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They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, ‘Can you see anything?’ And the man looked up and said, ‘I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.’ Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, ‘Do not even go into the village.’
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?’
This story that I read for you of Peter going from being the first to declare Jesus the Messiah to being called Satan within the course of minutes, is one that haunts ministers.
What’s going on in this passage is that the feeding of the 5,000 has just happened – big miracle! Remarkable. This is a country under the thumb of the Roman empire where people are hungry; I’ve talked about this before. The average artisan or peasant living in Palestine at that time did not have enough food to live on. So, feeding 5,000 people with just a couple of fishes and a few loaves of bread is a really important event. Now, the blind are being healed and made to see, and following this part that we read today, somebody’s hearing is restored. It’s a passage about seeing and hearing clearly.
You see, Peter’s groovin’ on this. Peter’s like, Wow, I can go with this! Look at all the crowds that are coming! Look at the miracles! Look at how popular we are! Look Jesus, there are more bums in the pews! That was one heckuva stewardship campaign we ran, the money’s just running up – ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching…The Sunday School’s gonna grow, etc… etc…
Then Jesus starts to teach. Hold on. People are hungry for a reason and that reason is the economic system of an empire, which is inseparably intertwined with the political and theological system of an empire.
This was a blind person whose sight was restored. This wasn’t somebody who’s blind from birth. We don’t know how he became blind; he may well have become blind by being struck in some of the violence, or he may have gone blind for too little to eat, or absence of the right kind of nourishment. And Jesus starts teaching his disciples – we’re not just going to feed people, we’re not just going to heal the blind and the sick and the deaf and the lame. We’re not just going to give pastoral support, we are going to confront the empire that has created this situation with so much deafness, blindness, poverty and hunger, and when we do – when I do – I’m going to be tacked upon one of those many crosses on places like Golgotha and the roads into the cities where Romans stick the people who speak truth to power, and Peter doesn’t like it. Peter wants to go straight from feeding the 5,000 to the resurrection without any crucifixion in between.
Now, this is why this story haunts ministers. It’s resonant with the first verse of our hymn:
To us all, to every nation
comes a moment to decide,
in the strife of truth and falsehood
for the good or evil side,
some great cause, some modern prophet
offering each the bloom or blight,
and the choice goes on forever,
‘twixt the darkness and the light.
Words: James Russell Lowell; adapt. W. Garrett Horder;
Music: Thomas John Williams
Jesus is actually saying, to Peter and the disciples, you can have the bloom but you gotta have the blight too. If you’re my follower, pick up your cross and follow me, and with the bloom comes the blight. ‘Twixt the darkness and the light, the journey of Jesus’ followers always takes place in that nexus between darkness and light.
Ministers, too, want the light without the darkness, and there are two times when we really get seduced into attachment to the light and blindness to the darkness, which I’ve learned to call slow motion apostasy. Apostasy or apostates were people who abandoned their faith when it became difficult to live it.
When the Romans started to crush the early Christian church and there were Christian martyrs, many Christians gave up their faith. They were called apostates, and what they did was called apostasy, and the same choice confronted Jews when we persecuted Jews in the Middle Ages. The same fights happen today in the clashes between Christians and Muslims in Africa, for example.
Frankly, I don’t judge people who give up formal religion, what I’m talking about is a slow-motion apostasy in which you want the bright success of the faith but you’re not willing to walk into the darkness where the cross is. The two times when this temptation is great for ministers are when things are going really well, and when things are going really badly. I’ll tell you a story about a time in a church in Halifax when things were going really well.
Around 2006-07 the congregation was really growing. There were more bums in the pews. There were more children in the Sunday School. We had, in 2007, a spectacular stewardship campaign! And we decided we were finally going to have a vote on same-sex marriage. Now, this church was terrified of it because in 1988 – how many people know the resonance of that date for the United Church? – that was the year the United Church decided to ordain self-declared gays and lesbians and hundreds of thousands of United Church members and no small number of congregations left:
To us all, to every nation [to every church]
comes a moment to decide,
1988 was a moment.
