Apr 25 | “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.

Apr 04 | 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.

Apr 02 | 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.

Mar 07 | “What’s a king to a god?” (Sermon, March 7th 2021)

In March of 2016, when I was still a curate, I was invited to the Inspire Conference, a gathering of children, youth, and family ministry leaders and children and youth themselves to learn, network, and talk about justice. That year had a star lineup of speakers including cultural literacy communications scholar Dr. Daniel White Hodge.

I was immediately engaged with Dr. Dan, who ran a series of workshops on faith through the lens of film. His particular specialization, though, was Hip Hop, and he was just beginning his PhD, which explored Hip Hop as missiology, or the study of missions. He has since written multiple books on the subject, including The Soul of Hip Hop, Hip Hop’s Hostile Gospel, and Homeland Insecurity.

Dr. Dan was interested in this subject not only as a Hip Hop fan, but as a Black and Latino American originally from a Seventh Day Adventist background. He became a nondenominational evangelical and worked extensively with youth before becoming disillusioned about the way his church interacted with non-white culture. He constantly saw Black and Latino kids within evangelical church communities encouraged to abandon their dialects, natural hairstyles, music – basically everything that could give them a source of ethnic pride. These things were all coded as “worldly,” unlike, one assumes, the “pure” (read: white) culture of the church itself. Black and Latino kids outside of these church communities, particularly those living in poor urban environments, became fodder for missions trips by white affluent evangelical kids, who would be bussed in to gawk at them before attempting to save their souls.

Dr. Dan began to feel that the churches he worked for did not see Black culture as compatible with American Christianity, and this feeling only deepened after the 2016 election. He openly wondered on his podcast Profane Faith if there were anything in evangelicalism worth saving. His books offer passionate pleas for a new theology of mission that meets kids of colour where they are by integrating Hip Hop, a deeply spiritual movement which blends sacred, profane, and secular into a tapestry of raw theological reflection.

Reading his book Homeland Insecurity, I was struck by how the brutal honesty of the lyrics he included mirrored the spirit of Jesus’s temple tirade. From the song “No Church in the Wild” by Jay-Z and Kanye West:

“Human beings in a mob

What’s a mob to a king?

What’s a king to a god?

What’s a god to a nonbeliever

Who don’t believe in anything?”

Dr. Dan reflects, “What does [the post civil rights Church] matter to someone who (1) has lost faith in God altogether, (2) has been oppressed and disenfranchised by Christians, (3) has read, and possibly lived, the destructive history of Christian faith being weaponized for violence and death, (4) has been psychologically affected by fundamentalism, and (5) simply does not believe there is a god?” He concludes that in the face of nonbelief, everything we believers fight about amongst ourselves just looks like semantics, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Dr. Dan goes on to say that a “church in the wild,” if it existed, would be “a church that can sit with questions and doubt rather than answers and solutions. A church that disrupts its own thinking on race, gender, and class. A church that is able to transcend tradition, dogma, and rigid theological stances and push for relationships, community, and the mysterious enlightenment of who God is in the present age.”

The story of Jesus’s act in the temple is present in all four Gospels, but it’s situated in different places, and the Synoptic writers Matthew, Mark, and Luke understand its meaning differently from John. While the Synoptics place the act toward the end of Jesus’s ministry, the inciting incident for his arrest, John places it toward the beginning, right after the wedding at Cana – and the inciting incident is the raising of Lazarus.

Looking up toward the site of Al-Aqsa mosque, the former site of the temple, behind the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City

There are other differences. In the Synoptics, Jesus’s anger is directed toward those who have made the temple “a den of robbers,” and specifically mention him driving out those who sell doves, the cheap alternative to a sacrificial cow. His anger seems directed toward those who would profit off of the poor. In John, he shouts at the dove-sellers but also drives all of the animals and moneychangers out, commanding, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” The Synoptics show Jesus taking issue with how business is being done. John has Jesus challenge the whole system.

