Category Archives: Reflections

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Render Unto Caesar (October 19th Homily)

by Michael Shapcott

Sometimes a handful of words in the Bible can be wrenched with violence out of context in order to support a position that is pernicious. Take today’s Gospel reading of the Pharisees trying to trick Jesus. The phrase often plucked out of this little passage is part of verse 21 that most of us know by heart in the poetical language of the King James Version:

“Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”

This story was obviously considered important to early Christians as it is repeated, in somewhat similar form, in Mark and Luke.

Skip forward to Romans 13 and we read, once again, in the good old KJV, ‘let every soul be subject to higher powers’ in verse 1 and the word ‘render’ appears once again in verse 7. In fact, the margins notes in my old and beloved King James Bible has these three phrases next to the first few verses in Romans 13 – Duty to the State, Authority of the State, Duties of Citizenship.

The word ‘render’ from the KJV sets a powerful tone. The word came into English in the 15th century and describes, among other things, a process of taking waste animal tissue from slaughterhouses – like fat and muscle – and turning it into something useful like lard and tallow.

Think of big, bubbling vats of smelly residue and you’ll get a sense of what rendering is all about.

And so, I ask: is today’s Gospel lesson instructing us to offer ourselves up as passive subjects of the state so that we can all be thrown in a great big pot and reduced to a gelatinous mush?

The theologian Ched Myers reminds us, in his analysis of the similar story in Mark chapter 12, of three critical points as we approach this important story:

First, there was a punitive and much-hated tax imposed by the Roman authorities. Virtually no one wanted to pay this tax to the imperial state, it was unjust and it supported a grossly inequitable regime. But non-payment was not an option. Refusal to pay the tax was considered treason and that, in turn, was a capital offense.

Second, the coin that was used to pay the tax included an image of the Emperor and a reference to his status as a god. Even the mere handling of the coin would have been considered offensive to patriotic and observant Jews of the day.

Thirdly, and most importantly, remember that the point of the question from the Pharisees was not to engage in an honest political discussion on a challenging current topic with Jesus. They wanted, as we read in verse 15, to snare Jesus into making a politically damaging admission, and when he not only avoided their trap, but deftly set out a clear political as well as religious response, the Pharisees were amazed, as we read in verse 22.

The Pharisees were trying to cajole Jesus into making a damaging statement on one of the hottest of the hot button issues of the day.

Jesus’s response amazed the Pharisees in its directness: Give to the emperor exactly what is due to the emperor, says Jesus, and give God exactly what is due God.

This is no call of total submission to civil authorities, but a recognition that there is a relationship between people and the state that binds both sides in that relationship that includes standards of justice and equity. And the emphasis is on the just and loving relationship between a people and their state, and a people and their God.

A few years ago, I was in the Italian city of Siena for a conference. I had a few moments for some sight-seeing and went to the Palazzo Publico, what we would call the old city hall, where in the early medieval times the leading men of Siena gathered to manage the civil affairs of the city-state. They were called the Council of the Nine.

Sienna is in close proximity to the nearby city-state of Firenze – Florence – and there was a constant rivalry, both economic and military, between the two.

The practical problem for Siena was that Firenze usually had more money and therefore could buy more and better mercenaries to staff their armies. The powerful and extremely rich Medicis were based in Florence, and their political tactician was the famous Machiavelli, whose name has become synonymous with a ruthless form of civil rule captured in the phrase ‘might is right’.

Most of us would bristle at the notion that superiority in military might confers some kind of moral rightness, but for Jesus and his fellow Jews in the early years of the common era, the might of the Roman Empire was not an abstraction. In the same way, the people and rulers of Siena knew that, whatever their political and moral viewpoint, the weapons and armies of Florence were very real indeed.

They needed to counter that physical reality with an equally robust response.

The challenge for Siena was that it would pull together an army of mercenaries to attack or defend against the forces of Firenze, only to have their forces depleted as their own mercenaries were bought off by their richer opponents.

Which brings me back to the Palazzo Publico in the central square of Siena. In the main meeting room, where the city’s rulers met to discuss the practical issues of the day, a great mural was commissioned by the Council of the Nine in 1338 with the artist Lorenzetti. It’s a striking set of frescoes that dominates the entire room.

The group of frescoes is called the Allegory of Good Government and Bad Government and was intended as a direct counter to the powerful and practical concept of might makes right. The ruler is portrayed as being bound with chains of gold to fundamental values such as justice, magnanimity, peace, charity and wisdom, as well as being bound with chains of gold with the people.

