Pentecost 16, September 24, 2017

Matthew 20:1-16

St. John the Apostle

“Why are you standing around?”

I speak as a sinner to sinners, and as one who is loved to the beloved of God through the mercy of God.  Amen.

Today Jesus tells us a story of the labourers in the vineyard.  We hear about the ones that the landowner hired in the morning for the work, and as we sit in the pews we tend to identify and to side with them.  We are just like Jesus’ first listeners- both his followers and the religious leaders.  It makes sense that those who are hired for a job agree upon a wage before they spend all day in the field.  Where our sense of natural justice gets assaulted is the next part.  The landowner then goes on to pick up more workers as the day progresses and adds them to the workforce.  And in the evening, when the pay is handed out, everyone gets the same.  That’s not fair.

It depends on our perspective.  For those who have slaved away from dawn til dusk, it doesn’t seem fair that we have been worked so hard and so long for this small sum, even though it is what we agreed to in the beginning.  It’s not just a matter of reward or righteousness.  We are tired, we have given our all, and there is so much work to do.  Why couldn’t the landowner have brought in the extra help a little earlier, and saved our aching backs?  Those who were first to be in the field resent those who didn’t have to work for such a long day not just because they got the same amount of money for a shorter shift, but because they were standing around.

But from the point of view of those who were still in the labour lineup in the marketplace, waiting to be hired, those who were already at work were the lucky ones.  They wanted a job to do.  So why are they standing around?  If we look at this parable as those who want to work but don’t have the opportunity, we get a sense of what Jesus is saying to us about God’s grace and justice.

Some people don’t appeal to employers. They may not have the connections with the company to get their foot in the door, or have the prior work experience or qualifications that meet some hiring standard.  They may not present as well in an interview because the way they dress or speak.  There are many people who would be assets to a workplace if given a chance, but if you are competing against others that speak English better or have Canadian degrees or have confidence and a glowing reference, the chances of being hired are diminished.  There are the doctors and scientists and teachers who have immigrated to Canada only to find that the jobs open to them are as taxi drivers or house cleaners.  Even though our society is in need of their specific skills, they start, at least, with work outside their field to feed their families.  These are the ones who are seen by those in authority as unskilled labourers in the marketplace.  Sometimes we do not discover what gifts a person brings to an organization or company because we never bother to ask what they can do.  We leave them on the margins and compl

There are also those who stand around because they do not hear of the work opportunities.  When we do not hear what is needed, and how we can help, it is difficult to offer.  And sometimes we are not very good at knowing what we need in the way of assistance, let alone advertising for it.  There are more jobs available than there are people to do them, and yet part of our population is unemployed and despairing of finding meaningful work.  This happens in the Church as well.  The tendency is for a few good people to do much of the work quietly and behind the scenes.   Others neither realize how many hours are being put in, nor understand what they might do to share the load.  Our other problem, especially as an organization, is to resent the people who come in “later in the day” to labour with us.  Well established patterns for getting things done might be challenged by different ways if a new person is allowed to join in.  It takes energy to explore alternatives rather than just dismiss the idea because “we’ve always done it that way”.  Whether it is a workplace or an organization like the Church, we have to decide that if we are to seek more workers, we have to be prepared to be changed by what they bring to the job.  Specifically, if we as a faith community are to share the good news about God, then who we invite into ministry will bring new talents and ways of being disciples.

And just like in the Scripture story, there are those who are left standing around because they have been judged not suitable for the job.  The landowner probably chose those labourers he saw as the fittest for the hard work in the vineyard.  But maybe when he came back to the marketplace a second and third time, he began to see other possibilities for the ones who were still there.  As a society, we value those who are young and strong and clever.  We are more hesitant to engage with those who have physical or mental challenges.  And we do not value the gifts our elders bring to our work in the way that we should.  Just because bodies slow down and minds get forgetful, it doesn’t mean that seniors should be set aside as useless to our common good.  A recent federal report on the status of the elderly in care facilities highlights the tendency to warehouse and forget those who have decades of experience and wisdom.  In the province of BC, seniors in assisted living received less than 3 hours a day of personal interactions with staff.  This means that for those elderly persons who have few friends or family members who visit, they spend more than 21 of 24 hours each day alone.  There is no one to help with personal needs or even to share a recollection or an insight.  As a society, how do we treat our elders?  We leave them standing around, waiting for someone to show an interest in their worth.

Jesus lays out that God’s love is not a finite resource.  God’s grace extends to all who are willing to join in, no matter what their fitness or prior experience.  There is room and a job for everyone.  The task of the Church is to invite and equip persons for ministry.  That means extending the labour pool.  Sometimes we bemoan that there are not enough people to do all the things we want to get done in the Church.  The answer is to get more help.  It may be late in the day, but there are still people out there who have not been invited.  Maybe we have missed asking them in the past because they don’t appeal as much to us.  Maybe we haven’t been too good about getting the word out that there is a place for them, and then when they come, actually making a place for them.  And maybe we have some work to do to discern the special gifts of those we thought were less suitable for what God was about.  The point is that God’s amazing and astonishing grace is to keep searching for those who are willing.  And God will show us how to be ready and able to help.  Nobody should be left just standing around.  Amen.

 

 

 

Homily for Pentecost 15, September 17, 2017

Exodus 14:19-31

St. John the Apostle

“True Story”

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

An Anglican priest, a Baptist preacher and a Jewish rabbi are fishing in a boat on a lake. The preacher has forgotten the bait, so he walks across the water, grabs the bucket and walks back. Then the rabbi realizes he’s forgotten his lunch, so he walks across the water to the shore, picks up his lunch bag and walks back.

The Anglican then remembers he didn’t lock the car, but when he gets out of the boat he falls into the water. He swims back, gets back into the boat, and says, “God, let me walk across the water.” He tries again and falls into the water, swims back, tries again and falls again.

The Baptist leans over to the rabbi and asks, “Do you think we should tell him where the stepping stones are?”

We want to believe in miracles and at the same time we want to be able to explain them.  One criteria for a miracle is that it is not explicable by natural or scientific laws.  But as human knowledge extends into new fields, things that were once regarded as supernatural occurrences are found to have a basis in science or history.  Thunder, earthquakes, plagues, eclipses, molecular interactions, can be examined and observed to find out how they work.  But does this make them any less miraculous?

There is a news report of Saint Peter’s bones purportedly discovered this week in a small church undergoing renovations (It makes one wonder what we will find here!).  According to the Vatican, human remains were found in a couple of clay jars in the Santa Maria in Cappella, Rome.  They will undergo DNA testing and be compared to other bones kept at St. Peter’s basilica which are also thought to be those of this first century apostle.  Will they be any more holy if there is a match?

This week the Christian Church also celebrated the feast of Holy Cross day on Thursday.  On September 14 in the year 335, the Emperor Constantine dedicated a large shrine and church on the site of where Jesus was thought to have been crucified in Jerusalem.  While the site was under construction, Constantine’s mother Helena happened to be helping out and found some old pieces of wood.  Doctors of the faith did the 4th century version of scientific testing.  They apparently had a corpse laid on the fragments and when the person came back to life declared that this miracle was due to the healing power of the cross of Christ.  The relics were taken back to Rome and venerated, and soon many important churches across Christendom managed to produce a sliver. Each faith community eagerly hoped for a miracle to prove that their splinter was the real deal.

There are a lot of miracles recorded in the Bible.  Many are the basis of documentaries, which try and tease out textual details to support scientific discovery.  From the story that has been passed down, first as an oral tradition and then as a sacred text, people have attempted to reconstruct the “true” story.  Whether this invites faith or skepticism, there is an underlying need to understand how God did “it”.

