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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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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Silent Joseph Speaks

Preached at St. John’s Cathedral in Saskatoon this morning on Mathew 1:18-25. Of all characters featured in the Advent Scriptures, we never hear Joseph speak his own words. So I decided to give him a voice:

Good morning everyone. I am Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Matthan, son of Eleazar – my family line goes back to King David. So Matthew wrote about me in his Gospel – I guess you could call it my Annunciation (you know, Annunciation – to announce …) Some announcement it was all right! Embarrassing and shocking to say the least, to find the woman I was engaged to with child – and I knew it wasn’t my child! You know, in our days to be “betrothed,” engaged, carried more weight than it does in your day today. To be engaged meant that formal words of promise were exchanged. Mary and I had entered a sacred covenant with each other. In the Law of Moses, in the eyes of the people, Miriam – my dear Mary – was already my wife. But she would still live with her parents for another year or so, before I would come in procession to get her, to bring her into my home and into our bridal chamber.

So imagine my horror when I learnt Mary was pregnant! How could I ever go through with the marriage now??! The Law of Moses was crystal clear on what to do with an unfaithful wife – cast her aside, stone her! But I could never do this to my beloved Mary – I loved her way too much. But neither could I dismiss the Law of the Lord. O my God, what to do?? My heart was breaking and I was terrified. I had many sleepless nights with tears of agony …

Then when I finally slept for sheer exhaustion, that night I had a dream. In the dream a figure like an angel spoke to me: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Do not be afraid?! How could I not be?! And a child … from the Holy Spirit?! What if your daughter or wife comes home and tells you that? But the angel went on with words that rang a distant bell in my mind, a bell of insight in my fear-stricken mind and my breaking heart: “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Where had I heard these words before?

Now you need to know that I loved God. I loved Mary, of course, but I also loved God – fiercely. It was important for me to live according to God’s ways all my life. I wanted so much to be counted as righteous before the Almighty. So I made sure to ponder the Scriptures often, especially the prophets.

And now as I tried to make sense of the dream, my familiarity with the prophets paid off. I recognized the words of the angel –they echoed Isaiah’s words: “The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will name him Emmanuel…” Really? Hmm … Mary was a virgin all right, that I knew … or I thought I knew … but what if God … hmm …

Don’t get me wrong: it wasn’t all honkie-dorie right away. I was still scared to death – literally. But now the situation with Mary began to look differently. And I wondered if I … was being called to something new … but to what though? Should I put my trust in the law of Moses or trust Isaiah’s words that God was indeed up to something brand new through my dearly beloved fiancée Mary? Should I quietly divorce Mary to minimize scandal, or risk taking her into my home, name the child Jesus, and be his father?

At first part of me said: “Come on, it’s just a dream!” I’m sure you’ve said that about your own dreams at times. But hold on a minute … Even your modern day psychology considers dreams as bringing messages from the unconscious, so don’t dismiss them too quickly. In my day there was no such psychology wisdom, but we had the Holy Book. And that Book did tell me too not to dismiss dreams, but to take them seriously. I remembered my ancestor Jacob – he had dreams. My namesake Joseph was betrayed and sold by his brothers, and grew up in Egypt – he was known as a dreamer. But that talent eventually helped him to save our people. There was King Nebuchadnezzar whose sleep was disturbed by unsettling dreams for many nights. Eventually he turned to Daniel to interpret them. And what do you think of the prophet Joel’s words:

“I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams (that’s me!), and your young men will see visions.”

So I slowly realized that my dream could have a message too, a divine message that helped me overcome my fear. I took a deep breath – don’t forget to breathe when you’re afraid – and took my dearly beloved pregnant Mary as my wife. And the rest is history as we say.

But, you might wonder what all this has to do with you here in Saskatoon in 2016? Well, let me tell you what I learnt through all this.

One, God continues to speak to us in all time and place. But … God’s speaking is not always black and white. To really hear and recognize God’s speaking we first need to orient our entire lives towards his plan for us, long before the cryptic messages arrive in our dream inbox. If our hearts and minds are steeped in our sacred tradition, grounded in the ways of God, this will both anchor us and give our lives purpose and meaning. The wisdom of our faith tradition will be a trustworthy guide. At the same time this wisdom tradition always needs to remain open to a new future – always. We can never regard it as exclusive and absolute, as our God is a God of new life and surprises at all times. Take it from me – I know from experience! Do both: listen to God’s wisdom in the tradition and wrestle with the complexity of life, while leaving room for the possibility that God might want to bring about something new in and through you.

