Saturday, February 26, 2011

How could I ever forget you?

RCL Epiphany 8A
27 February 2011

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

(1)  The wonderful serendipity of the lectionary

         While there are Christians tradition in which the choice of the biblical passages to be read on any given occasion is left to the presider, preacher or those who plan worship, the Anglican tradition is not one of them.  If I am to be honest, then I have to admit that Anglican preachers have not always preached on the readings read in the liturgical assembly.  But I am not one of them.

         So it is that we come to the eighth Sunday after Epiphany in Year A and discover the wonderful serendipity of the lectionary.  Here we are on the Sunday of the annual Vestry of the Parish, a day when we make decisions about the parish’s finances, about future directions for ministry and, in general, discuss the state of the parish.  On this Sunday, a day when I am sure that there are some members of the parish who will have legitimate concerns about the budget, we hear these words from the gospel according to Matthew:

Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they?  (Matthew 6.25b-26)

And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  (Matthew 6.27)

I can almost hear the thoughts of the Church Committee pondering whether Jesus ever had to deal with the financial planning associated with his missionary trips through first-century Palestine.

         I can also hear the voices of those in my own past who have quoted the last line of today’s gospel, “Today’s trouble is enough for today,” when I have sounded worried or thought too much about the future.  But in preparing for today I realized that this verse comes in the context of a more important statement that I want to repeat:

But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
         So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will brings worries of its own.  Today’s trouble is enough for today.  (Matthew 6.33-34)

Those who strive for the kingdom of God may well worry, but that worry is quickly swallowed up in realization that God is at work with us and for us in all the dimensions of our lives, whether in our workplaces, in our families, in our neighbourhoods or in our parish community.

         This does not absolve us from the responsibility of being good stewards of the resources given into our care nor from taking prudent actions to further the work of ministry in this place.  But it does lift from us the burden of thinking that the future is only in our often incapable hands and the worry associated with our knowing how we often make decisions that go awry.  It is as if Jesus says to us, “Take care of today’s business.  God is at work taking care of tomorrow’s.  Just keep your eyes on God’s horizon and all will be well.”

(2)  The community to whom the gospel according to Matthew was written

         Let me say a little bit about the community to whom the gospel of Matthew was first addressed.

It is a community of Jewish believers in Jesus as the prophet that Moses is said to have promised God would send to the people to lead more closely into following the ways of God.  This community is experiencing external pressures from other Jews who see this community in competition with the emerging rabbinic Judaism that will form the foundations of what we know as contemporary Judaism.  But as if external pressures were not enough, this Jewish Christian community is also being torn by internal disputes that pitch family member against family member, friend against friend.  All of this, external pressure and internal dispute, is occurring in the context of a Palestine that is suffering the consequences of a disastrous revolt against the Roman authorities.  The Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed, as great a tragedy for Jewish believers in Jesus as it was for other Jewish movements.  Roman reprisals against civilians have been severe and the entire province is littered with empty villages and ravished cities.

         It is to this community of believers that today’s words are directed. “Take care of today’s business.  God is at work taking care of tomorrow’s.  Just keep your eyes on God’s horizon and all will be well.”

(3)  The community to whom God speaks today

         We cannot compare our present situation to the situation of Matthew’s community.  Although we experience the pressures of an increasingly secular society that is sometimes contemptuous of and hostile to religious communities, we still enjoy the financial privileges of a non-profit society.  Even though our own religious tradition is in the midst of a conflict that is theological, pastoral and legal, we have been spared that conflict within our own parish community.  It is true that we have experienced a serious financial crisis that has affected everyone in this country and in this parish, perhaps some of us more than others, but we cannot say that we live in a devastated landscape dominated by hunger, fear and oppression.        

         What we can say is that we know that the future of ministry, whether here at Saint Faith’s or at any of the more than seventy congregations of the Diocese of New Westminster, will take new forms during the next five to ten years.  For some that is frightening and discouraging, but for others it is a moment that awakens the imagination and entices us with new possibilities, even ones that we haven’t even dreamed of yet.

