35 and counting…

Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton, Alberta
May 29, 2020, the Seventh Sunday of Easter

When the Rector asked me to cover services this Sunday, I said “Sure”, and than looked at my calendar and realized it was the 7th Sunday of Easter, only two days before May 31. 35 years ago, the 7th Sunday of Easter fell on May 31, when I was ordained a Deacon. (It was also the night that the Edmonton Oilers won their 3rd Stanley Cup, so I can take no credit for the street party outside afterwards.) When I realized what the day was, I told the Rector that I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on my time in ordained ministry, and she quickly agreed.

Then I looked at the readings and came up against the closing portion of Jesus’ “high-priestly prayer” from John’s Gospel. As John tells it, these are the last words Jesus spoke to his disciples before his death, praying for those who will come after “that they may be one.” That’s us!

When I was involved in campus ministry as an undergraduate (U. of Alberta, B.Sc. ’69), the big thing was the Ecumenical Movement, after Rome had started to open its doors through Vatican II. I recall starry-eyed students – yours truly included – running around proclaiming unity, singing “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” and expecting organic unity among the churches – soon! By the time I was ordained, I knew that organic unity was a pipe dream, but I still had some hope for all Christians to be one. I still hold that hope after 35 years, but the history of these years has been very mixed in this respect, even within the Anglican Church.

There’s been a lot of change. For some people, the best change is no change at all. Others say we have not changed nearly enough. What I do know is that change is inevitable. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus held that “impermanence is the characteristic feature of the world,” which certainly rings true for me. It has certainly been true in the Anglican world in recent years.

It’s hard to proclaim unity among Christians when our own church has seen divisions, mostly arising from changes in the church which some people reject. One predates my ordination, the ordination of women to the priesthood and later to the episcopacy. The Anglican Church of Canada first ordained female priests in 1979, and some clergy and laity responded by moving to Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy. It was an issue for some of my classmates during my time at seminary. It remains an issue for some today, even at Holy Trinity. For me, it has been one of the most positive changes in our church in the past half-century, bringing a new wholeness to our understanding of Christian ministry.

Another change which I regard as positive, but which has led to division in our ranks, is in gender and sexuality issues. As we have moved toward fuller inclusiveness in welcome, ordination, and marriage, some people who disagreed have gone elsewhere, including establishing a parallel Anglican Church. Some others stay, but reluctantly.

A big positive: the development of a closer relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. Again, some saw this as negative, but for me, it was long overdue. When our two churches sat down to talk, we quickly discovered that we agreed on almost everything and had done for centuries. We used different theological languages, and came at church order from different directions, but these proved easy to deal with. I was privileged to be a delegate to General Synod 2001, and to take part in the great celebration of the signing of the Full Communion agreement. I doubt that I’ll ever forget seeing our Primate and the Lutheran National Bishop dancing together around the arena in Waterloo. Our two churches have been enriched by this relationship, a visible sign of being one as Christ prayed for us.

Shortly after my ordination, we began to be aware of the issues around Residential Schools, a subject about which I had been woefully ignorant. As lawsuits began to pile up, there was some real fear that our whole institutional structure would collapse if we didn’t properly address the matter. Our Primate gave an apology to the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples’ Sacred Circle in 1993, opening the door to the work of healing and reconciliation. Since that time, we have become more aware of our colonial history and its effects on indigenous people. Healing and reconciliation will take years – well beyond my lifetime! – but we are on the road towards being one with our indigenous brothers and sisters.

One place where change has been at best mixed is our response to sexual abuse and harassment within the church. In times past everything was left up to Bishops’ discretion, but it became clear that this was inadequate, at times leading to greater harm. (The pattern of moving offending clergy to other parishes is not solely the province of the Roman Catholic Church. It has happened in the ACC. Most dioceses now have policies and procedures in place, but they lack consistency across the church, and a tendency to protect the institution before the victims persists. The “#ACCToo” issue is the most recent and visible example, dealing with how our national office handled a draft story intended for the Anglican Journal, potentially identifying victims when confidentiality had been assured. An open letter circulated around the national church, gathering hundreds of signatures, calling for accountability and for care for the complainants. The Primate responded in an interview on CBC News. I found her words less than helpful, but I do understand that the situation is still unfolding. Assurances that steps are being taken to ensure that it won’t happen again are not enough when people have been hurt. We have made some positive changes here, but much remains to be done.

That’s a bit of a downer, but now let’s look at one of the most positive areas of change – the growing understanding of the church as “missional.”

I served in three parishes before retiring. Two of those had long histories, and their understanding of the church had been deeply shaped by history. One was characterized by the “chaplaincy model,” seeing their role as ministering to people like them – mostly of British heritage. The other had played a big role in local history, and people looked back to the glorious past when the church was full and there were 200 children in Sunday School. I’m not criticizing them, rather observing that their sense of mission had been formed through many years of ministry practises that seemed to me to no longer fit the societal situation.

