Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A couple of requests...

I don't usually make these requests of readers of my blog, but perhaps these may strike a chord with you:
I'm participating in the Common English Bible blog tour. If you like the Facebook page you will be able to print beautiful calligraphy Bible verses.
I met Timothy Kurek at OP11 in Nashville in September. His first book is due to be released in September 2012, and he is asking for folks to like his Facebook page - he's hoping to get a thousand "likes" by the time he is done his second draft.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Quickly to Bethlehem: Sermon, December 24, 2011

Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.

The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you — wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your saviour is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, "Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours.”

When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.

Luke 2:8-20, Common English Bible

Giving all glory and honour to God.

Christmas is a time for stories. We tell the Christmas story, and other stories that build on it, about the animals and the shepherds and the littlest angel and the little drummer boy, and other stories about Frosty and Rudolph. And we tell stories about our families and the Christmases of past years, sometimes happy stories, sometimes sad, sometimes funny. My mother used to tell about a Christmas dinner at her aunt Nellie’s, and an argument broke out, and Nellie, who had had a few drinks, got angry and grabbed the turkey in the oven with her bare hands and slammed it onto the table. That was probably a lot funnier later than it was at the time, when it was probably pretty scary.

At Christmastime I think about a relative of mine, Arch Hatfield, who had been a lumberjack in Nova Scotia and became a Baptist minister. He was in the Primitive Baptist church. It’s since changed its name, as I guess no one wants to be primitive anymore. And my father’s family had several stories about him, when he was ministering in Carleton County in New Brunswick. He was called the Shepherd of Carleton. I may have told you before about one Sunday in the 1930s. Arch had come to preach the evening service in the church, and as it was the Depression Grampy had no money to put in the collection plate, so when Arch came he and Grammy gave him a meal, fed his horse, and sent him away with a bag of grain, some eggs, or maybe a roast. That was how ministers were paid then. Now we have direct deposit.

This one time Arch was with Grampy and my Dad and uncle in the barn. It was getting dark and the turkeys were getting in position to roost on the beams. One young gobbler missed its footing and crashed to the barn floor, lying there stunned. In an instant Grampy had his pocket knife out – all men carried knives then – beheaded the turkey, rubbed the feathers off, and dressed it on the spot. He handed the bird to Arch and said, “Here’s your Christmas dinner!” Arch was speechless. He couldn’t believe what he had just seen, and went away talking about how God always provides. Later it came out that he had been very anxious about Christmas dinner for his family, as money was scarce and no one had given them a turkey or ham. In my family this was the story of the Christmas turkey miracle.

Tonight I’m thinking of another of our family stories. Once, during the 1950s so Arch had a car instead of a horse, Arch was driving to a service in the country. I think it was Christmas Day, and it was a cold and snowy Christmas. The car got stuck on a lonely stretch of road. Arch decided to walk the rest of the way to church, about six miles. I should mention that he would then have been over 70 years old. So he headed through the driving snow and bitter cold. He got there, but was so late that the congregation had gone home. Yet, as I heard the story, folks came back and got the stove going and people came in to hear the Christmas message and sing the carols about Jesus being born.

This makes me think of our Christmas story, the first Christmas story. The angels don’t bring the news of Christmas to the ruler and his court, or the rich people, or the religious authorities, or even to city dwellers. They announce it to shepherds, at work with their flocks in the fields - just simple, no-nonsense, plain-spoken country people, so poor and ordinary that other people back then looked down on them. They are chosen to be the first to know what has happened. And remember what happens in the story when the angels disappear. The shepherds say to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what God has revealed to us.” Luke wrote this story down, and he writes that they went quickly. Luke wrote in Greek, and the word here means the shepherds hurried, they raced, to get to Bethlehem. Hearing about these shepherds, I can only think of Arch Hatfield, the Shepherd of Carleton, another down-to-earth, simple country person, in his 70s, slogging through the snowdrifts and struggling against the wind and blowing snow, trying to get to a Christmas church service as fast as he could, hurrying as if to Bethlehem.

