Saturday, August 28, 2010

Let Us Offer a Sacrifice of Praise to God

RCL Proper 22C
29 August 2010

Saint Barnabas Anglican Church
New Westminster BC

Focus text:  Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16

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

            At some point between the year 60 and the year 95, an unknown Jewish Christian put pen to paper and composed what some scholars think was a sermon and others think was an essay.  This document was intended for a Christian community in Rome that seems to have been primarily Jewish in its identity although we cannot rule out the possibility that some of its members were Gentiles.

            Some scholars and other Christians have seen Hebrews as an attack upon Judaism, but this is a misreading of the text.  The writer believes that ‘(the) Bible tells one story, not two, and it is the story of God’s saving initiative toward humankind.’ (NIB, 13)  For him the story of Jesus of Nazareth is the latest and most authoritative expression of this one story, begun in creation, revealed in the Torah, proclaimed by the prophets and continued by the Spirit in the present age.

            His audience is a Christian community in crisis.  It is clear from Hebrews that this is a second-generation community in which some members have grown lax in attending the community’s gatherings and the commitment of some members is waning.  The return of the resurrected Jesus, thought by many to have come during the lifetime of the first apostolic community, has not occurred, raising questions and doubts in the minds of some.  They are also experiencing persecution on two fronts.
  • As Jews who believe in Jesus of Nazareth, they are rejected by their Jewish brothers and sisters as heretics.
  • As Christians who believe in Jesus as Kyrios, ‘Lord’, they are thought by the Roman imperial authorities to be subversives who are undermining the foundations of the Empire.

 From the way the author frames his argument it appears that some of the Jewish Christians are tempted to abandon the Christian way and return to Judaism with its recognized ritual life and its protection under Roman law.  To counteract this temptation the author portrays the New Covenant made by God with humanity in Jesus of Nazareth as superior to the Covenant made by God with the people of Israel in the desert of the Exodus.  To demonstrate this superiority the author argues that
  • God’s voice is a living voice and is still speaking;
  • Jesus, our high priest, shares our humanity even as he sits in honour at God’s side;
  • The Spirit is constantly revealing and interpreting the Word of God to humanity and
  • The ekklesia, the fellowship of sisters and brothers, has been called to exercise a privileged role in God’s purposes.

             In today’s reading from the final chapter of Hebrews the author encourages his community to live out that privileged role
  • By loving the stranger rather than fearing the stranger;
  • By recognizing that money and sex are not private matters but two of the ways power and selfishness are lived out in society;
  • By acknowledging that the church is a pilgrim minority that is outside the social and political structures of their time.

 He closes his exhortation with words that describe the fundamental purpose of Christian worship:  “Through [Christ], then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name.  Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” (Hebrews 13.15-16)

            Let us move forward some two thousand years.  As we gather here this morning, we cannot escape the fact that we are a community in crisis.  The last fifty years has witnessed a significant change in the place of the Anglican Church of Canada in the life of our country.  Where we were once the proverbial ‘insiders’, movers and shakers in Canadian society, we are now reduced in numbers as some turn away from organized religion, others turn to religious traditions that soothe doubts by the medicine of false certainty and still others see religion as a real threat to the well-being of society.  I would suggest to you that we are undergoing a subtle form of persecution, sometimes organized, sometimes casual.

            In times such as these it is tempting to retreat into the false security of familiar ritual or beliefs.  Some people abandon the religious community completely and substitute participation in various volunteer organizations and the doing of ‘good works’ for the rough and tumble life of Christian community.  But some Christians face this crisis with open eyes and ask the question, ‘Who are we called to be and what are we called to do in this time?’

            This is the purpose that lies behind the three questions I left with you last week.  Let me remind you of them.
  1.  Is there some vocation that you sense God is calling you to undertake that seems to lead you on an unexpected journey?
  2. Do you need to look at the world differently in order to undertake this vocation?
  3. Are you going to have to play a little loose with the rules in order to undertake this vocation?

 I believe that God is calling us to leave behind an understanding of the church as powerful and prestigious.  I believe that God is calling us to realize that we are surrounded by strangers who need to be shown hospitality.  I believe that God is calling us to reconsider many of the rules and structures that we are accustomed to identify as markers of what it means to be ‘church’.

