Saturday, April 29, 2017

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

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

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



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Miitary Writers On The Value Of Fiction

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

More Religions To Be Recognized In US Military

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

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

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

Asatru/Viking symbol

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

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


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

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

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

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


Saturday, April 15, 2017

A Meditation For Good Friday

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


Second Station  Jesus Takes Up His Cross


John 19:13-17


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



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


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


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


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


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


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



John 19:13-17


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





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


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


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




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

Monday, April 10, 2017

Remembering Canada's Army Chaplains at Vimy Ridge

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

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

Preparing for the Battle - 1

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

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

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

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

Preparing for the Battle -2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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