What would draw these shepherds, 2000 years ago, 60 years ago, to rush like this? What is it about this night that would cause anyone to risk rushing across rocky, pitch-dark hills in Palestine or up a windswept, snow-covered road in rural New Brunswick?

What did we just sing? The second verse of Angels From the Realms of Glory – shepherds in the field abiding, watching o’er your flocks by night, God with us is now residing, yonder shines the infant light. God with us is now residing. The child born to Mary in Bethlehem is God with us. Emmanuel. The Christmas story we read is from the good news according to Luke. John doesn’t have a Christmas story, but his gospel starts by telling us, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We say this in the United Church’s new creed, God has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh. The Christ, the anointed one of the ancient prophecies, is God’s Word, through whom and for whom all things were created. And, somehow, mysteriously, the divine Word of God becomes human and is born as we are, and is named Jesus, which means Saviour.

God comes to be with us in a tiny, vulnerable baby. We may sing, little Lord Jesus no crying he makes, and holy infant so tender and mild, but we know that if he really is human the baby Jesus cried and spit up and made as much of a mess as we did. And he who is somehow divine and human, he who is God come to be with us, is not born in the imperial capital or even in a city, but in a little town, a remote place on the fringe of the empire, in the sticks really, and not in a palace or a temple or a mansion or even a house. My mother used to say, were you born in a barn, but Christ the Lord IS born in a barn, born amid animal smells and hay, and laid in a manger, a feeding trough.

Now, if that is the whole story, that alone would be awesome. And often we want that to be the whole story. If you saw the movie Talladega Nights, you remember that NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby likes to pray to baby Jesus. He tells his wife, "look, I like Christmas Jesus best. When you say grace, you can say it to grownup Jesus, or teenage Jesus, or bearded Jesus, or whoever you want." So he prays, "dear eight pound six ounce newborn baby Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant and so cuddly, but still omnipotent."

Well, we can be like Ricky Bobby sometimes, staying with the Christmas Jesus, just as parents look at their sleeping babies and whisper, I wish they could just stay like this forever. Other times parents wish their babies would grow up already. And our babies do get bigger, and so does baby Jesus. He does grow up, to teach us, to challenge us, to confront us, to be with and love the people excluded from polite society, to show us what God is like, how much God loves us and accepts us, and how God wants to change us so that we are more like Jesus, more like God. Jesus came so we can be more truly human, and thus more godlike. And Jesus doesn’t wave his hand and solve the world’s problems, but is the king who comes to serve, and to suffer. We will follow the story from Christmas to Good Friday and Easter, when Jesus will die and rise again from death, to free us from death.

You know, there’s a slogan this time of year, Jesus is the reason for the season, and that’s true, although I think Jesus would be dismayed that his followers get so agitated about whether or not a store wishes customers Merry Christmas.

Jesus is the reason for the season. But not the only reason. There’s more. One of the readings from the Bible for Christmas Day is from the letter to Titus, and it says, when God our saviour’s kindness and love appeared, he saved us because of God’s mercy, not because of righteous things we had done, through the Holy Spirit which God poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our saviour. Saved US. Poured out on US. Brothers and sisters, the whole story of salvation, Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, is all for us. WE are the reason for the season. God chose to take human form, to be the eight pound six ounce newborn baby Jesus of Christmas, for us, so that WE can be the body of Christ in the world, so that WE can help to bring God’s realm of love and justice and peace, so that WE can be transformed, so that WE can have more abundant life now, and so that WE will have eternal life as death will not hold us.

Now that IS awesome. That is good news of great joy for all people. That’s why Arch Hatfield trudged through the snow and endured the cold to worship at Christmas. That’s why folks then came back and filled the church and sang and prayed on Christmas Day. That’s why we’re here.

