Category Archives: Reflections

“Paradox of womb and grave”

Homily at the Ordination to the Priesthood of Joyce Barnett

September 14, 2010: The Church of the Holy Trinity (Gospel text: John 12: 20-36)

Jennifer Henry

Last month I read The Jerusalem Testamentsixty-eight ecumenical statements from the heads of the churches located in Jerusalem, spanning the period from 1998 to 2008. Some full treatises, some gestures of hope, some letters of desperation–each were a fragment of the contextual theology of Palestinian Christians. I was struck that amongst the gut-wrenching statements triggered by dramatic news events, there were the annual messages of Christmas and Easter, of Bethlehem and Golgotha. In the midst of the terror happening around them, ordinary moments in the church year were consistently marked. In the midst of terror, the celebration of extraordinary moments in our shared faith—the child of God born in a stable, the crucified rabble-rousing teacher raised from the dead—helped to sustain them.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies,” says the Gospel for today, Holy Cross day. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit.” Death to rebirth, death to new life–hymn writer Walter Farquharson calls this the “paradox of womb and grave.” Women often know this paradox in their own bodies—word made flesh. The moment midwives call “transition”—the moment just before the productive pushing that leads to a birth–is a holy, dangerous time when everything comes unravelled and you have a sense that you are on the cusp of either life or death. There is a literal thinning, as if between the worlds, and only labouring through pain—a kind of death to self–brings new life to birth.

This excerpt from Frances Franke’s poem, Did the Woman Say?, makes a similar embodied connection, taking us from birth to death, from Mary’s body to Christ’s Body broken and shared.

Did the woman say,

When she held him for the first time in the

Dark, dank of the stable

After the pain and the bleeding and the crying,

This is my body; this is my blood?”

Did the woman say,

When she held him for the last time in the

Dark, rain on a hilltop,

After the pain and the bleeding and the dying

This is my body; this is my blood?”

Birth and death—markers of the full range of the human experience made sacred by God with us, God one of us. Death transformed to rebirth, to the promise of new life, by the Holy Child wounded for us, wounded with us, raised and recalled in community with memory and hope.

Tonight Joyce, deacon in the church, becomes priest. We invite her renewed leadership not as some kind of “spiritualized” entity, but as her embodied self—woman, wife, mother, counsellor, friend—with all the holiness that she draws from human life. We invite her “real presence”, as she strives to live consciously and publicly the paradox that is the gospel. We invite her to help build the Body of Christ, nurturing paradoxical communities of faith–grain of wheat communities that at the same time embrace the certainty of death, the certainty of resurrection (of new life) and the uncertainty of most everything else.

Unless of the grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies”…Death constantly surrounds us, and yet for many in our culture, distanced from the cycles of nature, seduced by the miracles of medicine, death has become unreal, or worse, a curse. A healthy community of faith recognizes the certainty of death, as an integral part of new life. This can be as simple as attending to the seasons, liturgical but also natural, where today in my garden ripeness turns to the rot that will be fertile soil for spring flowers. Or it can be as complex as helping families greet death with sadness, yes, but with a little less terror. We need leadership that can help communities fully attend to the sacredness of the Body of Christ broken again in every death.

In this time in the life of the church, it also means attending to the certainty of lesser losses. As old modes of religious power wane, it is evident that some things in church must die to make space for what is new. I work with Catholic religious women facing a form of extinction who bravely ask, “How do we let institutional religious life as we know it die, in such a way as to breathe new and sustained life into the charisms of our foundresses? We need leadership that can nurture congregations to face the death of rigidities, privileges, traditions, and even some theologies, with sadness, but not terror, in such a way as might breathe new life into our commitment to the gospel. We need leaders who can midwife changes in church that account for the way life and spirit constantly revises, repairs and amends our understanding of the mystery of God.

Jesus continues…“But if it dies it bears much fruit.” We need to nurture communities who can hold death, and simultaneously hold the certainty of resurrection. Julia Esquival, writing out of the centre of Guatemala’s crucifixion in 1983, called this the “certainty of spring”: ‘They can cut all the flowers, But Spring will always return.’ Guatemala you will bloom.” I hear echoes of her confidence in the transforming, resurrecting power of God in the human rights defenders I meet today from Congo or Colombia. Their deep faith that another world is possible—in life after, but also in the midst of death—does not release them from agency, but rather seems to propel them further into the struggle for social change, as collaborators with our transforming God. Their audacious, courageous, active hope in the midst of terror is their decision to be worthy of a God who can do more than we can ask or imagine.

