Saturday, November 28, 2020

It's the End of the World -- Again: Reflections on Mark 13.24-37

 It’s the End of the World – Again

Reflections on Mark 13.24-37

 

RCL Advent 1B

29 November 2020

 

Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral

New Westminster BC

 

            I entered seminary in the autumn of 1978 during a time of significant upheaval in the US Episcopal Church, the church in which I grew up.  Four years earlier three retired bishops ordained eleven women to the priesthood in Philadelphia in defiance to the church’s existing policy.  Two years later, in 1976, the church finally approved the ordination of women to the priesthood.  That year, both in the US and Canada, women were ordained but not without opposition and protest, forecasts of the church’s imminent demise and accusations that both the US and Canadian churches had abandoned the catholic faith and order.

 

            Eleven years before I entered seminary the church had embarked on a course of liturgical revision.  Some welcomed the new rites, while others were critical and reluctant.  To this day, some fifty years later, we are a ‘bilingual’ church that uses both traditional and contemporary liturgical rites.  Most of the time we do so peacefully and harmoniously, but I do remember the worship wars of the 1970’s and 1980’s.

 

            Throughout those times it wouldn’t have been too difficult to hear commentators and partisans of one side or another claiming that all these developments were signs of the end of the world as we then knew it.  And they were right.  It was the end of the world as we knew it, as I had known it since boyhood.  We became churches whose ordained leadership began to resemble more closely the people who were in the pews – women.  We became churches which valued our heritage of ‘admirable simplicity’ and eloquent language and discovered that it was possible to maintain that heritage even when employing a contemporary idiom.

 

            It was the end of the world as we knew it.  And many of us discovered that we felt just fine, thank you very much.

 

            For Mark’s audience their world really had come to an end, physically, spiritually, culturally, socially.  As followers of Jesus many of them had lost the world of family and friends.  Some who had lived in the imperial province of Palestine had witnessed Roman legions destroying towns and villages, bringing death and enslavement to thousands of people and obliterating the Temple in Jerusalem, the earthly symbol of God’s presence and sovereignty both to Jews and to Christians.

 

            It was the end of the world as they knew it, but they did not feel fine.  Charlatans arose amidst them, the first- and second-century predecessors of the quack faith healers and preachers of the prosperity gospel we know today, who claimed secret knowledge and understanding of ‘the signs of the times’.  Christian communities were divided in their loyalties and uncertain of what they should do in such times.

 

            To them Mark the evangelist proclaimed what he promised to proclaim from the very first words of the Gospel that bears his name:  “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son . . . .” (Mark 1.1 in the Common English Bible)

 

            It’s the end of the world as we know it, Mark writes, “but (Jesus’) words will certainly not pass away” (Mark 13.31b in the Common English Bible).  It’s the end of the world as we know it, but Jesus “ . . . has put (us) in charge, giving (each one of us) a job to do” (Mark 13.34b in the Common English Bible).  It’s the end of the world as we know it, but we’re to keep alert because the new world, the one we’ve been hoping to see for so long is coming.  None of us, none of ‘this generation’, will pass away without seeing the signs of this promised world.

 

            It is not always a bad thing when the world as we know it comes to an end.  In such times we find ourselves compelled by events but, at the same time, guided by the Holy Spirit.  We see the signs of the new world all around us, the world we are hoping for, the world we were meant for.  Some of the signs are as subtle as the gradual movement of a tree from the slumber of winter to the awakening and greening of spring.  Other signs are as dramatic as an unexpected lunar or solar eclipse or an earthquake.  Even though our initial response to the ending of one world and the beginning of another may be fear and apprehension, for the disciples of Jesus, the coming of God’s promised world, so long waited for, so gradual in its advent, is good news

 

            As we enter once again the season of Advent, the world as we have known it is coming to an end, a world enduring a COVID pandemic, and a new world is drawing near, a world post-COVID but more deeply aware of the inter-connectedness of the whole human family.

 

            Will the passing of the old world and the advent of the new world witness a renewal of humanity’s concern and compassion for one another?  Will the experiences of restricted freedoms and the pain of not being able to celebrate the cycles and passages of life deepen our empathy for others?  Will the disappointment of seeing Easter and Christmas pass without familiar and life-giving rituals kindle in our hearts a deeper longing for the God whom these festivals hold before us?

 

            It is the end of the world as we have known it.  And I feel fine.  Fig trees are ripening even as I speak.  Jesus’ disciples are still doing the jobs he gave us two thousand years ago.  A new world is coming.  And that makes me feel even better.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

But What Does It Mean? Reflections on Matthew 25.14-30

 But What Does It Mean?

Reflections on Matthew 25.14-30

 

RCL Proper 33A

15 November 2020

 

Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral

New Westminster BC

 

Mean, Mean and Mean

            You all know that I love the English language and our language’s unapologetic incorporation of words from other languages into it.  Where would we be without chutney, curry, chili and chihuahua?  We’d have to formulate Anglo-Saxon word combinations similar to German where a squirrel is an eichkätzchen – a ‘little oak cat’.  We might come up with something like my favourite word in Solomon Islands’ Pidgin, ‘kwikpiksaleta’, the word used for ‘fax’.

