Friday, July 24, 2020

Strange, Patient and Not Fussy: Reflections on Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52 (26 July 2020)


Strange, Patient and Not Fussy

Reflections on Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52

 

RCL Proper 17A

26 July 2020

 

Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral

New Westminster BC

 

Strange, Patient and Not Fussy

            When I was Rector of Saint Faith’s in Vancouver, my office was located in the northwest corner of the building.  Just across the lane from my office there grew a remarkable large plant that eventually reached a height of more than two metres.  I was so curious that I did some research and discovered that the plant is called Verbascum Thapsus or ‘common mullein’.  It has a number of nicknames:  Aaron’s Rog, Lady’s Foxglove, Donkey’s Ears, Bunny’s Ears, Candlewick, Feltwort, Flannel Leaf, Jacob’s Staff, Lungword and, my favourite, Cowboy Toilet Paper.

            The plant was brought to North America by European settlers in the early 1700’s and has made its way westward across the continent.  The settlers used various parts of this plant for herbal medicines and teas, particularly as remedies for the symptoms of certain respiratory illnesses.  Indigenous peoples also quickly discovered the useful qualities of the plant and made it their own.

            But what interests me about common mullein is that it is strange, patient and not fussy.  Mullein is strange because it is not a native to this continent and has developed a mixed reputation.  Even though settlers and indigenous people found it an aid to health, in Colorado, where I grew up, it’s classed as a noxious weed mainly because cattle don’t like to eat it.  

            Mullein is patient because the tiny seeds of this large plant will remain dormant for seventy to a hundred years before sprouting.  Even then the first year, the sprouts remain close to the ground as if scouting the territory.  Only in the second year will a plant reach out to the heavens.

            Mullein is not fussy because it will grow in almost any soil, even rocky ground or gravel, a quality that aided its rapid movement across North America.  You can see this for yourself the next time you’re driving the Coquihalla Highway.  You can see the tall plants marching down the gravel slopes to the highway.

 

We are strangers in a strange land.

            If the truth be told, being a person of faith in the twenty-first century in North American culture is to be a stranger in a strange land.  Perhaps centuries ago religious culture was more strongly rooted among the European settlers of this continent, but the events of the twentieth century have made it more acceptable to remain unassociated with a faith community.

            It’s even more strange to be a member of a faith community that welcomes questions and seeks diversity.  When we look around us, the religious communities that seem to be growing are ones where belonging means believing and behaving in a clearly-defined way.  Many, but not all, of these communities tend to reach out to a particular group within the broader social and cultural environment.

            When I talk with people who are not part of an identifiable religious tradition, I find myself spending a great deal of time engaged in Christianity 101.  Even these folks value their own diversity and distinctiveness, they seem to want to put all Christians into the same box.  They’re often surprised when, after they’ve said, ‘Well, Christians believe that . . . ‘, I say, ‘Well, some Christians do, but I don’t.’

            That’s why it’s so important that we, as a community of faith, are committed to diakonia, to self-giving service of the wider community.  I believe that the main reason this Parish hosts community groups of any sort is because we are here to build community and to serve the needs and concerns of those who are not directly connected with the Parish.  Just like the mullein plant became a welcome stranger because of its usefulness, just so we become welcome strangers because people know we care for neighbourhood.  To me one of the major costs of COVID-19 has been the absence of our neighbours in this space, perhaps even more than the lost revenue.

 

We are patient.

            Shortly after I became Vicar, Joe Carreira of Conwest, our development partner, and I met the Mayor of New Westminster, Jonathan Coté.  At one point in our conversation, the Mayor asked above the motivation for our re-development project.  I answered, ‘Holy Trinity Cathedral has been part of this community for more than one hundred fifty years.  We plan to be here for at least another hundred and fifty years, because the work begun in 1859 has not only incomplete, it has changed.  We’re in this for the long haul.’

            Most of you know far better than I the ups and downs of the last twenty years or more.  You know the hopefulness that has accompanied plans for renewal.  You know the frustrations that have come from waiting for this project to come to fruition.  But we’re in this for the long haul because we know that this City needs communities such as ours as places of help, hope and home.