 

What then is the responsibility of our faithfulness? How does our belief in the transforming power of God propel us into action here and now? We need leaders who can coax communities of complacency into Easter action of social change—leaders who can, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, foolishly “enact obedience to a daring claim, obedience to a possibility” even in the face of the “stubbornness of Caesar.”

 

To be certain of resurrection, is to celebrate the endless possibility for good and the limitless love of a God whom “death could not contain.” (from the prayer by Janet Morley) In communities who seek to live “resurrected life”, human barriers and rigid orthodoxies that try to box and contain God’s love fall away. Hear the words of a most famous Anglican leader citing another part of today’s Gospel:

 

When Jesus spoke of being lifted up on the cross he said “I, if I be lifted up will draw..” – he didn’t say “I will draw some” – he said “I, if I be lifted up will draw ALL – draw all to me to hold them” all of us drawn into the divine embrace that excludes no-one – black, yellow, white, rich, poor, educated, uneducated, male, female, young, old, gay, lesbian, so-called straight – yes it IS radical. All, all, ALL belong.

 

This is of course Archbishop Tutu whose passion has inspired so many communities to Easter acts of transformation.

 

Communities that find certainty in death and resurrection, become aware of the uncertainty of all else–money, privilege, literalism, institution, empire–finding comfort instead in change, difference, and messiness. As we look at the changing world around us, we recognize fresh winds of the Spirit when “monochromatic, unbending” places, are transformed to “pluralism, variability” and a rainbow of colour (Harvey Cox). Theologian Harvey Cox speaks of today’s children who live everyday with a web-heightened view of a diverse world, and who–he asserts with the certainty of spring–will bring an end to fundamentalism all around the world.

25 years ago, Joyce’s progress towards the priesthood was halted by discrimination. While there is great joy in today’s ordination, there is for me also a sadness that church communities have been denied her priesthood for these many years. There is a sadness that many at Holy Trinity–Alvin, Pauline, Helen and others whom you name in your hearts–have not lived to see this day. Others, still alive, who could no longer abide this (and related injustices) are also not here as witnesses.

Joyce’s progress towards the priesthood was stopped, her diaconal role constrained, and yet her ministry has always continued–a ministry that has borne much fruit

In her counselling practice, Joyce has nurtured clients to come to grips with the certainties of death and lesser losses. She has helped people to grieve, rage, accept, and remember. At Holy Trinity, she has tended to the dying and celebrated lives in ritual. She has helped raise our children in our shared faith, married the young and old, and walked with us for change in the church and in the world. Her ministry has more than prepared her to serve the church as priest, to be midwife to death and loss, to be midwife to change and new life.

Despite grief at a call seemingly denied, she sheltered the hope that she would one day serve the church as priest, and so did we. There is a Spanish expression, abrigar esperanza, meaning to shelter hope or to keep hope warm. Because we understood her vocation to priesthood as shared–a vocation that is hers and ours–many bodies huddled together to keep her hope warm. Her priesthood will be a grain among many grains, a priesthood of all believers, more than ready to bear fruit not just of this community, but throughout the diversity of God’s people.

Despite the small deaths and large losses of injustice, she with Alison, Hannah and Rob have lived resurrected life. Turning their hope into action, barriers have fallen with great consequence. Another world has been made possible. Legal certainty for children of same sex parents, marriage of same sex couples–these are realities in our Canada because they had the courage to walk with others towards that transformation.

When our daughter Bella was adopted, we took tulips to Joyce and her family to say thank you for grain that bore much fruit–for doors opened, and a struggle waged for us (a struggle which like any other was not without its costs). Some would call these secular gains, but I know that Joyce and Alison’s lived commitment to equality comes from a very deep faith that God holds all in the “divine embrace”. (TuTu)

And I know their faithful actions have saved lives. For every teenager considering suicide because of messages about their sexual orientation from family or church, there has been one more message towards choosing life , life in abundance. Perhaps today there is also one more.

Today, Joyce steps across this threshold with unwavering commitment to be a faithful witness to the gospel. She brings with her all she has learned from the sacredness of human experience. She steps into this new role, committed to continue to learn and grow, prepared to express and nurture the ministry of the communities that she will serve.

I will be honest that I do not know clearly what this moment means. What I do know is that someone with a persistent call, solid training, compassion for people, wisdom from struggle will be priest in a church that desperately needs her. And that is a good thing. And goodness can be contagious

When Joyce was three or four years old, she declared that she was no longer willing to go to church. When her family inquired why, she said–well, I have been to church three times and I haven’t seen Jesus yet. Let us celebrate today that she grew out of her impatience (and her literalism). Let us also celebrate that her courageous questions and her desire to see Christ revealed in community, a desire as ancient as the Greeks of today’s Gospel, has endured. Let us pray that a change may come for others who seek to serve Christ—others with a call, gifts, and a queerness equally needed in the diversity of today’s church—but perhaps with little less patience.

