we stumble or fail to understand, God in Christ leads us forward. We begin the journey with baptism by water -- as did Jesus with his baptism in the Jordan River at the start of his ministry in Galilee and as will happen (or occurred) this morning in Rockglen for three children. We end life's journey with a baptism by fire and the bitter cup of death, which Jesus models for us in his passion, death and resurrection. We cannot escape this second baptism and this bitter cup. They are our greatest fear and also the greatest gift of grace that we will ever receive.

But before this bitter, fearful and glorious end, we have to live our lives . . .

The children who come to church school in Coronach and Rockglen have a lot to teach me, probably because I am not a parent. The ones in kindergarten are willing to do pretty much anything and follow all directions. The ones in later grades are more easily bored and have more challenging questions. All of them -- like James and John -- know what they want and have no difficulty in asking for it.

Being with kids can remind us of our own journey through life -- how passionate we can be in our likes and dislikes; how bitter our disappointments can be; and how delightful our fulfilled wishes can seem.

The children we baptized today in Rockglen have only shown the first glimmers of the people they will become. The children in church school spend all day long trying out new aspects of their egos and figuring out their own capabilities. After our first baptism, life can seem glorious, bright, and full of promise.

We who are older also have learned a lot about the difficulties of living in this broken society. While we remember the promise of childhood, the hard knocks of life point us to our own cross and to the inevitable second baptism of fire that is found in confronting worldly powers and creating families and communities in difficult conditions.

We know that the cup we are forced to drink in this life will sometimes taste as bitter as the one Jesus drinks in Gethsemane on the night of his arrest. We know that glory awaits us. But it is not the same glory we chased as children or young adults. It is a glory that comes from leaving behind our childish egos -- as essential as they are -- for a more mature life in Christ. This new life is about community and service and not about individual privilege . . .

Besides church school, one other theme came into my mind when preparing this worship service. It comes from the passion here in Saskatchewan for our one professional sports team, the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

While I was in Alberta last week, I taped the documentary, "The 13th Man" on TSN. It is about the history of the Roughriders and its fans. It focuses on the unbelievable heartbreak of Grey Cup 2009. In that game, Montreal squeaked out a victory over Saskatchewan with no time on the clock because of a penalty caused by too many Roughriders on the field.

Does anyone here remember that? (Just joking!) In November 2009, I was a student minister in Didsbury Alberta and I watched the game in astonishment. As a non-Saskatchewan resident, I had only a vague sense of the pain of that moment. But living here for 16 months and watching the TSN documentary have now given me a better sense of what that defeat must have felt like for so many here.

One of the many things that struck me in the story of that defeat in 2009 was the refusal of either the players or the fans to name the 13th man who was most directly responsible for the penalty that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory for the Roughriders at the very last second. Some fans who had always prided themselves on collectively being called the 13th man -- the roaring partisans in the stands whose vocal love for our team always provides the Roughriders with an extraordinary home team advantage -- came forward to also identify themselves as the 13th man who caused the Grey Cup defeat in 2009.

This gracious movement reminded me of two things. The first is the 1960 historical movie Spartacus, which tells about a slave revolt in ancient Rome. At the end of the movie when the slave army of Spartacus has been defeated, the victorious Roman soldiers need to identify the slave leader identify himself so they can crucify him. A Roman general demands that Spartacus step forward from the other slaves whom he has led so well. He does so and proudly says "I am Spartacus." But then another slave steps forward and repeats the line "I am Spartacus," then another, then another, until all the men have stepped forward to receive the glory and the agony of identifying with their leader.

Is it not the same with baptized Christians? In our baptism, we are baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Christ. We are marked by the sign of the cross. We gain a new identity, not as individuals, but as part of the Body of Christ. As St. Paul says in Romans, "All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life."

Who is the 13th man? All of us in Saskatchewan are the 13th man. Who is Spartacus? All the slaves who battled for their freedom from the Romans are Spartacus. Who is Christ? All of us who have been baptized into his death and resurrection are Christ.

The Roughriders were defeated in 2009, but all who make up the 13th man found continuing self-respect by standing in solidarity with the team. The Roman slaves were defeated, but they lived a life of love and solidarity by fighting for freedom. Christ was defeated, but he and his disciples were raised to new life in God after fighting and dying for the values of love, compassion, and truth that shaped the journey of their lives . . .

Now to be frank, there is a lot about professional sports that reminds me more of James and John on the road to Jerusalem and less about Christ raised to new life after his passion and death. For instance, much of the love for a team like the Roughriders is tied to worldly glory.

But there is a lot about the 13th man that seems to move beyond this and to point to the path that we hope our children will follow during their lives. The 13th man is more about the journey than the destination. It is more about being part of a huge province-wide family than it is about being an individual. It is about a passion that yearns for success on the field but one that also thrives in the face of defeat, even that most bitter defeat of November 2009.

On the journey of our lives, there will be many highs and lows. With the grace of God, we can learn from both. In life's baptisms by fire we may even rise to new life within God's eternity this side of the grave.

We also face with confidence the final baptism of death. It will not lead us to the childish dreams of individual glory modelled for us by James and John. But we are sure that it leads us to the glory of new life in Christ; a new life beyond all the passionate desires and bitter disappointments of our egos; and a new life that is awake to all of humanity, all of life, the eternal now, and the glorious love of God that flows from sacrifice, service, and the Way of the Cross.

For the Twelve Disciples so long ago, the 13th man was Jesus. So may it be for us today.