Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Sacred and the desolate

Text: Luke 13 31-35 (Jesus sorrows over Jerusalem)

A few years ago, the church in which I grew up in Cornwall Ontario was torn down. The building of Knox United had been damaged in a 1940s earthquake. But other than a missing steeple pinnacle, the building seemed OK when I was growing up in Cornwall in the 60s and 70s.

Unfortunately, a recent inspection revealed that the structure was no longer safe, and so it was torn down. Knox United bought an unused church in the suburbs from the Roman Catholics, which is where Knox members now worship.

I was sad when I heard of the demolition of the church. I had loved its Gothic architecture, the weird layout of its halls, offices, corridors, and how the original building linked up with a newer Christian Education wing. When I was young, I remember discussing with my friends whether God lived in the sanctuary. At the very least, we considered the building sacred.

I thought of this old building as I prepared this sermon on Jerusalem. In a small way, the destruction of any sanctuary can resonate with the tragedies of wars and conquest that have seen countless holy cities and temples destroyed, including in that most Sacred of all cities, Jerusalem.

What is it about Jerusalem that makes it so special? Jerusalem is where King Solomon built the First Temple to the Hebrew God, Yahweh. 300 years later, the city and its Temple were destroyed by the Babylonians. When Jewish leaders rebuilt  Jerusalem and its Temple 50 years later, worship started again, but this time without the lost Ark of the Covenant.

Christians revere Jerusalem as the place of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. When early Christians imagined what a restored heaven or earth would look like, they used the metaphor of a New Jerusalem.

Muslims revere Jerusalem as the place where The Prophet Mohammad ascended into heaven with the Angel Gabriel.

Jerusalem is sacred to all three of the religions of Abraham -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- even as it is also known as a place of betrayal, death, and desolation.

The most famous Christian hymn about the city is called just that, "Jerusalem," based upon an 1804 poem by William Blake.  The poem uses the symbol of Jerusalem to refer to "heaven on earth" -- the new age that began with the coming of Jesus.

I first learned the hymn "Jerusalem" in school when I was growing up in Cornwall. Cornwall is small industrial city on the St Lawrence River about an hour's drive west of Montreal. To me, it seems like a microcosm of Canada. 70% of the population is English-speaking, 30% French and there is a First Nations Mohawk reserve south of the city on an island that is half in Ontario and half in New York.

Perhaps the presence of French and First Nations people and the closeness of Quebec and the U.S. made English people in Cornwall especially conscious of our English roots -- and there is no more English hymn than "Jerusalem."

In fact, "Jerusalem" is the unofficial English national anthem. When the grandfather of Queen Elizabeth, King George V, first heard "Jerusalem," he said that he preferred it even to "God Save the King."

Blake's poem was put to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916 as a way to bolster English spirits during the horrors of World War I. There is irony in this because Blake was a radical who supported the French Revolution and was once tried for treason. Also, the hymn "Jerusalem" is not only popular with staunch monarchists and conservatives but also with socialists and trade unionists.

"Jerusalem" is the final song performed at "Last Night at the Proms" concerts. It is a staple in English schools, just as it was at my elementary school in Cornwall. And a line from the hymn inspired the title of the 1981 Academy Award Winning movie "Chariots of Fire," which ends with the singing of the hymn at a funeral service.

Here are the words of Blake's poem: "And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England's mountains green? And was the holy Lamb of God on England's pleasant pastures seen? And did the Countenance Divine shine forth upon our clouded hills? And was Jerusalem builded here among those dark Satanic mills?

"Bring me my bow of burning gold: bring me my arrows of desire: bring me my spear: O clouds, unfold! Bring me my chariot of fire! I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand till we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land." The poem is packed with symbols and metaphors.

The Holy Lamb of God is a metaphor for Christ. But what does Blake mean by bows of burning gold, arrows of desire, and chariots of fire? The "dark Satanic mills" probably refer to cotton and flour mills, which Blake hated when he wrote the poem in 1804. The goal of building Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land symbolizes the fight to create heaven on earth.

Our Gospel passage today is also about Jerusalem; and like Blake's poem, it also contains many symbols and metaphors. Jesus calls King Herod a fox. He then makes an analogy between himself and a mothering hen that protects its chicks under her wings. He mentions "the third day," a symbol of his resurrection. He states that no prophet can die outside of Jerusalem. But since this is not literally the case, it must also be a metaphor for something or other. And when Jesus talks about the desolation of Jerusalem, this foreshadows the second destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 by the Romans, 40 years after Jesus' death.

