Hear low-income people speak from experience, HT member and housing advocate Michael Shapcott outline the rich-poor gap, and a powerful call to respond to poverty in Turning the Tide, a new video produced by the Anglican Diocese of Toronto Social Justice & Advocacy Department. It’s meant to kick-start discussion around poverty and homelessness, and encourage action.
Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto
17 March 2013
Isaiah 43 Psalm 126 Philippians 3:4b-14 John 12:1-8
Stop dwelling on days gone by and brooding over events long past.
I am about to do a new thing;
at this very moment it is unfurling from the bud—
can you not see it? —Isaiah 43
Thornton Wilder wrote that the “whole purport of literature…is the notation of the heart.” [The Bridge of San Luis Rey, p.16]
In seminary, I took a course entitled Evil and Recovery: A Christian Perspective on Shakespeare.
One of the most dramatic themes in literature, and well represented in the canon of this great
documentarian of the human heart, is the theme of renewal. And one of the most memorable
insights I took away from that class was a deeper understanding of ‘kindness.’ Whether one is
unpacking the text of As You Like It, King Lear, or The Tempest, what often makes renewal
possible for Shakespeare is the transformative nature of kindness, the recognition that we are all
of one kind. Kind-ness. Whether in the socially stratified world of Elizabeth England, or in our
own, where the chasm between rich and poor expands daily—kindness is the practice of the
biblical command to “love one’s neighbour as oneself.”
By becoming human like us—literally sharing our kind-ness—Jesus, through his actions,
storytelling, and faithfulness, lived the self-sacrificial love that brings about the healing of
creation. Shortly before his death, in the context of the Last Supper/First Eucharist, Jesus gave his
disciples a very easy-to-remember commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” He
expected them to figure out that by doing so, they would become partners in God’s plan of
bringing about God’s reign.
We encounter that kind of selfless love in the person of Mary of Bethany. The dinner
given in Jesus’ honour bears some similarities to the meal in the upper room where Jesus will wash
the disciples’ feet a few days later. Mary’s generosity is scandalous to some in Jesus’ entourage; to
them it is extravagantly wasteful to spend the equivalent of a year’s wages for this embarrassing
and sensuous display that would normally be performed on the body of a person after death;
certainly, not at a dinner party.
There are two observations about the Bethany scene to which I would draw attention:
First, a closer look at the concept of ‘generosity.’ Though the word itself does not appear, Mary’s
generosity is unequivocal. It is worth noting that our English word, ‘generosity,’ is related to the
Greek and Latin verbs meaning ‘to give birth to.’ I would even go so far as to posit that generosity
is one of the mechanisms God has provided to bring about a “new thing” when a “new thing” is
needed. Anyone who has committed or been the recipient of a random act of kindness knows the
power that generosity can unleash, the hope it can create, the healing it can catalyze. Never
resist a generous impulse is a worthy personal motto.
The second is the inclusion of the detail that “the house was filled with the fragrance of
the ointment.” Recall that, in the previous chapter, when Jesus arrived after Lazarus had been
dead four days, Mary’s sister Martha warned that there would be a stench if the tomb were
opened. Now the fragrance that fills the house is a fragrance more powerful than the stench of
death, perhaps it is even a sign that Jesus’ resurrection will remove the fear of death forever.
Mary’s generosity has transformed the life of this entire household—her generosity is literally in
the air. At the moment, they may not realize the extent of that transformation, but, as
philosophers have noted: life is lived forwards, but understood backwards.
Grace—the generosity of God—is always transformative. In today’s Isaiah reading, the
prophet reminds his audience that God’s grace saved them when they were delivered from
slavery in Egypt, but God does not want them to become fixated on what happened in the past to
the exclusion of the new thing God is doing at this moment. The situation seems bleak on the
ground. Israel is still in captivity in Babylon. Something life-giving—the defeat of Babylon—is
about to bud, but the attention of God’s people is elsewhere. God promises streams in the desert,
but their eyes are on idols. The Second Commandment warns of the danger of placing other
gods before Yahweh. Every idol demands human sacrifice, whether it is Moloch, who required
the sacrifice of children; Aryan Purity, which resulted in the sacrifice of millions who were
deemed not to qualify; Economic Oligarchy, which was called out by the Occupy Wall Street
movement; or Chemical Dependency, which has destroyed families and dragged millions to an
early grave. Whatever draws us away from God draws us away from the deliverance, the “new
thing” God has in store for us.
