Saturday, April 30, 2011

One in Christ

Let Today be Tomorrow
1 May 2011

Redeemer Lutheran Church
Vancouver BC

The Rev’d Dr Richard Geoffrey Leggett
Saint Faith's Anglican Church

         + May the Holy One of Israel who sent the Word into the world to testify to the truth lead us into all truth by the power of the Spirit.  Amen.

         In the fall of 1978 I began my seminary career at Nashotah House Theological Seminary just west of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  At some point in the year we celebrated the successful conclusion of the first dialogue series between American Lutherans and Anglicans hosted by my seminary given the involvement of one of the faculty on the Dialogue.  Two years later a similar event was held, also at Nashotah, to celebrate the beginning of the second dialogue series.

         Since that beginning more than thirty years ago, my life as a presbyter of the Anglican Church has been marked by an involvement in this facet of the recovery of our visible unity in Christ which is already ours spiritually through our dying and rising with Christ in the sacrament of baptism.  After so many years of involvement it was with great joy that I received an invitation from the National Bishop, Susan Johnson, and the Primate, Fred Hiltz, to preach at the first joint meeting of our two executive councils, the Lutheran National Church Council and the Anglican Council of General Synod, a month ago.

         When Archbishop Morgan, the chaplain for the meeting, contacted me about the opening eucharist, he asked me whether I wanted to use the readings and prayers for John Donne, the seventeenth-century Anglican theologian, whose commemoration, for both Anglicans and Lutherans, falls on the 31st of March.  Now I have a deep and abiding respect for John Donne, but I realized that the church’s oldest custom is to begin a liturgical day at sunset the day before, a practice we inherited from our Jewish ancestors in the faith.  That meant we could let today be tomorrow and I could honour one of my theological heroes, Frederick Denison Maurice, who died on the 1st of April in 1872.

         In 1853 Maurice was a middle-aged Anglican theologian teaching at King’s College London, when he 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 King’s College and University College were united in the 1830’s to create the University of London.  But the merger did not lessen the scrutiny directed at this early ecumenical venture. 

         Maurice challenged a number of the commonly-held positions of some leaders of the Church of England, but he was especially critical of several views 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 not behave in a manner that preserved the social order of early Victorian Britain with its distinctions between the rich and poor, the upper classes and the lower classes, management and labour.

         ‘Everlasting punishment’ left no room, Maurice argued, for God’s eternal 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 ‘everlasting 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 and 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 confidence in the ‘abyss of love’ was grounded in the ‘foolishness of God’ that Paul speaks of in our reading from 1 Corinthians.  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.

         What both Paul and Maurice realized is that today is tomorrow.  For Paul the story of humanity’s creation and fall is recapitulated in Jesus of Nazareth with a stunning reversal of human sin, “(so) if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:  everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”  (2 Corinthians 5.17)  Later in the same letter, Paul writes, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”  (2 Corinthians 6.2b)  For Maurice the gospel of John with its proclamation that, in Jesus of Nazareth, the Word has been made flesh and dwells among us is a clarion call to recognize that the kingdom of Christ is as well as shall be.  Just as the Samaritan woman heard Jesus say, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you,” surely Maurice would affirm that the same voice, the same eternal presence, speaks to you and to me today.

         While it is difficult for some people to believe in God’s final renewal of the kosmos and our own resurrection, it is even more difficult for many believers to live in ‘eternal’ life, a recognition that the reign of God is a present reality as much as it is a future hope.  It seems so very foolish, in the face of natural disasters in many parts of the world, in the face of civil unrest and violence in other places and in the face of thinly-veiled apocalyptic rhetoric of a federal election campaign, to believe, as the old hymn puts it:  “My life flows on in endless song above earth’s lamentation. . . . No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that Rock I’m clinging.  Since Love is lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”

         My sisters and brothers, we are gathered to celebrate ten years of full communion between our two churches in Canada. Although our formal agreement of full communion is but a decade old, our work in Canada reaches back more than three decades and our relationship as two reform movements in the Catholic Church more than four hundred and fifty years.  Over these past thirty years I have seen us dutifully crossing the ‘t’s’ and dotting the ‘i’s’ and even the ‘j’s’ in order to achieve some semblance of visible unity.  But I feel the time has come for some serious foolishness on our part if we are to proclaim Christ crucified and risen to our country and, perhaps, to our world.