            We are not so different from the community to whom Hebrews is addressed.  As we live into a future we did not imagine, we do well to heed the words we heard this morning as if they were an agenda for being an Anglican Christian in the twenty-first century.
  • Let us show mutual love for one another, a love that seeks to build one another up so that we can become fully mature, fully alive as God intends us to be.
  • Let us show hospitality to the strangers, a hospitality that opens us up to the possibility of doing things differently and to see the world in new ways.
  • Let us remember those who are in any need or trouble, a remembering that takes shape not only in the words of our prayers but in the actions and choices of our lives.
  • Let us honour relationships rooted in genuine love and commitment, a honour that praises fidelity and mutual respect.
  • Let us be good stewards of the goods entrusted to our care, a stewardship that works towards genuine equity for all people.
  • Let us raise up leaders who will both encourage and challenge us to be witnesses to the life of Jesus, a life for all times and for all peoples.

 This is why we offer here our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.  This is why we eat this bread and drink this cup.

            May the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make [us] complete in everything good so that [we] may do [God’s] will, working among us that which is pleasing in [God’s] sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever.  Amen. (Hebrews 13.20-21 alt.)

Sources quoted
Fred Craddock, “The Letter to the Hebrews,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. XII.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Summer Snapshots and Their Captions

RCL Proper 21C
22 August 2010

Saint Barnabas Anglican Church
New Westminster BC

Propers:  Jeremiah 1.4-10; Psalm 71.1-6; Hebrews 12.18-29; Luke 13.10-17

     During this part of the liturgical year our lectionary gives us three independent strands in the readings for Sundays.  One strand is the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures with its accompanying Psalm, another our second reading and the third the Gospel.  Sometimes a preacher can find a thread that connects all three, but that is a matter of divine serendipity.

     Today I want to honour the three strands by offering you three summer snapshots with a caption for each. 

Snapshot 1:  What does Shanghai have to do with Judah?

     Picture in your mind’s eye a distinguished gentleman wearing the typical clothing of a well-educated and prosperous late 19th- or early 20th century Westerner.  Picture his full beard, dark brown or almost black as a younger man, now white with grey streaks.  Now you have a mental picture of Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky, an Anglican missionary in southern China from 1859 to 1884 and Bishop of Shanghai from 1877 to 1884.

     He was born in Lithuania in 1831 and destined by his family to become a rabbi.  However, a chance encounter with the New Testament in Hebrew led eventually to his decision to become a Christian, first a Baptist, then a Presbyterian and, finally, an Episcopalian.  After his ordination to the diaconate in 1859 the American Episcopal Church sent him off to China.  He learned the rudiments of Mandarin on the voyage and hit the ground running when the ship arrived in China.

     While there is more to this incredible man’s life than I can tell you here, what I want you to remember is his life after he developed Parkinson’s disease and was forced to resign his office as Bishop of Shanghai and retire to Tokyo.  He continued his translation of the Bible into Wenli, the classical style of Chinese calligraphy, even though he had the use of only one finger.

     Close to the end of his life he said, “I have sat in this chair for over twenty years.  It seemed very hard at first.  But God knew best.  He kept me for the work for which I am best fitted.”

     Now picture another man from an even more distant past.  He too probably sported a beard, but his clothing was that of a Jew living in the southern kingdom of Judah during the close of the seventh century before the common era.  He was the son of a priest and, no doubt, a young man familiar with the privileges of life in the priestly class of Judean society.  He was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps.

     His times, however, were troubled ones.  To the north the kingdom of Israel had fallen to the Assyrians and was presently under the control of the Babylonians, the successors to the Assyrian empire.  To the east Babylon was growing in power and imposing its will on its smaller and weaker western neighbour.  When Jeremiah was in his late twenties, the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem and a portion of the ruling class was exiled to Babylon.  A later revolt by the Judeans resulted in the destruction of the Temple in 586 and the exile of the remaining members of the ruling class.

