Isaiah 35:1-10

 This morning I would like to show you a clip from the 2011 movie “Bridesmaid”.  In a nutshell, it is the story of a 30 something woman (played by Kristen Wiig) whose best friend is getting married.  Through a series of events, she enters into competition with another maid of honour (Rose Byrne).  The following clip presents a moment when the two characters are meeting at the tennis club and debate if their mutual friend has changed or not.  Let’s watch:

 [Clip]

 Philosophers and intellectuals of all sorts have debated this question for centuries.  Can someone truly change?  The same can be asked about our neighbourhoods or institutions.  Is deep and profound transformation possible or are we constantly repackaging old stories, practices or behaviours?  Of course, I believe all of us have seen reports in the news on vacant lots full of broken bottles and syringes turned into a beautiful park or community garden.  And just few weeks ago, a gentleman from Harvest House Ministries came to talk to us about his former life as a drug addict and how he is now clean and goes to schools and churches to share his journey.  We love those beautiful stories and as a church we usually look for more of them.  We try to discern how can someone be transformed, why change can happen in some cases or what are the reasons behind those little or huge miracles.  We want to discover how we can be agents of change in our world.

 According to the literature and movies surrounding us, these transformations usually follow a fairly common plot.  People who apparently have normal existence go through a series of trial and tribulations; they struggle to adapt to a new reality; they descend into a dark place before eventually ascending to a better life.  We especially enjoy the journeys of underdogs succeeding despise the odds because they satisfy our thirst for poetic justice.  After all, what would be the joy to follow a story in which the conditions of an individual go from bad to worse without a “happily ever after” at the end?

 

We love those beautiful stories.  Unfortunately, our lives do not always reflect this pattern.  Experience has taught us, sometimes through very painfully events, that real life can be hard and brutal.  Relationships and friendships are permanently broken for all the wrong reasons.  The loss of a job does not necessarily lead to a better one.  Inspiring projects are sabotaged by people we trusted.  We do not always receive what we deserved.  Complains are lodged for questions of appearance.  For no reason of their own, some individuals are victims of discrimination, abuse and violence.  I could continue this list until tomorrow morning.  The bottom line is that life is not fair and it is completely different from the literature and movies offered to us.

 Maybe this is why most of us are tempted to look at the passage we read this morning from the book of Isaiah, as another charming story that has little to do with the reality we encounter every day.  Here, the prophet utters a beautiful oracle of restoration, in which he promises something that once again defies logic and common sense.  It seems that the times are coming when the whole creation will be rejuvenated.  Streams of water will make the desert fertile.  Flowers will bloom from parched and exhausted land.  Grass and reeds will grow where the jackals used to dwell.  Human life will also be transformed.  The weak will find strength.  The fearful will become courage.  Eyes and hears will be open.  The speechless will sign for joy.  In short, desolation will be no more and God’s people will never go astray.

 Of course, as we listen to this vision, we just want to say, Wow!  Yes, please!  Can it start right now?  We are ready.  As disciples of Jesus the Christ we long for this for recreation of the whole universe.  We do not want only to sing, “Behold, I make all things new”; we want to see it; we want to live it and sense it.  

 Unfortunately, as much as we desire to experience this sort of transformation, it rarely happens by itself.  It requires hard work, vision and most importantly taking some risks which is difficult for most of us because we are told to be afraid of everything: strangers, immigrants, social medias, traffic, being sued for negligence, etc.  Sometimes we are so frightened to make a mistake that we almost convinced ourselves that our wilderness is not that dry after all.  What is the big deal if the flowers are not blooming?  Maybe we should simply accept to live in the real world.

 

 Too often, we consider an attempt to transform our world a success if only we can tick all the boxes on our lists and can see, in the prescribed delays, the final product.  To go back an example I previously used, if a vacant lot becomes a beautiful park, it is a success.  If it doesn’t, it is a total failure.  By looking at the world in such a way, we simply inhibit ourselves.  We forget what really makes us grow as human beings.  We snuff our sense of hope, peace, love and joy.  We abandon our dreams of change and transformation for our world.

