Sunday, June 25, 2023

You Are The God Who Sees: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, on the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 25th, 2023 

Readings - Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 69:7-18; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39 


“What troubles you Hagar?   Do not be afraid; for God has heard”  (Gen 21.17)

Two weeks ago I used our first lesson from Genesis to talk about our spiritual journeys and how they bring us to a God who is real and who wants to be known.   Today I want to continue with Genesis to talk about how God does hear and see us, but first I’m going to start this sermon with a little bit of imagination and creative writing, so bear with me.

She had tried to make the water last, but now the it was long gone, the skin was empty.   The sun, a hot ball of flame, beat down on her.   Overhead, the desert birds circled slowly, patient and merciless.   She couldn’t bear to look over her shoulder to the place where her child lay, but now she was so weak that she couldn’t turn her hear to look even if she wanted to .   With cracked lips, her voice a hoarse whisper, she made this prayer.

16Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.

17Do not hide your face from your servant, for I am in distress—make haste to answer me.”

So what I am doing here?   You’ve probably guessed by now that the person I’m talking about it is Hagar from our first lesson, and her prayer is part of our reading from Psalm 69.   I have two reasons for doing this.

I think it’s helpful to try and imagine Hagar as a real person, someone we can identify with and relate to, rather than some minor character from the most ancient book of the bible.

The second is to try and imagine a psalm being used as prayer, a last ditch cry for help at a time of profound despair.    As you know, I’ve preached on the psalms before, and I’ve said that the psalms are prayers that  cover a wide variety of human experience.   ]

The psalms range from a sense of joy and security that we are loved by God, to rage and anger when we feel betrayed by those around us, horror as our bodies sicken and waste away, and dark times when we feel that God is all we have left to turn to.

So I think it’s quite easy to imagine Psalm 69, or words like it, being prayed by Hagar in our first lesson, or really by any person in distress or desolation. 

So let’s try first to think a bit about Hagar, who she is and how she’s come to this, and then let’s think about how the psalms remind us that God hears our prayers.

So I won’t bore with a long lesson on Hagar.  Remember a few Sundays ago, when we heard the lesson from Genesis on how God told Abraham to move to a land that he would show him, and then how Abraham packed all those camels and set off?   Well, Hagar was one of that household, a slave girl from Egypt, a maid of Abram’s wife, Sarai.  Genesis tells two stories about Hagar being cast out of camp (Gen 16 and Gen 21), of which the second is our lesson today.

God has promised Abram that he will have an heir, and his descendants will be a great nation, but Sarai was old and barren, and years passed, so Sarai has the idea of letting Abram have a child by Hagar.   So the plan worked, Hagar got pregnant, but then Sarai got jealous and started acting horribly so Hagar ran away.  God finds her in the desert, by a spring, sees her misery, and talks her into going back because God has plans for her child, who will also thrive and be the father of a great people.  

So Hagar returns to Abram and Sarai, but first she does something remarkable.  Hagar gives God a name.    Usually in Genesis it is God who gives people names, but here a lowly slave girl names God, and she calls God “El Roi”, the God who sees.  And in our first lesson today, God does see.  

So by the time we get to our first reading today, Hagar’s son Ishamel is probably a pre-teen when God does another surprising thing and allows old Sarai to have her son, who is going to be named Isaac.  But Sarai is still a nasty old piece of work, and presumably she doesn’t want Ishmael competing with her son as the heir, so she tells Abram to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael.    

God sees and hears all of this.  God notes Abram’s distress and reassures him that Ishmael will also have a future (and in the Middle Eastern traditions, Ishamel is the ancestor of the Arab peoples, including the prophet Mohammed).   Again God finds Hagar in the desert. God hears Hagar’s weeping and God hears the faint voice of Ishamel, and God saves them.   

So what are we to make of all this?   These stories from Genesis can seem remote and strange, legends to explain the origins of races and peoples, but they can also come to life if we reimagine them as we did with Hagar praying in desperation as she dies of thirst.   How might we reimagine Hagar today?  Perhaps we could envision her as a modern day slave of sex traffickers or as a surrogate mother valued only for her womb.   We might see her as a badly treated domestic or nanny, or as any abandoned wife or mother.   

