Saturday, May 8, 2021

Alike and Yet Unalike: Reflections on John 15.9-17

 

 

RCL Easter 6B

9 May 2021

 

Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral

New Westminster BC

 

         As I draw nearer to my retirement from full-time stipendiary ministry, I find myself, like many others at similar points in their lives, marking endings.  On Wednesday past, for example, Greg Kennelly and I participated in our last meeting as elected members of our Diocesan Council.  By the time the next scheduled election of members takes place, I shall be within a month or two of retirement.

 

         I have also been remembering mentors such as my Grade 8 and 9 English teacher, Mrs Galbraith whose husband had been taken prisoner by the Japanese in the Philippines during World War 2; my Grade 7, 8 and 9 civics teacher, Mr Comer, who was instrumental in organizing teachers into a collective bargaining association and later a state senator; and my seminary liturgy professor, Louis Weil, who was one of the group of scholars, clergy and laity responsible for the American prayer book of 1979 which influenced our own Book of Alternative Services of 1985.

 

         One of the ways that I earned a little extra money while I was doing my doctoral studies in Notre Dame was by serving as a supply priest in the Dioceses of Northern Indiana and Western Michigan.  Once, while presiding at a small parish on the shores of Lake Michigan, a member of the parish came up to me after the service and said, ‘Louis Weil taught you how to preside at the eucharist, didn’t he?’  When I asked how she knew, she said, ‘It’s how you use your hands, rarely if ever fussy, carefully contained, choreographed not mechanical – just like Louis.’

 

         Some years later, after I had come to VST, established my own teaching career and begun working with people serving in aboriginal communities, I attend an international conference of Anglican liturgists.  During one discussion about a particularly thorny topic, Louis voiced his opinion, I voiced a different one.  After the session I went up to Louis to apologize.  ‘Nonsense,’ Louis said, ‘you are not my clone, Richard.  I taught you to think pastorally, historically and theologically.  That means we may, from time to time, see things differently.’

 

         Such is the role of mentors in our lives.  We begin by imitation, the sincerest form of flattery.  Then, one day, consciously or unconsciously, we move beyond the boundaries of our formation and do something different, perhaps even something our mentors might not approve entirely.

 

I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. [John 15.16-17]

 

         For me this short section of the Gospel according to John is revolutionary in what it says to us and what it implies about our relationship to Jesus, our Friend and our Mentor.  Through these words of Jesus, John dares to tell us that being a disciple of Jesus may be something more complex from what we may imagine it to be.  We are not servants; we are not clones; we are friends.  Friends are alike and friends are unalike; our distinctiveness does not divide us but rather enriches our friendship.

 

         To be sure our vocation as disciples of Jesus is founded on our imitation of Jesus, a life-long effort to be Christ-like in all we do, in all we way, in how we mould our hearts, minds and souls.  Sometimes we succeed spectacularly in our embodiment of God in Christ.  Sometimes we fail in equally spectacular fashion.  But in imitating Christ, we find abundant life and sow that life all about us.

 

         Our imitation of Jesus is honed by our reading of and reflection upon the Scriptures, especially the Gospels.  We learn from each other how to love and to serve the neighbours among whom we live, work and play.  In our public worship, whether we participate on-line or on-site, we practice what we preach by holding before God the needs and concerns of the whole world, human and non-human, animate and inanimate, Christian and non-Christian, near and far.

 

         But to have Jesus as our Friend and our Mentor also means using our distinctive gifts and experiences to do ‘more than we can ask or imagine’.  To be like Jesus means going where Jesus could not go in his earthly ministry and confronting needs and situations unknown in 1st-century Palestine.

 

         Just before the portion of John’s Gospel we heard this morning, part of the so-called ‘Farewell Discourse’, Jesus says yet another extraordinary thing.

 

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. [John 14.12]

 

During his earthly ministry, Jesus gathered a small community of friends who, after his death, resurrection and ascension, went out and changed their world.  We who gather for worship today are the visible evidence of that great work of transformation.

 

         As the end of this pandemic approaches, and it will end, we will find ourselves facing our own moment to do great things.  We have learned new ways to share the good news of God in Christ and we will learn how to integrate them into our on-going ministry here in New Westminster and beyond.  We have known the pain of isolation and separation.  How will our experience of such pain transform our community life when we are finally permitted to expand our presence in shared physical space and to increase our community activities?  We cannot return to the ‘old normal’; we must shape a ‘new normal’.

