My spouse and I went back to Brandon this past weekend for the first time since I retired last June. It was a very quick trip, squeezed in between commitments here in Edmonton, but it was not a short trip. Our total road time was over 25 hours, somewhat inflated by poor weather in Saskatchewan on Monday morning.
The purpose of the trip was to attend a wedding. The bride had joined the choir as a choral scholar at St. Matthew’s Cathedral three years ago, becoming in time not just a paid singer but an active congregant. Her fiance came with her in the second year. It was a joy to be asked to celebrate their marriage with them and old friends.
On the Sunday morning, we decided that we had to go to church at St. Matthew’s. There is something of an unwritten rule that departed clergy should steer clear of the previous place for a while, but we really wanted to see some people. Besides, the parish is still between rectors, so I was hardly stepping on the toes of my successor.
I left a happy, healthy parish, and I found that not much had changed. A few people had left, but there were also a number of fresh faces in the pews, along with (hallelujah!) a substantial contingent of children. Most things were much the same, with a few things now done a bit differently, but the folks we talked to were still the same great people whom we had come to love over our 10½ years there.
A big difference for me was sitting in the congregation for a Sunday for the first time ever, realizing just how long a building it is, and how far away is the celebrant at the Eucharist. It might have helped my ministry there if I’d taken some time to sit in the pews — but that’s history now. That parish was home for a decade, and the people there still hold a big piece of my heart. Nonetheless, it is clear that we have moved, both physically and spiritually. Holy Trinity is becoming home, for which we are very glad.
Some people wanted to discuss parish issues with me, but I was quite able to say, “That’s not my problem.” That ended the discussion, but not the conversation. The relationship is different now — simply as friends, not as pastor and congregant. For at least one person, that seemed to be a relief! And indeed, it is a bit of a relief for me too, because I don’t have to be “on,” as clergy always have to be in public. Today I can go to coffee time after worship and see the stipendiary clergy having serious conversations with various people, and I can think, “That used to be me,” and then I can smile.
We went to our previous home, and then we came home again.
Notes for a sermon preached at the Great Vigil of Easter, April 19, 2014, at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton.
Texts: Matthew 28:1-10; Romans 6:3-11; Exodus 14:10-31, 15:20-21
When Fr. Chris asked me if I would preach at this service, I hardly waited a heartbeat before saying “Yes.” In my previous position in a different diocese I always had to relinquish the pulpit to the Bishop on major festivals, so it has been some years since I last preached at a main Easter service. Nonetheless, as I was preparing this sermon, I was reminded of the advice to be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it!
Major festivals can be major problems for preachers. Both Christmas and Easter pose the challenge of bringing something fresh to stories which “everyone knows.” There’s nothing very surprising for most church-goers in hearing the Easter Gospel.
Or is there? Can there be? I believe so…
I was once asked to help some people deal with a difficult situation. They had been close friends for many years, but the relationship was now under severe strain. In the course of a long conversation, one of them turned to another and said “I know our old friendship is dead, but I am hoping there may be a resurrection,” and started to muse about what that might look like. My heart instantly said, “Yes!” and I was about to jump in and start addressing that possibility—but something stopped me short. Instead of affirming that hope aloud, I said “Just a second. Let’s back up a bit.” Why? Because my head then told me was that resurrection is never, and can never be, something of our devising, but is rather an act of God. It is not up to us to tell God what God should do (and then be cheesed off at God when God doesn’t come through), but rather to give God space to let God do what God will do.
What is the space into which God can bring resurrection? In one word: death. We cannot fully comprehend resurrection unless we have fully grappled with the reality of death. There is no Resurrection without Crucifixion. There is no empty tomb without an occupied tomb. As the Apostles’ Creed says,
He descended to the dead.
Three times Jesus’ disciples had heard him foretell his passion and death, and then say “on the third day rise again,” but it seems very clear to me from the various accounts of the resurrection that what actually happened came as a total surprise. The women in today’s Gospel reading were not going there to wait for Jesus to rise again, but simply to “see the tomb.” It was an act of mourning and grief that led them there in the pre-dawn greyness. They had seen their Lord die on the cross. They had seen his body lain in the tomb. They had kept the Sabbath, and they returned to their graveside vigil as soon as it was possible to do so.
