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A Nation of Divisions
Good afternoon. It’s good to be with you in worship and I want to thank Rev. Kim
and the rest of the ministry staff here at St. Timothy’s for the invitation to speak this Sunday. I am blessed to have some long-time friends in this congregation, back from the time when I was a student at Knox College, over 30 years ago. I am also grateful to have known In Kee for many years and I have looked to him as a mentor and model for ministry. I bring you greetings from the General Assembly Office of the PCC where I started my new position as the Principal Clerk in July of last year. Before coming to Toronto, I was a minister in Vancouver for 6 ½ years
and before that, in Calgary for 22 ½ years.
How many of you watched the hockey game last night? The Leafs won… I guess that’s something of a rarity in the playoffs for the Maple Leafs, but hey, hope springs eternal, right? Maybe this is the year!!! It’s a funny thing about hockey. It used to be the quintessential Canadian thing. If you didn’t know anything about Canada, you still knew that it was cold here and that Canadians were good at hockey. Hockey is what makes us Canadian, eh? But when’s the last time a Canadian team won the Stanley Cup? Don’t worry, it wasn’t Toronto! It was Montreal in 1993, 30 years ago! But Toronto doesn’t have to go all the way back to 1967 to remember a championship. The Raptors won the NBA title only a few years ago in 2019. These days, especially in places like Toronto, there are probably just as many basketball courts as there are hockey rinks, maybe more, especially given the cost of playing hockey compared to basketball or soccer. “We the North,” isn’t a hockey slogan, it’s a basketball one!
But like the playoffs, there are still times when hockey unites us like no other sport. Every 4 years at the Winter Olympics the entire country goes nuts for hockey. Except for the last two winter Olympics when NHL players didn’t play for Canada. Do you even know who won the men’s hockey gold in Beijing and Pyeong Chang? Finland and Russia – who cares! But no Canadian will ever forget 2010 in Vancouver when Sydney Crosby scored the overtime winner against the US for the gold medal!
So, there are times when we as a country can get united behind something, but those moments seem increasingly fleeting.
In terms of our nationality, more often we seem these days to be a nation of divisions. English-French, East-West, liberal-conservative, and the Covid pandemic, which initially brought out the best in most Canadians ended up far too often only exacerbating our differences. Our assumptions about our culture, about what core convictions unite us, are fading. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. Maybe you might know that that last sentence is from a poem called “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats. Yeats wrote that poem at the end of the First World War, the Great War as they called it. It was a war that tore apart the assumptions of modernity, that human progress would continue to evolve, ever upward, ever better. But instead, millions of people ended up dying horrible deaths on the battlefields of Europe. Yeats captured that sense of despair and despondency so poignantly in that phrase, things fall apart, the center cannot hold.
The center cannot hold
The center cannot hold. I think that this captures what seems to be so hard about a lot of things these days. There doesn’t seem to be a center that holds things together. The values we once took for granted, those things that used to define our identity as a nation, as a people, as a culture, they no longer do. Think about some of those things, family, marriage, gender issues, the roles that people inhabited, there no longer seems to be a center, a core. People used to be united in the sense that the idea of Canada was a good thing. But these days not everyone’s so sure.
Ask an indigenous person, those who are survivors of residential schools, whether they think Canada is such a good thing. The nuclear family used to be something that people agreed was a good and desirable thing. But we are learning that for a lot of people, single people, divorced people, single parent families, same sex people, the nuclear family was never what everyone made it out to be. And now it’s just one way of being a family of many ways.
All these things that used to unite people, that used to form our core, our center, now just form more things for people to argue about, to be polarized around. They now exist at our margins, and I wonder what now exists at our center, at the core, what is there that unites us? Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.
This is the anxiety that underlies much of our public discussion, whether it be about issues like Covid, immigration, economics, colonialism, sexuality, liberals vs. conservatives, republicans vs. democrats, there is such polarization that the center just can’t seem to hold. Yeats ends the first stanza of his poem with these words, the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Doesn’t that sound a lot like today? John Toews, a Mennonite Brethren professor in a sermon he wrote over 25 years ago, spoke of the difference between two types of worlds, centripetal and centrifugal. A centripetal world is one that has a dominant center, the core is strong and defined. The center keeps things in place, keeps things from flying apart, like the sun’s gravity which keeps the orbit of the earth constant and stable. A centrifugal world is one in which there is no center and forces push everything toward the edges. Toews argued that in the late 60’s the center began to give way, and then collapsed. While he wrote of the culture of the U.S., this analysis would apply to our context as well. We moved away from a centripetal world to a centrifugal world, a world that has no center.
