Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Nativity Pageant: A Sermon For The Third Sunday of Avent

A shorter sermon for this Sunday. MP

Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, ON, Sunday, 17 December, 2017

Truly there is nothing quite so wonderful and so real in the life of the church as a Christmas pageant.   Those children shuffling about in bathrobes and towels, pretending to be shepherds and angels and Joseph and Mary - we know them, they are our children, our grandchildren, and we watch them with pride and, perhaps, a little suspense as we hope nothing goes wrong.  (And goodness, so much can go wrong!  Some time I’ll tell you about my disastrous idea of giving the wise men a bag of chocolate coins to be the gold).  

 We are warmed by the innocence of this children, and some of us, perhaps, feel saddened at memories of children we know, now grown, who once played shepherd and Mary and angel and who are now missing from the life of the church.  Or maybe we are saddened by the passage of time, by our own lost innocence, or uncertainty about whether the message of this little play can compete with what Christmas has become out there in the world.  

So for me, at least, this mix of innocence and lost innocence is why I feel a mix of emotions when watching a children’s Christmas pageant.   its the same jumble of feelings I get from listening (and I do, many times each Christmas) to the famous jazz soundtrack to the Charlie Brown Christmas, composed way back in 1965 by Vince Guaraldi.  The untrained children’s voices singing “Christmas Time is Here”, or“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” are full of simplicity and innocence, while the slow minor chords of the jazz piano add a layer of sadness and speak of lost innocence.

This year I got to wondering, why do we as church ask our children to act out the Christmas story for us?  What is it about this particular story that makes us turn it into a children’s event.  Perhaps it is the raw bones of the story, wondrous and simple, which seem to come out of children’s literature - a barn, animals, a magical star, a family with mommy, daddy and baby, mysterious visitors and kings no less!   You couldn’t do better than that for a bedtime story, really.  

But at the same time there is real substance and power in this story.  Gabriel setting aside the fear and shame of Mary at her pregnancy, the angels telling the shepherds not to be afraid of God, the startling and awe-inspiring fact of just who it is lying in that manger - all this is the essence of our theology, the heart of our church’s message.   St John in his gospel puts this message into abstract terms - “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14), but the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke put it in real, concrete terms that any of us can understand.  Somehow, that’s the living God in that manger, Emmanuel, God with us, the Word made Flesh with little fingers and toes and we aren’t alone and we don’t have to be afraid of anything.   

That’s a story so simple that children can tell it.  It’s a story with God at its very centre, a story with so much power that perhaps only children can really tell it.   Perhaps this is true of all the church’s proclamation.   The American writer Annie Dillard once wrote that the liturgy of the church is like children playing with a chemistry set, trying to make TNT.  Her point was that we scarcely imagine the power of the one whose name we invoke in our worship.  Every Sunday we are like children, trying in our eucharist to imagine the heavenly feast, playing in our fellowship at the communion of the saints who are before the heavenly throne.  These children who have just told the Christmas story are us, Sunday by Sunday, and how true and honest our worship would our worship be if we approached it with the wonder and innocence of children?

These stories that we tell, Sunday by Sunday, Christmas after Christmas, are not make believe or children’s stories, though same out there might think so.   Like children trying on their parents clothes and makeup, we know that we are imitating something real, that we are on the edge of a reality that we aspire to grow into.   In the meantime, the church’s role in this dark and preoccupied world is like Linus at the end of a Charlie Brown Christmas, stepping into the spotlight, and in his lisping, child’s voice telling the nativity story in the words of St. Luke’s gospel, a story that begins with shepherds abiding in the field, and the angel of the Lord telling them to fear not, for a saviour is born to them.  Those shepherds are us, our friends and neighbours, preoccupied, afraid, and called to salvation by a story so wonderful that perhaps only a child can truly tell it.


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A Eulogy For My Wife




Kay Leslie Brown

6 July, 1952 - 25 November, 2017

Funeral Eulogy

St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, ON, 3 December, 2017

Bishop Shaw, dear colleagues, friends, fellow parishioners, on behalf of my family and Kay’s family, I thank you all for joining us today to pray for and to remember an extraordinary person and faithful Christian, Kay Leslie Brown.   Kay received so many acts of kindness and compassion from so many of you during her long illness that any words of gratitude I could offer would be wholly inadequate.


Kay was always tickled that when we were married, three priests and a postulant, so, for you non-Anglicans,  three and a half priests, officiated at our wedding.  I think we have that number beaten today, as there must be a small platoon of clergy and chaplains present.  Kay would enjoy that fact.


As I wrote this eulogy, I was mindful that Kay would probably not have had much interest in what I said about her, because she would never have wanted to be the focus of this event.   Kay designed this funeral, chose the readings and the hymns, so that it would be about her God.


For Kay, the words of the liturgy, the proclamation of the word, and the faithful preaching of the gospel were what mattered.  That was the exacting standard that she held my own sermons up to.  If I saw her frowning face in the congregation, I knew I wasn’t doing well.  Sometimes, in the car on the way home, she’d say “You did OK.” When it came to preaching, she was my fiercest and best critic.


In that respect, Kay always reminded me of the figure of John the Baptist, as painted in the Isenheim Altarpiece in the 1500s by Matthias Gunewald.  John is depicted off to the side, pointing to the figure of Christ on the cross.   The theologian Karl Barth loved this painting.  I know that Kay would be rolling her eyes at my working a theologian into her eulogy, but darling, you always knew that I was a geek.   


Barth said that the church must always be like John in that painting, not calling attention to itself, but rather directing attention to the cross and to Christ’s work there in defeating our enemy of sin and death.   That was Kay, like John the Baptist, always pointing to the cross.  Anytime she spoke up in the life of the church, you could be sure that would be asking, often impatiently, where was God in all our human activity.


However, darling, I am not here as a priest or a preacher.   I am here to talk about you and about what a privilege it was to be your husband.   So bear with me.  I’ll speak about you briefly, and then get out of the way of the church’s true business, as you would want.  


Kay fought a two front war with cancer and diabetes, and in the last year of that struggle she wrote a bible study on how our faith helps us to deal with pain and suffering.   She spoke on that subject with great authority.   People often told me how they were in awe of Kay’s calm, even serene, composure.  As she liked to say, God gave her “the peace which passes all understanding”.  

Despite four significant surgeries in three years, and long hospitalizations, Kay was gracious and kind with others.   As her body slowly failed her, she never gave in to self-pity or despair.   I saw her comfort other patients, nurses, and even embrace the young doctor who burst into tears as she told Kay that she had reached the end of what medicine could do for her and that she would soon die.  A priest friend of mine told me that he went to the hospital to bless Kay, and he came away blessed.  So while I regret that Kay never got to lead that bible study on living with pain and suffering, a friend pointed out to me the other day that, in a very real way, she did teach that lesson, just by the way she lived and died.


