A sermon this morning on Genesis 12:1-4a (the call of Abram) started me thinking about various times in my life I have stepped out of what might be expected, and gone where the call has led.
The first was not of my own volition, but my parents’. When I was only three years old, they decided to pull up roots in England and transplant our family to Canada. We settled in Drumheller, Alberta, a far cry from the great metropolis of London where I was born. I don’t know exactly how my parents felt about it at the time, but it became clear over the years that being so far from family and old friends was difficult for both of them, especially my mother. My early years in this country were marked by a sense of being “not quite at home,” a feeling that has stayed with me throughout my life.
The second such event came when I left teaching school to return to Edmonton, and to do… I wasn’t quite sure what! All my spouse and I knew was that we couldn’t stay where we were, and the opportunities were far greater in the city where we had both attended University. Some family members were horrified that I would give a seemingly secure and respectable job to search for something different.
That move led to a graduate degree, a job with our Provincial Government, and us settling down as a family. But God had other ideas. After nine years in that job, we again pulled up stakes and left for Saskatoon for me to enter theological college. I had no real idea where this was leading, except for the conviction that I was called to go down this road.
The road led to ordination and the call to be the pastor of a small-town parish. It was a great adventure, but not without its problems. After a few years there, I moved on to a suburban parish, where I stayed almost thirteen years. In time, I felt the need to move on: I accepted a call to become Dean and Rector of St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Brandon, Manitoba.
This was another move into the unknown: a new parish, a new city, a new province, and a new diocese. I didn’t realize at the time just how big a move this would be. Local customs are different, even at the relatively small remove of a couple of Canadian provinces. But we persisted, through some great years, and some not-so-great, until my retirement in 2013.
Each one of those moves required a measure of faith. In every case, I had the sense that I was going where I had to go, except perhaps the first one, when I had no choice in the matter.
In two of the places where I served the Church, I had conversations with people whose whole lives had been centered on that place. Many of them were puzzled why I might want to live somewhere else: “[town] has everything a person needs.” That may have been true, but going elsewhere was not contingent upon needs, but upon a call, just as Abram heard God’s call to leave home and family and travel to “a land which I will show you.”
I have been on this journey all my life, and now God has brought me to a place where I might reasonably hope to live out my days in peace and reasonable comfort. Sometimes, though, I find myself wondering…
Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity Strathcona, Sept. 25, 2016
Texts: Jeremiah 32:1-3A, 6-15; 14-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
At one time I was deeply involved in Stewardship in this Diocese, including 1½ years as Stewardship and Planned Giving Officer. In that capacity, I received many preaching invitations, most often to parishes that perceived themselves as needing help in their finances.
“Stewardship” has become an important word in church life over the last few decades. We did various financial programs before that, but an apparent overemphasis on money per se led us to look for a more “theological” term. It’s not a bad word—it has both biblical and theological import—but it seems to me that it has become a code-word for how we fund the church. I believe most church people, if asked, would now say that stewardship is about getting more money out of church members.
In my last parish, I got a strong negative reaction if I raised the question of Stewardship programs. Previous programs had used some strong-armed tactics. It ended up putting them in a worse financial situation than they might otherwise have been.
A few years ago the church renamed our national office of Stewardship and Financial Development as “Resources for Mission,” emphasizing that the main thing is the Church’s mission, which requires a variety of resources, including, but not limited to, money.
The church sits uneasily with money. I read of a recent meeting of national staff in which they had concluded that we need a new theology of money. I would agree, but I would drop the word “new”—have we have had any really coherent teaching on this subject? Historical church attitudes to money have veered between the extremes of seeking either great wealth or intentional poverty.
In my various parish visits for Stewardship preaching, the clergy often said to me that they were grateful that the Diocese had someone to come and talk about these things, things which made them very uncomfortable. I understand that: a parish priest speaking about money from the pulpit cannot help but be aware that his or her own stipend is a major line item in the parish’s budget—in many cases the largest single expense. It can sound like you’re begging—even if your theology of stewardship is totally sound.
