Sermon Sunday June 21, 2020
National Indigenous Day of Prayer
St. Margaret of Scotland
In our last few months living here in the North End Michelle and I have made a new friend. Her name is Arabella, at least that’s what I call her. Actually, I have no idea if it’s a “he” or a “she,” because Arabella is a crow.
When Michelle and I go for our walk around the neighbourhood, we always bring a little baggy of kitty kibble. Quite often Arabella spies us from afar, and flies down to us and hops along the ground right beside us. Or she will plant herself squarely in our path, and cock her head, as if to say, “It’s time for treats, isn’t it?” We feel touched and honoured to be trusted in this way by a wild creature. I would love it if Arabella were to come with us to Spryfield, but I know that crows are very territorial, so this won’t be happening. Michelle and I have developed an affectionate friendship with Arabella, but I know not everyone feels this way about crows. I had a great uncle who hated crows. He was their sworn enemy, and he would shoot them whenever he could. But the crows around his place were pretty wily, and when they spied him coming out of the house, gun in hand, they would always make themselves scarce before he got a chance to pick one off.
But attitudes can change. A friend of mine in Lockeport, the one who took me out on the water as a lobsterman for six weeks one winter, experienced a very profound shift in his attitude towards other living things. As a young boy he had been taken out hunting by his father, who taught him, “Just shoot anything that moves. It’s fun. Seagulls, crows, chipmunks, shoot ’em all. It’s what we do.” As a young boy he just didn’t know anything different. As an adult, like many of the men in Lockeport, every year he would go duckin’ or deer hunting. But over the years he gradually became a much more responsible hunter. And then one day, when he had a beautiful big doe in his sights, he found that he just could not pull the trigger. She was just too beautiful. And he decided he really didn’t need the meat that badly after all. Now his house is surrounded by birdfeeders, and he dotes on the birds and other wildlife that visit his property. And by the way, his daughter is a conservation officer with Parks Canada. So yes, attitudes can change.
Today in our Church it is the National Indigenous Day of Prayer. It is a day for us to reflect on our attitudes toward the people who had been living on this land for over ten thousand years, before folks like my ancestors came from Europe to settle here. For many weeks now in the news we have seen images of racial strife and turmoil in the United States. And since the murder of George Floyd, there have been demonstrations around the world calling for an end to racism. But lest we be tempted think that here in Canada we can be grateful to live in a place where these problems aren’t so bad, we need to remember of our own native population, so many of whom are living today in truly deplorable conditions. On this Day of Prayer we are called to reflect on the need for justice and a healing of relationships between those of us who are the descendants of settlers and the indigenous peoples of this land.
So how does healing come about? It begins with an attitude of respect. Too often we have taken a heavy-handed approach saying, “Here, let us fix your problems for you. We will tell you what to do. It’s simple. Just change your ways and be like us.” We need instead to seek a real partnership with our first Nations sisters and brothers. We need to seek genuine friendship, based on mutual goodwill and a real desire to listen and learn. As part of that friendship, we must be open to hear the stories that need to be told, even though some of them may be very painful for us to hear.
It certainly is uncomfortable for us to consider that our own Anglican Church was for many years complicit in a program that literally abducted children from their families and incarcerated them in residential schools, where many of them suffered horrific physical, psychological and sexual abuse, and where between 3,000 and 6,000 of them died. We did this. We need to own our history.
The legacy of centuries of abuse, exploitation and neglect remain with us today. The problems being experienced by our First Nations sisters and brothers today are complex, deep rooted and far from simple to address. But the work before us begins with this very basic shift in attitude, a simple seeking after friendship.
This basic shift in attitude goes hand in hand with our shift in attitude towards the natural world. One can look at a forest and see it only in economic terms, see it only as so many board-feet of lumber and so much potential profit. Or one can regard that same forest as a living community with it’s own inherent value and dignity. There can be a shift in attitude where we can begin to treat the natural world with a certain respect and a kind of courtesy, recognizing other creatures as our fellow beings on this planet. We can begin to recognize the whole earth as a sacred community, of which we are truly members, and not merely as a source of resources for us to extract and consume. This is an area where we could learn thing or two from the traditions of our First Nations friends.
Since the Covid-19 pandemic struck us in the middle of March, business as usual has been utterly disrupted. In the process, many assumptions are being questioned and everything is up for review. This creates a wonderful opportunity for us to re-examine old prejudices and unhelpful attitudes of all kinds. Let us pray that through all the difficulties of these days, God’s Spirit might move among us, to bring about God’s kingdom of justice and love in new ways. Let us pray that God will help us learn a new respect for one another, for those who differ from us in any way, and for the whole of God’s creation. God is doing a great work in these days, and God invites us to be a part of this work. So may we be blessed. Amen.
June 14, 2020
Being on the brink of retirement gives a person a unique perspective on life. Many of the things that have been a big part of my sense of identity for the last 34 1/2 years will be no longer with me in a few week’s time. The future that lies before me is wide-open. What am I going to do? How am I going to spend my time? What will retirement look like for me? And who will I be, if I’m not a Parish Priest?
Yesterday, during our Zoom Sunday School meeting I was chatting with an 11-year-old member of our parish. And I said to her that my life was a little bit like hers. Her future lies before her and she can be anything, a doctor, a scientist or an artist. At this point in my life I have something of the same sense of possibility.
