Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Child Soldier: A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

A Sermon Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario, Diocese of Toronto

Sunday, 24 June, 2018

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost


Readings for this Sunday: 1 Samuel 17:32-49, Psalm 9:9-20, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41



A slender youth stands alone and fragile, armed only with a primitive weapon, while a hulking giant bears down on him.    His face is unafraid, and as his sling whirls faster and faster above his head, he squints into the sun to find his mark.    The stone flies fast and free, seeking its mark.  For a few seconds after the impact the giant stands still, and everyone holds their breath  in suspense before he slowly crashes to earth.


It’s a classic underdog story, the shepherd boy who stands against the mighty warrior when grown men have lost their nerve.  When I was a boy it was one of the favourite stories in my children’s bible.   Like the readers of young adult novels like The Hunger Games, I wanted to be a hero like David and prove myself to the adults.


The story of David and Goliath is a story of courage, but it has its place in the bible because it’s a theological story.   In part it is about vocation, about people hearing and responding to God.  David the boy shepherd is called by God to be a soldier, just as the Book of Samuel begins with the boy Samuel literally called by God to be a prophet.   It is also a story about faithfulness.  David, the most unlikely of soldiers, too young to carry the weapons of war, steps forward defeat a terrible enemy.    David’s role as a shepherd is certainly somewhere behind the imagery of Jesus, born a descendent of David, as being the Good Shepherd.  Finally, David and Goliath is a story about God’s ascendancy over the gods of the other nations.   David predicts that when he kills Goliath, “all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel” (1 Sam 17:46).  One of the goals of the Book of Samuel is to show the power of God, even against ferocious enemies like the Philistines.


Of course, even though the story of David and Goliath has a theological point, it might legitimately give us pause for thought.    We could certainly have a discussion, even a debate, about how old children have to be for the story of David and Goliath.   We could ask the same of other Old Testament stories, like that of another hero, Samson, who killed thousands of Philistines with the jawbone of an ass (Judges 15:6).  Should we expose young children to stories of war and violence, even when they are in the Bible?  Even when the stories are about heroic underdogs?   Even the Revised Common Lectionary, which cut out some of the details such as David cutting off Goliath’s head, has qualms about the story.


The world we live in also gives us concerns about how we read and hear stories like David and Goliath.     We are uneasy with religious justifications for war and violence, whether in Afghanistan or the Middle East.   The wars of Israel in the Old Testament, and the idea that God could favour one people over another, make many Anglicans uneasy, and lead some parishes to keep the Old Testament readings out of their Sunday worship.    Also, the idea of David stepping into a soldier’s role may give some cause for concern, given that public figures such as Romeo Dallaire have championed the children who are often pressed into service in various wars.   Patricia de Boer and her colleague Benson from Africa Arise have visited us several times, and some of you may remember Benson’s talk about being a child soldier.  


So the David and Goliath story has lots of reasons to give us pause because of its violent nature, its theology of war and violence,  and its connections with stories in the news today.  What are we to make of it, and all the stories like it in the Old Testament?


I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues as a soldier and as a priest lately.  For the last two weeks, I’ve been teaching a group of chaplains at the Canadian Forces Chaplain School at Camp Borden.  Among the subjects we discussed was how Judaism, Christianity and Islam all deal with violence.  All three faiths call themselves religions of peace, even though they all have stories of war and violence in their sacred writings: Torah, Bible and Koran.  At various times in their histories, all three religions have claimed that their followers can kill in the name of God.


A friend of mine, who served as a young officer in Afghanistan, once old me that he appreciated chaplains, but before going out on missions, he wanted more than a prayer for peace and safety.  “How come you padres never prayed for a good smiting?  I would have liked a prayer for God to smite our enemies before I went out on a mission”.  My friend grew thoughtful,  paused, and said, “I guess the padres knew that there was probably a guy on the other side of the hill with the Taliban, praying that God would smite us.  I guess that’s the problem with smiting”.  My friend understood the problem.   Once we ask God to bless our violence, then where does it end?


 Thanks be to God that most believers today, whatever their faith, feel that it is better to talk to one another than to kill one another.    The Anglican Church of Canada is a serious participant in interfaith dialogue here in Canada and as part of the Communion throughout the world.  Here in Canada we have created a country where different faiths and races can live peacefully together.  Our Armed Forces have Muslim and Jewish chaplains serving our military personnel, and we may soon have the first Hindu or Sikh chaplain join us.  So yes, much has changed for the better, which gives us a better perspective from which to read stories like David and Goliath.