            Just as the seeds of the mullein plant will wait patiently for the right conditions to sprout and, even then, poke their heads out in the first year to see how things are, so are we waiting for the right conditions.  We do see signs that our hopes will be realized and a new centre for mission and ministry will rise on this site.  So we wait patiently knowing as we heard the apostle Paul say last week, ‘For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God’ (Romans 8.19).

 

We are not fussy.

            One of the things that I learned in the early days of ordained ministry was that it was not a good idea to be overly fussy about things.  I travelled all over the Diocese with one or both of the Bishops visiting congregations, some small, others larger, some simple in tastes, others more elaborate.  In some I was offered coffee with canned milk, in others the choice of various coffees, teas and snacks from the finest suppliers.  But all these congregations were centres of mission and ministry, all of them rich and lively and precious in God’s sight.

            As a Parish I hope that we begin to rejoice in the small accomplishments.  We’ve resumed in-person worship.  Is it exactly what we would like?  No.  Is it an opportunity to share the good news in many and varied ways?  Yes.  We’ve resumed our Trinity Tuesday program.  Is it as much fun as being together physically?  Probably not.  Are we deepening our understanding of Matthew’s Gospel?  I hope so.  We’re feeding people on Saturdays with bag brunches.  Are we able to connect as deeply as we can when we gather in the Lower Hall?  Not likely.  Are we serving our neighbours?  Definitely.

            The kingdom of God is not terribly fussy about where it takes root.  Once it does, it hunkers down for the long haul and bears unexpected fruit.

            

We begin small.

            When the Rev’d Mr Sheepshanks rang the gong on that first Sunday more than one hundred and sixty years ago, only six people showed up.  None of them were communicants of the Church of England.  The only communicant of the Church of England in New Westminster at the time was an unnamed woman who was probably reluctant to show up among a group of strange men.  But the seeds were planted and this strange plant we call Holy Trinity took root.  Over the years we have patiently borne the ups and downs of being the church in changing times.  For the most part we’ve not been too fussy about how we’ve gone about it.  And we are here in this place and now, because of COVID-19, people can join us wherever in the world the internet is available.

            Consider the common mullein, Jesus said.  It is a strange plant with very small seeds.  When they are sown, they will wait for the right time to germinate.  Even then they’ll only poke their heads above the surface for a quick look around.  If all is well, they will spring up into a towering plant with beautiful yellow flowers from which healing medicines can be made.  It’s a patient plant.  It’s not too fussy.  That’s how the kingdom of God is.  Strange.  Patient.  Not too fussy.  And it’s all around us.

 

 

Saturday, June 27, 2020

See Who We Are. Become What We See.

See Who You Are.  Become What You See.

The 4th Sunday after Pentecost

28 June 2020

 

RCL Proper 13A

Genesis 22.1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6.12-23; Matthew 10.40-42

 

Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral

New Westminster BC

 

How can we sing the Lord’s song upon an alien soil?

            The COVID-19 pandemic has stirred up a controversy among the ranks of those folk who plan, who lead and who ponder the experience of public worship.  This controversy swirls around a simple question:  ‘Should we celebrate the eucharist when so many of our people are unable to participate in person?’.

            It’s a fair question.  Even if our ritual traditions have wrapped the sharing of bread and wine in many layers, the eucharist is, after all, a meal.  If, when we are live-streaming the eucharist because we cannot celebrate it in a larger public gathering, only a small number of people are present and only the priest and a server or deacon receives, then are we keeping faith with Jesus who told all of us to eat this bread and drink this cup?

            I feel this tension most keenly when I point to the consecrated bread and wine on the holy table and then say to those who are present and those who are participating on-line, ‘The gifts of God for the people of God.’  I then consume some of the consecrated bread and all the consecrated wine and Carole consumes the bread that remains.  Somehow I feel that the words and the actions are disconnected.  But I’ll come back to this in a moment.