 

            But English is also economical with our words and often will use a word to mean many different things, sometimes with a different pronunciation.  We have to pay close attention to know whether to say ‘read’ or ‘read’, ‘lead’ or ‘lead’, ‘prophecy’ or ‘prophesy’.  One such word is the simple four-letter combination of mea and n.  Without any change in pronunciation, we can communicate three entirely different things.

 

            I mean, after all, that mean can mean mean, but also mean mean.  We can use ‘mean’ as a verb about comprehension, a noun about a median point or an adjective to indicate nastiness. 

 

            I bring this up because today’s Gospel challenges us to ask what it means about ministry in the meantime and in mean times.

 

What do we do while we wait for the Messiah?

            Today’s parable is a difficult one for a preacher.  On the surface we’re faced with a story that may suggest to some audiences that God rewards those who use unjust economic systems to their own gain so that the rich get richer and the poor poorer.  Those who are cautious about how they use their resources are going to be left behind in the coming reign of God by those who are more entrepreneurial and know how to use the system.  After all, there is a current clan of televangelists who teach a ‘name it, claim it’ theology.  If you want a Mercedes Benz, then ask God for it.  If you don’t get it, then your faith is not strong enough.

 

            Another take on the parable is popular around stewardship and capital campaigns.  Give generously and your support will multiply the resources available to the organization.  Now far it be from me not to encourage generosity and even sacrificial giving, but I’m not sure I want to go there today.  So I have to go deeper into the context behind the parable we heard from the Gospel according to Matthew today.

 

            I’ll be brief.  The community of Christian disciples to whom Matthew was writing his account of the life and ministry of Jesus found themselves both in the meantime and in the mean times.  Most of them had been raised in the Jewish tradition and had come to believe in Jesus as the promised Messiah.  This had led them to be ostracized from their communities, their families and their friends.  But the pain of separation was eased by their conviction that Jesus was returning soon and everything would be made right.

 

            But Jesus had not returned as soon as they had hoped.  By the time Matthew is writing, more than sixty years had passed since the events of that last week in Jerusalem.  A Jewish revolt had led to the destruction of the Temple in the year 70.  Jewish leaders, including those who believed in Jesus as Messiah, had been forced out of the city and send into virtual exile in the regions surrounding the Mediterranean.

 

            It’s during this time that the rabbinic community begins to develop that marvellous body of work we call the Mishnah and the Talmud, commentaries on the Scriptures that help practicing Jews be faithful to the Torah without the Temple.  And for Jewish believers in Jesus, who had also been traumatized by the destruction of the Temple, writers such as Paul, Mark, Matthew and Luke were doing the same thing.  Yes, they say, Jesus has not returned, so in the meantime, in these mean times, here how we can be faithful to our vocation as disciples.

 

            At the core of today’s gospel is the exhortation that disciples, in the meantime and in the mean times, avoid digging in and creating enclosed enclaves, keeping their heads down in a hostile world.  True disciples, Matthew says, take risks even in the meantime and in the mean times, so that the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth spreads throughout the known world.

 

 

What do we do while we wait for the end of a pandemic?

            In mid-March of this year we entered into our own meantime and our own mean times.  It is easy to identify the signs of the mean times.  We closed the doors of our churches and of our halls to prevent the spread of the virus.  We donned masks, anointed our hands with countless amounts of hand sanitizing gels and liquids, kept two metres away from one another and learned how to ZOOM.

 

            We experienced our own Ecclesiastes moments:  “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:  a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.” [1]  

 

            But unlike the writer of Ecclesiastes, we have endured all these things unable to acknowledge them with the rituals and customs integral to our sense of community.  We have not been able to visit the sick, comfort the mourning and bury our dead with the full dignity their lives have merited.  These are the signs of the mean times.

 

            And like our sisters and brothers of Matthew’s community, we are aware that we are living in the meantime.  Every time that Dr Henry reminds us to be kind, to be calm, to be safe and to be brave, she also expresses her conviction that this time will pass and a more glorious summer will follow this winter of our discontent.  In our own way we have responded as those early Christians who took the risk to spread the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth in a world both hostile and indifferent to the message and, at the same time, eager to hear this good news.

 

            We entered into this meantime with only the basics of twenty-first century communication.  We are now truly ‘HTC Live’ and are connecting with people unable to be on-site for worship and others who are searching for religious community.  Thursday Vespers and Facebook Live updates are now a regular part of our life.

 

            We entered into this meantime wondering how to connect with our members.  We then rediscovered the telephone and the rest is history.

 

            We entered into this meantime wondering whether our doors would re-open.  They have.  On-site worship has resumed and our community partners are eager to resume their activities, all carefully safeguarded by our COVID protocols.  New West Family Place has started a drop-in program and a food hamper supported by the Greater Vancouver Food Bank is working out of our Hall.  Our Breakfast program continues to provide food to the hungry.

 

            We entered this meantime wondering whether we could pay our bills.  Through the support of the members of our Parish and Diocesan financial support, we are able to pay our bills.  This fall I ask that we all review our giving and consider how we can support the Parish financially.

