Archive for November, 2015

“A Different Kingdom,” (Sermon, November 11th)

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Matthew 5:1-12

“Oh stay at home, my lad, and plough

The land and not the sea,

And leave the soldiers at their drill,

And all about the idle hill

Shepherd your sheep with me.

Oh stay with company and mirth

And daylight and the air;

Too full already is the grave

Of fellows that were good and brave

And died because they were.”

I learned this heart-breaking poem by A.E. Housman from my mother. It is one of many poems that she wrote down in this book by hand. Her collection also includes the more famous World War I poems “For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon and “The Soldier” by Rupert Brooke.

I find it interesting that so much poetry, both idealistic and realistic, arose out of World War I. I suppose Death, that great mystery, encourages us to use symbols, the building blocks of poetry. Symbols hold infinity in the palm of a hand by giving flesh to the intangible.

A poppy is a symbol. It has different meanings for different people. For some, it represents sadness and glory – both “fellows that were good and brave” and “Take up our quarrel with the foe.” These poles can lack balance and slide one way into a mawkishness divorced from context, or the other way toward nationalistic imagery of a homeland baptized in the blood of martyrs (imagery put to use by the Nazis in World War II).

I have difficulty with the poppy because I am a pacifist, but I always wear one. I do it for my grandparents and I do it for me.

For me the poppy is a symbol of an entire generation cut down in their youth. It is a symbol of the trauma of those left behind; of the terrible complicity between state and church in the recruiting and drafting of these young people; of a world in which peace can only be won through war, a concept advanced by the Roman Empire with which Jesus would have been very familiar.

For me the poppy is like the cross, a symbol of torture and degradation. The difference is that the horror of the cross has been flipped upside down in the resurrection. Darkness and light are held in perfect balance.

I don’t think that balance has quite happened for me with the poppy yet.

Jesus lived and died in a Pax Romana kingdom – and that peace was won through battle. It was out of balance.

For the imperial Roman God-Emperors and the elites of Judaea, it was skewed toward the light. The destitution of those below them fueled their wealth, and they believed that this was a blessing bestowed upon them by the gods. The Jewish elites were so scarred by lengthy battles with empire after empire that they had learned to accept gains when they were offered. They knew the alternative was far worse.

For the poor majority, it was skewed toward the dark. Crushed by heavy taxation and the fear of their new overlords, who had desecrated the temple and martyred many of their people, zealots struggled and met violent ends while others kept their mouths shut and tried to survive.

Jesus, the Light of the World, spoke of a different kingdom – the kingdom of heaven, which is not pie-in-the-sky when you die but is to become incarnate on earth. Jesus told its story in parables, and finally made a parable – a symbol – of himself by re-purposing an instrument of terror to bring the cosmos into balance.

We live in a Poppy kingdom.

Light does exist here. We remember, and we teach our children about the horror of war and injustice. But the balance is still skewed.

For me, it’s too dark. Today we say “Never again…” knowing full well that the poppy is a World War I symbol – a war once referred to as “the war to end all wars.” And we in the 21st century know that it was not.

For some, though, it’s too light. It glorifies those who die exploded in trenches but often cares little for the veterans who return, scarred by innumerable losses and haunted by the fear and tension that combat (and combat training) imposes. And of course it completely ignores the civilian casualties of war, calling them “collateral damage.” It has no time for a deeper narrative of why we fight, resorting to platitudes and abstract concepts like “defending our freedom.”

The Poppy Kingdom says, “Honoured are the rich, because they must work harder than everyone else.”

“Honoured are those who are satisfied with their lot in life and never wonder how they came to have it.”

“Honoured are those who are tough on crime, because they know that the root of all crime is evil and selfishness.”

“Honoured are the hawks who raise up armies to fight terror but know their expertise is too valuable to risk fighting it themselves.”

“Honoured are those who are killed invisibly and can then be crafted into idols of any cause the world may choose to impose upon them.”

“Honoured are the honoured.”

This kingdom would have sounded familiar to Jesus, even if he didn’t make use of the same symbols. And he believed that it was a lie. He told us that God’s plan would look like complete foolishness to our Pax Romana/Poppy kingdom.