 Writer, philosopher and former president of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel wrote that “hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it will turn out.”  Once again, “hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it will turn out.”  Profound transformation is not about what we accomplish, as much as we are changed inside ourselves in the process.  Everybody can build a garden, but to change our world, our country or our neighbourhood, we need to reach a point where we are convinced that hard work, sacrifices and risks are no longer obstacles.  We must be involved.  We have to do something because another is possible; another world has to emerge; another world ought to be a reality for all.  When we become so convinced about this fact we reach a point, as activist Marian Wright Edelman said, when we refuse to wait until the time is right and everyone is on our side.  We cannot delay any longer.  Restoration of the land and people has to bgo ahead.

 You would not be surprised if I tell you that Advent is the perfect time to begin such a journey.  Advent is a moment set apart for looking forward to something better than the injustice, violence and suffering all around us.  Advent is an occasion to embody this longing for connection and wholeness between all the parts of creation.  Advent is a season that points us to a reality bigger than ourselves.  Advent is an opportunity to remember that one single life can bring profound transformation and change.  Because if we cannot hope unexpected reversals, inspiration and renewal during the season of Advent, when then would it be possible?

 New world, new ideas and new visions are always difficult to come into realization.  I am sure it took a great deal of courage, determination, and certain degree of boldness for the prophet Isaiah to proclaim that transformation was on the way.  Even if it did not materialize in the last centuries in the same ways than we can read in books and see in movies, it does not mean it is only wishful vision.  Restoration of the world can happen if we accept to change and to embody this reality every day and everywhere we go.  We are called to be the living proof that another world is possible and our conviction of this truth is the driving factor of our whole existence, regardless of the perceived results.  Amen.

 

Isaiah 2: 1-5

The 2016 United Nations Climate Change Conference held in the city of Marrakesh ended on November 18th.  The medias were so obsessed with the aftermath of the American elections that it went completely under the radar.  Last year, the conference was held in Paris.  Personally, I fasted for 12 days to be in solidarity with Mardi Tindal, a former Moderator of United Church of Canada, as well as with other faith leaders present at that conference.  The delegates reached a last-minute accord that might save our planet.  I said “might” because 12 months later many governments are sending mixed messages to the international community.  In Canada, the federal recently decided to establish a minimum price on carbon in order to attain the goals set by the previous government.  However, if the Kinder Morgan or Keystone XL pipeline project is accepted, only one of them could completely offset all the gain from the so-called carbon tax. 

On some days, I am looking at my 6 year-old son and I do not know what to tell him.  Unless to be totally stupid or to believe in some sort of conspiracy theory, climate changes are a reality affecting us today and it will only get worse with time.  Extreme temperatures, droughts, hurricanes, people dying from lack of food will become the new normal.  Our generations might not suffer too much, but what about those who are kids today?  What kind of life are we handing them down?  What will happen when they have children of their own?  Will they be forced to say, ‘I am sorry my child if your life is so difficult, but my father or grandmother did not want to make an effort or care enough about the future of the human race’? 

This problem is so huge, important and global that every government and every human being has to join the effort and work together.  And yes, I know, it is easier to say than to do.  It is difficult to envision a context when everyone would put the common good of all before one’s personal interest.  It is hard to imagine that logic and science would trump all other human considerations.  We want to believe it could be possible, but all the signs surrounding us point to the conclusion that it cannot happen.  Reason alone cannot save us.

Maybe what we need is a vision that completely defies common sense, a vision bigger than what we are capable imagine, a vision totally crazy like the one the prophet Isaiah offers us this morning.  More than 500 years before the time of Jesus, when the city of Jerusalem was burned and battered by powers that must have appeared unstoppable, the prophet shares a dream of the future completely at the opposite from what was visible then.  Isaiah foretells of a time when all people will make a pilgrimage to the Holy City to learn how to live according to God’s ways.  War will disappear and weapons will be turned into objects of peaceful coexistence.  Swords will be transformed ploughshares; spears will become pruning-hooks and attack drones will be turned into solar panels.