     Instead of the life of a priest Jeremiah hears God’s call to the vocation of a prophet, the other pole of the religious life of his people during this time.  Prophets disrupt the status quo and cause no end of turmoil to those who wish to maintain their power and their prestige.  What well-educated, well-bred and comfortable young man wishes to hear these words spoken with authority:  “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant”? [Jeremiah 1.10]  But this is the vocation to which Jeremiah is called.

     Two men, one an old crippled man struggling with one finger to complete his life’s work, the other a younger man called from a life of prestige and power to a life of opposition to and judgement of prestige and power.

     One caption:  Sometimes we do not get the job we wish but the job that God believes we are best suited to perform.

Snapshot 2:  What are you looking for?

     In 1993 I was priest-in-charge of Saint Anselm’s on the University Endowment Lands.  One afternoon I was working in the church when a gentleman with his wife and two teenagers came into the building.  “Do you mind if we have a look around?” he asked me.  “No,” I said, “be my guest.  I hope that you don’t mind if I keep puttering around for a bit.”  With his wife and children the man spent a good twenty minutes walking throughout the nave, the aisles and the sanctuary.  By that time I was in the office.  He stopped by the office and said to me, “I grew up here.  It’s just the way that I remember it.”  I wished him well and kept my thoughts to myself.

     The irony was that we had just re-modelled the sanctuary.  When he was a boy, the font was at the head of the north aisle of the church, invisible to most of the congregation.  Now it was located on the south side of the sanctuary platform.  When he was a boy, there was a over-sized pulpit on the north side of the sanctuary and a lectern on the south side.  Now there was only an appropriately sized lectern on the north side that served both readers and preachers.  When he was a boy, the altar was firmly against the east wall of the sanctuary.  Now it was free-standing, permitting movement on all sides.  Not the way it was but only the way he remembered.

     We sometimes forget that our vision is both a physical and a mental activity.  What our eyes transmit to our brains is interpreted by that brain and organized into a comprehensible picture.  Despite the physical differences between the St Anselm’s of his boyhood and the St Anselm’s of the present, this man constructed a picture of an unchanging world.

     The author of the letter to the Hebrews is writing to a community whose minds and hearts are having a hard time dealing with the physical facts of their present time.  His community is a Christian one with deep ties to the Jewish roots of the Christian movement.  It is possible that they maintain their links to Jewish ritual and continue to attach deep meaning to the Jerusalem Temple and its rituals.

     But they now live in a world in which the Temple has been destroyed.  Just as the destruction of the Temple was a catastrophe for the majority of Jews living at that time, so was it a catastrophe for many of the Christians who valued their Jewish roots.  For these Christians the question might well have been, “How can we be Christians without the Temple and its sacrifices?”

     To these worried people the writer of the letter to the Hebrews sends a message of hope and a way of re-visioning their religious world-view.  For this early Christian writer the earthly Jerusalem has been replaced by a heavenly one where Roman imperial power cannot interrupt the sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving continually offered by the saints and where Roman imperial power cannot profane the sacred presence of God enshrined in the Holy of Holies:  “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” [Hebrews 12.22-24]

     Two men, one man trying to recover his own past, the other man trying to reshape the future of his community.

     One caption to both:  Be careful how you look at the world because that is the way it is.

Snapshot 3:  So, by whose rules are we playing?

     My younger son, Owen, began to play rugby in the autumn of his grade 8 year and he continues to play to this day.  Rugby was virtually unknown in the United States when I was growing up, so these past eight years have been an education.  I admit that I am not only a rugby dad but a rugby fan.  One of the happiest moments of my life was when Telus added Setanta, the channel that carries rugby, to its services!

     In rugby we do not speak of the ‘rules’ but of the ‘laws’.  The word ‘laws’ brings with it the sense that interpretation is an important part of both playing and refereeing the game.  While the role of the referee is sacrosanct in rugby, unlike soccer or hockey, it is not unusual to watch two games played by the same two teams where the ‘laws’ seem to be interpreted differently.  This has given rise to a commonly-heard saying on the rugby pitch, “Play to the ref.”  There is no point in rugby in jumping up and down and screaming at the referee, actions that are more than likely to draw a yellow card and the player’s departure from the game for ten minutes while her or his team play fourteen against fifteen.  Part of the first twenty minutes or so of every game is learning how the referee is going to interpret the laws.