The fresco is meant to tell us that the duty of citizens is to participate and engage with the state, and be bound by a mutual obligation, but only to the extent that the state follows through with its commitment fundamental values and its obligations to its people. If the ruler becomes corrupt, unjust and lacks a commitment to wisdom, peace and charity, then another fresco, the Allegory of Bad Government, demonstrates the social and economic devastation that follows.

Siena began to staff its armies with civilian volunteers who were committed to their homes and families and felt a strong bond with their state. Unlike the mercenaries, the citizen-volunteers could not be bought off by the superior resources of Firenze, and they became an effective force.

A small footnote: Each neighbourhood in Siena and the surrounding communities would hold local practices to train their militia, and these militias would engage in annual friendly rivalries to hone their military skills. In the modern era, these events – known as pallios – continue mainly as tourist attraction and typically feature a thundering horse race in the central square.

So, Jesus was not calling for a position of meek subservience for people to civil authority, but noting that there is a relationship between people and the state that, just like the relationship between people and God, is bound by mutual standards and values such as justice, equity, love, and peace.

Paul clearly intended this in Romans chapter 13, which I noted earlier. He starts the chapter by saying that people are subject to civil authorities, but then stresses in verse 7: ‘Pay to all what is due them – taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.’

The operative words are ‘what is due to them’. We are a thoughtful and justice-seeking people here at Holy Trinity and our relationship with Toronto City Hall, across the street, with the provincial Legislature up the street, and with the national Parliament in Ottawa is not easily reduced to simple platitudes.

Canada’s founding Constitution – and how often do you hear the British North America Act of 1867 referenced in a homily – sets out the basic obligation of the state as delivering ‘peace, order and good government’. Constitutional scholars refer to this as POGG. I actually think that those five words are a pretty complete statement of the aspirations that we have of government.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our politicians would only deliver on these – instead of the current social and economic agenda that includes poverty, inequality, ongoing inequity with the First Nations, homelessness, environmental erosion and, most recently, yet another war in the Middle East, to name just a few of the government-manufactured issues.

I have my municipal voting card and I intend to exercise my right to vote this afternoon in an advance poll. I hope that everyone else here does the same – voting is an important part of the relationship between a people and the state, one of the golden chains, to use Lorenzetti’s image, that binds us in a mutual relationship.

But, of course, our duties as people, and our duties as a justice-looking and justice-seeking community, don’t end at the ballot box.

Dr Martin Luther King reminded us that there are moments when we are called upon to take our commitment into the public square. In his life, and in his writing, he set out an orderly process for the person to engage with civil authorities.

After identifying an injustice, Dr King believed that the first step was to bring it to the attention of competent authorities. Place the issue on the public agenda and demand action.

If there is a rebuff, then Dr King set out an escalating series of actions from protests to economic action to civil disobedience. He understood, only too well, the challenges of wrestling with values of love and justice with civil authorities committed to the exact opposite.

I would like to end with a few sentences from his speech on April 4, 1967, at the Riverside Church in New York City. Dr King came out powerfully against the US war in Vietnam, opposing his own government – a government that he had spent more than a decade calling to conscience on civil rights.

These few words illustrate the many facets of taking up the challenge of Jesus that we are to give the state exactly what is due to the state:

Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, people do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.

Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.

Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement well and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.’

Amen.

The secret of bringing new life into the world

miriam and moses

August 24, 2014 Reflection by Beth Baskin
The secret of bringing life into the world

Readings:
Exodus 1:8-2:10
Matthew 16:13-20
Theme: midwives, & parents in all their forms

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts reveal the truth of God for us in this place and time.

Full disclosure, this is not a carefully exegeted sermon, the form of which I was taught in theological school. This is not a sermon my homiletics professor would hold up as a model for systemic theology. This is a reflection on a passage that spoke to me and begged to have some truths told.

The opinions voiced in this are mine coming out of life experience, quiet time, prayer and reflection which I believe hold some truths that can guide those of us who call ourselves people of faith.

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Flesh

Flesh and Spirit

Homily by Bill Whitla Pentecost 6 (Proper 11A) July 20, 2014

Gwenlyn asked me to preach because she said that the readings were difficult—and I knew that was a golden opportunity. Little did I know that the reading from Romans would be cut off half way through [Sherman later reported it had been taken from a 2011 bulletin where the co-ordinator had abbreviated the reading] and the Gospel was completely invisible, having been left out of the bulletin altogether. A challenge indeed. Continue reading

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Listen! A sower went out to sow

Susie Henderson

Homily Based on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

 

July 13, 2014

Listen! A sower went out to sow.

