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!”

The most difficult parable?

I preached today at St. Timothy’s Anglican Church in Edmonton. I was glad to get the invitation, because their Rector is a person whom I hold in high regard, and I was aware that the parish had been going through some troubles in recent times. If I could help, I would!

However, my gladness abated a bit when I realized what the appointed Gospel was. Because of the situation of my most recent parish, I had not preached on this text for about 20 years, and I recalled struggling mightily with it in earlier years.

Following arethe notes for the sermon I preached today on Luke 16:1-13, with a nod to Jeremiah 8:18-9:1.

******************

There may be no more difficult parable in the Gospels than the story of the dishonest manager (or steward, as some translations give it). Scholars have turned themselves inside out for many centuries trying to give a coherent account of what at first glance appears to be Jesus condoning dishonesty.

There are several issues here, not least how we read parables. We usually just want to know what it means, expecting a straightforward answer. A few parables allow for this kind of reading, but most of them do not. Especially not this one!

Many people try to read parables allegorically, making each aspect stand for something else. Again, some parables can work this way, but trying to make this story an allegory of anything is an exercise in frustration.

The point of a parable is (as a friend has put it) that Jesus is “messing with us.” Parables generally take well-known situations, and then give them a twist, disturbing the sense of familiarity in the rest of the story. The theologian Sally McFague said that parables open cracks in our reality, making new possibilities available. As Leonard Cohen wrote:

There’s a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

What is that light that gets in? When the crack has appeared in an unexpected place, the light comes from an unexpected source, often revealing an unexpected truth. We should not be surprised that the truth is at times hard to perceive. Jesus said on several occasions: Let anyone with ears to hear listen! He knew, of course, that many people would not have ears to hear.

The parable is puzzling, so we need to consider its context, both in the Gospel and in the culture of 1st-century Palestine.

First observation: it is explicitly addressed to the disciples, but the actual audience is more complex. In Ch. 14 we are told that large crowds are traveling with him, and he takes time to sort them out. The audience for the next few chapters consists of an inner circle (the disciples), a crowd, probably “people of the land,” and some scribes and Pharisees.

Although this parable is addressed to the disciples, we can be confident that the others, especially the Pharisees, are leaning in to hear what he’s saying. I believe we can be just as confident that Jesus was aware of them.

Who were these two groups? The people of the land – the ordinary folks – probably made up the bulk of Jesus’ hangers-on. They were people looking for some relief from an oppressive social situation, with rich landlords (many in league with the Romans) using their labour to amass great fortunes. This is nothing new. We heard from Jeremiah how the prophet weeps for his “poor people,” who are not saved even after the harvest has ended. And look at Isaiah 5:8, from more than a century before:

Ah, you who join house to house,
   who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
   and you are left to live alone
   in the midst of the land!

The dominance of the “1%” is nothing new. That’s our second primary observation – the socio-economic condition of the times.

The Pharisees sought to keep the Torah to the letter. In their own way, they were also responding to the times, attempting to purify a land that they saw as defiled by foreign occupation. They were a middle-class movement. They were not associated with the ruling class, many of whom were economic sell-outs to the Romans. They were also not associated with the people of the land, who were too involved with their daily work to observe the finer points of the law or to remain ritually pure.

So… let me offer some thoughts about the parable that make sense to me.

Rich landlords hired managers (“stewards”) to keep their estates producing their profits, profiting from the labour of the people of the land. This manager has been fattening his own wallet by cheating both the people and the landowner. When he is caught, he realizes that his source of income is about to come to an end. No more skimming the profits for himself! He has lost favour with his boss, so he turns to the debtors to curry favour with them. He will no doubt lose money, but he will rise in the esteem of those whose debts he has forgiven. He is still shorting the boss but note what he has done: he has changed his priorities, from amassing wealth to building relationships.

His life before this has been devoted to building up his bank balance, using whatever means were at his disposal. What he seems to be missing is the responsibility that comes with wealth. The question for all of us is, not how much we possess, but what we do with it. Faced with the loss of income, the manager turns to the only alternative – to make friends.

