Love & Struggle

Notes from
4th Sunday of Advent, December 24, 2017
‘Trinity on Church’, Kitchener

Text: 2 Samuel 7

I don’t care if it rains or freezes, long as I got my plastic Jesus
Sitting on the dashboard of my car.

Through my trials and tribulations, I have travelled cross the nation,
With my plastic Jesus I’ll go far.

Today was the big import/export Sunday of the season, as many regulars travelled to gather with family elsewhere, and others came home to parents’ homes here.  Many of us were in the new small rental space ‘Trinity on Church’ for the first time, and meeting me as the ‘new temp guy’ for the first time.

Yes, I got to church easily through the snow, after years north of Flin Flon, and for the past 5 Christmases in Calgary.  People were more worried that I’d visited home on Lake Huron this week, where some were snowed in.  So I began by singing ‘Plastic Jesus’, from the old movie ‘Cool Hand Luke’.

Don Cupitt, one of my preferred contemporary theologians these days, calls Christmas the “Disney-fication of Christianity”.  We risk more than trivial or commercialized versions of the feast. Branding, in a post-industrial consumer culture, sentimentalizes to monetize, re-construing our world to a commodity.

The dean at U of Winnipeg wrote ‘Love & Struggle in Mao’s Thought,’ signed my copy, and said I was the first person he had met who had bought and read it.  Too bad, since Mao, and our UCC overseas staff, had good critiques of how colonial imperial capitalism served China through liberal ‘love’ and ‘freedom’. 

The ecumenical lectionary told us all to read this text from a “Former Prophet”, so I didn’t get to the ‘Baby Jesus’ story till the later services of the day.  This less familiar story promised better opportunity to resist the power branding, and some chance that the gospel of infant incarnation might reach us again.

The ‘Big Idea’ today was ‘Love’: not quid pro quo, or sentiment without action – nor frenetic action without purpose.  ‘Love’ is incommensurable, mutual vulnerability, reliance upon the other doing their part in a relationship, despite plenty of evidence of the risk that they won’t.  

Gift-giving at Christmas illustrate the utilitarian exchange or reciprocity relations, or frantic over-reaction. We give and get gifts that are too much or too little, offend more than they excite.  If it’s the thought that counts, it’s often missing.

We paused, to consider this ‘Baby Jesus’ thing – to practice considering others.  Imagine the vulnerability of God, the risk by God, in action with purpose beyond sentiment or reason.  We prefer our Jesus as a ‘great teacher’, a ‘wise prophet’, or even a ‘miracle worker’ superhero. ‘Baby Jesus’ can’t talk yet, or do much, except soil the swaddling cloths, since he’s incontinent.  Help him.  That’s faith.

‘The Samuels’  is a pair of books, originally one, spinning out the epic story of how a wee group of tribes became a ‘United Kingdom’. (Then ‘The Kings’ tells of the decline and fall, and it’s all retold in Chronicles and again in wisdom books).  The tribes among other tribes operated in ideal anarchy, raising up ‘judges’ when threatened by outside forces, otherwise only cooperating if necessary. 

The tribes whined to God ‘why can’t we have a king like other nations?’  Despite divine warnings to ‘be careful what you ask for; you might get it’,  Samuel finds Saul, who gets the king role wrong, then David, who starts heroically and then through fatal tragic moral flaws of pride, and abuse of power, falters. 

David in I Samuel is a guerilla fighter, running a protection racket in the Hebron hills, part of an ongoing insurgency or civil war with Saul’s petty tyranny.  Public relations for David claim he was a shepherd boy, a musician, playmate of Saul’s boy Jonathon, slayer of Goliath, to balance what we all knew of his early career.   

2 Samuel begins like a Godfather 2: David has made it, Saul is dead, and after 7 years in the north, David begins 33 years of rule over the united kingdom from Jerusalem, in a palace of cedar panels. He’s ready for ‘happily ever after’, to show off his power with a bit of philanthropy, as he muses aloud:

‘I live in a house of cedar, but God’s ark is in a tent’.

