Kingdom come

Texts: “I Happened to be Standing” by Mary Oliver * Luke 11:1-4 (“Father . . . “)

Ever since I learned “The Lord’s Prayer” as a child, I have been waiting for God’s kingdom to come. But despite never-ending repetition of the prayer by myself and billions of others, God’s kingdom doesn’t seem to have yet materialized.

Perhaps out of frustration with this, our prayers might have turned of late to more mundane kingdoms. I am thinking of the excitement many have exhibited since January 8 at the news that Prince Harry, his wife Meghan Markle, and their child Archie are moving to Canada. Some are hostile to the idea. But others are charmed by the prospect of having this attractive and high-profile celebrity family living on Vancouver Island, or in Toronto, or – stranger things have happened! — in Edmonton.

Still others have gone further and suggested that Prince Harry become the next Governor General of Canada. This would take us back to olden-times when Canada’s governor general was a British aristocrat. One pertinent example is the Duke of Argyll who from 1878 to 1883 was the fourth Governor General of Canada after Confederation. Like Prince Harry, the Duke was a relative of the British monarch, being the son-in-law of Queen Victoria. You may also recall that the Duke’s wife, Louisa Caroline Alberta, was both the sixth-born child of Queen Victoria and the inspiration for the name of the province in which we live.

During last week’s media frenzy about Harry, Meghan, and their son Archie, a few Canadians went even further and suggested that Canada establish its own home-grown monarchy and appoint Prince Harry as Canada’s first resident King. So, instead of praying that God’s kingdom come, perhaps we should start praying for Harry’s kingdom to come!

But even if we did pray for this, Harry probably won’t become Canada’s King, although it does seem likely that Harry, Meghan, and Archie will now spend much of their time in Canada despite legal, constitutional, and financial questions.

The news frenzy about Harry, Meghan, and their relationship with the rest of the British Royal Family highlights the oddness of monarchy in today’s age.

England was the first world power to throw off monarchy when Puritan revolutionaries executed King Charles I in 1649 and instituted a republic that lasted for ten years.

The United States has had a better run of republican rule beginning with the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and continuing to this day. Some people fear that if the Senate acquits the U.S. President in his impeachment trial, which began last week, this will turn the USA into a de facto monarchy. But for now, republicanism is the form of government there, as it is in much of the world.

Even countries like Canada that are constitutional monarchies tend to operate as though they were republics, which is one of the reasons that churches like Mill Woods United prefer terms like reign or realm of God to the kingdom of God. In the paraphrase of The Lord’s Prayer that we will recite at the end of The Prayers of the People this morning, the word “commonwealth” is used instead of kingdom.

But regardless of the word used, what did Jesus mean by the phrase “Your reign, or realm, or kingdom come?”

As a child, I thought it referred to life in heaven after one’s death, which is an idea captured by the phrase “blown to kingdom come.”

Later, I connected “your kingdom come” to the idea that Jesus might return to earth a second time as a warrior king as in the fantasies of the biblical book of Revelation. But given that I reject the notion of a violent God, this idea doesn’t work for me.

Today I realize that The Lord’s Prayer is focused on this world and not the next. It invites us to pray that God’s name be made holy in the same way that God’s creation is holy. It prays that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And it prays for God’s kingdom to come, which can also only mean on earth as it is in heaven.

The focus on this world continues in the second half of The Lord’s Prayer. After praying about God’s name, kingdom, and will, The Lord’s Prayer turns to bread for today, forgiveness of debts, and protection from evil. So, the notion that God’s kingdom is about heaven doesn’t seem to make sense.

Finally, I no longer believe that God’s kingdom is a future hope. In his first sermon, Jesus preaches that the kingdom of God is at hand (Mark 1:15), which is something that he repeats many times.

In Luke, Jesus makes the metaphor clearer. When asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God is coming, Jesus says, “The kingdom of God never comes by watching for it. People cannot say, ‘Look, here it is’, or ‘there it is’, for the kingdom of God is inside you.” (Luke 17:20-21).

God’s kingdom, then, refers to inner sovereignty and divinity. The various monarchs and presidents of the world may believe that sovereignty rests with them. But Jesus rejects this. Instead, he says that sovereignty is within us. God’s kingdom has come near. Indeed, it has already arrived, flickering within us; and our task as followers of the Way of Jesus is to wake up to the sovereign Christ within us.

Not only does this notion of an inner and divine sovereignty subvert the pretensions of earthly monarchs, presidents, or nations. It empowers us to work for bread for today and liberation from debt and evil. To create the society we want, we don’t need to rely on the corrupt and violent kings of this world. Instead, Jesus calls us to rely on the divine sovereign that reigns within us. This reality is what gives us the collective power to make God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

I have more to say about prayer, and so I will return to the topic on February 2 and 23. But for now, I briefly turn to the poem we heard, “I Happened to be Standing” by Mary Oliver.

Oliver suggests that prayer might be a constant reality of all living beings, whether opossums, wildflowers, sleeping cats, or singing birds. She doesn’t want to convince the reader of something other than what we believe or don’t believe. She simply knows that when the wren sings, she can only interpret it as a prayer.

Prayer might seem complicated, and so we might identify with Jesus’ friends who ask him for instruction on how to pray. But perhaps prayer is a simple as a black oak growing older every year or a sunflower turning towards a blazing sun.

In a similar way, the realm of God might seem complicated. But I am confident that Jesus is right. God’s realm exists right here and now within each of us. Praying for this realm to come is a call to wake up to the glory and joy of life that already exists. It empowers us to work for bread for all and liberation for the indebted and the oppressed.

May it be so.

Amen.

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“How, then, should we pray?”

Texts: Prelude from “The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of The Lord’s Prayer” by John Dominic Crossan * Matthew 6:9-13 (“Our Father . . . “)

Dear friends,

Welcome to another spiritual gathering on this cold and beautiful morning in Mill Woods. Welcome to another moment in which we share our spirits in song, prayer, and reflection and in which we seek to merge with the Great Spirit of Love we call God. Welcome to another hour of journeying farther into a new year in which we strive to be a spiritual community where we can explore our purpose and place.

