Category Archives: Reflections

Outrageous Generosity (A Stewardship Sermon)

Delivered on November 18th, 2012 by Sherman Hesselgrave

Readings:

1 Kings 17:8-16

Psalm 146

Walter Brueggemann, “Giver of All Good Gifts: On reading 1 & 2 Kings,” from Prayers for a Privileged People.

Mark 12:38-44

Outrageous Generosity

“…but this woman, out of her poverty, put in everything—
all she had to live on.”
Mark 12:44

“Stir us by your spirit beyond fearful accumulation
toward outrageous generosity.”
Walter Brueggemann

I’d like you to think back to your childhood for a moment.
What did you learn about money from your parents?
Or was money something that was never discussed in your presence?

When I think back on my own experience, I remember money being an occasional source of tension between my parents.  They both grew up during the Depression:  my mother, on a ranch in Montana; and my father, in the Twin Cities in Minnesota.  On the farm, everything was paid by cash.  If you wanted something expensive, you saved up for it.  In the city, you could pay by cash, or you could put it on account, and pay it off over time.  It doesn’t require much imagination to see how this could lead to a clash of cultures within the household.  “Honey, guess what?  I bought a new car today.”

I have a friend, whose father was the manager of a bank in Pittsburgh.  During his university summer breaks, he would work at the bank.  One day, my friend’s father told him he wanted him to come into his office and observe a meeting.  An out-of-work steel mill worker had applied for a loan to pay for medical bills for a family member, and the bank manager—a devout Lutheran—wanted his son to learn an important lesson.  The manager told the mill worker that the bank could not give him a loan, as he had no collateral.  But then, the manager took out his personal cheque book, and wrote the man a cheque for the amount needed.       Outrageous generosity.

The word ‘generous’ has an interesting etymology.  It enters the English language from the French and Latin, meaning originally ‘of noble birth,’ which then becomes ‘characteristic of noble birth, magnanimous.’  The One Percent of an earlier age seem to have had better public relations.
The parish where I was ordained a priest had as one of its parish mottos, “Never resist a generous impulse.”  I have tried to incorporate it in the DNA of my ministry wherever I have been.  The biblical standard of generosity is modeled not only by God, but by the widow in today’s gospel reading.  (And I doubt very much that she was of noble birth.)  Generosity is not necessarily about dollar amounts as much as it is about proportion.  As Jesus observed: “The truth is, this poor widow has given more than all the others.  For they gave out of their abundance; but this woman, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on.”

Long ago, I was on the Stewardship Commission of a far-away diocese.  I was facilitating a Bible study during one of my first consultations. There were about 80 parishioners seated at round tables.  They had been discussing Malachi 3:10:

“Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.”

This was back in the days when you could still talk about tithing (that is, ten percent) as a standard or goal for proportional giving in church. (Peter Misiaszek, the Director of Stewardship Development for the diocese, told us at the Stewardship workshop a couple weeks ago that, in the Diocese of Toronto, the current level of giving is 1.3%.  Hitting 2% would be a major coup.)  So, back to my story.  After the table discussions, I took questions.  One fellow in his 20s stood up, and in an angry voice, protested, “God can’t expect a single mom to give ten percent of her income.  That would be a form of child abuse!”  After he sat down, a woman raised her hand.  This is what she had to say to the group: “I’m Connie, and I recently moved back to this community.  I’m a single mom.  When I was going through my divorce, I hadn’t been to church for a long time, and my best friend, who is a Baptist, told me I needed to do two things: Go back to church; and start tithing.  So I started going to church again. But tithing seemed a little scary.  Ten percent seemed like a lot of money to me, so I decided to give nine percent, and see what happened.  You know what?  My daughter and I have managed just fine.”  She sat down.  Silence.  It was remarkable how the story of her leap of faith instantly neutralized the fearful outburst that prompted its telling.  The parish of St John the Evangelist increased their giving by 10% that year, and a few years later, not surprisingly, the bishop appointed Connie as the Chair of the diocesan Stewardship Commission.     OutRAGEOUS generosity.

I don’t have a citation, but someone told me long ago that there was a study that showed that giving away between 8 and 12 percent of one’s income (without attaching any strings) had a way of liberating one from the power money has over us.  Without that discipline of giving a meaningful portion away, we are more likely to orient ourselves toward attitudes of scarcity (and fears of not having enough) rather than seeing the abundance all around us.  I’m pretty sure you can remember moments when giving a gift brought joy and delight not only to the recipient, but also to you, the giver.    That, too, is outrageous generosity.

“Give us this day our daily bread.”  How many hundreds of times have we prayed those words?  In the original Greek of the New Testament, there is a word in this petition that occurs ONLY in this phrase.  And so scholars can’t say for sure if we are praying for bread “for today,” “for the coming day,” or “for the bread that is necessary for existence.”  Whichever way you read it, it is not the language of security guaranteed by RRSPs, stock portfolios, and pension plans.  Compared to what most people who have lived on this planet have had to live on, we live like nobility, far beyond the daily bread we pray for.

Jesus invites all of us to live into that spirit of generosity modeled for us today by the widow in the temple, who put her existence into God’s hands by giving all she had—not a tithe—not ten percent—but one hundred percent of her trust and her treasure.  And also by the other widow in today’s readings, the widow of Zarephath, who shared, not her last coin, but her and her son’s last meal, in an act of sacrificial hospitality that ends with a note of resurrection.  Jesus turns to widows and orphans, those with the least power and social position in the world of his time, to open our eyes to the values of God’s reign in the world.

A couple weeks ago I wrote the last cheque for my share of my daughter’s university education.  It was a great relief for two reasons.  One, she is now earning a living for herself. And two, it means I will be able to increase my giving to others, including to Holy Trinity, and that feels very good.  Everywhere I go, I run into people who comment on the remarkable things this parish community has accomplished.  We all know that those accomplishments happened only because of enormous dedication, determination, and sacrifice.  The giants on whose shoulders we stand have held the bar high, showing us that one can be both generous AND have enough left over, as in the miracle of the loaves and fishes.  We are in the position to model outrageous generosity for the next generation, and in so doing, bring hope, light, and justice to children yet unborn.

Doubt: an Element of Faith (October 14, 2012)

Sherman Hesselgrave, Homilist

Job 23: 1-9, 16-17      Mark 10.17-31

Doubt: an Element of Faith

Thanks to Keith Nunn for proposing ‘Doubt’ as the theme for today.  Doubt permeates pretty much every aspect of our lives, yet we don’t reflect on it that often.  We have doubts about the competence of our political leaders.
We have doubts about our food safety.
We have doubts about the future of the human race, the environment, the economy, the criminal justice system, and we can read all about these doubts on the front pages of the daily papers or listen to people talking about them on the radio or television.
It is in this sacred space, though, that we’re more likely than any other place we frequent, to reflect on the doubts related to faith.  We have even written it into our most recent mission statement:

The Church of the Holy Trinity is a community of people who express Christian faith through lives of integrity, justice and compassion. We foster lay leadership, include the doubter and marginalized, and challenge oppression wherever it may be found. (2010)

This is a safe place to talk about faith and doubt.

First, we need to acknowledge the Christian Church’s influence on how we have regarded doubt in Western civilization.

I realized after I had accepted the assignment for today, that my Ordination to the Priesthood took place on the Feast of Thomas the Apostle — And of course, the Gospel appointed for that day: John 20 where we encounter “doubting” Thomas (“Do not be unbelieving —‘apistos’—but believing—‘pistos’.”)  What a bum rap.  To be given a nickname based on a distorted translation.

The power of Jesus’ mistranslated words to Thomas—”Do not doubt but believe”—sent a ripple down through the centuries that made it easy for the Church to preach that doubting is bad, not something you want to be caught doing.  And that is a real problem.  It is also a problem that is not easy to fix; the tradition has been so deeply imprinted with a negative stereotype of doubt, that it takes conscious effort to redress the wrong.

Though classical philosophers had staked claims all along the spectrum of skepticism, it wasn’t until post-Enlightenment  philosophers and theologians put an oar in the water that the conversation about faith and doubt started to get interesting, in my opinion.

From the methodological doubt of Descartes, in which he “sought to doubt the truth of all his beliefs in order to determine which beliefs he could be certain were true,” [Note 1] to the observations of the mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who famously remarked:

“The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason.”

That is also the story of Job.
Job, who is held up as the archetypal case study of theodicy, the question that asks Why do bad things happen to good people?  Job, recognized by all as a faithful, righteous man, lost all his wealth, his children, and his own health.  Even his own friends try to plant seeds of doubt in Job’s conscience; surely he must have some undisclosed or unacknowledged flaw that has caused God to treat him this way.  Either that, or God is not the loving, just, and omnipotent being God is advertised to be.  Through it all, Job refuses to let go of his heart’s reasoning, and curse God.  Yes, he rues the day he was born, but none of the suffering or loss he experienced could shake loose his conviction that God was God.

Once we disengage from the notion that doubting is some kind of characterological defect, we notice others who also learned this.  Rilke, in his Letters to a Young Poet, wrote:

“[Y]our doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become criticism. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perhaps bewildered and embarrassed, perhaps also protesting. But don’t give in, insist on arguments, and act in this way, attentive and persistent, every single time, and the day will come when, instead of being a destroyer, it will become one of your best workers–perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life.”

Rilke expands upon the Cartesian notion of methodological doubt; a doubt that leads us to deeper truths.

The rich man in the gospel story today who claimed to have kept all the commandments from his childhood, yet had doubts about inheriting eternal life.  Doubts that prompted him to ask Jesus what more had he to do in order to remove these doubts.  The answer, which was tailor-made for him and his situation, was to give up the things of this world which held such an attractional power over him–his possessions.  Perhaps because he lived in a time—not unlike our own—where accruing many possessions is taken to be a sign of success, of having “arrived,” he was unable to see how that compromised a radical trust in God to give him each day his daily bread.  We are left wondering how the story ends; but we all have our hunches.  What do you see happening in the next chapters of this man’s life?