In the late 60s of the First Century, there was a Jewish revolt against Rome. After a three-year siege of Jerusalem, the Romans burned the city to the ground, killed 10s of thousands of Jews, and destroyed the Temple. Luke wrote his Gospel 15 to 20 years after this disaster.

Like us, the people who first heard Luke's Gospel would not have known Jesus and the disciples, so they might connect the story of the death of the Son of God to the destruction of God's Temple and his Holy City. The story of the resurrection would have assured them that God's Love lives on even though His Temple had been destroyed and Jerusalem was once again a ghost town.

It is a sad fact that the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 is not unusual. Jerusalem had been destroyed 600 years earlier by the Babylonians. After the Roman disaster in 70, Jews repopulated the city; but it was destroyed a third time by the Romans in 135. When the Roman emperors adopted Christianity as the state religion 200 years later, they rebuilt Jerusalem. Muslims then captured Jerusalem from the Greek survivors of Rome's fall in the 700s. The Muslims allowed the Christians to remain and also invited Jews to return. But 400 years later, European armies slaughtered all the Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem during the Crusades. Today, both the modern state of Israel and the hoped-for Palestinian state claim Jerusalem as their capital. Jerusalem is sacred but also continually troubled.

The sacred temples and cities of many other peoples have also been destroyed in conflict and war over the centuries.

Some sanctuaries are destroyed by invading armies. Some sanctuaries are weakened by earthquakes and later torn down. Some sanctuaries are abandoned because a community of faith has lost numbers, energy and money. What the Christ story reminds us is that the God who is Love, survives all these tragedies. Our temples and sacred cities, no matter how grand, are all subject to decay or attack. But God's Love is indestructible.

So this Lent, as we continue our walk with Jesus to Jerusalem and the cross, know that God grants us the strength to be present to both sides of Jerusalem: both its desolation and its new life. The path of Lent has two sides. It is a journey through death to new life with God in Christ.

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, February 17, 2013

Temptations in wilderness and in abundance

Text: Luke 4 1-13 (Jesus tempted in the wilderness)

On this first of the six Sundays in the Season of Lent, the theme of our Gospel reading is temptation in the desert.

Despite today's snow, we live in an dry region that sometimes seems like a desert to me. Last summer's drought was like nothing I have ever experienced. I was especially struck by how the relative humidity kept dropping day after day as the sloughs dried up and the harvest continued.

But conditions for many of us in a rich country like Canada are more like feast than famine. And so today, I look at temptation in conditions of material abundance in the hope that this will help us orient our hearts and minds to the journey to Jerusalem with Jesus that is the Season of Lent.

When I was on vacation last month in Toronto, I succumbed to a temptation that is  common to many of us. I went on my first ever Caribbean vacation, and I quite enjoyed spending five days in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.

The ocean was warm, the swimming pools were inviting, and the palm trees waved serenely in the sunshine. The food and drink was all-included, the pace was relaxed, and the cost seemed obscenely cheap. It felt like a little slice of paradise wedged between a few damp and cold weeks in and around Toronto.

Part of my enjoyment was getting an up-close-and-personal look at the winter-escape travel industry. Given how inexpensive Caribbean travel has become, I understand why so many of us now make the trip south each winter. Getting on the plane in Toronto seemed no more glamourous than getting on Bernie's bus for a trip to the Mud Bog at Rockin' Beach. I ran into a married couple from the Toronto church I used to attend as we waited for our plane. It was their third trip to Punta Cana, which seemed like a good endorsement.

I was impressed by the large number of people being efficiently processed through customs at the Punta Cana airport. Nor were we just North Americans, but also people from Eastern and Western Europe, Asia and other parts of Latin America. When I realized that Punta Cana is just one of scores -- or is it hundreds? -- of similar resort areas in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific, the scale began to stagger the imagination.

I read somewhere recently that on any given day, there are now approximately 100,000 passenger jet flights. This marks at least a hundred-fold increase in my lifetime. Will another 50 years see a similar increase, to the point where 10 million flights take off and land safely every day?!

Of course, not every vacation ends with no more serious incidents than a sunburn or a few hangovers. For instance, there is this week's story of the 4,000 people stranded for five miserable days on the disabled cruise liner Carnival Triumph in the Gulf of Mexico. And yet several hundred thousand people are still cruising in the Gulf, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean.

