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.