Wednesday, December 23, 2020

What Is This Good News? A Sermon For Christmas Eve

Preached online to All Saints King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 24 December, 2020.

Readings for Christmas Eve:  Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 97, Titus 2.11-14, Luke 2.1-20


“But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2.10-11).


In past years it was all to easy to start a Christmas sermon with a lament about the business of the season, by condemning the secularism that has reduced the Christian festival to “the holidays”, by urging people to resist the consumerism and to preserve room in their hearts to adore the Christ child.

This year, preachers don’t have those cheap rhetorical crutches to fall back on, and honestly, good riddance to them, because this Christmas we have precious little to do except pay attention to the message of the angels.

This Christmas, if there’s anything and anyone in Luke’s nativity story that we can relate to,  it’s the shepherds and their fear of the angels.   Their attention is drawn up, to the unearthly glory of the heavens, while our attention has a very earthly focus, but the element of fear is the same.

We’re scared, and we’ve been running scared since February.   We’re scared of crowds, scared of going shopping, scared of strangers coughing, scared of that unexplained sore throat in the morning and what it might mean.    We’re scared of losing businesses and jobs, scared of shortages, scared of people being stupid and willfully ignorant and of the harm they can do.  We’re scared of ending our days in an ICU bed, without the touch of a loved one’s hand to comfort us.

This Christmas Eve, the angel comes to we, the fearful, and says “Do not be afraid – for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

What is this good news?  This good news is that God knows how scared we are, and has pity on us.  The good news is that God sends his Son to save us.

Just as this good news came to lowly shepherds, drawing them out of their isolation in the darkness, bringing them into the presence of God there in the manger, so this good news comes to us.  This good news draws us out of our isolation, draws us out of quarantine, draws us out of the loneliness of our homes and apartments, and brings us into the light and life of Jesus.

This good news draws us out of our isolation and into communion with God and with our neighbour.  This good news gathers us together in the grace of God, it holds us in the compassion of Jesus, making us new together as new creations in Christ.   This good news will hold us safe in the mind of God after we pass over into the company of the faithful departed and the company of the saints.   The good news is that Jesus, who went down to the grave and back up to the Father in heaven, will not leave us in our dark loneliness and isolation.

This good news is not just a sentimental or fond idea – it wouldn’t be good news if it were not real.   The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who lived in the darkness of Nazi Germany, said that an idea cannot save us.  Only Christ, he wrote, “who must be understood as having become human”, can save us, for “only he can redeem real human beings.  Everything depends on Jesus’ existence in history”.

This good news is that Jesus is as real to us now, in the time of Covid, as he was to poor shepherds in the time of Caesar Augustus.    His salvation is real, real to us stuck here in lockdown, real to us who can’t go to church, real to us who can’t be together in warmth and joy with friends and family.  

Like the shepherds who go back to their dark fields, we must remain in the isolation of lockdown for some months to come.  But, like the shepherds, we have heard the good news and we know one great thing.  We know that Christ is real, that Christ has come into our world, that we are not alone, but always in the presence of the one who loves us, calls us, and saves us.



Saturday, December 19, 2020

The God Who Tents With Us: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent



A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent.  Preached 20 December, 2020, via Zoom to the Parish of All Saints, King City, Ontario, the Anglican Diocese of Toronto.  Texts for this Sunday:  2 Samuel 7.1-11, Psalm: Canticle 18 The Magnificat, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-38.


I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.” (2 Samuel 7.6)



So once again we gather by Zoom, as the coronavirus once again banishes us from our church.   It may feel like we’re in a kind of exile, cut off from the sacraments, apart from one another, our community of All Saints dispersed.  Strange to think of a Christmas without the church full of families,  their out of town members gathered together again, holding candles and singing Silent Night.  


We’ll miss all that, just as we missed Easter, and just as we missed so much more this year.    But don’t worry.  We haven’t left God behind, locked up in All Saints until we can visit him again.  God isn’t waiting for us in a closed and silent church.   That’s not God’s way, as the Christmas story reminds us.


