Tuesday, June 23, 2009

For Such a Time as This

The Ordination of Jennifer Burgoyne to the Diaconate and David Taylor to the Presbyterate
21 June 2009

Christ Church Cathedral
Vancouver BC

The Rev’d Dr. Richard Geoffrey Leggett

Propers: Isaiah 61.1-9; Psalm 84; 2 Corinthians 4.1-10; John 10.1-16

+ My sisters and brothers, I speak to you in the name of God, Three in One and One in Three, the Weaver who weaves us into the pattern of the Word through the shuttle of the Spirit. Amen.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

These memorable words form the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The novel, if you remember, takes place during that period of the French Revolution known as the ‘Reign of Terror’, as the guillotine claimed both aristocratic and revolutionary victims and England trembled with the thought of republicanism being exported across the Channel.

But as is often the case with genuine literary brilliance, Dickens’ words cannot be kept within the confines of the eighteenth century nor the nineteenth-century industrial Britain to whom these words were first addressed. These words give voice to the hopes and fears of people living in different times, places and cultures.

Twenty-five hundred years ago God called the prophet whom we sometimes identify as ‘Third’ Isaiah to speak words of comfort, challenge and hope to a dispirited and divided community of faith.

His community had recently returned to the land of Judah after a lengthy exile in Babylon. An earlier generation had heard words of ‘exuberant hope’ spoken by our writer’s predecessor, so-called ‘Second’ Isaiah, as they awaited the envisioned return to Jerusalem (The Jewish Study Bible, 783). But the reality of restoration aroused feelings of frustration and disappointment (The Jewish Study Bible, 783).

Years of exile had led some Judeans to embrace non-Yahwist religious practices as well as other religious, social and economic divisions (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed., 977 Hebrew Bible). The present was so unsatisfactory that the religious imagination of the people turned primarily to a hope in God’s future intervention which would result in the purification of the people of Judah and the establishment of Jerusalem as the religious capital of the world (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed., 977 Hebrew Bible). Yet the prophet dares to speak words of hope to his present:

• To you who are oppressed now, I bring good news.
• To you who are brokenhearted now, I bring healing.
• To you who are in bondage now, I proclaim liberty.
• To you who are disheartened now, I proclaim that this is the year of the Lord’s favour.
• To you who mourn now, I tell you that comfort will be given to you.
• To you who despair of the future now, I tell you that you are the foundations upon which God is building the future now.

For a time such as theirs, God provided the leadership that was needed.

Two thousand years ago God called an unlikely candidate to speak words of comfort, challenge and hope to a dispirited and divided community of faith.

Even a casual reader of Paul’s two letters to the Christian community at Corinth will quickly discern that this was not a peaceful community. In the first place they were a relatively tiny religious sect in the midst of a city bustling with religious faiths from East and West. In the second place there were profound economic and social divisions among the members. Some were rich, others poor and Paul, in his first letter to them, chastised the rich for allowing the poorer members of the community to go hungry when they gathered for their communal meal in which the Lord’s final meal with his disciples was remembered. In the third place some members of the community laid claim to distinctive religious knowledge to which others had no access.

Into this turmoil Paul writes to remind them that human beings are fragile containers for the good news of God in Christ.

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed . . . . (2 Corinthians 4.7-10)

Unlike other writers who boast of how they have become great through their adversities, Paul describes his adversities as proof that any power he has, any persuasive gifts he has, are not the result of his overcoming of adversity but despite his afflictions, perplexities, persecutions and difficulties.

• Wealth will not bring you God’s grace nor can poverty prevent you from receiving it.
• Claims to distinctive knowledge will not bring you God’s grace nor can simple faith obscure it.

For a time such as theirs, God provided the leadership they needed.

Tonight God calls two members of our community to exercise the ministries of deacon and presbyter within a community of faith that is divided and, in the eyes of some observers, dispirited.

Our Sunday assemblies are no longer the destination of choice for the majority of people who live in Metro Vancouver. Religious discourse has, in many ways, been reduced to the repetition of catchy slogans, whether of ‘orthodoxy’ or ‘progress’, that often do not bear the weight of closer scrutiny. The media tends to portray all religious people as fundamentalists or as apologists who try to explain away the distinctive claims of the religious communities to which they belong in the hopes of broader public acceptance. We are compelled to resort to civil law to defend our commitments to justice, peace and the dignity of every human being.

For a time such as ours, God provides the leadership we need.

Jennifer, I speak to you first, because as a deacon the order to which you are called is older than the order into which I was ordained twenty-eight years ago. You have been called to be a proclaimer, an interpreter, an animator of the church’s ministry beyond its self-identified boundaries, so that we might respond to the needs, concerns and hopes of the world. Your leadership in diakonia is even more vital in such a time as this when it is tempting for the church to withdraw within itself and tend to its perceived wounds rather than courageously proclaiming good news to the oppressed, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.

David, I speak to you second, because our order of presbyters evolved in response to the success of the ministry of bishops and deacons in proclaiming the resurrection and embodying the incarnation. You have been called as a pastor, priest and teacher to work with all the baptized, lay and ordained, to ensure that there are life-giving communities of faith that nurture all the faithful with the riches of God’s grace so that whole world may ‘. . . see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by [Christ] through whom all things were made’. Your ministry of leadership in koinōnia is even more vital in such a time as this when it is tempting for the church to disintegrate into various special interest groups and self-selecting coteries of like-minded individuals.

Both of you, as deacon and as presbyter, will participate in the ministry of Christ the good shepherd. There are times for the flock to remain close together and time for the flock to move on to new and greener pastures. Christ, the shepherd of the flock, will need you both, one to maintain the unity and integrity of the flock, the other to help us move into new places. Like sheep dogs you may even have to nip a few heels and growl convincingly when necessary.

In all that you do remember that the church is the ekklēsia, ‘a public assembly of free citizens summoned from their daily pursuits to take counsel and to take action for the common good of all’. The ekklēsia is called to be a ‘thin place’ where God’s presence and purposes for the whole of creation can become evident to all, whether of our faith or another faith or none.

• Speak persuasively of God.
• Speak boldly for God.
• Nurture the ekklēsia with all the skill, wisdom and strength you possess.

Whether this is the best of times or the worst, whether this is an age of wisdom or of foolishness, whether this is an epoch of belief or incredulity, whether this is a season of light or of darkness, whether this is the spring of hope or the winter of despair, I cannot say. It is never for those who live in a given time to judge its quality or to name its character. We are called to live as best as we can and as faithfully as we can using all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and all our strength to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, to trust that God’s power is greater than our fragile vessels and to care for the people of God, whether they know their true identity or not.

One thing, however, is certain. God does not leave us bereft of the leadership we need for the facing of our times. Tonight two members of that leadership will kneel before the archbishop. Tonight that leadership may be sitting in front of you, to your right and to your left, perhaps behind you. Knowing this I might even dare to say that this moment is the best of times.

For all of you, my sisters and brothers, shall be called oaks of righteousness. You shall build up the ancient ruins and raise up the former devastations. You shall be called priests and ministers of our God. Your descendants shall be known among the nations and all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. Amen.