4th Sunday each month 3:45 p.m. service at Haro Park
The Church Office is open to the public on Wednesdays from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., on Thursdays from 9:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and on Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. (noon).
t 604-685-6832 f 604-683-3109
The Labyrinth is open at 1130 Jervis Street, Vancouver, BC (between Davie and Pendrell Streets) at the following times.
Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Tuesday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.
every last Friday from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. with live music
Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
For more information please call the Labyrinth Office 604 685-6832 #17
The Advocacy Office is open at 1130 Jervis Street, Vancouver, BC (between Davie and Pendrell Streets) at the following times:
Monday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Wednesday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Thursday from 10:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
t 604 683 4287
f 604 683 3109
Our House is a group of people living together to follow a simple program aimed at freeing themselves from their addictions to alcohol and drugs. As part of their outreach to street people, members of Our House meet every Thursday afternoon at 2:00 p.m. in St. Paul’s Church Hall. All are welcome.
Labyrinth Last Friday Walk w/ Live music May 31, 2013 7:00pm - May 31, 2013 9:00pm Kira Vandeusen (cello) - “I improvise cello and vocal sounds in concert with the energy of the space and the walkers, listening and playing, watching and singing. What emerges is an expression of the present moment. Occasionally a classical piece sneaks in, and becomes part of the improvisation.”
All Welcome! Admission free with donation at door
Labyrinth 2nd Friday Event Jun 14, 2013 7:00pm - Jun 14, 2013 9:00pm Sounding in the labyrinth — with Kira Van Deusen
Using simple vocal play, our sounds harmonize with the world around us. Sounding is a great way to send healing to the world’s trouble spots, while giving to ourselves at the same time. The labyrinth inspires walkers to connect with landscapes both physical and spiritual. And it’s fun!
The workshop begins with breathing, vocal warm-ups and improvisational games. We move from there to focusing and sending energy outward for healing. We then walk the labyrinth, creating a moving tapestry of sound and silence that brings the labyrinth path even more present as sounds approach us and move away. Our attention turns in all directions, including those inside ourselves and those that are geographically far away.
Please come on time at 7PM for the workshop, or you may come at 8PM if you just want to walk.
The world was going to end. But it didn’t. How often have we been here, listening to various media outlets trying to grab our attention with apocalyptic predictions which don’t come true? So often – and this most recent one perhaps so weak – that several TV shows taped and aired episodes whose jokes were based on the silliness of believing in apocalyptic prophesies before December 21st even came and went. I was thinking about this, partly because I just caught up to Glee’s Christmas episode, but more importantly because this morning’s celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany brings us to the story of the Wise Men. The Wise Men are believers in prophesy. These wise men – their number as three a detail Matthew does not provide us with – have traveled from the East, seeking confirmation of their prophesies, seeking first-hand experience of the King of the Jews. They have risked their lives in travel and one imagines their reputations. For a prophesy. About a king whose kingdom would not include their own homelands.
It would be easy to make them the butt of a joke, to suggest anyone who believed was foolish or just plain stupid.
But they aren’t the butt of a joke in today’s Gospel or in the church’s celebration of Epiphany. Rather they have become heroes of a sort. They are among the very first who recognize Jesus for who he is: king of kings, lord of lords. They are not taken aback by his humble beginnings – even if their stop in Jerusalem suggests they anticipated finding the future king of the Jews among the existing royalty. For these wise men, there was no question that a poor carpenter’s son could grow up to be the leader of his people. Even Herod, himself, gets that. The possibility that somewhere, in some backwater town there might be a child who would eventually challenge Herod’s position of power and prestige is real enough to Herod that he becomes frightened. And he reacts and plots out of fear.
I think we’re often a lot like Herod, even while we pretend to be the Wise Men. We know on some level that God can and will show up in surprising places, but we tend to react to that with extremes and fear. Think about all the ways in which we attempt to control God’s actions in the world. We pray for what we want, not what God wills. We act as if God is in our particular corner and nowhere else. We get a hint that God might be up to something new, something different and we respond with “but we’ve always done it that way and we’re not about to change now.” We get mad when our favourite carol isn’t sung on Christmas Eve because we confuse nostalgia and comfort with the worship of a God who comes to us incarnate, as an infant, poor and vulnerable. Yes, we’re very good at being Herods.
But we are also sometimes Wise Men. From time to time, we do leave everything (metaphorically or physically or spiritually) and take big risks in order to follow the Star. Perhaps that’s the story for some of you this morning: just getting here was an act of risk, an experience of leaving one place and journeying into newness (even if the place you left was just your warm bed and the journey was measured in blocks rather than days). Perhaps you feel or felt drawn here like the Wise Men were drawn to the follow the Star – an inexplicable need, a compulsion. And perhaps admitting that you believe in God, or even would just like to believe in God, perhaps that feels like a risk to your reputation if not your very life.
I want to point something out that’s different for us as 21st century readers of this Epiphany story than it appears to have been for the participants. In the story as Matthew tells it, the idea of a King being born among the people is not dismissed as impossible. Herod’s response is not that of someone who simply doesn’t believe in prophesies. He believes. He’s terrified and going to ensure that the prophecy can’t come true – as we see if we keep reading in Matthew’s Gospel. No one who didn’t believe in the possibility presented by the Wise Men, their star, and their prophecies would bother ordering about his own scholars to verify or seeing to the death of thousands of children in an effort to prevent one from becoming King of the Jews.
But today, for many of us, prophecy is simply dismissed. Some of that is understandable. Some of what is presented to us as prophetic witness is easy to see through. Our scientific knowledge has expanded, reducing some of the mysteries of life. And we’re cynical. Sometimes we’re cynical and proud of it. People who take prophecies seriously are laughed at, treated as a little slow. While watching that Christmas episode of Glee where two of the characters decide the world will end following the Mayan calendar, my partner said “I don’t remember them portraying this character as quite this stupid before.” And she was right – the two believers were presented as not quite in touch with reality. I’m not suggesting that we should be swayed by all prophetic voices or become gullible. But I do wonder if we sometimes need to remember to believe six impossible things before breakfast, as CS Lewis suggests. And in as much as we do that, we do risk our reputations.
For those of us who have committed ourselves to Christianity, to following an Incarnate God, born in a barn, a king unlike all others – the question of reputation is twofold. At least. As we live into Christian faith in this time and this place, I am often aware of the weird space Christianity has come to hold in our wider society. On the one hand, we Christians do risk our reputations as sane, rational, scientifically minded citizens who can be passionate about issues other than those declared important by a narrow, but vocal strain of our faith. But on the other hand, there are far more scandalous places to be on a Sunday morning than church. And certainly, many in our wider culture still have fond feelings for church in a nostalgic way at the very least. So while we go on believing in prophetic witness, proclaiming our desire to see know Christ as one who came, who is, and who will come again – we join the Wise Men as ones who are potentially misunderstood, as ones willing to take risks for what we believe to be true, as ones willing to take journeys in order to be in the presence of the Promised One, the King of Kings.
Have you ever had a chance to look at one of our big communion wafers?
