Saturday, July 31, 2010

See Who You Are. Become What You See.

RCL Proper 18C
1 August 2010

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Focus texts:  Colossians 3.1-11 and Luke 12.13-21

+ Holy One, though our lives been hidden in Christ, may our witness be manifest to the whole world.  Amen.

            In the eucharistic liturgy of the Anglican Church of Canada the consecrated bread and wine are presented to the whole assembly with the words, “The gifts of God for the people of God.”  When the assembly responds with its “Thanks be to God,” the consecrated bread and wine are distributed to those who wish to receive communion.    In the American Episcopal Church, the church in which I grew up, a similar invitation to communion is made, “The gifts of God for the people of God.  Take and eat them in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on him in your hearts with thanksgiving.”

            Although these words are relative new to us in the Anglican tradition, they have an ancient pedigree.  Saint Augustine of Hippo, that great saint and reluctant bishop, is said to have invited the people of his cathedral to communion with these words:  “The gifts of God for the people of God.  See who you are.  Become what you see.”  Such simple words, but they point to two of the central dimensions of the Christian spiritual life:  We have been made in the image of God and are called into the likeness of God.  Who we are is God’s gift.  Who we become is the result of our own free will and God’s graciousness made known to us through the work of the Holy Spirit.

            Every human being, gay and straight, male and female, younger and older, religious and non-religious, Christian and non-Christian, are made in the image of God.  Each one of us is created with the power of life and death and gifted with free will so that we can choose which path we shall follow, the path of life or the path of death.  But simply being made in the image of God does not guarantee that we will choose life rather than death or that we will choose self-giving rather than selfishness and greed.  Our world and our country are filled with numerous examples of individuals and communities choosing self-interest, but I will not enumerate those here today.

            What God desires for us is that we become who we truly are, but this is a process not a single event.  To be made in the image of God is an incalculable gift, but what remains before each one of us is the journey towards spiritual maturity.  Such a journey is not accomplished in a day, perhaps not even in a lifetime, but it is the journey that God bids us make.

            In today’s reading from the letter to the Colossians the writer tries to hold before this community these two dimensions of Christian spiritual life:  who we are and who we are to become.  When he writes that our life has been hidden in Christ, he is speaking about who we are as baptized members of Christ’s body.  We are secure in that identity.  No earthly or heavenly power can tear us away from the embrace of Christ.  This truth finds expression in our baptismal liturgy.  As the priest makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of the newly-baptized, he or she says, “I sign you with the cross, and mark you as Christ’s own for ever.”  It is this mystery of identity that the writer of Colossians speaks of when he writes, “for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3.3)

            But the writer also knows the temptation to rest with one’s identity rather than take the necessary steps to fulfill the potential that our identity in Christ contains.  He quickly follows his proclamation of our baptismal identity with a challenge to avoid those behaviours which can twist and distort the image of God in a human being.  His words are not those of some puritanical moralist but the words of an honest observer of human behaviour and our self-destructive ways.  “If you want to become who you are truly meant to become,” he writes, “then avoid behaving in these ways.”

            Being, our God-given identity as God’s children, is only the starting point for our journey towards our destination.  That destination is becoming whom God has intended us to become, each one of us with wonderful and distinctive characters that have the potential to make heaven present in each earthly moment.  The writer of the letter to the Colossians knows full well that this life, this earthly life, is the arena in which Christian spiritual maturity is formed and tested.  It is a corporate activity that brings all of us together because the maturity we seek is not achievable by one’s self alone.

            This journey is not an easy one.  For that very reason our tradition has given us a checklist, landmarks if you like, that help us discern our progress on the road to genuine Christian spiritual maturity.