We’ll get to Mary and the angel in a moment, but first let’s give some attention to our first lesson.   King David has vanquished his enemies and things are going well for him, comfortably settle in his palace, until he remembers that God is outside, “in a tent” (2 Sam 7:2).  So David plans to build God a proper church, a fine temple, and is presumably quite pleased with himself, but that night God troubles the dreams of his counsellor, the prophet Nathan, and says “did I ever ask you to build me a house?”:


“Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.” (2 Sam 7.5-6)


The idea of a God on the move, tenting with his people, came naturally to the Jews as a nomadic people.  God didn’t need a church when he led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.  He didn’t need a church when they crossed the Red Sea just ahead of Pharaoh’s army.  God didn’t need a church when he went out into the fields to find the shepherd David and make him a king.  Why, says God, should I need a church now?  Did I need a church to save you guys?


The story of Israel since then is a cycle of temples built, temples destroyed, exile, return, and rebuilding.   Jesus stands before Herod’s second temple in Jerusalem and warns the disciples that the cycle will continue and this temple too will be torn down (Mt 24: 1-2).  What the disciples don’t realize as they listen to Jesus is that they are looking directly at the Word made flesh, the Son of God living and dwelling amongst them in Jesus the man.


At the beginning of John’s gospel, in that lovely phrase “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1.14), the verb in Greek that the King James version translated as “dwelt” is “skenoo”, meaning “to tent”.  It’s the same word, and the same meaning, as Nathan hears in his dream from our first lesson, of God “tenting” with his people (ἐν σκηνῇ).


In saying yes to the angel, Mary gives her womb to serve as a tent of flesh, a temporary dwelling for the God who is coming into the world.     In choosing this humble girl from a backwards village, God signals his determination to send Jesus to dwell among the poor and downtrodden, the poor and the ignored.   Jesus, the tenting God, will shortly travel with the holy family as they flee Herod, taking the road that countless refugees have taken since then.


This morning, as I breakfasted comfortably and safely in my bed, I read of hospitals so overwhelmed by those sick and dying of the coronavirus they are setting up tents to serve as a triage space for those racked by coughs and short of breath.   Surely the God of tents and tabernacles will be moving in tents such as these, just as the poet Malcolm Guite described the Jesus of this Easter, trading the locked down and empty churches and going to hospitals 


“To don his apron with a nurse: he grips

And lifts a stretcher, soothes with gentle hands

The frail flesh of the dying, gives them hope,

Breathes with the breathless, lends them strength to cope.”


(Photo -



This Christmas season, I see Jesus in other places where the tents are humble and cold.   I see Jesus in the encampments and tarp villages of the homeless.  I see Jesus in refugee camps and detention centres across the globe, where, to quote another Malcom Guite poem, he “pitch[es] his tent in our humanity”.   



So yes, this Christmas, Jesus is not in the dark and empty churches.   Our tenting God is where he always is: in the shelters and prisons where few care if the poor get the virus, in the long term care homes where the families can’t visit, in the homes of of the widow, the widower, the lonely.  Our tenting God, who willingly entered the womb of a humble girl to give dignity to all humanity, is in all these places and more.   Let the churches rest and await our joyous return.  Until then, Jesus is where he needs to be.  


Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Conversation with Brian Bork: Celebrity Pastors, Cultural Sorting Mechanisms, and Where Are the Eagles When We Need Them?

My friend Brian Bork is a Christian Reformed Church pastor living in Waterloo, ON, and his ministry focus is as chaplain at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo.  We caught up yesterday for a wide-ranging discussion on church culture and ministry styles, the advantages and perils of being a celebrity pastor, whether Jordan Peterson is still relevant, and a host of other issues.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Witness to Miracles: A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent


John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know,” (Jn 1.26) 

Preached at All Saints, King City, ON, the Anglican Diocese of Toronto, on December 13, 2020, the Third Sunday of Advent.


Readings for this Sunday:  Isaiah 61.1-4,8-11; Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24, John 1.6-8, 19-28


My first parish included a few of those legendary bachelor farmers that Garrison Keillor loved to write about.   These men were soft spoken and gentle, in their eighties and still hard-muscled and lean from lifetimes of work.   I wasn’t expecting one of them to turn into John the Baptist.


One Sunday in summertime, Bill wasn’t in church, which was unheard of, so his nephew drove to his farm and noticed uncle Bill’s truck by the woodlot out back.   There he found his uncle, lying on the ground, barely alive.   The Friday before, Bill had taken his ladder and his chainsaw to go limb some trees.  Of course, the ladder slipped and thankfully, he and the chainsaw went their separate ways as they fell quite a distance.


