Tuesday, December 10, 2013
"Hope and History - Into the Neighbourhood" candle liturgy - "The Coming Kingdom of Justice."
Advent should admonish us to discover in each brother or sister that we greet, in each friend whose hand we shake, in each beggar who asks for bread, in each worker who wants to use the right to join a union, in each peasant who looks for work in the coffee groves, the face of Christ. Then it would not be possible to rob them, to cheat them, to deny them their rights. They are Christ, and whatever is done to them Christ will take as done to himself. This is what Advent is: Christ living among us.
Archbishop Oscar Romero
Monday, December 9, 2013
Yesterday in church we celebrated the coming Kingdom of Justice... and I was at pains to point out that, as with the concept of peace the previous week, the Hebrew concept of justice or righteousness is so much richer than ours, which is often reduced to a legal/judicial framework... I might come back to that later in the week as it is a live issue in this part of the world at present.
But one of the aspects that our limited understanding of justice/righteousness misses out on is the idea of the whole world order being put right again...
Every year my wife puts up an advent calendar... You might think that our boys are now beyond such things, but there is generally a scramble to see who gets to open the window each morning (even though there is no chocolate involved this year). I was mightily please however to see that this year's advent calendar includes a very prominent elephant (above)...
It reminded me of our 20th anniversary trip to Munich four years ago when the city was getting prepared for Advent and their Christkindlmarkt, and everywhere there were nativity sets of all styles, sizes and sorts… Most of them had the usual suspects visiting Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus… angels, shepherds, wise men etc… but among the assortment of animals on parade were elephants… We didn't buy a nativity set including an elephant, but we did buy an elephant Christmas tree decoration to remind us... And it is once again on display with all the other eclectic decorations on our tree.
It seemed strange at the time, but really the elephant has as much right to be in on the nativity scene as the adjacent camels in our advent calendar. There are no mentions of camels in the Bible's account of Jesus' birth, nor of cattle (lowing or not); there is no suggestion that the shepherds brought their sheep with them to see Jesus nor is there any mention at all about the "little donkey..."
So, if cattle, sheep, donkeys and even camels have squeezed themselves into the stable (if there was a stable) then why not an elephant? Because scripture tells us that the whole of creation is waiting in eager expectation for the Kingdom of God to come in all its fullness (Romans 8: 18-21). And it can't come quickly enough as far as elephants are concerned... This week a conference on conservation and trade in endangered species, suggested that the continent of Africa could lose 20% of its elephant population within 10 years because of poaching and ivory smuggling. That needs to be put right...
Earlier in the week a colleague was telling me that she had been asked about the Christian position on equal rights for chimpanzees... Not convinced about equal rights, but we as Christians do need to take more seriously humanity's role as stewards of the earth... because frankly, we're doing a pretty poor job, and we, as Christians, are rarely at the forefront of the environmental movement... We are frequently ahead of the curve on issues affecting the poor in the developing world, and where their needs intersect with environmental concerns then we get involved, but sometimes we act as if it really doesn't matter because this world is going to be rubbed out and started again... But that isn't the picture painted in scripture... It is of a redeemed creation art peace with itself (See Isaiah 11: 1-10)
As I said in a post shortly after I returned from that Munich trip,
The whole of creation (elephants included) is straining on tiptoes to catch a glimpse of the coming Kingdom... and given the mess that we have made of it you would understand the eagerness...Mind you, I don't anticipate seeing any elephants at a neighbouring church's live nativity next Saturday... Nor indeed a camel, even though there is one on their advertising leaflet...
Sunday, December 8, 2013
Hope and History Advent Candle Liturgies that we will be using in Belfast South Methodist this morning. The feedback was good from last week, particularly from some enterprising folks in North Belfast who had adapted the whole thing into an ecumenical advent carol service. Again, this week I have included part of my sermon for the morning for those of you who are REALLY late in getting your thoughts together for this morning or have decided to give this morning's service a miss... I hope that doesn't apply to any folks from South Belfast Methodist.
VOICE 1: A green shoot will one day sprout
from what seems to be the shrivelled stump of Jesse;
VOICE 2: from his roots a branch will bear fruit.
VOICE 1: The Spirit of the Eternal I Am will rest upon him;
VOICE 2: the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
VOICE 1: the Spirit of guidance and power,
VOICE 2: the Spirit of insight and righteous fear;
VOICE 1: fear of the Eternal I Am will be his joy and his delight.
VOICE 2: He will not judge by first appearances, or make decisions by what is said in the street;
VOICE 1: but he will judge the needy according to what is really right;
VOICE 2: with justice he will make decisions for the poor and the powerless.
