Archive for August, 2020

“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.


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.

“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?”

“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. â€¦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.