 

            We entered this meantime wondering about the progress of our property redevelopment.  I am now hopeful that, in the coming weeks, not months, we shall have taken a significant stride forward.

 

            We are in a meantime with some mean times, but we have not buried our talent in a hole waiting for these times to pass.  We have acted.  We have taken risks.  We have achieved more than we could have asked or imagined.

 

Onwards into the future

            I know that we cannot help but feel tired with the restrictions and demands that the pandemic has placed and continue to place upon us.  I’m sure that there are many times when we have become impatient with others and with ourselves.  Despite the beauty of the many masks that have been made for me and I’ve worn, it still irritates me more than I can sometimes express when my glassed fog up and I cannot see.  But then I remember what we’ve achieved over these past months and how faithfully and wonderfully all of you have responded to the challenges.

 

            So let’s be kind.  Let’s be calm.  Let’s be safe.  Let’s be brave.  We are in the meantime and in the mean times.  But we are still taking the risk to proclaim in so many ways the love of God made known to us in Jesus.  We’ve come far and probably have a bit further to go.  But we can do it.



[1] Ecclesiastes 3.1-8.

 

Friday, October 2, 2020

The Heavens Declare the Glory of God: Reflections on Nature and Law (4 October 2020)

RCL Proper 27A

Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral

New Westminster BC

 

            Fifteen years or so while I was still teaching at Vancouver School of Theology, Archbishop Lawrence of the Diocese of Moosonee invited me to lead the fall clergy conference in his Diocese.  If you’re not familiar with the geography of the Anglican Church of Canada, you may not know that the Diocese of Moosonee is in north-central Ontario.  That autumn was beautiful in this part of Ontario where lakes dot the countryside.


            There was one such small lake right in the heart of the retreat centre with the clergy conference was being held.  Every day was bright and crisp.  The trees were beginning to change colour and the horizon was filled with yellows, reds, purples and every hue in between.  Because Moosonee is quite large and the clergy often live at some distance from each other, Archbishop Lawrence always built in a lot of quiet open time for the clergy.  Friends could meet over coffee.  Opportunities to discuss matters privately with the Archbishop were plentiful.  What I remember of that conference was the sense of space and quiet.


            One afternoon there was a long break after lunch.  The Archbishop had scheduled time for him to meet with various regional groupings of clergy.  He sent me off to enjoy some quiet time for myself.  I sat down on a large comfortable rock on the lake shore.  All the tall grass around the lake had dried and was waving in the wind.  I noticed two insects, some form of crane fly I think, flying in and out of the stalks of grass.  They were linked together, obviously a male and female mating.  Every once and a while they would land on a stalk for a minute or so.  I watched them for more than an hour, I in silence in the warm sun, they flying around.  They landed at roughly the same height every time they stopped.  I was fascinated by this dance of life.

            When I shared this experience with several of the clergy at dinner, one of them from an aboriginal community in the region told me that the elders looked closely at where the insects had bored a hole and laid their eggs.  It was, he told me, a reliable indicator of how the snow would be that winter.  And a voice said, “Although they have no words or language, and their voices are not heard, their sound has gone out into all lands, and their message to the ends of the world.” [1]


            When the Psalmist declares that “(the) heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows the divine handiwork”, the memory of those insects in Moosonee came flooding back into my consciousness.  How do they know how high on the stalk to bore and lay their egg?  They weren’t haphazard in their actions but quite deliberate and regular in the height they chose from the ground.  But the other amazing thing is the patient observation of aboriginal people who put two and two together.  Who was the first person to realize that the emerging larva in spring were all emerging from locations above the winter’s highest snow line?


            One of the disadvantages of urban living is that city dwellers often fail to observe the signs all around us that reveal the glory of God.  True, many of us have gardens, some large, some small, some boxes on our balconies and patios, but, for the most part, we rely on things we can control such as heat, light and other aspects of our environment.  Is it any wonder that for many of our peers the world does not declare the handiwork of God?


            I am always amazed at religious people who see faith and science at odds.  To me being a scientist is as holy a vocation as being a theologian.  Both the scientist and the theologian are probing the mysteries of the kosmos, the evidence of a God who, for reasons still not fully known to us, chose to make room for us.  All things, seen and unseen, reveal the self-giving and steadfast love of a wisdom beyond our ken.


            But human beings, of all God’s creatures, have both the capacity and the propensity to work against the balance that God has embodied in the kosmos.  For that reason, we need something more than the natural law to understand how we should live in this wonderfully inter-dependent creation of the Holy One.  Today we heard the ‘ten words’, the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, the foundation of Torah, God’s Instruction, Wisdom and Law.  For us it is not enough to know that we are made in the image of God, we have to know how to grow into God’s likeness in our hearts, our minds, our soul and our strength.  The Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law of Moses that flow out of them were meant not as boxes to be checked off, but as guides to shape us into fully alive human beings.


            For Christians the heritage of Moses and the People of Israel is not denied in Christ.  Christ himself says many times that he has not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them.  In Christ we see a human being fully alive, a brother who became a servant for our sake, so that we might find our true selves.  The Law, the Prophets, the Christ guide us just as surely as God’s wisdom continues to guide crane flies in Ontario to lay their eggs safely.  We’re just a little more difficult to guide, not because, unlike crane flies, we a lot more stubborn and stiff-necked.


