Archive for the 'NEWS' Category

“Radical Hospitality,” (Sermon, October 17th 2021)

O God, may I speak each day according to your wisdom, and in each woven thought, be our wind and our star. Amen.

Last week I was finally able to have my first home visit with a new friend. She was recently baptized into the Coptic Orthodox Church, and I had bought her a little gift, so we arranged to meet at her place and have dinner together.

When I arrived, she was busy in the kitchen cooking a big pot of muttar paneer, which she served with naan. She then disappeared into her walk-in pantry asking me what I wanted to drink. She had so many options! I chose cider. We decimated everything.

After the main course, she fixed me a cup of herbal tea from David’s, and I commented that it smelled exactly like an After Eight chocolate.

“OH I have those!” she exclaimed, and brought them over.

Those of you who are or have friends of Middle Eastern and Central Asian descent can probably predict what happened next.

It didn’t end there. She had more treats: a slice of pineapple cheesecake! A glass of orange juice! Fruit and wine! She offered all of it with abandon.

And it didn’t even end there. She put two neck warmers in the microwave – one for her and one for me. She had some skin cream she wanted to try, so she brought the tube over so we could both use it. She had a bag of scarves her sister had given her and encouraged me to take what I wanted.

As I’ve made friends within the Sufi community where I met her, I’ve been astonished by the hospitality displayed to total strangers as well as friends, no matter what economic station one occupies in life. I still laugh about the time I went to dinner with three friends – one Turkish, one Syrian, and one Pakistani – and sneakily managed to pick up the cheque, and how I really thought they were going to murder me when they found out! Anyone who’s ever met someone from those cultures knows the dance of, “No please, I insist.”

Image description: A large round dish containing knafeh, a golden brown spun pastry and cheese dessert topped with pistachio and cashew. Served to me in Nablus, Palestine.

Personally, while I know plenty of individual Western folks who are similarly oriented, it’s not something I’ve ever expected as a matter of course, and even when it is displayed, it’s not usually as extravagant.

I was thinking of this as I read today’s Gospel passage. Jesus was from a culture of extravagant hospitality. The foundational Jewish myths he grew up with show Abraham entertaining angels and a widow offering her last loaf to Elijah. When sending out the disciples, Jesus confidently told them to depend on the kindness of strangers, who offered hospitality to travelers as a matter of course.

In Chapter 10, Jesus has just taught the disciples that only those who are like little children will enter the Kingdom of God, and those unwilling to sell all they own cannot enter. Finally, they turn toward Jerusalem, and for the third time Jesus explains what is going to happen to him there. Today’s reading begins immediately after that moment.

I’m always shocked by the presumptuousness of James and John here. They’re as clueless as Peter but seem to lack his humility. Looking at this scene through that cultural lens, this is incredibly inappropriate. The normal posture of students is one of humility, obedience, and deep listening. The anger of the other disciples is perfectly in keeping with their cultural milieu.

Mark often depicts the disciples in an unflattering light, but we can also read this moment as a sign that Jesus’s teaching is working. It’s become clear over the course of several chapters that Jesus wants to challenge traditional social conventions. Back in verse 29, he told the disciples that those who left behind their families will receive “a hundredfold now in this age.” He wants to create a new community based in service and mutual love. A chosen family. And he’s shown the disciples, many times, that he is a powerful healer, and can provide bread for all who hunger, with leftovers, yet! This is someone who truly owns and uses his privilege well!

Who wouldn’t want to sit at the right and left of someone like that?

This isn’t a fanciful reading if we take note of Jesus’s response to James and John, which is not, “How dare you order me around?” but “What is it you want me to do for you?”

Even in this moment, he is showing them that he’s different. He’s doing something new. Again, he owns and uses his privilege well. Maybe what they want is totally within his power. Even if you’re the kind of person who believes Jesus was omnipotent and knew everything, he still wanted to model this new way of leadership for them. He reads them generously. He offers hospitality.

But they prove that they still don’t understand how this community is to be built.

And he still acts as a gentle host. He doesn’t say, “Haven’t you knuckleheads been paying attention?” He doesn’t take out his red pen and write F across their foreheads. Whenever I read this passage, I imagine his tone becoming so, so gentle.

“You do not know what you are asking.”

The cup that Jesus drinks is the drink of ultimate hospitality: the laying down of one’s life for others. The baptism with which he was baptized is the baptism of dying to oneself in order to live for God in service to the world, of offering up what you would normally only do for those you loved the most to not just everyone, but everything. The whole created universe.

James and John still insist they can do it, and again Jesus allows that they are sure to understand in the end…but humbles himself by saying it is not in his power to grant what they ask. Again, upsetting the hierarchy, showing himself to be a servant even as he is also a teacher.

As the other disciples become angry, they all prove that they still don’t get it. They are not only bickering among themselves, but trying to re-establish what’s familiar. “How could you question the teacher?” “Weren’t you listening?” “God, you guys are so embarrassing!” Really sounds like a family, huh?

But Jesus puts a stop to all of that immediately.

“Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant.”

It’s so beautiful because it’s simply an extreme version of something they would have all been taught since birth. Hospitality is not something to only practice within the confines of one’s home and biological family. It’s also not patronage, something to use in order to import obligation. It’s something to be given freely, and it can be practiced even among these disciples who have left behind their homes and families. “You are the family,” Jesus says. “You, gathered together, are home for one another.”

Biblical scholar, seminary professor, and Episcopal priest Wil Gafney puts it better than I ever could. She writes, “It’s good to be king. But Jesus didn’t want to be king. Kings take. But Jesus gives. A king will take your sister, wife or daughter. But Jesus gives women dignity. A king will take and tax your crops. But Jesus gives the Bread of Heaven and earthly food to the hungry. A king will take your life if you get in his way, but Jesus gives eternal life. You can keep that crown.”

