January 14, 2018: The Shortest and Worst Sermon Ever by Rev. Beth Hayward (Jonah 3:1-10)

By the time this sermon is over I hope to have convinced you that the prophet Jonah, is the source of the shortest and worst sermon ever, not me. I will to do my part by going on quite a while! We’ll get to Jonah’s sermon shortly but before that, this story is so fun it’s worth starting at the beginning. Jonah, all four short chapters of this biblical book are so much fun. It is humorous and exaggerated, over the top and filled with irony. I once heard it said that Jonah being swallowed by the whale is the most believable part of the entire tale. The fact that a city of one hundred twenty thousand people all changed their ways and reoriented their lives, that’s the part that makes us skeptical. But I’m getting ahead of my self.

“God came to Jonah a second time.” That’s because the first time God came to Jonah and said: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me,” Jonah didn’t listen. In fact, the first time God called, he hopped a boat for Tarshish. If your Biblical geography is as rusty as mine let me tell you it’s like catching a boat to Hawaii when you were only asked to go to Hope, sure the weather is better in Hawaii but honestly.

We can scoff at this reluctant prophet but isn’t there just a bit of truth in that urge to run the other way when faced with a task that pushes us beyond our comfort zone. Isn’t it true that we’d put a boatload of effort into avoiding a calling that requires more of us that we feel willing to offer? Jonah wanted nothing to do with the great city of Nineveh, a city of people we’re told who don’t know their right hands from their left. No Hebrew in his right mind would bother with that rotten bunch. Everyone knew that Nineveh was a hole of a country. They were a write off, evil to the core or at the very least so different that it wasn’t even worth paying them any attention.

Anyway, Jonah knew like everyone else that the God of Israel had no interest in this archenemy. Who can blame him for catching a boat in the other direction? Surely he had heard God all wrong.

While on the boat a great wind blows up and the sailors determine that it’s Jonah’s God who is the source of the deadly storm, so they throw him overboard where he is famously swallowed up in the belly of a big fish. After three days seeing no other options he decides to pray, to the same God he just about died running away from, and he’s spared from certain death as he’s unceremoniously spewed back up on dry land. This is where we join the story today when God comes to Jonah a second time.

You get the impression in these epic biblical tales that God is standing on a mountaintop making declarations, shouting out with a megaphone “Hey Jonah – Let me tell you what to do.” I don’t know about you but the calls I receive from the divine happen much closer to the heart, more like a nudge coming from within, like a possibility that arises again and again, a whisper that you can easily ignore, until you can’t. In biblical times people held a worldview that attributed everything from weather events to physical ailments to the hand of God. God would intervene in supernatural ways controlling at God’s will.

With our scientific knowledge it is more helpful for us to imagine God being at work within creation rather than as a force separate from all. Some theologians, like Richard Kearney, suggest that God should be thought of as possibility rather than an essence or being. The possibility of God, Kearny insists, relies on our response, our yes to the divine impulse at the heart of the universe, at the heart of our being. In other words we can best see evidence of God’s presence in the moments when we finally say yes.

Don’t think for a minute that if we place the possibility of God in our hearts rather than on a mountaintop as a force that intervenes unilaterally in the world, that God has stopped speaking. I heard the voice of God this past week when my back gave out for 36 hours and I found myself limping around the house in pain. It sure felt like a divine megaphone moment – take care of your body, take time for yourself, you are not superhuman, you can only help others if you start with yourself.

Or maybe you’ve heard the divine in a thought that rises to consciousness again and again in spite of your efforts to keep pushing it down, or as a niggling in the pit of your stomach that you can’t seem to shake.

God came to Jonah a second time because we’re not so good at hearing the first time. We humans are adept at running the other way, because the call of the Holy more often than not, leads us to roads that look challenging to navigate.

Jesus was once asked for a sign, a miracle to prove who he was, to display his power and he said to the crowd gathered that the only sign he had to offer was Jonah. No miraculous healings, no water into wine, just the story of a man who ran the other way and spent three days in the belly of a fish. We are dazzled by miracles, by the infomercials that promise the world but Jesus says the only sign you need is a reluctant prophet who went to the depths for three days only to be spewed up and met again by the call of the divine, never giving up on this reluctant prophet.

