Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Quirky Nativity

Here's a quirky but fun take on the Nativity story --- especially for those of us who are relatively adept at the new social media but still have our moments of caution!  Just click on the title of this post and you'll be connected to Youtube.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Mission & Money --- A Not So Peaceable Kingdom

[This sermon was prepared for the parish of Saint Helen's Point Grey to make links between congregational financial support of the Diocese and the mission of God in the world.  The above painting is by Edward Hicks, the Quaker minister and artist (1780 - 1849) and retrieved from fryeblog.blog.lib.mcmaster.ca on Saturday, 4 December 2010.]

RCL Advent 2A
5 December 2010

Saint Helen’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

            More than seven hundred years before the advent of Jesus of Nazareth a priest and prophet living in the southern kingdom of Judah received a series of revelations from the God of Israel.  These revelations came at a time of political and social disintegration as both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah were slowly and surely absorbed into the Assyrian Empire.  We know this priest and prophet as Isaiah, son of Amoz, a name which can mean ‘Yahweh has saved’ or ‘Yahweh may save’.  Perhaps his parents, keenly aware of the crisis into which their son was being born, chose a name to express their deepest hope that Yahweh, the God of Israel, would bring the two kingdoms safely out of the crisis just as surely as God had brought the people out of Egypt.

            The kings of Judah, David’s successors, were weak and inconsequential when compared to the kings of the neighbouring nations; they were, as Isaiah describes them, ‘the stump of Jesse’.  Yet Isaiah believed that the kings of Judah reigning in Jerusalem were a divine institution and that any future messianic kingdom would be led by a descendant of David.  But this future messianic kingdom would not be perfect because ‘some people will still be poor, others ruthless or wicked.  The difference from the current age will lie, rather, in the king’s response to these problems:  He will always render accurate and fair judgments” (The Jewish Study Bible).  Isaiah shared the common view of Near Eastern peoples of this time that “the mark of a truly righteous king is his willingness to protect the poor and his nation’s other marginalized groups, especially widows and orphans” (The New Interpreter’s Study Bible).  As Isaiah speaks, “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth . . . . Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.” (Isaiah 11.3b-4a, 5)

            When we set this beautiful vision of an ideal kingdom of justice and equity in context, a world in which even the natural order reflects a new harmony between predator and prey, we realize that this is a message predicated on the ending of one world before the new world can begin.  It is an acknowledgement that we inhabit a world that is not just, where inequity flourishes and the natural world suffers the consequences of human greed and selfishness.

            Let us jump forward many centuries.  The final decades of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth were times of considerable religious fervour in North America.  Not only were the so-called ‘mainline’ traditions establishing themselves in the changed political environment following the American Revolution, but there was a strong ‘end of times’ spirituality that burned on the frontier of European settlements, both in Canada and in the United States.  The Shakers, a break-away sect from the Quakers, established communes in which celibacy was maintained and Mother Anne, the founder of the movement, was considered the incarnation of the feminine dimension of Jesus Christ.  A young man in western New York by the name of Joseph Smith would experience a revelation that led him to discover what he called ‘another testament of Jesus Christ’ and to start a movement we now know as the Mormons.

            During these decades a young Quaker minister and artist by the name of Edward Hicks began to paint.  Among his works is a scene he would paint some sixty-one times in his life and which he called ‘The Peaceable Kingdom’.  His inspiration came from today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah with its proclamation of an ideal world in which ‘(the) wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.’ (Isaiah 11.6)  Often his paintings of this theme included, in the background, a scene of William Penn, the founder of the Pennsylvania Colony, signing a landmark treaty with the native people of the Colony.

            Hicks was concerned by what he saw as a growing worldliness on the part of his contemporaries as well as by the growing number of divisive sects and splits within the various religious communities of the time.  His reverence for William Penn did not blind Hicks to the fact that the native people of the United States were not treated with the respect and justice that Penn had shown to them in the early days of Pennsylvania.  In some versions of ‘The Peaceable Kingdom’ it is possible to sense some of Hicks’ growing despair:  the colours are darker and the scene of Penn with the native people is omitted.  One senses that Hicks is holding on to Isaiah’s vision even as that vision seems to slip further and further into a very distant future.

            Isaiah and his interpreter, Edward Hicks, hold before us what I believe is God’s most urgent task in the world today:  the bringing into being of a genuine peaceable kingdom where justice and equity for all people, regardless of any of the natural or imagined distinctions we identify, and where the resources of our world are used responsibly and fairly so that every human being has fullness of life and the creation itself flourishes.

            But how does God achieve this mission?  While there are many ways in which God accomplishes the divine purposes in creation, I want to focus on one means that God uses --- you and I,  the community of the baptized believers who follow the way of Jesus of Nazareth.  Throughout the biblical witness God consistently employs human agents to achieve the divine purposes and, in these last days, my sisters and brothers, we, the church, are called to be agents of God.  One of Isaiah’s contemporaries, the prophet Micah, gives us the agenda for how we are to participate in this mission:  “[God] has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6.8).

            We are challenged to embody ‘the peaceable kingdom’ for which we wait, to offer to those in whose midst we live and work a foretaste of what is to come: 

     i)         Ensure that no human being is treated as a means to someone else’s purpose but as one made in the image and likeness of the living God. 
   ii)         Offer to all people that covenant love and faithfulness that God offers to every human being, loving neighbour as one loves oneself. 
 iii)         Rather than grasp after divinity, become fully alive after the model of Jesus of Nazareth. 

