Archive for April, 2021

“Shepherd not Sheepdog,” (Sermon, April 25th 2021)

David Grossman is a name most ordinary Canadians probably don’t know. Lieutenant Colonel Grossman’s workshops are endemic in US law enforcement. From a 2017 Men’s Journal article, quote: “His first book, On Killing, is part of the curriculum at the FBI academy and on the Marine Corps Commandant’s Professional Reading List. Its follow-up, On Combat, is probably best known for his assertion that people can be divided into three groups — sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs — and it’s the sheepdogs, “blessed with the gift of aggression,” who are responsible for protecting the sheep from the wolves. The analogy has been adopted by various military and gun-rights groups[.]”

The article also notes that Grossman emphasizes that sheep, a metaphor for the public, often confuse sheepdogs (the police), with wolves (criminals). The subtext is that the sheep are too stupid to know the difference. Police are thereby encouraged to see themselves as martyrs to the facile and disrespectful whims of an ignorant public. In a quote from Grossman himself, in the same Men’s Journal article: ‘“Cops fight violence. What do they fight it with? Superior violence. Righteous violence.”’ A textbook from one of his workshops includes a whole section on Biblical defenses for killing.

It’s probably helpful to note here that Grossman has no active combat experience and his research methods are deeply unscientific. His work is controversial, with University of Nebraska criminal justice professor Samuel Walker characterizing it as “okay for the Green Berets but unacceptable for domestic policing,” and University of South Carolina criminal law professor Seth Stoughton referring to it as “scaremongering.” After the 2016 murder of Philando Castile in Minneapolis, several police departments dropped his courses, and last year Minnesota actually enforced a statewide ban.

In this context, let’s explore through the lens of today’s Gospel passage, what it means to see the world through the eyes of someone who cares for sheep.

“He stood up for people, he was there for people when they were down, he loved people that were thrown away.”

This was what Courteney Ross said about her partner George Floyd in a TV interview by their local news channel. Other friends of Floyd called agreed that he had a heart for his community, particularly those living in the Third Ward neighbourhood in Houston and the neighbouring Cuney Homes housing project where his church, Resurrection House, focused a lot of their outreach. These friends were honest about his struggles with addiction and his history in the carceral system, and so indeed was Floyd himself. His knowledge of the hardships of life fed his compassion for others.

Floyd eventually came to Minneapolis through a Christian jobs placement program, and most of us know that was murdered by a police officer there, which is why people around the world know his name. That officer, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly ten minutes, ignoring his strangled cries that he couldn’t breathe, was convicted as guilty on all counts on Tuesday afternoon of last week.

I’m not telling you about George Floyd to imply that he is worthy of justice only because he was a good person. I do think, though, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, where many churches also observe Vocations Day where we explore what it means to be called to any kind of ministry, lay or ordained, it’s important to explore what leadership, what being a good shepherd who feeds, waters, guides, and protects sheep, really looks like, as opposed to being a sheepdog who does occasionally protect, but more often is there to keep sheep organized and in line, according to the will of the farmer.

“He stood up for people, he was there for people when they were down, he loved people that were thrown away.”

If we’re using the metaphor of sheep, shepherds who care for them, and sheepdogs who keep them in line, Floyd was a shepherd of sorts. While he was open on his social media about his frustration with the systemic violence of his neighbourhood, he used the respect he had gained in that community to lead people, particularly young people, to the path of peace as he understood it through his church.

A small cluster of sheep graze in the foreground with the wall separating Palestinian from Israeli territory behind them, with a guard tower just off centre on the left looming over the scene.

The greatest difference between our Good Shepherd and Floyd is that Jesus says in today’s passage, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”

Floyd’s death was not in service to anyone. While it sparked a worldwide movement, that movement’s lament and rage at his loss is what gave meaning to it. The loss itself was senseless, a precious life that was loved. The movement crying out for justice for those murdered with impunity by police is what has given meaning to those who loved him – not the death itself. To say otherwise is to imply that justice only occurs at the death or other traumatic expense of the marginalized. This is sadly often true, but we know it shouldn’t be.