In the Hebrew Scriptures passage that was read this morning from Exodus 14, we heard the story of the Israelites escaping through the waters of the Red Sea.  The miracle of the slaves’ escape from Egypt by God’s mighty hand is a story that is crucial to understanding how they understood themselves to be a chosen people.  Did it literally happen step by step as it is described in the pages of Scripture?  Countless scholars have spent years huddled over maps of the Near East, trying to match up times and place names to see when and where the event actually occurred.  Various scientific explanations of tidal influence, wind patterns, and climate conditions have laid out scenarios by which this group of people might have passed through what was normally a body of water, while Pharoah’s chariot army was unable to follow.  The Hebrew slaves crossed the Red, or possibly Reed, Sea and the Egyptian pursuers drowned.  Do we need to understand exactly how in order to appreciate that there is a divine hand involved?

For some, this is a matter of faith.  Anything that can be explained by natural means proves, de facto, that God didn’t need to be involved: it was a matter of happy circumstance for the Israelites and bad luck for the Egyptians.  That is, if this story actually had any basis in fact and wasn’t just made up as a charter myth of the Jewish people.  For others, the grounding of details found in the text lends even more power to God’s purpose.  Why wouldn’t the Creator use the mechanisms of creation in order to guide the path of human history?  And for more, the details don’t actually matter.  The footnotes in a Bible, although interesting, neither add or detract from the words of Scripture.  The story is true on a deeper level, as a proclamation of what God is about rather than how.

So what is God about here in this story?  The crossing of the Red Sea is a miracle of love and forgiveness and trust.  For the Hebrew people, it is the death of an old life in oppression and sin, and the beginning of a new life that is a journey towards the God who loves them and redeems them and will sustain them in their wilderness.  The details that are recorded may have happened exactly like that to a people long ago.  But they also can resonate with a modern hearer that has never been to the Middle East, never fled across a desert pursued by Egyptians.  We can put ourselves into the text because of our own experiences that run parallel.

And when we come to baptism, this story becomes even more true.  This story of the crossing over is what we each enact when we begin the path of a Christian life.  We chose between the captivity of the world and the journey to a Promised Land.  We go through the water that marks both death and life.   And we trust in a God who loves us enough to rescue us and forgive us and claim us as God’s own forever.  Do we need to see the rocks under the water?

The stage is set again this morning for the retelling of this wonderful story.  The miracle here is this small child, Alexander Brian McGlashan.  Brought into the world by love, brought to this community in love, to be baptized this morning for love.  Can anyone look at a baby and not know something of the mystery of God in these tiny hands?  And maybe years from now his mother and father and sister will tell him the story of this day.  They may laugh and recount the little details.  But whether they get it exactly right or not, the main point of the story is still this:  You are a miracle, by God’s grace.   Amen.

 

 

Homily for Pentecost 14, September 10, 2017

Romans 13:8-14

St. John the Apostle

“It’s not too late to say you’re sorry”

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

When I came into the church this morning, there was a beeping from the alarm panel.  The back-up batteries were low, and so it was reminding us that we need to attend to it.  Now.  That irritating sound that you hear won’t give up until you do something about it.  That’s much like the passage we hear this morning from Romans chapter 1.  St. Paul sounds like a nagging parent: “You know what time it is”.  Do we ever?  I for one have a remarkable capacity for putting off the things I need to do unless I put a deadline in place.  For everyday tasks, writing a sermon for example, I have a clear end date- Sunday morning.  But there are other things that we know we should do someday soon, but procrastinate about.  Having an emergency kit stocked and ready seems like a sensible idea, but how many of you have one near the door of your home?  We tend to put things like this off because although we have been told that someday there will be an earthquake, the probability is that it will not be tomorrow.

But we never know how much time we have.  Events can overtake us quickly.  Think of those residents in the interior of BC that had to leave their homes quickly because of approaching wildfires or floods.  Even with warnings and evacuation alerts, it was difficult for many to pack what was needed in time to flee.  And for the residents of the southern states, past experience with hurricanes may led some to believe that they could weather this storm, only to find that supplies like gasoline and plywood were sold out by the time they really needed them.  Hour by hour Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and those that will follow, move across the Caribbean on courses that change in intensity and direction even with the best of predictions.

We are slow learners, and so we need to be reminded to not take for granted that things will unfold on our schedule.  In Exodus, at the first Passover, the Hebrews didn’t even have time to allow the bread to rise before they left Egypt.  They had to bake the unleavened loaves and eat them in a hurry.  In the comemoration every year of this event, Jews still eat the crackers called Matzah to call to mind that God’s salvation can come quickly and unexpectedly.  And in our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus tells his followers not to wait to forgive another.  Rather than triangulating by complaining to a third party, we are to confront sin and estrangement directly.  Our task is not to put off reconciliation, but to take the steps to have healthy relationships.  This is important for people of faith not just in our personal lives, but at a systemic level as we counter racism and fear in our society.

And there surely is a certain urgency to our present time.  Even without the background of natural disasters, economic disparity, and political instability, this really is a moment for the world to wake from sleep because our salvation is nearer than when Jesus spoke about forgiveness.  We can live in fear of the dark days that appear to be leading towards the apocalypse, or we can get our priorities straight.  For each of us has a choice to start working on our unfinished business or to ignore the signs and continue hoping that we have more time, a lot more time.  The point that St. Paul is making is that love is an urgent matter.

Old habits can keep us from living and loving more fully, especially those habits that hinder us from seeking forgiveness.  We are all more comfortable with the words “mistake” or “weakness” than that archaic term “sin”.  It’s hard to admit even when we say it in the Lord’s Prayer.  But there is at work within something that drags on our ability to respond in willing compassion to another.  It may be fear, it may be pride, it may be selfishness, it may be that lack of energy to change or challenge.  St. Paul speaks of it as “the desires of the flesh” in contrast to the Spirit.  Whatever we want to label it, this force works darkness instead of light.  We are called to lay aside the things that keep us from loving, and that means getting on with the business of forgiveness.

It is not easy to say sorry, and even when we do, we are sometimes not clear what we mean by it.  Especially for Canadians, “sorry” can imply anything from “I didn’t intend to bump into you but it was an accident” to “I am expressing sympathy for the death of your loved one.”  And sometimes we think that just by saying “sorry” we have solved the problem that lies between us, when there is much more work to do.  Dan Furman is a writer who runs a business writing apology letters.  On CBC’s program “Out in the Open”, he explains that people often ask for help to make an apology sound sincere.  It is not just a matter of magnitude.  Whether you are dealing with a neighbour who is annoyed by your barking dog or revealing to your spouse that you have committed adultery, the same rules apply.  Furman shares four rules:

  1. Include the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize”, not “I regret”
  2. Take responsibility by naming what you did
  3. Show you understand the impact your action has had on the other person
  4. Explain what you will change so that it doesn’t happen again or how you will make reparations

Without these components, he says, an apology is worthless and you are better off not offering one.  The focus should not be on who is to blame or who is right, but on reconciliation.  As soon as you qualify your apology or defend your actions, you have defeated the purpose.

Jesus, too, speaks not just of the process of naming and healing a rift, but the motivation.  Our goal is to be loving relationship, expressed in listening to the other and problem-solving in community.  Living honourably means moving beyond the quarreling and jealousy that tears our world apart.

In our corporate worship, we practice this when we say words of confession.  The familiarity of Sunday morning sets up good habits for the rest of the week in our prayer lives.  Talking to God is not just about asking for help, or even giving thanks.  It also must include times of self-examination and the willingness to admit and take responsibility for our part in hurting others.  Only when we bring this before God can we hope to accept God’s capacity to forgive us.

