Category Archives: Reflections

Primary Sources

Sermon preached by James Harbeck at Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto, January 29, 2012

Readings:
Deuteronomy 18:15–20; 1 Corinthians 8:1–13; Mark 1:21–28

In the Gospel, it says the people in the synagogue were astonished at the teaching of Jesus, because he taught them as one having authority, not as the scribes did. After he cast out the demon, they said to each other, “A new teaching – with authority!”

What does that mean here? Does it mean that the scribes would go up and say [namby-pamby voice] “Oh, well, you know, I think maybe you should sort of do this or something,” and Jesus said “OK, you, do this! You, do that!”

Well, not exactly. What it is is something that will be awfully familiar to a lot of us here, university-educated as we are, and used to reading – and writing – academic papers as we may be.

Say you want to make some important suggestion. Say you want to present some striking theoretical insight. Do you just write a paper and say, “Well, this is this, and that’s that”?

Or do you research a whole bunch and use the thoughts of others as signposts and stalking horses and finally present what you think as a sort of new interpretation echoing some insight that some respected figure once had? Oh, I know this one; there was a time when I wrote lots of stuff like this: [academic discourse tone] “We see that, whereas in Brecht aesthetic perception is fundamentally detached and must remain so, in Artaud the experience is immersive to the point of sado-masochism. As the point, in an extra-daily encounter such as the theatre, is to enter what Schechner and Turner, among others, have persuasively characterized as a liminal state, which necessarily involves a more Dionysian encounter, to use Nietzsche’s terminology, we may view a more circumscribed version of the Artaudian experience as essential.”

Why put it that way? Because who, in an academic context, would pay attention to me if I just said “You turn to the arts to escape your controlled daily existence, so what we are aiming for in the arts is a contained loss of control”? What authority do I have? I know what I know and I think it’s right, but I need other people to know that I know what they expect me to know so I can say that I truly understand the topic and that my insights are valid and are based on not just what is known but what is known to be known. We all know that if you want to say something reliable about something, you need to go to the horse’s mouth – get it from where it actually came from. The primary source. Which I, of course, wasn’t. Who was I? Some graduate student.

Likewise, the scribes in Jesus’ time were always citing precedent. Anything new had to have justification from existing scripture or the words of some respected rabbi. Have a read through the Gospel of John and you’ll see a fair few places where it points out that what happened to Jesus was the fulfillment of some verse of scripture. For instance, after he is taken down from the cross, it says, “These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘None of his bones shall be broken.’ And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.’” Your copy of the Bible might even have footnotes telling you where these were said (Exodus 12:46 and Zechariah 12:10). Beyond that, the gospels are quite full of lines from the Hebrew scripture that anyone of the time who had studied them would recognize, just as we may recognize Shakespeare quotes.

For my part, as a graduate student, I actually found this “cite everything” approach very frustrating. Even as I was doing it, I wasn’t agreeing with having to do it. I wrote a letter that was published in TDR, a leading journal in performance studies, that I titled “In praise of preposterous propositions.” In it, I pointed out that a lot of the people we were citing in our theatre theory didn’t cite anyone. They just made stuff up. They were our primary sources precisely because they didn’t lean on anyone else. Artaud? Made it all up off the top of his head. Brecht? Yep, pretty much the same. Said “Here are some ideas I have and I think we should do things this way to produce this effect.” Sometimes it’s really necessary to just step up and say something so whacked-out that people gasp. To become the primary source.

And then, of course, the rubber hits the road. If you make a statement about the way things are or the way things should be, the next thing is to see if your hypotheses are predictive. That’s not just how the scientific method works. It’s also what today’s first reading, from Deuteronomy, told us. “If a prophet speaks in the name of God but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is not actually the word of God.” Now, we know that in the sphere of politics, many people will take things as God’s honest truth even when time and time again it has proven disastrously false. But if you want to get by in a field that truly relies on intellectual rigour, you have to make predictions that can be tested, and then they have to be tested.

