At present, in response to the COVID-19 public health situation, and in accordance with college and diocesan instructions, chapel services are suspended. Services of the Faculty of Divinity are taking place online; for more information, please contact Sydney Yeung in the Divinity office, email@example.com or 416-978-2133. Any other developments as the term continues will be posted here.
In the meantime, the chaplain’s parish homilies for Sundays appear below.
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost: October 25, 2020 Deuteronomy 34.1-12; Psalm 90.1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2.1-8; Matthew 22.34-46)
Through the fall so far, Matthew’s Gospel has offered us scenes of Jesus answering challenges to his authority from the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians with a series of difficult parables, parables whose full richness and strangeness sometimes seem to have eluded even the writer of the Gospel. Over the past few weeks, the setting for those encounters has been the Temple itself, after Jesus’ triumphant processional entry into Jerusalem and overturning of the money-changers’ tables, and shortly before his arrest and crucifixion. We’ve heard about the benevolent vineyard-owner who pays all his employees the same, and the vengeful vineyard-owner who kills his tenants for defying him, There’s also, although we missed it this year because of Harvest Thanksgiving, the king who hosts a dangerously oppressive wedding-banquet. Last week, Jesus responded to a question about taxation, meant to trip him up, with an even trickier answer. Then there’s a passage which the lectionary leaves out, at least in this season, in which he answers a question about seven brothers who all marry, in succession, the same woman, with the proclamation that God is Lord, not of the dead, but of the living – something which confounds the Sadducees, who didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead. In fact, Jesus tells them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.”
That’s the context in which today’s Gospel begins: “When the Pharisees heard that [Jesus] had silenced the Sadducees…” These two groups were not united in their challenges to Jesus. They were two deeply divided factions who disagreed, not only about resurrection, but about the interpretation of the Law, the application of the Law to daily life, and even about which books were to be considered valid scriptures. A significant component of each group’s identity and unity would have been its opposition to the other, because that is how human organisations almost always work. So when it became clear that Jesus had confounded the Sadducees, the next question from the Pharisees was not a random one. In many ways, although the Gospels don’t present it that way, their teachings would have aligned fairly closely with those of Jesus, and they were probably still trying to figure out how they should position themselves in relation to this articulate and popular teacher and healer, whether they could co-opt him as an ally in their religious rivalries. The question we hear today is meant as a sort of litmus test: Which is the greatest of the commandments in the Law? And Jesus gives the “correct answer”, from Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.” This is orthodox and straightforward, and must have comforted many of the Pharisees with the thought that maybe, after all, this would be someone they could work with. But Jesus doesn’t stop there; he goes on to quote Leviticus: “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Both these commandments are scriptural, but the twist here is in giving them equal weight and binding them together as part of a single great imperative to love, to respond to and participate in the love of God, overriding traditional human division and competition. And the Pharisees must know that they don’t measure up – after all, this whole exchange has been about their competition with the Sadducees, and how to draw Jesus into it.
While the Pharisees are still trying to work out where to go from here, Jesus poses a question for them: What about the Messiah? Whose son is he? Without having to think about it, they answer “The son of David, of course.” And again Jesus is able to tie them in knots: “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord… If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” Here the challenge is to their literalism: the Pharisees are no better able than the Sadducees to imagine another plane of being, where David “by the Spirit”, can refer to his human descendant as his Lord, one where human relationships are subsumed in and transformed by the love of God, and they understand even less than Jesus’ own disciples did, at this point in the story, that his trajectory not only begins and ends in the divine love, but draws our human nature and all of material creation into alignment with that love and that trajectory. That’s why love of God and love of neighbour are inseparable – true love of God is a response to God’s love for us, and that love is infinite and therefore equal. Trying to love our neighbours as ourselves is a first step, requiring constant practice, toward loving one another as God loves us, knowing fully our sins and brokenness, but holding us in a vast, unconditional, and eternal mercy and compassion.
That mercy and compassion will take Jesus, in the week which follows this encounter in Matthew’s Gospel, through betrayal, arrest, torture, and execution, the very worst that individual and collective human sin and brokenness can inflict upon another human being. It will seem, to those who have followed him faithfully, that everything is lost, and to those who challenged him that they were right to question and oppose his teachings, that they have ended up on the right side of history. But neither the cross nor the tomb will have the last word – they are simply part of the trajectory that draws us into the divine life and love. This is the Gospel we are called to proclaim, in the face of the world’s incomprehension and rejection, as Paul, in his early epistle to the Thessalonians, describes: “…just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.” This can never be a Gospel of coercion, but rather one of gentleness, “…like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” Anyone who imagines the nurse caring for her children as being primarily about affectionate feelings, though, has clearly never had to look after kids – enacting a Gospel of love and gentleness requires firmness and courage.
Today’s Gospel ends “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions,” closing a chapter in the earthly ministry of Jesus by underlining just how far human beings are from being able to comprehend the vastness of God’s loving self-offering. In that context, Jesus silences the petty, literalist heckling of both the Pharisees and Sadducees, but there is more. In the light of his resurrection we are not silenced. Jesus shows us, hesitant and doubtful and anxious as we are, that human weakness and violence and even death will never have the last word, that our feeblest and seemingly most futile efforts to love one another as God loves us are nevertheless part of the great arc of the divine life. We try and fail and try again, to respond to violence with peace and to rejection with love, and while we may not fully know the end of our journey, as Moses could not see the Promised Land, each stumbling step toward that horizon is a step toward the kingdom of God.
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost: October 18, 2020 (Exodus 33.12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10; Matthew 22.15-22)
You may remember that a few years ago the Royal Canadian Mint seemed to be focusing most of its creative energy on quarters. They still had the Queen’s head on one side, but on the reverse were images of Olympic sports, or designs representing different provinces, or a seemingly random assortment of virtues. I made a project of trying to collect as many different designs as possible for my nephew, which meant that I became a bit obsessive about looking at both sides of every quarter in my purse before I used it to pay for anything.
Nobody in today’s Gospel would have had to look at the reverse of the denarius to know what was on it. One side showed the head of Tiberius, and identified him as “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus”; the other showed a seated female figure (possibly the wife of the previous emperor), but the caption pontifex maximus referred to the emperor as well, identifying him as the “great bridge-builder”, the title of the high-priests of the imperial cult. The coin does far more than show the head of a foreign dictator: it identifies him as the son of a God and as the high-priest in a sacrificial cult. Such coins were not permitted to be used in the Temple, since they violated Jewish laws about the making of images – that’s why there were money-changers to exchange them for shekels. When the Pharisees and the Herodians tried to trap Jesus with a question about taxes – a question to which there was no “right” or safe answer – he turned the tables on them, showing that they had broken Temple laws by bringing in the forbidden Roman coins, showing that they weren’t really practising the purity they claimed to be interested in protecting.
All of this comes, if you look back over the readings of the past few weeks, in a series of encounters in which the Pharisees have been questioning the source of Jesus’ authority. So imagine him standing there in the Temple, with the Roman denarius in his hand: the Son of God, “by whom all things were made”, who in about a week was to die and rise again, making manifest a pathway to eternal life for all the world, holding a bit of silver stamped, probably rather messily, with the picture of a man who claimed to be the son of a god, and the ultimate bridge-builder, the “great high priest”. The denarius was used to pay, not just ordinary taxes, but tribute, the concrete acknowledgement of the emperor’s authority, and in this scenario his claims look pretty thin.
Of course, there’s a wider question, isn’t there? The tribute coinage originated with the emperor, was marked with his image, and was demanded by him in payment, and so might be said to pertain, if not precisely to belong to him. It was certainly never fully the property of the people who used it as currency. The image of God does not appear on any coin. It is unimaginable, and the working of God in the world is to be seen only in its effects. I think that’s what that rather curious first reading, about Moses seeing the back of God, the passing glory of God, is meant to teach us. But what pertains to God? What belongs to God? It’s inescapable when you put it that way, isn’t it? “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it”. Or, as the prayer in the older Prayer Book Communion Service puts it, “All things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee”. Nothing we possess is ever truly of our own making, and if we genuinely offer to God the things that are God’s, we will be offering ourselves, all that we have and all that we are. To be sure, there are secondary claims on us – society, community, family – but over and above all those is the claim of God, our maker and redeemer.
That’s not how this Gospel is always interpreted. It’s been used by many people to argue for compartmentalisation in the life of Christians, to suggest that we should keep our “religious” lives in a pious little box and not let them interfere with our political and economic lives, not “degrade” our religious discourse by talking about the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, or the complicity of corporations and governments in the sufferings of the oppressed. But I can’t see that in the answer Jesus gives the Pharisees, can you? “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it”. We have responsibilities which extend beyond our narrow self-interests, and they are holy responsibilities. That’s why we need to engage with the Black Lives Matter movement, the global fight against climate change, and the struggle for Indigenous rights, and try to discern what God might be saying to us in the voices of the people speaking out for food security, affordable housing, and support for the poor and marginalised. All that we have and all that we are belongs to God, and how we live that out doesn’t just happen here on Sunday mornings. It happens out where the world can see, on Monday, Tuesday, and all the days of our lives.
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: October 11, 2020 (Exodus 32.1-14; Psalm 106.1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4.1-9; Matthew 22.1-14)
“…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…” The epistle today almost provides the excuse I was looking for to avert my gaze from the Gospel and tiptoe quietly away – because, in many ways, Matthew’s version of the parable of the wedding feast seems to be none of these things: it’s disturbing, full of violence and arbitrary injustice. To be honest, I have to admit to you that by this point in the lectionary year, I’ve about had it with Matthew’s parables. We’ve had quite a chain of them since the beginning of the summer: the wheat and the tares, the unjust steward, and the tenants in the vineyard, to name only a few. They’re quite different in style – and even in content – from Luke’s parables, which tend to begin conversationally (“There was once a man, and he had two sons”) and finish open-endedly. Matthew’s parables usually begin “The kingdom of heaven…” and finish with bloodshed, fire, wailing and gnashing of teeth, and/or casting into outer darkness.
Now there are some historical reasons for this. There is a general consensus that Matthew was writing for a community made up mostly of Jewish Christians, in Syria or Palestine, sometime after the Roman subjugation of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. Such a community would have found itself in conflict with the emerging rabbinical tradition, the heirs of the scribes and Pharisees, over which of them actually represented an authentic continuation of the Jewish religion, and in this context, the violence of Matthew’s parables can be read not only as a prophecy of the end times, but also as Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem, with the Romans functioning as the agents of God’s anger over the rejection of Jesus as Messiah. This kind of reading isn’t just distasteful to modern sensibilities, but antithetical to the love and inclusion of the overarching Gospel message, and it has been used as a justification for appalling anti-Semitic violence throughout the two millennia of the Christian era.
We also can’t be sure how many editorial hands have left their mark on the text that has come down to us. Remember that the Gospel of Matthew seems to be made up of the narrative outline of Mark’s Gospel, together with some material also shared with Luke, and some independent material unique to Matthew. Presumably these were assembled by a single writer, who may or may not have been named Matthew, and then passed on by a succession of scribes and editors who transmitted the Gospel in various manuscripts and papyri. It was probably one of these writers who chose to introduce so many parables with “the kingdom of heaven…”, although straightforward parables, like that of the mustard seed, the pearl of great price, and the benevolent vineyard owner, tend to begin “The kingdom of heaven is like…” while more disturbing ones, like the unjust steward, or today’s reading, begin “The kingdom of heaven may be compared with…” suggesting that someone was trying to create a distinction between the two types.
Now to say that the kingdom of heaven may be compared with something opens the way to contrast as well as similarity, and I want to suggest that this is a much more useful way to approach the parable of the wedding feast, as Matthew tells it. Luke’s version is quite different (shorter, simpler, and less violent) and may be closer to the version which the disciples heard from Jesus, but the version we have in Matthew would almost certainly have reminded its audience of other kings of recent memory. We need to remember that many of those who followed Jesus expected him to be a very particular sort of Messiah, one who would drive out the occupying forces and restore the Davidic kingdom, and in that context we can read the parable as an urgent reminder of what earthly kingship is actually like. In fact, the literal opening line is “The kingdom of heaven may be compared with a human king who gave a wedding banquet…” – a sign that God’s kingship is something very different. The arbitrary dictatorialness of this king, and his irrationally violent reaction to insult, would have summoned up, for most of the population of 1st-century Palestine, memories of Herod the Great and his successors; the feasts of such rulers are not foretastes of the heavenly banquet, but places of rivalry, intrigue, and danger – we need only think of the circumstances of John the Baptist’s death. Similar parallels could probably be drawn with other 1st-century tyrants, but the crucial point is that Jesus is not this sort of king, not this kind of Messiah. His authority does not come from military might or worldly competition and recognition, but from the self-offering which the disciples are about to witness.
Is Jesus to be found in this parable? Clearly not as the king, nor yet as the king’s son, for whom the banquet is held, since that would simply displace the irrational violence of the story onto God the Father. Perhaps he is simply the storyteller, who stands outside the events he describes… And yet, Jesus does not stand aloof from our suffering and mortality. I believe we can find him alongside the others who have been compelled by violence to enter the banquet, but he stands out because he will not be part of the festivities, will not put on the wedding garment given to all the guests when they came in, will not wrap himself in the flag or cheer the tyrant. The king recognises him right away, recognises the challenge which he poses to the royal authority, demands to know how he got in. And, as Jesus is silent before his accusers (particularly in Matthew’s Gospel), this guest does not respond. His silence is witness to the violence which casts him out.
There is no resurrection in this parable. But the Christians of Matthew’s community were witnesses to the resurrection, and so are we. It is that joy, that assurance of grace, that makes it possible for us, too, to be in the world but not of it, to live in the midst of violence and injustice and greed and to name them as being “not-of-God.” Those who refuse the wedding garment, who will not enter into the dances imposed by power, the dances around the golden calf, are often, at best, unpopular, and, at worst, abused and cast out, but they know that they are already guests at another banquet, one whose only compulsion is love, and whose bounty is everlasting. That is the feast spread before us here, the feast which feeds us and strengthens us, and sends us back out to be the presence of Christ in the world.
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost: October 4, 2020 (Deuteronomy 8.7-19; Psalm 65; 2 Corinthians 9.6-15; Luke 17.11-19)
One of my clergy colleagues spent a curacy in a parish where the incumbent’s favourite phrase, not just at Thanksgiving, but all year round, was “an attitude of gratitude,” and while talking about gratitude is a fine thing, in itself, you can imagine that the phrase began to grate after a while, not just because of the slick rhyme, but because it makes a very complicated cluster of ideas sound rather one-dimensional. There are different sorts of gratitude, some of them more authentic than others, and our readings this morning refer to a range of them.
One of the simplest forms of gratitude is for being fed. Our bodies understand their need for sustenance, and the relief of hunger has a deep emotional, as well as a physical, effect. Things that seemed impossible when we were starving can begin to seem more manageable, and the very shape of the future in our minds can change. So giving food to someone in conditions of famine, or deep food insecurity, can help to realise possibilities that seemed not to exist before. Closely related is the thanksgiving for harvest, for the gifts of the land, the basis of our celebration today. The reading from Deuteronomy looks forward to a time when the wandering Israelites will be securely established in a place where the land will give them what they need to survive – wheat, barley, vines, fig trees, pomegranates, olives, and honey. Anyone who’s ever planted and harvested a vegetable garden, or picked wild berries or fruit, will resonate with this kind of “seasonal gratitude”, I think: when my partner and I use the tomatoes from our balcony garden, for example, or the absurdly tiny potato harvest from two planter sacks, or when I gather black raspberries from the ravine, or pears from a pick organized by Not Far from the Tree, I’m grateful for the food in a way that encompasses more than just being fed – I wonder at the miracle that produces plants, and produce, from seeds and sun and rain, and the almost-equally-miraculous model of human cooperation that’s been set up in our city to keep food from going to waste. I have a similar response to donations I pick up for Food Rescue, the Second Harvest initiative which connects restaurants and caterers and groceries with food they can’t sell or use with shelters and drop-ins and meal programmes – this is gratitude for the harvest of human generosity and ingenuity, as well as for the food itself and the relief it will bring to hungry people.
Our Gospel shows us another kind of gratitude, for the wonder of healing. This can be extraordinarily powerful, whether it’s the miraculous relief of a debilitating condition, as in Jesus’ healing of the lepers, a life-saving surgery, the change in outlook and ability after knee- or hip-replacement, or the brilliant clarity of vision after a cataract operation. Thanksgiving for the relief of pain or the constraint of disability is combined with an understanding that the future can be different from the past, and that hope – hope for redemption and transformation – is central to the way Christians understand the world; healing is central to our understanding of how God, in Jesus Christ, redeems Creation and calls us into solidarity with that mission. Our weekly gathering, our Eucharist, is a sign of our participation in that hope and our thanksgiving for it.
Both our reading from Deuteronomy and Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, make it clear that giving thanks is about more than a “feeling,” more than an “attitude of gratitude” – it’s a matter of expressing that thankfulness in concrete ways. The conventional language of our secular society around Thanksgiving picks that up, but also tends to focus on a very superficial understanding: we hear phrases like “giving back”, or helping “those less fortunate,” usually with a modest donation of food. And make no mistake – food banks and other programmes rely on this mandated expression of gratitude. But there’s a certain “There but for the grace of God go I” quality to this language, a danger of self-satisfaction in our own generosity, and a shoring up of our own security by comparison with other people’s lack of it. Talking about “those less fortunate,” for example, makes it sound as though poverty and homelessness and food insecurity are just the luck of the draw, rather than an integral part of the way our current socio-economic system operates. I’ll remind you of one of my favourite quotations from the Brazilian liberation theologian Dom Helder Camara: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” Seeing the bigger picture, and praying and working for transformation, are a natural concomitant of deep and authentic gratitude. It doesn’t have to be on the grand scale of social change (although I think we have a commandment to keep those possibilities always on the horizon of our vision of the kingdom of God), but it does have to be practical. A small example: I’m always proud of Saint Theodore’s when I explain to other people that we celebrate Harvest Thanksgiving a week early, so that whatever fruits and vegetables we used for decoration could actually be given to people who need them in time for the actual holiday. As I said, that’s not a big thing, but it’s real, prioritising the real needs of others over our perceived need to celebrate on a particular day of the calendar, and it’s a way of thinking and talking about gratitude that can enable us to be a blessing in our neighbourhood as we re-commit ourselves to it. During a pandemic, we have to do things differently, but I hope that we will all keep this larger picture in mind.
There are two other commemorations which occur today that I want to mention: October 4 is the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, a reminder of our place in the web of Creation and our interdependence with the natural world, both sources of deep wonder and gratitude. The other is a darker remembrance: today is also “Sisters in the Spirit” day, when we remember Indigenous women and girls who have been murdered or disappeared. This is cause for lament and repentance in our society, as well as a reminder that many of the good things we are nonchalantly grateful for – secure food and housing, personal safety – are the result of privilege and position. Acknowledging that reality can inspire us to pray and work for a different one. The student group we support at York University has a gathering (continuing online) called “Another World Café”, from the social activist slogan “Another world is possible.” That world is the kingdom of God. As we give thanks for the gifts we have received, let us fix that possibility, that reality, in our minds, and commit ourselves once more to be God’s hands in this world, helping to guide it toward that other, more loving and more equitable. future.