What I have experienced in other places and very much at Holy Trinity is a growing sense of the church as missional – existing for the benefit of others, not just those who are “on the list.” There will always be echoes of our history, but I don’t find it driving our agenda. The agenda continues to evolve. In some ways, the pandemic has been a blessing, forcing us to find new ways to be the Church, but God’s mission is still the same, as Jesus handed it to his disciples on the night before his death.

The church of 2022 is facing some huge challenges. With the Holy Spirit as our guide, we may move forward contributing our share of God’s mission in this world. Things won’t ever again be the same – but that’s always been true.

It has been a joy and a privilege – and at times a great challenge – to be part of the changes of the past 35 years. I do not expect to see the next 35 to their completion. But I am certain they will happen, and I believe that God will be glorified in God’s people.

May we all be one.

Amen.

The economy of Grace

Some years ago I spent a few weeks volunteering full-time at Edmonton’s Bissell Centre, an agency which exists to help the city’s underprivileged people. One of the programs they had was a work exchange program. People could call the Centre looking for day laborers, and the Centre would send workers out as they were available. On occasional days there was more work than people, but mostly there were people left behind after all the jobs had been allotted. Some worked, others did not.

The Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for September 20 always reminds me of this program. The parable of the workers in the vineyard begins with a farmer needing to bring in his crops. He goes to the town square and finds people available for a day’s work. He hires some and leaves the others behind. Perhaps he grew fearful that the work would not all be done that day, so he returns to the square three times to get more workers, even recruiting some unlucky folk who had hung around until five o’clock because no-one else would hire them. It’s a pretty simple and predictable story — so far!

The twist (there’s always a twist in a parable) comes at the end of work when he doles out payment to the workers. To the astonishment of all and the anger of the early birds, he pays everyone the same amount – one denarius, a normal day’s wage.

The Workers in the Vineyard | The Catholic Word

Now, as my grandson would say, “How is that fair?” Surely there should be equal pay for equal work, and the late comers should not get the same as the first hired. But no, the farmer pays a day’s wage to everyone.

Here’s the rub, as I see it: the pay of one denarius would allow the worker to feed the family for the day. In this economy everyone gets to eat. There’s a parallel here to the story of the feeding of the 5,000: Jesus shows up, and people get fed. It doesn’t matter what we might have done to earn it, how much labour we might have put in, or anything. God is generous to all, even to those whom we may not believe deserve God’s generosity.

The economy of grace is not nice and neat. It can’t be reduced to an input/output table, or the law of supply and demand. God’s grace is poured out on all. Our economy doesn’t usually work that way. Instead, we put limits on how God’s generosity is apportioned among the populace and are often outraged when someone seems to get what they don’t deserve. Are we similarly outraged when someone doesn’t get what they do deserve? It seems to me that such responses tend to be more muted.

In God’s economy, all are fed, all are treated as deserving of respect, all contribute what they can as they are able.

How should we respond to this divine generosity? Surely not by grumbling about someone else’s good fortune. God has provided for them. Who are we to complain? I am reminded of a verse from “The Servant Song,” one of my favorite hymns:

I will weep when you are weeping,
when you laugh I’ll laugh with you.
I will share your joy and sorrow
till we’ve seen this journey through.

Richard Gillard © Scripture in Song

The journey in and with Christ is not a race with the winner taking home the medal. Rather, it is a journey of fellow-travelers, all seeking each other’s good.

Jesus shows up, and people are fed. Hallelujah!

Three Journeys

Notes for a sermon on Transfiguration Sunday, February 23, 2020  at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton

Today, I invite you to join me on three journeys.

  • From the Hand Hills to the Rockies.

(If it helps your imagination, you may close your eyes.)

Picture a high flat-topped hill, with short grass fields down its sides. You’re looking west, towards the setting sun, and the day is very clear. Looking down the hill, the hillside flattens out into rolling fields. There is a valley visible in the distance, with more farmland beyond. And far, far away, silhouetted against the evening light, is a dark jagged line.

(You can open your eyes now.)

I have stood on that hill, known locally as Mother’s Mountain. It is the highest point of the Hand Hills, northeast of my hometown of Drumheller, the second highest range of hills on the prairies. On a clear day you can see the Rocky Mountains on the horizon, about 200 km away as the crow flies.

Satellite image of the Hand Hills, from Google Maps

To drive from the Hand Hills to the Rockies takes less than 3 hours. The mountains disappear as you leave the hills. You soon come to the valley of the Red Deer River, perhaps travelling down a steep and winding coulee. Across the river, you ascend on a similar route, reaching the prairieland once more, back “up on top,” as valley residents would say. The terrain between Drumheller and Calgary is not flat, but broadly rolling. Places appear ahead in the distance as you crest each hill, only to disappear again as you descend. There is a point in the trip when the Rockies again become visible. Shortly after, they remain in view for the rest of the journey.