It’s different in the sciences than in the humanities, of course. Things can be quite fuzzy in the arts and humanities; predictions are made about things that are impossible to measure accurately, or are subjective; sometimes the theory creates its own effect. So often we will turn to inspiring figures for authority: Artaud said this and I really like it. But in the sciences, the authority is what you can prove with empirical means. You have an experiment, or a set of measurements to take. If you want to see if a certain drug produces benefit, you set one or more endpoints – positive ones, such as cure of the condition, or negative ones, such as heart attack or death – and you have a bunch of people take the medication while another bunch of people take something that looks like the medication but is actually inert – a placebo – and you set a time frame in which to collect the observations. And you say the treatment group had a one-year incidence of fatal heart attack of 2 per thousand while the placebo group had a one-year incidence of fatal heart attack of 5 per thousand, and with this sample size these results are reliable within one percentage point 19 times out of 20.

So this sounds a little different from what prophets do. A prophet is usually predicting a specific event at a specific time. That’s really easy. To take a current example, on December 22, 2012, a whole bunch of people are going to feel really stupid if the world hasn’t had some sort of cataclysm. But when we’re talking theology in church, it’s somewhat more difficult. The timeline may stretch to the end of time; the endpoints may be entirely beyond the means of our instrumentation.

On the other hand, much of what is said by spiritual leaders is focused on the here and now. The instruction can come from observing people, sitting, listening quietly, searching for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Some things really do seem self-evident on reflection. I saw a quote the other day from the Buddha: “You will not be punished for your anger. You will be punished by your anger.” [smack head] Of course! But other things are more controversial, as they say in the sciences. Many of the teachings of Jesus seem so whacked-out socialistic to many people that they just convince themselves he said something more or less the opposite. “He didn’t mean give away your wealth and care for the poor. He meant getting rich is a sign of God’s blessing!” And while casting out demons seems pretty convincing, the more usual pronouncements we get regarding our mental, emotional, and spiritual states are things you have to try and see the result, and the results will often be internal and thus unverifiable in any objective sense.

So what do you do when you talk about these spiritual things? What do you do if you have some insight that you want to step up and convince people is true? For that matter, what do you do if you have to step up and say something but you’re not really, um, inspired by the Spirit?

This is one reason for all those citations, of course. If you don’t have anything to say that you really believe is earth-shattering and authoritative, you might just twiddle around in your sources and see what other people have said. Sometimes it becomes very derivative indeed. I used to get so frustrated when I was on an email list that was focused on aesthetic philosophy, because some people would spend all their time and energy arguing about what Kant said – did he say this or did he say that? – rather than arguing about what was or wasn’t in fact true. They made of Kant, and other noted thinkers, prophets whose word was true because they said it, and it remained to be determined just what they said. Look, it’s right there in Deuteronomy: even God doesn’t think you should take a prophet’s word just because he or she appears to be a prophet.

But, interestingly, that’s not what we do in theological discourse now, generally. We turn to scripture, of course. But we don’t usually spend a lot of time talking about what this or that thinker had to say about scripture. So if we’re offering an interpretation of scripture, or of reality with or without reference to scripture, what is our authority? Where do we turn to for authority? Do we have our own authority? Are we our own primary sources?

Of course, everyone keeps his or her own counsel. Even a person who follows a dogma to the letter has decided to do so. But in what we say to others to justify our positions, what authority do we call on? What are our endpoints?

I can tell you what authority people in the arts tend to call on when justifying their arts to people outside the arts. As with so many other things, they talk about economic benefit. Yes, arts are good because they provide employment and get money moving and give good return on investment and la la la… So is money the ultimate basis? Let me ask you: when you go to work and earn money, what do you spend it on? Well, among other things, you spend it on music, movies, theatre… the arts. So how can money be the justification for art when art is one of our motivations for getting money?

And when people talk about what good religion or spirituality is, what are the criteria? What do we call on for evidence? Health, well-being, social order, social justice, a whole lot of humanistic values. We like to talk about things that can be measured in the here and now because, uh, well, they’re things that can be measured in the here and now. We’re afraid that if we talk about anything more spiritual than that, people will brush it off because it’s inaccessible. Now, I know that some of you don’t happen to believe in anything more than the material, so that’s not a problem for you. For those of us who do, however, we might notice that we nonetheless tend to accept the framing of the discourse as though we don’t. We turn to the empirical for authority. But how can we persuade people to move beyond a materialistic perspective when all our arguments appeal to the materialistic a prioris?

