Every time I come to this part in the cycle of the year, I have this moment in which I go back in my mind and I have a bit of retrospection. I begin to think about some major decision I’ve made during the summer. And one major decision I made four years ago, going on five years ago, is I decided that I would leave my academic position and re-enter the parish, and that I would come here to Christ Church Cranbrook.
And that was an incredible decision because I had it made as a professor in terms of my lifestyle. There is nothing quite like being a professor. You get summers off and you have a position of relative status, and it’s an incredibly wonderful experience to have some time to not have to be crushed on every side. To have a little bit of rest, a little bit like the rest that Jesus promises His disciples but doesn’t deliver in today’s gospel.
And when I decided to come into this parish, I knew what I was getting into. I knew that I was going to be moving from what the monastics would call the life of contemplation to the life of activity. And I was so incredibly profoundly blessed by that transition. There’s never a moment in which I’ve regretted it. As difficult as sometimes as it’s been, it’s also been so profoundly filled with joy to be in the midst of people’s lives as they’re trying to live their lives faithfully. As they’re trying to find their way.
And oftentimes when I make that decision, I have this moment, I had this moment four years ago, that I couldn’t believe. At the time, everybody was discussing in Canada, where I was teaching, the issue of Scottish devolution. The Scotts were having a referendum about whether or not they would stay in the UK. And this was a big topic of conversation, a moment of incredible concern about the unity of the nation, and all of what that meant for Canada, and for the world.
This was four years ago. That was big news. Think of it. We’ve come a long way baby since then. And the first day at Christ Church Cranbrook, I finished my sermon, and then I went back to the house, and then I got a call, and I was told that a parishioner was passing away, and could I come immediately. And I put my shirt back on, and got my collar back on, and I drove in. And I went to see the parishioner, Bob, and he was in his last few hours, and I put my hand on his leg, and started to pray for him to try to make a connection with him as he was dying.
And at the same time as I was experiencing this profound connection, and this profound presence of God, all I could think at the same time was, “Thank God I don’t have to lecture on the Scottish devolution.” Because I felt like I had moved not only from a life of contemplation to activity, I felt like I had moved from a life of very abstract things to very real things. To the real challenges of real life.
Now, the life of the academy is just as real, and as broken as life everywhere else. It’s not a world apart, it’s a world in miniature. But the problems you tend to focus on when you are in places like this parish, these are things that are real. You deal with real problems, with real challenges, with real difficulties, with real opposition in your life. And it is a profound privilege for me to be here in those times, and to live in these real times with you. I’ve been able to see and feel the presence of God, in ways that I could never imagine.
But occasionally, I have these moments in which the two worlds in which I have lived in come together, and they actually speak to one another in an incredibly powerful way. And one moment happened for me, this past year I was talking to an old friend of mine who teaches at the University of Birmingham in England. And he’s starting a new project, a new research project. And he’s starting a research project into a topic he believes is relevant. And it’s called The Topic of Enmity. Enmity, the distrust, and dislike, the conflict that we experience between each other. Whether that enmity is personal, or political, or enmity between ethnic groups, or racial groups, or religious groups, he’s beginning a major research project on enmity.
Because as so many sociologists, and so many people are commenting, the level of enmity in the world appears to be rising. We are tending to experience this time in which things are breaking down around us. In which communities are falling apart. In which relationships are falling apart. In which persons are falling apart. In which nations are falling apart. In which even the world seems to be falling apart. And he’s trying to somehow understand it better, which is what you do when you are in a university.
When it’s an academic exercise, you try to generate a theory that could hold together all of these moving pieces because if you can generate that theory, you can somehow have a bit of control over it. You can somehow be able to predict when enmity breaks out. You can somehow try to find ways to limit its effect in the world around us.
And I have an incredible amount of admiration for this research project because I actually think enmity is a real thing. It’s not just an abstract concept, it’s something that you and I experience every day. It’s part of what it means to be in our lives at this time, and in this place.
But I believe that Christianity has within it a couple of major things to say about enmity. The first is that enmity is not a problem. Rather enmity is the norm. You and I have lived as if there were not these conflicts for many years. But in fact, they’ve always been there, and the Bible tells us, in the Bible’s way of telling us these things, that enmity has existed ever since. The first time we read the English word enmity in the Bible is in the Genesis story. After the snake, the serpent has deceived Adam and Eve, and God has come in, and patched things together, one of the curses that God gives is to the serpent. And God says, “I will create enmity between you and humanity. You will strike their heels, and they will strike your head.”
So enmity has been the norm. It is part of what we experience every day says the scriptures. But the second thing that the Bible says, and this is the consistent teaching of the scriptures all the way through, is that enmity is not final. In the final analysis, enmity in every form will be defeated. There is no broken relationship that will not be healed. There is no conflict that’ll not wear itself out, and find its way to peace. There is no difference that will create permanent distance. There is no war of civilizations and clash of cultures that will be great enough to withstand the peace of God.
And we say all of this because it pivots not just on the consistent teaching of the scriptures, but because we believe that Jesus Christ is God’s end to enmity. Jesus Christ is the peace of God. Jesus Christ has come to heal our relationships, to help us to gather together our different communities despite our differences. Jesus Christ closes the distance between us. Jesus Christ is, as we read in Ephesians, our peace. For He is our peace.
All of our scriptures speak about that today. In our reading from Jeremiah, there is this incredible promise of reconciliation, a promise of the end to enmity. The people, and the nation of Judah had been finally scattered and defeated, and Jeremiah is living in the ruins. And yet the Word of God comes to Jeremiah, and says to him that another shepherd would come, even though they had bad shepherds. And by that, is obviously in that time period, bad political leaders. Even though you’ve had bad shepherds, a new shepherd would come and reconcile the people of God, and would execute righteousness and judgment.