 

Receiving our marching orders

            Chapter 10 of the Gospel according to Matthew is devoted to Jesus’ instructions, exhortations and warnings to the twelve apostles.  Today we hear his final words before they push off in a new direction, as Jesus travels the highways and byways of Palestine, always working his way towards Jerusalem.  In these three short verses we hear not only their marching orders but ours as disciples of Jesus.

 

1)  We are to be prophets.

            Contrary to popular belief and usage, biblical prophets do not predict the future.  They are people led by God’s Spirit to speak God’s truth to a given people at a given time and place.  Prophets point to what God is doing in the events of their times and ours.  In many ways the prophet’s role is to take the blinders away from our eyes so that we can see more clearly how God is at work in our world whether on-stage or off.

            All disciples of Jesus are to be prophets.  We’re baptized into the same prophetic role as the first apostolic generation was empowered by their experience of Jesus’s life, teaching and resurrection.  We speak of God’s justice, the clear arc of God’s history working towards justice, in a world where injustice is not only widespread and systemic but serves the interests of the few at the expense of the many.

 

2)  We are to be righteous.

            Do not forget that there is a big difference between being self-righteous and being righteous.  Self-righteous folk are convinced that they are always right and that others need to be compelled to follow the same path as theirs.  Self-righteous folk rarely engage in conversations; they prefer monologues filled with moral advice and little self-examination.

            The righteous person tends to seek a conversation with others, especially those whom they may not understand or whose way of life is different from their own.  The righteous are interested in having right relationships:  with God, with others and with self.  The righteous seek to be faithful to their baptismal covenant by

·      resisting evil and, when they fall into sin, repenting and returning to the Lord; 

·      seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving neighbours as oneself;

·      striving for justice and peace by respecting the dignity of every human person, and

·      safeguarding the integrity of God’s creation.

At the end of the day, the righteous are always just a little bit surprised to learn that others think of them as righteous.  They tend to point to others rather than to themselves.  They understand it’s a lifetime process not something achieved in a moment.

 

3)  We are to be grateful.

            Genuine gratitude is ultimately rooted in a humility that recognizes that all that we are and all that we have is a gift from God.  We are never self-sufficient.  We are always dependant upon the kindness of strangers.  A cup of cold water in the hand of a stranger when we are thirsty is a gift from the hand of God.

            

See who we are.  Become what we see.

            When the priest or bishop presiding at the eucharist says, ‘The gifts of God for the people of God,’ they are speaking words which have an ancient pedigree.  Augustine of Hippo, the fifth-century North African bishop and theologian, is said to have invited his congregation to come forward to receive communion with these words, ‘The gifts of God for the people of God.  See who you are.  Become what you see.’

            What God desires for us in that we become who we truly are, but this is a process not a one-time event.  To be made in the image of God is God’s gift to us, but to grow into the likeness of God is a life-long journey towards spiritual maturity.  Our pilgrimage towards such maturity is strewn with moments of achievement punctuated with obstacles and doubts.  This pandemic is just such a time where obstacles and doubts may cast shadows on our path.

            We all know the old saying that ‘seeing is believing’.  Whether we are physically or digitally present, when we see the gifts of God, we take a step towards becoming what we see.  We see what we love:  the gathered community, the beauty of this space where so many of our memories have been formed, the self-offering of God embodied in the bread and wine.  Seeing these gifts stirs up our belief, a word whose roots, I remind you, mean ‘to consider beloved’.

            Even as we wait to resume sharing the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation, we can see who we are --- the beloved of God being reminded that we are beloved by God.  Even as we wait to sing God’s praise with our own voices and to greet each other with the sign of peace, we can become what we see --- grateful and righteous prophets of a generous and just Creator of the universe.

            For we are the gifts of God for the whole human family.  See who we are.  Become what we see.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

We Have Another World in View (14 June 2020)


We Have Another World in View

A Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

 

RCL Proper 11A [1]

14 June 2020

 

Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral

New Westminster BC

 

We have another world in view.