 

         In all of this Jesus will be our Friend and our Mentor.  We will continue our commitment to imitate him in thought, word and deed.  But we will also explore going beyond imitation into faithful imagination.  This imagining may lead us into unexplored territory.  But I am convinced that our Friend and our Mentor will not disapprove.

 

Let us pray.

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  [Evangelical Lutheran Worship 2006, 304]


Saturday, April 24, 2021

Listening for the Voice of Jesus

  



Listening for the Voice of Jesus

Reflections on John 10.11-18

 

RCL Easter 4B

25 April 2021

 

Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral

New Westminster BC

 

Stop that music!

            When most of us hear someone mention a hymn, we tend to hear the tune first and then perhaps to recollect the words.  Despite the best efforts of musicians and seminary professors over the decades, this tendency to confuse ‘hymn’, the text, with ‘tune’, the music to which the words are sung, persists.


            I have a vivid memory of an ordination I attended in 1980.  When the time came to sing Veni Sancte Spiritus, the ancient hymn invoking the Holy Spirit that has become a fixed element of Anglican ordination rites, the organist began to play the ‘other’ tune for the hymn rather than the tune usually played.  The ordaining bishop whose nickname among us seminarians was ‘Wild Bill’ looked up, glared at the organist and shouted, ‘Stop that music!’


            After a seemingly endless period of silence, ‘Wild Bill’ began the ordination prayer with his hands stretched out over a very shaken ordinand.  For months afterwards we teased this poor fellow by telling him that he really hadn’t been ordained because we never sang the Veni Sancte Spiritus as the rite required.  I do feel a little guilty about this because years later he left the Episcopal Church to become a monk on Mount Athos in Greece!

 

I heard the voice of Jesus say.

            One of my favourite hymn is ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say’, Hymn #508 in Common Praise, our current Anglican hymn book.  I’m sure that many of you know it as well, but what tune is used to sing these words can evoke different reactions to the text.


            Since 1938 at least, Canadian Anglicans have sung the hymn to ‘Kingsfold’, a lovely English folk tune popularized by Ralph Vaughan Williams and set in the key of G major.

 

I heard the voice of Jesus say,

“Come unto me and rest;

lay down, thou weary one,

lay down thy head upon my breast.”

I came to Jesus as I was,

so weary, worn and sad;

I found in him a resting place,

and he has made me glad.

 

It’s a hopeful tune, set in a bright key, almost spring-like in its effect on the singer.

 

            Since 1940 at least, those of us who grew up in Anglicanism south of the border sang the hymn to a more somber tune by Thomas Tallis, one also beloved of Ralph Vaughan Williams, called ‘The Third Tune’ (Common Praise #191) and set in the key of C major.

 

I heard the voice of Jesus say,

“Behold, I freely give

the living water; thirsty one,

stoop down and drink and live.”

I came to Jesus and I drank

of that live-giving stream;

my thirst was quenched,

my soul revived,

and now I live in him.

 

It’s more meditative, almost autumn-like in its character.


            Same words, different tunes.  Same voice, different emotions.  But one common goal:  listening for the voice of Jesus.

 

Listening for Jesus in the Elevator of Our Lives

            We long to hear the voice of the good Shepherd who will lead us into our long-hoped-for united humanity, into those pastures green where all the flock are well-fed and watered.  But listening for the voice of the Shepherd in a world of different, sometimes clashing, tunes feels like being in a vast elevator that never stops at our floor and that we cannot escape as we are besieged with an endless loop of banality and deception.


            Advertisers fill every nook of the media with pitches for their products.  Political parties test clever but meaningless slogans on focus groups.  Demagogues use all the words that trigger our fears and anxieties, while they ridicule our ‘better angels’ as na├»ve and unachievable.  How do we listen for the voice of the good Shepherd in such a cacophony?


            The apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians suggests the ‘tunes’ we should listening for, if we want to hear the good Shepherd (Galatians 5.16-26).

 

  • If we hear a hymn being sung to the tune of self-giving love, joy and peace, then it’s quite likely the Shepherd is singing to us.
  • If we hear a hymn being sung to a tune that fills us with a longing for patience, kindness and generosity, it may well be the Shepherd serenading us.
  • If we hear a hymn calling us to faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, let’s mark the tune and embrace the Singer, for it’s very likely Jesus who is calling to us.

 

In all times and in all place, the Shepherd is singing such hymns to us, in many and varied tunes, in the hopes of catching us aware and attentive.

 

Training the ear.