Now we have to tread carefully here. John can be a dangerous text because of how it has been – and often continues to be – used. This passage and others like it are sometimes read as Jesus setting himself against the Jewish faith itself. So let’s be careful to remember that Jesus was working as an oppressed person firmly within his ancestral faith. Judea and its people had been through siege after siege, trying to hold onto a liberating faith. The religious authorities were trying to keep the nation safe from Rome, which had punished thousands of Jews for rebelling against Caesar with mass crucifixion. The elite secured safety for themselves and their people by mollifying the empire. They couldn’t afford to have someone calling for an end to the marketplace which had functioned in the temple for generations and which they believed was also helping to keep the God of Israel appeased.

But Jesus knew that no matter how hard the elite tried to keep the people contained, it would never be enough to satisfy the dominant culture. Whether oppressed people use the tools and speech of empire or whether they riot and rebel, the only response the empire tolerates is silence and obedience. Martin Luther King Jr. made powerful calls for peaceful resistance and was still murdered, and he was widely despised by the majority of white America in his own lifetime. Malcolm X, often pitted against Dr. King as “the wrong way to do civil rights,” whose Black Panther party fed schoolchildren so successfully that the US government was embarrassed into drastic policy change, had the same fate. No matter how you do it, if you challenge empire, you get the boot – to your backside or to your face.

Some oppressed people stay silent their whole lives. Others decide, “If we’re going to be tone-policed no matter what, why bother being polite? And why bother making reasonable demands? Why not shoot for the moon?”

So let’s imagine that Jesus, knowing his people needed change, figured he’d challenge the whole system. Maybe he saw the writing on the wall. The temple would, after all, be destroyed only forty years later. As a rabbi, he and the Pharisees had already begun the work of teaching the people how to enact their faith in their own homes and lives. Maybe, like the prophet Ezekiel acting out the siege of Jerusalem with bricks and toys, or like a rapper who challenges the empire’s canonization of its police with a raging anthem, Jesus wanted to explode expectations, to sit with the question of a tent in the wilderness rather than provide the answer of a temple in the golden city, to disrupt the boundaries between those who could buy bulls and those who had to settle for doves, to push for a new community that found the mystery of God even within a world hostile and full of pain.

It makes sense having seen this first overturning that Jesus’s penultimate overturning, raising Lazarus from the dead, would be so threatening. Jesus wasn’t just saying a new world was possible. He was making it. If the threat of death no longer mattered, what could stop his people from toppling the whole empire?

And perhaps, in today’s pandemic world of necropolitics, bigotry, state sponsored murder, mass incarceration, crushing poverty, and environmental devastation, this is a sign for us. We need to be willing to topple idols, to ask tough questions, to ask, “Does it have to be this way?”, and to see the face of the Beloved everywhere, even in places where things are uncivil and rough and wild.

Tupac Shakur in his 1996 song “Black Jesus” asks, “Who’s got the heart to stand beside me?” The Jesus in the temple and the Jesus that meets us today here in this place asks us the same question.

Feb 14 | “Glory is just around the corner,” (Sermon, Transfiguration Sunday 2021)

From the light of the star that guided the Wise Ones we’ve come to the unborrowed light of Transfiguration Sunday. In the Godly Play Sunday School curriculum, the star of Bethlehem is called The Wild Star, and throughout the season of Epiphany we’ve followed this Wild Star up hill and down dale, around twists and turns and corners, and now it has settled once again to show us that Wild Stars point to Wild Gods.

For from this season, bracketed by Light, we’ll walk down from the mountaintop and into the shadowy season of Lent, marked with ashes and lonely mortality, as we have before and maybe as we feel we’ve been doing since…well, last year, maybe?

No wonder Peter wanted to stay up there. I do too.

Can we just…not go down the mountain this year? Can we stay, faced with the undeniable truth that we are in the presence of the Holy, where there’s no doubt or questions? Can we stay up here and leave behind that uncomfortable conversation about Jesus being called not to raze the Empire with a sword, but to suffer and die? Can we just avoid the call to follow him on that weary way again, now when the weariness has never felt heavier in our brittle ashen bones?

Unfortunately, as Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie of the African Methodist Episcopal Church says, “As long as there is life there is always the possibility of a sudden reversal.”

But in the same sermon, Bishop McKenzie also says, borrowing words from Eugene Petersen’s The Message: “Glory is just around the corner.”