And indeed, perhaps this notion is what many of us find challenging about Jesus’s death. For so many Christians, the focus on the saving nature of Jesus’s death is what gives meaning to the entirety of the faith. But for many of us, there are so many questions: Why would God allow this to happen? Why did it have to be this way? Did Jesus really know what was coming? What was the metaphysical process involved in this one death providing salvation for the whole world?

And these questions then feed into other passages about how we, those left behind in the echo of the Resurrection, are to live our lives. When Jesus calls us to take up our crosses, does that mean we are called to not only accept but embrace suffering, even death, at the hands of an oppressor? Are we to see ourselves as righteous for putting up with a world that doesn’t understand us, that hates us and marginalizes us? Are we to see the world as an unrepentantly evil and lonely place where we always have to be on guard, armed for wolves? Do we sort ourselves into these arbitrary groups when we are actually all human, and flawed, and just as capable of choosing and cultivating peace as violence in our daily lives?

The sort of person who ascribes to Grossman’s worldview wakes up every day to a universe of fear and resentment. Jesus, in his relatively short time on earth, surely didn’t. If he had, he wouldn’t have made a habit of eating and drinking with tax collectors and sex workers. Jesus, who knew plenty about violence, betrayal, anger against injustice, and state repression, did not come as a sheepdog to keep us nice and tidy in line and rid the world of wolves. He came as a shepherd, feeding us then and continuing to feed us now; guiding us to green pastures and still waters; leaving the ninety-nine to find the lost; defending us knowing that he could do so empowered by God to take up the life he sacrificed.

Knowing this, what are we to do, on this Vocations Sunday?

We do not have the power to take up our lives again, whether they’re lost to violence or the normal course of mortality. As a priest I do not find the metaphor of shepherd particularly helpful to frame my own ministry. It encourages me to enter into that world where you, the people among whom I serve, are othered and infantilized, breeding paternalism and resentment. It’s likewise disingenuous to deny the privilege I have as an ordained person and say that you’re the shepherd and I’m the sheep.

Perhaps during this wild and rather amazing time of pandemic, uprising, and the shock of resurrection, it’s better to focus on who we belong to.

Who is our shepherd? How does he love us? And in his physical absence, how can we love each other?

We can remember how he was with us, and what he said to us, through the stories of those who came before us. And we can make sure that, when we’re huddled together in times of cold or fear, none of us are missing, none of us are forgotten, none of us are lost.

The Walls of Layla (Quarantine Hymn #5)

Last year I wrote The Quarantine Hymns, a set of twelve songs (at least so far) written during social isolation. Although I will only be posting excerpts on Soundcloud, the full album will be available for purchase on Bandcamp. This one, though, is my favourite, so I decided to post it in full.

This song was written in the immediate aftermath of my first livestreamed Eucharist back at the beginning of lockdown in March of 2020. As I watched the Body of Christ being received and then taken away from me through the video window on my laptop, I had an unexpected and visceral reaction, bending over and wailing at my inability to reach out and take what I had taken so easily and sometimes without much thought so many times before.

I had at the time been taking part in a course on Rumi’s masterwork the Masnavi, which included some passages about the famous and doomed lovers Majnun and Layla. Sufis understand their story as an analogue for the ardent longing shared between the soul and God, the divine Beloved. This was in my mind as I wrote the song in an almost white hot fury of grief. The line about “gathering other love-mad rogues on this creaky bark” references a Zoom Eucharist I celebrated that night with two friends, before my Archbishop forbid them. It was my first and only time presiding over or attending a Zoom Eucharist, and while I neither condemn nor necessarily condone them, I needed to do it that night, and I will always defend my conviction that it was efficacious.

Because of the song’s connection to Sufism I have included several lines from illahis, Sufi devotional songs, penned by two great poets: the 13th century Turkish dervish Yunus Emre and the 14th century Azerbaijani poet Seyyid Nesimi.

