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.

Aug 30 | “Just in case,” (Sermon, August 30th 2020)

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ 23But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
27 ‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’

Matthew 16:21-28

In last week’s sermon, I opened by talking about my 2017 journey to the Holy Land, and my trip to the region once known as Caesarea Philippi, where last week’s Gospel passage took place.

I said it was a deceptively peaceful place, with soft pleasant hills holding hidden mines – a place where Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter actually gets it right for once and says, “You are the Messiah.”

This week, though, Peter proves that he can only hang onto a world-shattering truth for a minute before it slips through his fingers, or maybe he never really understood in the first place.

So I’ll invite you to leave the gentle slopes of Caesarea Philippi, and come with me to the town of Nablus, another place I visited.

Nablus is a town in the West Bank, nestled in the embrace of Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal in traditional Samaritan territory. Tourists do not go there. It’s only accessible through a permanent checkpoint, which is sometimes shut down if government officials think the citizens are getting too uppity. Trash and hundreds of broken-down cars in varying states of decay litter the roadways. The buildings are old and dilapidated, and many of them are eerily unfinished. During the optimistic days after the Oslo Accords, people thought peace would come, and Nablus would become a bustling, modern city. They began to build tall towers, hoping to fill them with happy citizens and workers.

Nablus

But peace never came. Money ran out, and thousands of Palestinian refugees, pushed off their land by the military and settlers, were crammed into camps in the city, putting a huge strain on resources.

We were there to see the Greek Orthodox Church which harbours the ancient Jacob’s Well, the site where Jesus was said to have met the Samaritan woman in the Gospel of John. Although in the story she is unnamed, the Orthodox Church has given her the name Photine, a name related to the Greek word for light. The Gospel story does not follow Photine after her encounter with Jesus at the well, but tradition picked up from there, as it does. There are stories that she converted many people to Christianity before being dragged in front of the Emperor Nero to be tortured and killed as a martyr.

We got off the bus and stood outside the gates of the church, which is housed in a compound owned by a monastery. As we passed through the gates, I reached up and traced a couple of bullet holes with my fingers.

We entered a beautiful garden. A large above-ground tomb was on my right, with a simple black and white mosaic tile pattern framing a cross. It rested snug against the outer wall of the building, and a mural, featuring an elderly Orthodox priest, was painted just above it.

The tomb

I turned to Greg, the dean of the college. “Who’s buried there?”

“Oh, it’s empty,” he said.

I looked at him.

He explained. “Well, the priest here, Father Ioustinos, has survived many attempts on his life. There’s been a lot of violence. In fact his predecessor was murdered by a madman who threw a grenade into the building and then hacked him to death with an axe when he ran out. Father Ioustinos decided he might as well build his tomb ahead of time, just in case.”

Just in case.

Those words are always a bit haunted, aren’t they?

The well was below the main sanctuary, in a little chapel. I touched the water, and was told I could actually drink from it if I wanted. It had a muted, clean taste.

I met Father Ioustinos, a compelling and gentle soul. He was short and slight and taciturn, and sold us icons and rosaries from a little shop set up just to the right of the well. Many of the icons he had written himself. His eyes twinkled as he smiled behind his big beard.

While working on this sermon, I found an interview he did with Vice a year after I returned from the Holy Land. He talks about growing up on Ikaria, a small island off the coast of Greece, and how his family home was occupied by German and Italian Axis forces in World War II. When he decided to become a priest, he said his family stopped talking to him for six years. He doesn’t say why.

He came to Palestine when he was about 21, working in several parishes and hoping to serve as the guardian of Jacob’s Well, but when his predecessor, Philoumenos, was murdered, the church was locked up and the keys taken to Jerusalem. Father Ioustinos said, “I did not want to be the guardian as I was afraid the same thing would happen to me that happened to my friend Philoumenos. One night I had a dream and in the dream I saw a vision of myself repairing the church and serving as the guardian for many years. I went to Jerusalem, got the keys, and soon began picking up the pieces.”

In 1982, three years after Philoumenos was killed, the murderer, a Jewish convert named Asher Raby, returned. He attacked a nun and Father Ioustinos with his axe, and threw another grenade, but the priest fought him off and Raby was finally arrested. After that, Father Ioustinos recruited boys from one of the nearby refugee camps, trained them as stonemasons, and together they rebuilt. He spent a lot of time painting murals and icons, making the church beautiful again.

Things were relatively peaceful until the Second Intifada in 2000. Father Ioustinos said, “We were suffering very badly. I could not leave these grounds for many months. During this time, I spent most of my days painting murals and praying. I prayed to God and to Philoumenos’s spirit to help protect the church. An Israeli tank fired at our gate but it did not break. They dropped five bombs on the grounds but none of them went off. I am thankful that we were under supervision of the saints.”

About his tomb, Father Ioustinos says, “Should it be my time to die, I am ready.”

We went into the church. In a corner, a huge icon of (now) St. Philoumenos, the priest who was murdered, was hung above his tomb.

The tomb of St. Philoumenos

I stood there for a long time, asking for his strength.

A week or two later, I left the Holy Land and continued with my peaceful and privileged life. I went back to my home in Sen̓áḵw, which was stolen from the Squamish people years before I was born and renamed Kitsilano. I ate food that others had grown and wore clothes that others had sewn. I drank water that didn’t have to be boiled. I went to church, where I never had to worry about finding hateful graffiti or desecrations on the front stoop, or angry men interrupting worship with axes, or Bible study with AR-15s.

Then, in August of that year, I watched Charlottesville, a college town in Virginia, explode in a paroxysm of hate.

As I pored through the photographs, I came upon a series of shots of clergy. Most of them were fully vested, like I am now, or wearing clericals and stoles. Arms linked, they marched through the streets, all genders, all colours, all creeds. Rabbis, imams, priests, pastors.

On several occasions, they were rushed by white supremacists and neo-Nazis as police looked on. Some ended up battered and bloodied, but they stood firm.

I looked at those pictures, and I thought of Philoumenos and the axe.

I thought of Ioustinos and the tank.

I thought of Photine, standing before Nero: calm, resolute.

I thought of Peter, years after his rebuke of Jesus, asking to be crucified upside down because he didn’t dare equate himself to his friend, his Teacher.

I thought of all these reflections of the One who came to us as a servant, a worker, a fellow sufferer, a lynching victim.

And I prayed for their strength.

I still do.

