HONOUR AND SERVANTHOOD

Service of Ordination     Christ Church Cathedral        July 24, 2016

Meagan Crosby-Shearer (priest)

Rob Crosby-Shearer (deacon)

Christopher Samson (deacon)

Jeremiah 45:1-5

Matt. 20:20-28

First, let me say what an honour it is to have been asked to preach today, on this important occasion in the life of our Diocese and in the lives of Meagan, Christopher, and Rob.  During the pre-ordination retreat this past week, the four of us reflected pretty intensely together on what it means to be ordained.  One thing it means is to be set aside for what I have been invited to do today: to preach.  Remember, every sermon is an act of worship.  Every sermon is a prayer – not just of the preacher, but of the preacher and congregation together.  Meagan, Christopher, Rob, as ones ordained to preach, you may be the ones speaking, but don’t let that fool you.  The sermon is not a time for you to entertain the congregation with your knowledge, stories, bad jokes, or even your deep insight.  Every sermon is essentially an exercise in listening: the preacher and congregation waiting together upon God’s Word.  Listening and waiting: like all prayer, the sermon is essentially a work of silence.   The preacher’s words are not so much a mode of speech, as a mode of holding ourselves open, and of waiting to be addressed.  No word the preacher says is his or her own.  In this way, a sermon is different than a speech or a lecture.  Every word you shall ever preach is the sign of an infinitely more meaningful, full-to-over-flowing Word, which no word of yours, or of any preacher, can possibly contain.

 

It goes without saying how great an honour it is to be entrusted with leading the Church in this act of worship and in this work of listening.  Meagan, Christopher, Rob: to a great degree, to be ordained means to be set aside, not perhaps in your private person, but in your office, as a kind of sacramental sign of Christ, who is all in all.  It is in this way that every word you speak, especially from the pulpit, or at the sickbed or confessional, God uses to mean more than you can ever hope to mean; and every sign you make, especially at the altar, at the font, or the graveside, God uses to express more than you can ever hope to express: the presence of Christ in and for the world.

It is such an honour and a privilege to be so ordained, to be set aside to be used by God for this sacramental purpose.  We know all too well how unworthy we are of this honour.  We know how painfully approximate our words are, how short our trust and our love fall.  But take heart in this: if God ordained only those who are superlatively faithful, extraordinarily more prayerful or more righteous than everyone else, then our vocation could not be sacramental: for God uses the very common bread that is our lives to point toward what all people truly are in Christ: children of grace and icons of the Father.

 

What an awesome an honour it is – to be set aside for what the Book of Common Prayer calls the “dignity” of the ordained office.  But at the same time, we must be careful with this language of ‘honour’ and ‘dignity.’  James and John were seeking to be honoured, after all, when they entreated Jesus to seat them, one on his left, the other on his right, when he became King.  At the time of their asking, they were practically within sight of Jerusalem, on the final leg of Jesus’ last pilgrimage to the city.  Everything was charged, pregnant with expectation: the revolution that all Israel had been yearning for for so long was finally at hand!  Hence the brothers’ request: when you are King; when you restore Israel to its rightful dignity among the nations, what portfolio do you plan to give us in your cabinet?  What will our position in the new order be?  What special privilege will we enjoy, we who have been your faithful friends and supporters from the beginning?

We of course know, from our vantage point in history, that the revolution Jesus lead was not to be a political revolution, but a revolution of the Spirit; and that the New Israel he came to inaugurate was not a restoration of the Kingdom as it was under Solomon, but rather the Church.  In this new order, Jesus warns his followers, ‘honour’ is the opposite of public prestige, power, or respect.  Rather, to be honoured in this new Kingdom will mean to become a slave, and so despised by the kingdoms of the world.

For about three hundred years, this was, we know, indeed the case: to be a baptized member of Christ’s Kingdom – far from being seated at the right hand of religious and political authority – meant to be banished from the Synagogues and persecuted by the State authorities.  But after those initial years came a time – maybe fifteen or sixteen centuries – when James and John actually got what they were asking for!  For fifteen or sixteen hundred years, the disciples of Christ were indeed given places on the left and the right side of the thrones of political power.  For all those millennia, rather than bearing the mark of the suffering servant, the Church actually became the fulfillment of the hope of first century Israel: a restitution of the reign of Solomon in all his glory.

Well, we ought not to be too quick to disparage Christendom.  Christendom gave us Raphael and Bach and this very Cathedral.  It is not possible for us to regard the age of Christendom simply as one long mistake.  God always makes use of His broken vessels.  If that were not so, none of us would be here.  And yet – Anglicans especially must learn to hear the ‘good news’ at work amidst the collapsing walls of Christendom.  There is so much hand-wringing over the so-called ‘decline’ of our Church.  But I suspect what we are grieving over is not ‘the Church,’ but rather Christendom!  Power and prestige are being taken from us.  But that does not mean the Church is dying.  The Church cannot die – for the Church is the sacrament of Christ’s resurrection life!  So we must learn to rejoice in this time, rejoice, for God is recalling His Church to its original vocation: to be a sign, a parable, a sacrament, a pinch of yeast, a grain of the salt of the Kingdom of Love on the other side of power.