We have our perspective, but its also helpful to be aware of the perspective and context of the Old Testament, which is for us, as Christians, part of our family story.  The perspective of the Book of Samuel is not as bloodthirsty and violent as we might think, because the Book of Samuel in many ways is a tragedy.   Samuel the faithful prophet does not want Israel to have kings, but the people wanted “a king to govern us, like other nations” (1 Sam 8:5).  Saul becomes king, a flawed man who becomes jealous of David’s fame and success after Goliath.  David becomes king, a great king, but he too is flawed and tragic, and the kings who follow after ultimately bring Israel to ruin.   Only the Messiah who comes from the lineage of David can truly save Israel, and can truly save us.


If we reject the Old Testament, we reject the story of how God wants to save us.  It’s no always a pretty story, but that’s why we need to be saved, frankly.   It’s also our family story, as the people of God.  Think of the story like one of those black and white photos of an impossibly young person in an old uniform, a father or grandfather who went off to one of the world wars.    Those pictures honour the ancestor and his or her service, without glorifying the war.   Maybe that’s a helpful way to think of this story.   


The story of David and Goliath can be read, and even told to children in a appropriate manner, as a story of heroism and faith, but it is not a justification to violence.    David is a hero in a dark time, and a reminder that, as is so often the case in the Bible, God chooses unlikely people to do good things.   Goodness knows we need heroes, which is why we have saints.  Today there are other kinds of heroes that we can celebrate with our children - I mentioned Canada’s Romeo Dallaire and his work to rescue and rehabilitate child soldiers.  I am sure we can think of many other examples.    


 Most of all, it’s our hope, and our prayer, that our God calls us to work for a world where no one, and particularly no child, should ever have to do as David did, and pick up a weapon in God’s name.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Remembering Some D-Day Chaplains

It’s June 6th and a friend of mine on Facebook informed me about one of the first army padres ashore on D-Day.  Chaplain Julian Ellenberg was an Anglican priest assigned to the 8th Infantry Regiment of the US Army’s Fourth Division.  8IR claimed the honour of being the first infantry regiment to land from the sea on D-Day, as opposed to the airborne elements already inland.

Ellenberg was awarded the Silver Star for his work with the wounded on Utah Beach while under heavy fire.  Read more about him here.

Also today I learned about another US chaplain, a Roman Catholic priest and a Franciscan, who was killed on D-Day while attempting to secure a truce with German forces to arrange for the care of wounded personnel.  He served with the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division.  

His story is told here.

 Some years ago, I reported on receiving the eucharist from the communion kit of a Canadian padre, Walter Brown, who was also killed on D-Day.  Padre George Alexander Harris, who served with the Canadian Parachute Regiment, was also killed on D-Day.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

"The Church of the Ages": A Sermon Preached for the Anglican Military Ordinariate

Preached at the annual gathering of the Anglican Military Ordinariate of the Canadian Armed Forces, Cornwall, Ontario, 6 June 2018

Texts for the Commemoration of Wliiiam Grant Broughton, First Anglican Bishop in Australia: Ephesians 3:14-21, Psalm 112:1-6, Matthew 7:24-29

"I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love."  Ephesians 3:16-17


When I first started coming to Cornwall, the preachers at the AMO (Anglican Military Ordinariate) eucharists were doddering old chaplains in the twilight of their careers. …  I just never thought that that my turn would come so quickly.


Nevertheless, I was excited when I learned that I was to preach on the day of the commemoration of a pioneering colonial bishop.  As a boy at St. John’s School of Alberta, I paddled in a voyageur canoe named Bishop Bompas, after the first Anglican Bishop of Selkirk.  As a theology student, as part of my indoctrination into the heroes and legends of Wycliffe College, I learned the story of Isaac Stringer, famously known as the Bishop who ate his boots.   As the second Bishop of Selkirk in the Yukon, Stringer escaped starvation during a long snowstorm by boiling and eating his sealskin boots.     It sort of went without saying in the college ethos that any good Wycliffe grad would do the same for the sake of the gospel.   Fortunately in my ministry I’ve never had to eat anything more than some ill-advised words or to have swallowed anything more than some pride, both of which are part of a good spiritual diet.