This ordination will open new possibilities for Joyce’s ministry. But wherever she goes next, she will, also, always be a priest of this place–a loving, justice seeking, imperfect community that seeks to hold, for one another hope in despair, life in death. Wherever you go, you will take with you our capacity to love, our commitment to justice, and our messy imperfections. Your ministry will always be our ministry. And together, with the whole church, we will be the Body of the Liberating Christ, whose dance is resurrection. We love you. Blessed be. Amen.

References (in the order of their appearance):

May, Melanie A. The Jerusalem Testament. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2010.

Franke, Frances Croake. “Did the Woman Say ?” Celebrating Women. Janet Morley and Hannah Ward, 1986.

Esquival, Julia. The Certainty of Spring: Poems by a Guatemalan in Exile. EPICA, 1993

Brueggemann, Walter. “Preaching as Sub-Version.” Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post Christian World. Fortress Press, 2000.

 

Tutu, Desmond. “God’s Dream.” Sermon delivered at the Chapel of King’s College, London., Sunday 22 February 2004.

Cox, Harvey.Why fundamentalism will fail: A seemingly unstoppable force is being undone from the inside.” Boston Globe, 8 November, 2009. .

Peter, Cornelius, and the Problem of Discrimination

Sermon preached by Bill Whitla on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2 May 2010

+ In the name of God: Lover, Beloved, and Love Between. Amen.

Today is the first Sunday that Nola is amongst us as a new priest to preside at the Eucharist, and we welcome her in her new role in our midst.

This past eight days has been a flurry of activity. A wonderful vestry yesterday in which we dreamed dreams and set forward our resolution to seek architects who can embody our vision for this sacred space for the future. A week ago in the midst of festivities Nola was ordained to the priesthood. And there was also a reasoned and public objection at her ordination —with her knowledge and support —that ordination in this Diocese is only conferred with discrimination —that some people, especially some of those in same sex relationships are not so ordained. And this week nine members of the parish met with Archbishop Johnston—planned well in advance of the ordination objection—and it would be fair to say that we were very clear in showing how the diocesan policy of discrimination affects us in so many ways and drains off so much creative energy—not only here but widely in the Church. But it would also be fair to say that the Archbishop also told us we are a parish much encumbered with what is perceived to be a rebellious history that still tells against us. We also heard that we have overstepped boundaries that we should not have transgressed—although we had earlier been told to test the limits, and we were given faint hope that there might be some movement in matters of justice and equity that we so heartily seek to have prevail.

So how do we discern the signs of hope? How to we learn to read them in what appear to be bleak times? How do we continue to live by love and work for justice, or find in the Gospels the precepts of love and gratitude and abundance that we believe that all should be able to share? What do we find in the readings of to-day that nourish and sustain us if we approach them with open hearts and eyes?

Well, Nancy’s grandfather, one of the architects of the United Church of Canada and an early Moderator, was also one of the founders of the Fellowship of Reconciliation—the great pacifist organization that took a heroic and difficult and often unpopular role throughout the dreadful wars of the twentieth century. Nancy said that in every sermon he preached, it seemed that pacifism kept creeping in. Well, I feel a little like that to day, in that discrimination is served up to me on a platter by these lessons.

In that first lesson, Peter is hauled up on the carpet. He had been on a missionary and preaching journey after the resurrection and Pentecost to the city of Joppa, modern-day Jaffa, part of TelAviv, a port city where Peter had raised Tabitha as we heard last week. But here too he had a transforming experience. Although being very hungry, he set his hunger aside and went up to the rooftop to pray, and had a vision. In his vision a large tarpaulin was lowered from heaven, filled with all kinds of animals and reptiles and other kinds of creatures that were considered unclean to orthodox Jews as Peter was, despite also being a Christian. Three times in the vision Peter was told to kill and eat, but he refused, saying that nothing unclean or impure had ever passed his lips before, and it would not now. Then in the vision he heard a voice, “What God has made you cannot call impure,” and the vision faded. He did not know what it meant, but he was then summoned by messengers to go to Caesarea, to the house of Cornelius, a centurion in the what was called “The Italian Guard,” but Cornelius was a Gentile. He went, and then the penny dropped: he was already doing all the things that an orthodox Jew was forbidden to do, he entered the house of a Gentile, he had conversation with him, he stayed with him, and he ate with him —and he baptized him and his household. Then he returned to Jerusalem.

