Sunday, December 25, 2022

The Bonfire of the Tyrannies. A Sermon for Christmas Day.

The Bonfire of the Tyrannies.   A Sermon for Christmas Day. Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 25 December, 2022.


Readings for this day:  Isaiah 62:6-12, Ps 97, Titus 3:4-7, Luke 2:1-20




5For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 6For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:5-6)

These words from Isaiah, from our Christmas Eve readings, have been much on my mind these last few days.   The image of God overthrowing oppression, of a child being more powerful than terrible armies, speaks to us as much now as it would have done when it was first written.    

When the prophet Isaiah first wrote these words, the “tramping warriors” would have been the soldiers of Assyria, one of the most ruthless and militaristic powers of the ancient world, whose armies had almost overrun Israel.   

Today the “tramping boots of the warriors” could refer to Putin’s thugs in the Ukraine, or to the Iranian regime’s police in the streets of Tehran, beating and shooting courageous young women and their brothers who just want to be free.   The tramping boots of the warriors are the junta’s soldiers in the streets of Myanmar, they are Boko Haram who haunt villages in Africa, they are the narco gangs who kill innocents in the towns of Mexico.

Isaiah promised us a saviour who will deliver us from the men of violence.   Through the weeks of Advent we have heard this promise.   We have heard the promise of the one who will show us “the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God”, have been told that he will “come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.  He will come and save you” (Isa 35:4).

We remember Mary’s song, when she learned that the one she would carry would show “strength with his arm” and pull down “the mighty from their thrones” (Lk 1: 51-52).  So we look for this one who will come to topple tyrants and rout their tramping warriors, and we find him this day.   We find him an infant, a manger, the poor child of nobody parents.  As N.T. Wright has said, no appearance of God could be further from what we imagine.  No transcendence, no power and majesty, just human helplessness and the dependence of an infant.

What good is such frailty in a harsh world?  Will our deliverance come from a child such as this?   Indeed, the “tramping boots of the warriors” are never far from the Nativity story.  In Matthew’s gospel they are sent by Herod to find and kill the one sought by the Magi.  The Holy Family flee Bethlehem just steps ahead of a massacre.

For such thoughts, the opening words of St. John’s gospel are required.  St. John says of Jesus “What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (Jn 1:3-5).   Here I think is the great hope of Christmas, that Jesus is the light that comes into the world to lead us to the good at the same time as it exposes the darkness for what it is.

That same star which shines kindly on the travelling Magi is the very light that exposes the deeds of Herod’s soldiers.    And here I think is one great hope of the Christian faith, that the good always shows most clearly and most attractively in the greatest darkness.   Every tyrant’s reign ends in shame and ruin.   The mass graves will be dug up, secrets are exposed, prisoners are freed, the war criminals will be brought to justice, truth and reconciliation and God’s justice will prevail.   Such are the hopes that we bring to the child in the manger.

I owe these thoughts to the poet Malcolm Guite and his poem, “The Refugee”.  

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,

Or cosy in a crib beside the font,

But he is with a million displaced people

On the long road of weariness and want.

For even as we sing our final carol

His family is up and on that road,

Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,

Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower

Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,

The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,

And death squads spread their curse across the world.

But every Herod dies, and comes alone

To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.

Herod and Putin will come before the same child born in Bethlehem.  For the child will be their judge, and he will set his people free, free to dance one day around the bonfires of all tyrannies.  “The boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.”

Such, dear saints, is the paradox of Christmas, that only a child such as this can set us free and save us.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Kneeling With The Oxen: A Sermon for Christmas Eve

Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto,  Christmas Eve, 2022.   Texts:  Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20




Earlier tonight, at our 5pm liturgy, we gave ourselves permission to make gentle fools of ourselves in our “pop up Nativity pageant”.   It was the usual collection of characters that most of us recall from our childhoods - shepherds and angels, animals and magi.   It doesn’t matter if you have to mash Luke’s and Matthew’s nativity stories to put all these characters together, because a good nativity play isn’t about biblical accuracy.   A good nativity play, as I said at 5pm, is about recovering our sense of childhood wonder at a world in which God dwells among us.


Earlier tonight, we played the old familiar roles.   Yours truly made an ass of himself, just because the donkey costume we have is so much fun, but I also insisted that we have an ox.  Why an ox?   Because this year I went down a bit of a rabbit hole as far as oxen and nativity stories are concerned, because in every nativity story worth its salt, and in every decent Christmas creche, you have to have an ox and an ass.  


They’re in all the great carols, like “What Child Is This”, and there’s an ox and an ass in every good Christmas creche, like the beautiful one that was recently donated to All Saints.   However, if you look at the two nativity stories in Matthew (Mt 1.18 - 2.15) and Luke (Lk 2.1-20), there is no mention of ox, nor of a donkey, and for that matter, no sheep or camels!   And yet, the ox and ass are part of our Christmas tradition.  Why is that?


The very first nativity play was probably staged by St. Francis of Assisi in the year 1223 in Italy.  Francis’ biographer St. Bonaventure writes that “Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed”.  Francis thus began a tradition that many rural churches continue to this day, of bringing live animals inside the church on Christmas Eve, which all the misadventures that can befall.   But Francis was probably following a well-established custom in Christian art.



You can find images of the ox and ass kneeling beside the manger from as far back as the year 400 AD.    There are many legends and stories that grew around these figures, that the donkey carried Mary to Bethlehem, that the ox was intended by Joseph to be his payment of Caesar’s tax.   Perhaps the most charming of these stories is that the ox and the donkey who showed their love to the baby Jesus by keeping him warm with their breath. 




No doubt St. Francis in his nativity scene was drawing on this idea of the animals bringing their simple love and devotion to Jesus, and thus inspiring the same love and devotion in those there that night.  Scholars today call this “affective piety”, the idea that our faith could be highly emotional, focused on the humanity and vulnerability of Jesus, from his infancy to his agonies on the cross.  The simple devotion of the animals at the manger made its way into all sorts of Victorian songs, like “The Friendly Beasts” or, as it is sometimes known, “The Animal Carol”.


Let us fast forward now to England, in the year 1915, where the world is in its second year of a terrible war.   The poet Thomas Hardy was probably thinking on the country Christmases of his youth when he wrote this poem, The Oxen.


The Oxen


Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.

“Now they are all on their knees,”

An elder said as we sat in a flock

By the embers in hearthside ease.


We pictured the meek mild creatures where

They dwelt in their strawy pen,

Nor did it occur to one of us there

To doubt they were kneeling then.


So fair a fancy few would weave

In these years! Yet, I feel,

If someone said on Christmas Eve,

“Come; see the oxen kneel,


“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb

Our childhood used to know,”

I should go with him in the gloom,

Hoping it might be so.


