Month: December 2013

Christmas Bloody Christmas

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From this week’s news:  GENEVA (AP) — A panel of U.N. investigators said Thursday it believes the Syrian government is committing a crime against humanity by making people systematically vanish…

 

In a report based on interviews with survivors and family members of victims, the panel said the war tactic being used by President Bashar Assad’s government amounts to a crime against humanity. It is a policy of spreading terror and mental anguish….Most of the victims have been young men.

 

And from Matthew’s Christmas reading: When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he was infuriated. And he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under….Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children, because they are no more”.

 

Anyone who says that the Bible is not political has simply not read it. What could be more political AND more topical, these days, than mass murder in the Middle East, carried out by a desperate tyrant? Bashar Assad, meet Herod. Herod, meet Bashar Assad. There aren’t that many kilometers between Damascus and Jerusalem. There are more than enough similarities. Except that Herod was a good deal more clever than Assad. And built more monuments. And was, if anything, even more psychotically paranoid. Herod killed most of his own children.

 

Bible stories, when we take off the tinsel-covered glasses, are every bit as bad as today’s news. They are often – extremely often – accounts not of peace and harmony and carols sung by choirs, but of bloodshed, hate, suffering, disappointment and cruelty. There’s more blood in the Bible than in most books. And oddly enough, it seems that the birth of Jesus, before it brought life to the world, first brought death.

 

We especially forget that. The Prince of Peace, according to Matthew, came into the world with angels and nice pronouncements, but his arrival immediately precipitated mass murder. Jesus may have been what Hollywood would call a “good guy”. But if Matthew is to be believed, then there were a lot of parents in Bethlehem who would have had good reason to hate the Son of Promise.  This is no “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace”. The Incarnation – the Good News – caused huge collateral damage. Maybe, part of the point is that it still could.

 

In other words, the  slaughter of the innocents is – or SHOULD be – a sobering reminder of the cost of truth and justice. There’s a hard learning here, especially for us who are comfortable: the RIGHT thing to do may not often be the popular thing to do. And it will almost certainly not be the easy thing to do. I’m one of those people who likes to please others, and for the most part, to stay safe. So it amazes and inspires me to read about people like me, like us, people maybe that you and I even know, from here on the South Shore/Montreal who go to work in the tough zones of the world, like the Syrian camps, or the Pakistan schools, or the clinics in Sudan. The kind of person who was killed just yesterday, a volunteer giving vaccinations near Karachi. Or closer to home, those people who stand up to the oil companies on the First Nations reserves or stand with them.

 

Yesterday I heard a rebroadcast of the interview with the young Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai. Her battle is not my battle. But I was amazed when the interviewer from the CBC said to her: what did you do when a Talib came to your school, or stopped you on the street? And she said, with such simple bravery: “I said to him, what I am doing is for you, too, and for your daughters and sons. I am not less than you because I am female. Education is a right.”

 

She spoke as if the man holding a gun would actually listen to her words and think about them. But we live in a world of Herods, where he wouldn’t, and probably won’t. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he wouldn’t at first, but maybe, just maybe, enough Malalas might convince him.

 

And that’s where we come in. I’m not sure why this story about the babies being slaughtered because of Jesus is actually in the Bible. Frankly, it makes me uncomfortable. But I think that part of what it does, besides getting Jesus to Egypt, is to show how troublesome, dangerous and divisive the message of Jesus really is. And how Jesus’ birth requires COURAGE from us. Christmas is not just the stuff of greeting cards and FaceBook posts. The message of real love and justice at Christmas is intended to change hearts and minds. It’s intended to make us, at least sometimes, stand up in the middle of a conversation and say: “I don’t agree”. And that is a path that might, at some point, leave us standing with the First Nations at a demonstration, or in Palestine with the Lutherans there, or welcoming refugees, or demonstrating against a corporation or government that just doesn’t care.

 

This last week I watched the movie: “The Hunger Games”. It’s a story about power and the abuse of power. It’s about love and murder. It’s a very good movie, even though it’s Hollywood and not everything about the plot makes sense. But it shows the value of courage, and sacrifice, and how important it can be to stand up to power for the sake of love.

