Saturday, April 29, 2017

Journey To Emmaus: A Sermon For The Third Sunday of Easter

Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario, 30 April, 2017.  

Readings for this Sunday:  Acts 2:14a, 36-41, Psalm 116:1-4,12-19; 1 Peter 1:17-19; Luke 24:13-35



While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. (Luke 24: 15-16)


As disciples go, they weren’t the well known ones, like John and Peter.   In fact, one of them stays nameless through the whole story.  The other, Cleopas, is only ever mentioned once in all the gospels, here in Luke 24, though a Cleophas does crop up in John, and may be the same person.  So this isn’t a story about the star disciples, the A-Team.  This is a story about plodding everyday people, just the ordinary faithful, like you and me.   This is a story about the church.


We are never told why the two disciples left Jerusalem to spend half a day walking to Emmaus.  It would have been half a day, most likely, for the distance isn’t short.  Seven miles, says Luke, or somewhere between 10 to 12 kilometres.    Not an inconsiderable trip, really.  According to the website Biblewalks, the site believed to be Emmaus today lies in foothills on the edge of the Plain of Judea  so we can imagine that the two disciples were walking uphill towards the end of their journey, and were probably feeling the journey in their bones and muscles.   But Luke doesn’t tell us anything about the physical aspect of the walk.


What we do know is that disciples are tired and sore in their souls.   When the risen Jesus meets them and asks them what they were discussing, Luke says that “They stood still, looking sad” (24:17).  When they finally speak, it is to tell a tragic story of how Jesus, “a prophet mighty in deed”, was killed.   They tell the gospel as if it had no good news, as if their faith and hope in Jesus (“we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” 24:21) had been buried with him on Good Friday.   No wonder that they travel seems to be aimless.


One of the things that always seems curious about this story is why the two disciples at first fail to recognize Jesus.  Perhaps grief and despair cloud their eyes.  Like Mary who is weeping at the tomb and who first thinks that Jesus must be the gardener (John 20:15), it’s as if the two disciples can’t imagine any alternative to Jesus being dead.  And why should they?   Nothing in their experience had prepared them for this possibility.  Despite veiled hints from Jesus that he might rise, the disciples lived in a world where the dead stayed dead.   Easter had not yet been invented.


Of course we know better, we church people.   Unlike the disciples, we know that the story of Jesus does not end tragically on Good Friday.    Right?  “Christ is risen!” we say in our liturgy.  “The Lord is Risen indeed.  Alleluia!”    But how does that work out in our lives?  Does Easter really challenge us to live differently in the weeks and months that follow.  We say that we are a resurrection people, and that has a nice ring to it, but I wonder sometimes.   


We may not be sad or grieving like the disciples but we may be tired, complacent, or just not really convinced that Jesus is present with us. Last Thursday I sat in on a meeting of local clergy, and could see how tired they were.   Holy Week was finished for another year, and now it was time to line up other clergy to cover for the Sundays when they would be on holiday this summer.   And who can blame them?  Easter was a slog for them, and still the work’s not over.  We’re all busy.  Parishes are busy preparing for their spring dinners and yard sales and perhaps planning the Vacation Bible Camp before everyone goes away for the summer.   Think about the meaning of Easter?  Well yeah, that would be good, if there wasn’t so much to do! 


The Emmaus story reminds us that the risen Christ walks with us, accompanies us on our journeys, even when our eyes are too distracted or tired to see him.   This gospel reading opens our eyes to his presence with us.  In this part of the sermon I want to consider how this shows us how the risen Christ is with us, in our church and in our lives, and how that can bring us joy and hope in our life as the church.   Let me be more specific.  By “with us”, I don’t necessarily mean with us in spirit, our living in our hearts.  I mean right here,  right now, in the flesh, in this place, in our homes and workplaces, in our lives, with us, listening to us, talking and walking with us.


First, the easy one.   Jesus “took bread, blessed and broke it” (24:30) and in the next verse Luke tells us that “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him”.   As Anglicans, we are often invited to see this moment as an account of what happens for us, Sunday by Sunday, in the eucharist, and it is true that in that moment we come together as a family and as a people, united by the gift of Jesus to us in his body and blood, forgiven our sins and invited to live with him in new life.   I think the challenge here for us is to never get blasé about the eucharist or to think of it as that thing we do.   It is the moment when we see Christ in a real and powerful way.  But what about other times when we gather for a meal, whether around the family table or in a busy mall food court.  Could our prayers of grace and thanksgiving be more heartfelt, even ore like conversations,  knowing he is with us?  And what about those who go hungry?    Surely Jesus is present in the sharing of bread as well.


Second, the disciples say that their hearts were “burning” as they spoke to us and “while he was opening the scriptures to us” (Lk 24:32).   The disciples begin to sense the presence of Jesus when he corrects their tragic vision of his death by giving them an impromptu bible story that covers all of scripture as it then existed, “the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms” (23:44).  I take this as a reminder that Christ is fully present in the church’s reading of scripture and in the story of creation and rescue from slavery, sin and death that scripture tells.   This is why our Eucharistic prayers all tell a summary of the bible story, to remind us that Christ is the point of that story.  Everytime someone goes to the lectern to read a listen, everytime we stand to hear the gospel, every time we gather for bible study or in our own devotional time, Jesus is with us.  “The Word is very near you” says John’s gospel.   Jesus as the word made flesh is present with us, real, in our scripture.


Besides these two fairly obvious situations, I think the Emmaus story reminds us, in ways that are both exciting and unsettling, that we are always in the presence of the risen Christ.  Paul writes in Philippians 4 that “The Lord is near”.  In fact, he can come and stand in our midst whenever he likes, at coffee and at corporation meetings, in our youth group and our conversations in the parking lot.  


When we greet each other during the Peace and say “God’s peace be with you”, that greeting is meaningful precisely because Christ is with his church as the one who brings peace and forgiveness and who reconciles us one to another.  When we are sad and despairing as the disciples are at the start of the Emmaus story, the risen Christ is with us.  When we greet one another, he comes to us.  When we are vexed and gossipy or sullen about something in the life of the church, the risen Christ is with us.  When we are waiting in hospital, worrying about our children, stewing over finances, the risen Christ is with us.   It’s ale worth remembering that when we are cross, catty, or irritated with others, the risen Christ is present with us.  Our goal is a Christian community should be to speak to others in a way that is appropriate and suitable for the company we keep, the risen Christ.