            As a person who grew up during the charismatic revival in the Diocese of Colorado, I have an inner hymn book that occasionally pops a melody or lyrics into my head at unexpected times.  This week, as I was pondering what to say today, my inner hymn book kept re-playing a Ghanaian folk hymn sung as people are walking to worship.

 

We have another world in view, in view,

we have another world in view.

We have another world in view, in view,

we have another world in view.

Our Saviour has gone to prepare us a place,

we have another world in view.

Our Saviour has gone to prepare us a place,

we have another world in view.

 

            These simple words enshrine what I believe to be the reason God, through the Holy Spirit, has entrusted us to continue the ministry begun in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth.  These simple words form the foundation to our response to the events that have unfolded before our eyes since the untimely and unlawful death of George Floyd.  These simple words form the essence of the message proclaimed by those who are committed to peaceful change and to the dismantling of the social and cultural structures that support racism in all its forms.

 

            For two thousand years we have held to the hope that the world that God has shown us is possible will come soon.  It was the hope of the first generations of Christians who, in the face of oppression, persecutions and martyrdom, called out in prayer, ‘Maranatha’, ‘Come, Lord.  Come soon.’  It was the hope of the Reformers who shaped the Christian tradition in which we worship today that they could create a truly Christian society.  It was the hope of the many social reformers who fought slavery, who sought justice for indigenous people, who worked for better living and social conditions for workers, that God’s reign of justice would come soon.

 

            It is in the light of this hope that I read today’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew.

 

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.” [2]

 

As Jesus begins his ministry, he is proclaiming this hope, the hope that God’s promised reign was on the immediate horizon.  The poor and marginalized among whom Jesus lived and to whom he brought near God’s healing and God’s good news were no different from those who long for healing and justice in our towns and cities, no different from those of us gathered for worship in the Cathedral and in our homes.

 

We still have work to do.

            When Jesus says, ‘(the) harvest is plentiful,’ I hear him saying to his disciples and to us that there is still work for us to do.  If that isn’t clear to anyone, then all we need to do is to look at the world around us.  The unrest on the streets of the world’s cities is a symptom of a world that is still becoming what God would have it become.  The troubles of the present are a reminder that we, made in the image and likeness of God, have the freedom to choose to give life and to withhold it.  From the beginning we have shown great ingenuity in choosing badly and seeking self-interest rather than the common good.  Undoing the evils of our bad choices requires the conversion of our hearts, minds and wills.

 

            Converting our hearts, minds and wills is the work of the Spirit.  Why?  Because God, in God’s infinite wisdom, invites us to be co-workers in this great reclamation project.  Ever since Adam and Eve were given the responsibility to tend the Garden of Eden, God has chosen human beings as agents.

 

We need to invite others to join us in this work.

            But this is a massive project that has lasted for millennia and continues into the present day.  To do this work well requires committed communities of faith who resist evil, who seek and serve Christ in all persons, who respect the dignity of every human being and who strive to safeguard the integrity of creation.  We need such communities because being a co-worker with God is exhausting and the supportive love and concern of other disciples renews us for the work we face.

 

            It’s no secret that the last decades have seen our numbers decline in Canada and elsewhere in the world.  For many reasons Anglicans have been reluctant to do what other Christians have done:  We’ve stopped sharing our faith and inviting others to join us in the work that God has entrusted to us.  But this reluctance has to be overcome.  If we need any incentive to invite others to join us in God’s reclamation of creation, then let’s look only to a world in turmoil.  To use a term we hear frequently these days, God needs many more ‘allies’.

 

Ordinary people are God’s favourites.

            The interesting thing is that God has a preference for ordinary folks as allies.  This is good news for us since we live in an age of celebrity.  We find it hard to imagine sometimes that most of the main characters in the Scriptures are not the rich and the powerful.  They are fisherfolk like Peter, Andrew, James and John.  They are women such as Mary, Elizabeth and Mary Magdalene.  They are even people of questionable qualities such as Matthew the tax-collector and Judas Iscariot.