VOICE 1: The word of his mouth will strike the earth like a battering ram;
VOICE 2: The breath of his lips will blow away the wicked.
VOICE 1: Justice is his belt and faithfulness his braces.
VOICE 2: Under his rule the predator will make peace with their prey;
VOICE 1: wolf with lamb, leopard with kid, calf and lion will graze together
VOICE 2: and a little child will lead them.
VOICE 1: The cow and bear will feed at the one trough,
VOICE 2: their calves and cubs will grow up together.
VOICE 1: Infants will play fearlessly by the cobra’s lair,
VOICE 2: and toddlers will put their hands harmlessly into the viper's nest.
VOICE 1: Neither animal nor human will harm nor destroy on all God’s holy mountain,
VOICE 2: for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Eternal I Am as full as the oceans are of water.
From Isaiah 11:1-9
VOICE 1: We lit the first candle
in anticipation of the coming of the kingdom of peace,
not simply the absence of conflict
but the presence of God’s perfect justice.
And so we light the second candle
As a beacon of justice in an unjust world
And as a symbol of our commitment
to act justly and promote mercy
in this neighbourhood.
Glens of the north, rejoice;
river and moorland-spring,
hark to the advent voice;
valley and lowland, sing:
Christ comes, the promised Prince of Peace;
To rule and make all conflict cease.
Hills all across the south
Welcome the coming king,
Hear the words of his mouth;
Justice and peace they bring:
He comes the humble poor to raise,
Let every voice proclaim his praise.
We look forward Lord, to your kingdom of peace and justice
when all wrongs will be righted and all crookedness will be straightened out.
We humbly admit that in the past we have been more self-righteous than righteous
we have been more interested in judgment than justice and revenge rather than reconciliation.
But we thank you that you are merciful as well as just
and pray that you would forgive us and help us to forgive as we have been forgiven.
May we act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with you wherever you may take us
for we ask it in the name of your son Jesus Christ
and for the sake of his coming kingdom. AMEN
Historically the second Sunday in Advent has been celebrated as Bible Sunday, though in recent years it seems to have been displaced to mid October for some reason at least in Protestant traditions...
A number of times when I have been preaching on Bible Sunday I have emphasized is the difficulty of translating words and ideas from one language into another… Because there is NEVER a direct equivalence… This issue is so well recognized that I am told there is a French proverb
“Traduire, c’est trahir.”
Which, when translated, ironically, means
“To translate is to betray.”
That is one of the reasons why in Islam they do not read from a translation of the Koran… but always read and teach from the original Arabic…
But we don’t do that in Christianity… We translate from Hebrew to Greek and from Greek to Hebrew… sometimes via Latin… And one of the Biblical concepts that has been diminished in our understanding partly because of translation issues is the Biblical concept of justice, or as it is sometimes translated, righteousness. As well as two key words translating these two ideas, mishpat and tsedeq, there are a cluster of other important ideas including chesed, or kindness/mercy and shalom, or peace...
When we talk about justice in English it is often about legal or criminal justice… but Biblical concepts of justice and righteousness are not just about criminal, retributive justice, but also restorative and social justice.
Righteousness on the other hand is not just about personal morality or religious purity, but right relationships with God, with others and with the world around us...
Micah and Amos both make clear that if we aren't practising justice and righteousness then God isn't interested in our worship... After making clear that animal sacrifices are not what God wants Micah says:
what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Micah 6:8 (RSV)
While Amos is even more dramatic… He says that God hates the worship of his people and that they should stop their noisy singing… Instead he says:
Amos 5:24 (ANIV)
On Thursday evening Nelson Mandela died. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon spoke about him saying:
"Nelson Mandela was a giant for justice and a down-to-earth human inspiration. Nelson Mandela showed what is possible for our world and within each one of us if we believe, dream and work together for justice and humanity."
Ban Ki Moon
You and I may never be regarded as giants for justice… but we can all play our part in translating Biblical concepts of justice and righteousness into flesh and blood in our neighbourhoods… They are wonderful words, great ideas and wonderful ideals but unless we translate them into flesh and blood… applying them to the bread and butter issues of the people around us… then they are meaningless… They may as well be Hebrew for all the difference they will make to the lives of people around us...
Closing Exhortation & Benediction
Go out into the neighbourhood
to put flesh and blood on God’s demand for justice.
