Sunday, December 29, 2013

'Go West young man'

Text: Matthew 2:13-33 (the flight to Egypt) -- the following is from a "Release from Covenant" service in Rockglen, SK, Dec 29, 2013. For 2014 onwards see http://mwucsermons.wordpress.com/

When I was 19 years old, I hitchhiked out West in search of adventure. I had just finished my first year of university at Queen's University in Kingston. I planned to take a break from school and seek my fortune in the Canadian West.

Unfortunately, I only made it as far as Winnipeg. After staying two nights in the YMCA, I let fear get in the way. I turned on my heels and hitchhiked back to Ontario. Because of that fear, I view that trip as a failed journey of faith.

My childhood had been constrained by fears, whose origins, even to this day, remain obscure to me. My decision to take a year off school and travel West signaled that life at Queen's had increased my courage. The fact that I only stayed on the journey for a week showed that my fears were still getting the better of me. My ability to trust in myself, the world, and the Loving Source we call God was weaker than I had hoped.

I didn't come out West again until 2009 when I was sent to Didsbury Alberta as a student intern minister. That trip also scared me. In particular, I was afraid I would not be able to provide a pastoral presence for grieving families. But in the event, I loved the work of being the minister of Knox United in Didsbury, including walking with grieving families and presiding at funerals.

I imagined that those 10 months in Didsbury would be the end of my life in the West. In June 2010, I returned to Toronto for the last year of my Masters of Divinity degree. Then in 2011, I took another leap of faith and applied for settlement as an ordained United Church minister.

I had hoped  to be settled in Ontario, but instead I was sent to Borderlands, which is by far the most rural and isolated place I have ever lived. Although Borderlands was not the settlement for which I was hoping, I have loved my work here as your minister. I have enjoyed our three churches, the people of our communities, and the beauty of this area. My fears of isolation were overblown.

In August, when I started to look for a call to another congregation, I expected that I would return to Toronto. But as you know, Mill Woods in Edmonton was looking for a minister and I liked their profile. When I met with the Mill Woods Search Committee in September, we felt a mutual call. So I will continue to live and work out West.

Today as we consider journeys of faith, we do so against the backdrop of story of the Holy Family after the first Christmas. They flee west from Bethlehem to Egypt when Joseph has a dream in which an angel warns him that King Herod is  plotting to murder the baby Jesus.

The dangers facing Joseph are much bigger than mine. Nevertheless, I identify with him. Joseph is the patron saint of workers. But I believe he should also be the patron saint of step fathers. Joseph cares for Jesus without hesitation despite not being his biological father.

The role of paid, accountable minister strikes me as a cross between a step parent and a foster parent. A minister is called to an existing family of faith. The role of the minister is to love the members of this family and to allow himself to be loved by them in turn. When the call is over, the minister moves to another family.

As I leave Borderlands today, it is not clear what is next for this charge. Will you call another "foster parent?" Will you join with other faith families to the north? The congregations of Borderlands are no longer large or energetic enough to continue without change.

I appreciate all I have learned and experienced here. I also feel a call to engage with a different congregation as I continue to confront fear and journey with other pilgrims towards faith.

The idea of God's call continues to mystify me. In today's Scripture reading, Joseph responds to a call from God in a vision of an angel in a dream. My own experience has not been as clear cut.

I returned to church 12 years ago in the face of a disintegrating marriage. As I engaged with worship, I was surprised by the strength of the pull that God's Spirit exerted. When I was a child, I had missed the power of the story of Holy Week in which Jesus is arrested, tortured and executed by the same evil Empire that had tried to murder him as a child.

Coming to grips with the story of Holy Week changed my life. Finally, here was a story that captured the truth of my small life and of all our lives. It reminds us that the false gods we worship die in the painful vicissitudes of life, and that out of the ashes, the God who is Love rises to new life in our hearts.

The story of Jesus provides what I had lacked in many failed faith journeys. It helps move me from self-preoccupation to faith in a God as big as the universe and as powerful as Love. I am trying to follow the pull of this heartbreaking and hope-filled story wherever it leads.

On a Sunday in July 2007 in Toronto, I made the decision to pursue ordination as I walked home from church to my apartment southwest of  the church near the shore of Lake Ontario. The "call " I experienced that day felt like the pull of gravity. It wasn't like Joseph's vision of an angel in a dream. It wasn't God speaking as to a prophet. It was the simple pull of gravity as I walked down a steep hill.

Sometime later, I read an interview with the atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett in which he was asked, "Surely, professor, you must believe in a higher power that orders and creates the universe?" To which Dennett replied, "Of course I believe in such a higher power. It is called gravity."

I don't know if that quote invalidates my call to ministry. Responding to God's call for me feels like surrender. It is not verbal, but is felt in the gut and heart. It acknowledges that my small self is utterly dependent on vast forces that are greater than us, forces which we know as God's Love.

When I decided to seek ordination, it was not clear to me that at the end of the process there would be congregations. But when congregations showed up -- first in Didsbury, and later in Borderlands -- I got it. Congregations are a crucible in which we can confront fear and to try to accept God's grace.

Any family would do for this purpose, I suppose. But since I don't have children of my own, I am grateful for the role of foster parent that is given to a minister. As a still inexperienced minister, I am aware of my sins of omission and commission during our time together. I am also grateful for all that I have learned by worshipping and working with you all.

