The struggle of my life

I went through several changes before settling on the calling that would define my life. In high school, I fell in love with mathematics, at which I excelled, and so I determined to pursue that love in higher education. Two years in an Honors B.Sc. program went very well, but I hit the wall in year three. The nature of the discipline was very different, and I found myself struggling with academic work for the first time in my life. During that year, a friend challenged me: “Are you going to work with people or things?” Good question! Higher mathematics is perhaps the most “thingy” discipline anyone could imagine, far removed from the ordinary lives of almost everyone — including me at the time, truth be told.

I made a change: I would walk away from the world of mathematicians, and embrace the teaching profession, where I would be dealing with people. I got my B.Sc. (a general degree with double math. major), and then enrolled in teacher training. Much of what I had to endure in that one year needed for certification was ridiculous and ultimately useless, but I did well at it.

I had financed my year of teacher ed. with a bursary from my home school district. They gave me $1200 (a princely sum in 1969) for my year of training, in return for two years guaranteed service in their employ. If I left before the end of the two years, the whole bursary became repayable immediately.

The first while there went reasonably well, but I soon found that I really could not connect with most of my students. I had spent 5 years away from my home town, and it seemed to me to have changed dramatically in that time. What had actually happened was that I had changed: my politics had become firmly left-wing, I was deeply committed to the movement for peace, and I had found a reason for this in the Gospel as I had come to perceive it through my various connections at University.

Long story made short: the move back to my home town was a disaster. I had changed a great deal, but the town was still stuck in its historical dysfunction, and too many people remembered me from before. Added to the problem was my parents’ prominence in the community, which gave me more visibility than I wanted.

My time in the classroom had some real high points. I loved it when a student’s eyes lit up as they “got it!” On the other hand, I struggled with those students who just couldn’t get it. I was teaching Grade 9 math., with a curriculum of algebra and geometry that I found exciting. One of my students handed in an assignment which was so full of nonsense that I had to work hard to give him 15% on his work. What was wrong? I went to the office and pulled his file, and found that he had received a final grade of 40% in Grade 7 math., and 30% in Grade 8. Why was he in a Grade 9 class? Answer: he had been identified early on as headed for the “pre-vocational” program in our High School, and the Jr. High was simply moving him along.

I protested to the higher-ups, the Principal, Vice-Principal, and the Deputy Superintendent, and received the consistent answer: “You have a curriculum to teach. Teach it. Some will fail.” All I wanted was some remedial workbooks for this boy and others like him to use, so that they could succeed at something.

I got discouraged, and I began to lose control of my class. My avowedly peace-making ways became the laughing-stock of some of my students, who understood violence as the only way of settling differences. By the spring of my first year, I knew that this was a disaster, and I could not go on, even though I could not afford to leave before the end of my second year.

As things fell apart, I had several sessions with the V-P and the Deputy. At one point, one of them (I’m not sure which one) said, “Robin, your problem is that you are a very reasonable person, and you expect everyone else to be the same.”

Truer words were never spoken. It took quite a while for me to accept their truth, but I’ve been living with it ever since. I made sojourns back in the math. world, from which I eventually received a Master’s degree, and then into the world of government bureaucracy, where I learned a whole lot of important life skills. Finally, I changed course, entered seminary, was ordained, and spent 26 years in the service of the church.

Shortly before graduating from seminary, all prospective graduates had an interview with the college faculty. The basic question was “Are you ready and equipped to be ordained?” We agreed that I was, and then went on to a session of helpful observations from the faculty. I don’t remember what else they said, but one thing has stuck with me: “We have observed that you do not suffer fools gladly. We believe this may be a problem for you in your future ministry.” Their observations were based on aspects of life within the college community, but their assessment was correct.

The two assessments from school and seminary authorities were separated by almost 20 years. Both groups had seen the same thing in me, and as predicted I have struggled with them ever since, even seven years into retirement.

Life is a struggle at times, and sometimes the struggle is almost more than we can bear. Last Sunday’s lectionary reading from Genesis is perhaps the archetypical story of struggle in the Bible. Jacob struggles all night with “a man,” who is obliquely revealed to be God in person, and who ultimately blesses Jacob and gives him a new name — Israel.

Jacob learned and was changed by his struggle. I have had my own struggles, whether or not I have understood them at the time as struggles with God, and I hope I have learned from them.

We all struggle in our own way with people who do not see things as we do. For some of us (ME!) this can be a huge obstacle in life. May we all learn to live with others as they are and as we receive them.

Living in the gap

We’re in the middle of a pandemic. That’s not really news, but the various things happening around this event are getting more troubling for me every day. Our city government has decreed that face coverings will be mandatory as of August 1, at the same time that our Provincial government has decided to move ahead with schools re-opening in September without any real extra protection (or funds) for students and staff.

