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

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.

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.

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.

Stewardship and other spiritual disciplines

Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity, Tofield AB, June 3, 2018
Texts: 1 Sam 3:1-20; Mark 2:23-3:6

How many of you remember Sunday January 17, 1982? Not too many? I didn’t remember the exact date, but I worked it out based on one scripture reading, which we heard this morning from I Samuel, the story of Samuel’s call. It turned up in the lectionary at a time when I was wrestling with my own sense of vocation.

Speak, for your servant is listening.”

These words spoke volumes to me then. They led me into the discipline of discernment through prayer: paying attention to God’s call, a practice that led eventually to seminary, ordination, and 26 years in parish ministry. Without hearing that scripture reading, I might well not be standing before you today.

Hearing the call is one thing. Following it is another. All of us are called to ministry through our baptisms, but not all follow that call. For the boy Samuel, his call was the beginning of a lifetime of serving the Lord, playing a pivotal role in the history of Israel. We remember him as the person who anointed first Saul and then David as King of Israel. We don’t know a lot about his life between hearing the call and the rise of the monarchy, except that

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

We are told that the demand for a king did not come until Samuel was old and his sons had proved unworthy. Samuel’s response to the people who wanted a king was to do what he had first begun to do so long ago: he prayed, seeking to listen to the Lord. It seems to me that this had to be the result a life-time of following the call, hearing and speaking the Word of the Lord. It was no accident, but the consequence of years of following the discipline of prayer. We can easily picture Samuel through long years of service in the holy place, attending to ritual day after day, and always taking the time to listen.

Speak, for your servant is listening.”

He listened!

Discipline bears fruit. How do great musicians achieve excellence at their art? They practice. [Old joke: A man gets off the subway in NYC carrying an instrument case. He asks a bystander, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, man. Practice!”] How do great athletes become star players? Same answer! It does help if you have natural talent, but if you haven’t heard the call to disciplined exercise of your talent, your inborn gift will never flower fully. The more you practice, the more the exercise of the gift becomes second nature: it becomes truly a part of who we are.

Samuel’s calling led to years of disciplined service, and ultimately to the recognition that he was the one called to lead God’s people into a new way of being.

In our Gospel today, Jesus points to the spiritual discipline of sabbath-keeping, a practice commanded in the law. He is breaking the law, at least in the eyes of his opponents. They focus on the legalities, but Jesus’ interest is more on the underlying spirituality of keeping sabbath:

The sabbath was made for humankind,
 and not humankind for the sabbath.

Writing in The Christian Century, Thomas G. Long recalled how as a youth he heard this saying as permission to go and do all the things he liked doing on Sunday, freed from the restrictions imposed by his parents and his home church. He realized as he grew older that he was mistaken, coming to understand that sabbath-keeping should be undertaken not because you must do it, but because it’s good for you. The sabbath is a gift from God, calling us to take a day of out every seven to do things that draw us closer to God and each other. In her 1989 book “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly,” Marva J. Dawn identifies four key aspects of keeping the sabbath:

(1) ceasing—not only from work but also from productivity, anxiety, worry, possessiveness, and so on; (2) resting— of the body as well as the mind, emotions, and spirit—a wholistic rest; (3) embracing—deliberately taking hold of Christian values, of our calling in life, of the wholeness God offers us; (4) feasting—celebrating God and his goodness in individual and corporate worship as well as feasting with beauty, music, food, affection, and social interaction.
(excerpt of a review on Amazon.com)

What I want to emphasize here is that keeping the sabbath takes intention and discipline. To truly keep the sabbath, to get out of it what God intended for us, we need to keep practicing. That doesn’t mean just not doing stuff, like the old Sunday rules. It means taking the time every week to turn our lives over to God’s purposes: ceasing, resting, embracing, and feasting.

Finally, another spiritual discipline. I came here today because I claim to have some knowledge and experience in the matter of stewardship. Please don’t call me an “expert,” which just means someone with a briefcase more than 100 km from home!

I was glad to give your Rector some suggestions about how to approach the matter of stewardship. Will they bear fruit? I hope so, and the pledges that will be received today will begin to tell that story. But let’s be sure of this: stewardship of our possessions is not a matter of a “once and done” campaign, but rather a question of a life-long spiritual discipline.