They went in grief, in full knowledge of the actual death of their master. What happened at the tomb is shrouded in mystery: the four Gospel writers all tell the story a bit differently, as they strive to bear witness to a unique event. What happened at the tomb was unlike anything anyone had seen before, or has seen since, so it should is hardly surprising that the four stories differ. Police today will tell you that eye-witness testimony is highly unreliable, even when reporting something as commonplace as a motor vehicle accident. There is nothing commonplace about the Resurrection!
In this one great act, God reached into our human history and reset everything. What humankind had accepted as normal and expected as our due—the eternal nature of death—suddenly becomes not so! The Resurrection makes everything new for all humanity, with the promise of a new creation, a new way of living, a whole new reason for being.
It is always and eternally new—even if the story is 2,000 years old! It says that what was is now over—including and especially the ultimate rule of death. As Paul wrote:
We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.
It is so tempting to leapfrog the tough stuff: the Gethsemanes and Calvarys and silent tombs of our lives, and get immediately to the bright daylight of Easter. However, if we truly wish to enter the light, and to experience it for what it really is, we must first embrace the darkness. Barbara Brown Taylor, the noted Episcopalian teacher, preacher, and author, has recently published a book called “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” which I intend to read very soon.
In an interview about the book, she said this.
The great hope in the Christian message is not that you will be rescued from the dark but if you are able to trust God all the way into the dark, you may be surprised. 
I believe that my friends who hoped for a resurrection of their friendship needed first to trust that God was with them in the darkness of the loss of that friendship—and then God could surprise them with what the truly new looked like.
Two young people come for baptism on this holy night. The waters of baptism are a sign of cleansing and rebirth, to be sure, but before that they remind us of danger and death, like the waters of the sea that overwhelmed Pharaoh’s armies. Amazingly, almost beyond surprise, the people of Israel found themselves on the farther shore, set forth into their new life as God’s chosen people. The risen life—the life of the baptized—is a holy life of wholly unexpected surprises. Let us pray that God will part the waters for these two, leading them into a life of seeking not their wishes but God’s.
Let our alleluia’s tonight and in the days to come be shouted with joy and thanksgiving—and with a renewed sense of surprise and wonder at how God has made all things new.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
For many years, this week has been the most intense, the most emotional, and the most stressful time of the year. For clergy in Catholic tradition, the observance of Holy Week is at the same time the ultimate spiritual experience and professionally the most demanding few days one can imagine.
I used to be responsible for making sure that a whole week of services happened, from the “light into dark” of the Palm/Passion Sunday liturgy through the gathering darkness of the week to the blackness of Good Friday — and then to the new fire, and the glories of Easter Day. One of the secrets of clergy life is that Holy Week is never complete until the priest has completed the final act — the liturgy of the Holy Face Plant!
I rejoiced to be a part of this for many years, even as it was so exhausting physically, but spiritually fulfilling.
This year is different. I am not responsible for anything except for a few assigned roles. The pressure is off! That’s a good thing, to some extent. Except… I am feeling this lack of pressure rather keenly. Holy Week seems a little emptier this year, and I have to realize that this will be the case in the future. This year, for the first time in a quarter-century, I skipped the Maundy Thursday service in favour of family commitments. I am happy to be with my family, but I look at posts of pictures from services, and I know what I am missing.
Professional or vocational responsibilities are one thing. My spiritual life is another. The years ahead will help me find a new balance, when the one that is now so much less has probably outweighed the other in the years past.
I will be part of the rest of the paschal liturgies: Good Friday, the Great Vigil of Easter, and the glories of Easter Sunday. That will be good!
As a retired pastor who has had a lot of opportunity to reflect on the experience of being in parish ministry, I say a loud “Amen!” to this. The truth is that many clergy live out these things every day. Thanks to Pastor Matt for this.
Twenty plus years later I can tell you it has been a ride we never could have anticipated. So much so that only now do I feel equipped enough to share a…
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But on with the topic of respect…
In my previous post (Respect, part 1), I offered some reflections on respect in the context of the residential schools issue, and the hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As I was writing, I began recalling times in my ministry when I felt that I was not being treated with respect — and also times when I did not treat others respectfully. I have already blogged about one of them, and I don’t feel any need for further comment on that event.
There’s no need to rehearse old hurts, especially when some of them go back 25 years or more. I have striven to forgive people who have hurt me, and have sought to seek forgiveness for hurts I have inflicted. The past is past: let it be. As it has been said,Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.