Today is the first of four Sundays that focus on prayer. I am grateful to a discussion at the Future Steps team in December for inspiration for this series. Over four Sundays, I will reflect on The Prayer of Jesus, also known as The Lord’s Prayer and the “Our Father” prayer. We will take a break from this series in two weeks on January 26 when we will join with our Zimbabwean partners for both worship and lunch and again on the second and third Sundays in February when I will be away for a week of study leave followed by a week of vacation.

Prayer is central to our spiritual life and it is also a puzzle for many of us. How we pray takes us to the heart of what we mean by the word God, and so I hope that these four Sundays will help us continue down the path we have traveled over the past several years in trying to become a more expansive and inclusive spiritual community.

Friends, today we also gather in the shadow of the valley of death. There is great sadness here in Edmonton and across Canada that 138 people bound from Iran for Canada were killed on Wednesday. In military terms, the were “collateral damage” to the war-like actions between Iran and the US. To learn that so many young, ambitious, and beautiful people were killed in a senseless military act, and to know that as many as 30 of them were living in Edmonton has been hard for many of us to absorb. So much tragedy, trauma and loss all in one instant, and for what?!

Life is beautiful but short, and it is bedeviled by the waste of past conflicts, past incomprehensions, and past acts of aggression. It is our work as people of faith, to try to heal the wounds of the past, to prevent more traumas, and to work with other people of good will for a world that has renounced terror, war, and stupidity. And so, as we gather in a spirit of Love, we also mourn with our Iranian-Canadian friends, and with people from Iran, Ukraine and other countries whose loved ones also died in Wednesday’s attack. Their loss is our loss. Their dreams are our dreams. Their future is our future.

This morning on CBC’s “Sunday Edition,” host Michael Enright began his broadcast with a Iranian poem from a 13th Century Iranian poet. In English translation, the words of this poem are displayed on a beautiful Persian carpet in the United Nations headquarters in New York City. So, as we prepare for worship, I offer this Persian poem as a prayerful prelude to an hour focused on prayer.

“Children of Adam” by Saadi

All human beings are members of one frame,
Since all, at first, from the same essence came.
When time afflicts one limb with pain
The other limbs at rest cannot remain.
If thou feel not for other’s misery
A human being is no name for thee.

“The Strangest Prayer”

Prelude from “The Greatest Prayer” by John Dominic Crossan

The Lord’s Prayer is Christianity’s greatest prayer. It is also Christianity’s strangest prayer. It is prayed by all Christians but it never mentions Christ. It is prayed in all churches but it never mentions church. It is prayed on all Sundays but it never mentions Sunday. It is called the “Lord’s Prayer” but it never mentions “Lord.”

It is prayed by fundamentalist Christians but it never mentions the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth, the miracles, the atoning death, and bodily resurrection of Christ. It is prayed by evangelical Christians but it never mentions the evangelium or gospel. It is prayed by Pentecostal Christians but it never mentions ecstasy or the Holy Spirit.

It is prayed by Congregational, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Roman Catholic Christians but it never mentions Congregation, Priest, Bishop, or Pope. It is prayed by Christians who split from one another over this or that doctrine but it never mentions a single one of those doctrines.

It is prayed by Christians who focus on Christ’s substitutionary sacrificial atonement for human sin but it never mentions Christ, substitution, sacrifice, atonement, or sin.
It is prayed by Christians who focus on the next life in heaven or in hell but it never mentions the next life, heaven, or hell. It is prayed by Christians who emphasize what it never mentions and also prayed by Christians who ignore what it does.

You could respond, of course, that there is nothing strange there at all. It is, you might say, a Jewish prayer from the Jewish Jesus, hence nothing Christian is present. But that only invites us to start the question of strangeness all over again for it does not mention Jewish concepts like Covenant or Law, Temple or Torah, Circumcision or Purity, and so on and on and on.

But, what if the Lord’s Prayer is neither a Jewish prayer for Jews nor a Christian prayer for Christians? What if it is—as this book suggests—a prayer from the heart of Judaism on the lips of Christianity for the conscience of the world? What if it is—as this book suggests—a radical manifesto and a hymn of hope for all humanity in language addressed to all the earth?

Matthew 6:9-13 (“Our Father . . . “)

Jesus said to his friends, “This is how you are to pray:

‘Abba God in heaven, hallowed be your name!

May your reign come; may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven:
give us today the bread of Tomorrow.
And forgive us our debts, as we hereby forgive those
who are indebted to us.

Don’t put us to the test, but free us from evil.”

Sermon – “How Then Should We Pray?”

Were you surprised by the words of The Lord’s Prayer that Celia just read? It is from a translation of the Bible published 15 years ago by a U.S. Catholic group called “Priests for Equality.” They title their translation “The Inclusive Bible,” and in it they seek non-sexist ways to translate the Hebrew and Greek words of the texts of the Bible into contemporary English.

I had never encountered The Inclusive Bible before I arrived at Mill Woods United six years ago. But it has been the go-to translation here since before I came, and I appreciate the way it avoids gender-specific ways of referring to God and the Sacred.

“The Inclusive Bible” contains other differences. For instance, over the past few years, we have used many different translations of The Prayer of Jesus in our Sunday morning gatherings. This morning we are going to recite a paraphrase by Bob Hetherington, who was a United Church minister who lived in Edmonton until his death five years ago. His version was appreciated by many of us when we used it here in November.

But I have never encountered the phrase usually translated as “give us this day our daily bread” rendered as “give us today the bread of Tomorrow” until Liliana handed me The Inclusive Bible translation on Wednesday. Perhaps if I were a scholar of ancient Greek, I might agree that this translation by the Priests for Equality is a superior one. But not being such a scholar, I merely know that I am intrigued by it.

Today as we begin reflecting on prayer in general and The Lord’s Prayer specifically, I provide some background information.

