Monday, January 07, 2019

Wise Men and Holy Innocents: Sermon for The Epiphany, January 6, 2019

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”

When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.

So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:
‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;
For out of you shall come a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.’ ”

Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.”

When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.
Matthew 2:1-12, New King James Version

We have the Epiphany story so many of us love – wise men from the East come searching for a new king who has been born. They are guided by a star to the child Jesus and his mother, and they present gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. This is the story with the crowns because the wise men are traditionally called kings, the rich robes, the camels and the bright star overhead. We see it on Christmas cards and in nativity scenes.

But we stopped reading at verse 12, as the wise men decide not to tell King Herod where the child is. And after that the story takes a much more sinister turn. There are already hints of this, as Herod and his court are troubled that the wise men claim that a new king has been born. Herod tells them to go and find the child and bring back word, so that he may also go and worship him, and it seems that he may not be entirely sincere. Here is how the story continues in Matthew’s Gospel:

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.”

When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”

Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more.”
This is a much more disturbing story than the wise men’s visit. We would rather not sing about it, although there is an old Christmas song, the Coventry Carol, with the lyrics:
Herod the King, in his raging,
charged he hath this day,
his men of might, in his own sight,
all children young, to slay.
The Church, though, continues to tell this story, called the Massacre of the Innocents. These holy innocents, the boys of Bethlehem killed by Herod, are often considered to be the first Christian martyrs.

This seems very long ago and far away. So exotic and so upsetting. Or is it so long ago? Is it so far away? Who are the Holy Innocents of today? Are they the children of Yemen, victims of the ongoing war launched by Saudi Arabia and its allies? In Yemen 394,000 children under the age of five are suffering from severe acute malnutrition. Millions more barely have enough to eat, while the war has resulted in a lack of safe water, the spread of disease, and the destruction of hospitals. Are the holy innocents the 15 percent of Canadian children, one in seven, who live in poverty? Are they the Indigenous children who account for nearly half of all children in foster care in Canada? What are the causes of such a disproportionate number of Indigenous kids being removed from their homes? Are the holy innocents the children taken from their parents at the American border with Mexico, in many cases never to be reunited with their families again? Families from Central America have been arrested by the American authorities, the children taken away, placed in cages and then in tents in camps in the desert, and often put up for adoption after their parents have been deported. We don’t know what happens in these camps as journalists and even elected representatives aren’t allowed in. We do know that here you can’t work with children in hockey or Sunday school or any other setting without a police check, but there is no screening for the private contractors who operate these detention facilities. There are stories of babies taken from their mothers who are just given to teenage girls in the camps to look after, without diapers or formula. We do know that two children have died in detention.

Now, people try to explain all this away. Don’t try to sneak into the country illegally, they say, if you don’t want your kids taken away. But these families are usually applying at a border crossing for asylum as refugees, which is perfectly legal under American law. And having your children ripped away and placed for adoption is a disproportionate and cruel punishment, although the cruelty is probably the point to deter refugees and immigrants from coming.

This Epiphany story shows that Mary, Joseph and Jesus were refugees. Now, people deny this too. Calling Jesus a refugee is very controversial. Refugees may have left everything behind to escape persecution and violence, but people see them as fakers, as undeserving, as potential terrorists, so there’s no way Jesus could have been one. But it’s right in the story. Verse 13, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt” – in Matthew’s Gospel the Greek word translated as “flee” is pheuge, which is the root of the word “refugee.” Jesus and his parents were fleeing political violence. They were refugees. My Loyalist ancestors who fled the American Revolution, like the ancestors of a lot of us here, were refugees. People still quibble, saying the Holy Family was traveling within the Roman Empire, not across an international border, so they weren’t refugees, but of course borders as we understand them today are a recent development. This kind of nitpicking can’t change the story, or the broad story of the Bible, which tells a long story, several books long, of the people of Israel fleeing oppression, and then emphasizes again and again how God’s people are to welcome refugees and immigrants, for they were foreigners themselves in Egypt.

This story of the massacre of the innocents and a family’s narrow escape is still fresh, still unnerving. It is being acted out all over the world right now. Someone tweeted - and I agree - that Herod was a paranoid, narcissistic, authoritarian ruler who did not hesitate to destroy children when his power was threatened. Any resemblance to any political leaders today isn’t a coincidence. And the reaction to the refugee crisis shows how, as someone else said, some Christians may worship the name of King Jesus but they follow the policies of King Herod.

