1 Corinthians 1: 1-9
If you are a fan of The Godfather trilogy, you surely know the famous quote from its third instalment: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in”. For the last few weeks I tried. I really tried to focus on something else. I tried to avoid the subject. Just when I was ready to move on, it came back in the media. Donald Trump… Russia… hacked email servers… leaked classified reports… and I am not even touching with a 10-foot pole some allegations we heard this week. We might debate for days why the people seem to have a sick fascination about this whole situation and if we should listen to him or not, it remains that this man will be in a few days the President of the United States of America, our neighbour and main commercial partner. I really feel compassion for those who will have to navigate through this chaos and deal with this apparently dysfunctional administration for the next four years.
Speaking of dysfunctional, the lectionary offers us this morning the beginning of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. You might know that Roman Catholics have patron saints for many professions and groups. If there would be a patron saint for highly dysfunctional congregations, the church in Corinth would be the obvious choice. How to say it politely? This church was a complete mess. There is no other way to say it. Conflicts and division on almost every possible issue threatened to blow up this community of faith. They were arguing over matters of whom was the best leaders, who had better morals, whose worship was accurate or who hold the right beliefs about the resurrection of the dead. In short, everyone was feeling superior to their neighbours and they want to prove to all they were better and had all the answers. Thank God, those tensions and divisions have disappeared from our churches these days!
Knowing this, we go to the beginning of today’s text only to discover it is the very beginning of the letter to the Corinthians. Paul started his numerous epistles with usual conventions and classical formulas of his time. “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God…”, blah, blah, blah, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus…” blah, blah, blah… “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…” yada, yada, yada.
Usually we look at these verses and we are tempted to skip them in order to go to the juicy ones, the good parts. However, by doing so we would miss something important. It is true that Paul followed a similar pattern to begin his letters, but there is a significant difference in this one. For example, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, he says, “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” You can read over and over today’s text, you will not find prayers for the Corinthians or high praises for their work. It feels more like, ‘Ok guys, you dug yourselves in a hole and it is time for you to figure a way out of it by yourselves, because I am not coming back to settle all the issues, nor I am sending one of my associates to be your interim minister. You broke the beautiful community I created. You better find a way to repair it.”
Yet, despite all they have done, Paul has not given up on the Corinthians. He still cares for them and offers them advice to improve their situation. Paul begins by reminding them that the church at Corinth is made up of ordinary people called to be saints. Contrarily to the beliefs of some, Paul does not understand sainthood as moral perfection and extraordinary faith. Saints are those called by God to be followers of Jesus the Christ. Saints are those set apart for God’s work in the world, which should never be done alone or in isolation. Later in his letter, Paul notes that they are called not only out of the world, but also to work into the community. The saints in Corinth, like those in every place and time, have to work together for the sake of God’s mission on earth.
Then, Paul reassures the Corinthians by telling them that they have everything they need to do what a church is supposed to do and be. In spite of their previous failures, the Christians in Corinth are endowed with powerful spiritual gifts. In fact, they lack nothing. Some are blessed with eloquence and others with understanding of every kind. They were enriched in Christ and strengthened to live according to God’s way. There is so much potential within their midst that every voice in the community is valuable, everyone is important, everyone should be invited to contribute his or her unique gift, even the ones with whom they disagree.
As strange it may sound, this message to the highly dysfunctional church in Corinth also applies to us today. We might not be arguing or fighting on a regular basis like the Corinthians, but on some occasions we forget our mission in this world, we struggle to live according to the call we received; we are told that a minister will not renew her contract in a few months. After the initial shock, we sometimes start to think, what will we do? How will we function? Who will lead us? Who will solve our quarrels? Who will teach us how to believe and behave? Who will save us?
As Paul reminded the Corinthians, we need to remember that this is not our church but the church of God in this part of the world. Our collective identity is not defined by this neighbourhood, a denomination or ministerial staff, but in Christ Jesus. The Holy One, who has been faithful in the past and will continue to be in the future, is at the center of our community of faith. Our ability to be a church does not come from us, but from God’s continuous work among and in us. For this reason, each and every one has been set apart to be saints, meaning to follow the ways of Jesus in everything we do, especially in challenging and uncertain times.
