The “Great Clean-up”

Notes for a sermon at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, St. Albert, Alberta, May 22, 2022
Texts: Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29

I bought a new phone a few weeks ago. The old one was working reasonably well, but the manufacturer was no longer providing security support, and some newer apps required a more current operating system. Transferring all my stuff to the new phone was quite easy, and then I turned to the old one, first deleting all the personal stuff I could find, and then deleting the apps. I realized afterwards I didn’t need to bother with all those deletions, because doing a factory reset would clear everything identifiable. The factory reset took a few minutes, and by the time it was done the old phone was in the same state as when I took it out of the box several years ago — just as its builder intended.

Something like this is going on in today’s lesson from the Revelation to John, a part of the great vision which concludes the book in Chapters 21 and 22. Revelation is easily the most misunderstood book of the Bible, and it has unfortunately become one of the most often-cited texts by certain kinds of Christians. The error many people make is to treat it as prophecy for these times, connecting its images and scenes to events today. These things are then interpreted as “signs of the times,” an indication that God is about to step in and wipe everything out. It is commonly seen as foretelling the end of the world. Wrong!

Revelation is the New Testament’s only example of “apocalyptic,” a genre of literature common in Jewish circles in the centuries before and after the time of Jesus. The only other example that made it into the Bible is Daniel, from which Revelation draws much of its imagery and themes. Both books were written to people of faith suffering oppression from an oppressive power. In the case of Revelation, the intended audience was Christians under the Roman Empire. Both books are written in a kind of code which would be understood by the faithful, but not by the oppressors. Both have the same message: stand firm in the faith, and the conqueror will be vanquished.

Revelation’s message is really very simple: God wins!

One of the book’s images is the “Beast,” a metaphor for the Roman Empire. The city of Rome is never mentioned by name but is referred to in another metaphor as “Babylon the Great,” another oppressor of God’s people in times past. Much of the book makes horrifying reading, but the tone shifts dramatically in Chapters 21 and 22. Instead of doom, death, and destruction we are presented with a vision of a “new heaven and a new earth”. That word “new” is perhaps a bit misleading – it should better be read as “renewed” or “re-created.”

In some video lectures (“Victory and Peace or Justice and Peace?”) I watched recently, New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan said that Revelation is not about the end of the world. Rather, he said, we should see it as God’s “Great Clean-up.” This is the reset to end all resets! At the end of this age, earth will be restored to God’s purpose, as Jesus taught us to pray:

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

The book does not end with a destroyed earth, but rather a redeemed earth. In the new age, on this reborn and renewed earth, all evils and sorrows will be gone, and everything will be according to God’s will, God’s holy purposes. As Genesis tells it, the world began being broken in one garden, around one tree. God will restore it to its original purpose in a second garden, with a new tree of life and a new river flowing from the throne of God.

But that’s in the future – sometime! It’s a wonderful promise, but it has not yet been fulfilled. Just look around you to see how things are not as God would wish them to be. War, mass shootings, civil unrest, famines, pandemics… Do I need to go on?

Almost everyone is aware in their own way that “Things just ain’t right!” And almost everyone seems to have their own recipe for making things right. Politicians of various stripes will give you a variety of remedies. Raise the question with five friends over coffee (or some other libation), and you’ll get at least six answers. If you’re so inclined, you can consult your horoscope or your tea leaves. But what I often hear is this: some people are ready to give up, and some others claim to know what will fix everything. I don’t accept either of these all-too-human views.

If we only listen to human voices, all we will get is human solutions to human messes. We must look elsewhere, finding a different sort of guidance from a different source for helping to bring this world closer to the reality expressed in the Great Clean-up. Another well-known New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, calls this activity “building for the kingdom.” In the video companion to his book “Surprised by Hope,” (HarperOne 2008) he likens it to being like a stone mason carving individual stones for the building of a great cathedral. The mason knows his task, and he also knows that if he does not do it up to standard, the piece may not fit where it is intended, and part of the big enterprise may fail. The mason is guided by the master mason, who is guided by the architect, who is guided by a higher authority.

