Sunday, December 29, 2013

God's New Normal: A Sermon For The First Sunday After Christmas

Preached at St. Columba's Anglican Church, Waterloo, Ontario, Sunday, Dec 29, 2013

Readings for the First Sunday of Christmas, Year A:    Isaiah 63:7-9, Psalm 148, Hebrews 2:10-18, Matthew 2:13-23

I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love.  (Isaiah 62:7)


At this time of year, between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, I think there are several emotions that tug us in different directions.   


One emotion, born out of weariness, is a sense of gratitude that Christmas, with all of its obligations and business, is done with.   Finally we can say goodbye to all the preparing and baking, all the visiting and special occasions.  We are free to breathe a sigh of relief, and get back to normal.


But at the same time, we don’t want things to be normal.  For that second emotion that tugs at us, isn’t it a kind of sadness?   Do we not, in our hearts, regret that Christmas is done with for another year?   Christmas is peace, joy, warmth, and a sense that the world is somehow specially blessed.   As we prepare to box up the Nativity scene and creche for another year, we can’t help but feel that the world would be a better place if we could only hold on to the Christmas spirit.


We want normal if normal is less busy and less frantic, but we don’t want normal if normal is the world as we know it.   Normal is worrying about how we are going to provide for our families, wondering how long we can put up with the boss at work, or despairing about all those resumes we send out into the silence.   Normal is the absence of a loved one taken from us, a grief that never quite loses its edge.  Normal is the news that never seems to get better -- another car bombing, another refugee camp, another drunk driver leaving a trail of carnage.  If these things are what passes for  normal, who would ever want or need normal?


If we allow ourselves to buy into Christmas as our culture understands the holiday, then it can only ever be, at the most, a brief break from the dreariness and sadness of normal.   Once the guests leave, once the obligations are fulfilled, once the food is eaten and gone, it’s back to normal.   Once the presents lose their novelty, it’s back to normal.   Once the decorations are put away, it’s back to normal.  Christmas, if we think of it as parties and presents and food and drink, has no power to change the normal of the world.  


Fortunately, this empty holiday is not the Christmas we have celebrated.   The church’s Christmas is about God delivering on the promises he has made to his people.   Christmas is about God being true to his word.  Christmas is about God telling us, “I have been with you, I am with you, and I’m not finished with you”.


In our first reading, we heard the prophet Isaiah speak about all that God has done for his people because of God’s great love and mercy.   “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (Isaiah 62:7).


When Isaiah wrote this prophecy, normal didn’t look that great to the people of Israel.  Normal was Temple in ruins, Jerusalem conquered, the people made slaves in Babylon.   Normal looked hopeless, and here was Isaiah reminding the people of the God hadn’t abandoned them.  God was faithful to the promises he had made long ago to Abraham.   

God had led them out of Egypt, God have given them Moses who led them to the promised land.  God would send a Messiah to save his people.   


In our second lesson we heard more about the faithfulness of God.   We heard about how God has kept his promises to his people, “the descendants of Abraham”.  The author of Hebrews reminds us who exactly that baby in the manger is.  He is one like us, our brother and sister because he shares our humanity, but he is unlike us because he is perfect, so that he can save us.  This child is the one who gathers us to him, who stands before the throne of God, and says “Here am I and the children whom God has given me”.  


These lessons remind us of what is normal.   God’s faithfulness to his people is normal.   God’s mercy is normal.  God’s love for his people is normal.   God’s determination to save his people is normal.  God’s promise to be with us in the form of his son, Emmanuel, is normal.   The son’s power to save us from sin and death is normal.  


In the days and weeks after Christmas, we go back into the world, to things we know too well.   There will be tyrants and warlords who bomb their own people, just as Herod unleashed death and violence on his people.  Mothers will mourn and weep, just as Rachel did.   Innocent people will flee their homes and become refugees, just as the Holy Family did.  These things have happened before, they happen now, and they will happen again, but they are not normal.  This is not the how God designed the world.  This is not what God wishes for his creation.


We, the church, are called to be God’s new normal for the world.  We are called to live in the promises of God, and in the presence of his Son and of his Holy Spirit.  We are called to show the love of Jesus to the world.  We are called to love, to forgive, to welcome, and to live in the name of Jesus.   We are called to live in the promise of Christmas as God’s promise to save and renew his creation.  


So let’s go forth into the new year trusting in these things.  Let’s not regret the passing of Christmas as something fragile and all too brief.  Let’s not mistake the presence of sin and death in the world as normal. Instead, let’s rejoice that Christmas is a sign, a first installment, of God’s love and power, God’s new normal for the word.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Chaplain's Christmas in Italy, 1943

A very merry Christmas to all of you.

