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This sermon was prepared for Chapel at the United Theological College / La Seminarie Unie for November 16th, 2016. It was based on the following Sunday’s lectionary (Proper 29).

In the Luke passage, we hear Zechariah speaking to his newborn child. We hear, in this old man’s voice, both the expectancy of a father who looks at his child, so full of potential and the expectancy of a Jewish man of God waiting for his Messiah.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:76-79 NRSV)

Darkness. The shadow of death.

A nation oppressed by empire; a people searching for their identity through God’s covenant with them. John the Baptizer was called to be the voice crying from the wilderness “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!”

Because God said: I will give light to those who sit in darkness

In the Jeremiah reading today Christians hear a foreshadowing of Christ’s ministry:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness. (Jer. 23:5-6)

Of course, the writer likely wasn’t imaging a wandering tradesman from Nazareth when these words were taken down. However, the Messiah figure, whom Christian believe to be Jesus of Nazareth, would be in his mind.

Messiah, a saviour king, who would come to restore Israel to its rightful place in this world—a special place for God’s chosen people.

The metaphor of the shepherd speaks of gathering a scattered flock, bringing them back home, and caring for them—ensuring their safety—so that they are able to prosper. It also brings to mind Psalm 23, images of compassion, prosperity, and righteousness.

As 21st century Canadians, we don’t hear a call to exiled community members—we don’t have the recent memories of the destruction of Jerusalem in our mind—we don’t live in fear of a foreign power. However, for Jeremiah’s listeners, this was their reality—oppressed by Assyria, they were a nation conquered and scattered.

Then, for 1st century Jews, these distant memories lived on as their reality under Rome—they were a nation that had been living in darkness—a nation that had been living under an oppressive regime.

You and I, however, still experience oppression, violence, and pain in our world. We still experience darkness, as communities, as individuals, and, as mortal beings, we live our lives under the shadow of death. And, there are those in our world who these words—promises to a people oppressed and scattered—reflect the desires of their own hears.

We think of new friends we’ve made in our communities who have fled their homes—they are called by many names: refugee, asylum-seeker, migrant. In their own stories, they have insight into these ancient ones. Ancient stories filled with timeless human emotions of fear, desperation, and hope.

And, some of us have sat on the other side of the table. We identify better with the Assyrians and the Romans. Maybe not through our own direct actions, but certainly through our communal history as peoples of privilege.

During the sentencing of a young Cree woman, named Josephine, in Toronto this year Ontario Justice Nakatsuru spoke of the darkness of Canada’s colonial legacy, saying to Josephine:

The trauma you suffered may not be unique to indigenous offenders. But it is unique how these traumas have been created or contributed to by the colonial legacy of our country. By some deliberate policies and laws of our nation. By overt and systemic discrimination against indigenous peoples.

The line between your identity and history as an indigenous person as well as the effects of the injustices done to indigenous peoples and your breach is direct and obvious. […] The life you lead as a young woman. With its dangers. Its lack of meaning. These problems are ones that many in the indigenous communities face. They are problems that have their origins in the way indigenous people have been treated.

The shadow of death falls on us all in different ways, sometimes it is circumstance, sometimes it is our own body that feels like it is betraying us, and often it is at the hands of other people.

But, God said: I will give light to those who sit in darkness

This king figure, whom Zechariah and John, point us towards… This shepherd who their ancestors waited for—expectantly… Would come and transform us through a message of peace.

However, in our story, today, we have yet to meet this figure. This week we are still in the liturgical season of Ordinary Times, next week marks the beginning of Advent, the beginning of our journey through Luke’s account of the conception and birth of the Messiah figure.

For now, we are left to contemplate the promise God provided the Jewish people through Jeremiah, through Zechariah, and then through John. The promise of a shepherd. The Most High. A figure, who…will bring the break of dawn…bring light into our darkness…bring a new pathway of peace.

And so, as Advent draws near we imagine ourselves as those scattered sheep, waiting to be taken home.

Justice Nakatsura, at the close of her sentencing of Josephine made this statement:

It is the most natural of human instincts to want to go home. Even when memories of home are at times tinged with sadness, fear, or regret. Because I am not talking about someone’s actual home. Or a home from one’s childhood. We all nurture in our heart the idea of “Home”. The idea of home is about a place of safety. A refuge. A sanctuary. Where love resides. Home is a place of hope. A place of potential. A place where every one of us can feel like we can become better. Every one of us has such a home.

And, God said: I will give light to those who sit in darkness

The Good News of our gospel story is that, in the midst of all this darkness: this violence, pain, and oppression, there is a God who cares enough about us, who values us, who hopes for us.

This light, we will soon discover, is a light of hope, a light calling all of us towards a home, filled with relationship, safety, and potential. A light breaking through our darkness, like the rays of dawn cutting through the night.

Thanks be to God.

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Book Review // Scott Evans’ “Beautiful Attitudes”

Lately, I’ve found myself delving into the trifecta of Scott Evans’ writing; if you haven’t heard of him he is a scruffy writer/speaker from Ireland. A bit of a wandering prophet (not necessarily a compliment, thinking of the eccentric prophets of ye Olde Testament), he has produced three books all worth a read: Beautiful AttitudesCloser Still, and Failing from the Front.

Scott and I had the chance to meet on two separate occasions, included the most tedious game of Settlers of Catan I have ever played. That aside, I found him to be a genuine person with pragmatic compassion, someone who could speak both quiet and obnoxious truth into your life–my favourite kind of person. These encounters drove me to begin reading his three books, all of which I will be reviewing over the next month. Alas, in no particular order I shall begin.

