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.