Kay would have been the first to tell you that her peacefulness and calm did not come from within, but rather were spiritual gifts.   Kay was not a saint, and she was not always a person of faith.   In her youth, she liked to say that she was, in her words, “a flaming atheist”.   In her passion for research and for the scientific method, Kay convinced herself that she had to jettison her faith, but God had other plans.  In the twenty years I was at her side, I saw Kay struggle with God’s call.  I think God had the upper hand in that struggle, because God simply reminded Kay of who she was and of who she had always been.


Kay was always a person attuned to God’s justice and grace.  Growing up in the southern United States in the 1950s and 60s, Kay saw things that would stay with her all her life.  She often told me how, as a girl, she didn’t understand why there were separate water fountains for coloured people.   At the same time she saw her father, a devoted civil servant, give the same care to black clients as he did to white ones.   Martin Luther King was one of her early and lifelong heroes.  Kay always believed that the moral arc of the universe bent towards the good, even if she stopped believing, for a while, that the moral arc came from and led back to God.  


Despite being a profound introvert at times, she attracted the misfits and the hurting, who sensed her compassion and patience.  Kay had deep reserves of empathy and kindness.   Even while she was still a self-proclaimed “flaming atheist”, she paid the tuition of a friend so she could go to seminary.    She gave freely because she had a big heart, an innate sense of decency, and an ability to see the other’s point of view.


What led Kay back to God is a long story.   I think partly it was circumstances, the people and places that God led us to, and I think it was also the frustration of her hopes to make a career in science and academia.   Kay had dreamed of winning a Nobel prize, and her academic career ended in frustration, partly due to bad luck and partly due to Kay’s struggles with mental illness.  I was attracted to Kay because of her warmth, humour, and creativity, but I soon realized that these moments came at a cost.  She had violent swings into depression and despair, and her darkest period was when she had to walk away from the university environment that she had built her identity on.


I don’t doubt for a second that it was God who led Kay out of that dark valley.  It took years for us to build a new life together.   Her career was ending as mine was taking off and that was a source of tension as well.   We learned the hard way how to build a marriage based on mutual respect, careful listening, giving and taking.  Early on I mostly took, and Kay gave, a lot.  She found satisfaction in building elaborate and beautiful gardens, in which she combined a scientific method with the flair and soul of an artist, and then she had to walk away from them, repeatedly.   Becoming a military spouse, at an age when most people are looking forward to settling down and staying in one place, meant that she had to move, frequently, and that got harder and harder on her.   Soldiers get the medals, but really the medals should go to spouses like Kay, who gave so much to advance my career.


I think the last ten years of her life were probably the best.  Kay found the right psychiatrist and the right medication, and the black clouds of her depression mostly lifted and vanished.   She made friends, and opened her house to others - wandering chaplains, military people far from home, strays and misfits - all were welcome at her table.  Kay thrived in a series of churches - St. Barnabas in Medicine Hat, St. Columba’s in Waterloo, and, of course, here.  I have no doubt that Kay could have made significant contributions to the life of St. Margaret’s and St. Giles in the years to come, had it pleased God to leave her with us.  I also have no doubt that God completed his work in Kay, by bringing her to a good place in these years.  Kay’s deep and integral goodness, her joyfulness and compassion for others, her plain speaking and prophetic voice, all these things came through strongly.  Kay was no longer a flaming atheist, she was simply flaming, a bright beacon of God’s power to bind up and restore.


I will always be profoundly grateful for the privilege of being Kay’s husband.  In my mind’s eye I will always see her as she was, her strong and capable hands weeding a garden or paddling a stream, her mouth quirked in wonder or humour, her eyes wide and seeing the beauty of the world and the people around her.   In her last years, as she grew increasingly sick and frail, Kay would talk about the resurrection body that God would give her.   She hoped that when she got to heaven, that God would give her some challenging scientific assignment, like designing a new plant species, or managing a supernova.   No sitting around playing the harp for Kay! I have no doubt that one day we will look on Kay again, in whatever form God pleases to give her, and that she will burn as bright and fierce and glorious as any star in heaven.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Book Review, Bomber Country: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot's War by Daniel Swift

I bought and read this book, then reviewed it, thinking i was a new publication.   2010 isn’t exactly new, but it’s a terrific book and well worth your time.  MP+


Daniel Swift, Bomber Country: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot's War.  New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2010.

“The beach where the body washed up is wide and white, with cafes raised on stilts and couples drinking beer in the sand.  There are windsurfers; children smacking the waves.  He came to land in the middle of a summer holiday, and the mismatch is startling after the calm of the cemeteries where my father and I have spent the day.”

Bomber Country is a difficult book to classify: part genealogy, part elegy, part literary criticism.  The body is that of a Royal Air Force pilot, whose Lancaster crashed in the North Sea in June of 1943, on its way home from raiding Munster in Germany’s Rhur Valley.   In a cemetery near the Dutch town of Bergen Op Zoom is the grave of Squadron Leader James Eric Swift, the author’s grandfather.  He is buried with other bomber crew, whose bodies were recovered from the sea or found on the beach.  Was his grandfather that pilot, washed up on the Dutch coast in June, as family memory would have it?  

As Swift and his father stroll through the cemetery, they note the short verses and couplets, some profound, others homespun, on some of the gravestones.  For Swift, clearly immersed himself in poetry, he thinks of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who wrote of the dead that “The shall have stars at elbow and foot … Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again”.   Thomas spent the war years in Wales and London, saw the effects of German air raids, and who memorialized those killed by bombing, the young girl and the old man, “dropped where he loved on the burst pavement stone / And the funeral grains on the slaughtered floor”. 

Three connections – a dead airman, verses in a cemetery, a poet in an air raid – lead us into the heart of Swift’s book, which examines the prominence of the air war in the English language poetry of World War Two.   To establish this connection, Swift fist has to remind us that the war produced poetry of any note.  He briefly takes on the idea that everything about modern war was said, better and more prettily, by the soldier poets of the First World War, like Wilfrid Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.   The poetry of the Second World War is far less canonized,  in part, Swift argues, because of opinions like those of the late Paul Fussell, long the dean of war literature, who wrote that the conflict of 1939-45 was “a savage, insensate affair, barely conceivable to the well-conducted imagination” (15).       Swift also argues that the soldier poets of the trenches created the idea that poetry was about war on land, when in fact Owen imagined himself as a pilot in “battle with the Super-Zeppelin … this would be chivalry more than Arthur dreamed of” (26).