We want to believe this comforting vision full of hope.  Our hearts long for world peace.  It would be so easy to buy in Isaiah’s prediction of the bright future if we were not constantly reminded about the wars and armed conflicts Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Central America, the shootings in our cities and neighborhoods, or the divisions inside our homes, workplaces, schools and even within the walls of our congregations.  It would be easier if we were not constantly told to live in the real world; that the only way to protect ourselves against the criminals out there is to be armed; or reminded the famous Latin expression: Si vis pacem para bellum, if you want peace, prepare for war.  It would be easier if there were other efficient ways to settle conflicts and stop dictators and abusive regimes.

And yet, we know deep down, maybe more than anything else, that none of this is as it should be.  None of this should be assumed to be typical or normal.  None of this should be accepted with fatality or pessimism.  Once in a while we need someone who dares saying words that might not make sense, but are still true.  Once in a while we need prophets claiming that another world is possible.  Brokenness is not inevitable.  Division does not necessarily have the last word.  We can refuse to agree when some insist that this is all business as usual.  We can reject the principles we have inherited.  We can challenge the society surrounding us because the prophet’s call of us is clear.  God has planned something better for us, something liberating, something just, something transformative.

The days are coming when God will call injustice what it is; when God will get our minds off our agendas and penchant to protect our investments; when God will repair what we have done wrong.  God will bring this dream to reality by inspiring us to work for justice, righteousness and wholeness.  The days are coming when we will roll up our sleeves and do the dirty jobs we keep avoiding for so many years and centuries.  We will see strangers as brothers and sisters.  We will build communities where all have a valued place.  We will accept transformation and change, even if it is not easy.  The days are coming when we will stop being observers and fully participate in the birth of a new world.

And the season of Advent is the perfect time to begin such a journey.  Walter Brueggemann wrote that, “Advent invites us to awaken from our numbed endurance and our domesticated expectations, and to consider our life afresh in light of new gifts that God is about to give.”  Advent is all about looking forward into the future.  It is a time of expectation when we search for inspiration for our lives.  It is a time when once again we place all our hopes in a simple baby born in the middle of nowhere.  In Advent, we are called to remember that a vulnerable child could turn the world upside down and change the course of humankind.  We know it does not make sense.  We know it defies logic.  We know it cannot be possible when we use our reason.  And yet…  And yet, we are here this morning… gathered to prepare ourselves for what is considered impossible…

Like almost all the images we will see during this Advent season, Isaiah’s vision seems to be too absurd to be true.  Even if we long most of the days for healing, justice, peace and renewal of God’s creation, we cannot imagine how it could be possible.  Most often, we simply come to the conclusion that we will destroy ourselves.  However, the prophet challenges us to see what is beyond our seeing; to dream what could hardly be imagined.  He invites us to listen to God saying, “Despite what you observe and might believe, history will end differently.  I ain’t over yet.  Just trust me.  I am about to send new hope to the world.  Amen.

Luke 20: 27-38

 

This morning I would like to show you a clip from the 1990s sci-fi series “Babylon 5”.  I do understand that not everyone here like science fiction or stories about space and aliens.  My suggestion would be to try to remember that these are actors who wear a little more make-up than the average ones.  Just to give you the context in a nutshell.  The main character of this video excerpt is called G’Kar.  He is from a race called the Narn.  G’Kar kept a personal diary during a time of war with other alien races.  For some reason, his diary is made public.  People of his race began to read it and overnight G’Kar becomes, against his will, some sort spiritual / religious guru.  Narns from everywhere come to him with questions about his book.  This might be science fiction, but try to imagine Jesus coming back today and answering questions about the Gospels from some “good Christians”.  Let’s watch this:

 

[Clip]

 

