Thursday, October 16, 2008

Je me souviens

[The following sermon was preached in the Chapel of the Epiphany at Vancouver School of Theology on 16 October 2008 and was modified from a sermon preached at St Faith's Anglican Church on 13 October 2008. The readings are the first set for Thanksgiving: Deuteronomy 8.7-18; Psalm 65; 2 Corinthians 9.6-15 and Luke 17.11-18.]

When our children, David, Anna and Owen, were younger, we frequently played re-cordings of Broadway musicals. The three of them, with their youthful abilities to pick the lyrics of songs quickly, devoured these recordings. On some of our road trips, they would entertain us by giving impromptu performances of Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat or The Phantom of the Opera or Jesus Christ Superstar or Cats.

In Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats there is a poignant scene where Grizabella, the nce glamorous now shabby cat who left the tribe to explore the world and has suffered that world’s cruelties, returns. She is shunned by the older cats and provokes discomfort among the younger ones. But Grizabella has returned seeking what she can only find among her tribe, the opportunity to be the cat to whom Old Deuteronomy, the chief of the tribe, be-stows the gift of re-birth.

I think that there are few Broadway songs that evoke the despair and longing for meaning as clearly and as powerfully as Grizabella’s solo, ‘Memory’. Perhaps some of you have seen the musical or the film version or even heard it on the radio.

See the dew on the sunflower
And a rose that is fading.
Roses wither away.
Like the sunflower
I yearn to turn my face to the dawn.
I am waiting for the day.

Not a sound from the pavement.
Has the moon lost her memory?
She is smiling alone.
In the lamplight
The withered leaves collect at my feet.
And the wind begins to moan.

All alone in the moonlight
I can smile at the old days.
I was beautiful then.
I remember the time I knew what happiness was.
Let the memory live again.

Every streetlamp
Seems to beat a fatalistic warning.
Someone mutters,
And the streetlamp gutters,
And soon it will be morning.

I must wait for the sunrise.
I must think of a new life
And I mustn’t give in.
When the dawn comes,
Tonight will be a memory too.
And a new day will begin.

Burnt out ends of smoky days,
The stale cold smell of morning.
The streetlamp dies, another night is over,
Another day is dawning.

Touch me.
It’s so easy to leave me
All alone with the memory
Of my days in the sun.
If you touch me,
You’ll understand what happiness is.

A new day has begun.

Younger cats come gingerly towards her, touching her, stroking her, embracing her. The older cats gather around her and Old Deuteronomy approaches her and leads her into the light that signifies her new life.

Among the human faculties memory plays more than just a significant role. To lose one’s memory, to become an amnesiac, is to lose one’s identity. But the faculty of memory is both an involuntary and a voluntary function. By this I mean that we arrange our memo-ries, we, in some mysterious way, choose how we remember the events, emotions and per-ceptions of our lives. This mysterious ordering of our memories contributes either positively or negatively to our present and to our future.

Here in our own country we have a constant reminder of the importance of memory in establishing one’s identity. The motto of the province of Québec is ‘Je me souviens’ --- ‘I remember’. But one digs deeper, the motto might read ‘I come back to myself’ or ‘I return to who I am’.

In Deuteronomy memory is an essential element of the life of faith. Fred Craddock writes, “Those who have plenty of food, ‘fine houses,’ herds and flocks, and even gold and silver . . . may become arrogant . . . and even say in their heart, ‘My power and the might of my own hand gave gotten me this wealth’. . . . Such persons have short memories. The way to avoid that corrupting attitude and its attendant behaviour is to remember”

But what shall we remember? For the writer of Deuteronomy we remember first and foremost the commandments of God to do justice, love steadfast faithfulness to God and to other and to walk humbly with God. Second, we remember what God has done and contin-ues to do for the people with whom God has established the covenant. This remembering, however, is not some intellectual exercise but the active ‘. . . recital of the might acts of God’ that continue to define and shape our behaviour as God’s beloved. Our active remember-ing takes place in our acts of formal worship where we proclaim the Scriptures, the chronicle of God’s activity in the life of the people of Israel and the people of the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth, but our remembering is also a matter of our everyday living, our conscious re-membering of God’s activity in our personal lives, in the lives of our families and in the life of our community.

Often newer editions of the various translations of the Bible will include headings for various sections of a given biblical book. Two more recent editions, The Jewish Study Bible and the third edition of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, both published by Oxford Univer-sity Press, have the following heading for the portion of Deuteronomy we heard first this morning: ‘The perils of prosperity’.

Prosperity brings peril as well as comfort. Plentiful supplies of food, clothing and ma-terial goods may lead us to confess that God is no longer necessary for my life. As the writer of Deuteronomy says in the last verse of today’s reading as translated in The New Je-rusalem Bible, “Beware of thinking to yourself, ‘My own strength and the might of my own hand have given me the power to act like this.’ Remember Yahweh your God; he was the one who gave you the strength to act effectively like this, thus keeping then, as today, the covenant which he swore to your ancestors.”

The commandment to do justice can fade into the background when we find our-selves among those who are not the victims of injustice in any of its forms. The command-ment to love steadfast faithfulness to God and to others rings hollow when we engage in the North American vice known as ‘rugged individualism’. The commandment to walk hum-bly with God finds no purchase in us when we credit only our own hard work for our achieve-ments and ignore that our efforts depended upon a potential which was not of our own making but upon God’s gracious generosity.

Perhaps the greatest poverty we are likely to experience is that poverty of the spirit which springs from forgetting that all that we are and all that we have has its source in the open-handedness of God. We are called to be diligent and creative stewards of the re-sources given to us by the One who is the source of all life rather than confuse our steward-ship of God’s resources with our ownership. Perhaps many of the woes experienced in con-temporary North American society stem from this corporate amnesia and confusion.

As we gather for this eucharist, we cannot ignore the events occurring here and abroad. Greed and avarice have brought wealth to a few as well as fear, uncertainty and economic hardship to many more. The dynamics of a federal election campaign where sound-bites prevail over analysis and thoughtfulness have prevented us from a calm and dis-passionate discussion of the policies and actions that might mitigate the financial crisis as well as address the significant challenges facing our country economically, environmentally and socially. Conflict in the Middle East makes it difficult but not impossible for Christians, Jews and Muslims to sit down together in order to rid ourselves of ancient caricatures and forge new friendships based upon our common profession of faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who appeared to Moses on Sinai, who was present to us in Jesus of Naz-areth and who spoke to Mohammed in the desert of Arabia.