The only sign you need is Jonah. Father Richard Rohr insists that it is the belly of the whale moments that Jesus was referring to, that we must learn to go to the depths, to sit in the places where there is no light, to make room for our doubts and our questions and our uncertainties. The questions that arise from that place, the questions that surface from the depths are far more helpful to our spiritual journey than the answers we offer on the surface. On a journey of faith we are much better served by the questions than the answers.

Our life experience can most certainly bring us to the depths, to the belly of the whale. But you don’t have to have a sore back or a bleak diagnosis for spiritual transformation. This is what spiritual practices are for. Practicing silence, contemplation, mediation and so much more, practicing sitting in the silence trains us to listen for that holy calling; teaches us to feel the nuance of the divine a bit more quickly, a bit more deeply.

When God tried to speak to me this week I decided to stay home from work, not because I had any intention of resting and healing but because I didn’t want anyone to see me walking with a limp. It’s like the pictures we post on social media, and the perfect mothers whose lives I read about on blogs, there is a high need in this world to appear as though you have it all together. A faith tradition that says it’s actually in the practice of being vulnerable and open, it’s being present to the broken bits and fragments that we meet our God…that is as radical today as it was 2800 years ago.

It’s a pattern, a road towards enlightenment that Father Richard Rohr suggests is “mirrored in other traditions as well. Native religions speak of winter and summer; mystical authors speak of darkness and light; Eastern religions speak of yin and yang or the Tao. Christians call it the paschal mystery, but we are all pointing to the same necessity of both decent and ascent, and usually in that order.” It is from practicing being in the depths that we find our way to Nineveh, to the last place on earth we would choose to go and to precisely the place we must go to become the kin-dom of God.

God comes to Jonah a second time, and even after going to the depths Jonah still doesn’t seem convinced. But he heads off to Nineveh and this is where we get to the shortest and worst sermon ever. I don’t know if he just wasn’t a good public speaker, if he just needed some Toastmasters or if he simply couldn’t muster enthusiasm for this divine plan but when he finally arrives all he has to say is: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Eight words, five if you’re speaking in Hebrew, and not an ounce of hope or poetic nuance.  Yet those five words are enough for the whole city to change its ways and for the king to declare “Who knows God may change his mind.”

I wonder if it’s not so much God changing God’s mind but what happens when we finally open to the divine persuasion for love and inclusion that marks the shift for the Ninevites and us. When we have spent time in the belly of the big fish, descended into our physical or spiritual rock bottom and been spewed up, no fight left, is it perhaps through all of the cracked bits of the broken veneer we like to present to the world that the Holy seeps in and works with us to create new possibilities beyond what we can dream on our own?

Who knows? It is the question we come to when the old way of seeing things or doing things no longer works, when we can finally see the new thing God is calling us toward and don’t yet know how to proceed.

Who knows?  It is the place we stand where the divine is calling to us to embrace a different worldview. It always means letting go of how we thought things were, loosening our grip on a worldview that no longer fits. On the horizon of who knows is a terrifying place to stand. It’s terrifying because we tend to find comfort in the familiar; embracing real change is terribly difficult work.

No wonder it’s the worst sermon ever, a faith tradition that leads us to who knows what, who would ever choose such a path. And yet we need who knows people more than ever today, we need people who have not only spent days in the deep and frightening belly of the whale but we need people who don’t shy away from who knows, people who say, I don’t know the way forward but I do know that the old way isn’t working. We need people who have done enough spiritual practice and work to be able to proclaim boldly that no one’s home should be called a hole of any kind, unless of course you are a Hobbit.

We are being told from all directions that we live in desperate times, that humanity it beyond hope. This is precisely the world that Jesus comes to again and again, saying learn to sit in the belly of a whale, get spit up, dry yourself off and head off to Nineveh. Who knows maybe even the worst sermon ever is good enough to send you on your way to the places you and callings you never thought possible. Who knows… Amen

January 7, 2018: Getting Back to Eden by Frances Kitson (Genesis 2:18-24; Mark 10:2-12)

That is also why we have some bad guys in this story. We don’t know much about the Pharisees, but they get picked on an awful lot in the Gospels. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were enemies of Jesus; it means they’re a stand in for all the other Jews who didn’t follow Jesus, who didn’t think he was the Messiah. They are asking a question that was probably posed to the first Christians: why doesn’t your radical teacher allow divorce when everyone else does?