In fact, argues Swift, the war in the air captured many imaginations.  For those on the ground, like Day Lews, it was the fear of being air raids, as “searchlights set the low cloud smoking” and fear in “a terrified heart, / under the bomb-strokes” (30-31).   For the aircrew whose verses are collected in the wartime volume Air Force Poetry (1944), their war combined the exhilaration of flight “Along the pillared streets of cloud” with a clear-eyed awareness of their mortality, for no wartime trade in the Allied militaries suffered great casualties than the combat aircrew: “they’ll die … / More swiftly, cleanly, star-defined, than you will ever feel”.   Among these young and doomed poets, Swift also finds a brutal honesty about what bomber crews are called to do:


            The moon in the star-laden sky

           becomes a thin smile, as the hand moves

          the bomb-release, and others, compacted

         of bone and blood the same even, die below.


These lines remind us that the air war was largely about dropping bombs on people, mostly civilian, more or less indiscriminately.   While the Germans started this war (the Blitz in the poetic imagination takes up a large part of Swift’s early chapters), the Allies finished it, decisively and terribly.  The lasting ambivalence about the bombing campaign may also explain our preference for the Great War poets of the trenches, who like all soldiers of that war were more victim than killer.   Despite the fact that the aircrew also died in their tens of thousands, the poetry of their war is far more morally ambivalent than the outraged verse of Owen or Sassoon.

 In search of this war, Swift goes to Bomber Country.   The name refers to the part of England, from the Midlands to East Anglia, where the Royal Air Force and the US Army Air Force concentrated its many airbases to strike targets throughout NW Europe and beyond.  Today one can buy local guidebooks to Bomber Country and its abandoned airfields.   For Swift, Bomber Country is also the past, the home of a man he never knew and who his father barely knew.   Using diaries and memoirs, he reconstructs the life his father knew, from the monotony of training to busy bases and constant raids.   Bomber Country is also a literary place, whose poets, like Randall Jarrell, help Swift imagine his grandfather’s life:

             And the crews climb to them clumsily as bears.

            The head withdraws into its hatch (a boys),

            The engines rise to their blind laboring roar,

            And the green, made beasts run home to air.

The poets’ realism about their survival prospects also helps Swift understand the studied banality of his grandfather’s letters home, about life in camp and a local “fish & chip shop that does quite a decent egg & chips”.   In the poetry of John Ciardi, an American bomber crewman, he finds the sentiments that were probably unsaid in his grandfather’s homey letters.

            Darling, darling, just in case

            Rivets fall or engines burn,

            I forget the time and place

            But your flesh was sweet to learn

 Finally, Bomber Country is also a metaphor for the bomber’s targets.  It is the bombed city, be it English or German, and the poetry that imagines destruction and survival.  Thus, T.S. Eliot’s lines from “Little Gidding” about a bombed house, “the place where a story ended”, informs Swift’s visit to Munster, which his grandfather bombed, and where Swift meets survivors of these raids.   He meets an old clergyman who served in a flak battery until the raids became too overwhelming to defend against, and who passed the raids reading Dante’s Divine Comedy.    Swift thinks of the souls Dante describes in the burning desert

            And over all that sand on which they lay

            or crouched or roamed, great flaks of flame fell slowly

            as snow falls in the Alps on a windless day.

 Bomber Country is ultimately an unknowable place, what Hamlet called “that undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns”.   His grandfather exists in photos, in letters, and in a file in a Dutch archive with a German document from 17 June, 1943, recording the burial, “with military honours”, of an unknown airman washed ashore, whose shirt was labelled “J.E. Swift”.  This airman who fell to earth becomes an almost mythological figure, like Icarus, and in a final mediation, the grandson imagines another poet who wrote of Icarus, W.H. Auden, who toured Bomber Country as part of the US Strategic Bombing Survey, just after the war’s end.  In desolate Munich, “the abolished City”, Auden locates Munich in a poetic landscape of ruined towns going back to Troy and beyond. 

            This is the way things happen; for ever and ever

            Plum-blossom falls on the dead, the road of the waterfall covers

            The cries of the whipped and the sighs of the lovers

            And the hard bright light composes

            A meaningless moment into an eternal fact.

 At the end of his journey, Swift comes to recognize that his search through Bomber Country was to participate in this process, by which “the meaningless moment” becomes “the eternal fact”. 

Bomber Country is a remarkable and haunting book.   As a connection of history, art and memory, it is in the tradition of Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), but pitched in a more intimate key.  Parts genealogy and family history read through the literary lens of the stages of the hero’s quest, Swift’s journey touches on the historic past, in so far as we can know it, while acknowledging our desire to mythologize the past.   Swift is a sensitive literary critic and cultural historian, and a skilled stylist in his own right.   If I have any uncertainties about this book, it is only whether I should put it on my history shelf or my literary shelf.


Friday, September 29, 2017

Book Review: The Vimy Trap (2016) by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift

Hello!  I am trying to get this blog back into service as part of my ongoing professional military development.  This is a book review that I submitted to the Canadian Military Journal this week.  The authors' left-wing perspective will be quite foreign to most members of the Canadian Armed Forces, but hearing a different voice is often a valuable experience.  MP

The Vimy Trap: Or, How We Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Great War
By Ian McKay and Jamie Swift. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016. 372 pages,  $22.93.

The Vimy Trap is an extended critique of the place of the 1917 battle of Vmy Ridge in Canadian identity.  McKay, an academic, and Swift, a journalist, have spent their careers examining Canadian history and institutions from a left-wing perspective.  As their book’s title snarky title suggests, they reject the idea that Vimy was a foundational moment when a true Canadian identity and nation were born.   This provocative book is intended for a general audience, and is clearly intended to challenge a history that we have gotten very comfortable with.   

 McKay and Swift are at their best when describing the process by which Vimy Ridge became an iconic battle for Canada.  While tactically successful, Vimy Ridge did not have a strategic result.  In fact, Vimy was the sole bright spot in the failed Anglo-French Arras offensive of April 1917.   Other Canadian actions, such as the Hundred Days in 1918, had far more effect on the outcome of the war.    However, Vimy was the first time that the Canadian Corps had fought together, (albeit with significant British support), a point of pride to Canadians who took part in the fighting. 

 Immediately after the war there was disagreement as to whether Vimy should be selected over other Canadian battlefields (Hill 62 in the Ypres Salient was a candidate) to be the site of a national memorial.   By 1922 Vimy had been selected, in part because the scenic view, and the contract for the design of a monument was awarded to Walter Allward,  The driving force for the Vimy memorial came from William Mackenzie King, who first became Prime Minister in 1921.  As McKay and Swift note, King was a pacifist, and saw the Vimy monument as a way to condemn the “futility of war” while acknowledging the coming together of all Canadians in a great common cause.  Allward, the designer, wanted the Vimy monument to be a “sermon against the futility of war”.

McKay and Swift’s main thesis is that this ideal of a monument to peace was hijacked by a militaristic, nationalistic view of Canadian history that ignored the horrors of World War One.   The authors describe this view as “Vimyism”, meaning a glorification and simplification of war, a desire to see Canada as always being on the side of right, and to see the battle of Vimy Ridge as the birth of a nation that was in fact far from unified.  This idea of “Vimyism”, which becomes a long screed against militarism, is where McKay and Swift overplay their hand while pointing at some important truths.