Sometimes we avoid grace because we know it will bring about our transformation, and
we fear change. The comfort of what is familiar trumps the leap of faith we know we should take,
the new thing that will bring new life, but will also move us out of our comfort zone. How many
times have we heard of congregations who say they want to grow, but when new people try to
stake a claim in the community, offering their gifts, which might include doing something a
different way, their ventures are foreclosed because they upset the community’s equilibrium or
threaten domains of power? To walk by faith, and not by sight, means there will be times we
simply can’t see for certain what is around the corner, but we have to step off the curb. We
HAVE to move out of our comfort zones.
Despite Isaiah’s exhortation to stop brooding over events long past, the past is always
present, in the sense that, everywhere we go, we carry the results of every choice we ever made,
and, as T. S. Eliot put it, “every moment is a new and shocking/Valuation of all we have been.”
[Four Quartets, “East Coker,” II]
When the burden of stingy or poor choices overwhelms us, however, God’s grace is capable of
lifting that burden from our hearts and steadying us on a new path. The second verse of today’s
gradual hymn, Holy Woman, Graceful Giver, states this reality in terms of today’s gospel:
Like the vessel [i.e., the ointment jar], we are broken;
Like the ointment, we are token
Of God’s loving unto death;
Like the woman, we are serving;
Like the scolders, ill deserving
Such a rich, forgiving faith. [Words by Susan Palo Cherwien]
Sometimes the “new thing” that God has to offer is a fresh perception of something that
has long been taken for granted. There is a famous optical illusion, called the duck-rabbit
illusion. You have probably seen it. A simple black-and-white drawing that can be perceived
either as the head of a duck or the head of a rabbit.
The image is static; what changes is the way our brains manipulate the visualized information to
interpret it. The night sky looked pretty much the same the before the Copernican revolution as it
did the day after the Aha! moment. But the scientific community would never see it the same
way again. Of course, the Church would take somewhat longer before it could come around. It
is understandable that the Church would be slow to adopt a new way of thinking that overturned
centuries of theological reasoning and assumptions. But, in the end, it had to accommodate the
new perception. As a nun I knew long ago once told me, “The Church changes very slowly—
one funeral at a time.” Sometimes the old ways of seeing simply have to die out before the
perception of God’s vision can come into focus.
God. Promises. Renewal. The “new things” we thirst for—the streams in our desert—flow
from the practice of giving our whole selves in radical trust to God and by faithfully living the
generosity modeled by Jesus, by Mary of Bethany, by the little boy with the five loaves and two
fish, by the father of the Prodigal Child, and by countless saints through the centuries, who
accepted God’s invitation to share in the abundant life that Christ offers all who love God with
heart, soul and mind, and their neighbours as themselves.
Second Sunday after Epiphany (January 20, 2013) by Jennifer Henry
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of God’s favour.’ (Luke 4:18-19)
You will likely recognize these words. And even if you didn’t grow up in a strongly biblical denomination, you might be able to place them in the scriptures. For those of us who understand the Christian mandate as saturated with the call for justice, this is a text as critically important in the New Testament as Micah 6:8 is to the Hebrew scripture.
Here Jesus read from the scrolls at the beginning of his ministry, claiming this text as his mandate. It’s kind of like a book launch before a tour, except it’s not a new book, it’s a reinterpretation, a claim to embody older texts that may have been forgotten. The passage ends with the words: “And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ “
It’s high drama…and that is before we get to the part in the narrative where the crowd essentially runs him out of town.
Today we begin a series of four Sundays reflecting on the same text–Luke 4:16-21. We are going to look at this same passage through different glasses and see whether by shifting our perspective we might gain greater wisdom. Today we will look at it in its ancient context, as a text within a text, focusing on the way in which it draws forward Hebrew scripture (particularly Isaiah 61:1-2). Next week we will look at it in relation to contemporary global and local challenges. Then we will explore it inter-generationally and lastly, in music and art.
I have to tell you that for me this text is first and always a song. There is sung refrain of this text from my youth ministry days that cycles through my mind. So I am going to talk about it in that way, asking first: what notes, what textual, historical notes, might we hear in this music?
Ultimately I want to suggest that Luke 4: 16-21 is the key to the rest of Luke, or to put it a musical way, it is the “key” in which we should sing the rest of Luke’s gospel.
