Jesus is Not a Tame Messiah: A Sermon for the 10th Sunday After Pentecost

tame lion

Luke 12:49-56
12:49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!

12:50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!

12:51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!

12:52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three;

12:53 they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

12:54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens.

12:55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens.

12:56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

One of my favourite books when I was a kid was the C.S. Lewis classic The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. In the days before Amazon and easy access to books, I checked out this book from my school’s library. I had no idea that it was a part of a whole series of books. I didn’t know until later in my teens that it was such a popular book, and that it had been turned into a series of films in the late 80’s. We lived a very sheltered life way back then in outport Newfoundland.

I was overjoyed when the book was brought back to film screens in the 2005 re-adaptation. I was excited that my kids would now get to experience this great story that meant so much to me. If you’re not familiar with it I will try to summarize it without giving too much away. Four children from wartime England are sent away from the city to the safety of the countryside home of an eccentric uncle. There they find a magical wardrobe and stumble into the Land of Narnia. Narnia is populated by talking animals and mythical creatures like centaurs. Narnia is ruled by a lion named Aslan, but Aslan hasn’t been seen in quite a long time. In his absence, Narnia has fallen under the control of the evil White Witch. She has put Narnia under her despotic control and permanent winter. As the children arrive in Narnia there are reports that Aslan has been spotted. Aslan is on the move!

In what is one of my favourite scenes from the book, the children find themselves in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. Over a meal and cup of tea Mr. Beaver is trying to explain to the children just who Aslan is:

Mr. Beaver said, “Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion…”

“Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you… He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”

Aslan is definitely not safe or tame, but he is good!

Anyone who has read the Chronicles of Narnia series knows that Aslan is a type of Christ. It was Lewis’ way of imagining Jesus the Christ active in another world. As I read this story as a youngster it really resonated with me. I was making my first steps in making sense of all this Jesus stuff. I had my hermeneutical training wheels on, so to speak. As I made my first attempts to read the Gospels what I read were the stories of a wild, dangerous man. What I witnessed in church was a safe, docile Jesus. The Gospels presented a Jesus that upset the status quo, hung out with sinners and prostitutes, touched unclean women and men, seemed to play fast and loose with religious laws and ticked off religious people in the process. The Jesus they preached about in church seemed to be a white washed version, clean and sanitized. Jesus looked and sounded an awful lot like us. I was drawn to the Jesus I read about in the Gospels, even though he made me really uncomfortable and said very challenging things. The Jesus I was given in church was boring and seemed more like a prop for the pastor to rail against whatever sin he was trying to scare out of us. Aided by Lewis, this was my first inclination that Jesus wasn’t tame, but he was good in some new and exciting way that my young brain could not quite grasp just yet. I’m not sure I grasp it even yet, but I am still drawn to this Jesus character.

Our Gospel reading for this Sunday is one of those passages that turns upside down our image of the meek and mild Jesus that wants us all to hold hands and sing Kumbaya. It comes towards the end of Chapter 12 of Luke’s Gospel where Jesus has grown increasingly agitated in his words to the crowd gathered around him. The passage begins with the inflammatory, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” You can almost hear the gasp in the crowd. If they had been sitting in pews they would be squirming. This is not what we have come to expect from Jesus, who we have turned into a type of motivational speaker. He’s supposed to make us feel good about ourselves. But Jesus seems to know his death is near and it’s stressing him out. He refers to his death as a baptism, one that he just wants to be over and done with.

He goes on to ask, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” And we, with all the gathered crowd, could answer, “Well, yes…yes we did!” You know, the peace on earth and all that good stuff that the angels promised at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. Peace, yes; fire, no.

Peace, though, does not come without a little discomfort for someone. In Jesus’ Kingdom message, his gospel, things have to be made right before there can be peace. The fire Jesus talks about is not a fire of apocalyptic destruction, but one of purifying. It’s a controlled burn to let loose the nutrients of the kingdom in earthly soil, so that the fruits of justice, equality and, yes, peace can take root. He gave us fair warning of his mission in his opening statement in Luke’s Gospel:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
      to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (4:18-19)

Not everyone will welcome this fire. For some it will look like destruction, an undoing, not a renewing. It’s hard for us to comprehend just how divisive this gospel was. We live in a world still steeped in the Christian tradition. For the early Christians for whom Luke’s Gospel was written down, they knew all too well the division that Jesus and his message brings. Kicked out of their synagogues, shunned by family and friends. Branded radicals, heretics, and enemies of the state all because they named Jesus and not Caesar as Lord, clung to faith and love as the only ways to God’s favour. What does my Christian faith cost me? Maybe a snarky comment on Facebook? Maybe a raised eyebrow when I disclose that I work for the church?