         What I am hoping for, what I believe others in our two churches are hoping for, is some dramatic steps forward, even at the risk of looking foolish during a time of fiscal uncertainty and a natural but perhaps unwise temptation to withdraw inward in the interests of institutional survival.  The irony is that retrenchment can lead to stagnation and stagnation leads eventually to death.  Paul’s missionary journeys to the cities of the Mediterranean world were not about institutional survival but about sharing the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth --- even when that message was ‘a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Corinthians 1.23b)  Maurice’s essays were not about institutional survival but about sharing the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth to an industrial working class that had been marginalized by those with power and influence and who needed a message of hope rather than the reading of a theological ‘riot act’.
         I am convinced that you and I, members of our two churches in Metro Vancouver, are gathered to let today be tomorrow.  We are here to break the bread and drink the cup so that the world can see how truly foolish Christians can be when they are confident that the abyss of God’s love is infinitely deeper than the abyss of human fear.  What shape our communion will take is beyond the scope of one sermon. But I can tell you that the kingdom of Christ is among us today, that the Spirit of God moves among us today, so that we can look beyond budgets and bylaws, canons and constitutions to discover how today can be tomorrow. 
         If you believe, as I believe, that the Waterloo Communion is more than a convenient way to deal with economic challenges, that the Waterloo Communion is more than a guidebook to ecclesiastical etiquette, that the Waterloo Communion is actually an expression of what the kingdom of Christ can look like in the here and now of twenty-first century Canada, then I am confident that any foolishness that may occur over the next few days and months and years will turn out to be the wisdom of God.  So let us go forth from here prepared to do more than celebrate anniversaries; let us go forth to make unity that is already ours a vision for the whole world to see and know.  Amen.

Kadimah! Go Forward!

Easter II
1 May 2011

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

         In the Jewish tradition the interpretation of Scripture takes many forms.  One of these forms is called midrash.  Midrash is an imaginative interpretation of Scripture that often delves beneath the surface of one verse or explores one of the minor characters in a scriptural tale.  Midrash is never to be taken as a substitute for the scriptural text itself nor should the reader or listener understand the midrash to be anything other than an interpretation of the text.

         One such midrash concerns the events associated with today’s reading from Exodus 15.  This portion of Exodus is sometimes called ‘The Song of Moses’ and, in recent Anglican liturgies, is included as a canticle to be used in morning prayer.  Here Moses celebrates the victory of God over the Egyptian army and the passage of the people of Israel through the waters of the Sea of Reeds.  But it is the midrash on the crossing of the Sea of Reeds that I want to share with you this morning.

         The midrash concerns the following verse from chapter 14:  “Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea.  The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided.”  (Exodus 14.21)  I am grateful to my colleague and friend, Rabbi Philip Bregman of Temple Sholom, for helping me remember the midrash.  Here is how it goes.

         When Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, it did not immediately part.  The people hesitated at the edge, doubting that God would save them from the waves in front of them and the army behind them.  Then Nachson ben Aminadav, the son-in-law of Aaron, heard the command, “Kadimah! Go forward!”  And so he walked into the waters until they reached his ankles, but the waters did not part.  Again he heard the command, “Kadimah!”  Nachson walked further into the waters until they reached his waist, but the waters did not part.  Again he heard “Kadimah!” and Nachson walked further in the waters until they reached his shoulders, but the waters did not part.  Once more he heard the command and he walked further until the waters covered his nose.  At this moment the waters split and Nachson and all the people crossed the Sea of Reeds on dry ground.

         Two thousand years ago Jesus told his disciples that he would go to Jerusalem where earlier the Jewish authorities had attempted either to arrest him or to execute him.  To this declaration of intent, John the Evangelist tells us that Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  (John 11.16)  But when the final events of Holy Week played themselves out, Thomas is no where to be found.  Even when Jesus appeared to the frightened disciples who had locked themselves away, Thomas is not to be found.  But the disciples did not abandon him and invite him to come to their next gathering.  Despite his doubts, fears and profound sense of disappointment, Thomas goes, expecting nothing more than a reunion of dispirited ‘Jesus-groupies’.  Instead of a reunion, Thomas receives a revelation of the risen Christ and his life is changed forever.  According to ancient tradition, Thomas travelled east, preaching the good news of the resurrection until he met his death on the southeastern coast of India where to this day the so-called ‘Thomas Christians’ continue as one of the oldest indigenous Christian communities in the world, older than any of the European Christian traditions to which you and I belong.

         Our present situation is not as dramatic as Nachson’s nor Thomas’.  We do not have a stormy sea in front of us and a pursuing army behind us.  We have not seen our beloved teacher and mentor arrested, tortured and executed.

         We have, however, experienced a sea change in the role of communities of faith such as ours in Vancouver and, indeed, in the rest of Canada.  We have seen a significant change in society’s attitudes towards religious leaders.  Where once religious leaders were counted among the most trustworthy of people, many Canadians now tar every member of the clergy with the brush of the minority who used their positions of power to abuse children and adults.

         Faith is, after all, a matter of trust.  In the Letter to the Hebrews we read, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  (Hebrews 11.1)  It is helpful to know that the writer directs his words to Jewish believers in Jesus of Nazareth who are experiencing the aftermath of the Roman destruction of Judea, Jerusalem and the Temple in the year 70 ce.  Just as the Jewish world has been overturned by these events, so, too, did the earliest Christian believers find the Roman destruction a challenge to their faith.  The writer, in essence, asks the recipients of his letter a simple question:  Do you trust in the God who raised Jesus from the dead?

         Trust does not come easily to human beings these days.  If you ask people who have indicated that they will not vote tomorrow, many will say that they will not vote because they cannot trust our political leaders to do what they say they will do.  The Pacific Coast of North America, especially in Canada and the United States, is populated by a significant number of people who have moved west precisely because of their distrust of the institutions so firmly entrenched in the societies of the central and eastern portions of our two countries.  In a world where political leaders cannot be trusted, where the earth itself seems to betray us by means of floods, storms and earthquakes and where one’s financial stability can disappear at the whim of irresponsible and unaccountable market forces, is it any wonder that there are so many people who find it difficult to trust anything, let alone communities of religious faith?

