Tag Archives: covid-19

We do not like living by faith

GOSPEL: John 1:43-51
43The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”

One of the images of modern life that I often come back to is one that I heard during a radio interview with an Old Testament professor. He was describing his cancer diagnosis and how that impacted his self-perception. He said that before his meeting with his doctor that this life – the plans and dreams that he had – was loud and filled the sky. The things, ideas, and feelings going on around him  filled the airspace and the sound space of his conciousness. 

But when he left his doctor’s office after receiving his diagnosis, it was like the soundtrack to his life had been turned off. There was deafening silence. He felt small and alone. 

I can’t help but think we are all going through something similar. The soundtracks to our lives have been turned down or off. The plans and dreams that we had have been made small or erased completely. Before March of last year, our worlds were full of long term plans. From school years and retirement dates, to vacation plans and economic forecasts, to hockey season predictions and election cycle prognostications. We had plans big and small, and we were in the habit of making long-term projections and casting forward visions. 

Now, it is hard think more than public health order restriction cycle ahead. Our plans are for a few days or weeks at a time, and always with the caveat that things may change.

And nearly a year into living a life of small short terms plans, I have been reminding myself that for most of human history, people have lived this way. Living in crisis or under oppression has a way cutting plans short, of making the future hazy and uncertain. 

Last Sunday, we transitioned out of the Christmas season into the season after Epiphany. We began with the Baptism of Jesus and we will continue for next few weeks having pieces of Jesus’ ministry revealed to us, preparing us for Lent, Good Friday and Easter. 

Today, as we hear the story of Philip and Nathanael’s call to follow Jesus there is a familiar open endedness to it all. *We* might know how the story of Jesus and his disciples goes from here, but we also know that Philip and Nathanael don’t have a clue of what they are getting into. 

Philip and Nathanael’s call story is different than that of the others. Those fisherman: Peter, James and John who will leave their boats next week; they are jumping at the opportunity of a lifetime. The are leaving a life of hard labour for the opportunity of being the student of a Rabbi. 

But Nathanael and Philip, this is what they are hoping for. Philip reveals to us that he is a student searching for a teacher when he quotes the prophecy of scripture, something only a student of religion would know. Then Jesus identifies Nathanael as one too when says, “I saw you under the fig tree.” A colloquialism indicating a place of learning, as Rabbis often taught their students under the shade of a fig trees. 

Being the follower of a Rabbi in first century Israel wasn’t an invitation to a life of vagrancy that we might imagine. Rabbis were well respected members of the social structure, and learning the scriptures from a well respected teacher was a gateway into the religious system of the day, the group in power and control over Hebrew society. And being chosen by a Rabbi to follow was like winning the lottery, only the best and brightest were invited to follow. Maybe Philip and Nathanael imagined becoming Scribes or Pharisees, positions of power and privilege in the world. 

And yet, Jesus is also somewhat unknown and unconventional. He is identifiable as a Rabbi, a teacher of the faith, but he is also new to town, he just shows up and call followers. And as Jesus finds Philip and Nathanael, they find themselves following a Rabbi as they dreamed, but maybe not as certain about how this would turn out.

In fact, as the three talk it becomes clear that these two followers in search of a teacher haven’t a clue of what they are getting into. 

Likewise, we find ourselves in a similar moment. After 10 months of living small lives, we too are at a moment where we might not be too sure of what we are getting into. Our futures are uncertain, vague and hazy. 

It is a feeling we don’t like. In fact, if this year has revealed something about us, it is that we DO NOT like living by faith. 

We have been asked to trust our leaders, trust politicians, public health officials, scientists and business leaders. We have been asked or forced to cancel our plans, pull our life plans and habits back, and trust that everything will be okay. 

And it is clear that many of us do not like this at all. People have complained, protested and resisted. But even those of us who have kept the rules are probably growing quite weary of it all. 

And then you would think that as people of faith, as church folk, we would be used to the idea of trusting and living by faith that God will see us through, even when we don’t know where we are going, whether it is safe and how we are going to get there. You would think that as all of society is asked to live by faith, that people of faith could show a good example… but many of our siblings in faith have been quite the opposite. 

We too simply do not like having to trust. We want to know where we are going, we want to protect ourselves, we want to hold the map. We want to be in control of the process, to be the ones making the decisions. 

And so in 2021, and maybe more than ever before, this story of Jesus calling disciples, asking them to trust without knowing where they are going and where this is all headed… this story is uncomfortable for us. Uncomfortable for us a a society, for us a individuals and especially uncomfortable for as faith communities… especially as faith communities living with loads of uncertainty long before the words pandemic, Coronavirus, PPE and social distancing were ever introduced into our daily vocabulary.

But Jesus knows that the solution to Philip’s and Nathanael’s desire to control their future isn’t more control, more knowledge or more power. 

Jesus cuts through their anxiety and uncertainty to provide the thing that they truly need. 

The moments go by so quickly the are easy to miss. 

Jesus finds Philip. 

Jesus sees Nathanael. 

Before Philip could figure out his own way. Before Nathanael could ask his questions. Before they wonder and worry about what is coming next and where following this unconventional Rabbi would lead them.

Jesus does the knowing and the finding. 

Jesus figures out God’s way to these two disciples. Jesus makes the journey to them, knowing who they are and knowing where they need to go. 

And for all Philip and Nathanael’s desire to know their future, to know their path, to control how they will get where they are going… it is being found and being known that breaks through their hesitancy. 

When Jesus finds Philips and invites him to follow, Philip cannot help but excitedly go and tell Nathanael. 

When Jesus reveals that he has known Nathanael, who he is, his hopes and dreams, his fears and wonderings, all by simply seeing him under the fig tree…. Nathanael confesses that Jesus is God’s son. 

Because the solution to their anxiety and fear about the future… the solution to our anxiety and fear about our future is not control or knowledge. 

The solution is being found by the one who holds the future in their hands. 

The solution is being known by the one who will walk with us wherever we end up, wherever we go. 

For you see, being found and being known is exactly what God has been doing with us since the beginning. Just as God declared Jesus a beloved child last week, God declares the same with us. 

Our fears for the future are met by the God who finds us and knows us. The God who brings us into community, into God’s very body, into the community of the faithful.

As we sit in this post-Christmas New Years 2021 moment, with so many of the promises of something better in 2021 being dashed already, with fear for what comes next, with a weariness of living by faith…

God continues to do what has always done. 

Jesus finds us in the waters of baptism.

Jesus finds us in the word and prayers and hymns that proclaim God’s love for us. 

Jesus finds us no matter where we are, no matter where we worship, no matter how alone we feel. 

Jesus knows us in our siblings in faith. 

Jesus knows us intimately and fully, and declares that we are God’s children, we are God’s beloved.

Jesus knows us our story and brings us into God’s story. 

Jesus shows us that God knows our way even when it is unclear to us.

Jesus reminds us of the God who knows our past, our present and our future. 

And Jesus join us in the uncertainty that we are living through, and declares that no matter what comes that God’s plan for us is new life. 

On this second Sunday after Epiphany, when it is clear that all of our hopes, dreams and plans for the future will not come to pass as we imagined. 

Jesus finds us and Jesus knows us. 

And Jesus invites us again into God’s future. A future that might be hazy and uncertain and unclear to us, but a future that belongs to God. And even when we tired of living by faith, Jesus reminds that God continues to have faith in us. 

Amen

A Voice Like Thunder and the Trouble with Crowds

GOSPEL: Mark 1:4-11
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

In the familiar rhythm and pattern of the liturgical calendar, as we conclude the 12 days of the seasons of Christmas, observe the day of Epiphany by telling the story of magi coming to visit the Christ child, while chalking and blessing our homes for the new year, we come to the Baptism of Our Lord. While it moves us from hearing about the stories about Mary and Joseph, mangers and magi, it does bring us back to where we began in Advent – with John the Baptist. And the baptism is a story that begins the story of Jesus as much as any Christmas narrative.

This story stands out for many reasons: the wild hermit preacher John wearing his camel hair clothes, the voice from heaven that speaks like thunder, and a vision of the spirit descending from above. 

But of all the elements of the story that might be hard to imagine in this re-telling of the story, it might be the crowds. 

It is especially hard to imagine standing in a crowd, packed shoulder to shoulder, gathered to share in an experience together. 

We have had an especially complicated relationship with crowds in the past 10 or so months. From their near absence in our lives, to their new existence in the form of the crowded “Brady Bunch” view on our zoom calls, to the crowds we watched on TV gathering at the political rallies of a certain politician, to the masked crowds that couldn’t help but gather in cities around the globe in response to the murder of George Floyd, to the crowds of that other kind protesting pandemic restrictions whether at legislatures or too often churches (even in our own neighbourhood), to the crowds and gatherings of the rich and powerful as the flout public health orders. 

And of course, there was the crowd that we all witnessed on TV this week, the one that stormed the US capitol building, the violent group of MAGA hatted, QAnon believing, white supremacy espousing insurrectionists who were trying to overturn the results of a fair and legal election. As the overmatched police essentially let the crowd in, the violence resulted the death of 5 people, yet still showed the overwhelming restraint that authorities displayed towards a crowd of white folks compared the overwhelmingly violent response shown to crowds of people of colour. 

So yeah, after 2020 and now the first 10 days of 2021, imagining a crowd standing on the banks of river Jordan brings up mixed and complicated feelings. 

So why are these crowds there? What have they gone out to hear from John the Baptist?

In some many ways they are not much different than the crowds we have been seeing on our device screens lately. They aren’t violent insurrectionists or peaceful protesters, but they are people looking for something more in their lives. 

They are people looking for connection. 

Connection to something bigger than they are. Something to give them hope, something that will address injustice, something of the divine that will meet their mundane struggles, something that will relieve their disconnection of their everyday, very human lives.

The crowds on banks of the river were mostly made of folks living under oppression. Oppression from Roman occupation and from their own religious authorities who sought to maintain the power imbalance of the status quo. People whose lived experience probably felt disconnected from the stories that they knew by heart. People who knew the promises of God, the promise of Messiah found in the prophets, the covenant promise found in the stories of their ancestors. 

People who knew God’s promise, yet longed to know God’s presence. And so they went to hear John, to hear the voice of one speaking on God’s behalf, one who might connect those promises they knew by heart to the world they lived in. The hoped that this wilderness preacher, John, would be able to show them how the story of the divine, how God’s promises fit into their lives, into their suffering and oppression, into their longing for something different, into their longing for salvation. 

It is a feeling we get these days. We look at the crowds we see on TV that show us our suffering world. We look around at the homes we are stuck in and that feel like prisons. We look at the phones and computers, the social media accounts that are now our only connection to so many of the people that we care about, but remind us constantly of our separation from those same people….

And we long for connection. For our lives-made-small to feel connected once again to something bigger and larger than we are. Connected to the divine story, connected to the promised Messiah. Connected to the God made flesh. 

And then Jesus just walks into the water with John and gets baptized. 

He just shows up. 

Right in front of the crowds longing for the Messiah, longing for connection to the divine. Jesus, the Christ come in flesh that the Angels sang about, the one whom the Magi came to visit. 

Then once he comes up and out of the water, the heavens open up to the spirit of God. And the the voice of God rings out and in their ears. 

“You are my son, my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

God in flesh, God in sight, God’s voice ringing through creation. 

And if the crowds and if we didn’t make the connection to the sound of God’s voice thundering over creation, we heard from Genesis 1 when God spoke light into darkness to remind us.

And God speaks lights into darkness once again. 

The connection that the crowds so desperately sought is revealed in the promised Messiah, the Christ in flesh, the spirit of God come near. 

God re-connects God’s people to God’s story. God brings the lives of everyday, average people, people living under oppression, suffering under the powerful… God brings their living into the life and story of God. And God’s story in the waters becomes the story of all creation. 

Because God and creation are now one in the flesh of the Christ. The declaration of belovedness doesn’t belong just to Jesus, but to all who bear the flesh of creation. As Jesus comes up and out of the water, up and out the same water that sustains us, that washes and nourishes us, that grows our food and rains our land… the meeting of water and flesh and the Word of God spoken from heaven becomes the intersection and connection of creation’s story and God’s story. 

And so, as we too, with the all the crowds of this year, the crowds who bring their stories and lives and suffering and oppression seeking connection and reconciliation to the divine…

As we too come to this day of the Baptism of our Lord… 

We are reminded that as the water washes and nourishes our bodies, as the waters meets our flesh and the Word of God is spoken and heard in our midst… that even apart, that even crowd -less…. God declares to us too what the voice said to Jesus. 

You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased. 

You are who are longing for connection. 

You who feel trapped in your homes

You who are disconnected from family and friend and loves ones

You who are grieved by the violence and division that overwhelms us. 

You who cannot bear another zoom visit with family, rather than hugging a loved one. 

You who are alone fearful of the other and risk that gathering brings. 

You who care for the sick, teach the young, provide for the masses.

You who work and parent and recreate but rarely rest all at home.

You who are caught in deep darkness with seemingly so little light. 

You are God’s beloved. 

You are what pleases God. 

You are God’s child. 

And you and your mundane, earthy, messy life… are connected in the water, and in the flesh and in the word… to the life and story of God. 

Connected to spirit of God that descended from the heavens. 

Connected to the flesh that was reborn in the waters.

Connected to the voice that spoke light and life into being…

 God has made that moment our story… first on the banks of the river Jordan and again today. 

Amen.

A Pandemic Christmas Day

John 1:1-14
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God… (Read the whole passage)

“Mom, the camera isn’t on”

“But I can see you.”

“Yes, you can see me, but I can’s see you”

Marlena was again waving her arms at her computer screen, trying to look as though she was pointing down at the camera button on the other end of the screen. 

It was Christmas Day, and she was “zooming” with her elderly parents. They had been zooming regularly for a few months by now. It had taken herculean effort in patience just to get her mom to find the gallery or “Brady Bunch” view. But she still had trouble turning on her camera and microphone every week. 

2020 had been that kind of year. 

Marlena, her husband Jim, and their kids David and Lizzie, were no strangers to extraordinary Christmases. A few years ago, they had been travelling to see her parents and got caught in a snow storm on the way. They spent Christmas Eve with a bunch of strangers snowed in a roadside motel. They even cooked their own potluck Christmas dinner in the restaurant. 

On another Christmas Eve, they had welcomed new refugees from Syria for their first Christmas in their new home. 

And another year, as their family helped serve at the local soup kitchen, they heard that some youth from their church, St. David’s, had been with been on patrol with a local social worker for the homeless community when they helped a homeless woman give birth in the alley beside the church! 

But as appropriately Christmassy as these experiences had been… a global pandemic had changed everything and made for a completely new and unusual Christmas.

Last night they had their COVID Christmas Eve all planned: they would go and pack take out meals at the soup kitchen, then go for a drive through of Candy Cane Lane all before online church for Christmas Eve. 

But Father Angelo, their priest from St. David’s, had called and asked to make a last minute meal package delivery. When they went to make the delivery, they had a surprise meeting with old friends. 

The delivery was to same couple that they had met a few Christmases earlier when they had been snowed in a the roadside motel on Christmas Eve. Jesse and Miriam. Miriam had gone into labour and given birth to Christopher. Marlena remembered how badly she wanted that Christmas to be perfect, yet in the weeks leading up to Christmas things she just couldn’t keep juggling it all. 

But in meeting Jesse and Miriam she was reminded how imperfect the first Christmas was. How plans were derailed and people just had to make do. 

Last night when the two long lost families went for a Christmas Eve walk, all the memories and feelings came flooding back. Watching her kids play with little Christopher. Watching Jim and Jesse laugh about work and fatherhood. Walking with Miriam had put Christmas back into perspective again for Marlena… it was the perfect Christmas Eve miracle for the year 2020. 

But Christmas Day was a little more back to the reality of the world. 

“Okay, I can see you now.” Marlena told her mom. 

Marlena’s mom began her usual recounting of the week. 

“I was talking to my friend Gladys over coffee the other day.”

“Not in-person I hope” interrupted Marlena. 

“Don’t you worry, we washed our hands and wore masks.”

“How did you drink the coffee mom?

“Well… we took off the masks for coffee!”

Marlena felt like she was in the movie Ground Hog day every time she talked to her parents… even on Christmas Day. 

“David, Lizzie, time to open presents with grandma and grandpa on zoom!” Marlena called to her family.

Opening gifts was kind of normal. There were the usual gasps and squeals of delight of Christmas morning. The kids did have to take each toy and hold it up to the computer so Grandma and Grandpa could inspect them. But they were together with the normal Christmas morning crowd none the less. 

When the gifts were all opened and the zoom ended, the family sat down to brunch. Marlena saw that she had cooked way more food than they needed. Old Christmas habits… she figured.

After brunch, Marlena sat and stared out the window. The kids were off playing with new toys. Jim was setting up his new iPad. But Marlena was longing for something else. Last night, after seeing Jesse and Miriam, Christopher and his new sister Lilly, Marlena had felt something for the first time in a long while. This little family that they had taken under their wing, up against the world, with barely anyone in their corner… somehow managed embody hope for the future. Looking into baby Lilly’s eyes she felt the same things that she felt when she looked in baby Christophers’s went he had been born at the motel. As she looked into this child’s eyes she could see herself, she could see everyone that she loved, she could see the whole world. In this little helpless child, Marlena could see the divine, she could see a great passion for all creation, she could see God in flesh — Emmanuel. Looking at Jesse and Miriam, Marlena could saw Mary and Joseph, looking at Christopher and Lilly, she could see the Christ child. The whole world became different than it was. A world with God in it.

“Mom” Lizzie’s voice interrupted Marlena’s thoughts. “Could we take the extra brunch leftovers to Jesse and Miriam? I want to see Christopher again” 

“Yeah, mom and dad! Please!?!” Echoed David. 

Jim shrugged, “I don’t see why not.”

“Can we wrap some gifts for Christopher?” David asked. 

And soon the family was busy changing out of their Christmas PJs, packing up brunch and putting some well loved toys that David and Lizzie had grown out of into boxes to be wrapped.

It wasn’t long before Marlena Jim, David and Lizzie were standing Jesse and Miriam’s front yard. Lizzie ran up and knocked. 

Jesse and Christopher opened the door. 

“We come bearing gifts!” Jim said. 

Soon the two families were standing in the front yard. Christopher was opening his gifts with glee, David and Lizzie were clapping excitedly. 

“I don’t know what to say” Jesse said. “You didn’t have to do this.” 

“We know” said Jim. “We wanted to”

“It was the kid’s idea really. And that makes it a gift to us” added Marlena. 

“But we can’t repay you.” Miriam said.  

“Well, now.” Jim interrupted. “There is one thing you can do, you specifically Jesse. What are you doing on December 27th?”

Jesse shrugged.

“I need a warehouse foreman. Business has been too much for me to handle on my own. You are a contractor, so I know you have managed people before. That’s the hardest part, I can teach you the rest.”

“I don’t know what to say” Jesse was floored, Miriam was smiling so wide. 

“Just be ready for work at 6:45am. I will pick you up.” Jim tried to sound stern, but he couldn’t keep from grinning. 

The two families visited – socially distant and outdoors, of course – for a little longer and then said their goodbyes. 

As Jim loaded the kids into the car, Miriam and Marlena lingered. 

“I still can’t believe you saved us, and on Christmas again.” Miriam said. 

“Oh, you were the ones who saved us… again.” Marlena replied. “But this year, nothing surprises me anymore. And now that we have found each other again, there is no getting rid of us. You are family now” Marlena said. “Besides, you will have to peel our kids away from your family.

“Remember what the old priest read to us at the hotel during that chaotic but amazing Christmas dinner?” Asked Marlena.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Miriam recited. 

“The word has come to us, and we are each other’s flesh. We belong to each other for good now. Just the way God intended on that first Christmas.”

Miriam nodded to that, 

Amen.”

Part 1 of this Story is found here: A Pandemic Christmas Eve

St. David’s Christmas Eve at the Motel
St. David’s Christmas Day the Motel
St. David’s Advent 4 Refugees
St. David’s Christmas Eve Refugees
St. David’s Christmas Day Refugees

Manitoba’s Code Red Tweaks allowing drive-ins and a follow-up to the open letter to churches flouting restrictions

I am a pastor serving a congregation in Winnipeg. I am also a blogger, having blogged here since 2013. This blog is full of commentary on issues of the day as they relate to the Church and people of faith. 

Yesterday, (December 8th, 2020) the province announced some changes to public health orders. And as of this week, drive-in worship will be allowed again (for now). 

To be clear, the initial public letter was not about the relative safety of drive-in worship during a pandemic. I am not a public health expert, it is not my place to debate the application of restrictions.

I am also extremely sympathetic to the strain and difficulties that the restrictions on gatherings have added to our lives and communities. During these stressful times when everyone’s inclination is to gather, it is really hard to have to stay apart. So many of us have been apart from family, friends and community for a long time.

Rather, the issue I hopefully articulated, and that others signed onto in the letter, was the flouting of public health orders. It is about faith leaders and faith communities signalling that public orders are okay only as long as they aren’t too inconvenient. And if they are inconvenient it is okay to break them (be fined for it) and fight them in court. 

There is no debate that some faith communities have deliberately defied public health orders and that fines were issued for doing so. 

As the public health orders were “tweaked” yesterday, it might *seem* like a victory for those upset about the brief suspension of drive-in services. 

I think this is the wrong lens through which to view this issue. This is not about winners or losers. The only way to win during this pandemic is to save lives and to care for one another as much as possible. 

If the province changed the rules because of the complaints regarding drive-in gatherings that is problematic. It means that rules are being changed for small interest groups instead of for the health and protection of the public and the health-care system. 

But if, as Dr. Roussin says, public health orders are only in place for the shortest amount of time they are needed and they are being lifted because it is safe for our province to do so, then that is acceptable. 

And knowing that, I have to wonder what on earth was all the protest about?

Just as promised, the restrictions were temporary in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19. They were not part of grand government design to stamp out Christian faith. 

Yesterday’s tweaks to the orders don’t reveal who won or lost in some perceived debate, instead they reveal some important questions about the past couple of weeks:

What did it serve to break the orders?

What was the point of incurring the fines? 

What was the point of the expensive legal battle? 

And why send the message that our inconveniences as churches and faith communities come before the greater good? 

(Unless the actual issue is that some don’t believe that this pandemic is real and dangerous). 

In my eye, the change in public health orders today only reveals how unnecessary all of this standing up for personal rights and freedoms really has been. 

If there comes a day when the government legitimately tries to stifle the practice of faith, I will be the first to stand up in protest. Today, and any day during this pandemic, is not that day. 

Follow up to the Open Letter

In regards to the Open Letter to Pastor Leon Fontaine and Springs Church regrading their objections to public health restrictions in our province, so far, 79 Clergy from across Manitoba have added their names. Leaders from many different denominations. 47 more clergy from a cross Canada and even the United States have also added their names. 

I have received many, many responses to the letter. Many comments on Facebook and Twitter, over 100 comments on my blog, and almost 200 emails. The majority are positive and supportive, but also many have been negative. 

I have received such gracious support from so many colleagues in ministry. There have been many messages from church folks glad that their faith leaders said something in response to the actions of the churches going against public health orders. And many messages from non-church folks grateful for the witness of the letter. 

The responses that hit me the hardest were from front-line healthcare workers angry and frustrated by the actions of churches fighting against public health orders. The letter and signatories were a welcome response. They helped to calm hurt feelings and anger. 

On the other side, I have also received many comments, posts, emails and voicemails from those who did not appreciate or agree with the letter. Many from folks who support the churches going against orders, and some non-Christians who are frustrated with public health restrictions.

Some have been polite, most have not. Most have accused me (and the other signatories) of acting in poor faith, being attention seeking, being un-Christian, being a poor pastor, not being a real pastor, clinging to a dying church. Some have even compared me and the other signers to the German church that collaborated with the Nazis. Some have tried to go around me and contact my congregation directly insisting that I be fired, along with any other church staff. And some comments I won’t share here at all. (Many of the comments are publicly viewable on my blog and Facebook page.)

Many have asked if I have been in touch with Pastor Leon from Springs. I posted to Spring’s Facebook page after the initial plans to proceed with their services, despite public health orders, were first announced. I also tried to find some direct ways to contact Pastor Leon through the church website, but there is no email or phone number that provides direct access to him. Most contact is initiated through contact forms, which are a way for businesses and organizations to obtain contact information like names, addresses, emails and phone numbers. Eventually, I found a generic church email address that let me email the church directly (without using a website contact form) and have emailed the church inviting conversation. I have not heard back. 

But just as importantly, the office of pastor is a public office. This means that the things one says and does while occupying that office are public. The instructions on resolving conflict in Matthew 18 correspond to conflict between siblings in faith. Yet, when Pastor Leon issued his press releases he was providing a public narrative that purported to speak for all Christians and communities of faith. This narrative needed to be addressed – publicly. 

John the Baptist preached publicly about his concerns with other faith leaders. Peter addressed other faith leaders publicly in the book of Acts. The Apostle Paul wrote public letters (which we have included in scripture!) addressing faith leaders and communities. Jesus often had public conversations with the faith leaders of Israel. 

Pastors are called, by virtue of our office, to speak publicly for our communities and that sometimes involves addressing other faith leaders in public.

Some Biblical Foundations

Some responses have claimed that the open letter was not biblical. So let me clearly address some biblical foundations. 

First off, the issue of personal rights is not a biblical one. Rather, as this excellent blog post by Dr. Brian Cooper explains, personal rights are a modern political concept. When the Apostle Paul addresses the issue of personal rights he talks about setting them aside for the sake of the gospel. 

Secondly, one approximate analogy to the suspension of in-person (or drive-in) gatherings in scripture is when Jesus heals the man with the withered hand in Mark 3. The Pharisees were trying to entrap Jesus into breaking the law on the sabbath day by doing “work” and healing the man. Jesus responds by saying, 

“Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?”

The laws of the sabbath governed the way the people of Israel observed their day of worship. Yet, Jesus insisted on setting aside the rules in order to heal and care for people. He did not insist on setting aside the rules for his personal rights and freedoms. But always for the sake of the other. Always for the sake of caring for the most vulnerable in his community. 

Certainly, given Jesus’ consistent example in the gospels of transgressing boundaries and rules for the sake others, particularly the most vulnerable, Jesus would have been the first to forego in-person gatherings for a short time, in order to save lives. 

Thirdly, the Apostle Paul  also addresses the way a community worships in 1 Corinthians 11. The Corinthian church was struggling to discern its own membership and community. Some were eating their fill together before coming to worship at the Lord’s table while leaving other members of the church to go hungry. Paul admonishes this behaviour. He writes explicitly that the obligation is for the Corinthians to make sure that needs and well being of the whole community is looked after before gathering to worship. 

Paul writes that those who fail to discern the body – fail to understand just who is a part of their community and needs to be cared for – do so to their own condemnation. I don’t think this is prescriptive but rather descriptive. 

When we struggle and fail to discern who in our community needs to be cared for and put our own needs first, we are poorer for it as people of faith. 

Over the past 8 months, we have been asked over and over again by our community – by the leaders of the our province – to do our part to care for our community, even when that comes with personal sacrifice. 

As Christians and as people of faith, we should recognize this call as biblical and central to how we live out our faith during this pandemic. 

COCO and the God who Remembers All The Saints

Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
(Read the whole passage)

Reformation Day, Halloween, All Saints. These are the signposts of the end. They are way stations on our journey towards the end of the Church year. Soon it will be Advent again, and soon we will be singing of the coming birth of Christ. All Saints Sunday is one of those yearly celebrations that remind us of the cyclical nature of the church, of how we tell and retell the story of God in Christ.

All Saints Sunday also speaks to a different kind of end and different kind of waiting. It is a reminder of the big ending, of Christ coming again to gather up all the faithful, to make all creation new. All Saints is also a very specific reminder and opportunity to remember loved ones who have died. Those who have been drowned and brought to new life in the waters of baptism, and those who have taken their last breaths here on earth. And in a way, we are waiting on this day too. Waiting for that moment when all the saints will be together, in Christ, robed in white before the Lamb. We wait with hope and anticipation of God’s fulfillment of the resurrection promise.

The opportunity of All Saints is also the problem. To remember loved ones, is to revisit our grief and our suffering. It is to remember that we are lonelier without them, and that no matter how long their lives were, they left us too soon. 

This year All Saints is intensely local and personal and intimate as we remember those who have died in our community, those whom we have been unable to gather to remember and mourn and celebrate as we normally would. 

All Saints is also intensely global as we grieve and mourn those who have died here in our province: 62 people, 42 just in October. And 10,000 across Canada. And almost 1.2 million people around the world who have died during this global pandemic. And among the dead are our most vulnerable: the elderly, the poor, minorities and those on the margins.

Yet no matter whether All Saints Sunday comes on a year when we can be grateful there are only a few to remember or whether it comes when there is too much remembering to bear… our task is the same. To pray and to remember. To give thanks for saints and to entrust them again into God’s care. To trust and hope in the promise of God given to all the saints. 

And as we take up this task, we hear two stories about crowds. The first crowd is a crowd gathered around Jesus to hear the sermon on the mount. 

A sermon that forces us to deal with the tensions of grief and hope. Jesus proclaims blessing for things that really aren’t blessing. Things that we might assume we should strive for in order to be holy… poverty of spirit, meekness, righteousness, to be merciful, to be persecuted. Yet Jesus is not reciting a formula on how to be blessed or prescribing new life style choices. Rather, Jesus is making a radical statement, an outrageous reversal of how we understand the world. Jesus is describing a God, whose world is upside down from ours. Jesus tells us that God sees the poor, the suffering, the hungry, the thirsty, the mourning and the persecuted…. God see us… and declares that we are blessed.

The second crowd is the great multitude gathered before the throne of God at the end of time. A great crowd robed in white, clothed in Christ, and worshipping the lamb of God. A great crowd joined to the heavenly worship of the Kingdom of God. The great multitude of the saints who have gone before us in faith, who remind us just how big this body of Christ is, to which we belong in faith. 

Two crowds, one living and one dead. Yet forever connected to one another in the Body of Christ. 

(Pause)

For the past few years, our family has had the tradition of watching an All Saints movie together. Pixar’s movie Coco. Coco tells the story of Miguel. A young boy in Mexico who loves music but whose family has banned music for generations since his great-grandfather left his wife and daughter to pursue a career music. This point of  family conflict comes into tension right around Dia de Meurtos, the day of the dead or All Saints. 

