Wednesday, June 29, 2011
A recent comment asked for information regarding the rites for the blessing of same sex covenants in the Diocese of New Westminster. Go to www.samesexblessing.info and you will find the resources you are looking for.
Saturday, June 25, 2011
These thoughts are offered as an initial reflection on the story of the binding of Isaac and its place in Christian spirituality. It was prepared for the people of Saint Faith's Anglican Parish as we continue our exploration of our future.
Focus Text: Genesis 22.1-14
Focus Text: Genesis 22.1-14
For Paula and me the late eighties and nineties were punctuated by repeated visits to BC Children’s’ Hospital as David underwent the numerous medical and dental procedures required to repair his cleft lip and palate. One of the ways we dealt with this was to enroll David in Berwick Preschool on the UBC campus where he, as a so-called ‘typical’ child, shared life with so-called ‘non-typical’ children with special needs. We were not the only cleft lip and palate family at Berwick. One of the families we befriended was a single mother who had adopted a child from Latin America with a cleft lip and palate.
When David was three, perhaps four, this little girl went into BC Children’s’ for a procedure that David was scheduled to undergo later that year. The surgery was successful, but the little girl died in the recovery room. Her death triggered an internal investigation and a change in procedures at the Hospital, but you can imagine our fears when we took David to the hospital for his surgery. His was also successful and the revised recovery room procedures meant that he was more closely monitored. But every subsequent surgery renewed the anxiety that we had experienced after David’s friend’s death.
In my thirty years of ordained ministry I have had other experiences of the death of children. Paula’s first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, but only after we had heard the heartbeat and seen an ultrasound image of the child. Shortly after our arrival in Vancouver, a teenager I had prepared for confirmation committed suicide back in Denver. All such deaths evoke a range of emotions including rage, despair and doubt. No adult, whether parent, relative or friend, can imagine the pain that a child’s death causes and anyone who has experienced such a death never comes away without lifelong scars.
Yet here we are on a Sunday when we read a portion of Genesis in which Abraham is commanded by God to kill Isaac, his only child born of Sarah. No one with any human sensibilities can imagine why God would issue such a command. It flies in the face of every parental instinct found in the overwhelming majority of adults whether parents or not. There are biblical commentators who describe this as one of the ‘texts of terror’, biblical texts that are not only incomprehensible to us but morally repugnant. As we here in Vancouver welcome the first signs of summer, the story of Abraham and Isaac must seem a little bizarre. No doubt there are Anglicans throughout Canada who are wondering why we even read this text.
One reason why we read this text is precisely because it is a very difficult text to understand. Anyone who wants to come to grips with religious faith cannot avoid wrestling with scriptural texts that challenge us, perhaps even offend us. If we avoid these hard texts, these profoundly disturbing texts, we risk rendering God bland and religious faith banal. Even C. S. Lewis in his Chronicles of Narnia reminds the children that Aslan, the Christ-figure in the stories, is not a tame lion and depicts Aslan entering into battle and killing enemies left and right.
Another reason why we read this text is its role in the religious imagination of Jews and Christians. For Jews the ‘binding of Isaac’ represents God’s final test of Abraham whom the Jewish tradition sees as the first Jew. This story comes to be incorporated in the daily liturgy of the Jewish tradition. For many generations of Christians the story of Abraham and Isaac has been understood as a prefiguring of the death of Jesus who, as the only son of God, is sacrificed to achieve God’s desire to reconcile the world. As the Easter Vigil took shape in the early history of the church, the story of Abraham and Isaac came to be one of the readings. It is only in recent years that the option to omit this reading has been provided.
But I would give you a third reason why this difficult text is read in our liturgy today and every three years on or about this date.
Throughout Jewish and Christian history Abraham has been understood as our ancestor in faith. Our shared faith is that God of Abraham intends to create a people whose primary vocation is to witness to this God and to work with God to fulfill the divine purposes for the whole creation. To be called by God into this relationship has its benefits, but it also comes with a cost.
In the chapter that precedes today’s reading Abraham has already sent his first-born son, Ishmael, out into the desert, accompanied only by the boy’s mother, Hagar. Sarah’s jealousy cannot tolerate their presence in Abraham’s entourage and so out they go, but not before God promises Abraham that the child will survive and become, like Abraham, the father of many nations. Bereft of his older son, Abraham now receives a command that must have cut him to his soul: Take Isaac and offer him in sacrifice. One son gone, now the other destined for the dust.
We know how the story ends. Even though it was a terrible thing to ask, we feel a slight breath of relief when God intervenes and the boy is saved. Perhaps Abraham couldn’t believe God would let this happen and hesitated on the down stroke, but some commentators have suggested that God only intervened as the knife was descending, proof of Abraham’s commitment. I have often wondered how Isaac felt after he and his father returned home. I can imagine him flinching anytime the old man came near him with a knife.