Now here’s the big twist in the story: instead of damning the manager further for reducing his take, the rich man commends him for doing what he can to amend his life. This really is Jesus messing with us: any ordinary rich man would be doubly angered by being cheated once more.

The verse after our reading is this:

The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.

Maybe they did – but how did the crowds hear him?

Let’s hear what St. Augustine said:

God gives us people to love and things to use, not things to love and people to use…

Another quote, this one from Julian DeShazier, writing in The Christian Century:

The most important thing about money is what we do with it in our hearts.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with money. But there’s a lot wrong with how some people use it. As it is often said, we are blessed to “be a blessing.” The manager discovered this almost by accident and was commended for his shrewdness. The true wealth of our lives is not found in the bottom line of financial statements, but in relationships we build with other people. Through those relationships, we can build up not just ourselves, our acquaintances, or our friends and family. We can also build up the people of God, and as N.T. Wright has put it “build for the Kingdom of God.”

All that we have, all that we are, all that have been and will become, is given to us for one purpose, and one purpose alone. We are called to build up God’s people with the many and various gifts God has bestowed on us.

Together blessed, may we as God’s people live into God’s now and future kingdom.

.

Holy Relationships

Notes for a sermon at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, St. Albert AB, July 28, 2019. Texts: Hosea 1:2-10; Psalm 85; Colossians 2:6-15 (16-19); Luke 11:1-13

When your Rector invited me here, he asked for three weeks. I was glad to accept the invitation, but had to decline the third Sunday, August 11, because of a major event happening in our life that day. My wife Joanne & I are coming up to our 50th wedding anniversary and had already arranged to renew our marriage vows that day at Holy Trinity, Strathcona.

Milestone anniversaries should be occasions to celebrate, of course, but also to reflect on what went into all those years. No relationship, marriage or otherwise, is ever totally golden throughout its course. When clergy prepare couples for marriage in the church, we are required to ensure that they have had appropriate preparation. The Marriage Canon (lately in the news for other reasons) contains a list of the topics that should be addressed. Most of them deal with matters about which couple can and do have conflicts. The most important IMO is the matter of the importance of communication. If you can’t communicate, agreement will always be difficult.

There’s a huge amount of material available today in various media on building good relationships. In this social network age, when people are supposedly more connected, relationship problems sometimes seem to be getting worse, not better. It may be that interpersonal communications have tended to become text-driven and superficial—but I’m not here to slag Facebook and Instagram! Rather, I am here to suggest that our readings today have something to say about relationships, both interpersonal and between people and God.

Let’s start with Hosea, the most difficult one. Did it seem to be written in code? That’s because we miss the vivid wordplay in the original Hebrew. Hosea has given names to his children which point to the decline in the relationship between Israel and YHWH. The first part of the book is structured around an image some may find offensive, likening Israel’s behaviour to that of a prostitute.

In response to a word from God, Hosea married a woman on the fringes of society, and fathered children who would immediately also be marginalized. His marriage and children became a living metaphor for his people’s broken relationship with their God. They have gone off after false Gods. The children’s names, especially the latter two, express a divine reaction to the people’s unfaithfulness: they will not be pitied; they will no longer be YHWH’s people.

If we ended our reading at verse 9, things would look very bleak, but verse 10 turns things around: “it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’” The reversal of fortune here, echoed so beautifully in the Psalm, is a theme that will be repeated again in the book: [the] fact that we Christians must never forget but too often do: our faith is in the God who never gives up on us.”

In human relationships, as most of us well know, people do give up on each other. People’s willingness to keep promises is at times not matched by their ability to do so. Not so with God: the message is that our God not only will not give up on us but CAN not give up. It is God’s nature to be faithful and loving. As God self-described to Moses

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…
(Exodus 34:6f)

The heart of the divine-human relationship is “steadfast love,” the usual translation of the Hebrew word “hesed.” It is the love that can not let go, not blindly, but out of deep compassion for the other. It is conscious. It is active. Above all, it is persistent. It stands as the model for all human relationships. If we fail to live up to this ideal, it is because we are human. The wonder is that God forgives, and will forgive, every time we turn and re-turn to God.

