Many Math. majors (like me in a former life) will have heard the “proof” that all numbers are interesting.
- Assume there is a non-empty set of natural numbers (i.e. 1,2,3,…) which are uninteresting.
- This set must have a smallest member.
- Being the smallest uninteresting number is itself interesting.
- Since a number cannot be both interesting and uninteresting, the assumption in 1. must be false.
- Therefore, all numbers are interesting.
But then, to riff on George Orwell (cf. Animal Farm), all numbers may be interesting, but some are more interesting than others.
Today I encountered a number which for me is very interesting, the number 70. What’s interesting about it? Only that age 70 sounds to me a lot older than age 69. Maybe it’s the change in the first digit, something that’s only happened to me 6 times before. Age is a physical reality, but it’s also a mental and emotional reality.
A friend once said of a mutual acquaintance that he had been “born 80 years old.” Even in middle age, he presented as tired and crotchety, often harking back to earlier days. I hope no-one ever says that of me, although I recall that someone once described me as “stuffy.” My rather warped sense of humor tends to hide when I’m in a public role. People who know me better know that my wit sometimes gets the better of me.
I’ve now been retired for about 5 years (Since June 23 or July 31, 2013, depending on how you reckon it.) I’ve enjoyed most of those years, especially the last two or three. It’s good to be free to make your own decisions about what to do with your time, without too many occupational restrictions. I had some plans when I retired. Some have borne fruit, others have been deferred, still others have been put away permanently, and some new things have arisen. I’m not making many new plans at the moment, except for our 50th wedding anniversary celebrations in just over a year.
When I was in school and looking forward to the great challenges of University and adult life, anyone older than my parents seemed absolutely ancient. I’m much older now than they were then, and I don’t feel old at all … at least not most of the time!
The interest of this particular birthday is that it the first one in a long time that has turned me to thinking about the future. Not the past — there’s still plenty of time for that — but what is to come. If my parents’ and grandparents’ lives are any indication, I should have 15 years or so to look forward to. I don’t look forward today in the same way I looked forward at age 16, which was filled with both eagerness and anxiety. Rather, I welcome each day as it comes, with new light in the window, and both new and old things to do.
Life continues to be good.
Thanks be to God.
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.”
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 given 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.
Disclaimer: I have not watched all of the wedding of the Duke & Duchess of Sussex. I have listened to some of the music, and I have paid close attention to the homily. As with any couple setting out on the adventure we call marriage, I wish them well, and pray that their union will be long and fruitful, in many ways.
Nonetheless, I must declare myself as a non-Royalist. That’s not to say I want to get rid of the monarchy, but rather that I am mostly indifferent to the institution as we have received it in Canada. There’s a good argument that having a monarch helps to keep our politicians honest, and I’m OK with that. But the actual practice of constitutional monarchy in Canada is largely conventional. We nod to the Queen in many ways, but in reality, a nod is about all we do.
Queen Elizabeth II is a remarkable woman, a person for whom I have great respect. She has negotiated the demands of a more-or-less impossible job with grace, dignity, and resolution. She will be greatly mourned by many, including this writer, when she dies.
What will happen then? Will people and nations who have given their allegiance to QEII for more than 60 years immediately and unreservedly transfer it to her son? Some reports have suggested that Charles will have a great deal of work to do to win over the affection of many people. His time to do this will be limited: he is only 5 months younger than me, and I’ll be 70 in a couple of months.
What this is all about is the parlous state of the monarchy, both in the U.K. and the rest of the Commonwealth of Nations. I note that the Commonwealth was invented in QEII’s reign, so this grouping of former British dependencies has known no other head than the current one. Several Commonwealth nations have removed the Queen from being head of state, and others have had significant debates about it. It is unlikely that my country, Canada, will enter into such a debate, because that requires re-opening our Constitution, and that carries a whole mess of problems.
Anyway… this was supposed to be about a wedding. The groom is now 6th in line for the throne, which essentially means that he is in very little danger of ever having to move into Buckingham Palace. He can do what he likes, and he has done so, by marrying a woman he clearly loves, but whose background is so far removed from the traditional world of the Windsors that she might as well have been born on a different planet.
I congratulate Prince Harry and Meghan. Love has brought them together, and I pray that love will see them through the years ahead. It will probably not be easy for either of them, especially her, although she does seem to have her eyes wide open.
The part of the wedding that seems to have gained the most notice is the homily by the Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. I watched and listened as Bishop Michael preached. I rejoiced in the strength of his message of love and the centrality of love. I tried not to giggle as the camera panned over the assembled guests, revealing various levels of stiff upper lips, amusement, dismay, joy, and discomfort.
Bishop (no, Brother!) Michael preached the Gospel. He reminded us that love IS the answer, and that “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” He asked us to imagine a world where love rules. He mostly didn’t address the marriage couple directly, which some friends of mine have criticized, but his attention was very clearly on them at most times. What this implied to me was that their marriage was to be evidence of the love by which God created the world, by which God redeemed the world, and by which God continues to renew the world. I don’t think they are stupid people: I believe they got the point!