Joseph responds to God's call amid the violence and evil of King Herod. He doesn't doubt or hesitate, but simply obeys. His faith does not mean that children are not murdered in Bethlehem. His success in keeping Jesus safe as a child doesn't save Jesus from arrest and execution as an adult.

Ministers sometimes dread preaching on dark biblical stories like the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt and the Killing of the Innocents in Bethlehem, and I can understand that attitude. On the other hand, the stark horror of today's story strikes me as realistic and therefore reassuring.

As with Joseph and Mary, our journey of faith is not one without warnings, danger, or pain. The journey is about accepting God's grace to confront and then shed our fears despite the difficulties and pain of life.

When we feel the pull of God's Spirit, we don't know where it will take us. Nor does our response mean an end to all heartbreak or to the evils of a violent society.

Responding to the call means awareness of God's support on the journey. It reveals the truth that no matter the outcome of our journey, we are assured of God's mercy. We will all return to the Love from which we have all come.

I don't know what life in Edmonton and Mill Woods will be like, but I am excited for 2014 and beyond. I don't know what is next for Borderlands charge or for you as individuals. But I am sure that it will be within God's love.

God seems to be calling me West again, as happened when I was 19, when I was sent to Didsbury, and when I was settled here in the beauty of Borderlands.

I leave Borderlands with gratitude for our experiences together and for all that I have learned from you. I offer you my wishes and prayers with the sure hope that God's blessings will continue to enrich you regardless of what happens with the church.

Sometimes God calls us to flee in the night. Sometimes God calls us to stay rooted in a land of courageous settlers, like this one.

Wherever our journeys take us, may they take us beyond the fears of our small selves and closer to a trusting faith in the God who is Love.

On all of these journeys, Jesus is our loving companion. To him be the glory and praise forever.

Amen.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Scrooge: a Christmas carol of ignorance and bliss

Text: Matthew 2:1-12 (the visit of the wise men)

I love the Christmas morning scene from the 1951 film version of  "A Christmas Carol," Charles' Dickens classic novel.

The lead character, Ebenezer Scrooge, is thrilled to be alive after spending the night with the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. From their visions, Scrooge has gained painful insight into his past behaviour, which he now regrets.

Scrooge tells his housekeeper Mrs. Dilbur that he doesn't know how long he has been with the spirits. "In fact," he continues, "I don't know anything . . . I never did. But now I know that I don't know." Then he claps his hands together, slaps his thighs and prances about the room as he sings, "I don't know anything. But now I know that I don't know. I don't know anything, all on a Christmas morning," at which point, Mrs. Dilbur runs out of the room screaming.

This is one of my favourite movie scenes of all times, and, I think, a perfect depiction of a person having his life turned around.

Tonight, I hope that the spirit of Christmas will infect our hearts and minds as it did Scrooge and help us turn towards generosity, joy, and love.

This church service also has a shadow side. This will be the last time that I will preside at this pulpit as your settled minister. In fact, this may be the last worship service led by a minister settled in the Borderlands charge. In late January, the Central Board will make decisions that will help decide our future.

During two and half years here, I have failed to build up this congregation, which leaves me feeling exposed and ignorant. I can empathize with Scrooge on Christmas morning. As a Christian minister, I wonder what I really know. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps I never did know anything.

Waking up to the fact that he knows nothing comes at the cost of painful visions for Scrooge. But from this place of not-knowing, he changes his life completely.

Ignorance and powerlessness are not always seen as markers of healing and joy.  But when we look again at the Christmas story and the life of Jesus, we might agree that Dickens and Scrooge are on to something.

Like all newborns, Jesus on the first Christmas is full of promise. But like all newborns, he is also powerless, ignorant, and vulnerable. In the passage that follows the one we heard tonight, Matthew writes that King Herod searches for Jesus in an attempt to kill him. Joseph and Mary are forced to flee with Jesus to Egypt for the next few years.

Jesus begins his life as a humble baby, he ends his life in humiliation on a cross, and he calls those who follow him to take up our own cross. Just as with Scrooge's Christmas night with the Spirits, the cross carries the promise of new life. But this new life in Christ comes at the cost of pain, powerlessness, and ignorance.

It might seem odd for a Christian minister to uphold ignorance as a virtue. Churches seem to be overflowing with knowledge. In church, we study the Bible, how to behave, and God as Source, Saviour and Spirit. Why, then, should I uphold ignorance, especially someone like me who seems to know so much? You know, it is not uncommon after worship for people to remark on how knowledgeable I am. Some have even suggested that I might make a better teacher than a preacher!

It is true that I love learning. But I also pray that, like Scrooge, I have endured enough dark nights of the soul to realize that knowledge is of little value in our individual and collective journeys towards God's love and God's salvation.

There is never an end to what we can learn. But no matter how much we learn, it will never be more than a tiny sliver of all that humans know. Nor will it ever help us get beyond our need to trust our bodies, our fellow human beings, and the world. It will never free us from the need to place our trust in God.

Before that painful Christmas night, Scrooge thought that he had life figured out. He had learned to harden his heart against the untimely deaths of his mother and sister and against his inability to find love. He had become successful in business. He assumed that others could achieve his worldly success through hard work and ruthlessness.

Scrooge worshipped self-reliance, money, and lack of empathy. This was what he knew, and it seemed sufficient to him.