But we are gathered for eucharist, to render thanks to the Holy One for the innumer-able gifts entrusted to our stewardship. We are gathered to proclaim in Word and Sacra-ment the deeds that God has done, is doing and will do for us and for all creation. We are gathered to become agents through whom God has acted, is acting and will act. We are gathered to remember --- to remember in order to challenge the corporate amnesia that our still prosperous and comfortable society can lull us into adopting. We are gathered to dispel the corporate delusion that it is only by our own strength and by our own deeds that we en-joy the benefits of creation.

I mentioned earlier the heading for today’s reading from Deuteronomy, ‘the perils of prosperity’. Let me offer you another. In the French Traduction Œcuménique de la Bible to-day’s gospel reading is entitled ‘the healing of the ten lepers and the salvation of the Samari-tan’. What was the difference between gift of physical healing and the gift of personal wholeness? Remembering the source. Constructing a future by acknowledging the action of God in one’s immediate past.

Whether we sat down at table on Sunday or Monday to share in our Thanksgiving feast, let us remember what we say and do in this present feast of the coming reign of God. Whether we look at our present with dread or with hope, let us remember that the God who gave us life is still active in us and through us. Let us remember with thankfulness the commandments to do justice, to love steadfast faithfulness to God and to others and to walk humbly with God as means towards that prosperity of spirit that God wills for every human being. Let us remember, even as markets tumble, elections swirl and wars rage, that God is not forgetful of us.

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

We praise and thank you, O God our Father, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him you have enlightened us by revealing the light that never fades, for dark death has been destroyed and radiant life is everywhere restored. What was promised is fulfilled: we have been joined to God, through renewed life in the Spirit of the risen Lord. Glory and praise to you, our Father, through Jesus your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Spirit, in the kingdom of light eternal, for ever and ever. Amen.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Temple of God is the People of God

[Even professors of liturgy can be confused by the lectionary. I mistakenly prepared my sermon for the 24th of August using the readings for Proper 21 in Year B rather than Year A: 1 Kings 8.[1-6, 10-11], 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6.10-20; John 6.56-69. Fortunately I was preaching at St Dunstan's Parish in Aldergrove BC where the people are able to adjust quickly to the failings of the presider!]

+ Lord, to you we turn, for you have the words of eternal life. Amen.

This past week Paula and I enjoyed the gift of a cruise from Vancouver to Alaska through the Inside Passage. Our ship, the Radiance of the Seas, has been recognized as one of the ‘greenest ‘ cruise ships afloat and it is a marvel of contemporary marine architecture. At the heart of the ship is the ‘Centrum’, a towering atrium some eight decks in height around which many of the core social and administrative functions of the ship are clustered. No day on-board goes by without the necessity of passing through the ‘Centrum’, whether to catch an elevator from one deck to another, to use the Internet, to have a conversation with another person in one of the two bars of the ‘Centrum’ or to walk through to reach the on-board shops and theatres.

But the ‘Centrum’ is not the only focal point in the life of the ship. There are at least five restaurants or cafés on-board the Radiance and one or other of them are operational at almost all hours of the day or night. One can enjoy the formality of the dining room or the informality of the buffet. In the informal atmosphere of the buffet it is possible to create a degree of private space, but in the dining room the older tradition of being seated at a table with people one may not know continues.

Around these two gathering places the elliptical life of the ship flows, bounded by the physical limitations of space and by the customs of centuries of passenger sailing but shaped by human activity. While the design of the spaces may contribute to the experience of being in the ‘Centrum’ or in a dining room, it cannot be denied that the fundamental activ-ity that defines the beauty of those spaces is the activity of human beings, in all their diver-sity, as they gather. A well-designed public space, such as the ‘Centrum’, cannot prevent one from witnessing some of the less pleasant aspects of human life and community. A well-designed dining room with a five-star chef cannot prevent one from choosing voluntary fasting if one’s table companions are disagreeable. What we do in public spaces determines in significant ways to whether those spaces are good or bad, useful or useless, life-giving or life-denying.

In today’s reading from 1 Kings, a reading that could pass us by as just one more ir-relevant story from the history of the people of Israel, we are reminded of this fundamental reality of the divine-human relationship: Holiness does not rest inherently in a place, but in the activity of those who are gathered in that place. Even as Solomon stands in the midst of the building that he has caused to be built for the honour of God’s name, he must declare:

“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built. . . . Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.”

Although other religious traditions of the time would understand their temples to be the re-sidence of the god or gods, Solomon’s prayer is an affirmation of the ancient Israelite con-fession that God cannot be contained within the creation. Solomon’s Temple is a focal point for the faith of the people of Israel, a physical aid to their memory, a place where the saving acts of God are constantly remembered. By remembering those acts, their power to transform the present is unleashed so that God’s purposes for the whole of creation can be achieved. Perhaps the most significant petition of Solomon’s prayer comes when he claims that this Temple is not just for the people of Israel:

“Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name --- for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm --- when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.”

When Solomon speaks of God’s name, he does not mean ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Adonai’. Nor does he mean using God’s name as some sort of magic talisman that will compel God to act in a particular fashion. He means telling the story of the God of Israel who created the uni-verse, who made promises to Noah and to Abraham, who redeemed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and who established the covenant with Moses and the people at Sinai. It is the remembering of what God has done that God’s name is ‘invoked’. The Temple with its altar and ‘Holy of Holies’ has but one purpose: It is to proclaim that God has acted, is act-ing and will act to bring about God’s purposes in the kosmos. This is the proclamation en-trusted to the people of Israel and this is the mission into which God has called them.

We are living in a time when many people are seeking holy places and holy objects rather than seeking to participate in the on-going mission of God to redeem and renew the whole of creation. We are living in a time when many people seek ‘holy’ places that are dis-tinct from what they perceive to be ‘profane’ or ‘secular’ places. There is reason to do this: If we can contain God to some holy place or to some holy object, then we can contain God, then we can avoid the dangerous ‘thin places’ where one might actually come into contact with this unpredictable God.

For some people the Bible has ceased to be an authoritative witness to the encoun-ter of men and women to the Holy One of Israel and has become a repository for God. What the Bible says has been confused with what the Bible means. On the other hand, there are people who consider the Bible to be a collection of ancient texts that are more or less irrele-vant to the life of contemporary believers. In doing so, such people have lost sight of the power of the Scriptures to call people to overthrow oppressive regimes, to remove the shackles that bind slaves and to remind us that God cannot be contained in any philosophical or scientific discipline. What both groups have forgotten is that our God is not a tame God.