In our story the shepherds return home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. And we will go out with the joyous songs of Christmas on our lips and the wonderful news of Christmas in our hearts, that God has come to be with us in Jesus Christ, praising God that Jesus is born for us. Born that we no more may die, born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth. Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn King.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Eve Call to Worship

Yesterday I wrote the services for Christmas Eve and New Year's Day. One advantage or disadvantage of our United Church of Canada Presbyterian/Methodist/Congregationalist/Evangelical United Brethren tradition is that we don't have a common prayer book or missal, and our worship is customized for each congregation or pastoral charge.

This doesn't mean that everything is written from scratch; I often adapt worship materials from other denominations shared through LiturgyLink or TextWeek, or supplied by our own worship leaders to Gathering, the United Church worship resource. I hadn't been able to find a suitable Call to Worship to begin the Christmas Eve service, so I wrote one from the prophecies of the Christ, found in Isaiah, and the Christmas story from Luke's Gospel, taken from the Common English Bible.

The convention in our service bulletins is that the words spoken by the worship leader are printed in the regular font; the congregation says the words in bold.

An angel comes to shepherds in the country, and tells them:
Your Saviour is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord.
And a whole assembly of angels proclaims:
Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace.
For the ancient prophecies have come true,
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.
A child is born to us, a son is given to us.
He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
God has given us a sign:
A young woman will give birth to a son, and he will be called Emmanuel, God with us.
Like the shepherds,
Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened.
Let us worship God who comes among us tonight as a tiny baby.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Looking into small group resources: MissioLife

I was sent a copy of the MissioLife resource for small church groups. I have been trying to find good group materials - I'm convinced that active small groups are important for the spiritual life of congregations. So far we have had a Christian meditation group, and a group study of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank Seven Days to Tend the Earth booklet on faith and food. In Lent we will be studying the United Church of Canada's doctrinal statements, prior to our Sesssions voting on our statements of faith. Now I'm looking for a group resource that does what MissioLife claims to do: "guide adults, youth and children on a pilgrimage through Scripture from understanding to participation in the mission of God."

The MissioLife module I received came in an attractive translucent plastic envelope, with a DVD of videos and lesson samples, and an explanatory booklet. This arrived a few days ago, but as usual in the season of Advent it's taken me a while to get to it, and I'm only just starting. But the introduction in the booklet grabbed me:

...many lifelong Christians have discovered that though they can recite well-known passages of Scripture from memory, they still do not always see how these passages fit into the story of God. For many Christians, biblical literacy - while necessary and important - has not translated into a solid understanding of God's redemptive plan as one contiguous stretch throughout history and into the future...Many of us fail to see that the story of Scripture is our story.

This echoes something I have said before, and often, about believers needing to see the history of salvation in the broad sweep of Scripture, and to understand how we are players in the story as God's plan continues to unfold.

MissioLife claims to "provide a theological framework for spiritual formation tailored to all age-groups' unique needs and cognitive abilities while allowing for the unpredictable and unexpected movement of the Holy Spirit to transform lives." I hope it does, and I'll be delving further into it.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Experimenting With Nomad

I'm a beta tester for Nomad - no, not the space probe from a Star Trek episode. It's a widget from paper.li, allowing a customized digital newspaper to be embedded in a blog. My Exile on Main Street Express is built from links in my Twitter feed. You'll see the results daily - or when I get to posting!

Friday, December 02, 2011

Holy and Godly Lives: Sermon, December 4, 2011

2 Peter 3:8-15a
From the Common English Bible

Don’t let it escape your notice, dear friends, that with the Lord a single day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a single day. The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. On that day the heavens will pass away with a dreadful noise, the elements will be consumed by fire, and the earth and all the works done on it will be exposed.

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be? You must live holy and godly lives, waiting for and hastening the coming day of God. Because of that day, the heavens will be destroyed by fire and the elements will melt away in the flames. But according to his promise we are waiting for a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Therefore, dear friends, while you are waiting for these things to happen, make every effort to be found by him in peace—pure and faultless. Consider the patience of our Lord to be salvation.

