St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church

Vancouver, B.C.

Phone: 604-877-1788


The Anglican Parish of St. Mary Magdalene

2950 Laurel Street at West 14th Avenue

Vancouver, BC, V5Z  3T3

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Diocese of New Westminster Anglican Church of Canada

Home Who We Are UAM What Is On Sermons Contact Us


August 30th Pentecost 13, 2020                      John Marsh

Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28


We should never underestimate the centrality of stories in the formation of our lives. Narratives are formative for our existence. We are a storied people; we create stories and we are formed by stories. To briefly illustrate, for years I was asked if I was related to Henry Marsh, Anglican bishop of the Yukon. My usual response was, “No, all of my relatives were drunks and coal miners.” My somewhat flip answer was rooted in the storied lives of my family – stories of the great unwashed. As I grew up, stories were told of our lowly origins, our values and of our character, stories both laudable and regrettable. While I am no longer part of the great unwashed (three degrees means you are part of an elite) the stories of my upbringing have framed my life – I have always sought to live close to the ground, preferring to work on the local level; I have little patience with presumption, class or arrogance. My family’s story has shaped my life. It is also most certain that my story may blind or obscure aspects of my vision, hence the necessary value of other stories (in my case, primarily Christian, inter-religious and inter-cultural stories, stories of those deemed other) which often jolt me into a new awareness.

Up to this point in the narrative, Jesus has confined his work to the dusty streets of the towns and villages of Galilee, to the shores and boats of the Sea of Galilee and to the wild, thin places of the hills and mountaintops of the countryside.

He has taught; he has healed; he has challenged; he has interacted with people – the sick, the poor, the righteous, the powerful, the great unwashed of Galilee.

Jesus has embodied, pointed to the in-breaking of the reign of god, that alternative way of seeing holiness within the whole, that alternative way of acting and reacting in a world suffering from the normative values of civilization – domination, violence and the often dismal realities of social class.

The disciples were perhaps beginning to get it; if an ecstatic utterance is getting it – “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." – see Matthew 16:16b – then they started to understand.…

But just as they were beginning to get it, the narrative shifts:

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised¹.    (Matthew 16:21)

From that time on the disciples are again destabilized, as are we:

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you." But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." Then Jesus told his disciples, "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 will find it.       (Matthew 16:22-25)

Despite the affirmation of Jesus’ identity (see last week), serious stumbling blocks remain…

Perhaps the intuitive insight as to Jesus’ identity – as the story goes – is not the heart of the matter; perhaps something exists deeper within…

Risking the depths, today’s gospel narrative in Matthew is an ancient memory – it is included in all the synoptics².

It points to the alterity of Jesus – the otherness of the reign of god – that paradoxical promise of counter-intuitive ways of being in which humanity opens to the depths of the god who will be what god will be³. (See Exodus 3:14)

It points to the struggle of the disciples to see differently, to see beyond the assumed normalcy of the world.

It points to our struggle to perceive realities beyond the confines of ‘common sense’, the commonality of common sense always an assumption yet not often one sensible.

It points to the gospel call to follow life despite death, to embody the story of life which, in part, is the refusal to die before death.

It points to the mystery of life, death, and resurrection.

This is the mystery which confronts the disciples and all of us.

This is the mystery of which the church is birthed – so I hope and pray...

This mystery is an ancient memory but not one without idiosyncrasies, certainly Matthew’s and perhaps ours.

Matthew remembers the rebuke of Peter, he remembers Jesus’ teaching of the risk he will undertake, of the likelihood of suffering, and the real possibility of death.

As Matthew continues the story, he remembers further teachings and healings; he remembers the last supper; he remembers the betrayal, the arrest and the death of Jesus and he tells of the resurrection and of encounters with the risen one.

But while recounting the story as faithfully as he can, Matthew can’t let go of the hope for his understanding of justice, that the perpetrators will receive their just rewards, that the scales will be balanced, that those who punished an innocent, perhaps one sent by god, will themselves be punished, that those responsible - the evildoers - will stand before the judgement seat of god.

"For the Human One is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.”⁴      (Matthew 16:27)

And let’s be honest, many agree with Matthew’s hope and I have a hunch almost all of us secretly do.

Matthews’ hopes seem fair, they feel right.

Having suffered, Matthew is angry, his anger gives rise to the need for vindication and vindication so easily slides into a certain vindictiveness.

But do we not also similarly respond?

Consider 9/11 and its aftermath.

Consider the responses in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan; consider the responses on the borders between Israel and the West Bank or Russia and the Ukraine; consider the responses between the West and ISIS or how issues of race, gender, orientation and identity are often framed.

Consider, if this is not too pointed a comment, the entire Trump presidency.

And we do know that the list could go on and move uncomfortably close to home.

Truth to tell, Matthew’s anger, his need for vindication and his vindictiveness is often also ours!