 McKay and Swift are right to remind us that Canada had no common or romanticised understanding of war in the decades after 1918.   There was a sizeable peace movement, fueled by trade unions, unemployment, social issues, pacifist clergy, and antiwar soldier writers such as Charles Yale Harrison, whose novel Generals Die In Bed (1928) is often hailed as the Canadian version of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.   However, in the late 1930s Canadian pacifism largely gave way to a grudging belief that a war against Nazi Germany was necessary.   “Vimyism”, claim the authors, developed in the last fifty years as a whitewashed version of Canada’s military history, so that Vimy is portrayed by everyone from Pierre Berton to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a glorification of Canada’s military history and a celebration of a common Canadian resolve to fight tyranny and win.

 In a rambling second half, the authors argue that for Vimyism to succeed as the myth of Canada’s birth in fire, much has to be forgotten, from the horrors of war as described by Harrison, to French Canada’s alienation from the war, the segregation of black Canadian soldiers in construction units, and the poor treatment of indigenous soldiers who did not receive proper pensions.  Vimyism for Swift and McKay also means forgetting the injustice of shooting of twenty-two Canadian soldiers, many of them young and psychologically wounded, for cowardice.   From the sales of war toys in the gift shop of the Canadian War Museum to Vimy tours for schoolchildren, the authors cast a wide net in looking for evidence of Vimyism as a false but “uplifting and sacred story of [Canadian] origins” that betrays the true horror of war.  To prosecute their case, McKay and Swift often use “what about” arguments, like supposedly noble Canadian soldiers executing prisoners or employing poison gas, or snide dismissals such as the comment that military intelligence and martial music are contradictions in terms.  All of these arguments are intended to expose Vimyism as a lie, though one can ask whether it’s fair to judge the Canada of 1917 by today’s standards.

Members of Joint Task Force Nijmigen participate in a short commemorative ceremony at the Vimy War Memorial at Vimy Ridge on July 15, 2017, prior to the 101st International Four Day Marches Nijmegen,  in the Netherlands, 18-21 July, 2017.  Photo MCpl Charles A. Stephen, CAF

It’s hard to imagine any members of the Canadian Armed Force embracing The Vimy Trap, though I suspect that this would not bother McKay and Swift, who seem to see militaries as part of the problem.  Contrary to McKay and Swift, it is possible to see Vimy in a way that is free of myth and romanticism while still recognizing it as an important battle.   Indeed that was how its participants saw it.  Sergeant Percy Wilmot of NS, who died of wounds after the battle, wrote that “Canada may well be proud of [our] achievement”.[i]  

One of the monuments placed at Vimy after the battle by members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.   Canadian War Museum.

 The Vimy Trap is nevertheless useful as an opportunity to reflect on how the CAF uses military history to perpetuate its values.   Young NCMs are frequently taken on tours of Vimy Ridge and other First World War battlefields.   In my experience, when our members see cemeteries full of Canadians as young or even younger than themselves, they are not moved to militaristic zeal.  In fact, quite the reverse.   Older members with combat experience immediately connect the war dead with their own friends and comrades lost or wounded in Afghanistan.   Militarism for the CAF is not the problem.     Perhaps for our leadership, the challenge is to use places like Vimy Ridge honestly, as historical moments, stripped of myth and full of pain and horror, yet still capable of teaching the military ethos of courage, self-sacrifice, tactical skill, and aggressiveness.

[i] Tim Cook, Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1917-18 (Toronto: Viking, 2008), 147.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Whose Life Is It Anyway? A Sermon For the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Preached Sunday, 17 September, 2017, St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, ON, Anglican Diocese of Toronto

Lections for this Sunday: Exodus 14:19-31;   Psalm 103: 8-13; Romans 14: 1-12; Matthew 18: 21-35

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. (Romans 14: 7-8)



Who do our lives belong to?   Or, for that matter, who do our deaths belong to?   In the western secular world, over the last three or so centuries, a general consensus has been that our lives belong to ourselves.   Our desire for personal freedom and autonomy, our desire to chose our paths in life, has led us to believe very strongly in human freedom.   For example, we commonly tell young children, particularly girls, that they can grow up to be whatever they want to be This is at it should be.  I think we would all agree that we want to live in a world where children can become astronauts or nurses, pilots or politicians, stay at home programmers and parents, regardless of their colour, gender, or religion.


At the same time, these expectations lead us to believe that we are belong to ourselves, that we are, each of us, our own projects.   As the poem Invictus puts it, we want to be the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls.   We want to be self-reliant, to decide who, if anyone, we are responsible for.  Wealth and health are important because they allow us to seek this independence.  Some Christian preachers bless this mindset by preaching a prosperity gospel that promises wealth and freedom to those that God wants to bless.

Even in death, we seek to be self-reliant.  Some even dream of immortality, as some technology billionaires do who invest in projects to conquer the process of aging, or failing that to upload their minds into computers.  Lacking such resources, must of us prefer a peaceful oblivion.  The theologian Stanley Hauerwas likes to say that given the choice, most people would prefer to die peacefully, in their sleep, so that we don’t know that we’re dying.  If we can ignore death, then we can ignore our finitude, thus avoid the hard limits of our autonomy.


The church that Paul was writing to in Rome would have had a very different understanding of what the human life was all about.   The idea of being the master of one’s self would have been largely foreign to them.   Many would have been poor, and some would have been servants or even slaves of others.  So, when Paul speaks earlier in Romans 14 about the dangers of being judgemental, he writes “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?  It is before their own lord that they will stand or fall” (Rom 14:4-6).  Paul is this writing to a congregation who know that their lives are not their own, who live in an intricate and oppressive social web of class and hierarchy.  


One of the things which made the gospel so revolutionary, and so attractive, for these Christians, was that it exploded the categories of freedom and put all believers on the same level as men and women who were given freedom and equality by Christ.  This, in the next breath, Paul writes that all believers, even servants and slaves, will be given their freedom through the gospel:  “they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand” (Rom 14: 4).  This idea of equality through faith is I think why Paul is so passionate, here in Romans and elsewhere in his letters, about why believers should tolerate and allow differences in religious practice between themselves.  Some might keep Jewish holy days and practices, others as gentiles might eat food that was offensive to others.   Paul didn’t want the Roman believers to fall into divisions and camps based on these old beliefs, because he saw them as all being equal to one another through Christ, who lived and died for all.  