Now my parallel begins. He had broken the laws of the Jerusalem community. he was summoned before the Jerusalem believers and their community–the Jerusalem Church. They pointed out that Peter had stepped over the bounds allowed by orthodoxy. Peter retold the whole story about Cornelius. He says why he had transgressed the laws of acceptable conduct. The Jerusalem Church authorities were concerned that he had associated with Gentiles—and he admitted to the unacceptable acts, breaking the purity laws about who is pure, who impure —need I draw further the parallels to Holy Trinity before the Archbishop?

Then Peter explains his reasoning: he affirms that God has revealed to him not to call anyone profane or impure because that is that the heavenly counter-history. The story of heaven is the story of how we learn not to call anyone profane or impure or unacceptable, or unordainable, or unlicensable, or subject to any discrimination, on the basis of ethnicity and religion in Peter’s version, but on the basis of Peter’s vision, no discrimination on the basis of nation or race or colour or sexuality or age or ability or wealth or any other difference—so that a story is created in which there are, in fact, no impure or profane or discriminated-against people. The King James version reads “The Spirit bade me go with them [the men from Caesaraea, to Cornelius], nothing doubting.” But the RSV and other translations put it differently: “And the Spirit told me to go with them making no distinction—or, without discriminating, doing nothing to discriminate, between them and us.” That word “discrimination” in Peter’s argument is crucial. Diakrino Dia means through; and krino means “to separate, to judge between, to take to court over.” Peter was to go into the house of a Gentile, and by no means to separate out him from others with whom Peter could associate. He was not to discriminate against Cornelius, even though he was impure according to Jewish law —but his vision said he was not impure: so—no discrimination!

Now, we have to remember Peter’s recent experience. He was loyal —but he had denied Jesus three times. And in the lesson from the end of John’s gospel that we had a couple of weeks ago, we heard about the Risen Jesus roasting fish over a charcoal fire on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, when he asked Peter twice, “Peter, do you love me?” Jesus used the most inclusive, and the most demanding, and the most intimate verb for love, agapao, and each time, Peter responds with a weaker verb, the word phileo, to like as a friend, to have affection as for a brother. So Jesus the third time, with such inclusion, so as not to discriminate even against the love of Peter, uses Peter’s own verb, “Do you have affection for me,” and with all of his heart, Peter again responds in the same way. But now, in this later passage in Acts, after the resurrection and Pentecost, and his vision, and the experience with Cornelius, Peter has a deeper motivation—and is moving to a love that works and move without distinction, without discrimination, a love of agape dimensions.

And so we come to the Gospel. A new commandment, says Jesus, I give you, that you love one another. That you have agape for one another, the deepest and most committed love for one another. Jesus says that it is a “new” commandment. What was the old one –the Shema perhaps? to love God and your neighbour? What in this Gospel at the last supper, foreshadowing this Eucharist, and forshadowing the banquet at the end of time, why do we need a new one? Perhaps because we have not learnt the old one well enough.

Because we have to read this Gospel to-day under the shadow of the first sentence in the RSV: “ When he had gone out, Jesus said, “My little children . . . I give you a new commandment . . .” When “he” had gone out. Who is this “he”? [it is a question about Judas Frederick Niedner from Valparaiso University asks in Love one Another 1998, 10-14] Well, this pronoun refers to Judas, as our version makes that clear. Now that Judas has left the table of the last supper, everything has changed. One of the twelve has left. You know what happens when someone gets up and leaves a meeting or worship in distress, or anger, or disappointment—and everyone left wonders what went wrong—what could have made it right, and all are hurt and embarrassed. Can anything still be done?

Have you ever wondered whether, upon hearing Jesus’ new commandment about the way the disciples should now love one another, any one of them went out into the night looking for Judas in order to extend that love to him? Did anyone fear for him, miss him, or try, even after he brought soldiers to Gethsemane, to bring Judas back to talk to that community? Dorothy Sayers and many others suggest Judas was a zealot looking for the overthrow of the Roman occupiers, and when he saw only the teaching of love and peace, in terrible disappointment, be turned betrayer. Is Jesus really pointing out to the remaining disciples left at the table that the new commandment of love has to go deeper than the disciples have already shown amongst themselves towards Judas. Is it not a simply pious remark, but is directed towards their actions? And is not the depth of that forgiving and embracing love seen even more vividly when Jesus embraces his betrayer’s kiss, as well as the world’s scorn?

