Tuesday, December 27, 2016

"Poorest and Simplest of Earthly People:" Sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.

This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria.

So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child.

So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered.

And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid.

Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!”

So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.”

And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.

Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.

Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.
- Luke 2:1-20, New King James Bible

The Christmas story is one of the most beautiful texts in the entire Bible. When a story is so lovely and so familiar, I can’t add much. I just want to talk for a minute about a couple of things that stand out for me.

The story says, “in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” This reminds us that Jesus was born in a country occupied by Rome, a foreign power.

And it tells us more. "All the world should be registered." The story joins the census of the whole world to the birth of Jesus. Jesus has come to be the saviour of all the world. It’s important to know that in the Roman Empire there was already someone called the Saviour of the world and the Son of God – that was the Emperor Augustus himself. There was a cult of the emperor. But the angels announce that the titles of God’s Son, Saviour, Lord don’t really belong to the Roman emperor, or any other ruler – they belong to Jesus, for in him alone God and humanity are joined, and real salvation, real peace, for the whole world, can only come from him.

The other thing that stands out for me is who is told about this wonderful birth. Who do God’s angels come to with this news of great joy for all people? Not the emperor in Rome. Not the king the Romans put in place over the region. This news isn’t announced in a palace or temple or mansion. It is proclaimed in a field, to shepherds at their jobs outside a little village in a backwater province on the fringe of the empire, far from the centre of power.

Now, we tend to be very sentimental about these Christmas card shepherds. But shepherds were simple, rural, working people, like a lot of folks here. They were rough around the edges, maybe like some folks here. But there’s more. They were poor. They had a bad reputation. Shepherds were what today might be scorned as white trash. Respectable people looked down on them. You could even say people despised them. Being a shepherd was not an honourable way to make a living. Staying out on the hills, they were unable to carry out the religious obligations of good, observant Jews. They couldn’t do what society expected of the heads of households. And they were seen as thieves, because they grazed their sheep on land belonging to other people. That shepherds - poor, powerless, dishonourable - would be the first to receive the good news of the Saviour and come to worship him shows God’s concern for the outcasts of society.

That the shepherds are so privileged is a way of showing us that the birth of Jesus is for all people, including, even especially for, those who are on the margins, outside the elite, those who are shunned and excluded. The news of Christmas joy is for everyone. For everyone. For you and me. If you here tonight are country people, working people, if you are unpolished, if you have a bit of a bad reputation, if you have been in trouble, if you don’t have much, if you feel left out –the angels are trusting you first with the Christmas news that there is born to you this day a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And then remember that the shepherds were changed by what they had heard and seen, and they spread the news.

There is a prayer about the shepherds, from Christians in Uganda.

Blessed are you, O Christ child,
That shepherds, poorest and simplest of earthly people,
Could yet kneel beside you,
And look, level-eyed, into the face of God.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

"The Insanity of the Times:" Sermon for Remembrance Sunday, November 6, 2016

In the second year of Darius the king, on the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the Lord’s word came through Haggai the prophet: Say to Judah’s governor Zerubbabel, Shealtiel’s son, and to the chief priest Joshua, Jehozadak’s son, and to the rest of the people:
Who among you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Doesn’t it appear as nothing to you?
So now, be strong, Zerubbabel, says the Lord.
Be strong, High Priest Joshua, Jehozadak’s son, and be strong, all you people of the land, says the Lord.
Work, for I am with you, says the Lord of heavenly forces.
As with our agreement when you came out of Egypt, my spirit stands in your midst. Don’t fear.
This is what the Lord of heavenly forces says:
In just a little while, I will make the heavens, the earth, the sea, and the dry land quake.
I will make all the nations quake. The wealth of all the nations will come.
I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of heavenly forces.
The silver and the gold belong to me, says the Lord of heavenly forces.
This house will be more glorious than its predecessor, says the Lord of heavenly forces. I will provide prosperity in this place, says the Lord of heavenly forces.
Haggai 1:15b-2:9, Common English Bible

Some people were talking about the temple, how it was decorated with beautiful stones and ornaments dedicated to God. Jesus said, “As for the things you are admiring, the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.”

They asked him, “Teacher, when will these things happen? What sign will show that these things are about to happen?”

Jesus said, “Watch out that you aren’t deceived. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m the one!’ and ‘It’s time!’ Don’t follow them. When you hear of wars and rebellions, don’t be alarmed. These things must happen first, but the end won’t happen immediately.”