This extravagant love of God in Christ, given for all regardless of class or wealth or even the number of sins committed, creates a new relationship between God and humanity.   Instead of belonging to other people, the Romans belong to God in Christ, giving them a dignity and a freedom that they have never known before.  This new relationship shapes the community of the church.  This is why, as Father Simon preached last week, forgiveness and reconciliation in the church is as important as it is necessary.   God who forgives us and reconciles with us, despite all that we have done and not done, creates a spirit or a culture which becomes the culture of the church and God’s gift to the church.   So Paul today, when he tells us in Romans not to judge one another, for that judgement is God’s work alone, and only through God’s love and grace in Christ will we be able to stand before that judgement.


We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.


So in life, so in death.  Paul tells the Romans that they belong to God in life, and after life.   For the believers of Paul’s day, whose lives on average were much shorter than our own, and who knew nothing of our modern medicine, I am sure that this verse was greatly reassuring.   And yet, in the dark moments of our own health crises, sorrow, and grieving, are these words not just as reassuring to us?  For this reason, the church has, since its beginning, advocated the idea of the good death, a time when we prepare for our end, seek absolution of our sins, and, as Christ did, hand ourselves over into the keeping of God in trust and submission to his power and his love.


As most of you know, for the past few years, my wife Kay has lived with advanced cancer and with all its various indignities.  Since we’ve come to join this yparish, Kay has lived through several life-threatening complications, and is currently in hospital facing new challenges.   She is not alone in this, others among you have faced or are facing situations that are just as severe.   And some of us grieve, for grief is seldom stale, but always close to the surface.  What gives Kay and (sometimes, me) much of our strength is that we know two things. 


First, we experience God’s love through the pastoral care, love, and support of this parish, including from members whose care for Kay has been selfless and generous.   This generosity was remarkable and we are grateful for it, but it is not just the generosity of one or two extraordinary people.  Rather, it is the generosity of spirit that comes from the church as a community that knows it exists because of the love of Christ, and so that it might continue its relationship of love for Christ and through Christ to one another

Second, we know that in life, and in death, we are the Lord’s.  We will always be the Lords.  We know that whatever may happen to our frail and fickle bodies, wherever we will go after our death, we will be held in God’s hands, safe in the mind and love of God, until it pleases God to raise us on the day of resurrection.


This Thursday, as I hope to kick off the theology on tap project, I chose as our opening question, What is the Point of Being Christian?   I think it’s a good starting point, even if it makes it sound like being Christian is a lifestyle choice that we make, like choosing to do yoga or follow a certain kind of diet.   What if, instead of a choice that we made, being Christian was simply being aware of our belonging to God?  Can we live in a way that doesn’t jealously guard our autonomy, in a way that is open to the fact that we belong to God, in life, and in death, and that through that belonging we find our true fulfillment and happiness?


Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Better Burden: A Sermon For The Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

The Better Burden:  A Sermon Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario (Diocese of Toronto), 9 July 2017

Readings for the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost, Genesis 24:34-38,42-49,58-67; Psalm 45:10-17; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

28 "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."


If you are an Anglican of a certain vintage, you will recall that in the Service of Holy Communion according to the Book of Common Prayer, there were four quotations from scripture that were collectively referred to as the Comfortable Words.  One of them is taken from today’s gospel reading from Matthew 11.


Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. St. Matthew 11.28


Taken together, the four quotations of the Comfortable Words functioned as an assurance of salvation.  They assured the would-be communicant that he or she would be welcome at the table of a loving and gracious God who had forgiven our sins.  In a very real sense, these words reminded us that there were no barriers between us and God.  They were comfortable in the sense that they eased the troubled and guilty soul and allowed us to relax into God’s love.


My Anglican upbringing probably explains how I reacted once to a certain question.  When I was responsible for the chapel of a small military base out West, I got a call from the Base Maintenance office to say that I they wanted to replace the old sign on the front lawn with a new one.  “What do you want on your sign, Padre?’, they asked me.


I thought long and hard about what sort of sign might attract the many young soldiers passing through the base, many tired and stressed after long wargames out on the prairie.   I remembered listening to the Comfortable Words as a child and I decided on Matthew 11:28:   "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  That verse beautifully captured the sense of welcome and peacefulness that I wanted the chapel to offer to its visitors.


It may not surprise you to learn that the following verses, 11:29-30, did NOT make it onto my sign.   For one thing, there wasn’t enough room, but even if there had been room, I wanted to avoid the two mentions of “yoke” and the word “burden”.  Neither word seemed to offer the right sort of invitation to someone who’s been sweating for weeks at a time under a heavy pack and helmet.   


Even for us civilians, unburdened by helmets and rucksacks, there is a paradox in these words of Jesus.  How can a yoke be easy?  How can a burden be light?   And beyond the paradox lies a thought which our contemporary mindset finds deeply unattractive.  When the idea of the good life, to quote the old Eagles song, is to be “running down the road, trying to loosen my load”, who really wants to be yoked or burdened?  


Well, I suppose it depends what we are yoked to and burdened with, and what we think freedom really is.   While Jesus’ invitation to become his disciple may use the uncomfortable language of the yoke/burden, the larger context of Matthew 11 makes it clear that this is a pretty good deal he is offering.   Earlier in Matthew chapter 11, we learn that John the Baptist, who is in Herod’s prison, has sent a message asking Jesus if he is the savior that the people have been waiting for.  


2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 4Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’     


If we hear all of Matthew 11, then, Jesus is offering good things: healing, wholeness, restoration, resurrection.   It is all we would expect of the Messiah and Saviour and then some.  So why the language about yokes and burdens?


I think that today’s second reading from Romans helps us to understand the gospel better, because when Paul writes about sin, he is talking about something which looks like freedom but which is actually a yoke and a heavy burden.  Paul’s theology, because it depends on terms like “the flesh” and “the body”, is often taken to mean that he hates the physical human body, which in contemporary society is celebrated as the source of beauty, sex and power.   In fact, as U understand it, Paul what Paul means when he says “the body” is in fact the whole human condition, which consistently brings us up short of our ideals.


For Paul, even when we know what God wants of us (“the law”), we fall short because of our imperfect human nature.   For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Romans 7:23)  


Sin for Paul includes all the things – our impulses, temptations, thoughtless and weak moments – that cause us to fall short of the good life that God calls us to.   Often we mistake sin for something that seems like freedom, and learn the difference too late.  A fun trip to the casino might lead to poverty, sexual fantasy might lead to adultery and broken relationships, while a seemingly harmless racial stereotype or joke can lead to hatred and bigotry.   Sin can be anything that seems to promise escape, fun, and freedom, but which can lead to captivity and constraint.  Our popular culture and advertising offers endless examples, from wealth to sex to beauty.


When Jesus calls us to follow him, he offers us true freedom but it is the freedom of discipline and the ability to say no to false freedoms and bad choices.  David Lose notes that “We don't (the like (the word no) because it is, well, just plain negative. Even more, it stands in our way, negating our immediate desires and wishes, withholding something from us that we want.”  Saying no to ourselves or to those we love and care for may be difficult because it negates an impulse or desire that might seem like a good idea at the time.


