Archive | Sermons and theological discussions RSS for this section

Looking Through the Cross

Notes for a sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 at Holy Trinity Anglican Church (Strathcona) on Sunday, March 4, 2018.

What do we see when we look at the cross?

2000px-Coa_Illustration_Cross_Easter.svg.pngI am sure that everyone of us would answer this question in differing personal, theological, and spiritual terms. I am no less sure that we here today share something in how we behold the cross. After all, it has been the principal symbol of our faith since the 4th century. We know about Jesus’ death on the cross. We decorate many of our churches with crosses of all descriptions. Some of us make the sign of the cross. Many people wear crosses on their persons.

The cross is all around us. When a symbol is so all-pervasive, it can become a constant reminder of the reality behind it or … sad to say, it can become wallpaper. We live with it, but it rarely affects us.

When Paul came to Corinth, he did not come carrying a cross, but rather bearing “the message about the cross.” Some people received the message he proclaimed, but many others dismissed it.

Depending upon their background, they heard Paul’s message as a “stumbling block” or simply “foolishness.”

Foolishness? If you expect your God to be a mighty and victorious warrior, immortal and invincible, proclaiming the divinity of a person who died a shameful death is nonsensical. “Real” Gods don’t do that kind of thing!

Stumbling block? If you expect your Messiah to be visibly blessed and honored by God, the assertion that a victim of crucifixion is the Christ is outrageous. More than that, it is scandalous, in the Hebrew sense that it is heard as something that causes a person to sin. (Note that our word “scandal” comes from the Greek for “stumbling block” — skandalon.)

Whichever way people heard it, the actual story of the cross of Christ was clear and immediate to the people of Corinth—a city of the Roman Empire, a regime which kept the peace through violence and intimidation. Rome’s ultimate means of punishment was crucifixion, which was reserved for the worst enemies of the state. In 2018 it is an act about which we must remind ourselves, but in the year 50 in Corinth, it was a common presence in people’s lives. No one needed to be told what it meant.

And today? Can we still be scandalized by the cross? Do we ever see it as mere foolishness? I would suggest that the answer to both questions is “yes,” in the wider world to be sure, but also among folk who are seeking to follow Jesus.

Our Thursday morning study group has just read a book by the late Christopher Lind, entitled “Rumors of a Moral Economy.” Lind wrote of how contemporary society is dominated by a competition-driven economy, which when allowed to function without restraint leads to greater and greater concentration of wealth, and a diminution of the common good.

In pure competition, there are only winners and losers: a system at best indifferent to human needs. In a competition-driven world, proclaiming Christ crucified can easily be heard as exalting a loser.

Lind’s book also pointed to how a moral economy must be rooted in community and a sense of the common good. When community breaks down (as it easily does in a purely competitive situation), people become isolated, and spiritual needs often end up being expressed in questions about what God can do for us. When faith is all about meeting our own needs, nothing less than a totally divine saviour will do, and then we stumble over the idea that Jesus ended his life rejected by all. Some of them will say, “Well, Jesus really was God, so the crucifixion didn’t really matter.” This is an ancient heresy, called “Docetism,” the belief that Jesus only seemed to be human.

Make no mistake: Jesus was as human as you and me. He ate and drank, he slept, he wept, he felt all the things we do. And just as surely, he died as all of us will in our own time.

Jesus gave up his life on the cross to reveal the power and the wisdom of God—already embodied in his own person.

As Paul wrote:

… though he was in the form of God,
   (he) did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.                                       (Philippians 2:6-8)

The cross defies any ordinary human explanation. There’s no logical deduction, no “standard wisdom,” no simple text-book answer that leads us to the truth of the message Paul brought to Corinth.

God’s power and glory is revealed here, not in a mighty triumph, but in the death of one who was sinless, who gave up his life as a holy sacrifice on behalf of all of God’s people. It is the ultimate act of self-identification with us: all whom Jesus came to redeem.

So: what do we see when we look at the cross?

Let me rephrase the question: what do we see not when we look AT the cross, but when we look THROUGH it?

It is not so much the cross that should demand our attention, but the reality that lies behind and beyond it: the loving-kindness of the God who loved us into being, who loved us enough to send his Son, and who loves us and all humanity every day of our lives.

Let us then hold the cross before us.

Let us see in and through it how Jesus laid down his life for us, in the ultimate and defining act of love, in words from the 1st letter of John.

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.                                                    (1 John 3:16)

And Jesus said

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (John 15:12)

The message of the cross is the power of God, and the power of God is love. May this be our proclamation in word and deed, today and always.

Amen.

Advertisements

I 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.

Mark 11:25:  
‘Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.’

Luke 7:37-38
‘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.’

Luke 11:4
And forgive us our sins,
     for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
   And do not bring us to the time of trial.

Luke 17:3-4
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.

I-Choose-To-Forgive

Is it about you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Community that Sends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And… therefore…

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

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

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God…

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

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

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

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

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

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

God loves ALL his people—and so should we!

