22 December 2019

"Imagining a Different Future" (Advent 4 Sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday December 22, 2019
Scripture:  Matthew 1:18-25

Each week in Advent, we have been watching part of A Muppet Christmas Carol during our Story for All Ages - you can find this week's clip here.

On Tuesday evening, at our Christmas Eve service, we are going to be reading the story of the birth of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke.  Today, we heard the same event – the birth of Jesus – from the perspective of Matthew’s Gospel.  The two versions of events are very different – here in Matthew we have no shepherds, no journey to Bethlehem, no manger.  We have no angel appearing to Mary to ask her to bear God’s son, we have no visit between Mary and Elizabeth, we have no song where Mary tells of God’s vision for a world turned upside down.

I often think that while Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus – the one that is probably the more familiar version – while Luke tells us the story from Mary’s perspective, in Matthew we get the same story told from the perspective of Joseph.

Here in Matthew’s version, there is still an angel, but the angel appears to Joseph instead of Mary.  Joseph has just found out that the woman that he is engaged to is going to have a baby, and he knows that he certainly can’t be the father of this baby.

In the eyes of the world in which he lived, he should have put her aside – not married her, but sent her back to her parents in disgrace.  From the perspective of the culture in which Joseph lived, this would have made him a laughing stock – possibly impacting his ability to ever get married – but this would be better than raising a baby that was not his biological kin.  And from the perspective of the laws of the culture in which they lived, Mary was at risk of being killed, stoned to death for the shame and dishonour that she brought to her family.

It was a messy situation that this couple finds themselves in, right from the beginning of the story.

But like I said, an angel appears to Joseph.  This angel tells Joseph to stick with the original plan – that he is to marry Mary – for it is God’s son that she is carrying.

Can you imagine how Joseph must have felt in this moment?  We’re told that he was a righteous man – I can imagine him at his prayers, listening to teaching in the synagogue, living his life according to the Torah, the laws of the Jewish people.  And so he knew that the right thing to do was not to marry this woman.  And yet he also seems to have been a man of great compassion – we’re told that rather than exposing Mary to public disgrace (likely meaning a public stoning), instead he was going to quietly break their engagement.  And along comes this angel, this messenger of God, telling him to forget this plan, and to go ahead and marry her.

He must have been in a turmoil – like I said, it’s a messy situation.  But he was able to imagine a different course of action, a different way of being.  Instead of doing the thing that he planned to do, instead of doing the thing that the world around him expected him to do, he was able to imagine a different future, and he was able to act on it.

Joseph was able to imagine a world where he married Mary, a world where he raised this child as his own, a world in contrast to everything that his culture told him to do.  And he was able to act on it.

And to me, this is the very definition of hope.  Hope is being able to look in to the future, being able to imagine a different way of living and being in the world, and then living as if that different way were already here.  Hope is looking at the pain and the messiness that we find all around us and knowing that this pain and messiness isn’t permanent, isn’t the final state of things, then living in the present in light of the different future that is coming.

Joseph is living in hope.  Joseph is able to choose differently because he is able to imagine a different future – one where he doesn’t send Mary back to her parents, one where he trusts that God is in control of the story.

In the story of A Christmas Carol, this morning we encountered the Spirit of Christmas Yet-to-Come, the third of the three Spirits that Scrooge encountered that night.  To me – and to the character of Charles Dickens that Gonzo plays in our movie clip – this is the scariest part of the story.  In every adaptation that I’ve seen, this third spirit presents more like the Grim Reaper than anything else. And yet I propose that this spirit is really the spirit that gives Scrooge hope.

This Spirit of Christmas Yet-to-Come shows Scrooge the future – shows him the future that will happen if nothing changes.  This spirit shows Scrooge a future where he, Scrooge, has died and no one is sad to have seen him go.  This spirit shows Scrooge a future where he has no family to mourn him or inherit his belongings that he has worked so hard to acquire.  This spirit shows Scrooge a future where Tiny Tim, the son of his employee Bob Cratchit, has died, leaving a sense of loss and sadness behind.

It is a very bleak future that this Spirit presents to Ebenezer Scrooge.  And Scrooge, having been softened by the visits from the two previous Spirits, is affected by this vision of the future.  He is able to realize that he doesn’t want this future to come to pass.  And most importantly, he is able to imagine something different.

