The Blasphemy of Theodicy

A sermon preached on The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity at
The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete,
September 8, 2019 11:00 am (slightly expanded)

The Readings from Scripture were: Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

A man works at his potter's wheel Srinagar 1929

A man works at his potter’s wheel Srinagar, India 1929 – Franklin Price Knott, National Geographic Collection

The Problem of Evil

Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings. Jeremiah 18.11

Does God do evil? The reading from Jeremiah certainly seems to suggest as much. And it is not just Jeremiah. Isaiah suggests the same (especially in the AV/KJV translation):

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things. Isaiah 45:7

So, when bad things happen to us is it because God is punishing us? In Jeremiah the God is so great that everything that happens is attributed to God. Thus he appears to be the cause of suffering, or, at the very least, appearing to allow it. In this he comes across to us as an angry parent, a wrathful monarch, or a demanding teacher.

For many people this is sufficient reason not to believe in God. If God is responsible for everything, if God allows basically good people to suffer – a child killed in a car accident, or an infant murdered by an errant bullet, or an already oppressed woman taken out by a cluster bomb – if God can allow that, where is the justice? How could a God like that be loving and fair? If we are justly condemned for ours sins, how is it that God makes no distinction between the oppressed and the genocidal wicked?

This is the problem of evil. How do we reconcile the goodness and love of God with the wickedness in the world? If God is omnipotent, why does the divine allow sin and evil to reign?  The technical term for any attempt to deal with the problem of evil and God  is “theodicy,” which comes from two words for God and trial, θεός and δίκη.

Theodicy in the Bible

Scripture has several approaches to evil.

1: Good Things Happen to Good People, Bad Things to Bad People

The first approach is very simple, and might be described as the “majority” opinion. It is seen in parts of the Hebrew scriptures and in the New Testament. It is the idea that God is indeed in charge of everything as the creator of the universe and the maker of peoples and nations. As described in Genesis 2 and in Jeremiah 18, God is like a potter working with clay, and has the right to do with it as the deity chooses. So, when kings and the peoples depart from God’s ways, as shown in creation and revelation, then God will punish them, in the hope that they would repent and turn back. Paul notes, in the first chapter of the Letter to the Romans, that for the pagan idolators:

what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21 for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

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The gods of Egypt.

The Israelites had been given the Torah and were, as such, the chosen people of God, The non-Israelites should have known from the beauty and diversity of creation that there was a Creator, but instead began to worship the creation itself. Thus, they are depraved, and condemned.

The Israelites received the Torah from God, and agreed to be faithful to it. In the books of the so-called Deuteronomic History – Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings – we see that God promises to bless Israel, but if they turned from him and followed other Gods he would chasten them. It is also the theology we see in many of the ancient Israelite prophets. It is a simple enough understanding: good things happen to good, faithful people, bad things happen to bad, faithless people. After David and Solomon the Israelite kingdom divided into two, sometimes antagonistic realms, the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah.  Israel, although perhaps more wealthy than Judah, followed other gods and set up idols in their places of worship. They also neglected the widows and orphans, took the land of the poor, and accepted bribes in courts of law, and used fraudulent weights in the market places. So God sent the Assyrians against Samaria and Israel, and the ten tribes of the north were exiled and disappeared from history. Likewise, several generations later, the Neo-Babylonian Empire conquered the Assyrians and came down and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, set up tributary kings and governors, and deported the ruling elite and skilled workers to the waters of Bablyon, in what is now Iraq. After forty years the Neo-Babylonians themselves were overcome by the Persians of Cyrus the Great, who told the transplanted Judahites – or, as we now would call them, Jews –  to return to Judah and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, and worship in peace. All of this, in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and many of the Twelve Prophets, saw the hand of God in these historical events, first punishing faithlessness, and then relenting and acting once again to save the Chosen People.

2: Justice Delayed – Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People, and Good Things to Bad People?

So far so good. But after the return to exile a problem with this relatively straight-forward approach was identified, and this led to a second approach to theodicy, which is a modification of the first. This is the recognition that bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. It seems fundamentally unjust, and cannot be explained away by saying that God is righteous, even if it that doesn’t appear to be so. Indeed, when the Persian Empire was conquered by the Greek speaking Macedonian Alexander the Great, his successors in the Middle East, the rulers of the Selucid Empire, persecuted the Jews for their fidelity to God, demanding that they conform to the imperial religions and customs. Many refused, and were martyred as a result. So where was God is this?

The solution had a couple of elements. During the Exile in Babylon the Jewish leaders and teachers were exposed to Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of the Persians (which exists still as the faith of the Parsees). This ancient faith is more or less a monotheism and worship is offered to Ahura Mazda, but he is opposed by a demonic being. This may have been influenced the Jewish people into believing that there were evil forces working in opposition to their God. Late texts in the Hebrew Bible seem to bear that out.

Thus, evil in the present was attributed to Satan, whose name literally means “the tempter.” The second idea was that God was merely postponing justice for a bit. In time, perhaps very soon, when things got even worse, God would break into history and lift up the oppressed and pull down the evil, both the demonic and the human.

We see this theology in the later parts of Isaiah, in some of the later prophets like Zechariah and Haggai, and in the book of Daniel. It is the theology behind the growth in the belief in the general resurrection, when God will send the Son of Man to judge the quick and the dead. It is the belief behind the death and resurrection of Jesus, in which, in solidarity with suffering humanity, the Word becomes flesh and lives among us, and overcomes death and takes away the sins of the world, beginning a new creation. It is the power that takes Paul and transforms him from one who persecutes the followers of Jesus to being one of his most fervent apostles. For Paul the delay of justice was an occasion of grace, as it gave time to take the good news of Jesus Christ to the pagan world and perhaps save some who would otherwise be lost.  It is the theology that is behind the Book of Revelation, and John’s visions on Patmos. The message here is, Repent, and have faith, and in the fullness of time all shall be well.