Well, what else are we going to turn to for authority? If we’re talking to people who don’t accept the authority of the Bible, it’s senseless to quote the Bible for authority (though many people do that nonetheless). Anyway, citing the Bible requires understanding and interpretation, and on what authority do we proclaim this or that understanding? So what do we do?

Well, if I’m here to say that we are all part of the body of Christ, we are all pieces of God, drops of water in the ocean of God, and that we all have within us a connection to that universal divine, then I’m saying that we are all primary source material. Not that we all, off the tops of our heads, know all the answers, but that we all have the ability to find the answers through paying attention to God. That each of us is living a life that is an experiment – take a universal wholeness, pretend it is an infinity of parts, and let each part seek to find its way back to the wholeness, and to create a whole lot on the way. And all the stuff that we might think we want to turn to for authority is actually just feeding into the experiment, exists not to justify the experiment but in fact exists only with the justification of the experiment. And in order to convince people of this, where I can turn for authority is the people themselves, and say “Look, if you want, and see. I am a primary source; you are a primary source. I’m telling you what my experiment of me says; I encourage you to try to duplicate the results.”

Of course, we have the benefit of other people’s experience and insights; we don’t have to start from scratch, just as scientists know what other experiments have determined and they set out to build on it. We find what we find in the primary source of us because someone else has given us their results. Jesus is primary source material, that’s for sure. But so are we. Stop. Listen. Learn. Prophesy to yourself and see if you get it right. If not, listen more carefully and try again.

And put it into action. Otherwise you’re just planning an experiment, not actually undertaking it. We do live in a world of things that go bump, and of people who go bump too. Someone has to make everything happen. Here at Holy Trinity, for instance, there are a lot of things that need to be done. We know it’s valuable to us because when we earn our money we give some of it to the church. We should also remember that time and energy are valuable too. So let us all remember to contribute some of our prophetic energy to serving our community. We may be a non-profit organization, but we are a for-prophet organization.

Black Cake and Advent — a homily preached by Ann Griffin at Epiphany-St Mark’s on Advent IV

[Ann is an honorary assistant at Holy Trinity]

 

Here we are – nearly at the end of Advent – one week from today all the

preparations of Advent will be over and we will be celebrating the birth of

the Christ Child.

 

 

Today I want to talk to you about Black Cake and Advent – because the

two are closely related

 

 

Those of you who are not from the Islands will be saying “What on earth is Black Cake?” and those of you who are from the Islands will be saying “How come she knows about Black Cake?”

 

My grandfather was a sea captain and he owned a citrus plantation in the Islands. He moved his family there so that when he and my uncles were at sea, my grandmother and aunt could run the plantation – my mother was the youngest by far in the family so she didn’t get to do that.

 

When the family moved to Canada about 100 years ago, Black Cake had become firmly planted in the family’s Christmas tradition and my grandmother taught my mother how to make it – as I grew older I began to see parallels between Advent and Black Cake

 

In the weeks of November the scripture readings give us hints that something special is going to happen – not every reading and not every Sunday, but often enough to prick our ears

 

 

 

 

So too, strange things began to appear on the grocery list that aren’t normally there – citron, peel, cherries, muscat raisins, currants and so on.

 

All were carefully placed in a bowl with port wine or dark or sailor’s rum (in my case) and left to soak.

 

Just as the pre-Advent season is now marked by Christ the King Sunday, the same Sunday used to be known a Stir Up Sunday from the collect for the day –

Stir up , we beseech thee O Lord, the hearts and minds of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of God’s good works….”

 

On Stir up Sunday, everyone took a turn at stirring the fruit while making a wish – The folk lore being that if your cakes weren’t ready to be baked by then, they wouldn’t be ready for Christmas.

 

The cakes were baked, thoroughly cooled, placed in a tin box and a very generous portion of rum poured over them each Sunday thereafter and probably a few weekdays in between.

 

Just as the ingredients continued to be transformed into Black Cake, the readings in Advent call upon us to be transformed.

 

The First Sunday of Advent calls us into the light:

Isaiah says “tear open the heavens and come down as when fire kindles brushwood” – light helps us to see what is in the shadows –

 

 

 

 

The next Sunday speaks of preparedness

The author of Second Peter says “wait for and hasten the coming of the day of God” – God acts through His people, singly and collectively and we all have a part to play in the coming of God.