But the beginning of wisdom is awareness of our utter dependence on God. From a position of ignorance and powerlessness, we are freed to accept our mortal reality and the difficulties of the family, community and world in which we live. With the grace of humility we are free to give and accept love without limit.

During the years when Scrooge had everything figured out, he was a miserable sinner. But when he realized that he knew nothing, he became a joyous and giving friend.

All of us are holy fools. Like Jesus, we come into the world without power and knowledge and we leave this world in the same way. Since we will never "get it right" and since we are headed to our own cross, we can, with grace, leave behind addictions and preoccupations. We are freed to live fearlessly into our sacred values.

You know, it is possible to become addicted to almost anything: alcohol and painkillers, of course, but also nationalism, sports, food, wealth, power, even church and its traditions.

In the face of his mortality and the tough realities of a crazy world, Scrooge learns that none of his preoccupations matter. He gives up old certainties. He admits his ignorance and his dependence on others and on God. He relaxes into a painful awareness that he had wasted much of his life. He also relaxes into an joyous awareness that, in his powerlessness, he is saved.

The church represents this paradox of ignorance that leads to joy and powerlessness that leads to salvation by a humble Saviour born into poverty at Christmas, one who grows to become the Christ who is arrested, tortured and crucified during Holy Week. God in Christ graciously calls us to walk with him on this path. With faith and hope, we walk towards God's love as ignorant sinners guided by the light of salvation. On this path, God removes all of our worries.

Take church -- when we realize our limitations, we can stop worrying about it, which frees us to be the best possible church members we could ever be. Same with our families -- when we admit our dependence on God, we don't have to worry about family, which allows us to be the best parents or children we could ever be. We don't have to worry about wealth or power, which allow us to be better citizens. We don't have to worry about preserving our small lives, which allows us to be raised into new life in Christ, the best and brightest life imaginable.

When I came here to Rockglen, Fife Lake, and Coronach two and half years ago, I came as a holy fool with empty hands. I pray that I am leaving in much the same way.

I wish all the best for this church, town, and for you. May your lives continue to be filled with God's blessings, whether or not that involves church.

And if a United Church presence does continue in Borderlands, I pray that it will be a church that knows it doesn't know anything.

St. Paul said that all he knew was Christ and him crucified. He also wrote that while this seems like "foolishness to those who are perishing, it is the power of God to those who are being saved." God's strength lies in weakness, and our healing is guaranteed by a Saviour who dies on a cross.

On a dark Christmas Night, Ebenezer Scrooge learned the painful truth that his life had been wasted on idols and bitterness. Because he accepted the Spirit's help to acknowledge this painful truth, he was raised to joyful new life on Christmas morning in full awareness of his ignorance and foolishness.

May the light, joy and love of this Christmas grant us the humility of the child of Bethlehem who leads us as holy fools to the cross and then beyond to the limitless new life found in an empty tomb at Easter.

And on this, as on any Merry Christmas, may God Bless us, Everyone!

Amen.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Dreaming of love

Texts: Isaiah 7: 10-16 (God's sign); Matthew 1 18-25 (Joseph's dream)

Love conquers all, we're told; and on this final Sunday in Advent, we hear a love story involving Jospeph and Mary, a dream, and the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

Joseph loves Mary, and he stays engaged to her even when she tells him that she is expecting a child. He trusts a dream in which an angel tells him that Mary's child is of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus is born, Joseph and Mary love and care for the baby in difficult circumstances.

Just as it was for Joseph and Mary long ago, love is the final ingredient of our Advent preparation for Christmas. But does love truly conquer all, even when it leads to the birth of a child called Emmanuel?

2700 years ago, the Prophet Isaiah tells the King of Judah that a son is about to born who will be called God With Us, or Emmanuel. His birth will be a sign that his people are saved. 700 years later, an angel tells Joseph in a dream that Mary's son will also be called Emmanuel, and his birth will also mean salvation.

And yet today, violence and pain still plague us. Joseph trusted his dream. But can we continue to trust in God's dream of salvation as shown by the birth of Jesus?

The birth of a child fills us with hope. Each one bears the image of God and so we could call any child Emmanuel. Each one is filled with the promise of an unknown future.

When we despair about social problems, sometimes we say, "today's young people are idealistic and filled with energy. They will fix things that we can't."

But young people are rarely found in church anymore (despite today's baptisms in Fife Lake). Last week, we had another "Children's Church" worship. I enjoyed the services and appreciated the sharing. But only five children attended.

This past Monday, Carla and I led a "pastoral oversight visit" to the United Church in Mossbank, and the story we heard there is familiar -- few children and youth, and no people below the age of 55 who are willing to take over from the elders who have been leading the church for years now.

Last Sunday night, some of us sang in the third and largest of the community Christmas concerts. Several hundred people filled the Roman Catholic Church in Willow Bunch, and I loved the experience. But few in attendance were under 55. The same thing is found in churches all across Canada.

Children and youth give us hope. But without young people, how do we maintain hope in church?

The decline and aging of our churches can make us feel sad or distressed. But church is just an earthly vessel in which we remember and try to live out our sacred values. It is those values of faith, hope, and love that are sacred and not the vessel itself.

Today is the final Sunday at which I will preside at worship in Coronach, Rockglen, and Fife Lake. We will celebrate Christmas Eve together on Tuesday, and I will preach at the Release from Covenant service next Saturday in Rockglen before I leave for Edmonton. But after that, the future of Borderlands is in play.

