Advent Waiting: Ferguson, Sexism and Black Friday

I have been hesitant to add my own privileged commentary to issues surrounding Ferguson and sexual violence against women. I normally try to share and retweet the voices of the oppressed. But as a preacher, I can’t keep silent. Here is the text of the sermon preached to my congregation this morning. 

Mark 13:24-37

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near…

Therefore, keep awake– for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Read the whole lesson here)

Sermon

Keep Awake. The world is waiting. 

The world is waiting for justice. Waiting for peace. Waiting for healing.

Keep awake. This week we watched as the people of Ferguson waited for answers, waited for justice… and then we saw a system stacked against justice rule to protect the privileged. And we saw the results. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said, “Rioting is the language of the unheard.”

The world is waiting for Justice.

Keep Awake. This week we witnessed hoards of people flock to malls and stores in order to get Black Friday deals. In order to engage in retail therapy, the attempt to fill empty hearts by emptying full wallets.

The world is waiting for healing.

Keep Awake. This week heard news and reminders that violence against women, misogyny and sexism are not things of the past. We heard the charges laid against CBC radio host and celebrity Jian Ghomeshi, the allegations made by elected MPs of harassment. We have heard that two men have been charged in the case of Rinelle Harper, a 16-year-old girl left for dead on the banks of the Assiniboine left after being assaulted and violated.

The world is waiting for peace. 

Today, is the first Sunday of Advent. And we know it is Advent, not just because of the calendar, but because we are no longer surprised by the Christmas music playing in the malls, or the Christmas lights that light up night-time streets and highways, or the fact that the Santa Claus parade was already two weeks ago.

Last Sunday, we concluded the church year, and today we turn the page onto a new one. As Christians, we observe a calendar slightly offset from the secular one. Our church year begins with Advent in late November, a good month or so ahead of January 1st. And like regular New Year’s, Advent is partly about a chance to start over, to leave behind the baggage of the previous year, and make a fresh beginning.

But Advent is no so much about resolutions, as it is about preparation. Preparation and waiting. Advent is the 4 weeks before Christmas, and is centered around hearing the stories that prepare us for the birth of Messiah. And like the season of Lent before Easter, Advent is season that is toned down, a season for reflection and thoughtfulness. But Advent is not about penitence or preparing ourselves to hear about Christ’s death is like Lent is. Instead, Advent is hopeful and full of anticipation. If Lent is the church season of waiting on Death Row or in Palliative Care, Advent is the season of pregnancy.

And each Advent season, we start on week 1, Sunday 1 hearing about the end. Hearing about the coming of the Son of Man. Advent waiting begins with waiting for Jesus. Waiting for the Messiah to come with the people of Israel, waiting for child to be born in a manger, and waiting for the second coming, for Jesus to return for that big cosmic ending.

And so today, before we get to John the Baptist, or before we get to angels making announcements to virgins, we hear Jesus’ words about the end of time. Keep Awake, he says, because no one knows the day nor the hour.

What an odd place to begin the church year. What an odd place to start Advent. December should start with digging boxes of Christmas lights out of storage, and checking off lists for Christmas shopping. This end of the world stuff doesn’t seem to fit.

As Jesus tells his disciples to Keep Awake, it becomes abundantly clear, that as modern people, we have no idea what waiting really is. The people of ancient Israel lived in a world of waiting so different from ours.

The world of the disciples was full of waiting… as Jesus reminds them of the lesson of the fig tree, we too can learn something. The people of Ancient Israel lived by a lunar calendar. This means that they organized their months by cycles of the moon rather than by the earth moving around the sun. More concretely, their months were all either 29 or 30 days long. Any month could be 29 or 30 days. Their years were either 12 months or 13 months long. Any year could be 12 or 13 months. So how did they know?

Well, when at least couple of people observed the new moon at end of the month, they would tell the temple authorities (the church council) who would then send out messengers to let the people know that the month had changed. And then at the end of the year (which was usually around our February or March), if spring still seemed far off, the temple authorities would just add another month to the end of the year.