 

Meagan, Christopher, Rob: you are being sent out to be sacramental servants of this Love at a moment in history when God is restoring His Church to her original place of prophetic exile from the seats of power.  “Behold, what I have built I am about to tear down, and what I have planted I am about to uproot.”  These words we just heard from the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah.  We must learn to hear, not just the word of judgement, but the word of hope in them.  For God is entrusting His Church, at this moment in time to you, and to all of us: servants of His kingdom, which lies on the other side of power.  This is the greatest honour.  Let us serve boldly and without fear, alive in the knowledge of His grace.

AMEN.

IN HIM ALL THINGS HOLD TOGETHER

Pentecost 9 (C)                                                                                                                             

July 17, 2016

Colossians 1:15-28

Luke 10:38-42

These have been a confusing, difficult, and sad couple of weeks.  The world is in such turmoil.  Britain votes to leave Europe, suicide killings in Istanbul and then the military coup there, the killings in France; in the U.S.A. the bewildering revival of racial tensions on top of the recent shootings in Orlando.  Moreover, this week I came across a review of a book by William J. Perry, the US secretary of Defence from 1994 to 1997.  Perry’s book is called My Journey at the Nuclear Brink.  In it, he writes bluntly, “Today, the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.”[1]  Then of course there was the fiasco at General Synod last Monday which seemed to reflect, instead of resist, the confusion around us.

I was not present at General Synod, but Esther-Ruth Teel was, so perhaps we can ask her to clarify for us exactly what happened.  What I understand is, that when the initial vote was taken on the question of changing the marriage canon of our church to include same-sex marriages, it appeared as though the ‘no’ vote had won by the slimmest of margins.  Immediately following the vote, the Chancellor of the Synod (David Jones) announced that “the marriage canon does not contain a definition of marriage or a prohibition against solemnizing same-sex marriages.”  If he is correct, it is difficult to understand what the vote was all about in the first place.  In any case, as soon as the Chancellor made this announcement, several diocesan bishops rose to say that despite the ‘no’ vote, they would begin to perform same-sex marriages in their dioceses.  The next day, a recount discovered that a vote was miscounted, pushing the majority from the ‘no’ to the ‘yes’ side; therefore permitting a change in the marriage canon after all.   Although most of us, at least in this parish, I am sure will be pleased with the end result, it is impossible to be pleased with the whole process.  Love and order were not seen walking hand in hand.

It just seems like the fear and divisiveness infecting the world was also infecting our Church.  As a friend of mine said, at the very moment in history when we need most to be working together to meet the incredibly pressing problems facing the world, we are degenerating into tribalism.  How else to understand Trump and his wall, or the Brexit vote, let alone ISIS and the mess in Syria.  Tribalism: when fear polarizes issues until opposing groups become blinded by ideological conviction; that ‘it’s us against them.’  This was on display at Synod when we allowed our affinities to trump order and due process.  When this happens, things begin to break apart; we to lose the ability to communicate across the boundaries, and finger-pointing and hardness of heart take hold.

 

I am saddened because my hope is that the Church will model for the world a different way of being, will model community across boundaries, model love even for enemies.  But this is not what I heard happening at Synod.  I didn’t hear it in the vitriolic language of some of the ‘no’ vote; I didn’t hear it in the ‘we’ll take the matter into our own hands’ attitude of some of the ‘yes’ vote.  In the face of all the destructive forces working to destabilize the world, the Church may be the one source of light and hope, but only if it can learn to be true to its own faith, the faith we heard St. Paul articulate this morning in his letter to the Colossians:

Christ is the image of the invisible God . . . and all things have been created through him and for him.  He is before all things, and in Him all things hang together . . . For it was the Father’s good pleasure for Christ to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross.

 

In Him, in Christ Jesus, all things hang together.  Christ is the Logos, the word, the way, the fulfillment of the Law of God.  This is the faith we have inherited – and if we cannot witness this faith faithfully, then we are failing our commission: to be a light for a dark world.