            Listening for the voice of Jesus takes practice and a commitment to the life-long training of the ear of the soul and the will of the heart.  That’s why we gather week after week, whether on-site or on-line, to hear the Word and to break the bread of life and to pour the wine of compassion.  We’re learning how to listen for the Voice that brings us home and that sets us free to be fully alive in the one flock of the living God.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Not Seeing Yet Believing: Reflections on John 20.30-31 (The 2nd Sunday of Easter, 11 April 2021)


            Early in the pandemic, as many of us were beginning to learn the new art of working from home and using social technology to connect with others, behavioural experts were advising us to develop and maintain routines.  Without the structure provided by regular activities and rhythms of the day, we easily become prone to be tossed and turned by the seas of pandemic life.

            It has only been in the last few months that I have begun to find a rhythm that works and that seems, to the best of my knowledge, to serve the Parish, my family and myself relatively well.  Our dog and cats are earlier risers, so by 5.00 they’ve been fed and I’ve said morning prayer.  Then back to bed until 7.30 or so.  Then I’m up for the work day to begin.

            I admit to being a news junkie.  On my iPad I have applications for BBC, CBC and the Guardian.  Over a cup of coffee and my breakfast I digest the news that the editors decided I needed to know as the day begins.  Then it’s off to Holy Trinity Cathedral or, if the day is filled with on-line meetings, into my study to connect with my colleagues and others.

            Recently I’ve been drawn in my morning reading to stories, articles and features about the natural sciences, especially astronomy, astrophysics and physics.  Now, before you ask, I have no advanced expertise in any of these fields.  I am a truly curious amateur reader with enough scientific education to understand most of the jargon and to realize how exciting these fields are.  For example, this Wednesday NASA plans to fly the first extra-terrestrial drone on Mars.  I can hardly wait to see what happens!  Often the scientists speak of their work in the same tone as religious leaders speak of ours.  

            This early morning reading has led me in the week leading up to this Sunday’s reading from the Gospel according to John, especially the final two verses.

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.  (John 20.30-31)

 

How do we know something?  Why do we believe something?

            Some things we believe in because we can see their direct effect upon us and upon our environment.  For example, we have never ‘seen’ gravity.  Yet we know its effects all too well.  As I preach this morning, I do not need to fear that at some point I will float up to the rafters.  We can measure the force of gravity and anyone who has ridden in a car or flown in a plane has experienced the sensation of being pressed into one’s seat upon acceleration or a sharp turn.

            None of us has ever ‘seen’ the wind, but few doubt its effect on us.  Living as I do near a forested park with many tall conifers, every wind storm creates a debris up and down our street for my neighbours and me to clear up.  Then there is the beauty of wind ruffling the fur of my Sheltie, something I never tire of watching.

            Then there are things we believe in because their existence explain broader theories about how our universe ‘works’.  We have never directly ‘seen’ a black hole, only glimpsed what we believe to be their ‘event horizons’, but their existence helps to explain galactic expansion and contraction.

            Most of us grew up with Pluto as the ninth planet of our solar system.  Then poor Pluto was demoted and joined a class of sub-planetary objects on the edges of the sun’s reach.  But the movement of some of these objects seems to defy current models of astronomical mechanics.  This has led some astronomers to posit a ‘Planet X’, ‘X’ for ten not ‘mysterious’, somewhere on the fringe, to explain the as-yet unexplained movement of Pluto’s neighbours.

            More than once in my life I have been asked to ‘prove’ that the resurrection really happened.  Perhaps you have been asked a similar question at some point in your lives.  My simple answer has been and remains that I cannot ‘prove’ the resurrection to the satisfaction of anyone who seeks a proof similar to an algebraic equation:  ‘X + Y = 4; X = 1; therefore Y =3.  As it was in the beginning, is now and will be for ever.  Amen.’  What I can do in ways similar to my certainty about gravity and the wind and to my relative confidence about black holes and to my intrigued imagination about the possibility of a ‘Planet X’ is to point to the undeniable effects of the resurrection of Jesus upon human history.

            In this I am not alone.  Repeatedly in the Gospel of John Jesus is challenged to ‘prove’ that he is who he says he is.  And time and time again, Jesus says, ‘If you don’t believe my words, then look around and see what I am doing.  Believe the works.’  (cf. John 10.25, 37, 38; 14.10, 11)

            Out of a group of the least usual suspects – women and men, literate and illiterate, rich and poor, slave and free – from the least likely region of the Roman Empire came a movement that has spread throughout the world and shaped our shared human history.  This movement is responsible for both acts of transforming love and compassion as well as acts of hate and injustice.  But its proclamation of the good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ has always let us 

. . . (to persevere) in resisting evil and, whenever (we) fall into sin, (to repent) and return to the Lord (and)

. . . (to strive) for justice and peace among all people (and to respect) the dignity of every human being.  (The Book of Alternative Services 159)

I have seen this happening and I continue to see it happening when a nun kneels before armed police to plead for children and young people and when people work tirelessly for reconciliation between settler, immigrant and Aboriginal communities.  I see this and I know that the Lord is risen.