Although there are four gospel narratives of the life of Jesus in the Bible, only two of them contain The Lord’s Prayer – Matthew and Luke – and their two versions don’t match. We heard the better known one this morning. It is from the sixth chapter of Matthew where it is in the section of his gospel known as “The Sermon on the Mount.” Next week we will hear a shorter version of this prayer from the 11th chapter of Luke. Not only is Luke’s version shorter, it uses the word “sin” in the place where Matthew’s version uses the word “debt”

But neither of these versions of the prayer have the praise-filled ending that is used in most Protestant churches — “For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.” The latter phrase is not from the Bible, but from an influential Christian work from the late first or early second century. Called “The Teaching,” this booklet has a version of the Lord’s Prayer that is close to Matthew’s version, but that also includes the “For thine . . . ” ending. The Teaching also contains communion prayers used by early churches and lesson plans to teach newcomers to the church the basics of the Way of Jesus.

“The Lord Prayer” is well-known, but I wonder how far this knowledge still goes. In 2015, I was struck by a front-page headline in “The Edmonton Journal” about a controversy in the small town of Busby that read “Alberta public elementary school debates The Lord’s Prayer in class.” The headline and the article that followed assumed that its readers knew what the phrase “The Lord’s Prayer” meant; and this may have been the case with most of the readers of The Journal. But for the broader population in Edmonton, which includes many young people who have never had a connection to a church, mosque, or temple, and recent immigrants who may be Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Buddhist, or secular, I wonder.

Here at Mill Woods United, as in most churches, we sing or recite The Prayer of Jesus at every Sunday gathering. The main innovation that has been followed at Mill Woods United for the last 20 years is to change the initial phrase “Our Father who art in Heaven” to “Our Father, Our Mother.” This is an attempt to make the prayer less jarring to our ears in what is an anti-sexist community.

Surprising to me, The Inclusive Bible translation does not follow this pattern. Instead of changing “Our Father,” which is the standard translation of the first two words of Matthew’s Greek version into “Our Father, Our Mother,” or “Our Parent,” the Inclusive Bible translation begins the prayer with “Abba God.”

Matthew is written in Greek, but Abba is an untranslated Aramaic word. Most scholars assume that Jesus and his friends did not speak Greek. Instead, they believe that Jesus spoke Aramaic, an ancient language that developed out of Hebrew in the centuries before the birth of Jesus. The Aramaic word “Abba” is usually translated into English as “Father” or “Dad.” By using an Aramaic word, the Priests for Equality connect the prayer that Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount with others of his sayings in which he exclaims “Abba.” One such instance occurs when he prays on the night of his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:36). Their use of Abba instead of Father also masks the gendered nature of The Prayer of Jesus to an English reader of listener.

But regardless of how one translates the first two words of The Prayer of Jesus, what do we think about referring to God as Father? In John Crossan’s book “The Greatest Prayer,” he notes that we can only name God through metaphor. The Bible uses many such metaphors: not only Father, but also Judge, Creator, Ruler, Mother-hen, Eagle, Rock, Provider, Liberator.

In connection to this, Crossan bring up the Moses story from the book Exodus. In chapter three of Exodus, Moses encounters a revelation of God in the form of a bush that burns but is not consumed. When Moses asks God what to call him, God replies, “I Am Who I Am,” or “The Great I Am.” Crossan notes that this is equivalent to God describing God’s-self as unnameable. But then God gives Moses an easier alternative, to tell the Hebrew slaves that he is the God of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the God of tradition and the God who liberates.

Given that whatever comes into our hearts and minds when we say the word “God” is by definition an attempt to name the unnameable, I am OK with using any number of metaphors in association with the word “God.” I prefer “Father” to “King” and “Parent” to “Father.” But such metaphors only work if they remind me that we are trying to refer to that which transcends our small selves. We are utterly dependent on the history of the cosmos and of the earth, on billions of years of biological evolution, on 50,000 years of human culture, and on the lives of our ancestors. If this dependence is captured by the word “Father,” I am OK with that even if I personally prefer phrases like “Ground of Being and Love,” or “Source of Love.” I am OK to begin The Lord’s Prayer with “Our Father,” even as I prefer other approaches.

But this still leaves us with the question of what Jesus actually said. Unfortunately, that is a tough question. We only have the four gospels to go on, and they rarely agree. Further, scholars date the life of Jesus from about the years 5 BCE to the year 30 CE during which time all his utterances would have been in Aramaic. In distinction to this, the gospels were not written until between the years 70 and 100 — that is until 40 to 70 years after Jesus’ life; and they were written in Greek. So, to know what Jesus said when he taught his friends to pray is not just a matter of translating from ancient Greek into a modern language like English but trying to discern the original Aramaic words that might have been spoken by Jesus in the year 30 from the Greek words attributed to him by Mark 40 years later, Matthew 50 years later, Luke 60 years later, and John 70 years later.

My simple solution to this tough problem is to assume that we cannot know with certainty even one word of what Jesus said let alone a whole prayer, sermon, or speech.

For me, the power of the gospels lies not their contradictory details of the life of a great hero and saviour – Jesus of Nazareth. For me, their power is to convey in story form the ability of love, spirit, and grace to survive and thrive in a time in which the forces of justice and love seem to have been defeated and in which worship no longer seems possible. The gospel writers wrote their Greek texts in just such an era between 70 and 100 CE. Their stories helped Jewish people pick up the pieces after the Romans had burned the Holy City Jerusalem to the ground and destroyed Jehovah’s Temple. The power of these stories is partly related to the individual words attributed to Jesus, but it goes well beyond them.

Today, translators like Priests for Equality try to render these cryptic Greek texts into today’s modern languages in an era that seems to have similar characteristics of defeat and impossibility that the Jews encountered almost 2,000 years ago.

Today, we may often feel defeated by the human condition or by social problems, and we may often wonder how we can possibly worship the God who is Love in such strange times. But then we hear again the stories of Jesus and his friends resisting an oppressive empire and finding continued hope for the triumph of love even after their leader is executed, and we too may find paths on which to travel onward.

Did Jesus teach his friends to use the word “sin” or “debts” in his iconic prayer? We cannot know, nor do I think it matters. The power of the Way of Jesus is not found in particular teachings or words but in the entire trajectory of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection. Give how little we know, the gospel stories might have no connection to an actual life of a Jewish peasant healer and leader from Nazareth. But regardless, they convey the power of love to live beyond death and the ability of defeated peasants to continue to gather in opposition to empire and religious misleaders. They show how such seemingly defeated people prayed and reflected upon sacred values of respect, equality, and compassion in the most difficult of circumstances.