Mark 1:1-8
From the Common English Bible

The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah:

Look, I am sending my messenger before you. He will prepare your way, a voice shouting in the wilderness: “Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight.”
John was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Giving all glory and honour to God.

We talked last week about how we expect to look back in this Advent season at the first Christmas, and instead our readings are telling us to look forward to the end of time. Well, this week our Scripture does look back, but not to the Christmas story. Instead we get the story of John the Baptist, who appears when Jesus is an adult, as the prophecy comes true that a voice will cry out in the wilderness, prepare God’s way. And we get more bizarre and upsetting imagery: last week Jesus spoke about the sun and moon ceasing to shine, and the stars falling from the sky; today in our reading from the Second Letter of Peter we have more about this day of the Lord, the end of this world, coming by surprise as the heavens are destroyed and the elements melt away. This part of the Bible was written in Greek, and the Greek word for elements could mean earth, air, fire, and water, or the sun, moon, and stars, or even atomic particles – the point is, all will disintegrate and burn up. On this Advent Sunday of peace, this doesn’t seem like that peaceful a picture.

We know from science that all this will come true – in about 5 billion years our sun will become many times brighter, causing the oceans to evaporate and eventually the earth’s surface to become molten rock. In another billion years or so our planet’s orbit will decay and the earth will be destroyed as it enters the sun’s atmosphere. So the elements will indeed be consumed by fire. Although this could happen earlier if the Andromeda Galaxy collides with our galaxy, the Milky Way, 3 billion years from now and the earth’s orbit changes. All this sounds like the plot of a Star Trek episode. I remember watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Captain Picard is on a planet where increased radiation from its sun will eventually cause all life to become extinct.

I doubt that I will be around in 3 or 5 billion years, but that’s not so long in geologic time – I was in Ottawa this week and stopped by a booth in a mall, and they had fossils and rocks on display and I saw insects preserved in amber that is 2 million years old, and fossilized ferns and fish and dinosaur bones that are much older.

And John the Baptist gets in on all this frightening language too. We read from Mark’s Gospel, which is the shortest story about John, and he doesn’t have too much to say. In Luke’s version, John calls the crowds children of snakes, translated in some Bibles as brood of vipers, and goes on about the people listening to him being like trees that do not produce good fruit and will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.

All this just makes us uncomfortable. We’re not featuring these verses on our Christmas cards, or sending cards that say “from our brood of vipers to yours.” I said last week that all this scary stuff about the world’s end is really symbolic. The destruction of the heavens and even atoms is a symbol of how total the transformation is when God’s vision is fulfilled. I think the key part of this reading is what it says next, the earth and all the works done on it will be exposed, meaning human achievements and actions will be held up for divine judgment.

All this apocalyptic language is written from a certain perspective, that of people on the bottom of the heap, people with so little that they have nothing to lose, people who have given up hope that the systems of this world will work for them. These symbols of stars falling and elements burning up, the Bible’s language about the last shall be first and the humble exalted and the poor raised up from the garbage heap and all things will be made new – these express the only hope oppressed people have, that God will flip over the existing powers that keep them down, God will expose all human works to judgment.

