Saturday, February 26, 2022

Weird and Wonderful. A Sermon for the Last Sunday After Epiphany


  Preached at All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, 27 February, 2022.   

Readings for this Sunday:  Ex 34:29-35; Ps 99; 2 Cor 3:12- 4:2; Lk 9:28:28-36. 

They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem (Lk 9:31).

I was once chatting with a bright young person, an engineer by training, about the story of creation in Genesis, and he asked me, “can you believe in physics and religion?”   As we explored his question, I realized that he was asking me, essentially, whether faith and reason were compatible.

I began my answer by saying that I agree with a long tradition of Christian theology and philosophy which hold that faith and reason are compatible. In the case of Genesis, I said that personally I did not want to disregard the evidence of geology (particularly the fossil record) and physics (specifically, studies of the age of the universe) which on the surface seem to contradict the biblical account of the world being created in seven days.

I noted that some biblical scholarship takes a figurative account of the creation story, noting that the Hebrew word for “day” in Genesis can mean “age” or “a long time”, and so what we could have is a poetic account of creation that is compatible with an evolutionary perspective. I cited one of my professors from seminary, John Bowen, who liked to say that the process of creation (a literal account of seven days vs evolution) is one of those things that Christians can disagree one, since the mechanics of creation are not creedal.

When we got to the New Testament, however, I told my engineer friend that my beliefs would seem decidedly irrational to someone outside of the faith. As a creedal Christian, meaning someone who believes in the historical teachings of the church, I believe that the historical man Jesus was also the Son of God, a person of the Trinity, that he died, rose from the dead, returned to heaven, and will come again.

There, I said it. Doesn’t sound very rational, does it? There is nothing in the world of science that I can appeal to or take refuge in to support my belief, no equivocation in translation of words in the bible. You either believe this stuff or, because it doesn’t sound rational, you don’t. Or, as some Christians do, you treat it all as a lovely fantastic fable that contains some spiritual truths, but honestly, I’ve never found that a very satisfactory compromise.

Our gospel story of the transfiguration today is decidedly irrational. Jesus goes up a mountain with two of his friends. He meets two figures from the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah, who are somehow recognizable as themselves and who seem to have some sort of afterlife. Jesus then is transfigured, becoming “dazzling” with glory, and then a heavenly voice from a cloud is heard.

As one of the sheep in our weekly cartoon, Agnus Day, comments, “Jesus is talking with two dead guys and his head becomes a light source. How much weirder can it get?” Indeed. Which is why I’m grateful for this gospel story, because it shows us the true nature of the God we worship.

There are several times in the gospels that we see the true nature of Jesus. The greek has a word for this true nature, doxa. We translate this word as “glory”. When the shepherds see the angels announcing the birth of Jesus, we are told that the glory of the Lord shone around them. At Jesus’ baptism, we also hear the voice from heaven, reminding us who Jesus is. The vision of Jesus here on the mountain reminds us of “the two men in dazzling clothes” who appear to the women in the empty tomb in Luke 24.

In all these places, as in the Transfiguration, it is as if we get a glimpse of heaven, of the things that will be, breaking through the veil of our earthly reality. These things give us hope, and remind us of the God that we worship.

Why don’t we see God this way all the time? Perhaps it's because the glory of God, were it to remain with us, would be oppressive, even coercive, demanding our obedience and submission. But God doesn't work that way. Most of the time his son is fully human, a human who laughs, goes to weddings, shares meals, becomes irritated, suffers, and dies.

It’s been said that the time between now, Transfiguration Sunday, and Good Friday, the end of Lent, is framed by two mountain tops. The first is the mountain we visit today, the mountain where God is revealed in glory through his Son. The second mountain is Golgotha, the place of the skull, which we visit on Good Friday. Is God revealed in glory through his Son at Golgotha, on the cross? It depends on what you define as glory.