Judas’ place at the Lord’s table remains empty—or perhaps we fill it ourselves in some imponderable way. He represents our brokenness, our partiality, the fact that there are some we would not welcome to our table, or at whose table we would not ourselves want to share. How then shall we love one another in the family, as the new commandment requires? How can we find that place of agape that Peter found, where there is no discrimination?

How can we read here any signs of hope? We can hope if for no other reason because of the promise in today’s second lesson in Revelation 21. Some day, one day, [as Niedner says] when the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven decked out like a lover approaching her breathless partner, God will lay before us a great marriage feast. And in this simple loaf, and these crushed grapes, that feast is not only anticipated, but begun here and now. We gather around a table with no discriminations, we welcome all, both Peter and Judas and Cornelius and Tabitha amongst us, those with solid faith or weak—or none. Come and eat. Share my bread. Drink my wine. Be my sister. Be my brother.

Well, as Becca said yesterday at the Vestry, can our visioning be a model—a model for the world about living in abundance—and I want to add, about dreaming the future with all kinds of inclusion. With Peter, nothing doubting, with no marks of distinction or of discrimination; with only inclusion into the love for one another that includes that justice for them that we dream of for ourselves, a love for one another that lets us be fully alive, fully human. Amen.

What if the Earth could speak?

Sermon preached by Christopher Lind on April 22, 2010, the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day, at Church House in Toronto, Ontario.

Psalm 148

1Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights!

2Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!

3Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!

4Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!

5Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created.

6He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.

7Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps,

8fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!

9Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!

10Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!

11Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!

12Young men and women alike, old and young together!

13Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.

14He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him. Praise the Lord!

I want to ask you a question today that you’ve probably never asked yourselves. This is Earth Day. What if the Earth could speak? What would it say? Would it complain, would it celebrate, would it protest against injustice, would it laugh, would it cry?

Psalm 148 gives us one answer: it would praise God from the earth and the highest heavens! Is this just hyperbole? Is this just anthropomorphizing our island home? Surely the earth can’t REALLY speak, can it?

Let’s engage in a thinking exercise. What prevents us from thinking this thought? Where does our resistance come from? Some biblical scholars say our resistance comes from our pattern of “dualistic thinking”. This kind of thinking divides the world into pairs of opposites:

People vs animals

Reason vs emotion

Mind vs matter

Male vs female

Sacred vs profane

Heaven vs earth

Humans (culture) vs nature

Us vs them

This kind of thinking can be helpful when it is the beginning of analysis. However, it becomes unhelpful when it becomes the beginning of hierarchy; when we are not just different than them but better than them!

Another obstacle to this way of thinking is our tendency to think of the earth as a moss covered rock hurtling through space, the 3rd rock from the sun. What if, instead, we thought of the Earth (Capital ‘E’) as a community of all living things on the planet, a community of life. This would mean complex ecosystems interacting, of which humans are just a part. Can a crowd speak? Well maybe…

In philosophy we learn to distinguish subjects from objects. Subjects are capable of communicating, of acting and of forming intentions. The Earth is not a human subject. However, as a community of life, Earth has a collective identity and maybe even a collective voice, capable of rejoicing in delight and groaning in sorrow. In order to hear the voice of Earth, we have to listen for it. Maybe the voice of Earth is a little bit like ‘body language’ – a communication without words. You might say that the Earth is making noise but not really communicating. We used to say that about whales, but we don’t any longer. Just because we haven’t yet learned the language, doesn’t mean a community is not trying to speak.

Has the Earth been trying to speak for a long time? If so, is there evidence of it? What if there is evidence in the Bible? Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation. Specifically, it has to do with becoming conscious of the principles we use when we translate or interpret a text.

There are some metaphors we can use to describe the activity of interpretation. One metaphor has to do with light and dark. Interpreting Scripture is like shining a light in the darkness. You have to be sure what you’re looking for. Every light casts a shadow. This doesn’t make the light bad and the shadow good, its just the way the light works. If you want to see what is in the shadows you have to shift the light or use a different kind of light. On the crime shows, if the forensic team wants to see if there is blood present, they have to bring in ultraviolet light because ordinary light won’t reveal it.

 

In the recent past, the 50s & 60s, biblical scholars were concerned to demonstrate how the bible revealed the story of God’s saving acts through history. This was called “salvation history”. If you studied the Bible in a seminary during this period you would have read the work of scholars like Gerhard von Rad & Oscar Cullman who were shining their light on salvation history. This approach kept questions regarding the Earth & the Voice of the Earth in the shadows.

 

In Australia, another group of scholars, led by Norman Habel, have been concerned with the voice of the Earth. Habel gathered an international community of scholars together to dim the hermeneutical light of salvation in order to retrieve the story of Earth communities.