So what are we to do?  Let us turn our attention to today’s Gospel, the story of Martha and Mary.  Martha scolds her sister for not helping her in the kitchen, for sitting around at Jesus feet.  Jesus in turn rebukes Martha, “Martha, you are worried about so many things; but only one thing is necessary; and Mary has chosen the better part.”  Of course, Jesus knows full well that a household must be run, that there are things to get done; that the household of the Church needs attending to.  But he is warning us that before we begin to do the chores, before we presume to set the house in order, before we roll up our sleeves to tackle the problems and injustices besetting us – oh and long before we line up behind this or that ideological camp: left or right, conservative or liberal, gay-rights or ‘moral majority,’ we need to sit at His feet.  Especially when we are convinced that our way of thinking is the way of Christ – we must sit still, sit in silence, at his feet.  We must learn that it is not in adhering to this or that idea about what it means to follow Christ that we adhere most faithfully to Christ.  He is the image of the invisible God: beyond our knowledge, beyond our ideas.  We follow him by loving him, not by loving our ideas about him.  And it is only loving him, loving the one who is the centre of the world, that the world will begin to be transformed – transformed not, I am quite sure, in line with this or that idea we hold, but transformed by and for the Love.

So I am asking this of us, Christ’s Church: that before we act, we sit at his feet, and in silence acknowledge Him to be the Lord, the centre in which all things hold together.  After this, it will no doubt be time to make decisions and to act.   And when we do come to make decisions, no doubt our disagreements will persist.  But there will be this difference: we will no longer identify Jesus with our ideas about Jesus; nor will we identify ourselves with those ideas as if our salvation depended upon them.  If I quieten my beliefs about what it means to be a disciple of Christ in order to sit silently at the feet of Christ, when I sit together with my enemy at his feet, then we can no longer define ourselves as enemies, by who or what we are ‘against.’  Our ideas, our ideological commitments, may continue to separate us, but we will know that it is not after all in our ideas about Christ that all things ultimately “hang together,” but that it is in Him that all things are reconciled.

In a world threatened by fear and tribal ideologies, the prophetic witness of the Church is not to join in the panic, adding its own ideas into the clash of partisan ‘solutions.’  Our calling is rather, together with Mary, to sit at the feet of Christ.  We do not have to save the world, for Christ has already saved it.  Then, when it finally does come time to determine a line of action – we will be united in and by a love which exceeds all that can divide us.  Increasingly it seems that defeat of the enemy is the only way we can see to resolve conflict.  In such a world, the Church is called to witness, in and through its own conflicts, another way, the way of Christ who is “the peace of God which passeth all understanding.”

AMEN.

[1][1] Jerry Brown, “A Stark Nuclear Warning,” in The New York Review of Books, July 14, 2016; p.11.

‘HE WHOM WE MUST LOVE IS ABSENT’

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Luke 21:12-36

Today we begin the season of Advent. It is the season, we know, in which God invites us to reflect on our faith in this age of waiting and watching. The Gospel lessons through the four Sundays before Christmas tie together the themes of preparing for the arrival of Christ with exhortations to prepare for his apocalyptic coming again “in a cloud with power and great glory.” So if Advent is about preparation and anticipation, that is, about waiting, how are we meant to do this? What exactly is this activity of waiting upon God’s grace?

Surely, this must be one of the most pressing of questions, how we hold ourselves open to Christ’s coming, open to the presence of him who is the end and the hope of all things. For this activity of ‘holding ourselves open’ to grace, what is that but what we call faith? The truth is, how we believe, how we are faithful, is more important than what we believe. Ideally, of course, the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of our faith match up perfectly. But I know in my own life how considerable and confusing gap there is between how I believe and what I believe. ‘What’ I believe may be perfectly orthodox, perfectly correct. Perhaps when I arrive at the gates of heaven St Peter will say to me, “On the written exam you get a gold star. But unfortunately, the written exam doesn’t count toward your final grade! For the only mark that matters in the end concerns the practical portion of the test, how you lived what you knew in faith.”

So the question concerning how we practice our faith is the same question as the question concerning how we wait upon God and His grace. In the carol Once in Royal David’s City, we sing of our expectation that we shall meet Christ in heaven, “Where like stars His children crowned/ All in white shall wait around.” As a boy this conjured up the image of a bunch of extremely bored angels loitering around on a cloud. But this is not the kind of ‘waiting’ the carol intends, of course. What the hymn means by ‘waiting’ is serving: the saints are serving God, attending to God in heaven. We wait upon God as we serve God: and according to the ‘two great commandments,’ we serve God first by our worship of God and second by our loving care for our neighbour, “the earth and all that is in it” (Ps.24:1).

It is by loving that we wait. That is at the core of the call to discipleship. And yet our reading today, with its picture of apocalyptic turmoil, of distress in nature and distress among nations, complicates this ‘on-the-surface-simple’ message of love. When you see these distressing things, Jesus says, know that I am near, that the time of your redemption is near. But where is the Love in that picture? Where in that picture is the Jesus we long for, Jesus meek and mild?

If the central theme of Advent is of our waiting for Christ to come again to us as he came before – this is not just an expression of hope but it also contains a warning: think how few recognized him when he first came! All those faithful Israelites, waiting so long for the Messiah to come: how few recognized him! Even those who were closest to him, they too, more often than not, could not recognize him. He remained invisible to them. Even as he stood amongst them, there was a sense in which he was also absent to them.

