Sunday, November 20, 2022

What King Do We Want? A Sermon for the Reign of Christ

Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, on Sunday, November 20, 2022, The Reign of Christ,  Readings for this Sunday:  Jeremiah 23:1-6; Luke 1:68-79; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43.

Late in her life, Queen Elizabeth told a BBC interviewer that her crown was “unwieldy”.    With her characteristic dry humour, the Queen was describing what it was like to wear the Imperial Crown that she would wear for state occasions such as the State Opening of Parliament.    In describing how to wear the Crown, the Queen said “You can’t look down to read the speech, you have to take the speech up.  Because if you did (look down), your neck would break – it would fall off”.  As the Queen wryly commented, “there are some disadvantages to crowns, but otherwise they’re quite important things”. 

One of the things that many of us loved the late Queen for was that she wore the Crown as a burden, a burden of duty and service that she accepted to serve us.  Despite the trappings of her office -- the palaces and the estates -- Elizabeth modeled a certain kind of power, one that could often be humble and self aware.    While we give thanks for that kind of servant leadership, we must note that there other models of power today that are influential and malignant.     Today’s authoritarians and strong men don’t wear diamond encrusted crowns or even military uniforms.   They wear suits, they run sham elections, they stoke fears and divisions, they lie, steal, intimidate, and they kill, if they can get away with it.  

It's distressing how many people – friends, neighbours, family – want to be ruled by a strong man (and they are usually men).   I found it ironic, and a little funny, that as I was thinking about this sermon this week, a certain Florida senior citizen and golfer announced that he wanted his old job back.    In one of his last columns in The Washington Post before his passing, Michael Gerson commented on how so many of his fellow Americans “have a fatal attraction to the oddest of political messiahs — one whose deception, brutality, lawlessness and bullying were rewarded with the presidency”.

Much of this “fatal attraction” is felt by some Christians who want a strongman to protect what they see as a certain way of life.    As an influential US pastor has said, “I want the meanest, toughest SOB I can find to protect this nation”.  While Canadian politics is far more secular, it has also taken on populist and even authoritarian qualities, whether over land use, health mandates, or overriding municipal powers.     It seems that as people get angrier, feel threatened, and become less respectful of their neighbours, they want a strong leader who will do what it takes to make them feel like winners.

The paradox of our Christian faith is that we worship the ultimate strong leader.   Consider the opening verse of our second reading, from St Paul’s letter to the Colossian church:  “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power” (Col 1.11).   That word “power” is a translation of the Greek word “kratos” which Luke uses in the Song of Mary, the Magnificat (he has shown strength with his arm”, and the word “strength” is a translation of the more common gospel word “dynamis” from which we get our modern word dynamite.    “Dynamis” is used, for example, in Jesus’ teaching his disciples to pray: “For thine is the kingdom, the power (dynamis) and the glory” (Mt 6.13).  Our second reading in fact may be one of the most audacious claims in all of scripture, for Paul says that Jesus is THE cosmic power, that Jesus is one with God “in him all things hold together” (Col 1.17).   Or, as Bruce Cockburn puts it in one of his songs, Jesus is “Lord of the starfields, ancient of days, universe maker”.

But notice that Paul does not promise us, Jesus’ followers, that all this power will be deployed to support our agendas.   Rather, he says that all this power will make Christians “prepared to endure everything with patience” (Col 1.11).  We need to note that this promise is not for Christians waiting to seize power, but rather it’s an encouragement for believers who may be called to suffer under someone else’s power.    These are words for those who may face persecution under Nero, and not for those wanting to put their own Christian Nero on a throne.

Ever since kings became Christians and started wearing crowns, we’ve confused the Kingdom of God with the kingdoms of earth.    The idea of Christian nationalism which we are starting to hear more of in American politics, is a belief that the will of God can be brought about by human laws, human politics, and human anger.   But this was always a misunderstanding that often leads to persecution, tyranny.   Again to quote Michael Gerson, when Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God, he’s speaking of a calling:   “[Jesus] called human beings to live generously, honestly, kindly and faithfully. Following this way … is not primarily a political choice, but it has unavoidable public consequences”.

What might our society look like if more of us, including our leaders, followed the way of Jesus? 

It would have the unity that comes from a respect for our common dignity.    Jeremiah in our first lesson condemns false leaders “who have scattered my flock” (Jer 23.2).   The kingdom of God has no place for those who would divide and conquer.

It would be free of voices that stoke hatred and sow fear of the stranger, the immigrant, or the transgender,    Again to quote Jermiah, “I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing” (Jer 23.4).    Any voice which seeks to instill fear, hatred, or suspicion is not a voice that speaks for Jesus.

The way of Jesus would mean that our words to one another were gracious and forgiving, free of grievance, slander, and  hatred.   Paul says that Jesus is Ground Zero for all forgiveness:  “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20).  Any voice which speaks arrogantly, which tries to lie about past injustices, and which refuses to seek reconciliation and forgiveness is not a voice that speaks for Jesus.