It is not too late to say you are sorry.  In fact, now is a good time to act.  Who knows what tomorrow will bring for any of us?  If we can do today something that will show more of our love, then we are truly dressing ourselves in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Many Christians wear a cross, around their necks or on their bodies.  It was on the cross that Jesus said of humanity, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they do”.  If we are to bear this ultimate sign of forgiveness to the world, isn’t it time we acknowledged that we are forgiven when we ask.  And get to the urgent work of forgiving others.  You know that time it is, and It is not too late.

Homily for Pentecost 13, September 3, 2017

Exodus 3:1-12

St. John the Apostle Port Moody

“Identity and Courage”

I speak to you as a sinner to sinners, and as one who is loved to the beloved of God through the mercy of God.  Amen.

When I was very young, the coming of Labour Day marked the turning of the year.  The hot lazy days of summer were nearly over and I would be heading back for another grade in school.  After post-secondary education, the first Monday of September took on a new meaning.  I was working for a public services union, advocating for the rights and safety of working people.  Labour Day highlighted the toil of generations before me who had sacrificed and lobbied in order to bring about that which we sometimes take for granted: parental leave, health benefits, defined working hours, financial support when one is ill or injured.  It is a yearly reminder that the working conditions that I and many in this country now expect are a recent development in human history, and one we can so easily lose when a different political administration comes to power.

In many parts of our world, the political and cultural climates have driven ordinary citizens to fear for their livelihoods and their lives.  Some have groaned under the weight of oppressive regimes or war-torn regions.  Others have fled as immigrants or refugees into a wilderness, leaving behind family members and friends.  The thought of going back and facing what is going on in their countries of origin is terrifying.  Even if they are not persecuted for who they know or what they may have done, there is little opportunity to use their trades or skills to earn a living.  Why would they go back when even the most menial of jobs here in the new world is safer?

Moses was a political refugee in the wilderness of Midian.  He had fled Egypt for killing an Egyptian who was beating one of the Hebrew labourers.  In this foreign society, he has found a wife and a job and a new life that has nothing to do with his previous position and privilege as a prince of Egypt.  He has adopted a new identity that has nothing to do with his cultural or religious roots.  But one day, when Moses is looking after his father-in-law’s flock of sheep, he encounters God.   Not in a temple or a sacred ceremony, not in some special revered place, but in Horeb, which means ‘the wasteland’.  But it is not enough for God to show up.   Only when Moses shows he can both see the burning bush, and he turns aside to find out what is going on and why, does Moses hear his name being called.   At this point, he could have run away. It might have been safer. Wildfires can be deadly, and unfamiliar voices can mean danger for a refugee.

In having the courage to answer, Moses is taking a risk.  The one who was once drawn out of the water of the Nile is being drawn into something new.   The writer of the story immediately puts in his mouth the words that any prophet would say to a heavenly call: “Here I am.”  But this is a man who has distanced himself from his Hebrew roots and the suffering of his people.   He steps up before he knows what is going to be asked of him.  Because from the onset, God claims Moses back as his servant.  “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Israel”.  Moses may not want to admit it, but he is still an Israelite.  He can’t avoid his past.  He sees the burning bush and he remembers what it is like to be oppressed.  Then God lays out his mission: “I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”  And now Moses is truly conflicted.

It is much harder to go back than to go forward sometimes.  Moses has made a new life for himself in this wilderness.  Now he is being asked to go back to Egypt.  He is to give up the security and companionship of his new family in Midian.  The possibility is facing imprisonment or death for his past actions.  And if he tries to advocate for the Hebrew labourers, then there will be ridicule, opposition, and further persecution from the Egyptian ruling class, to which he once belonged.  The God before him is asking him to choose a side.  Is he Midianite?  Is he Egyptian?  Or is he indeed a child of Israel?  Moses is not just suffering from fear of leadership.  He is having an identity crisis.  “Who am I?”, he cries.

God’s response reconnects him to the story of salvation.  “I AM will be with you”.  Who Moses is lies grounded in who God is.  The holy name of God is revealed on the holy ground where Moses is now standing barefoot.  It is a phrase so sacred that the Jewish people will not speak it aloud.  It is only written in Hebrew consonants on the pages of scripture, and every time it is to be pronounced, the word “Adonai” or “the Lord” is substituted.  The meaning of God’s name is fluid because of the way the verb “to be” is structured in Hebrew.  So God’s name could mean, “I Am what I am”, or “I Am what I will be” or “I Am what I am becoming” or “I Am what I am for you”.   Moses has first declared “Here I am”, and God is telling him that where Moses is, God will be also.  Moses has asked “Who am I?” and God has reaffirmed that he is a child of the Israelites, just as God is the God of the Israelites.  Because God is “I Am”, Moses can find his way back to his identity and his courage.

It takes courage to turn back and take on a task with the shadow of the past hanging over us.   For some it may be simply going back to school or to work after time away. For others, going home after a fire or flood have changed the landscape.  For more, standing up to oppression by having the courage to identify with those who have less power.  But the promise is that God is calling us not to stand alone.  In answering the call of justice and love and compassion, we are united with the Holy One.  We have found holy ground.  Amen.

 

 

11th Sunday after Pentecost , August 20, 2017

Genesis 45:1-15

St. John the Apostle, Port Moody

“Family Reunions”

I speak to you as a sinner to sinners, and as one who is loved to the beloved of God, through the mercy of God.  Amen.

Family reunions can be such tense occasions that there are whole websites devoted to how to plan fun and stress-free encounters with one’s relatives.  First you have to decide who to invite.  Then where it is going to be held.  Oh, yes, and who is going to pay for it (or how you are going to get your relatives to contribute a fair amount.)  How long can you put up with each other, and what are you going to do together so that nobody gets bored or offended?   What to wear so that others don’t judge you?  I got stressed just visiting the websites.

Once we get to the meet and greet, we all have a “best self” that we want others to see.  But the temptation is to slip into a role that we have previously been cast in during our family history.   Do we once again succumb to the “favoured child”, the “peacemaker”, the “martyr”, the “only one who gets things done around here”, the “font of all wisdom”, or another character?  The label we wear doesn’t just identify who we are and how we fit in to the family tree, it also can determine whether we help or hinder healthy relationships.  Reunions can strengthen ties of affection or they can enforce barriers previously built between people.  It is up to each of us to react to others the way we always have or to find a way to get unstuck.

Reconciliation is about getting unstuck.  When we no longer cling to a previously believed right way of doing things, and we are willing to try something different for the sake of the relationship, there is opportunity for forgiveness and healing.  It’s too bad that it took Joseph and his brothers 8 chapters in the Bible to get to this point.  That’s how much of the story we have skipped from last week’s tale of Joseph being sold into slavery and today’s reunion.  There is a happy ending, but a lot of troubling stuff happens in between if you go back and read Genesis 38 through 45.  This is the stuff of human relationships:

  • envy and revenge
  • dissention
  • attempted fratricide
  • grief
  • incest
  • adultery
  • execution
  • imprisonment
  • famine
  • human trafficking
  • deceit and fraud

And you thought the Bible had nothing to do with everyday life?  All of these events have shaped Joseph and his family.  They are not the same people as when they last saw each other.  They have hurt each other and they have hurt themselves with their choices, and they have been hurt by circumstances sometimes beyond their control.

And was any of this God’s will?  God doesn’t say that this is so.  It is Joseph who, through his trials, has come to an understanding that good has come out of the bad that has befallen him.  When he comes face to face with his brothers, who are pleading for mercy with this prince of Egypt, Joseph has a choice.  He can do likewise. He can play the official card and hurt the children of Jacob just as he has been hurt, or he can reveal his best self.  Joseph choses the path towards reconciliation.  He reveals himself to his brothers as their sibling, and tells them, “God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5).

