Saturday, November 27, 2010

It's the end of the world as we know it --- and I feel fine!

RCL Advent 1A
28 November 2010

St Thomas’ Anglican Church
Chilliwack BC

Let us pray.

God of justice and peace, from the heavens you rain down mercy and kindness, that all on earth may stand in awe and wonder before your marvellous deeds.  Raise our heads in expectation, that we may yearn for the coming day of the Lord and stand without blame before your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns for ever and ever.  Amen.  [‘Thematic Prayer’ from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers]

            More than seven hundred years before the advent of Jesus of Nazareth a priest and prophet living in the southern kingdom of Judah received a series of revelations from the God of Israel.  These revelations came at a time of political and social disintegration as both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah were slowly and surely absorbed into the Assyrian Empire.  We know this priest and prophet as Isaiah, son of Amoz, a name which can mean ‘Yahweh has saved’ or ‘Yahweh may save’.  Perhaps his parents, keenly aware of the crisis into which their son was being born, chose a name to express their deepest hope that Yahweh, the God of Israel, would bring the two kingdoms safely out of the crisis just as surely as God had brought the people out of Egypt.

            Throughout the centuries the words of the prophet of Isaiah have been as important to Christians as they have been to Jews.  When the earliest Christian writers began their efforts to explain the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, they found in Isaiah a rich source for their theology.  But today’s reading, with its message of hope and of universal peace, points to one of the challenges of the use of Isaiah by Christians.

            When Isaiah’s beautiful poetic vision of the peoples of the world streaming to Jerusalem to acknowledge the supremacy of the God of Israel and to worship at the Temple is set in its context, we realize that this is a message predicated on the end of one world before a new one can begin.  Our reading ended with the words, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!”  But these words are actually the first words of a lengthy section in which the prophet, speaking in the name of God, indicts the people for their failure to be faithful to the covenant God made with them on Sinai.  The consequences of this failure is the moral and social chaos they are presently experiencing.  Soon this chaos will lead to the end of their political independence.  It’s the end of the world as they know it.

            Let’s jump forward two thousand seven hundred years.  As I run around the city these days, I cannot escape the music of ‘the season’.  Every mall has begun to fill the air with Christmas carols and the light music that we associate with the coming of the Christmas feast.  All of this is to help us get into the spirit of the season which for the retail business is the spirit of buy, buy, buy.  I heard a radio commentator talk about ‘black Friday’, the day after the American Thanksgiving holiday when businesses hope that they will be ‘in the black’ rather than ‘in the red’.

            Despite the best efforts of the malls I find that the music I am hearing is not the recorded sounds of snowy Christmases, warm houses with cherubic children waiting for Santa Claus and the generosity of poor little drummer boys.  The music that I am hearing comes from the creative minds of the American popular music band, R.E.M.:  “It’s the end of the world as we know it.  It’s the end of the world as we know it.  It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.”  At times I have the almost irresistible urge to take up residence near a Salvation Army bell ringer and start singing this song loudly.  I can imagine a polite but firm security guard asking me to be quiet and to refrain from troubling the mall’s customers with such words!

            The song itself does have other lyrics that are somewhat ‘doomsday’ in their tone.  We hear about earthquakes, a traditional image in the New Testament of the coming of the Son of Man.  We hear about birds, a reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s horror film in flocks of birds begin to attach humans in a small town.  We hear about snakes in a reference to the Egyptian myth about Apophis, a snake that made daily attempts to devour the sun only to be denied by the gods.  We hear a reference to an airplane that seems to point to the use of nuclear weapons.  Certainly we can relate to all these images as reminders that our world is not always as secure as we would like to believe it to be.

            But the message of Advent is that ‘it’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine’.  It is difficult to read the New Testament without quickly becoming aware that the early Christian community rejoiced to see the end of the world of oppression in which the rich exploited the poor and the strong abused the weak.  Hear again Paul’s words to the Christian community at Rome:  “[You] know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”  (Romans 13.11b-12a)  Is it any wonder that our society prefers to hear about warm and cozy holidays rather than the stark truth the world as we know it cannot be sustained.

