Looking Through the Cross

Notes for a sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 at Holy Trinity Anglican Church (Strathcona) on Sunday, March 4, 2018.

What do we see when we look at the cross?

2000px-Coa_Illustration_Cross_Easter.svg.pngI am sure that everyone of us would answer this question in differing personal, theological, and spiritual terms. I am no less sure that we here today share something in how we behold the cross. After all, it has been the principal symbol of our faith since the 4th century. We know about Jesus’ death on the cross. We decorate many of our churches with crosses of all descriptions. Some of us make the sign of the cross. Many people wear crosses on their persons.

The cross is all around us. When a symbol is so all-pervasive, it can become a constant reminder of the reality behind it or … sad to say, it can become wallpaper. We live with it, but it rarely affects us.

When Paul came to Corinth, he did not come carrying a cross, but rather bearing “the message about the cross.” Some people received the message he proclaimed, but many others dismissed it.

Depending upon their background, they heard Paul’s message as a “stumbling block” or simply “foolishness.”

Foolishness? If you expect your God to be a mighty and victorious warrior, immortal and invincible, proclaiming the divinity of a person who died a shameful death is nonsensical. “Real” Gods don’t do that kind of thing!

Stumbling block? If you expect your Messiah to be visibly blessed and honored by God, the assertion that a victim of crucifixion is the Christ is outrageous. More than that, it is scandalous, in the Hebrew sense that it is heard as something that causes a person to sin. (Note that our word “scandal” comes from the Greek for “stumbling block” — skandalon.)

Whichever way people heard it, the actual story of the cross of Christ was clear and immediate to the people of Corinth—a city of the Roman Empire, a regime which kept the peace through violence and intimidation. Rome’s ultimate means of punishment was crucifixion, which was reserved for the worst enemies of the state. In 2018 it is an act about which we must remind ourselves, but in the year 50 in Corinth, it was a common presence in people’s lives. No one needed to be told what it meant.

And today? Can we still be scandalized by the cross? Do we ever see it as mere foolishness? I would suggest that the answer to both questions is “yes,” in the wider world to be sure, but also among folk who are seeking to follow Jesus.

Our Thursday morning study group has just read a book by the late Christopher Lind, entitled “Rumors of a Moral Economy.” Lind wrote of how contemporary society is dominated by a competition-driven economy, which when allowed to function without restraint leads to greater and greater concentration of wealth, and a diminution of the common good.

In pure competition, there are only winners and losers: a system at best indifferent to human needs. In a competition-driven world, proclaiming Christ crucified can easily be heard as exalting a loser.

Lind’s book also pointed to how a moral economy must be rooted in community and a sense of the common good. When community breaks down (as it easily does in a purely competitive situation), people become isolated, and spiritual needs often end up being expressed in questions about what God can do for us. When faith is all about meeting our own needs, nothing less than a totally divine saviour will do, and then we stumble over the idea that Jesus ended his life rejected by all. Some of them will say, “Well, Jesus really was God, so the crucifixion didn’t really matter.” This is an ancient heresy, called “Docetism,” the belief that Jesus only seemed to be human.

Make no mistake: Jesus was as human as you and me. He ate and drank, he slept, he wept, he felt all the things we do. And just as surely, he died as all of us will in our own time.

Jesus gave up his life on the cross to reveal the power and the wisdom of God—already embodied in his own person.

As Paul wrote:

… though he was in the form of God,
   (he) did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.                                       (Philippians 2:6-8)

The cross defies any ordinary human explanation. There’s no logical deduction, no “standard wisdom,” no simple text-book answer that leads us to the truth of the message Paul brought to Corinth.

God’s power and glory is revealed here, not in a mighty triumph, but in the death of one who was sinless, who gave up his life as a holy sacrifice on behalf of all of God’s people. It is the ultimate act of self-identification with us: all whom Jesus came to redeem.

So: what do we see when we look at the cross?

Let me rephrase the question: what do we see not when we look AT the cross, but when we look THROUGH it?

It is not so much the cross that should demand our attention, but the reality that lies behind and beyond it: the loving-kindness of the God who loved us into being, who loved us enough to send his Son, and who loves us and all humanity every day of our lives.

Let us then hold the cross before us.

Let us see in and through it how Jesus laid down his life for us, in the ultimate and defining act of love, in words from the 1st letter of John.

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.                                                    (1 John 3:16)

And Jesus said

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (John 15:12)

The message of the cross is the power of God, and the power of God is love. May this be our proclamation in word and deed, today and always.

Amen.

Promises made, promises not kept

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about promises. We find them in all kinds of situations and relationships: marriages, employment, politics, just to name the first three that come to mind. We make many promises in life, and many of us are very aware of making promises that we could not keep. That’s a very human thing.

