Sunday, December 10, 2017

Advent 2 - Making a Home for Righteousness

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

So here we are in this season of Advent, waiting for God. Waiting for Christ to return, as he promised after his resurrection. Waiting for God’s kingdom to be here fully, where, as our Psalm says, steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, righteousness and peace will kiss each other, and the glory of the LORD will dwell in our land. We are waiting for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven, for the world to be made new. 

We’ve been waiting for a while now though, don’t you think? Almost two thousand years, actually, and I’m getting impatient with all this waiting. We know that the day of the Lord will come with a big bang and that everything we know will go up in flames, and that all the secrets of the world will be exposed, but when I read the news, I can’t help but think, the sooner the better. Climate change, nuclear war, gender-based violence, religious persecution of all kinds, corruption everywhere. What is God waiting for? I am so ready for righteousness, which means justice by the way, to be fully present among us.

As it turns out, our impatience for God’s kingdom to be here is not new. Only one hundred years after Jesus died and was raised, we have the second letter of Peter, our second reading from this morning. And in this letter, it’s pretty clear that Jesus’ followers are already impatient and wondering when he’s going to return. They, too, were ready for everything to be overturned and for God’s justice and righteousness to prevail. They were probably wondering, like me, when God was going to sweep in and take over and use God’s almighty power to punish the evil and rescue the good and make it all better.

But the writer of 2 Peter offers a different perspective. He starts by saying, “do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” Time does not work the same for God as it does for us. God has a much bigger perspective of the world than we do. Humans, as the species we are now, have only been around for less than two hundred thousand years. The planet we live on has existed for more than 14 billion years. God waited billions of years from the beginning of Creation to bring Jesus into the world the first time, and we are complaining about less than two thousand years of waiting. God’s timing is a little bit different than ours.

But 2 Peter raises what is the more important issue: “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” As it turns out, while we have been so busy waiting for God, it turns out that God has been waiting for us. God is waiting for us to prepare for what God is actually going to bring. God is waiting for us to be ready for Christ’s coming again.

Why? Because the world that we create while we are getting ready for God’s kingdom is the kingdom that will come. Let me repeat that: The world that we create while we are getting ready for God’s kingdom is the kingdom that will come. You see, 2 Peter says that our “leading lives of holiness and godliness,” leading lives of righteousness and justice, “waiting for” the coming of the day of God is actually “hastening the coming of the day of God.” In a remarkable upset, God has given us God’s own power, so that the ways in which we prepare during this season of Advent determine the world that will arrive. Our preparations determine the kingdom that will come. The home we create while we are waiting for God is the home God will give to us.

Now, God, clearly, is hoping for a place, as 2 Peter says, where “righteousness is at home.” So the question becomes: How do we create a home for righteousness? How do we live so that righteousness comes, the sooner the better?

The word “righteous” comes from the Hebrew Bible. It’s root, tzedeq, is connected to justice, and equality. It’s also connected to fairness and balance. For example, properly balanced weights that you might use in the market, are called “righteous.” Equitable division of food and resources so that everyone has what they need is righteous. Restoring the sick to wholeness, correcting injustice, redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor, ensuring that power is shared amongst all––these all fall under the category of righteousness.

Righteousness is not morality. Nor is it staying out of trouble. In the Bible, righteous living is active living. It is going out and striving for justice and balance. Sitting at home and passively waiting for justice to work itself out is not considered righteous living. The saying, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing,” reflects this concept. Martin Luther, when he was explaining the Ten Commandments in his Large Catechism, reinforced this idea that true righteousness is actively doing justice. In explaining the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not murder,” he wrote, “this commandment is violated not only when we do evil, but also when we have the opportunity to do good to our neighbours and to prevent, protect, and save them from suffering bodily harm or injury but fail to do so.” Luther says that those who do nothing in the face of need, who live passively while there is suffering in the world are guilty of murder. Righteous living is active living. Being at home with righteousness means being at home with justice––being at home with going out and actively dismantling structures of injustice.