The Transfiguration was an astonishing, multileveled experience that could be and has been unpacked throughout generations. This far from Christmas, God kept one last present, unwrapping it on the mountaintop for those closest to Jesus. Not because they were better than everybody else, but because they were going to need the strength to help carry the others around the next corner of the journey. Jesus needed the recklessness of Peter, James, and John, the willingness to take risks without counting the cost. A Wild movement from a Wild God needs Wild people.

The Transfiguration, by Raphael (Source: Wikipedia)

Take comfort, friends, that since it’s the Gospel of Mark, we know that they’re not perfect. They fail pretty spectacularly a lot of the time. They stumble and bicker and misunderstand and fall asleep and lie and betray and flee when Jesus needs them most. But even then, they are not denied this stunning golden realization, in the high heady mountain air. They are not denied the comfort of certainty and awe for a time. Wild Gods are not in the business of only parceling out mountaintop experiences to quiet, cerebral, civilized people. The most problematic, doubtful, impatient, and bumbling among us receive revelation too.

Peter, James, and John turned the corner and Glory was waiting.

And, eyes seared by grace, they receive the booming command to listen as well as look.

And who wouldn’t want to stay, and build these dwellings, these tabernacles, as the word can be translated from Greek, like the one that the ancient Israelites built for God while journeying through the wilderness? Who wouldn’t want to mark this occasion? Some folks might think that Peter is being ridiculous, even idolatrous, but Peter, like Jesus among Moses and Elijah, is standing pretty firmly within tradition. Didn’t Abraham and Jacob make altars to God? Peter’s sin isn’t his suggestion, but his tendency to get ahead of himself, to trip over his own feet.

The command that comes as Jesus burns without being consumed – like the bush that halted Moses, like the chariot that bore Elijah upward – is “Listen.”

“Hang on, Peter. Just take this in for a moment. Just as Love comes before Covenant, Gift comes before Commission. This is Glory for its own sake and yours. Take this in, and then wait for instruction.”

You’ll notice as well that Peter is never rebuked for his suggestion. The light simply dissipates and his Teacher is there again, as he always was. And then they’re told to keep the secret.

WHY?!

That question has many answers, some lost to the sands of time. The Messianic Secret is a strange theme that pops up a lot in the Gospel of Mark. Mark loves irony and sudden reversals.

Glory was around the corner, and now they’ve turned another corner, and the mundane has returned.

But you can’t unturn that first corner, can you? The mundane looks different after Glory brushes by you on the street, or in the wilderness, wherever you find it.

That was the whole point.

As they go down the mountain, you might also wonder, how the heck could they forget who he was after an experience like that? How does Peter end up denying, and how do the others scatter in the face of Jesus’s arrest, after finding themselves brushed with Glory?

Oh, how could we not?

There are just so many more corners to turn. I’ve had mountaintop experiences that lost their intensity over time. After three hundred and thirty-six days of social isolation, those weekly mountaintop experiences of being with all of you in person, of singing and praying and taking Communion, feels impossibly far away and faded, like a pencil drawing erased that leaves a light imprint, a shadow of what was once there.

The wheel of the year is spinning back round and I’m caught up short by how much heavier its weight is now. The adrenaline of those early days of the pandemic has been dulled, and like every burst of adrenaline it leaves the body exhausted.

That is what our souls are feeling.

Personally, my faith is still strong, but I’ve become aware in an entirely new way of the limitations of what many call “personal faith.” It is not enough for me to go about my personal spiritual business. It is not enough for me to have me and Jesus and no-one else. I need Peter, James, and John. I need all of you.

In a normal year, I’d tell you that the days of the Messianic Secret are over, and we post-Easter disciples, we Apostles, are called instead to go back down the mountain, to follow the advice of the angel who meets the women at the empty tomb at the end of Mark: to go and tell the others that Jesus is leading us back to Galilee, to the beginning of the story, to live it now with new eyes, knowing who he is, the Risen One who brings all things into resurrection and freedom.

And that’s still true. This is a unique struggle in the history of humanity, but it’s not unlike ones we’ve gone through as a species in the past.