Some seeds fell on the path and were eaten by birds. Some fell on rocky ground and they never took root. Some were choked by thorns. And some, some fell on good soil, and brought forth more grain than could be imagined.

Well, I am no farmer, not even a very experienced gardener, but it sure makes me wonder about what kinda crazy sower we have here who tosses the seed to fall where it may. Most of it never makes it to harvest time. Today he might be sowing while texting. Continue reading

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‘oh you are so big’

May 18th Homily by Michael Shapcott

Good morning. We may be somewhat diminished in numbers today in the midst of this holiday weekend, but we gather as participants in a Christian communion that stretches back some 2,000 years and circles the globe.

I am four and one-half months into theological studies at the Faculty of Divinity at Trinity College in the University of Toronto where I am seeking to deepen my understanding of the profound connections between universal human rights and fundamental faith values. My goal is not simply more knowledge, but a more effective rights-based practice when it comes to fundamental issues of justice and equity such as housing, homelessness, poverty and hunger.

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Gaining a Community, Joining a Movement

Baptism of Adam, Easter 3, Road to Emmaus

Homily delivered on May 4 by the Rev Alison Kemper

Today we hear one of the best stories in the Gospels: the appearance of Jesus on the Road to Emmaus. We celebrate a baptism—one of the most wonderful things the church does. And we gather around wee Adam, as happy and bright and darling a baby you may ever see. A Christian hat trick.

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Lost Together

a homily at HT, April 27, 2014

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.”

There is a famous (or infamous) story in this congregation about a father who insisted on reading the Nicene creed at his daughter’s baptism. And then again at his son’s. How irritating! That’s not a statement we can get behind at Holy Trinity. However, that annoying man was and is a valued member of this community.

He was a warden for a time, he served on the diocesan doctrine and worship committee, spent ten years pouring himself into youth ministry in this diocese, toured with a liturgical band bringing the good news to parishes all over. He even, for a time, considered himself something of an evangelist.

Some of you who know that man know that over time he became more and more like Thomas of the gospel today in his desire for proof, or at least strong indications, of god’s presence. You may think or have heard that he has lost his faith. Continue reading

Created for Community (Homily for Lent 1)

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7    Psalm 32      Romans 5:12-19     Matthew 4:1-11

 Created for Community

 by Sherman Hesselgrave

Human beings were created for relationship—relationship with one another, and relationship with God. When God realized it was not right that Adam should be alone, God set about to create a companion for him—‘companion,’ a word whose roots are in sharing bread together. The stories from Genesis and Matthew that we hear again today are foundational stories for us. The story of Jesus’ temptation in Matthew is Shakespeare’s reference when, in The Merchant of Venice, Antonio says to Bassanio: “The devil can cite scripture for his purpose.” The stories are foundational because they show us how our relationships with God and others can be distorted or corrupted by our everyday human desires.

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Taking Ashes to the Streets

So today was Ash Wednesday, and we took ashes from the midday service at Holy Trinity, Trinity Square to the streets of downtown Toronto. We’d done it a few years ago–when I had a curate and an intern–and had already decided to do it again this year, when, a couple weeks ago, I received a call from a producer of the CBC radio program Tapestry, who had read about the ashes-to-go that Sara Miles writes about in her new book, City of God. They were going to be interviewing her for the show, and had googled to see who in Toronto might be doing it as well. Long and short, Diane Eros came Continue reading

Life Together (Homily for Epiphany 3)

Readings:  Isaiah 9:1-4   Psalm 27:1, 5-13    1 Corinthians 1:10-18     Matthew 4:12-23

Life Together

by Sherman Hesselgrave

The week between January 18th, the Feast of the Confession of St Peter on the Church calendar, and the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul on January 25th has come to be known in ecumenical circles as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I imagine to many the words ‘Christian Unity’ must seem oxymoronic, for Church history is littered with the bodies and detritus of countless battles. St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reminds us that Christian disunity has been around pretty much from the beginning.