The poem can seem to be merely a wistful longing of an old man for this lost innocence of a child at Christmas, but this year Hardy’s poem has spoken to me and I pray that it might speak to you as well.   Why shouldn’t the oxen kneel before the one who created the world?    Is that one detail any more wonderful than any of the other cherished details of the nativity story?   Is this not the reason why you braved winter’s blast to com here tonight, for precisely this sort of magic and wonder?


Yes, I know that we may carry layers of sophistication and experience that might bar the door to magic and wonder.   We might think that magic and wonder are childish things that we should put away as we get older and wiser.   We might think that oxen kneeling in love and awe are part of a primitive worldview, one  incompatible with our post-Enlightenment, rationalist explanations of reality.   Or, if we have been strongly formed by the Protestant tradition, we might dismiss medieval legends as simple stories not found in scripture and not justified by Reformed theology.


Tonight, dear saints, I ask you to set your sophistication aside.   Give yourself permission to enter into the magic and wonder of this night and of its story.   For tonight only, if tonight is all that you can manage, believe that a virgin conceived and gave birth to a Mighty Counsellor, the Prince of Peace.  Believe that angels from the realms of glory have come to summon shepherds and give us good news.  Believe that camels glide across the dark desert under a shining star, bearing kings from distant lands.    Believe that the humble animals bow down in devotion to the child who was present when heaven and earth were made.  Scholars may call it affective piety, but tonight, let us be content to feel childlike wonder and adoration.


For really, nothing about tonight is too great or too magical to not be unbelievable.  For the greatest thing of all about this story is the one who stirs in that manger.  Writing sometime around the year 400, St. John Chrysostom said this:


Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken. For this day paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused and spread on every side – a heavenly way of life has been implanted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and we now hold speech with angels.

To Him, then, who out of confusion has wrought a clear path; to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Spirit, we offer all praise, now and forever. Amen.

Dear saints, tonight nothing is too wondrous, nothing is too magical.   Scepticism and doubt can wait for another time, as God gives us grace to deal with them.   Tonight, it is enough to go and join the oxen.  Let us kneel with them at the manger and together let us adore the child who has come to save us. 

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Trusting the One Who Is To Come: A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

I’ve had a few weeks off while my clergy colleagues preached Advent 1 and 2.   Good to back.  MP+


Trusting The One Who Is To Come: A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent.  Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 11 December, 2022.   Readings (Yr A) for this Sunday:  Isaiah 35:1-10, Canticle 18 (Luke 1:47-55), James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11.




“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”


Today I want to talk about what our expectations are of Jesus, and how they may not match with what Jesus offers and with what Jesus asks of us.


Last Sunday we heard ”The voice of one crying in the wilderness”, the voice that Isaiah said would come to tell us to make ready for the coming of the Lord.    That was the voice of John the Baptist, a voice that was loud and proud, the voice of someone confident in his vocation, certain of the one far, far greater than he.


This Sunday we again hear John’s voice, but how different this voice is!   It’s a voice carried from prison by John’s friends, a voice that we can more likely relate to, a voice that’s uncertain, a voice in which hope seems just slightly tinged with by doubt.    “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  (Mt 11.3).


If you’re puzzled why John has gone from the wilderness last Sunday to prison this Sunday, it’s because we’ve fast forwarded some years in the story.    Jesus is well into his travels and ministry, but meanwhile John has been arrested for criticizing King Herod, who had unlawfully married his half niece.    As  Matthew tells us later on, John will never leave prison, and will soon be executed (Mt 14:1-12).


Prison in the ancient world was a terrible place.   Prisoners were entirely dependent on their friends and families for food and care, which is why Jesus himself says that one of the duties of his followers is to visit those in prison (Mt 25.36).  John must have had visits from his own disciples and followers, times during which they must have debated who Jesus was and whether he had brought the kind of salvation that they had hoped for.


Like many of his generation, John must have expected that the Messiah going to be another King David who would free his people, a champion who would cast down tyrants like Herod and Pilate.  John himself had stood on the banks of the Jordan promising such a Messiah, one who was coming with fire and with an axe.   But as Jesus’ ministry played out, it became apparent that the Messiah was a teacher and a healer.


“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another” asks John from prison?    As John languished in some dank, dark cell, probably knowing that his death is near, he was really asking, what sort of salvation does Jesus offer us?  Is the teaching and healing of Jesus enough, or is there more, some political program or revolutionary agenda?   And, if Jesus isn’t sufficient for our needs, who else can save us?   In asking these questions, John could not know that he was founding a long tradition of Christians who have used their endless hours in prison to ask these questions.  Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail that one has little to do when "he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?” King’s letter from prison is written with a strong spirit of impatience that changes to race laws weren’t happening fast enough. 


In 1943, the German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was arrested for his role in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the  Nazi party.    While a committed Christian, Bonhoeffer had come to believe that violence was necessary to save Germany.  He spent the last two years of his life in prison, during which time he wrote books on ethics and discipleship, maintained his many friendships by letter, and encouraged his fellow prisoners right up to the day of his execution.   


While Bonhoeffer never thought that Christians should turn their backs on the world and think only of heaven, as time went on and his position became increasingly hopeless, he had ample time to think about his absolute dependence on Jesus.    In one of his letters from prison, he wrote that “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other - things that are really of no consequence – the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.” 


It’s human nature to be impatient for change, but sometimes patience is forced on us.    Thus, I love this quote because I think it accurately captures both our current posture of waiting in Advent, and it also describes our total need for the one we wait for. 


“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” I think that Bonhoeffer might have said, in response to John’s question, there is no other.  The one who can save us is the one who has done miracles, and is the one who returned from death.   There is no other greater than he.  As Bonhoeffer wrote near the end of his life, “All that we may rightly expect from God, and ask for him, is to be found in Jesus Christ”. 


What does Jesus say in response to John’s question.   I think it’s fascinating how Jesus doesn’t answer “Yes, of course I’m the one”, and nor does he get angry with John for doubting him.    He merely says, in effect, if you look at what I’m doing, then you’ll see who I am.   See the lame who walk now, see the blind who have their sight, see the lepers who now have clean skin, see the dead who are raised to life.  


John had certainly heard of these miracles and healings while in prison, which is why he sent his disciples to Jesus, and we know about them in part because Matthew describes them in his chapters 8 to 10.  To John, and to us, Jesus seems to be saying, this is the work I was sent to do, this is what the kingdom of God looks like.  What Jesus doesn’t do is offer his works to John as a categorical proof that he is the one sent by God.    Instead, he says something quite interesting.  In what almost sounds like it should be part of the Beatitudes, Jesus says “Blessed is anyone who takes no offence in me” (Mt 11.6).  What does this mean?