3: From Out of the Whirlwind, The Incomprehensible and Our Incomprehension

But even this second approach is not satisfying. Why does God delay? After all, as Martin Luther King, Jr said, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Why does God allow Antiochus Epiphanes, the Selucid emperor of the middle of the 2nd Century BCE, to kill the faithful Jews with such torture and suffering? Or, to bring it up into modern times, why did God allow the Atlantic slave trade, and the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas? Why did God allow the rise of Hitler in the the first half of the 20th century, and the loss of so many lives in war, and the murder of six million Jews? Why did God allow the rise of Communism in Russia, China, and Cambodia, where it allowed genocidal leaders like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot to murder tens of millions of their own people? Why does God allow civil wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and the Congo? In the face of such suffering and death, delay seems unjust and unconscionable.

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Job Rebuked by His Friends, by William Blake (1757-1827)

The third biblical approach may be found in the Book of Job. In it we are introduced to the prose story of God and Satan having a contest and using Job as place of that testing. God celebrates the righteousness of Job, but Satan says that if bad things happened to him he would abandon the Lord. So God tests Job. Job loses everything – his belongings, his children, his health, and he finally breaks down. Poetry begins, and he sits in ashes – the equivalent of our garbage bins – and curses the day on which he was born.

Now, Job is described as having done nothing to incur his suffering, and he has no expectation of justice. Several friends come by and give him bad advice, but he replies that he is innocent – which God already confirmed in the first two chapters – and he demands that he be able to face God and put him in the dock, to put his ways on trial. So God appears in the whirlwind and says, “Where were you when I was making the universe” – not actually answering Job, but pulling rank, as it were. Job, overcome by the presence of God, humbles himself, acknowledges his presumption. In the words of the psalmist, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain to it.” Afterwards, returning to prose, God gives him twice as many possessions and twice as many children, which seems to be some recompense.  But still, Job suffered and he never knows why. This long book, I think, develops in a poetic way the exasperation we have with God, and ultimately confesses that we cannot reconcile both the majesty and power of God and the reality of evil and suffering in our lives.

920x920Some of you may remember a story told by Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Prize winning author and Holocaust survivor. In Auschwitz he witnessed three Jews, close to death, conduct a trial against God. Inspired by this the English screenwriter and novelist Frank Cottrell Boyce created a play set in Auschwitz in the Second World War, which was dramatized as “God on Trial” and broadcast by the BBC in 2008.  God is put on trial, and in the end the vote is that God has indeed broken the covenant. Just before the vote a rabbi among them says, “God is not good. He was just on our side. But now he has broken the covenant with us. He has made one with somebody else.” A very stark conclusion. And then they ask, “So what do we do now?” The reply is: “Let us pray.” But then the Jewish prisoners are taken off to be murdered, and as they wait for the gas to overcome them, they begin to cry the Shema in Hebrew: Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is One.”

This, then, is a third approach to the problem of evil, which we might call the minority opinion. It is the approach which says that we will never really have an answer, and any attempt at an answer is doomed. The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) said that theodicy after the Holocaust was a blasphemy. He should know – he lost almost all of his extended family in it (while he was a French POW in a German camp, his wife and daughter only survived because they were protected by nuns). We might give historical reasons as to why humans created the conditions in which such a thing happened, but we can never understand why God might allow it.

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Homeless Jesus, by Canadian Catholic sculptor Timothy Schmaltz.

Christ and The Problem of Evil

I personally do not think it is possible to answer the question of why God allows evil.  Levinas, although a faithful Orthodox Jew, believed that on philosophical and purely rational grounds we humans find the divine fundamentally in the ethical responsibility we have towards others. We might sense it in creation, in the history of the world, but all of that can, and is, challenged and undermined. It is in our intuition of responsibility to others that we find the trace of the divine, and the source of meaning in life.

So where does that leave us as Christians today in the year of our Lord Two-Thousand and Nineteen? Ultimately we can never explain evil, or justify it from the perspective of God, because we can only see things from the human perspective, which is so limited. But in the revelation of God in Jesus we do see what we may be called to do and be in the face of evil. And what might that be?

  1. As Christians, although we may not ever be able to explain or “justify” the existence of evil, we can proclaim in Jesus of Nazareth the revelation of God as one who lives and dies with us, and who overcomes death, one who cares for us, and who loves us, one who calls us beyond death to life. In the drama of Holy Week we describe a deity that withholds nothing from us.
  2. As individuals and as communities we are called to amend our ways. We can hear this personally, but I suspect we need to hear it even more so communally. The apocalypse is upon us, whether we see it in environmental degradation, the rise of racism and anti-Semitism, the denial of facts in favour of spin and outright lies, or increasing inequality in incomes.

    But of course, the apocalypse has been always with us, whether it was the the threat of Assyria to Jerusalem in the 7th century BCE, or in the 20th century the rise of totalitarian, genocidal regimes through communism, the rise of murderous totalitarian regimes in Fascism and Nazism, or the challenge of nuclear war. Each generation has its challenges, but the call to repent and amend our ways remains in every era. And so we are called.

  3. And we are called to be in solidarity with the majority, the poor and the oppressed, as Jesus was. We cannot ignore them, or justify their suffering as the results of historical or economic processes, much less blame the victims and exculpate the oppressors. This is the practical theology behind Paul telling Philemon that he needs to free his slave Onesimus. He tells him to do it on the basis of love, not because Philemon owes him, although Paul feels quite justified in saying that he would be right to command him to do it. Also, behind this is the belief that in Christ there is no longer Jew and Greek, male and female, or free and slave.
  4. But this is costly. Freeing a slave was a costly thing to do. Working for justice may cost us relationships. In following Jesus we may lose relations with our relatives, and we may lose income and possessions. I think this is what Jesus is talking about in the gospel reading today – that being a Christian is a costly endeavour, that grace is not cheap, and following Jesus means taking up crosses. The parabolic language Jesus uses may seem over the top, but the blank stares we might get when we tell people we are Christians in this post-Christian society is a hint of the cost of discipleship. Christians, at cost to themselves, live the justice of God among themselves and with the strangers in their midst.
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Traditional Zia Pueblo Small Polychrome Olla with Zia Sun Symbol (which is used on the flag of New Mexico). By Lois Medina (1959 – ).

What Kind Of A Vessel Are You?