And that’s how it is with Jesus’ people in this in-between time while we await the Great Clean-up. We are not called to sit idly by as we wait for God to get in with the push broom and the Lysol. We have a role to play, working as if it has already begun. But how do we know that what we are doing is according to God’s will, and not ours? My friends, we have a guide for our work. Jesus promised this guide to his disciples before he went to his death:

the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name,
will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

The Great Clean-up will come in God’s own time. In the meantime, amid all the troubles of this present age, we are called to work for that coming, living into it, living as if it had already happened. It’s a tall order, I know, but we are not alone.

Jesus is with us always to the end of the age, and the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, is within us – individually, and (more importantly) corporately – at all times to guide us into the peace which Jesus left us. Our job is to listen – to pray! – and then, hearing, to work for what is good and holy and peaceful and loving.

We are not alone.

Thanks be to God!

The Scandal of Unconditional Love

Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity, Edmonton (Old Strathcona)
Mar. 27, 2022. Text: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” – Bishop Michael Curry.

We learn from texts in both testaments of the Bible that love is God’s essential nature, notably in Exodus 34:6f:

The Lord passed before (Moses), and proclaimed,
‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,

Also in the first letter of John 4:7-8:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God;
everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

And from Jesus himself, in John 13:34, in the only thing he called a commandment:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

Today’s we heard one of the best-known and best-loved stories in the Bible about love. It’s most often known as “The Prodigal Son,” but it’s about three people, not one.

It is easy to focus on the younger son, and his father’s joyful reception of him when he returns to the family home. It is a heartwarming account of how much and how unconditionally the father loves his errant offspring. This first scene could stand on its own as a lesson. But then Jesus adds the second scene, in which the older brother refuses to join the welcome. An apparently simple story of restoration takes on greater depth.

The younger brother received a huge gift from his father – one-third of his estate, according to the custom of the time. It would likely have been a large sum, and the father would have had to go to great lengths to free it up. The young man lived high on the hog for a while, and then – disaster struck. Not an uncommon turn of events for people who are unprepared for wealth.

Did the young man repent? The word doesn’t appear in the text, but we are told that he resolved to go home because his life has become unbearable. He rehearses a confession but is never allowed to complete it. His father greets him without condition, without anything but sheer joy at his return. His love overrules everything, even the young man’s waste of the great gift he received.

Things change dramatically when the older brother enters the scene. He can’t even refer to the younger one as his brother and is angered by his father’s behaviour. This reveals the scandal of unconditional love. The father loves both sons, but the older cannot accept the father’s love for the younger. How can he love such an obvious sinner?

I have heard similar sentiments from people over the years. God’s love is a wonderful thing when it applies to us or to those we love or agree with. But when we hear that God’s love extends to some other people – well, it can be very troubling.

Martin Hattersley was a lawyer, a politician, and an Anglican priest. He served as an Honorary Assistant at several city parishes before his death in 2020. His life was profoundly changed when his daughter was murdered in 1988. Out of this came a ministry of involvement in victim support and advocacy on behalf of prisoners. He did not come to it easily. I heard him speak to a clergy gathering, when he talked about the process of coming to terms with the reality of his daughter’s death, and with the troubling idea – born from the teachings of Jesus – that God could still love her murderer. Martin talked about days spent raging at God. He spent days pacing his family room, sometimes in tears, sometimes in visceral anger. How could God love a person who did such an evil thing?

That’s a very important question. I pray none of us ever need to grapple with it in the kind of circumstances that Martin Hattersley did, but it’s a question that I believe is raised every time we deal with people whose actions we see as evil, whether greater or less.

Can we ever see the offender as a child of God, equal to us in God’s eyes? It’s hard; it’s really hard. But we must remember that we are all part of God’s creation, God’s great labour of love, and all human beings are loved by God. Even people whom it is easy to hate – and there are plenty of such people – even they are objects of God’s love.

However…

God’s unconditional love does mean that God loves us – everyone of us – just as we are. But it also means that God loves us too much to want us to stay the way we are. The younger brother is on the road to repentance and a new life. The father deeply loves the older brother, now his sole heir, and he invites him to shed his bitterness and join in the party. Although there is good reason for the older to resent the younger, to continue living with this kind of feeling will only serve to further divide the two. His younger brother wasted the great gift he received, but the older is now in danger of scorning and wasting the great gift of his father’s love.