Now we know that not everyone at the time believed in Jesus.  We know this because he was crucified, of course, but we also know that even some of those of saw him after his resurrection weren’t convinced.  At the very end of his gospel, just before Jesus is raised into heaven, with the wounds still fresh on his hands and feet, Matthew says, When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted” (Mt 28.17).  


Taking offence at Jesus could just mean simple disbelief that any one man could have done these things.  More and more people  today don’t believe in Jesus.  Even if I could point to some  exra-biblical, contemporary historical source that documented all of these miracles, I am sure people would deny it, in the same way that some people deny the moon landings, or deny that vaccines work.    It’s human nature to disbelieve and doubt.  I get that, but I think there’s more to it.  I think a more likely reason why so many take offence at Jesus is because he just asks too much of us.


Recall that last Sunday we heard John in the wilderness say to the crowds “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Mt 3.1).  These are exactly the same words that Jesus says at the very start of his ministry, right after he returns from being tempted in the desert.   Repent meaning that your current life isn’t pleasing to God.  Repent meaning turn about, change your ways, give your heart and will to God.     These are far harder things to do than to believe in some ancient miracles.  


The American preacher Timothy Keller rightly says that people don’t want to believe in a Jesus who tells them that they need to change their lives, because that’s insulting to them to say that they’re not good enough for them.   But they also don’t want to believe in a Jesus of unlimited grace, because they don’t like to see people worse than them forgiven, and also because  they’re suspicious that there’s a catch, that a God so generous might demand something of them down the road.   Better not to believe at all, or maybe just believe on our terms, better to judge ourselves and say we’re basically ok..  


“Blessed are those who take no offence in me”.   What would this blessing look like? How would we ask for it?  I think it would start with repentance, with a desire to put our lives and hearts and thoughts under the authority of Jesus.   This blessing would then flow from an absolute trust in Jesus, an admission that we are dependent on Jesus to unlock the doors that confine us.    This dependence would not just be spiritual, private, and apolitical.   I mean, if you listened to the song of Mary, which we heard in lieu of our psalm today, you’ll know that God is not apolitical.  The Magnificat is all about thrones and powers crashing down as the poor and hungry are lifted up. 


So if we want to believe in Jesus and if we want to put ourselves under his authority and his Magnificat agenda, then we need the courage to stand with him and say no to those forces of greed and hatred and injustice that would want to be our gods. To depend on Jesus is to say to the world that Jesus is all in all.  To depend on Jesus is to say that we uphold the dignity of the poor and the outcast because Jesus loves them.  To depend on Jesus is say that we try to love the unlovable because Jesus loved them, that we try to forgive as Jesus did.  To depend on Jesus is even to say that we try not to fear death because Jesus rose from the dead as he will raise us on the last day.


This sort of faith and dependence doesn’t come easily.    We can’t just throw a switch and say that it is well with our soul.   Dietrich Bonhoeffer was killed by the Nazis just days before the war ended, within days of being liberated by the allied armies.   One witness of his death marvelled at his grace and serenity. A prisoner who survived, and who knew him in his last days, said that Bonhoeffer was closer to God than any other man that he had ever known.   And yet Bonhoeffer was a confident intellectual, a prominent clergyman, a mover and shaker from an aristocratic family.  He had his own pride and self-reliance to overcome.  It took years of prayer, meditation, and hardship for him to arrive at the trust and serenity of his final days.


“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  This is a fair question to ask in times of sickness and sorrow, when we are tired and impatient and feel trapped by life.   But we won’t know the answer to this question if we don’t turn our hearts and lives to Jesus.   This giving of ourselves takes time.  It’s found in prayer and service, it’s found in being honest with God about our needs and even our spiritual poverty.   We find Jesus in the slow healing of our hearts, and we find Jesus in the knowledge that we and our neighbour are loved and lovable.   We find Jesus when we open our doors to the neighbourhood, as we will this coming Wednesday, with all the work that entails.


So yes, my friends, the babe born in Bethlehem is the one we wait for.    There is no other to rely on.    There is no saviour of our own making.   The one we wait for is Jesus, the one who has healed and will heal, the one who has risen and who open our prison door and who will raise us.     Jesus, who comes with all the love of God in his heart, enough love to change our lives and our world.   He is the one who we wait for this Advent, with longing and joy.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

What King Do We Want? A Sermon for the Reign of Christ

Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, on Sunday, November 20, 2022, The Reign of Christ,  Readings for this Sunday:  Jeremiah 23:1-6; Luke 1:68-79; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43.

Late in her life, Queen Elizabeth told a BBC interviewer that her crown was “unwieldy”.    With her characteristic dry humour, the Queen was describing what it was like to wear the Imperial Crown that she would wear for state occasions such as the State Opening of Parliament.    In describing how to wear the Crown, the Queen said “You can’t look down to read the speech, you have to take the speech up.  Because if you did (look down), your neck would break – it would fall off”.  As the Queen wryly commented, “there are some disadvantages to crowns, but otherwise they’re quite important things”. 

One of the things that many of us loved the late Queen for was that she wore the Crown as a burden, a burden of duty and service that she accepted to serve us.  Despite the trappings of her office -- the palaces and the estates -- Elizabeth modeled a certain kind of power, one that could often be humble and self aware.    While we give thanks for that kind of servant leadership, we must note that there other models of power today that are influential and malignant.     Today’s authoritarians and strong men don’t wear diamond encrusted crowns or even military uniforms.   They wear suits, they run sham elections, they stoke fears and divisions, they lie, steal, intimidate, and they kill, if they can get away with it.  

It's distressing how many people – friends, neighbours, family – want to be ruled by a strong man (and they are usually men).   I found it ironic, and a little funny, that as I was thinking about this sermon this week, a certain Florida senior citizen and golfer announced that he wanted his old job back.    In one of his last columns in The Washington Post before his passing, Michael Gerson commented on how so many of his fellow Americans “have a fatal attraction to the oddest of political messiahs — one whose deception, brutality, lawlessness and bullying were rewarded with the presidency”.

Much of this “fatal attraction” is felt by some Christians who want a strongman to protect what they see as a certain way of life.    As an influential US pastor has said, “I want the meanest, toughest SOB I can find to protect this nation”.  While Canadian politics is far more secular, it has also taken on populist and even authoritarian qualities, whether over land use, health mandates, or overriding municipal powers.     It seems that as people get angrier, feel threatened, and become less respectful of their neighbours, they want a strong leader who will do what it takes to make them feel like winners.