At the beginning, the whispered voice says, “Inside waters wide and deep, I wander thirsty all around. For this problem of mine, no solutions can be found.”

In the bridge, you’ll hear one voice sing, “The one who doesn’t burn can’t know the fire of Love.” (tr. Seemi Ghazi).

And finally, one phrase in particular pops up over and over throughout the hymn: Aşıklar ölmez.
“Lovers never die.”

Aşıklar ölmez. Alleluia.

Stations of the Cross for the Privileged

Today is the day.

It is the day we privileged people come to a reckoning, a day when we are forced to behold everything that has come about because of our cruelty, apathy, oppression, and empire.

Today is the day that our sin lurches into the light and demands to be seen, demands acknowledgement, demands recompense – and in so doing, becomes a friend to us.

For only today will many of us even come close to recognizing how broken and in need of resurrection we are, and it may be, in the fear and anguish of that recognition, that we choose to turn aside and do something different.

Opening Prayer

Holy God, like a loving and good parent you give us what we need to grow, and on this day your Son showed us how to walk the way of Love. But like little children, we forget, and like immature adults we avoid and deny our failings. Teach us to be open to your learning, and touch our hearts so that we may make different choices. Accept our prayers through your Son, who chose the way of suffering and death to be closest to those whom you love so dearly: the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed. Amen.

Image description: A whitish concrete wall in front of a dilapidated building with spray-painted Arabic writing, the word “Palestine” in block letters, and the image of a dove with an olive branch in its beak. Taken at Hebron in the Holy Land, 2017.

The First Station: Jesus is condemned to die

Jesus is condemned to die for daring to question Rome, the power that enslaved his people. He is condemned by a system that would tolerate only unquestioning acceptance of the so-called rule of law, law that cares for perceived order over human life, that ignores justice in favour of idolatry, that glorifies the powerful and tramples the poor underfoot, that imprisons and defiles, that murders the whole earth freely. It is so-called “law and order” that we all too often still hold up as righteous even though we should know better.

He is condemned with the help of the religious authorities of the occupied territory, desperate to maintain safety, surely knowing that nothing they did would ever placate empire, which only seeks to devour and destroy, but thinking they could buy a bit more time, a bit more peace, just a bit more until they could find some way out. Do not all the oppressed have moments where nothing can be done but grasp for pure survival – and does God not wish for humankind more than simple survival? Does God not wish abundance of life and joyful union?

He is condemned around the time of Passover, the festival when his people remember their freedom. God gave the gifts of Passover and the Covenant to an enslaved people as a sign of liberation and new identity, and yet we the Church have abused and murdered the Jewish people, from blood libels to pogroms to Poway. Many of us liberal Christians also steal and appropriate the rituals which once did and still do come with the cost of violence for Jews, often at the hands of our own people. Despite all of this, God continues to call the enslaved forward, away from their oppression and into freedom.

God of the covenant, you are the One who breaks the chains of slavery, opens the doors of the prisons, and honours the prayers of your people. Teach us to be liberators. Teach us to learn.

The Second Station: Jesus carries his cross

Jesus is condemned, and the instrument of his torment is laid across his back: a cross, hewn from a tree, once a symbol of steadfast and fruitful life now ragged and rough and splintered, a sign of the upending of God’s will for the human creature. Jesus is forced along his way with an imposed burden, and like all of the oppressed he struggles against that imposed weight. As he stumbles down the road, he is mocked and derided by those who observe him, as if he can help struggling, as if anyone could bear up under such crushing weight. Instead we point and laugh, curl our lips and wag our heads, and say, “Well if he had just followed the rules” or “If she had just dressed modestly” or “If they had just tried harder to fit in, this wouldn’t have happened.” We deny and turn away even though we know that we played a part in laying this burden across the shoulders of the oppressed.

God of the burdened, you are the One who walks beside us in times of difficulty, and calls us to stand in solidarity with those who carry Crosses of marginalization. Teach us to be strong. Teach us to lighten the loads of others.