As we remember the one who created us, and as we look back over our lives and see how we are like clay that a potter has refashioned time and again, may we recognise the cost that Jesus paid, and be ready for the calls coming to us to pay.  May we hear the call of God to turn now, all of us, from our evil ways, and amend our ways and our doings. And may God give us the Holy Spirit to have the grace so that the sharing of our faith may become effective.

 

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A Sermon For The Blessing of Pets

A sermon preached on the Feast of St Francis of Assisi,
on September 29, 2019 (transferred from October 4, 2019)
at The Anglican Parish of St Thomas, Kefalas, Apokoronas, Chania, Crete, Greece,
part of the Anglican Church in Greece and
a chaplaincy of the Diocese in Europe, Church of England.

Strictly speaking it should have been either the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, or The 15th Sunday after Trinity, but next Sunday, October 6, is the Harvest Festival, and as I could not commemorate St Francis and have a blessing of animals then, I moved it forward, thereby bumping Michael and his colleagues. May the angels forgive me.
Also, much of this is stolen from the Wikipedia articles on St Francis and his writings.
Readings for the Sunday were:
Genesis 1.:1-2:4, Psalm 148, Galatians 6:14-18, and Luke 12:22-34.

Saint-Francis-of-Assisi-with-kingfisher-icon

Today we commemorate the life and witness of Saint Francis of Assisi. He lived in the late 12th century and into the first quarter of the 13th century. He was born wealthy and was expected to take over the family business of selling silk. Being of the upper classes, at the age of 19 through 23 he also served as an soldier. After a series of spiritual experiences he began to follow Christ in a radical fashion, by letting go of power and wealth, and adopting a life of poverty and humility. This disarmingly simple life, grounded in the gospels and especially the Sermon on the Mount, attracted others. This was the beginning of the Minor Brothers, better known as the Franciscans.

Francis supposedly talked to the animals because he believed they were creatures of God, like us.

One day, while Francis was traveling with some companions, they happened upon a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side. Francis told his companions to “wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds.” The birds surrounded him, intrigued by the power of his voice, and not one of them flew away.

He is often portrayed with a bird, typically in his hand. Another story goes like this:

In the city of Gubbio, where Francis lived for some time, was a wolf “terrifying and ferocious, who devoured men as well as animals”. Francis had compassion upon the townsfolk, and so he went up into the hills to find the wolf. Soon, fear of the animal had caused all his companions to flee, though the saint pressed on. When he found the wolf, he made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf to come to him and hurt no one. Miraculously the wolf closed his jaws and lay down at Francis’ feet.

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“Brother Wolf, you do much harm in these parts and you have done great evil”, said Francis. “All these people accuse you and curse you … But brother wolf, I would like to make peace between you and the people.” Then Francis led the wolf into the town, and surrounded by startled citizens made a pact between them and the wolf. Because the wolf had “done evil out of hunger, the townsfolk were to feed the wolf regularly. In return, the wolf would no longer prey upon them or their flocks. In this manner Gubbio was freed from the menace of the predator. Francis even made a pact on behalf of the town dogs, that they would not bother the wolf again. Finally, to show the townspeople that they would not be harmed, Francis blessed the wolf.

While these stories may or may not be true, having been written down only some years after his death, what is true is that he wrote a poem in Italian, called the Canticle of the Sun. It is quite possibly the first piece of literature written in Italian, in the Umbrian dialect, more than a hundred years before Dante wrote the Divine Comedy:

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun . . .
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon. . .
Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Wind, and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather through which you give sustenance to your creatures.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth . . .
Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no one living can escape . . .

This is best known to us English speaking peoples as “All Creatures of Our God and King” paraphrased by the Rev’d William Draper, published in 1919, and usually sung to the German 1623 tune Lasst Uns Erfreuen:

Because of his association with animals, Francis is, among other things, the patron saint of the environmental movement. Pope Francis took his regnal name from him because of Francis’s concern for the poor and the environment, and his second encyclical, Laudato Si, concerning the dangers of climate change and its effect on the the most vulnerable on Earth, takes its name from a verse in The Canticle of the Sun.

Now, because of these stories about Francis and the animals, and his understanding that all creation worships God, it seems appropriate to bless animals and our pets, This is a growing liturgical act that is popular in Canada and the United States, and is sometimes celebrated in the Church of England and other English denominations. Many of you may recall an episode of The Vicar of Dibley in which this happens. At the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine in New York City it is a major event, with a special jazz setting for the Eucharist called Missa Gaia, which is unique in using a wolf call as the tune for the Kyrie.  The service there involves a broad range of animals, including elephants, camels, tortoises, parrots, cows, horses, and, of course, dogs and cats.

 

Now, dogs are mentioned more than a dozen times in the Bible. Cats, not so much, perhaps because the little guys are associated with the Egyptians, the people who enslaved the Israelites. The Bbible does mention big cats, including leopards lions, the reference to the Lion of Judah being the most obvious one.

The basic theological issue for me is whether we should bless the animals, because, after all, they already bless us with their presence and love. I resolve this by remembering that we bless God, so it is right that we should invite God’s blessing on these creatures who are so much a part of our lives.

As part of creation, they reflect the Creator. This is stated no better than in a song from ten years ago by the American Christian songwriter Wendy J. Francisco in her song G O D and D O G, so we’ll end with that.

I look up and I see God, I look down and see my dog.
Simple spelling G O D, same word backwards, D O G.
They would stay with me all day. I’m the one who walks away.
But both of them just wait for me, and dance at my return with glee.

Both love me no matter what – divine God and canine mutt.
I take it hard each time I fail, but God forgives, dog wags his tail.
God thought up and made the dog, dog reflects a part of God.
I’ve seen love from both sides now, it’s everywhere, amen, bow wow.

I look up and I see God, I look down and see my dog.
And in my human frailty . . . I can’t match their love for me.

 

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Anti-Christ Politics vs. the Politics of Jesus

“Everything Jesus said was exactly the opposite to the political environment in which we find ourselves.” – Jim Wallis

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Jim Wallis is the editor of Sojourners, a justice oriented Christian magazine in the United States. Here is a column in which he sums up the antagonism against Jesus in the United States today. Yes, he’s flogging his book, but the points he makes are good ones. The column is here.