If people are confused and trouble, there’s good reason. Our leaders at various levels are starting to work against each other, in contrast to the early days (March and April) when everyone seemed to be on the same page. People are getting tired of the restrictions, even as most are starting accept them as the “new normal.”

Not an easy time to live in, to be sure. And it’s made even harder by the number of people at every level of society who are pushing back against the science. I’ve heard of people denying that there is a pandemic at all. At the other extreme, I’ve heard people who say that the doctors and scientists are covering up the real seriousness of the situation.

We are living in a peculiar kind of gap. The virus has changed many of our normal behaviors, perhaps permanently. Whatever happens, I think it’s fair to say that nothing will ever be quite the same after this is over. Will it ever be over? Will we be living with this virus for the foreseeable future? If an effective vaccine and/or a cure can’t be found, can we ever feel safe again?

So here we are, more than four months into the declaration of the pandemic, and we have few workable answers. It seems to me that we need to try to trust the people who are working in this area day by day, allowing them the space to exercise their expertise.

One of the things that really troubles me is the self-centred attitude many people are taking to simple precautions like wearing face-covering. It may be your right to risk getting a disease, but is it your right to put other people at risk?

Every right we might claim brings with it an attendant responsibility. Free speech? By all means, speak your mind, but please be aware that your speech may needlessly hurt someone else. Free assembly? Get together as you wish, but not at the expense of other people’s freedom and safety. Freedom of religion? I’m all for that — I don’t want anyone dictating my faith life. But that means that you have to respect other people’s religious freedom.

I will wear a mask in public places in my city. I will worship according to the church and health authority’s dictates. I will keep my distance from other people as much as possible. I will sanitize as possible.

And I will continue to hope and pray that the end of this “gap” in our corporate life will not be disaster, but rather a new and kinder way of living.

Mother’s Day

I’ve seen many posts on Facebook today, people honoring their mothers and motherhood in general. I don’t want to take away anything from the sentiments there expressed, but I do feel the need to say something about my own feelings.

My parents brought us to Canada from England in 1952, seeking a better life than they thought they would get at home at the time. In many ways, they found what they were looking for, but they still resisted many of the customs of the land they had come to. One of those was Mothers Day. Even in the 50’s, when I was in elementary school, we had some societal pressure to celebrate this day. My parents thought it was just “American stuff and nonsense,” and forbade us to observe the event. Nonetheless, my mother sometimes got a bit shirty with us on the day if we didn’t acknowledge it. Against her upbringing, it seems she had absorbed some of the local culture, and hoped that her children would have done the same.

Every Mothers Day reminds me of my mother, and the contradictions I experienced around it as a child. Every Mothers Day recalls for me a woman who helped to make me who I am today. Every Mothers Day fills me with both thanksgiving and regret.

I had an interesting relationship with both of my parents. Can we use the word “complicated?” I never had any doubt that they cared for me and wanted the best for me, but it sometimes seemed that they had an odd way of expressing it. I don’t remember ever hugging my mother, and my father only once, when I was installed as a Canon of the Diocese of Edmonton. He was never sure about my career as a priest, but becoming a Canon meant something important to him, and he showed it.

As for my mother (after all, this is Mothers Day), she was a person whose life had largely been determined by other people’s ideas. I’m not going to trot out a lot of family history here, but suffice it to say that if she had done what she felt called to do, I would probably not be here today. She met my father when he was a medical student and she a student nurse, something she never wanted to do, but it was “the family business.”

Life with my mother could be interesting. I recall many wonderful times with her, and I also recall other not so wonderful times. When other people post laudatory things about their mothers, it raises in me a welter of very mixed emotions.

My mother died almost 22 years ago, in June of 1998. I still think of her often, remembering especially how difficult her last years were. Even without the illness that claimed her, it is very unlikely that she would still be with us. After all, she was born in 1917. Nonetheless, I still miss her, with all the tensions that my memories of her bring to mind — the good, the loving, and all the other things.

One of the things that has helped to redeem this day for me is learning of its early history. The first Mothers Day was the result of the work of Julia Ward Howe, who wanted a day for mothers to pray for the day when mothers would not have to send their sons off to die, as had happened so much in the American Civil War. My mother was resolutely opposed to war (more family history here…). During the Viet Nam era, when many young American men were coming to Canada, she had told my father that if we had gone to the US (a possibility in 1952), she would have expected my brother and me to come to Canada. She wouldn’t ever have sacrificed her sons to the cause of war. It was a cause of deep disagreement between her and my father, but I celebrate her for her stand, which resonates with the original movement. It’s too bad that Mothers Day has become such a “Hallmark event.”