As you go, you see ranch land, badlands, farmland, urban areas, and forest. All of them have their attractions. Turning aside for a while to enjoy one of these environments only enhances the journey. In fact, it helps us to see that the journey itself may be more important than the goal. It also reminds us that the journey is best made with others, so that we can help each other enjoy the day in each place where we arrive.

But the goal always lies ahead of us. And as we drive, the goal becomes clearer and clearer. Finally, we reach the Rockies, known from Anthony Henday’s annals as the “Shining mountains.”

  • From Transfiguration to Resurrection

In our revised calendar today is Transfiguration Sunday. Today we remember a strange event recounted in three of the Gospels, when Jesus took three of his closest disciples up “the mountain” where he was revealed in glory, and a voice from heaven declared him God’s beloved Son.

The Transfiguration has an important narrative role in the first three Gospels. The traditional calendar didn’t pay it much mind, fixing it on a August 6, commemorating a 15th-Century battle. The new calendar has put it in its proper context in the Gospel account. In Matthew, it’s the second-last of five mountain events, looking ahead to the final one in Ch. 28, when the Risen Christ sends the disciples out to be his messengers, and to build the Church.

The journey between these two mountains takes us through the last days of Jesus’ life on earth, as he goes to Jerusalem, engages the religious authorities in the temple, and is crucified. This is the journey we remember each year as we approach the most important festival of our faith – Easter. We call the season of this journey Lent, and it begins on Wednesday. We descend into the valley, and then set our face to the mountain of the great promise.

In the early church this period before Easter was the time when catechumens made their final preparation for their baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter. Preparation included disciplines such as prayer and fasting, aimed at strengthening the candidates for the commitment to the life of faith before them. Members of the church would join the candidates in their preparations. The traditional Lenten disciplines reflect this communal commitment. Lent is a journey towards the renewal of our baptismal covenant at the Paschal festival – we remind ourselves of who we are, and where we are headed.

Placing the story of the Transfiguration just before Lent gives us an opportunity to stand on one mountain-top, looking ahead to the next – the shared goal of all the faithful, the Kingdom of God in its fullness.

We climb the mountain with Jesus, beholding him in his already-but-not-yet glory. And then we go to the valley and the plains and we work our way ahead, with the goal always in mind.

The goal lies before us, but – like driving from the Hand Hills to the Rockies – the journey is at least as important as its end. We don’t jump straight to the Resurrection, but rather follow Jesus to Jerusalem, to the cross and the tomb.

  • From Baptism to the Kingdom

We are baptizing today, on this day when we look ahead to the glory to come, when we stand on one mountain with another just in sight.

The candidates may or may not have the shining mountains in view, but those who promise to uphold them in their life in Christ do. It is our responsibility – both sponsors and congregation – to hold that vision before them, to help them to grow into their full stature in Christ. It our responsibility to walk with them on the journey of faith, supporting and upholding them wherever they may find themselves as they go.

The road ahead may not be easy for these young people. We may pray that it will be so, and by God’s grace it may be so. But there is nothing certain, except for the promise that we, like Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, are God’s beloved.

God’s beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, went from the Mount of Transfiguration to the Mount of Commissioning, journeying through trials, tribulations, and testing.

Today, as we move into Lent, in our lives of faith, we journey with Jesus from a glimpse of his glory to its full revelation. The beauty of the journey is that we are with Jesus, with all Jesus’ people here, throughout the world, and across the ages.

We are not alone in this journey. The Shining Mountain of the Resurrection beckons. So come! Let us journey together. The Kingdom – what God wishes for this world – lies before us.

In the name of Jesus, who made this journey first, AMEN.

Believing is Seeing

Notes for a sermon at Holy Trinity Edmonton, April 28, 2019
Text: John 20:19-31

Many of us will be familiar with the adage “seeing is believing,” which may well originate in today’s Gospel story, and is sometimes taken to be the point of the story. I don’t think so. There’s a lot more happening in the story of Thomas’ encounter with the Risen Christ than how we often over-simplify it:

  1. Thomas hears the news from the other disciples and demands visual evidence before he believes.
  2. Jesus appears to Thomas and gives him the proof.
  3. Thomas believes. Seeing is believing. End of story.

Or is it? Has anyone else noticed that there’s a big gap in this story? There are two scenes, a whole week apart. A week can be a very long time: much can happen in seven short days, especially when something like the Resurrection has happened. The text is maddeningly silent about what went on between those two Sundays. We could speculate endlessly, but it seems to me the least likely answer is that “nothing happened”. Things surely happened—for Thomas, for the rest of the Twelve, and for all the disciples who received the Holy Spirit and were sent by Jesus on that first day. When he sent them, did they just sit there? Surely not—I have to believe that they went out from that room and told many people what they had seen and heard. In that week, there would have been time for Thomas to see what was going on, to talk to his companions, to ponder what was happening around him.

