the penultimate WORD

Series 2006 - April
Thats not a good sign...


The Irvine Tartan  My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican






For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 1 Corinthians 1:22ff. NRSV



Signs invariably speak to community. I notice most signs. I miss others. But none are for me, alone. The signs about me are for us all. I know that to be true within the Church. And I know that to be true beyond the walls of comfort and embrace, in a world fraught with sin and despair.

All about us are signs, but more than just signs; all about us are remembrances of events that have touched every generation. But these are more than signs and remembrances: they are for us as well invitations to enter into the hope that is ours assured by the redemptive gestures of God in Christ.

The cross and crucifix are such signs. The empty tomb and the linen cloths lying folded, and by themselves are such signs. They are indicative of a sacrificial gesture that is pivotal in the journey of disciples – of every generation – who follow Yeshua, the Christ of God. They signify more than what they are and point beyond themselves to provide a focus otherwise unseen. More than a point in place and history, these signs remind us that we are the beneficiaries of Jesus’ Passion.

But more than sign and remembrance, these become our epiphany of hope whereby God’s redemptive initiative gathers us with healing wings and makes our brokenness whole.

And there’s brokenness all around us. We see it; and we even recognize it within ourselves.

There is nothing new in this. I remember a popular song by The Five Man Electrical Band from the early 70’s… And the sign said “long haired freaky people need not apply.” / So I tucked my hair up under my hat and I went in to ask him why. / He said “You look like a fine upstanding young man, I think you'll do.” / So I took off my hat; I said “Imagine that, huh, me working for you – woah!”

This indictment of the Church by a popular group of my college years went generally unnoticed by most of us in my generation. We were captivated by the rhythms of the song more than by the lyrics. But there is no statute of limitations on missing opportunities for compassion. The indictment remains.

So often we rely on control and order. Justified indifference is bolstered up by the refrain… Signs, signs everywhere a sign / Blocking out the scenery breaking my mind / “Do this”, “Don’t do that”, - can’t you read the sign?

Empty pews and closing churches suggest that signs are everywhere. And there is nothing inviting about them. The cosmetics of the 60’s and 70’s may well be time-adjusted, but the effect is still the same. There are lots of folks who are cautioned on their approach to thresholds of a restricted Kingdom.

And the sign said “anybody caught trespassing would be shot on sight” / So I jumped on the fence and yelled at the house, / Hey! what gives you the right… / to put up a fence to keep me out or to keep mother nature in? / If God was here, he’d tell you to your face, man you’re some kinda sinner.”

As Mary trespassed in a garden early on a Sunday morning, as Peter and John trespassed in a tomb loaned by Joseph, so there are those who know that their step would be a trespass finding little remembered and little hope. We begrudgingly forgive a trespassed step. After all the Sign said “you got to have a membership card to get inside.” Uh!

The Easter challenge is to begin to see how we are perceived as signs… you and me. The band from London, Ontario may have been unaware of the depth of their perception as they recorded their piece. Their harmonies call us – you and me – to be signs of peace, and hope. As disciples born into the Kingdom, we are to point beyond ourselves, demonstrating the reality of God’s gracious activity that has objectively engaged us in the lives we lead. Those lives, filled with sufficient failures and insufficiencies, demonstrate our endurance and steadfastness in a holy hope discovered on an Easter morning. Mary found it. She told others. They told others as well. The Emmaus supper party told others. Everyone told someone and hope was played forward.

Someone told you; and someone told me.

It can end here, and now or it may provide hope by our letting others know. It seems that the response is up to you. And me.

Empty pews and closing churches may be enough for us, but it seems clear to me that it isn’t a sign or Easter redemption. Neither is it a sign of hope.

And the sign said everybody welcome, come in, kneel down and pray / But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all, / I didn’t have a penny to pay; so I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign. / I said, “Thank you Lord for thinking about me, I’m alive and doing fine!”

This is no respecter of substance measured by the scales of the world. Our offering is not a coinage bereft of hope, but ourselves: our souls and bodies. Such holy sacrifice is a sign that is writ large in the actions of compassion and grace as we engage others who are broken and need hope.

Then, along with a teenaged group now graying like me – and you – we might join our voices and blend in the harmonies:

“Imagine that, huh, me working for you – woah!”


Copyright © 2006 James T. Irvine


Listen to the song...

Five Man Electrical Band - Signs, Signs, everywhere a sign MP3


Check out The New Freeman for March 17, 2006

World Day of Prayer draws attention to signs of the times


Series 2006

Sermon delivered at St Matthew's ELCIC, Fredericton