Today, we need it more than ever.

Aug 23 | “Who do you say I am?”, (Sermon, August 23rd 2020)

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ 16Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Matthew 16:13-20

“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’”

In 2017 I was privileged to travel to the Holy Land for a course at St. George’s College in East Jerusalem. We visited many sacred sites, including some which normal tourists wouldn’t be allowed to visit.

The Holy Land is a strange place. In the Old City, among the cramped cobbled streets and the rush of pilgrims, the eyes are dazzled by colourful scarves and the shine of gold and silver plating on cheap rosaries. The ears are flooded with the shouts of merchants and their crackly radios. The nose picks up the smell of spices, incense, and ancient dust. But alongside these, more primitive senses also become engaged. The hairs on the back of your neck dance like aquatic weeds in a swift-running current of watchfulness that hangs heavy over the region. For thousands of years it has had more than its share of bloodshed, and the body knows, even if you’ve never been there or any place like it before. You can feel it.

Driving through the Golan Heights one afternoon on our large tour bus, we were cautioned to stay on marked footpaths to keep safe from unexploded bombs and mines littering the landscape. “If you see any fences,” warned our guide, “don’t cross them. It’s a one-way ticket.” The green hills, spotted with cattle and stone bunkers, loomed over us as we drove, hearts alert and thrumming.

The Golan Heights

But in Banias, nestled in the area once known as Caesarea Philippi where our bus stopped, things appeared peaceful. People hiked trails, birds sang, and the Jordan River, January-strong, roared alongside us as we passed under a Roman bridge. The hills which slope beside Mount Hermon enfolded us like loving arms. Near an abandoned hydro-electric mill, an old man sold warm pita out of a hut for a few dollars. At my request, he slathered it with chocolate and honey before rolling it up like a papyrus scroll and passing it to me.

We walked through the reddish-brown ruins of King Agrippa II’s palace, past a few weathered stones that remained of a Byzantine chapel, up to the source of the spring, an ancient grotto once dedicated to the god Pan. Here the Jordan flows much cleaner and sweeter than the brown and muddy baptismal site we visited earlier in the week.

We sat on the pavement just below the grotto to listen to a reflection from the dean of the college, Greg. The sky was blue, populated with only a few fat clouds – not quite warm enough to go without a jacket, but close. We sat back and closed our eyes as Greg murmured, “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’”

The Jordan, flowing out of the grotto, which is just out of sight on the right.

We all considered the question in silence.

For me, in some ways, that silence has never ended.

“Who do you say that I am?”

I think few of us have been tested in our faith the way we’ve been tested over the last four months. We’ve lost loved ones, or suffered from job loss, anxiety, or loneliness. We’ve had to handle medical problems during a time of stress on hospitals and specialists. We’re touch-starved and weary of our hypervigilance when we venture out to get groceries, or check in on friends and family. In the world around us, the excesses, limitations, and injustices of our systems of care for the poorest among us have been made crystal clear. And yet so much of the difficulty has been held beneath the surface. We may be stuck sitting quietly at home…but on the inside, we’re thrumming like power lines.

In the time of Joseph, the Israelites felt that the promise made to Abraham had finally come true. They’d been saved from famine and lived peaceful lives. Then, one day, the balance of power shifted. A leader arises who does not know Joseph, their patriarch and protector. Looking at the Israelites, he doesn’t see fellow community members or friends.

Who does God say that they are? Blessed, numerous as the sands of the desert and the stars of the sky.

But who does the oppressor say that they are? A drain on resources. Animals, only good for labour and degradation. An Other.

The oppressor does his best to try to make this true. The Israelites are enslaved. And yet – God’s truth is the one that rises to the top. They continue to thrive.

The oppressor is enraged. He lays plans for genocide, and, like all of genocide’s most cunning architects, he attempts to enlist the help of the oppressed in their own destruction, by demanding that the midwives Shiphrah and Puah kill all of the male babies born to the Israelites.

But again, God’s truth is the one that prevails – not because God personally intervenes, but because Shiphrah and Puah, two of the greatest heroes of the Hebrew Bible, see God’s truth. Not because they’re particularly cunning or righteous, but because they look at what’s going on and decide they’re going to be on God’s side.

At some point, both were caught up short by the wonder and fury of God’s love for the oppressed and broken, and in that burning moment, God turned to them and asked, “Who do you say that I am?”

What would they have said? “The guardian of our people, the source of life, the one who rose up our father Jacob and his son Joseph, the trickster and the dreamer.”

In Caesarea Philippi, standing by the brook flowing out from the grotto of Pan, a relic of the state religion looming over colonized Israel, Jesus asks his friends, “Who do you say that I am?”

He knows what the religious authorities say. In the last few chapters he’s been fighting with them. They think he’s a rabble-rouser at best, someone who could bring down the wrath of the Empire on their people and therefore must be done away with.

But Jesus wants to know what the downtrodden, the illiterate, the workers, the Empire’s rejects think.

Once again, today as in first century Caesarea Philippi, God turns to us and asks, “Who do you say that I am?”

Peter, who for all his impulsiveness really does seem to get it this time, says, “You are the Anointed One.”


After all of the criticism of the religious authorities in their verbal sparring matches with Jesus, it must have been confusing for the disciples. Who should they listen to? The religious authorities, who helped them live their faith in a colonized land that was hostile to them? Or Jesus, the rabble-rouser who pushed them to welcome everyone, regardless of their past or ethnicity or gender?

Peter throws in his cards with Jesus. Standing in Caesarea Philippi, by the peaceful shores of the Jordan, Peter takes a chance. Perhaps he recognizes that the peace of these shores is deceptive. Perhaps, like me, he felt the weight of the warning in his heart as he passed through those soft Golan hills that hold secret bombs. Perhaps, like all of us, he started to see the cracks in the foundation of our so-called perfect society, and decided it was better to live in God’s shadow than the Emperor’s, even if the Emperor’s appeared safer, because that safety was false.

Peter’s all in, so he drops his own bomb, and shatters the illusion of peace.

“You, the rabble-rouser, the so-called glutton and drunkard, the boundary-breaker, the teacher, the wild-eyed lover – you are the Messiah.”

He steps into God’s shadow, and receives the keys to a kingdom just beginning to be born, just beginning to crown.

Today, God turns to us in a time of struggle, exhaustion, and maybe, if we’re willing to be reckless, labour pains.