Like Samuel’s discipline of listening to God, and Jesus’ call to sabbath-keeping among his disciples, the discipline of stewardship takes practice. Stewardship is born out of the insight that everything we have is gift, and that these gifts are stewardshipgiven for a purpose beyond our own needs. That means that stewardship is very much about money, but before it’s about money, it’s about how we use our treasure to move forward in our participation in God’s mission.

Spiritual disciplines are gifts from God, Spirit-led responses to God’s call.

We are called to discern God’s call. We respond in the Spirit by turning our hearts in prayer, seeking to know God’s desires for our lives.

We are called to turn our lives to God’s purposes. We respond in the Spirit by setting aside one day in seven to focus on those purposes—which then gives a Godly focus to the other six.

We are called to use our material gifts for the furtherance of God’s mission. We respond in the Spirit by dedicating a portion of our possessions, our time, talent, and treasure, to the work of God’s church—which then gives a holy focus on how we use what we retain.

May all our lives be lives of dedication to God’s purposes, lived out in the joy of holy discipline.

Amen.

The Sacramental World of the Bible

Originally written for “Trinity Today,” the monthly newsletter of Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Old Strathcona, Edmonton, Alberta

As General Synod 2016 approached, Anglicans across the country were invited to study a report entitled “This Holy Estate,” on the question of same-gender marriages. The Thursday morning study group at Holy Trinity Anglican Church spent four weeks in this undertaking. It was an illuminating time for me, not because it changed my perspective on the “big question” (it didn’t much!), but because it showed me just how broad a spectrum of viewpoints could be encompassed in a group of less than ten people, particularly with respect to the Bible and how we read it. None of us in the group read the Bible from a purely literal standpoint, but the place it occupied in our lives was very different, from a profound reverence to near-indifference.

The exercise led me to ponder how we ought to approach the holy Scriptures. I am suggesting that we take a sacramental view of the Bible, which I believe will help to open its words for us to become the living Word of God.

The Sacraments as we understand them have both a material and a spiritual reality: the material both points to and conveys the spiritual. The water of Holy Baptism points beyond itself to the reality of incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church. The bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist likewise points beyond, to the reality of the presence of Christ in the gathered community and the world around us. In the same way, the words of the Holy Bible lead us beyond the printed page to the reality of God’s presence in humanity and in the world which God created, and ultimately to the redemption of the world through the death and Resurrection of Jesus.

Although Anglican tradition has always placed a high value on Scripture, let it be said here that we do not worship the Bible, but rather the God whom the Bible reveals. The great Anglican theologian Richard Hooker said that the Church – the “called-out” people of God – is founded on scripture, tradition, and reason, which has come to be known as “Hooker’s tripod.” Through the interplay of the three legs, the Church can continue to move forward in its participation in God’s mission. Clearly, Scripture has a foundational and supportive role in this mission.

From itpexels-photo-372326.jpegs beginning, Anglicanism has placed a high value on the public reading of Scripture. Besides being written in English, the first Book of Common Prayer (1549) made some important innovations in worship. Cranmer reduced the multiple monastic daily services to two, the “daily offices” of Morning and Evening Prayer, with the implied expectation that people would participate daily. A system of reading the scriptures (a “lectionary”) was provided for these services, so that anyone who attended them regularly would hear the entire Old Testament every two years, the New Testament three times a year, and the Psalms monthly. While daily attendance at the offices was the exception, the Prayer Book established the centrality of the Scripture in our worship.

More recently, we have come to understand the Eucharist as our church’s central act of worship. While the Sunday lectionary we now use is not nearly as comprehensive as the original daily lectionary, it still places a considerable portion of the Bible before worshipers on a regular basis.

Unlike some other churches of the Reformation, the Anglican church has never defined itself confessionally, by articulating core beliefs to which all members are expected to assent. We have instead tended to define ourselves as a communion through our liturgies. Our worship tells us – and others – who we are. If our worship defines us, it is no stretch to see that the importance of the Bible in our worship also helps to defines us.

