Sunday, October 27, 2013

I Was Glad

I was privileged today, in my capacity as Regional Dean of the Granville-Point Grey Deanery,  to preach at Saint John's Shaughnessy on the occasion of the celebration of the Parish's dedication.

Click here for an audio recording of the Sermon as preached at the 10.00 Eucharist at Saint John's.

Celebration of the Anniversary of Dedication
27 October 2013

Saint John’s Shaughnessy
Vancouver BC

Focus text:  Psalm 122

         Singing has been a part of my life as long as I can remember.  My mother at the age of 81 still has a wonderful soprano voice.  My father, who died a month ago, did not have a great voice, but he always was surrounded by music whether working at home or at his office.  As a boy growing up in a home filled with music and who had a reasonable voice, I was enrolled in the parish choir as a treble and then, wonder of wonders, when my voice changed, a tenor, one of the rarest commodities in the vocal world of the church these days.

         My seminary, Nashotah House in Wisconsin, has had a reputation for music, especially choral music.  All seminarians in my day had to participate in a music class during their first year.  We learned how to chant the psalms and other liturgical texts as well as sing new hymn texts that were emerging as the Episcopal Church was moving to publish a new hymnal.  What I did not know was that the music director of the seminary used music class to scout out possible talent for his double- and triple-quartet male ensembles.

         One day he ambled over to me during music class.  I have to admit I felt a bit uncomfortable by his invasion of my personal space.  He lingered next to me for what seemed to be an eternity.  The next day, after morning chapel, he asked me if I would be willing to join the double-quartet.  I immediately said ‘yes’, but I would later regret this hasty decision.

        At the first rehearsal I was handed a thick score entitled ‘I was glad’.  Before I could digest a single page, the music director, who was also our organist, played the magnificent chords that begin this majestic anthem.  Quickly I was thrown into the maelstrom of the music and, to my horror, noted the tenor entrance and its immediate demand that I and my fellow tenors hit a rather high note in our ranges.  Things didn’t improve as we continued to navigate the inter-weaving lines without a break.  We, the daughters and sons of the American War of Independence, weren’t quite sure what to do with some acclamations Parry had included in what was originally a coronation anthem:  ‘Vivat Regina!  Vivat Regina Elizabetha!’  By the end of eight minutes, the rough length of this piece, we were vocally, intellectually and physically shell-shocked.  ‘Not too bad for a first reading,’ our director said, ‘not ready for Westminster Abbey yet, but we will be.’  For a moment I thought that he was serious about Westminster Abbey, but then realized he was joking.

         I am grateful to Father Michael for inviting me to be with you this morning as we celebrate the anniversary of the dedication of this Parish.  I am equally glad that the conditions of my invitation did not include the requirement that I reprise my youthful encounter with the choral demands of Parry’s setting of Psalm 122.  But it is about this psalm that I want to share some reflections with you on this occasion.  If it please you, I’ll offer you an aging tenor’s take on this psalm’s message to us as we journey through this second decade of the twenty-first century.

         Psalm 122 is what biblical scholars call a ‘psalm of ascent’.  These psalms are songs that we believe pilgrims to Jerusalem sang as they approached the city to celebrate the great festivals of the Jewish liturgical year.  Even today, just outside modern Jerusalem, there is an overlook on the highway where you can pull over and recite Psalm 122 as you see the city for the first time.

         Pilgrimages are special journeys that include many common features such as moving from the edges of our lives to the centre, from the ordinary to the sacred, from the mundane to the meaningful, from the normal to the symbolic, from the present to the past. [1]  One writer describes a pilgrimage with these words:  “To return to a holy place on pilgrimage is like homecoming or reunion time, a return to the roots, to the source, to the ‘mother’ who still sustains and nourishes.” [2]  For all the years of its existence Saint John’s and all the parish churches throughout the world have had the potential to be just such holy places where people can return week after week, year after year, decade after decade, to a place where these pilgrims can rediscover the roots of their faith and to be sustained and nourished in the on-going journey of life beyond these places of memory and hope.