Also, we should never forget the words we can read in the United Church’s latest statement of faith, Song of Faith. “To embody God’s love in the world, the work of the church requires the ministry and discipleship of all believers”… not just those on the payroll, but all believers like you, you, you and everyone else. All of us have received gifts and abilities. Like the expression says, everyone is good at something. Some have the gift of understanding a complex situation in a few seconds. Others are good at caring for those who struggle, speaking words that help, making sing those who are tone deaf, repairing a broken door, cooking a meal for the bereaved, keeping financial books and so on and on. Those gifts are ours to use, not for our sole benefit or the improvement of our social status in our congregations, but for the various ministries of the church of God, for proclamation of the good news of Jesus the Christ and for the building of a better world in which everyone would be valued and respected. Every one of us has something to contribute and we are called to bring our gifts to our community to make it better and stronger.
Today like 2,000 years ago, it is not easy to belong to a congregation. There is always something going on. When it is not a debate about the order of worship or the hymns sang, it is a squabble on how we spend our money or anxiety following the resignation of a minister. On some days we are tempted to simply give up because it is too difficult, those people are hopeless or this church is a mess and will never function properly. And just when we believe we are done, when we are on our way out, God often finds a way to pull us back in by reminding us that this is God’s church, these people are our people and we can make a difference in this world if we use all our gifts together. Despite all our flaws and failures, God has not given up on us. In good times, in challenging times, God always remain in our midst. Thanks be to God and amen.
Matthew 2: 1-12, 16-18
I do not know if you remember, but 12 months ago one of the main topics in the media was the arrival of several thousand refugees from Syria. Many Canadians have generously opened their wallets, their doors and their hearts in the following months. Others were concerned by the whole enterprise. They wondered if we were welcoming too many of them. They were afraid that those strangers would progressively overtake ‘us’. Some even believed that terrorists slipped through the system and would attack Canada. As we begin 2017, we know that 40,000 refugees from Syria has arrived in our country, sponsor either by the government or private groups. These 40,000 individuals represent only 0.1% of the population of Canada. There were no terrorists attack. And we discovered that all those refugees were in fact doctors, teachers, accounts, computer specialists and university students who are now trying to learn English and/or French, find a job to feed their family and adapt to the Canadian winter. All the agitation, commotion and worries related to the arrival of those men, women and children from the East was mostly based on the fear to see our comfort and privilege position in society disturbed.
On this Epiphany Sunday, the lectionary brings us another story of men coming from the East. We know them because they are present in our crèches. We are not exactly sure who they were or where they came from. Still, we refer to them as Magi, Wise Men, Kings, Astrologers or Priests. Tradition gave them names: Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. Some even suggest that they came from Iran, Syria or Iraq, areas we seem to fear the most these days. We will never know for sure.
From what we can understand from the story in the Gospel according to Matthew, these educated men dropped everything they were doing, left their country and followed a star. They were looking for a new light into the world for those sitting in darkness, as promised by the prophet Isaiah. They hoped for the coming of someone who would deliver the needy, the poor and those who have no helper, as proclaimed in the Psalms. They believed this light signalled the beginning of a new era, the birth of a new king.
During their quest, this band of travellers met a king, but not necessarily the sort they were looking for. They met Herod the Great. The time of King Herod, as said in the text, was not a happy time, but one of oppression, suffering, injustice and brutality. Historical documents tell us that Herod was a man who used all the resources at his disposal to subjugate the people and maintain his authority. You can imagine how thrilled he was when a group of uninvited strangers showed up at his place to tell him a new king of the Jews has been born. Herod had built himself a comfortable kingdom that serves him well. He has all the power he wants. Life is good. When his visitors told him their “good news”, Herod thinks he about to lose everything. It is the end of the world as he knows it. He is frightened and all Jerusalem with him.
As we read this story, we might be surprised by the strong emotional reaction of Herod and the good people of Jerusalem. After all, this was just a baby without an army or the resources to overthrow the established order. There was no rational reason to be afraid. And yet he was… and there is a part of us that can somehow understand Herod’s fear. I believe that almost all of us are afraid to be profoundly disturbed. I am not talking about when we are installed in a comfortable couch to watch a good movie, suddenly the phone rings and it is a survey. I am talking about being disturbed, challenged or confronted in our lifestyle and values. We usually react strongly when we perceived that our assets, status or position in society are in jeopardy. We usually do not appreciate when we believe all that we have gained in our lives could be taken away or disappear. We usually are afraid when visitors come in our place and begin to challenge the rules that govern our communities. We usually do not like to be upset in this way.