This Sunday, as we leave this church and return to our daily lives, our risen lord goes with us all.   My prayer is that our eyes are not blinded to his presence by whatever challenges us or fatigues us.  May our spiritual fatigue give way with hearts that burn with joy, as we remember that our Lord cared so much for us that he rose from the grave to walk with us, encourage us, and rescue us.  May our lives, and the life of this church, always be centered by the risen Christ who stands and walks in our midst.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Miitary Writers On The Value Of Fiction

I just noticed this slightly dated (14 Feb 2017) on the Modern War Institute of West Point website about a panel of writers speaking on the value of writing fiction.

The panel included one writer I have reviewed on this blog, Phil Klay, author of Redeployment, a book of short stories, as well as Matt Gallagher, author of Youngblood, a book on his experience with the US Army in Iraq, and August Cole, author of Ghost Fleet, a speculative look at a near-future war between the US and China.

The panelists spoke to an audience of West Point cadets about the value of fiction as a way of processing experience and even developing a "radical empathy" for others and other points of view.

I remain hopeful that we will see a similar event with Canadian soldiers turned writers, perhaps at Royal Military College, in the not too distant future, but these writers have yet to emerge.


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

More Religions To Be Recognized In US Military

This piece in the Religion News Service received some modest attention among the US national security (NatSec) people I follow on Twitter.

The US Department of Defence has "announced a near doubling of its list of recognized religions. It will now formally recognize humanism and other minority faiths among members of the armed forces."

The list now encompasses humanism and Asatru, a religion which focuses on the Norse gods of the Viking era.   This announcement means that "servicemen and women who are adherents of small faith groups are now guaranteed the same rights, privileges and protections granted to their peers who are members of larger faith groups."

Asatru/Viking symbol

This announcement does not necessarily mean that chaplains associated with these faiths will follow, at least not in the near future, but it does open the door to that possibility.   In the Canadian context which I am familiar with, a faith group must have structures which allow for the recognition and accountability of persons who can perform the general functions, such as counselling, expected of a chaplain, and who have a religious organization to which they are accountable.  Not all faith groups produce clergy or clergy equivalents in the way that, say, Christianity, Judaism and Islam do. 

That being said,   I have Canadian chaplain colleagues who have served with Dutch humanist chaplains and found them professional, dedicated and caring, which is perhaps all that many military personnel want of a chaplain.


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Book review: Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, Somme: Into The Breach

A small addition to my modest resume of military writing.  This book review on a 2016 book on the First World War's  Battle of the Somme was published yesterday in The Strategy Bridge, an online journal.  I was very happy to have my piece selected by The Bridge.

While the Canadian Corps had a minor part in the latter phases of the Somme campaign, 1 July was a black day for Newfoundland, and thus my decision to start the review with the Canadian Armed Forces' centenary commemoration of Beaumont Hamel last year.   Sometimes military and national memory concerns itself with tragedy as much as with victory.   The sacrifices of the Newfoundlanders at Beaumont-Hamel were as real and noteworthy as were those of the Canadians at Vimy, even if the latter is hailed today as a source of national pride.  The Somme is a fearful reminder to military planners and leaders of the terrible price that others must pay for their mistakes.


Saturday, April 15, 2017

A Meditation For Good Friday

This was part of a series of dramatic monologues that people in my parish were asked to come up with for the Stations of the Cross yesterday.   Each Station was presented by a voice of someone who was present there, and was followed by a meditation and a prayer.  This was mine, and there were many that were much much better.


Second Station  Jesus Takes Up His Cross


John 19:13-17


 When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, ‘Here is your King!’ They cried out, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’ Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.



My name is Pollo.   Sergeant in the tenth century, second cohort, Third Legion.   Twenty years service, marched clear across the empire and back three times in that.   Seen a thing or two, I can tell you.


I remember because it was Passover, lots of strangers in Jerusalem, things were on edge and the high mucky mucks in the Palace wanted extra security.  So me and my lads drew extra duty, out in the crowds, watching things and then when they arrested that fellow, Jesus, well, it was all a mess, wasn’t it?


I had trouble with the new recruits, cuz they was all nervous, with the crowds shouting and all.   And Pilate, him mucking around being indecisive, and asking the crowd what they wanted, this Jesus or Barabbas. I wouldn’t have done it that way, no sir.  I would have had me lads wade into the crowd, swords out, settle them down, show em Rome was boss, that’s my style.  Anyway, that was above my pay grade, wasn’t it.


So it was decided, like, and Centurion Quintus, he brings this Jesus over to me, and says, Pollo, here’s your man, get him up the hill smart like, and I saluted and said yes sir, like you does.  Now I could see that Pilate’s guard had roughed him up bad, which was a problem for me, since he still had a way to walk and him being all messed up, well that was my problem now. Wasn’t fair,  was it?    So I says, Right, sunny Jim, there’s your lumber, get hauling.  It wasn’t the whole cross, see, just the beam that they nailed the arms to, the poles were fixed in the ground.  Our lads what did the crucifying, they were pros, they could get twenty men raised up high in a morning and still have time for dice and wine.  


Now normally, they’re all Boo hoo, I have a wife and child, have mercy but this Jesus was quiet, just stood there, quiet, like a lamb, which was odd, so I looks at him, and I thinks, hang on, he’s that same bloke what I saw on the donkey, a week ago, when he came into the city, the crowds all adoring and welcoming him, like.  That wasn’t half strange, seeing how they all turned on him, and what was more, he didn’t look like a king, but he looked, I dunno, special, like.  Different, y’know?  I says to him, Well, your highness, where’s your people now?  Not much of a king, are you? And I meant it as a joke, like, but it came out all sad, sympathetic, like, and he just looked at me, then he turned to his cross, like he had his duty, same as me.


I could see him trying to lift the wood like a good un, but he was right played out and finding it hard going.  Normally I’d give a fellow a taste of the whip, or have the lads tickle him with spears to get him going, but none of us wanted to do that.  Now me, I’m a simple soldier, can’t explain it, but it just seemed, well, wrong.  Even Glavus, my youngest soldier, he was even wanting to help this man, can you believe it?  Back in ranks, i shouted, and I could see I had to something, and quick.  We had to get him up the hill and onto his cross, because those were our orders, weren’t they?  We was following orders …



John 19:13-17


 When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, ‘Here is your King!’ They cried out, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’ Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.





For the Romans, the cross was part of a system of brutality and discipline that made their empire work.  The men who ran the empire, like the soldier Pollo, had their orders and they did their duty.  


Two thousand years later, the world still works that way.  Some men made nerve gas and put in bombs, other men loaded the bombs onto planes, and other men dropped those bombs on a village because they had their orders. Then as now, rebellions have to be crushed, power has to be reestablished, kings must protect themselves.