Let’s go and show it.

Hiding in plain sight

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: 27:57-60Mark 15:43-46Luke 23:50-55John 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 discusstombion 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)

heartofholiness

 

Living in the Middle

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

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

Polarity_Map cropped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We live in the middle.

And yet…

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

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

Amen.

The language of reconcilation — in one word

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

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

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

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

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

Visiting: ministry for all

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

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

sell ice cream

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

Except…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On bishops and other callings

bishop-mitre-h-87A good friend and colleague recently disclosed that he had been chosen as one of the four final candidates in an election for Bishop. (Read about it here.) It put me into a reflective mood, recalling the occasions when I had a brush with episcopal office.

The first time was in 1997 in the Diocese of Edmonton, my home and current diocese. I had been serving as an Archdeacon for a couple of years, and for the first time had had some significant interactions with people in other parishes. Out of that came a request from someone present in one of those events that I allow her to put my name forward in the upcoming election of a new bishop. I was quite daunted by the idea, even though I admit to being flattered by the request. After some thought and prayer and discussion with my wife, I decided to let it happen.

The search committee asked each candidate to submit a fairly large bundle of material, including a detailed CV in a particular format, and a personal statement about ministry, and my sense of the episcopal office and how I might fill it if I were so called.

Assembling the CV was a good exercise: it was the first time since my ordination that I had put all of my work history down in one place. The document turned out to be much longer than I expected, considering I had only been ordained for 10 years. I felt a real sense of accomplishment when I re-read it after finishing.

The statement was quite another matter. I sweated blood over it, reading, thinking, praying, writing, tearing up, writing again, finally telling myself that it wasn’t going to get any better. It may be the best piece of writing I’ve ever done. In the years since, I have returned to it often, to check up on my continuing sense of vocation, and where my ministry is headed.

At the electoral synod, I was seated with the rest of the clergy, as required for voting. My wife was sitting in the observers’ seats at the back of the Cathedral, along with some other people from my parish. The preliminaries having been taken care of, we proceeded to vote, and then to sit and wait for the results. I wasn’t dead last in that first ballot, but pretty close, with 2 clergy and 3 lay votes. I knew who the clergy votes came from (me and my proposer), but to this day I have no idea who were the 3 laypeople who felt I was the best choice for bishop. On the second ballot, it was down to 1 clergy and 2 lay votes, still not the very bottom, but it seemed like a good time to drop out and stop wasting people’s time. The folks from the parish said they could all hear my wife’s sigh of relief when my withdrawal was announced.

That day, the diocese of Edmonton elected the Rt. Rev. Victoria Matthews as the first female diocesan bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada.

The second time I found myself on an episcopal election slate was for the Diocese of Qu’Appelle in 2006. I had been quite astonished to get the call from their search committee asking me whether I would accept the nomination. (My proposer had not contacted me first, as should have happened.) I asked for some time to consider it, coming as it was more or less out of the blue. My wife and I talked about it at length, and I  consulted my Bishop of the day. I was less than 3 years into a new ministry, and it hardly seemed the time to leave.

Nonetheless…
A call like this did not seem to be one that could be ignored — it might well be of the Spirit. My bishop suggested that the only real way to determine that was to let my name stand. And so I did. It felt quite different from Edmonton in 1997. For one thing, I would be moving to a completely new city, working with people I did not know at all. For another, that Diocese is a land of wide-open spaces, and many small multi-point charges. As bishop, I would likely spend much of my time in long-distance driving. The final thing was that I was nine years older and more experienced, and had a much better sense of my own capabilities and what the office of Bishop entailed.

The documentation they required was much like that asked for in 1997, so had most of it more or less ready to go, after another revisit to my personal ministry statement.

The results of that election were somewhat more gratifying. There were six candidates, and I ran a solid third until the third and final ballot. My good friend Gregory Kerr-Wilson was elected that day, while I sat at home in Brandon with my phone handy, waiting for results of the ballots.

That’s the story, although there’s an epilogue of sorts. I was approached to let my name stand in another election a year or two later. After considerable thought and prayer, I concluded that I did not hear the call to episcopal office, and did not let my name stand.

The formal processes I went through were quite different from the one my friend is in. Nonetheless, it is very clear to me that the internal process of seeking to discern a call to ministerial office is much the same however it may be externally structured. The writing of my personal ministry statement was an important turning point in my own ministry, and the document became one of the touchstones of my continuing vocation.

I learned, particularly in the 1997 election, that vocation must be heard within, and that requires intense prayer. My understanding of prayer is that it begins with listening, not with telling God what you want God to do. That became abundantly clear in 1997, in 2006, and then when I declined nomination.

Did I ever want to be a Bishop? I don’t know. I do know that some people say that anyone who really want the office shouldn’t get it — but probably deserves it. The office is almost impossible, but some people of my acquaintance have managed to make it look easy. I know that’s not true. I am also quite sure that, had I been elected, I would probably have managed to make it look very difficult!