They are large enough to be seen from the very back, but you probably haven’t noticed that they are perforated. These indentions are supposed to help you break the wafers into 24 nice little pieces. “Supposed to” being the operative word here. At the 9:15am last week this didn’t quite happen…
I broke the wafer for the first time – and it didn’t break at all at the indentation. I broke it again – and yet again it didn’t break where it was supposed to. At this point I raised an eyebrow. I broke it again – and once more it was in a rather surprising place. And so it continued. None of the breaks were where they were expected to be. Not a single one of them! It was funny on some level – but it was also a bit disconcerting, surprising, and unexpected. Very surprising, actually, quite unexpected.
I think it is sometimes difficult for us to remember that Christmas is also a break in an unexpected place. After doing it for some 2000 years, after establishing quite some traditions around how to celebrate this festival, it is maybe not surprising that we have forgotten how surprising the first Christmas must have been. Yes, Christmas is new, comes out of left field, and breaks into our world and breaks it in places that are most unlikely.
Take Herod for example. Christmas breaks into his world in an unexpected way.
Herod is quite comfortably governing from a beautiful palace. Yes, there are responsibilities. Yes, he has to watch out for possible assassins or political intrigue. But he is the power-broker. He is in charge. And compared to his subjects, he is living in comfort enforcing his might in ways that often disregard justice and mercy alike. Like so many who think they run the world, he rules with might on the backs of those less fortunate, and particularly on the backs of the poor and lowly.
Christmas, however, breaks into his world and turns it upside down: A fragile newborn is revealed as the king of kings, as lord of lords, as God of heaven and earth. The baby Jesus is the All-powerful born among us. Yet, it is a different kind of might that is born in Christmas. It is a might that seeks to lift us out of injustice, misery, sin, and death. The powers of the world have no ultimate power. And despite Herod’s horrific and sweeping efforts to overcome the Christmas might by brutally murdering innocent children, he cannot stop the power of love made manifest in the Baby Jesus. In the end, Jesus will have the last word. The love that comes to us on Christmas is already establishing a reign that is different in a world that still too often shakes in fear as the Herods of every age speak loudly and rule with iron fists. Christmas overcomes this fear as it reveals the frailty of Herod’s loud voice and the weakness of his iron fist.
Yes, Christmas is new, comes out of left field, and breaks into our world and breaks it in places that are most unlikely.
Take the Shepherds for example. Christmas breaks into their world in an unexpected way.
Many Christmas sermons centre on the fact that the shepherds were outcast of society. And indeed, Christmas breaks into the world of outcasts, into the world of those on the margins, and affirms that they are as beloved by God as those on the in.
However, many commentators have argued that shepherds weren’t so much outcasts, as they were just walking their own path, marching to their own drum. They were outsiders, yes, but maybe they weren’t so much pushed to the margins as placing themselves there, disconnecting on their own from the rest of society.
Christmas breaks into this reality of the shepherds and reveals that none of us lives onto ourselves. No man is an island unto himself, as the saintly John Donne once said. No woman is an island unto herself. We are all interconnected and interdependent of each other. What I do even in my own four walls affects the world around me. Every action has consequences for those around us, even when only two consenting adults are involved. Ethics cannot be built exclusively on self-fulfilment and self-realisation.
For those who call themselves followers of the baby Jesus, this means that we cannot live our faith in separation. Christmas forced the shepherds to go and see the miracle of the Saviour’s birth and after they worshipped they moved forward into society to praise God with loud voices. Christmas compels us to move from self-imposed securities and self-centred communities of faith to create communities connected to and focused on those around us. You cannot be a Christian in isolation. Community is essential. So, we are called no only to secure the survival of our faith-communities, but also to do everything to share the good news of God in Christ through prayer, through action, and through word.
Yes, Christmas is new, comes out of left field, and breaks into our world and breaks it in places that are most unlikely.
Take Mary and Joseph for example. Christmas breaks into their world in an unexpected way.
You can say that again!
It is unfathomable for people in our times to understand what this surprising pregnancy must have meant for Mary and Joseph. And, yet, in this scary and horrifying moment in their lives, God speaks to them through angels, and speaks the four words which are repeated in God’s self-revelation over and over and over again: Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.
Whoever you are and wherever you find yourselves on the journey, God is with you, seeks you out, and loves you. God yearns to be connected to you just like God was connected to Mary, as he took habitation in her womb. God longs to be your guide and protector, just like God protected and guided Joseph on the long way from Nazareth to Bethlehem, on to Egypt, and back home again. God wishes you to teach the insights of God’s will, God’s purpose, and God’s truth, just like he taught the scholars in today’s Gospel story. God desires to reveal himself as your true father and God desires to reveal herself as your true mother, just like God did unto Mary and Joseph when they finally found Jesus in his true parental home. And God craves to lighten your darkness, whatever that darkness might be, as he lightened the world at Bethlehem with a light that no darkness can overcome. In God’s reality no darkness is too dark, no burden too heavy, no sin too unforgivable, no fear too threatening, no life too puny. God is with us!
Yes, Christmas is new, comes out of left field, and breaks into our world and breaks it in places that are most unlikely.
Take the people of St Paul’s for example.
Wait a minute!
We weren’t in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago. So, what the heck am I talking about?
Well, I believe the birth of the Saviour was a unique and singular event and took place when Mary gave birth to our Lord Jesus Christ.
Christmas, however, is ongoing. And Christmas continues to break into our realities in unexpected ways. And Christmas is very much breaking into our reality in surprising ways here at St. Paul’s: When I broke the waiver at the 9:15am service last week, it wasn’t just a metaphor for Christmas. It was also a metaphor for St Paul’s.
I came here 8 ½ years ago and I thought I had a fairly good grip on what it meant to be a priest. And, I did. But nothing had and nothing could prepare me for the reality of St Paul’s. Doing ministry here is a bit like breaking a waiver and not knowing where it will break. So many surprising and unexpected things happened over my time of being your priest.
And I wouldn’t want to miss any!
Yes, I could list events such as the 100th anniversary of the building, the 15th anniversary of the Labyrinth, or the turning of the pews. All very memorable! But in the end the most unexpected aspect of my time here were the very people God had called me to serve. The most surprising thing of all was you!
And whenever I thought I had seen it all, whenever I reckoned I knew how the cookie would crumble, something new happened. Something unexpected would surprise me.
Sometimes this was hard to bear.
But most times, it was something that not only allowed me to see you more intimately, but it allowed me to claim my own self more honestly and more genuinely. And it allowed me travel more deeply into the mystery of the Divine.
The Bible calls this grace. Whenever we see glimpses of God’s love for us, it is grace. Whenever we find reasons to rejoice in God’s compassion for us all, it is grace. Whenever we recognise the image of God in others more clearly, it is grace. Whenever we find new ways of trusting God, it is grace.
You have become a sign of grace for me. Over the past 8 ½ years you have formed me and shaped me. And I know you are not the same anymore either. We have grown together in ministry and mission. And, even more, we have grown together in love. Yes, I love you: I love this crazy community. I love the wonderful people here – with all their quirks and idiosyncrasies, with all their strengths and abilities. God opened my heart to see and God placed you firmly inside this very heart. And thanks be to God for this!