         So the implicit question posed by the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews comes around to us in our own time.  Do we trust the God who raised Jesus from the dead?  We are often very good at telling the tales of when our trust, whether in God or in human beings, was not honoured, but we are not always so quick to tell the tales of when our trust was affirmed and our faith not only restored but renewed.

         When I decided to leave Vancouver School of Theology, I heard a voice saying, “Kadimah!  Go forward!”  I have to admit that there have been and continue to be moments when I wonder which part of my body the stormy waters of my life have reached.  There have been a couple of moments that I was sure the waters covered more than my nose, but they turned out only to be the passages of a small wave that quickly receded.  Although I have not yet reached whatever I might think to be the ‘other’ side, I continue to trust that the voice that has urged me on.

         Here at Saint Faith’s we are facing our own moments of doubt and uncertainty, moments that have the potential to put our trust in God’s purposes for us to the test.  We continue to look closely at our stewardship, worship, education, evangelism and pastoral care as we work through the tasks of the Ministry Assessment Process.  The Church Committee has made a recommendation regarding the rectory which will be put to a special Vestry on the 15th of May, a recommendation that may evoke a number of emotional and philosophical responses from our members.

         But my deepest hope is that our ears will not be deaf to God’s voice that continues to encourage us:  Kadimah!  Go forward!”  As you wait to receive communion this morning, take a moment to remember how God has given you reason to trust in God’s purposes for you and for this congregation.  Remember the stormy waters you have faced and may still be facing.  Even if you cannot see the other side, do you have faith that God is at your shoulder, braving the waters with you?

         I am convinced that the answer is ‘Yes’.  I am convinced that the members of this congregation believe that the answer is ‘Yes’.  So let us follow Nachmon and Thomas into the waters before us, trusting in the One who calls to go forward, looking expectantly for the land of promise that awaits us.  Amen.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Let Us Proclaim Our Hope

Cross of Athlone

24 April 2011

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

+ Alleluia!  Christ is risen.  The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia!

From critic to consoler

         In the English language there is a word that is not often used, ‘jeremiad’.  A jeremiad is passionate and condemnatory speech that is directed to a group of people whom the speaker is convinced is going cheerfully to their own damnation.  The word has its origins in the book of the prophet Jeremiah whose condemnation of the leaders of Judah were sharp and his views of the people of Judah extraordinarily critical.  In today’s political climate Jeremiah would have made his fortune, no doubt, as a purveyor of political attack ads and negative campaign rhetoric.

         He was writing at the same time as the prophet Ezekiel and these two men saw that Judah was quickly coming to a political crisis that would not end well.  Both men were right.  In 587 bce the Babylonians conquered Judah for the second time, destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the Temple and took most of the leading citizens into exile.  While Ezekiel went with the exiles to Babylon, Jeremiah stayed behind and discovered that God was calling him to a new vocation.  Jeremiah was to leave the critic behind and become the consoler and bringer of hope.

         In this morning’s reading Jeremiah promises the people that God has not forgotten the covenant made with the people in Sinai and that the day will come when the land and its people shall be restored.  Jeremiah invokes an image of the people of Israel celebrating the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the Reed Sea when he writes, “. . . you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merry-makers”.  (Jeremiah 31.4b)  Jeremiah does not renounce his earlier criticism of Judah, but he realizes that the desperation of the remnant in Jerusalem and the despair of the whole people requires a new word:  hope.

No life without hope

         In yesterday’s Vancouver Sun Doug Todd focused on the role of hope in our lives.  He wrote of medical clinics that are helping dying patients re-discover hope even in the face of death.  The political turmoil that we are witnessing throughout North Africa and the Middle East is fueled not by desperation but by hope, the conviction that change is possible if we are willing to ‘put our lives on the line’.

         Hope is the deep-seated conviction that there is a future, a purpose worth living for, working towards and, if necessary, dying for.  Hope is the realization that God as a purpose, a telos to use the New Testament term, towards which God is working and for which humanity is not a passive recipient but an essential agent of that purpose.  God may not need us, but God has chosen to work out God’s purposes with us and through us.

         When we live in hope, the world looks very different.  When one lives in hope, fears may indeed arise in us, but their shadows quickly disappear in the light of the hope that is within us.  Our problems and challenges do not disappear, but they no longer define our lives.  Instead, our hope helps us define how we will respond to those problems and challenges.

Mary Magdalene, the first apostle

         Early on Sunday Mary Magdalene went to the tomb.  No one else seemed to have the courage to do so, but she alone went and discovered that Jesus was no longer there.  When she told Peter and John, they came but did not stay, only John, the one whom Jesus loved, believing that there was more to this than met the eye.  Nevertheless, he left, leaving Mary behind to grieve and to wonder whether one more indignity had been visited on the teacher she loved.