And this is true of religion as well. Most of you might be too young to remember, but there was a time, not too long ago, when faith played a central role in shaping our cultural context. Some of you might be old enough to remember when the Lord’s Prayer was recited to begin each school day. But in 1988 the Lord’s Prayer was removed from all Ontario public schools. Some of you and your children will have no memory of prayer ever being part of your public school experience. You may also remember when stores were closed on Sundays, except Kim’s Convenience, and most people, whether they really believed it or not, still held an affiliation with a particular religious tradition, mostly Christian. But today, not only does the Christian faith play less and less a public role, the faith itself seems conflicted about what the center should be. The polarization we see in the broader culture is reflected as well in the church.
In Him All Things Hold Together
The passage we read from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossian church needs to be required reading for our centrifugal world today. In a culture and in a church that seems to be living in a time when things fall apart and where the center cannot hold, the words of scripture point us to a different truth.
Paul points us to Jesus,
who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation,
in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
In him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers,
all things have been created through him and for him.
He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
Did you hear that? In him, in Jesus, all things hold together. In a world where things fall apart and the center cannot hold, in Jesus, all things hold together. The center, for the Christian, and for the world in which we live, isn’t a set of values, it isn’t reciting a prayer or sharing a cultural background, the center is a person, it is the person of Jesus Christ, the beloved Son of God,
in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.
As I said earlier, Yeats wrote his poem at the end of the World War I, but the anxiety and fear embodied in the idea of things falling apart and the center not holding isn’t only tied to one time and place. The phrase, things fall apart, the center cannot hold, was used more by commentators following the election of Donald Trump back in 2016 than it had been in the 30 years prior. Can you image what they’ll say if he wins again in 2024? And when Paul was writing to the Christians in Colossae, in what is today modern Turkey, the same fears and anxieties were present. Confused and afraid of the pressures they faced from those who insisted on human tradition and philosophy and the primacy of the elemental spirits of the universe,
they turned to things like angel worship and dwelling on visions. Whatever the source of our lack of center might be, the answer throughout the centuries has been the same, Jesus Christ.
So what is it about Jesus that makes him the center, what is it about Jesus that in him all things hold together? What is it about Jesus that isn’t just what the world can say with better music and richer coffee?
Paul lays it out pretty clearly.
God has rescued us from the power of darkness
and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son,
in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins…
and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,
whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
You see, things fall apart because we can’t hold it together, no matter how hard we try. Sooner or later the center will not hold because what we base it on isn’t lasting. The central problem of the human condition, the reason why there are and will always be things like wars and corruption and megalomaniacs is that we are a sinful people, we live in darkness, we are faced with a problem that no matter how hard we try, we are powerless to solve. And the central hope of the human condition is the fact that in Jesus Christ, God has made our redemption possible, God has moved us from darkness into the light, God has made possible for all the forgiveness of sins. In Jesus Christ, God was pleased to reconcile himself to all things and God has made peace with us through the blood of his cross.
This is not stuff you will find on a Starbucks cup. Human philosophy will tell us that we can work out our own salvation but if the problem in inherent in us, if we ourselves are the problem,
then we can’t be the solution, it has to come from somewhere else, it has to come from God. If we as the church and if we as the people of God, as disciples of Jesus, if we are seeking a center in life, if we are wanting something that will hold us together, we will only find it in Jesus Christ. The words of C.S. Lewis ring so true. Christianity, if true, is infinitely important. If false is of no importance. What it cannot be is moderately important. There is only one center and it’s not a legalism, not a doctrine or a dogma, it’s a person, it’s the Son of the Living God, in whom all things hold together.