Bill broke his hip and some ribs in the fall, and lay on the ground for three days.   A few times it showered, which saved him from dehydration.    Sunday afternoon his nephew called me and I met them at the hospital.   Bill was well medicated by then and dreamily spoke of seeing guardian angels in the sky above him.  His nephew looked at my sideways.  “Those were buzzards”.


Uncle Bill fully recovered, and the taciturn farmer was transformed into a loud and enthusiastic evangelist.  Bill had prayed constantly lying in that wood, and he firmly believed that Jesus had saved him.   Bill’s story became his testimony, and he testified in churches, in the community, and in his family.    After a while, many hoped that he would settle down and lose his enthusiasm.  Why was that?


In many churches, especially African-American ones, giving testimony is a common part of worship.  As Prof. Courtney Buggs writes, in these churches, “congregants can’t keep it to themselves just how good God has been”.  I saw the same thing with the young Christians I taught in Ethiopia earlier this year.  They would joyfully speak, sing, and clap, saying how good and powerful Jesus is, and how much they loved him.  They believed that Jesus was the most powerful, most wonderful thing in they lives, and they weren’t afraid to say so.  These are Christians who fully identify with John the Baptist.


We think of John as “the Baptist” or “the Baptizer”, but he should really be thought of as “John the Witness”.   His job in the gospels to tell people about Jesus, the Messiah, the one promised by prophets like Isaiah.   In today’s gospel reading, John denies being anything but a witness, a herald, the voice crying in the wilderness.   Hence the tradition in medieval and Renaissance art of depicting John as literally pointing to Jesus, as in the famous Eisenheim altarpiece.   The theologian Karl Barth kept a reproduction of this work on his desk, and said that John and the church shared the same role - both exist only to point to Jesus and see “he is the one, the Saviour”.

Why were my parishioners reluctant to witness to Jesus like Bill? Why did they seem to find it awkward to listen to his testimony and why didn’t they want  to share their own stories? As I think about it years later, I think there was also another reason for their discomfort.  I think they were held back by a lack of confidence in  the idea of God being active among us.  Did God answer Bill’s prayer?  Did Jesus save Bill in that wood, or was that going too far?  After all, there were other non-religious explanations - an atheist might well say that Bill survived because he had a strong constitution for an older man, he was lucky it rained, and lucky that his nephew arrived in the nick of time. 


As Christians in the 21st century, Anglicans who value reason and critical thinking, we kind of straddle a fence between faith and science.  We may well be more comfortable speaking about coincidence than providence.   We may be reluctant to say that God answers prayer because how can you find evidence for that claim?   We may be reluctant to be thought of as credulous or superstitious in a society that prizes education and rationality.  We’re reluctant to say that Jesus saves people, because our age is pretty secular and we don’t want to sound too crazy and whacky Christian.  It might seem nervy to say “God saved Uncle Bill” without being able to prove it.


In C.S. Lewis’ book Miracles, he writes that that there are two ways of seeing the world, which he calls Naturalism and Supernaturalism.  Naturalists see the world as a closed system, where every action and every thought can be explained as a process using disciplines such  as physics, chemistry, or biology.  If we accept that Naturalism is everything, then as Lewis says, there are no doors into this world because none are needed.  There is no reason for the Supernatural, in our case God, to get in and nothing for God to do even should God exist (and naturalists would say God doesn’t exist).  


To believe in miracles is to believe that there are doors into the natural world, that there is a transcendent or supernatural reality that can get into our natural world and work there.   I actually believe that many do believe this, which is why we have a category of persons who are “spiritual but not religious”.   I see lots of people on social media who say things like “I’m having a rough time, please send kind thoughts and good vibes”.  What do they believe when they say things like this?  How is this different from Uncle Bill lying broken on the ground?  The only difference, it seems to me, is that Bill knew who he was praying to.


John the Baptist tells the Pharisees that “Among you stands one whom you do not know” (Jn 1.26).   The same is true today.   We live in an age when many people are dissatisfied, even despairing, of a world that is just mechanical process or even worse, just meaningless chaos.    They want something more, they want hope and meaningful life, but can’t see or can’t make the connection with Jesus.    The church’s job as always is to point to Jesus and say “He is the one, the Messiah, who brings life and light and hope and meaning”.  