         I have always found the drama of what happened next more compelling than any of the other stories about the resurrection.  There is a tenderness in the exchange between Jesus and Mary, but there is also a challenge to be a true apostle, a witness to the resurrection who then fulfills the commission to proclaim that Christ has died, that Christ is risen and that Christ will come again to a doubting and sometimes hostile world.  While we are more familiar with the twelve men who were Jesus’ inner circle, the Orthodox tradition has always spoken of Mary Magdalene as the protoapostolos, the first apostle.

         What did Jesus give to Mary?  He gave her hope.  He showed to her that the power of life, the power that belongs to God, is more powerful than death.  He showed her that God continues to work for a dominion of justice and peace and equity even when the political dominions of this world, whether autocratic or democratic or oligarchic, perpetuate injustice, discord and inequity.  He showed her that those whom the world counts unimportant such as women, the marginalized of every sort, children, are so important to God’s purposes that they are entrusted with the proclamation of the resurrection even before those whom the world considers important such as men, the powerful, adults.

Therefore we proclaim our hope

         We will never be able to explain in any satisfactory way to the critics of religious faith what happened on that Sunday morning so many centuries ago.  As Paul wrote to the Christian community in Corinth, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”  (1 Corinthians 1.22-24)  All we can say is that after two thousand years of trying to persecute us, to debunk us and to marginalize us, we are still here, speaking our foolishness to one and all, freely and openly.

         We can say that the hope that Jeremiah offered to the people of Judah and the hope that the risen Christ offered to Mary Magdalene continues to renew what has grown old, to raise up what has fallen and to bring all things to their perfection, their role in God’s creating, redeeming and sanctifying purposes.  We can say that this hope continues to empower men, women and children to work to end hunger and homelessness and to reach out in compassion to those who are in any need or trouble.  We can say that this hope continues to give courage to those who challenge the powerful to make room for the powerlessness.  We can say that this hope enables ordinary people such as those here at Saint Faith’s to do extraordinary things for seafarers, young aboriginal women, children with special needs, our elders and many others whom our society sometimes considers unimportant or inconvenient.

         We hope for is a creation in which every human person may mature into the fullness of life which is God’s purposes for each one of us, believer and non-believer alike.  That fullness of life is not found in riches or power but in the self-giving love you and I have discovered in Jesus of Nazareth.  That self-giving love brings us to this place and to the places like it throughout the world where there are still exiles who need to hear the promise of return and where there are Mary’s whose despair must be transformed into hope.

         When we renew our baptismal covenant by partaking in the bread and wine of the eucharist, we accept the call of God to become apostles, witnesses to the resurrection who willingly proclaim our hope to this neighbourhood and all our neighbourhoods.  The Spirit of the Lord will come upon us, because the Lord has anointed us to bring good news to the poor.  The Lord has sent us to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.  (Luke 4.18-19)  We can participate in God’s mission because we have hope, a hope that finds its source in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, a hope that raises us, time after time, from the many little deaths we all experience.  We can participate in this mission because, in a world where carpenters are raised from the dead, anything is possible.  (Goldman, The Lion in Winter)

Let us pray.

Gracious God, keep us firm in the hope you have set before us, so that we and all your children shall be free, and the whole earth live to praise your name; through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Fear Is the Little Death

Easter Vigil
23 April 2011

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

+ Alleluia, Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia!

         In recent years religion in general and the Christian faith in particular have been the subject of numerous books and critiques, some of which have gone so far as to say that religion of any form is the source of most of the conflict experienced in the world today.

         Religion is, after all, controversial.  By ‘controversial’ I mean that there are different opinions voiced with differing degrees of passion.  There are several ways that one can respond to this public and, in my opinion, welcome controversy about the place of religious faith in social, cultural and political life.  One response is to engage in respectful dialogue with others, whether religious believers or not, in order to seek common ground and, where necessary, dispel false impressions and caricatures.  Another response is to refuse to engage in any dialogue at all and, in that wonderful Canadian phrase, live in two solitudes:  believers on the one side of the divide, non-believers on the other.

         While I have a clear preference for the first approach, respectful dialogue, the second can, at times, be relatively benign.  We conduct our business without concern about the opinions of others.  We do not actively condemn them, but we do not feel obliged to enter into conversation with them.  This attitude, however, can give rise to a more dangerous response to a controversy about religion.  This dangerous response is when we turn a controversy into a conflict.  In a conflict our passions have become so aroused that we seek at first to convince those who disagree with us that they are wrong.  When those who do not agree with us refuse to change their point of view or to make any concessions to ours, we can quickly become entrapped in the darkness of coercion as we seek stronger means to compel others to acquiesce to our position.

         This descent from controversy into conflict and, in some cases, into oppression and persecution arises from one cause:  fear.  Here the familiar words of 1 John bear witness:  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”  (1 John 4.18)  When we commit ourselves to protect the dignity of every human being, when we commit ourselves to each other as God has committed God’s very self to us, when we commit ourselves to humility, then fear finds little room in us.  Frank Herbert, a influential science fiction writer, composed a litany against fear that appears frequently in his books.

