Monday, July 30, 2018

Limited Resources, Abundant Promises: A Sermon

I enjoy supply preaching during the summer.  It allows my civilian colleagues to take well-deserved holidays and it gives me a chance to get to know local churches.   Yesterday I preached this sermon in a small two-point parish about thirty minutes north of Barrie, ON. MP+

Preached at St. Paul's, Midhurst, and St. John's, Craighurst, Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, 29 July, 2018. Readings for the 10th Sunday After Pentecost:  2 Kings 4:42-44, Psalm 145:10-19, Ephesians 3:14-21, John 6:1-21

"Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen." (Ephesians 3:20-21)

A friend of mine is a volunteer with the Diocese of Toronto, using her administrative talents to help parishes get back on track.   This week I accompanied her into Toronto to an inner-city church which is struggling and needs her help.  

When we got there on a hot summer evening, the church didn’t look like much.   No graceful stone or lofty steeple, just a solid pile of workmanlike brick that had clearly seen better days.  Inside it was stuffy and airless, and while the sanctuary was peaceful, with light floating through the stained glass by the altar, the place looked shabby and cluttered, with old books and mismatched furniture jumbled together by the front doors.  In short, it didn’t look like much, but my friend sat down with the warden, and they got to work.  I had an hour to wait, as I wandered through that old church and thought about St. Paul’s words of promise in Ephesians.

We know most of those words in our second lesson well,  so well that most of us could likely repeat by heart because they come from the doxology, the prayer of praise which concludes our Eucharistic liturgy from the Book of Alternative Services.

While most of us know these so well that they might scarcely bear a second look, it’s worth having a look at them in the context of today’s lessons and Gospel reading.  The designers of the Lectionary certainly thought carefully because they wanted to underline that word “abundantly” 

These words are full of promise and blessing because of that word “abundantly” (Eph 3.20) Actually its two words, because Paul is making a compound adverb here (υπερεκπερισσου — huperekperissou)  which some translations put as “exceedingly abundantly”.   The word has a kind of “super duper” quality to it.   God isn’t going bless us just enough to get by.  God isn’t going to give us an unexpected amount so that we are pleasantly surprised.   No, its way more than that.  God is going to do so much that we will be gobsmacked.   God is going to blow our socks off.   God will knock our socks off.  Which is why we say in our liturgy, following Paul, “more than we can ask or imagine”.

We see glimpses of what that abundance looks like in our other lessons.   From Second Kings we hear of how the prophet Elisha feeds a hundred people out of what sounds like nothing more than a large shopping bag (2 Kgs 42-44).  This comes at the end of a long list of other miracles performed by Elisha.   Today we also heard the psalmist praise God’s abundance  ( Ps 145: 15 The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. 16 You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing. 17 The Lord is just in all his ways, and kind in all
his doings. 18 The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.) and of course our Gospel shows Jesus performing a feeding miracle that makes people think he is Elisha returned to earth (Jn 6:14).

The point of these stories, and the reason why they are chosen for our lessons this Sunday, is not to lead us into thinking that we never have to go to Loblaws again.    Those of you who were involved in the BBQ dinner at Craighurst on Friday certainly know how much work goes into preparing a church dinner!   Rather, the point of these stories is to say something about the character of God.   All these readings remind us that God is, in Paul’s words, more powerful than we can possibly imagine, but is also a God who is kind and good to his people – as the psalmist says, he is is “just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings” (Ps 145:17).  All these stories say something about being in a relationship with God which makes all this abundance.

We see something of this relationship in today’s Gospel.   After Jesus impresses the crowd by miraculously feeding them, the people want to “come and take him by force to make him king” but Jesus wants none of this and gives them the slip – “he withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (Jn 6:15).  Why wouldn’t he want to be king and end up on a throne rather than on a cross?  I think the explanation here, as I suggested when I last preached to you, is that Jesus knows he will have to stand before Pilate, and show the difference between the kingship of earthly power and the kingship of God’s abundance.   Jesus can only embody the abundance and love of God if he resists ideas of earthly power and remains connected to his Father, even if that means escaping to a lonely mountain.

For the same reason, Elisha in our first lesson is referred to as a “the man of God”.  I don’t think this is just a polite address, like when we call a clergyperson a “man or woman of God”.  The word “of” in the phrase is actually possessive, it means a “man belonging to God”.  Elisha can do these things because, like Jesus, he knows that he belongs to the Father, that he is in a relationship of obedience to God through which he can do these things.    

The same is true of us, really.   Each of us, or could be, a man or a woman of God.   Each of us can be in relationship with God, focused on him and attentive to his will, in such a way that we he can work with and through us.  Let’s look again at what Paul says in Ephesians: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20).  This doesn’t mean that we are given powers, like superheroes in some summer movie.  Rather, it means that through our relationship with God, we allow God to work with us and through us.   We become, as is often said, God’s hands in the world, in ways in which we can’t always predict.