 

The Third Sunday calls us to healing

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted” – we are called upon to heal the World, the Church ourselves and each other to make a place fit for God

 

And today we are called to remember Mary and her role in the coming of Christ. As the Psalmist puts it

I will sing of your steadfast love, O LORD, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations” – we all have a part to play in the Incarnation which we will celebrate a week from today

 

During the period of Advent, God takes all of us, individually and collectively and transforms us.

 

And now we enter into the last week of preparations before the Feast of the Incarnation. It can be a hectic, frenzied time, full of last minute shopping, gift wrapping, trying to figure out where to hide things and all those activities with which we are all too familiar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have my own names for a lot of periods of the Church Year. This is what I call the Simon and Garfunkel time of the year – “Slow down, you’re goin’ too fast got to make the moment last, Hello lamppost how ya doin’, got to watch your flowers growin’”

 

And the Church helps us to slow down by giving us a special saying for each day of the last period of Advent – these sayings form the verses of the well-beloved Christmas hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emanuel..” I don’t expect you to memorise all of them, but pick one as ‘your’ verse and try to think of it each day

 

O Come Thou Wisdom from on high, and

order all things far and nigh;

to us the path of knowledge show, and

teach us in her ways to go.

 

O Come, O Come Thou Lord of might, who

to thy tribes on Sinai’s height

in ancient times did give the law, in cloud and majesty and awe.

.

O Come Thou Rod of Jesse’s stem,

from every foe deliver them that trust Thy mighty power to save,

and give them victory over the grave.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

O Come Thou Key of David,

come and open wide our heavenly home,

make safe the way that leads us on high that

we no more have cause to sigh.

 

O Come, Thou Dayspring from on high, and

cheer us by thy drawing nigh;

disperse the gloomy clouds of night and

death’s dark shadow put to flight.

 

O Come, Desire of all the nations,

bind in one the hearts of all mankind;

bid every strife and quarrel cease and

fill the world with heaven’s peace.

 

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,

and ransom captive Israel,

that mourns in lonely exile here until

the Son of God appear.

 

And the refrain that sums up the transforming process of Advent and the coming of Christ –

 

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

 

 

For God will be among us.

“Prepare the Way” (Homily given by JoLynn Connelly on Advent II, Dec. 4, 2011)



Today, we continue our Advent journey walking in the Light amidst darkness, with a call to “prepare the way of the Lord” and “make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God” as Isaiah says or to “Make ready the way of the Lord, clear a straight path” as Mark says.

 

Advent is a time of preparing our hearts, minds and our world for the coming of God. We wait in this time of darkness, hoping for the Light. As Sherman spoke of last week, many cultures and many faiths celebrate the hope for Light in the face of darkness during this time—Hannukkah, the Festival of Lights, with its 8 days of candle lighting celebrating how only one day of ritual oil lasted 8 days, thanks to God; Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Light, that celebrates the victory of good over evil, and the Wicca celebration of Yule, with feasting and the annual Yule log symbolizing the warmth and love of home and hearth. We are all huddling in the darkness awaiting the Light while the world around us grows darker and colder until the Winter Solstice.

 

As Christians, our call is to hear the cry of St. John the Baptist to make ready the way of the Lord. We await the birth of the Christ Church, who to us is the Light coming into the world. But, what is this way we must make ready?

Today’s Psalm 85 said it well, it is where kindness and truth shall meet, where justice and peace shall kiss. Kindness without truth is sentimentality, and truth without kindness is harsh, as is justice without peace. And peace, as we know, without justice won’t last. So, that’s the world we are awaiting, we are hoping for, helping our hearts to be ready to receive, getting ready to welcome back the Light, getting ready to welcome the birth of the Christ child.

 

So that’s the world we are waiting for, hoping for, working for, but as we huddle in the darkness we know that world is a long way off from that vision. St. John the Baptist speaks to us as do many later prophets of what we must do to get ready—let’s look at former and current prophets. St. John the Baptist, a preacher in the wilderness, crying out for us to “make ready the way of the Lord” subsisting on locusts and honey, jailed and killed proclaiming this prophecy.

A more recent prophet proclaiming this way,Martin Luther King, Jr. said:

This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate in to the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.” Martin Luther King, Jr. is mostly known in the mainstream history books as pushing for the black civil rights, and yes he fought the hard nonviolent fight for voter rights, but his prophetic voice critical of war resonates through the ages.