We read this story because we are a people called to participate in God’s mission. We cannot permit our naïveté to blind us to the reality that participating in God’s mission has a cost.
The first cost is a simple one: We are no longer free to act as if there is no God and as if this God were not active in transforming the world. While there are many human beings who enjoy acting as if they own the planet and its resource, our faith tells us that we are stewards not free-holders and that we are accountable not only to future generations but to the Creator of all things.
The second cost is a bit more complex: We are no longer free to act as though we have no responsibility for other human beings and as though we are not accountable to our brothers and sisters, whether of our faith or not. While it is very tempting to focus solely on tending our own affairs, our faith tells us, like Marley’s ghost tells Scrooge, that all of humanity is our business and, in the words of the great Anglican poet, John Donne, no one is an island entire to oneself.
But there is yet a more significant cost: We are called upon to embrace being people on a journey rather than to yield to our desire for permanence. As precious as our buildings and structures may be to us, God may call us, like Abraham, to bind them and place them on an altar of sacrifice so that God’s purposes might be achieved.
You know that we have decided to sell the rectory in order to provide additional resources for our ministry in our neighbourhood and beyond. For some of us this was a difficult decision. As a consequence of this decision, we may soon find ourselves moving the playground to the only location that meets the requirements of the preschool licensing authority and the City of Vancouver: the southwest corner of our property --- right in our own front yard. For some of us this may represent yet one more sacrifice, to others a positive sign to our neighbours that this is a community that welcomes children. Who knows what may come of these developments in our life together?
What I do know is what Abraham knew: the God who has called us has a compelling voice that continues to beckon us. In recent years I have enjoyed a prayer found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, the worship book of our Lutheran sisters and brothers:
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 317)
When Abraham set out with Isaac, he could not know the ending, yet he went. When the founders of this parish established this community, they could not foresee the paths we would tread. When you and I set out on our baptismal pilgrimage, we could know the perils we would face. But all of us, from Abraham to those of us sitting in the pews today, have felt the touch of God’s hand leading us and the warmth of God’s love supporting us.
May that touch and that warmth strengthen us in the ministry God has entrusted to us in this place. May we face the challenges of the faithful life with confidence the cost of our discipleship will not be in vain. Amen.
Saturday, June 11, 2011
RCL Pentecost Year A
12 June 2011
Saint Faith's Anglican Church
If there is any biblical figure whom I do not envy, it is Moses. he escapes from Egypt with the law nipping at his heels and finds refuge along with a wife and family with Jethro. But God cannot leave Moses alone and a vision takes him back to Egypt and to a confrontation with Pharaoh that will eventually lead to the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt.
After Moses leads the Hebrew people out of bondage in Egypt, helped in great part by significant interventions by God, he suffers the trials of a people who are never satisfied. Defeat Pharaoh’s army and all they can do is complain about the lack of food and water. Provide them with water, manna and quail and all they can do is moan about Egyptian cuisine and its superiority to their present menu. Establish a covenant with them and all they do is erect statues of false gods so that they can be like every other people in the region.
Even when God helps Moses and the people by sending the Spirit of leadership upon seventy other men so that the burden of leadership can be shared, all the people can do is to complain that God’s generosity has overflowed the designated location and has touched two men who, for whatever reason, weren’t with the other sixty-eight at the designated time and place!
Then Moses speaks words that surely reach into our own times: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (Numbers 11.29b) But what exactly is a prophet? And what does God’s Spirit have to do with becoming a prophet?
Nowadays when we describe someone as a prophet, we usually mean someone who can predict the future, someone who can foretell events before they happen. During the last few years the airwaves have been filled with television programmes that claim to examine the prophecies of Nostradamus or the Mayans or the Bible. Less than a month ago a Christian preacher predicted that the Rapture would occur on the 21st of May and the end of the world on the 21st of October.
The problem with this kind of prophet is that it is so easy to prove her or him false. Predictions that do not come true are significant career killers for anyone who needs the credibility generated by being right. This is particularly true in our day and age when we crave experts who can give us precise answers that will result in definite outcomes.
In Judaism and Christianity we have different criteria for prophets. For us the prophets do not foretell the future; they ‘forth tell’ God’s word to God’s people in particular times and particular places. In other words a biblical prophet does not predict the future as much as he or she speaks God’s word in the hope that this word will lead the people back to fidelity to God and to working with God to achieve God’s purposes.
When God’s Spirit comes upon the seventy elders, they do not suddenly begin to predict the future. What they begin to do is to exercise leadership in a way that aids the people to become the people God wishes them to be. When God’s Spirit comes upon the disciples gathered in the upper room on Pentecost, they do not suddenly begin to predict the future. What they begin to do is to proclaim Christ, crucified and risen, to peoples from every corner of the Roman empire and beyond.