Then Jesus said to them, “Nations and kingdoms will fight against each other. There will be great earthquakes and wide-scale food shortages and epidemics. There will also be terrifying sights and great signs in the sky. But before all this occurs, they will take you into custody and harass you because of your faith. They will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will provide you with an opportunity to testify. Make up your minds not to provide your defence in advance. I’ll give you words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to counter or contradict. You will be betrayed by your parents, brothers and sisters, relatives, and friends. They will execute some of you. Everyone will hate you because of my name. Still, not a hair on your heads will be lost. By holding fast, you will gain your lives.”

“When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then you will know that its destruction is close at hand. At that time, those in Judea must flee to the mountains, those in the city must escape, and those in the countryside must not enter the city. These are the days of punishment, when everything written must find its fulfillment. How terrible it will be at that time for women who are pregnant or for women who are nursing their children. There will be great agony on the earth and angry judgment on this people. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all the nations. Jerusalem will be plundered by the Gentiles until the time of the Gentiles are concluded.”
Luke 21:5-24, Common English Bible

My great uncle Walter Hayward joined the Canadian Army during the First World War. In October 1915 he was 16 years old, and he joined up along with his older brother Sandy and others from farms around Rockland, New Brunswick. They signed up with the 104th Battery, Royal Canadian Artillery, but when they finally arrived overseas replacements were needed in other battalions to make up for the heavy losses in combat. Sandy went to the 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles, and Walter to the 78th Battalion, Winnipeg Grenadiers. He had never been to Winnipeg – never been outside Carleton County, New Brunswick, before he joined the Army.

My uncle says that Walter was “well endowed with Hayward wit and humour.” His sense of humour endeared him to everyone in his unit, and contributed greatly to the morale of the troops. He was also fearless.

On September 2nd, 1918, the Canadian Corps was involved in the final Allied advance that would eventually push the German armies out of France. Great Uncle Walter’s company had just reached the top of a hill when it came under very heavy machine gun fire. Walter, 19 years old, six foot three inches tall, was hit in the head. He was still alive, but unconscious, and died the next day in the casualty clearing station. He is buried in the British military cemetery at Aubigny, France (photo below).

17 million people died in the First World War. This number is too big for us to comprehend. Even the number of dead from Canada and Newfoundland, 61,000, is beyond our understanding. We can only relate to individual stories, like my Great Uncle Walter, or the list of names on a war memorial for one township. We have gone through the emotions of the Afghanistan war, 9/11, even the Second World War for some of us, but still we can’t imagine what it was like during that war, called the Great War, because it was so unprecedented. Europe had been largely at peace for a century, and wars had been fought far away. Then this great war began, expected to last only a few months. But it went on for four years, men killed in their millions by new and terrible weapons like the machine gun, and poison gas, and tanks, and aircraft. It was death on an industrial scale, death in numbers no one had ever experienced, death that for the first time affected every village and town in Canada. In one major battle in 1916 the British Army lost 19,000 men in one day, as men walked slowly, weighed down by heavy gear, right into German machine gun fire. That was the day the Newfoundland Regiment lost 91 percent of its men, which is why July 1st may be Canada Day here but will always be Memorial Day in Newfoundland and Labrador.

That much death, that much suffering, had a huge impact, on families, on society. You watch shows like Downton Abbey that are set during the war and afterwards, and you realize that all the romantic drama, young women trying to find husbands, was because so many of the men of marriageable age were dead. I think of my family, Great Uncle Walter dead, Great Uncle Sandy wounded and gassed, suffering from what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. People strained to find meaning in a world where their loved ones had been slaughtered and maimed. During the war there was an artistic movement called Dada, to create a new art that would have nothing to do with prewar styles and ideas. One Dadaist artist said that they were repelled by the butchery of the world war and so they were looking for art that would free people from the insanity of the times.

We can relate to this as Canadians. We live in a time that is nothing like the First World War, but as Jesus said in Luke’s Gospel, we hear of wars and rebellions, nations fight each other, there are natural disasters and famines and epidemics. Christians in many places are harassed and betrayed and arrested and some are executed. Our neighbours in the country that borders ours have an election that is divisive, and ugly, and disturbs us. The First World War was followed by another world war, in which the industrial methods used to slaughter soldiers were applied to exterminating whole groups of people, and we said, “never again,” yet genocide still happens.

The First World War ripped apart and threw away the orderly world people knew. The prewar world was like the Temple Jesus saw, a great structure everyone admired, and then that world was demolished. The world lost meaning.