Why would Jesus forbid divorce? Well, let’s talk about first century Jewish divorce laws. Divorce was allowed in first century Palestine, no question. Divorce, however, could only be undertaken by the husband against his wife, and we know the method of divorce from the Book of Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible: if a man found an indecent matter in his wife, he could write a certificate of divorce and put it in her hand, at which point she leaves. To divorce one’s wife was essentially to fire her as a wife, and once she was divorced, she was entitled to the dowry she had brought to the marriage, but no more. That meant divorced women were economically vulnerable, especially if any children from the marriage came with them.

The practical issue for rabbis of the day was not whether divorce was lawful, but what constituted grounds for divorce. Divorce was permissible if a husband found an indecent matter in his wife, but the question was, what was the definition of an indecent matter?

It was not adultery. Adultery was a serious crime, and there were different laws dealing with it. The crime of adultery was not one of infidelity, but one of property: a wife was the legal property of her husband, and if a man slept with a married woman, the crime he committed was against her husband, because he was defiling the other man’s property. But if a married man slept with an unmarried woman, he had not committed adultery.

So what did constitute grounds for divorce? There was much argument, but the phrase “an indecent matter” was interpreted to mean childlessness, failure to follow religious practice, and talking to men in public.

             Now, these are broad strokes, and I am sure there were still happy, fruitful, fulfilling marriages. But we can see the pressure on women and men to adhere to strict codes of behaviour, and this is the backdrop against which Jesus is teaching on divorce.

Let us now look at the passage. What is Jesus actually teaching?

Jesus’ central argument is when he quotes the book of Genesis to the Pharisees: “from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’” These are two separate verses from chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis, and linking these two passages was a well-used interpretation to prove the value of monogamy. To our ears today, this may sound like an argument for a heterosexual marriage, but that wasn’t on the theological radar in first century Judaism. What is important to Jesus is that it is two who shall become one flesh, not three or four.

This can be really tough to hear. We live in a couple-centric society, and for those of us who are single, this passage can prod that tender spot. But at its heart, this is about how we are designed for relationship. Genesis is not only a story of the original couple, it is a story of the original relationship. When God creates the first earth creature, the adam, he says that it not good for the creature to be alone, and so he creates the next creature from the rib of the first. We are part of each other, and we are not meant to be alone. Alone does not mean single. That means alone: isolated, lonely, with nowhere to belong.

Jesus believed that his arrival meant the return of the conditions of Genesis and God’s creative action; that the Kingdom of God was at hand, a time when the world would reorient itself to God’s original intention.

Except it didn’t. Jesus wound up crucified, and instead of living fully in the Kingdom of God, we are still living with the shadow of the cross, and the anguish of broken relationships. That is why we still need the allowance for divorce: because we have not returned to the Garden of Eden.

But there is still good news in this passage. There is good news about gender, about relationship, and about community.

By prohibiting divorce, Jesus is telling us that women must be treated well: they could not be abandoned to poverty and vulnerability. That is a relevant message when 21% of single mothers in Canada are living in poverty, as are 37% of Indigenous women living off reserve. Jesus also prohibits women from being divorced from being childless. That means she is a partner in the marriage, not just a baby making machine. She is a person. She is more than the sum of her reproductive parts, and this means that we are defined by more than the body into which we are born.

Jesus also argues that men should be sexually faithful to their one wife, and he says it is adultery if a man divorces his wife and remarries. This is radical: he changes adultery from being a crime of property between men to a crime of faithfulness between a man and a woman. Again: the woman matters as a person, not an object. This is an incredibly important message for us today. The #metoo movement has reminded us again how much we still view women as property, as objects whose only purpose is to serve male sexual gratification. But this concept of male sexual gratification is constructed, not inherent.

The masculinity of Harvey Weinstein and his ilk is dehumanizing. It requires loss of empathy, loss of vulnerability, and a loss of feeling. When being a man means being a sexual conqueror and being a woman means being property, it makes every man a potential predator and every woman a potential victim. That is not what God designed us for. That is not the reality of Eden.