What happened when Jesus appeared again with Thomas present? Thomas saw and believed: that much is clear. But he would not have been there at all had he not believed on some level in his friends’ veracity. He knew something had happened, and he had not abandoned the group. He believed—and so he saw! Proof was offered, Thomas believed, and then he made the great acclamation that climaxes John’s Gospel: “My Lord and my God!” Belief in the reality of Jesus’s Resurrection led to this colossal insight. First among his companions, he now saw Jesus as he truly was and is.

Believing became seeing.

Something like this happened recently in the world of science. On April 10 an international team of scientists announced the first successful imaging of a black hole. The existence of these strange objects was first proposed over a century ago as a result of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Half a century ago, when I was an undergraduate taking a course in astrophysics, they were believed to exist, but there was little evidence available. Succeeding years led to more and more evidence, almost to the level of complete proof. The announcement three weeks ago was the culmination of over a decade’s work, involving eight separate observatories and hundreds of people. Looking like a fuzzy yellow-orange doughnut, the image agrees almost exactly with theoretical predictions. Einstein was right!

I could go on at length about the science of black holes, but that’s not where we want to go.

What struck me about this achievement was the team’s dogged determination, and their clear belief that what they were seeking was truly there. If they had not trusted the theory and the mounting body of evidence, they would never had invested so much time and energy (not to say money!) in this arcane quest.

If they had not believed in black holes, they (and we) would never have seen one. Believing led to seeing!

The Risen Christ said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” We can certainly include ourselves in this number.  The fact that we are gathered here today in this place testifies to our belief in the Resurrection – in a variety of ways and understandings, to be sure – and to the church’s continued faithfulness in proclaiming this central truth of the Gospel.

The contemporary Christian writer Diana Butler Bass (in “Christianity After Religion”) has suggested that the church needs to pay more attention to HOW we believe. We’ve been pretty good at enunciating WHAT we believe, in creeds and catechisms, but we have been less effective in putting wheels on the bus.

If we say we believe, what comes next?

What difference does it make in our lives?

Will our proclamation of the Resurrection be anything more than words?

Think of those scientists. They believed in the existence of black holes enough to devote over a decade’s work and many millions of dollars to produce the image they presented to the world. They believed, and so we see.

Friends, belief in the Resurrection can never be just a head game. It has consequences far beyond that upper room, consequences reaching into every aspect of our lives, consequences that give us a wholly new way of seeing the world.

We believe and proclaim that Christ rose from the dead. We affirm that this was not just a “one-off,” but as Paul wrote in 1 Cor 15:20, it is the “first fruits of those who have died.” The promise of the Resurrection is that death will never again have the last word.

Believing in the Resurrection of Jesus is a truly eye-opening event. To the believing eye, the world no longer needs to look like a medieval map, with “here be dragons” on its margins. Rather, we are enabled to see a world destined for renewal and resurrection – a world in which the forces of evil, while still present and active, are fighting a rearguard battle. As Fr. Chris said last Sunday, “We shall overcome,” and we can and should affirm that in our words and our actions.

Believing is seeing—seeing the world as the creation of a good and loving God, seeing death not as defeat but as the next step in God’s renewal of creation, seeing all others as heirs with us of God’s eternal kingdom.

As we believe, so may we see.

As we see, so may we act.

As we act, so may we proclaim.

And may our proclamation always be
“Alleluia! Christ is Risen!”

The Devil Quotes Scripture

Notes for a sermon preached at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Brandon on February 21, 2010, the first Sunday in Lent. Texts: Luke 4:1-13; Ps 91:1-2, 9-16

As I worshiped this morning at Holy Trinity, Old Strathcona (Edmonton), I thought back to this sermon I preached nine years ago.
I believe it has continuing relevance to issues in the church today.

As many people are aware, there has been much turmoil in the Anglican Communion in recent years. If one only followed the secular press, the impression would likely be that the issues centered on sexuality, specifically same-gender relationships. While we should not ignore the significance of “the issue,” we in the church need to pay closer attention to the underlying questions that have served to make the presenting issue such a hot button. Among other issues, there are questions of “theological anthropology”—the doctrine of what it means to be human; questions of ecclesiology—the doctrine about the church; and very importantly, the matter that is my concern today, questions of our understanding and use of scripture.

As we begin the season of Lent, when the discipline of Bible reading and study is specially emphasized, we do well to take a careful look at how we approach the Bible. The first thing we need to observe is that there is no single right way to read scripture, and certainly no definitively Anglican one. The Anglican Communion has recently appointed an international commission to study Anglican use of the Bible. As one commentator noted, if we were all agreed everywhere on our use of the Bible, the commission would be unnecessary.

This morning we heard the traditional Gospel for the first Sunday of Lent, Jesus’ temptations. We could spend much time with the actual temptations. What I instead want to draw our attention to today is the manner of Jesus’ response to the devil—he quotes scripture, citing two texts from Deuteronomy. The devil presents the first two temptations in his own words, but in the third, he turns Jesus’ tactics back at him. The devil quotes scripture!—the very same psalm we used this morning.