Loving and praying for our enemies is very difficult. It goes against the grain for most of us, but it’s a significant part of the Gospel imperative. I am reminded of the words of the Absolution from BCP Morning Prayer, which say that God “…desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that (they) may turn from (their) wickedness, and live.” God desires the best for all his children. God desires life for all of us. Out of this desire, when we are on the wrong track, God calls us to a change of mind, a change of heart.

Did the older brother’s heart ever soften? Did he relent and join the party? We are not told, but that is his father’s wish for him. God calls us to join the party, to turn from whatever is keeping us from entering into the fullness of joy.

And let’s remember that Jesus told the story in response to scribes and Pharisees who were upset at Jesus’ welcome of “tax-collectors and sinners.” Who is invited to dine with Jesus? Not just the supposedly holy, but everyone!

Let’s join the party, not condoning the acts of those who do us harm, but praying for them, and looking for reconciliation in the light of God’s love.

May we seek the good of all.

May we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

May God’s steadfast love for all of God’s children guide us today and always.

Enjoy the party!

Amen.

What kind of king? What kind of people?

Notes for a sermon at Holy Trinity Anglican Church (Strathcona), Edmonton
Reign of Christ Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021
Texts: John 18:33-37; 2 Samuel 23:1-7; Revelation 1:4b-8

Are you the King of the Jews?” may at first seem like a straightforward yes/no question. The Jewish authorities have turned Jesus over to Pilate, demanding his death. At first glance, Pilate is just seeking a quick resolution to the charge. However, I find myself hearing Pilate’s question on another level. Jesus has been accused of claiming kingship, and Pilate can’t quite believe it.

Are you the King of the Jews?” “Really?”

Whatever answer Jesus may give, he does not present as any kind of king that Pilate can recognize. What does a king look like? Certainly nothing like a Galilean peasant. Pilate knew kings – people who lived in palaces, dressed richly, surrounded by servants. Most kings in the ancient world got their positions through force or violence, whether an ancestor’s or their own, and they held on to those positions through force. Pilate can see none of this in Jesus, who is no kind of king that Pilate (or almost anyone else) understands. “My kingdom is not of this world,” as Jesus says. Living under Jesus’ reign is different from living under the rule of an earthly king. So…

       What kind of king is he?
       What kind of kingdom does he reign over?
       What kind of people inhabit this kingdom?

The Bible is ambivalent about human government, especially kingship.[1] There are texts that affirm its positive value, others that caution about it, and still others that are profoundly negative. Our reading from 2 Samuel points to this tension: someone who rules over people should do so “in the fear of God,” meaning that the ruler’s purposes should be God’s purposes. History has too many examples of rulers whose purposes were not aimed at the good of God’s people, but rather driven by self-interest, aggrandizement, and aggression.

Moves to limit the power of kings play an important role in our history. In 1215, Magna Carta sought to protect the rights of the church and the barons, but real steps in establishing rights for the wider populace came later, notably with the British Bill of Rights Act of 1689. In Canada, human rights, as enshrined in the first section of our constitution in 1982, have become a major factor in our lives, notably as part of some rancorous disputes around pandemic protection.[2]

The language of human rights has become commonplace, even finding its way into church life. At General Synod in 1998, we were asked to vote on a declaration of human rights for the church. The measure was narrowly defeated, but I found the debate instructive. I particularly recall one of the bishops saying something like “Human rights are a good thing to promote, but we in the church should remember that this is not our ‘heart language.’ Our heart language as followers of Christ is the language of responsibility, which is found in the Baptismal Covenant.”[3]

That one short speech has stayed with me ever since.

We are celebrating baptism today, affirming with the candidate and her parents and sponsors our own commitment to following Jesus. We are declaring ourselves to be citizens of Jesus’ Kingdom. Following Jesus is never about asserting rights and privileges, but rather about acknowledging and accepting our responsibilities as Jesus’ people. One of those responsibilities is related to human rights – we pledge to respect the dignity of every human being, but that has little to do with our own rights. It’s more about acknowledging others’ equal standing in God’s eyes.