            Life in a religious community such as ours, following a tradition that reaches back over a thousand years or more, opens us to recognize the self-giving love made known to us in creation and how day by day that same love remains constant in calling us into right relationships with one another, with the creation, with the Creator.  But all human beings need 

·      the perfect law that revives the soul,

·      the sure testimony that gives wisdom to the innocent,

·      the just statutes that rejoice the heart and

·      the clear commandment that gives light to the eyes. [2]

 

           So let’s find a comfortable rock to sit upon so that we can watch nature reveal the glory of its Creation.  And then may we find a company of saints with whom to live, work and pray so that we may be as faithful as the least of God’s creatures in showing forth the wonders and the love of God.



[1] Psalm 19.3-4 (BAS).

 

[2] Psalm 19.7-8 (BAS).

 

Saturday, September 19, 2020

What More Do You Want? (RCL Proper 25A, 20 September 2020)

 What More Do You Want?

Reflections on Wildernesses and Vineyards

 

RCL Proper 25A

20 September 2020

 

Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral

New Westminster BC

 

            Memories are tricky rascals.  Just when I’m deeply engaged in some serious work, such as preparing a sermon or arranging an episcopal election, an unexpected gremlin of memory will pop up.  As well as being unexpected, even unwelcome, the memory often seems, at first blush, to have nothing to do with what I’m working on.

 

            So this week I’ve been pondering how to handle unhappy Israelites in the wilderness and irate contract labourers in a fictional vineyard as well as all the other aspects of being a vicar and an archdeacon. Suddenly I heard the voice of my Dad saying, ‘What more do you want?  An egg in your beer?’

 

            Now I don’t know if any of you have ever heard this expression.  My parents used it often when my sister or I would make some unreasonable request or ask for extra icing on top of an already iced cake.  I always thought it a very strange remark.  Who would want an egg in their beer?  None of my dad’s friends who drank beer ever did.  Who, for that matter, would want to drink a beer anyway, thought my childhood brain.  A question a college education would answer for me.

 

            Apparently the saying may have originated here in the Pacific Northwest more than a hundred years ago.  In 1915 a Seattle judge ruled that cracking a raw egg into a glass of beer did not break the law prohibiting bars from giving their patrons free food.  Within twenty years this ruling may have been the source for a colloquial response to someone who already has something good asking for undeservedly more, a not uncommon habit of humankind, I might add.

 

            For example, a nomadic, pastoral people are drawn to take up residence in the heart of a great ancient empire.  Relations between the immigrants and the native inhabitants are good at first, especially since the immigrants will do work that the natives don’t like to do.  But after a few generations, the government begins to change its attitude towards the immigrants.  Discrimination, forced labour and attempts at controlling the immigrant population are employed to keep things under control.

 

            After generations of oppression the immigrants are miraculously liberated and begin their journey towards a new home.  But it’s not an easy journey.  There are all these people and their possessions, including the wealth that they extorted from their oppressors.  They don’t really know where they are going and their leaders seem to have their own problems.  Personal rivalries and simple human stress lead to active resentment towards these leaders and a distressing lack of faith in the God who is the engineer of the people’s escape.

 

            Suddenly no one seems to remember their deliverance from one of the mightiest, most sophisticated militaries of their time.  No one seems to remember when their leaders, guided by God, turned bitter water into sweet.  All they can do is whinge about how things were great when they were slaves.

 

            And God says, ‘What more do you want?  An egg in your beer?’  And the people say, ‘That would be great.  Maybe a cucumber or an onion or two as well.’  So God, restraining a divine impulse, not for the first time, to start all over again with a different crowd, sends them manna, bread from heaven.  And they eat their fill and, for the time being at least, are satisfied.  We’ll leave the people’s subsequent complaints for another time.

 

            Then Jesus comes along in terms of today’s lectionary readings to tell us a story about several groups of unemployed manual labourers.  They’re people that Jesus’ followers can easily relate to.  They, just like the labourers, have families to feed, taxes to pay and landlords to keep at bay.  They, just like the labourers, are used to living in a world where every day is a battle to get by.

 

            I imagine Jesus’ listeners prick their ears up as he begins to tell them this story.  They all know men like the owner of the vineyard.  They know all about the customary daily wage and the risks of not having steady employment.  So Jesus must have them in the palm of his hand as he talks about this employer who negotiates a work agreement not once but four times.  When the time comes to pay the workers, Jesus’ audience is primed for a different result than what they and we heard today.

 

            They are probably as aggrieved as the fictional labourers in the story.  ‘It’s not fair,’ we can hear them say, ‘for hard-working men who slaved all day to only receive what they agreed on, especially after the employer acts so unexpectedly generously.  Is this the kingdom you’re telling us God is bringing about?’  And I hear Jesus say, ‘What do you want?  An egg in your beer?’  ‘At least an extra denarius or two,’ they say, ‘not the fulfillment of a binding contract.’

 

            Spontaneous generosity, unexpected largesse, undeserved gifts are sometimes hard for us to accept.  Who among us has not read a story about the winner of a lottery jackpot and thought, ‘Well, I think I could do something better with that money.’?  Who among us has not felt disappointment when, after working very hard for a promotion or for a new job, see it go to someone else, someone whom we may even respect and know will do a better job than we would have?  In those moments a seed might begin to germinate within us, the seed of ingratitude.

 

            At some point along the way towards ordination, I heard a wise spiritual teacher say that ingratitude is the source of most if not all human sins.  The little nuclear reactor that fuels ingratitude is fear.  And so, to prevent that reactor from generating a good deal of ingratitude, we do need to test how real our fears are.

 

            I’m confident that most if not all of us fear the potential of the COVID virus to harm our lives, whether individually, corporately or internationally.  Shall we take precautions?  Yes, of course we should and we have.  So, instead of living in fear, let us give thanks for all those people who work to protect us, for all those precautions we have taken and for the resources we have to protect ourselves, our households and our Parish.  Thanks be to God!

 

            Many of us may harbour fears about the future of our Parish, fears and concerns that predate the pandemic.  Are we working to build a more secure foundation for our ministry in the decades ahead?  Yes, we are.  Has it been the smoothest path?  No, it has not.  But despite the ups and downs, things known and unknown, we give thanks for the dedicated clergy and laity who have dreamed and worked towards that future.

 

            Like the control rods that cool the heat generated by a nuclear reactor, gratitude cools our fears and quiets stirrings of ingratitude.  Two of my mentors taught me that, in all times and places, there were two things to be done every day:  (1) to respond to disappointments by saying, ‘Thanks be to God.  There’s still work to be done.’ and (2) to write down, at the end of the day what I am thankful for, even if it’s simply, ‘I made through the day!’

 

            So, my friends, there is much for us to be grateful for, even when an arsonist destroys a civic landmark and releases toxins into the air, even when a virus threatens our health and even when a changing society puts our faith to the test.  We have the resources we need.  Those resources are on-site right now in the pews of this Cathedral and on-line right now wherever our live-stream is viewed.

 

            If we are tempted in the days ahead to whinge a bit or to feel somewhat ill done by, we might hear God ask us, ‘What more do you want?  An egg in your beer?’, I think that we can truthfully say, ‘Thanks.  The beer’s more than enough . . . . . . But we wouldn’t say, “no”.’

 

 

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Who Is This Guy? Reflections on Matthew 16.13-20 (23 August 2020)

 Who Is This Guy?

Reflections on Matthew 16.13-20

 

RCL Proper 21A

23 August 2020

 

Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral

New Westminster BC

 

Who am I?

            Many years ago I attended an event at our daughter Anna’s pre-school.  As I entered the room I was given a lovely brown, leaf-shaped name tag that had written on it:  ‘Anna’s Dad’.  At first I admit that I was a bit taken aback.  After all I was ‘The Rev’d Professor Richard Geoffrey Leggett’.  But not at Berwick School that day.  On that day, long ago, I was ‘Anna’s Dad’.

 

            I saved that name tag for many years.  It was on my office door at Vancouver School of Theology, right next to the name plate that said ‘The Rev’d Dr Richard Geoffrey Leggett, Professor of Liturgical Studies’.  When I look back, I’m sure more people were impressed that I was ‘Anna’s Dad’ than ‘Professor Leggett’.

 

            Each one of us possess a multitude of identities.  We are sons or daughters.  We are husbands or wives.  We are fathers or mothers.  We are uncles or aunts.  The list of identities can be quite lengthy, whether we think of ourselves as ordinary or extraordinary.  But all our identities come from relationships.

 

            No doubt we all hope that our many identities are rooted in an inner integrity of being, our true selves.  It’s not that we’re playing different roles as if we were actors.  Each one of our identities is somehow linked to who we really are in the core of our being.  Creating and maintaining that integrity of self is a life-long process.  Sometimes we feel that we’re doing a good job and we face the world confidently.  And sometimes we know that our many identities are not quite in order and we become uncertain.

 

            There are even times when we feel that people aren’t taking us seriously.  They’ve only seen one or two of our identities and they believe that they have us conveniently boxed.  I’m sure that you’ve had this experience just as I’ve had whether at work or at home or in some other setting.  There have been times when I just want to shout, ‘I’m not that guy!’

 

Who is Jesus?

            When Peter gives the ‘right’ answer to Jesus’ question, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,’ we may be tempted to think that this is the end of the conversation.  But it is not.  To say that Jesus is the Christ or the Messiah or the Anointed One or the Son of God or the Son or Man or some other description is an endless Christian conversation.

 

            It is the conversation we’ve had within the many communions into which Christians group themselves.  It is the conversation we’ve had with Jews, with Muslims, with people of numerous other faiths and with people who claim no religious faith at all.  And why do we have these conversations?  It’s because we’re still trying to understand who this Person is who commands our attention and our loyalty.  We’ve made a choice to follow Jesus as his disciples, but we’re still learning what it means to do this.  Even the most learned of theologians knows that Jesus remains as mysterious today as he certainly did to people two thousand years ago.  The only thing we can all agree on is this:  When you meet Jesus of Nazareth, you meet God.  