Thank you, my dear Mother. I remember you with deep love.
….. but it’s still complicated.

Now what?

Text for a sermon preached on Good Friday, 2020, at Holy Trinity, Edmonton

Once again, we have heard the story of Jesus’ Passion and death. Once again, we have used texts from Scripture to try to comprehend this perplexing event that plays so profound a role in our faith. Once again, we have ended the story by laying Jesus in the tomb. And once again, we will go from this time in anticipation of the day that we believe will come.

The philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard wrote “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Just so, we experience the Passion story backwards. From our post-Easter perspective, we can only know it through the lens of the Resurrection, striving to see it as the Evangelist does, not as a defeat but a victory—a mysterious one to be sure, but nonetheless a victory. As we remember the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday 2020, we have the benefit of 20 centuries of hindsight and insight. Those who witnessed his death, received his body, and buried him did not. For them, the master was dead, his body wrapped in linen cloths, lying in a cold stone tomb. For them, everything that Jesus had represented and stood for went to the grave with him.

They might well have asked “Now what?”

We might be tempted from our privileged post-Resurrection perspective to reproach Jesus’ disciples for their lack of understanding, but even the first witnesses did not understand. Comprehension and belief took time. On that day before the Sabbath, as they went to their homes, all they knew was that Jesus was dead. All they could do was grieve—each in his or her own way, as is natural and normal.

Then came the Sabbath, that day when the earth stands still, and the people of God take their rest. For Jesus’ disciples and friends, that first Holy Saturday must surely have been a day of shock, disbelief, sadness, anger, even denial, things that we can understand as aspects of grief. As we hear of Jesus’ death and burial, we are invited into this same grief, to make it our own, and to live with it for a while. Grief is part of life. It is the normal human response to loss—any loss—and it cannot be pushed aside but must rather be lived through and dealt with.

The hours between now and our Easter “Alleluias” are hours of sharing the experience of the disciples, knowing their grief, living with the loss of all that is life-giving and life-restoring, not knowing what is to come next. We may call times such as these “Holy Saturday” experiences, times when one door has closed, and the next is yet to open. They are significant times in human life, and yet we often do not acknowledge them appropriately, if at all. Nonetheless, I believe if we are truly to experience the Real Presence of Christ in the Church and its sacraments, we must walk through this shadowed time of Real Absence.

Some years ago, I was called upon to mediate a conflict within a group of close friends. They had been almost inseparable in the years when their children were growing up, and all were deeply involved in the life of the church. Times change, people find new interests and vocations, and long-standing relationships become strained. As we sat together that night, one of them turned to another and said, “I know that our old friendship is dead, but I do hope for a resurrection.” As things turned out, new life was eventually possible among them, but it took time, and the new relationship was unlike anything any of them might have expected. They had to let the old one die, and to live with its loss for a time.

People are all experiencing a jumble of feelings during the COVID-19 emergency. It seems to me that as church, city, country, and world, we are living through a Holy Saturday moment. We have lost much: jobs and income, mobility, social interaction, public performances, sporting events. We have no way of knowing when this will end, nor what the world will look like after it does. Many are left to sit at home and ponder in grief. We don’t know what’s coming.

Kierkegaard was right. We can only live forwards, just like the disciples, who had no idea what was coming. The stone had not yet been rolled away, and all they could do was live through the loss of their Teacher.

Good Friday is about experiencing death. Holy Saturday is about living with that loss—the empty day of the church year, the day of “real absence.” We walk with Jesus’ disciples in this time, sharing their grief, and looking to the unknown future that God has prepared.

Easter will come…but not yet. That message is for another day.

Christ has died. Jesus’ body lies in the tomb.

Now what? God knows—and so shall we, in God’s own time.

May God who gave us his only Son give us comfort in all our griefs.

Amen.

Trying times…

We are in the midst of a global pandemic. The novel corona-virus known as COVID-19 has brought many people’s lives to a screeching halt. A lot of folks are self-isolating, quarantining themselves, sheltering in place — and whatever other term they may be using. I live in a condominium apartment where some of our residents have simply retreated into their units. I don’t know how they are managing.

In other places, with other people, things are proceeding almost unabated, even intensified. There are reports of people flocking to mountain resorts because they are off work and their kids’ schools are closed. Beaches in Florida are apparently full of partying students.

Two different responses to a public health emergency. One may be an over-reaction, seeing danger in every other person, and everything outside the confines of one’s own home. The other is certainly an under-reaction, scoffing at the warnings of the people who are charge with protecting the health of all.

I’m fortunate to live in a jurisdiction (Province of Alberta, Canada) whose public health personnel have taken a strong, clear, and appropriate response to the pandemic. Our rate of testing is one of the highest in the world, and the communications have been clear, without panic, and helpful. It is not so in some other places, as I understand it.