This brings me to today’s lessons, all of which have something to do with money. Maybe they will help us (and maybe also Church House!) get a handle on a theology of money.
First, I Timothy, the source of one of the commonest and most erroneous Bible quotes. People often say that “money is the root of all evil,” but note what is actually written:
…the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.
It is not money that matters but what we do with it in our lives and in our hearts. Money per se is ethically neutral, a convenient means of exchange, a means to an end, whether good or evil. It has no real existence beyond that, but how we regard it and use it has immense spiritual significance.
…in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.
And further on,
(The rich) are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.
It’s what we do with it that counts. God’s Mission is the all-important thing. If we have wealth, we are charged to use it for God’s purposes before ours. Regardless of our own personal wealth or poverty, the challenge is to seek the good, to look to know what will help advance the Kingdom of God in this world, and to use our God-given resources towards that goal.
Sometimes it may be very unclear what will actually advance the Kingdom. The prophet Jeremiah lived in just such a time of great uncertainty and anxiety. The Babylonians were threatening the Kingdom of Judah, the kings were weak, and the people had retreated behind a triumphalist theology. (God had made a covenant with them and would not allow his holy city and temple to fall. All they had to do was invoke his name.) The prophet saw otherwise, understanding the reality of the threat, and the people’s confidence to be misplaced. So he does a prophetic action: he buys some land. This looks like madness when the invading hordes are at your gates, but he offers it as a sign of hope. This may not seem the right time to affirm God’s purposes (probably better to be getting all your stuff together in preparation), but Jeremiah asserts that now is the time to work for the Kingdom.
If not me, then who?
If not here, then where?
If not now, then when?
The answer he gives us is “Me, here, and now.” It is always the right time and place to do God’s work.
And do it we must, lest we end like the rich man in the Gospel. There’s much else that could be said about this story, but it seems that at least part of the message is the injunction to do good when the opportunity presents itself. The rich man had years in which he could have helped Lazarus, but he did nothing. As Jesus tells it, the consequences are clear.
Notwithstanding the current recession, we live in one of the most fortunate countries in the world. The vast majority of our people are well-fed, decently housed, educated, and in good health. We have been given great riches, as a people, and as individuals.
Let us then not fail to use what God has given us for the good of God’s people and God’s world.
Let us keep the eyes of our Spirits open, that we may see the need around us.
And let us keep all of our resources at the ready to do God’s work.
May it be so.
Clergy get guilted a lot.
“You did this…”
“You didn’t do that…”
“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.
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.
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.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about promises. We find them in all kinds of situations and relationships: marriages, employment, politics, just to name the first three that come to mind. We make many promises in life, and many of us are very aware of making promises that we could not keep. That’s a very human thing.
A promise is an interesting thing. It’s a statement that we will do something in the future. Some are conditional, as in “I’ll do such-and-such if you do thus-and-so.” Others are unconditional, as in “I’ll do such-and-such, come what may.” Conditional promises are the ordinary day-to-day stuff of business. Contracts are essentially bilateral promises: “We will let you have this car for the next 2 years, as long as you keep up your lease payments.” Letting down our side of the promise empowers the other party to invoke whatever penalty or escape clauses there are in the contract. Miss too many car payments, lose your car. It’s pretty simple. Most of us understand conditional promises quite well.
Unconditional promises are another thing entirely. In the rites of the Anglican Church of Canada, marriage and ordination vows are both unconditional. The ordinand or spouse makes certain promises about future behaviour, without any conditions or implied penalty clauses. The sad fact is, however, that many people approach these unconditional promises as if they were conditional. I’ve seen that in a number of weddings at which I have officiated. Maybe not at the weddings, but certainly in the later history of the couples. There’s no need to cite particular cases, because I am sure that most of us know people who have approached their marriage vows this way.