Take a moment and think about that. Imagine if we had to read the papers or watch the news to find out which day our months ended on. And imagine if a couple of weeks before the end of the year, we found out there would be another December.

The is why the Ancient Israelites had to watch the leaves of the Fig tree to know when summer began, their calendars couldn’t be trusted. Instead, they had to trust the signs around them, they had to trust their community to keep awake together, trust their leaders to make sure good decisions were made.

We wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves in a world like that. We don’t know how to wait in that way. We don’t live our lives with an openness to things happening sooner than we expect, or not happening when we want them to. We live with set schedules, with fixed time limits, with predictable dates. In fact, you can tell just how bad we are at waiting by the question we love to torture kids with this time of year, “How many sleeps until Christmas?”

And while we are not good at waiting in the same way the people of ancient Israel were used to, we do wait. We wait just like they did. Maybe not for extra days or extra months but we wait for salvation like they did. We wait for Justice like them, we wait for peace, we wait for healing.

And in Advent, we wait for Messiah too.

They waited for Messiah in Jerusalem, on the banks of the Jordan and Bethlehem. They waited to be freed from oppression from Empire, they waited for God’s mercy and love to make them clean, they waited to be lifted up from their suffering.

And we wait for Messiah in Ferguson, in Ottawa, on the banks of the Assiniboine, and here right now among us. And whether we are good at it or not, our waiting is not measured by the number of sleeps until Christmas, nor on calendars, schedules or to do lists.

Like the ancient Israelites, our waiting for Messiah is measured in small glimpses of Hope.

Messiah came to Ancient Israel in the form of a carpenter turned preacher telling of the coming of the son man to expectant crowds. Messiah comes to us as people of faith speak out about the injustices of Ferguson and stand with a community grieving and oppressed.

Messiah was preached by a hermit crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Messiah is preached today, as we refuse to consume and spend as if it were therapy, as we proclaim a counter-cultural message of waiting and anticipation, instead of immediate gratification.

Messiah was promised and announced to young woman, not yet married. And it was an unremarkable girl, overlooked by the world around her who bore God’s promise into the world with a man who should have stoned her instead of staying faithful.

And Messiah is promised and announced here as a community rallies around a young girl left for dead on the river banks, declaring violence against women and minorities is unacceptable.

Our hopeful waiting is for a Messiah who comes in small unexpected places, who comes no matter how good we are waiting, who comes to bring justice, peace and healing.

Keep Awake, says Messiah. The world is waiting.

Keep awake and see that Advent is not a countdown to Christmas, but a chance to see that the signs of Messiah’s coming, Messiah who may come tomorrow or in a lifetime.

But Jesus also says something else.

Today Jesus declares that no matter how dark the world seems,

The Son of Man is coming.

No matter whether we wait with patience or with anxiousness,

The Messiah is entering our world. 

Regardless the powers of injustice, violence and suffering,

Salvation promised, will come to us. 

Our waiting will not be in vain, our longing for a better world does not go unnoticed by God.

Keep Awake Jesus says, not as command to keep vigilante. But Keep Awake is a promise. A promise that in our Advent waiting, there will ever growing light in our darkness, that our hope is in Messiah and the signs say Messiah is on the way.

Amen, Come Lord Jesus.

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The Crime of the Parable of the Talents

Matthew 25:14-30

Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, `Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, `You wicked and lazy slave!… (Read the whole passage here).

Sermon

This parable of the talents is a familiar stewardship parable for us. It has been preached that talents are gifts of time, money and abilities that we are to give to the Church. We all have been told that God gives us gifts that we should return to the church, and not just return to the church, but return twice fold. This is stewardship we are told, stewardship at its best. God has given us all that we have and so as good little Christians we should give back twice as much. We should give back twice the amount that God gives us. We limited, finite, terminal creatures of creation must give back to the Almighty creator, twice what we have been given. Surely some of us must be wondering how on earth this will work.