Jesus, with the face of a worker, a protestor, a nurse, a patient, turns to us, and speaks, over the inner thrumming of our anxiety; the outer roar of an uprising; even over the rasp of a ventilator, reminding us of all we fear.

“Who do you say that I am?”

Aug 09 | “If you want to walk on water,” (Sermon, August 9th 2020)

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

Matthew 14:22-33

During the last few months a lot of us have embraced quarantine projects like gardening, bird-watching, crocheting, or getting ahead of all of those little chores we’ve been meaning to do around the house.

One of my projects has been learning the mandolin. I figured out that the best way to practice every day was to seek out music I wanted to play, and that led me to bluegrass, which led me to reacquaint myself with the brilliant Coen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, where bluegrass music is almost a character unto itself.

For those who aren’t familiar, it’s a clever retelling of the Odyssey, set in the deep South in the 1930s. Three hapless convicts escape from a chain gang and run off in search of treasure which their self-appointed leader, the vain, arrogant, fast-talking Ulysses Everett McGill, claims to have stolen from an armoured car and hidden. On their journey they encounter many bizarre characters and situations.

This week’s story of Peter climbing out of the boat immediately put me in mind of an early scene where the men, having a meal by a campfire in the woods, suddenly find themselves surrounded by a congregation of Baptists in white robes, all heading “down in the river to pray.” The imagery is masterful and haunting as they pass by almost like spirits, singing in four-part harmony. One of the three men, the sweet but gullible Delmar, is caught up in the moment and rushes into the river to be baptized by the preacher. Once he arises from the water, he walks back to his friends, crying out with joy that he’s been saved and intends to lead a sinless life.

It’s not only his sudden rush to the water that reminded me of Peter stumbling across waves through a storm, but how his enthusiasm completely overwhelms his faculties. Delmar shouts that the preacher has explained that all of his sins have been “warshed away,” including the supermarket robbery that one assumes put him on the chain gang in the first place.

Everett responds, “I thought you said you was innocent o’ those charges!”

Delmar pauses for a minute, looking trapped, then admits, “Well I was lyin’. And the preacher says that sin’s been warshed away too!”

That so reminded me of Peter, always first in line, always acting before thinking, always buoyed up by his conviction. We often make fun of him for it, but I actually admire Peter, as someone who all too often becomes bogged down with worry about what the possible consequences for any given action might be. Discernment and level-headedness are important, but it’s all too often people like Peter that start the revolutions we need.

But let’s explore this passage, because I think we often look at it a bit simplistically. The standard message from sermons on this passage says, to quote the title of megachurch pastor John Ortberg’s book, If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat.

Lutheran pastor Angela Denker, whose blog post on this passage is called, DON’T get out of the boat!, writes that what pastors like Ortberg do is “undermine traditional Christian theology about God’s role in salvation, and make it seem possible that salvation could be attained by human works and striving alone. …A theology reliant on human and not godly glory is not ultimately kind to any of its human adherents.”

She goes on to say that interpreting this passage as a story about the Christian individual being called to take initiative and a few nutty risks for the sake of their faith isn’t necessarily wrong, but adds: “Notice the sole actor. It’s you. You take initiative, you walk on water, you are the leader, you call to Jesus, you get out of the boat. …The listener is left to conclude that their actions and words are more important than Jesus’ words and actions.”

Pastor Denker encourages us to focus not on Peter’s actions, but Jesus’: “It’s time to put the spotlight on the most important actor in the Bible. Not me, not Peter, not [North] American Christians, but the brown-skinned Middle Eastern Jew who came to redeem not just me and my buddies who look and think like me but the world. Notice how the story changes when we focus on Jesus’ saving actions, not on what we need to do to save ourselves. Suddenly we see God for who God is: God is inviting, God is forgiving, God saves us. When Peter began to sink, Jesus didn’t laugh at him. Jesus didn’t say, “C’mon Peter, pull yourself up by your bootstraps! Why didn’t you work harder?” Instead, Jesus extends his hand when Peter is in need. Jesus saves Peter not because Peter is the ideal American man, a Promise Keeper or an elder or the middle-class success story, but Jesus saves Peter because saving is what Jesus does.”

She’s right of course – that’s what the name Jesus, Yeshua, means. God saves.

Where Pastor Denker kind of loses me, though, is in her coy avoidance of what it actually means to be saved by Jesus. A lot of us gathered here grew up in churches where being saved was something metaphysical, something you gained by a particular prayer or altar call. Being saved, we were told, is about being spared from hell, which we all richly deserve. It hinges not only on a particular set of actions and beliefs, but is something that only occurs for, as Denker says, “me and my buddies who look and think like me.” The true miracle is then that God would love a disgusting sinner like me enough to spare me from eternal torment.

But I wouldn’t call that a miracle, and I really think that God, the maker of heaven and earth, the architect of everything around us and everything outside perception, would be baffled by such a claim.

The miracle is not that we are saved from deserved abuse despite our flaws. The miracle is first that we exist, and second that God was one of us, and not only lived among us but willingly received our absolute worst and made it into something beautiful – salvation for the entire cosmos. We are saved not from hell in an imagined time to come, but from being bound to our own tyranny. God chose not a sumptuous palace and a sword but a lynching tree and pain. Not because someone had to receive justified wrath to “make up” for our sin-sickness, but because God wanted to be closer to us, and transform the evil we inflict upon one another. The lynching tree becomes a Tree of Life – not just for you and me, not just for humankind, but for all things.

The running joke in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is that Everett regularly finds himself confronted with experiences outside the bounds of logic and yet refuses to see them for what they are. After Delmar receives baptism, their compatriot Pete also races to the water. Everett mocks them for it, as well as other characters who make theological statements. Without spoiling anything, at one point he is finally driven to heartfelt prayer, which is answered pretty unequivocally. Within minutes, though, Everett claims that the prayer was made out of desperation, and the so-called answer has a purely scientific explanation. While his ultimate goal in life is pure – to be with his daughters, whom he loves unconditionally – he is constantly thwarted by his own ego. Throughout the film he’s given many chances to change, but he doesn’t, and he is therefore caught up in a cycle of repeated struggle, all because he refuses to consider that he might not be the big boss of his life.

Over the last few months the daily makeup of our lives have shifted dramatically. We’ve been given a chance to think about how we want to live going forward, as individuals, as a community, and as a planet. Most of all, we’ve been shown how vulnerable we really are.