     What I love about the game is this wonderful combination of reliability and interpretation.  Two teams, one referee and perhaps two additional officials, all combining to bring about a unique moment in the history of the game.  History is not irrelevant, but it is this moment where the laws and the game intersect.  It is this group of thirty or more people who will define what happens according to the circumstances they meet.

     In the classical Jewish tradition there are six hundred and thirty-two laws commanded by God and found in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.  These laws are God’s words to the people and any authentic Jewish life is shaped by them.  And so today we have the picture of a woman crippled by an unknown ailment who comes into contact with Jesus as he is teaching in a synagogue.  His reaction is one that we have come to expect when Jesus encounters a person in need:  “When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’  When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.” [Luke 13.12-13]

     What follows is predictable:  Jesus’ action leads to a debate about what the ‘law’ means about keeping the Sabbath.  On the one side, we have the rector’s warden who has a strict interpretation of the law.  On the other side, we have the visiting preacher who has a more liberal interpretation of the law.  Which ref shall we play to?

     Two men, one concerned with the integrity of the law, the other with the immediate application of the law.

     One caption:  Sometimes you honour the spirit of the game by playing loose with its regulations.

Snapshot 4:  What do you mean ‘homework’?

     Although I am a ‘retired’ professor, I am still a professor with a desire to send you from this gathering with some homework to do, just three simple questions for you to consider.  There are no wrong answers, only your answers.
  • Is there some vocation that you sense God is calling you to undertake that seems to lead you on an unexpected journey?
  • Do you need to look at the world differently in order to undertake this vocation?
  • Are you going to have to play a little loose with the rules in order to undertake this vocation?

     Three questions with one purpose.  I hope to hear some of your answers to my questions.  But you’ll have to come next week to hear what I think that purpose is.  Amen.


Saturday, August 7, 2010

Almost But Not Yet

RCL Proper 19C
8 August 2010

Saint Francis in the Wood Anglican Church
West Vancouver BC

Propers: Isaiah 1.1, 10-20; Psalm 50.1-8, 22-23; Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16; Luke 12.32-40

Collect of the Day

Almighty God, you sent your Holy Spirit to be the life and light of your Church. Open our hearts to the riches of your grace, that we may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit in love, joy, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. [The Book of Alternative Services]

Almighty God, you sent your Holy Spirit to be the life and light of your church. Open our hearts to the riches of your grace, that we may be ready to receive you wherever you appear, through Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord. Amen. [
Evangelical Lutheran Worship]

God of judgement and grace, you ask not for sacrifices, but lives of trusting faith that acknowledge your power and mercy. Give us faith as deep and strong as Abraham’s and Sarah’s, that we may follow you through all our days as did Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen. [
Revised Common Lectionary Prayers]

Focus Text: Isaiah 1.1, 10-20
1 The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

10 Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! 11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.  12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; 13 bringing offerings is futile; incense in an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and calling of convocation --- I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. 14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. 16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.  18 Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. 19 If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; 20 but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Sermon Text

When I was in secondary school, I fell in love with algebra. In algebra there is an unknown which can be discovered if one follows the right processes and pursues a course of mathematical logic. I experienced a sensation of pure satisfaction when I could finally say, “The unknown factor ‘x’ equals 23.” Of all the things that I learned, algebra provided me with a means of reaching ‘the right answer’.

Early in my undergraduate years I learned that I was required to take an additional course in mathematics. I cheerfully enrolled in Calculus 100. Armed with my algebraic skills, I launched into the study of calculus assuming that I would be learning even more about the exact science of mathematics. To my chagrin I learned that calculus was the science of the ‘almost but not yet’. Our professor illustrated the art of calculus by demonstrating the familiar parlour riddle: 

• Walk to one side of a room.
• Put your back to the wall.
• Walk halfway across the room.
• Then walk halfway across the remaining distance. Then walk halfway again.
• When do you reach the other wall?

Our senses, perhaps even our nose as it bumps against the wall, tell us that we reach the other wall fairly quickly. But a quick examination of the actual mathematics tells us that, if we keep halving the distance, then we will never really reach the other wall.

