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I Just Had an Epiphany…

"Light Bulb on Desk" by  Dineshraj Goomany, Creative Commons License ShareAlike 2.0

“Light Bulb on Desk” by Dineshraj Goomany, Creative Commons License ShareAlike 2.0

When ever I hear the word “Epiphany,” I always think of someone saying “eureka” and then a lightbulb going on over their head. When ever we have a profound realization, we can say we “had an Epiphany.”

Yesterday was the feast of the Epiphany in the Christian calendar. It is one of the older feasts in the Christian calendar, being celebrated first in the 4th century. Epiphany means “manifestation” or “striking appearance,” and it celebrates the (the revealing, the unveiling) of Jesus’ identity as the divine Son of God, also known as the “incarnation.” It’s usually celebrated with the coming of the Magi, who bring gifts that indicate that this baby is actually the Messiah, the new king sent by God to free God’s own people and usher in an age of peace and equity for all people. This is when the lightbulb, so the story goes, really lit up. Continue Reading »

Happy (re)New Year!

Image Creative Commons license from christmasstockimages.com

Image Creative Commons license from christmasstockimages.com

We have now officially made the move to a new calendar year. I read online somewhere that someone’s New Year’s resolution was to “write 2014 instead of 2013.” It’s an easy, attainable goal, the kind you can ease yourself in to the New Year with.

Of course, January 1st is not the first day of Christian New Year, which always changes depending on the first day of Advent in the fall. It isn’t in the Christian liturgical calendar at all, in fact. So is there any way to celebrate the New Year? What about all those resolutions? Continue Reading »

University Hill Congregation
December 15, 2013 – Third Sunday in Advent
Scripture: Matthew 1:1-17

“Broken Branches”

                            What a way to begin a story. Mark’s gospel begins in the thick of things with John the Baptist at the side of the river Jordan shouting “repent!” Luke’s gospel begins with a dedication to a faithful reader. John’s gospel begins cosmically, way back at the beginning of time with “in the beginning was the Word.” And Matthew’s gospel begins… with a list. It begins with what appears to be a long, tediously precise list of names beginning with Abraham, the father of all nations, through King David, Israel’s most celebrated King, through the Babylonian exile, name after name after name all the way down to Jesus. It might be the least exciting way to show someone your family tree. Listen to my list!

But as strange and confusing (boring?) as this list might sound, it’s here at the beginning of Matthew’s story of Jesus for a reason. In the ancient world heroes usually have long genealogies showing their heroic origins. Heroic figures don’t come out of nowhere. They need a lineage. It might seem a little strange to us, but how much time and energy has been put in to trying to prove that Barack Obama was raised a Muslim or wasn’t born in the United States? To be President, you need the credentials. Matthew is telling us that this guy, Jesus, comes from somewhere. According to Matthew, this is the genealogy, the family tree, the genesis, says the text, of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Jesus has the right lineage. He has the right family tree.

He’s royal. He’s a member of the family of King David, Israel’s most famous and beloved king, a symbol of Israel at the height of its power. Kind of like when grandma or grandpa say things like “those were the days” or “when I was your age.” The good old days. The golden age. Matthew is telling us Jesus is the long awaited king. He has a claim to the throne. As the Messiah (the anointed one, the same title as David), he will restore his people to their former glory. He’ll usher in another golden age. And Jesus, says Matthew, is also the son of Abraham. Abraham, who was promised to be the father of generations as numerous as the stars of heaven, and that the whole world, all people, would be blessed through him and his family. The king of Israel and the blessing to all nations Jesus is a big deal. He’s going to make all things new. And he’s got the family tree to prove it!

Yet, like any family tree, if you go poking around enough you might find something unpleasant.1  It’s chock full of shady characters, men and women (mostly men) who have done just about every bad thing you could imagine. Abraham might be the father of all nations and the receiver of the promise, but he also comes within an inch of cutting his only son’s throat. His grandson Jacob grabs his branch on the family tree by tricking and cheating his blind father, only to be cheated himself, having slept with the wrong girl (literally thought he was sleeping with someone else) who then gives birth to Judah, the next guy in line. Judah’s line continues when he mistakenly sleeps with his daughter-in-law Tamar, who finds her way in to the family tree by pretending to be a prostitute. A few branches down, there’s Rahab, who is an actual prostitute, who at one point helps the secret agents of Joshua and Israel by betraying her city, resulting in the massacre of her own people. David’s the ideal king, but he’s also a ruthless bandit who unites the tribes of Israel in to a single nation by underhanded scheming and murder. Then he fathers Solomon, the next branch in the tree by Bathsheba, “the wife of Uriah,” his second in command, after planning her husband’s murder. Ahab and his son Ahaziah are sadistic mass-murders. Almost the entire middle chunk of the family tree–fourteen generations–are stories filled with murder, lust, assassinations and military juntas, and are kings whose depravity is blamed for the downfall of the kingdom. Then comes Mary, an unwed teenage mother, and Joseph, the tradesman who plans to divorce her until the Holy Spirit intervenes in a dream. And Jesus is only on this tree because Joseph adopts him! What a list! What a list!