Perhaps it is that preachers seem to like this parable too much. Maybe the chance to use Jesus’ words to scold the poor folks in the pew for not giving enough simply cannot be resisted. Maybe the chance to say something that sounds like good pastoral care advice for those who come asking how they can participate in the life of the church is an opportunity that this parable provides, and an opportunity that should never be wasted. Maybe the chance to guilt those who only take and take from congregations, into giving a little back, is just too tasty to let be.

But, is this parable really about a God who guilts us into giving? Does the God of stable mangers, the God of nail pierced hands and feet, the God of empty tombs and being known in breaking bread really operate with guilt trips? Does this God really say “look at all I have given to you… and now you owe it back twice over… or at least give me the going interest rate”. Is God really like this harsh master who steals from his neighbours, who makes threats like: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

The reality of this parable is that it is about real money and not so much about talents  like playing the organ, or hammering nails, knitting sweaters, or public speaking. And making this parable about our gifts and skills is a disservice to the meaning of this parable. The Greek word, “Talonton” can only be understood as a large sum of money. Its measured in gold or silver, its 10 to 15 years wages, one talent can be anywhere from one thousand to a million dollars…  And the rich man who gives talents to his servants seems to be so rich that he is able to play around with millions of dollars. It is estimated that the 5 talents given to the 1st servant could have been worth anywhere from 1.2 million to 5 million dollars today. The rich man is so rich that money has become a toy for him, not to mention the lives of his servants.

Sounds a lot like how God treats us?

No, not really.

This rich landowner can only be passed off as God-like when we make greed and power true God-like qualities. We can only call this money a gift when we imagine money to be more important than anything else in our world. We can only see this parable as having something to do with stewardship when making money is something noble and divine, no matter how we make it.

Like last week’s parable of the 10 Bridesmaids, the parable of the talents cannot be reduced to straight forward comparisons. God is not the rich man, and we are not the servants of varying financial ability. In fact, if we really think about where God is in this parable it is not so easy to see. To demand profit, to make money on the backs of others, to worship greed and power and the almighty dollar are such human qualities.

And yet, when we consider the 3rd servant. The one who buries the 1 talent in the ground in fear… there is more to his story when we take the time to consider it. The 3rd servant is portrayed as a coward, yet he is the only one who refuses to participate in the system of greed, wealth and power. He is the only one who speaks honestly and boldly to the rich man. He is the only one who names the truth, that the rich man is harsh, that he steals and he is judgemental. And what does all this get the 3rd servant? It is gets him cast into the outer darkness with nothing.

Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

In fact, it is the story of the chapter of Matthew that follows this parable. It is the story of Good Friday. The story of another servant we know, one who speaks truth to human power, and who is killed and then buried in the ground, in the tomb, just like that 1 talent.

The parable of the talents when preached as if it were lesson in stewardship is a crime against the people sitting in the pews. Preaching that talents are something we ought to return to two-fold to God does not do justice to the story of God among us, the story of the creator come down to creation.

Earning money or interest has nothing to do with the story of God who entered into our grieving, to grieve with us, to share his own broken body and shed blood, but also to proclaim the unearthing to come. To proclaim that the true things of great value that we bury in ground shall be raised up, with New Life and with New Joy.

The idea of doubling our money for God makes no sense to the God who proclaims us, proclaims all of creation to be of the greatest value and worth. Today, instead of telling us to give our talents, gifts and time to God, God is declaring that the unearthing Christ, the one buried and then raised from the dead is not interested in wealth and power, but instead interested in us. Christ is interested in showing a nothing, failing dead humanity, that even when we are dead and buried, there is New Life unearthed for us.

Amen. 

I have never been more proud of the CBC than I am this week

These have been emotional and heavy days in Canada.