            When people give sacrificially of their financial resources, their time and their skills to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to reach out to those held in physical, emotional and spiritual bonds, whether these selfless people are Christians or not, I see and know that the Lord is risen.

            In these and so many other ways, we see the effects of the resurrection, the ripples from the dramatic events of that week in Jerusalem two thousand years upon untold numbers of women and men, communities throughout the known world, century upon century of transformation.  Christ has died.  This we know.  Christ is risen.  This we believe.  Christ will come again.  This we hope.

            And so we see and come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing we – and all creation – may have life in his name, full and abundant life, eternal life.

 

Saturday, March 27, 2021

In Our Right Minds: Reflections on Philippians 2.1-12

 


In Our Right Minds

Reflections on Philippians 2.1-12

 

RCL Palm Sunday B

28 March 2021

 

Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral

New Westminster BC

 

            In April of 2003 I turned fifty.  As many other people have no doubt done before me, I took stock of my life thus far.  Professionally I had done well:  a full professor with tenure, opportunities to travel, significant committee assignments and work that still interested me.

 

            On the personal side of things, however, I felt a little unease.  Paula and I had married later than either set of parents.  By the time my father was fifty, for example, I was in seminary, my sister married with the first grandchild on the way and my father had retired from his first career with the U.S. Air Force and was embarked on the first of two subsequent mini-careers.

 

            Here I was, the father of three children who were twelve, fourteen and sixteen and going through the biochemical changes of adolescence, just as I was beginning the biochemical changes of later middle age.  I remember saying to Paula, ‘It’s no wonder it seems like a madhouse around here.  We’re all under the influence of some chemical or another.  None of us are in our right minds!’

 

            What I said as a joke seventeen years ago is still true.  Being alive these days has a certain almost deranged character to it.  We know, despite all the nay-sayers, that climate change is real and that human activity contributes to its severity.  But we struggle to exercise the communal discipline and political will to make the necessary changes to protect our world for future generations.

 

            We know that we are all made in the image of God and are held precious by that same God.  But, despite our best intentions, we all have moments when we lapse back into ancient, almost genetic. ‘we/they’ attitudes when justice, dignity and full inclusion mean relinquishing our privileges in order to make room for others.

 

            Not being in our ‘right mind’ appears to be a sadly regular experience for all of us.  But it is not a state of mind in which God is willing to let us linger or stagnate.

 

            The third-century theologian, Irenaeus of Lyon, wrote that ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive’.  He might well have added ‘ . . . and a fully alive human being lives in their right mind’.  Irenaeus did go further to point out to his readers that Jesus of Nazareth is just such a fully alive human being, one who is always in his right mind because he taps into that image of God at the core of his being.

 

            The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Christian community in Philippi, anticipates Irenaeus in describing Jesus as this unique embodiment of what it means to be fully human, fully alive, always in one’s right mind.  Paul won’t let the Philippians off the hook because he loves them so deeply.  They might want to wriggle off the hook by saying something like this:  ‘Well, Paul, Jesus was, after all, the Son of God.  What can we mere mortals be expected to do and to be?’  They might want to do the first-century equivalent of responding to gun violence by offering ‘thoughts and prayers’ by talking about how following Jesus is an aspirational goal rather than one that requires hard work and personal transformation.  But Paul won’t let them squirm away that easily from owning up to who they are as well as who they are called to become.

 

            In a few short verses Paul gives us the means to identify when we’re in our right mind and when we are deluded.

 

  • Do we regard the well-being of others as the stimulus for our actions rather than being motivated by selfish ambition or conceit?  Then we’re likely in our right mind, our Christ-like mind, even when we fall short.
  • Do we act in the best interests of the whole community rather than pursuing self-interest or partisan advantage?  Then we’re likely in our right mind, our Christ-like mind, even when we fall short.
  • Do we strive to follow the model of Christ in each and every dimension of our lives?  Then we are likely in our right mind, our Christ-like mind, even when we fall short.

 

            Being right-minded, being Christ-minded, requires discipline and life-long commitment even as it exposes us to many risks, known and unknown.  But, in the end, it is the only way to be fully alive.