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 27, 2020 (Exodus17.1-7; Psalm 78.1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 21.23-32)
“You’re not the boss of me!” I’m sure we’ve all heard (and perhaps even uttered) that phrase at some point – children use it to express their resistance to control by adults and, especially, by older siblings who are trying to behave like adults. Its current popularity seems to go back to the TV show “Malcolm in the Middle”, and it’s been traced in books going back to the late 19th century… but the attitude it expresses is ageless, and clearly visible around us in our society’s response to pandemic. It’s very much the attitude of the Israelites to Moses through much of Exodus, as he struggles to bring them through the wilderness, obeying the commandments of God. There is an ongoing tension throughout the story between the wonder and gratitude which follow on miracles of feeding, or finding water, or other demonstrations of power, and the constant doubt and grumbling which arise from uncertainty, deprivation, and fear. God sometimes responds to the people’s complaining simply by providing what they need, as in today’s reading, but often the demonstrations of Moses’ authority are more dramatic and intimidating. It’s easy to imagine God, in this story, as a capricious parent, who responds inconsistently to expressions of sibling rivalry. And perhaps there’s good historical reason for that – the writer or writers who shaped Exodus in its final form were very concerned to demonstrate the special relationship between God and the tribe of Levi, to which Moses and Aaron belonged. The Levites, the “priestly” tribe of later history, are given the role of privileged siblings in the family of God, and from the standpoint of family dynamics it’s almost as though the resistance of everyone else to this special role helps to validate it for the audience – the hearers and readers of the story.
When we come to today’s Gospel, we meet this attitude again. The chief priests and elders come to Jesus as he is teaching in the Temple, and say, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” “Who put you in charge?” “You’re not the boss of us”. Their paranoia is understandable: the Temple was a largely recent construction, the work of Herod the Great, and the Temple priesthood needed to insist on their historical continuity with the Levites of earlier times to support the whole complicated machinery of ritual sacrifice and control, and to maintain a functioning relationship with the Roman authorities. They had to be clear that they were still the privileged siblings of the family of God, and to have upstarts like John the Baptist and Jesus – not even Levites – offering the people experiences of God and religious community outside the structures of the Temple was a deeply unsettling business. Remember, in Matthew’s Gospel, it was only the day before that Jesus had come into the Temple and overturned the money-changers’ tables, rejecting the whole commercial mechanism that made it possible for sacrificial business to continue.
Jesus does not respond to this challenge with a demonstration of power or, like Moses, with a claim that criticising him was equivalent to criticising God. Instead, he uses a favourite rabbinical strategy of deflection: “Let me answer your question with another question” – and of course it’s one the priests and elders can’t safely answer in front of an audience of the faithful. I think Jesus is also playing with them verbally: whatever word Jesus may have used in Aramaic, Matthew uses the Greek word exousia; it’s translated four times in this passage as “authority”, but it’s actually a bit more complicated. It has additional meanings of “competence”, and “integrity”, both of which Jesus has demonstrated abundantly in his ministry of teaching and healing and prophecy. It’s an integrity which has its source in the Incarnation, as we heard in that wonderfully poetic passage from Philippans, that “Jesus… though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness”. Jesus made himself vulnerable, refused the use of violent human power, and ultimately offered his very life for the life of all humanity. That is an unanswerable integrity, and an unanswerable authority.
Even knowing this, of course, the church has still been deeply concerned, historically, with other sorts of exousia, with privilege and the right to tell other people what to do, and in any human structure some of this concern is very nearly unavoidable – like the Temple authorities, we feel we have to keep things moving in some sort of orderly way. But we need to be careful that we do not become like the Temple authorities in other ways, resting on the privileges of history and expecting everyone else to recognise them as well. They expected everyone to come to the Temple, just because it was there, and because the scriptures defined it as the place to worship God, even though much about the cult was deeply corrupt, and had been called into question ever since the days of the Hebrew prophets. We’ve had to acknowledge corruption in our own history, in our complicity with empire and colonialism and racism, but we still, humbly, invite people to come to us, because we believe that we have something crucially life-giving to share, because we believe in an incarnate Word of God who emptied himself to become human, making himself part of our life so that we can become part of his, taking part in our mortality so that we can take part in his eternal kingdom. We need to show forth that reality in everything we do and everything we are, in the integrity of word and sacrament and action, as church and as individuals, and we also need to be alert to new ways of doing this in a changing world. Of course we fall short, because that’s part of being human, but we forgive one another, and trust in God’s forgiveness, and move on. Such authority as we have in the world will come not from our history, or from any position as privileged siblings in the family of God, but from the consistency with which we live out the good news God has given us to share – news of forgiveness and mercy and justice – and from our readiness to listen to our fellow creatures and adapt the ways we do this.
And so we remember that the church to which we’ve come today, whether in person or virtually – is not simply about its own tradition and stability – although those are good things in themselves – but about trying to live out the risen life of Christ in the world with integrity, with exousia. Whatever challenges the immediate future may bring, let’s maintain that calling as the focus of our gaze and the direction of our path.
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 13, 2020 (Exodus 14.19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14.1-12; Matthew 18.21-35)
As we return, with joy, and not a little trepidation, to worship in our beloved and familiar building, it seems as if we should have a particularly resonant set of readings to mark the occasion. Next week, of course, will be our Patronal Festival, when we celebrate the witness of Saint Theodore of Canterbury, but for today, we continue the steady journey we’ve been on for the past few weeks, through Exodus, the epistle to the Romans, and the Gospel of Matthew. I have to confess that I sometimes find this series of readings awkward and problematic, and today’s are no exception. Maybe that says something about me, or maybe it says something about the larger issue of how different parts of scripture talk to each other.
We started off with that rather terrible passage from Exodus which the BAS compels us to use during the Easter Vigil, the exultation of an oppressed people, suddenly liberated, over the wreckage of imperial might – the Egyptians dead on the seashore, amidst the ruin of their chariots. It has something in common with the jubilation we see when monuments to dictators and slave-traders are pulled down, but there is also a real vindictiveness in the song of Moses which follows – which is why we’ve used the alternative of Psalm 114 instead. We have learned that the love of God extends to all creation, both Israel and Egypt, to Jew and to Gentile, and there is something terrible about the glee with which Moses attributes hatred and violence to the nature of God.
In the epistle, as a contrast, Paul is exhorting the Romans to be tolerant of one another’s religious differences, rather than making them a cause of conflict and exclusion. We cannot hear this advice too often: it’s abundantly clear from events around us that, even in situations where no enmity logically exists – a pandemic, for example, which is not the result of any hostility, but is caused by an unthinking virus – too many human beings will structure their thinking into irrational patterns of enmity: the anti-mask, anti-social-distancing protests, and the hatred which characterises them, are just one example of this sort of thinking.
The start of today’s Gospel is actually very hopeful, with the talk of forgiving one’s brother (or sister) “seventy-times-seven” times, but then we move into the parable, the one which ends with the unforgiving servant being handed over to the torturers until he pays his debt in full – not actually a realistic expectation, if you think about it – and the threat that God will treat us the same way if we don’t learn to forgive one another. I don’t suppose I’m the only person here who finds that alarming. It’s not so much that we’re disturbed by the image of a threatening Jesus , but that the language seems so much at odds with our whole theology of salvation. It’s useful to remember here that there is that intrusive little voice in Matthew’s Gospel, the voice we’ve been hearing for the past few weeks, the voice of someone who wants to read the parables of Jesus is the most simplistic and exclusionary way. Whether it’s the principal writer of this Gospel, or someone else who worked on the text a little later, we can hear this voice, for example, in the explanation of the parable of the wheat and the tares, an explanation which transforms it from a parable about not judging others, and leaving judgement to God, into an assurance that the unrighteous will be consumed by fire in the end time. It’s the voice of someone who is anxious to reassure an oppressed community that those who disrupt its stability from outside, or endanger it from within, will be held dramatically to account, like weeds at harvest-time, or like the Egyptians at the Red Sea. So let’s not allow that voice to dominate our reading of this parable.
What are we left with? I think it’s important that we focus on the other servants, the ones who go to the master to complain about the one who treats his own debtor harshly. Their understanding of the nature of forgiveness (as, in fact, Jewish law sets it out), has been violated by his actions. The remedy they seek, I believe, is not so much punishment for the unforgiving servant, as it is mercy for the other, and that’s because forgiveness is not meant to exist in a series of static transactions, but to be dynamic and fluid. We say, “Forgive us our sins [or ‘trespasses’] as we forgive those that sin [or ‘trespass’] against us”, and that’s not about a precise, one-for-one reciprocation of forgivenesses between us and God. Rather, it’s about knowing that we exist in relation to a God who forgives, who pours out the divine life as a great sign and promise of that mercy. How can we live in that knowledge except in a state of gratitude? And how can we live out that gratitude except by practising forgiveness ourselves?
Practising forgiveness can be a challenge, whether on a global or a personal scale, but we are also called to something beyond that. We are called to identify ourselves with the servants in this parable who seek a remedy for injustice, who name the wrong, not out of a desire for revenge, but in order that the world may be brought into closer alignment with the will of God, that in striving for the justice and mercy which are God’s desire for the world, we may draw closer to the peace of God’s kingdom.
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 6, 2020 (Exodus 12.1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13.8-14; Matthew 18.15-20)
There’s something about the beginning of September that exerts a powerful force on our imaginations: even in the unreal conditions of a pandemic, and with all the concern about the re-opening of universities and schools, it seems that many people are treating September as the resumption of some sort of “normalcy” – for better or worse. Next week will also mark the possibility for us in this diocese to return to in-person church services, and to celebrate the Eucharist, although in a very different form from what we’re used to. Whether we gather in person, or continue to meet online, this will be a new phase in our life as a community, with new patterns of relationship and responsibility to be imagined and worked out, for however long this particular situation will last. And so, perhaps, it’s not inappropriate – even if it’s accidental – that all three of our readings today talk about ways of living in community.
Our reading from Exodus is a text with several levels and functions: Moses and Aaron are receiving their instructions from God before the event, but later generations are also being given a liturgical pattern for recalling their rescue from slavery in Egypt, not simply in stories but in actions. The directions are quite precise about how the lamb is to be chosen, prepared, and eaten. The celebration of the Passover is to be the primary ceremony which unifies the people whom God has redeemed, and it is vital that it be recognisably the same across the generations. We know, from subsequent books, that the people repeatedly forgot both the practice and the importance of the Passover ritual, and that they had to rediscover and revive this act of worship and memory on more than one occasion. The ceremony serves to preserve community, but it also requires community and care and holy attention.
Many of the same things, of course, can be said of our worship. The Eucharist commemorates the loving self-sacrifice of our incarnate God. The actions and the texts have been altered and rediscovered and reshaped over the centuries since the early church celebrated this ritual, but the central gestures – offering, blessing, breaking, and sharing – are the same. The Eucharist requires us to be a community, and it also shapes us into one, which is one of many reasons that not being able to gather and share in it for the past six months has been excruciatingly difficult for so many of us. We, too, will have to “rediscover and revive” what this ceremony will look and feel like for us in new and constrained circumstances.
While Exodus offers us a historical and liturgical model of community, the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans takes a much more immediate approach, with a more theological and ethical focus. He reminds the Christian community in Rome that the commandments may be summarised in love of neighbour, and that ethical behaviour is an outgrowth of life in Christ. It is today’s Gospel reading, though, which really gets to grips with the day-to-day practicalities of life – and love – in community.
It’s rare for the Gospels to mention the church – or the ekklesia, the “assembly”, as it was in Greek – and most biblical scholars seem to agree that the instructions in today’s reading from Matthew probably represent the voice of the evangelist, writing for some community of the early church a generation or two later than the life of Jesus. That doesn’t mean, of course, that his suggestions are any less meaningful or worthwhile: it was these first few generations who began to work out strategies for living together as Christians, once the certainty of an imminent judgement day began to fade, the sorts of strategies which the church needs to keep alive, and occasionally re-invent. It’s all very well to say “love your neighbour” but what does that look like in practice?
The most crucial thing for us to notice, as a parish and as part of the wider church, is that conflict is a normal and expected part of the life of the Christian community. The evangelist doesn’t say, “Why can’t we all just get along?”, but provides strategies for co-existing in a healthy and holy way, strategies which are part of community, rather than a departure from it – and they can applied not only to religious communities, but to families, student clubs, volunteer organisations, activist groups – any sort of human grouping which is supposed to function for good. If you believe, for example, that a fellow member has wronged or offended you in some way, or done something you believe to be damaging to the group, through thoughtlessness, carelessness, or self-interest, perhaps, the first step is to approach that person directly, to see whether the conflict can be resolved by communication – not aggressively or confrontationally, but in a spirit of mutual respect, treating one another as adults with good intentions and the best interests of the whole group in mind. If the difference of opinion can’t be solved this way, the next step is to involve “one or two others” in the conversation. From the way the Gospel sets this out, I’m sure that the community for which it was written exhibited many of the same patterns we can see in our own lives. There’s a pattern I’ve seen in some parishes I’ve been involved in: perhaps because Christians are supposed to love one another, people shy away from addressing those we feel have offended us, but because we aren’t quite philosophical or charitable enough to be able to let the problem go, either, we jump straight to “involving one or two others” – that is to say, we complain. We gossip. We set up little eddies of childish discontent which gather momentum, drawing in others and de-stabilising the community, all in the interest of avoiding conflict and confrontation. I’m sure that if I pause here for a moment you can all think about occasions when something like that has happened in some community that you’re a part of.
Of course it’s difficult to follow the advice of the Gospel – it so often is, whether we’re talking about churches or the other communities we’re part of. It means restraining your own anger without being evasive or dishonest, and stating your own needs and expectations with the kind of clarity which can make you vulnerable. It means examining your own position with a rigour which may actually lead you to see it differently, and being realistic about the difference between principles and preferences. That’s something I think many of us have had multiple opportunities to be reminded of over the past few months, as the pandemic has forced us to discern what, in our society and in our own lives, is really essential. And as we continue to work out what our church life will look like in the days to come, we can take that learning forward with us, knowing that we are members of a community which has Christ at its centre and seeks to draw others around that centre. That’s “loving your neighbour as yourself”, “putting on Christ”, being gathered in Christ’s name and experiencing his presence among us. That’s “being church”, something far bigger and more powerful than just “coming to church”.
To return to Matthew for a moment… If a difference cannot be settled by honest discussion in a small group, he suggests bringing it before the whole assembly, and if resolution cannot be reached that way, then the “offending party” is to be treated as a gentile or a tax-collector. And this is the worrying bit: in traditional Jewish terms, it would have been the equivalent of excommunication. But we have to remember that Jesus sat and ate with outsiders, with tax-collectors, with sinners, with precisely the people whom society had cast out, bringing them in to the centre of his heart and the centre of God’s kingdom. So however frustrated Matthew may have been with members of his community, however much he would have liked to see them disappear and never return, the love of Christ always seeks to heal, to restore, to reconnect.
This is what we have to share: the story of God’s love and our redemption. And although we have been separated by the dangers of a pandemic, we remain part of a Eucharistic community, fed and sustained by the gift of Christ’s own self-giving, remembered and renewed to us in patterns of word and action. So as we prepare ourselves to receive once again this solemn and joyful gift, whether in the near future or in time to come, in person or by a spiritual communion, let’s strive to imagine how we can best radiate its saving action out into the world, in the instability of the present moment and into whatever the future may hold.
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost: August 30, 2020 (Exodus 3.1-15; Psalm 105.1-6, 23-26; Romans 12.9-21; Matthew 16.21-28)
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all,” Paul wrote to the Romans. “Never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God…” Well, that’s what our translation says, but the older King James version of the text is closer to the Greek: “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but [rather] give place unto wrath…” not “the wrath of God.” This is one of two places (the other is earlier in the epistle to the Romans) where modern translators have decided to insert “of God” after the word “wrath”. There’s no compelling reason in the text for them to do this – after all, the King James translators in the early 17th century didn’t feel the need – but it’s another fine example of humans attributing to God the violence which is characteristic of us as a species. What would Paul have meant, though, by “leave room for wrath” or “give place unto wrath”? I think it’s pretty clear in the context: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil”, and “Never avenge yourselves” – opposing anger with anger, or seeking retribution, simply creates cycles of violence which take us farther from the peace which is God’s desire for the world. But what about “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord”? Well, I think it’s easy to see that violence in human community comes with its own consequences, and is a kind of self-inflicted damage. Wars may be fought for what seem to be noble reasons, may even appear to be unavoidable if vulnerable populations are to be protected, and oppressors brought to some kind of justice, but they are always instances of human failure, occasions which make possible great spiritual as, well as physical, devastation. God is not a God of wrath, but humans are very good at bringing about their own desolation.
Our other two readings actually illuminate this theme very effectively. Moses is in the wilderness because he had to flee after killing someone: an Egyptian overseer who was beating one of the Hebrew slaves. It was a sudden, unthinking response to violence, and even though he tried to keep it secret, he was confronted with it next time he tried to settle a conflict between two of his own people – it could not simply be covered over and forgotten. In today’s reading, God is giving him a responsibility to confront oppression in a much more complicated and onerous way, by leading his people out of Egypt and back to their own land, trying to negotiate with Pharaoh and committing to a very long trajectory of liberation and redemption. And Moses recognizes just how hard this is. “Don’t look at me,” he says. “You must be thinking of some other Moses…” He clearly feels unequal to the task, and with good reason – redemption is a divine gesture, and by taking up his role in it, Moses is also committing himself to a relationship with God which will be challenging and complicated, and to a reliance on, and collaboration with, other people. It is a path which will bring him face to face with his own frailties again and again.
When Peter tries to deny what Jesus tells his disciples about his own approaching suffering and death, in our reading from Matthew’s Gospel, it’s clear that he has in mind a very different picture of what a Messiah, a redeemer, should look like: someone who will come with power to take vengeance on the oppressors, and to establish his people in a kingdom which relies on the force of arms to maintain its peace. Jesus rejects this vision of Peter’s in the strongest possible language – he addresses him as Satan, as the tempter, because the temptation to violent retribution is one of the commonest and most powerful to plague our species. “Taking up the cross” means facing that temptation and turning it away, letting anger flow past us without pushing it back in acts of violence, not denying it, but turning it to determination, taking the long road, and facing our own broken and complicated human natures in relationship with God.
Our own day shows us examples of people who have chosen this path, who have decided, in the face of violence – the violence of generations of systemic oppression and excruciating personal loss – to seek justice in other ways, to summon people to peaceful liberation. When Mark MacDonald, our national Indigenous Archbishop, speaks of the inheritance of colonialism, racism, and residential school trauma in his own family’s past, and says “The damage stops with me,” he is making a choice to take up the cross, to seek, with Moses, the complicated path through the wilderness. When Jacob Blake’s family, George Floyd’s family, and the families of so many others injured and killed through the unthinking exercise of lethal state power, call for peace, for justice without violent retribution, they, too, are taking up the cross and committing themselves to a long, costly, and complicated path of liberation. And no one who makes such a choice should have to do it without the support of a similarly committed community. This what the church can be, if we, too, are willing to take up the cross – not to seek literal martyrdom, but to embark seriously on the work of self-reflection that an institution historically interwoven with empire and oppression has to undertake, to speak in solidarity with those who suffer, and to participate in the practical work of justice, even if it comes at the cost of our own comfort and privilege. As the biblical scholar Sarah Dylan Breuer has put it:
As we follow Jesus, things will change – us, our relationships, our world. Change means losing things as they were, but if we’ve caught Jesus’ vision for how God is redeeming the world, we know that what we gain is of far greater value than the chains we lose. Jesus brings us out of old ways of being and relating that bring sorrow and death so that we can be free for new ways of relating to one another, and in the self-giving love in which Jesus forms us, we find real, deep, and eternal joy.