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Kefalas Calling

A Sermon Preached on The Tenth Sunday after Trinity
The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete
August 25, 2019,  11:00 am

Readings: Jeremiah 25: 4-10, Psalm 71: 1-6, Luke 13: 10-17

telephone-operator

What are you called to? What are we called to?

When I was young I often wondered about what I would be when we grew up.

I thought that I was going to be a physicist and a science fiction author, winning the Nobel Prize in Physics for work I would do in my mid-twenties, as well as Hugo and Nebula prizes for my writing. I sustained this delusion through high school, but it fell apart in my first year at the University of Toronto. There were two reasons for this. First, I discovered beer, and I was far more interested in it than PHY 150 and CHM 150. Second, I realized that I was only above average in scientific smarts, and that there were lots of students who were much brighter than me. As a result I failed two courses, lost two scholarships, and was on academic probation for my second year.

That second year I started taking courses in philosophy, knowing that I would probably never become a professional philosopher. In due course my interests shifted to The Meaning of Life and God and Other Big Things, and some people suggested I could be ordained. And here I am, some thirty-eight years later, thirty of them as an ordained minister in the Anglican Church of Canada and one as a priest in the Church of England. It thought I had a call to be a priest, pastor, and preacher, and this call was affirmed by various committees and individuals before and after my ordinations.

Institutions talk about their calling, often in the language of vision and mission. What is the mission statement of this company? What is the vision of this leader for this corporation?

This congregation – the Anglican Church of St Thomas, Kefalas – has a mission statement, but it is now some nine years old. While it was undoubtedly accurate when it was written, I believe it is time to consider our vision and mission as a church now. To that end the Church Council has agreed to begin working on that with a season of prayer and reflection.

For four Sundays in late October and through November we will consider four  statements or questions that will lead us into prayerfully thinking about what it is God is asking us to do. The first two will be October 27 and November 3. We will take a break from this for the observance of Remembrance Sunday on November 10 down at the Souda Bay Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, and then start up again for November 17 and 24. Then, on December 1 – the First Sunday of Advent – we will have a day of reflection in the context of the day’s liturgy. It will make for a different experience – we will be seated around tables and we will consider questions about what we like about church, why we are a part of it, what we are passionate about, and what God might be saying to us about being a church in Crete – but we will get important information about who we think we are and how the Holy Spirit is working through us. After we have some clarity about our vision and mission, we can set some measurable goals and objectives, and settle down to implement them.

We are, of course, a small church community. We can probably only do two or three things really well. One of them is probably worship, I hope. Another might be restarting home groups (church growth gurus says that if a church does nothing else other than starting home groups or small group ministries, you will grow). however, we cannot just sleepwalk our way into growth, but intentionally direct ourselves, so that when God chooses to surprise us with new opportunities, we are ready for them.

We are all called by God in our baptism, and confirmed in the promises and actions we take.

Prophetic Calling

In scripture there is a a pattern to the call to prophets.

  • The call is made.
  • The person being called tries to get out of it.
  • God affirms it.
  • Sometimes there is a purifying act.

HestonMoses is the paradigm. In Exodus 3-4 we hear Moses’s objections and God’s response:

  1. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
  2. “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”
  3. “But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say, “The Lord did not appear to you.”” Staff that becomes a snake, and the hand that becomes leprous but is then healed.
  4. “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” “Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.”
  5. Send someone else! “Your brother Aaron will speak for you.”

The call of Samuel is a little different: As a young boy he hears a voice calling for him in the night. “Samuel, Samuel” He thinks it is Eli the priest calling him. After three times of Samuel hearing the voice calling him, and then waking Eli, the old priest tells Samuel to say. “Here I am!” (Hineh” in Hebrew.) ”Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

The call of Isaiah is as an adult in chapter six of the Book of Isaiah: He is a priest, serving in the Temple in Jerusalem, and he has a vision of the Almighty, with Seraphs flying around and singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy”. He says, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’” An angel takes one of the coals that is burning incence, and touches it to Isaiah’s lips, and says, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then he hears the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And he says, ‘Here am I; send me!’

Then, a few generations after Isaiah, comes Jeremiah, a few years before the conquest of Jerusalem and Judea by the Babylonians, and who lived and prophesied through the destruction of the Temple and the deportation of the elite of Judea into exile. He is called by God, and he objects, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” God basically tells him to be quiet, and somehow puts out his “hand” and somehow touches Jeremiah’s mouth, and says to him

Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.

How are we called?

Fundamentally our call is the same, only we hear it mostly through scripture, through the voices of others, and through the traditions and liturgies of the church.

First and foremost, we receive our calling in our baptism. If you were baptised according to the rite in the Book of Common Prayer 1662 we are commanded to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and to fight against sin, the world, and the devil. In Common Worship we have what is sometimes called the Baptismal Covenant:

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,
in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
                  With the help of God, I will.
Will you persevere in resisting evil,
and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
                  With the help of God, I will.
Will you proclaim by word and example
the good news of God in Christ?
                  With the help of God, I will.
Will you seek and serve Christ in all people,
loving your neighbour as yourself?
                  With the help of God, I will.
Will you acknowledge Christ’s authority over human society,
by prayer for the world and its leaders,
by defending the weak, and by seeking peace and justice?
                  With the help of God, I will.

No matter what rite we are baptised with, we have the opportunity of affirming it and being empowered allover again  every time we gather around this table and partake of the Lord’s Supper.

Our callings may also be made in other ceremonies. We make it by particular by the vows we make. So, in marriage we promise to to love and to live with a particular person, in these impossible vows:

I, N, take you, N,
to be my wife/husband,
to have and to hold
from this day forward;
for better, for worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish,
till death us do part . . .

I say these are impossible vows because who knows what they are getting themselves into in marriage. And yet we as Christians have these high standards to which we aspire.

Some of us are called to be ordained, in which we carry out servant ministries to empower all the baptised in their work. Some take vows in Religious Orders, in which men and women are set aside for particular types of prayer and ministry in the context of chastity, poverty, and obedience.

