Chapel Services

During the winter term of 2021, and until the end of May, the chaplain is offering a weekly service of Evensong on Zoom, Thursdays at 5 pm, with music curated by our organ scholar, Nick Veltmeyer. Please e-mail chaplain@trinity.utoronto.ca to be put on the weekly Zoom information e-mail list.

Our virtual service of Advent Lessons and Carols from November 29, 2020, the First Sunday of Advent, is available on Trinity’s YouTube channel.

Many thanks to Dr. John Tuttle, organ scholar Nick Veltmeyer, choristers Marieke de Korte, Damien Macedo, Matthew Bowman, and Gavin Fraser, and Yohan Dumpala, co-head of Divinity and videographer, as well as to all our readers, and to the Office of Development & Alumni Affairs for making it possible.

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 during the academic term take place online; for more information, please contact Sydney Yeung in the Divinity office, divinity@trinity.utoronto.ca or 416-978-2133. Other developments as the year continues will be posted here.

In the meantime, the chaplain’s parish homilies for Sundays appear below. The chaplain’s parish services for Sundays and Holy Week can be found on the youtube channel for Saint Theodore of Canterbury.

Third Sunday of Easter: April 18, 2021

Third Sunday of Easter: April 18, 2021 (Acts 3.12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3.1-7; Luke 24.36b-48)

The account of the resurrection appearance of Jesus to his disciples which we hear today follows, in Luke’s Gospel, immediately after the story of the supper at Emmaus, where Clopas and his unnamed companion finally recognise the stranger who had walked and spoken with them as Jesus, in the moment when he blessed bread at the evening meal. Today’s episode resembles, in many ways, the passage from the Gospel of John which we heard last week, in which Jesus appeared to his frightened disciples in a locked room, offered them peace, and breathed the Holy Spirit upon them, and it also shares a number of elements and themes with the final chapter of John, in which Jesus summons the disciples to breakfast on the beach. I think we’d be wasting our time trying to sort these narratives into a coherent “factual” pattern, but, taken together, they provide a vivid depiction of the disciples’ state of mind in their first experiences of the risen Christ. It’s easy – dangerously easy for us, with almost two millennia of Easter celebrations behind us – to read these stories simply and superficially, to see the joy and reassurance of the resurrection as somehow obvious. It’s clear from the Gospel accounts, though, that the world and its natural order had been disrupted, even for those whose greatest joy it was to see Jesus return to them, in very significant ways, and it’s important for us to reflect on that disruption, to recapture for ourselves what a radical breach Christ’s rising makes with “business as usual”, and what a radical difference it can and must make for us if we enter into it.

Jesus had summoned the disciples from their daily occupations into a life of imbalance and uncertainty; in several cases, they are described as simply walking away from boats, from jobs, from family, to follow him from place to place, learning, watching, sometimes arguing, trying to guess his purposes, afraid for his safety and their own. The crucifixion shatters them, chiefly, of course, because the centre is torn out of their lives, but also because it must have been almost impossible for them to imagine going back to the only existence and livelihood they had known before Jesus called them. Where were they to go? How were they to survive, never mind carry on the new work they understood only dimly? Each of their old lives must have looked like a shrivelled chrysalis behind them, devalued, irredeemable, even when they began to understand that Jesus was not dead, but risen to life again. They had no mental images to grasp this resurrection save that of resuscitated corpses (like Lazarus), or disembodied spirits, and to imagine themselves tied by bonds of love and loyalty to either of these must have been profoundly destabilising. What Jesus shows them, in his sequence of resurrection appearances, is the reality of his transformed body – no mere spirit, but an entire and distinct person – and the value, the redeemability, of their own lives, and not only their own lives, but the lives of all to whom they would bring the good news of his rising. He does this in simple and deeply significant ways: he shows them, and lets them touch, his hands and feet, bearing the indelible marks of his torture and murder, a sign that he had come into the risen life by passing through fear and pain and death, not by going around them somehow; and he eats, eats the same food they have prepared for themselves. I think it’s important to notice the food in these stories: it’s not the bread and wine of his sacrifice, himself outpoured, but bread which he blesses (at Emmaus) and the broiled fish which he eats in today’s Gospel, like the bread and fish with which he fed the multitudes.

I’d like to stay with the fish for a moment longer, because I think it’s particularly important, especially for those first disciples, the handful of Galilean fisherman who abandoned their nets and their boats. We tend to think of them, if we analyse their lives at all, as practitioners of an ancient craft, catching fish and selling it in local village markets, dependent on the movement of the fish but otherwise ruggedly independent. In fact, the fishery in Galilee, like fisheries in many parts of the world today, was largely an export fishery, and of a very particular kind: the Galilean catch almost all went to feed the factories of the Roman garum industry. Garum was a sort of highly salted, fermented fish sauce, made sometimes (the expensive variety, anyway) from whole mackerel, or mullet, or tuna, but often from whatever small fish the nets pulled up, blood and guts included. The horrific stench from the garum factories meant that they were located away from centres where they were likely to offend fastidious Roman noses, on the outskirts of cities, and in the colonies. Magdala was a centre of the industry, and Galilean fishermen were practically slaves to its factories. The life from which Jesus had called Peter, Andrew, James, John, and perhaps a few others, was a life of colonial exploitation as well as never-ending, back-breaking labour.

When Jesus eats fish, in today’s Gospel, and when he prepares it for the disciples, in the final chapter of John, it’s broiled fish – simple, local, unprocessed. It’s a powerful sign that the labour of Galilean and Judean fishermen doesn’t always have to serve the industry of colonial overlords, but can serve to nourish them, that their lives and work have greater dignity than that offered by “the system”. The disciples may go back to fishing for a time while they wait to discern their roles in the preaching of the kingdom, but it’s not a question of defeated, disillusioned men slinking back to the only work they’re fit for. They are to take whatever skills they have, whatever has been good and useful in their lives, and turn those things to God’s purposes, redeeming them and integrating them into the new and glorious life which Jesus offers them.

And so it may be for us. There’s no question that the news of resurrection breaks in on the world of “business as usual” as a radical disruption, bringing with it a call for justice, for an end to the exploitation of God’s world and its people, and a shaping of human purposes to those of God. We are called to new and eternal life as God’s children, called to transform the world’s structures even as God transforms our hearts. But we are not called to see our human lives as corrupt and irredeemable, something to be abandoned and left behind as we enter into a more perfect, “spiritual”, existence, not even when those lives involve suffering and exploitation and brokenness and complicity in the world’s ills. Christ came among us, was born into our nature, took our frail flesh and bore its pains and wounds and mortality; he eats with us whenever we offer hospitality to the stranger, and he feeds us with food which is at once the work of our own hands and his gift of himself; he speaks through us whenever we uphold the dignity of human life and work. In this gift, in his incarnation, and death, and rising, he draws us – all of us, and all of who we are, have been, and will become – into his glorious Easter life.

Second Sunday of Easter: April 11, 2021

Second Sunday of Easter: April 11, 2021 (Acts 4.32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1.1-2.2; John 20.19-31)

In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke tells us that the first Christians held everything in common. It’s a text which has always posed a challenge to our impulses to individual selfishness and greed, and it’s important that we keep that challenge in view every time we think about what it means to live in community, what it means to live for one another. Today’s Gospel, though, shows us a moment at the very beginning of the church’s history when a crucial experience was not common to all, when Thomas missed the first appearance of the risen Jesus to the gathered disciples. That’s a different matter, of course, from deciding whether or not to share property, but the sense of exclusion, of being shut out of something which is common to all others, must have been very real. Something mysterious and utterly life-changing had happened, and he’d been left out.

I think that the disciples’ situation, huddled behind a locked door, apprehensive of danger and longing for some sort of hope, is something which resonates with us in this time of lockdown and stay-at-home orders. But some sort of necessity must have compelled Thomas to go out, and of course not everyone in our own time is able to remain inside, in safety: healthcare workers, cleaners, transit and transport drivers, delivery people, store clerks, childcare workers… all the people who make something like normal life possible for others, as well as those who tend the sick and dying. 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 dangers of being out. For them, facing risk on a daily basis, and having to deal with the irresponsibility and carelessness of others, the joy of resurrection may be too much to hope for, too hard to believe, as it was for Thomas. And simply asserting it is not enough – having the other disciples tell him “We have seen the Lord,” when that wonder was so far from his own experience, heightened Thomas’ sense of exclusion and drove him to demand more concrete proof of the good news they were trying to share.

As John tells the story, that all changed a week later: when Jesus appeared again and acknowledged both Thomas’ doubt and his need to be included in the experience of resurrection, all his questioning melted away in a single moment of recognition and love. But I think we need to sit with Thomas in that in-between week, and try to imagine what it was that held him in fellowship long enough to reach that moment – not simply what went on in his own mind, but what the others did to make space for him. I think this exercise will tell us something about the kind of community we need to be in order to proclaim resurrection. As we embody the wounded and risen Christ in the world, we are called to understand, and to be in solidarity with, the difficulty that others may have in hearing resurrection, and not simply challenge that difficulty with facile proclamation, but recognise its causes, and 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.

So as we wait behind our closed doors, we remember: 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. We seek hope in the developments of science, and at the same time discipline ourselves to the care and restraint needed to keep one another safe. And as we sit with the disciples in their isolation and anxiety, in their locked room, we know that it was a portal, an in-between place, where the risen Christ appeared and breathed the Holy Spirit into them, where he showed them his wounds, the signs that our broken humanity is eternally part of the life of God, and where Thomas’s exclusion and doubt were healed. From this place the disciples were 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.

Sunday of the Resurrection: April 4, 2021

Sunday of the Resurrection: April 4, 2021 (Isaiah 25.6-9; Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24; Acts 10.34-43; John 20.1-18)

“Supposing him to be the gardener…” When Mary Magdalene first meets Jesus, after his rising from the dead, she does not recognise him, cannot see that the man in front of her is the beloved teacher whose tortured body she has been looking for. John has told us that there was a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified, and in the garden a new tomb, where Jesus’ body was placed. What Mary now sees is a considerate stranger, asking about her grief, and so she imagines that he must have some role in the cultivation of the landscape around her. I mentioned last night the medieval Easter drama in which I once took part; at this point in the unfolding of the story, the person playing the role of Jesus was costumed, in accordance with the visual imagery of the time, in a big straw hat, and carried a rake, not because medieval Christians were simple-minded, but to underline the larger truth in Mary Magdalene’s prophetic supposition: that Jesus is also the gardener.

The story of our relationship with God begins in a garden, with God’s creation of beauty and variety and abundance, and our very human failure to recognise this extraordinary gift, our desire to “manage” the natural world, not as stewards of God’s grace, but on our own selfish terms. The first Adam fails as a gardener, and is sent out to learn to scratch out his subsistence in the world; he and his descendants turn that world into a place of violence and greed. The second Adam comes to restore the beauty of the ravaged garden, and to call us back into it.

At the moment in John’s Gospel when the narrative shifts from “The hour is not yet come” to “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” and the events leading to the Passion are set in motion, Jesus tells the crowd, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” As Jesus is both lamb and shepherd, so he is also the seed and the gardener, buried in the tomb and rising mysteriously from it to offer the fruit of eternal life to all who hunger. He tends the delicate shoots of our understanding, pouring the water of life delicately into the parched soil around us. He digs around our roots, like the gardener in the parable of the fig-tree, and turns the rejected and discarded elements of our experience into nourishment for transformation and redemption. He is the vine, in whom we are called to abide, as well as the vine-dresser who prunes away what is not fruitful in us. He loves all the plants in his extraordinarily varied garden, coaxing us toward flourishing and creative interdependence.

In the first garden there was a tree, plundered in ignorance, the equilibrium of paradise broken by humans snatching at what cannot be grasped. In this garden of Golgotha there was a tree (among many such trees), wounded and disfigured to make the wood of the cross. And in the garden at the very end of our long story stands “the tree of life… producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

As God the Creator walked in the garden in the cool of the evening, God the Redeemer now walks in the garden of the new Creation in the cool of the Easter dawn, calling us by name into his risen life, into his work of planting and tending, and sending us as messengers of hope and healing to the whole of his beloved family.

Vigil of the Resurrection: April 3, 2021

Vigil of the Resurrection: April 3, 2021 (Genesis 7.1-5, 11-18, 8.6-18, 9.8-13; Psalm 46; Exodus 14.10-31, 15.20-21; Exodus 15.1-3, 6, 11, 13, 17-18; Ezekiel 36.24-28; Psalm 42.1-7; Ezekiel 37.1-14; Psalm 143; Romans 6.3-11; Mark 16.1-8)

Many years ago, I played the part of Mary the mother of James in a 14th-century Easter liturgical drama called the Visitatio Sepulchri, the “visit to the sepulchre”. One of the phrases that has stuck in my memory – because we sang it a number of times – is Quis revolvit lapidem? “Who will roll away the stone?” The women who trudged toward the tomb, so early in the dark of the morning, were looking no farther ahead than the obstacle that loomed so large in their minds, an obstacle to physical access, an obstacle to their traditional manner of lamenting and honouring the dead. They walked in grief and in confusion, seeking to salve their despair with familiar, intimate, costly, ritual action, but uncertain how they would be able to achieve even that. As they went, the three Marys in the Visitatio sang, over and over, the Old French refrain Hélas! Verrons-le nous jamais – “Alas! We will never see him again”. But somehow they kept on walking toward the garden and the tomb, because they couldn’t not do it.

In Mark’s version of the story, it’s never entirely clear how the stone has been rolled away – certainly the “young man dressed in a white robe” is a likely suspect – but it doesn’t matter anymore, because his message to the women, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here,” changes everything. In the original ending of Mark’s account, the women do not encounter Jesus; they flee in terror and amazement, and say nothing to anyone, at least not then. But his absence from the tomb is surely a sign, or at least the beginning of a sign for them of his presence in the world, no longer dead, but risen and active, a recollection and fulfillment of promises heard but never fully comprehended, and, ultimately, a commandment to spread the joyful news to others. It’s a mark of the depth of the disciples’ desolation that the first word which will change all their lives seems, in some of the Gospels, “an idle tale”, but some, at least, investigate – and what they see leaves them in wonderment.

In this Vigil, we inhabit the space bounded by the mysterious proclamation of the angelic messenger, the stubborn and intuitive faithfulness of the three women, and the curiosity and wonderment of the other disciples. The fire is lit, and the Exultet proclaims the healing of the cosmos and the new life of God’s people. And then we pause, to be reminded of the long narrative arc of our salvation, to hear again the promises of God, and their fulfillment in the Resurrection Gospel. We enter more deeply into this revelation as we renew our baptismal promises, and are drawn ever closer into the Body of Christ, the One who calls us to be an Easter people.

In that calling, we are brought face to face with the truth of our own brokenness, and the frailty of our understanding, but we are shown, also, that God makes use of everything we are. The women who dragged themselves to the tomb, loving and faithful, but empty of hope, become the first witnesses of the resurrection. So numb with grief and fear that they cannot at first hear the good news which is brought to them, they will eventually find the courage to spread that news to their community, and from there it will travel throughout the known world. The stone is rolled from the mouth of the well, and the water of life springs out, cleansing and refreshing and sustaining everything in its path, coursing even through the realm of the dead, and carrying us with it toward the immeasurable sea of the divine life.

Good Friday: April 2, 2021

Good Friday: April 2, 2021 (Isaiah 52.13-53.12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10.16-25; John 18.1 – 19.42)

Every year, on Good Friday, when the reading of the Passion is finished, I find myself reluctant to break the silence, to move away from the place to which the narrative has brought us. And we are not going to move away, not yet, but there is something which has to be mentioned before we go on: for all its richness and profundity, John’s text contains a poison pill. He refers again and again, at least in most English translations, to “the Jews” as the instigators of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, sometimes meaning the religious authorities and sometimes the whole crowd, and this text in particular has been a source of horrific anti-Semitic prejudice and violence for almost two millennia. That is a responsibility we cannot evade, and I want to consider, at least briefly, what is going on in the text. We need to remember that the Greek word Ioudaioi, which is what John used, didn’t cover quite the same range of meaning as the word “Jews” does today: Jesus and most of his disciples, for example, were Jews but not, strictly speaking, Ioudaioi, or Judeans, because they came from the region of Galilee. It’s not a simple or clear-cut distinction, but being aware of the ambiguities of the text can perhaps help us prevent further damaging misuse of scripture, further betrayals of God’s loving purpose.

That loving purpose is the theme of one of the profoundest and most strikingly original meditations on the Passion of Christ, by a 14th-century English mystical writer whom we know as Julian of Norwich, although that was probably not the name she was given at birth. At some point in her life, she had prayed for three “gifts” from God: a more intense experience of the Passion, a grievous physical illness, and three “wounds” – contrition, compassion, and a steadfast longing for God. In May of 1373, she did indeed become extremely ill, so that she and all around her thought she was about to die; it is possible that she had contracted one of the pneumonic variants of the great plague pandemic which recurred in waves throughout England in the second half of the 14th century. A priest was summoned, and held up a crucifix before her eyes. Focusing on this, she experienced a vision in sixteen revelations, or “showings,” which she recorded after her recovery, and clearly reflected deeply on throughout the rest of her life; both her first account and her later, expanded description of this event are known by the title The Revelations of Divine Love.