I am worried about the dichotomous response I noted above.

The over-reactors display a lack of trust about what they have been told, seeing everything as potentially harmful, regardless of the calm advice they have been given. It is not necessary to disinfect your whole house after every venture outside, as I have heard some people doing. It is also not necessary to avoid all contact with the outside world. Reasonable precautions have been advised, but panic has seized many people. Some of them probably now have enough toilet paper and pasta to last them well into 2021.

On the other hand, the under-reactors also show distrust of expertise. “Nothing to worry about here — so let’s party.” They don’t heed the message that they may be carrying the virus unknown to themselves and others. Social distancing is not so much intended to protect ourselves from disease, but to protect others from the disease that we may be carrying unaware.

In both cases, the issue is one of trust. Who do we trust? In the case of the over-reactors, they mostly trust the message, but feel it doesn’t go far enough. The result is a massive distrust of all other people, who become the enemy, the potential carriers of virulent disease. In the case of the under-reactors, they either don’t hear or don’t believe the message, out of a distrust of “experts.” It’s a huge problem in other areas of life today (just think of the climate change issue), but in this case, the distrust could lead fairly quickly to disease and death.

I want to look at this as a spiritual problem. Who can, or who should, we trust? When we can’t trust anyone around us, or when we won’t trust expertise, we are left with trusting only ourselves and those who think like us. That’s a pretty weak foundation for moving ahead in life. Relying only on oneself and one’s own insight leads almost inevitably to calamity. Human beings are fundamentally social creatures. We need community, in which we find both shared values and correction for false ideas. That said, we are not like lemmings rushing headlong together towards a cliff, but more like wolf-packs, where all members look out for each other.

We need to trust each other. We especially need to trust the “alphas” in our number, using their guidance to move ahead creatively and productively. God gave us minds to use, and gave some people special gifts to help us use our minds.

The great issue of this pandemic is an erosion of trust: in ourselves, in our fellow people, in our leaders, and in God.

I do not believe that this current pandemic is either a punishment from God or a sign of impending end-times. It is a part of creation, an unexpected and unwelcome part to be sure, but nonetheless an aspect of the world that God created. It may well be an aspect of the “shadow of death.” People are dying, after all. But does that mean God is absent or malevolent? I can not believe so.

The Revised Common Lectionary for today (Lent 4, Year A) appointed Psam 23 as one of the readings. Let’s stop her with one verse from that most famous and favourite of all psalms.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
   I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
   your rod and your staff—
   they comfort me.

I will trust, but I will not trust blindly.
God, give me eyes to see, a mind to understand,
and the will to follow what is right.

Three Journeys

Notes for a sermon on Transfiguration Sunday, February 23, 2020  at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton

Today, I invite you to join me on three journeys.

  • From the Hand Hills to the Rockies.

(If it helps your imagination, you may close your eyes.)

Picture a high flat-topped hill, with short grass fields down its sides. You’re looking west, towards the setting sun, and the day is very clear. Looking down the hill, the hillside flattens out into rolling fields. There is a valley visible in the distance, with more farmland beyond. And far, far away, silhouetted against the evening light, is a dark jagged line.

(You can open your eyes now.)

I have stood on that hill, known locally as Mother’s Mountain. It is the highest point of the Hand Hills, northeast of my hometown of Drumheller, the second highest range of hills on the prairies. On a clear day you can see the Rocky Mountains on the horizon, about 200 km away as the crow flies.

Satellite image of the Hand Hills, from Google Maps

To drive from the Hand Hills to the Rockies takes less than 3 hours. The mountains disappear as you leave the hills. You soon come to the valley of the Red Deer River, perhaps travelling down a steep and winding coulee. Across the river, you ascend on a similar route, reaching the prairieland once more, back “up on top,” as valley residents would say. The terrain between Drumheller and Calgary is not flat, but broadly rolling. Places appear ahead in the distance as you crest each hill, only to disappear again as you descend. There is a point in the trip when the Rockies again become visible. Shortly after, they remain in view for the rest of the journey.

As you go, you see ranch land, badlands, farmland, urban areas, and forest. All of them have their attractions. Turning aside for a while to enjoy one of these environments only enhances the journey. In fact, it helps us to see that the journey itself may be more important than the goal. It also reminds us that the journey is best made with others, so that we can help each other enjoy the day in each place where we arrive.

But the goal always lies ahead of us. And as we drive, the goal becomes clearer and clearer. Finally, we reach the Rockies, known from Anthony Henday’s annals as the “Shining mountains.”

