Monday, September 18, 2017

Peace: A Word for the Parish of St. Faith's (17 September 2017)

Sermon by the Venerable John Stephens
70th Anniversary at St. Faith’s, Vancouver
September 17, 2017
1 Kings 8: 22-30; Psalm 122; 1 Peter 2: 1-5, 9-10; and John 20: 19-21

Click here to listen to the Sermon.

It is so great to be with you this morning.  I thank you for the invitation and the opportunity to share in this wonderful occasion for St. Faith’s, but also for this neighbourhood, our Deanery, Archdeaconry and Diocese.  It is inspiring to consider that St. Faith’s has opened its doors for 70 years sharing faith in Jesus Christ in prayer, praise and action.  You are all to be congratulated and commended for your response of living out God’s call for you here in this place.

            Now if you were talking to your next door neighbour or family members or friends over the past few weeks, perhaps you told them that you were coming to the 70th Anniversary of your church, your home parish.  Maybe you were reminiscing with them  about your own memories of this parish… what did you say about St. Faith’s?  How would you describe this beautiful church and this parish community to someone else?  What impact has it had on you?  How has it shaped your life and your thinking and understanding of how this world works and God’s presence within it?  This church has been here for great celebrations, joys, new beginnings, beautiful moments in so many people’s lives.  There has been much laughter, lots of smiles, great stories and probably lots of cake.  And, of course, this church has also been here for those more difficult times, tragedies, deaths, grief, sadness, worries, doubts, terrible transition.  Times of tears, confusion questioning and fear of the unknown.  In all of this, the joys and the sadnesses and so much more, of course, St. Faith’s has been here and touched you, touched me, touched all of us in our pilgrimage.  This is of course part of what St. Faith’s is all about.  Relationships.  Relationship with God and relationship with others.

            According to your website, you have described St Faith’s as a small, dynamic community, open to diversity, passionate and compassionate,
rooted in the Anglican tradition of worship, prayer and music. You say, “We enjoy laughter and are not afraid of tears. We hope you will join us as you journey through all the seasons of the year and of your life.”

And that to me seems a good description.  But when I thought about it a little more I thought that it might be good to look at this for a moment.  Now I realize that it is a little dangerous for a guest preacher to tell you, the clergy and people of the parish who have invited me, a little more about yourselves and so I hope that you will be open to my thoughts about you.  If not, well just sit tight, I will be finished soon. 

St. Faith’s is about all of those things that I have mentioned, and what is on your website, that is true, but perhaps if it is to be summed up in one word, St. Faith’s is about Peace.  It is hard to summarize 70 years of ministry in one word or even the day to day operations of a parish in one word or the impact that St. Faith’s has had on people’s lives and this neighbourhood and the world in one word but if there was but one to choose Peace is a good one.

The gospel reading for this day was a great one to hear and consider on this day I must say.  It was a passage that is out of the usual context in which we hear it in the liturgical life of an Anglican church.  Usually we hear this on the Sunday after Easter.  For if I set the scene a little bit, this is the same day that the tomb was found empty.  The same day that in John’s gospel, Jesus had spoken to Mary Magdalene and told her to go and tell the other disciples: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”  He has said that to her and she rushes off to proclaim, “I have seen the Lord,” the words central to our Christian faith and that we focus upon on Easter Day with brass bands, lilies and chocolate eggs.  As I said when we hear it now at this time of year it feels strangely out of sync with the timing we usually expect.  And this is a good thing, for it stirs us to think upon it with fresh eyes and ears.  Back to the passage we heard this morning… it is still that same day, and clearly not long after Mary has burst into the room with those life-changing and soul-stirring words, “I have seen the Lord.” We were told that it is that context that Jesus came and stood among those faithful first followers and said to them: “Peace be with you.”  This phrase is so significant from that moment long, long ago in that dusty and ancient room and also for us today, perhaps even especially for us here today.  For it is because of these words that we continue to gather in Jesus’ name and live the gospel. 

As I picture it, and I could be wrong but I have a hunch that I am right, the followers of Jesus were all gathered together, much as we are, in the same upper room that they had celebrated the Passover, where Jesus had washed their feet, where Jesus had given them a new commandment to love one another.  They were there huddled together and somewhat puzzled over all that was happening.  They had just heard Mary’s description and it was pretty hard to believe but they were hearing other stories and witness accounts that the tomb of Jesus was empty and that he had been seen alive.  But they had seen him die and seen his body lain in the tomb.  Some believed, some did not.  It was hard to know what was really going on.

They locked the door as they remembered how the crowd had turned on Jesus and were pretty sure they were next.  It is not in the gospel but I can’t help but wonder if they pulled the table out into the centre of the room and they all crowded around it.  A silence descended upon them.  Someone produced some wine.  Someone else some bread and they prayed together.  They broke the bread in silence knowing the significance of it all.  The last time they had done this was in this very room. 

And it was then that Jesus was known in their midst.  Jesus, the one for whom they had given up their livelihood, their commitments, their dreams and aspirations was suddenly with them.  The doors were locked but somehow he was amongst them.  There was no doubting it.  He was there they all saw him and knew him.  He offered few words but simply “Peace be with you.”  They saw his hands and side.  Jesus breathed on them and invited them to receive the Holy Spirit.

Peace be with you were his first words to them.  Peace.  Peace be in your soul, in your heart, in your mind.  Peace, calm, holiness, wonder, joy, be amongst you.  Stillness, freedom from confusion, frustration, unease, grief, sorrow, just peace to ease and comfort you.  I am intrigued that these were Jesus first words to them.  Peace be with you.  Surely this was his desperate prayer for them, the ones he deeply loved… and for us ever since.  Whenever we too gather in his name and break bread to discover and know this peace, a peace that the world cannot give, he is known amongst us.  It is a peace that is not based on status, wealth, possessions, intellect or ability but a peace that starts in your toes and grows to fill you absolutely and completely with God’s abundance and wholeness.

It is a peace that every human being craves.  A peace that names our encounter with God. A peace that is not really about an absence of war, but includes that, but rather is about touching the very soul, the very centre, the very essence of who we are.  Touching the very presence, the very being of God.  Not some God hidden from us, distant from us on some cloud in a place called heaven a billion miles away.  No the peace that Jesus was talking about and praying for his followers comes from encountering God here with us, amongst us, in the person of Jesus, in the gathering in his name, in the holiness of this moment we discover that indeed God is here.  This kind of peace that goes beyond simple and pat descriptors of God but awakens us to a whole new dimension, a whole other way to be, a whole existence where we know God amongst us… amongst us. 

Some have tried to define it with words…  like this Celtic blessing often used in the Iona Community:

Deep peace of the running wave to you
Deep peace of the flowing air to you
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you
Deep peace of the shining stars to you
Deep peace of the Son of peace to you

But I always find that words never suffice.  Instead we are best to encounter it as we soon will… not with words alone but our hearts, our souls, our true selves as we gather around a table and invite Jesus to be amongst once more.  To come amongst us and say to each one of us individually and to this community of St. Faith’s and to all those who have been in this community in the past and into the future: Peace be with you. 

They are not idle words but words that form us, transform us, guide us and bless us.  They are words for this parish of St. Faith’s that you have lived in so many ways.  Invite that peace, invite that Christ, invite that hope, invite that presence to grace us once again to lead us forward in the power of that same Sprit.  To continue to lead and direct this beautiful parish to continue to live the gospel in this place, this neighbourhood and beyond.   Peace be with you.

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