And what of Sarai?  She’s a nasty old thing to be sure, even though God has given her the same blessing and the same promise of a future that he gave to Abram.  She could have trusted in those promises and shared her blessing with Hagar.   Maybe Sarai is a cautionary tale for us church people, we who are blessed and loved by God, lest we also become bitter and horrible to those we think are beneath us.  Not a good look for church people, and yet we know of Christians who act that way.

So we can thank Hagar, a humble minor character in Genesis, for reminding us that God sees.  The lesson she teaches us is the same lesson that Jesus will teach his disciples when he tells them that his Father sees the smallest bird fall to the ground.  Now someone might hear or read this sermon and say, well, it’s all very good that God sees and hears everything, but why doesn’t God do something about it?

A better question is, what will we, God’s people, do about these things?    Who do we hear?  Who do we see?  How do we see the world?   This week the world held it’s breath for five wealthy people in a submarine, and while their deaths were tragic, at the same time the world barely noticed the deaths of nearly 700 migrants when their boat sank off Greece.

This week I was grateful for several of my clergy colleague who went to Barrie on Wednesday to add their voices and their Christian witness to a protest outside City Hall.  Thanks in part to their efforts, Council withdrew a motion that would have made it illegal to give food and water to homeless and poor people on public property.   As Bishop Andrew said this week, “when our communities are healthy and the most vulnerable are protected, God is glorified and we all benefit”.  

So today let’s take heart and encouragement from knowing that our God sees us amidst our distress.   Let’s give thanks for knowing that our cries prayers, even those as desperate as the psalms, are heard.  But let’s remember also that as followers of Jesus and as the people of God, we were given eyes and ears so that we might also see and hear those around us.  For to paraphrase the words of Jesus, we are all us of more value than many sparrows.

Saturday, June 24, 2023

A Funeral Homily For David Boughner

A Funeral Homily For David Boughner

3 Dec 1966 - 9 May 2023


Unfortunately I am sometimes called to lead a memorial service for those I have never met, and this is one of those occasions, which I especially regret in this case, as I think I would have liked David very much.   His infectious smile on the cover of this order of service, and the stories told me by Alison and Samantha, all tell me that this was a man who was a blessing to those around him.   He will be missed.


Every death is sadness and loss.   No one is an island, as the poet said.   Each passing diminishes those of us who are left.   But same deaths hurt us more than others.  Last week I was at a funeral for a man who died in his eighties, after a rich career, a long and happy marriage, and involvement in a myriad of groups and charities.   It was truly a life to celebrate.


But while some passings seem natural and even expected, others feel like someone has been cut down, stolen from us.    Today I think we need to acknowledge that aspect of David’s passing.


The other day I saw a truck with a sticker in the back window.  It spelled out the “cancer”, but the letters had a long wood screw driven sideways through them.   It was a slightly more polite version of another slogan you see sometimes, and I thought when I saw it, “damn right”.


I wondered briefly what story, what personal tragedy, led that person to choose that sticker.    Truth be told, I’d like one myself, because I’ve lost a loved one to cancer and its a brutal, hateful foe.  I suspect that many of us feel that way.


There’s an idea we often turn to when we confront cancer, that it is a an enemy that the sick must fight courageously, as we the loved ones close ranks around them.  We see that idea often expressed in obituaries and tributes, or by poets, as when Dylan Thomas famously wrote, “rage, rage against the dying of the light”, or as another ancient poet wrote, “hearts must grow resolute, our courage more valiant, our spirits must be greater, though our strength grows less”.


But strength does fail and courage alone is not enough.   Alison gifted me with a story about David, that at a certain point in his battle, he said that he wanted to lay down his sword and spend his remaining days peacefully with those he loved, and so he did.


In the Christian faith there are lots of images of spiritual life as combat - St. Paul at the end of his life writes that he has “fought the good fight”.  But there is also the promise that God will finish the fight that we can not win, and win it for us.   “Peace be with you”, says Jesus when he appears to his disciples after his resurrection, and the wounds in his hands and feet are the wounds that he has taken for us in the final battle.