In search of information about his grand-father, Miguel goes to the tomb of Mexico’s favourite singer, where he is magically transported to the world the dead, which is bridged to the mortal world on Dia de Meurtos. 

Along the way Miguel encounters Hector, a kind, musical grifter, who helps him.

The hinge point of the story comes because the people living in the land of the dead only continue to exist when they still remembered by the living, and Hector is in danger of being forgotten and fading away in what is called the last death. Hector’s daughter, his last living relative that knows him, is forgetting in her old age. 

Eventually Miguel, with Hector’s help, manages to reconcile with his family in both the land of the dead and the living world – with a few plot twists along the way. 

Coco is ultimately a story about the power of memory and love of family – important lessons at any time. But Coco is strongly connected to a thread that ties the movie and its story to the root of faith that Christians claim on All Saints. 

Memory. 

Being Remembered. 

Miguel’s family encouraged him to learn the stories of his ancestors, to keep vigil for them at the family ‘Ofrenda’ or offering – an altar with photos of loved ones used for Dia de Meurtos.

And we gather today with candles and photos to remember our loved ones. 

The root of All Saints in found in memory. 

And while we remember today, it is not our memory that is the most important. 

All Saints is ultimately about God’s memory. 

About God re-membering the two great crowds that we hear about day. 

The crowd listening to Jesus’ sermon on the mount and the crowd gathered before the throne at the end of time. 

Two crowds, one from the living world and one from the land of the dead. 

Made one Christ. One Body in Christ. 

A living crowd whose upside down blessings, whose world is up-ended and signal the coming Kingdom of God. 

And crowd at the end time, a crowd of the gathered faithful, crow of the poor and rich, the joyful and mourning, the hungry and the full, the merciful and merciless. 

Sinners AND Saints. 

Brought finally the throne of that same Kingdom of God that Jesus witnessed to. 

A crowd born in the memory of God. 

God who remembers us from before creation was spoken into being.

God who remembers us from before we were in our mother’s womb. 

God who remembers us throughout our lives, in our poverty, in our mourning, in our meekness, our hunger and thirst, in our need of mercy. 

God who re-members us by making us members of the body of Christ  

God whose memory puts us back to together, builds us up and assures us that we are known. 

God who re-members us, to the great multitude robed in white, unforgotten at the end of time, gathered before the throne, worshipping the lamb. 

All Saints is a promise that we are not forgotten, but that the God of life remembers us. 

And so as we gather to remember the saints, as we are joined here on this signpost day pointing to the end of the year, we are reminded that whether we remember or whether we forget, we are known.

That whether it is is year to remember just a few who have died, or like this year to remember and pray for too many – God always remembers us. 

That God remembers all the saints to the New Life that is found in Christ, to New Life promised to each one of us in the waters of baptism and New life that wraps us in the white and pure robes of Christ. 

New Life for those in the world of the living and those Brough to new life in the land of dead. 

Today, God Remembers us all – as saints belonging to the body of Christ. 

Amen. 

[James Baldwin, who was an African American writer and civil rights activist wrote, in his book Go Tell it on the Mountain powerful words that paint us a picture of what God’s promise of New life will look like: 

Then John saw the river, and the multitude was there. And a sweetness filled John as he heard the sound of singing: the singing was for him. . . . No power could hold this army back, no water disperse them, no fire consume them. They wandered in the valley forever; and they smote the rock, forever; and the waters sprang, perpetually, in the perpetual desert. They cried unto the Lord forever, they were cast down forever, and lifted up their eyes forever. No, the fire could not hurt them, and yes, the lions’ jaws were stopped; the serpent was not their master, the grave was not their resting-place, the earth was not their home. Job bore them witness, and Abraham was their father, Moses had elected to suffer with them rather than glory in sin for a season. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had gone before them into the fire, their grief had been sung by David, and Jeremiah had wept for them. Ezekiel had prophesied upon them, these scattered bones, these slain, and, in the fullness to time, the prophet, John, had come out of the wilderness, crying that the promise was for them. They were encompassed with a very cloud of witnesses: Judas, who had betrayed the Lord; Thomas, who had doubted Him; Peter, who had trembled at the crowing of a cock; Stephen, who had been stoned; Paul, who had been bound; the blind man crying in the dusty road, the dead man rising from the grave. And they looked unto Jesus, the author and the finisher of their faith, running with patience the race He had set before them; they endured the cross, and they despised the shame, and waited to join Him, one day, in glory, at the right hand of the Father.]