How does Good Friday challenge these earthly systems of power.  By lifting the cross to his shoulders and taking it on himself, what does Jesus say about how God’s power works?  As Christians, and as the Church, how does Jesus teach us how to live in a world of earthly power?




Gracious God, thank you for your son and for his willingness to lift the cross on our behalf.   Teach us how we as your people can also embrace the cross, and show the world how your love and grace are the source of your power. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

Remembering Canada's Army Chaplains at Vimy Ridge

This week, starting on Sunday, marks the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, when the Canadian  Corps, fighting together, achieved a significant victory on the Western Front during World War One.  Vimy is often regarded as part of Canada's coming of age as a post-colonial country, as this backgrounder in the New York Times explains.

Canadian historian Duff Crerar, an authority on Canadian chaplains in the Great War, has been regaling his friends with stories of how our padre ancestors supported the Vimy battle.  I have collected his emails and images below and am happy to present them.  MP+

Preparing for the Battle - 1

The First Canadian Division moved into its pre-Vimy quarters around the old Chateau of Ecoivres in mid-March. In the upstairs hall rested a large model of Vimy Ridge, which officers and men came through to study. In the garden was a billet filled up with tall racks of bunk beds, packing in almost 1500 men, with a high platform at one end, from which Canon Scott gave nightly lectures after the band played a brief concert. To keep morale up, he encouraged written questions to be handed up to him which he would try to answer in an uplifting way. The first night everyone had a good laugh at Scott’s expense when the note was read aloud without previewing or censorship: “When do you think this God dam war will be over, eh?” On April 4 the news came the America had joined the Allies, which partially answered the question that stumped him a few nights before.

Canon F.R. Scott, the senior chaplain with the First Division, wades through mud with some of his troops.   In his mid fifties, Scott was an old man in the trenches, and was famous for enduring hardship to be with the troops.

In the daytime, as Scott moved back and forth visiting trenches and headquarters, he often donned a private’s uniform, but still was easily identified by his white hair and clerical collar. All around him he noted the stacks of ammunition accumulating, pitying the horses which dragged heavy loads until some died of exhaustion. At night the road to Arriane Dump and the narrow plank road connecting it with the St. Eloi road was crowded with trucks, wagons, limbers, horses and men crowding each other in the blackout and often forcing each other off into the deep mud on either side. Through the tumult and furious cursing in the darkness the Senior Chaplain would make his way, joking that the horses and mules, at least, could not understand the profanity directed at them.
With permission of a local family, Scott fixed up a private shrine with canvas over the windows, which he dubbed “St. George’s Chapel”. Each morning at 0800 he celebrated Holy Communion, with the troops standing in and around the altar. Underneath a shell-battered crossroads named Maison Blanche, a large cavern sheltered one of the battalions in reserve, where Scott would drop in to hold services. Scott was famous for breaking up gambling when he encountered it, but one night men of the 16th, holding hot cards, promised to come if he let them finish their hand. After announcing that he would hold the service until the game was over, almost everyone there joined the service.
Behind the hamlet of Anzin the heavy guns and howitzers occasionally let loose, carefully seeking out their future targets, and startling bystanders not aware of their well-camouflaged hideouts. But enemy fire could still strike the best-concealed by chance. Canadian Railway troops died when a German shell hit their billets. Scott buried eleven of them on the hillside.

Chaplains of the 4th Division, Canadian Expeditionary Force, France 1917

Preparing for the Battle -2

From the Report of Major A.M. Gordon, Sr. Chaplain, 4th Canadian Division dated 17 March, 1917

All Unit commanders except for one have welcomed regular worship parades in 4th Division. During the trench raids in preparation for the main attack all his chaplains have been either in battalion Headquarters or Advanced Dressing Stations. Other chaplains maintained Chaplain Service coffee stalls where hot drinks were dished out to the men going forward or coming out of action. During the raid on 15 March, Chaplain George Farquhar served at the Regimental Aid Post with the Medical Officer, at the request of both the battalion commander and the M.O.
24 March, 1917: Sr. Chaplain Gordon to Acting Adjutant and Quartermaster General, Canadian Corps, requesting sites for Chaplain Service Coffee Stalls directly on the routes to be taken by the troops of 4. Canadian Division during the Vimy Attack, in areas relatively safe from shelling.
4 Division dispositions of Chaplains for Vimy Ridge Battle (Report by Major the Rev. A.M. Gordon, 4 Div. Sr. Chaplain)
  • 3 Protestant chaplains at the RAPs, 1 Protestant at the Advanced Dressing Station on the Arras Road, 2 Roman Catholic chaplains at relay point for ambulances and stretcher bearers, Two Protestant chaplains at the Main Dressing Station # 11 Canadian Field Ambulance, with two Roman Catholic chaplains alternating duty there for round the clock coverage. One Protestant chaplain will cover the #12 Field Ambulance, while one will serve as spare for coffee stall, burial party and battalion coverage. Gordon leaves his most junior chaplain in the office and goes forward to supervise and assist in the 4th Divisional front line area.
Chaplains in action

The Chaplains of the 2nd Division left extensive reports which can be matched with contemporary trench maps and aerial photographs to demonstrate how they followed the attacking troops, setting up aid posts and working with casualties in captured dugouts and trenches. D.E. Robertson’s report begins with jumping off with the second wave of attackers, accompanying medical officers and others setting up advanced posts on the far side of Thelus. From 1400 onwards Robertson and a Medical sergeant operated an advanced aid post in a dugout in Bois Carre, which treated men coming in from many battalions, and many wounded Germans as well. Robertson scrounged rations and a German camp stove and was able to provide hot and cold drinks to the wounded and the stretcher bearers. He stayed on in the dugout through the next few days “During all the time, I tried to speak a word of comfort or offer a prayer with the wounded. I took the names of home folks, and any messages they wished me to send. This meant writing scores of letters. Near Bois Carre I established a  cemetery primarily for the 4th battalion, It has been recognized by the Graves  Registration Commission. I buried twenty six men belong to the 14 and 31st Battalions, and of the Trench Mortar Battery. On the night of the 12th we moved back to the old German front line. “ The return was complicated by he and eight others taking turns bringing back a wounded German they had found in the bottom of a trench, nearly frozen The mud was so deep that it took several hours to get the man under shelter. Looking back, he noted that every soldier he had personally greeted the night before the attack had either been killed or had passed by him, smiling but wounded, going the other way after the battle.