 

Another metaphor that is used to describe the science of interpretation has to do with the lens we look through or the glasses we wear. When we wear dark glasses we don’t see enough and when we wear rose coloured glasses we only see the things we agree with. Earth Bible scholars have been skeptical of the glasses we wear when we read Scripture Hands up, all the people who wear glasses. Many of us wear literal glasses. All of us wear metaphorical glasses. When we read the Bible we need to become aware of the metaphorical glasses with which we are reading it.

 

As I get older I lose things more often. In order to find them again, I have to become suspicious of my movements. I become sceptical of what I think I did and where I think I put things. It makes it doubly difficult if the item I’m looking for is my glasses! The same is true of biblical interpretation. If you want to find something that is not revealed by current methods of biblical interpretation, you have to exercise suspicion and then retrieval. We learned this from both feminist and then liberation theology.

The Earth Bible scholars have developed 6 hermeneutical principles. One of those principles is:

The Principle of Voice1

Earth is a subject capable of raising its voice in celebration and against injustice.

Can the earth speak? Funny question but our Scripture answers us all the time. Why don’t we hear it? In the 12th chapter of Job we read “Ask the animals and they will teach you, the birds of the air and they will tell you!” Our Cree and Innu and Ojibway sisters & brothers understand this very well. Why don’t the rest of us?

Today’s Psalm, 148, is very clear on this question:

“Praise the Lord from the Earth, you sea monsters and all deeps!”

(Sounds like a great children’s story! Where the Wild Things Are)

“Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!”

This is Earth Day and this is our Psalm. Do we believe the Psalm or are we resisting it? I wonder why?


1 Taken from THE EARTH BIBLE PROJECT, Norman C. Habel, Series Editor, Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press. Published in Canada and the USA by The Pilgrim Press, Cleveland, Ohio.

“Seek the Welfare of the Place I have Sent You” (Jer. 29)

Sermon by Christopher Lind on the Eve of the Feast of St. Mark for the Ordination of Nola-Susan Crewe

This past January my mother died. She was 93. She lived a full life. She died in her own bed of a heart attack in the house where she had lived for almost 60 years. Would that we could all be so lucky.

My mother was a hoarder. She never threw anything away if she could help it. In her closet we found 50 purses. Downstairs we found 30 years of National Geographic. My parents were readers and we have catalogued 2400 books. She also saved letters. We have letters I wrote as a child. We have letters she wrote as a child. We have letters her parents wrote. We have lots of letters and some of them are very old.

I am going to read you some excerpts from one that I think is most relevant for today. It is from someone named Jeremiah and it is addressed to:

“all the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon ….

4Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce … 7But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare ….

Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14I will let you find me, says the Lord … and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”

Now I know what you are thinking. You’re thinking “he didn’t find this letter in his mother’s house. That’s from the Bible!” Well, you’d be wrong and you’d also be right. I did find this letter in my mother’s house. I found many copies of it because it is from the Bible and we found over 20 Bibles in my mother’s house. (My father’s house may have many rooms but my mother’s house has many bibles!)

Now why would this letter be relevant today and why have people been saving this letter for, now, thousands of years. This letter describes a world dominated by empires and a religious community torn by conflict and divided. Sound familiar? When Jeremiah was writing, Jerusalem had been sacked and the people of southern Israel had been deported to Babylon. Some Jewish interpreters consider this to be the beginning of the Jewish diaspora, 2500 years ago. Where is Babylon? Today we call it Iraq and Jewish communities continued living there into the 20th century. That’s a long time to be away from home.

Consider the reading we heard from Isaiah. In that reading (Is. 52:7-10) the prophet offers words of comfort to the Israelites because “Jerusalem is in ruins”. Even in Isaiah’s time, the trauma of the sacking of Jerusalem is close to the surface.

The leaders of the exiled community are writing to the prophet Jeremiah, asking how than shall they live in this strange land. What will be their ministry? Jeremiah writes back and says “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent youand pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare”.