There are four aspects to this song that I want us to listen for.
The first is the bright strong notes of Isaiah 61. I think Isaiah 61 is my favorite scriptural text, and definitely the one I want read at my funeral (with a little help from inclusive language). It is a beautiful, powerful, graceful text, with an incredible fusion of both the pastoral and the prophetic. “Binding up the brokenhearted” and “proclaiming release to the captives.” As Susie Henderson has noted, what is wonderful here is that the mourners, having been comforted, build up the ruins, restore the former devastations, and repair the ruined cities. They are the ones who lead and enact social restoration. I hear a particular resonance today in the way in which Indigenous peoples, emerging out of the grief and loss of residential schools, coming out of the history (and present) of colonization and injustice, and may very well point a way forward for not only for their people, but for all of us. They may very well show us how to repair and restore a more sustainable way of life, when our way of living in the world has become so unsustainable. You can hear in Idle No More a theme: the opposition to C-45—the protection of land and waters–is not just for Indigenous peoples but for all Canadians.
But back to the notes in Jesus’ song of Luke 4…Why does Luke bring this ancient text forward to the inauguration of Jesus ministry? Particularly, he brings forward Isaiah 61:1-2, leaves behind the notion of “binding up the brokenhearted” and “day of Vengeance of our God” (and adding “recovery of sight to the blind”). We could look at these changes in detail and ask why, but I venture that we are not properly equipped for that kind of heavy duty bible study.
I think we can say that Luke is reaching back to what is called 3 Isaiah—texts “imaging social reconstruction” after exile. [Walter Brueggemann, Deep Memory and Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post Christian World (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2000),37.] The song of Isaiah 61 is an anthem of the great liberating reversals that God promises. This is song of struggle, but also of confidence akin to “We Shall Overcome.” Luke picks up the bright notes from this song and brings them forward to Jesus who could be understood to say: “Not just then, but now, God’s promise of social transformation is real. And I am here, we are here, to do this together.” A song of great social change, notes transposed from one imperial context, the legacy of Babylonian exile, to another, Roman occupation, and perhaps by us, to another.
If we listen carefully, however, we will also hear notes from another Hebrew song and that is Isaiah 58: 1-12, particularly verse 6. [Robert J. Karris, “The Gospel According to Luke,” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, eds. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer and Roland E. Murphy(Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1990), 689.] Isaiah 58: 6 says: “Is not this the fast that I choose to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free?” This is one of my favorite texts and one which we drew on very recently at KAIROS to invite participation in a solidarity fast—a solidarity fast timed to occur to focus prayerful intention on meeting between the Prime Minister and some First Nations leaders. It is a text, again from that post-exilic time of 3 Isaiah, which Brueggemann summarizes as a “linking of right worship to right public ethics.” [Brueggemann 38.] I will suggest it could mean something like this: “Let’s not get all pious here and forget what holiness is about. Its about acting justly, living in covenantal relations with our neighbours.” Right worship includes right justice where our acts of liberation are a prayer.
In Luke, Jesus is like a jazz singer, who, singing along in an ancient anti-empire ballad (Isaiah 61), throws in a few notes from another anti-empire tune, this one about religious imperialism. And he does so right in the heart of the synagogue. Did the religious authorities notice the mischievous riff? I think he was saying: “I am here to disrupt empire—social, political and religious—are you with me?” A song of great social change, directed not just at political empire but religious authority, notes transposed from one religious context to another, and perhaps, by us, to another…
Now, we need to take account of the rhythm, and if you listen, you can’t miss it. The drum beat is Jubilee. Here it is not the words of the Leviticus 25 that Luke brings forward in Jesus’ song, but Jubilee is still undeniably present. As the Kinslers assert, the essence is there, even if the set of social reversals in the Luke 4 text are different from the practice of cancelling debts, freeing slaves, restoring the land which are at the heart of Jubilee. [Ross and Gloria Kinsler, The Biblical Jubilee and the Struggle for Life (Orbis Book: New York, 1999), 17.] In the phrase “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” the whole vision of Jubilee in which every week, every year and every 50 years society acts to correct the result of human tendencies towards greed and injustice—that ancient rhythm of equitable and sustainable life–is brought back into hearts, bodies. In bringing forward Jubilee, Luke brings forward what Brueggemann refers to as the “most subversive social action ever imagined.” [Brueggemann 38.] This is really my favorite text! With the beat of the Jubilee drum, Jesus asks : “Have you forgotten? I am here to remind you. Here in my heart beats the drum of Jubilee. I am the embodiment of Jubilee.” Let’s not lull ourselves into too much of a ballad here, it is a syncopated, subversive beat. An ancient rhythm, brought forward from a Hebrew song to a Gospel song, and perhaps, by us, to the anthems of our time…
I want to suggest that there is one last thing we should listen for in Jesus’ song of Luke 4:16-21, and that is his Mama’s voice. He sings a little like her, you know, her tone, quality, styling. He grew up to her lullabies. [Ched Myers, Preaching in Advent: Luke’s Revolutionary Christmas Carols. Presentation on October 26, 2012. https://unitedchurchofcanada.adobeconnect.com/_a974744807/p9fz76a0wbi/?launcher=false&fcsContent=true&pbMode=normal (accessed December 9, 2012).] His favorite one he called the Superhero song:“Mummy sing it to me again.” It went like this: ”God has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:51-52).