When we use The Prayer of Jesus in our communal prayers each week – whether with a traditional or a non-traditional translation — we connect ourselves to the Body of Christ. I hope that this also provides many of us with a moment of ritual that helps to open our hearts and minds to the Sacred.

In the weeks that follow, I will talk more about the implications of this well-known but little understood prayer. I pray that by reflecting more about it, we may reclaim it so that it might continue to inspire our living.

May it be so.

Amen.

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Vision 2020

Texts: “Continue” by Maya Angelou, and Matthew 2:1-18 (the flight to Egypt)

On Christmas Day, a controversy broke out on Twitter when U.S Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg sent out the following tweet: “Today I join millions around the world in celebrating the arrival of divinity on earth, who came into this world not in riches but in poverty, and not as a citizen but as a refugee.” He concluded, “No matter where or how you celebrate, Merry Christmas.”

I liked his tweet and thought it fit well with the two stories of the birth of Jesus in the Bible. In the more well-known one from Luke, which we heard on Christmas Eve, Joseph and Mary are forced to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem in response to an imperial census. This census would have seen millions of people travelling to ancestral homelands even those who were nine-months pregnant, as was the case with Mary.

There are many reasons to think that Mary and Joseph were poverty-stricken. One is their inability to find room in an inn in Bethlehem, and which forces Mary to give birth to Jesus in a stable. But even though Luke’s tale of an imperial census seems to be a fiction, which he created to get Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the City of King David, his Christmas story still shows the powerlessness of people like Mary, Joseph and other Palestinian Jews in the Roman Empire of their time.

The second biblical Christmas story is the one from Matthew that we heard this morning. This story of a Star, Magi from the East, and gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh is the one that frames Jesus as a refugee. In Jerusalem, the Roman puppet King Herod has learned from the Magi of the birth of a new King of the Jews, and so he plans to find and murder this infant. But Joseph is warned of Herod’s plot in a dream, and so he flees with Mary and Jesus from Palestine to Egypt where they live for several years until another dream tells Joseph it is safe to return to Palestine.

Joseph’s dreams save Jesus, but they do not save the other male infants and toddlers in Bethlehem. Matthew says that Herod slaughters them in an unsuccessful attempt to kill Jesus.

Opponents of Pete Buttigieg’s tweet said he was wrong to describe Jesus as a refugee since both Egypt and Palestine were occupied by the same Roman Empire. But to argue that fleeing in the night from one Roman province to another in the face of a politically-motivated campaign of murder is not a story about refugees seems silly to me.

Other people angry at Buttigieg’s tweet suggested without evidence that Joseph was rich and that the Holy Family were citizens of Rome. But I am confident that biblical scholars are correct when they say that Jesus, like all the Jews in occupied Palestine, was not a Greek-speaking citizen, but an Aramaic-speaking peasant, one who was as poor and as lacking in rights as the people who followed him in his adult ministry.

With his Christmas tweet, Buttigieg reached out to other Christians around the world, and he pointed to the issues of poverty and refugees that are present right from the start of the biblical stories about Jesus.

I noticed this Christmas Day controversy because I like Pete Buttigieg and I have been following his campaign closely. He is one of the reasons I have been feeling hopeful about the possibilities for a moral movement that could turn back the tide of racism, sexism, and brutality that has swamped much of the world in the past few years.

I don’t follow current events as closely as I once did – it is just too hard on my heart. So, while I know that apocalyptic wildfires are burning in Australia and hostilities between the USA and Iran have escalated following the assassination of an Iranian military leader by the U.S. last week, I try not to follow the blow by blow. What will be, will be; and stopping war and climate disaster depends on the overall context and not on the particular details of this story or that.

Instead, I have narrowed a lot of my focus to the campaign of Pete Buttigieg. So, with your indulgence, let me tell you a little about him. He is in the top tier of the 14 people still in the race to become the Democratic Party Presidential Candidate in this November’s US elections. He is the youngest candidate at age 37. Until New Year’s Day, he was the mayor of South Bend Indiana, which is a city of 100,000 best known as the home of Notre Dame University. He is the first openly gay person to become a major candidate for President. He and his husband Chasten were married in St. James Episcopal Cathedral in South Bend in 2018. He is a military vet having served six months in Afghanistan in 2014 as a Naval Intelligence Officer. And he is a rare Democratic who foregrounds his faith. As the son of an immigrant from the Mediterranean island of Malta, he was baptized as a Catholic. But he became an Anglican when he was studying as a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford in 2005. I would describe his faith stance as liberal, inclusive, and focused on social justice, with all of these traits evident in his Christmas Day tweet.

It was Buttigieg’s unlikely resume that first grabbed my attention last winter. Since then, I have been impressed by his intelligence, his ability to communicate, and his poise in the face of all the flak that comes one’s way as a political candidate.

This past Friday when the U.S. President launched a new group called “Evangelicals for Trump” at a rally at Miami’s “King Jesus International Ministry” he said God was on his side, and he mocked Buttigieg as someone who had “all of a sudden become extremely religious.” In response, Buttigieg noted that God does not belong to a political party.

Trump was motivated to hold his Friday rally following an editorial last month in “Christianity Today,” which is an evangelical magazine founded by Billy Graham. In a surprise move, the editor of “Christianity Today” called on the U.S. Senate to remove Trump from office in its impeachment trial.

Although there is much that I don’t like about “Christianity Today,” I am cheered by this editorial. I view any cracks in the wall of white church solidarity with the racist and criminal government of the U.S. President as a good thing.

The political arguments about Jesus, God, and the Bible that I am reflecting on today reveal huge differences between wings of the church. Should people of faith help refugees, the poor, and oppressed groups like gay people, or should we focus on upholding the power of military empires like the United States, cheer efforts to turn desperate people away at the border, and strive to ensure that the USA and Canada remain countries in which white people are dominant and pregnant women’s bodies are the property of the state? These differences are not minor.

I am glad that people like Pete Buttigieg are not shy about bringing faith into the political arena. For one, every jot and tittle of the gospels are about the struggles of poor people against imperial oppression, as the stories of the birth of Jesus illustrate.

