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Discomfort at the Breakwater

            On Christmas Eve, before arriving at church to get setup for the Christmas Eve livestream, which was a beautiful time for worship, I had to make a stop at the Breakwater along Victoria’s waterfront. The Breakwater is typically where cruise ships dock, which has been quiet in recent months given the pandemic. But there were throngs of people out for a walk enjoying the holiday outdoors. Most people appeared to be physically distanced. I had agreed to record a New Year’s message with campus ministry at Luther College in Regina some time ago and was finally recording it on Christmas Eve, down to the wire. It was a beautiful day and thought the water would make a good backdrop for a hopeful message as students begin 2021.

            What I had not counted on is that dressed in a clerical collar and a suit for Christmas Eve, carrying a music stand and an iPad for recording, would make people either curious, uncomfortable, or both. Walking along the boardwalk immediately I was greeted with the question by someone on a bike, “What’s going on boss? What ya up to?” Someone else asked if I would be performing, likely hoping I would be singing Christmas carols. I simply said I was recording a Christmas Eve message for a chapel livestream, which people nodded to and carried on. I had about four of these interactions within the span of two minutes. Realizing I had picked one of the busiest times to visit the Breakwater, I found a relatively quiet ledge to set up. Nevertheless people could still peer down at me from the boardwalk and linger for a moment, which is okay. Some people likely thought I had come to preach Jesus at them. Whatever their assumptions I had never received such a strong reaction in Victoria simply to my presence as a representative of the church. The discomfort for some people was palpable.

God’s word creates discomfort

            Sometimes it is okay to linger in discomfort both for me and for others. Discomfort can be productive. God’s word creates discomfort, jarring us out of complacency. God’s word proclaimed wakes us from slumber. On this First Sunday of Christmas, we hear readings that produce discomfort, creating a tension between God’s view of ordering the world and a secular view of ordering the world.

            As an aside I want to state, I am not hear to force a theological worldview upon all our neighbours. Our communities are made up of people of many different faiths and people of no faith. My aim is not to force a theological perspective, but to look at how it informs us as Christians to live into a world viewed through a theological lens.

            In Psalm 148 we hear, filled with beautiful poetry, we hear a litany of praises. Praise God all you angels, sun and moon, sea monsters and all deeps, snow and fog, mountains and hills, fruit trees and all cedars. We hear this beautiful litany connecting the the divine realm of angels and all of creation. Even snow and fog are holy. Even they praise God in our own way. As we continue down the litany we get to “sovereigns of the earth and all peoples, princes and rules of the world; young men and maidens, old and young together.” In others words everyone is included in this exultation to praise God and God’s creation. Human creation comes after the naming of snow and fog, cedars, and animals. 

Psalm reflects order of creation in Genesis

            I want to share three points about the order of this litany and who is included. The first point the order reflects the creation stories from Genesis, considering the way in which the the world is created beginning with the cosmos, the earth, skies and water, plants, animals, and finally humans. It is also humbling that humans are named last in this litany. We do not come ahead of the land, water, and sky. In fact our lives are dependent upon these gifts of creation God created. It is when the order gets out of balance that things start going wrong. This is one source of productive discomfort for us, when we hear the imbalance between the divine order of creation and how we have structured our world in the post-industrial era. Ways in which we often see different parts of creation merely in instrumental terms to be manipulated for our own ends, rather than as themselves holy. It’s not about a purity that we do not make use of the gifts of creation, but considering the balance and divine order. That our use of creation does not disrupt the balance to such an extent that life is no longer viable for God’s creatures, which include us.

            While we reflect upon the divine order of creation as critique, let us also take time to hear it as grace. It is out of God’s goodness that the divine order be restored in order that all of creation and God’s creatures live in harmony and peaceably together. We receive Psalm 148 as a calling us back to live within God’s grace and love, which includes our living lives that respect the order of creation.

            This grace reminds me of going for a hike, in particular at nearby Gowlland Todd Provincial Park outside Victoria. One of the hikes takes you along a small waterfall that cascades down the mountain out in the sea. The hike is one of grace, with spectacular views along the way. At the bottom of the trail along the water, there is room to play, to have a lunch or snack. More beauty to behold. However, there is a challenge built into this hike. Once you get to the bottom of the trail and play along the sea, that’s when the hard work begins. When you and the kids are already a bit tired, that’s when you have to hike back to the top. It’s uphill the whole way. There are often cries of “how much longer? Are we nearly there? I can’t walk anymore.” God’s grace is one that builds up with courage and strength, nourishing us with good things, to take on the challenges that lie ahead.

            The final verse of the psalm says, “God has raised up strength for the people and praise for all faithful servants.” There is a reminder that God is with us, granting us strength for the journey ahead.