The paradox of our Christian faith is that we worship the ultimate strong leader.   Consider the opening verse of our second reading, from St Paul’s letter to the Colossian church:  “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power” (Col 1.11).   That word “power” is a translation of the Greek word “kratos” which Luke uses in the Song of Mary, the Magnificat (he has shown strength with his arm”, and the word “strength” is a translation of the more common gospel word “dynamis” from which we get our modern word dynamite.    “Dynamis” is used, for example, in Jesus’ teaching his disciples to pray: “For thine is the kingdom, the power (dynamis) and the glory” (Mt 6.13).  Our second reading in fact may be one of the most audacious claims in all of scripture, for Paul says that Jesus is THE cosmic power, that Jesus is one with God “in him all things hold together” (Col 1.17).   Or, as Bruce Cockburn puts it in one of his songs, Jesus is “Lord of the starfields, ancient of days, universe maker”.

But notice that Paul does not promise us, Jesus’ followers, that all this power will be deployed to support our agendas.   Rather, he says that all this power will make Christians “prepared to endure everything with patience” (Col 1.11).  We need to note that this promise is not for Christians waiting to seize power, but rather it’s an encouragement for believers who may be called to suffer under someone else’s power.    These are words for those who may face persecution under Nero, and not for those wanting to put their own Christian Nero on a throne.

Ever since kings became Christians and started wearing crowns, we’ve confused the Kingdom of God with the kingdoms of earth.    The idea of Christian nationalism which we are starting to hear more of in American politics, is a belief that the will of God can be brought about by human laws, human politics, and human anger.   But this was always a misunderstanding that often leads to persecution, tyranny.   Again to quote Michael Gerson, when Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God, he’s speaking of a calling:   “[Jesus] called human beings to live generously, honestly, kindly and faithfully. Following this way … is not primarily a political choice, but it has unavoidable public consequences”.

What might our society look like if more of us, including our leaders, followed the way of Jesus? 

It would have the unity that comes from a respect for our common dignity.    Jeremiah in our first lesson condemns false leaders “who have scattered my flock” (Jer 23.2).   The kingdom of God has no place for those who would divide and conquer.

It would be free of voices that stoke hatred and sow fear of the stranger, the immigrant, or the transgender,    Again to quote Jermiah, “I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing” (Jer 23.4).    Any voice which seeks to instill fear, hatred, or suspicion is not a voice that speaks for Jesus.

The way of Jesus would mean that our words to one another were gracious and forgiving, free of grievance, slander, and  hatred.   Paul says that Jesus is Ground Zero for all forgiveness:  “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20).  Any voice which speaks arrogantly, which tries to lie about past injustices, and which refuses to seek reconciliation and forgiveness is not a voice that speaks for Jesus.

The Kingdom of God is hard to see if you don’t know what to look for.   Think about the mocking voices in our gospel reading from Luke:  “If you are the King of the Jews”, “Are you not the Messiah”, or Pilate’s sarcastic inscription on the cross, “This is the King of the Jews”.  Those voices don’t speak for the Kingdom of God.

But if you listen to that dialogue between the crosses - one broken and dying man forgiving his murdered, another asking for mercy and receiving it – if you listen to those voices, barely audible above the baying of the mob, then you recognize the Kingdom of God.

At some point, it will please God to reveal the Kingdom of God in all its glory.    But for those of us who choose to follow Jesus and who seek his kingdom, we have a clear path to follow that leads us forward.   Let me give the last words to Michael Gerson, who wrote these words in what he knew were the last days of his life:

the way of life set out by Jesus comes like a clear bell that rings above our strife. It defies cynicism, apathy, despair and all ideologies that dream of dominance. It promises that every day, if we choose, can be the first day of a new and noble manner of living. Its most difficult duties can feel much like purpose and joy. And even our halting, halfhearted attempts at faithfulness are counted by God as victories.



Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Judaism: Christianity's Slightly Older Brother?

Karl Barth once said that the Jews are the older brothers and sisters of Christianity, but how much older?    

I’ve always thought that in the gospels, when Jesus challenges traditions held by some, such as challenging the Pharisees’ understandings of Sabbath keeping or ritual purity, that these were long-established customs and traditions.    In fact, Judaism as it is presented in the gospels (admittedly not a reliable source) may not have been more than a century older than the Jesus movement.   At least, that’s the thesis of a new book by a Jewish archaeologist named Yonatan Adler.

Adler’s thesis is basically that Judaism didn’t take on its essential character until the Hasmonean dynasty in the 2nd century BCE, when Israel began to emerge from Hellenistic dominance.

I lack the knowledge to form a quick judgement on Adler’s thesis, but the scholarly reaction in this Smithsonian article is not hostile.  However, today, comments like this are leaving me slightly disoriented.

"Konrad Schmid, a biblical scholar at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, agrees that “before the Hellenistic period,” knowledge of the sacred text “was probably limited to small scribal circles centered in Jerusalem.” He speculates that the Hebrew Bible’s rules could have been conceived not as laws but as “a document depicting an ideal community.” He is unsure, however, if the text remained obscure to most Judeans as late as the second century B.C.E."




Saturday, November 12, 2022

What Can The Church Say? A Sermon for Remembrance Day Sunday

Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, and St. Luke’s, Creemore, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Remembrance Day Sunday, 13 November, 2022.  Texts:  Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9; Psalm 116:1-8; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 11:21-27 


“But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died … but they are at peace”  (Wis 3.1)

What should the church say on this day, on Remembrance Day Sunday?   Should we say anything different from what we pray and proclaim on any other Sunday?  


I ask these questions because I worry that if we’re not careful, we run the risk of being whipsawed theologically, so that our message becomes incoherent.  After all, just last Sunday we heard Jesus tell us to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek (Lk 6:27-29).  Today, it’s tempting to say something radically different, to speak of “our glorious dead” and to want to give thanks for their victories in battle.


It may be impossible to avoid some incoherence on Remembrance Day Sunday.     There is wide variation in the Christian witness on war and the gospel, ranging from the pacifism of the Mennonite tradition to the Just War theology of the Roman Catholic tradition, which justifies war in certain circumstances.    In my own experience as a military chaplain I was forbidden to carry weapons because it’s long been felt that Christian ministers can serve in uniform, but only as non-combatants.   So since we as Christians have never fully agreed on how we can reconcile the gospel of Jesus Christ with war and violence, I think some caution is called for.


In that spirit of caution, I think the first, the best, and the safest thing we need to say today is that “we remember”.   


