Saturday, June 22, 2024

He Cares that We are Perishing: A Homily for the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost and for a Baptism

 A Homily for the  Fifth Sunday After Pentecost and for the Baptism of Darius Axel Weekes-Shaw.  Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, June 23, 2024.  

Texts:  1 Samuel 17:(1A, 4-11, 19-23) 32-49; Psalm 9:9-20 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

 A Homily for the  Fifth Sunday After Pentecost and for the Baptism of Darius Axel Weekes-Shaw.  Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, June 23, 2024.  Texts:  1 Samuel 17:(1A, 4-11, 19-23) 32-49; Psalm 9:9-20 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mk 4.38)

A beautiful and historic church burns down, and we wonder if there will ever be funds, or parishioners to replace it.   We feel like saying "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

A person we love dearly has a terrible accident, or announces that they have a terminal illness.  Meanwhile we are acutely aware of our own again bodies failing us.   We feel like saying, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

We hear news of nuclear threats, of new waves of refugees and  racism, of political violence, and a steadily and scarily heating planet, and we feel like saying "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

We can all relate to the frightened disciples in today’s gospel.  Our collect today stated this reality when it said that “storms rage about us and cause us to be afraid”.  When I was learning to paddle, my instructor told us “stay in the canoe and all will be well”, which is good advice except that the storm is raging and the boat is filling with water.  

So we turn to the guy in the stern and he’s not paddling, he’s not bailing, he’s just sleeping. "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Well, the good news is that the guy in the stern does care, and he will save us, because we’re not just in any boat, we’re in his boat, which just happens to look like a church.    As you may have learned in confirmation class, the long centre part of the church, with all the pews, is called the nave, from the Latin word navis meaning ship.

Ancient church preachers loved to note how the church saves us in the same way that the ark saved Noah and his family, or the reed basket saved Noah.

None of the disciples with Jesus that day knew what a personal floatation device was, unless it was a floating plank.   Today we don’t dare go boating unless we have a PFD, for fear that the police marine patrol will ticket us, or worse.    

Well, you all have a spiritual PFD, though you can’t see it.  It’s that cross that the priest drew on your forehead when you were baptized, to mark you as Christ’s own forever.  Christ’s own need not be afraid.   Our Lord who sleeps, trusting in his Father, was also given a voice to calm storms, to silence demons, and to call the dead back to life.

Yes, storms and water can be scary.   Poor Darius will discover that when we splash him with water in a few minutes.    But after today, in whatever storms of life he will face, Darius will have Jesus at his side.   If he is taught to trust and to listen, he will hear the voice of Jesus, calling to him gently, telling him that he is God’s beloved child.  

When he is afraid and troubled, he will hear that voice, loud and commanding, telling the storm to be still.   

When he has wandered far and ashamed, may he hear that voice, s[-eaking words of forgiveness and welcoming him home.   

And finally, may he, along with all of us, hear Jesus telling him to wake and rise, to greet the day on which the sun will never set.

This Land Is Our Land: The Land Acknowledgement at All Saints, Collingwood

 This Land Is Our Land

(From the June 21 edition of our All Saints Alive Newsletter)

I write this close to Friday, June 21, a date which for some years in our Anglican Church of Canada has been fixed as the annual National Indigenous Day of Prayer.    As many of you are aware, our Anglican Church of Canada, along with many other Christian churches in our country, has been on a long journey of reconciliation and understanding with our indigenous brothers and sisters.

This seems to be a good occasion to talk about the reading of the Land Acknowledgement which has begun our Sunday worship for many months now.   Church is not the only place where you will hear a land acknowledgement - they are commonly used in government, higher education, and at civic events.  

First, what is the purpose of the Land Acknowledgement?  Our Diocese of Toronto website gives the reasons for it as follows:   

“In the Church, this practice helps us acknowledge that were located in a particular place with a particular history and reminds us of our obligations toward both the land and to those who have inhabited it long before the arrival of Christian missionaries. Its also our way of expressing a willingness to move toward reconciliation and a renewed, respectful relationship with Indigenous peoples.”

It’s also worth nothing that in 2016 by the Primates Commission on Discovery, Reconciliation and Justice recommended that churches include land acknowledgements in their worship services.

I’ve written our Land Acknowledgement in the form of a prayer, in which we ask for wisdom, attentiveness, and a desire to repair relations, because these all seem to be things worth praying for.

Occasionally I’m asked what the purpose of saying these words is, and whether there’s a danger that they become rote.    To be frank, I’ve also heard that some parishioners are unenthusiastic about this practice.

