Saturday, June 27, 2015

Generosity and Grace: A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

A sermon preached Sunday, June 28th, at St. Columba’s Anglican Church, Waterloo, Ontario.  

Lections for the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost:  2 Samuel 1: 17-27; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15, Mark 5: 21-43

 “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9)


Today’s second lesson from Second Corinthians is an appeal to charity.   In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul calls on them to be be charitable with others, in the same way that “our Lord Jesus Christ” has been generous with us”.  Paul seems to be setting up Jesus as an example.   Just as Jesus was generous with you, he seems to be saying, so you should be generous with others.


We get called on to be generous all the time.   Appeals to our charity come in the mail, in the Anglican Journal, and dozens of other requests to support worthy causes, from Nepal earthquake relief to the local school band program.  Sometimes its hard to be charitable.  We only have so much to give, and too many requests can cause compassion fatigue.   Its true of us as individuals, and its true of us as churches.  We know that charity and generosity are among the characteristics of the Christian life, but sometimes it can be hard to dig deep for them


If we ever wanted a lesson in what that generosity might look like, we have only to look to the people of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.   On June 17th members of this historic black congregation welcomed a young white man into an evening bible study.  He sat with them for an hour while they prayed and spoke together, and then rose and shot nine of them to death.  It became clear that his motives were based on racial hatred.


Thrust into the media spotlight, the members of Emanuel mourned and buried their nine dead, but they also did something extraordinary.   During the shooter’s first court appearance, relatives of the nine victims spoke to the accused killer.   They spoke from their pain as they told him about their pain and grief, but they also spoke from their faith.   Nadine Collier, who lost her 70 year old mother Ethel Lance in the attack, said this.


“You took something very precious away from me.  I will never talk to [my mother] again.  I will never be able to hold her again.   But I forgive you.   And have mercy on your soul.”


Other members spoke similar words of grace.   The New York Times reported, with some amazement, that “It was if the Bible study had never ended as one after another, victims’ family members offered lessons in forgiveness, testaments to a faith that is not compromised by violence or grief.  They urged him to repent, confess his sins, and turn to God.”


Sadly, this is not the first time a Christian community has publicly forgiven a killer after a mass shooting.  In 2007 an Amish community in Pennsylvania made headlines for forgiving a man after he went into their school and shot ten young girls, killing five.   


However, such clear statements of forgiveness after a horrific crime are rare.  They are newsworthy evens because they are hard to fathom.  How could anyone who has been so wronged reach through their pain, anger, and desire for revenge to find something as pure as forgiveness?   


This Friday night, the US journalist Mark Shields noted that “we don’t have forgiveness much in our society. We don’t have it in Washington, D.C. We don’t have it on Wall Street. We don’t have it in faculty clubs of universities.”


“Forgiveness”, said Shields, “is a rare and - valued, but increasingly rare commodity.  These people showed - I think they set aside almost a political earthquake by their demonstration.”


I myself struggle to understand how some people can be so generous, in the midst of so much grief, that they can forgive those who have harmed them and their loved ones.  I can tell you honestly that I have trouble forgiving people for relatively minor offences against me.


Perhaps people on the edges of society find it easier to forgive because they know how much they are given.  African American Christians have lived on the edges of society since the days of slavery.  Mother Emanuel Church, as it is known in Charleston, was burned by slaveholders.   Black churches were illegal in the South until after the Civil War.  The oldest of the nine people shot there last week were born in the days of Jim Crow and lynchings.  They came up during the Civil Rights era and stood with Martin Luther King.   They were living stones in a church that had has survived because of its faithfulness.  Hence its name, “Emanuel”, or “God with us”.


Those first Christians in Corinth also lived on the edges of society.  Some of them may have been slaves.  Most of them were likely poor.   St. Paul reminds them that God gave them his Son, who took human form.  “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”


So here are those ordinary people, slaves and the descendants of slaves, and Paul is saying to them, Jesus did all this for you.  He was born into a poor family in a world full of poverty.  He died a shameful death.  He did this for all humanity, for all people made in the image of God and loved by the Father.   He treated all with respect and impartiality.  As we heard in today’s gospel, he went to the home of Jairus, an important leader of the synagogue, but also stopped and healed the woman, considered unclean in her society, when she reached out to him.   Christ’s love is given generously, and without partiality, and it changes those who wish to receive it.  As Paul says, “by his poverty you might become rich”.


Here I think is the secret to understanding how some religious communities can be so extravagantly generous in their forgiveness.   When Paul is talking about generousity, he uses the Greek word “charis” from which we derive our English word “charity”.  But “charis” can also be translated as “grace”, a theological word referring to God’s gifts.   God’s gifts are given freely.  They are not rewards for good behaviour.   Grace is getting what we don’t deserve.