  • From Transfiguration to Resurrection

In our revised calendar today is Transfiguration Sunday. Today we remember a strange event recounted in three of the Gospels, when Jesus took three of his closest disciples up “the mountain” where he was revealed in glory, and a voice from heaven declared him God’s beloved Son.

The Transfiguration has an important narrative role in the first three Gospels. The traditional calendar didn’t pay it much mind, fixing it on a August 6, commemorating a 15th-Century battle. The new calendar has put it in its proper context in the Gospel account. In Matthew, it’s the second-last of five mountain events, looking ahead to the final one in Ch. 28, when the Risen Christ sends the disciples out to be his messengers, and to build the Church.

The journey between these two mountains takes us through the last days of Jesus’ life on earth, as he goes to Jerusalem, engages the religious authorities in the temple, and is crucified. This is the journey we remember each year as we approach the most important festival of our faith – Easter. We call the season of this journey Lent, and it begins on Wednesday. We descend into the valley, and then set our face to the mountain of the great promise.

In the early church this period before Easter was the time when catechumens made their final preparation for their baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter. Preparation included disciplines such as prayer and fasting, aimed at strengthening the candidates for the commitment to the life of faith before them. Members of the church would join the candidates in their preparations. The traditional Lenten disciplines reflect this communal commitment. Lent is a journey towards the renewal of our baptismal covenant at the Paschal festival – we remind ourselves of who we are, and where we are headed.

Placing the story of the Transfiguration just before Lent gives us an opportunity to stand on one mountain-top, looking ahead to the next – the shared goal of all the faithful, the Kingdom of God in its fullness.

We climb the mountain with Jesus, beholding him in his already-but-not-yet glory. And then we go to the valley and the plains and we work our way ahead, with the goal always in mind.

The goal lies before us, but – like driving from the Hand Hills to the Rockies – the journey is at least as important as its end. We don’t jump straight to the Resurrection, but rather follow Jesus to Jerusalem, to the cross and the tomb.

  • From Baptism to the Kingdom

We are baptizing today, on this day when we look ahead to the glory to come, when we stand on one mountain with another just in sight.

The candidates may or may not have the shining mountains in view, but those who promise to uphold them in their life in Christ do. It is our responsibility – both sponsors and congregation – to hold that vision before them, to help them to grow into their full stature in Christ. It our responsibility to walk with them on the journey of faith, supporting and upholding them wherever they may find themselves as they go.

The road ahead may not be easy for these young people. We may pray that it will be so, and by God’s grace it may be so. But there is nothing certain, except for the promise that we, like Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, are God’s beloved.

God’s beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, went from the Mount of Transfiguration to the Mount of Commissioning, journeying through trials, tribulations, and testing.

Today, as we move into Lent, in our lives of faith, we journey with Jesus from a glimpse of his glory to its full revelation. The beauty of the journey is that we are with Jesus, with all Jesus’ people here, throughout the world, and across the ages.

We are not alone in this journey. The Shining Mountain of the Resurrection beckons. So come! Let us journey together. The Kingdom – what God wishes for this world – lies before us.

In the name of Jesus, who made this journey first, AMEN.

Thinking about journeying

I’m preaching next Sunday, on a day when we remember Jesus going up a mountain with his three closest associates, and how they saw him transfigured — shining with the light of the sun — and how they heard a voice from heaven saying that “This is my beloved Son.”

It’s a strange story, to be sure, but it got me to thinking about a time I went up a mountain.

I grew up in Drumheller, Alberta, Canada. Northeast of the town is a range known as the “Hand Hills.” It’s not well-traveled, because most of it is in private ownership. Today, there’s one small Provincial ecological reserve on its eastern slopes, and there is one privately-owned campground near its crest.

The Hand Hills are the second-highest range of hills on the Canadian Prairies. Their highest point is known locally as “Mother’s Mountain,” but you won’t find this name anywhere on Google Earth or Maps. To get to the top of this “mountain” you have to cross some private farm land, but if you get there, the sight from the top is quite incredible. The land drops away sharply to the prairie-land, not flat as some would imagine, but rolling away to the west. In the middle distance, the dark shadow of the valley of the Red Deer River cuts across the landscape. In the far distance, the land rolls away westward towards the Rocky Mountains.

Here’s the thing: on a clear day, you can see the top of the Rockies from Mother’s Mountain. The front range is about 200 km away, and you are only seeing the crest of the Rockies. (Clear evidence of the curvature of the earth, but that’s another topic for another day.)

Today, you can travel from the Hand Hills to the Rockies in less than 3 hours. The roads are mostly good, and most of the trip takes you through well-inhabited territory: farmland, ranch land, and urban areas eventually give way to the foothills and the “shining mountains.”