 

            Today we renew our commitment to strive to live in our right mind despite all that distracts us, confounds us and betrays us.  Should we find ourselves drifting from the path, we need only glance at the simple palm crosses that grace our homes and workplaces.  Their humility, leaves folded together in the shape of the symbol of Christ’s obedience and sacrifice, will awake in us the example of our Servant Lord, lead us to life in its fullness and restore us to our right minds.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Walking in the Light -- Or Not: Reflections on John 3.14-21 (14 March 2021)


 

Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral

New Westminster BC

 

            In the latter half of 2007 Bishop Jim Cowan, then Bishop of British Columbia, invited me to join him on a trip to Myanmar.  Since his diocese had a ‘companion diocese’ relationship with the Anglican Church in Myanmar, Bishop Cowan had been asked to lead a small delegation for four people to represent the Anglican Church of Canada at the installation of the newly-elected Archbishop of Myanmar in mid-February 2008.  The Archbishop-elect had requested that a seminary professor be included in our delegation.  I lived on the Pacific coast and had a reputation for travelling well in overseas climes, so off I went.

 

            I must say that I went with some apprehension.  The military junta was still in power and there was a growing movement of Buddhist fundamentalists who were hostile to both the tiny Christian and Muslim minorities.  To these Buddhists Christians and Muslims represented religious practices and ideas alien to the majority Buddhist society and culture.  For example, Christians and Muslims were forbidden to use the Burmese-language word for ‘God’ in worship.  But despite my fears I went.  Although it was a relatively short trip, about two weeks or so, I am still processing a life-time’s worth of memories.

 

            My thoughts and prayers have returned to Myanmar over the last weeks.  The military coup is a tragic miscalculation which will hurt all the people of Myanmar, including those who believe that the coup will benefit their entrenched interests and bolster their power.  The violent repression of civil protest can only add more wounds to a country that seemed to be healing, even if that healing was slow and the persecution and expulsion of the Rohingya people in the western part of Myanmar has been a blot on recent democratic government.

 

            What gripped my attention was the photograph of Sister Ann Rose, a Roman Catholic nun in the northern city of Myitkyina (mitchinar).  When police arrived to disperse a crowd of protesters, including a number of children, Sister Ann Rose approached the police.  She knelt before them with her arms outstretched as if she were on the cross.  ‘Shoot me, not the children,’ she is reported to have said.  The police hesitated.  Two officers knelt in front of her, their hands held in a Buddhist prayer gesture.  The other officers stood with their weapons lowered, uncertain of what to do in the face of her courageous witness.

 

            I wish that I could tell you that all went well, but I cannot.  A short time later the police used force against the crowd.  Some protesters were injured by projectiles, whether rubber bullets of live ammunition is not known.  There are reports of deaths.  Faced with a witness to the Light, the police chose the shadows.

 

            “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

 

            “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (John 3.16-21 NRSV)

 

            What God offers us through the Word made flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, is eternal life.  Eternal life is not just a future promise; it is a present reality made available to all.  It is a quality of life that renders impotent our fear of death.  Eternal life is what enables us to live with both the sorrows and joys of our mortal lives.  Eternal life is what empowers us to face our challenges, even when they seem insurmountable, with hope and commitment.  Eternal life is what refreshes us when we are tired, discouraged and uncertain.

 

            Eternal life comes from knowing that we are made in the image of God, each and every one of us.  At the heart of that image is the ability to love as God loves, unselfishly, generously, passionately.  Because of that image indelibly imprinted upon us, Paul is able to write that 

 

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8.38-39 NRSV).

 

These words, so often read at funerals, are written to living disciples of Christ who are facing the same potential of persecution and oppression that the people of Myanmar face daily.  I cannot help but think that these words empowered Sister Ann Rose to walk so confidently towards the police.  She was walking in the Light and she offered the police officers a choice.

 

            This Light is not only known by Christians.  We believe that the whole kosmos ‘declares the glory of God and the heavens the handiwork of the Lord’ (Psalm 19).  Every human being, made in the image of God, is drawn naturally to this Light, this pattern of behaviour.  What our baptismal liturgy calls ‘ . . . Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God’, ‘ . . . the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God’ and ‘ . . . the sinful desires that draw [us] from the love God’ (BAS 154) can attempt to hide the Light, to block the Light and to cast shadows to confuse us, but they cannot overcome the Light.  All of the so-called ‘great’ religions know this truth and teach it.

