Sunday, June 27, 2021

Between Faith and Desperation: A Sermon For The Fifth Sunday After Pentecost


Preached via Zoom to All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, 27 June, 2021, the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost.

Readings for this Sunday (Proper 13B):  2 Sam 1.1,17-27; Ps 130; 2 Cor 8.7-15; Mk. 5.21-43.

“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease”. (Mk 5.34).

Today I want to talk about Jesus’ miracles of healing, how we receive them in our own time and place, and how they invite us to see something of the kingdom of God.

Today’s gospel reading offers two stories of Jesus’ healing powers that are “sandwiched” together, a favourite technique of Mark’s, so that the first story of Jairus’ daughter is interrupted by the second story of the healing of the woman.   This pairing of stories, like the stories of Jesus feeding the crowds, seems to point to the abundance of God’s power and healing.  The overall impression is of great grace, power, and mercy.

Let’s take a moment at the outset to acknowledge that some of us may have difficulty in accepting these miracles, as some preachers I know have acknowledged.   Likewise, I heard a seminary professor, a man who had lost his legs to cancer as a boy, say that there is a reason why the handicapped are not well represented in church.  Besides the obvious barriers to access and mobility, there was, he implied, a gap between the hope and promise of these stories and the reality of lives that are constrained and limited.

Also, while we’re being honest, if you’ve lived to a certain age, as most of us have, then you’ve seen disease and death first hand, as people we’ve loved have wasted away and passed on, taken from our grasp.  That can live a psychic and emotional mark, to be sure, that may well lead us to keep these healing stories at arm’s length. 

All of which makes me immensely respectful of prayer groups, like the one we have at All Saints, people who regularly take up the challenge of praying for those in all sorts of dire situations.  Often they don’t see their prayers answered in ways that look like the gospel stories.  And yet these prayer warriors persist, with patience and faith.

 I’ve also known people, like a devout and pious Anglican church musician, say without a scrap of doubt that God cured him of a serious and debilitating disease.  What can we say about these differences in belief?  Do we simply say that they represent gradations of faith?

Faith – such a simple and yet elusive word.  Is it as simple as Jesus says to the women with the haemorrhage – “your faith has made you well”?   Would we see more healings if we were more faithful? 

What if there’s a fine line between faith and desperation?   Mark doesn’t tell us about Jairus’ faith, but we know that his father’s love overcomes his pride, so he’s quite willing to beg and lie at Jesus’ feet.  Surely our most powerful and earnest prayers come from our places of our greatest need, so that despite all the evidence we have to the contrary, we are still willing to plead with God.  As the psalmist says, from “Out of the depths have I called you, O Lord” (Ps 130:1).  

Psalm 130 begins in a place of urgent need, and throws itself on the mercy and love of God.  The tone of the psalm is as much patient as it is hopeful – the verb “wait” is repeated three times.  There is no expectation of a rapid response to the prayer, yet the waiting is justified because of the psalmist’s faith in God’s goodness – “With him there is plenteous redemption”.  The psalm has no where else to go except to the goodness and love of God, represented ion Mark’s gospel in the very person of Jesus, before whom Jairus throws himself and whose robe the woman clutches.

Jesus in the gospels is not a doctor.   His ministry is not a kind of “Medicine Without Frontiers”.  In the gospels, especially John, his miracles are called “signs” – they point to something greater than medicine.  Those in the know, as in Mark’s gospel, understand what the signs are telling us.  The healing miracles point to, the power of God shown in Jesus, and, just as importantly, to the love of God shown in Jesus.

The healing miracles are about Jesus noticing our suffering.   Jesus follows Jairus and on the way, he sees the woman in the crowd when no one else does.  What other reason does Jesus have to heal this woman?  Why would he go out of his way to heal a sick child, and why would he not want credit for not just healing her, but for raising her from the dead?

The healing miracles tell us simply this – that in our moments of greatest need, when we cry from the depths of our desperate situations – Jesus will hear us and notice us.   To be sure, we live in an age of marvels, like the Covid vaccines that didn’t exist a year ago, and we are grateful for them.   But beyond what science and medicine can do for us, to whom can we turn except this God of love and compassion, and yes, this God of power, though God’s power does not always work in ways that we can understand.

What we can understand, I think, is that these miracles are signs of the values of kingdom of God.  We as disciples, as subjects of this kingdom should care about these values, we should care for them, broadcast them, strive for them when possible.   I spoke of vaccines a moment ago – are there vaccines for all?  Should we care about the gap between the vaccination rates in the first world and in the third?  Is there medicine for all?  Is thre healing for all?  Should we not want these things for all?