As I leave, I pray and hope so much for you.
Yes, there is lots of work to do as you claim more deeply being a community focused on healing, worship, reflection, and hospitality in Christ’s name for all. God has given you a lot and there are thousands of people out there waiting for you to minister to them and to share the Good News of God’s love in Christ! Don’t let them wait! Don’t rely on others to do the work! God has called you!
However, I pray and hope that you also continue to discover in your own lives what it means to be God’s beloved – each and every one of you – and what it means to be God’s crazy and wonderful community in this place.
U2, my favorite band, once wrote a song that speaks of my wish for you. It speaks of what it means for the reality of God’s love to break into our lives in unexpected ways. It speaks of God’s grace which can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. It speaks of how grace is very much manifested here.
So, as my swansong for you, I will play it for you.
And until we meet again, may our triune God hold you in the palm of God’s hand.
Sermon on Luke 1:39-55 Advent 4 December 23, 2012 Ross Bliss
Pregnant. A word with a curious ‘charge’. A familiar enough concept, but depending on the context, still sometimes startling, even to our jaded post-modern sensibilities. Pregnant. A beautiful thing, really, obviously, beautiful, but being so obvious, also potentially scandalous.
I mean we all know about the birds and the bees…..
And then there’s Mary.
There has always been a lot of interest in Mary’s private business. Consider the centuries of impassioned discourse, controversy and even doctrines about Mary’ own Immaculate Conception, and even about Mary somehow remaining a virgin for life, despite the subsequent births of our Lord’s human siblings.
This peculiar interest should get our attention. Not because of the implied miracles, nor because of whatever is or isn’t believable or correct in these stories. What hopefully, or eventually, will strike us is this central example of our obsession with notions of sexual purity, that only apply to women, in a world where women still have yet to attain equal and full human status, in every way and in every place.
I’m guessing you can tell I’m not that interested in the quest for certainty about the specific biological mechanism by which Mary came to be with child. However, it may surprise you that on the other hand, it seems to me somehow fitting, lovely, and theologically sound, to declare that the one and only human mother who ever bore God in her womb, the one and only time it ever happened, was at the time, a virgin.
The thing is, this is not mainly about Mary, or her particular virtue elevating this cosmologically singular event to an even holier status. The point is not to establish the purity of the human vessel which bore Christ. How would any human quality or condition of any participant, increase or diminish the significance of this birth, of the son of God?
And it is definitely not about Mary’s virtue being determined by her sexual history. Such a narrow construal of feminine virtue is actually offensive. This ancient and unfortunately ongoing controlling obsession concerning female purity reveals a fear and discomfort around the centrality and power of women’s’ role in reproducing and nurturing life. In addition to being misogyny, and repressive, it also denigrates procreation itself.
If Jesus had been born to Mary after she’d already had children, He would be just as Holy, just as truly God, and she would be just as worthy of our admiration.
Once liberated from these unnecessary moral implications, the idea of a virgin birth could simply be a way to bear witness to the mystery of how ‘eternal God’ entered time, a way to attest to a surprise so magnificent, for which even the prophets could scarcely prepare us – the one time only conception and birth of the person who was, is and ever shall be fully God, who in order to also be fully human, was of necessity born to a human mother.
If Mary is to be a hero, or a saint, let it be for just being a woman, a real woman, who said yes, when God called.
At any rate, Mary was pregnant, and unwed. In her immediate social milieu this would have raised a few eyebrows. Our familiarity with this story, might distract us from the implicit scandal of Mary’s pregnancy in her own time and place.
But in today’s reading we hear none of this concern. The brief, almost clipped description of Mary’s journey to visit Elizabeth suggests haste. And in an overall narrative that is not lacking in divine imperatives to undertake journeys, any such command to make this journey is conspicuously lacking. In other words, it seems like she just couldn’t wait to go visit her also miraculously pregnant cousin to share the joy.
And my goodness, when she gets there all heaven breaks loose. No sooner is Mary in the door than the future John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb as spirit filled oracles pour forth from her lips.
The second of these oracles, coming in the form of a question, is very important. She asks “why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Use of this word, translated as ‘Lord’, which stands in for the one unpronounceable word reserved for the God of creation, was very serious business for Jewish people in the first century. Elizabeth uses this word to refer to the unborn child in Mary’s womb.
This declaration is simply remarkable.
She is at once recognizing and confessing Christ as God. Though we know Paul’s writings are actually older than this Gospel, this may be the first Christian confession ever attributed to anyone.
Centuries of debate have also taken place around the identity and nature of Christ. Even with all the polemical and ecclesial chicanery involved, we somehow still arrived at deeply meaningful, and I believe, true, creedal statements. Let us never diminish the importance of this topic, which is still about most vital conversation going.
But it is interesting to note that before any of the earliest theologians even started thinking about what we call Christology, two humble, and likely scarcely literate expectant mothers, both recognized and declared, joyfully and unambiguously, that Mary’s unborn child, was no one less than God. In other words, they got it right, the first time.
For that matter, so did the unborn John the Baptist when he leapt in Elizabeth’s womb. His wordless physical response, possibly the first attributed act of celebratory Christian worship, says it all. Fully God and fully human. Deeply incomprehensible, and utterly simple. Paradox. Welcome to Christianity.
Responding to Elizabeth, Mary’s song of praise and thanksgiving, the Magnificat, proclaims God’s love for us, and God’s commitment to us.
Mary prays to God as Saviour, utterly declaring and defining our relationship with the one who meets our need for deliverance. This cannot be an expression of the proud. It expresses need, the need of the lowly, the poor, the oppressed, the hungry. Our need.
She also sings of a reversal of expectations consistent with what Christ preached and modeled throughout his life and ministry. In this reversal it is the poor and the weak who are fed and uplifted, while the rich and powerful face uncertainty and calamity.
Now, we know from history and personal experience that life just doesn’t always seem to work out this way. The wicked prosper, and the poor certainly do suffer, and if pride does come before a fall, we don’t always see it. Life isn’t always fair.
However, the rich, powerful, and proud are not immune to inner poverty. No one is, but a life bent and spent on acquiring and accumulating wealth and power will inevitably create deficits, both in the world, and in the heart. Whether or not every fall is necessarily preceded by pride, pride will always lead us away from God, and deeper into an abyss of our own making.
It is also true that when the rich are sent away empty and the powerful are brought down from their thrones, it is not always the worst thing that could happen to them. Then, like the poor and the weak, their lives and circumstances may lead them to embrace their real need and accept the deliverance and truth that is always on offer, from the one who loved us into being, who gave Himself for us.
Mary’s words also remind us that blessing is always bound up in the fellowship that God seeks to share with us. Apart from this relationship, we are truly in the desert.
We all may have to experience the consequences of our choices, and our sinfulness, but rich or poor, we are not abandoned to ourselves, or to the loneliness of only our will.
Thankfully, God, is always there for us.
So here we are at Advent 4, the most pregnant day in the liturgical year. Our expectancy builds as we await the celebration, along with Mary and all the Saints, of the entry of God, the great I am, into human life, with all its corruption, adversity and threatening murk, as a tiny defenceless child.