We remember those of this parish who served and particularly those who never came home.    We remember those of this community, an incredible 1 in 10 of Collingwood’s population who left for the First World War, just as we remember the men and women who in the Second World War built the corvettes that left here to help keep the sea lanes open.  Likewise remember those from across the Commonwealth who came here to learn to fly in the British Commonwealth Air Training Program.    Of that later group, we have a special duty to remember our Australian friends, Colin Arthur and Claude Ross, who are honoured at the back of our nave, just two of the many fledgling flyers who died in training.  And of those who did train here in Canada and then went to fly in the deadly skies over Europe, we remember the almost ten thousand Canadian airmen killed in the bomber raids over Nazi Germany.  Likewise we remember those who served in peacekeeping where it worked, as in Cyprus, or where it disastrously failed, as in Bosnia and Rwanda.  We remember those who went to Afghanistan with all the tragedy of its outcome, and who today wrestle with memories of lost comrades and who bear wounds, visible and otherwise.


So the first thing the church can say on Remember Day is we accept the duty of memory.   To Edward Knight, who is remembered on the wall across from this pulpit, and to Colin Arthur and Claude Ross and all those others, we say remember you as best we can.    We pledge to you that we will learn your stories and teach them to the generations that follow, that we will honour your sacrifices, and that we will do our best to see that you did not die in vain.   All of these duties and obligations are laid on our shoulders when we say, as many did at the cenotaph on Friday, “we will remember them”.

  This duty of memory is a civic duty, cor we as Christians and Anglicans are called to remember just as Canadians of all faiths and none are called to remember.  Fair enough.  We want to be good citizens and good Canadians, we want to be found worthy of those who went before us.  But as Christians, our memory is nuanced, it must have theological layers if it is to be worthy of the gospel.  If we remember the ten thousand Canadians who died flying with Bomber Command, then we must also remember those in the cities they bombed, just as we remember the civilian dead of all the cities, Warsaw, London, Coventry, Dresden, Kyiv, Kherson.   We must remember the totality of modern war, how it consumes countless lives, military and civilian, and how war is perhaps the most sinful thing we can name in the world.  We must remember with sorrow as well as pride, with repentance as well as patriotism.   If there is one day of the Christian year that should teach us how to think of war, then that day is surely Ash Wednesday.


Beyond saying that we remember, I think that on this day, Remembrance Sunday, the church must be sparing with our words and careful of how we speak about God’s purposes.  In our first lesson, from the Wisdom of Solomon, we heard that “But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died … but they are at peace”  (Wis 3.1).   This text from the Hebrew scriptures offers the comfort that the dead we remember are in the care of God (indeed, the scripture readings for Remembrance Sunday are the very ones we use for All Souls, our feast for the faithful dead), but we need be extremely careful with our use of the word “righteous”.   In the context of our readings, our first lesson can seem to say that our war dead and the causes they fought in were righteous, but this would be to speak in human terms.   When scripture uses the word “righteous”, it is always speaking of the goodness and rightness that is God’s only, and only God can make us righteous.


Even so, it is in the nature of soldiers to want to believe that they fight in a righteous cause.  Let me explain by describing a conversation that I often think of.   I have a friend who as a young Army officer had served in Afghanistan.  He was deeply effected by his experience, and on his arm he had tattooed the names of two of his soldiers who were killed on their tour.   Over a beer in the mess one day, he told me how much he appreciated the chaplains, or padres, that he had met over there, but he said he had one complaint.   “Why don’t you padres ever pray for a good smiting?” 


A little confused,  I asked him what he meant.  He told me, “Before we went out on a mission, the Padre would pray for our safety and that God would bless us and bring us back whole, and that was nice, but what I really wanted was for that Padre to pray for God to help us smite our enemies like God smites people in the Bible.   But he never prayed that.  I like Padres, but why can’t you guys pray for a good smiting?”   The word “smite” (Her nawkaw) of course is a King James Bible word meaning hit, kill, or destroy, and is often used in the bloodier books of the Hebrew scriptures when God encourages his people to kill their foes.


I told my friend that my chaplain colleague was probably wise enough to know that such a prayer would have been wrong.    Think about it, I told him.  Somewhere out there in the darkness, while you were getting ready to go out on your patrol, don’t you think there might have been another holy man praying that Allah would give his guys the strength to kill you, the infidel invader? If your padre had prayed for you to kill in God’s name, would that have made him any better than the Taliban holy men who promise a speedy trip to paradise for warriors and martyrs?


I was trying to convey to my young friend the inherent dangers in thinking of ourselves as holy warriors in a holy cause.  Such a mindset allows for our worst, most violent selves to emerge.   Only God is righteous, and only God can make us righteous, and if God is love, then God cannot be war.   It may be that some wars must be fought because they are necessary.    The Ukrainian war of self-defence is perhaps the clearest case for a just war that I have seen in my lifetime.    I know for certain, because I’ve met them, that there are Ukrainian army chaplains who see their cause as righteous, even holy.   I cannot speak for them, and I would not presume to correct them.  Perhaps all we can do is to remember the dead of Bucha and Kharkiv and Kherson, and can pray that God delivers Ukraine and makes possible a lasting and just peace.  Beyond that, I don’t know that the church has anything to say.


So we fall back on three words, “we will remember”.   We remember with penitence just how seductively easy wars are to start, and how hard they are to stop.  We remember with sorrow the dead, those of this parish, of this country, of this modern age and its terrible demand for sacrifice.  In our sorrow, we commit those we remember as best we can into the eternal memory of God, to whom none are lost, none are forgotten.   And we remember the promise of the resurrection, in the sure and certain hope that Christ who raises the dead will return to end our wars and the sorrow of our wars.  We remember these things.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

For All The Saints, Living and Otherwise: A Sermon for All Saints Day

Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto.  Readings for Sunday, Nov 6, The Feast of All Saints (transferred):  Daniel 7:1-3,15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23, Luke 6:20-31.   


Who are the saints?  How do we recognize them?  What do they mean to us?   Or even, if we speak ambitiously, how do we become them?   All of these questions are in play at this time of the Christian year, when the church celebrates All Saints (Nov 1 though we’re observing it today) and All Souls on Nov 2, when we remember those who have died in the faith.

So who are the saints?  Let’s say there are saints with a capital S, those heroes of the faith, “ extraordinary Christians” in whose lives we see enacted “the divine purpose of justice, mercy, and love” (For All The Saints, ACC 2007, p. 11).     We usually associate these Saints with types - biblical apostles, early Christian heroes (particularly martyrs), hermits, bishops, teachers, missionaries, doctors and healers and so forth. 

We name churches after these Capital S Saints, and we go on pilgrimages to their shrines (the Camino in Spain, the shrine of St. Thomas Beckett in Canterbury, and the nearby Martyrs’ shrine in Midland).  Part of the appeal of the pilgrimage is that it takes us to a spot where we believe heaven has come closer to earth thanks to the holy life (and often faithful death) of the saint.  And maybe that’s a good working definition of a saint, someone whose life shows us something of the kingdom of God.