Julian’s meditations on the physical suffering of Jesus are minutely detailed, but they are also the starting point for her dialogue with him, in which questions come into her mind, and Jesus imparts wisdom and understanding to her, not necessarily in words. In the eighth revelation, she writes, “This showing of Christ’s pains filled me with pain… I truly felt that I loved Christ so much above myself that there was no pain that might be suffered like the sorrow I had to see him in pain.” She reflects on the suffering of Mary, and of the disciples, and comes to an extraordinary realisation: “Here saw I a great unity between Christ and us… for when he was in pain, we were in pain. And all creatures suffered with him: that is to say, all creatures that God has made… The firmament, the earth, failed for sorrow in their nature in the time of Christ’s dying.”

This is a theologically remarkable observation, quite distinct from the theology of atonement which runs through Christian history and can be summed up as “Christ died for us” or “for our sins.”  Yes, says Julian, “for as long as he was susceptible of physical pain he suffered and sorrowed for us; and now he is risen and no longer susceptible of such pain, still he suffers with us.” This is not divine condescension, but solidarity. Christ, even risen and ascended, is still involved with humanity and Creation, loving us so fully that our pains and sorrows are also his, our woundedness and frailty find a home in the heart of God.  And so Jesus, arrested and beaten for no crime, is with every prisoner falsely accused and punished. Jesus, mocked and scourged and bargained over, is with hostages and victims of torture. Jesus, suffocating on the cross, is with every child choking in a toxic industrial slum, and with every COVID patient on a ventilator. His body pierced and bleeding, he suffers with the ravaged earth. And all for love.

As we hear again the Passion Gospel, as we stand by the foot of the cross, let us hold on to that love. Let us pray that we, too, may learn to be in true solidarity with those who weep, and bleed, and starve, and so, as willing disciples, offer our own small “revelations of divine love” in the dark corners of the world.

Maundy Thursday: April 1, 2021

Maundy Thursday: April 1, 2021 (Exodus 12.1-14; Psalm 116.1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11.23-26; John 13.1-17, 31b-35)

Last year, at this time, we were a few weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, and the shock of being unable to gather for the services of Holy Week was something very fresh in our experience. Since then, the public health situation, and the levels of precautions designed to address it, have fluctuated many times, and we find ourselves now on the verge of another serious and deeply disturbing phase of this crisis. Our inability to celebrate the institution of the Eucharist, and to remember in symbolic action Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet, is still a sharp loss, but tonight I do not want to dwell on that loss. The pandemic, overwhelming as it has often been, and will inevitably be for some time to come, is not the whole of our spiritual experience, and so I want to reflect for a few moments on the broader implications of the Gospel we have just heard, although some of the resonances of our current situation are there also…

If you knew that you were going to die tomorrow, how would you choose to spend the intervening time?

We have heard a lot from John’s Gospel lately, and it is the one of the four in which Jesus appears most certain of his divine identity, most sure about what is going to happen to him… but in all four accounts of the Passion it seems clear that by the time Jesus and the disciples gathered in the upper room – whether it was for a Passover meal or for the supper on the night before the killing of the Passover lambs – he did know what would follow. He had put himself beyond the protection of whatever restraint it was that had held the hand of the authorities until then, either by disrupting the commerce of the Temple court, as in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, or, in John, by raising Lazarus from the dead. And the disciples, not sharing his knowledge – however much he had tried to prepare them – must have been confused and apprehensive. This broken, sinful, uncomprehending, desperately hopeful little group, wearied and disoriented by the rapid passage of events, must have been nearly at breaking point. One of them would break, and Jesus knew it. And he chose to spend his time with his friends, to offer them the signs, the gestures, the words, which would make sense to them only later.

Two great signs, and a single great commandment. Three Gospels describe the institution of the Eucharist, and one the ritual of foot-washing, but I think we often make too much of this distinction. Christian imagination has aligned them as events in a single story, and the impulse to do this is a faithful and holy one, not to be contradicted or deconstructed by biblical scholarship. Jesus uses the language of act to reveal the meaning of what he will do on the next day. His disciples will remember the look on his face, the actions of his hands, the taste of that bread and that wine, and his touch on their rough and filthy feet long after his exact words have faded from their minds. And what he shows them is breaking and outpouring. Taking off his upper garment, putting on a towel, and offering them the service that not even every slave could be compelled to give, he breaks forever the expectation that he had come to be exalted to any kind of earthly glory. The one who had announced himself as “the water of life”, awakening (for those in the know) all sorts of images of the coming of the Messiah, and the gushing of living water out of the Temple of the New Jerusalem, now pours out his dignity and his honour to tend to the inescapably physical dirt and weariness of his ramshackle band of followers. Modern minds retreat in panic from the intimacy of the gesture, but in the moment, it would have been the self-abnegation of Jesus which was the most terrifying thing for the disciples to witness. Perhaps this was what decided Judas, finally, to go through with the undertaking he had made with the Temple authorities – all that work, all that good, solid teaching about the kingdom of God, coming to nothing but a bowl of filthy water to be thrown into the street… Or perhaps he was still there to hear the words “This is my body… this is my blood…” – more signs of Messianic promise being broken and squandered right in front of him, leaving only crumbs on the table, and an alcoholic haze in the eyes of his companions. Judas makes a desperately human mistake: fearing the worst outcome of his hopes and dreams, he sets about doing the one thing guaranteed to bring about that outcome. Or rather, that is what his actions would mean if the love and mercy of God were not vastly greater than human sin and mortality.

This struggle of Judas plays itself out in all of us, whenever the world’s standards lead us to question the implications of our faith in Christ, whenever we hear, or think we hear, ourselves being called to wealth and success, or, at least, to blameless and quietly prosperous respectability… or when we are drawn by subtler seductions: ambition for the recognition of our prophetic witness and the beauty of our conspicuous holiness. But these are not our commandments, not even the ones that have the flavour of piety. The commandment which jumps out of the final discourses of Jesus like a searchlight pursuing an escaped prisoner is really blindingly simple: “Love one another, as I have loved you”. Terrifyingly simple, too, because it has nothing to do with warmth or feeling or sentiment or affection, and everything to do with breaking and outpouring. “Learn to be broken and poured out for one another, as I have been broken and poured out for you”. To the disciples, frightened and ignorant of what was to come, this was more than they could endure, despite their promises and protestations: one betrayed, one denied, all ran away. Even for us, who know how the story goes on, who celebrate year by year, week by week, even day by day, the Lord’s rising, it is simply too daunting; its light searches out, in all of us, the small and large ways in which we betray, deny, and flee, and reveals what is often the best faithfulness we can manage: to stand mute and helpless at the foot of the cross, to tend, to wrap, to bury, and to wait.

This new commandment to sacrificial love is not given on its own, but as part of the unfolding of the new life in Christ to which we are all called, the invitation which is never withdrawn, and the sustenance which is never taken away. By becoming participants in and witnesses of the signs of God’s unending and inexhaustible love in Christ – the washing of our keenest shames and regrets, and the feeding of our deepest longings – we are implicated in that love, as it works in us and through us to bring forgiveness and redemption not only to us, but to the world God loves.

We are also implicated in the consequences of that love. Tonight we watch and wait, as the disciples watched in the garden; we may find ourselves wrestling, in the silence of that vigil, with what God really wants of us in this life; tomorrow we will hear again the Passion, and remember that we are buried with Christ in his death, and we will live with that knowledge through the vast emptiness of Holy Saturday until we arrive at the kindling of new fire, the light springing out of darkness, the joy and glory of Christ risen… and know again that gift of eternal life which is the fullness of divine love, and the fullness of being for which all of us were created.

Palm Sunday: March 28, 2021

Palm Sunday: March 28, 2021 (Mark 11.1-11; Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2.5-11; Mark 15.1-39)

Today marks a full liturgical year since our first virtual video service of the pandemic, and while much has happened in the past twelve months, our situation remains in very many ways quite similar: we have learned a great deal, not only about the coronavirus but about ourselves, and medical science has made enormous progress, but we still live with high levels of uncertainty and a shifting pattern of restrictions; case numbers continue to rise in many  places, and the pandemic has cast a brutal light on the inequities in our society, on every level from the local to the global. As Palm Sunday brings us again to contemplate the Passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, our reflections cannot help but be coloured by recent events and situations, as well as the lifetime of learning and experience which preceded them. We will travel again 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 reduced form we are still using, takes us through powerful contrasts: 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.

Although we have been worshipping this way for a year, I think it is probably still challenging for most of us to enter fully into this imaginative journey without being able to gather in community, and our experience of precautions and disruptions can be a powerful distraction from the narrative of our redemption. But if we can take time to reflect on what has been happening in our hearts, on our sharp jolts of fear, our long, dull stretches of resignation, our moments of hope, and our gratitude for the love and courage we have witnessed among 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 mob shouting for the blood of a scapegoat. And these were, in all probability, the same people, pulled in different directions by circumstance and manipulation. As we have, very largely, been separated from one another, for our mutual protection, let’s also reflect on what it means to separate ourselves from such crowd responses, and to seek out 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.” It’s particularly appropriate that we reflect on these ideas now.

At a time when the possibility of serious illness and even death is a daily concern for our whole planet, our ears are sharpened to hear the message of our today’s scriptures: we are being called to obedience, to self-emptying, and, ultimately, to a readiness to die. I’d like to remind you again about the eucharistic liturgies of Lent, which we have missed again, and the prayer which forms part of the sentences for the breaking of the bread, “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 prayer always stops me in my tracks whenever I hear it or say it, and I have felt the lack of it again this year. But I don’t believe that that we are meant simply to 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 the cessation of life.

Last year at this time I shared with you some thoughts from the spiritual writer Henri Nouwen, who reflected on a near-death experience in a book he called Beyond the Mirror. He spoke of life as “a series of little deaths in which we are asked… to move… from needing others to living for them. The many passages which we have to make as we grow… 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.” The realisation which Nouwen described can be our key to facing the challenge posed in the epistle to the Philippians. If we can direct our prayers and our thoughts toward comprehending fully our own mortality, and the trajectory of our lives toward eternal life in Christ, then the smaller deaths of obedience and sacrifice, of negotiating isolation or illness or loss or the perils of frontline work, and evaluating clearly and realistically our own fears and 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.

A year ago, I asked how such an understanding plays itself out in the life of a Christian community, especially in times of disruption and separation, and I think this is still an important question for us to be considering. For one thing, it can reshape our relationships and recalibrate our whole life together according to the measure of self-giving love. We will continue to plan for the future, maintain our church building, pay our bills, raise money, and shape our worship and our engagement with the wider community, but not by grasping at survival or growth or self-justification. Being the church which bears its fruit in dying does not mean that we seek to die – but rather that we seek to bear fruit, continuing to ask at every stage, every choice, every decision, what it is that God needs us to be, now, where we are, and asking, also, what God needs us to die to, in ourselves, in order to fulfill that command. Our answers to some of those questions may have shifted significantly over the past year… And of course we will fail in our responses, again and again, but our small, predictable failures need not cause us to despair. Christ saves 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 the strangeness of our times, sometimes alienating or frightening and sometimes merely tedious and exhausting, we can still sing “Hosanna”, not because we expect God to intervene in our lives through any exercise of earthly power, but because we know that the road 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. And in that assurance, we can move forward to be God’s love in the world.

Fifth Sunday of Lent: March 21, 2021

Fifth Sunday of Lent: March 21, 2021 (Jeremiah 31.31-34; Psalm 51.1-13; Hebrews 5.5-10; John 12.20-33)

Our perception of reality is something which develops very much in the context of the material structures around us. I can remember the moment – although not how old I was at the time – when I worked out, squinting between and around the banisters on the landing of my parents’ home, that just because someone or something was hidden from my view didn’t mean I was invisible to him, her, or it. It felt like a great, grown-up discovery. I was also fascinated, at that point in my life, by a diamond-shaped window with a clear central pane and a border of coloured panes. I found that these could add colour to my view of the world, but that they could also appear to take it away – a red car, seen through the red glass, for example, looked white. And so it dawned on me that my perception was something malleable, and not altogether reliable, that seeing shouldn’t always be the basis of believing.

The Greeks who are Jerusalem for the Passover tell Philip that they “wish to see” Jesus, which sounds like a simple thing, but involves far more than a quick look, and Jesus’ response goes straight to the heart of their unexpressed desire. (We have to assume that they have followed Philip and Andrew to hear the words Jesus speaks). The is a hinge point in John’s Gospel, the transition from “the hour is not yet come” to “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” and at this critical moment, Jesus offers these Gentile strangers the truth about himself: that, in God, death is the necessary road to new life and fruitfulness, that loving self-sacrifice is ultimately not loss but unimaginable gain, and that those who would serve God are to follow the path which Jesus himself is about to reveal to them.

A voice from heaven affirms what Jesus is saying, although it’s not clear from John’s words exactly what the others can hear: to some, it sounds like thunder, while others imagine that an angel has spoken to Jesus. We don’t know whether they have heard actual words, or simply been overwhelmed by an inexplicable conviction of contact with the divine. Jesus tells them, though, that (whether they understand it or not) the voice has spoken for their benefit, not for his. It’s reminiscent of his prayer at the tomb of Lazarus, in the chapter just before this one, when he prays “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” John’s Gospel leaves us in no doubt that Jesus was aware of his full identity, revealing it gradually, little by little, to those who followed him; this is the point when he begins to explain himself more fully, in terms that his disciples will still understand only in part, until after his resurrection. But there is more to what he proclaims to those who have both seen and heard in this moment: “Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” Crucial to seeing and hearing who Jesus is, is the recognition of the world’s brokenness, and the will to name it, to call out what is unkind and unjust, not simply to shame the rulers of this world, but to begin a process of healing and transformation. Such moments of heightened perception and judgement occur throughout history, and I believe that we are experiencing one now – recognising the inequity of global systems and the vulnerability of those who are marginalised, economically, racially, and in so many other ways, by the violent consequences of human self-centredness and greed. We are called to be prophetic, not only because we hate injustice, but because we know that God loves the world and calls us to express that love, in whatever imperfect ways we can, both to name what is wrong and to point to the vision of a kingdom in which human division and violence may be healed, and in which all creation may live in harmony with the will which brought it into being.

We hear nothing more about the Greeks. What did they see? How much could they hear? Did their experience of Jesus prepare them to know him risen from the dead, offering them the life of resurrection and the glory or the kingdom of God? What, if anything, did they say to each other as they walked away? – if that’s what they did… I think, perhaps, that the reason they don’t explicitly disappear from the story is that they are still in it: they are us. They happen upon this extraordinary, incarnate sign of God’s redeeming love and want to see what it’s about – and then they remain embedded in the story as it unfolds in time, in human history, through suffering and death to glorification and eternal life. So, as we live out their story, and live into our own place in the narrative of salvation, let us pray for clarity of vision, for charity of heart, and for courage, both to raise our own voices in prophecy and to hear the voices of the other prophets God sends, speaking for racial and economic justice, and for the stewardship of creation. And as we remember than all human perception is conditional, imperfect, and incomplete, let us pray also for confidence in the divine mercy which draws all our vision to itself.

Fourth Sunday of Lent: March 14, 2021

Fourth Sunday of Lent: March 14, 2021 (Numbers 21.4-9; Psalm 107.1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2.1-10; John 3.14-21)

The author of the letter to the Ephesians, in our epistle this morning, says: “All of us once lived… in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath…” What wrath? Many Christians would say “Well, God’s, of course.” Our sins make God angry, so angry that only the death of the offenders will curb that rage… but the good news is that Jesus jumps in front and takes the bullet for us – and that gets us off. That’s a shorthand – and admittedly very simplistic – expression of the theology known as substitutionary atonement, which depicts God as the ultimate angry father, needing to punish someone, but also, some would say perversely, prepared to sacrifice his only son in the process. As we approach Good Friday, our hymns will tend to reflect this theology (although usually more subtly), and today’s text from Ephesians seems to fit it perfectly…

Except that it doesn’t. The Greek says tekna physei orges , “children by nature of anger”, and it’s grammatically ambiguous whether the children are worthy of anger, angry themselves, or perhaps both. The translators of both the King James Version and the New Revised Standard Version chose to retain the ambiguity, using “children of wrath”, but the translators of the New International Version – beloved of conservative evangelicals – opted so strongly for one of the possible interpretations that they eliminated the ambiguity altogether by replacing “children” with the more abstract “objects”.

Of course, our Old Testament lesson today might seem to fit just such a reading. The Israelites seem trapped in chronic ingratitude throughout their time in the wilderness: they rebel; God punishes them; Moses intercedes; some temporary resolution is worked out. The plague of serpents is a textbook case, and I’d like to look at it from a slightly oblique angle. Whatever historical realities may underlie the books from Exodus to Deuteronomy, Old Testament scholarship makes it pretty clear that factual reporting was low on the compilers’ list of priorities. What’s unfolded in the Torah is the narrative of a people’s evolving understanding of how God interacts with creation, and how the people in question ought to structure their society and their laws in order to fulfil God’s purposes for them. As such, much of this narrative is universal in character – transferrable to other times and situations.

Imagine a people torn abruptly from an unsatisfactory, but stable and predictable, life, and launched into a wilderness of uncertainty. They may have been carried away by the excitement of the initial rupture with their past, energised by the change in their circumstances, but except for a few of them, that energy wears off fairly quickly. And they can’t go back. They’re afraid: afraid of not knowing what’s coming next, afraid of what they might be called on to do to survive, afraid of dying, and, most of the time, afraid of admitting they’re afraid. Instead, the poison of fear creeps and slithers among them, in the form of anger, of dissatisfaction, of sniping at their leadership and at one another, and as a strange sort of nostalgia: “All right, things in Egypt weren’t ideal. Nothing ever is, really. Maybe there was some oppression, and injustice, and violence, although I never personally had any trouble. You knew where you stood, though; you had some stability. And the food was OK, not like what we’re getting out here. And you knew who was in charge, then; there are some people in charge here who wouldn’t have had a say about anything when we were in Egypt…” (You could transpose this sort of conversation almost anywhere in the world, in any age).

