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.

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.


Blog Archive