Think again about the experience of waiting, especially waiting for the arrival of one we love. Is it not true that part of the experience of waiting is being acutely aware of our loved one’s absence? At the airport, isn’t the lover’s agitation due not only to his excitement over his beloved’s immanent arrival, but thus also at the same time his heightened awareness of her absence? Hence the imagery of cosmic unrest in Luke’s Scripture: the whole of creation is in a state of violent agitation because the nearer the Redeemer of the World approaches, the more acute the effects of his absence become: “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars . . . on earth the distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea.” We are to read these signs, Jesus tells us, and recognize what they mean, just as we know the unfolding leaves herald the coming of summer.

But waiting is difficult for us. For to wait is to admit that even if God is present in our waiting, that God is also absent. This absence is extremely uncomfortable. We have an almost violent need to insist “that God is present with us, with me.” God’s presence is our reassurance that we are on the side of power; on the winning side of history, the side of ‘truth’: to long after that comfortable certitude, to know that we know! This is just as true of the Liberal Church as it is of the Evangelicals. But such knowledge is not faith. To insist that we have God is not to wait upon the coming of God in Christ. It turns our love for God rather into a kind of possessiveness. And this possessiveness, and this fear – don’t we see it all the time? – it is a kind of violence. Religious violence! And that violence, when turned outward or inward, confirms precisely the absence of God. By my insistence that God is with me, I manage only to absent Him from me.

The violence of history, the restlessness of the natural world, these are signs both of creation’s longing for its redemption and the world absenting God from the centre of its life. Do you think this is a contradiction – to kill what we love and long for? Don’t think Christ was crucified out of hatred for God. Just the opposite is true. Christ was crucified because Israel’s love for God became a possessive love that had forgotten how to wait, that could not tolerate God’s absence from among them. They insisted on knowing that they knew. And, affronted by what escaped their knowing, they killed the one they were longing for, but could not see.

To wait for Christ, we must not hope to possess him. We must not be afraid of his absence. “He whom we must love is absent,” said Simone Weil. It is not that His absence is absolute, but that for us His presence is hidden under the form of absence. His presence, in other words, is hidden under the form of the Cross: precisely there, where no one can see God, precisely there, where God cannot possibly be, God is – and is for us.

So this is the message of today’s Gospel: when you see violence in the heavens and on earth, “stand up and raise your heads.” We are not to turn our eyes away from the places where God is all too absent. We are to look precisely there – there at Christ’s mangled body nailed to the Cross. We are to look where God is not, because that is where God has promised that He is, where we must wait for him, where we must direct our love.

Advent is the season we learn that everything depends on how we wait. We are told to look, told to love, precisely where love is absent. And so unafraid of the truth we see everywhere about us – the degradation and the violence and confusion – unafraid of God’s absence, unafraid of the Cross, knowing nothing but our love for Him, we will, one day, perhaps even today, “stand before the Son of Man.”   AMEN.

WE ARE WHAT WE EAT

Deut. 8:7-18
2Cor. 9:6-15
Luke 17:1-19

Friends, what has God not provided us? It is right to give our thanks and praise. But how can we do so with a good conscience? How can I give thanks for the more than enough that I have received when there are so many who suffer serious want? If it is not just words, what does our Thanks-giving mean? Or perhaps the question is, how ought our practice of Thanksgiving shape our lives?

Why do we – and by ‘we’ I mean, I think, the human race – why do we concentrate so much energy on what we do not have, instead of gratitude for what we do have? What is it about human beings, that we are always craving more? . . . Well, isn’t it natural to want to better our lot in life? Isn’t it one of the wonders of being human, that we are able creatively to overcome conditions of weakness or scarcity? Isn’t that creativity in fact the root of civilization – leading us to develop agriculture, alphabets, medicine? Doesn’t the desire to have more than we need set us apart from most animals; providing us the leisure for those pursuits we have historically considered to be essentially human: religion, philosophy, the arts and sciences?

Yes, that’s all true. And yet it seems to me that our constant appetite always for more and for better must have some kind of invisible limit – a tipping point after which unrestrained ingenuity begins to turn against us, begins to work toward destructive rather than constructive ends. “Take care,” the Deuteronomist warns, “take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments . . . Remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth . . . If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods . . . you shall surely perish.” There is a clue to those limits in these words, if we can only take them to heart. God has set “commandments” and “ordinances” – that is, limits even to our creative desire, so that we do not begin to consume ourselves in our hunger for more and more.

I do not watch television very often. But this week at my father’s home on the news we watched the trajectory of Russian missiles, launched from ships on the Caspian Sea, travel overland hundreds of miles, over Iran, over Iraq, finally strike targets in Syria. It was an uncomfortable feeling, sitting with a glass of wine watching as hundreds of lives were, in a blink of an eye, irrevocably changed. It was not a movie. There were real deaths and real bereavement: fathers, mothers, children. Whole buildings vanished with terrible efficiency. All because we are unable to limit our hunger – our appetite for more power, more control, more wealth, more revenge maybe – I don’t know, just more of More; all because we are unable to pause and give thanks to God, because what we have is enough – and more than enough.