Kierkegaard, another post-Enlightenment theologian-philosopher, who shared very publicly his doubts about the institutional church of his time and place, wrote that:

“Every mental act is composed of doubt and belief,
but it is belief that is the positive, it is belief
that sustains thought and holds the world together.”

What deeper beliefs do our doubts lead us to?  Bertrand Russell’s father was an out-of-the-closet atheist, and Russell’s own skepiticism persuaded him to follow in those steps.  Some may have wondered if the lector’s concluding acclamation following the Russell reading today was a mistake—”Hear what the Spirit says to the churches. / Thanks be to God.”  No, it was intentional.  There are numerous examples in our sacred story where God’s will is effected through non-believers.  One of the prime examples is Cyrus the Great, the King of Persia who liberated the exiled Jews from captivity in Babylon.  He was even called an “anointed of God”—a ‘messiah’, in Hebrew.

But back to that question of where do our doubts lead us?  Yann Martel, the prize-winning Canadian author of Life of Pi, has written:

“Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”

I imagine I am not alone in knowing what it feels like to get caught in the spin-cycle of doubt, where one’s doubts are not productive, clarifying doubts, but immobilizing and petrifying doubts.

But then we remember that we are always free to choose what we will believe; we get to decide for ourselves where we will put our trust.  Deep within, we know that faith is meaningless without doubt, or as Frederick Buechner’s colourfully puts it: “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.  They keep it awake and moving.” [Note 2]

And so, to end where we began, recalling Jesus’ resurrection appearance to Thomas in the upper room with his disciples, a story that has given so many a bum steer, we need to remember the corrective lens that theologian Paul Tillich applies in his Dynamics of Faith: doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. [Note 3]

To be people of faith, we need our doubts to keep our faith honest.

May God bless our doubting and our believing, and lead us deeper to the truth that is in store for us.

 

[Note 1]  Wikipedia, s.v. “Cartesian doubt,”  accessed October 14, 2012

[Note 2]  Wishful Thinking, p. 20

[Note 3]  Dynamics of Faith, p. 22

Homily for Pentecost 17 (23 September 2012)….by Ian Sowton

Hebrew testament: Proverbs 31: 10-31.

 

The heading of this concluding chapter of the book of proverbs is “the sayings of Lemuel king of Massa,  {taught him by his mother}.” The first few verses are of practical political advice on the national level, ending with an emphasis on the king doing justice.

Then we come to the domestic, local level and get this paean to “the truly capable partner in marriage”.   It’s a highly structured song of praise, being an acrostic type of poem, each verse beginning with a letter of Hebrew alphabet….this paragon of a chatelaine clearly rates as a subject for the lead article in an issue of good housekeeping—textile artist,  shrewd businesswoman, domestic manager, always usefully occupied, charitable, dress-maker, wise of speech and more than fully deserving of her  family and her “share in the fruits of her labour”.

A contemporary women’s rights point of view throws a spotlight on an ancient tension, or paradox here: on the one hand there’s not the slightest doubt who’s fashioning and running this household; on the other hand it’s clear that the immediate and chief beneficiary of this woman extraordinaire is her husband.  Here’s a wife who knows her place but—or “and” if you prefer, it’s a very powerful, influential place.

It’s been speculated that this poem once functioned as a kind of com- pendium of advice to upper class girls.  The main point I wish to derive from this Hebrew testament reading is the wisdom it takes to create and maintain domestic harmony…I didn’t initially give you the complete chapter heading, which I leave you to ponder the significance of.

 

Psalm 1:

This psalm asserts the venerable wish-fulfilment theology that the good prosper and the bad come to a bad end.  Everyone, including the psalmist, knows that this system of reward and punishment is not very often borne out in real life.  And indeed, the psalmist complains about the injustice of it; or pleads for protection from the bad guys on the grounds that he’s a good guy.  But he also persists in linking goodness— especially reverence for Yahweh and the commandments—to reward and wickedness to punishment.  Occasionally punishment is linked right away and unmistakably to wickedness.   The most spectacular case of this being David himself when he is caught out as an adulterous murderer, which gives rise to his penitential psalm #51.  Even though he is exempted from direct punishment on his own person, he is punished by the loss of his new born son and the judgement that his royal house will never be free of turmoil and the sword; and he is punished, too, by having to live with these disastrous consequences of his sin….but in the main, the dogma of goodness being rewarded and wickedness being punished persists.

This persistence is a faith-act, faith being the hope for things as yet unseen—things that have not yet come to pass.  Such wisdom as there is in today’s psalm is the psalmist’s faith, his persistence in hoping for things as yet unseen in spite of all contrary evidence…(the book of job profoundly queries the dogma of the good and innocent being always rewarded and the bad and guilty always punished.  It is a tremendously powerful exploration of the way things really are, and one that doesn’t reflect too well on its version of Yahweh.  But that is another story.)