 

            Some years ago a congregational consultancy conducted a survey about ‘believability’.  They were wondering how congregations grew and who were the influential agents of growth.  They discovered that ordained leadership was influential in the pastoral, liturgical and educational dimensions of congregational life.  The most influential agents of parish growth were the laity because they are the most ‘believable’ when they share their faith with others.  A word spoken in a coffee shop or at dinner or in a private conversation often has more impact that the most carefully constructed and passionately delivered sermon.

 

We have another world in view.

            We do have another world in view.  The world we have in view is a world where every human being is respected and treated with dignity --- especially those whom the majority or the powerful may consider undeserving of respect and dignity.  The world we have in view is a world where ancient wrongs are made right and walls that divided one group from another are torn down.  The world we have in view is a world where every human being has a home and need not fear hunger or strife.

 

            How soon that world comes into being is only known to God.  What can be known is that we have a part to play in bringing that world closer.  The work before us is great.  The need for more hands, hearts and minds to join in the work just as great.  The good news is that the world is filled with the ordinary people that God trusts to do this extraordinary work.

 

            Paul writes, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” [3]   We eagerly await the world we have in view.  Our Saviour has gone to prepare us a place.  But, in the Spirit, God has entrusted to us a fair bit of work in the meantime.  I actually find that good news in times such as these.

 

 



[1] Genesis 18.1-15; Psalm 116.1, 10-17 (BAS); Romans 5.1-8; Matthew 9.35-10.8.

[2] Matthew 9.35-38 (New Revised Standard Version).

[3] Romans 8.18-19 (New Revised Standard Version).

 

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Joining in the Dance: Reflection for Trinity Sunday (7 June 2020)


Joining in the Dance
Reflections for Trinity Sunday

RCL Trinity A
7 June 2020

Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral
New Westminster BC

         When my sister and I were growing up, we had few opportunities to spend time with our grandparents.  Our maternal grandparents lived in England and didn’t own a telephone.  Travel across the Atlantic was too expensive for them or for us.  So we had to do with letters and two lengthy and precious visits.  Our paternal grandparents lived in New York and we would drive to visit them every other summer.  Even as a child I knew that these visits were filled with tension, so they usually lasted only a week or so.

         In 1965, two years after we returned from a three-year tour of duty in Germany, my family joined Saint Michael the Archangel Episcopal Church in Colorado Springs.  We settled in and quickly found friends and a supportive community.  Among the members of the parish were Jon and Elma Nottingham, a retired couple who became our foster grandparents.  No birthday was forgotten, no major event left uncelebrated, no achievement left unnoticed.

         Shortly after I was ordained in 1981, my parents and I were invited to lunch at Grandma Elma and Grandpa Jon’s house.  At one point Grandma Elma asked, “Father Richard, do you want anything more?”  I said to her, “Grandma Elma, you’ve known me since I was twelve-years-old, you don’t have to call me ‘Father Richard’.”  “I know,” she said, “but do you want anything more, Father Richard.”  Never try telling your grandmother, foster or otherwise, how to address you.

         Grandma Elma was reminding me that our relationship had changed.  It had become more complicated because she and I were now relating in two dimensions, one personal, the other spiritual.  She was my foster grandmother and a lay member of the congregation.  I was her foster grandson and a priest.  Over the next few years she and I would navigate this new mystery where my public role and our personal relationship could not be easily put into separate compartments.

         When I go home today, I will enter the house and re-engage the web of relationships that define my life.  To my mother I will be her son.  To my wife I will be her husband and, because she is a priest of the Diocese, I am also an archdeacon.  To my younger son I will be his father.  Somehow I have to integrate all these relationships in a life-giving and life-enriching way, sometimes successfully, often not so successfully.  I’m sure that I’m not alone in this tricky endeavour.

         When Christians speak about how we understand God, we are trying in limited human language to speak about the mystery of relationships.  Each one of us knows that our lives are webs of relationships and that we play different roles in each one of them.  Relationships are what make us persons.  Human beings are not individual blocks of marble; we are more like diamonds with many facets, each one catching the light and casting a reflection unique to that facet. 