Dorothy Day, New York City Catholic pacifist said in the midst of WWII in her article “We are to blame for New War in Europe” where blame was placed on the shoulders for all for “their materialism, their greed, their idolatrous nationalism…for their ruthless subjection of another country.” Dorothy Day challenged the argument that WWII was a good war because we sought to save the Jews, by pointing out that more tracks to the death camps could have been chosen for destruction, and that the US refused to accept even those Jews who were legal refugees (90% of quotas went unfulfilled) for fear of “overloading the labour market.” She said when asked to write a pacifist manifesto “I can write no other than this unless we use the weapons of the spirit, denying ourselves and taking up our cross and following Jesus, dying with Him and rising with Him, men will go on fighting, and often from the highest motives, believing that they are fighting defensive wars for justice and in self defense against present or future aggressions.” We have only to list the conflicts that we have suffered through as world in the thirty or so years since her death to point to the prophesy coming true. Dorothy Day was a voice, as was Martin Luther King, Jr. of looking to our own hearts first, “preparing the way of the Lord, making straight in the wasteland a highway for our God” and being able to see clearly the legacy of increasing worldwide poverty, increasing terrorism, increasing injustice that have stemmed from all the recent wars and conflicts.

 

Prophetic voices indeed. Mohandas Gandhi adds his prophetic voice with “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary, the evil it does is permanent.”

John the Baptist, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and Mohandas Gandhi. They all point to the way being filled with love and sacrifice, waiting in darkness and yet hoping in the Light, renouncing violence and living lives filled with wisdom, justice and love.

As Peter said in today’s reading, “What we await is a new heaven and a new earth.”

We are living in a time where new prophets are arising, voices asking us to change our ways, repent if you will, and make straight our path in the wilderness. Konrad Steffen, considered by many to be a prophet of climate change due to his work in Greenland, announced to the world his findings of rising temperatures and loss of the polar ice caps. He adds his research and his prophetic voice to the many around the world shouting his warnings from the wilderness for the world to stop, listen, turn around and live differently, live in better harmony with the Earth. He warns that not only will coastlines be affected by rising water due to global warming, the climate of the world will change as the gulf stream will be disrupted.

 

Locally, our very own Jack Layton, in his tireless championing the cause for the homeless wrote prophetically in his last letter on his deathbed that “Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.” How’s that for hoping in the darkness and awaiting the Light.

The Occupy Movement across North America is another prophetic voice begging to be heard. The dismantling of the encampments is only the beginning, as people re-group in communities, continuing to educate and teach. I am proud to say that my daughter, Sofia, was part of Toronto Occupy along with several of her friends. One Occupy sign read “We will no longer stand and watch our world be dictated by the whims of the super rich.” It gives me great hope that so many people, mainly young people, gave up their own more comfortable beds and homes to speak truth to power as the Quakers ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­say. One of the hopeful elements to me of the work that went on at Occupy was the way that homeless people were welcomed into the camp. This entailed a lot of work at times if people were struggling with mental health issues. The people’s mic and stories of how accommodating the Occupy protestors were filled me with hope. My own daughter told me of a night where a very angry man began beating on a drum trying to rouse all the sleeping people in the tents with his urgent cry to march and protest right then at 3 AM. My daughter listened to him and helped him calm down. Others had called the police, and he asked my daughter to help him talk with the police. He was able to stay at Occupy and felt heard. I was very proud of Sofia.

 

So here we are at Holy Trinity Church at the Second Sunday of Advent. We have among us some amazing people, people working on the Christmas Story, people who have been supporting Occupy, people working with Kairos, the Wellesley Institute, and our Refugee Committee about to welcome our Afghan family tomorrow, along with all the many other good works so many of you are involved in, building the new community based on kindness, truth, justice and peace as was listed in Psalm 85. Maybe this is what God meant about clearing a straight path, hoping in the Light in the face of so much darkness.