A promise is an interesting thing. It’s a statement that we will do something in the future. Some are conditional, as in “I’ll do such-and-such if you do thus-and-so.” Others are unconditional, as in “I’ll do such-and-such, come what may.” Conditional promises are the ordinary day-to-day stuff of business. Contracts are essentially bilateral promises: “We will let you have this car for the next 2 years, as long as you keep up your lease payments.” Letting down our side of the promise empowers the other party to invoke whatever penalty or escape clauses there are in the contract. Miss too many car payments, lose your car. It’s pretty simple. Most of us understand conditional promises quite well.

promise.jpg

Unconditional promises are another thing entirely. In the rites of the Anglican Church of Canada, marriage and ordination vows are both unconditional. The ordinand or spouse makes certain promises about future behaviour, without any conditions or implied penalty clauses. The sad fact is, however, that many people approach these unconditional promises as if they were conditional. I’ve seen that in a number of weddings at which I have officiated. Maybe not at the weddings, but certainly in the later history of the couples. There’s no need to cite particular cases, because I am sure that most of us know people who have approached their marriage vows this way.

As for ordinations, in our church candidates make a whole slew of promises. [You can read them on pages 646-7 (for priests) or 655-6 (for deacons) in the Book of Alternative Services  for the actual promises.] The content of the promises is one thing. The nature of the promises is another. When I was ordained priest, the preacher explicitly used the imagery of marriage to talk about our new relationship with the Church. The promises are unconditional, except as implied in the final exhortation from the Bishop:

May the Lord who has given you the will to do these things give you the grace and power to perform them.

To which the ordinand replies, “Amen.”

What happens when marriage or ordination vows are broken? In the first case, all kinds of personal and relational damage: broken homes, damaged children, financial ruin, injury, and even death. In the second case, the results are sometimes less clear. When a priest or deacon strays from the ordination vows, the resulting hurts may be less immediate, but they can be deep and long-lasting in a community which has relied on his or her pastoral guidance.

Clergy are only human, and the church is a human institution, but both are supposed to be dedicated to the goal of building God’s Kingdom. As a friend describes it, that’s the way things are supposed to be, while we live in the world of the way things are.

Clergy failings happen, but they create all sorts of difficulties among God’s people, hindering rather than building up the Kingdom.

But let’s not forget that clergy are one party to an implied promise, between congregation and cleric. When clergy receive a call from a new parish, the parish is implicitly making a promise about what the relationship entails. This is spelled out in the rites for Celebration of a New Ministry in the Canadian “Book of Occasional Celebrations.” There is an implied contract between congregation and minister, which is actually made specific in the Canons of the General Synod (see especially Canons XVII, XVIII & XIX), and the various Diocesan Canons and policies which apply.

Parishes and clergy make reciprocal promises, but at times the promises are treated as conditional, as in, “We’ll have you as our priest/pastor/minister (choose your preferred language!), as long as you behave yourself, treat us right, and we’re able to pay you according to scale.” Other promises can be made in the course of clergy search processes, sometimes implying that the parish is something other than what it is. That’s deception, whether or not it is intentional!

Let’s go back to marriage. Deception about the true state of things is grounds for declaring a marriage null and void, resulting in an “annulment” in the language of the civil courts. Our church’s Canon on Marriage gives extensive grounds for such a declaration. (See section III of Canon XXI in the Canons of the General Synod.) Some years ago, I had occasion to process such an application for a woman who was sure that what she had entered into was no marriage. I was gratified to learn that the courts of the church agreed with her. Her supposed spouse had deceived her about his nature and his intentions in entering into the covenant of marriage. It was a hugely painful process to work through it with her, but there was much healing in the result.

Broken promises made conditionally are relatively easy to deal with. Broken promises made unconditionally are much harder problems. Marriages, ordinations, and appointment of clergy are the examples that I have had cause to think about recently. They are all modeled on promises God made to the people of God, the covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, which lead us to the New Covenant made with Jesus.

promiseOfTheDayJesus promised “I am with you always.” We strive to be always with those we love, whether spouses, the Church, or congregations. We fail at times. May we find loving ways of dealing with our failures, and the failures of those we love.

quotes-and-poems-awesome-6

The last, and perhaps most important, question is what to do about broken promises. I have no great solution at hand. Broken promises break all sorts of things, estrange people, make enemies, cause hurts, damage lives. Sometimes reconciliation is in view, sometimes not. What I do know is that reconciliation is the ministry that Christ left to his people.

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  (2 Cor 5:18-19)

Under Authority

Notes for a sermon on Luke 7:1-10, preached on May 29, 2016 at Holy Trinity Anglican Church (early service)
and Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church (English service).