In our baptismal liturgy we actually have a working definition of what a prophet does. Our working definition is found in the prayer that follows the anointing of the newly-baptized. I want you to open your pew copies of The Book of Alternative Services to page 160 and join me in this prayer.
we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit
you have bestowed upon these your servants
the forgiveness of sin,
and have raised them to the new life of grace.
Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit.
Give them an inquiring and discerning heart,
the courage to will and to persevere,
a spirit to know and to love you,
and the gift of joy and wonder
in all your works. Amen.
This is what a prophet is in the eyes of the Christian tradition. A prophet is a man, woman or child who lives in the new life of grace. To live in a new life of grace is to live a life of thanksgiving, the recognition that everything we have, everything we are, everything we hope to become is a gift from a generous God.
Prophets also have an inquiring and discerning heart. They are not satisfied with looking only at the surface of life and events. They want to understand what serves God’s purposes for us and what hinders God’s purposes. By God’s Spirit working in them they are able to discern what builds up God’s people and what tears them down.
Prophets are courageous. Courage does not mean the absence of fear; it means the willingness to act well despite one’s fear and to persevere in acting well even when this may not be popular or safe. I sometimes think that this is the greatest gift that the Spirit gave to the disciples on that first Pentecost: the courage to lead them out of their locked room to speak about their experience of following Jesus of Nazareth.
Prophets know and love God. They pray and study the Scriptures. They actually seek to have a living relationship with God and are not afraid to be honest with God, both in their prayers and in their struggles to understand what God is trying to do in our lives and the lives of all human beings.
Prophets live lives of joy and wonder. They are prepared to find God at work in unexpected places and, in contrast to the complaints made against Eldad and Medad, rejoice when God’s Spirit is seen at work outside the envelope of our expectations.
My friends, each one of us who has been baptized has been given the prophetic Spirit spoken of in Numbers, manifested in Acts and promised by Jesus in John. We do not need to look around us in the hopes that a prophet will emerge who will help us move into God’s future. The prophets are already here. Look to your left and to your right. Look in front of you and behind you. We are the prophets. We are the ones to whom God has given inquiring and discerning hearts We are the ones whom God calls to be courageous to will and to persevere. We are the ones who know and love God. We are the ones to whom God has given joy and wonder in all that God has done.
The only question is this: Will we remain silent? Are we reluctant to forth-tell what we have learned and gained through our life in this Christian communities and all those communities that have shaped our lives and led us to maturity.
There are many religious groups that are not silent. Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses regularly send out people, two by two, to share their religious beliefs with others. While I do not share those beliefs and am critical of some aspects of those religious traditions, I admire their willingness to share their beliefs with others. Anglicans, on the other hand, are often reticent to share their faith with others when the opportunity presents itself to do so. Our reasons for doing so are complex and I do not have time today to explore them, but I believe that our reticence needs to end. We have good news to share and we live in a society that needs this good news. If we do not share it, if we do not exercise our baptismal prophetic ministry, then we fall short of God’s expectations.
“Would that all God’s people were prophets,” Moses exclaims. Well, my friends, all of us here are prophets. God’s Spirit has come upon us all and marked us as God’s very own.
May this Pentecost mark the moment when we left the security of the upper room and began to share what we have come to know and to feel in this community of Saint Faith’s. May this mark the moment when people began to hear us share the good news of God in Christ. Amen.
Saturday, June 4, 2011
5 June 2011
Saint Faith’s Anglican Parish
When I was a doctoral student at the University of Notre Dame, J. Massingberd Ford was a professor of New Testament studies. Among her scholarly works was a commentary on the gospel according to Luke. What I remember most is her view that Luke’s gospel is filled with xenophilia, ‘the love of strangers’. The same can be said of the gospel according to John which we have been reading through this Easter season. John’s gospel contains many stories in which the stranger, the unexpected one, acts in faith, while the ‘usual suspects’ seem unable to grasp the message of the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth.
- A Samaritan woman, unsuitable on the grounds of gender and ethnic background, recognizes that the Messiah, the promised one, is at her well.
- An invalid, desperately seeking healing at a holy site, recognizes that the Messiah, the promised one, has healed him on the sabbath in disobedience to the religious code.
- A man born blind, unclean in the eyes of the religious establishment, recognizes that the Messiah, the promised one, has healed him.
- Two sisters, bereft of support with the death of their brother, recognize that the Messiah, the promised one, gives them back their brother.