Here at All Saints we’ve started a project to work our way through the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, and the final novel, as you may recall, is called “The Last Battle”.   Lewis brings all the beloved characters of Narnia, children and unicorns and centaurs, together to resist an assault by a death god named Tash.   The heroes fight valiantly, but they are only saved by the great lion Aslan, whose role in the novels allows us to see Narnia as a reimagining of Christian faith, a kind of Bible 2.0.


At the very end of the book, after the final battle, Narnia as we’ve come to know it ends, and Aslan invites the good characters to go “further up and further in” to a new and eternal Narnia, and as Lewis writes, “But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” 


You may find these words merely a lovely piece of wishful thinking, or, you may find in them a retelling of the Christian story.   Either way, let us give thanks for David, who fought the good fight against an evil foe while he had strength, and who has gone peacefully into a greater story than we can imagine, but in which we hope one day to join him and all those we have loved who have gone before us.


Friday, June 23, 2023

A Funeral Homily For Bob Steen



Bob (Robert) Steen

10 July 1939 - 14 June, 2023


Chris, James, friends of Bob and Chris, it’s an honour to be here with you and with my clergy colleagues for this wonderful service for Bob.


A funeral service is a chance to tell the story of a life, hopefully a life well lived, and Bob’s was indeed a life well lived.  Some of you will know much of the story of Bob’s life, some will know parts of it:  a devoted husband, stepfather to James, a long career in dentistry and myriad roles in the charities and societies that make Collingwood a better place.    Bob lived his life well, and we are the better for it.  


As someone relatively new to the area, I only had the privilege of knowing Bob towards the very end of his long and good life.   I shall always remember the pride with which he told me of his personal history, his Irish roots, and how much he wanted me to see the pocket watch which his grandfather had carried onboard the Titanic, though fortunately that was before she left on her fatal voyage!  As Bob did, I love making scale models, and I was so impressed when Bob showed me a model of th Titanic that he had painstakingly assembled.   


I also remember how moved I was when Bob told me how his hearing had been damaged from the high speed drills he had used for decades as a dental surgeon.   As I child I remember my own trips to the dentist and how scary it was to hear the sound of the drill through the door as I waited for my turn to go in.   Most of us don’t relish going to the dentist, but we are always grateful to leave knowing we won’t suffer any more from a painful tooth or from a gap in our mouths.   I think of how how many people Bob must have helped and relieved through his career, and of the slow and gradual price he paid to help them.  Bob’s story makes me think that there are many ways in which we take up our crosses to serve others, and that was a cross that Bob bore for his patients.


When I met Bob, I could see that he was physically diminished by his age and by his infirmities, and it was tempting for me to wish that I had met Bob when he was in his prime.    I’m an unlikely resident of Collingwood in that I have a terror of hurtling down an icy slope, but I am sure that Bob in his prime could have easily taught me to ski.


While it’s tempting to wish that we had met a person in their prime, that’s an illusion born of our human desire to value some parts of a life more than others.   I don’t believe God looks at our lives and judges some parts as being better than others.  That’s not what the gospels say.  Jesus looked on all with compassion, the strong and the old, he loved the healthy and the sick in equal measure.   To Jesus, and to his Father, every stage of our lives is equally valuable.    The wonder of childhood, the strength of our youth, and ] the frailty of old age are all one to God, all held in God’s sight and all enfolded in God’s love and grace.   


As a sign of how we our lives our wrapped in God’s infinite love,  I’m joined by my Anglican colleague Canon Judy, who was a longtime friend and former pastor to Chris, as well as by my friend Father Charles, for Bob was a son of the Roman Catholic church and it is fitting that he is remembered as such.    While our traditions and churches are different, I think that all three of us could agree on the most important thing, that Jesus, in his great love and compassion, was there at the end for Bob, just as he walked with Bob through all the stages of his life.  Our presence today is born of that grace, and I’m so grateful to the for being here with me.