His blessings, the Beatitudes, are not actually prescriptive. They are a present incarnate reality which we may imitate but ignore at our peril.

“Blessed are those who battle mental illness.”

“Blessed is Abdullah Kurdi, father of Alan.”

“Blessed is Antoinette Tuff, who prevented a school shooting not with guns but with empathy, but still doesn’t have her own movie.” (I guess she’s just not as interesting as Steve Jobs).

“Blessed are Romeo Dallaire and Chencho Alas, working every day for justice having allowed themselves to be changed by the people they met.”

“Blessed are the Amish whose forgave the man who shot their daughters at school.”

“Blessed are Malala Yousafzai and her friends who risked it all for school.”

“Blessed is Keshia Thomas, an 18-year-old black woman who put herself between a KKK member and those who sought to beat him.”

“Blessed is Maximilian Kolbe, who was executed at Auschwitz voluntarily taking the place of another prisoner whom he didn’t even know.”

With the Beatitudes, Jesus shows us that the Poppy Kingdom has more light than we think. But we are called to bring it into greater balance: with words, actions, compassion, and love. Your kindness and your care for one another are first steps. Today’s Eucharist is another step: an acceptance of the life poured out so generously, so carelessly. It was a gift, which can be more difficult to accept than a loan. A gift demands nothing…and permits everything. Careless – because the vessel through which love is offered is totally broken open.

Today, as we gather to proclaim and share this gift, let us also remember those who sacrificed, and those who are sacrificed. Let us remember those who return home, and those who are still fighting. Let us remember those who are not soldiers but find themselves caught within the struggles of the powerful. Let us remember our mother earth who often bears the brunt of our wars.

Let us remember that the kingdom of heaven is not like any kingdom we have on earth.

Let us re-member, and bring the world into balance.

“Who are these like stars appearing?” (Sermon, November 1st)

“When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’”

John 11:32-44


Sometimes, to put things in perspective, I read about the life cycles of stars.

Image converted using ifftoany

Image converted using ifftoany

In very simplified terms: Within a nebula, which is usually composed of the leftover matter of previous stars, gravity draws a deep breath in. Particles, even galaxies, begin to collide, and everything heats up until finally it is hot enough to burn. The light bursts forth and the main sequence of the star begins. Hydrogen is fused into helium over millennia until it begins to run out, and outside the helium core hydrogen is fused into a shell and the star begins to expand into what is called a red giant. It swells and swells like a balloon, growing cooler as it does. The core begins to degenerate, fusing helium to carbon and oxygen, until, depending on its size, the star pushes this outer shell away and becomes a white dwarf, small, incredibly dense, and unable to sustain itself. It burns out slowly over millions of years until, we think, it becomes a black dwarf – but we’re not sure, because scientists estimate that the time it takes for a white dwarf to become a black dwarf is longer than the current age of the universe, and so the existence of those cold stars is still only hypothetical.

Just imagine it: Untold eons of ceaseless burning; contracting in, expanding out, and finally speckling the universe with the echoes of one wild, precious life.

I can’t tell you how my faith has been tested by this knowledge. Every truth, every prayer, every accomplishment, every personal tragedy, everything in existence pales in relation to this amazing natural phenomenon – and it is only one of the amazing things that occurs in our universe and has been occurring since before the world began, and will continue after all of us are gone.

It reminds me that the Israelite God who might, in the face of this cosmic truth, seem so small – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob – is in fact more incomprehensible than I could possibly imagine.

And surprisingly enough, I find that a comfort.

Where indeed is the sting of death in the face of such vast power?

I don’t mean to say death is not real, that it does not scar us. Mary and Martha knew that. All of you know that. I know that. I think being made in the image of God is living with a woven cord around our hearts, and perhaps one of the strands of that cord is grief. For all our vice and selfishness, we have the virtue to protest the loss of those whom we love. We have the capacity to feel so deeply for someone that when they die we yearn and moan and cry and blame each other and God. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Everyone does it differently. Martha adds the proclamation of faith at the end – “I know God will give you what you ask.”