By the time we come to Jesus, you realize that it really can’t get any worse. Matthew says that Jesus, the hero of the story, the Messiah, comes from a crooked tree, with plenty of broken branches and rotten apples. A family of murderers, liars, cheats, prostitutes, adulterers. Betrayers and illegitimate children. Why would you start a story this way? Why flaunt a family tree filled with these obviously flawed, sometimes sociopathic people?

Starting a story this way, especially in Advent seems to go against the grain of the North American holiday season. By Remembrance Day bows and wreathes hang in store windows and Starbucks is brewing peppermint lattes. By late November, we hear the ho ho ho of jolly Santas and joyful soft-rock renditions of let it snow where ever we go. Our consumer society seems to be particularly good at hiding troubles and pain through purchasing, but it is no secret that this time of year, in spite of the cheer (or perhaps on account of the cheer for some) the pain comes out. This seems like the last time of year to start a story with Matthew’s family tree. But many, if not all of us, come from some kind of broken histories, broken families, broken lives. All of us live in a broken creation. Maybe you can spot your own story on one of the branches somewhere. And, much in the same way we fast-forward past Jesus’ genealogy in the Christmas story, we hope that the cheeriness of this season helps us forge ahead and forget that past. We hope it will help us make it through to New Years when we can make resolutions to become better people. Where we can leave the past behind. Where we can start again.

This is why we need to recover the meaning of Advent as a season. Advent is often thought of as the season of waiting. Waiting for Christmas, waiting for the inevitable joy. But as Ed often reminds us we are not simply waiting for Christmas to come, but living with a sense of expectant hope. Hope for a new world breaking in here and now. Jesus’ family tree is the last place anybody would ever look for hope of any kind. This crooked, broken family tree, this sordid and traumatic past. It might as well have the word “hopeless” spraypainted along the trunk. Strangely, this tree is the place that we are told by Matthew that the new start begins, that Christ comes in to. This is where God is up to something. Here at the end of this long, messy list of generations.

Maybe this is the point. The Messiah is born, not with a pure pedigree, not to a perfect people with a spotless, untarnished past. Instead, God comes to an odd people with an extremely dysfunctional family tree in an extremely dysfunctional world. The now deceased Catholic priest (aka “the Catholic Marxist”) Herbert McCabe said that this family tree is Matthew’s way of saying that God’s work isn’t always accomplished by the most pious, spiritually enlightened people, but often through “passionate and disreputable people.” Jesus, he tells us, didn’t belong to the nice, clean world of middle-class virtues, but of the world as it is. He “belonged to a family of murderers, cheats, cowards and adulterers and liars–he belonged to us,” he says, “came to help us. […] and gave us some hope.” This is the family tree that Matthew tells us will come the green shoots, the new growth. Somehow, despite all the evidence to the contrary, this group of imperfect, disreputable and often scandalous characters are where the new beginning comes. In Christ, God’s future seems to be coming, sprouting from the trunk of an old, rotten tree.

If God can work through a family tree like this, what about our family trees? What about our own pasts, our own histories? Jesus’ family tree is divided into three groups of fourteen generations, says the text. But we discover that in the final chunk of people, from the exile to Jesus, there are only thirteen generations listed. The text makes a big deal out of telling us that there are fourteen generations, but one is missing. There are only thirteen because the fourteenth generation, the missing one, is the church. It’s us. This is our tree. This is our story. This is our fractured world. These troubled lives are our own, give or take. And this is the story of our own hope, of Christ entering our own lives unexpectedly. The story of a crooked family tree, a crooked people, a crooked church desperately in need that some how gives birth to world changing hope. And it is changed itself in the process.

A couple weeks ago we were discussing the meaning of Advent with our campus ministry group made up of a dozen undergraduate students. One student asked the question, “if Jesus has already been born, why do we celebrate Advent? Are we just getting pumped for Christmas every year?” After an awkward silence, another student, Simon Luc, chimed in. “We celebrate Advent because we’re part of the story,” he said. “And the story’s not over. There’s still work to be done.” I said “yeah, what he said.”

So friends, we have reason to rejoice this time of year, though we may reside in darkness. Though we, though the world may know brokeness, hurt and despair. Because this story, our story isn’t over. And there’s still work to do. Advent, Christmas, is not simply about celebrating what has come, the old growth isn’t all there is. It is about watching for what is coming, watching for the light in the darkness so we may be light to the whole world. It is about keeping our eyes open for signs of newness, signs of hope, signs of God’s work in the world. Trusting that even in the midst of our deeply imperfect lives, our own broken and hurt places, there are already green shoots, the Spirit is already moving. Trusting that even in the midst of a world that lacks hope, that looks out on things and can’t imagine a future, God is coming. Where ever we are coming from, Christ is on his way.