Jesus’ response to the third temptation—another text from Deuteronomy—ends the debate. Using one text to counter another shows us very clearly that simply quoting a verse from the Bible never proves anything. If you search hard enough, you should be able to find a text supporting almost any position you want to take on any given issue. Texts taken out of context can be twisted into almost any interpretation we choose, and that is not an appropriate use of scripture. That’s what the devil does in the third temptation, and although Jesus counters the challenge with another verse, what he is really doing is pointing beyond the text to what came before it—God’s own purpose, God’s own ways.

In the temptation story, both Jesus and the devil appear to use scripture in a literal fashion, but Jesus’ final response goes beyond a literal reading to find the deeper reality behind the “plain sense” of the words.

As we open our Bibles seeking to receive God’s word, we should remember that God came before the book, which is written in human language and interpreted by human minds. No language can fully encompass the reality which is God and God’s ways. No written word can ever truly express the Living Word of God. Nonetheless, we rely on “The Good Book” to guide us into a deeper understanding of who God is, and who we are before God. This understanding comes as we live into the words, making them our own, seeking to model our lives on God’s ways, revealed through the pages of scripture, and in the life, work and person of Jesus.

The great 20th-century theologian Karl Barth said that the Bible is not the Word of God, but rather becomes the Word of God when it is interpreted in a community of believers. The interpretation—the meaning of the words—is found in the lives of those who seek by God’s grace to hear the truth within and beneath them. What do our words mean? We reveal the answer in and through our lives. What is the meaning of Jesus as the Word of God? The answer is revealed in his life, death and resurrection.

However we view the Bible, from a completely literal approach to the totally metaphorical, simply reading the words is not sufficient. As we together seek to live into the words we read and pray, we come together to embody the Word of God. We take the texts off the page, and into our lives, turning the words into the Living Word—the power of the Holy Spirit enlivening and mobilizing the People of God.

Even in its diversity. Anglican tradition does have a number of “fixed points.” One is that we use the Bible a lot. Our worship has much more actual scriptural content than you will find in some churches who proclaim themselves to be “Bible-based.” We read scripture in a disciplined and detailed fashion. Furthermore, our liturgies—both BCP and BAS—are full of scriptural quotations and allusions. The big differences within Anglicanism lie in manners of interpretation. Some read the Bible as literal words of God. Others receive scripture as a unique human response to hearing the word of God. The question that divides these two positions is “Did it actually happen that way?” Those who take the first viewpoint are inclined to say “Of course it did. The Bible (i.e. God) says so.” Those who take the second viewpoint will tend to give a less definitive answer, seeking to bring other evidence (science, history, archeology, etc.) to bear on the text. And the twain shall never agree.

A question which divides is not helpful in bringing people together and building up the Body of Christ. A question that can help us come together is “What does it mean for us today?” We seek to find meaning in action, in our lives together.

The devil can quote scripture, using the written word of God to tear down God’s people like someone bashing a wall with a hammer. Let us remember: a hammer may be used to tear down, but it can also be used to build up, just as the Word of God is intended to build up, to strengthen and empower God’s people.

Scripture was the fundamental tool of Jesus’ ministry, from his time in the desert to the time of his Ascension. So may we follow his example, using the written word to help us continue to become the Living Word, as we follow the Incarnate Word of God.


The clay and the potter

In the fall of 2008 I was going through a vocational crisis. One of the ways I used to deal with it was to go on an week-long solitary retreat. I booked time at a retreat center that offered a hermitage, and began preparing myself. I got a lot of advice from friends about how to spend my time, some of it helpful, some not so much, but all were well-meant.

Perhaps the best advice I was given was from a friend who just handed me a book, with the words “I think you might find this helpful.” Truer words were never spoken. The book was “Let Your Life Speak,” by Parker J. Palmer. Over my time on retreat, I read and re-read this little book, devouring and meditating on every word. I wrote to Parker afterwards, thanking him for the book, and telling him that it might just have saved my life — at least in the vocational sense!

More than ten years have passed. The crisis came and went over the ensuing year or so, and in due time I retired. Retirement poses its own vocational issues, some of which I have written about previously on this blog. I have come to a place where I seem to have things more or less in place for a decently comfortable and engaging retirement. I like to tell people that “I am as busy as I want to be,” adding that sometimes I really don’t want to be busy. That’s really quite OK — for the most part I find myself content with life as it is now.

I decided recently to re-read Palmer’s book on vocation, for reasons that are not immediately apparent to me. I’m reading it slowly this time, perhaps because there’s not such a sense of crisis, and I’m finding things I either didn’t notice then or had forgotten. This morning this passage struck me:

Making pottery … involves more than telling the clay what to become. The clay presses back on the potter’s hand, telling her what it can and cannot do–and if she fails to listen, the outcome will be both frail and ungainly.

Let Your Life Speak, p. 16
48313072 – pottery.

