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. 


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