Sunday, April 02, 2017

Mortality and Immortality: Sermon, April 2, 2017

A man named Lazarus, who lived in Bethany, became sick. Bethany was the town where Mary and her sister Martha lived. (This Mary was the one who poured the perfume on the Lord's feet and wiped them with her hair; it was her brother Lazarus who was sick.) The sisters sent Jesus a message: “Lord, your dear friend is sick.”

When Jesus heard it, he said, “The final result of this sickness will not be the death of Lazarus; this has happened in order to bring glory to God, and it will be the means by which the Son of God will receive glory.”

Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he received the news that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was for two more days. 7 Then he said to the disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”

“Teacher,” the disciples answered, “just a short time ago the people there wanted to stone you; and are you planning to go back?”

Jesus said, “A day has twelve hours, doesn't it? So those who walk in broad daylight do not stumble, for they see the light of this world. But if they walk during the night they stumble, because they have no light.” Jesus said this and then added, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I will go and wake him up.”

The disciples answered, “If he is asleep, Lord, he will get well.”

Jesus meant that Lazarus had died, but they thought he meant natural sleep. So Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, but for your sake I am glad that I was not with him, so that you will believe. Let us go to him.”

Thomas (called the Twin) said to his fellow disciples, “Let us all go along with the Teacher, so that we may die with him!”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had been buried four days before. Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Judeans had come to see Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother's death.

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “If you had been here, Lord, my brother would not have died! But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask him for.”

“Your brother will rise to life,” Jesus told her.

“I know,” she replied, “that he will rise to life on the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; and those who live and believe in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord!” she answered. “I do believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

After Martha said this, she went back and called her sister Mary privately. “The Teacher is here,” she told her, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up and hurried out to meet him. (Jesus had not yet arrived in the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him.) The people who were in the house with Mary comforting her followed her when they saw her get up and hurry out. They thought that she was going to the grave to weep there.

Mary arrived where Jesus was, and as soon as she saw him, she fell at his feet. “Lord,” she said, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”

Jesus saw her weeping, and he saw how the people with her were weeping also; his heart was touched, and he was deeply moved. “Where have you buried him?” he asked them.

“Come and see, Lord,” they answered.

Jesus wept. “See how much he loved him!” the people said.

But some of them said, “He gave sight to the blind man, didn't he? Could he not have kept Lazarus from dying?”

Deeply moved once more, Jesus went to the tomb, which was a cave with a stone placed at the entrance. “Take the stone away!” Jesus ordered.

Martha, the dead man's sister, answered, “There will be a bad smell, Lord. He has been buried four days!”

Jesus said to her, “Didn't I tell you that you would see God's glory if you believed?” They took the stone away. Jesus looked up and said, “I thank you, Father, that you listen to me. I know that you always listen to me, but I say this for the sake of the people here, so that they will believe that you sent me.” After he had said this, he called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” He came out, his hands and feet wrapped in grave cloths, and with a cloth around his face. “Untie him,” Jesus told them, “and let him go.”

Many of the people who had come to visit Mary saw what Jesus did, and they believed in him.
- John 11:1-45, Good News Translation

I got an email the other day that said, “Here’s how to cheat death.” It turned out to be a link to a magazine article about research into how to make people live much longer, even forever. This is a big topic now. I found articles with titles like “Silicon Valley’s Quest to Live Forever” and “The road to immortality". That one has the sub title “In California, radical scientists and billionaire backers think the technology to extend life is only a few years away.” I was reading in one of these about a gathering of Hollywood stars and tech billionaires to hear about radically lengthened lives. And the speaker asked how many people in the room would want to live to be two hundred years old, if they could be healthy, and almost every hand went up.

So technology companies are now taking on the ultimate problem, death. One billionaire says that he wants to end mortality. He and others who made fortunes in computing and the Internet are ploughing money into research on extending life, altering the enzymes that regulate aging in the body and the genes that control life span, or even somehow downloading the human brain and your memories into a machine so that, in theory, your mind can last forever.

Now, I’m not sure I want to live on as a mind inside a computer, or have my genetic makeup changed so I live to be two hundred years old. But if you asked a group of people who aren’t Hollywood stars or rich technology executives if they want to live to be two hundred, there would still be a lot of hands go up. Particularly from baby boomers. They’re the largest group of Canadians currently living. And many baby boomers have assumed for most of their lives that they will live forever. This isn’t based on any evidence; baby boomers just don’t want to think about being dead, or old. But, of course, now people born in the postwar years are at an age where it is obvious that they will die, or are dying. And they understandably want every medical and technological intervention possible to keep death away.