            Christians know of two ways of telling time.  One way is chronos or chronological time.  It is measurable, inexorable and inescapable.  Whether it is the calendar year, the academic year or the fiscal year, chronos churns along, bearing us in its wake.  Even our hymnody recognizes this force:  “Time like an ever-flowing stream bears all of us away.”  Chronos can be oppressive especially as we realize that our ‘time’ grows ever shorter.  From the moment of our birth the chronos that is our lifetime decreases even as our awareness of the value of chronos increases.  In so many ways chronos is death-dealing especially when we find ourselves thinking about ‘what might have been’ rather than what is and what will be.

            There is, however, another way of telling time that fills the pages of the Holy Scriptures.  Theologians call it kairos, the ‘right time’ or the ‘fullness of time’ or ‘God’s time’.  Kairos cannot be measured, comes upon us unexpectedly and, if we choose to close our eyes, can pass us by.  Kairos is a quality rather than a quantity of time.  It is a moment or moments when the world as God intends it breaks in upon us and stuns us with its beauty as well as fills us with longing for its return.  Kairos is being wrapped in the completeness of love with a beloved spouse or child or friend.  Kairos is time spent with a child lost in wonder.  Kairos is reconciliation between ancient enemies when walls fall and hate is transformed into hope.  Kairos is justice coming to those who have been denied justice.

            Kairos is the end of chronos, a release from bondage to the moment into freedom for God.  Kairos is the birthright of every human being and is at the heart of the good news of God in Jesus Christ.  Kairos is the end of the world as we know it and we feel fine.

            Of all the seasons of the Christian year Advent is perhaps the clearest celebration of kairos.  Into time and space the Word through whom all things came into existence comes to dwell among us.  All the old rules and all the old expectations are cast aside as the Word comes to re-order our disordered world. 

            Advent celebrates the end of coercion and the beginning of persuasion.  We live in a world that believes that coercion is an acceptable way of conducting our affairs.  We often use the gifts that God has given us as ways of forcing others to do what we want them to do.  It is not uncommon for people to threaten to withhold their financial support as means to force someone or some organization to act in a way that furthers their personal agendas.  It is not uncommon for people to use their educational qualifications to make others feel less capable, perhaps even stupid.  Nor is it uncommon for one group or another to invoke ‘tradition’ as a reason for refusing to engage in an honest conversation about the needs and concerns of our contemporary situation and how we may need to change.

            Then along comes Jesus and upsets this world’s applecart.  Rather than coerce others to follow his path, Jesus simply says, “Look out.  Everything is about to change.  There’s nothing you can do to stop it.  Why don’t you decide to discover God’s agenda and your role in it?  It’s the end of the world as you know it, but you can be fine!”  And for those of us who live in kairos rather than chronos we see signs of the new world even as the old passes away.

            We live in a world a few accumulates goods and resources in ways that deny those goods and resources to the many.  Even powerful political figures spread the impression that we can continue to use the resources of the earth and to increase our stores of goods without eventually paying the piper.

            Then Jesus comes along and says, “Actually, you may be happier by yielding to others, by being a bit more responsible with the goods and resources you have.  You may find that less is more.  I know this is the end of the world as you know it, but you can be fine!” And for those of us who live in kairos rather than chronos we see signs of the new world even as the old passes away.

            We celebrate the gift that we call Canada even while we fail to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in our society.  On our license plates we proudly proclaim that we live in the ‘best place on earth’, yet we have one of the highest child poverty rates in Canada.  Contemporary Canadians have benefited from the appropriation of the lands and resources of First Nations, yet First Nations communities still lack clean water, still need secure housing and still await their seat at the table of Canadian bounty.