For me, personally, I am very comfortable in my work with the homeless, (as difficult as it is to help them access the services they need) particularly the programs I run working with the homeless with mental health issues. But I have a son with high functioning autism. As all you know who are parents, it is challenging enough to be a good parent, when you’re a single parent with split custody the challenges become even more daunting, but when you have a child with a disability it can be a very dark and lonely road. My son Tobias, is an amazing young man. He has above average intelligence but because of the way information gets processed, or rather gets blocked on its way to getting processed he struggles with almost constant anxiety. This anxiety causes him to have all kinds of hand, arm and head movements, and makes him need to slide his feet, and run his hands along edges, walls, cabinets, anything to help him ground himself. This presented a challenge at school where the best they could do was offer him some coop placements stacking shelves and straightening clothes on hangers. But for someone who is anxious to make things perfect very little progress can be made so the placements haven’t been successful. And now as we face the last year of high school that the system can offer, all that is ahead

While we wait for the birth of our Messiah, the Christ Child, let us prepare the way of God in our hearts, and be empowered to speak out, to be prophets for peace, for love, for justice, for truth. And if we, like the one in Isaiah say, “what shall we cry out?” Let us hear God’s reply: “All humankind is grass, and all their glory like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower wilts. Though the grass withers and the flower wilts, the word of our God stands forever.” And that word gets revealed in the helpless and vulnerable form of a poor baby born in a manger, a poor baby in an occupied country who becomes a refugee, learns to toil with his hands, and then is arrested, beaten and tortured, and ultimately is put to death. But Love does conquer all, Hope outlasts despair, the Light does come into the world, and while we huddle in darkness these darkest of days, we know that Christ, the Light will be born.

 

“Fear, Hopelessness and Doubt; Yet Love is Come Again” (Homily given by Jolynn Connelly on May 1, 2011)

All of us here today have suffered sickness, have had troubles and tragedies, and perhaps have even faced despair and the death of a loved one. There isn’t one person here in this church who hasn’t experienced loneliness, felt overwhelmed, or at times felt hopeless and full of doubt.

We all wish we could face everything that life throws at us with courage and faith, but sometimes as Peter’s letter put it in today’s reading “You may have to suffer the distress of many trials.” We find ourselves experiencing a terrible “dark night of the soul,” and even when friends and family surround us with love we can feel lost and all alone.”

*

Fear

Just last week we celebrated Christ’s rising from the dead, and now this Sunday, just a week later, we hear how the disciples were huddled in a locked room terrified, with Thomas saying he wouldn’t believe unless he could “probe the nail prints in his hands and put his hand into his side.” Just a few verses earlier Mary Magdalene had already told the disciples that she had seen and spoken with Jesus. So like us, in spite of what they had heard and what we say we believe; they were fearful.

Martin Luther King, Jr. in his collections of sermons called “The Strength to Love” tells of a time in his life when he was also terrified after receiving a very threatening phone call in the middle of the night:

I hung up, but I could not sleep. It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point.

I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally, I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers, I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, “stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.

Three nights later, our home was bombed. Strangely enough, I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My experience with God had given me a new strength and trust. I knew now that God is able to give us the interior resources to face the storms and problems of life.”

Okay, you’re saying, that’s Martin Luther King, Jr., practically a saint of both nonviolence and faith. But I stand here as one offering of a glimmer of hope about where God is when we are terrified. God is as near as our whispered prayer. So, in the Gospel today, Jesus didn’t get angry with the disciples for hiding in the locked room—he simply breathed the Holy Spirit on them, and they were able to go forth.

I pray for each of us when we are terrified, and yes, there will be days or nights of terror for each of us in our lives, that we will be able to whisper a prayer for help, and feel the breath of the Spirit.

*

Hopelessness

But what about the kind of hopelessness we feel so often in our lives—money troubles, lives too busy, mean-spirited politics, so much sickness and dreariness.

In my work with the homeless we have had some success stories, but more often than not, we journey with people who struggle ferociously with mental illness, substance use, and grinding poverty and sometimes their stories don’t end well. I am amazed though at the resiliency and courage of so many of the men and women I have met over the years, however, and I wanted to tell you a story about one man I will call “Sam.”

