The Uncomfortable Reversal

There are some prophets whose words we only hear on the Sundays in Advent. Those are Malachi, Zephaniah and now Micah. The Lectionary choices of these “smaller/minor” prophets for Advent is really significant. A prophet who raged against social injustice, Micah points to God’s promise of the great reversal – from Bethlehem, one of the littlest clans and the most insignificant villages, will come the great Saviour.  God will be born of a woman, another sign of lowliness and insignificance. This Saviour will be born in poverty instead of pomp and circumstance.

This Saviour, poor, insignificant in the eyes of the world, will feed his flock and be the divine shepherd. Contrary to human default to favour the rich and famous, Micah reminds us that God favours the poor, the weak and the insignificant. This is an essential piece to grasp if we are to appreciate the unique and revolutionary gift of the Incarnation. No other major religion lifts up the poor and the lowly as radically as does Christianity.

The Letter to the Hebrews goes to great length to argue that the old religion is finished; no more sacrifices, not more burnt offerings, no more empty legalism. From now on, what counts is openness of heart and the willingness to do God’s will in action, to make God’s covenant of love with all creation visible and tangible in our very bodies and in a daily lived witness of love and of mercy. Mary’s yes is the first and most significant illustration of this new covenant. The words “See, I have come to do your will,” first find expression in Mary’s fiat, then are completed in Jesus’ life and witness, and ultimately are uttered on the cross: “It is finished.” 

Mary and Elizabeth meet because of Christ. Even though they are cousins and thus blood-relatives, their encounter takes on a much richer dimension because of Jesus. Two poor, insignificant women are God’s collaborators in the great divine plan of redemption in and through Jesus. At major points in biblical history, God has teamed up with women to bring about salvation to God’s holy people: opening barren wombs like Sarah’s, Rebekkah’s and Hannah’s, rescuing the chosen people through Queen Esther, using the prostitute Rahab to secure the capture of Jericho, preparing Jesus’ genealogical lineage through Ruth etc. In Mary’s yes God’s partnership with women for the salvation of the world reaches its peak.

God’s election of Elizabeth and Mary points to several characteristics of the church to become. First, Christ, even before his birth, brought out the deeper, richer, dimension of human encounter (Luke 2:39—45), drawing together people who would not normally seek one another out. Second, what bonds Mary and Elizabeth, and subsequently all followers of Christ, is singing God’s praises in what God is doing in Jesus (Luke 2:46—56). Third, inherent to God’s plan of redemption is the overthrowing of the dominant social order (Luke 2:51—54); this was predicted and is to be welcomed in every historical time and place.

Mary is blessed not only for her status as the mother of the Lord, but also for her trust in God’s promise. Mary is blessed because, despite all cultural and social expectations, she is honoured rather than shamed for bearing this child. But she has also been blessed with divine joy – with beatitude – because she believed that God is able to do more than what she could ask or imagine. By greeting Mary with honour, Elizabeth overturns social expectations.

Elizabeth’s response to her miraculous pregnancy emphasizes that God’s grace has reversed her social status: “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people” (Luke 1:25). Elizabeth continues the pattern of God’s great reversal by opening her arms and her home to a relative whom her neighbours would expect her to reject. Instead of shaming Mary, she welcomes, blesses, and celebrates her, treating her as more honourable than herself. Thus the pregnancy that might have brought Mary shame brings joy and honour instead. When Elizabeth welcomes Mary, she practices the same kind of inclusive love that Jesus will show to prostitutes and sinners. She sees beyond the shamefulness of Mary’s situation to the reality of God’s love at work even among those whom society rejects and excludes.

On this eve before Christmas Eve, we stand at the threshold of recalling the divine fulfillment in the Christ-child. On four consecutive Sundays we heard God’s promise and the call to repentance, transformation and great joy. God’s great reversal comes through powerfully in today’s readings: an insignificant clan, an insignificant little place, and two poor, insignificant women – these set the stage and these are the main actors God recruits to bring about the great plan of humanity’s redemption. Contradicting traditional ideas and making obsolete traditional practices, two poor women gave their bodies and blood in the priestly act of preparing the way and giving life to God-in-the-flesh – one to the forerunner and herald John, the other to God’s own Son Jesus. The blood and water from their wombs formed the sanctuary in which God took on human form, eventually leading to the ultimate sacrifice on the cross where blood and water poured forth once again, this time from the Saviour’s side.

Mary and Elizabeth reveal that, as bodily and spiritual vessels of God’s incarnation, women are primary sacramental instruments of God’s grace in Christ. In bearing the child Jesus in her womb, Mary’s body was the first to give Christ’s flesh and blood to the world in the Eucharistic offering of giving birth, an offering completed in Jesus’ gift of body and blood at the Last Supper: This is my body given for you, my blood shed for you, once and for all.