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost: August 23, 2020 (Exodus 1.8 – 2.10; Psalm 124; Romans 12.1-8; Matthew 16.13-20)
The current pandemic has brought anxiety and suffering to so many people – tragic loss of loved ones, extraordinary financial hardship, and all the fear and uncertainty associated with re-opening – and, knowing that, I really can’t complain about my own lot during this time. The one thing I really do have to admit to missing, though, is my annual trip home to Nova Scotia. (I spent far too much time yesterday following Google streetview around the country roads in the area where I grew up). We’ve been making this pilgrimage for so many years that we have a number of habits and rituals for the trip itself, and one of these is a carefully curated supply of music and other audio to listen to in the car. A favourite in recent years has been Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a crime: Stories from a South African childhood. I’m sure most of you know him as the host of the Daily Show on late-night television, but just to fill in the details, in case you’re not aware of his story: his book is called Born a crime because his mother is Xhosa and his father Swiss-German, which, under South Africa’s apartheid laws, could have landed them both in prison, and resulted in their child being taken away from them and placed in an orphanage or in foster care. The family could never appear together in public, and because Trevor was visibly bi-racial, she sometimes had to pretend to be his nanny, or, depending on where they were living at the time, to keep him from leaving the house altogether. It’s a fascinating book, and what most impresses me about it is the characterisation of Trevor’s mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, and her mother, Nomalizo Frances Noah – incredibly brave and resourceful women, defiant of South Africa’s racist system and of the patriarchal structures in which they lived. It’s important to name them.
Now I suspect that Trevor Noah would be the last person to make the connection, but having his story in my mind has shaped the way I read today’s Old Testament lesson: the beginning of Exodus shows us an Egyptian society which has developed an extremely repressive policy toward the people of Israel, not only enslaving them, but aimed, ultimately, at eradicating them. I should say, at this point, that it’s not clear how much factual history there is in the biblical account of Israel in Egypt, but what we’re dealing with is the narrative of liberation which shaped the people in later centuries, and if we understand the importance of that, we can read the story at face value for now. The first two chapters of Exodus are focused on telling us how the child Moses survived a genocidal system. (Now, there must have been other, similar, stories, or there wouldn’t have been any men of his own age to leave Egypt with him, later on. But let’s focus on Moses, because that’s what the scripture does).
The baby survives because of women. First, there are the clever midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who are given the unusual honour of being named for their cleverness and their defiance of a barbaric decree – “These Hebrew women are just too quick for us; the children are born before we even get there. Sorry about that…” They obey God rather than the law. Then there’s Moses’ mother, whom Hebrew tradition calls Jochebed, who hides the baby and comes up with a strategy for preserving his life, his sister (probably Miriam, who is named later), who carries out the plan, and the Egyptian princess identified in later Jewish writings as either Bithia or Tharmuth, whose compassion for the child overrides her adherence to the laws and customs of her people. She names the child Moses, which supposedly means “I have drawn him out”, and this is a prophetic name, because he will later draw the people out of Egypt. I find myself wondering: did she have to keep the child hidden? How obvious was it that he was different? What might it have been like to be nursed by your own mother (pretending, apparently, to be a professional wet-nurse) and then brought up, perhaps covertly, among Egyptians? The young adult Moses apparently felt some kind of kinship and solidarity with his own people, because he killed an Egyptian slave-master who was beating one of the Hebrew slaves, but armed violence was not the process of liberation which God intended for him, and he had to go into exile first.
Our Gospel gives us another example of someone being named for his future task, a task which takes a very different direction from what he may have imagined to start with. Jesus has brought his disciples to Caesaria Philippi, the regional headquarters of the Roman Empire, to talk about who and what he is. Peter, in his stumbling way, gets it right: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. The only model any of them have learned for a Messiah up to that point is a political and military one, the king who will rise up against the power currently occupying Caesaria Philippi and cast it out, but the other piece, “son of the living God”, is something they will begin to understand later, something they will have to grow into. Catholics and Protestants over the centuries have wasted so much energy on arguing about what it meant for Peter to have been named “the rock” on which the church would be built, and whether this conversation has anything to do with the papacy, that it’s often obscured the most important part of this Gospel, what it says not about Peter, but about Jesus: he is not the Messianic king who will overcome violence with violence, but the living son of the living God who will offer himself fully to subvert violence with love. That is the shape of the kingdom we are meant to grow into, a kingdom of God given its human form in acts of care, compassion, and healing, and in courage, self-offering, and resistance, small subversions of violence like those of the women who enabled the infant Moses to live, quiet acts of witness like those of the women at the cross.
Our growing into this kingdom is a continuous process, as it was for the disciples. That’s what Paul is really reminding the Romans about: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God” – we never stop being transformed and renewed, never stop discerning who we are in the economy of God’s kingdom, the kingdom that grows in and throughout our world, quietly entwining itself around the structures of power and violence and confounding them with love. And while we move through this process as individuals, we are not solitary as children of God. It is the community of all our gifts – prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, generosity, leadership, compassion – which enables all of us to live and to grow in love. And this is a truth we need to keep firmly before us, to light our way in a time of deep confusion and questioning and distress. In a few weeks, unless the public health situation changes dramatically, we will be permitted to gather for worship again, but we know that our world will remain very different, probably for a long time, and that we are called to continue to seek new and creative ways of being the Body of Christ, of expressing God’s mercy and justice and peace in the world. We can’t know exactly what lies ahead of us, but we can know that we in this parish, and in our community – whether we are physically together or not – are united in God’s love, and that our vocation, as ever, is what our parish mission statement proclaims: “To be a supportive Christian community allowing the Holy Spirit to grow within us, that we may become a living symbol of Christ’s presence.”
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: August 16, 2020 (Genesis 45.1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15.21-28)
A number of years ago – I’m not sure how many – the youth delegates to Toronto’s diocesan Synod were given purple T-shirts with “Jesus loves you”, emblazoned on the front. I thought that was a little too obvious to be clever, until I saw the back: “But I’m his favourite”. And that did make me laugh, because there, in a nutshell, is the whole problem of exceptionalism: the idea that other people, other countries, other ethnic groups, other faiths, may be all very well, but there’s something deeply special about your own group, something that makes you beloved of God and entitles you to different treatment from anyone else. This idea is something expressed very explicitly in a phrase like “chosen people”, but it’s common to almost every human grouping, and while it almost certainly developed, in the first instance, as a survival mechanism, in response to scarcity of resources, it obviously persists in situations which have nothing at all to do with survival, and everything to do with a taste for domination. And if rivalries and hierarchies don’t occur “naturally”, we’re very good, as a species, at constructing them artificially – think about how schools are divided up into “houses”, for example, as a way of regulating student behaviour and channeling aggression, or the way we cultivate sports team loyalties so powerful that they can lead to violence.
All three of our readings today address the idea of exceptionalism in some way. As I mentioned last week, the story of Joseph and his brothers is a set-up for the story of the Exodus, an explanation of how the descendants of Jacob ended up as aliens needing to escape from Egypt, of the existence of different tribal groupings within that larger “family”, and of the distinctiveness of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of Joseph, which would eventually – very much later – form the northern kingdom of Israel. It is part of the founding myth of the people of Israel, and of their own particular relationship with God, and was almost certainly written a very long time after the period in which the events it describes were meant to have happened. And as with almost any people’s founding myth, it is constructed to account for much later historical developments as a result of simple, comprehensible, personal interactions, rather than larger political forces and movements.
This is the inheritance Paul is wrestling with, in today’s excerpt from the epistle to the Romans. He needs to account for the obvious historical misfortunes which have befallen God’s chosen people – exile and colonization – and follows the narrative of disobedience, the thread which runs through most of the historical and prophetic books of the Hebrew scriptures. The chosen people of God, in this long and complex saga, have fallen short of their special covenant with God, which is why they have been subjected to violent conquest and the rule of other people. The good news of the Gospel, for Paul, is that a new covenant of faith in Jesus can not only restore the chosen people to their rightful relationship with God, but can also invite other, historically unrelated, people into that relationship.
It is our reading from Matthew’s Gospel, though, which plays with this idea in what I think is the most dramatic and interesting way. Jesus has been pursuing his ministry of teaching and healing among the population of Palestine, frequently debating with the Pharisees, who clearly saw themselves as defenders of the ritual purity of the Jewish people. Now he has taken himself and his disciples to the territory of Tyre and Sidon, and it’s no surprise that a woman who is not Jewish approaches him. In Mark’s version of the story, she’s referred to as a Syro-Phoenician, which would have been a more current term, but Matthew chooses to refer to her as a Canaanite, which harks back to period of the Exodus. It’s as if we were to refer to a Swedish person as a Viking, or a Scottish person as a Celt – it’s something which does happen, but usually because the speaker is trying to make a historical or cultural point. Whatever Matthew may have intended by choosing to call the woman a Canaanite, this name actually serves to draw our attention to the fact that she is a descendant of the people who lived in Palestine before the people of Israel came to dominate that part of the world – the Indigenous people of the region.
Most contemporary commentary on this Gospel is obsessed with whether Jesus was simply testing the woman, or whether she was teaching him something unexpected about radical inclusion which then influenced the rest of his ministry. It’s not an unimportant question, because it deals with the relationship between the human and divine natures of Jesus, and the extent to which they informed one another, but I don’t think it’s either answerable or really crucial to our learning something from the story. It’s important to stop and notice, though, because at first glance this encounter makes Jesus look like a racist, and the discomfort of that is important for us not simply to brush away. So let’s analyse a bit more closely: Jesus has deliberately come to Tyre and Sidon, an area with a very diverse population, with what people would have thought of as his “Jewish” ministry – he has put himself in a situation where such an encounter is very likely. The woman is clearly a person of courage – she steps over the cultural constraints of race and gender which would ordinarily have prevented any kind of discourse between them – and she knows enough to call him “Son of David”, which is a distinctively Jewish title of respect. He lets his disciples speak out of the cultural assumptions of the society which formed them, and even suggests himself that his mission in the region is only to the Jewish population. The language he uses, comparing “children” and “dogs”, comes out of the same kind of xenophobic vocabulary, but by speaking to the woman directly, he is also treating her as someone worthy of being debated with, an equal of sorts, in spite of the prohibitions against Jewish men speaking to women not directly related to them. And she rises to the challenge, not by asserting her rights in opposition to that language, but by seizing it and turning it to serve the purposes of her desperation. As a result, Jesus makes it clear to the onlookers that she has “won” her daughter’s healing.
There are several times in John’s Gospel when Jesus is addressing God in public (at the raising of Lazarus, for example, and at the point in the following chapter where some Greeks arrive and want to meet him), and he says, quite explicitly, that he is speaking out loud not for God’s benefit, because God always hears him, but so the onlookers will understand what is happening. I think we can apply a similar sort of lens to this story of the Canaanite woman – if he had simply sent her home to find her daughter healed, her life would still have been transformed, but the disciples and the other witnesses to the encounter would have learned very little. The Gospels are an enacted theological drama, and it’s crucial to ask, on every level, “Who is listening?” Who are the characters in the story, and what are they meant to learn? What community was this scripture written for, and how were they to be changed by it? Who hears this story now, and what do we hear? In our own context, for example, we can think about the seizure of land from Indigenous people, and notice that the “bread” in the story – the natural resources of the region – is rightfully theirs, not to be begged back from an invading power. We can think about how crucial it is for anti-racism to be articulated and enacted clearly, and not simply assumed. We can be reminded, finally, how dangerous and corrosive the narratives of exceptionalism are, and learn always to examine our own loyalties and assumptions in the light of God’s perfect justice and unconditional, universal, love.
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: August 9, 2020 (Genesis 37.1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105.1-6, 16-22; Romans 10.5-15; Matthew 14.22-33)
Imagine the feeling of falling, the fear of what was about to happen clouding your vision, and then being aware of strong arms seizing you and lifting you up. Such an experience is central to two of our readings today, in very different contexts, and with very different results. For Peter, it’s a dramatic rescue, but for Joseph, we can picture a frantic moment of hope followed by a complete betrayal – being lifted out of the pit, only to be handed over to slave-traders and carried into an alien country.
When I was eleven, my school staged a very abbreviated, low-budget performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. I was simply part of the chorus, but I must have been sufficiently impressed by the story that I sought out the original Old Testament version, although I don’t really remember how I went about it. I never did see a properly staged production (at least not until I looked for it online this past week), but it’s no wonder that the narrative pulled me in – it’s one of the most detailed and substantial pieces of family saga in all of Genesis, with complicated motivations and secrets, as well as unifying themes of dreaming, captivity, and liberation. Of course I realised, much later into my biblical studies, that the whole episode of Joseph is crafted as a set-up for the story of the Exodus, and the political situation of a much later historical period, and that there are complicated motivations for the writing, as well. We never actually get inside any of the characters’ heads, but we’re led, I think, to imagine Joseph’s childish self-satisfaction at his prophetic gift of dreams, and how that, and Jacob’s favouritism, get under the brothers’ skin. Their act of vengeance and violence is positioned as part of God’s plan to save the family of Israel from famine, and to demonstrate that God can bring redemption out of evil, but there are troubling aspects to the later parts of the story, between today’s reading and the one we’ll get to next Sunday. I’d suggest you check out the details of the next few chapters over the course of the week, but there are two things I want to highlight. First, Joseph plays a series of cruel and manipulative tricks on his brothers before revealing his new identity as Pharaoh’s second-in-command, mind-games that establish his power over them. Second, in the course of managing the famine for Pharaoh, Joseph apparently manoeuvers almost the entire population of Egypt into servitude, requiring them to give up their land, their possessions, and finally, their indentured labour in exchange for the food which God’s providence had allowed him to reserve from the years of good harvests. The story doesn’t really engage with either of these problems, which means that we’re left with both psychological revenge, and the exploitation of people in debt and starvation, as part of the long list of damaging human behaviours which can be justified “because they’re in the Bible”. Joseph’s faithfulness may be the superficial theme, but there are a lot of disturbing things going on under the surface of the story.
“Under the surface,” of course, is where Peter finds himself in our Gospel reading today. This is quite a different kind of genre from the story of Joseph, but it’s also a scene that’s more elaborately set up than many in the Gospels, especially Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus has sought time by himself, and sent the disciples away. Later, when they are struggling against a contrary wind, he walks toward them on the surface of the water, identifies himself, and tells them not to be afraid. Peter then says something really quite extraordinary: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Perhaps, as commentators have often suggested, he’s simply demonstrating how feeble his faith is, and we should be comparing him with Thomas, after the resurrection. Perhaps it’s his need to stand out from his fellow disciples that’s driving him, like James and John demanding to sit on Jesus right hand and left hand in the kingdom of God (or, indeed, Joseph, needing to establish his place as the “special” one in his family of twelve). As Peter comes across in the Gospels, it could be either of these things, but more probably, I think, it’s a sign of how confusing and confused faith can be, how somebody can both believe and doubt, almost in a single breath, and how endlessly loving and forgiving Jesus is of this particular aspect of human nature. The sequence of events which follows is fascinating: Peter got out of the boat and started walking on the water – so he trusted the command of Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind (How could he not have noticed it before? They’d been fighting against it for some time… but perhaps excitement had driven it from his mind) he became frightened, and began to sink. (I know this will probably sound irreverent, but the image that always comes to my mind in connection with this story is of a certain cartoon coyote, running over the edge of a cliff, and remaining suspended in mid-air until realizes where he is…) Peter then cried out, “Lord, save me!” and Jesus caught him, with the words “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
I don’t think we need to spend too much time worrying about the details of Wile E. Coyote’s loss of faith (or his sudden rediscovery of the force of gravity), but what happens to Peter is important for us to think about, because the dichotomy of belief and unbelief, faithfulness and faithlessness, is such an artificial one, and dwelling on it can be destructive. Peter may have lost faith in something, but it’s not really his faith in Jesus – it’s still to Jesus that he reaches for help. It’s his faith in himself, in his ability to respond to the call of Jesus, that has abandoned him. I think we can all imagine ourselves in that sort of position, doubting ourselves and our capacity to respond to a call, and often that sort of doubt is perfectly reasonable – as Peter’s would be, in any other context – will we have the strength, the resources, the patience, the courage, to follow where we believe God is calling us?
Jesus does not condemn Peter for his lack of faith, although that’s how this passage has often been read. He catches him, with the words “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” “Little faith,” not “no faith.” This is an important distinction. A few weeks ago, we heard, from this same Gospel, the parables of the mustard seed, the tiny seed which can grow into something far more substantial, and the small quantity of yeast which transforms three measures of flour into food for a household. “Little faith” is a beginning, a seed, a handful of yeast, whether it’s trust in God, or in our own ability to live out the life of the kingdom, and even the greatest faith is little in proportion to God’s glory. It’s important to remember, too, that faith is not simply a matter of “signing on” to statements about God, accepting an approved formula, but of relationship with God, of moving forward when we are called, and reaching out when we feel we are sinking. Nor is such a relationship a private, individual assurance of God’s love, to be hugged tightly for our own comfort, or a guarantee of earthly “success”, like Joseph’s change of fortune, but rather a foundation for living as God’s presence in the world. I’ve mentioned before that the Greek verb pisteuo, to believe, is a verb of movement into something, toward something, not of stasis or unchangeability or complacency. God gives Peter’s little faith the chance to grow into something more – I can’t help comparing the scene in today’s Gospel with the one at the end of John’s Gospel, when Peter, realising that the figure waiting for the disciples on the shore is the risen Jesus, throws himself into the water, not testing or questioning, but moving forward eagerly to discover what comes next.
All of us, I think, have those moments of little faith, of doubt so close and looming that it blots out our trust and our hope, and overwhelms us. But we can know that God will not let us sink. We may be soaked and frightened, the water may go over our heads, but God does not abandon us, because God’s love for us and the world is without limit and without end, calling us ever forward into everlasting life. And so we may offer God our littlest faith, praying, as our gradual hymn puts it, “By your Spirit’s power transform us; shed your saving light abroad, till our lives by love in action show our world the truth of God!”
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: August 2, 2020 (Genesis 32.22-31; Psalm 17.1-7, 16; Romans 9.1-5; Matthew 14.13-21)
When we meet Jacob, at the beginning of this week’s Old Testament reading, he is on his way back from his period of exile with his uncle’s family in Haran. While there, he acquired two wives, their maids, a number of children, and a lot of livestock, but now, having fallen out with his uncle, he’s coming home again. He hasn’t forgotten, though, that he’d left in a hurry, having cheated his older brother Esau out of his inheritance and his father’s blessing as the firstborn. Jacob’s now been trying to prepare his return by sending gifts ahead of him to placate his brother, two hundred and twenty goats, two hundred and twenty sheep, thirty camels, forty cows, ten bulls, and thirty donkeys, to be exact. Much of Jacob’s life has been spent calculating his position with respect to those around him, and manoeuvering to improve it, to get what he wants, and he will soon be surprised to discover that Esau has, effectively, forgiven him, and is ready to welcome him back, without a gift of 540 animals to buy his favour.
Meanwhile, though, on the verge of his return, Jacob has an encounter with a divine being – here called a man, often referred to as an angel. This is, of course, a pivotal moment in the overall story of the people of Israel, and it also connects with what we were reflecting on last week, God’s ability to perform great acts with broken and unpromising materials. Recognizing that, we also have to acknowledge that on the individual, personal, level, Jacob’s dealings with God are very like his dealings with other people, focused on conflict and rivalry and challenge. He “wins” his new name in the encounter, at the cost of an injury… but as significant and symbolic as this wrestling match with a divine being is, it is also, in a very real way, redundant. When Jacob was fleeing from the wrath of his brother, and on his way to Haran, he had the vision of a ladder leading to heaven, and a very full assurance of God’s grace and favour toward him: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” In spite of the breadth and generosity of this promise, though, Jacob remains suspicious of other people, and of God, and this is the attitude we see at work in him in today’s reading.