But then there are also those we might call “small s saints”, those who have no shrines or churches named for them, but whose lives nevertheless make the kingdom of God more visible.  I am sure that if you think of those who had a formative effect on your faith life, or who brought you to Christ, it might be a Sunday school teacher, a relative, a minister, or just someone who showed a particular kindness to you in a moment of need.    As our Communion hymn will shortly remind us, “the world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will”.   

So in answer to how we recognize the saints, both Capital S and small s, we know them as saints because there is something about them as persons that is deeply connected to Jesus.    They model some aspect of obedience to God - in works of charity and kindness, in humility and an unusual absence of ego, in forbearance, meaning the way they put up with poverty or disease, or in a commitment to prayer.  St. Paul in 2 Corinthians talks about saints being fragrant, giving off a “life giving perfume” (2 Cor 2:16) meaning that they’re just good to be around.   They inspire us to try and be better followers of Jesus by the disciple virtues that they show us.

If we wanted to learn more about the “capital S” saints, there are places to learn about them: stained glass windows, books like our Anglican Church’s For All the Saints which gives us another way to mark the passage of time through days dedicated to the saints (as those of you who have been recently following our parish Facebook page know by now).  As we get closer to Lent, I’ll be promoting a fun activity called Lent Madness that allows us to learn more about saints (for a sneak peak, see:   But what about the "small s” saints?  Where do we find them?

Well, look around.    There are “small s” saint sitting right beside you in the pews.   That’s right.  Say hello to your fellow saint.    And if you balk at being in that category, if you think you’re not worthy, then don’t blame me, blame St. Paul.   At the start of his letters, Paul greets the people of the churches he is writing to, calling them “hagioi” which is Greek for “holy ones” or “saints”.   Thus he begins Romans with greetings “To all God’s beloved in one, who are called to be saints” (Rom 1:7).

Several points are worth noting about this phrase, “called to be saints”.  The first is the word “called”.  It is not our idea to be saints, indeed, we should beware of those who want to be thought of as saintly.   Rather, it is God who calls us to a way of life that is properly thought of as a vocation.  On top of our profession or occupation - doctor, mechanic, parent, teacher - is God’s call for us to be in relationship with God and one another.    We can call this relationship the way of the disciple, the way of the Christian, the life of faith, but it is a call to be a saint, a call to a way of life wherein we love God, we love the world God created, and we love one another, the people that Jesus died to save and to make holy.  So that’s the first point, that to be a saint is to accept the life and work that God calls us to.

The second point is that our vocation as saints is not an easy one.   The difficulty of that vocation is fully apparent in today’s gospel reading, in which Jesus sketches out the qualities of a saint.    In this way of life, the poor and hungry have value, and the rich and well-fed are called to notice them and share with them.     This way of life calls us to show Christ’s love and forgiveness even in situations when we would rather repay an insult or a wrong with sharp words or worse.    For our vocations as “small s” saints to thrive, we have to let go of those injurious things -  anger, selfishness, greed and ambition - that make us focus our selves rather than on God and those around us.  And because this calling is hard work, we need the help of others, which is why the Christian life is intended to be lived in community.

It’s easy to say that we find God when we are alone in our comfortable spaces, pursuing our favourite activities.   Easy, but also self-delusional, I think, because we find our inspiration and our role models in the examples of our fellow saints.    We all have different gifts, whether in work, in prayer, in leadership, or in pastoral care, but regular fellowship and community with our fellow disciples gives us the encouragement and the role models that help us pursue our own vocations.   

We need to work at being saints together.   Rowan Williams has written that the religious life is a discipline, requiring constant practice in the way that a sport or a craft requires repetition to develop our skills.  Church as a community encourages us to practice our common vocation together.  Church is where the saints come to learn to pray together, to worship together, to help and minister to one another, and, yes, to forgive one another.    I saint forgive one another because, to be honest, saints are not always saintly.  Church, like any other community, has its oddballs, its difficult types, bossy boots and control freaks, blowhards and bores. We step on toes and we forgive one another. We’re all learning together, learning to be fragrant, learning to be the saints that God has chosen us to be.

To conclude, there’s one more thing that needs to be said about saints, and here we come back to my point at the beginning about how All Saints and All Souls overlap.    There are the living saints, and then there are those who, as the hymn says, “from their labours rest”.  Just as we learn from the living, so we learn from the stories we tell, not just of the great saints like Francis or Bonhoeffer, but we also learn from the stories of all the “small s” saints who we remember, bishops and Sunday school teachers, caretakers and greeters, kind and faithful people who were the church in their day.   Each story has something to teach us, which is why every congregation needs historians and storytellers like Bruce and Mary Lou, who keep these saints' lives before us.

We use that lovely phrase, “the Communion of the Saints”, to describe the many generations who have passed into the care and  keeping of God.  The last gift of the saints, and perhaps the greatest gift, is that the saints teach us how to die without fear.  The poet Monk Gibbons writes this of death:  “Go bravely, for where so much greatness and gentleness have been already, you should be glad to follow”.   

It pleases me to think that when we go to stand at the table, in communion with Christ and with one another, we are also standing in communion with all the faithful who have gone before us.     To be clear, we are not standing with ghosts, for the saints are very much living, having received what St. Paul calls “the glorious inheritance” of the resurrection.   But for a moment, we stand in a place of grace, with Christ the Alpha and Omega and with all the faithful gone before us, all standing in a place where time is no more, where death is no more, and where all of us saints are gathered into the company of the risen Christ. 

May God, who has graciously called us to be saints, give us the strength to be true to this calling, together with all the saints, in this life and the next, who are in communion with us.   Amen.

Monday, October 31, 2022

Far Above the Grumbling Crowd: A Sermon for the Twenty First Sunday After Pentceost.

Preached at Prince of Peace, Wasaga Beach, and St. Luke’s, Creemore, Diocese of Toronto, 30 October, 2022.


Readings for this Sunday:  Readings - Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 119:137-144; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10 



Luke 19:1-10

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost." 

I don’t know if Zacchaeus was, as the old song says, “a wee little man, and a wee little man was he”, but scripture tells us that he was short in stature.  We do know that he was small enough that he had to climb a tree to see Jesus, and if you go to Jericho in Israel you can, so they say, see the tree itself, by the side of a busy road.   


Whether it’s the actual tree is up for debate, but it doesn’t look like an easy tree to climb.  It has a very thick, round, smooth trunk, so you’d have to reach up high to grab a branch.  I can imagine a pack of eight year old children swarming up it, but not a rich man of stature like Zacchaeus.