That we feel the need for retribution is perhaps not surprising as we have been deeply enculturated, so deeply, that what is, in fact, a learned response seems natural and normal; after all, isn’t it ‘natural/normal’ to react to suffering and hurt with a desire for retributive justice, for payback?

While the fairness of retribution may seem obvious, perhaps we should remember that it is but an easy journey for retribution to take an aura of holiness, the allure of ‘justice’…

Perhaps we should pause, reconsidering our feeling driven thoughts…

Perhaps we should notice the shifts occurring due to such thoughts…

Perhaps we should notice what has happened with the story of Jesus, that memory has been altered, the narrative shifted; consciously or unconsciously, we have shaped god to reflect the actions of Pharaoh or Caesar or whatever leader…

Our hurt and anger at the betrayal and execution of the one sent by god triggers deeply held responses, responses often projected with disastrous results…

Consequently, those who assault the prince of peace should be punished; they should be held to account and suffer divine judgment.

And so, feeling justified, we call on god to issue judgment, to sit in the divine tribunal and separate the sheep and the goats ⁵. And of course, we are not goats, unless goat is an acronym for ‘Greatest Of All Time’.

Now, having cast god after the image of Caesar, we believe that god will act accordingly.

The capricious ways of the gods become the way of god - god’s reign is now rightly retributive; we now believe that justice demands vindication, that god’s holiness requires it, that god’s love is a righteous and, dare I say, a vindictive love, in fact righteousness has a necessary vindictiveness.

But, while it may feel right, sensible, what of the one who says, “I will be what I will be’? (See Exodus 3:14)

Is not god beyond our naming and control?

And what of the unconditionally loving ‘Abba’ who ‘rains on good and bad alike’? (See Matthew 5:45)

What of the one who seeks the lost, blesses those who mourn, heals the sick and forgives the prodigal?

What of the one who says, ‘love your enemy’? (See Matthew 5:43-48)

Perhaps in our rush to ‘justice’ we have confused our ‘feelings’ with the will of god…

Perhaps we need to cease acting (reacting) solely based on our feelings…

Perhaps, as we read last week, we need to think with sober judgment’… (See Romans 12:3)

Perhaps we need to pause, to be silent, to meditate, pause for deeper conversation…

Perhaps we need to consider that the one who said, ‘love your enemy’ was not making a tactical suggestion to win over our enemies.

Perhaps ‘love your enemy’ is more than a means to an end.

Perhaps ‘love your enemy’ is its’ own end…

Perhaps the one who says, ‘love your enemy’ was inviting the new eyes and new ears of god’s reign…

Perhaps the one who says, ‘love your enemy’ was inviting that transformation spoken of last week…

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God--what is good and acceptable and perfect.                                         (Romans 12:2)

Perhaps, neither denying nor giving in to our feelings⁶, we can let god be god – the one who will be what god will be...

Perhaps we can find our identity without stepping all over the holy ground of ‘I am’ - ‘I am’ who acts differently than Pharaoh or Caesar or whatever leader...

Perhaps we can be a community grounded in the transformative story and worship of god whose ways are not our ways but whose ways enigmatically work with, within our ways.⁷

Perhaps, neither denying nor giving in to our feelings for vindication, vengeance, retributive justice, we can risk the punishments of the civilized and be willing to lose our life for the commonwealth of god. (See Matthew 16:24-25)

Perhaps we can continue to learn to love despite the sufferings of life…

Perhaps we can continue to learn to love within the realities of death…

Perhaps shouldering the cross, perhaps losing our life, we can find it or as Paul says:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.* 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;* do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves…20No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…’ 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.                                                                                                              (See Romans 12:9-21)

 ¹ It is most difficult to ascertain what Jesus knew of his future. While he almost certainly did not know the details of his death, it reasonably certain that Jesus knew the very real risk of going to Jerusalem and went anyway.

  ² See Mark 8:31-9:1; Luke 9:22-27

 ³ ‘I will be what I will be’ is haunted by the translation ‘god who may be’; ‘god perhaps’ spooks the divine ‘name’.

⁴  For Matthew’s desire for divine judgment see also 8:12; 23:32-36; 5:22; 7:19; 13:40, 42, 50; 16:27; 18:8; 25:41, 46 to name but a few.

 ⁵ See Matthew 25:31-46 in which all the world now receives the winnowing of judgment - talk about a slippery slope!

 ⁶ This, while difficult to do, is essential to the way of Jesus. While work, it is faithful and transformative work.

 ⁷ It is hoped that the church can return to being a community so grounded in the story of Jesus, the worship of the holy and the practices of the faith that it can absorb the sufferings of life and creatively re-think, work with and re-direct our responses.

 You may recognize that I have omitted a couple of verses which speak of vengeance and the heaping coals on the heads of others (See Romans 12:19b and 12:20b). To my mind, these lines speak to the dominance of our fears, the allure of vengeance as well as the pernicious presence of love as a tactic, as a means to an end. Paul caught a great deal of Jesus’ vision but perhaps not all. But then, why should Paul be any different than the rest of us?