Living in the Middle

Notes for a sermon preached at St. George’s, Edmonton on July 16, 2017
Texts: Gen 25:19-34; Ps 119:105-112; Rom 8:1-11; Matt 13:1-9, 18-23

Some years ago, I attended a workshop entitled “Unresolvable but Unavoidable Problems in Church Life” led by the Rev. Roy Oswald of the Alban Institute. The title was a pretty good hook, attracting about 200 clergy and lay people from more than 15 denominations. I have since read Roy Oswald’s book, which expands on the workshop’s content. If he’d used the book’s title for the event, I don’t think he would have drawn nearly as many. “Managing Polarities in Congregations” doesn’t have the same buzz, does it? It’s also quite opaque, unless you’re hep to modern management-speak. (What’s a polarity anyway?)

Polarity_Map cropped

I could quite happily spend a couple of hours or more dealing with this topic and how it applies to church life, but since you didn’t bring bag lunches, I will go straight to the bottom line. There are many situations and issues in life – church, personal, business, government – which are unresolvable because they hold two positive things in tension, which work against each other. We can’t resolve issues like this, but we can learn to live with them.

After attending this workshop, I began to look at life a bit differently. It has been said that if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. In my case, finding polarity management very interesting, I started applying it everywhere. Sometimes it was even appropriate to do so!

Enough theory! Let’s look at the Scriptures. This is one of those Sundays when the prescribed lessons have no obvious linking theme. We heard a story of family conflict, an exhortation to “live in the Spirit,” and the best-known of Jesus’ agricultural parables. I suggest that there is something connecting them. Let’s look at them in turn:

First, Genesis, and the story of Esau selling his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew, or as the KJV puts it, “a mess of pottage.” This is quite a family: parents playing favourites, brothers competing for their parents’ approval, and with each other. Esau is a “manly man,” helping the family by hunting for food. His brother Jacob likes to hang out in the tent, helping his mother with the cooking. By traditional patriarchal standards, Esau should be preferred, but his sly brother tricks him into giving up his rights as elder son: this family’s story will continue through the younger brother. It’s not much of a model for family life. None of its members come off very well; all of them live somewhere on the edge of integrity. They live somewhere in the middle between the ordinary ways of the world and holy righteousness. Nonetheless, God’s chosen people will come from this family.

Second: From Romans, we hear Paul contrasting living according to the flesh with living in the Spirit. “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” He expands the contrast in Galatians:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.                                                                    Galatians 5:19-21a,22-23a

The choice seems clear: choose the Spirit over the flesh. However, Paul’s assertions that his readers are indeed “in the Spirit” seems to me to be more hopeful than factual. He is telling them what they should be, but surely the truth of most people’s lives is that we struggle with the competing pulls of flesh and Spirit, and live our lives somewhere in the middle, sometimes close to one side, sometimes to the other.

A note here: “flesh” doesn’t just mean things associated with sexual matters. Paul uses it as a generic term for the ways of the present age—the world in which we live. Living “in the flesh” is associating ourselves with things that ultimately do not bring life but death. In contrast, living in the Spirit is living according to the ways of the new age inaugurated through the Resurrection of our Lord. We may know well that this is how we are called to live, but as Paul said in the previous chapter (last Sunday’s lesson), it is all to easy to do the things we do not want, and not do the things we want. Our lives are lived in this ongoing tug-of-war between the ways of this world—the way things are—and the ways of the world to come—the way God wants them to be.

Finally, there’s the parable of the sower, which I have heard re-named “the wasteful farmer.” This man goes out and strews seed without apparent regard for the kind of soil at hand. Much of the seed is wasted, because the soil is beaten down, or rocky, or full of weeds. Only some soil is rich and fertile, bearing grain “some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” Unlike for other parables, Jesus gives an explanation to his disciples. We can almost hear them saying “We’re the good soil! We will give the good harvest.” Maybe so, but I suspect that those disciples were rather more like most of us. Sometimes we are good soil, and we give a good harvest for the Gospel of Christ, but at other times, we are hampered by the lack of understanding, by the cares of the world, by failing to feed our passion for the Word. The various kinds of soil live within each of us, and thus we live in a constant state of being “between.”