 

So: is the Bible political? And was Jesus political? Of course. Herod, who was a consummate politician, knew that Jesus’ birth was not ONLY religious, as if one’s beliefs could really be isolated from everything else. On the other hand, is our message ONLY political? No. Neither that. There’s lots of love and grace and salvation and justification and personal development in there too. But one side of our faith doesn’t take away from the other. How do we grow in holiness? By standing up for others. How do we find the peace that passes understanding? By looking where there is no peace. How do we greet the Messiah? By finding Christ in the face of those who are poorest and most oppressed.

 

This week, as we clean up after the celebration of the baby who lives, may we reflect on Matthew’s story of the babies who died. May we find in the holy birth of Jesus, the Messiah, a decision point and reason for our own faith. And may the story of the refugee who was the child of God inspire us to look in all such faces, on the roads we travel this year and those we may be called to travel, for the Christ yet to be born in and with us,

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An Ice-Storm Christmas

snow removal Santa

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone. Snow had fallen, snow on snow. Snow on snow on snow. In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

I remember the church service we had here in Montreal in the middle of the ice storm – the other ice storm, the one back in 1998. No one was sure there was even going to BE worship. But in the end the people of Christ the Redeemer decided to try. All the bridges were closed because of falling guillotines of ice off of the signs, so I decided to risk the metro (which actually shut down completely about two hours after my return trip). Then eventually I caught a ride. When finally I got to the building, it was cold. There were only a few others, but all present seemed happy to be participating. We sang the hymns heartily and accapella; the organ couldn’t make a sound. Everyone wore their coats in the sanctuary, and some people held the worship books with gloves. After church, Ivar Traa, a big booming Norwegian who has since passed from us, brought his gas camp stove, and – making sure we had fresh oxygen supply – made tea and coffee and hot chocolate for everyone and reminisced about Christmases back in Norway where they had no power.

It’s odd – that day, almost none of the things that we normally associate with a good worship gathering were there – there was no majestic organ, no warm lights, no crowded pews. But, of that year, that is the one service that I remember clearly. I’ve often wondered why. Maybe because that hard experience connected in a whole NEW way with the message that we preach and teach and share and sing.

Everyone knows that the first Christmas, whatever it was, was not comfortable. We can argue over whether Jesus was born in a cowshed or a cave, in Nazareth or in Bethlehem, in the year 6 BC or 0 or some other time, in the winter or spring or summer. But one thing is clear. Whatever else it was, when the Word became flesh it was an unexpected birth, marked by difficulty, scandal and trouble, in the middle of a tough situation.

Which makes it all the more amazing that every year we spend so much time and energy and money trying to do the opposite, to find the “sweet spot” in marking an event that had no sweet spot. Completely unlike the few things we can assume about the first Christmas, in our time we want to find the deepest, most comfortable rut that runs through our memories, and crawl in there to hibernate in sugar, real and metaphorical, for a few, hopefully magical, weeks. The smell of baking. The hot chocolate or eggnog. The candles and smell of evergreen in our houses. The fires, the puula, the stollen, the songs. The wreaths, the gifts, the carols, the smell of cinnamon. We ALL do it, instinctively. I almost never eat herring throughout the year. But every Christmas I buy a jar and eat herring. Why? It’s a childhood memory from growing up in a Scandinavian home. It’s a sweet spot urge. We’re like children who want to put our stuffed animals (that is, our memories) in a very specific order around us as we cuddle into the long cold night that is winter.

That’s not always a bad thing. We NEED comfort, of course. Especially in winter. Nothing is more wonderful than holding someone precious, surrounded by lovely smells and warmth and love. But maybe, nice as that is, we shouldn’t mistake it for the only kind of holiness there is. Especially we shouldn’t do that when we have a faith that somehow always leads us back to the foot of a grave. There is more of ice storms from our God than we usually care to admit, and the spirit that spoke to the Baptist and called to Mary is often a cold wind that leaves us shivering and uncomfortable.