         But what are the roots of our faith that are to be found in these holy places?  Today’s psalm offers us three:  unity, judgement and peace.  Certainly we who have endured the past ten years of conflict and controversy, whether as members of Saint John’s or as members of the other parishes of the Diocese, know how much we may desire unity, how much we may fear judgement, how much we may long for peace.  But what do these words mean for us today?

         Too often in our society the word ‘unity’ is confused with ‘uniformity’.  Unity is a far more difficult task than its shadow cousin uniformity.  While uniformity has its place, especially in those dimensions of our lives where concrete uniform measures may mean the difference between life and death, unity relies on a commitment of the heart, mind, soul and strength to maintain relationships even when these are tested by diverse opinions on some of the great questions of how we as Christians should live.  If we believe Paul’s conviction expressed in 1 Corinthians 12.3 that no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ unless he or she is led by the Spirit, then unity means holding fast to one another even as we struggle to understand what it means to call Jesus ‘Lord’.  Unity means that those who confess that the Scriptures are the Word of God and contain all things necessary to salvation are called to listen to one another as we seek to discern what is necessary to salvation and what is not.

         Too often in our society ‘judgement’ is confused with ‘condemnation’.  Judgement is the process of discernment by which we seek to know which treasures from our past are best left in our congregational closets and which treasures are life-sustaining in the present moment.  Judgement may mean deciding that new insights, new perspectives, new language may, if fact, be truer to the roots of our faith than long-held ones.  Judgement helps us identify the difference between nostalgia for a long-lost mythic past and the genuine tradition, the faith handed down to us from the first followers of Jesus of Nazareth, a heritage that enlivens our faith and practice.

         In all our pilgrimages we seek ‘peace’ but not the peace that the world names peace.  In Welsh, one of the ancestral languages of my family, there are two words that are sometimes translated into English as ‘peace’.  One means ‘the absence of conflict’, the other ‘the presence of wholeness, well-being, fulfillment’.  The Hebrew word used throughout today’s psalm is shalom whose root meaning is akin to the second Welsh word.  Jerusalem, the psalmist sings, is to be a place of wholeness, well-being and fulfillment not merely a place where conflict is absent.  For Christians this shalom is what we hope for in God’s coming reign when every human being will be treated with dignity, when the integrity of creation is restored and all creation rejoices in the fullness of life which is its heritage from the very beginning of the universe.

         My friends, when we come to worship in one of these holy places, we come in search of unity, judgement and peace.  Every congregation that dares to claim that it is a place of worship has the potential to be just such a holy place where people discover that diversity is not a threat to community but a potential strength just as a laminated beam is often stronger than a single tree trunk.  Every religious community, especially those that claim a reverence for God’s word as found in the Scriptures, has the potential to be a holy place where we learn to pack our bags carefully for the journey of faith, to judge which of the many gifts from our heritage are of use for us in the present moment.  Every building that bears the sign of the cross has the potential to be a sign that ‘the Lord is here’ in the midst of neighbourhoods that are desperate to know wholeness, well-being and fulfillment as they face the challenges of a consumer society.

         On this day we give thanks to God that Saint John’s has been a place of pilgrimage, in times of quiet as well as in times of conflict.  We give thanks that this building stands as a symbol of God’s invitation to all human beings to live in the shalom of God, not just in some distant future but in this present moment as well.  Just as the psalmist expressed the hopes and joys of pilgrims making the ascent into Jerusalem so many centuries ago, let me voice my hope that you and all the pilgrims who come within these precincts might find joy and peace and be empowered to go forth to be agents of God’s kingdom:

         I pray for your peace, my sisters and brothers.  May all who love you prosper.  May peace be within your walls and quietness within your halls.  For the sake of all the people who seek the roots of their faith, I pray for your prosperity.  Because this is surely a holy place, a place of pilgrimage for all who desire unity, for all who seek wise judgement and for all who long for the peace of God’s reign, I and all your fellow pilgrims in this Deanery and Diocese will seek to do you good.  May our God, who knows the hearts of all, fulfill these words in our generation.  Amen.

[1] Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year:  Year A (1992), 6.

[2] Craddock (1992), 6.

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