Gathered here, together, we can leave behind the demands of capitalistic over-achievement, of passing, of having to perform in spaces that don’t give us space. We can rest in the peace of being able to just be. Whether you’re caught in the system and trying to survive, whether you’re forced to fight for your dignity every day, or whether you’re entangled in privilege and afraid to lose it all, here, you have permission to be vulnerable.

Food for your heart is here, more than you need. Love for you, beautiful and utterly unique you, is here, more than you can imagine.

But this place where all of God is offered up to us, freely, with love, isn’t the end goal.

It’s practice.

What good is the best meal in the universe without a few guests?

“Francis and Majnun,” (Sermon, October 3rd 2021)

Good evening, St. Brigid’s. I’m so, so glad to be with you. My name is Clare Morgan, my pronouns are they/them, and I will serve among you as interim pastor for the next nine months. I am thrilled to get to know you, the gathered community of Christ’s beloved here in this place.

Today, we and these very good doggos and kittehs and birbs and hammies and piggies and bunnehs and all other creatures on this earth observe the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, who is dear to me as someone carrying the name of his best friend, St. Clare of Assisi.

But I’m also going to introduce someone else to you, because I couldn’t stop thinking about him as I read the stories of Francis, a child of God most known for his poverty and desire to challenge the authority of the Medieval Church.

That other person is Qays Ibn Al-Mulawwah, more commonly known as Majnun. Over the course of the pandemic, his story has been healing to me, so I wanted to share it with you.

There’s a lot of debate over where Majnun actually existed. A poet carrying this name existed, but the things he became known for have become mythic – truer than true. Living sometime in the 5th century, born of a Bedouin tribe in Saudi Arabia, he became infatuated with Layla, a woman of Hawāzin origin. Their families, like the Montagues and Capulets, forbid them from being together. The name Majnun actually means “possessed by jinn,” or, if you’ll forgive me for the slur, “crazy.” His love for Layla is said to have become so great that it pushed him into madness, which drove him to abandon his family and run into the wilderness, where he becomes a poet, praying for his words to be carried to Layla, who was said to have received them but for her own protection kept her love hidden. In the story they never marry, but their love never dies.

This story has become one of the most beloved stories in Middle Eastern and Central Asian tradition. In the grand tradition of The Song of Songs, it is read among mystics as a cipher story for the soul’s longing for God, and God’s hidden desire for the soul. The most famous rendering is probably the one composed by Nizami Ganjavi, Persia’s greatest romantic epic poet, who completed his masterpiece when our Francis was a young child. Mysticism was really thick in the air all across the world back then.

Majnun and Francis both had blessed childhoods, growing up in well-to-do families with good education and plenty of resources. Francis, the son of a cloth merchant, was a dandy who loved high fashion, good food and wine, and gallivanting around the country playing sports and having fun with friends. Majnun, or Qays as he was still known, was born to a kind-hearted Bedouin sayyid, and grew up with great beauty and wisdom. By the time he was in school he was already a gifted orator and poet.

And then, one day, everything turned upside-down for both of them.

Francis grew aware of the poverty and illness that surrounded him every day, in the face of beggars and in his service as a soldier. Love plants the seeds and grows wild within him. He became exceedingly generous, even reckless, with the wealth his father allowed to him, which annoyed his father immensely. Francis eventually had a foundational mystical experience, receiving a command from Jesus at a ruined church in San Damiano. Jesus asks that Francis help rebuild the church, which he does by spending even more, as well as renouncing his rich lifestyle and becoming destitute, begging one brick at a time.

Like Francis, Qays also finds himself caught up short by Love. He enters school and first lays eyes on Layla, so beautiful inside and out that he becomes bewitched. Remember here that the mystics see Layla as a cipher for the divine, and Majnun the human soul. While things are perfect at first, with the two of them lost in each other, their love begins to attract attention from others who mock them for their intemperate displays of affection. The couple tries to mitigate these whispers by spending time apart, but it makes them burn all the more. Worse still, Layla begins to attract attention from would-be suitors whom her father deems better suited than poor Qays, who was becoming more embarrassing by the day as he sought without success to tame his passion. Like all true mystics, he is unsuccessful, and eventually earns the name of Majnun, the madman.

The two fathers eventually find themselves at an impasse with their wayward, wild-hearted sons. Francis’s father ends up taking him to court in an attempt to retrieve some of his lost riches. Francis famously renounces his family by removing the clothes his father had given him and standing before the court naked before walking away into a new life of poverty and itinerancy, befriending lepers, preaching to birds, and composing songs of praise to all of creation.

Likewise Majnun’s father, who tries everything to help his son, finally brings him to the Ka’aba, the holiest site in Islam, and pleads for him to pray to God for liberty from this obsession. Majnun does the opposite. Nizami, in Rudolph Gelpke’s translation, renders his prayer thusly:

“Let me love, oh my God, love for love’s sake, and make my love a hundred times as great as it was and is!”

Majnun then also chooses to walk away, living among the beasts of the wilderness and singing incredible love songs, which are so powerful that those who happen across him begin to actually share them, singing them in the streets. Creation itself in the wind and birds also bear his words to Layla, who waits in her tent, holding her own heart-shattering love inside, just as God’s love must always, even for the most mystical of us, be known primarily by faith until we return at the end of our lives on earth.

It is in the joyful overturning of convention that these two prophets offer worship to the object of their desires. In their so-called madness, they embody a profound truth: that it’s those very conventions, stereotypes, and unspoken rules that are the sickness. True love unbound by politeness and civility is where God becomes most manifest. True love is embarrassing. That’s why Jesus says the wise don’t understand it. Only children do. That’s why he too, as Love incarnate, wandered through the wilderness of mortality and humanity, loving us madly and embarrassingly.