Scrooge is able to hope.  He is able to imagine a future where Tiny Tim doesn’t die because he, Scrooge, pays Bob Cratchit a living wage.  He is able to imagine a future where he is surrounded by friends and family.  He is able to imagine a future where he lives in the love and peace and joy that he witnessed through the visits from the first two Spirits.  He is able to imagine a different future than the one shown to him by the Spirit of Christmas Yet-to-Come, and because of this hope, transformation becomes possible.

The invitation of Christmas is an invitation to transformation.  At Christmas, God becomes human, and our humanity is forevermore transformed and connected with God.

And so on this Sunday when we have lit the candle for hope, I invite you to open up your imagination.  I invite you to join Joseph, to join Scrooge, in imagining a different way of being.  As you look around the world, as you notice the places of pain, the places of sorrow, the places of oppression, the places of discrimination, the places where God’s creation is being destroyed, I invite you to imagine a different world.  I invite you to imagine a world that is aligned with God’s vision for the world.  I invite you to imagine a world where everyone has enough food to eat; a world where all people have the same rights and opportunities; a world where there is no illness or pain; a world where all people live lives that respect all of God’s creation.

And once you can imagine this world, I invite you to live as if this world is already here!

Scrooge and the Visit with the Spirit of Christmas Yet-to-Come
Illustration from First Edition - Public Domain

15 December 2019

"Do They Know It's Christmas?" (Advent 3 Sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
December 15, 2019
Scripture:  Isaiah 35:1-10

So I’m going to ask you to reach back in your memories.  Reach waaaaay back.  Reach all the way back to the year 1984 (and if you are much younger than me, your memory may not reach back that far!).  Remember the 80s hair.  Remember the 80s clothing.  Remember the 80s music.

One thing that was going on in the world in 1984 was that the country of Ethiopia was in the middle of a 3-year famine, and on TV screens around the world, you saw pictures of emaciated children.  And a group of famous musicians decided to come together and raise a bunch of money to help.

Does anyone remember “Band Aid”?

Does anyone remember the song that was released?  (“Do They Know it’s Christmas”)

Confession time – I hate that song.  Even if we were to leave aside all of the political issues – the idea that all you have to do is raise enough money and all of the problems will be solved; the idea that all you have to do is buy food without addressing the socio-political issues that led to the famine; the paternalistic and patronizing idea that “we” who are wealthy are the “good guys” helping out those “poor hungry children in Africa.”  Even if we were to set aside all of the political issues with the song, I still don’t like it.

Because the whole premise of the song is questioning whether Christmas is possible if you aren’t surrounded by material wealth and over-abundance and excess and over-the-top decorations.  “Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?”

I spent three years living in Tanzania in East Africa, and so I had three Christmases there.  I moved back to Canada in late-November 2006, and was instantly thrust back in to the chaos of Canadian Christmas.  And I remember one of my sisters asking me about what Christmas was like in Tanzania, and she only half-jokingly sang at me, “do they know it’s Christmas time at all?”

I was floored.  In my opinion, Christmas is much better celebrated in Tanzania.  It only lasts for three days – Christmas stretches from Christmas Eve through Christmas Day to Boxing Day (or Second Christmas as the 26th is called in Swahili); even though the festive mood usually lasts until New Year’s Day.  People cut fresh branches to decorate with on the 23rd or 24th.  Children receive a new outfit to wear to church on Christmas day.  There are certain dishes that are only cooked on Christmas day.  And it is a time for getting together with friends and family; a time for going to church on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; a time for celebrating and rejoicing.  So yes, they definitely know it’s Christmas in Tanzania, and yes, they definitely know how to celebrate it.

This month, we’ve been reading through the story of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens; and I would say that the character of Ebenezer Scrooge begins the story with the same attitude of the writers of the song “Do They Know it’s Christmas” – the attitude that if you don’t have material wealth or possessions then you can’t celebrate or enter in to the season of Christmas.  Two weeks ago, we met the character of Scrooge, a mean and miserly man, who tells his nephew that he, the nephew, has no right to be merry since he is poor enough; to which the nephew replies that by this logic, Scrooge has no right to be miserable since he is rich enough.

Last week, we saw the visit from the first of the three spirits, the Spirit of Christmas Past who took Scrooge to re-visit the Christmases of his childhood and young adulthood; and we saw Scrooge beginning to soften, beginning to see that he used to be different, beginning to see that maybe there is a different way of being in the world.