Sometimes our callings do not have any special religious rites or secular rituals. Instead, we just take them on. For some of us that is the having children, a vocation which, by the time we have it figured out, we are out of a job. For others it is taking on animals as pets, which has its own blessings and a few curses.And then, of course, for many of us, our jobs are not just a means to earn money, but something which gives our lives meaning. This, I find, is especially true of professions such as teachers, doctors, nurses, counselors, other helping professions, and lawyers and politicians (yes, really), but also carpenters, artists, builders, cooks, gardeners, those in the armed forces, and so many others. For many of us our profession is our identity, and it becomes a real challenge when we retire! We then find new vocations.

So . . .

I believe that all of this is the action of the Holy Spirit, whether explicitly identified as such or not. We have many callings, sometimes obviously so, and sometimes more subtle.

And so I return to the questions at the beginning of this talk:

  • What is God calling you to do?
  • What is God calling us to do?

May God in Christ lead us into some understanding of this. Amen!

 

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Signs of the Times

A Sermon Preached on The Ninth Sunday after Trinity
The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete
August 18, 2019 11:00 am

The scripture readings were: Hebrews 11:29-12:2Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18, and Luke 12:49-56.

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Jesus said, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Luke 12.56

What time is it?

We are inured to the precision of modern time. If a clock is off by a minute or two, we notice it. It wasn’t always this way.

Time used to be something local, and defined by what the sun was doing. When the sun came up, people woke up, and when it set, people went to bed. The day was broken up into hours and the night into watches, but the length of the hours and the watches varied by the season and who was keeping track of it. Events started when people arrived and all was ready, which could vary by hours, days, or in some cases, months. In some places the middle of the day would be signified by a cannon firing, or the drop of a ball on top of a pole or a building.

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John Harrison’s second sea watch (H5), which was tested by King George III himself, and found after ten weeks to be accurate to 1/3 of a second per day.

Then, as society became more global and intertwined, establishing precise and accurate time became important. Shipping required ships to know where they were so they could avoid hazards and take the most expeditious routes. Latitude was easily reckoned, but longitude, the distance east and west, was difficult. Only when accurate chronometers were created, by 1760s, tough things that were portable and could be used in conjunction with astronomy, could position be established accurately. That happened in the 18th century. Then, in the 19th century, with the advent of fast travel on rail, the need for a standard time in a country or jurisdiction became important. If Cork had a noon time that was fifteen minutes later than Dublin, when did the train get in? This led to the twenty-four time zones being set up. Shortly after the Second World War atomic clocks came into use, and Universal Coordinated Time came into being. Now, with the use of satellites and adjusted for the effects of relativity, GPS allows us to be just about anywhere and know where that is, and what time it is.

Time Zones

Time Zones in Europe. Time zones and Universal Coordinated Time were proposed by the Scotland-born Canadian Sir Sandford Fleming in 1879.

But what time is it for God?

Human timekeeping is not God’s time. God is both outside of time and inside it, as the Creator. Outside of time God is eternal and non-temporal, and inside of time God is everlasting and behind all events. So the perspective is a bit different.

From the perspective of God, as given to us in Jesus Christ, we are living in the Last Days. We have been in the Last Days since the coming of Jesus. This is not something new in this generation or century. The Last Days have been two-thousand years long, and they will continue until the kingdom is here in its fullness. That’s as precise as we get.

And what are the signs of these Last Days? Throughout the Gospel according to Luke and in the Acts of the Apostles, and paralleled throughout the other gospels, letters, and Revelation we find:

La-Pentecoste

  • The Holy Spirit come upon people, seemingly indiscriminately. Mary, a young peasant from Galilee, of all people, is chosen to bear the Messiah by the power of the Holy Spirit, and full of the Holy Spirit she proclaims the Magnificat. Paul, who persecuted the early Church, is transformed into a preacher of the good news of the resurrection of Jesus, and filled with the Holy Spirit he speaks in tongues, prophesies, and preaches (and writes letters that are recognized as spirit-filled, and so become scripture). On the Day of Pentecost it is given to everyone who follows Jesus:

In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
        and they shall prophesy.

The Spirit compels people to be as Jesus in the world: proclaiming the kingdom, healing the sick, and driving out evil.

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The Food Pantry at the Episcopal Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco CA. It is located in the same space as the table that is used for communion.

  • The kingdom has not arrived, but the people of God live as though it has, because of the Spirit. In stark contrast to the world around it, justice is lived out by the Christian community. This is seen at that most basic thing, food. We read in Acts how goods are shared, so that none go hungry. The sick are cared for and healed. Sins are forgiven, people repent and are changed, and old enemies reconciled.
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A modern icon of St. Onesimus. He was a slave of Philemon of Colossae (in what is now Turkey), who ran away to be with Paul in Ephesus. Paul, in his “Letter to Philemon”, tells him to free Onesimus. Christian tradition records that Onesimus became a bishop in Ephesus.

  • There is a radical inclusiveness. The Spirit is given to anyone who seeks it, including Greeks and Barbarians, and not just the people of Judea. Women in the early church appear to have been co-equal with the male disciples – Mary Magdalene is the first entrusted with the gospel of the resurrection. Slaves are considered to be the equal of their masters within the church, and as a logical consequence of this Paul encourages Philemon to free his slave Onesimus.
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Simon Whitfield winning the gold medal in A Very Long Race, namely, the triathlon (swimming, cycling, and running) at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. I ran a race with him (well, me and a couple of thousand other people), the Canada Day 10K in Victoria BC back in 2008; he was somewhat faster than me.

  • All of these things are signs of God sanctifying and acting in the people of Jesus – and this is the fulfilling of God’s promises. As the author of Hebrews puts it, we are being made perfect, and we are running with perseverance the race set before us.

But there is a downside to this.

  • Persecution, beginning with Jesus and continuing with his disciple, initially within the varieties of Judaism compromised by alliances with Roman Imperium, and then later by pagan Roman rulers all on their own. This persecution has continued to this present day.
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Statues of 20th-century martyrs on the façade above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey. Those commemorated are Maximilian Kolbe, Manche Masemola, Janani Luwum, Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Martin Luther King, Óscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Esther John, Lucian Tapiedi, and Wang Zhiming.