But wow, is this hard! For one thing, this is a lot of work! Dismantling systems of injustice is no walk in the park! Our modern systems of equality took years and years of blood, sweat, and tears, literally. The abolishment of slavery by the British Commonwealth, the right for women to vote, labour laws that prevent child exploitation, universal health-care––any major change in culture that has resulted in greater equality and justice has taken years of toil and conflict. The reason that our Psalm says that when the Lord comes, righteousness and peace will kiss is because righteousness does not yet come peacefully. It comes through striving and, yes, conflict.

But there’s a second reason that righteousness is so hard. And that’s because it’s not something that can be imposed. We can’t force righteousness. We can’t force justice or equality. Coming in with sweeping powers and saying, “the world will now be fair and equal and just!” is the very opposite of the world actually being fair and equal and just. The command, “Share your power!” is kind of self-defeating. It is very difficult to make people feel at home with justice and righteousness by threatening or forcing them into it. It’s like demanding love. It doesn’t work.

Fortunately for us, God knows this. God knows that things like love, and righteousness, and justice can’t be forced. They can only be inspired. They can only be brought to fruition by people who have themselves experienced these things. If you have never experienced love, you will not know how to love. If you have never experienced justice, you won’t know how to be just. And so God models this for us. God acts towards us with righteousness and justice and love so that we will know what that looks like. So that we will be at home with it. So that we can recreate it and hasten the coming of God’s kingdom.

God does this by coming to us in weakness. Righteousness and justice are about lifting up the lowly and bringing down the powerful from their thrones, as Hannah and Mary sing in their canticles. God, whom we call almighty and omnipotent and the Creator of the universe and God above all, with unlimited power over life and death, God models the most righteous and just use of this power by surrendering that power. By coming as a baby, born to an enslaved people, under humiliating circumstances. God models the use of power by choosing to live a life of active servanthood and eventually dying for us. God did not come as yet another Emperor––the Emperor above all Emperors. God could have. But God didn’t. And God could bring about the end of the world right now, and impose justice and peace on the world. But God doesn’t. God chooses the path of righteousness, which means going out into the wilderness of others. It means going out and struggling with others. It means going out and actively working against injustice, giving our voice and our privilege to those who are suffering, and it means giving up everything for them. 

God models righteousness by refusing to force us to do what God wants, while at the same time tirelessly working with us to get there. God’s patience with us is a sign of that. God will not and will never force you to do God’s will, and anyone who tells you otherwise, who says that God demands submission or obedience is wrong. God’s relationship with us, which begins with a lowly birth in a manger, is one in which God always surrenders God’s own power to us, so that we can freely choose to follow the path of Christ. So that we can freely choose to surrender our own power to others. So that we can take the privileges we enjoy, and give them away. We become at home with righteousness by giving others the freedom and power that God is daily giving us.

There’s a cartoon by William DeBurgh, where Jesus is sitting on a park bench, next to a well-meaning, nicely-dressed person. And the person asks Jesus, “Why do you allow things like famine, and war, and homelessness to exist in our world?” And Jesus says, “Interesting you should bring that up––I was about to ask you the same thing.” 

We are waiting for Jesus to come again. We are waiting for God’s kingdom, the home of righteousness. And God is oh-so-patiently waiting for us. Let our waiting hasten the coming of the day of God, where righteousness is at home. May our acts of living say, Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Advent 1 - The Shifting of the World

Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37

How do you handle change? I don’t mean things like changes in the weather, or your favourite cereal coming in a smaller box. I mean massive change. How do you handle your world shifting beneath you? How do you handle things while you’re waiting for everything to settle down?

Our Gospel passage for today, this first Sunday of Advent, invites us to think about these questions. When the author of the Gospel of Mark writes about the days of suffering, and the sun and moon being darkened, and the power in the heavens being shaken, he’s reflecting the situation in which the Jews found themselves during the fall of the Second Temple in the year 70. Their world had been shaken, in a most devastating way, and was still shaking, and they were waiting for things to settle down.

This experience is, sadly, nothing new. There have always been times in history, either world history, or the history of a congregation, or even in our own personal history, when our world is shaken in devastating ways and we’re waiting for things to settle down. It’s a common experience in our lives, even if it feels incredibly uncommon when it occurs. And so we have Jesus talking about the time of waiting, that period when we endure the shaking of our world, saying that this time is like servants waiting for the master of the house to return from a long journey but nobody knows when that will be. We have Jesus saying that the servants of the house will have to endure an unsettling period of waiting.