Jesus chides the people for being able to read the weather patterns, but not the signs of the time. They do not see the kairos, the divinely appointed time that Jesus inaugurates. Don’t you see what’s happening? Don’t you see the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom? You get ready when weather approaches, so why not prepare for the changing times? This is a dig at their unwillingness to repent, literally to change their mind and actions, in the wake of the Kingdom announced by Jesus.

In the church we’re not comfortable with any of this. Fire? That sounds too revivalistic! Division? Can’t we all just get along? Change? We’ve always done it this way! Sounds like mixing politics and religion. This is a Jesus we’re just not comfortable with. Give us the Jesus that promises eternal life and speaks comfortable words. Give us the Jesus that offers us an easy yoke; the Jesus who looks like me, sounds like me, and meets my checklist for what a messiah looks like; who reinforces my ideas of who is in and who is out. We want the tame Jesus, who makes it clear who are our enemies and who protects the status quo. But then in passages like this we are reminded, to our horror, that Jesus is not a tame messiah – but he is good, and his way is good.

Jesus refers to fire, literally setting the world on fire. For this fire to come, it must first set our hearts ablaze, set the church ablaze. For others to have, maybe we have to go without out. For this world to be just, peaceful, clean, perhaps something needs to change in us. For us to name Jesus as Lord, not the political leaders and systems of this world, means that we do not live according to the values of these old, dead, decaying systems. To follow Jesus as his apprentices means we learn from his way of forgiveness, reconciliation, gentleness, generosity, love.

This is why I think baptism is still a radical, counter-cultural practice. We tend to get warm fuzzies when we think about baptism. The oil of chrism marks the newly baptized as Christ’s own, forever. The light of the baptism symbolizes the light of Christ that shines in the believer. But in rethinking baptism in light of today’s gospel reading, we glimpse just how radical baptism is. First, remember that baptism symbolizes the joining of the newly baptized in the death and resurrection of Jesus; the old dies and a new person emerges. Second, the little light of Christ is actually a burning fire, setting our hearts and the world ablaze. Finally, baptism unites us not just to the meek and mild Jesus, but the wild, unpredictable Christ. The call of baptism is to follow this untamed messiah out into the world. The question remains: will we leave the safety of our churches to follow him?

 

Advertisements

A Curmugeony Gospel: A Sermon for the 8th Sunday After Pentecost

curmudgeon3

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,*
   vanity of vanities! All is vanity. <!– 12 –>

12 I, the Teacher,* when king over Israel in Jerusalem, 13applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. 14I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.*

18 I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me 19—and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labours under the sun, 21because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? 23For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.                   Ecclesiastes 1: 2, 12-14; 2:18-23 

Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ 14But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ 15And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ 16Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” 18Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” 20But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’          Luke 12: 13-21

There are pros and cons to getting older. On the con side your body starts to turn against you. I find I’m at a stage in my life where I have to take off my glasses to read anything. I have to increasingly be vigilant over what I eat. Gone are the days when I could easily drop ten pounds just by cutting back a little. My stomach constantly reminds me of my age when I consume the wrong things. My joints and muscles are not happy with me when I do any activity that is even slightly out of the ordinary. Yes getting older is no joke.

There is, though, a bright side to getting older. I find in my 43rd trip around the sun that I care less and less what other people think about me. There is a liberation in getting older. Life experience slowly starts to translate into wisdom. I’m starting to realize that the things that matter most in life are not things at all. Things like status, wealth, and material possessions are fleeting at best. The things that we spend the first half of our lives chasing, when we find them, turn out to not be what we needed at all. As the fires of idealism and youthful naiveté burn out, we are left with the burning embers of pragmatism. If we learn to be content with the heat they provide, we will see that there is plenty of fuel left for the second half of our lives.

Along with this our tolerance for BS goes way down. We know that life is too short to waste on trivial matters. Personally I see myself getting more and more curmudgeony every day. I have a constant urge to tell whippersnappers to turn down that racket, pull up those pants and get off my lawn.

This is kind of the way I see the Book of Ecclesiastes. It’s a book of aged, second half of life, curmudgeony, practical wisdom. Now we don’t hear much from Ecclesiastes in the lectionary. This Sunday’s reading is only one of two appearances. Most of us have probably only heard the famous “Time for everything” reading either at a funeral or in the Bird’s famous folk song rendition. There was some doubt about whether the book should even be included in the Hebrew canon. It finally was included thanks to its association with Solomon, although Solomon very likely had nothing to do with it. When you read Ecclesiastes it’s easy to see why it was so hotly contested. Its biting realism, disillusion and skepticism make it an unlikely candidate for a holy book. It makes it an unlikely candidate to get much of a reading today either, with our culture’s fixation on happiness and positivity. But it’s a wonderful thing that it was included because real is where most of us live our lives, with a healthy side of disillusion and skepticism.