You know, our culture goes to great lengths to avoid death and even thinking about death. Our own deaths, that is. At the same time as denying our own deaths we watch and read about many, many fictional deaths on TV and in movies and novels. A colleague of mine, Rev. Linda Yates, says that our obsession with watching people die in the name of entertainment may in part be due to our resistance to dealing with our own impending demise. And these fictional deaths skew how we imagine our own deaths, and create unrealistic fears. For instance, the statistics show that we are far more likely to be killed by a lawnmower than a terrorist, but we don’t have expensive and elaborate government programs for lawnmower safety. And there are no action movies about saving the world from lawnmowers.

Linda Yates notes that things weren’t always this way. For much of human history, death was familiar. It was observed and accepted. It had rituals. We see that in the story of Lazarus. Not so long ago, dying was not hidden in a hospital. When many of my ancestors died, their bodies were laid out at home.

We still have rituals, maybe more so here than in the city. A funeral or memorial service or graveside service is important, I think, because in storytelling, celebration of life, and lament, we are helped to remember the loved one who has died, and to think about our own deaths and the meaning of our own lives.

Well, we will die. There is no getting around it, as much as we don't want to acknowledge it. They say nothing is certain except death and taxes, and just as income taxes are due this month, death is coming up sometime. I just finished editing the United Church of Canada’s draft statement on medical assistance in dying. Now, we don’t have time today to deal with assisted dying for terminally ill patients. But the statement does say that despite focusing in Holy Week and Easter each year on the story of a God who died on a cross, and being part of a Christian faith fundamentally shaped by questions around the meaning of suffering and death, we in the church have often been swept up in our society’s denial of death. The church should be one place where we can overcome our society’s reluctance and have conversations about death and dying. It’s important to think and talk about death before dying is actually near. At church we hear stories and see symbols from our faith tradition that expose us to the idea of our own death. Linda has more to say about this in her book For the Death of Me.

And our church statement says that those facing the end of their lives should have access to palliative care, because each human has dignity, each person is created in God’s image, and Jesus commanded us to care for the sick. It is essential to offer relief of pain and suffering when life draws to a close.

And that makes me think about this research into extending life and keeping the mind going outside the body. I’m not sure these life spans of two hundred years are intended to be for everyone. Only those who can afford it would be genetically modified to live longer, or have their brain downloaded so their mind could be immortal. So a lot of brainpower and money is being sunk into projects that will only ever benefit rich people. I can’t help but think this is trying to solve the wrong problem. Funding improvements in palliative care would be a much more meaningful response to the problem of death.

And we already know how to extend and improve life, but it’s far less glamourous than coming up with a way to download your brain. Those technologies are already here: clean water, urban sanitation, smokeless cooking, access to healthcare, quality education. The arithmetic of improving life just by adding more years is too simple. It ignores what makes a life an abundant life, in Jesus’ words.

Yesterday we had a funeral service. And I said the traditional words,
"You only are immortal, O God, Creator of all.
We are mortal, formed of the earth, and to the earth we shall return.
All of us return to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song,
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah."
Billions of dollars in research may add a few years to the life spans of the rich. It may even preserve their minds for centuries. But the earthly lives of humans will still be finite. "You are dust, and to the dust you shall return," God tells Adam and Eve. Humans can’t live forever through their own power.

But our story shows us what is possible through God’s power. Lazarus died. And then he lived again, through Jesus using the power of God. Now, Lazarus would die eventually. But after this story took place, Jesus himself would be raised from death by God’s power at Easter, raised to new life, and because he has been raised we will all be raised. Jesus took on the ultimate problem, death, and won. "Our mortal bodies will put on immortality," Scripture says. "Death will be swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?"

“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus tells Martha. “Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; and those who live and believe in me will never die.” And then he asks her, “Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she answers. How will we respond?

Rev. Linda Yates' resource For the Death of Me: Accepting Death, Choosing Life was very helpful in preparing this sermon and, along with her oral remarks to a consultation, in writing the proposed United Church of Canada statement on Medical Assistance in Dying. It is a great resource for individual and group reflection on death and dying.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Tragic Echoes of 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'

From Foreign Policy, March 17, 2017:

On Friday, an Apache military helicopter reportedly opened fire on a boat packed with over 140 Somali migrants off the coast of Yemen.