         And it is the relationship between the God whose love caused creation to come into being, the Christ who is God’s love embodied in time and space, and the Spirit who is the love that unites us into the communion of God’s life that we celebrate today.  What Christians have been saying for two thousand years is that when we meet Jesus of Nazareth, however we meet him, you are meeting God.  How will we know this?  The Spirit will lead us to this truth.  We are then brought into the complicated but invigorating dance we call the mystery of God.

         At the end of his second letter to the Christian community in Corinth Paul blesses them with words we’ve come to know well:  “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” [1]  In this one sentence I believe Paul gives us a way of discerning whether our relationships participate in the dance of the divine life God invites us to join.

         “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ”:  Charis, the Greek word translated here as ‘grace’, is better understood to mean ‘a windfall, an undeserved gift freely offered’.  when a relationship is freely offered to us, an invitation from one person to another to know and be known, with no other motive than mutual joy and growth, we are dancing with God.

         “The love of God”:  In Greek there are at least four distinct words to describe different kinds of love.  Here the word is agapé.  This kind of love is the offering of oneself for the good of another.  Agapé expects nothing in return.  Agapé seeks only the welfare of the one who is being loved.  When we are in a relationship where another person embraces us with a love that helps us become more full the person God intends us to become, a love that encourages us to be more human, created in God’s image and likeness, we are dancing with God.
  
         “The communion of the Holy Spirit”:  As Anglicans we become accustomed to hearing ‘fellowship’, but koinônia, ‘communion’, is a far better choice.  Communion is a unity that welcomes the diversity of people, of gifts, of experiences that can be found among human beings.  Communion rejoices in the infinite variety God has caused to come into being.  When we are in a relationship where are distinctiveness as a child of God is welcomed, respected and nurtured, we are dancing with God.

         Today we celebrate the mystery of God and of ourselves as creatures made in the image and likeness of God.  It is a mystery not to be solved but to explore with ever-deepening wonder at what God has wrought.  It is the mystery of a God who seeks to be known in and through the kosmos, in and through human relationships, in and through the wonder of each human being.

         So come and join the dance.  Let us hold each other in our hearts even as we look forward to the day when we can actually join hands again.  Let us dance wherever we may be, for the Lord of the dance is beckoning us to join the circle with the Lover, the Beloved and the Love, one God, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.


[1] 2 Corinthians 13.14 (New Revised Standard Version)

Saturday, May 23, 2020

It's Up to Us (24 May 2020)


It’s Up to Us
Reflections on the Ascension

RCL Easter 7A
24 May 2020


Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral
New Westminster BC

Tuum est
            I want you to search your memories to the first time you remember being put in charge of something.  Perhaps it was when you received the keys to your first car as a teenager or when your boss left you in charge of the workplace or when you babysat a child or children for the first time.  If your experience is similar to mine, it was a moment filled with both excitement and terror.

            The first time I remember was the summer after Grade 9.  Two of my teachers owned a firework business and hired former students to work for them.  It was considered quite the coup to be asked to work for Mr Knox and Mr Kordula.  They were highly thought of among my group of friends and the idea of having access to all those fireworks for the 4th of July was a powerful incentive.

            We had to begun by an assembly-line process of packing up assortment bags and then delivering them to the various stands that Mr Knox and Mr Kordula had around the city.  Then, four weeks before the 4th of July, we were permitted to open the shutters on the stands and begin our sales.

            For the first week we first-timers were accompanied by one of our former teachers or by one of the older high-school boys.  But on the second week we were dropped off and left alone for the first four hours of our shifts.  I remember being given a cash box with fifty dollars or so in change, the key to the padlock in case I had to leave for any reason and a promise that someone would be back later to be with me.  Then off they drove and I was alone in a plywood fireworks stand on a busy street in a neighbourhood I didn’t know.  I was thrilled to have the responsibility and I was terrified by all the things that could go wrong on my watch.