Herod reacted like so many men and women in a similar situation. On the surface, he says all the right words. He says to his guests, ‘I consulted the chief priests and scribes of the people and they told me you should go to Bethlehem. Once you found this adorable baby, come back to tell me so I can also pay him homage.’ How beautiful! But in reality… Herod is only interested to save his assets and position in society. He does not want the system that works for him to be changed. He does not want to take a chance. He prefers to eradicate this threat. He orders the massacre of innocent children, all the boys in the town of Bethlehem under the age of two.
Of course, these days, we civilized and educated people do not turn to bloodshed to solve issues. This is too barbaric. We are a little more subtle. Rather, when we feel our way of life threatened, we create arcane programs, build walls or close our borders. After all, if massacres of people with a different tone of skin, religion or language happen over there, we feel less responsible. I know it is not pleasant to hear, but how many children do you think died in Aleppo last December when we were busy with the celebrations of the birth of Jesus? How many are living today in refugee camps without access to a classroom, a bed or clean water? How many will die before the end of the day because of bombs or malnutrition? Do we know? Do we really want to know? When we struggle too much with our conscience, we try to convince ourselves that the situation is complicated, our leaders are doing their best and we cannot really do more than what we do right now.
Maybe it is true… maybe… or maybe our leaders and all of us should pay closer attention to this morning’s travellers and learn from them. These uninvited guests, these strangers, these pagans, when facing a rather difficult situation, take the higher road. After finding the Infant Christ and paying him homage, they decide to return for their own country by another road. By doing so, they reject little political games. They refuse to enable a system of oppression. They confronted and resist evil. These men coming from the East who were the source of the fears of the established power show everyone what humanity should be.
I believe that all of us regularly face the same choice. We might not follow a star to find a new born king, but as Thomas Long wrote, “the world is full of stars – events in nature, personal experience, and history that point toward the mystery of God”. In our journeys to follow God’s call, live by teachings of Jesus and to move where the Spirit leads us, we become increasingly aware of the conflicts in our world, the injustice and iniquities surrounding us and the struggles of our human brothers and sisters. We constantly have to decide which road we follow. Do we prefer to walk the path of fear, protection of our status, privileges and assets, and the perpetuation of the so-called normalcy of our society that works very well for us? Or are we brave enough to embark on the perilous journey of generosity, openness, love and radical welcome of those considered foreigners and a treat to our comfort? Are we courageous enough to accept to be challenged and disturbed in ways we do not necessarily appreciated? Are we ready to be transformed by the news of the birth of a single baby?
These figurines are much more than mere decoration for our nativity scene. They are travellers from a distant land looking for a new light for our world who met the darkness of fear, domination and murder. They are a reminder of the best and the worst of our human nature. They are the symbol of the challenges and disruption we face every day. These strangers coming from the East are an example for all of us in our desire a better world where all would be included. Amen.
Isaiah 9: 2-7
Another year is about to end. Many of us believed that 2016 would be better than the previous one. We hoped for an improvement of our conditions. We expected to see some light at the end of the tunnel. Well… we saw some light for sure, but too often it felt more like a train rolling at full speed in our direction. There were so many bad news in the media that I do not know where to begin. We have been submerged by images from the war in Syria, African-American men being shot in the streets and terrorist attacks in Europe. And do not get me started on the election of you know who in the US… On some days, those bad news were so present in our lives that it almost seems we have developed a sick addiction to the darker side of humanity.
This darkness is not only found outside; it is also present inside of some of us. According to songs and carols we hear all over the places, this is the most beautiful time of the year. It is also the most stressful one. For many of us, the holidays are a cruel reminder of the burdens of one kind or another we carry too often alone. The bright lights in stores and outside only seem to make our souls heavier as we are grieving, strapped with debt or dealing with family strife. On some days, we feel we are walking in darkness, always about to stumble on one more obstacle.
And here we are tonight, coming for many different reasons, maybe expecting a little miracle even if we have our doubts about those things. Maybe we showed up to hear what God has to say to us. Maybe we have come to find some comfort in the reading of the same old story repeated year after year in our churches. And maybe, just maybe, a few words we heard so many times, caught our attention tonight. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Maybe, just maybe he raised our head and we heard the amazing news. “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us.”
Wow! “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us.” This is not small news. Everyone who has a child or took care of one only for a few hours knows that everything changes when those little individuals enter into our lives. “B.C.” does not mean “Before Christ” anymore; it is “Before Child”. There is a definite before and after. Our beautiful routines are totally disturbed. Our schedules are unsettled. Uninterrupted hours of sleep becomes a most precious commodity. And through all of this, we discover that love is not divided, but is increased exponentially.