Forty-two people were killed in the attack, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR). All 42 were reportedly carrying official U.N. refugee papers. Eighty survivors were rescued from the water after the attack and taken to a detention center in Hodieda, Yemen, the International Organization for Migration’s Laurent De Boeck told AP. He added the IOM is liaising with hospitals to ensure the survivors get the care they need.

The boat, filled with refugees attempting to flee war-torn Yemen including women and children, had made it about 30 miles offshore when a helicopter swooped in and opened fire. A local coast guard official from the Houthi-rebel controlled coast of Yemen told Reuters an Apache helicopter attacked the boat, though it remains unclear who is responsible for the attack.

Saudi Arabia, which leads an Arab air campaign against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, owns U.S.-made Apache helicopters. A spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition said the coalition didn’t operate in the region of the attack Thursday.

From Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell, first published in 1949. Winston Smith is writing in his illicit diary:

Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water, audience shouting with laughter when he sank, then you saw a lifeboat full of children with a helicopter hovering over it, there was a middle-aged woman might have been a jewess sitting up in the bow with a little boy about three years old in her arms, little boy screaming in fright and hiding his head between her breasts as if he was trying to burrow right into her and the woman putting her arms round him and comforting him although she was blue with fright herself, all the time covering him up as much as possible as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him, then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them terrific flash and the boat went all to matchwood, then there was a wonderful shot of a child's arm going up up up right into the air a helicopter with a camera in its nose must have followed it up...

Monday, February 06, 2017

Salt, Light and Fake News: Sermon, February 5, 2017

Shout loudly; don’t hold back;
raise your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their crime,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
They seek me day after day,
desiring knowledge of my ways
like a nation that acted righteously,
that didn’t abandon their God.
They ask me for righteous judgments,
wanting to be close to God.
“Why do we fast and you don’t see;
Why do we afflict ourselves
and you don’t notice?”
Yet on your fast day
you do whatever you want,
and oppress all your workers.
You quarrel and brawl, and then you fast;
You hit each other violently
with your fists.
You shouldn’t fast as you are doing today
if you want to make
your voice heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I choose,
a day of self-affliction,
Of bending one’s head like a reed
and of lying down in mourning clothing and ashes?
Is this what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

Isn’t this the fast I choose:
Releasing wicked restraints,
Untying the ropes of a yoke,
Setting free the mistreated,
And breaking every yoke?
Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry
and bringing the homeless poor
into your house,
Covering the naked when you see them,
And not hiding from your own family?
Then your light will break out like the dawn,
and you will be healed quickly.
Your own righteousness
will walk before you,
and the Lord’s glory
will be your rear guard.
Then you will call,
and the Lord will answer;
You will cry for help,
and God will say, "I'm here."
Isaiah 58:1-9a, Common English Bible

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.

“Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. I say to you very seriously that as long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality. Therefore, whoever ignores one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called the lowest in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever keeps these commands and teaches people to keep them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. I say to you that unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew 5:13-20, Common English Bible

I was reading in the Seaway News that the Cornwall Standard Freeholder now has only five reporters. At one time, not so long ago, there were 20 journalists working in the newsroom. It tells you something about the newspaper industry these days. I was at a meeting in Montreal, and one minister said he really needed a paper, and wondered where he could find one. I joked that, rather than search for a newspaper box these days, it might be easier to invent time travel and go back to 1955 and find a newsboy selling the Montreal Star on the corner. We don’t get the paper. I read the stories online. When I visit people who do get the paper, they usually tell me they only take it for the obituaries.

So how we get the news has changed. And our trust in the news has changed. If you’re on social media, on Facebook or Twitter, people are always posting their own version of the news. We aren’t confident anymore that the news is really the news, that is, that it’s accurately reporting what happened. There has always been bias and mistakes in reporting, but people didn’t used to dismiss the entire output of news outlets as “fake news.” There really is fake news, though. There have been mistaken rumours as long as humans have been able to talk about what’s happening. A few years ago, even now, you would get an email from a friend of yours, usually with a whole list of email addresses because it had been forwarded many times, about what we used to call an urban legend. It would tell a story that was supposed to have really happened, usually to someone’s brother in law’s barber’s second cousin, like a woman driving and hearing a report on the radio about an escaped convict with a hook for a hand, and she stops for gas and finds the hook dangling from the car door handle. Urban legends were like the scary stories the counsellors would tell us when we went to summer camp, and later we would repeat the same stories to frighten the new kids. Anyway, if you got an email about an urban legend, you could check it with a website like that collected all these chain emails and fact checked them and would tell you if they had any basis in fact.

