Posted by Priest on December 27, 2009 under Sermons |
So, here we are again! Two days after we celebrated the nativity of our Saviour, we gather again as the family of God to worship, to pray, to sing God’s praises, to listen to God’s word and to celebrate the sacred mystery of Christ’s presence in bread and wine. And it is just “us” again. Gone are the crowds from Thursday night. Gone are the many who come here only once or twice a year. Gone are the ones who invade our sanctuary on high holidays. Today, we are left to our own devices: we, the faithful remnants, the dedicated elect, the crème of the crop. And aren’t we special?
I remember a sermon preached by one of my colleagues many years ago. It was shortly after Christmas. He usually was a rather good preacher, but that day I think his frustrations got the better of him (mind you – at the time I did, unfortunately, agree with him). He stepped into the pulpit and opened with similar words as I just did – but he meant it! He congratulated us for being in church and implied we were the “better Christians.”
Better Christians. True Church. Orthodox worshippers. These are terms that make me rather nervous. And they are flung around quite a lot these days. But I do not think the way they are used in our age really is pleasing in God’s sight. Was God really born of an unwed woman and was this divine birth really first announced to shepherds, to outsiders and outcasts who could not attend weekly prayer services, so that we can turn the community of the faithful into an exclusive, hierarchical club again? I don’t think so…
In today’s Gospel story, we hear of religious professionals who are back to normal, too, back to being amongst themselves again. Passover, just like our Christmas, is and has been one of the major holidays in the Jewish calendar. It is the day when Jews celebrate their liberation from the darkness of slavery and oppression, a darkness not unlike the one that is pierced on the first Christmas morning by the Christ-child, who came into the world to liberate us from slavery and oppression, too. Passover is also a day when Jews, even those who consider themselves to be only remotely religious, will partake of the religious festival, will sing hymns, will celebrate a special meal at home, and will attend religious services wherever they can. For God’s people living in the holy land at the time of Jesus this often meant an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. And after the service was over, they would return home leaving the religious professionals and the religious insiders to themselves. Sounds familiar, right?
However, today’s story would not be recorded in the Gospels if nothing extraordinary had happened this time. And indeed, something rather extraordinary happened: One within the crowd of annual temple-worshippers had not left, but had stayed behind. He had joined the insiders in the temple.
And this story would not be recorded in the Gospel of Luke, if today’s account was just to confirm the status quo, the ancient traditions. Remember the Gospel according to Luke is the Gospel, which proclaims God’ reign as an upside-down reign, as a reign where the mighty are thrown off their thrones and the lowly are lifted up high . No, Luke must have had some pertinent reasons for including this story in his Gospel, besides sharing a cute Jesus-boyhood event. There must be a theological reason. After all, the Gospels aren’t first and foremost history books, they are theological documents, revealing theological truths, revealing something profound and true about God.
I believe the theological reason for including today’s story in the Gospel is not just to show that Jesus is full of great power from an early age and indeed is the divine wisdom come to earth. But I believe there is another theological reason and this particular theological reason can be discovered by looking at the diametrical difference of the characters who sit together in the temple.
On the one hand, we have the “teachers.” They represent the tradition, the insiders, the crème of the crop – “orthodoxy.” On the other hand, there is Jesus, who is a young boy, not even an adult yet. And these two, the teachers on the one hand and Jesus on the other, are interacting with each other, but not as adults and children would usually interact.
If God had intended to validate the norm, the tradition, the position of the adults, the teachers, this would have been a simple one-way conversation. In fact, Jesus would have probably been told off and sent home. But Jesus engaged the teachers as equals. He asked questions, but he also questioned the teachers and provided answers for them, new answers, divine answers. This must have been a challenge for the crème of the crop. It must have challenged their understandings of God’s self-revelation.
Jesus broke through the walls the insiders had erected around them. He tore down assumptions and presuppositions. He proclaimed good news that would not only liberate the teachers from their own darkness, but that would liberate them also to go out and become messengers of “the Light,” too.
Yes, we are here again today. And, yes, it seems as if we are the core, the centre, those on the in. And on some level, we really are. After all, most us do show up more than once or twice a year, most of us are fairly regular attendees. However, I do not believe that this is a reason to feel all superior about ourselves! We are not better Christians or the crème of the crop. Nor are those who aren’t here today worse or less worthy than we are. This is not how the Gospel operates. Let me just remind you of the parable in which the ones who join in at the last minute are equally rewarded as those who toiled for hours, for years, for decades, for all their lives.