The William Broughton, who we commemorate today,  was not however a heroic or especially eager colonial bishop.  It’s true that not every bishop cuts an heroic, swashbuckling figure.  In fact Broughton was one of those English country parsons that you find in a Trollope novel.  A scholarly type, Broughton at first thought himself fortunate to gain the Duke of Wellington, the hero of Waterloo, as a patron.  Sometimes however, a powerful patron can be a mixed blessing, because the Duke decided that Broughton should be the Archdeacon of New South Wales in Australia.  Sometimes it’s stay grey in the shadows.  Broughton doesn’t seem to have wanted this assignment very much - he said at the time that 'there is no ground for congratulation on my appointment’.   Furthermore, it appears that the Duke exaggerated the size of the stipend he would receive - in fact it just barely covered his expenses.   Also, Broughton also discovered that what he thought would be a short posting was anything but - he would in fact stay for as long as the British government wanted, and it would in fact be his life’s work.  Those of us who have ever been beguiled by the seductive words of a staff check during posting season can probably relate to him.


Despite being lame and dependent on a cane, Broughton was willing to travel the long outback circuits of his archdeaconry, frequently being away from his home and family in Sydney.   The editors of For All the Saints certainly included him for his pastoral devotion, as well as for his diligent leadership.  The choice of today’s gospel reading from Matthew, (7:24-29) with its image of a house solidly built on rock, would warm the heart of any church administrator.  Broughton, like his contemporary Bishop Strachan in Upper Canada, laid the foundations for the Anglican church in England.   He worked with missionary societies to recruit and train clergy to serve a small and scattered population.  As the first Bishop of the colony he was a champion of education and built synodical structures for the church in Australia which would become a model for the communion.


So why is any of this important?  As Rowan Williams has observed, church history is God’s history.   The church across the ages, from generation to generation, is nothing less than God’s doing in the world.  The church is not human activity, and sometimes the church flourishes despite us.   William Broughton was a pioneer, but not all his plans were successful.  His dream of an independent seminary in Sydney failed, and he was disappointed by the Crown’s hands-off attitude to the colonial church.   In this respect, Broughton would have had much in common with his Canadian contemporary, Bishop Strachan. Both were high churchman in the political sense of wanting Anglicanism to be the national and established faith of the state, both were out of step with their age.  There would be no established church for the colonies.  Having lost these battles, both ended up believing that for the church to flourish, it must be solely dependent on the power and promises of God, on God’s word faithfully preached by a diligent and learned clergy, and on administrative and leadership talents of its bishops.


A perennial danger of our lives as clergy is to think that we are engaged in a human project, the success of which is largely based upon our efforts and skills.   The annual exercise of the brag sheet reinforces this mindset, as does the accrual of coins, diplomas, commendations, decorations, promotions, and all the other bric a brac of the successful career in military chaplaincy.    Were he here today, I am sure that Bishop Broughton would remind us that our business, if self-dedicated, is like the house built on the sand, soon washed away and forgotten. 


In his first charge to his clergy in Australia in December 1829, Broughton spoke of the priest, as “ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God:a “ pledged by engagements so awful that every one of us by whom they are regarded with becoming seriousness must tremble, in [our] attempts to fulfil them, under a sense of [our] insufficiency”.  Surely one of the great satisfactions and even inspirations of church history is realizing that others stood were we do now, contemplating the heavy spiritual lifts of the day, and realizing their own inadequacies but for the grace of God.   Broughton went on in his charge to say that the only reason he could “with any degree of confidence undertake the duties with which I am here entrusted …was because of his “assured belief that God, whose Providence has guided my steps, will give me grace and power … faithfully to take the oversight of his church , and rightly to divide the word of truth unto all followers of Christ Jesus, our Lord”.


Today’s reading from Ephesians was surely one of the texts that Broughton was drawing on for this assurance.   The Apostle Paul, so often accused of bombast and arrogance in our day, actually speaks of his profound dependence on the power of the gospel and the gift of grace to proclaim it.   Our strength to get out of bed and put on the uniform, our faith in our vocations, our love for those who come to us for counselling - where could we find these things if they were not given to us by the Spirit?  How terribly empty and tired we would be were we not “filled with all the fullest of God” (Eph 3.19).


In closing, let me fast forward from colonial Australia to very recent history, a hot afternoon in May in Hamilton as the church gathered to commend one of its own to God.  Those of us privileged to be at the funeral of our brother Rob Fead heard Bishop Spence speak luminously of how Rob held up the light in the darkness, showing it to his parishioners, to his reserve regiment, to the friends and family of Nathan Cirillo, and to so many others.   Rob was a strong man, but it was not his light, or his strength.  It was the light of Christ, the love of God, and the strength of the Spirit that dwelled within Rob as gifts which enabled his remarkable ministry.   Rob used them well, and now he has passed from our church to the church of the ages, to take his place with Broughton and Strachan and all the others, the heroic and the unlikely, who God has enabled and used for his good ends.  So may it be said of us after our time, that God was able to accomplish in us “abundantly far more than all we [could] ask or imagine” and so to [God] be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.”

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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