Beautiful Attitudes: Living Out the Christian Manifesto by Scott Evans

IMAG0075I have read a number of devotional books in my time, most of which I find a balance somewhere between Hallmark-ian and so outlandishly mystical they speak little to my person. Beautiful Attitudes started as a series of blog posts, which lends itself to short chapters easily picked-up on a bus ride or waiting at the doctor’s office. Each vignette is a dissertation on a verse from Matthew 5:3-12, otherwise known as the Beatitudes.

An overdone piece of scriptures, some might say, but Scott does an excellent job of providing his reader with a different lens to explore the ideas of this Social Gospel. He writes about Jesus, the revolutionary, and the counter-cultural blessings he is declaring for the marginalized, the oppressed, the broken and the poor. It is easy, two millennium later, to forget about the radical implications of the Sermon on the Mount, and especially these specific verses, but Scott does a great job of showing us this new “manifesto”.

The Sermon on the Mount is a manifesto for the disillusioned and disenfranchised. They gather as people who have experienced the Kingdom of God and this sermon is an invitation for them to become participants, to be builders and citizens in a new Kingdom, one that is not of this world. An otherworldly way of living. (Pg. 3)

In the age of Millenials (young adults born 1980’s-2000’s), there is such a desire to delve into the implications of the Gospel and social justice, ethics, and spiritual growth. Scott does a great job of exploring these ideas and really fostering an invitation to explore one’s faith in this light–.

When someone is first interested in learning about Christianity and Christ (hopefully more so the latter) I often struggle with suggestions for books. Friends will often ask for suggestions of gifts to give others, something not too heavy or long. This book is an excellent introduction. Scott refrains from pretentiousness when it comes to Biblical knowledge, and explains stories and parables in all of his writing with the skill of a great storyteller. I would not hesitate to lend this book to others as a glimpse at the essence of Christ’s ministry, using broken people as blessings, working through suffering to establish a new kind of kingdom.

I should add, if you are looking for a traditionally sanitized piece of writing to give teens, don’t buy this book. In fact, if you want a book that speaks of total redemption, overcoming temptation and living a life of purity, don’t buy any of Scott’s books. He has chosen to share, vulnerability, his own story, struggles included, which speak more to the progressive transformative power of Christ than of battles won. It is a meaningful story but it is also very honest, and if that kind of honesty offends you then it would be best to simply not pick it up.

But, for those who want a different perspective on an overdone idea, it is a great book, especially for young adults looking to explore their faith in a broken world as a broken person.

And, lastly, here is the scale:

General-Readability: ★★★★☆
Overall Message: ★★★☆☆
Challenging Ideas: ★★★★☆
Memorability: ★★★☆☆

A Barely Believable Story // Death, Resurrection and Forgiveness

Reflections from the Gospel of John.

I ponder if the believability of Jesus’ death and resurrection has less to do with his living again, and more to do with his forgiveness.

If Jesus was so brutally murdered by the Roman state, handed over by the religious authorities of his people, how could he ever express forgiveness? As Professor Mary Boys of Union Theological Seminary (Source) puts it: “Crucifixion functioned as a state sanctioned punishment to terrorize and pacify the population for Roman rule.” It was not pleasant, and it is not to be made light of. It was cruel and public, it was a humiliation that startled on-lookers.

Yet, we see Jesus sentenced to this fate saved for those who must be made examples of. We see his blamelessness under the law here in John’s account of the Passion. Here Annas, father-law-law of the high priest Caiphas questions Jesus:

Annas (to Jesus): Who are Your disciples, and what do You teach?

Jesus: I have spoken in public where the world can hear, always teaching in the synagogue and in the temple where the Jewish people gather. I have never spoken in secret. So why would you need to interrogate Me? Many have heard Me teach. Why don’t you question them? They know what I have taught.

While Jesus offered His response, an officer standing nearby struck Jesus with his hand.

Officer: Is that how You speak to the high priest?

Jesus: If I have spoken incorrectly, why don’t you point out the untruths that I speak? Why do you hit Me if what I have said is correct?

(The Voice, John 18)

Jesus is placed in a power struggle between the Jewish religious authorities of the day and the Roman governor Pilate. Sent before one man and then the next, he, an innocent man, is eventually sacrificed to the jealous and vengeful will of the high priest and his people. Manipulating Pilate with a political agenda they are able to sentence Jesus to death under Roman law, where Jewish law will not permit. We then see the gentile Pilate “washing his hands” of the incident, in full awareness of Jesus’ innocence.

Persecuted by the men who were meant to be leading Israel in a life of devotion to God’s will and law, and wrongfully executed by an oppressive foreign state, Jesus died on the cross in a manner of shame, naked and in agony. When he returns to life in three days, a surprising affair to even his closest friends, he speaks of peace of mission. He presses his friends to share the lessons he had taught them before his crucifixion, and to care for his people’s, to shepherd a movement (John 21).

Jesus, in an unbelievable move, rose from his painful death to speak of peace and forgiveness. He rose from a shameful death to send his closest friends out amongst the people who had unknowingly taken part in a system that saw the death of an innocent man. He sent them out even to those who were his persecutors, the Jewish authorities of the day. It is not his death, though scandalous, which is so unbelievable, or even that a man could wake up from his death, but that he could send his closest friends out on a mission of forgiveness and reconciliation.

I am happy to put aside my skepticism and accept Christ’s death and resurrection, it isn’t always easy, but I see and feel the remainder of both. I find it much harder to believe a man could extend love and forgiveness like that–a barely believable story.