Even though, I have to admit: it can be very frustrating to see packed churches only once a year…!
But this is exactly the challenge for us. Not necessarily to fill our churches, but, just like the teachers in today’s Gospel, to listen to Jesus and move beyond our frustrations, beyond our walls and barriers, beyond our privileges and assumption.
Some might remember that a group from St. Paul’s travelled to San Francisco some 16 months ago. We visited St. Gregory’s of Nyssa Episcopal Church, a rather unusual Christian community in the Anglican Communion. One of the most challenging revelations for me on this trip was how St. Gregory’s defines membership. Membership isn’t about acquiring rights and status within the congregation. Membership at St. Gregory’s, unlike membership in so many other places, does not come with privileges, but it comes with obligations. Everybody who comes to St. Gregory’s is invited to participate fully in the life and ministry of the congregation, member or non-member. If you want to become a member, though, you have to commit publically. You have to commit to following the way of Christ in this particular community by taking up ministry and by taking up responsibilities for others, by putting the message of the Gospel to work in your life and in the life of the world around you. No extra rights, just extra duties.
In a way this understanding of membership is a radical departure from what we are used to: Yet, I believe it is a Lucan understanding, as the mighty are thrown off their privileges, and the lowly are invited to the centre. It is an understanding reflecting the will of God, who in Jesus is born on the margins and who grows up to challenge those on the in: Not to condemn, but in order to pierce the darkness all around, which seeks to consume our hearts and minds and bodies. And that, my friends, is the good news.
So, today, as we are amongst ourselves again, let us not be smug or frustrated. But let us listen to how God breaks through our isolation and how God challenges us, each and every one of us. And let us pray and discern how we can commit to ministry – and how we can commit to all those who bless us with their presence on Christmas.
[The Reverend Markus Duenzkofer delivered this sermon on December 27, 2009.]
Posted by Webmaster on under Bible Readings, Webmaster Blog |
Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him.
After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’
He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour.
Posted by Priest on December 24, 2009 under Sermons |
Do you remember Dawn’s Christmas?
Oh come on! This is the West End. Of course you remember! We are all old enough, even though some of us just celebrated our 20th birthday – for the 20th time – but enough about me!
Dawn’s Christmas is recorded by John Waters in his infamous movie Female Troubles, a movie I am not sure I can recommend. Anyhow, let me fill you in: Dawn, played by the glamorous Divine, is a derelict youngster, who, shall we say, causes a lot of trouble. She constantly gets into fights and her parents just do not know what to do anymore. It all escalades one Christmas. Dawn’s mother tries to make it all perfect and implores her husband not to get into another fight.
“Not on Christmas!” she pleads with him. “Not on Christmas.”
Of course, it doesn’t work. When Dawn doesn’t get the desired cha-cha heels, she throws a fit! In the ensuing commotion, mom ends up in the Christmas tree, which then falls over, burying mom. From underneath the tree, she whimpers: “Not on Christmas! Not on Christmas!”
I know many of us share Dawn’s mother’s sentiment. “Not on Christmas!” Please don’t fight. Please get along. Please do things right. Don’t screw up. Let’s just stick to the plan! We try so hard to make it perfect, only to see it all go so perfectly wrong. We organise, scheme, and feel so in control, and cannot see how much we aren’t. And trust me, I can relate…
A few weeks ago, I visited the Kingdom of Lesotho in Southern Africa. Lesotho is a beautiful, but barren land. The people are wonderful, but they are also incredibly poor. Sadly, the poverty breeds violence and makes proper education and adequate medical care only available for a very few, with catastrophic consequences: Some estimate that 20-30% of the population of Lesotho are HIV+, which in Lesotho is a death sentence.
I arrived in Lesotho to pursue personal interests, but also to discern professional goals: Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, is home to an Anglican religious order for men that ministers among the rural population with HIV-testing and sex-education, and by distributing free condoms. I came to see if this religious order could be a partner for St. Paul’s as we start to incorporate the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals into own our vision. And what a perfect fit this would be for St. Paul’s, which for decades has been home to many living with, and, unfortunately, also dying from AIDS.
My trip to Lesotho started out according to plan. In hindsight, I realise, though, that I arrived in Lesotho with more than a few preconceptions. I had it all worked out perfectly in advance. And I wanted to do it the right way. I want to make it perfect – not unlike our oh-so-well conceived plans for Christmas.
And then it happened. On my last day in Lesotho.
