Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Continuous Call

[The following sermon was preached on Saturday, 21 June 2008, on the occasion of the celebration of forty years of ministry by the Rev'd Arthur Nash, rector of St Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Burnaby, BC.]

Propers for Ember Days: Isaiah 44.1-8; Psalm 87; 1 Peter 2.4-10; John 17.9-16

+ My sisters and brothers, I speak to you in the name of the Singer of creation who sings the Song of redemption with the Breath of sanctification. Amen.

In the spring of 1968 I left school one afternoon to walk to my mother’s pre-school where I worked in the afternoons. As I walked along the busy street that led from the school to the pre-school, I suppose that I was day-dreaming. The day was warm, the sun was shining and there were no teenaged problems to occupy my mind.

I heard a voice in the distance calling ‘Richard! Richard!’ The voice was faint but distinct. I looked around me, but I could not see anyone. I continued to walk and the call came more clearly and more insistently, ‘Richard! Richard!’ Once again I looked around but saw no one. I began to think that I was having a religious experience. I knew that St Paul had heard the voice of Jesus calling his name. I knew that many of the prophets had had similar experiences. But at the ripe age of fifteen I had had no such experience in my life.

I began to wonder what this meant. Was I about to have a vision? Was I about to die? I truly had no clue. The voice then became so clear, so intense that I could locate from whence it was coming. ‘Richard! Richard!’ I turned to look to my left. There was Jim Zorman leaning out of his mother’s car. ‘I’ve been yelling at for ten minutes! Do you want a ride or not?’ So much for my religious moment.

But God called. God is calling. And God will call again.

This is the heart of the message from that section of the book of the prophet Isaiah we know as Second Isaiah. This unknown prophet writes to the people of Israel who are living in exile in Babylon and who have begun to doubt whether the covenant God had established with Abraham and renewed through Moses is still in force. Some members of the community have turned away from their ancestral faith to follow the gods of the conquerors. Others have withdrawn into an atmosphere of despair, while others are convinced that God has abandoned them because of their faithlessness.

‘But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! Thus says the LORD who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you: Do not fear, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring. They shall spring up like a green tamarisk, like willows by flowing streams.’ (Isaiah 44.1-4)

To the people the unknown prophet says, ‘God called you. God is calling you. And God will call you again. Do not be deceived by what you see around you. God is at work and God has never revoked the covenant made with your ancestors.’

Forty years ago Arthur Nash was ordained deacon on the 24th of June, the feast of John the Baptist. In those forty years the Anglican Church of Canada has experienced events that have challenged the faith of some, renewed the faith of others and left many of us pondering what the future of our ministry will be in an increasingly pluralist and secular society.

  • In 1968 the Book of Common Prayer was still the ‘new’ prayer book. But General Synod had already realized that the Prayer Book had not addressed a number of the issues that faced the worship life of the church and had authorized bishops to experiment.

  • In 1968 the Anglican Church of Canada was still getting used to the idea that divorced Christians whose spouse was still living could re-marry in the church rather than obtain a civil marriage and, if they found a sympathetic priest, obtain a blessing after the fact. Some Anglicans would see this change in discipline to threaten the life of the Christian family and to be a concession to the laxity of contemporary Canadian society.

  • In 1976 the first women were ordained to the priesthood and some Anglicans chose to leave the Anglican Church of Canada rather than accept what was understood to be a departure from catholic faith and order.

  • In 1985 the Book of Alternative Services brought to a close a ten-year period of liturgical revision and caused so much consternation that a society was founded to defend the Prayer Book.

  • In 1989 the General Synod received the ‘Plan for the Restoration of the Diaconate’ and this Diocese began its work, a work which has culminated in the ministry of some twenty-five active deacons, several retired deacons and two more to be ordained tomorrow night. Some Anglicans still see this development as an unnecessary ‘clericalization’ of the church’s ministry.

  • In 1992 General Synod embarked the church on a road to explore what it means to be a human being made in the image and likeness of God and the role that sexuality plays in our human identity, a journey which continues with many shocks, tumults and conflicts.

  • By 1998 our church committed itself to reconciliation with aboriginal peoples, a commitment that almost led to the bankruptcy of the national church, but that has given birth to a process of truth and reconciliation which has the potential to heal the deep wounds that have divided the peoples of this country.

These are but some of the events that have coloured the last four decades in the life of the Anglican Church of Canada. Tonight we gather with Arthur to celebrate forty years of active ministry in this challenging community of faith, perhaps to commiserate the departure of ‘the good old days’ and to anticipate a new phase in the life of this man whom God called, whom God is calling and whom God will call.

Like the people of Israel to whom the unknown prophet of Second Isaiah spoke words of encouragement and hope, so today the prophet speaks again to remind us that our vocation is not a one-time event but a continuous song in our ears, reminding us of who we are and whose we are as we face the challenges of ministry. The Anglican community who called Arthur to ordained ministry has undergone significant changes over the past forty years. If we had simply held on to an understanding of an unchanging vocation, then we would have faded into the pages of the religious history of Canada. But because we have understood God’s call to us as a community, just as Arthur has understood his call as a priest, to be a continuous song, a song that grows and adapts to the world into which it is sung, we are still here --- beat up a little, perhaps; bewildered at times, perhaps; angry at times, perhaps --- but still here to live out the ministry entrusted to us all in our baptism.

‘But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.’ (1 Peter 2.9)

In tonight’s reading from the gospel of John we are reminded of what our telos, our ultimate purpose, is as friends of Jesus. We are sent out by Jesus into the world, just as God sent Jesus into the world, to proclaim the all-embracing love of God that transcends all natural, ethnic, political, social and national distinctions that human beings make in our efforts to divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘friend’ and ‘stranger’, ‘favoured’ and ‘rejected’. We are ‘God’s own people’ not as a possession to be maintained at any cost, but as a gift to be shared freely no matter what the cost , so that every human being, man, woman or child, can become fully human, fully alive.

So, my sisters and brothers, let us give thanks to God that forty years ago Arthur heard the song that God quietly sung into his ear and followed its tempo to lead us in ministry. Let us give thanks that this song continues to be sung, even when our ability to hear may be hampered by the challenges of ministry in Canada today. Let us give thanks that God still has work for us to do --- even when we contemplate the retirement of one of God’s beloved from ‘active’ ministry.

Whether rich or poor, sheltered or homeless, healthy or sick, we are surrounded by those who need to become fully alive after the stature of Jesus, who need to know that the God who created all things still reaches out through us to break down ancient barriers and to bring word of the promised reign of justice and peace.

God called all of us, lay and ordained, active and retired, as witnesses of this reign. God is calling all of us, young and old, male and female, to be witnesses of this reign. God will call all of us again, rich and poor, wise and foolish, to bear witness to this reign in the changing times ahead.

‘But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! Thus says the LORD who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you: Do not fear, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring. They shall spring up like a green tamarisk, like willows by flowing streams.’ Amen.