The Epistle: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

I’m really fond of James; he is so forthright and adds a nice amount of ballast to theological discourse.  He’s been taking us through his letter over the last few Sundays.   We can summarize a good deal of what he writes this way: you may talk the talk of faith but if you do not walk the walk of faith in good works your talk is meaningless.

In today’s passage he moves from that kind of foundation to wonderful injunctions like, “show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.“  wonderful.  Or a saying like, as the translation in the Jerusalem bible has it, “the peace sown by peacemakers brings a harvest of justice.”  Note that peace is made—it is a good work done with gentleness born of wisdom….these sentences provide an immediate context for the problems James now wishes to address: “these conflicts among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?….” {etc}

Except for the murder bit (since various elements of the world-wide Anglican communion haven’t got round to cutting throats yet) these Jamesian words strongly remind me of the afflictions currently besetting the Anglican/Episcopalian world.  There have been breaka- ways, law suits, endless palaver, postponements like referring back to committees and commissions, gays leaving the church in despair, excommunications, and reversals of the original flow of missionary traffic for the purpose of rescuing us poor benighted souls lost in the heretical darkness of same-sex blessings and marriages and/or the ordination of women bishops.

And now that covenant, for which I must confess up front I have no use.   I do not think we are people of the covenant, neither the old Hebrew testament covenant nor this new one being touted, though it’s been running into some pretty stiff opposition…..these covenantal conflicts

Among us, where do they come from?  I think there is a multiple impulse for covenant. First: a hankering for a secure, centralized, hierarchical authority—the kind of ambition and aspiration that James repudiates and, if we refer to the gospel for today, that Jesus has to confront his disciples with.  Their recent embarrassing conversation has been about who among them is the most important, who is the biggest cheese.  “friends, you‘ve got it all wrong,“ says Jesus, “all upside down and back to front.” ….so for me part of the impulse for covenant smacks of setting up a framework for an enforceable power trip by whoever sees themselves as most important, as possessing the most authority.

Second: it is also an impulse to impose conformity, to map uniformity onto unity -–to make them much the same thing.  But of course they’re not the same thing.  I don’t conform to various usages and traditions of our Episcopalian brothers and sisters, for example, but that in no way impedes or compromises my strong sense of unity with them.

Third, and perhaps the most troubling thing for me about the impulse to covenant: religious covenants in particular are by nature divisive.  To belong you sign on and thereby become an insider.  Any inside necessarily creates an outside.  This compromises the impulse to inclusiveness and leaves a door ajar for exclusiveness….we all have the fundamental theological as well as psychological need to belong, to be included in community.  We are all vulnerable to being or becoming disabled—physically, mentally, spiritually, socially.  I’ve been fortunate, but I can attest from my lofty height of 83 years that being physically abled and hale is a condition both vulnerable and temporary….finally, all three aspects of this multiple impulse share the element of safe-havenship.

 

Here in this congregation there are various models of inclusion that we try to live up to.  Four of these are: [1] an early Sunday morning ministry of hospitality toward our non-parish friends some of whom are un-homed or de-housed.  [2]  helping sponsored refugees to become included in the fabric of Canadian society as smoothly as may be.

I take my membership on our refugee committee to be my part in a ministry of inclusion.  [3] Intentional, proactive inclusion of lgbt members.  We have been a queer friendly congregation for so long and so openly that we tend to take this mode of inclusiveness for granted, though we shouldn’t, because it is still a very live issue in our Diocese of Toronto, not to mention elsewhere. [4] Seeking continuously to make sure that our wheel-chair members are truly welcome and really included by trying, among other things, to amend any of the ways—including issues of accessibility—that might make for a sense of limited inclusion or of not being genuinely welcome.

 

I conclude with two poems that I’ve recently written which have to do with that just mentioned fourth example or model of inclusiveness.

My hope is that between them these two poems bring home some of the things that are fundamental to all our efforts to be inclusive—even though the poems are keyed to truly including the disabled.

TO COMRADES WITH DISABILITIES

Some of you are gone now but, absent

or still present, your words and actions

go on teaching us the lexicon

and meaning of solidarity:

 

Mind your linguistic P’s and Q’s,

get straight your nouns and adjectives:

we are not cripples but persons

named, proper-nouned,

who happen to be disabled.

Healing may usually be taken to mean

getting better”, “being cured”; but

it always also means restorative

welcome into community.

Take your pity and stuff it.

Be gingerly with charity.

What we look for is solidarity

in exchanges of compassion.

 

Courage is first among your honesties.

Never mind hands that are shaking

or lock-fingered, or feet folded over,

your words, if you have speech, and

in any case your very being, your solid

I am here-ness, have weight enough

to rap smartly on truth’s door.

