This article was first published in 1998 in the newsletter of Edmonton’s Richard Eaton Singers, with whom I sang from 1988 to 2002. I am reviving it in response to a conversation with a friend about Messiah, and its place in contemporary traditions, particularly as a fixture of the Christmas season.
Although by far the best-known of Handel’s (or anyone’s) oratorios, Messiah is not typical of the form. Most of his other oratorios are more like operas, with dramatic scenes, and characters portrayed by soloists. The choir often takes a lesser role, in some cases substituting for the action of a fully staged opera. (Mendelsohn’s Elijah is a good example of this type of work.) Israel in Egypt, almost without solos, was Handel’s other notable departure from the norm—and it was unsuccessful in his time.
Messiah is different. Apart from the “angel” scene (from the “Pastoral Symphony” through “Glory to God”), there is neither character nor action. In the libretto he put together for Handel, Charles Jennings drew on Biblical texts reflecting on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, known as the Christ or the Messiah. (The two titles are the Greek and Hebrew words meaning “anointed one.”)
If there is no dramatic development in its layout, what then is the organizing idea behind its structure? In the middle of a performance of the work, it occurred to me that Jennings’ choice of texts has close parallels to the Nicene Creed. It draws our attention to the whole of the Creed’s second article and part of the third. On reflection, this should be no surprise: the Creed is simply a summary of the Christian faith, and Messiah aims to depict and reflect musically upon the “kernel” of that faith, particularly with respect to the person and work of Jesus.
Each of the Creed’s three articles corresponds to one of the three persons of the Trinity. The first expresses faith in the one God, the creator of all. While this belief of course underlies the entire work, Messiah makes no specific reference to it. The second article deals with Jesus, telling of his birth AND making theological statements about his divine and human nature, his death by crucifixion, and his resurrection. It ends with an expression of faith in his return to judge “the living and the dead.” The first two sections of Messiah deal with Jesus’ birth, his passion and resurrection, ending with “Hallelujah,” whose text exalts the eternal Lordship of Jesus the Messiah, closely paralleling the credal statement.
The theological heart of the Creed is the proclamation “on the third day he rose again.” (Lat. et resurrexit tertia die). Mass settings typically make much of this text. For example, a critical turning-point in Bach’s B-Minor Mass is the joyful outburst of “Et resurrexit” after the darkness and grief of the “Crucifixus.”
Although not perhaps presenting it as vividly as does Bach, Handel gives us a similar turning-point at the tenor solo “But thou didst not leave His soul in hell.” The oratorio’s first reference to the resurrection, this aria brings relief and lightness after the stress and drama of the passion section, breaking in on the somber recitative “He was cut off out of the land of the living.” The change of mood is immediate and notable, and the sense of joy increases as the section progresses. Even the somewhat stern selections from Psalm 2 (“Why do the nations,” “Let us break their bonds,” and “Thou shalt break them”) are properly seen as expressing thanks and praise in anticipation of God’s victory. “Hallelujah” is a fitting response to these pieces, releasing the tension in a way that does full justice to the Creed’s affirmation “He shall come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead.”
The third article of the Creed speaks of the Holy Spirit and the church, ending with the assertion of hope in the “life of the world to come.” (Lat. et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen, set especially dramatically in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis) Rarely performed in its entirety, Messiah’s third section is an extended meditation on the promise of resurrection through Jesus Christ. The link to the Creed’s closing affirmation is clear. For Part III Jennings drew heavily on 1 Corinthians 15, arguably the New Testament’s most important statement about the hope of the resurrection.
The final chorus “Worthy is the Lamb … Amen.” sums up the promise of the first section, the drama of the second, and the hope of the third.
In Messiah, Handel and his librettist have brought theology and music together in an unparalleled and happy union.
This is a working draft of a sermon which I decided not to use. Comments are welcome!