If The Epiphany is about Jesus being revealed to the world, then his being a refugee is as much a part of who he is as his being the saviour worshipped by the wise men. Jesus being a refugee tells the world that God coming among us in Jesus shares the experiences, the suffering, of the most marginalized and oppressed people. Jesus being a refugee underlines for us, who follow him today, God’s instructions in Scripture, to show love for foreigners, for God’s people were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. And may we ever see the splendour of Jesus, who so thoroughly identified with humanity that he was, indeed, a refugee in Egypt.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Letter to the Editor of the Cornwall Seaway News

This letter to the editor was published in the November 21 issue of the Cornwall Seaway News. I was writing in response to a column in the previous edition of this weekly newspaper, mentioning the case of the Rev. Gretta Vosper and the settlement of the review of her fitness for ministry in The United Church of Canada. Columnist Claude McIntosh wrote:
In Toronto, a United Church minister who says the Bible is a fairy tale and God doesn't exist, will continue to deliver her non-Christian message from the pulpit with the blessing of the folks who call the shots in Canada's second largest Christian denomination, the United Church of Canada. Instead of giving her the heave-ho, the United Church moderator (aka big cheese) has asked members to pray for the atheistic pastor and her congregation. Sounds like we should be praying for the United Church...

So I responded:

November 16, 2018

To the editor:

I always enjoy reading Claude McIntosh’s column, and he fits a lot of material onto the page. His November 14 discussion of a United Church of Canada minister did not include important parts of the context which are necessary for readers to understand what is happening in this case.

People who attend United churches are at many different points on their faith journey, but clergy are held to a standard of being found to be in essential agreement with the Church’s statements of faith before they can be ordained or commissioned. As Claude noted, a minister in Toronto who professes to be an atheist was placed under review. He says that she will continue to serve “with the blessing of the folks who call the shots,” but this is not the case. In the United Church, discipline of ministers is the responsibility of local jurisdictions, just as in Canada the federal government and the provinces have different areas of responsibility. Toronto Conference of the United Church was conducting the formal hearing into her ministry and then settled the case with her and her congregation, which does allow her to continue in ministry. Legal actions often end in settlement, so this hardly represents a “blessing” by any part of the Church; this resolution was not made by the national Church, does not affect any other minister or any other jurisdiction in the Church, and does not imply any acceptance of atheist beliefs as being in agreement with what the Church believes. Claude mentions that the Moderator of the United Church (as he puts it, “the big cheese,” which is a good way to explain this position) asked for prayer for this minister and her congregation, which I believe is entirely appropriate. Claude omits that this call for prayer came at the end of the Moderator’s letter which states explicitly that as a Christian church, we continue to expect that our ministers will offer their leadership in accordance with our statements of faith. This follows a statement by The United Church of Canada that the resolution of this case does not alter in any way the Church’s belief in a God must fully revealed to us as Christians in and through Jesus Christ. The Church’s statements of faith have all been grounded in this understanding.

Claude says that we should be praying for the United Church, which I appreciate. Please pray for us as we try to be faithful and loving followers of Jesus, and for all of the churches and faith traditions ministering to the people of the Seaway Valley.

Sincerely yours,

Rev. Daniel Hayward UE
Minister, South Stormont Pastoral Charge
(Ingleside-Newington United Church and St. Andrew’s-St. Mark’s United Church, Long Sault)
The United Church of Canada

Sunday, November 18, 2018

60 Years!: Sermon, November 18, 2018

In 1957 Ontario's electrical utility began constructing two New Towns to house people whose homes would be flooded by the creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Those towns became Ingleside and Long Sault, and both had United Church buildings: Trinity United Church, Ingleside (now Ingleside-Newington United Church), to which the congregations of United Churches in Aultsville, Wales, Gallingertown and Osnabruck Centre moved; and St. Andrew's United Church, Long Sault (now St. Andrew's-St. Mark's United Church), which became the home of congregations from Moulinette and Mille Roches.

The towns and churches all turned 60 years old in 2018. Trinity held its first worship service in the sanctuary on Easter Sunday, April 6, 1958, and its dedication service on May 25. The St. Andrew's dedication service was November 16, 1958. Both 60th anniversaries were marked in worship on November 18, 2018, just two days off 60 years since the St. Andrew's dedication and a week away from 61st anniversary of the November 10, 1957, laying of the Trinity cornerstone.