ACofC logoELCiC logo

About 15 years ago, on a beautiful Sunday morning in July, I walked with the rest of the Diocese of Edmonton’s General Synod delegation from the Waterloo University residences to the university arena. There we joined with other Anglicans and Lutherans from every part of Canada, and many people from the area around. We joined in a grand and joyful celebration, during the course of which Archbishop Michael Peers and National Bishop Telmor Sartisan signed what is now known as the Waterloo Declaration. Since that time, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada have been in Full Communion. [Pastor Jason’s] [My] presence here today is one of the fruits of that relationship. Trinity Lutheran and Holy Trinity Anglican have been working at building a relationship based on Waterloo.

The years leading up to that day were a time of dialogue between our churches, beginning with discussion among theologians, moving out into the dioceses and synods, and eventually into congregations. In my first charge, I was delighted to share a celebration of shared communion with the neighbouring Lutheran congregation. A few years later, in a different community, after the release of the proposed Waterloo Declaration, I participated with parishioners in a study of the proposed text, along with counterparts from the Lutheran congregation from just down the street.

We had very good discussions over four weeks, but things came to a head when a man from the Lutheran congregation said that this was all very interesting, but what difference would it make to their church? I told him that if their Pastor received another call, and they were in the call process, they would be free to call me if they so desired. “But… but… you are not Lutheran!” was his spluttered response. Aha!

So… what is this all about?

One several levels, it’s about authority, which is one of the underlying themes of today’s Gospel reading. It appears to be a simple story: Jesus is interrupted (something that happens all the time in his ministry) and asked to go to heal the slave of a centurion. Without actually meeting the slave or his master, Jesus effects the healing from a distance. A miracle!

We could leave it there, rejoicing in Jesus’ mastery over the forces of evil and disease. But let’s take a closer look at the story, and especially at the centurion, the second most important character, even though he never appears.

He’s quite a surprising character. The fact that he paid for the synagogue in Capernaum sets him apart immediately as a friend to the people whose land his army is occupying. He is a soldier with a heart, who cares deeply for his sick slave. He recognizes Jesus as a holy man who can help him. He knows enough about Jewish customs and beliefs not to risk defiling Jesus with his physical presence, or asking him into his house. What he has done has already pushed the boundaries of ordinary expectations.

Jesus’ response also pushes those boundaries. His ability to heal the sick is not constrained by space, ethnicity, or social status. Rather, he reaches out to someone beyond his community who recognizes Jesus’ authority, when the centurion declares:

For I also am a man set under authority…

Although he is set under authority, and wields it over others, the centurion’s power is limited. He can’t heal his slave without appealing to Jesus’ authority. Jesus likewise is “set under authority,” doing the will of his Father in heaven in bringing healing to this world.

“Authority” has a particular meaning in the New Testament. It is associated with power—the ability to do things—but it is more than that. Having authority implies the legal or moral right to exercise power, which means that the power and the right come from elsewhere. The centurion has authority under the rules of the Roman Empire and its army. Jesus’ authority comes from God alone.

After the Resurrection, Jesus committed his authority to proclaim and to build the Reign of God to his disciples. We read in John 20:21

Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’

We are the inheritors of Jesus’ authority, and so we are called to exercise that authority in the knowledge of its source. It comes ultimately from God, through Jesus, through the apostles, down the ages in the Church with all its historical twists and turns, to us today, in this building in this city in this year.

Authority brings responsibility. Power can never be left idle. Having the ability to do good demands of us that we actually do good. Power must also be exercised rightly. The moral or legal right to do things does not mean that whatever we do is the right thing.

It is no accident that the Church has devoted a huge amount of energy over the centuries to the matter of authority. It goes back right into the New Testament, beginning in Acts, when the eleven remaining apostles added Matthias to their number, only after making certain that he had the right history. Later the Church in Jerusalem needed to check Paul’s credentials before agreeing that his mission could continue. First Timothy contains a detailed list of qualifications for a bishop.

In today’s Church, as both Lutherans and Anglicans have received it, we give great attention to authorizing people to the ministry of word and sacrament. For both communions, these are crucial matters. Article VII of the Augsburg Confession says this:

The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.

You can find almost the same words in Article XIX of the (Anglican) Articles of Religion.

We spend a huge amount of our institutional energy in trying to ensure that the people who lead our congregations—both lay and ordained—are properly authorized. Some people may view that at as a waste of time, but I would submit that it is of utmost importance. Jesus was “under authority.” He left his church under the same authority. We are under God’s authority, called to help build God’s kingdom in this world.

May all our doings, corporate and individual, display our commitment to doing our Lord’s will.

Amen.

A new ___ ?

Some time in the ’90’s, the Rev. Loren B. Mead led a clergy conference for the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton. He had graciously agreed to come on a reduced fee, but we did not receive a discounted conference. Far from it — I recall it as one of the best of the various clergy conferences I attended while in parish ministry. I don’t recall much of the specific conference topics, and I have long since lost my notes from it, but one thing stands out.