Think of how a typical church dinner plays out.  I have never seen a church dinner where the food  There’s always enough to go around and more besides.  And why is the church meal one of our favourite activities?   Surely it’s because the church meal grows naturally out of our Eucharist, our communion.   That shared meal at the heart of our worship brings us together around Jesus.  In John’s gospel, after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus tells his followers not to look for him just for more food.  The food, he tells them, is just a sign of who he is, the Son of God, and it leads to one of his famous “I Am” speeches that we preserve in our eucharist:

“I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. (Jn 6:35)

These words, like the dismissal “to love and serve the Lord” at the end of our service, send us back into a world which doesn’t have enough bread, enough love, enough care.  Our church dinners are just a small glimpse of this abundance.

Sometimes the extravagance of the promise might seem ridiculously greater than the means on hand to fulfil it.   A few loaves, some fish, and crowds of hungry people.  Seriously?   But isn’t it always this way?   Doesn’t it always seem hard to hope, hard to pray, hard to just keep on going as church in a seemingly indifferent world?   I think of my friend, walking into that faded old church, because God gave her those talents and the desire to use them in what some might think a lost cause.   And really, isn’t that why we keep these churches going?   We keep them going because  the feast is for all, whoever is hungry or thirsty, whoever needs a home, whoever needs forgiveness, whoever needs love, or attention, or dignity, or refuge, whoever needs truth and goodness and hope.  That’s who the feast is for.  That’s who our God is for.   That’s the need our God enables us to meet.   Amen.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Remembering a Canadian Great War Chaplain: Donald MacPhail

I owe this chaplain story to my friend Dr. Duff Crerar.   I had never heard of Padre MacPhail or of the Llandovery Castle until he told me the story.  The text and photo are his.  MP

Not every chaplain who lost their lives in Canada’s First World War died as a result of enemy action in the field. Some died from illness, such as Chaplain H. Ingles, who contracted meningitis in the wards at Shorncliffe Camp in 1914. Many Canadians were appalled at the 27 June, 1918 torpedoing of the Canadian-manned (and clearly marked) Hospital Ship Llandovery Castle, in which many nurses and other medical staff lost their lives. It was the worst Canadian naval disaster of the Great War, claiming the lives of 234 medical personnel, soldiers and sailors, including fourteen nursing sisters.
Among those lost was Presbyterian Chaplain and Honorary Captain Donald G. MacPhail, a graduate of Queen’s University Theological School and minister at Knox Church, Cayuga, when he volunteered for overseas service. As the ship was going down, MacPhail, who had seen action as chaplain to the 6th and 12th Brigades at the Somme and Vimy, was last seen assisting the nurses into a lifeboat which was later sucked under the stern as the ship sank. Just one nurse survived from that boat. Eventually a notice was received in London that MacPhail’s body had been recovered on the French coast, and he had been buried in Lamphaul, France. His widow sponsored a memorial window in the Cayuga church after the war. On the inscription she had placed: “He that believeth in Me hast everlasting life”. He is commemorated at Queen’s University in the John Deutsch centre Memorial Room

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Child Soldier: A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

A Sermon Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario, Diocese of Toronto

Sunday, 24 June, 2018

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost


Readings for this Sunday: 1 Samuel 17:32-49, Psalm 9:9-20, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41



A slender youth stands alone and fragile, armed only with a primitive weapon, while a hulking giant bears down on him.    His face is unafraid, and as his sling whirls faster and faster above his head, he squints into the sun to find his mark.    The stone flies fast and free, seeking its mark.  For a few seconds after the impact the giant stands still, and everyone holds their breath  in suspense before he slowly crashes to earth.


It’s a classic underdog story, the shepherd boy who stands against the mighty warrior when grown men have lost their nerve.  When I was a boy it was one of the favourite stories in my children’s bible.   Like the readers of young adult novels like The Hunger Games, I wanted to be a hero like David and prove myself to the adults.


The story of David and Goliath is a story of courage, but it has its place in the bible because it’s a theological story.   In part it is about vocation, about people hearing and responding to God.  David the boy shepherd is called by God to be a soldier, just as the Book of Samuel begins with the boy Samuel literally called by God to be a prophet.   It is also a story about faithfulness.  David, the most unlikely of soldiers, too young to carry the weapons of war, steps forward defeat a terrible enemy.    David’s role as a shepherd is certainly somewhere behind the imagery of Jesus, born a descendent of David, as being the Good Shepherd.  Finally, David and Goliath is a story about God’s ascendancy over the gods of the other nations.   David predicts that when he kills Goliath, “all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel” (1 Sam 17:46).  One of the goals of the Book of Samuel is to show the power of God, even against ferocious enemies like the Philistines.


Of course, even though the story of David and Goliath has a theological point, it might legitimately give us pause for thought.    We could certainly have a discussion, even a debate, about how old children have to be for the story of David and Goliath.   We could ask the same of other Old Testament stories, like that of another hero, Samson, who killed thousands of Philistines with the jawbone of an ass (Judges 15:6).  Should we expose young children to stories of war and violence, even when they are in the Bible?  Even when the stories are about heroic underdogs?   Even the Revised Common Lectionary, which cut out some of the details such as David cutting off Goliath’s head, has qualms about the story.


The world we live in also gives us concerns about how we read and hear stories like David and Goliath.     We are uneasy with religious justifications for war and violence, whether in Afghanistan or the Middle East.   The wars of Israel in the Old Testament, and the idea that God could favour one people over another, make many Anglicans uneasy, and lead some parishes to keep the Old Testament readings out of their Sunday worship.    Also, the idea of David stepping into a soldier’s role may give some cause for concern, given that public figures such as Romeo Dallaire have championed the children who are often pressed into service in various wars.   Patricia de Boer and her colleague Benson from Africa Arise have visited us several times, and some of you may remember Benson’s talk about being a child soldier.  