The Third Station: Jesus falls the first time

Jesus stumbles through the streets and, no longer able to bear the weight, he falls. And how we exult in his frailty, how we delight in our superiority, how we take comfort in the notion that the world is just, and try to out-shout those around us, because maybe if we shout and laugh louder than our neighbours, the system won’t grind us up next, even though we know it’s not true. We know that the system is set up to fail all of us at any time without our consent, and yet when it’s not failing us it’s so, so warm and comforting. How blessed it feels when the boot on the neck of the broken is our boot, and how peaceful ignorance feels to the powerful. How close to heaven we feel when we are kept above the earth – and yet we are all made of earth, and earth can and will meet earth at any time.

God of the fallen, you are the One who willingly chose lowliness in order to be closer to us, your beloved earth-creatures. Teach us to be earthly. Teach us to see.

The Fourth Station: Jesus meets his mother

Jesus stumbles through the streets and meets his mother, and how she must have wailed to see him so scorned and humiliated and abused, how she must have wailed as all mothers of desaparecidos and police murder victims must wail, on the streets and in the courts and in their homes where the cameras can’t and won’t capture their grief to make a nice photo for us to gawk at in our newspapers. How she must have wailed and clung to him as Mamie Till clung to Emmett, as Debbie Baptiste clung to Colten, as countless women in immigration camps and tenements and reservations cling to photos or memories of their stolen children.

God of the connected, you are the One who embraced shame to better know the hearts of those who are shamed in our world. Teach us to be fierce in love. Teach us to wail at injustice.

The Fifth Station: Simon of Cyrene helps to carry the cross

Jesus stumbles through the streets and the architects of his misery and torment draft Simon of Cyrene to help him carry his cross – and isn’t this always how we who are white feed the cancer of our system and our comforts, secretly delighting in the sorrow and degradation of people unlike us to make us feel both superior but also paternalistic and wise? Isn’t it our insisting on a near pornographic witness of trauma, pretending that we didn’t force Simon to bear the burden alongside this person, watching as if it happened naturally because of the identities they share, how we maintain our sense of wisdom and godliness? Do we not tut at the difficulties of oppression as though they are not imposed, and do we not erase the individuality of these two who are so different, making them the same in order to feed the ever-ravenous engine of empire, which runs on Black and Indigenous bodies? Do we not create a system of perpetual anguish, denying needed resources, and then use the failure of those struggling within that system as an excuse to pathologize their colour and culture and deny them further?

God of the drafted, you are the One who has given the oppressed the gift of strength through community and solidarity. Teach us to be prophets against a system seeking to divide. Teach us to advocate.

The Sixth Station: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus

Jesus stumbles through the streets and meets Veronica, who wipes his face with her towel, a prophetic act of kindness, and of course she does, because those who have known oppression can offer care to others in the same position freely, and yet we who are powerful, we who are white, we who are educated, we who are privileged by the system demand kindness and patience and care and education from the oppressed. We demand time and space. We insert ourselves into their narratives claiming we are just like them. We steal their stories and share them as our own. We immortalize suitably photogenic moments in pictures and share them for points on social media. We parachute into places of pain and insist on leading the charge toward freedom without tools or understanding or empathy – never considering that the oppressed have their own strength and voices, never considering that they may know far better than we do how to care for one another.

God of Hagar and Elizabeth, you are the One who pours out power not to the powerful but to the weak and despised. Teach us to be quiet. Teach us to listen.

The Seventh Station: Jesus falls the second time

Jesus stumbles through the streets and falls for the second time as the crowd jeers around him – and so too do we heap abuse and disdain on those who need more help than we are willing to give, refusing to take responsibility for one another even as we spew platitudes of unity and the human family. So too do we moan about entitlement and demand groveling and obeisance and perfection and “proper language” and assimilation of those who demand what they need to survive, because of course we truly believe that they don’t deserve it. So too do we insist on only saving those who look and sound like us, and so too will we, once we find ourselves in that position, or something that we deem is equivalent, demand help and resources and education because “it’s different with me.”