During this season, when retailers desperately hope to claim over half their year’s profit, and media everywhere bombards and compels us to comply as good consumers, we can begin to feel powerless and ineffective in a system where money seems like a prerequisite for any kind of significance, or happiness.
What can we do in the midst of this? We can remember who we are, and whose we are, and reclaim our faith in God’s triumph in Jesus Christ. From the scandal of the manger to the scandal of the cross, Jesus redeems all of creation from the epicentre of His entry into time and humanity. This same Jesus invites us, to become fully human, and be his body, of real people, committed to love, every day, with God’s help.
Mary’s story before Christmas highlights how the glory of the incarnation came about through the willingness of ordinary people to respond to God, and to God’s claim on their lives. Ordinary people, like you, like me, like Mary. Thanks be to God.
Did you know that last year, worldwide, corporations spent 131 billion dollars on advertising? Make no mistake, that’s a 131 billion dollar stewardship campaign. Its goal is to persuade you that you are inadequate, you don’t have the right stuff, you don’t have enough stuff, and the answer to all of life’s problems is more stuff. We are on the receiving end of a 131 billion dollar invitation to invest our time, talent, and treasure in a lie.
Jesus issues a very different invitation. In today’s New Testament reading, he declares that he is — then and there — inaugurating the restoration of the kingdom of God. He invites anyone who will listen to join him in making the world a place where the poor are restored to social access and social power, where liberty, justice, health and wholeness abound. This is an invitation to all of us, to align ourselves with that vision, and live out of that experience. It’s about sharing who you are and what you have not out of guilt or duty or compulsion, but for the sheer joy of participating in the kingdom of God, here and now.
As if sympathetic to how you might feel when you find yourself between 131 billion dollars worth of advertising on one side, and Jesus’ invitation to change the world on the other, Jean Vanier, offers this observation in his book, Becoming Human: “We are all frightened of the ugly, the dirty. We all want to turn away from anything that reveals the failure, pain, sickness, and death beneath the brightly painted surface of our ordered lives. Civilization is, at least in part, about pretending that things are better than they are. We all want to be in a happy place, where everyone is nice and good and can fend for themselves. We shun our own weakness and the weakness in others. We refuse to listen to the cry of the needy. How easy it is to fall into the illusion of a beautiful world when we have lost trust in our capacity to make of our broken world a place that can become more beautiful.” (Becoming Human, pp. 80-81)
To the parish community, I encourage you to place the question of your financial support of the work of St. Paul’s into this picture, as just one of countless ways to respond to the life-giving invitation to trust again in your divinely-crafted capacity to restore beauty in the world. To everyone, I encourage you to resist the 131 billion dollar campaign to invest in the illusion of beauty, in favour of investing in the real thing. Live and give as as if the realm of God were already among us, as if the last were already first, as if every person already knew they were included in the embrace of a loving, generous God.
My introduction to St. Paul’s happened five years ago when I came to Vancouver on vacation. At that time I attended first the Wednesday evening service and then the morning service the following Sunday .I knew immediately that everyone was accepted in this beautiful old the church. It seemed that the congregation represented all walks of life. It was like a small United Nations.
I had been involved to some extent with Our House since it was founded here in Vancouver. I knew that that addiction program had received significant support from the advocacy office, Father Markus and parishioners of St. Paul’s. Even so I was surprised when I saw that people from the street, sometimes disheveled, using and barely able to walk were accepted lovingly into the services.
A few years ago I found myself in a position where I could no longer look after my country property in Ontario. I considered returning to Ottawa, but then I remembered the winters. Perhaps Vancouver? I visited again for a month and during that time I made my decision. I returned home, sold my property, packed a few belongs and moved here. No doubt it was a good decision.
During the past three years I have attended St Paul’s regularily.I have seen folks leaving the church happily carrying bags of groceries, others going to the advocacy office to get advice and assistance, homeless folks gathering outside and waiting to chat with parishioners who happen by or waiting to attend an Our House meeting. I have met non parishioners who have told of the comfort they received by walking the Labyrinth path. Social time after the Sunday service is always a happy time when we share the experiences of the past week.
The diversity of cultures, languages and ethnicities’ brings a special warmth and understanding to all of us. No matter the colour of our skin, sexual preference, the clothing we chose to wear, status in the community, rich and poor we at St Paul’s are a close community, a loving and caring family. It is always nice to be told “I love you “But it is wonderful to be shown unconditional love.
My mother always said “it takes all kinds of people to make this world, and there are none of us missing”. We are so very fortunate to have found each other in this loving and caring Parish that is St. Paul’ and none are missing.
I am proud to be a supporter of this family which is St. Paul’s.
We’re Christians; we’re about to celebrate the Incarnation, the time when our God takes on flesh and chooses to dwell among us.
How can we feel sad or lonely or filled with some aching something that we can’t pin down?
We just get over it…or keep it inside and don’t rain on everybody else’s parade.
Back in the early ‘60’s the poet Randall Jarrell wrote a collection of essays entitled “A Sad Heart at the Supermarket”. That title has always stuck with me: “A Sad Heart at the Supermarket”…a sad little heart wandering along the vegetable aisles, pinching the avocados, sniffing the melons, and trying to convince itself that everything is OK
How many of us are truly joyful at Christmas? If you look at the crowd on the sidewalk, the results are probably as mixed as they would be for any question. Some are bubbling with happiness and excitement, some are clearly frazzled for the moment but smiling inside, some are openly indifferent or openly sad…and quite a few are putting a lot of effort into being festive but it’s not working very well.
Why do we have a healing service in preparation for Christmas?
For a lot of us, as children, the Christmas season was traditionally a time of anticipation, of happy expectations and the closeness of family. But we’re grown-ups now. Now, sort of like Marley’s ghost dragging its chains after it, we carry our past with us: and for many our past and our present now include the death of a loved one, separation from family or close friends, increasing health problems, diminished resources, or a broken family where “you get the kids Christmas eve and I get them Christmas Day”.
And, of course, there are the larger scale tragedies: like the death of 20 children and 7 adults at an elementary school in Connecticut just ten days before Christmas…difficult to absorb and haunting our thoughts.
It’s all there, the heartbreaking stuff of our mortal human life.
Yet, somehow, at Christmas, our subconscious suggests we should feel guilty about this sadness.
Why do we have a healing service in preparation for Christmas?
Because we need to be healed in some way before we can be open to our happiness.
Our disillusionment and our loss can be very tough, especially if they are recent or inexorably tied to time around Christmas. There are gaps in our lives that cannot be filled again in this mortal life.
And as if in response, out of this darkness can come the glowing words of a passage of Scripture: a passage like the one from Philippians read earlier.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
And then the following verses (not included in the reading):
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of Peace will be with you.”
This is Advent: a time in which you can create something new to accompany the memories you already cherish.
Don’t be put you off your shortbread and fruitcake…because Advent is a time of happiness, a time of great happiness.
At a recent ordination of the BC Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, one of my Lutheran colleagues shared this story:
On the way to a meeting, he had stopped at a church he had known for a long time. These days, its congregation is on the move and the building is up for sale. As he was strolling around the grounds, he came upon the notice board.
