Friday, November 25, 2011

Be Not Afraid: A New World is Coming -- an Advent sermon

The Scripture readings for this week are:
  • Isaiah 65:17-23
  • Revelation 21:1-4 (Responsive Reading)
  • Mark 13:24-37

Sung response (VU #23 Joy Shall Come Even to the Wilderness)

When I was on my internship I was scheduled to preach the last Sunday of each month. And so I preached the first Sunday of Advent. That week I phoned the lay reader to tell her the readings for Sunday. And she said “they better not be depressing”. What do you think she would have said after reading them?

Actually on that Sunday I did point out that we had the less depressing part of Mark 13 (feel free to check it out). But many people wonder at these readings for the First of Advent. Why do we begin the lead up to Christmas with passages about the end of the world? It isn't joyful is it?

Well no. But then have you watched the news recently?

The original hearers of Mark's Gospel lived in a time when the world was either being shattered or had already been shattered. Mark writes either during or right after the Roman-Jewish war which included that destruction of Jerusalem (one of many times in history that the streets of that city so many call Holy ran with the blood of the slaughtered) and the siege –and eventual mass suicide– at Masada. For residents of Judea/Palestine this was the end of the world. Earlier in this chapter Mark refers to the desolating sacrilege being set up in the Temple. It has happened. For Christians Mark is writing just after the persecutions of the Roman Emperor Nero who, it is said, had Christians burned alive as torches for his garden parties. There must have been many saying that the time was nigh, that the Messiah would come imminently.

And where are we today? Are we in a time of mass disruption and chaos? Are we living in a period of mass dislocation, social upheaval and injustice. Is it reasonable to say that the time is nigh? On one of the Just for Laughs specials Drew Carey talks about reading Revelation and going through it as a checklist: got it got it need it got it. Twice this year Harold Camping has announced that the end is nigh—with a date and a time even! And truly, can we say we don't understand why people would say that the end is nigh?

What world do we find this Advent and Christmas season? Well this week's news included OCCUPY protesters being evicted from their camps, protesters being shot in Egypt, the news that child poverty rates continue to go up in Alberta, and the news that a Attawapiskat, a Canadian community, has been living in an official state of emergency for 2 weeks because people are living in tents (and other very sub-standard housing) and neither the Federal nor the Provincial government have acted yet. The rest of the year has included continuing unrest and violence in Syria and a civil war in Libya and economic turmoil (if not outright collapse) in Greece and Italy. I'll be honest, I had to stop looking for examples to use here – there were way too many.

In a world where the richest few have more than the poorest half have (in the US it is the top 400 who have more cumulatively than the bottom 156 million), in a world where violence seems to be the default so much of the time, in a world where human rights are routinely trampled; can we truly sing and believe...
Sung Response

And so what do we do? How do we respond to a world that is not what it should or could be? Where is there hope this Advent?

Well what have other people done when they have realized that the world around them did not live up to their vision? Well the last chapters of Isaiah were written after the people had returned from exile. The exiles had returned with excitement. Now the Temple would be restored, now the nation would return to its former glory. But of course life is rarely that easy is it. The rebuilding of Jerusalem simply wasn't happening. What to do?

The passage we just heard is full of hope and promise isn't it? It speaks of God's reign coming in full force. It tells of the new heaven and new earth where all is made right. But that is not the whole story. A chapter earlier we read:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people. (Isaiah 64:1-9)

This Advent do we really want the heavens torn open, is that what it will take to change the world ? And will that create the way to the place where we can sing and believe?
Sung Response

I have a question for you. What is our Advent Hope? What do we hope for this year as Christmas approaches?

In some ways it is the same as every other year. We hope that the world will be changed. Earlier I raised the question of why we start Advent every year with passages that talk about the Second Coming, or the End of Days, or the coming of the Reign of God. Every year clergy ask themselves how to deal with these most un-Christmassy passages. We start there because they are the hope we share in Advent. We share the hope that God will, somehow, probably in ways we don't really expect, break into the world again this year. We share the hope that God coming into our lives in a real and experiential way will move the world toward a better place. We hope that a new world is being born in our midst.