It came to me during my morning meditation one day this week, a strong realization that my life is not my own. It is not a new concept to me. In a way it is something I have known all along. But sometimes a realization like this can come to us as if for the first time, and we know it in a deeper way. My life has been given to me. It has been entrusted to me by God, so that what I do in retirement is not just a matter of what I feel like doing. It’s not just up to me. The more important question is: What is God calling me to do and to be in the years to come? How am I called to use this life, which has been entrusted into my hands?
In truth, this question of vocation faces all of us at every stage of life, in big ways and in little ways, even right down to the level of: How am I going to spend my day today? But in times of transition we are more acutely aware of our need to discern God’s call to us.
For Jesus, there was that moment at his baptism in the River Jordan, when he heard the voice of God saying “You are my Son, with whom I am well pleased,” and came to know in a new way something of who he truly was, and what he was actually called to do and to be. The experience was so overwhelming, it drove him out into the desert for 40 days of fasting and prayer. He needed that time to sort it all out.
In today’s Gospel the twelve disciples are also having an experience of new vocation. Their relationship with Jesus, which started out as an informal association has developed into a real friendship, and they look to him as their teacher. But now in a new way they come to understand what it means to be The Twelve. And we read, “Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out and to cure every disease and every sickness.” Jesus empowers the twelve. He gives them the power and authority to do all the things that he himself has been doing. We read, “These twelve Jesus is sent out with the following instructions: … As you go, proclaim the Good News. The kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Jesus sent them out into a very troubled world. We read, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Doesn’t this sound a little bit like our world today?
And so, just as the twelve disciples were sent out, we in our time are called to live out our faith in a very troubled world. We are living in such difficult and trying times, times of disease and disruption and difficulty of all kinds. And when we turn on the news, we hear so much about violence and injustice. The days we are living in could be called “apocalyptic” in the true sense of that word, as a time of laying bare all that has been hidden, a time of reckoning, of dealing with issues that have needed to be dealt with for a long, long time. There is so much change and turmoil, that some days it can seem like everyone is upset.
It is into this world that we are called and sent to be healers. We may not literally do exorcisms or cast out unclean spirits, but we are called to confront lies and evil ideas that have possessed our society. For example we are empowered to cast out the terrible sickness of racism wherever it is found, and to root it out of our own hearts, and to proclaim the Good News that God’s kingdom of justice and love has truly come near. We’re called to lovingly but firmly confront conspiracy theories and irrational thinking, whenever they arise. And we may not be called to perform physical healings, after all that is what the medical profession is for. But we certainly can bring healing to our relationships with those around us. We can know the power of love to change lives. After all to be loved, to be known and accepted, is what everyone is longing for.
It is into this world that Jesus sends us as his disciples, and empowers us to make a difference. And we make a difference not necessarily by doing anything heroic, but simply by living lives of honesty and integrity, and by being faithful and compassionate in all the situations in which we find ourselves.
Does it mean we won’t have good days and bad days? Of course not. For anyone who truly cares, there will be days when our own hearts are deeply troubled. We each have to work through our own grief and anxiety and sadness, and there will be times when we may need looking after, and will need to seek the support and comfort of those around us. But at the same time, we ourselves have the power to be the source of comfort to those who need it. We do not need to deny our own weakness in order to be a source of emotional strength for others.
This is our call. And to serve God in this way is in fact our deepest desire, though that desire may be buried deep within our souls. Our Muslim sisters and brothers know this. The word “Islam” means that indescribable peace we experience, when we surrender our own will to the will of God. It is what St. Paul refers to as “the peace of God, which passes all understanding.”
So, whoever we are and whatever are our strengths and weaknesses may be, God can use us to make a difference in the world.
And recalling that our lives are not our own, gives to us that peace of God which does pass all understanding, which will keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and his son Jesus Christ our Lord, so that the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit, may be amongst us and remain with us forever. Amen.
Sermon for Trinity Sunday June 7, 2020
St. Margaret of Scotland
Rev. Charles Bull
Today is Trinity Sunday when we celebrate the divine mystery that God, who created everything that is, and who loves us with a love beyond our imagining, and who has redeemed us with that great love, to bring us home into union with God and one another; that this God is in fact not simply one, but is three in one: Father, source of all being, the Son, the eternal Word, and the Holy Spirit who dwells in us and makes us holy.
The mysterious truth of the Holy Trinity confounds our rational powers of understanding. Truly we cannot grasp God with our rational minds, but we can allow ourselves to be grasped, to be held, to be loved by this God who is three and one.
One thing the mystery of the Holy Trinity tells us is that at the heart of all reality is a community of love. With a love that is infinite and boundless the Father loves the Son and the Spirit, the Son loves the Spirit and the Father, and the Spirit loves the Father and the Son. There is a lovely theological concept known as perichoresis, (peri-cor-ee-sis) which simply means God is essentially a dance of love. In this understanding the whole creation is an extension of that dance of love, a spilling over of the love shared within the Trinity. And so the purpose of creation and more particularly the purpose of our humanity is simply to love God back and to love one another. This is the whole reason we were created in first place.
In our first reading this morning we hear the beautiful story of how God created the universe in all its diversity. And at the end of each day God surveys what is been created. God sees the diversity and says: “Behold it is good.” And at the end of the sixth day God beholds everything God has made, including us humans and God says: “Behold it is very good.”