Jesus came to replace comfortable religion with uncomfortable redemption. What he offers is far better than any old system of sacrificial religion. But the change required in our perception and understanding, in our attitudes and motives, and in our living is downright scary. This was true 2,000 years ago and it is still true today. It is so scary that, for most of these 2,000 years, we have caged this uncomfortable news by creating other institutions with sacrificial practices, rules and regulations. But the ones keeping the message of uncomfortable but real redemption in Christ alive are the same as 2,000 years ago: the women, the poor, the weak, the marginalized, little ones without power. Let us remember this uncomfortable dimension of Christmas as we sing our carols, dig into the turkey, and share our gifts of love and friendship and joy.

Homily preached on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 23, 2018
Micah 5:2-5; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-56

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Ready for Christmas?

It doesn’t matter where – in the checkout line-up, at the pool, at the post office, even in church. Everyone asks the big question, often in a hurried tone of voice: so,  ready for Christmas yet? I’m supposed to answer: no I’m not, too many gifts to buy and wrap, cards to write and to send, goodies to bake and decorations to hang up. I’m not ready!

Odd isn’t it? I mean this type of reply. I’m ready for Christmas, because I take the question to mean something quite different. Quiet daily prayer is enriched with the Advent wreath – lighting one more candle each week, keeping me anchored in essentials without drowning in waves of excessive consumerism. Dreams and yearnings are allowed to rise up in my heart, as God’s gifts growing in the womb of my spirit. Christmas baking gets done by loving hands way more competent than my own from annual Christmas bake-sales, filling the freezer (and eventually our tummies) while supporting a good cause.  We strive for quality time with our adult children and their families even with the challenge of irregular work hours; looks like a chess tournament is on the radar this year. Yearly donation checks are off to various charities, however small. Sharing is good for the soul and a blessing to others. Ready for Christmas? Yep.

Because our family Christmas takes place when everyone can make it, Jim and I have become regulars at the annual Community Christmas Dinner on December 25, organized by our friends from the local Soup Kitchen. A weekly meal free of charge is hosted throughout the year for anyone who needs food and company. You can find us there most Tuesdays, hanging out with a motley crew. We go not because we are “hard-up” but because we eat with friends who’ve expanded our notion of family. Helping out at the Christmas Dinner therefore is not only a great way to spend the holy day of Christ’s birth, but it is truly a day with family.

We do appreciate receiving Christmas letters from beloved family and friends; letters full of the latest travel adventures and the year’s achievements of children and grandchildren, and sometimes including the latest health challenges. Such letters are a great read. It’s the yearly catching up on news in the lives of loved ones.

But we don’t travel a whole lot anymore, and don’t even miss it. There’s hardly anything left on our bucket lists. We are most content and comfortable in our own bed, our own home, our own routines, our own garden and backyard (not fancy, just … lush). Do we sound like old folks set in our ways?? Or is it the quiet contentment and joy that comes from truly living a simple, modest life we both love and have no need to get away from? We do regret not seeing our granddaughters as often as we would like due to distance and work commitments. They are each growing way too fast into three lovely individuals, each with their unique personality. But we are grateful for photos on Facebook and video-calls. And we’ve been relatively healthy (not counting the hearing aids I’ve had to acquire this year), rarely accessing the health insurance we’ve been paying into for so many years — touch wood! So there isn’t much news to share.

Or maybe there is …

We learnt new things this past year, found new questions, gained new insights into relationships and into living a full life. We enjoy many blessings, right in our own home and community, even in the hardships. Once again we learnt that it’s not what happens to us that brings blessing or curse, but how we live what happens to us:

  • Ordinary days in our prairie towns (Humboldt and Watrous) burst with extraordinary little rays of light and joy, of love and of mercy. The abiding faithfulness of friends is nourishing food for the soul. New friends keep sprouting from the stubble of prairie fields, each one bearing gifts of vision and compassion, of invitations into new discoveries and into exploring different worlds.
  • On the other hand, our quiet community was rocked to the core last April by the Humboldt Broncos bus crash. Shock and grief have never been so close to home, never been so deep and so widespread, galvanizing the attention of the world. But even in the darkness of that tragedy, blessings were hiding: see Grieving in Community and April in Labour. For the first time I preached on empty, only to nd discover that tears in the pulpit sometimes preach more effectively than words.
  • We learnt that discord with loved ones, whether friends or family, is best lived as an invitation to look inside — how have we contributed to the breakdown? The resulting honesty, vulnerability and humility can then turn into a healing blessing. Own up, fess up, repair it — these virtues are keepers. Or when unjustly accused or treated, draw the boundaries firmer and forgive; don’t let anger poison your heart.
  • Just because it’s legal, doesn’t make it moral, ethical or desirable. We’re keeping our fingers crossed about legal pot, and other questionable practices. The best (and healthiest) highs come through healing hurts, cultivating a curious and open mind, and from seeking meaning and purpose in all things every day, good and bad, ugly and beautiful.
  • In our age of fake news and the crumbling of old certainties Pilate’s ancient question, “what is truth?” is ever so relevant again. Even the Church is not spared this piercing question as it grapples with massive loss of members, credibility, and revelations of abuse. What if truth resides in the quality of relationship — to life, to this planet, to one another? I’m trying this out for awhile.
  • Electing our new Indigenous bishop Chris was a great experience; his arrival as a messenger of reconciliation and a bridge-builder bodes very promising for our Anglican diocese and beyond.
  • Living below one’s means creates a freedom the world truly cannot give. It’s oddly easy to stay clear of the traps of over-spending and consuming when it’s an attitude/perspective fostered over a life-time, not to mention the light ecological footprint and the effect on the wallet. It does lead to an odd problem, though: we don’t create enough garbage or recycling materials to fill the bins we pay the city for! But we admit, it takes all kinds: the economy would be in even worse shape if it depended on frugal spenders such as us!
  • Being a country priest with a dedicated band of Anglicans and Lutherans is all and more than I had imagined, and Catholics are coming along for the ride. Weekly Eucharist and preaching, ecumenical studies and worship, baptisms and funerals (no weddings yet), hosting weekly (free!) summer BBQ suppers for the town, pastoral care and counseling — a rich spiritual harvest. Good energy among parishioners, renovating the church hall, planning for great things in the new year.
  • Not everything was roses. The murder of our cousin Kim’s husband shook us all to the core. No amount of tears can hold the sorrow and loss.
  • Our God-daughter Josephine married Brody this past summer, inviting me to preach holy words at their celebration. Blessings of joy galore and a great wedding party on the farm.
  • Jim is still helping Rachelle with the seed business, but managing a slower pace while mentoring his young, energetic and passionate successor. Some of our kids have discovered a new role for their night-owl Dad: they phone him on late nights, sometimes  to be accompanied on long drives.
  • I saw signs of limits to inclusiveness; some call them boundaries, others call them barriers. Why does including some often seem to happen at the exclusion of others? There’s got to be a better way.
  • Year-round exercise of choice: lane swimming. I’m the slowest swimmer in the pool, so every 20 lapse feels victorious, rewarded with time in the hot tub!
  • Two weeks in Israel with my bishop and clergy colleagues was a true gift — walking where Jesus walked, getting to know my colleagues better (a glass of wine in a warm climate does wonders!), and growing a disturbing realization of the plight of our Christian sisters and brothers: The Not-So-Holy Land.
  • Even with my Sunday church duties, Jim and I enjoyed a record number of four Christmas concerts in one weekend, each one outstanding. What a talent on the prairies!
  • My first meeting with the national Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue of Canada (ARC Canada) in Ottawa was substantial, inspiring and so much fun, including a surprising renewal of old friendships. Working for Christian Unity continues to be my passion, integral to my ministry and my vision of church.
  • The best bread in town is still the one kneaded with my own hands, with flour milled from Jim’s home-grown grains, and coming out of my own oven — oh, that smell … it’s the one foolproof baking I can muster.
  • Praying for others is powerful and rich, esp. when writing down the daily intentions and mentioning others by name. Pray for people far and near, for victims of disasters and violence of all kind, and for friends and family struggling with too much, helps keep helplessness and despair at bay. Praying for others grows our heart softer, bigger and more compassionate, fostering real-time connections, collapsing all distance.

We are painfully aware that life delivers too many blows to too many people, stretching to the breaking point one’s capacity to see and savour blessings. In this year’s season of Advent waiting in hope, we have learnt of a suicide, a stripping of job and reputation, legal challenges in a custody case with devastating effects on the children, a tumbling back into alcohol and drug abuse after a 10+ year sobriety, betrayal by church leaders, painful diminishment in aging, terminal diagnoses, all within our own circle of love. Not to speak of the horrors millions face daily across the globe. Life is fragile, vulnerable as we all are to unexpected and unmerited chaos and disaster. And yet, as I wrote in my previous blog post, we need a vision to inspire us, to motivate going on living. The birth of Jesus still gives us this vision.