And like Peter some of you might be raring to go. Maybe that’s the message you needed to turn that next corner, ready for Glory.

But maybe you’re not quite there yet. Maybe you’re not ready to go down the mountain. Maybe you just want to sit down, with Peter, James, and John, and look, and listen. Maybe you need to rest in Glory for just a minute, before the light dissipates and you are left alone with the mundane and the monumental task of weathering the next reversal, turning the next corner and descending to this strange and dusty world.

And I’m here to tell you that that’s okay too.

Let’s sit down together and bask in the Glory of this present moment, drinking in the light, light warm and heavy as pure gold, light that Moses had to veil from his people to protect their eyes, light that seared the eyes of Elisha, commissioning him as a prophet, light that I saw on every face as we lit our candles on Christmas Eve, making each little Zoom window its own Wild Star.

We’re circling back to leaner times, dusty times, times of ash and shadow – but we have time.

And remember, friends, that all the time, there is the possibility of sudden reversal, the possibility that Glory may be just around the corner.

Jan 17 | “Opening the restaurant,” (Sermon, January 17th 2021)

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’ 5and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down. 6The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ 7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” ’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’ 11Then the Lord said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever.’
15 Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16But Eli called Samuel and said, ‘Samuel, my son.’ He said, ‘Here I am.’ 17Eli said, ‘What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.’ 18So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.’
19 As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

1 Samuel 3:1-20

On Tuesday I gathered with fourteen other clergy on Zoom to begin a new anti-racism pilot project. Led by Natasha Aruliah, an intercultural consultant, for the first session we discussed the many things that hinder frank discussion about racism.

One of the videos we were given to watch beforehand was a Ted talk by Dr. Camara Jones, a Black physician, epidemiologist, and anti-racist activist. Dr. Jones used four stories to help illustrate what prevents people from recognizing systems of oppression.

Screenshot from Dr. Jones’ Tedx Talk.

One of them was about a trip to a restaurant with some friends, before COVID-19. Although it was late they found a restaurant that was still open, but it closed while they were still having their meal. Dr. Jones watched as a worker turned the window sign from “Open” to “Closed.” She said that to anyone on the street, it might appear confusing, because while the sign said, “Closed,” they would see that there were people eating in the restaurant through the windows.

She then said that, to her, sitting on the inside, the sign said “Open.” And that was when she started reflecting on the double-sided nature of the sign, and how it was an excellent illustration of what it’s like to hold privilege.

“To me, from my vantage point,” she said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “the sign says ‘Open,’ so anyone should be able to come in. But I can’t see that the sign is double-sided. To the people standing outside, who can see me sitting in an ostensibly ‘Closed’ restaurant, it’s clear that the sign is double-sided – because if the restaurant were really closed, there wouldn’t be people in it.”

Crucially, if I’m on the inside, I can insist, “All are welcome!”, but if that’s not followed up with action, it’s meaningless, no matter how good my intentions are. Intent is not enough to open the door.

In the chapter previous to the one we just read from the First Book of Samuel, Eli is serving as priest in the temple with his sons. His sons are abusing their privilege to steal from worshipers who bring sacrifice and take advantage of women who guard the door to the tent of meeting. Eli tries to discipline them, appealing to their better nature, but there’s no point in appealing to someone’s better nature when they’re that committed to bad faith villainy – not because they don’t have a better nature, but because when you’re that entitled, you won’t listen to anyone. True repentance only comes when you finally hit the bricks and properly reckon with yourself, and no-one can compel that from another person.

Using Dr. Jones’s metaphor, Eli and his sons are in the restaurant. I’d suggest that Eli does know the sign is double-sided. He sees the abused community standing out on the street, and implores his sons to take notice. But they’re so drunk on power that they don’t even care if the sign is double-sided or not. They’ve gone beyond denial and have embraced the notion of, “Well, if those people are locked outside they must deserve it.”

Eli is faced with a choice. He can choose to let the people in himself. Better still, he can drag his sons to the door by the ear and kick them out.

But he doesn’t.