So we were created to love God and to love one another in all our diversity. We are to celebrate the beautiful and complex diversity of the natural world and of our human race. Of all the species of life on earth, we humans display a magnificent diversity, both in our physical appearance and in our history, language and culture. To be in harmony with the dance of love, which is the Trinity, which is God’s very nature, means to celebrate our differences, while recognizing that every human being has a soul just like mine. We all experience the same feelings of love and joy, anger, sadness and grief. We all have the same need to be loved, cherished and accepted. And we all have the same weaknesses and failings.
But as we all know, we humans often come short in fully joining in that dance of love, and refuse to fully accept and acknowledge our sisters and brothers who differ from us. We so often make the fatal mistake of thinking: “Those people, they’re not like us. They don’t have the same feelings we have. In fact they’re not really human like us.” And so within societies there can arise the terrible sickness of racism. Racism is a set of toxic ideas and attitudes that spreads like a contagion from one person to another. No one is born a racist. It is something that is taught and learned. I love to see photographs of little wee children of differing ancestry and who look very different from one another, embracing and playing together in perfect innocence, untainted by these toxic concepts.
Racism is a toxic oversimplification of the beautiful diversity of humanity and it impoverishes our appreciation of that beautiful diversity. And every one of us has been infected to some degree with this contagion. We are influenced by the thoughts and attitudes of those around us more than we care to admit.
Of course racism is only one form of discrimination and oppression. People are discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation, their differing genders, their socio-economic status and cultural background. We know that religious differences have often been an occasion for division, bigotry, and violence. And of course, the way that for centuries women have been treated by men is something we are only now starting to come to terms with.
When we remember what life was like here in North End Halifax, back when St. Margaret of Scotland was built in 1960, it was a very different world in many ways. And it clear that over the decades we have gained some awareness of these toxic attitudes that divide us and separate us one from another. At the same time it is clear that we have a long way to go in addressing all of these forms of discrimination and injustice.
It starts with us admitting that we have all been influenced to some degree by these ideas. Sometimes it’s the person who most vehemently declares, “I’m not a racist!” who is in fact saying and doing things that are hurtful to others. I may be able sincerely to declare that I am anti-racist, but I cannot with confidence claim that there is no racism left in me. I need to have the humility to acknowledge my hurtful attitudes that may be unconscious, and have the patience to bear with the uncomfortable experience of being called out for faults I didn’t know I had.
All this week in the news we have been hearing about anti-racism demonstrations. And I have been heartened to see how the reaction to the horrific murder of one man, George Floyd of Minnesota, has spread all around the whole world. There are huge rallies happening in every European country, in Austalia and New Zealand, in India and countries of the far east. Yesterday I watched a news clip from Deutsche Welle, the German equivalent of our CBC, about the anti-racism rallies happening in Germany. I was particularly touched by an interview with two little girls of African descent, who spoke perfect English but with a distinct German accent. They mentioned how even at that age they had experienced racism, and how deeply they appreciated the love and support shown to them at the rally by so many other Germans of European descent.
So what is different here? The murder of George Floyd is not the first such tragedy. Indeed, it is simply the latest of an endless line of injustices stretching back through the ages. But something has changed. Around the world people of privilege are joining together with visible minorities and saying: “It’s not okay. The time has come for a change of attitude. The time has come for healing.” Surely this is God’s work in our world. It is what could be called a Kingdom Moment, when God’s Kingdom of love and peace breaks into human history. When we are invited once again to join the dance of love that is the Holy Trinity. It is a time of Revelation of systemic evil that that has been there for a very long time. And it is the birth of a new understanding. And like every birth it is not without pain.
Whenever there is a situation where there is systemic oppression, it is never a problem for the victims to solve. Responsibility to solve the problem always lies with the oppressor. For example, the problem of violence against women at the hands of men is not a problem for women to solve, but a problem for men to solve. And the problem of oppression of racial minorities is a problem for the oppressors to deal with and take responsibility for.
Of course, it is never simple. Because of the complexity of people and society, those who are doing the oppressing are often victims of oppression themselves in other ways. And we are called to love them as well, because there is no “us and them.” And those who are inflicting misery on others are usually suffering in their own way, excluded as they are from the dance of love, which is joy of the Divine.
Although we have individual responsibility, we cannot address these issues adequately as individuals in isolation. It is as a community of love, which is what we are called to be as Church, that we can best bring God’s healing to the world.
Thanks be to God for this Kingdom Moment, a moment of truth and of healing in our society and around the world, a time when people everywhere are invited to join again in the dance of love which is the Holy Trinity, the source and end of all that is. May we do all in our power to help bring about this new birth and welcome the Kingdom of God, a kingdom of peace and love. Amen.
Sermon Sunday May 31, 2020 Feast of Pentecost
Today we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples of Christ. Today is the day that the penny dropped, and they finally realized who they were, that they were in fact the Body of Christ. Today is the birthday of the Church, it is the day the church began its explosive growth throughout the world.
Although Jesus drew great crowds in his day, the number of his committed followers was actually quite small. We read that on the Day of Pentecost there were only about 120 people gathered in that place. But those 120 women and men were filled with such conviction, with such joy, with such faith, with such a radical, inclusive love, that they became an unstoppable force. The whole Book of Acts is one long story of how nothing could stop the spread this community of love, and history tells us that even the brutality of the mighty Roman Empire could not slow the growth of the Jesus Movement.