God of the silenced, you are the One who didn’t hold back from criticizing the sins of the powerful and idolatrous. Teach us to be vulnerable. Teach us to break the idol of imposed self-reliance.

The Eighth Station: Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem

Jesus stumbles through the streets and meets the women of Jerusalem, and of course, because women were the ones who refused to desert Jesus, and still are – women of colour, immigrant women, working women who cook and maintain households and raise children and care for elders (theirs and our own) and organize and demand justice for themselves and their families and friends and children, women who work when we won’t, women constantly forced to advocate for themselves and others without recognition or remuneration only to be scorned and mocked and raped and tone-policed and abused and gaslit and ignored, women who despite all of that still show up while Jesus’s male so-called friends denied and deserted, women who refuse to end the work because if they do, it won’t be done.

God of workers and caregivers, you are the One who taught us to walk, who mothers us like a hen with a brood under her wings. Teach us to be tireless in the work of justice. Teach us to show up.

The Ninth Station: Jesus falls the third time

Jesus stumbles through the streets and falls the third time, the final time, and how often do we, upon seeing the constant stumbling of others, “give up” and relinquish our care, our money, and our time? How often do we withdraw our support because of tone or differing goals or just plain pettiness? How often do we refuse to admit that we might be a part of why the people we claim to care about keep failing? How often do we refuse to hire people whom we know will challenge the cultures of our workplaces? How often do we cut off support for friends and family members for not following the rules we arbitrarily set for them? How often do we run out of patience with those who continue to experience and tell their stories of trauma, pain, and systemic oppression and tell them to “look on the bright side,” to “not be such a downer,” to “try harder”? How often do we turn our backs on those who have enough respect for us to challenge us on our behaviour and label them as “toxic”? How often do we weaponize our tears and fragility against them? How often do we look at those who fail to keep jobs and housing, who fail to find love, who fail to heal from sickness, who fail to assimilate or pass, and think “It has to be their fault?” How often do we say, “It has nothing to do with me”?

God of the losers, you are the One who never gives up on anyone, and to whom no-one is lost or dead. Teach us to be faithful. Teach us to help and give freely and with respect for the needs of others.

The Tenth Station: Jesus is stripped

Jesus is brought to Golgotha and stripped of his clothes. He is fully on display, and how the crowd must have been both horrified and titillated by his shame, just as we are horrified and titillated by stories of rape and sexual violence, just as we are horrified and titillated by the sight or even just the idea of any body that doesn’t look like our own, like the bodies of trans people and intersex people and disabled people. We demand sexuality but only according to our standards and whims, and fly into a rage whenever we see it owned or celebrated by those who claim it for themselves, particularly cis and trans women, sex workers, queer people, disabled people, and fat people. We also demand different kinds of nakedness: emotional intimacy with people unlike us, especially Black and Indigenous people of colour, coming out narratives, details of stories of oppression and violence, the carving out of one’s most deeply personal identities – not in order to learn, but to feel privileged and honoured by the experience. We loathe and fear nakedness, and yet we are drawn to it. Perhaps God knew that, and sought to help us transform our relationship to it. Maybe God knew the only way to really get through to us was to embody that nakedness Herself, in the body of a brown and executed prisoner of empire.

God of the naked, you are the One who hallowed all flesh, making holy what was once only dust. Teach us to be naked. Teach us to honour all flesh.

The Eleventh Station: Jesus is nailed to the cross

Jesus is nailed to the cross, and in this horror we see clearly how we love to objectify and stare at the pain of the oppressed. When we as the powerful make mistakes, we often claim “We didn’t know this would cause pain,” and demand again and again that the oppressed crucify themselves, prove their pain, share their pain – even though the oppressed have always shared their pain and stories, and we either ignore or consume without thought; even though every day we ourselves crucify them with our words and our bodies and our choices, with microaggressions and macroaggressions, systemic and individual racism, homophobia and conversion therapy, transphobia and bathroom bills and denial of care, with our platforms and our everyday relationships, with our ignorance and our tears, with calls to the police and calls for civility, with legislation and derisive laughter and willful ignorance. We nail Jesus to the cross over and over, neither knowing or caring that we forfeit our souls every time we do so.