Jesus could have claimed kingship for himself, with all the rights and privileges pertaining to that office. As the incarnate Word of God – the Truth walking among us – he was certainly entitled to due respect. But he never claimed it.

Instead, as Paul wrote in Philippians 2:5-8

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, 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.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.

Jesus’ kingship is not about him – not like Louis XIV of France, who famously said “L’état – c’est moi.” For Louis and many other monarchs, it is all about them. For Jesus, it is all about God and God’s people, and his self-giving love for all that led him to stand before Pilate, and soon after to die on the cross.

Christian life – the life expressed in promise form in the Baptismal Covenant – is not about us. It’s about our participation in the Reign of Christ, a Kingdom built on justice, mercy, and love.

Christian life is about us being and becoming a kingdom of “priests serving [Jesus’] God and Father.” We are not all priests in the ecclesiastical sense, but as a people we are called to “proclaim by word and example the good news of God,” presenting God to the world in all that we say and do – the essential nature of priestly ministry. This message will not always be received in joy by people, not least because it confronts all our self-driven agendas.

I once asked a young man who was considering Baptism as part of his preparation for marriage what he understood to be the purpose of life. His response startled me: “I guess to get power over other people,” a dramatic contrast to seeking others’ good, entailed in following Jesus. I don’t think he is unique – far from it! – but I had never heard this stance expressed quite so candidly.

Being part of the people of God can sometimes be difficult, as that conversation showed. But the good news is that we are not alone.

We stand with Jesus, who stands with us, together accepting and sharing all the risks of proclaiming the Truth in a world that sometimes seems to despise it.

We are empowered by the Holy Spirit, who moves in our midst and in our hearts, driving out fear, and sowing within us the seeds of love.

We are all children of God, who created us in love, calls us to live in love, and welcomes us into the Kingdom in love.

Thanks be to God!


[1]Excursus: Biblical Ambivalence to Government”, in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Abingdon 2003, p.407

[2] A considerable body of jurisprudence has emerged in Canada, using the principle of “reasonable accommodation” in cases of competing rights.

[3] Book of Alternative Services, Anglican Church of Canada, 1985, p. 158

Are you saved?

Notes for a sermon at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton, March 14. 2021
Texts: Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21 (Lent 4, Year B)

When I was seeking ordination, the bishop “suggested”[i] that I would benefit from some depth counselling to explore some personal issues. I took his direction, reluctantly at first, but the experience ended up being one of the milestones of my life. I have never regretted it.

Some time into the process, my counsellor said I might benefit from time in a group setting. At my first session in the group, the leader asked me as a newcomer to introduce myself and tell them why I was there. I started with my perceived calling to become an Anglican priest. When I said that, a person across the circle from me said “Are Anglican priests saved?” It stopped me dead in my tracks. Pulling myself together, I gave the only answer that I thought would make sense: “Yes.” The other person looked a bit startled, and then said “OK, then. Go on.”

“Are you saved?” is a question often heard in some other church communities, but not so much among Anglicans. My response was a simple answer to what is really a very deep question. I suspected that my questioner thought in very black-and-white terms,[ii] and a nuanced response would likely only lead to confusion, anger, or outright rejection.

As I see it, one of the problems with this question is that it does not address the issue of what is meant by “salvation,” “saved,” or “being saved.” It treats salvation as a once-and-done event, which we may pass through or not, and can become just a way of sorting out the people we meet. However…

When Paul uses salvation words, it is most frequently in a future or a progressive sense. The two instances of “you have been saved” in today’s reading from Ephesians are unusual.[iii] Salvation is a gift from God through Christ, but it’s not like a plaque we can hang on the wall but is rather an invitation into a process in which we are called to participate – an invitation into a relationship beginning when we first become aware of it to when we pass from this life to the next. Think of a High School senior who gets an acceptance letter from the University of their choice, which does not confirm them as having “made it” but invites them into a longer and more arduous process – a closer relationship with the institution. Just so with salvation.