Look at the stories we hear during Advent and Christmas. God doesn’t come to or with the powerful people at the centre of empire. God surprises everyone by coming where people don’t expect, on the margins, with the marginalized. Isaiah’s prophecy comes true in a weird guy shouting in a desert on the fringe of the empire, a guy eating locusts and wild honey. John the Baptist is the guy we avoid when we’re walking in the city. Joseph and Mary are forced to migrate by an official directive, to Bethlehem to be taxed to pay for the empire – which sounds pretty familiar, bureaucracy and taxes and controversy over a census, and families forced to move by a corporate decision made far away. And then later in the story they are refugees, barely escaping state violence that sounds like Syria today. The news that God has come among us is told to ordinary shepherds, country folk, who are at work, not participating in a worship service. God comes to Mary, a teenage, uneducated girl in a society in which women were powerless, when pregnancy before marriage was a dangerous state to be in, yet in the story she sings that God will pull the powerful down from their thrones and lift up the lowly, God will fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty-handed. Mary is not the timid figure of our nativity sets. She is preaching revolution. And God comes to humanity, not in the capital city that is the centre of the known world, not even in one of the great cities of the empire, but in an obscure, one-horse town on the border, not to a palace or temple or mansion but to a stable with its smells and dirt, not as a mighty emperor or wealthy merchant or respected priest – God is born as a baby, tiny, vulnerable, completely dependent on humans.

So this story should be good news for us, country people who know about paying taxes, being pushed around by bureaucracy, decisions made far away which change our lives as a plant is closed and people are thrown out of work or families forced to move. But the story has been taken over by the powerful, sanitizing it and making it less uncomfortable, glossing over the poverty and violence and dirt, making all the characters well-dressed and clean. Well, except for John the Baptist – he’s still a wild man. We lit a candle for angels today, and now serene angels in lovely robes are Christmas decorations, as we forget that when angels appear in the Christmas story their first words have to be, ‘Don’t be afraid,’ because a message from God is so terrifying. And all the bizarre Advent stuff about the end of time and completion of God’s rule gets left out.

Yet we still know that there is something jarring here. We know that as we’re surrounded by lights and buying and nostalgic Christmas specials, somehow the Bible story pulls at us. We hear about World AIDS Day, last Thursday, how HIV has infected 34 million people worldwide and 1.8 million people will die this year of AIDS. We know that something is wrong. We hear about the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, this coming Tuesday, and we remember 14 women killed in Montreal in 1989, and all the victims of gender violence. We know that something is wrong. Today is White Gift Sunday, and many families in this county rely on food banks to eat. We know that something is wrong. And we have to wonder, what if all our works on earth are exposed? How will what we have done, what we do, be judged?

The writer of Second Peter, after describing all this cosmic drama at the end and the final judgment of human actions, asks what we ask, “Then what sort of people ought you to be? You must live holy and godly lives, waiting for and hastening the coming day of God.”

Holy and godly lives. A holy and godly life means trying to follow Jesus in his way, and so, seeking to transform both ourselves and our world. A holy and godly life means prayer, devotions, moral living, and labour for the common good of all. People often talk as if personal spirituality and work for justice and peace are completely separate, but we can’t disconnect them. Second Peter says, while you are waiting for these things to happen, make every effort to be found in peace – peace with ourselves, peace with each other, seeking peace in our world.

The planet being destroyed and elements melting are symbols of the transformation God brings. Our White Gifts are a symbol too – a symbol of our own path to transformation, as our faith changes us to dedicate ourselves to serving and loving others, particularly our neighbours who are in need.

We are to bring food to food banks and women’s shelters, but also to ask why systems perpetuate hunger and poverty and violence. We are to recognize how the characters in the Christmas story were trapped in systems that kept them poor and powerless, yet today the systems that benefit us hold us just as captive. We live a holy and godly life by waiting, praying for the completion of God’s rule of peace and love and justice – not waiting passively, but waiting actively as John the Baptist did, working within the structures of which we’re a part while waiting for these systems to end, looking with the Spirit’s help to recognize where God is coming among us today in the margins, in the cracks, to identify the prophets and angels that bring God’s message to us now and to heed their words, each of us being in our own way a voice shouting in the wilderness.

You know, there is a slogan this time of year, keep Christ in Christmas. Yes, and we are to keep Christ in our lives, Christ who tells us to love our neighbour, Christ who tells us blessed are the peacemakers, Christ who tells us that in him we can overcome the world, Christ who is coming to make all things new. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.