Too much of this sort of talk does its own damage, constantly deflecting attention from real, present situations and the tasks immediately to hand, intensifying discontent, and sharpening fear. And rather than recognise the trouble they are causing themselves, the people blame the spreading toxicity on God. “We must have angered God, and now God is punishing us,”, they say, without really understanding the root of the problem – which is that they are the “children of wrath”, their own wrath – and they demand that Moses find a way to relieve them of the effects of the plague. And God inspires him to do something which seems counterintuitive: raise a bronze replica of a serpent on a pole; put the problem up where everyone can see it; make it so obvious that it can’t be denied or ignored; make it impossible for people not to see what they’ve been doing. And those who look on the serpent – those who can acknowledge the evil which has been happening to them and among them, who come also to recognise the truth of their relationship to God and the future hope which God offers them – those people are healed and enabled to move forward into that hope. It’s clear from the experiences of the Israelites in the wilderness that their liberation is a long process of coming to understand the reality of God’s love and justice, and of learning to see clearly the obstacles which they themselves place in the way of God’s liberating power.

When Jesus, in his encounter with Nicodemus the Pharisee, refers to this episode in Exodus, he is invoking more than a factual account: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life”. Jesus has treated Nicodemus throughout their conversation as someone who ought to be able to grasp the truth he is hearing, who ought to be aware, for example, that the word used in the Septuagint for the pole – the Greek version of the Old Testament – on which the serpent was “lifted up” was semeion, the same word used for the “signs” of Jesus in the fourth Gospel. These signs are capable of multiple interpretations, and the “lifting up” of Jesus is in many ways the ultimate sign, referring both to crucifixion and to exaltation, the two inseparable in God’s supremely loving act of redemption. The “children of wrath”, in their own anger and fear, have called for death, and Jesus offers himself to answer and subvert and overturn the human impulse to violence. The “lifting up” of crucifixion is the means of this sacrifice, and, like the bronze serpent, also a sign of exactly what it is from which we are redeemed: Jesus is offered for us, to us, and to the violence of our sin and wilful separation from God, but even in the very moment of dying, forgives us freely and completely. He is lifted up, and we are compelled to look upon the worst that human beings can do to one another, on the extent to which we are capable of separating ourselves from God, and on the vastness of God’s mercy. We are called into a new, risen, and eternal life, not just something which begins after death, but which can begin here and now. God summons all of us into this life, into a community in which we are no longer “children of wrath”, but followers of Christ’s self-giving love, and in which we look forward to the tasks and promises God puts before us now rather than clinging to illusory comforts from our past. It’s an ongoing, lifelong process, and a particularly apt path to walk during Lent.

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” As God fed the ancient Israelites on their journey through the wilderness, so God feeds us, in word and in fellowship, in prayer and in sacraments. And our small offerings of self-knowledge and honesty, of striving after justice and peace and seeking, however imperfectly, to love one another as God loves us, are transformed and taken up into the works of God’s kingdom, a kingdom in which the world is not condemned, but redeemed, in which the children of wrath find forgiveness and life and purpose. So may we all, by God’s grace, be made whole, and holy.

Third Sunday of Lent: March 7, 2021

Third Sunday of Lent: March 7, 2021 (Exodus 20.1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1.18-25; John 2.13-22)

As I’ve mentioned recently, John’s Gospel is one least concerned with naturalistic narrative flow. John shares Mark’s complete lack of interest in the birth, infancy, and childhood of Jesus, and seems to organise events as much thematically as chronologically. In the other three Gospels, the purging of the Temple precincts comes much later, and functions as a sort of tipping point in the hostility of the authorities, the event which leads ultimately to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. In the fourth Gospel, the raising of Lazarus may be said to have that place, but really, the Incarnation, self-offering, and glorification of Christ are all, for John, part of a single movement of the Divine will. So it’s no surprise to see the cleansing of the Temple, in John, having a very different place in the narrative: it’s almost a calling card, the announcement of Jesus’ identity in Judea and Jerusalem. And the claim that Jesus is somehow an alternative to the whole machinery of the Temple cult – or rather, a replacement for it – makes perfect sense in a text which starts “In the beginning was the Word…”

Most of us have some sort of mental image of this episode, and if it’s based on the art of the last few centuries, it’s probably a pretty exciting one. I had a hard time finding images for the service leaflet and the video which weren’t hyper-dramatic: people and animals cower in fear as an angry Jesus attacks them with a whip, sometimes a few knotted cords or rushes, but more often something reminiscent of Indiana Jones. There’s movement and chaos, large pieces of furniture flying about, panicked livestock… and on the one hand it’s all enormously comforting. Comforting because it appears to show us a Jesus who’s capable of losing it, of using violence in anger, of inflicting pain, so that when we do any of these things and start to feel guilty about it, we can apply a cooling salve to our consciences – of course we’re not perfect, but “even Jesus” sometimes lost his temper. On the other hand, it’s not wrong to respond to injustice with anger: so much in our world of conflict, hatred, and exploitation cries out to be denounced and shut down. I was recently re-reading Spirituality and Pastoral Care, a book by one of my favourite Anglican theologians, Kenneth Leech. He describes one of his mentors as having “a remarkable combination of anger and gentleness,” and goes on to say

Christians have real problems with anger and with the expression of conflict… Only the person who has coped with rage can be truly gentle… It is vital for our spiritual wholeness that we learn to handle and use for God’s glory the resources of rage and tenderness.

Jesus, of course, is our perfect example of spiritual wholeness, and that is nowhere clearer than in John’s Gospel, a text in which Jesus is never “out of control”. Let’s remember what John’s text actually tells us: Jesus came to Jerusalem at Passover and in the Temple he found people selling cattle and sheep. This was apparently an innovation of Caiaphas the High Priest, for the convenience of those who could afford large-animal sacrifices, but came from distances too great to bring their own with them). There were also doves, for the poor to make their sacrifices – that’s what Mary and Joseph offered when Jesus was presented in the Temple. The money-changers were there to convert unclean Roman and Greek coinage into pure shekels to pay the Temple tax – for a percentage, of course. Jesus made a goad, or scourge, out of rushes or small cords and drove all of them out of the Temple, even the sheep and cattle – which is something far more efficiently achieved without a lot of shouting and flailing about, just for the record. He overturned the boards on which the money-changers worked, and said to the dove-sellers, “Get those things out of here. Stop turning my Father’s house into a market-place”. This is a picture of someone who speaks decisively and with authority, but without inflicting harm. Even without a lot of violence or commotion, though, the criticism of the Temple as a market-place clearly hit its mark, as the subsequent reaction of the authorities shows.

The other three Gospels quote Jesus as saying that the Temple has become a “den of thieves”, which would highlight the extortionate prices for animals, and the exploitative fees for money-changing, but, especially in John’s Gospel, those are simply a symptom of a larger problem: the whole sacrificial structure of the Temple cult turns righteousness and relationship with God into a series of transactions. It takes the first four of the Ten Commandments – honouring God, avoiding idolatry, keeping the name of God holy, and setting apart times and places for worship – and overlays them with a complex code of sacrificial practices which then become more important, or at least more dominant in people’s thinking, than the commandments themselves. In fact, sacrifice becomes a way of setting precise limits on what we offer to God – that which is required and no more – and a practice which in theory and intention is meant to honour and praise God becomes, instead, a pre-justified means of withholding ourselves from God. Almost any codified religious practice can have this effect – think about “Sunday-only” Christians, to take an obvious example, or about how easy it is to keep a rigid Lent without being inwardly touched by it.

Jesus wasn’t the first to condemn the practices of the Temple – various of the prophets had called for an end to meaningless sacrifice, urging the people instead to justice, mercy, and righteousness. But while Jesus was echoing the prophets, he was also teaching something new, showing a new way, namely, that the only sacrifice one can truly, legitimately, offer to God is oneself.

What does that mean? It means, I think, that we enter into what Paul describes as the foolishness of God, that we surrender ourselves to the logic of God’s kingdom, in which the mighty are brought low and the poor are lifted up, in which self-offering is more powerful than force, and anger can be transformed into gentleness. This is what Paul calls “the message of the cross,” the message we are called to proclaim as best we can. And as we walk, once more, the way of Lent, let us remember that any disciplines we may undertake, any resolutions we may make, are ultimately to be judged by this: do they help us to reveal God’s “foolishness,” which is so much wiser than human wisdom, and God’s “weakness,” which is so much stronger than our strength, in a world which desperately needs to learn the workings of God’s kingdom?

Second Sunday of Lent: February 28, 2021

Second Sunday of Lent: February 28, 2021 (Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22.22-30; Romans 4.13-25; Mark 8.31-38)

I expect many of you have heard the story – possibly even from me – about the pious Christian who finds himself and his house in the path of rising flood-waters. When the official vehicles come through the town to take people to shelter on higher ground, he declines, because he trusts that God will save him. The water climbs partway up the first floor, but when the rescue boats come around, he doesn’t go with them, because he believes that God will intervene. Eventually he finds himself on the roof, but when a passing helicopter lets down a ladder, he refuses to take it, because he knows that God will look after him. Finally, he drowns, and when he comes face-to-face with his maker, he complains: “Lord, I believed that you would save me. What happened?” “What happened?” says God. “I sent you an SUV, a boat, and a helicopter…” I’m reminded of this story whenever I hear self-proclaimed Christians protesting against lockdowns, or masks, or vaccines, because God will reward their faith by protecting them without the need for such “artificial” protections…

Silly as the first example is, and as disturbing as the second is, they do have something to say about the nature of faith, and about how we understand it. In the epistle to the Romans, Paul is very anxious to show that faith, unlike the rigid structures of the law, brings freedom, but in his account of Abraham, he ends up making faith sound like something static and immovable: “Abraham did not weaken in faith… No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised…” This gives the impression that Abraham’s faith was something unchanging, even unreasoning, and the danger of that sort of belief is that you end up like the man in the flood, or the Christians protesting lockdowns. Of course, we know that Abraham’s relationship with God was one of deep trust, but it also involved questioning and doubt and protest. The first thing that happens in Genesis after the passage we heard this morning is that “Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” These are reasonable questions, and God did not punish Abraham for asking them, any more than Mary was punished for saying to Gabriel, “How can these things be?” Questioning and doubt are not the opposite of faith, not the enemies of faith, but rather the ground in which faith grows. Faith is not the conviction that certain things will come to pass, so much as an abiding trust in the goodness and mercy of the God who loves us.

Peter, in our Gospel today, has not yet reached this understanding. His experience of the person and ministry of Jesus has brought him to the point where he can say, when Jesus asks, “You are the Messiah”, but all his training has given him a very fixed idea of what such an identity implies. Faith in the Messiah means, for him, a belief that this person will triumph over earthly rulers and restore the kingdom of David. Everything Jesus then tells the disciples – that he will suffer, and be rejected, and imprisoned, and executed – is so much at odds with the way Peter understands who and what the Messiah is that he seems not to hear the final part, that after three days Jesus will rise again. He has decided what God will do, and rebukes Jesus for describing something different.

We all do that, sometimes. We wish for something so powerfully that we decide that God will bring it about, and then we give God instructions accordingly. Many people call that prayer, and when they discover that God doesn’t actually take directions from us, they “lose their faith”. The trouble with that is that their faith was never in God so much as in their own expectations. And on a more complex and subtle level, when we commit ourselves to work for something we strongly believe in, we have to try to discern what the shape of the kingdom looks like in the moment, in the place where we are, and pursue what we believe the will of God to be. Sometimes there are transformations which seem almost miraculous, but most of the time, practising ministries of care, or working for peace and justice, can be slow, difficult, and fraught with setbacks and delays. And if this reality challenges the image of God we’ve constructed for ourselves, that can tempt us to give up, to “lose our faith” in the real and living God who calls us into relationship.

The crucial thing to remember, about prayer and care and activism, is that our minds (like Peter’s) work in a much smaller arc than the unfolding of God’s kingdom, and what looks like failure (or unanswered prayer) to us in the short term, is still part of the greater divine trajectory. We can have faith in the love and mercy of God, and act according to our best discernment; we can also question – like Abraham, like Mary – and listen for the whole answer, as Peter in today’s Gospel seems unable to do. This interplay of openness, questioning, and discernment, informed by a trust in God’s unfailing care for creation, is what we are called to, what we are invited to participate in as children of God and followers of Christ.

First Sunday of Lent: February 21, 2021

First Sunday of Lent: February 21, 2021 (Genesis 9.8-17; Psalm 25.1-9; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15)

Our readings today are a curious juxtaposition. You can see the superficial logic, of course – moving from the ending of the flood and God’s covenant with Noah, through Peter’s interpretation of the flood story as a figure of baptism, to the baptism of Jesus and his temptation in the wilderness – but it’s not necessarily an intuitive sort of journey, and there is a kind of disquiet built into the readings which sends us on important detours.

To begin with, we have to recognise that the joyous rainbow at the end of Noah’s voyage is a distraction us from another kind of arc, a narrative like that of the hastily averted sacrifice of Isaac, where God first appears to be saying or doing one thing, and then relenting, as if realising that the harsher option wasn’t such a good look. If we think of scripture as a record of the human attempt to understand the workings of God, it fits into place, but we have to remember that it is the human perspective that has changed, and not the nature of God.

Picking up the image of the flood, our epistle speaks of “former times… when… a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you…” It’s an interpretation oft-repeated, and in many ways enticing in its implications of uniqueness and privilege, but like many such metaphors, it can’t be strained too far without beginning to disintegrate. Noah and his family were saved, not so much through water as from water, a closed group, sealed in their wooden shelter, while, all around them in the mythic deluge, human and animal life was wiped out. But we, in our baptism, are buried with Christ in his death, as Christ was buried with us in our death, redeeming it and transforming it into the gate of eternal life. And so Jesus came to John to be baptised, to go with us under the water, to be submerged in our humanity so that all people might come to him. Not just a tiny group of survivors, not only the chosen few, but also the broken and wounded, the sick and the mad and the despairing, all the fragile children of the world which God so loves.

From the Jordan, Jesus is driven into the wilderness to be tempted. Mark’s account is very succinct, and says only “tempted by Satan”, but other Gospels tell us that these temptations were to conformity with the values of the world, to feats of power which sound pretty reasonable for the Son of God: creating food, ruling in might, demonstrating invulnerability. Satan begins the conversation, in Matthew and Luke, with a conditional phrase: “If you are the Son of God…  but of course you just heard a voice from heaven saying that, back at the Jordan. Here’s how you can prove it, to yourself, to me, to the world…”

The responses of Jesus aren’t logical answers, on the face of it – but they don’t need to be. For forty days he has withdrawn from food, and from human society; for forty days he has been open to God, wrestling, perhaps, with the identity he had been shown in his baptism. He has arrived at a knowledge of who he is in relation to God, and, paradoxically, this knowledge has reinforced his sense of himself as human: the Son of God, indeed, but born to live among us as a human being, frail and vulnerable and hungry, subject to oppression and the abuse of power. And when he responds to Satan, it is not with his own eloquence, but in quotations from scripture, that very human and incomplete testimony to the workings of God’s grace. He speaks with the voice of a human community.

This realisation of who he is, and how he must be in the world – among and for others – is what characterises the ministry of Jesus, and his self-offering. And when Jesus rejects Satan’s urging to “reveal himself” as the Son of God in the ways that culture would expect, the path to the cross is set, and its victory fore-shadowed.

Having passed through this period of testing, Jesus returns to Galilee to begin the proclamation of the Gospel and the announcement of the kingdom, living out his identity as the beloved Son of God, the identity which was declared by the voice from heaven at his baptism. Identity, testing, and proclamation… This is also, in many ways, the shape of our lives as Christians and as church. We begin from an identity as creatures, as beloved parts of a beloved creation, and move deeper into a recognition of ourselves as the Body of Christ, redeemed in our very messiness and fragility by the God who willed to die for us, to go below the surface of the water which is both our life and our death, to touch stones and silt and clinging weeds, and to burst forth again, scattering us as droplets into the light. Because we are creatures, because we live in time and space and matter, that identity is tested, not once but repeatedly, tested but never withdrawn from us. And from that human condition of ebb and flow, of cycle and uncertainty and transience, we are called to proclaim the enduring love and eternal life of God.

Ash Wednesday: February 17, 2021

Ash Wednesday: February 17, 2021 (Isaiah 58.1-12; Psalm 103.8-18; 2 Corinthians 5.20b – 6.10; Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21)

“Whenever you fast”, says Jesus in today’s Gospel, “do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting”. It’s a slightly jarring choice of Gospel for a day when we “disfigure our faces” with ashes as a sign that the season of repentance has begun. I’ve often heard that line quoted as a justification for washing off the mark of ashes immediately after the service, but if you’ve ever gone to work, or to meet non-church friends, marked with ashes, you’ll know that the black smudge on your forehead is not exactly a ticket to social prestige. We have to remember, I think, that the warning against ostentatious displays of penitential piety was about individual piety, about demonstrating how holy we believe ourselves to be, under the guise of repenting our sins. But it doesn’t really work that way in our society.