The first European to see the Canadian Rocky Mountains from the prairies was Anthony Henday, who entered what is now the province of Alberta in September 1754. Henday is now memorialized by the ring road around the city of Edmonton, and by a residence at the University of Alberta. His journey across central Alberta to somewhere west of modern Red Deer took him several weeks, as he negotiated the open terrain, and had difficult times with the Cree and Blackfoot people of the land.

A journey today from Mother’s Mountain to the Rockies won’t take you several weeks, as Henday’s journey did. But it will have some very interesting aspects.

From the top of the Hand Hills, the Rockies may be in view, but as you head towards them, they quickly disappear. It will be over an hour before you see them again. All you have is the memory of your destination. In between you have had to cross at least one deep valley, and often you won’t have been able to see more than a few km ahead. The land is crossed by hills and coulees, and it rolls in long waves.

There comes a point where our destination comes into view again. As we travel onward, the Rockies lie ahead, not always visible, but looming larger every time they reappear.

We get there eventually, but the journey has been full of interest in itself. We have seen broad rolling ranch land with scattered herds, valleys with rivers hidden at the bottom, urban areas with bustling people, farms with their carefully tended fields. Lots to see, lots to think about, lots to pass by as we travel on to the destination we have glimpsed from that high ground at our journey’s start.

Heading for a special destination is not just about the goal. Sometimes we lose sight of the goal. Sometimes we diverge from the path, attracted by something else. But the goal is always there, whether we see if or not.

Isn’t that what life is like?

Come and see … and then go

Notes for a sermon preached at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, St. Albert, Alberta, January 19, 2020. Text: John 1:29-42

On a cold day in January, we might forgive someone for asking us why we are here, although I sometimes wonder the same thing on a beautiful summer day.

Every one of us has made the decision to be here today. If we started asking each other about our reasons, we might well be into a long discussion. Every one of us has a unique story, and every one of those stories is worth telling and sharing—but maybe not this morning!

I once had a conversation with a person who was bothered that other parishioners didn’t seem to share their level of commitment. As we talked, the person started to disparage others’ reasons for church attendance. “He only comes because his wife doesn’t drive.” “She’s only here to hang out with her friends.” … I managed to call a halt, and then I said something that I meant with all my heart, and which I firmly believe to this day.

No matter how they might articulate their reasons, every person who walks through the doors of this (or any other) church, has been led here by the Holy Spirit.

It’s not for us to judge their motivation, but rather to give thanks that they are here, and then to seek the Spirit’s guidance about how to minister to them and with them. The act of walking through a church door, whether for the first time or the ten-thousandth, is a decision to accept Jesus’ invitation to “Come and see,” as he gave to the first disciples, and which continues to come to people today.

When Jesus invited Andrew and his companion to come and see, it did not come out of the blue, but was a vital step in a longer process. The two were already disciples – of John the Baptist. They were seeking the Messiah. They had no doubt gone to John in the hope that he was the One, but John pointed away from himself, to the one on whom he had seen the Spirit descend and remain.

John’s testimony about Jesus presents us with a full-blown doctrine of Christ: pre-existence, the Spirit remaining on him, God’s Chosen One. John knows who he is, and when he sees Jesus passing by again, he points to him and says to his disciples “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” They leave John and follow Jesus, apparently without any question.

Jesus asks them a very simple question: “What are you looking for?” to which they answer, “Rabbi (‘Teacher’), where are you staying?

This response may seem odd to our ears, but it would not have been out of place from someone seeking to follow a new teacher. To follow a teacher meant to spend time with him, not in a formal school setting, but staying or traveling with him. Today we might call it “hanging out.”

Jesus said, “Come and see.” They went, and they stayed with him for the rest of the day. We are told that it was four o’clock in the afternoon, which might mean that they stayed only a few hours, or perhaps that they stayed into the next day. Either way, they were with Jesus long enough to become convinced that he was the One whom they had been seeking. They were convinced enough to find Simon and to take him to Jesus, who then gave him the name by which we remember him, Peter.

And that’s the beginning of the story of Jesus’ disciples, as it is described in this Gospel. The story of Jesus’ disciples continues today, not written in the Bible, but in the stories of billions of followers of Jesus over two millennia. It continues here in this church today, with people who in some way have heard Jesus say, “Come and see,” who have come, who have seen, and who have believed.

It is the work of the Holy Spirit – the same Spirit who descended upon Jesus at his baptism – that has brought us together today. We come. We see. We believe.

The work of the Church began with people seeking God and God’s salvation, going to John for baptism, hearing John testify about Jesus, and then following Jesus at his invitation.

The work of the Church continues today with people seeking God, entering the Church through baptism, learning by word and example how others have followed Jesus, and then following – each in our own way.