And we can relate to this, as Christians. Jesus, the Son of God, the divine in human form, was betrayed, and arrested, and tried, and tortured, and killed. The Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthian church, we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal, which is foolish, to any reasonable person. It’s foolish to think that the eternal and living God could die. It’s a scandal that God could be executed as a criminal. No one could make this up. It’s nonsensical.

Peter Rollins, the radical theologian from Northern Ireland, talks about this, and notes that in theology there are all kinds of theories that try to give meaning and purpose to Jesus dying on the cross. But the cross defies expectations, defies constructing theories, defies reason and logic, defies meaning. It’s absurd. It’s like Dada, like punk rock. It doesn’t fit any of our categories.

You know, Rollins points out that we think of God as the fixer. We want God to fix the things that are wrong in our lives and our world. But in the crucifixion God isn’t fixing anything. God is suffering. That is scandalous. That is completely irrational. That is just as senseless as the First World War. The crucifixion draws us into the experience of loss and unknowing and sheer inability to understand, and says that God is there with us.

The First World War shattered how people think about religion, politics, culture. And, as Rollins says, the crucifixion changes how we think about God. The God of the crucifixion can’t be a fixer. That image is done away with. And the crucifixion on Good Friday is followed by Jesus being raised from death on Easter morning. The God of resurrection is defined, not up there in a far away heaven, but here, in the community of believers. The God of resurrection present in the midst of the dirt and grime of everyday existence – God is present even in the mud and blood of battlefields. And God is made known when believers work for justice and love.

We remember those who experienced the senselessness and suffering of war. Our suffering God was there with them. We remember those who died. Our God who died on a cross was there with them. We struggle to make sense of a world that seems crazy. Our God who experienced loss and separation is there with us. And we try to build a new world worthy of those we remember, a world of peace and justice. And our God who triumphs over death is there with us. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

By Faith Alone: Sermon for Reformation Sunday, October 30, 2016

Scripture readings are from the New King James Version of the Bible.

In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head while on his bed. Then he wrote down the dream, telling the main facts.

Daniel spoke, saying, “I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the Great Sea. And four great beasts came up from the sea, each different from the other.

“I, Daniel, was grieved in my spirit within my body, and the visions of my head troubled me. 16 I came near to one of those who stood by, and asked him the truth of all this. So he told me and made known to me the interpretation of these things: 17 ‘Those great beasts, which are four, are four kings which arise out of the earth. 18 But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom forever, even forever and ever.’"
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18

In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, 12 that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory.

In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.

Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers: that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.

And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.
Ephesians 1:11-23

Then Jesus lifted up His eyes toward His disciples, and said:
“Blessed are you poor,
For yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
For you shall be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
For you shall laugh.
Blessed are you when men hate you,
And when they exclude you,
And revile you, and cast out your name as evil,
For the Son of Man’s sake.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy!
For indeed your reward is great in heaven,
For in like manner their fathers did to the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich,
For you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full,
For you shall hunger.
Woe to you who laugh now,
For you shall mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all men speak well of you,
For so did their fathers to the false prophets.

“But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise.
Luke 6:20-31

We have Reformation Sunday today because on October 31, 1517, a priest and theology teacher named Martin Luther went up to the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, and posted his 95 Theses on the door – 95 objections to church teachings that he believed had gotten away from what Jesus and the apostles had taught. And, partially because a new technology, the printing press, allowed these theses and other writings to be distributed quickly, that started the Protestant Reformation that spread across Europe. Our United Church heritage in the Presbyterian, Congregational, Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches is Protestant and goes right back to those days. We are a Reformed church, with our identity shaped by this Reformation.

Before the Reformation there was one church across all of Western and Central Europe, the Catholic Church. One of the key differences Luther and the other Reformers had with Catholic church teaching of the time was about how we are saved by God through Jesus. Luther said that the church had lost sight of the truth about salvation that is found in Scripture. Basically, the Catholic church back then taught that people are saved by works, that is, what we do. One thing that got Luther riled up to post his 95 theses was that a commissioner from Rome had been sent to the area to raise funds to build St. Peter’s Basilica. That’s the huge church that is now at the centre of the Vatican. The pope’s delegate was selling what were called indulgences. If you gave money for St. Peter’s, you received an indulgence, a promise that this good work would guarantee you a quicker entrance into heaven.

And even with our Protestant heritage, we still talk sometimes like Catholics 500 years ago. If someone does something nice for us, we say, “Oh, you will go to heaven for that.”