Time does not permit me to give a full catalogue of the occasions in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament when God’s grace is revealed by the stranger and the outcast in contrast to the blindness and inaction of those who should know better. But the message is clear: The agents of God’s purposes are not always the ones we expect. The faithful disciple pays more attention to what the stranger does than who the stranger is.
This same attitude is present in today’s reading from Isaiah. This portion of Isaiah, sometimes called ‘Second’ Isaiah, was composed during the time of the exile, when many Israelites were being held captive in Babylon after the final destruction of Jerusalem in 587 bce. But Babylon itself is about to be conquered by the Persians, a rising political and military power from what is now known as Iran. The Persians are led by Cyrus whom the prophet calls mashiach, ‘the anointed one’.
Now, my friends, this is a radical statement on the part of the prophet. Do you recognize the word he uses to describe Cyrus? For perhaps the first time in the Hebrew Bible someone who is not a descendant of David is called mashiach, the ‘messiah’, one in whom God will work to restore the people of Israel. Imagine yourself to be an Israelite living in exile in Babylon, longing for the coming of the one who will save you and who will restore Israel to its rightful place on the world stage. Imagine hearing the words of the prophet who tells you that this messiah, this agent of God, will not be a descendant of the kings who are still with you, still claiming to be heirs of the throne of David. Isaiah dares to say to this exiled people that the messiah is a Persian, a non-Israelite, who will “. . . liberate Israel . . . and . . . spread the fame of the one true God of Israel throughout the world. (The Jewish Study Bible)
In the verses that follow and that we did not read this morning, the people question God’s choice. Then God speaks, saying to them, “Will you question me about my children, or command me concerning the work of my hands? . . . I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness, and I will make all his paths straight; he shall build my city and set my exiles free . . . .” (Isaiah 45.11b, 13) It is as if God says to the Israelites, “The one whom you call stranger and non-believer is the one whom I call beloved and chosen.”
My friends, if there is one constant throughout the Scriptures of the Jewish and Christian people, it is this: God has worked, is working and will continue to work to achieve God’s will for the whole of creation, using whomever God chooses as an agent of the divine purposes. Among all the religious traditions on the earth, Jews and Christians are taught to view the stranger not as an enemy but as one who may well be an agent of God’s purposes. We are bid to observe what the stranger does more than we are bid to question who the stranger is.
Yet we struggle to accept this teaching. Although the gospel according to Mark, general acknowledged as the earliest gospel, records Jesus as saying that those who are not against us are for us, Matthew and Luke, writing a bit later, cannot accept this teaching and record Jesus as saying those who are not for us are against us.
When apartheid fell in South Africa, the Anglican Church, a long-time opponent of the racial laws, found allies in ‘strangers’, often non-believers who shared the church’s convictions. When the Berlin Wall collapsed, the Lutheran Church in East Germany found allies in ‘strangers’, especially young people who perhaps had never crossed the threshold of the church. When aboriginal people in Canada began their quest for justice, they found in the Anglican Church of Canada, a one-time agent of the government’s assimilation policies, an advocate who was willing to work to regain trust lost in earlier generations.
At this time in the life of the Anglican Church of Canada we are surrounded by strangers. They come in many shapes and sizes, but they are strangers. Some are young people whose lives have not been shaped by the worship and spirituality of the Christian faith. Some are skeptics who question the inflexible certainty that characterizes some Christian leaders and communities. Some are believers from other faith traditions who have little or no knowledge of the Christian faith. Still others are Christians who have come to believe that the status quo, an institution shaped by the last five hundred years of history, cannot be sustained and that change is not only inevitable and necessary but welcome.
How shall we respond to these ‘strangers’? There are voices that would say that we must resist the stranger and maintain our ‘way of life’. There are other voices who would say that we should not only welcome the stranger but become the stranger, abandoning many if not all of the ancient practices and beliefs that have shaped how we have walked with Christ on the pilgrimage of faith. I do not believe that either extreme is one that is faithful to the mission God has called us to share.
There is a third way, the way of hospitality. Let us open our doors and welcome these strangers into our midst. Let us hear their stories and share ours with them. More than that, let us go out of these doors and seek those stories beyond our walls. Let us hear their questions and share our questions with them. More than that, let us go out of these doors and seek those questions beyond our walls. I know that this is not always an easy path to walk, because the path of hospitality inevitably leads to the transformation of both guest and host, but I am convinced that it is the way of wisdom. I am also convinced that it is a path that this congregation is willing to embrace.
So, in the months ahead as we continue to discern our future as a congregation of the Diocese of New Westminster serving God in the midst of what may seem to be an alien country, let us welcome the stranger. He or she may come through our door in physical form as a seeker after God. He or she may come through our door in intellectual form as questions raised and insights gained through our participation in the Ministry Assessment Process. But the stranger will come and will be as welcome as Christ himself. Amen.