Drawing by the author

Francis and Majnun’s stories have a hint of romantic tragedy about them, both burning with a love that to some extent isolates them from the world around them. Both stories include friendships with other humans and animals – such an amazing confluence between the two – and indeed, as proper for all mystics, the ultimate erasure of all separateness in the wildfire of God’s love.

For Francis, this occurred in 1224, about two years before his death. While fasting in Mount La Verna, he received a vision of a crucified angel on Holy Cross Day, and found himself overcome with ecstasy shot through with incredible pain. Tradition then tells us that, as the angel departed, Francis discovered the stigmata, the wounds of Christ on his hands and at his side. Overwhelmed by desire for his beloved, he had in a sense become his beloved.

Again, in an incredible confluence, the Sufi master and poet Fakhr al-Dīn Ibrahīm ‘Irāqī, contemporary to both Nizami and Francis, relays the following story, as translated by Omid Safi:

“This radical love

is a fire

When it enters a heart

it consumes everything in the heart

Even the Beloved’s image

is effaced away

from the heart

Majnun was burning in this love

They told him: “Layla is coming”

He said:

“I am Layla”

And lowered his head”

May we never allow convention, heteronormativity, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, or any other principality or power temper our love. May we befriend and bless these friendly beasts, empowering them for the work of love. May our love for one another never be less than our love for God. May we like Christ be pierced by love. May we like Majnun become love.

“Wisdom in gold sandals,” (Sermon, September 12th 2021)

I saw Wisdom calling out in the street once, and she looked FABULOUS.

It was a hot, bright, hazy day in Pride Week – the Saturday before Pride Sunday, in fact. I’d gone down to the Vancouver Art Gallery, where an art installation of shoes, toys, candles, and posters had been laid out on the steps facing Robson Street in honour of the thousands of children lost to the murderous bonfire of so-called residential schools.

I’d gone down there not only as a guardian of the installation, which was created to be a place of vigil and prayer, but to answer a call for drums and voices in response to street preachers who regularly came on the weekends to disrupt the space with racist, colonialist, and homophobic sermonizing. I never figured out which church they were from although one of them is a staple in downtown Vancouver who I’ve seen preaching all over the place.

I’d also asked two of my Sufi friends, Masa and Eda, to join me. Masa is Syrian; Eda is Turkish. Both have burning hearts for justice and compassion, and both have no problem speaking out when silence needs breaking.

And so it was that a group of us, mostly Indigenous but a few white people and my two friends, surrounded these three preachers with our drums and our voices, drowning out their vitriol with the Women’s Warrior Song and other anthems, and suddenly Wisdom was there before me, having clothed herself in the body of my friend Eda.

Eda is a Sufi to the core, born in Konya, where the poet Rumi is laid to rest, and she could not have looked more gorgeous that day, dressed like a runway model in a loose black shirt French-tucked into black Capri pants and stunning gold strappy sandals, with her dark hair flying unbound around her shoulders.

Statuesque and luminous, Wisdom shouted at the preachers, “Why are you yelling at these people to find Jesus? Jesus is already here!”

“Wisdom cries out in the street;
    in the squares she raises her voice.
21 At the busiest corner she cries out;
    at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
22 “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
    and fools hate knowledge?”

Jesus and the disciples have journeyed to the region of Caesarea Philippi, and surely then it was just as lovely and pastoral as it is now, a place of gentle green rolling hills interrupted here and there by barricades and unexploded land mines. It’s contested territory and surely always has been. It could not be a more appropriate place for this strange interaction between Peter and Jesus, a moment that starts out so hopeful and inspiring, and ends with confusion and rebuke.

For one moment, Peter gets it, and sees Wisdom on the roadside, speaking a wild and scandalous truth. But he misunderstands her message, and she becomes elusive again.

“Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”

This might sound like one of those infamous clobber texts, the kind of passage used to impress upon us the importance of doing everything we can to avoid the fires of hell, but that’s a meager understanding.

Using the English word “life” here is appropriate but so is the word “soul.” Substituting that may make it sound even more like a clobber text, but we can choose another reading. We know what it means figuratively to sell one’s soul as well as literally. Let’s hear it again.

“For those who want to save their soul will lose it, and those who lose their soul for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their soul?

Indeed, what can they give in return for their soul?”

Those who want to save their soul will lose it. Those who are more concerned with what will happen to someone after they leave this earthly life than helping them to flourish here and now, feeding them with unending bread, helping them to encounter what John the Evangelist called zoe, eternal life in the here and now – those who want to save souls while enslaving and abusing bodies, those who act as if the soul of a human being is an object that can be possessed and added to one’s moral account balance: it is those who will lose everything.

For what would it profit me to gain wealth and riches or fame and acclamation for my supposed moral superiority, while forfeiting my soul by ignoring the needs of the vulnerable before me? How could I possibly think that, having spent my life bullying others and ignoring their needs in the here-and-now, I would have something to bring before God, as though I could bring before God an armful of souls that were not my own, and as though it were possible to do that by expending hours of energy screaming that those people would go to hell unless they listened to me?

Standing on the pavement outside the art gallery with my drum, I saw one of the preachers fix her gaze on Eda, standing next to me.

“You look like a Muslim,” the woman sneered, and proceeded to insult the Prophet with vile words I won’t repeat.

Eda just laughed. “Why are you so full of hate?”

Later, as we stood by the installation and chatted, Eda laughed even harder.

“She knew I was a Muslim – ha! She knew a lover of the Prophet when she saw one.”

Peter, who loved Jesus so very deeply, only recognizes him as Messiah for an instant, but still loses track of the message he is bringing. Meanwhile, back in Chapter 1 of Mark, a possessed man in the synagogue at Capernaum recognizes Jesus for who he is immediately, and names him loudly. Jesus shushes this unclean spirit like he does Peter, but later, Peter tries to shush Jesus.