We are made for relationship, for mutual vulnerability. We cannot be in relationship with God when we are not in right relationship with each other, and being in right relationship takes work. Whether it is marriage, siblinghood, or friendship, true relationship takes investment and energy.

We know that. We know that relationships require working on communication, healing the hurts we deal each other, and asking for what we need. We don’t need to be lectured on it, we need help in making it possible.

The Greek word for church is “ekklesia,” and it is the word used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible to mean “the congregation of Israel.” To be the church is not just to show up on Sunday mornings together, but to be a people of God together. It means being in relationship and supporting each other in our relationship. That’s why we have witnesses at baptisms and weddings. They are both rituals of forging new relationships, and in performing them within community, we are recognizing that we need the community to help us flourish in our relationships with God and each other. We need the community to help us refuse the cultural norms that tell men they only want one thing, and women that they have to be the gatekeepers.

It is this same community to whom we turn when our relationships break down. Sometimes, a marriage needs to end. Sometimes we need to set limits around a family member. Sometimes a close friend betrays us. When that happens, we as the community are called upon to enable a good ending, an ending in which we still, however impossible it seems, strive for right relationship. That’s hard: even when we are in pain, we are asked to be in relationship.

That means we need to hold faith for each other. Supporting each other in the mess of divorce or dealing with an addicted family member can mean casseroles and Kleenex, but it also means having faith for each other when we lose our own: when we believe there will be no end to the pain, that God is not with us, that we have no future.

This teaching on divorce is really a question to us as church, as the ekklesia: how do we want to be a community of faith together? How can we be in right relationship with each other? How can we allow the God who created us to work among us, so that we can keep catching glimpses of the Garden of Eden?

When God created us, God affirmed our goodness. May we help each other live into that goodness.

Amen.

 

December 24, 2017: A Manger and Some Fireworks by Rev. Beth Hayward (John 1:1-14)

We come on Christmas Eve to hear the story of the Bethlehem babe, the familiar shepherds and angels, the star and the stable but John’s gospel tells the story differently. In this mysterious poetry we find none of the usual touch points. Instead we hear this cosmic nuance that feels almost elusive. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” It’s intended to take us back to the story of Genesis and creation, the sheer power of divine love infused into the creation process. Now with our scientific knowledge it takes us back some 14 billion years. Suddenly we are not celebrating a 2000-year birthday but the light of Christ here, present since the beginning, whatever that might mean.

Like all good poetry one could write a book on these fourteen verses from John’s gospel. I think I’ll take the lead from the text and not burden you with a thesis but instead delve into the depths of one small verse. And that is: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” It seems fitting two days after the winter solstice to talk about light and darkness.

We have this biological predisposition to categorize the world and our experiences into either-or categories: into limiting binaries. Although this helped us with survival once upon a time, now it is more burden than blessing. To even talk about light and dark is to set up a false dichotomy. There is the problem too with the history of using light as a synonym for good and dark for bad. This is particularly problematic when it comes to race. Any attempt to see the world in either or terms is a harkening back to a more primitive state and not particularly helpful in a complex and gray world. I handle this poetry tenderly with awareness that light and dark have been mishandled and used to cause harm.

Besides many have travelled the dark night of the soul and found it to be the fertile ground from which new life arises. To suggest that the shadows are a place of lingering threats is to lose the stillness the shadows and awakening of all other senses when our eyes fail us.

The light in John’s gospel is the Christ light and there is an assertion in this text that the Christ light has always been, meaning the birth of Jesus was not some biological anomaly or some divine miraculous intervention, it was more simply a moment of the Christ light coming into the world in a new way, in human form. It seems to me, if this light always was then it always will be, and certainly still is, right here right now. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

When we speak about light shining in the darkness so much comes to mind. There’s the promise of the morning light, especially when there is not a cloud in the sky and the first glimmer of daylight pours through a window with the anticipation of a new day. Or the last moment before the sun finally sets and the pink glow lingers on the horizon as if saying, rest now and remember tomorrow will come. A candle lit in an otherwise darkened room and the wonder at just how much light a single flame can bring. A flashlight guiding the way back to camp on a summer’s night intermingled with the sounds of the earth under foot. Christmas lights spurring the annual tradition of piling the family into the car to drive in circles in pursuit of the most spectacular display. Light and dark aren’t just metaphors they’re tangible touchstones in the rhythm of our lives. And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

And then there are fireworks. I’ve never been much of a fan of fireworks. I’ve never understood the appeal. Staying up late surrounded by strangers and their children who would be better off home in bed: I just find them to be a noisy bit of disappointment. Fireworks are these blasts of light overwhelming the dark sky and then the waiting and waiting and the unpredictable rhythm before the next one gives you a jolt. Fifteen minutes of disappointing escape and then all you’re left with is a dark smoky sky and a traffic jam.