Honestly, I wish I had the courage to do that on some occasions.  The United Church of Canada is considered a liberal Christian denomination with progressive theologies; I use the plural because we have more than an official one.  Sometimes we have conversations with some of our brothers and sisters in faith who are more traditionalists, conservatives, or who read the Scripture literally.  I do not know about you, but I find those moments very frustrating.  Some of them show up with their King James Version of the Bible with the words of Jesus written in red – as if Jesus spoke in 16th century Elizabethan English – and they base their entire argument and reasoning against ordination of women, abortion or equal marriage by quoting Romans 10, 1 Timothy 2 or Leviticus 18.  Of course, they rarely quote Leviticus 11, verse 8 that says: “You shall not eat pigs and their carcasses you shall not touch; they are unclean”, because they would not be able to enjoy bacon while watching football this afternoon.  Just saying.  During those conversations, I am wondering if these individuals believe in God or if they believe in the Bible.  I am wondering what is most important for them; God’s message for the people or the ink on a page of a book?

 

This is probably how Jesus felt in today’s Gospel passage when he has yet another argument with the religious establishment of his time.  Some would say there is nothing new here.  No big deal.  Arguing was Jesus’ thing.  This case is special because it is the first and only occasion in the gospel according to Luke that Jesus engages a group called the Sadducees.  These men who came from leading priestly families and the aristocracy were more conservative than the famous Pharisees.  They were the literalists of their time and society.  They believed that only in what they can read and find in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, which are… Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  If a topic is mentioned in one of these books, like sacrifices of animals for the Holy One, it was religiously acceptable.  If it comes from another source, even from great prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah, they would reject it.

 

The Sadducees had noticed the presence of this new young rabbi, called Jesus, who was teaching in the Temple every day.  People like him.  A significant crowd constantly surrounds him.  However, Jesus seems to believe in the resurrection of the dead, a topic that is definitely not found in the first five books of the Bible.  The Sadducees decide to entrap Jesus in a net of his own words by going to the political jugular: a question about marriage.  Once again, humankind hasn’t changed much in 2,000 years.  Religious people seem to always been obsessed by marriage questions.  The Sadducees bring to Jesus a question that was surely going around those days to expose the absurdity of the idea of resurrection.

 

Jesus! my good friend, they say.  We have a question for you about levirate marriage, levirate from the word ‘levir’ which means brother-in-law in Latin, a language that none of us probably speak but for the sake of this minister who will write a sermon in 2,000 years about what is going on right now, let us just pretend.  As you are surely aware, Jesus, the book of Deuteronomy says: “When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger.  Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother”.  I think we can all agree that it is weird, but this is what the Good Book says.  Well, there was this man who married and died childless.  His brother did the right thing, married the widow and also died childless.  Then the third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh brother married the poor widow and everyone died childless.  Tell us, Jesus.  In this resurrection of yours, whose wife will the woman be since all the brothers married her?  How does it make sense Jesus?  You know what?   Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

 

The Sadducees are sure they have Jesus exactly right where they want him.  He cannot walk out of this theological quicksand with his integrity intact.  This is what they think.  But Jesus, who was not at his first debate, answers by highlighting the difference between the Law and God.  Like the Sadducees, all of us can spend months and years studying scriptures, learning by heart countless verses and analyzing each single coma of a text and still completely miss the whole point.  We can build beautiful churches, structure relevant faith groups and denominations and print fancy bibles, the fact remains that God cannot be boxed or restricted in one single book, time frame, cultural context or even building.  God is bigger than what we can understand or imagined.  God who created in the past is still creating today.  Jesus reminds us that God is not a God of the dead but of the living.

 

Of course, history, traditions, exegesis of biblical texts and past wisdom are important, but not to the point to give a religious veto to people who might have died 300 years ago.  The fact is we do not live our faith in a bubble or a vacuum, but in the real world, with real people who have real concerns.  What would be the point to memorize the whole Bible if we fail to love God and love our neighbours?  How can we claim to be disciples of Jesus the Christ if we do not help those who are in need and work for the improvement of the human condition?  How can we proclaim the unbounded love of God for every human being and then exclude some of our brothers and sisters from our worship place because of one or two words found in a book?