They all weep, with both joy now and sorrow for what has been.  And they exchange the kiss of peace, symbol of love and right relationship.  This complicated family is restored to a balance that has world-wide implications.  The tribes of Israel, also known as Jacob, are reunited.  At least for now.  But the work of reconciliation doesn’t happen just once.  It is an ongoing labour.  Time and time again in the Biblical narrative we encounter the friction points and fractures amongst these twelve brothers, making future family reunions just as difficult.

And so it is in the world today.  Reconciliation is an ongoing labour that requires each of us to understand and to relate in healthier ways.  We can’t just fall back on familiar roles, whether it is in a family or community, or nation.  That’s just too easy.  It is too easy to harden into a narrative of fear and hate when we don’t want to face past hurts.  It is too easy to stop listening to the voices that cry out for change when we don’t want to give up power.  And it’s too easy to rewrite history rather than figure out where things started going wrong and how they need to be different.

As Christians, we need to be consistent in our message that the good news is for all of humanity.  God’s children can’t be sorted by mother or colour or race or ethnicity.  Racism and hatred have no part in our creed.  The gospel condemns the violence and ignorance of individuals and groups that refuse to admit another human as their brother, and who refuse to find ways to reconcile and overcome their hurts and prejudices.

Our times call for brave voices that don’t give in to violence or appeasement.  This week I was listening to William Bell, the mayor of Birmingham, Alabama.  This is the city which is considered the birthplace of the 1960’s civil rights movement.  Now the state of Alabama is threatening to sue him and the City because there is a law on the books that prevents the removal of commemorative works of art.  He was weighing in on the debate regarding a Confederate statue in a public square that, like so many, has been a flashpoint for race relations.  In a very measured response, he said that there were two options.  Either the statue could be removed to private land, and the owner could do whatever he wanted with it.  Or the history of slavery and the struggle for equality could be the narrative to explain the statue’s public presence rather than the glorification of a white Confederacy.  The face it presented to the public had to change to bring reconciliation.  In a like manner, William Bell commented that mayors across the United States have stood up to voice their dissention from the White House on issues such as climate change, immigration, and heath care.  It gives me hope that people are coming together to take action in spite of the fear, greed, and hatred that come from other groups in the civil society.

Every day we are called upon to practice healthy ways to live in relationship with each other.  And although we will certainly at times fall back into earlier patterns and roles, the more we practice, the better we will get.  Long years of using our forgiveness muscles and striving for a posture of empathy will strengthen us for the trials we face in the future.  Even a family reunion.  Amen.

Pentecost 11, August 13, 2017

Matthew 14:22-33

St. John the Apostle

“Spero Me Patronum (with apologies to J.K. Rowling)”

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Last Sunday evening, I drove through Kamloops on my way to Sorrento Retreat Centre on Shuswap Lake.  It was an apocalyptic landscape.  The sun was low like a hung-over red eye in the brown sky, and the buildings on either side of the highway were obscured with the smoky haze.  Gone was the city or any view across to the hills.  Except for the vehicles on the motorway, there was no sign of people or life.  With the temperature at 33 degrees Celsius and the heavy smoke, we kept the windows of the car sealed and we kept going.  Seeing the effects first hand, I was troubled for the residents of the city and all the communities fighting the wildfires this summer in BC: more troubled than I expected.

Then I realized that the scene was familiar to me:  it came from a recurring childhood nightmare.  I am a child of the 1970s.  It was a period when tensions between East and West were uneasy, and television programming was pre-empted with newscasts from war zones.  World powers were amassing nuclear warheads pointed at the other.  Social consciences were beginning to awaken and speak out against the proliferation of these weapons of mass destruction.  I remember saying, as a child, that I did not expect to live til I was 20.  And I had some bad dreams.  Perhaps they had roots in reality and fantasy; documentaries like “If you love this planet” and horror movies of the time.  One, which came more than once, found me with my family in a car driving through a post-nuclear landscape.  I remember being afraid to roll down the windows because the atmosphere outside was poisonous, and being fearful any desperate humans that might appear out of the murk to attack us.  It was this ghost of a memory that disturbed me in the present.

Part of being human is feeling fear.  And there is much to be afraid of in the world, from present dangers to future possibilities.  There is a satirical skit on the political show “This Hour has 22 minutes” that spoofs a Fox News -styled presenter.  Every episode she rants “here’s what you should be afraid of this week”.  And sadly, we absorb anxiety from much of what the media bombards us with.  Bad news sells.  And there is always new bad news.  This week alone, the tension ramping up between North Korea and the United States leaders, the growing violence in communities like Surrey, the continuing wildfires,… all add to our burden of making sense of the world.  This is overlaid on our personal struggles:  illness, responsibilities for family members, the death of loved ones, financial difficulties, insecurity and change in our jobs. Every day we deal with the chronic stress of modern life even as we juggle how to face the new challenges that are thrown at us.  At times, it feels like too much, and we begin to sink under the load.

The message “Do not be afraid” is not only counter-cultural; it seems laughable.  How can we not?  Yet this is the message that comes through again and again from God through our Holy Scriptures.  Usually it is in the mouth of angels, sent as messengers to individuals to show a way forward in a particularly stressful situation.  But today it comes from Jesus himself.  What can he mean for us, when we find ourselves in waters too deep to cope with?

If we start with the disciples, you can see that they are an awful lot like us.  In the story from Matthew 14:22-33, they have just finished a miraculous picnic with Jesus and five thousand of his followers.  They are amazed and filled with both bread and hope: here is the Messiah who will make everything all right in Israel.  All they have to do is stick with him.  But in the next sentence, Jesus compels his companions to leave him.  They are sent away from their Master to the other side of the lake, while he goes alone to spend some time in prayer.  They do what he asks, but what were they feeling as they set out in their little boat?  Some separation anxiety, perhaps, or resentment that they weren’t invited to stay and share quality time.  Maybe they are nervous about what he is going to expect of them next, since they didn’t manage to come through with their last catering assignment.  Then the storm comes up, and they are helpless against the wind and the waves.  They battle all night to keep afloat.  With experienced fishermen on board, they are realistically frightened about what happens when one is caught in the middle of the sea of Galilee in a gale.  By morning, they are reduced to survival mode.  It is then that they get the fright of their lives.

Their terror stems from the apparition walking towards them on the water.  “A ghost”, they cry, in the Greek, “a phantasma”.  Their fear of the unknown focuses on supernatural bad news.  They don’t immediately jump to the idea of rescue, but of destruction.  Here is a spirit from the dead coming to take them to a watery grave, or worse, a creature of chaos from the depths of their ancestral stories.  They are not afraid.  They are terrified beyond belief.  And even when Jesus tells them, “be comforted.  It is I.  Do not be afraid,” they are not convinced.  He’s used key words which should remind them of their faith, including the holy name of God “I Am” and the words spoken by every angel.  But at this point, the disciples are not too rational.

Peter, bless him, is the first to respond, although not in the smartest manner.  He challenges this unknown phantom to call him out of the boat if he is really the Lord; to prove it with another miracle.  And so he climbs out and starts walking on the water.  But the boat, although tossed by the waves, is safe in comparison to the wildness of the sea, and Peter quickly loses confidence in his ability to carry out Jesus’ command.  Overwhelmed, he begins to drown.  Sometimes we, like Peter, can take the risk of jumping out of a boat that is barely afloat into rough seas.  There are times when it is actually safer to stay in the boat and await further instructions.  But when we do decide to venture out, fear and doubt will work against us, and try to paralyze us from taking steps or even staying on the surface.  The only thing we can do is to put our trust in God to see us through.  “Lord, save me!” Peter cries.