 

            But being made in the image of God has an inherent risk.  Just as God is free to choose, so are we.  We can love or we can hate.  We can heal or we can wound.  We can give life or we can take life.  We can build one another up or we can tear one another down.  The choice is ours.  Last week Sister Ann Rose chose life.  Last week the military and police chose death.

 

            The consequences of such choices touch the soul as well as the body.  With each act of violence and oppression, the souls of the perpetrators are diminished.  They become increasingly distorted and reclamation becomes ever more difficult – but never impossible.  Despite the damage done to the image of God embedded in each one of us, the Spirit of God and the Light of God can cleanse and renew our birthright.  God’s condemnation is not eternal; it is the consequence of our choices and it can be remedied.  Why?  Because God’s love is eternal and is more powerful than evil, hate, darkness and death.  Nothing can erase the image of single nun, kneeling with arms outstretched, pleading with her brothers to come to their senses.  That image continues to plead for them and for us.  Why?  Because that image was of Christ himself pleading for all of us to walk in the Light.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Where Does God's Glory Dwell? Reflections on the 3rd Sunday of Lent (7 March 2021)

 

 

Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral

New Westminster BC

 

Where does God’s glory dwell?

            Some years ago I had the privilege of being one of three presenters with Herbert O’Driscoll and John Bell at a conference sponsored by Christ Church Cathedral in Victoria.  Very quickly the word among the participants was that the conference should have been called, ‘The Three Celts’, Herbie an Irishman, John a Scot and me an Anglo-Norman-Welshman.  Our heritages could not help but emerge in the talks we gave and it was one of most enjoyable professional experiences of my life.

            During the conference we sang a lot of John Bell’s hymns and other music from the Iona Community.  Among them was a hymn that is found in our hymnal and which we’ve sung from time to time here at Holy Trinity Cathedral, ‘Today I Awake’.  The first verse goes like this:

Today I awake and God is before me.

At night, as I dreamt, he summoned the day;

for God never sleeps, but patterns the morning

with slithers of gold and glory in grey. [2]

It’s the last line that gives us a glimpse of John’s Celtic spirituality:  “ . . . with slithers of gold and glory in grey”.

            In the Celtic spiritual tradition one frequently hears the phrase, ‘thin places’.  ‘Thin places’ are places and times when the membrane between the material world and the spiritual world is so thin that the boundary seems to dissolve.  John’s hymn describes that ‘thin place’ as dawn begins to break and even grey skies can reveal the glory of God coming upon us.  Every time I hear this hymn, I realize how often I have failed to appreciate this ‘thin place’, this drawing near of seen and unseen.  Perhaps tomorrow, when my dog and cats wake me up at four o’clock in the morning, I will pause and give thanks for the opportunity to witness God’s “glory in grey”.

            In today’s readings from the Scriptures we are invited to explore the question, ‘Where does God’s glory dwell?’  I think this is the question to help us wrestle with the story of Jesus’ outburst in the Temple and to free us from false understandings of what the Law means to the people of Israel, past and present.  This is the question that opens the Psalm to us as well as Paul’s words to the Christians in Corinth.

 

. . . in creation

            In the opening words of today’s Psalm we hear an affirmation which, if the truth be told, is not always perceived by human beings:  “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows the handiwork of the Lord.” [3]  Despite the efforts of some voices in both the scientific and religious communities that want to create a division between science and religious faith, the Psalmist is having none of this nor should we.  

            At the risk of over-simplifying this on-going debate, scientists and people of faith come to the contemplation of creation with two different guiding question.  Scientists are guided by the question, ‘How did creation come into being and how does it work?’  People of faith are guided by the question, ‘Why did creation come into being and why are we here?’  Neither question trumps the other.  The wise person is intrigued by both, sustained by both and daily confounded and astonished by their “glory in grey”.

 

. . . in the Torah

            If there is any more dangerous misunderstanding of Judaism than Christian misrepresentation of how Judaism understands the Law, the Torah, I do not know.  This misrepresentation has literally coloured Christian art, influenced Christian theology and empowered anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism.  We talk about the conflict between law and grace and speak about Judaism as a religion of law and Christianity a faith of grace.  it’s a false but stubborn distinction.

  • “To be bound in covenant with God is to be set free to live as God’s people.  God’s gift of the law to Israel is a means of protecting the community, now that they are no longer slaves, and opening a path to the flourishing of life, both communal and individual.” [4]
  • “There is an internal logic to the commandments that is both compelling and beautiful:  The way we attend to God . . . shapes the way we attend to our neighbor . . . . “ [5]

            And in the life of faithfulness to Torah, to God’s wisdom, we will find “glory in grey”.