The cross is, as St. Paul reminds us, an instrument of shame and pain, but it becomes glorious because Jesus chooses to go there, for us. Rather than a dazzling glow that confounds and blinds us, the cross, as painful as it may be, is something we can contemplate and remain with, even take upon us, for it becomes an emblem of the way that Jesus calls us to follow – a way of self-giving, of care and love and forgiveness of others. It’s through the cross, and following the cross, that we see others, and where others can see God in us.

How can others see the glory of God in us, in we who aren’t very glorious or very impressive to look at? Paul says in our second lesson that we too, as Christ’s followers, are caught up in his glory, and being changed by it. “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).

Do you remember how Paul famously defined love? He said that “4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor 13:4-7). God’s that love isn’t manufactured human sentiment as we might find on a Hallmark card. That love is the gift of the Spirit, it is the same love for us that God shows for humanity on the cross.

The glory of God offends and contradicts reason, but even more confounding to reason is the idea that we, God's people, can be transformed by and show that glory to the world in the life and love that God calls us to.

I can't explain or rationalize this to others with the same comfort that I can talk about creation. What I can do, what we can do, is listen to Jesus carefully and attentively, as the voice from the cloud calls us to. We can follow him, live as he calls us to live, and open ourselves to the love of God which is the gift of the Spirit. In so doing, we have the promise that we too, ordinary, unremarkable, flawed human beings, will find ourselves transformed and able to stand in the full glory of God.


Saturday, February 19, 2022

Forgiveness In A Time of Rage: A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday After Epiphany

Preached at All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, on Sunday, 20 February.  Readings for this Sunday:  Gen 45:3-11; Ps 36:1-12;41-42; 1 Cor 15.35-38,42-50; Lk 6:27-38

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-28)

 These words from today’s reading from Luke’s gospel, from the section often called “The Sermon on the Plain”, are among the most challenging in all of scripture.    In this part of the sermon, Jesus tells us to set a seemingly impossible standard of radical forgiveness for how we treat those do wrong to us.   I choose the word “radical” because this standard of behaviour is light years beyond the norms of human society, with our built-in antagonisms, bruised egoes, tit for tat grudges, and our desire for point scoring at other’s expense.   Rather, Jesus urges us to be as merciful as God is, “for [God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Lk 6:35).  Today I want to suggest that we urgently need to hear these words now, at this fraught time in our country’s life.

Most of you will agree with me that the last month has been an awful time for Canada in a particularly awful two years.  As I write this, police in Ottawa are clearing out the protesters that have entrenched themselves near Parliament Hill.   It’s been hard to make sense of the protests and the so-called Freedom Convoy, which seem to have been fuelled by rage, suspicion, paranoia, fear, and a whole lot of shadowy money.   For a country famous for politeness, and supposedly committed to peace, order, and good government, it’s all been strange and embarrassing.  This week a Spanish friend wrote to me and asked, “what’s going on with Canada?  We always thought you were sane”.

These last few weeks have been like the eruption of a volcano, a sudden event triggered by forces that have been building for a long time.  Those forces include two years of frustrations over Covid restrictions, populist suspicion of government and science, the ability of the internet to foster conspiracy theories and paranoia, fear of the future, fear of immigration and perceived threats to the white, Christian majority, western alienation combined with perceived threats to lifestyles built on carbon-based industries, and a growing influence of hyper-partisan US-style politics and culture wars.  That is my amateur, semi-academic, abstract opinion.

 The growing problem is that very few of us are capable of keeping all this at the abstract, academic level.  Fear, anger, betrayal, and hatred are all visceral emotions that seize our guts and cloud our minds.   For me, at least, it’s personal.   But then Jesus says “love your enemies”.

That veteran I used to serve with, seen on camera with his medals and beret, waving a sign, that’s personal.   It’s personal because we have different ideas of loyalty and service and honour, and my first instinct is to shake my head and say “Bro, I don’t know you any more”.   But then Jesus says “love your enemies”.