We see a similar mindset among the disciples in our Gospel: they have been following Jesus for some time, witnessing his teaching and miracles, but their immediate thought about the hungry crowd is that they’d better be dispersed and sent off to find food for themselves. Even when Jesus leads them gently forward, their response is “No, can’t be done” – they imagine that they are part of a zero-sum game. The story of what Jesus does next is one which turns up in all four Gospels, and has been the subject of all sorts of commentary. The feeding of the five thousand has been analysed and speculated about for centuries, and the explanations range from the piously literal – God, through Jesus, caused food to come into existence, where no food had been before – to the socially metaphorical – the disciples’ sharing of their scarce resources caused people in the crowd to bring out the food they had with them, and to share what they had. Other interpretations are focused more on the symbolism of God’s abundance, and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet as expressed in the Eucharist.
I don’t think we have to choose a single interpretation for this story. I don’t want to say, for example, that Jesus simply couldn’t have multiplied the loaves and fishes in a miraculous way, and I find the eucharistic symbolism of this story very powerful as well. I’m a little suspicious of the “theology of abundance” which this story is often harnessed to support, because the assurance that “God will provide” can so easily be used to evade responsibility for providing for the needs of others ourselves. The least miraculous interpretation – that people in the crowd were inspired to open up their bags and share what they had – seems to me extremely compelling, but I don’t think it’s the whole story, either. As with so much of scripture, I think we need to be open to a variety of meanings, and the central element is that life in God is not a zero-sum game – that there is wonder and grace and yes, even sustenance enough for all.
This understanding is one of the greatest and most important gifts that we, as Christians, have to offer the world around us, an antidote to the culture of competition and rivalry that underlies so many of the world’s ills. Most of the hatreds and prejudices to be found among human beings – racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, and all their subtle and not-so-subtle variants – are based in some way on the idea that there is only so much to go around, so much respect, so much prestige, so much forgiveness, as well as a limit to the actual physical resources required to sustain life. The response our society teaches us to consider normal and rational is to elbow the Other aside, to dismiss, to denigrate, to hate, and to fight.
It would be foolish to deny that physical resources are sometimes very obviously finite: if you’ve ever filled up the Deacon’s cupboard and gone out ten minutes later to find it completely empty again you come face-to-face with that. But even with the material supports of life, we have to recognise that shortages are often the result of greed and competition, hoarding and market manipulation. We hear a lot, for example, about how widespread food insecurity is in Canada, and how obviously it aligns with the various forms of marginalisation in our society, but we also learn that roughly 40% of the food we produce as a country goes to waste. Working and praying for a remedy for that situation can seem much like praying for a flat-out miracle. But recognising the genuine physical limits that affect our species – the threats of famine and pandemic and climate change – can become a bridge to transformation if we also recognise that valuing each other and the planet God has given us to care for leads us away from competition and the survival of the richest, and toward an ethic of mutual concern and support and respectful collective problem-solving: offering, breaking, and sharing. It’s the difference between “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish”, and “We have five loaves and two fish – what do you have, and how can we share?” This is the response which Jesus models and blesses in today’s Gospel, a great sign of his own self-offering, and a way toward the kingdom of God. As we all look toward a path out of crisis and disease and shortage and climate threat, let us pray that God’s people may help to point the world toward that same road of justice and mercy and grace.
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 26, 2020 (Genesis 29.15-28; Psalm 139.1-11, 22-23; Romans 8.26-39; Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52)
Our Old Testament lesson today presents another episode in the story of that con man Jacob, working on his lifetime project of overturning the preferential option for the firstborn, and being temporarily slowed down by his even trickier uncle Laban. It’s family drama and political mythology – a story constructed to explain the complex relationships among the tribes of Israel at a much later time. One clear theme of this long saga, though, is that God works not only with humble materials, but also with corrupt and sinful materials: we’re meant to understand, I think, that God is able to build on extremely unpromising foundations.
The first two parables in today’s Gospel reinforce this idea; more than that, they suggest that God prefers to work with unpromising materials, using the weak to confound the strong, and the penitent to instruct the righteous. The traditional interpretation of the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven reassures us that a tiny faith can grow into something far greater, more fertile, and more creative. On the most superficial level, this provides us with hope that, no matter how feeble and insignificant we may know our own faith to be, we can trust God to use us to carry out the work of the kingdom. If we stop at this interpretation, though, we’re likely to miss one of the most important teachings of Jesus about the kingdom. Traditional Jewish purity codes prohibited the planting of mustard seed with any other crop; it was seen as a particularly noxious weed, and no right-thinking person would deliberately introduce it into a field. It does indeed grow to a surprising size, but not to the size of a tree – Jesus is deliberately exaggerating, which is just as well, since no one wants birds in a field of crops anyway. The woman baking bread also does something which seems, at first glance, logical to us – after all, we use leavening agents for most of our baking. But remember that Jewish attitudes were quite different: leaven, like mustard, was considered impure – remember that one of the significant preparations for Passover was to purge the household of any trace of it. The baker of the parable, however, hides the leaven in enough flour to make bread for a large household, and that furtive act of corruption produces a fruitful result. The ministry of Jesus introduced people whom most of first-century Palestinian society would have considered impure – Galilean fisherman, tax-collectors, prostitutes – into the narrative of salvation, and they became the foundation of the first Christian community.
Of course we know this, but familiarity robs us of the original shock of these two parables. Perhaps the closest comparison I can think of is the effect vaccines must have had when they were first introduced, how people must have reacted when they were told that a trace of a dangerous bacterium, injected into their bodies, could provide a defence against illness, a path to health. (And of course there are people today who find this piece of scientific information difficult to digest, and we can only pray that this doesn’t stand in the way of controlling the spread of the coronavirus when a vaccine is finally developed). The audacity of the parable goes beyond even that analogy, though, because the health and salvation of the kingdom of heaven seem to come, not from producing social or theological “antibodies” against disturbance and subversion, but rather from those disturbing and subversive elements themselves, and from their transformation.
For those of his disciples who are wrestling with the affront and the apparent irrationality of this suggestion, Jesus adds a few more kingdom parables: I don’t think the images of the two men who sell all they have in order to be able to buy the field with the buried treasure and the pearl of great price are meant to provide Gospel support for venture capitalism, but to remind us that the pursuit of the values of God’s kingdom can often look completely at odds with common sense and self-preservation. And the fishing net which pulls up catch of every kind echoes last week’s parable of the wheat and the tares, with its insistence that the judgement of people and intentions is not ours, but God’s.
We do have to ask, of course, what it would look like if we embraced the truth of all this in a contemporary context, and these days, we have an additional complicating factor to think about. Churches can sometimes be much more protective of their purity – purity of identity, of community, of ritual – than they are welcoming of challenge or discomfort, and I have heard remarks like “Who are these people?” “We’ve never done it that way” “We have to be careful that those people don’t take advantage of us” in parishes where I’ve worked or worshipped. I have to say that Saint Theodore’s doesn’t fit that mold, certainly not in my experience, but one of the worrying things about all the precautions that the coronavirus will compel us to take, both in this parish and in the wider church, is that they have the potential to push us toward a kind of wariness about protecting those inside, a wariness which leaves little room for creative disturbance. So when we are able to open for public worship again, one of our greatest challenges will be how we manage the tension between perfectly reasonable and necessary public health measures, and a culture of openness and inclusion. We will have masks and hand sanitizer, and designated seats to keep us safely spaced in the church, as well as new patterns of movement around the building, and stringent cleaning requirements. What we must develop, as well, are new and intentional patterns of hospitality, a welcome not only of the stranger, but of “strangeness” itself, in recognition that we ourselves may be transformed in the encounter.
I don’t want to minimise the spiritual confidence it takes to welcome the kind of disturbance which the mustard seed and the leaven symbolise, but the Gospel imperative is very clear – and it’s not just a call to tolerate subversion of the structures we know, and the wisdom which sustains them, but actually to participate with God in introducing it. The basis for this confidence is described by Saint Paul in today’s epistle: “…all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose”. If this is our fundamental trust, a trust that we can never be separated from the love of God, then we can be liberated to take risks – not with each other’s physical safety, but with the way we see ourselves. In fact, the more our gaze is oriented toward God, and toward the love which redeems us and gives us life, the less it matters how we see ourselves. In a very real sense, I suppose, we may be taken advantage of, but isn’t that precisely what we want? – that people will take advantage of what God, through us, has to offer, in terms of worship, and community, and service, and beyond that, in terms of self-knowledge, prophetic spirit, and mystical communion in prayer.
The path to becoming God’s instruments in an unpredictable and challenging kingdom is not always a direct one, and can sometimes have as many twists and turns as the career of that arch-twister Jacob. It is a path, however, where God is always with us, and where God’s Spirit helps us in our weakness, teaching us how to pray as we ought. May our trust in God’s love and guidance give us the grace to be open to whatever seeds God may plant, in and among us, and to the transformation and new life they may bring.
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: July 19, 2020 (Genesis 28.10-19a; Psalm 139.1-11, 22-23; Romans 8.12-25; Matthew 13. 13.24-30, 36-43)
I grew up on a sort of academic hobby-farm – farming wasn’t what my parents did for a living, but they were very serious about it, and we had several dozen sheep and an enormous vegetable garden. Before my brother and I were old enough to be really useful in the garden, my parents tried to contribute to the well-being of college students by hiring a few to help during the summer, especially with the weeding. The students were well-intentioned, some of them even energetic, but this “outreach effort” was abandoned after a couple of years because the results were usually disastrous. Unless you have a particular kind of discernment born of experience, weeds and vegetables, in the earliest stage of their growth, look very much alike, and after finding tidy, drying heaps of chickweed mixed with baby pea-plants pulled out for disposal, or lamb’s-quarters and spinach, or wild mustard and radishes, my parents decided that the solution was worse than the problem, and the weeding could wait until they had time for it themselves (or got their children trained to do it).
The problem in today’s Gospel is even more acute: the “weeds” sown among the wheat – called “tares” in the King James Version, and zizania in Greek – are actually a specific species of annual grass known in English as darnel. It’s incredibly difficult to tell from wheat in the early stages, and it’s only as the time for harvesting approaches that the wheat really becomes differentiated in the type of seed it bears. What might sound like a lazy and irresponsible agricultural strategy in the parable actually makes sense – it’s not just that pulling up the darnel would also uproot the young shoots of wheat; for most of the growing season, the labourers probably wouldn’t really be able to tell the difference between the plants, and would pull up a lot of wheat under the impression that they were weeding – doing the right thing for the crop.
Last week, when we heard the parable of the sower and the seed, I talked a bit about the ambiguity and elusiveness of parables, and before we dive more deeply into this one, I want to remind you of a few things we know about the history of the New Testament, and the Gospels in particular. All four were written at least a generation, and in some cases a good deal longer, after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ – certainly well after the epistles which can safely be ascribed to Paul. The Gospel of John, in style, content, and structure, stands on its own, while Mark, Matthew, and Luke share certain important elements. The commonest theory is that Mark is the earliest, and that Matthew and Luke both drew substantially on it, as well as on another common source identified simply as “Q” (which didn’t survive in any other form), and on distinctive individual traditions. Today’s parable belongs in this final category – it occurs only in the Gospel of Matthew. It is also one of only two parables (the sower and the seed is the other) which are given fully worked-out interpretations in the surviving version of the Gospel. That is to say that it is treated more like an allegory, with one-to-one correspondences explained in full, than a parable, with all the complex possibilities left to the hearer to wrestle with. For a long time, most New Testament scholars have agreed that while the parable itself probably belongs to an “original” layer of text, representing an authentic tradition of the sayings and teachings of Jesus, the interpretation belongs to a later layer of elaboration, attributing to Jesus himself the explanation which made the greatest sense to the community for whom Matthew was telling the story. Certainly the emphasis shifts from one to the other, and I think it’s in the tension between them that our attention is drawn to the most important aspects of the story, the truth we need to hear.
The focus of the interpretation is really on the coming judgement, when the wheat and the weeds will be separated, and the latter burnt in a consuming fire. It’s an apocalyptic vision, one to offer consolation and a way forward to an oppressed and persecuted minority group, and to reassure them that all the people persecuting them would eventually receive the due reward of their deeds. That sense of consequences isn’t missing from the parable, but it’s a long way from being the primary focus of the story. Let’s return to that a bit later.
The slaves have no difficulty looking at the field and seeing something wrong – to look at our world and name the presence of evil is part of the essential role of the prophets among us. Having discerned that much, however, they make a two-fold mistake. First, they imagine that they will somehow be able to tell an individual wheat-shoot from a single darnel plant, but their master knows just how problematic that effort is – the difference will become really clear only as the harvest approaches. Scripture and history alike abound in examples of people whose early lives looked like those of weeds, but who eventually “bore fruit” in holiness. Secondly, the slaves’ instinct is to root out, to extirpate, what they think are the weeds, and they imagine that this is also their master’s wish – that he shares their inclination to a violent solution for evil. The language of his response is interesting: in English, it is “Let both of them grow together…”, but the Greek verb is far stronger; aphete means to permit, to suffer, to forgive, as in “Suffer the children to come unto me”, and “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”. This word is the very core of the parable. It doesn’t call us to excuse or tolerate evil, but it is very clear that the judgement of persons belongs only to God. As children of God, and co-workers in the fields of God, we are not at liberty to use the violence of eradication against others, to cast out, drive away, or kill. As best we can, we are called to forgive individuals, and to resist evil without entering into the evil of violence ourselves. What happens ultimately, in terms of judgement, is up to God, and that ought to be a matter of faith and hope – the hope which Paul describes so eloquently in today’s epistle, and which Jacob, at his wits’ end, finds in the wilderness – rather than a matter of fear.
The fulfillment of this parable does not, I think, lie in the simplistic interpretation which the Gospel-writer puts into the mouth of Jesus, but rather in his own saving death and in the power of his resurrection to change and redeem us. The kingdom of heaven, after all, is no ordinary field of wheat, but a place in which even weeds can be transformed into something glorious by the master’s gift. This particular parable is also a warning against following all metaphors to their logical conclusions, because while weeds may be burned at the harvest, the wheat itself is sold, and ground down, and consumed – the very opposite of the life God offers us. Rather, it is God in Christ who is poured out and sold for us, and offered for our consumption and nourishment. The whole agricultural economy of the parable is turned upside-down in the crucifixion and in the eucharistic feast – the master becomes the food of all. The best response we can offer is to try to imitate Christ’s prophetic discernment and loving forgiveness, and to receive the gift of Christ’s self-offering with the deepest gratitude of which our hearts are capable.
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: July 12, 2020 (Genesis 25.19-34; Psalm 119.105-112; Romans 8.1-11; Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23)
In 2006, the Toronto writer and physican Vincent Lam won the Giller Prize for his story collection Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, which traces the life stories of several characters. I mention it because of the way one of these characters, a young doctor, describes his grandfather’s deathbed speculations about faith:
He questioned Dr. Wong about the parable of the sower. [He] asked whether God would mind if he had sown seeds that lay ignored for a long time before sprouting. Dr. Wong said it was all the same as long as there was faith at the time of judgement.
This brief and passing reference is a reminder of just how widely known this parable is, and what a rich soil it provides for speculation. It comes, in Matthew’s Gospel, at the beginning of the teaching in parables. It’s a pity, in a way, that the version which our lectionary offers us leaves out an important passage between the parable and its explanation: the disciples ask Jesus why he is using parables, and as part of his rather enigmatic response, he quotes from Isaiah:
You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.
Parables are a way of presenting meaning in layers, and if we stop at the first layer – even if it’s the one which is attributed to Jesus by the writers of this Gospel – we may be said to hear without understanding, and see without perceiving. To understand with our hearts, and turn to God for healing, we need to look more deeply into the comparison Jesus makes.
The commonest interpretation is, of course, the literal one: people can be divided into four types. There are those who hear the word of God but simply don’t get it, those with enthusiasm but no staying power, those easily distracted by other priorities, and those who hear the word and devote themselves to it. Three “thems” and an “us”, since just by being here we’ve demonstrated which group we belong to, right…?
Of course, if we’re honest, we have to acknowledge that we don’t always hear the voice of God clearly; sometimes our energy and purpose flag; sometimes it is precisely those cares and distractions involved in being the church which prevent us from bearing fruit in the way Jesus means. The sower is constantly at work, scattering seed, and what varies is how ready we are to receive it. We can work to prepare the soil by cultivating habits of attentiveness: prayer, meditation, and a constant questioning of our own motives, prejudices, and preconceptions; and then, if we want to go a little farther with the metaphor, we can be careful about weeding and watering. That, of course, means joining ourselves to the work of the farmer, and it’s what we’re being summoned to do throughout the teaching ministry of Jesus. We need to think, then, about the kind of farming practices that are being put forward as our model.
Seed, in pre-industrial societies, then and now, is a precious commodity, often not something you can buy, but rather what you’ve painstakingly set aside from last year’s harvest. So when you come to plant it, you’re very careful about how you distribute the seed. It’s been calculated that farmers in first-century Palestine would have been quite happy with what would have been a very low yield by our standards, giving them food to eat and the same quantity of seed left for the following year. That means that the audience who first heard the parable would have been pretty alarmed at the image of the careless sower – the prodigal sower – spreading the seed recklessly over paths and rocks and among the weeds, but they must have been absolutely astonished at the promise of the miraculous yield – thirty, sixty, a hundredfold. And most of the crowd was left to mull over the parable’s meaning, while Jesus gave an interpretation privately to the disciples; even to them, though, I think he gave only the beginnings of the interpretation, and left the rest for them to work out later, because I think this parable is mostly about the prodigal generosity of God’s grace. God does not begin with a limited store of forgiveness and eternal life saved up from last year, but with a limitless supply. God can afford to scatter the seed of grace everywhere, even on the unpromising soil, and much later even some of that may bear fruit.
Like the first disciples, we are called to unite ourselves with God in this work of sowing, of spreading the word of the kingdom in our own ways, by outright teaching sometimes, but also by example, by loving care, by advocacy and justice-seeking, and tending to neighbours and community. Remember the advice that’s attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi: “Preach constantly; use words when necessary.” When we find our energy flagging, or find ourselves distracted by other cares and necessities, we can remember the parable of the sower and take heart that while our own resources may be limited, the resources of God are never-endingly abundant. We can live from that abundance in such a way as to make it known to others. We can and should exercise responsible stewardship over our purely material resources, but our planting of the kingdom must be guided by the knowledge that grace is infinite – that in our welcome to strangers, our care for community, and our generosity with our time, all forms of joyful witness to God’s kingdom, we can imitate the sower of the parable, scattering seed even in places where we have never gone before, and trusting in the God from whose limitless self-giving all our blessings flow.
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: July 5, 2020 (Genesis 24.34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45.11-18; Romans 7.15-25a; Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30)
“My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” – I suspect that, for many of us, those words conjure up a lovely and rather bouncy chorus from Handel’s Messiah, which seems somehow to depict the burdens in question being tossed around. If we clear the tune from our minds, though, and focus on the words, it’s clear that many people find the image of an “easy yoke” to be more than a little problematic. Most of the metaphorical contexts in which the word is used – the yoke of slavery, the yoke of bondage – have something oppressive and heavy about them: quite the opposite of the freedom and peace and rest which we are promised in Christ. In modern scientific and engineering terminology, a yoke is usually something which restricts the movement of energy in some way, and in traditional agricultural use, a yoke is a device for harnessing energy – generally the energy of subservient animals – for work.
And what does Jesus mean by “Take my yoke upon you”? It sounds like a variation on “take up your cross and follow me,” and what’s easy about that? What is heavier than the burden of the cross?