The church I served – St. Andrew’s – split in 1988. Both ministers left, took a third of the congregation and founded a more conservative church. (We have somebody here nodding who was actually a part of that church at that time and experienced his own smallish form of crucifixion.) The church was terrified so we took a long time to process the decision and we knew that only members would get to vote, so everybody who had been joining the church who hadn’t been baptized, who hadn’t become a member, who hadn’t transferred membership, on one Sunday was brought forward and baptized and welcomed into the congregation – we had about 60 people. Hard to believe this happened in the 21st century in the United Church but we had about 60 people, and word started to get around. The stewardship staffperson, Pam, from the Maritime Conference, was going around saying, Hey! Do you know what’s happening at St. Andrew’s? You know, it was partially because we did it all on one Sunday, and that was like a drug.
(By the way, the vote was more than 90% yes, and nobody left the congregation, and that was like a drug.)
But I started to notice in the coming months that something was off. We were working at building on this success – success is a dangerous word in the gospel – and we were moving into projects like looking at the redevelopment of the property – does that resonate with anybody? – as a way to bolster our success.
As an aside, in 2007 the little task group of St. Andrew’s came to Toronto and visited with Trinity St. Paul’s UC and College Street UC and Eglinton St. George’s to talk with churches who were looking at redevelopment and I reviewed those notes, just this weekend. It turns out we met with two people from Bloor Street UC named Don Cooper and Jim Bradshaw. (Don and I, neither of us made a great impression on the other, I think, because we didn’t remember, although we decided before the service it was because both of us have lost a lot of hair since then.) But I was noticing things were off, and it was because I was starting to do slow-motion apostasy. I was sliding into the place of Peter, and I was pulling back some of the hard stuff in sermons, and I was devoting more time to shining up the Sunday morning worship in a way that would attract more people, and the cross was fading further and further back into the shadows.
Well, luckily, I got saved from that because I was invited to co-chair the Living Into Right Relations task group of the United Church, which was to work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I was present to the conversations that set that up. As a matter of fact, when Stephen Harper made his apology on the floor of the House of Commons, in June of 2008, I was at an event in Sipekne’katik First Nation in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia where they had had the one, very large, residential school in all of Mi’kmaw, and the shadow of the cross was cast upon the whole nation as the truth of our history of residential schools was lifted for us. What powerful irony in the fact that Stephen Harper was the one who made that apology.
An even more powerful utterance, that day, was made by Phil Fontaine, the Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who spoke in response to the apology and stood on the floor of Parliament and said, the authority of White Supremacy is de-legitimated.
A friend of mine from California, a biblical scholar named Ched Myers, was in Nova Scotia at that time and I’d invited him to go to Shube with me, and as we were walking back to the car after this event, he bent over in pain and emotion, and I had to help him into the car. I thought, maybe, he was having a heart attack. It was just emotion and I asked, what happened? And he said, I’ll tell you later. Later, he pointed to the original ending of the gospel of Mark where the women go to the empty tomb (of Jesus) and they flee in trauma and ecstasy. He said, I was bent over in trauma and ecstasy because I had seen an Indigenous person in Canada stand on the floor of Parliament and say White Supremacy is de-legitimated, and nobody, Black or Indigenous, could stand on the floor of the American Congress and utter that sentence and survive.
Trauma and ecstasy (Russ holds up a cross). You can’t have the ecstasy of being Jesus’ followers without having your eyes healed and opened, your ears healed and opened to the crucifixions of this world, to the trauma, and what was happening to Canada in that moment.
…new occasions teach new duties,
time makes ancient good uncouth;
they must upward still and onward,
who would keep abreast of truth.
If we really look at this history, the architects of the Indian residential school system – not the many pedophiles and predators who went to work there, but the people who advocated for it and designed it, were the progressives. The same cluster of progressive Christian intellectuals and social workers who advocated later for Medicare and so many of the social fabric reforms in Canada were the architects of Indian residential schools. It’s too easy to just say the people who set the system up were monsters and that’s the past. They also led, ‘twixt the darkness and the light, and looking back we celebrate their light but we’re honest about their darkness. Even the darkness of Tommy Douglas, who was not only a champion of Medicare but also of eugenics.
…they must upward still and onward,
who would keep abreast of truth.
Perhaps the most powerful moment in coming to terms with this for the United Church was when we had the first gathering under the right relations work in Pinawa, Manitoba on the banks of the Winnipeg River. We were going to gather 50 Indigenous and 50 non-Indigenous United Church people for a five-day talking circle, and we went to the offices of the national church and we said, can we take the chalice and the plate from the chapel at Church House and bring this into our worship in Pinawa as we launch right relations, and they said, yes. We shipped it and when it was opened, the chalice was broken, and the first thing we thought was ugh, Nora Sanders is gonna kill us. But then the second we thought is, what is a more powerful symbol than a broken chalice? Near the end of the TRC process in Halifax, those pieces were put into the bent wood box for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and they rest at the museum in Winnipeg today.