It was just a few hours before I left, when there was a knock on the door of the priory. One of the brothers opened and invited in the young European who stood outside. I had seen the man before…
He had knocked on the door looking for his luggage that he had dropped off at the priory a few weeks before. While the brother, who had opened the door, fetched the luggage, I struck up a conversation with the man, who had come from Ireland to work at a local AIDS-orphanage. I was very impressed by his commitment. And he did not even seem religious! In fact, throughout the conversation he was very matter-of-fact, very worldly.
And then I asked the question that seemed oh-so-obvious to me: “So, how long are you going to stay here?” He smiled and said: “I hope for ever. We moved here.”
I was flabbergasted. Believe it or not, I actually was speechless. His answer totally threw me off guard. While there has always been a part of me that expects these kinds of radical steps from religious professionals, I had not anticipated it coming from somebody who seemed so “secular.” I could not understand why anybody would give up life in comfortable Europe for ever. For him, though, it was the most natural thing to do. My planning and scheming, though, had all been blown apart. I realised how much I had tried to control my experience in Lesotho, how I had forced things – only to realize that I had been an arrogant Western idiot, riding into Lesotho on my high horse, assuming that I knew exactly what to do and how to deal with the “situation.” But my planning and scheming had prevented me from connecting with people and embracing them as sisters and brothers. My planning and scheming had blinded me to the image of God in the people around me. I had not been open to really encounter them.
I believe the Irishman’s answer was an early Christmas present.
It was an early Christmas present, because it took me by surprise. It was out of the ordinary. And it remains a mystery.
Yes, we are a people who plan and scheme. And there is a lot of good in having schedules and organisation. Furthermore, I really do not believe we should all just pack up and move to Africa. That is only viable for a select few.
But I do believe that far too often, in our planning and scheming, we nail things down that cannot and should not be nailed down. Far too often in our planning and scheming, we no longer expect surprises and miss extraordinary encounters.
Too often we, the church, for example, create all kinds of norms and sets of laws, trying to regulate exactly the matter of our faith. Libraries have been filled with books that describe and define to a “t” what we celebrate today. Yet, can we really explain and understand what happened in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago? The virgin birth really isn’t like a mathematical equation! It is a mystery. And the church should stop obsessing about the dogmatic purity or doctrinal correctness of fellow travellers on the journey, and the church should stop condemning and alienating those who question, wonder, and doubt. Rather, particularly today, we should celebrate with gusto that God, who can never be fully explained, through the open arms of the baby born of our sister Mary, reaches out to us, seeking to embrace us, yearning to bring God’s endless love and light into our darkness, whatever the darkness might be. The events we celebrate today affirm that we are all, without exception, beloved of God and that God can and will surprise us, because God’s compassion knows no boundaries and wishes each and every one of us to be whole in body, mind, and soul.
God’s compassion for each one of us and God’s willingness to give it all for us, is often hard to accept – even for religious professionals whose struggle with this radical message of God’s abundant, surprising and mysterious love isn’t a new one. Remember the religious elite at the time of Jesus’ birth? They thought they had it all figured out. The Messiah would be born in Bethlehem: They got that right! But they also believed that there would be pomp and circumstances, fanfares galore. In their mind, God had to come among the powerful, live with the mighty, and affirm those on the in. The religious experts did not expect the Saviour of the world to be born of an unwed woman, among ox and donkey. They did not anticipate for the King of kings, for God-incarnate to come among us in such a lowly way. None of them in their wildest dreams thought that God would surprise them. In fact, they tried to control God instead.
But God cannot be controlled, not by the powerful, nor by those in the know, nor by those who seek to run the show. God chose a young woman on the margins, because often, this is where God can be found.
In the end, this surprise reveals something fundamental about God. God is not about scheming and planning, not about existing power-structures, not about rules and regulations. God is about relationships: our relationship with God, our relationship with our beautiful selves, and our relationship with those around us, whoever they are and wherever we find them. And sometimes, as seen in Lesotho, I need to be reminded of this too…!
As we continue to celebrate this surprising mystery that cannot be boxed in and that often dwells on the sidelines of our world, I would like to leave you words from a poem by Sister Sue, an Anglican nun from Toronto with the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine and I quote:
He was born in a stable
behind the inn,
Prince of Peace, Wonderful Counsellor
God with Us.
Like the men who sleep huddled
on subway grates,
the women living in cardboard huts,
the children shivering in
He was born,
Prince of Peace, Emmanuel,
Feed the hungry, clothe the naked,
He said to us.