He just goes back to his plate and mourns how naughty his sons are being, as though he doesn’t have any way to fix that. Perhaps he was afraid of them. But he also has the weight of his own authority as priest. He could make use of it, instead of squandering it. I would hazard a guess that Eli has probably always been like this: coasting, unwilling to make waves, trying to please everyone rather than focusing on pleasing God, as a priest should. He seems a kind soul, but again, the mere intent to do good by and for his people doesn’t matter as long as his sons are tearing them up.

The writer of the Book of Samuel even shows us this through how Eli is described. In today’s reading we learn that his sight has started to become dim. This is not just an incidental fact. It’s a metaphor for how he has lived his life: not able to see the forest for the trees.

You might think I’m being hard on Eli, and you’d be right. But not because he’s made mistakes. We all do. It’s more than he keeps making the same mistakes, over and over, despite being given many opportunities to turn things around. He’s given up and is just going with the flow that his privilege affords him.

Oh, how often I’ve been an Eli.

It doesn’t mean that I’m unlovable. That is never the case. It just means that a kick in the rear is probably coming soon, and no-one likes that.

Eli’s kick actually doesn’t start with Samuel. In Chapter 2, Eli receives a prophecy from someone the text simply refers to as “a man of God.” Through him God warns that Eli will lose everything. What’s especially telling is that we don’t see Eli’s response to this.

Little Samuel’s prophecy simply confirms that of the man of God. Perhaps we’re meant to infer that Eli has affection for Samuel and is more willing to listen to him. But still, he seems resigned to his fate, which is rather sad. The Bible is full of stories of people turning things around and getting back into God’s good graces, but Eli doesn’t even bother. In the restaurant metaphor, maybe he’s put down his knife and fork and is just staring at the wall, perhaps with his back to the window, unwilling to watch his eventual and certain reckoning burst through.

Eli takes no risks, and receives no reward. His sons will be killed by Philistines in the next chapter, and when he receives the news, Eli, by then completely blind, will keel over in a faint and break his neck.

His one grace seems to be doing right by Samuel, encouraging him to tell the truth even if it hurts, which Samuel does. And of course, Samuel will go on to become a true spiritual leader, calling the people to repentance, actively encouraging them to seek redemption. When his own sons sadly go the way of Eli’s, he raises up Saul and David so that appropriate successors will not shame his legacy.

Samuel by no means ends his life as a sinless saint, but at each new opportunity he tries to remember to put down his cutlery and open the door.

There have surely been times in our lives where we knew what it felt like to be on the outside of the restaurant looking in. And surely there have also been times where we have been on the inside, and, like Eli, have been called to notice the double-sided sign, and maybe open the door, or at least try to convince someone with more power than us to open it, like Samuel does – knowing that saying so may cost us everything.

And surely sometimes we have, and other times we haven’t. I know that’s how it’s been for me.

Eli may have had the best seat in the house, but he forfeited his own soul to keep it.

We can choose to open doors. We can choose how to use our words and spend our money. We can choose where to put our time and energy. We can choose to say no to pretending everything is okay when it’s not.

You’ve already made a choice by coming here today. Like Nathanael you chose to take a risk on meeting a stranger from a backward town, a stranger who, it turns out, is no stranger at all, who knows us by name and loves us truly, madly, deeply, who is calling us to see greater things even than being known and loved so well.

What could possibly be better than that?

How about Love blowing those restaurant doors off the hinges and the windows out of their frames?

How about Love setting a table so big every single creature in the universe could find a seat at it, no matter who we are, or who we once were?

Jan 06 | Song of the Magi (Anaïs Mitchell cover)

I wanted to do another version of this; I wasn’t happy with the one I posted on Instagram. Happy Epiphany! Welcome to the brawl.

Dec 24 | The Holly and the Ivy

Today I received the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19. It’s the best Christmas present I’ve ever received.

Here’s a song I recorded with my beautiful new Appalachian dulcimer, a gift from me (and with help from my Mum and stepdad) to me.