There are others who hold fast to one or other tradition of the Christian community as the immutable witness to the truth. When we do so, we forget the truth of that old say-ing, ‘Tradition is the living faith of the dead not the dead faith of the living.’ Tradition is and has always been the response of a given human community to the demands of its time and culture. On the other hand, there are those who are quite happy to shed any tradition in or-der to be ‘relevant’ to the present time. When we do this, we can demonstrate a certain ar-rogance towards our ancestors in the faith. Even birds that traverse the wide expanses of land and sea eventually must find a place to land and bear their young.

My friends in Christ, this is a holy place not because of the excellence of its design but because of the faithfulness in Christian life and witness of those who gather here to hear the living Word proclaimed, to hold up before God the needs and concerns of the whole world, to share in the life-giving bread and wine of the holy communion and to be sent forth as agents of that Word, of those prayers and of that Body which we have received.

• When we proclaim the Word, we invoke God’s name by telling the story of God’s holy activity in the world, so that our lives might become symbols of that activity in the here and now of our own lives.
• When we hold up before God the needs and concerns of the whole world, we are not relieved of responsibility but are empowered for act.
• When we share in the life-giving bread and wine of the holy communion, we do so not only for solace but for strength, not only for pardon but for renewal.
• When we are sent forth as agents of the living Word, we become symbols of God wherever we live and work.

May our gathering in this place remind us that every place is holy. May our proclamation of the Word remind us that the Word is very near to us wherever we are. May our prayers re-mind us that God has acted and is acting and will act in our lives and the lives of others. May our holy communion remind us that those who have received holy gifts become the gift that they have received. May our going forth be understood not as an ending of our work but as its renewal in the world. Amen.

What Shall the Bishops Say?

[The following sermon was preached at St Andrew's Parish, Langley BC on the 3rd of August 2008. The propers were those appointed for Proper 18A of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 32.22-31; Psalm 17.1-7, 15 [BAS 17.1-7, 16]; Romans 9.1-5; Matthew 14.13-21]

+ Gracious God, we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from your mouth. Amen.

My friends in Christ, today the Archbishops and Bishops of the Anglican Communion will bring their gathering to a close. They will struggle to prepare a statement to share with Anglicans throughout the world. We can be sure of three things.

i) Some Anglicans will be very happy with what the Lambeth Conference says.

ii) Other Anglicans will be very unhappy with what the Lambeth Conference says.

iii) Still other Anglicans will think that what the Conference says is irrelevant.

My reading of today’s Gospel has led me to five questions that I think might guide the bishops, if they were to ask my opinion.

What is the most important thing that we do?

Early in the third century a group of Christians in Asia Minor were arrested and brought before the local Roman magistrate. They were charged with violating the imperial edict forbidding the gathering of illicit religious sects. The magistrate asked them to recant their faith and to obey the imperial edict. Their answer was simple, “Sine dominica non possumus.” (“Without the Sunday gathering, we cannot exist.”) Their execution followed immediately. But with their blood they became the seed of a movement which has continued to this day, a movement that gathers in many places and in many ways.[1]

We can lose sight of the power of gathering together in one assembly. Yet, the most important thing we may do as Christians is to continue to gather together in this place and those like it throughout the world, to hear the Word proclaimed, to offer prayer for all of creation, to share in the bread and the wine, and to be sent forth strengthened and renewed.

We come from different places and from different situations. At the beginning of our assembly we need to be reminded of who we really are, God’s people, and what we are gathered to do, the celebration in word and song, in silence and gesture, in action and repose, of the good news of God in Jesus Christ.

When the presider greets us, it is not the friendly greeting of a server at a restaurant or a passer-by on the street. The greeting itself sets the context for the action into which we are about to enter. In the liturgical assembly we are encountering a mystērion, not a mystery to be fathomed out, but a truth which beckons us ever deeper into its truth. Like an onion that grows larger as we peel away the layers, the mystērion whom we know as God wills that we enter into communion and learn what it means to be truly alive.

Frank Kacmarcik, an American liturgical designer, once accompanied the chair of a church building committee on a tour of the recently-completed building just prior to its dedication by the bishop. Frank asked the chair what he thought about the space. “It looks,” stammered the chair, “unfinished.” “Wait,” was all Frank said.

Later that day, as the bishop began the liturgy of consecration, Frank noticed the chair standing with a contented smile on his face. “You’re a miracle worker,” the chair said to Frank, “how did you finish it in so short a time.” “I filled it with people,” Frank said. “No worship space is ever complete without the people of God in it. Holy spaces are made holy by holy people at work within them.”

When asked what was the glue that held the Anglican Communion together, Archbishop Desmond Tutu said this, “We gather.” Despite all the forces that conspire to prevent our gathering, we gather. Despite all the temptations to do something else with our time, we gather. We gather because we know what our sisters and brothers knew in the first centuries of the church’s mission and ministry, “Without the Sunday gathering, we cannot exist.”

What is the first act of the gathered people of God?

At an early point in his public ministry Jesus travelled to Nazareth, the town in which he had been raised. He entered the synagogue and was invited to read the appointed reading from the prophets. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus read, “because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” After sitting down, Jesus said to the assembly, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Most of the people in the synagogue that day were amazed, not necessarily because they believed him, but because he was a local boy. How often had they heard him read the appointed lesson while he was growing up? For that matter, how often had they heard that same text? Perhaps they had grown deaf and no longer expected the prophetic text to be fulfilled. It was, after all, the lectionary text for the day, nothing more.

When the reader proclaims the texts appointed for the day, it is tempting to forget that he or she is speaking God’s Word to us. Like the people in the synagogue in Nazareth, we have heard all of this before; the words roll off the surface of our minds and hearts like rain rolling off the roof of this building. Yet, we never know when there is some person sitting next to us, in front of us, behind us --- dare I say, in us? How many people are there in the pews today who are longing to hear some good news? How many people who need to hear the Word of God again --- for the first time?

To read the words of the scriptures is to release the power of the Word of God into our midst. The preacher stands before us, small in stature, a known quantity, a familiar figure. Within her or his grasp lies the power to free the Word from the texts that sometimes imprisons it, so that the heart of some one sitting near to us may be “strangely warmed” and God’s new creation begins again to work its transformation of our loneliness, our despair, our fear. It is to the preacher that the responsibility falls to move us from the surface of a text, what a scriptural text may say, into the depths of what the text may mean.

What is our first response to the proclamation of the Word?

When I was first ordained, it was my responsibility to travel with the Bishop and the Suffragan Bishop of Colorado on their parish visits. On one such occasion, I accompanied the Bishop, Bill Frey, to a parish in which there was considerable dissension. I joined him as he listened to three representatives of the congregation give their interpretations of the situation. After each one had spoken, the first asked the Bishop, “Well, what are you going to do about this?” “The first thing I am going to do is pray,” responded the Bishop. At this the second person turned to the other two and said loudly, “See, I told you he wasn’t going to do a damn thing about it!”