Even here, right at home, I can’t understand what we are doing to ourselves. We live in one of the most fecund places on this earth, and we have come to believe it is ours just to eat: we cut down the forests, dig and drill, pave wetlands for big box stores, stuff people into soulless housing developments, everything as cheap as possible to squeeze out every drop of profit . . . Does it have to be this way? We are told that yes, it does have to be this way. It has to be this way in order to ensure that the economy keeps growing. We need more and more and more: more consumer spending, greater productivity, More of everything. Otherwise, terrible things will happen. The economy will stall. People will lose their jobs. They will lose their homes. Our standard of living will shrink. There will be suffering: we will no longer be able to live in the manner to which we have grown accustomed. We cannot let that happen. So above all, we ought not to limit our appetite. The more we eat, the better life will be.

I don’t know. I cannot argue economics with the economists. All I know is that when I watch the forest of Mt Elphinstone near Roberts Creek turned into a barren clear cut, or when I buy groceries at the nearest strip mall, I am confused with anger and grief. I know that though I am like everybody else and I just can’t seem to stop eating, I know I am already full to the point of feeling sick. All I know is, is that the more the world is covered with only human fingerprints – every forest a ‘managed’ forest, every stream a ‘run-of-the-river’ project – I feel increasingly claustrophobic, that there is an all-too-human net tightening, shutting out the fresh air of the Spirit of God . . .

My friends, when is ‘enough’ in fact exactly what we need? When will we stop and give thanks for what we have, instead of looking for the next thing to eat? I cannot argue economics with the economists. In the terms of the world we have constructed, they are in the right. But my soul grieves for a different possibility . . . . “Take heed lest. . . when you have eaten and are full, and have built goodly houses, when your silver and gold is multiplied, when all you have is multiplied, you forget the Lord your God.”

My brothers and sisters, to insist on justice, to hope for beauty, to expect love – it’s so naïve. Naïve as a child. Perhaps that is why Jesus told us we must become like children if we are ever to see the kingdom of heaven. We have been brought into a good land, a land of wheat and barley, flowing with streams, a land in which we have bread without scarcity . . . how ought the practise of Thanksgiving shape our lives? How are to remember the Lord our God? And the limits God has ordained for our appetite?

God has provided us the way: “On the night he freely gave himself to death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples and said, ‘Take, eat: this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” My brothers and sisters, to practise Thanksgiving is the way of Eucharist. That is what the word Eucharist means: “thanksgiving.” Offering to God bread and wine, we offer God our food, our hunger, our life. God blesses our offering and returns it to us, now blessed, charged with His own life, as a means of Communion with him. This Eucharistic practice begins and is fulfilled at the altar, but it must shape our whole life: ‘we should at all times and in all places give thanks unto thee, O Lord, holy Father.’ Thus whenever and wherever we offer up to God – God’s world, God’s people – from what God has given us, we practise Thanksgiving, our lives are shaped by Eucharist. My friends, let us practise this Eucharist together. For love of Christ, let us richly give of the riches we have been given. For to lift up what we have been given, to stop hungering for a moment to acknowledge, ‘this is enough, this is already so much,’ and to break your loaf in thanksgiving and to share it: this is to receive Christ. And when we receive Christ, we have everything, for we possess the whole world. God bless you and your loved ones during this feast of Harvest Thanksgiving.

AMEN

WHAT IS OUR MEASURE?

Pentecost 17
James 3:13-4:3; 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

If anyone be first, he must be last of all and a servant of all

You just have to love the disciples! In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus catches them arguing over who is the ‘greatest,’ who is closest to the master, who has the honour, you could say, of being his best friend. Now, we look to the disciples as models of faith. They were the first to respond to God in Jesus, risking everything to follow him. And yet, as is often remarked, they are at the same time constantly somehow letting Jesus down.

So what could it be that God is teaching us, even through the failures of the disciples? For one, the stories of the disciples’ failures help me to see how truly human they were, and therefore that nothing essential separates them from me. I have, like them, said ‘yes’ in my heart to the invitation of Christ and have determined to follow him. In important ways, this ‘yes’ has changed me. I believe that my relationship with Christ Jesus is the defining relationship of my life. And yet at the same time, I am aware that in so many ways my life does not reflect that commitment. And this confuses me. What am I afraid of? Why do I side-step the demands of servanthood? Why do I turn such a long way from the way of the Cross?