 God’s signs of healing should likewise inspire us to believe that healing is always possible.  Since healing is a core value of the kingdom of God, then we need to believe it, pray for it, bring it before God, whether we pray for a sick friend, or pray that God heal our communities and even our nation.  We need to pray that God heals our race relations, brings healing reconciliation with our First Nations.  We need to pray for healing in all its forms – even for food and shelter and addiction treatment and dignity for those on the street.

Jesus raises the girl from the dead – a promise of Easter, a promise of things to come, a promise of God’s boundless hostility to death and decay and the sin that corrodes our souls and pulls us from God.   The miracles are signs of God’s determination to fight and vanquish these things.   As our days close down, we can only commend our spirits into God’s hands, trusting that God will not let us go.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

God Grows Where God Wills: A Sermon For The Third Sunday After Pentecost

 A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Pentecost.  Preached via Zoom to All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, on 13 June, 2021.

Texts for Today:  1 Samuel 15.34-16.13; Psalm 20; 2 Corinthians 5.6-10,14-17; Mk 4.26-34

28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 

Today I want to talk about how Jesus’ seed parables in today’s gospel encourage us to think of how God is always active, often in ways that we can’t immediately understand and anticipate.   God’s activity and agency, I suggest, should encourage us as we try to imagine the uncertain future of our churches.

Let’s start by remembering that in each parable, when he says “The kingdom of God is like this or that”, Jesus is telling us something about who God is and how God works.   What do we learn about the kingdom of God in today’s gospel reading?

Well, I’m struck by how, in these seed parables, the kingdom of God has a mind and a will of it’s own.   In the first parable, there is no human agency after “someone” scatters the seed.  Once it hits the ground, it has a process and a power all of its own – the sower “does not know how” the seed grows, but it does!  The agency and initiative in the story are within the earth and the seed, which becomes the green independent of any human activity.

In the second parable, it’s not even clear that there is any human activity.   The mustard seed is “sown upon the ground”, but it could be self-seeding.   In my neighbour’s yard is a mature cotinus or smoketree, a beautiful thing whose blooms, like tumbleweeds, come off in the late summer and blow around.  As a result, we now have four young smoketrees growing in our front garden beds, so if you want one, I can help you out.   For all we know about the parable, the mustard seed grew in this way, independently of human hands, true to its nature.  If the point of the parables is that the kingdom of God is God’s initiative, then we should be profoundly relieved, because we can relieve ourselves of thinking that we need to do God’s work.  God’s work is God’s to do, God merely invites us to cooperate, though often, it can take us a while to perceive what God wants us of us because God often works in times of flux.

This week I attended the Diocese of Toronto’s clergy conference, and our speaker was talking about how God works in liminal time.  The word “liminal” goes from the Latin word limen meaning threshold, the place where you are between in and out.   A liminal time as our speaker described it is a transitional time where you don’t know exactly what will happen, but you know you will be different.  Think of the time between, say, when you first met your partner and when you were expecting your first child.   In that in-between or liminal time, the memory of when you were single and unattached was still strong, and the anticipation of being a first-time parent was intense.   You knew that you had changed and would change more, but didn’t know exactly how the change would remake you.

Our speaker challenged us to this time that we are in as church is a liminal time, in a way that’s far more than just to do with Covid.  Her main point was that it would be a profound mistake to think that once we are revaccinated and back in the pews on a Sunday, things will go back to normal.   They won’t be back to normal because even before Covid there was no normal.   We were in a liminal time, a time of transition, before Covid, and we will be after Covid.  I think at some level we all know this to be true.

It’s true in part because the overall church has been in decline for a long time.    According to numbers released by the Diocese of Toronto, we had 279 congregations with an average Sunday attendance of 33,323.  Today we have 199 congregations with an average Sunday attendance of 17,000.   The bulk of that decline has occurred since 2000.   Even if you don’t notice the numbers, you just had to look around the church on a Sunday to see that most of us aren’t getting any younger.  I’d be lying if I said that the fate of the church doesn’t keep me up at night, worrying about what will be left of us in a decade.

Which is why today’s gospel gives me hope, because whatever happens in the next decade, or two, or three, is really up to God.  That’s the point of the parable, that the seed grows where it will, or, as Jesus explains the Holy Spirit to Nicodemus in John’s gospel, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes (Jn 3.8).  The thing about a liminal time is that while we don’t know what’s beyond the threshold, we can be sure that God will be at work there.   Often in the history of the church, we see new eras and new futures unfolding, like the Gentiles being invited into the body of Christ, a story we hear every Pentecost. 

Here some things that I think we can hopefully glimpse in the future of the church.  Our seminaries are producing young men and women who will lead the church long after we are gone, in directions and forms we can’t imagine.   I have faith that these young clergy can reach people that people like myself, with gray beards, might not be able to reach.

New Canadians, from countries where Christ’s church is young and strong and growing, are forming congregations and bringing their faith and gifts.  Our Diocese includes some of these, like the Ahadi, a Kenyan congregation that my wife Joy works with.  I think we’ll see more such congregations forming and perhaps sharing our physical space as immigration continues to change King Township.