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little death
that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it
to pass over and through me.
And when it has gone past
I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
When fear has gone
there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

         In the space of ten short verses, tonight’s gospel reading from Matthew speaks of fear four times.  The guard is so afraid of the angel that they shake and become like dead men.  The angel greets the women by saying, “Do not be afraid.”  Even then the women run away in a combination of fear and joy.  When Jesus appears suddenly appears to the women, his first words are, “Do not be afraid.”

         In Matthew’s account of the visit of the women to the tomb, the women are not bringing spices to anoint Jesus’ body.  They have come to ‘see’ the tomb.  This is a risky action; by doing so they associate themselves with a man condemned by the Jewish authorities for blasphemy and executed by the Roman authorities for sedition.  Elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel and in the New Testament, the verb ‘to see’ denotes ‘understanding or insight into God’s purposes’.  These women have come to see Jesus; they know that there must be more than his death.  What they will see, they do not know.  But they are willing to take the risk.  (cf. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, 1799)

         In 1995 I was elected to General Synod for the first time.  When I arrived at Carleton University to register, the person behind the desk said, “Thank goodness you’re here!  Come with me!”  He took me by the arm, assured me my baggage was being taken care of and led me away down a corridor to another office.  “Here he is,” my companion said to the woman at the desk, “Dr Leggett from the Diocese of New Westminster!”  “Thank goodness you’re here!” she said, “Come with me!”  A shorter trip brought me face to face with yet another member of the local committee.

         I was finally allowed to sit down and was told the situation.  Along with every other member of General Synod, I was scheduled to go to a local congregation for the Sunday liturgy, some four days away.  The congregation I was to attend was part of a multi-point charge and the rector of the parish had just come down with a severe case of laryngitis.  “Would you preach and preside at the services in the parish?” I was asked.  I said “Yes” thinking how honoured I was until I found out later I was simply the first clergy member of General Synod from New Westminster who had shown up at registration.

         That Sunday was Pentecost and I found myself preparing to preach on one of the major celebrations of the Christian year without any of my usual resources.  Instead I had to sit simply and quietly with the Scriptures for the day and ask, “What do I think the people need to hear?”  As I did so, a clear and succinct message came through to me.

         I had been wondering what was the real gift of Pentecost.  The apostles and other disciples of Jesus knew what he had taught.  They had, according to Luke, witnessed the resurrection.  But there they were, hiding away from the world, for fifty days, if we are to believe the traditional chronology.  What happened on Pentecost that released them to undertake a mission that would change the world? 

         The community of the apostles and disciples were deeply afraid.  The controversy aroused by their risen and ascended Lord had moved well beyond dialogue into active oppression and persecution.  In John’s gospel there is the poignant statement that the doors to the place where the community was gathered were locked because of their fear of the authorities.  Despite all that they had heard and seen, they were ‘tongue-tied’ by fear.  Despite the message of the angels, despite visions of the risen Lord, they were hunkered down and dispirited. 

         After some thought I knew what had happened.  The primary gift of the Holy Spirit was not tongues; it was hope.  Hope is the deeply-seated conviction that there is a future, a purpose, worth living for, working towards and, if necessary, dying for.  Hope is the realization that God has a purpose, a telos to use the New Testament term, towards which God is working.  Through the Holy Spirit God invites us to participate in proclamation of this future.

         When one lives in hope, the world looks very different.  When one lives in hope, fear may indeed arise in us, but its shadows quickly disappear in the light of the hope that is within us.  Our problems and challenges do not disappear, but they no longer define our lives.  Instead, our hope helps us define how we will respond to those problems and challenges.

         My friends, this is the night.  This is the night when darkness vanishes for ever.  This is the night that dispels all evil, washes guilt away, restores lost innocence and brings mourners joy.  This is the night when Christians are called to remember that we are not now nor have we ever been meant to live in fear.  We have been called to live in love and, to live in love, we proclaim our hope.

         There is no doubt that controversy swirls around and among us.  That controversy is not limited to questions of sexuality but extends into

·      questions regarding how the Holy Scriptures are to be read and interpreted,
·      uncertainty regarding the future of our congregations, our dioceses and the national structures of our church and
·      differing opinions about how we understand the relationship between the Christian gospel and other religious faiths.

If we live in fear, we may find ourselves descending into the darkness of conflict, a descent that can arouse in us the desire to defeat our ‘enemies’ whomever we think them to be.  If we live in fear, then we may find ourselves like the apostles and disciples in the Upper Room, so paralyzed that the good news that we have to share is silenced.  If we live in fear, then we respond to our critics and those who may differ from us with accusations, threats and denials rather than with humility, promises and affirmations.

         On this night when we proclaim the resurrection, we commit ourselves 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’.  (The Book of Alternative Services, 214)  We gather to proclaim that Christ is risen and that his resurrection empowers us with hope.  This is no vague hope, no wishful thinking.  It is a hope grounded in God’s covenant fidelity, in God’s constant working throughout all of history, to bring about fullness of life for all creatures, human and non-human.  It is a hope grounded in the tangible life of Christ expressed in the Christian community, through its engagement not only in direct service of those in any need or trouble, but in its willingness to engage the political, social and economic structures which deny and diminish the dignity of every human being.