In the version of the Revised Common Lectionary used by our church, the Hebrew Bible readings in this summer have been working their way through the story of King David, the greatest hero of Israel’s history. We are told that he united the twelve tribes, established the capital in Jerusalem, and expanded the boundaries of the kingdom. He may have written many (certainly not all) of the psalms. Although the kingdom would only remain united until the reign of his grandson, he became the prototype of a great King. His symbol – the star of David – is the most important symbol of the modern state of Israel.
We have more information about his life and career than almost any other figure in the Hebrew Scriptures, taking up half of 1 Samuel and all of 2 Samuel.
In the lesson for Aug. 5 (2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a), we read of the pivotal moment in David’s reign, when the triumphs of his early reign start to turn to troubles for David and his family. Nathan’s accusation of David refers directly to the events recounted in last Sunday’s lesson, so it’s worthwhile to remind ourselves of that story.
Read that passage (2 Samuel 11:1-15) in full, or in brief: David was at home with his army away waging battle. He saw Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, bathing, and sent for her. When she became pregnant, he tried to cover up his involvement by bringing Uriah home, intending that he will go to his wife. Uriah did not do so, due to soldierly scruples, so David then sent him back to the war, directing that he be sent into the heaviest fighting where he will be killed. The verses between the two passages tell how Uriah died, and Bathsheba became David’s wife.
It’s not a pretty story, is it? He has committed the sins of adultery and murder, both of which carry the death penalty. When the people of Israel had demanded a king (1 Samuel 8:4-22), they told Samuel they wanted a King to lead them, so that they could be like the peoples around them. Samuel said they would get a King, but they wouldn’t like it. In this story, David has done some of the things which Samuel warned a king would do. (He’s dead by this point in the story, so he can’t say “Told you so!”)
Samuel’s prophetic role in David’s early career was taken over by Nathan the prophet, who would eventually anoint David’s son Solomon as King. He acted in a positive way earlier to tell David that he would not build a house for God, but that God would make of David “a house,” his dynasty. Now Nathan comes to challenge him, not by directly accusing him of his sins, but by telling him a story of rich man stealing a poor man’s ewe lamb. David was righteously angry, demanding death for the rich man. Nathan’s response turns David’s anger back at him.
David indeed deserved death for his sins. But God was merciful to him. Even though great troubles will come to David and his family, he will be spared the ultimate penalty.
David’s confession perhaps comes a bit too late, but it does reveal a man who understands that his power is limited, coming not from him, but from God, to whom he is ultimately accountable. He became King of Israel because God chose him. God had “unchosen” Saul, and he could just as easily do the same for David.
David wasn’t perfect – far from it, as we have seen – but he understood his place in the scheme of things. His power wasn’t absolute, and when he acted as if it was, he was forcibly reminded of how things should be. Absolute rulers have been quite common in human history. Perhaps the most incisive commentary on them is Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
King or Emperor, President for Life or Fuehrer – whatever we call such people, Shelley reminds us that their legacy will not last.
What saved David from the trash-heap of history was not his military prowess or his administrative genius. Rather, what kept him on the throne to become the progenitor of a long dynasty was his recognition that he served something greater than himself. Even if he didn’t always act that way, he understood that he served the people of Israel under God’s Law. He had a conscience and a moral compass, and when the chips were down, he placed himself under God’s judgment.
Our Canadian history of constitutional monarchy, going back through British history at least as far as 1215 (Magna Carta), is one of placing increasing limits on our rulers. No-one is above the law, just as David understood himself to be subject to God’s law. Leadership is an issue today, when the trend in many parts of the world is away from democracy to a more authoritarian model.
The story of David is an object-lesson in the limits of leadership, from which we can continue to learn in today’s troubled world. It applies wherever people are given power over other people: in business, in government, and even in the church. Leaders in all places need to keep aware that they are there not simply to serve their own needs and desires, but rather to serve others.