To my surprise even I have begun to have a change of heart about fireworks. My bah-humbug attitude has been challenged by, of all things, an obscure little poem. There’s a column in the New York Times Magazine that takes a sentence, and plays with it, reinterpreting it in creative and unexpected ways. Here’s the line that has shifted my perspective on fireworks.

‘And you’ll roll your eyes while “Born in the U.S.A.” plays while fireworks fly screaming into the sky, tucking all its darkness into their pockets.’ Focus in with me on the second half: “fireworks fly screaming into the sky, tucking all its darkness into their pockets. Tucking all its darkness into their pockets.’ Here’s what journalist Sam Anderson has to say about this line:

It ingeniously reverses their motion: Instead of tendrils of light exploding outward, overwriting the darkness, these fireworks gather the darkness into themselves. They are like teenagers stuffing their pockets with candy, ravenous for the night. Violent illuminations arriving, out of nowhere, to hoard the darkness. That would be something worth staring at,” he says.

Instead of the fireworks just filling the sky momentarily masking the darkness with their obscene burst of light they are stuffing the darkness into their pockets. Do you see it? The light isn’t just masking the darkness but embracing it, holding it. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. Here’s where it gets interesting. The word “overcome” can also be translated grasp or seize. The darkness did not overcome it, could not grasp the light, could not seize the light. What if we used the metaphor of fireworks to think of the light? The Christ light like the fireworks is gathering all the darkness and shoving it in its pockets.

What if Jesus wasn’t born to obliterate the shadows but instead to gather them up into the deepest pockets ever; to seize the darkness, not to mask it or suffocate it but to pull it in in the most intimate way. Seems to me if the light is stuffing the darkness into its pockets then there is room in the heart of the divine to hold every evil we throw at it. This is a shift from a black and white world, from a winner and loser mentality, from our us and them tendencies to an all encompassing Light that comes into the world, again and again, since the beginning actually, and reaches out with never ending tendrils of light gathering up all the broken bits of our lives.

You know how we talk about sin as being separation from self, God, neighbour and creation? What if the light comes to bring it all back together? In seizing the darkness, and shoving those separated bits into deep, deep pockets drawing ever closer to the oneness that is our origin and our destination? What better way to break down the resistance of our hardened hearts than to birth that light in a helpless, little baby? You might hate fireworks but everyone loves a baby.

What if we came to Christmas this year willing to see that the light radiating from the manger is born in our hearts again and again, since the beginning? What if we took each moment as an opportunity to seize the darkness into the pockets of our light?

We are about to sing of hearing the bells on Christmas Day. Listen to its call to the hear the bells; the invitation to hear a voice, a chime, a chant sublime. May the bells be our reminder to step into our calling to be a people who testify to the light, no matter the odds, no matter the fears, no matter the doubts, or the shadows. Maybe there is room for all the separated bits of our world and our hearts, in the pockets of the light born in Bethlehem all those years ago. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

December 10, 2017: How to Find Good News by Rev. Beth Hayward (Mark 1: 1-8)

If you come to church enough over the next two weeks you will hear three different stories about the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ. They are so different that you may wonder if you are hearing the same story at all. Mark has a feeling of urgency, a sense of movement. He brushes over the flowery details in favour of getting to the most important bits. In Mark there is no effort to link Jesus to the lineage of King David, there is no baby Jesus, virgin Mary, angel visits, star in the east, no Herod, no stable, none of it. He opens with the bold declaration: Let me tell you the good news of Jesus Christ. He opts to begin the story in the wilderness, rather than in a stable with John the Baptist preparing the way for a fully-grown Jesus. Mark is the gospel for those of us who want to read the abstract to the article. This is a Coles notes version, a “just give me the facts” kind of gospel.