            But Jesus comes, shamelessly welcoming those whom we keep at arm’s length, eating with tax-collectors and sinners, moving among those whom good people call ‘unclean’ and calling the children to him over the protests of the adults.  And it’s the end of the world as we know it and we feel fine. And for those of us who live in kairos rather than chronos we see signs of the new world even as the old passes away.

            The end of the old world of coercion, consumption and exclusion is good news.  But there is nothing so dangerous as an old world dying.  For two thousand years the old world has fought back.  Those who choose persuasion rather than coercion are ridiculed as na├»ve, imprisoned as subversive and killed as threats to the security of the state.  Those who champion stewardship rather than unlimited consumption are condescendingly reminded that politics is the art of the possible not the ideal, that the cost is too high or that entrenched interests will not cooperate. The old world calls upon the fears that lodge in the hearts of all of us and that call is a powerful brake.

            But to those who have eyes to see, the kairos of the new world is all around us.  Day by day, as surely as the waters cover the sea, the new world is replacing the old.  To those who have ears to hear, the songs of the new world are rapidly but gently re-tuning the music of the spheres.  To those who have hearts to love, the hope of the new world is clearing our arteries of the fear that clogs the fresh blood of the Spirit from reaching every cell of our body.

            For the end of the world as we have known it is good news.  We who now begin to hang greens in our churches, who light the candles of the Advent wreath and hear the messages of the prophets can greet the ending of this old world with hope rather than the fear that grips many of our contemporaries as they contemplate the consequences of the end of the age.  You and I see the signs of this new world breaking in all around us.  We see that things which were cast down are being raised up, that things which have grown old are being made new and that all things are being brought to their perfection.  It is the end of the world as we know it and we feel very fine.  Amen.

            Friends, Advent bids us remember that the old has died and the new has come.  It’s the end of the world as we know it and we feel fine.  Amen.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Christus vivat! Christus regnat! Christus imperavit!

[This sermon was written to be preached at Saint Faith's Anglican Church, Vancouver BC on Sunday, the 21st of November 2010, the feast of the reign of Christ.]

Collect of the Day

Holy God, our refuge and strength, you have redeemed your scattered children, gathering them from all the corners of the earth through your firstborn, the Christ, in whom all things are held together.  Make of us a just and righteous people, worthy by grace to inherit with him the kingdom of light and peace where he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  Revised Common Lectionary Prayers

Focus Text:  Colossians 1.11-20

11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.  13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
            15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers --- all things have been created through him and for him.  17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.  19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