It began in tragedy when two soldiers were killed on home soil, only to be followed by a huge domestic violence scandal involving one of the biggest media personalities in the country. Jian Ghomeshi, host of CBC Radio Q, an arts and culture program that runs each weekday, has been fired from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

As this story continues to break, with more women coming forward, with more and more accusations, with PR firms running from Jian like he is a leper, with news and opinion pieces detailing just how devastating this has been on CBC employees, with a whole community around Jian having been waiting for years for the truth to come out about him, it is becoming clearer that Jian Ghomeshi is a deeply troubled man.

As an aside, during my training to become a pastor, I took a unit of clinical pastoral education. I spent three months as a student hospital chaplain. I worked in a mental hospital and there I got a first-hand look at their forensic psychiatry unit. Part of the unit was a sex offenders program. As students, we didn’t work with this program, but we did spend time with the health professionals who did work with the program and we were allowed to interact with patients.

What I learned through these experiences is that violent sexual predilections are not really about sex. They are about power and control. They are about deep insecurities and pathologies that can only be dealt with through therapy. Jian Ghomeshi claimed that these allegations were issues of consent (although it is clear they aren’t), even though the Supreme Court of Canada has said that people cannot consent to violence. Given the testimonies of the women who are telling their stories of violence and abuse at Ghomeshi’s hands, I have no doubt that Jian needs help. Lots of help.

But even more so, his victims need help. They need our help, support and compassion.

So much of the story has been about Jian, about his downfall. But this is also another #YesAllWomen, another #GamerGate, another #BringBackOurGirls, another Ray Rice, 10 hours of New York street harassment, Male Privilege and so on. This is about more than Jian, this is about all violence towards all women.

Jian’s victims need us to stand with them. They need us to unreservedly believe them and the accounts of their experiences. They need us to condemn Jian’s acts and all forms of violence against women.

And that is exactly what the CBC did this week.

As Canada struggled through the Ottawa shooting, the CBC covered the story with dignity. They told the stories of the heroism of Kevin Vickers and the sacrifice Nathan Cirillo, more than they told the story of the shooter.

And when CBC executives discovered that Jian Ghomeshi had committed violence against women, the CBC immediately suspended him, and planned to fire him. They did so knowing he was one of their most popular personalities and hosted their flagship radio program. They stood by their actions, they risked a 55 million dollar lawsuit (although not very serious), and they have been willing to risk their brand and image (more serious). And in the days since they have condemned his actions, they have interviewed his victims objectively and reported the story about their former colleague. I couldn’t imagine any news and media corp doing the same dispassionately and objectively.

I couldn’t be more proud of Canada’s public broadcaster. I am sad that it has taken these events to demonstrate just how honourable and upstanding this iconic institution is, but it is the silver lining of these past dark days.

The CBC and its employees have shown tremendous poise and grace in an impossible situation. It is going to be long road past this, but I have full confidence that the CBC will come through it.

Full disclosure: I have been a big fan and regular listener of Q since the very first episode 8 years ago.

Last March, my wife and I attended a live taping of Q in Winnipeg. At the time is was an awesome experience, and now those memories are sullied.

But if anything has been shown in these past days, the Jian that so many Canadian listeners know and love of Q with Jian Ghomeshi, is not Jian Ghomeshi the man. The Jian we know was a carefully scripted and produced personality that took a whole team to create. The host of Q we all loved was just as much the writers, producers and other staff as it was the guy with a smooth voice who greeted us each morning at 10:07am.

If Q continues, I will continue being a fan with whomever becomes the new host. And while CBC is probably considering discontinuing the program entirely, I hope it continues. If it is cut, it will be a small victory for Jian Ghomeshi – vindication that the show couldn’t go on without him. But if it does go on, and we love it and follow it just the same without him, it will show Jian the narcissist that Q was never all about him. It will show him that his perceived power over Canadian media and his perceived power over women was never what he thought it was.

It will show him who we really stand behind and who we really loved.


What do you think of the CBC? Have they done the right thing? Share in the comments, on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik