Archive for February, 2016

“Called to Lament,” (Sermon, February 21st 2016)

“Cé hé an fear breá sin
Ar Chrann na Páise?
Óchón agus óchón-ó!
An é n-aithníonn tú do Mhac,
A Mháthrín?
Óchón agus óchón-ó!”

This is a piece of my ethnic heritage – and John’s ethnic heritage – that I share with you. It’s called “keening,” and it was a widespread practice in Ireland and Scotland for generations.

The piece from which I just sang is called the Caoineadh na dTri Mhuire, and is a composition which puts a keening song into the mouth of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross. Keening is a form of lament, and it was most commonly practiced at funerals by women.

These women were not usually members of the family of the deceased, but professionals who could be hired for their services. In Celtic folklore, it was believed that the banshee – or “woman of the sidhe,” the Celtic underworld – was a conduit for the soul to depart into the next life. By taking on this role, a flesh and blood woman could not only aid the soul in its journey, but also provide a source of catharsis to the whole community.

I love the idea of hiring someone to give voice to the sound inside a grieving heart. I’m also so moved that this was exclusively women’s work. In fact, tradition often places the keening woman in the wild wastes, walking on the margins, showing solidarity with the dead by disheveled hair and torn clothes. She was the one who gave voice to all of the thoughts of grief that many of us would never share with anyone else. She would impress upon fellow mourners that bizarre sense of unreality following a death by describing the mundane details of life, and following it with what one scholar called “a brutally realistic description of the weight of the cold earth of the grave.” One of the truly beautiful things she did was to express anger at the deceased for dying, asking them who would plow their fields and raise their children, which gave other mourners safe space to air their own anger. She was like a Holy Fool…or a prophet.

The passage from Luke we read has the heading, “the lament over Jerusalem.” This heading (which is not in the original text) was the first thing that reminded me of this ancient practice of my ancestors. The fact that we are in Lent, and like a keening woman our Church provides us with a prescribed space of time in which to air our griefs so that we may neither bypass them nor be trapped within them, also made me reflect on lament. We lament our sins and our mortality on Ash Wednesday, and we lament the terrible cruelty we humans can inflict on one another, and the pain that was visited on our Beloved, on Good Friday.

It’s so important to take this time, as dreary as it may seem at first, to lament. I think lament has become incredibly counter-cultural in our time period today.

It may not look like that at first. Every day we get up and see news stories on TV about how horrendous the world has become. We may mourn “the good old days,” or feel powerless to halt the perceived tidal wave of human misery. People write articles and scream at their TVs and say, “I’m not angry, just disappointed.”

But I don’t think that is true lament. Lament is productive. Lament gives us a chance to bring things into the light and thereby disinfect them. Ever notice how, in the Bible, people gained power over demons by naming them? And God changed people’s names – Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah – but refused to be named: “Tell them I AM has sent you.” I think it’s same principle here. Naming our feelings gives us power over them, and maybe by enfleshing with words what is incorporeal, like grief, we can subject it too to the slow erosion of mortality. We can’t remove its teeth, but in time they may grow dull.

Jesus lived a life that would have been somewhat familiar to a keening woman. He kept to the margins and expressed truths in a blunt and provocative manner that felt liberating to some and terribly uncomfortable to others. He made himself safe space for others.

Unfortunately, his life was similar to a keening woman in another way: after countless women passed down this oral tradition to the next generations, the practice is now almost extinct in Ireland save for a few holdouts on the incredibly remote Blasket Islands. The suppression of this tradition was led primarily by the Roman Catholic Church – it was seen as heathenish because of its lack of reference to the afterlife, and, in the 1800s, superstitious and embarrassing. One scholar I read believed that priests felt it inappropriate for women to act as conduits between life and death. Some priests even publically whipped women who tried to keen the dead up until the early twentieth century. The Marian lament that I sang earlier was part of a new art form created by women who, deprived of their ritual, took back the tradition in a way they thought would escape censure, by ascribing it and a host of traditional keening imagery, to the Mother of God.

Jesus, who clearly was doing something right in the eyes of these Pharisees, is warned to make himself scarce before Herod finds him. Jesus’ retort and message for ‘that fox’ (a title which in its context was more like ‘that skunk’) makes it clear that he is willing to brave whips and worse for the right to cast out demons and lament for Jerusalem, the blessed and holy city of God that stones prophets and murders messengers. We also have that exquisite line where Jesus longs to be as a mother hen gathering her brood under her wings.

Jesus, the prophet in between Pharisee and pauper, the stranger between master and mother. Jesus, lover of the lost and seducer of the civilized.

During the season of Lent, we shrug off our cloaks of pretense, and remind ourselves that the span of our days is like that of the flower of the field. We put our…secret “A” words in boxes and we stifle many of our songs. The closer we get to Easter, the more we strip away, until Good Friday comes and there is nothing left.

We lament.

We cry, “Kyrie eleison,” and “We are dust and to dust we shall return.” We say these things because it is so easy to forget, especially in this part of the world, that mortality and frailty are a natural part of every human life. It is so easy to forget that in so much of the world death and pain are not sanitized the way they can be here. Lent makes space for us to say, “Not only are death and pain real…our God lived them, and by doing so gave us life.”

We lament.