Mary doesn’t even bother. “If you had been here…”

Some commentators try to soften things by saying that this is a proclamation of faith on its own. When I read stuff like that I think, “Oh, come on. Stop trying to make it easier. Wrestle with the angel. Yearn. Rage.”

That’s what we do with death, especially when it imposes upon us unexpectedly. We rage against the natural order of things.

Or – what is believed to be the natural order of things.

Because Jesus shows us that the true natural order is not what it seems.

You know, the lectionary cheats us by cutting off when it does. The raising of Lazarus does not actually have a happy ending. Immediately after he is raised, the religious leaders plot to kill him and Jesus.

They are afraid. Jesus exposed death for the very human construct it is. The narrative of death is often followed by a desperate grasping for control. Once, folks made sure their purity or their prayer lives or their indulgences were in order. Today people use diets and beauty products and fitness fads and medicines. We all find ourselves inundated with death on the news, even though many beautiful things happen across the globe every day and receive no coverage, because peddling fear is far more lucrative than peddling peace. No-one stockpiles expensive weapons or buys into the notion of forging an inner identity through brand names when they are feeling at one with the universe.

But death in truth is such a small thing. The movements of interstellar space show us that death as we understand it (i.e. an eternal ending) is perhaps the greatest lie ever told.

Remember: Science itself teaches us that energy can never be lost.

The true natural order is continuous cycling through birth, life, and death, only to begin again.

The true natural order is resurrection.

The truth is “Lazarus, come out!”

The truth is the descent of God to dwell among mortals; the mutual building of the holy city on top of humus, soil, earth; the bursting forth of light which cannot occur without gravity drawing in the leftovers: the little ones. (The last shall be first indeed.)

The truth is our deceptive fragility. Our lives are so very small – like blades of grass – and yet God knows that we can only change through our encounter with each other; our brushing up against each other as the wind which once stirred the waters now stirs us.

A child needs things to be concrete in order to learn – and isn’t it funny that we use that word “concrete” when what we really mean is “flesh”?

We, the children of God, need flesh to learn.

So God gave us Jesus.

We also have the saints – a gift from ourselves to ourselves. In the past they were singular persons who existed shackled by time and space and circumstance and who now look down from the paradox of the overflowing void. Today they are us, we who look out (and sometimes up, but remember, the kingdom of God is among us, not above us). And we also have those who look back, from countless years in the future. These ones are the most exciting to me. I can’t imagine what they will look like, or how they will glorify God, but I know they are there, swirling in the nebula, waiting to be breathed in.

Do not doubt that we have our place among these saints, we frightened few who may not feel so terribly sanctified or solemn or reverent. You may be surprised to learn that reverence and solemnity have very little to do with it. We do well to remember two things:

(1) The Christian story is cosmically ridiculous (God is human! The kingdom is here but not yet! Death is life!)

(2) It has changed the history of an entire planet.

One man’s death, whoever he was, had an effect, however distant, on the life of every human being on this planet.

That is how I know that Emmanuel, God-With-Us, IS. One man, strange and wonderful, who couldn’t read, who probably had never been further than thirty kilometers from his hometown, inspired his friends to shout a creed of utter nonsense to the world…and the world listened, because our hearts knew that it was all true.

Is this what our life is about: unbinding the truth over and over again, and letting it go?

Our Bishop Melissa often refers to a process called “Gather, transform, send.” This is what we do in church services, and in all of our many ministries.

And oh: This is what stars do.

And this is what saints do.

At first glance it probably sounds terrifying – how could anyone possibly do something so momentously “macro” on such a micro level? – but we’re not on our own.

It really is a macro truth on a micro level. In the first line of the Gospel of John, the word “God” is sandwiched in between two instances of the word “Logos.”

It’s a beautiful way of showing, in a sort of ‘word painting,’ the truth of the incarnation.

“Gather, transform, send” is like that too. We – people – do the gathering and the sending. God does the transforming.

This All Saints Day, take joy in the gifts God gives to the world through you.

With the hands of a saint, receive the fuel you need to burn here, at this table.

Let your heart become a star.