“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us.” When we look at a small child, we sometimes try to discern what would be his or her future. Would he be like an Everlasting Father who holds his loved ones in his arms? Would she become a Wonderful Counsellor who walks with the people and offer wisdom? Maybe he could be a new Prince of Peace who reconciles the differences between nations or she could be an Emmanuel who touches and changes the lives of the people forever.
A tiny baby has been offered to all of us as a symbol of hope. This infant has come to cut the darkness surrounding us and to push back its limits and boundaries. Because of this child, the promise of peace and the end of misery can be believed. Justice and righteousness can be at the reach of all. Exultation, joy and happiness can be a reality experienced every day. Because of the birth of a tiny baby, another world becomes possible for those who are suffering, doubting or ready to give up.
In these times of darkness, we are told the words repeated so often in the Bible, “Do not be afraid”. God is saying to us, “You can trust me. I know it is difficult to believe on some days, but I am still here. In your moments of concern, anxiety and fear, I have remained at your side. As I did in the past, I am ready to give you a sign. I will send you a great light that will push back obscurity.” Yes, my friends. We are not condemned to walk in the darkness forever because on this holy night a child has been born for us, a son given to us and maybe this is the greatest news of all. Amen.
For the last few weeks, the main theme of my sermons was ‘Another World is Possible’. Like many others, I believe we do not have to accept the status quo or the brokenness of our world. All of us can influence positively our society in our own way. All of us can do our part. Sometimes, we bring a new idea and people love it. On other occasions, it is a little more difficult. Yet, we should not be discouraged if some around us struggle to see beyond the reality in front of their eyes and close their minds to new possibilities. We are called to persevere and try to lovingly convince those who are satisfied and even prospering by the current system.
I would like to show you a clip for the movie “The Lorax”, an adaptation of the famous Dr. Seuss’ story. For those who haven’t seen the film, the people of Thneed-Ville live in a totally artificial world. Nature has completely disappeared and oxygen has become a commodity that one has to buy, a reality I am afraid our children and grandchildren might experience. One day, a 12 year-old boy, Ted Wiggins, comes with a simple, but revolutionary idea. Let us watch:
“Let it grow. Let it grow. You can’t reap what you don’t sow.” On this Christmas morning, we are invited to remember how God took a chance on us by sending us a simple and vulnerable baby to be our Messiah, our Savour, our Redeemer. Like our ancestors in faith, all of us have the choice to welcome this birth as a symbol of hope and let renewal grow inside of us or to let it die. We have the choice to open our minds and envision possibilities not yet imagined. We can even go as far as forgiving one another and loving our ennemies. We can learn to share our abundance and journey on new paths of divine promises.
So on this Christmas morning, let us continue to plant seeds of hope, peace, joy and love and let us continue to believe we will reap the fruits of another world. Amen.
Matthew 1: 18-25
The end of the first chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew is surely Joseph’s big moment… which says much about his importance in the Scripture. The passage is only 7 verses long. As said in the pageant last week, Joseph does not receive much air time in the Bible. He cannot be found in any of Paul’s letters or the entire Gospel according to Mark. In the other Gospels, he is present essentially in birth narratives and completely disappear after a visit at the Temple for Passover when Jesus is 12. Did he die soon after? Did he take the gold brought by the Magi and flee in Egypt with his new younger wife? Nobody knows what happened to Joseph. Maybe this is the reason that, beside iconography and a few books on the Holy Family, not much attention is usually given to Joseph. As I was reading to prepare this sermon, the commentaries I consulted focus mainly on the virgin birth, the scandal of Mary’s pregnancy or the incarnation of Christ found in this passage, and overlooked our poor Joseph. With time, it seems he has been reduced to the support role of stepfather or foster father of Jesus.
And yet, Joseph is an important character in the unfolding of the story of Christ’s birth. From what we can understand from the Scripture, Joseph is a carpenter in the small Galilean village of Nazareth. He is a normal righteous man of his time. He is engaged to a local girl named Mary. Just to be clear, back then people did not usually marry for love. According to local customs, families arranged marriage for their children. Joseph’s and Mary’s families had signed a contract and even if Joseph has not yet taken Mary into his house, it was considered a done deal. So Joseph’s life is good… until he receives some disturbing news that his future wife might not be as a respectable person as he believed. He is informed that Mary is pregnant and since he is convinced he is not the father, the only logical explanation is that she had a sexual encounter with another man. Joseph is caught off guard by this news. He did not see this unplanned pregnancy coming.
