I have been watching the news this past week with a growing heaviness of heart. Tensions between the USA and North Korea have escalated. Political divisions in Venezuela have increased. Questions about the use of Canadian-supplied military vehicles in Saudi Arabia have come to the fore.
And this weekend? Charlottesville, a name which will surely become enshrined in popular history like the names of Selma, Soweto, and so many other places where the fight for human rights has been fought.
Charlottesville. The home of Thomas Jefferson, the site of the University of Virginia, a small, otherwise unnotable city in the west of the state of Virginia, has become this weekend the site of one of the most egregious battles in recent years. The origin: white supremacists moved against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the most important military leader of the Confederacy in the US Civil War. Lee certainly deserves some credit in the realm of military leaders. Without his tactical genius, the Civil War would probably have been over long before it actually ended.
Lee was a great general. Few would dispute that. But many today would dispute the morality of the cause for which he fought. It is clear to me and many others that the Civil War was fought to establish the southern states’ right to continue the practice of slavery. That fact, if no other, discredits the cause of those who would enshrine the memory of Gen. Lee. (For a more detailed analysis of Lee’s career, see this article from the Atlantic.)
What happened this weekend? I can only repeat what I have seen in a variety of news media. One group gathered to protest the removal of Lee’s statue. They marched with torches and slogans reminiscent of ones used by Hitler’s supporters in the ’30’s. Another group gathered to oppose the first group’s protest. There were clashes between the two groups, with some presence of police, whose actions are a matter of dispute. Clergy of many denominations marched silently to call all to a peaceful solution, respecting the rights of all people. Then, the next day, as people continued to demonstrate for their various points of view, a car was driven into a group of people who had gathered to promote the equality of all people. A woman was killed and many others were injured.
Those are fact as I understand them. I stand to be corrected if I have made any egregious errors. Nonetheless, the fact remains that a woman (#HeatherHeyer) who had worked all her life to promote the equality of all people under the law has been killed for her dedication to what she understood to be the purpose of her country: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (from the US Declaration of Independence).
It breaks my heart that the nation to which my own country has the closest ties has descended to such depths that a person who dedicated her life to the founding principles of that nation could be killed for simply standing up for those principles.
As the United States of America works through this most grievous incident, it is my prayer that my country of Canada and every other country may come to see that racial, religious, ethnic, and all other divisions must be overcome, and that may all of us may live in peace, unity, and concord.
My heart is broken for the people of the USA. May you come to know God’s peace in all your doings.
Reflections on Joseph of Arimathea
Today at the “Saints Eucharist” at Holy Trinity we remembered Joseph of Arimathea. He is mentioned only once in each of the four Gospels (Matthew: 27:57-60; Mark 15:43-46; Luke 23:50-55; John 19:38-42), but all affirm that he gave his tomb for the burial of Jesus. There are various post-Biblical legends about him, including a trip to Britain, where he is said to have planted the holy thorn tree that grows at Glastonbury. He is also said to have taken the Holy Grail with him, and hidden it somewhere in that vicinity. (Holy Grail: the cup used at the Last Supper.)
We had a short discussion about this before beginning the Eucharist, focussing on the question of why people thought it necessary to remember someone for things that very likely did not happen, glossing over the one solid piece of evidence about his life. Giving a tomb for Jesus’ burial was an act of devotion and generosity that had profound importance in the Gospel story: why can’t we be satisfied with that? Joseph isn’t alone in this. There are other New Testament figures about whom various legends grew up, mostly without solid attestation, often imputing miraculous lives to these individuals.
The speculation we entertained was that people are often not satisfied with “ordinary” events as a medium of seeing God in action. If we can ascribe super-natural acts to someone, it may be a more obvious way to see the divine at work in human life. We have trouble understanding something as simple as giving a grave for someone’s burial as an “Act of God“. Insurance companies understand that term as something mostly unpredictable and entirely outside human control. But surely Joseph’s simple deed was divinely inspired, advancing the story of salvation history in a small but vital way. No burial = no death. No death = no resurrection. No resurrection = no salvation.
I believe that God is at work in ordinary human lives in ways that most people have trouble perceiving or articulating. Having a cup of tea with a lonely senior is just as much an Act of God as a hurricane. The Kingdom of God — how things ought to be — can be seen in the very small and (apparently) very ordinary. When we see it, the ordinary becomes extraordinary, revealing what was there all along for us to see — hiding in plain sight.