At one time I was considering writing a book of advice for young clergy. I was going to title it “It’s Not About You.” Much of what I might have written (and still might) would apply not just to clergy (although that’s what I know best), but I believe to leadership in other areas.
Notes for a sermon on John 6:1-21, July 29, 2018,
Holy Trinity Anglican Church (Strathcona), Edmonton
Some life-changing events come about almost by accident. I had an epiphany once at a clergy conference on Christian Education. The presenter was talking about how various kinds of educational events and programs attract people at various stages of spiritual development. In part of her talk, she said that one group of people were the sort who would always support certain programs, but we shouldn’t expect there to be very many of them.
Then she stopped, saying that she got very impatient with people who said things like “We had a mission event, and it was a total failure – only 6 people showed up!” “What do you mean, ONLY 6? You had 6 people who were moved to turn up. God sent you those people. Give thanks for that, and work with them!”
After that digression, she resumed her prepared talk, but I don’t recall taking much of it in. I had been totally blown away by what I had just heard. I sat and thought about it, realizing that it was just what Jesus did in the first part of our Gospel for today.
The feeding of the 5,000 was a major event in Jesus’ ministry. It’s one of the few stories that appears in all four Gospels, with the details nearly identical between them, and in all four it is followed immediately by Jesus walking on the water. We could spend a lot of time speculating on the “how” of the story; to do that seems to me rather to miss the point.
Jesus’ exchange with Phillip and Andrew shows how the disciples are thinking: there is not enough to feed the masses, and there’s no reasonable expectation that they could get enough together to do it. There’s just not enough! What Jesus does is not to ask if there’s enough, but rather to ask what they can put their hands on. Five loaves and two fish! A realist might say at that time “Better send them all home – there’s nothing we can do.” Jesus has a different idea: he takes what God has provided, gives thanks, and proceeds to work with what he has.
Against all expectations, the people were fed, with 12 baskets left over.
How it happened is unanswerable. What happened is clear: as the story has come to us, Jesus acted, and people were fed. He challenged his disciples’ scarcity mindset. He used what was at hand to show that God’s generosity will not be limited. Why it happened is the point: very simply, to demonstrate God’s unbounded love in action.
Against all expectations, God’s abundance will defeat our myth of scarcity – every time! But like Phillip and Andrew we need to learn to trust in it.
But isn’t the scarcity narrative powerful? Our society is built on the notion of shortages. People believe there is never enough, so we hoard our wealth and live in fear of running short. It becomes a dog-eat-dog world, dedicated to the survival of the fittest, as people compete for what we believe are increasingly scarce resources.
I believe the results are clear.
There are people going hungry all over the world, not just in far-flung places, but in homes in this wealthy province.
There are people without access to clean water, not just in far-flung places, but in areas of our country largely populated by Indigenous people.
There are people without adequate (or any) housing, not just in far-flung places, but within a few blocks of this church building.
Why does this happen? I believe it is because we become so focused on scarcity that we lose our trust in God’s abundance and God’s desire to share this bounty with all of God’s people.
The scarcity bug often infects the church. “We can’t do that, because we don’t have…” (fill in the blanks!)
Not long after that clergy conference I had the opportunity to put my epiphany into practice. The parish where I was then the Rector was joining a multi-church program called NeighborLink. The program pools volunteers from churches to provide helping services to people in the community. Each participating church recruits a coordinator and a roster of volunteers, who are then deployed through a central office. We had appointed a coordinator and put out a call for volunteers with a date set for commissioning them.
Three weeks before the date, the coordinator came into my office and said, “Robin, we’ve got to pull the plug. It won’t work. We have only three volunteers.” Thinking that we had no reasonable expectation of any more, I was about to agree, when I thought of that insight from the conference. “Wait a second,” I said, “we have three volunteers. Let’s give thanks for them, and then work with what God has given us.” She sat there for a moment looking stunned, and then said, “Maybe you’re right.”