Ice storms, like the storm that has left so many tens of thousands in the dark right now all over central and eastern Canada, are a reminder of the fragility of all of our comforts. And they’re a reminder of the fragility of our security and safety in an environment that seems to be kicking back at us so-called “masters of creation” for our idolatrous beliefs that somehow we’re in charge.  I remember – as some of you must too – lying in bed in the quiet darkness and listening to the alarming sounds of tree limbs hitting the roof as they snapped and broke. There are lots of people living that right now, even though this time, here in Montreal, we’ve been spared.

A good friend of mine in a part of Ontario without power, posting on FaceBook, wrote “I’m not having fun yet” about her Christmas. She’s not the only one. So what can we learn from an not-fun, ice-storm, Christmas?

We can learn that there’s more growth in hardship than in comfort, almost always. None of us like them, but the hard times of life are often the most memorable. And instructive. If we survive, we come out stronger, despite our wounds. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

We can also learn, deeper to that, what theologians and mystics call “the theology of the cross”, and the mystery of celebrating Jesus’ birth so close to the longest night of the year. It is when things are at their darkest, as Luther said, that the hidden God is closest. It is when there is no room in the Inn that the wondrous birth takes place among the animals and outcasts. It is when the darkness is deepest that we learn patience and hope, what to grasp onto and what we should let go, what is real and what is shadow. It is on the coldest of nights that we might hear angels singing strange and terrible songs that make us afraid and yet move us seek the child of promise in unusual places.

The good thing about sweet spots is, ironically, also the bad thing: they’re so good they keep us immobilized. When I gave a talk a few weeks ago about the annunciation and asked the gathering how a thirteen or fourteen year old Mary might react these days to the angel Gabriel’s annunciation, a jaded father in the back row pretended he was texting and had no time for the angel. We are a comfortable people, and that is a huge problem. The light came into the world, and the world came into being through that light, but the world did not recognize it. When you re-tune a guitar to play in a different string configuration, there is always a period of awkwardness and disharmony, before the new tones are established. Ice storms, of all sorts, are those awkward, disharmonius times, that we pray God will use to play in us a song the world would otherwise never have heard.

It’s easy for me to talk about these things this year. When I wrote this, I had fruitcake at hand, and I’d put some water with cinnamon sticks on the stove to give the apartment some more humidity. I actually managed to get a tree up, despite everything.

But I know, from experience, that this is not the only Christmas, or perhaps the best. Certainly not the most memorable. Christ was – and IS – born far from the sweet spots of life. We pray for those who are suffering hardship because of cold and lack of power right now. When heaven and nature sing “Joy to the World”, it will be a challenge to go out, into the cold, where they are, and where the restless, birthing God awaits.

The Don Valley Christmas Eve Riots (a story)

garbage walk Nov 2013

The Don Valley Christmas Eve Riot

Matthew Anderson

I heard a story once – I don’t know if it’s true – about a Toronto bank president and the famous Don Valley Christmas Eve Riot. I’m sure you remember reading about that riot in the papers. It happened…when?….in the late 90’s sometime. A while ago now. The story is about the president of one of the big banks, but don’t ask me which one. I couldn’t tell you.

Apparently, this man was some major Chief-Executive-Officer-type. He was pulling down millions, sitting on more corporate boards than you or I own pairs of shoes. Connected to everybody. A real player. Fingers in everything – politics, business, you name it. When he wasn’t in a limo he drove a Porsche SUV, because his bank figured he needed to be one step up on his neighbours, who all had BMW SUV’s. Perfect car, perfect holidays, perfect clothes, perfect life. His house was in Rosedale, looking, during the holidays, like something from the front of a greeting card.

This guy didn’t have to worry about the Hydro bill. Look at it that way.

But late one night near Christmas when he couldn’t sleep – insomnia was a side-effect of his high-octane life –  this CEO happened to be flipping channels when he saw a news special, one of those topical pieces they always come out with in mid-December. This one was called “A Squatters’ Christmas” and it was on the plight of the squatters near the Don Valley Parkway. There were a bunch of them back then, encamped on that patch of land you see when you take the Don Valley south, right between the highway and the bluffs. A TV reporter had gone out with a camera and taken some footage. Those folks had a real little village set up, out of the way, not bothering anyone.