 

            For every Christian the question that Jesus asks is one we cannot ignore or simply say is beyond our ken.  We claim that Jesus is the one through whom our most important relationship is shaped and nurtured:  our relationship with God, the Holy One who is the Creator of all things, seen and unseen.

 

            Our relationship with Jesus and with the One whom Jesus called ‘Abba’ is fraught with mystery.  It’s not a mystery to be solved like some crime novel or crossword or sudoku.  The English theologian and writer, C. S. Lewis, called it an onion that only gets bigger with each layer you peel away.  Each question we ask, each experience we have, each prayer we offer, draws us deeper into this intriguing and engaging mystery which can surprise us with unexpected joys and challenge us with uncomfortable truths.

 

How do we answer the question?

            We learn how to answer Jesus’ question for ourselves by belonging to a community of disciples who share our search.  In community we share with each other what we know of Jesus, what we’ve seen of Jesus and what we do not understand of Jesus and the God to whom he leads us.  Our assumptions can be lovingly challenged and new perspectives encourage us to persevere.

 

            We learn how to answer Jesus’ question for ourselves by behaving like him when we do justice, when we love mercy and when we walk humbly with God and each other.

 

            We learn how to answer Jesus’ question for ourselves by loving each other as God loves us, passionately, generously, steadfastly.

 

            And even then, just when we think we know who Jesus is, he will show us another side of himself, something we may have glimpsed before but now see more clearly.

 

Who are those guys?

            In the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid the lead characters, both men who stand somewhat outside the law, find themselves being pursued by a posse.  The outlaws have a high opinion of their ability to lose the posse and they use every skill they have.  But the posse keeps on their trail.  After each unsuccessful attempt to lose their pursuers, one or the other of the outlaws says, ‘Who are those guys?’

            

            Just as surely as you and I are pursuing this Jewish rabbi who has grabbed our hearts and minds, so too is Jesus doggedly following us.  He shows up in the most unexpected places and in the most unexpected people.  He shows up in the isolation and distancing that COVID-19 has imposed upon us.  He shows up in the courage of people who do their ordinary jobs in these extraordinary times.  He shows up in the faithfulness of a married couple celebrating their seventieth wedding anniversary.  He shows up in the curiosity of a person who has never been to church but has dared to cross the threshold to see what might be found here.  And in all of those places and more, Jesus reveals something of himself we have not seen before and shows us another dimension of the God who has loved creation into existence.

 

            Who do we say Jesus is?  Like Peter we know him to be the Messiah, the promised one who leads us into right relationship with God, with each other and with our very selves.  But this is just one of the many faces that God’s Beloved shows us because God still beckons us to go deeper into the mystery. 

Saturday, August 8, 2020

No Storm Can Shake Our Inmost Calm: Reflections on Matthew 14.22-33 (Sunday, 9 August 2020)

RCL Proper 19A

9 August 2020

 

Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral

New Westminster BC

 

Learning How to Run the Rapids

            Twice in my life I’ve had the opportunity to go white-water rafting.  Although I was a good swimmer in my younger days, I’ve always harboured a fear of drowning.  Riding the rapids on those two trips allowed me to confront my fears in a somewhat controlled setting.

            When you go white-water rafting, the first day or so is on quieter waters where you and your fellow rafters learn how to work together as a team under the leadership of a guide.  You also get a basic course on how to ‘read’ a river, so that you can identify submerged rocks and hazards and to discern how the various currents and eddies will influence your passage through a particular section of the river.

            During my first rafting trip, when I was seventeen, the practice and the orientation paid off.  I was in the smallest of our three rafts with three other Scouts and our guide.  We were going through one of the most difficult and dangerous sections of the river.  Just above the rapids we had done some reconnaissance and a couple of practice manoeuvres.  We knew we wanted to avoid one particular set of rapids.  We watched the two larger rafts pass through the rapids and then tie up on the river bank below the rapids.

            We set off and quickly hit the rough water.  A sealed metal container that had not been tied down tightly enough came loose and knocked out our guide who was also our steersman.  After a few moments of panic, we quickly recovered but the current took us straight into the rapids we’d hoped to avoid.  A huge wave took us under for a brief moment, although it seemed to last much longer.  We popped up and paddled over to the river bank where the rest of our group were waiting.  We patched up our guide, bailed out the water and tried to regain our composure.

            Looking pack from a distance of fifty years I remember this as one of the most remarkable experiences in my life.  But fifty years ago my feelings were far less nostalgic, I can assure you.

 

Following Jesus is rarely smooth sailing.

            For the disciples of Jesus their association with his mission and ministry was becoming more and more demanding and risky.  By this point in Matthew’s telling of the story of Jesus, the crowds are growing, the religious authorities are becoming more suspicious and hostile and Jesus has started to delegate more and more responsibility to his inner circle.

            No matter how we hear today’s gospel, the waters, whether real or figurative, the waters around Jesus and his disciples were indeed becoming more and more wild and unsettling.  The boat of fellowship in which the inner circle of disciples were travelling with Jesus was becoming more cramped and perhaps even more unstable in the face of the political, social and religious winds that were blowing ever stronger in Roman Palestine.