Heal the sick, visit the prisoners
Wonderful Counsellor, Son of Man,
God with Us;
house the homeless, He says to us.
House the homeless, free the slaves,
feed the children,
comfort the dying;
find a home in our hearts
[The Reverend Markus Duenzkofer delivered this sermon on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2009.]
Posted by Priest on December 20, 2009 under Sermons |
Last weekend, the Vancouver Men’s Chorus once more graced us here at St. Paul’s with their presence. Hosting the VMC’s winter concert “Making Spirits Bright” has become a tradition here at St. Paul’s. And it is good to have them here, very good indeed, and not just because they leave the festive decoration, which is always just fabulous. We are very thankful for that.
But, of course, it is also good to have the VMC here, because the Vancouver Men’s Chorus is an establishment all to itself here in the West End and beyond. The close connection to the VMC opens our doors to people who might not have been inside St. Paul’s before. More importantly, our connection to the VMC opens our minds and our hearts to look beyond and to realize that we are not an exclusive club on our journey as a community of faith. All we do as Christians in general and as the people of St. Paul’s in particular only makes sense if it remains connected to the community we live in, if it stays focused on all people, whether they have been long-time members or whether they have not even heard about this amazing sacred place.
I attended the Sunday matinee last week – and it was splendid! Over the years, I have noticed that the VMC has become much more sophisticated. The quality of the music is getting better and better, and the pieces are more and more profound. I do enjoy this!
Last week, for example, Willi Zwozdesky, VMC’s conductor-extraordinaire, introduced us to two quite different pieces. One was a modern musical setting to the Gloria and verses from Psalm 100. And then Willi said something like this: “To contrast this piece we will sing something merry.”
I was shaken out of my comfortable seat: To “contrast” the religious piece we obviously needed to hear something “merry!” Huh…!
Of course, Willi had a point. And my reaction to his statement wasn’t so much in opposition to what he had said, but a deep sense of sadness that he is right. Yes, over the centuries, we, the church, have indeed become a rather un-merry institution – and not just for those persecuted and oppressed by the institution. Just look at the “Church Lady” from Saturday Night Live – or other caricatures. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once remarked that he wished Christian would look “more merry.”
But what does “merry” even mean? Should we even be “merry?”
Well, to put it bluntly: Yes! Yes, we should be “merry.” And why not? Just look at us here at St. Paul’s. We are a merry bunch, right? Yes, we are!
I believe with all my heart that the Creator of all wishes and desires for us to be “merry.” But I also believe that “merry” in the Christian perspective has nothing to do with a sense of quick fun, superficial satisfaction, or shallow gratification. Christian “merriness” does not negate the profound complexity of human life, not at all!
The followers of the One born in a stable among ox and donkey do not forget to look around and recognize that the Saviour’s joyful birth happened in a forgotten corner of the world, on a dark night, while there was no room in the inn. We celebrate and rejoice, but we also deal with the reality beyond any skin-deep experience. Christian “merriness” does not avoid the fullness of the human experience.
“Merry” Christians will also remember that God cannot stand it when we hurt. In fact, God hurts with us, embracing us in our darkness, holding on to us in the midst of our pain. Furthermore, God wants for us to be in the light, wishes us for us to be well, yearns for us to be merry. And God needs merry people to help accomplish wholeness for all. God needs people who will not shy away from fear, despair, and darkness – without giving in to them.
God is the God of valleys and of mountaintops and of the many plains in between. God is the God of sorrow and of joy. God is the God of tears and of laughter. And yes, God is also a merry God for merry people. The church far too often has been too sombre, too solemn, and too dull. We have to learn how to enjoy and celebrate life more in all its diversity and beauty. God does call us to live life with gusto, with laughter, and with excitement.
“Merry” in this sense is not so much an emotional reaction; rather, it is a state of mind. It is a realization that God is in control all the time – even when the world seems to fall apart all around us. To be “merry” is to operate out of a sense of abundance of God’s presence in all aspects of our lives – and in all aspects of the lives of those around us.
In today’s reading from Luke1 we encounter the prototype of such a “merry” person. Mary is merry. Or as Mary’s cousin Elizabeth puts it in today’s text: “Blessed are you amongst women.”
Blessed are you, favoured one, blessed are you, merry Mary!
When this story started it did not look like a merry situation, though. Just imagine: An angel comes knocking at your door and confronts you with a reality far different from what you had planed, schemed, and organized. Somebody once said that the angel Gabriel has a lot to answer for: For it is the very archangel who interrupts what we might imagine to be the ordinary routine of this young woman about to be married to a carpenter from the hill country of Judea. Oh no, this ain’t a merry Christmas! This is scary, frightening, and disturbing.