Let our hearts be grounded in the one who saved us once and will save us again, and let us be birthed anew by the one who transforms all sin, all fear, and all sickness, now and always.

Jul 19 | “Reckless harvest,” (Sermon, July 19th 2020)

Jesus put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” 28He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” 29But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’
36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ 37He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43

At some point in our lives, all of us are called to question what we’ve been taught about who we are and what we believe.

There are the usual inelegant moments of self-realization: we hold ourselves to a set of standards and then fail to meet them, realizing that we’re just human after all, bummer. And then there are moments where we realize we’ve actually been misled or lied to, and a whole new world of overturned tables and broken idols follows. It’s exciting and scary and necessary for growth.

Much of my July has been taken up with following the news in Portland, Oregon, a city my husband and I love and where we both have many friends. When the uprisings against police violence and racism began to spread across the US, we kept eyes on both Portland and Seattle, where we also have many connections, and were horrified by the blatant brutality of the police toward unarmed protestors, who specifically targeted street medics and journalists for arrest and assault. Although much of the unrest in Portland has been confined to only a few blocks within the downtown core, in the last week things have shifted dramatically as Department of Homeland Security agents without visible identification have begun to detain protestors and sometimes random passersby on the street, hauling them without explanation into unmarked vehicles and driving away to God knows where. The news first broke on Twitter with videos, but has since been picked up by Oregon Public Broadcasting, the ACLU, the state governor, CNN, and multiple independent news outlets. Most of those who have been detained were released later without charges, but the reasoning is clear: intimidation.

Across the Western world, folks have been re-evaluating everything they thought they knew about law enforcement, governmental authority, and the power and effectiveness of direct action to implement quick and lasting change. All over the world, people are asking, “How is this happening? How is this allowed to happen?”

The human heart is like a field where God has sown all of Her best seeds: the desire for justice, freedom, peace, love, and balance. While everyone was asleep – contented, complacent, naïve, dreaming of utopia – an enemy came and sowed weeds. Not just the usual suspects like lust for power, or greed, or wrath, or pride, or envy. Other things like impatience, the desire for comfort above justice and needed change, self-interest, fear, and idolatry, the tendency to make little gods of institutions like policing and prisons and all other systems that promise stability at the expense of human flourishing and growth.

Galilee, on the road to the Church of the Multiplication, January 2017

Then of course, one terrible morning, we wake up and discover what has grown among God’s good earth. And we become horrified, and turn to God and said, “How did this happen?”

God’s response honestly doesn’t seem proportionate. Does anyone else get the image of the master in this parable as a careworn old farmer, stalk of timothy grass parked in his teeth, responding to the shocked slaves with the languid, “An enemy has done this.” No? Just me? Okay.

We good servants of God, tasked as gardeners from the beginning when all was kind and balanced in the Garden (capital G garden), are ready to roll up our sleeves and work! We’re ready to pull up all them weeds!

And again, God seems unruffled. “Nah, it’s fine. We’ll do it at harvest.”

What?! The real gardeners among you know that’s not how it’s done!

But the human heart isn’t like any earthly garden.

God knows that all of our best intentions have a shadow side. That’s just how this works. It’s how we’re made. A heart compelled to loving action isn’t as beautiful as a heart that chooses beauty and kindness and friendship and love over the alternatives.

No matter how hard we try, we’ll never be able to fully divorce our best from our worst as a collective in this lifetime. This world has always held both defenders and dictators, angels and autocrats, saints and sinners.

Don’t worry about it, we’re told. Have faith in the moral arc of the universe bending toward justice. In the end, God takes the best and worst of the harvest, and makes use of all of it. Even the bad stuff is used in the oven to bake the healing bread that comes of our best.

But what if we can’t wait that long? Is that really all we’re supposed to do – just wait around for God to fix everything? Just expect that everything will turn out okay in the end?

Hard reset: Let’s turn to the story of Jacob for a minute.

As he lies on the hard and rocky ground at Bethel, Jacob finds himself dreaming a strange dream, a dream of angels ascending and descending on a ladder reaching to heaven. When he wakes up, his response is, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ An interesting response. What prevented him from noticing the holiness of this place while he was awake? Could it be that he wasn’t truly awake until he was asleep?

Maybe there is a sleep that comes upon us when we are content with the world because all is well and comfortable for us. Maybe there is a sleep that comes because we’ve worked so hard to earn safety within these systems that we don’t dare upset them because of the pain we’ve already weathered at their hands. And yet, growing up alongside that, maybe there is a sleep that lets us imagine strange new universes where angels run wild, where there is no boundary between heaven and earth, where Jesus may wrap his wisdom up in parables for the wider crowd, but still offers it freely to them in the hopes that someone outside his inner circle may yet help it take root within.

And maybe sometimes there are times when we can stay awake and prevent the enemy from sowing a few seeds here and there, or support those who do stay awake to shine a light on the field and keep a watchful eye out, giving them what they need so that they can continue their work while we sleep, dreaming of new landscapes of wonder.

“Let anyone with ears to hear listen,” Jesus says. His disciples are given explanations of the parables, because throughout this gospel Matthew wants to show us that Jesus was a good teacher, and a good teacher lays things out clearly for their students. But still Jesus shares the parables, the raw material of the kingdom, with everyone. Jesus knows that some may pick up that raw material and go off to do work outside of his inner circle, maybe even outside of the wider circle of followers. Remember, whoever is not against us is for us. There are people in the world right now guarding the human heart against the weeds taking over the garden completely. Mr. Rogers of blessed memory called them “the helpers.” They don’t always look the way we want them to; they’re not always polite; they’re not always gentle and kind in their demands for justice. But we will know them by their fruits, and we can therefore consider them fellow workers, helping us to dream of a world where angels run wild and harvests are plentiful and feed multitudes.

And in this case, the dream is not an impossible or symbolic reality. It just is, and we didn’t know it. So let’s build the altar, and prepare for the harvest.

Jun 24 | “Whoever welcomes,” (Sermon, June 24th 2020)

Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’

Matthew 10:40-42

Over the last few weeks, despite all of the strangeness that the world has laid upon us (I saw one tweet the other day referring to the date as May 56th, and doesn’t that feel true), Hineni House has been advertising for the one spot that will be available this year.