As the prophet Isaiah said,  “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows”.   Bob’s infirmities and sorrows are now taken from him, he is free of their burdens.   Bob has been carried home to the eternal present of God’s love, the true prime of life,  in which nothing diminishes or fades away.    We give thanks for his good life here on earth, and we pray that we may one day join him in that city of light where there are no tears or sorrow, but only joy.

Saturday, June 10, 2023

Called On A Journey: A Homily for the Second Sunday After Pentecost

A Homily for the Second Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 12] (Green) - Sunday, June 11th, 2023, at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto.

Readings - Genesis 12:1-9; Psalm 33:1-12; Romans 4:13-25; Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26 

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you,”   (Gen 12:1)


That our first reading today is literally about a journey made in faith led me to think about how we sometimes describe our spiritual lives as faith journeys; journeys in that they happen over sometimes long periods of our lives, and because they take us to different places, both real and spiritual.   For example, I’ve known people whose journeys were quite dramatic, who made conversions like a friend who started as a Catholic and who ended as a Muslim imam, or people I’ve known who for a time called themselves atheists but became deeply committed Christians.


Sometimes the journey follows a pattern of growth and maturing in faith, but for many of us we sort of bumble along doing the best we can, aware of something greater than us and occasionally having some moment of insight.  Others hold back because it all just seems far too abstract, because they think faith is just accepting something that can’t be known or proven, and so they settle for a material existence where they can call the shots.  Which is too bad, really, because the faith journey can be about coming to know a God who becomes more and more real to us.   Indeed, God wants us to make this journey.


But journeys can be intimidating at first.  Let’s start by thinking about a long move that you might have made in your life.   Perhaps you moved a long distance to seek opportunity, as a student or an immigrant, or possibly it was out of duty to an employer.    I’m sure that there were a hundred things that kept you busy organizing the move - passports, permissions, finding a place to live, schools for the kids, and so on - but in your less busy moments there must have been anxiety as well.   Am I doing the right thing?  Will I be successful?  Will my family be happy?   Will we adapt?


And of course, for those we love who join us on life’s big journeys, the anxieties can be worse.  A spouse or partner wonders what they will do with themselves in a strange town or country.  Will they find work?  Children will resent leaving friends behind.  What will the new school be like?  What they make new friends?    When I worked at Base Borden I would see the moving trucks coming and going in May and June, the time that the military calls Posting Season, and I could imagine the stories and anxieties behind each truck because I’d lived them myself in many moves across Canada.


So think back to our first lesson and imagine the days when Abram  was having his things packed and his camels loaded for the long journey to Canaan.  Abram and his family were in a place called Haran, well to the north in modern day Turkey, and that wasn’t their original home.  Genesis 11 tells us that Abram and his wife Sarai first “went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there” (Gen 11.31) so they’ve already travelled a long distance from deep in modern day Iraq, hundreds of kilometres, and now they’re moving again.   What’s worse, they aren’t even sure where they’re going.   


Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (Gen 12.1)

Now we might say, “but they were all nomads then, they were used to travelling all the time”, though since at least 600,000 Canadians move every year, we might ask if we are any less nomadic.   But imagine Sarai and the conversation they had when Abram told her the plan.  “Well, Sarai, God told me to move to a place called Canaan, he talked a lot abut us being blessed, and blessing others, and I’m sure it will all be fine.”   


The Bible seldom gives women like Sarai a voice, but nobody would blame her if there were tears, maybe an argument or two, and lots of grumbling and eye-rolling as the camels are packed.  And what of Lot and all the servants, “the persons whom they had acquired in Haran”?  Scripture is silent as to what they all thought of this scheme.   I’m sure they didn’t get a vote.


But Abram went to Canaan, he became Abraham, he was faithful to God and God delivered on his promise to make his descendants a great nation, the people of Israel, and from Israel came Jesus, and from Jews and Gentiles who followed Jesus came the church, and so here we are, sharing the blessing that God promised to “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12.3), which is why Abraham, the first Jewish patriarch, is so important to Christians.  