Continuing in our own relationship with God through Christ is not always easy. There are many occasions when we can stray from our life in Christ. Some of them may be obvious temptations. Others are not so clear, as in the issue Paul addresses in Colossians: people criticizing the church for not attending to some particulars of religious practice that they consider essential. How many of us have experienced the judgment of others in whose eyes our own faith walks don’t quite seem to measure up?

Paul will have none of this. He tells his readers to “live your lives in him,” as the NRSV puts it. Other translations give a more dynamic idea: the King James Version says “walk ye in him.” The Contemporary English Version has:

You have accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord.
Now keep on following him.

The point of the life of discipleship, a life lived in relationship to God, is thus not to believe we’ve arrived, or that we have it all figured out, but to keep on. Live in Christ. Walk in Christ. Keep on following Christ.

And how do we do that? One important part of that answer is to do just what we’re doing here today. We gather as God’s people, in relationship with each other and with God, seeking always to deepen our bonds of holy love. The life of discipleship doesn’t just mean gathering on Sunday, but in walking with Christ and being in relationship with him every day of the week.

The essential tool of building that relationship is the subject of today’s Gospel: prayer. The passage ties the Lord’s Prayer to teachings about the need to persist in prayer.

For many people, prayer mostly means asking God for something. We may and do take our desires and wishes to God, but that’s only the last and least part of it. Prayer is the conscious cultivation of our relationship with God—and that requires communication.

Remember those things we clergy are supposed talk to couples about, and how I suggested communication is the most important of them? Same thing with God. Prayer is keeping the lines of communication open, which means that listening is of prime importance. I believe that prayer is not so much about getting God to agree with us, as about getting us to agree with God.

It takes work.

It takes persistence.

And all of it comes through the gift of the Holy Spirit, freely poured out upon all who seek and all who ask.

God won’t give up on us.

Let us never give up on God.

Amen.

Believing is Seeing

Notes for a sermon at Holy Trinity Edmonton, April 28, 2019
Text: John 20:19-31

Many of us will be familiar with the adage “seeing is believing,” which may well originate in today’s Gospel story, and is sometimes taken to be the point of the story. I don’t think so. There’s a lot more happening in the story of Thomas’ encounter with the Risen Christ than how we often over-simplify it:

  1. Thomas hears the news from the other disciples and demands visual evidence before he believes.
  2. Jesus appears to Thomas and gives him the proof.
  3. Thomas believes. Seeing is believing. End of story.

Or is it? Has anyone else noticed that there’s a big gap in this story? There are two scenes, a whole week apart. A week can be a very long time: much can happen in seven short days, especially when something like the Resurrection has happened. The text is maddeningly silent about what went on between those two Sundays. We could speculate endlessly, but it seems to me the least likely answer is that “nothing happened”. Things surely happened—for Thomas, for the rest of the Twelve, and for all the disciples who received the Holy Spirit and were sent by Jesus on that first day. When he sent them, did they just sit there? Surely not—I have to believe that they went out from that room and told many people what they had seen and heard. In that week, there would have been time for Thomas to see what was going on, to talk to his companions, to ponder what was happening around him.

What happened when Jesus appeared again with Thomas present? Thomas saw and believed: that much is clear. But he would not have been there at all had he not believed on some level in his friends’ veracity. He knew something had happened, and he had not abandoned the group. He believed—and so he saw! Proof was offered, Thomas believed, and then he made the great acclamation that climaxes John’s Gospel: “My Lord and my God!” Belief in the reality of Jesus’s Resurrection led to this colossal insight. First among his companions, he now saw Jesus as he truly was and is.

Believing became seeing.

Something like this happened recently in the world of science. On April 10 an international team of scientists announced the first successful imaging of a black hole. The existence of these strange objects was first proposed over a century ago as a result of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Half a century ago, when I was an undergraduate taking a course in astrophysics, they were believed to exist, but there was little evidence available. Succeeding years led to more and more evidence, almost to the level of complete proof. The announcement three weeks ago was the culmination of over a decade’s work, involving eight separate observatories and hundreds of people. Looking like a fuzzy yellow-orange doughnut, the image agrees almost exactly with theoretical predictions. Einstein was right!

