Saturday, April 17, 2010

Without God, nothing. God and enough.

RCL Easter 3C
18 April 2010

Saint Catherine’s Anglican Church
North Vancouver BC

Focus Text: John 21.1-19

“Do you love me?” “Do I what?” “Do you love me?” So begins the duet between Tevye, the milkman, and Golda, his wife, in A Fiddler on the Roof. If you know the story, all the action takes place in little Anatevka, a Russian village with a small Jewish community just before the First World War.

Tevye’s world is slowly coming apart. Russia is entering that revolutionary period that will reach its climax in the October Revolution of 1917. Anatevka is about to be torn apart by that ancient blood demon, anti-Semitism, as the local police chief will be required to rough up the Jews, just a little, so that everyone will know their place in the scheme of Tsarist and Orthodox Russia.

Tevye’s own family will undergo major trials. His eldest daughter will refuse a traditional arranged marriage with a wealthy butcher because she and an impoverished tailor have made their own arrangement years ago. His next daughter will fall in love with a secular Jew who is a teacher and a revolutionary. Their love will cause her to leave Anatevka on a solitary train trip to Siberia where her young man has been exiled. But the most strenuous test will come when Tevye’s youngest daughter falls in love with a young Russian, a Christian, whom she secretly marries, an act which is a breaking point for Tevye.

For Tevye, love, whether one’s love for God or for tradition or for family does not bring security. Love brings the balancing act of ‘a fiddler on the roof’ who plays with energy and passion the song that God has given the musician to play while straddling the ridge of the roof. Love brings change and embarking on paths unforeseen and, in some cases, even unwelcome.

“Do you love me?” “Lord, you know that I love you.” “Feed my lambs.” So begins Peter’s painful conversation with the beloved rabbi whom Peter had betrayed three times. Three times Jesus asks the same question. Three times Peter affirms his love. Who among us would want to be reminded of our greatest act of cowardice? It is no wonder Peter is a little annoyed with this exchange and, in the verse after the conclusion of today’s reading from the gospel of John, tries to deflect Jesus a bit by asking about one of the other disciples and his future, a ploy that Jesus sees through quickly and returns Peter to the main issue. Jesus is preparing Peter for the consequences of love. “If you love me,” Jesus seems to be saying, “then you will have as much security as a fiddler on the roof. But you will have enough. Come and follow me.”

Our assembly here today is proof of the power of Peter’s love for God made known to him in Jesus of Nazareth. I will not recount the tales of Peter that have come down to us from the many generations of Christians who have come before us, but I will say this. Peter’s love led him to follow Jesus and to leave behind all the familiar environs of his home in Galilee, from his family, community and religious heritage. Peter went out into the Mediterranean world of the Roman Empire to tell the story of God’s love to an audience he could never have imagined before that fateful Easter so long ago. Who would have imagined a Jewish fisherman travelling the length and breadth of the Roman Empire while telling tales about a Jewish rabbi abandoned by the Jewish religious establishment for blasphemy and executed by the Romans for sedition? Who would have thought that this story told by Peter and by others would continue to this very day to trouble the powerful and the comfortable even as it empowers the powerless and the distressed?

“Do you love me?” This is the question that God asks each one of us every day of our lives. This is the question that makes me shudder every time I hear it. Why do I shudder? Because I am convinced that what Jesus says to Peter, God says to all of us. “If you love me,” God says, “then you will be led where you do not want to go. You will be led to undertake tasks that you would rather not believe are really yours to undertake. At the very least, loving me will change you for ever. There will be no going back once you embark on this path. Do you love me?”

We Anglicans in the Diocese of New Westminster are confronting the greatest challenge posed by our profession of love for God since the Second World War.

• The structures that our community of faith has understood to be normative, and perhaps even necessary, for the conduct of our corporate life are stressed and might not be sustainable.
• To many of our neighbours our Christian faith is not only irrelevant to contemporary life but potentially harmful.
• Christians in Canada can no longer claim that we have a ‘common mind’ regarding the essentials of Christian faith, ethical norms and our relations with peoples of other religious traditions.