David says to Nathan the prophet, let’s “make it right”, like Mike Holmes in the Canadian home repair TV show.  From my plenty, let me give God a bit. God should have a nice house too, more like mine.  We know the feeling, having spent so much money on our own homes.  Mine is bigger than this one, this year (not my ‘garret’ in the city, but my ‘beach house’ on Lake Huron’)

Nathan says ‘Sure’.  Why look a gift horse in the mouth?  Who talks back to David anymore?  What clergy resists a big donor?  But Nathan can’t sleep that night, with second thoughts, courtesy of God. This temple idea is not David’s to choose, but God’s to give, and for Solomon to build. Nathan scratches that itch.

God has been doing fine in a tent, through all those years since Egypt. God will be faithful, but not fitting in to David’s script. You build a house for me? I build a house for you, says God. It may not be bricks – but legacy, a family, a people.

God wants so much less - and offers so much more - than ‘happily ever after’. 
Our mortgage is paid, our pension secure, our business or career through its early scrambles, and we are in our middling ages, in the middling classes, in ‘Trinity on Church’.  Is it all just ‘happily ever after’ now, with a philanthropic tip for God? See Rabbi Kushner’s book ‘When All You Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough’.

Many of us know what it’s like to become somebody’s parent or grandparent, rather than the star of our family show. Who wrote the script for your family Christmas 40 years ago, or 20, or last year?  Who will write it soon, and what will be your part in the next remake of your ‘Christmas special’?

Scripture expresses and informs not just the tales of the ‘power and glory’ of self-made men in their prime like David. It also recounts the subversive stories of succession and legacy, the rise and fall.  What if we’re the supporting cast, or even the back story? Crazy old Saul, David in turn in his senility, teach wordlessly, as do their infant successors. What if it’s not all about us?

‘I live in a house of cedar, while God is living in a tent.’ 

One generation begins and builds, immigrants, hustlers, the Methodist Mafia, the Orange Lodge. The next generation builds, consolidates, as the elders forget being scrappy partisans and politicians, and become wise statesmen. But is it to be rags to riches to rags in three generations, for any of us, or all of us? 

 What was the point, when we set out together, to find better ways of living together, and loving together? When all you ever wanted is not enough, then what? Life, and church, is not happily ever after. Don’t run it all like annuities and pensions.  We build and grow, or we decline and fall and die. 

I keep describing how we are running our churches and denominations into the ground. We’re so scared of dying that we are killing ourselves. We bury talents in the ground, in fear, wait too long to share too little. Some call me a ‘one-trick pony’, or a broken record, after crying out for at least 30 years that we need to close half our outlets yesterday, to redeploy our assets more faithfully.

That’s not a call for an estate plan, or a restructuring proposal for insolvency.  What we’ve got is not the curse of David’s doomed early success, but the promise of Solomon’s start-up capital. Are we ready to recognize ‘Baby Jesus’, and respond with nurture and care for that potential?  We are equipped to help.

I closed with bits from T.S.Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’, (here, ‘East Coker’ excerpts) begun in 1939, published in 1943, when Eliot was in his mid-50’s, American born English bank employee, by then moderately well known for his poetry:

 In my beginning is my end.

 In succession Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended, 
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place is an open field, 
or a factory, or a by-pass. 
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires, 
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces, 
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf. 

 Houses live and die: 
there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break
the loosened pane
 And to shake the wainscot
where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras
woven with a silent motto…. 

 So here I am, in the middle way, 
having had twenty years— 
Twenty years largely wasted, 
the years of ‘l'entre deux guerres’ 

 Trying to use words, 
and every attempt
 Is a wholly new start, 
and a different kind of failure

 Because one has only learnt
to get the better of words

 For the thing one no longer has to say,
 or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.

 And so each venture
 Is a new beginning,

 a raid on the inarticulate