So the David and Goliath story has lots of reasons to give us pause because of its violent nature, its theology of war and violence,  and its connections with stories in the news today.  What are we to make of it, and all the stories like it in the Old Testament?


I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues as a soldier and as a priest lately.  For the last two weeks, I’ve been teaching a group of chaplains at the Canadian Forces Chaplain School at Camp Borden.  Among the subjects we discussed was how Judaism, Christianity and Islam all deal with violence.  All three faiths call themselves religions of peace, even though they all have stories of war and violence in their sacred writings: Torah, Bible and Koran.  At various times in their histories, all three religions have claimed that their followers can kill in the name of God.


A friend of mine, who served as a young officer in Afghanistan, once old me that he appreciated chaplains, but before going out on missions, he wanted more than a prayer for peace and safety.  “How come you padres never prayed for a good smiting?  I would have liked a prayer for God to smite our enemies before I went out on a mission”.  My friend grew thoughtful,  paused, and said, “I guess the padres knew that there was probably a guy on the other side of the hill with the Taliban, praying that God would smite us.  I guess that’s the problem with smiting”.  My friend understood the problem.   Once we ask God to bless our violence, then where does it end?


 Thanks be to God that most believers today, whatever their faith, feel that it is better to talk to one another than to kill one another.    The Anglican Church of Canada is a serious participant in interfaith dialogue here in Canada and as part of the Communion throughout the world.  Here in Canada we have created a country where different faiths and races can live peacefully together.  Our Armed Forces have Muslim and Jewish chaplains serving our military personnel, and we may soon have the first Hindu or Sikh chaplain join us.  So yes, much has changed for the better, which gives us a better perspective from which to read stories like David and Goliath.


We have our perspective, but its also helpful to be aware of the perspective and context of the Old Testament, which is for us, as Christians, part of our family story.  The perspective of the Book of Samuel is not as bloodthirsty and violent as we might think, because the Book of Samuel in many ways is a tragedy.   Samuel the faithful prophet does not want Israel to have kings, but the people wanted “a king to govern us, like other nations” (1 Sam 8:5).  Saul becomes king, a flawed man who becomes jealous of David’s fame and success after Goliath.  David becomes king, a great king, but he too is flawed and tragic, and the kings who follow after ultimately bring Israel to ruin.   Only the Messiah who comes from the lineage of David can truly save Israel, and can truly save us.


If we reject the Old Testament, we reject the story of how God wants to save us.  It’s no always a pretty story, but that’s why we need to be saved, frankly.   It’s also our family story, as the people of God.  Think of the story like one of those black and white photos of an impossibly young person in an old uniform, a father or grandfather who went off to one of the world wars.    Those pictures honour the ancestor and his or her service, without glorifying the war.   Maybe that’s a helpful way to think of this story.   


The story of David and Goliath can be read, and even told to children in a appropriate manner, as a story of heroism and faith, but it is not a justification to violence.    David is a hero in a dark time, and a reminder that, as is so often the case in the Bible, God chooses unlikely people to do good things.   Goodness knows we need heroes, which is why we have saints.  Today there are other kinds of heroes that we can celebrate with our children - I mentioned Canada’s Romeo Dallaire and his work to rescue and rehabilitate child soldiers.  I am sure we can think of many other examples.    


 Most of all, it’s our hope, and our prayer, that our God calls us to work for a world where no one, and particularly no child, should ever have to do as David did, and pick up a weapon in God’s name.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Remembering Some D-Day Chaplains

It’s June 6th and a friend of mine on Facebook informed me about one of the first army padres ashore on D-Day.  Chaplain Julian Ellenberg was an Anglican priest assigned to the 8th Infantry Regiment of the US Army’s Fourth Division.  8IR claimed the honour of being the first infantry regiment to land from the sea on D-Day, as opposed to the airborne elements already inland.

Ellenberg was awarded the Silver Star for his work with the wounded on Utah Beach while under heavy fire.  Read more about him here.

Also today I learned about another US chaplain, a Roman Catholic priest and a Franciscan, who was killed on D-Day while attempting to secure a truce with German forces to arrange for the care of wounded personnel.  He served with the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division.  

His story is told here.

 Some years ago, I reported on receiving the eucharist from the communion kit of a Canadian padre, Walter Brown, who was also killed on D-Day.  Padre George Alexander Harris, who served with the Canadian Parachute Regiment, was also killed on D-Day.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

"The Church of the Ages": A Sermon Preached for the Anglican Military Ordinariate

Preached at the annual gathering of the Anglican Military Ordinariate of the Canadian Armed Forces, Cornwall, Ontario, 6 June 2018

Texts for the Commemoration of Wliiiam Grant Broughton, First Anglican Bishop in Australia: Ephesians 3:14-21, Psalm 112:1-6, Matthew 7:24-29

"I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love."  Ephesians 3:16-17


When I first started coming to Cornwall, the preachers at the AMO (Anglican Military Ordinariate) eucharists were doddering old chaplains in the twilight of their careers. …  I just never thought that that my turn would come so quickly.