Luther pointed to what the Bible says. The Protestant Reformers proclaimed “Scripture alone.” They didn’t teach anything that couldn’t be found in the Bible. So Luther turned to the letter to the Ephesians. We just read part of the first chapter of Ephesians, about God’s saints. In the next chapter, it says, and these are the verses Luther and the Reformers highlighted:

You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives (Ephesians 2:8-10, Common English Bible).

We are saved by faith, not works. Faith alone. We can’t do anything to earn our salvation. It is God’s free gift to us, whether we deserve it or not. Good works are still important, but they are a sign of our faith, not the way that we are saved or justified or put right with God.

This truth found in Scripture is called the doctrine of justification. Luther said that this is the one and firm rock, the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine. We are saved by God’s grace. Luther was summoned before an assembly of the imperial and church authorities. It was called the Diet of Worms, which sounds pretty funny, but a diet is a parliament, and the city is spelled Worms in English but pronounced Worms in German. So it wasn't really a "diet of worms." Anyway, Luther was told that he would be declared an outlaw unless he recanted his statements on justification. He responded, “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me.”

If we know anything about the Reformation, we probably think about it as Protestant vs. Catholic, and it was. Divisions were deep, and people were persecuted, and put to death, and wars were fought, because of these differences over what people believed. Jesus said that people will hate and exclude and revile his followers. That was certainly true, terribly true, during this period and the centuries afterwards.

But the Reformed churches aren’t the same as they were 400 and 500 years ago. A Reformed motto is “the church is reformed and always reforming.” And the Roman Catholic church isn’t the same as it was then either. It has been reforming too, changing many of the things the Protestant Reformers were rebelling against. Pope Francis will visit Sweden this week for the anniversary of the Reformation, in a show of unity.

And there has even been progress on resolving that key difference at the heart of this split in the church, the disagreement over the doctrine of justification. Catholics and Protestants in fact worked out a solution only 20 years after Luther first published his ideas, but this effort failed as the two sides were already too entrenched. So in recent years the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches arrived at a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. It has now been affirmed by Methodist and Anglican churches. The United Church of Canada belongs to the World Communion of Reformed Churches, with 229 member churches in 108 countries. It’s hoped that this Reformed association will sign on to the Declaration next year when it meets in Germany as part of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary. As the chair of the Theology and Inter-Church Inter-Faith Committee of our denomination, I just sent in our Canadian response to the declaration on justification.

This declaration by all these churches means that this historical difference on how we are saved in Jesus Christ no longer divides us. The churches affirm together some key truths from scripture about our Christian faith: God calls all people unconditionally to salvation in Jesus Christ; we are powerless to save ourselves, so no one can respond to God’s call apart from God’s grace working in them; we receive salvation by grace alone, through faith in Christ, not because of anything we have done; we remain dependent on God’s grace throughout our lives. Grace is the source of our justification while faith is how we receive it. Our union with Christ by faith involves both justification by grace and sanctification, or growing in grace.

And while our justification is not because of any good works, our faith is acted out in how we love. In Christ the Holy Spirit renews us in order that we may be equipped to do the works of love God has prepared for us, as a sign of our justification. Faith without works is dead, the New Testament says. In our United Church response we wrote that we affirm that there is unity between justification and justice. God's movement towards us in love does not end with us, but always flows outward, moving us outward to participate in God's mission of healing the world. The Reformed churches are convinced that the doctrine of justification can’t be abstract, somehow separated from the reality of injustice, oppression and violence.

So good news on this Reformation Sunday, especially for us with the motto - right there on our United Church crest - “That they may all be one,” the prayer of Jesus for his followers. We see new possibilities for overcoming 500 years of division and for the joint witness to the world that is the will of Jesus. Thanks be to God.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

London 2259

I was born in London - well, Wimbledon in South London, which was once well outside the city but is now a suburb, and we lived in Putney. So I have long been interested in how London, particularly future London, is depicted in films.

There's the alternate-reality London under the Magisterium of The Golden Compass.

And the London of 2259, depicted in Star Trek Into Darkness. In Star Trek's London, there are familiar features like the Thames and St. Paul's Cathedral, but the City and Westminster, at least, are apparently now covered in towers (more than they are now - none of Sir Christopher Wren's City churches are visible, other than St. Paul's). We know from the movie that some of these towers are apartment buildings, as this shot appears in the film as the view from a character's home.