As for ordinations, in our church candidates make a whole slew of promises. [You can read them on pages 646-7 (for priests) or 655-6 (for deacons) in the Book of Alternative Services for the actual promises.] The content of the promises is one thing. The nature of the promises is another. When I was ordained priest, the preacher explicitly used the imagery of marriage to talk about our new relationship with the Church. The promises are unconditional, except as implied in the final exhortation from the Bishop:
“May the Lord who has given you the will to do these things give you the grace and power to perform them.“
To which the ordinand replies, “Amen.”
What happens when marriage or ordination vows are broken? In the first case, all kinds of personal and relational damage: broken homes, damaged children, financial ruin, injury, and even death. In the second case, the results are sometimes less clear. When a priest or deacon strays from the ordination vows, the resulting hurts may be less immediate, but they can be deep and long-lasting in a community which has relied on his or her pastoral guidance.
Clergy are only human, and the church is a human institution, but both are supposed to be dedicated to the goal of building God’s Kingdom. As a friend describes it, that’s the way things are supposed to be, while we live in the world of the way things are.
Clergy failings happen, but they create all sorts of difficulties among God’s people, hindering rather than building up the Kingdom.
But let’s not forget that clergy are one party to an implied promise, between congregation and cleric. When clergy receive a call from a new parish, the parish is implicitly making a promise about what the relationship entails. This is spelled out in the rites for Celebration of a New Ministry in the Canadian “Book of Occasional Celebrations.” There is an implied contract between congregation and minister, which is actually made specific in the Canons of the General Synod (see especially Canons XVII, XVIII & XIX), and the various Diocesan Canons and policies which apply.
Parishes and clergy make reciprocal promises, but at times the promises are treated as conditional, as in, “We’ll have you as our priest/pastor/minister (choose your preferred language!), as long as you behave yourself, treat us right, and we’re able to pay you according to scale.” Other promises can be made in the course of clergy search processes, sometimes implying that the parish is something other than what it is. That’s deception, whether or not it is intentional!
Let’s go back to marriage. Deception about the true state of things is grounds for declaring a marriage null and void, resulting in an “annulment” in the language of the civil courts. Our church’s Canon on Marriage gives extensive grounds for such a declaration. (See section III of Canon XXI in the Canons of the General Synod.) Some years ago, I had occasion to process such an application for a woman who was sure that what she had entered into was no marriage. I was gratified to learn that the courts of the church agreed with her. Her supposed spouse had deceived her about his nature and his intentions in entering into the covenant of marriage. It was a hugely painful process to work through it with her, but there was much healing in the result.
Broken promises made conditionally are relatively easy to deal with. Broken promises made unconditionally are much harder problems. Marriages, ordinations, and appointment of clergy are the examples that I have had cause to think about recently. They are all modeled on promises God made to the people of God, the covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, which lead us to the New Covenant made with Jesus.
Jesus promised “I am with you always.” We strive to be always with those we love, whether spouses, the Church, or congregations. We fail at times. May we find loving ways of dealing with our failures, and the failures of those we love.
The last, and perhaps most important, question is what to do about broken promises. I have no great solution at hand. Broken promises break all sorts of things, estrange people, make enemies, cause hurts, damage lives. Sometimes reconciliation is in view, sometimes not. What I do know is that reconciliation is the ministry that Christ left to his people.
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. (2 Cor 5:18-19)
I feel sick at heart. In some ways, I should be rejoicing: a major issue for which I have advocated for years has taken a huge step forward in our church. A big issue in the choir in which I sing and serve on the executive is very close to resolution. My personal life is placid, calm, full of blessings.