Our applicants tend to find us through social media, although a few are recommended by contacts we have like fellow clergy, former residents, or other intentional communities. They fill in the online application, and I always set up a phone call after I read it – sometimes people are better talking in person than in writing. I also contact the reference they’ve provided for more information. If I like what I hear, we set up an in-person interview with me and members of Hineni Council, and we try to find ways to connect the person to residents to see how they interact with one another.

Hineni House, photo by Hannah Fonseca-Quezada

It’s always exciting to read these applications. We have people of all spiritual backgrounds and educational experiences, people united in a quest for something deeper than just a regular roommate experience. A few have told me that they considered applying for a long time before actually doing so.

I’m always happy when I hear that. It’s a big decision, and a big risk to take. Some folks have anxiety about conflict or meeting new people or talking about big concepts and ideas, conversations with higher stakes than what anyone could necessarily expect to have with ordinary roommates. What a lot of people are looking for is, in a sense, permission to talk about this stuff. You’d be surprised how many applicants and residents we’ve encountered who have never had these talks, because if you grow up without any religious background at all, there might honestly never be a point where these topics come up: How do you think the world came to be? What do you think we’re doing here? Where do you think we go when we die?

It’s not that they’ve never thought about these things, but that secular society hasn’t always figured out how to provide a safe and open space to address them with others.

So it’s a big risk to come and be with us. It’s a big risk to come into a house where you know, by its very nature, that none of these conversations are off the table. And a lot of them do decide to take the risk, and what happens as a result is all too often beautiful and a little awkward and definitely, certainly, Godly.

Today’s passage from Matthew, at the very end of Chapter 10, is a welcome bit of peace in a troubling set of warnings from Jesus. While there is excitement and apprehension at the new adventures awaiting the disciples in their new mission of being sent out by twos, Jesus has instructions. In verse 16 he says, “You’re not going out like soldiers. You’re going out like sheep. Don’t take anything with you. Don’t receive payment. You were healed and welcomed freely, you have to pass it on.

“Oh by the way they’re probably going to hate you.

“Parish council will drag you in to ask you to explain yourself. When the state finds out what you’re doing – going around and making a mockery of their rules – that same council will throw you to the wolves.”

Jesus says they risk being dragged in front of governors and kings. We children of the twenty-first century might wonder why the state would get involved.

Well, the last time something like this happened, things got really ugly.

Around the time Jesus was born, a messianic revolt brought down the wrath of the Roman general Varus, who had two thousand Jewish rebels crucified on the side of the road.

Jesus is telling them, “If it comes down to you and your unsanctioned community reintegration and the literal lives of their congregants, religious leaders will be happy to disavow you and hand you over.”

But don’t worry about it, Jesus says. I’m with you, and I’ll be with you, always. At verse 26 he says, in effect, “Leave the justice to me and to God. All of the secrets, all of the lies, all of the broken systems that hold up this unjust Empire, they’ll all be revealed. Stay strong. Have faith in God’s power to overturn injustice and oppression. It’s worth the risk.”

As oppressed people themselves, brown illiterate Jews, it was all his disciples had.

Going on, in verse 34 Jesus does his best to impress upon them the severity of the situation. He wants to be honest with them. He wants to be honest with us. Standing up for what’s right, what’s lifegiving, is risky business. Like the disciples we live in a world where leaders hold onto power by convincing us that poverty and violence and division are inevitable because the world is a terrible place, and the only thing that will save us is a firm and punishing hand. We can see this playing out right in front of us today, on our TV and computer screens. People across North America and around the world are asking tough questions about the way we administer so-called justice, and the response has been naked brutality and rage that they would even dare to ask those questions.

Jesus speaks directly to us in this time. He grew up during the years surrounding the death of King Herod, installed as a puppet king to keep that upstart Judea in check. When Herod died, the people revolted, but they were no match for the Roman state, an Empire accustomed to revolt, an Empire that truly believed peace was only won through bloodshed, just like our nations believe that peace and justice can only be won through violence, prisons, and police.

Proposing a new system of unity and peace which flows out of treating everyone as though they are worthy of love and dignity probably seemed ridiculous then and still does now. We hear that often from political leaders: “It’s just not practical. And it’s too dangerous to even try.”

Knowing this, the disciples probably felt hopeless. We can sympathize, can’t we?

And that is when we get to today’s passage.

‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.’

Things seem hopeless, but they’re not. And we’re not alone.

The Kingdom is forged in the work of building communities of love.

In a time like this, we need to be creative about our allies. The good news is that the more open we are, the more likely we are to find them. It’s like when you commit to living with gratitude. When you decide to do it, you see things sprouting up all around you that are opportunities for gratitude. It’s the same with friends. The greatest tool of those who oppress is fear of the other. Jesus was killed because he encouraged people to come together. He brought together people from all social classes and genders, and he healed outcasts and forgave sinners, bringing them back into community. And his resurrection, the ultimate Sign, was a sign that even death cannot separate us from a community of love.

In welcoming people to Hineni House, St. Margaret’s takes up that work in its own utterly unique way. Having welcomed dear Shalet and Gail from India, we can now truly say it’s a worldwide ministry! With your support, you welcome people without judging their theology or their past. You live out Jesus’ wisdom that whoever is not against us is for us. You take the risk and invite in hope that those who come will become our friends. You welcome them, because in welcoming them, whatever their colour or creed, you welcome Christ, and you make our family a little bigger. And the bigger our family is, the more hope and love the world will receive through us, and the more beautiful it will become.

I ask your prayers as we continue in our work, and I give you my deeply heartfelt thanks. The work we are all doing is Kingdom work, and the Kingdom is forged in building communities of love.

Never forget it.

Jun 19 | The Wound and the Mirror (Radical Love Journal #11)

Hi everyone! Sorry the numbering is out of whack – I’m obviously behind on my entries. This one, on today’s lesson, came to me before the others. I promise they will be updated ASAP! Next week will be the last entry. <3

In today’s lesson we contemplated several lovely stories, but the one I liked best was the story of Joseph (son of Jacob, patriarch in Judaism and Christianity and prophet in Islam) and the friend who comes to him as guest.

Omid-jaan explained that in the Muslim tradition Joseph has a reputation as being the most beautiful person that God made. It is this glorious beauty, then, that the friend wishes to celebrate. When he arrives at Joseph’s house, Joseph, speaking gleefully in my own imagination of him, cries, “What gift have you brought me?”