In our Christian Canon Ecclesiastes is placed between Proverbs and Song of Songs. Literally stuck between do-this-and-all-will-be-well wisdom and burning, erotic passion. One we know does not quite work out the way it promises and the other we know does not last (I leave it to you to figure out which is which). The book takes its name from the Hebrew and Greek words (feminine I might add) for one who gathers the assembly. So basically this is the preacher or teacher gathering and addressing the assembled faithful. It could just as easily start off with “Sit tight y’all because I’m about to give it to you straight.”

Instead it starts with the words, “Vanities of Vanities! All is vanity.” My dear old grandmother, God rest her soul, quoted this line anytime anyone talked of possessions, wealth or the lack thereof. “Vanities, vanities, my dear, all is vanity,” she would say as she rhythmically tapped her lap with her closed eyes and grinning face turned towards her maker. What follows is a good sampling of the portions of pragmatic wisdom that the Teacher will dole out in the remainder of her address to the faithful:

B’ys I’ve given this a fair bit of thought and I have come to the conclusion that life is hard. Most of what we do in life is vanity, fleeting, As Dylan said you might as well try and catch the wind. Why work hard to build up riches when you’re just going to leave it to some stunned relative who will probably waste it. What a waste! Why spend time, even lose sleep, worrying about getting ahead in this life. What a waste!”

If you think you’re the first one to see things this way, then go talk to your dear ol’ granny. If you think you’ll be the last, just hang around for a bit longer. There’s nothing new under the sun my son! You know what I’m talking about, the more things change the more they stay the same and all that jazz!

Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people, so get over it!

The Teacher goes on to tell us other hard truths. We will all die, regardless of whether we are rich or poor, saint or sinner, wise or fool. Yes God has a plan for us, is even active in our lives, but sadly it remains hidden from us, a mystery. All we are left with is today, right now, to live our lives and make the best of the path we choose. As the writer Frederick Buechner (pronounced Beak-ner) says in summing up the teacher, “Often people are closest to God when they need him most and that sometimes they know him best by missing him.”

In our Gospel reading another teacher makes an appearance. He is renowned for teaching with authority. Unlike the religious elites he speaks directly to the needs of the people. They love his practicality and honesty. He has shades of the old Teacher from Ecclesiastes in him. He pulls no punches, telling it like it is. He is wise beyond his years. In fact he seems to embody Sophia, wisdom in the flesh.

In chapter 12 of Luke’s Gospel a crowd has assembled around Jesus. A voice cries from the crowd for Jesus to settle an argument about a family inheritance. Jesus warns the crowd against the dangers of greed and materialism. He tells them a parable of a rich man whose life centers on just that. When he dies, like everyone else, what good are his riches to him. You can hear the echo of the old Teacher in the words of Jesus: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” Vanities of vanities! What a waste!

But what does it mean to be rich toward God? The key comes later in verse 31: “But seek the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you.” The Message translation expands on this passage:

“What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out. You’re my dearest friends! The Father wants to give you the very kingdom itself.

Be generous. Give to the poor. Get yourselves a bank that can’t go bankrupt, a bank in heaven far from bankrobbers, safe from embezzlers, a bank you can bank on. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.”

This is another of the great lessons that age teaches us: we can’t do it on our own. We need the help of others and we need to be help for others. We know all too well how raw, even cruel, life can be. In the face of loss, pain, rejection, injustice, inequality, and struggle we learned that life is unfair, often ugly. But hopefully it has also shown us beauty, especially when we open ourselves up to others. If the old Teacher shows us of the vanities and fleeting reality of the things of this life, Jesus teaches us a new twist. This life is not just lived for ourselves, but for others. In the Kingdom of God, in God’s economy, we are all interconnected and responsible to each other. Yes we need to hear the stark reality and hard truth of Ecclesiastes but we also need to hear the truth of the good news of Jesus. We are all precious to God and we are in this together. Our lives and all that go with them are not our own, they are from God and because of that we are responsible to each other. This is basically what Saint Paul, another great teacher, is saying to the Colossian assembly when he says “but Christ is all and in all!’ If I may take the liberty of rewording the Beuchner quote from above: Often people are closest to God when they need him most, that sometimes they know him best by not missing him in the needs of others.

Rev. Robert Cooke is the Rector of St. Mark’s.

 

 

Creation Care for Those Who Come After Us

 

Greta Thunberg

“For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us, Accept our repentance, Lord.” – Book of Alternative Services, p. 285

The above words of confession are from the ‘Litany of Penitence’ in the Ash Wednesday liturgy. The emphasis of my first four columns has really been on the first part of that confession; that is, our waste and pollution of God’s creation through the waste we create, especially single-use plastics, and the greenhouse gases we emit though our transportation choices. Anglicans profess faith in a God who created all that is, and yet we continue to desecrate that which God has created and entrusted to our care. This fragile earth is “the mother of all the living” (Sirach 40:1) and we share her with all living things. Yet, somewhere along the line we lost our reverence for Mother Earth. Theologian Jürgen Moltmann writes that we’ve come to view her “simply as matter, and no longer as holy.” And so, he warns, “[i]t is time for us to respect the holiness of God’s earth once more, before the catastrophes descend on us.”