Every Jewish priest performs his services every day and offers the same sacrifices many times; but these sacrifices can never take away sins. Christ, however, offered one sacrifice for sins, an offering that is effective forever, and then he sat down at the right side of God. There he now waits until God puts his enemies as a footstool under his feet. 14 With one sacrifice, then, he has made perfect forever those who are purified from sin.

We have, then, my friends, complete freedom to go into the Most Holy Place by means of the death of Jesus. He opened for us a new way, a living way, through the curtain—that is, through his own body. We have a great priest in charge of the house of God. So let us come near to God with a sincere heart and a sure faith, with hearts that have been purified from a guilty conscience and with bodies washed with clean water. Let us hold on firmly to the hope we profess, because we can trust God to keep his promise. Let us be concerned for one another, to help one another to show love and to do good. Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are doing. Instead, let us encourage one another all the more, since you see that the Day of the Lord is coming nearer.
- Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25, Good News Bible

As Jesus was leaving the Temple, one of his disciples said, “Look, Teacher! What wonderful stones and buildings!”

Jesus answered, “You see these great buildings? Not a single stone here will be left in its place; every one of them will be thrown down.”

Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, across from the Temple, when Peter, James, John, and Andrew came to him in private. “Tell us when this will be,” they said, “and tell us what will happen to show that the time has come for all these things to take place.”

Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and don't let anyone fool you. Many men, claiming to speak for me, will come and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will fool many people. And don't be troubled when you hear the noise of battles close by and news of battles far away. Such things must happen, but they do not mean that the end has come. Countries will fight each other; kingdoms will attack one another. There will be earthquakes everywhere, and there will be famines. These things are like the first pains of childbirth.”
- Mark 13:1-8, Good News Bible

So many stories over 60 years.

Someone told me once that before the St. Andrew’s building was finished, the United Church congregation in Long Sault met in the liquor store. Well, it wasn’t the liquor store at the time, but it’s still a great story. So I have the bulletin here for the dedication service of St. Andrew’s United Church, November 16th, 1958, 3 PM. The minister then was Rev. Wilfong and the guest preacher was Rev. Gordon Porter, superintendent of missions for Montreal and Ottawa Conference. Officiating was Rev. Lewis, president of the Conference. The bulletin tells me that the hymns were all from the 1930 Hymn Book: Ye gates, lift up your heads on high; I joyed when to the house of God go up, they said to me; Christ is made the sure foundation, which we sang today; and Rise up, O men of God. And the bulletin lists who donated the sign board, hymn books, hymn board, offering plates and guest book. We are going to give this bulletin, which is one of the few left from 1958, to the Lost Villages Museum.

Another booklet, A History of Trinity United Church, was published for the 25th anniversary in 1983. It tells me that before the manse was ready in 1957 the minister, Rev. Profitt, and his wife, lived on Pine Street, which was also the home of the Sunday school and youth groups. The booklet describes the Session, Stewards, Official Board and so on, so many groups. I learned that the original black choir gowns were replaced with red ones with white and yellow collars in 1980. Canadian Girls in There was Canadian Girls in Training, boys’ groups too, and Hi-C, a Mission Band, a Baby Band, Sunday school, a Women’s Federation with 90 members, which became the United Church Women in 1962, and the 50/50 or Couples Club. The booklet goes on to describe the 20th anniversary of Trinity church in 1978 and the 25th in 1983. I’m sure that these few sentences I’ve used to sum all this up have brought up a lot of memories for long-time members of both congregations.

And since then 60 years of worship, baptisms, Communions, weddings, funerals, Sunday school classes, meetings and more meetings, suppers, bazaars, soup and sandwiches, quilting and food bank collections and cards going out and more than I can mention.

So much has changed over six decades, but so much has stayed the same. The book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible says, “There is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new?’ It has already been, in the ages before us.” There isn’t a lot that can happen in the life of the church that hasn’t already happened in the two thousand years the church has been around or even the 93 years of our denomination. I was reading Phyllis Airhart's great history of The United Church of Canada, A Church With the Soul of a Nation, and there is a story of a United church deeply in debt that was saved by the women fundraising to cover the payments, and another congregation whose finances were straightened out by the women’s group, in, the story says, a mysterious way known only to the ladies. The book says that when money was needed to install new lighting, improve the sanctuary, or purchase new hymn books, collection plates, or Communion sets, the ladies were there. And this sounds like the last few years, but this was the 1930s. So much has changed, but so much has stayed the same, and all of us know that the Trinity and St. Andrew’s buildings would not have made it to 60 years without, in particular, women organizing and working, and we are grateful.