Somehow, by some miracle, that one little program changed this bank president’s life. He saw people he’d never really thought much about before – people without running water, people who had addictions to alcohol or crack or something else, prostitutes and pushers and folks with mental-health problems. People whom the world had forgotten. What was worse, the city was threatening to bring the bulldozers in and smash up the few things they DID have.

So this bank president, whose heart had been touched, decided to check it out for himself. He sent his assistant to Value Village to buy the rattiest clothes the assistant could find. He let his beard grow until he had two days’ worth of stubble. Then he parked his Porsche at the top of the hill, and clambered down through the trees, just a couple of days before Christmas, with a Canadian Tire tent on his back and a few cans of tuna. He didn’t tell anyone where he was going, because he really wanted to make this HIS thing. He didn’t want half the company showing up to save him, or worse yet, showing up to try to help. This was his thing. So, apart from his wallet, he left EVERYTHING – even his Blackberry – in the Porsche.

Oddly enough, when the CEO found the squatters’ settlement, there was no place for him. What he hadn’t realized was, the squatters were a community, with a sense of who they liked and who they didn’t. He might have been dressed down, but he was still a stranger. What’s more, he was still himself. Used to taking charge. So he tried ordering them around, but who was he, to them? Just another pushy outsider. And anyway, it was like herding cats.

“You can protect yourselves,” he told them, “It’s not that hard! I know what’s coming! Organize like this.” But they didn’t listen. “You don’t need your addictions,” he told them. “There’s a better way”. Of course, that made him an outsider in another way. “You know what? I can help you,” he told them. At THAT they just laughed. After all, what did he look like to them? Some white bread would-be squatter. And with his tent and tuna, not even a particularly smart squatter. Some folks listened to him. Some thought had no street sense. Most just ignored him. One more crazy.

The bulldozers had been lined up and parked by the city right outside the squatters’ settlement, a big yellow line of destruction waiting for the go-ahead. Construction crews had come through and put eviction notices on the trees. The squatters had decorated one tree like a Christmas tree, and there was even an eviction notice on that one. The CEO, who knew the mayor personally, knew that the mayor was just waiting for a time when the public was distracted by the holidays, to move in and break up the illegal settlement. So as the hours ticked by, the CEO got more and more frustrated.

“Why won’t you just listen to me?” he cried out in frustration. There was a small group of squatters that did – but only a dozen or so. “Who do you think I am?” he asked them. “A loonie” said one of the group, “but a nice one.” “A social worker,” said another. And you? he asked the leader of his group. “You really are a bank president,” came the answer. “Then follow me,” the man said “We’ll go up the hill to my Porsche and I’ll call the mayor and he’ll meet you and we’ll settle this whole thing.” So the little group – half of them laughing –  all trudged up the hill after the CEO, and when they got to the spot where he’d parked his Porsche, there was nothing there.

“We KNEW it!” they told him, “you’re just one of us.” The bank president thought about his assistant, and about how he could recover his stolen car. That was when they heard the diesel motors on the bulldozers starting up. Everyone went running, pell-mell, back down the hill.

At the camp it was mayhem. The police were shouting through loudspeakers to clear out. In the falling darkness people were running everywhere through the trees, trying to grab their things, or just get out of the way. The CEO tried to keep his little band together…maybe he could find the chief of police, he thought. Explain everything.

And that’s when the first canisters of pepper spray hit. The squatters began coughing and wheezing, choking and tearing up. The CEO couldn’t see a thing. Some of the squatters picked up tree branches to try and protect themselves. All of a sudden the riot police were everywhere, and in all the yelling and screaming and crying, someone hit the CEO, hard. He went down.

When he came to, there was a very large man in a uniform above him holding a riot club. He couldn’t see very well, so he wiped his eye. It came away all bloody. “Get up, ya friggin drunk!” yelled the cop. The CEO tried to get up, but was having trouble, and put his hand on the cop’s leg. “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” said the big man, and the CEO felt the truncheon hit him on the side of his face again.

And then what happened? Well, witnesses say the CEO reached into his pocket for his wallet, to prove who he really is. And that’s when the story gets strange.

Because I’ve heard two very different versions of the ending of the Don Valley Christmas Riot story.