We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it. One of the things I have learned in parish ministry is that parishioners don’t all deal with clergy in the same way. Some see clergy as “the help,” there to do the parish’s bidding, endlessly available to do whatever people ask. At the other pole are the people who put clergy on a pedestal, deferring to them as holy people with hotline to heaven. Neither position is truly respectful, seeing the cleric only in terms of the office, without really seeing the person in that office.
Clergy who are seen as hired hands become dispensable in their people’s eyes. When things aren’t going well — toss the chump! I’ve seen this happen to a number of colleagues. Everyone gets hurt, church and cleric alike, because the motivation is power, not love and respect.
Clergy on pedestals can only do one thing, and that’s fall off. We are human, and no human can ever fully live up to the exalted standard that others project on him or her. Clergy who allow themselves to be thus exalted are only setting themselves up for a fall. The fall can be long and hard. Again, I’ve seen this with some colleagues, some of whose egos and forceful personalities did not allow them to see that they could do any wrong.
Can we say that clergy who persist in either of these behaviour patterns respect neither their congregations nor themselves?
A healthy congregation-cleric relationship is based on mutual respect: valuing everyone’s gifts, acknowledging legitimate authority, accepting each other for who and what they are. The church’s prime message is one of love, God’s “steadfast love” (hesed) as in the Hebrew Scriptures, agapé as in the New Testament. We do best by each other, both lay and clergy, when we live what we preach.
In the Spirit which draws us into honest engagement with one another, including those who may be very different from us in various ways, God calls us to wake up and learn how to love and respect one another, period.
I. Carter Heyward
I spent two days listening at the Alberta National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). It was hard. I heard a number stories much like those I had heard from various people I encountered in Brandon, but the cumulative effect of the hearings was overpowering. It’s taken me almost two weeks to begin to process what I heard there, along with reactions from the media and a number of people I have spoken to personally.
One word sticks in my mind from the TRC: “respect.” I heard it used many times in a variety of ways by people speaking to the Commission. It is clear to me that the Residential Schools were born out of a lack of respect for our aboriginal peoples, and also that those peoples continue to struggle in our society with a continuing lack of respect. It is also clear to me that many of the survivors have struggled throughout their lives to regain some measure of self-respect. Perhaps the most moving stories for me were accounts of how individuals won that victory.
As I listened to the speakers, the thought kept going through my head that “Children learn what they live.” (That’s the title of a 1972 poem by Dorothy Law Nolte. Read it here.) Regardless of how well-intentioned some of the people working in it may have been (as I have heard some argue), the residential school system as a whole taught its students that their way of life, their languages, their very beings, were substandard, even evil. Churches participated in it out of a belief that they were doing the Lord’s work. By the standards of the day, that position might have been defensible, but in today’s post-Christendom world, I cannot see that it can be defended with any integrity.
For many centuries, the church was aligned implicitly and explicitly with the rulers of this world (See a good blog piece about that subject here.) Our involvement with the residential schools was a direct consequence of the assumption that preaching the Gospel necessarily entailed converting people from “savage” ways to something like European civilization.
It is — or should be — a matter of shame that Christian churches participated in a system that treated human beings as people undeserving of respect. At the heart of the Gospel is the assertion that we are all created in God’s image, all children of the same Creator, all equally deserving of one another’s love. The second great commandment, as Jesus taught it is “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” which begs the question “And who is my neighbour?”
Jesus answered it by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. The story pushes the boundaries of the idea of neighbour. To be a neighbour has less to do with where we live or how we are related than it does with the recognition that all other people are worthy of our love and compassion — our respect.
Treating aboriginal people without respect has stained our country with a legacy of racism, discrimination, and social and physical ills. It took many years for us to get to this place in our history, and it will take many years to find our way to a healthy and positive relationship between our various peoples, aboriginal and settler alike, a relationship based on realistic and hopeful mutual respect, as beloved children of the living God.
For what should we hope? Surely for the peace which Jesus came to give. So let us pray for that peace:
O God, it is your will to hold both heaven and earth in a single peace. Let the design of your great love shine on the waste of our wraths and sorrows, and give peace to your Church, peace among nations, peace in our homes, and peace in our hearts; through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
(Book of Alternative Services, p. 677)