 

To those of you among us,

Hail friends and well met.

To those of you now gone:

Fare well wherever, however you are—

enjoying a heaven of mobility

or dispersed among creation’s elements

midwifing the birth of some new star.

Ian Sowton

September 2012

 

 

 

MARILYN FERREL

1948 – 2011

 

You were born wounded, jostled from the nest

to flutter past green joys and flop below

on thorns of life as an endurance test.

 

Yet you helped yourself, made yourself a guest

wherever rich ideas are served, although

you were born wounded, jostled from the nest.

 

Your vocation was both to be a pest

to clichés of disablement and grow

on thorns of life as an endurance test.

 

We all have wounds, you said, and made a quest

of teaching us shared pain, we who know

you were born wounded, jostled from the nest.

 

Your God was a great flaring forth of zest

for creation, not antidote for woe

on thorns of life as an endurance test—

 

it was our job to see your wounds were dressed.

What healed was mutual inclusion, though

you were born wounded, jostled from the nest

on thorns of life as an endurance test.

 

 

 

 

How Can I Keep from Singing?

Music Director Becca Whitla’s Farewell Sermon

Good morning. Welcome to all of you, especially to visitors this morning. Today is my last day as the Music Director here at Holy Trinity and I asked for the chance to share some of my thoughts with you as I leave this place and begin a new and exciting phase of my life’s journey. I have been the Music Director for twenty years. Before that, I was a member of the congregation, coming to church with my parents. It has been a long time. So, in many ways I feel like I am leaving home. This spiritual home we call Holy Trinity is the building, yes, but more than that, it is you the people…all of you who are here, visitors, friends and members of the parish – the people that are here are the church. The space also holds the memories of those whose smiling faces and singing voices still inhabit this place long after they’ve died or moved on.

As I contemplate this transition and what it means to “leave home”, I’d like to reflect a little on my time here at Holy Trinity, share some the things I’m passionate about as I move into full time studies as a doctoral student at the Toronto School of Theology, and finally wrestle with the meaning of vocation especially in light of today’s readings.

Here at Holy Trinity, as well as in my other work, especially with the Echo Women’s Choir, I have, over time, become a teacher. It wasn’t what I started out to be – it was something I moved into gradually, when there was a need.

Many of you are also teachers. All of you have been my teachers. My time here has been a time of growth, a time of learning, a time of becoming and a time of teaching. The more I contemplate what it is to be teacher and a leader of song, the more I realize how much I have to learn. The dynamic between teaching and learning is a semi-permeable boundary, porous, that flows both ways.

So it is as a teacher and a community song leader that I became a student three and a half years ago in the Master of Sacred Music program at U of T and I loved it! And into that work, I poured my passionate self and I carried you all with me. What a wonderful formation I was given by simply being a member of Holy Trinity, a formation that was enriched by being trusted as a teacher and a leader.

When my son David was diagnosed with Leukemia, we had to completely re-orient our lives. It became clear thenthat my studies were very important to me. In fact they were nothing short of a lifeline. Week after week, my professors guided me back to myself – they gave me hope – by insisting that I could still bring the best of myself to the pursuit of learning. In the middle of these new strange and sometimes terrifying circumstances, I realized how deep me sense of vocation was for academic work. Every fibre of my being wanted to be learning…it literally kept me sane, kept me going.

As circumstances stabilized and as I finished my Masters degree with a challenging and wonderful study leave in Cuba with Emma, the internal nudge to consider doctoral studies became an insistent nagging. I had to do it. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

But it isn’t exactly embarking on a career path that will lead to riches and security for my family. Studying theology and music is among the worst possible combinations for future employment. More than that, this step represents a commitment to the institutional church even as it dissolves around us. And yet, here I am, making just such a commitment and with immense gratitude for the vigorous support of my family.

What this all means for me academically is that I plan to do a postcolonial analysis of hymnody. In other words, I want to study what we sing in church and why. What musical treasures ought we to keep and which ones can we let go? And how can we make space for new and diverse expressions of song? How can we better reflect the world around us so that we might be transformed into a vital, growing, robust people of God? Music, and especially singing, has great power. Like other powers, it may be used for good or ill. No song is innocent – songs belong to particular cultures – they have contexts, stories, and layers of meaning. Knowing this power, I want to help imagine what songs the people will sing in the church of the future. I want to continue to help the people express themselves to each other and to the Divine, making space for the Holy Spirit to irrupt among us through our singing.

This task requires a willingness to go to some hard places, to accompany people and help them express themselves at times of sorrow, grief, anguish, lament, as well as joy and celebration. That’s what I love so much about Were You There? It doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff – the gritty realities of an unjust death, expressed here as the suffering and death of Jesus. It’s a lament that can express our collective grief and anguish at suffering wherever we find it in this death-dealing culture of ours. Are we there, walking beside Jesus and other victims of injustice or do we turn away? Of course, this particular song also represents the particular story, and cultural expression of African Americans, sung today like nobody else can sing it, by Alan and Sue, and you. And, it also embodies the same kind of insistent passionate calling to account we hear in Proverbs this morning.

