Friday, November 13, 2015

"Worthless" (Nov 15 2015)

Homily:  Yr B Proper xx, Nov 15 2015, St. Albans
Readings: 1 Sam 1.4.20; 1 Sam 2:1b-10; Heb 10.11-25; Mark 13.1-8


“You are worthless.”  I hope you’ve never been told that.  But my fear is that many of us either directly, or perhaps more subtly, have been told, more than once, in a whole variety of ways, that we are worthless.  And when someone is given that message again and again, it eats away at them.  When our worth is questioned repeatedly by the world around us, we can’t help but start to question it ourselves.

Hannah has been told that she is worthless.  Everyone tells her she is worthless.  Her whole society, her whole culture tells her that a woman who does not bear children is incomplete.  Useless.  Cursed by God.  Worthless.

And that eats away at Hannah.  Being told you’re worthless causes huge psychological and spiritual damage.  It is not a damage that can be healed by positive thinking or a stiff upper lip.  It is a persistent, unsettled ache.  Listen to the words used to describe Hannah in today’s Old Testament reading, listen to the words she uses to describe herself.  She weeps, bitterly.  She will not eat.  She is deeply distressed, deeply troubled, in misery, with great anxiety.  She pleads with those around her, “Don’t regard me as worthless.”

Not only does Hannah feel worthless, not only does she suffer from anxiety and depression as a result, but she is both misunderstood and abused by those who are closest to her.  Her husband Elkanah is trying, I suppose, to help, but he is at best a clumsy oaf who just doesn’t get it.  “Why are you sad?  Am I not more to you than ten sons?”  Well, no actually it’s not about you, Elkanah.  Elkanah’s second wife, Peninnah, the one he was allowed to marry because Hannah wasn’t able to do what a wife should do, she sees Hannah as a rival and torments her with her worthlessness.  And even the priest Eli, who God knows should do better, when he sees Hannah praying at the temple, he accuses her of being drunk.  There is only one it seems, who actually sees Hannah for who she is.

God sees Hannah, the one the world says is worthless, praying at the temple.  And God says, “I choose you.”

In our own day, we no longer see someone who is infertile as cursed by God.  It is still a serious problem and often a source of great sadness, but hopefully, not a cause for feelings or accusations of worthlessness.  But we still struggle with questions of worth in our own time.  Social stigma around mental illness and unemployment come to mind.  Self-esteem issues that relate to body image among teenagers.  And to stay with today’s theme of women’s stories, think about women at home with children.  What are the messages that they get from us, from our culture? 

“Why don’t you put your children in daycare so that you can get a job?”

“Do you go back to bed when your kids go off to school in the morning?”

These daily reminders of the loss of income, of prestige, of independence that go with staying at home do their part in chipping away at the sense of worth of those people, mostly women and some men, who stay at home with their kids.  And too often, even those closest to them misunderstand, and like Hannah’s clumsy oaf of a husband Elkanah, say completely the wrong thing.  I know, I’ve been that clumsy oaf of a husband on too many occasions.

When we consider the patriarchal world of the Old Testament, it’s pretty amazing that we find the story of Hannah right at the beginning of the book of Samuel.  The book of Samuel is the story of the rise of Israel, the story of a tribe which goes from being a fragile, corrupt, disorganized people threatened on all sides to a strong nation under the great king David.  And that story begins with Hannah.  God chooses Hannah to begin the story of the rise of Israel and the beginning of the Davidic line, a story which in turn gives rise, after many twists and turns along the way, to the birth of Jesus, and therefore to our story as well.

Despite her struggles with self-worth, despite her struggles with mental illness, Hannah turns to God. In the depth of her distress, Hannah chooses not to be resentful towards Elkanah for his misunderstanding, nor to strike out angrily at her rival Peninnah.  She didn’t do a Sarah, Abraham’s barren wife who in the book of Genesis insisted that Abraham send his child-bearing wife Hagar into exile. Instead, Hannah rose and presented herself to the Lord.  She was deeply distressed and she wept bitterly but she took her concerns to God, in prayer, at the temple.  And God uses Eli, the insensitive priest, to assure Hannah that her prayer has been heard. Knowing that God has heard her, Hannah’s sense of worth is restored, and her countenance is sad no longer.

And you know, this is really the heart of the gospel isn’t it?  That no matter our fears and our weaknesses, no matter what the world around us says about our sense of worth, no matter what we believe about our own worthiness, when we turn to God, God sees and God hears and God says to us, you are valuable and beautiful and wonderful in my eyes. I want you as my child and I choose you.  And that changes everything.

It certainly did for Hannah. We get to see that great transformation play out in her story.  She is sad no longer.  God chooses her to bear a son.  Hannah receives her son as a gift from God, and she in turn, astonishingly, gives her son Samuel back to God a few years later, bringing him to live with Eli at the temple.  The boy Samuel will grow up to be the key figure in the rise of Israel, the last of the judges of Israel, one of the greatest of Israel’s prophets and the one who anoints David as king.

And Hannah’s story doesn’t end with the birth of her son, the prophet.  She too becomes a prophet, and her prophetic song is the one we used as our psalm today.  It is a song of joy and of strength, the song of a changed woman, a song that attests to God as the one who brings transformation to our lives and to our world, who makes the feeble strong, who feeds those who are hungry, who raises the poor from the dust and who breaks the bows of the mighty.  We will hear another song much like it in a few weeks when we enter the season of Advent and hear once more the song of Mary.

Our God is a God who does remarkable things, who chooses those who are weak and worthless in the eyes of the world to begin new stories, stories of hope, stories of change, stories of joy, stories of redemption.  If this world is ever getting you down, and it will sometimes, and if people ever say or do things that make you question your own worth, and they will sometimes, and if you’re ever troubled by sadness and anxiety, if you ever feel misunderstood, remember the story of Hannah.

Hannah turned to God in her distress, and God said “I choose you.”