Bishop Michael’s sermon got people’s attention, and that’s a very good thing. He preached the Gospel of Christ to at least a billion people, an opportunity which comes to very few preachers. He did his Church, his Country, his people, and his Lord proud. I am glad to call him a fellow priest of the Anglican Communion. He knows and lives and preaches true evangelism.
The traditions of royalty are not a bad thing. But we were reminded this past Saturday that they are not the whole thing, nor even the main thing. The main thing is the proclamation that “Jesus is Lord,” and that therefore no one else can claim that title. And as Michael Curry reminded us, Jesus’ lordship is not about power, it’s not about prestige, it’s not about titles and dignities. No, it’s all about love: love of God, and love of neighbour.
Best wishes to the newlyweds: may their marriage be to all us of a sign of God’s love.
Originally written for “Trinity Today,” the monthly newsletter of Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Old Strathcona, Edmonton, Alberta
As General Synod 2016 approached, Anglicans across the country were invited to study a report entitled “This Holy Estate,” on the question of same-gender marriages. The Thursday morning study group at Holy Trinity Anglican Church spent four weeks in this undertaking. It was an illuminating time for me, not because it changed my perspective on the “big question” (it didn’t much!), but because it showed me just how broad a spectrum of viewpoints could be encompassed in a group of less than ten people, particularly with respect to the Bible and how we read it. None of us in the group read the Bible from a purely literal standpoint, but the place it occupied in our lives was very different, from a profound reverence to near-indifference.
The exercise led me to ponder how we ought to approach the holy Scriptures. I am suggesting that we take a sacramental view of the Bible, which I believe will help to open its words for us to become the living Word of God.
The Sacraments as we understand them have both a material and a spiritual reality: the material both points to and conveys the spiritual. The water of Holy Baptism points beyond itself to the reality of incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church. The bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist likewise points beyond, to the reality of the presence of Christ in the gathered community and the world around us. In the same way, the words of the Holy Bible lead us beyond the printed page to the reality of God’s presence in humanity and in the world which God created, and ultimately to the redemption of the world through the death and Resurrection of Jesus.
Although Anglican tradition has always placed a high value on Scripture, let it be said here that we do not worship the Bible, but rather the God whom the Bible reveals. The great Anglican theologian Richard Hooker said that the Church – the “called-out” people of God – is founded on scripture, tradition, and reason, which has come to be known as “Hooker’s tripod.” Through the interplay of the three legs, the Church can continue to move forward in its participation in God’s mission. Clearly, Scripture has a foundational and supportive role in this mission.
From its beginning, Anglicanism has placed a high value on the public reading of Scripture. Besides being written in English, the first Book of Common Prayer (1549) made some important innovations in worship. Cranmer reduced the multiple monastic daily services to two, the “daily offices” of Morning and Evening Prayer, with the implied expectation that people would participate daily. A system of reading the scriptures (a “lectionary”) was provided for these services, so that anyone who attended them regularly would hear the entire Old Testament every two years, the New Testament three times a year, and the Psalms monthly. While daily attendance at the offices was the exception, the Prayer Book established the centrality of the Scripture in our worship.
More recently, we have come to understand the Eucharist as our church’s central act of worship. While the Sunday lectionary we now use is not nearly as comprehensive as the original daily lectionary, it still places a considerable portion of the Bible before worshipers on a regular basis.
Unlike some other churches of the Reformation, the Anglican church has never defined itself confessionally, by articulating core beliefs to which all members are expected to assent. We have instead tended to define ourselves as a communion through our liturgies. Our worship tells us – and others – who we are. If our worship defines us, it is no stretch to see that the importance of the Bible in our worship also helps to defines us.
So… how do we read the Bible? How do we understand what it is and what it is not? How can it speak to us today without it becoming stale? The Collect of the Day for the Sunday between Nov. 6 & 12 gives some hints about our church’s historical view of Scripture.
who caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning,
grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them,
that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life,
which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
(Anglican Church of Canada, Book of Alternative Services, p. 391,
or the Book of Common Prayer, p. 97)
First, it does not say that the Bible is “God’s Word” but rather that God caused it to be written. Fallible human beings put pen to paper to write its many and varied texts, under divine guidance but not as God’s holy puppets. They saw and heard and remembered – and then wrote.
Second, it clearly asserts that the scriptures are to be used. They are given for our learning: “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.” How we do this is a matter of personal choice and habit. There is no one right or wrong way for Christians to interact with the Scriptures, except of course, not to do so at all!
Third, we see that our interaction with the scriptures is not a mind game—knowledge for the sake of knowledge—but should lead us beyond the written word to the Incarnate Word. The intended learning should change us. The goal is always a deeper relationship with God in Christ—everlasting life. We are called to become the living Word of God in the world. The Bible is not the end-point of our faith. It is the prime foundational document of the Christian faith, a faith which is not in the Bible but in the one to whom it points.