         So we shall soon gather for the annual vestry.  We shall hear reports, elect officers and approve a budget.  But we shall not do this in an atmosphere of worry but of hope.  We shall do this with our eyes fixed on God’s horizon and with our minds and hearts open to new possibilities.  We shall do this knowing that God is not finished with us yet, because God is not finished renewing the world that God created and for which Jesus gave his life.  Let us strive for the kingdom of God and for God’s righteousness.  If we can do this, then everything will fall into place.

         We may even be tempted to think that God has forsaken us, but how could a mother forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  For God has not forgotten us and has inscribed us on the palms of the divine hands.  Amen.

Joint Anglican-Lutheran Commission

On the left Archbishop Fred Hiltz of the Anglican Church of Canada and on the right Bishop Susan Johnson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada

I invite you to join the Facebook page of the Joint Anglican-Lutheran Commission.  Here you will learn about the work of their important expression of God's unifying work in Canada.  Click on the title of this post to visit the page.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Pickles, Holiness and Perfection

RCL Epiphany 7A
20 February 2011

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Focus texts:  Leviticus 19.2; Matthew 5.48

         On the 11th of June 1981 I was ordained deacon in the Cathedral of Saint John in the Wilderness in Denver, Colorado.  Five months and six days earlier William Wolfrum, better known as ‘Dub’, was ordained bishop in the same cathedral.  When I joined Dub on the diocesan staff, he told me that he expected me to teach him how to be a bishop and he would teach me how to be a priest.  He kept his end of the agreement admirably and I can only pray that I kept mine.

         About a month or two before I was ordained, Dub and his wife, Beverly, joined the diocesan bishop, Bill Frey and his wife, Barbara, for a tour of the Diocese of Colorado, an area of more than 103,000 square miles.  They travelled from large urban centres to smaller towns and rural communities.  In each place the two bishops and their wives would worship with those who gathered and gave people an opportunity to learn more about the suffragan bishop and his wife.

         In one community a woman stood up and directed a question at Bev Wolfrum.  “Bev,” she said, “we are so blessed to have Barbara Frey among us.  She writes spiritual columns and books.  She leads retreats.  She gives inspirational talks all the diocese and the country.  What do you do?”  The woman’s question was followed by a period of silence while most of the assembled people waited with bated breath to hear how Bev would measure herself against Barbara, described in terms just a degree or so lower than the Blessed Virgin Mary.  The silence was broken by Bev’s sturdy voice.  “I do pickles,” she said.

         Bev did do pickles and numerous other dishes including three-bean salad, a dish she tried to get me to eat for years.  But while she was cooking or canning or anything else in her kitchen, she also listened well and offered wisdom to many people who might be daunted to approach Barbara but who found a safer haven in Bev’s kitchen.  When Paula and I became engaged, it was Dub and Bev who did our pre-marital preparation with humour, wisdom and common sense.

         In today’s readings from Leviticus and the gospel according to Matthew are two phrases which, on first hearing, can be off-putting because they are daunting.  “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” speaks the Holy One to Moses and the assembled people of Israel.  “Be perfect . . . as your Father in heaven is perfect,” speaks Jesus to the disciples and the assembled people on the mount of the Beatitudes.

         What does it mean to be holy?  How can we be perfect?  For most of us holiness is a quality we have rarely experienced and perfection is a state we know we will never be able to achieve.  Perhaps the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa are holy, but they are not perfect.  Perhaps there are models and actors whose physical forms seem to us to be perfect, yet these forms will eventually pass away and the realities of aging will leave their marks.  Yet these difficult sayings have been preserved by our ancestors in the faith because they call us to be who we are as people who have faith in the God of Israel, the God of Jesus, the God of the earliest Christian communities.