Jesus, though, is no unclean spirit.

He cannot be stopped from crying out in the street as long as there are those who will listen.

And this is the moment where I must turn away from pointing my finger at others and point it at myself.

For while I recognized Wisdom that day, there have been other days where I haven’t, where I’ve responded with vitriol and anger rather than awe and wonder at Wisdom’s call.

I have been just as guilty as that woman we saw, just as guilty of labeling Wisdom a crackpot screaming on the side of the road.

It’s okay. We all do it. Sometimes we’re encouraged to do it, and sometimes we just do it because we fear what we don’t understand, and we yearn for the easy way rather than the way of being refined like gold in a furnace. That’s the human way of things.

It’s okay. Growth is hard. Being called out or called in is hard. None of us have to like it.

But in that moment when we suddenly recognize Wisdom, will we rebuke her like Peter, or will we choose to enter into her banquet hall? Will we choose her over the clamouring voices of the world we live in, which demand obedience and money and labour and heteronormativity and ‘passing’ and silence?

They are very strong voices, very strong indeed, and sometimes the choice to listen isn’t much of a choice at all but a matter of survival.

But you deserve more than just to survive.

You, like every other creature, like the planet itself, deserve eternal life, and bread that lasts.

If we desire this, all we have to do is just be on the lookout.

Wisdom stands on every street corner crying out for us to choose eternal life. She stands with hair unbound, luminous and laughing and inviting you.

Don’t be afraid to see her.

“Every meal shared,” (Sermon, August 22nd 2021)

On Wednesday August 18th, Muslims around the world observed the day of Ashura. Ashura is celebrated differently between the Sunni and Shia Muslim communities. For Sunnis, the day commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from Pharaoh, and therefore stands for deliverance, primarily from oppression but also in more thematic ways – some also mark it as the day of the Prophet Jonah’s deliverance from the fish.

For Shia Muslims, it is the anniversary of the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet, and seventy-two of his friends and family members, at the hands of the Umayyad caliphate in the city of Karbala in Iraq.

I’m on a private WhatsApp group made up of followers and friends of a Turkish Sufi teacher, and at each festival there are always a flurry of posts offering good wishes and reflections – Wednesday was no exception. My friend Shirin, quoting Muzaffer Ozak al Jerrahi as translated by Muhtar Holland, wrote, “Outwardly [Ashura] is a day of misfortune, [but] it is in reality the day that marks the sacrifice made by Imam Husayn in order to teach the community not to obey tyrant or tyranny and, if need be, to offer one’s life in this cause.”

Later that day, my friend Omid Safi, a professor at Duke University, wrote the following,

“How could a religion of justice and mercy have gone so wrong, so quickly? How did the Muslim community go from lovingly gathering around Muhammad to killing his precious grandchildren in less than two generations? And if we are to understand the full meaning of this cosmically significant event, how could the Muslim today kill today’s Hussain? How could the religion of love and justice and mercy be used so savagely in the hands of those for whom it is but a means of domination, violence, and tyranny?”

This hits me hard as a Christian these days. I have all the same questions.

Omid goes on to say, There are events in world history where the significance of what takes place far outstrips its mere historicity. A first-century Palestinian Jew, the son of a carpenter, is hung between two thieves at the behest of Roman authorities, and today over a billion Christians see the crucifixion of Christ as the ultimate symbol of God’s deliverance of humanity from sin. …In all such cases…these events become a symbol, a map, of something fundamental about the nature of universe: that there is sin and it must be redeemed…and that there is injustice and one has the cosmic responsibility to rise up against it. …Christians look not back at the crucifixion of Jesus, but see that act of redemption as shaping their lives here and now. …This is the power of religious imagination, which makes every place a sacred place, and every day a sacred time.”

Omid then references a famous quote:

“Every day is Ashura.
Every place is Karbala.”

I found this reflection so poignant after our discussion last week as we, in the grand tradition of the greatest sages and the unlettered beloveds of God, grappled with the problem of evil.

Jesus explains again to the crowd that the only way they can inherit eternal life is by eating his flesh and drinking his blood. This is disturbing enough, but something that doesn’t come through in the English translation is that the word used for “eating” here is different than the one used in the verses we read last week. The word contains violence – one scholar I consulted said it was better translated as “chomping” or “crunching.” YIKES. If we were tempted to avoid the ick factor by imagining a warm, pillowy soft loaf of bread, Jesus never lets us off the hook.

It’s even worse than that, though. Back then, most ancient peoples, and particularly the ancient Jews, believed that blood was the source of life, and therefore belonged to God alone. To consume it was to seek to be, in a sense, like God. It was more than barbaric – it was blasphemous. Remember as well that while we immediately hear Eucharistic overtones in this passage, in the Gospel the Eucharist hasn’t happened yet. This beloved Teacher just suddenly starts talking cannibalism.

Wouldn’t you turn back too?

You can see added nuance in a couple of other phrases: when the crowd says, “This teaching is difficult,” in Greek they’re actually saying, “This Logos is difficult,” a beautiful play on words, because of course Jesus IS the Logos in John.

Likewise when Jesus says, “Does this offend you?” We tend to ascribe a lot of baggage to the word “offend,” especially today. The Greek word skandolizomai is used extensively in the other Gospels, and tends to be translated “stumble,” or “fall away.” It’s used by Matthew in the verse about tearing out an eye if it causes one to stumble, and in Mark’s Parable of the Sower to refer to the one whose faith has no root. There’s a richness here that implies both offense at blasphemy and confusion at Jesus’s words.

But this is directly tied to the same confusion that even his closest disciples, the ones who don’t turn away, experience when Jesus is crucified. Jesus says: ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?’ Ascension is a direct reference to the Cross, something Jesus alludes to constantly in the Fourth Gospel.