In the final session, after recapping the major areas of discussion, Mead left us with “twelve truths” for ministry. Some of them were explicitly about church issues, but several could be applied very generally. The one that made the most immediate sense to me at the time was:

“A new ___ won’t solve all your problems.”

shutterstock_101551237When I posted this on Facebook without any referent, all sorts of people responded with either a question about what the blank represented, or their own suggestion for filling it in. The thing is, they’re all right in their own ways. What Mead was getting at in the original context (or so I heard it) was the tendency for people to latch onto a single solution for complex problems.

At the time of the conference, I was well into my second parish charge. When I arrived there, the Bishop told me to get them a building quickly, because the issue threatened to tear the congregation apart. There were a few people who resisted the whole idea of having our own building instead of the rented space we were using, but most of them were utterly fixated on getting into our own church. “It’ll be better once we get our building” was the mantra, spoken in a variety of ways, but always with the same subtext: all the problems of the congregation would be fixed by a building.

Wrong!

We did get into our own building, less than 3 years after my arrival in the parish, but the hordes of new people many were expecting never materialized. Rather, several families who had worked hard on the building project started to drift away from the church. Our income dropped by 10% in the first year, while the building occupancy costs drove the budget up by 20%. It was true that we had space to meet, we could advertise a fixed location, and we could set our service time without bumping into another congregation. But… (there’s always a “but,” isn’t there?) people’s energy levels were low. Years of working on a project had taken its toll. The new building didn’t solve all the problems — it merely helped with some existing ones, and brought along a whole set of new ones.

It took some time, but by the time I left there, the parish had managed to put its edifice complex behind it, and was beginning to behave like a missional church.

I had an analogous experience in my first charge, where I was the first resident cleric in 20 years. They had worked hard to become self-supporting once again, instead of being linked to the parish in the neighbouring town. A lot of hope was pinned on having me there, which I didn’t really wake up to until my first annual meeting, about 7 months in. One man said, “We thought the church would come to life again, and the Sunday School would be full like it was in the ’50’s.” The new priest was to be the solution to all their problems, leading them straight ahead into a glorious past. Those expectations were just as misplaced as the expectations around my next charge’s building. During my time there, we made a number of advances together, but the unrealistic expectations around my presence in an ageing congregation could never quite be overcome.

I have also seen this kind of magical thinking at work in all sorts of places inside and outside the church — enough material here to fill a small book! It appears to be happening to some extent in my former diocese, which has been through some very difficult times. A new Bishop is now taking office, and some of my acquaintances appear to me to have placed all their hope on him. I wish him and them well: they have a huge task ahead of them. Nonetheless, a change of leadership, while often very important, will not by itself solve all the problems of the diocese, nor of any other organization.

DSC_0011Individuals often fall prey to this tendency. Clergy (of whom I know quite a few!) can fall into the trap of thinking that a new charge will be the solution to their vocational and professional problems. It’s known as the “geographical cure” among some bishops of my acquaintance. It rarely works, because moving a cleric in burnout simply moves his or her problems from one place to another.

“A new ___ won’t solve all your problems.”

You can fill in your own blanks according to your situation. I’m certain it will be appropriate for you. Whatever happens, let it be a warning not to place all your hope in one solution, expecting a magical solution. There’s no magic on tap! In Christian theological terms, we might call it “pseudo-Messianic thinking,” looking for a new Messiah when the truth is we have one already. Following the true Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, is the only real solution, as long as we don’t treat God like a kind of fairy godmother. Rather, the solution to problems is to be found in hard work, careful consideration of issues, working to change things that we can change, and turning what we can’t change over to God.


Note: I intend no offense to anyone in my former parishes or diocese. If any is taken, I apologize. Things are what they are, and this is my experience and my own opinion.

 

 

I am an Anglican

I am an Anglican. It’s a historical faith, born out of the strife of the 16th century, committed by that strife to reach out to all people, bringing them into the reach of the love of God. We follow Jesus of Nazareth, who embraced the whole world by his death on the cross, and redeemed all humanity by that ultimate act of love.

In my early years in the church, I learned to love its ways — liturgy, scripture, prayer and service. In my latter years, I have come to question its historical identification of the Gospel with a particular cultural and ethnic orientation. Even though my forebears in this church have made errors, I stand with those today whose commitment to a new and Christ-like way of being are calling this Communion into God’s future.

We are a Church that has been in constant Reformation for almost 600 years, as we have striven to open our doors to all people in the name of Christ. Sometimes that has been successful, sometimes not. Sometimes the work we have done has borne appropriate witness to our Lord, sometimes not.

We are human, and like all humanity can only seek to follow Jesus in all or humanity.

This a warts-and-all church. Thanks be to God.