Aerial photo of the Vimy battlefield, showing some of the trench systems.  Bois Carre, where Padre Roberton worked in a Regimental Aid Post and later buried some of the dead of the attack, is the dark square on the right middle.

George Wood, following Canon Scott’s directions, followed the 4th Battalion up Elbe Trench with the quartermaster to set up a coffee stall and food stand for the troops on the day of the attack. By the time of the attack he claimed all 800 men had been distributed a “pint of steaming hot coffee”. At 04.25 he went forward with the Battalion Headquarters and stretcher bearers, unhit by stray German shelling, though a direct hit killed the Adjutant and several other officers just ahead of him. Also killed was the Artillery Liaison officer for the 27th battalion, and while the medical officer remained behind to tend the wounded, Wood and the unit commander reached a dugout in Rocade Trench, where the forward Headquarters was to be located. The dugout was already too crowded with wounded, so the signallers and the commander moved on while Wood, with his scissors, gauze and iodine tried to tend the fifteen wounded men who had crawled into dugout. Two men who had been shot in the lung and groin he hastily bundled off to the rear on stretchers carried by German prisoners.
About two hours later Wood caught up with the medical officer and bearers in an aid post between the German second and third lines known as Bastion Tunnel. Here the air circulation was so poor that candles would not stay lit. the next morning he jointed Robertson at the Bois Carre aid post.
Remaining in the line, Wood and two companies of his battalion supported the 8th and 9th Battalion attacks on Farbus, and Arleux. He moved his aid post into Arleux, marvelling at how little damage had been done to the buildings, early in the battle. Three weeks later when he returned, it had been obliterated by the fighting.
During a lull in the shelling one night, Robertson left the Bois Carre dugout and tried to go over the freezing ground looking for wounded who might die of exposure. “I felt glad to think that all the wounded had mostly gotten in, for I found none anywhere. In one case I thought I had come on one, for half way down the entrance of a partially caved in German dugout, I saw a man sitting, his head bowed, and hands folded, and by his side a prayer book. I got no answer when I called, so I crawled down, for I felt sure he was still praying. He must have died so a little time before. He was a little German. Peace be to him”.

Bois-Carre Commonwealth Cemetery today.   It is the resting place for 232 Canadians killed at Vimy.  Bodies are still being discovered and identified today.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

British Para Padre's Thought For Today

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Thirst and Good Water: A Sermon On John 4 For The Third Sunday of Lent

Preached at St. Margaret’s Anglican Church, Barrie, ON, The Third Sunday of Lent,  19 March, 2017
Lectionary Readings:  Exodus 17:17, Psalm 95, Romans 5: 1-11, John 4:5-42

but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ (Jn 4:14)

A few years ago I was incredibly thirsty.   I was on the third day of military adventure training on the Alberta side of the Rocky Mountains.  Our goal was to climb three mountains in three days.  It was an amazing experience, but the last day was the hardest, because coming down the third mountain, I ran out of water.  

It was summer, and up there on the mountainside, the sun seemed close enough to touch as it burned in a brilliant blue sky.  I had one of those camelbacks, a bladder of water, about two litres, that you wear on your back and such through a tube.   With the exertion, the summer heat, and the constant wind drying my face and mouth, I got really thirsty, and half way down the mountain my water was gone.  

I will never forget those last few hours, stumbling down the mountain, my throat and tongue as dry as old rocks, my legs dragging, and my sight starting to blur at the edges.  If I had found a nasty puddle or some stagnant pond, I would have fallen face down and drunk my fill, but fortunately I made it to the parking lot at the base of the mountain, where we had water in the van.  But oh, I pray I am never that thirsty again.

Imagine now a traveller sitting beside a well under the Middle Eastern sun, at the hottest part of the day.  He is thirsty, he knows there is water down there in the well, but he has no pail.  Then a shape comes between him and the sun, a woman come to the well at noon, when you would least expect someone to come to draw water, and she is looking down at the traveller curiously, for he is out of place here, in her land.  And so begins one of the longest and most wonderful conversations in all of scripture.

There are so many ways we could look at this rich passage.  Many preachers focus on its inclusivity, noting how Jesus shows no interest in the traditional barriers of his day – man/woman, Jew/Samaritan – that would normally prevent such a conversation from ever starting.   Others focus on the Samaritan woman herself, noting her keen intelligence, her willingness to talk theology with Jesus, and her role as an evangelist when she goes off to tell her village about Jesus.   Both approaches would note that John’s Jesus does not appear willing to go along with the traditional female stereotypes of his day.

While these are two ways of helping understand this conversation, I am interested (as my opening story suggests) in how John uses the ideas of water and thirst.  Like Jesus talking to Nicodemus about being born again (John 3:1-17), as we heard in last week’s gospel, this is a conversation that works on several levels.  Jesus and the Samaritan woman are talking about physical water and physical thirst (“Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’” Jn 4.7) but it is also about something far more – spiritual thirst?  Spiritual renewal?  Baptism?  Eternal life?   Let’s try to sort out these images and see where John is going with them.

Like the conversation with Nicodemus, however, this conversation starts to go to unexpected places.  When the woman marvels that a Jew would have anything to do with a Samaritan, Jesus replies that she would be better off asking him for water.  

10Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’  

In his reply, Jesus hints at two things, the first being his identity as something far more than just a random, wandering Jew, and the second being that he, as the Messiah, might actually be the cure for her thirst, by offering her something better than the well water.

Living water’ in Jesus’ day meant water that moved, as opposed to the still water one finds in a well or cistern.  The advantage of moving water, of course, is that it is fresh and not stagnant.  My first parish was in the country, and there was an underground spring near the church that had been bubbling away since at least pioneer days.  There was always a tin cup beside the spring, an invitation to the passerby to stop and drink, and on a summer’s day the water was clear, cold, and delicious.   This spring and cup, beside a church, seemed like a perfect metaphor for what church should be, a place of refreshment and life for the weary and thirsty.

We can imagine  the Samaritan woman now, looking sceptically at this stranger.  “Seriously, random thirsty Jewish guy?   You’re offering me water now, and living water?  Where are you hiding that, huh?”  Jesus’ reply takes the conversation further from the literal to the symbolic.

Once again the conversation moves a step further away from the literal to the symbolic.  

13Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’
This answer leads the Samaritan woman into a series of questions and a dawning realization that this stranger might me be more than he says he is.   As she tells her neighbours,  he just might be even be the Messiah (Jn 4.29).  For us, as followers of Jesus, knowing who he is, our questions might be different, in that we might ask ourselves, ‘what exactly is this water that Jesus speaks of?  Is it a symbol of something else?  How are we supposed to understand it?’   Or, perhaps, our question is exactly the same as that of the Samaritan woman:  ‘Ooooh, that water sounds good.  Where can I get some?’