So how do you feel as you wait for your world to settle down? It seems to me that waiting for the world to stop shifting, waiting for the master to arrive, can provoke quite different reactions. On the one hand, we can be hopeful and excited. The change that we are encountering, the way in which our world is shifting, might be so awful in and of itself that we are grateful for an end to it. When I was a child, I remember how much I hated having a substitute teacher in the class. When the regular teacher was away, schedules were all upset, and rules weren’t followed, and no one behaved. The classroom was always chaos. I couldn’t wait for the regular teacher to get back and to restore order. But I liked my teachers. And that influenced how I felt about the unsettling period when the one in charge was away. When it comes to Jesus’ parable, if we have experienced the master of the house as good, and kind, and caring, and just, and a stabilizing influence, then we will be hopeful and excited about him returning, no matter what the time.

On the other hand, if we have experienced the master as judgmental, and unfair, and abusive, we will endure the time of waiting with anxiety and fear. For example, I can imagine that my reaction to a substitute teacher would have been much different if I had not liked my regular teacher. If my teachers had been unfair, and too strict, and belittled students who made mistakes, or if I had gone to school in a time where bad behaviour was punished by the strap or a ruler, I can see that I would spend the time waiting for the teacher to return with great anxiety. What would they say when they got back? Would they have some new punishment ready for all the infractions committed when they were away? Would they have some new rule nobody could follow? When it comes to Jesus’ parable, if we’ve experienced the master of the house as power-hungry, and harsh, and unjust, then it’s perfectly natural that we would be anxious and fearful about him returning, no matter what the time.

Today’s Advent message is that when the world is shifting underneath you, it’s a sign that the master is coming. And when we hear that, we can feel hopeful or anxious, or both, depending on our past experiences. But Jesus gives us a clue as to what kind of master to expect. He hints at whether we should be hopeful and excited, or anxious and fearful. Jesus says, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that [the Son of Man] is near.”

“Summer is near.” Surely this is something we can identify with as a symbol of good things to come. Jesus and the audience of the Gospel of Mark never knew winter like we do, with the cold temperatures and sometimes snow, and most importantly less than eight hours of sunshine every day. Jesus didn’t know the kind of giddy excitement for summer that we feel by the time March rolls around, but he did know that summer is the time when fruit is ripe and grain is ready for harvest. Summer is the time when food is plentiful and life is full.
And so when Jesus says that the Son of Man’s arrival, the master’s return to the house, is like the shifting of the world from winter to summer, we can understand that he means it is a good thing. The world shifting, as unsettling and painful as it might be, can be endured much like winter––with discomfort as the days get darker, yes, but also with hope and joy that summer is coming. The master, our good master, the master who gently guides us, and forgives our mistakes, and heals our pain––this master is the one who is returning. The master who brings peace to chaos, the master who brings strength to the weak, the master who brings God to us––this master is the one we’re waiting for.

This is why we have a church season called Advent. The purpose of Advent is not only to prepare us to celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus, even though that’s how we predominantly spend it. Advent is also meant to help us wait for the return of the master to the house. It’s meant to open our eyes to the ways in which our world is shifting in preparation for the Son of Man to come again. It’s meant to help us handle change with hope, rather than anxiety, by reminding us that all change ends with the return of our good master.

It’s not lost on me that in this congregation called Advent, you have been going through your own Advent season for a while now. In many ways, this congregation’s world has shifted quite a bit beneath you, and I have no doubt that as you wait for it to settle there is both hope and anxiety. This is natural. But as we celebrate this liturgical season of Advent, may God give you the faith to trust in Jesus’ promise that this period of waiting, like all others, will end with summer and stability and new life, and may God’s Spirit give you hope that outweighs your anxiety. Yes, the world is shifting, but our good master is coming. And so we say, with hope and joy, in this place of Advent, in this season of Advent: Come, Lord Jesus, Come. Amen.