And with those words, the new story begins.


Friday, November 6, 2015

Money (November 8, 2015)

Homily:  Yr C Proper 32, Nov 8 2015, St. Albans
Readings:  Ruth 3.1-5;4.13-17; Ps 146; Heb 9.24-28; Lk 12.13-21, 32-34


There once was a letter sent to Dear Abby by a young woman, and it went like this:

Dear Abby,
I think that my boyfriend and I should be sharing the cost of my birth control pills, but he hasn’t offered to do so.  I don’t know what to do.  I don’t know him well enough to talk about money.

Money is a touchy subject, isn’t it?  It’s not something that we talk about a lot, certainly not at church.

But when you think about it, that’s kind of strange.  Because Jesus is always talking about money.  It’s one of his go to subjects, especially in the gospel of Luke from which we read today and from which we’ll be drawing most of our gospel readings in the coming year.  We’ll hear Jesus talk about tax collectors, about financial managers, about entrepreneurs.  Jesus will answer questions about taxes, he’ll tell parables about stewards, he’ll throw the moneychangers out of the temple and he’ll look at one rich, young man with compassion and tell him to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor.

Jesus is always talking about money.  He knows it’s important to us.  He knows that what we do with it says a lot about us.  But what Jesus has to say about money is often difficult for us to hear.  In the first part of today’s gospel, Jesus tell a parable about a successful farmer who has a bumper crop, such a good crop that his barns are too small to store it all.  And so, being not only a good farmer, but a good entrepreneur and businessperson, he uses this opportunity to tear down his old, small barns and replace them with new larger barns which can store all of his harvest.  By the standards of our culture, by the rules of our economics, this successful farmer is doing the right things isn’t he?  Isn’t this the sort of business investment that our government would encourage?  Why then, at the conclusion of the parable, is he called a fool?

Then, just in case we’re not getting the point of the story, Jesus repeats his message about money as a direct statement, clear and to the point.  “Sell your possessions and give the money to the poor.” 

That’s not a message that goes down well in our culture.  We’re more concerned about the middle-class.  We’re much more used to hearing messages like “earn as much money as you can.”  “Buy stuff.”  Save your money so you can buy stuff.  Buy things to make yourself beautiful, successful, happy, popular, sexy . . . . You’ve all seen the billboards.  You’ve all seen the advertising.

Money is a complicated thing in today’s world.  No longer does it simply facilitate the exchange of my wheat for your wool.  No, money has become a symbol of much more than this.

I have a couple of good friends who have a friendly competition going on.  In the game of life, they say, the one who has the most toys wins.  And so when one takes the lead by buying a kayak, the other will surge back in front by buying a high end racing bike.  Money of course is the key, the way to win the game of life by accumulating the most toys.

But we see money as much more than a way to accumulate possessions.  How would most of you feel if you woke up one morning to find out your pension savings had been wiped out?  This isn’t hypothetical, it’s something that happened a few years ago to lots of Nortel employees in this city.  What would you feel?  I suspect there would be feelings of anxiety, of insecurity.  Money, whether it’s in the bank, in the house or in a pension fund, is a symbol of security for us.  Stripped of money, we would feel exposed, maybe even naked.

A few years ago a friend of mine and another woman were doing the same job for the same employer.  My friend was reasonably satisfied with her salary – that is, until she found out that the other woman with the same qualifications, doing the same work, was being paid quite a bit more.  Her reaction was outrage.  Why?  Because what she was being paid was a measure of her worth, a measure of how she was valued, and it was outrageous to her that her employer should consider her to be less valuable than the coworker.

I remember another occasion when I was working in the technology sector here in Ottawa, and dealing with a venture capitalist.  He was a wealthy man, and was content with his lifestyle.  One day he confided to me that he didn’t need any more money, but in his investments he tried his darndest to make as much money as possible anyways, because money was his way of keeping score.

I remember when I was 15 years old, I had my first summer job.  I worked hard all summer, saved the money I made, and at the end of the summer, I bought myself a stereo for my room.  That stereo was for me a source of great pride, and I used it for over thirty years until it finally fell apart.  It was a symbol for me of my own capabilities, of my ability to do things for myself, and of the hard-earned independence that I gained as I transitioned from adolescence to adulthood.

I tell you these stories to illustrate why it is that money can gain such a hold over us.  It is not just a convenient means of exchange.  It is much more than that.  It is a symbol of our independence, a measure of our worth, a way of assuring ourselves that we’re doing well in life.  It is intricately tied up with our sense of security and our self-esteem, not to mention all the connections advertisers try to make between buying their products and the good life.  Both in our conscious thought and deep in our sub-conscience, money has become the means by which we achieve the things that matter to us in life.  At least, that’s what we think.

But what if we’re wrong?  What if this [hold up a $20 dollar bill] isn’t the thing that matters most?  What if it can’t achieve for us the things that matter most?

This happens to be an American 20 dollar bill that I’m holding up.  Now there is something very ironic about American money.  If you were to look carefully at this 20 dollar bill, and at every other American bill or coin, you would see that there is an inscription written on it.

It says, “In God we trust”.  That seems a bit ironic doesn’t it?  Because when I look at the way the world works, it seems to me that there are an awful lot more people who trust in money than who trust in God.

In what do you place your trust?  In dollar bills, or in God? 

If we really trusted in God, I guess we could just do this.  [Tear the bill into pieces].

Does that get your attention?  How easy would it be to trust God instead of money?

Does it bother you that I tore up that bill? 

Well you know what?  It bothers me too, and as a result, I’m going to keep the two halves, and I’m going to tape it back together.  But it doesn’t bother me because it’s a waste, or because it might even be against some law.

No, the reason that I shouldn’t have torn this bill into two is because it doesn’t belong to me.  It belongs to God.


Everything I have is a gift of God which has been entrusted to me for a time and a purpose.  I do not own it.  I have not earned it.  I have no right to do what I please with it.  I am simply a steward, a manager, a caretaker who has been entrusted with both a gift and a responsibility.