The point he’s making here has to do with vocation being more a response to our true inborn nature than to an external call. If we are clay, we are called to be as “clayish” as we can be. What struck me today was the role of the potter, allowing the clay to live into its true nature, working with what is available, and not cursing the clay for not being something else.

I’ve been on both sides of the table in dealing with vocational issues. I’ve wrestled with my own sense of calling, and I’ve walked with others in the same process. I recall one young man seeking ordination who responded to the question “Why do you want to be a priest?” by saying “Everyone says I should be.” Well and good–he had great gifts. But he was unable to say with any clarity how he experienced this supposed call in terms of his own self-perception. When we asked him “What else could you do?” he came to life, describing some of the academic work he had been doing, and the possibility of a doctoral dissertation coming out of it. It was very clear where his “clayness” lay. As the potter in this situation, my colleagues and I had to try to point the candidate towards his true being, and to encourage him to live into it.

I have worked with more than one superior who had very clear ideas about what constituted a good subordinate. I found these relationships difficult, because sometimes I found myself devalued for not quite being what they wanted, and also for having gifts that they did not seem to value. To use the clay metaphor, I sometimes felt like a piece of wood that refused to become a pot.

As a retired priest, I am less accountable for my time and work than before. Even so, I hold my current license as an honorary assistant at the pleasure of both the parish Rector and my Bishop. There is more freedom in this situation to live into my own unique clayness than I experienced when in stipendiary ministry. I wish for all my colleagues in ministry, as well as for all people dealing with vocational questions, that they may find similar freedom in their life and work.

Stewardship and other spiritual disciplines

Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity, Tofield AB, June 3, 2018
Texts: 1 Sam 3:1-20; Mark 2:23-3:6

How many of you remember Sunday January 17, 1982? Not too many? I didn’t remember the exact date, but I worked it out based on one scripture reading, which we heard this morning from I Samuel, the story of Samuel’s call. It turned up in the lectionary at a time when I was wrestling with my own sense of vocation.

Speak, for your servant is listening.”

These words spoke volumes to me then. They led me into the discipline of discernment through prayer: paying attention to God’s call, a practice that led eventually to seminary, ordination, and 26 years in parish ministry. Without hearing that scripture reading, I might well not be standing before you today.

Hearing the call is one thing. Following it is another. All of us are called to ministry through our baptisms, but not all follow that call. For the boy Samuel, his call was the beginning of a lifetime of serving the Lord, playing a pivotal role in the history of Israel. We remember him as the person who anointed first Saul and then David as King of Israel. We don’t know a lot about his life between hearing the call and the rise of the monarchy, except that

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

We are told that the demand for a king did not come until Samuel was old and his sons had proved unworthy. Samuel’s response to the people who wanted a king was to do what he had first begun to do so long ago: he prayed, seeking to listen to the Lord. It seems to me that this had to be the result a life-time of following the call, hearing and speaking the Word of the Lord. It was no accident, but the consequence of years of following the discipline of prayer. We can easily picture Samuel through long years of service in the holy place, attending to ritual day after day, and always taking the time to listen.

Speak, for your servant is listening.”

He listened!

Discipline bears fruit. How do great musicians achieve excellence at their art? They practice. [Old joke: A man gets off the subway in NYC carrying an instrument case. He asks a bystander, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, man. Practice!”] How do great athletes become star players? Same answer! It does help if you have natural talent, but if you haven’t heard the call to disciplined exercise of your talent, your inborn gift will never flower fully. The more you practice, the more the exercise of the gift becomes second nature: it becomes truly a part of who we are.

Samuel’s calling led to years of disciplined service, and ultimately to the recognition that he was the one called to lead God’s people into a new way of being.

In our Gospel today, Jesus points to the spiritual discipline of sabbath-keeping, a practice commanded in the law. He is breaking the law, at least in the eyes of his opponents. They focus on the legalities, but Jesus’ interest is more on the underlying spirituality of keeping sabbath:

The sabbath was made for humankind,
 and not humankind for the sabbath.

Writing in The Christian Century, Thomas G. Long recalled how as a youth he heard this saying as permission to go and do all the things he liked doing on Sunday, freed from the restrictions imposed by his parents and his home church. He realized as he grew older that he was mistaken, coming to understand that sabbath-keeping should be undertaken not because you must do it, but because it’s good for you. The sabbath is a gift from God, calling us to take a day of out every seven to do things that draw us closer to God and each other. In her 1989 book “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly,” Marva J. Dawn identifies four key aspects of keeping the sabbath:

(1) ceasing—not only from work but also from productivity, anxiety, worry, possessiveness, and so on; (2) resting— of the body as well as the mind, emotions, and spirit—a wholistic rest; (3) embracing—deliberately taking hold of Christian values, of our calling in life, of the wholeness God offers us; (4) feasting—celebrating God and his goodness in individual and corporate worship as well as feasting with beauty, music, food, affection, and social interaction.
(excerpt of a review on Amazon.com)

What I want to emphasize here is that keeping the sabbath takes intention and discipline. To truly keep the sabbath, to get out of it what God intended for us, we need to keep practicing. That doesn’t mean just not doing stuff, like the old Sunday rules. It means taking the time every week to turn our lives over to God’s purposes: ceasing, resting, embracing, and feasting.