But now people on the Internet can invent fake news in minutes. On Sunday night we got the terrible news of the attack on the mosque in Quebec City. Later that night the names and pictures of two suspects, said to be Syrian refugees, began circulating on social media – but it was all fake. And people leaped to conclusions based on the names and pictures, and then when the identity of the real suspect came out, other people leaped to conclusions based on his name and photo. And the fake story was still out there.

One great thing about our digital age is that anyone can create content online. You don’t have to own a newspaper or a TV station. And sometimes a bad thing about our digital age is that anyone can create content online. Because they can just make up their own facts for their own purposes. Maybe at one time journalism was about “just the facts, ma’am,” as they used to say on Dragnet, but now all sides on an issue are twisting stories to fit their agenda and just plain lying.

And today there is so much news content that we often filter it by only paying attention to news networks that cater to our preconceived notions. It’s like an echo chamber where we only hear voices like our own, that reinforce the views we already have.

This fast-moving news cycle, and how easy it is for us to get only the news that fits what we already think, and how quickly we can post our opinions about it, just feeds constant anger and outrage. Online it’s as if we are like the mob in Western movies, surrounding the jail where the sheriff is keeping the bad guy, carrying our torches and a noose. You used to have call talk radio and give your opinion to a host, but now you can express your fury to hundreds or thousands of people online. And because on the computer screen we may be talking – well, typing - with strangers who live far away and we will never meet them face to face, it’s easier than ever to insult and call names and harass and say shocking things. And the more outrageous you are, the more attention you get.

There have always been rumours, and name calling. There have always been labels and stereotypes that allows us to dismiss people with views opposing ours. But now we’re no longer out to debate those with different positions – we’re out to destroy them.

And, you know, all this has consequences. There was a fake story about a child abuse ring being run out of a pizza parlour in Washington DC. It was completely false. It was invented to try to discredit an election candidate. But a guy read it, and showed up at the pizza place with a gun to protect these children, and he fired shots. If we promote fake news, it has consequences. If we are incessantly spreading stories about Islam being dangerous and raising fears of Sharia law and terrorism and criminal refugees, then it has consequences.

All this divides us. All this cements the barriers we put in place to separate humanity into different groups. All this helps us to identify only with our own group, and resent everyone else. All this traps us in a bubble where we are only exposed to people and opinions like our own. All this warps reality so that we can’t tell anymore what is true and what is false.

Do we think this is what Jesus wants for us, as his followers? To perpetuate division? The Letter of James says to Christians, “Think about this: a small flame can set a whole forest on fire. The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth.” Today James might write about fingers typing on computer keyboards, as well as the tongue, but you see the point.

Jesus teaches in his Sermon on the Mount that we are to live as salt of the earth, light for the world. Jesus says, “Let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.” What do people see when we report fake news, spew insults, degrade opponents, label and stereotype? Are they seeing good things that will cause them to give God glory? The way so many Christians act, online and in the real world, is not exactly flavouring the world and letting Christ’s light shine through them. Their behaviour doesn’t reflect Jesus. Sure, Jesus could argue, he could use his words to take the powerful down a peg, he could get angry at injustice – but he was out to love, not condemn, his enemies.

We stopped our Isaiah reading at verse 9. The next part of that verse says, “remove the finger-pointing, the wicked speech.” That is one way to be salt and light in the world, as Jesus told us to do – to let blessings, instead of curses, come from our mouths and our typing fingers. In the Letter to the Galatians, the fruits of the Spirit, the qualities of a Christian life, are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – and these should shape the way we behave in the online and the real worlds, So next time we are in a heated argument on Facebook, or in person, with someone who disagrees with us, Jesus wants us to see that person not an adversary to be destroyed, but as a child of God, made in God’s image, someone who can see the good things we do and come to praise God.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

"Poorest and Simplest of Earthly People:" Sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.

This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria.

So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child.

So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered.

And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid.

Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!”

So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.”

And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.

Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.

Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.
- Luke 2:1-20, New King James Bible

The Christmas story is one of the most beautiful texts in the entire Bible. When a story is so lovely and so familiar, I can’t add much. I just want to talk for a minute about a couple of things that stand out for me.

The story says, “in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” This reminds us that Jesus was born in a country occupied by Rome, a foreign power.