Being one of “the saints” should not mean being somehow superhuman and supernatural. It should rather mean being a person whose life displays what God intended for human life — sometimes apparently very ordinary, but touching other people in a way that makes God’s ways visible. If we look with the eyes of the spirit, we will see God at work in all sorts of people around us, not necessarily in the supernatural kind of miracle (whose existence I am not denying), but showing forth God’s love, mercy, and grace in many different ways in daily life.
We are all called to be saints — to make visible what God intends for this world. Many who are working out their salvation “in fear and trembling” are all around us. Look for them. They don’t have halos. They don’t always glow with otherworldly radiance. But they reveal to all who will see what holy living is all about.
Joseph of Arimathea did a holy thing: he was a holy person. We remember him for this one special deed.
Look around you today. Who is doing holy things? God’s saints are hiding in plain sight everywhere we care to look, everywhere we turn the eyes of our spirits. See them. Pray for them. Give thanks for them. Love what they do, and do what they love.
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God;
everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. (1 John 4:7)
Notes for a sermon preached at St. George’s, Edmonton on July 16, 2017
Texts: Gen 25:19-34; Ps 119:105-112; Rom 8:1-11; Matt 13:1-9, 18-23
Some years ago, I attended a workshop entitled “Unresolvable but Unavoidable Problems in Church Life” led by the Rev. Roy Oswald of the Alban Institute. The title was a pretty good hook, attracting about 200 clergy and lay people from more than 15 denominations. I have since read Roy Oswald’s book, which expands on the workshop’s content. If he’d used the book’s title for the event, I don’t think he would have drawn nearly as many. “Managing Polarities in Congregations” doesn’t have the same buzz, does it? It’s also quite opaque, unless you’re hep to modern management-speak. (What’s a polarity anyway?)
I could quite happily spend a couple of hours or more dealing with this topic and how it applies to church life, but since you didn’t bring bag lunches, I will go straight to the bottom line. There are many situations and issues in life – church, personal, business, government – which are unresolvable because they hold two positive things in tension, which work against each other. We can’t resolve issues like this, but we can learn to live with them.
After attending this workshop, I began to look at life a bit differently. It has been said that if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. In my case, finding polarity management very interesting, I started applying it everywhere. Sometimes it was even appropriate to do so!
Enough theory! Let’s look at the Scriptures. This is one of those Sundays when the prescribed lessons have no obvious linking theme. We heard a story of family conflict, an exhortation to “live in the Spirit,” and the best-known of Jesus’ agricultural parables. I suggest that there is something connecting them. Let’s look at them in turn:
First, Genesis, and the story of Esau selling his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew, or as the KJV puts it, “a mess of pottage.” This is quite a family: parents playing favourites, brothers competing for their parents’ approval, and with each other. Esau is a “manly man,” helping the family by hunting for food. His brother Jacob likes to hang out in the tent, helping his mother with the cooking. By traditional patriarchal standards, Esau should be preferred, but his sly brother tricks him into giving up his rights as elder son: this family’s story will continue through the younger brother. It’s not much of a model for family life. None of its members come off very well; all of them live somewhere on the edge of integrity. They live somewhere in the middle between the ordinary ways of the world and holy righteousness. Nonetheless, God’s chosen people will come from this family.
Second: From Romans, we hear Paul contrasting living according to the flesh with living in the Spirit. “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” He expands the contrast in Galatians:
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Galatians 5:19-21a,22-23a
The choice seems clear: choose the Spirit over the flesh. However, Paul’s assertions that his readers are indeed “in the Spirit” seems to me to be more hopeful than factual. He is telling them what they should be, but surely the truth of most people’s lives is that we struggle with the competing pulls of flesh and Spirit, and live our lives somewhere in the middle, sometimes close to one side, sometimes to the other.
A note here: “flesh” doesn’t just mean things associated with sexual matters. Paul uses it as a generic term for the ways of the present age—the world in which we live. Living “in the flesh” is associating ourselves with things that ultimately do not bring life but death. In contrast, living in the Spirit is living according to the ways of the new age inaugurated through the Resurrection of our Lord. We may know well that this is how we are called to live, but as Paul said in the previous chapter (last Sunday’s lesson), it is all to easy to do the things we do not want, and not do the things we want. Our lives are lived in this ongoing tug-of-war between the ways of this world—the way things are—and the ways of the world to come—the way God wants them to be.