So much has changed. I want to talk about something that would have been unthinkable 60 years ago, and still seems strange to many of us now. You may have heard that in the United Church there is a minister who is an atheist. Well, her beliefs are more nuanced than that (this is her congregation), but that’s what it boils down to. Her ministry was being reviewed by Toronto Conference in a formal hearing, but she has good lawyers, and last week it was announced that Conference had settled her case. So she is back in ministry. The details of this settlement are confidential, but it is based on process, not theology, and it doesn’t apply to any other minister in any other conference. This hasn’t stopped her supporters, and she has lots, claiming victory, and many, many other United Church people being very upset. It just doesn’t make sense to most folks that an atheist could be, would even want to be, a minister in Christ’s church. It just doesn’t add up. It’s my impression that she wants to stay in the church because she genuinely sees herself as evangelizing the church, converting us to her way of believing, or not believing. This brings to mind for me what Jesus says in our reading today, “Watch out, and don’t let anyone fool you. Many claiming to speak for me will come and say, ‘I am he,’ and they will fool many people.”

I would add here that we are a church that doesn’t believe in what is called creedal subscription – we don’t make members sign off on a specific faith statement. People in the pews, over the last 90 and 60 years and today, have believed lots of things – they have been at different points on their journey of faith, and that is expected, and encouraged. But those who are called to paid, accountable ministry are set apart, and to be ordained or commissioned or admitted they must be found to be in essential agreement with the doctrine of the church.

Both the national church and the Moderator responded to this development. The statement from the national church office says that this settlement with one minister does not alter in any way the belief of The United Church of Canada in a God most fully revealed to us as Christians in and through Jesus Christ. The church’s statements of faith over the years have all been grounded in this understanding. The most recent statement, A Song of Faith, begins with the words “God is Holy Mystery,” recognizing that as humans we will never fully understand the nature of this mystery.

The Moderator, the Right Rev. Richard Bott, adds that as a Christian church, we continue to expect that ministers in The United Church of Canada will continue to offer their leadership in accordance with our shared and agreed upon statements of faith and celebrating the sacraments. He says, I believe that God continues to call us to be people who love, and in that love, to be communities of faith where all are welcome, whatever you believe or don’t believe.

And that, I think, is what we have tried to be here, for 60 years. We have tried our best to do what the letter to the Hebrews tells us to do: to come near to God with a sincere heart and a sure faith, purified from guilt and washed clean in baptism, to hold on firmly to the hope we profess, because we can trust in God’s promises, to be concerned for one another, to help one another to show love and to good, to meet together in worship, to encourage one another on our journeys of faith, today and for another six decades, and for six more and more until all things are made new.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Full Communion

I was interviewed twice today - in English and French - about the proposal coming to The United Church of Canada's 43rd General Council, being held July 21-27, 2018, in Oshawa, Ontario, to work towards Full Communion with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada.

Interview with Lauren Hodgson in English

Entrevue avec Stéphane Vermette en français

Saturday, May 19, 2018

That Royal Wedding Sermon...

I joked today that American interest in the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (who are now Their Royal Highnesses, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex) is how we descendants of Loyalists exiled from the United States in 1784 will roll back the American Revolution. Canada is a constitutional monarchy, so I dutifully got up early to watch the Queen's grandson get married.

The wedding had great liturgy, great music (including a gospel choir!), and great preaching, in a beautiful setting (although St. George's Chapel is much more High Church than I am). The sermon by the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States, has taken off on social media and online. Whenever else have we seen the full text, or video, of a sermon posted on Buzzfeed, Fast Company, Town and Country and Vanity Fair? It is heartening to see the Church covered by the major media for speaking of love, sacrifice and justice, instead of for attacking gay people, abusing children, and defending Trump.