The Board has decided to suspend worship in January. Discussions continue with the United churches in Assiniboia, Mossbank, Limerick and Lafleche. Arrangements might be made that would help us have worship, mission, and pastoral care in Borderlands. The next Central Board meeting at the end of January will discuss these ideas further.

But this week marks a change into an uncertain future for us. We don't know if the United Church will survive in Borderlands. We don't know if the Christian church will continue to decline. We don't know if religion of any sort will survive into the 22nd century.

I hardly have all the answers, but I see many reasons for the decline of religion in our time. Since the beginning of civilization, religion has been abused by kings to prop up oppressive regimes. Although that role hardly describes the United Church of Canada in the 21st Century, it might be that we cannot survive the sorry legacy of hundreds of years of church-supported war, racism, and sexism.

In my not so humble opinion, a lot of nonsense still gets preached in churches. When a church turns its back on science,  when it preaches intolerance, or when it uses fear to motivate members, I think it deserves to disappear.

Once again, this is not our experience with the United Church of Canada. And I continue to be greatly encouraged by Pope Francis, who is a breath of fresh air for the largest church in the world. But when other religious leaders spread nonsense, intolerance and fear, it makes it difficult for all of us.

Religious-inspired violence continues to be prominent in news reports. The ancient Christian communities of Iraq, Syria, and Egypt are disappearing in the face of terrorist attacks. People who are lucky enough to flee from there to find refuge in a country like Canada will likely become more secular in succeeding generations

When religion breeds violence and hatred, people are wise to abandon it. Perhaps God's Holy Spirit is directing us to find new ways to reflect on our sacred values and to live into them that don't involve church, mosque, or temple.

Jesus was born into a religious context marked by violence, fear and disagreement. The Way of the Cross on which he led his friends to Jerusalem shattered the certainties of their religious past and exposed their old traditions. The Way of Jesus is one in which love is found in sacrifice and new life is found in death.

Our churches seem to be dying, which may mean that something new is afoot in the world. Like Mary and Joseph, our celebration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas signals the birth of love in our lives. But is also involves change and dislocation. As we will hear on Saturday, a post-Christmas dream of Joseph warns him that King Herod is searching for Jesus in order to kill him. So Joseph flees to Egypt with Mary and Jesus. Herod's murderous campaign casts a shadow across the first Christmas.

Love does conquer all.  Of that, I am sure. But it does not always give us what we want. Instead, it gives us what we need, which is the cross, our painful guarantee of God's love reborn again and again.

Regardless of the future of church, new babies will be born into the world reminding us of the presence of the God who is Love and giving us hope for the future. Young people will continue to fight for social change in a world of injustice and war. And families of all sorts will continue to struggle to live in peace and joy despite the difficulties of life together.

Love will continue be our most sacred value and the source of our deepest joy regardless of the success of our churches, or families, or our careers. While love does not solve all of life problems, it makes life worthwhile.

This Advent, we have reminded ourselves of hope in dark times, of peace in a world with too much violence, of joy in lives of pain, and of love which comes to us as a baby bearing the image of God.

Death hovered over the first Christmas. But the way that Jesus confronts and overcomes death as an adult also reveals the sure promise of new life. The good news is that the God who is Love freely offers this new life to us all.

Advent is almost over. Christmas is almost here. And so, with a sure hope for new life in Christ, we say again . . .

Come, Lord Jesus, Come.

Amen.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Joy in lives of many colours

Text: Isaiah 35 (streams in the desert)

It was "Children's Church" again today, and so the following reflection solicited sharing from people, young and old, about times of joy and sorrow in the past year . . . Ian

And now a time for reflection. I will start with few words on today's Scripture reading and our theme of joy. After that, I want to open the conversation up so all of us who want can share memories about joys and sorrows. Finally, I will close with a few more thoughts.

I liked today's reading from Isaiah. Its happy vision fits with our theme of joy. It also reminds me a bit of our region.

Isaiah is trying to give hope to the people of Israel after their defeat by Babylon. Both Israel and Babylon are dry countries surrounded by desert and wilderness. So I can understand how the people of Israel would take images of water in the wilderness and streams in the desert as signs of joy.

Now, our region is hardly wilderness or desert. But it is one of the driest parts of Canada. And we have a wilderness park 100 km to our west. Grasslands National Park is returning former ranches to native grasses.

For these reasons, I think we also can relate to Isaiah's images of streams in the desert and blossoms in the wilderness as metaphors of joy.

During the four Sundays in Advent, we prepare for Christmas by focussing first on hope, then peace, joy today and finally love next week. We do so not because life is always peaceful, joyous, and loving, but because often it isn't. Just as farmers don't always get enough rain in the spring, we don't always avoid conflict in our families. Nor do we always feel joy or love, especially after loss or when we are hurt and angry.

At Christmas, we feel joy when we gather with family and friends and exchange gifts that show our love for each other. But our joy is sometimes accompanied by sadness or disappointment. Today, I want us to think about both sides of joy -- times when we experience it; and times when wish we had more of it.

So having said those few things, I am now going to turn things over to you. Think back, if you will, to this past year and remember moments when you felt happy or joyful. Does anyone want to share a happy memory from the past year? Who wants to start . . . Roughriders and the Grey Cup? birth of a baby? a wedding? great vacation? relief from pain or sickness? singing in the choir? . . .