To hold Christ at our center means that we will live in ways and embody things that the world will not understand or even accept. If our center, if our core is deeply rooted in Jesus Christ, if our center is held together in the knowledge that in Jesus we have redemption and forgiveness, in him we have been rescued from the power of darkness and been transferred to the light of his kingdom, if in Jesus we know that God has reconciled us to himself and that we are made to be at peace with God, if our center, if our core is strong and certain, we can be so much more gracious and generous at our edges. When we lack a strong center,
when we don’t have a core that’s rooted in anything lasting, we try to protect the margins. We feel that we can’t afford to lose the margins because if we do, then we risk losing everything. That’s what leads to the polarization of our culture today. If you lack a center, you fight like mad to preserve the margins. You defend the peripherals because you are afraid of what might happen if you get exposed. There’s no room for grace when there’s nothing at the center.
At the Margins
How many of you have watched the Netflix series, “Beef?” At first I thought it was a cooking show about Korean chefs, but it’s actually a dark comedy about two main characters, a Korean man named Danny and a Vietnamese woman named Amy, whose initial road rage incident turns into a series long beef with each other that leads to tragic consequences. I won’t tell you much more in case you haven’t seen it and want to, but I warn you, don’t watch it with your parents or if you have sensitive ears. What I can say is that I think one of the central issues in the show is the lack of a defined, healthy center for both main characters. Both Amy and Danny have huge unresolved issues in their lives that leave them undefined, unhealthy, even empty, at their core, at their center. That emptiness manifests itself in their refusal to let go of their beef against the each other, even when it turns nasty, crazy and violent. They won’t let go, they can’t lose, because they know that if they lose out there, out at their margins, there’s nothing left to fall back on, nothing at their center, no room for grace.
Some of us might be feeling the same way. We’re rigid at our edges, at the margins, where most of our daily interactions with others take place. And when there’s conflict, disagreement, polarization, we won’t back down, we don’t think we can afford to. Maybe it’s because we don’t know what would be left if we did. Maybe it’s because we’re not so sure what’s at our center, at our core.
But if we will be deeply rooted in Jesus our Lord and Saviour at our center, our interactions with others at the margins might be very different. We could be a people of forgiveness and mercy, a people of compassion and grace, we could be a people who love our enemies, turn the other cheek, we will do unto others as we would have them do unto us, and even if they don’t do unto us what we would want, we will still do to them what we know we should. We won’t need to seek only to win, no matter what the cost, because we know that there is a greater prize which has already been won for us.
People with a strong center have lots of room for grace.
The center will hold because it is rooted in someone other than ourselves. The center will hold because our own vulnerabilities and weaknesses will not leave us afraid to risk. For the church, for Christians, to impact and shape our culture, our society, our nation, we need to be a people whose center is deeply rooted in Christ our Lord.
The church continues to have difficult conversations around challenging issues, as we should, but we can only have these conversations if we are first certain of our core, of our center. If we are not united at our core in preaching Jesus, if we are not united in proclaiming his Lordship in the life of the church, if we aren’t united in knowing that the primary message of the gospel is about redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation and peace with God through Jesus Christ, then all the conversations we need to have at our margins will be misguided and characterized by fear and divisiveness. If we don’t preach Jesus and his gospel as a church, if Jesus isn’t at our core, there’s nothing we can say to our culture that it can’t get elsewhere. If you can get the same truth from the Globe and Mail or the New York Times as you can get in scripture, then what’s the point of it all? This centrifugal world of ours needs communities for whom Jesus is the center, who will be deeply rooted in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour. In a world and in a country and culture that too often feels like its unmoored, uncentered, the world needs churches and Christians for whom Jesus is our center, people who are strong at our core so that we can be generous and gracious at our margins, who will proclaim reconciliation and love, forgiveness of sin, in the name and by the person of Jesus Christ, who will redeem us from the power of darkness and bring us into his beloved kingdom.
May this congregation, St. Timothy PC, continue to be a blessing to so many people. And may you be willing to journey with others, even and especially with those with whom you don’t always agree. Thanks be to God for you, this faithful congregation of God’s people. And may you be a people for whom Jesus is your center, the one in whom all things hold together.
And to God be all the glory, now and forevermore, Amen!
 John E. Toews, Moving from Centrifugal to Centripetal. directionjournal.org