Somehow, even as I respond to Christ’s invitation, I find myself obeying a call coming from a different direction. James identifies this other call as friendship, not with Jesus, but with the “world.” And this “friendship with the world” he says, is in “enmity with God.” So when the disciples argue over which of them is Jesus’ best friend, they are paradoxically expressing friendship with the enemy of the very person with whom they are claiming to be best friends. They are aligning themselves with the world, measuring themselves by how the world measures – comparing how they stand in over against one another – instead of allowing God’s love to be the measure of how completely they give themselves to serve one another.

Christ calls us, his church, out of the world. That is what the word ‘church,’ or ecclesia actually means: “the assembly of those called out.” Christ alone ought to be our measure, Christ who expresses completely and utterly the love, the servanthood, and the freedom, of God. When we judge ourselves in comparison to others, when we determine our worth by measuring how we stand in relation to others, we open the door to ambition, covetousness, false hope, and violence. We begin to see the world, not as providing more than we need, but as a field of competition where resources, and even love, are scarce. But the thing is, as we see in the disciples and especially in our own lives, no matter how far out of the world we may have followed Christ, we nevertheless remain deeply in the world at the same time. How hard it is for us to appear ‘last’ in the eyes of our neighbours. Who doesn’t want to be admired?

Fear of not fitting in, of not earning the admiration of our neighbours. Perhaps this explains why we are afraid – afraid to become what in another sense we desire above everything to be – followers of Christ, and so servants of all? Besides which, we do not live in a vacuum. Every life-choice involves others. Is it permissible (or even possible) to drag one’s children, spouse, friends, along the way of the Cross? And we have to earn a living. We have to participate in the infrastructures of our society. We have ties to the world that we cannot simply discard. What then are we to do? Perhaps a kind of hypocrisy or duplicity is inevitable. We desire friendship with Christ alone, but find ourselves unable to renounce even very far our friendship with the world.

Perhaps God is teaching us humility precisely in our failures of faith. Perhaps he is teaching us to confess, “God of all goodness, I cannot be the disciple you call me to be.” Perhaps in this way he is teaching us that we must relinquish our lives to the mercy of the God of mercy. Perhaps God is teaching us that salvation is by grace and not by works: that is, by what we receive from God and not by what we give to God.

And yet (there is always an ‘and yet’), even as we throw ourselves upon the grace of God because we fail to be the disciples we have been called to be, we cannot cease striving live the life of servanthood. After all, it is not ‘salvation’ that God calls us to, but to a life dedicated to the manner of Christ. We are called to serve in the service of God; we are called to delight in the delight of God! And the moment we stop striving to love in the way of Christ, even as we perceive we never shall live this love perfectly, at that very moment we stop desiring this Love to be all in our all. And at the moment we stop desiring Christ be our all in all, that is the moment we stop believing that the Love of God is the most important thing of all. So we must never stop striving to perfect our discipleship – though we must fail. For God is teaching us in our failures of love to throw ourselves upon Love all the more earnestly.

Think about this: since God is infinite in Love, no matter how greatly we succeed in the world, no matter how wonderfully we measure against the efforts of others, in comparison with God we are all, equally, every one of us, always only at the beginning. By the world’s measure, you might reckon yourself far ahead of the person next to you. You might own a house on every continent while your neighbour lives in subsidized housing. And that might fool you into thinking you are greater, more important, than your neighbour. Even if you yourself try not think this way, inevitably the world will treat you as if you were, and you will inevitably grow accustomed to this kind of treatment. But when you do, you will be forgetting that God is the measure of all things. You will be forgetting that compared to the mansion in heaven, the difference between owning a home on five continents and living in a unit of subsidized housing is nothing. Next to the infinity of God, even the greatest of differences comes to nothing, for no matter how far ahead one seems next to the other, in fact you both remain infinitely far from the end.

So, my friends in Christ, we must strive, you might say, to let go of our striving; we must learn to measure success, not by ‘success,’ but by the Cross, which by the world’s measure, means only failure. It is in being servants that we express our faith that Love is all in all. Which makes me wonder: how is God calling us to servanthood? In November we will be setting aside a Saturday for a parish ‘visioning day.’ St Barnabas is entering its 125th year as a parish, and that seems to call for opportunity both to give thanks and to discern where and how God is calling us to serve Him now and in the future. We will need to consider, “what does it mean to be a ‘successful’ parish?” We will need to ask ourselves, “by what measure do we determine failure and success?” By the measures of the world – by size, number, wealth, influence and accolades? Or by how deeply we yearn to walk the way of the Cross, loving God, serving God’s people and God’s world in Christ’s name?

AMEN

A CUP OF WATER

Pentecost 18 (B)
Mark 9:38-50

Today we are confronted with some seriously difficult words:

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where the worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

Hardly ‘Jesus meek and mild.’ What provokes him to such difficult words?