Immigration also means New Canadians of other faiths, and our older Christian churches will have many opportunities to be centres for the interfaith hospitality and dialogue that lead us away from fear and hatred.   We’re all shaken by the murder of the Muslim family in London, ON, last week, and we are all looking for ways to avoid such violence in future.  How wonderful if our churches could be involved in building bridges between the faith groups of Canada.

Finally, as we see the housing market follow it’s own perverse rules, freezing lower income people out of affordable housing, our churches can have new roles to play.  There’s a fascinating discussion starting in the Diocese of Toronto about the future of some of our properties, and our Diocese owns a LOT of property.   It’s entirely possible that some of our church properties can be repurposed as places of affordable and transitional housing in neighbourhoods where the need is greatest.

What can we do as a congregation while this future comes clearer and nearer?   Certainly we need to be attentive to God and to God’s initiatives, and perhaps less certain at the outset that we our plans and answers are what God wants.    We need to be good stewards of our physical space, and think about how, post-Covid, that space can serve the community.   We need to preach and live the gospel with conviction and hope.    Most importantly, we must never lose heart.   However All Saints figures in God’s purposes, there will be a church.  The unpredictable God of seed and spirit will act, in ways that we may not yet imagine, just as God has acted, from generation to generation, in the church and in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

A Message From Archbishop McDonald

I'm passing on this powerful message from our Canadian church's National Indigenous Archbishop, Mark McDonald, received in the WIND indigenous news weekly bulletin from Redeemer Church in Toronto on 9 June.  MP+

Dear Relatives,

It has been a sad few weeks.  Yesterday, we learned that the Rev. Vivian Seegers had died, the 11th Indigenous priest we have lost in this pandemic.  After her, there was the revelation that the Bishop of the Territory of the People - an area already in collapse from the pain of the discovery of the 215 Children - was under discipline and unable to practice his ministry while a charge of misconduct was brought against him.  We have been in prayer and Vigil, but it has been hard to stand up.  We have lost so many of our elder priests, so many young have died, that it is hard to care for our dead.  With that, today, many of you have been in confusion about what it means to throw one's collar and title away.

It is a painful, painful time.  I know and I want to be clear with you.  We have known for years that we would find the remains of children that the authorities - church authorities - didn’t care enough about to register them properly, or worse, sought to hide.  We fought for years to get those records, to get the revelations, knowing this day would come and knowing there would be more like it.  It is sad to me, now, that this appears to have come upon people without awareness.  Though we have tried to tell people over and over again, I feel a sense of failure.

Quietly, over the past few years some of our clergy, some elders, talked within Sacred Circle, with the Gospel in the Centre, about whether or not we should wear collars and, you will have noticed, some quietly chose not to wear them (most of them unpaid and most not to trigger those who went to the schools). There is an ongoing discussion within the Sacred Circle about this and it will continue.  There is an ongoing discussion about all vestments and all aspects of church life.  What parts of the old church do we carry and what do we leave behind.  It has been our commitment to make these discussions work together and, when we disagree, to let each other know within the circle.

The whole of our Indigenous Church has been premised on the idea that we would not be a part of the Institutional Church that did such harm.  Gospel Based Discipleship is always at is root and core a rejection of Institutionally Based Membership.  Today, we must with absolute purity and faithfulness receive the Gospel which blesses and anoints Indigenous life, doesn’t destroy it.  We are committed to it for life.  Today, I feel sad that we have not communicated strongly enough that our identity has nothing to do with the institution of the Anglican Church of Canada.  Our identity is that of Indigenous People alive in the Living Word of God.

So, at the end of a day in which we have lost clergy and carried sadness, we must stand, not in our strength or in the strength of a human institution (If I thought for a moment, even for a second, that my loyalty to an institution presided over my loyalty to Jesus, I have betrayed every aspect of it.), but in the strength of the one who died for abandoned children and rose with them.  One who came back from a world in which he reigns with those little children and who says that, if we are willing to submit to that world - even now -  we will see its fruits - even now.  Relatives, we may now have less to tend our sick and dying, but we don’t have any less of Jesus.  Do not give up on hope, dear relatives.  Hope has not given up on you.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

A Sermon on the Lost Children of Kamloops for the Second Sunday After Pentecost

 A Sermon for the Second Sunday After Pentecost, 6 June, 2021.   Texts for today:  1 Sam 8.4-20; Ps 138; 2 Cor 4.13-5.1; Mk 3.20-35.  Preached via Zoom to All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto.

“But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations” (1 Sam 8.19).