Nola, this is the kind of Church & world where you have been called to minister. As today’s events illustrate so clearly, we are a divided church. We are conflicted. The temple has been sacked and the religious authorities have been dis-established. You have been sent away from your home by the authorities. How then will you minister? What will be your guide? “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you … and pray to God on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Our God is a God of surprises. One of God’s surprises for you, Nola, was to call you to the Church of the Holy Trinity for your curacy. (Maybe God is a God of mischief too!) God has also called you to hospital chaplaincy and God will call you to other places too. There is conflict and division in all these places. How then will you be guided? My counsel to you is to return to the letters that our religious ancestors refused to throw out. Turn to Jeremiah and heed his words: “seek the welfare of the city where you have been sent … and pray to God on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Nola, in the “examination” you are about to undergo, you will be told that you are “to fashion your life in accordance with [the] precepts [of the Gospel]”. Some people have an idea this means you are supposed to be “nice”. I can’t find anywhere in the Bible where it says that. I looked it up in my Concordance and I couldn’t even find the word. I thought it might be a matter of translation so I looked up the word “polite”. You know, I couldn’t find that word either! Instead I found that people of faith should be humble, as in this injunction from the prophet Micah: “What does the lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8)

In the reading you selected from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (4:11-16) we hear Paul entreating us to “speak the truth in love”. We are to do this not as children but as adults, for “we must grow up in every way”. What does it look like to speak the truth in love, in a grown up way. Sometimes it means speaking out and protesting against discrimination by whatever means is available to you. To speak and act in this way is not to act out. It is to do what is normal when faced with injustice.

Jeremiah was speaking into a situation of deep division. Jesus confronted an empire that crucified its dissidents. The Anglican Church was also born in a time of deep division in the 16th century and that division has continued to today. There was a time in your adult life when this same church would have refused to ordain you just because of your gender. This new possibility of your ordination did not come about because women were nice and polite. It came about because women protested against discrimination and sought to speak the truth in love. They refused to be treated like children and insisted on being treated like adults. Instead of being nice and polite, they followed the injunction of the turn of the century Canadian feminist and Christian, Nellie McClung, who declared: “Never retract, never explain, never apologize; get things done and let them howl.” Even today, I regret to say, there are parts of the Anglican Communion where not only would you be considered ineligible for Episcopal office, but, because of your gender, this ordination will not be recognized.

Protest and objection, complaint and dissent is so common in the history of the church, there is even a place in the service of ordination where such voices are invited to speak. They must be heard, because actually, that’s part of what it means to be Anglican. As long as there is injustice in the world, conflict is normal.

Nola, my mother would have liked you, and you her. She would have been as delighted by this ordination as I am, and delighted by your willingness to accept this call. One of my observations of your ministry here at the Church of the Holy Trinity is that you have indeed been seeking the welfare of this place. Sometimes you challenge us to see ourselves in new ways and that makes us uncomfortable, but even in the planning for this service you have sought your welfare in the welfare of this place, where you have been sent. As my mother would have said: Keep up the good work.

My most fervent prayer is that all people who are qualified, and whose call has been tested and affirmed by the community, could share in the delight you are experiencing today. Amen.

Christopher Lind

25 April 2010

Believing Is Seeing

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter (11 April 2010)

by Sherman Hesselgrave

Readings:  Acts 5:27-32     Psalm 150      Revelation 1:4-8     John 20:19-31

O breaking and entering God:
There is no place we can hide from your presence,
no deadbolt strong enough to keep you from slipping into our midst,
no barricade too high for your Spirit to surmount;
may your Risen Christ steal into our hearts, our imaginations, and empower us to take your message of healing and forgiveness and grace to a broken world.  Amen.

That prayer was inspired both by today’s gospel reading and by a New Yorker cover that has graced the wall of my office for many years—a Charles Addams drawing for a Valentine’s Day issue that depicts the interior of an apartment whose entry door has a deadbolt lock, a sliding bolt, a chain, and a security bar planted at an angle into the floor.  The man who lives there is staring down at a white envelope with a large red heart on it that someone has slipped beneath the barricaded entrance of his secure world.  Ready or not, grace happens.

During the season of Easter, the 50 days between last week and the Feast of Pentecost, we will hear numerous stories of God’s grace breaking into human experience.  Every year on the Sunday after Easter we read the account of the risen Christ appearing to the disciples, who are hiding behind locked doors, fearful that the same authorities who killed Jesus will hunt them down as well.  Running and hiding is a defense mechanism that has served the human race well.  I can still visualize the swashbuckler in some black and white movie from my childhood declaring: “He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.”  But to live perpetually holed up in fear is not why God put us here.

Thomas, the disciple who missed Jesus’ first resurrection appearance to the cowering disciples, has earned the moniker, Doubting Thomas, for telling his fellows that unless he saw the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands, and put his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in Jesus’ side, he would not believe.  It is rather unfair to wag a finger at Thomas for his reaction, because, in the end, we have to acknowledge that without doubt, faith is meaningless.  Or, as Frederick Buechner remarked, “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.”1  That is one of the things we can take away from the story of Thomas.