That guy in the store wearing a hoodie that says something very rude about the Prime Minister, that’s personal.  It’s personal because I find it vulgar and disrespectful to give the finger to democracy and to people like me who think and voted differently.  But then Jesus says “love your enemies”.

Those protestors chanting freedom, that’s personal.  It’s personal because for two years I’ve dutifully worn the mask and gotten the jabs and stayed home and done my bit because I was willing to sacrifice my freedom to protect others, and now the demonstrators are telling me that they’re the good Canadian patriots and I’m a fearful, deluded sheep instead of a citizen?  But then Jesus says “love your enemies”.

In the spirit of the confessional, I’ll confess that writing those last three paragraphs made me a bit angry, and I wasn’t listening to Jesus as well as I should have been.  I could feel my blood pressure rising, so I stepped away to make some tea.   And as I made tea, I thought about how, if it’s personal for me, then I’m sure it’s personal for you too, whatever your politics may be.  

Canada’s your country too.  You’ve spent the last two years under lockdown.  You had to decide whether to get the vaccine.   You’ve experienced the same frustrations.   And, having confessed my biases in this sermon, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you feel differently about all this than I do.   But here’s the thing.  Jesus is speaking to all of us.

This section of Luke is called “The Sermon on the Plain” because of how it begins:  Jesus “stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people(Lk 6:17).   As biblical scholar Sarah Henrich notes, this puts all of us on “a level playing field”.    Standing with Jesus, amid this “great multitude” that is Canada today, there are no exceptions for partisan positions.   “Love your enemy”, says Jesus, and we sure need to hear those words.

 How many times recently have we heard about families divided and friendships ended?   I’ve heard people say “I thought I knew so and so, but I was wrong”, or “that person is now dead to me”.    I think we’re all starting to realize Covid is going to leave us a more disunited society than at any time in our recent history.  I don’t see any way out of this except that we start to “love our enemy”.

To love our enemies does not mean that we have to accept horrible statements or condone heinous positions.   Hateful speech and horrible behaviour should be firmly and calmly opposed.  In such cases, Jesus tells us, “don’t hate back”.  But I don’t think that most people are hateful fascists or Nazis or racists.  As I said above, a lot of our divisions are explained by fear.  A lot of those divisions can be bridged by calm dialogue.  It’s hard to hate people when they don’t hate you back. 

Finally, the best cure to our own worst tendencies is to remember that we all stand under the gaze of God and under the forgiveness of the cross.   “Forgive”, says Jesus, “and you will be forgiven” (Lk 6.37).  It’s not just the other guy, the guy on the wrong side, who needs to be forgiven.  It’s us, whenever we stray in angry self-righteousness and whenever we bask in the warmth of our condemnation of the wrong-headed.   

All of us need to be forgiven.  Jesus teaches us now, as we gather on the plain with him.  When Jesus reminds us that God “is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Lk 6:35), he’s speaking to all of us.   We’re all sinners, and we pray that God will forgive us all, as we stand before him, under his cross.  Let us all remember, as we struggle with our anger and with our divisions, that God’s love is poured out on all of us.  May God bless and have mercy on our country.


Saturday, February 12, 2022

Resurrection In Life: A Homily for the Sixth Sunday After Epiphan


Resurrection In Life: A Homily for the Sixth Sunday After Epiphany.   Preached at All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, 13 February. 

Readings for This Sunday:  Jer 1.5-10; Ps 1; 1 Cor 15.12-20; Lk 6.17-26.


If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. (1 Cor 15.17).


I never regret going to our Monday night Zoom bible studies because I always hear someone say something that challenges me and makes me think.    Last week our group wrapped up its reading of the gospel of Mark, and someone asked, “why does Jesus have to die?”

That’s a great question, with many possible answers.    One could start by saying that he dies to show the love of God, which takes the full brunt of human fear and hatred and can still show forgiveness.     A second answer might be to show man’s inhumanity to man, even to the most innocent man that ever lived, though one wonders why that needed proving when history is full of examples of cruelty.