I like Slate's take on the sermon's "subtly radical theology." I would quibble that the Queen, who is the head of a 53-country Commonwealth that includes a number of nations populated largely by the descendants of slaves (Jamaica, Barbados, Grenada and St. Lucia come to mind first), has probably heard slavery mentioned in a sermon before. But as someone who was excited to see the cathedral and university in Beijing associated with Teilhard de Chardin, I loved that Bishop Curry mentioned this theologian (and paleontologist). And here is the article's conclusion:

...Curry’s sermon('s)... central argument was the world-transforming power of love. On the surface, this is pretty standard fodder for a wedding homily, of course. But Curry explicitly defined “love” as something much larger than romantic attachment. “Imagine our governments and countries when love is the way,” he told the crowd, as he approached the sermon’s climax. “No child would go to bed hungry in such a world as that. Poverty would become history in such a world as that. The Earth would be as a sanctuary in such a world as that.” This is a core tenet of the kind of robust mainline Christianity that many people will have been introduced to for the first time on Saturday: both a call to faith and a call to action. Seeing that message delivered so forthrightly to millions of people enjoying the silly pomp and extravagance of a royal wedding was bracing. If it left you hungry for more, go to church.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

"Untimely, Unwise, Unnecessary:" Sermon, March 4, 2018

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
1 Corinthians 1:18-25, English Standard Version

The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father's house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
John 2:13-22, English Standard Version

Our text from the Good News According to John is known as the Cleansing of the Temple. Jesus becomes angry when he enters the Temple in Jerusalem, the centre of Jewish religious life, and finds animals being sold for sacrifice and money being changed within the Temple precincts. He drives the moneychangers and sellers out with a whip, along with the sheep and oxen they were selling, flips over the tables and scatters the coins of the moneychangers, saying “don’t make my Father’s house a place of business.” In Matthew’s Gospel he cries out, “It’s written, my house will be called a house of prayer. But you’ve made it a hideout for crooks.”

Now, I could go through how this buying and selling going on in a sacred space offended Jesus, and how his driving out the sellers and moneychangers fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. But I think what strikes me most about this reading is that, coming as it does in the season of Lent when we are preparing for Holy Week and Easter when Jesus is arrested, tried, executed, and then is raised from death, it offers us an opportunity to consider Jesus in his fullness. Because here, wielding his whip, overturning tables, Jesus is showing a, shall we say, definitely less placid side. And I’m sure that a lot of us find this disconcerting. We’re not comfortable with it. So many of our hymns and our imagery about Jesus comes from a time in the mid-19th century when Jesus was depicted as pure, meek, and humble. The “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” of Away in a Manger grew up to become the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” of another hymn. There’s nothing wrong with showing Jesus as merciful and modest, but emphasizing one part of the personality of Jesus means we miss out on the picture of him as a fully rounded person – and of course a person who is more than a person, who is both human and divine.

So we may in fact disapprove of anyone acting in the way Jesus does, even if they are trying to correct an injustice or push back against corruption. People disapproved at the time. The religious elite thoroughly disapproved of what Jesus did, which they saw as an attack on religious ritual and the proper worship of God. Mark and Luke both say that after this, the chief priests, legal experts and other religious leaders were so worked up that they were seeking to kill Jesus.

And, reflecting on this, things haven’t changed much. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement weren’t just up against the power of American states, they encountered the disapproval of the majority of white Americans at the time. The movement for rights for Black people wasn’t popular, even with religious leaders. Clergy called Black leaders “outside agitators,” they said that civil rights marches were untimely and unwise, that sit-ins and demonstrations were unnecessary as negotiations were a better path.

Today, many people disapprove of Black people protesting the shootings of unarmed Black men by police. Again, a Black people’s campaign is called untimely, unwise, unnecessary, even racist for saying that Black lives matter. Black people demonstrate in the streets, and many people disapprove. So Black athletes silently kneel during the national anthem, and many people disapprove, criticizing them as unpatriotic, as insulting the flag and the military, as being ungrateful that they are paid to play sports. Many people disapprove of Indigenous protests for justice in the deaths of Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine, and to pressure Canada to meet the obligations of treaties with Indigenous peoples. On Valentine’s Day a mass shooting at a high school in Pakarkland, Florida, killed 17 students and staff. Since then, students who survived have spoken out, demanding actions to stop these massacres taking place. And many people disapprove. These teenagers have been accused of being actors in a conspiracy, or paid agents of opponents of the Administration. Their families have received death threats. They are called publicity seekers who have inserted themselves into a national debate when they are too young to understand the issues. Their requests to feel safer at school are said to be unhelpful, counter-productive, missing the point. These teens are told to respect their elders, although it is their elders who did nothing when 20 six and seven year old children were gunned down in Sandy Hook, who did nothing when 26 worshippers were slaughtered in the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, who did nothing when 58 country music fans were killed in Las Vegas.