I don’t know if you’ve recently had the experience of going out somewhere, wearing a mask, and had someone gesture to you, or even tell you in so many words, that you should take it off. Of course some people are just anti-maskers, but there are a great many others who recognise the need for masks, but don’t want to see you wearing one in your car (although you’ll need it when you get to your destination), or on a Zoom call (although you’re in a public place). The mask is an outward and visible sign of the pandemic, an indication that things are very wrong in the world, and seeing it reminds people of that. When we mark our faces with the ashes of last year’s palms, the symbolism is much the same: the world needs to recognise its brokenness and inequity, to become disillusioned, to repent and be transformed. Our ashes are an uncomfortable reminder that such change may involve real costs, costs we don’t really want to think about.

And renunciation isn’t particularly popular these days, even in the church. We’re often exhorted to take on something positive for Lent instead of giving anything up: reading more scripture, beginning a new prayer or meditation discipline, running, volunteering, de-cluttering. All good stuff, aimed at better emotional, physical, and mental health. But the focus on adding rather than subtracting is a reflection of the larger society: we have a huge collective problem with the idea of giving anything up. Think about how much of the talk about global climate change has focused on technological fixes: if we can just make cars, buildings, and industrial processes more efficient, surely we can go on living “well” – that is, luxuriously, wastefully, thoughtlessly – without having to change anything much about ourselves.

Ultimately, though, renunciation is about participating in transformation. If you look at our reading from Isaiah today, you can see what a big process that transformation is meant to be. “Why do we fast, but you do not see?” the people ask God. “Why do we humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” But fasting is not a matter of appeasing God, or somehow controlling God, by making ourselves uncomfortable. The discomfort may serve to sharpen our awareness, but the actions resulting from that awareness are the true harvest of the fast.

So how do we “loose the bonds of injustice, and undo the thongs of the yoke”? Lent offers us a period to reflect on ourselves and our place in the web of humanity and Creation, and to strive to live in that place in the most just and faithful way possible; to name the world’s brokenness and call for change – for justice and for peace. This can all feel terribly daunting, and if you think of it as a purely individual effort, it should. But it can be a holy thing to feel daunted, to recognise our dependence not only on God, but on each other. It is the understanding and acceptance of that interdependence and connectedness which will also sustain us in the pursuit of justice and right relationship and holiness, and which will make Lent for us a time to be not so much disfigured as transfigured by the crosses we wear as a sign of our hope.

Last Sunday after Epiphany: February 14, 2021

Last Sunday after Epiphany / Transfiguration Sunday: February 14, 2021 (2 Kings 2.1-12; Psalm 50.1-6; 2 Corinthians 4.3-6; Mark 9.2-9)

The theme of light weaves its way through the season of Epiphany – light growing as we leave the winter solstice behind, the light of the star which leads the Magi, the light of the candles we bless at Candlemas, the “light to lighten the gentiles”, held in the arms of the aged Simeon… Finally, with the season drawing to a close and Lent approaching, today’s Gospel shows us the ultimate, uncreated, radiance – the outward manifestation of the glory of God. Six days after telling his uncomprehending disciples of the passion and suffering to come, and reproaching Peter for trying to put himself in the way of his messianic mission, Jesus takes the three who in Mark’s Gospel usually constitute his inner circle, to a mountaintop where they are shown a vision of him in the full glory of his divine nature – dazzling and remote. Accompanying him – suddenly – are Moses and Elijah, two great figures of Jewish tradition.

There is something, I think, which the Gospel of Mark does more effectively than the others: it immerses us in the incomprehension of the disciples. Even though we know how the story goes on, Mark’s Gospel takes us right back into the confusion of Peter and the others about the significance of the events which seemed to be picking them up and carrying them along. Mark’s account of the Transfiguration is a prime example of this. The three chosen disciples probably expected some kind of confidential instruction, some practical insight into the events which were to come in the days ahead, and instead they saw Jesus in a way they had never seen him before. They were terrified – in fact the Orthodox icon of the Transfiguration shows them either cowering in awe or, in many versions of the image, actually falling backward down the mountain in their fear and amazement. Peter stammered out something about honouring Jesus, Elijah, and Moses by erecting some sort of tents, or booths, as if they could somehow dwell permanently in the glory of that moment. The only answer he got was the voice of God, saying, “This is my Son, listen to him”, but what does Jesus tell them, when the vision has faded? “Keep this to yourselves for the time being”. After his resurrection will they remember and begin to understand, and then they will be able to share what they have seen.

Of course, our lectionary heightens the effect of the disciples’ confusion by giving us the story of Elisha as a contrast. Elijah doesn’t invite Elisha to come with him; in fact, he tries to send him back. But Elisha is the initiator; he seems to know exactly what’s going on: he asks for a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit; and he has witnesses who can confirm him as Elijah’s designated successor. Peter, James, and John have only their shared recollections, and their shared astonishment at the dazzling light which came, and then faded away. Their lives cannot yet be fully transformed – there must be a time of waiting.

We, and the whole world, have been experiencing a year of waiting, for answers, for a vaccine, for healing, for justice. In the season of Christmas and Epiphany, we have sought hope and comfort in the full and simple glories of the Incarnation. Now, as we enter into a different, more deliberate season of waiting, we must step back, for a time. Like those first disciples, we cannot jump directly to Easter, but need a time of transition, a time when we learn the costs of discipleship. It is fitting that we follow the Transfiguration of Christ with a small disfigurement of ourselves, the sign of ashes – we mark ourselves with the leavings of fire, what remains after light and heat have gone, no longer energy but bare matter. We come down from the mountaintop, and follow Jesus into the small places, the mad and broken and hungry places, to learn what he does, how gently he deals with hearts suspended between belief and unbelief, how love acts in the world. We hold the glory in our hearts, for strength and for comfort, and to remind one another of what has been and what is to come. And in time, we come to recognise that the icon of the Transfiguration and the icon of the crucifixion are the same form, as intimately related as the positive and negative images of a photograph, Moses and Elijah replaced by two thieves, fellow-criminals with Jesus in the eyes of the powerful. The glory of the Transfiguration, the shekhinah of the living God, shines through the cross, although the eyes of the body cannot see it. Together, we make this discovery afresh every year, as a sign that our growth into the life of God is a process which never stops, that we are always being called to transformation, each of us in ourselves and together as the Body of Christ. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “…it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” and we are called to be that light for one another. As Peter and James and John needed one another’s memories of what had happened on the mountaintop, and witnessed together to the rest of their community, and to us, so we are called to strengthen one another in the good news when it is hard to remember or believe, and to witness to our own experience of the presence of God as we seek to bring the light of transformation into the dark, cold places of the world.

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany: February 7, 2021

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany: February 7, 2021 (Isaiah 40.21-31; Psalm 147.1-12, 21c; 1 Corinthians 9.16-23; Mark 1.29-39)

I used to groan inwardly whenever this Gospel reading came up in the lectionary, imagining Peter’s poor mother-in-law, just cured of a fever, having to get up and tend to a group of visitors who’d just turned up unexpectedly. That’s patriarchy in a nutshell, I thought – the poor woman was probably still exhausted from her illness, and she had to wait on the guests because that’s a woman’s role in the culture. Couldn’t Peter have made himself useful in welcoming and caring for his friends? Now, I wasn’t entirely wrong about all that, but there’s more we need to consider about this nameless woman.

First of all, she was almost certainly a widow. If her husband had been alive, she’d have been living with him. If she’d had any sons, she’d have been with them, and, failing that, she might have gone back to her own family. But she appears to have been part of the household of her daughter’s husband, and that wouldn’t have been a role of any particular honour – definitely in the “poor relative” category, and possibly closer to that of a servant. When Jesus took her by the hand and raised her, I’d suggest that there was a symbolic healing as well as a physical one – God “lifts up the lowly,” as our psalm puts it, “heals the broken-hearted, and binds up their wounds,” or, as Isaiah says, “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.” The healings Jesus goes on to perform in Capernaum, curing the sick and casting out demons, are social as well as physical and spiritual, restoring those whose afflictions had made them outcasts to wholeness, both individually and in community. The need for healing to be social as well as mental and physical, collective as well as individual, is something we are seeing with a particular and painful clarity in the global unfolding of the coronavirus pandemic, and it is tied up with the larger message of the Gospel, the call to equality, inclusion, reconciliation, and mutual care. These are not simply good things in and of themselves, but responses which the self-offering love of God in Christ calls for in us.

Jesus could probably have remained in Capernaum for some time, building a reputation as a healer and miracle worker, and if he had been “thinking strategically,” and seeking some sort of earthly reputation, he might well have done just that. The Messiah, in Jewish tradition, was imagined as a political leader descended from the family of King David, one who would overturn the oppression of Israel by invaders and empires and restore the kingdom to its rightful power and prestige. This may have been what the disciples were hoping for, what they thought they might be a part of, and the crowd gathered around the door of Peter and Andrew’s house must have looked like a sign of exciting things to come. But this was not the path on which Jesus was embarking: his proclamation of the kingdom of God is one which transcends all human imagining, and the battle for it was not an exercise of military might but the opposite – a complete surrender of power and reputation, and of his very life. This is something which the disciples began to comprehend only slowly, after his resurrection from the dead. Perhaps the reason that Jesus kept telling his disciples not to speak of him as the Messiah (and in today’s Gospel he even forbids the demons he is exorcising to identify him) is that the title of Messiah would have raised expectations which were completely different from everything he was about. This is usually referred to as the “Messianic secret” in Mark’s Gospel, but I want to suggest that the secret was not that Jesus is the Messiah, but that God’s Messiah was so very different from the earthly ruler in whom people had set their hopes.

When the disciples seek him out the next morning, Jesus is very far from consolidating his reputation and building a power-base; he is ready to move on, proclaiming the good news of love and liberation throughout Galilee and beyond. This is what the Gospel, the “good news,” is like: moving forward, looking ahead, reaching beyond. And while it may seem almost unimaginable at this time, when so much is confined and immobile, this is nevertheless the proclamation to which we too are called, to name the God who sits above all time and space, but who loves this world so dearly as to have been born as one of us, to live and die and rise again for us. We can use the time of separation and quiet, as Jesus did, to imagine new ways of being and new ways to move forward, to look ahead, and to reach beyond ourselves to make God’s message of hope and healing known in the world.

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany: January 31, 2021

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany: January 31, 2021 (Deuteronomy 18.15-29; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8.1-13; Mark 1.21-28)

There’s a great quote from the American writer Annie Dillard:

“It is madness to wear… straw hats and velvet hats to church. We should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to the pew. For the sleeping God may awake some day and take offence, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return”.

It’s a striking image of the incalculable power of God, and it must describe the sort of experience of God which the writer (or writers) of Deuteronomy imagined that the people of Israel had in the desert – an experience so deeply disturbing that they begged God to send them prophets in future, middlemen and -women who would bear the brunt of divine encounters for everyone else. In our first lesson, we hear God promise to answer this prayer, to raise up prophets who would convey the divine commands to the people. These prophets were not, by and large, part of the orderly hierarchy of the priestly families, but often marginal figures who spoke for God in challenging ways. They had authority. What authority is, where it comes from, and what it does is, in a way, the thread which ties our three readings together.

The authority of the prophets, if we think about the prophetic books of the Old Testament, is usually attributed to the prophet’s direct experience of God, through dreams, visions, or voices. I think that’s the same kind of authority which the onlookers in our Gospel reading recognise in Jesus. He’s not part of any organised hierarchy, but when he interprets scripture, he speaks out of such a profound experience of God that his hearers immediately give him greater credibility than the scribes, who would simply have been passing on interpretations out of their received tradition. It’s his teaching which impresses them, so much so that even after he performs a dramatic exorcism, they use the word “teaching” to refer to that miracle. The authority of Jesus in this story derives from his knowledge, or understanding of holy things, reinforced not just by his demonstration of power but also by the integrity and consistency perceptible in the way he lived.

Of course, the combination of knowledge and the attempt to live consistently with that knowledge is one problem (among very many) which Paul had to address in the first letter to the Corinthians. Having learned that the idols of the pagan classical world have no ultimate, divine reality, some of the Corinthian converts had decided that eating meat which they knew had been sacrificed to idols was simply no big deal. This was a convenient decision, since almost all the meat for sale in Corinth probably had been sacrificed to idols; the temples and butcher shops tended to be combined operations. The converts must have asked Paul for advice on this point, and he didn’t disagree with their understanding. What he warned them, though, is that there was a danger that their less-advanced fellow believers would be confused and led astray by this new “freedom.” It may interest you to know – at least I hope it will – that the Greek word which Paul uses here is εξουσια, the same word which Mark’s Gospel uses for the “authority” of Jesus in today’s Gospel. [A fuller English translation might be something like “the freedom of action which comes from understanding lived out with integrity”]. The Corinthian converts have acquired a new understanding which gives them authority, or liberty, but in a diverse community this can be the beginning rather than the end of a problem. What happens when only some of the community have this εξουσια? What happens when people share a faith, but have very different understandings of some aspect of it? Paul’s advice in this letter seems to be that those with a newer and more complex understanding should accommodate themselves to those who haven’t reached the same conclusions.

I struggle with this advice – not a surprise. As you might perhaps imagine, I’ve had more than one debate with people I liked and respected, whose upbringing and understanding of scripture and tradition had led them to conclusions very different from mine about a number of subjects, not least among them the ordination of women. What would it have looked like in such circumstances if I’d followed Paul’s advice? What would (or wouldn’t) I have done…? Of course, we can point to questions like this throughout the history of the church. Looking backward from the epistle to the first great dispute: Can a gentile even become a Christian? In more recent times: Can an Indigenous person, a black person, or a person of colour, hold a position of authority in the church? Or, moving beyond questions of inclusion: What is the responsibility of the church toward the wider society in a public health emergency? In a global climate crisis? Many advances in our understanding of God’s desire for Creation might well founder on the rock of Paul’s advice, if it were taken at its face value.

And this, I think, is where it’s crucially important to recall what we know about the first letter to the Corinthians. It was written for a specific community, with specific problems and concerns, at a particular time. (Imagine, for a moment, what it would look like if church guidelines about how to conduct ourselves in a pandemic were to be treated as permanent instructions, valid for all time). Elsewhere in the epistle, Paul uses phrases like “I do not want you to be uninformed…” and “I do not want you to be unaware…” The more progressive Corinthians needed to make positive and constructive use of their “authority” and “liberty”. As he says at the beginning of the passage, “Knowledge puffs up, but loves builds up” – he wants the process of teaching to be carried out in love. I’d like to think, though, that while Paul meant what he said at that time, he would have been appalled still to be dealing with the same question a generation later. His advice was provisional, framed not as a detailed command, but as an outline of what he would do in a particular situation.

In this Paul realised, as I think we all need to realise, that God is forever calling us into new and deeper understandings of divine reality, not in any strict linear progression, but in a constant unfolding of the great mystery of God’s love in the incarnation. Sometimes that understanding, and the authority and freedom – the exousia – which come from it, moves by reasoned thought, or by quiet prayer and meditation, but at other times it proceeds by metaphorical shocks and bumps from which there’s no going back. It may be that the shocks and bumps of the current global crisis will move us, collectively, toward a deeper understanding about what things are essential and what matters are urgent, a transformative vision of what sort of reshaping of the world might still be possible for us, a vision of God’s kingdom. So with all due respect to Annie Dillard, let’s leave off the crash helmets, and simply bring ourselves to God, prepared to be challenged and surprised, so that “the waking God” may indeed “draw us out to where we can never return.”

Third Sunday after Epiphany: January 24, 2021

Third Sunday after Epiphany: January 24, 2021 (Jonah 3.1-5, 10; Psalm 62.6-14; 1 Corinthians 7.29-31; Mark 1.14-20)

“Your time is up”. Most of the contexts in which we hear that phrase make it pretty daunting: writing a test, trying to win a contest or achieve some other sort of goal: the window of opportunity is closing, and you will be evaluated on what you have (or haven’t) achieved in the allotted time. When it’s addressed to individuals, or to a small, specialised group like a sports team, it marks an ending, a limitation, a judgement. When it’s addressed to a larger group, though, or a whole society, it has a different sense; it marks a time of crisis, of decision. Climate scientists are saying “Pay attention. The time is very short. There are serious corrections we need to make in order to protect not only ourselves, but also the other species with whom we share this planet. We cannot go on as we have been. We need to change, no matter what short-sighted corporate interests may be telling us to the contrary.” The group of prominent women who chose the name (and the Twitter hashtag) #timesup for the Me Too movement a few years ago, were announcing to the world that the time for sexual violence and harassment against women to be accepted or ignored is over. Society was being called to make decisions about what sorts of behaviour are acceptable, whom to believe, and how to stand up against power and influence. And although the slogans are different, the same sense of urgency and impatience is key to justice movements like Black Lives Matter and Idle No More.

Jonah has been called to tell the people of Nineveh that their time is up, that they have forty days in which to turn from their corrupt and decadent ways, lest God destroy them. And amazingly, it works – there is a great repentance at all levels of society, and God spares the city. But the great conflict in the story of Jonah is that he is ambivalent about his prophetic role, and resists the work that God is bringing about through him. The wording of the story pulls us out of the big picture and into Jonah’s narrow view with the statement that “When God saw… how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and did not do it.” This is obvious nonsense in the overall arc of the narrative: the whole reason Jonah was given his prophetic task in the first place was for the redemption of the city, its hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, never mind their livestock, as the end of the book oddly phrases it. Jonah has a perverse sort of confidence in God’s forgiveness – he clearly doesn’t want to be made to look ignorant or untruthful, and in the chapter which follows our reading today, he says to God, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” In essence, “God, your grace and mercy have made me waste my time and look like an idiot” and it’s not exactly clear, even at the end of the book, whether he has worked out what God is trying to tell him.