Against all expectations, three weeks later we commissioned 10 volunteers.
It wasn’t quite 5 loaves and 2 fish feeding 5,000, but it certainly felt a bit like that. We trusted in God’s goodness, gave thanks, and worked with what we had.
My friends, let us strive never to live with a mindset of scarcity, but rather rejoice in the abundance of God’s creation, giving thanks for all things at all times.
Jesus came to show us God’s love in action.
Against all expectations, he fed people in their time of hunger.
Against all expectations, he brought peace to his disciples, terrified on the storm-tossed sea.
Against all expectations, he defeated the powers of sin and death by giving up his own life.
Against all expectations, he lived God’s love in a world which so desperately needed (and still needs) to know it.
Against all expectations, he showed that God’s love can never be exhausted.
Against all expectations, he loves us all.
May we live in that love, rejoicing in God’s inexhaustible abundance. Let us give thanks, and then let us work with what God has given us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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.
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.
…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.
Reflections on Joseph of Arimathea
Today at the “Saints Eucharist” at Holy Trinity we remembered Joseph of Arimathea. He is mentioned only once in each of the four Gospels (Matthew: 27:57-60; Mark 15:43-46; Luke 23:50-55; John 19:38-42), but all affirm that he gave his tomb for the burial of Jesus. There are various post-Biblical legends about him, including a trip to Britain, where he is said to have planted the holy thorn tree that grows at Glastonbury. He is also said to have taken the Holy Grail with him, and hidden it somewhere in that vicinity. (Holy Grail: the cup used at the Last Supper.)
We had a short discussion about this before beginning the Eucharist, focussing on the question of why people thought it necessary to remember someone for things that very likely did not happen, glossing over the one solid piece of evidence about his life. Giving a tomb for Jesus’ burial was an act of devotion and generosity that had profound importance in the Gospel story: why can’t we be satisfied with that? Joseph isn’t alone in this. There are other New Testament figures about whom various legends grew up, mostly without solid attestation, often imputing miraculous lives to these individuals.
The speculation we entertained was that people are often not satisfied with “ordinary” events as a medium of seeing God in action. If we can ascribe super-natural acts to someone, it may be a more obvious way to see the divine at work in human life. We have trouble understanding something as simple as giving a grave for someone’s burial as an “Act of God“. Insurance companies understand that term as something mostly unpredictable and entirely outside human control. But surely Joseph’s simple deed was divinely inspired, advancing the story of salvation history in a small but vital way. No burial = no death. No death = no resurrection. No resurrection = no salvation.
I believe that God is at work in ordinary human lives in ways that most people have trouble perceiving or articulating. Having a cup of tea with a lonely senior is just as much an Act of God as a hurricane. The Kingdom of God — how things ought to be — can be seen in the very small and (apparently) very ordinary. When we see it, the ordinary becomes extraordinary, revealing what was there all along for us to see — hiding in plain sight.
Being one of “the saints” should not mean being somehow superhuman and supernatural. It should rather mean being a person whose life displays what God intended for human life — sometimes apparently very ordinary, but touching other people in a way that makes God’s ways visible. If we look with the eyes of the spirit, we will see God at work in all sorts of people around us, not necessarily in the supernatural kind of miracle (whose existence I am not denying), but showing forth God’s love, mercy, and grace in many different ways in daily life.
We are all called to be saints — to make visible what God intends for this world. Many who are working out their salvation “in fear and trembling” are all around us. Look for them. They don’t have halos. They don’t always glow with otherworldly radiance. But they reveal to all who will see what holy living is all about.
Joseph of Arimathea did a holy thing: he was a holy person. We remember him for this one special deed.
Look around you today. Who is doing holy things? God’s saints are hiding in plain sight everywhere we care to look, everywhere we turn the eyes of our spirits. See them. Pray for them. Give thanks for them. Love what they do, and do what they love.
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God;
everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. (1 John 4:7)