Message for December 7, 2008

Sermon – December 7, 2008
Year B, Advent II

              “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” (Isaiah 40:1)

    In 597 B.C. the Babylonians overwhelmed the nation of Judah, defeated its army and took the King (Jehoiachin) and his family into captivity, and moved as many captive Hebrews as they could into far-off Babylon.  It was the first great exile.  Ten years later, Judah was again locked in battle with the Babylonians and this time, in 586 B.C. Jerusalem was destroyed, its walls pulled down, the temple burned, and the whole line of David – the extended family of rulers and their court were removed along with more of the Hebrew people.  Any others were scared away - they sought refuge in other lands and became the great Diaspora.  It was a time of great misery and destitution.  Judah lay in ruins, its people dispersed and broken.  Most of them were exiled in Babylon – forced to work for their new masters, some as slaves, others as captive intellectuals and artisans. 
    The Hebrew people left behind their temple, their synagogues.  Most of their priests and scribes were dead and gone.  They were feeling abandoned by their God.  They spent about 60 years in exile, never expecting to see again their homeland, never knowing how they would pass on their religious rituals, scriptures, stories, and understandings without the Temple and the scribes.
    In the heat of the Middle Eastern Babylon (modern day Iraq and Iran), the prophet Isaiah speaks to the disillusioned and uncertain people, “Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God.”  The prophet goes on to tell them that, in contrast to the frailty and uncertainty of humanity, God is the one who will stand forever.  God, he says, is loving, generous and tender – like a shepherd who watches over his animals.  And he calls out, “prepare the way of the Lord, make a straight highway in the desert for your God...”
    I was thinking a great deal about people in exile this week.  As you know, December 1st was World HIV/AIDS day.  I thought of the millions and millions of women and children who, through no fault of their own, are now exiled in their huts, awaiting death by way of a disease that has overwhelmed the developing world.  I was thinking of the millions of people all over the world who are refugees and exiles from their homelands because of war, violence and savagery that has destroyed so many cultures.
    We who are living in peace and plenty have a difficult time coming to terms with the way the vast majority of people in this world live...in grinding poverty, in helpless suffering, hoping for SOMEONE to say to them...”Comfort, O comfort, my people...help is on the way...”
    My own response to this situation is to increase my knowledge about the events and attitudes that are causing these injustices and to send as much money as I possibly can to help alleviate suffering until justice prevails.  I invite you all to do the same.  It is the least we can do.
    Another need then became front and centre in my reflections this week.  And, thankfully, I feel more able to address this need because it presents itself here, in the faith community and the community at large.  It is the need to address the gap between what we may have been taught about God and about the Christian life and what current theologians, writers, and Christian preachers are now teaching and understanding about God and the Christian life.
    In many cases, this gap between the Christianity of the 18th and 19th Century and what our current scientific and technological culture have taught us has created its own exiles.  One writer says that he has long been a Christian exile – a member of the Christian alumni. They graduated from Sunday School through their confirmation and then haven’t really done anything about their faith since.  Why? Because the Christian religion that they learned as children and youths simply doesn’t make sense to them any longer.  They may attend worship occasionally, they may even pray during times of stress, but they really can’t tell you what they believe about God or Jesus or salvation or sin, because it all sounds wrong.  It doesn’t mesh with what they KNOW about how the world works.  They are exiled from their faith.  And many are searching for a way home.
    I have great excitement about our Christian faith and its renovation in the past 50 years.  Professional theologians and biblical scholars have made great progress in helping us to understand what was being taught in the past, and why.  They are also revealing to us a greater understanding of the relationship between God and humanity, between Jesus and humanity, between the scriptures and the writings of our faith and humanity.  There is a great deal to be excited about.  There are opportunities for learning now that books are more accessible than ever before.  Books are being written in plain English ... scholars are going on the speaking circuit to explain what they have written.  Preachers are being encouraged to go to their congregations and encourage deeper thought and questioning of the Sunday School faith they have carried into adulthood.  The book club has just completed its first foray into more recent biblical writings – through Marcus Borg’s “The God We Never Knew”.  We have agreed to begin again in the new year with a study of Richard Holloway’s book “How to Read the Bible”.  Watch for the notices in January.