There are, no doubt, many people who share this view. To some of them, prayer seems more like shouting into the wind rather than entering into conversation with the Holy One of Israel who caused all things to come into existence and who has entrusted us with the stewardship of these gifts. To others, prayer has more in common with sending to heaven a shopping list of wants rather than the more difficult task of discerning the presence and activity of God in us and around us.

I confess that I do not know if prayer changes the eternal purposes of God. I do know that prayer changes the one who prays. Prayer orients us to God’s purposes and opens us to God’s grace working through us. God responds to our new-found awareness of the needs and concerns of the world by offering us the means to use the gifts we have. We discover new avenues and ways that seemed obstructed are re-opened. This is God’s work, not ours, but we are the agents of God’s purposes.

Because there is still work to be done, we are lifted from our prayers and into an embodied expression of those intercessions, petitions, and thanksgivings. We are bidden to exchange the peace with one another. From the earliest generations of the Christian people it has been understood that Christian faith requires concrete expressions. To exchange the peace is (a) to acknowledge our fellowship in Christ, (b) to put our bodies where our mouths (or thoughts) are, and (c) to commit ourselves, one to another. Unless we choose liturgical perjury, then the exchange of the peace requires us to consider how we, in keeping with our stations in life and our personal abilities, will work for Christ’s peace in our congregations, our homes, our communities, and our world.

How do we strengthen ourselves for the work ahead?

When I was a child, Holy Communion was reserved for those who had been confirmed. On top of this, it did not seem to be a particularly joyful event. Those who went forward came back with such solemn faces that, for many years, I believed that the bread and wine of the eucharist must taste horrible. When my confirmation day arrived, I steeled myself for the experience. When the bread was given to me, I placed it in my mouth and was surprised by its pleasing “wheaty-ness”. When the wine was given to me, I could not believe that this was the same taste which generations of adults before me had experienced. It was warm and it filled my whole body with such a sense of well-being. I am told that as I returned to my pew, I had a most un-Anglican smile on my face. My more knowledgeable twelve-year-old friends simply dismissed my quiet smile as the first signs of inebriation. But they were right. I was inebriated and I have remained inebriated to this day --- inebriated with the God who through the power of the Spirit makes bread and wine the agents of my incorporation into Jesus Christ.

Christians in the early days of the church had a saying, “Naos tou Theou, laos tou Theou. (“The temple of God is the people of God.”). While buildings and places of worship are important as shelters for the work of the church, they should not be confused with “church”. “Church” means people not buildings; “Church” means a people who, through the power of the risen Christ, have been given a share in the mission of God in the world. That people needs to be sustained, fed, and strengthened in its mission. The eucharist is food for the journey not a reward for regular attendance.

The Great Thanksgiving and the Lord’s Prayer constantly hold before us that this meal is intended to create and sustain a holy people for God. There can be no true reception of the body of Christ in the bread wine if we are not prepared to receive it in our children, our parents, our spouses, our neighbours, the stranger in our midst, and those whose views differ from our own.

Then we share a loaf and a cup. There are few places left in the world today in which strangers will share a cup together. Despite the fears of some, Anglicans have continued to resist the temptation to diminish this visible sign of our communion by using other means. We should take comfort in the fact that after four hundred and fifty years there are still more than seventy million of us in the world!

How do we bring our gathering, our proclamation, our prayers and our communion to an end?

In the Acts of the Apostles the account of Jesus’ ascension is told in some detail. Among my favourite dimensions of the story occurs at the very end. After Jesus has ascended into heaven, the apostles and those with them stand around looking up into the sky. Two angels appear and, in some many words, say, “Why are standing around gaping? Go home. You have a mission to perform and you will soon receive what you need to perform it.”

Our liturgical assembly has gathered, heard the Word of God proclaimed, opened itself in prayer to discern the will of God, and has shared in the meal which renews Christian fellowship and community. But the liturgical assembly does not exist for itself: the Christian faith is not lived safely within the walls of this place and insulated from the world. As William Temple, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II, said, “The church is the one human institution which exists primarily for its non-members.” We have not been dismissed. We have been commissioned. We have not been sent from Christ (dis-); we have been sent with Christ (com-) to join him in his on-going work of transforming the world.

What should the bishops say?

If I were on the drafting team preparing the statement for the bishops of the Lambeth Conference, I would say that there are only five things to be said, five things that emerge from our Lord’s feeding of the five thousand.

i) Without our regular gathering, we cannot exist. Our gatherings are not exclusive but inclusive, bringing together all sorts and conditions of men, women and children.

ii) When we gather, we proclaim the Word of God not merely recite it. We expect our leaders to help us understand how the Scriptures speak to new challenges in new contexts.

iii) When we gather, we pray. We lift up before God all the needs and concerns of a hurting and confused world, not to be relieved of responsibility, but to be empowered to act as God’s agents.

iv) When we gather, we share in the bread of life and the cup of salvation. When we do so, we do not ask for membership cards or character references.

v) After we have heard the Word, after we have lifted up our prayers, after we have shared in the meal, we go forth into the world in hope and determination to reveal the presence of the kingdom of God in all the places we live and work.

I think that this is enough to say. It is enough to say because there
is still so much to do. Amen.

[1] Cf. Tertullian: ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.’

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Marked as Christ's Own Forever

[This sermon was preached on Sunday, the 27th of July 2008, at St Andrew's Anglican Church in Langley, BC.]

Propers: Genesis 29.15-28; Psalm 105.1-11, 45c (BAS); Romans 8.26-39; Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy, increase and multiply upon us your mercy, that with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BAS)

+ Lord, we come to you for you have the words of eternal life. Amen.

Almost two thousand years ago during the reign of the emperor Nero, a Jewish follower of Jesus of Nazareth put pen to paper and wrote a formal letter to the Christian community in Rome. Such formal letters were often understood to be theological statements that represented the views of the writer and were meant to convince the reader of a particular point of view. The occasion for this letter, written by Paul to a community of Christians whom he had never met, was a controversy caused primarily by a long-standing question: What was the relationship between Judaism and the emerging Christian movement?

As was the case for almost all of the first Christian communities, the Roman community had found its roots among Jews living in the city who had responded to the message that Jesus had been raised from the dead and was, in fact, the long-promised Messiah. However, during the reign of the emperor Claudius, Nero’s predecessor, many Jews had been expelled from the city as a punishment for a series of riots in which Jews had been implicated. Under Nero, the enforcement of this edict of expulsion had relaxed and many Jews began to return to the empire’s capital city.