I don’t actually think we have to decide exactly what the water is.   I think what’s important, as other scholars have noted, is that the water is a gift from Jesus, it belongs to him and he is willing to give it to us.   It’s also important for us to note that, whatever the gift is that Jesus is offering us, it has something to do with eternal life.  We also note that this gift of water of eternal life is better than anything else we might have or want.

By this time in the conversation, it’s fascinating to note that the actual, physical well has ceased to matter.  No one is interested in it anymore.  In fact, the Samaritan woman leaves her water jar at the well because it’s now more important to go tell her neighbours about Jesus (Jn 4.29).  Instead, she has chosen what Jesus has to offer, even if she doesn’t quite understand it, and I wonder if the same is true of us.

In his commentary on this passage, the Anglican theologian and scholar N.T. Wright simply notes that the opposite of living water is stagnant water.  Stagnant water can have mud and crud and critters floating in it.  On my way down that mountainside, as I said earlier, I might have been content to fall down beside a puddle of stagnant water and drink from it, but it would have been only from desperation.   Wright is suggesting that far too often people settle for stagnant water because that’s all we get.   We take temporary fixes, compromises, half truths, and sometimes we even fall into destructive substitutes for our true needs.   Our souls cry out for something true, something life giving, for love and forgiveness and acceptance, and we find instead lies and addictions and an empty, hollow craving that comes back all too soon.

This is the appeal of Jesus, because he offers us living water, he can fill our souls and lives in ways that the world can’t.

Time permits me from talking about the conclusion of this passage and Jesus famous remark about how 'the fields are ripe for harvesting” (4.35), which people (rightly, I think) take to be a reference to evangelism.  So let me close be making the following suggestions.   

Most of us, perhaps not all, but most of us, are here because at some point in our life’s journey our souls got really thirsty and we wanted the living water that Jesus can offer.  Can each of us, in our own words, in our own way, find a way to put into words what that thirst, what that spiritual need, was for us?  What made you decide that you needed what Jesus was offering?  Just think that question through so that you can find some way of explaining it, in the event that you are in a conversation where you can naturally speak about why your faith makes a difference in your life.   We Anglicans don't do evangelism easily, but I think we all have opportunities with friends, family, and acquaintances, to speak about why our faith is real and life-giving to us, and our words may well fall on thirsty ears.

Next, ask yourself what it would be like for St. Margaret’s to be known as a place of living water, where people who had been desperately thirsty had found what they needed to stay alive?  In our bible study of Revelation on Wednesday night, we were looking at Chapter 2, the letters to the seven churches, and Father Simon asked us to imagine what sort of letter Jesus would write to St. Margaret’s.   For my part, I would want Jesus to write that he was pleased that we weren’t a church of stagnant water, where people went through the motions while they were spiritually dying of thirst.  Instead, I would want Jesus to say that St. Margaret’s was a place of living water, where people had said yes to the gift of eternal life that Jesus offers, and wanted to share that love, that forgiveness, renewal, with others.  

Once we know we have found that living water, then, like the Samaritan woman, we will want to run and tell our neighbours, because chances are the neighbours are as thirsty as we were, and are looking for good water.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Chariots of the Hepta-Gods: Thoughts on Arrival, Aliens, and Theology

(Warning: some spoilers follow).

In so much as I followed this year's Academy Awards, I was curious about the fate of the one contending film I have seen so far, Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve.  I suppose best sound editing is a significant accomplishment, and honestly I wasn't expecting more of an ambitious and clever SF film made in the tradition of Contact and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (CE3K).

Arrival is a clever, poetic film about complex issues such as human proclivity for irrational action and the very rational challenge of communication outside of any known linguistic framework with a very alien intelligence.  No wonder it didn't win more Oscars.

There are very clever reviews of the film, such as this one, which say more than I ever could.   I will simply offer one thought, which occurred to me long after I saw the film but was still processing it, which was this.  What a shame that we learn nothing about what the aliens believe.

Within the SF First Contact trope, there are two basic premises.  The first is that the aliens are hostile (think Independence Day, War of the Worlds, The Thing, Mars Attacks, and so on).  In this premise, it doesn't matter what the aliens believe.  The aliens are usually implacably hostile and it's us or them (the TV series Falling Skies might be included here, though the motives of the aliens, while hostile, are open to question).

The second premise is that the aliens are benign super-beings who offer humanity the possibility of rescue from our own fatal errors and ways (think Contact, CE3K, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Childhood's End).  In this premise, the challenge for humanity is to rise above our fears and ignorance and be open to the redemption that the aliens offer through their superior philosophy and technology.

In Arrival, the aliens, referred to as Heptapods, clearly fall into the second category.  Despite their totally alien appearance and their articulate tentacles, the heptapods arrival to a shocked Earth is
profoundly enigmatic.  What do they want? is the organizing premise of the film, and we slowly
learn, thanks to the efforts of a scientist and an astrophysicist, that they have something to offer us, technologically backward and benighted as we humans are.  What unfolds in Arrival is something decidedly like the theological idea of grace as an undeserved gift.

The Christian in me can't help but see this second kind of First Contact film as a kind of modern, secular retelling of the parousia, or the Second Coming of Christ, though the original Greek meaning of the parousia as the visit of a king or emperor may be more apt.  In Christian thought, as expressed most clearly in the Book of Revelation, Christ returns to Earth to judge the world, end sin, overthrow God's enemies, reward the faithful,  and usher in a new and unending reign of his Father's rule.  These ideas are grouped in the subset of Christian theology known as eschatology.

Eschatology for many Christians is something of an orphaned child of Lady Theology these days.  Mainstream Christians (like most of my fellow Anglicans) have largely yielded it to the custody of evangelical Protestantism, which looks anxiously for signs of the end times, and prefer instead to focus on the Kingdom of God in the here and now of life in the incarnational presence of the Son of God.   Indeed, as Church of England theologian Ian Paul notes, many Christians are decidedly uncomfortable with eschatology altogether.

I can see why.  Talk about the Second Coming is awkward around non-believers, because it feels profoundly coercive:  use what little time you may have left to get right with God before the Big Day.  Indeed, the whole notion that God will return and usher in an eternal age of His reign strikes at the very heart of liberalism: choice.  What if I don't want to live in the New Jerusalem?  What if I don't believe that God has any right to judge me?  What if I would rather the world doesn't end, so I can see my grandkids and work on my bucket list?