I picked up this week’s issue of Maclean’s Magazine, to which I’ve subscribed for many years, and was immediately discouraged by the cover headline: “The Republic of Fear.” I browsed through it, and promptly threw it to one side. So many of the stories had something to do with how badly things are going in today’s world. I may pick it up again and read some of it, but tonight it only served to remind me of how troubled I am about what is going on today:
There are so many violent incidents in the news: Nice, Baton Rouge (twice), Minneapolis, Turkey, Dallas, Calgary, ISIL, just to name a few. Guns seem to the rule of the day, and for the life of me, I just don’t understand the gun-ownership mentality of
There are so many leaders preaching negative thoughts: in the wider world I thinkof Trump, Clinton (somewhat less), Teresa May, Putin. Locally, I read my newspaper, the Edmonton Journal, and see so much negative thinking in the people who write in it and to it, with the exception of Paula Simons.
The reaction of some of our church’s bishops to the big issue, whether our church will allow clergy to officiate at marriages of same-gender couples, has been very depressing. They feel disrespected and abandoned by the rest of the church. I am sorry for that, but the language in which these statements have been made makes me feel disrespected
I could go on, but what’s the point? The world sometimes seems to be so full of negativity these days, when all I wish for is that people could love each other, care for each other, treat each other as beloved children of our God. And what I see is more and more hatred
Where is this leading? I don’t know, and sometimes (like when I tossed Maclean’s aside tonight) I don’t want to know. What I know is that God calls us to live in the love God has declared towards all people.
“Love your neighbour.” Yes!
And the lawyer asked , “Who is my neighbour?”
Jesus’ answer (the parable of the Good Samaritan) is basically this:
“Who is not your neighbour?”
We don’t get to choose who to love.
The only choice is whether or not to love — and that’s no choice at all.
Brothers and sisters, let us learn to love each other as God first love us. Without that, there may be no hope for the human race. For those who see guns as the answer to all the problems of the world, I can only say: “I love you.”
A 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.
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.
I had a brief exchange with a Facebook friend the other day. The friend is a baseball fan; I am not. To be truthful, I’m not much of a fan of any sport. OK, I’ll watch the occasional hockey game, and once in a while I’ll turn on a Canadian Football League game, but on the whole, my life proceeds very well without watching any sports, whether on TV or live.
It hasn’t always been so. In my first year of university, some of the great events of my first year living in residence were the football parties. A black-and-white TV, several pizzas, and the inevitable and (then-illegal) cases of beer. And all sorts of guys hanging around having a good time. The action on the fuzzy screen was almost incidental. I’ve never played football, except a couple of ill-advised forays into “touch” football, both of which ended with many bruises and sore joints for most participants.
I used to watch the Edmonton Oilers on TV, back in the glory days of the ’80’s w
hen Wayne Gretzky was in his prime. I enjoyed the daring and skill the team displayed, even if I’ve never really understood the game’s subtleties. My love for the Oilers started to wane when Gretzky was traded to LA in 1988. The only other hockey I ever watched much of was my home town’s senior team, the Drumheller Miners, who won the Allan Cup in 1966. My father was the team physician, and got free admission. I went to a lot of the games with him, sitting in the high bleachers behind the goal. The ambiance counted more for me than the game. As I said, I’ve never really grasped the subtleties of the game.
Hockey is only one game that I don’t really get. Truth be told, I don’t really get any of the common team sports, which may be because I was never any good at any of them, or any other athletic pursuit, team or otherwise. As a child, I was clumsy, slow, and badly coordinated, and Physical Education in school was usually something akin to torture: I couldn’t do most of what we were asked to do, and my classmates teased me endlessly about my incompetence.
There’s good reason why I don’t relate well to sports!
I still find myself getting caught up in others’ excitement about sporting events, because it seems to have something important to do with community. The great days watching football with my university buddies were great times of community. The rejoicing over the Oilers’ Stanley Cup victories was a collective party for the whole of this city.
If you like a sport, well and good. If you care deeply about it, that’s your business. I’ll try not to rain on your parade by revealing my lack of interest in something that you love very much. All I ask is that you be tolerant of me when my eyes glaze over as you discuss the accomplishments (or lack thereof) of your favorite team or player.