Despite what the laws of our society say, despite what our economics tells us, the things that we have do not belong to us.  They belong to God and they are given to us so that we can use them in accordance with God’s purposes.

The next time you receive your bank statement, I want you to do the following. Where it has your name at the top as the owner of the bank account, cross out your name, and instead write in “God”.  Then, below that you can write, in the care of Mark Whittall, 44 Wendover Ave.

And the next time you receive your pay statement or your OSAP cheque, you might also think about scratching out your name, and making it payable to God, care of Mark, in the city of Ottawa.

Or pull out the deed to your house, and imagine that the owner is God, and that the property is only entrusted to you.

What Jesus teaches about money is a radical reversal of the way we think about it and the way we deal with it.  And it’s not just about money.  All that we have, our time, our health, our lives, our capabilities, all these are not really ours.  They belong to God, and they have been entrusted to us for a time and a purpose.

Last year I went to a stewardship conference.  And according to some the people at the conference, at least those on the financial side of things, the hope is that when we talk about stewardship, people like you will look at your household income and then prayerfully decide whether you will give 1% or 2% or more to the church as your offering.

But when I listen to what Jesus has to say about money, it seems to me that that sort of thinking has it a bit backwards.  Because it makes the assumption that your household income belongs to you!

It doesn’t belong to you.  It belongs to God, and you have been charged with managing it on God’s behalf.  So the question becomes not how much are you going to give to God, but what are you going to do with God’s money?  And after you’ve done the things that God is calling you to do, how much will be left for your own needs?  Half of it?  80%?  99%?

Do you find this reversal a bit worrying?  Money does after all represent our security, our value, our independence, all those things we talked about before.  Are we able to let go?

Today we are launching a stewardship initiative here at St. Albans.  And after everything that I’ve been talking about so far, you might be surprised to find out that the stewardship initiative is not primarily about money.

It is first of all about community building.  It is about connecting with others in our community here at St. Albans and getting to know each other.  It is about deepening relationships. It is a time to learn about each other’s gifts and find ways to use those gifts to strengthen our community.  It’s about helping people to become engaged and get involved.

Secondly, it’s about education and communication.  It’s about laying out the vision of our parish, and letting people know about all the awesome stuff we’re doing.  This initiative is a way of telling people, of telling you, about our student and campus ministries and our support for those experiencing homelessness.  About our small groups and our student intern program.  About the Open Table, the Big Give and ministry that goes far beyond our community, support for the Church of the North and refugees. I could go on and on.  The ministry and mission that we do as the church in our neighbourhood and beyond is awesome.

Thirdly, our Stewardship Initiative is about providing each one of us with the opportunity to reflect a little bit about our own lives, to review our priorities, to decide how and where and why we want to become more engaged, and to pray about how we can best use the gifts that have been entrusted to us to further the work of God’s kingdom here on earth and especially right here at St. Albans.

To help us do that we have a group of Stewardship Visitors who will be contacting and visiting every member of this community over the next three weeks.  You will be provided with information and given the opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback on our community, its vision and its mission and ministry.  And you will be asked to complete and return a pledge form in response, by November 29th at the latest.

As you might guess, the timing of this initiative is not an accident.  For four years, the St. Albans community has been subsidized financially by the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa.  Now, as of December 31 we need to become financially self-sufficient.  That is a milestone to celebrate.  Most new church plants never get to financial sustainability.  By God’s grace and your stewardship of what God has entrusted to you, we have the opportunity to do so.

All that we have, all that we are, is a gift which has been entrusted to us by God for a time and a purpose.


Friday, October 23, 2015

Why Do Bad Things Happen? The Book of Job (October 25, 2015)

Homily:  Yr B Proper 30, October 25 2015, St. Albans Church
Readings:  The Book of Job

For the last four weeks our Old Testament readings have been from the Book of Job, one of the most challenging, profound and, I dare say, relevant books of the Bible.  And so I want to spend some time this morning talking about the book of Job, though we will only scratch the surface. 

I expect many of us are at least somewhat familiar with the story.  Once upon a time in a land far far away there was a man named Job, a very prosperous man with wealth and servants and many children.  Now Job was a blameless and upright man who feared God, and God himself holds Job up as an example of righteousness.  But Satan, not the devil, but an associate of God in God’s holy court, Satan suggests to God that the only reason that Job is so good and so religious is that he has been rewarded for it and is prosperous as a result.  According to Satan, Job’s religion is nothing more than enlightened self-interest.  But God disagrees and allows Satan to put Job to the test.  And so Job is stripped of everything he has.  His livestock are stolen; his servants are murdered; a house collapses and kills his children, and then Job himself is struck with painful and loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.  And so we find Job in misery, sitting in a heap of ashes, scraping his skin with a shard of pottery.

This initial prologue is intended to set up the main part of the story which is to follow.  A couple of comments:

We know from the language that this is a fable or parable, and what we’ve heard so far is intended to set up what is to come. So we don’t really need to worry too much about the somewhat disturbing picture of God that we find in this introduction to the story, a God who is willing to ruin someone’s life in order to settle a dispute amongst the heavenly beings.  That’s just the set-up needed to get us to Job on the ash heap.  What we do need to know in order to continue with the story is, first, that Job is truly innocent, and second, that the suffering that has come upon him is, from Job’s perspective, extreme, undeserved and inexplicable.

The prologue also sets up the first question of the book of Job, and it might not be the one that you expect.  The first question we encounter is this:

Does religion depend on a system of reward and punishment?  Or to flip it around, if there was no system of reward and punishment, would humans still be faithful?  Is religious behaviour no more than enlightened self-interest?  Will Job, faced with his unjust suffering, curse God and die, as his wife suggests he should, or will he maintain his integrity and his faith in God?