The power of the Holy Spirit was, among other things, the power to disrupt old ways of thinking. The disciples were Jewish followers of a Jewish teacher, living in a Jewish world. They knew without thinking that they were God’s own people. It would never have occurred to them that the Jesus movement was not just for them, but was for outsiders they had always considered to be unclean. But the disruptive power of the Holy Spirit moved them to think outside the box, and realize that their movement was not just for them, but was in fact for all the peoples of the world. This was a radical disruption of their whole way of thinking.
Time and again the Holy Spirit led these people to do things they never thought they could do. It led them to associate with people they never thought they would associate with. It led them to love people they never thought they would love. It challenged their assumptions about whom God loves, and about what they were capable of achieving. These were, after all, ordinary uneducated people. The Greek word that St. Paul for them uses is “idiotae.” (Which is where we get the word idiot.) These were ordinary people, who possessed neither wealth nor learning, but what they did have was a quality of love that the world had never known.
Now, down through the ages the church we know has not always gotten it right. We can bring to mind the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, or of the Crusades, or the time when there were two Popes in Europe, whose loyalists regarded one another with fanatical hatred. But it is a testament to the abiding presence and power of the Holy Spirit that there is a faith filled, radically loving church alive today. Truly the Holy Spirit springs eternal with every breath.
Today our Church is living through the biggest disruption in living memory. All our habitual ways of doing things have had to be put on hold. And I will be the first to admit, it isn’t fun. But through it all I know that the Holy Spirit is challenging us to rethink our assumptions, to question yet again what it means to be followers of Jesus, and what it means to be Christ’s Body alive and active here today.
It is certainly too soon to discern the future of our own particular expression of the Jesus Movement in the Anglican Church and here at St. Margaret of Scotland, but let there be no doubt that God is blessing God’s people in this place, with a new outpouring of the Spirit today, and that there will be lasting blessings. Someday far in the future, we will look back on 2020 and identify this as the time when some beautiful and grace-filled developments had their origins.
So in this time of discomfort and distress, let us open our hearts and minds to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, who is prompting us to explore new ways of sharing Christ’s love, and empowering us to be the Body of Christ in ways we’ve never thought of, sharing Christ’s love with a world that needs it more than ever.
So may we be blessed. Amen.
Sermon Sunday May 24, 2020 Ascension
This is the Sunday when we remember how the risen Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, leaving the disciples gazing up into the clouds in awe and wonder. The Ascension of Our Lord marks the end of the 50 days of Easter, that wondrous and magical time, when the disciples of Jesus were able to walk with him, talk with him and share meals with him. A time that must’ve felt like living in a dream.
But now the season of Easter is coming to an end, and before Jesus disappears into the cloud, he commissions the disciples. He empowers them – and us – to continue his work in the world, in bringing in the Kingdom of God. He passes the baton to us, as it were, and counts on us to continue the race that he has begun. This really sets the scene for Pentecost, when the followers of Jesus are filled with his Spirit and realize that they truly are the Body of Christ, and are fully empowered to do the work that he has been doing. Today, at the Ascension, the disciples are just beginning to understand who they are. It’s beginning to dawn on them that it’s not so much a matter of asking God to bring in the Kingdom, as realizing that in the power of the risen Lord Jesus, God will work in and through us to transform the world. In a fanciful story I once read, the Archangel Michael asks Jesus once he gets to heaven, “Are you really going to entrust your work to these people? What if they fail?” And Jesus calmly answers, “I have no plan B. ”
Sometimes doing the work of Christ may involve great plans and projects. For example back in the late 50’s Canon Tanton at St. Mark’s discerned God’s will for the building of a church in the North North End. He sent a bunch of his parishioners on a mission, and filled with the Holy Spirit, they built this place, and worshipped here for the first time on Christmas Eve, 1960.
Sometimes doing the work of Christ may be a matter of personal vocation. As I near my retirement, I’ve been reflecting a great deal on my 34 years as a parish priest. What an amazing run it has been! A time of learning and growing, of stress and joy and of unimaginable fulfillment.
But whatever our spiritual calling may be, whether collective or personal, it always has to start with the foundation. Without a solid foundation it cannot prosper. As some of you may know, before buying a house in Spryfield, Michelle and I last year became owners of the family cottage in Sandy Cove, Digby Neck. In planning to renovate the house to be our summer retirement home, the first thing we have had to attend to is work on the foundation. Since many of the floors weren’t level and most of the doors didn’t close properly, we knew we had to stabilize the foundation, before doing anything else. In our faith life it’s the same. The foundation is the priority.
And the spiritual foundation for our work of bringing forth the Kingdom is very simple. It is to open our hearts. Here I’d like to call to mind the words of the lovely him that we will be singing shortly: Spirit Open My Heart. Like many of the hymns we sing, this hymn is really a prayer to God. We start with the refrain:
“Spirit open my heart
to the joy and pain of living
as you love may me I love,
in receiving and in giving.
Spirit, opened my heart.”