That St. Paul's is still a part of the city landscape over 240 years in the future isn't surprising - but is it still a church in this future London? And the image of the cathedral surrounded by the towers of secular life says something to me, more than the continued presence of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz in the movie's version of future San Francisco does. Perhaps for me St. Paul's serves the same function as the Golden Gate in the Star Trek universe - see this exploration of the California city and Star Trek in Wired.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Use Emoji to Search the Bible

As it says right on this site, I'm a member of the Bible Gateway Blogger Grid. This week I was sent a news release from Bible Gateway, which I'm republishing verbatim as I found this so fascinating. Searching the Bible from your phone with emoji!

In Time for World Emoji Day July 17, Use Emoji to Search the Bible on Bible Gateway

3% of public Bible notes and 2% of Tweets linking to Bible verses contain emoji

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (July 13, 2016) – Bible Gateway, the Internet’s most visited Christian website, is now providing its millions of visitors the ability to use more than 330 emoji in keyword searches to find their favorite Bible verses and passages in more than 50 English Bible versions.

“We’re not changing any words in the text of the Bible – we’re simply letting people search using emoji that they type themselves,” says Stephen Smith, senior director, digital products for Bible Gateway. For example, when the emoji for “clapping hands” and “tree” are entered into Bible Gateway’s keyword search box using the NIV translation, the search results display Isaiah 55:12 — “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”

Bible search using emoji on Bible Gateway can be achieved by using the emoji keyboard on iPhone or Android smartphones while accessing Bible Gateway’s website or mobile app (when connected with the Internet).

Social sharing statistics show Bible readers use emoji while they read Scripture. About 3% of public Bible notes and 2% of Tweets linking to Bible verses contain emoji, with the percentages increasing each year. The most-common emoji associated with Bible verses include: “praying hands,” “heart,” “praising hands,” and “open book.” A collection of emoji can be found at Emojipedia®.

For more information see the Bible Gateway Blog post.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Inviting Your Stories About Adoption

How has adoption shaped your sense of identity and belonging? How has it influenced your faith?

The Theology of Adoption Working Group (part of The United Church of Canada's Theology and Inter-Church Inter-Faith Committee, which I chair) is seeking stories about adoption and forming families of choice. If you have been affected by adoption as an adoptee, parent, grandparent, family member, and/or in some other way, we invite you to tell your story.

We recognize that these experiences may be positive, negative, or mixed. You are welcome to respond by submitting a story (spoken or written), video, photograph, piece of art or music, and/or other forms of expression.

Your stories will inform the work of expressing a theology of adoption for the United Church. We will seek your permission before sharing your stories in a widely distributed format. Any features that could personally identify those involved will be changed.

Responses will be received until July 15, 2016. Responses may be sent to:

The Theology of Adoption Working Group
E-mail: ticif@united-church.ca
Mail: Attn: John Young
3250 Bloor Street West, Suite 300
Toronto, ON M8X 2Y4
Fax: 416-231-3103 (attn: John Young)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Donkey Theology: Sermon for Palm Sunday, March 20, 2016

The "little piece on Donkey Theology" I cite is by Koloma Make of Papua New Guinea, who spoke with two elders, Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Morris, in Jamaica. It is found in Let Justice Roll Down: A Worship Resource for Lent, Holy Week and Easter, compiled by Geoffrey Duncan (Norwich, Norfolk: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2003).

After Jesus said this, he continued on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

As Jesus came to Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives, he gave two disciples a task. He said, “Go into the village over there. When you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If someone asks, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say ‘Its master needs it.’” Those who had been sent found it exactly as he said.

As they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They replied, “Its master needs it.” They brought it to Jesus, threw their clothes on the road, and lifted Jesus onto it. As Jesus rode along, they spread their clothes on the road.

As Jesus approached the road leading down from the Mount of Olives, the whole throng of his disciples began rejoicing. They praised God with a loud voice because of all the mighty things they had seen. They said,
“Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord.
Peace on heaven and glory in the highest heavens.”

Some of the Pharisees from the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, scold your disciples! Tell them to stop!”

He answered, “I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout.”
- Luke 19:28-40, Common English Bible

Last week we were in the Caribbean, in the Cayman Islands. The Caymans are a British Overseas Territory, so when we got off the plane and entered the airport terminal there were portraits of the Queen and Prince Philip, so as Canadians we felt right at home. We have a friend who lives there, so he has a car and is used to driving on the left side of the road, which I am not. He took us around Grand Cayman, down some roads where tourists almost never go, to see where many Caymanians live.