Two, by risking to trust the new thing God was doing in and through Mary with her son Jesus, I made “my” son Jesus the most important reason for living and loving, and I’m so grateful now that I did.Now in your modern day and age, you are seduced to put your trust in many other things besides God and Jesus. In fact, it’s pretty ironic that this season of waiting for the birth of the Messiah has become the peak consumer season of the year. So many people put their trust in material things, thereby neglecting the things of heaven that will last. So many forget that we cannot take any of our possessions with us when we die. The only things that will cross over from this life into the next is love and mercy – love and mercy given and received. That is what Jesus came to teach us and to show us. So, will you make the Christ, Emmanuel, the centre of your life, the reason for all your loving and living? Will you commit to live and love and forgive like Jesus? I did, and it was worth all the risks. I’m so proud of my adopted Son, the Christ.

Last but not least, don’t dismiss your dreams. Try to listen to them; you might be surprised what you can learn from them. A wise person in your modern time once explained the importance of dreams as follows: ”Dreams are the perfect way to hear from God. When you are dreaming, you are quiet, so you can’t ignore God. Plus, you are not easily distracted. You’re basically all ears for about 7 hours every night.” 

Our dear friend Job in the Holy Book reports the same thing with different words: For God speaks again and again, though people do not recognize it. He speaks in dreams, in visions of the night, when deep sleep falls on people as they lie in their beds. He whispers in their ears…

 If you have trouble interpreting your dreams, you have psychology to help you along with the Holy Book. It’s not easy, though, and you will wrestle and feel fear. Sometimes dreams urge you to heal from past hurts – those too are messages from God. Messages from God are not intended to make life easy, but rather to make life rich and worth living. Remember that God desires us our fullest potential, a potential that reflects God’s own divine image and likeness. And God’s messages are not a one-shot deal either, but an ongoing challenge. If you read on in the Gospels, you know that for me the dreams kept coming:

“Joseph, wake up – Herod wants to kill the child – take him and his mother to Egypt.” “Joseph, wake up – Herod is dead – take the child and his mother back to Nazareth.” Now, looking back, I can honestly say that it was worth all the anxiety and gut-wrenching fear. Jesus grew in wisdom and strength and grace. And I was one proud husband and father.

So don’t be afraid to put your trust in God, even if that leads you into unusual places and decisions. At the end of your life, I pray that you can join me in saying: what a ride it was, worth all the blood, sweat and tears. Then you will be ready for your final and most complete act of trust – to hand over your life to the One from whom your life came in the first place. There is nothing more amazing than this.

You will not hear me speak words in Scripture, but I am grateful you have given me a hearing today. I thank you for your patient listening. And give Jesus a chance – he’s really worth it. One more week until his birth is celebrated. As I, Joseph, descendant of David, retreat back into the shadows of the Holy Book, know that I pray that your heart be ready to receive my son. AMEN

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Happy New Year

First Sunday of Advent
Jeremiah 33:14-16, 1 Thessalonians 3:9–4:2
Luke 21:25–36

Happy New Year! No, I’m not a month early. Today is New Year’s Day in the Church. A new year – new possibilities, many new promises.

When we begin something new, we begin at the beginning, right? This new year will feature the Gospel of Luke. So it makes sense to start at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. Yet that’s not where we start at all on this first Sunday of Advent. We hear a passage that is way back in Chapter 21 (of 24)! Seems a little backward, don’t you think?

And besides starting Luke’s Gospel toward the end, this new day in the Church year also starts out on a double note – one of hope and one of warning. We had words of warning on the last few Sundays of the old year. Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel remind me of somebody else’s words written centuries later:

It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times;

it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness;

it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity;

it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness;

it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair;

we had everything before us,
we had nothing before us;

we were all going directly to Heaven,
we were all going the other way.

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

The Scripture readings for this first Sunday in Advent have a double message similar to Charles Dickens’ words:

I will fulfill the promise,
and there will be distress among nations;
A righteous branch shall spring up,
and people will faint from fear;
Judah will be saved,
and the powers of the heavens will be shaken;
How can we thank God enough for you,
while you will be confused
by the roaring of the sea and the waves;
You will be blameless,
but be on guard that you may escape all these things.