The first is this: when the CEO reached into his pocket, the cop standing there thought he was dealing with a man who was going for a gun. And the first version of the story ends, more or less, there. Terribly. According to this version the CEO died, that day. On Christmas Eve.

But the second version of the story – the one I like better – is that the cop’s second blow hit the CEO so hard he lost his memory. And eventually, in all the confusion of the riot, the CEO just up and drifted away, like so many of the other squatters, back into the darkest blocks of downtown.

According to this version of the story, the next day the city crews found the wallet. So now they knew there’d actually been a bank president among the squatters that night in the Don Valley Riot. But they didn’t know which bum he was. Or more to the point: which bum he IS.

Because he’s still out there somewhere. So ever since that one Christmas Eve, the police – and not just the police – have had to treat every drunk they meet, every half-crazy person with mental health problems, every bum and panhandler and street-person, as if they just might turn out to be Mr. Connected…someone with rights. Someone with very good friends in high places.

And so, to everyone’s surprise, what the CEO couldn’t do by teaching the squatters, he did anyway. Just by still being out there. What I heard is that the authorities are trying to find him. But in the meantime, one can never be certain. And since even homeless people move around from city to city, every street person you or I meet has this – what would you call it? Consequence. All because of that one Christmas Eve not long ago, and the Don Valley Christmas Eve Riot.

That’s what I heard, anyway. Mind you, some people say it’s just a story.

Could be. But I like it.

Drawing Angels

Rasmussen angel

You probably didn’t notice, but on Thursday night at the congregational potluck at Flemming and Kay’s, I snuck away from the table. I did that so I could go back into their living room one more time to have a look at a piece of art they have hanging there.  I don’t know where it’s from, but the piece looks vaguely Scandinavian to me. It’s a wooden wall hanging, of an angel. Do you know the one I mean? It looks like it was made with a jig-saw or a scroll saw or something like that. A tall angel, thin as a monk, hands clasped together, wings unfurling like sails. Right over the couch.

I love that piece. In fact, when no one was around I took a photo of it, so I could look at it some more.

This week I’ve been trying to draw it. “An angel can’t be that hard,” I thought, looking at the lines. After all, everything is pretty straight: wings, head, long gown, two feet sticking out. How hard can that be to draw, right?

Wrong.

It turns out I keep getting the proportions all crooked. My first attempt was too short. Then a bit too wide. In the end, I realized that I kept making the angel look more and more like a real person.

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way, says Matthew.  When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace (ie. stoning, very likely), planned to dismiss her quietly. In other words, Joseph may have been ashamed and publicly humiliated, but he still wanted to spare Mary’s life, a far sight better than many men behave under similar situations even now, in the 21st century.

But just when he had resolved to do this, writes Matthew, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream…

Oh…. right. Angels. Who are angels? Messengers. And what do angels do? Apparently, according to Matthew, they screw up our plans. They do that even when our plans are well thought out, good plans, made by good (or as the Bible says, ‘righteous’) people. Angels do one thing in the Bible consistently: they intervene. They mess with us.

In my classes at Concordia, I have a little shtick I do with the students in my Intro to the New Testament or Intro to the Bible classes. “If ever you should be visited by an angel,” I tell my students, “I’ll tell you exactly what will happen and what you should do.” I usually say this with a big grin and they smile back at me, the joke being that we all know this will never happen.

But some part of me wonders if my ‘are you kidding?’ attitude toward angels is tempting fate. Who are angels? They’re messengers. Maybe sometimes it’s not that angels don’t visit us. Maybe sometimes, as with Joseph, they come in dreams, or in situations. And maybe sometimes it’s that we don’t recognize the kinds of ways that a loving, caring God actually might interfere in our lives.

I remember being in the metro once, just minding my own business, when a man dressed in old clothes, with bad teeth, came shuffling right up to me, out of all the people waiting for the subway, and said to me, very loudly, and pointing: “you just gotta relax, man. Take it easy. Whatever it is, it’s not so important!” Then he walked away again. I was a bit in shock. It was easy to see who the man was: he was a street person. That was clear. If I’d reached out, which I didn’t….but if I had, my fingers would have touched flesh and blood. I could smell him.

So he WASN’T an angel. He was some homeless guy.