It is not easy to be confronted by God’s message. Yes, we pray frequently with fervour for God to speak, to convey a divine message. But maybe our fervour comes easily, because we really don’t expect God to answer. We definitely don’t expect to be met by an angel at night telling us that our routine will be interrupted, and that we might give birth to God’s son! And Mary was not oh-so-overjoyed either. It was a long way from the annunciation by Gabriel to today’s encounter with Elizabeth. It was a long journey before Mary could sing her song of joy, the Magnificat.
In verse 29 of the same chapter we hear of Mary’s first reaction to the supposed Good News: “she was much perplexed by [Gabriel’s] words.”2 – “Much perplexed,” it says. That does not sound overly joyful. It sounds hesitant, disturbed, even frightened. Yet, the angel goes on: “Do not be afraid,” Gabriel says to Mary, “Do not be afraid. You have found favour with God.”3
“Do not be afraid.” – and thus Mary’s journey to the Magnificat begins.
I think this is one of the key sentences not just in the first chapter of Luke, but in all of God’s self-revelation in the Bible. It is a sentence that comes over and over and over and over again. “Do not be afraid.” Over and over and over again God whispers these words not just into Mary’s heart, but into our hearts too. For, like Mary, we have found favour with God too. Do not be afraid, God seeks to take habitation in your heart too.
Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.
This is no quick-fix, no easy panacea, no Pollyanna denial of the reality. God knows the darkness. God even goes into the darkness: on a cold night in Bethlehem when there was no room in the inn, and also on a bitter Friday afternoon when he joins criminals and outcasts on the cross. God knows of the darkness – and waits there for us with outstretched arms.
Do not be afraid. And Mary learns to trust the promise of the angel as the love of God grows in her womb, grows under her heart, and grows into her heart too.
Do not be afraid. These four words, I believe, are another way to say: Be merry. Be merry in these times when the sun is swallowed up by the growing darkness of winter. Be merry, when hearts grow cold, when souls freeze over, when bodies ache, when minds lose control, and when nobody seems to have a place in the inn anymore.
Be merry, and do not be afraid. It is the message for us, each of us, as we gather today to bless and heal. As priests will lay hands on your head and shoulder and anoint you with holy oil, the message of the angel will once more be whispered into your soul: “Do not be afraid. God has found favour with you.” And you, too, will begin your journey, just like Mary. You will begin your journey, that, God willing, will lead you also to “proclaim the greatness of the Lord.” You, like Mary, will experience God’s compassion, God’s healing, and God’s love growing under and into your heart.
Do not be afraid. Be merry. This is the message of the angel. It is the message of God.
1 Luke 1:42
2 Luke 1:29
3 Luke 1:30
[The Reverend Markus Duenzkofer delivered this sermon on December 20, 2009.]
Posted by admin on under Bible Readings, Webmaster Blog |
Luke 1:39-45 and 46-55 ~ Reading for December 20, 2009
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Posted by Webmaster on December 13, 2009 under Bible Readings, Webmaster Blog |
Philippians 4:4-7 ~ Reading for December 13, 2009
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 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.
Posted by admin on under Sermons |
Today’s reading from the Gospel According to Luke reminds me of a funny story that happened at the parish I served before coming here. It is a true story:
One Sunday morning, one of the regular readers got up to do the first reading. He was a pillar of the community, always properly dressed, suit and tie every Sunday morning. With the precision of a retired soldier he made his way to the lectern and started to read from the Hebrew Scriptures. It was one of those readings with one Hebrew name after the other. He started the reading confidently. But when he got to the first Hebrew name, he read it and then said: “and about another dozen unpronounceable Hebrew names” and skipped right to the end. Clever, eh?
Names. They are really important. They define who we are. They tell us where we come from. And often they even mark our place in society. Just look at the list of names in today’s reading from Luke: Emperor Tiberius; Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea; Herod, ruler of Galilee; Philip, ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis; Lysanias, ruler of Abilene; Annas and Caiaphas, high priests. It is quite an impressive list of people. This is the Who’s Who of state and religion of the time. Of course, such use of names was quite common in ancient texts. It served as a way to determine the exact time in an age when a common counting scheme for years had not yet been invented. It also served as a way for the Evangelist to proclaim that this is the real world, not some fantasyland. God interacts in real time with real people. The Gospel affects our lives directly and intimately.