If you can’t handle the idea of eating my flesh and drinking my blood to gain life, how could you possibly understand what I’m about to do?

And do we even understand? So many Christians believe that Jesus had to be crucified because God could only enact salvation through a sinless being. This is one understanding of what happened on the Cross, but it is not the only one. It’s not even the only biblical one. It’s a re-imagining of the scapegoat myth, an ancient belief that we can only be saved by piling our sins and self-hatred onto a sacrificial lamb who will be driven out of the community, thereby cleansing us.

Why is this so often the story of humanity, the sacrifice of innocent lives to a tyrannical or, at best, apathetic God who might as well have fallen asleep or wandered off somewhere, like Joan Osbourne’s lonely “stranger on a bus”?

But that’s the thing. God entered into loneliness to know ours better. Jesus learns hunger and responds by feeding us. Jesus learns trauma to be with us in our trauma. Jesus, like a mother, offers food from his own body to nourish us. This also is stated quite explicitly by John – why else do you think he is so intent on explaining that, at the piercing of Jesus’s side, blood and water, the elements of birth, both pour forth?

Image description: Me, a white person with wide-rimmed glasses and a buzz-cut, wearing a white alb and colourful stole, offering the bread of the Eucharist to a communicant. Photo taken at my first Eucharist (as priest) by Adele Wonnick

Through all of this, God shows us, unequivocally, that They are on our side. They love us so much, that they refuse to only accept us at our best. Indeed, They clothe themselves with our most beautiful – our flesh, our feeding, our justice-seeking, and our yearning for relationship – and yet also accept our most horrific – our rejection, our hatred, our betrayal, and our violence – and not only embody that which is most beautiful but redeem that which is most ugly.

John shows us this in the resurrected Jesus’s return breathing peace with scarred hands and side. We are not to forget what we’ve done, but we are forgiven and then commissioned to embody the same self-giving love and prophetic stance against oppression wherever it is enacted against others.

Every day, we have the chance to remember Jesus’s call to enter into communion with him, not just through the precious ritual of our sacred meal, but through the everyday struggle of trying to leave more peace, more love, more good in the world. And it is a struggle. This is what Muslims mean when they talk about jihad: the struggle between the part of us that would rather be borne along the river of despair and violence and the part of us that seeks to carry the torch of self-giving love, what Sufis call ishq, a love like a purifying fire.

If for our Muslim friends “Every day is Ashura. Every place is Karbala,” for us, beloved of Jesus, “Every Sunday is Easter, and every meal shared in love with others, is the Eucharist.”

“You taught me hunger,” (Sermon, August 15th 2021)

It’s hard to preach on this series of bread of life passages from the Gospel of John in the best of times, but this year it’s particularly hard. I’m feeling some real kinship with the wandering Israelites complaining to Moses about how there’s no food in the wilderness. They didn’t know how long they’d have to go without bread either.

I’ve been privileged to receive communion a couple times since March 2020 – I went to a funeral last summer, I’ve brought reserved sacrament to some people at St. Jude’s, and a couple weeks ago I visited the Cathedral, but none of these things really filled the void, because I wasn’t with you. I wasn’t standing in a circle singing, with my hands out, in the same physical space, hearing your voices, feeling you in that invisible way that humans sense each other. And to be perfectly frank, that made those few small moments of receiving over the last year feel more like crumbs than real living bread.

And yet maybe as we wait with baited breath for the day we can be physically together again, we should wonder and reflect, for when again will we know and share, with such bone deep intimacy, on a worldwide scale, the feeling that made the crowd around Jesus say, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Now we’re not going to get into a big debate about transubstantiation, or consubstantiation, or Real Presence, or what metaphysically happens to the bread during the Eucharist. For the theology nerds, I’m sorry to disappoint. For those trying to manage the weird elasticity of time and pandemic exhaustion, I don’t wanna think about that stuff right now either. Not because I don’t think it’s important or interesting, but because I suspect high-minded theology isn’t what any of us need right now in the thick of it. Never before have any of us experienced something so utterly human and devastating as a worldwide long-term crisis. Individual, yes. National, sure. But not like this. We know in a new way how fragile our lives are, and of course in the last week we have been shown that anew not only in the pandemic but in the news from the Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change.

That infamous quote from the site of the Hindenburg disaster never really made sense to me until now. “Oh, the humanity!”

We are mortal, and we sink or swim together, and some of us refuse to even try, and how do we reckon with that?

Some of us reach out to God and say, “Um, are you like, busy or something? ‘Cause we’re kind of freaking out down here.”

The crowd following Jesus after the amazing Sign of multiplying loaves and fish wants to be beside him. He gave them food from something as small and insignificant as five barley loaves, bread of the poor, and two fish, prehistoric-looking tilapia with way too many bones that you can pay too much to pick at if you take a tour of the Sea of Galilee today! He sanctified and multiplied the food of the people, showing them their lives were precious and their food was nothing to scorn. And the whole reason they followed him to end up fed in the first place was because they first saw him healing people. This person, sent by God, heals and feeds. He transforms our fragility.

But the catch here is that he doesn’t transform it by turning us into superheroes. Quite the opposite. He transforms our fragility by taking it on himself, putting it on like clothes.

Image description: A white plate with a homemade loaf of Eucharistic bread, etched with a cross, sits on a dark wood table, with a wine glass painted with grapes and leaves at right.

And that’s where we often, like the crowd, get confused. What do you mean, we have to eat you? It all sounds kind of gross! And like so many of our ancestors we may find ourselves twisting up into knots to understand the metaphor, and complaining about how this abstract language is difficult, while Jesus is standing there telling us, “There is no metaphor. I’m being literal here.”

And then, for just a moment, we get it, and it’s too much.