Thanks be to God for all who let their names stand for Bishop.
And thanks be to God for all Bishops who serve Christ in His Church.

 

Under Authority

Notes for a sermon on Luke 7:1-10, preached on May 29, 2016 at Holy Trinity Anglican Church (early service)
and Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church (English service).

ACofC logoELCiC logo

About 15 years ago, on a beautiful Sunday morning in July, I walked with the rest of the Diocese of Edmonton’s General Synod delegation from the Waterloo University residences to the university arena. There we joined with other Anglicans and Lutherans from every part of Canada, and many people from the area around. We joined in a grand and joyful celebration, during the course of which Archbishop Michael Peers and National Bishop Telmor Sartisan signed what is now known as the Waterloo Declaration. Since that time, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada have been in Full Communion. [Pastor Jason’s] [My] presence here today is one of the fruits of that relationship. Trinity Lutheran and Holy Trinity Anglican have been working at building a relationship based on Waterloo.

The years leading up to that day were a time of dialogue between our churches, beginning with discussion among theologians, moving out into the dioceses and synods, and eventually into congregations. In my first charge, I was delighted to share a celebration of shared communion with the neighbouring Lutheran congregation. A few years later, in a different community, after the release of the proposed Waterloo Declaration, I participated with parishioners in a study of the proposed text, along with counterparts from the Lutheran congregation from just down the street.

We had very good discussions over four weeks, but things came to a head when a man from the Lutheran congregation said that this was all very interesting, but what difference would it make to their church? I told him that if their Pastor received another call, and they were in the call process, they would be free to call me if they so desired. “But… but… you are not Lutheran!” was his spluttered response. Aha!

So… what is this all about?

One several levels, it’s about authority, which is one of the underlying themes of today’s Gospel reading. It appears to be a simple story: Jesus is interrupted (something that happens all the time in his ministry) and asked to go to heal the slave of a centurion. Without actually meeting the slave or his master, Jesus effects the healing from a distance. A miracle!

We could leave it there, rejoicing in Jesus’ mastery over the forces of evil and disease. But let’s take a closer look at the story, and especially at the centurion, the second most important character, even though he never appears.

He’s quite a surprising character. The fact that he paid for the synagogue in Capernaum sets him apart immediately as a friend to the people whose land his army is occupying. He is a soldier with a heart, who cares deeply for his sick slave. He recognizes Jesus as a holy man who can help him. He knows enough about Jewish customs and beliefs not to risk defiling Jesus with his physical presence, or asking him into his house. What he has done has already pushed the boundaries of ordinary expectations.

Jesus’ response also pushes those boundaries. His ability to heal the sick is not constrained by space, ethnicity, or social status. Rather, he reaches out to someone beyond his community who recognizes Jesus’ authority, when the centurion declares:

For I also am a man set under authority…

Although he is set under authority, and wields it over others, the centurion’s power is limited. He can’t heal his slave without appealing to Jesus’ authority. Jesus likewise is “set under authority,” doing the will of his Father in heaven in bringing healing to this world.

“Authority” has a particular meaning in the New Testament. It is associated with power—the ability to do things—but it is more than that. Having authority implies the legal or moral right to exercise power, which means that the power and the right come from elsewhere. The centurion has authority under the rules of the Roman Empire and its army. Jesus’ authority comes from God alone.

After the Resurrection, Jesus committed his authority to proclaim and to build the Reign of God to his disciples. We read in John 20:21

Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’

We are the inheritors of Jesus’ authority, and so we are called to exercise that authority in the knowledge of its source. It comes ultimately from God, through Jesus, through the apostles, down the ages in the Church with all its historical twists and turns, to us today, in this building in this city in this year.

Authority brings responsibility. Power can never be left idle. Having the ability to do good demands of us that we actually do good. Power must also be exercised rightly. The moral or legal right to do things does not mean that whatever we do is the right thing.

It is no accident that the Church has devoted a huge amount of energy over the centuries to the matter of authority. It goes back right into the New Testament, beginning in Acts, when the eleven remaining apostles added Matthias to their number, only after making certain that he had the right history. Later the Church in Jerusalem needed to check Paul’s credentials before agreeing that his mission could continue. First Timothy contains a detailed list of qualifications for a bishop.

In today’s Church, as both Lutherans and Anglicans have received it, we give great attention to authorizing people to the ministry of word and sacrament. For both communions, these are crucial matters. Article VII of the Augsburg Confession says this:

The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.

You can find almost the same words in Article XIX of the (Anglican) Articles of Religion.

We spend a huge amount of our institutional energy in trying to ensure that the people who lead our congregations—both lay and ordained—are properly authorized. Some people may view that at as a waste of time, but I would submit that it is of utmost importance. Jesus was “under authority.” He left his church under the same authority. We are under God’s authority, called to help build God’s kingdom in this world.

May all our doings, corporate and individual, display our commitment to doing our Lord’s will.

Amen.