Confronting our history is hard work.  For older Canadians, our sense of history and national identity can be challenged when we hear indigenous people refer to us as “settlers”.    Canada Day, just around the corner, is an occasion of civic pride for the country that our own ancestors moved to, helped build, and fought for.  The Land Acknowledgement is a way of helping us into a new reality as Canadians and as Christians.

It’s difficult for many of us who don’t know indigenous people to know what exactly we are meant to do.    An indigenous friend of mine once told me that my job is to learn.    Learning is an opportunity presented to all of us, through cultural events hosted by Collingwood’s indigenous community, through books, and through conversations.   In this time of climate uncertainty, we can all benefit from the deep wisdom of indigenous traditions around care of creation.

After this Sunday, the Land Acknowledgement will continue to be printed in our bulletin, though my intention is to no longer read it aloud at every service.  It will be said at our vestry meetings, in certain seasons (Lent, a time of repentance, seems appropriate), and in June as we approach the National Indigenous Day of Prayer.   We will continue to look for occasions to learn about indigenous people and to embrace reconciliation in meaningful, local ways.

Finally, let me just say that if hearing the Land Acknowledgement has made us uncomfortable, then it may have served its purpose.

Father Michael

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Open to God's Greenness: A Homily for the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

 Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 19, 2024,  Readings for this Sunday (Proper 11B):  1 Samuel 15:34-16:13; Psalm 20; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 (11-13), 14-17; Mark 4:26-34 

26[ [Jesus] also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how (Mk 4: 26-27)

Long ago, in a former life, I used to teach first year English Literature.   When we got to the poetry section of the course, I was always interested by the ideas and preconceptions about poetry that the students brought to the course.  Many of them came with the idea that poems had were essentially puzzles to be solved so that the reader could unlock the hidden meaning.   Instead, I would encourage them to just enjoy the poem, to hear what the poet had to say in their own words, the way we enjoy a painting or a piece of music.

I would suggest that the same thing is true of Jesus’ parables, like the two we hear from Mark’s gospel.  There’s a perception that the parables are homespun stories about everyday situations that would have been familiar to Jesus’ listeners, and yet that they are also riddles that need to be solved.  This perception is reinforced by Jesus himself, who when he says things like “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Mk 4.9), which suggests that we have to work hard and listen carefully if we are to get the message.

Likewise in today’s gospel, when Jesus tell parables to the crowds, but “explained everything in private to his disciples” (Mk 4:33-34), we get the sense that the parables merely hint at some truths that are only made apparent to Jesus’ inner circle.   So, seeing that we weren’t there to hear that private explanation, what if we try simply taking the parables at face value, as if they were poems or songs?   

Let’s start by noting that Jesus begins most parables with some variation of the phrase, “the kingdom of God is like …”.   Jesus is telling us something about the kingdom of God, but what is it?   Is it a place that we can go to?  If so, Jesus never gives us directions to get there.  Is it political?   If so, as I said last Sunday, the kingdom of God does not look like earthly kingdom.   

So maybe we should set aside this question of “what is the kingdom of God” and follow the word “like” to see what the kingdom of God is being compared to.

In both our parables today, the word “like” leads us to seeds and plants, but there’s very little said about us.   As I said in my little children’s video posted online, the first parable about the seed should not be taken as gardening advice, because the guy in the parable is terrible gardener.   He throws the seeds hither and yon, and then has a nap.  He’s totally passive.   Likewise, in the second parable, the mustard plant is self-seeding.  There’s no humans involved.

So maybe the first thing we can say is that the kingdom of God grows of its own accord.   The Greek word Mark uses is automatatÄ“, the seed grows by itself, without human help (I'm grateful to C. Clifton Black for this observation in his Working Preacher commentary).    Also, there is something mysterious about it, as the sower in the parable “does not know how” the seed grows.   It’s a mystery, but it’s a good mystery, because the seed grows to be harvested.

So who is the harvester with the sickle?  Again, we aren’t told.  In other parables and sayings, the reaper is associated with divine judgement, but here we can’t say that for sure.   All we can say is that the seed grows into grain to be harvested and to sustain life.   Likewise the mustard seed in the second parable provides shelter for the birds.  

So based on all this, even while we admit that the kingdom of God is a mysterious thing, we can say two things about it.   First, we can say that the kingdom of God is God’s doing, it comes about because of God’s initiative, not ours.   Second, we can say that the images of harvest and shelter tell us that the kingdom of God is benefit and blessing.  I hope this comes as a relief to you, because it’s very tempting to think that we have to do something to make the kingdom of God happen.  This is an especial temptation to those of us in the church business, where it’s easy to think that we have to be busy doing things too make the kingdom of God happen.