The friend is so embarrassed he starts to cry. He explains that he searched all over the world but could find nothing for this beloved who has everything. The only gift worth anything, he has decided, is a mirror. In this mirror, Joseph can contemplate his own beauty, but also remember the friend each time he does.

“What greater gift,” Omid-jaan says, “could you bring to God than a mirror of God within your own heart?” Again, we remember earlier reflections (heh) on the Muslim concept that creation was made for God’s own contemplation of God’s self. We are sent out from the house (as it were) to be contemplated by God, and therefore the greatest gift can be our own understanding of God’s desire and our meeting of it. We return with the mirror in our own hearts, our own selves. It’s all the more precious a gift when we admit to ourselves how difficult this is. We rarely see our own beauty. “Remember,” Omid-jaan says, “that in the old days, a mirror wasn’t made of glass, but of metal. It needed polishing to work. So we must polish our own hearts if they are to be mirrors.”

How do we do this? How could we polish the heart? What mirror do we bring?

The rust that must be polished off is the ego. We have to disavow any sense of being on our own, any sense of being the sum total of existence, and bring that humility to God.

Omid-jaan expands on this with another lovely story of Shams, Rumi’s most dearly beloved friend. On the Day of Judgement, the story goes, Shams arrives and is caught up the crowd. He’s at the back and can’t see, so he starts kicking up a fuss, which the angels finally notice.

I love the way Omid-jaan tells the next part: “The angels look over and say to God, ‘Who is that?!’ God says, ‘Oh, that’s Shams. He’s…different.’”

Shams cries, “I have to come up front! I am the only one who has brought a gift God doesn’t have!”

The angels are perplexed and a bit offended, but God says, “He’s telling the truth, let him forward.”

Shams comes forward, prostrates before God, and says, “I have brought the one thing you do not have, O Lord. I have brought my need.”

God, being perfect, has no concept of need or dependence. Shams therefore brings it as a gift.

It’s interesting to read this through Christian eyes. While God may not have need, our story is of a God that came to walk among us and feel need in a new way, feel dependence and powerlessness. But I don’t see it as a contradiction. God having walked among us surely understands how hard it is to let go of that sense of alone-ness, the sense we inherited from being expelled from Eden, the sense of the necessity of depending only on ourselves. While some may understand this story in terms of disobedience (and that’s clearly Scriptural, of course, so I don’t disagree) I tend to focus more on the sense of mistrust that’s present in the story when I contemplate it. The storyteller insists that the serpent tricks Eve, surely not a difficult thing when she is so naïve and childlike. I’m far more struck by Adam’s hiding from God once the deed is done. It’s one of the more humourous parts of the story, probably because it feels so familiar to us as well as being absurd (I always imagine God asking Adam where he is in the sing-song tone that parents use when their child is playing hide-and-seek with them). The theme of nakedness as well gives me pause. Why does it matter that the two are naked? Literally no-one and nothing are wearing clothes in this garden. No norms have been set, and yet the two of them immediately want to cover themselves rather than stay “naked and unashamed.” What’s to be ashamed about? How does this connect to knowledge and wisdom?

For me, living in the 21st century West, I see this as a rejection of dependence and vulnerability, as well as a rejection of intimacy. A child has no problem being naked (and delighting in it!) because she has not been shaped by these norms. She has no problem with being naked in front of her parents because, when she is very young, she doesn’t yet have a fully developed sense of self outside her caregiver. This sense of being at one with things extends to other people. Babies and little children will do and say things that are not “appropriate” not only because they don’t understand social norms but because there is no drive to appear “okay” in front of other people. While it’s a source of great anxiety for many adults to police the behaviour of their children, it’s sort of amazing to contemplate a place where we were utterly free of such worry. We can see the change quite clearly when we compare a child who has just been introduced to clothes (and parents will know that all too often the first thing that happens once the kid is old enough is that the clothes come flying off!) and a teenager, who finds themselves suddenly deeply self-conscious and trying to assert independence around parents who are by now used to the earlier child who had no sense of shame. (Parents will hear the telltale, “MOOOMMMM DON’T YOU EVER KNOCK?!” ringing in their ears).

We laugh about these memories and experiences now, but I really think it’s an important lens through which to view the story of the Fall. God would rightly wonder what had changed, and suspect the worst. The response to this is punishment in the storyteller’s eyes, but when I explore this story through a more psychoanalytic or mythical perspective, I see the response as wholly necessary in the sense that this is the logical endpoint to a declaration of one’s independence. We would of course argue that the development of the self as a being apart from one’s parent is a net good, but we cannot deny that something precious and irreplaceable is lost in the declaration of single-ness, and apart-ness. We just accept it as part of the world, and for human beings, it is.

But clearly it was never God’s intent for our relationship with Her to mirror an earthly relationship with our parents. It was never supposed to end and become strained.

The way, then, to offer God our greatest gift, is to do our best to return to that state, to say that we are part of God. Imagine an adult returning to their loving parents after many years of wandering, desiring love and closeness again, and thanking the parents for all they have done to support and care for her – not because this is a transactional relationship, but because when we love each other, we tell each other.

So we bring our need. We bring our wounds – for, as Rumi and Leonard Cohen say, the wound is where the light enters us.

Jun 07 | On Abolition

This morning I woke up to read my email and found a message from my Archbishop encouraging us to take a pledge put out by our governor general. The pledge is called #DifferentTogether, and details can be found here.

It’s a very nice sentiment. Pretty much no one would have a problem with signing this.

Which is kind of the problem.

While this pledge does at least address racism in the last line, it’s, for lack of a better word, completely toothless. It doesn’t provide us with a way forward or prescribe any action on how to actually stand against racism. I recognize that if it did, it would be a much longer image that’s difficult to read on your phone and so their social media campaign wouldn’t work as well. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe solving racism is a little more complicated than posting a picture on your Facebook profile (and don’t even get me started on the racism and hate that Facebook deliberately propagates and encourages to flourish).

Pretty words are just that: pretty words.

But that’s not even my biggest problem.

My biggest problem is that the worldwide protests and uprisings in the wake of the horrific murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people at the hands of the police, are not *just* about racism. Quite specifically they are about police violence. And this pledge in no way addresses that.

Storytime: My white skin and my generally anxious and cautious disposition has meant that I have had little to no interactions with police over the course of my life. I therefore didn’t have to form much of an opinion about them or their role in society. It’s a great privilege when your identity isn’t politicized or suspect.