Nevertheless, I was excited when I learned that I was to preach on the day of the commemoration of a pioneering colonial bishop.  As a boy at St. John’s School of Alberta, I paddled in a voyageur canoe named Bishop Bompas, after the first Anglican Bishop of Selkirk.  As a theology student, as part of my indoctrination into the heroes and legends of Wycliffe College, I learned the story of Isaac Stringer, famously known as the Bishop who ate his boots.   As the second Bishop of Selkirk in the Yukon, Stringer escaped starvation during a long snowstorm by boiling and eating his sealskin boots.     It sort of went without saying in the college ethos that any good Wycliffe grad would do the same for the sake of the gospel.   Fortunately in my ministry I’ve never had to eat anything more than some ill-advised words or to have swallowed anything more than some pride, both of which are part of a good spiritual diet.


The William Broughton, who we commemorate today,  was not however a heroic or especially eager colonial bishop.  It’s true that not every bishop cuts an heroic, swashbuckling figure.  In fact Broughton was one of those English country parsons that you find in a Trollope novel.  A scholarly type, Broughton at first thought himself fortunate to gain the Duke of Wellington, the hero of Waterloo, as a patron.  Sometimes however, a powerful patron can be a mixed blessing, because the Duke decided that Broughton should be the Archdeacon of New South Wales in Australia.  Sometimes it’s stay grey in the shadows.  Broughton doesn’t seem to have wanted this assignment very much - he said at the time that 'there is no ground for congratulation on my appointment’.   Furthermore, it appears that the Duke exaggerated the size of the stipend he would receive - in fact it just barely covered his expenses.   Also, Broughton also discovered that what he thought would be a short posting was anything but - he would in fact stay for as long as the British government wanted, and it would in fact be his life’s work.  Those of us who have ever been beguiled by the seductive words of a staff check during posting season can probably relate to him.


Despite being lame and dependent on a cane, Broughton was willing to travel the long outback circuits of his archdeaconry, frequently being away from his home and family in Sydney.   The editors of For All the Saints certainly included him for his pastoral devotion, as well as for his diligent leadership.  The choice of today’s gospel reading from Matthew, (7:24-29) with its image of a house solidly built on rock, would warm the heart of any church administrator.  Broughton, like his contemporary Bishop Strachan in Upper Canada, laid the foundations for the Anglican church in England.   He worked with missionary societies to recruit and train clergy to serve a small and scattered population.  As the first Bishop of the colony he was a champion of education and built synodical structures for the church in Australia which would become a model for the communion.


So why is any of this important?  As Rowan Williams has observed, church history is God’s history.   The church across the ages, from generation to generation, is nothing less than God’s doing in the world.  The church is not human activity, and sometimes the church flourishes despite us.   William Broughton was a pioneer, but not all his plans were successful.  His dream of an independent seminary in Sydney failed, and he was disappointed by the Crown’s hands-off attitude to the colonial church.   In this respect, Broughton would have had much in common with his Canadian contemporary, Bishop Strachan. Both were high churchman in the political sense of wanting Anglicanism to be the national and established faith of the state, both were out of step with their age.  There would be no established church for the colonies.  Having lost these battles, both ended up believing that for the church to flourish, it must be solely dependent on the power and promises of God, on God’s word faithfully preached by a diligent and learned clergy, and on administrative and leadership talents of its bishops.


A perennial danger of our lives as clergy is to think that we are engaged in a human project, the success of which is largely based upon our efforts and skills.   The annual exercise of the brag sheet reinforces this mindset, as does the accrual of coins, diplomas, commendations, decorations, promotions, and all the other bric a brac of the successful career in military chaplaincy.    Were he here today, I am sure that Bishop Broughton would remind us that our business, if self-dedicated, is like the house built on the sand, soon washed away and forgotten. 


In his first charge to his clergy in Australia in December 1829, Broughton spoke of the priest, as “ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God:a “ pledged by engagements so awful that every one of us by whom they are regarded with becoming seriousness must tremble, in [our] attempts to fulfil them, under a sense of [our] insufficiency”.  Surely one of the great satisfactions and even inspirations of church history is realizing that others stood were we do now, contemplating the heavy spiritual lifts of the day, and realizing their own inadequacies but for the grace of God.   Broughton went on in his charge to say that the only reason he could “with any degree of confidence undertake the duties with which I am here entrusted …was because of his “assured belief that God, whose Providence has guided my steps, will give me grace and power … faithfully to take the oversight of his church , and rightly to divide the word of truth unto all followers of Christ Jesus, our Lord”.


Today’s reading from Ephesians was surely one of the texts that Broughton was drawing on for this assurance.   The Apostle Paul, so often accused of bombast and arrogance in our day, actually speaks of his profound dependence on the power of the gospel and the gift of grace to proclaim it.   Our strength to get out of bed and put on the uniform, our faith in our vocations, our love for those who come to us for counselling - where could we find these things if they were not given to us by the Spirit?  How terribly empty and tired we would be were we not “filled with all the fullest of God” (Eph 3.19).