The best answer, I think, and the one I would give, is that Jesus had to die to rise again.  St. Paul would certainly say the same thing.  For Paul, writing to the early church in Corinth, the resurrection is everything.  We don’t know exactly what was happening in the church in Corinth.  Like any church it had its squabbles and disagreements, but Paul has evidently heard that there’s an argument over the truth of Jesus’ resurrection.  “[S]ome of you”, Paul writes, “say that there is no resurrection” (1 Cor 15.12).

Now it may surprise us to find that people in Paul’s time had doubts.  Weren’t the early Christians very faithful because they lived so close to the time of Jesus when belief was fresh and new?  Weren’t ancient people less rational and more credulous than we are today in the post-Enlightenment, scientific West?   Well, no.  At the beginning of his letter to the Corinthians, Paul came out and said that his preaching on the cross seemed like “foolishness” to many (1 Cor 1.18-25). Now when Paul talks about “the cross”, he’s talking about the whole story of the Passion, which ends with the empty cross and the empty tomb. I am sure there were many in 1st century Corinth who found it just as hard to believe that a crucified Jewish criminal could rise from the dead as people in 21st century Canada find it hard to believe today.

I know that people find it hard to believe in the resurrection because I’ve met them, and some of them were Anglicans!  I well remember one parishioner, an urbane, cultured man, who absolutely loved church music.   Once, after our Easter Sunday service, he said to me, “It’s just a children’s story, isn’t it?  You don’t really believe it, do you?”   I confess that I kind of spluttered for a bit.  “Yes,” I said, “I do believe it, because I think it’s true.”   When he pressed me further to say why I thought it was true, I said that while I couldn’t prove it, I thought it was the best story I could find to make sense of the world.  I still think that.

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 

I won’t put any of you on the spot and ask you if you believe the resurrection happened.   I honestly wouldn’t think any the less of you it you told me that you struggled with it.   I’ve heard many Anglicans tell me that they have trouble believing everything that’s in the creeds.  In fact, the preacher Barbara Taylor Brown likes to say that we see the creed together because on days when you find it too hard to say, someone else will say it for you, and vice versa.

So no harm, no foul, if you’re sometimes relying on the next pew to finish the creed for you.  I get that.   It’s why we’re church as the body of Christ and not just a bunch of fragmented individuals.    Perhaps the mistake we make in belief is thinking that faith has to reside just in the creeds, that it has to be head knowledge as opposed to heart knowledge.  Frank Crouch, a biblical scholar, made a really good point in my reading this week when he said that Paul doesn’t say that we need to believe in the resurrection so our theology is correct.   No, Paul is saying instead that the resurrection is real.  We can see the reality of the resurrection in changed and transformed lives, starting with Paul himself, who went from persecutor of Christ to a preacher of Christ (15.9-10). 

In other words, we can see resurrection, we can understand it and believe in it, by looking around us.   Speaking for myself, I’ve never seen someone raised from the dead, not physically.  I have seen people raised from the dead in other ways that were just as meaningful or even more so.

Here are some resurrection stories that help me make sense of the world.  I know a beloved priest, a gifted and caring pastor, who gave up his career as a stockbrocker because he thought a life of greed was killing him.   That was resurrection.  I’ve seen a young father, an alcoholic, pulled back from divorce and ruin by his the love and care of his friends in AA. That was resurrection  I’ve seen a soldier, who lost his legs to a roadside bomb, teach himself to run marathon s on steal springs because he would never, ever see himself as crippled or as a victim. That was resurrection  I’ve seen a woman, her body ruined and mocked by cancer, face her death with grace and serenity because she knew that God would take her hand and bring her across the void to the other side.  That too was resurrection, or at least the anticipation of something as certain as sunrise the next morning.