But I think there is something else going on. If you listened carefully you will have noticed that I left out a name, and not just any name. I omitted John. And I did so quite deliberately: Not just because he is the odd one out. “One of these things is not like the others.” John is not a bigwig. But there is more: John is the only person mentioned in the Gospel text this morning who is not defined by his position in the world. If you look closely, all those people with unpronounceable names are despots over even more unpronounceable territories. John, however, is solely defined by his relationship to his father. His name is not a placeholder for a powerbase. But his name is introduced through a tie with another human being, which does not speak of might and hierarchy, but speaks of closeness, of intimacy, and of interconnectedness.
I think this is not just an accident. It reveals something profound about the difference between the world’s character on the one hand and God’s character on the other hand. It witnesses to the fact that God relates to us quite differently than the world does. In the reality all around us, names far too often speak of hierarchies, or power-games, of who is in and who is out.
Just look at what is going on in Copenhagen right now. If we are really honest, we must acknowledge that this is a conference run by the big powers of the world, both in government, but also in business. Even though global companies are not part of the debates, you can bet your booty that they have pushed many resources into the conference. Copenhagen is about Barack Obama, President of the United States; Hu Jintao, Paramount Leader of the People’s Republic of China; Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India; José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission; and Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of this beautiful land. But Copenhagen is equally about ExxonMobil, Wal-Mart, Toyota, Sinopec, Allianz, Glencore, or the Royal Bank of Canada.
All of them together run the world and set the agenda. And their agenda is quite clear: It is about maintaining power bases, clear hierarchies, and economic structures, which still leave too many children behind.
Sarah Palin, former Republican candidate for U.S. Vice-President, confirmed this in a guest editorial in the Globe and Mail last week. Sure, her criticism of what is now coined “Climategate” has a point. Nobody should ever commit fraud and falsify scientific data to serve one’s agenda. But can we really use this scandal to cement the current power structures, to protect one’s own grip on power, and to make sure that those on the “in” remain the only ones on the “in”? For Ms. Palin, it is all about the economy and the impact of environmental regulations on the economy. Or, to be more accurate, for the former Alaskan governor, it is all about her economic reality and the impact on her economic security.
Meanwhile, Kausea, son of Filoimea from the Tuvaluan atoll of Funafuti, grieves the fact that only if they scuba-dive will his grandchildren be able to see the land that he and his ancestors lived on and that is quickly taken over by the rising ocean-levels. Meanwhile, in an African village Uxolo, daughter of Thabo does not know if her crop will grow as the increasing drought threatens her livelihood. Will she be able to feed her family, not to speak of pay for the medication she needs as a person living with HIV? Meanwhile, Tulugaq of the Inuit is disposing the remains of yet another polar bear. The bear had drowned unable to manage the distances between the melting sheets of ice around the North Pole.
And do we care?
Or do we rather let ourselves be mesmerized by the elites, the names of power in our time that promise us Westerners security and fortune?
Despite how this sounds, I am no radical revolutionary. And I do not want to offer simplistic solutions. Furthermore, in this debate it is so easy to set up new hierarchies, to demonize, and to produce new lists of who is in and who is out.
But, in God’s world, things are different from the way we run the show. In God’s world Kausea is as important as Barak Obama. In God’s world, Uxolo’s needs are as important as the needs of ExxonMobil. And in God’s world, Tulugaq is known and cherished as much as Her Majesty, the Queen.
Furthermore, in God’s world, you and I are not unimportant either. We are not no-names. But our very existence is “pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years”1 as the prophet Malachi puts it. There is no hierarchy in God’s world, because in God’s world, it is not about rules and power-games, but it is all about relationships. It is about our relationship with God and it is about our relationship with each other. It is about our interconnectedness even with people distant from us either geographically, or culturally, or socio-economically. We have responsibility one for the other. We have responsibility for our planet. And sometimes, sometimes the truth is not pronounced in the palace of Herod or in the conference halls of Copenhagen. But sometimes truth can only be found only on the margins.
This is where the protagonist in today’s Gospel account becomes important. John was definitely a man on the margins, far away from the centre of power. Yet, in God’s world he became a messenger of great importance. For John, it was never about the needs of the elites or his own interests. Gor John it was always about the “tender compassion of God.”2 It was about God’s tender compassion that came not to set up new rules and regulations, new hierarchies and elites, but that came to be born of our sister Mary, intimately connected to us all, seeking to grow under our hearts, too. It was about God’s tender compassion that connects us all as sisters and brothers with responsibilities one for the other – and for our planet.