Thank you for your sharing. And now, I want us to turn to the other side of life. Let us now think back through this year and remember moments when we didn't feel happy of joyful. Is anyone willing to share a moment like that? one when you felt pain or loss instead of joy? things that disappointed you or left you feeling discouraged? a death? hearing about tragic news, such as the shootings in Newtown Connecticut one year ago yesterday? my car crash . . .

Thank you again for that sharing. I am sure that we all really appreciate it. Both joy and sorrow are part of life for us all.

To finish, I will reflect on the two stories of Jesus' birth found in the Bible. Jesus' birth in Bethlehem is a moment of great happiness. In one story, angels sing "Peace on earth, good will to all" and direct shepherds to go to Bethlehem to see.

There they find Mary, Joseph and the baby in a stable. The Romans have forced Mary and Joseph to travel a long way for a census. When they arrive in Bethlehem, there is no room for them, so Mary is forced to give birth in a stable. This humble scene reminds us of how vulnerable Mary and Jesus were at his birth.

Mary is blessed with a child, but she and Joseph are poor and live under Roman rule. There is joy in the birth of Jesus, but there is also stress and a hint of the difficulties that Jesus would face later with the Romans in his ministry.

In the other story of Jesus' birth, a Star guides Wise Men with wonderful gifts to Bethlehem. But there is also danger. A dream warns Joseph to flee Bethlehem because King Herod wants to find the baby and kill him. Mary, Joseph and Jesus leave for Egypt where they spend the next few years as refugees.

Jesus survives this first scare. But he grows up as a poor refugee. Life must have been difficult for the Holy Family.

The stressful and scary parts of the Christmas stories remind us that our greatest joys also come with risk. At the birth of a child, we worry about the health of the baby and the mother. We worry that the family won't have enough money. We wonder if the troubles of the world will bring harm to our loved ones, as happens to Jesus 30 years later.

But even though life has risks, we still pursue the things that bring us joy. We fall in love. We marry and have children. We build struggle for what we believe is right in the world.

Often, the things we fear do come to pass.  A life of great love can also be a life of great loss and pain.

The good news is that even when we lose what is precious to us, God is still our Source and Support. On his journey to Jerusalem, Jesus tells us that we have to lose our life to find it. When we live into this Gospel truth, we can know the deepest joy of all.

This is the true joy of Christmas, that we belong to God. Christmas comes each year to remind us that God's Love comes to us in Christ, both as helpless baby and as our crucified saviour. Even when we don't look for it, God's love finds us.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Mandela and us

Text: Matthew 3 1-12 (John the Baptist)

Since Thursday, the media have been filled with reports about the death of Nelson Mandela. Like many people interviewed in these reports, I cherish a memory of a time when I saw Mandela in person. On June 18, 1990, I was one of 30,000 people who gathered on the lawn of the Ontario Legislature to hear him speak, just four months after his release from 27 years in prison.

I was working as a researcher at the Ontario Ministry of Education. After work, a few of us decided to make the short walk west to Queen's Park from our office on Bay Street to see this legendary opponent of apartheid in South Africa.

I had learned about Mandela at anti-apartheid rallies in the 1980s. Until February 1990, Mandela's face had not been seen and his voice not heard since 1962 when he was imprisoned for leading the armed struggle against the racist South African state.

The rally electrified us. So much was changing in the world at the time. The previous spring, young people in China had risen up in their millions against Communist dictatorship until their movement was drowned in blood in Tiananmen Square. Popular uprisings in Eastern Europe had led to the Fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. The civil wars in Central America were coming to an end.

And now it seemed that white supremacy in South Africa would finally crumble. How else to explain the miraculous appearance in Toronto of this 73-year-old lawyer, human rights campaigner, and guerrilla leader, Nelson Mandela? It felt like we were in the presence of both a prophet and saint . . .

Today is the second Sunday in Advent when our theme is Peace and we hear the angry words of John the Baptist calling for repentance. Against this backdrop, I examine connections between racism in South Africa and Canada, and what the legacy of Nelson Mandela might teach us about the struggle for peace in a world still scarred by colonialism.

There are many parallels between the history of Canada and South Africa. Both countries used to be British colonies. Both were created as white settler states on land conquered from indigenous people. Both long denied citizenship and basic human rights to native people. Both physically separated whites and natives in a system of reservations.

The main difference between South Africa and Canada is the makeup of our  populations. Soon after Europeans came to Canada, they began to outnumber native people. By 1867, only 150,000 of the three million people in Canada were First Nations. In contrast, whites in South Africa never made up more than 20% of the population.

But why did native people in Canada die off after European conquest while Black Africans survived? The answer might be found in a strange source -- cattle. Before European conquest, Africa had a long history of domesticated animals and so it also had a long history of animal-borne diseases like smallpox and tuberculosis.

In the Americas, none of the mammal species could be domesticated and so First Nations people did not have history of animal-borne diseases. When Europeans arrived, they brought infectious diseases with them that killed 90% or more of the native people of both North and South America within the first 200 years.

The die-off of native people in the Americas explains the difference between Canada and South Africa. Canada's laws and practices around race were similar to South Africa's until the 1960s, but in South Africa the labour force was always largely made up of blacks.