It’s the same struggle, over and over. He is our Messiah, our Beloved, and Messiahs are supposed to liberate us through power and revolution. Our Beloveds are supposed to stay at our side forever. But this Messiah is not like that. This Messiah is betrayed and convicted by an unjust system and led away to die on a cross. What kind of Messiah is broken and poured out by trauma and Empire? What kind of Beloved leaves us alone to be broken in the same way?

The writer of John tells us what kind of Messiah and Beloved this is: the kind who sought to annihilate the gap between God and humans, not as an avenging angel, but as a lover or friend: by learning, listening, and embodying as deeply as one possibly could, by coming to live among us, in our own flesh. Jesus doesn’t feed us the way we feed our pets, handing down something we didn’t make ourselves from on high to a grateful creature who cannot help but love us. Jesus feeds us the way a good mother does, at great personal cost, with food that is fully human, from her own body, and with nothing expected in return, with the conviction that we deserve the freedom to turn away and grow on our own, if that’s what we need to flourish.

In coming to be among us, Jesus learns what it means to be human, what it means to feel hunger, thirst, exhaustion, annoyance, rejection, pain, and death. And, having learned all of that, it is returned to us, sanctified.

We cry out to God in the midst of our hunger, exhaustion, grief, and fear, saying, “You’ll never understand how hard it is to deal with all of this!” And the response is, “I do. You taught me about hunger. So I will feed you, with myself.

Every time we gather, we remember this scandalous truth. As much as we miss being together with our hands held out, that ritual, like multiplying the bread of the poor, is a Sign pointing to something far greater.

That truth can be distilled down to something very simple, which I found beautifully illustrated in a story shared by Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, the first African American and first woman to serve as senior pastor to Middle Collegiate Church in New York City.

Rev. Jacqui says, “I fell in love for the first time when I was eight years old. I was sitting in the pews at a little Presbyterian Church on Chicago’s South Side. My aunt played the organ there; my dad and uncle were elders and my mom sang in the choir. I was taking communion for the first time, and while the little bread cubes were coming my way, Mom said, “This bread means God will always love you.” The bread was the sticky-honey kind that you scoop out the center to put that amazing vegetable dip in. Without dip, it was amazing! When the little cups of grape juice came by, Mom whispered, “This cup means, “God will never leave you.” What?!?  Bread this sweet, grape juice making my tongue purple like Kool Aid?? With the help of children’s choir and barn dances, Christmas pageants and Sunday School teachers—I was totally in love with God!!”

God loves us so recklessly and majestically that despite ignorance, stubbornness, despair, and refusal to change, at the cost of our neighbours or even our own planet, it will not separate us from that love.

God will never leave us, whether we turn our backs or get lost or deconstruct or rage and scream at the injustices of mortality and hubris. God will be with us whether we are crying in the hospital or singing with tears in church with our hands held out, whenever that may come.

God is waiting for us at our little church, and God wants us to return and be together, singing with hands held out.

But whatever happens, God is also already here.

“Little girl, get up,” (Sermon, June 27th 2021)

“He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.”

Little girl, get up.

Dr. Emerson Powery of Messiah College in Pennsylvania notes a synthesis between stories that hadn’t occurred to me: a woman who bleeds continuously seeks healing, just as a father seeks resurrection for a girl who has not yet begun to bleed. He writes, “She was born in the same year when the woman began incessant bleeding.  Yet, in the same year both were healed.  One stopped bleeding, which restored her life.  The other had her life restored, so that she could continue to “bleed” and eventually produce life.”

Little girl, get up.

Jesus is moved by Jairus, who has so much love for his daughter, which speaks to his character as a loving and gentle man. As a girl child, this daughter wouldn’t have even been considered a full person legally or spiritually. Just as she is ready to step into full inclusion into the community and only a few years from marriageable age and beginning a family of her own, her life is cut short.

Separated from the community by death, she cannot advocate for herself. Her father, frightened and desperate by her illness, comes to Jesus, and yet she dies while he is seeking her salvation.

Across this country many call Canada, Indigenous parents from the 1880s to the 1990s sought salvation for their children that were taken away. The penalties for not surrendering one’s children were fines and arrests. The RCMP and the truancy officers would come, and the parents had an impossible choice: refuse and hide the children, or hand them over in the hopes that they would at least get a good education. It probably didn’t even take a generation before they realized that the latter was not the case. They petitioned the government to end the programs, petitioned for more money for crowded, falling-apart buildings where the sick were crammed together with no attempt made to curb the spread of diseases like tuberculosis, where children were constantly malnourished. They petitioned for the return of the bodies of children who had died.

All too often, they were denied.

As the schools began to lose their prominence, Indigenous children were still being caught up in the ‘60s Scoop, shuffled off to white parents away from their birth families. And now, even after the last school closed in 1996, Indigenous children make up almost half of the children represented in the foster system despite making up a single digit percentage of the overall population. The Scoop continues, right now.

Like Jairus, Indigenous parents have sought healing and restoration of their beloved children. In the case of those whose relatives have been found in these grave sites, they are denied restoration by death. Unlike Jairus, there will be no restoration for Indigenous parents. And unlike Jairus, they will continue to be subjected to this denial over and over.

Let’s come back to this, and talk a bit about the other woman in this story. Her faith in Jesus’s power is so strong that she knows even contact with his clothes will heal her. However, she also would have known that, being ritually impure, there was a strong possibility that Jesus, a rabbi, wouldn’t want to touch her and risk ritual defilement. Showing true resourcefulness, she waits for the perfect moment: within a gathered crowd, when it was unlikely for Jesus to notice her or feel her touch.

Sometimes hurting people have advocates like Jairus who fight for restoration and healing on their behalf. Jairus, a powerful leader in the synagogue, had the tools he needed to ask for help knowing he was likely to receive it. He was educated and influential. He knew what to ask for and how to ask for it.