May his kingdom come and his will be done
in our neighbourhood as it is in heaven. AMEN
Saturday, December 7, 2013
On Thursday night when I heard that Nelson Mandela had died I posted on facebook:
'I pray that Mandela may rest in peace, but the key thing for me is that when alive he worked for peace. He said "If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner." I don't want the peace of a graveyard, but the peace of a reconciled community.'
Mandela did not always pursue a path of peace, at least not in terms of non-violence, but he was an unequivocal champion of justice, an intrinsic component to that more holistic perspective on peace contained within the Hebrew concept of shalom...
I think the phrase "the peace of a graveyard" came from a quote by that other iconic hero of peace and justice Archbishop Oscar Romero that I had been reading earlier yesterday, where he said:
"Peace is not the product of terror or fear.
Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.
Peace is not the silent result of violent repression.
Peace is the generous,
tranquil contribution of all
to the good of all.
Peace is dynamism.
Peace is generosity.
It is right and it is duty."
Archbishop Oscar Romero
Friday, December 6, 2013
Creideamh's rant about Tom's shoes and pseudo-charitable capitalism. Now I wouldn't know a pair of Tom's shoes if they were in front of me... (actually - in looking for the photo on the left I have seen a number of them and doubt I will buy some any time soon... neither my podiatrist nor physiotherapist would approve.) I buy shoes on an absolute need to basis. Indeed that is my approach to all clothing... Wear it until it is no longer fit for purpose (and probably long after), no matter how unfashionable or, at times, unflattering it is...
But perhaps I have missed an entrepreneurial opportunity... Perhaps the is a gap in the market for "Peace apparel." Where does this hare-brained scheme come from? Well in preparing for last Sunday's sermon on "The Coming Kingdom of Peace" and this week's one on the "Coming Kingdom of Justice" which features John the Baptist and his unique approach to couture, I came across this quote by Brueggemann, describing peacemakers:
People notice peacemakers because they dress funny. We know how the people who make war dress - in uniforms and medals, or in computers and clipboards, or in absoluteness, severity, greed, and cynicism. But the peacemaker is dressed in righteousness, justice, and faithfulness - dressed for the work that is to be done.
I wonder do peacemakers wear Tom's Shoes?
Thursday, December 5, 2013
I had a VERY busy day yesterday. And on the whole it was stimulating and encouraging. However, I had to keep hauling myself back to the positive, as there were little annoyances throughout the day... Frustrations with aspects of church politics and practice... and with specific members of the church... Impatience on my part in some things and annoyance at others' impatience in other things... Niggles about practical things like microphones and coffee...
I've written and spoken before about my tendency to focus on the negative... But I got home today to find a few of my friends had posted this piece on facebook, featuring this picture among others...
Without the light shining on it, it is merely a pile of rubbish with a couple of stuffed seagulls... But you've got to look beyond the rubbish to see the full picture...
(Some of the pictures are more pleasant than others... and there are some who say this is all photo-shopped... But I prefer to focus on the positive... See, I'm learning...)
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
"Spin the Globe" on Radio 4 yesterday afternoon whilst driving. It is a series that looks at key dates in history (eg 1066, 1914) and what was happening elsewhere in the world at that time. Yesterday he was looking at 0 AD, and what was happening in Guatemala, Korea and Rome when the main event was, from a western Christian perspective, happening in Bethlehem... I didn't actually hear the rest of the programme (may do so on the iplayer's Listen Again function), but by way of introduction he looked at the historicity of Jesus' existence (if not the exact date and circumstances of his birth... that hoary old subject for features editors, bloggers and preachers at this time of year) and a Dermot McCullough, Professor of Church History at Oxford University suggested that the most convincing evidence for the life of Jesus are the "various casual mentions " of him in passing in other works by writers who would have had no real interest in Palestinian Jewish affairs, or any awareness of how important this character would one day become... eg. Josephus and elite Roman historians.
"it is the sheer casualness of these mentions which is crucial. They are just mentioning Jesus on the edge of great historical events and that is what is so convincing..."
And that reminded me of my exercise of advent awareness... trying to develop an openness to glimpses of God, not in the centre of things... but on the margins... in my peripheral vision... in the liminal reaches of perception...
As Christians, we tend to see Bethlehem 0 AD as central to space and time (those of us who haven't fallen into the perennial heresy of seeing ourselves as the centre of the cosmos), but that is only in retrospect.
At the time, in global political terms it was a marginal city in an inauspicious year.
And today perhaps God in Christ is still making himself known on the margins... out of the limelight and headlines... away from the big events and fanfares... Out on the edge of our awareness... In the casual, everyday, overlooked and mundane...
Perhaps, if you are awake to it, you might just catch a glimpse of glory out of the corner of your eye...