Dec 13 | “Waiting for the light,” (Sermon, December 13th 2020)

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ 21And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ 22Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ 23He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ 26John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

John 1:6-8, 19-28

I arrived at the door of St. Jude’s Anglican care home, where I serve as chaplain, just before noon last Thursday. We are on outbreak protocol after some staff members and one resident tested positive for COVID-19. I’ve been restricted to the second floor special care unit staff cohort to minimize contamination between residents. My hours have been doubled, from two days a week to four.

I came into the breezeway, took off my cloth mask, sanitized my hands, put on a disposable surgical mask. Then, I buzzed to be let in, and was greeted by one of my supervisors, Susan.

She asked me how I was doing. I did the corona shrug. We’ve all done it. I asked her how she was.

“Much better now,” she said, and looked at me, over her mask, through her plastic goggles. “The vaccine is here.”

My heart fluttered. “In BC?”

“At VGH,” she said, and her voice broke.

We stood there looking tearfully at one another for a moment.

“I prayed the Serenity prayer today,” she said. “This week has been so hard and I needed something to ground me. I said ‘Amen,’ and then came in, and it was the first phone call I took.”

It’s been so easy to forget what good news feels like, so easy to become numb to the constant anxiety, cynicism, and fear, so easy to forget the promises we’ve been given.

And then, the clouds open, and a rainbow appears over a still drying earth.

The ocean parts, opening a path to freedom.

The exiled are led home after years in a foreign land.

Angels appear and set the night on fire.

But still, we must take care.

After Susan and I had our moment, she checked her clipboard and asked the same screening questions I’ve been asked entering St. Jude’s for the last four months. “Have you experienced any of the following symptoms since your last screening? Have you been tested for COVID-19 since your last screening?”

Once cleared, I descended to the space which housed our little chapel. It is now a storage space for PPE, and a women’s changing area for people starting their shifts. I went behind the screens and changed into the set of clothes I’d brought in a plastic bag, and the shoes that stay at work. I put my street clothes into that bag and then bagged all of that in another bag. I brought that to a set of cubbies, sanitized the spot where it would sit with a disinfectant wipe, and left it there. I put on the plastic face shield stored in the cupboard that once held only purificators and other linens and now also holds my prayer book and the reserved sacrament, because I can’t access the aumbry across the room as it’s hidden behind a tower of cardboard boxes containing disposal gowns and gloves.

Me in my PPE at St. Jude’s

I bring my small Celtic harp up to the second floor, where I play throughout the day in between gently trying to keep the elders in their rooms or at least apart from one another as much as possible until all have been tested for COVID-19. I wash my hands constantly, feeling bereft without my wedding ring, which I leave at home because hands are easier to wash when they are bare.

When I’m done for the day, I reverse the whole process.

The vaccine is a brilliant light, but it is not The Light.

It announces what is to come: the restoration of our lives. The small things, like going out to restaurants and movies, and the big things, like hugs and Holy Communion.

It is well worth celebrating during a year short on celebration, but like the flowers that are going to sleep for the winter, it will take time for true restoration to blossom.

John, the feral baptizer in the wilderness, who in this week’s Gospel is not described and is so matter-of-fact in his confession, will at the first say not who he is but who he isn’t.

“I am not the Messiah.”

The priests and Levites are puzzled, and who can blame them. “We asked who you were, not who you weren’t. Are you the liberator, the one who will herald the age of triumphant victory against the oppressor Rome?”

“No,” he says. And they’re more puzzled than ever!

Because he’s certainly acting like he is, baptizing and proclaiming the words of Isaiah. This is exactly what they were expecting to see.

But John is clear: This isn’t going to be what anyone expects. Later, in verse 31 of the same chapter, John admits that even he does not know the Messiah until he sees the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus. Presumably Jesus looks like an ordinary person until this happens.

John, crying out in the wilderness for us to prepare the way, has good news to share…but he himself will not bring it about.

We’re all going to have to hold on a little longer.

Here, on the third Sunday of Advent, we’re teetering on the edge of the mystery that is coming. We’re bewitched by that one pink candle, which promises joy, and this year joy feels very far away indeed. After ten months of waiting, praying, longing, loneliness, tears, and rage, we’re convinced that the light we see is the end of lockdown, and yet like those priests and Levites, are flummoxed by this insistence of, “No, not yet. It’s coming. Not yet. We’re still in lockdown.”