We like systems of reward and punishment. Which of us has not cried out “that’s not fair” at some point in their life?  An important theology of the Old Testament, the theology embraced by Job himself and by the friends that come to “comfort” him in his distress, is that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked.  It is a theology of retributive justice, often associated with the book of Deuteronomy.  Why do people suffer?  According to this theology, suffering is due to sin.

But as Job found out, this theology of retributive justice doesn’t always fit the realities of life.  Christianity has, mostly, but not completely, moved away from the idea of reward and punishment in this life.  But systems of reward and punishment are persistent.  And so, often the Christian tradition has replaced the notion of reward and punishment in this life with the notion of reward and punishment in the next life.  Heaven and hell, with rules and requirements to determine which way you’re going.  Baptism as an entry into heaven.  Forgiveness dependent on confession and doing penance.  Indulgences as a way of lessening time in purgatory.  Or, more recently, the notion that you’re only going to get to heaven if “you accept Jesus as your personal saviour”. 

Why are these systems of reward and punishment so persistent in our tradition?  Why are they so attractive to so many of us?  I think it’s because they’re very satisfying psychologically.  They give us order.  They give us power and control.  If I know the rules and can comply with them, then I have power and control over my own destiny.

But there’s also a problem with this.  Operating within a system of reward and punishment can lead to self-interest rather than authentic relationship.  Do I truly love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength?  Or is my faith nothing more than enlightened self-interest operating within a framework of reward and punishment?

Back to Job on the ash heap.  When his world comes crashing down, when he suffers unjustly and his theology of reward and punishment is called into question what will he do? Will he curse God?  No, despite all that has happened, Job maintains his faith in God.  Tentative answer:  yes there can be faith beyond reward and punishment.  Yes, there is the possibility of authentic relationship with God.

But that’s not the question you’re most interested in, is it?  The question that grabs most of us is the second question of the Book of Job:  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why do bad things happen at all, to anyone?  What do we do, what do we say about God in the midst of extreme, undeserved and unexplained suffering?

As Job is sitting on the ash heap, scraping his sores, he has three friends who come to visit him.  And one by one, they start to explain what has happened to Job.  They all operate out of this world view of retributive justice, that the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished.  They tell Job that he must be responsible for his own downfall.  They tell Job that he must have sinned and that he should examine himself and repent of his sin.  And when Job insists that he is innocent, and that God is treating him unfairly, the friends take to defending God.  In fact, the more that Job protests his innocence, the more his friends find that their own orderly worldview is threatened, and the more vicious become their attacks on Job.  “Is not your wickedness great” his so-called friends tell him, in a desperate attempt to keep their own theology from falling into chaos.

Needless to say, Job’s friends are not very helpful.  And so Job turns from talking about God with his companions to talking directly to God.  We call this prayer.  More specifically, we call this lament, the prayer of those who suffer, the prayer of those who scream out to God in anger, grief, pain and despair.  It is as if Job is clinging to God with one hand and shaking his fist at him with the other.  He holds onto God with a fierce faith, but refuses to let God off the hook for the inexplicable suffering that shadows our world.

And we learn something here:  the better response to suffering is not theology but prayer.  In the face of suffering, it is better to talk to God, than to talk about God.

Because we see that as Job laments, as he pours out his heart to God, there is movement.  Job’s words change from wanting to die to crying out for justice.  He wants to find God, to lay his case before him, and to prove to God that he is innocent.

And suddenly God answers Job out of the whirlwind:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements – surely you know?

Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?
Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain,
and a way for the thunderbolt,
to bring rain on a land where no one lives
and make the ground put forth grass?

Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars
and spreads its wings toward the south?

Can you draw out Leviathan with a fish hook
or press down its tongue with a cord?
From its mouth go flaming torches;
sparks of fire leap out.

It is fascinating to me as a quantum physicist that there are two long sections in this poem about Behemoth and Leviathan, the two mythical monsters of ancient times that represented chaos and randomness.  Because in recent times scientists have rediscovered just how important chaos and randomness are in our world.  When you dig down deep to the sub-atomic level, there is no cause for individual events.  Stuff happens randomly.  Now, there are overall patterns and probabilities that make this world predictable in many ways.  When I drop a pen, I can be confident that it will fall to the floor.  But microscopic events, such as the genetic mutations that enabled the evolution of human beings but also generate cancer cells, these are random processes.  For some reason that only God knows, God has created this universe as a world that is majestic and beautiful, a dynamic creation which allows for chaos and randomness within the limits set by God, enabling creation itself to be wild and free.

This is the world that God made and loves, a world that is beautiful and good and free and wild and grace-filled, a world much bigger than ourselves, a world that is not entirely safe for human beings, a world where good stuff happens and bad stuff happens.

When God speaks out of the whirlwind he does not answer Job’s questions.  Instead he paints a picture and invites Job to live in this world.

And Job’s response is awe and wonder and he places his hand over his mouth.

Out of the whirlwind, God has broken Job’s world wide-open.

You see, Job used to feel that he was at the centre of the universe, prosperous, important, people sought him out, all of that stuff.  But God has shown him that creation is not centred on Job, it’s not even centred on human beings, it’s much, much bigger.

And Job used to think he had everything figured out, that he knew the rules, that the righteous would be rewarded, the wicked would be punished and that if he could just play by the rules, he would remain in control of his own life.  But God has shown him that the world is much wilder than that and that it is not nearly so safe and predictable as Job used to think.

But God showed Job one more thing as well.  Even though Job is not as important as he thought he was and even though his life is not as safe and predictable as he thought it was and even though Job realizes that he comprehends much less than he thought he did, God has offered Job something much more valuable, and that is the possibility of living in authentic relationship with God.

Before, says Job, “I had heard about you” but now he says, “my eye sees you”.