The Kingdom of God is hard to see if you don’t know what to look for.   Think about the mocking voices in our gospel reading from Luke:  “If you are the King of the Jews”, “Are you not the Messiah”, or Pilate’s sarcastic inscription on the cross, “This is the King of the Jews”.  Those voices don’t speak for the Kingdom of God.

But if you listen to that dialogue between the crosses - one broken and dying man forgiving his murdered, another asking for mercy and receiving it – if you listen to those voices, barely audible above the baying of the mob, then you recognize the Kingdom of God.

At some point, it will please God to reveal the Kingdom of God in all its glory.    But for those of us who choose to follow Jesus and who seek his kingdom, we have a clear path to follow that leads us forward.   Let me give the last words to Michael Gerson, who wrote these words in what he knew were the last days of his life:

the way of life set out by Jesus comes like a clear bell that rings above our strife. It defies cynicism, apathy, despair and all ideologies that dream of dominance. It promises that every day, if we choose, can be the first day of a new and noble manner of living. Its most difficult duties can feel much like purpose and joy. And even our halting, halfhearted attempts at faithfulness are counted by God as victories.



Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Judaism: Christianity's Slightly Older Brother?

Karl Barth once said that the Jews are the older brothers and sisters of Christianity, but how much older?    

I’ve always thought that in the gospels, when Jesus challenges traditions held by some, such as challenging the Pharisees’ understandings of Sabbath keeping or ritual purity, that these were long-established customs and traditions.    In fact, Judaism as it is presented in the gospels (admittedly not a reliable source) may not have been more than a century older than the Jesus movement.   At least, that’s the thesis of a new book by a Jewish archaeologist named Yonatan Adler.

Adler’s thesis is basically that Judaism didn’t take on its essential character until the Hasmonean dynasty in the 2nd century BCE, when Israel began to emerge from Hellenistic dominance.

I lack the knowledge to form a quick judgement on Adler’s thesis, but the scholarly reaction in this Smithsonian article is not hostile.  However, today, comments like this are leaving me slightly disoriented.

"Konrad Schmid, a biblical scholar at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, agrees that “before the Hellenistic period,” knowledge of the sacred text “was probably limited to small scribal circles centered in Jerusalem.” He speculates that the Hebrew Bible’s rules could have been conceived not as laws but as “a document depicting an ideal community.” He is unsure, however, if the text remained obscure to most Judeans as late as the second century B.C.E."




Saturday, November 12, 2022

What Can The Church Say? A Sermon for Remembrance Day Sunday

Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, and St. Luke’s, Creemore, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Remembrance Day Sunday, 13 November, 2022.  Texts:  Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9; Psalm 116:1-8; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 11:21-27 


“But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died … but they are at peace”  (Wis 3.1)

What should the church say on this day, on Remembrance Day Sunday?   Should we say anything different from what we pray and proclaim on any other Sunday?  


I ask these questions because I worry that if we’re not careful, we run the risk of being whipsawed theologically, so that our message becomes incoherent.  After all, just last Sunday we heard Jesus tell us to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek (Lk 6:27-29).  Today, it’s tempting to say something radically different, to speak of “our glorious dead” and to want to give thanks for their victories in battle.


It may be impossible to avoid some incoherence on Remembrance Day Sunday.     There is wide variation in the Christian witness on war and the gospel, ranging from the pacifism of the Mennonite tradition to the Just War theology of the Roman Catholic tradition, which justifies war in certain circumstances.    In my own experience as a military chaplain I was forbidden to carry weapons because it’s long been felt that Christian ministers can serve in uniform, but only as non-combatants.   So since we as Christians have never fully agreed on how we can reconcile the gospel of Jesus Christ with war and violence, I think some caution is called for.


In that spirit of caution, I think the first, the best, and the safest thing we need to say today is that “we remember”.   


We remember those of this parish who served and particularly those who never came home.    We remember those of this community, an incredible 1 in 10 of Collingwood’s population who left for the First World War, just as we remember the men and women who in the Second World War built the corvettes that left here to help keep the sea lanes open.  Likewise remember those from across the Commonwealth who came here to learn to fly in the British Commonwealth Air Training Program.    Of that later group, we have a special duty to remember our Australian friends, Colin Arthur and Claude Ross, who are honoured at the back of our nave, just two of the many fledgling flyers who died in training.  And of those who did train here in Canada and then went to fly in the deadly skies over Europe, we remember the almost ten thousand Canadian airmen killed in the bomber raids over Nazi Germany.  Likewise we remember those who served in peacekeeping where it worked, as in Cyprus, or where it disastrously failed, as in Bosnia and Rwanda.  We remember those who went to Afghanistan with all the tragedy of its outcome, and who today wrestle with memories of lost comrades and who bear wounds, visible and otherwise.