It is this mission we are to serve with our stewardship of our time and our talents and
our treasure.

            While I could say more about how we use our time and talents to further God’s ‘peaceable kingdom’, your Rector asked me, as a member of the Diocesan Council and as a former member of General Synod, to share with you how the financial resources we give to the work of the Diocese and to the General Synod to participate in the mission of God that I have described.

            Agenda item #1:  Do justice.  In the more than twenty years of my involvement in diocesan and national structures I believe that doing justice has been a central focus in the programme work of our Diocese and our General Synod.  Whether we are talking about support for affordable housing initiatives or responding to the needs of the poorest members of our communities or working towards the healing of ancient hurts caused to aboriginal people, the funds that come from this parish to the Diocese and from the Diocese to the programme of the General Synod have directly contributed to concrete acts of justice such as The 127 Housing Society, The Street Priest Initiative of Saint James and the Healing and Reconciliation Fund to name but three.  Without these funds these and similar agencies and programmes are often unable to apply for matching grants or to undertake vital initiatives.  Some of our funding supports the work of ‘Kairos’, the ecumenical justice coalition, that works both publicly and behind the scenes as an advocate for those who have no voice, whether in this country or abroad, in the corridors of political and economic power.

            Agenda Item #2:  Love kindness.  In the Hebrew Bible, the word translated into English as ‘kindness’ is chesedChesed means more than ‘kindness’; it means ‘steadfast love and covenantal fidelity’; it means sticking with someone even when you would prefer to pretend you have no knowledge of who they are and no desire to be in any sort of relationship with them.  It means being as faithful to one another as God is faithful to us.  This is what the Diocese or the General Synod does through the financial support it receives from congregations and other sources:  Our diocesan and national leadership helps us remain faithful to one another, both in Canada and in the world. 

            In the Anglican tradition the diocese, not the congregation, is the smallest unit of the church; congregations are expressions of a diocesan strategy to meet the needs of a great diversity of people spread over a particular expanse of geography.  Contrary to the common parlance, I am not here as a ‘guest’ or as a ‘visitor’; I am here as one of your priests and I am as accountable to you as I am to the people of Saint Faith’s where I am the honorary assistant.  We are connected even when we may not know each well or at all.

            Many of the diocesan and national committees whose work relies on the funding received from congregations and dioceses are engaged in activities that help us remain faithful to one another.  For more than twenty years I have been engaged in diocesan and national projects associated with the worship life of the Anglican Church of Canada, work funded, in part, by St Helen’s and focused on helping us share in common prayer that unites us.  When the Bishop travels to Taiwan or to a meeting of the Provincial House of Bishops or to a meeting of the National House of Bishops, he does so in order, in some way, to link us to that broader community of Anglicans whom we consider our family --- not visitors or guests.  Much of what is called ‘administrative’ is really an expression of pastoral ministry that, at its heart, ensures that we are responsible to one another and supportive of one another.  A substantial portion of the budget of the General Synod supports ministry in the northern two-thirds of our country, the so-called ‘Council of the North’, where many congregations are vital, life-giving centres of spiritual growth, but not always financially sustainable without assistance from the southern dioceses.

            Agenda Item #3:  Walk humbly with God.  Key to walking humbly with God is knowing who we are and for what purpose we were created.  In our present climate of controversy regarding how shall we live in right relationship with God, some of the financial resources of our communities have been used to fund educational programmes intended, not to lead to a particular conclusion, but to help Christians talk with one another prayerfully and respectfully.  Some of our resources are used to fund theological education including non-traditional programmes for the training of laity and clergy.  Other resources are devoted to inter-church and inter-faith dialogues and relationships where new partnerships are being forged and mutual respect between peoples of differing faiths and traditions is growing.

            Perhaps one of the more significant developments in the life of our Diocese is the Ministry Assessment Process.  Through this Process congregations and deaneries are discovering new ways to be the presence of Christ in changing contexts.  As a former Mentor in this Process I know that the financial support from congregations such as St Helen’s has helped a smaller parish, thought to be dying, to discover new springs of life and new partnerships so that its ministry can continue in an area of the city that truly needs us to be present.

            My friends, line-item budgets do not always help us understand how our gifts are working towards that ‘peaceable kingdom’ proclaimed by Isaiah and painted so many times by Edward Hicks.  Line items do not always reveal how our gifts are helping us do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God --- but that work is happening and this congregation as well as those from Powell River to White Rock and from the University Endowment Lands to Hope participate in God’s mission to establish a peaceable kingdom where justice, covenant loyalty and humility reign over oppression, betrayal and arrogance.  Even as we wait for that kingdom to come, let us not fail to use our gifts so that the whole world will see that things which were cast down are being raised up, that things which have grown old are being made new and that all things are being brought to their perfection by the God whose power working in us does infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

Let us pray.

Labouring God, with axe and winnowing fork you clear a holy space where hurt and destruction have no place, and a little child holds sway.  Clear our lives of hatred and despair, sow seeds of joy and peace, that shoots of hope may spring forth and we may live in harmony with one another.  [We ask this in Christ’s name.]  Amen.  [Revised Common Lectionary Prayers]