Many of us might wish that the Christmas stories were not political; and given that both Luke and Matthew made up their different birth stories, we may wonder why they felt compelled to weave in themes of poverty and state murder.

On December 22, I facetiously suggested that we re-write their Christmas stories as the basis for a romantic comedy on the TV channel Hallmark. But Hallmark would never run a Christmas movie with as disturbing a plot as Matthew’s story of the Slaughter of the Innocents in Bethlehem 2000 years ago; and if Matthew’s story had been as saccharine as a typical Hallmark movie, it probably would not have been believed by his first hearers or preserved.

People who belong to “Evangelicals for Trump” might fantasize that the Bible portrays Mary and Joseph as a wealthy and law-abiding couple; and they might think that being faithful to Jesus means supporting a regime that pursues white supremacy and suppresses the rights for women and gay people.

But I disagree. And so I am cheered by leaders like Pete Buttigieg who remind us that Jesus was born into poverty; that he became a refugee as an infant; that he railed against corrupt religious and imperial rulers as an adult, and that he was executed by an evil Empire in the cause of love and justice. I hope that Buttigieg and others like him will build a movement that will weave a rainbow of solidarity between white, black, and brown people; between gay and straight; between immigrants and the native-born; and between those of different faiths and those of no faith.

We don’t know how the year 2020 will unfold. We don’t know if President Trump will be re-elected and thus transform the United States from a liberal republic into an imperial monarchy. We don’t know if war will break out yet again in the Middle East. We don’t know if Australians, along with the rest of us, will finally decide to get serious about curbing carbon pollution.

Nevertheless, I believe we know what we must do in this crisis-ridden and beautiful new year. Maya Angelou reminds us of this work in her poem “Continue.” As she suggests there, I believe the best we can do this year is to continue to act with kindness; to allow humor to lighten the burden of our tender hearts; to let people hear the grandeur of God in the peals of our laughter; to remember our own young years and look with favor upon the lost, the least and the lonely; to take the hand of the despised and diseased and walk proudly with them in the high street; to plant a public kiss of concern on the cheek of the sick and the aged and infirm; to let gratitude be the pillow upon which we kneel to say our nightly prayers; to ignore no vision which comes to enlarge our spirits; to dare to love deeply and risk everything for the good; and by so doing, to allow our work to continue eternally.

A new year lies before us, and we don’t know what it will bring. But we do know that our deepest calling is to continue the joyous work of love and justice.

May it be so.

Amen.

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“Yes, Virginia . . .”

Text: Luke 2:1-20 (the birth of Jesus)

Christmas is a good time, I think, to look back on the year past and toward the year ahead; and this Christmas Eve, I am struck that one week from tomorrow will be the first day not only of a new year, but of a new decade.

Those of us 30 years of age and older will undoubtedly remember New Year’s Eve twenty years ago when 1999 turned to 2000. Sometimes it can feel like yesterday, although a lot has happened in our lives in the twenty years since.

As for 2019, each of us will have unique memories from it of joy and pain or of success and failure. I hope we will remain awake to the blessings that graced us through the ups and downs of 2019 and feel confident that the Love that supported us this year will stay with us through all our tomorrows.

The past year at Mill Woods United has left me feeling encouraged. For one, it looks like we will end 2019 with a small financial surplus . . . although perhaps I shouldn’t mention this before the offering! New people have joined the community. Georgia Englot’s children’s program on Sunday mornings keeps growing. The choir under Bryan LeGrow continues to amaze us with its heart and skill. And our work of outreach, justice-making, and learning, and our times of fun and friendship, create deep connections, sustain our faith, and keep our hearts and minds focused on hope and love. I feel blessed to be part of Mill Woods United, a spiritual community where you can explore your purpose and place.

That last sentence echoes a new vision statement that the congregation approved last March. I appreciated the discussions that led to that decision and to the work we have been doing to live into it. However, Christmas might seem to present a hiccup or two to our evolution as an expansive spiritual community.

Mill Woods United is rooted in 2000 years of Christian traditions and 100 years of United Church of Canada traditions even as we strive to move beyond them in order to join with others in this intercultural neighbourhood and to work for a world that is universal and not tribal, a world centred on sacred values more than on ancient beliefs.

But what about the Christmas story we read from Luke tonight and the different one from Matthew to which the children’s story “The Tiniest Christmas Star” alluded? By honouring them as we do tonight, are we not retreating into our tribe instead of reaching beyond it? And what about the words of the Christmas carols? We never hear theology more traditional than we do tonight. We have already sung the phrase “far as the curse is found,” and before we leave we will sing “God of God, light of light, lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb.” These are the kind of phrases we steer clear of during the rest of the year.

Of course, words can be changed, and this year we have used some new lyrics for old hymns even as we rely more and more on the newer songbook “More Voices.” We will have one taste of this practice tonight when we sing the carol “In the Bleak Midwinter.” This December, we sang the fourth verse of this carol when the offering was brought forward. Tonight, we will sing it along with three other verses. For the first verse as for the fourth, we will use Christina Rossetti’s original words, ones that contain all her expressive power.

But we won’t sing her second and third verses. Rossetti’s second verse begins “Heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain; heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign.” Instead, we are going to use alternative words by Rev. Gretta Vosper from Toronto. I imagine that next Christmas Eve we will continue to adjust the lyrics of some carols with alternatives written by people like the late Rev. Bob Hetherington, who finished his career in Edmonton 16 years ago at Southminster-Steinhauer United.

On the other hand, I am charmed and warmed by the two contradictory birth stories found in Luke and Matthew and by the evocative words of many Christmas carols. They might not make literal sense or express my theology clearly. But part of their power comes from how odd and old they sound.

This issue reminds of a famous Christmas editorial from 1897 published in the New York Sun. Titled, “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” the writer affirmed that [quote] “as long as love and generosity and devotion exist” so will Santa Claus and the strange and wonderful stories about him.

For those of us for whom God is Love, the same idea might apply. I may not view the details of Luke or Matthew’s stories of the birth of Jesus as history and yet still follow a Christ-like path of ministry, death, and rebirth. I may not feel the same way about Santa Claus as I did when I was a child and yet still revel in the spirit of peace, goodwill, and boundless love that is Christmas at its best.