At this specific moment, Joseph has to make a very difficult decision. On the one hand, he can break the agreement with Mary’s family and divorce her quietly to avoid exposing her to public disgrace. According to the Law of Moses, Joseph is within his rights to walk away from his fiancée. Nobody would blame him. He would not be seen as doing something wrong or being selfish. Yes, Mary’s life would surely be difficult, but she is the one who got in trouble. The other guy should be the one who cleans up this mess.
On the other hand, Joseph can decide to accept Mary and her unborn child. Even if this would save appearances and maintain good relationships between extended families and the rest of the community, this perspective should have been difficult to envision for Joseph because it goes against the norms of his society, the expectations of what a man should do and how he must behave, and probably quash his dream of a so-called ‘normal family’. And even if he decides to build a future with his bride-to-be, how would Joseph be able to trust Mary if he believes she had been unfaithful?
Today we can relate to Joseph’s dilemma because I am convinced all of us have been at one point or another of our lives confronted to difficult choices. It might not be exactly the same context than in Joseph’s story, but on many occasions, even if we make long lists, plan every possible outcome and follow rules to the letter, we face unplanned situations, unexpected developments or unseen repercussions. We are forced to decide between one option or another, knowing perfectly that our choices will have consequences. Even in the case when we decide to do nothing and preserve the status quo, it is still a choice we make that can have an effect on our lives and the lives of others. In those moments, it is often difficult to discern when we should say yes or no, because it is almost impossible to foresee the full impact of our decisions, may they might be considered important or mundane.
In those situations, I like to remember the story of Marion Best. I am aware I have told this story often and I am sorry if you feel I am repeating myself. For those who haven’t heard it, during her youth Marion Best lived on the West Coast. When she had her first child in the 1940s, she felt her infant needed to be baptized, even she was not affiliated with any church. She went to a nearby congregation, which happened to be United Church. She met with the minister, told the truth about her situation and present her request. The minister said yes and eventually she got involved with the Sunday School, the Congregation, Presbytery, Conference and eventually she became in 1994 the Moderator of the United Church of Canada. After her term, she went to be the vice-moderator of the World Council of Churches. I am always amazed about what we would have lost, not just the United Church of Canada, but the whole church of God, if that minister back then said, no, I will not baptize your child because you are not a member, I do not know you or any other reasons. That single decision, that specific yes, had huge repercussions on so many lives.
Eventually Joseph makes up his mind. Even if it is not at first sight the easiest solution, he accepts God’s invitation and takes his rightful place in God’s story. No matter what people would say in his back, no matter if Mary’s story is accurate or not, no matter if it means to set aside his dreams and aspirations about his future, Joseph says yes. Joseph brings Mary in his home. Joseph embraces a child who is radically unlike him and yet makes him his beloved son. Of course, he does not know all that would come after, the trip to Bethlehem, the threat from Herod, the exile in Egypt, or the horrible death of his son… All that he has is the promise that his son would be the fulfillment of the words spoken by the prophets, the Emmanuel, God is with us, and this is sufficient for Joseph.
On this fourth Sunday of Advent, I believe this story finds its full potential, not because it speaks about the conception of Jesus, but in Joseph’s decision. We, ministers, often like to repeat that Advent is a time set aside to prepare ourselves for welcoming Christ. It is a very beautiful sentence. However, we know very well the end of this story. We already know the words that will be pronounced on Christmas Eve or morning. Each year it is always the same. Jesus is born in a stable, the poor shepherds come to pay homage and the angels sing hallelujah. What is the big deal? Well… What if we got it wrong. What if Advent is really a time to prepare ourselves for what is not planned, what is not foreseen or what cannot be controlled in our lives. What if Advent is a time set aside to prepare ourselves for welcoming Christ where and how we expect it the least? On so many occasions, God invites us to journey on the less-travelled path, venture in uncharted territories or follow strange directions. Sometimes we are called to defy social norms, accepted patterns and common behaviours. On some days, God shows us that another world is possible, that unplanned surprises can bring life and salvation, that we can become who God needs us to be in order to take our place in God’s story.
The first Christmas was not a flawless story like the ones we can watch these days with moving music, inspirational dialogues and little sheep running in the field. It started with some disturbing news. It challenged norms and conventions. It was far from being perfect. However, a simple man kept the holy story going by agreeing to say yes to Mary and her unborn child. One single world change the course of humankind, a word that all of us can repeat in the coming days especially as we do not feel ready for the challenges ahead of us. No matter what, we all can say, Yes God! I will welcome you and everything that comes with you. Amen.