In our second lesson we heard Paul praise Abraham as a model of faith and trust in God (“No distrust made him wave concerning the promise of God” Rom 4.20).  Abraham was faithful and obedient to God long before God gave the law to Moses, and so Abraham anchors Paul’s argument that the gentiles can join the Jesus movement without becoming following Jewish law and practice, such as circumcision.  So Abraham embodies those qualities - faith and trust - that run through our lessons today.  


So that’s all wonderful, you might well say, but from our vantage point in the 21st century, Abraham can seem like an impossibly far-off figure of legend, and so when we hear Paul (another far off, legendary figure) say that “No distrust made [Abraham] waver concerning the promise of God”, we might well say, well, all that was easy for old Abraham, he had chats with God on a regular basis, but how do I believe like that?  This is the problem with the “be like the heroes of the bible” kind of sermon, they are heroes of the bible and we’re … just us.


I think one of the greatest obstacles that keep us from a deep and satisfying faith life is the fear that it’s all terribly abstract and that God can’t really be known, at least not like Abraham knew God.   We might try faith in moments of desperation, like the father or the sick woman in today’s gospel reading (Mt 9.18-26), but I’ve seen people fall away when their prayers aren’t answered sufficiently, or when the crisis passes and they go back to what they settle for as normal.    So if any of this sounds just a little familiar, let me finish by offering a few thoughts.


First, God is real and God wants to be known.   Jesus calls Matthew out of the business of life and says “follow me”.  Jesus call is even vaguer and more open-ended than the call of Abram - at least Abram was told he would go to a land that God would show him.   Jesus just says “follow me and let’s go do stuff”.  So don’t ever think that God isn’t interested in you;  Jesus calls you because he loves you and he wants you to know that.   You never know where Jesus might take you but it will be worth the ride.


Second, God can be known.  Earlier in my homily I talked about all the fears and anxieties that might arise from a distant move.   None of these anxieties can be settled until we confront them.   For example, a parent might reassure a child that they will make new friends in the new place, but the child will never fully believe this until they get to the new place and starting meeting other children.   The fear that faith won’t work for us will fade away when we open ourselves to God.  


Maybe Abram never fully believed until he got to Canaan.  Maybe barren Sarai never fully believed until she realized she was pregnant.   Maybe faith only became real to you, or will become real, that moment that something touches your heart and fills you with a sense of God’s presence.  A number of you said in your recent parish surveys that there is a magical moment here every Sunday when we sing “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place”.   Some of you said that you are close to tears when we sing it.   i think that we sing it because we experience it.  God is in this place.


Finally, God is known in a variety of ways if we want to work at the knowing, and I would suggest that if you want to know God, start with Jesus  We may know Jesus because we find satisfaction in the service and outreach that he calls us to.     We may know Jesus when we desire healing,  when we confide to others about an illness and find that we are held in love and prayer - I’ve seen this happen at our recent men’s breakfasts, and we men aren’t normally good at this stuff.   We know Jesus when we dare to tell him that we love him for loving us.   We may know Jesus on retreat, in the beauty of holiness and worship, or in those early morning moments before the day gets busy.  My favourite time to be with Jesus is very early in the day, and sometimes it’s while I’m holding a paintbrush or a garden trowel in my hand. 

We may know Jesus as we think about him through the seasons of the Christian year, Advent leading us to Christmas, Lent to Holy Week, Easter and Pentecost, or in the long walk with him through what the church calls Ordinary Time.  In walking with Jesus though the church year, we find that we can know God and feel the presence of the Holy Spirit.


While our relationship with can take many forms, in private devotion and prayer and in the community of the church, we have to work at it.  It is a practice to be cultivated and returned to, like music or gardening or a friendship.   C.S. Lewis wrote in his book Mere Christianity, we  “must train the habit of Faith.  We have to be continually reminded of what we believe. Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind. It must be fed”


So to conclude, when we talk about our spiritual lives as faith journeys, I think it’s helpful to think of them like the long moves we’ve made for school or work or whatever.  Our faith journeys start because we are called by the one who promises to bring us to a better place - these journeys may begin in anxiety or doubt, but they can lead us out of injury and trauma, sadness and guilt, to a place where we feel fulfilled and at home in God’s presence, so that we find, like the woman in the gospel, that our faith has made us well.

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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