This woman, destitute after twelve years of trying everything to fix this problem which excluded her from full participation in the community, didn’t have the tools that Jairus had. She didn’t have power or influence. We hear nothing about her family. We don’t know if she was married or had children. The Levitical laws of ritual purity would have prohibited her from sexual contact, so if she was married, she wouldn’t have been able to bear any children, which was reasonable grounds for her husband to divorce her. She had no one to advocate for her. Talking to Jesus on her own would have raised eyebrows. Touching him was out of the question.

Sometimes people have to take restoration and healing however they can get it. Sometimes that means that they don’t ask nicely. Sometimes that means they get angry. Sometimes that means speaking truths that other people don’t want to hear.

Both parties reached out to Jesus for help, and Jesus granted both of their requests.

In the case of the bleeding woman, Jesus centers her and affirms her choice. It seems confusing that after she feels the disease leave her body, Jesus says to her, “Go in peace and be healed of your disease.” She’s already healed – why does he say this? Maybe he says it so that the crowd will know that he believes she is worthy of being healed, that her choice to do something drastic was actually the right choice, and should be celebrated as an act of faith. He wants to show them that his power doesn’t need to be taken in secret out of shame or fear. It’s available for everyone. All they have to do is ask. As we’ll see several chapters later with Bartimaeus, shrieking his head off on the side of the road as Jesus passes by, they don’t even have to be polite about it.

And the little girl? Jairus followed all of the rules, and yet his request was denied, not by Jesus, but by the cruelty of death.

Of course Jesus is able to circumvent this minor inconvenience.

But what kind of good news is that for us?

I can think of a lot of ways I can use my power to help other people like Jesus helps the bleeding woman. I have money to donate to Indigenous crisis lines and healing initiatives. I have influence within the Church and the colonial system as a priest and as a white and educated person. I can listen and hold the terrible and beautiful stories of others.

All of these are necessary responses for all of us who are settlers.

But I can’t bring people back from the dead. None of us can.

So let’s try this instead.

For just a moment, let’s not imagine, as we often do, that in this story we are the ones seeking healing, or the disciples.

In this story, let’s imagine ourselves as the houseguests being put out of the bedroom.

Jesus has taken his closest disciples and the relatives of the dead, and the work of healing is for them alone.

I know the immediate desire is to involve and insert ourselves, and to ask what is needed. But as settlers, as houseguests, we are being told to step back while Indigenous peoples do their own grieving and healing.

Life will come, but it will come through the dead and the witness of the family of the dead.

Instead of making a big fuss, weeping and wailing and mourning our guilt during these discoveries, let’s decenter ourselves as settlers and form a circle around that bedroom, a place of terror and trauma and rage and truth, a sacred thin place where the door between life and death is dissolving in an almost solid wave of light as children are brought out of secret solitude and into the sun where the healing can really begin.

If we’re needed inside that bedroom, we’ll be invited.

If we’re not, all we can do is trust in God, and wait for instruction from within.

So let’s stand outside the door, pray, teach and learn from one another, give what we can from our resources, and keep the fires stoked.

Because eventually, life will burst forth, and whatever is reborn in that beautiful dawn light will need something to eat.

“In the Valley of Bewilderment,” (Sermon, Trinity Sunday 2021)

When I asked Heidi about what date in May would be most helpful for me to preach, she opened her diary and began paging through. Just as she started to say, “How about – ” I said, “It’s gonna be Trinity Sunday, isn’t it?”

She froze for a moment, her smile locked in place, and I almost wondered if her internet had cut out again. Then she looked up at me and the smile became very sheepish, and we laughed and laughed.

Trinity Sunday is a tough one. I’ve heard a lot of sermons on this topic and a lot of them are really not very good. Once as a student and now as an honorary associate I am asked to preach on this Sunday pretty frequently to give the rector a break from having to deal with this labyrinth of hot takes and juvenile illustrations and digging up dusty theological dictionaries to argue about obscure heresies like modalism which mattered deeply to ancient scholars but seem pretty far removed from a twenty-first century faith.

The lectionary doesn’t help. I’m convinced it offers up this passage from the Gospel of John because it’s one of the few passages that links God with Spirit through the mouth of Jesus, and we cling to that because quite frankly there’s not much clear Scriptural evidence for the Trinitarian formula. I say that to you as a deeply committed ethnically Gaelic Anglican for whom Trinitarianism is baked into my DNA.

I think it’s important to honour all of the feelings we might have around this very strange and mystical piece of our tradition. First, I want us to come, perhaps quite naturally, to the concept of the Trinity with bewilderment.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus as a high-ranking scholar, well-versed in the texts of his ancestral faith, but not so high and mighty as to dismiss Jesus as some backwoods preacher. Like a scholar truly worthy of the title he comes to explore a new source, a new living text, because who’s to say that wisdom doesn’t exist here? And yet at once all of Nicodemus’s knowledge seems to come to nothing, for he’s baffled – bewildered – by Jesus’s teachings. And can you blame him? I’m no closer to understanding what Jesus really means when says “born from above,” or “born again” – we often hear both translations because the Greek word Jesus uses can mean either, and was definitely chosen to highlight that ambiguity. Born from above, born of water and the Spirit, the capricious nature of the wind – another play on words, with pneuma meaning both wind and spirit – what the heck is Jesus saying here, and what the heck does it have to do with the Trinity, which is surely even more bewildering?