Last Friday night, a bunch of parishioners and a few neighbours stood outside the church and sang carols through our masks.  We didn’t sing well, it wasn’t pretty, but we were there as a witness.   We weren’t just trying to keep some old carols alive, though it was fun to sing them, fun to sing anything together.    In fact we were witnessing, we were pointing with our bodes and our voices to the Messiah who comes.   

Witness is not just about miracles or answered prayers.  I’ve seen Christians with terminal illnesses witness about God’s love and faithfulness.  Witness for them was a kind of steady and visible faith that God was with them, that Jesus loved them, and that they would get to a good place on Jesus’ love and care.   In the Christmas season our witness is of the presence of God, Emmanuel, God with us.


Christmas to be sure is also about miracle.  We are two weeks from Christmas Eve, the time when the doors between world open, when Jesus comes, when the Word of God takes flesh and lives in the world.   Jesus comes, as he always does, to save us, just as he saved Uncle Bill in that wood.    My prayer and hope for All Saints is that, like Bill, we never lose our faith and hope in miracles, for what greater miracle is there but the coming into the world of the God who loves and save us?  May we witnesses to this God of Christmas and God of miracle.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Friday Thoughts On Luke 22, The Words Of Institution, Sacrament and Meaning

This week's Friday thoughts: an expanded take on a short piece I write for a friend's devotional email.  While thinking about Jesus' words of institution, I discovered a book by a Canadian Roman Catholic theologically, Brett Salkeld, that I can't wait to dive into.  Links below. 
Cheers and blessings,

Links: Paul VanderKlay and Brett Salkeld Discussion: Brett Salkeld's book Transubstantiation on Amazon

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Theology Drop - Hyper-Objects as a Theological Tool and a Canadian Case...

Hi friends:

I recorded this video last Friday and only now posting it here.   It's a brief attempt to describe a concept called Hyper-Objects (H-Os) and to explore its utility for theology as a way of understanding the cosmic dimensions of sin.   I'm making some connections between the idea of H-Os as described in a recent YouTube video (Paul Vanderklay et al) and in a recent podcast (Paul Anleitner), which I came across at the same time as my parish was wrapping up a bible study on the Revelation.  In the latter part of the talk I try to see whether H-Os explain the symbols that John of Patmos uses to describe Rome, Sin and Death as cosmic adversaries of God, and then try a case study using the Reconciliation attempts with indigenous peoples and the Canadian churches to understand our complicated entanglement in the settlement of Canada.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Jordan Peterson As Avatar And Bridge to Faith

Tara Burton's piece on Jordan Peterson (no relation) in Religion News Service appeared just as I've started making my way through his YouTube series on the Bible (start here if you're interested).   

Burton covers some of the reasons why JP is in the news at the moment - the controversy inside Penguin Canada regarding the publication of his new book, his personal issues regarding addiction,  and his popularity with a largely male right wing fan base.

I don't have a huge amount of data points assembled on him yet, though as I get to know more about him, I am less interested in his status in the culture wars than I am in the way he points to the Bible as a profound source of meaning, even while refraining from making any theological truth claims for it.

I'm interested in how a professor of psychology can command the attention of packed theatres to talk about the bible and meaning, in a way that most preachers would give a limb to be able to do.   Clearly there's a bridge between his work and Christianity, a bridge that people seem to be finding on their own, as I don't think JP's expressed goal is to be an evangelist of anything except a commitment to meaning, truth and freedom as he understands it.   As Peterson says in his first Bible video, "how do we live in the world properly" in a meaningful way that minimizes suffering and maximizes our good and the good of others is "the eternal question of human beings".

Others have described Peterson as a modern version of a Stoic moralist.  Does his brand of moralism appeal more to men than to women?  Burton writes that Peterson's "battle of good against evil pits brave truth-tellers such as himself against the insidious forces of the social-justice-industrial-complex, with his very person as both celebrity spokesperson and the commodity. His life is a fantasy of heroism for alienated young men encountering the fundamental brokenness of modern life, just as their feminist progressive counterparts are."

There may well be some truth in this final sentence about Peterson's appeal to younger men, something confirmed to me by friends and fellow clergy.   I have at least one dear friend who credits JP with bringing him to Christian faith, for which I'm profoundly grateful.   Paul Vanderklay, a Christian Reformed pastor with a substantial (for a pastor) YouTube following has done a lot of thinking about the connection between JP and faith, and has dialogued with a lot of younger men on this subject.  He's a good person to subscribe to on YT.