So enmity will end. That’s what the prophet says that God is saying. Because enmity does not have the final word. And God’s reconciliation is a promise you can bank on even when times seem difficult.
And in our incredible Psalm, Psalm 23, which we say at every moment in which someone has died because there is the final enmity between life and death. Between existence and nonexistence. Psalm 23, this says, “The Lord is my shepherd.” All of that has been said in the context of opposition. “You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me. In the presence of my enemies. In the midst of enmity, You, dear God have set a table for me because You are my shepherd.
And so the end of enmity comes through the presence of God in prayer. And St. Augustine, and Martin Luther, they loved to challenge us when we read the Psalms by reminding us, and asking us a question, “Who is praying this Psalm?” Is it just an everyday person praying? Or is it in fact Jesus who’s praying the Psalm because the Psalms were the prayer book of the Jews, and Jesus as a good Jew, was praying the Psalms. “So there is a sense,” say St. Augustine and Martin Luther.
There’s a sense in which when we pray, “The Lord is my shepherd,” we’re actually echoing Jesus’ voice. Our voice is mixing with His voice. Jesus himself has prayed, “The Lord is My shepherd,” as He went to His death on the cross, He prayed for God’s presence in His life. And He was given the peace of God, which passes all understanding.
And so you and I, when we pray this prayer of reconciliation, when we pray enmity into non existence, we do that as an echo of Jesus’ prayer. We pray with Jesus, and Jesus prays with us. And we know that we are not alone.
And in our reading from Ephesians, we have this incredible, powerful promise that God has broken down the great divisions between Jews and gentiles through the blood of His cross. He has brought down the walls of hostility, so that there may be peace between us, so we can preach peace to those who are far off, and those who are near, everyone has been reconciled through the peace of God who is Jesus. Jesus doesn’t merely bring peace, but Jesus is the peace of God. And so there we have this reconciliation that is one of fulfillment of the healing of broken boundaries, the closing of distance, and the breaking down of walls and division.
And finally, in our reading from the Gospel of Mark today, we have the most incredible moment, it’s become one of my favorite gospel passages. Because Jesus says to the disciples after they had gone out on their mission trip, basically, He says, “Come away and rest for a while, because you’ve been moving so fast you are not even eating.”
And time and time again, I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard these bad sermons that tell me that this passage says to me that I need to rest. Which is probably true, and good advice, just to say. But if you read this passage, it’s clear that Jesus’ words completely do not get fulfilled. As soon as they leave there, the disciples are inundated by people who want Jesus’ healing. And Jesus has compassion on them, for they are like sheep without a shepherd. And of course, that is a kind of connector to the reading today from Jeremiah, which says that the shepherd has come. Reconciliation will happen. Enmity has ended. And of course, the sign of that is that people are healed just by touching the cloak of Jesus, and being in His presence, they are healed.
So you and I have work to do in this world in which there is enmity. You and I are to practice the presence of Christ. You and I have to practice His compassion. You and I have to practice His reconciliation. You and I have to practice His forgiveness. And I say practice because of course we all will fall short of that. We all will have moments in which we don’t live up to it. But it is the grace of God to work out the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ, and we are Christ’s body in the world. And so we have to follow along, and pray for God’s presence, and seek Christ’s healing, and stand with him as the peace that God brings.
This past week, I had another moment in which I had the privilege of being with someone who was passing away. Someone who’s not entirely connected to the congregation, kind of new, lived down the street, retired military, 44 years old, leukemia, which he thinks and suspects came from a chemical burn that he was nearby when he was serving in Afghanistan.
And this family reached out to us in different ways, and we just took them into our heart, and just wanted to walk with them. And he’s a soldier through and through. And it was hard for him to let go. He was a person of discipline. And it was even harder for him to change his mind. It was hard for him to get his head around the fact that we have ordained women. And so one of the things that had to happen because I was out of town, is Pastor Manisha went to hear his confession. I don’t know what was said, I don’t need to know, and I don’t want to know, but I think Pastor Manisha being sent to hear his confession, well, that was the peace of God come to life for him.
And he had the decency to set aside all the things that he was troubled by to receive the ministry of the church. And he and his wife struggled to deal with his illness. And it was hard for him to let go, but he learned to let go over the past year. And at one point, I was mediating a conversation between them, which had grown a bit tense, and I remember being so aware of him struggling to come to terms with the fact that he couldn’t be the strong one anymore.
This week I went to see him and, to my amazement, he wanted to stay alive until I got back from vacation. And so I got there and saw him and blessed him and he died a half hour later. And as we were sitting there together, his wife asked me, “Where do you see God?” And I said to her, “Something happened in me four years ago because before then, I have to admit to you that I struggled at times to see God. But now I see God everywhere, always, in everything. Good, bad, indifferent, I just spend my time immersed in God. And that’s been a blessing.”
And I asked her, “Where do you see God?” She said, “I saw God after we had that difficult conversation with you. I went on a meditation retreat and I decided instead of meditating I would pray. And words came to me which I did not expect to hear. It was the voice of God and it was very clear. It was firm, it was gentle, but very clear, which said to me, ‘You will stay with this man until he dies.’ And I took that as God’s voice to me.” And she was so full of joy and light was streaming from her as she said that.
Now, of course, each of us has to find our way in knowing what God is asking us to do to reduce the enmity in this world. There is no formula we can share. There is no theory that can help us get control over it. All we can do is seek God and hope somehow they step into the peace that God has prepared for us in Christ, Jesus. And to know when we step into those moments that Christ is with us, within us, and drawing us forward.