I could go on at length about the science of black holes, but that’s not where we want to go.

What struck me about this achievement was the team’s dogged determination, and their clear belief that what they were seeking was truly there. If they had not trusted the theory and the mounting body of evidence, they would never had invested so much time and energy (not to say money!) in this arcane quest.

If they had not believed in black holes, they (and we) would never have seen one. Believing led to seeing!

The Risen Christ said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” We can certainly include ourselves in this number.  The fact that we are gathered here today in this place testifies to our belief in the Resurrection – in a variety of ways and understandings, to be sure – and to the church’s continued faithfulness in proclaiming this central truth of the Gospel.

The contemporary Christian writer Diana Butler Bass (in “Christianity After Religion”) has suggested that the church needs to pay more attention to HOW we believe. We’ve been pretty good at enunciating WHAT we believe, in creeds and catechisms, but we have been less effective in putting wheels on the bus.

If we say we believe, what comes next?

What difference does it make in our lives?

Will our proclamation of the Resurrection be anything more than words?

Think of those scientists. They believed in the existence of black holes enough to devote over a decade’s work and many millions of dollars to produce the image they presented to the world. They believed, and so we see.

Friends, belief in the Resurrection can never be just a head game. It has consequences far beyond that upper room, consequences reaching into every aspect of our lives, consequences that give us a wholly new way of seeing the world.

We believe and proclaim that Christ rose from the dead. We affirm that this was not just a “one-off,” but as Paul wrote in 1 Cor 15:20, it is the “first fruits of those who have died.” The promise of the Resurrection is that death will never again have the last word.

Believing in the Resurrection of Jesus is a truly eye-opening event. To the believing eye, the world no longer needs to look like a medieval map, with “here be dragons” on its margins. Rather, we are enabled to see a world destined for renewal and resurrection – a world in which the forces of evil, while still present and active, are fighting a rearguard battle. As Fr. Chris said last Sunday, “We shall overcome,” and we can and should affirm that in our words and our actions.

Believing is seeing—seeing the world as the creation of a good and loving God, seeing death not as defeat but as the next step in God’s renewal of creation, seeing all others as heirs with us of God’s eternal kingdom.

As we believe, so may we see.

As we see, so may we act.

As we act, so may we proclaim.

And may our proclamation always be
“Alleluia! Christ is Risen!”

The Devil Quotes Scripture

Notes for a sermon preached at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Brandon on February 21, 2010, the first Sunday in Lent. Texts: Luke 4:1-13; Ps 91:1-2, 9-16

As I worshiped this morning at Holy Trinity, Old Strathcona (Edmonton), I thought back to this sermon I preached nine years ago.
I believe it has continuing relevance to issues in the church today.

As many people are aware, there has been much turmoil in the Anglican Communion in recent years. If one only followed the secular press, the impression would likely be that the issues centered on sexuality, specifically same-gender relationships. While we should not ignore the significance of “the issue,” we in the church need to pay closer attention to the underlying questions that have served to make the presenting issue such a hot button. Among other issues, there are questions of “theological anthropology”—the doctrine of what it means to be human; questions of ecclesiology—the doctrine about the church; and very importantly, the matter that is my concern today, questions of our understanding and use of scripture.

As we begin the season of Lent, when the discipline of Bible reading and study is specially emphasized, we do well to take a careful look at how we approach the Bible. The first thing we need to observe is that there is no single right way to read scripture, and certainly no definitively Anglican one. The Anglican Communion has recently appointed an international commission to study Anglican use of the Bible. As one commentator noted, if we were all agreed everywhere on our use of the Bible, the commission would be unnecessary.

This morning we heard the traditional Gospel for the first Sunday of Lent, Jesus’ temptations. We could spend much time with the actual temptations. What I instead want to draw our attention to today is the manner of Jesus’ response to the devil—he quotes scripture, citing two texts from Deuteronomy. The devil presents the first two temptations in his own words, but in the third, he turns Jesus’ tactics back at him. The devil quotes scripture!—the very same psalm we used this morning.

