Saturday, July 11, 2009

But I'm Not Dead Yet!

RCL Proper 15B
12 July 2009

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

2 Samuel 6.1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1.3-14; Mark 6.14-29

+ Lord, your word is very near to us. You have placed it in our mouths and in our hearts. May you give us your power to speak it and to live it. Amen.

About a year ago or so I became a regular reader of the obituaries in the Vancouver Sun and the Globe and Mail. I am not entirely sure why. Perhaps one reason may be the simple fact that I have become more aware of my own mortality as I move closer to sixty than to fifty. Another reason may be more professional. I have noted the increasing number of obituaries that indicate that there will be no service, usually at the request of the deceased. or that a so-called ‘celebration of life’ will take place in a non-religious location such as a family residence, a social club or a favourite haunt of the deceased.

One of the other aspects of an obituary is the way that the life narrative of the deceased is recounted. Some are simply the facts such as the date of birth or date of death, the names of the surviving family and friends and the like. Others are panegyrics, filled with excessive praise and extravagant claims regarding the deceased. I often feel that these reveal a certain amount of guilt on the part of the survivors as if a glowing obituary can replace years or a life-time of neglect.

My favourites, if one can describe an obituary as a ‘favourite’, are those that tell a genuinely human story: the successes and the failures, the joys and the sorrows, the dreams and the disappointments. When I finish reading one of these well-crafted accounts, I have some sense of the person, a literary portrait of a human being.

Obituaries such as these bring to mind a prayer composed by Huub Oosterhuis and adapted for use in The Book of Alternative Services.

"God of grace and glory, we thank for N, who was so near and dear to us, and who has now been taken from us.

We thank you for the friendship he/she gave and for the strength and peace he/she brought. We thank you for the love he/she offered and received while he/she was with us on earth.

We pray that nothing good in this man’s/woman’s life will be lost, but will be of benefit to the world; that all that was important to him/her will be respected by those who follow; and that everything in which he/she was great will continue to mean much to us now that he/she is dead.

We ask you that he/she may go on living in his/her children, his/her family and his/her friends; in their hearts and minds, in their courage and their consciences. We ask you that we who were close to him/her may now, because of his/her death, be even closer to each other, and that we may, in peace and friendship here on earth, always be deeply conscious of your promise to be faithful to us in death.

We pray for ourselves, who are severely tested by this death, that we do not try to minimize the loss, or seek refuge from it in words alone, and also that we do not brood over it so that it overwhelms us and isolates us from others. May God grant us courage and confidence in the new life of Christ. We ask this is the name of the risen Lord. Amen."

It is an honest prayer and a hopeful prayer.

In many ways the readings we have heard today can be read as obituaries, the stories we want to tell and to be remembered after the death of a loved one.

Over the coming summer weeks we shall hear stories of the successes and failures, the joys and sorrows, the dreams and disappointments of Israel’s beloved king, David son of Jesse. In today’s reading from 2 Samuel we hear of his success; soon we shall hear of his adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, a man whom David arranges to be abandoned in the midst of battle so as to ensure his death at the hands of the enemy. Despite this moral failure, David shall remain fixed in the Scriptures as beloved of God, the one from whom the promised Messiah shall descend.

From the story of David we move to a letter written by an anonymous disciple of Paul, perhaps incorporating some of Paul’s own writing into his own. The writer of Ephesians confronts a church that is still uncertain about the role of Gentile Christians, non-Jewish believers in Jesus as Lord.

For more than two thousand years Christians have treasured these words as we have confronted our own conflicts regarding who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. Can Gentiles be Christians without becoming Jews first? Can slaves become Christians? Can a freed slave become a bishop or a presbyter or a deacon? What role or roles can women legitimately exercise in the life of the Christian community?

These and many other questions have been asked and debated over two millennia. Time and time again Christian leaders and teachers have turned to the anonymous writer of the letter to the Ephesians to seek guidance. So do we in our own turmoil over the inclusion of gay and lesbian disciples of Christ as well as our relations with peoples of different faiths.

Then comes Mark’s gospel, his proclamation of ‘the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (Mark 1.1). We learn today that prophetic witness is always threatening to entrenched powers who will cheerfully arrange for the disposal of the inconvenient witness to the truth.

Poor John! After years in the wilderness proclaiming the kingdom, he will be overshadowed by his younger cousin, Jesus. After years of being Herod’s conscience, he will lose his head because Herod makes a foolish promise while besotted by the allures of his step-daughter and is such a moral coward that he cannot deny what is a patently vindictive request.

Yet it is John whom we remember and commemorate in the Christian community. It is John whose feast is the fête nationale of Quėbec.

My sisters and brothers, there are those who are writing the obituary of the Anglican Church of Canada. Some of those who are writing of our death point out that we are like King David, off to a good start but fallen victim to power. Perhaps they are right in their assessment.

Other commentators believe that our efforts to include many who are excluded by the majority of Christian communities, the divorced, gays and lesbians, women who feel called to leadership, have caused us to lose our edge and that we have become a nice but irrelevant social club. Perhaps these commentators are right.

Still other analysts suggest that our decline is due to our emphasis on prophetic social witness regarding the needs and concerns of aboriginal people, the hungry, the homeless rather than an emphasis on winning souls for Christ. Perhaps they have a point.

But I hope that you will forgive me if I take the attitude of Mark Twain that the rumours of our death are greatly exaggerated. We may have fallen victim to our privileged role in society; but we are not privileged now and we know how to repent and return to the Lord. We may have lost our ‘edge’ by reaching out to those who have been marginalized; but we are now the marginalized and we are learning how to confront prejudice and injustice. We may have been too focused on prophetic witness; but we know that we have more in common with John the Baptist than with Herod and we will continue to speak for those who have no voice.

It may be that these are the last days of the Anglican Church of Canada as we have known it. So be it. But the story that will be written about us will be an honest one, a human and humane one. It will be a story that will long be remembered because it will be the story of our lives and our witness to the gospel in our time and place. It will be a story of how God has worked, is working and will continue to work to bring about God’s purposes for the whole of creation. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Anonymous said...

Moving and thoughtful. Thank-you for this. — Br. Shane

The Rev'd Dr Richard Geoffrey Leggett said...

Dear Br Shane,

Thank you for your comment. You're the very first to have ever left one here!


Anonymous said...

Really? I visit you often here and get a lot of your online ministry. Pax.

Anonymous said...

Richard thank you so much for posting this sermon. It is wonderfully written and makes for some profound thinking.

Preaching is not my forte and I continue to struggle with making the Gospel relevant in this post modern world when everything around me continues to support and reiterate atonement theology. It is good and refreshing to read a sermon that reflects the theology I am trying to write about too.

I will continue to work at this but please know your sermons continue to teach me more than just what you present in the content. Thank you. Betty Vaughan

Katie said...

Not only am I enjoying reading your sermons, I happened upon this particular one as I was preparing to assist at a funeral. The prayer you quoted will be making an appearance. Thanks!