In times of stress and uncertainty, the great danger is always that we close down our hearts. We are tempted to think: “I have too much stress in my life” or “I have too much sadness to listen to another person’s problems. I’ve got enough problems of my own.” So easily, our hearts can simply shut down and we can go numb and just not feel “the joy and pain of living.” When we cannot feel our own joy and pain, we become unable to listen to another person’s joy and pain. And so we pray in verse one:
“God replace my stony heart
with a heart that’s kind and tender.
All my coldness and fear
to your grace I now surrender.
Spirit open my heart. ”
I am reminded once again of how Jesus says that, “Perfect love casts out fear.” In our world today there are so many things to be afraid of: disease, violence, economic hardship, and all the simple uncertainties of the immediate future. By God’s grace we are enabled to keep our hearts open in the face of all those fears that beset us.
In the last verse we sing:
“May I weep with those who weep,
share the joy of sister, brother.
In the welcome of Christ,
may we welcome one another.”
Part of this spiritual foundation is just to make it a habit to practice what I call the “hospitality of the heart:” to listen to one another with genuine concern and interest, and without necessarily needing to fix people’s problems with our advice and opinions, but simply to make a space in our hearts to hold them in love.
It is this kind of foundation that has made St. Margaret of Scotland such a strong church over the years, and has made it such a pleasure for me to serve here. As we look to the future, let us ask God to continue to keep our hearts open to one another, and to all around us, that we may move ahead in the confidence that truly we are the Body of Christ in this place, and that we are empowered by Christ to bring God’s Kingdom of love and peace to fruition. So may we be blessed. Amen.
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 10, 2020
Over the last few weeks we have been learning more than we ever cared to know about viruses. So what then is a virus? Well we know it’s a tiny little ball of genetic material that has the ability to make copies of itself endlessly. Once it gets inside a living cell, it makes millions of copies of itself, which are then released, to go and invade other cells. And so it can replicate itself endlessly, infecting cell after cell and person after person.
It’s not just in the realm of biology and medicine that we come across viruses. Nowadays we hear about computer viruses. A malicious little program gets into your computer and makes your computer generate endless copies of itself, and send them off to infect other computers.
And in the world of social media we hear of a post “going viral.” That’s when someone shares something with others that gets shared again and again, so that it gets multiplied more and more, sometimes into the millions within a very short span of time.
Ideas and ideologies can also be viral in their own way. On Monday, as part of our 36th wedding anniversary celebration, Michelle and I watched that great old movie, The Sound of Music. I had forgotten what a good movie it was! As you may recall at the exciting climax of the movie the whole von Trapp family escapes from the Nazis, fleeing over the mountains into Switzerland. We discover that the young fellow who had been romantically interested in Lisle (16 going on 17) has now become one of the Nazis. We can see how his mind has become infected by that evil ideology. And it made me think again of the power of ideas, and of how an ideology can take on a life of its own, and infect a large group of people, sometimes with tragic consequences. And within a group of people these ideas can become mutually self-reinforcing, and can come to distort people’s whole understanding of reality and sense of morals.
But not everything that goes viral is evil. Faith is also something which can be passed on from person to person, can be shared more and more, and so become a contagion of its own. Faith is something that we catch from others, and at some point each one of us caught faith from someone, whether from our parents or from other members of the Christian community. And within the community of the Church our faith can be something that is mutually self-reinforcing. I have often used the image of the campfire, which has died down to a glowing bed of embers. If you take a pair of tongs and remove one of those embers from the fire, and place it on a rock by itself, it will soon be stone cold. But if you put it back in the bed with the other embers, in no time it will be glowing with the rest. So is our faith something, which is always stronger when it is shared.
And it is our faith in Jesus Christ that gives us our identity as God’s people. Peter writes in his epistle this morning: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.”
The core ideas that define us as a people are that Jesus is in fact the Christ and the Son of God. It is the truth we heard in today’s gospel from John, that Jesus is the Way the Truth and the Life. And that Jesus Christ reveals our true human nature, that we are in fact children of God and sisters and brothers of one family. It is the truth revealed by Jesus on the cross, that love is stronger than death. The idea that we are called to lives of mutual service and love, and to reject the ways of power, coercion and control. It is our trust in the power of forgiveness to bring new life and hope.
These are the ideas that the early Christians were willing to die for. In our reading from the Book of Acts we heard the story of the first martyr, St. Stephen, whose confidence in Christ gave him the courage to die for his faith.
And what is passed on from person to person is not just our beliefs about God and Jesus, but a living relationship with God in Christ. And it comes from our lived experience of God’s love, which comes to us in so many ways.
I see our parish church as an epicenter of that transmission of love, and as a hotbed of the contagion of compassion and a breeding ground for faith. It is this grace given to us in Jesus Christ that makes our community of faith powerful, so that we continue to thrive in the face of every challenge. I see this every day in the way our members are reaching out to one another and to neighbours, friends and strangers through all the phone calls and the cards and the many ways that people show love and concern for one another. May we continue to be blessed, that we may share God’s blessing with all around. Amen.
Here is the Sermon from Sunday May 3, 2020.
Recently I read a piece pointing out that only a few months ago some of us were saying that 2019 had been a terrible year, and we were hoping that 2020 would be better. And the writer challenged us to think about what exactly it was that we were so worried about last year. And I found it quite difficult to actually remember much at all about the state of the world in 2019. It all seems like a dim memory. What was it that we were so worried about?
And in this time in which we find ourselves, it’s not just the past that is dim. When we look toward the future, we see nothing but uncertainty. We don’t know when all the restrictions will be lifted. We don’t know when we’ll be back in church. And we wonder, “What will it be like when things open up again?” It’s impossible for us to plan anything. And so in these days we find ourselves kind of betwixt and between. Our horizons have shrunk down and it’s like we’re stuck here in the present moment.
We have all had times like these in our own lives, when things happen that place us in this betwixt-and-between state. Perhaps a medical diagnosis, or the death of a loved one, job loss, or some other crisis comes along and puts us in this state. It is a place of disorientation, where we can no longer count on our past certainties, and many of our old habits have had to change. It’s a time of supreme disruption. It is certainly an uncomfortable time. When we are in this in-between time, we just can’t wait for it to be over. But wait we must. As they say, “You can’t push the river.”
Well, this is an in-between time for our whole society these days. And for all of us it is a time to question our assumptions, for example, to ask, What aspects of our old life we want to go back to? And, are there perhaps things we’d happy to let go? It’s been a time for us all to ponder the purpose of our life. This in-between time can be a time of waking up. Perhaps in some ways before this all happened, we were just sleepwalking through life. And in this time we have all been called upon to draw on our inner strength, to dig deeper in our faith, and to tap into our inner resources. Above all, it is a time to deepen our trust in God.
Every year on the fourth Sunday of Easter, sometimes known as Good Shepherd Sunday, we read the 23rd Psalm. This psalm is of special significance for me personally, because many years ago, when I was going through a particularly stressful time in my life, this psalm became for me a great source of strength. I had never been much of one for memorizing scripture, but I did memorize this psalm, and found myself saying it many times a day. The words of this psalm invite us into a deeper relationship with God, and remind us of the many benefits of prayer.
It starts out on a note of trust. “The Lord is my shepherd.” We start off by admitting that like sheep, we really don’t know anything. We see the grass in front of us and we nibble at the grass and that’s about it. We don’t see the big picture. Only God sees the big picture. We have to depend on God’s guidance and protection.
It continues, “I shall not be in want.” There are so many ways in which we can be afraid of being in want, even if we have enough of the basics in life. We can be in want of companionship. We can be in want of joy and satisfaction in our lives. We can be in want of meaning and direction. When we turn to God in prayer, all our fears of lack and want are diminished, and we begin to remember in our hearts that if we have the Lord as our shepherd, we will in fact be alright. We begin to receive that precious gift of contentment.
“He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.” Sometimes in this in-between state, we may feel like we should be doing more things. The anxiety of our uncertainty can lead us to frantic activity. And even if we are not actually doing much, our minds can become agitated with many thoughts and questions. Sometimes God is saying to us, “Stop. Just rest. You can lie down in the green pastures or take a quiet stroll beside the still waters. It’s OK. I give you permission.” There are times we need to let go of all our effort, and simply rest in God.
“He revives my soul.” When we allow ourselves to rest in God, we are able to tap into inner resources we didn’t know we had. We experience again a joy and energy that we may have forgotten about. We know that times of stress and grief can be times of tremendous fatigue. In times like these, God is offering us refreshment and renewed strength.
“He guides me along right pathways for his name’s sake.” Part of being in the in-between time is disorientation. In many ways we can feel lost and we don’t know which way to go. Sometimes even the simplest decisions can become difficult. If we take the time to listen deeply in our hearts, we will indeed hear the voice of the Good Shepherd calling our name, and leading us in the way we need to go. The first step is to admit our confusion and our need for guidance. We need to lay our questions before God, and wait patiently for God to show us the way forward. And we also need the courage to be open to what God may be saying to us. After all, it may not be what we expected.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” At this point the psalm turns. Until now we have been talking about God and God’s care for us. Now we turn and actually talk to God. Every time we say this verse, it is a chance for us to make our relationship with God more real and more personal.
Truly, there have been times over the last weeks that it has felt like we’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death. And we in Nova Scotia have indeed come face-to-face with evil. Our collective response has been an overwhelming show of love, support and solidarity. Together we have experienced what Jesus said, that “love casts out fear.”
“You spread a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” We may or may not literally have enemies in our lives, but perhaps we could say that hatred, violence, cynicism, despair, that these truly are our enemies. The image of God spreading a table before us makes us think of happy times, sharing in love and fellowship, unconcerned with the troubles of the world.
“You have anointed my head with oil.” This verse reminds us of our baptism, how God has called each one of us by name, has made us his own and has anointed us with the Holy Spirit.
“My cup is running over.” This reminds us that God’s grace is unlimited, and that the only thing that limits God’s grace is our own capacity to receive it. No mater how much we are able to receive, God always has more. All of our spiritual disciplines of prayer, worship and service are ways that we can make our cup bigger, and increase our capacity to receive God’s grace.
“Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” Though nothing really lasts forever in this world, and everything around us is passing away, God’s love can never pass away, and God is with us for all time and eternity. Even death itself cannot break the bond of God’s love for us, nor alter the love we have for one another.