Now… I could fill sermons about church notice boards. They are notorious for very cheesy and at times awkward messages. Just go to internet and google it…! Not everyone is as creative and as tongue-in-cheek as we are here at St Paul’s: When we advertise for the service of Blessing of animals and pets we invite along bears and cougars…
The notice board, by which my colleague was strolling, however, had some other issues. Somebody had broken open the notice board and then this person had proceeded to rearrange the letters to spell something that – shall we say – consisted of four letter words, which did proclaim no more God’s love and compassion to the world.
As he stood there in shock, he muttered under his breath “Don’t they know? Don’t they understand?”
At this point I would have loved to interrupt the story. I would have loved to say to my colleague: “No, the world doesn’t know and the world doesn’t understand.”
It is a folly for us to assume that the world in which we live has any knowledge or any understanding of God’s love. Many do not know. Many do not understand what is at the heart of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Many have no idea that the Creator of heaven and earth is a loving God, who not only loved us into being, but who continues to reach out to us in ways that are loving and in ways that allows us to claim a profound and compassionate relationship with the Creator, with one another, and with our true selves.
No, people do not know and do not understand. And unfortunately, the reason for this far too often is this: For many, the message of God’s love is marred by the behaviour of the members of the church.
Contemporary events such as the recent failure of the General Synod of the Church of England to allow for women to be consecrated bishops make us look not just silly, but they also leave us unequipped to provide lasting and profound answers for our present age. We in the church seem stuck in a world that has nothing to do with the reality all around us. And our internal struggles, disagreements, and power-fights really make us ineffective and hypocritical witnesses to God’s love.
Who would turn to us for guidance when we cannot even see God’s image in the ministry of women?
Who would want to seek out our advice when we are obsessed with righting perceived wrongs in others rather than getting on with the work God has given us to do?
Why would anybody at Pumpjack, Numbers, or Steamworks listen to what we have to say about fidelity and faithfulness when we still fail to fully embrace the sacredness of sensuality and sexuality for all?
We are becoming more and more irrelevant. We are less and less a moral and a spiritual compass in a world that (last time I checked) was still enslaved by exploitation, injustice, war, sin, and death. We are like a notice board with rearranged letters that do not spell God’s love for the world to understand.
Yet, we operate as if we still have a voice. We still think the church is an entitled and privileged part of society. But we are not. And far too often, not unlike the disciples in today’s reading from the Gospel according to Mark, we send people away either by what we say, or by how we say it, or by what we do.
Why is it that we fail to speak plainly from our heart and our own experience? Why do we use words such as “Eucharist,” “eschaton,” or “rector,” – words, which nobody outside the church understands or cares to understand?
Or if a refugee family from Afghanistan walks into one of our churches, would we welcome them, seek to find out how we can serve them, and sit with them to explain the ins and outs of why we do what we do? Or would we politely turn them away, because they obviously cannot be Anglican?
If a young man with a baseball cap peeks into one of our services, would we invite him in, seek to get to know him, and joyously speak about God’s compassion and love? Or would we demand for him to remove his cap first and thus send him packing?
People do not know or understand of God’s love!
But neither do we, neither do we!
That’s what I would have liked to say if I had interrupted the story of my Lutheran colleague. But I didn’t. After all he was preaching. It would have been rather awkward, especially since I was participating in the ordination in an official capacity…
Yet, just as well. Just as well, I didn’t interrupt, because my colleague continued to make a point about his story that, although quite different, equally has validation.
Rather than bemoan the fact that vandals had messed up the sign, my colleague shared his insight about what happens when God is no longer proclaimed – by a vandalised notice-board, or by any other way. He explained that a god, whose good news is not share with creation turns into a monster. And indeed, a deity that remains unknown, remains not-understood, remains un-proclaimed, remains hidden and arcane is not god at all. God is not a god tucked away out of sight.
Why would God create and then withdraw into the off? Why would God set things into motion and then let things spin on their own? Why would God bother only at the beginning, but then not bother at all?
Sure, we will never fully understand the divine mind, but this kind of understanding of God does not make any sense. If there is “God,” and I hope, trust, and believe that there is, than God is still involved. And then God is all about self-revelation.
God wants to be known and God wants to be known by all and in all. God yearns to be discovered, explored, and found. God does not hide in some shadow watching from the sidelines, but God is involved in our lives, and God seeks, and indeed yearns, to be known and understood by all of us, so that the love of God can unfold in our lives and so that we can claim the beauty that God created us to be.
Of course, I realise this is much easier said then done. And, yes, I wish God would push Himself upon us more plainly so that we would have a clearer sense of who She is. At times, I indeed wish I had certainty.
At the same time, though, I know that certainty has nothing to do with faith, because certainty does not allow us to grow ever deeper into the love of God. Certainty is static, is immovable, is, in fact, dead. Faith, on the other hand, lives. Faith allows us to grow into an ever deeper understanding of the divine mystery. Faith gives us each a chance to claim what we need to know about God at any given moment in our lives, and this understanding will and must change over time. Faith meets us where we are, not where we are supposed to be. Faith is a dynamic force that, however, it does not force itself onto us. Faith is not unlike love, which, according to one divine sage, is patient and does not insist on its own ways.
And faith allows us to claim God’s self-revelation in Holy Scripture in diverse ways, even when the text does not seem to makes sense at first, does not seem to connect with our reality. When Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” we must look at this through the lens of a dynamic faith in order to discover that this verse does not require of us to become like a child. But Jesus embraced the children, because they come to him without pretending to be something they were not. The children came as children, as who and what they were.
And this is crux: This must become true for us too. We need to come to Jesus as who and what we are, and not as something else. The faith of a five-year old is absolutely fine – for a five-year old. Our faith must mature in time – just like our own selves ripen. Faith, as I said, is dynamic and God uses this dynamic aspect of faith to reveal Himself to us in ways that are age-appropriate. And this will lead to an ever-changing meaning of our sacred stories – even though the stories remain the same.
Take the story of St Nicholas for example.
The story of St Nicholas lends itself to all kinds of romanticism and nostalgia. What’s not to love about a benevolent bishop, who brings gifts to children and thus prepares them for God’s ultimate self-gifting in the child of Bethlehem?
But for us of more mature and riper age the myth of the saint needs to challenge us differently. It needs to focus on the fact that the saint brought gifts to children in his life-time, so that they weren’t sold off into slavery and prostitution.
Children still are threatened by slavery and prostitution, even today. How then does St Nicholas’ story compel us to interrupt this horrible business? How are we challenged by the saint to intervene whenever the image of God is violated in one of our sisters and brothers?
Yes, the children in today’s Gospel found God in Jesus’ embrace.
And so do we.
But we also need to find God in the witness of the prophets and saints who call us to join them in not only proclaiming redemption and forgiveness, but also in working for peace and justice.
And this is true not just for today’s feast day, not just for Advent, but for every day of our lives.
Sometimes we see something and it sticks to our mind. For no particular reason. It just does. Yes, there are images we all have seen and we all remember. But sometimes there is an image that for very personal reasons stays in your minds, and stays in your mind only.