Since 1900, there has been a resurgence in the numbers of native people in Canada. Today almost 5% of Canadians are of First Nations descent. And like Black people in post-colonial Africa and the descendants of Black slaves in the United States, Canada's First Nations continue to struggle with the legacy of colonialism.

As Mandela is buried this week, the world celebrates his work to end South African apartheid after 1994. This was a milestone in overcoming 500 years of European colonialism.

Mandela is especially revered for his focus on forgiveness and reconciliation. The brutality of the centuries of white domination were not followed by brutality towards the white minority of South Africa nor the collapse of its economy or social order. And so we give thanks for Mandela's life and mourn his death.

Unfortunately, a lot of the damage caused by colonialism remains in Africa and around the world. Mandela's work is hardly complete.

Colonialism was also a central issue at the time of Jesus. When John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus, Palestine had been under foreign occupation for 600 years. In today's reading, John calls religious leaders "a brood of vipers," probably because they collaborated with the Roman Empire. John wanted Israel to be an independent kingdom again instead of a colony of Rome.

Getting rid of foreign domination is never an easy task, though. John had good reasons to resent Rome. But given the power of Rome, religious leaders also had good reasons to collaborate with it. They maintained religious practices in the teeth of Roman oppression.

Even the coming of Jesus did not bring Jewish self-rule back to Israel. That had to wait until the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the 19th Century, some European Jewish leaders laid claim to Palestine despite the fact that the biblical texts they used as justification also could be used as justification for the presence of Arab Christians and Muslims who lived in Palestine. News of the horrors of the Holocaust in World War II increased support for the creation of a Jewish state, which happened in 1948.

In terms of its settlement, Israel falls somewhere between the Canadian and South African cases. Jewish settlers soon became the majority group in Israel after 1948, which is similar to settlement in Canada, but Christian and Muslim Arabs remained a substantial minority, which is closer to settlement in South Africa.

Immigration to Israel is based on ethnicity and religion. Arabs have been displaced or discriminated against. Israel's military has illegally occupied the West Bank of the Jordan for almost 50 years now. Over this time, Israel has received hundreds of billions of dollars in military aid from the U.S., far more than any other country.

Given its nature, I am not surprised that Israel was South Africa's most loyal supporter during apartheid. Here is a how a 1976 report by the South African government explained the close diplomatic and military relationship between the two: "Israel and South Africa have one thing above all else in common: they are both situated in a predominantly hostile world inhabited by dark peoples." (Guardian, Feb 2006)

This phrase reminds me of a comment made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper this week as he announced plans to visit Israel in 2014. He called Israel a "light of freedom and democracy in what is otherwise a region of darkness."

In contrast, this week a network of United Church of Canada activists launched a campaign against illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank of the Jordan with a boycott of goods produced in those settlements. The boycott campaign flows from a decision reached at the 2012 General Council meeting of our church. These protests did not get much media attention, but then neither did the first boycotts against South African products in the 1970s.

In terms of human rights abuses or violence, Israel is hardly the worst state in the world. However, I consider Israel's colonialism to be a serious danger to world peace. By turning Palestine into an Jewish state instead of a country in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims would live in equality, Israel has exacerbated the ethnic cleansing in North Africa and the Middle East. Israeli violence towards Palestinian Arabs and its illegal settlements are an ongoing provocation to further violence.

Many would disagree, and many others might wish we didn't pay attention to issues like colonialism in church. I do so because I believe that there is healing to be found in  speaking out against colonialism even when it doesn't have an immediate impact on the ground.

In a world dominated by empire, none of us remain unscathed. The obvious victims are people like Mandela who are imprisoned or killed for fighting for equality and those who live in poverty as second-class citizens. But imperialism also scars the elites who run the system, the police and soldiers who enforce its policies with violence, and those among the oppressed who find ways to survive by collaborating with empire.

There are no easy answers in how we can overcome the misery of First Nations in Canada, the continuing poverty and inequality in South Africa, violence among Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Israel and Palestine and other consequences of colonialism. But Mandela's work provides a model and a beacon of hope.

Mandela worked to make South Africa a Rainbow Nation in which people of different races, languages, and religions live together with democratic and human rights. The exact details can be devilishly difficult, of course, but I pray that South Africa's model will be followed in other post-colonial countries like Canada and in Israel and Palestine.

We who are the descendants of European settlers are not responsible for the colonial policies of the past. But just like Blacks in Africa and natives in Canada, we too bear the scars of that history. Simply by being born, we receive the gifts of all past and present human culture and achievement. But we also bear the burdens of the violence and pain in the past and which still mar life in the present.

When we stand against colonialism and work for racial equality, we lift some of those burdens from our hearts. With God's help, we can turn away from our violent past and towards the Prince of Peace and his reign of justice.

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

Amen.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

What time is it?

Texts: Isaiah 2 1-5 (swords into plowshares), Romans 13 11-14 (time to wake up), Matthew 24 36-44 (the day of his coming)

"Christmas is coming, how joyful it will be. The family will gather round the Christmas tree." The words of this old song capture our hopes for Christmas -- a time for family gatherings and gift-giving.  But the season of Advent, which we begin today, is less about the coming of Christmas than it is about the coming of Christ. The two sound similar, but they can be quite distinct.

Waiting for Christmas is a time for fond memories and happy celebrations. Waiting for Christ is a time for both fear and hope.