So…what about those readings?

Let us hear some highlights again:

From Proverbs: Wisdom cries out in the street, in the squares she raises her voice. “How long, O simpletons, are you going to love being stupid? How long will scoffers enjoy the sound of their own scoffing and fools persist in hating knowledge? Listen carefully to my reproof: I will pour out my thoughts to you; my words will make clear exactly what I think of you.

From James: Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. The tongue is a fire…it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell….no one can tame the tongue…

And from Mark: For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

What is a fledgling doctoral student who is finally claiming a vocation of teaching and leading to do with that? I’m not sure it’s a call of vocation for me, or a reason to bury my head in the sand and say “ask the next guy.” Can I live up to Wisdom’s standards? Am I really ready to be a teacher? Am I really prepared to have me life turned upside down?

It strikes me that these are also good vocational questions for our church. Are we living up to Wisdom’s standards? Are we being good leaders and teachers for the world? And, are we ready to have our worlds turned upside down by doing the gospel we’ve professed?

I confess that this kind of soul searching makes me uncomfortable. I don’t much like it when my friends challenge me to be a better person or when I am asked to examine myself closely in my classes to find those places where I still have a sense of entitlement or privilege. In my time at Holy Trinity, I have seen that we as a church are sometimes also uncomfortable when we are challenged in this way. The voice that challenges is often haranging and annoying like Wisdom’s voice in this passage from Proverbs. Can we still listen? Can we respond to the call to self examination, remaining true to our calling as a church of justice-seekers– it is a call that asks us, “are you sure you’re doing it right?” and then insists…“You’d better be!”

These readings call us into an engagement with doubt. We are called to question. We are called to critical engagement. We are called to face the difficult stuff. We are invited to embrace our own doubt, our fear, our grief, our lamentation. We are called to be like wisdom — to be insistent justice seekers, constantly questioning ourselves even as we also speak truth to power. Wisdom says, in Holy Trinity member Ian Sowton’s hymn poem, which we will sing in a few moments: I decline your ritual offerings, give me equity for all. When will you admit my outcasts, dignify my dispossessed? Never mind your solemn gatherings–do the gospel you’ve professed.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea of some grand vocation or call. Instead I believe that a calling sometimes comes in a thousand conversations and countless moments in which we might catch a glimpse of the Divine – it emerges out of our relationships and our passions. My own call is riddled with doubt (just like my faith), and yet, as I step into a new life-phase, I can say with some certainty, that I’ve never felt more called. I am called to engage doubt, even to embrace it. I am called to scrutinize myself to make sure my relationships and actions are filled with right relations, justice seeking and love for humankind and wider creation. I am called to discern the place of song in a church that is perhaps dying. Whether the church crashes and burns or rises like the phoenix, I want to be there to help lead the people’s song. Our world is in trouble and I believe that the church has something good to offer to the world. It is a call to love and to hope, even amidst fear, doubt, and suffering.

I am well aware of the many gifts that I take with me from Holy Trinity; I deeply appreciate the critical thinking, the intellectual rigour, and the commitment to justice seeking and liturgical renewal that characterize our church community. These qualities have helped to shape me as a person, as a musical leader, and now as an academic; I will carry them forward as I embark on this new phase of my life’s journey. Last week, at school, I ran into Lionel Ketola, a former member of Holy Trinity who is now working as a United Church Minister. He’s part of the Holy Trinity cell at Emmanuel College…along with me, and Susie and Jennifer. He reminded me that critical engagement is part of the baptismal covenant at Holy Trinity…are we are baptized in the name the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Mother, Lover, and friend and…critical engagement.

Last Thursday Cathy Goring treated me to lunch and asked me if I would think about Holy Trinity after I’m gone. I said quickly “no” and surprised both of us. Then I said, ‘I’ll be carrying you all with me, all the time.” Whenever I lead a song, teach a class, argue with my classmates and professors, pray with others, you will be there with me, keeping me engaged.”

So now, I ask for your blessing and your prayers in this new phase of my vocation, and for my family as we look for a new church home. And I thank you. For growing with me, for letting me be your song leader, for trusting me, for embracing my family, Alan, Emma and David, for loving us. I (we) will keep loving you.

Looking back, I realize over my twenty years as music director, I can claim to have helped develop the musical life of this church. We are once again known for our celebration of the arts. More than that, we in this parish, have begun to forge a new collaborative vision of music and justice that includes a rich and diverse community musical expression in sung music from all over the world. As you go forward in your church journey without me, may you continue to celebrate the rich gifts of human expression in this way. May you continue to welcome the scary transformational possibility of engaging doubt and despair. May you be leaders in our city on the side of the dispossessed and marginalised. May you be justice-seekers and lovers of life. Oh…and keep singing your hearts out!