We are both good soil and rocky soil.
We live both in the Spirit and in the flesh.
We live both as people called out by God, and as people experiencing the complications of ordinary life.

We live in the middle.

And yet…

Like Jacob’s troubled family, we are called to build God’s people.
Like the earliest disciples, we are called to be fertile soil for the Word of God.
Like the early saints in Rome, we are called to live into God’s new age, living according to God’s ways.

God knows that we live in the middle—and God still calls us, ready to use us in God’s great mission. God has a purpose for every one of us. May we strive to be aware of our calling, and may we be dedicated to following it, in this world into the next.

Amen.

The language of reconcilation — in one word

I have recently learned that some (many?) of the indigenous peoples of our province and country are objecting to the use of the word “our” in referring to them. In the context we were discussing, it seems we are no longer to pray for “our indigenous brothers and sisters,” but for “the indigenous peoples.” The specific objection is that the possessive pronoun “our” implies ownership, and the indigenous people are no-one’s property. I really get the second part, but I was a bit taken aback by the first idea. Does saying “our brothers and sisters” imply we own them? As I understand the English language, possessives can have that meaning, but their use in this kind of context refers more to interpersonal relationships than to ownership — at least in as far as I use the language.

That’s my perspective. But I do recognize that my use of language is not absolute, and how I use a word may not resonate well with someone from a different cultural/linguistic environment. For indigenous peoples in Canada, living with a heritage of the underside of colonialism, the implication of ownership and control is clearly very powerful, overriding any nuance of meaning that I may have understood.

There is a principle of building community which Paul expands on at length in chapters 8 through 10 of his First Letter to the Corinthians. The presenting issue is whether Christians should eat meat which has been sacrificed to idols — not a huge issue in most places today, at least as far as I can see. Nonetheless, Paul’s extended discussion of the issue comes to a widely-applicable ethical position. His position can be summed up as not knowingly doing anything that will give offense to another “brother or sister,” whether or not that thing is important to us.

Do I fully comprehend the power of using “our” in the context of referring to Indigenous people? Of course not: I am of settler stock, in fact, I am an immigrant. It is impossible for me to grasp the depth of the issues in the same way as a resident of a place like Maskwacis or Opaskwayak. But I can hear the effect that my language — easily taken for granted — can give offense, causing hurt where no hurt was intended.

I am resolved to pay attention to the language I use, striving always to hear how it may hurt others. It’s a hard road, but reconciliation depends on hearing each other in spirit and in truth. May my speech be clear and loving.

God bless my country?

I live in Canada. Tomorrow, July 1, is our national holiday, Canada Day, the day when we celebrate the inauguration of the Confederation that is still our defining constitutional reality. It’s 150 years since our country became a defined national entity. There will be parties tomorrow, and we will participate in them, with joy and thanksgiving. This is a wonderful country.

And yet….

As I write, members of our country’s First Nations are protesting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, erecting a teepee as a sign of “reoccupation” of the land on which the seat of our government stands. They are not celebrating “Canada 150” in anything like the way we settlers are.

I am an immigrant. My passport declares my place of birth to be “Richmond UK,” at that time in County Surrey, and now a part of Greater London. My family came to Canada in the early 50’s, in the great exodus of medical doctors that happened after the introduction of Britain’s National Health Service. Our life in Canada was challenging for my parents, far away from family and the familiarity of home territory. Nonetheless, they made a firm decision to stay here, to put down roots, and to build a life for their family. We use to sit around the dinner table and hear stories of the old country, but on one occasion I remember my father saying that he was so glad he had brought his family to this country. He talked about it as if it was the promised land — and very likely for him it was just that.

I learned some years later that he had a choice of jobs when he left the UK. Instead of Canada, we could have ended up either in the USA or South Africa. Events of the past quarter-century have made me very glad that he chose Canada.

And yet — as the current events in Ottawa make very clear — this is not a perfect country. I came to Canada aged not quite four, and have had a good life here. Nonetheless, I am very conscious that what I enjoy is not enjoyed by many others, and that the original inhabitants of this land have paid a heavy price for the blessings which I have received. I am in their debt.