And here, the transformation of Job is complete.  His world has been broken open.  He is still on the ash heap; he still has his sores, he still suffers.  But he has moved from wanting to die, to crying out for justice, to being overwhelmed by awe and wonder, to the determination to live again.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

'Both-and' or 'Either-or' (Oct 22 2015, St Paul University)

Homily.  Oct 22 2015, St. Paul U.
Readings:  Rom 6.19-23; Psalm 1; Luke 12.49-53

Both-and or either-or?

Are you a both-and or an either-or person?  I suspect that if you are in the Anglican Studies program of a liberal Catholic university like St. Paul’s, living in a pluralistic, multi-cultural country like Canada, you’re more likely to be a both-and sort of person.

In fact, when I ask whether you’re a both-and or an either-or sort of person, I’m willing to bet that for some of you, your gut response is, well, I’m a bit of both, which kind of answers the question doesn’t it?

If you are a both-and sort of person, and that’s the way I tend to think of myself, then the readings we just heard today present us with a big challenge.

In the first reading from Romans, Paul tells us that either we’re a slave to sin, in which case we’re heading towards death, or we’re a slave to righteousness, in which case we’re headed towards eternal life.

The psalmist tells us to make a choice.  Follow the way of the wicked which leads to perishing, or the way of the righteous, which leads to prosperity.

And in our Gospel Jesus says:  “Do you think I that I have come to bring peace on earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!”

Not a lot of “both-and” in any of those three readings.  And I think it’s Jesus’ words that really stick in our craw.

I mean, I know it’s still October, but imagine using Jesus words to greet each other this Christmas:  “Unto us a son is born.  Fire on earth and division among people.  Merry Christmas.”

Is this the Jesus we all know and love?  Maybe it’s time for us to get real about Jesus and to stop constructing him in our own image.  As Canadians, we’d kind of like Jesus to be, well, nice.  A friendly sort, polite and tolerant.  The sort of person who would apologize if he bumped into you by accident.  Well, there’s not much evidence for any of that in the gospels.

I remember watching the 1977 movie Jesus of Nazareth as a teenager, with the blue-eyed Robert Powell cast in the role of Jesus.  And I remember being so impressed by the way that Jesus was always calm and serene, pausing and considering his words before he spoke.  But in today’s gospel, Jesus is anything but calm and serene.  “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”

How often do we imagine Jesus as being stressed?

We’re more likely to imagine that Jesus came to bring peace.  But maybe our world just isn’t ready for peace.  In Jesus own day, to bring peace meant the Pax Romana.  Rome by virtue of its power and military might would defeat its enemies and clamp down on rebellion and conflict within its borders, thereby bringing peace.  In our own day it looks more and more like it is the Russian army that will bring peace to Syria, by picking a side, defeating opposing forces and imposing its will on the country.

Jesus’ mission at least as it’s articulated in today’s gospel is not to bring peace.  His mission rather, is threefold:

1.   To bring fire to the earth
2.   To be baptized
3.   To bring division.

Fire, in biblical language, has three inter-related meanings.  First it is a sign of God’s presence, as in the burning bush, the cloud of fire in Exodus, and the tongues of flame at Pentecost.  But it is also a symbol of judgment and purification.  Jesus is God’s presence on earth.  Those who encounter that presence will make their own judgments about Jesus and will themselves be judged.  Those who walk with Jesus will begin a process of purification, something that Paul refers using the language of sanctification in our reading from Romans.

Jesus mission to be baptized is an allusion to the cross, to the suffering and death that await Jesus now that he has set his face towards Jerusalem, now that he has publically predicted his coming passion.  The language of fire, judgement and purification conjures up images of pain and suffering.  The irony, the surprise, the most amazing thing about Jesus mission is that he himself is the one that will bear the brunt of that pain.

And the division of which he speaks?  Jesus’ mission is to proclaim by word and deed the Kingdom of God, that the kingdom of God is near, within reach.  That kingdom is a new world order.  It is a new world order that is characterized by things like forgiveness.  Humility.  Repentance.  Compassion. Service. Sacrificial Love.  And God has promised that his new world order will one day replace the present order, the ways of the world, our normal human way of doing things, a world order characterized by things like wealth, power, status, fame, accomplishment and violence.

And so on the one hand we have the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims, and on the other we have our present world order.

Can we have both?  Or are the two so radically different that this is an either-or proposition.  Because if this is an either-or proposition, then it will result in division.
We don’t like division.  I think that’s why we do often try to turn this into a both-and sort of thing.  But can we really be both-and about the kingdom of God and our usual human ways of doing things.  If we try to make peace between the two, what happens?  We run the risk of watering down the gospel, of compromising the things of God and covering ourselves in hypocrisy.  And we know what Jesus thought of hypocrisy.

Jesus didn’t come to make things easy for us.

For me, this is a hard gospel.  I don’t like division.  I don’t like the either-or approach to things.  I’ve seen people get hurt by either-or statements, by us vs them mentalities, by the very household divisions that Jesus predicts.  I’ve seen the damage caused by division.  I don’t like it. 

So what is a both-and person supposed to do when confronted by an either-or gospel?

Here I turn both to Paul and to the psalmist for advice, because I think they are both in their own way telling us the same thing.

And that is, we begin by grounding ourselves in God.  Paul tells us that if you ground yourself in God, the advantage you get is sanctification.  The psalmist says much the same thing, right at the beginning of the psalter, using the image of the tree that sends its roots into the ground seeking the source of life.

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor lingered in the ways of sinners, nor sat in the seat of the scornful!

Their delight is in the law of the Lord,
And they meditate on his law day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,
Bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither;
Everything they do shall prosper.

If we are grounded in God, we will grow in the ways of God’s kingdom, ways of forgiveness and humility and sacrificial love.  That may create division.  So be it.

May you too be grounded in God, nourished by streams of living water and may you grow in God’s ways every day of your life, now and forever.