It is Luke’s Mary, the Mary of the Magnificat, that births Luke’s Jesus, with this liberating inaugural song to his ministry. Guess what? The Magnificat is one of my favorite scriptures. It’s a woman’s song, Hannah’s then Mary’s, and again about God’s great promise of social reversal. It is a truly liberative text, sung confidently, prophetically, by women who know acutely the liberation that is required. Gail Yee makes the connection this way, “Jesus begins his public ministry by unleashing his prophetic voice, speaking truth to power, to announce the fulfillment of the liberating word that Isaiah uttered centuries ago, the message of liberation that both Hannah and his own mother proclaimed.” [Gale A. Yee, “The Silenced Speak: Hannah, Mary and Global Poverty,” Feminist Theology 21 no.1 (2012): 53.] He knew what good news would look like for his own mother, and he proclaimed it.
In Colombia KAIROS works with the Popular Feminist Organization (OFP). They do incredible human rights work, in a violent repressive context, almost always with song or a dance. One generation into this movement, you can see the involvement of the children, the children of the feminist founders. This includes the boys, now men, who lift up their mothers’ work as their own. The women who rocked the cradle, rock the boat and so, now, do their sons
Mary’s boy child sings like his Mother, maybe with her dialect. He does not forget his roots, an extraordinary birth by a poor ordinary woman. In response to his song in Luke 4, the people say in surprise, “is this not Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22). If they heard more clearly, they would have said: “truly this is Mary’s boy.” Perhaps the crowd in the synagogue do begin to understand, as their awe turns to rage, and the significance of the great reversals of the Magnificat, reinterpreted in Luke 4, begins to hit home. This is social, religious, political revolution—good news for the poor, but what does it mean for us? To stray into our time, “what does a round dance revolution mean for us settler folks?” It feels more than a little unsettling…
Uniquely in Luke, Jesus announces his ministry with this inaugural song. In it we hear the notes of social and political, even religious, transformation from Isaiah, the counter cultural, subversive rhythm of Jubilee, and the tonal quality of Mary, a genuine voice of the oppressed, who passes intergenerational wisdom, and politics, on to her son.
What does it mean for Luke to put this first, to have Jesus assert, “my ministry begins now, with this mission statement.” What does it mean to a gospel that can stray, away from this anti-imperial song to a later sense of tolerance or even acceptance of the Romans and empire.
Brigitte Kahl’s reading of the Magnificat, suggests that the primacy of the Magnificat text—right at the beginning of Luke’s gospel–gives a “norm-setting interpretation of the Christ event…[relating it] ‘from the beginning’ and hence, ‘in principle’ with the gospel of women—and children.” [Brigitte Kahl, “Reading Luke Against Luke: Non-Uniformity of Text, Hermeneutics of Conspiracy and the ‘Scriptural Principle’ in Luke 1” in A Feminist Companion to Luke, ed. Amy Jill Levine (London and New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 87.] It gives Kahl “scholarly legitimation” to invite future reading in the “key” of Luke 1:24-57, transposing the rest of the Gospel to manner that does justice to women and children. [Kahl 87.]
Might we think the same of Luke 4: 16-21? Whatever happens next, however ambivalent about authority or empire the Gospel of Luke might become, can we not see it, sing it, in the key of Jesus’s liberating first song? Can we not read the ministry of Jesus by its first principles, by its own interpretation, as transformation–social, political, religious–from the side of the oppressed. When revolution is the ministry of Jesus, we can sing Luke’s gospel in key of liberation.