And it tells us more. "All the world should be registered." The story joins the census of the whole world to the birth of Jesus. Jesus has come to be the saviour of all the world. It’s important to know that in the Roman Empire there was already someone called the Saviour of the world and the Son of God – that was the Emperor Augustus himself. There was a cult of the emperor. But the angels announce that the titles of God’s Son, Saviour, Lord don’t really belong to the Roman emperor, or any other ruler – they belong to Jesus, for in him alone God and humanity are joined, and real salvation, real peace, for the whole world, can only come from him.

The other thing that stands out for me is who is told about this wonderful birth. Who do God’s angels come to with this news of great joy for all people? Not the emperor in Rome. Not the king the Romans put in place over the region. This news isn’t announced in a palace or temple or mansion. It is proclaimed in a field, to shepherds at their jobs outside a little village in a backwater province on the fringe of the empire, far from the centre of power.

Now, we tend to be very sentimental about these Christmas card shepherds. But shepherds were simple, rural, working people, like a lot of folks here. They were rough around the edges, maybe like some folks here. But there’s more. They were poor. They had a bad reputation. Shepherds were what today might be scorned as white trash. Respectable people looked down on them. You could even say people despised them. Being a shepherd was not an honourable way to make a living. Staying out on the hills, they were unable to carry out the religious obligations of good, observant Jews. They couldn’t do what society expected of the heads of households. And they were seen as thieves, because they grazed their sheep on land belonging to other people. That shepherds - poor, powerless, dishonourable - would be the first to receive the good news of the Saviour and come to worship him shows God’s concern for the outcasts of society.

That the shepherds are so privileged is a way of showing us that the birth of Jesus is for all people, including, even especially for, those who are on the margins, outside the elite, those who are shunned and excluded. The news of Christmas joy is for everyone. For everyone. For you and me. If you here tonight are country people, working people, if you are unpolished, if you have a bit of a bad reputation, if you have been in trouble, if you don’t have much, if you feel left out –the angels are trusting you first with the Christmas news that there is born to you this day a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And then remember that the shepherds were changed by what they had heard and seen, and they spread the news.

There is a prayer about the shepherds, from Christians in Uganda.

Blessed are you, O Christ child,
That shepherds, poorest and simplest of earthly people,
Could yet kneel beside you,
And look, level-eyed, into the face of God.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

"The Insanity of the Times:" Sermon for Remembrance Sunday, November 6, 2016

In the second year of Darius the king, on the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the Lord’s word came through Haggai the prophet: Say to Judah’s governor Zerubbabel, Shealtiel’s son, and to the chief priest Joshua, Jehozadak’s son, and to the rest of the people:
Who among you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Doesn’t it appear as nothing to you?
So now, be strong, Zerubbabel, says the Lord.
Be strong, High Priest Joshua, Jehozadak’s son, and be strong, all you people of the land, says the Lord.
Work, for I am with you, says the Lord of heavenly forces.
As with our agreement when you came out of Egypt, my spirit stands in your midst. Don’t fear.
This is what the Lord of heavenly forces says:
In just a little while, I will make the heavens, the earth, the sea, and the dry land quake.
I will make all the nations quake. The wealth of all the nations will come.
I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of heavenly forces.
The silver and the gold belong to me, says the Lord of heavenly forces.
This house will be more glorious than its predecessor, says the Lord of heavenly forces. I will provide prosperity in this place, says the Lord of heavenly forces.
Haggai 1:15b-2:9, Common English Bible

Some people were talking about the temple, how it was decorated with beautiful stones and ornaments dedicated to God. Jesus said, “As for the things you are admiring, the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.”

They asked him, “Teacher, when will these things happen? What sign will show that these things are about to happen?”

Jesus said, “Watch out that you aren’t deceived. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m the one!’ and ‘It’s time!’ Don’t follow them. When you hear of wars and rebellions, don’t be alarmed. These things must happen first, but the end won’t happen immediately.”

Then Jesus said to them, “Nations and kingdoms will fight against each other. There will be great earthquakes and wide-scale food shortages and epidemics. There will also be terrifying sights and great signs in the sky. But before all this occurs, they will take you into custody and harass you because of your faith. They will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will provide you with an opportunity to testify. Make up your minds not to provide your defence in advance. I’ll give you words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to counter or contradict. You will be betrayed by your parents, brothers and sisters, relatives, and friends. They will execute some of you. Everyone will hate you because of my name. Still, not a hair on your heads will be lost. By holding fast, you will gain your lives.”