Every one of us has his or her own story of how we came to follow Christ and how we continue to do so day by day. Every one of us made the decision to be in this place on this day. Every one of those decisions is one more step in our story as individual disciples and as a small part of the Body of Christ, the Church.

It has been said that the most important point of the liturgy is the dismissal. “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” is not just someone telling us that it’s time to put on our coats and go home. Rather, it is a charge to go out from this place and BE the Church in the world, doing the work of God wherever it needs to be done and wherever we are able.

Andrew and his companion went out from their first time with Jesus and found Peter. They got to work spreading the news.

The Spirit of God called them to find and to follow Jesus, and then sent them out again.

The Spirit of God has led us to this place, to find Jesus once again in Word, Sacrament, and fellowship. Renewed, refreshed, and reinvigorated, may we be sent forth by the Spirit to do the work of God’s mission.

May we go in joy and peace and with love in our hearts.

Amen.

Go and tell…

Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity, Strathcona (Edmonton) on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Dec. 15, 2019.
Texts: : Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11

The quotes from Isaiah in the text following are from the New Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translation.

Last Sunday our Associate Priest posed the question: “What would it be like if I preached like John the Baptist?” Very good question! She gave us some very good ideas about what repentance and embracing God’s Kingdom is all about.

I want to continue this thought, today asking the question, “What would it be like if I preached like Jesus?”

In one respect, it would be very much like preaching like John the Baptist. We read in Matthew 4.17 that Jesus’ first public proclamation was the same as John’s: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” When John said this, he was pointing to the imminent arrival of the Messiah. When Jesus said it, he was pointing to the actual coming of the Kingdom in his person.

Beginnings are only beginnings, and the story goes beyond both John’s preaching and Jesus’ initial call. Jesus’ public ministry began after John had been arrested and imprisoned, but John’s disciples kept contact with their master while he was in prison. John heard about Jesus and what he was doing, and so sent some of his followers to ask Jesus if he really was the one whom they expected.

Jesus told John’s disciples: “Go and tell John what you hear and see…” What they are to tell John evokes the great prophetic vision we heard from Isaiah 35:

…the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

The Kingdom of God has come near. Indeed, it is already (but not yet) here! This is the message that Jesus tells John’s disciples to take back to him: look and see what God is doing in your midst.

If I were to preach like Jesus, this is what I would say. And this IS what I say: look and see what God is doing, and then go and tell. We can’t go and tell John—he’s been gone for almost two thousand years—but we can tell everyone else.

What do we need to tell? Simply, that God is alive and active in our world, working wonders for all people.

So what’s the problem? Why aren’t we out on the streets in hordes proclaiming the mighty works of God? What’s holding us back? I believe our reading from Isaiah can give us some guidance.

Isaiah 35 comes from a time late in the exile, when there was only a faint hope of a return to Jerusalem and the restoration of the Kingdom of Judah. Few of us here have experienced exile in its literal sense. (Read Psalm 137 for an idea of what that is like.) But “exile” can serve as a metaphor for the state of the church two millennia after Christ’s death and resurrection.

Walter Brueggemann (in Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles, 1997) has suggested that exile is not primarily geographical (even in the Bible) but social, moral, and cultural. “Exile” for us today may be understood as a sense of (1) loss of a structured, reliable “world” where (2) treasured symbols of meaning are mocked and dismissed.

I believe many of us today can relate to this metaphor. I grew up in a world (small-town Alberta in the 50’s and 60’s) where we assumed that everyone was a Christian, and the things of Christian faith were simply part of the culture. Not so today. People today often find that declaring their faith publicly elicits derision, hostility, or (worse!) apathy.

If we can relate to “exile” as a metaphor, then we can surely relate to the longing of the people of Judea for a return to Mount Zion from exile in Babylon.

The prophet proclaims the coming return in terms of a highway through the desert, on which healing of every kind will take place, both for those journeying and for the land through which they will travel. It is to be a direct road from Babylon to Jerusalem. This straight-line route passes through some of the most inhospitable land on the planet: hot, dry, and barren, uninhabited until oil was found there.

And yet…
this is the place where God’s people are told

Be strong, fear not;
Behold your God!
Requital is coming,
The recompense of God—
He Himself is coming to give triumph.

The fear engendered by the exile is wiped away, and God’s people are led rejoicing to their true home:

… the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
And come with shouting to Zion,
Crowned with joy everlasting.
They shall attain joy and gladness,
While sorrow and sighing flee.

I have been involved in the church in various ways for much of my life, and continuously for the last 40 years. There have been times when I have seriously wondered whether I was throwing my life away. In my first year of ordination, it seemed I had been presented with an impossible task, in a setting where I felt out of place, within a church that appeared to be in decline. I had a strong sense of exile that year.

