Monday, December 23, 2013

No Time For a Child to be Born

In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.

Luke 2:1-7, Common English Bible

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honour him.”

When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come one who governs,
who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honour him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.

When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.” Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt. He stayed there until Herod died. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I have called my son out of Egypt.

When Herod knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi. This fulfilled the word spoken through Jeremiah the prophet:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much grieving.
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she did not want to be comforted,
because they were no more.

Matthew 2:1-18, Common English Bible

A poem by Madeline L’Engle:

This is no time for a child to be born, with the
earth betrayed by war and hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn that time
runs out and the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born, in a land
in the crushing grip of Rome,
Honour and truth were trampled by scorn, yet
there did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born? The inn is
full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn – yet Love still takes
the risk of birth.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

NIV Ragamuffin Bible

NIV Ragamuffin Bible: Meditations for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up and Brokenhearted
Zondervan, Grand Rapids MI, 2013
1460 pages

Having read The Ragamuffin Gospel by the American Franciscan Brennan Manning, who died earlier this year, I was pleased to receive a review copy of this edition of the New International Version of the Bible. It is a standard NIV Bible except for the inclusion of reflections, devotions and quotes from Manning at appropriate points in the text. For instance, turning to Luke 15 and the parable of the prodigal son, there is a passage from Manning's work that talks about the message of Jesus in this parable: "(Jesus) insisted that his Father is crazy with love, that God is a kooky God who can scarcely bear to be without us." At other places in the text the relevance of the quotes is less obvious; I'm not sure why a Manning quote about the meaning of Christmas - "the promise of God who came in history and who comes daily in mystery will one day come in glory" - is attached to the setting of Canaan's boundaries in Numbers 34.

There is a brief introduction by Manning, setting out his view of Scripture as "God's personal memoirs," but there is little explanation of why this Ragamuffin edition was prepared, other than his mention that "some of my thoughts (are) sprinkled throughout...but they serve only to highlight God's extravagant love." Nor is there a biography of Manning, so someone who knows little about him will not learn much more from this Bible itself, other than getting the flavour of his writing. However, the curious reader can always look him up on Wikipedia.

But this Ragamuffin Bible is a helpful devotional tool for anyone who is already familiar with Manning's grace-filled work or who just feels like one of the bedraggled, beat-up and brokenhearted (and who doesn't at times?). The grace of the God who is crazy with love shines through the words of Scripture and the Manning quotes.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Prayer for the Comprehensive Review

I was one of the commissioners to the United Church of Canada's 41st General Council in Ottawa who voted to undertake a major review of all of the church's structures, programs and processes. A small Task Group was formed, chaired by Rev. Cathy Hamilton (who was ordained with me), to consider how we are called to live out God's mission in a world of rapid change. The group has been receiving presentations from various groups in the church and feedback from facilitators who have been interviewing congregations and other ministry units. I am told that the next step will be to release some ideas for comment in 2014.

At the last meeting of Montreal and Ottawa Conference Executive, Rev. Trisha Elliott from Ottawa suggested that we pray intensively for the Comprehensive Review's work. She wrote and circulated a prayer for the month of November; here is my (very late) contribution for December, the seasons of Advent and Christmas. Please pray for the work of the review, and the questioning and visioning in which United Church folk are engaged - and sign up for United Future updates.

God, the prophet Isaiah tells us, “a shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots.” As we look for signs of your coming, your peaceable realm where the wolf will lie down with the lamb, we overlook stumps. We want to find the green shoots of new life. But Isaiah says to look at stumps.

God, in your Spirit help us to search for the stumps. Remind us to ask where something in our church is solid and old, like a stump. Prompt us to recognize where you are inviting us into the old to discover the new.

We pray for participants in the Comprehensive Review: the members of the task group, the staff who support them, the facilitators who have interviewed local ministries, everyone who has been interviewed and contributed and awaits results. During this waiting time of Advent, assist us in our watching for stumps and signs of new life. We pray in the power of the Holy Spirit, and in the name of Jesus, who has come, is coming, and will come again to make all things new. Amen.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Congregational Change: Sermon, First Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2013

Preparing for the First Sunday of Advent, I was inspired by Derek Penwell's thoughts about congregational transformation and being a Chicago Cubs fan. He writes eloquently about the lack of shortcuts, and the need for time and patience, and more time, in turning around a congregational culture.