I get excited by other things (classical music, church history and politics, food, photography…), and I know that my own passions can provoke the same kind of glazed-eye response as much of sports talk evokes in me. It takes all kinds to make a world, and that’s good.
Whether it’s sports, music, knitting, or whatever, let’s try to rejoice in each other’s passions, without trying to make our own passion someone else’s.
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).
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.
Notes for a sermon on Rev. 21:1-6
Holy Trinity Edmonton, April 24, 2016
These past two Thursdays mornings, the study group discussed “This Holy Estate,” the report by a commission of the General Synod which seeks to find a theological case for the amendment of the Marriage Canon to permit same-gender weddings. I’m not going to discuss the report here, but one of the report’s questions on which the group spent time was the issue of how Anglicans use scripture. The answer is—to put it very broadly—very broadly!
Even within the group who met this week, we found a wide range of approaches to the Bible. I believe we would be fairly representative of the spectrum of Anglican practice. But even within this spectrum, none of us approached the Bible completely literally. More importantly, I believe, all of us affirmed the value of interpreting it in community.
The question of how to read and interpret Scripture is crucial; not just in the matter of same-gender marriages, but in how we frame the corporate life of the Church. We Anglicans have historically defined ourselves as a liturgical church, not simply because we “do liturgy,” but because our Scripture-filled liturgies express who we are.
Why am I spending time on this? In part because it’s a current topic in the Church’s decision-making, but also because we are in the midst of a series of readings from the Revelation to John, the book of the Bible with the most convoluted and controversial interpretational history.
It has a complex history of usage. It almost didn’t make it into the Bible. In the Orthodox Churches, which never read it in their liturgies, it functions more like an appendix. Some today tend to dismiss it as a historical relic with little relevance today. Other churches find it a rich source, constantly mining it to attempt to read the signs of our times. The central interpretational problem, I believe, is in the book’s use of symbolism, more by far than other book of the Bible.
My view of Revelation: it is a letter to seven churches experiencing oppression under the Roman Empire, probably written in the last decade of the 1st century. It uses coded language and symbols, largely drawn from Ezekiel and Daniel, telling of the tribulations that the churches will face, and exhorting them to stand firm, because, in the end – God will win! The meaning of the symbolism would be clear to anyone familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, but unintelligible to others. Reading its message could be dangerous in the political climate of the time. Perhaps we could think of Revelation as “underground prophecy”.
One thing I am sure it is not is a book of clues about how to read contemporary events. Its roots are in the 1st-century Church, and the actions of “Babylon the Great” (read “Rome”) in the oppression of Christians who refused to bow the knee to Caesar.
For three Sundays we have selections from the book’s final chapters, presenting John’s vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” and the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven. There are great battles in the preceding chapters, but now we hear God proclaiming that he will make his dwelling place among humanity, and every tear will be wiped away. It is a vision of everlasting peace and justice, and of the ultimate fulfillment of God’s purpose for creation.
It is not a vision of death and destruction and the ending of time. There is no rapturing of the faithful into heaven, no wiping out of all things. Instead, we see a new creation, where God will reign among his people for ever.
But just what does this mean: a “new” earth?
A family member makes his living as a cabinet maker. He recently posted some job pictures, showing a kitchen before and after his work. It was recognizably the same space, with the same general layout, but it was clearly new – almost unrecognizable. It was the same, but renewed, freshened, given new life. It seems to me that the new creation of which John tells us is much like this: the same, but renewed and given new life and purpose. It recalls stories of resurrection appearances in which Jesus is not recognized at until some cue happens. Remember how Mary Magdalene at the tomb believes Jesus to be the gardener until he calls her by name.
The same but different is an integral part of John’s vision for the age to come.