Claiming Jesus as Saviour is not so much extolling him as the great lifeguard who has saved us from death, but as the one who continues to walk with us on our journey thereafter. The rescue is important to be sure, but the more important question is “What were you saved for?”[iv] You’re back on dry land: now what?

When we hear the word “saved,” we often add one of two words: “from” or “for.” Both have scriptural support, and we need to pay attention to both. But I believe that the “for” is more important than the “from.” The one is all about the past, which we can recall, but which we can never change. The other is all about the future, which we can only dimly anticipate, but over which we can have influence. We are participants in our own lives, with the gift of free will. As we are being saved, we have choices to make every minute of every day – and every choice may matter.[v] As Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians:

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil 2:12-13)

We who have come to believe in Jesus have entered into eternal life. Note the past tense: eternal life, especially as proclaimed in John’s gospel, is not some future “pie in the sky” kind of promise, but a life lived in conscious relationship to our Creator – a life lived here and now, and wherever we are led in the days ahead. God’s promise to us is that God will be with us every step of the way!

And take note: people are very fond of quoting John 3:16, holding up placards at football games, and putting it on bumper stickers. But they often forget that vs. 3:17 follows immediately, proclaiming God’s intentions not just for us as individuals, but for the world:

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)

If we lay claim to eternal life, we do so only as members of the whole human race, for whose good we are called to work. As we heard in Ephesians:

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Eph. 2:10)

Created for Good Works - Come to Christ

And who did God love? No individuals need be named, no groups singled out, no distinctions made. God loved the world – everything in creation, every speck of dust and every soaring mountain, every microbe and every human being, every atom and every galaxy. Nothing we can think of is beyond the scope of divine love.

Well, so what? God loves everything, so what is left for each of us to do?

Plenty, my friends! Plenty!

To live in relationship with another is to reflect the other’s being. To live in relationship with God is to reflect God’s being. And God – the God who made us and formed us for good works – God is love!

To be saved is to participate in and to reflect God’s being, to daily seek to do good in this world, not accepting it as it is, but helping to make it in every way we can just a little more like God intended.

God … loved the world. It all begins there.

Let us go forth and do likewise.
For this is what God has saved us for:
            To go and love;
            To go and serve;
            To go and live with God.

May it be so.


[i] Bishops’ suggestions may be just that, but rarely are,

[ii] I saw more evidence of this kind of thinking in the following weeks.

[iii] Some scholars question the Paul authorship of Ephesians. This usage may serve to point in that direction.

[iv] I’ve been asked similar questions by bank advisors, but with respect to money.

[v] The so-called “butterfly effect” comes to mind.

The economy of Grace

Some years ago I spent a few weeks volunteering full-time at Edmonton’s Bissell Centre, an agency which exists to help the city’s underprivileged people. One of the programs they had was a work exchange program. People could call the Centre looking for day laborers, and the Centre would send workers out as they were available. On occasional days there was more work than people, but mostly there were people left behind after all the jobs had been allotted. Some worked, others did not.

The Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for September 20 always reminds me of this program. The parable of the workers in the vineyard begins with a farmer needing to bring in his crops. He goes to the town square and finds people available for a day’s work. He hires some and leaves the others behind. Perhaps he grew fearful that the work would not all be done that day, so he returns to the square three times to get more workers, even recruiting some unlucky folk who had hung around until five o’clock because no-one else would hire them. It’s a pretty simple and predictable story — so far!

The twist (there’s always a twist in a parable) comes at the end of work when he doles out payment to the workers. To the astonishment of all and the anger of the early birds, he pays everyone the same amount – one denarius, a normal day’s wage.

The Workers in the Vineyard | The Catholic Word

Now, as my grandson would say, “How is that fair?” Surely there should be equal pay for equal work, and the late comers should not get the same as the first hired. But no, the farmer pays a day’s wage to everyone.

Here’s the rub, as I see it: the pay of one denarius would allow the worker to feed the family for the day. In this economy everyone gets to eat. There’s a parallel here to the story of the feeding of the 5,000: Jesus shows up, and people get fed. It doesn’t matter what we might have done to earn it, how much labour we might have put in, or anything. God is generous to all, even to those whom we may not believe deserve God’s generosity.