During the absence of its Jewish members, the church in Rome had been led by its non-Jewish members, a group known by the collective term ‘Gentiles’. They did not follow Jewish traditions and it seems that there was some friction as the Jewish members of the church returned, perhaps to re-impose some Jewish practices or perhaps simply trying to re-establish themselves as leaders of the community. Whatever the details of the conflict were, what we do know is that Paul undertakes to calm a storm brewing in what could be one of the most important and influential communities in the new Christian movement.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is a complex and multi-dimensional document, perhaps the most ‘systematic’ of all his writings that have survived. Throughout the centuries it has served as the basis for the theological insights of many theologians as well as the source of heated debate as Christians have tried to understand some of the letter’s more difficult passages.

Today’s reading, Romans 8.26-39, comes as the conclusion to that part of the Letter to the Romans where Paul attempts to address the Jewish-Gentile conflict in Rome. Leading up to today’s reading Paul makes three fundamental points.

  • No single group in the history of the world, whether Jew or Gentile, has lived up to God’s expectations.
  • The one saving act in the entire history of the world has been the faithfulness of Jesus of Nazareth to the God of Israel, whom Jesus called ‘Abba’ and who raised Jesus from the dead.
  • Any one who trusts in the faithfulness of Jesus to God’s will and who is baptized into that trust has been made one with Jesus through the power of the Spirit and shares in this present time, not only in some distant future, in the life that Jesus shares with his ‘Abba’.

For Paul arguments about who is in and who is out of the community of faith are irrelevant. Arguments about whether one should keep Jewish customs or Gentile customs are secondary at best and even then not crucial to the Christian message. We are reconciled to God not through our outward obedience to any particular code of behaviour nor by the intensity of our faith in Jesus. It is Jesus’ faithfulness to God that reconciles us to God and it is the Spirit working within us who will enable to grow into the likeness and image of God made known to us in Jesus of Nazareth, if we will seek to conform our wills to the Spirit’s guidance.

Paul summarizes this fundamental understanding of the Christian faith in a series of resounding rhetorical questions, a series of questions that are often read at funerals as a testimony to God’s love for us through the faithfulness of Jesus. Bishop Tom Wright of Durham summarizes this passage in this way:

  • Who can be against us? No one; God, after all, did not spare the Son.
  • Who will bring a charge against us? No one; God, after all, is the one who judges.
  • Who will condemn us? No one; Christ Jesus, after all, who died and was raised, intercedes for us.
  • Who will separate us from Christ’s love? No one; the Spirit, after all, has poured out the love of God into our hearts.[1]

We are Christ’s and Christ’s we shall remain.

Let us move fast forward to a time just more than one hundred and fifty years ago. An English theologian published a volume of essays addressing the state of the Christian community in the Great Britain of his time. Frederick Denison Maurice was a convert to the Church of England from the Unitarianism of his childhood and young adulthood. His essays were addressed to contemporary Unitarians, but he was, in truth, addressing them to contemporary Anglicans.

The Church of England had emerged from the difficult times of the eighteenth century bitterly divided. On the one hand, Evangelical Anglicans had responded to the emergence of modern biblical criticism by emphasizing the truth and sufficiency of the Bible in answering all theological and social questions. On the other hand, Catholic Anglicans had responded to the co-opting of the Church of England by the state by emphasizing the continuity of the Church of England to the early and medieval church, claiming that the tradition, especially as it was then witnessed to by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions, was the way to respond to changing cultural and social contexts. On the ‘third’ hand, so-called ‘Liberals’ questioned whether the church was relevant for anything more than establishing social and moral norms for public behaviour.

Maurice weighed into the fray by asserting that there was yet a ‘fourth’ way of responding to his contemporary situation. His ‘fourth’ way was to proclaim the message that Christ was in every human being and that God wished to be the life of every human being. The deepest truth, Maurice claimed, was not that we are divided but that we are united, united to God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. God’s kingdom, Maurice wrote, is not just our future hope, but it is also a present reality.

He attacked those who proclaimed a message of ‘ever-lasting punishment’ as a threat, as a means of coercing people to conduct themselves in a particular fashion. We all know the message: Behave yourselves in such and such a manner or you’ll go to hell. Maurice re-claimed the message of Paul and of the Gospel of John by saying to his contemporaries, “The message of the gospel is not about fear but about hope. The attitude of God towards humanity is not condemnation but love. The promise of God is not a future reward for the good and punishment for the evil but eternal life now, the fullness of life in the present.”

In his final essay on ‘Eternal Life and Eternal Death’, Maurice wrote these words.

I ask no one to pronounce . . . what are the possibilities of resistance in a human will to the loving will of God. There are times when they seem to me . . . almost infinite. But I know that there is something which must be infinite. I am obliged to believe in an abyss of love which is deeper than the abyss of death: I dare not lose faith in that love. I sink into death, eternal death, if I do. I must feel that this love is compassing the universe. More about it I cannot know. But God knows. I leave myself and all to Him.[2]

Maurice’s essays caused a turmoil in the Church of England. Shortly after they were published, Maurice was dismissed from his post at King’s College, London.

Today in the Anglican Communion there are voices raised that would separate us from the love of God made known to us in Jesus of Nazareth. Just as the church in Rome was convulsed by conflict over the relationship between Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus, so too our Communion is convulsed by conflict over questions of gender, sexuality and authority. Just as the Church of England in the time of Maurice was convulsed by conflict over Scripture and tradition, so too our communion is convulsed by conflict over how the Scriptures are to be interpreted and by whom as well as how the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth is to be translated into the many national, social, cultural and ethnic ‘languages’ spoken in our world. This is not a new conflict nor is it likely to disappear in the near future. Every generation of Christians has faced this challenge.

What I do know is this. Any one who uses fear cannot be speaking by the Spirit of God. Any one who says to a brother or sister who has been clothed by Christ in baptism that he or she can be separated from God cannot be speaking by the Spirit of God. Any one who claims or implies that the love of God is limited to only one group or only one party with the church or only one expression of the Christian message cannot be speaking by the Spirit of God. Any one who attempts to exclude another brother or sister in Christ because he or she does not follow the same code as another cannot be speaking by the Spirit of God.