         To say, “Christ is risen.  The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia!”, is to say to the whole world that lordship does not belong to those who crave power and instil fear; no, lordship belongs to the One who willingly goes to the Cross and who is raised to banish the power of fear and death.  To say, “Christ is risen.  The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia!”, is to say that lordship does not belong to those who would demean the dignity of others, those who rejoice in division and use our differences to distort and destroy; no, lordship belongs to the One who humbled himself to share our humanity so that we might share his divine life.

         My friends, this is the night when we renew our baptismal covenant to choose justice rather than self-interest, to live in covenant fidelity with God and one another, to walk humbly in the presence of God and neighbour.  This is the night when we affirm that we are a community of hope rather than fear, community committed to human solidarity rather than prejudice and suspicion.

Let us pray.

Sanctifier of time and space, maker of dancing quarks and ancient quasars, of energy and element, blessed are you, God of gods.  Your saving love endures forever; your holy light pierces the cold darkness of death and chaos; you cut a covenant of life with your creatures, which no evil can overcome.  May the glorious radiance of resurrection dispel the shadows in our lives and conform us more closely to your risen Christ, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be all honour, praise and glory.  Amen.  (Revised Common Lectionary Prayers)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Never-ending Story

Good Friday
22 April 2011

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

+ My friends in Christ, I speak to you in the name of God the Weaver, who through the shuttle of the Holy Spirit weaves us into the pattern of the Word made flesh.  Amen.

         On this Good Friday we gather to remember the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth and ponder the implications of his voluntary suffering and death for us and for the whole of creation.  Let me begin with three stories.

The first story:  The Gentiles tried to kill us but they failed.

         Last night, while we were commemorating the last meal that Jesus had with his friends and stripping the sanctuary in anticipation of his passion, our Jewish brothers and sisters were continuing their celebration of Passover, the great feast commemorating their liberation from Egypt.

         Here we were last night, beginning our sombre journey to the Cross, while our Jewish friends were celebrating a great victory.  Imagine how some of our Christian ancestors might have reacted:  Christians in mourning, Jews in celebration.

The second story:  The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God.

         The ancient city of Alexandria was a cosmopolitan metropolis of several million people:  Egyptians, Greeks, peoples from all around the Mediterranean, peoples from Asia and Africa and one of the largest Jewish communities outside of Palestine.  There had always been particular tensions between the Jewish, Greek and Egyptian communities in the city.  

         These tensions reached their height in the year 38.  In the past the Jewish community had sent a traditional declaration of loyalty to the emperor on the occasion of his accession.  But in the year 38 the Roman governor had failed to send this declaration of loyalty to the new emperor, Gaius Caligula, whether intentionally or not is still not clear.  This political lapse was complicated later that year during the visit of Herod Agrippa, the titular Jewish king, who had been sent to Alexandria on a mission from Caligula.  Herod had never been popular with the Jewish people and it appears that the Jews of Alexandria insulted him in some fashion.  When the governor failed to take action, the Greek and Egyptian population rose up to take direct action against the Jewish community.

         Jews were forced to abandon their homes in four of the five districts of the city and were forced into what we now call a ‘ghetto’.  Jewish businesses were destroyed and thousands of Jews were killed on the streets, in the amphitheatre and by extra-judicial executions.  Statues and pictures of Caligula were forcibly placed in Jewish synagogues causing the Jews to rise up to resist the desecration of their places for prayer and teaching.  Eventually the riots came to an end, but the damage done to the Jewish community lasted until the year 117.  In that year the emperor Trajan annihilated the Jewish community in Alexandria as part of the Roman effort to quell yet another Jewish rebellion in Palestine.

         Sometime during these troubles, a member of the Jewish community in Alexandria took pen in hand and wrote what we now call the book of Wisdom or the Wisdom of Solomon.  A portion of this book is frequently read at funerals particularly because of its simple yet hopeful beginning:  “But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them.  In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.”[1]

         Even if the present time is fraught with evil and injustice, the author affirms that it is still wiser to act morally and faithfully because moral and faithful actions plant the seeds that will eventually bloom into the harvest of righteousness, peace and justice.  Perhaps the writer of Wisdom expected the seeds to sprout in the next generation, but he probably did not live to see this happen.

The third story:  It is better that one community die if it serves the state.

         Let’s fast forward nineteen hundred years.  On the 30th of January 1933 the President of the Weimar Republic appointed Adolf Hitler as Chancellor.  On the 10th of March 1933 the Nazi government opened the first concentration camp, Dachau, in an agricultural area just outside of Munich and incarcerated members of the Communist and Social Democratic parties.  In 1936 Sachsenhausen, first a concentration camp, later an extermination camp, was opened near Weimar, a city always associated with liberal democracy in German history.  In 1937 Buchenwald, also a concentration camp that became an extermination camp, was opened near Berlin.  As these camps opened and political realities became more difficult, many Jews attempted to flee Germany.  Some attempted to flee to the east into Poland, but the Polish authorities refused to permit the Jews to enter the country. 

         In a tragic Catch-22, the German authorities would not allow the Jewish refugees back into Germany.  They were trapped in the border zone and their situation became increasingly desperate.  The world took no action as people languished, unable to leave, unable to return.  In Paris the son of a couple trapped in this ‘no-man’s land’ took a gun to the German embassy and shot the third secretary who died a few days later.