Our churches so often attempt to spiritualize and depoliticize the gospel message. While they (we) often fail to get the message, of peaceful, but powerfully disruptive revolution, those in the narrative, appeared to get it. As Bruggemmann says, “The evangel turns out to be a gospel of deep public transformation, deep enough that authorities sought to kill him.” [Bruggemann, 39.] This week, as we recall the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., we remember that it is not only in Jesus’ time that anti-imperial songs can stimulate imperial wrath. The civil rights movement brought social, political, even religious revolution, by peaceful means, but at a great cost.
As a round dance revolution arises in our country, complete with the messy conversations about tactics and direction that characterize every movement (including the civil rights movement before it), let’s remember that Christ’s ministry was an unsettling, disrupting, transforming liberation song. When we hear that music, we can remain on the sidelines, or we can join the dance.
Ian Digby, Homilist
Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-; Luke 3:7-18
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always pleasing to you, my God.
Good morning, and I offer a warm welcome to visitors who are joining us at Holy Trinity for the first time today. My name is Ian Digby, and I am a long-term but sometimes irregular member of this congregation. It is a pleasure to work through the Bible readings with you today for the first time in many years.
We are now at the third Sunday of Advent, three quarters of the way along the path of waiting for the coming of the Christ Child. This is often known as GaudeteSunday from the Latin word for “Rejoice”. It is called Guadete because of the repeated references to Rejoicing and Gladness in the readings and music. The Ancient Hebrew texts tell us to “Sing aloud, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart!” Paul, writing from his jail cell under the Roman occupation, tells us to “Rejoice in the Lord Always”. There is hope and expectation in the air, the Christ child is coming!
But for many of us we have an internal conflict with this guidance. For this is the darkest period of the year, a time of cold, rain and snow, and a time when life is hard. Many people suffer seasonal affective disorder and depression at this time of year. Life is difficult for those with disabilities and health problems. Many are suffering pain, and many are sick or dying. Around the world there is poverty, injustice, civil crisis and war. And in the midst of this dark period, this week we also struggle with an event of unspeakable horror that occurred in the United States.
So, while acknowledging that we live in a very difficult world, my challenge in this Homily is to balance the difficulties with the call to “Rejoice!” And in this balance, I want to talk about the urgency of action. The Bible tell us that the Rejoicing must begin now, and the actions must be those of social justice.
In the late 18th century, the German poet and philosopher Johann Goethe pronounced on the idea of action in a quote that has been much repeated. Goethe writes “Whatever you can do or dream you can… begin it now.” There is a need for action and commitment to heal the sick world around us, and it must begin with a first step.I will speak about Goethe more in a moment, but before we go there let’s review the texts.
We start with the book of Zephaniah, which is attributed to several different prophets from about 600 BC. In this book the writer makes great promises to an oppressed people who have suffered enemies and been outcast. Earlier in the writing, Zephaniah describes the world they inhabit as a “soiled, defiled [and] oppressing city” which is filled with reckless and faithless officials and judges.
But even in this oppressive context, the prophet tell the people to “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! … Yahweh is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.” Zephaniah tells us that God will rejoice over the people with gladness, remove disaster from them, deal with their oppressors, and bring them home. These are great promises, that many in the modern day would wish for. But Zephaniah’s people of twenty-seven centuries ago were unlikely to have experienced these dreams in the way imagined by the prophet. Historically we know that there was — and continues to be — much more suffering to experience. But the promise was written in this ancient text, to be called on again by later preachers at the time of Jesus.
Likewise, the psalm from Isaiah, which occurs in basically the same time period and social context as Zephaniah, carries a similar message. Even in a period of great political unrest, turmoil and injustice the prophet says: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for Yahweh is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”
So where does one find that strength? Where does one draw the energy to act in the face of deceit and oppression? I’d like to read with you some of Goethe’s writing for inspiration. The quote I am referring to is variously titled “On Commitment” or “Begin it now”. Here’s what he says:
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness… The moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”
I find this tremendously powerful, especially at times of indecision or paralysis. A first step is always required to make the journey. A phone call or conversation is needed to understand a social issue and commit to change it. Witness the wider discussion that has occurred in this parish since Michael Creal’s recent homily on refugees, and the action in the national church that has come out of it. Witness the movement that developed around the proposed Mega-Quarry in Melancthon Township with musicians, chefs, politicians and neighbours joining for a common cause to stop the Quarry. They all started with a few neighbours alarmed with a common threat, and deciding to act on it.