1 Malachi 3:4
2 Luke 1:78
[The Reverend Markus Duenzkofer delivered this sermon on December 13, 2009.]
Posted by admin on under Bible Readings, Webmaster Blog |
Luke 3:1-6 ~ Reading for December 13, 2009
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
Posted by Priest on December 6, 2009 under Sermons |
It is a wonderful story. Makes you feel all fuzzy around your heart. It is one of those stories that are best told to children as you sit around a cosy fire with hot chocolate in your hand. It is a story best told wearing a cardigan and slippers. It is a story best shared on a cold winter’s night, a few nights before Christmas, “when all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse; The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.” You know the famous poem attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, which actually is called “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
I am sorry there is no roaring fire here today and I am not wearing a cardigan either. But, at least I am going to share this story with you.
Once upon a time, in a land far away, in a city called Myra, there lived a man who had three beautiful daughters. Unfortunately, however, the man was poor. In fact, he was dirt poor. He had been rich once, but had lost it all. And there was nothing left. In fact, the man was so poor, that he decided to sell one of his daughters, so that the rest of the family could survive.
Now, the bishop of the time in this ancient city was a good man. He had a giving heart, was kind, and met everybody with a smile, a good word, a prayer, and a blessing. When the bishop heard about this man and his intention to sell his daughter, his heart was deeply grieved. And he wondered how he could help the family. Yet, because he did not seek rewards in this life, he wanted to help in such a way that would not be known to either the family or anyone else.
So, the bishop came up with a plan: On the night before the father would sell his daughter, the bishop – by cover of darkness – silently walked up to the family’s house. He waited until everybody had gone to sleep. As soon as he knew he would be safe – he crept up to the window and flung a stone-size piece of gold through the open window into the house. And then he went back to his own house, before anybody could miss him there.
Well, you can imagine the joy of the family the next day as they discovered the unsolicited gift. There was great joy and the father believed the gold had come directly from God. No longer did the father have to sell his daughter. In fact, there was enough left for a dowry to marry his daughter off.
However, the story does not stop here.
Time passed, and the family came upon hardship again. And, yet again, the father’s only choice seemed to be to sell one of his daughters for the rest of the family to survive. Yet, again, the bishop heard about the family’s plight and the night before the second daughter was to be sold he yet again flung a piece of gold through the window. And again, there was great joy and there was also enough money for a rich dowry and a wonderful wedding.
And you know where this story is going. I am not done. Of course.
Once more the family ended up penniless. And once more the father decided to sell his daughter. But, he obviously had smartened up – or was he just being calculating and manipulative…? Sorry, that is obviously not part of the official story.
Anyhow, rather than going to bed, he waited up and hid to see and discover who was the anonymous benefactor. Of course, the bishop came by a third time ready to drop his gift. Yet, as soon as he had thrown the piece of gold through the window, the father jumped up from his hiding place. But the bishop was quick, and ran, with the father pursuing him, through the streets of Myra. Eventually, they both ran out of breath and the father caught up with the donor. He confronted him and recognized him: It was Nicholas the bishop. The father fell to his knees and promised that he would never again devise any evil plans like selling his family into slavery. The bishop absolved him and sternly ordered him not to tell anybody. I don’t know whether the man kept his promise about evil plans, but he sure didn’t follow Nicholas’ command to keep this whole affair silent – otherwise I wouldn’t be telling you this, right?
As I said: It is a lovely story. In fact, it is a legend. A myth. It is the reason why St Nicholas is depicted with three golden balls in his hand, each representing the gifts he bestowed upon the three daughters.
And of course, the story I just told is also the foundation of our gift-giving exercise every Christmas. Yes, the blessed Bishop Nicholas of Myra, whose feast day falls on December 6th, eventually morphed into Santa Claus, his mitre into the famous red Santa Claus headgear, and his cape into the silly Santa Claus outfit. St. Nicholas, aka Santa Claus, became the ultimate Advent and Christmas figurine, with gifts handed out to children all around the world.
And it is a lovely tradition. But I wonder if Nicholas would be really happy with our traditions…
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love giving. And giving to children is something special, something amazingly beautiful, and something profoundly awesome. There are not many moments in life that are quite as heart-warming as a child’s reaction to an unexpected gift. The innocence of pure joy in children is something that reminds us of the sheer beauty of humanity as it was created to be. The smile of a child is an image of what once belonged to each and every one of us and what the Creator of all things wishes for us each and every day of our lives.