All of us, gay or straight, male or female, European or African, so-called ‘conservative’ or so-called ‘progressive’, all of us have fallen short of the glory of God. But the good news is that Christ has not. By his faithfulness to his ‘Abba’, Christ accomplished what we could not --- despite all the codes and strategies we have adopted or imagined. In our baptism we participate in Christ’s faithfulness

  • so that we can become mustard seeds that give rise to bushes which shelter those who are vulnerable;
  • so that we can become leaven that gives rise to bread to feed those who are hungry in body, soul and spirit;
  • so that we can become the treasure that gives value to what may seem to be a fallow field;
  • so that we can become the pearl that reveals the beauty of God’s creating, redeeming and life-giving love.

In baptism we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own for ever --- for ever.

No one, whether archbishop or bishop, whether conservative or liberal, whether professor or church bureaucrat, can take from us our basic identity, our true selves. That identity, that selfhood, has been given us by our Lover, God. Through Jesus, God’s Beloved, and in the power of the Spirit, the Love that unites them, God calls us to be agents of love not fear, voices of hope not accusation, hands that embrace rather than strike out.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.[3]


[1] Summarized from Tom Wright’s commentary on Romans in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. X, 613.

[2] Frederick Denison Maurice, Theological Essays (London, UK: James Clarke & Co. Ltd., 1957). 323.

[3] Romans 8.39.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Be Careful How You Look at the World

[This sermon was preached on Sunday, 20 July 2008, at St Faith's Anglican Church, Vancouver BC.]

Propers: Genesis 20.10-19a; Psalm 139.1-12, 23-24; Romans 8.12-25; Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43

+ May your word, O Lord, accomplish that which you purpose and prosper in the thing for which you sent it. Amen.

When I was in seminary, our professor of church history, Bill Petersen, insisted that we become familiar with the biographies of the saints and luminaries of the church who were commemorated in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church. I remember sitting with my classmates playing a game similar to Trivial Pursuit. “Who was Irenaeus of Lyons?” one of us would ask. Then whoever gave the most correct answer would be allowed to choose the next saint. “Ignatius of Antioch.” “John Chrysostom.” And on and on it went.

The life of one saint has remained in my memory because there were two versions of his story. Chad, Bishop of Lichfield, who died in 672, lived during a tumultuous period of British history. Among the tumults was the conflict between the indigenous Celtic Christian tradition and the newly-established Roman Christian centred around Canterbury in Kent. Chad had been made bishop in the Celtic tradition in 669, some four years after a synod meeting in Whitby had initiated the Romanization of British Christianity.

In a face-to-face outdoor meeting, Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury demanded that Chad cease the exercise of episcopal ministry. Chad had never sought to be a bishop and had accepted ordination in obedience to the call of his community. So, Chad stuck his pastoral staff in the ground as a symbol of his resignation and walked away. On this the two stories agree. What they don’t agree on is what happened next.

According to the Roman version, Archbishop Theodore was so impressed by Chad’s humility that he called Chad back, returned his staff and asked him to take up the ministry of a missionary bishop among the northern Anglo-Saxons, a post more congenial to Chad’s sense of vocation.

According to the Celtic version, the archbishop sent a deacon to pick up Chad’s staff. The deacon found he could not pull the staff out of the ground, nor could the succession of deacons the archbishop sent. Convinced that this was a sign from God, Archbishop Theodore yielded to the judgement of heaven and asked Chad to resume his episcopal ministry. At which point Chad pulled his staff out of the ground as easily as you please and then went off on his missionary work. I have my favourite version of the story, but that is no doubt caused by the strength of the ultimate strand in my Anglo-Norman-Celtic ancestry!

As my colleague, Sallie McFague, is fond of saying, “Be careful how you look at the world --- because that’s the way it is.”

Jacob is a man who believes that God is active in the world and in the events of our lives, whether waking or sleeping. His consciousness is open to the possibility that God can and does speak to human beings through various means --- if one is looking for such communication to happen. Even when one may not be looking for such communication to occur, God can touch us through our sub-conscious selves, our dreams, our intuitions. Jacob’s openness leads him to understand the importance of his dream, a dream that comes to him unbidden, unexpected and, as will become clear as his life progresses, inconveniently. But he does recognize that his world has expanded and that there are forces at work beyond his control. Even in a non-descript field God can reach out and reveal the divine presence and purpose.

And [Jacob] was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Genesis 28.17

Paul is a man whose life has been turned upside down. From a persecutor of the followers of Jesus to a follower of the Way himself, Paul cannot help but acknowledge the mystery of the God who works in unexpected ways through unexpected agents in unexpected places. To the Christians in Rome, people whom he has never met but whose situation is well-known to him, Paul shares his perception of what God is doing in the world --- despite any external evidence to the contrary.

I consider 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 . . . . We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now . . . . Romans 8.18-19, 22

Live your future hope in the present, Paul writes. Look at the world through the lens of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Then the present will appear differently. Be careful how you look at the world --- because that’s the way it is.

My friends, we are sailing a sea that is filled with currents, doldrums and storms.

  • As we worship this morning, most of the bishops of the Anglican Communion are in England, trying to learn how to talk with one another about matters that divide one Christian from another and how to discover what unites one Christian to another --- even when we do not agree on how best to follow the way of Jesus of Nazareth. Some bishops have chosen not to attend, while others have chosen to risk the wrath of their colleagues by going to England.
  • As we worship this morning, the people of the Diocese of New Westminster are facing a future in which legal battles over property will most certainly occupy our attention. At the same time there are congregations who are exploring new initiatives in ministry --- even as the future shape of diocesan ministry is being discussed.
  • As we worship this morning, the people of this parish of St Faith’s are pondering how we remain faithful to the ministry established in this community some sixty years ago --- even as we consider how to pay the bills, how to serve our young people, how to support our elders, how to be a community of ‘open hearts, open hands, open minds’.

One perspective on all three of these situations is despair. Another might be cynicism. Yet another might be weariness. But then I think of Jacob and Paul, two men facing threats to their lives, their liberties and their pursuit of happiness --- to borrow from the Declaration of Independence. Neither chose despair nor cynicism nor weariness. Both chose to look at the world as the arena of God’s creating, reconciling and renewing activity. Both chose to look at the world as a place where God is not silent but constantly communicating to us --- if we choose to engage the world expecting such communication.

My friends, I have no illusions about the challenges of our personal and corporate lives. Nor am I a naïve Pollyanna who assumes that a world viewed through rose-coloured glasses is the world as it is. But what I do believe God’s word is to us today is this: Be careful how you look at the world --- because that’s the way it is.