Let’s think about burdens for a moment. Many people bear burdens imposed on them by the greed and ignorance of others, by society and history, by racism and poverty – intolerable burdens which cry out for justice. I don’t believe for a moment that Jesus is urging people who are oppressed to find more efficient ways of bearing their burdens, of resigning themselves to inequity for the sake of stability. The elimination of such burdens is a non-negotiable demand of God’s kingdom. But there are other, subtler, kinds of burdens: weights we carry from day to day without realising it. One is the burden of expectation: what other people expect us to do and to be. This begins in families, and continues in grown-up society, and is by no means entirely a bad thing. Parental expectations help us to develop as intellectual and moral beings, and social expectations serve in some measure to keep us from treating one another as aggressively or competitively as we otherwise might. On the other hand, misplaced or exaggerated expectations can lead us into all sorts of misery, particularly when they’re connected with ideals of success. Somewhere at the root of this is the instinct to compete for resources, which gets bizarrely ritualised in the acquisition of material objects: bigger, better, newer, more expensive tokens of how successful we’ve become. The cult of material success is so deeply entrenched in our culture that it takes conscious effort to resist the unreasonable expectations of others, and often creates conflict when someone does try to pull free.
Of course, the illusion of expectation works in reverse as well: our prejudgements and patternings of other people’s behaviours, needs, and characters may well prevent us from seeing them as they really are, and cause us to miss what is best and most lovable in them, and the greatest gift to ourselves. Jesus points this out in today’s Gospel: the people’s expectations for a prophet and a Messiah were so rigidly predetermined that both he and John the Baptist fell outside the parameters, John, on the one hand, because of his austerity and Jesus, on the other, because of his openness to social outcasts. The children’s verse “We piped for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn” underlines just how prescriptive we can be about other people’s responses, and how we set ourselves up to be disappointed.
Paul’s epistle to the Romans shows us another, more distinctly individual, kind of burden. What exactly Paul meant by “the evil I do not want” has never been definitively understood, but what is clear in the passage is his deeply internalised sense of sinfulness, of estrangement from righteousness, an interior conflict which can be resolved only through reliance on Christ. Paul’s theme is that faith trumps the law, but the victory is not without struggle. Faith is not, in this context, the easy assurance that all is well, but a discipline to be put on, a necessity in bearing the burdens of conscience well.
And that, of course, is the primary function of a yoke: to make the bearing of burdens easier and more efficient. It is easier to carry water, for example, on a yoke over your shoulders, than it is to carry heavy buckets in your hands – perhaps that’s how Rebekah carried the water which she offered to Eliezer and his camels. Is that the sort of yoke Jesus is talking about? Does living according to the example and teachings of Jesus somehow redistribute the weight of our burdens so as to make them less onerous, change our perspective, re-align our understanding and our expectations, and enable our bodies and souls and minds and wills to work together in a more harmonious and godly way? Of course it does, but I don’t think that’s all that’s going on in this analogy.
I know we had a linguistic digression into Hebrew last week, so forgive me for following up with Greek, but it’s important: the word which is usually translated as “easy” is chrestos, which in other places in the New Testament is used to mean “kind” or “good”, or perhaps “useful”. It’s different from agathos, which refers to things which are “good, holy, or blessed” in and of themselves; that’s where the name Agatha comes from, incidentally. Chrestos is used to identify things which are good in their categories, or in comparison with other things. So Jesus is saying, “my yoke is a good thing of its kind, a good yoke as yokes go”. And here I want you to think not of the individual water-carrier, but of the most common agricultural use of the yoke: to harness two creatures together. This keeps the animals of the team facing (and pulling) in the same direction; it enables them to use their whole energy toward a single purpose; and the load is distributed between them. If a weaker animal is harnessed with a stronger, the stronger one will bear most of the weight, but they will move forward together.
There, I think, is the relationship which we’re meant to think of. If we harness ourselves with Christ in his yoke, through our baptismal covenant, it is easier for us than trying to bear, unaided (as we imagine it), the many burdens which we place upon ourselves and each other. The yoke, for him, is not an easy one, but for us it will always be lighter than trying to pull our loads alone. It’s not that we can simply let go all our initiative and be carried along without any effort of our own – we still have to remember where we are, to pull, and to move forward – but not alone. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if we make this discipline of faith our own, our gaze and our movement will have the same God-ward orientation as those of Jesus; our paths will be parallel to his, with the same goals of love and justice and transformation.
“Take my yoke upon you”, then, is not a call to some kind of unthinking subservience, falling rigidly into line in the hope of escaping the worst life has to throw at us. Rather, it is an invitation to walk with Christ, to cast our burdens on him, and at the same time to seek to share his work in the world. As we are relieved of the pressure of competition, of illusory expectations of ourselves and other people, and of our internalised conflicts and sense of disharmony with God, we will find our energies liberated to work with and for God, the path ahead of us clear, and the loving guidance of Christ ever with us.
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost: June 28, 2020 (Genesis 22.1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6.12-23; Matthew 10.40-42)
Human beings, and societies, learn slowly, especially the lessons of the heart and the spirit. It’s true that some people may have occasional flashes of instantaneous insight, or analytic brilliance, or fervent commitment, but most of us move forward by small increments of understanding and engagement, with steps backward as well as forward. It’s possible to see the sweep of scripture as a map of that sort of process, the story of a people’s unfolding effort to understand the workings of God, and their own relationship to the divine. I’ve often suggested to students that the best way to think about the Bible, especially the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament, is as a kind of lab notebook, in which theories are put forward, tested, and then, sometimes, abandoned – but everything remains visible in the book, and later readers who try to see all this material as somehow compatible, and then try to interpret it that way, can find themselves either making some very strange conclusions or giving up in frustration.
There’s an outstanding example of this process of testing and change in today’s Old Testament reading. It’s difficult for us to resist psychologising the story, to imagine ourselves in Abraham’s terrible situation, but as compelling as the personal may be in this story, I believe it’s far more helpful to think about the episode in a structural, even an anthropological way. To start with, in the period when these events are imagined to have occurred, child-sacrifice would not have been the uniquely scandalous practice it seems to us; it may be uniquely scandalous to Abraham, because Isaac is the child of promise, the son in whom all his hopes for posterity reside, but would not have been a cultural affront. The idea of child-sacrifice, especially of the first-born, to ensure the favour of God (or gods), was a widespread religious phenomenon in the ancient Near and Middle East, so when Abraham is persuaded that God actually does demand this sacrifice, he sets off more than half-prepared to carry it out, in spite of his dismay. We can hear his willingness to be persuaded otherwise, though, when he answers Isaac’s innocent question: he assures the boy that “God will provide a lamb for the burnt-offering”.
Interpreters of this story through the centuries have usually seen it as a straightforward test of Abraham’s faith, but if we pay careful attention to the text, I think we’re meant to understand this story as an example of the ways in which human beings can become confused about the divine will, how we sometimes misunderstand convention or tradition to be infallible signs of what God desires for us and the world. In this story, the markers of this confusion are actually embedded in the names for God used in the original Hebrew. The God who speaks to Abraham at the beginning and demands the sacrifice of Isaac is called Elohim; this is a not uncommon name for God in the earlier parts of the Old Testament, but it is an ambiguously plural form, which can also refer to other (lower-case) gods, and it is thought to be a relic of the time before the people settled on monotheism, faith in a single God. In a sense, this name gathers up beliefs and traditions associated with a whole pantheon of Near- and Middle-Eastern deities, and conflates them into one. On the other hand, the angel who halts the sacrifice is called the messenger of “the Lord” – the One, unknowable God who is called Yahweh (or Jehovah) in English. So, in terms of the story’s structure, it is God the social construct, the God shaped in the image of fallible humanity, who appears to require the child-sacrifice, while the one true and transcendent God intervenes to prevent it, to call an end to this particular form of culturally-sanctioned violence.
The ram in the thicket, sent as an alternative sacrifice, can be seen, in the religious framework of the much later writers who were compiling the stories of the patriarchs, as an indication that child-sacrifice was never again to be part of the Hebrews’ religious understanding, and that animal sacrifice, as practised in the Temple at Jerusalem, was the proper response to the will of God. In Christian readings, the ram as is often read as a type, a prefiguring, of Christ, the Lamb of God who substitutes himself for us in the sacrifice demanded by God, but in a way this leap actually ignores the development we can see in the books of the prophets: “God desires mercy, and not sacrifice”, or, more explicitly, “I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.” So, to go back to my analogy of the lab notebook, it’s impossible to jump back to the early pages, where child-sacrifice is ruled out as a way of pleasing God, and ignore the later prophetic developments. If we follow the logic of Abraham’s story, combined with the wisdom of the prophets, we can begin to see Christ’s sacrifice as the one which ends all sacrifice, this human construct which we have attributed to God, and which we still carry out in so many disguises: as a society, we sacrifice other species and whole ecologies to our pursuit of what we call “progress”, and we sacrifice the dignity, health, and even the lives of adults and children in distant countries, in refugee and detention camps, and in our own Indigenous and racialised communities because we persuade ourselves that we can’t “afford” to make the changes necessary to establish justice without risking our own security and prosperity. The current world-wide pandemic has thrown many of these issues into sharp relief.
Paul, in his letter to the Romans, takes a very pragmatic approach to the flawed patterns of human behaviour: “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves,” he says, “you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” In other words, human beings, bound by desire, will offer our-selves to some greater power, whether of personal relationship, social position or convention, national identity, or some other idol, unless we offer ourselves to God, and our Gospel reminds us that this offering can make itself known in small works of kindness and mercy and care – a cup of cold water – as well as in more visible acts of spiritual heroism.
Our Old Testament reading reminds us that our understandings change as we grow in relationship with God, both individually and as communities, and that it’s crucial to discern prayerfully whether what we have always believed is indeed God’s will for us, or simply an idol which we have constructed ourselves. We’ve seen this process of discernment, in more recent times, around slavery, and we’re still working through it with respect to racism, sexuality, the environment, and the market economy, as we see more clearly all the various kinds of “sacrifice” of the Other that have been part of our history as humans. We are called, as Christians, not to shrink from these discoveries, but to continue to seek faithfully the path God has given us to walk. Abraham learns that the sacrifice of human children is unacceptable to God, and the prophets teach us that the ritual slaughter of animals is no substitute for obeying God’s commandments of mercy and justice. In the loving self-offering of Christ, we see, not a sacrifice to God, but rather God’s love poured out upon the altar of human frailty, and we discover that the only thing God wants from us, the only sacrifice we have any right to offer, is that of ourselves.
Homily for the National Indigenous Day of Prayer and Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 21, 2020 (Genesis 21.8-21; Psalm 86.1-10. 16-17; Romans 6.1b-11; Matthew 10.24-39)
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you”, is what Jesus doesn’t say in our reading from Matthew’s Gospel today. To be fair, even in John’s Gospel, he goes on to say, “I do not give to you as the world gives”, but I think there’s something that particularly troubles us about hearing Jesus say “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” It goes so precisely against what most of us are conditioned to think faith practice is about – cultivating inner peace and somehow translating that into the wider sphere of the world around us. Peace is something most of the world’s religions agree on as a shared goal: we say “As-salaamu aleikum”, “Shalom”, “Shanti”, to our Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu neighbours, and we mean it – we all pray for an end to violence in the world, and for an inward harmony for people who are struggling. Peace is one of the markers of God’s kingdom, and I don’t believe we’re meant to give up on that.
I think it’s telling, though, that in today’s Gospel, Jesus goes on to talk about the kind of division he will bring, not military conflict, the triumph of the strong and righteous over the weak and wicked in battle, but something far more mundane and personal – strife among the members of a family or household. And in our Old Testament lesson, we have a fine study of family conflict as part of the working out of the divine plan. We join the narrative partway through, so let’s back up a little: we have Abram, his wife Sarai, and Sarai’s Egyptian bondwoman Hagar, a stable relationship – peaceful, even – but embedded in a system which is profoundly unjust, the ownership of one person by another, and based on the enmity of peoples. The first disruption comes about because Abram wants an heir, and Sarai is, apparently, unable to have children, so she comes up with the plan of “lending” her slave to her husband as a surrogate. When Hagar becomes pregnant, the power imbalance between them shifts, and Sarai decides this wasn’t, perhaps, as good an idea as she’d thought; she treats Hagar cruelly, and the slave-woman runs away into the wilderness. There she encounters God, who sends her back with the promise that her son will be the father of a great nation. Ishmael is born, peace is restored to the household, and a great many things happen which are not directly relevant to this particular thread of the story. Then God appears to Abram – not once, but twice – renames him Abraham (and his wife Sarah), and promises that they will also have a child. That’s where today’s reading picks up: Isaac is born – a new disruption in the pattern of the family – and Sarah sees Ishmael “playing with” him. The King James translation says “mocking him”, so I think we’re meant to understand that there was an edge to it – children can be very good at finding one another’s vulnerabilities, and making use of the power conferred by superior size and age. Again Sarah responds with the jealousy of diminished power; she wants Hagar and the child gone, and after some reluctance, Abraham is reassured by God and sends them out into the wilderness. They almost perish with thirst and hunger before God intervenes again, and settles them in Paran.
Let’s think about this story for a moment, looking not at the disruptions, but at the times of “peace”, when there was no open conflict in the household. These depended on a status quo held together by the convention of slavery, based on ethnic difference, by the valuing of women, whether slave or “free”, primarily as child-bearers, and by the acceptance of the idea that the inconvenient “Other” can be dealt with by sending her out into a place of extremely limited resources. From this perspective, I think we can find examples of similar “peace” in our own nearer history, as jealously guarded by dominant groups – very largely white – as Sarah guarded her privilege. It’s the kind of peace established by treaties that take land outright from Indigenous peoples who have shared it and cared for it for centuries and millennia – who would have been willing to go on sharing it with newcomers – and forcibly removing them, the inconvenient “Other”, to places with far fewer natural resources. It’s the peace created by a system of law – not justice, but law – which establishes reserves, residential schools, and discriminatory education and infrastructure funding, which privileges the rights of petroleum and mineral extraction companies over the free, prior, and informed consent of the people who have been keepers of the land and the water for countless generations. It’s the kind of peace maintained by carefully-crafted displays of Indigenous culture in national events, but affronted by Idle No More demonstrations, or railway blockades. It pays lip service to the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, without doing much to implement them. It’s a peace based on keeping the shared and deeply troubling history of Indigenous and Settler Canadians safely out of sight, pretending that racism doesn’t exist, and comforting ourselves that “At least we’re better than the U.S.”
On another front, this is also the kind of “peace” that constrains the experience of other racialised groups, that looks at Black Lives Matter demonstrations with distaste, that doesn’t want to hear about racial profiling by police, or race-based violence, because that doesn’t fit our long-established illusions about multiculturalism and harmony. And of course, in Pride month, we also have to notice some of the other names under which this sort of peace travels: “Don’t ask, don’t tell”, or “Some of my best friends are…” So no, this isn’t the peace Jesus brings, however much we might want to believe it. As Christians, we’re called to challenge all these false sorts of peace, to name injustice, to listen – not with resigned patience but with eager attention – to angry voices calling out systems of oppression, and to learn, little by little, how to practise solidarity, how to yield privilege. It’s not comfortable, and that’s where the sword comes in – it’s sharp, and awkward, and disturbing to have around. But it’s a sword of justice, not of death; as the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews put it, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
So as we mark the National Indigenous Day of Prayer, and Pride month, and hear the urgent calls for an end to anti-Black racism, not only in the United States, but here and around the world, let’s commit ourselves to welcoming the presence of that Word, that sword, that disruption, and that discomfort, into our own lives and into the life of our community, because it is only by working through the divisions and injustices which it reveals that we can move toward the true peace of the kingdom of God.
Homily for the Second Sunday after Pentecost: June 14, 2020 (Genesis 18.1-15; Psalm 116.1, 10-17; Romans 5.1-8; Matthew 9.35 – 10.23)
In today’s Gospel, Jesus commands the apostles to go and announce that “the kingdom of heaven is near”. We’re so used to this expression, I think, that we don’t usually notice just what an extraordinary thing Jesus is saying: heaven is not just some ethereal realm where we go when we die, provided we’ve been good, of course. Heaven is something which comes to us.
We’re very used, in our popular culture, to images of heaven which feature angelic figures, dressed in white robes, sometimes with wings, sometimes with harps, arranged on cloudbanks. These depictions aren’t meant to be realistic, of course, and they’re often humorous; the humour, such as it is, bounces off our unexamined assumptions about the strangeness, the inaccessibility, and the sheer other-world-liness of heaven. You can’t get there from here, except by dying – or living until the end times.
But that simplistic picture is nothing like what Jesus urges his disciples to proclaim to the world. The kingdom of heaven is near, and that has everything to do with God’s presence among us in human form. The Word incarnate becomes like us in order that we might become like him; enters into our life, with all its fears and uncertainties and pains and sorrows – all those things so sharp in the life of the world – so that we might enter into his risen life, into the life of God. Not with wings and harps and cloudbanks, but very much as and where we are.
We pray: “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as in heaven”. We ask this gift of God so often, so routinely, that I think we often forget what we’re asking: that the life of the world should be guided by the same will as the kingdom of heaven; that the two should be as one. It might be easier, in some ways, to forget what we’re praying for, because what Jesus promises his faithful followers isn’t easy. “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves… be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves”; be wise, but be willing to be vulnerable. It is in this willingness, this orientation to the will of God, that we can live in the kingdom of heaven, to care for one another and the world, to speak and act for justice. Or, to bring it closer, to leave food for a hungry stranger in our Deacon’s Cupboard, to challenge the casual racism of a colleague or friend. I believe some of that is what Paul is trying to express in the fifth chapter of the epistle to the Romans, when he traces a line from sufferings through perseverance and character to hope; the hope is a truthful one, because God’s love is already poured out for us, in the Incarnation, and in the Holy Spirit, and we are commanded not simply to hold on to that hope, as if it were an investment in present suffering and persecution that promises peace and comfort later, but to live in that hope, and live it out, whatever that may look like in this moment.
The nearness of God is something we see most clearly, most fully, in the life of Christ, but the Old Testament provides us with other signs of God’s closeness. One of the most powerful comes in today’s story of Abraham’s encounter with three celestial visitors, or three manifestations of God. Abraham’s holy instinct is to provide welcome, to offer hospitality, and he does it in the most concrete and material of forms: water, to wash, shade, to rest, fine bread, milk, and choice fresh meat. You may remember from last week the icon of the Trinity by the 15th-century Russian iconographer Andrei Rublyev, based on this story of Abraham. The visitors – envisioned as the persons of the Trinity – sit around the table of welcome, in symbolically-coloured clothing, with a calf in a vessel before them, a tree and a stylised door behind. Rowan Williams, long before he became Archbishop of Canterbury, imagined the artist in the place of Abraham in this poem:
One day, God walked in, pale from the grey steppe,
slit-eyed against the wind, and stopped,
said, Colour me, breathe your blood into my mouth.
I said Here is the blood of all our people,
these are their bruises, blue and purple,
gold, brown, and pale green wash of death.
These (god) are the chromatic pains of flesh,
I said, I trust I make you blush,
O I shall stain you with the scars of birth
For ever. I shall root you in the wood,
under the sun shall bake you bread
of beechmast, never let you forth
to the white desert, to the starving sand.
But we shall sit and speak around
one table, share one food, one earth.