In the J.K. Rowling books, there are particularly nasty creations called Dementors.  They personify fear, and anyone who has experienced depression has known them in one form or another.  One of Harry Potter’s professors describes them in the following way:

“Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles feel their presence, though they can’t see them. Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself — soul-less and evil. You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.”

– from The Prisoner of Azkaban

The only way to repel these fearful beings is to use the Patronus charm, which is conjured with a strong happy memory.  Harry learns to use his powers with great effect to counteract the terrible feelings that threaten to overwhelm him.  But a memory from the past alone is not enough to overcome despair and fear.  He learns to draw on present hope and the love of those he senses still around him in order to defeat its power.

“Expecto Patronum” is a latinized expression which loosely could mean “I expect/call on my patron”.  Similarly, Peter called on his patron to save him.  He puts his trust entirely at this point in Jesus as his Lord and Master, not in his own actions. Peter is not relying at this point on a happy memory of his childhood, his family, or even his recent experiences as a disciple of Jesus.   He doesn’t beg the other disciples in the boat to throw him a rope.  Maybe they already tried.  What he does is turns to the One who for him is the Son of God, the source of his present love and hope.  And Jesus, as the Son of God, stretches out his hand and catches him.

So what are we supposed to do with this? There are times when we get in over our heads.  If God is calling us to something new, then the risk of faith we take is to obey, but not to trust in our own ability to keep it together.   What is to be is in God’s hands.  What is in the past can be forgiven and laid aside.  And now, in the present, we need to reach out our hands to the presence of the One who will catch us when we start to sink under our fear.  We are not actually being asked to walk on water.  But we are being asked to trust the One who can.  To put aside our anxiety and doubt would be a miracle indeed.  In the midst of our life situations, it is enough to know that Jesus is there to help us get back into the boat and calm the wind until we get to the other side.  Amen.

 

Pentecost 3/Aboriginal Day of Prayer, June 18, 2017

Matthew 9:35-10:8

St. John the Apostle

“Just the Gospel”

When Jesus sent out his first followers to spread the message, he gave them strict instructions. Now that they had learned about God’s kingdom for themselves, they had to practice sharing this good news.  The twelve disciples had to learn how to be apostles.   And so, their first mission was to be amongst their own race and religion.

Here’s what they were to do:  heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons.  Here’s what they were not to do:  go outside their own faith and understanding, like the Gentiles or the Samaritans, or to accept payment for their labours.   Altogether, a pretty difficult practicum.  But I believe that this is exactly why Jesus let them loose on the house of Israel first.  If they couldn’t make any headway with people with which they presumably shared a world view, how could they hope to proclaim Jesus’ word to the rest of humanity?

The point is, they were to take just the gospel with them, not their preconceived ideas about which people was closer to God, or what way of living was more holy, or what cultural norms would be acceptable in the Kingdom.  Yet down through the history of religion humans have struggled with keeping clear about the core of the message.  We wrap it up in the cultural understanding and practice that we have, and we present it as a package to those we proselytize.  Jesus was a Jew first talking to Jews.  But as his ministry continued, both Samaritans and Gentiles received the good news he brought.  They didn’t have to convert to Judaism in order to get near him.  They only had to learn to worship “in Spirit and in truth” as he told the Samaritan woman at the well.  And being a Christian in the first century didn’t mean you necessarily had to be a Jew first, as Saint Paul so ably argued.  So why, in the course of Christianity, did we think that being a Christian also meant being just like the dominant culture that brought the gospel?

This is the legacy of the colonial mindset; when one culture comes to another with the preconceived notion that it is superior.  With the Bible in one hand, it is even easier to imagine that we bring something of great value, therefore our way of living it out must be better than the society without this good news.  But the assumptions that creep in undermine and actually are in opposition to the gospel.  Where in Scripture does Jesus say that people are savages, or dirty or stupid, because they hadn’t figured out what God intends?  He laments the lack of understanding amongst his own Jewish people, and the lack of leadership amongst the religious leaders.  And so he sends his disciples out to demonstrate what God’s way really looks like in the context of his own culture.

By the time the apostles start spreading out to touch the lives of those who are beyond the borders of the Jewish faith, they have had some practice with Jesus about dealing with other cultures.  He didn’t always agree with some of their practices, but he listened to their stories and their questions.  He recognized the same needs for healing and acceptance and justice.   He never categorized them as less than human.  Jesus knew them as children of the same Father.

When Jesus sends us out into our daily lives, we have the same instructions as the first twelve.  Our task is healing and reconciliation, right where we are.  In the Message version of the Scriptures, Matthew 10:5-8 has Jesus saying it this way:

“Don’t begin by traveling to some far-off place to convert unbelievers.  And don’t try to be dramatic by tackling some public enemy.  Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighbourhood.  Tell them that the kingdom is here.  Bring health to the sick.  Raise the dead.  Touch the untouchables.  Kick out the demons.  You have been treated generously, so live generously.”

We need to practice.  In our own neighbourhoods are people that have been here in this area much longer than we have.  Generations.  Millennia.  We have made mistakes in trying to proclaim the gospel to the indigenous people of Canada, and there is much work needed for truth and reconciliation.  Let us return to the gospel values that guided the first apostles, and set aside some of the cultural baggage that has alienated people from us and our attempts to draw them to Christ.  Let us take action in solidarity with the indigenous peoples of Canada:

Listen now to the words of the Most Rev. Fred Hiltz, Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada speaking at the Chapel of the Mohawks, Brantford, Ontario, March 19, 2016:

Voice 2: “In renouncing the Doctrine of Discovery that drove colonial expansion – regarding “discovered lands” as empty lands; and treating the First Peoples of the land as savages to be conquered, civilized, and Christianized – our church described that doctrine “as fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Christ and our understanding of the inherent rights that individuals and peoples have received from God”.

I remain deeply committed to enabling our church to let its “yes” in repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery be a resounding and continuing “yes”.While much has been written about this doctrine, it is clear there is much more education required if we are to understand the political and spiritual arrogance inherent in it, and the force with which it was upheld through strategies aimed at systemic cultural genocide… I call on every diocese and territory of our church to ensure opportunity for learning about the history and lingering legacy of this doctrine…I am requesting that on National Aboriginal Day, June 21 or the Sunday closest, there be a public reading of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in every parish across Canada.

Narrator: Following are the voices of the United Nations Declaration on the Right of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by 144 nations in September 2007, and by Canada as “an aspirational document” in November 2010. These headings summarize the Articles of the Declaration affirming the rights and standards affecting relationships with indigenous peoples around the world. They will be accompanied by the voice of the principles guiding the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, the TRC.

Narrator: TRC Principle #1: “The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the framework for reconciliation at all levels and across all sectors of Canadian society.”

Voice 2: United Nations Articles (Note: it is recommended that the number of each article be read aloud to designate it clearly)

#1 Human Rights and fundamental freedom

#2 Equality

#3 The right to self-determination

#4 Autonomy and self-governance

Narrator: TRC Principle #2: “First Nations, Inuit and Metis Peoples, as the original peoples of this country and as self-determining peoples, have treaty, constitutional and human rights that must be recognized and respected.”

Voice 2: United Nations Articles

#5 Indigenous institutions, state participation

#6 Nationality

#7 Life, security, violence free, Guarding against genocide

#8 Cultural integrity and prevention of cultural destruction

#9 Communities and nations without discrimination

 Narrator: TRC Principle #3: “Reconciliation is a process of healing relationships that requires public truth sharing, apology and commemoration that acknowledge and redress past harms.”