One of these kinds of images that has been stuck in my mind for quite some time is a photograph from Japan. I don’t know when it was taken and I cannot remember where I first saw it. It is a photo of a Shinto priest, decked out in vestments that are colourful, ancient, rich, traditional, gorgeous, multi-layered, … and that would make any Christian priest blush with envy. In the photo, the Shinto priest stands in the middle of a busy city-street in Tokyo. Right in the middle of the street. And it is not an empty street by any stretch of the imagination: There are cars lined up, cyclists and pedestrians everywhere. It is a busy road. Think Granville Street meets Georgia Street many times over.
The priest just stands there. Eyes closed in meditation or prayer. His right hand holding a ceremonial shaku, a ceremonial sceptre used only by the Japanese emperor and Shinto priests. And everything around him has stopped. The pedestrians do not move. The cyclists have demounted their bikes. And the cars are sitting idly on the crowded road. And nobody is complaining. Nobody is ringing their bicycle bell or honking their horn. Everything is just still.
It is a moment of silence in one of the busiest, loudest, most hectic, and fastest moving places on the planet. Everything around the priest is paused for a moment – until the priest steps aside and the craziness of living and working among a fellow 35 million residents of Metro Tokyo starts again.
Yes, it is an incredible image and for me it signifies what being a religious professional is all about. It is about stepping into the middle of the busyness of life, interrupting it and bringing it to a halt, even if it is just for a moment. It is about refocusing the hectic routine not just of bustling metropolises like Tokyo, but even our own hectic routines. It is about bringing these routines to another dimension, a spiritual dimension, thus reminding people who they really are, and more importantly whose they really are. On the surface, it is the Shinto priest in all his liturgical finery who seems out of place. But is he? Isn’t he rather the only one in place? On closer observation, it is actually the mass of people in cars, on bikes, and on foot around the priest, who seem most out of place, seem disconnected from life, lost in a faceless world.
One of the most profound revelations about moving to Canada has been Remembrance Day. The way Canadians have chosen to commemorate the war dead and honour veterans is a markedly different from what I have experienced in other countries. Rather than engage in overzealous triumphalism and in a hyper-glorification of the military, Canadians have chosen to stop in silence for two minutes every eleventh day of the eleventh month. In the midst of the business of our lives, as merchants in their greedy quest to commercialise every aspect of our lives defile the Christmas season with premature decoration; in the midst of hectic schedules and overwhelming agendas, as we rush from one place to another overlooking the homeless drug addict passed out on the street; in the midst of loud political battles and disputes, as we seek to open new markets and seemed to focus exclusively on the economy; even in the midst of on-going conflicts around the globe, we stop for two minutes. And there is no complaining, no communal car-honking: Like the Shinto priest in Tokyo, so Remembrance Day interrupts our lives and reminds us of the importance and beauty of life, reminds us of the preciousness and fragility of life, reminds us that war is never pretty, and reminds us that those who have been killed on the battleground will never be forgotten.
Whatever we might think – whether we believe that God calls humans to absolute non-violence, or whether we believe that at times it is justified to engage in armed conflict in order to preserve justice – and, btw, both these positions can easily be justified by Christian theology – whatever your position, Remembrance Day is not the time to fight fierce arguments about theological differences on this issue. We must do so at other times. Remembrance Day also is not about loud celebrations of victories over long-time enemies, as much as I am grateful for and rejoice in the Allies’ triumph over the evils of fascism and National-Socialism.
No, Remembrance Day is a time to be silent. Remembrance Day is an interruption of our at times thoughtless routines and mindless assumptions. Remembrance Day is a time to stop, to remember, to be thankful, and to recommit our lives to stand up for justice and peace.
And Remembrance Day is a time to think about and remember the little people, the people so often forgotten in wars, the people who easily become statistical blips on the radar screen, the people who so inhumanly and sinfully are called “collateral damage.”
Little people, like the unknown soldier, who before even turning 20 was killed by a sniper on Flanders’ Field and who now lies buried amidst many, whose name is known only to God. Or little people like the woman grabbing her kids and a few belongs to rush into the basement of a house, not realising that the planes were much closer, and who was killed as her house collapsed over her after hit by a bomb. Or little people, like any of the 1.5 million children murdered and discarded in a most evil way during the Shoa, the Holocaust. Or little people, like the merchant marine sailor, whose ship carrying food and supplies to civilians was sunk by a torpedo unleashed by a submarine. Or little people, like the fireman on the roof of a historical church, whose courage during an air raid saved the ancient structure, but could not save his own life. Or little people, like any of the unnumbered civilians killed in the Iraqi conflict, who we so easily forgot here in the West. Or little people, like Captain Nichola Kathleen Sarah Goddard, whose precious, promising, and beautiful life was ended in a fire fight in Afghanistan. Or little people, like Dr H. Dean Smith, step-father of fellow parishioner Tom Kertes, who was a brave military man during the Vietnam war, but whose contact with Agent Orange killed him slowly, painfully, and cruelly over a period of 35 years. Or little people like Hermann Stöhr and Martin Gauger, who were murdered by the German government in the 1940s for their biblically inspired radical pacifism.
Or little people, like the widow in today’s reading from the Gospel according to Mark.
Much has been made of the significance of the money in today’s story. And yes, the selfless sacrifice of the widow is indeed a prophetic witness and a strong challenge to how each of us shares with the church and with the world the resources that we have been gifted by God.
But there is another aspect of the story, an aspect on which I want to focus today.
Not unlike the Shinto priest, and not unlike Remembrance Day, today’s story is an interruption. The widow interrupts the lives and assumptions of the political and religious elites of her time. Her quite, yet intentional way of worshipping God by offering all that she is and all that she has disrupts the self-gratifying self-importance of those who think they run the show, those who forget who they are, who they are to serve, and who is really in charge.
The widow didn’t need any fanfare, any loud proclamation, just a silent act of acknowledging that all things come of God and that all that we are and all that we have is a gift from God.
It was indeed a quiet act of worship. And it was a quiet act of insistence. The widow hadn’t given up. Despite of her own poverty, despite having experienced pain and horror, despite thousands and millions of reasons why she shouldn’t be there in worship, the widow had not given up on God. She gave back to God, because she had experienced the loving and compassionate presence of the Creator in the midst of her life, even in the midst of her darkness.
Even in the midst of terror and war, even in the midst of horror and fear, God does not run away, but goes all the way with us, goes with a poor widow into her worship and into her despair. By giving so much of who and what she is, the widow affirmed that despite of the things that happen around us, despite of darkness, pain, or sin, despite of death, war, and injustice, God does not abandoned us, but is still with us, is still intrinsically involved in our lives, cares about us, loves us, and reaches out to us in ways too deep for words. God even goes to the hard wood of a cross to die a horrendous death, so that there might not be a single aspect of the human experience that God cannot not enter – not even death.
No darkness is too dark for the light of God to pierce it.
And this is at the heart what we do today: Today is about remembering.
And today is about acknowledging the little people.