Just as Peter was led by his love for God to go where he could not have ever imagined going, so we are being called by our love for God to explore paths few of us ever thought we would tread. Some of the givens I accepted when I began theological college more than thirty years ago are not considered givens today.

• Women have been ordained to the episcopate, the presbyterate and the diaconate.
• Gay and lesbian disciples of Christ are slowly and painfully gaining their rightful place in the life of the Christian community.
• Non-stipendiary clergy, once considered an interesting and useful adjunct to ‘real’ clergy, are becoming more central to the church’s on-going strategy for ministry in the twenty-first century.
• Deacons, once considered ‘priests with training wheels’ or a ministry for well-intentioned and long-serving lay leaders, are now calling God’s people to go forth from our places of worship to serve others as Christ has served us and to work to change structures that continue to privilege the few at the expense of the many.

“Do you love me?” God sings this question to us with the breath of the Holy Spirit. “Will you come and follow me?” Christ beckons us to walk a path that promises resurrection even as we are led through the way of the Cross. Who knows what lies ahead for us as a diocese? Who can say with certainty what changes we may have to make to our manner of following Christ, our way, our truth and our life? Who can predict what treasures from our past will sustain our future and which will need to be left lovingly but firmly behind? But then, what did any of us really know when we first fell in love with someone, when we first love someone with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul and with all our strength? Which one of us really knew what the gains and losses would be when we gazed lovingly for the first time on the face of our first-born or any of our children?

“Do you love me?” Yes, Lord, we love you. We do not know fully the path you will ask us to walk as we journey to that reign of justice and peace your Abba, our Creator, has promised for all creatures. We do not know fully the gains and the losses we face, but we will follow. Pick us up when we stumble. Encourage us when we falter. Have patience when we dawdle or complain or even whine. Because we do love you and, more importantly, you love us. In the end, that is more than enough. Amen.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

What do you see?

RCL Easter 2C
11 April 2010

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

One of my favourite Peanuts comic strips begins with Charlie Brown, Lucy and Schroeder lying on their backs and looking at the clouds overhead. Charlie Brown asks the other two what they see. Both Lucy and Schroeder ‘see’ great works of art, including Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, one of the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. “What do you see?” they ask Charlie Brown. “I was going to say a doggie, a horsey and a piggy,” Charlie says, “but I think I’ll just keep quiet.”

“What do you see?” This question comes to us with many different connotations. This past week I underwent eye surgery to replace the cataract-obstructed lens of my right eye. At various points since then I have been asked, “What do you see?” When a child brings a piece of recently-created art work to a parent or a grandparent or some other adult with the command, “Look!”, we are often at a loss for words. What we see may be so far from the intent of the child that the wise adult says to the child, “Tell me about your picture.” In this way we avoid the brief but horrible mistake of seeing the wrong thing. When we are in the midst of a discussion, perhaps a very serious one, we speak about differing points of ‘view’ and might well ask our conversational partners, “Do you see what I am saying?”

We tend to understand vision or sight to be a concrete process determined primarily by the laws of physics and neurology. Light enters the eye and by means of the structures of the eye is translated into the electric impulses required by our optic nerve. This information is transmitted to the visual centre of our brain where it is ‘interpreted’. Let me repeat this: the nerve impulses are transmitted to the brain where they are ‘interpreted’ and then ‘translated’ into images. Our brains even fill in the ‘blind spot’ that all of us have in our eyes.

Throughout our lives, but perhaps most importantly during our childhood, we learn to interpret the information sent to our brains. There is a fascinating link between language and sight. If you give a book to a child, even a book with pictures and no words, he or she can not truly ‘see’ the book, until they learn what it is that they are looking at. You can show me a picture of something that I have never seen and I do not ‘know’ what it is until you give me the language to understand it. When someone says to me, “Words cannot describe what I have seen,” our further conversation about the experience is handicapped until we either find some common language or I have the same experience.

