Saturday, June 7, 2014

Grant Us Wisdom. Grant Us Courage. (Pentecost 8 June 2014)

RCL Pentecost A
8 June 2014

Saint Faith's Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

         In the summer of 1995 I arrived unexpectedly at a crossroads in my life as a Christian, as an Anglican and as a priest.  Two years previously I had been a candidate in the episcopal election that resulted in Michael Ingham becoming our Bishop.  In that election the question of the role of gay and lesbian disciples of Jesus in the life of the Church was asked of each candidate.  At that time I stated that I supported the then-existing policy of the Anglican Church of Canada:  Gay and lesbian Christians were welcome to participate in the life of the Church but were expected to remain celibate.

         At Diocesan Synod in 1994 I allowed my name to stand as a candidate for election to General Synod.  To my surprise I was elected.  I knew that sexuality was on the agenda of General Synod, but I was hoping that it would be handled in such a way that I could remain beneath the radar.  When I arrived in Ottawa, however, I was asked if I would preside and preach at the eucharists in a multi-point parish in the Ottawa Valley whose rector had lost her voice completely.  That Sunday was Pentecost and I had to craft a sermon without any of the tools that I usually used.
As I pondered the scripture readings for the day, I realized what the real gift of the Holy Spirit was.

         If you think about it, what happened in the 'upper room' was more profound than it was dramatic.  A small group of women and men, struggling to understand what the consequences of Jesus' resurrection for their lives, gathered to keep the Jewish festival of Shavuot.  On Shavuot Jews then and now remember God's gift of the Torah, the Teaching and the Wisdom that has shaped Jewish identity over more than three thousand years.  For that small group of disciples, Shavuot, or 'Pentecost' as it is called in Greek, was to take on a new meaning.  It was to be the day that God's Spirit came upon them with the gifts of courage and wisdom.  With these gifts the disciples were unleashed to share their experience and knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth, his life, teaching, death and resurrection.

         It is easier to focus on the image of tongues of fire and of the disciples speaking in the many and varied tongues of the Jews gathered in Jerusalem for the festival than it is to focus on the real implications of the gifts of the Holy Spirit for you and me in the here and now.  When we focus on the drama rather than the depth of the Pentecost experience, we can remove ourselves from the picture.  With the rush of wind, in the heat of 'pentecostal' fire and in the babble of voices, we can too easily see that first Pentecost as an exceptional event.  If we do, then we are doomed.  If we do not expect the gifts of courage and wisdom to come upon us today, then we might as well pack up our books, sell our vestments and find a buyer for this property.

         The gift of wisdom is what grows in us when our knowledge is seasoned by our experience.  Wisdom grows when we reflect on our lives and what we have learned about ourselves, our world, our relationship with God.  Wisdom teaches us to watch, to wait, to listen, to ponder and then to act.

         Courage, my friends, is not the absence of fear but the willingness to take a risk despite our fear.  I don't think that courage is possible without a deeply-seated conviction that God is for us not against us, that God is with us not absent from us, that God is working in and through us rather than indifferent to us.  But courage has its roots in wisdom.

         On that Sunday nineteen years ago I stood before three congregations and preached about the gifts of courage and wisdom.  A few days later I stood at a microphone in the light of television cameras and in the midst of the members of General Synod.  My knowledge of the complexities of human sexuality had raised doubts in my mind as to the rightness of our Church's position on gays and lesbians.  My experience of gay and lesbian students at Vancouver School of Theology who were living in committed relationship was in conflict with the theological ethos in which I had been raised.  I was confronted with a choice:  live in the shadow of my fears or face my fear and act on the basis of my knowledge and experience.  I chose to act.  I lost some friends and gained some new ones.  Friends from high school and university wrote to say that they were surprised and found reasons to reconsider the Christian faith.

         My sisters and brothers, each one of us has experienced the real presence of God in our lives.  We know how God has enabled us to face the challenges of living in a world that is and is not how God would have it be.  The wisdom that we have gained is a wisdom needed by our neighbours, our friends, our families.  But we often hesitate to share that wisdom with them, to invite them to join us in the journey of faith, because we are afraid of rejection.

         Fear of rejection is one of the obstacles that hinders our participation in God's work of re-creating, restoring and renewing the whole of creation.  Rather than risking being 'outed' as Christians, we remain silent.  Rather than knocking on the door of another person's soul to invite her or him to travel with us, we walk by.  Rather than facing the questions about why we believe and what we believe, we keep our faith well and truly concealed from others.  But wisdom joined with the confidence that God is with us, God is for us, God is working in and through us, provides the foundation for opening the gift of courage to face our fears and to act.

         When Peter and the others left the security of the 'upper room' to address the crowd gathered outside, they faced their fear of rejection.  They discovered the gift of courage kindled in them by the Holy Spirit so that they could share the wisdom they had gained in Christ.  They risked ridicule to speak of the way, the truth and the life made known in Jesus of Nazareth.  They spoke of this way, this truth, this life to a crowd who were not well-disposed to hear wisdom from a band of rustic fishermen, tax collectors and others of questionable reputation, not to mention a few women, from the backwater region of Galilee.  Despite all of this, this small group invited the crowd to join them in the ministry God had entrusted to the followers of Jesus.  We are told that many did join the movement.

         Friends, wisdom and courage are our Pentecostal birthright.  We have good news to share and God promises to give us the gifts we need to accomplish the ministry begun so long ago and now active throughout the world.  Even if only one in ten of the people we invite decides to follow the way of Jesus, to seek the truth of Jesus, to live the life of Jesus, may God be praised.  What God asks us to do is quite simple:  Invite others to join in this movement.  Simply ask.  Whether the person accepts is not in our hands but God's.

         The American pastor, Harry Emerson Fosdick was an outspoken critic of racism and injustice as well as an advocate for recognizing God at work in the here and now of our lives.  During a difficult time in his life and that of others who shared his views, he wrote a hymn, 'God of Grace and God of Glory', which appears in many hymnals including Common Praise (#577).  Its constant refrain is that God will 'grant us wisdom' and 'grant us courage'.  May God grant us wisdom.  May God grant us courage.  May that wisdom and courage kindle in us invite others to follow the way of love, to discover the truth of compassion and to live a life of self-giving.  Amen.


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