So, ring the bells that still can ring

forget your perfect offering

there’s a crack in everything

it’s how the light gets in.[1]

Amen.


 

1 I owe this analysis of Jesus’ family tree to Herbert McCabe’s sermon “The Genealogy of Christ” from God Matters (London: Continuum, 1987), 246-249.

[1] Leonard Cohen, “Anthem.”

“Towards Jerusalem”
6th
Sunday After Pentecost, June 30 2013
University Hill Congregation, Vancouver BC
Luke 9:51-62

            We stand at the beginning of a long stretch of about ten chapters in Luke where Jesus and his disciples make their way from Galilee, his home town, to Jerusalem, the capital city and home of the Jerusalem temple, the beating heart of Jewish faith. Jesus has “set his face to Jerusalem,” much like the prophet Isaiah who set his face “like flint,” like a hard stone, in the face of steadfast opposition. Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem, it says, as the “days drew near for him to be taken up.” In Jerusalem Jesus will face his own enemies. He’ll be arrested and crucified. But he will also be raised and ascend and glorified by God. Nothing, it seems, will stand in Jesus way on the road to Jerusalem. Nothing will stand in the way of his destination. And he calls his disciples along for the ride. Continue Reading »

 “The Easy Way Out”
5th Sunday After Pentecost, June 23rd 2013
University Hill Congregation, Vancouver BC
1 Kings 19:1-15a

            A young-ish Methodist preacher from the States tells a story of a pilgrimage he once took with a large group of lay people and clergy to the Pine Ridge Lakota Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Pine Ridge is the poorest reserve in the United States and one of the poorest in all of the United States. 80% unemployment, life expectancy of about 47-52 years old and many families have no electricity, telephone or running water. The pilgrimage was led by a hundred monks from Taize, an ecumenical worship community from southern France where they annually set up shop and gather a community for prayer, bible study and their distinctive simple style of chanting. Continue Reading »

I preached the following sermon at University Hill Congregation on Sunday May 19th, 2013. It was a covenating service, where the congregation and I agreed to enter into faithful  relationship for the duration of my internship and appointment as UBC Campus Minister for the United Church of Canada. Continue Reading »

I am reading Marilyn Robinson’s collection of essays When I Was a Child I Read Books. A friend recommended it to me and loaned me his copy. I am not quite finished, but I have liked what I have read so far. I have liked it a lot.

I won’t go into the book in too much detail, but can relate that Robinson takes on a multitude of topics from individualism to economics to the Hebrew Bible. All the essays are filtered through her own deeply held Christian faith, which finds its roots in the reformed traditions (Calvinism and Puritanism) and the imagination and ethics of scripture.

In her essay “Open Wide Thy Hand: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism” she tackles the fashionable degradation of the Old Testament (she makes a point of calling it the Old Testament, rather than the Hebrew Bible) by modern “liberal” Christians and atheists alike. She helpfully reminds us that the Reformed tradition of Christianity (of which my own United Church of Canada is descended) has always seen the Old and New Testaments as being on equal footing. The most interesting point she makes is about the argument that the Old Testament is somehow deficient in the sense that it is so obsessed with social propriety and ethics. Some see this in contrast with the New Testament, which is supposedly about spirituality instead. She also reminds us that the New Testament is just as obsessed with human relationships and that without the prophetic assertion of God’s defense of the poor, the widow and the stranger that we meet in the Old Testament there would be no Jesus. She essentially argues that the socio-religious vision of the Old Testament informed the early Calvinist Puritans in their vision for a society rooted in Yahweh’s justice. This manifested itself (unevenly–she is a Calvinist after all and has her eye out for the human propensity to pervert the good through good intentions) in the development of American liberalism. She also points out much of the implicit anti-Judaism in the writing of many critical authors who see Jewish monotheism as the source of most of our most egregious human tendencies (homophobia, tribalism, genocide).

The second thing I learned was in regards to the word “liberal.” She writes about the word “liberal” (as connected to words like liberty commonly used in political parlance) in terms of its meaning generous. She connects this to the socio-economic concerns of the Old Testament, but I got to thinking about the tradition of liberal Protestantism. Often, we have thought of the word liberal in relation to its connection to freedom. Usually in church circles it is used to describe an orientation that often questions traditions and authority. The United Church is often seen as a liberal church which trades tradition freely for the flow of history. What if we used it in the other sense, as meaning generous? I am reminded of Hans Frei’s coining of a “generous orthodoxy.” What if we were to think of the word liberal not as primarily meaning a willingness to question passed-down wisdom (which is indeed necessary, but not necessarily primary), but as those who take our traditions as vital? What if we interpreted them generously and humbly, and dealt with those who disagree with a spirit of generosity as well? What if we were willing to be, as Fleming Rutledge writes, “generous as our God is generous”?

I suppose this post is less about the book as such and more about the generative power of its ideas. Which makes a good book, I think.