This extraordinary image underlines a very significant truth about the Incarnation: all of us – Abraham the patriarch, Rublyev the iconographer, you, and I – are invited to be a part of God’s becoming flesh, to see and welcome God in the stranger and the guest, to offer our substance and our skills, whatever they may be, to manifest the presence of God in the world. God, incarnate in Christ, is eternally part of our human experience, not confined to some arid metaphysical plane beyond our comprehension. God in Christ is rooted in our life of birth, and bread, and blood, of shared food and shared speech and shared earth. This communion is also a profound sign of God’s justice – the justice of the kingdom of heaven, which we, like those first disciples, are called to proclaim.
Of course, we’re often slow to be persuaded of God’s promises. While Abraham was doing his best to keep up with his remarkable guests’ dinner conversation, Sarah was also listening. She recognised the impossibility, in human terms, of what was being promised, and she laughed. Soon afterward, she was ashamed, and tried to lie her way out of it; the holy visitor didn’t blame her for either the laughter or the lie, but simply reminded her of the truth. The mere fact of Sarah’s laughter, of course, is an indication that she is paying attention. She may not immediately say “Be it unto me according to your word”, but she hears God’s promise and recognises, perhaps better than Abraham, just how absurd and wonderful it is. Obedience and understanding will come later.
And maybe that’s what we somehow have to do with the commands and promises of the Gospel: commands to proclaim the kingdom of heaven, and to help bring in its signs of healing and justice, and promises that none of this will be easy or make us popular, but that God will be with us. It’s perfectly rational to say “What, me?” when we grapple with what Jesus is really sending us to do, but the real danger of failure lies not so much in questioning as in pious familiarity, letting the words of scripture or prayer simply wash over us without engaging them. We need to pay attention, as Sarah paid attention, question, wrestle with what we hear and read, working out what proclaiming the kingdom looks like for us, amidst the chaos and cruelty and anxieties of the world, and also what we must risk to do it. Throughout that process, we can know ourselves sustained by the unfailing love of God, supported by one another’s prayers and affection, and strengthened by Christ’s participation in our human life.
Homily for Trinity Sunday: June 7, 2020 (Genesis 1.1 – 2.4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13.11-13; Matthew 28.16-20)
“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” This final instruction from Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel is almost as if the writer of a mystery novel had suddenly revealed a hitherto-hidden clue just before the end of the story – it seems almost unfair to the reader to drop the doctrine of the Trinity in at the very last minute and expect the disciples (and us) to understand what is going on. It’s possible that the appearance of this formula here may be more about the baptismal practice of Matthew’s community than about actual eyewitness testimony, but even if the evangelist has put these words into Jesus’ mouth in response to the practice of his faithful followers, we’re clearly meant to understand it as a kind of culmination of Jesus’ Incarnation and teaching. You can waste a lot of energy trying to trace the inspiration for the phrase “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” in earlier parts of scripture, but I think it’s more constructive to hear this way of talking about God as a deep expression of the experience and understanding of the earliest Christians – when they heard the formula of the grace, for example, as it appears at the conclusion of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, it was not new information, but an expected benediction.
Of course the Trinitarian formula isn’t really new information in Matthew, either – it’s a summary of the way the new Christian communities understood the nature and activity of God. They recognised – as we do – the almighty Creator, who summoned the richness and complexity of the universe out of nothing, and gave the material world its own logic and motive force. They worshipped – as we are doing – the merciful Redeemer, who knows the frailty of creation and participates in it in order to draw us more closely into the life of God. They celebrated – as we particularly did last Sunday – the continuing engagement of God in the world through inspiration and community. And they knew – as I hope we also know – that these things are not separable: creation and redemption and inspiration do not exist in compartments, but are all part of the eternal life of a single loving God.
That said, there’s still something about the way our brains work that sees a formulation like “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” as a challenge, something to be explained, accounted for, elaborated, and, if possible, even diagrammed. The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed both stand as attempts to set out what Christians believe about the Trinity, and you’ve probably seen the sorts of graphic images which try to encapsulate the old Athanasian Creed in a kind of geometry – a “shield of faith.” There are icons and other sorts of symbolic depictions which do a somewhat better job, in part because they are less explicit, less precise, but the problem with any approach of this sort is that it’s a closed system, an efficient box in which to enclose God – a weapon to combat heresy, more than a way of engagement and transformation. And all these efforts are doomed to be partial, because our understanding is partial; the nature of God transcends language, transcends geometry, transcends art. When Jesus says, in John’s Gospel, “the Spirit… will guide you into all truth”, he is speaking in the future tense, and that future reaches beyond the fifty days to Pentecost, into our own age and beyond. God is still revealing the perfection of the Trinity, still inviting us into it, and we are still slow to understand…
One of Saint Augustine’s many attempts to describe the Trinity in words named the Persons as Love, Lover, and Beloved, and while this, too, is inevitably an incomplete expression of the inner life of God, it may offer us a first step toward expressing, rather than merely struggling with, this doctrine which lies at the heart of our faith. God the Father brings all things into being by love, giving to the world of matter not only form and substance, but life, and beauty, and freedom to act; sends the Son into the world in love to heal the brokenness that comes of our frailty in using that freedom. The Son returns that love to the Father in obedience and self-offering, drawing us into its embrace, and that love comes back into the world with the Holy Spirit, binding us more firmly in that embrace, comforting and strengthening, leading and guiding.
What does it look like if we try to make the perfect loving interactions of the Trinity a model for human interaction, even if we can’t completely comprehend or describe them? Taking seriously the radical equality of the divine Persons must lead us to imagine the radical equality of human beings, to abandon models of community or society in which some profit from the poverty and vulnerability of others, and where the Other – the other in race, class, sexuality, or religion – can be regarded with fear and suspicion, or treated as somehow less than human. It means letting go of ingrained ideas and assumptions, and habits of striving for advantage, and rather striving to see all our relationships as part of a Trinity in which the third member is truth and love, quieting our defensive reflexes to embrace the Others as equal sharers in the love of God. It means that those of us who have been privileged all our lives by a system which oppresses other people, and been left unscathed by the violence done to them, need to recognise that injustice and commit ourselves to learning the truth, hearing the experience of marginalised communities, and standing in solidarity. Put bluntly, it means that white people like me need to shut up and listen to Black and Indigenous voices, even if what we hear shakes us, if it tells us things about ourselves that we don’t want to hear, and makes us feel vulnerable. And this is not mere political correctness, or the social justice trend of the moment – it’s at the core of what we understand about the nature of God. The radical, loving equality of the Trinity is not how the world works, but we are called to live as if we believe in it, even if the implications frighten us, because it is in solidarity and compassion and justice for all God’s people that we will learn to make known the love of God. Our efforts, like our understanding, will be partial, and halting, but that doesn’t mean we give up the attempt. In the church, particularly, we can work to show the world a model of what the life of God might look like, owning the inequities and oppression and violence in our own history, seeking paths to justice and healing, and keeping alert for authentic ways of demonstrating love in the world – alert, especially, for ways which we have never tried before and which knock us off balance. Because at the heart of the Trinity is not stasis, but creativity and movement, out-flowing and receiving, inviting and spreading abroad, calling all of Creation into a relationship of eternal and inexhaustible love. Let us commit ourselves to answering that call, and to making space in the world for all to hear it. In the name of the holy, living, and undivided Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Homily for the Feast of Pentecost: Sunday, May 31, 2020 (Acts 2.1-21; Psalm 104.25-35, 37; 1 Corinthians 12.3b-13; John 7.37-39)
“Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire, and kindle with celestial fire…” Our dominant image for the gift of the Holy Spirit is that dramatic, noisy scene in the house where the disciples were staying in Jerusalem: the rushing wind and the tongues of flame, the light of prophetic knowledge and the spark of comprehension in the hearers. It’s why we wear red today, why the art of Pentecost is so strongly tinged with the colours of fire. This is a powerful set of associations, and an apt one, because fire heats and enlightens and destroys, all at the same time – warms and strengthens hearts, brightens understanding, and sears away old attitudes and reservations and conventions, like the burning of stubble from old fields, in order to make way for new growth.
It’s far from the only evocative image for the Spirit, though. Jesus, in today’s Gospel, tells his audience that “rivers of living water” will flow from the hearts of those who believe, and this, the evangelist tells us, was a way of talking about the future coming of the Spirit into the life of the church. It’s an echo of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar, a few chapters earlier, when he tells her “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The living water, pulsing upward and outward from a deep, inexhaustible source, cleansing, refreshing, reviving… this, too, is an immensely vivid picture of the way the Holy Spirit can work in the world.
The metaphor for the Spirit’s action which resonates most powerfully with me at the moment, though, is neither fire, nor water, but breath, or air, or wind: the ruach of God which moves over the waters at creation, the breath which God instructs Ezekiel to prophesy into the dry bones of the house of Israel, the wind which “blows where it chooses” in Jesus’ night-time conversation with Nicodemus. I think we’re all more conscious of the importance of breathing during a respiratory virus pandemic, aware of any irregularity in our own usual patterns – any congestion or shortness of breath. We’ve seen news stories about patients so sick that they are put on ventilators, and it’s clear that this is an extreme medical intervention, to be undertaken only in desperate cases. When I hear and read about the feelings of asphyxiation that COVID patients can experience, I’m reminded that suffocation is also the means by which crucifixion worked, and that Jesus, in all probability, suffered the same kinds of bodily sensations that afflict people with severe cases of COVID-19.
As critical a concern as the coronavirus pandemic is, however, what has got me thinking so carefully about the essential nature of our breath is the words said, repeatedly, by a black man in Minneapolis, lying on the ground with a white police officer kneeling on his throat. Over and over again, during the 10 minutes that Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck, George Floyd said “I can’t breathe,” the same words that Eric Garner used in a similar situation in New York six years ago. He also said, several times, “Please don’t kill me.” Bystanders pleaded with Chauvin and other officers to relieve the pressure, to check Floyd’s pulse, and to lift him off the ground, but were consistently ignored and fended off. And if a 17-year-old named Darnella Frazier hadn’t stood her ground and kept her cell-phone camera trained on the interaction, Chauvin mightn’t now be facing a murder charge.
The breath of life, the physical analogy and necessary precondition for the movement of God’s Spirit into and through our souls, is a delicate thing, easily stolen by brutality and indifference, and that is undeniably what we see happening in Darnella Frazier’s video. The officers were as secure in the authority of state violence as the Roman soldiers on Golgotha, and for the same reasons: they believed that the person they were dealing with was less than fully human. And the system of laws and attitudes which made possible the police killing of yet another black man in America is now turned on those who protest, not, perhaps, with the same complete assurance, but with the same underlying assumptions.
While this incident, and its violent repercussions, occurred in the United States, there are few places in the world untouched by some sort of prejudice and hatred – Canada has its share of systemic racism, as well. And the Feast of Pentecost is a sharp reminder of how different this is from God’s desire for the world, how far we are from the justice and peace of God’s kingdom. The descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples gives them the ability to speak the mighty works of God to people of every nation and every language, not by compelling them all to become the same, but affirming them in their diversity of speech and culture. Paul’s epistle celebrates the diversity of gifts which the Spirit brings to a Christian community, and our psalm emphasises that variety is built into Creation from the very beginning, and that God delights in it.
The nature of our pandemic precautions means that we cannot currently celebrate the kaleidoscopic variety of the natural world and human civilization as readily as we might in ordinary times, and we cannot respond to the energy of the Spirit with the spontaneous outward-looking impulse that the story of the first Christian Pentecost would seem to call for. But we can choose to take the opportunity offered by this time, this pause in our usual way of being, to reflect on what our parish mission statement declares to be our purpose as a church: “To be a supportive Christian community allowing the Holy Spirit to grow within us, that we may become a living symbol of Christ’s presence.” We can hear again the stories of the early church, in the Acts of the Apostles, and be inspired to imagine new ways of responding to the action of the Spirit in our life as a community, and of manifesting Christ’s presence in the world around us, not only in this moment, but into the future.
Homily for the Seventh Sunday of Easter: May 24, 2020 (Acts 1.6-14; Psalm 68.1-10, 33-36; 1 Peter 4.12-15, 5.6-11; John 17.1-11)
All three of our lessons today are, in some way, about groups of people in anxiety: the disciples in the upper room, being prepared by Jesus for an immediate future they had no way of comprehending; the same disciples – or at least a very similar group – realising that the risen Jesus was not going to remain with them indefinitely; and a dispersed collection of Christian communities facing the realities of persecution, perhaps in the wake of Nero’s fierce campaign against the new faith. Jesus, and Peter after him, speak into the anxiety, not offering reassurance that everything will be fine, and that troubles will evaporate, but rather a vision of God’s faithfulness and a call to be part of God’s life in the world.
It’s a nice illustration of the difference in approach between Luke and John that the words John attributes to Jesus in today’s Gospel – before his Passion, death, and resurrection – would fit almost as well into the Ascension scenario which Luke describes in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles: “… now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.” For John, the whole of Jesus’ Incarnation is a single great gesture of descent and ascent, the Word coming down from the Father, dwelling among us, and then being lifted up: lifted up on the cross, raised from the dead, and ascending to the Father. And of course, this kind of imagery brings us up against the old imaginative challenge of the Ascension: are we really meant to think about God the Father being “up there somewhere,” and Jesus, incarnational task accomplished, heading back up to his heavenly home? Our two hymns are a nice study in contrasts here: in Hail the day that sees him rise, Charles Wesley, in the mid-18th century, depicted Jesus ascending to his throne “above the skies,” while H.C. Robbins, in the earlier part of the 20th century, asks the scientifically-informed question “And have the bright immensities received our risen Lord, where light-years frame the Pleiades and point Orion’s sword?” to which our answer must be “No, not really.” It’s crucial to remember that factual, physical reality and transcendent, metaphysical reality are both important, but not the same, although one often borrows the language of the other.
Ultimately, I think, the concern of scripture is not how particular events may or may not have happened, but why they are part of our story. So the question to be asked is not how Jesus “returned to the Father”, whether in John’s great incarnational metaphor or in Luke’s more circumstantial description, but why these writers tell the story the way they do. Of course, in one sense, we need the narrative logic of the Ascension as much as the first disciples did, the answer to the question “So if he rose from the dead and lives eternally, where is he?” But more than that, in our own anxieties and fears, it is vitally important for us to know that we are not simply left waiting for the Holy Spirit, for comfort, and for strength, but that we are always being sent back into the world to get on with the business of building God’s kingdom. That is as true in the present moment as it has ever been, but it is not an instruction to rush unthinking out of lockdown and into “normalcy”. God calls us to recognise our pain and fear as part of the world’s pain and fear, to trust in God’s faithfulness, and to know that the last word is always God’s – a word of renewal and transformation. As Peter reminded the first Christian communities, God, who has called us to eternal glory in Christ, will restore, support, strengthen, and establish us. Let us pray for the clarity of vision to see how best to align ourselves with the fulfillment of that promise in the time that lies ahead.
Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Easter: May 17, 2020 (Acts 17.22-31; Psalm 66.7-18; 1 Peter 3.13-22; John 14.15-21)
Our Gospel readings in Eastertide start off by showing us the encounters of the disciples with the risen Jesus, and then, as the season unfolds, begin to look back at some of what Jesus had foretold about his risen life. Today, as the cycle of the church seasons continues to swing toward Pentecost, we hear Jesus promising his disciples that he would send them the Holy Spirit. He speaks of abiding, of mutual indwelling, language he also uses, in the next chapter of John’s Gospel, to talk about the metaphor of the vine and the branches: “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me”. The Spirit will abide with those who follow Jesus, and by receiving the Spirit, they will also dwell in Christ, as he dwells in the Father.
Dwelling, abiding… The image of rooting ourselves in the risen life of Christ is an apt one: to know where our nourishment comes from, to acknowledge our spiritual DNA, is crucial to our life as Christians. The first letter of Peter advises the early church “in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you…” That is, know your own identity in Christ, and know where you have placed your hope of salvation. And yet a metaphor which is so utterly appropriate in one respect can also lead us in unhelpful directions. Dwelling and abiding have about them a strong sense of stability, of shelter, and throughout centuries of the church’s history there has often been, in our collective living out of this image, a strong sense of stasis and immobility, of enclosure – as if we weren’t so much abiding in Christ as hiding. The church, in many periods, has been the place where Christians fled from the troubling aspects of the world so as not to have to engage with them. In such cases faith becomes the barricade which protects us from questions and challenges about what God seems to be doing in the world. Think about what a long process the church has had to go through to acknowledge the reality of evolutionary theory, or to recognise the injustice of slavery and the equality of race and gender. Think about how fiercely the barricade of “faith” is defended in many places against the threat of secular developments in the understanding of socio-economic issues, or human rights. Our identity as Christians – as members of the body of the risen Christ – can become an excuse for the excruciating slowness with which churches move on any issue which might, by any stretch of the imagination, be characterised as “political”. That’s one reason why, even in the confusion and inconvenience and sadness of the current pandemic and lockdown, we can be glad and grateful that our church was among the first public institutions to take scientific advice seriously, and respond with the necessary precautions to protect the community, in spite of the enormous disruption they have caused in the life of the church.
Because the church we are shown in the Acts of the Apostles is not a church which hides from the world. Even in constant danger of rejection and oppression, it was a church filled with the joy and the courage of the resurrection. In today’s reading, Paul stands in the Areopagus, a place of gathering and decision-making atop a rocky outcrop, and addresses the Athenians. He is there to preach the Gospel, but he begins by speaking of the statue of the unknown God, and this is important for several reasons: first, he acknowledges that the culture of his audience already includes a reverence for the all-powerful God who is the heart of the Gospel – he establishes what they have in common. Second, he engages seriously with their intellectual and philosophical concerns, rather than simply trying to override or ignore them. Finally, although he goes on to impart a good deal of information about what Christians do believe about God, he has set this within the framework of God’s unknowability, our incapacity to enclose God within a shrine or an image, our need to search for God, even though God is all around us. In God we live and move and have our being – we abide in God – but that does not mean we can ever fully comprehend God, any more than the branch can comprehend the vine, or the vine can fully know the soil in which it grows.
This, of course, takes us back to our Gospel. Jesus promises the disciples the Spirit of truth, and a kind of knowledge, the consciousness of boundless love, and of eternal life. The disciples, and those who follow them, will not be identified by their precise intellectual understanding of the ways of God, but by how they keep God’s commandments, strengthened and upheld by the power of the Holy Spirit. In this power, we, too, can engage with the world, knowing who we are as followers of Christ, and not hiding from the challenges of our age. We can speak God’s love into the darkness without claiming to have answers to all the world’s questions, and our witness will be compelling because we live in that love and seek to keep God’s commandments faithfully.
Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter: May 10, 2020 (Acts 7.55-60; Psalm 31.1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2.2-10; John 14.1-14)
When I go on a road trip – not that it happens very often – I find I’m uneasy unless I have a map. I’ve travelled with people who rely on narrative instructions, printed out from travel websites, and I always feel that I have to be alert the whole time, in case my inattention should send us miles out of our way. And of course the very worst way to travel, in my opinion, is with a GPS device, which doles out helpful instructions on a just-in-time basis: “In 500 metres, turn right onto county road 22”. Not knowing what comes more than 30 seconds ahead makes me quietly frantic, even if I know that the final destination has been entered into the computer and is controlling all the advice which emanates from it. So I am full of sympathy when Jesus tells the disciples “You know the way to the place where I am going”, and Thomas answers “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
It’s a natural human instinct to want to know as much as possible about what is likely to happen next in order to plan our lives – whether to build flood barriers or evacuate, whether to quarantine or to loosen restrictions, whether to follow one path or another… We like to imagine that we’re in some sort of control, but more than that, in practical matters, it’s not only reasonable, but responsible, to try to find out as much as we can about what it at least likely to come next, not just for our own sake, but in order to care better for others.