            So after a miraculous feeding of thousands of people, surely another straw threatening to break the patience of the religious and political authorities, Jesus sends his disciples off across the Sea of Galilee while he takes a break.  The Sea of Galilee is beautiful but like Lake Superior sudden storms can quickly rise up and become deadly.  The peril that the disciples is real and death is lapping at the gunnels of their small fishing boat.

            Then they see him.  Is he Death’s messenger coming to take them to Sheol?  Even if it is Jesus, how many rabbis do they know who can walk safely on the waters of a stormy lake?  Their fear and apprehension are perfectly normal reactions to their perilous situation and to the ghostly apparition approaching the boat.  Just like Peter, I’d want some sort of identification before venturing out into the unknown on the word of a person who has just become a bit more mysterious.

 

We’ve weathered many storms.

            A number of biblical scholars and theologians have suggested that every five hundred years or so the Christian movement undergoes a time of testing and reformation.  Around the year 500, Christians began to be the dominant religious group within the boundaries of the Roman Empire after centuries of exclusion and persecution.  A movement was now a growing institution.  Around the year 1000 Christians found themselves split into eastern and western branches, confronted by the growth of Islam and the collapse of what was left of the Roman imperial structures.  Around 1500 Christian entered into that conflict that split western Christians into a number of competing and sometimes warring tribes.

            As tempting as it is to focus on the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to recognize that the rapids we are passing through began long before 2019 turned into 2020.  We can choose to bemoan the difficulties we’ve been facing and long for the restoration of the ways things were or we can practice some new manoeuvres, scout out the river and plunge in.

            This is a congregation that has already practiced new manoeuvres.  We take our worship life seriously and seek to make it open to all, whether old-timers or newcomers or in-between.  We have embraced the ministry of all people whom God has called into the life of faith.

            This is a congregation that has scouted out the river that we are navigating.  We know the needs of community whether we’re speaking about affordable housing, food security and a safe place to meet for community partners who share our commitment to the well-being of this city and all who live here.  We continue to ask questions and ponder how we might better serve the people Lillian Daniels, an American theologian, calls the four ‘None’s’. [1]

1.     No Way.  This person has made a deliberate and well-thought-out decision not to attend church, often in reaction to a genuine hurt.

2.     No Longer.  This person used to attend church, but doesn’t anymore and doesn’t particularly miss it.

3.     Never Have.  This person has never experienced church, and may be the grown child of parents in one of the first two groups.”

4.     Not Yet.  These people may be curious about church and may choose to show up.”

These four groups are the currents in the river we navigate as Christians living in the twenty-first century on the Pacific coast.

            This is a congregation that has plunged into these waters.  No doubt COVID-19 has made our work a little bit harder.  But the work was hard to begin with, so adding a viral difficulty factor makes things just a bit more interesting and the successes just a bit sweeter.

            The good news is that we are not alone.  We are part of a wider network of Christians who are navigating the same waters as we are.  When we are frightened or uncertain, this wider network reaches out to us as surely as Jesus reached out to Peter.

            The good news is that we have spiritual resources in the Scriptures we read and proclaim every time we gather for worship.  We have the gift of the Spirit who shows us the way forward when we pause long enough to listen carefully to the whisper of its wisdom.  We have the sure knowledge that God in Christ offers us a vision of the world as it can and, in God’s good time, will be, the haven we draw nearer to with every breath we take.

            Right now I’m sure things look a little bit daunting, just as my rafting adventure did fifty years ago.  But just wait.  Five years from now, ten years from, fifty years from now, we’ll look back and know that these are remarkable times and that we are a remarkable people sealed with the Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.



[1] Lillian Daniels, Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To (New York, NY:  Faith Words, 2017), 39.

 

Friday, July 24, 2020

Strange, Patient and Not Fussy: Reflections on Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52 (26 July 2020)


Strange, Patient and Not Fussy

Reflections on Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52

 

RCL Proper 17A

26 July 2020

 

Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral

New Westminster BC

 

Strange, Patient and Not Fussy

            When I was Rector of Saint Faith’s in Vancouver, my office was located in the northwest corner of the building.  Just across the lane from my office there grew a remarkable large plant that eventually reached a height of more than two metres.  I was so curious that I did some research and discovered that the plant is called Verbascum Thapsus or ‘common mullein’.  It has a number of nicknames:  Aaron’s Rog, Lady’s Foxglove, Donkey’s Ears, Bunny’s Ears, Candlewick, Feltwort, Flannel Leaf, Jacob’s Staff, Lungword and, my favourite, Cowboy Toilet Paper.

            The plant was brought to North America by European settlers in the early 1700’s and has made its way westward across the continent.  The settlers used various parts of this plant for herbal medicines and teas, particularly as remedies for the symptoms of certain respiratory illnesses.  Indigenous peoples also quickly discovered the useful qualities of the plant and made it their own.

            But what interests me about common mullein is that it is strange, patient and not fussy.  Mullein is strange because it is not a native to this continent and has developed a mixed reputation.  Even though settlers and indigenous people found it an aid to health, in Colorado, where I grew up, it’s classed as a noxious weed mainly because cattle don’t like to eat it.  