My attitude started to change slowly after the rise of Black Lives Matter, but I still didn’t really see policing as anything other than in need of a tremendous amount of reform.

Then, about six years ago, I read The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America by Mark Lewis Taylor. I thought it would be about the death penalty specifically, and the hypocrisy of nominally pro-life evangelicals who supported it. I have always been anti-capital punishment, and I looked to this book to help me formulate a more coherent Christian stance on that position.

While I did find that, what I also discovered was that the book was actually a book about prison abolition.

I hadn’t encountered this notion before, and was deeply intrigued, but very skeptical at the beginning.

By the time I closed the book, I was a believer.

It didn’t take long for me to encounter thinkers who advocated for abolition of the police either, and since I’d been primed, I began to consider that as well.

What changed me the most there was not a particular book or resource, but marginalized voices. I shut my mouth and started listening. I started watching the interactions between land and water protectors and police, especially at Standing Rock and more recently at Wet’suwet’en.

I also learned about the history of policing in North America, and how they were built not to help, but to control. Control slaves and Black bodies. Control property and Indigenous bodies. To protect property and order, not lives.

I’m also a bit of a true crime buff, and over the years have done a lot of reading and podcast listening about serial killers. Almost every serial killer with a high body count that I’ve learned about has only managed that high body count because they preyed on a population that the police didn’t really care about. Robert Pickton. Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer. Jeffrey Dahmer. Bruce MacArthur. Ted Bundy – him less so, but if you want to pop a blood vessel try listening to the way the judge in his trial spoke to him after he was convicted of multiple murders.

What I saw confirmed everything that I had heard about the true purpose of police and prisons. They are not institutions that desire community wholeness and flourishing, though individual members within the groups may do. They are institutions that were built to exert control and order at all costs. Those who challenge that order – consciously through direct action or unconsciously through the way they look or their economic status or orientation or gender identity – will be suppressed, and with violence if they could get away with it.

On a smaller scale, I also saw how the police were actively harmful in situations having to do with persons who were marginalized not just because of the colour of their skin, but because of mental illness. I heard firsthand accounts of terrible abuse and apathy, of horrible tragedies that occurred because armed police went barrelling in without adequate training. Conversations with friends about times they’ve called police and times they would generally call the police but don’t have led me to realize that they haven’t really been helpful to the people I’ve spoken to. I’m sure some people have had good experiences with them, but the majority that I’ve heard about could at the very least have been better solved with someone else – a mental health worker, for example.

Finally, during protests against the pipeline with the Tsleil-Waututh nation and other Indigenous groups and allies, again I saw problematic behaviour by police, and even had my own deeply odd encounter with them. I won’t get into that here because it was pretty unremarkable, but if you’d like details I can give them to you. Suffice to say that it proved to me that police should not be trusted, and that my collar and even my skin colour could not save me if I decided to stand against their attempts to maintain their understanding of order.

I am still new in this position. I haven’t done much formal research, although I have seen a few studies. Quite frankly I’m more interested in what marginalized voices have to say on matters like these, so I’ve just been listening on the sidelines, and I follow a lot of abolitionist accounts on Twitter, most of them headed by racialized people. Because the vast majority of abolitionists are from marginalized communities. Go figure. In Canada, the highest percentage of incarcerated people are Indigenous people. It took me far too long to understand that that is not an accident, and it is not because Indigenous people are more prone to crime or violence. The RCMP in particular was literally created to control those populations (funny, as I type this I can hear my husband explaining this very fact to my father-in-law on their weekly phone call in the next room).

What changed my mind on these things most deeply were not scientific facts, although they abound if you can find them. Luminaries like Angela Davis have been proposing abolition of both prisons and police for forty years, with a large amount of research to back them up. If you’d like to learn more, you can read The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale, which is free on Verso here.

For some people, this is an incredibly radical and ridiculous position, but the fact is that it’s actually not that radical. What brought me to this position and keeps me there is a much longer conversation that would happen much better face-to-face over lunch than it would on Facebook. But in the last few weeks, it’s become clear to me that I need to be much more up front about it to be the change I want to see in the world. Police and prisons are, at best, a relic, and we need something new. As the world lurches toward more widespread fascism, we can see clearly that these institutions will always be, at their heart, inherently fascist, pitting marginalized peoples against one another and dividing them in order to better exert control.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have watched countless videos of blatant police violence.

I have watched journalists and street medics tear-gassed and cuffed and thrown down. Omar Jimenez, a CNN reporter working in Minneapolis, was literally cuffed and dragged off in the middle of giving a live broadcast, along with two or three members of his crew.

I saw Martin Gugino, a seventy-five year old activist in Buffalo, shoved to the ground by police, hitting his head. As blood poured from his ear (clearly visible on the video), a cop tries to break formation to help him, and is roughly yanked back into line by another officer. Later, the police lied about how the injury was sustained. They claimed he fell. They changed their tune when the video came out and rage followed.

I saw a man stopped at a traffic light in his car exit to yell at the cops for shooting pepper balls and tear gas at cars on the road so close to his pregnant wife, riding with him, and then have to duck as his car was deliberately pummeled with six or seven fresh rounds.

Most horrible of all, the thing that led me to write this post in fact, were photos and video footage of a ten-year-old Black girl maced in the face by a cop in Seattle. Protestors pour milk on her eyes as she screams in pain. Commenters on Twitter snarled, “Who brings a child to a protest?!”

Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that it’s become clear that she and her parent were actually just walking to the store.

Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that I’ve been to many, many demonstrations that had children and I never saw any of them maced in the face by a cop.

Maybe if you’re a police officer, you shouldn’t mace a child in the face.

Police officers are people, not wild dogs. Not tornadoes or earthquakes. They can make decisions about what they do, and they can choose not to mace a little girl in the fucking face.

Maybe if you’re his superior officers, you shouldn’t then send SEVEN POLICE CARS and multiple officers to the home of Evan Hreha, the man who posted that video on Facebook, to arrest him. They claim they went to arrest him because he was suspected of using a laser pointer at the protest. Of course there’s no evidence to support that suspicion, and even if there were, really? Seven police cars?

But it shouldn’t have taken that video to make me “come out” as an abolitionist. I should have done it a long time ago.

I’m not sure how to end this, other than to say I don’t think I’ve ever been as angry in my life as I’ve been in the last couple of weeks. Police across the continent and beyond have responded to charges of violence by being as violent and vicious as possible. By proving protestors 100% correct.