But what if it’s simpler than that?   What if it’s simply up to us to trust that the kingdom of God will happen because God wants to make it happen?  What if it simply comes down to us believing in God’s goodness and in God’s desire to share that goodness with us?   What if it’s simply about us daring to believe that God is actually present and active in our lives, and in our church?  

Let me finish by saying that trusting in God’s doing stuff is not a prescription for passivity or even for apathy. Christian spirituality has always been about listening to God and about opening ourselves to what God wants to do in us.    This is where the plant imagery in the parables is helpful, because our the goal of the Christian life is spiritual growth, a response of God’s reaching out to us in the same way that plants respond to the sun.

So said the German abbess, Hildegard von Bingen, a  medieval saint of the 11th century fondly remembered for her musical, theological, and botanical wisdom.   Hildegard had a wonderful concept of viriditas, a Latin word meaning “greenness”.   She believed that God created all things with what she called God’s “green finger”, that all of the earth was imbued with God’s creative energy.  Hildegard taught that the healthy soul opened itself to God’s greenness  in the way that plants open themselves to the sun’s energy.

Think about the language in today’s gospel, of how the seed goes from stalk to head and then to grain, and think of how that might describe the spiritual life that we all want, from disblief or indifference to doubt to faith, tranquility, assurance and peace.   Don’t we all want that growth in our hearts and souls?

In one of her famous and mystical passages, Hildegard offers a vision of the soul fully grown and ripe with God’s energy.

Good people, Most royal greening verdancy, Rooted in the sun,
You shine with radiant light, in this circle of earthly existence.
You shine so finely, it surpasses understanding.
God hugs you. You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.

Dear saints, I can’t explain these words, any more than I can explain a parable or explain any other divine mystery.  But why explain it, when we can open ourselves to the love and energy of God?   Perhaps for today, its enough for us to leave this place, willing to be open to that divine green energy of God, and trusting that we are encircled in the “arms of the mystery of God”.  What could be more wonderful, more desirable?

Fr Michael and Jesse the Bible Bear Talk About Sowing and Planting

 A children's talk on Mark 4 and the parable of the seeds.

Sunday, June 9, 2024

Jesus the Strongman: A Homily for the Third Sunday After Pentecost

We are determined to have a king over us, 20so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” (1 Sam 8.19-20)

Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, June 9, 2024, the Third Sunday after Pentecost.

Readings for this Sunday (Proper 10 Year B):  1 Samuel 8:4-11 (12-15), 16-20 (11:14-15); Psalm 138; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

It’s an unsettled time, full of insecurity and fear.  The old ways of doing things don’t seem to work any more.  The leaders are distrusted, and few people have much faith in religion or even in God.   Instead the people want a strongman to rule them, someone who will crush their enemies and make them feel good about themselves.

I won’t blame you if thought I was talking about today’s headlines, but really this is a a description of where we come in to our first lesson today, from the First Book of Samuel.   Since Sharon talked about the call of the boy Samuel in her homily last Sunday, I thought I’d pick up the story from where she left off.   You’d think the story about the adorable little Samuel in his pyjamas, twice going to Eli and saying “did you call me?”, would have a happy ending, but not so much.

So to recap the story (and just to prove that the Hebrew scriptures are chiock full of good stories), Samuel was called by God because the priest Eli’s sons were absolute rotters, corrupt and abusive.   At the time, Israel is at war with the Philistines, and the war isn’t going that well because the Israelites have started worshipping the gods of neighbouring countries.   

There’s a big battle, and the sons of Eli take the Ark of the Covenant to the battle as a sign of God’s presence and protection.  But, God is angry with Israel’s faithlessness, so God lets the Philistines win, the sons of Eli are killed, and the Ark of the Covenant is captured.   Eli dies of shame when he hears the news, thus fulfilling God’s prophecy that his house and line will end. The Philistines take the Ark home but they suffer terribly because they never watched the Indiana Jones movie, so they send it back.   

By this time Samuel is the chief priest of Israel.  He calls his people to repent, they get rid of their false godsend God helps them to defeat the Philistines.   So you’re thinking, that must be the real happy ending, right?  Well, no, this film isn’t over, because as someone once said, history may not repeat but it does rhyme.  Turns out the sons of Samuel are also rotters, and the people don’t want another priest.  Instead they ask Samuel to find them a king, so they can be like other nations.

So this is point where things really go off the rails. Since Joshua took over from Moses and led the people of God across the Jordan, Israel had never had a king.   Instead they had judges, men and women who mostly acted as a priest and prophet.  The judges had a connection to God who was the true founder and king of Israel.  As God tells Samuel, the people “have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Sam 8.7).   So, God tells Samuel to give the people what they want, with a few caveats.