                      Eighty-five years ago Pope Pius XI looked out on a world that was as turbulent, perhaps more turbulent, than ours.  Fascism was on the rise in Italy and Germany.  In the Soviet Union Stalin initiated programmes that would result in the deaths of millions of people, some by starvation, some by imprisonment in harsh conditions, some by summary executions.  In Asia China was caught up in virtual civil war and Japan was quietly but firmly building up its military capabilities.  In many countries anti-Christian sentiments were strong and the Roman Catholic church in particular was seen as a threat to democracy.
            In the face of these and many other challenges to the Christian faith, Pius decided to issue an encyclical.  An encyclical is a letter sent to all Roman Catholic bishops and is considered one the more authoritative statements a pope can make on a matter of Christian teaching.  On the 11th of December 1925 Pius issued ‘Quas Primas’ in which he established a new festival in the Western Christian calendar, the feast of Christ the King.  Pius believed that this new festival would be a means of holding up before all people the one who is truly ‘lord’, Jesus of Nazareth, rather than all those counterfeits who would claim human allegiance.
            Over the course of the last eighty-five years Pius’ ‘new feast’ has been adopted by many Christian communities, especially those who use the three-year ecumenical lectionary, and is celebrated on the final Sunday of the Christian year.  Some traditions have been uncomfortable with the use of ‘king’ and its masculine overtones.  This has given rise to the practice of calling this Sunday, ‘The Reign of Christ’, a custom adopted by the Anglican Church of Canada and incorporated into our Book of Alternative Services.
            But whether we call this day ‘The Feast of Christ the King’ or ‘The Reign of Christ’, there remains but one fundamental question:  What does it mean to claim that Jesus is Lord in a society such as ours?  As Canadians we live in a constitutional monarchy that functions primarily as a parliamentary democracy.  Are we culturally accustomed to the notion of ‘lordship’?  As Canadians we live in an increasingly multi-faith society where there are many people of faith who have a legitimate claim to respect rather than mere tolerance.  How do we proclaim the lordship of Jesus in such a climate?  As Canadians we live in a society where our legal system has to balance the claims of individual rights with the needs, concerns and well-being of the whole.  In such a legal climate how do we experience the claim that Jesus makes on us to be a voice for the voiceless and to give rather than receive?
            The writer of the letter to the Colossians uses quite elevated language to speak about the relationship that Christ has to God and to the community of believers.  His language was influenced no doubt by the language of the imperial court and its exaltation of the emperor as divine.  Our Christian writer takes this language and subverts it, turns it on its head, to assert that the real ‘emperor’ is not the one found in Rome living in luxury but the one found hanging on the cross.  In this assertion we can hear the echoes of an ancient Christian chant:  Christus vivat!  Christus regnat!  Christus imperavit!  (Christ lives!  Christ reigns!  Christ will reign over all!)
            But the rhetorical splendour of the language of Colossians has its own dark side in the history of the Christian movement.  When Christians have gained political power over their religious competitors such as the Jews, polytheists and atheists alike, we have tended to forget that our Lord is one who was willing to die for others rather than summon the angels from heaven to obliterate his opponents.  We have systematically persecuted the Jewish people and provided the theological rationale for the Holocaust.  In our missionary efforts we have refused to see the good news of God already present in other cultures and forcibly robbed those who differ from us of their cultures, their languages and their unique insights into how God works in the world.  When we have come face to face with intelligent questioners of orthodoxy, we have often compelled them to be silent and have forgotten that true faith in the living God has nothing to fear from any question.  It is our history of dogmatism that has led many people to consider the Christian faith --- or any faith for that matter --- to be either irrelevant or, in the worst case, a threat to human survival.
            But I have good news to share even in the face of the darker aspects of our Christian history --- we no longer hold the reins of power in many places of the world.  We are presently faced with the opportunity of re-claiming what the author of the letter to the Colossians put forward to his original audience:  19 For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to [God’s very self] all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”  (Colossians 1.19-20)  To claim that Jesus is Lord is to claim that God’s love made known in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the truth; it is, to use C. S. Lewis’ wonderful phrase, the ‘deep magic’ by which the universe actually works.
            I have shared with you on other occasions, but I shall share with you once more an understanding of the foundation of the Christian faith that I learned from the late James Griffiss who taught me theology thirty years ago:  When you meet Jesus of Nazareth, you meet God.  Everything else we write or say is only commentary on this fundamental affirmation of faith.
            And what does an encounter with Jesus of Nazareth reveal to us about the God who is fully present to us in Jesus?  This God calls us to live our lives within the fellowship of people who want to participate in God’s mission to bring all of creation into a life-giving relationship with God, with each other and within ourselves.  This God calls us to be courageous in naming evil when we see it at work not only in others but in ourselves.  This God calls us to continue the mission begun in creation and renewed in Jesus of Nazareth by putting our hearts, souls, minds and strength at the service of that mission.  This God calls us to set aside the labels we use to name some people or groups as ‘friends’ and others as ‘strangers’ so that there is only one label, ‘neighbour’.  This God calls us to ensure that all human structures, whether political, social, cultural, economic, work for but one purpose:  enabling every human being to become fully alive in the image and likeness of God.  This is the God who is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. 
            To call Jesus ‘Lord’ is to proclaim our primary allegiance to the mission of God as it took form in Jesus’ ministry so long ago and as it takes form in the Spirit’s ministry begun in Jerusalem and now at work throughout the world.  To call Jesus ‘Lord’ is to proclaim to all forms of human power whether political or social or cultural or economic that we will hold them accountable to the standard set in Jesus of Nazareth.  Sometimes this proclamation that Jesus is ‘Lord’ will bring us into external conflict with persons and structures that claim our secondary allegiance and who can exercise some coercive power over us.  Sometimes we will find ourselves in conflict within the Christian community itself as we wrestle with competing and conflicting commentaries on what Jesus teaches us about the living God and about living in proper relationship with God entails. 
            But more often than not we will discover that seeking to be faithful to this Lord and discovering how God’s reign is already taking shape in our lives, personal and communal, and in the world makes the external and internal conflicts fade into the background.  Christ is alive --- in us and through us and even despite us!  Christ reigns --- in the lives of those who resist the demands of the many false gods who clamour around us --- celebrities, the rich and famous, the political demagogues and the spiritual gurus.  Christ will reign over all --- not by coercion nor by enforcing a mindless conformity --- Christ will reign over all through the self-surrender that seeks the good of the neighbour rather than our own self-interest.
Let us pray.
Holy One of Israel, you reveal your fullness in Jesus of Nazareth.  Look upon us, your people, who rejoice in your justice and mercy.  Grant that your reign may be revealed in our own time and come to its completion at the time of your choosing.  Amen. 