Perhaps you think I’m stretching the point here, or cheating a bit, because these examples of resurrection are metaphorical.   Perhaps, but I’ve also seen the absence of resurrection in real and tragic cases.  I’ve seen people who were so far gone in addiction that they couldn’t take responsibility for the harm they were doing to others.  I’ve seen people so far gone in grief that they had all but ceased to live.   I’ve seen people so far gone in anger and trauma that they had alienated everyone around them.   Not every story has a happy ending.   Lives can be wasted and ruined.  You don’t need to be a corpse to be resurrected, but without resurrection, you can be one of the living dead.  

When Paul talks about resurrection, he’s talking about the transformation that God can work in our lives.  Without God’s resurrection power, without transformation, our lives become stunted and withered, which is what Paul means when he says “If Christ has not been raised … you are still in your sins”(1 Cor 15.17).  Without resurrection, there is no forgiveness that saves a marriage from betrayal.  Without resurrection, there is no love that leads an estranged child home.   Without resurrection, there is no regard for the poor, no care for the homeless, no peacemaking, no reconciliation between peoples, no need for us to do anything but grimly and soullessly pursue our own empty pleasures.  Without resurrection, there is no one into whose care we can give and commend our beloved dead. 

Resurrection is always the triumph of life over death, of hope over despair, of new beginnings over wasted potential.   Resurrection is God’s assurance that we aren’t trapped in living deaths in a meaningless void  

So why does Jesus have to die?   He has to die to show us the way back to life, new life, our best life, the life that only Jesus can give to us, both after our lives, and in the here and now of our lives.

Saturday, February 5, 2022

The Impostor Syndrome: A Homily for the Fifth Sunday After the Epipha

Preached at All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 6 February, 2022.  Texts for this Sunday:  Isaiah 6:1-8; Ps 138; 1 Cor 15:1-11; Lk 5.1-11.

But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8)

 Perhaps you’ve been in a meeting where a bunch of people say “So and so knows this, so and so is good at this, so and so can fix this, let’s ask them” and you suddenly realize that they are looking at you and you’re thinking “What, me?   I don’t even know how I got hired here!”  Or perhaps someone says to you “you’re such a good mother!” or “you’re such a good grandmother!”, and you think “what, me?  All I do is let the kids watch TV while I drink wine”.

If you’ve ever had thoughts of inadequacy like this, then you’re not alone and there’s even a term for it, the Impostor Syndrome.   Many people feel, despite their accomplishments, their diplomas, and their previous successes, that they are totally unqualified to do something, that they are frauds, and impostors.

 Even famous people feel this way.   The actress Jodi Foster told a magazine that ‘When I won the Oscar, I thought it was a fluke. I thought everybody would find out, and they’d take it back. They’d come to my house, knocking on the door, “Excuse me, we meant to give that to someone else. That was going to Meryl Streep.” 

 I think we can also suffer from the Impostor Syndrome in our church lives as well.   Someone may ask you, “You go to church, you read the Bible, tell me why God allows children to get cancer?” and “You go to church, you know how to pray” and inside you may be shrugging helplessly.  Or you may wonder, “Yes, I go to church, but I don’t really think I’m a good person.”

 I’ve been ordained for seventeen years and I’ve often felt like an impostor.   The collar doesn’t make me feel wiser, or holier, or closer to God than anyone else.   Sometimes quite the reverse.  When I was in uniform, and soldiers would salute me and call me padre, I sometimes wondered, “How did I manage to convince anyone that they should give me this job, this uniform?”

 Of course, the problem with all of our doubts and self-doubting is that we forget about God and we never think that God may have more confidence in us that we have in ourselves.  Why would God call us as disciples if God didn’t believe in us?”  Which brings us to this morning’s Gospel reading (Luke 5:1-11).

 I’ve read this passage many times, and much of it is very familiar.  The story of Jesus calling the fishermen and telling them from now on they will be catching people instead of fish is also told in Matthew (4:18-22) and in Mark (1:16-20).  In past I’ve focused on the boats, and the fish, and Jesus’ “fishers of men” comment, but until now I’ve never thought much about Peter’s reaction to Jesus.   Clearly Peter has a version of the Impostor Syndrome “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” but I’ve never really thought about Jesus’ response, or his lack of a response.   More about that in a minute.