As we celebrate Christmas this year, we hold in our hearts and minds both the pain of the world and the vision of God in Jesus. In the birth of Jesus God became one of us – that is the most radical and most beautiful gift the world has ever received, no matter how much the Church has tainted this message with its own sinfulness. Divinity came among us as a tiny, helpless baby for whom there was no room anywhere. Born to a young teenage virgin and a dedicated foster father forced to take his little family to Egypt to protect the child from brutal murder — not unlike millions of refugees on the run today. A teenage mother, an outcast from birth, a refugee in infancy – that is our God, throwing in his lot with all the scrawny and needy ones among us.

This is the vision going with us into 2019. This vision is our prayer and our wish for us all. Ready for Christmas? You betcha!

Marie-Louise and Jim

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Kick the darkness

Th’is the season of darkness, at least in the northern hemisphere. And here on the prairies t’is the season of winter cold, despite our current “balmy” temperatures of -5 degrees Celsius (it’s all relative, right?) But many people’s lives are covered in darkness no matter where they live, no matter what season it is, no matter what is considered cold or hot:
* Desperate families trekking 1000+ miles on foot in dangerous darkness, driven by a wild hope for a better future. 
* Dear friends in their senior years raising a young granddaughter with courage and loving dedication, only to see their best efforts sabotaged by the darkness of her origins.
* Indigenous youth turning to suicide before the icy darkness of addiction and no-future kills them.
* Even in the best of families, discord is spreading darkness through animosity, distrust and betrayal.
* Loved ones grieving deep, deep losses – children, parents, opportunity, spouses, homes, jobs, dreams, a voice, dignity, health, friends – fearing to be buried alive in the cave of brutal and merciless darkness.

For too many among us, darkness is the norm, so much so that we stop screaming in protest. There is nothing more lethal than the loss of hope and love, of peace and joy.

Yet Advent comes each year, inviting correction of the course of events, inviting to level the ground of our heart, to straighten paths of life. Advent, with its honed tradition of lighting candles on a wreath, one more each week, stubbornly insists on piercing the darkness, trying hard to rekindle life-giving dreams and visions. But for too many Advent remains elusive, a vision unrealized, a dream unfulfilled, an illusion only the silly ones buy into. Yet our spirit needs a vision — without a vision of what life can be, ought to be, meant to be, we perish. 

For the Jewish people, Hannukah comes each year, with the ritual of lighting candles, mirroring the Christian Advent practice. This Jewish Festival of Lights recalls the rededication of the second Temple in Jerusalem. If any city has seen darkness, it is Jerusalem. If any people have lived darkness, pitch darkness, it’s our Jewish sisters and brothers. Hannukah stubbornly comes, bringing light into darkness, hope into despairing hearts. This light is desperately needed for all people, including our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters who are deprived of the very light their Jewish fellow citizens are cherishing.

Sometimes, maybe often even, we ourselves cause another’s darkness. Hurting one another seems to come more easily than loving. It is part of being human, but that does not make it right or excusable. That is why Advent also invites introspection: how have I contributed to the suffering of my sister, my brother?  I had to do this recently in a situation of discord that had resulted in a six-month shunning by loved ones. Swallowing all pride and self-righteousness, I tapped courage and my faith in Jesus to confess and own up to the transgression. It never gets easier, it always makes my insides tremble, and makes me feel vulnerable and exposed. But every time I risk honest contrition and confession and reach out in reconciliation, Advent light shines through, straightening my path, leveling the ground of my heart, and growing me into fullness of love and mercy, preparing my heart to receive the Christ-child. Each time we risk overcoming the darkness in our own heart, the world sees one more candle of hope lit.

The persistence of vision, of seeking light, of crazy dreams of beauty and love, are the surest evidence of the existence of God. Why else would stubborn forces unrelentingly kick at the darkness of the world, if not for their origin in a Divine source stronger and bigger than today’s despair and pain? Can we long for something we have never known? Can we dream and hope for things we have not at one time seen and tasted? 

We have been kicking the darkness forever, because God keeps seeking cracks for the light to break through.

My friend Scott shared the following thoughts at the start of Advent. Scott articulates a vision of light and hope, not by denying or ignoring the darkness, but by squarely confronting it, in a bold attempt to stare down its demoralizing power. His words have bored their way into my heart, fueling vision and dreams against all odds: Christians light candles at the start of Advent, and Jews light candles to mark the beginning of Hanukkah. This is no small thing. We both light our lights to kick at the darkness. Sometimes it is the darkness in our own hearts, and this is always where the push back must start. Sometimes it is the past and present darkness in our communities, including religious ones. Sometimes it is the darkness that seems to loom over so much that goes on in our world. Our candles are not the same; yet the light to which they point most certainly is. May this season of bold resistance and active hopefulness draw Christians, and Jews, and all people together to heal our hearts, reconcile our communities, and mend our world. Amen.

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