That new world is what our Isaiah passage today spoke about. That new world is how our Scripture story ends. This morning we read a piece from the final chapters of Revelation. Before we get to this vision we have seen a whole lot of death and destruction. But in the end, says John of Patmos, God will have the victory. God said through Isaiah “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth” but John had a vision of it coming to reality.

And what confidence do we have that this is really happening? It is great to have a vision, to have a promise, to have hope. But it is even better to see some sign that our hope is not in vain, that the promise is being kept, that the vision is coming into focus. Where are the signs that a new world is being born?

The movement that began in North Africa as the Arab Spring and then emerged in North America as the OCCUPY movement is one sign of hope for me. In Tunisia, in Cairo, in New York people saw a world that was destructive to human rights and dignity and chose to take a stand. They saw the promise of a different way of being in community together and refused to be moved until they were heard, until change was made. It is my belief that the OCCUPY movement may well be the first labour pains of a new world being born. Of course there is a long way (and a lot of work) to go between the first contraction and the actual birth. But the Arab Spring and the OCCUPY movement (which I believe has made more of an impact than it is given credit for) are signs of hope that the new world is coming.

IN one of my favourite Advent songs we find this line “the world is full of darkness, again there is no room/ the symbols of existence are stable cross and tomb”. It is easy to see the signs that the world is falling to pieces around us. It would be easy to lose hope that things can get better. It is tempting to call on God to shatter the heavens with her might and make the mountains tremble with his power. Is it possible that the world is only changed when God breaks in to it?

Well here is the Advent secret. God is breaking into the world. Again. God is coming to be among us. And that means that the Reign of God is coming closer to reality. The symbols of existence are stable – the birth of hope, cross – the world's attempt to crush the promise, and tomb – God's final word that vanquishes death itself. Christ has come, and Christ will come again. The darkness will be lifted, even if only one spark of light at a time. Deserts will burst into flower, enemies will learn to be friends, and all God's children will live in justice and peace. Deep in my heart, I do believe, God SHALL overcome some day. And so, as a people of hope, we truly can sing and believe...
Sung Response

Sunday, November 20, 2011

We Are Not Alone...

Many years ago (Grade 10 or 11) in Youth Group we were talking about faith statements.  As a part of the discussion we were asked what we remembered from things such as the 10 Commandments, the Apostle's Creed and the UCCan New Creed.  From what I remember, it is good we were not being graded on what we remembered.

However, I know what I remebered most clearly.  It was that the line "We are not alone" was at the beginning and the end of the UCCan Creed.  I think that tells me something.

As a teen (and well into my twenties) I often felt alone.  PArt of it was a feeling of not really fitting in. Part of it was, in retrospect, a feeling of not being comfortable in my own skin.  But I often felt alone {remember that feeling alone/isolated often has nothing to do with how many people are around}.

Now at one point in my teens I thought this was a good thing.  In Grade 9 Language Arts we used Simon & Garfunkel's I am a Rock as one of our poetry pieces.  ANd I, who was going through the worst year of my school-bullying life, decided that it would make a good model for life--try to be the rock, the island.  It was safer.  I'd be happier.  But looking back I see that I was trying to convince myself.  And that I was not really successful.

And the point of all this?  Well we are drawn to faith because there is something in our faith that speaks to our deepest hopes or fears or anxieties or wounds (or all of the above).  25 years later I think that "we are not alone" stuck with me because it is what I deeply needed to hear.  And I think I still need to hear it.  For me, the reminder of the God who is always with us "in life, in death, in life beyond death" is not just pop theology.  It is a theological at-one-ment statement.

So maybe the key to faith is finding what we most need to hear at that point in our lives.  Ask what our deepest fear/anxiety/woundedness/empty space is and then ask how we find GOd responding.  It isn't as simple and esy as claiming that there is one answer that works for all people, one way we are made at one with God.  But to me it is more realistic and a whole lot less arrogant.

Or maybe I am chasing the wind....