 

To believe in a God of the living might be far more difficult than people imagine because it requires us to challenge our assumptions constantly, our faith and ourselves.  Every day, we are asked to discover where God brings newness in this world.  Who needs to hear a message of liberation?  When should we adapt to our culture and circumstances ancient life-giving words?  Which prophetic voices do we ought to listen?  What innovation can allow ourselves to go deeper into our faith, beliefs and spirituality so we can put flesh on the hope to the people of God?

 

You probably have heard the famous expression: What Would Jesus Do if he was here today?  What would he say about the way we read the Bible and be the body of Christ together?  As one of the people of the very liberal United Church of Canada, I do not believe we have to get rid of our Bibles because they are outdated, too restrictive or used as a weapon by some Christians.  We need them as a tool to understand and discover how God speaks in the present tense.  Our God is not the God of the dead or a book, but the God the living today.  Thanks be to God and amen.

 

Jeremiah 23: 1-6

Last week I took Con-Ed time to prepare the upcoming season of Advent (which begin next Sunday by the way).  Very honestly, as much as I loved American politics, there was a part of me that was relieved of not having to write a sermon for last Sunday.  Like almost everyone on this planet, I was shocked by the results and the fact that Donald Trump will be president of the United States of America.  Well… there was another part of me that felt that I needed to be here with you and trying to make sense of all of this together.  Eventually, I came to the conclusion that maybe we should turn the page and keep this awful campaign and everything that came with it in the past.  After all, this is not our country.  Americans will have to face the consequences of their choice, not us.

 And then, last Monday, I read that nazi symbols and racist graffiti were spray-painted on a Kanata elementary school, in Bridlewood.  On Tuesday, similar graffiti and anti-Semitic slur were painted on the door of the home of a rabbi living in the Glebe.  Once again, there was an appeal to communication and going beyond our differences.  On Thursday, the same happened on the walls of a synagogue in the Alta Vista neighbourhood.  On Friday, it was the turn of the Ottawa Mosque and Parkdale United Church.  On Saturday morning, the police arrested an individual as he was about to vandalized a Jewish community centre.  All these events in less than a week did not occur in the United States or in Middle East, but here, in our own city.

 The police might have arrested an individual, but I am not stupid or naïve.  I am convinced that extremist groups existed in the area.  However, I am disappointed by the initial reactions of our leaders after those events.  Beyond the messages on Twitter and press releases from the Prime Minister and mayor of Ottawa that denounced in the strongest terms these actions of hatred and they are standing in solidarity with the communities affected, it took time before concrete actions have been taken.  Maybe they really believed these were isolated incidents perpetuated by a small number of deranged individuals.  Still, how many “isolated incidents” does it take before we should consider we might be facing a real issue that requires from our leaders more than just hollow words.  As a Christian minister, as a citizen, as a father of a son who belong to a visible minority and who is considered as an immigrant by the Canadian government, and as a decent human being, I am expecting more from our leaders.

 I know… It is easy to criticize our leaders.  For some of us, it is almost our favourite past time.  When our society goes through a painful experience, when the economy does not perform as expected or when we feel that our way of life is somehow threatened, we are tempted to point fingers at our political or religious leaders.  We begin to claim they do not care enough about the “little people”.  They take advantage of their position.  They serve their own narrow interest.  They have let us down. 

 This is not a new phenomenon.  Today’s reading from the book of Jeremiah begins with the words: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.”  Let’s make no mistake here.  The prophet is not concerned with actual livestock and real shepherds nor commenting on the state of agriculture in ancient Israel.  Jeremiah uses a common metaphor from that time which associated the duties of a king and those of a shepherd.  As the Israelites are going through a serious leadership crisis, Jeremiah utters a cry of outrage against those who have abused power.  The last few kings have failed to provide justice, safety and holiness.  They have failed to fulfill their covenantal duties to be good shepherds.  They are the source of the struggles of God’s people.