Jesus’ response to the third temptation—another text from Deuteronomy—ends the debate. Using one text to counter another shows us very clearly that simply quoting a verse from the Bible never proves anything. If you search hard enough, you should be able to find a text supporting almost any position you want to take on any given issue. Texts taken out of context can be twisted into almost any interpretation we choose, and that is not an appropriate use of scripture. That’s what the devil does in the third temptation, and although Jesus counters the challenge with another verse, what he is really doing is pointing beyond the text to what came before it—God’s own purpose, God’s own ways.

In the temptation story, both Jesus and the devil appear to use scripture in a literal fashion, but Jesus’ final response goes beyond a literal reading to find the deeper reality behind the “plain sense” of the words.

As we open our Bibles seeking to receive God’s word, we should remember that God came before the book, which is written in human language and interpreted by human minds. No language can fully encompass the reality which is God and God’s ways. No written word can ever truly express the Living Word of God. Nonetheless, we rely on “The Good Book” to guide us into a deeper understanding of who God is, and who we are before God. This understanding comes as we live into the words, making them our own, seeking to model our lives on God’s ways, revealed through the pages of scripture, and in the life, work and person of Jesus.

The great 20th-century theologian Karl Barth said that the Bible is not the Word of God, but rather becomes the Word of God when it is interpreted in a community of believers. The interpretation—the meaning of the words—is found in the lives of those who seek by God’s grace to hear the truth within and beneath them. What do our words mean? We reveal the answer in and through our lives. What is the meaning of Jesus as the Word of God? The answer is revealed in his life, death and resurrection.

However we view the Bible, from a completely literal approach to the totally metaphorical, simply reading the words is not sufficient. As we together seek to live into the words we read and pray, we come together to embody the Word of God. We take the texts off the page, and into our lives, turning the words into the Living Word—the power of the Holy Spirit enlivening and mobilizing the People of God.

Even in its diversity. Anglican tradition does have a number of “fixed points.” One is that we use the Bible a lot. Our worship has much more actual scriptural content than you will find in some churches who proclaim themselves to be “Bible-based.” We read scripture in a disciplined and detailed fashion. Furthermore, our liturgies—both BCP and BAS—are full of scriptural quotations and allusions. The big differences within Anglicanism lie in manners of interpretation. Some read the Bible as literal words of God. Others receive scripture as a unique human response to hearing the word of God. The question that divides these two positions is “Did it actually happen that way?” Those who take the first viewpoint are inclined to say “Of course it did. The Bible (i.e. God) says so.” Those who take the second viewpoint will tend to give a less definitive answer, seeking to bring other evidence (science, history, archeology, etc.) to bear on the text. And the twain shall never agree.

A question which divides is not helpful in bringing people together and building up the Body of Christ. A question that can help us come together is “What does it mean for us today?” We seek to find meaning in action, in our lives together.

The devil can quote scripture, using the written word of God to tear down God’s people like someone bashing a wall with a hammer. Let us remember: a hammer may be used to tear down, but it can also be used to build up, just as the Word of God is intended to build up, to strengthen and empower God’s people.

Scripture was the fundamental tool of Jesus’ ministry, from his time in the desert to the time of his Ascension. So may we follow his example, using the written word to help us continue to become the Living Word, as we follow the Incarnate Word of God.


Messiah – a credal oratorio

This article was first published in 1998 in the newsletter of Edmonton’s Richard Eaton Singers, with whom I sang from 1988 to 2002. I am reviving it in response to a conversation with a friend about Messiah, and its place in contemporary traditions, particularly as a fixture of the Christmas season.

Although by far the best-known of Handel’s (or anyone’s) oratorios, Messiah is not typical of the form. Most of his other oratorios are more like operas, with dramatic scenes, and characters portrayed by soloists. The choir often takes a lesser role, in some cases substituting for the action of a fully staged opera. (Mendelsohn’s Elijah is a good example of this type of work.) Israel in Egypt, almost without solos, was Handel’s other notable departure from the norm—and it was unsuccessful in his time.