In closing, let me fast forward from colonial Australia to very recent history, a hot afternoon in May in Hamilton as the church gathered to commend one of its own to God.  Those of us privileged to be at the funeral of our brother Rob Fead heard Bishop Spence speak luminously of how Rob held up the light in the darkness, showing it to his parishioners, to his reserve regiment, to the friends and family of Nathan Cirillo, and to so many others.   Rob was a strong man, but it was not his light, or his strength.  It was the light of Christ, the love of God, and the strength of the Spirit that dwelled within Rob as gifts which enabled his remarkable ministry.   Rob used them well, and now he has passed from our church to the church of the ages, to take his place with Broughton and Strachan and all the others, the heroic and the unlikely, who God has enabled and used for his good ends.  So may it be said of us after our time, that God was able to accomplish in us “abundantly far more than all we [could] ask or imagine” and so to [God] be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.”

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Book Review: Adam Montgomery, The Invisible Injured: Psychological Trauma in the Canadian Military From the First World War to Afghanistan

Here is a link to my review of the subject book, which appeared on The Strategy Bridge (TSB) this week.   For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, TSB is an excellent online journal for anyone interested in military history, contemporary military issues from doctrine to ethics, and foreign policy.

Disclaimer: while I am an associate editor for TSB, I had nothing to do with the selection of this piece.




Friday, May 25, 2018

A Sermon For Ron Steffler and Pentecost

Late putting this up, but I preached this just after the funeral of a beloved and longtime servant leader of the parish, and was reflecting on how Pentecost gives us resources for spiritual resilience as Christians and as church.  MP+

Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Diocese of Toronto, Pentecost Sunday, 20 May, 2018

Lections:  Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:24-34,35b; Romans 8:22-27, John 15:26-27, 16:4b-25

"When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning. John 15:26-27


 In John Donne’s famous poem, “No Man Is An Island”, he writes that “any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” Funerals can make us feel this way.  St. Margaret’s will feel like a diminished place for a while.    As Father Simon said on Friday at Ron Steffler’s funeral, there are many many ways in which we will miss Ron’s love, Ron’s service, and Ron’s gifts.  He won’t be sitting back there at Mission Control as he did on many Sundays, running the audio-visual display.   We’ll miss his care for the building, his attention to the website, and all of the many acts of help and assistance that Ron gave to so many of us - and so many of us can talk about something that Ron did for us.   The place will seem poorer without him.  As someone said on Friday, we’ve had enough funerals a St. Margaret’s for a while.  We’ve said goodbye to Ron, and Kay, and Randy, and others in the last six months.   Enough grief.  Enough sad memories.   Fortunately for us, it’s Pentecost. 


Our gospel reading today speaks to those of us with sorrow in our hearts.  It reaches out to us who may still be struggling with the grief and the memories that a funeral can trigger.  Jesus in John’s gospel is bidding farewell to his disciples, who will be left behind, but he promises them that he will not leave them.  He will send another, who he calls “the Holy Spirit, the Advocate”.   The Spirit will be God’s ongoing presence with his people.  The Spirit will be be a comforter, but it will be more than that.  The Spirit will enable God’s people to be a community with a very specific character and purpose.   Pentecost is about how God creates a community that has the faith, strength, and hope, to rise above adversity and to go on, even after the funeral of a beloved member.


So this Sunday, Pentecost, is about how we are here because God is all about community.  The story of the appearance of the Holy Spirit is a story of God creating a community with a certain shape and character - let’s call it a Pentecost community.   What are the hallmarks of a Pentecost community?   


First, it’s a diverse community.    It’s gathered up out of all sorts of people, different languages and backgrounds, different walks of life.  The Pentecost community is not Wonder bread.  It has the same diversity that we see at St. Margaret’s, very different people indeed, who are all here because God wants us to be here.


Second, the Pentecost community is a called community.  It began in a core group of disciples, who were all called by Christ, but different people are constantly being added to the story, like the crowds attracted to the disciples in Acts.   Think of how the community of St. Margaret’s and St. Giles is constantly growing and changing.  Some of you remember the heroic days in the storefront and portable, but to many of us, who came later, those are inspiring stories.   Whatever stage in the story we arrived at, we were called to be here.


Third, the Pentecost community is a gifted community.  The Spirit was incredibly generous to the disciples, equipping them with gifts of languages so they could be heard by people from all over the known world.  We too have gifts and talents, and we know something about God’s abundance.   As we prepared for Ron’s funeral, I heard people talk about how they never saw food run out at a church function.   That doesn’t surprise me, since our Saviour knew how to make a little bread and fish go a long way.  But think how people of this parish also turned out to help feed and welcome the people who came to see the Deanery Play Saturday a week ago.  Think too of all the gifts that came together in that play, and of how much money it raised for the Busby Centre, $6 thousand dollars.  The same day Sarah Ash ran a golf tournament for her late father, Randy Packham, and raised over $7 thousand dollars for cancer research.   The Spirit’s abundance works with our gifts in so many ways in our community, if we care to look for it.


Fourth, the Pentecost community is a community with a story to tell about God.  In Acts the people in the crowd say that “we hear [the disciples] speaking about God's deeds of power”.   This gift of tongues and gift of communication is in keeping with what Jesus ways of the Spirit in John: “he will testify on my behalf. 27 You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning” (Jn 15:26-27).  A Pentecost community tells people about God and about our hope in God.  I think of Ron’ Steffler’s work maintaining the parish website and fixing the church and helping with the audiovisual so that people could come and hear God’s word spoken and preached, and I think he got this.  His ministry had a lot to do telling God’s story.


 Finally, the Pentecost community is a hopeful community.   Peter says to the crowds in Jerusalem that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved”.  We are hear because our Saviour rose from the dead.   The resurrection tells us that death will not have the last word.  We may be well schooled in death looks like.  We may be uncomfortably aware of what cancer can do to the human body.  We may see some among us seen to diminish and become frail, but we are undaunted.  We are a resurrection people.   We know that nothing can separate us from the love  of God.  We believe that God is not finished with us, that his work of creating the world is not yet done. 


What that new world will look like, we are not sure, but we know that it will be a world without sin and death or cancer or any of the other things that we struggle with.  We know this because the resurrection of Christ is a sign of God’s determination to rid us of these things.   We may not know clearly how this will happen, but Paul says in Romans 8, in one of the most wonderful passages in scripture, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:22-23).


So we are a Pentecost people.  Our community is the church, which has carried on across the centuries, forming and reforming, speaking to us in our time.   Our funeral liturgy speaks of how we go the grave singing our Alleluias, because we know that death does not write our ending, but is only the beginning.  We baptize the newborn in the promise that they will have their gifts, their part to play in God’s life of abundance.  And what abundance it is.  This weekend I met Miriam, who was then celebrating her second day on earth.   She really has no business being her.  Her mother had a partial hysterectomy several years ago and was told she would never have children.  And here Miriam is, a sign of God’s abundance and of the Spirit’s work in the redemption of our bodies.     And so we say, as a Pentecost community, as we do each Sunday, Glory to God, whose power, working in us, can do more than we can ask or imagine.  Glory to God from generation to generation, in the church and in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Chased By God: A Sermon For the Fourth Sunday After Easter

Preached At St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, ON, on Sunday, 22 April, 2018, the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Lections:  Acts 4: 5-12; Psalm 23, 1 John 3: 16-24; John 10: 11-18

Much of this sermon relies on insights from Joel LeMon’s commentary found on here on the Working Preacher website.  MP+

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 

   He makes me lie down in green pastures;

he leads me beside still waters; 

   he restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths

   for his name’s sake. 


Even though I walk through the darkest valley,

   I fear no evil;

for you are with me;

   your rod and your staff—

   they comfort me. 


You prepare a table before me

   in the presence of my enemies;

you anoint my head with oil;

   my cup overflows. 

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

   all the days of my life,

and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord

   my whole life long.


(Psalm 23)



Psalm 23 is like comfort food for the anxious soul.  Each of its lines exudes peacefulness and reassurance.   It’s certainly the one psalm that most of us could recite by heart, and get mostly right.  I’ve been in hospital rooms at the end of life, and I’ve heard family members join in as I read this Psalm, as if they were clinging to the promise of its words.  Friends of mine who have served as chaplains in Afghanistan have told me about reading this psalm to troops before they went out on patrol.   No doubt, Psalm 23 is one of the pieces of scripture that we turn to in our most anxious moments when we find ourselves in that “darkest valley”.  


The images of the first few lines set a tone of peace and tranquility.   The words “makes me lie down” and “still waters” suggest a kind of spiritual oasis, the rest we long for when we are spiritually exhausted and bone-tired.  Small wonder then that we turn to this Psalm at our darkest moments, when we are confronted with our mortality.  Like Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross beside him, “In my father’s house are many rooms, I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2).


It is lovely and reassuring to think of Psalm 23 as an image of the afterlife, as an assurance that we and are loved ones are safe in God’s keeping after death.  But what does this beloved Psalm say to us in the here and now?  Today I want to reflect on what how it can speak to us and support us as we live out our lives?   


This week I came across a really helpful insight by a biblical scholar who pointed out that Psalm 23 is actually about a journey.   Joel LeMon notes that “This psalmist is on the go, walking beside the water, along paths, and through valleys (vv. 2-4)”.   It’s true that the Psalm begins with an image of rest by “still waters”, but that moment is like a short rest on a long hike.   It’s as if God says, “Get up, we’ve got a long ways to go” and then we’re off again.   


It’s quite a hike.   We go past “still waters”, and the phrase “right paths” suggests trustworthy routes through a difficult landscape.  The use of the word “leads” suggests a knowledgeable guide to keep us safe.   I think of my own experience with a crusty old army Major who took a small group of us to the Rockies to climb three mountains in three days.   “It won’t be a walk in the park, Padre”, he warned me when I asked to join.  But he was an expert in mountain warfare, and for three days we followed in his footsteps, always trusting that he would get us up and down in one piece.    I think of the guide in this Psalm as someone like that, skilled and trustworthy.


We need such a guide desperately, because the road we will take is a dangerous one.   The verse “Even though I walk through the darkest valley” doesn’t necessarily suggest death, but it does suggest a bleak place, some moment of despair or depression where we feel might be tempted to feel that we are lost or abandoned.   The Psalm promises us that however dark our road, however difficult, we are not abandoned.  God will be with us.


God will be with us, or, if we go astray, God will seek us out.   One of the things I learned about Psalm 23 this week is that the verb “follow” in the verse “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” is actually a translation of a Hebrew verb that can also mean “pursue”.  Elsewhere in the Psalms, this verb is used to describe pursuit by enemies.   Also, the word “surely” is a translation of a Hebrew word that can also mean “only”.  Again, to quote Joel LeMon, another way to translate this verse would be “only goodness and mercy will be chasing me down.”


Sometimes we use language of pursuit or chase to describe moments of adversity.  For example, we can speak of being hounded by creditors, or of having our steps dogged by misfortune, or of having enemies at our heels.     Psalm 23 invites us into a life where the only thing that is pursuing is is the immense and inexhaustible love of God.   Psalm 23 invites us into a life where nothing has the power to catch us or ensnare us, because of God’s fierce determination to protect us and accompany us through our darkest moments.  


Psalm 23 reminds us that there is no way we could mess up, and nowhere we could stray to, where God’s grace would not seek us out and try to bring us home.   It is the same vision of God’s love that we see in today’s Gospel reading, of the passionate and resolute shepherd who will seek all the sheep, even the lost ones, and who will die for them all.   It is a vision of a broad, inclusive, and persistent love that will risk all and do all for us at each and every stage of our lives.  


I say every stage of our lives because there is one more point I would like to make about the language of the Psalm.   Our bible translation says  “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” which has a sense of permanence, perhaps suggesting the vision of heaven or the afterlife that comforts us at moments of crisis or imminent death.   Again, Joel LeMon points out that the Hebrew word for “dwell”, shuv, can mean “to turn” or “return.” He notes that another translation of this line might be “I will continually return to Yahweh’s presence, my whole life long.”  


In other words, our lives are only a long journey in which God is seeking, even being chased by God’s love, but in which we are also checking in with God, staying in God’s presence, long enough to be refreshed and recharged, before going back onto the road.    Think of it as the sheep coming into the sheepfold for the night, or think of it as us, gathering in this church, pilgrims and sojourners stopping for rest and refreshment, before we continue on our way.


Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Light Breaks Through: A Sermon For Holy Saturday and the Vigil of Easter

Preached on Saturday, 31 March, 2018 at S. Margaret of Scotland’s Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, ON.  

Lections: Exodus 14: 10-15,21; Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 28:1-10

When my wife Kay and I were dating, I persuaded her to come to an Easter Vigil service with me.    Not being from an Anglican background, she thought it all was very strange to be celebrating Easter on Saturday night.   Easter to her mind was celebrated in the light of morning, perhaps the first light of sunrise, but morning nevertheless.   Anything else was quite foreign to her Presbyterian upbringing.   To her, starting Easter the night before was like opening all the Christmas presents on Christmas Eve, it was simply too early.


Nevertheless she was willing to give it a try, but we were both quite unprepared for one of the customs of that particular parish we had chose to visit that night.   You see, if you look at p.329 of the Book of the Alternative Service, the rubric says “Glory to God, You are God, or some other suitable song of praise is sung.  Bells may be rung, according to local custom.” 


I think the idea behind this instruction is that when the Gloria is sung for the first time since the start of Lent, the bells are rung in celebration of the resurrection.   Well, the choir took this to extremes, so there were cowbells, symbols, airhorns, and the organist let out every stop on the pipe organ for what seemed like minutes.  Poor Kay almost jumped out of her skin.   She was frightened, and then she got mad.  WHY DID THEY DO THAT?  she asked me.   WHY DID THEY SCARE ME LIKE THAT?   To this day i’m surprised that she later agreed to marry me, but for years afterwards she acted like the entire Anglican church was to blame for that night.


While that choir certainly took things to extremes, they did understand something about the liturgy that we celebrate tonight.   They know that this is the moment, even in the gathering darkness of night, when the light breaks through.  In the first reading from Exodus, this moment is not arrival in the promised land of milk and honey, but it’s also not slavery in Egypt.    In the second reading from Romans, it’s not yet the renewal of our souls, but it’s also not our old lives of sin.   In our gospel reading, it’s not yet the encounter with the risen Christ, but it’s also not the sealed and brooding tomb.


Tonight is a transitional time.  Tonight we we stand on the borderlands of hope.   Tonight is that magical moment in the worship of the Christian church when we realize that all things are possible.


If you’ve ever sat vigil with a loved one as life ebbed from their body and the cold seeped in, tonight is for you.   If you’ve been scarred by abuse or violence and thought that nothing good could ever happen to you again, tonight is for you.  If you’ve ever believed that you were unlovable and that not even God could care for you, tonight is for you.   Tonight is when the darkness starts to crack and the light gets in.


Our three readings all begin in dark places.   Exodus starts with the Jews huddled on the edge of the impassable water, watching their doom approaching.   Romans begins with Paul speaking of the physical death that Jesus chose to share with us, reminding us of the words we heard on Ash Wednesday, speaking of our mortality: Dust you are, and dust you shall return.  Luke begins the grey light of dawn, as the Marys walk sadly to the tomb.     


All of these disasters are turned around.  The Israelites pass through the muddy sea bottom.  Christ’s death opens up the possibility of new life.  The risen Jesus gives the Marys instructions and tells them to go to Galilee where a new life awaits them.  Tonight is the end of the old story and the beginning of the new story of our lives.  