All of this to say that I'm deeply interested in JP within the parameters described above, and not that keen to get dragged into the culture wars.  Is that possible?  Watch this space.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Jesus Won't Cancel You: A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent



Preached at All Saints, King City, Ontario, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 6 December, 2020.

Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent:  Isaiah 40.1-11, Psalm 85:1-2,8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8


John the baptizer appeared[e] in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 


What is the good news in Mark?   It is stated at the very beginning: “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1.1). 

Who tells us this good news?  It is John the Baptizer, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (Mk 1.3).  John is as we can see from our first lesson the one promised by the prophet Isaiah, so we know that John fits into God’s plan.  John is thus a sign of grace, proof of the faithfulness of God.

Where do we hear the good news?   We hear it “in the wilderness”, as do the throngs of others, including those who come from the city of Jerusalem (1.4).   To hear the good news, we must go to John, trading the security and comfort of our usual surroundings for a place that seems dangerous and inhospitable, only to learn that the wilderness is where we find out true selves.

We have this opportunity to find out true selves because John comes “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (1.4).  Repentance means honest self-examination,  the admission that we have done things we are not proud of, things we might not want to come to light.   It means that we like ourselves less than we might want to.   It means a desire that in forgiveness we might be changed, made better, receive a fresh start

How would this opportunity not be good news to our society? Lots of people want to improve themselves – just go on a website like Amazon, search for “self help”, and you’ll find a mountain of books.  The problem is that not many of them address the idea of sin, or even seem to dwell much on a secular understanding of imperfection, hence the many books with titles such as Good Vibes, Good Life: How Self-Love is the Key to Unlocking Your Greatness.   To admit that we are sinful is to say something more profound than to simply say we could be improved by some new habits or lifestyle choices.   To say that we are sinful is to admit that we are deeply flawed and profoundly in need of help.

While we as a culture aren’t much inclined to dwell on our own flaws or to call them sins,  we are quite willing to recognize that sin exists in others, as  “cancel culture” attests.   We’ve developed rituals to shame and disgrace adulterous politicians and fallen celebrity pastors, who hang their heads and confess their “serious errors in judgement”, and yet we don’t really forgive them.   We shake our heads at actors and producers whose sordid pasts are exposed and whose careers are ruined.  As the psychologist   Jonathan Haidt notes, these head-wagging and tongue clucking rituals are useful because they bond us together in a smirking disapproval of others.   Once we cast someone out of group, once a celebrity topples from their pedestal, we aren’t generally willing to rehabilitate them. 

Jesus isn’t interested in our disapproval of others.   He often says things like why does that speck in your brother’s eye bother you when you’ve got a plank in your own?  Jesus’ point is that focusing on the flaws of others is hypocrisy, because we never look inside and realize that we too are flawed.    Our disapproval of others keeps us from ever being honest with ourselves.

If we were more honest with ourselves, we would be less likely to ignore our flaws while feasting on the imperfections of others.   This honesty is what the Book of Common Prayer gets at when it says that penitence, the act of being sorry for our wrongdoings, begins with “self-examination” (BCP 612).    The fact that repentance is built on honesty may explain why John preaches and baptizes in the wilderness, a place where we are exposed and vulnerable, where the props of our old and familiar lives can’t sustain us and where we are dependent on another for help. 

Honesty is thus a pre-condition for spiritual growth and transformation, which is the goal of the Christian life, what St. Paul calls our life in Christ or sharing in the mind of Christ.   This idea of attaining a whole new identity is much bigger than the idea of sin and repentance often taught by much of Protestantism, which focuses on feeling sorry for individual misdemeanours.   Repentance is thus far bigger than feeling sorry for specific bad things that we may have done.  Repentance leads to a more Christ-like place where we can look charitably on others and want the best for them, pray for them, see ourselves in them, which is far better than wanting others cancelled for their crimes.

Finally,  John’s baptism involves the confession of sins (1.5) but does John have the power to forgive these sins?   Whatever power John has comes from another, as he admits.   John’s good news is that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit.  John’s baptism may be a sacrament, a sign of God’s grace, but Jesus’ baptism IS God’s grace, God’s plan and God’s power to remake us into the beloved children God always wanted us to be.

That’s the good news of Christ, that even though we are called into the wilderness, even though we are called to look deeply and honestly into ourselves, when we look back at Jesus we see only the transforming love of God.


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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