 However, the situation is not desperate.  After criticizing harshly the leaders of his time, the prophet Jeremiah announces the coming of a new leadership.  He claims, “I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.  The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will rise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”  For centuries, Christians from various origins and denominations have looked at this prophecy and said Jesus!  Even if Jeremiah never used the language a messiahship in this passage or elsewhere, this new shepherd cannot be anyone other than Jesus the Christ, we say.  After all, he is the king of kings.  He is the one we celebrate on this Reign of Christ Sunday. 

 Maybe the prophet Jeremiah foretold the coming Christ Jesus.  However, the text speaks of the coming of shepherds.  It is not singular; it is a plural.  It is not one individual, but many of them.  Who are the other shepherds who can shepherd the people toward a safe home, provide a renewed sense of leadership and bring justice and righteousness to the land?  Maybe they are Jesus’ first disciples, the prophets and theologians of modern times or even the great religious leaders of the Church?  Maybe.  But what if these shepherds were someone else?  What if these shepherds were each and every one of us?   

 I can already hear some of you saying, “Wow, wow, wow!  Is this sermon a subtle plot to get us to sign up for committee work?  No way!  I’m not doing this!  And if it is about actually changing this world, there is little I can do.  I wish I could bring justice and righteousness to everyone, but I am not an elected official, someone with a title or even a community leader.  I am an ordinary person.  I do not have any power.  Nice try Stéphane.”

 I do not have any power.  That’s what we often believe.  That’s what we have been told on many occasions.  And yet, we all have some sort of power.  Those who are lawyers and judges have power over the citizens who have broken the law.  Those who are teachers have power over children and youth.  Those who are employers have power their employees.  Parents and grandparents have power over their children and grandchildren.  We all have some sort of power over other human beings.

 Power is not necessarily good or evil.  It is a reality we can choose to deny, ignore or use to have a positive impact on our world.  There is a great amount of power in where we put our little x on our ballots.  The same can be said on where we buy our goods, the stores we support, the charities we sustain, the values we transmit to our children, the words we repeat in public, and so on.  We can use this power at our disposal to make a difference.  When some are trying to divide us, we can reach out to those we know less and bring people together even if it is never an easy task.  When our collective fears lead some to response with hatred and violence, we can stand up and remind everyone around us of each person’s dignity and human rights even if we do not have the exact words.  When our elected officials are filling their duties to protect the outcast, the forgotten and the invisible, we can write letters asking them to re-evaluate their decisions even if we are not a member of their party.  When the poor, marginalized, strangers and rejected have nowhere to go, we can open our doors and our arms even we were never taught how to do it.  We can be agents of change.  We can be purveyors of hope.  We can be a source of goodness.  We can be leaders in our own way.  We can be good shepherds for God’s people in our own way.

 Today’s text from the book of Jeremiah brings up the question of our responsibility and accountability in this world.  Yes, we like to criticize our leaders when things do not turn out as we expect or like.  It is also easy to be cynical, pretend that we cannot change our society and wait the coming of some sort of Saviour or Messiah that will fix everything.  However, in the challenging times we experience these days, we ought to ask ourselves what kind of leaders do we need and most importantly how can we be those leaders.  So my friends, it is time for us to engage in social media, family diner, school, working place, church and social groups those we know and to tell them that another world is possible.  It is time to reach out to individuals and members of the LGBTQ community, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, visible minorities and all of those who feel scattered and vulnerable these days and to work with them so we can create a society where all would be valued and included.  It is time for us to show leadership through our actions and our words, and to bring wholeness, holiness, justice and righteousness in our world, our country and our city.  It is time to be in our own way the good shepherds announced by the prophet Jeremiah.  Amen.

Guest Preacher - Rev. Teresa Burnett-Cole from Glebe St. James United Church, Ottawa, ON