And all over the island there are churches. Each village seems to have a church for our partners the United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, and a Church of God Full Gospel Hall, and a Seventh Day Adventist church. And we saw a Wesleyan Holiness Church, and a church that meets in a movie theatre, and a Presbyterian church. I guess that, just like here, that’s where the Presbyterians go who didn’t join the United church. In the National Museum of the Cayman Islands there is a section on religion, and how important the church is in Cayman life. On Sundays everything on the islands closes. No shopping at all. Cruise ships anchor in Georgetown harbour on Sunday and several thousand people get off, ready to shop, but nothing is open.

Well, Grand Cayman last week may be 20 centuries and an ocean removed from our story about Jesus entering Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, but there are palm trees everywhere, and it’s hot, and I can imagine people eagerly cutting branches from the trees and waving them to greet Jesus. And I can imagine a donkey. In the days before banks and finance companies and resorts came to the Caymans, people lived by fishing and catching turtles and farming. We visited a heritage farm, with an outdoor hut called a caboose for cooking in the heat, and a yard with no grass, just sand, as they have in the West Indies, and fruit trees. And in those days, people used boats, and horses, and donkeys to get around. Now the Caymans have one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean, and most people drive. We were in a Kia, identical to ours except that it had right-hand drive. Our friend said everything is in the same place except you will turn on the windshield wipers when you want to signal a turn, until you get used to driving.

Our story tells us that Jesus asks two of his friends to bring him a colt to ride. The Greek word Luke uses here means a young donkey. I was reading a little piece on Donkey Theology, written by someone who spoke with two elderly men in Jamaica. One of the elders says that a patient man rides a donkey. The first lesson you learn riding a donkey is patience. If a rider is in a rush and wants to reach their destination quickly by forcing the donkey, the animal will hesitate, and move slowly, or halt. Patience is a virtue you learn from not struggling against the donkey.

The other elderly man points out how humbly the donkey carries its load. In the West Indies donkeys were, and still are, used to carry water, sugar cane, and people, and to pull carts, all over long distances. Donkeys and their owners know about weight. This old Jamaican man quotes from the Bible, from Mark 8:34, where Jesus says, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” In the West Indies, a donkey often carries two hampers, placed on either side of its back. It’s like a yoke, a burden to carry. These old men say that the donkey is a symbol of the cross.

Patience. Humility. Carrying the cross. All shown to us by the donkey, and all shown to us by Jesus. The donkey is not what we would think of as the most magnificent of animals. And look at Scripture, the prophecy of Isaiah about a man of sorrows, a suffering servant, a prophecy we see as fulfilled in Jesus:

He possessed no splendid form for us to see, no desirable appearance.
He was despised and avoided by others; a man who suffered, who knew sickness well.
Like someone from whom people hid their faces, he was despised, and we didn’t think about him.
- Isaiah 53:2-3
Riding a donkey teaches patience. The donkey carries its load humbly. And look at what the letter to the Philippians says about Jesus:
When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
- Philippians 2:7-8

Donkey Theology. The old men of the West Indies have a lot of wisdom pointing us to the donkey, an animal who is laughed at yet played and plays an essential role in rural life, a poor beast which with its load becomes a symbol of the cross. The donkey and Jesus are both humble, both teach patience, both are mocked, both carry burdens – the donkey whatever people put on it, Jesus the weight of everything we have done wrong. The donkey, such an object of ridicule, becomes a royal mount for the King of Kings, carrying Jesus down the slope into the city and his destiny: the cross.

That cross is waiting for him on Friday. The shadow of that cross reaches out to him now. We may want to rush right to Easter Sunday, to fast forward to lilies and coloured eggs and an empty grave and resurrection, and zip right by Friday and that cross. But remember the patience the donkey teaches. If you try to hurry a donkey, it will slow down or stop completely. We can’t race past Good Friday. This is one story, from Palm Sunday through Holy Week to the Last Supper Jesus shares with his friends on Thursday, through his arrest and trial and death on the cross on Good Friday, to waiting as his body lies in the grave on Saturday, before we get to Easter morning. One story. So much meaning: pain and joy, sorrow and mystery. Holy Week begins.

The photos are mine: Elmslie Memorial United Church in Georgetown, Grand Cayman, a congregation of the United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands; and cruise ships moored off Georgetown harbour, taken from Grand Cayman's Seven Mile Beach.