 First, this passage is chosen as one of the traditional Epiphany gospels because it is one of those moments when people see something about Jesus’ true identity.    At first, when Jesus tells the fishermen to go out into deep water, Peter’s response “Master” seems politely respectful, the way one would speak to a rabbi.   It’s probable that Peter knew Jesus, at least from a distance, as this was a village society and Jesus had already built a reputation as a preacher and healer.

 Probably because of this respect for the teacher, Peter agrees to the odd request, even if he has to have a bit of a grumble first: “we have worked all night but have caught nothing”.   After the amazing haul of fish, the grumbling turns to wonder and some sort of recognition that Jesus is something more.   However, rather than focusing on Jesus, Peter looks at himself and sees his own inadequacies, recognizing that he is a ‘sinful man”.

 What has Peter done that he should be so sinful?   After all, he’s just a fisherman, how bad could he be?  But that’s not the point of the spiritual Impostor Syndrome.   Peter judges himself unworthy to be in God’s presence, and here he may remind us of people that we know who avoid church or faith because they don’t think they’re good enough for God.  Certainly Peter is no different from many other prophets that God calls in the old testament, such as Jonah and Isaiah.  

 In our first lesson we heard how Isaiah’s first reaction to God is a kind of horrified sense of his inadequacy.   After an overwhelming vision of God’s holiness, Isaiah is almost obliterated: “Woe is me!  I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (is 6:1-13).   The story of the coal touching Isaiah’s lips may function as a kind of act of forgiveness and absolution, but it also seems to be a symbolic  sealing of his new vocation as God’s spokesman, who will now speak only God’s words.

 But the story in Luke is so different.   One podcast I heard this week made the point that Jesus never actually forgives Paul.  I don't mean that Jesus punishes him or denies him anything.   It's just that there is no grand act of forgiveness or purification as there is in our first reading.  Instead, Jesus simply says “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people”.

 Jesus says “Do not be afraid”, which are words that we often hear in Luke’s gospel when heaven touches earth, but he never revokes the job offer because Peter thinks that he is unqualified.   In fact, Jesus acts as if Peter has accepted the offer, for his next words, “From now on you will be catching people” are spoken as if this is Day One of the new job.  Peter is now a disciple, whether he thinks he is ready, or not.

 I think this story is helpful for those of us in our faith lives who think that we are, well, impostors, and that some spiritual deficiency or flaw might somehow keep God from wanting or even needing us.   If that is you, or if that is someone you know, think about Jesus and Peter.   If Peter knew, in his own bumbling, blustery way, that he was less than perfect, how much more clearly would Jesus have seen him and seen through him?   And yet it doesn’t matter for Jesus.   Jesus sees the worth in Peter and calls him to this new life of attracting others to God.

 Some of us who suffer from the spiritual Impostor Syndrome may think that we need some grand, Isaiah-like vision or action to purify us so that we can be worthy of God, even if we aren’t keen on the hot coals part.   If so, then I submit to you that you’re not likely to get that grand act of forgiveness.   I would encourage you instead to think of how God knows you far, far better than you know yourself, that God loves you and believes in you, and that God has a use for you. 

 So the good news for us today is that we may are the only ones judging ourselves.  God’s already signed us up, we’re in the crew.  We may say, "But Jesus, we're not good enough for you, we're sinners", and his answer is "Yes, of course you are, come on let's go".  

 “From now on you will be catching people”.   This line is often used in sermons on evangelism, a subject we Anglicans aren’t always comfortable with.  A final thought – what’s more attractive than quiet self confidence?   What’s more attractive than a confident church?  Not self-confidence as in self-righteousness or arrogance, but confidence that we are loved by a God who sees our value and potential.   I submit to you that a church embued with this quiet confidence, the opposite of the spiritual impostor syndrome, will be attractive to others, which is where evangelism starts.


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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