For these reasons, I suspect that the Good Aliens Come to Earth trope functions as a kind of secular substitute for the parousia.   The heptapods of Arrival hang over the Earth but do not announce their plan for humanity.  They offer possibility but not judgement.  They make no demands except that we be smart and figure it out, if we can.   Whatever redemption they offer is one of our choice and making. 

While Arrival feels like a parousia for our times, it is not a didactically secular version of this trope.  For that, see A.C. Clarke's 1953 novel Childhood's End, in which the arrival of the benign aliens, the Overlords, ends religion and superstition and ushers in a new stage in human evolution.   Denis Villeneuve, on the contrary, invests Arrival with a decidedly mystical air.  The heptapods seem to be free of linear time as humans experience it, which for me evokes the Christian eschatological idea of Christ as the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, who breaks into human time.

In their interactions with Louise, the linguist played by Amy Adams, they allow her to see her daughter, whose birth, life and death do not seem to have yet happened, and whose communications with Louise provide significant moments of insight and advance in understanding the heptapods.  

In suggesting that there is some non-linear existence which intersects with our own condition, trapped on the one-way track of human time, Villeneuve teases us with the notion that there may be more to life, death, and life after death.  At the same time the heptapods, so inscrutable, can display the grace of forgiveness, even up to the death of one of their own.  

None of which is to suggest is that the heptapods are gods, for all that they sometimes seem godlike.  Their sudden departure leaves us scarcely fewer questions, and, perhaps, even with more.   For my part, I would have liked to have known if the heptapods have the same questions as we do.  Are we created, and if so, why, and for what?  What is our purpose?

 In the warm, generous and unafraid character of Louise, and her decision to embrace that the life that the heptapods have partially revealed to her, we may see shards of answers to those questions.


Monday, February 27, 2017

Faith At The Fort: Garrison Religion In Toronto In The 1800s

It's been very quiet here since Christmas.   In my spare time, when not working or helping my wife's battle with cancer, I've been focusing on my hobbies, which are described in my other blog here.  

However, I did write a piece in December at the invitation of the Friends of Fort York, which preserve the historic war of 1812-era British fortification in Toronto. 

Pedestrian entrance to Fort York off of Bathurst Street.  The Gardiner Expressway, visible to the left, and the condo towers in the background, show how Toronto has grown since the early 1800s and how the lakeshore has been pushed back.  In its heyday, Fort York lay on the shore of Lake Ontario.

Given my slight expertise in military religious history, I was asked to write a piece on religion at the fort in the 1800s, a difficult subject given that so much of lived religion (actual beliefs and practices) is not nearly as well documented as is official religion (formal church history).

Members of a Royal Artillery battery at Fort York in the mid 1800s.  What did they actually believe?

While not an extensive piece of original research, I did get to look at some of the Toronto diocesan archives which show births, baptisms, weddings and funerals at the Fort, as well as some other original source material.

Baptismal register showing christenings of children born to military families of the British Army's 68th Regiment in 1828, and signed by the acting garrison chaplain.

It is impossible to generalize about lived religious life on the basis of the documents available to us.  While the British redcoat had a reputation as being foul-mouthed, drunken and irreverent.  While this may be true then as now of some soldiers, this stereotype ignores the influence of Methodism, missionary movements and Christian welfare organizations that actively reached out to British soldiers throughout the empire.  The stereotype also ignores the role of religion in the lives of Roman Catholics, Presbyterians and various non-conformers whose spiritual needs were not met by official military chaplains, who were almost entirely Anglican.   It is also impossible to generalize as to how official religion -- the round of church parades, weddings, christenings and funerals -- was received by soldiers.  To some, official religion may have been an irritant, but to others it may have been a reassuring if seldom thought of part of life.

 My conclusion in the article is thus that "While the average soldier may have been more comfortable in a tavern than on church parade, he may also have been more devout than is commonly supposed."

The article begins on page 3 here.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Military Goats Update

It's been ages since we at Mad Padre paid homage to the noble military goat, so here, because it's Friday, is William Orpen's 1917 painting, "The Mascot of the Coldstream Guards".

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"Perfect Enough?" A Sermon on Matthew 5: 38-48

For various reasons, this blog has taken a back seat to my fun hobby blogging, which I seem to have more energy for.  However, each time a batch of new students comes through the Canadian Armed Forces Chaplain School, one of them invariably asks me if I am THE Mad Padre, which is about as close to celebrity status as I am likely to come.

In that spirit of mixed guilt and vainglory, here is the text of a sermon I preached last Sunday, 19 Feb,  at St. Margaret's of Scotland Anglican Church in Barrie.  St. Margaret's is one of the healthiest Anglican parishes I've seen in a long while, not without its challenges but it has a shot at a long and bright future, in large part due to an excellent priest, Fr. Simon Bell.   Simon+ has been kind enough to let me preach and preside on occasion.

I'm struck by how much of my preaching these days seems to involve some sort of ecclesiology, as if I am trying to work out and defend the importance of church and of worship.  These days, I think this may be one of the preacher's most important tasks.  MP+

A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Epiphany
Lectionary;  Leviticus 19: 1-2,9-18; Psalm 119: 33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:48)

Perfect can sometimes be an awkward, even threatening, word.  It’s ok in casual use, when we might use “perfect” in a limited way to describe good things that are out of the ordinary.  A  sports announced might say that pitcher might throw a perfect fastball to make the third out with the bases loaded.   A winter vacation on a tropical beach might be the perfect holiday.  The first time you see a newborn grandchild, you might say that the infant is perfect, even though you know that the infant may grow up to be loved despite the flaws.  

However, when the word perfect is loaded onto our shoulders, then it can be an awkward, even heavy burden.   When an employer tells us to do a perfect job on an important task, we might well feel anxious.  Despite the expectations of out culture, we know that we probably won’t give our children the perfect child, or our loved one the perfect marriage.   Most of us, unless one is a narcissist who somehow became President of the United States, have a very firm grasp of our imperfections.

It may have discomforted you, even alarmed you, to have heard this morning in our scripture readings that God wants us to be perfect.  In our Gospel reading from Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, we hear Jesus tell us to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48).  By the time you heard those words, you may well have been digesting our first reading from Leviticus, when God tells Moses to let the people of Israel know that “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev  17).   If you weren’t taken aback by that line, perhaps you were a bit rattled by Paul’s statement in our second lesson that  For “God's temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Cor  3:16).