I think this is an incredibly prophetic opportunity. Every Lent, we the Church are offered the opportunity to keen on behalf of the world. Distance, oppression, and fear have been a padlock on so much grief. Let’s open it and expose that grief to air. Let us, during this season, walk on the margins. Let us show solidarity with the sad by making ourselves poor in spirit and righteously angry that the world is not always as it should be, and we will never be fully untangled until Christ returns to us. Let us provide the entire world with a safe space for grief, in the knowledge that making space for the awkward emotions also makes space for the joyous ones.

Let us cry out, “Óchón agus óchón-ó!” – “Alas, and alas” – knowing that after “Alas” comes another ‘A’ word…one we don’t say at this time, but it’s only a few syllables off, and just as raw, just as beautiful.

Alas, and so may it be – Amen.

“Shedding our Armour,” (Sermon, January 20th 2016)

I used both of the readings for the day, which can be found here and here.


Last Wednesday I attended the first gathering of the Diocesan Indigenous Justice Circle. Facilitated by Diocesan Indigenous Justice Ministries Co-ordinator Brander Macdonald, the group was impressively diverse, with people of a multitude of colours, orientations, ages, stations, and genders, and a cohort of both lay and ordained Christians. Together we talked about how we might address the calls to action which were included in the official Truth and Reconciliation report, and listened to stories and songs from residential school survivors.

For many survivors, it is clearly becoming easier to tell the stories. That alone is a beautiful truth, and it is truly a gift to witness resurrection happening in real time, before our eyes.

But of course it is no easier for me to hear these stories then as it was to hear them in the listening tent at the TRC events when they came to Vancouver just under three years ago. It was a very raw time for all of us spiritually to bear witness to such devastating trauma.

And yet, the listening tent was always full, and not just with survivors.

With every day people, just like you and me, committed to listening no matter how much it hurt to be born into a new spiritual body able to process and accept the deep anger and pain of other human beings, often on behalf of those who were no longer on this earth but had carved that pain into flesh and soul in years long past.

It’s really hard work. But we were not there out of some toxic form of guilt. We were there because the Christian story teaches that taking on weakness voluntarily is one of the best ways to experience redemption, because that is the pattern of God.

In the stories of our Jewish ancestors, David refuses the armour held out to him by Saul, choosing instead what he knows best: his own tools and his own self. This honours the truth of God’s choice. David, the youngest son, not his stronger and bigger brother Eliab, will be king. Not only did God not choose Eliab, but God did not intend for David to adopt any of Eliab’s characteristics. God wanted David – the runt of the litter, the shepherd boy. God wanted the reckless one who believed in the sacred presence and showed no wavering in the face of frightening adversity. God wanted the one who would later mess up big time – something God surely saw coming – and chose him anyway.

David trusted. He wasn’t like Moses, who said, “Don’t you want somebody else?” and was still chosen. He wasn’t like Jonah, who ran the other way immediately and was still chosen. David didn’t seem to care what common sense decreed about his suitability for this work.

He stepped up. He stepped up with a slingshot and a couple of pebbles from the river and became king.

Jesus continues with his work even though there is a group of Pharisees following him around and sniping about him behind his back. Today’s story is the last in a series of skirmishes between Jesus and the Pharisees. It’s interesting to compare these stories, because the degree of engagement between the Pharisees and Jesus changes as they progress. It takes them quite a while to challenge Jesus to his face. They start by muttering among themselves, and then they gripe to his disciples. Eventually they do come to Jesus directly, but point out something objectionable his disciples are doing, saying, “Why do they do what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

Jesus replies, “The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.”

These are sophisticated elites and Jesus is from a podunk town in the middle of nowhere, probably illiterate and certainly uneducated compared to them. Why does it take these professors a whole chapter to confront this backwoods preacher directly?

In today’s story, they are watching him closely to see if he messes up. How petty this is! And for the record, healing is absolutely permitted on the Sabbath under the law. Why would they have a problem with it? Why do they even care what Jesus is doing?

Once again Jesus displays his terrifying wit. He asks them, “Is it lawful for someone to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?”

There is no answer to this question. They are wise to be silent.

Jesus becomes angry. This might make us feel uncomfortable. I think it’s kind of beautiful. If he thought they were complete degenerates, beyond any redemption, he wouldn’t feel anything. He wouldn’t even bother to engage. But he does.

And he heals.

Take a moment to contemplate the awesome power that Jesus displays here. He doesn’t say any magic words or perform any ritual. He doesn’t even touch the guy. He just tells him to stretch out his hand, and it’s restored.

This is what you do with power. You don’t use it to police other people’s behaviour. You don’t use it to intimidate or bully people. You don’t conspire with other people of power to do harm to those who aggravate or threaten you.

You take it where it’s needed and you pour it all out to help someone who doesn’t have any.

You take off the helmet and give it to someone else, even if other people laugh at you. You bring degenerates to your banquet and gold to dark stables. If you have nothing to offer but flesh and bone, you use it to share the weight of another.

And then, you do it again, over and over, for the rest of your life.

So what’s the armour we might shed? Maybe an artifice, something that might seem protective but adds unneeded weight. What is the sword we don’t need, and what are the unexpected tools we can pick up, ones that we are already skilled in using but maybe never considered that God would have a use for?

And if there are people in our lives waiting to see us fail or mess up, who whisper behind our backs, or grieve and anger us: Are they not best served with our belief that even they can transcend petty fear?

In theory it’s easy. We all take the first step by being baptized into the death of Christ.

Even if you didn’t choose that for yourself, you are bearing witness to that choice by being here right now.

You died, and rose again.

The Holy Spirit rested on you then and it is resting on you now.

You have power, and it will never falter.

Pass it on.