It is a vision of a redeemed creation. We are perhaps more accustomed to thinking of redemption as pertaining to people, but we should never forget that we human beings a part of creation. We are not independent from this earth, but are radically dependent on it. God’s self-description points to this dependence:
The second part could also be translated as “the origin and the fulfillment.” The end (Gk telos) is not a point beyond which nothing else is, but the fulfillment of God’s intentions for this renewed creation. From here on, everything will work together in harmony according to God’s desires—all creation singing God’s praises as the divine purposes are brought to be.
John’s final vision is of the world (creation) as it should be. It is a future vision, to be sure. It might be easy and tempting to dismiss it, but let us please not do that. Let us instead affirm that God will, in God’s own time, restore and redeem creation, and that God’s people will live in peace and justice for ever.
In the meantime—in these times—we are charged not to cede defeat to the powers, but to stand firm in the sure hope of God’s redemption, to work as we are able for the fulfillment of John’s vision, when God makes All Things New.
God’s love wins. That’s the message of Easter. We proclaim it aloud in our gatherings. Let us go forth to proclaim it even more loudly in the world we live in, through all we do and say.
I started writing this in January, and am only now revisiting it on Holy Saturday, a day of very special significance in the Christian calendar, but which is typically ignored &/or misunderstood. More about that later…
When my spouse and I were about to retire, she and I attended a retirement dinner given by her employer. One of the other guests, who had retired a year or two earlier, said that the best advice she could give to new retirees was for them to remember that most things henceforth would be NMP:
Not. My. Problem.
For those who have been in administrative or supervisory roles, that’s a hard lesson to learn. For clergy, it can be even harder. We develop relationships with people, and establish ways of operating in our charges that create emotional bonds with people and places. If we didn’t do that, we wouldn’t be doing the work we are called to.
When we leave a place, we have to leave behind all the pastoral and administrative relationships that we developed in the years in that place. That’s a hard thing to do, for both us and the people to whom we have ministered. Some do it well, some not so well, but there will always be people who are hurt by the process.
During the first year in one charge, a parishioner whom I had only met in passing at that time came to talk to me. His wife had told him that their marriage was over. He had had a very close relationship with my predecessor, who still lived in the community while employed in a different ministry. The man was deeply bereft, not just because his wife was leaving him, but because his former pastor had told him to come and see me. He told me, “I thought that X was my friend, and he told me to go away.”
It’s easy for people to confuse pastoral relationships with ordinary friendship. When the pastoral relationship ends, as it inevitably will, does the friendship end?
My predecessor had done what he and I both knew to be the right thing by referring a pastoral issue to me, but the parishioner could not see it that way.
When clergy leave a place, the situation is reversed. Some people slough off the relationship like they do an old coat. “That priest is gone, now we’ll start to connect with the next one.” Others — like the man above — find it harder to disconnect, because the relationship has become entangled.
My predecessor knew for himself that that my parishioner’s issues were NMP.
I’ve tried hard to hold to this, and have mostly succeeded. I do confess to having failed a time or two, because something hit me hard and I reacted emotionally. It’s very easy to do this in real life, and even easier to do it via social media. I have asked forgiveness on at least one occasion, but it would have been much better for all concerned if I had never had occasion to do so.
Everyone is human. Everyone makes mistakes. But not everyone learns from their mistakes. When something is NMP, please don’t try to make it yours all over again.
Back to Holy Saturday…
This is the day when the Church recalls that Christ lay dead in the tomb. It comes between the profound shock of Jesus’ Crucifixion and the astonishing joy of the Resurrection. It is a day of emptiness, of grief, and of waiting. To be sure, looking through the lens of Easter tells us what we await. But let us remember that Jesus’ disciples grieved on that day without knowing with any certainty what the next day would bring. All they knew was that their Master was dead, and they could not see the future.
Leaving a place or a career can often be very much a “Holy Saturday” experience. It is disorienting. It brings grief. It leaves us longing for a lost past and hoping for an unseen future. And as in every grief process, the griever can make wrong decisions while the future reality unfolds.