Messiah is different. Apart from the “angel” scene (from the “Pastoral Symphony” through “Glory to God”), there is neither character nor action. In the libretto he put together for Handel, Charles Jennings drew on Biblical texts reflecting on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, known as the Christ or the Messiah. (The two titles are the Greek and Hebrew words meaning “anointed one.”)

If there is no dramatic development in its layout, what then is the organizing idea behind its structure? In the middle of a performance of the work, it occurred to me that Jennings’ choice of texts has close parallels to the Nicene Creed. It draws our attention to the whole of the Creed’s second article and part of the third. On reflection, this should be no surprise: the Creed is simply a summary of the Christian faith, and Messiah aims to depict and reflect musically upon the “kernel” of that faith, particularly with respect to the person and work of Jesus.

Each of the Creed’s three articles corresponds to one of the three persons of the Trinity. The first expresses faith in the one God, the creator of all. While this belief of course underlies the entire work, Messiah makes no specific reference to it. The second article deals with Jesus, telling of his birth AND making theological statements about his divine and human nature, his death by crucifixion, and his resurrection. It ends with an expression of faith in his return to judge “the living and the dead.” The first two sections of Messiah deal with Jesus’ birth, his passion and resurrection, ending with “Hallelujah,” whose text exalts the eternal Lordship of Jesus the Messiah, closely paralleling the credal statement.

The theological heart of the Creed is the proclamation “on the third day he rose again.” (Lat. et resurrexit tertia die). Mass settings typically make much of this text. For example, a critical turning-point in Bach’s B-Minor Mass is the joyful outburst of “Et resurrexit” after the darkness and grief of the “Crucifixus.”

Although not perhaps presenting it as vividly as does Bach, Handel gives us a similar turning-point at the tenor solo “But thou didst not leave His soul in hell.” The oratorio’s first reference to the resurrection, this aria brings relief and lightness after the stress and drama of the passion section, breaking in on the somber recitative “He was cut off out of the land of the living.” The change of mood is immediate and notable, and the sense of joy increases as the section progresses. Even the somewhat stern selections from Psalm 2 (“Why do the nations,” “Let us break their bonds,” and “Thou shalt break them”) are properly seen as expressing thanks and praise in anticipation of God’s victory. “Hallelujah” is a fitting response to these pieces, releasing the tension in a way that does full justice to the Creed’s affirmation “He shall come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead.”

The third article of the Creed speaks of the Holy Spirit and the church, ending with the assertion of hope in the “life of the world to come.” (Lat. et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen, set especially dramatically in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis) Rarely performed in its entirety, Messiah’s third section is an extended meditation on the promise of resurrection through Jesus Christ. The link to the Creed’s closing affirmation is clear. For Part III Jennings drew heavily on 1 Corinthians 15, arguably the New Testament’s most important statement about the hope of the resurrection.

The final chorus “Worthy is the Lamb … Amen.” sums up the promise of the first section, the drama of the second, and the hope of the third.

In Messiah, Handel and his librettist have brought theology and music together in an unparalleled and happy union.

Thinking About David

David & NathanThis is a working draft of a sermon which I decided not to use. Comments are welcome!

In the version of the Revised Common Lectionary used by our church, the Hebrew Bible readings in this summer have been working their way through the story of King David, the greatest hero of Israel’s history. We are told that he united the twelve tribes, established the capital in Jerusalem, and expanded the boundaries of the kingdom. He may have written many (certainly not all) of the psalms. Although the kingdom would only remain united until the reign of his grandson, he became the prototype of a great King. His symbol – the star of David – is the most important symbol of the modern state of Israel.

We have more information about his life and career than almost any other figure in the Hebrew Scriptures, taking up half of 1 Samuel and all of 2 Samuel.