Maybe Zacchaeus was short, rmaybe he was rotund, but I can’t imagine him climbing that tree with any dignity.  The idea of a funny little man scrambling up a tree, his rich clothes getting torn and mussed, must have been enormously amusing to the crowds gathered there, who, as it turns out, knew who he was and didn’t like him.    Zacchaeus didn’t care.  He just wanted to see Jesus.


Once we think about how badly Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, I think our expectations get a little scrambled, because by this point in Luke’s gospel, I think we’re conditioned to know how things work.   We know from last Sunday’s gospel reading (Luke 18:9-14) that the tax collector in that reading saw himself as a sinner, and couldn’t even look up at heaven as he beat his breast, but here’s Zacchaeus, a tax collector, actively looking to see Jesus.   


You may also remember the last Sunday of September, when we heard the parable of the poor man, Lazarus, who goes to heaven while the rich man who ignored him in life goes to hell (Luke 16:19-31).   Plus, we all remember the teachings about the rich having a harder time being saved than camels going through needles (Luke 18:18-30), but here’s a rich man, climbing up a tree and tearing his nice clothes to see Jesus.


So just when we think we know how the gospel works, just when we think we’ve figured out who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy, Jesus as I said scrambles our expectations.  Here’s a tax collector who wants to see Jesus, and a rich man who Jesus chooses to visit.  Here’s a guy who we might easily include was a bad sinner, a dirty rotten sinner, and here’s Jesus putting his arm around him and saying, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Lk 19:9).   This wasn’t what we were led to expect, and maybe, just maybe if we were looking askance at Zacchaeus up there in his tree and thinking he was a big fat presumptuous sinner, then maybe we  were in bad company.   Maybe we’ve found ourselves being more like the crowd, clucking our tongues and being nasty and judgemental, when we should have been like Zacchaeus all along, just looking to Jesus.


How easy it is to find ourselves part of the crowd.   Social media creates flash mobs, crowds suddenly gathering to condemn this or that person for their perceived sins.     There have been a few examples this week.  The new Prime Minister of Great Britain, we are told, is richer than King Charles because he married an heiress.  People are outraged.   Is he a good man?   Very few people can answer that, and maybe God alone knows for sure, but tens of thousands have condemned him online.   One can easily think of other examples from politics or entertainment of people being condemned and shunned as modern day sinners when social media mobs form.


What the mob doesn’t know is that Zaccheus isn’t a villain.   Yes, he’s a tax collector, but even John the Baptist was willing to baptize tax collectors.    John simply told them  to “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you” (Lk 3:13).   Zacchaeus does this and more, and goes to the farthest extreme of the law of Moses in sharing his wealth with the poor, even paying back four times what he might have defrauded.   The ambiguity in the Greek verbs could suggest that Zaccheus promises to start giving money to the poor, or it could just as easily man that he has ben doing this all along (“I am giving to the poor”).    Given that his name, Zacchaeus, is a Greek form of a Hebrew word meaning “clean” or “innocent”, I think “am giving” is a plausible reading.   None of these details supports the idea that Zacchaeus is a sinner.


Jesus isn’t swayed by the mob.   He looks directly up at Zacchaeus, who might have thought that he was hidden by the foliage, and Jesus calls him by name.    How does Jesus know his name?    It’s one of those mysterious moments in the gospels when Jesus seems to know everything  about people.  Did Jesus smile as he watched Zacchaeus scramble down the tree, no doubt looking even more ridiculous and undignified than he did on the way up?   Perhaps, but if he did it must have been a smile of affection, for Zacchaeus was “happy to welcome [Jesus]” (Lk 19.6).


  “Today salvation has come to this house” (Lk 19.9).  Does Jesus reward Zacchaeus because he’s essentially a good man?    As we’ve seen, Zaccheus is hardly a villain.  He seems like a just, pious man, even though he’s rich and even though he’s a tax collector.  But Jesus also says that “the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Lk 19.10).   We always need to remember that Luke’s gospel is about grace, about the love of God feely given.   Right at the start of his ministry, Jesus said in the synagogue that he has ben sent “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Lk 4:19).   As religious people, we are prone to forget that grace is God’s to give.     We can easily cluck our tongues at sinners, and thus forget how much God loves them.


If today’s gospel teaches us to not be part of the self-righteous crowd, what can we also learn from Zacchaeus?   He teaches us how to be a good and fair person, how to be a devout man who keeps God’s law.   More importantly, Zacchaeus also teaches us to fix our eyes on Jesus.   Zaccheus sacrifices his dignity to climb up the tree to see Jesus, and he forfeits what’s left of his dignity to come down and welcome Jesus.   Zacchaeus teaches us to watch for Jesus with longing, and he shows us how welcome him with a glad heart.    May we be like Zaccheus, full of love for Jesus, ready to seek our Lord who wants to come into our homes and into our hearts.  May we always welcome and love this guest who brings us salvation.



Saturday, October 22, 2022

Who Makes Us Good? A Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost

9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”


Preached at All Saints Church, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto.  Readings for this Sunday:  Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14




He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:


Can you be a good person without God?  I sometimes heard this question from the young soldiers I spoke to when I was a military chaplain.   I tried to be very careful in my answer because our experience tells us that it’s complicated.   We all know non-believers who are kind, decent people.   We’ve also known religions people who can be awful people, like the Pharisee in today’s gospel lesson.


1The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.

When I hear people talk about why they’ve abandoned the Christian faith, one of the most common reasons I hear is the hypocrisy and hatred of some believers.    There’s a widespread impression that Christians are intolerant, judgemental, and self-righteous, particularly around issues of sexuality, race, immigration, and politics.    It’s not a good look for the church.  

Luke also understood this tendency of religious people to be self-righteous.  He even offers a sort of Coles Notes to guide our interpretation of Jesus’ story:   “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (Lk 18:9).    It’s not just that the Pharisee compliments himself and despises others, which is bad, but the Pharisee, we are told, “trusts in himself”, which is worse.


Which brings me back to the question, “Can someone be good without God?”   When I have this conversation, I try to explain that this question doesn’t really make sense to Christians, because we believe that can’t really separate the idea of goodness from God.  St. Paul in Romans says that goodness comes from God (he uses the word diakos which is usually translated as righteousness - for our purposes today we’ll just call it “goodness”).  Paul goes on to say that Christians as believers try to submit to God’s goodness, meaning that we try to understand it and live it out in our daily lives (Rom 10.3).


The Christian life is a way of life made possible because of God’s goodness.   We know that God is good because God creates us, and because God sent his son to love us, to teach us, and to save us.  The Christian life, then, is a response to God’s goodness.  One can be good without God, but to try that is rather like listening to a radio station that isn’t properly tuned in.  The signal is faint and full of static.    When we synch our lives with God’s goodness, then we know what the good life looks like.