The economy of grace is not nice and neat. It can’t be reduced to an input/output table, or the law of supply and demand. God’s grace is poured out on all. Our economy doesn’t usually work that way. Instead, we put limits on how God’s generosity is apportioned among the populace and are often outraged when someone seems to get what they don’t deserve. Are we similarly outraged when someone doesn’t get what they do deserve? It seems to me that such responses tend to be more muted.

In God’s economy, all are fed, all are treated as deserving of respect, all contribute what they can as they are able.

How should we respond to this divine generosity? Surely not by grumbling about someone else’s good fortune. God has provided for them. Who are we to complain? I am reminded of a verse from “The Servant Song,” one of my favorite hymns:

I will weep when you are weeping,
when you laugh I’ll laugh with you.
I will share your joy and sorrow
till we’ve seen this journey through.

Richard Gillard © Scripture in Song

The journey in and with Christ is not a race with the winner taking home the medal. Rather, it is a journey of fellow-travelers, all seeking each other’s good.

Jesus shows up, and people are fed. Hallelujah!

Masks, and the G-G

Some reflections on the Golden Rule

I live in a city (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) which has recently instituted a by-law requiring everyone to wear a non-medical face covering in buildings which are accessible to the public, unless they have medical or psychological reasons. Not surprisingly, there has been vocal resistance from some people. I’m not going to rehearse all the arguments I’ve heard, but they do seem to fall into two main categories. One tries to make it a matter of personal rights. The other asserts that they don’t need to wear a mask to protect themselves, and they don’t care if others become sick as a result.

It seems to me that both of these arguments fly in the face of one of the pillars of ethics. Almost every religion has a version of what Christians call the “Golden Rule.”

In the New Testament, we hear Jesus saying:

 ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.’

(Matthew 7:12 NRSV)

A poster available through various on-line sources sets this quote with with similar quotes from seventeen other faith traditions. They sound remarkably similar. (Search for “Golden Rule Poster” to find it.) The seeming ubiquity of this rule suggests that it is in some way integral to much of human ethics. What the Golden Rule does is show that ethical behaviour is reflexive. My actions affect your life, just as your actions affect my life. As John Donne wrote, “No (hu)man is an island.”

Understanding that my needs and desires are interwoven with the desires and need of all other people, acknowledging that other people’s needs and desires are as valid and important as our own, are the key to building true community. We call this ability “empathy.” Many people confuse empathy with sympathy, which expresses a feeling about another person’s situation without real involvement in that situation.

The Golden Rule elevates our striving for empathy to an ethical principle.

Wearing a mask may protect me from the COVID-19 virus, but that’s not the point. If we all want to be protected, we must ask each to protect each other — to do to others what we would want done for ourselves. It’s a reflexive benefit, working best when we undertake it for the good of other people before ourselves.

I have also had occasion to reflect on the Golden Rule in a very different context. Canada’s Governor-General has been accused of running a toxic workplace, in which staff often feel belittled and abused. The matter is under public scrutiny, and I have no knowledge of it other than what I have read in the news media. Thus I will refrain from any judgement of Mme. Payette here.

What this reminded me of was my own history as both employee and boss. I had one really bad boss in my early work life, who knew just how to make me feel inadequate and incompetent. His replacement was a revelation to me — the first supervisor I had ever had who made me feel a valued part of the team, building me up where I needed help, and letting me do my job where I was fully capable. When I started supervising others, I resolved to emulate him, by trying to be the kind of boss I would like to have myself.

That’s the “Golden Rule of Management” for me. It sounds simple, but it can be very hard to put into practice, especially if you have a tendency to perfectionism like me! What it means in practice is to listen to the people you are working with, treat them as humans, accept and help to correct their failures when they happen, and rejoice with them when they succeed.

What it means is to have empathy.

We could on at length about places the Golden Rule can be applied. I’m not sure we would ever exhaust the list. For me today it remains one of the central guiding principles of my life. Jesus taught it, and that’s where I first heard it, but it cuts across human life in a wonderfully powerful way.

So, my friends, let us strive to do for each other as we would wish done for ourselves — and the world will be a better place

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?