On this first Sunday of Advent, we hear Isaiah say that God's kingdom will be established "in the days to come." Swords will be beaten into ploughshares and humanity will study war no more.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus tells us to stay awake for the coming of the Son of Man. He says "about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." He implies that this Day of Judgement, whenever it comes, will be as destructive as the flood of Noah's time.

In our third reading, St. Paul says that we know what time it is -- the time of salvation. Paul's vision includes both the awesome power described by Jesus and the joy described by Isaiah. Paul urges us to stay awake because any moment can be one of God's searing judgement and gracious salvation. The Day of Judgement we fear is also the Day of Salvation for which we hope.

So, what time is it? This is a time when we prepare for Christmas and its traditions. It is also Advent, a time in which we wait in fear for a day of judgement and watch in hope for the coming of God's kingdom of love.

Today, as we start a new church year with readings about the end of the world, I am aware of other endings. It is now December, the last month of my time here in Borderlands before I leave for Edmonton.

We celebrate communion today, which is our usual practice at the start of the month. Today will be the last time I preside at communion here during Sunday worship, although the Release from Covenant service, which will be in Rockglen on Saturday Dec 28th, will include communion.

I have felt privileged to gather around the communion table with you these past 30 months. Like many people, I struggle to fulfill my spiritual needs. Writing sermons is my main spiritual discipline, but words are not enough. I also love the ritual of communion, which reminds us of our fears and hopes in a simple meal with friends.

Communion begins with thanksgiving for our blessings. Then we remember the ministry of Jesus, his journey to Jerusalem, and the last meal he ate with his friends on the night before his execution. Finally, we eat and drink together. The meal helps us to experience the grace of God in our bodies. Communion reminds us that new life comes from pain and death.

In a similar way, Advent urges us to look for the coming of Christ and God's salvation through the lens of God's judgement.

Many fantasies have been created about the Day of the Lord, some as terrible as the story of Noah and the flood. But we don't need to fantasize. Life provides us with plenty of moments in which we are aware that God's healing comes at the cost of great pain.

A loved one dies, a family is torn apart by quarrels and disappointments, the country suffers from economic or political crisis. These are not the usual  notes we strike when we prepare for Christmas. But they are often our reality whether it is Christmas time or not.

By placing the virtue of hope in the context of life's pain and loss, Advent both prepares us for the coming of winter and for the rebirth of spring.

But do we have to stare at the things we fear in order to find hope? I think that the process of recovery from addiction might help us see the connection. Many people say that the first step in recovery is realizing that one is helpless in the face of a problem.

This fall, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has given us a perfect model of denial. No matter how big his humiliations, Ford refuses to realize that he cannot deal with his problems. Despite telling one journalist that he has had a "Jesus moment," I believe that until he resigns in disgrace, nothing will change for him.

I can understand why Ford has not been able to take this first step. To admit the extent of his problems would be painful. He has decided it is better to continue as though everything were OK rather than feel the pain of his powerlessness.

Ford, I am sure, comes by his problems honestly. He didn't ask to be born into a broken world or a violent family. He is hardly the only one who wants to avoid the full implications of who he is in the light of the coming of God in Christ, whether during Advent or at a communion table.

To admit one's powerlessness is to arrive at the fearsome Day of Judgement. But it is also one's Day of Salvation. Giving up the struggle to deny reality opens us up to God's healing and new life.

And so, on the first Sunday in Advent, we focus on hope, and hear about the Coming of the Son of Man. We find hope not in the belief that we will never feel pain or loss. We find hope because we know that out of pain and death arises new life in Christ. We won't always get what we want, but beyond our small broken selves, we will surely get what we need.

This is the message I hear in today's Advent readings. It is also the message I get from the sacrament of communion in which we share Jesus' body broken for us and his blood shed for us.

When I was a child, I loved the mystery and wonder of Christmas. I looked forward to seeing cousins and grandparents, to big meals, and to the gifts under the tree. But the older I get, the more I also appreciate the dark notes of Advent. Advent is not just getting ready for Christmas Eve. It is about getting ready for the worst crises in life -- sickness, loss, and the coming of The Day of the Lord.

Advent reminds us that Jesus is coming, not just as a helpless infant born in Bethlehem, but also as the Risen Christ. As the United Church Creed puts it, Jesus comes as both our Judge and our Hope.

What time is it? It is time for us to prepare for the greatest moment of pain and joy we will ever experience, the Day of the Lord.

This is Advent. And so as we prepare for Christmas, we also say with fear, trembling, and unshakeable hope . . . Come Lord Jesus, Come.

Amen.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

When Jesus comes into his kingdom

Text: Luke 23:33-43 (the crucifixion)

Today is "Reign of Christ" or "Christ the King" Sunday, and the Gospel reading is about Jesus' crucifixion. In this sermon, I reflect on how Jesus as our crucified King exposes human kingdoms.

Monarchy and religion have always been closely linked. In Jesus' time, most people were ruled by a king or emperor, and monarchs were worshipped as gods.

Today, however, most people no longer have a monarch. Since the United States broke free of Britain and its kings in 1776, many other countries have become republics, including the most populous ones.

Japan is the only country of more than 100 million people that is still a monarchy. It is also the last country -- as late as 1946 -- that considered its emperor to be divine. Canada, of course, is also a constitutional monarchy.