Leaders serve people, not independent

            Our first point is remembering the order of creation as a source of grace. Our second point is within this order, leaders and rulers are explicitly named as standing firmly within the order. They do not stand above or outside the order of creation.

            There are no end of stories we’re told about elected leaders or billionaires who want to “save” us with their ideas. Psalm 148 reminds us above all, all of creation, including the powerful and wealthy, are here to serve the order of creation, including love of God’s creatures and love of neighbour. Anytime we’re presented with exceptions, we know we are being fed idolatry, worshiping a false god. And it happens all the time.

            When we’re told billionaires have made more billions from the pandemic while countless people have lost jobs and homes, we’re told not to criticize the innovators, but rather they’ll save us in the end. Except that isn’t what is happening. Our economic system is not built upon benevolence, which is why we have things like universal healthcare and social assistance programs to create a more even playing field. Human flourishing is something we need to make available for all people, not only those with jobs, benefits, and inherited wealth.

                  Here in Victoria the other day I talked to a trans woman on disability whose family was being kept just above the poverty line having lost employment. $300/month disability payments which were introduced last spring were a huge help during the pandemic, something the BC provincial government is beginning to phase out. Meanwhile we know oil and gas multinationals are given millions of dollars in tax subsidies to keep their business in BC and help build a natural gas pipeline through unceded Wet’suwet’en territory. A pipeline that contradicts the very idea of Truth and Reconciliation. We know the money is there when it serves the interests of the wealthy and powerful. When funds are needed to help lift people out of poverty, we’re often told it’s too expensive and unsustainable.

            To be charitable to elected leaders, I realize it’s not easy to lead, especially during a pandemic. I realize they don’t hold all the power, but are in some ways mirror the distorted economic system in which we’ve all become trapped. However, when leaders no longer have the will or freedom to lead, we are reminded about the divine order in Psalm 148. When things are out of whack, we need to correct imbalances. We need to restore a more healthy order. It becomes up to us as everyday people, as the body of Christ, to take on this work. At the end of the day it’s always people power, people trusting in a higher or moral authority that change things. Change rarely comes from above.  

Things don’t have to be this way

            I want to share a third and final point about the divine order in Psalm 148. The first point is that the order reflects the order from the creation stories in Genesis. The second point is that elected leaders and extremely wealthy do not stand outside this order, but rather are subject to the divine order of loving God’s creation and loving neighbour. The third point is that in Christmas, for us as Christians this divine order is grounded in the person of Jesus. We celebrate Jesus’ birth into a world that was out of balance even as he was born. We tell the story of Jesus’ humble birth. Of Mary, an unwed teenage mother, destined by God, to be the mother of the Saviour. None of these are accidents, but rather central to God aligning Jesus not with rules and the powerful, but among those who have left out in this world, to restore the divine order back to health. Or as we sometimes talk about it, through the transforming power of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

             The theologian James Cone writes, “The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is only available through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst.” While we think about Baby Jesus during the Christmas season, we also think about how Jesus grows up to become the Saviour who is crucified as a criminal. The gospel reading today hints at this when Simeon tells Mary, “And a sword will pierce your heart also.” It is the foreshadowing of the cross.

            What Cone reminds us is that the way we understand the gospel is by standing in solidarity with people who like Jesus are crucified. We think about people suffering from addictions, people without housing and food security, trans folks, Indigenous neighbours whose lands were stolen. The gospel reframes the way in which we situate ourselves. Rather than off to the side as the psalmist reminds us, we are in their midst among all people of God. Together we are standing with people who are suffering.

            What happens when our economic system is designed to produce hardship? What happens when it’s built to crucify people, to crucify creation? That’s a bigger gospel and moral question with which we continue to wrestle.

            And yet we know the gospel story does not end with crucifixion but with the hope of resurrection. And so we live into the divine order of Psalm 148, overlaid with the gospel lens of Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection.  

Wrapping Up

            Wrapping up, wherever you find yourself, know that we often find ourselves in uncomfortable situations. Let us embrace that holy discomfort, whether it’s at the Breakwater,  recording a hopeful gospel message or reflecting upon God’s order in Psalm 148 this First Sunday of Christmas.

            We remember the three points we discussed this morning. First the holy order of Psalm 148 that includes snow and fog comes from the creation stories in Genesis. In this order there is room for all God’s creatures and all creation.

            Second we remember that even leaders and the powerful do not stand outside the order, but within it. They too have a divine calling to love creation and love neighbour. Anything short of that is idolatry.

            Third we remember that for us as Christians, God’s order is grounded in Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection. It with Jesus we find solidarity with all God’s creatures and creation who suffer. Living into a restored and resurrected world, we find hope and joy this Christmas season. Amen.