But there is more: Today is about having our lives interrupted. Today is about stopping for a moment to turn away from strife and hate, from business and ignorance, from complacency and carelessness, so that we can focus on the abiding presence of the Creator, who is Lord of all and who is God of “every tribe and language and people and nation.”
In their book “Mighty Story, Dangerous Rituals” theologians Herbert Anderson (with whom I studied in Chicago) and Edward Foley challenge the church to reclaim the importance of story and the importance of ritual for her ministry and mission: On the one hand the church’s mission should be about proclaiming with gusto God’s story in creation and about celebrating worship that reflects the mysterious, yet profound truth how God chose to be revealed. On the other hand it should also be about pastorally providing theological meaning to our own stories and about creating rituals that celebrate the uniqueness of who and what God created us to be in our life’s journey. The church is the place where God’s story and our story intersect and where rituals coming forth from this intersection transform our lives and transform the cosmos.
And of course, these stories are not just idle bed-time stories.
God’s self-revelation in creation, which is proclaimed and made known by the sages, crones, and prophets of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Second Testament, and the story of God’s coming into the flesh in Jesus are awesome stories. And when we hold our stories into the light of God’s story, then our stories are awesome, too. Yes, God’s story and our stories are indeed mighty stories.
Equally, when we gather in Christ’s name to worship, pray, sing, make music, listen, dance, embrace, laugh, cry, confess, reconcile, confirm, bless, marry, bury, anoint, baptise, brake bread, and retell the story of our salvation and the stories of our lives, then we do not just do so for reasons of artistic beauty or human amusement. No, what we do impacts the world around us. Our rituals bring light into darkness, life into death, and love into a world overcome by oppression, sin, injustice, and war. And thus, our rituals threaten the way the world runs. Our rituals are a menace to the powers of the world. Yes, they are indeed dangerous rituals.
Mighty Story. Dangerous Rituals.
And yet, far too often we do not live up to either of these two elements of our identity. We either are embarrassed by the story or bored by the rituals. Sometimes, the profound radicalism of our story and rituals overwhelms us. It’s too much. Too much for our sensibilities and too much for what we perceive to be the sensibilities of the word. Let’s not upset the stomach of our friends and neighbours, right?
There is nothing wrong with sharing our story and celebrating our rituals in a way that is loving and compassionate, and doesn’t negate the other. In fact, it is our call. But at times our discomfort and our desire to please and accommodate turns our story into platitudes and renders our rituals meaningless. At times we do indeed forget (or avoid remembering) that what we proclaim is a mighty story and what we gather for are dangerous rituals.
Today is case in point.
Today we celebrate the feast of St Luke the Evangelist: We celebrate his story and we celebrate the anointing for healing. It is a mighty story. And it is a dangerous ritual.
But are willing to engage the story and the ritual on all levels, with all that we are and all that we have? Are we willing to hear the mightiness and engage in the danger?
We tend to think of the authors of our Holy Scriptures as religious professionals. Ideally, we place them in some monastery-like set-up, dress them in long flowing robes, and plant long flowing beards onto their faces. In addition to the fact that this turns all those who recorded our sacred story into old men, preferably white, straight, celibate, old men (which is problematic in itself and cannot be warranted by scripture at all), this description also turns the prophets, scribes, letter-writers, and Evangelists into benign figures very much rooted in the life of the institution. And not unlike the pictures we have of all religious professional, including modern day priests, we force onto these biblical authors a particular and exclusive job-description: It was their job to record. It was their job to write down. And it was and remains their job to share and proclaim. Furthermore, we then claim that their job has nothing to do with our job-description – or I should say your job-description, because I am, after all, a religious professional, beard and all.
However, Luke’s story – and by this I do not mean the mighty story recorded in the Gospel named after him, but his personal story – Luke’s story is a story that challenges this perception, that even overthrows any idea of compartmentalisation, of limiting religious work to a certain group of people. You might think that evangelism, advocacy, and outreach, the job of mission, is best left to religious professionals, but it ain’t so!
Luke was indeed an Evangelist, a person writing down the account of the mighty story of God’s self-revelation in the birth, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. But Luke was not a religious professional. In fact, Luke’s vocation in life was that of a physician. He was trained to be a doctor, not a rabbi, priest, or Evangelist. And yet, God used him to reveal the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. God can and does work outside religious professionals. When Luke’s life intersected with the life of Jesus, Luke’s life changed. And not just his life. The story of the cosmos was irreversibly altered, too.
And our stories are as much capable to change the world if we let them intersect with God’s story. God calls and works through us all, through all our stories.
This world-changing reality of God’s outreach to us also influences the second unique aspect of today’s service: the sacramental anointing for healing.
On the surface it might appear that the reason for inviting all of you to partake of sacramental anointing today is the mere fact that Luke was a physician, was in the business of healing. And this is very much true.
However, there is another dimension.
Yes, Luke was a physician. Luke was in the business of healing. In order to do so, though, he had to understand a lot about disease and illness. For example, he probably knew that healing and cure are not the same and that healing could come without a cure. Healing means first and foremost recognising and embracing God’s compassionate presence in the midst of pain and darkness. And, yes, that might lead to cure. But it might lead to something quite different, something that brings our whole being in line with the divine will, whatever that will might be.
And Luke probably also understood that illness and disease were not just the underlying elements of individual suffering. Luke recognised that society, the world, and indeed the entire cosmos were plagued by disease and illness that had nothing to do with viruses, bacteria, malformed cells, or imbalanced bodily chemicals. It is illness that is fueled by our own inability to embrace God’s compassion and grace. It is disease that comes from our failure to fully claim who God created us and the cosmos to be. This disease and this illness wreak havoc on creation, creating war and injustice, exploiting others and our own bodies, and poisoning the environment as much as our own spiritual well-being. This sickness and this illness is a present darkness that blinds us to the beauty God created for us: the beauty of our own selves, the beauty of our sisters and brothers, whoever they are, and the beauty of creation.
When Jesus’ story intersected with Luke’s story Luke’s eyes were opened to see that God’s healing comes to us in Jesus, and it is a healing not just in body, mind, and spirit, it is a healing also of our societal ills. Luke understood that in Jesus the scripture had been fulfilled: Jesus brings good news to the poor, proclaims release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, lets the oppressed go free, and proclaims the year of the Lord’s favour.
When we anoint we make this holistic revelation real in the lives of the cosmos. Sacramental anointing overcomes the darkness in our lives as much as the darkness around us.
And this is why it is dangerous. It is dangerous because it is profound, and awesome, and beyond our understanding. And it is dangerous not because it threatens us, but it is dangerous because it threatens and indeed overcomes everything and all that seeks to harm us.
Mighty Story. Dangerous Rituals.
This is what we do here today.
And it is what this parish does and has been doing for quite some time. It is a core identity: your mission, your call to the world, even as you seek new leadership.
Mighty Story. Dangerous Rituals… Thanks be to God!
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to attend a service in an Anglican parish outside of our diocese. And, boy, was it different!