Voice 2: United Nations Articles

#10 Free, prior and informed consent prior to removal and relocation

#11 Cultural tradition and customs

#12 Spiritual and religious traditions; repatriation of remains

#13 Native language is fundamental to preserve culture. The guarantee to participate in political, legal and administrative proceedings.

#14 Education in our own culture and language

#15 Education and public information to promote peace in society.

 Narrator: TRC Principle #4: “Reconciliation requires constructive action on addressing the ongoing legacy of colonialism that have had destructive impacts on Aboriginal people’s education, cultures and language, health, child welfare, the administration of justice and economic opportunities and prosperity.”

Voice 2: United Nations Articles

#16 Media and cultural diversity

#17 Employment and labour; protection from exploitation of children

#18 Indigenous decision making and institutions

#19 Prior consultation with free, prior, informed consent

Narrator: TRC Principle #5: “Reconciliation must create a more equitable and inclusive society by closing the gaps in social, health and economic outcomes that exist between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.

Voice 6: United Nations Articles

#20 Subsistence and development in economic activities; entitlement to just and fair redress.

#21 Improvement of indigenous living standards and special measures to ensure them.

#22 Ensure protection for elders, women, youth ,children, and persons with disabilities

#23 Determine and administer the right to economic and social development

Narrator: TRC Principle #6: “All Canadians, as Treaty peoples, share responsibility for establishing and maintaining mutually respectful relationships.”

Voice 2: United Nations Articles

#24 Traditional medicine and holistic protection of resources. Progressive realization of physical and mental health.

#25 Indigenous peoples have distinctive spiritual relationships with their territories and have responsibilities to future generations.

#26 Land rights and legal recognition of indigenous systems

#27 Due recognition of indigenous lands and resources through fair process by strong participation

Narrator: TRC Principle #7: “The perspectives and understandings of Aboriginal elders and Traditional Knowledge Keepers of the ethics, concepts and practices of reconciliation are vital to long-term reconciliation.”

Voice 2: United Nations Articles

#28 Indigenous redress and restitution for lands and resources

#29 Environment conservation and protection ; prevention of hazardous materials; restoring health impacted by such materials

#30 No military activities on indigenous land

#31 Cultural heritage, traditional property and intellectual property.

 Narrator: TRC Principle #8: “Supporting Aboriginal peoples’ cultural revitalization and integrating Indigenous knowledge systems, oral histories, laws, protocols, and connections to the land into the reconciliation process are essential.”

Voice 9: United Nations Articles

#32 Determine and develop priorities and strategies for development

#33 Indigenous identity and citizenship based on customs.

#34 Indigenous legal structures and customary practices in accordance with human rights standards.

#35 Determine individual responsibility in indigenous communities

 

Narrator: TRC Principle #9: “Reconciliation requires political will, trust building, accountability and transparency, as well as a substantial investment of resources.”

Voice 10: United Nations Articles

#36 Contact and cooperation despite division due to borders

#37 Recognition of treaty rights and observation of agreements.

#38 National measures for achievement of declaration articles

#39 Access to assistance from states and international cooperation

#40 Dispute resolution and remedies based on indigenous traditions and customs and international human rights law

#41 Full realization of rights through cooperation and assistance from UN systems and intergovernmental organizations

Narrator: TRC Principle #10: “Reconciliation requires sustained public education and dialogue, including youth engagement, about the history and legacy of residential schools, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, as well as the historical and contemporary contributions of Aboriginal peoples to Canadian society.”

Voice 11: United Nations Articles

#42 Promotion and application of declaration articles through UN specialized agencies and the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

#43 The rights and the declaration are the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world

#44 Guarantee of gender equality

#45 Nothing in the declaration diminishes or extinguishes indigenous peoples’ rights now or in the future

#46 Respect for UN Charter and promotion of the principals of peace, justice and human rights.

Closing Prayer: Merciful God, you call us to loving relationship with one another.Be with us now as we seek to heal old wounds and find joy again in this relationship.Replace our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh.Give us the gifts of honesty and openness, and fill us with your healing power and grace.We ask this in Jesus’s name.Amen.

(Anglican Healing Fund prayer)

 Please read aloud the words for Voice 2

Narrator: Listen now to the words of the Most Rev. Fred Hiltz, Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada speaking at the Chapel of the Mohawks, Brantford, Ontario, March 19, 2016:

Voice 2: “In renouncing the Doctrine of Discovery that drove colonial expansion – regarding “discovered lands” as empty lands; and treating the First Peoples of the land as savages to be conquered, civilized, and Christianized – our church described that doctrine “as fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Christ and our understanding of the inherent rights that individuals and peoples have received from God”.

I remain deeply committed to enabling our church to let its “yes” in repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery be a resounding and continuing “yes”.While much has been written about this doctrine, it is clear there is much more education required if we are to understand the political and spiritual arrogance inherent in it, and the force with which it was upheld through strategies aimed at systemic cultural genocide… I call on every diocese and territory of our church to ensure opportunity for learning about the history and lingering legacy of this doctrine…I am requesting that on National Aboriginal Day, June 21 or the Sunday closest, there be a public reading of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in every parish across Canada.

Narrator: Following are the voices of the United Nations Declaration on the Right of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by 144 nations in September 2007, and by Canada as “an aspirational document” in November 2010. These headings summarize the Articles of the Declaration affirming the rights and standards affecting relationships with indigenous peoples around the world. They will be accompanied by the voice of the principles guiding the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, the TRC.

Narrator: TRC Principle #1: “The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the framework for reconciliation at all levels and across all sectors of Canadian society.”

Voice 2: United Nations Articles (Note: it is recommended that the number of each article be read aloud to designate it clearly)

#1 Human Rights and fundamental freedom

#2 Equality

#3 The right to self-determination

#4 Autonomy and self-governance

 

Narrator: TRC Principle #2: “First Nations, Inuit and Metis Peoples, as the original peoples of this country and as self-determining peoples, have treaty, constitutional and human rights that must be recognized and respected.”

Voice 2: United Nations Articles

#5 Indigenous institutions, state participation

#6 Nationality

#7 Life, security, violence free, Guarding against genocide

#8 Cultural integrity and prevention of cultural destruction

#9 Communities and nations without discrimination

 

Narrator: TRC Principle #3: “Reconciliation is a process of healing relationships that requires public truth sharing, apology and commemoration that acknowledge and redress past harms.”

Voice 2: United Nations Articles

#10 Free, prior and informed consent prior to removal and relocation

#11 Cultural tradition and customs

#12 Spiritual and religious traditions; repatriation of remains

#13 Native language is fundamental to preserve culture. The guarantee to participate in political, legal and administrative proceedings.

#14 Education in our own culture and language

#15 Education and public information to promote peace in society.

 

Narrator: TRC Principle #4: “Reconciliation requires constructive action on addressing the ongoing legacy of colonialism that have had destructive impacts on Aboriginal people’s education, cultures and language, health, child welfare, the administration of justice and economic opportunities and prosperity.”

Voice 2: United Nations Articles

#16 Media and cultural diversity

#17 Employment and labour; protection from exploitation of children

#18 Indigenous decision making and institutions

#19 Prior consultation with free, prior, informed consent

 

Narrator: TRC Principle #5: “Reconciliation must create a more equitable and inclusive society by closing the gaps in social, health and economic outcomes that exist between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.

Voice 6: United Nations Articles

#20 Subsistence and development in economic activities; entitlement to just and fair redress.

#21 Improvement of indigenous living standards and special measures to ensure them.