This is of course what Jesus recognised when he called forth the children in today’s account from the Gospel according to Mark.
One of the windows in St. Paul's Anglican Church
As so often happens, in the Gospel story, Jesus turned the table: Up became down and down became up. In became out and out became in. Children were no longer the ones who needed to learn, who needed to be controlled, who needed to be kept away from the centre of attention. They were not the ones who didn’t get it. But it was the ones at the centre, the ones on the in, i.e. the apostles who didn’t get it. And children were the ones who taught, the ones who in their innocence and joy reflect God’s incredible, life-giving, abundant, non-judging love to us, to all of us who might have already given up on life or who might have become cynical.
There is no room for any form of life-defying or life-threatening force in God’s yearning for us. In fact, God’s unspeakable and unfathomable compassion and care for each and every one of us is like a fire that seeks to set us ablaze with love, with love for God, love for our neighbour, and love for our own selves. Death and darkness, shame and guilt, sickness and sin, disregard for life in all its form and neglect even of the least of the creatures of God are consumed in the roaring fire of God’s love. And once this fire takes hold of us, we will be changed for ever.
I am not at all advocating that we should forget about the legend of Nicholas of Myra. Far from it. No in fact, his life is more than worthy to be remembered and to be celebrated. It needs to be remembered, because Nicholas was a man who was on fire with the love of God. God had set ablaze Nicholas’s soul and had opened his eyes for innocence and beauty revealed by children and recognized and affirmed by Jesus. Nicholas understood that living the Christian life is not just about simple giving, writing cheques once a year around Christmas, or dropping a miniscule fraction of our income into the collection plate every so often. But living the Christian life is about a change of heart. It is about discovering, or I should say re-discovering, the innocence still coming through at times in children, and it is also about re-discovering the beauty that God intends for us, intends for all aspects of our lives.
God seeks to not just drop a wee spark into our hearts. But God yearns to set us ablaze with the divine fire to burn away all that harms us in body, mind, and soul, all that keep us from discovering God’s abundant love for us, and all those blinkers that make us ignore the injustices of our world.
Nicholas was willing to sacrifice not just gold, but all that he had and all that he was not for his sake and for his glory, but for the sake of others and for the glory of God.
His legend is more than a story about alms-giving or the good will of a gentle old man with a white beard. But Nicholas was a man ablaze with divine fire, ablaze with a love from above. He was on fire with a love that empowered him to identify and combat the injustices and the sins of his time, a love that brightened the night that seemed to swallow the father and his three daughters.
In this way, Nicholas is truly a saint of this season of Advent, the season that celebrates and proclaims the light that is already piecing the darkness of our lives.
[The Reverend Markus Duenzkofer delivered this sermon on November 29, 2009.]
Posted by Priest on December 2, 2009 under Contributors, Staff Blog |
Did you grow up with Advent calendars in your home? I remember the excitement of this wonderful Advent tradition, which began in the early 1800s in Germany. These days, however, Advent calendars do not just provide chocolates on a daily basis, they have also gone digital. This year, there are several online Advent calendars that offer a chance for reflection. Here are four particularly interesting ones that I wanted to share with you.
1. Our National Church’s calendar can be found by clicking here. According to the web site on “each day of Advent a new image and short reflection will be posted about the ministry that Canadian Anglicans are engaged in—both at home and overseas. Expect to be encouraged and challenged by what God is doing through this beloved church, from the Arctic to Tanzania.”
2. Trinity Church Wall Street’s 2009 calendar offers a video each day produced by Trinity Wall Street as part of a series called Anglican Communion Stories. The segments showcase Anglicans working for a better world. Clicking on each day’s door opens a window with a video player for viewing the segment. The window also offers users a way to get involved in the highlighted ministry. In the season of Advent, which is seen as a season of expectation before Jesus’ birth, this calendar lets the people of the Anglican Communion say to the world, expect hope.
3. The online community of i-church, founded by the Diocese of Oxford in the United Kingdom, has a calendar of inspirational Advent meditations and music written, created, sung and chosen by i-church members and friends.
4. The Church of England continues the theme of involvement in the midst of the waiting of Advent with its 2009 calendar “Why We are Waiting.” The calendar invites people to take five minutes to change the world this Advent by following the “tread gently” challenges and video stories behind each door. Daily Bible passages and prayers accompany the lifestyle challenges and stories from across the Church of England and beyond.
I hope this is helpful for your journey through Advent.
The Rev. Markus Dünzkofer, Rector