So… how do we read the Bible? How do we understand what it is and what it is not? How can it speak to us today without it becoming stale? The Collect of the Day for the Sunday between Nov. 6 & 12 gives some hints about our church’s historical view of Scripture.

Eternal God,
who caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning,
grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them,
that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life,
which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

(Anglican Church of Canada, Book of Alternative Services, p. 391,
or the Book of Common Prayer, p. 97)

First, it does not say that the Bible is “God’s Word” but rather that God caused it to be written. Fallible human beings put pen to paper to write its many and varied texts, under divine guidance but not as God’s holy puppets. They saw and heard and remembered – and then wrote.

Second, it clearly asserts that the scriptures are to be used. They are given for our learning: “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.” How we do this is a matter of personal choice and habit. There is no one right or wrong way for Christians to interact with the Scriptures, except of course, not to do so at all!

Third, we see that our interaction with the scriptures is not a mind game—knowledge for the sake of knowledge—but should lead us beyond the written word to the Incarnate Word. The intended learning should change us. The goal is always a deeper relationship with God in Christ—everlasting life. We are called to become the living Word of God in the world. The Bible is not the end-point of our faith. It is the prime foundational document of the Christian faith, a faith which is not in the Bible but in the one to whom it points.

How do people use Scripture? Sometimes we may sit alone with our Bible in reading or meditation. Very often we hear Scripture proclaimed in the liturgy. At times, we may join in Bible study. In whatever way we interact with Scripture, we are invited to let the words before us change us and draw us ever deeper into a relationship with the One who caused those words to be written. This is truly sacramental – a holy action drawing us closer to God. The Word of God is thus not a static reality on a printed page, but a dynamic reality in the lives of the faithful.

I sometimes preface sermons with this prayer, which I now offer in closing:

Gracious God
Through the written word and the spoken word,
May we become your living Word,
Through him who was and is the Word made flesh,
Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. AMEN.

Looking Through the Cross

Notes for a sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 at Holy Trinity Anglican Church (Strathcona) on Sunday, March 4, 2018.

What do we see when we look at the cross?

2000px-Coa_Illustration_Cross_Easter.svg.pngI am sure that everyone of us would answer this question in differing personal, theological, and spiritual terms. I am no less sure that we here today share something in how we behold the cross. After all, it has been the principal symbol of our faith since the 4th century. We know about Jesus’ death on the cross. We decorate many of our churches with crosses of all descriptions. Some of us make the sign of the cross. Many people wear crosses on their persons.

The cross is all around us. When a symbol is so all-pervasive, it can become a constant reminder of the reality behind it or … sad to say, it can become wallpaper. We live with it, but it rarely affects us.

When Paul came to Corinth, he did not come carrying a cross, but rather bearing “the message about the cross.” Some people received the message he proclaimed, but many others dismissed it.

Depending upon their background, they heard Paul’s message as a “stumbling block” or simply “foolishness.”

Foolishness? If you expect your God to be a mighty and victorious warrior, immortal and invincible, proclaiming the divinity of a person who died a shameful death is nonsensical. “Real” Gods don’t do that kind of thing!

Stumbling block? If you expect your Messiah to be visibly blessed and honored by God, the assertion that a victim of crucifixion is the Christ is outrageous. More than that, it is scandalous, in the Hebrew sense that it is heard as something that causes a person to sin. (Note that our word “scandal” comes from the Greek for “stumbling block” — skandalon.)

Whichever way people heard it, the actual story of the cross of Christ was clear and immediate to the people of Corinth—a city of the Roman Empire, a regime which kept the peace through violence and intimidation. Rome’s ultimate means of punishment was crucifixion, which was reserved for the worst enemies of the state. In 2018 it is an act about which we must remind ourselves, but in the year 50 in Corinth, it was a common presence in people’s lives. No one needed to be told what it meant.

And today? Can we still be scandalized by the cross? Do we ever see it as mere foolishness? I would suggest that the answer to both questions is “yes,” in the wider world to be sure, but also among folk who are seeking to follow Jesus.