Friday, October 9, 2015

Stuff Matters: The Ten Bridesmaids (St. Al's@5, Oct 11 2015)

Homily: St. Al’s@5, Oct 11 2015, St. Albans
Reading:  Mt 25.1-13

Stuff matters.  I like that.  I like living in a world where stuff matters.  Where if I put in the extra effort, I can get an A on that paper I’m writing.  Where if I’m loving to the people around me, my relationships get better.  Where if I bring extra oil for my lamp, my lamp won’t go out.  God created a world where stuff matters, where actions have consequences.  God created us in such a way that we can choose, that we can do things, things that have an impact on our relationships with each other and with God.  I like that.  It gives our lives meaning.  It enables us to live lives of purpose.  In fact, just imagine what it would be like if stuff didn’t matter.  If nothing mattered, if my choices were meaningless and my actions had no impact.   Why bother getting out of bed in the morning?  Thankfully, God created a universe where stuff does matter and God created us to be people that matter, people whose choices and actions help to shape our relationships and make a difference in the lives of others.

I like that.  I give thanks for that.
But you can only push it so far.  In today’s gospel Jesus tells a story about bridesmaids.  Some of them forget to bring extra oil for their lamps, and as a result, they get locked out of the wedding banquet.  Is that okay?  Are these the sort of consequences that make sense to us?  It gets even trickier when you put this story into context.  Jesus tells this story in response to a question about the end times, about the day of his return, the return of the Son of Man.  Everyone listening would have recognized the image of the wedding banquet as a symbol of our final union with God beyond this life.  And the foolish bridesmaids have been locked out.

I like living in a world where stuff matters.  But when you push it this far, when we’re talking about matters of ultimate concern, our eternal fate, things like that being decided based on whether we brought extra oil for our lamps, now I start to get pretty uncomfortable.  This is harsh.

Our faith sits in this tension.  On the one hand, we believe in good and evil, in right and wrong, in the importance of justice.  Jesus tells us to love God and to love our neighbours and we believe him and we believe that it matters.  But we also believe in grace:  in second chances, in forgiveness, in God’s unconditional love for us.  How do we hold judgment and grace together?

Matthew’s gospel pushes us deep into this tension.  So far in our St. Al’s @5 parable series we’ve been looking mostly at parables from the gospel of Luke, and one of Luke’s main concerns is social justice, how we treat each other here and now.  Think of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, or the Good Samaritan.  But the parables that Matthew records in his gospel push us beyond the here and now, into matters of ultimate concern.  If you read the parables in the gospel of Matthew, you’ll notice that just about every story that Jesus tells ends with some sort of judgment.  One of those “or else” statements tacked on to the end.  With a “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” With sheep and goats.  With a sorting into the wheat and the weeds, and the weeds are then thrown into the fire and burned. With foolish bridesmaids locked out of the wedding banquet.

There is a tension between judgment and grace. And it’s tempting for us to resolve the tension too easily.  By saying in essence, that stuff matters, but in the end it doesn’t matter.  Matthew will not let us off the hook that easily.  In part, that’s because he was writing to a community that was very different from our own.  Matthew’s community had witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.  They had been thrown out of the Jewish synagogues and persecuted for their faith in Jesus.  Families had been split, tensions ran high and those who persisted as Christians were suffering for their faith.  How can you tell those people that in the end none of this matters?

This morning, for Thanksgiving, we reached back into the gospel of Matthew and read from the Sermon on the Mount.  You’ll recall that the Sermon on the Mount begins with the beatitudes.  The third beatitude reads:  “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.”  When Jesus says that, do you believe it?  It’s not at all obvious to me that the meek will inherit the earth.

How do we get from here to there?  Think about the beleaguered community that Matthew is writing to.  Think about people in the tiny village of Kermaz in central Syria, who are caught between the military forces of the Syrian government, the Syrian rebels, ISIS, and just this past week were pounded Russian forces, causing most of the villagers to flee their homes.  What would it mean to say to them “blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth?”

Surely these words only begin to make sense if we have faith that somehow, ‘in the end’, whatever that means, God cares about what’s going on, God will judge and God will act to bring about God’s kingdom.  Faith that one day God will turn our world upside-down.

There is, over and over again in the gospel of Matthew, a word of judgment.  In fact there is a narrative of judgement and it goes something like this:

Yes, there is both good and evil in our world, and sometimes good and evil get all tangled up like the wheat and the weeds, and we don’t know what to do and we feel powerless and we suffer, and this is a big problem.

Therefore, for God’s kingdom to be fully realized, for the meek to inherit the earth, for the hungry to be filled, evil will have to be dealt with, because this stuff matters, it matters to us and it matters to God.

But how all this gets sorted out, final judgement, if you like, that’s in God’s hands, not ours.  All that is evil in God’s sight, violence, war, abuse, oppression, these will not stand in the end, they will be burned like garbage in a fire, and the meek will inherit the earth and the hungry will be filled.

For oppressed people, this is good news.  In fact for all of us, this is good news.  Stuff matters.  God cares.  God wants us to be with him for all eternity in a kingdom that is free from all the junk that pollutes our present world.  Some doors will be closed on the way from here to there.

In the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, the foolish bridesmaids encounter one of those closed doors.  That is a word of judgment.  The word of judgment that Jesus speaks in the gospel of Matthew is a word that may be difficult to hear, but it is a word that we need to hear. Stuff matters.  God cares.

But it is not the final word.  Jesus tells many stories such as the parable of the bridesmaids, but none of them are the final story.  The final story takes place on a cross and then in a tomb.  It too is the story of doors being closed, seemingly forever.  But then, in God’s most dramatic act and most powerful word, those doors are burst open.  The stone is rolled aside and the door we call death, even that one is burst open.

The five foolish bridesmaids arrived late, and they found that the door was shut.  There’s a lesson in that to be sure.  But will they get in?  Will that door ever be opened?

For that, you have to read all the way to the end of the story.  Past the cross and past the tomb.  And the final word is grace.