How do people use Scripture? Sometimes we may sit alone with our Bible in reading or meditation. Very often we hear Scripture proclaimed in the liturgy. At times, we may join in Bible study. In whatever way we interact with Scripture, we are invited to let the words before us change us and draw us ever deeper into a relationship with the One who caused those words to be written. This is truly sacramental – a holy action drawing us closer to God. The Word of God is thus not a static reality on a printed page, but a dynamic reality in the lives of the faithful.
I sometimes preface sermons with this prayer, which I now offer in closing:
Through the written word and the spoken word,
May we become your living Word,
Through him who was and is the Word made flesh,
Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. AMEN.
Today I had the privilege of preaching and presiding at the Eucharist at Holy Trinity (aka “HTAC”). I had been scheduled to preach for a while, but other commitments took both our Rector and our Assistant Priest away from the parish. So…
Yours truly got to do what I used to do most Sundays for a quarter of a century. They say that riding a bike is easy once you learn how to do it, and once you have learned, doing it again is simple. You just get in the saddle and pedal.
That’s rather how today felt. HTAC is not “my” parish, at least not in the sense that St. Matthew’s Cathedral and St. Augustine’s-Parkland were. There, I was the Rector, expected to be present and available every day, and to do what had to be done at pulpit and altar most Sundays. Most Sundays at HTAC, I’m sitting in the back row of the bass section in the church choir, and happy to be there.
Today was different. I prayed with the choir before the service as usual, but today I led the prayers. I sang the psalm with the choir, but today from the presider’s desk. I proclaimed the Gospel and preached, and then went to the altar to preside at the sacrament.
These things happen every Sunday at HTAC. But today I assumed roles that other people usually take. And (I have to confess) it felt good.
Readers of this blog may have intuited that I wasn’t really ready to retire in 2013, but rather that the situation was forced on me. Today reminded me that I still feel most alive when I’m ministering in the pulpit and at the altar. I still believe that this I what God made me for, but I recognize that other people have similar calls, and that I have to let go as I am able.
I am truly grateful for today’s experience. I hope that my ministry today helped at least someone. That’s all I can expect, and all any ordained person can hope for.
Thanks be to God for this day. I have posted the text for today’s sermon under “Sermons and theological discussions.” Read it HERE.
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 that 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.
…but it’s really hard!
This morning I preached two sermons on the subject of forgiveness. It’s a tough issue, which trips up many people, whether Christian or not. For Christians, it’s a central matter, enjoined upon us by many texts in the New Testament. Some examples:
Matthew 6:12, 14-15:
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 1but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Matthew 18:21-35: The primary text for today’s preaching. Read it HERE.
‘Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.’
‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.
Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’
2 Corinthians 2:5-10:
But if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but to some extent—not to exaggerate it—to all of you. This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; so now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. I wrote for this reason: to test you and to know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ.
Those are explicit references to the need to forgive those who sin against us. There are many others, perhaps less explicit, but which underscore the point that forgiveness is in some way central to Christian life. God’s forgiveness has been opened to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If God has extended the olive branch of forgiveness to us, why is it so hard for us to extend that same gesture to other people?
I can’t answer for others, only for myself. In my case, I recall two specific instances of people who caused me great hurt. In both cases, the pain lingers, in one case for about forty years! That’s a long time to carry a load like that, but whenever I think about this matter, some of the hurt still floats to the top. In the other case, somewhat more recent, and very much more painful, the pain resurfaces at all kinds of inopportune times. (Sidebar: what would be an opportune time?)
Some of the readers of this blog will have some awareness of the more recent event. I would be very surprised if anyone had any idea about the earlier one. Nonetheless, both are in my baggage, which I have been trying to dump ever since. In neither case am I any longer in contact with the individual who caused me the hurt, and I do not intend to initiate anything. If contact should happen in the future, I will have to deal with matters as they come.
Can I forgive either of these people? I don’t know. I do know that I need to, but I also know that I may not be able to if and when the occasion arises. And that’s the problem. Forgiveness is a fundamental part of the life I have chosen to follow, but it is the most problematic part of that life. The instinctual urge is to seek revenge, to lash out at the one(s) who have caused us pain. But the call to turn our pain into the seeking of reconciliation requires us to go against our instincts.
The story isn’t over. It may never be over. But every day, I hear the call to seek reconciliation, to offer forgiveness, and to live in God’s love.
Forgiving others doesn’t mean forgetting what happened, but begins with remembering, and using that memory to seek reconciliation and a new relationship built on learning from the errors of the past. “Forgive and forget” is a naive idea. Rather we should seek to “forgive and go forward.” We can’t undo the past, but we can strive to build a better future.
What is forgiveness, after all? In the words of psychologist Diane Cirincione:
Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.
Pray for me, a sinner.
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.
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.
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.