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We the people of Glen Rhodes United Church, are determined that our life together will be fully inclusive for people of all ages, races, genders, sexual orientations, differing abilities, ethnic origins and economic circumstances. Therefore, we hope that God will work in us so that we will be a sensitive congregation, willing to share our faith and gifts in language and worship, in the life and work of our church and wherever God calls us to do justice in the wider community, with compassion, fun and laughter

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Sermon December 11, 2011

An Azalea on “Gaudete Sunday”

Isaiah 61: 1–4, 8-11

Jong Bok Kim at Glen Rhodes United, Dec. 11, 2011


God of true joy, you gave of yourself so that life might prevail. We are grateful that your mind and heart lie deep within the Earth. We hear Earth’s cries, voice and song. Awaken us and move us all to work for climate justice in the way of your love. Amen.

 I have several indoor plants at home.  I have never bought any of them.  Some of them were given to me as gifts; others were rescued from somewhere.  I have enjoyed them all, looking after them and learning about their characteristics.  I appreciate them particularly at this time of the year when my garden becomes desolate after most of the plants have gone into hibernation.  Among them, I am especially drawn to one of them, an azalea sitting in the bay window in front of my desk in the living room; it began to bloom last week.  It is going to come into full bloom this coming week. 

This azalea brings me joy at home as azaleas are quite common in the countryside of my native country, where their pink flowers cover the hills and mountains in April each year.  I remember how it was when I rescued this one from my neighbour’s driveway on a hot day a few years back.  It appeared to be dead and thrown out in its tiny plastic pot into the garbage.  I picked it up anyway because of my personal connection with it.  Amazingly, it revived and thrived after it was repotted.  More amazingly, this variety blooms twice a year and brings me great joy at this time of the year against the backdrop of my bleak, snow-covered front yard.

There is no better time for this azalea to bloom than this week as we celebrate the third Sunday of Advent today, known as “Gaudete Sunday” from the Latin word “rejoice.”   The Advent candle being lit this Sunday is a rose colour—a lighter shade of purple, the very colour of the azalea flowers I have at home – to denote the “joy” of this day.  This pale rose-coloured candle is lit to emphasize the joyous anticipation of God’s coming among us. 

The joy described in today’s passage from Isaiah is not the same as pleasure, or personal satisfaction, or even the emotional high we call happiness. This kind of joy is deeper than happiness, which can be very superficial and linked to temporary pleasures. Joy has to do with God’s presence, coming from an assurance that the challenges and struggles of life are all held within God’s loving embrace.  The capacity for such joy in the midst of difficulty is a gift from God.

When returning from Babylonian exile, the people of Israel encounter a harsh reality.  They find that Jerusalem is no longer the home they remember. Various conquering armies have over time devastated Jerusalem. They “mourn in Zion.”  However, the prophet announces that God is eager to reverse Israel's previous misfortune. There is to be a new day for those steadfast and faithful to God’s promise.  For the oppressed people Isaiah's prophecy represents the highest hopes and dreams that the faith community could envision. God lifts up and encourages the spirits of the downcast and disheartened. The reversal of fortune is a divine promise, offering hope to the people overwhelmed with such devastation.

Recently, while working with other church leaders from around the world at the UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa, Mardi Tindal, our Moderator, posted two of her video clips on the United Church website.  She invited us to recommit ourselves to this critical issue of climate change and pray together for these historic international talks, calling upon world leaders to act on behalf of all humanity.

According to a document from KAIROS, the Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives Coalition, it is time for us to undertake decisive measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or face ecological destruction on a scale unprecedented since humans first walked the Earth. The impacts of human-induced climate change are growing in intensity, causing some 300,000 people to die every year.   Last year, floods in China and Pakistan and other climate-related calamities displaced 38 million people, twice as many as the year before.  Air temperatures above land last year were the second warmest on record. The world’s mountain glaciers shrank for the twentieth consecutive year. Greenland’s glaciers deteriorated more last year than any other year on record.

The Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent is reported to have said in public that “However acute the international pressure, we will not agree to taking on a second commitment period target under the Kyoto Protocol.”  Once again, he made it clear that Canada would be among countries to break its legal and moral obligations under Kyoto.  Some claim that the Canadian government’s opposition to curbs on emissions is due to Canada having become a “petro-state,” overly dependent on petroleum exports. Oil companies plan to invest $2 trillion in building and operating the Alberta tar sands over the next 25 years, raising production capacity from the current 2 million barrels a day to 5 million by 2035.

What has been going on in Durban so far is very disappointing.  There is no hope for a new binding agreement among 194 countries to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which expires next year.  Political differences, the worldwide financial crisis and a divergence of priorities among rich and poor countries are blamed.  It is far from the good news we hope to rejoice about.  We are worried about the future we are leaving for our children.  What can we say to the next generations about the dire consequences of this human induced climate change?

However, today the prophet Isaiah invites us to look beyond what seems like a hopeless situation and see what is yet to come.  In the midst of ruin the exiles find in Jerusalem, there is promise of justice and a new beginning. They rejoice, though what they celebrate has not yet fully come to be. Their rejoicing, therefore, is a daring act. They are willing to make a claim on the future that transforms their experience of the present. It is a high calling to celebrate in the face of trouble, persecution or loss. It takes courage to expect joy in the midst of circumstances that are less than hopeful.

According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus uses this Isaiah text as he preaches his first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth.  What more powerful word could there have been to the world into which Jesus was born? Faced with economic, political, and military turmoil—all courtesy of a Roman occupying force—the faithful Jews were desperate for a word of hope-filled promise. Most people can endure any sort of circumstance as long as the future looks different from the present. This is the picture Isaiah paints for the prophet's faith community. Later, Luke receives this magnificent promise and proclaims the hope it furnishes in the life of Jesus.

What is promising in terms of climate change is that, in spite of the repeated failures to keep binding agreements among the nations, the awareness of the urgent need to action among ordinary people around the world has been growing.  As a faith community, we would join them in envisioning a new world where all creatures in God’s creation exist in harmony, rejoicing in each other.  As part of such envisioning, our congregation has already joined the Green Awakening Network, a collaboration of over 50 United Churches, other faith communities and local environmental groups in the Toronto region.  As members of this network, we are encouraged to change our lifestyle responding to the challenge of climate change, reduce the carbon footprint of our building and become catalysts for action within the wider community.

Rejoicing is always about freedom and new life, even when they have yet to appear. We rejoice in God’s reign and participate in it through our acts of faithful living. Like an azalea blooming in the bleak midwinter, on “Gaudete Sunday,” let us choose to live with joy, rejoicing in the hope God promises.

I would like to close my sermon with a prayer Mardi Tindal asked us to pray together. Let us pray.

Living and loving Christ, You gave of yourself so that life might prevail.
We are grateful that your mind and heart lie deep within the Earth.
And that you know the whole Earth to be holy, all creatures to be kin.

We hear Earth’s cries, voice and song. As we listen and see, awaken us.

Come among us, as you came among your frightened disciples.

Bless us, so that our unexamined thoughts and assumptions are challenged

and move us all to work for climate justice in the way of your love.

Bless governmental leaders everywhere,
and put courage in their hearts to do the right things.

Inspire us all with a sense of our responsibilities,
leading us ever more boldly into what and who we are,
who you and Earth truly are.

All my relations. Amen.

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