So on this Night Before Christmas and using the words of a Nineteenth century poem of that name about Santa Claus, I pray that tonight we may go to sleep nestled all snug in our beds with visions of sugar plums — and flying reindeer and singing angels – dancing in our heads.

And in the inimitable words of the old flying elf himself, I now end by saying, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

Amen.

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“It’s Starting to Look a Lot Like Netflix!”

Text: Luke 1:46-56 (Mary’s song of love and justice)

Have you ever noticed that many of the holidays we celebrate in Canada have roots in the church but are now mostly secular?

This list would include Valentine’s Day on February 14, St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, and Halloween on October 31. There are still a few church holidays like Christmas that continue to be celebrated by the church. But sometimes I wonder if we should turn Christmas completely over to secular culture as well.

Each year, Christmas gets bigger. One sign of this is a slew of new Christmas movies. Over the past decade, hundreds of Christmas movies have been produced. They are shown in continuous rotation during November and December on U.S. cable networks like Hallmark and Lifetime, and they stream on Netflix, which has a new genre called “It’s Starting to Look at Lot Like Netflix!”

This fall, I listened to several podcasts about these movies. Almost all of them are romantic comedies; and they are often criticized for following a stereotypical pattern. One involves a business-obsessed woman stranded on Christmas Eve in a snowy town where confrontations with a local hunk help her to remember the importance of kindness and simplicity. Another pattern involves various complications at Christmas between an American commoner and the royal family of a fictional European country in which everyone speaks British-inflected English.

I recently watched two of these new movies on Netflix. I quite enjoyed one called “Let It Snow;” and for the other, ” A Christmas Prince,” I leaned heavily on the fast-forward button and considered it as cultural research.

Perhaps the church should hop on this bandwagon. What about pitching the two birth stories in Matthew and Luke as a romantic comedy? Imagine the plot: a teenage girl named Mary becomes estranged from her family at Christmas when she tells them she is pregnant. But her plight turns into passion when she catches the eye of handsome carpenter name Joe. Instead of spurning Mary, Joe offers her kindness and love, and together they journey to his snow-bound hometown. This leads to a risky birth, a flight to a foreign country in the face of the rage of a deranged king, and the magical help of angelic voices, humourous farm hands, and eccentric billionaires whom they encounter at various points along the way. Perhaps this could be an idea for next year’s Christmas pageant?!

For some people, this notion would sound sacrilegious, but perhaps not for those like me who view the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke as poetic ornaments on the path of love and rebirth as revealed in the Gospel of Mark and the letters of Paul.

Mark contains no stories about the birth of Jesus. But when Matthew and Luke used Mark as the basis for their gospels, they each added a story of the birth of Jesus, and these two different stories inform the religious side of Christmas. A mountain of books have been written about the religious implications of these stories, but for me their importance is more cultural than spiritual.

This is not to say that I don’t love Christmas. I love it all – Christmas lights, Christmas movies, and a kaleidoscope of traditions from every corner of Europe. Together, they make up a mixture that is as irresistible as a rum-soaked fruit cake or a turkey with all the trimmings. We might not want to eat these foods every day. But in the dark nights around the solstice, I am glad that we enjoy such foods when we gather with family and friends.

I will speak more about the joys of the season on Christmas Eve. But to close, I now briefly turn to Mary and her song of love and justice that we heard this morning.

Although I don’t consider Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus to be essential to my faith, I appreciate the song he writes for Mary. It is about poverty, oppression, and hopes for liberation. Partly because of it, I believe we can love Christmas not just for its soulful traditions, but also for Mary’s dream that kings might oppress no more.

So, this week as Advent comes to a triumphant conclusion on Christmas Eve, I hope that we will remember Mary’s song and of how its dream of love and justice is the prelude to a beloved story of a newborn laid in a manger.

May it be so. Amen.

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Complicated joy

Texts: “Don’t hesitate,” a poem by Mary Oliver * Luke 1:26-45 (“the birth of Jesus foretold)

Christmas is about simple joys. Every December, we gather with family and friends for festive meals, the exchange of gifts, and heartfelt wishes for merriment and a happy new year. We light candles and string colourful lights to brighten the dark nights of the winter solstice; and we sing traditional songs of comfort and joy that fit with soulful decorations of trees and boughs of holly. These are some of our expectations for Christmas, and who among us doesn’t love them?

Unfortunately, when you add church to this mix, things can get more complicated.

You may have heard that the imperial church of the Fourth Century grafted Christmas on top of an ancient Roman winter solstice celebration called Saturnalia.

Most human societies have marked the winter solstice — that point when the least sunlight reaches the northern hemisphere. Many of them are festivals of light and warmth in the darkness and cold of the start of winter. The solstice, which comes to Edmonton next Saturday at 9:20 pm, is a logical place to end one solar year and start another one even though in our calendar New Year’s Eve falls anywhere from eight to 11 days after the solstice.

As the sun seems to come to a standstill and the days finally begin to lengthen, we are reminded that another year has passed. And so we may pause to reflect on the year past and look toward another spring, even though we know that the coldest days of the year still lie ahead.

The return of light at the solstice can give rise to feelings of mystery and awe; and so, we gather to give thanks and to look with hope to the year ahead; and in the case of this Christmas and New Year’s, we look back to a decade now passing and toward the twenties, which are about to begin.

Seventeen hundred years ago, the newly established imperial church of Rome re-purposed a Roman solstice festival called Saturnalia to serve as a celebration of the birth of Jesus. Two of the four gospel narratives include tales of his birth; and even though the quite different tales found in Matthew and Luke make no mention of the time of year in which they are set, the church combined the two stories into one and celebrated them on the cusp of the New Year.

In the centuries since, hundreds of other fanciful Christmas stories have been told — tales of a jolly old elf, of flying reindeer, of dancing snowmen, and of Grinches, Scrooges, and ghosts – tales that may be only tangentially related to those about the birth of Jesus.