         What does it mean to be holy?  In the Hebrew scriptures holiness is a quality only found in God.  But the people of Israel are holy and are not yet holy.  They are holy because they have been chosen by God to be God’s own people, a holiness they did not earn but were gifted by God’s generous choice.  But they are not yet holy, because they continue to struggle to be faithful to the covenant God established with them on Mount Sinai.

         What does it mean to be ‘perfect’?  In the New Testament the word translated as ‘perfection’ in English is telos.  Telos does not mean without blemish or fault, without any imperfections or insufficiencies.  Telos means ‘the purpose for which one exists’ or ‘maturity in one’s identity’ or ‘the goal towards which one strives’.  When Jesus exhorts his listeners to be ‘perfect’ as God is perfect, it is a call to become more authentic, to shed the illusions and delusions we all have about who we are and what we are capable of doing.  To be telos is to be fully alive as a human being created in the image and likeness of God.

         Holiness and perfection, as understood in the scriptures, are not extraordinary qualities of human life.  They are actually ordinary.  By ‘ordinary’ I mean they are qualities that God, through the Holy Spirit, enables all of us to cultivate.  What is required to achieve these, however, is discipline, humour and the willingness to persevere.

         All of us here at Saint Faith’s are familiar with the promises of the baptismal covenant.  At every baptism and on other occasions these words have echoed through this place of worship.  What these promises represent, however, may not be immediately apparent.  They form what is sometimes called ‘a rule of life’, a guide to spiritual growth.  Dare I say that they represent a way of holiness and perfection?

         When we promise to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers, we are accepting God’s call to be part of a community that has gathered around font, lectern and table for two thousand years.  It is a promise to deepen our conversation with God through personal and corporate prayer, one of the means God uses to centre us, to renew us and to enliven our imaginations.

         When we promise to persevere in resisting evil and, whenever we fall into sin, to repent and return to the Lord, we are accepting God’s call to be part of a community that knows that evil is real but that forgiveness and reconciliation is more real and more enduring.  It is a promise to face our own darknesses with courage because God’s light shines into every darkness and cannot be overcome.

        When we promise to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ, we are accepting God’s call to share with others what we know of the love of Christ poured into our hearts.  It is a promise not to be silent about the joy and peace we have found here.

         When we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbour as ourselves, we are accepting God’s call to radical hospitality and to the recognition that the stranger, no matter how we might define the word ‘stranger’, is not our enemy but our friend.  It is a promise to build neighbourhood wherever we are and however we can.

        When we promise to strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being, we are accepting God’s call to speak for the voiceless.  It is a promise to do justice not just speak about it.

        In our baptism and in our partaking of the eucharist we participate in God’s holiness and are infected with the virus of holiness.  That virus waxes and wanes in us in proportion to our conscious and active commitment to live out the promises of our baptismal covenant.        

        In our daily lives we are challenged to be perfect as our God is perfect.  That perfection looms like a guiding star upon the horizons of our lives, a star we sometimes lose sight of, but a star that never disappears from the sky.  Our journey towards that star requires discipline, humour and perseverance, but the journey will bring us to our telos.

         My sisters and brothers, sometimes holiness surprises us in the kitchen as a quiet saint prepares pickles, listens to us and gives us guidance that re-orients us towards perfection.  Sometimes perfection surprises us in a person who is so comfortable in her or his own skin, so quietly competent in the work God has entrusted to her or him, and that perfection, this embodiment of her or his telos, re-orients us towards holiness.

        Shortly we will begin our annual Lenten pilgrimage that leads us to Jerusalem and the remembrance of those events which gave rise to our faith.  This year’s pilgrimage comes at a time when we are in the midst of re-imagining the future of ministry in this parish in conversation with our Anglican neighbours.  I invite you to join me in renewing our commitment to the rule of holiness and perfection expressed in our baptismal covenant so that our Easter renewal of faith will be even richer.

        As we prepare for this journey, let us remember that God’s temple is holy and we are that temple.  All things are ours whether the world or life or death or the present or the future --- all belong to us and we belong to Christ.  Amen.