First of all, the parish was situated in a more rural part of Canada. It was a small church, in all aspects: the building was small, about the size of our quire. The parish had only been established 29 years ago and the building was no more than 20 years old. Furthermore, there was no glorious pipe organ and no hint of a choir. In fact, the woman playing the electronic organ asked me afterwards to come back, because she had enjoyed my singing. Yes, I do have a loud voice, but I was sitting in the last pew and she could still hear me… I did say it was a small church, right? The attendance was small too. Counting everybody there were less than 40 people.
Most noticeable, though, was the presence of small people. There were children everywhere, some 8 to 10 kids. That’s a ratio of less than 5 adults per child. Convert this to our setting and there would be about 25 kids here at St. Paul’s on a Sunday morning. The kids in little rural parish were definitely part of the church. They were seen and they were heard. And they were passed around among the congregation. It was quite lovely.
Yes, it was very different.
But it was also very familiar.
The liturgy was mostly out of the green Book of Alternative Services. For music, they used the blue Common Praise with a few additional hymns. The Gloria at the beginning of the service was set to a tune written by – wait for it – Marty Haugen! And I know this will delight our choir, right?
When we got to the Prayer over bread and wine, we turned to page 198 of the BAS. It was definitely a most sacred moment in the liturgy. The priest addressed us: The Lord be with you! And we responded: And also with you. She continued: Lift up your ears. And we: We lift them to the Lord. The priest then invited us: Let us gift thanks to the Lord our God! To which we replied: It is right to give our thanks and praises. And off we went as we – led by the priest – gave thanks to God and consecrated the elements through the power of the Holy Spirit to be the body and blood of Christ.
And all of a sudden I realised I wasn’t really there… I was there in body, but my mind had wondered off, away from the action at the altar. I was looking at the people around me, especially at the little girl in front of me, who kept on waving at me.
“Darn!” I thought. I had done it again. My mind had strayed. Once again I had not been able to completely focus on this sacred prayer, on this sacred moment, on this sacred time when heaven and earth melt into one and we are joined by the church that was, that is, and that is to come. Yes, the Eucharist is indeed a most sacred moment. But I wasn’t there that morning.
I got angry with myself.
But should I have?
Today, we have come together as God’s sacred people in this sacred place to give thanks.
We give thanks every time we break the bread and share the wine. It is intrinsic to what we do in the Eucharist. The very word, which comes from the Greek word [eucharistia], means thanksgiving. This follows the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, who when he took the bread, broke it and gave thanks to share it with the words “this is my body.”
But today we also come together to give thanks for the bread we share in a much broader understanding.
Thanksgiving has developed out of the ancient tradition to acknowledge and give thanks to the Creator at the end of the harvest season. In a world based on living off the land this was an important festival to celebrate the end of a hard, work-intensive summer. And it was a festival to praise God, who ultimately is responsible for and enables any harvest.
As we moved away from being exclusively a farming community, we did not give up celebrating. Who wants to miss a party, eh? Thanksgiving developed into a festival of giving thanks to God for all kinds of harvest, not just the fruits of the earth, not just tomatoes, corn, potatoes, and pumpkins. It’s an acknowledgement that God is the Creator of everything there is. As 1 Chronicle reminds us: “All things come of thee, o God.” All things. Yes, we might be disconnected from living off the earth, but this does not mean that our urban life is something we have created on our own. The Creator still gifts us with everything we have and God gives abundantly and plentifully.
This is why Thanksgiving over time also developed into a time of the year, when we seek to express our gratitude by sharing the blessings of our lives. By sharing what God has provided for us, we do as Jesus had done at the table: He broke the bread, gave thanks and then shared it. In the end, though, what we share with others is just a redistribution of things that we have been gifted to begin with. After all, the sentence I just quoted from 1 Chronicle continues: “All things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee.”
Thanksgiving allows us to stop for a moment and reconsider the source of all being. It is a moment in our busy lives each year to remember that the earth and all that grows on it and is found in it is not ours to possess. Everything comes from the Creator, and remains the Creator’s. The Creator has appointed us not to exploit, but as stewards to honour all life and treat with respect all creation.
All things come from God. And this is true not just about the environment, but this is true in a very special way about our own lives. They come of God, too, who gifted our lives in love and generosity, in abundance and beauty, in awesomeness and wonder. All come from God, and this includes our sisters and brothers of the human race, all our sisters and brothers, both those from our highways and those from our byways.
All of us come from God – and this is true even for the one looking back at us in a mirror. Regardless of what delights our souls or pains our hearts, regardless of what or who we are, regardless of what we have done or what was done to us, even our own selves were loved into being by the God of compassion, the Creator of the universe. God fashioned you and me with a smile on God’s face.
Which brings me back to the beginning of this sermon.
Yes, I readily admit that my mind wondered during this celebration of the Eucharist presided over by my colleague.
But, should I really have gotten annoyed at myself?
I proclaim and confess that in the Eucharist heaven really does open, the veil between our reality and God’s realm is lifted, and we feast by and on Christ Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord. It is probably one of the most mysterious, the most mystical, and the most sacred things we do in our ministry and mission.
However, Christ’s presence on earth is not limited to bread and wine in the Eucharistic celebration. But Christ seeks to be known in abundant ways. Christ is truly and uniquely present in the Eucharistic bread and in the Eucharistic wine. But we can encounter Christ also in those we meet on the way, in all our brothers and sisters and even in the image looking at us from a mirror.
And this is a wonderful and awesome thing.
And it is something for which to be extremely thankful.
When God came among us in Jesus, the infinite was circumscribed in the finite, the eternal took habitation in the mortal, the omnipotent entered the fragile existence of a human being. Christ Jesus is an icon of God. In a similar fashion we are icons of our brother Jesus. God became accessible in a human experience so that in our human experience we might grasp God.
As the priest recited the sacred words at the altar in the little church in rural Canada, Christ offered himself in bread and wine as he does in every Eucharist. Yet, on this particular day Christ made himself known to me in the faces of those gathered, in the smiles of adults and in the laughter and delight of children.
Equally, when I invite you to give thanks at today’s Eucharist, Christ will be present in the breaking of the bread. But Christ will also dwell in the faces of those around you, in every single one of you, whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on the way.
I think we miss an aspect of today’s feast of Thanksgiving, if we purely remain fixated on the fruits of the earth.
The environment and its preservation are central to our identity as the God’s church. Let us give thanks for the beauty of creation over and over and over again and let us work to make this earth, our fragile island home, a planet that is ecologically healthy and sustainable.
However, Thanksgiving invites us to include in our gratitude the creation of each and every one of us. God has made us beautifully and awesomely. God has gifted us with life in ways that are too wonderful for words.
Today I say “thank you!” to our Creator:
I am thankful for how God formed us in our innermost parts.
I give thanks that God has known us, named us, and loved us even before we were born.
I am grateful that despite of our continued efforts to run away, to deny the goodness of creation, and to shut our hearts to God’s love, God does not stop reaching out to us in compassion, in mercy, and in delight.
Today I say “thank you, thank you very much!” to God for all of us and all of God’s children.
And I pray that God will give us all thankful hearts to see the goodness and love of the Creator, to discover the beauty of creation, and to embrace the awesome wonder of God’s abiding presence in each and every one of us.