“When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then you will know that its destruction is close at hand. At that time, those in Judea must flee to the mountains, those in the city must escape, and those in the countryside must not enter the city. These are the days of punishment, when everything written must find its fulfillment. How terrible it will be at that time for women who are pregnant or for women who are nursing their children. There will be great agony on the earth and angry judgment on this people. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all the nations. Jerusalem will be plundered by the Gentiles until the time of the Gentiles are concluded.”
Luke 21:5-24, Common English Bible

My great uncle Walter Hayward joined the Canadian Army during the First World War. In October 1915 he was 16 years old, and he joined up along with his older brother Sandy and others from farms around Rockland, New Brunswick. They signed up with the 104th Battery, Royal Canadian Artillery, but when they finally arrived overseas replacements were needed in other battalions to make up for the heavy losses in combat. Sandy went to the 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles, and Walter to the 78th Battalion, Winnipeg Grenadiers. He had never been to Winnipeg – never been outside Carleton County, New Brunswick, before he joined the Army.

My uncle says that Walter was “well endowed with Hayward wit and humour.” His sense of humour endeared him to everyone in his unit, and contributed greatly to the morale of the troops. He was also fearless.

On September 2nd, 1918, the Canadian Corps was involved in the final Allied advance that would eventually push the German armies out of France. Great Uncle Walter’s company had just reached the top of a hill when it came under very heavy machine gun fire. Walter, 19 years old, six foot three inches tall, was hit in the head. He was still alive, but unconscious, and died the next day in the casualty clearing station. He is buried in the British military cemetery at Aubigny, France (photo below).

17 million people died in the First World War. This number is too big for us to comprehend. Even the number of dead from Canada and Newfoundland, 61,000, is beyond our understanding. We can only relate to individual stories, like my Great Uncle Walter, or the list of names on a war memorial for one township. We have gone through the emotions of the Afghanistan war, 9/11, even the Second World War for some of us, but still we can’t imagine what it was like during that war, called the Great War, because it was so unprecedented. Europe had been largely at peace for a century, and wars had been fought far away. Then this great war began, expected to last only a few months. But it went on for four years, men killed in their millions by new and terrible weapons like the machine gun, and poison gas, and tanks, and aircraft. It was death on an industrial scale, death in numbers no one had ever experienced, death that for the first time affected every village and town in Canada. In one major battle in 1916 the British Army lost 19,000 men in one day, as men walked slowly, weighed down by heavy gear, right into German machine gun fire. That was the day the Newfoundland Regiment lost 91 percent of its men, which is why July 1st may be Canada Day here but will always be Memorial Day in Newfoundland and Labrador.

That much death, that much suffering, had a huge impact, on families, on society. You watch shows like Downton Abbey that are set during the war and afterwards, and you realize that all the romantic drama, young women trying to find husbands, was because so many of the men of marriageable age were dead. I think of my family, Great Uncle Walter dead, Great Uncle Sandy wounded and gassed, suffering from what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. People strained to find meaning in a world where their loved ones had been slaughtered and maimed. During the war there was an artistic movement called Dada, to create a new art that would have nothing to do with prewar styles and ideas. One Dadaist artist said that they were repelled by the butchery of the world war and so they were looking for art that would free people from the insanity of the times.

We can relate to this as Canadians. We live in a time that is nothing like the First World War, but as Jesus said in Luke’s Gospel, we hear of wars and rebellions, nations fight each other, there are natural disasters and famines and epidemics. Christians in many places are harassed and betrayed and arrested and some are executed. Our neighbours in the country that borders ours have an election that is divisive, and ugly, and disturbs us. The First World War was followed by another world war, in which the industrial methods used to slaughter soldiers were applied to exterminating whole groups of people, and we said, “never again,” yet genocide still happens.

The First World War ripped apart and threw away the orderly world people knew. The prewar world was like the Temple Jesus saw, a great structure everyone admired, and then that world was demolished. The world lost meaning.

And we can relate to this, as Christians. Jesus, the Son of God, the divine in human form, was betrayed, and arrested, and tried, and tortured, and killed. The Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthian church, we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal, which is foolish, to any reasonable person. It’s foolish to think that the eternal and living God could die. It’s a scandal that God could be executed as a criminal. No one could make this up. It’s nonsensical.