Martin Luther King was in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 when he responded to such criticisms from other religious leaders in a letter. He told his fellow clergy that Black people had not made a single gain in civil rights without determined pressure, that painful experience had shown that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor – it must be demanded by the oppressed, and that Black people being told “wait” almost always means “never.” And when other clergy called civil rights actions “extreme,” King asked, wasn’t Jesus an extremist for love? So, King said, the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or the extension of justice? He reminded other religious leaders that three men were crucified on Good Friday, all three for the same crime – extremism. Two were extremists for immorality. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness.

Untimely, unwise, unnecessary, extreme. People said that about Jesus, about Martin Luther King, about Black Lives Matter and Indigenous activists and the Parkland students when they were extremists for justice and came up against the powers that be. Their actions were, are, seen as a stumbling block, as foolish, just as the cross of Jesus was. But God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Jesus says that the real temple of God isn’t the building that he cleared out, but his body. His flesh is where God dwells. God the Father is in him, and he is in God the Father. And when his witness to love and justice becomes so threatening that the authorities try to silence Jesus by killing him, his body is raised from death after three days. When we become one with him, God the Father is in us and we are in God the Father, and we become part of his body, the church. Here in the church - as we say in A Song of Faith of The United Church of Canada - we seek to continue the story of Jesus by embodying his presence in the world, seeking justice and resisting evil – however untimely, unwise, and unnecessary disapproving people may think that is. For we follow Jesus Christ, an extremist for love, truth and goodness.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

"Peace, Peace," Where There is No Peace: Sermon for Remembrance Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to make you great in the opinion of all Israel. Then they will know that I will be with you in the same way that I was with Moses. You are to command the priests who carry the covenant chest. As soon as you come to the bank of the Jordan, stand still in the Jordan.”

Joshua said to the Israelites, “Come close. Listen to the words of the Lord your God.” Then Joshua said, “This is how you will know that the living God is among you and will completely remove the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites before you. Look! The covenant chest of the ruler of the entire earth is going to cross over in front of you in the Jordan. Now pick twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one per tribe. The soles of the priests’ feet, who are carrying the chest of the Lord, ruler of the whole earth, will come to rest in the water of the Jordan. At that moment, the water of the Jordan will be cut off. The water flowing downstream will stand still in a single heap.”

The people marched out from their tents to cross over the Jordan. The priests carrying the covenant chest were in front of the people. When the priests who were carrying the chest came to the Jordan, their feet touched the edge of the water. The Jordan had overflowed its banks completely, the way it does during the entire harvest season. But at that moment the water of the Jordan coming downstream stood still. It rose up as a single heap very far off, just below Adam, which is the city next to Zarethan. The water going down to the desert sea (that is, the Dead Sea) was cut off completely. The people crossed opposite Jericho. So the priests carrying the Lord’s covenant chest stood firmly on dry land in the middle of the Jordan. Meanwhile, all Israel crossed over on dry land, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.
Joshua 3:7-17, Common English Bible

After two months of reading how the people of Israel are brought out of slavery in Egypt and wander through the desert, today they cross the Jordan River into the land God promised to them. It sounds like a military campaign as the people march from their tents and across the river, and it was, because if you keep reading in the book of Joshua you find that Israel crossing on the dry Jordan riverbed took their opponents by surprise, and then Israel goes to war against the nations listed by Joshua, the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites, to conquer the land for themselves.

Crossing a river is always a very difficult military operation, in any age. A lot of battles get named after rivers. I read a book once about a division of British and Indian troops crossing an otherwise insignificant river in Italy during the Second World War, and all the planning that went into this relatively minor attack and all the decisions that had to be made quickly under fire. I was in the infantry at one time, and all this preparation and logistics goes largely unnoticed by the troops who are on the front line. We just expected that food and ammunition would arrive and that trucks would show up to take us out. But someone had to arrange that, and someone had to make the food, and someone had to load the ammunition, and someone had to drive the truck and someone had to get fuel for the truck. That’s what militaries are like, the people at the sharp end where the fighting takes place are supported by many more people who look after food and supplies and transport and mail and pay and repairs, and bringing home the dead and wounded.