I don’t view the tales of Jesus’ birth found in Matthew and Luke as history any more than the stories that have followed them. And although Christmas was supposed to replace Saturnalia, today the vast superstructure of Christmas hews closer to Yule, Saturnalia, and Boxing Day than it does to the good news of Jesus as the Christ.

But despite how far Christmas may have wandered from Matthew and Luke, this doesn’t mean that the church doesn’t revisit their stories each December to see what they might inspire in our hearts and minds as another year fades and a new one approaches; and my reflection today is no different.

In today’s reading from Luke, a girl named Mary is told by the Angel Gabriel that she will become pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit and give birth to a son to be called Jehovah the Salvation, or Jesus. Gabriel also tells her that Jesus will be the only begotten son of God and a successor to King David whose reign will never end! Finally, Gabriel tells Mary not to be afraid.

Have you ever noticed that when an angel in a biblical story tells someone to be not afraid, it is a sign that there is much they might fear? For Mary, those fears would not only include the fantastical idea that her miraculously conceived son will be both divine and royal, but also that she might become an unwed mother in a society in which that status is both shameful and dangerous.

But unlike her cousin Zechariah who questioned Gabriel when the angel told him of impending parenthood for him and his aged wife Elizabeth, and which is a story we heard two weeks ago, Mary humbly accepts the angel’s words. She says she will submit to God’s will no matter how outlandish Gabriel’s news might sound.

Mary then sets off to see Elizabeth and Zechariah, perhaps to check if Gabriel’s news that Elizabeth is also miraculously with child is true.

Elizabeth is overjoyed when her teen-aged cousin greets her. So is her about-to-born son, John the Baptist, who even in utero seems to sense the significance of Mary’s status as the girl who will become the mother of Jesus.

But I wonder if joy is an appropriate response. Both Elizabeth and Mary are in trouble, are they not? Both are about to give birth in occupied Palestine under the iron rule of Rome; and both are poor peasants with all the implications for disease, oppression, and suffering that this status implies.

Then there are their respective ages. Luke doesn’t say exactly how old Elizabeth is; he just notes that she is infertile and aged. But no matter her exact age, the pregnancies of older women come with greater physical risks than those of younger women.

As for Mary, the risks for her pregnancy are more social than physical. Will her intended Joseph go through with their wedding even though the child she is carrying will not be his? What will the neighbours say?

Finally, there are the fates that await both miraculous children. Luke tells us that John the Baptist is beheaded by the authorities shortly after her baptizes his cousin Jesus in the River Jordan. Elizabeth and Zechariah may be dead when this dreadful fate befalls their son, but Luke doesn’t say.

Luke does say that Mary is alive when her child Jesus is crucified; and she hears an allusion to this cruel fate right from the start. Eight days after the birth of Jesus, Luke writes that Mary and Joseph take him in the Temple in Jerusalem. There, a prophet named Samuel warns Mary that her child will be “a sword that will pierce her soul.”

Matthew’s birth story of Jesus is even more dire. Instead of having Mary, Joseph, and Jesus head to Jerusalem, Matthew writes that the Holy Family flee Bethlehem for Egypt where they live for several years as refugees in the face of a murderous campaign of King Herod’s.

Despite all this, Elizabeth and Mary express joy at their impending parenthood. And I suppose that any pregnancy, even in dire circumstances, could be a source of joy. No mother gives birth in ideal circumstances. And all births come with risks. As a popular saying goes: “Becoming a parent is like having your heart forever go walking outside your body.”

Given their circumstances, Elizabeth and Mary could be worried sick about the prospect of becoming parents. But instead, they feel excitement and greet one another with joy.

Perhaps they remember the amazing resilience all humans possess and which, with Grace, we often rely upon in times of challenge and change.

Life is often not simple, and its complications can involve loss and pain. But even in loss, sometimes we cope and even thrive. There may be much we regret about the history of humanity and perhaps our own lives. But despite sickness and war, we often find ways to continue to care for and love one another.

Mary’s Oliver’s poem “Don’t Hesitate” reminds us of life’s difficulties. She writes that “plenty of lives and whole towns are destroyed . . . [and] we are often not kind. . . Still, [she continues,] life has some possibility left . . . [which] we notice best in the instant when love begins.” As so, like Mary and Elizabeth, we may suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy; and like them, I hope we can give in to it.

Our children go into the world taking our heart’s love with them, and things sometimes do not unfold in the ways we want. But we can trust that at moments of depth and grace we can touch the deliverance and healing revealed in improbable stories like the ones we tell at Christmas.

At Christmas, we anticipate simple joys; and I hope that this Christmas we will experience many of these.

But as biblical stories and our own lives remind us, life has more to it than simple joys. So I also pray that this Christmas we also will stay in touch with the complicated joys that we can embrace in all of life’s ups and downs no matter the season.

May it be so. Amen.

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Out of silence

Texts: “Making Peace” by Denise Levertov * Luke 1:18-25 (waiting in silence)

“No justice, no peace!” This slogan has been a staple at protest marches for years. It also describes the type of peace heralded by angels at the birth of Jesus over 2,000 years ago in the Roman Empire of Caesar Augustus.

Caesar had proclaimed “Pax Romana” or “Peace of Rome” soon after he began his 40 years of imperial rule. His Peace would persist for more than 200 years, from the time of his ascension to the Roman throne in 27 BCE through the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 180 CE. During these 200 years, the Roman Empire was stable, and no outside power threatened its might. But no matter how impressive The Peace of Rome seemed then or now, it was not peace with justice.

Rome’ peace was built on conquest and the oppression of its workforce, many of whom were slaves; and it was maintained by the army with an iron fist.

At the first Christmas when the angels sing “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace and good will to all,” they are not praising Caesar’s peace. They are heralding the coming of Caesar’s opposite – a divine child who represents the hopes for peace with justice of people who are as humble as this tiny infant.

In the centuries since, the church has proclaimed Christ over Caesar, and over the Czars, Kings and Kaisers who succeeded the Roman emperors. We claim that sovereignty rests not with monarchs on their thrones, but with the Risen Christ who lives within the hearts of followers of a Way of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.

But just because the church proclaims Christ over Caesar doesn’t mean we now enjoy peace with justice. Jesus and his friends didn’t overthrow Caesar in the First Century. And today in the 21st, we continue to struggle with war. So, where is the peace that the angels announced 2,000 years ago?