Luke on the other hand is a storyteller. His is the gospel for those who like to curl up by a roaring fire with a good novel, those who want a story to be set up beautifully, taking the time to linger on the details. Luke has angels and shepherds, Mary’s beautiful song, the manger and the swaddling clothes. Luke is the gospel for the hardcore fiction readers amongst us, the give me a good book, the bigger the better, kind of folks.

John, well his story goes in a completely different direction, he begins a bit like a philosopher “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” John wrote for the mystics and the scientists, opening his story with a cosmic tale of a holy presence that has birthed a universe and is about to be born in human form. John is for the sci-fi readers, those who like to imagine things beyond what the rest of us think is possible.

Three completely different approaches to the same story because the story of Christ is not a history, it is an ever evolving tale of which we are a part. When we delve into a biblical story we are not trying to learn the facts so much as we are stepping into the wondrous, unfolding gift and mystery of God’s love. We are daring to become part of a story that has the potential to come to life in our own lives, to grow and change and be added to through our own wrestling with it. Mark meets us in the wilderness, Luke in the stable and John in the stars yet all three bring us to the threshold of faith, all three open us to the truth of divine love continually being born in our midst. All three invite us to a life that will never be the same.

Today we peer into Mark’s bare bones telling of the gospel, into the wilderness where John is inviting all who gather to confess their sins before he baptizes each one in the river. Every time we bump into the word sin in scripture we need to take a look again at what we mean by it, because it is far too easy for this word to trip us up.

This is not about Santa’s naughty list. It is not even about the guilt we carry for all of our daily failings. The best definition I’ve found for sin comes from theologian Paul Tillich. Simply put it is separation. To be in a state of sin is to be in a state of separation in our relationships with one another, self, from creation or from God.[1] The forgiveness of sins symbolized in the waters of baptism means a reconciliation of what has become separated. Christ is born in our lives when we name the places where we have become separated.

For Mark that birth begins in the wilderness. You know the place where the usual benchmarks have vanished and you don’t know where you are. The place you feel called to go but wish to avoid at all cost, the place where you sweep away the broken bits of dreams and relationships and you settle for good enough, telling yourself that your time for fullness of life has passed. The wilderness, where you have no more strength to hold on to your list of should haves and could haves and ought tos, standing by the river’s edge, weary of holding up the masks you’ve been hiding behind. In the wilderness there is nowhere to hide and so we come face to face with our sin, with the reality of the separation of our lives. Sometimes Christ is born in the wilderness.

Maybe you are in the wilderness today or perhaps like Luke you are standing in the stable kneeling down by a manger, the earthy smell of the barn filling your nostrils as you peer into the vulnerable eyes of God with Us. Maybe Christ is also born in those moments when you are shaken from your usual expectations and see, as if for the first time, that the Holy has just been born in the last place you would have thought to look. We don’t just meet God with us in the separation but in the wonder that causes us to freeze in our steps. Who in the world would have thought that God would show up in this place of all places? Sometimes Christ is born in a stable.

Maybe you are in the wilderness today or maybe in a stable or perhaps like John you are gazing at the stars humbled at the cosmic scope of it all, brought back to earth by the awareness that all life if wired for growth and love and greater complexity. Maybe Christ wasn’t first born in the wilderness or in Bethlehem, or in your own life.  Maybe the light of Christ has ever been and will ever be and therefore will absolutely be born in you.

Whichever threshold you may be at, the wilderness, the stable, the stars, all can be openings to the good news of Jesus Christ. Defining the Good News may well be more challenging than defining sin.

No matter what the season I think of the Good News as being most about Easter. It is about life that arises from death. It is about hope where we thought there was none. It is an invitation, an opening that draws us closer to the wholeness that is at once a future possibility and a past reality. The oneness from which all life comes is the oneness toward which we are evolving. The call is not so much to something new as it is a return to what has always been. There is a oneness and instead of imagining it as a yet unrealized possibility, perhaps we need to trust that we already have this oneness within, it is in our hearts and souls, it is the source from which all life comes. We are not called so much to arrive at peace but to return to it.  Maybe the Good News is that Christ’s light is born in every small act that reveals the oneness from which we come.