So some of us may be feeling inadequate, even alarmed by the expectations we hear from scripture this morning.   If I can’t promise my boss or my supervisor that I will be perfect, that I will flawlessly fulfil their expectations of me, how on earth could I assure God that I will be perfect?  Aren’t we sinners?  Isn’t that why we say the prayer of confession together each Sunday?  Don’t we depend on the grace of God and the sacrifice of Christ on the cross to take away our sins?  

So how we can be perfect?

If that question bothers you, I would say two things.  First, relax, because you’re not as bad as you think.   I mean, you’re here, aren’t you?  You’re the people of God, chosen by God for adoption into his family, called to love God and to love your neighbour as yourself.  I’m not an expert on St. Margaret’s, but I think I can safely say, after six months of studying you, that you seem to grasp these things pretty well.   In the time that we’ve been here, your care and love for one another has been pretty evident.  You’ve shown that to us since Kay got sick.  You take being church seriously.  You chose a thoughtful and committed pastor to lead you, and you listen to him.   You welcomed the people of St. Giles with compassion and respect to their past and to their traditions.  You welcome newcomers each Sunday.   Your not afraid to pray for others or to share what God is doing in your lives in ways that some Anglicans would be too reserved to do.  

So you do church pretty well.  You’re not perfect, so don’t get too relaxed and all complacent, but you’re not bad.

The second thing I would say to you, and this is far more important, is that it’s not up to you to be perfect.   You can’t get there by yourself.  That’s God’s job.  That’s why he chose you and called you to be here.  God has done a wonderful thing in creating and shaping all of us and getting us this far in life, but he’s not done yet.  In our reading of Matthew’s gospel, the last line uses the word “perfect” (5:48), but the word in Greek, teleioi, can also mean complete.  (I owe this insight to the Working Preacher podcast for this Sunday, found here).

Speaking personally, I find that while I have my doubts that I can be perfect, I want to be complete.   I want to be, fully and wonderfully, the person that God created, in God’s likeness.  I want to be rid of the things that hold me back, the things that sometimes make me feel empty inside, so I can be complete, the way God wants me to be.   I suspect that I’m not the only one here who wants to be complete.  And I think, really, that’s why we come to church, because it gives us a vision of the world as we want it to be.

Think of today’s gospel reading, not as a list of impossible demands, but as a vision of God’s kingdom, complete and fully realized on earth.  It’s a kingdom where need is met with generosity, without conditions or resentment.    It’s a kingdom where cycles of violence and hatred are broken by love and reconciliation.  It’s a kingdom which does not depend for its existence on threatening enemies, but sees enemies as worthy of prayers rather than of hatred.  It’s a kingdom where love and relationships aren’t confined to small in-groups and cliques, but where love and relationship are offered to strangers and outsiders.  Is that kingdom realistic?  Perhaps not by earthly standards.  But wouldn’t you want to be a part of it?

Now think of church as a place where we do things that aren’t realistic by earthly standards.  We shake the hands of strangers and wish them well.  We practice being kind and gracious speech in the words of the liturgy (the lord be with you … and also with you).  We meet people we might never otherwise associate with, eat with them, pray with them, together confess our need for and dependance on God.  We honour all the generations, old and young.  We welcome the poor, the rich, the fit and the frail, the banker and the street person.   We give our hard-earned money to a cause that some would consider totally ridiculous.  We form a community that has value solely because we see the face of Christ in one another.  We are a community that is open to Christ’s work in us and amidst us, because we know that only in our dependance on Christ will we be complete.

These things that we do, Sunday by Sunday, show us what the kingdom of God looks like.  They show us what being perfect in Christ, being complete in Christ, looks like.   If we do these things with enough frequency, care, and attention, then they become automatic, a way of life that goes with us into the world for the rest of the week.  This is how we, and the world around us, grow and become more perfect, more complete, as God intended us to be.

This morning I used the building blocks to show the children what Paul meant about building our foundation on Christ, the one sure thing.  I can’t think of a better image going forward to our vestry meeting next week, or a better vision of what this parish is and needs to be, a community built on the sure foundation of Christ, who makes us perfect, and who makes us complete.   

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Empty Creche: A Sermon For The First Sunday After Christmas

Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, ON, 1 January 2017, the First Sunday After Christmas.


13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son." 16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18 "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more." 19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean."

Matthew 2: 13-23


I haven’t met anyone yet who will be sorry that the 2016 is behind us.  By general consensus, it’s been a brutal year.  All the celebrities dying was sad, to be sure, but the real horrors of the year were cities flattened by ruthless and indiscriminate bombing, dictators killing their people, unwanted refugees shivering on borders and drowning at sea, the rise of hatred and bigotry on the internet and in elections, and countless terrorist attacks across the world.   


If there was one image that seemed to be especially shocking, at least for a few days, it was the tourists and shoppers mown down in a Christmas market in Berlin by a terrorist in a truck.   A European style Christmas market is a magical place, with its handcrafted gifts,  music and carols, bright lights, fragrant smells and hot drinks to guard against the cold night.   To imagine that scene moments later, the screams and sirens loud among the smashed stalls and broken bodies, is almost too terrible to contemplate.


I think we feel the same horror as we contemplate today’s gospel reading from Matthew.  The little town of Bethlehem, which we imagine from countless Christmas cards, is violated and profaned.   The silent streets echo with the tromping boots of Herod’s soldiers and the screams of mothers as the killers go from house to house.  The wise men have hastily left town, the angels are silent, the skies are dark again, and the the holy family are on the road as refugees, fleeing for their lives.  It’s as if Matthew had no interest in allowing us to linger in the peace and magic of the nativity, but wanted to throw us back into the pain of real life as quickly as he could.


The transition from Christmas to this Sunday is a movement from heavenly vision to earthly violence, from miracle to madness.  The change of tone can indeed shock us, the faithful who know these stories, but I think it’s more shocking to those who lack perspective because they don’t know the gospel story.   This morning I want to suggest that our reading from Matthew today helps us to understand Christmas as part of God’s larger story. 


You see, if we allow ourselves to think of Christmas as just a kind of magic sanctuary, a kind of peaceful winter wonderland that we can go to get away from it all, then I think we will be especially vulnerable and disappointed when Christmas ends and real life reasserts itself.  If we don’t connect Christmas with the world of Herod then and ISIS now, a world where innocents are still routinely slaughtered, then we aren’t helping ourselves or others to see why we need the Christian faith in this world. 


