Notes from

Advent II, Sunday, December 09, 2018

‘Trinity on Church’ UC, Kitchener

Texts: Malachi 3, Luke 3

Advent candles proclaim disembodied ‘values’ for each of the 4 Sundays of Christmas anticipation. Last week it was ‘hope’, as it has been since 1988, shadowed by World AIDS Day. Today, it was ‘peace’, as it has been since 1989, tied by the Montreal Massacre to violence against women and giving poignant meaning to our 2 candelabra of 7 candles, beyond Hanukkah.

Malachi is today’s voice of The Twelve, the ‘minor prophets’ whom we’ve been reading through the season lest they be reduced to proof-texts predicting Jesus. The lectionary text warns us of a Messenger, a Day of Judgment that will burn like bleach and fire. Peace? Where’s the sentimental baby Jesus stuff?

We are old enough to all nod about burning not only white spots into coloured laundry, but holes in fabric with bleach. Many of us have some roots in the mines and mills of hard rock mining in Canada, where chemical baths in settling tanks float off some waste and let other dross settle to the bottom, producing miles of ‘tailings’ to pollute the Northern Shield. These are not images of peace.

I invited you to imagine a game of musical chairs, with children circling a diminishing number of chairs, waiting for the music to stop. Time’s up! Would it not be bad news and righteous fury, too late to be cleaning up some messes, if a ‘Day of Judgment’ stopped the music for us? Would it not be bleach and fire for some people, revealing their worst?

Our church is not too good at this apocalyptic urgency. We prefer compromise and delay, unlike our settler generation ancestors, enthusiasts of the Great Awakening revivals of the 1800’s. We have even lost track of our passion for social justice in our blithe confidence in a fair economy and meritocracy, with a healthy balance of altruistic charity and social welfare safety nets.

We are children of William Lyon McKenzie King from this city, national Liberal leader from 1919 to 1948, most of that time Prime Minister of Canada. He led us out of the Great War, through boom and bust and another world war.

He blunted us.
We had no shape
Because he never took sides,
And no sides
Because he never allowed them to take shape…
He skillfully avoided what was wrong
Without saying what was right,
And never let his on the one hand
Know what his on the other hand was doing…
He seemed to be in the centre
Because we had no centre,
No vision
To pierce the smoke-screen of his politics…
Truly he will be remembered
Wherever men honour ingenuity,
Ambiguity, inactivity, and political longevity.
Let us raise up a temple
To the cult of mediocrity,
Do nothing by halves
Which can be done by quarters.

That’s what F.R. Scott, constitutional lawyer, scholar, and poet, wrote just about William Lyon Mackenzie King. Pickersgill, King’s biographer, wrote that:

“Mackenzie King genuinely believed and frequently said
that the secret of political leadership
was more in what was prevented
than what was accomplished.”

That’s good advice for any pastor seeking to maintain peace and a job in any church! Yet, what would happen if the music stopped, in our game of musical chairs? How would an audit of our own spending or saving of our time, talents and money hold up to scrutiny, if we were no longer safely spectators or critics, but participant ing the game?

Our church and denomination has lost its fire. We are moderate, civil, and bloodless, teaching an eirenic spirituality of mindfulness, rather than a militant gospel challenging the worst and demanding the best of us. We shelter within the moral, political and financial capital of truly generous ancestors, hiding our own miserly fearful meanness?

What if we published donations, as we used to do? What if we discipled each other in mandatory weekly class meetings, cheering and jeering one another, with positive sanctions of support, and negative sanctions of shunning? Would that day burn any or all of us like bleach and fire? At least we might blush – or even get a bit paler in our white faces!

Luke starts the adult story of John the Baptist by situating it in relation to political and religious leaders. Herod, who had ruled during a census 30 years before, was succeeded by one son ruling in Judea, and another in Samaria. This week of the funeral of H.W. Bush, with a Trudeau ruling Ottawa, and a Ford ruling from Toronto, we have a sense of how that matters – and doesn’t.

Eugene Peterson, who died 6 weeks ago, was pastor one church in Maryland for 30 years, then spent 30 more on his Message Bible project, thank God. His version of John’s preaching to those seeking baptism is this:

You brood of snakes!
What do you think you’re doing
slithering down here to the river?
Do you think a little water on your snake skins
is going to deflect God’s judgment?
It’s your life that must change, not your skin.
And don’t think you can pull rank
by claiming Abraham as ‘father’ –
Third generation? WASP establishment?
Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there –
children of Abraham are a dime a dozen.
God can make children from stones if he wants.
What counts is your life.
Is it green and blossoming?
Because if it’s deadwood,
it goes on the fire.

That’s bad advice for a pastor seeking to maintain peace and a job in any church! John the Baptist shocked the crowds who relied on traditions, roots, inherited identities. But compassion is much more than altruistic condescension from those who are secure, from their extra, for the minimal needs of the poor. One starts from passion about what’s not ready for the music to stop!

We need to get past guilt about God’s providence, and limit our guilt to our failures of prudence. It’s true that we of middling ages and middling class with middling schooling get far more than we merit. Rather than extortion rackets this season, let’s pause to wonder what to do with what we’ve got, from a God’s eye view of ourselves and of humanity all around us.

Foucault would say that we are constructing roles and relationships and institutions that inform and express the way we construe ourselves and name each other. In this season, some of us are donors, assaulted with the ‘pornography of need’, the imagery of the ‘deserving poor’, needy families. They have to play the grateful supplicant role. Between us stand the charities.

According to Maimonides, in the Mishneh Torah of the 12th century, (1100’s) there are 8 degrees of tzedakah, or righteousness. In the United Church, we call this ‘solidarity’, or ‘right relations’. A person reaching the highest degree is the one who upholds the hand of an Israelite reduced to poverty by handing that person a gift or loan, or by entering into a partnership with him or her, or by finding that Israelite work in order to strengthen that person's hand, so that she or he will have no need to beg:

1. Giving a loan or getting him a job, so that he won't need to ask for charity.

2. The giver doesn't know who he is giving to, the other doesn't know who gives.

3. The giver knows who he gave to, but the other doesn't know who gives.

4. The giver doesn't know who he gave to, but the other knows who gives.

5. Giving straight to the other, before the other even asks.

6. Giving after the other asks.

7. Giving, but not enough.

8. Giving sourly, sadly. However, even this kind of charity is a Mitzvah.

Against that standard, where do most Christmas charity appeals fit? Modern secular charity is a far narrower, shallower concept and practice. Maimonides lingers on the best practice, of doing business with another as if they were one of us, before rhyming off the lesser virtues. He’s not stuck in what Foucault would say was a modern social construction of need and charity.

Remember the helping hand, the person who gave you life, channel of grace. Yes, remember your mother. But also that teacher – or that guy who was your first foreman on a worksite, your mentors at work, that person who relieved you

with an empathic smile and a gesture when your child was screaming in the store that day – or in church These are the messengers, the angels of peace.

You can’t be reduced to a donor – or to any parody of stereotype of selfish affluence or of victimized neediness. Imagine what you look like to God – and what others look like to God. Others were angels and messengers to you of what it was to be fully human, so that you in turn could be angels for others.