Calculus, unlike algebra, is not about getting ‘the right answer’. It’s about coming so close to the right answer that the difference does not matter. In some ways calculus is a more humble form of mathematics, a discipline willing to admit that it does not always reach its goal.  But it keeps trying nevertheless.

The Christian life, when lived in genuine faith, has more in common with calculus than with algebra. For some Christians an algebraic church, a church with ‘the right answers’, is more desirable than a church that claims to be ‘almost but not yet right’. But if the sin of the ‘almost but not yet right’ church is an uncomfortable ambiguity, then the sin of the algebraic church is arrogance.  And it is arrogance that stirred up the prophets of Israel.

For the past few Sundays we have heard the words of the prophets of ancient Israel who wrote, for the most part, during the 8th century before our present era. This was a critical time in the life of the people whom God had brought out of Egypt. The land had come to be divided into two kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The prophet Hosea whose words we heard for the last two Sundays proclaimed God’s word to the people of the Northern Kingdom for a period of thirty years. He began his prophetic ministry at the end of “a century of political stability and economic prosperity in the Northern Kingdom”. (The New Oxford Annotated Bible)   To the east, however, a new imperial power was rising, Assyria. The emergence of Assyria brought a prolonged national crisis which would end with the destruction of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE.

In the Northern Kingdom the social inequities between rich and poor that had been present before the rise of Assyria became worse as Assyria grew in its imperial ambitions and its political pressure upon the Northern Kingdom. (The New Interpreter's Bible) Armed conflict with Assyria and with the Southern Kingdom of Judah depleted the economic resources of the North. (The New Interpreter's Bible)   “The richer classes intensified their exploitation of the peasants in order to pay these debts. Many resorted to fraud and cheating.” (The New Interpreter's Bible)  For Hosea all this was a sign that the people had abandoned their loyalty to the God who had brought them out of Egypt and that the eventual destruction of the Northern Kingdom was inevitable.

Today we hear the voice of the prophet Isaiah, perhaps a member of a priestly family in Jerusalem, most certainly a member of Judah’s social elite. Like his northern colleague, Isaiah had a lengthy career, stretching for at least three, if not four, decades. Like his northern colleague, Isaiah saw “the growth of large estates owned by aristocrats and the consequent impoverishment of the peasantry.” (The Jewish Study Bible)The rich were accumulating great wealth and growing in haughtiness while the poor descended into greater poverty and desperation. (The Jewish Study Bible)

Isaiah believed that the Northern Kingdom had chosen badly and had reaped the consequences of its failure to be faithful to the covenant God made with all the people. As he looked around at the state of affairs in the south, Isaiah was equally convinced that Kingdom of Judah was following the same course and would also reap the consequences of its faithlessness. We can almost hear his voice saying, “Choosing the right political answer may win you time, but it will cost you your soul and, eventually, your life.” Political and economic algebra was coming face to face with theological and prophetic calculus.

At such a time as this, shall we choose a path that seems more certain or a path that may seem more risky? Isaiah warns the people that claiming security in familiar forms of religious practice may not, in fact, be what God expects: “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.” (Isaiah 1.11) With these words God is not condemning the ritual itself, but the failure of the community to understand that the ritual was an expression of what they were called to do in their daily lives: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1.16-17)

What God expects is that we choose the difficult path of faithfulness to our baptismal covenant rather than certainty. God calls us to join in the mission that God began in creation. This mission involves bringing all creation into fullness of life and into right relationship. It is a difficult course because it always requires the recognition that all our efforts are ‘almost but not yet’. It requires the humility of calculus rather than the arrogance of algebra. But this more humble way has been our way from the beginning of the Christian movement.

When the earliest Christian communities sought a word to describe themselves, they quickly latched on to a word with long usage among their non-Christian Greek neighbours. The word they chose was ekklēsia, a word drawn from politics rather than religion. The word itself means ‘a public assembly of free citizens summoned from their daily pursuits in order to take counsel and to act on behalf of the common good’. Quite a burden from one word with four syllables to bear, isn’t it?