In a course I’m taking on the Qur’an with my friend Omid Safi, we recently discussed bewilderment as a necessary and very advanced part of the spiritual path. In the beautiful twelfth century poem The Conference of the Birds by the Persian Sufi writer Farīd ud-Dīn ʿAṭṭār, the birds of the world gather to try to decide who should be sovereign over them all. The wisest, the colourful hoopoe, leads them on a journey through seven valleys to find a mystical being to help them. Traveling through the valleys, the birds, who each represent a specific fault in humanity, cast aside dogma, reason, worldly knowledge, and all their earthly attachments, and come to the realization that all things are interconnected. After that, they enter the Valley of Wonderment, or Bewilderment, for our purposes today. In this valley, the traveler suddenly realizes that they truly know nothing at all, and that emptiness is replaced by awe.

Image description: A bush of white hellebores are at the right, with a bluish-white stone sculpture of a heron at left.

The section of the poem detailing the Valley of Wonderment sums up my feelings so well. Maybe it’ll do the same for you! In the Iranian-American poet Sholeh Wolpe’s translation, it is in part described thusly:

“When you arrive here in wonderment,

You arrive already lost and will be yet more lost…

If they ask you, Are you drunk or no?

Do you exist or no?

Are you within or without?

Are you hidden or manifest?

You will respond: I know nothing,

Not even the breadth of my own ignorance.

I am in love but don’t know with whom.

I am neither devout nor faithless.

I don’t know what I am.

Of my own love I am ignorant too.

My heart is both full and empty of love.”

This sense of bewilderment is not unknown to Jesus’s ancestral faith of Judaism. The 20th century Polish-American rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel called this feeling of bewilderment “radical amazement” in his book Man is not alone. There was a sense in ancient and modern Judaism that God is utterly and completely outside of us, different from us, incomprehensible to us, and of course this is very true. God’s ways are not our ways.

In this way, Nicodemus can be said to be having an authentic encounter with the divine in his talk with Jesus. He has been made painfully aware of the limits of his knowledge, and indeed actually disappears from the passage as Jesus continues to speak. This is often interpreted as a slight against his character – that he comes in darkness and goes away in darkness, but I think for our purposes today we should explore the notion that perhaps, for one fleeting moment, he does manage to enter the last valley, which is total annihilation in the Beloved.

So if you were bewildered hearing the Gospel today, and if you’re still bewildered now, you’re in good company, and for all you know you could be inches from glory.

But I want to come back to this notion of God being utterly different from us, because this is one the things that makes us different from our siblings in Judaism and Islam. Both faiths are adamant that God’s love for humankind is boundless and eternal, and that wisdom and beauty is poured out freely through the created world and our sacred texts. We Christians share these beliefs as well, but in the Incarnation we proclaim that God chooses to become like us in order to know us more deeply. And through the doctrine of the Trinity, we proclaim that God is One and yet also Three. The intricacies of the arguments we had many centuries ago over how this was constituted metaphysically seem less important than the simpler and more credal statement that God is Three-in-One and One-in-Three. It’s fun to examine from many angles, like a faceted jewel, but ultimately the pronouncement has to be taken on faith, right? You can’t exactly squeeze the Trinity onto a microscope slide and document or segment the many parts. At a certain point, one simply has to sit back and be bewildered.

But the connotations of that credal statement cannot be overstated, for in it, we’re stating that God is by nature communal. It is one thing to say that God desires covenant and relationship with us. It’s a whole other thing to say that God’s entire nature is so similar to ours that They are a being who desires and flourishes in relationship, and yet paradoxically so different that God is relationship. God’s desire for covenant and relationship is therefore a desire not only based on will but on affinity. In being in relationship with one another, in abandoning the loneliness of pure individualism, we ourselves model a God who is diverse and yet fully integrated, just as God in the incarnation learned to model what we should be like.

As humans we are unlikely to fully attain the integration that God ardently awaits within the span of our earthly years, although I maintain that many of us get the occasional spark, like Nicodemus. But perhaps it is enough to know that God desires this, and maybe on this Trinity Sunday, we can take comfort in the knowledge that bewilderment is quite appropriately the first and most devout response.

Praise be to the One who is Three, and yet One, ever more and always.

In Your Arms

In anticipation for the coming rains, with love for the Flower Moon shining behind the clouds, and with love for my dear Sufi sisters, I offer this piece, written with help from an illahi by Şerani Baba. Say hello to Cindy, my mandolin! She belonged to my father. I am beyond grateful for her voice. I also hope you enjoy the soothing sound of the rain, recorded one evening a few months ago, and some thunder recorded in a storm a couple of weeks ago. I always liked how Loreena McKennitt did this in her stunning piece “Lullaby.”

Cennet Inside You

This song was written during an attunement for one of our Zoom Sufi gatherings. After having absolutely no ideas, one of our sheikhs, happily describing the view from his window, said, “Eternity is a walk through the forest.”
“What a beautiful line,” I thought, and wrote it down.
As I wrote, I looked up and found myself captivated by the luminous face of my friend Cennet, a monumental spiritual presence who was well into the return journey toward her Beloved. I thought of how much we would miss her…and immediately thought, “We’ll need to cultivate her within us.” The next lines came then.
I debuted the song at the service and the response to it was incredible. My beloved friend Seemi immediately adopted it as an anthem, and several other friends eventually followed suit.
It is offered with the greatest love to them and to dear Cennet’s memory.

The word can (pronounced jan) is a term of endearment that means “life,” or “soul”; “canım” and “canım benim” are Turkish expressions that employ this word – they’re like “my dear,” more literally “my life.” “Cennet” (pronounced jennet) is the word for Paradise, with Edenic garden overtones.

Bismillah

This song is dedicated to friends of the Friend, near and far, and in honour of Cennet, my precious friend, who reunited with her Beloved on April 25th. I can’t quite remember when it was written but probably sometime after I returned from RumiFest in 2019. The theme that keeps returning in the right hand had been looking for a home for a long time – I had been using it in a cover version of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire”, which honestly seems pretty appropriate for the subject matter here, heehee.

You’ll notice that it’s part of a playlist – I hope to include more songs that can be used for turning and other meditations.