This week we’ve struggled with the news that the bodies of 215 indigenous children have been found beneath the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, BC.   This discovery, sadly, should not have come as a surprise.  In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report included a section on burials at native residential schools across Canada, calling for more work to be done on identifying the children who died at these schools because of disease and malnutrition.   Former senator Murray Sinclair, who headed the TRC, has said that his calls for furtherinvestigations were not supported, and he says that we should brace ourselvesfor more such discoveries. 

We have records for more than 4100 indigenous children who died at these schools during their operation from the late 1800s to the mid 1900s.   In the case of Kamloops, the TRC has records of 51 children who died at the school there, which means that 160 plus bodies still need to be identified.   This simple arithmetic suggests that the total number of children who died in the residential school system is likely far higher than has ever been officially recorded.

We can only imagine the grief of parents and families whose children never came home. Did they receive official notification of their children’s deaths?   Did they wait in vain for the small bodies to return home for proper burial according to their customs?   The most likely answer is that they didn’t get satisfactory answers because they weren’t considered important and it was easier to sweep these deaths under the carpet.

How do we deal with this revelation as Canadians and as people of faith?   This week I saw a church near my home place the simple words “Two hundred fifteen” on its curbside sign.  People are changing their pictures on Facebook and other social media sites to show concern and support.   These measures are well-intentioned but so much more needs to be done for Canada to come through this with healing and true reconciliation.  So what can we do to make reconciliation real?  I have three suggestions.

For a start, it seems to me that no expense should be spared to find as many of these bodies as is humanly possible, identify them, and return them with dignity to their communities and ancestral lands, and expense be damned. 

As a former Canadian Forces chaplain, I know that our nation spares no expense to use DNA testing to identify the remains of Canadian soldiers who are still sometimes found overseas.  We spare no expense to bury these soldiers with honour.    We’ve erected statues to their memory, like the famous one “Mother Canada Weeps” at the Vimy Ridge memorial in France.  It seems to me that this work of identification and repatriation is just as important today.  Mother Canada is still weeping and mourning her missing children.  Let’s ask our elected representatives to make this happen.

Secondly, it seems to me that we need a more honest conversation about what reconciliation looks like.   Why is the federal government still resisting responsibility and reparations for some survivors of the residential schools?  What more can our churches do to accept the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation commission?   I’m profoundly grateful that there are voices in our church such as Archbishop Mark McDonald and our own Dave Gordon who keep calling us to justice and action.  

Our ties to the community in Pikangikum are an excellent way for us to support and help living indigenous children while mourning dead ones.    One good and workable idea I’ve heard is to set aside the price of your first cup of coffee a day, for Pikangikum young people and projects like the proposed school trip to southern Ontario once Covid is over.  Today I’m calling on All Saints to set aside a toonie a day, if you can, for our ministries to Pikangikum.

Finally, I think we as disciples of Jesus need to turn to the resources of our teaching and our sacred stories.   Scripture is our story.    It’s about us as God’s people and it should always guide our thinking as we struggle with stories like the finding of the Kamloops children.   In our first reading from Samuel, we see God’s people forgetting or even discarding their identity as  God’s people.  Faced with hostile enemies who are better equipped and organized than they are, they want a king to be “like other nations”.   Samuel warns the cost of this – the willful sacrifice of their children, subjecting them to war and suffering and abuse by cruel masters – in tbeir quest for security, even if it means abandoning their unique identity as a people rescued from slavery by God (“I brought them up out of Egypt).

Scripture teaches us that this is what happens when we choose power over love, hierarchy over service, when some are sacrificed.  The churches were complicit with the Canadian government in the Native Schools because they forgot they were God’s people and went along with the spirit of the age.  So that they should be “like other nations”, indigenous children were robbed of their families, their culture, their language, and many of their lives.  So that our churches could be “like other nations”, they conformed to an ideal of progress and western civilization, no matter the lives lost or the damage to the survivors.  We did these things because we worshipped triumph and narrow views of race and progress, and because we didn't care about the cost of that worship.  

We wouldn’t have done these things if we had better understood the gospel, but, instead of following the Crucified One, we crucified these children.  We forgot that Jesus entered Jerusalem to embrace a cross where human pride and sin must go to die and where humanity might be reborn in a way where all are adopted as brothers and sisters of the family of God in the power of the resurrection.

Reconciliation can only begin at the cross, where our pride and our past has to be exposed and die.   Because it starts at the cross, the road of reconciliation is a hard road for all of us to travel, but a necessary one.   If we want to attend to the lessons of the residential schools, if we want to hear the voices of the survivors, if we choose to embrace the calls to action of the TRC, if we want to pay the cost of finding and burying the lost children and embracing the living ones, well, that’s a long process, but as Paul says, its’ part of how our old, “outer nature” must waste away (2 Cor 4.16) if we, as Canada, as church, as the people of God, are to be renewed in the image of God that all of us, indigenous and settler, bear.  Let’s pray.

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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