Through Advent With Isaiah

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“The Prophet Isaiah” by Michelangelo (c. 1511), one of the seven Old Testament prophets painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, in the Vatican

It’s the First Sunday of Advent. The Book of the prophet Isaiah is always one of the sources for readings in the season at Morning and Evening Prayer in Advent, and has been for a very long time. I will attempt in the next 24 days to briefly say a few things about the prophet and the texts as we work our way to Christmas.

The first reading today in the Revised Common Lectionary for Holy Communion is from Isaiah 2.1-5:

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

O house of Jacob, come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord!

Isaiah identifies himself as the son of Amos. From other information we learn that he lived in the mid-8th on, perhaps from 740 BCE to about 686 BCE. There is no good reason to think that he was not an historical figure – he really did live.

This is a hopeful, forward looking vision. Isaiah sees Jerusalem not as it was in his time, a small town which served as the cultic centre of the small nation known as Judea, but as he hoped it would be – the pilgrimage destination of all the nations of the world, where peoples would gather to receive instruction from the Lord, leading to the resolution of conflicts and the coming of peace.

Jerusalem today is the a holy city and centre of three world religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, whose total population today is some 3.8 billion. So Isaiah’s vision has been partially fulfilled. However, it is also a city of deep divisions, not just between these three religions of Abraham, but within them as well. Jerusalem has been fought over repeatedly in the past century, and in my living memory it was a divided city. The vision of Jerusalem as the City of Peace (one interpretation of its Hebrew name) is still a distant vision.

Curiously, this passage is also found, with some differences, in Micah 4.1-7 (which was today’s first reading at Morning Prayer). This suggests that the text is allusive and complex. Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah’s, but they do not refer to each other except by sharing this common text. The prophetic message of Micah is similar to what is in Isaiah, but the text of the book is much shorter, only seven chapters.

Isaiah is a prophet of hope. He is also a prophet of warning. We’ll start looking into this more tomorrow.

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God’s Story

A Sermon Preached On
The Second Sunday Before Advent
Sunday, November 17, 2019, 11:00 am
also being The Third Sunday in a Season of Visioning
at the Anglican Church of St Thomas, Kefalas, Crete, Greece.
Somewhat expanded and changed since it was preached.

This is the Third Sunday in our Season of Visioning. It is a season in which we pray and reflect, and open ourselves to the Holy Spirit. Last week I introduced this Venn diagram:

Three Stories - Us, Our, God's

I suggest to you that it is a way of approaching what our vision might be at the Anglican Church of St Thomas, Kefalas. We each have our own story. The church, whether as a world-wide institution or this congregation, also has a story. Then there is God’s story, which is what we will focus on today. These stories intersect, and I believe that we will find God’s vision for us in the centre of this diagram, where the three stories overlap and intersect.

The Big Story

The story of God is to be found preeminently in the Bible (although we must always remember that God cannot be contained by mere words). Although it is really a collection of books, it has developed a narrative structure. This was pointed out by the Canadian literary critic Northrup Frye in his book, The Great Code, and it has been read primarily as a story with a narrative structure. Although it has many authors and many types of literature – stories, genealologies, laws, prophecy, poetry, chronicle, blessings and curses, letters, and so on – it all hangs off of a narrative thread telling one long story.

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It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning is the creation of the world in Genesis, and the revelation of God to Abraham, and the promises made to his descendants, the people of Israel.  The middle is the coming of Jesus of Nazareth, the Word made flesh, the unexpected Messiah who was put to death and rose again. The end is the foretelling of his coming in glory, the destruction of all that is evil and is not of God, and the recreation of the world.

In Western society we are so used to this that it comes as a surprise when we discover that other faiths and religions do not have sacred scriptures like this. For example:

  • Judaism has the Tanach, the Hebrew scriptures what we now read as the Old Testament, but the reality is that for Jews this is read through the lens of Torah, God’s instruction or law, as discussed by the sages in the Talmud. There is a narrative, but it is overshadowed by the rabbis’ discussions of how to apply the Torah to everyday life.
  • The Qu’ran of Islam is a series of revelations from God to Muhammed, and it is organized according to length, from longest to shortest, not according to when they were disclosed. As a result, it does not ell a story, and the revelations themselves can be quite opaque.
  • The Analects of Confucius are a series of sayings by Master Kung, and do not tell a story but emphasise certain values and precepts.
  • The Pali canon, used by Theravedan Buddhists, consists of sermons, rules for Buddhist monastic communities, and Buddhist philosophy. It is all in aid of the central Buddhist practice of meditation.
  • The stories told by the Kwak’wala speaking peoples (who have lived from time immemorial in what we now call British Columbia) were usually about times in the distant past, and were descriptions of how human beings related to the land and the living things in it. These were transmitted orally until the turn of the 20th century.

Of course, the Big Story we find in the Bible is always complicated because it is actually a collection of stories and texts written over a 1300 year period, and which has been subject to various types of interpretation. Part of the joy I have is delving into the intricacies of the Bible, and figuring out how its story relates to me and the world.

The Big Idea

Ian Dingwall, who was an archdeacon in the Diocese of Niagara and who died a few years ago, used to tell this story:

When I was a young priest in Vancouver there was a Sunday School teacher in my parish who was talking to a group of pre-adolescents. She was saying, “Well, boys and girls, I was in Stanley Park the other day, and as I was walking though the forest and the giant redwoods and Douglas firs, I saw a rustling among the bushes. I walked over to it, and as I got closer I saw what it was. Do you know what I saw, boys and girls?” I think she was talking about a rabbit, but before anybody could say anything one child said, “It was Jesus. Its always Jesus!”

It’s always Jesus! Ultimately we as Christians always centre our stories and our lives on Jesus. We have two Testaments, the Old and the New, which both testify to Jesus. The Jews read the Hebrew Scriptures as their Tanach – Torah, Prophets, and Writings – but we read it as a prophecy about Jesus, his teachings, and his death for us and his resurrection. We read the patriarchs and kings as types that prefigure Jesus, so that he is a second Adam, a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, a new Moses, a greater king that David or Solomon.

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. . . και ο λογοϲ σαρξ εγενετο και εσκηνωϲεν εν η μιν · και εθεασα μεθα την δοξα αυτου . . And the Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us, and we beheld his glory,  . . From the early 4th century manuscript of John in the manuscript in the British Library known as Sinaiticus.

I suppose if we were to sum up the story in one sentence, it is that in Christ Jesus the Creator is recreating the world. What God created in the beginning, and which he saw as being very good, is not now quite what it was created to be. We humans are fallen, sinful, fragile, and predisposed to do the wrong thing, even when we know what the good is. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Having dug a hole that we cannot get out of, Jesus as the Son of God is sent by the Father so that we might be lifted up and restored, forgiven and empowered by the Holy Spirit. While we are not quite there, we are building Jerusalem here among these dark, satanic mills.

Where is the intersection?

Where do we find that our story intersects with God’s story? How does God’s story relate to the ups and downs of the story of the church, and to the story we tell ourselves about St Thomas’s, Kefalas? This is the work for the next two weeks. May God bless us as we continue to pray and reflect, may God grant us a vision for you, for me, and for us and this congregation.

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A Common History

A Sermon Preached On
The Feast of All Saints and All Souls (transferred from November 1 & 2),
Sunday, November 3, 2019, 11:00 am
also being The Second Sunday in a Season of Visioning
at the Anglican Church of St Thomas, Kefalas, Crete, Greece

Readings: Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18, Psalm 149, Galatians 4: 12-20, and Luke 6: 20-31.
Key Questions: What is the story of the church? What is the story of this church?

Last week we began our Season of Visioning here at St Thomas. We will spend four Sundays with special readings and me preaching, and then on December 1, the First Sunday of Advent, beginning of the new church year, we will have an extended service in which we begin to work on what our vision is, and then what our mission is.

In our first service in this Season of VisioningI suggested that we begin with our own stories – our individual journeys in life, our pilgrimages in faith. This week I want to talk about the story of the church, or the story of our community. Next week we’ll talk about the story of God, and begin to reflect on how these three types of stories intersect.

Three Stories - Us, Our, God's

Here again is the diagram of these stories. As we see, there are point where two of the stories intersect, and where the set of all three overlap. We will find our vision and mission in the overlap of all three.

What is our story – the story of the Church?

To answer this question I can only give a caricature. Diarmuid MacCulloch, in his A History of Christianity, took 1216 pages to cover it. And, of course, arguably it is much longer than the two thousand years since the time of Jesus of Nazareth, as the subtitle of McCulloch’s book suggests: The First Three Thousand Years. We cannot understand Christianity and the Church unless we see it as a development from 1st century Judaism, which itself was a development of the Israelite religion that was already over a thousannd years old.

While Jesus was actually born somewhere around 1 CE (most likely 6 BCE), and died some thirty years later (best guess – 30CE), the history of Christianity requires a knowledge of the story of Israel and Judaism, which pushes us back another another millennium (more like 1400 years).  When I was at the Toronto School of Theology in the mid ’80s just an introduction to the history was covered in four thirteen-week courses. And while history is involved with people, events, and the forces that swept them along in time, there is also the consideration of the history of the scriptures, the development of its interpretation over time, the history of various institutions in Christendom that may or may not be explicitly religious, and so forth. It’s a big, long story. But let’s try and summarise it in a few paragraphs, shall we?

The simple character of this story may be found in Acts 1.8:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

The story is that of the good news of Jesus spreading from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

In the Acts of the Apostles the story begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome, which, as the centre of the Empire, paradoxically stands in for the farthest reaches of human habitation. The good news is challenged and persecuted, but continues outwards. It is a simple but powerful story. That said, even in the New Testament – the letters, Revelation, and reading between the lines to see the situation of the people who wrote the gospels – the narrative is more complex:

  • At first it made its way into Judea, the area around Jerusalem.
  • Then to Samaria, to the north, and into Galilee.
  • We hear of an Ethiopian receiving the good news from Philip while driving a chariot, and presumably he takes it south via the Nile River.
  • When Paul comes to Damascus there are already Christians there, the faith having been brought there by people whose names we know not.
  • Likewise both Paul and Peter are early members of the church in Antioch, in the southwest of what is now the part of Turkey bordering Syria, whose foundation also seems anonymous.
  • At a certain point quite early on, the gospel is preached to non-Jews and readily accepted by many of them. Paul sees himself as specially sent to tell them that, in Christ, they may be grafted as wild branches onto the sacred vine of Israel. This exception, that Gentiles may be saved as well without becoming Jews, is opposed by more conservative Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and Antioch.
  • As we heard in the readings today, Paul starts a church in Galatia, in what is now the middle of Turkey, pretty much by accident. He states that he, Paul, fell ill while travelling through, and is obliged to rest – but not so ill as to fail to communicate the gospel. By such accidents the good news proceeds.
  • The Letter of Titus witnesses to early Christians being here on Crete.
  • When Paul arrives in Corinth to start a church he finds Prisca and Aquilia, two Christians who were obligated to leave Rome by the emperor, presumably Nero. Thus, already, long before Paul goes there, we hear of congregations in Rome, a fact confirmed by his Letter to the Romans.

What I find most striking is that the faith was transmitted by hundreds of unknown individuals. While we celebrate Peter and Paul, the good news was propagated many whom we know at best as names, and often only by inference and guesses. From the small group in Jerusalem the church grew, so that after a couple of generations it numbered a few thousand, and had the resources and inspiration to write the gospels, preserve the letters of Paul and other authors in the New Testament. As well, there are a host of other writings from the post-apostolic age.

We know that there were Christians in the Roman province of Brittannia – what became England, Wales, and Scotland – by the fourth century. This is evident both from archaeology and written records of bishops attending synods. The Emperor Constantine was born in the Balkans, but his mother Helen was a Christian, and both were in Eboracum – better known to us as York – when he was proclaimed Emperor in 306 CE, and he began his campaign to be the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. As well, Augustine of Hippo, the greatest Latin theologian, found himself arguing in the early fifth century against the heretical opinions of Pelagius, a British Christian. Constantine’s converted to Christianity and was baptised shortly before his death,and he is venerated as a saint in Eastern Orthodoxy. Many scholars believed that his conversion resulted in the conversion of the Empire to Christianity, as if it would not have happened had he done so, but such an understanding belongs to an older historiography. The American sociologist Rodney Stark and others have argued that by the turn of the fourth century (i.e. 300 CE) the Christian faith may already have been the religion of a majority of the Empire’s subjects; Constantine was following where the people went, not the other way around.

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A manuscript of St Patrick’s Confessions from about about 830 CE, originally written c. 460-490 CE. From The Book of Armagh, Trinity College Library, Dublin, Ireland. Provenance: ca. 807 A.D., Armagh

In the fifth or sixth century the Christian faith reached what was thought to be the furthest ends of the earth. A young Roman Briton was kidnapped from the shores of what had recently been the Roman province of Britannia and taken to be a slave in Ireland. There he minded cattle and sheep. Being a Christian and the son of a deacon, he turned to his God, and in a vision saw a means of escape. He made his way to a port and took a ship, perhaps to Gallia (France), and then made his way home. Eventually he discerned a call to return to Ireland, to proclaim the faith to the people who had enslaved him. He was ordained a bishop by the church in Britain, and went across the sea. We have two writings from this man, whose name was Patricius, but whom we know as Patrick. In these writings he celebrates the fact that he had baptized thousands. He felt that his work of evangelism would hasten the coming of the Lord.

While pious tradition suggests that Patrick was responsible for the total conversion of Ireland, he was more likely just the best known of those who preached Jesus; because of his writings, he was remembered when others disappeared into the anonymity of time. In time Irish Christianity developed a strong culture centered on monasticism, which produced treasures such as The Book of Kells. Christianity moved north to evangelise the Picts and Gaelic speaking peoples of what later became known as Scotland. From there it moved south into the lands conquered by the Germanic-speaking invaders from the Angle, Jutland, and Saxony, and who were known as the English or Saxons. They were a polytheistic pagan people, speaking a strange language related to both Latin and Irish but unlike either. They came south through Northumbria.

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The interior of the much remodelled and rebuilt St. Martin’s Church in Canterbury, Kent. The lower part of the walls are Roman.

There they met Christian missionaries from southern England, the second generation of Christians in what was now being called England. In 597 an Italian monk named Augustine came to Canterbury on a mission from the Pope. This Augustine (not the same as Augustine of Hippo) was ordained a bishop by Gregory the Great in Rome, and he and twenty other monks made their way to the capital of the Kingdom of Kent, in southeast England. King Æthelberht of Kent was not a Christian, but his Franksih wife from the Continent was, and Augustine and his companions were allowed to use an old British Christian church dedicated in honour of St Martin of Tours (it’s still there!). In time Æthelberht converted to Christianity. The monks started a monastery, and they built a wooden parish church with a seat or cathedra for Augustine. That parish church was eventually succeeded by grander buildings, and we know it as Canterbury Cathedral. Over the next two centuries Christianity made further inroads. When the pagan Norse attacked two centuries later the Christian faith was so well established that they could not dislodge it.

Fast forward to the fifteenth and sixteenth century, and Europe began to expand into the world. Christianity followed it, and the New World became effectively part of Christendom, while missions were planted in Asia and Africa. In the past century Europe seemed to take a turn to the secular, and the influence of the church on the state declined, and church attendance dropped like a rock. However, the faith grew by leaps and bounds in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. There are now more Presbyterians in South Korea than there are people in Scotland, and typical Anglican is African. There are now more than two billion Christians, and we are the largest faith group on the planet.

We must not get triumphalistic, for we have had our ups and downs. Christianity a thousand years ago was as wide-spread and prevalent through Asia as it was in Europe. The Church of the East, while always a minority among the many faiths and practices in Asis, spread through what is now Iraq to Iran, Afghanistan, and into China. In both North Africa and in Asia the Christian faith was pushed back or extinguished by various forms of Islam and Chinese religions. This was due not only because of the power of these other religious movements, but also because of the division and corruption among succeeding generations of Christian leaders.The Church has always needed reform.

As well, the history of the church is filled with stories of violence, slavery, murder, abuse, corruption, schism, genocide, and hatred. We do not have to look far to see the reason for this.  When people enter the church, they come as sinners and failures; we all fall short of the calling of the gospel. Perhaps more damning, we too often identify our native governments and cultures with the kingdom of God, justifying the very same forces that put our Lord to death.

The wonder of it all is that the high standards of the gospel and the demands for righteousness continue to ring out. As popular historian Tom Holland argues in his recent book, Dominion, what we consider to be the tenants of secular Western culture – human rights, democracy, the arts, the creation and sharing of wealth – are all derived from Christianity. If it is true, as Stephen Pinker suggests in The Better Angels of Our Nature, that the world has become less violent and more humane, then the rise of Christianity and the influence of its values has much to do with it. And, amazingly, it has inspired African-American slaves in their fight for freedom, both in the Civil War and Reconstruction, and in the 1960s Civil Rights era. It continues to inspire forces of liberation around the world.

This then is the story of the Church. It is not a simple story, and it is not a story of right overcoming evil, or progress – but it is the story of the growth.

What is our story – the story of this Church?

I asked people in the congregation what the story of St Thomas, Kefalas was. Here’s what they said (and if I have some facts wrong, pease let me know and I will correct them!):

  • It started with Tony Lane, who with his wife Suzanne, back in 2003, invited English-speaking people to their home next door for prayer and bible readings. The small Table Church grew, and in good weather, started meeting outside by the swimming pool, or in the carport.
  • After a year the group decided to formally affiliate with The Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. We came under the oversight of the Bishops of the Diocese in Europe – Geoffrey Rowell and David Hamid – and, more directly, Canon Malcolm Bradshaw of St Paul’s, Athens.
  • Tony Lane had studied some theology as a layman in Bristol. He trained as a Lay Reader, and was licensed as one in 2007. He was subsequently ordained a transitional deacon in 2009 and then a priest in 2010.
  • Canon Mike Peters from England came out in 2008 and supervised Tony’s training, while assisting the congregation in organizing itself as a proper church in the C of E.
  • Parallel to this was the development of some house groups, and Alison Collett played a leading role in the formation of these. Among other programmes, the Alpha Course was done.
  • When the congregation needed better space it tried meeting in the Kefalas community hall, but Tony decided to build a chapel on a property adjacent to his  the house. This chapel was dedicated to St Thomas the Apostle by Bishop Geoffrey in 2007. The area next to it was laid out as a patio, and after some experiments with large umbrellas, a permanent canvas tent structure was erected, with tough, plastic side-panels that could be rolled up in the summer. This was promptly christened, “The Tabernacle”.
  • Music varied over the years. Initially CDs were used, and then some people led with guitars, before we settled into using an organ. When Gina Zagni became our musician a few years ago she purchased an electric organ for use at the church services.
  • In the early years especially people would go out for meals afterwards. This helped to build up the sense of community.
  • There were some tensions between various people, as is normal in any organization. Some people left because they wanted a different style of worship.
  • Terry Wilcock served as the assistant chaplain from 2011 to 2014, and after a few months interregnum Philip Lambert succeeded him. As Philip’s wife became ill quite suddenly, he returned to England in June 2017, and there was a long interim period from then until October 2018 when Bruce Bryant-Scott was appointed. During that long period without a priest in charge, the Rev’ds Ian Brothwood and Tony Lane filled in, supported by a range of occasional clergy visiting Crete.
  • In Terry and Philip’s time “Helping Hands” began, which eventually evolved into the Social Supermarket.
  • Tony and Suzanne subdivided their property and sold their house, moving to a smaller place near Vrysses. Recently, they donated the church property and its buildings to The Anglican Church in Greece, which is the legal name for the Diocese in Europe as recognized by the Hellenic Republic. Thanks to this generous gift, we own and operate the property in which we worship.
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Bishop David Hamid, Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese in Europe, ordains Julia Bradshaw as a deacon in June 2019. Julia is now our deacon and assistant curate. The Rev’d Frances Hiller, deacon and assistant to the Suffragan Bishop,  is holding the service booklet while the Bishop lays hands on Julia. Mr Aiden Hargreaves-Smith, Registrar of the Diocese in Europe, is behind in his solicitor’s legal robes, and the Rev’d Ian Brothwood is seated beside him.

St Thomas is typical of many church plants, going through phases of “Forming, Storming, and Norming“. We are reasonably solid, with a strong core of members and the ability to attract seasonal residents of Crete and English-speaking tourists. While we are mostly from England, we do have people attending who are Scots, Irish, American, Canadian, Greek, German, Norwegian, Armenian, and other nationalities.

What is the next chapter going to be about?

The story of St Thomas’s in Kefalas is one small part of the larger story of the Church, which is part of the larger story of humanity. It is a story of saints and sinners, of people who are legends to us, and people whom we knew. We are a young congregation in a two-thousand year old institution. We know where we come from – do we know where we want to go next? Are we open to the surprising movements of the Holy Spirit? What will be the next chapter in this story?

Next Sunday, November 10, we will take a break from the Visioning process as such to mark Remembrance Sunday down at the Suda Bay War Cemetery. We will resume in the next two Sundays after that to consider God’s story, and the story of Jesus. On December 1 we will begin to dream dreams and see visions, by trying to answer some questions about ourselves. From that I hope we will develop our vision statement.

 

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A Witness and a Testimony

A Sermon Preached At
The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete, Greece
The Diocese in Europe | The Church of England

October 27, 2019, 11:00 am
[Expanded considerably for this blog]

Key Questions: What has been your journey in life? What has been your journey in faith?

A Season of Visioning

This morning we begin a Season of Visioning here at St. Thomas’s, Kefalas. We are moving towards coming up with the vision and mission that God wants us to carry out here. It begins with prayer, that God will give us the Holy Spirit to be able to see and think about this.

Three Stories - Us, Our, God's

How do we get a handle on our mission and vision? One way is to think of three intersecting stories. There is my story as an individual – or your story as an individual; this is the circle on the upper left.  There is the story of our community and our relationships – the upper right circle. Then there is God’s story – which is the circle on the bottom. These circles of narration all overlap, and in the centre is where we will find the vision and mission of the church.

 

Let us start with our stories as individuals, since in our individualistic society this is where many of us naturally begin.  To model how to do this I am going to give my testimony, not because I am a great saint or a terrible sinner who has experienced a stunning redemption, but because I may have had a few more opportunities to tell my story than you. As I talk about my own journey, I invite you now and in the week to come to think about your own.

Next week we’ll talk about the story of the Church – both local and global – and then after Remembrance Sunday, we’ll reconvene on November 17 to talk about the story of God. On November 24th we’ll see how these stories interact – us, the Church, and God. On the First Sunday of Advent, December 1, we’ll have an extended service where, as part of the Liturgy of the Word, we’ll be seated in table groups and write down our thoughts on vision and mission. Out of that we’ll develop the vision and mission, and then work out measurable goals and objectives. God willing, we will have a road map for the next few years of our common life here, although don’t be surprised if God has us taking a few side-trips here and there.

My Testimony

To get us started, I’m going to think a bit about some of the hymns that were important to me  over the span of my fifty-seven years. Let’s start with a well known Sunday hymn – well, at least, it’s well known in North America!

Jesus Loves Me

Jesus loves me, this I know,
for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong;
they are weak, but he is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me! The Bible tells me so.

I grew up in small churches in Grand-Mère, Quebec, Canada, although for two years in the early ‘seventies, when I was eight and nine years old, I was part of much larger church in Bathurst, New Brunswick. Both Grand-Mère and Bathurst were pulp and paper towns where my father worked in engineering and management in the local mill making newsprint for newspapers. I was baptised in Bethel United Church in Grand-Mère, a congregation in the United Church of Canada, a uniquely Canadian denomination that resulted from the merger in 1925 of Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. The church in Grand-Mère was small, reflecting the small English speaking Protestant population in the midst of the 90% + Francophone Catholic majority. It shared a United Church minister with the United Church congregation in Shawinigan next door. When I turned eight we moved to Bathurst, New Brunswick, where First United Church was a large operation with two clergy and a host of activities. I attended Sunday School, participated in a Christian after-school program once a week, and sang in the children’s choir. Whatever the theology that was behind this denomination – Wesleyan, puritan, Scottish Calvinism – what I received  was an impression of a God who was loving, forgiving, and wondrous. Creation was good, although we human beings were often wayward and problematic. Jesus was a sign of God’s love for us, and although I did not understand it, I was much taken with the story of his birth, death, and resurrection.

Around the age of twelve or thirteen we had moved back to Grand-Mère and I was being prepared for confirmation. By then the two United congregations and the two Anglican parishes had joined in a shared ministry, sharing one Anglican priest who conducted Anglican and United services. In Grand-Mère and Shawinigan at the time we English-speaking people were so few that the Anglicans and Uniteds had agreed to share a minister. Thus, I was to be confirmed in both the Anglican and United Churches. At the time the United Church of Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada had a Plan of Union, to become one big church (although it fell apart in the mid-‘seventies). In the end the Bishop of Quebec, the Right Reverend Tim Mathews, on behalf of the Anglicans, and on behalf the Montreal Presbytery of the United Church, the Rev Mervyn Awcock – who was not a UCC minister but the Anglican priest of the shared ministry – both laid hands on me. This was my introduction to Anglicanism, and in the liturgies of the Book of Common Prayer I experienced a sense of tradition that was lacking in the UCC.

The key thing in all of this is that I never knew a time when I was not welcome in the church, and it was a place where I felt at home.

Morning Has Broken

As an adolescent I experienced faith and religion in music. I remember the first time I went to a school dance. I had great fun. Then I came home and played a 45 record of Cat Stevens’s “Morning Has Broken”, with its incredible piano introduction by Rick Wakeman. In the Fall of 1976, when I was fourteen, I went to a boarding school, Bishop’s College School in Lennoxville, Quebec. Over the next four years I sang in the chapel choir, acted in plays, marched in the cadet corp (and became an officer, shouting out drill commands), played Canadian football, hiked the Long Trail in Vermont, biked the Eastern Townships, and spent hours in the library reading books that had nothing to do with my courses. I did well in my classes, graduating top of my class (big fish, very small pool), but what remains with me about my time there was the broad range of activities I engaged in, and the opportunities to develop as a young leader.

In the chapel choir and in daily chapel services I learned to sing in harmony, and I mastered Anglican chant and the services of the Book of Common Prayer. For most people mandatory chapel was an inoculation against religious activity, but I somehow came away with a continued interest.

After BCS I went to the University of Toronto in 1980. I lived at Trinity College, which had the reputation of being the hardest college to get into, in the Canadian university with the highest admission requirements – so I thought I was hot stuff. Initially I was going to study sciences, but I really spent the first year drinking and failing two of my five courses.  I attended chapel and sang in the choir there, which did a much more challenging repertoire than at BCS; I also served at chapel services as an acolyte. After that first year I was put on academic probation and lost two scholarships.

Like most nineteen year old males I was pretty immature and incapable of being a decent human being, combining arrogance and ignorance in equal measures. I was in a relationship with a young woman, but it was foundering, and and in the Autumn of 1981 I found myself in the chapel at Hart House (a student centre), praying and wondering how I would get through it all. That night, while praying, I felt God as a presence in my life, one which I could not deny.  This did not fix my relationship with the girl, but I realized I needed to work on my faith more.

This fit in, sort of, with what I was studying. After that disastrous first year I had given up on sciences. Instead, I transferred into philosophy, which at the time in the early ’80s was set up to lead from the pre-Socratics through Plato and Aristotle to modern philosophy, starting with Descartes, Hume, Kant, and Hegel, and arriving at the Anglo-American analytic tradition, epitomised by the work of the later Wittgenstein. It was part of my exploration of The Meaning of Life, and I wasn’t exactly a natural at it, but I stuck with it. By my third year I was getting reasonably good at writing essays.

In the summer of 1982 I found myself traveling around Europe on the standard North American student’s backpacking tour. For me, it became a kind of pilgrimage, exploring different types of Christian faith.

  • I made my first private confession at Canterbury Cathedral.
  • I went to the High Kirk in Edinburgh (that would be Presbyterian, Church of Scotland).
  • I went to Chartres and marvelled at the stained glass windows.
  • Then I went south to Lourdes where I participated in massive Catholic liturgies and learned to say the Hail Mary.
  • In Rome I had an audience with the Pope – just me and five thousand others with John Paul II in St Peter’s Square.
  • In Switzerland I went to the American fundamentalist haven known as L’Abri, and if I had stayed longer than a week for the suggested three months I might have been turned into an evangelical.
  • I went to West Berlin and stayed with young German Baptists.

At the end of it all I knew that I definitely was a Christian. I admired the Evangelicals and their love of scripture, but I also knew enough about biblical hermeneutics that I could not swallow inerrancy or take a naive approach to problems in the texts. I also admired the Catholic Church’s grounding in tradition and education, but I was dismayed by its patriarchal, clericalized structure. So, I stayed an Anglican, and went back to Trinity College and U of T to finish my BA.

After the trip around Europe people asked me if I thought I might be ordained. I thought perhaps, “yes”, but I was not in any hurry to do so. I thought I might have a career in the hospitality industry, and perhaps eventually run a hotel. That hope fell apart in the year after I graduated with that BA in philosophy. I worked as a bus boy in a hotel restaurant, then I sold encyclopaedias from door to door (for about a week), and tried selling musical game software for the Apple IIe (I was terrible at it). My father suggested that he was retiring soon, and said that if I wanted help in paying for a divinity degree I should do it sooner rather than later. So I applied to Trinity College and its Faculty of Divinity, and was accepted.

Ordination June 5 1988 Three

Me after my ordination to the priesthood at St Jude’s, Oakville, Ontario. April 30, 1989. In the backyard of the suburban Oakville home of my brother Bill and his wife Yvonne.

I finished that three year degree without any problems, and along the way I married Frances.  I was ordained in the Diocese of Niagara and served as an assistant in parishes in Welland, Ontario and St Catharines, Ontario, two communities close to Niagara Falls, Canada. After six and a half years we had the mortgage, a child, two cars, two dogs, three cats, way too many books, and we felt it was time for an adventure. So in 1995 we upped stakes and moved west to Pender Island, British Columbia, where I served for ten years as rector of the tiny churches on Pender and Saturna Islands. Along the way our our second child was born. In 2002-2003 I took an unpaid sabbatical and we all went to Boston where I got a degree I did not need from Harvard University, a Master of Theology to go with my BA and Master of Divinity.

Ball's Falls

1992, The Fry House (1815), Jordan Historical Museum, Jordan, Ontario, Canada. Photo by Stephen Dominick.

Seven months after that I was appointed Archdeacon and Executive Officer of the Diocese of British Columbia, which is the Anglican diocese covering Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. At 41 I was the second-most senior priest in the diocese, and I was effectively the chief operating officer, managing the diocesan staff and dealing with any problems with clergy and laity. This meant I got to deal with bullying wardens and schismatic clergy, as well as cases of sexual misconduct. To my great surprise I was good at crisis management, and I became known as a good administrator and someone to call when conflict erupted. The previous Executive Officer had gone on to become the bishop of the diocese, and many people assumed that this was what would happen to me in due course. My career path seemed set. It was all very, very seductive.

Behind all of this there was a problem. The issues I had with alcohol in my first year of university had not gone away. While many people abuse alcohol in their teens and twenties, the majority of them are doing so because of peer pressure, or to rebel, or because they think it’s fun. As they mature they moderate their drinking, and drink normally – at most, maybe a glass or two a night at the end of a long day, or perhaps on special occasions. They might go weeks and months without drinking alcohol. They leave the stein of beer unfinished, or put the bottle of wine in the fridge for another time.

That was not me. I always finished the drink and usually wanted more. Blackouts were not uncommon. Someone challenged me in 1990, and asked me if I was an alcoholic. I said no, and stopped drinking for five years. After that, having demonstrated that I did not have a problem, I started drinking again. I started getting into hard liquor, and brewed my own wine and beer. I did not have much of a palate, but I did enjoy getting drunk. It went from occasional binges to a daily habit, and I started to organise my life around when I could get drunk. Nothing was more important to me. I kept my spiritual life in one silo and my drinking in another, and the two never met – although the reality is that you cannot drink heavily and develop spiritually. I was in denial in how it was affecting me – mostly in my home life, because that’s where I did my drinking. Finally, after one bender just before my 43rd birthday, I realized I had a problem. I went and got help, and started to work on being a sober alcoholic.

When a crazy alcoholic person sobers up, what you still have left is a very crazy sober alcoholic person. Stopping the alcohol did not make everything better. What followed was what I call “the long hangover”, where I needed to spend a fair amount of time on myself and my relations. Frances and I separated for a time, and then after a year and a half, began to put it back together. Marriage breakdown is never easy, but putting it back together is even harder. We love each other now, eleven years later, but I no longer take the marriage for granted, and I try to work at it every day. I now have over 5000 days of sobriety (over fourteen years), but this morning I woke up with this one day ahead of me, and God willing, I won’t take a drink before I go to bed.  As the old song goes, “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”

“A Spendthrift Lover Is the Lord” by Thomas H. Troeger

A spendthrift lover is the Lord who never counts the cost
Or asks if heaven can afford to woo a world that’s lost.
Our lover tosses coins of gold across the midnight skies
And stokes the sun against the cold to warm us when we rise.

Still more is spent in blood and tears to win the human heart,
To overcome the violent fears that drive the world apart.
Behold the bruised and thorn-crowned face of one who bears our scars
And empties out the wealth of grace that’s promised by the stars.

How shall we love this heart-strong God who gives us ev’rything,
Whose ways to us are strange and odd, what can we give or bring?
Acceptance of the matchless gift is gift enough to give.
The very act will shake and shift the way we love and live.

After nine years as Archdeacon and Executive Officer I was ready for a change. I had recently received a legacy from my late mother, so in October 2012 I went on an unpaid leave of absence to begin work on a PhD dissertation. By the middle of next year I was preparing to go back to work, having written little but read a lot, but the bishop of my diocese had resigned, and I was approached to stand in the election for a new one. In the end, in October 2013, I came second in the voting, but there are no prizes for coming second in such things, and I needed paid employment. I became the rector of St Matthias, Victoria, in June 2014, a parish which had gone through a schism four years earlier. I was there for three years, but my intention to grow the parish into financial self sustainability did not come to pass. I encouraged the Bishop to find me something else to do, and to put someone else in the parish, somebody who could do what I evidently was not accomplishing.

Creation & Godly Play

Teaching children about God’s creation with Godly Play in the chapel at St Matthias, Victoria.

Part of the problem was illness, both physical and mental. In December 2014, less than a year into the new job, I came down with c. diff., an intestinal disease that knocks one flat and can kill infants and old people. I had to go on a leave of absence through the Christmas season and new year. I never really felt myself for several years afterwards, and I never seemed to get back on track in the parish. Further, in the autumn of 2015 I attempted to go off the antidepressants I had been on for some six years; while the first six months seemed to go all right, especially after the pinging in my brain stopped after the first month, in the next six months I slid into a slough of anxiety and depression that seemed overwhelming. I went on another leave of absence, and it was then that I told the Bishop it was time for a change. I went back on antidepressants, and I started to regain a level of mental balance.

The true bright spot in all of this happened without any planning on my part. Members of the Diocesan Refugee Committee came to me and asked if I would be the Diocesan Refugee Coordinator. I wasn’t the first person they had approached, but I was the first to agree to do it. The Diocese of British Columbia, like many churches and community organizations in Canada, had a sponsorship agreement with the federal Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration. Groups of people based in our parishes would raise money to bring over refugees from other countries. Once they arrived they committed to supporting them and their families for a year, helping them to settle in, begin English classes, eventually find work, and so forth. It was very hard work, and usually something between six and twenty people a year were sponsored. I started in February 2015, and experienced a steep learning curve as I found out about the complexities of immigration and settlement. I was supposed to spend five or six hours a week on this as my diocesan commitment.

In September 2015 the photograph of a dead Syrian toddler on a Turkish shore went around the world. There was a Canadian connection, for the family of the toddler had tried to come as privately sponsored refugees to the Vancouver area, but the application was rejected because of technical errors. The family, feeling they had nothing to lose, got into a flimsy boat with a bunch of other refugees to go the short distance to a Greek island, in the hopes of making their way into Europe. It sank, and the mother and two boys died, leaving only the father as a survivor from the family.

Canadians were shocked. In the midst of a federal election it became the dominant issue in the news cycle, and the different campaigns all tried to respond to this outpouring of compassion. Recognising that this was a unique opportunity, I went on the radio and went to protests and announced, “If you want to help sponsor refugees, come to an information meeting next Tuesday at St Matthias Anglican Church”. Some 325 people showed up,and probably 2/3rds ultimately volunteered. In the end, by the time I left this position, we had brought over or had committed to bring over some 250 people, mostly Syrian but from all the major sources of refugees around the world. Some 500 people across Vancouver Island were organised into constituent groups and were screened and trained. Two individuals making up a total 1.5 FTE (“Full Time Equivalent”) were hired. Over two million dollars in Canadian funds were raised. It is probably the most important thing I’ll ever do in my ordained life.

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The view at St Matthias on Sept 10, 2015. The choir pews behind were full, too, and people were standing on the side.

Of course, helping 250 people out of the 60-70 million refugees  around the world does not solve the fundamental problems that creates refugees. That said, there are some 250 people now living in Canada who will not be washed up dead on any shores. I continue to look with some pride and humility as so many of these new residents become citizens and contribute to the wealth and well-being of my country.

I had basically worked myself out of a job in growing the Refugee Program, and after my period of depression I decided I could let it go. The Bishop put me into two successive parishes as an interim, one of which had experienced serious conflict. I helped to calm the anxiety there, and when a colleague went from one parish to this one to be the new incumbent, I went to be his temporary replacement. Meanwhile I managed to squeeze out some 300 pages of my dissertation. It is entitled “Unsettling Theology” and examines the theologies that were used to justify the churches’ participation in the federally operated Indian Residential Schools in Canada between 1880 and 1970. I recently had the oral examination in London, England, and I have been asked to do a rewrite and resubmit, so I am still at it.

When I was engaged in the interim work on Vancouver Island I was feeling restless. I was not so much as worried about finding work – the interim gigs were working well for me – but I felt that I could do something else. Whereas in 2013 I really wanted to be a bishop, in 2018 I was not so sure. Both Frances and I had rewarding occupations, but with our children out of the house there was a feeling that it was time for another adventure. What was God calling me to know? I felt like I could wait to see if the next diocesan electoral synod would choose me – but the prospect of overseeing the Diocese was less and less attractive. After all, I had already done much of what a bishop does when I had been archdeacon. Did I really want to get back to travelling again, only even more, and did I want to spend my time dealing with people behaving badly? Did I have the quality of leadership that was needed in the future? Shouldn’t the diocese try to get someone other than another well-educated male of British descent to lead them?

It was in April of 2018 that a colleague and friend was having breakfast with Frances, and told her that she’d seen a job advertisement for a half-time, low-paying position at an Anglican Church in Crete, part of the Diocese in Europe and the Church of England. Within twenty-four hours I had the information package. I calculated on the back of an envelope that we could sell our house in Victoria, pay off the mortgage and any debts, and still have enough money to invest and live comfortably off the income, on top of the house, car, and €5000 that the church in Crete would give me. So, I applied, and here I am.