Or was he? Certainly the message was absolutely the right one for me, at that moment. He nailed me, this man. I DID need to relax. That day I was stressed about all kinds of things. Now you could say that the man was crazy, he saw me looking stressed and somehow that set off some script in his head that made him come up to me. All that would explain the event just fine.

OR: you could say that some angels are flesh and blood, and this flesh and blood street-person was a messenger. And that too, would, I believe, be true.

When the angel appeared in the dream to Joseph, it said what ALL angels, ALL the time, say in the Bible. It said “Do not be afraid.” But then it went on, very importantly, to prescribe an action: do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus.”

Events were about to go one way, and because of the intervention of this story, events went another way. Baby Jesus did not grow up a street urchin to a beggar mother, which Mary might have had to become – if Joseph had, as it says “put her aside quietly”. Nor, to put it bluntly, did baby Jesus die in utero in a hail of stones, which might have happened if Joseph had been less of a man. Jesus grew up in Nazareth, child of Mary and Joseph. According to Matthew, all because of an angel.

When and if the direction of our lives needs changing, perhaps those persons we find at the crossroads are not just friends, but are standing in, as angels always do, for the love and wisdom of God.

You can’t get to Christmas, at least in the church, without angels. “Angels we have heard on high” we’ll sing. “Oh holy night, the stars are brightly shining…fall on your knees, o hear the angel voices………all the Christmas carols we’ll sing say the same thing. The point is that the Bible speaks consistently of a God who is not just “out there” somewhere, but who gets in, close inside where we live, as close as Mary’s room or Joseph’s dream, where our hearts and minds, our ambitions and our sadnesses, our fears and our hopes and our embarrassments lie. That’s where we need, sometimes, to be spoken to.

So to come back to my dilemma with drawing the Rasmussen’s angel: I’ve tried several times this week, and I think I finally have it right. But the human-looking angels weren’t so bad either. They tell of another truth, which is that God can send all kinds of messengers our way. If someone has come into your life and brought love, maybe that person is acting as an angel. If someone has come into your life and brought you challenges, maybe that person is an angel of another sort.

There might be someone in your life right now that you could draw as an angel.

The one thing I hadn’t done right for the first few versions of the Rasmussen’s angel was to draw the wings as they are on the hanging. My wings were too small, and too tame. On the original, the wings are huge, fanning up over the angel’s head almost like flames of fire. It points to another truth: that however cute we might picture them, real angels, if I can use that term, will be outside our control. Their message, after all, is from God.

When Joseph awoke from sleep, it says, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. As we approach Christmas, may we remember to open our ears and eyes, to what messages – and what messengers – might be coming to us in these days.

The Jesus who didn’t want to be Christ

memorial Christmas 2012 copy

This last week they buried Nelson Mandela. I talked about him quite a bit last Sunday. So I don’t need to go over all of that again, even though singing those liberation songs was fun! But in light of today’s Gospel lesson, and the aftermath of a South Africa withOUT Mandela, there may be something here still worth connecting to. Part of it is that when the current leader of South Africa and of the ANC, Jacob Zuma, came to pay his respects at the funeral, he was resoundingly booed by the crowds. Why? It’s not hard to imagine: Zuma is corrupt in the style of so many African dictators, he is making millions while the people are in worse and worse shape, he is out of touch with the heritage of the ANC as a freedom and liberation party, he has been implicated in scandal and mismanagement, and on and on. It seems like he’s more than just inefficient. He may be a very bad man.

But then why are all these awful things even more obvious than usual for a corrupt politician? One main reason: Zuma is NOT Mandela.

I remember when I played basketball in high school, there was one player who was far and away better than any of the rest of us. He could dribble, and shoot, and jump, better than any of us, and he made what we found hard, look easy. But the coach wouldn’t let him play all the time, and the reason was this: if I let one person do all the work, the coach said, then the rest of you won’t learn. The TEAM won’t be as strong, and the wins won’t come, no matter what.

