I made this 4-minute film when asked to illustrate the Gospel lesson “The Good Samaritan” at the 2018 Eastern Synod Assembly. Here it is….
All Saints’ is about a community bigger and better, more surprising, more joyful and more inclusive than we could possibly imagine. It’s about lighting a candle for someone who has died, and honouring the fact that there are lines that connect us with them that go on despite death, lines we can hardly guess at, but that our Creator knows intimately. Why? Because they were woven with gracious intent into our very fabric of being.
Consider this: when we think of the participation of Canadian churches in the decimation of the First Nations, we repent of residential schools and the 60s scoop. But it started even earlier. Christian missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, were among those who urged the Saulteaux, the Cree, the Blackfoot, the Assiniboine and others to make treaty with Ottawa, right around that 150-years-ago date Canadians are celebrating this year. “Christian Indians” (as they were called), influenced by their priests and ministers who attended the negotiations, urged their traditionalist brothers and sisters such as Mistahi-maskwa (Big Bear) to take treaty. Since Christians were so crucial in brokering the numbered treaties, shouldn’t Christians have a special responsibility, now, in making sure they’re upheld? (with others, I will be walking the Battleford Trail in August 2017 to draw attention to an often forgotten part of Saskatchewan, and Canadian, history. For more info, see shfs.ca)
The more things change, the more they’re the same. Some of us tend to idolize Luther. But scholars point out he’s only important because he came at a kind of tipping-point. Despite the significant, obvious differences, we live in a similar time. There is again, as there was during the European Reformation, a revolution happening in social media. There is again, as there was in the 16th century, a kind of apocalyptic feeling in the air, a shock-wave of anxiety at the rapid pace of change. There are again various forms of political uprisings and revolts among the disadvantaged. Remarkably, there is a similar fear of the Muslim world’s influence on Europe, a fear stoked for political reasons by leaders in the West. There is, again, an important wing of Christianity (this time found on television and online) that offers to the gullible and the afraid, salvation in exchange for money. Cities are still the crucibles of social, economic and technological transformation. And there is again, as at the time of the Reformation, a church caught in the middle, and unsure of the way forward.
I remember the first time I drove with GPS. I heard a word I’d never heard before: Recalibrating. You’re going one way when maybe, you should have been going another. The machine doesn’t fuss, or fret, or blame you. You could go off a cliff and it would just…recalibrate. Do not be afraid, says the angel to the two Marys who had come to anoint the body. RECALIBRATE. THAT was the message to the women who came to the tomb. The path your life is about to take, the angels said, is different from the one you had planned. Something has happened. Something dangerously hopeful. Recalibrate. After Jesus dies, it says in Matthew’s Gospel that the city leaders ask for a guard for the tomb. Matthew’s the only Gospel to recount this. “We want to make sure that his disciples don’t come to steal the body,” they say, “Otherwise his disciples will claim that he’s been raised, so the last deception will be greater than the first.” That phrase has always stuck with me. How can we, who celebrate this day, answer people who believe that we ARE living a deception? How about this? What’s unrealistic is NOT Easter. What’s unrealistic is our death-denying, hiding-the-facts-from-ourselves society claiming we’re never get older, just better. Some deny resurrection. But then we swallow the big lie that there’s no death, period. What’s unrealistic is paying hundreds of dollars for creams to hide our aging, or living in a world where the contents of a dumpster are entertainment on TV. What’s unrealistic is people who call themselves Christian who celebrate the world’s biggest bomb and never think about the fact that all that shiny metal is designed to blow human bodies up. The Marys were on their way to anoint a dead body when they were surprised by life. Like my experience learning to drive with a GPS unit for the first time, our Creator sometimes knows the path better than we do. Life comes THROUGH death. Do not be afraid. Life can triumph. The way can be recalibrated. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.
you can pre-register (and maybe win some swag) at: Reformation and the City
In Feb 2017 I was invited by Bishop Michael Pryse to be the keynote speaker at the Bishops’ Retreat for Clergy, held at Niagara Falls. This is the second of my three presentations (the first is at somethinggrand.ca). To enter this PDF powerpoint, click the link below!
This was the one God chose as theotokos, meaning “God-bearer”. My spirit rejoices, the girl tells the angel. For God has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. The message is simple. If God chose someone as weak and lowly as Mary for something so important and powerful, then surely God continues to choose the outsider. We need have no shame when we feel that way. More importantly: we ignore the modern-day theotokai – the weak, marginalized, strange, poor, God-bearers around us – at our peril. They are the prophets. They tell us what is important.
As many of you know, the first time that I ever went on the Camino pilgrimage in Spain I was wounded. I’d snapped my Achilles tendon and had it repaired by surgery. So I was in a cast that tilted my foot straight down, which was like having one foot in high heels. Add 25 pounds of luggage on your back, and the effect is to drive your toes into the fiberglass with incredible force and cut the skin with every step.
I just couldn’t keep up. So after four or five days, it seemed wise that I would let the more-or-less healthy-bodied continue to walk on without dragging me along like an anchor. Also, as nice as it was to be the welcoming committee of one, it didn’t seem the best use of my time or money either, to hire cars from one little village to the next and sit alone in abandoned town squares all day waiting for my friends to show up. So with the help of my colleagues at Concordia I’d cooked up a plan. I would head off to a country home in France owned by these colleagues, and spend a week with them enjoying lovely conversation, incredible wine, and the unmatched delights of the countryside.
Of course, there are plans, and then there are realities. Unfortunately my colleagues turned out to be not healthy enough to travel, and certainly not to France. No problem, they said graciously. Here are the keys to our place. You just go ahead and enjoy it. So I waved goodbye to my Camino friends, and jumped a train.