Because they knew that is a threshold moment, the early church chose it as the time for baptisms.   Converts were carefully instructed in weeks approaching Easter, and on this night between the death of the cross and the resurrection of the Sunday dawn, they committed themselves to the new lives that God offered to them.   We follow that tradition by renewing our own baptismal covenant on this night.   We do not know the details of how the rest of our lives will unfold.   But we do know that tonight we cross that border between light and darkness, between fear and hope, between death and life.   We know, as we stand between crucifixion and resurrection, that the light will always break into the darkness.   We choose light.  We choose hope.  We choose life.  We cross the border, and we move forward.   We are immigrants from the lands of shadow and the realm of death, who joyfully find ourselves to be citizens of the Kingdom of God.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Given For All: A Sermon For Maundy Thursday

Preached Thursday, March 29, 2018, at St. Margaret's Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, Ontario

Lections:  Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 17:1-17, 31b-35

Tonight we do something so unusual, so profound, so clear in its meaning, that I think the act of washing one another’s feet speaks clearly to our souls.   To kneel before someone, to touch and wash their feet, to accept the other’s offer of vulnerability and grace, and to hold that offer, like their feet, in the greatest trust and humility – these things speak clearly and eloquently to our Lord’s call to love one another that I think they scarce need a sermon to illuminate their meaning.  

Besides this service where we do this one extraordinary thing once a year, we also do the perfectly ordinary thing of coming forward to take the bread and wine.   Well, sort of.   The bread is really a weightless, tasteless disc that might be distantly related to wheat, and a tiny sip of wine.  Nevertheless we recognize that this symbols stand for something greater, and see them as a glimpse of the love and forgiveness of the heavenly banquet.  So we do this every Sunday, and as we receive the bread and wine we hear the same words each Sunday, the same words that we just heard in our second lesson, “this is my body”, “this is my blood”, “do this in remembrance of me”.  

 Could it be that on this one night, that we are so caught up in the novelty, perhaps even the shock, of water and strange hands on our gnarled and unlovely feet that we miss the importance of this strange meal that we have become so accustomed to in our weekly liturgy?    What if we were to try and recover the strangeness of this meal – can we even call it a meal?  maybe a ceremony?  a ritual? – of bread and wine that we observe every Sunday.

 This meal, what we call eucharist or communion, certainly was strange to the first Christians.   It was absolutely foreign to their thinking.  When Paul wrote his first letter to Corinth, he was writing to new believers who had started a church, but had almost no clue what they were doing or why.   They knew about communion or the Lord’s supper, but they observed it as if it was just a normal meal, conducted according to the usual social rules of the ancient world.   The haves ate with the haves and had quite a nice time.   The have nots stood at the fringes and watched,  Paul writes angrily:

20When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. 21For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.  22What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you! (1 Cor 11: 20-22)

 Paul made it clear to the Corinthians that this was an event for all of them.   No one should be left out.  It was a meal for all, to be started only when the community had come together, so that all believers would be fed, regardless of their wealth and status (1 Cor 11:33).   These instructions on how to conduct this meal were not up for debate.   As Paul told this struggling church, “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you” (1 Cor 11:23).  These instructions came from Jesus himself, and when he said “do this in memory of me”, he was speaking to all his followers.

A community that waited until all were at the table was a community that cared for one another.   It was also a community that wanted its witness about Christ to have integrity and credibility.   No one was left out of this meal, slave, rich or poor, man and woman, observant Jew and gentile believers in Christ, all were welcome.  That was a huge message in the ancient world. 

 It’s a huge message in our world of inequality and injustice, where a few control vast amounts of wealth and billions have inadequate access to food and water.   When we come forward to receive the bread and wine, rubbing shoulders with people from all walks of life and from different races and places, we come forward and are welcomed by our God who wants all to be fed.   I think we make a mistake to think that the bread and wine are just spiritual food, that communion is simply about the feeding of our souls.   Food is food.  In taking the bread and wine, we remember a savior whose place was with the poor in body and spirit, who called us to care for the least among us.

 “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you”.   Tonight, our act of communion may not be as dramatic as the ritual of footwashing but they both point to the same thing.   Both actions remind us that just as God came to serve us, so are we expected to serve.  The life of this parish, particularly what we do around food, should be in the spirit of the eucharist.  If one of us brings some folded twenties to slip into the free will offering, and someone else brings an appetite sharpened by want and hunger, both should be welcome.  No one should be resented for being a free rider, because we are all free riders at the communion table.   Our social events, our programming, our mission and outreach, need to point the God who wants to feed us all out of his love and abundance.

I started by saying that the eucharist seems symbolic compared to the physical reality of footwashing.   I suppose we could do something to make communion more concrete.  We could tear off chunks of bread for one another, leaving the floor covered in crumbs, and drink the wine in big gulps so that it dribbles down our chins.    That would be fun, though it would be messy church.   But better still, I think, to make our communion truly real and truly urgent by remembering the amazingly generous spirit of the words that we hear each time we take the bread and wine.    

This is the bread.  This is the wine.  This is the love.  This is the abundance.  Given for us.   Given for all of us.   Paul  wrote, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you.”  May we, who have received so much grace and abundance from the Lord, hand them on to others.  May we wo do these things in remembrance of him, remember also those who are physically and spiritually hungry.   Amen.


Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


Blog Archive