#22 Ensure protection for elders, women, youth ,children, and persons with disabilities

#23 Determine and administer the right to economic and social development

 

Narrator: TRC Principle #6: “All Canadians, as Treaty peoples, share responsibility for establishing and maintaining mutually respectful relationships.”

Voice 2: United Nations Articles

#24 Traditional medicine and holistic protection of resources. Progressive realization of physical and mental health.

#25 Indigenous peoples have distinctive spiritual relationships with their territories and have responsibilities to future generations.

#26 Land rights and legal recognition of indigenous systems

#27 Due recognition of indigenous lands and resources through fair process by strong participation

 

Narrator: TRC Principle #7: “The perspectives and understandings of Aboriginal elders and Traditional Knowledge Keepers of the ethics, concepts and practices of reconciliation are vital to long-term reconciliation.”

Voice 2: United Nations Articles

#28 Indigenous redress and restitution for lands and resources

#29 Environment conservation and protection ; prevention of hazardous materials; restoring health impacted by such materials

#30 No military activities on indigenous land

#31 Cultural heritage, traditional property and intellectual property.

 

Narrator: TRC Principle #8: “Supporting Aboriginal peoples’ cultural revitalization and integrating Indigenous knowledge systems, oral histories, laws, protocols, and connections to the land into the reconciliation process are essential.”

Voice 9: United Nations Articles

#32 Determine and develop priorities and strategies for development

#33 Indigenous identity and citizenship based on customs.

#34 Indigenous legal structures and customary practices in accordance with human rights standards.

#35 Determine individual responsibility in indigenous communities

 

Narrator: TRC Principle #9: “Reconciliation requires political will, trust building, accountability and transparency, as well as a substantial investment of resources.”

Voice 10: United Nations Articles

#36 Contact and cooperation despite division due to borders

#37 Recognition of treaty rights and observation of agreements.

#38 National measures for achievement of declaration articles

#39 Access to assistance from states and international cooperation

#40 Dispute resolution and remedies based on indigenous traditions and customs and international human rights law

#41 Full realization of rights through cooperation and assistance from UN systems and intergovernmental organizations

 

Narrator: TRC Principle #10: “Reconciliation requires sustained public education and dialogue, including youth engagement, about the history and legacy of residential schools, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, as well as the historical and contemporary contributions of Aboriginal peoples to Canadian society.”

Voice 11: United Nations Articles

#42 Promotion and application of declaration articles through UN specialized agencies and the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

#43 The rights and the declaration are the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world

#44 Guarantee of gender equality

#45 Nothing in the declaration diminishes or extinguishes indigenous peoples’ rights now or in the future

#46 Respect for UN Charter and promotion of the principals of peace, justice and human rights.

 

Closing Prayer: Merciful God, you call us to loving relationship with one another.Be with us now as we seek to heal old wounds and find joy again in this relationship.Replace our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh.Give us the gifts of honesty and openness, and fill us with your healing power and grace.We ask this in Jesus’s name.Amen.

(Anglican Healing Fund prayer)

 

Pentecost 5, July 2, 2017

Genesis 22:1-19

St. John the Apostle

“What do we do with bad stories?”

I speak to you as a sinner to sinners, and as one who is loved to the beloved of God, through the mercy of God.  Amen.

What do we do with bad stories?  The troubling tales, the hurtful histories, the scriptures that make us squeamish and defensive?  This morning we heard the passage about God commanding Abraham to take his son Isaac and offer him as a burnt offering on Mount Moriah. I have to preach on it.  And you have to do something about it.  We have some choices.

We can deny or discount this portion of Scripture.  Some Christians would prefer not to read any of the Old Testament, especially the bits that seem to show an angry, holy, and jealous God rather than the God of love that Jesus proclaims.  But this, we come to realize, is a false dichotomy, for by that standard we could just as well rip out the pages of the gospels that tell of the crucifixion of God’s son.  I could have chosen to consider one of the other Scripture readings in my sermon today, and ignore this one.  But the revised common lectionary keeps us honest and the Bible challenges us rather than just makes us feel good about ourselves.

Similarly, we can try to hide the bad stories like Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac.  We could cut it out of the Sunday lectionary, and not include it in the Sunday School curriculum.  Some of us might not miss it.  There are good reasons why some passages are considered more suitable for public teaching.  My husband the teacher, on the other hand, keeps advocating for 2 Kings 2:23-24 to be read to children as a cautionary tale:

“Elisha went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him saying, ‘Go away, baldy!  When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord.  Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys”.

Perhaps the Church should restrict such sections for those of more mature faith, similar to the Jewish recommendation that you should be at least 40 years old before you study the sexually explicit Song of Solomon (However, challenge teenagers with this prohibition and they may actually read more Scripture!).

Much Biblical scholarship seems to find ways to explain or justify the events in these “texts of terror”, as theologian Phyllis Trible refers to them.  Placed within a culture and time, the horrors are downplayed as merely relics of a chauvinistic past.  The victims are viewed from a safe distance.  The danger is that Scripture that is exegeted but not linked to what God is calling us to do about it today becomes a continuing means of oppression, prejudice, hatred, and fear.

If the bad stories cannot be explained or justified, then they can be rewritten to suit the modern understanding.  Experts claim to have insight on what the original author really meant, even across centuries and multiple re-workings of the text.  It is possible to twist the Bible to say whatever supports our perspective if we do not pay attention to the bits that don’t fit.

Yes, we can deny, hide, justify, or re-write the difficult stories of our Bible.  But there is another way.  When we are faced with a story that we would rather not engage, we can have the courage to listen, to struggle, and to learn.   Entering into the text opens the door to question, wonder, and empathy with the characters in the story. And perhaps to learn that there are layers of meaning which can teach us to see the world differently.

In the Jewish faith, Genesis chapter 22 is called the binding of Isaac or the “Akedah”.  It is read to the community at the Jewish New Year, which is a time for repentance.  The ram’s horn, the “shofar” is blown to remind God of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and God’s willingness to provide the ram in his stead.  In the reading of this passage, the Jewish people are once again bound in their obedience to God, even as they continue to struggle to understand God’s demand.  The story is mentioned nowhere else in the Old Testament by the writers or the prophets, but the theology of suffering as a sign of God’s favour for a chosen people continued to evolve over history.

When we as Christians read this same passage, we too struggle with how God could have demanded the sacrifice of a son’s life.  There is a happy ending for Isaac.  God provides a ram in his place, and he escapes death at the hands of his earthly father.  Similarly, we are looking at the crucifixion from a post-resurrection perspective.  The idea of God allowing Jesus to hang on the cross is tempered by the knowledge that after death, Christ rose again.  This may help avoid the accusation of divine child abuse, but the comparison of Jesus to Isaac is troubling.  In both narratives, a father offers up a son.  What kind of love is this?

Biblical writer Bruce Feiler looks closely at the dialogue (and lack of dialogue) in this episode in Genesis to help break our assumptions about the story.   When Abraham tells his servants, “the boy and I will… go and worship, and then we will come back to you” there is an expectation that God will provide another offering and Isaac is going to survive.  But when it gets to the moment when Isaac is bound and helpless, and Abraham raises his knife, there is no pleading with God or Abraham to stay his hand.  Isaac is silent. Abraham is silent.  And God is silent.  What is happening in this moment.  Feiler puts forward the following hypothesis:

“Almost all interpretations of the binding suggest it’s a test, specifically a trial of Abraham’s love for God:  would he be willing to do whatever God asked, however inhuman?  Even the text takes this position, stating at the outset that ‘God put Abraham to the test.’  But God never tells Abraham it’s a test.  Even more, he never asks Abraham to kill his son.  God demands only that Abraham take Isaac to a mountain and offer him as a burnt offering.  Abraham is never explicitly given the order to slay his son.  Early Jews, mindful of this nuance, referred to the event as an offering, not a binding and not a sacrifice.  Death was not considered part of the story… As a result, maybe Abraham is not being tested at all.  Maybe he’s doing the testing.  Perhaps the episode is Abraham’s way of testing God, specifically God’s promise in the preceding chapter that Abraham’s offspring will be continued through Isaac.  Given that God pressured Abraham to expel Ishmael, Abraham surely would have been doubting God’s loyalty.  His attempt to kill Isaac thus becomes a way for Abraham to determine if God is a figure of mercy and compassion, which is deeply in question at the moment.”  (p. 87-88 Abraham, a Journey to the Heart of 3 Faiths).