Three trains, an overnight in a semi-abandoned hotel at the border, and LOTS of walking later, I arrived at my little town in France. I was exhausted. There was no other word for it. I’d dragged my crippled body through more stations and up and down more stairs than I wanted to remember. I dropped my luggage, found out where there was a grocery, and walked another great distance through the town to a store to buy food. I hadn’t eaten properly for two days. I got my groceries. It turned out, with the requisite drinking water, that it was quite a few bags. No problem, I thought. I’ll just ask the check-out clerk to call me a taxi.
When they think you’re an idiot, the French have a way of speaking with a kind of disdain that really, only they seem to have mastered. The clerk arched her eyebrows at me, as if I had failed to register even a score on the IQ test of how to survive in little French towns. “Monsieur,” she informed me, “you are not in Paris. There IS no taxi here.”
Thus it was, that after 800 kilometres across country by train, completely exhausted, hungry and tired and alone, I tied six bags of groceries to my wounded body and set off, limping and hopping, jostling and sloshing, through an amused little French town to my destination. I was NOT happy. I was NOT pleased. And definitely I was complaining.
From the wilderness, says Exodus, the Israelites journeyed by stages. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. And there they quarreled with Moses, saying “Give us water to drink.” And they complained, saying: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”
There’s a long Biblical tradition of whining, but this has to be one of the lowpoints! At a place sometimes called “the rock at Horeb” and sometimes called “Massah and Meribah”, the complaints of the Hebrews reached a fever pitch.
In reality, they had escaped from murder, genocide and forced labour. They should have been happy. But somehow, wandering around in the desert, they were definitely NOT getting the deal they felt they were promised. They maintained, as we so often do, an unhelpful image in their minds of a future that became more and more unreal and romanticized. Oddly enough, the perfect place in those former slaves’ minds, began to look more and more like Egypt, the land of their oppression. It’s odd how often we wind up attracted to the very things that oppress us.
So they complained. They complained and they complained. And Moses – poor, put-upon Moses, reacted by – what else? – complaining too. Moses cried out to the Lord, saying: “What shall I do with these people? They’re ready to stone me.” There’s more humour in the Bible than we realize. I think this is one of those places. Moses is complaining about the Israelites complaining. In other words, the whining just keeps going up the chain of command.
We live in a culture of complaint. The City complains about the police not doing their job, the police complain about the contract negotiations, people complain about how cold it’s getting when two weeks ago we were all complaining about how hot it was. We worry about this and that and something else, without realizing how fortunate we actually are.
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression that with some people it’s: “easier to get water from a stone” than to get them to change their attitudes. The story from Exodus shows us that God’s people (including you and me) are SO stubborn and whiny that sometimes it’s easier to get water from a stone than to change human nature. So God opens the boulders and the water comes out. God can pull miracles out like rabbits from a hat. Even raising someone from the dead. But even God apparently can’t always change human nature. Then OR now.
There was a landowner, Jesus says, who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. He agreed on a fair daily rate with them. Then he decided he needed more workers, so he went back at 9 am to get more workers, and noon, and three o’clock. Even at five pm he went out and got a few more people to work in the vineyard. Then, at closing, when he gives the last-hired a good wage, the first to be hired start rubbing their hands. Great, great, they think. But what’s this? He gave them all the exact SAME pay, the ones who had worked all day sweating in the sun, and the one who had only been out an hour. Complain? You bet they did. And the landowner says to them: Friend, I am doing you no wrong…Are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first and the first will be last.
When it was written, this text is probably about how the non-Jews, people like us, get a relationship with God even though we’re not Jewish and haven’t really earned our keep. For us, now, I think it also has says something about complaining. Do we really realize how fortunate we really are? If we did, wouldn’t we act differently?
That day in the little French village, I was berating myself for deciding to buy so much drinking water. Yes, it’s tough being crippled. As I staggered home under the weight of bags and with my crippled leg, I was wondering if I should just give up and break open the wine. Finally I managed, with lots of stops and despite all the smirks of passers-by, to stumble home. My fingers were raw from carrying bags. My toes felt like they’d been put in a vise grip. I unpacked and sat down, sweating. And then eventually I walked into the back yard of this little place.
“How in the world did I wind up here?” was what I was thinking right then. I was tired, and hungry, AND alone, in a foreign country. “What am I going to do in this abandoned place?” Sort of like the Hebrews. I was complaining. Just then I felt my cast squash something in the grass. I looked down to see what I’d stepped on. It was red, and squishy. There were lots more red and squishy things. I looked down, and then, finally I looked up. And what I saw was this: I was standing, hungry, under a whole tree full of beautiful ripe cherries.
The moral of this Bible text is simple: “God will provide.” Not necessarily in the ways we expect. Not without pain. Not without surprises. The wandering Hebrews did NOT expect water from a stone, or quail at nightfall, or manna in the morning. But God DID provide. And as God did for them, so God will for us. In ways both unexpected, perhaps painful, in the short term at least, and ultimately surprisingly full of grace and growth. Like the workers in the vineyard.
The last question the Israelites asked at Massah and Meribah was this: “Is the Lord among us or not?” And the Gospel answer is always the same: Is the Lord among us? Yes.
Let us wait on the Lord. Life may not always be a bowl full of cherries. But sometimes it is. And through the pain and the trouble, through the thanks and the complaints, though a future that so often seems uncertain and troubled, somehow, we can ALWAYS be sure of this: God will provide.