This morning, I reflect on this question against the backdrop of today’s two readings and on our November theme on refugees here at Mill Woods United.

I am grateful that the Future Steps Team proposed that we read the book “Homes: A Refugee Story” in November and that we used three Sunday mornings to reflect on its themes of war, migration, and welcome. I am especially glad that on November 3, we heard the thoughts of Winnie Yeung, the Edmonton teacher who wrote “Homes,” which tells the story of Abu Bakr and his family as they fled from Iraq, to Syria, and finally to Edmonton in 2014; from Junaid Jahangir on November 17 who told of his family’s flight to Pakistan amid the deadly partition of India in 1947 and of his experiences as a gay Muslim learning to cope and thrive in Edmonton since 2001; and from our Office Administrator, Liliana Angel, who on November 24 told us the story of her family as they fled as refugees from Colombia in 2009 to a new life in Edmonton. I found all of them informative, moving, and inspiring.

Edmonton is a relatively peaceful and just place. This is not to say that we don’t have our share of violent crime and acts of discrimination based on sex, race, and cultural background. Unfortunately, we have far too many of these. But compared to other places and times, most of us feel blessed to live here.

But our November theme on refugees reminded me of how the injustice and violence of the wider world is also relevant to life here. Canada may never have had a civil war, but people from India, Syria and Colombia have fled war to come here and they bless us with their presence and many contributions.

People living in British-controlled India in the years preceding independence in 1947 probably expected only good things as Britain finally left the sub-continent after hundreds of years of imperial rule. Unfortunately, the existence of divisions between Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh communities allowed racist nationalists to rip the country apart in a convulsion of violence and death. Both India and Pakistan were born with wounds from their colonial past and with new wounds caused by misleaders who exploited tribal divisions for political gain.

At the beginning of the 1960s, the people of Colombia probably had hopes for economic expansion and social development. Unfortunately, outside meddling in Colombia — first in the context of the Cold War and then in the disastrous War on Drugs — sparked more than 50 years of violence there. This violence has warped the lives of millions and caused the deaths of tens of thousands. This includes the violence that led to Liliana to flee with her family to Edmonton ten years ago as refugees.

In 2010, the people of Syria probably were pleased as they reflected on years of economic growth and on the fading of memories of past conflicts with Israel. Unfortunately, as the Arab Spring revolt challenged the dictatorship of Bashar Al Assad in 2011, the existence of communal divisions between various strands of Islam and Christianity in Syria allowed leaders like Assad and others to turn the Arab Spring into a civil war in which hundreds of thousands have died and millions have fled their homes as refugees.

These civil wars include untold horrors and trauma. A tiny silver lining, at least for us, is the arrival of refugees in Edmonton who become a blessing to the city’s economic, cultural, and social life.

But could the type of civic conflict that we heard about on three Sundays in November happen here as well?

The situation to our south provides a cautionary tale. The election of the current US President three years ago was aided by a Russian assault. It was an ideological and not a military assault, but its results have been devastating. It has threatened the rule of law in the US and weakened the ability of the world to tackle issues like climate disaster and weapons of mass destruction.

In 2016, Russian Internet trolls and bots exploited racial divisions in the United States to foment fear, misinformation and anger on social media platforms. The US was vulnerable to this attack because, just as Canada is far from healing the wounds of colonialism involving its First Nations, so the US is far from healing the wounds caused by 400 years of slavery and racial discrimination.

There are many reasons to desire a world in which women as well as men, gay as well as straight people, and those with ancestors from all corners of the world can live together with equality and peace. One of them is that continued social divisions make us vulnerable to cynical manipulations by nationalists that can lead to violence as in India in the 1940s and Syria in the decade that is just ending.

In the church, we work for peace with justice. We do so to act upon our values of love, kindness and hospitality. This work can also inoculate us against the irrational hatred that can lead to violence.

As Junaid Jahangir’s ancestors and as Liliana Angel’s and Abu Bakr’s families learned, often the only thing one can do in the face of violence is to flee to a safer place. And I am happy that Canada is a haven to so many refugees and other immigrants who have created a wondrous tapestry of cultures here over the last 60 years.

But is there anything a church can do to counter the forces that lead to civil wars in places like India, Pakistan, Colombia, and Syria?

I think so; and I end with some thoughts about about how using words and refraining from using them that can help us in the struggle for peace with justice.

When Zechariah questions the Angel Gabriel’s news that he and his wife Elizabeth are to become parents, the angel strikes him mute for nine months. Elizabeth accepts the situation more calmly, but she too goes into seclusion for five months.

Sometimes in the face of fearsome or awe-inspiring events, all we can do is stand mute. Things like war, revolution, or impossible births can overwhelm us. In those cases, we may need to sit silently or spend time in solitude as we search for stability and a new ground from which to act.

An opposite tack is taken in the poem “Making Peace,” by Denise Levertov. It suggests that we can make peace in the same way one writes a poem – by sensing a rhythm, shifting towards it, and exploring its metaphors as one speaks and acts.

Levertov also promotes long pauses as a way to detach from desires for profit and power and as part of the work of creating an energy field more intense than war. She suggests that our words and actions can create a vibration of light that can help us create the world of peace and justice/love we want.

I believe that all of these ideas — of silence and solitude, of standing against hateful speech, and of using our words and actions to create a vibration of light — are valid ways to join with the angels at Christmas to proclaim the coming of peace with justice.

Living as we do with the wounds of colonialism still so painfully evident among us, we are vulnerable to nationalist and racist manipulations like those that have devastated Syria and that have brought the US to the brink.

But with our ears open to sacredness in the dark and silent nights of Christmas; with our hearts open to people of backgrounds very different from our own; and with words of equality and justice on our lips, we can stand against the trolls and racists who would exploit tribal divisions to foment injustice and war.

Christmas remind us that peace with justice is our birthright. Indeed, it is reason that Love comes down at Christmas.

So I pray that as sing Silent Night again this Christmas Eve, we will find comfort and joy in the sure hope that angelic voices will join us with their refrain: “No justice, no peace!”

May it be so. Amen.

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