All this is a more broadly comic version of the kind of doubt John the Baptist would experience in prison, when he realised that Jesus was emphasising love and mercy in his teaching of repentance, more than God’s wrath: “Are you really the Messiah, or was I wrong about you? Have I been wasting my life?” And the answer Jesus sends back is the evidence of healing and liberation: the fulfillment of prophecy not in smiting and punishment, but in new life for the whole world. It is a proclamation that everything is not just about to change, but already changing: the kingdom of God has come near, and is moving among us. The call to repentance is not only the commandment to stop doing certain things – although it is certainly that as well – but an invitation to join ourselves to the life of God in the present moment.

That’s what Paul is still trying to tell the Corinthians some time later, working out how the light of resurrection illuminates the world, not in a blinding and destructive flash, but with an enduring and searching radiance. “The appointed time has grown short,” he says, “the present form of this world is passing away,” and this urgency is the urgency of transformation: our human relationships must have a different character in the light of God’s self-offering love; our joy and our mourning are suffused with the deeper joy of eternal life, and our dealings with the world are guided by that same confidence. It is from that perspective that we, too, are called to proclamation and prophecy and warning, particularly in times of crisis, to show the world the workings of God’s kingdom, and to call God’s people into alignment with its justice and mercy and peace. “Get up and go,” God tells Jonah. “Follow me,” says Jesus, and the fishermen, too, get up and go. They follow, and learn, and marvel; they weep and rejoice, and then proclaim. And what they proclaim is that the truth about God is more wonderful than the world has ever recognised, and that the world itself can be better, can align more closely with the divine vision of liberation and equity and love that they have experienced as followers of Christ.

In our current situation we are not exactly being told to get up and go, but rather to stay where we are, physically, as much as we can, for the good of others and ourselves, and to adopt a posture of waiting and reflection. But pandemic precautions don’t mean that we are to lose sight of the divine vision, don’t mean that we are to look back nostalgically to the “before time,” as if a return to that sort of normality is the best we can hope for, the closest we can come to the promises of the kingdom. As disciples, we are called to step away from the status quo of the past, secure in the knowledge of God’s unquenchable love, and imagine a world in which racism and sexism and other such forms of oppression have no place, in which the economic exploitation of people and the earth is recognised as an imminent danger, and the systems of power which enable it are repented of. The time is up, in so very many ways. Let us pray that the voice of prophecy may be heard, that the hard and urgent learnings of a global pandemic may also be a key to transformation, to reshaping the world in the image of God’s kingdom, and that we, confident in God’s love and mercy, may step forward to play our part.

Second Sunday after Epiphany: January 17, 2021

Second Sunday after Epiphany: January 17, 2021 (1 Samuel 3.1-20; Psalm 139.1-5, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 6.12-20; John 1.43-51)

“Go and listen”. In our Old Testament reading, the boy Samuel has been dedicated to the service of God since before he can remember, trained in attention and obedience, but he’s still not prepared for God’s call to him out of the darkness. He needs his teacher’s guidance to recognise what’s going on, and to know how to respond to God. Eli is blind – physically blind, and blind to the wickedness of his adult sons – but he still understands about listening in the darkness, even if his own darkness has been silent to him for a long time, and he accepts the idea that his family will decline, and the talented, holy child in his care will eclipse him, because he recognises the direction from which the prophecy and the judgement come. What he’s trying to teach Samuel, when the boy wakes him in the middle of the night, is the true listening of the contemplative, a kind of “naked intent” toward God, not a matter of praise or petitions, or of asking God for anything, but the kind of pure attentiveness which is often called “mindfulness” these days, a temporary withdrawal from distraction and even from human relationships to wait on the utterance of God in the soul. “Go and listen”, says Eli.

“Come and see”. Unlike Samuel, Nathanael isn’t undergoing any specialised training – not that the Gospel tells us about, anyway – and his first response, when Philip comes to him, full of excitement about the Messiah, seems cool, almost flippant, as if he’s trying to take the wind out of Philip’s sails. And in a way, that makes his reaction to meeting Jesus even more surprising: when Jesus recognises him, Nathanael almost immediately changes his tune, and calls him “son of God” and “king of Israel”. It reads like a bit of an over-reaction – what has happened? Nathanael has made a judgement based on a generalisation, and a half-remembered prophecy – Nazareth doesn’t figure in any of the prophecies about the Messiah, and it really was a tiny, unimportant place – and place was important; where you came from was expected to shape your life. It’s not certain what Jesus meant by “Behold, an Israelite in whom there is no deceit”, but there is more humour in the Gospels than we often recognise, especially in John, and I have wondered whether Jesus wasn’t teasing Nathanael – “Nobody’s going to put one over on you, are they?” What he says next, about seeing Nathanael under the fig tree, actually means “I know where you’re from, too” – the fig tree was a widespread figure of speech in the Hebrew scriptures, especially the prophetic books, for the place someone could call home: “every one of you will eat from your own vine and your own fig tree,” says Isaiah, to take just one example. I think Nathanael probably recognises in this encounter the experience of God which today’s psalm describes: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me; you know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away”. We learn to love God because we have first been loved by God; we learn to recognise God, and to begin to know God, when we realise that we have first been known by God in our very making. Jesus promises Nathanael more wonders to come: that he will see angels ascending and descending upon the son of man. This image conjures up the dream of Jacob in the wilderness, in which he sees the ladder between heaven and earth with angels going up and down on it. In the Gospel, it is Jesus who becomes the ladder, the point of contact between our earthbound existence and the fullness of life in God.

There’s a temptation to treat these two stories of the Old and New Testaments as contrasts, as opposites: Samuel obeys the call to “Go and listen”; Nathanael the call to “Come and see”; Samuel hears God as a mysterious voice in the darkness, while Nathanael meets God incarnate, and is drawn into personal relationship with God in Christ; Samuel becomes a prophet, proclaiming the bad news of God’s disapproval, first to his master, and then, often, to the people of Israel, while Nathanael is called to be an apostle, preaching the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. These comparisons are not irrelevant, of course, because in Christ’s Incarnation God is revealed to as in as full a way as we are able to comprehend, more fully than ever before. (You may have noticed, by the way, over the past few weeks, the way the readings of this season present this revelation of Christ in a series of events of which become less impressive, but increasingly comprehensible: we start with angelic messengers at Christmas, and wise men with exotic gifts at Epiphany; then there’s a baptism with a voice which not necessarily everyone can hear, depending which Gospel version of the story you read; this week, there’s a very human meeting, and simple recognition between two people). I think it would be a mistake, though, and an over-simplification of scripture, to imagine that the new ways of knowing God which are made plain to us in the Incarnation somehow simply replace, or wipe out, the old. We are truly called to encounter Christ on a very human scale, in our daily lives, and our relationships with other people and their needs, but that does not mean that we are to ignore our dreams and our visions – whatever form they may take – or that we stop listening for the “still, small voice” which speaks to us in the quiet of prayer, or even in the silence of emptiness. We need both to “come and see”, in the company of others, and to “go and listen” in solitude and mystery. And we are to be both apostles and prophets, called to proclaim the hope of the resurrection, and the fullness of new life in Christ, in our worship, and in the very patterns of our lives, but also called, when we see the image of Christ in any human person degraded by violence, oppression, poverty, or injustice, to be, like Samuel, prophetic, and to name the wrong, the bad news, so that the good may transform it.

Called to be both apostles and prophets… and in that daunting vocation we must know not only that God is always with us, but that we also have more immediate help: the witness of scripture, the teachings and traditions of the church, and our God-given reason. We also have – and this is often the thing which makes it possible even to learn from scripture and tradition – the help of our fellow human beings, in both expected and unexpected ways. Samuel goes to the person he most trusts to advise him, and gets precisely the advice he needs to make him receptive to the word of God. Nathanael isn’t necessarily looking for advice, and at first he doesn’t even take his friend seriously, but he is receptive enough to follow him, to humour him, and I like to imagine, (although the Gospel doesn’t say so) that it was because of their friendship – the mutual love which connected them – that he did this, and met the shock of recognition which transformed his life. A similar experience can come to us when we least expect it, even in situations of crisis and stress and anxiety, when we do something – even reluctantly – for a friend or a relative or a stranger, out of love, or obligation, or a sense of justice, and discover suddenly that God has walked into the relationship and recognised us.

Baptism of the Lord: January 10, 2021

Baptism of the Lord: January 10, 2021 (Genesis 1.1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19.1-7; Mark 1.4-11)

Today, as we remember the baptism of Jesus, we enter a new phase in our celebration of the Incarnation. As I’ve remarked before, this hasn’t always been a separate feast in the Anglican (or Roman Catholic) calendar, but when the western churches decided, in the mid-20th century, to make more of this celebration, they were picking up a tradition which has always existed in the Eastern Orthodox churches, and acknowledging what an important moment this really is in the life and ministry of Jesus.

We talk about “Orthodox Christmas” happening on January 6th (or 7th), but what’s really being celebrated on that date is the Feast of the Theophany, the revelation, or “showing forth” of God in the life of Jesus at his baptism. This is a major festival of the Eastern Churches, with a very particular theological importance, since it is an occasion when all three Persons of the Trinity reveal themselves to human perception together: the Father speaks from heaven, the Son is named beloved, and the Holy Spirit is seen descending as a dove. After Christmas and Epiphany, with their twin focus on the vulnerability of the infant Jesus, the child of poor parents, displaced by threat and danger, and the wonders associated with the birth of the incarnate Word, today’s Gospel compels us to focus our attention on the adult ministry of Jesus, to move forward from the extraordinary events described in the first chapters of Luke and Matthew to those events on which all four Gospels more-or-less agree. Reflecting on the baptism of Jesus makes a bridge for us into thinking about incarnational faith and life as they are oriented toward the future, our future.  What does it mean to us, for us, today, and tomorrow, and the next day, that God is so intimately with us as to have taken on our flesh, our pains, our anxieties and sorrows, and the weariness of material bodies moving in time? What response does this gift call for from us?

Mark’s Gospel, which we read today, has a very short account of the baptism, but even this brief snapshot raises the potential question more fully explored by Matthew, what the American writer Dominic Crossan has called the “embarrassment” of the baptism of Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptist asks the question which clearly caused discomfort in the early Church: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Why would the sinless Son of God undergo a ritual for cleansing from sin? Orthodox theologians point out that this is really the wrong way of looking at the image, the icon, of the baptism of Jesus, and the wrong question to ask. This baptism is a new creation: once again, “a wind from God sweeps over the face of the waters,” and the waters themselves, and all the world with them, are baptised, as the Word, the Logos, which brought all Creation into being at the beginning, chooses to enter into them.

On a human level, the exchange between Jesus and John prefigures the temptations in the wilderness, not, of course, because John intends any evil, but because it presents an opportunity for Jesus to take a shortcut – to bypass ordinary human limitations and requirements, to reveal his identity through an exercise of authority simply for its own sake – an opportunity which he rejects. Jesus’ baptism, his descent into the water at the hands of another human prophet, expresses his solidarity – his dwelling together – with the rest of the powerless humanity who came to be baptised by John, just as, in his refusal of the temptations in the wilderness, he is united with those who hunger, those who are vulnerable to injury, and those whose lives involve the constant humiliation of submitting to injustice and oppression. This is a God who is truly human, who is so intimately with us as to have taken on our flesh, our deprivations, our pains, our sorrows, and our wretchedness, so that we, united with him, might transform and transcend them.

The epistle today was chosen to emphasise the difference between the baptism of John, which was a baptism of repentance, and that of the church, which is also a baptism of the Holy Spirit; in one sense, this echoes the distinction we try to make between the “functional” and the “inclusive” aspects of the sacrament – cleansing from sin, on the one hand, and welcome into the Body of Christ on the other. In today’s Gospel, though, we see that these are not precisely oppositional: we are brought to witness the moment when baptism itself is transformed, and all these elements are integrated. The descent of Jesus beneath the surface of the Jordan foreshadows his death and resurrection, and we recall this at every baptism, when we pray “Now sanctify this water, that your servants who are washed in it may be made one with Christ in his death and resurrection”. Jesus takes on repentance not for any sins of his own, but for the world: repentance in the sense of metanoia, of turning and transformation. The Word enters into the world of matter, humanity is made vulnerable in that moment of uncertainty beneath the weight of water and then triumphant in rising, infusing the very elements with new life and holiness.

The encounter on the bank of the Jordan is also a sign that Christ is involved with humanity in another way: the human hands of John baptised the Son of God; his lips offered whatever prayers the ritual may have included. And through the ages, human hands have poured the water of baptism, have broken and shared the Body of Christ; they bind what is broken, feed the hungry, build shelter, comfort the weary and despairing, and reach out in peace and love. Human voices proclaim the Gospel and call for justice for those who are marginal and outcast, and they do it for the sake of the Other who is Christ, even, or rather especially, in times of darkness and violence and uncertainty, as the present is for so many people. Jesus came to John to be baptised and made known, not because God is in any way limited in self-revelation, but as a sign of invitation, a sign that we human beings, in all our frailty and confusion and brokenness, are nevertheless to be part of the great incarnational work of making God known, of bringing the promises of the kingdom to their full realisation. As we move forward into a new year which will continue to be marked by anxiety and hardship, as well as the potential for great transformation, let us renew the promises of our own baptism, keeping God’s invitation always before us.

Epiphany: January 3, 2021

Epiphany: January 3, 2021 (Isaiah 60.1-6; Psalm 72.1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12)

In 1927, around the time of his own conversion to Christianity, T.S. Eliot sat down after church one Sunday and composed a poem about the journey of the Magi:

A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.

And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow…

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

The poem goes on to speak of the rigours of travelling, and the doubt which now plagues the speaker, long since returned to his own country:

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

But of the moment of “epiphany”, finding and adoring the child, offering their rich and symbolic gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh-gum, the poem says almost nothing:

…and so we continued

And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

Eliot took his opening lines from a sermon preached by the great Anglican scholar and theologian Lancelot Andrews in 1622, but while Andrews went on to praise the Magi for their speedy obedience, as an example to the lax believers of his own day, Eliot, characteristically, focused on the doubts and difficulties of such a journey, the remoteness of the memory, and the weariness of the old man.

I’ve often thought (long before I knew of Eliot’s poem) about the role of the Magi in the story of the Nativity: whether Matthew expected us to think of them after their return, whether they would ever have received news of subsequent events, like the killing of children in the vicinity of Bethlehem after they eluded Herod, or even the later career of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and how such news might have affected them – whether they would have put together such information with their own experiences and come to a deeper understanding. But as the story stands, they walk off the page, returning to their own country by another way, and all the later traditions about them are works of imagination: the three figures in rich and royal robes, representing the three known continents of the ancient world, and three generations – even given names, at least in the West: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar – are the product of human narrative creativity, of our urge to ornament, to fill in gaps, at least to propose what might have happened, all the way from sixth-century Greek legends to Giancarlo Menotti’s funny, touching little opera Amahl and the Night Visitors.

These traditions are all important, in their own way, but let’s pause for a moment to consider the story Matthew does tell: wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, because their astronomical observations had indicated to them that a new king was to be born in Israel. The name “magi” suggests that we are to think of them as Persians, perhaps as Zoroastrian priests – an early sign that even in the most Jewish of the Gospels, the good news of Christ is to be shared with the other nations of the world, even those who had historically invaded and oppressed the Jews. The Magi stopped in Jerusalem not because they were lost, but because the seat of power and wealth is where you expect to hear news of a king’s birth. What they discovered in Herod was in many ways the opposite of what they sought – a paranoid despot, a puppet for the occupying Romans, insecure about his own throne and succession. His “wise men” consulted their books of prophecies, and came up not with Isaiah’s promises about the glorious restoration of Jerusalem, but with Micah’s words about a more obscure place – the relatively insignificant town of Bethlehem – as the birthplace of a saviour. And eventually, the travellers found Jesus and his family, not a prince, but an infant born to humble parents. They offer their gifts, all royal treasures, all with resonances of holiness and mystery and healing, but the greatest gift of the encounter flows in the other direction: the “unsearchable riches of Christ” are revealed to the foreigners, the travellers from afar; the Word is revealed to all nations, as the letter to the Ephesians reminds us.

We’d expect this gift to have been very much alive in T.S. Eliot’s mind and heart at the time of his conversion, but clearly his temperament was complicated, not given to simple exuberance, with the result that his poem on the Magi is somehow very apt for Epiphany in a time of COVID: “Just the worst time of the year for such a long journey… the very dead of winter. And the lack of shelters, the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly…” Beyond that, of course, the poem is about knowing and not-knowing, or rather, having heard good news but not always being able to hold on to it in the longer term, learning to live with uncertainty about meaning and the future, being compelled to reflect deeply on birth and death, and having joy and wonder eroded by the friction of experience and events. And yet in all this there is a tough and abiding filament of faith: “All this was a long time ago, I remember,” says the aged Persian, looking back, “and I would do it again…” Facing his own mortality, in a later time and a distant land, he can nevertheless imagine embarking once more on the arduous journey which has hope at its end, even though that hope itself is complicated and difficult, challenging old ways of perception and being.

Even as we hear promising news of multiple vaccines against the novel coronavirus, every day brings an increasing count in case numbers, hospitalisations, and deaths, with no reliable indicator of when these trends might be expected to change. We face uncertainty and anxiety about the immediate future; we are compelled to reflect on mortality and loss; and many of our usual joys are dulled by the very necessary constraints of lockdown. But the faith we need to keep moving forward is not the grandiose overconfidence of the mega-church pastor who gathers his congregation in defiance of public health guidelines in a display of “religious freedom”, or the unthinking optimism of friends who meet for a party, un-distanced and un-masked, because they feel fine, and how could they possibly infect each other? We can’t pray for certainty, or cheerfulness, or magical cures, but we can pray that our faith will be enough, that the recollection of God’s loving presence in our world will be a durable filament running through our lives in both the joyful and the bleak times, uniting us into a community of hope – hope that, through the challenges, and our experiences of interdependence and mutual care, the world may become a more just, more sustainable, and more loving place, a more faithful manifestation of the kingdom of God.

