Truth and Reconciliation and the Exile

September 30, 2022

September 30 in Canada is National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, also known as “Orange Shirt Day.” This is now the second annual observance of the day, after being proclaimed by the Federal Government in response to the finding of over 200 unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Federal services are suspended for the day, and many federally regulated businesses such as banks are closed. A variety of events are happening across the country, including CBC Music broadcasting an entire day of music by Indigenous artists. Our parish church, Holy Trinity in Old Strathcona, is marking the day in Sunday’s liturgy.

It will naturally take some time for this day to become a fixture in people’s consciousness. Some might be impatient at this pace, but social changes take time. That’s a simple human reality. It is analogous to the impatience some have expressed about reconciliation, wanting to have it NOW. What they are not recognizing is that reconciliation is not something you can just “have,” but rather something that must be worked at. It’s a process, not an event. It is linked to Truth, without which it is impossible.

I have heard a great deal of anger expressed by Indigenous people, directed at the Government and its policies, the churches which ran the Residential Schools, and the people who took over their ancestral lands, whether by treaty or not. Much of that anger is well-justified, but my people (“settlers”, to use the current term) often react badly to it.

In pastoral work we learn a lot about the grief process, which in general terms is a response to loss. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross identified five things that she first called “stages”: denial, depression, anger, bargaining, and acceptance. Today we more often call them “aspects,” because we have learned that grief is not linear. Rather, different aspects of grief may manifest at any time after the loss.

I believe that indigenous anger is part of a long-term historical process of collective grief, stemming from the loss of land, a way of living, language, and culture. I am suggesting that a Biblical analogue to Indigenous grief may be found in the story of the Exile and the post-exilic period.

There are two main formative events in the history of the Jewish people: the Exodus and the Exile. The Exodus from Egypt, with all its drama, is still remembered by Jews as the event that made them a people with a land. It is celebrated at Passover to this day. The Exile to Babylon lacks a similar celebration, likely because it is difficult to celebrate a disaster. However, responses to disaster have a profound effect on a people’s self-understanding, which is certainly the case here. I note that the 20th-century Holocaust has had a similar re-shaping effect on modern Jewish life.

While large parts of the Hebrew Bible (aka the “Old Testament”) have their origin in pre-exilic times, most of what we have today came into its present form in the post-exilic period. The dominant questions raised by the Exile were “Why did this happen?” and “What can we do to prevent its recurrence?” Their land has been lost, their temple has been destroyed, their way of life has become impossible. Responses to these questions run the spectrum from near-universalism (see Isaiah 40-55) to law-based exclusivism (see Ezra and Leviticus).

The writings from the Exile period often exhibit aspects of grief, as the people come to grips with the reality of the events that have overtaken them. Our Sunday liturgy will include Psalm 137, which begins with “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept,” and ends with a howl of vengeful anger towards Babylon. In its nine verses it displays all the aspects of grief except acceptance. I invite you to pray through this Psalm slowly, reflecting on the grief it manifests, and on how it may help us on the truth-paved path of reconciliation.

35 and counting…

Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton, Alberta
May 29, 2020, the Seventh Sunday of Easter

When the Rector asked me to cover services this Sunday, I said “Sure”, and than looked at my calendar and realized it was the 7th Sunday of Easter, only two days before May 31. 35 years ago, the 7th Sunday of Easter fell on May 31, when I was ordained a Deacon. (It was also the night that the Edmonton Oilers won their 3rd Stanley Cup, so I can take no credit for the street party outside afterwards.) When I realized what the day was, I told the Rector that I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on my time in ordained ministry, and she quickly agreed.

Then I looked at the readings and came up against the closing portion of Jesus’ “high-priestly prayer” from John’s Gospel. As John tells it, these are the last words Jesus spoke to his disciples before his death, praying for those who will come after “that they may be one.” That’s us!

When I was involved in campus ministry as an undergraduate (U. of Alberta, B.Sc. ’69), the big thing was the Ecumenical Movement, after Rome had started to open its doors through Vatican II. I recall starry-eyed students – yours truly included – running around proclaiming unity, singing “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” and expecting organic unity among the churches – soon! By the time I was ordained, I knew that organic unity was a pipe dream, but I still had some hope for all Christians to be one. I still hold that hope after 35 years, but the history of these years has been very mixed in this respect, even within the Anglican Church.