 

In-Between Spaces

A reflection on a Three Month Study Leave in Cuba

Homily for Easter 5, 2012

by Music Director, Becca Whitla

Good morning.

I have been asked to share with you a little bit about my recent three month study leave to Cuba. There is also a blog: http://springincuba.blogspot.ca/ and I plan to organize my photos someday!

I was there for three months from January to April to study choral conducting and theology at a seminar in Matanzas with my thirteen year old daughter Emma, finishing up the final semester of a Master of Sacred music degree from Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto. It was part of my larger personal, spiritual and academic journey.

This morning I’d like to invite you to reflect upon in-between spaces and in- between times. My time in Cuba was, for me,  an in-between intercultural space.

The reading from Acts describes such an intercultural encounter. Philip is instructed to “make his way south” on a wilderness road where he encounters an Ethiopian Eunuch. Riding together in the Eunuch’s chariot, they engage in an exchange. A space is created between them in which the Eunuch experiences a conversion moment and decides right then and there to be baptized.

I confess that I experience a little bit of envy when I read this kind of reading – it is a dramatic story in which the angels and the Holy Spirit play an active role. As I wrestle with spiritual and vocational questions myself, it would be so great to have an angel pop out of the sky and give me some clear direction.

But a little deeper reading reveals some messiness and complexity, that might more closely mirror my own life and perhaps our life as a community.

Why did the Eunuch need to be converted?
What was wrong with his first understanding of scripture?

Our formation as Christians teaches us that our way is the right way, an approach that has colonized,  and annihilated peoples all over the world. Perhaps this isn’t the best model for an intercultural exchange after all? Especially as Philip, in this story, appears to have all the power, though it is true that the Eunuch also has the power and privilege of the royal court. Power relationships are often complicated like this.

At Holy Trinity we reject this kind universalizing, at least the part that oppresses other people. I wonder though, sometimes, whether we have done all we can? When might we be tempted to use our power and privilege to get our way?

These are the kind of questions I have been personally wrestling with in my studies as I try to make sense of my own faith journey which I could equally well call a ‘journey of doubt’. They are also certainly questions I also encountered in my time in Cuba in daily intercultural exchanges – in the thousand little conversions I experienced all along the way.

In Cuba, I am wealthy, I am foreign and I am white. Our way here in Canada is greedy, it is unsustainable, and I would say, life-killing. I can see that the kind of simplicity that dominates Cuban life might be a better path forward for humanity. And yet, this life of simplicity is also a life of scarcity that has its own problems – lack of privacy, a struggle to get basic food needs met, wasted time just trying to accomplish the most basic tasks.

In Cuba, there is the added complexity of the a need for a whole scale re-visioning of society –  the revolution is tired and it is no longer capable of looking after the most vulnerable. There is a sense of desesperanza –  a lack of hope –  in the air.  This is a huge challenge for Cuban churches – it tears at the ecumenical fabric of their unity. In these contexts, who am I to waltz in and say that the simple way of life in Cuba is a better path forward from my position of relative wealth?

My task is not to tell Cubans that they’ve got it right, though I kind of think they do. It is to be self-critical, to learn from my experience there and apply it to my life here.

How can I lead a simpler life, in this land of plenty? How might I invite others to join me? My friends my family, you, my community, in a bid to live responsibly, to live in solidarity with the rest of the world and many people in this country who have so little? Within two days of our return, Emma had cut her clothes in half, appalled by the relative amount of stuff in our house.

Over the course of my stay in Cuba, I became increasingly aware that my friendships were challenged by a power imbalance. I had more wealth, more freedom, more privilege, and more power. With such an imbalance, it is not very difficult to assume mutuality. But, I know that friendship is possible. For me the starting point is to acknowledge my own position of relative power. By putting my own power, my own privilege on the table, by giving it up a little, even a little,  real engagement becomes possible.

Returning to the first reading, I want to now imagine it a little differently for a moment
— I wonder if the Eunuch, an African and a member of a sexual minority, kept intact his own understanding, experience and culture in the conversion moment, contrary to what I might have assumed at first. Perhaps he went on his way rejoicing, intact as a the person he was but enriched with new knowledge and new perspective.
— I wonder too if Philip may have been changed, maybe he experienced a conversion of sorts through the interchange with the Eunuch

So then, how do I? how do we? enter the in-between space that is required by real engagement? How do we truly give up power? How do we discern what the gospel means and then seek to proclaim it, potentially open to our own conversion even as we seek to convert? This is messy hard work. And it is work that makes me, at least, really uncomfortable. That’s when I know I am doing it – when I get squirmy.

At Holy Trinity we say we are committed to challenging oppression wherever it may be found, expressing our faith through lives of integrity, justice and compassion. I can get behind that, at least in theory. But I fall short in the living-it-out all the time. How do we ensure that we are truly putting our privileges and our entitlements on the table?