God of the abused, you are the One who received violence yet had the power to break the cycle. Teach us to be instruments of peace. Teach us to break cycles of violence.

The Twelfth Station: Jesus dies on the cross

Jesus is nailed to the cross, and after feeling the total and abject pain of abandonment, dies publicly, with the architects of his murder, his family, his friends, and the gawking crowd around him. And how long did he hang there dead until gruesome proof was sought in the form of a cruel spear? It wasn’t hours in the heat like Michael Brown, or days in the Red River like Tina Fontaine. Jesus died a criminal of empire, without comfort or advocacy, and how many do we continue to allow to die this way in order for the system to continue to our benefit? How many times will we do nothing but solemnly shake our heads as though it were an act of God that killed these precious ones, rather than our own apathy and unexamined, unconscious hate – for it must be hate we have for the murdered and maimed, or we would not continue to allow these things to happen. If we didn’t hate them, we would tear the empire down with our bare hands. Instead, we stand within it and send out our scapegoats with rocks and taunts, all the while performatively mourning and somehow even believing in the so-called necessity of this ritual.

God of the executed, you are the One who chose a lynching at Golgotha over siding with the rich and powerful. Teach us to be brave. Teach us to rage against murder.

The Thirteenth Station: Jesus’s body is removed from the cross

Jesus is dead, and his body is removed from the Cross and returned to the ones who loved him. And what a strange and unbelievable gift is given to this criminal’s family which is so often denied to others like him. How often are the unclaimed, the unknown, and the unheard left to rot – the unhoused, the elderly alone or in care homes, the disabled, the mentally ill, the incarcerated, missing and murdered Indigenous women, murdered sex workers, and political desaparecidos who are never found?

God of the forgotten, you are the One whose broken body was brought down from the Cross, and the One who therefore sees the bodies of all who are cast aside. Teach us to be compassionate. Teach us not to forget or turn away.

The Fourteenth Station: Jesus is laid in the tomb

Jesus is dead, removed from the Cross, and laid in the tomb. His strife and pain are over. And how often the oppressed only escape their oppression in death. How often we Christians normalize this state of affairs by focusing only on the fate of our souls once life is past. How often we encourage others to set their eyes on heaven, or let their fear of hell dictate their lives, as a way to avoid the work of justice in the here and now, disregarding Jesus’s insistence that the Kingdom of God was here and now as well as not yet.

And how many of us will feel caught up short by these stations only to turn around and go home, leaving the garden and the tomb and ourselves unchanged, forgetting that in the joy and colour and delight that is to come, we are not being called to celebrate our forgiveness but called to completely overturn everything we thought we knew about life and death and the world God loves so dearly?

For the annihilation of the sting of death demands unprecedented newness of life, demands recklessness, demands redemption. How can we live in the ringing echo of resurrection while continuing to prop up the same injustices, the same apathy, the same oppression, continuing to crucify, continuing to fill an empty tomb with our dead?

How, in the wake of that incredible transformation, can we continue to live such a lie?

God of the living and the here and now, you are the One who shows us that the finality of death is no absolute. Teach us to be foolish. Teach us to dream the impossible.

Final Prayer

Beloved One, in sorrow and wonder we behold you and your mighty act of Love. With compassion and selflessness you have redeemed the entire universe. Now, we pray for the courage and grace to sit in solidarity with each other, waiting for the moment of your return, when all will be made new in the grand sunrise of resurrection.

Holy God, save us from the shackles of empire. Liberate us from the slavery of our sins. Empower us with your Spirit of Life to tear down the walls we build around one another, and the scaffold of empire, and fashion them into flowerbeds. Amen.