The catastrophes Moltmann speaks of are still some distance in the future, far enough that many of us who are adults today won’t have to deal with them. That burden we leave to our children and grandchildren. The world’s leading climate scientists say that we have until 2030 to limit global warming to between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius to avoid catastrophic climate change. At present we are on a path to 4 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. I’m not aware of any person of science who believes human civilization can survive that. Yet, we continue to feed our insatiable appetite for fossil fuels without any meaningful thought of what that means for the children and youth of today. Where is our concern for those who come after us? Who represents them in our individual and collective decision-making today?

Let’s face it, neither our economic nor our political systems represent the children and youth of today. Indeed, political communist George Monbiot describes our current economic system as “an environmental pyramid scheme, dumping its liabilities on the young and the unborn. Its current growth depends on intergenerational theft.” And philosopher Roman Krznaric rightly points out that our political system fails our children and future generations because today’s “politicians can barely see beyond the next election, and dance to the tune of the latest opinion poll or tweet.” He refers to this myopia as “political presentism” which “pushes the interests of future generations permanently beyond the horizon.” He even goes as far as to say, our “representative democracy systematically ignores the interests of future people”, and so those who come after us “are disenfranchised in the same way that slaves or women were in the past.” They have no voice. Our economic and democratic systems “render them voiceless and airbrush their futures out of the political future.”

So who speaks for those who come after us? Despite the Church’s call to care for creation as an integral aspect of our faith, the need for the second half of that confession in the Litany of Penitence makes it clear we’ve fallen short on a personal level. Indeed, we’ve been largely silent – if not apathetic – about creation care which, for our children and grandchildren, is an existential issue. It’s time for us to give voice to those who come after us. It’s time that our personal and collective actions build and protect the future the children and youth of today are calling for. On that note, I leave you with the prophetic words of sixteen-year-old activist Greta Thunberg, who gives voice to my grandchildren’s generation with a clarity sadly lacking among far too many adults today.

“The year 2078 I will celebrate my seventy-fifth birthday. If I have children or grandchildren maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask about you, the people who were around back in 2019. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act. What we do or don’t do right now will affect my entire life and the lives of my children and grandchildren. What we do or don’t do right now me and my generation can’t undo in the future. You say you love your children above all else and yet you’re stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”

Father Mark Nichols is Associate Priest at St. Mark’s Church in St. John’s NL. This article was published in the May 2019 issue of Anglican Life.

Resurrection is Contagious: A Homily for the Great Vigil of Easter

candlelight

It’s funny how an idea gets in your head…how it takes root and then turns into a bigger idea until it changes the way you see things. A couple of weeks ago, as part of a casual scroll through Facebook, my attention was drawn to a cartoon posted by a clergy friend of mine. The cartoon has the tagline “what if they had cell phones at the resurrection”. It shows Jesus stepping out of the tomb to a small crowd recording this miraculous moment. One person has their back turned to the glorious appearance, texting a friend the details no doubt.

While this carton may give us a good chuckle, and makes a claim about how we use, or are used by technology today, it does raise a very important theological question: what if someone was standing outside the tomb that first Easter morning with their cell phone camera clicking or recording away at the moment of resurrection – what would they have seen?

cell phone easter

For most of the earliest Christian tradition there was little or no paintings, pictures or carvings of the resurrection. It was thought to be too mysterious, too incomprehensible to replicate. Later artwork simply showed an empty tomb, stunned guards or radiant angels to represent the resurrection. Later on in the Western Church Jesus began to be shown stepping out of the tomb alone, maybe with an angel or two close by as witnesses, and often with him carrying a white banner or flag. The banner is symbolic of his victory or death – Jesus has conquered death, and so we, too, will be raised to new life after we die. Jesus is the personal saviour, and faith in him holds out the promise of resurrection, understood as life after death, to individuals.

But is that all that the resurrection of Jesus is or does? Is it just life returning to a dead body? Is it final proof that Jesus is indeed the son of God? Is it just a singular event or does it have more of a communal application?

In the Eastern Church they have always had a different view of Jesus’ resurrection. In their art, Jesus never rises alone. He’s always pictured rising with others, Adam and Eve especially. Jesus rises carrying with him the first ancestors of the human species. The symbolism is unmistakable: when Jesus is raised we are all raised.