  • Jacob believed that the world is a sacred universe in which God acts and that God does speaks.
  • Paul believed that the challenges of his time were real but could not thwart God’s purposes for the whole of creation.
  • In today’s parable two perspectives are evident. One sees fruitful grain to be nurtured and cared for, the other weeds to be culled. I suggest to you that, from God’s perspective, it is better to expend our energy on tending fruitful grain rather than obsessing with weeds. In a healthy field of grain, weeds find little purchase.
  • Those bishops who have gone to Lambeth, regardless of their views on the present controversies in our Communion, believe that it is better to talk directly with those with whom they may disagree rather than talk about them from a distance.
  • Those members of our own diocese and parish who continue to seek to share the life of the gospel we have come to know, regardless of the uncertainties of diocesan and parochial structures, are not blind to reality but rather are choosing to live with open hearts, with open hands and with open minds.

Which perspective we choose determines how we see the future. Despair, cynicism, weariness are real emotions --- but they need not become the lens through which one views one’s personal and corporate life. Challenges are real --- but open hearts, open hands and open minds will discover ways of responding that are life-giving rather than life-denying.

Be careful how you look at the world --- because that’s the way it is. Let us pray.

Through dreams and visions, O God, you broaden the horizon and hope of your people, that they may discover the meaning of your covenant, even in the midst of trial and exile. Increase the number of those who believe in your word so that all people may joyfully respond to your call and share in your promises. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Pottage Now or Solid Food Later?

[The following notes formed the basis for a homily preached at St David's Anglican Church, Vancouver BC, on the 12th and the 13th of July 2008. My thoughts on the Esau-Jacob story were stimulated in part by my unease with the present situation in the Anglican Communion. On the one side are confessional-minded Anglicans who wish to dispel any ambiguity. On the other side are Anglicans who think that the way forward is to set aside credal statements of faith and rely on a particular understanding of post-modern thought. Neither, in my opinion, is the way forward, but the desire for a solution can lead us to accept pottage rather than solid food.]

Propers: Genesis 25.19-34; Psalm 119.105-112; Romans 8.1-11; Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23

O God of mercy, in Jesus Christ you freed us from sin and death, and by your Holy Spirit you nourish our mortal bodies with life. Plant us now in good soil, that our lives may flower in righteousness and peace. [We ask this through your incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, who with you and the Spirit of life, you live and reign, one God, now and for ever.] Amen.[1]

+ May I only speak God’s truth. May you only hear God’s truth. Amen.

1) From the first Sunday after Trinity until the second Sunday before Advent we enter what some liturgists call ‘ordinary’ time. More often than not, many of us simply call it ‘green’ time, that lengthy sequence of Sundays when the vestments are green and the lectionary includes texts that are confusing, seemingly irrelevant and even obscure.

2) At the present time we are in a part of the lectionary, the schedule of readings we use as a discipline to nurture our lives as Christians, that tells the stories of some of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people as well as their connections with the peoples who also lived in what we frequently call the Holy Land. We have heard the story of Abraham and Sarah and now we hear stories of their descendants.

3) I must be honest with you. As I looked at the readings for today, I was not sure what I should preach for you, the people of St David’s. The gospel reading didn’t need explaining; Jesus does that for me. The reading from Romans was pretty straightforward. Our reading from Genesis seemed, well, just a little bit boring.

4) But then I found myself thinking about some recent developments in my professional life and various developments in our lives as Anglicans. I then realized that the story of Jacob and Esau was not so boring after all. It was downright topical. Let me explain.

5) This past week I and several other administrators at VST have been pondering a proposal regarding staffing. We’ve gone back and forth on this proposal several times over the past few days, a ‘to-ing and fro-ing’ that has been a bit annoying to me and to others. On Friday I realized what the problem was with the proposal: It was a proposal that would provide us with a short-term gain but lead to long-term pain. What we needed to do was to accept some short-term pain in order to achieve some long-term gain

6) Within our own church nationally and internationally we are struggling with how we proclaim the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth in a way that is faithful to our heritage as Anglican Christians but open to our present situation as people of faith who live and witness in diverse cultures and social situations. Various proposals have been put forward to help us maintain our unity in the face of the very real social, cultural and theological differences that account for the controversies swirling around us. These proposals range from ones that are quite clear and specific about what is and is not Anglican Christianity, while others suggest that any attempt to define what is and is not Anglican are useless. What I find in both extreme positions is the desire to settle things quickly, to achieve short-term gain, while risking long-term pain.

7) Friends, the story of Jacob and Esau has many levels of meaning, too many for me to recount today. But let me suggest to you one that relates to our present situation. Esau is willing to sacrifice his birth-right to satisfy his immediate hunger. In other words, he prefers a short-term gain and, as a consequence, will suffer the long-term pain of losing his father’s blessing, a blessing that in Jewish tradition conveyed concrete benefits in terms of lands, goods and position in the family. ‘I’m hungry now,’ Esau snarls to his brother, Jacob. ‘What good are lands, goods and position to me if I starve to death?’ Imagine what a little patience would have brought to Esau.

8) Whether we are talking about St David’s or the Diocese of New Westminster or the Anglican Church of Canada or the Anglican Communion, we are in a time of pain. For some the pain arises from witnessing the decline of our congregations in the face of a changing society. For others the pain arises from witnessing our church battle over issues that touch the core of our understanding of what it means to be human and to be made in the image and likeness of God.

9) When we are in pain, we are often tempted to call out, ‘Make it stop. Give me, give us, something that will make the pain go away.’ But a quick fix, a pain reliever that masks the underlying causes of our pain, may contribute to a longer term dissolution of the values and commitments we hold dear. We may find that our desire to feel better may rob us of the opportunity to nurture and expand our ability to serve God and to participate in God’s mission to bring full life to all of God’s beloved.

10) My sisters and brothers, we cannot afford to be the Esau’s of our generation of Christians. We need to be prepared to endure the present pain and uncertainty within our congregation, church and communion without looking for quick or easy answers. In Jesus of Nazareth God has offered us a future, a heritage to be shared with generations yet unborn and with peoples who do not yet have the freedom to enjoy the fullness of life that is their birth-right. They are asking us to lift up our hearts and minds and hands and eyes so that we can see that we are on a journey that still has far to go, but a journey that leads us to a destination where all our hungers will be sated and our thirsts quenched.

11) May God give us strength for that journey. May God give us confidence to work towards our destination, life in Christ and life in its fullness. Amen.

[1] Revised Common Lectionary Prayers (2002) with doxology added by RGL+.

How Long, O Lord, How Long?

[The following homily was preached at the funeral of the Rev'd Kathy Hoodikoff, VST '07. Kathy was a presbyter of the Diocese of British Columbia serving at Christ Church Cathedral, Victoria BC, who died after a sudden and devastating recurrence of cancer on 19 June 2008.]