In the lesson for Aug. 5 (2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a), we read of the pivotal moment in David’s reign, when the triumphs of his early reign start to turn to troubles for David and his family. Nathan’s accusation of David refers directly to the events recounted in last Sunday’s lesson, so it’s worthwhile to remind ourselves of that story.

Read that passage (2 Samuel 11:1-15) in full, or in brief: David was at home with his army away waging battle. He saw Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, bathing, and sent for her. When she became pregnant, he tried to cover up his involvement by bringing Uriah home, intending that he will go to his wife. Uriah did not do so, due to soldierly scruples, so David then sent him back to the war, directing that he be sent into the heaviest fighting where he will be killed. The verses between the two passages tell how Uriah died, and Bathsheba became David’s wife.

It’s not a pretty story, is it? He has committed the sins of adultery and murder, both of which carry the death penalty. When the people of Israel had demanded a king (1 Samuel 8:4-22), they told Samuel they wanted a King to lead them, so that they could be like the peoples around them. Samuel said they would get a King, but they wouldn’t like it. In this story, David has done some of the things which Samuel warned a king would do. (He’s dead by this point in the story, so he can’t say “Told you so!”)

Samuel’s prophetic role in David’s early career was taken over by Nathan the prophet, who would eventually anoint David’s son Solomon as King. He acted in a positive way earlier to tell David that he would not build a house for God, but that God would make of David “a house,” his dynasty. Now Nathan comes to challenge him, not by directly accusing him of his sins, but by telling him a story of rich man stealing a poor man’s ewe lamb. David was righteously angry, demanding death for the rich man. Nathan’s response turns David’s anger back at him.

David indeed deserved death for his sins. But God was merciful to him. Even though great troubles will come to David and his family, he will be spared the ultimate penalty.

David’s confession perhaps comes a bit too late, but it does reveal a man who understands that his power is limited, coming not from him, but from God, to whom he is ultimately accountable. He became King of Israel because God chose him. God had “unchosen” Saul, and he could just as easily do the same for David.

David wasn’t perfect – far from it, as we have seen – but he understood his place in the scheme of things. His power wasn’t absolute, and when he acted as if it was, he was forcibly reminded of how things should be. Absolute rulers have been quite common in human history. Perhaps the most incisive commentary on them is Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

King or Emperor, President for Life or Fuehrer – whatever we call such people, Shelley reminds us that their legacy will not last.

What saved David from the trash-heap of history was not his military prowess or his administrative genius. Rather, what kept him on the throne to become the progenitor of a long dynasty was his recognition that he served something greater than himself. Even if he didn’t always act that way, he understood that he served the people of Israel under God’s Law. He had a conscience and a moral compass, and when the chips were down, he placed himself under God’s judgment.

Our Canadian history of constitutional monarchy, going back through British history at least as far as 1215 (Magna Carta), is one of placing increasing limits on our rulers. No-one is above the law, just as David understood himself to be subject to God’s law. Leadership is an issue today, when the trend in many parts of the world is away from democracy to a more authoritarian model.

The story of David is an object-lesson in the limits of leadership, from which we can continue to learn in today’s troubled world. It applies wherever people are given power over other people: in business, in government, and even in the church. Leaders in all places need to keep aware that they are there not simply to serve their own needs and desires, but rather to serve others.

At one time I was considering writing a book of advice for young clergy. I was going to title it “It’s Not About You.” Much of what I might have written (and still might) would apply not just to clergy (although that’s what I know best), but I believe to leadership in other areas.

Against all expectations…

Notes for a sermon on John 6:1-21, July 29, 2018,
Holy Trinity Anglican Church (Strathcona), Edmonton

Some life-changing events come about almost by accident. I had an epiphany once at a clergy conference on Christian Education. The presenter was talking about how various kinds of educational events and programs attract people at various stages of spiritual development. In part of her talk, she said that one group of people were the sort who would always support certain programs, but we shouldn’t expect there to be very many of them.

Then she stopped, saying that she got very impatient with people who said things like “We had a mission event, and it was a total failure – only 6 people showed up!” “What do you mean, ONLY 6? You had 6 people who were moved to turn up. God sent you those people. Give thanks for that, and work with them!”