The second spirit to visit Scrooge is the Spirit of Christmas Present, who takes Scrooge to see how different people are celebrating Christmas in the present day (or at least in Scrooge’s present day, which is almost 200 years before our present day).

They see people singing and frolicking in the snow; they see people preparing their Christmas feasts; they see people dressed in their finest clothes and happiest faces going to Christmas church services; they witness a spirit of love and forgiveness and joy in all of the people they see.

And their roaming goes further afield from London too.  They visit the house of a miner in the desolate moor where they find a warm fire and multiple generations gathered together to feast and to sing.  They visit an isolated lighthouse on the edge of a cliff in the storm, where the lightkeepers raise a toast and wish each other Merry Christmas.  They visit a ship tossed on stormy seas where the sailors working on the cold wet deck hum a Christmas tune and share stories of Christmases past with their companions.

And they visit the home of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s poorly-paid, poorly-treated employee and his family.  And we witness this scene unfold.

And with all of these visits, Scrooge begins to see that the joy of Christmas, that the ability to celebrate Christmas, has nothing to do with the circumstances that we find ourselves in.

And to me, that is the biggest difference between joy and happiness.  Our happiness depends on what we have or don’t have; it depends on what has happened to us today or yesterday; it depends on what we expect to happen tomorrow.  But joy doesn’t depend on any of this.  Joy is a gift from God, and it is always flowing, no matter what is going on in our lives or in the world.  That is the joy that we celebrate in Advent and at Christmas.

We see that in our scripture reading for today as well.  This middle part of the book of Isaiah was written to a people in exile.  A people whose land had been taken, whose temple, the very home of God, had been destroyed; who had been shipped hundreds of miles away from their homes to Babylon, where they remained for 70 years, for more than 2 generations.

And there, in exile, God tells the people through the prophet Isaiah to rejoice.  To rejoice with joy and singing; to say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear”; that everlasting joy will be upon their heads; that they shall obtain joy and gladness for sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Our joy doesn’t depend on our circumstances.  Our joy comes because God is with us, filling us with joy, no matter what life might bring or not bring.  Our joy is always there, flowing beneath our lives, bubbling up and overflowing to the world around us.

And so no matter where our life is at this year, we will know that it is Christmas, and we will rejoice.  Thanks be to God!

The Christmas Present - full of joy and love and forgiveness
Illustration - Public Domain

8 December 2019

"Repent???" (Advent 2 Sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
December 8, 2019
Scripture:  Matthew 3:1-12

(Each Sunday in Advent we are watching a bit more of the movie, The Muppet Christmas Carol. Here is the clip that we watched this week - part of the encounter with the Spirit of Christmas Past.)

No matter which of the four gospels you are reading, John the Baptist comes across as an interesting character.  He wore clothing of camel’s hair, held up by a leather belt.  He ate locusts and wild honey – I picture his beard sticky with honey drippings, and maybe a few bees buzzing around him – though maybe he spent enough time in the Jordan River that the honey washed out of his beard.

And it wasn’t just how he looked or what he ate – he definitely was NOT a nice polite person who didn’t want to cause a fuss.  No, John set up his camp out there in the desert and he shouted at people, calling them names, calling out their hypocrisy.  “You brood of vipers!  You children of the slithering snake!  Who warned you to run away from the wrath to come?”

But there must have been something very compelling about him, at the same time as he looked and sounded a wee bit crazy.  There must have been something about him that was compelling enough to make people go out into the desert to hear what he had to say, and to be baptized by him in the river.  He must have been compelling, because it would take more than a spectacle to make people leave the comfort of their homes and their cities to see and hear him.

Last week, we started talking about Advent as the period of time in which we prepare ourselves for the transformation that is coming at Christmas, and this is the mission of John the Baptist – preparing the way for Jesus and his ministry.

And the core of John the Baptist’s message is “repent.”  Now the word “repentance” has come to have a bit of a bad reputation in our world today.  It has come to be associated with fire-and-brimstone preachers as a threat to their listeners – repent or else. Repent from your sins or you will face the eternal fire.  It is a word that makes me think of a traditional prayer of confession that reads, “I, a poor miserable sinner confess to you all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended you and justly deserved your temporal and eternal punishment.  But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them.”