  • Jesus says the gospel will set
    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.
    Of course, some people would think that this is just the way things are, but in many societies family is everything. First century Palestine was like that, and so Jesus’s words were even more shocking then. Jesus here is not advocating division for the sake of enmity, but simply stating the fact that in a broken world we should not be surprised that we bring our brokenness into families. When it comes to the gospel, many within families would resist its radical call. This division extends to the family created by baptism, the church.  Some estimate that there are now some 43,000 different denominations of Christianity.  The letters of Paul and the John, as well as Revelation, all witness to these schisms from the beginning.

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  • The power of the gospel has too often been allied with the powers of the world, beginning with Constantine the Great and through to the present day. This has led to imperialism, colonization, the justification of violence in ungodly pursuits, genocide, and support for violent and oppressive regimes. Church dignitaries have prefered to cover up abuses within the institution rather than bringing them out into the light of day.

And yet, despite all this,

  • The church perseveres and grows. While we might wonder about the future of Christianity in England and Europe, where “none of the above” is the fastest growing faith, the church is nevertheless growing by leaps and bounds in Africa and Asia.
  • The church reforms itself. It did this in the 3rd and 4th century, when Christianity had grown so much that it was becoming a means of social advancement. People like St. Antony heard the gospel as a call to renounce the world and live in the wilderness. He and those who followed him began monasticism. In the 12th and 13th century Dominic and Francis began preaching orders that were oriented to bringing a lively faith to ordinary people. In the 16th century the Protestant reformers went back to the Bible to transform the church into something more Christlike. In the late 19th century radical Christians called into question slavery and campaigned for its abolition. In the 20th century the Social Gospel movement advocated for the poor and the common person. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the Civil Rights movement, condemning segregation. Oscar Romero challenged despots and death squads. Desmond Tutu condemned apartheid as a heresy, and following its end, led the process of reconciliation in South Africa. Much of the church, in the wake of the Holocaust, has repented of its anti-semitism and supersessionism.

What do these signs say to us? How do we read them?

Rather than tell you how to read them, let me ask some questions.

  1. First, are we open to the Holy Spirit working within us? The foundation and growth of this little church seems to be an example of the Spirit – where will it drive us next? As our Church Council looks as our mission and tasks for the next few years, have we sought the Spirit?
  2. Second, are we living the kingdom of God now? Are we radically inclusive, and do we welcome and actively solicit the involvement of all sorts of people in our congregation and in our lives, and not just people who look and sound like us? Have we reached out beyond our ethnic group to invite others and make them feel welcome? I come from a part of the Anglican Communion (the Diocese of British Columbia in the Anglican Church of Canada) where we have married clergy in same sex unions, where we hung out rainbow flags over the front door, the Bishop marched in Pride parades,  and same-sex weddings are permitted. Now, I know that the Church of England has a different policy on this, and thus this congregation, being part of the Diocese in Europe, so do we. However, the three other Anglican churches in the British Isles – the Church of Ireland, the Church in Wales, and the Episcopal Church of Scotland – have all moved to be significantly more open on the marriage of same-sex couples. Do we need to look at this as well?

    Logan in Pride

    Some members of the Diocese of British Columbia preparing for the 2019 Pride Parade in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. At right is the Right Rev Dr Logan McMenamie.

  3. Third, where are we with justice, and how do we fit that into our lives?
  • In the United States, Canada, and Ireland the largest denomination, the Roman Catholic Church, is in disrepute because of sexual scandals. On a smaller scale various provinces of the Anglican Communion, including the Church of England, have been dealing with sexual abuse. We have had a good response, but it could be better. Are we not only safeguarding, but are we being seen to be doing the right thing, so that the possibility of abuse of the most vulnerable among us by our entrusted leaders is made as difficult as possible? When will safeguarding be seen not as a bureaucratic add-on, but a central part of evangelism?
  • The American conservative evangelical movement is now strongly identified with
    • the denial of science and facts around climate change and gun violence,
    • the disparaging of non-white immigrants and refugees,
    • a rollback of achievements for gays and lesbians, and
    • the demeaning of women.

Many Christians in the historically African-American denominations no longer want to call themselves evangelicals because of the antagonism they receive in attacks from their white brothers and sisters. Furthermore, there is a growing movement of young ex-evangelicals who see themselves as Christians but cannot abide the narrow hypocrisy of their home churches. They love the people in the churches they have left, but they can no longer abide the debasement of ethics and morality in the name of political goals.

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The situation is different here in Europe and in the Church of England, and Evangelicals are not so likely to be aligned with one political party or set of social goals. That said, the challenge of the gospel – to show our faith in our works, by care for the poor and disenfranchised as if they were Jesus himself – remains. Our words must match our deeds.

And in the end . . .

Are we walking by faith, as our forebears did, as described in the Letter to the Hebrews, as Jesus and the disciples did? Are we Christ centered, seeking to conform our lives to his? Do we know what time it is?

May the words of the Psalmist be our prayer:

Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven,
behold and tend this vine; *
preserve what your right hand has planted.
Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

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Prayer and Forgiveness

A sermon preached on The Sixth Sunday after Trinity
at The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete
July 28, 2019 11:00 am

The readings for the day were Colossians 2:6-15, Psalm 85 and Luke 11:1-13.

kneeling

Well, given these readings, shall I talk about prayer and forgiveness?

The disciples ask Jesus about how to pray. In the Gospel according to Luke he responds with one of the two version of the Lord’s Prayer. There are two versions in the New Testament, the one here in Luke, and another in the Gospel according to Matthew, and while they are not exactly the same they are close enough, and the slight differences suggest that they are rooted in an oral tradition that probably goes back to Jesus. The traditional form of the Lord’s Prayer which we use is a merger of these two, and in the English language tradition we add a doxology: For thine is the kingdom the power and the glory, for ever. Amen.

Postures

There are traditionally two positions for prayer, as described in scripture.