But before I get too far ahead of myself, back to my original question: if someone was standing outside the tomb that first Easter morning what would they have seen? Contemporary Franciscan writer Richard Rohr says that what they would have seen is light, beams of light shooting out in all directions, like the warping of time and space. The bruised and bloody body of Jesus, laid on cold stone, immersed in the smell of decay and fresh dug earth, explodes in light, becoming the glorified body of Christ. The dead become alive. From the darkness comes light. Then and there becomes universal, eternal.

This is not an outrageous idea. The first act of creation, the very first word, is light. All throughout the Hebrew Scriptures light is a powerful metaphor of the unseen God, whether it’s the smoking fire pot, the burning bush, the pillar of fire, the sacrificial flame or the consuming fire of the coming Day of the Lord. Yahweh is light!

The Christians take up this theology of divine light and freely apply it to Jesus. He is the light that shines in the darkness, on those who live in darkness (Matt 4:16; Luke 1: 79; Isa 9:2). In John’s gospel Jesus refers to himself as the light of the world (8:12). All throughout the synoptic gospels Jesus heals those who are blind and helps others to see clearly the truth of the Kingdom of God. Early Christians had no problem applying the language of God’s light to Jesus. The writer of the letter of John says, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5) and that in Jesus that light of love is seen in a new and radiant way.

In their liturgy, too, they made great sacramental use of light to express Jesus and his theological significance. Our liturgy this evening is a perfect example. The ancient celebration of the Great Vigil of Easter not only aims to tell the great story of salvation from creation through to resurrection by the reading of scripture, but it also uses light to tell this story. And it tells us how that light, the divine light, the light of Christ, the light of that first Easter morning, now burns in each one of us.

We begin with the light of the new fire, symbolic of the eternal light of God. From it we light the Paschal or Christ candle, the light of resurrection, the new creation, coming into the world. From it we light our own candles, symbolic of the spread of that first resurrection light out into the world. Jesus is the first fruits of the resurrection, but it spreads in every human life in which the light is allowed to shine. Then in baptism we pass this light to the newly baptized, to Amy and Alexa. Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father in Heaven.

This is something that both the fundamentalist atheists and Christians get wrong about the resurrection. They waste incredible amounts of time arguing about whether or not Jesus was physically raised from the grave, whether resurrection is a historical, factual event. They miss the point entirely. The resurrection is an unfolding, all-encompassing reality. It is the new creation light of God, that all of us, all of creation is being caught up in, participating in.

That’s why I think light is such an appropriate way to describe resurrection. We have all experienced it, felt it and know it to be true. Perhaps it was at a bedside as we held the hand of a loved one, whose faith and courage in the face of death filled us with light, a light the lingers still. Or perhaps it was as you held your child for the first time – especially for mothers – and you know that such beautiful light has come from such long waiting, pain and suffering. Maybe it was as you sit beside an ocean or mountain or the great wide expanse of the prairies, and your senses drink in the vastness of creation, the immensity of something bigger than you. Or perhaps you have caught a glimpse of it with your hands in the soil of your garden, as green shoots of life spring from the decomposing soil and subterranean creepy-crawlies scatter in the summer sunlight.

Yes, for those who have eyes to see it, resurrection is everywhere, even in everyone. We who follow Jesus should know that better than anyone. Like sparks from a great fire, resurrection is springing up everywhere. To quote the great Ricard Rohr again: “Resurrection is contagious, and free for the taking. It is everywhere, visible and available for those who have learned how to see, how to rejoice, and how to neither hoard nor limit God’s ubiquitous gift.” So perhaps if we could get this idea, the new way of seeing into our heads and hearts, we would find a new way of following Jesus, a new way of being his church, a new way to proclaim and live that Christ is risen indeed.

Amen.

Rev. Robert Cooke is the Rector of St. Mark’s.

 

 

 

In You Must Go: A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

In You Must Go

Allow me to invite you to a very non-traditional beginning to the Lenten season. Come with me to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, to the planet Dagobah in a star system of the same name, in the Sluis Sector. Dagobah is a swampy, cloudy planet far from the peering eyes of the Republic. It is here that Yoda has taken the young Jedi Luke Skywalker for further training in the Jedi ways. Dagobah is known to be strong with the force.

In particular Yoda is trying to teach Luke how to use the force. The frustration is that the dark side of the force – the anger, fear and tendency to aggression – is holding Luke back from becoming the Jedi master that Yoda believes him to be. Yes, the force is strong with this one, but he is his own biggest obstacle.

As they are training in the swamps of Dagobah, Yoda actually has Luke running around the swamps with himself fixed on his back. Luke’s attention is drawn to a cave near the root of a large tree. Luke says, “There’s something not right…I feel cold. Death.” Yoda explains to the scared and confused Luke that the cave is dangerous and strong with the dark side of the force. Yoda says to Luke, “In you must go.”

When Luke asks Yoda what is in the cave, the Jedi Master responds paradoxically: “Only what you take with you.”