  • Do we believe in the God who has created everything that is, who came among us in Jesus of Nazareth to bring about reconciliation and who continues to work through the Spirit for the restoration of the whole of creation?
  • Do we continue to listen for the Word of God in the Scriptures and elsewhere, to come together to share in this holy meal and to hold up the world in prayer?
  • Do we resist the evils that seek to destroy God's creation and are we agents of reconciliation rather than servants of division?
  • Do we share with others the life that we have come to know in Christ and the hope that this life gives for the future?
  • Do we shun self-interest and seek the common good of our communities?
  • Do we work for justice and peace, not only abroad but here at home, and resist every attempt to de-humanize any persons?
·                    You may recognize this checklist as a paraphrase of the baptismal covenant.  It is tempting to keep it within the pages of The Book of Alternative Services and to take it out only for special occasions such as baptisms, confirmations and certain days in the liturgical year.  But this is a temptation that must be resisted.  The baptismal covenant is a guide to Christian spiritual maturity and each one of us here, I believe, has promised more than once to make use of it.  Soon our community will witness the baptisms of an adult and children, so it would be a good idea to review the terms of this agreement we make, not only with those who are to be baptized but with the God who embraces them and calls them to fullness of life.

My friends, we gather here Sunday after Sunday for many reasons.  I know that for myself one of my reasons is that this community of faith is who I am.  This Anglican way of ours continues to give meaning and depth to my Christian life.  Yet I know that there is still more meaning and more depth to be found and no one, whether clergy or lay, can simple sit on the deck or patio confident that we have already arrived at our journey’s end.  We have not reached that point where we might say, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” (Luke 12.19)

So let us as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility and patience.  Let us bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, let us forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven us, so also we must forgive.  Above all, let us clothe ourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, to which indeed we were called in the one body.  And let us be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in us richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in our hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.  And whatever we do, in word or deed, let us do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.  Amen. (Col 3.12-17 adapted)


Friday, July 23, 2010

Should I stay or should I go?

On Tuesday, the 23rd of June 1987, a blue Subaru station wagon containing three humans and two felines arrived at the Peace Arch border crossing into Canada. Although the driver's previous trips to Vancouver in early October and mid-December of 1986 had been graced with blue skies and sunshine, this time his arrival with wife and infant son was greeted by what was to be two weeks of clouds and rain.

So began what was intended to be a three-year sojourn in Canada for Paula, David and I. Twenty-three years later we have found our home here on the Pacific coast. Paula has been able to respond to the call to ordained ministry and will soon celebrate twelve years as Rector of St Faith's and fifteen years of presbyteral ministry. David and Anna will graduate in May of 2011 from the University of British Columbia. Owen will begin his criminal justice studies at Langara College in September of this year. All three of our children identify themselves as Canadians, British Columbians and Vancouverites.

So what about me? My three-year plan has faded into the past and now, twenty years after those three years, I ahve attained those goals which seemed so distant on that rainy day as I patiently waited for the customs agent to review the pages and pages of documentation necessary for our entry into Canada.

Vancouver School of Theology has been a generous and life-giving community for me. In 1990 the Board of Governors let me borrow an extra sabbatical term to finish my thesis. When that goal was not realized, there was no blame nor threats of academic consequences. When I did finish in 1993, tenure was granted and eventually promotion to Associate Professor. When I floated the question of promotion to Full Professor in 2000, just to see what would be required, I discovered to my surprise that my committee recommended promotion and the Board granted that promotion.

My position at the School has opened doors for me that have allowed me to practice my craft regionally, nationally and internationally. It was my place on the Faculty that allowed Archbishop Peers to appoint me to my first national committee responsibility in 1989, an arena for ministry that I continue to enjoy. My Diocese has elected me as a member of General Synod four times (1995, 1998, 2004 and 2007). With the support of our national church and others I have attended international Anglican liturgical gatherings in Toronto, Berkeley, Oxford and Auckland.

But I never imagined that my whole exercise of public ministry would be associated with the School. Bishop Jim Cruickshank once introduced me as 'a parish priest who teaches in a theological college', the highest compliment anyone has ever paid me. Long ago I thought that my epitaph should be Hic jacet Richard Geoffrey Leggett presbyter ecclesiae catholicae sive usum anglicanum ('Here lies Richard Geoffrey Leggett, a presbyter of the Catholic Church according to the Anglican use.')