There’s been a lot of change. For some people, the best change is no change at all. Others say we have not changed nearly enough. What I do know is that change is inevitable. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus held that “impermanence is the characteristic feature of the world,” which certainly rings true for me. It has certainly been true in the Anglican world in recent years.

It’s hard to proclaim unity among Christians when our own church has seen divisions, mostly arising from changes in the church which some people reject. One predates my ordination, the ordination of women to the priesthood and later to the episcopacy. The Anglican Church of Canada first ordained female priests in 1979, and some clergy and laity responded by moving to Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy. It was an issue for some of my classmates during my time at seminary. It remains an issue for some today, even at Holy Trinity. For me, it has been one of the most positive changes in our church in the past half-century, bringing a new wholeness to our understanding of Christian ministry.

Another change which I regard as positive, but which has led to division in our ranks, is in gender and sexuality issues. As we have moved toward fuller inclusiveness in welcome, ordination, and marriage, some people who disagreed have gone elsewhere, including establishing a parallel Anglican Church. Some others stay, but reluctantly.

A big positive: the development of a closer relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. Again, some saw this as negative, but for me, it was long overdue. When our two churches sat down to talk, we quickly discovered that we agreed on almost everything and had done for centuries. We used different theological languages, and came at church order from different directions, but these proved easy to deal with. I was privileged to be a delegate to General Synod 2001, and to take part in the great celebration of the signing of the Full Communion agreement. I doubt that I’ll ever forget seeing our Primate and the Lutheran National Bishop dancing together around the arena in Waterloo. Our two churches have been enriched by this relationship, a visible sign of being one as Christ prayed for us.

Shortly after my ordination, we began to be aware of the issues around Residential Schools, a subject about which I had been woefully ignorant. As lawsuits began to pile up, there was some real fear that our whole institutional structure would collapse if we didn’t properly address the matter. Our Primate gave an apology to the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples’ Sacred Circle in 1993, opening the door to the work of healing and reconciliation. Since that time, we have become more aware of our colonial history and its effects on indigenous people. Healing and reconciliation will take years – well beyond my lifetime! – but we are on the road towards being one with our indigenous brothers and sisters.

One place where change has been at best mixed is our response to sexual abuse and harassment within the church. In times past everything was left up to Bishops’ discretion, but it became clear that this was inadequate, at times leading to greater harm. (The pattern of moving offending clergy to other parishes is not solely the province of the Roman Catholic Church. It has happened in the ACC. Most dioceses now have policies and procedures in place, but they lack consistency across the church, and a tendency to protect the institution before the victims persists. The “#ACCToo” issue is the most recent and visible example, dealing with how our national office handled a draft story intended for the Anglican Journal, potentially identifying victims when confidentiality had been assured. An open letter circulated around the national church, gathering hundreds of signatures, calling for accountability and for care for the complainants. The Primate responded in an interview on CBC News. I found her words less than helpful, but I do understand that the situation is still unfolding. Assurances that steps are being taken to ensure that it won’t happen again are not enough when people have been hurt. We have made some positive changes here, but much remains to be done.

That’s a bit of a downer, but now let’s look at one of the most positive areas of change – the growing understanding of the church as “missional.”

I served in three parishes before retiring. Two of those had long histories, and their understanding of the church had been deeply shaped by history. One was characterized by the “chaplaincy model,” seeing their role as ministering to people like them – mostly of British heritage. The other had played a big role in local history, and people looked back to the glorious past when the church was full and there were 200 children in Sunday School. I’m not criticizing them, rather observing that their sense of mission had been formed through many years of ministry practises that seemed to me to no longer fit the societal situation.

What I have experienced in other places and very much at Holy Trinity is a growing sense of the church as missional – existing for the benefit of others, not just those who are “on the list.” There will always be echoes of our history, but I don’t find it driving our agenda. The agenda continues to evolve. In some ways, the pandemic has been a blessing, forcing us to find new ways to be the Church, but God’s mission is still the same, as Jesus handed it to his disciples on the night before his death.

The church of 2022 is facing some huge challenges. With the Holy Spirit as our guide, we may move forward contributing our share of God’s mission in this world. Things won’t ever again be the same – but that’s always been true.

It has been a joy and a privilege – and at times a great challenge – to be part of the changes of the past 35 years. I do not expect to see the next 35 to their completion. But I am certain they will happen, and I believe that God will be glorified in God’s people.

May we all be one.

Amen.

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.

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!”

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!”

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.

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.