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Worship and the Stewardship of Memory

[This sermon was preached at Saint Anselm's Anglican Church on the University Endowment Lands on 7 November 2010.  As part of the annual stewardship campaign I was asked to preach on worship as an act of stewardship.  Since the parish was also keeping the Sunday as an anticipation of Remembrance Day, I chose to preach about worship and remembering.]

Saint Anselm’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Propers:  Haggai 1.15b-2.9; Psalm 145.1-5, 17-21 or Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 2.1-5, 13-17; Luke 20.27-38

Opening Prayers

Eternal God, who caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning, grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace adn ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ, who lvies and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.  [The Book of Alternative Services for RCL Proper 32C]

O God, our eternal redeemer, by the presence of your Spirit you renew and redirect our hearts.  Keep always in our mind the end of all things and the day of judgement.  Inspire us for a holy life here, and bring us to the joy of the resurrection, through Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord.  Amen.  [Evangelical Lutheran Worship for RCL Proper 32C]

Almighty God, you hold all the powers of the universe within your hands, and we are your children.  Turn us to the splendour of life in you, transforming us through Jesus Christ our Saviour, and strengthening us in every good deed and word; through him who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.  [Revised Common Lectionary Prayers for RCL Proper 32C]

            When Paula and I first came to Canada, we were struck by how Canadians celebrated the 11th of November.  By All Saints poppies began to spring up on the lapels of TV news anchors, politicians and the general population.  Young people, sometimes accompanied by older people from one veterans organization or another, solicited donations at malls and street-side businesses.

            One Remembrance Day I was driving around in the pouring rain and listening to CBC 2 --- the old CBC 2.  As eleven o’clock approached, the announcer advised listeners of the time and that there would be two minutes of silence followed by the playing of ‘Last Post’.  I noticed cars pulling over to the side of the road.  At first I wasn’t quite sure why but it then dawned on me what the drivers were doing --- pulling over to honour the silence.

            Some of you may know that Paula and I come from military families.  My kinsmen fought in the American Revolution and in the Civil War on the federal side.  My maternal grandfather was a soldier in World War I and all three of my uncles served during World War II, two of them as airborne troops in the D-Day invasion.  Both of our fathers served in the United States Air Force.

            But we grew up in a United States where the 11th of November is known as ‘Veterans Day’ and is not universally a civic holiday.  No poppies.  No young people at the doors of malls and stores.  No silence.  No cars pulling over to the side of the road.  No civic observations at the cenotaph.  No remembering.