Or to put it like one theologian does: Maybe “the good news is that we do not have to be perfect and pure in order to be carriers of God’s love; instead we can accept our humanity and that of others. After all, some of our flaws are quite beautiful and the others — the moral failings, for example — can be transformed into beauty.”[2]

The good news is not some mystery, it’s not even a miracle. The good news is about the capacity in each and every one of us to shed the guilt and shame. In our letting go, our opening to the oneness of divine possibility, we tap more fully into the truth of our calling that we do not need to have arrived to carry Christ’s light, we do not need to be perfect. Each time you let go again of your clinging to self-destructive stories, each letting go makes room for your light to shine more fully. You move closer to the truth that you are a reflection of God with us

In the words of poet Mary Oliver: “When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real.  I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument. I don’t’ want to end up simply having visited this world.[3]

We are not visitors but essential partners in the work of God’s Good News.  God needs us to realize this kingdom for which we prepare this and every season. Let’s step into the wilderness or the stable or under the stars and dare to prepare the way.  Amen

[1] Paul Tillich, The Essential Tillich, University of Chicago Press, 1999.

[2] Jay McDaniel www.jesusjazzandbuddhism

[3] http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/mary-oliver

December 3, 2017: Wake Up Call by Rev. Beth Hayward (Mark 13: 24-37)

You may be wondering what in the world I am planning to do with that text. You may have tuned out a few verses in, when you realized this sounded like it had nothing to do with any reality you are part of. In my defense, I don’t choose this stuff. There is a three-year cycle of readings that folks wiser than me have compiled; I think with the explicit agenda of making us pastors in the local church preach on stuff we’d never choose if left to our own devices.

The good news is that I’ve learned along the way, how to approach an apocalyptic biblical text. You need to begin by remembering that the word apocalypse comes from the Greek and means simply “to uncover” or “to reveal.” When you hear things like: “In those days the sun will darken and the stars will fall from heaven,” it is not a prediction of the end of the world.

As it turns out apocalyptic texts in the bible are not so much about Jesus sweeping down and lifting us out of the mess we have collectively created, not so much about divine judgment as they are an invitation to something new. They provide a means of revealing more fully the active presence of the divine. This text attempts to reveal to Mark’s audience the reality of their day and to place before them the possibility of a different reality, one filled with a holy presence. This is not a biblical foretelling of the coming apart of the world as we know it. This is not the stuff of sci-fi movies. Mark is calling out myths in his community, that is, an early Christian people in Jerusalem at precisely the time the city has fallen or is about to fall, around 70 AD. He doesn’t need to tell them the sky is falling, they can already tell that the world as they know it is about to fall apart. To a newly formed community, in a time of tremendous political and economic uncertainty, Mark has Jesus saying Stay awake because you don’t know when or where or how you will catch a glimpse of my light in the world. With all the talk these days about the uncertain state of our world, it’s not difficult to put ourselves in their shoes.

Advent marks the new year in the church calendar and it always begins with an apocalyptic text. It may be all Christmas out there in the malls and on the streets but here the apocalypse is coming! Advent is not so much about waiting for the baby Jesus to arrive as it is a time to practice showing up to the growing darkness, that is our reality this time of year. It is a season to allow the dark to eclipse all things shiny and bright, all things we cling to give us meaning. It is a time to allow the stories we tell ourselves and the stories the world tells to slip into the shadows so that the light that shines in the darkness can actually come into our sight, a different light, a holy light that offers more hope that the things we usually bet our lives on.

Advent is intended to be this time of active waiting, of reflection and anticipation, a time of pause that we might open to divine possibilities not otherwise apparent. I don’t need to tell you that it’s full on Christmas out there and I’ll admit I’ve all but given up on even trying to live some Advent in my own life. I’ve got a tree that needs decorating, cookies to bake, presents to buy, cards to write, parties to plan, a fridge to be cleaned in anticipation of a turkey, guilt to sort out about the sacrificial lives of both the turkey and tree and all this is intended to happen with bells on. Please tell me I’m not alone!

To this reality we hear the repeated imperative in this biblical text to stay awake. Stay awake? Seriously? Keep awake? I need some sleep! A friend asked me last week what my perfect life would look like and my honest to goodness from the heart answer was simply this: I’d like to take one whole day off per week. That’s it, that’s all I ask. I don’t want to leave my marriage, trade in my kids, quit my job, make more money, all I want is a day off per week mostly so I can sleep and rest and walk and pray and really fill up for the next week.