But the farewell discourses in John’s Gospel are not a strategy session, not a sort of vestry meeting to plan the work of the kingdom in the year to come. Jesus is drawing together everything he has been teaching his friends, in word and example, for the whole of his earthly ministry, to help them understand, as best they can, who he really is and what he’s about, and they’re not ready. It’s hardly their fault – in the light of resurrection, they will be able to look back and grasp what Jesus was saying, but for now they’re still stuck in old patterns. All along their wild journey, the disciples want to see the big picture, the map; they want to know, for example, when the end times will be – there’s a question that never goes away. They want an advance look at seating arrangements in the kingdom of heaven – who will sit on Jesus’ right and left hand; they want the information they think they need to plan their own salvation. That’s an approach an awful lot of people still take to questions of faith, wanting to know who’s in, who’s out, and what the rules are, to save ourselves having to think too much about what we actually believe from day to day.
Jesus understands the disciples’ “need to know”, but what he gives them, in this passage from John, is another kind of “big picture” altogether: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”. Many people throughout the centuries have seized on the beginning and end of that saying, and made the identity of Jesus as a human person into a tool for discrimination, hatred, forced conversion, and killing. How many wars have been fought “in the name of Jesus”? How often has the assertion that “Jesus is Lord” marched hand-in-hand with empire, or underwritten political and commercial ends? Forced people from their land and their children into residential schools, or justified torture and oppression of people for ethnic, cultural, or sexual difference? The Gospel of John is a beautiful and subtle work, a sophisticated exploration of the entry of God into creation and humanity, but passages like this one are terribly vulnerable to weaponisation, especially if we dodge the responsibility of a fuller and more complex reading.
One Christian writer who did accept this responsibility was the 17th-century poet George Herbert. We sang one of his best-known poems as our opening hymn, “Come, my way, my truth, my life,” which goes on “Such a way as gives us breath, such a truth as endeth strife, such a life as killeth death”. Jesus, the way, does not constrain us, but rather gives us a place to breathe, to be filled with the Spirit. To say that Jesus is truth means, also, that the truth of the Gospel is not in conflict with other truths: it neither overrules the revelations of science and reason nor falls before them, and if we cannot always seem to reconcile them it is because we have not yet learned how. And life in Christ is not simply an evasion of death, but a passage through it, through resurrection, into eternal life. Life in Christ is also life for all: if we are find that we have become agents of death, through actions we take, policies we support, or systems in which find ourselves complicit, we need to repent, to mend, and to heal, in order truly to confess Jesus as way, truth, and life.
So this Gospel is not the exclusive message that many Christians have tried to make it, but an indication that what Jesus is about to show the disciples and the world – self-offering in the face of violence, love in the face of hatred and fear – is the way to follow him, the truth about who God is, and the life of the eternal kingdom entering into this world. And following Jesus is never about a static set of instructions, but rather about letting all our movements be directed by this same divine love. I think that sometimes, if we’re honest, it’s rather like trying to follow a figure so far ahead of us on the path that we can discern him only dimly, a figure who keeps moving whenever we think we have his position firmly established.
That does not mean, of course, that Emmanuel, God-with-us, is forever unreachable. Herbert reminds us, later in the poem, that our way, our truth, and our life is also our light, our feast, and our strength, food for the journey as well as its direction. And Jesus tells his disciples, toward the end of today’s Gospel, that in this strength, this faith, and this direction, those who believe in him will also do the works that he does and even do greater works than any they have yet seen him do. We have an example of this in the account of Stephen’s martyrdom in the Acts of the Apostles: we see a disciple who follows Jesus in faithfulness, in courage, and in forgiveness, and who is granted a vision of God’s kingdom which not only strengthens him, but draws him forward in joyful obedience. His witness in both word and action becomes part of a divine gesture which ultimately transforms even one of his principal persecutors, which seizes on the stones of execution and transforms them into living stones of God’s design and building.
All of us are called by Christ to walk in this way he has shown us, continues to show us, and for each of us this way is different, because for each of us, in every moment, it begins precisely where we are. This is why no map, no pre-printed instructions, no pre-programmed spiritual GPS will altogether do to guide us, and anyone who mistakes scripture or tradition for one of these may end up on some unhealthy (although well-travelled) paths. This power of God to call us from the here-and-now into the divine life is the source of our unity in faith – we are brought together not by our position, whether geographical, philosophical, or political, but by our direction, our orientation, to follow the way, to seek the truth, to practise and to offer life. It is this which calls us to love one another, to live in community and communion, to heal and forgive, and to become, through our own words and actions, part of the divine gesture which transforms the world.
Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter: May 3, 2020 (Acts 2.42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2.19-25; John 10.1-10)
Our first reading today shows us a remarkable moment in the life of the Church: a tight community, gathered in their homes and in the Temple, learning from each other what the death and resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit were going to mean for them, and how to be the light of God in the world around them. They sold their possessions and redirected their resources to the needs of the community; they spent their days in praising God. And gradually, their manner of life attracted the goodwill of the people around them, and others were added to their number, others, perhaps, who hadn’t been very aware of Jesus while he lived among them, but who were now able to see his risen life at work in the lives of his followers. This was a community which had seen and recognized, in the arrest and execution of Jesus, the very worst of human cruelty and violence and abuse of power, but who now understood that God’s way, the way to which they were called, was something very different indeed. They knew there would be no going back to their former lives, no return to “normal”.
We’ve heard a lot in the news this past week about “getting back to normal”. At the first indication that the curve of infectious spread of the COVID-19 virus is “flattening” – that is, that the number of new infections every day is beginning to be reduced, not that fewer people are actually sick – there are voices calling loudly for an end to pandemic precautions, and political leaders talking about roadmaps for the “return to normal”. And while social and economic planning for the future is undeniably the work of government, we need to think very carefully about what this “normal” is that people are so anxious to get back to. Our current situation is one in which many people are suffering, quite apart from the effects of the novel corona virus – from isolation, from the effects of overstressed public health systems, from job loss, food insecurity, housing instability. And most of these things are not the results of the pandemic. They have come about because of the terrible flaws in the systems we regard as “normal”: radical economic inequity, exploitation of low-wage workers, especially racialized minorities, underfunding of social services, all effects of a global emphasis on profit over the well-being of people and the earth. It’s no accident that pandemic restrictions on the economy have given the planet a moment’s breathing space, because the systems that have created the conditions for widespread human suffering during a pandemic are the same ones driving us toward catastrophic climate change. “Normal”, as several wise commentators have said recently, is what got us into this mess, and we have to hope that we can learn something from this strange, in-between time, so that there will be no going back to unthinking acceptance of the social structures and economic motives that drove us before, structures, for example, that have made the care of our elders a profitable business rather than a collective responsibility, built on the exploitation of part-time workers without benefits who have to move around from one facility to another to provide anything like a decent living for themselves and their families. Let us pray that we can learn from the tragic results of this system something about how to fix it.
Now, this Sunday is “Good Shepherd Sunday”, and our Gospel reminds us of the image of Jesus as the good shepherd. Having grown up on a sheep farm, I could go on at length about the images in this passage, but I want to focus on one, or perhaps two versions of the same idea. Remember that most sheep in first-century Palestine were destined for slaughter, either for meat directly, or through the sacrificial cult of the Temple. The sheepfold may have been a place of safety from theft or predation, from the perspective of the owners of the sheep, but for the sheep themselves it was really more of a holding pen on the way to destruction. The sheepfold, if you like, was “normal” – it was what everyone understood as the place where the sheep ought to be, and they themselves didn’t know any better until it was too late. The shepherd’s role was to get them safely into it. But this is not what Jesus is talking about. The good shepherd, he says “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” He leads them out, out of the place which looks safe but is in reality a danger to them. And when the disciples have trouble understanding this, he makes it even more explicit: “I am the gate,” he says. “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture… I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
This, I believe, is what the Good Shepherd calls us to learn from our time of disruption, that the sheepfold of “normality” – of greed and exploitation – is not a place of safety for most of God’s beloved children, or a healthy model for the life of the earth. Let us pray that the measures we have taken during this time that point toward justice and equity, toward the dignity of essential work and the safety of all, may be part of our greater understanding going forward. And let us strive, as the holy people of God, to echo the Good Shepherd’s call to liberation and abundance – not the abundance of profit or wealth, but the abundance of shared life in the community of God’s kingdom.
Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter: Sunday, April 26, 2020 (Acts 2.14a, 36-41; Psalm 116.1-3, 10-17; 1 Peter 1.17-23; Luke 24.13-35)
Last week, we reflected on the story of Thomas, and how carefully, during the present time of pandemic precautions, we need to understand the Gospel’s call to step outside our selves, our families, and our usual in-groups to engage with God’s beloved world. At such a time, this engagement must work through and around physical distancing, and we are called to reach out by all available forms of communication as well, of course, as by prayer. If we have the capacity, we can help those affected by pandemic and its precautions in practical and financial ways. This week’s Gospel, the encounter on the road to Emmaus, presents us with some of the same issues, and requires a similarly nuanced reading at this very unusual time.
Cleopas and his companion – perhaps Mary, “the wife of Clopas”, who is named in John’s Gospel as one of the women at the cross – were leaving Jerusalem to “self-isolate” at Emmaus, perhaps out of the same fear of the authorities that had the other disciples gathered behind locked doors. Any hint of good news from the empty tomb was probably overwhelmed in their hearts and minds by their grief and terror, and because they had somewhere they could go, they went. If the fear of those first disciples seems somehow remote and unreal to us, I think we have only to listen to the voices of those who escaped last weekend’s horrific violence in Nova Scotia to be reminded what it is like to hear every knock on the door, or even every footstep approaching the house, as a herald of violence and death. The disciples had every right and every reason to be afraid.
But Jesus comes to us, even if we are afraid, even if we are running away. Our eyes and ears may be dulled, and only recognise his presence and his teaching later. And however reluctantly we may offer hospitality, Christ accepts our invitation and honours it with the gift of his presence, and when we gather, whether in twos and threes or in a larger group, Christ is in the midst of us, blessing, breaking, and sharing what we offer, making it holy and uniting it with the gift of himself, broken and shared in service and sacrifice. Any gift of ours, no matter how small (or even how grudgingly offered), can be used and transformed by God.
The very structure of our Eucharist echoes this resurrection encounter, and while it may seem strange to talk about this at a time when we cannot come together to celebrate the Eucharist, that distance from the sacrament can also provide us with a kind of perspective, and an opportunity to reflect on everything we miss about it. We come as individuals, with all our cares, our fears, our sorrows, and our doubts, and Christ meets us in teaching, in all the wisdom and challenge and difficulty of scripture, in history and prophecy and in the good news of the Gospel. We offer what we have carried with us – the reluctant brokenness of our confessions as well as the humble presentation of our gifts – and both are transformed. Our sinfulness is healed by Christ’s absolution, our gifts of money, time, and talent become the nourishment of our community in its worship and its corporate life, and our gifts of bread and wine become the nourishment of our community in Christ’s body and blood. If we are open and attentive, we may recognise him in this blessing, breaking, and sharing, and even if the recognition is fleeting, it draws us to God and unites us with others who have shared our experience, joins us more surely to the body of Christ, and then sends us out into the world to make the joy of the resurrection manifest. Whenever we gather in this sacramental way, we walk the road to Emmaus – in both directions. That doesn’t mean that all our confusion or pain or fear will be taken away, but that we are given hope and strength to transform it, and a community in which to live out that transformation.
There are, of course, many roads to and from Emmaus. There are many ways in which we learn of God, and from God, through scripture or other reading, through the testimony of nature and of other people’s goodness and wisdom. There are also many moments of sudden encounter and recognition, in prayer and meditation, in the beauty of music, art, or literature, in the faces of friends and strangers. Our response to our learning, and to our encounter with Christ, must be one of hope in the resurrection, and however obscure our understanding may be, this hope is not something we can hug to ourselves for our own comfort; it compels us to share our experience. That is why, as a community, we must face outward as well as inward, and find ways in which to communicate our hope and our joy to those with whom we come in contact, not by heavy-handed proseletysing, but by sharing the fullness of our life as a spiritual community: sharing our care for one another and the society around us, being a prophetic voice for the marginalised, practising beauty in our relationships as well as in our worship, and being willing to talk, however haltingly and uncertainly, about what we feel and believe about God. All of this involves making ourselves vulnerable, not scurrying back to the safety of the house in Emmaus where we have lived for years, but using it instead as a base for our engagement with the world and with the risen Christ. We don’t, in our society, risk arrest or torture for this. We may risk feeling uncomfortable or ridiculous, but that is a small danger on the road back to Jerusalem.
As we move through Eastertide, in these very unusual circumstances, I would ask that we keep the story of the disciples from Emmaus before us. And while many of us are currently operating in tight little worlds where we can be safe, and, more importantly, keep others safe by not adding to the demands on our health-care system, we know that this is a temporary thing, an in-between time. Let us hold in our minds our encounter with the risen Christ, the encounter which we will renew with intensified joy when we are once more able to gather for the Eucharist. And in that encounter which we pray for, may we find the will, the courage, and the joy to be Christ’s life in the world.
Homily for the Second Sunday of Easter: April 19, 2020 (Acts 2.14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1.3-9; John 20.19-31)
If we weren’t in the grips of a pandemic at the moment, and taking precautions and practising physical distancing and staying home as much as possible, our friends Eastern Orthodox Churches would be celebrating Easter today, and we could greet them with “Christ is risen!” (or Xristos anesti! or Khristos voskrese!) as a sign of our shared hope in the new life of the Easter Gospel. But that’s not the reality we find ourselves in at the moment: we know Christ is risen, but we cannot celebrate as we usually would.
It’s natural to compare our situation with that of the disciples in our Gospel today, shut up behind locked doors for fear of the Judean Temple authorities, as many of us are shut up in our homes to prevent the spread of the novel corona virus. I’ve often wondered why Thomas wasn’t with them when Jesus first appeared to them as a group, and speculated that it was because he was the one who was brave enough to go out to find food for the rest. I’ve always resisted the idea that he was some kind of rationalist skeptic, demanding the evidence of his own eyes before he could believe. It seems to me more likely that his questioning of the good news arose from a deep sense of exclusion – something life-changing and miraculous had happened, and he’d been left out. So when Jesus appeared again a week later and acknowledged Thomas’ need to be included, all his doubt melted away in a moment of recognition and love. And this tells us something about the kind of communities we need to be in order to proclaim the resurrection.
You can read the story another way, as the American biblical scholar Sarah Dylan Breuer does: that while the other disciples were still locked in their own fear, hiding away from danger, Thomas was ahead of them, going out into the world to live the good news. But, she says, there’s
…one point on which Thomas is stumbling in this Sunday’s gospel… Thomas, who might have been the only one of Jesus’ followers brave enough to be out there in the world while the others were hiding behind locked doors, takes the other disciples’ report to mean that Jesus had been with the others and not with him, that those hiding in the room had, in seeing Jesus there, experienced Jesus’ presence in a way that Thomas missed out on. Thomas takes the others’ report to mean that, if he really wanted to touch Jesus, he’d been in the wrong place.
Not so… If Thomas was out in the world, he was in precisely the place Jesus wanted him to be. If Thomas was out in the world, he didn’t need to hear Jesus’ commission to the others because he was already following it.
Now, this is an interpretation that I find really attractive – a reminder that God calls us to be out in the world, taking the Gospel with us wherever we go and expecting to meet Jesus in every friend and stranger. But in our current context, we have to regard that impulse in a more complex and thoughtful way, through a lens of scientific understanding and mutual care, or we’ll end up in the position of some of the fundamentalist churches in the US, who have insisted on “witnessing” to their faith by continuing to gather in large public groups, and succeeded only in spreading infection.
First of all, it’s important to think about both the differences and similarities between our situation and that of the disciples. We, too, are constrained and afraid, but not of being persecuted for our faith – the danger we currently face is one we share with all of humanity, and our response to it must come out of a sense of God’s expansive love, not only for us, but for all of Creation. And so, we heed the best advice we can find from medical professionals, we try to stay informed, and we look for ways to make constructive use of our isolation. But there are Thomases in this situation as well: healthcare workers, cleaners, transit and transport drivers, delivery people, store clerks… the people who tend the sick and dying, and make something like normal life possible for others. For some, it’s a matter of calling, or profession, for some, a question of choice, but for others, it’s about survival, about needing this job, this paycheque, too much to avoid the risks of being out. And the comfort our society takes in the dedication and bravery of frontline workers, and in the acts of kindness and solidarity we hear about, may not feel very persuasive to people who began this crisis in a position of marginalisation, and are put under increasing stress as it continues. The personal support worker doing double shifts in a long-term care home with an outbreak, or the grocery-store cashier who spends all day with irate customers pushing dangerously around the plexiglass shield, who then go home to deal with children who may or may not have done whatever distance learning their school is trying to provide, and a volatile, laid-off partner whose own sense of meaning is eroding every day… they may find hope and resurrection difficult to believe in just now. And as the community which embodies the wounded and risen Christ, we are called to understand, and to be in solidarity with, that difficulty, not just to challenge it with facile proclamation, but to move from comprehension and empathy to a vision of a world in which all are equally valued, where human dignity and worth are not subject to the arbitrary violence of economic forces, or to the greed and indifference of power.
Arundhati Roy, one of India’s foremost writers and activists, has written about the devastating political effects of the pandemic and lockdown in her country, but she finishes with a fierce hope. Historically, she says,
…pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.
As we sit with the disciples in their isolation and anxiety, in their locked room, we must remember that it, too, is a portal, an in-between place – the place where the risen Christ appears and breathes the Holy Spirit into them, where he shows them his wounds, signs that our broken humanity is eternally part of the life of God, where Thomas’s exclusion and doubt are healed. From this place the disciples will be sent out to proclaim resurrection and the kingdom of God. Let us pray that our in-between place may also be such a portal, where we may attend to God’s desire for justice and healing for our world, and from which we may be sent out, in time, to proclaim the new life we have been emboldened to imagine, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Homily for Easter Sunday: April 12, 2020 (Jeremiah 31.1-6; Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24; Acts 10.34-43; John 20.1-18)
The last few days had been shattering ones for the disciples of Jesus. Almost from one moment to the next, all their hopes and their half-formed plans had been snatched from them; the vision of God’s kingdom, captivating, if a little hazy, overturned by the arrest and torture and death of the only person who could possibly have brought it about. They were ashamed of their own powerlessness, afraid that the same fate might befall them, and desperate to restore the meaning their lives had once seemed to possess. They tried some of the usual human options – retreating into isolation, keeping out of the public eye.
In today’s Gospel, Mary ventures out to the tomb hoping to find comfort, or closure, or some other mysterious consolation in caring for the body of Jesus, in gathering the shreds of their relationship together into a memory she could bear away with her, something she could cling to in an otherwise empty future. In other versions of the story, other women come with her; in John’s Gospel she summons Peter and the beloved disciple to look into the empty tomb, and when they cannot explain what they see, they retreat to their homes, to the only semblance of normalcy they can find. In time, perhaps, the disciples would have found a new identity as followers of a martyred prophet, tried in their own terribly flawed way to build the kingdom he had told them so much – and yet far too little – about; perhaps the Zealots among them would have turned Jesus’ death to political ends, using the cross as a banner behind which they could fight, assimilating their own sense of victimisation to that of their dead leader, repaying the violence of execution with the violence of guerrilla warfare, never quite sure which enemy they hated more – the Romans or the Sanhedrin.