So how does today’s reading from Matthew help us connect Christmas with the world and with the larger Christian story?  Let’s go back to the gospel reading and look at what God is doing here.   God is an active, protective and determined presence throughout the story.   When we pick up the story the Magi have just left, warned by God not to visit Herod on their way home.  Next, Joseph is warned to flee into the night and to take the family to a very specific place - Egypt.

Why Egypt, we may ask ourselves?  Presumably Egypt is far away, outside of Herod’s reach.   That makes sense, but we also remember that Jews have lived in Egypt before, in slavery, and that an Egyptian pharaoh tried to murder all the Jewish first born males, as Herod tries to do in Bethlehem.    That connection links Herod with Pharaoh as earthly kings and tyrants who are hostile to God.  The connection also reminds us that the Jews were led out of Egypt by one who God picked to save them, Moses.   Jesus’ connection to Egypt as a kind of second Moses is very important to Matthew, because it establishes Jesus’ connections as a saviour and leader, a kind of second or greater Moses who will come to save his people.


Matthew goes on to describes how Herod is replaced by another tyrant, Archelaus, which causes God to intervene again and warn Joseph to find a quiet spot, Nazareth, to lay low and raise his family.  I suppose there are two ways of reacting here.  One is to notice how worldly power keeps throwing up these powerful and dangerous kings, and how it keeps going on, so that Archelaus is followed by another Herod, and Pilate, but in a story that began with the Roman emperor ordering a census so that all the world may be taxed, Matthew has taught us a lot about how earthly power works.  At the same time, Matthew has shown us how God’s power is different and persistent, working in quiet ways to resist and outlast the petty tyrants of the earth.   The confrontation between Jesus and Pilate in John’s gospel, and Pilate’s troubled question “Are you a king?”, has its roots in Matthew’s version of the nativity story.   Matthew is reminding us that followers of Jesus are subjects of a different kind of kingdom, and that we need to be wary of the claims of earthly rulers and would be rulers, whether they live in Herod’s palace or Trump Tower.


Finally, as we hear today’s gospel, we hear over and over again how the birth of Jesus is the fulfilling of prophecy.  In our reading today there are no less than four references to prophecies being fulfilled.  We may think this is a bit of overkill, that Matthew is working too hard to establish Jesus’ credentials as Messiah, but think about what Matthew is saying here.  For Matthew, God plays the long game.  God has a plan for salvation, God is determined to bring as many out of the petty, dark kingdoms of humanity to his son’s kingdom of light.   Like a jujitsu fighter, using the strength of his opponents against them, God takes on the tyrants of earth - Herod, Archelaus, Pilate, any number of those who follow - with the weakness of a   carpenter’s son from Nazareth, and at the end of the day it is Jesus who is left standing.  Prophecy in Matthew means promises made and kept by a faithful God whose word is true and whose son can be trusted.   To use a word that we love to throw around today, God is authentic, he’s the real deal.


I’ve listed three connections between the Christmas story as told by Matthew and the larger Christian story.  It’s a shame that the lectionary and our worship on Christmas Eve, when our churches are most often visited, don’t do a good job of making these connections.  Perhaps if we did, our Christmas Eve visitors might stick around and enter more deeply into the Christian faith.   This week I read an interesting essay by  Ian Paul, a British theologian, on what the Anglican church gets wrong about Christmas.  



Paul talked about how the story that we tell on Christmas Eve is largely disconnected from the rest of the story of Jesus.   Christmas alone doesn’t tell us much about how Jesus comes to save the world by saving us from our sin.  Christmas carols and candlelight are all well and good, but they don’t tell the story very well, whereas, (and here Paul quotes N.T. Wright), the Advent hymns do tell the story.  As N.T. Wright notes, “Advent hymns are … deeply and thoroughly and thrillingly political. Advent hymns look forward not to heaven but the redemption of Israel and of the nations, the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. When we turn to Christmas hymns, these themes almost completely drop out”.  Unfortunately, most Christmas Eve visitors haven’t heard had the benefit of preparation and context that Advent offers us.


The second reason, according to Paul, is that a lot of Christmas messages and sermons we hear don’t really help us to hear the gospel.  By focusing on the Incarnation, on God’s decision to send his son to live amongst us as a human being, it’s fairly easy to draw the idea that we must be pretty good if God decided to hang out with us.  If we merely conclude that the Incarnation is about affirming the dignity of human existence, then we don’t really need to change.  As Ian Paul says, if “people leave Midnight Communion thinking ‘Well, it’s all OK, so no need to go to church till next Christmas”, then they will miss the who point of the gospel, which is about God’s determination in Christ to save us from ourselves.  As I understand his message, Ian Paul is saying that Christmas needs to be about salvation rather than affirmation.


Today, two thousand and seventeen years (give or take) after the birth of Jesus, I think we can agree that the world hungers for a message of salvation.  As we look to the near future, we hear talk of a new nuclear arms race, of rapidly melting polar ice, of old treaties and alliances ending.  People seem to lose faith in democracies and open borders, and put their trust in strongmen.  Cynicism and brutality seem to thrive.  King Herod, the butcher of Bethlehem, would certainly look at Aleppo and tell Bashir al Assad, “Job well done.”.  


One doesn’t have to go to Aleppo to see the need for salvation.  Who knows what anguish and tragedy may be concealed in the comfortable houses around this church?  Yesterday local media reported that a gas explosion in a middle class Mississauga neighbourhood this summer was deliberate, a double suicide of a middle aged couple.  Police found notes amid the rubble, including this one, which read


“Dear God, as of next week everything will fall apart for us,” begins one note. “We owe mortgage, company, house taxes, water bill, gas bill, hydro bill . . . and we have No Money to fix or pay anyone.”


I don’t think most people are looking for are looking for affirmation or for religion to tell them that they’re basically ok.  I think most people want to hear that God is interested in them enough to save them.  They want to be saved from tyranny, from hunger, from bombs, from debt, from despair, from a sense of hopelessness so strong that it would lead them to blow themselves up in their own home.


The message of Christmas is the message of salvation.  It’s the message of God who is faithful, who keeps his promises, who is determined not to lose us.   The Christmas message may be about peace and joy in the manger, but it’s also about God’s presence with us in those moments when there is no peace and joy.  It’s about God’s faithfulness to keep the promises he made long ago to his people, and it’s about the power of his son Jesus Christ to overthrow the kingdoms of power and tyranny, the kingdoms of darkness and death.   When the stillness of Bethlehem is replaced by chaos, when the nativity scene is dark and the stable is empty, the angels and shepherds gone and the holy family fled, this message of salvation is what we need to hold on to, now, and as we face whatever the new year may bring.




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.


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