 

. . . in holy places

            Recently I received two queries about the possibility of using Holy Trinity Cathedral for filming.  One was from a commercial enterprise specializing in arranging and filming ‘life events’ such as weddings and funerals, the other from a television production company.  Filming can be a lucrative source of income for churches and we have had a number of productions here.  But this time I said ‘no’ to both.

            In the case of the first, I felt we could not seem in any way to endorse the business interests of this company.  While there are congregations that ‘rent out’ their spaces for these ‘life event’, we Anglicans do not.  We understand these to be moments in life when community, real community, is vital.  Our holy place is holy because of the holy community that gathers here to nurture and sustain our lives.

            In the case of the second, the violence planned for the scenes to be filmed here was such that I could not allow it in our building.  Even though the setting was fictional and fantastical, it was still violence in our place of worship.  I could not and would not risk the possibility of anyone associating Holy Trinity Cathedral with such scenes.  This is a ‘thin place’ where God’s ‘glory in grey’ comes daily.

            If our misrepresentation of the Torah has been harmful to Jews and to Christians, then today’s story of Jesus in the Temple at Passover is another.  For Jesus the temple in Jerusalem is a holy place that points worshippers to the Holy One whose shekinah, whose glory, radiates from its very stones.  But in the shopkeepers, animal vendors and money changers, Jesus sees that the temple has been turned into an end in itself, a self-sustaining business.  It is ceasing to be a ‘thin place’ and is becoming dense, opaque and misleading.  

            This is a risk that all holy places run.  Human beings tend to forget that holy places are made holy not by some intrinsic value, but by what they point to and by what people do when they are gathered in these places.  It is because here in this place we have celebrated baptisms, weddings, funerals, times of joy and times of celebration, that holiness radiates from its walls.  Holy living has left its imprint here, just as incense lingers well after the smoke has cleared.

 

. . . in holy living

            At the centre of the Christian gospel is the conviction that the more love that one gives away, the more love grows in the universal.  This counter-intuitive confession of faith is what Paul speaks of in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth.  For many of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries, a messiah who does not bring liberation from the oppression of Rome is a poor one.  For Paul’s Gentile audience, a divine son who allows himself to be crucified by the Roman authorities is not an attractive object of piety.

            But it is in the example of Jesus’ life and death that we, his disciples, find the path to holy living.  During this holy season of Lent we are bent on “ . . . a journey of deepening holiness shaping [our] lives in the image of Christ to praise God and live in friendship with one another”. [6]  To lose sight of the ‘thin places’ we find in creation, divine wisdom and holy places “ . . . is to wander into the ways of death instead, where God’s faithfulness can be of little use”. [7]  Because, my friends, you and I are ‘thin places’ where God’s “glory in grey” can be found as surely as it’s found elsewhere.

 

. . . in all times and in all places and in all that is, seen and unseen

            Tomorrow morning, when the creatures of my household wake from sleep and pester me into action, I pray that I might remember to look closely for God’s “glory in grey” in the dawning light from the east.  In that morning ‘thin place’ God offers to all of us a moment to give thanks for creation, for divine wisdom, for holy places and for the call to holy living.  

Today I enjoy the Trinity round me,

above and beneath, before and behind;

the Maker, the Son, the Spirit together –

they called me to life and call me their friend.

 

 



[1] Exodus 20.1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1.18-25; John 2.13-22.

 

[2] ‘Today I Awake’ in Common Praise (1998) #9.

 

[3] Psalm 19.1 in The Anglican Church of Canada, Inclusive Language Liturgical Psalter (2019).

 

[4] Feasting on the Word, vol. 2 (2008).

 

[5] Feasting on the Word (2008).

 

[6] Feasting on the Word (2008).

 

[7] Feasting on the Word (2008).

Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Truth Shall Set Us Free: Reflections on the Last Sunday after Epiphany (14 February 2021)

 


 

Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral

New Westminster BC

 

Creativity as Liberation

            The story is told of a patron of the arts asking Michelangelo how he created the beauty found in his sculptures.  Michelangelo is said to have responded by telling the patron that he did not create his sculptures.  He liberated them from the marble.