  1. On one’s knees. It is a position of humility and vulnerability. You cannot see well, your hands are fixed and you cannot defend yourself. It is very similar to kneeling before one’s lord and sovereign. One demonstrates one humility because when the Queen (or perhaps, more often these days, the Prince of Wales) knights you, a sword goes on either shoulder – when presumably the Sovereign could just as easily chop off your head. There is vulnerability, but also a possibility of receiving honour. From being vulnerabile one is open to things, to being taught.
  2. Standing with hands outraised. This is a position of receptive power, of joy and praise. It is something both Catholics and Charismatic Protestants do.
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Of course, nowadays, we most often pray sitting down, it seems. It used to be that Anglicans were distinguished for the amount of time they spent praying on their knees during the liturgies, but a more relaxed attitude has emerged. Where we used to claim we had callouses on our knees, old age and a lack of kneelers leads many congregations to adopt being seated as the norm.

For What Do We Pray?

And what do we pray for? In Luke we read:

  • Your kingdom come. We are not satisfied by what the world gives us, whether it is politicians and liberal democracy, economic well-being and the consumer society, or the distress of the world around us. Our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you, O God, as St Augustine put it in his Confessions (written 397-400 CE). The kingdom comes in Jesus, the kingdom of God is at hand, but it is not to be identified with the kingdoms of this world, nor is it identical with the institution of the church (although the kingdom is active within it). It is present whenever two or three gather in Jesus’s name, but it is also at the same time not yet here. In Matthew we also pray that God’s will would be done on earth as in heaven, and that implies that God’s will often is not done. So as Christians we are uncomfortable, restless, strangers in a strange land, legally citizens of the UK or Greece or Ireland or Canada, but in reality citizens of another place.
  • We pray for daily bread – minimal sustenance. We also have confidence that it will come. We are no longer faced with famines. We do not pray to be wealthy or powerful or famous.
  • We ask to be forgiven, about which I will say more in a moment, and God’s forgiveness of us is paralleled by our forgiveness of others.
  • Finally, in Luke we ask God to not bring us to the time of trial. Reframing this, we ask that those soul-challenging occasions where we are tempted are avoided, that we are not pushed to the breaking point.
  • Jesus then tells his disciples, in a brief parable and a few illustrations, to persist in prayer – presumably for these things.

The Power of Prayer

I often hear people talk about the power of prayer, as if it is the case that if we have enough faith God will do anything for us. But prayer is not about manipulating God, as if the Almighty is subject to the whims and will of human desires. Sometimes the answer to our prayers is positive, and they are granted. As often as not, the answer is a no. And then there are all those situations in which the answer is vague and uncertain. It is because we project our human malleability upon the divine, when it is in fact quite wholly other. No, the power of prayer, in my experience is different from this.

  • Fundamentally, the point of prayer is that it changes us. It may sound as if we are trying to change God’s mind, but it is actually our minds which will be transformed.
  • It is a spiritual habit and a practice. Just as if you change your diet you will see a change in your body, so if we pray we will see changes in our selves, our souls and bodies.
  • If we kneel in prayer we will feel humble and vulnerable, and open to teaching.
  • If we enter into contemplative prayer or meditation we will find ourselves becoming all too aware of the narcissistic monkey chatter of our minds. If we persist, we quiet the voices, and perhaps become attentive to the still, quiet voice of God.
  • If we pray for our enemies we will find ourselves moving from anger and vengeance to dispassionate analysis and wishing their welfare. This is not to say that we give up on bringing the consequences of their action upon them, but we so in order to force them to refrain from malevolent action, and perhaps to turn and repent.
  • If we meditate and reflect on the words of Jesus and the prophets in scripture, and think about the stories we hear and read about them, we will find our hearts shaped like that of the prophets and Jesus.
  • If we stand to praise God in Christ in voice and action we will find ourselves moving into joy and gratitude.
  • And so, forgiveness becomes a spiritual practice, similar to and complementary to that of prayer.

Now of course, many of us have been grievously hurt by others. So how can we forgive our offenders, especially if they do not acknowledge their suffering they have caused, if there is no repentance? Let me tell you a couple of stories.

[Trigger warning] A friend of mine back in Canada was sexually assaulted by her father, and needless to say, this was deeply traumatic. She told me about this – how she made a complaint to the police, and he was tried and convicted and sent to jail for a time. Then, after this, she said that she was able to forgive him?. “How?” I asked. “I had to forgive him, or else that suffering would continue to keep a hold on me. Only by forgiving him was I able to be free from the awful effects of his abuse.” Forgiveness is about us dealing with the past, not forgetting it but reducng its destructive power over us.

amish-school-shooting

A funeral procession following the West Nickel Mines School shooting in 2006.

One of the more horrific aspects of American gun culture is the frequency with which people kill children in schools. One example is the West Nickel Mines School shooting back in 2007. It was no different from so many other of these school shootings, except that in this case the victims were all Amish children, between the ages of 7 and 13. The Amish are a type of radical Anabaptists. While many of them accept some modern technology for farming and carpentry, they reject much that we take for granted – electricity, smartphones, television, automobiles, and factory-made clothing. They drive horse and buggies. They are radical pacifists, speak a form of German, and do not participate in national programs of social welfare.  When this tragedy came upon them they responded with sorrow and grief, and tore down the school and built a new one. The perpetrator, who was not Amish but was known to them, killed himself after shooting the children. Astonishingly, many members of he Amish community, including parents who had buried their daughters the day before, attended the funeral of the murderer, and expressed forgiveness. They even raised some money for his widow and children. A counselor who worked with many of those grieving, believes that

because the Amish can express that forgiveness, and because they hold no grudges, they are better able to concentrate on the work of their own healing.

This forgiveness is rooted in the Amish knowledge of Jesius’s teaching about forgiving others, and the fact that any undertaking begins and ends with the Lord’s Prayer.

The Power of Forgiveness

We are changed by God’s forgiveness given to us in Jesus. Likewise, we are changed by forgiving others.

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This became an influential part of modern political life with the rise of  “Truth and Reconciliation”. While it arose in parts of Latin America, it became very prominent when  a commission was set up in South Africa by Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the request of Nelson Mandela. As the Wikipedia article states, its purpose was to bear witness to, record, and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, as well as offering reparation and rehabilitation to the victims. It was grounded in the Christian principle that a confession of violence could be forgiven, and it was a means for the nation to heal beyond the traumas of apartheid and violence committed on both sides. This became a model for other nations, including Australia, Chile, and Germany. My home country of Canada has had one as well, relating to the genocidal traumas of the Indian Residential Schools. An apology is not enough – there needs to be some form of reparation, to make things right, and an intention to do things to make sure that the damage is never done again. It is a slow, painful, and challenging process, and often fraught with controversy. That said, most places that have had one affirm the importance of truthtelling in the process of achieving justice.