This is a wonderful country: we have incredible landscapes, rich resources, a wealth of great people. But we have built a lot of what we have on the backs of the people who were here before us, and who do not share much of the bounty of the land we now call Canada.

I celebrate my country. I give thanks for the people who have made it what it is, knowing that those people are both indigenous and settlers. I pray that the years to come may continue to be a time of reconciliation between our peoples; and that the original inhabitants of Turtle Island may find a full role in the unfolding of our country’s future.

No nation is perfect. We all have stains on our history, which we cannot remove. What we can do is acknowledge our part in inheriting those stains, and continue to work towards reconciliation between those who are historical enemies.

God has blessed this country richly. May all of its peoples come to rejoice in our mutual blessings, and so help to build God’s Kingdom in this place

Honesty isn’t the best policy…

It’s the only policy.

I’m in my first year on my condo board. I said when I retired and we moved in here that I would never do this: condo boards deal mainly with finances, building issues, and complaints, the three aspects of church vestries that I found most tiresome. The missional aspect of church life helps to put these matters in some perspective. Not so in a condominium.

Nonetheless, I found myself drawn to this service, in part because I felt that things were not altogether right in how our building was being run. Somewhat to my surprise, I find I’m enjoying the work, or I was, until this week. Back-story: earlier this year we embarked on a project to revitalize a common lounge by the main entrance. After some months, and an expenditure of a reasonable but not huge amount of money, the project was finished, and many people commented on how much better it looked now. But — boom! — we received a package of 11 letters of complaint at this past week’s meeting. The writers didn’t like what was done, and they didn’t like the way it was done. I can accept that some mistakes were made. I also know that you can’t please everyone in matters of taste. People are entitled to their opinions, and if some feelings were hurt, as seems to be the case, some kind of apology could be made.

Dear_Sir_formal_letter_iStock_000004683049XSmallExcept…

Only one of the letters was signed: the property manager had removed the other signatures at the writers’ request. They apparently didn’t want to be open to recriminations, wanting to keep the building peaceful. For me, this just makes things less peaceful, because anonymous complaints make any kind of meaningful response and reconciliation impossible. It’s a matter of community building, which requires openness, honesty, and taking responsibility for one’s own actions and feelings.

In one parish where I served as Rector, we had a spate of critical anonymous letters, very often placed in the collection plate. They bothered me mightily until I realized that I could not respond to them without being in dialogue with the writers. The trouble was less the (sometimes valid) content  than the one-sidedness of the process. I announced a policy of refusing to acknowledge anonymous communications, inviting people who had concerns to come and see me in person. Over the next several months, I had a number of very worthwhile conversations with parishioners. The dishonest communications stopped and the parish never looked back. We discovered the benefits of openness and honesty.

Why would I call anonymous letters dishonest? Simply because they allow the writer to hide behind a veil, covering up any other matters that might pertain to it. The letter may be the truth, but there is no way of knowing if it’s either the whole truth or nothing but the truth. Lies of omission disrespect the recipient, and are every bit as dishonest as lies of commission.

In another parish, I encountered a more straightforward kind of dishonesty. A parishioner had donated a couple of buckets of soup for a church lunch. Somehow, someone had set them on the back steps, where they were forgotten for long enough that they went rotten, ruining the ice-cream pails they came in. A group of people came to me to ask what they should do. What should they tell the donor, who had a sharp tongue and a habit of holding grudges? They wanted a plausible story which would save everyone’s face, but they were rather taken aback when I suggested they simply tell the truth and suffer the consequences.

It worked. The doPrintnor was annoyed about the waste of her gift, and also about the loss of her pails, but the fact that her friends gave her the respect of the truth served to smooth the waters. Trust had been damaged, but if a lie had been told, further trust would have become impossible.
In the church, even more than in a condominium, we are concerned about the building of community. Let’s remember that true community can only be built on trust, and trust can only be built on honesty. And, of course, dishonesty destroys trust.

Jesus said “…you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32)

 

 

 

On the journey to…

A sermon this morning on Genesis 12:1-4a (the call of Abram) started me thinking about various times in my life I have stepped out of what might be expected, and gone where the call has led.