Lose also notes that the church needs to work hard to recover an idea of discipleship that actually connects our faith lives to our real lives.   Putting on the yoke of Jesus means that there we give God a say in what we do with our bodies, about the kinds of words that come out of our mouths ad keyboards, how we spend our money, and all the myriad choices that we make in a typical day.   This a huge idea that needs far more time and attention that I can devote to it at the end of a summer sermon, but it is a something that always needs to be foremost in our minds as we think about what it means to be followers of Jesus.


If we read Matthew 11:28-30 again, we notice that Jesus speaks to those who already are carrying heavy burdens, to “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens”.  I think of several images from films where this mage is acted out in spiritual terms.  I think of Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol, shacked to the cashboxes that he chose over his fellow humans as his life’s concern, or the conquistador in The Mission who punishes himself for a murder he committed by dragging his heavy, rusting armour everywhere he goes.   I think of the things I can’t let go of, and wonder what other invisible burdens the people around me are carrying.   I think of Jesus, waiting to set us all free of these burdens, and calling us instead into a life of true freedom, and I see that as the true message and goal of the church, to bring the burdened to Christ so they can find true freedom.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

"Here I Am" : A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

Preached at St, Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario, the Diocese of Toronto, 2 July, 2017

Texts for this Sunday:  Jeremiah 28:5-9 or Genesis 22: 1-14, Psalm 89: 1-4,15-18, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10: 40-42



After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am.” (Genesis 28:1)

I think I would fail in my duty as a preacher today if I didn’t say something about today’s first lesson from Genesis 22, the story of God demanding that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac.   I say that because I think this story, perhaps more than almost any other that is heard in the Sunday by Sunday lectionary readings of the church, can shock and offend us.   The cruel and impossible demand that God lays on the shoulders of Abraham are so hard to reconcile with our idea of God as the good, loving creator.   It explains why many Christian churches follow the age-old temptation to downplay the Hebrew Scriptures and to see Jesus the Son as being far more attractive than his angry and judgemental father.


If these things trouble you, rest assured that you are not only.  Over the centuries, Christian and Jewish scholars have struggled with this story and have tried to understand it.  There is an ancient Jewish story which imagines God asking one of his angels to tell Abraham to sacrifice his son, but the angels refuse to do it.  If you want to command this death, they say to God, do it yourself.  This ancient story reminds us that the Jewish faithful, like the Christian and Muslim faithful who came after them, recognized full well the difficulty of this story.


Our unease with the story begins in its first verse, when God decides to test Abraham.   It’s not like Abraham wasn’t already faithful.  He had left his homeland to follow God into the wilderness, he had trusted God when told that his aged wife Sarah would have a child, and now he he had allowed his son Ishmael to be taken away from him.   What else did Abraham need to prove to God?  It’s hard to understand.  Last week I heard a rabbi speaking about the book of Job, and he basically said that while God has the right to test his people, most Jews wish that he would just stop already.  That’s what I love about rabbis, they embody the dark humour of being faithful to God despite centuries of hardship and challenge.


God calls and Abraham says “Here I am”.   We know these words well.  We find them elsewhere in scripture.  “Here I am” says the young Samuel when God calls him the night. Here I am says Ananias of Damascus when God calls him in Acts.  “Here I Am”, we sing in one of our most popular hymns today.  “Here I am, Lord, it is I Lord, I have heard you calling in the night.  I will go, Lord, where you lead me”.    Abraham answers God, and goes where God leads him, to a mountaintop where he is asked to sacrifice his son.


At this point Abraham was not part of an organized religion.  He knew God and loved him, and followed him, but it was a personal relationship and he did not yet know all the rules.    Was this some new, terrible thing that God was now asking of him?   Who knows what Abraham was thinking on the three days it took them to reach that mountain?  We know that other cultures in the middle east practised human sacrifice, often of children. One such culture, the Ammonites, who worshipped a God called Molech, was a near neighbour of Israel.   We know that there are passages in the Torah prohibiting the sacrifice of sons and daughters (Leviticus 18:21; Jeremiah 32:35; 2 Chronicles 28:3), so perhaps the story of Abraham is meant to explain to Israel how their God was different from the  gods of the neighbouring peoples.


Explaining the story in these cultural terms helps  us understand it intellectually, but as the story unfolds all of that is still in the future and we can’t help but to read our emotions - sadness, horror, outrage - into it.   We see the old man slowly and painfully moving up the mountain while Isaac, presumably a strong young teen since he is carrying the wood, follows.   We wonder why Abraham could do this thing, and why how Isaac could go along, for when they arrive at the place, and there is no lamb, he surely understands.   And how could this strong lad let his aged father bind him and lay him on the wood, were it not out of his loyalty and obedience?   Abraham calls Isaac, and he too answers “Here I am”.   Either he is too innocent to know what is coming, or, more likely I think, he knows full well and he is obedient to his father up to the point where God reveals the ram and the story becomes clear.  The God of Israel will never demand human sacrifice of his people.  Instead, the sacrifices of animals in the Temple will become a sign of how God provides for his people, who offer part of their blessings back to God.  It becomes the same basic idea that we celebrate each Thanksgiving, or at each family meal, that God provides for us.


For these reasons, the three so-called Abrahamic traditions, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, have each found good in this story.  For the Jews, the story was about God’s faithfulness, and the ram was a sign that God would always provide for his people.   For Muslims, who recount the story in their Koran, the story was about obedience to God.  Abraham and Isaac, in their “here I ams”, are examples of how the faithful should follow God.  And what of us Christians?


For us, the idea of the son, faithful and obedient to his father, carrying the wood of his sacrifice to the place of his death, becomes an image or foretelling of Jesus bearing the cross to Golgotha.   Whereas God stops Abraham and does not demand this sacrifice in the end, God does not spare himself  or his son.  If Abraham sorrowed in his heart for what he thought he had to do, our theology of the Trinity, of the three persons in one, tells us that God is fully present in the pain and sorrow of his son’s death.   Some see the idea of the atonement as a callous sacrifice, of God ordering Jesus to his death, but I think our idea of the Trinity reminds us that this what happens on the cross, like on Abraham’s mountain, is a sorrow, pain, and sadness shared by the father and the son.   


My hope then is that if we stick with the story to its end, and if we think about its place within our long family story of faith as Jews and Christians, we can find resources in it to help and sustain us in our daily lives.    Abraham’s response to God, “Here I am”, is our response.  We talk a lot about church shopping and choosing a church because we live in a culture that is dominated by consumer values, but in fact we are here because we are called to be.  We respond to God by saying “Here I am”, and that means more than just “Here I am, Lord, present in my usual pew on Sunday morning.”   