    During this past couple of weeks, we have been bombarded by the spectacle of a politics of power...in our federal government, there has been a war of words between those who have power and want to keep it, and those who seek to take it away for themselves.  Whatever the merit of their cases, this drama of people in their 50’s and older acting like children brought me face to face with some of the words that we found in Marcus Borg’s book – and his discussion of the “Dream of God”.  I think that many ofus were affected by that phrase – one that Borg uses to describe what Jesus called the “Kingdom of God” – how this world would work if God were in charge.  It describes a
vision of a world of justice and peace in which human beings do not hurt or destroy, oppress or exploit one another – a vision of Shalom – where peace is more about security, health, and well-being of all people.  And from that discussion of the Dream of God comes the idea of a politics of compassion – wouldn’t it have been nice to see some compassion for the people of Canada being expressed in the front seats of the Federal legislature this week?
    Compassion in politics as it is practiced today is often looked upon as “being nice” or “letting people off the hook.”  But look at the opposites of compassion: hatred, abuse, brutality, injustice, indifference, selfishness, hardness of heart, and so on.  To take a compassionate stand against these “hard” attitudes is not to have a “weak” attitude that tolerates everything.  To use “compassion” as the lens through which we view problems in society – to use “compassion” as a “core value” in our dealings with each other and society – as opposed to our current core value of individualism – would mean that we could see that the economic suffering of the poor is not primarily due to individual failure.  It would lead to seeing that labeling people who are poor as “laggards” and “deserving” of their circumstances would be met with the challenge that I heard at a luncheon table this week – “it’s not poverty that is the problem so much as it is education, access to assistance, and a building of feelings of worth and value in a person’s society that makes the difference.”  Let’s face it, some of us have been very poor at some point in our lives, we may consider ourselves materially poor even now, but we have had access to school and to opportunity – and very few of us have been beaten down by a society that told us we are worthless.
    Borg writes, “as an ideal tempered by realism about the human condition, a politics of compassion does not mean the complete absence of authority structures, [or responsibilities].  We could not live together in groups without them. Nor does it mean an absence of income differentials.  But a politics of compassion would affect how we think about such matters – for example, how does one care for the victims of the system: through charity or through changing the system so that there aren’t as many victims?
How do we reward initiative and not have a large gap between rich and poor: do we simply penalize the wealthy or do we make changes to encourage the incorporation of the core value of compassion within the way people make their money: by adding a tiny, tiny charge for each money transaction – trading stocks, moving money around the world, or bank transactions – and put that money into getting people educated, housed, and healthy. There are ways to include compassion in everything we do – we simply have to make the effort.
    In this time of Advent, we are once again asked to “make a straight path in the desert for our God.”  We are asked to prepare for a time when the Dream of God can be realized – at first by the infant Jesus, and now by the teachings that he left for us – about how we can live a life filled with compassion for one another...open to each other’s needs and responsive in surprising ways.
I invite you all to open your hearts and minds to the coming of Jesus who yearns to be known, for the presence of God who yearns to be with us in the here and the now.  I invite you all to ponder these things in your hearts and listen for the promptings of the Spirit.  May we all be led out of the wilderness, may we all know that God will make a way through for us, may we all be caught up again in the yearning for the light of hope and meaning that is so well illustrated to us at this time of winter solstice.  May our Advent be a time of waiting that is filled with promise, with strength, and with comfort.     
Hear the words of Edward Hays, in his Advent Peace Psalm 

Due to copyright regulations, I cannot reprint here the Psalm by Edward Hays, but it can be found in Prayers for a Planetary Pilgrim, Edward Hays, Leavenworth KS: Forest of Peace Publishing, Inc. 1989 p130.