Peter Rollins, the radical theologian from Northern Ireland, talks about this, and notes that in theology there are all kinds of theories that try to give meaning and purpose to Jesus dying on the cross. But the cross defies expectations, defies constructing theories, defies reason and logic, defies meaning. It’s absurd. It’s like Dada, like punk rock. It doesn’t fit any of our categories.

You know, Rollins points out that we think of God as the fixer. We want God to fix the things that are wrong in our lives and our world. But in the crucifixion God isn’t fixing anything. God is suffering. That is scandalous. That is completely irrational. That is just as senseless as the First World War. The crucifixion draws us into the experience of loss and unknowing and sheer inability to understand, and says that God is there with us.

The First World War shattered how people think about religion, politics, culture. And, as Rollins says, the crucifixion changes how we think about God. The God of the crucifixion can’t be a fixer. That image is done away with. And the crucifixion on Good Friday is followed by Jesus being raised from death on Easter morning. The God of resurrection is defined, not up there in a far away heaven, but here, in the community of believers. The God of resurrection present in the midst of the dirt and grime of everyday existence – God is present even in the mud and blood of battlefields. And God is made known when believers work for justice and love.

We remember those who experienced the senselessness and suffering of war. Our suffering God was there with them. We remember those who died. Our God who died on a cross was there with them. We struggle to make sense of a world that seems crazy. Our God who experienced loss and separation is there with us. And we try to build a new world worthy of those we remember, a world of peace and justice. And our God who triumphs over death is there with us. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

By Faith Alone: Sermon for Reformation Sunday, October 30, 2016

Scripture readings are from the New King James Version of the Bible.

In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head while on his bed. Then he wrote down the dream, telling the main facts.

Daniel spoke, saying, “I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the Great Sea. And four great beasts came up from the sea, each different from the other.

“I, Daniel, was grieved in my spirit within my body, and the visions of my head troubled me. 16 I came near to one of those who stood by, and asked him the truth of all this. So he told me and made known to me the interpretation of these things: 17 ‘Those great beasts, which are four, are four kings which arise out of the earth. 18 But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom forever, even forever and ever.’"
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18

In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, 12 that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory.

In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.

Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers: that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.

And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.
Ephesians 1:11-23

Then Jesus lifted up His eyes toward His disciples, and said:
“Blessed are you poor,
For yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
For you shall be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
For you shall laugh.
Blessed are you when men hate you,
And when they exclude you,
And revile you, and cast out your name as evil,
For the Son of Man’s sake.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy!
For indeed your reward is great in heaven,
For in like manner their fathers did to the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich,
For you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full,
For you shall hunger.
Woe to you who laugh now,
For you shall mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all men speak well of you,
For so did their fathers to the false prophets.

“But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise.
Luke 6:20-31

We have Reformation Sunday today because on October 31, 1517, a priest and theology teacher named Martin Luther went up to the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, and posted his 95 Theses on the door – 95 objections to church teachings that he believed had gotten away from what Jesus and the apostles had taught. And, partially because a new technology, the printing press, allowed these theses and other writings to be distributed quickly, that started the Protestant Reformation that spread across Europe. Our United Church heritage in the Presbyterian, Congregational, Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches is Protestant and goes right back to those days. We are a Reformed church, with our identity shaped by this Reformation.

Before the Reformation there was one church across all of Western and Central Europe, the Catholic Church. One of the key differences Luther and the other Reformers had with Catholic church teaching of the time was about how we are saved by God through Jesus. Luther said that the church had lost sight of the truth about salvation that is found in Scripture. Basically, the Catholic church back then taught that people are saved by works, that is, what we do. One thing that got Luther riled up to post his 95 theses was that a commissioner from Rome had been sent to the area to raise funds to build St. Peter’s Basilica. That’s the huge church that is now at the centre of the Vatican. The pope’s delegate was selling what were called indulgences. If you gave money for St. Peter’s, you received an indulgence, a promise that this good work would guarantee you a quicker entrance into heaven.

And even with our Protestant heritage, we still talk sometimes like Catholics 500 years ago. If someone does something nice for us, we say, “Oh, you will go to heaven for that.”

Luther pointed to what the Bible says. The Protestant Reformers proclaimed “Scripture alone.” They didn’t teach anything that couldn’t be found in the Bible. So Luther turned to the letter to the Ephesians. We just read part of the first chapter of Ephesians, about God’s saints. In the next chapter, it says, and these are the verses Luther and the Reformers highlighted:

You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives (Ephesians 2:8-10, Common English Bible).