*

We met Sam living in an abandoned parking garage. Sam’s parents had died, and then just as he had to move out of a group home at 18, he began to develop schizophrenia. We met Sam after he had begun to live in this filthy parking garage many years later. He wore multiple toques and ragged coats, and his face was so covered in grime it was impossible to see his skin. When we would come near he would swear and scream at us, but gradually we found we could leave a sandwich, or a cigarette and later some KFC near him and walk away. He slowly stopped yelling at us. We tried to get him to hospital after we found him under a frozen sleeping bag, but that was only a solution for a couple of days. We worked with him for several years and brought more food, clothes, and gradually he got to know a wonderful psychiatrist we brought with us, and started taking medication, but it was the following his lead, following his choices as best we could that started making the difference. We got him a bike and he started taking library books out while still living in that parking garage, but one day he told us he was ready to leave the garage and get some kind of an apartment. Last Christmas he came to our holiday party and I danced with him—he was in a clean set of clothes, smiling shyly, and proudly telling me some of the things he now cooks for himself. Sam to me is an inspiration of hope. And though I work at a secular agency I believe that Sam’s journey is a journey of Love and a journey of God giving us the faith to keep hope alive as we walked with Sam, and continue to walk with Sam.

What would have happened if the small group of us didn’t have such crazy hope and faith in the face of such hopelessness. I pray for each of us when confronted by the dead end of hopelessness, that we will see the glimmer of God’s shimmering hope.

Doubt

I am sure all of us can relate to Thomas’ struggle to believe what Mary Magdalene and the disciples had already told him. How many of us, even when we’ve taught our children about God, have been going to church for years, and on paper are Christians—how many of us feel a sense of peace and calm and shining faith when everything in our life is going wrong and our troubles feel like they are about to choke us. How many of us haven’t thought, “Where is God?” and “Why is God letting this happen to me when I try to be a good person?” and finally, “God, why aren’t you taking this suffering away from me?” How many of us, in our heart of hearts, when we have been drowning in death, divorce, poverty or near poverty, have even wondered whether we are actually all alone in the universe with our suffering, and that there is no God?

Almost three years ago, I sat beside my Dad on his deathbed. At this point his lung cancer had spread and we were just trying to manage his pain. He could no longer speak. His eyes were a bit glazed over as he looked at me, and then gradually he started to look intently up at the corner of the ceiling in his hospice room. His eyes widened and his arms, which he could barely lift, started rising toward the vision. His face was enraptured with joy for a full 5 seconds or so, I was so moved I just wept by his side. Gradually the light left his face and his arms lowered. I asked him, “Dad, what did you see?” and he looked at me but he couldn’t speak. The next morning, the nurses told me that even though he couldn’t even sit up in bed, he had managed somehow to climb over the bed railing, and they found him kneeling at the side of his bed. It took four nurses to hoist him back into bed.

Now, if my Dad had been a religious man, this would still have been moving, but my Dad struggled with doubt all his life. He felt uncomfortable going up to communion at their church they started attending late in life, because he felt it was hypocritical as he was so unsure about God. I have no doubt that whatever my Dad saw that day, just a few days before he died, was miraculous, and it brings tears to my eyes just to ponder this. But like all of us, the cares of the day often crowd that memory out of my heart and mind. I offer this glimmer of hope to you today, on this Sunday after Easter, on this May Day of International Workers Day, on this ancient “first day of summer” as May 1st used to be known, on this day we remember the disciples’ terror and hopelessness, and Thomas’ doubt, that Christ truly has risen in spite of our fears, our hopelessness and our doubt.

 

I would like to end with the words of a hymn written in 1928 by John M.C. Crum that are dear to me:

 

Now the green blade rises, from the buried grain.

Wheat that in the dark earth, many days has lain.

Love lives again, that with the dead has been.

Love is come again, like wheat arising green.

 

In the grave they laid him, Love by hatred slain,

Thinking that he would never wake again.

Laid in the earth, like grain that sleeps unseen,

Love is come again, like wheat arising green.

 

Forth he came at Easter, like the risen grain,

He that for three days in the grave had lain.

Raised from the dead, my living Lord is seen.

Love is come again like wheat arising green.

 

When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain,

Your touch can call us back to life again,

Field of our hearts that dead and bare have been,

Love is come again like wheat arising green.”

Occupy Justice (Homily for the Last Sunday after Pentecost)

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24     Psalm 100      Ephesians 1:15-23     Matthew 25:31-46

by Sherman Hesselgrave

Holy One, you have called us to be the living stones with which you seek to build your realm of living justice on earth.  Make us worthy of this great calling, and open our hearts and minds to recognize your Spirit working in our midst.  Amen.