I am still not quite sure what God wants me to do. Obviously I need to finish my dissertation. I have a passion for helping and empowering others, especially the marginalized. My calling is involved in the calling and mission of this congregation. My story, and your story, and God’s story will come together, that I know. And God in Christ will surprise us.

I leave you with a song that seems to catch me where I am today. I pray that this testimony will inspire you to think of your own journey in faith.

Make me a channel of your peace:
Where there is hatred, let me bring love,
Where there is injury, your pardon, Lord,
And where there’s doubt, true faith in you

Make me a channel of your peace:
Where there’s despair in life, let me bring hope,
Where there is darkness, only light,
And where there’s sadness ever joy

Oh, Master, grant that I may never seek
So much to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love with all my soul.

Make me a channel of your peace:
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in giving to all men that we receive;
And in dying that we are born to eternal life

 

 

Posted in Anglican Church of Canada, Music, Philosophy, Random Personal Notes, Refugee Program, Sermons, Unsettling Theology | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Notes on the Canadians Buried at Suda Bay Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery

Suda Bay Cemetery, Looking East

Suda Bay Cemetery, Looking East

Among the over 1700 graves at the Suda Bay Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery there are five Canadians. All five were airmen. While the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Army functioned as discreet units in operations during the Second World War, the Royal Canadian Air Force was integrated with the RAF and other Commonwealth air forces. Thus, it was quite normal for the crew of a multi-person aircraft to be made up of men from Canada, Britain, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and so forth.

The Battle of Crete took place from May 20 to June 1, 1941, and the Allied defense largely featured British, Australian, and New Zealand troops, with some Greek military, and aided by many civilian combatants. The Greek armed forces were largely absent from Crete because military personnel had been deployed against the Italian invasion, which began in November 1940; indeed, the Italians were pushed back into Albania. In April 1941 the German armed forces intervened, and overwhelmed the Greek armed forces on the mainland. The Cretan infantry division was captured on the northern border of Greece, and so was not on the island for the Battle of Crete. No Canadians appear to have been involved in the Battle of Crete, and all the Canadians buried in Suda Bay died after June 1, 1941.

The five Canadians are listed in the order of date of death. The information is taken from the registry at the cemetery. DFM = Distinguished Flying Medal. AFM = Air Force Medal.

42 09 06 W J Porrit

 

 

 

PORRITT, Flight Sergeant, (Air Gunner), WILLIAM JEREMIAH, R/58432, D F M. 227 (R.A.F) Sqdn, Royal Canadian Air Force. 6 September 1942. Age 20. Son of William Joseph and Aida Edith Porritt, of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Grave Reference: 16. C. 7.

 

 

42 11 23 E D Fleishman

 

 

 

 

FLEISHMAN, Flying Officer, EDMOND DAVID, J/10829. A F M. 37 (R.A.F) Sqdn., Royal Canadian Air Force. 23 November 1942. Grave Reference: Coll. Grave 16. C. 9.

 

 

 

 

 

42 11 23 L E Matthews

 

 

MATHEWS, Warrant Officer Class II, (Pilot), LAWRENCE EDGAR, R/97534, 37 (R.A.F.) Sqdn., Royal Canadian Air Force. 23 November 1942. Age 24. Son of Lemuel Bertus and Mary Elizabeth Mathews, of Trail, British Columbia, Canada. Grave Reference: Coll. Grave16. C. 9.

It would appear that Mathews and Fleishman were both part of the same six-person air crew that was downed on 23 November 1942, as they are all buried together.

 

 

44 02 03J A Goyer

 

 

 

GOYER, Pilot Officer, (Wireless Op./Air Gunner), JOSEPH ALEXANDER, J/85926. 24 (S.A.A.F.) Sqdn, Royal Canadian Air Force. 3 February 1944. Grave Reference: 4. D. 20.

 

 

 

 

44 02 16 W W Duncan

 

DUNCAN, Warrant Officer (Wireless Op/Air Gunner) William Walter, R/115792.162 (RAF) Sqdn., Royal Canadian Air Force. 16 February 1944. Age 24. Son of Harry and Hattie Duncan; husband of Lucy Irene Duncan, of Shell Lake, Saskatchewan, Canada. Grave Reference: Coll. Grave 13. E.2-8.

 

 

 

 

 

Map of the Suda Bay Cemetery

The above map is from the register in the register box, and it is oriented with west in the top.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission employs two full-time grounds keepers at the Suda Bay War Cemetery. The Commission uses an older spelling of Σούδα, which is normally transliterated as Souda.

fullsizeoutput_12e0Following British custom, the commemoration of Remembrance Day is held annually on the Sunday closest to November 11; this year we meet on November 10, 2019, and people are encouraged to arrive by 10:40 am. The commemoration is organised by a group of UK citizens living in Apokoronas, Greece, working with the Anglican Church of St Thomas, Kefalas.

This year (2019), for the first time, the Band of the 5th (Cretan) Brigade – V Μεραρχία Κρητών, led by Major Christos Zagourakis and Captain Evangelos Pantazonis, will be present to lead us in music.

As well, His Excellency Mark Allen, Ambassador of Canada to Greece, will attend to read In Flanders Fields and lay a wreath on behalf of Canada.

Notes prepared by the Rev. Canon David Bruce Bryant-Scott, Assistant Chaplain at the Anglican Church of St Thomas, Kefalas, Apokoronas, Chania, Crete, Greece (Diocese in Europe – Church of England), November 5, 2019.

Posted in Canadian Issues, Crete, Greece, War | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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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