The cult of “one special person” was a trap, our coach thought. And it’s a trap for Mandela’s South Africa and for faith, too. It’s wonderful that Nelson Mandela became such a symbol of liberation and justice. But there’s a danger. When one man or woman becomes the focal point for all such hopes, and the only one thought capable of fulfilling them, then the problem is: what happens when they’re gone? If the world considers them, not just a hero, but a super-hero, then no one else can do it. And justice and liberation should be everyone’s concern. Even a non-Mandela’s.

Which brings me to today’s Gospel lesson. Notice what happens. Go to Jesus, the Baptist tells his disciples, and when you see him, ask Jesus if he is the one.

That kind of language makes what I would call the same “cult of personality” or “cult of person over process” mistake. Yes, the people of God had been waiting, many of them, for a Messiah, someone to rise up and be another David. And yes, there was also in some circles the anticipation of a prophet who would announce this political figure and prepare the way. I guess that Messiahship – if you can call it that – was and is inevitably a kind of single-person, cult phenomenon.

So maybe it was natural that John should be reported as using such language: “Is he THE ONE?” But then, given that, we should also notice how Jesus answers:

Jesus is very careful. He never ever says, to John, or to John’s disciples: “Yes. I am the one.” To their question about whether he is the Messiah, Jesus doesn’t answer with his own person at all. Go and tell John, Jesus answers “not who I am, or who I say I am, but what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.

As I read this, what Jesus is saying is this: I’m not important. Tell John that the Kingdom of God is what’s important. And that kingdom has come.

At least in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (John is a different case), Jesus pretty consistently refuses to get involved in a cult of personality. Which raises all kinds of questions for us modern-day Christians.

Firstly, as the theologian Bultmann once said: Jesus preached the Kingdom and Paul preached Jesus. Meaning, our faith has an awful lot to do with the person on the cross, and in light of the message of Easter and of Paul and of all of Christian orthodoxy, rightly so. But . But there’s a question we need to answer: in our emphasis on Jesus, do we sometimes miss the very reign of God he was crucified for proclaiming? I believe so.

This coming season is a prime example of the cult of personality. Firstly, Christmas is of course overwhelmingly secularized. We could go on and on about the commercialization and the buy buy buy and the sentimentality and all the other overindulgences. And perhaps we should. But even those Christians who want to oppose this phenomenon of our societal “binge and purge” usually say something like this: let’s put the CHRIST back in Christmas.

WRONG! Let’s NOT put the Christ back in Christmas! Maybe, in light of the Gospel this morning, we should be saying: let’s put Christ’s MISSION back in Christmas. Because that would be even better.

That means helping the poor. That means clothing the naked. That means visiting the sick. That means standing up for justice for the outcast and marginalized. That means doing something – anything – for those who cannot always do things for themselves.

I’m not sure if any theologian has ever talked about the Jesus who didn’t want to be Christ. Maybe that sounds silly. Even unchristian. But maybe there were times when Nelson didn’t want to be the ONLY Mandela, if you know what I mean. And the Gospel of Matthew, near the end, makes it painfully clear that Jesus is to be found in everyone who needs our help. When were you sick? When were you in prison? When were you naked, and we did not clothe you? say the damned, to which the Lamb on the throne answers: Whatsoever you did to the least of these, you did to me.

We need a new category of Messiahship. A new kind of Christ. A realization that Christ is in the people who most need our help. And Christ’s work is in US, when we do what the Gospel says.

Our music and films, our history, our Nobel prizes, our governments…just about everything about our society is based on the cult of important, seemingly indispensable, people. Christs, of a sort. From the latest American Idol winner to the latest supermodel to the latest Youtube hit. On the surface, Jesus seems to be the ultimate example of that kind of cult – the most important person of all. The little carpenter’s son who changed the world.

But as we approach Christ mass, may we reflect on where Jesus himself pointed. Don’t look at me. Look at the work, he said: let the blind receive their sight, help the lame to walk, work so that the sick and diseased are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. In South Africa, we should honour Nelson, but pray that there will be a thousand Mandelas raised up to continue his work. And on this side of the ocean, we should be praying that there will be a hundred thousand of US to do messiah’s work. And then Christmas will truly come, truly blessed will we be, and happy will be anyone who takes no offence at such great good news. Are you the one? No, not the one……AMEN. Come Lord Jesus, in this way.