Another is that Jesus gives Thomas what he needs to reassure him of the truth.  As disciples who missed out on Jesus’ appearance on Easter Sunday evening, all of us are in the same position as Thomas was.  The reassurance we are given, though, is not through touching the marks of the nails or the wound in the side.  For us, the real presence of Christ is found in the Eucharist, and when we “take and eat” the bread and wine we are literally touching the One who said “do this to remember me.”  “O taste and see how gracious is Yahweh.”2

Which leads to the third thing we can take away from the encounter of Thomas and the Risen One, namely, that believing is seeing.  What humans believe has always shaped what we see.  The names for planets and constellations come from a pre-Copernican belief system about the universe in which people would look at the night sky and see movements and patterns that led them conclude they were observing the activities of gods and goddesses.  Xenophobic beliefs lead people to see those different from themselves as worthy of all sorts of horrors.  But if we trust God the way Jesus taught us to trust God, our faith opens our eyes to see things with the corrective lenses that Jesus left behind for us, and when we need an adjustment, the Holy Spirit acts as divine optometrist.

Huston Smith, the great scholar of world religions, claims that Christianity’s unique and most significant contribution is the concept of forgiveness.  When we look around at the state of human civilization, we see unending cycles of violence: you hit me, I hit you back.  Jesus knew forgiveness is the only way to break the pattern.
Rowan Williams, from the time he served as a parish priest, wrote: “There is no hope of understanding the Resurrection outside the process of renewing humanity in forgiveness. We are all agreed that the empty tomb proves nothing.  We need to add that no amount of apparitions, however well authenticated, would mean anything either, apart from the testimony of forgiven lives communicating forgiveness.”3  For Thomas and the other disciples, the “resurrection was an experience of forgiveness. The disciples had all abandoned Jesus, becoming complicit with his murderers. The fact that the resurrection was happening to them was an experience of forgiveness for them.”4

In the early centuries of the Christian church, the season of Easter was a period of introducing the newly baptized to the sacred mysteries—particularly the Eucharist, from which the baptismal candidates had been excluded until their baptism at the Easter Vigil.  There is even a fancy Greek word for this practice: mystagogia.  The baptismal covenant is the articulation of Christian identity, and mystagogy is the process of looking deeper into what it means to be on this journey.  For example, what does it mean to “live eucharistically?”  We are taught that the four-fold action of the Eucharist comes from Jesus and the miracle of the loaves where he took the offered loaves, blessed them, broke them, and gave them.

A bunch of years ago, I had a mystagogical moment that opened my eyes to a deeper understanding of living eucharistically.  I was the celebrant and the gifts had been brought to the altar: gifts of bread and wine, and the financial offerings.  As I held the alms basin in my hands I looked down and on top was a five dollar bill on which had been stamped in bold purple block letters: LESBIAN MONEY.  It was a conservative town, so I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone had decided to do some consciousness raising by annotating their currency.  Just as we place the bread and wine on the altar—fruit of the earth and the work of human hands—to be taken, blessed, broken, and shared, our financial offerings—symbols of our life and labour—are also taken, blessed, broken, and shared.  As I looked at that bill I suddenly imagined every bill and envelope sitting there with a unique stamp on it: RETIRED SCHOOLTEACHER MONEY, PHARMACIST MONEY, NURSE MONEY, UNDEREMPLOYED SINGLE MOM MONEY…you get the idea.  St Paul, in his letter to the Christians in Rome, appealed to them to “offer their bodies as a living sacrifice,” or as a modern interpreter has rendered it: “Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.”5  What a contrast from the what’s-in-it-for-me view seen through the eyes of the marketplace.

Last time I preached I mentioned the new Holy Trinity mission statement, which now appears on the front cover of our Sunday bulletin.  A self-described agnostic who read the sermon online told me that he was deeply impressed that our mission statement includes this language, and hence, people like him:

We foster lay leadership, include the doubter and the marginalized, and challenge oppression wherever it may be found.

Wherever we are on our spiritual journey, God invites us to take the risk of observing life through the lens of our faith, evaluating with the mind of Christ, and responding with the empowerment and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

As we encircle the altar today, taste and see that God is gracious, touch the Risen Christ in the gifts of bread and wine and in one another, and may all our doubts lead us ever deeper into the mystery that is God.

———————————–

1 Wishful Thinking, (1973), p. 20

2 Psalm 34:8

3 Resurrection, (1982), p. 118

4 From Paul Nuechterlein’s notes of Gil Bailie’s lectures on the Gospel of John.

5 Romans 12:1 (The Message)