We are saved by faith, not works. Faith alone. We can’t do anything to earn our salvation. It is God’s free gift to us, whether we deserve it or not. Good works are still important, but they are a sign of our faith, not the way that we are saved or justified or put right with God.

This truth found in Scripture is called the doctrine of justification. Luther said that this is the one and firm rock, the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine. We are saved by God’s grace. Luther was summoned before an assembly of the imperial and church authorities. It was called the Diet of Worms, which sounds pretty funny, but a diet is a parliament, and the city is spelled Worms in English but pronounced Worms in German. So it wasn't really a "diet of worms." Anyway, Luther was told that he would be declared an outlaw unless he recanted his statements on justification. He responded, “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me.”

If we know anything about the Reformation, we probably think about it as Protestant vs. Catholic, and it was. Divisions were deep, and people were persecuted, and put to death, and wars were fought, because of these differences over what people believed. Jesus said that people will hate and exclude and revile his followers. That was certainly true, terribly true, during this period and the centuries afterwards.

But the Reformed churches aren’t the same as they were 400 and 500 years ago. A Reformed motto is “the church is reformed and always reforming.” And the Roman Catholic church isn’t the same as it was then either. It has been reforming too, changing many of the things the Protestant Reformers were rebelling against. Pope Francis will visit Sweden this week for the anniversary of the Reformation, in a show of unity.

And there has even been progress on resolving that key difference at the heart of this split in the church, the disagreement over the doctrine of justification. Catholics and Protestants in fact worked out a solution only 20 years after Luther first published his ideas, but this effort failed as the two sides were already too entrenched. So in recent years the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches arrived at a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. It has now been affirmed by Methodist and Anglican churches. The United Church of Canada belongs to the World Communion of Reformed Churches, with 229 member churches in 108 countries. It’s hoped that this Reformed association will sign on to the Declaration next year when it meets in Germany as part of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary. As the chair of the Theology and Inter-Church Inter-Faith Committee of our denomination, I just sent in our Canadian response to the declaration on justification.

This declaration by all these churches means that this historical difference on how we are saved in Jesus Christ no longer divides us. The churches affirm together some key truths from scripture about our Christian faith: God calls all people unconditionally to salvation in Jesus Christ; we are powerless to save ourselves, so no one can respond to God’s call apart from God’s grace working in them; we receive salvation by grace alone, through faith in Christ, not because of anything we have done; we remain dependent on God’s grace throughout our lives. Grace is the source of our justification while faith is how we receive it. Our union with Christ by faith involves both justification by grace and sanctification, or growing in grace.

And while our justification is not because of any good works, our faith is acted out in how we love. In Christ the Holy Spirit renews us in order that we may be equipped to do the works of love God has prepared for us, as a sign of our justification. Faith without works is dead, the New Testament says. In our United Church response we wrote that we affirm that there is unity between justification and justice. God's movement towards us in love does not end with us, but always flows outward, moving us outward to participate in God's mission of healing the world. The Reformed churches are convinced that the doctrine of justification can’t be abstract, somehow separated from the reality of injustice, oppression and violence.

So good news on this Reformation Sunday, especially for us with the motto - right there on our United Church crest - “That they may all be one,” the prayer of Jesus for his followers. We see new possibilities for overcoming 500 years of division and for the joint witness to the world that is the will of Jesus. Thanks be to God.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

London 2259

I was born in London - well, Wimbledon in South London, which was once well outside the city but is now a suburb, and we lived in Putney. So I have long been interested in how London, particularly future London, is depicted in films.

There's the alternate-reality London under the Magisterium of The Golden Compass.

And the London of 2259, depicted in Star Trek Into Darkness. In Star Trek's London, there are familiar features like the Thames and St. Paul's Cathedral, but the City and Westminster, at least, are apparently now covered in towers (more than they are now - none of Sir Christopher Wren's City churches are visible, other than St. Paul's). We know from the movie that some of these towers are apartment buildings, as this shot appears in the film as the view from a character's home.

That St. Paul's is still a part of the city landscape over 240 years in the future isn't surprising - but is it still a church in this future London? And the image of the cathedral surrounded by the towers of secular life says something to me, more than the continued presence of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz in the movie's version of future San Francisco does. Perhaps for me St. Paul's serves the same function as the Golden Gate in the Star Trek universe - see this exploration of the California city and Star Trek in Wired.