Over the centuries since the earliest days of the Christian movement it has been easy for the ekklēsia to forget the meaning of our assembly. We are here not as members of a club, not as members of a fraternal society, not even as members of a social agency. Christians gather Sunday after Sunday as ‘a public assembly of free citizens summoned from their daily pursuits in order to take counsel and to act on behalf of the common good’.

What we have been summoned to do is to participate in leitourgia. Leitourgia is another word our ancestors in the faith borrowed from the non-Christian Greco-Roman culture. We are perhaps accustomed to using the word ‘liturgy’ to mean ‘a ritual act’ or even ‘the work of the people’, but the word is richer than either of those meanings. Leitourgia is ‘a public work voluntarily undertaken for the common good’. Our sacred assemblies are summoned by God to participate in God’s public work voluntarily undertaken for the good of the whole kosmos, the entire creation.

When the ekklēsia gathers to participate in leitourgia, what God expects is what God has always expected. We are gathered to take counsel and to act on behalf of the common good. When we are gathered here, we are not entering some airtight bubble which isolates us from the world. On the contrary, when the Christian people gather to pray and to worship, we do so not for ourselves alone, but for every living creature, human and non-human, for every human being, Christian and non-Christian. We take counsel so that we might discern what is the common good and to commit ourselves to work for that common good --- even if it means giving our very lives, whether physically or socially.

Several years ago I heard a bishop of our church express his concern that we had been talking too much about justice and not enough about theology. I remembered that Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said that, whenever he hears people say that politics and justice are not the church’s business, he wonders what Bible they are reading. Throughout the prophets, especially those of the 8th century among whom Isaiah is numbered, justice is the central issue. For the prophets injustice is a sure sign of infidelity to God. When religious people divide their lives into sacred and secular, public and private, they have begun to walk a path that will lead them away from faithfulness to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, the God who quickens through the Holy Spirit this varied and fractious people who call themselves ‘Christians’.

Justice, in the Hebrew scriptures, means treating every human being as an ends in herself or himself rather than as a means to achieve my purposes. Justice, in the Hebrew scriptures, means treating every human being as one in whom the ruach ha kodesh, the living Spirit of God, dwells. Justice, in the Hebrew scriptures, means that every human being is a member of a community which has obligations and responsibilities to ensure every person’s dignity.

I spoke of the difference between algebra, the mathematics of ‘the right answer’, and calculus, the mathematics of ‘the almost but not yet’. We Anglicans are committed to ‘the almost but not yet’ of God’s reign of justice. We see God’s reign on the horizon and we move half-way towards it. Then we move half-way again. Then half-way again. We can see the destination and we know we are coming closer. But we cannot ultimately close the gap ourselves; there will always been space between where we are and where God is calling us to go.

Time will tell whether we halved the distance between where we are and where God would have us be. But God knows that we came in the response to God’s summons to “seek justice, (to) rescue the oppressed, (to) defend the orphan, (to) plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1.16-17)

My sisters and brothers, you and I have been summoned here because God knows that we are committed to the common good of this community, Christian and non-Christian alike. We know the challenges that are faced by the people who live here, young and old, rich and poor, powerful and weak. We know what God expects of those who have been marked with the sign of the cross. Let us not be afraid to act. May our assemblies for worship never become a formality unconnected from the community in which we live. May our prayers never become merely texts to be recited rather than pledges of what we will do when this assembly is over. May we always remember that just as Christ offers himself to us in the bread and the wine, so are we called to offer ourselves to others.

The prophet Isaiah condemned the people of Israel and Judah because they thought that they had ‘the right answer’. They believed that their rituals insulated them from the demands of the covenant. What God wanted of them and wants of us is that we commit ourselves to the path of ‘the almost but not yet’, being humble enough to acknowledge that we do not yet have ‘the answer’ but being courageous enough to halve the distance again and again and again if it will bring us closer to God’s promised reign of justice and peace. Amen.

Friday, August 6, 2010

In the Ordinary We Discover the Extraordinary

A Homily for the Funeral of Mary Perry
5 August 2010

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Focus texts:  Isaiah 61.1-3 and 2 Timothy 4.6-8a

            I spent the summer of 1979 as a student chaplain at Bethesda Hospital in Denver, a small psychiatric hospital established by two small Dutch denominations, the Reformed Church of America and the Christian Reformed Church.  Although the hospital had originally been established to serve tuberculosis patients in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the advent of modern antibiotics and other therapies meant that the hospital needed to find a new reason for its existence.  These two churches chose an ancient Christian vocation:  the care of the mentally ill, a vocation often practiced by Christian monasteries and convents throughout the centuries.