First Sunday after Christmas: December 27, 2020

First Sunday after Christmas: December 27, 2020 (Isaiah 61.10-62.3; Psalm 148; Galatians 4.4-7; Luke 2.22-40)

This morning, we hear as our Gospel the great poem which begins the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” In Christ, John tells us, God takes on our humanity, enters into our world of earth, and blood, and bone, taking on even the pain of an ignominious death to redeem us and our lives and our materiality, drawing us into the eternal life of God. The Word through whom all creation came into being, enters into that creation as a human being.

Luke, in last night’s Gospel, told us this same story, but in a very different way. It is Luke’s account to which we owe most of the charm and prettiness of Christmas – the Nativity scenes, the greeting cards, countless children’s pageants, the texts of most of our carols – and the urge to enculturate Christmas, to connect the celebration of Christ’s Nativity with the seasons of the natural world, with pre-existing traditions, with art and music and drama, and our own urge to create. We can recognise in Luke’s story a need to make specific the humanity of Jesus, to name his family and locate them within their tribe and its history, to give places and times and political cross-references, and to trace the intersection of his story, even as an infant, with those of other people: his parents, their relatives, the shepherds, Simeon, Anna. The Word is made flesh with all the complex relationships of dependence and responsibility which humanity confers on us.

The Word is also made flesh in the most vulnerable way, as a helpless infant, someone who will need the care of others to survive. More than that, he is part of an oppressed and invaded people, sent hither and yon at the whim of their imperial overlords. At his birth, he is excluded from “normal” hospitality, given a rough resting-place outside the warmth and light of the inn. His first worshippers are shepherds – outsiders and low-lifes, and according to Matthew’s Gospel, he and his family were even compelled to become refugees for a time. From the very beginning, we are prepared for the “other”-ness of Jesus, prepared to see him making his place with the oppressed and the excluded, with those whose lives are controlled by others, who are barred from the usual comforts of society, and who are despised because of the places where they live or the work that they do or the diseases that afflict them. And when we seek the face of Christ today, that is where we need to look: we will find the incarnate Word in the lives of the powerless, the hungry, the homeless, the vulnerable, and the despised, in precisely those places which call for our care and service. We do not win our salvation through the diligence with which we carry out this care, but our redemption is bound up in the heart-rending vulnerability of Christ as well as in the awesome power of God.

Confronted with this vulnerability, we are often at a loss: how shall we serve, how can we show our love and God’s; what does Christ need from us? John’s great theological declaration and Luke’s story, with its emphasis on the infancy of Jesus, work together to show us a path. The Almighty Word which articulates creation comes to into our world, into our lives, as an inarticulate and dependent baby. The great silence which comes upon Jesus on the cross is foreshadowed in the infant’s inability to communicate his needs and his pains. Parents, especially first-time parents, are worn ragged by the process of trying to work out what their child’s protracted noisy sobbing is about, and how to make it stop; they know that this is their responsibility, the responsibility of relationship and of love. And they go about it by guessing, by learning, by doing their best in the face of confusion and frustration and exhaustion, because they know they have to. When we look at the world which God has given us to care for, we can often feel just like that: where should we start? What is likely to work? Where is the greatest need? (and often, in moments of weariness: Why is this my responsibility?) We don’t always work in the dark: we learn strategies, we develop networks and institutions and codes of practice, but when we do feel as though we’re at a loss, we can remember Mary and Joseph, tending to the human needs of their child in love, the best way they knew how.

Tending to one another’s needs is not a punishment God exacts from us, or a price God demands for our salvation. God’s redeeming love is not calibrated to our degree of success in carrying out this task, or restricted by our own incapacity, but rather boundless and boundlessly forgiving. In calling us to care for one another, and for Christ in one another, God offers us a share in the life of mutual love and inter-relationship which is the divine nature, the mutual indwelling of the Persons of the Trinity. In the infant Jesus we see the self-emptying character of this love, submitting to the helplessness of the flesh in order to redeem it, submitting to the changefulness an  precariousness of life unfolding in time so as to draw that life to the glories of eternity. Unto us a child is born: Emmanuel, God with us, God for us, God leading us, God upholding us, God drawing us by the power of love into the radiant splendour of immortality. 

Christmas Day: December 25, 2020

Christmas Day: December 25, 2020 (Isaiah 52.7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1.1-12; John 1.1-14)

This morning, we hear as our Gospel the great poem which begins the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” In Christ, John tells us, God takes on our humanity, enters into our world of earth, and blood, and bone, taking on even the pain of an ignominious death to redeem us and our lives and our materiality, drawing us into the eternal life of God. The Word through whom all creation came into being, enters into that creation as a human being.

Luke, in last night’s Gospel, told us this same story, but in a very different way. It is Luke’s account to which we owe most of the charm and prettiness of Christmas – the Nativity scenes, the greeting cards, countless children’s pageants, the texts of most of our carols – and the urge to enculturate Christmas, to connect the celebration of Christ’s Nativity with the seasons of the natural world, with pre-existing traditions, with art and music and drama, and our own urge to create. We can recognise in Luke’s story a need to make specific the humanity of Jesus, to name his family and locate them within their tribe and its history, to give places and times and political cross-references, and to trace the intersection of his story, even as an infant, with those of other people: his parents, their relatives, the shepherds, Simeon, Anna. The Word is made flesh with all the complex relationships of dependence and responsibility which humanity confers on us.

The Word is also made flesh in the most vulnerable way, as a helpless infant, someone who will need the care of others to survive. More than that, he is part of an oppressed and invaded people, sent hither and yon at the whim of their imperial overlords. At his birth, he is excluded from “normal” hospitality, given a rough resting-place outside the warmth and light of the inn. His first worshippers are shepherds – outsiders and low-lifes, and according to Matthew’s Gospel, he and his family were even compelled to become refugees for a time. From the very beginning, we are prepared for the “other”-ness of Jesus, prepared to see him making his place with the oppressed and the excluded, with those whose lives are controlled by others, who are barred from the usual comforts of society, and who are despised because of the places where they live or the work that they do or the diseases that afflict them. And when we seek the face of Christ today, that is where we need to look: we will find the incarnate Word in the lives of the powerless, the hungry, the homeless, the vulnerable, and the despised, in precisely those places which call for our care and service. We do not win our salvation through the diligence with which we carry out this care, but our redemption is bound up in the heart-rending vulnerability of Christ as well as in the awesome power of God.

Confronted with this vulnerability, we are often at a loss: how shall we serve, how can we show our love and God’s; what does Christ need from us? John’s great theological declaration and Luke’s story, with its emphasis on the infancy of Jesus, work together to show us a path. The Almighty Word which articulates creation comes to into our world, into our lives, as an inarticulate and dependent baby. The great silence which comes upon Jesus on the cross is foreshadowed in the infant’s inability to communicate his needs and his pains. Parents, especially first-time parents, are worn ragged by the process of trying to work out what their child’s protracted noisy sobbing is about, and how to make it stop; they know that this is their responsibility, the responsibility of relationship and of love. And they go about it by guessing, by learning, by doing their best in the face of confusion and frustration and exhaustion, because they know they have to. When we look at the world which God has given us to care for, we can often feel just like that: where should we start? What is likely to work? Where is the greatest need? (and often, in moments of weariness: Why is this my responsibility?) We don’t always work in the dark: we learn strategies, we develop networks and institutions and codes of practice, but when we do feel as though we’re at a loss, we can remember Mary and Joseph, tending to the human needs of their child in love, the best way they knew how.

Tending to one another’s needs is not a punishment God exacts from us, or a price God demands for our salvation. God’s redeeming love is not calibrated to our degree of success in carrying out this task, or restricted by our own incapacity, but rather boundless and boundlessly forgiving. In calling us to care for one another, and for Christ in one another, God offers us a share in the life of mutual love and inter-relationship which is the divine nature, the mutual indwelling of the Persons of the Trinity. In the infant Jesus we see the self-emptying character of this love, submitting to the helplessness of the flesh in order to redeem it, submitting to the changefulness an  precariousness of life unfolding in time so as to draw that life to the glories of eternity. Unto us a child is born: Emmanuel, God with us, God for us, God leading us, God upholding us, God drawing us by the power of love into the radiant splendour of immortality. 

Christmas Eve: December 24, 2020

Christmas Eve: December 24, 2020 (Isaiah 9.2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-20)

The Gospel we just heard is almost certainly the best-known part of Christian scripture, familiar, at least in outline, to thousands, if not millions, of people who know very little else about the Bible. But Luke is the only Gospel-writer who writes about Mary and her angelic visitor, a trip to Bethlehem, a manger, and shepherds, and a sky full of the heavenly host; Matthew tells us about Joseph, and the wise travellers from a distant country, and Mark and John, in their very different ways, begin with the adult ministry of Jesus. Which leaves us speculating, I think, why Luke believed this story was so important for the early Christians to know.

For one thing, Luke was trying to situate the story of the birth of the Son of God securely in history, when Augustus was emperor, and Quirinius was governor of Syria. The historical details are a bit shaky: there was a census of Judea, or a registration for tax purposes, at roughly the right period, but it didn’t affect the whole of the empire, and it happened a little after the reign of Herod. But Luke, I think, is also trying to show us how vulnerable ordinary people are to the whims of power; if we think about the people of Judea being compelled to travel long distances back to the villages where their ancestors had come from, before centuries of political disruption and exile and return had displaced them, we can actually imagine a chaotic and turbulent scene of temporary migration – something more like the situation of refugees trying to escape conflict and famine in northern Africa, the Middle East, and Burma, or walking north from Central and South America toward the US and Canada, than the serene and solitary image of the holy family we often see on Christmas cards.

When Mary and Joseph arrive, after several days’ journey, in Bethlehem, a town where Joseph might have had some claim on family hospitality, there is no suitable place for them to stay. The usual translation suggests that they were trying to rent a room in an inn, but that nothing was available; one scholar has suggested recently that this should really be translated as “living quarters”, indicating that they had gone to some household of Joseph’s family, but that they were compelled to take shelter in the part of the house where the animals were kept. In either case, the message this young couple is being given is that they are not important, they have no claim on hospitality or kindness, even with Mary about to give birth. She has been doubly displaced, first by becoming pregnant before marriage in a society where that brought extreme disgrace, and might very well have got her stoned to death, and then forced to go on this arduous journey across territory controlled by an occupying Roman army. We can imagine the anxiety in which they travelled, not sure where they would sleep, or whom they could trust, except each other and God.

And this is where the Son of God is born, unwanted by the world, squeezed grudgingly in with the animals, and put to sleep in a manger. The One who offers himself to save and feed us begins his life on earth cushioned in an animals’ food-trough, welcomed only by his exhausted parents. But even in this cramped and (probably) smelly place, Luke wants us to know, the glory of God cannot be hidden or contained. Out in the fields nearby there are shepherds, taking turns protecting their flocks from thieves and predators. In some ways, we can compare them with our own frontline workers, doing their crucial jobs on the night shift while others sleep, but more than that, these shepherds are marginal figures, outsiders, regarded by society as untrustworthy and dangerous, little better than the way most people today think of biker gangs. They’re certainly not bothered about Quirinius and his census. Very few shepherds owned their sheep – mostly they were hired hands – but throughout the Hebrew scriptures, in spite of their outsider status, they were used as an analogy for the rulers of the people, and Jesus will also talk about himself as a shepherd. Anyway, there they are, possibly sitting by a small fire, some of them sleeping, others telling stories, or playing some sort of game, when, somehow, God sends them a message that the world is being transformed, a message that is so compelling that they have to go and see what it’s all about. We can imagine them roaming around the town looking for a newborn baby in a barn, probably putting fear in the hearts of respectable citizens. And eventually they find the little family in their temporary shelter, and tell the story of what God has revealed to them, good news of joy and peace and transformation for the whole world. They go on their way again, probably thinking something like. “Well, there really was a baby in a manger – maybe the rest of it is true, too,” and perhaps they will remember this night for the rest of their lives. But perhaps not – it really does seem a bit hard to believe.

That’s the point, really – that’s what Mary ponders in her heart. The Incarnation of God as a tiny, hungry, fragile, crying baby defies all of our human expectations about power. But that is where God is to be found – with the poor, the weak, with those who are pushed around by the forces of the world. And the same things that are confounding about this humble birth will continue to confound even the closest friends and followers of Jesus – that this extraordinary healer and teacher and miracle-worker will allow himself to be pushed around, unjustly tried, and executed by the forces of human corruption and violence, all for love… Emmanuel, “God with us,” joins himself to the whole broken and suffering reality of human life, in order to redeem it and transform it and draw it into the full and glorious life of God. And while the forces of empire, of greed and profit and abuse of power, may endure for a time, they will never have the last word, because the love of God, poured out in this holy birth and life and death and resurrection, reveals how shabby and hollow they are.

Although we know Luke’s story of the Nativity, we receive it afresh every year, still as startling as the message which came to the shepherds. And God calls us to be like those shepherds, to look for the good news that has been declared to us, even in the most unlikely places, to recognise God at work in Creation and in the lives of human beings, to offer our thanks and praise, and to hold on to truth and wonder and holiness as we have experienced them. And we are to go out into the world’s darkness, holding this light as best we can, proclaiming in and by our lives the love and hope and joy and peace which pass all human understanding.

Fourth Sunday of Advent: December 20, 2020

Fourth Sunday of Advent: December 20, 2020 (Genesis 3.1-15; Isaiah 9.2, 6-7; Isaiah 11.1-3, 4a, 6-9; Luke 1.26-38; Luke 2.1, 3-16)

Luke’s account of the Annunciation has inspired countless artists over the centuries – I’m sure you’ve all received classy Christmas cards with Annunciation images on them. Most of the pictures I’m thinking of are quite similar in structure: Mary (usually on the right side, for some reason) has been occupied in some quiet, sedentary activity – reading, or needlework, or prayer – and on the left side we see Gabriel, wings just settling after a dramatic landing, often coming through a doorway to make his announcement, or interrupting the space in some other way which makes it clear that this is a momentous encounter – all movement and challenge and invitation. Mary’s face may reflect perplexity, awe, acceptance, or some combination of these emotions. It’s a sort of freeze-frame of a moment in salvation history: God’s activity and God’s promise coming out of a clear blue sky.

The Annunciation shows us the working out of the promises in our second and third readings today, and it’s worth reflecting on the human dimensions of the encounter. If we imagine for a moment the situation of a young woman in Roman Palestine, faced with the announcement that she would bear the Messiah, I’m not sure puzzlement or perplexity would necessarily be the first emotions we’d expect – wouldn’t she be terrified, resistant, even angry? After all, she would now become wholly dependent on the goodwill and humility of her betrothed husband for protection from stoning or honour-killing; remember, too, that pregnancy and childbirth were physically dangerous in a way that is perhaps hard for us to imagine today, on this continent. I think it’s very important for us to keep this element of the story in mind, because if we look only at the calm surface of Luke’s account, and the loveliness of the artists’ creations, we keep the human, physical, and social element at arm’s length. We also avoid putting ourselves realistically in Mary’s place, and reflecting on how we respond to God’s unfathomable promptings in our own lives.

I don’t think it’s any accident that the first words Luke reports Mary as saying to Gabriel are the protest of her rational mind: “I’m a virgin – how can this be?” I don’t suppose most of us will ever be visited by an angel in full living colour, but we all encounter demands on us which challenge our preconceptions – even the facts of our lived experience – and certainly the plans which we may have made for ourselves. This past year has been a particularly striking reminder of that. And we’re allowed to ask the question “How can this be?” We probably won’t get as full an answer as Gabriel gave Mary, but two crucial sentences do apply: “Do not be afraid”, and “Nothing will be impossible with God”. He asks her, in effect, to keep an open mind, to hold herself in readiness for the work which God will do through her, and that is what she offers in response: “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”. She is willing to entertain the possibility which God has opened before her without, as yet, understanding what it means.

Eastern Orthodox tradition calls Mary the theotokos, or “God-bearer”. Mary accepted the task of bearing the Messiah, of becoming the gate of Christ’s humanity; we, too, are called to be God-bearers, not simply to carry our faith in our hearts, but to bring forth our faith and our love of God in works of justice and mercy and peace, to tend one another’s wounds, feed one another’s hungers, and acknowledge the face of Christ in all whom we meet, participating in the redemptive life of God incarnate as it unfolds in time. What this requires of us is openness and discernment. We don’t necessarily have to grasp the full significance of God’s invitations right away, and we can employ both reason and prayer to test their rightness – the crucial thing is that we trust God to do God’s part, and remain open to having our minds changed and our lives transformed. This is not easy, and it requires a surrender of both ego and preconceptions in the face of uncertainty.

Of course it is precisely in the face of uncertainties, like that of the present time, in our personal lives and in the lives of our church and our social and political structures that we find this kind of surrender most difficult, and the discernment of our own roles most obscure. Only rarely, and dimly, can we realistically foresee the outcomes of our own actions, while our culture places a delusional premium on planning, on staking our claims on the future – on fooling ourselves into thinking that we know what will be. Against this tension, however, we can set the assurance of Gabriel: the Holy Spirit will be with us, and the power of the Most High will overshadow us… and nothing is impossible with God. We can join ourselves to Mary’s prophetic hope for justice and her confidence in God’s salvation, weaving her words joyfully into the prayers of our own hearts and minds: “We are the servants of the Lord; let it be with us according to God’s word.”