         Just before midnight on November 9, Gestapo chief Heinrich Műller sent a telegram to all police units informing them that ‘in shortest order, actions against Jews and especially their synagogues will take place in all of Germany.  These are not to be interfered with.’  Rather, the police were to arrest the victims.  Fire companies stood by synagogues in flames with explicit instructions to let the buildings burn.  They were to intervene only if a fire threatened adjacent ‘Aryan’ properties.[2]

         More than 1,000 synagogues were burned or damaged.  7,500 Jewish businesses were ransacked and looted.  91 Jews were known to have been killed.  Jewish hospitals, homes, schools and cemeteries were vandalized.  30,000 Jewish men, aged 16 to 60, were arrested and sent to Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen.

         This night, the 9th to the 10th of November, is known as ‘Kristallnacht’, the ‘night of broken glass’.  On the 15th of November Jews were banned from public schools.  By December Jews were banned from most public places in Germany. 

         These events mark the beginning of what our Jewish brothers and sisters call ha Shoah, the Holocaust.  By 1945 six million Jews had been systematically exterminated as well as millions of Socialists, Communists, gays, lesbians, Jehovah Witnesses, gypsies and prisoners of war.  The scope of the Holocaust of European Jewry and the murder of millions of others is difficult to comprehend, so difficult that there are voices today that deny the Holocaust ever took place or assert that the Holocaust was invented by the Jews in order to maintain their secret control of the world’s economy and to bolster support for Israel.

A Never-ending Story

         Why do I tell these stories on a day when we gather to remember the death of Jesus?

         I tell these stories because of the power of the narrative we have just read.  John’s powerful narrative of the events leading to the death of Jesus has been read throughout the Christian world for at least fifteen hundred years.  Many of us have been moved by Johann Sebastian Bach’s The St John Passion.  We may have uncritically absorbed the message explicit in John’s gospel that the death of Jesus is the responsibility of ‘the Jews’, an entire people, rather than the Jewish and Roman authorities who saw Jesus as a threat to public order and to the stability of the state.  He was, to use modern political language, a subversive, whose message, like the Dalai Lama’s, was seen by the political authorities as providing philosophical fuel to terrorist fires.

         Throughout western history and into the present day, purveyors of fear, demagogues and dictators have found it useful to make Jews and other minority groups scapegoats for the problems faced by a given society.  But purveyors of fear, demagogues and dictators are not the only ones who find scapegoats useful. 

         All of us have, from time to time, found it self-serving to identify the cause of our problems and challenges with a particular person or party or group.  Let me speak in some of those voices.

         “I am tired of being told that I bear any responsibility for the present situation of First Nations people.  It’s their own fault if they choose to live on their ancestral land rather than get with the programme of the twenty-first century.  Let them get over it.”

         “The church used to be a comforting and peaceful place before women, gays and lesbians began agitating for their so-called ‘rights’ or so-called ‘justice’.”

         “It’s time for the conservatives to go away.  They are all homo-phobic, critical fundamentalists.”

         “You know, our congregation was wonderful until that crazy rector moved the altar and brought in the BAS.”

         “You know, we could do great things here if the Prayer Book people would just move away.”

I do not know about you, but I do know myself.  I have felt and, in one fashion or another, spoken these words in various times and places.

         The problem lies, as Shakespeare says, not in our stars but in ourselves.  When we gather here, year after year, to tell the story of the last days of Jesus of Nazareth, we are telling our own story.  We are telling the story of how fearful we are of encountering the darkness that exists in each one of us.  When God sends us the witness of the prophets and sages, when God sends us the witness of the people of the covenant of Moses and, in the fullness of time, when God sends us the witness of the Word made flesh, we resort to that primeval response to flee.  But God, ever faithful, pursues us and finally, like even a cornered rabbit, we fight to the death to protect ourselves from learning the truth.

         That truth is that deep within each one of us is the desire to be the centre of the universe to be the only beloved of God, to be the final adjudicator of all value and worth.  But in the end, these desires are illusions that can lead to even more dangerous delusions.  The only truth is found in the Cross of Christ, the ultimate symbol of humanity’s attempts to hide from the Holy One of Israel who constantly seeks to free us from the bondage of fear and death.

         At the end of today’s liturgy, as we gaze at the Cross and remember the powerful story told today, let us ponder how we have avoided confronting whatever darkness lurks in our own souls that may lead us to find convenient scapegoats, whether near or far, rather than seek the heart of God that beats within each of us.  Let us be conscious of how that story has been used to kill rather than promise life.  Let us leave this place with the commitment to do all within our power to prevent the story of the Lord’s death from ever being used for other purposes than proclaiming the bottomless love of God for us and for all of creation.

[1] Wisdom 3.1-3.

[2] ‘Kristallnacht.’  Encyclopedia Britannica 2007.  Retrieved 10 November 2007 from Encyclopedia Britannica Online:

Let Us Be Friends

A Maundy Thursday Sermon
Saint Faith's Anglican Church
21 April 2011

        + My friends in Christ, I speak to you in the name of God the Weaver, who through the shuttle of the Holy Spirit weaves us into the pattern of the Word made flesh.  Amen.