So when Paul tells the Corinthians that “by his poverty you might become rich”, he is telling them that they have become rich in God’s gifts because of God’s grace.  


Paul would say the same thing to St. Columba’s, and Paul would want to now, since we have received forgiveness, love, and new life because of God’s grace, what will we do with this gift?   Keeping it to ourselves is never an option with Jesus.   If we choose to follow Jesus, then his grace flows into our lives.   We are rich in love, rich in generosity, rich in grace.  We are changed by this gift, made rich by it, or as Paul puts it elsewhere, we mature, we grow into the mind of Christ.  Our calling as the church, as Christ’s representatives on earth, is to let that generosity flow through us, and into the world around us.


Sometimes generosity is about money, as you know if you’ve ever heard a stewardship sermon.  For the church in Corinth, the challenge Paul gave to them was about sharing the gifts of Christ.  Paul wanted these first Christians to share what they had, and it probably wasn’t that much, with the poor in Jerusalem.  We know from today’s reading that they had started this project a while ago, perhaps talked about it in the way churches do.   Now Paul tells them to get on with it.  “Now finish doing it”, Paul tells them, “so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.”


Why would the members of a church share what wealth they have with others, with people whom they have probably never met?   Paul says it’s a matter of fairness, but it goes deeper than that.   It goes to the heart of who they are as people who have received the generosity of Christ.  If they have received this gift, how can they not share it?  If they have been made rich by the gift of Jesus, how can they not be generous to others?


Sometimes generosity isn’t just measured in money.   It’s easy to give a little money if you decide that you can live without it.  The people of Mother Emanuel gave something far more precious than money when the spoke to the man who killed nine of their own.  They gave their forgiveness and prayers.  I am sure that their own identities, as the sons and daughters of slaves, who have experienced hatred and persecution, had much to do with it.  They knew that because Jesus was their saviour, because his love crossed lines of race and class and wealth to be poured out on them, that they could not keep this to themselves.  They saw a young man who had been warped and twisted by hatred and bigotry, and they wanted to share God’s love with him, because they knew his great need for love.   


My wife’s sister lives in South Carolina, in a suburb not far from Charleston.  She is a Christian of deep faith and active prayer.   She told Kay last night that it is amazing to see how the people of her state, white and black, are reaching out to one another in the wake of the Emanuel shootings.   Perhaps a new spirit of love and generosity will come to a place that has known hatred and bigotry for so long.  If it does, it will be because the gift of God’s love and grace flowed into this black church, and just as irresistibly has flowed out of it, like water to a parched land.  That’s how grace works.


So what will we do with our gift of grace, poured out on the people of St. Columba’s?  “Now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.”  Paul tells us to get on with it.  Two weeks ago, Julia preached about our parish’s evolving relationship with Lincoln Heights school.  As Julia explained, there are many students there from families who do not have enough, and many opportunities for St. Columba’s to share God’s grace.   That sounds like one opportunity for grace and generosity.  There will be many opportunities for you to stand with Julia in this ministry that she had discerned for this parish, and to help finish the work that she has started.

Kay and I have to leave St. Columba’s, but we have every faith that God will pour his grace out on this parish, and that it will flow generously from here to those around you who need it.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Military Picture of the Week

Today’s MilPic courtesy of Foreign Policy’s photos of the week feature.  The caption reads "German soldiers during NATO military exercises near Zagan, Poland, June 18.”  The beard is epic.  I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this man is a senior NCO, he certainly has the expression of one.


 Coincidentally, the New York Times ran a piece two days ago with photos of US, British and Lithuanian forces training together in the Baltics which was quite interesting.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

My Boss' Horrible Horrible Week


General Lawson

Retirement next month probably can’t come fast enough for my boss, the Chief of Defence Staff, General Tom Lawson.   In an interview with CBC News, Canada’s top soldier offered these thoughts on why sexual harassment and misconduct are an ongoing problem in the Canadian Armed Forces.  This was in response to the question, from CBC’s Peter Mansbridge, “It’s 2015.  Why is this still an issue."

"It would be a trite answer, but it's because we're biologically wired in a certain way and there will be those who believe it is a reasonable thing to press themselves and their desires on others. It's not the way it should be," he said.

"Much as we would very much like to be absolutely professional in everything we do, and I think by and large we are, there will be situations and have been situations where, largely, men will see themselves as able to press themselves onto our women members."