Finally, another spiritual discipline. I came here today because I claim to have some knowledge and experience in the matter of stewardship. Please don’t call me an “expert,” which just means someone with a briefcase more than 100 km from home!

I was glad to give your Rector some suggestions about how to approach the matter of stewardship. Will they bear fruit? I hope so, and the pledges that will be received today will begin to tell that story. But let’s be sure of this: stewardship of our possessions is not a matter of a “once and done” campaign, but rather a question of a life-long spiritual discipline.

Like Samuel’s discipline of listening to God, and Jesus’ call to sabbath-keeping among his disciples, the discipline of stewardship takes practice. Stewardship is born out of the insight that everything we have is gift, and that these gifts are stewardshipgiven for a purpose beyond our own needs. That means that stewardship is very much about money, but before it’s about money, it’s about how we use our treasure to move forward in our participation in God’s mission.

Spiritual disciplines are gifts from God, Spirit-led responses to God’s call.

We are called to discern God’s call. We respond in the Spirit by turning our hearts in prayer, seeking to know God’s desires for our lives.

We are called to turn our lives to God’s purposes. We respond in the Spirit by setting aside one day in seven to focus on those purposes—which then gives a Godly focus to the other six.

We are called to use our material gifts for the furtherance of God’s mission. We respond in the Spirit by dedicating a portion of our possessions, our time, talent, and treasure, to the work of God’s church—which then gives a holy focus on how we use what we retain.

May all our lives be lives of dedication to God’s purposes, lived out in the joy of holy discipline.

Amen.

Forgiving the church

It’s been a while since I posted to this blog. I started a couple of posts recently, but then abandoned them. Somehow what I was trying to say wouldn’t come together, probably meaning that I didn’t really need to say it. Cyberspace is clogged up enough without another maundering and meandering blog post!

I started thinking about forgiveness once more after reading a post by a good friend. Read it HERE. The writer is living with the ongoing business of forgiving hurt caused by a church community several years ago. I know whereof she writes, having been through my own time of hurt coming from within a church. I’ve posted about that before: there’s no need to rehash the event.

The issue that presented itself this time was how much pain comes from a hurt caused by a church. I have spoken to many people who have harbored deep sorrow or anger after some event. It seems to me that this pain is often out of proportion to the actual offense, and I have had cause to wonder why. Here’s what I have come to conclude.

The church is called to proclaim good news: love, peace, mercy, healing, welcome, kindness, compassion, caring … the list could go on until tomorrow morning! When we choose to make our spiritual home in a congregation, we expect that we find all of these things in its midst. In contrast to other groups, the church easily becomes the object of higher expectations, shaped by the message it seeks to proclaim. When it fails, the failure is harder to take, and the source of greater pain.

All this is a reminder that churches are human organizations, populated by ordinary people who share a calling to seek something better. We sometimes fail in that calling, and act in ways thapeace beginst belie the goals with which we have been charged. We fail because we are human, but our failures are inevitably held up against the strong light of divine ideals. There’s nothing wrong, and everything right, about those ideals. Nonetheless, we should temper our expectations with the knowledge that people can and do fail.

As I noted in my previous post, forgiveness is hard work, but it is at the heart of Christian life. We cannot find God’s peace when our hearts are at war.

I still choose to forgive.

 

Is it about you?

Last night, at All Saints Anglican Cathedral in Edmonton, Bishop Jane Alexander ordained three people to the priesthood and seven (!) to the diaconate. If I’m not mistaken, it was the largest ordination in this Diocese since at least 1986. The Cathedral was almost full, and there was a large turnout of the diocesan clergy. Some of us had speculated about how long the liturgy would take, and we were agreeably surprised when it came in at about 2 1/4 hours. I didn’t hang around too long afterward.  Bun fights in tight spaces make me a bit anxious, and my hearing issues (hypersensitivity to crowd sound at voice range) make it difficult to function in that kind of noisy environment. Nonetheless, I did have time to greet one of the ordinands, a person with whom I have had a long and special relationship.

I don’t ever recall being at an ordination service for so many people. Most of the ordinations I participated in during my time in the Diocese of Brandon were for individuals. I have no problem with the church celebrating the new ministry of a person who has been raised up for ordination. What has often troubled me is that these celebrations often become about the individual. Ordination should not be about a person having “made it,” but about the church renewing its leadership.

Last night’s service filled me with joy. I knew three of the ten ordinands personally, one better than the other two, but that’s not really the point. I saw ten (count ’em – 10!) people being affirmed in ministries that we prayed would be of benefit to the church and the world. It wasn’t about any one of them, but about the church engaged in the continuous and joyful renewal of its leadership. It was wonderful! I give thanks for the privilege of being present for all ten, even if seven of them were previously totally unknown to me except as names on a list.