Third Sunday of Advent: December 13, 2020

Third Sunday of Advent: December 13, 2020 (Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24; John 1.6-8, 19-28)

“Rejoice always,” Paul tells the Thessalonians, in the excerpt we heard today. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for…the one who calls you is faithful.” God’s faithfulness is also the theme of the writer known as “Third Isaiah”, responsible for the final part of that book, focused on the return of God’s people to their homeland from captivity in Babylon as part of the wider repatriation project of Cyrus the Great. “They shall build up the ancient ruins…and repair the ruined cities… and I will greatly rejoice in the Lord.” Three times, in our psalm, we sang of “shouts of joy” in response to the promises of God.

Rejoice! Gaudete! The old name for the third Sunday in Advent marks a brightening in a dark season, a lifting of solemnity – the promise of a vaccine against a deadly virus – and into this respite, in our lectionary, strides the strange and ambiguous figure of John the Baptist, preaching repentance and creating disturbance, as prophets usually do. The religious authorities, understandably enough, send messengers to try to discover who he is and what he’s up to, and the exchange which follows, in a less serious context, would be quite comic: “Who are you?” “Not who you think”. “Are you Elijah?” “No”. “The prophet?” “No”. “Please, give us something we can take back to Jerusalem.” The answer he gives them is almost worse than useless, unless you happen to be of a prophetic turn of mind yourself: “I am a voice in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord”. So they take a different tack: “Why are you baptizing if you’re not any of these people?” “I’m only baptizing with water, but there’s someone already here, someone you don’t know, in comparison with whom I am less than a slave.” In a way, he tells them everything important about himself, without actually telling them anything. John is known, especially in Eastern Orthodox tradition, as “the forerunner”, because everything he does points away from himself, points toward Jesus, points toward God. With this orientation, all he can say about himself is who he is not, and it gives him a particular kind of freedom. Because nothing he does is about himself, he is able to recognise everything in his time and place which falls short of the will of God and requires repentance – and to be clear in denouncing it – but at the same time to take joy in the good news of his prophecy, not the sort of joy that leads to singing and dancing, necessarily, but the deep joy that leads him to quote so powerfully from the restorative prophecy of Isaiah, and to send his own disciples off to join Jesus, once he knows who he is. Because John is human, his faith is not perfect – we know that later, in prison, in the sort of circumstances which can easily cast doubt on everything one has ever believed, he questioned whether he had been right about Jesus, because the emphasis of Jesus’ teaching was so different from his own, but Jesus does not condemn him for that.

We find ourselves, as Christians, in a place very like John’s, I think. So much about our world is broken, and estranged from God, and the COVID-19 pandemic has shed a terrible light on these abiding wounds. Human beings fight over resources which could be shared, and hate other people and groups on the basis of every imaginable trivial difference; we spurn opportunities for reconciliation. At every social and political level, the expression of our collective responsibility and will, we fail constantly. We don’t reform the long-term care system to protect the most vulnerable members of our society, we drag our heels in providing affordable and supportive housing to homeless people, we delay in implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and we favour the profit of extractive industries at home and abroad over human and environmental rights. That’s just the start of a much longer list, and I’m sure everyone here could add to it. And of course it is our role to show up and speak up, to plead and protest and organise and resist, not simply because we know these things are wrong, but because we have been given a vision of what it is they fall short of – a vision in which good news is brought to the oppressed, the broken-hearted are bound up, liberty and release are proclaimed to prisoners and captives, and the jubilee – the year of the Lord’s favour and forgiveness and restoration – is proclaimed to the whole world. This is the vision of Isaiah, and the vision which Jesus publicly claimed at the beginning of his ministry, the vision which his loving self-offering makes possible. And we can delight in it, even as we set ourselves against everything in this world which obscures it, because we know, like John the Baptist, that it is already among us, even if we don’t always recognise it. We can stand against large and unjust structures, because we can rejoice at the same time that every act of care and love and peace-making and generosity is a living tendril of the kingdom of God, curling quietly and invisibly around the foundations of those structures to bring them down.

Sometimes we will doubt, and tire, and lose the energy and the will to carry out this work, because, like John the Baptist, we are frail material beings. But we also have the part of the story that John did not yet know for certain: that God suffered among us in our flesh, died, and rose from death, drawing with him all our weakness and brokenness and inadequacy into a place of healing; that Jesus feeds and sustains us always with the gift of himself, foretaste of the heavenly banquet. We can fix our eyes on Isaiah’s vision, knowing that it represents not only the restoration of one people to their home, but the moment when God’s kingdom is known “on earth, as it is in heaven”. And we can help prepare the way for that kingdom, “making straight the way of the Lord”, by living in it as something already among us.

How we do that is very much the theme of Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances”. We rejoice with great gladness because of what God has already shown us of love and healing and mercy and peace. We pray without ceasing, opening the whole of our lives to the light of the kingdom, making everything we do a piece of our life in God, and, when we are not certain how to move forward, we wait and listen in darkness to learn what our next steps might be. Often, we will get it wrong, and our prayer must take us around again. Giving thanks in all circumstances is perhaps the hardest sell of Paul’s list, not simply because of things in our own lives about which we are resentful or unsatisfied, but because it’s genuinely hard to be grateful in the face of our own pain and loss, of systemic injustice or global pandemic or environmental catastrophe. And yet, to be grateful for the sufficiency of what we do have, for our families and friends and communities, for small signs of hope, and above all for the unconditional and changelessly faithful love of God, is, at the same time, a radical rejection of the world’s insidious culture of increase. Being realistic about our needs, and truly grateful for those which are fulfilled, can help us to learn the freedom of John the Baptist, to be the voice in the wilderness when we have to, and to point away from ourselves toward the kingdom of God.

And so, as the year continues toward its darkest point, and as darkness can be seen in so many places, we make our resistance: we pray, and give thanks, and rejoice in the light which is always coming into the world.

Second Sunday of Advent: December 6, 2020

Second Sunday of Advent: December 6, 2020 (Isaiah 40.1-11; Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3.8-15a; Mark 1.1-8)

 With the coming of Advent, our lectionary presents us, every year, with the image of John the Baptist, the foremost messenger of the coming of Jesus into the world. Mark describes John’s appearance on the scene with a quotation from that familiar and dramatic passage from Isaiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ ” We heard how Isaiah continues: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” “Prepare the way of the Lord…” In Advent, we prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ, trying to be attentive to the great mystery of the Incarnation in our own lives, but there’s more to it than that. Mark situates John firmly in a specific location, reminding us that this mystery is revealed not only spiritually, but in the broader, messier world around us.

I suspect that we don’t often analyse this passage from Isaiah, with its grand metaphors of divine landscaping, very closely: we’re not meant, I think, to picture God’s coming into the world as a levelling which will transform the physical, or even spiritual, vistas of our earth into a vast, flat plain, eliminating diversity and gradation, but rather, I believe, to imagine a transformation and reclamation of the human landscape on the principles of God’s justice. We know – something the pandemic has made even more painfully clear – that many, many people in our society are trapped in dark vales of poverty and despair which they are powerless to escape unaided, faced with sheer cliffs of marginalisation and exploitation and inequity which they cannot scale alone; the paths before their feet are strewn with obstacles of illness, malnutrition, and bureaucratic delay. To fill the valleys to a level from which people can actually emerge safely, with measures like fair wages and basic income supports, to make the heights passable, by increasing access to education and comprehensive healthcare, and to sweep away the jagged stones of bias and prejudice which cause our fellow humans to stumble, is to prepare the way of the Lord. To make straight the highway, to render it both just and true, is a work which can begin in charity, in small efforts of mending and realignment, but it is ultimately and inescapably a work of prophecy, of advocacy and exhortation.

This is a work to which we are called as a church, to advocate for the oppressed and the vulnerable, to name injustice and to strive for transformation, and it’s very concrete. For example, parishes in this diocese are being asked to participate in a campaign for shelter and housing, uniting our voices to urge the provincial government to place a moratorium on tenant evictions at a time when so many people’s livelihoods have been endangered by the pandemic, and to demand that municipal governments put a stop to the clearing of homeless encampments, the places where unhoused people have gathered to create fragile, socially-distanced communities to protect themselves from the spread of the coronavirus. This is more prosaic language than that of Isaiah and Mark, but it is all part of the same message: when we can dare to let the spirit of our faith be integrated into – become incarnate in – our social and political structures, we may know ourselves to be participants in preparing the way of the Lord.

We do not labour at our prophetic tasks because we are preparing for the arrival of a God who is absent from us. The God in whose name we practise justice and strive for equity is with us, working in us – in our hearts, our minds, and our bodies – to achieve the purposes of the kingdom. John the Baptist, who would never know – in this life – of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus, was given the prophetic gift to name him as the Son of God. John came, we are told, that all might believe through him: prophecy requires transparency to the light of God, an effacement of self, and a clear sense of one’s own identity in relation to God. It is an unfolding process of attention, obedience, and declaration. It is also a process – and here John is a very explicit example – in which we understand that we ourselves may not see the fulfillment of the promises we proclaim, or the full realisation of the work which God commands to and through us. This is something crucial to the work of justice: we may not always see the sort of result from our efforts that would make us feel their value, but we can be relieved and strengthened by knowing that the virtue of prophecy is measured on a far larger scale than our own visible “success”. The task of proclaiming and preparing God’s kingdom, even in the darkest and most troubling of times, is in itself a gift, an invitation to enter into the life of God. Christ comes to us, every moment of every day, calling us to live and love and work in him, surrendering our preconceptions and our fears in harmony with his perfect self-offering and glorious resurrection. Let our Advent prayer be for the gifts of the prophet – attentive discernment, humble obedience, and fearless proclamation – that we may bear witness to the light, and show forth God’s presence in the world which waits for the coming of the kingdom.

First Sunday of Advent: November 29, 2020

First Sunday of Advent: November 29, 2020 (Isaiah 64.1-9; Psalm 80.1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1.3-9; Mark 13.24-37)

I expect this an experience most of us have had at some time or another: sitting next to a window on a bus, or a train, during a long journey, watching the landscape go by, and seeing, at the same time, the reflection from the opposite window. Depending on the light levels, the reflection can seem incredibly real, and you can have the impression of two, layered, realities passing before your gaze. The reflected one is a bit tricky, though, a bit elusive, and it helps if you can sometimes glance across to the other window and check what you think you’re seeing.

The season of Advent is a bit like that. On the one hand, we have a beginning, the expectation of the birth of Christ, the coming of God incarnate among us to share our human nature, a story we already know, even if our minds cannot ever fully grasp its mystery; on the other hand, our scripture readings over these next four weeks will focus our minds on the end times, the return of Jesus, the final revelation of the kingdom of God. Moving simultaneously through such different landscapes can be disorienting, and it’s natural that we should find ourselves glancing back and forth to try to locate ourselves in the reality of both.

Reflecting on “last things” is de-stabilising, in and of itself, and I think we have to admit that the way we understand any prophecies along these lines will be strongly coloured by what we ourselves most desire or fear, and by the desires and fears of the times through which we are living. The writer of the portion of Isaiah we heard today looks forward to several things: forgiveness for the unfaithfulness of the people of Israel, a restoration of the sense of God’s presence among them, and a show of divine power which will restore their kingdom on earth. These were the same hopes which greeted the ministry of Jesus, which initially drew people to him, and his absolute refusal to be established as an earthly king, or even to talk about the kingdom of God in terms of earthly power, must have been a crushing disappointment to many of those who followed him, who were unable to imagine Isaiah’s promises of forgiveness and restoration without the kind of demonstration of military might they expected as part of the Messiah’s coming. What Jesus shows them instead is another sort of end. In the passage leading up to today’s Gospel, (a section known as the “little apocalypse” of Mark) he predicts that “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom… there will be famines”. His followers will be persecuted, false Messiahs will appear, and the Temple will be desecrated. All these are very much evils of the world, catastrophes of human history, business as usual, predictable…  the self-inflicted wounds of broken humanity. But the coming of God into the world is something different, something quite literally incalculable: even the angels of God do not know the day or the hour. We are to be alert, to keep awake.

Now I do not believe that Jesus is wishing on his followers a sort of permanent insomnia, much less a state of perpetual anxiety about reckoning and retribution, but rather, telling us something about kingdom time. Something which “could happen anytime” is, in effect, an abiding reality. The kingdom of God breaks in on us all the time, and we are to be alert and wakeful and attentive to its signs, to notice, and to act. Every sacrament, for example, is not only an act of worship and community, but also an instance of the kingdom infiltrating and redeeming our material reality and establishing itself among us, drawing us into the citizenship of heaven and giving us a role in its preparation here and now. That’s really what Paul means when he writes to the Corinthians that they have been enriched in Christ, “in speech and knowledge of every kind”, so that they are not lacking in spiritual gifts as they wait for the full revelation of Jesus, whenever and however it might come. It’s what we talk about in our baptismal promises and in our prayers. Because it’s never just about what happens in church: every act of care and kindness, of feeding and tending and listening, of practising and defending peace and justice and mercy, also happens in the kingdom of God.

The language of apocalypse often appears to focus on consequences, but seeing these as the retribution of an angry God is, on the one hand, paranoid and, on the other, an evasion of responsibility. Of course there are consequences to human action, sometimes painful and even lethal ones, wounds and wars and environmental catastrophe. They are possible because God has created us with free will, to respond to divine grace and beauty and order with our own, lesser, reflections of those gifts… or not; to seek to be good, to echo and diffuse and radiate the love of God in the world not by divine compulsion, but freely. And when we fail, there are consequences, because God has also created the material world to act in accordance with its own nature.

There are people who cling to the idea that every catastrophe, every earthquake, flood, hurricane, or pandemic, can be blamed on the sins of other people, usually some vulnerable or marginalised group, but I believe that this is a betrayal of what Jesus is teaching us in this Gospel. I believe that, like those first disciples, we need to learn to abandon the obsession with exact timings and measurable consequences, and learn to live in creative expectation, knowing that we are citizens of the kingdom of God at the same time as we are citizens of this world, and live in both to the greater glory of God. May this Advent be a time to practice this unifying vision in a troubled and divided world.

The Reign of Christ: November 22, 2020

The Reign of Christ: November 22, 2020 (Ezekiel 34.11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1.15-23; Matthew 25. 31-46)

You may know the old joke – you may even have heard it from me – about a wealthy person who dies and turns up at the gates of heaven – maybe an investment banker, or a corporate lawyer, or a society dentist; it doesn’t matter – the point is that he’d become extremely wealthy by “respectable” means. He’s confronted by Saint Peter and the Archangel Gabriel, who ask him to state his case for admission to eternal bliss – not his status, or his professional competence, but his acts of charity. He thinks a few long moments before saying “I gave a dollar to a panhandler last Christmas”. “That’s it?” says Peter. “Well”, says the applicant, after another long pause, “I did give a street kid a dollar a few years before that”. “What do you think?” Peter asks his colleague, and Gabriel responds, “I say we give him his two bucks back and tell him to go to hell.”

Now it’s usually considered a bad idea to analyze jokes too closely, but it’s worth noticing, I think, that this one shares some basic ethical assumptions with the parable of the sheep and the goats – about obligations and consequences. Both also hinge on surprise, on someone’s suddenly being brought to recognise the full implications of the obligation to care. That sudden recognition, that revelation, also underlies the origins of the word “apocalypse”, and in a way that is what we are being shown here, as we commemorate the Reign of Christ, the feast of Christ the King – a vision of ultimate things.

The title “Christ the King” has been in use since the earliest days of the church, but the idea of a particular day designated to celebrate this concept is more recent: the feast was instituted in the Roman Catholic church in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, as a reminder that the true allegiance of Christians was to their heavenly ruler, rather than to earthly despots like Benito Mussolini, who was then establishing himself in power in Italy. Originally, the feast was on the Sunday before All Saints, but it was eventually transferred by consensus of the churches which adopted it to the final Sunday of the church calendar, the Sunday before our cycle of salvation history begins again with the anticipation of Advent. Although Pope Pius emphasised that the kingship of Christ is unlike the rule of human kings, “a dominion not seized by violence nor usurped, but his by essence and by nature”, enough Anglicans have found the association with historical, earthly kingship troubling that we now celebrate the day under the name of “the Reign of Christ”.

Even so, what do we mean by it? It would seem to be an occasion to focus on the power of Christ risen, ascended, and returning, the triumph of life and light and love over death, darkness, and despair, and the authority of Christ to judge and to set right the evils of this world, to bring in, finally, the kingdom of heaven. Certainly, the parable of the sheep and the goats seems to emphasise this authority to judge, as well as the power to punish… but I want to think about it for a moment – this particular parable – in its context in Matthew’s Gospel. Remember, we have had a whole series of parables of judgement recently, with people being thrown into outer darkness by masters and rulers who bear, on the whole, very little resemblance to a loving Father, and even less to a Redeemer who entered into our human life in order to draw us into the life of God. It is as though Matthew depicts Jesus using such language because it was what his hearers expected, the only way they understood of talking about “the last days”. But this parable, in Matthew, is the last teaching before the events of the Passion, the events which will change the perspective and the understanding of Jesus’ followers forever, and in it he identifies himself explicitly with those who are vulnerable, those who are hungry, thirsty, sick, or imprisoned. It’s that identification which is the primary shock in the parable: those who have cared for the needy may have done it out of obedience to the Law, or out of instinct, but now they learn that Christ receives this care as service to himself. Those others who may have lived highly ethical lives in other respects, but not shown practical, tangible compassion for the vulnerable, now learn whom they have been ignoring.