What Goethe says is that when we make a decision to act, “All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred.” Move on what is before you and “A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance…”
So let’s try to merge the words of Goethe and the Ancient texts with today’s Gospel. Imagine that we are in a crowd flocking to hear a radical preacher named John. He is baptizing believers on the shores of the River Jordan, and causing a lot of excitement. You approach the preacher, expecting perhaps to hear some motivational words. Instead, this is what he says: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?… Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham…”
Rather than reassuring and calming this crowd, John tells them that they are self-righteous and prideful. They claim their strength from their ancestor Abraham, but they are no more worthy in God’s eyes than the gravel on the ground. John goes on with a blunt message that those among them who aren’t producing good fruit will be cut down with an axe. They ask him “what should we do?”, and what follows is a list of actions: share your coat with someone who is cold; give food to the needy; those who are Tax collectors should do their work justly; those who are soldiers should use their power justly. Use the skills and services you have to do good works. To a reader in the 21st century, these directions from John sound like the basic moral values that we teach our children in Kindergarten: share what you have, be kind, don’t be a bully. But at the time of John, this was a phenomenal revelation and something truly worth noting.
Just on the cusp of the coming of Jesus, John is turning social philosophy of the day on its head and giving new guidance for how to live life. Not only is he saying “Trust in Yahweh”, but he is imploring the people to “Act on it”. And moreover John is only the precursor. What he is offering is just a taste of things to come, for just around the corner is an even greater prophet who “will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
So we can see a common pathway in these writings. We are implored to see the world around us for what it is, its oppression, its hardship. This is not candy coating to try to ignore what is evident around us. But also among the hardship seek the Spirit of God, then choose the path of justice, of fairness, of anti-oppression. And don’t just wait for others to do it, or hesitate in your convictions, but “Begin it Now”.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians, written from the challenging conditions as a Roman prisoner, with an unknown fate before him, expresses this well. Saint Paul writes “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice… Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This is what God is calling us to do — to rejoice and begin it now.
I’ll end with words from the opening hymn today, which resonates with these ideas:
Although you go forth weeping
Carrying your seeds to be sown,
You shall come back rejoicing
Carrying your sheaves full grown.
Sherman Hesselgrave, Homilist
Jeremiah 33:14-16 Psalm 25:1-10 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 Luke 21:25-36
I went to see the documentary, Chasing Ice, by National Geographic photographer James Balog [BAY-log] this week. Chasing Ice documents the melting of the earth’s glaciers using multi-year time-lapsed images. I didn’t go because I am skeptical about the causes of global warming; I’m pretty sure the principal enemy is us. The reason I carved time out of a busy week was because a blog I follow had a YouTube video of an interview with a woman whose position had changed 180 degrees after seeing the film. She was a Fox News-watching Bill O’Reilly fan, and had literally chased anyone out of her home who didn’t believe global warming to be a hoax. After seeing the film, she saw the light, and was filled with remorse for all the friends and acquaintances she had alienated with her ignorant views, and was determined to begin to make amends. As James Balog himself asserts in the movie, the reason he made Chasing Ice was his recognition that as long as global warming was treated as scientifically inconclusive in the media with one theoretical he said-she said debate after another, people simply were not going to understand the urgency of what was happening to the planet. When one sees the photographic and scientific evidence presented in the film, one has little choice but to become a believer. When it comes to this earth, our island home, we are living in days of reckoning.
The season of Advent functions like a piece of velcro that joins the ends of a circle, where one end is the incarnation of Christ in the person of Jesus and the other end is a future coming again for a final reckoning of human history. So, in the run-up to Christmas, our scripture readings take on a schizoid quality: we have John the Baptist preparing the way for the Messiah and Mary’s song of joy when she is told that she is pregnant with Jesus, as well as stories about the separation of sheep and goats and other parables of judgement.
I looked up the verb ‘to reckon,’ and discovered it has several meanings, among them, “to count or compute,” “to settle accounts,” and “to include,” as in “she is now reckoned with the angels.” So the Advent season really is a season of reckoning, in that it points to the Great Inclusion of God becoming human and pitching a tent among us as well as the life for which we will be held accountable at the end of the journey.