            I think back to that summer and find the motto of the University of British Columbia pops into my mind’s eye:  Tuum est.  Whether you translate it as ‘It’s yours’ or ‘It’s up to you’, the message is the same:  Life is filled with moments of excitement and terror when we realize that the responsibility is ours and it is up to us fulfill that responsibility as best as we may.

God may have seriously over-estimated our ability.
            The Scriptures are filled with humorous moments despite the opinions of some people.  Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles is a case in point.  Jesus and his disciples go to the top of a hill near Jerusalem.  A few words are exchanged and then Jesus is taken from them, just as Elijah was taken from his disciple, Elisha.

            As Jesus disappears from their sight, the disciples are all craning their necks upwards, each of them hoping to catch one final glimpse of their teacher.  Then comes the moment of humour.  Two persons, clearly angels of God, come upon this scene.  The disciples are gawping into the heavens.  They are oblivious to everything else going on around them.  The angels then intervene.

            I’ve always had a sense of the angels aping the disciples’ upward gaze into the heavens before they speak.  Our English translations are so formal:  “They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’” (Acts 1.11)  I think that the angels said something more like this, “Guys, quit gawping.  There’s a lot of work to be done before the kingdom Jesus spoke of comes in its fullness.  So get yourselves in order, go back to Jerusalem and get ready for incredible amount of work that will soon be coming your way.”

            It’s traditional to speak about Pentecost, next Sunday’s celebration as the birthday of the church, but I’m of a different mind.  To my way of thinking, the ascension of Jesus marks the birthday of the church, this assembly of free people called upon to take counsel for and to work towards the common good of the whole world.  Ascension is the day that the keys to the car are handed over to us.  Ascension is the day that the boss puts us in charge of the workplace.  Ascension is the day that God gives into our charge the care of all God’s beloved children.  Ascension is the day that all Christians should feel a tremor of excitement and a shudder of terror.  The responsibility is ours and it is up to us to fulfill that responsibility as best as we can.

            One of my classmates in seminary faced a difficult first year in ministry.  When he went to his bishop for counsel, the bishop said to him, ‘Remember, God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.’  My friend, never one to take advice easily, said to his bishop, ‘Well, I think that God has seriously over-estimated my ability.’

Infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
            Christian discipleship at the best of times is not easy.  Each one of us knows the struggles we’ve experienced as we have sought to follow the way of Jesus.  We can commit ourselves to doing justice and then learn how costly justice can be and how differently faithful people believe justice is.  We can find comfort in loving kindness and then tell tales about how kindness has been thrown back into our faces and how our goodwill has been misused by others.  We can do our best to walk humbly with God and then remember how we’ve been overlooked at important moments and how our gifts have not been respected.

            And then there are times such as these.  Open public worship has been suspended.  The many community groups that use our facilities have also suspended their activities.  We’ve experienced loss of income without any significant decrease in our expenditures. 
            
            Despite the losses we’ve also experienced gains.  Through our on-line presence we are reaching people we’ve never reached before.  Just recently I had a conversation with a person who has been watching our on-line services because they had seen our banner over the front door.  They thought that a church that would share such a message was a church worth looking at more closely.  We’re re-learning the importance of a simple telephone call and the value of regular and constant contact, whether by e-newsletter or by post.  

            Friends, Christ was raised and ascended two thousand years ago.  In the meantime ordinary disciples such as we have been taking up our responsibility to witness to his ministry of justice, of compassion and of humility.  We’ve made spectacular contributions to the well-being of the human family and we’ve had catastrophic failures from which we are still recovering.  Through it all we can still dare to give glory to God “who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”  (Ephesians 3.20)  We’re not standing around gawping into space.  We’ve gone back to Jerusalem and have been hard at work.

            It’s still thrilling to be part of God’s mission here in New Westminster.  So much is being done, so much still to be done.  It’s also a little bit terrifying as well.  Ours are the hands God using, ours the feet that walk the path, ours the voices that speak the words people need to hear.  Whether thrilling or terrifying, the truth remains:  Tuum est.  It’s ours.  It’s up to us.  And God has not chosen badly.