I mentioned that our recent series of parables has depicted masters who really cannot be identified with a loving God, and I want to go back briefly to three of these stories. There’s the master who throws a wedding banquet, kills those who violently rejected his invitation, and then casts out the guest who has no wedding garment, the guest who refuses to play the master’s vicious game of social dominance and display, the guest who does not speak to defend himself. “When was it that we saw you a stranger and did not welcome you? Or naked, and did not give you clothing?” There are the five prudent and respectable young women who, rather than share their oil, or offer to light their companions with the light of their own lamps, throw them on the treacherous mercy of the market, and the bridegroom who shuts out the improvident young women because they weren’t ready on time. “When was it that we saw you…?” And last week we heard about the master, by his own admission someone who reaped where he did not sow, who successfully enlisted two of his slaves in his project of venture capitalism, but impoverished the one who rejected that means of currying favour, the one who named the fear which such economic games create in the vulnerable. “When was it…?” It is as if Jesus says to his hearers, “When you comforted yourselves with those stories, inserted yourselves into them on the side of power, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

And all this is not simply about the obligation to care, but about the path on which Jesus is now seen to embark. He has known it all along, has tried to tell his followers what was going to happen to him, but now the Passover journey begins in earnest. The incarnate Son of God will make himself vulnerable to human power and violence, in order to transcend it. He will not summon a legion of angels, to defeat might with greater might, but will allow himself to become the sacrifice which ends all sacrifice, the Paschal Lamb who is not consumed but rises again. And in that rising, he transforms our understanding of all his earthly teaching, brings to it what the theologian James Alison calls “the intelligence of the victim”. Before the resurrection, says Alison,

…there was an area of human life that was radically unknown, maybe even unknowable. And this area of human unknowing was laid bare, opened up, by the resurrection… As a result of the resurrection of Jesus, the disciples underwent a profound shift in their understanding, such that they were able to understand something about human life and relationships that had never really been understood before. That something was, to put it simply, the relationship between God and victims.

The disciples had always operated on the assumptions of their culture, nearly universal assumptions about power and about divinity, about righteousness and worthiness and being on the winning side, and probably that is where their minds went when they first heard this parable as well. But the light of resurrection showed them, as it shows us, a God who is with the vulnerable, the marginal, the unprepared, as well as with those who deliberately and at their own cost refuse to participate in the brutal machinery of human power struggle. This is the king who calls us into service, and the shape of that service is to act from a deep knowledge of God’s all-embracing love, to feed and clothe and heal and care, not because of which side we will end up on at some imagined judgement, but simply because the power of God, if we allow it to work in us, cannot do otherwise.

Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost: November 15, 2020

Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost: November 15, 2020 (Judges 4.1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11; Matthew 25.14-30)

Some of you may remember a television reality show called “Canada’s Got Talent,” which ran for a single season in 2012. It was part of a massive international franchise, which includes Britain’s Got Talent and America’s Got Talent – both still going strong – whose format is a series of auditions and performances in which singers, dancers, instrumentalists, actors, beatboxers, mixed martial artists, magicians, animal acts, and bike stunt performers display their “talents” in front of judges and and/or live audiences; of course there are prizes and career opportunities for those who make it to the final rounds.  As distorted and commodified as it is in this context, the meaning of “talent” referenced in the names of these programmes is very much that developed through centuries of interpretation of the Gospel passage we heard a moment ago.

Now the exhortation to use our gifts and abilities well and to the glory of God, and to make choices thoughtfully, is not a bad message. I think that’s what has given it such staying power, and had the effect it has had on the meaning of the word “talent” in a number of languages. It’s very much in line with the admonition in Paul’s epistle to the Thessalonians to discern the times, remain alert, and choose wisely. But there are enormous problems with this interpretation: casting God as the cruel and arbitrary master who expects his servants to play a game with rules he never really explains to them (or as the judge who hits the “X” button and eliminates them from competition) is the worst kind of theology – it reinforces the fear-based ethic of avoiding punishment which underlies so much simplistic and misguided Christian teaching.

We’ve spent a lot of time this past summer and fall looking more closely at Matthew’s parables, and re-examining their traditional interpretations, so you won’t be surprised that I want to do the same with this one, which is one of the most problematic in many ways. I think we need to remember, to start with, that Jesus is using the word “talent” (talentum in Latin, or talanton in the Greek of the Gospels) strictly in its historical sense, as a weight of measure which could be used for gold or silver. The low-end estimate for a modern equivalent to the talent is about 33 kg, or 73 lbs; in modern terms we’re talking about a value of $33,612 Canadian for a talent of silver, and over $2.5 million for gold. So this is not about the servants in the story obediently accepting one, or two, or five gold or silver coins and then deciding how most effectively and responsibly (or not) to invest them. Even in silver, this is a vast, an absurd amount of money – and the unreality of the scenario would have been clear to Jesus’ listeners, and alerted them that this was no straightforward story.

We’ve talked about the various opening lines of Matthew’s versions of the parables, especially those which purport to describe the kingdom of God. Some begin “The kingdom of heaven is like this,” while others start more cautiously with “The kingdom of heaven may be compared with.” This one opens simply with “It’s as if a man…” and that should signal caution. Parables use examples from the world as it is, and the world as it is includes wealthy and powerful people who play games with the vulnerable and powerless, games which may have shattering effects on their lives.

What happens if we follow through logically from the traditional assumption that the master in these parables always represents God? We have a scenario in which God is going away. Does this mean withdrawing from the world? Some other kind of divine absence? God then returns and judges winners and losers in the ridiculous “investment challenge” competition he set for his servants before he left. The rewards are lavish and the punishment catastrophic. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It’s an outcome which resonates with the concluding lines of our psalm: “Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy, for we have had more than enough of contempt, too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud.” I think you’ll agree that while this may be an accurate description of how the world works, it’s not a description of God’s kingdom of justice, mercy, peace, and love. Then, as now, profiting from investments on the scale the parable describes was a matter of exploiting the labour of others and draining resources from one part of the empire to satisfy the whims of another, and nowhere is this part of the good news of the Incarnation.

You may recall the parable of the wedding feast, from a few weeks  ago, how we looked for Jesus in the story, and found him in the guest who did not put on a wedding garment, did not join in the arbitrary power games of the king in the story, who remained silent before questioning and was cast out of the corrupt and coercive gathering. I think we need to apply the same sort of perspective shift to today’s parable, and seek him in the third servant, the one who refused to play the game, and who called out the viciousness of the master: “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” He speaks of fear, which is reasonable in the circumstances, a matter of solidarity with the fear of all the vulnerable and powerless of the world, but he has opted to refuse the game, to speak out, and to bear the consequences, as Jesus does indeed bear the consequences of human cruelty and irrationality.

Viewing the parable from this angle is not such a stretch as you might be imagining. It sets up next week’s parable of the sheep and the goats, which is all about recognizing the face of Christ in the marginalized, those cast aside, cast out, by mainstream society. Most crucially, our epistle reminds us that “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” – our picture of God simply cannot align with the master of this parable. The God we encounter in Jesus does not set us up to fail, but leads us into all life and all love, the life and love we can enter into and proclaim to a broken world.

Commemoration of All Souls: November 8, 2020

Commemoration of All Souls: November 8, 2020 (Wisdom 3.1-9; Psalm 116.1-8; 1 Peter 1.3-9; John 11.21-27)

Two years ago, in the summer of 2018, many people were moved by the story of an orca known as Tahlequah, part of the critically endangered South Resident killer whale population off the coast of British Columbia, whose newborn calf had died, and who carried the body of her child around with her for two weeks. It’s a particularly poignant story because of the tenuous situation of the species, but it’s certainly not the only example we have of animals appearing to mourn the dead. Workers at a chimpanzee sanctuary in Cameroon, for example, recorded the response of the other animals to the burial of one of their matriarchs: a long line of them watching as the keepers carried her past, arms around each others’ shoulders, in perfect silence. Elephants will remain with the body of one of their companions for days or even weeks, first appearing to cry, then falling silent, touching it gently with their trunks, and then covering it with leaves and grass; they’ve been known to do this with other elephants not related to them, and have occasionally been reported to have done the same even for the bodies of humans. And it’s not just mammals who have these responses: magpies, thought to be among the most intelligent of animals, also have what can be described as funeral customs, keeping a vigil, quietly touching the body, and bringing little offerings of grass before flying away.

Given our close kinship with the animal kingdom, it’s no wonder, then, that so many human cultures have evolved rituals around death, most of them seemingly based on the intuition that our stories do not simply end when we die. Archaeologists often find objects in prehistoric graves, tools the departed may need in the afterlife, or jewellery, or gifts to negotiate their way, like the small coin, the obolus, which the ancient Greeks believed the dead would need to pay the ferryman at the river Styx. The world’s faith traditions have evolved complex beliefs around what happens after death, many imagining an afterlife of some kind, others a process of reincarnation. Common to many of these traditions are the ideas that a person’s actions during life have an effect on what comes after, and that the actions of family and friends can also make a difference in this process. Our faith as Christians is founded in the central belief that God, in Christ, became human, underwent a human death, and triumphed over it, rising on the third day and opening the gate to a blessed and eternal life for all who are part of his family, but for most of our history we have also prayed for the dead, and for their passage into that state of closeness to God. Medieval theology codified these practices into a simple structure: saints go to heaven, irredeemable sinners go to hell, but most of us have to spend some time in an in-between state called purgatory, where we still have choices to make, and where the prayers of the living can affect what happens to us – perhaps the most famous expression of this theology is in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Unfortunately, with the rise of a money economy, this complex of ideas led to some grotesque abuses, based on the idea that gifts of money to the church could “buy” salvation even more effectively than prayer. With the Reformation came a backlash against not only these abuses, but against the very idea of purgatory: Article 22 of the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles (found at the end of the Book of Common Prayer) denounced purgatory as “a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God,” and the funeral service developed for the Church of England by Thomas Cranmer in 1552 offered no prayers for the dead. In fact the only reference to the departed was a single line giving thanks for their release from “the myseryes of this sinneful world.” An individual’s faith was thought to be the only key to salvation, and the soul’s fate was decided, for better or worse, at the moment of death.

Of course this theology hasn’t gone away, and there are still many Christians who would argue that it’s scripturally based and therefore indisputable, but I think that the Anglican Church has come to balance respect for that part of our history, and a healthy wariness about the idea of trying to “bribe” God, with the ancient intuition that our souls have a relationship with God which continues to change and develop after death. And so we say, “Give rest, O Christ, to your servants with your saints, where sorrow and care are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting,” and we believe that God hears our prayer.

During the past eight months of pandemic, many people have had to reflect on their ideas about life and death, as contact with the dying was limited or impossible, and as many people, particularly in long-term care, died without having friends or family present (although I know that caring staff did what they could). We have had to think more deeply about the transformation of our relationships with those we have lost, and about how to express our understanding not only of that reality, but of the transformation of their relationships with God. We see Martha, in our Gospel, struggling with a similar set of questions – questions which would be answered only temporarily by the raising of her brother, but more fully and finally on Easter morning.

The truth about all of this is almost certainly greater and more mysterious than anything human beings can imagine. What is crucial to remember, I believe, is that God is not constrained by time, and therefore transcends death as time-bound mortals experience it. By extension, then, all of us living now, all who have been, and all who will be, are alive in God, and this relationship in God is the most important relationship we have – all our solemn earthly covenants are attempts to reflect, and to participate in, the unshakeable faithfulness of God. We try to keep faith with the past – honouring the traditions we have been taught, and the expressed wishes of those who came before us – and with the present: our vows and our responsibilities and commitments. We are also called to keep faith with the future; although we cannot see, or even, really, imagine, seven generations ahead, we must recognise that our role in shaping the world now is also part of a covenant with God, a covenant which calls us urgently to transformation.

Two things ground us in our covenants: trust and hope. We trust that the loving God who is faithful in all things will hold us, and those with whom we are in relationship, in mutual care and responsibility. And we hope that the God whose desire is for us to be our best selves will strengthen us in what we promise, forgive us when we fail, give us the will to renew and reshape our covenants in the light of what we learn of each other and the world, and hold us in love when we die.

And so we pray. In a few minutes we will pray for those who have gone before us into the eternity of God, in trust and in hope that all Creation will rest, ultimately, in the love of the One who brought it into being.

All Saints' Day: November 1, 2020

All Saints’ Day: November 1, 2020 (Revelation 7.9-17; Psalm 34.1-10, 22; 1 John 3.1-3; Matthew 5.1-12)

At the risk of re-treading familiar ground, I want to reflect a little today on the very idea of sainthood, or rather the various ideas about sainthood which Christians have had over the centuries. The word “saint”, as you know, comes (by way of French) from the Latin “sanctus”, meaning “holy” or “blessed”, and usually, when we use it, we think of those people who have been spectacular examples of holiness: faithful apostles, courageous martyrs, wise bishops. These are the people after whom we name churches, for whom we celebrate feast-days, about and to whom the church over the centuries has written eloquent prayers, and who are thought, in catholic tradition, to be already in the company of God – that’s why they are asked to present prayers to God on our behalf, and even thought to have areas of specialisation, like finding lost objects (like Anthony of Padua) or even lost causes (like the apostle Jude). They offer us examples of courage, humility, wisdom, generosity, and witness to the love and power of God which, while they inspire us, can sometimes leave us gasping for breath, feeling as though real holiness is something reserved to the heroes of the faith.

Of course, that isn’t how the word is used in the New Testament. It doesn’t, oddly enough, appear in any of our readings today, but you’ll remember that when Saint Paul and his near-contemporaries talk about saints, what they seem to be referring to is the whole company of the faithful followers of Christ. That usage should give us all hope of being called saints, but it would also seem to leave us without a specific way of honouring those who really do stand as signs of God at work in the world.

I think there is a key to this apparent dichotomy in our second reading, and in the sacrament which brings us all into the body of Christ. John writes to his community, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known” – we are already children of God, secure in God’s love and God’s promises, but we will develop in ways which we cannot foresee. At a baptism, this is the faith we express: we welcome new Christians into the church and into our community of faith, recognising them as beloved children of God; at the same time, we know that they will need the support of the whole community to grow in faith, and to realise fully the promises which God makes to us in baptism. God’s promises are made to us from the very beginning, from before we even come to be, but we experience their unfolding in time, as a process, or, probably more usually, as a series of steps forward and steps back.

So it is with sainthood. It may be that some of the great host of people we commemorate today as saints had a clear and constant consciousness of this identity throughout their lives, but I think it’s far more likely that most of them experienced periods of growth into the life of God, as well as times when God seemed more distant, and holiness more difficult. What makes them saints is not that they put their heads down and strove with all their might to be holy, but that they heard God’s invitation – or summons – to sanctity, and recognised that with the call came the means. Saints, simply put, are people who trust God: who realise that their baptism has made them members of a family, and that God’s love and support are available to them throughout their lives, through the love and support of that family, through the sacraments, through prayer, through scripture, and through the innumerable other ways in which God comes to all of us, and in that trust offer themselves as instruments of God’s love. Sanctity comes, not from effort – although striving for the purposes of the kingdom is both a good and a useful thing – but through participation in God’s activity in the world and reliance on God’s mercy and justice, and God’s promises in Christ. And just as the kingdom of heaven is “already” and “not yet” with us, so are we “already” and “not yet” part of the great company of the holy.

Something else that saints understand is the relationship between the experience of the moment and the experience of eternity, outlined so clearly in the Beatitudes, from today’s Gospel. Those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and those who are persecuted, are nevertheless blessed, or even “happy”, as the Greek makarios can also mean, because they recognise the relationship between transient experience and the eternal citizenship of the kingdom of heaven… not in the sense of gritting their teeth through the misery of this life because there’s a reward at the end, but in the understanding that eternity also touches the present, precisely in the love of God, and that grace and salvation can be apprehended in faith at any moment. This understanding is something which we learn – have learned – from one another through the generations.

When we say the Apostles’ Creed, as we do in Morning or Evening Prayer, or at a baptism, we say that we believe in the communion of saints. Whenever we speak those words, let’s remember everything they can mean: the great company of the faithful of which we are called to be a part, throughout the world today and throughout history, and that extraordinary cloud of witnesses whose lives have revealed God’s glory to us most clearly.

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost: October 25, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 – under ordinary, non-pandemic circumstances – 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.

Choral Evensong

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, Humphrys Chaplain
John Tuttle, Choirmaster and Director of Music
Nicholas Veltmeyer, Bevan Organ Scholar

 

Usual chapel schedule during the academic year

Sunday

9:00 am: Mattins and Divine Liturgy (Holy Myrrhbearers) (currently suspended)

4:00 pm: Eucharist (currently suspended)

1st & 3rd: Sunday contemporary language
2nd & 4th: Sunday traditional language

Monday

5:30 pm: Eucharist (currently suspended)

Tuesday

8:15 am: Morning Prayer (currently suspended)

5:30 pm: Divinity Community Eucharist (currently suspended)

Wednesday

1:30 pm: Eucharist (currently suspended)

5:15 pm: Choral Evensong (currently suspended)

Thursday

8:15 am: Eucharist (currently suspended)

5:30 pm: Evening Prayer (currently suspended)

Friday

8:15 am: Eucharist (currently suspended)

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.

 

Chapel schedule throughout the year

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.

 

Funerals and Memorial Services

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.

 

Questions about Chapel Services?
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