Once to every church and nation comes a moment to decide.
Friends, the whole journey of the United Church is entangled with the project of nation building in Canada, and we, with our nation, have moved ‘twixt the darkness and the light and so many of the things that we see in the light – the acceptance of refugees, the move to same sex marriage, Medicare – would not have happened as quickly or in the same way or at all without the engagement of the United Church. But part of the darkness we experience right now is that in the eyes of the country the United Church of Canada is not intimately entwined in the project of re-building the nation of Canada. So, let’s pause and look at this historical moment in which Canada must choose.
Though the cause of evil prosper,
yet ’tis truth alone is strong,
though its portion be the scaffold
and upon the throne be wrong.
You know, if they ever crack open the Bible for a third testament, this has gotta go in there right alongside Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell.
We have a Trudeau (Justin) as a Prime Minister. When the last Trudeau (Pierre Elliott) was Prime Minister, Gini coefficients – the way that the UN measures inequality – were going down in Canada, and went down all through the 1980s, reaching a bottom of 2.81, even under (Prime Minister Brian) Mulrooney. This Trudeau is in the Prime Minister’s office (and) Gini coefficients are going up. It’s predicted that this year will be 3.33. Now, for those who know how to read Gini coefficients, that’s a significant rise. Inequality is advancing in this country.
Housing costs have gone crazy, and the raise in interest rates is hurting everybody as the effects of this go through our economy, and at the bottom of that trickle down effect are thousands of African refugees who’ve come to Canada and have no housing as the temperatures drop below zero. In the second quarter of 2023, profits for the banking sector in Canada have gone up by a third compared to this time last year, and last year they were up 14%.
Once to every nation comes a moment to choose.
Investment in energy technologies around the world have moved, such that for every dollar invested in carbon fuels, oil and gas in the planet, a dollar and a half is being invested in green energy technologies. In Canada, 10/1 in favour of investment in oil and gas. As a nation that has seen itself as benign, we have lost our way, and we need a new politics that fosters equality and that protects the environment. But the new politics we’re getting is the opposite, it’s a populist politics imported from the South that’s playing with Fascism and is starting to identify the groups of people who need to be tacked to the cross – Trans people are the most visible ones.
In this so-called million child march and the gathering at Queen’s Park; I went to the counter protest with some of my United Church colleagues, many of the placards were articulated in Christian language.
By the light of burning martyrs,
Jesus’ bleeding feet we tracked.
Toiling up new Calvaries ever,
with the cross that turns not back.
Where Jesus walked and his feet literally bled, there are thousands of martyrs literally burning today as the bombs fall on Gaza, as did some of the Israelis, when Hamas tried to burn them out of their safe rooms.
More children have died in the last month in Gaza in war than we normally lose in a year in the whole planet, and our government is still not calling for a ceasefire.
So, friends, let me finish by asking, what do we have to offer? What does the church, what does the gospel have to offer?
Though the cause of evil prosper,
yet tis truth alone is strong.
Though its portion be the scaffold
and upon the throne be wrong,
yet that scaffold sways the future,
and behind the dim unknown
there stands God within the shadow,
keeping watch beside God’s home.
For 136 years, Bloor Street church has been intimately entwined in the project of building and reforming Canada. What we have to offer – the Buddhists offer what they have to offer, the Jews have to offer what they have to offer, the atheists attached to certain philosophies have to offer what they have to offer.
What do we have to offer?
We have to offer this (Russ holds up the cross). There’s no shortage of crucifixions in the world. When the first African refugee freezes on our streets, that will be a crucifixion. There are no shortage of crucifixions.
What we have to offer is we go, and we stand adjacent to the scaffold where God is standing, and we will notice that standing with God, with Jesus, is John the Baptist, who was resurrected into Jesus. Is Elijah, who was resurrected into Jesus – that’s what this passage is saying. And we’ll notice standing in the shadows beside the scaffold, Bob McClure. We will notice standing in the shadows beside the scaffold, Helen Porter and Ann Cooper, and we will then be told how to act as Christians in our moment when we are called to choose. But friends, we’re not going to hear it, if we don’t stand beside the scaffold.