Propers: Isaiah 25.1-6; Psalm 139; 2 Timothy 2.8-13; Luke 4.14-21

+ My sisters and brothers, may only God’s truth be spoken and only God’s truth heard.

Doug, Stacey and Marissa, on behalf of the Principal, the Faculty, the Students and the Staff of Vancouver School of Theology, I convey to you our sorrow at Kathy’s death and the assurance that you are very present to us in our prayers and thoughts.

To the other members of Kathy’s family I want you to know how much Kathy was loved and respected by her colleagues and the faculty. We had all hoped to watch her ministry as a priest develop in the years to come, but we shall now only be able to give thanks for the deep, rich and mature ministry she had already begun to exercise.

To all Kathy’s colleagues and friends here in the Diocese, especially Bishop Cowan, and the Cathedral, especially Dean McMenamie, I say thank you for the gift of ordained priestly ministry to which you called Kathy as her expression of our shared baptismal priesthood.

When I first heard the news of Kathy’s death, I offered the prayer that I have prayed too many times in recent years, the Kaddish, the prayer of the Jewish mourner. Today I ask you to join me in this prayer by responding ‘Blessed be God for ever.’ after each ‘Amen.’ Let us say ‘Amen!’ ‘Blessed be God for ever.’

Magnified and sanctified be the great name of God in the world which God created according to the divine will. May God establish the reign of justice and peace in your life and in your days, and in the lifetime of all God’s people: quickly and speedily may it come; and let us say Amen! Blessed be God for ever.

Blessed, praised and glorified, exalted, extolled and honoured, magnified and lauded be the name of the Holy One; blessed be God! Though God be high above all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations, which are uttered in the world; and let us say Amen! Blessed be God for ever.

May there be abundant peace from heaven and life for us and for all people; let us say Amen! Blessed be God for ever.

More than two thousand and five hundred years ago the residents of Jerusalem realized that their hopes had become ashes. Although they had been permitted to return to and rebuild the city of Jerusalem and to re-establish some semblance of autonomy, their initial joy had been replaced by bitterness and disappointment. A significant portion of the Jewish people remained in Babylon, while others lived in Egypt. The ruined city of Jerusalem could not regain the glory of the days of Solomon. The Temple, God’s dwelling place on earth, had been destroyed by the Babylonians and only partially and poorly re-built.

To this discouraged people a prophet brought words of hope and promise. This unknown prophet, not the Isaiah whose vision in the Temple still shapes our own worship with the song of the seraphim, ‘Holy, holy, holy’, but another prophet, spoke words that both captured the reality of the present moment and proclaimed a vision of what is God’s ultimate purpose regardless of how the present seemed:

‘For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat. When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm, the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place, you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds; the song of the ruthless was stilled. On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.’ (Isaiah 25.5-6)

And the people faced their present with resolution and journeyed towards God’s future with hope.

Two thousand years ago that same people found themselves under the rule of another empire whose leaders claimed obedience, tribute and worship. The poor were becoming poorer, the rich richer and the Jewish religious authorities walked a tight-rope between collaboration with the imperial authorities and the assertion of Jewish identity. Charismatic religious and political leaders emerged on the left and on the right. As each one took his place on the stage of Jewish life, people wondered, ‘Is this one? Is the Messiah here? Will Roman rule finally be replaced by the rule of God?’

Into this maelstrom sailed Jesus of Nazareth, ‘filled with the power of the Holy Spirit’, preaching and teaching, healing and comforting, exciting the religious imaginations of the poor and arousing the fears of the powerful. On one fateful Sabbath, he was asked to comment on the lectionary reading for the day, a text taken from that portion of the book of Isaiah that was composed during the exile some five hundred years prior when the possibility of a return to Jerusalem was on the horizon. This text contained the volatile words, ‘to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’, words which many understood to mean the time of the Messiah. And Jesus puts a match to the tinder of messianic hopes with his words, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

We know the roller-coaster that followed this simple yet dangerous proclamation. Crowds begin to gather and religious authorities begin to fear. Healings and teachings become felonies rather than manifestations of the grace of God. Plots are hatched; the rabbi arrested, tried, condemned and executed. News of his resurrection spread and hopes for his return rise and fall. His followers are persecuted, imprisoned and martyred. One Christian writer encourages the beleaguered community by reminding them, ‘If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him’. (2 Timothy 2.11a-12a)

And the people faced their present with resolution and journeyed towards God’s future with hope.

And here we are today, a day that for me brings back memories of a day in seminary, some thirty years ago now, when we officiated at the burial of a two-year-old boy drowned in a preventable accident. When the time came to put the dirt on his coffin, we all filed up behind the family. We had said all the right words. We had said wonderful things. We had sung wonderful hymns and we had even read passages from scripture which are exceedingly hopeful. But it had been a cold winter and the dirt was frozen. And when his mother, who had been told that she would never have another child, came to put her piece o dirt on his grave, she picked up a clod of dirt and threw it at the coffin. A true, a more true expression of how most of us had been feeling than some of the words that were spoken. To this day, some thirty years later, I still hear the sound of that clod of dirt clanging against the small coffin. And I still remember the dent that I saw as I passed by to put in my handful of dirt.

Today you and I are in Jerusalem after the return from exile, when the hopes for the future are confronted by the harsh realities of the present. Today you and I are in a synagogue in Nazareth hearing words that promise liberation even as we know ourselves to be burdened by the bonds of grief. Dare we hope that the words spoken by the prophets are true? Dare we risk believing that God’s last word is life not death? Dare we celebrate the life and ministry of Kathy, daughter, sister, wife, and mother, diocesan lay leader and priest?

Let us dare these things, yes. For Kathy’s sake and for the world’s, let us dare these things. But let us also dare to cry out, to lift our voices to the One who created us, who redeemed us, who empowers us by the Spirit, saying, ‘How long, O Lord?’ as we acknowledge our sense of loss and of promise denied. Let us lament the death of one who had already demonstrated how alive she was in Christ even as we proclaim our hope that the vision of the world which she believed and lived will come soon. Let us lament the too-short ordained priesthood of one who sought to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour even as we commit ourselves, whether lay or ordained, to that same priesthood of presence that Kathy embodied. Let us lament that our present only shows us glimpses of the world that God intends for all God’s creatures even as we give thanks for the glimpse of that world made known to us in and through Kathy.

And God’s people will face their present with resolution and journey towards God’s future with hope.

Kathy, into paradise may the angels lead you. At your coming may the martyrs receive you, and bring you into the holy city Jerusalem.

May the choirs of angels welcome you, and with Lazarus who once was poor may you have peace everlasting. Amen.