Saturday, April 25, 2020

On the Road --- Again: Reflections on Luke 24.13-35 (Easter 3A, 26 April 2020)

On the Road --- Again
Reflections on Luke 24.13-35

RCL Easter 3A
26 April 2020

Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral
New Westminster BC

            If you take the modern four-lane highway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, you will pass the pace that some Christians, centuries before the Crusades, venerated as Emmaus.  Nearby this ancient pilgrimage site is a community of Jews and Christians who, decades ago, committed themselves to inter-faith dialogue and shared witness to religious reconciliation among all three Abrahamic faiths.

            From this place you drive up into the steep hills that rise between the Mediterranean coast and the city of Jerusalem.  Even today the road requires careful driving and traffic accidents are not infrequent.

            When I think back on my own trip from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem some eight years ago, I marvel at the journey undertaken by the two disciples.  In their day the journey down from Jerusalem would have been more difficult.  The many twists and turns of the road as well as the many gullies and rock outcroppings would have given thieves and brigands ample cover.  What prompted them to leave the relative security of Jerusalem for this risky trek to Emmaus?

            Frederick Buechner, an American writer of fiction and religious essays, offers one of the best interpretations for this trip that I’ve found.  He writes

            [Emmaus is] the place we go to in order to escape --- a bar, a movie, wherever it is we throw up our hands and say, “Let the whole damned thing go hang.  It makes no difference anyway.” . . . Emmaus may be buying a new suit or a new car or smoking more cigarettes than you really want, or reading a second-rate novel or even writing one.  Emmaus may be going to church on Sunday.  Emmaus is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred:  that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest decay and die; that even the noblest ideas that [people] have had --- ideas about love and freedom and justice --- have always in time been twisted out of shape by selfish [people] for selfish ends. [i]

            Cleopas and his unnamed companion were running away.  They had to escape the pressure cooker that Jerusalem had become over the last week.  They could not bear to believe what the women had told the apostles that Sunday morning.  To believe it would make such a claim on their lives that they would never be the same.  So they threw up their hands, gathered their belongings and skedaddled down the road to Emmaus.

            But Jesus would not let them run away without giving them a choice.  Though their hearts were troubled and their hopes crushed by the rock that had sealed his tomb on Friday afternoon, Jesus comes alongside them on the road and begins a conversation that will put before them the choice to run away or to become witnesses to the risen life God reveals in Christ and offers freely to every human being.

            Right now I feel that every Christian and especially those of us who have chosen to follow Christ as practised in the Anglican tradition are on the road to Emmaus.  As difficult as this pandemic is for us and as unclear the future that lies before us is, Jesus comes beside us in many familiar and unfamiliar guises. Sometimes Jesus comes beside us in the guise of those people who reach out to help their families, their friends and their neighbours in unspectacular but essential ways.  Sometimes Jesus comes beside us when a familiar passage of Scripture is read and we suddenly hear the words in a new way that sets our hearts on fire.  Sometimes Jesus comes beside us in this familiar ritual of the breaking of the bread of life and the pouring of the cup of blessing, especially at this time when we are so conscious of our unity in Christ and of our physical separation from one another.  Jesus never allows us to travel the road to our Emmaus alone, wherever or whatever it may be.

            And when he walks beside us, the conversation we have with him on the road brings us face to face with a choice.  We can continue our escape, our flight from the realization of how costly and life-changing the life of discipleship is.  Or, we can acknowledge that our hearts are on fire and that we are ready to set out into the night and back up the hill to Jerusalem with the news that we have seen the Lord.

            Lord knows, and we all know, how tempting it is to hang around in Emmaus.  Being a disciple of Jesus is hard work.  We all need times and places for refuge.  But such times and places are not for concealment or avoidance; they are places for renewal and recommitment.  The road back up the hill to Jerusalem beckons us all and we will not travel it alone.


[i] Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat (New York, New York:  Seabury Press, 1966), pp. 85-86.