You’ll notice they did not respond this way when crushed against state legislator buildings by armed and screaming anti-lockdown CHUDs wanting haircuts.

As one podcaster I follow mentioned, it’s not that these cities are rioting.

It’s the police that are rioting.

My only hope is that they are being this way because they know they’re going to lose. They know people are talking. I am watching people shift their entire belief structures in real time.

The road to complete abolition is very long and arduous. But the uprisings are teaching us that sustained public pressure is a necessity for lasting change.

I stand with these protestors, and I stand with abolitionists. I have a duty to do so. My great-grandfather was a British abolitionist during the days of chattel slavery. As many, many Black activists see the carceral state as the living ancestor of chattel slavery, then I’m merely following in his footsteps. I pledge to do more to support that position with the toolkits I’ve found.

I pray you will hold me to that pledge, and I invite you to check out the resources on prison and police abolition.

Christianity must be antifascist or risk its soul

I’m not asking that you change your mind. I’m just asking that you look into the facts, so you can make an informed opinion.

Stay strong, everyone.

May 29 | The Eyes of Majnun (Fire in the Wineglass #7)

Today’s lesson explored the story of Majnun and Layla, which I’ve written about in a previous entry from my earlier Sufi journal. In that entry, I focused more on Majnun’s sense of unfulfilled longing as a metaphor which helped me to put a container around my grief at not being able to receive the Eucharist. Today, I want to focus more on the notion of what Omid-jaan called “the eyes of Majnun.”

The story we read involves a caliph (a pope-like figure who like the kings of the ancient world enjoyed an authority which combined earthly with spiritual power) who hears the stories and poetry of Majnun’s longing for Layla. Entranced, he imagines that Layla must be a most incredible beauty, and so instructs his officials to bring not just her but her entire village to stand before him. He figures all of them must be beautiful, and Layla must be exceptionally so.

The women of her community are finally brought before him, and he is puzzled to discover that all of the women are…well, ordinary; “not fabulous Fatimas,” Omid-jaan chuckles, “but average Aishas.”

Looking among them, he finds that not one stands out in particular, and so is forced to call out for Layla to step forward. He is even more astonished to see her step forward: again, while she isn’t ugly, she’s no striking beauty either.

“How can you be Layla?” he cries. “Majnun was mad for your beauty, but you look like a plain Jane to me!”

Omid-jaan grins as he explains, “In this tradition, you’ve gotta watch out, because the women talk back!”

And Layla does: “HUSH. I am Layla, but you are not Majnun.”

The lesson is that only when one allows oneself to become ‘mad’ or ‘love-crazed’ (the literal meaning of the name ‘Majnun’) will one truly see the Layla of the poetry, the dark exquisite beauty of the stories.

We are all of us called to have these eyes of Majnun – but not only for the world around us, but for ourselves. All too often, I myself will see and testify to the beauty in others. This friend is physically stunning and fit. That friend is more physically plain, but has a heart of true beauty and tenderness. This friend is endlessly creative and innovative. That friend is a warrior for justice.

I, on the other hand, am nothing.

And all the while, each friend may be looking at me and seeing beautiful things within me.

We must do our own work, combat our own goldsmiths, seek out our own healers, but also we need companions to be our mirrors, to help us on the way.

We also should never forget that our body, as downplayed or denigrated as it may be, is a friend to us on this journey. Omid-jaan said quite evocatively, “Every part of the body is a friend to you on the spiritual path.” Through spiritual work, he explains, Sufis claim that God may make use of your eyes, your ears, your hands, your feet.

St. Teresa of Avila knew this as well, penning the beautiful prayer, “Christ has no body now but yours.” As a 15th century Spanish mystic she, like her contemporary St. John of the Cross, may have integrated this wisdom from the spiritual communities and traditions around her.

Omid-jaan went on to talk about the nazar, or “the glance.” Many people know the word nazar as referring to “the evil eye,” or a negative glance that must be countered with folk magic. You may have seen the many blue-eyed talismans hung on trees or doorways in the Middle East and Central Asia. But this word is not meant to only refer to negative glances. Classical Islam sees it also as referring to positive glances, and indeed this is one of the most interesting practices I’ve encountered in Sufism: the long, lingering gaze offered between dervishes. The first couple of times it happens to you, it’s deeply arresting, even uncomfortable. We’re not accustomed to looking at one another for such long periods of time, and with such intimacy. This, though, is almost literally a practice seeking to embody the eyes of Majnun.

When I considered how I might look at the world with the eyes of Majnun, what that glance would look like, though, I didn’t think of those Sufi glances first. What I thought of was the way my husband looked at me when I walked down the aisle toward him in my wedding dress.

What struck me so much about that look was that I expected one thing and experienced another. Every couple has a shared language spoken and unspoken. My husband often gives me a certain look when he thinks I appear especially pretty: a look of delight and excitement that involves grinning with gleaming eyes and tucking his lower lip behind his teeth.

That’s what I expected to see as I came into his line of sight, but that’s not what I saw.

Instead, he looked almost shaken, on the verge of tears.

Photo by Miya Cancar.

This shifted my entire perspective on the wedding itself. He is not a religious person, while I am. I expected that for me the ritualized part of the day would hold more meaning than it would for him, and so I was prepared to see him look at me with the eyes of delight that he always gave me. What did the ritual matter if we were already so deeply connected?

This new look, a look that suggested he was deeply, deeply moved, suggested to me that the ritual did have meaning – that indeed, he was looking not at me, the person he had been partnered to for many years, but to someone who had taken on a new image: the image of a wife. Our shared universe had changed dramatically.

What if, I then thought, I looked at the universe the way he looked at me on that day – if I looked at it as not just “business as usual” but as the God-haunted Spirit-filled place it was? What if I looked into the eyes of each person – cruel and kind, evil and good, rich and poor, young and old – in a way that suggested that they were no longer simply beings passing me by, but creatures that had been suffused in light – in the Christian context, having been made holy in the awesome echo of Christ’s death and resurrection?

How could I ever go back to being angry or frustrated or disgusted with them?

Let me be clear, I think seeing the world with the eyes of Majnun is probably the work of a lifetime.

That moment of meeting my husband’s eyes and seeing that look was only one moment. I’ve actually never seen him look quite that way since.

But I’ve never forgotten it.

If my whole life is striving to see that, and I only see it at the very end, I still think that might be enough.