Sight is not simply a physical process. It is a sense that is nurtured from birth and relies upon many other dimensions of our bodies and our culture. If I have been raised in a culture that sees women as inferior or people of other ethnicity or religions as dangerous, I will ‘see’ women as less than human and other people as threats. I remember travelling with a family member who lived in a very crowded part of the world. We took a number of trips into the mountains and prairies of Colorado where I grew up. I was trying to show him the beauty of my home, but at the end of our travelling, he said something to me that indicated we had seen different things. Where I saw beauty and openness, he saw wasted space, land that could be used to ease the crowding he experienced at home. No matter that the land I had shown him did not have the resources to bear the load of a growing population, he only saw open and wasted space. What we ‘see’ is the product of our nature, our nurture and our present perspective.

“We have seen the Lord,” the other apostles tell Thomas. But Thomas cannot ‘see’ the Lord. He is not equipped by nature, nurture or present perspective to share the same vision. His eyes have not seen, his religious upbringing has not prepared him nor his present profound disappointment and fear can bring him to see what the other apostles have seen. But he is still willing to participate in the life of his friends, to join them a week later on a Sunday, not a typical day of gathering for a Jewish religious group. On that Sunday, this Sunday, Thomas ‘sees’ the Lord and his life is changed. It is a dramatic moment that has captured the imaginations of many artists, visually and musically. Some may think that this moment of ‘sight’ is the purpose of the story. But I do not.

“Jesus said to [Thomas], ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’” With these words the evangelist gives us the point of the story. You and I and all the generations that have preceded us have not seen with our natural eyes what the apostles and Thomas saw: the resurrected Jesus. We have seen and have been raised to look for the signs, the ripples, that this appearance has left throughout history. We look and look with our eyes, both the eyes of our heads and the eyes of our hearts, searching for the signs that the risen Christ has come among us. The Welsh poet and Anglican priest, R. S. Thomas, writes of this in his poem, ‘Via Negativa’:

Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.

Today’s gospel reading gives rise to the familiar phrase, “doubting Thomas’, but if that is the only image we take away, then we have missed the central point. This is not a story about Thomas’ doubt but a story about the community’s continuing witness to the resurrection of Jesus. This witness nurtures us and helps shape our perspective on the present so that we can live into a future whose outlines often seem unclear to us.

“What do you see?” This is the question addressed to all of us who bear the cross of Christ upon our foreheads. Our natural eyes may only perceive decline and doubt, but we have been nurtured on the footsteps and echoes of the risen Christ who walks just ahead of us, just beyond our sight. We might be tempted to look only back rather than look forward in order to track the path that those footsteps trace, to hearken to the sound that those echoes leave.

“What do you see?” I see a community that continues to witness to the risen Christ. I see a community that welcomes the stranger, those who doubt and those who desire a community of faith. I see a community that reaches beyond itself, financially and personally, to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. My eyes see this every time I am with you in worship and in service. My sight has been trained to see this by the story of this parish. My belief that we have a role to play in God’s continuing work in the world today gives me a hopeful perspective.

“What do you see?” I see God’s people, people who have not seen but believe that God is doing more here than may meet the eyes of the casual observer. When it comes, may we have the eyes to see it. Amen.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

An Abyss of Love: A Homily for Good Friday

Saint Faith’s Anglican Parish
2 April 2010

In 1853 a middle-aged Anglican theologian teaching at King’s College London published a series of essays which attracted significant attention from the religious establishment. King’s College was already the subject of considerable scrutiny as an Anglican balance to the so-called ‘secular’ University College London. University College had been established to provide university-level education for non-Anglicans in contrast to the Anglican universities of Cambridge and Oxford. Together they were united in the 1830’s to create the University of London.