         On a visit to UBC Urgent Care three days before I was to leave Vancouver to travel to Myanmar, the physician who examined me asked, “Why would you or any one travel to a military dictatorship like Myanmar?”  One of the members of the rugby executive that I used to serve on wrote to the parents of our rugby team, “Please keep Dr Leggett in your thoughts and prayers.  As you know he is an Anglican priest and a professor at Vancouver School of Theology.  He’s off on a trip to Myanmar, a country where the military persecutes Christians and jails intellectuals.  We’d like him to come back to us.”  Another person expressed his concern that I was not adhering to the request of some members of the democratic opposition in Myanmar that foreigners avoid travelling to the country.  Our own foreign affairs web-site advised against ‘non-essential’ travel.

         So why did I go?  I have come to realize that there is only one reason.  I went to visit friends.  I went to visit friends whom I had never met but friends nevertheless. These friends needed to see and talk to me in the flesh as much as I needed to see and talk to them.  It was, with due respect to our foreign affairs travel advisory, ‘essential’ travel.

         On this night two millennia ago in a secure location Jesus met with his friends.  The different gospel accounts do not agree as to what kind of festive meal they were sharing.  Matthew, Mark and Luke describe it as the Passover meal, while John describes a chaburah, a fellowship meal where a rabbi met with his disciples and conducted what I would call a graduate seminar.  What is clear, whether the meal was the Passover meal or a chaburah, is that the community of disciples gathered around Jesus had reached a climactic moment.

         The controversy that began with Jesus’ teaching ministry of the past three years had led to conflict within the Jewish community throughout Judea.  The Jewish authorities, concerned with the integrity of the Jewish tradition and with maintaining some semblance of political autonomy under Roman imperial administration, had begun to take more active steps to solve ‘the Jesus problem’.  As Jesus had travelled to Jerusalem, even some of those who had followed him began to abandon him, some simply walking away, while one, Judas, for reasons that have never been clear, decided to betray Jesus to the authorities.

         In this environment Jesus girded himself with a towel and performed one of the basic duties of a domestic servant.  When he had finished, he spoke words that I believe are among the most significant in the New Testament:  “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13.34-35)

         Genuine love cannot be disembodied.  Genuine love demands to be embodied incarnation in the lives of men, women and children who have been grasped by Jesus of Nazareth in their own times and places.

         Genuine love is not primarily an emotional state.  It is the choice to live out the call of the prophet Micah to do justice, to adore covenant loyalty and to walk humbly in the presence of God.  To love is to choose to share in this eucharistic feast knowing that to do so is to re-commit oneself to the baptismal covenant which we shall explicitly renew at the Easter Vigil but which we implicitly renew each time we reach out our hands and take the bread of life into our hands.

         The consequences of baptismal faith lived out in eucharistic fellowship for Christians are several.  First, Christians understand their relationship to be public rather than private.  Our covenantal relationship with God and with each other, forged in baptism and renewed in eucharist, has communal and societal dimensions.  Our claim to be members of the Christian community causes our lives to come under special scrutiny, especially if we claim that our life as members of the Body of Christ represents, in some spiritual way, the life of God as expressed in our trinitarian faith.

         We seek companionship, people with whom to break bread.  Later in the gospel of John, Jesus will say this:

This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command you.  I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.  (John 15.12-15)

At the heart of all genuinely Christian relationships is a self-giving and self-revealing friendship where we permit ourselves to become more and more transparent to one another.

         Christians understand the need for a community of support that shares both values and hopes.  When red-hot charcoal briquettes are separated from one another, they quickly lose their heat and burn out.  If they are kept close together, their heat increases and, in a counter-intuitive fashion, lasts longer.  In many ways the Christian life functions similarly.  When we find ourselves in the midst of a supportive community, our faith is reinforced and deepened, enabling us to live out more faithfully our baptismal commitments to one another.

         An adequate theology of community must take account of sin.  Love in community is not exempt from hurt and injustice.  Thus the religious dimension of community involves redemption and reconciliation.  Without grace, without the gift of healing and renewal and forgiveness, no community will reach its fulfillment.  Indeed, it would be come a stifling idolatry.  (Hefling, Our Selves, Our Souls and Bodies, 96)

         We come from a tradition that understands the necessity of forgiveness if old hurts and new wrongs are ever to be laid aside in order for the new creation to be revealed in and through our relationships.  Furthermore, our tradition empowers us to a greater commitment to a world in which reconciliation takes place between peoples and nations.  How the Christian community conducts itself when in the midst of controversy and conflict can be a witness to the larger human community.

         The call of the gospel to love one’s neighbour as oneself is the corollary to the commandment to love God.  When we fail to treat one another as God’s beloved in whom the image and likeness of God is present, then we fail in our baptismal vocation.

         So, my brothers and sisters, let us be friends tonight.  Let us embody that love for one another as friends which we have come to know in Jesus of Nazareth.  Let us be friends tonight to prepare ourselves for the work that still lies before us.  Let us be friends tonight to remember those of our brothers and sisters, our friends, who struggle each day for bread, for water and for human dignity.  Amen.