            As I remember it, the hospital had four units, one of those units a secure unit where adolescents received court-mandated psychiatric assessments as well as treatment.  On our first day the student chaplains were asked to list, in order of our preferred area of service, the four units of the hospital.  I was assigned to the adolescent unit.  When I asked why I had been assigned, the supervising chaplain gave two reasons:  (1) I was a trained and certified secondary teacher, something the unit needed, and (2) I was the only student chaplain who included the adolescent unit on his list.

            I spent the first half of the summer helping these young people with their school assignments --- after all, education must go on, even in a psychiatric hospital! --- and acting as a chaperone (read ‘prison guard’) when there were outings.  Since some of the medical staff were sceptical of the usefulness of a chaplain on the unit, my spiritual role was limited to occasional ‘values clarification’ sessions where the non-medical staff and I facilitated conversations about personal values and decision-making, often using role-playing as a technique for learning more mature behaviours.

            By early July I was fed up and told my supervisor that I was going to resign.  He asked me to go home and think about it.  When I came in the next day, there was a note in my mail box from my supervisor.  All it said was, “Read Matthew 25.31-46 and see me at 2.00 p.m. today.”

            In this portion of Matthew’s gospel Jesus describes the day of judgement and how people are sifted into two groups, the ‘sheep’ on the right and the ‘goats’ on the left, and are judged by the ‘king’. 

“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’  Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” [Matthew 25.34-40]

I realized that my frustration was caused by my own expectations of what ministry should be rather than a response to the real needs of the young people I was serving.  In so many ways they were hungry and thirsty, strangers and naked, sick and in prison.  When I saw my supervisor at 2.00 p.m., I simply said, “I’m staying.”  He responded, “I thought that you would.”

            We live in a world captivated by a myth of celebrity where the extraordinary behaviour of the few is considered to be more real than the ordinary behaviour of the many.  Many of our contemporaries have lost sight of a simple truth, expressed in Matthew’s gospel and in our readings from Isaiah and 2 Timothy:  It is in the ordinary not extra-ordinary faith-filled lives of people such as Mary that the good news of God in Christ is most widely and most influentially expressed and embodied.

            A couple of days ago I was watching ‘The Magnificent Seven’, that classic western in which seven gun fighters are hired by an impoverished Mexican village to defend it from a band of rapacious banditos.  In one scene several young boys denounce their farmer fathers as ‘cowards’, but they are quickly taken to task by one of the gun fighters.  He speaks to them of the courage it takes to work day after day to provide a home and food for a family, to bear the burdens of the young so that they might grow up, to see successes turn to failures and dreams into distant fantasies and yet never give up trying to do what is best for the family.  “That kind of courage,” the gun fighter says, “is a courage that I do not have, but I envy those who do.”

            Mary’s life has been a long and ordinary life in which extra-ordinary things have happened.  Two children have been raised and have reached adulthood with the gifts to tend their families and relationships.  Several generations of students and others have receive wise counsel as they have sought the education and wisdom necessary to forge meaningful lives of their own.  Saint Faith’s and other congregations have been the recipients of the quiet but constant gift of Mary’s time, talents and treasure.  In these and many other ways the hungry and thirsty, the strangers and the naked, the sick and those in prison have been cared for by Mary, this baptized child of God.

            It is right to mourn.  It is right to acknowledge the tear in the fabric of our lives, whether family, friends or congregation.  Mary is no longer with us in the ways that we wish she were.  But if it is right to grieve, certainly it is more truly right to give thanks and praise for a life faithfully lived, a clay vessel which bore the good news of God and shared that good news with many.  It is truly right and a good and joyous thing to acknowledge a good fight well-fought, a race finished with grace and a faith kept to the end.  May we, ordinary folk that we are, join Mary in living such a life so that the extra-ordinary love of God may be made known to others.  Amen.