“What I Did On My Summer Vacation”

Apartment building exterior
The apartment building.
By on October 1, 2022

Editor’s Note: This article is the text of a sermon preached at St. Matthew’s Cathedral on Sunday, September 4th. Welcome home, Paul! We’re thrilled to have you back.

It has been almost 7 months to the day since I left Brandon in the midst of a record snowstorm and flew from Winnipeg to the heart of central Europe, where I have been based until a few weeks ago.  I promise that I will not subject you to an account of “What I did on my summer vacation,” but the Dean has persuaded me that saying a few words about the past months might be not a waste of your time.

Let me begin by saying that without exception, in the six countries I visited, I was treated everywhere with kindness and generosity, even by those whose own lives were hemmed in by many difficulties.   Each day we see in the news the foolish and indeed wicked things that some people are doing in the world.  It is easy to see this as the inevitable norm. But there are Good Samaritans everywhere, and the crisis of Covid and the shadow of war have not hardened their hearts. There are many stories that demonstrate this: here is one.

While in Beirut I slipped and fell in the hotel bathroom during one of the frequent blackouts that hit the city.  This is in itself no big deal, but when I returned to my home base in the Czech Republic I was in increasing discomfort and finally had to go to the hospital in an ambulance with lights flashing and siren wailing.  When I got out, I was flat on my back, lying in my apartment, friends and family thousands of miles away.  Two women from the university where I was working, one a secretary, and the other a junior faculty member, came to see me.  They brought food and medicine, cooked me a meal, and kept me company. As I lay there, I could see the words of Matthew 25:36 in front of my eyes:  I was sick and you came to visit me.”

These women would not accept repayment for the things they brought.  I call them my “Czech Angels.”  A third, different sort of “Angel” is the Chair of the university department that hosted me.  Tall as a grenadier, with a persuasive tone of voice, he made it clear to staff when I was once more in a hospital emergency room, that the “Professor from Canada” required attention, and then kept me amused in the waiting area until my turn came.

So much for angels.  But along with angels, there are also those who bring war.  It is necessary to speak about two wars, one of years past and one going on now.  

Military checkpoint built of sandbags
A military checkpoint in Beirut, Lebanon

In Beirut a terrible war was fought over thirty years ago, but there are still signs and consequences of it everywhere.  Stoplights do not work, infrastructure is still seriously damaged, and the people struggle from day to day.  This much I expected when I went there.  What I did not expect was the connection of this shattered modern cityscape to the world of the Gospels.  

If you ever get to go to Jerusalem, you will see unforgettable things, whether it’s the shadowy Via Dolorosa or the inspiring Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  But what you will not see is the beleaguered, occupied city in which Jesus walked and taught.  Jerusalem today is a major tourist destination, a place that, while in a danger zone, is most likely to be preserved because of the many financial and political interests that need it to be preserved.  Beirut has no such protectors.  It is a city that has known violence and destruction, much of which is still shockingly visible, and whose inhabitants worry about further violence and destruction. In this way modern Beirut’s inhabitants resemble the people whom Jesus encountered in Jerusalem. They worried about their families, about further danger to their city, and they were not wrong to have this worry, for as we know, four decades after Jesus’ ministry, Jerusalem was completely destroyed by the Romans.  I had not expected to make this connection, but it now seems to me that in order to understand better the Jerusalem of Jesus’ time, I had to go to the Beirut of today. 

In Beirut I also had a curious experience which, upon reflection, seems a metaphor for much bigger things.  I had gone to Beirut to look at an old manuscript preserved in a library there. The librarians, like everyone else in that city, were more than helpful, and when my business there was done, I decided for some reason to walk back to my hotel. I’d gone along for some time when I found myself ascending a road with huge coils of concertina wire on each side; at the top was a small doorway in the middle of what looked like a high steel wall, with armed guards.  

I thought, Paul, this was a poor choice of route!   Going forward seemed like risking detention or worse.  But turning back and walking down the hill seemed like an even better way to attract the guards’ attention.  So, after a flutter of real fear,  I kept going, a solitary, bespectacled man, a foreigner, briefcase in hand.  I walked right through the gate and got back to my hotel.  It probably doesn’t sound like much in the telling, but it was a reminder of the words of Matthew 7:7 – “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”

There is also a war going on in Europe right now, the biggest war on that continent in almost 80 years.  Let me tell you what I have learned about this war. We in the English-speaking world tend to hear one version of things.  The Ukrainians defending their homeland have demonstrated valour, resolve and resourcefulness for which they deserve always to be remembered.  But we in North America can easily forget that the struggle in Ukraine is not merely between Ukraine and Russia, one of which must “win.”  Rather than only asking whether Ukraine or Russia is “winning,” we should also be asking if Vladimir Putin is winning, which is quite a different question.  Throughout history there have been dictators who sent their soldiers into other peoples’ countries to kill—and to die– and have brought their own countries to the brink of destruction.  But the leaders themselves often do not suffer—they may even prosper.   It is more than possible that Russia will in some ways “lose” this war, but that Mr. Putin will still be the real winner, having established an even tighter grip over his people and having amassed even greater riches, while elevating his prestige among those who admire bullies and tyrants.  This must never be forgotten.

Now comes the hardest part of the things I want to tell you about.  Each of us strives to be Christian, and each of us is a fallible human being.   Among our brethren in the Orthodox Christian world is a great turmoil and controversy because the Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill, has endorsed and praised this war, not the least because he sees it as a way of keeping recognition and acceptance of gay and transgender people out of his home country, Russia.  I cannot say if his motivation is primarily an innate hatred of those who are different from him, or whether he is cowed or co-opted by the regime in Russia—or if all these things play a role in his public pronouncements.         

I also acknowledge that it is very easy to criticize the actions of Vladimir Putin while in the middle of Manitoba, thousands of miles from the Kremlin, but nonetheless, Kirill’s actions—which have been rejected and denounced by many Orthodox clergy—remind us of the grave dangers of rendering unto Caesar far more than is his due.  

The risk of perverting the real message of the Gospel is not a particularly Russian problem. It is found everywhere.  Patriotism or paranoia may lead us to reject mercy, love and acceptance.  The lure of being close to those in power can be very seductive.  Again, the seventh chapter of Matthew sets forth the truth: “…strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” 

Perhaps this may seem too hard, but sometimes if we know the direction we should go, and just keep going, we can pass along the narrow way, and through the straight gate.  And perhaps in this journey upward, there is just a bit of resemblance to this path and gate to the door at the top of the fortified hill in Beirut that one simply has to be brave – or foolish– enough to keep walking straight through. 



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