To put them into context, we need to go back to last week’s reading. If you remember, we read about how the disciples argued amongst themselves over which of them was greatest – who was closest to Jesus and thus positioned for a place of influence when the Kingdom finally came. Jesus, confronting them, declared “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”   Then he put a little child in their midst and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Keep in mind that society in Jesus’ time did not regard children quite as we do today. Unless, I imagine, they were your own, children were not generally seen as precious or important, but as having no social standing in their own right, and so of little worth. By putting a child in their midst, Jesus is telling them that to welcome him into their lives and so to draw close to God, has nothing to do with being drawn into a circle of prestige as they imagine. It has rather everything to do with drawing close to those who have no standing in the world, the unrecognized, the ones of little worth.

Imagine Jesus saying these things in private room, surrounded by those closest to him. Perhaps a moment of quiet follows as the words sink in. Suddenly John suddenly breaks the silence. “Teacher,” he says, “we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us” – that is, even though he was doing our work of healing, we put a stop to his work because we did not recognize him as one of the privileged inner circle. It is right here that Jesus steps up the urgency of his message a few notches: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones,” he says, pointing again to the child “it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” – and the rest we have already heard.

What sparks Jesus off? John’s words indicate that the twelve still misunderstand something essential. John is looking for Jesus’ approval when he tells him of the man they stopped because he was not an officially recognized member of the ‘in’ group. The disciples still equate blessing – which does indeed mean being ‘set aside’ – they still think of their ‘being set aside’ by Jesus as offering a seat of special privilege and privileged authority.

Let’s consider once more the child which Jesus put in their midst. What did he mean when he told his disciples that to welcome this child is to welcome him – and so to be close to the Father? We understand, now, because of Jesus’ teaching, something that was never obvious in the world before Jesus and is still far from obvious: that the outcast, the sinner, the impure, the poor, the helpless, are closer to God than the rich, the privileged, the powerful. At least, we understand this intellectually, even if not very often practically: that the ‘little ones,’ those who have no standing in this world, are closer to God than the ones on whom the world bestows authority. But this is not because God loves the weak more than the strong. There is nothing about poverty or weakness that makes a person intrinsically more loveable to God. So what is the point of Jesus’ teaching? To welcome the ones without standing is to welcome him because he himself – Jesus himself – is one such person. Jesus, who the disciples know and believe to be the Messiah, God’s anointed – he himself has no standing in the world. He himself, and so also the Father, is one on whom the world bestows no authority. To welcome the child is to draw close to God because God himself is, as it were, an invisible one: invisible because, like a slave or a child, no one seems to recognize him, even when he is right there.

My friends, we are given one purpose in life – that is to love God and love one another. It is, in other words, to make Christ visible in this world and in this life. It is to give authority to God only when we serve God by doing God’s work in the world. And we do this, not by serving those whom the world serves, but by serving those whom the world counts as nothing: the powerless, the voiceless, the invisible people. It is then we prove the power of love, when we serve those whom the world does not see, or counts for nothing.

On Sunday November 8th, we will host a Tea Talk in our hall featuring Fr. Bruce Bryant-Scott, who heads up the refugee sponsorship committee of our diocese. I have invited him to help us discern how we are going to respond to the ‘refugee crisis;’ how we as a parish will get involved. We know that we must respond in some way, we must serve those who, having had to flee their home, have lost their place in the world. There will undoubtedly be many complications. But the demand is simple: we are called to welcome all those who have no place in the world – the widow, the orphan, and thus also, plainly, the refugee.

Finally, what about those difficult words with which we began? Jesus is warning his disciples, warning us: If our hand grasps after the hand of the world, cut it off; if our eye seeks the eye of the world, pluck it out. Being weakened in finite things as we serve the weak; becoming invisible in mortal things as we serve the invisible, strengthens us in our calling to serve the suffering and invisible One, who is our God. Cutting off the hand of worldly power by loving the powerless, draws us into the Love of God. Plucking out the eye of worldly ambition by loving those the world overlooks, draws us into the Light of God. So let us love one another; and let us love all who are refugees in this world, in Jesus’ name.

AMEN

ST FRANCIS OF ASSISI

Phil 4:4-9
Matt 19:16-21

Tomorrow is the actual Feast of St Francis, but we are celebrating it today in honour of our own Fr Francis – who appropriately was ordained to the priesthood on this day forty years ago. Does this mean my task here is to compare the Saint who Kenneth Clark called “the greatest religious genius that Europe has ever produced” with our beloved minister and friend? This strikes me as a potentially dangerous undertaking! But maybe not. For if Saint Francis is a ‘religious genius,’ it is because his life encourages and embraces the lives of all who desire to walk the way of discipleship. We identify with the great Saint not because we think our lives are as exemplary as his, but because he shines a light along that path on which we too are walking, or at least trying to. That strikes me as true of all the Saints: we identify with them because they are like us – even as we struggle to be like them.