Our Thursday morning study group has just read a book by the late Christopher Lind, entitled “Rumors of a Moral Economy.” Lind wrote of how contemporary society is dominated by a competition-driven economy, which when allowed to function without restraint leads to greater and greater concentration of wealth, and a diminution of the common good.

In pure competition, there are only winners and losers: a system at best indifferent to human needs. In a competition-driven world, proclaiming Christ crucified can easily be heard as exalting a loser.

Lind’s book also pointed to how a moral economy must be rooted in community and a sense of the common good. When community breaks down (as it easily does in a purely competitive situation), people become isolated, and spiritual needs often end up being expressed in questions about what God can do for us. When faith is all about meeting our own needs, nothing less than a totally divine saviour will do, and then we stumble over the idea that Jesus ended his life rejected by all. Some of them will say, “Well, Jesus really was God, so the crucifixion didn’t really matter.” This is an ancient heresy, called “Docetism,” the belief that Jesus only seemed to be human.

Make no mistake: Jesus was as human as you and me. He ate and drank, he slept, he wept, he felt all the things we do. And just as surely, he died as all of us will in our own time.

Jesus gave up his life on the cross to reveal the power and the wisdom of God—already embodied in his own person.

As Paul wrote:

… though he was in the form of God,
   (he) 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.                                       (Philippians 2:6-8)

The cross defies any ordinary human explanation. There’s no logical deduction, no “standard wisdom,” no simple text-book answer that leads us to the truth of the message Paul brought to Corinth.

God’s power and glory is revealed here, not in a mighty triumph, but in the death of one who was sinless, who gave up his life as a holy sacrifice on behalf of all of God’s people. It is the ultimate act of self-identification with us: all whom Jesus came to redeem.

So: what do we see when we look at the cross?

Let me rephrase the question: what do we see not when we look AT the cross, but when we look THROUGH it?

It is not so much the cross that should demand our attention, but the reality that lies behind and beyond it: the loving-kindness of the God who loved us into being, who loved us enough to send his Son, and who loves us and all humanity every day of our lives.

Let us then hold the cross before us.

Let us see in and through it how Jesus laid down his life for us, in the ultimate and defining act of love, in words from the 1st letter of John.

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.                                                    (1 John 3:16)

And Jesus said

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (John 15:12)

The message of the cross is the power of God, and the power of God is love. May this be our proclamation in word and deed, today and always.

Amen.

Doing it again

Today I had the privilege of preaching and presiding at the Eucharist at Holy Trinity (aka “HTAC”). I had been scheduled to preach for a while, but other commitments took both our Rector and our Assistant Priest away from the parish. So…

Yours truly got to do what I used to do most Sundays for a quarter of a century. They say that riding a bike is easy once you learn how to do it, and once you have learned, doing it again is simple. You just get in the saddle and pedal.

That’s rather how today felt. HTAC is not “my” parish, at least not in the sense that St. Matthew’s Cathedral and St. Augustine’s-Parkland were. There, I was the Rector, expected to be present and available every day, and to do what had to be done at pulpit and altar most Sundays. Most Sundays at HTAC, I’m sitting in the back row of the bass section in the church choir, and happy to be there.

Today was different. I prayed with the choir before the service as usual, but today I led the prayers. I sang the psalm with the choir, but today from the presider’s desk. I proclaimed the Gospel and preached, and then went to the altar to preside at the sacrament.

These things happen every Sunday at HTAC. But today I assumed roles that other people usually take. And (I have to confess) it felt good.

Readers of this blog may have intuited that I wasn’t really ready to retire in 2013, but rather that the situation was forced on me. Today reminded me that I still feel most alive when I’m ministering in the pulpit and at the altar. I still believe that this I what God made me for, but I recognize that other people have similar calls, and that I have to let go as I am able.

I am truly grateful for today’s experience. I hope that my ministry today helped at least someone. That’s all I can expect, and all any ordained person can hope for.

Thanks be to God for this day. I have posted the text for today’s sermon under “Sermons and theological discussions.” Read it HERE.

Holy_Trinity_Anglican_Church_Edmonton_Alberta_Canada_01A
View from the Northwest – 100 Street and 84 Ave.