After that digression, she resumed her prepared talk, but I don’t recall taking much of it in. I had been totally blown away by what I had just heard. I sat and thought about it, realizing that it was just what Jesus did in the first part of our Gospel for today.

The feeding of the 5,000 was a major event in Jesus’ ministry. It’s one of the few stories that appears in all four Gospels, with the details nearly identical between them, and in all four it is followed immediately by Jesus walking on the water. We could spend a lot of time speculating on the “how” of the story; to do that seems to me rather to miss the point.

Jesus’ exchange with Phillip and Andrew shows how the disciples are thinking: there is not enough to feed the masses, and there’s no reasonable expectation that they could get enough together to do it. There’s just not enough! What Jesus does is not to ask if there’s enough, but rather to ask what they can put their hands on. Five loaves and two fish! A realist might say at that time “Better send them all home – there’s nothing we can do.” Jesus has a different idea: he takes what God has provided, gives thanks, and proceeds to work with what he has.

Against all expectations, the people were fed, with 12 baskets left over.

DSCN0370
Loaves and fishes mosaic, Church of the Multiplication, Tabgha, Israel

How it happened is unanswerable. What happened is clear: as the story has come to us, Jesus acted, and people were fed. He challenged his disciples’ scarcity mindset. He used what was at hand to show that God’s generosity will not be limited. Why it happened is the point: very simply, to demonstrate God’s unbounded love in action.

Against all expectations, God’s abundance will defeat our myth of scarcity – every time! But like Phillip and Andrew we need to learn to trust in it.

But isn’t the scarcity narrative powerful? Our society is built on the notion of shortages. People believe there is never enough, so we hoard our wealth and live in fear of running short. It becomes a dog-eat-dog world, dedicated to the survival of the fittest, as people compete for what we believe are increasingly scarce resources.

I believe the results are clear.

There are people going hungry all over the world, not just in far-flung places, but in homes in this wealthy province.

There are people without access to clean water, not just in far-flung places, but in areas of our country largely populated by Indigenous people.

There are people without adequate (or any) housing, not just in far-flung places, but within a few blocks of this church building.

Why does this happen? I believe it is because we become so focused on scarcity that we lose our trust in God’s abundance and God’s desire to share this bounty with all of God’s people.

The scarcity bug often infects the church. “We can’t do that, because we don’t have…” (fill in the blanks!)

Not long after that clergy conference I had the opportunity to put my epiphany into practice. The parish where I was then the Rector was joining a multi-church program called NeighborLink. The program pools volunteers from churches to provide helping services to people in the community. Each participating church recruits a coordinator and a roster of volunteers, who are then deployed through a central office. We had appointed a coordinator and put out a call for volunteers with a date set for commissioning them.

Three weeks before the date, the coordinator came into my office and said, “Robin, we’ve got to pull the plug. It won’t work. We have only three volunteers.” Thinking that we had no reasonable expectation of any more, I was about to agree, when I thought of that insight from the conference. “Wait a second,” I said, “we have three volunteers. Let’s give thanks for them, and then work with what God has given us.” She sat there for a moment looking stunned, and then said, “Maybe you’re right.”

Against all expectations, three weeks later we commissioned 10 volunteers.

It wasn’t quite 5 loaves and 2 fish feeding 5,000, but it certainly felt a bit like that. We trusted in God’s goodness, gave thanks, and worked with what we had.

My friends, let us strive never to live with a mindset of scarcity, but rather rejoice in the abundance of God’s creation, giving thanks for all things at all times.

Jesus came to show us God’s love in action.

Against all expectations, he fed people in their time of hunger.

Against all expectations, he brought peace to his disciples, terrified on the storm-tossed sea.

Against all expectations, he defeated the powers of sin and death by giving up his own life.

Against all expectations, he lived God’s love in a world which so desperately needed (and still needs) to know it.

Against all expectations, he showed that God’s love can never be exhausted.

Against all expectations, he loves us all.

May we live in that love, rejoicing in God’s inexhaustible abundance. Let us give thanks, and then let us work with what God has given us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.