Not a lot to say of late, as graduate school has taken up much of my attention and time this fall, and I haven't blogged much because I feel tired and not  especially interesting at the end of each day.   Kay and I are healthy in body and spirits, and enjoying our time here in Kitchener-Waterloo.   At this time of year my thoughts are especially with those of my friends in the Canadian Armed Forces Chaplaincy who are far from home, especially Padre Rob Parker on HMCS Toronto somewhere far warmer than here, and Padre Kevin Olive in Kabul, Afghanistan.  Be well, guys.


Speaking of chaplains, in my spare time this Christmas I am reading a chaplain's memoirs, always a fascinating genre to me.   Israel Yost was a young Lutheran serving a parish in Pennsylvanian when the US entered World War Two, and he soon volunteered to serve.  He was assigned to the 100th Battalion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which happened to be one of the most famous and decorated US Army units of the war.  The 100th Bn was made up primarily of Japanese Americans from Hawaii and the Mainland, many of whom had family in the internment camps established after Pearl Harbour.   It served in Italy and later in France.   Here's Yost's account of Christmas, 1943, shortly before the 100th began it's part in the battle of Monte Cassino, as a small Christmas gift to you.

"During the day some of the medics got together in the chaplain's tent to practice carols.  Others got tin snips and cut tree ornaments out of tin cans from the mess tents: by twisting a long strip with the inside shiny surface exposed, glittering icicles were formed.  Two evergreens were decorated with these and sparkling starts and red berries picked locally.  One volunteer disappeared for several hours and returned with a wooden cross he had painted white; he planted it in a place of honour in front of one of the trees.

When it got dark, the carollers, after singing first at the officers' party, made the rounds of all the companies.  In front of one tent their singing was drowned out at first by the loud noise of a card game in progress under the canvas.  Then a voice sounded from inside the pyramidal (tent).  "Shh, you hear that?  The chaplain has some men outside singing Christmas carols."  In the silence that followed, "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World" rang out."  

It was getting late when the singers reached the last tent.  As the final carol died away on the cold winter's night, the tent flap was flung back and out came a sleepy, half-dressed mess sergeant.  "You men ought to have something for your Christmas spirit," he muttered.  He ushered the group into his mess tent and made hot cocoa for everyone.

… On Christmas Day two services were held, attended by 225.  I also attended the all-musical worship at the regiment and conducted a Lutheran communion service for the 1st Battalion at the request of the unit's chaplain.  One of the companies invited me to their Christmas dinner: turkey, stuffing, rice, a fresh vegetable, wine, oranges, walnuts, and a freshly baked cake with icing and nuts on top."  

Israel A.S. Yost, Combat Chaplain: The Personal Story of the World War II Chaplain of the Japanese American 100th Battalion, (Honlulu: U of Hawaii Press, 2006), pp. 100-101.

In his memoirs, despite his modesty, Yost emerges as a faithful hard-working pastor who put his men and ministry far ahead of himself.   Even though he knew nothing of Hawaii or of Japanese culture when he joined the 100th, he appears to have been a valued member of the unit.  He had a long life of ministry and service after the war, and died in 2000 at age 84.  Chaplains' schools do good work in preparing people for military ministry, but books like this one should appear more often on their reading lists.

Blessings to you all this holidays, and in the year to come, may you know God's peace and presence..


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Where Will He Dwell? A Sermon For The Second Sunday of Advent

I had the opportunity to preach today at St. George's of Forest Hill, Kitchener, the church where I was a theological student ten years ago.  They were kind and supportive to me then, and it was a pleasure to see them again, even if they didn't believe it when I told them they hadn't aged a day.  MP+

Lections for Advent 2:  Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7,18-19; Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12


On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. (Isaiah 11:10)

The prophet Isaiah foretells a day of rescue.   On this day, as Isaiah describes it, God will remake the world.   On this day, life will come from dead things.   The poor and oppressed will finally know justice.  The wicked will be punished.  Pain and destruction will be banished from the world.   

Who will make this day possible?  Isaiah tells us that one will be sent by God to do these things.   This person will come with God’s power and justice.   He will come as a righteous judge and as a peacemaker.  People from all over the world will come to him, and the place where he live “shall be glorious”.

“His dwelling shall be glorious”.  We who know this story, we the church, hear the words of Isaiah, we hear these words echoed again by John the Baptist, and we know that the one coming from God to do these things is Jesus, the Christ.   