 

But before I go on to say more about St Francis, the monk who gave his life to poverty out of love for the Gospel, let us take a look at Matthew’s story of the rich young man. This just may be the text that has haunted my conscience more than any other. He is a person rich with good things – not just material goods but, we easily imagine, all the attendant goods position and prosperity bring: he is from a family important to the life of their community; he is educated, healthy, eager to take his place in the world. His father regards him with hope and pride. He is the apple of his mother’s eye, the one who will care for her and honour her in her old age. Undoubtedly, there is a girl too, a girl already chosen for him and who looks toward him as a blessing . . . And the young man is not ungrateful for all this. He is generous of spirit. A devout Jew, he wakes early to pray; he faces toward Sion at noon with a psalm on his lips; and when the sun goes down, he lifts up his heart in thankfulness for the day. But at the same time, there is a voice in his heart asking, “is this all? Is this enough?” Somehow, God is calling him further out. And so he seeks the rabbi: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

We know well Jesus’ response: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give your money to the poor.” Hearing this, the young man goes away sorrowing. But why, do you think, is he sorrowful? What can he not part with? The possessions themselves? Or rather something else? After all, to sell his possessions would mean to judge his father, to abandon his responsibility to look after his mother, to give up his place in his community, to lose the girl. Wouldn’t this seem to all the people he loves to be an act only of ingratitude and rejection? Already, he gives generously to the poor. Already, he tithes to support the ministries of the Synagogue. What good would it do for anyone, his becoming poor?

 

Kenneth Clark called St Francis a “religious genius” because he understood that “it was only because he possessed nothing that St Francis could feel sincerely a brotherhood with all created things, not only living creatures, but brother fire and sister wind.”[1] That is a beautiful insight. Clark sees that St Francis’ “Canticle of the Sun,” that joyful celebration of the community of all creation in God, was made possible by his marriage to poverty, to his becoming ‘one flesh’ therefore with even the very least of God’s creatures.

And that insight brings us to see something integral to the Gospel itself and to the nature of Christian love. Love is not “charity” – at least, not in the way we use that word today. Acts of ‘charity’ may be necessary, but they are a concession to our weakness. For charity accepts and even reinforces the differences that separate us, one creature of God from another. Food banks may be necessary, but the truth is that they sustain and abet the gap separating the ‘haves’ from the ‘have nots.’ But Love rejects all unessential separation. Love seeks communion everywhere. When Jesus tells the young man to sell his goods and give to the poor – he is not advising him to works of charity, but to a life of deepening community. Only poverty really exposes us to the truth: that all creatures are entirely dependent for their life and being on the abundant goodness of God.

 

But the rich young man goes away sorrowing. I go away sorrowing. Jesus just seems too hard! Is he really demanding of us lives of ascetic renunciation? How dreary! – causing distress not only to myself but to family and friends around me. But then we look to St Francis. St Francis wasn’t dreary – quite the opposite! When Francis somehow wrangled an interview with Pope Innocent III (known as the ‘toughest politician in Europe’), and when the Pope had the miraculous generosity to grant Francis permission to found a new religious order based on poverty, Francis and his companions were so excited they began to dance around in the Papal suite! Whooping and singing! They were far from dreary. Anyway, only someone whose heart is brimful of joy could spontaneously begin to preach to the birds, recognizing them to be essentially no different from him – they serving God in their way, and he in his. St Francis’ life indeed expressed the words with which we heard St Paul encourage the Church in Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice! . . . the Lord is near!”

When Francis’ wealthy father disowned him for giving his possessions away too liberally, Francis upped the ante by taking off all his clothes, saying “from now on I will possess absolutely nothing.” The bishop of Assisi gave him a cloak to cover himself, and Francis went off into the woods, singing a French song. What a beautiful picture. Francis lost the world, it is true, but he gained his soul. He lost his family, but found that all creatures were his brothers and sisters, the earth his Mother; God his true Father. And somehow, he learned by this what it means to be free.

Now what about our Francis – that is, Lynford, Fr Smith – whatever name you happen to call him by . . . ? Although as far as I know our Fr Francis has never taken a vow of poverty, we know him as one whose love for God, like St Francis, expresses itself in a heart of caring for all – and especially those in any kind of distress. Rejoicing in the Lord always – for our Fr Francis this means a life given to loving solicitude, kindness, attentiveness, a deep feeling of communion with his brothers and sisters in Christ. And in all these ways at least, the other, somewhat older Francis, has indeed been a guide and model in his faith. Moreover, it is not unknown for Fr Francis to dance for joy – especially Sundays in the vestry; often enough singing a French song too. It isn’t always very graceful, but it is always very joyful! Fr Francis, we are deeply grateful to God that He sent you to minister here, amongst us. And we thank Him for the richness of your friendship. May it continue from now well into eternity! In Jesus’ name,

AMEN

[1] Kenneth Clark, Civilisation (London: Penguin, 1969), p.68