The head of the American Federal Emergency Management Agency was on TV saying that hurricane relief in Puerto Rico "is the most logistically challenging event the United States has ever seen." I thought, in 1944 the United States was fighting a war against Japan on the other side of the Pacific Ocean while simultaneously participating in the invasion of Europe and campaigning in Italy. That was a challenge. You know, our societies are good at war. We are good at these big and expensive efforts to deploy and sustain forces overseas. We get practice. Canada kept a substantial force in Afghanistan for over 12 years.

The Bible tells us that there will be a future time when the old things pass away and all things are made new, and in that future swords will be beaten into ploughshares, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and no one will learn war anymore. So we say today in our worship that this is God’s vision of peace, one proclaimed to us by Jesus.

But we live in a time when, as the prophet Jeremiah says, we say, “peace, peace,” but there is no peace. Jesus tells us that we will hear of wars and rumours of war, and that is our world. The time when no one will learn war anymore seems very far off. So how are we to act now? Is the way that we must follow one of refusing to participate in anything our government does that involves war or preparation for war? Many Christians would choose that route. Or do we follow what many other faithful people have believed, to quote the Church of England’s Articles of Religion from 350 years ago, that it is lawful for Christians, at the command of the government, to serve in war?

This is not an easy choice. War isn’t clean and antiseptic the way it seems when we see videos from drones of missiles striking their targets. We don’t see the blood and broken and burned bodies that are the result. War is a horrendous evil. But sometimes it can be argued that not going to war will allow other evils like aggression and genocide to continue and to grow. Christians have to decide. I remember watching the movie Sergeant York, with Gary Cooper. Alvin York is a simple man who believes strongly in what his church in rural Tennessee teaches, that war and killing are wrong. He has to work this through for himself when he is drafted during the First World War. He chooses to become a soldier. There is another movie, made just last year, called Hacksaw Ridge. Another devout man, named Desmond Doss, is a Seventh Day Adventist who swears never to carry a weapon or to commit violence. But he also believes that it isn’t right that he stay safe at home during World War II, so he enlists in the army. He is called a coward, but as a conscientious objector he becomes a medic, without a rifle, in the battle for Okinawa. Two men, two different choices on whether Christians can use force. And both men won the American Medal of Honour for bravery under fire.

We talked last week about our Protestant heritage of being able to make our own decisions about faith and what the Bible teaches. So, just like Alvin York and Desmond Doss, we can choose for ourselves. As I said, there is a tradition of pacifism and non-violence, going back to the early days of the Christian faith. It has been rediscovered in recent years through the work of scholars who come mainly from what are called the peace churches, like the Mennonites. They see Jesus refusing to be a military leader in a violent revolt against the Roman occupiers of his homeland, and conclude that Jesus rejects all coercion and violence in favour of non-violent love of our enemies. God’s peace is not just in the future, but a way of life in our war-torn present.

And, as I said, there is another, ancient, tradition to draw on in dealing with war and peace. I have been reading a book, In Defence of War by Nigel Biggar, which is a significant and well-argued work on whether war can be permitted for Christians. Biggar does not hesitate to say that the evils war brings ought to be strenuously avoided if they can be. But not all conflict can be avoided. Sometimes war breaks out because one party, for reasons of greed or resentment or paranoia or nationalism, does not want peace, or wants it only on its own, unjust terms.

Biggar points out that several times in the New Testament Jesus or his followers encounter soldiers, who become disciples of Jesus, but there is no suggestion that they left military service as part of renouncing their past sinful behaviour. So Jesus, and the Scriptures, do not seem to regard being in the military as incompatible with Christian discipleship. It does seem clear that Jesus did not want to lead a religious, nationalist rebellion against Rome, but this does not mean that violence is never permitted against oppression. And, yes, Jesus commands us to love our enemies. But we might kill an aggressor, not because we hate him, but because, tragically, we know of no other way to prevent him from harming the innocent. So, for Biggar, the Scriptures’ prohibition of violence is not absolute.

So, as believers, as followers of Jesus, we can decide for ourselves. The men and women we remember today and on Remembrance Day made their choices too. Regardless of the choice we may make, we respect and honour their choice to serve, and that they died as a result. Jesus says, greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And we pray for the day when this choice will not be needed and God’s peace will prevail over the whole earth.