Disunity comes in a variety of flavours. I have noticed a flurry of online discussion recently about bullying in church, bullying of all stripes—bullying of parishioners by pastors, bullying of lay people by other members of a congregation, and even bullying of pastors by congregations. One congregation, First Assembly of God in Madison, Indiana, a town with a population of 13,000, had a decades-long reputation in the town and denomination for being a clergy “killer.” Four successive pastors had been called and then painfully driven out until the latest pastor helped them to name and own their dysfunction. They made the news for holding a service of reconciliation that involved calling their former pastors back to ask their forgiveness for the way they had been treated. The liturgical action at this service was the current pastor washing the feet of the former ministers on behalf of the congregation.

According to St Paul, one of the conflicts in the new community of Christians in the port city of Corinth appears to be related to people forming cliques around the missionaries who baptized them: Apollos, Cephas, or Paul. I suspect we all have seen the power of personality cults, and the Church is certainly not immune to their seductiveness. But in falling for the charisma of the various leaders, the new converts missed the one thing they all had in common: their baptism into the community of Christ. This passage is emblematic of so many of the things that have caused division in Christian communities when the original vision of what makes up the core of the Gospel is lost. I believe Jonathan Swift, in his Gulliver’s Travels, was satirizing the Church when he described the wars between the Big-Enders and the Little-Enders, those who ate their soft-boiled eggs by cracking them at opposite ends. There are many distractions that make it difficult at times to keep our eyes on the prize, so to speak.

When Jesus invited Peter, Andrew, James and John to leave their nets and follow him, one has to wonder what they thought “fishing for people” would look like. What kind of community were they being called to? From the record, it seems that, even after following Jesus around for quite some time, they weren’t sure. Today’s gospel and today’s Hebrew scripture both quote this passage from the prophet Isaiah: “…the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,…” In the original context, the darkness that has fallen over the people is the darkness of death that accompanied the continuous warring in that critical geopolitical region. Isaiah was promising that a Prince of Peace would be coming to bring a new dawn. In the gospel context, Jesus was the light who had come to bring a new day, and the way he was going to do it was by inviting people to help him to spread the news that God was taking a new approach to creating peace and justice on earth. He spelled out the details as he travelled from town to town. In the Sermon on the Mount he claimed that God blessed peacemakers, the pure in heart, the merciful, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. He told his followers that they were the fertilizer of the earth. He taught them how to pray, and how to live one day at a time. And he taught them about the danger of storing up treasure on earth. The kind of community that Jesus’ followers were called to was a community of character that stood in stark contrast to the values of the surrounding empire.

Flash forward to Germany in the mid 1930s. A different empire, the Third Reich, was coming into being, and the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer had been called to lead an illegal, clandestine Confessing Church seminary in the then North German town of Finkenwalde. Sharing a common life in emergency-built housing with twenty-five seminarians, he wrote a book, Life Together [New York: Harper & Row, 1954, p. 26], describing his insights into living as an intentional Christian community. Early in the book he observes that many a time “a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream.” The disillusionment that shatters such dreams is an act of grace that helps a group of Christians to discern the true community God is trying to create. Look at Jesus’ disciples and how disillusioned they were when Jesus turned out not to be a political messiah. Until they were purged of that fantasy, they could not become part of the apostolic movement they were commissioned for.

Over the centuries, Christian communities have struggled with the tension between unity and uniformity. There are some who believe that unity requires uniformity, but that is not what either Jesus or the apostle Paul taught. Paul speaks of the diversity of the body of Christ, the Church, and the many gifts with which God’s Spirit has blessed God’s people—but there is one Spirit behind those gifts, so all spiritual gifts are complementary. And, I believe that when Jesus prays that we may all be one, as he and his Abba are one, he is speaking of the oneness that comes from being intimately connected to the source of all life, truth, and beauty.

Diversity, too, can be a source of tension. We have seen how new ideas or scientific revelations have challenged Christian communities over the millennia. And just when you think consensus is about to solidify after decades or centuries of debate, someone comes along and tries to bring back the Middle Ages. As a Roman Catholic nun once remarked to me, “The Church changes very slowly—one funeral at a time.”

To be true to our calling as a community in Christ, there will be times when we will struggle to discern which fork in the road to take, or how to make the most of our resources, or the best way to retool for carrying on our mission in a new context. We may be called to make bold leaps of faith or to overcome a fear of failing. These are all situations that faithful Christians have faced in the centuries leading to this moment in time, so we are not alone as we continue to make sense of our life together—we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and God’s Spirit is the wind that fills our sails.