Kingdoms may be disappearing, but monarchs still get a lot of attention. Americans in particular seem to be fascinated with the British Royal Family. And despite the fact that the U.S. is a republic, Americans treat their powerful political families -- such as the Kennedy's, Bush's and Clinton's -- like royalty.

This past Friday, as the world marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, we were reminded that JFK's administration was called "Camelot" after the mythical realm of King Arthur. Following JFK's death, both of his brothers ran for President.

The impulse towards creating a family dynasty is strong. In North Korea, dictatorship has been handed from father to son for three generations. In Cuba, when President Fidel Castro became incapacitated in 2008, power passed to his younger brother, Raul. In Canada, Justin Trudeau's main claim to legitimacy as a potential Prime Minister is his status as the son of Pierre Trudeau. Then there is Rob and Doug Ford and their wealthy father, who was also a politician. But enough has probably been said about the Fords lately . . .

One of the first republics -- the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell in Britain in the 1650s -- failed in part because Cromwell passed political power to his son. Cromwell led England's Puritan Parliament against King Charles I in the 1640s, which ended with Charles' execution in 1649. Then in 1652, Cromwell disbanded parliament and named himself dictator; and when Cromwell died in 1658, his son took over. This imitation of royalty probably helped persuade the British to reinstate the old royal family. King Charles' son replaced the younger Cromwell in 1660.

The republican government of the Puritans and Presbyterians in England and Scotland from 1649 to 1660 was unprecedented. Before that time, religion and royalty had always been each other's biggest supporters.

When Jesus began his ministry, he was hailed as a new King David -- the Messiah or Christ -- who would defeat the Romans and re-establish a monarchy in Jerusalem. But as our Gospel reading reminds us, the Romans executed Jesus while mocking him as the King of the Jews.

God raised Jesus to new life on Easter, and St. Paul preached that Christ now lived within us. He denied that sovereignty lay with a king in Jerusalem or an emperor in Rome. Instead, sovereignty lay with ordinary people. Each person was part of the Body of Christ, and so was also part of the throne of both God and King.

The church abandoned this democratic vision in the Fourth Century when the Roman empire made Christianity its state religion. For the next 1500 years, the bond between monarchy and church was central again. The church preached that kings ruled by divine right. Archbishops crowned European monarchs in ceremonies that mimicked those of ancient Israel. Loyalty to Christ was identified with loyalty to one's monarch no matter how terrible that monarch might be.

The Puritans and Presbyterians of the 1600s had tried to break the link between church and king. But though they held power for less than 20 years, their republican experiment was a sign of what was to follow.

In many countries, monarchy was destroyed in World War One. In Russia, after several million Russians had been killed in the first two and half years of war with Germany, workers and soldiers rose up to overthrew the Czar in March 1917. The Russian Orthodox church survived, but its centuries of support for brutal and incompetent Czars left it weakened.

The Germans followed in October 1918. With defeat looming, German sailors rebelled against their superiors and overthrew the Kaiser. The churches that had supported the Kaiser survived, but they became a shadow of their former selves.

The crisis affecting church in Canada today is also an echo of World War One. The British monarchy survived the disaster of the Great War, but it became ever-more distant from real power.

Governments no longer rely on monarchy. Instead, they look to nationalism, consumerism, and the mass media for support.

Today's Grey Cup gives us an example. Saskatchewan is much more focused on the Roughriders than it is on the monarchy or on church. We are a football province more than a royal province, even if our capital is named after Queen Victoria. And the spirit in Mosaic Stadium this afternoon will be stronger than anything ever seen in our churches.

I don't say this to belittle support for the Roughriders, but to underline how things have changed since Saskatchewan was founded in 1905. As monarchy has withered away and been replaced by other cultural forces, the church that supported the monarchy has withered away along with it.

For 1500 years, the church told us that Europe's monarchs ruled by divine right. But given that Jesus was a humble peasant who was crucified by empire, this support for oppressive kingdoms betrayed the church's ideals.

In our Gospel reading today, the thief who is dying beside Jesus sees his royal power even on the cross. He knows that Jesus will come into his kingdom, and he wants to be part of it.

Jesus says that the kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17:21). When we commit to the Way of Jesus, we are already living in God's kingdom. No matter how poor we may be, sovereignty lies within us.

Jesus' vision of divine democracy is the church's oldest tradition. And now that governments have abandoned monarchy, we can better reclaim our democratic and popular heritage. Doing so is hardly easy, though.

Here in Borderlands, several meetings last week discussed our future. On Tuesday, the Central Board decided to suspend Sunday worship in January and February following my departure for Edmonton.

Then on Wednesday, six of us went to a meeting in Assiniboia to discuss how United churches in eight towns across our region might collaborate. The 40 people there made no decisions. But retired and active ministers in the region said they are willing to provide pulpit coverage here. Perhaps by next summer after more discussion, a new "normal" for our churches will emerge. I felt hopeful after the meeting.

While the "glory days" for both kings and their churches are gone, the spirit of Christ continues to burn in our hearts. It guides us deeper into God's kingdom both in our living and in our dying.

Governments today try to capture hearts and minds through nationalism and consumerism. Jesus shows us another way. No matter which republic or monarch claims sovereignty over us, the only true sovereign we need recognize is the crucified and Risen Christ who lives within us, now and forever.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.