Keep awake, I feel like I’ve been perpetually awake for the past fourteen years, since the birth of my first child, awake at night with worries about the state of the world, worries about how my children will make a life for themselves in these uncertain times. I awake at night with the same self defeating mantras I picked up in adolescence and hold on to like a kid with her favourite stuffy. The old mantras of not good enough, not smart enough, not wise enough, not successful enough, not as good as, not loveable, not enough time or love or dreams to go round and certainly not enough power to make a difference. You’ll have to excuse me if I pick up this good book and declare – you have no idea what you’re talking about!

We are busy people, there is no problem staying awake, with phones that can’t be put to bed at night without the technological knowhow of a teenager, news cycles that flow one day into the next with a litany of doomsday declarations, anxiety rates through the roof, unprecedented.  The more we stay awake, the more we feel disconnected, the more the world tells us to turn inward to find our way out. Do you not find it odd that world’s answer to the epidemic of disconnection is a self-help book? Look inward to find your way back into connection with community?

We stay awake all right because the unknown dark scares the life out of us. Because as many have said over generations, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t, which I suppose is the precisely the thing an apocalyptic text endeavours to reveal. This world that never sleeps is killing us. Our hyper active, fill every moment with busyness, keep doing, keep consuming, keep constantly awake and eventually you will be so numb that the only thing that will save you is a God falling from the sky to pick up the broken pieces.

“Keep awake,” Jesus declares, “you don’t know when the master will return.” What if this isn’t so much about Jesus returning in some supernatural way but an invitation to see that Christ is being born in the world even today, especially when Jerusalem is falling, especially when terror is being proclaimed as the only story we can trust, even now when “natural disasters” feel like everyday news.

Keep awake to the ways God is at work in our world, keep awake not in the conventional sense of always going in our 24 hour world, but keep awake, aware alert to what matters. The odd thing is that all of our doing and worrying, and consuming seems to be slowly rocking us to sleep. The odd thing is, the best way to stay awake is to slow down and be. It is so easy this time of year to get swept up in it all, but there are rich opportunities to focus on what really matters – like community and relationship and hospitality.

‘Keep awake’ is an invitation to pause long enough to ask ourselves the kind of questions that put the focus back in our lives. Questions like, what life is worth living? Who defines this? Who do we allow to define this? Active waiting is not a head in the sand waiting but showing up with an underlying sense of trust. The weight of the world is not on your shoulders. It is not all up to you, you’re not that important and yet you are important. Imagine each moment, each decision you make based on trust that God is always awake and at work, imagine the divine possibilities when our hearts are opened. Imagine the liberation to possibilities if we were to open to the truth that we can actually tell other stories? Imagine if environmental catastrophe and military annihilation are not inevitable futures but stories that each and every one of us has the power to change? Imagine if Jesus is already in our midst, whispering to our numb selves, stay awake, you can be part of changing the seemingly inevitable doomsday stories.

Why Advent? To help us see beyond our present. Why Advent? To give us a lens through which to see God at work when it seems only evil gets the spotlight. Why Advent; to assure us that God has secured a future for us that breaks into our present, and really, truly changes the here and now.

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann was a young secularist drafted into the German army in 1944.  He surrendered to the first British soldier he encountered, went from prisoner of war camp to camp and emerged to become the 20th Century’s ‘theologian of hope.’ For Moltmann, hopelessness is championed in the status quo.  For those who see no hope, it is better to rely on what already exists, on the material things that we already have, than to trust in things unseen. On the contrary, said Moltmann, hope strengthens faith, encourages a life of love and enables a focus on a new creation. Hope creates a “passion for the possible.”

A passion for the possible is born when we wake up to the reality that we live in a world infused with divine love, when we wake to the truth that we are expressions of that divine love, when the lights dim and in the darkness we can finally see the light that shines in the darkness, the light that will not be overcome, the light that is so abundant that we no longer need to fill up our lives with lies about how the stuff we buy will fill us up.

Maybe the great revelation of Advent is that our conventional wakefulness is numbing us. Maybe this Advent we can slow down long enough to see a glimmer of holy hope and just maybe we can nurture in one another a divine passion for the possible. Maybe