This is what Isaiah, Amoz’s son, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In the days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
will be the highest of the mountains.
It will be lifted above the hills;
peoples will stream to it.
Many nations will go and say,
“Come, let’s go up to the LORD’s mountain,
to the house of Jacob’s God
so that he may teach us his ways
and we may walk in God’s paths.”
Instruction will come from Zion;
the LORD’s word from Jerusalem.
God will judge between the nations,
and settle disputes of mighty nations.
Then they will beat their swords into iron plows
and their spears into pruning tools.
Nation will not take up sword against nation;
they will no longer learn how to make war.
Come, house of Jacob,
let’s walk by the LORD’s light.
Isaiah 2:1-5, Common English Bible

“But the exact day and hour? No one knows that, not even heaven’s angels, not even the Son. Only the Father knows.

“The Arrival of the Son of Man will take place in times like Noah’s. Before the great flood everyone was carrying on as usual, having a good time right up to the day Noah boarded the ark. They knew nothing—until the flood hit and swept everything away.

“The Son of Man’s arrival will be like that: Two men will be working in the field—one will be taken, one left behind; two women will be grinding at the mill—one will be taken, one left behind. So stay awake, alert. You have no idea what day your Master will show up. But you do know this: You know that if the homeowner had known what time of night the burglar would arrive, he would have been there with his dogs to prevent the break-in. Be vigilant just like that. You have no idea when the Son of Man is going to show up.”
Matthew 24:36-44, The Message Bible

At the meeting I attended in Toronto last week there were two people there from Edmonton, and they were saying that the City of Edmonton is talking about changing its slogan, “City of Champions.” Because there hasn’t been a championship in Edmonton for a while. The Eskimos haven’t been in the Grey Cup since they beat the Alouettes in 2005, and they’re now second last in the CFL. The Oilers have gone 22 seasons without winning a Stanley Cup, and in the NHL only the Buffalo Sabres have a worse record right now.

Now, we were talking about this in Toronto, which hasn’t been a championship city lately in any sport other than the Argos winning the Grey Cup last year. Think about the Toronto Maple Leafs. They are second only to Montreal in the number of Stanley Cups, but they haven’t won for 46 years, the longest championship drought in NHL history. In fact, until this spring they went seven seasons without being in the playoffs at all. The Leafs had a strong start to this season, but are now at the point where they didn’t manage to get a single shot on net in the third period and overtime of the Pittsburgh game on Wednesday.

And there are always plans to fix the Leafs. There will be a new general manager and hockey development staff, and there will be warnings that the rebuilding process will take time and fans need to be patient. And then the Leafs have yet another losing season, and fans start screaming. They want things turned around right away, most often through a quick fix like changing up the lines, or trading to get Roberto Luongo in goal, or firing the coach.

And, you know, when we grapple with questions about the church in the Seaway Valley, we can be like Leaf fans, or Habs fans or Senators fans for that matter. When membership and finances are headed south, we recognize that something needs to be done. But, just like the impatient fans who are phoning in to sports radio, we usually focus on quick fixes. People say that if the minister only wore jeans and a plaid shirt like the pastor in that church they visited, or there were songs with actions, new people would stream in. The old standby in sports is to fire the coach, and in the church it’s getting a new minister.

What we forget is that real change, whether in sports or in the church, takes a lot of time and a lot of patience. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try any of these new things. We need to. But we can’t see them as easy solutions that will turn everything around instantly, and then abandon them for something else if we don’t see immediate results. There aren't any shortcuts. We have to work, and wait.

Our experience tells us this, for we have been going through change for a long time in the Seaway Valley. And this season of Advent tells us this. If you have been coming to church for a few years, you have heard the Scripture readings in Advent talk about “waiting for the coming day of God,” “we wait for new heavens and a new earth,” and “be on your guard,” “stay alert at all times,” “keep awake.” Today we had Jesus saying “be vigilant.” This Advent season is about living in a society that is shouting at us to buy, and spend, and expect instant success – and in the middle of this frenzy, slowing down, waiting, watching, hoping, praying, and listening for Christ to enter our world and our lives to make all things new. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.