But Mary stays, weeping. When the shining strangers question her, she is too numb to be afraid, and tells them what is her one desire at that moment: to have before her the body of the Lord she loves, to hold him, to anoint his lifeless corpse as that other Mary in Bethany had anointed him living, to wipe the blood from his head and hands and feet and side as if she could somehow wipe away what had happened. But as she turns in confusion, she sees another stranger, someone else she doesn’t recognise – another interruption in her urgent need to mourn. Desperate, she makes the same request. And then he names her.
I don’t suppose she understands, in that moment. She has been looking for a broken body, and there is that body, whether resuscitated corpse or living man she doesn’t know, and probably doesn’t even think about. From what Jesus says to her, we have to imagine that she clutched at his feet, as the women in Matthew’s account also did. But Mary is not being given back what she had before: the risen Jesus is strange; he puts her gently away from him, and gives her the task of taking the news of his risen life to the disciples.
The risen Jesus is strange. He comes out of the tomb, out of the depths of hell, still bearing the marks of his execution – there is no pretending that it didn’t happen. But these are not wounds that call for revenge, and the recollection of his terrible death does not justify denying the humanity of those who caused it. This Jesus feeds us with his body and blood, and yet remains completely and fully himself – human and divine. He has become one with us, and is yet never merely one of us; human sufferings have become his suffering, and yet his is unique. In the moment when we think we have comprehended the mystery, we are probably farthest from it, unless, like Mary in that moment of recognition in the garden, we experience what Archbishop Rowan Williams calls “a transition from the destructively familiar to the creatively strange”.
Because everything has changed. The victim of violence is the one who saves us, not because we can somehow hitch our own narrative of suffering to his, and be drawn in his wake to glory, but because in his death we know ourselves to be complicit, and yet forgiven. Last Sunday, and on Good Friday, we joined our voices to those who shouted for his death, not just acting a part, but recognising that we are all, in our own more-or-less obvious ways, agents of destruction, inflicters of pain, sinners… Perhaps our kinship is not with those who controlled the proceedings, or those who wielded the whips and the hammers, but with those who hounded the disciples, those who stood cynically by and said things like “Ooh, let’s see if Elijah will come and save him”, or those who simply walked away, thinking, “Not my problem”. These are ugly and important things to know about ourselves, but they are also not the end of the story.
Everything has changed. The Jesus who meets Mary in the garden has compassion on her sorrow – he heals her shattered sense of identity and future by naming her – but he is not there to console, any more than he is in his other resurrection appearances. He comes to reveal the risen life as a life utterly transformed, transcending the comforts of self-pity and resentment, and the seemingly opposite but equally insidious consolations of self-righteousness and self-loathing. It is the life which is his to offer, the peace with which he greets the gathered disciples, the path he opens before our feet, and the banquet with which he feeds us. He calls us to become daily more and more his disciples, calls us, too, to recognise ourselves as strangers to the prevailing ways of the world.
Because that is what happens, if we accept fully the implications of Christ’s death and resurrection, and of our own burial with him in baptism, if we obey the commandment not to hold on to him (as a symbol, or a fetish), but rather to do his bidding, to live out the news of his rising in the world, we will be a puzzle, a mystery, and a scandal, transgressors of the rules by which the world’s systems work. But in that abiding strangeness, we can become instruments of God’s kingdom in the world and agents of the transformation which our present crisis so powerfully calls us to, an abandonment of systems of greed and exploitation, and an embrace of the patterns of mutual care and support which have sprung up like flowers through the snow. In all this, we will grow ever deeper into that communion with Christ which is God’s desire for us, and the rest for our restless hearts.
Homily for Good Friday, April 10, 2020 (Isaiah 53.4-12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10.16-25; John 18.1 – 19.42)
“It is finished”. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The four Gospels give us three different versions of the last words of Jesus, and in two of the accounts his actual last utterance is an inarticulate cry. Many have wondered whether Jesus, at the end of his life, experienced the consciousness of a task accepted and completed, an obedient surrender of the spirit, or a sense of abandonment. This is wasted speculation because, in the first place, we cannot know, and secondly, there is no reason to choose. In his incarnation, Jesus took on not just human form – the appearance of our humanity – but human flesh – the material substance of our humanity – and with that he was subject to the whole range of human feelings, including the terrible volatility of emotion experienced by victims of physical torture.
What we can know, from the story of his crucifixion, is that, whatever storm of emotion he experienced, Jesus accepted his death. Because crucifixion works by suffocation, victims were expected to suffer, sometimes for two or three days, before they died, and for Jesus to die after only six hours means that he made a conscious decision to allow himself to suffocate, rather than struggle painfully to remain alive. The faithful obedience which is there as early as you care to look in the Gospels reaches its logical conclusion on the cross. And Jesus does not achieve this obedience by ignoring or simply overriding the limitations of his physical body, the turmoil of his human emotions, or the promptings of his rational mind, but by knowing them and weighing them and offering them to the God he called “Abba”, “Father” – not only giving everything, but knowing what he gave.
In the last days and hours of his life, Jesus underwent not merely physical torment, but other dark and terrible aspects of human experience. From being the centre of a small and devoted, if often uncomprehending, group of disciples, he became the prisoner of a posse and the target of a mob, but at the same time he was more and more alone. If he understood what was coming, he must always, to some extent, have been alone, because his friends could not know what he knew, but after his arrest he was truly, utterly alone. Judas betrayed him. The other disciples fled. Even Peter, who followed, desperate to see what would happen, ended up denying him, and the disciple we call John, while he may have been able to get Peter into the high priest’s house, did nothing else – presumably because he could not. By the time Mary and a tiny handful of friends gathered at the foot of the cross, Jesus was beyond reach of anything they could do or say. The crowd who had welcomed him with shouts of triumphant acclaim turned on the knife-edge of irrational violence and called for his death. He was surrounded by Roman soldiers and officials – the imperial oppressors – and handed over to their alien manner of execution. In John’s Gospel, he marks the severing of his human relationships with his urging that John should assume his role as a son to Mary. And at the very end of his life, according to Mark and Matthew, he cried out his sense of abandonment by God in the opening words of the twenty-second psalm.
All human beings, however close and supportive our friends and our families, will at some point find ourselves alone, in some place, whether physical or spiritual, where those who love us cannot reach us. It may be a place of grief, or of fear, or of some realisation to which we have moved ahead of them… It is at that place where human community escapes us that the loneliness of Jesus can still find us, in a profound communion which is the ultimate source of all communion. Because he has known what it is to feel utterly alone, we are never utterly alone.
From the time of his arrest onward, Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, has less and less to say to his accusers. His responses to Annas and Pilate are terse and ambiguous, and in a strange twist it is Pilate, the man who ultimately decrees his death, who comes to speak for Jesus to his own people, and to label him with the title he would not claim, demonstrating just how little he had understood about the man brought before him. “Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so did he not open his mouth”. The preacher, the teacher, is stifled by the cross, his speech reduced to isolated phrases, to a wordless cry, and finally to the silence of death.
That silence becomes the point which connects not life and death, but life and risen life, a mystery which defies our language. All the words we can use to express our praise and thanksgiving, our mourning and lamentation, our hopes and our prayers, finally fall silent in the presence of this silent Word. And in that presence, that silence, God speaks to us the truth which is too deep for words, the truth which was so far beyond Pilate’s grasp: that power and might and violence cannot overcome self-giving love and surrender to the will of God; that death cannot overcome life.
At the time of his arrest, Jesus stops his disciples from fighting to save him, and in Matthew’s Gospel he says “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me twelve legions of angels?” From this point forward, there are no more miracles or signs, no demonstrations of his “authority”. Jesus is bound and confined, and dragged from place to place, his physical movement curtailed in an echo of the limitation he has accepted, the limitation of being human. But finally, on the cross, when he is completely immobilised by the cruel restraints of his execution, we see the freedom of a life lived wholly in God. The moment of his greatest surrender becomes the moment of his greatest freedom, when death freely accepted is utterly transformed.
That freedom is also our great paradox: the more closely our lives are conformed to God’s will, the more they are transformed into Christ’s risen life. St Augustine wrote “Love God, and do what you will”, and that is no soft option. A life lived in obedience to God is not about mimicking the experiences or feelings of Jesus, but it is about understanding that transformation is a matter beyond our immediate emotional reactions, a continuing process of living into truth, into an acceptance of our own limitations and mortality, and thus into the freedom of the life beyond.
Every age of human history has developed its own distinctive refinements of cruelty. In his own age, Jesus endured the worst that human beings could do to one another – the injustice endured by the weak, the stripping away of dignity, the rending of human loyalties, the shattering of the body, and the mob’s terrible enjoyment of the suffering of others. All this he endured not to satisfy the bloodlust of an angry divine parent, but to enter into the deepest darkness of human experience, and thus be the one who is able to forgive what we sometimes cannot. In Luke’s account of the Passion, Jesus prays that God will forgive his executioners, because “they do not know what they are doing”. That is the depth of forgiveness to which he calls us, but when we fall short of it, he is there. That is also the depth of the forgiveness which he offers us.
By entering fully into our alone-ness, Christ transforms it into the communion between us and God which is the source of all true community. By keeping non-violent silence before brutality and violence and terror, he answers them with a mystery which they cannot overcome. By becoming truly human, his body constrained by its own limits as well as by ropes and whips and the torture of the cross, he gives us the freedom truly to live as children of God. By submitting himself to the worst of human sin, he bears in himself the all-embracing forgiveness of God. In dying, he transfigures death, drawing us to him in his risen and glorified life.
Homily for Maundy Thursday, April 9, 2020 (Exodus 12.1-14; Psalm 116.1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11.23-26; John 13.1-17, 31b-35)
Maundy Thursday is the beginning of the Paschal Triduum, the three great holy days of the Christian year, and our liturgy usually includes, aside from the proclamation of scripture, a ceremony of foot-washing, the celebration of the Eucharist, and the stripping of the altar. We remember the extraordinary humility of the incarnate Word, who came not to be served, but to serve; we celebrate the institution of the great sacrament which feeds us on our holy journey; and we prepare physically for the desolation of loss on Good Friday.
Today, we cannot do all these things. Our precautions against the spread of COVID-19 forbid the kind of physical proximity necessary to wash one another’s feet, and we have been asked to refrain from public celebrations of the Eucharist for the duration of the pandemic. We will remember, in scripture and prayer, how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, and pause to reflect on the confusion and uncertainty this “new thing” caused them. We will pray the prayer that Jesus taught, and the phrase “Give us today our daily bread” will have particular poignancy, in part because we are fasting from the bread which is Christ’s body, but also because the restrictions of our daily lives at the moment are compelling many of us to think in far greater detail about what our “daily bread” actually means, and to understand in a more concrete way the experience of those who are food insecure.
What we can do is strip the altar, strip the church of all decoration, as Jesus, unlawfully arrested, was stripped of his garments, and our own separation from gathering in community can be a small echo of the disciples’ separation from their master, and their scattering in fear. The time between the Last Supper and the resurrection is always a strange and liminal one – it is the period, every year, when we step a little aside from reassurance and comfort, to reflect on our mortality and on the human evils which are an unavoidable part of this story. This year we find ourselves in another strange and liminal time, one without a foreseeable end, and those same reflections are part of our day-to-day existence. I pray that the austerity, the bareness of this time, may lead all of us to a deeper understanding of how God is calling us transform the world, to live out the commandment of our Gospel today: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Because love is what this moment is ultimately about. Even when reassurance and comfort seem far away, when the love of God may be difficult to discern, it is that love which shaped creation and sustains it, which poured itself out for us and draws us into eternal life, which calls us to be God’s hands and feet and voice in the world. So I want to finish by pausing for a moment in that realisation, as expressed by the English priest and poet Malcolm Guite in a sonnet entitled, simply, “Maundy Thursday”, from his collection called Sounding the Seasons.
Here is the source of every sacrament,
The all-transforming presence of the Lord,
Replenishing our every element
Remaking us in his creative Word.
For here the earth herself gives bread and wine,
The air delights to bear his Spirit’s speech,
The fire dances where the candles shine,
The waters cleanse us with His gentle touch.
And here He shows the full extent of love
To us whose love is always incomplete,
In vain we search the heavens high above,
The God of love is kneeling at our feet.
Though we betray Him, though it is the night,
He meets us here and loves us into light.
Homily for Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020 (Matthew 21.1-11; Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2.5-11; Matthew 27.11-54)
Palm Sunday brings to the brink of what is usually the busiest and most intense week of the church’s year: our entering into the story of the final days in the earthly life of Jesus. We go from the intimacy and promise of the Last Supper, through the fear and despair of the disciples, and the desolation of utter loss, before light arises in the darkness and we come, finally, to the glory of Easter morning. And today’s liturgy, even in the very reduced form we are using, takes us on a roller-coaster ride: we are invited first to unite ourselves with the crowd cheering the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, and then compelled to recognise ourselves in the crowd which called for his crucifixion.
For most of us, it is difficult to enter fully into this imaginative journey without being able to gather in community, without the full experience of prayer and music and Eucharist. And our current experience, of isolation and precautions and dramatically altered conditions in the community around us, can be a powerful distraction from the narrative of our redemption. But if we take time to reflect on what is happening in our hearts, on our sharp jolts of fear, our long, dull stretches of resignation, our gratitude for the love and courage of front-line workers, I believe we may be able to connect even more powerfully with the story God is calling us to be part of.
In our two Gospel readings today, we are shown two different crowd responses to traumatic situations: the confused optimists who shout Hosanna for what they hope will be the triumph of an earthly king, and the psychotic mob shouting for the blood of a scapegoat. And these were, in all likelihood, not two different crowds, but the same people, pulled in different directions by circumstance and manipulation. As we separate ourselves from one another, for the protection and safety of all, let’s reflect also on what it means to separate ourselves from such crowd responses, and to seek other, more thoughtful, examples for our relationship with God: Isaiah speaks of God’s “suffering servant”, and in the epistle to the Philippians, we are urged to imitate the example of Christ: who “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant”… and “became obedient to death – even death on a cross”. In Holy Week it’s particularly appropriate that we listen carefully to these words.
At a time when the possibility of death by disease is a daily concern for our whole society, our ears are sharpened to hear the message of our scriptures today: we are being called to obedience, to self-emptying, and… to a readiness to die. The eucharistic services of Lent, which we largely missed this year, include, as part of the sentences for the breaking of the bread, the prayer “Let your Church be the wheat which bears its fruit in dying”. What does it mean to imitate this sacrificial obedience? to bear our fruit in dying? in a shrinking church, or in a pandemic? That phrase stops me in my tracks whenever I hear it or say it, and I have missed it acutely this year. But I don’t believe that that we should simply resign ourselves and wait for the end of things – remember that we are being called to bear fruit, and that the dying we are talking about here is not just the cessation of life.
Last year I shared some thoughts from the spiritual writer Henri Nouwen, who spent ten years living at the L’Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill, and it seems appropriate to return to them now. After a serious traffic accident, Nouwen came very close to dying, and described his experiences in a book he called Beyond the Mirror:
From this perspective [he wrote], life is a long journey of preparation –of preparing oneself truly to die for others. It is a series of little deaths in which we are asked to release many forms of clinging and to move increasingly from needing others to living for them. The many passages which we have to make as we grow from childhood to adolescence, from adolescence to adulthood, and from adulthood to old age, offer ever-new opportunities to choose for ourselves or to choose for others. In this sense, we can speak about life as a long process of dying to self, so that we will be able to live in the joy of God and give our lives completely to others.
This realisation can be our key to facing the challenge posed in the epistle to the Philippians. If we can comprehend fully our own mortality, and the trajectory of our lives toward eternal life in Christ, then the smaller deaths of obedience and sacrifice, of temporary isolation, of passing from one stage in our lives to another, and evaluating truly the choices which face us, can become, if not precisely easier, at least less spiritually traumatic. By God’s grace, we can become better and more loving servants, better “imitators” of Christ.
How does such an understanding play itself out in the life of a Christian community? In the first place, it ought to reshape our relationships with one another, allowing us to put conflicts in their proper places, and to live for one another in Christ. That does not mean that we fail to have opinions, or make decisions, but that our whole life together is recalibrated according to the measure of self-giving love. We continue to plan for the future, maintain our building, pay our bills, raise money, and shape our worship and our outreach into the wider world, but not by clinging to what is familiar, and not by grasping blindly at survival – or growth or identity or self-justification. Being the church which bears its fruit in dying does not mean that we seek to die – it means that we seek to bear fruit, asking at every stage, every choice, every decision, what it is that God needs us to be, now, where we are, and perhaps what it is that we need to die to, in ourselves, in order to fulfill that command. We do none of this by our own unaided effort, and our small, predictable failures along the way need not lead us to despair. We are saved, in Christ, us in our very humanity and imperfection. Sharing human life and human suffering, in the fullest and most costly way, he also redeems it. And even in our current isolation, in the deep and frightening strangeness of our times, we can sing “Hosanna”, not because we expect God to intervene in our lives with earthly power, but because we know that the path we walk this week and beyond, the path to the cross, the path of obedience and self-emptying, is also the way to resurrection and new life.
During the regular academic year, everyone is welcome to participate in the daily services in the Trinity College Chapel. The Liturgies and Choral Evensong in the Chapel are open to all members of the college, the university, and the wider community. Most weekday services are organized by students of the Faculty of Divinity.
Under the direction of Dr. John Tuttle, the Chapel Choir sings Evensong on Wednesday at 5:15 p.m. during term, followed by a reception. The event is free and the public is invited (no tickets required). Wednesday Choral Evensong and the Sunday services are particularly open to participation by other members of the community, as readers, servers, and musicians. Whether you’re interested in regular involvement, or occasional participation, please contact the chaplain to discuss possibilities.
Trinity College Chapel: 6 Hoskin Avenue, Toronto
The Rev’d Andrea Budgey, Humphry’s Chaplain
John Tuttle, Choirmaster and Director of Music
Nicholas Veltmeyer, Bevan Organ Scholar
9:00 am: Mattins and Divine Liturgy (Holy Myrrhbearers) (This service has been suspended for the rest of the 2019-2020 term)
4:00 pm: Eucharist (This service has been suspended for the rest of the 2019-2020 term)
1st & 3rd: Sunday contemporary language
2nd & 4th: Sunday traditional language
5:30 pm: Eucharist (This service has been suspended for the rest of the 2019-2020 term)
8:15 am: Morning Prayer
5:30 pm: Divinity Community Eucharist (This service has been suspended for the rest of the 2019-2020 term)
1:30 pm: Eucharist (This service has been suspended for the rest of the 2019-2020 term)
5:15 pm: Choral Evensong (This service has been suspended for the rest of the 2019-2020 term)
8:15 am: Eucharist
5:30 pm: Evening Prayer (This service has been suspended for the rest of the 2019-2020 term)
8:15 am: Eucharist (This service has been suspended for the rest of the 2019-2020 term)
The liturgies in Trinity College Chapel are open to all members of the college, the university, and the wider community. Most weekday services are organized by students of the Faculty of Divinity, but Wednesday Choral Evensong and the Sunday services are particularly open to participation by other members of the community, as readers, servers, and musicians. Whether you’re interested in regular involvement, or occasional participation, please contact the chaplain to discuss possibilities.
There are many other activities (classes, concerts, rehearsals) and occasional liturgies during the academic term. In summer these tend to be tied to conferences, reunions, weddings and funerals. For further information, please contact the Chaplain.
We try wherever possible to make the Chapel available for funerals and memorial services to members of the wider university community, and to graduates and former staff of Trinity College. Please contact the Chaplain to discuss this possibility.
Detailed wishes around funeral details may be recorded by individuals at any time with the chaplain’s office, and a pamphlet to help with this is available. It must be understood, however, that the legal next-of-kin are those who have the final power of determination with regard to funeral arrangements.