The first was not of my own volition, but my parents’. When I was only three years old, they decided to pull up roots in England and transplant our family to Canada. We settled in Drumheller, Alberta, a far cry from the great metropolis of London where I was born. I don’t know exactly how my parents felt about it at the time, but it became clear over the years that being so far from family and old friends was difficult for both of them, especially my mother. My early years in this country were marked by a sense of being “not quite at home,” a feeling that has stayed with me throughout my life.

The second such event came when I left teaching school to return to Edmonton, and to do… I wasn’t quite sure what! All my spouse and I knew was that we couldn’t stay where we were, and the opportunities were far greater in the city where we had both attended University. Some family members were horrified that I would give a seemingly secure and respectable job to search for something different.

That move led to a graduate degree, a job with our Provincial Government, and us settling down as a family. But God had other ideas. After nine years in that job, we again pulled up stakes and left for Saskatoon for me to enter theological college. I had no real idea where this was leading, except for the conviction that I was called to go down this road.

The road led to ordination and the call to be the pastor of a small-town parish. It was a great adventure, but not without its problems. After a few years there, I moved on to a suburban parish, where I stayed almost thirteen years. In time, I felt the need to move on: I accepted a call to become Dean and Rector of St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Brandon, Manitoba.

This was another move into the unknown: a new parish, a new city, a new province, and a new diocese. I didn’t realize at the time just how big a move this would be. Local customs are different, even at the relatively small remove of a couple of Canadian provinces. But we persisted, through some great years, and some not-so-great, until my retirement in 2013.

Each one of those moves required a measure of faith. In every case, I had the sense that I was going where I had to go, except perhaps the first one, when I had no choice in the matter.

In two of the places where I served the Church, I had conversations with people whose whole lives had been centered on that place. Many of them were puzzled why I might want to live somewhere else: “[town] has everything a person needs.” That may have been true, but going elsewhere was not contingent upon needs, but upon a call, just as Abram heard God’s call to leave home and family and travel to “a land which I will show you.”

I have been on this journey all my life, and now God has brought me to a place where I might reasonably hope to live out my days in peace and reasonable comfort. Sometimes, though, I find myself wondering…

A theology of money?

Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity Strathcona, Sept. 25, 2016

Texts: Jeremiah 32:1-3A, 6-15; 14-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

At one time I was deeply involved in Stewardship in this Diocese, including 1½ years as Stewardship and Planned Giving Officer. In that capacity, I received many preaching invitations, most often to parishes that perceived themselves as needing help in their finances.

“Stewardship” has become an important word in church life over the last few decades. We did various financial programs before that, but an apparent overemphasis on money per se led us to look for a more “theological” term. It’s not a bad word—it has both biblical and theological import—but it seems to me that it has become a code-word for how we fund the church. I believe most church people, if asked, would now say that stewardship is about getting more money out of church members.

In my last parish, I got a strong negative reaction if I raised the question of Stewardship programs. Previous programs had used some strong-armed tactics. It ended up putting them in a worse financial situation than they might otherwise have been.

A few years ago the church renamed our national office of Stewardship and Financial Development as “Resources for Mission,” emphasizing that the main thing is the Church’s mission, which requires a variety of resources, including, but not limited to, money.

dollar-signThe church sits uneasily with money. I read of a recent meeting of national staff in which they had concluded that we need a new theology of money. I would agree, but I would drop the word “new”—have we have had any really coherent teaching on this subject? Historical church attitudes to money have veered between the extremes of seeking either great wealth or intentional poverty.

In my various parish visits for Stewardship preaching, the clergy often said to me that they were grateful that the Diocese had someone to come and talk about these things, things which made them very uncomfortable. I understand that: a parish priest speaking about money from the pulpit cannot help but be aware that his or her own stipend is a major line item in the parish’s budget—in many cases the largest single expense. It can sound like you’re begging—even if your theology of stewardship is totally sound.

This brings me to today’s lessons, all of which have something to do with money. Maybe they will help us (and maybe also Church House!) get a handle on a theology of money.

First, I Timothy, the source of one of the commonest and most erroneous Bible quotes. People often say that “money is the root of all evil,” but note what is actually written:

…the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.

It is not money that matters but what we do with it in our lives and in our hearts. Money per se is ethically neutral, a convenient means of exchange, a means to an end, whether good or evil. It has no real existence beyond that, but how we regard it and use it has immense spiritual significance.