The first reaction is surely bottomless annoyance, but we’re then given the beautifully cryptic gift of verse 27: “The one who is coming after me – I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

It would be one thing to be a priest or a Levite hearing this from a wild-eyed wanderer wearing a camel’s hair shirt and smelling of sweat and leftover honey. Even the most progressive among them probably thought anyone would be a step up from this weirdo.

It would be another thing, of course, to hear this as the kind of person who sought baptism from John. That would seem impressive, astonishing. And indeed, this is borne out in verse 35 as John points out Jesus to two of his disciples: Andrew and another who is unnamed. They are so enthralled when John points out Jesus that they immediately leave and follow him like a couple of lovesick teenagers! They even get tongue-tied when Jesus finally turns around and asks them what they’re looking for. It’s both funny and deeply compelling.

But we don’t have to imagine ourselves as confused Levites or infatuated fishermen.

Instead, perhaps on this day of joy and as yet unfulfilled longing, it’s not so much that we’re forced to wait just a little bit longer, like kids unable to sleep on a Christmas Eve that lasts years.

Perhaps it’s more that this week’s good news is that first tentative birdsong before the light begins to come back into the sky.

If this news gives us our first sign of hope, how much more will we be enthralled when that sun comes up, when that irresistible stranger passes by, when the arduous journey down from the hills comes to an end and we find ourselves at the doorway peeking in to see a gurgling child in a manger, exactly as the fiery messengers had told us?

John promises fulfillment, but also offers a warning: we have to be ready.

And that, of course, is what Advent is for.

Because even in the waiting, even in the impatience and the solitude, even in lockdown, there are moments of hope, peace, joy, and love.

Even in St. Jude’s, where care aides and nurses and cleaning staff scrub their hands raw and endure COVID-19 swab testing and lead confused elders out of the wrong rooms and try to instill wonder by pointing out the lights and Christmas trees set up outside on the deck rather than inside the house, I have seen them laugh and dance and walk with the elders, and heard elders sing with me, tell me stories, smile brilliant smiles.

Joy is all around us even in the most desolate of places, and how much more shall our joy be in the time to come.

Joy shall come, even to the wilderness of lockdown.

Nov 22 | “When was it that we saw you?” (Sermon, November 22nd 2020)

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

Matthew 25: 31-46

Well, here we are again with yet another uncomfortable parable about judgement and in-groups. We made it through the parable of the talents last week, we took up our triannual battle with the bridesmaids two weeks ago, and now we’re at the end of the year and the end of time, with the Son of Man on his throne, the sheep and Paradise on the right, and the goats and eternal fire on the left.

Yay.

Where’s the good news here? Well, it seems like great news for the sheep, the goody-two-shoes who always do everything right – and without knowing it!

Wait, let’s walk that back.

“Lord, when was it that we saw you?”

That’s interesting. Reminds you of the bridesmaids, right? Some were prepared and some were not, but they all fell asleep.

Still, not good news. It seems fatalistic, like the people who will win Paradise are just better than all of us and there’s no point in trying. Surely none of us are able to help every single hungry, thirsty, sick, imprisoned, struggling precious one out of their predicaments? Man, what if we ARE the struggling precious ones ourselves? What happens to us?

Real respect for Scripture is asking it tough questions, not letting it off the hook, maybe even getting a little rude. If it’s a living thing, let’s treat it like a living thing, rather than Snow White locked up in a glass casket. Let’s wrestle.

Verse 31: The Son of Man is coming in glory. Not “if,” “when.” And that’s appropriate, because in the very next chapter, Jesus is betrayed. Fascinating as well that Jesus refers to this figure in the third person. The Son of Man is powerful on his return, but on earth he’s a criminal. No wonder he wasn’t recognized.

Verse 32: “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats[.]”

The Church often sees “all the nations” as referring to her people. Those of us who are progressive then feel awkward when we see that tell-tale phrase in verse 40: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Does the Son of Man mean the whole human family? Or is he referring only to the family of the Church? Is he telling us, the Church, to keep our own house in order, and damn the rest? I’m sure some Christians read it that way.