            Remembering is more than an intellectual activity.  Remembering what is truly important and central to our identity requires enacting our memory, putting our bodies where our thoughts are.  We may even make changes to our environment so that it too serves as a aide memoire.  How we measure the passage of days, even hours within those days, take on significance as we mark a day as being festal, whether civic, cultural or religious, or as being ‘ordinary’.  Time, space and our physical activities as well as our minds are engaged in this human activity we call ‘remembering’.

            Why do we remember?  While we may have many answers to this question, let me offer you an answer rooted in the Christian understanding of time and space:  We remember the past in order to enact in the present the future for which we hope and work.  To wear a poppy during the days leading up to Remembrance Day is a concrete embodiment of our hopes for the future:  Today’s poppy is a ritual enactment of yesterday’s sacrifices made by our forebears in order to shape a future in which all God’s children shall be free.  Why?  Because amnesia can be deadly, physically, spiritually and intellectually.

            Christian worship is just such an enactment, an act of memory.  When the Christian community gathers for worship, the memory of more than 100,000 Sundays becomes incarnate in our world and, whether the world views us as relevant or irrelevant, they cannot ignore our existence.  When the Christian community proclaims the ancient scriptures of the Hebrew people and the earliest apostolic community, printed words become inspired, that is to say, filled with breath so that they can be heard by a new generation and remind all, young and old, that God calls us to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.  When the Christian community offers up its prayers of intercession, thanksgiving and petition, the persons, places and concerns we name become present to us just as they have always been present to God.  When the Christian community breaks the bread and pours the wine, this place is filled with the presence of the living Christ with all his power to transfigure us into his likeness just as surely as Jesus of Nazareth had power to transform a motley assembly of women and men into a movement that changed human history.  When the Christian community is sent forth from its places of worship, we go forth as agents of the mission God began when creation first came into being and the vast expanse of interstellar space found this fragile earth, our island home, in its midst.

            True remembering is not about dwelling in the past or comforting an unpleasant present.  True remembering is about the future and, for Christians, working with God who is creating, redeeming and sanctifying the whole of creation so that it might become truly alive.

            Regular participation in the worship of the Christian community is a choice we make, an act of the stewardship of time.  The good steward, as an agent of the one whom the steward serves, needs to remember why he or she cares for time, talent and treasure.    Our time, our talents and our financial resources are means by which we enable our Christian community to participate in God’s renewal of our lives and the lives of all.

            Our past failures and successes, fears and hopes, cowardice and courage are made present in our worship so that our future might be held less in thrall to our failures, fears and cowardice and transformed by our successes, hopes and courage.  In worship we ritually enact the whole of our relationship with the living God so that, when we leave this place of worship, we might enact in our lives and embody in our very selves the future to which the good news of God in Christ points us.  Here the past is remembered not with the moist eyes of nostalgia but with the clear eyes of a faith oriented towards what lies beyond the immediate horizon --- the Land of hope and glory that God is at work bringing into being --- always through us, sometimes despite us.

            So, my sisters and brothers, remember who we are and why we have come to this holy house of prayer and study.  Remember our baptism into Christ and that each of us bears upon our forehead the sign of the cross, a symbol more lasting and more transformative than the precious poppies which now blossom upon our clothing, a symbol indelibly pressed upon our bodies that cannot be removed unlike those that will pass away only to re-appear in a year’s time.  Remember and be thankful.  Remember and use the gifts of time, talent and treasure that God has given us to work for the future shaped by the sacrifice of the Cross and the promise of Resurrection.

Let us pray.

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light,
look favourably on your whole Church,
that wonderful and sacred mystery.
By the effectual working of your providence,
carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation.
Let the whole world see and know
that things which were cast down are being raised up,
and things which had grown old are being made new,
and that all things are being brought to their perfection
by him through whom all things were made,
your Son Jesus Christ our Lord;
who lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.