We look to Jesus as our Messiah.  We believe that he will rescue us from a world were inequality and injustice are everywhere.  We hope and pray that he will rescue us from ourselves and from the things we know we are capable of.  We hear the words of John the Baptist, calling the self-righteous of his day a “brood of vipers”, and we know that our piety and our fine religious traditions alone will not save us.  So we look to Jesus, the Saviour who is to come, and we ask, where can we find him? 

Where will we find this place, this dwelling that shall be glorious?  How can we get there?

Is this glorious dwelling place here, in our churches that we decorate with such care and devotion for the Advent season?  Is his dwelling in the wreath and in the candles lit week by week?  Is it in the royal blue of the season’s paraments and vestments, or in the splendour of their white counterparts that come out for Christmas Eve?  Is his glorious dwelling place in the candlelit reverence of a Carols and Lessons service?   Perhaps, in our churches, we catch a glimpse of his glorious dwelling, but only glimpses.  Advent says not yet.  Not here.

Perhaps this glorious dwelling place is in our homes?   In the Advent carol “People look east” we are told “Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table”, for “love the guest is on the way”.  In our homes we may find the blessings of hospitality and joyful reunions, and we may practice Advent devotions that prepare us for the Messiah.   Perhaps, in our homes, we may catch glimpses of his glorious dwelling, but only glimpses.   Advent says not yet.  Not here. 

The truth is that his glorious dwelling place is much bigger than we can imagine.   The Messiah foretold by Isaiah and John the Baptist will make his dwelling in all places.   He won’t just be found in the beauty of worship.  He wants to dwell with those who are estranged from church and worship, and with those who ignore him.  He won’t just be found in the laughter of festive homes and family gatherings. He wants to dwell in homes that are dark with grief and loss, where there is no light or laughter.   He wants to dwell with each and everyone of us, for as another John, the Evangelist, says in the first words of his gospel, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

As I understand it, the message of Advent is that God is coming to make his glorious dwelling here, with each one of us, in our hearts.   If we understand the dwelling place in this way, then we can understand why John the Baptist tells us to repent.  He’s not just trying to make us feel sombre and sorry at a time when we think we should be feeling joyful.  He’s telling us to make room in our hearts for God, to create a space where God’s son can truly make a home with us.  We need to throw out all the spiritual junk, all the selfishness and distraction, so we are truly ready for the one who is to come.

So where will the Messiah’s dwelling be?   He will dwell with those who joyfully and prayerfully await his return.  He dwell will with those who have scarcely the energy or the hope to believe any further.  He will camp stubbornly at the doors of those who do not believe, waiting for just the slightest invitation to come inside.  He will be in homes and churches bright with light and warmth and celebration.  He will be in homes darkened with sadness and loss, where laughter has not been heard for a long time. He will be on the streets, and prison cells, in workplaces and barracks. He will dwell in places where once there was only violence, and poverty and hatred.   He will be in all these places, and they will become glorious, for the one who comes is the Messiah, Christ the Lord, the God who dwells among us.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Spitfire 944, War and Remembrance

Hello all.

Where have I been?  It's a long and tedious story.  Suffice it to say that I've been fighting through my first semester of graduate school and it's gotten the better of me.   There is some stuff in older posts about why I'm in graduate school at the Canadian Forces Chaplaincy's grace and the taxpayer's generosity.   It's a good go, but it's a busy life.

However, I think I should be blogging again.  It's a good way for me to engage with the world, and with the many wonderful people who follow this blog.  If you're still checking in here and reading this, thank you all for your patience.


My brother the Mad Colonel sent me this link to short film called "Spitfire 944", made by William Lorton, the great nephew of Jim ("Doc") Savage, a flight surgeon with a US photo reconnaissance unit based in England in World War Two  The Doc took a lot of home movies which Lorton inherited, and one of the films he was intrigued by footage of a Spitfire making a wheels-up emergency landing on a grassy field, followed by scenes of a somewhat shaken young man being offered a cigarette by his mates while standing beside the crashed Spitfire.

You can see the whole story by watching the short video here.  If you are interested in military and aviation history, there's lots of good stuff here.   Even if you're not that interested, watch the reaction of the old gentleman, John Blyth, at about the ten minute mark, as he watches his younger self crashing that plane.  It's a beautiful testament to the power of memory and how history is sometimes built out of seemingly random scraps and fragments connecting our older and younger selves.   The next time I talk to a veteran, I'll be more aware of what vivid memories might lurk behind those old eyes.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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