In a flash of youthful hubris, Luke grabs his weapons to descend into the cave. The wise Yoda calls after him that his weapons will do him no good. Luke does not listen and enters the cave. Once in the dark, dingy cave filled with creepy crawlies and cobwebs Luke soon confronts his archenemy, Darth Vader. They both draw their light sabers and, after a short battle, Luke decapitates the Supreme Commander. As the trademark mask of Vader disintegrates Luke sees that the face on the ground below him is his own. You see, the dark side of the Force clouds judgment, brings fear and instills selfishness and violence. To become a Jedi Master one must make the deep journey of self-discovery to overcome the darkness that lies within the heart of us all. The hardest journey is the journey inward.

Now come with me to another time long ago in a Galilee far, far away. It’s the beginning of the story of the public ministry of Jesus as told by another Luke, this time Luke the Evangelist. Luke has told us of the birth of Jesus, connecting the events with stories from the Hebrew Scriptures. He tells of the cosmic significance of this baby born in poverty.

In our gospel reading today Luke turns his attention to the adult Jesus, all grown up and ready to launch forth into the world. As I read this story this week I was struck by one thing in particular: the role of the Holy Spirit. I shouldn’t really be surprised because Luke plays a lot of attention to the Holy Spirit. Luke tells us that the one who will follow John will baptize with the Holy Spirit. At the baptism of Jesus the Holy Spirit descends on him and we hear the voice of God proclaim, “You are my beloved child. I delight in you.”

Next Jesus, full of the Spirit, is led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil for forty days. Full of the Spirit, led by the Spirit, tempted by the devil. There is some deep theological depths to be explored here. Not exactly the warm fuzzies that we usually associate with the Holy Spirit. What’s going on here?

It’s pretty hard, maybe impossible, for us to read this story through anything other than the lens of Lent, but it’s helpful to keep in mind that when Luke wrote this, there was no Lent. That comes much later. Luke’s concern in this section of the gospel is twofold. First of all, he is interested in telling who Jesus is. The opening chapters make it pretty clear who Luke thinks Jesus is. He is the son of God, full of the Holy Spirit. The second concern is what that will look like or what will the son of God do? Keep in mind that in Luke’s day there was already a son of God. He sat on a throne in Rome and reigned in majesty, wealth and brute force. Luke’s temptation scene is all about identity. Who is this Jesus, Son of God, and what will he do? Will this Son of God be different?

Jesus is taken to the wilderness – barren, wild, unrelenting. Not much in the way of vegetation. There is no escape from the barrage of sun and wind. Dust and sand everywhere. So Jesus takes nothing with him, only the Holy Spirit.

In the form of bread, worship and divine protection, Jesus is offered one thing: power. But he is unwilling to take this power and wield it. Instead he knows, or is beginning to know, that his path will lead from this wilderness to another, even more brutal, wilderness. Because if he is the Son of God, his way forward will look much different than what is offered to him. In the very next scene in Luke’s gospel we see what that way will look like. Jesus returns from the wilderness, again full of the Spirit, and standing in a synagogue in Nazareth he applies the words of the prophet Isaiah to himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The last words of Luke’s temptation scene foreshadow how Jesus’ ministry, his Kingdom, will bring him into conflict yet again with the powers of this world. “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” These dark powers will not tolerate the Son of God’s reign of mercy, liberation and healing.

In our time, in our galaxy, Lent is again here, or at least the invitation to enter into Lent. Jesus and his sojourn in the wilderness is the template for our forty day Lenten journey. Lent, though, is not just a season about overcoming temptation. Jesus is not meant to be an example of how to overcome temptation. I, for one, know that I would not stand against such temptation but jump at the chance for power and probably not use that power very well. But I do think that our Lenten journey is about identity. Who are we? What is important to us? How will we live?

Lent begins with a reminder of our limitations, our mortality and our brokenness. In short, Lent reminds us of our sin. We can be sure of this brokenness because of Jesus. He shows us how human life was meant to be lived. The life of Jesus is God’s plan for us. Remember that reign of mercy, liberation and healing? Add to that forgiveness, compassion and self-giving love and you start to get an idea of how far removed from this ideal we really are.

Lent tells us we are but dust, and to dust we shall return. It calls us to the wilderness of our own desires, urges and appetites: “In you must go.” It invites us to see the forces of this world, the big isms of our day – consumerism, materialism, individualism – for what they really are. They are dark forces that seek to make us forget who we really are. Lent is a gift, the gift of intentional time, time to see that we are more than our appetites, we are more than consumers, and that there is more to this life than the attainment of things, status and power. Lent reminds us that we will not live forever, but that we can truly live now, truly be who we are called to be.

