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 “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

Three Journeys

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

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

  • From the Hand Hills to the Rockies.

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

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

(You can open your eyes now.)

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

Satellite image of the Hand Hills, from Google Maps

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

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

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

  • From Transfiguration to Resurrection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • From Baptism to the Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking about journeying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t that what life is like?

Go and tell…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nevertheless…

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

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

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

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

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

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

And “Amen!”

The most difficult parable?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The verse after our reading is this:

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

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

Let’s hear what St. Augustine said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

Holy Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…
(Exodus 34:6f)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It takes work.

It takes persistence.

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

God won’t give up on us.

Let us never give up on God.

Amen.

Believing is Seeing

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

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

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

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

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

Believing became seeing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

If we say we believe, what comes next?

What difference does it make in our lives?

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

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

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

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

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

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

As we believe, so may we see.

As we see, so may we act.

As we act, so may we proclaim.

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