Last Wednesday, at the midweek Eucharist, we commemorated St Margaret of Scotland, whose feast day it was.  Margaret, the 11th-century Anglo-Saxon princess who married King Malcolm III of Scotland, used her position of privilege and her wealth to provide relief to the homeless, the hungry, and the orphaned, as well as to redeem many Anglo-Saxons who had been sold into slavery by their Norman conquerors.  Not surprisingly, the gospel for St Margaret’s Day is the familiar passage we just heard from St Matthew:
I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’

The Hebrew scripture appointed for the St Margaret’s Day is a passage from the 58th chapter of Isaiah:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? …
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; …. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday…. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
I could not hear those words without thinking about the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movements that have been filling the headlines these last months.  I believe we are hearing the prophetic voice of God in the cries to repair the breach between the rich and the poor–the 1% and the 99%–between the oppressed and the free, for the reign of God is built on a foundation of social justice. Margaret of Scotland was called to be a repairer of the breach, and so are you and I.
Today’s Hebrew scripture reading from Ezekiel is another reminder of our vocation to occupy justice.  The ‘shepherd’ has been such a powerful image in the Jewish and Christian traditions, and it is largely due to economics.  In ancient Israel, people depended on livestock like sheep for their survival.  Sheep provided milk and meat, wool for clothing and shelter, and could be traded for other goods.  The shepherd’s job was both vital and dangerous, protecting the flock from both human and animal predators.  If a shepherd was only self-interested and neglected the well-being of the flock, everyone suffered and there would be a day of reckoning.  A good shepherd, on the other hand, would feed God’s sheep “with justice,” as Ezekiel puts it.

As we look around at what has been happening in the world recently, it is difficult not to think of it as a time of reckoning for the shepherds of the economy in which we live and move.  How it plays out will depend on many factors, but the first step toward redressing injustice is to name it, to call it out into the open, to share the stories of how it has wounded, oppressed, or destroyed.  The second step is to call out those responsible for the injustice.  Sometimes the bad actors are well known and easily identified.  Often, we ourselves may bear some responsibility for allowing systemic injustice to go unchallenged, or for putting our trust blindly in people or institutions compromised or corrupted by self-interest rather than the common good.  The third step is to begin the process of repairing the breach.  This is the most challenging part, for the forces to maintain the status quo are very powerful, indeed, especially economic forces.  William Wilberforce proposed legislation in the British Parliament to end the trafficking of slaves every year for 26 years before the Slave Trade Act passed in 1807.  But it would take another 26 years, when Wilberforce was on his deathbed, before the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, which abolished the economic institution of slavery in most of the British Empire.

Economic justice is a persistent theme in our sacred writings.  When the prophet Isaiah writes:
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price….

he is writing around the time when coinage is replacing bartering as the method of trading,  meaning that, going forward, in order to participate in the market economy it would not be enough to bring something to trade for something you need; now, for the first time, one had to have money.  Yet Isaiah holds out the vision of God for an economic system where there is enough for everyone, whether you have money or not.  The tension between that vision of the “peaceable kingdom” or  the “reign of God” and the economic systems that followed is as real today as it was then.  Jesus also warned that wealth and power had the capacity to corrupt.  As he put it:  “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Today marks the end of another church year, a day when we reflect on the reign of Christ and Jesus’ coming among us to show us that God’s reign on earth is not some fantastic reality in the remote future, but rather that God’s realm is right on top of us; we can literally reach out and touch it, because it is made manifest in the faithful people of God who live and struggle to put flesh and bones on the vision of God for a just world.  As yeast transforms the dough in which it has been placed, so too the community in which we have been place is transformed when we occupy justice, when we live as inhabitants in God’s realm realized.

While it can be discouraging to regard the magnitude of the challenges we face, we have to remember today’s gospel that every act of giving food or drink to a hungry or thirsty person, every act of sheltering a homeless person, every act of clothing a shivering person, or visiting a person who is sick or in prison is an extension of the reign of Christ.  If we feel that we lack the resources, remember the story of what God could do with five barley loaves and two small fish.

Jesus promised that God will meet us wherever we are and lead us on the path to the place where we need to be.  As we gather in our circle and come to the table to be nourished once again with the spiritual food for our journey, may God give us the faith to trust in the Spirit’s leading, and the courage and strength to do and be what we are called to do and become.