 

            Since seminary I have often talked about the relationship between redemption and sanctification.  Every human being has been made in the image of God; it is, so to speak, our existential DNA.  Christ redeems us by re-awakening our minds, our souls and our hearts to this truth.  But our life-long task is to grow into the likeness of Christ who is the image of the invisible and eternal God.  Our strength has to be moulded through the work of the Holy Spirit so that who we are by God’s gift in creation becomes how we live in the times and places of our lives.  Becoming who are is an act of liberation from the delusions, illusions and counterfeits that claim our loyalty but seek our enslavement not our freedom as God’s children.

 

            In his transfiguration on the mountain top, Jesus is liberated from the expectations of his followers.  Here is it useful to hear what Mark describes as happening just before Jesus, Peter, John and James climb the high mountain of the transfiguration.

 

            Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”  He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”  And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

            Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  (Mark 8.27-33 NRSV)

 

            Imagine poor Jesus for a moment.  His followers are all over the map in their descriptions of who he is:  John the Baptist who died two chapters previously; Elijah who is supposed to be the harbinger of the coming of the Messiah; perhaps the prophet whom Moses foretold God would send.  Peter throws into the mix the theological and political hand grenade:  You are the Messiah.  Is it any wonder Jesus tells them to keep their opinions to themselves?

 

            Then Jesus takes time to explain to his followers exactly what is going to happen to ‘the Son of Man’, Jesus’ own description of who he is.  Dear old Peter can’t bear what he’s hearing and dares to take Jesus aside to tell him that this is not helpful in building up the confidence of Jesus’ followers.  Who, after all, wants to follow someone who is telling you that he’s going to die and then, marvels of marvels, rise again?  It’s as if Peter is telling Jesus to be a good fellow and follow the expectations of the crowd.

 

            Then they go up the mountain.  Jesus is liberated from the marble prison Peter, John, James and so many others want him to be safely contained.  This liberation frightens Peter, James and John and rightly so.  Freedom from the unreasonable or mistaken expectations of others is life-giving, life-renewing, but it is also an invitation to embark on a journey of self-discovery, world-confronting, death-risking, future-hoping.

 

The Freedom of the Children of God

            In baptism the Holy Spirit begins a life-long effort to liberate all the children of God from all that obstructs us from becoming who we truly are and are struggling to become.  Lent, the season whose inviting gate lies open before us, is a time when we intensify our own efforts, with the help of the Spirit, the companionship of Christ and the gifts of the Creator, to collaborate in the divine project of transfiguring the entire human race.

 

            We begin through self-examination as we identify our strengths and our growing edges.  We acknowledge our failures and pray that we might look at the world through God’s perspective, to see with new eyes the glories of the promised reign of justice and peace.  We enter into regular conversation with God and listen for the quiet voice that can lead us into paths untrod.  We fast from that which diverts us from wholeness, whether physical or spiritual.  We share our resources so that all God’s beloved can live more fully.  We study the Scriptures and the tradition to learn more about the paths taken by our ancestors.

            

Changed Not Ended

            We are not alone in this journey of liberating transfiguration.  We are accompanied at all times and in all places with those beloved who have gone before us in faith.  Although Christians have had different understandings of the communion of saints we affirm in the Apostles’ Creed, we are agreed that the faithful departed and those whose faith is known to God alone continue to be present to us.  When I spoke of a life-long process of transfiguration, I mean an eternally life-long process which death does not bring to an end.  As Paul writes in his letter to the Christians in Rome:

 

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8.38-39 NRSV)

 

            Those whom we love but see no longer in this life continue to be liberated from the unreasonable and mistaken expectations placed upon them.  With each story we tell about them we have an opportunity to see them in a clearer light so that both their successes and their failures can inform us.  Each time we are sensible to their presence in moments when we miss them the most we have an opportunity to listen more carefully so that their wisdom may guide us and their follies forewarn us.  Every crossroad in our lives gives us a moment to pause to consider the path our beloved might have chosen or did choose and then ponder whether we shall travel the same road.  Together we, the living and those asleep in the Lord, continue to be liberated by God’s transfiguring love to become more truly ourselves.

 

The Already But Not Yet

            Every year as we prepare to begin our Lenten journey towards the celebration of the resurrection, I give thanks that we live in what some Christian teachers have called ‘the already but not yet’ of Christian hope.  In the transfiguration of Christ we see who he truly is and who we are called to become.  While we can regret and even mourn how short of this identity we have fallen, we have more reason to give thanks that, over the past year, a few more pieces of marble have been chipped away from what encases us.  Each time we remember those whom we love who have gone before us, we can see them more clearly and they are freed to be more fully present to us.  And all of us, living and asleep, are being freed by the truth we see revealed on the mountain top, Jesus of Nazareth, the glory of God, a human being fully alive.