Finally, there’s the parable of the sower, which I have heard re-named “the wasteful farmer.” This man goes out and strews seed without apparent regard for the kind of soil at hand. Much of the seed is wasted, because the soil is beaten down, or rocky, or full of weeds. Only some soil is rich and fertile, bearing grain “some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” Unlike for other parables, Jesus gives an explanation to his disciples. We can almost hear them saying “We’re the good soil! We will give the good harvest.” Maybe so, but I suspect that those disciples were rather more like most of us. Sometimes we are good soil, and we give a good harvest for the Gospel of Christ, but at other times, we are hampered by the lack of understanding, by the cares of the world, by failing to feed our passion for the Word. The various kinds of soil live within each of us, and thus we live in a constant state of being “between.”
We are both good soil and rocky soil.
We live both in the Spirit and in the flesh.
We live both as people called out by God, and as people experiencing the complications of ordinary life.
We live in the middle.
Like Jacob’s troubled family, we are called to build God’s people.
Like the earliest disciples, we are called to be fertile soil for the Word of God.
Like the early saints in Rome, we are called to live into God’s new age, living according to God’s ways.
God knows that we live in the middle—and God still calls us, ready to use us in God’s great mission. God has a purpose for every one of us. May we strive to be aware of our calling, and may we be dedicated to following it, in this world into the next.
I have recently learned that some (many?) of the indigenous peoples of our province and country are objecting to the use of the word “our” in referring to them. In the context we were discussing, it seems we are no longer to pray for “our indigenous brothers and sisters,” but for “the indigenous peoples.” The specific objection is that the possessive pronoun “our” implies ownership, and the indigenous people are no-one’s property. I really get the second part, but I was a bit taken aback by the first idea. Does saying “our brothers and sisters” imply we own them? As I understand the English language, possessives can have that meaning, but their use in this kind of context refers more to interpersonal relationships than to ownership — at least in as far as I use the language.
That’s my perspective. But I do recognize that my use of language is not absolute, and how I use a word may not resonate well with someone from a different cultural/linguistic environment. For indigenous peoples in Canada, living with a heritage of the underside of colonialism, the implication of ownership and control is clearly very powerful, overriding any nuance of meaning that I may have understood.
There is a principle of building community which Paul expands on at length in chapters 8 through 10 of his First Letter to the Corinthians. The presenting issue is whether Christians should eat meat which has been sacrificed to idols — not a huge issue in most places today, at least as far as I can see. Nonetheless, Paul’s extended discussion of the issue comes to a widely-applicable ethical position. His position can be summed up as not knowingly doing anything that will give offense to another “brother or sister,” whether or not that thing is important to us.
Do I fully comprehend the power of using “our” in the context of referring to Indigenous people? Of course not: I am of settler stock, in fact, I am an immigrant. It is impossible for me to grasp the depth of the issues in the same way as a resident of a place like Maskwacis or Opaskwayak. But I can hear the effect that my language — easily taken for granted — can give offense, causing hurt where no hurt was intended.
I am resolved to pay attention to the language I use, striving always to hear how it may hurt others. It’s a hard road, but reconciliation depends on hearing each other in spirit and in truth. May my speech be clear and loving.
I live in Canada. Tomorrow, July 1, is our national holiday, Canada Day, the day when we celebrate the inauguration of the Confederation that is still our defining constitutional reality. It’s 150 years since our country became a defined national entity. There will be parties tomorrow, and we will participate in them, with joy and thanksgiving. This is a wonderful country.
As I write, members of our country’s First Nations are protesting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, erecting a teepee as a sign of “reoccupation” of the land on which the seat of our government stands. They are not celebrating “Canada 150” in anything like the way we settlers are.
I am an immigrant. My passport declares my place of birth to be “Richmond UK,” at that time in County Surrey, and now a part of Greater London. My family came to Canada in the early 50’s, in the great exodus of medical doctors that happened after the introduction of Britain’s National Health Service. Our life in Canada was challenging for my parents, far away from family and the familiarity of home territory. Nonetheless, they made a firm decision to stay here, to put down roots, and to build a life for their family. We use to sit around the dinner table and hear stories of the old country, but on one occasion I remember my father saying that he was so glad he had brought his family to this country. He talked about it as if it was the promised land — and very likely for him it was just that.