Who is Jesus really addressing here?

Something changes dramatically when we imagine that Jesus is not addressing the Church, but “the nations,” or those outside. Instead of a simple morality tale, Matthew may be doing something much more radical.

Here, Matthew seems to suggest that Jesus knows, accepts, and elevates those who care for the oppressed, no matter their creed or colour. What’s even more shocking is that they’re accepted without ever confessing or even recognizing Jesus. Likewise, neither do the goats.

In Matthew’s time, the infant Church was being persecuted. This context gives us some insight into where those strident calls for separation and judgement come from. Matthew’s community wanted to hear that their detractors would get their just desserts, and so perhaps the writer wants to encourage Christians to recognize the hospitality of those outside the in-group, to make sure the Church knew that God would reward those who treated them with care. This would not only be comforting, but may help guard against too much inward focus. Not everyone on the outside is our enemy, this story suggests.

But then why, at verse 45 when talking to the goats, does the Son of Man omit that part and say, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

Does this suggest that the goats were the kind of people who never extended kindness to anyone?

The shock of the goats puts me in mind of the kind of person who spends their schooldays as a bully and only feels regret when they discover that one of the kids they bullied grew up to be a celebrity. “I never would have done those things if I’d known!”

The way they rush through those acts of care so carefully listed by the Son of Man and considered one by one by the sheep is interesting. “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” It may simply be a narrative choice – the writer already listed each one twice. But why not, for our purposes, consider that the goats were not as mindful as the sheep in their interactions? Why not consider that they may have rushed through life the way they rushed through that sentence?

These are all questions worth asking, but they haven’t really brought us closer to an answer. Where’s the Good News? We, the North American Church, are not dealing with persecution on any level comparable with the Christians who compiled Matthew’s Gospel, and we’re surely not being called to be only passive recipients of help from others.

What should we take from this story? Are we the sheep and goats, and is our salvation dependent on little more than being the sort of insufferably perfect person that many of us think we know but that ultimately doesn’t exist?

The message here is surely more complicated than that.

It’s certainly more complicated than, “Always be perfect and gracious because you never know when God is watching you.” Advent starts next Sunday, it’s too early to apply Santa logic to Jesus here!

No, I think the answer might lie in a rather sweet illustration I found when working on this sermon, from writer Fritz Wendt.

Fritz uses an old Peanuts comic strip to reflect on this passage. Linus, of the ever-present blue blanket, watches television. Lucy, his sister of the ever-present psychiatric help stand (5 cents!), comes in and says, “I don’t want to watch that program. I want to watch MY program.” Linus responds, “Alright, I’ll go upstairs and listen to the radio.”

Lucy follows him. As Linus sits down near the radio, she growls, “I don’t want to listen to that program; I want to listen to MY program.” Linus sighs, “Fine, I’ll go to the next room and play a few records.”

Lucy follows and yells, “I don’t want to listen to those records. I want to listen to MY records.” Exasperated, Linus announces, “OK, I’ll go outside and look at the stars for a while.”

Once again, Lucy follows him and shouts, “I don’t want to look at those stars. I want to look at MY …” This is when she stops, glares at her little brother, sighs loudly and walks away[.]”

Fritz writes, “The “Peanuts” vignette illustrates two kinds of faith. Lucy’s is a small faith, which essentially says, “I believe in me and nothing else.” Linus’ faith is wider and more mature, as he points his big sister toward the stars which neither he nor she can ever call their own.”

Perhaps, in these latter days when the world around us encourages fear, complacency, and mistrust, this parable calls us not to anxious cataloguing of our good deeds, but to imagine a world where every person is an image of the Holy One, helped and helper.

This is not meant to label helpers “invisible Christians,” which colonizes the goodness all religions encourage – indeed, this very parable has a counterpart in the Islamic hadith.

Rather, it calls us to embody a more mystical mindset outside the narrow labels we build, and imagines an expansive world of endless opportunities for love.

So let’s not worry about whether we’re sheep or goats. Let’s instead go out into a playful world of hide-and-seek with the One who loves us, and calls us to imagine new landscapes of love and friendship with all living things.