Saying “Here I am” means being responsive to God in those moments that feel uncomfortable, even those times that feel like a test.  God may call us to respond to moments of injustice, racism, or other evil things that may test us.  Saying “Here I am” means that we are ready to stand with others who are suffering, even if that comes at a cost to us.   God may call us to answer for things we have done that we would rather not think of.  Saying “Here I am” means that we are ready to reconcile, to ask forgiveness, to find new ways forward.  God may call us to live through difficult times of sorrow or grief or sickness.   Saying “Here I am” means that we are open to God and what he may ask us to do and be, even when our thoughts may be clouded by self pity, fear and anger.   God’s call comes in the good and bad times, and sometimes it takes courage to say “Here I am”, but we answer knowing that the one who calls us is good and faitihful.


My prayer for all of us that we can have the strength to wrestle with this difficult story, and that it can teach us something about being faithful and obedient like Abraham and Isaac, knowing that God will be with us and will provide for us in whatever he may call us to. Amen.

Michael Peterson+

Acknowledgement: This commentary by Kathryn Schiferdecker was very helpful in thinking through this sermon.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Called In Summertme: A Sermon For the Second Sunday After Pentecost



Preached at St. Margaret’s of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario.  Sunday, 18 June, 2017


Lectionary: Genesis 18: 1-15, Psalm 116: 1-2, 12-19; Romans 5: 1-8, and Matthew 9:35 -10:23


1 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. (Matthew 



Summer is right around the corner.  Some of us played golf yesterday.  Some of us may be at the cottage, or thinking about going soon.  Others are travelling.    You can feel the rhythm of our parish life starting to slow down.


However, the lectionary, our cycle of bible readings, is no respecter of summer holidays, and this Sunday it serves up a long reading from the part of Matthew’s gospel known as the Missionary Discourse.   As usual we listen to the gospel to help us understand who Jesus is and what our relationship to him is, and this reading is pretty demanding, even if we are easing into the summer doldrums.


This Sunday’s gospel remind us about the hard work that Jesus has given us, and be assured, it is work.   Today’s reading from Matthew reminds us that we’re not just followers of Jesus.  Followers just go along for the ride.  We may be disciples of disciples of Jesus, but disciples are students and at some point students leave school to become workers and do what they have been taught to do.   Today’s reading reminds us that we are indeed workers, that we are called to do what Jesus does, to go out and be part of God’s work to save the world.  


There is a curious pattern of mirroring in today’s gospel reading, as Jesus first does his work, and then gives that same work to the disciples.   First Jesus heals and restores people,  as he travels about, “curing every disease and every sickness” (Mt 9:35).  He then gives his twelve disciples the same task:  “Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.” (Mt 10:1).


Likewise Jesus preaches, going about  “teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” (Mt 9:35).  He then sends the disciples out with the very same message when he tells them to “proclaim the good news, that the kingdom of heaven has come near" (10:7).    


Healing and preaching.   Just as Jesus has done, so the disciples are sent with the same task.   


In his commentary on this passage, Colin Yuckman notes the importance of this mirroring of tasks.  “In Matthew, Jesus' followers include the original audience as well as us. We are expected to resemble him in word and deed. To be sent by Jesus is, in some sense, to be sent as Jesus.”


Just as Jesus called his disciples to do this work, his work in the world, so we are called.   St. Margaret’s and St. Giles, like every church and congregation before us, get this call by virtue of our baptism and our decision to follow Jesus as Lord.   


It is sobering to think that we are called to be Jesus for the world, to be Jesus in the world.   Sobering because we may not think we are up task, that we are incapable of doing this work because of our limits, our flaws, our lack of understanding of the bible, of theology, etc.   But if we lack confidence, we can always be reassured by looking at Jesus’ disciples.


The twelve include Peter, who will deny Jesus, and Judas, who will betray him.  They include very different people: Matthew is a tax collector who works for the Romans and Simon is a zealot who fights against them.   As we know them from the many gospel stories, the disciples can be dimwitted, frightened, quarrelsome, and sometimes full of themselves.  Jesus chooses to work with them nevertheless.   


If today’s scripture readings teach us anything, it’s that it’s easy to underestimate what God can do through us and with us.   Remember how Sara laughs out loud at the thought that God could give her a child at her old age.  But remember that Sara’s bitter laughter of disbelief turns to laughter of joy as she realizes what God can do.    If God can work with the first twelve disciples, if he can turn Sara’s scorn to joy, he can surely work with us.


“Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”  We may not be able to do these things literally, but there are many ways that we can join with Christ in this work.   There are many ways of being sick, many ways of being dead, many who feel as outcast as lepers, many ways of being possessed.  


We as a church are called to exist for these people.  We as church are called to be a place of hope and healing for those who are hurting in body, mind and soul.   We can come alongside those who are friendless, who feel worthless, who are ignored by others.   In a thousand meaningful and challenging ways, today’s gospel lesson speaks to the pastoral work that we as clergy and laity share, to what we can do for those within, and without, these walls.  Today’s gospel reading should live in and inform every parish mission statement.


Why does Jesus give us this work?  Why does he ask us to go out and be his face and hands in the world?  Matthew tells us that ”When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36).  Our God of power and majesty chooses to show compassion and tenderness to the world, and asks us to be part of his work. 


It’s easy to imagine how cynically the world might react to this message.  Our world today seems to be drifting more and more to an idea that strong men, rich, entitled, and ruthless, should be in charge.  Power is measured in military strength, or in vast fortunes, it flatters the few at the top and increasingly ignores the many at the bottom.  Our gospel message would inspire mocking laughter in so many places.  The ending of our gospel reading warns us that this hostile reaction will happen.  Jesus is clear to his disciples that this will be hard work. But I think the world hungers to know that God exists, that God is compassionate, and that God cares for them.


We know better because we know our God, and we know that God is faithful.   God has given us this work, to help God to save the world, and we trust that because of this work there will come a day when mocking laughter will turn to joy, for "God has brought laughter for me, and everyone who hears will laugh with me.

Michael Peterson+

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Paul in Athens: Sharing The Gospel In A Pluralistic Age

Preached Sunday, 21 May, the Sixth Sunday of Easter at St. Margarets of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, ON

Texts for this Sunday Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 68:8-20, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21

Want to stay true to the faith you were brought up in?   That’s fine.  Want to convert to another world religion?  Go ahead.  Perhaps one of the new religions might suit your needs?  Perhaps you have heard about some guru with some teaching that everyone is talking about, or some new book on spirituality that everyone is talking about, or maybe some teaching about guardian angels?  Go for it.  Or, maybe you think all this spirituality is just a bunch of nonsense, and you want to dedicate yourself to science and reason, because they are the most sensible way of explaining the world.  Hey, that’s your right.  Just don’t go pushing your faith down other people s throats.  Try to get along with other people.