This middle-aged theologian, Frederick Denison Maurice, challenged a number of the commonly-held positions of the leaders of the Church of England, but he was especially critical of several held by the so-called ‘evangelical’ party. In the final essay he addressed the question of ‘everlasting punishment’, a principle that the evangelical party saw as crucial to maintaining society’s stability. Without this teaching, it was thought that the lower classes would cease to behave in a manner that preserved the social order of early Victorian Britain.

He criticized the idea of ‘everlasting punishment’ on two grounds. The first was a word study on the difference between ‘everlasting’ and ‘eternal’. He pointed out that the New Testament tends to use ‘eternal’, a term which means ‘outside of time’, rather than ‘everlasting’, a term which means ‘continuous time without an end’. This was an important distinction because it provided the rich soil for his second critique.

‘Everlasting punishment’ left no room, Maurice argued, for God’s love, a quality essential to God’s very nature. It was God’s intent that we become who we truly are, God’s beloved, made in the image and likeness of God. While we could resist God’s love, perhaps even into whatever awaits us after our death, God’s last word to each of us is not ‘endless death’ but ‘eternal life’, a ‘yes’ that shatters any ‘no’ human fears and desires for control can utter. Towards the end of his essay Maurice wrote these words, ones that continue to remain with me every time I begin to doubt what the future holds for me, for my Christian community, for our world:

"I ask no one to pronounce, for I dare not pronounce myself, what are the possibilities of resistance in a human will to the loving will of God. There are times when they seem to me --- thinking of myself more than of others --- almost infinite. But I know that there is something which must be infinite. I am obliged to believe in an abyss of love which is deeper than the abyss of death: I dare not lose faith in that love. I sink into death, eternal death, if I do. I must feel that this love is compassing the universe. More about it I cannot know. But God knows. I leave myself and all to Him." (From 'Eternal Life and Eternal Death' in Theological Essays, 2nd ed. published in 1853)

Maurice’s words led to his dismissal from the faculty of King’s College. While the remaining nineteen years of his life would bring some rehabilitation, Maurice remained a voice that the establishment tried to mute in many and various ways. For Maurice, the words of the prophet sound true: “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity, and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him and no account.” (Isaiah 53.3)

But Maurice’s confidence in the ‘abyss of love’ were grounded in the event we gather to remember today. In the death of Jesus of Nazareth we see the abyss of God’s love, an abyss which is far deeper than the human sin which led to his death. While there are many ways theologians have attempted to explain why Jesus’ death bridges the gap between God’s love and human sin, one thing remains clear: God’s ‘yes’ to humanity, a ‘yes’ embodied in the life and witness of Jesus of Nazareth, remains stronger and more faithful than any of the ‘no’s’ human beings can express, whether that ‘no’ is found in the worship of power, in the poverty of human greed or in the denial that there is any more to life than the sometimes flat surface many of our sisters and brothers call ‘reality’. Just as surely as plants will seek the sun, even human perversity will eventually seek the warmth of God’s love and follow the path that this love tracks in the universe.

We do not assemble here to celebrate a cult of death. We do not assemble here to rejoice in our own election by God and God’s rejection of those who do not share our beliefs. We do not assemble here to escape the challenges of human responsibility to shape communities and nations and a world in justice is done, in which steadfast love is honoured, in which humility in the face of the mystery whom we name as God is practiced. We assemble because we believe that life not death is God’s last word for all of us. We assemble because we believe that every human being is God’s child and our kindred. We assemble because we seek the strength and the wisdom to do justice, to honour steadfast love and to walk humbly with the One who created us, who walks with us and who renews our life.

We assemble and remember because, like Frederick Denison Maurice, we like swimming in the deep end of life, a deep end filled with the waters of God’s love. We assemble and remember because, like Frederick Denison Maurice, we seek God’s help to remain ‘firm in the hope [God] has set before us, so that we and all [God’s] children shall be free, and the whole earth live to praise [God’s] name’. Amen.