Lately I've been experiencing professional Wanderlust. So earlier this year I approached Wendy Fletcher, the School's Principal and Academic Dean, about 'retiring' from full-time teaching. Over the past couple of months we've been discussing how best to do this: best for the School I respect and hope to continue to serve in new and different ways and best for me, someone who still has at least ten good years of full-time ministry ahead of me, in one form or another.

And so on Sunday, the 1st of August 2010, I will enter a time of discernment, not as Associate Dean and Professor of Liturgical Studies but as Emeritus Professor of Liturgical Studies. I will begin work on my long-delayed writing project on Canadian Anglican liturgical revision since 1959. I will preach and administer the sacraments of the New Covenant. Ci Bach, our Shetland sheepdog, will receive more of the attention she is certain she deserves. My wife and children will keep me honest as will the large circle of friends and colleagues I have come to love and respect.

More importantly I will wait upon God. Even in these challenging times I am confident that God has not given up on us, especially those who live lives of faithful witness and ministry in our congregations, great and small. I am confident that God has not given up on me, since there is still so much room for me to grow into that maturity in Christ which is our telos, our destiny as God's children. I will trust in the wisdom of my Welsh ancestors who proclaimed Heb Dduw ddim. Duw a digon. ('Without God nothing. God and enough.')

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Taking Care of the Neighbourhood

RCL Proper 15C
11 July 2010

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

During my curacy at Christ Episcopal Church in Denver, Colorado, a call came from the Diocesan Pastoral Centre with a special appeal for supplies to meet the needs of the homeless and poor . This particular appeal came after the Pastoral Centre had developed facilities for the homeless to have a place to shower and to obtain new clothes. However, there was one category of clothing that the Pastoral Centre lacked: men’s underwear. So out went the appeal for parishes and individuals to give packages of new men’s underwear, in various sizes, so that these men would be able to walk out onto the streets with more comfort and dignity then when they had entered the Centre.

Christ Church is located in south Denver at the confluence of the more affluent neighbourhoods of Denver proper as well as some of the more affluent suburbs. It had, when I was a curate, an enviable reputation for its support of the Pastoral Centre. The people of the parish met the challenge with their accustomed generosity and, I might add, their good-spirited sense of humour. A new occasion was added to the liturgical calendar of the parish: Skivvy Sunday. On that Sunday basket after basket of men’s underwear were brought to the altar at the same time as the offering plates and the baskets remained there throughout communion.

I have told this story in other settings. In one such setting, in the late eighties, a priest angrily accused me of contributing to what can only be called a desecration of the liturgy of the church and the sanctity of its buildings. He asked me what was next on my list, condoms perhaps? I admit that I had lost my temper by that moment and I responded that I might well bless condoms if I were serving in a community where AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases were devastating the community.

People of faith are frequently faced with the tension between our concern for holiness and our participation in cultures and societies where religious pluralism and non-belief are acceptable options. We are tempted to set up barriers between what we believe and celebrate in the rituals and doctrines of our faith and how we engage our cultures and societies where our beliefs may have little or no privileged place.

In today’s reading from the prophet Amos we must resist the temptation to see Amaziah as a bad man. The confrontation between Amos and Amaziah is between representatives of the two dimensions of the faith of Israel, the priestly and the prophetic, both of which are essential. “The priest has the authority of established worship tied to political institutions (while) the prophet has the authority of his vocation and the words given to him by (God).” (Craddock 1994, 330) Amaziah’s tragedy is his inability to hear Amos’ words as a call to act on the beliefs enshrined in the rituals. Ritual does not create holiness; ritual is a means by which we, human beings shaped by our cultures and our times, seek to participate in the holiness of God to which ritual points and in which ritual participates. God calls the prophet Amos to call the leadership of Israel to act upon the ethical implications of the sacrifices and prayers offered to God, ritual actions which celebrate God’s justice, mercy and graciousness.

In today’s reading from the gospel of Luke we must resist the temptation to see the lawyer as a bad man or to condemn the priest and the Levite as representatives of a corrupt Judaism in contrast to an enlightened Christianity. Our lawyer knows what is necessary for eternal life and he recites a Jewish formula that is older than Jesus. All Jesus says is “Do this and live.” At the end of the parable all Jesus says again to the lawyer is “Go and do likewise.” Genuine holiness, the holiness of God which we are invited to share, cannot be confined to rituals and ritual spaces; it must find expression in what we do as people of faith.