I’d like to look to the second reading for some guidance –  an excerpt of the first letter of John. The task requires nothing more and nothing less than “love”. Loving one another and loving God. It is an invitation to embody love. “Love is of God” John tells us. Last week we heard in the sermon that we are to love in truth and action, not in word or speech. That sounds good.

But this is not an easy task to carry out.

First, there’s the problem of sacrifice — or atoning sacrifice, in some translations of this text. Through much of Christian history, a theology of the cross as self-giving love (and I am going to quote Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza here, from Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet: Critical Issues in Feminist Christology) “has rendered the exploitation of all women in the name of love and self-sacrifice psychologically acceptable and religiously warranted.”  I’m going to read that again: “has rendered the exploitation of all women in the name of love and self-sacrifice psychologically acceptable and religiously warranted.” I actually don’t think that’s what John had in mind. And I know it is not a theology I can embrace.

And yet, this kenotic move, this emptying of the self, this taking on of humanity through the incarnation has great potential as a model for embodying love.

I do not believe that the kind of annihilation and violation of the self which has been imposed on women and others in the name of Christianity is what is required. Instead I suggest that it is a ‘self limiting’, a ‘giving up of power’ in order to allow for space for an other. And I acknowledge that this is tricky work for anyone who has suffered oppression. Love is hard work. I am a mother. I know that I sometimes chose someone else’s needs over my own – but that does not mean that I erase myself or deny myself. If anything it requires the opposite.

The harder life gets, the harder it is to love, the harder it is to be lovable, the harder it is to accept love. Love is hard work. Hard choices are required. A child with cancer, my child with Leukemia,  is not always easy to love – despite the false propaganda we see everywhere. Daily awful chemotherapy is required, even when your kid is screaming and kicking, bouncing off the walls on steroids. Love requires the seemingly inhumane act of feeding daily poison to your kid so that he can live. It requires full exhausting engagement all the time.

Let me return to Cuba where love is an important ingredient in the daily recipe for survival. Cubans depend utterly on each other. At the daily chapel services at the seminary in Matanzas where we lived, love was a constant theme – but it wasn’t some kind of sentimental, sappy love.  Love means solidarity, it means living together – ‘convivir’, it means living together well – ‘buenvivir’, it means sharing the last food you have. As wealthy as I am, by Cuban standards, I needed to depend on my neighbours for everything from food, to lice treatment, to forks, to a cup of coffee and a friendly conversation. From their scarcity, my Cuban friends showed warm generosity and hospitality. They embodied love.

When David, my son, visited with Alan for two weeks and got sick, the seminary driver Girardo, drove the seminary van for two hours in the middle of the night to the Pediatric Hospital in Havana and stayed with us all night long. Hospitals are in between places –  in Cuba and in Canada –  in between sickness and health in between life and death. Love takes us to those in between spaces. Our friends in Cuba organized daily visits and brought toilet paper, soap, water, cutlery and food, just as many of you have accompanied us here.

But how do we keep it up? We must depend utterly on each other.

A Cuban friend I know suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and had to give up a career as a nurse in the same pediatric hospital where David and I spent a week. At the age of 33 he now teaches Hebrew at the seminary –  he learned Hebrew from his Sephardic neighbours in Havana. He told me a story about how he had been inspired by a little boy. It was as if an angel was speaking to him, he said. Overwhelmed by the challenges of his life, he had been sitting alone in the seminary dining room thinking about giving up when he heard this boy’s voice and it gave him the courage to keep going. He didn’t understand the language. That little boy’s voice was David’s.

Sometimes the work of loving, the work of engagement requires nothing more than our simple presence. Sometimes that is all we are able to do. Every good pastor, every good shepherd, knows the discomfort of being in those in-between times and places with other people.

But when we can, I believe we are also called to a self critical engagement. That’s where I think the third reading points us. Branches that do not bear fruit get cut away.

My Cuba experience gave me the enormous privilege of being in a three month period of self critical engagement. I got to cut away the branches that bear no fruit. Everything thing I know, every way I have of being, all the ways I have of perceiving myself were lovingly challenged by my Cuban friends as I opened myself up and entered the in-between space of intercultural engagement.

I know this community engages in self critical process. We do this to embody love, to live out the justice seeking gospel we proclaim, to open ourselves up to the chance encounter with another that might convert both of us and continue to act as an agent of transformation in our lives.

I’d like to ask you to consider for a moment whether we are really doing this as much as we can – in our own lives and as a community. Where are our growth edges? What are the things that make us uncomfortable? Are we engaging the in-between spaces or do we avoid them? Will we choose the wilderness path to the south like Philip? Are we open to our own conversion?

Embodying love in these in-between spaces, at this in-between time means examining and re-examining our privileges, our entitlements, our prejudices. We need to prune away the branches in ourselves that do not bear any fruit. We need to consider questions of wealth, fairness, waste, needs and wants. This is our calling as Christians. This is our vocation as Holy Trinity.

The basketball court after the Easter Sunrise service, in Matanzas, Cuba.