Some people cannot see themselves as forgivable. And, indeed, it may be that some people will not forgive others. But God will always forgive us, and will not deny us. It does not erase the sin, there’s no forgive and forget, but there may be forgiveness and transformation.

Some people they read the version in Matthew quite literally – forgive us our debts as we forgive those who are indebted to us. Whether in the ancient world or the 21st century, the chronic persistence of debt is seen as an injustice. Bankruptcy was a novel concept that only came about in the modern era, and allowed individuals to get out from under the crush of owing money – or avoiding debtors prison, or quite literally becoming slaves.    or simply the redistribution of accumulated wealth, there is a sense in which our relations with others cannot be defined by economics. While now it may seem to be associated more with crooked politicians and large corporations, bankruptcy was originally an act of justice and forgiveness.

And so . . .

God calls us to pray, as Jesus prayed.

God calls us to be people of healing and reconciliation, grounded in being forgiven and forgiving others.

By the grace of God’s Holy Spirit may we be remade in the image of God, may we be vulnerable enough to be teachable, so that we may be living icons of the kingdom of God to this broken and fragile creation.

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The Eagle Has Landed

A Sermon Preached On The Fifth Sunday after Trinity
The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete
July 21, 2019 11:00 am

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Well, fifty years ago yesterday humanity arrived on the moon, and today, going by Greenwich Mean Time (which is God’s time, right?), Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out and walked on the lunar surface. It was my was seventh birthday that July 21, 1969, and it was a thrilling thing to watch. I had grown up with the Space Race, following the exploits of the Gemini project and then the Apollo.In 1967 I went to Expo 67 in Montreal, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Confederation, and there I saw in the US pavilion artifacts from NASA.

The moon landing was the culmination of a decade’s incremental advances in astronautics, involving 400,000 people, from the human calculators such as Katherine Johnson, featured in the movie Hidden Figures, to Chris Craft, the ubiquitous head of Mission Control in Houston, Texas. The computer software on the spacecraft was built from the ground up by a team headed by Margaret Hamilton, and never demonstrated any bugs or errors – which was a good thing, as there was little margin for error.

It was a tremendous achievement. While many people criticized it then and now as an unnecessary extravaganza, for others it demonstrated what humanity was capable of doing when it put its mind to it. As a child born in the ‘sixties it was a symbol of progress and human ingenuity. While an American endeavour, there was a real sense that all humanity was involved. It still fills me with wonder every time I look at the moon over these Cretan hills and thing, “Wow, we really went there.”

But first things first. When the Eagle had landed on the Sea of Tranquility the first thing Buzz Aldrin did was take communion. He had brought the elements from his Presbyterian Church, where he was an elder, and gave thanks to God for the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Later, on Apollo 15, astronaut David Scott left a Bible on the Lunar Rover Vehicle, where it remains today.

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The Bible left by David Scott is shown in the red circle. Photo: NASA via St. Christopher Episcopal Church

 

These things came to mind this week as the media was filled with the fifty year anniversary, and I came across the story of Martha and Mary in the Gospel of Luke, our gospel for this day.

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Doesn’t that sound familiar? It is so easy to be distracted from the divine. Do we pray? Do we meditate? Do we read our scriptures? Do we reflect on our faith in Jesus Christ? Do we attend to Jesus and rest in his presence? It is commendable that in the midst of the moon landing that some of the astronauts took the opportunity to focus on God, in the person of Jesus Christ.

But the optimism and excitement I and so many others felt fifty years ago is a stark contrast to the way we feel today. different today.

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Taken aboard Apollo 8 by Bill Anders, this iconic picture shows Earth peeking out from beyond the lunar surface as the first crewed spacecraft circumnavigated the Moon. NASA

  • From Apollo 8 we saw the photograph of the Earth-rise and realized in a single picture, just one glimpse, the interconnectedness and fragility of creation. And today we find ourselves spoiling our planetary home, as the climate gets warmer and the weather more unpredictable. Politicians argue as they deny the science or acknowledge it, and find themselves trying to balance the immediate concerns of economics and jobs versus the long-term issues of global warming. And this comes home to us. Will we pay for the billion-euro power line to connect Crete to the continent of Europe, so that our power will not be generated by the burning of oil? Will we pay carbon taxes to encourage us to shift to renewable resources? Are we willing to forgo our flights on jets?
  • Or think of the leadership in our nations. I was probably naive then, or maybe I am getting old, but it did seem we had better politicians in days past. The words of the psalm might have been written today about them, rather than 2700 years ago:

Your tongue is like a sharpened razor, * O worker of deception.
You love evil more than good * and lying more than speaking the truth.
You love all words that hurt, * O you deceitful tongue.
“This is the one who did not take God for a refuge, *
but trusted in great wealth
and relied upon wickedness.”

Or the words of the prophet Amos:

you that trample on the needy
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,

  • Or consider the role of religion in our societies, so long in decline:

The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,
when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord.
They shall wander from sea to sea,
and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,
but they shall not find it.

To address all of these we need to keep first things first. God calls to us, in the midst of all of our distractions , not to simply dwell on these things and run to and fro trying to fix these things, but to set time aside to attend to God. There is time enough to attempt great things, necessary things, but as Christians we begin with Jesus, by gathering here, by listening and reflecting on scripture, by praying to God, and by sharing the meal that Jesus his son left us. Then, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we pray and read and preach the gospel in word and deed throughout the week.

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The recently communicated Buzz Aldrin.

We do these things, and through the faith that is in us we are changed, and so we are made capable of doing things that would have seemed impossible for us. And yet Jesus said in the Gospel of John that we would do greater things, and Paul writes that God, working in us, can do more than we can ask or imagine.

So, while we may want to be Marthas, may we, for a time, be Marys, that the better part may not be taken from us.

 

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