Nevertheless…

Since that first year I have come to see in the various places where I have served and with which I have had contact, that God’s work continues. Great things are happening here at Holy Trinity, across this diocese and national church, around the world in our Communion, around our city and country, and in every place where the Good News is preached and lived.

We are still on that journey, still on that sacred way back to Zion, still working out what God’s purpose is in our midst. But while we are on that journey to the already-but-not-yet Kingdom, great things are happening, things for which we can only say “Thanks be to God!”

God was not done with the exiles in Babylon. God is not done with us. We will stream up to the altar in our liturgy recalling the redeemed of the Lord streaming to Zion. We come at the call of Holy One of Israel, and then we go as Jesus told John’s disciples – to tell what we have seen and heard.

Be joyful! Be full of gratitude! God is doing great things in our midst. Ought we do anything else than “Go and tell!” Surely this is what Jesus told us to do.

Share the good news.
Be strong, fear not.
Go and tell!

God has blessed us richly.
Let us say “Thanks be to God.”
Let us be a blessing to all whom we meet.
Let us say “Alleluia!”

And “Amen!”

Give this poem a rest?

What I am about to write will be seen by some as a “secular heresy.” I will no doubt outrage some of my readers, but please know that I am not trying to hurt anyone, simply to express my conflicted feelings, which I started to deal with in my previous post.

As a Christian with a theological training, I am well acquainted with the concept of heresy, which for most people means something akin to believing an untruth. The word comes from the Greek root meaning “to choose,” telling us that a heretic is someone who has chosen a different path from the so-called orthodox one.

The heresy I am proposing here is that we should give “In Flanders Fields” a decent funeral (or least an extended rest), and find another poem to read on November 11. John McCrae’s poem has been read at every Remembrance Day event I have ever attended. I have become used to hearing it read, often by a young person who has little connection to its roots, and even less understanding of the flow of the words. In particular, there should be no break between “we throw” and “the torch,” but because these usually lie on separate lines, the young readers break at the line change. If you’re going to read a poem in public, you could at least take pains to make sure that the language makes sense.

But that’s not my real point, and that’s not the heresy. My heresy (if you’ll allow the word in this context) is that I believe it’s time to stop reading this poem on this day. It has had its time. It has run its course. Its message is no longer appropriate for our times.

There are three verses in the poem. I have no argument with the first two, which are an elegy for those who have died in the course of war. As my previous post (I hope!) made clear, I have good reason to resonate with that sentiment. But then comes the third verse…

The elegiac tone gives way to the call to those who remain to “take up our quarrel with the foe.” The words were written in 1915, in the relatively early years of WWI, and the war may have seemed a good thing to pursue. The years to come would see the massive slaughters in the Somme, at Passchendaele, at many other places where so many people would die. For what? Who were the villains in this battle? WWI was fought for little reason, but it indelibly changed the face of Europe and much of the rest of the world. The armistice on 1918 ended the fighting, but the following years were times of huge upheaval and suffering in many places. It is safe to say that WWII, when civilians died in unprecedented numbers, was a direct consequence of the unresolved issues created by the first great war.

Back to the poem. Is it appropriate to reiterate a call to arms 114 years after it was written? To be sure, it reminds us of the reason for the deaths of the soldiers it recalls. But now we are in a different age, with a different set of issues, and a different sense of what must be done. The foes of 1915 have not been our foes for the past seventy or more years. They are our allies, co-creators of a future far different from what Col. McCrae could have imagined when he put pen to paper.

If we are going to remember the dead of past wars, as indeed we should, I would hope it would not be to remember in anger, and to continue the quarrel with the foes of yesteryear. I would rather hope that we could remember the dead both with sorrow and with the hope that the world of the future will be a world of peace.

Peace? I hold firm to the hope for peace on earth. But I struggle with the knowledge that the years since V-J Day in 1945 have rarely been blessed with peace. If anything, things seem to be getting worse.

When we gather on November 11 to remember those who gave their lives in the wars of the past century, I hope and pray that we may do so in the spirit of helping God to build that peace which is God’s desire for all people.

Can we still sound a call to arms? Or should we give “In Flanders Fields” a rest? What might we use instead? What poem expresses a call to build peace? The searing poetry of Wilfred Owen might be a place to start. Here is one of his most powerful poems, “The Parable of the Young Man and the Old,” a modern re-imagining of the story found in Genesis 22:1-14.

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned, both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake, and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets the trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

I read this poem once in a church service on the Sunday before Remembrance Day. I can still hear the collective gasp from the congregation as I read the last two lines. I have no regrets, but rather I continue to believe we should gasp at the horror of the inhumanity of war.