…in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

And further on,

(The rich) are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

It’s what we do with it that counts. God’s Mission is the all-important thing. If we have wealth, we are charged to use it for God’s purposes before ours. Regardless of our own personal wealth or poverty, the challenge is to seek the good, to look to know what will help advance the Kingdom of God in this world, and to use our God-given resources towards that goal.

Sometimes it may be very unclear what will actually advance the Kingdom. The prophet Jeremiah lived in just such a time of great uncertainty and anxiety. The Babylonians were threatening the Kingdom of Judah, the kings were weak, and the people had retreated behind a triumphalist theology. (God had made a covenant with them and would not allow his holy city and temple to fall. All they had to do was invoke his name.) The prophet saw otherwise, understanding the reality of the threat, and the people’s confidence to be misplaced. So he does a prophetic action: he buys some land. This looks like madness when the invading hordes are at your gates, but he offers it as a sign of hope. This may not seem the right time to affirm God’s purposes (probably better to be getting all your stuff together in preparation), but Jeremiah asserts that now is the time to work for the Kingdom.

If not me, then who?
If not here, then where?
If not now, then when?

The answer he gives us is “Me, here, and now.” It is always the right time and place to do God’s work.

And do it we must, lest we end like the rich man in the Gospel. There’s much else that could be said about this story, but it seems that at least part of the message is the injunction to do good when the opportunity presents itself. The rich man had years in which he could have helped Lazarus, but he did nothing. As Jesus tells it, the consequences are clear.

Notwithstanding the current recession, we live in one of the most fortunate countries in the world. The vast majority of our people are well-fed, decently housed, educated, and in good health. We have been given great riches, as a people, and as individuals.

Let us then not fail to use what God has given us for the good of God’s people and God’s world.

Let us keep the eyes of our Spirits open, that we may see the need around us.

And let us keep all of our resources at the ready to do God’s work.

May it be so.

Visiting: ministry for all

Clergy get guilted a lot.
“You did this…”
“You didn’t do that…”
“You said…”
“You didn’t say…”
“You weren’t there…”
“You were there…”

Whatever they do (or don’t do), clerics have to expect that someone will be  annoyed with it.

sell ice cream

When I was in parish ministry, the thing I was most often criticized about was visiting. The model of ministry which I grew up with, and that most of my parishioners expected, was that the clergy would spent the largest amount of their time visiting their flock, in times of need and in almost every time. Just dropping in was totally acceptable.

Except…

When I started out, there were some people for whom that model worked, but far more for whom it didn’t. The folks for whom it worked were mostly older, very settled, and accustomed to receiving guests at the drop of a hat. Others? Younger folk had busier lives, fuller schedules, and were often not open to just welcoming someone into their home, even if they had nothing else on.

There’s a generational divide at work here, of course, but also a divide in lifestyles. My first parish was largely farm folk, for whom hospitality was a way of life. My second parish was mostly double-income families, at least one of them commuting. Commuter-suburb ministry turned out to be hugely different from farm-town ministry.

I have clergy friends who still regard visitation as the heart and soul of their work. That ended for me over 25 years ago. The change in my situation forced me to begin asking what parish ministry was really all about. Did it still mean that the pastor had to spend most of his/her time running around trying to find someone at home? Or did it mean that more time was spend building up the community so they could care for each other. and so be better equipped for mission?

I hope by now it should be no surprise that I decided that the latter was the appropriate course.

A community which is dependent for its existence only one person is no community at all. On the other other hand, if that one person has worked to enable the community to thrive through all sorts of tribulations and joys through the graces it possesses, that person has done something truly wonderful.

I didn’t do much visiting at all in my third and last parish. Do I feel guilty about that? Not at all! But I do feel gratified that I worked to  build up a team of people who were committed to reaching “in” to care for the people within the community, building up the Body of Christ in ways that one person like me could never do.

Visiting people is important. Read what Jesus said about it in Matthew 25:31-40:

 When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

This is not a call to a specialized group of people, but to all of God’s people.Don’t guilt your clergy about who they haven’t visited. Rather, ask yourself who you have reached out to.