This description of the religious landscape could just as easily describe our own time as it describes the time of the Apostle Paul.  The world that we see in our first lesson, from Acts 17, is like our own world in that it is pluralistic.  Pluralistic in this context simply means multiple faiths and beliefs living side by side, offering a kind of marketplace that believers could search to find the belief that best suited them.   The Book of Acts has numerous examples of conversions, of which Paul (formerly known as Saul) is the most well known, but there are others, including the Ethiopian eunuch or the Roman officer Cornelius and his family.  These are believers who were attracted to Judaism, but then become followers of Jesus when they hear the gospel.   

Some of you may have friends and family members who have converted because they have found another faith to be convincing and satisfying.  I can think of an Anglican friend who became an Orthodox priest, or a young man raised in the United Church who is now a Muslim imam.  You may also know someone who has converted in order to marry their loved one.  Many people seem to have no problem in combining bits and pieces of different faiths and spiritualities, like the Christians I have met who also believe in reincarnation or the healing power of crystals. Then of course there are those who reject religion as being irrational, and then ironically profess to be atheists with a kind of religious fervor.  

People make these sorts of choices because of the basic human need for meaning, for a belief or a worldview that makes sense of the world, which calms our fears and which helps us decide how to act.   It helps that we live in a country that protects our freedom to believe and to choose between beliefs.  Many in the world don’t have that luxury, and thus the many Christians who are now fleeing the Middle East, or the young Russians who are being jailed for disrespecting the Orthodox Church which is now the same as disrespecting Russia and Putin.   I think it is safe to say that most Canadians value our tradition of religious freedom and tolerance.  Most of us, I think, don’t care what other Canadians wear on their heads, we just care what’s in their hearts.

At the same time, we need to be honest that pluralism poses a challenge for us as Christians.   For those of us of a certain vintage, that challenge may be our sense of unease that the Christian country we grew up in has faded away along with that prayers and bible readings in public school or laws against Sunday shopping are gone.  That feeling is understandable but I think we need to guard against nostalgia, because I am not really convinced that there ever was a truly Christian Canada.  Sometimes it’s easy to think we see religion when what we really see is culture and force of habit.  However, for those of us who are clear that we are followers of Jesus and faithful believers, the real challenge of pluralism is about messaging.  How can we faithfully proclaim the gospel message to others without offending them or suggesting that their faith isn’t real or isn’t good enough?  I can tell you that this is a real problem for my employer, the Canadian Armed Forces chaplaincy.  We used to be a Christian organization, and now we are a multifaith organization, serving military members that range from Sikhs and Baptists to Mormons and atheists.   It can be a challenge for our chaplains who come from more conservative Christian churches.  It can be a challenge for us, too, as we go from St. Margaret’s to our workplaces, circles of friends, and extended families.

The story of Paul in Athens gives us a model of how we as Christians can act and speak in a pluralistic society.  We can draw several lessons from how Paul shares his faith with the Athenians, and the first lesson is to know the culture you’re in.   Athens was a centre of philosophy and learning in the ancient world, a crossroads where peoples and beliefs would come together and compete with one another.  It was a marketplace of beliefs.   Luke (the likely author of Acts) tells us that “the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new (17:21).  That description sounds a little tongue and cheek to me, as if the Athenians are swayed by whatever trendy belief or idea comes into town.  It sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The second lesson we can draw from Paul is to meet people where they are. Earlier in this chapter, we are told that Paul “was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16), but in his opening words he hides his distress and even uses humour, by seeming to compliment the Athenians on how they have covered their bases by even acknowledging an “unknown God”.   Normally we think of Paul from his letters as being dour and earnest and self-aggrandizing, but it’s hard for me not to imagine him smiling as he says these words.   Paul then goes on to tell the Christian story, but in a way that an audience familiar with Greek philosophy would understand.  God is a creator, the first mover who can do all things, who doesn’t need any praise or tribute from humans, who isn’t confined to any one temple of space, and who is a truth that can be searched for.

Notice that while Paul often uses references to the Hebrew scriptures when talking to his fellow Jews, here he doesn’t.  He describes God in such a way that Greek philosophers could agree with, and even quotes “some of your own poets”.  In other words, Paul is acting like a good guest, getting to know the Greek’s culture and speaking to them in a way they can understand.  However, Paul isn’t afraid to draw sharp differences between Greek belief and his faith.   You Greeks, he says, think of God like the Xfiles, like a truth that is out there somewhere, “so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him”, whereas for Paul God’s truth can be found very specifically in one person, Jesus, “a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). 

It takes nerve to be specific.  Paul was probably doing ok with his high-brow Greek audience until he said that the truth of God could be found in one person who died and rose again.  Elsewhere Paul acknowledged that this message of Christ, the cross and resurrection was “foolishness” to the educated Greeks (1 Cor 1:23).  It can seem just as foolish today, in a world with so many choices and things to believe in, to say that we as Christians have found God’s truth in the person of Jesus Christ, God’s son, whom God raised from the dead as a sign of hope for all people but, my friends, if we don’t believe that, then why are we here?

If Paul looked for ways to relate his message to the Greeks of his day, then I think we need to look for ways to relate to our own culture today.  Very briefly, I have some suggestions as to how we might do that effectively.  First, I think we need to acknowledge that we do live in a culture of spiritual and religious choice, which means that we can’t condemn and criticize people for making the wrong choice.  That would only come across as disrespectful, hostile and judgemental, which is exactly why so many people dislike Christians today.  Instead, I think we need to use today’s Gospel reading from John as a resource.   

John’s gospel reminds us that God is not a distant, abstract deity like the Greeks believed in.  John tells us that God wants to be with us, not because (as Paul tells the Greeks) he needs anything from us, but out of love:  ‘those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them’ (John 14:21).  The gift of the Spirit’s presence in today’s Gospel is a sign that God will keep his promise, made in John 3:16, that God loves the world and is determined to save it.  It is the promise of God not to abandon us, a sign of his love and compassion for those who created.

There are so many ways in which this message can be heard in our age of choice and uncertainty.  Think of how many people fear the end of the world, either through war or environmental and ecological collapse.  Some scientists say that we may only have a hundred years left on this planet.  Others see a dark future where a wealthy few will keep their boot on the poor many.   The rise of racial hatred and violence between religions fills many with despair.   Some people say that this is a time like the end of the Roman Empire, and that is certainly true in the sense that we can no longer count on the Christian church to have a place of honour and respect in society.  Let that nostalgia go, and focus on the power of the gospel in this dark time.  We can tell the story of a God who created the world and gave us life out of his great goodness, who needs nothing from us but who wants to be in relation with us.  We have a God who cares passionately for the poor, who gives everyone the right to respect and dignity because they are made in his image, who has promised that in the death and resurrection of his son he will stand with us and fight against the darkness of sin and death, and who will certainly win that fight.  This is our story.  Have faith in it, live it out, and trust that god will give you the wisdom and opportunity to share it with those who need to hear it.


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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