The story of Jesus in the wilderness also reminds us that the same Holy Spirit, who filled Jesus to the brim, is in us too. Sure we are dust, cosmic dust, the stuff of long dead stars, but it is the Holy Spirit that animates this star dust, bringing it to life. It is that same Spirit that through baptism marks us as beloved children, God’s children, in whom God delights. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. It is the Spirit that leads us into, through and out of the wilderness to the glorious light of new life, to what we were always meant to be.

So let us enter into Lent, taking only what we have and finding who we truly are. In the name of God the creator, Jesus the redeemer and the Holy Spirit the sustainer of all life. Amen.

Rev. Robert is the Rector of St. Mark’s Church.

 

 

No, Seriously, What Would Jesus Drive?

maxresdefault

Climate change, or global warming, poses an existential threat to the human family and all species with whom we share this planet. There is a broad scientific consensus that human activities are influencing the earth’s climate, predominantly through our production of greenhouse gases (GHGs). These emissions trap heat within the earth’s atmosphere, resulting in rising temperatures around the world with devastating consequences. Sea levels continue to rise as polar ice melts. Severe weather events such as heatwaves, hurricanes, floods and droughts are more frequent and intense. Elderly and other vulnerable people die during extreme heat waves. And climate-related poverty afflicts millions of people around the world, especially in the poorest countries.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of the world’s leading climate scientists, recently released a report in which they conclude that we have only twelve years to make the required changes to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. If we fail to do that, if we continue on our present path, a new class of refugee will be born – those fleeing countries that are no longer inhabitable. Furthermore, our children and grandchildren will have to survive in a climate significantly more hostile than that of today. Refusing to address the injustice of an environmental catastrophe of our own making hardly seems a Christian response. Yet, by and large, that seems to be our response, even though time is clearly running out to “sustain and renew the life of the earth”.

Addressing climate change means reducing GHG emissions which are overwhelmingly the result of our dependence on fossil fuels. Environment and Climate Change Canada tracks GHG emissions in Canada by sector, two of which account for more than half of our GHG emissions: oil and gas production (26%), and transportation (25%). While Canada’s population increased by about 29% between 1990 and 2016, our total GHG emissions during that time have increased by 70%, and emissions from these two particular sectors have increased by 70% and 42% respectively. Now, addressing emissions from oil and gas production has become a highly-politicized, hyper-partisan, rarely-rational debate in Canada, so dealing effectively with these emissions is largely a matter of political and corporate leadership (which has been sadly lacking). On the other hand, addressing emissions from the transportation sector is well within our sphere of influence as individual citizens.

Almost half of GHG emissions from the transportation sector (49%) come from passenger vehicles – the cars, pickups, vans and SUVs that we drive. While emissions from passenger cars declined by 14% between 1990 and 2016, emissions from pickups, vans and SUVs have more than doubled over that same period. This is a significant factor in the overall increase in GHG emissions from passenger vehicles since 1990 (34%). Statistics Canada data also indicates that an increase in the price of fuel corelates with a reduction in GHG emissions from passenger vehicles. Clearly, the choices we make have an effect on GHG emissions, the uncomfortable truth behind the “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign.

Don and Marie Rowe, members of the Parish of St. Michael and All Angels in St. John’s, have made a conscious choice to reduce these emissions. In June of 2017 they purchased a 2013 Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. On a full charge the battery has a range of 50-60 Kilometres (40 Kilometers in cold weather). It takes eight hours to fully charge the battery, which they do by plugging their car with an extension cord at the end of the day. In the first twelve months they owned the vehicle they travelled 17,000 kilometres, and spent a total of $300 on gas and $356 in additional electricity costs – an average of $55 per month. Let that sink in for a moment. Not only have they intentionally chosen a vehicle that honours their baptismal vow to “safeguard the integrity of God’s creation”, their fuel costs are a mere $55 a month!

While we all may not be able to make the choice the Rowes have made, there are other emission-reducing choices available to us. We can opt for a smaller more fuel-efficient vehicle. We can be mindful of the amount of driving we do. We can choose other transportation alternatives such as walking, cycling or (gasp!) public transit. Christians should be leading the way in caring for our planet. Yet, almost two decades after the “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign was launched, by and large, Christians still haven’t connected their transportation choices with their faith.

This article first appeared in the March 2019 issue of Anglican Life as part of an ongoing series on creation care by our Associate Priest Father Mark Nichols.

The Symbolism of the Evangelists

the murals

First of all I would like to express my gratitude to the Rev. Rob, vestry, and to the whole of the St. Mark’s community for allowing me to do this project. It’s been a dream of mine for quite a while to do a big project like this.