Saturday, October 3, 2015

Community Ministries Sunday (Oct 4 2015)

Homily:  Community Ministries Sunday, St. Aidan’s, Oct 4 2015
Reading:  Mark 10.17-31

Welcome to Community Ministries Sunday!  It’s good to be with you and it’s good to be invited to talk about the Community Ministries of our Diocese:  Centre 454, Cornerstone Housingfor Women, The Ottawa Pastoral Counselling Centre, St. Luke’s Table and TheWell, five distinct programs serving the most vulnerable people in our community.

My name is Mark, and I am privileged to be a member and the past chair of the Community Ministries Committee of our Diocese.  I am also the incumbent of St. Albans Church, which is located right downtown at King Edward and Daly Avenues, near the University of Ottawa, near the Byward Market and within walking distance of at least five emergency shelters in our city.  One of our Community Ministries, Centre 454, a day program for those dealing with homelessness, is located in the basement of St. Albans Church, and I cannot even begin to tell you how important that is to us as a church community.  We are so privileged to share space with Centre 454. In part that’s because of all the practical support which the participants of Centre 454 provide us, things like laundry, gardening and snow removal.   But more importantly it’s because Centre 454 makes us a better church community.  Over and over again it’s the Centre 454 community that teaches the St. Albans community what it means to be church.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is on the way.  He’s on a journey, he’s on the move, and people are going with him.  But then all of a sudden a man runs into his path and kneels down in front of him, bringing the procession to a grinding halt. 

He stops the journey because he himself is stuck, he doesn’t know how to move forward in his life.  He’s looking for answers, and so he asks Jesus the Big Question.

We all, at some point in our lives ask the Big Question.  The meaning and purpose question.  The ‘how should I live my life?’ question.  We may use different language, we may frame it in different ways, but sooner or later we all ask the Big Question.  What do I need to be happy?  What should I do with my life?  How can I have a full & abundant life?

“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus stops.  They talk, about the commandments.  Then Jesus looks at the man, loves him and says,

“You lack one thing:  go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor.”

But when the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

How hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God!

Because in the Kingdom of God there are no possessions.  In the Kingdom of God we realize that all that we have is a gift from God, and if we do find ourselves with anything, a house, a car, a salary, it is only something that has been entrusted to us for a time and a purpose, not our purposes but God’s purposes.

How hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God!

Because in the Kingdom of God we have no status based on our wealth or possessions or abilities or accomplishments.  Our status in the Kingdom of God is that of beloved children of God, an identity that is given, not earned.

Because in the Kingdom of God we have no security.  No pension, no job security, no locks on the door.  Our only security is found by trusting in God.

Because in the Kingdom of God, all people are God’s children and therefore my brothers and my sisters.  And so I must care for them as I would care for a brother or sister.

How hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God.  Are you surprised that the man with many possessions was shocked, and went away grieving?

Every day there are more than 500 people who walk through the doors of our Community Ministries.  They are, for the most part, people with little or no possessions, no status, no security.  They may be people with no food in the cupboard who go to St. Luke’s Table for a meal.  They may be women escaping abuse who find safety and support when they walk through the doors of The Well.  They may be families in the midst of breaking up who get help from the Counseling Support Fund of the Ottawa Pastoral Care Centre.  They may be women suffering from poor mental health who find supportive housing at Cornerstone.  Perhaps they are people who are lonely, isolated and marginalized who come to Centre 454 to experience belonging and to be part of a community.

Whoever they are and for whatever reasons they come through our doors, they offer us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God in our midst.

As a church, as the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa, we are incredibly privileged to have the Community Ministries, and their participants, staff and volunteers in our midst.  Because it’s hard to enter the Kingdom of God, and yet, we have this glimpse of the Kingdom right here with us, giving us the opportunity to get unstuck, to get up off our knees and to begin to move forward again on our way to God’s Kingdom.  In our Community Ministries, all of God’s children are brothers and sisters.  We value and respect the dignity of every person who comes through our door.  We value mutuality, knowing that we are blessed by one another.  Those who come to our Community Ministries come with gifts and stories, memories and hopes – volunteers and participants, staff and supporters.

I want you to know the joy of being part of this community.

For you are part of this community.  Over many years the Community Ministries have received so much from people and parishes across our Diocese.  Your generosity and support is essential to the work that we do.  The work is important.  There are needs in our city, and our Community Ministries support those who are most vulnerable and most in need by providing food, housing, spiritual care, clothing, skills training, education, shelter, mental health support, resources, life-skills and counselling.  We are one of the largest providers of social services for those challenged by poverty in Ottawa.  You should be proud of that and of all that you do and that is done on your behalf for the vulnerable in our community.

But more than being proud, we should also be thankful that God has given us this glimpse of God’s Kingdom in our very midst and is teaching us day by day through our Community Ministries what it means, what it’s like, what it takes, to enter the Kingdom of God.

St. Albans is privileged to share space with Centre 454.  Because of this, many of the Centre’s participants come into the church upstairs, sometimes attending Sunday services, sometimes dropping by during the week to pray or sit quietly, a luxury that many of them don’t get to experience in a busy, crowded shelter. Eric is one of those people.  He lives in a tiny room in a rooming house.  And every day, he comes to Centre 454.  The staff there know him, and care for him, as they do for so many.  They check in with him regularly, they notice if his  health starts to decline, they help him stay stable.  For Eric, Centre 454 is his living room, his place of belonging, his community, the community that supports him through his ups and downs.

Two weeks ago, St. Albans had a BBQ after its Sunday service, downstairs, using the Centre 454 hall and kitchen and garden.  It was a great event.  And it was a mess by the time we were finished, food and plates, and, well, you know what it can look like.

And even before we had finished eating, Eric came in, got out the mop and cleaning cloths, and started to clean up the Centre.  Without a word, without being asked, he did dishes, took out garbage, put things a way, cleaned the floors and counters.  It took him well over an hour.  When he was finished, Centre 454 sparkled.