It’s an awkward 90 seconds of video, as you can see the General digging himself into a hole, and making it sound as if it “biological wiring”, as unprofessional as it may be, is a thing in the military. It was a particularly unfortunate comment, and it was roundly condemned.   Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper admitted that the remark was "offensive, inappropriate, completely unacceptable” and basically said he was glad Lawson was retiring soon.

Ann Kingston from Maclean’s Magazine asked the obvious question, which is, why did Australia’s top general get this issue right and the Canadian got it so wrong?

It was especially unfortunate because at the end of April, a report on sexual harassment in Canada’s military, “An External Review Into Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces”, conducted by a retired Supreme Court Justice, Marie Deschamps, was tabled.  The full report can be found here,   The report found that an environment “hostile to women and LGBTQ members” exists at certain levels of the CAF, and that “Comprehensive cultural change is required”.  Among Justice Deschamps’ ten recommendations was that the CAF create “an independent centre for accountability for sexual assault and harassment outside of the CAF with the responsibility for receiving reports of inappropriate sexual conduct, as well as prevention, coordination and monitoring of training, victim support, monitoring of accountability, and research, and to act as a central authority for the collection of data."

It is unfortunate that a distinguished military career should be capped with such a regrettable conclusion.  In previous comments, General Lawson sounds much more confident about what doing the right thing for the CAF means.   It may have been that the General was musing aloud on camera, though biological determinism shouldn’t have been something he pondered on national television. Some have suggested that the CDS was merely saying what too many people in the military really think.   He leaves some heavy lifting for his successor, the incoming CDS, an Army general, as well as for Major General Christine Whitecross, who will be the next Chief of Military Personnel and who will head the response team handling the Deschamps report.  An interview with Maj. Gen. Whitecross with CBC Radio, on 11 June, before Lawson’s comments blew up, suggests she takes the job seriously.  That interview can be heard here and it is encouraging.  

Friday, June 19, 2015

Friday Theology: From The Papal Encyclical On Creation, the Environment, and Stewardship

I have had a chance to skim the long-awaited papal letter from His Holiness, Francis, entitled “Laudato Si” (Praise to you, our Father), or “Care for our Common Home”.   The English text can be found here.  There is a useful overview of the encyclical’s message offered by the New York Times here.  

While some politicians have already pushed back and said that the Pope should mind his own business, there is a long tradition in Christian theology of reflection on creation as God’s gift to humanity and indeed as the medium through which we, as created beings ourselves, experience our relationship with God.  This emphasis is true of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant teaching.  For example, Karl Barth’s monumental systematic theology, Church Dogmatics, devotes an entire volume (3) to the subject of Creation.

There is much to admire here.  While a divine belief in creation is often supposed to be antithetical to scientific, empirical belief, Francis has much to say about the value of science.  What I appreciate most about Laudato Si is its emphasis on interconnectedness, of us to the earth, of we humans to one another, and of God’s presence in all of those relationships.  In this excerpt, the interconnectedness of the Trinity, of the persons of God, is held up as the model, and indeed the animating force, of creation.



238. The Father is the ultimate source of everything, the loving and self-communicating foundation of all that exists. The Son, his reflection, through whom all things were created, united himself to this earth when he was formed in the womb of Mary. The Spirit, infinite bond of love, is intimately present at the very heart of the universe, inspiring and bringing new pathways. The world was created by the three Persons acting as a single divine principle, but each one of them performed this common work in accordance with his own personal property. Consequently, “when we contemplate with wonder the universe in all its grandeur and beauty, we must praise the whole Trinity”.[169]


239. For Christians, believing in one God who is trinitarian communion suggests that the Trinity has left its mark on all creation. Saint Bonaventure went so far as to say that human beings, before sin, were able to see how each creature “testifies that God is three”. The reflection of the Trinity was there to be recognized in nature “when that book was open to man and our eyes had not yet become darkened”.[170] The Franciscan saint teaches us that each creature bears in itself a specifically Trinitarian structure, so real that it could be readily contemplated if only the human gaze were not so partial, dark and fragile. In this way, he points out to us the challenge of trying to read reality in a Trinitarian key. 


240. The divine Persons are subsistent relations, and the world, created according to the divine model, is a web of relationships. Creatures tend towards God, and in turn it is proper to every living being to tend towards other things, so that throughout the universe we can find any number of constant and secretly interwoven relationships.[171] This leads us not only to marvel at the manifold connections existing among creatures, but also to discover a key to our own fulfilment. The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures. In this way, they make their own that trinitarian dynamism which God imprinted in them when they were created. Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity.