In these strange times in which we find ourselves, let us dive deep into God’s love, and place our whole trust in the one who made us and who will lead us home, every one. Amen
Here is the Sermon from Sunday April 26, 2020
Well it has been quite a week. We have been experiencing layer upon layer of grief. One might almost say we have been swimming in grief. Already there was the grief of our lives and our relationships being disrupted by our public health crisis. Missing the hugs of others, and not being able to gather as families or friends or as a parish family, this is no small matter. And then there came of the horrific events of last weekend, deeds of violence that defy comprehension. This is a collective grief that we share with every citizen of our province. And of course, in addition to these griefs, each one of us has our own personal griefs to bear as well. For me personally, there is the real grief of beginning to make my farewell to the people I love here at St. Margaret of Scotland. I have been through this process before throughout my career, but it doesn’t get any easier. In fact it has never been more difficult.
Considering the trauma we have experienced in our province, sometimes it may feel like we are living in a dream, or we are in a novel or a movie. We feel, this cannot be happening. This cannot be real. But grief is not something we can go around. We cannot go over it or under it. We have to go through it. And as someone said, if we do not grieve now, we will grieve forever. I sometimes picture grief as an enormous cookie, as big as a tabletop. We cannot eat the whole thing at one sitting. We take a bite. We feel the pain. It takes time to digest it. And then later on when we’re ready, we take another bite. And so we dip in and out of the sadness. There are moments when we feel okay, and other moments when we’re definitely not okay.
In today’s Gospel reading we hear again the story of how the disciples encountered of the risen Lord Jesus on the road to Emmaus. And while at first the disciples are unable to recognize him, it is noteworthy that it is precisely in the midst of this process of grief, that the risen Lord Jesus Christ shows up. It is when we are most lost and hurt and confused, that Christ comes and helps us begin to make sense of things.
In this Easter season we affirm that we are indeed a resurrection people. That pattern of death and resurrection is in our very DNA, as Christians. And so, when we are traumatized and in pain, we know in our hearts that this can never be the end of the story. Although we may be unable to recognize him at first, the risen Lord Jesus is here with us, sharing in our pain and sharing with us the gift of new life. Our Easter faith is that there is never anything so bad, that God cannot somehow bring good out of it. God is not the cause of our suffering, nor does God ever will evil to happen. But God always has the power to bring good out of evil.
From the earliest days Christians have tried to seek meaning in Jesus’ death on the cross, and much has been written about how it was all part of God’s plan of salvation for the world. This kind of theologizing goes all the way back to holy Scripture itself. But let us not forget that the event itself, taken on its own terms, was wrong, and should not have happened. Jesus truly was God’s love incarnate, and when he was tortured, humiliated and died a slow and agonizing death on the cross, his death was real and final. We don’t hear Jesus saying “I’ll see you in three days.” Jesus death on the cross was wrong in every sense of the word. And yet out of that great wrong God was able to bring great good. When the followers of Jesus experienced the resurrection, and especially at Pentecost, when they were filled with the Holy Spirit, it is as if Jesus replicated himself. Now there was not just one Christ in the world, but hundreds of Christs, thousands and millions of them. Not only do we believe in the resurrection of Christ. Truly we are the resurrection of Christ.
So nothing good is ever lost. And when people we love die, their goodness lives on in us. That’s why eulogies are so important. We need to be inspired by their example, by their goodness, so that they may live on in us.
The same is true for us collectively here in this province. All this week I have been thinking of Nova Scotia as bearing a terrible wound. I guess Bruce McKinnon was reading my mind, when he drew a picture of Nova Scotia with a wound running from Portapique to Enfield, a sutured wound. When there is a wound in our body, we know that that is when the antibodies come, the antibodies that defend us against infection. When I think of all the memorials, the prayers, the paper hearts, the Nova Scotia tartan, bells being wrung across our country, and just all the loving, supportive conversations across this province, these are the antibodies bringing healing to our society.
But to be truly healing and effective our love must be universal and unconditional. And so it is important for us to be clear what it is that we condemn. It is not for us to condemn the soul of the killer. Judgment is God’s work and God’s alone. Difficult as it may be, we must not allow ourselves to hate him, because hate is always the real enemy. Hate is what we must condemn. We must condemn hate, violence, cynicism and the kind of alienation and amoral fatalism that can infect a human soul, and lead him to think that his life does not matter, and that the lives of other people do not matter.
Perhaps you have heard of the concept of social capital. This is the net sum total of trust, love, goodwill and cooperation in our society. Every single act of kindness makes a deposit in our collective social capital account. I have often said that here in Nova Scotia we are social capital millionaires. We are reminded of this when we hear the words of Mirna Yazji. Mirna came to Nova Scotia with her daughter in 2016, as a refugee from war-torn Syria. She said that in the place she had to flee, she experienced the same kind of wanton, meaningless violence on a daily basis and for long periods of time. She said that since she arrived in Nova Scotia she has felt safe, and added that this past weekend’s tragedy will not rob that sense of security from her, and should not rob it from others living in the province, or hoping to move here. She said: “This is not going to change Nova Scotia. It’s going to stay a peaceful place, with the kindest people in the world.”
Though this may be a time of grief and loss, let us also know it to be our season of Easter. And may the Christ who walks on wounded feet walk with us on the road. May the Christ who serves with wounded hands stretch out our hands to serve. May the Christ who loves with a wounded heart open our hearts to love. May we see the face of Christ and everyone we meet and may everyone we meet see the face of Christ in us. This both now and forever more. Amen.