On Holy Cross Day, our preacher recalled for us the love displayed and exemplified by Christ’s death on the cross. It doesn’t make sense to some people, but that’s okay. The ten who were ordained last night will share in proclaiming that truth, in their lives and their ministries. (Is there really any difference?)

Today, I welcome three people to the fellowship of the Holy Priesthood and seven people to the company of Deacons. May they continue to proclaim the love of God at all times and all places.

Finally my question to anyone who may be considering ordination in the church. Is your call about what YOU want to do, or about what GOD needs in the world. Is it about the church (God’s people) or about you? I pray that you may be able to answer that question prayerfully and honestly.

A Community that Sends

Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity (Strathcona) on August 27, 2017

Texts: Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

Last Sunday, Fr. Chris spoke of the challenge to the Church to “go out.” There is much more that can be said about this, including Archbishop William Temple’s dictum that the “Church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of non-members.” One way of stating our mission: We are to go out to be of benefit to the world around us.

Let’s back this up a step or two, and think about who is doing the sending. What kind of group is it that can send its members out in this way? I take my cue from Paul, and his appeal to the church in Rome, part of which we heard in today’s lesson. The lectionary does us a bit of a disservice, by splitting Chapter 12 between two Sundays, but let’s work with what we have been given.

Paul starts out by saying, “I appeal to you therefore…” That last word should alert us to the fact that what comes next is not some sayings plunked into the text in an arbitrary way. It has a context.

The preceding three chapters (9 – 11) deal with what some contemporary scholars consider to be the central issue of Romans, the question of the fate of Israel. Paul agonizes over the problem, lamenting the fact that most Jews have not accepted Jesus as the Messiah. He ultimately refuses to let go of his faith in God’s fidelity to his promises, concluding that in God’s great mercy, salvation would not be denied to the people of Israel. The section closes with an outburst of praise (curiously not in the Lectionary):

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord?
   Or who has been his counselor?’
 ‘Or who has given a gift to him,
   to receive a gift in return?’
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever. Amen.

And… therefore…

If God has been gracious to all, our response should then be to strive to live lives that reflect that grace, not merely as individuals, but in a company of the faithful whose corporate life displays God’s grace. Paul uses the image of the body, more concisely than in 1 Corinthians 12, to argue that we are interdependent—needing each other and rejoicing in each person’s unique gifts. Paul enjoins us “not to think of [ourselves] more highly than [we] ought to think,” but to regard ourselves with “sober judgment” as members of the Body of Christ. I might use “humility” here, remembering that that doesn’t mean self-abasement (“worm theology”), but being honest with ourselves, with our brothers and sisters, and with God, about who we are and what are our gifts.

It is easy to miss how counter-cultural is Paul’s concept of Christian community. He wrote:

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…

The world in which Paul lived was the Roman Empire, one of the most successful regimes in history. This was a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity, enforced by Roman military might. However, the Empire relied on a rigidly structured society, in which everyone knew his or her place, and upward social mobility was almost unheard-of. The subjugated peoples of the Empire could enjoy the benefits of Roman rule so long as they kept to their places. Into this mix, Paul throws a huge measure of egalitarianism. When he calls on followers of Christ to see themselves as no better than they should, it implies that they should regard their companions on the way as their equals, just as Jews and Christians are equal in God’s economy of grace and mercy.

The point of the church, however, is not just to build a community where everyone loves each other. That’s a good thing by itself, of course, but the mission of proclaiming God’s love in the marketplace must be based in a people practicing what they preach. The life of the Christian community is a large part of its message.

Harold Percy, a well-known Canadian writer about mission, has outlined Christian mission in terms of the Kingdom of God. We are called
to proclaim the Kingdom,
to celebrate the Kingdom, and
to model the Kingdom.

When people look at us—a community of people who follow Jesus as the Messiah—they should see a body which strives to behave as if God’s reign is being fulfilled in our midst. Our calling is to be a model of the Kingdom. Of course, models never quite live up to the reality they are pointing to; every church community inevitably falls short of the Glory it is striving to proclaim. But that doesn’t mean we should quit trying!

It grieves me deeply to know that there are people who assert themselves over others by “who they are,” at times invoking the name of our Saviour. We saw some of the symptoms of that in Charlottesville two weeks ago. So-called “identity politics” have no place in God’s Kingdom. White supremacy, racism, anti-Semitism, misogynism, homophobia and their like are evils upon the body politic. When they find their way into Church life, they are toxic to the Gospel we are called to proclaim.

We are followers of Jesus of Nazareth, the one whom Peter confessed to be the Messiah. Jesus came to “draw all people to [himself].” As his Body, we are called to draw all people to him, inviting all to share in the grace, mercy, and unbounded love of the God who cannot let his people go.

God loves ALL his people—and so should we!

Let’s go and show it.