Eric cares for the Centre because it’s his living room and his community.  

Yes it’s hard to enter the kingdom of God.  But when I see Eric cleaning up Centre 454, at least I get a glimpse of what that kingdom looks like.  And I’m reminded that with God all things are possible.


Friday, September 25, 2015

We Will Walk With You (Sept 27 2015)

Homily:  Yr B, Proper 26, Sept 27 2015
Readings:  Esther 7.1-6, 9-10, 9.20.22; Ps 124; James 5.13-20; Mk 9.38-50

On the occasion of a Baptism, and the Re-Naming of a Transgendered Person

There is power in a name.  In the gospel we just heard, there is a man who is doing powerful things in the name of Jesus, casting out demons.  This is a man who knows the power of Jesus’ name, who is doing good deeds in Jesus’ name.  But there seems to be a problem.  He’s not one of us.

“Teacher we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

Today we will celebrate a naming.  And we will celebrate a re-naming.

Davis is being baptized today.  And he wanted lots of water, so after we are done here we will be heading to Mooney’s Bay for his baptism. 

Davis, from this day on, you will bear the name of Christ, which literally means ‘the anointed one’.  We are going to go to the river, submerge you in the waters and bring you out again.  It will be a symbol and sacrament of your baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ, and of your new birth and new life.  You will be anointed with oil, and you will bear the name of Christ, the anointed one, child of God.  And as one who bears the name of Christ, you will from this day on act in the name of Jesus, and do mighty deeds in Jesus’ name.

There is power in a name.

Eliot, you too will be anointed today, just as you were anointed at your own baptism many years ago.  You continue to bear the name of Christ, the anointed one, beloved child of God.  We re-affirm that today.  That has not changed.  But some things do change.  Often our faith journeys can take twists and turns as we live and grow into the people that God created us to be.  Today you take on a new name as a testimony to the person you have become and as a testimony to the God who welcomes us as his children, loves us through all the twists and turns of our life journeys, and promises to make all things new.

There is power in a name.

There will be some who will wonder why it is that we are celebrating a Liturgy for the Re-Naming of a Transgendered Person at St. Albans today.  There might be some who would wish to stop us, who think that this is not something that the church should be doing.

“Jesus, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.”

“Because he was not following us.”  Did you notice the “us” in that complaint?   The problem wasn’t that the man wasn’t following Jesus, the problem was that the man wasn’t following us.  He wasn’t one of us, he wasn’t doing things our way.  One of the realities of our human condition is that we tend to think in terms of ‘us vs them’.   We are part of a group, or many groups.  Those groups can be family groups, ethnic groups, religious groups, social groups, whatever.  And we tend to draw our identity from the groups to which we belong.  And sometimes we strengthen our individual identities by strengthening our group identity, drawing boundaries around our groups which allow us to know who is in and who is out.  And if an outsider wants to be part of our group, well, they will just have to play by our rules.

People who are queer and transgendered in our society and in our church understand this dynamic only too well.  They know first-hand the barriers and boundaries that we set up to define who is in and who is out.

“Jesus, we tried to stop him because he was not following us.”

And Jesus replies, “Do not stop him.”

There is a fundamental generosity in Jesus’ response, a generosity that transcends all of our ‘us vs. them’ boundaries and barriers.  It is a generosity which is gracious, a generosity which is inclusive, a generosity which is compassionate, a generosity that offers a cup of water to drink to all who bear the name of Christ, to all who were made in the image of God, to all for whom Jesus was sent, to all who are God’s children.

Some people resist that generosity.  Sometimes it’s because they are afraid that it means that “anything goes”.  But of course it doesn’t.  Clearly that’s not what Jesus means, certainly not in today’s gospel.  He goes on to say that if anyone puts a stumbling block in the way of someone who believes in him, it would be better to put a millstone around his neck and throw him in the sea.  He goes on to say that if your foot causes you to stumble, better to cut it off and enter life lame than to have two feet and be thrown into hell.  That certainly doesn’t sound like anything goes to me.   How we live matters, and there are right ways and wrong ways to go about it and there are right ways and wrong ways to treat each other.  Discipleship, the call to follow Jesus, is a demanding call, it is a call to take up your cross, to love God and to love you neighbour. 

But discipleship is also most certainly a call to a fundamental generosity and graciousness which transcends the human boundaries and barriers that we ourselves have created with our ‘us vs. them’ mentality.  The scriptures attest to this.  We find again and again that the moments when God’s grace surprises and confounds humanity are the very moments when that grace is more generous than we could have imagined and crosses boundaries that we thought could not be crossed.  Jesus eats with outcasts and sinners, confounding the rule-makers of his time.  He is convinced by the Syro-Phoenician woman to extend his ministry to foreigners, not just the Jewish people.  The early church, in a powerful movement of the Holy Spirit, breaks with tradition so that Gentiles may be fully included in the body of Christ.

To borrow a phrase from The Report of the Commission on the Marriage Canon of the Anglican Church of Canada, which was released this week and which I strongly commend to you, in all these moments in scripture,

“there is a recognition that God’s grace is broader than we had assumed, and that those who had been excluded are now being invited in.”

And so to those who would ask why we are celebrating a Liturgy of Re-Naming for Transgendered Persons today, I would humbly dare to answer that it is because Jesus wants us to show a generosity to all God’s children which transcends and breaks down the ‘us vs. them’ boundaries and barriers which exist in our church and in our society.

Also, it’s because we love you Eliot. 

The truth is, I may never be able to understand what it’s like to be a non-binary gendered trans person.  I don’t even know if I said that right.  But, at least in our better moments, by the grace of God, we are able to be generous by offering our support to a fellow traveller who bears the name of Christ on their faith journey.

Soon, we will turn to Davis and we will pledge to do all in our power to support him in his life in Christ.

Then not long after that we will turn to Eliot and pledge as follows:

“Eliot, we will walk with you.”