Thursday, June 18, 2015

One Human Cost Of The Drone War

While amusing (at least, amusing i suppose to pilots) the caption of this image suggests that it can’t be that easy being an Air Force drone operator.   Besides the disrespect from pilots of manned aircraft, who are legendary for their egos (Air Force joke:  how can you tell if someone is a pilot?  They’ll tell you) even as they may be an endangered species, it turns out that there are psychological and even spiritual costs to operating unmanned aerial vehicles.   These issues have been explored in a recent film, “Good Kill”.  That film was reviewed fairly positively in the New Yorker last month, though Anthony Lane felt that its pursuit of its themes “depersonalized conflict, collateral damage, and modes of modern imperialism” was done in ways that “strain to insure that its meaning is as clear and as cloudless as the Nevada skies”.

Two days ago the New York Times published a story on how drone operators are subject to operational and post-traumatic stress, and how drone operations are being cut back because of high attrition rates among operators.  The article includes mention of how US Air Force chaplains are among a “human performance team” of mental health professionals who have high level security clearances in order to meet with any operators in the facility at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada “if they are troubled”.  That would make for some heavy pastoral lifting, to be sure, and hopefully the chaplains are doing more than just encouraging people to get back in their seats and fly another mission.  

I said in my title that drone pilots and operators are “One Human Cost of the Drone War” but of course there are other costs.   A 2014 installation in the fields of Pakistan aimed to show US drone operators the face of a child orphaned by a drone strike.  In November of 2014, Steve Coll wrote a memorable piece for the New Yorker on what it is like to live in a region where drones operate regularly.  Since at least 2011 various third parties, including the Columbia University Law School. have been calling for disclosure of civilians, primarily in Pakistan but more recently in countries like Yemen, who have been killed in drone strikes.  Earlier this month the NYT reported on how some US lawyers are seeking to get a US government apology for two Yemeni men killed by mistake in a drone strike in 2012.   The relatives of the two men were apparently offered a bag of cash, sequentially numbered US currency, but to date the only US apology issued for an accidental death from a drone was issued to the families of two Western hostages.  In November of 2014, the Guardian reported that civilian deaths in US drone strokes numbered over 1100.

None of the above comments are meant to demonize US drone operators.   The NYT piece reminds us that there are human costs on both sides.  Drone operators have high-definition video images to show the effects of their strikes on buildings, vehicles, and people.   It’s impossible to imagine that these images do not have the power to haunt and trouble these operators.   As media pundits debate the wisdom of putting “boots on the ground” and sending soldiers back into places like Iraq, it should be remembered that the West has been very comfortable, even complacent, in conducting a remote control war for years now, targeting the so-called high value targets (HVTs) that emerge, one terrorist leader replacing the other.  The Israelis call this approach “mowing the grass”.   In this ongoing hunt for HVTs, a certain degree of “collateral damage”, meaning deaths of civilians either caught in the blasts or targeted mistakenly, is tolerated.  Should we as citizens accept this process when it seems that increasing numbers of men and women operating the drones can no longer accept it?

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Transgender Soldiers in the Military


I found this short documentary from the New York Times, “Transgender, at war and in love”,  to be both disorienting and inspiring.   

Disorienting, because the young man seen speaking in the first minutes of the video, strong, muscled, tattooed and moustached, was born female and his fiancee, seen later in the film, is also transgender, born male.    Within the video he speaks about the liberating effect of being deployed in Afghanistan, where he is judged solely on his ability and competence, and the uncertain future that might await him back once he returns to the States where the military might still treat him administratively as female and even discharge him.

It’s also inspiring because of the hopefulness of this young couple, and their insistence that they are as deserving of love and happiness as anyone else.

In the wake of the Caitlyn Jenner unveiling on the internet, I found the quiet and gritty ordinariness of this story to be refreshing and honest.

In a separate article in the New York Times, it’s estimated that there are some 15,500 transgender people serving in the US military.   Since “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been repealed, gay men and women may serve openly in the US military, but for transgender troops their future is still uncertain.  The Canadian Armed Forces allows transgendered troops to serve, and supports gender reassignment therapy for serving personnel.  I don’t have any idea how many transgender personnel are in the CAF, but according to this CBC article, it’s likely minuscule by comparison to the US.

As the father of a transgender child, I also find myself sympathizing with the father in this documentary, who trips over the gender of his daughter/son.  I do that as well.

In an age where identity seems increasingly plastic and aspirational, and where theologians and clergy are struggling to reconcile doctrine with their discernment of what God may be doing in the moment, I have no clear thoughts on this subject.  I do know that anyone who wears the same uniform as I do, takes the same oath, and serves with honour and integrity, is a comrade and battle buddy of mine.  As a chaplain, I’m bound to serve them as needed, and should do so gladly.  That seems a good place to leave it for now.  So good luck and blessings to you and your bride, Airman Logan.  



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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