The worst of times, the best of times all right … The Good News of God’s coming is a Christmas present wrapped in predictions of doom. Hmm, ironically this fits well with today’s global terrorism …

This vision of the coming of Christ seems to clash with the meek, gentle, infant Jesus. It seems worlds away from sweet Mary and Joseph huddled in the stable. Light years away too from our culture’s mad rush to decorate everywhere, and buy everything all before December 25th, so that in a few brief moments presents get unwrapped and the meaning of the season thoroughly ignored.

But, in fact, the best of times and the worst of times have everything to do with our preparation for Christmas. Advent indeed announces God coming into our world. But Advent is not only about God coming like a cute little baby. Advent is about two kinds of “comings:” The birth of Jesus into human history – yes. And it’s important to remember that holy moment over 2,000 years ago. But Advent also announces that Jesus, that same “baby” Jesus, will come again in glory at the end of time.

So Advent kind of puts us in a time-warp between past and future, the infamous “already-not yet” mode of waiting and watching.

Life in fact occurs in between only two realities: between birth and death, between light and dark, between past and future, between hope and despair. Life always happens in the best of times and in the worst of times, both at the same time.

The news media give us a daily diet of good and bad times: Flooding and power outages are reported alongside finding a child missing for several years. Suicide bombings and war atrocities flash across our screens in between good news stories of local ordinary folk. Police raids and murders are reported in between ads offering us promises of the good life with Coke, with a certain deodorant, or with just the right insurance. Every day, somewhere in the world, somebody lives acutely in “end-times” conditions. The loss of home, children and family, the sudden diagnosis, the loss of dignity and worth. The current streams of refugees live in an eerie resemblance to the features of end times described in Luke’s Gospel today. So did those who experienced the tsunamis of 2005 and 2011 – talk about the roaring of the sea and the waves, and the powers of heaven and earth shaking, trembling, cracking.

At the same time, somewhere in the world, somebody lives in the best of times: the birth of a new baby, the accomplishment of an arduous task, the healing of memories, or the reunion of old friends will bear resemblances of the best Christmas ever.

The best and the worst of life are constantly mixed in a messy blend of despair and hope, of dark and light, of birth and death. In and among the dire predictions there are, however, some very reassuring messages in today’s holy Word.

First, God speaks hope into a very dispirited people. Just when we’re tired and discouraged, God breaks through and holds out for us the promise of new life. God did this with the people of Israel time and time again. And God will break through with each of us in the time of our greatest need. God will break through, maybe not in ways we expect, but always in ways we need.

Second, Paul emphasizes to the Thessalonians the importance of the love and care they share. Within the Thessalonian community, as within our own communities, at the dawn of this new year of faith, God reminds us anew to nurture relationships, to breathe hope and encouragement into one another, to celebrate and pray together, and to attend gently but faithfully to resolving tensions and disputes.

Thirdly, Paul deems us all capable of holiness. Despite our propensity to make our own suffering worse, God says – turn to me; turn to me and find me in your deepest desires and yearnings. Turn to me, says God, in your heart and find there the way to perfection, the way to living fully and faithfully, both in good times and in bad.

Fourth, Jesus is right; we are indeed capable of reading signs. We do it all the time with the seasons and with the earth. We do it with the stock market and  business trends (well, we try). We do it with relationships; we know what the signs are of healthy and wholesome living, and which signs alert us to danger, problems, crisis. And so Jesus reminds us: use that skill of reading the signs so that your hearts will not be weighed down.

Fifth, God’s Word says that God believes in us. Despite the suffering, setbacks, loneliness and pain of the present, God reminds us that we can stand tall and confident, that the despair of the moment does not have the last word in our heart. God believes in us, even when we stop believing in ourselves.

These are Advent gifts given with good cheer by a loving God who both desires our salvation and warns us of danger. Advent – full of double messages of hope and despair. Advent announces that God cherishes each of us so much that the Eternal Word took on human flesh, and continues to take on human flesh still today.

Two features of Advent: birth and death, light and dark, despair and hope. They go hand in hand. Merging the full despair of reality with the unbridled hope of faith; that’s the message of the Gospel. In the midst of this life and the many events that evoke despair, it is the seed of hope in a bright future, a future in which God is made manifest, that provides a sense of confident faith.

I will fulfill the promise,
and there will be distress among nations;
A righteous branch shall spring up,
and people will faint from fear;
Judah will be saved,
and the powers of the heavens will be shaken;
How can we thank God enough for you,
and you will be confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves;
You will be blameless, but be on guard
that you may escape all these things.

Happy New Year!

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