I read recently about politics that the people who help put  strongmen in power think that they can control the strongmen, when in fact the strongman only looks after himself.   This is exactly what God warns the people will happen to them.   A king will take their wealth.  He will take their daughters as servants, and their sons as soldiers to fight his wars.   A king will be cruel and domineering, like Pharaoh.  It’s a sobering thought that Pharaoh’s soldiers who drowned when God parted the Red Sea were the sons of ordinary people, and Samuel is saying to his people that their sons may likewise never come home.

At this point in the larger story of Samuel we start to notice a trend that may seem discouraging, namely that over and over again, humans pull away from God and go their own way.   Eli was replaced as a priest because his sons were scoundrels.   Samuel was a faithful priest but his sons were scoundrels and no one wanted them.  God wanted the people of Israel to be unique among the nations, but they asked for a king so they could be like other nations.  

And just as good priests are followed by bad ones, so it goes with kings.   Some, like David and Solomon are good, well, mostly, but others are scoundrels and so, by the time we think that First Samuel was written, the kings are gone and the Israelites are slaves in Babylon and the story is back where it started in Egypt.  But that’s not the end of the story, because through all this, God remains faithful.

When the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, he says of the son she will have that “the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David” (Lk 1.32).  But in all his time on earth, Jesus doesn’t want like any earthly king.   Likewise, Jesus tells his disciples not to want power and honour as they understand it.   He tells them “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26It will not be so among you” (Mt 20.26-28).   

What Jesus is saying here is a complete reversal of what the people told Samuel.  They wanted a powerful king to be like other nations.  Jesus is calling God’s people back to the role that was always intended for them, to be a unique people who will be a blessing for the world.  The kings that Samuel warns of will always want to be served.  Jesus will be a king that serves others.  As he says in Matthew’s gospel, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28).

Now don’t get Jesus wrong, his talk about serving others doesn’t mean that he is some milquetoast hero.  Jesus comes to smack down evil.    The first miracle that Jesus performs in Mark’s gospel is to free a man of an unclean spirit, a demon, and the witnesses recognize this as an act of power and authority (exousia) (Mk 1.27).  So in today’s gospel reading, Jesus’ authority is never questioned by his religious opponents.  Rather, they suggest that Jesus is somehow demonic himself - “by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons” (Mk 3.23).

Let’s pay attention to the parable by which Jesus rebuts this accusation:  “no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man” (Mk 3.27).   So the strong man in the parable would be Beelzebul, the prince of devils (whose name, by the way, means “Lord of the Flies / Dung Heap”).   The strong man’s house is the world that is captive to sin and evil.  The strong man’s plundered property are those who are held captive by sin evil, as seen in those in the gospels whom Jesus frees from evil spirits.  And the thief who can bind the strong man must be even stronger, and the thief is clearly Jesus.

So in a surprising conclusion to this homily, the strong man that we long for is not some earthly king or leader who will defeat our enemies and make us great, but rather, the strong man is Jesus, the King of Heaven and Earth, who will set free us from the evil, free us from the evil of the world and from ourselves.  The strong king that the people asked Samuel for could never come from among them.  That king could only come from God, but he would be no king they could even recognize, because his crown would be thorns, his throne a cross, and his sword would be love.  But his power over evil is very real.

We need Jesus our king because now is just as uncertain a time as it was in Samuel’s day.  It’s still an unsettled time, full of insecurity, and full of fear.  Social media has filled many people with outrage and grievance, and it’s made our politics vicious, so that we’re less likely to compromise and to find solutions to complicated issues.  Half the world seems to be run by dictators, and the other half is losing faith in democracy.   So now, as in Samuel’s day, many want strongmen to rule over them and to crush their enemies

I didn’t mean for this to be a political homily.   As followers of Jesus, I would say that our politics should resemble our Sunday prayers of the people in that they should want what is best for our communities and for the wider world.   I would also that whatever our politics, whatever our insecurities, we should never give in to the desire for a strongman, because we have Jesus and because we live in his kingdom.

Jesus is our strongman and king, but he’s a curious kind of strongman because in return for conquering our enemies, sin and death, he only asks three things of us:  to repent, to love God, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.   If we can obey him in these three things, then we might well find our way to a politics that offers community, dignity, and security for all.


Thursday, June 6, 2024

Ben Crosby on the Perils of Functionalist Theology

The Symbol of God Functions? by Ben Crosby

How attention to the practical function of Christian belief helps and hinders contemporary theology

Read on Substack

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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