If I may be permitted to digress for a moment, I can never face the Advent judgement readings without the question of HELL popping up on my screen. Ever since I was a kid growing up in Africa, I have had a skeptical view of hell as it has so often been described to us: a place of damnation to eternal torment. It seems to me that hell is a human construction, and one doesn’t have to wait until the afterlife to encounter it. One can see hell throughout the pages of history; sometimes the church even creates it (I’m thinking of the historic persecution of Jews and the Inquisition); or the hell manifested in the killing fields of Cambodia; or the hell inflicted on the world by believers in Aryan racial purity; or the hell that Aboriginal people of North America have had to live through; or the hell that scars for life a child with an abusive parent. There is more than enough hell in the here and now without manufacturing it in life to come. We are just beginning to glimpse the hell the earth is facing as a result of global warming. As the world’s glaciers melt, the sea level will eventually rise by three feet, and 150 million people—equal to half the current population of the United States—will be displaced. If Minister Kenney thinks the refugee situation is bad now, imagine what it will be like in the future.
One of the hallmarks of the season of Advent is hearing the voices of the biblical prophets with their fierce pronouncements about what has to change if the people of God want a just future. (I was at a seminar this week, and one of the things we discussed was the difference between ‘anger’ and ‘fierceness.’ If anger is about injustice in the past, fierceness is a single-minded determination about a just future. [Rob Voyle’s definitions]) In today’s oracle from Jeremiah, the prophet fiercely proclaims that God is going to send someone who will incarnate God’s justice. Christians believe that person is Jesus, who was continually exhorting his disciples to work with single-minded determination for a just future. He called it the reign of God.
I wish you all could have been here the other night, when this space was throbbing with the fierceness of refugee lawyers and doctors and activists from a bunch of faith traditions, all warning of the hell that the new refugee legislation will bring about. Is this the future a majority of Canadians want? Most Canadians are here because someone in their family was an immigrant or a refugee, as even Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were, owing to Herod’s murderous purge two millennia ago. It shouldn’t be a partisan issue; it’s a matter of basic human justice.
The other “reckoning” in Advent is about inclusion and the anticipation of God’s being reckoned as one of us. Emanuel, one of the names associated with Jesus, means God-With-Us. “Love Came Down at Christmas,” the Christmas carol tells us, and love is the commandment Jesus gave his closest followers before he was put to death. St Paul writes about love to a stressed community of Christians in Thessalóniki, where he had spent only three weeks instructing them in the faith before persecution forced him to leave. Now he writes to encourage this struggling community that had turned away from worshipping idols—and probably became alienated from others in the community in doing so— to coach them from afar. And what does he write to them? “May the Lord fill you with love until it floods out over one another – and over everyone – just as our love floods out over you.” The kind of love Paul refers to is ‘agape,’ the sacrificial love that puts others and the community ahead of oneself. It’s about we, not me. To be reckoned as one of the community of the faithful meant living a life transformed by the living presence of Christ in their midst, but what did that mean to these new converts? What does it mean to us? We have had much longer than three weeks to wrestle with the challenges to our faith. How do we support one another in our fierceness—our single-minded determination about a just future? Is it not by love for one another and for the world God has given us to exercise stewardship over? As Chaucer quotes Virgil it in The Canterbury Tales: “Amor vincit omnia.” (“Love conquers all.”)
The signs of the times mentioned in today’s gospel reading have an uncanny resonance with some of the things we have observed in our lifetime. It is not an understatement to say that people have fainted “with terror and apprehension about what is coming on the world.” Aquifers destroyed by fracking; whole nations living in fear of nuclear annihilation; deforestation that has ruined ecosystems; oceans that can no longer handle all the waste we have pumped into them; millions of people slaughtered in wars and civil strife; millions of others are being drawn into economic slavery by multinational superpowers; and yet we gather here around sacred words and bread and wine to proclaim that the reign of Christ is right on top of us. We can reach out and touch it. Because wherever love is, God is there. “Ubi caritas et amor, deus ibi est” we sometimes sing during communion to remind ourselves of this.
Days of reckoning remind us of our accountability, but also remind us that we are part of a fierce community of faith, the Communion of Saints that transcends time and space, and joins us as we gather to pray, to break bread, and to go forth sharing our gifts with a world that is longing for the good news of God’s love and for the empowerment of God’s Spirit. Let us demonstrate how God, working through us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.