Saturday, December 29, 2012

Let's Grow Up!

The First Sunday after Christmas
30 December 2012

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

            In June of 1981 I was ordained to the transitional diaconate and assigned to the Diocesan Office in Denver as Deacon to the Bishops.  I suppose that today we might call my position as ‘personal assistant to the Bishops’.  Basically my job was to do whatever the Bishops asked me to do --- so long as it was legal, canonical and moral!  I remember those seven months very well.  It was during that time that Paula, a member of the Diocesan staff, and I became more acquainted.  It was also a time that bequeathed a broader vision of the church to me --- a church in which parishes were a vital expression but not the only expression of what it means to be ‘church’.

            One day the switchboard transferred a call to me --- the days before voicemail and sedate electronic voices saying things such as ‘if you want Richard Leggett, press 201’.  A member of one of our parishes had been admitted to Saint Luke’s Hospital, the Episcopal hospital in Denver, and wished communion before surgery.  Since none of her parish clergy were available, the called asked if one of the members of the Diocesan staff could go.  I checked with the Bishops and they sent me off, communion kit in hand.

            Now honesty compels me to say that I thought that I was a pretty important person in those days.  I was freshly out of seminary, very sure of myself and a member of the Bishops’ staff.  Surely the woman would feel particularly honoured to have a communion visit from someone of my stature!

            The woman’s name was Euke, short for Eulalia, and she was a member of Christ Church Denver, the parish that I would serve as curate in six months’ time.  We chatted for a few minutes while I set up the reserved sacrament.  We read the scriptures, prayed and I laid my hands on her and anointed her in preparation for surgery.  Then we shared the bread and wine of the eucharist.  After a moment of silence we began to say the Lord’s Prayer together.  That’s where the problem began --- I could not remember the words of the Lord’s Prayer and I had closed the prayer book.

            It’s a funny thing.  By ourselves we can probably all recite the Lord’s Prayer in either traditional or contemporary language.  But when we recite something together we become dependent on one another.  If one of us slips us, all of us go down together.  Euke and I spent a few agonizing moments stumbling over words that both of us could say in our sleep.  Mercifully we struggled to the ‘Amen’ and I brought the service to a conclusion.

            Euke reached out and took my hand.  In a quiet and wise voice, she said, “It’s alright, Father Richard.  You’ll get better at this.” 

            What I did not know then was that in two years’ time I would officiate at Euke’s funeral, my last act as a priest of her parish.  Over the next two years I learned that Euke was right about many things and I hope that she was right about my getting better.  Her words were a reminder that life isn’t over until it is over and even then God may have more for us than we can ask or imagine.

            It is customary to hear today’s story from the gospel according to Luke as a story about the precocious wisdom of the young child, Jesus.  But as I thought about Euke this week and about my own life and the life of my family, I realized that today’s story about Jesus in the Temple is also a story about a young person who will get better at being who he is, but he is not yet there.  In fact, today’s episode is a story about a pre-teen boy who is being a pain to both his parents and other members of his family.  I can almost hear Mary saying, “You may well be the son of God, but you’ll still listen to me, young man!  You are still living with your father and me.”  And Luke gently says, “Jesus went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them.  His mother cherished every word in her heart.  Jesus matured in wisdom and years, and in favor with God and with people.” (Luke 2.51-52, Common English Bible)

            I find come comfort in the idea that even Jesus had to mature in his relationship with God and in his relationships with people.  Sometimes we are so focused on the divinity of Jesus that we forget his humanity.  During the theological debates of the fourth and fifth centuries, one of the defenders of Jesus’ full humanity taught that if Jesus was not fully human, in every dimension of his being, then we are not truly saved.  If Jesus was truly human, then he experienced what you and I experience, that mystery and challenge of becoming fully ourselves, fully alive as God intended us to be, that process we call ‘growing up’.

            As I approach sixty in four months’ time, I am deeply aware of the fact that I am not yet fully grown up.  There are still many things that I have yet to fully learn and yet to have incorporated into my ways of thinking, acting and feeling.  I am sure that each one of us has a similar experience to mine:  Each time I think that I have figured something out about being human, I realize that I have not yet truly figured it out.  Just as I continue to be an unfolding mystery to myself, other people continue to be unfolding mysteries to me. 

            This is, I believe, good news.  I can live in hope, the hope that my mistakes are not the last word in my life, that my future is not merely a repetition of my past.

            What is true of you and me as individuals is true of that community we call the church.  There are folks who think of the church as an absolute, an unchanging institution that has nothing more to learn, nothing more to offer to the world.  But the truth is that God is still unfolding our future, still pointing us in new directions that lead us to ask new questions about who we are as God’s people.  Our past successes and failures do not define our future.

            In January we will be presenting to the Ministry and Congregational Development Committee of our Diocese a document that has been developed over the past year and a half.  It’s called our ‘Preferred Future’.  All of you have had a hand in shaping this plan for the next three to five years.  At its heart is the conviction that our ministry in Vancouver is not yet finished and that we still have work to do.  We are, in fact, still growing up, still maturing in our thinking, our acting and our feeling as a community of Christians.  One of my teachers, Louis Weil, said that when we see that there is still work to be done, there is only one thing to say:  “Thanks be to God!”

            So, let us join Jesus in maturing in wisdom and in favour with God and with our neighbours.  Let us grow in our compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  And whatever we do, whether in speech or in action, let us do it in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him. [i]  Amen.

[i] Cf. Luke 2.51-52; Colossians 3.12, 17.

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