I learned some years later that he had a choice of jobs when he left the UK. Instead of Canada, we could have ended up either in the USA or South Africa. Events of the past quarter-century have made me very glad that he chose Canada.
And yet — as the current events in Ottawa make very clear — this is not a perfect country. I came to Canada aged not quite four, and have had a good life here. Nonetheless, I am very conscious that what I enjoy is not enjoyed by many others, and that the original inhabitants of this land have paid a heavy price for the blessings which I have received. I am in their debt.
This is a wonderful country: we have incredible landscapes, rich resources, a wealth of great people. But we have built a lot of what we have on the backs of the people who were here before us, and who do not share much of the bounty of the land we now call Canada.
I celebrate my country. I give thanks for the people who have made it what it is, knowing that those people are both indigenous and settlers. I pray that the years to come may continue to be a time of reconciliation between our peoples; and that the original inhabitants of Turtle Island may find a full role in the unfolding of our country’s future.
No nation is perfect. We all have stains on our history, which we cannot remove. What we can do is acknowledge our part in inheriting those stains, and continue to work towards reconciliation between those who are historical enemies.
God has blessed this country richly. May all of its peoples come to rejoice in our mutual blessings, and so help to build God’s Kingdom in this place
It’s the only policy.
I’m in my first year on my condo board. I said when I retired and we moved in here that I would never do this: condo boards deal mainly with finances, building issues, and complaints, the three aspects of church vestries that I found most tiresome. The missional aspect of church life helps to put these matters in some perspective. Not so in a condominium.
Nonetheless, I found myself drawn to this service, in part because I felt that things were not altogether right in how our building was being run. Somewhat to my surprise, I find I’m enjoying the work, or I was, until this week. Back-story: earlier this year we embarked on a project to revitalize a common lounge by the main entrance. After some months, and an expenditure of a reasonable but not huge amount of money, the project was finished, and many people commented on how much better it looked now. But — boom! — we received a package of 11 letters of complaint at this past week’s meeting. The writers didn’t like what was done, and they didn’t like the way it was done. I can accept that some mistakes were made. I also know that you can’t please everyone in matters of taste. People are entitled to their opinions, and if some feelings were hurt, as seems to be the case, some kind of apology could be made.
Only one of the letters was signed: the property manager had removed the other signatures at the writers’ request. They apparently didn’t want to be open to recriminations, wanting to keep the building peaceful. For me, this just makes things less peaceful, because anonymous complaints make any kind of meaningful response and reconciliation impossible. It’s a matter of community building, which requires openness, honesty, and taking responsibility for one’s own actions and feelings.
In one parish where I served as Rector, we had a spate of critical anonymous letters, very often placed in the collection plate. They bothered me mightily until I realized that I could not respond to them without being in dialogue with the writers. The trouble was less the (sometimes valid) content than the one-sidedness of the process. I announced a policy of refusing to acknowledge anonymous communications, inviting people who had concerns to come and see me in person. Over the next several months, I had a number of very worthwhile conversations with parishioners. The dishonest communications stopped and the parish never looked back. We discovered the benefits of openness and honesty.
Why would I call anonymous letters dishonest? Simply because they allow the writer to hide behind a veil, covering up any other matters that might pertain to it. The letter may be the truth, but there is no way of knowing if it’s either the whole truth or nothing but the truth. Lies of omission disrespect the recipient, and are every bit as dishonest as lies of commission.
In another parish, I encountered a more straightforward kind of dishonesty. A parishioner had donated a couple of buckets of soup for a church lunch. Somehow, someone had set them on the back steps, where they were forgotten for long enough that they went rotten, ruining the ice-cream pails they came in. A group of people came to me to ask what they should do. What should they tell the donor, who had a sharp tongue and a habit of holding grudges? They wanted a plausible story which would save everyone’s face, but they were rather taken aback when I suggested they simply tell the truth and suffer the consequences.
It worked. The donor was annoyed about the waste of her gift, and also about the loss of her pails, but the fact that her friends gave her the respect of the truth served to smooth the waters. Trust had been damaged, but if a lie had been told, further trust would have become impossible.
In the church, even more than in a condominium, we are concerned about the building of community. Let’s remember that true community can only be built on trust, and trust can only be built on honesty. And, of course, dishonesty destroys trust.
Jesus said “…you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32)