            Mullein is patient because the tiny seeds of this large plant will remain dormant for seventy to a hundred years before sprouting.  Even then the first year, the sprouts remain close to the ground as if scouting the territory.  Only in the second year will a plant reach out to the heavens.

            Mullein is not fussy because it will grow in almost any soil, even rocky ground or gravel, a quality that aided its rapid movement across North America.  You can see this for yourself the next time you’re driving the Coquihalla Highway.  You can see the tall plants marching down the gravel slopes to the highway.

 

We are strangers in a strange land.

            If the truth be told, being a person of faith in the twenty-first century in North American culture is to be a stranger in a strange land.  Perhaps centuries ago religious culture was more strongly rooted among the European settlers of this continent, but the events of the twentieth century have made it more acceptable to remain unassociated with a faith community.

            It’s even more strange to be a member of a faith community that welcomes questions and seeks diversity.  When we look around us, the religious communities that seem to be growing are ones where belonging means believing and behaving in a clearly-defined way.  Many, but not all, of these communities tend to reach out to a particular group within the broader social and cultural environment.

            When I talk with people who are not part of an identifiable religious tradition, I find myself spending a great deal of time engaged in Christianity 101.  Even these folks value their own diversity and distinctiveness, they seem to want to put all Christians into the same box.  They’re often surprised when, after they’ve said, ‘Well, Christians believe that . . . ‘, I say, ‘Well, some Christians do, but I don’t.’

            That’s why it’s so important that we, as a community of faith, are committed to diakonia, to self-giving service of the wider community.  I believe that the main reason this Parish hosts community groups of any sort is because we are here to build community and to serve the needs and concerns of those who are not directly connected with the Parish.  Just like the mullein plant became a welcome stranger because of its usefulness, just so we become welcome strangers because people know we care for neighbourhood.  To me one of the major costs of COVID-19 has been the absence of our neighbours in this space, perhaps even more than the lost revenue.

 

We are patient.

            Shortly after I became Vicar, Joe Carreira of Conwest, our development partner, and I met the Mayor of New Westminster, Jonathan Coté.  At one point in our conversation, the Mayor asked above the motivation for our re-development project.  I answered, ‘Holy Trinity Cathedral has been part of this community for more than one hundred fifty years.  We plan to be here for at least another hundred and fifty years, because the work begun in 1859 has not only incomplete, it has changed.  We’re in this for the long haul.’

            Most of you know far better than I the ups and downs of the last twenty years or more.  You know the hopefulness that has accompanied plans for renewal.  You know the frustrations that have come from waiting for this project to come to fruition.  But we’re in this for the long haul because we know that this City needs communities such as ours as places of help, hope and home.

            Just as the seeds of the mullein plant will wait patiently for the right conditions to sprout and, even then, poke their heads out in the first year to see how things are, so are we waiting for the right conditions.  We do see signs that our hopes will be realized and a new centre for mission and ministry will rise on this site.  So we wait patiently knowing as we heard the apostle Paul say last week, ‘For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God’ (Romans 8.19).

 

We are not fussy.

            One of the things that I learned in the early days of ordained ministry was that it was not a good idea to be overly fussy about things.  I travelled all over the Diocese with one or both of the Bishops visiting congregations, some small, others larger, some simple in tastes, others more elaborate.  In some I was offered coffee with canned milk, in others the choice of various coffees, teas and snacks from the finest suppliers.  But all these congregations were centres of mission and ministry, all of them rich and lively and precious in God’s sight.

            As a Parish I hope that we begin to rejoice in the small accomplishments.  We’ve resumed in-person worship.  Is it exactly what we would like?  No.  Is it an opportunity to share the good news in many and varied ways?  Yes.  We’ve resumed our Trinity Tuesday program.  Is it as much fun as being together physically?  Probably not.  Are we deepening our understanding of Matthew’s Gospel?  I hope so.  We’re feeding people on Saturdays with bag brunches.  Are we able to connect as deeply as we can when we gather in the Lower Hall?  Not likely.  Are we serving our neighbours?  Definitely.

            The kingdom of God is not terribly fussy about where it takes root.  Once it does, it hunkers down for the long haul and bears unexpected fruit.

            

We begin small.

            When the Rev’d Mr Sheepshanks rang the gong on that first Sunday more than one hundred and sixty years ago, only six people showed up.  None of them were communicants of the Church of England.  The only communicant of the Church of England in New Westminster at the time was an unnamed woman who was probably reluctant to show up among a group of strange men.  But the seeds were planted and this strange plant we call Holy Trinity took root.  Over the years we have patiently borne the ups and downs of being the church in changing times.  For the most part we’ve not been too fussy about how we’ve gone about it.  And we are here in this place and now, because of COVID-19, people can join us wherever in the world the internet is available.

            Consider the common mullein, Jesus said.  It is a strange plant with very small seeds.  When they are sown, they will wait for the right time to germinate.  Even then they’ll only poke their heads above the surface for a quick look around.  If all is well, they will spring up into a towering plant with beautiful yellow flowers from which healing medicines can be made.  It’s a patient plant.  It’s not too fussy.  That’s how the kingdom of God is.  Strange.  Patient.  Not too fussy.  And it’s all around us.