When I first came here two and a half years ago, I saw the bare panels and immediately thought to myself, “Oh, they need painting!” I suggested to Rev. Rob, whom I knew already from teaching at Queen’s, to paint all six of them, but he suggested only these four, leaving the centre panels bare, and I immediately thought that it must be the four evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

But why did I paint these symbols? Of course, the man, the lion, the ox, and the eagle are the traditional symbols of the evangelists which have appeared in Christian art since the 5th century, and in Christian writing since the 2nd century. They are based in two scriptural texts – a passage from the prophet Ezekiel, and one from the Book of Revelation.

The passage in Ezekiel describes the prophet’s vision of the four “living creatures” drawing a sort of “throne-chariot” of God out of a fiery cloud. In that vision, each of the living creatures has four wings and four faces – the face of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. This image in Greek is referred to as the “tetramorph”, the creature with “four forms” or “four shapes”.

In the Book of Revelation, the four “living creatures” are now seen surrounding the throne of God in heaven. In that vision, they have six wings each, as do the seraphim who surround the throne, and they are covered in eyes front and back, but they have only one face each – one of a man, one a lion, one an ox, and one an eagle. So here, the tetramorph has been divided, but whenever the four appear together, they are still referred to collectively as the tetramorph. In Christian iconography, the image of Christ Pantocrator, Christ Ruler of the World, especially when shown enthroned, is often depicted with the divided tetramorph surrounding him.

But where do these symbols come from? Why did the prophets envision these very odd “living creatures” to begin with? One scholarly explanation that has been given is that the prophet Ezekiel lived in the 6th century among those who had been exiled during the Babylonian Exile. At that time, the mythology of the surrounding Babylonian and Assyrian cultures, with which he would have become familiar, was rife with images of wild creatures associated with various powers of nature – the ox with the earth, the roaring lion with fire, the eagle with the air and the sun (it was believed that eagles, for example, could look directly into the sun without blinking). To that extent, the vision of Ezekiel, far from denying the existence of such nature deities, would rather have suggested that any nature deities there were would be themselves in the service of the mighty God of Israel, pulling his throne-chariot.

It was not until the late 2nd century, however, that the four living creatures were associated with the four evangelists of the gospels. Irenaeus was the first to make this connection, although he associated the lion with John and the eagle with Mark. In fact, since Irenaeus’ time, there have been numerous interpretations of the tetramorph which link the creatures up in all different combinations with the evangelists. The combination which in time developed into the most widely accepted and today standard system was first proposed in the 4th century by Victorinus, and later supported by the highly influential figure Jerome. After that, towering figures such as Ambrose, Gregory the Great, and Thomas Aquinas supported this same standard combination. Although Augustine curiously interchanged the symbols for Mark and Matthew, and there have even been alternate combinations proposed, though always with these four symbols, right into the mid-20th century.

In any case, what you see here is the most widely-accepted combination in the tradition. Christian art beginning in the 5th century started to depict the evangelists, at first merely accompanied by each their own associated living creature (with the creature shown instructing and divinely inspiring the evangelist in his activity of writing his gospel), and then later as merged with, wholly symbolized by his associated creature. But what do these symbols mean? What has the traditional interpretation of the tetramorph-evangelist connection been?

In fact, over the centuries, even those who accepted this standard combination of the connection have given a wide variety of explanations for it. The most enduring ones have related to six basic considerations: 1) how each gospel begins; 2) Christ’s main quality as emphasized in each gospel; 3) the key qualities of the creature associated with each gospel; 4)the natural element associated with each creature; 5) the virtues necessary for salvation which are displayed by Christ in each gospel; and 6) the specific Christian doctrine as suggested in each gospel by all these other factors.

panels talk

Now obviously I couldn’t incorporate all of this symbolism into the murals when I painted them. But I did get some reference to the natural elements into them, in the attempt to evoke some of the natural scenery of the Newfoundland landscape (coast, mountainous west coast, rolling fields, the sun). Reverend Rob said, for example, that the eagle reminds him of the Torngat Mountains. I was telling this to Cheryl Faseruk, and she said that if I really wanted it to be about Newfoundland, then I should have portrayed the eagle as a seagull, the ox as a moose, the lion as a big Newfoundland dog, and the man as a mummer. Now I wouldn’t so much necessarily think of mummering as the ideal of human perfection. But when you think about it, mummers are disguised, and people must guess their true identities. Well, in the same sort of way, our true identities as perfect, loving, welcoming, creative, immortal children of God lie still deep within us, and these outer identities are only symbols and must, as well as they can, be transformed, and help us make our way through to our true perfection within.

So I finish again with gratitude to St. Mark’s for being a church and a family which so dearly values the creative contributions made by its members, and which supports all of us in, little by little, discovering and revealing to one another always a little bit more of our own true, creative identities. May we always carve out, with God’s help, that welcoming space within our hearts to make room for what others have to offer of themselves to us. For sometimes the greatest gift that you can give to another person is an empty space within yourself to receive that which the other has to give of him- or herself to you.

Amen.