Recreational travel seems to be both a blessing and a curse. I am sure that I will enjoy more winter escapes in the years to come, at least until the melting polar icecaps raise the ocean level and drown ocean-side resorts. But the amount of travel most middle class people now experience is also related to massive releases of carbon and other pollutants. This pollution is exacerbated by the fact that the world's middle class has expanded by hundreds of millions of people in poor parts of the world during the last few decades.

Unfortunately, I see no force that can stop the continued increase in human consumption of resources. I used to hope that the prophets of "Peak Oil" would be proven right and price of oil would soar in the 21st century and thus slow climate change. But technological developments like fracking mean that oil and gas production will likely continue to ramp up for at least as long as it takes our economy to completely dislocate the climate.

No one is in charge; not President Obama; not the United Nations; not the universal church. Competitive pressures between companies, economic sectors and nations will ensure that economic development -- including ever-more wondrous travel options -- will continue apace without any controls on the side effects.

So, does my participation in this seemining insanity-- including my trip to the Caribbean, or my use of a car, or my enjoyment of an energy-intensive TV cable-box and DVR combo, or my many junked computers -- mean that I have succumbed to the devil's temptations and given up my right to consider myself a disciple of Christ on his joyous, painful and always austere journey to Jerusalem this Lent?

I don't think so. I disagree with environmentalists who argue that change in individual behaviour is the best way to effect social change. I have nothing against recycling, voluntary simplicity, trying to eat local, and so on. But not if this is the basis for self-righteousness, for hectoring friends and neighbours, or for illusions that such actions can make a dent in the destruction of the natural world caused by an ever-growing economy and population.

On the other hand, individual lifestyle choices can help orient our hearts and minds to what we most value: a trusting faith, hope in the midst of darkness, and above all, love. Lifestyle choices can sometimes help remind us of the living Christ burning brightly within each of our hearts.

When I was in the Caribbean resort, I easily could have succumbed to the lures of too much food, too much alcohol, too much sun, and too much mindless use of my time. Perhaps some of that happened for me, but by worshipping at the Catholic service that was offered the Sunday we were there; by becoming friends with a soon-to-be-retired couple from London Ontario that we met at worship; by reading one of the books I had brought with me; and by letting moderation be a guiding principle, I liked my time at the resort.

Still, the highlight of my four weeks off occurred not during my three weeks of vacation, but at a men's retreat I attended at the United Church's Five Oaks Centre west of Toronto on the final week. This was the seventh time I have attended this event over the last 11 years, and I appreciate it more each time.

The first times I attended, there was a theme to our discussions: fathers and sons;  ageing; native spirituality; and so on. But in recent years, there is no longer a theme or leadership. Instead, men gather for three days and nights to spend time in a sharing circle in which we pass a talking stone between us and listen to what is on each others' hearts and minds.

This year, I was one of 13 men, 10 of whom were ordained ministers. I knew about half the participants, but all of us had participated in the event before, so we were able to get into the spirit of the event quickly.

Unlike the week in the Caribbean, this was a modest affair. We stayed in simple and austere rooms. We sat in a circle around a hearth with a roaring fire and looked out over the beauty of the grounds of Five Oaks that is situated on the banks of the Grand River near Brantford. We used drums or sang hymns to start most of our time in the circle.

The deep sharing and listening of our time together felt to me like love at its best. I learned more about ministry by listening to these men and by trying to articulate my own experiences than I did in any course I took at seminary. I felt enriched by the painful and joyous stories of the other men, even though we are all so different from each other. I wondered if such sharing circles are all that we need in worship? This is a theme to which I will return in the next year as we journey together as a church.

I don't begrudge the trip to the Caribbean, nor do I feel guilty for "wasting" oil and other resources in this lovely indulgence. But I know that what we most crave in the dark winters of our souls are not warm breezes or free drinks. What we most crave are things like acceptance, sharing of our individual experiences of life, and the ability to love and be loved.

Jesus, by resisting the devil's temptations in his forty days and nights in the wilderness models for us this deeper path, I think -- the path that looks to God and his ever-present Love more than it looks to material comfort or political power.

This Lent and in this community of faith, may we offer each other companionship on Jesus' path of deep sharing and love. It is a path that leads us to the darkness of Good Friday and on to the light of new life at Easter.

Thanks be to God.