Here is the Sermon from Sunday April 19, 2020
There is an old saying: “You can’t believe everything you hear.” At no time in history has this been more true, than in our present day. We live in a time when many of us have instant access to the sum total of human knowledge through a computer we can carry in our back pocket. We live our lives awash in a sea of the information. The only problem is that not all of that information is correct or true. So, the much heralded “age of information” has become for us also the age of fake news, of hoaxes and conspiracy theories of all kinds. There’s the one I heard of called “chemtrails.” The idea is that those white streaks across the sky left by jets are actually someone trying to poison us or change our weather. Or how about the crazy idea that the latest cell phone technology is somehow causing coronavirus, so that in some places people have been burning cell phone transmission towers. There seem to be a lot of people who are believing these things! And through the power of social media it sometimes seems like everyone is an expert, so much so that there are many who don’t trust any expert. And since everyone is an authority, there are many people who don’t believe any authority.
For example, there is the sad story of the Rev. Gerald O. Glenn, pastor of a church in Virginia. Pastor Glenn was a beloved pastor, but he as one of those who don’t believe the authorities, who don’t believe that we need to “stay the blazes home.” He defied the authorities, and gathered with his congregation on the 22nd of March. He said, and I quote, “I firmly believe that God is larger than this dreaded virus.” He trusted that Christ would not let him or any of his congregation get sick. He had complete faith in the healing power of the Holy Spirit. Tragically, on Easter Eve, April 11, Pastor Glenn died of Covid 19.
So what went wrong? One could say that Pastor Glenn had great faith. But this begs the question: “What is faith?” One of my best friends is a devout atheist. One might almost call him a fundamentalist atheist, if there could be such a thing. He dismisses the whole idea of faith, saying that faith is nothing but blind belief and superstition. He firmly believes that it would be a better world, if we could just do away with faith altogether. As you can imagine he and I have some pretty lively discussions! What I recently wrote to him on Facebook was that for me, faith is not about believing this or that assertion to be true. Rather faith is a living relationship with God, deep in our hearts, and at the heart of our community. That faith becomes for us a wellspring of every other human virtue. It is a source of love, compassion, courage, integrity, caring, hope, and deep joy. To describe faith as a living relationship with God, is only one way to put it into words. I believe that true faith goes deeper than any religion, and that even someone who doesn’t believe in God intellectually can be a person of great faith. In fact, I would describe my atheist friend as a man of deep faith. We may have difficulty in actually defining faith, but the fact that we cannot define it is no cause for concern. The same can be said for all of the great things in life, which cannot be defined, such as beauty, truth or love.
Perhaps I should nickname my friend, “Thomas,” Thomas who has been called the patron saint of doubters. We don’t know why he wasn’t home with the other disciples, when the risen Lord Jesus came and blessed them with his presence. Maybe he was out getting groceries or taking care of some other business for them. We don’t know. But we can certainly sympathize with him. He comes back to his friends and they are telling him that something has happened, which is clearly impossible. Thomas had seen with his own eyes Jesus’s lifeless corpse. Any reasonable person would say, “Yes, you may have had a hallucination or perhaps even a vision, but that doesn’t mean that it is really true that Jesus has risen from the dead.” The fact that this story features so prominently in the Gospel of John makes me think that Thomas may not have been the only one to doubt. The Gospel according to Matthew also alludes to some of the disciples doubting the risen Christ.
But in the end it is Thomas the doubter who goes further than any of the other disciples, and exclaims to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” It is because of the living relationship he has had with Jesus, that Thomas is able to experience the risen Christ. And it is not only because of this relationship. It is also because of his living relationship with the other 10 disciples. I always wonder what it was like that week with all the disciples there together, all of them knowing that Jesus was alive again and Thomas doubting it to be true. It’s a testament to their love that he didn’t leave them, and they didn’t reject him.
Doubt is an essential element in any healthy faith. But doubt has two sides. On the one hand, doubt can be at defense against the Truth, perhaps something that we know to be true deep in our hearts. Doubt can arise out of our fear of surrender, and out of our inability to trust. Doubt can be like the person who never once in life can bring themselves to say to someone the words, “I love you!”
But doubt is also an essential part of any healthy faith. Doubt allows us to question. It allows us to seek for answers. As the philosopher said, “The truth can bear examination.” We are right to question the power motives of anyone tells us, “Do not question. Just believe what I say.” Faith gives us the courage to question all of our prejudices and cherished beliefs, and to know that God always shows up.
At my age, I have come to question more and more. I have come to take every religious belief and story with a grain of salt. The more time I spend in prayer and meditation, the more I feel that less and less do I really know with any certainty. I’m like Bob Dylan when he sang, “I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.” But in the midst of all my questioning, the one thing I am more sure of than ever before, is God’s abiding love for me and for this whole world and everyone in it. I experience God’s love and God’s presence more and more, every minute of every day. This relationship, this faith, is the bedrock upon which everything else is founded.
Jesus said to Thomas, “You have believed because you have seen. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.” Let there be no doubt that the risen Lord Jesus Christ is present here today, here in this mostly empty church building, here in the homes of every family and individual who is “staying the blazes home” this morning, here present in the hearts of every one of us gathered together, and all who are watching this sermon later on. And day be day God is inviting us, each one, to go deeper in that living relationship, to trust in the risen Jesus Christ more and more, so that we, like Thomas, may declare, “My Lord and my God!” So may we be blessed. Amen.