Jesus goes even further in today’s parable. By contrasting the actions of the Samaritan with those of the priest and the Levite, Jesus plays on the view of his contemporaries that Samarians were heterodox and ethnically impure. He further heightens the contrast by only referring to the victim of the robbers as ‘a certain man’ without any further identification of his religious or ethnic identity. In a culture where obligations were often defined by one’s social, familial, religious and ethnic relationships, Jesus offers a counter-cultural message: The obligation to act as a neighbour is not defined by nor limited to commonly-held social assumptions. (The New Interpreter’s Bible 2003) “For Luke and Luke’s church, (the story now serves as an example) to the effect that kingdom people are to act in love, love that has no drawn boundaries, and love that expects no recompense.” (Craddock 1994, 336)

This past week some eighty Anglican, Lutheran and United clergy and laity gathered at Vancouver School of Theology for the 2010 National Worship Conference. The theme of the Conference was “Taking Care of the Neighbourhood: Worship as Public Work for the Common Good”. We heard from Douglas Todd, one of the Vancouver Sun’s regular columnists, from Mark Macdonald, the National Indigenous Anglican Bishop and from Karen Ward, the Abbess of the Church of the Apostles in Seattle. While there are many ideas that can be drawn from their various presentations, I believe that their presentations pointed to the lawyer’s answer to Jesus’ question: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” (Luke 10.27) No genuine love of God, no genuine holiness, can be experienced if it is not intimately linked to the love of neighbour, regardless of who that neighbour is.

But love of neighbour is not abstract. Communities are made up of real people with real needs and concerns and identities. To love one’s neighbour as oneself requires us to make a decision to go beyond the natural limits of our families, our social affiliations and our religious assemblies.

Saint Faith’s is not a religious assembly unfamiliar with responding to the needs of our neighbours. Whether we look at our fund-raising for particular groups throughout the Lower Mainland or our unprecedented response to the diocesan appeal for the residential school settlement fund or the many groups that use our building for meetings and activities, this is a place that loves God by loving the neighbour. Yet our neighbourhood continues to change and there may be other groups, other communities, whom we might be able to serve.

Right now you and I are worshipping in what used to be the choir space of Saint Faith’s. This experiment of worshipping in a smaller space gathered around the altar is in part fuelled by the realization that we, in order to serve our community, may need to change the shape of our worship space. Rather than the long rows that characterize many churches, we may move towards seating that permits us to see one another and hear one another’s voices more clearly. Rather than pews, we may move towards fewer pews and more chairs so that we can have more flexible seating arrangements.

All of this is not the whim of the Rector or of the Professor of Liturgical Studies who happens to be your Honorary Assistant. It comes from discussions within the Church Committee about our future and how we ‘take care of the neighbourhood’. It is a good thing to pray for our neighbours, but it may be a more excellent thing to remodel our church home to make them more welcome.

When Amos confronted Amaziah, the prophet challenged the priest to take care of the neighbourhood. When Jesus responded to the lawyer’s question, one Jew challenged another Jew to take care of the neighbourhood. In both cases the prophet and the rabbi from Nazareth called upon their religious companions to act on the faith that was already within them and to expand their definition of who the neighbour was to include every child of God.

Today you and I, members of a community of faith with its own history and character, are also being challenged to act on the faith that is in us and to expand our horizons to include the many new neighbours around us. This is a process that begins with concrete steps that may lead us into unfamiliar yet exciting quarters of our neighbourhood. It is a process which our worship prepares us to undertake and which the Spirit leads. May we uphold each other as we travel this Jericho road.

Let us pray.

O Lord God, your mercy delights us, and the world longs for your loving care. Hear the cries of everyone in need, and turn our hearts to love our neighbours with the love of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord. Amen. (Evangelical Lutheran Worship)

Works cited

Craddock et al, Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year C