And what the good life looks like?  One way to understand the good life is to ask, does how I live please God?    This question is not unlike the bumper sticker slogan, “What Would Jesus Do”, and it’s a question that much occupied the mind of Paul and others who wrote the parts of the New Testament we call the Epistles.   Paul fo example writes

Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more (1 Thes 4.1)

So how do we please God?  If I was doing a children’s focus, I’m sure I’d get some good answers to this question, because children have an innate grasp of these things, whereas we adults try to be impressive and theological.  If I asked a child how we please God, the answers might include:

Be kind to others and help them

Share what you have

Say your prayers

As adults, we might flesh this out a bit more, for example, we please God by volunteering in the church and in the community, by forgiving others or seeking their forgiveness as necessary, by tithing or giving to good causes, by being true to our wedding vows, etc.    In articulating a life pleasing to God, we would be drawing on our understanding of the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the more pastoral epistles such as James, and a whole body of Christian ethics.    Or we could sum the idea of a life pleasing to God in the words of our liturgy.  As we used to pray according to the Book of Common Prayer:   

OUR Lord Jesus Christ said: Hear O Israel, The Lord our God is one Lord; and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. (BCP pp. 68-69)

I wonder, for those of us who have said those words often for much of our lives, if we ever took them as seriously as they deserved.   To love God “with all we have - in our hearts, in our thoughts, in our willpower, in the depths of our souls - to give all those things to God.   It’s hard to imagine a higher calling, it’s hard to think of greater demands.    How few of us, if indeed there are any of us, who have risen to that calling, and yet there they are, in our old prayer book, and the prayer book took it from the gospel (Luke 10:24-28).   Which brings us to the Pharisee, because, this is the very same calling, these are the same demands, that the Pharisees of Jesus day accepted.

Now here I think we need to stop for a second and check our prejudices at the door.   How many of us have heard sermons about how Jesus rejected the religious legalism of the Pharisees in favour of an authentic faith based on love and kindness?   I’m sure I’ve preached such a sermon, which causes me much regret, because as Christians we often have stereotyped, even hostile views of Judaism.

It’s largely true that in Luke, the Pharisees are painted negatively as adversaries of Jesus, who practice hypocrisy and loved wealth.   This portrayal probably stems from Luke’s writing for a largely gentile audience.   In fact, the Pharisees of Jesus time were famous for shunning wealth, and for taking the laws of God as found in the Torah with the utmost seriousness.  The Pharisees’ ideal was to live a life which, by scrupulously following the law of God, would be pleasing to God.

I don’t think I ever really understood Judaism until my last year of  military service,  when a young Orthoodox rabbi named L was assigned to my padre team in Borden.   L was a new recruit, and he wanted to work hard, subject to the limits of his religious beliefs.   He would not carry the duty phone on weekends, because the Shabbat, the sabbath started Friday evening and ended on Saturday evening, a time when he could not do any work.   This caused some grumbling among my Christian padres, who felt that, thanks to L, they had to work weekends more often.    

Our training cycle started in the fall, but since most of the Jewish high holidays are in September and October, that didn’t work for L and we had to go to some lengths to work around him.    As Christians we had crosses and images of Jesus and Mary in our offices, and we frequently met in a chapel, which, as L gently explained to us, was offensive to him, since orthodox Jews don’t look at human images.

So there was a LOT of adjusting that we Christians had to make to be respectful of our Jewish colleague, but over time I realized the deep sincerity and faithfulness that L brought to the table.  Obeying God and pleasing God were just part of his DNA, as natural to him as breathing, and I came to admire the way his faith was part of every moment of his life.   Which brings me to the Pharisee in Luke.   

There’s nothing wrong with his religious practice per se.   In our gospel reading today, the Pharisee’s declaration that he fasted twice a week and gave away a tenth of his income may have been seen as exaggerated piety, rather like Ned Flanders in the Simpsons is a comic representation of Christians.   But that’s not the problem.  What’s deeply offensive is his smugness.   His faith is narcissistic, it’s not really based on God at all.  He looks on those around him, like the tax collector, with contempt, and he measures his goodness (diakos) but what he sees as its opposite (adikia) in those who he sees as spiritual riff-raff.

So what of the tax collector?     Has he lead a life pleasing to God?   Obviously not, because here he is, beating his breast in repentance, not even daring to look at heaven, and asking only for mercy.    It’s widely thought that as a tax-collector, he would have been a collaborator for the Romans and their puppet kings.   He would have been seen by his contemporaries the same way that patriotic Ukrainians today would see one of their own wo worked for the Russian occupation.    He hasn’t been a good man.    So why does he go away “justified”?   Why does God forgive him?

First, he’s where he needs to be.   As we heard in the words of the psalmist, “Our sins are stronger than we are, but you will blot them out. Happy are they whom you choose and draw to your courts to dwell there!” (Ps 65:3-4).  The tax collector has come to task forgiveness right there, in God’s court.  Second, his very act of repentance is pleasing to God.   In his parable of the Lost Sheep, Jesus says that “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance” (Lk 15.7).  One of the most profound lessons of the gospel of Luke is that it pleases the Father most when the lost children come home.  If you doubt me on this, then I encourage you to re-read the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).

Was the tax collector a good man?   He comes to God thinking he’s not.  He calls himself a sinner.   He throws himself on God’s mercy, and Jesus tells us that he leaves a “righteous” (diakalos) or a good man.  How did he become a good man?   He became a good man because of the goodness and mercy of God, in the same way that we become good people.    The tax collector knew one thing that the Pharisee didn’t; he knew that goodness comes from God.

I started off with asking if we can be good without God.  As Christians, it’s not a question that makes sense.   Without God we can be kind, or nice, or charitable, but all of those ideas are deeply rooted in Christian teaching and ethics. As Christians, we believe that goodness ultimately comes from God, and since it is God who makes us good, we can arrive at goodness from several directions.     We can seek goodness like the tax collector, on our knees, in a spirit of repentance, trusting only in God’s mercy.  Or we can seek goodness from a spirit of zeal as the Pharisees of Jesus’ day actually did, dedicating our whole lives, heart, soul, and mind, living according to God’s will.  

Chances are it will be a bit of both. Some days will be saints days and some will be sinners days. There will be saints days when we strive to devote ourselves to knowing and doing the work of God.  Those will be good days.  There will be sinners days when we doubt that there is any good in us and we throw themselves on the mercy of God in Christ.  Those will also be good days.    The only bad days when we decide that goodness comes from within us, and so we fall into self-righteousness and judgementalism.   May God, from who all goodness comes, spare us from such days and from such error, so that all are days are good and so that we are good all our days.

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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