Saturday, August 24, 2013

Help, Hope and Home

RCL Proper 21C (Series 2)
25 August 2013

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Propers:  Isaiah 58.9b-14; Psalm 103.1-8; Hebrews 12.18-29; Luke 13.10-17

         During the second half of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth a competitive missionary zeal consumed most of the major western Christian traditions.  Even Anglican competed against each other, especially the English and the Americans with the Canadians sneaking in between them from time to time.
         One of the playing fields for this missionary game was Africa.  Presbyterians, Methodists and Anglicans had a particularly fierce campaign for souls in the East African colonies.  Scattered throughout the jungles, mountain highlands and urban areas were the mission stations of these three predominately British churches.
         At one point in the early twentieth century the Presbyterians and Methodists made a proposal to the Anglican bishop of Zanzibar.  Since all three churches had a shortage of clergy but many mission stations, the Presbyterians and Methodists suggested that the prohibition of inter-communion might be lifted.  The idea was that when a clergyman from one of the three churches was in a given area for communion, all baptized Christians, regardless of their denomination, would be welcomed to the Lord’s table.
         The Anglican bishop was adamant in his refusal to cooperate.  He could not, would not, counsel his people to receive communion from a ‘dissenting’ non-episcopally-ordained minister nor could he permit Christians who had not been confirmed by a bishop to receive at an Anglican Communion service.
         Lest we think that this situation was limited to our past, let me tell you then when I was first appointed to the Doctrine and Worship Committee of the General Synod for a three-year term in 1989, one of the first questions we dealt with was a similar question.  Even though the Anglican Church of Canada had lifted the prohibition on unconfirmed Christians receiving communion about fifteen years earlier, one of our bishops had discovered that his diocesan chancellor had never been confirmed, contrary to the requirements of the diocesan canons.  The gentleman in question had been raised a Baptist, been baptized at twelve or thirteen and had married an Anglican in his twenties.  Now in his fifties, he had spent thirty years worshipping as an Anglican, receiving communion, serving as a member of church committee, as a warden, as a member of diocesan synod and, finally, as chancellor of the diocese --- but never confirmed.  All of his children had been baptized and confirmed in the Anglican Church and he had consistently affirmed his faith in this context.  So, the bishop asked us, what do I do?  Dismiss my chancellor?
         I’ll spare you any further details about our discussions, but I will tell you that it was the unanimous opinion of the Committee that there was no need to dismiss the chancellor.  He had more than sufficiently demonstrated his commitment to live out his baptismal covenant, the key promise made in confirmation, and had faithfully served in every way conceivable as an Anglican.
         At the heart of the East African controversy of the early twentieth century as well as the question the Doctrine and Worship Committee faced in the late twentieth century is at the centre of today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke.  It is a problem that faces every religious tradition as it navigates the turbulent and tricky waters between being a movement of the Spirit and becoming an institution of society.
         You see, every religious tradition begins as a revelation, an insight, to an individual or to a small group of people.  That revelation, that insight, empowers the first generation of believers to do extraordinary things:  Abraham and Sarah strike off in search of a new land; Moses and the Hebrew slaves escape from Egypt in search of a new land; the disciples of Jesus endure the loss of their teacher to become a movement which transforms the Roman empire.
        But movements either evaporate or, over time, transforms themselves into institutions with traditions, structures and laws.  These are not necessarily bad or ill-intentioned, but the danger is that the initial revelation, the original insight, can be submerged under the layers of tradition, structure and law.  Religious leaders begin to defend the institution rather than inspire other believers with the light that first gave rise to the movement.
         The Jewish leader in today’s gospel was not nor should he ever be portrayed as a bad man.  The tradition of the Sabbath he was upholding was one that gave his people an identity and a mission.  It maintained the integrity of the Jewish people in the face of Roman oppression.  He knew what was expected of him but he had forgotten why it was expected of him.
         The Sabbath was and is about freedom, the freedom to rest and to enjoy the bounty of God without the cares and burden of labour.  It is a custom that I try to observe on my day off.  As soon as I arrive home on Thursday evening, I take off my watch and do not put it back on again until necessary.  I might not shave.  I read what I want to read and I try to avoid answering e-mails that involve work-related matters.  But if the telephone summons me to a pastoral need, then the Sabbath ends.
         Jesus heals a woman who has suffered many years from a debilitating condition.  He heals her on the Sabbath and liberates her from the bonds of her condition.  Surely, he says to the Jewish leader and to all who are present, freeing a woman from this burden of pain and disability is faithful to the gift and to the obligations of the Sabbath.
         We who gather in this place to remember and to celebrate all that God has done, is doing and will do face the same challenge as our Jewish brother described in today’s gospel reading.  We are members of an institution that has lost its place of power and prestige in today’s society.  Being a religious believer of any sort is not what it used to be; some people even dare to say that we are dangerous to world peace and development.
         In the face of this situation we can turn inward and protect the institution.  But that is not a solution.  What we need to do is to rediscover that initial revelation, that original insight, that empowered the earliest followers of Jesus and, dare I say, has empowered members of our religious community, here and abroad, for centuries.  I will even dare to say that I believe that we began that journey of rediscovery at Saint Faith’s some years ago, a journey that can be described in three words:  help, hope and home.
         We have been and continue to be a place of help to those who are in any need or trouble.  Sometimes our help is offered through our worship as we proclaim the Scriptures and as we share the bread and wine.  Oft times our help is offered through our care for the hungry, the homeless or inadequately-housed and those who struggle to gain access to the social and public services they need and to which they are entitled.
         We have been and continue to be a place of hope, not only to those we help, but to those who are seeking to understand what God has done, is doing and will do for us and for all of creation.  When women were first ordained to the priesthood in the Anglican Church of Canada, this Parish welcomed their ministry.  When our Church established a reconciliation fund, this Parish gave more than it was asked.  People suffering from addiction gather here and find healing and support.  Practitioners of healing touch gather here to learn and practice their art.  Children come to play and to learn how to become fully alive as God’s beloved.
         We have been and continue to be a place of home.  Not so long ago I mentioned a study commissioned by the Vancouver Foundation which identified loneliness as the primary affliction of many residents of Metro Vancouver, rich and poor, men and women, long-time and recent residents.  We belong to a movement rooted in the ministry of Jesus who, throughout his ministry, was constantly bringing together those who were alone or ignored, the so-called ‘good’ and the so-called ‘not so good’.  We, too, are called to ‘draw the circle wide’ and to make Saint Faith’s a ‘neighbourhood house’ where all are welcome.
         Help, hope and home.  These are just three expressions of the good news of God in Jesus, three marks of the movement begun so long ago.  May God continue to grant us the grace to keep sight of this good news.  May God continue to grant us the grace to be that movement of the Spirit called ‘church’.  Amen.

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