When we struggle with Scripture, we too are doing our own testing out of God.  We are asking, ‘Where is God present in this story?  Where is God absent?’  Our faith gives us some tools so that we do not have to run away from the texts of terror.  We can follow the rough road.  In her introduction, “On Telling Sad Stories”, Phyllis Trible urges us to take provisions to sustain us on the journey.  “They are few but ample:  a perspective, a methodology, and a story” (p. 3).  As a perspective, she suggests a prophetic movement that examines the status quo, pronounces judgment, and calls for repentance.  As methodology, she encourages a literary criticism that considers form, content and meaning, especially in the portrayal of characters that suffer.  This is not an abstract way of going about Bible study.  It is the power that we can bring to bear on all the stories of our lives:  in Scripture, in political discourse, in our parish history, and in our personal sagas.

For example, this weekend our country is marking 150 years of confederation as Canada.  We can celebrate the story that is being told is of how settlers came and made a modern nation.  But beside and within that story line are other stories that also need to be listened to and learned from.  Some of them are bad stories, and some of them come from very different perspectives.  In our own lives, too, there are things that we would much rather deny, or hide, or rewrite about our families and ourselves.  But all of them together shape who we are and our present relationship with God.  May we have the faith to believe that in our story, the Lord will provide.  Amen.

 

 

Homily for Easter 2, April 23, 2017- The Rev. Stephanie Shepard

John 20:19-31

 

“Marks of Mission”

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our RedeemerAmen.

Some religious places should have warnings:  may contain scenes of graphic violence.  They pop up when you least expect them.  I was visiting a retreat house on which had a separate dining room for the nuns of the convent.  Since I was the only guest there, I was invited to join them at table.  In the corner, staring me in the face, was a large plaster statue representing Jesus of the bleeding heart.  Somehow the image of Christ ripping open his robes to reveal an anatomically correct and technicolour organ put me off my dinner.

Visitors to churches may be unsettled by the crucifixes, the martyrs’ tombs, the Bible stories immortalized in glass and tapestry.  They often depict suffering and death.  From the Easter side of the resurrection story most Christians can put them in the context of life everlasting, but they can still evoke a squeamish response.   Modern people prefer beauty without flaw, life without decay, reward without mention of suffering.  An empty cross is easier on the eyes than a man hanging in pain.  But when Jesus rose, he did not escape from the tomb unmarked.  His resurrected body bore the marks of the hurts that were inflicted in the crucifixion.  Hands and side bear witness to his passion and testify to God’s victory.  These are the currency of physical death and physical resurrection which Jesus has paid for all of us.

So when Jesus appears after that first Easter morning, those scars are an important detail.  They are a means of the disciples recognizing their Lord.  They are also a proclamation that he is actually who he said he was:  the Messiah, the Son of God.  The marks are mentioned three times in the gospel story this morning from John chapter 20.  The first time is verse 20, when Jesus appears amongst the fearful followers, who are hiding from the authorities.  As proof that he is alive and that Mary has spoken truly, he shows them his hands and his side.  The disciples’ response is to rejoice, for now they see him as their Lord.

One disciple, Thomas, was not present amongst the gathering.  He tells the others “unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (verse 25).  In demanding this, he is not doubting any more than his friends did before they got to touch and affirm the risen Lord.  He wants the same proof so that he too can rejoice and believe.

Then in verse 27, Jesus comes again to the gathering and invites Thomas to touch his wounds.  “Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt but believe”.  And it is in this act of intimacy that Thomas literally puts his finger on it.  “My Lord and my God”, he cries.  The purpose of this written record is so that those who come after this first generation of witnesses may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that though believing him we may have life in his name.  But we have not seen; we have not touched.  How are we or others around us to come to believe?

Those marks on the risen Jesus put him in solidarity with all of humanity.  We are all wounded in some way.  Sometimes what we have gone through even leaves physical marks on our bodies.  Pregnancy stretch marks, surgery scars, broken and set bones, stitches, cut marks, burns, needle scabs, tattoos and piercings.  Some we inflict on ourselves, other we endure for another.  All bear witness to our struggles.  Yet more marks are hidden and secret:  loneliness, abandonment, sickness, despair.  They too are carried, not just within the wounds that Jesus received as a human, but those he continues to show as the risen Christ.  When we see an image of the man with holes in his hands, it is not just a representation of the pain that Jesus once suffered.  It is also a lifting up of our own present pain.

But it is not the Church’s task to carry another’s woundedness.  We would sink under the load.  Only God is the healer.  Instead the Church, as the body of Christ,  are to collectively remember those marks, and find new ways to proclaim them for the world to see.  They are the symbols that new life is possible in spite of what has happened.  Love is stronger than death.  Scars are more powerful reminders of healing than unscarred flesh.  Those that we bear show that we are willing to get our hands dirty and hurt in order to serve.  What then marks us as followers of the risen Christ?

The Anglican Communion worldwide has identified a framework to describe and encourage ministry through the following five marks of mission:

to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom

  1. to teach, baptize, and nurture new believers
  2. to respond to human need by loving service
  3. to seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation
  4. to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth

It is up to each local congregation to take concrete actions to make these marks visible to the wider community.

Our starting point is this parish.  If you think about it, the place where we gather says a lot to outsiders about what we believe and what we think is important.  What do you think people see when they come to our building?  How does it reflect the marks of mission?  We don’t have a plaster Jesus of the bleeding heart here (at least, I haven’t found one yet).  But we are surrounded by things that tell the observer about what matters and what doesn’t.  Are there clues that reveal our willingness to love and labour in the brokenness of human life, to be wounded healers through the power of the resurrection?  As Christians, we must be able to point to some signs of our belief, so that others can come to touch God.  This is our mission, as it was that of the first apostles, for “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

The questions we ask are important.  What speaks of our willingness to proclaim the good news?  How do we teach and nurture?  How does the world see loving service here?  When do we speak out about unjust structures, challenge wrongs, and pursue peace and reconciliation?  And in what ways do we demonstrate our commitment to safeguard and sustain the creation?  As we are willing to bring them to God, the Holy Spirit will breathe among us, and make us a people forgiven and forgiving.  Amen.

 

Homily for Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017 By: the Rev. Stephanie Shepard

Matthew 28:1-10

See, and Go”

I had been called to the hospital bed of an elderly woman whom I had visited before.  She was frail and forgetful but now there were major health problems, and her family was concerned that she might not have too much longer.  Upon arrival, I went up to the nursing station and asked for her room number.  When I got to the ward and looked in, my heart sank a little.  The bed she had been assigned was empty and stripped of sheets.  I knew she had not been scheduled for any tests.  It looked like I had gotten to the hospital too late, and she had died in the night.  I was just about to turn around and head back home when I heard a sound of a toilet flushing. The door to the washroom opened, and out she came on her own two feet.  Rumours of her demise were overstated. Continue reading “Homily for Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017 By: the Rev. Stephanie Shepard”