But the problem with this understanding of repentance is that it turns grace into a transaction.  It implies that if we can be sorry enough, if we can repent enough, that we can somehow win God’s favour.  It makes fear of punishment the motivation to do good.

But if you look at the root of the word “repent” it doesn’t mean “to feel heartily sorry” for something – it means much more.  The Greek word that is translated as “repent” is “metanoia,” and “metanoia” means to turn back, or to change your ways.  It is an action word, not a feeling word.  You don’t feel repentance, you do repentance.

And so John the Baptist isn’t telling people to feel sorry, he is telling them to do differently.  God desires a different way for the world, and so we need to change.

And in the story of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge also needs to change.  As we saw last week, Ebenezer Scrooge begins the story as a mean and miserly man, more concerned about money than about people or love.  And in the story, he is given an opportunity to change his ways.

The first spirit to visit him is the Spirit of Christmas Past.  This spirit pulls Scrooge back through time, to re-visit the Christmases of his childhood and young adulthood.  And through these visits, he begins to see that he wasn’t always the way that he is now.  He begins to see that he once had love in his life, he once had joy in his life, he once was surrounded by people he cared about – his sister, his friends, his colleagues.  And this is the nudge that our hero needs.

As he is reminded of where he came from, he begins to realize how he has drifted away from that starting path.  He realizes that he has lost his way.  And that is the nudge that begins him on the path towards transformation.  He changes his ways.  He repents.

And so even though that word that John the Baptist uses – repentance – might seem scary on the surface, it is an important part of Advent.  If we want to be transformed by Christmas, we have to turn away from the path that we are on, and turn back towards God.

But, you might be thinking to yourself, Scrooge had help from those three spirits that night.  He didn’t have to do it on his own.  How am I supposed to change on my own?

But that is where we can find the good news.  We don’t have to do it on our own either.  We may not have the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet-to-Come guiding our journey, but we do have the Holy Spirit with us.

We always have the Holy Spirit with us, guiding us, and transforming us.  We can never transform ourselves into who God calls us to be, but the Holy Spirit is the Transforming One.  The Holy Spirit is always transforming us more and more into the Body of Christ.  When we say “yes” to repentance, when we say “yes” to transformation, when we say “yes” to changing our path, then it is the Holy Spirit working in us who makes this transformation possible.

John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus – he called on people to repent, to change their ways, to turn back to God.  He made people sit up and pay attention and think that maybe, just maybe, another way of being in the world was possible.

The Spirit of Christmas Past prepared the way for the transformation of Christmas.  They made Scrooge realize that there was a different way to live; they threw Scrooge off balance; they shattered Scrooge’s superficial peaceful existence.  For I think that sometimes we need to have our inner peace shattered in order to realize the deeper peace of God – the peace that surpasses all of our understanding.

And so Advent can be a season that throws us off balance as well.  As the world around us is in full-blown Christmas, in Advent this is the season of not-yet-Christmas.  Advent gives us time to pause in the busy-ness of this month.  Advent makes us wait, even when the waiting is uncomfortable.  And as we wait, and especially if the waiting is uncomfortable, I encourage you to sit in that discomfort.  Scrooge’s transformation wasn’t comfortable – it would have been easier for him to stay the way he was.  But in my opinion, it was worth it!

In this season of waiting, I encourage you to take some time to examine your life.  Is there anything in your life that needs to change?  Is there anything that you could be doing or not doing that would re-align your life with God?  Is there anything in your life that makes you a bit uncomfortable?

Because, like I said, you don’t have to change yourself – I would argue that it is impossible for us to change ourselves on our own, no matter how hard we try.  It is only by inviting the Holy Spirit to work in and through us that true repentance, that true change, that true transformation is possible.

And so in these weeks of Advent, we wait.  We wait in the silence.  We wait in the discomfort.  We wait in the disequilibrium.  And we invite the Holy Spirit to bring the change in our hearts and in our lives that we long for.

May we all prepare the way of the Lord, may our lives prepare the way for the Prince of Peace for whom we long, may our hearts prepare the way for God’s Word-made-Flesh born at Christmas.  Amen.

Christmas Past - The Dance of Mr. Fezziwig
Original Illustration - Public Domain

"A Different Way of Being?" (Advent 1 Sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
December 1, 2019
Scripture:  Luke 1:46-55

(In our "Story for All Ages" we watched part of The Muppet Christmas Carol to introduce the character of Ebenezer Scrooge.  You can watch that clip here.)

“Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire, secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”

So those aren’t my words – those words come to us from Charles Dickens, as he introduces the reader to the character of Ebenezer Scrooge.

In popular culture, the character of Scrooge has come to be seen as a person who hates Christmas, but if you think that is the extent of his issues, you might be mixing him up with the Grinch, who hated Christmas a lot.  No, Scrooge’s issues go a lot deeper than just hating Christmas.  He is a person who seems to live without any love in his life.  He is greedy, he is secretive, he has cut himself off from the rest of the world.

The first part of the book or any one of the movies that have been made of it introduces us to Scrooge through a series of interactions.  As we just saw, he is approached by people asking for a charitable donation, and he says that the poor should stay poor, since that is their station in life, and after all, what else are prisons and poorhouses for?

His nephew visits to spread some Christmas cheer and invite him over for Christmas dinner.  Scrooge tells him that he has no right to be merry, since he is too poor to be happy; to which the nephew replies that by this logic, Scrooge has no right to be miserable since he is too rich.

And we are introduced to his clerk, Bob Cratchit, whose workspace is kept frigid and who is only grudgingly allowed a day off of work to celebrate Christmas with his family.

At the end of the day on Christmas Eve, Scrooge leaves work, has a lonely dinner, and returns to his gloomy house to go to bed, with not a candle or a gas-lamp to light his way, since darkness was cheap.

So not a very joyful beginning to this Christmas story.  And like I said earlier, I think that the thing that is missing is love.

That beautiful piece of poetry that we heard from Luke’s gospel (Luke 1:46-55) proclaims for us a different way of being.  These are words spoken by Mary, the mother of Jesus, shortly after she agrees to give birth to God’s child.  She sings of a world where spirits rejoice, where the lowly are lifted up, where the hungry are filled with good things, a world where God remembers promises made to all people, especially those living on the margins.

This vision that Mary proclaims sounds like very much the opposite of the worldview of Scrooge.  Mary sings of rejoicing; Scrooge prefers what he would probably call “realism.”  Mary sings of the poor being lifted up; Scrooge feels that prisons are good enough for the poor of the world.  Mary sings of sending the rich away empty-handed; Scrooge hangs on to his wealth with every ounce of energy he can muster.  Mary sings of mercy; Scrooge prefers justice that is untempered by any form of grace or mercy or love.

But early in our story of Scrooge, he hears a call to change his ways.  After returning home from his lonely meal, he is visited by the ghost of his now-deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, who is now weighed down by chains and the weight of the wealth he spent his life acquiring.

This first ghost tells Scrooge that he is going to be giving an opportunity to escape a similar fate, by way of three visits from three different spirits that night.

The message of Christmas is a message of transformation.  At Christmas, God is born as a vulnerable baby, on the margins of society more than 2000 years ago, and is laid in a manger.  The one who created the heavens and the earth has become human; and our humanity can no longer be separated from God.

But the thing about transformation is that it’s messy – you can’t become the new until you have been able to leave behind the old.  Scrooge can’t be transformed into who he is to become until he has been able to leave behind the person who he is at the beginning.

And that is why I think that the story of A Christmas Carol is the perfect story for us to be reading or watching through the season of Advent.  Advent is a time for waiting, a time for preparing – preparing to welcome the transformation of Christmas.  If we leap into Christmas without taking the time to prepare, then is anything going to change?  Can we expect Scrooge to go to bed, a miserable, greedy, stingy person and wake up, without the intervention of the three spirits, a changed person, full of generosity and love?

And so I think of Advent as an opportunity to open ourselves up to Christmas transformation.  Like Scrooge being visited by the Spirits of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet-to-Come, these four weeks are a time to look into our hearts to see where our values lie.  Are we living our lives looking only to ourselves, or are we living our lives as if the God who became human in Jesus lives in us too by the Holy Spirit?  Are we living this world of love that Mary proclaims, or are there some things that we might need to change in order to be transformed by Christmas?

And so as we begin this new season of Advent, my wish is that each one of us might receive this season as a blessing.  That each one of us might have the opportunity this month to prepare – to truly prepare our hearts and our lives – for the transformation that Christmas brings.

And may it be so.  Amen.

Scrooge and the Ghost of Jacob Marley
Original Illustration - Public Domain