So the first thing the church can say on Remember Day is we accept the duty of memory.   To Edward Knight, who is remembered on the wall across from this pulpit, and to Colin Arthur and Claude Ross and all those others, we say remember you as best we can.    We pledge to you that we will learn your stories and teach them to the generations that follow, that we will honour your sacrifices, and that we will do our best to see that you did not die in vain.   All of these duties and obligations are laid on our shoulders when we say, as many did at the cenotaph on Friday, “we will remember them”.

  This duty of memory is a civic duty, cor we as Christians and Anglicans are called to remember just as Canadians of all faiths and none are called to remember.  Fair enough.  We want to be good citizens and good Canadians, we want to be found worthy of those who went before us.  But as Christians, our memory is nuanced, it must have theological layers if it is to be worthy of the gospel.  If we remember the ten thousand Canadians who died flying with Bomber Command, then we must also remember those in the cities they bombed, just as we remember the civilian dead of all the cities, Warsaw, London, Coventry, Dresden, Kyiv, Kherson.   We must remember the totality of modern war, how it consumes countless lives, military and civilian, and how war is perhaps the most sinful thing we can name in the world.  We must remember with sorrow as well as pride, with repentance as well as patriotism.   If there is one day of the Christian year that should teach us how to think of war, then that day is surely Ash Wednesday.


Beyond saying that we remember, I think that on this day, Remembrance Sunday, the church must be sparing with our words and careful of how we speak about God’s purposes.  In our first lesson, from the Wisdom of Solomon, we heard that “But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died … but they are at peace”  (Wis 3.1).   This text from the Hebrew scriptures offers the comfort that the dead we remember are in the care of God (indeed, the scripture readings for Remembrance Sunday are the very ones we use for All Souls, our feast for the faithful dead), but we need be extremely careful with our use of the word “righteous”.   In the context of our readings, our first lesson can seem to say that our war dead and the causes they fought in were righteous, but this would be to speak in human terms.   When scripture uses the word “righteous”, it is always speaking of the goodness and rightness that is God’s only, and only God can make us righteous.


Even so, it is in the nature of soldiers to want to believe that they fight in a righteous cause.  Let me explain by describing a conversation that I often think of.   I have a friend who as a young Army officer had served in Afghanistan.  He was deeply effected by his experience, and on his arm he had tattooed the names of two of his soldiers who were killed on their tour.   Over a beer in the mess one day, he told me how much he appreciated the chaplains, or padres, that he had met over there, but he said he had one complaint.   “Why don’t you padres ever pray for a good smiting?” 


A little confused,  I asked him what he meant.  He told me, “Before we went out on a mission, the Padre would pray for our safety and that God would bless us and bring us back whole, and that was nice, but what I really wanted was for that Padre to pray for God to help us smite our enemies like God smites people in the Bible.   But he never prayed that.  I like Padres, but why can’t you guys pray for a good smiting?”   The word “smite” (Her nawkaw) of course is a King James Bible word meaning hit, kill, or destroy, and is often used in the bloodier books of the Hebrew scriptures when God encourages his people to kill their foes.


I told my friend that my chaplain colleague was probably wise enough to know that such a prayer would have been wrong.    Think about it, I told him.  Somewhere out there in the darkness, while you were getting ready to go out on your patrol, don’t you think there might have been another holy man praying that Allah would give his guys the strength to kill you, the infidel invader? If your padre had prayed for you to kill in God’s name, would that have made him any better than the Taliban holy men who promise a speedy trip to paradise for warriors and martyrs?


I was trying to convey to my young friend the inherent dangers in thinking of ourselves as holy warriors in a holy cause.  Such a mindset allows for our worst, most violent selves to emerge.   Only God is righteous, and only God can make us righteous, and if God is love, then God cannot be war.   It may be that some wars must be fought because they are necessary.    The Ukrainian war of self-defence is perhaps the clearest case for a just war that I have seen in my lifetime.    I know for certain, because I’ve met them, that there are Ukrainian army chaplains who see their cause as righteous, even holy.   I cannot speak for them, and I would not presume to correct them.  Perhaps all we can do is to remember the dead of Bucha and Kharkiv and Kherson, and can pray that God delivers Ukraine and makes possible a lasting and just peace.  Beyond that, I don’t know that the church has anything to say.


So we fall back on three words, “we will remember”.   We remember with penitence just how seductively easy wars are to start, and how hard they are to stop.  We remember with sorrow the dead, those of this parish, of this country, of this modern age and its terrible demand for sacrifice.  In our sorrow, we commit those we remember as best we can into the eternal memory of God, to whom none are lost, none are forgotten.   And we remember the promise of the resurrection, in the sure and certain hope that Christ who raises the dead will return to end our wars and the sorrow of our wars.  We remember these things.

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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